Most Dangerous Fireworks for 2011…

Richard Pryortechnics

The Whistlin’ Wizard of Eyegone

Boom Laden & The Talibang

It’s Raining Satan

Nipple Pinwheel

Sgt. Redneck’s Gas vs. Match

Deaf-Con 5

Lefty’s Funtime Armageddon in Your Hand

Napalm Sombrero

Garden of Earthly Explosions

Fannypack Nuke

Michael Vick’s Puppy Cannon

She Blinded Me With Magnesium

Have fun. Be safe. USA!

Patagonia: Chapter 4 – Insane in the Moraine

It’s hard to tell when I woke up because I can’t remember when I fell asleep last. Most of the night was in a purgatory of slumber; neither fully awake nor lost on the blissful seas of Nod. I was exiled to this state of non-sleep due to the discovery that Colonel Tom snored. Brian and I do too, but not like this. The sounds issuing from his quaking jowls weren’t human. It was like a bunch of drunken Wookies with throat cancer were using power tools to tear open a hole in the time-space continuum to allow hordes of otherworldly demons through to perform accapella death metal.

Is he dead? Maybe undead with that awful noise he's making.

And it wouldn’t be continuous. It was more like Chinese audio torture. He’d snort in his breath and you’d wait for an exhale, but there wouldn’t be one. (At one point I actually thought he’d had a heart attack because he stopped breathing for so long. Little did I know Brian was on the other side of the tent wondering the same thing.) Then, just when you untensed your ears and relaxed, the exhale would echo through the tent and wake you up again. As the trip wore on, we began hoping he did have a heart attack during those lapses.

Breakfast was quick and consisted of oatmeal with dried fruits and a fistful of almonds. Despite my best salesmanship, I couldn’t get anyone to calve off a chunk of the cheese moon to put on top, so it went back into my pack. And thank whatever godly pantheon you worship that there was coffee. Brian had brought some good stuff from Peace Coffee back home and Christian brewed it so strong it would put hair on your chest and that hair would make a fist and punch you in the mouth. Forget standing a spoon up in it. You could stand up in it. A good jump-start before breaking down camp and getting everything back in the packs.

Ahhh, coffee in the backcountry. And that green sweater and black pants? Get used to seeing me in it.

It was more uphill scrambling today. We started through areas thick with waist-high underbrush that filled in the areas between tall ashen trees stretching their few branches high above us. The wet wood made footing treacherous and it was tough to find a solid place to put your walking pole. At one point we had to duck under a tree that had fallen down a near vertical incline right where we had to clamor up. You just ducked your pack and grabbed slick roots and pounded your boots into the bare soil and grunted up one step at a time.

Fortunately, the underbrush petered out and we started following a musical mountain stream lined with moss so green it was almost fluorescent. The stream happily gurgled directions, guiding up to a massive boulder that had been deposited by the retreating glacier when it got too heavy for even it to carry.

Speaking of things too heavy to carry, Christian decided this would be a good place to leave a cache of our gear and food so we could divvy up Tom’s load better. We’d take what we needed for several days at base camp and, at some point, Alex would come back and bring up the rest of our supplies. What could possibly go wrong? We loaded up on fresh water spiked with Gatorade or Nuun electrolyte tabs and noshed on Clif bars and trail mix while Christian sorted through all our gear.

We were back on our way in about half an hour and I noticed we’d definitely reached an old moraine field. This is where boulders were left as the glacier had melted. Most of them had been covered over with thick bonnets of moss and grass. A few even sported small trees twisting out of their crowns, roots desperately grabbing at bare rock, spiraling down in search of purchase like loose curls over their brows. We wandered left through more open boulders and what seemed like an endless grove of trees about the thickness of a shovel-handle that liked to snag themselves amongst your legs and in your packs as you twisted and ducked and shimmied your way through them.

Then we suddenly burst from the trees and onto the edge of the moraine valley. It was filled with loose stones bleached pale as if the sudden sun shone on them non-stop. To our left we could see all the way down to our starting point on the lake near John’s property. To the right, the rocks marched like silent pilgrims, making their way around a bend towards the glacier’s terminus. We couldn’t see the ice from here, but got our first glimpse two jagged peaks rising in the distance. That’s was our destination.

Is that a good place for your pack, Alex?

We were glad to be out of the forest’s clutches and took a break to strip off a layer and recoat ourselves with sunscreen. Not only were we at altitude in summer, but there is also a hole in the ozone layer in Punta Arenas not much further south, so Old Sol’s radiation is quite fierce here. I made sure to keep troweling on my SPF1000 Gingerspackle several times a day.

Kickin' it old moraine style

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a pack, blown by the wind, begin falling down the rock-covered hill. I took two steps, but it was already out of reach and starting to pick up speed. I heard Alex curse. She had come out from a bathroom break in the woods in time to see her pack cartwheeling end over end, bounding higher and higher, as it made its way several hundred yards down into the valley.

We felt bad watching her go fetch it, but were glad it wasn’t ours. Most of her gear, including her camera, was alright, but her climbing helmet had been cracked in half.

“Well, at least your head wasn’t in it when it cracked.” said Brian.

“I know.” Alex moaned. “I’m just bummed about all the stickers I had collected on it.” Looking at how many there were from places all around the world, I would too.

