The Gateway Arch in St. Louis - A Travel Postcard
Our commuter jet arrived at its gate at the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, 15 minutes late. I leaned over to my mother in law, and told her not to worry.
“We’re a few minutes behind schedule,” I said “I think we’ll be fine.”
We had 45 minutes to catch the connecting flight to New York City. Antoinette Kotite, who we call grandma, was going home. At 83, she walked slowly, wearing heavy orthotics.
“They’ll have a wheelchair for me,” she said confidently.
When we made it off the airplane, I noticed an elevator. “Let’s take that. I don’t see wheelchairs down here,” I said.
“OK,” she said quietly, clearing her throat.
On the main level, people were everywhere. Delta agents stood out wearing red blazers. There were no wheelchairs.
I scooted over to an agent with a radio.
“We ordered wheelchair assistance,” I said. “We have a tight connection.”
She looked down at me. “It will be just a minute,” she said. “Why don’t you take a seat.”
Fifteen minutes later, grandma’s hand was shaking as she unwrapped a lemon drop. I looked at the agent, trying to disguise the anger in my eyes. “I called for a one,” she said.
Ten minutes later, a wheelchair appeared.
“Can you get us to Terminal D,” I nearly shouted at the slow-moving attendant.
“You won’t make it,” she said.
“Well, I want to try.”
She resigned, ushering us inside an elevator. She relinquished her duties as the doors closed, muttering something about how I was crazy. As I pushed the chair out, I discovered the brakes, a long, slim bar running parallel under the handlebar.
I slung my purse across my body. Grandma clutched her giraffe- patterned one tightly, like a seatbelt.
“We’re going to make it,” I said.
I started to jog. Grandma glided across the polished granite of Terminal D. The gate numbers increased and blurred. People shifted to the sides.
As we made it within a block of our gate, I heard a child scream, momentarily distracting me. I watched as the toddler bolted from her father’s grasp to stand directly in our path. I lost my grip. The brakes activated. Grandma’s chair stopped like a car hitting a curb. I imagined her body flying out, but she managed to stay down.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to Grandma.
“How much time do we have,” she asked, looking into my eyes.
Without discussion, the race was on again. We careened into Gate 30’s waiting area. The boarding process was ending.
We were the last to board.
Chuck Noland was on his knees, alone. His dirty and bruised body was dressed only in pants he had ripped into shorts. His hands were bloody.
The 38-year-old executive for FedEx tried again to create fire, knowing a blaze would signal a passing ship or airplane. He gathered materials: palm wood, random sticks, coconut hair.
He leaned over a small, flat piece of driftwood. Hoping the friction he had created would spark, he blew gently on a cotton ball sized bundle of coconut hair placed on top. Nothing. “The air got to it,” Chuck Noland said turning toward a volleyball he began calling Wilson on the fifth following his plane crash. Wilson had a face after Noland palmed it with his bloodstained hand.
He continued, sliding the coconut hair down the driftwood’s gap, flush with the solid half. He placed the makeshift starter kit back on the beach and selected a stick. The one he had shaved the tip of using an ice skate blade. Hunched over, his knees cushioned by a piece of bubble wrap, he pushed the stick down on the wood in short bursts. It was a rhythmic pressure downward and forward against the soft wood, yielding the only sound he heard - tap, tap, tap. Sweat glistened across his shoulders and forehead. He gazed steadily; his lips formed an open-mouth grimace. The coconut hair and wood scrapings merged into a miniature nest. His eyes widened at the sight of smoke. He owned it, lowering his head at an angle above the rising spiral, which sent a drop of sweat tittering on the tip of his nose. He kissed the smoke with gentle exhales, a rush of staccato breadths, into the nest. An orange eruption of flame and heat rewarded him. He grabbed more coconut hair and fed the hungry reddish-orange light. As it broke open, he rose with it. Carrying a flaming torch, laughing and shouting, “Fire.”
The ocean’s waves clapped as they broke against the beach. The torch, lost among a family of crisscrossed wood and logs on Noland’s fire pit. He ran to the edge of the foliage and quickly returned with a palm frond. Dipping the branch into the flames, he fanned it across the warmth, watching a release orange flakes that scattered and extinguished into the twilight.
“Come on baby, light my fire,” he sang. Danced. “…A meteor shower. Fireflies, you’re free, you’re free. Look what I have created.” Thumping his chest, he said, “I have made fire.”
Lucas, a three-year old tan and white Basset Hound, was the loudest. “Arf, arf, arf,” he barked. His long ears dragged on the ground while his short legs pranced back and forth carrying, his heavy body to the center of Liza Jackson’s new dog park on opening day.
