March 30, 2012
Centre Street in the town of Ashland, Pennsylvania (population 3,091), rides a hill in the coal-rich northeastern part of the Keystone state. To the south is 1,420-foot Mahanoy Mountain, its flank amputated by strip mining, its innards coiled with mine shafts; to the north the abandoned site of Centralia where a trash fire set in May, 1962, spread to coal deposits underground. Fifty years later, the fire is still burning though the state spent millions trying to put it out, then moved some 1,000 people out due to concerns about toxic gas emissions and subsidence in home-owners’ back yards.
I detoured to this lost corner of America on a recent road trip across Pennsylvania, stopping first to see the Museum of Anthracite Coal in the Ashland borough hall. They had to turn the lights on for me when I got there, but the displays proved to be a comprehensive primer on the industry that shaped a region with the world’s highest concentration of low-ash anthracite, a prized kind of hard, clean-burning coal. It was discovered around Ashland in the 1850’s when Henry Clay, then a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, promoted the imposition of tariffs that made it profitable to replace imports from Wales with coal from the United States. Surveys revealed that northeast Pennsylvania had 75 billion tons of bituminous coal and 23 billion tons of anthracite, resulting in the growth of mining operations and small towns to serve them.
Ashland is a classic with its own Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine Shaft and Steam Train tourist attraction and Whistler’s Mother Monument, built in 1937 for the annual homecoming of the Ashland Boys Association. It looks like a scene from the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, with modest workers’ homes, shops and bars that have good bones, but an air of dilapidation stemming from the failure of the industry after World War II, when coal fell out of favor as a fuel source. It’s estimated that 58 billion tons of bituminous and 7 billion tons of anthracite remain, but natural gas deposits are now more attractive, tapped by the environmentally-contentious technique of hydro-fracking.
The coal museum tells the anthracite story from prospecting and drilling to treating acid water, a toxic byproduct of the mining process. Disasters like the 1869 fire at an anthracite mine in Avondale, Pennsylvania, that killed over a hundred workers, are also described, along with deadly gas known as black damp. But to understand the dangers of abandoned mines I drove three miles north to the ghost town of Centralia.
A few long-time residents continue to live there, along with those at eternal rest in two sorrowful Centralia cemeteries. When weather conditions are right, visitors can see smoke billowing up from scorched patches of ground, but otherwise nothing marks the mostly-abandoned town site. Highway 61 has been diverted around Centralia and the old main street is barricaded by a litter-strewn berm, defaced by fresh graffiti that tells who to call for a time. It reminded me of visiting the ruins of Gibellina, a small town in southwestern Sicily, razed by a 1968 earthquake, then memorialized with a cover of concrete by Italian artist Alberto Bruni.
Obviously, no one’s celebrating Centralia’s semi-centennial this year and visitors are mostly curiosity-seekers like me. Its lack of markers is presumably intentional, given the hazards, but sad. I stood there in a cold rain wondering whether some stray, surviving dogwood would put out commemorative blossoms in the spring.
March 15, 2012
Temperature: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Sky: blue. Breeze: light.
Those were the idyllic conditions when my family and I visited California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Summer time is a different story, of course, with temperatures across the 550,000-acre park where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet routinely over 100.
Stuffed into a rented Toyota Camry, we entered Joshua Tree from the north and hiked the one-mile Hidden Valley loop. In the isolated canyon once favored by cattle rustlers, it’s said, we talked to a ranger about pinyon pine trees (bearing the nuts used in pesto sauce), watched rock climbers suspended along one of the geometrically-fractured joints that cross-hatch Joshua Tree cliffs, and picnicked in the shade of a Mojave yucca. Then it was on to Barker Dam (built around 1900 to create a reservoir for livestock); the boulder heaps at Jumbo Rocks; and 4,500-foot Sheep Pass leading east toward the wide, hazy Pinto Basin.
When we finally reached Cottonwood Springs we learned that torrential rainfall the previous September had flooded the road, closed trails, campgrounds and the visitor center on the south side of the park. Consequently, we couldn’t hike to Lost Palms Oasis visited by desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. But on the way out of the park we got a surprise; my niece Sarah saw it first.