We began the ankle-breaking dance over the loose boulders down into the valley. Buoyed by the sight of it, I began singing Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Membrane”, but reworked as “Insane in the Moraine”. Brian joined in. Alex, behind us, in the sweeper position, sort of shook her head as we busted out lyrics. She would do that a lot over the next week or so.

We hopscotched a small creek at the valley floor and found somewhat clear land on the other side. After another hour Christian claimed this spot as base camp for our expedition. It would be our base of operations to go up onto the glacier and surrounding peaks from. We were just glad to have a place to drop the full packs for awhile.

Home away from home... (Photo: Brian Slater)

I stretched out my back and looked around; lifting my goggles so I could see it with my own eyes. We were in a little glen full of scrubby plants bearing clumps of white berries. A small clear stream divided the valley. High scree fields rose up on either side of us, but we still had a clear view down the valley to the mountain ranges behind us. And somewhere up ahead was still an ancient living river of ice that we were going to climb.

I sighed and smiled into the sun-filled breeze. The air didn’t smell like anything but pure possibility. This would do nicely. Quite nicely.

In Our Next Episode: Onto the glacier…

Patagonia: Chapter 3 – What You Bring, What You Leave Behind

After traveling in a car, a train, three airplanes, and a pick-up truck with a serious shimmy, Brian and I were just a 30 minute ride in a rubber Zodiac raft away from truly beginning our Patagonian adventure.

We’d traveled about four hours south of the airport in tiny Balmaceda–stopping only for a quick lunch of empanadas from a roadside shack and to pick up some gas. Which, given the way the empanadas were settling, was redundant. There’s really only one main road along most of Chile’s narrow length, so it was hard to get lost. Equally harder to avoid the epic scenery of the Andes. We hadn’t even started hiking and were already witness to some gorgeous geography.

Now we were in the even tinier village of Puerto Bertrand, which despite it’s sleepy demeanor and seeming to be populated only by wandering chickens and stretching dogs, was a popular base for world-class fly fishing, mountaineering on the Northern Ice Field, and rafting the voluminous Rio Baker. A local Patagone with a bushy moustache and beret met us at the dock and we began loading up the raft. Silent and heading toward distant snow-capped peaks with our motley mix of members, it felt like we were in a remake of Where Eagles Dare.

Heading to the ranch from Puerto Bertrand. (Photo: Brian Slater)

(Photo: Brian Slater)

Jon’s ranch was a scattering of buildings nestled in a small valley where, on any given day, the horses outnumbered the visitors manyfold.

We dodged fresh offerings from the equines and dropped our gear off in a barn-like structure full of climbing and camping equipment where we would bunk down tonight on the wooden floor of a second story loft.

Dinner was in the main house, which felt like a northwoods cabin. There was a spacious kitchen though, dominated by a long wooden table and benches and an old wood burning stove with a water tower sized steel pot sitting over a couple of the burners. Dinner was a mix of vegetables in a cream sauce that seemed to be watered down thousand island dressing that we ate wrapped up in tortillas. Given that most food that wasn’t grown here came from his once-a-month shopping trip about five hours away, it wasn’t too bad. We also had boxes of red wine that I believe was the Chilean equivalent of Boone’s Farm. Boone’s Hacienda if you will.

Later in the night, led by the pale circles of our headlamp lights, we found our way through a maze of fruit trees and rough-hewn wood fences to our building. Jon was a firm believer in minimal environmental impact, so there were no lights out here. We searched through our gear trying to remember where we stashed sleeping bags and toothbrushes that had been packed up continents ago.

It’s always a disoriented feeling when you wake up in a strange land in the blackest part of the night. It happened several times this initial night. The first time was hearing a fierce wind blow rain across the aluminum roof like it was hosting a local Stomp performance. Second was hearing horses whinnying as they fled what must have been aliens or the Chilean version of the Sasquatch (Which I was told, there was none.)

A little morning mate with Michael.

After a hearty breakfast which included our first proper mate session, we went back to the barn to get our gear organized and for what would hopefully be a noon departure. First thing we did was explode our gear so Alex could make sure we brought everything we needed and left behind all that we didn’t. Fortunately, the gear list we were told to follow erred waaay too far on the side of caution. There was plenty we could leave behind. Alex also pointed out some gear she was bringing, like a ‘bom-bear’ Patagonian wind shirt, that Brian and I made mental notes to spend our REI dividends on as soon as we got back. (Alex described anything that was kick ass as being ‘bomber’. But with her accent, it came out as ‘bomb-bear’. A phrase we immediately added to our lexicon.)

We made some last minute decisions on clothing and got all our gear into our bags. They were pretty full. Then Christian told each of us to take a pile of community gear. This included stoves, fuel bottles, climbing ropes, ice pickets, tents, and the like. We managed to find space to put it all. Our packs were now fairly solid loads, requiring proper form and a good Maria Sharapova grunt when lifting it onto your back.

“Okay, now each of you take one of these food bags.”

Christian pointed to three gym bags lying on the floor. Damn. Well, we aren’t going to go far without food. Each bag was packed with smaller bags full of raw ingredients like pasta, rice, soup packets, salami, and…a five pound block of frozen cheese. I pulled out the head-sized block of havarti and showed it to Brian. I know it was head-sized because it barely fit inside my climbing helmet at the top of my pack.