Stirred by his keen sense of smell, Lucas tried to make sense of the scents. He failed to command attention from the 50 or larger dogs zipping by. Although his area was separated from the larger city park, on this Saturday, the annual Dog Daze in Fort Walton Beach, Florida was underway. Thousands of people, dozens of vendors and over 1,500 dogs converged on the green.
Lucas, attentive to scents on an average day, tried to sort out this unusually busy zone, which was near one of two main access points.
“Is that your Basset Hound,” a lady asked Lucas’ owner. “I think he’s ready to go,” she said walking toward a woman sitting on the bench. “He’s a greeter,” Lucas’ owner said. “No, he’s not ready.”
Hearing his owner’s voice, Lucas waddled over. Then a wet, curly haired Goldendoodle appeared, colliding with an elderly lady’s legs. “Ouch,” she said. The lady stood, wiped the mud off her key-lime colored slacks and moved carefully to position her back close to the 6-foot, black chain-linked fence. The Goldendoodle spun back out to play. Her owner moved in. “She’s wicked smart,” she said. “You’ve got to expect it out here…. I brought a stack of Frisbees and tennis balls – you would have thought I had filet mignon in my pocket.”
Lucas returned to his post, trying to follow a scent or two. “Arf, arf, arf,” he barked while multi-colored, brown and black-coated dogs socialized with Great Danes and a Whippet. A grey and white Husky sniffed new companions. A pack dodged tall pine trees, owners and children. A black Labrador retriever, sporting a blue stars and stripe scarf around his neck, sat observing the zoo.
Outside Lucas’ playpen, gray Toy Poodles with pink sunglasses strolled by. A woman smiled, bending over to take a close-up of the pair.
Across from Lucas’ domain was a fenced run for smaller breeds. The Canova’s entered with Gumbeaux and Boodan. The Chihuahuas wore purple and gold Louisiana State University jerseys like their owners. “He walks the perimeter like a prisoner in Shawshank,” said Nikki Canova, one of the owners. She took a moment to look around. “This is really nice. The dog park in Uptown Station is like a ditch. When it rains, it fills up. We would get swamped.”
Lucas’ owner called to him, “You ready? Lucas, come on. Let’s put this on.” She turned to hold his harness over his muzzle. Without struggle, Lucas quietly concurred. He didn’t have a bark left in him.
It started with a phone call from a man I had not met. Jose Martinez asked if I’d host some young tennis players who were competing in the USTA Men’s ProCircuit tournament in Niceville, Florida. My husband and I agreed to host believing that our son John, a budding tennis player would benefit from the experience. It could be inspiring and motivational. Waiting for the arrival of four professional tennis players was almost as exciting and draining as watching the U.S. Open. The players each had to be eliminated from their tournament before driving to us from Pensacola to Niceville, Florida. Determining a day and time of their appearance in advance was impossible.
We got the first call from Aron Hiltzik on Wednesday. “Martha, this is Aron. Thank you for hosting us.”
“You’re welcome Aron,” I said. “When do you think you will be coming here?”
“At the earliest, Tuesday. I’ve been winning, so, we’ll see,” he said. Last year, Hiltzik was ranked number one in the USTA 16 year-old bracket.
I rushed to tell my husband, Peter, and son, John, the news. There was a slim chance they would be here by the weekend. My husband was frustrated by the uncertainty. John, 12, could not remember the conversation only that they would soon appear. Every morning and every afternoon when he got off the school bus he’d ask when were they coming.
Aron kept winning. The weekend came and went. The other players, Jordi, John and Damon, were eliminated by Tuesday. Aron called to say he won again. Wednesday he qualified for the Main Draw. This would delay their arrival until Thursday unless he won. I cleaned the bathroom, made the beds and circled the house, asking John to pick up his toys and shoes. Peter shopped for food and drinks. We looked at each other and shrugged.
By the time Thursday evening came, we were exhausted. Opening the front door, three giant 17 year olds from Argentina, Illinois and Texas greeted us with their coach, another 26-year-old player from South Africa. “Hello, I’m Aron,” he said, extending his hand. “Thank you for hosting us.”
“Our pleasure,” I said. We smiled and showed them in.
For a first-time host family, waiting for the arrival of professional tennis players can be exciting and draining, much like watching the U.S. Open. The players, traveling together, must each be eliminated from the tournament they are playing in before moving to the next one. This can put a strain on the hosts. It’s impossible to determine in advance when they will come, and yet the home and their room must be ready.
Aron called the host family to introduce himself. “Martha, this is Aron. Thank you for hosting us.”
“You’re welcome, Aron,” Martha said. “When do you think you will be coming here?”
“At the earliest, Tuesday. I’ve been winning, so we’ll see,” he said. Last year, Hiltzik was ranked number one in the USTA’s 16-year-old bracket.