“Stop!” she cried from the back seat.
I thought she’d chipped a tooth on trail mix, but it turns out she‘d seen ocotillo, miraculously blooming in winter. We pulled over and piled out to inspect about two dozen tall, spiny ocotillo plants pointing flame-red fingers into the sky. They usually bloom in the spring; in fact, March is the month for wildflower viewing in Joshua Tree. But September rains had apparently fooled them, presenting us with a gift on a delightful day in the desert.
November 4, 2011
The artist and adventurer Everett Ruess was 20 years old when he vanished into wild and lonely Davis Gulch, a drainage of the Escalante River in southern Utah. He’d been tramping alone for 8 months across some of the roughest, most isolated country in the nation with burros to carry his gear and the odd volume of Emerson. Occasionally he stopped in settlements like dusty little Escalante to pick up mail from his parents. Two sheep herders reported meeting him on the slick rock tableland outside town on Nov. 21, 1934. Then nothing.
The woodblock prints and writing he left behind, collected in W.L. Rusho‘s 1983 Edward Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty, still captivate wilderness lovers. But it’s the mystery of his disappearance that has made him a cult hero among backpackers, climbers, canyoneers and other desert rats. Did he fall from a cliff while looking for arrowheads? Could he have committed suicide or been murdered by cattle rustlers? Or, drawn as he was to the blank spaces on the map, did he engineer his own disappearance, intentionally leaving family, friends and civilization behind?
His strange story—part cautionary tale, part siren song—has been told many times by Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and other writers. Jon Krakauer found similarities between Ruess and Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. This year a new book, Finding Everett Ruess, by David Roberts, adds another chapter to the Ruess riddle.
The book landed at the top of my reading list not because I’m a fan; to my mind Ruess’s evocations of the desert Southwest lack cultural and historical perspective. But I have been to Davis Gulch, now part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and there’s nothing lacking about that. Hiking in from its confluence with the Escalante was an unforgettable experience, not to be repeated anytime soon because access is dictated by the water level on Lake Powell, which has risen since then, backing up into tributaries like Davis Gulch.
But a drought that peaked in 2005 made it possible for my brother John, backcountry ranger Bill Wolverton and me to explore the gulch, starting in flats of quick sand at its mouth. Farther up the canyon we saw 75 foot high La Gorce Arch and squeezed through a subway where the canyon walls narrow before leaving Davis by the livestock trail at its head, presumably the route Ruess took down.
Roberts went the same way to research a 1999 article for National Geographic Adventure that revisited the mystery, uncovering new hints about the possible murder of Ruess by Escalante locals.
But 10 years later the writer heard of a skeleton buried in a crack along Comb Ridge some 50 miles east of Davis Gulch in the Navajo Reservation. Tests on a DNA sample suggested that the remains were those of Everett Ruess, causing Roberts and fellow investigators to re-imagine the wanderer’s last steps, hypothesizing that he must have left Davis Gulch, crossed the Colorado River to die in the isolated northern part of the Navajo Reservation. But the findings, published in National Geographic Adventure, had to be retracted when a state-of-the-art U.S. military lab determined that the Comb Ridge bones were not those of Everett Ruess.
Roberts tells the whole story of the misidentification of the Comb Ridge remains, an interesting twist in the Everett Ruess saga. But in the end we’re left no wiser, still hearing only faint whispers of the vagabond of Ruess’ poem “Wilderness Song:”
October 17, 2011
Mark your calendar: November 11 and December 9.
Those are the next two dates for Navajo rug auctions at Crownpoint, a dusty village of about 2,000 in northwestern New Mexico. The event, sponsored by the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Association, has been held for 4 decades on the second Friday of every month, giving devotees of Native American arts and crafts a chance to buy direct from the maker.