This had better be damn delicious if I'm going to carry it up a mountain.

My pack looked like a homeless guy’s shopping cart, but I got everything on board. Both the pack and I creaked under the weight. It had to have weighed somewhere around 80-90 lbs. Just remember to lift with a forklift, not your back.

I should mention, to make this jaunt a little more fun, we’d be doing it in our double-shelled plastic mountaineering boots that had no give in the soles and weighed in at 2.5 lbs each. It’s the hiking shoe Gene Simmons and Frankenstein would design.

Then, with an equal mix of anticipation, excitement and trepidation, we set out across an open pasture. Horses looked up from grazing to stare at us with what I’m certain were smirks on their faces. The fields gave way to marshes where we made our way across the wettest parts on rotting husks of fallen trees. Burnt tree trunks dotted the landscape; artifacts from the first ranchers who cleared the land here, decades ago. From there it began to take a decidedly upward tilt and we were in tall forest, sweating under our loads despite the shade of the trees.

There’s always an adjustment period your body goes through on expeditions like this. I told Brian flat out that the first day is going to suck. For now, though, it was a hard hump. Probably the heaviest pack I ever carried. I don’t even think the most legendary of portages in the BWCA–where I was carrying a file cabinet size Duluth pack on my back and a smaller pack on my front with hands full of paddles and fishing rods–weighed as much this ten-year old child I had strapped to my back.

This is one of the things I like about camping. It forces you to choose what’s most important to you. What will make you the most comfortable. What do you really need to live? If you can carry it, you can bring it, but every ounce is a burden. In this way, nearly everything you bring is a luxury.

Tom was already starting to falter. We were barely into the forest and he was needing to stop every 10-15 steps to bend over and wheeze. Which was annoying when you were forced to stop all your momentum and stand balanced on a small rocky outcrop at a steep slant. After barely an hour, Christian had Michael, an employee of Jon’s from Tanzania who was hoping to be a Kilimanjaro guide, take Tom’s pack for him.

There was no real “trail” to speak of. Christian led us mostly by natural landmarks, steering us along the lines of least resistance. Which isn’t saying much. There were areas of thick underbrush where a machete wouldn’t have been out of place. Other times, we were forced to scramble on all fours up a 70-degree muddy incline trying to navigate around fallen trees and thorn-leaved shrubbery tugging at our clothes and skin for attention. We plodded and sweated upward. Towards the evening I remember lifting my leg to get over the millionth fallen tree and having to make it a three-part maneuver; resting my knee on the trunk partway through. I smiled and looked back at Brian who shook his head an smiled back. This is exactly what we’d signed up for.

We finally reached a level area of thick forest along the bottom of a high cliff with a field of gray boulders piled along bottom. Christian declared this would be camp for the night. He sent Michael back to the ranch as it would be dark soon. Which meant we’d have to figure out some way to deal with Tom’s pack tomorrow. I wasn’t looking forward to carrying an additional load tomorrow. Especially, as we were setting up the tents, Tom started complaining about there not being porters (which was never mentioned or offered in any of the materials) and how he showed up here out of shape (which there was really no excuse for).

While we were trying to figure out the knots he wanted us to use on the tent fly, Christian and Alex set about firing up dinner, managing to make sense out of the dozens of clear plastic bags we piled at the base of a suitably kitchen-looking rock. Christian’s significant experience in the backcountry (he said he spends about 200 days a year in the field) had taught him that if you’re going to reach your objectives you need to keep calories in your system. Plus, he wanted to show us how to live out here, not just survive. So we were treated to heaping plates of rice, mixed with chunks of salami and fresh carrots and onions covered with and cheese (Yes! Whittle that bastard down).

We squatted on rocks and devoured it in near silence after the day’s exertions. There was a nice spiciness to the food that came from what looked like dried red peppers mixed sprinkled on top.

“Christian. What’s the red spice you put in there?” I asked.

“Is it too spicy?”

“No.” said Brian between spoonfuls of rice. “It’s good. Spicy is good.”

“It’s called merquen.”

Brian’s rice almost came back up with laughter. “What?” he coughed.

“Merquen. Why is that funny?”

I grinned. “It’s just that ‘merken’ is…” I tried to find the right words, “It’s a…toupee for your crotch.”

I’ve taken the trouble of googling merken for you here. As well as merquen. Which is delicious. We asked Christian for more to sprinkle on.

“I knew you guys I would like.” He said.

The night wasn’t especially cold, considering the Minnesota winter we had left–was it really just two days ago–but we still started a small fire and sipped mugs of instant cocoa in it’s glow.

We listened to tales about Christian climbing Denali and why Alex discovered you should never trust Brazilians with your climbing ropes. It wasn’t long before our eyes grew as heavy as our packs. We sorted ourselves out into our tents, trying to find a place for everything. Brian, Tom and I tried to talk for a bit, but even Tom’s booming voice couldn’t keep us awake for long.