Keeping the members of a host family informed can be trying and tiring. In the Kotite family, the father, Peter, questioned the delays. His son, John, did not remember the updates, asking when were they coming every morning and every afternoon when he got off the school bus. The only way to get real time information on their wins or losses was through Jose Martinez. The man who reached out to the Kotite’s asking if they would host. The Kotite’s believed there was value to do so because their 12-year-old son, John was a budding tennis player. The experience would be inspiring and motivational.
Aron kept winning. The weekend came and went. The other players in the group, Jordi, John and Damon, were eliminated by Tuesday. Aron called to say he won again. Wednesday he qualified for the Main Draw. This would delay their arrival until Thursday unless Aron won.
By the time Thursday evening arrived, the Kotites were exhausted. When they opened their front door, three large 17 year olds from Argentina, Illinois and Texas, and their 26-year-old coach from South Africa, greeted them. “Hello, I’m Aron,” he said, extending his hand. “Thank you for hosting us.”
“Our pleasure,” Martha said. Her husband and son smiled and showed them in.
Mark Jenkins is a contract journalist for National Geographic. Author of “The Hard Way,” 2002; “To Timbuktu,” 1997; “Off the Map,” 1992 (first coast-to-coast crossing of Siberia by bicycle, a five-month, 7,500-mile journey that put Jenkins into the “Guinness Book of Sports Records”) and an internationally recognized adventurer; former monthly columnist for Outside magazine called The Hard Way. Pico Iyer selected his story, “Ghost Road,” about his secret journey into Burma, for inclusion in The Best American Travel Writing of 2003. Another story, “Conquering an Infinite Cave” appeared in the 2012 edition.
During the dawn of his career, Jenkins was a freelance journalist working in Africa for Time, Reuters, VOA and Deutsch Press Agency. His writing and photography have appeared in Bicycling, Conde Naste Traveler, GQ, Playboy, Reader’s Digest, Sierra, Sports Afield, the Utne Reader, The Washington Post and World. Now a staff writer for National Geographic Magazine he travels every three months and spending a month in a place. A writer in residence at the University of Wyoming he give guest lecturers in political science, in geography and for the MFA program for creative writing. He provides National Geographic programs about his trips, whether it’s covering land mines in Cambodia, the war in the Congo or climbing Everest.
Jenkins, 54, is married, has two daughters and lives in Laramie, Wy.
I’d have to say I’ve filled up my bucket list several times, emptied it and filled it up again. I’m primarily a magazine journalist. My specialties are adventure and geopolitics. They have remained the same since I first started writing in 1983. Even my first stories had this blend.
The reason for writing, I would have to say, is that I’m just a very curious person. I think curiosity has driven me around the world. I write adventure largely because I grew up in Wyoming and I had the classic Huckleberry Finn childhood of hunting and fishing. Those sports transformed into kayaking and mountaineering. Largely an outgrowth of my childhood…doing difficult or what some people consider dangerous activities was normal. It was always the things I loved that I was passionate about. I travelled a lot when I was young. With National Geographic, I’m often sent on the more difficult or dangerous assignments. That’s kind of my specialty.
I have skills in these areas. I don’t mind physical suffering to a certain degree. Send me into the mountains or a war zone. I’m built for the field. I like to do what’s called ground-truthing … not just looking at the numbers, get out on the ground and figure out what’s really happening. I interview everybody from the taxi driver to a diplomat. I think everybody’s got a great story, if you’re willing to sit and listen. Those perspectives mean a lot to me to get the full range of the human condition.
Clearly most editors want to have an idea. I would say with National Geographic over 75 percent of the stories I do for them are my ideas. I write a proposal, I rewrite it. If it gets green-lighted then I go in the field. It’s the structure. You don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s unpredictable. I like having to think on my feet, be resourceful. I like fieldwork.
I kind of have this deep curiosity about how the world works. Humans are endlessly fascinating to me. I’ve done stories about gorillas, koalas and wolves. But humans are, by far, the most intriguing species on the planet. You have this structure of adventure going on with you’re climbing Everest or you’re kayaking a river but its really a lot about the people you’re with and the interactions of humans with their planet.
To write well you have to reflect. You have to try to put pieces together to integrate history, integrate what’s going to happen in the future. That takes time. You can’t do that on the spot, at the moment. Much of what’s online, most of it is not memorable. It may be newsworthy at the moment but its not going to explain what’s going on … you need far more in-depth thinking. My experience summiting in 2012 [Everest] was informed by having gone there in 1986, before it was a zoo, before it was this big trophy that people don’t know how to climb go and try to try to do. They don’t really know why its become what its become …. Over the years, I’ve done 10 expeditions to Tibet now. That gives you this multi-facetted, multi-layered perspective.
Exotic is a strange term to begin with, because it’s only exotic because we are Americans going someplace else. If you’re in the deepest part of the Congo it’s only exotic if you don’t live there. That’s their home. I try to remember that for the people who live there, this is their life. If they came to the U.S., they’d find it very exotic and very strange.