Granted, there are lots of other places in and around the 27,000 square mile Navajo Reservation to admire weaving, from the Heard Museum in Phoenix to collector textile shops like Garland’s near Sedona and lonely trading posts scattered across the reservation, each one famous for a different rug pattern. The old Hubbell Trading Post, which operated from 1878 to 1930, is now a National Historic Site in the hamlet of Ganado.
But the Crownpoint auction is unforgettable. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. potential buyers inspect the month’s offerings, heaped on tables at the back of an elementary school gym. Craft sellers set up shop in the halls and the cafeteria provides Navajo fry bread tacos. Around 7 p.m. the auctioneers in cowboy hats arrive on stage and the bidding starts, sometime going on for hours. Rugs sell for thousands of dollars, or just a couple of tens, so bidders have to look sharp and know their stuff.
Experts advise potential buyers to fold a rug in half to make sure the pattern is straight, check the tightness of the weave, watch out for puckered corners and uneven colors.
When I was there a number of years ago, I didn’t even buy a rug, just enjoyed the show, then drove on to Canyon de Chelly, one of the most beautiful canyon systems in the Southwest, a holy place for the Navajo and home to Spider Woman—a Navajo deity said to live atop an 800-foot-tall pinnacle in Canyon de Chelly—who taught the people how to weave.
October 6, 2011
I’m at once happy and sad to note the release of the 2012 World Monuments Fund Watch List. Sad because, compiled every two years, it focuses attention on urgently endangered cultural sites around the world; happy because the list has helped generate some $90 million from governments, businesses, individuals and nongovernmental organizations to save embattled sites whose loss would impoverish mankind.
The 2012 list includes 67 fascinating entries, from a 19th century train station in Turkey to a modernist government building in Goshen, New York. Forty-one countries are represented on six continents, with only Antarctica left out, though WMF president Bonnie Burnham noted at a press conference in New York I attended yesterday that the South Pole landmass has been on the list before—most recently in 2008 when the organization cited explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s hut on Ross Island, which has suffered from global warming and tourism.
After accepting a contribution of $5 million over the next five years from American Express, which has sponsored the watch list since its founding in 1996, Burnham described the factors for inclusion that weighed especially heavily this year, starting with non-sustainable tourism. She called the tourist industry “a double-edged sword” that can negatively affect precisely those characteristics that make a site unique, as in the newly-inscribed Charleston, South Carolina, Historic District, increasingly overwhelmed by sightseers from cruise ships, a phenomenon I’ve observed as far afield as Juneau, Alaska. It’s a conflicting issue for travelers like me who want to see these remarkable places, but don’t want to become a part of the problem created by an influx of tourists.
Timeliness was another important factor, according to Burnham, evidenced by entries like the colonial city of Santa Cruz de Mompox in Colombia, on the verge of development because of new road construction; and St. Helena off the West African coast, of Napoleon-in-exile fame, where delicate historical remains are threatened by the arrival of a new airport.
Perennially, the WMF taps sites that have suffered from major natural disasters and this list is no exception with the inclusion Japan’s northeast coast, struck by earthquake and tsunami in March 2011; some 700 national landmarks there have been affected, local officials estimate. The Gingerbread District of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, first cited in 2009, reappeared on the list due to further endangerment caused by an earthquake in January 2010.
The new WMF list also supports living cultural traditions like the floating fishing villages on Halong Bay in Vietnam, a truly magical place which I visited several years ago on the Emeraude, a replica of a French colonial steamship. We stopped at one of the villages where I walked from houseboat to houseboat and bought shells from the children of fishermen,whose way of life has become ever more difficult thanks to the disappearance of fish on the bay.
This time around the list takes special note of endangered modernist buildings in the States. Two of these are in Manhattan: 510 Fifth Avenue, a glass-lined International School bank building, and the New York Studio School near my place in Greenwich Village, founded around 1920 by the sculptor and art collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the first home of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
My favorite entry for 2012 is the newly-discovered Maya site of El Zotz on the Buenavista escarpment in Guatemala imperiled by agriculture and development. The goal is to safeguard the site by encouraging low-impact ecotourism, again underscoring the role travelers can play–hopefully for the better.