In our next episode: Following the glacier’s trail…

Patagonia: Chapter 2 — Getting There is Half the Fun (And 3/4th the Expense)

Whoever said getting there is half the fun has never flown coach. And they certainly said it before 9-11. As I wait for my cameo role in what’s become the matinee of security theater put on for all air travelers these days, I have one last chance to run over my gear list and make sure I have everything I’ll need to make life comfortable for the next three weeks way down yonder in Patagonia. Actually, I have time to mentally double check the list because the guy in front of me is using a record six bins to put his stuff through the scanner. He’s like a four year-old playing with a train set, clothes akimbo, scurrying along the track in his socked feet. I almost expect him to make a “Whoo-whoo” whistle noise as he pushes them into the x-ray tunnel.

On the plus side, I don’t get a junkscan or bad touch from any of the staff. Except from one of the janitorial crew. Wait, that was middle school. If TSA workers keep saying there’s nothing wrong with these bodyscans, they should wear ID badges with one of themselves on it. “I’ll show you I don’t have explosives up my anus if you show me you don’t” seems like a fairer policy.

Given that we were embarking on a mountaineering adventure (and the shocking lack of Chilean themed airport bars beyond Chili’s), Rock Bottom Brewery seemed like a good place to meet Brian. I’m not sure what we said over that first beer, we may have just giggled like giddy school kids. At least we weren’t one of the business travelers next to us on their way to a metal fabrication convention somewhere in Akron.

The only downside was that I was apparently Patient Zero for some kind of respiratory infection. Runny nose, and a chest full of phlegm that made it sound like I was growing a wet cheese-based bagpipe in my chest. And apparently I bought a rare kind of cough drop that actually induces coughing fits. To top it all off, I had the middle seat on our leg to Atlanta. I did pity the two souls on either side of me. If I’ve accidentally set off a plague of 12 Monkeys proportions by the time I get back, please accept my apologies and I promise I’ll let Bruce Willis kill me if I see him.

From Atlanta, we boarded a night flight to Santiago. We followed down Florida’s dangle, over Cuba, the Panama Canal, and into South America proper. I’d already seen the King’s Speech, but thought briefly that watching it in German while hopped up on Nyquil and red wine might give it a new twist. Instead I tried to doze off in search of my own subconscious cinema. Which, unfortunately, meant I missed crossing the equator and missed the chance to get my virginity back and see if the water went straight down the drain and then reversed direction.

Even though a permanent brown haze of exhaust covered it, we were excited to finally land in Santiago. It helped alleviate the slightly surreal cracked-out feeling one gets on overnight international flights. We then began running a gauntlet that included collecting our luggage (it all showed up), getting an entry visa ($150!), going through immigration (Mmm, new passport stamp), then customs before being released into the airport to check in for our local flight to Balmaceda on LAN, Chile’s national airline. The Santiago airport seemed fresh out of the wrapper. All white walls and gently arcing beams with sunlight streaming through ample skylights.

Santiago Airport. Our trip required just slightly less gear.

We learned we had to get our boarding passes from an automated kiosk before checking in. In our post night flight daze, we realized it was all in Spanish. Brian tried to recall his teenage years growing up in Buenos Aries. I tried to recall what I heard Maria on Sesame Street saying. All of which came in handy later on, because Brian could order drinks and pick up chicks and I could count to ten and say “open” and “close”.

With luggage loaded and tickets for our last flight in hand, we headed to our gate. It was too early for a bar to be open, so we decided to seek out a coffee. Awesome! We were excited for our first real interaction with some Chilean people. Then, we discovered the only coffee place open was a Starbuck’s. And the kid behind the counter spoke flawless English. And none of the bureau de exchange were open, so we paid with a credit card. Okay, not the cultural exchange we were looking for, but, damn, it was a good coffee.

Then it was just a three hour jaunt down the mighty spine of the Andes, which were clouded in, to the Balmaceda. Coming in to the airport, I finally had my first look at Patagonia. High rolling green and yellow hills with Argentina stretching out to my left. When we touched down the jolt knocked my adrenal glands over and spilled a shiver of anticipation throughout me. We were finally here.

It was a really tiny airport, so as soon as we collected our gear and walked through a small doorway we were immediately greeted by our host, two guides, and one other guest who’d signed up for the mountaineering course.

There was Jon Hauf . Owner of the 2000+ acre Patagonia Frontiers Wilderness Ranch that gave us exclusive access to the Soler Valley and the glaciers it held. He was tall and slim with gray hair and precise, yet polite, clipped demeanor. He looked like who you’d expect to be cast as an Air Force captain in a made for TV movie.

“Nice to finally meet you Jon!”

The other student was Tom Ragsdale. A 64-year old retired Marine from Nashville with a drawl almost as big and thick as his midsection. In the same made-for-TV movie, he’d be cast as the crazy general who says stuff like “Then may God have mercy on our souls.”

“Hey, Tom!”

One of our guides was Christian. A German-Chilean in his early 40s with a reassuring suitably scruffy and weather-beaten appearance and laid back demeanor you want in someone who is going to take you up a moving mountain of ice.

“Christian? How are you?”

And there was our other guide, Alexandra. A smoking hot buff Belgian-Chilean elf with long curly hair, apple cheeks and a nationwide rep as a badass climber.

“Well, hellllloooooooo.”

We threw our gear into the back of two pick-ups and covered them with a blue tarp in case of rain. Brian, Christian and I took off in one. I noticed the “town” of Balmaceda appeared to be nothing more than a sedentary herd of abandoned looking shacks all slightly seeming to lean away from the prevailing and almost continuous wind. Within minutes of leaving the airport, we were on dirt roads. We weren’t in the middle of nowhere yet, but I had a feeling this was a shortcut.

All of a sudden I heard Rush’s “Working Man” coming through the truck’s speakers. “I never thought the first music I’d hear in Patagonia would be Rush.” I said to Brian.

“You like Rush?!” asked Christian. His half-lidded eyes opening fully.

“Yeah. I have most of their stuff. Got to see them in concert a few times.”

“Oh man. That ees awesome.” replied Christian in an accent Brain and I would come to imitate in the weeks ahead. He fumbled with his iPod, taking his eyes off the narrow rutted road for far too long for my taste. We soon had most of the Rush back catalog setting the soundtrack for our trip. It was the perfect icebreaker and the three of us took an immediate liking to each other.

We rolled along, raising dust through a variety of terrains. Yellowed hills that peeled back to reveal rock every now and then. Low marshy swamps. Long blue lakes alongside hulking gray cliffs. Brian peppered Christian with climbing questions from the shotgun position, while I just sat in the back seat looking at the terrain come at me and smiling behind my sunglasses.

After about half an hour, Christian peeled away from following Jon’s truck and took us down an even more rutted and desolate side road. “There’s sometheeeng I need to get.” He mumbled under his breath as we arrived at the market of a small village.

He emerged after a few minutes with a six pack of Royal beer. “Nice.” I thought. “We’ll have beer tonight at the lodge. But Christian cracked open three beers and dispersed them among us.

“Welcome to Patagonia.” He said and we clanked the blue lukewarm cans together and drank deep.

I think this trip is going to be alright.

Rush and roadies. Not a bad first 30 minutes in-country. Salud!

In our next episode: Hump Day

Patagonia: Chapter 1 – It Starts With A Memory

Is it possible to have a memory of a place you’ve never been? Perhaps if you’ve visited in your mind enough. So it is with Patagonia. One of those places that, like names of housing developments, seemed named for something that doesn’t exist anymore. Ahh, but there is a Patagonia. I’ve always wanted to go, but it’s seemed like a long way off. Both in distance and reality. Yet, at the same time, it’s never seemed as far as Europe or Asia which lay across vast bodies of watery void. To reach Patagonia you just had to trace your finger due south on a globe. Getting there seemed almost as easy as letting yourself fall.

Today I find myself at the brink of that delightful descent to the southern tip of the Americas. To the end of the world. And like standing at the edge of any adventure, my stomach is not so much full of butterflies as knot-tying mate-fueled dragonflies made of equal parts excitement and nervousness that keep bumping into my adrenal glands.

My friend, Brain Slater, heard of a mountaineering school down there he wanted to try and didn’t want to go solo, so he asked me to join. I think my exact reaction was “Uhhhh, dammmmit! You know I can’t say ‘no’ to something like that!” And I couldn’t. Brian and I have known each other casually and occasionally for years, but this will be the first time we’ve traveled together. Fortunately, he has a healthy sense of adventure that’s matched by an equally healthy sense of humor. He’s smart. Rolls with the situation. We should be the best duo to hit the area since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Although one thing about Slater has gotten to me. He’s a bit newer to camping than I am, so he’s been in need of new gear more than me. Which means while I’m still using the stuff I got years ago, he’s decked out in the latest titaniumized UFO-reversed engineered stuff. I thought I could contain my jealousy, but the other day he mentioned getting a new inflatable air mattress that could be folded up and put in your wallet and it was filled with down. Down! Mine is only filled with air. Not even goose air. Just plain old every day air. Damn! Why do they make this stuff so durable that it lasts forever?

I’ve been surprised by the number of people who weren’t sure where Patagonia was. Africa? Asia? Next to all the North Face stuff at REI? But you do have to scroll down past all the Patagonia Clothing sites on Google before you get to what is “a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of South America”.

I remember when I first heard what Patagonia was. It was in Mr. Larson’s 4th grade World Studies class. (The same one when I wrote to the Russian Embassy asking for information about their country and getting an enormous package at the house filled with all kinds of gorgeous brochures. I was filled with a sense of adventure and being part of a larger world. My parents were filled with worry that the government was going to label my permanent record as a commie sympathizer.) Anyways, while we were studying South America—revolutions, the liberator Simon Bolivar, Brazil, the Amazon, carnival, we finally got to the Andes. This mountain chain made Chile look like nothing more than a spine running the whole way of the continent. Then, at the end, the dot on the exclamation point, was an area called Patagonia. Land of the pampas. I remember the word. Pampas. Fun to say even now. So is gaucho. The landscape looked like nothing else I’d seen. It’s always held sway over me, lingering somewhere is distant thought. As far away from current day as the actual pampas were from me physically; but still, always there. And there it’s waited, still virtually untouched and as wild as when I’d first learned of its existence.

Besides the stuff of dreams, there are some very real facts about Patagonia I found in my research for this trip:

– The Andes is the world’s longest continental mountain range (4300mi). It contains the world’s second-highest plateau (behind Tibet). It’s the world’s highest mountain range next to the Himalayas as well. The world’s highest volcanoes are in the Andes. (Ojos del Salado is 22,615ft) And the peak of Mt. Chimborazo is located at the point on the surface of the Earth that’s the most distance from its center (You can thank the Earth’s equatorial bulge for part of that). And, yes, it’s where that rugby team in Alive crashed and ended up eating each other. (We’re backing plenty of Clif bars just in case)

-Patagonia contains the largest ice-fields in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. Which is right next door.

-While the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner, and Christopher Lambert have huge tracts of land here, Luciano Benetton is Patagonia’s largest landowner.

– Even though Magellan (Magellan! Dude has spaceships named after him!) first explored the area in 1520, it remains one of the most pristine and unpolluted areas of the world.

– Perito Moreno Glacier, which contains the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water, is one of just two glaciers in all of South America that is growing.

Our plan is to fly about four hours south of Santiago to Balmaceda, drive about half a day, take a boat across a lake and that will be our base for mountaineering for about ten days. Then we’re getting a pick-up truck and heading a bit further south to explore some national parks like Cerro Castillo National Park where glaciers fall into lakes below enormous turrets of ancient basalt. There’s some WTF time built in to explore and revel in the unexpected adventure and then a few days of big city living in Santiago before coming home. (Part of sharing this itinerary is in case we both get our arms stuck under a rock, someone will find us before we have to go all Leatherman on our limbs. Actually, if we both get stuck under a rock we’ll probably die of embarrassment before anyone can get there.)

So now work winds down, you’ve packed and repacked your gear a dozen times and all you’re left with is the anticipation of the unknown. Even though you’ve visited in your mind a thousand times before. Even though you’ve done lots of research and your guidebooks, dog-eared and full of notes, already look like they’ve traveled halfway around the world, there is still much unknown. And that’s why we go to places like this. Hell, that’s why we get up in the morning. That’s why we pick up the guitar or say “I’ll try sushi” or put pen to page or ask that beautiful and funny woman out. Because we don’t know what will happen.

Now it’s time to find out.

The Base Camp Winter Boot Camp Workout Program

Boot Camp programs have multiplied at gyms across the country in recent years. For those of you who’ve been exercising under a rock or waiting in line for a Double Down at KFC, Boot Camps are exercise for people who hate it so much that the only way it becomes palatable is to get up at an ungodly hour and have someone yell at you. (If you don’t have those two elements, you are not at a boot camp. You are on a sweaty play date.) The results are supposed to be great, with most people experiencing an immediate weight loss in their wallets.

That’s why I’m thrilled right down to my electrolytes to announce the opening of Base Camp Winter Boot Camp. While not required, actual boots are highly recommended. Classes take place at the Base Camp Exercise Facility. Rather than a dreary old gym, its been designed to look like a single family suburban home, providing a comfortable setting with ample sidewalks and driveways. Classes are scheduled to take place after any accumulating snowfall and all workout equipment will be provided. It may look like a shovel, but it’s not. It’s actually an Ergonomic Weight Resistance Machine. Varying resistance is provided by a naturally occurring, biodegradable substance that provides a customized, ever-changing workout. You’ll elevate your heart rate while working both your upper and lower body, as well as the ever-important core and a few muscles that don’t have names yet. Feel the burn! Or it may just be frostbite.

A member enjoys his workout at our high-tech facility

Your instructor is someone with winters of experience in this activity himself and is eager to pass his knowledge on to you. For motivation he can either yell quotes from Successory posters or play interviews with the cast of Jersey Shore. Whichever motivates you to finish quicker.

In case of un-inclement weather, sessions will be held indoors and include a variety of work-out programs such as Vacuuming, Dusting, and Laundry Folding. All will push your limits of endurance and improve the look and shape of my living room substantially.

We still have openings for the remainder of our winter classes, so don’t delay in trying this great workout program. I’m sure you’ll find the rates to be less than what your local gym is charging. And be sure to look for our Summer Mowing and Autumn Raking Programs coming later in 2011.

New Number: Umpteen

Umpteen is to be placed between 19 and 20 representing the “utmost teen a number can get”. The word has existed for awhile, but until now has never had a symbol. This, however, shouldn’t hinder its non-specific value use. For example, you can still use it an umpteen number of ways. But not a kazillion. (Kudos to designer Bill Whitney for making my sketch look less, er, sketchy.)

El Salvador: Chapter 1 – Night Flight

“The war is still going on there isn’t it?”

This is the first and most commonly asked question I got when I told people I was bound for El Salvador. The funniest one I got was “Isn’t that where Salvador Dali is from?” While still burnt into people’s minds from its dark days during the ‘80s, El Salvador has been fairly peaceful, in the political sense, for more than a decade. It’s traded civil war for gang warfare that results in some 3,000 homicides a year.

But I’m out of coffee, so…

This trip came to be, like most of mine delightfully do, by chance. I hadn’t planned on going to El Salvador, placing it far below El Capitan and even lower than Chicago’s El on my “things to do” list. But a friend from high school, Tracy Townsend, had crossed my path earlier this year on Facebook. She recently began teaching in San Salvador and sent me a message saying “I have volcanoes for you to climb and an extra hammock with your name on it. When are you coming for a visit?”

As most of you have already come to know, only ask that question if you’re ready for a scruffy redhead with a backpack and goofy smile to show up at your doorstep, tent flap or foxhole.

That’s how I found myself heading to El Salvador. Republic of the Savior. The Rhode Island of Central America (actually it’s about the size of New Jersey). At a mere 150 miles end-to-end it can’t even hold its name on a globe.

With a 5am flight, I gave up on sleep and just rode out the Sunday Vikings victory buzz through the night and chased it with the adrenaline of frantic last minute packing. Yet, when I arrived at the airport two hours early, like a good little international traveler, there was no one there to compliment me on my promptness. The place was totally deserted. In my drowsy haze it was easy to envision it as some sort of Twilight Zone episode with the lone workman clanking away metallically on the scaffolding being some kind of ghost or alien or representation of one of mankind’s maladies. I drifted off into a brief nap before I could figure it out.

I was bounced awake when a husky guy in flip-flops and a pair of those shorts with the strings hanging out the legs that no one ever actually uses for anything hurled his bulk into the end of the row of chairs, nearly catapulting me into the light fixtures. His wife, of a similar build, apparently thought it was a competition and cannonballed her behind into the next seat, but only flung me high enough to get to my feet. Rubbing my eyes, I saw the place had started to come to life a bit. In fact, I was surrounded by young couples in vaguely tropical gear taking pictures of every little detail. Turns out several of them had gotten married in the past week (including a couple who tied the knot just the day before in Grand Forks) and were on their way to honeymoon at a Mexican Sandals resort.

On the plane I tumbled down the spine of sleep while the world heated up from below, sunrise turning the clouds into a glowing orange Bunsen burner. By that time, we were already tenderly tapping our wheels down in Atlanta. The stewardess from Delta went into a five-minute spiel about how they’re committed to service and so happy to be serving us and so glad we’re flying with Delta. It went on so long it began to sound like an apology. I looked around to see if she had accidentally fed us poisoned Spinzers or flew us to Baghdad by mistake.

With under an hour to make my connection I was a tad nervous to discover Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airport is the largest and busiest in the world. To top it off, my landing gate and departure gate were at two of the terminal’s farthest flung tentacles. But the crowds moved and flowed like we were in a rehearsed music video and I found myself with enough time to get a McGriddle breakfast burrito. I even had enough time to regret getting a McGriddle breakfast burrito.

It was a sparse flight into San Salvador (though not as sparse at the 10:30 to Liberia appeared) and I managed to get a row to myself. Now, let’s kill some of the 45 minutes I spent waiting on the runway with a few fun facts about El Salvador: Let’s see…it has 5.7 million people. It dumped the colón and adopted the U.S. dollar in 2001. The main export used to be indigo, but switched to coffee at the beginning of the 20th century. Over 75,000 people were killed in the 1980-1992 Civil War. You remember the Cold War too, don’t you? That’s even more than the 20-30,000 peasants the military massacred in 1932 to quash a rebellion. Being on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is chockfull of volcanoes. An eruption in 2001 left 20% of the nation’s housing damaged. That same summer a drought killed off 80% of the crops. 90% of the country is mesitzo (mix of Native American and Spanish origin). If it wasn’t for money sent back from the 3.5 million El Salvadorans living abroad, it’s estimated 37% of the country would be living in extreme poverty. And they have one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Yes, this little country has had some big troubles.

Oh, I see we’ve taken off and the in-flight movie has started. It’s Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Ummm, okay. Why not?

We followed the dangle of Florida’s underside, crossed the cloud fluffed frothing waters of the Caribbean, politely brushed past Belize, and stopped short at El Salvador’s Custacatlan airport.


The humidity was a hot wet blanket that wrapped you in a welcome embrace the moment you stepped from the plane. I mean like 300% humidity. As in, how can this be the rainy season when there is no more room in the air for anymore liquid? And why is it, the hotter the climate, the more well-dressed the people like to be. The El Salvadoran men were all in long-sleeve dress shirts tucked into well-pressed trousers and nice shoes. It wasn’t as if I was blending in anyways, so I was going to stick with my shorts. Stick to them would be more accurate.

Tracy had arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport and after getting a fresh stamp in the passport, I spotted an El Salvadoran man with my name scrawled on a scrap of paper.

My tiredness and Sesame Street level of Spanish made for a quiet drive for the 50km from the airport to the Escuela Americana Complejo where Tracy lived. It gave me a chance to sit back and take in some initial sites. Some of it felt similar to other places I’d been, but it was still its own unique place. Telephone poles, trees, and street barriers were painted in red, white, and blue bands from the FMLN party that had won the recent election. Old men in beaten baggy pants, raised their straw hats and wiped sweat from their foreheads as they sat next to pyramids of coconuts waiting to be macheted open to share their sweet nectar. Rusty rumbling trucks coughed up hills loaded with pallets held down by shirtless teens.


This is a poor country, but it looked clean. It had a bright fresh colorful feel to it. White teeth flashed from dark skin. Skirts swayed among roadside stands. Flowers fell from roadside cliffs. Volcanoes slept tucked under ample blankets of lush green.

Tracy and her 12-year old daughter, Aimee, lived at the school in a quiet walled complex with most of the teachers. She had a tidy two-story concrete house with a red tiled roof and a backyard shaded by a prodigious lime tree. The hammock I’d been promised waved ‘hola’ to me in a much appreciated breeze. We’d get acquainted in a few hours as I napped off my jet lag.

Right now, Tracy took me on a tour of the school. It was a sprawling 35-acre campus with wide open breezeways embracing lovely green courtyards filled with hidden sculptures or zen beautiful landscaping or both. The school has about 1,300 students ranging from Pre-K to 12th grade. Classes were firing up in a few days, so the quiet pad of our sandals would soon be drowned out by the universal decibel-defying energy of students excitement and complaints at being educated.



Later that night, after dinner at a nearby restaurant, Tracy and I sat by the pool watching a bat loop over the water, skimming its surface for dinner. We filled in the years and the twisting turns that stretched from us meeting in high school on the debate team to sharing a beer at a school in San Salvador.

I pictured geography and time spinning their distance away simultaneously in my head until it reached here and now. I raised my sweating can of Suprema to her Corona. “To old friends in new places.”

In our next episode…Who Knows What Evil Waits Aboard the Microbus?!!!!

What Lies Beyond Hope?

First off, I was honestly impressed with John McCain’s concession speech last night. If the man who gave that speech had been the man running for President, this election would have been a lot closer. The only point I have to contend with is his praise of Palin’, which is a perfunctory nicety, but shouldn’t she get back to Alaska to keep an eye on Russia now?

Obama’s speech will be heard around the world. But more importantly, it will be felt. The entire Nordeast bar I was in sat silent as he spoke. It will become a staple among high school speech students for decades to come for sure. But the physical impact those words had was immediate. I liked his nod our country’s great history even as he stood making it. But it was his recognition of the challenges ahead that I took to heart. Despite his oratory skills, this wasn’t a fantasy world he laid out, we need to get to work. All of us. Remove the demographics and pigeon-holes that we’ve been shoved in for the past two years. All of us.

For those of us, who aren’t in Congress or have massive amounts of wealth, what can we do? How do we turn those words into action? To be blunt, listening to Obama last night made me want to be a better person. There are traits in our new President I want to emulate, that I want to teach to my nephews: intelligence, inclusiveness, reasoning, unflappability, positivity, in allowing your roots to let you become one of the branches. It can come out in little ways. Use your turn signal. Look a stranger in the eye and smile. Don’t see a businessman, a black person, a wheelchair, a bum, see an American. You share that in common. Realize that everything isn’t a contest. Learn about someplace where you don’t live. Give up your seat to an older person. These sound simplistic and silly compared to the issues we face, but try them, they’re free. They won’t add to the national debt. They’re totally non-partisan. And when you multiply them by millions, it suddenly becomes an everyday reality. We begin to see what is good about this country.

And it generates hope. Hope that draws possibility within reach. Hope that will be turned into action and solutions. We’re America. We’re better than what we’ve shown each other and the world the last eight years. We’ve grown fat, lazy, apathetic, and whiny. No longer can we be number one by default. We have to earn it. Just like many generations in the past have.

Don’t let the echo of those words fade. Let them reverberate in your own lives years from now. Carry an ember of that fire you felt to warm your heart when things grow cold.

Yes, we can. But will we? That’s up to all of us. And I, for one, am ready to get to work.

PS – Good to be back.

Hump Helper #9

Also known as love potion #9 because this mid-week push comes thrusting from the naughty bits what with Valentine’s Day just over the sensuous swelling summit of this, the tantalizing halfway point at February’s bare midriff.

Let’s start off with One Cold Hand. A website in NYC that photos and posts lost mittens in hopes of reuniting them with their partners. And really, haven’t we all lost a loved one that we want to be reunited with? If they open up franchises, I’m building one here in Minneapolis, where mitten mating season lasts nearly a full eight months.

And I leave you this Wednesday with a list of words that describe, mostly, odd sexual behavior. Now you know what to call that creepy guy watching his pet hamsters go at it. Hopefully you’ll have cause to whip out one or two of these terms come the ‘morrow:

Faunoiphilia (FAW-nay-FIL-ee-uh) – An abnormal desire to watch animals copulate.

Brassirothesauriast (bruh-zeer-oh-thuh-SAW-ree-ast) – A person who collects brassieres or pictures of women wearing them.

Eunoterpsia (YOO-noh-TURP-see-uh) – The doctrine that pursuing sexual pleasure is the goal of life.

Typhlobasia (TIF-luh-BAY-zee-uh) – Kissing with the eyes closed.

Amychesis (AM-i-KEE-sis) – The involuntary act of scratching or clawing your partner in the heat of passion.

Mammaquatia (MAM-uh-KWAY-shee-uh) – The bobbing or jiggling of a woman’s breasts when she walks, dances, or exercises.

Ozoamblyrosis (OH-zoh-AM-bli-ROH-sis) – Loss of sexual appetite because your partner has wicked B.O.

Amomaxia (AM-uh-MAX-see-uh) – Love-making in a parked car.

Colpocoquette (KAHL-puh-koh-KET) – A woman who knows she has an attractive bosom, and who makes good use of its allure.

Melolagnia (MEL-uh-LAG-nee-uh) – Amorous feelings inspired by music.