You have to do both. You try to get inside their head and listen. But, if you’re going to go someplace and be capable of asking intelligent questions you’ve have to have read as much as you can about the region you’re gong to. Should know something about their history, their political history, what the current problems are whether that came out in a white paper from the UN or from a novelist. You need to prepare yourself before you hit the ground. Some people believe, ‘well I want to be a blank slate when I arrive.’ I think that’s bullshit. There’s plenty that’s going to happen that will be a surprise to you. If you are going to go to you Afghanistan you want to know what’s going on. Why is this place a mess? …You want to ask meaningful questions that are meaningful enough to get a meaningful response. Then synthesize what you find in the field with your research outside the field. Being in the field is extraordinary and also distinguishing…. I don’t write stuff if I’m not going to go there.
*He referenced: NYT (June 25, 2013) Where Can A Fugitive Hide? Debate about places Jenkins has been re: Snowden’s options. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/06/25/where-should-a-fugitive-like-edward-snowden-hide/destinations-for-an-american-fugitive
I guess that is true. Even if I go in my backyard, I try to go deep into Wyoming…. I guess I’m drawn to places where you don’t have all the answers. There’s less information. The more you end up learning yourself, empirically; first hand…I enjoy that process.
I’ve done some stories that have changed policy, which I think is a really big deal. I did a story about male circumcision, which ended up changing the American Pediatric Society position on circumcision. They essentially reversed it…. I’m proud of making a living as a writer…that takes a lot of work. You write a lot, travel a lot. From a writer’s perspective, that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hardscrabble world as a writer…you feel the most moved when somebody reads a story of yours - doesn’t know you - and they are so touched that they sit down and put pen to paper and write you a letter. That’s it in the end. Writing is about communicating with other humans…. You’ve made that connection.
Travel writing is superficial to begin with in many ways. I’m not an expert when I go to the Congo. The expert is the Congolese…. Travel writing is by nature superficial as compared to someone who says, ‘I’m going to move to the Congo, I’m going to learn the language and I’m going to stay there three years.’ That person knows their shit. That’s the person I find and say tell me what you’ve learned. That person is in tune with what’s happening. You learn from them. With any good writing, there’s a certain level of investigating going on.
I recoiled in shock from reading about the bizarre and dangerous in “Maximum India” by Pico Iyer, a story from “The Best American Travel Writing” 2012 edition edited by William T. Vollmann.
The haziness of Varanasi, the City of Light, was wonderfully described when he cast a light on its darkness and madness. “All around you, people are shaking bells, whirling, singing joyfully, though their joy has to do with death, as if everything is upended in a holy universe,” Iyer wrote. I could smell the stench of the “excrement of centuries” alongside the filthy rivers.
His story was full of ambiguity which compelled me to read some sections twice to try an understand his point. Two gods, Shiva and Vishnu are said to have met here. “The result of this propitious encounter is that bodies are burned in public there — as many as a hundred a day — and the most sacred spot in the center of Hinduism is a smoking charnel-ground.” This holy crossroad houses as many as three million. “Bathe yourself in its filthy waters, devout Hindus believe, and you purify yourself for life. Die or be burned along its banks and you achieve moksha, or liberation from the cycle of incarnation.” I’d like to know why they wanted this freedom.
Although Iyer admitted this was his first trip to the city of madness and in theory he was a Hindu as the son of Indian-born parents, I was surprised he was unaware until he arrived the Dalai Lama was giving his only official teachings nearby. I also wanted to know if Iyer’s health suffered from the experience.
“Conquering an Infinite Cave,” by Mark Jenkins, one of the “right type of madmen” on this expedition, was a welcome departure from the bizarre. Jenkins’ venture into the quiet darkness and cool confines of an enormous cave in Vietnam quickened my heartbeat. Hinting at his delight in climbing over and beyond the Great Wall of Vietnam was infectious.
Using dialogue sparingly, he lightly underscored his appreciation for humor in the midst of a challenge. “’Will ye look at deese!’ roars Clarky one of the expedition’s guides, kneeling beside a dried-up pool. Inside the pool, illuminated by our headlamps, are cave pearls.” These rare pearls were the size of baseballs.
Jenkins purpose was clear. The expanse of this cave with skylights “almost as wide as the roof of the Superdome in New Orleans” was determined and shared in this breathtaking account.
The childhood joys and sorrows experienced by Lynn Freed in “Keeping Watch” rose from the page into my heart with each well-chosen word. Unlike the millions who mingled with madness in Varanasi or the darkness of the remote cave, the danger which she sensed as a 7 year old did “climb the hill to find” her and South Africa’s whites after apartheid ended in 1994. Her anxiety about who would rise up and slit their throats served as a steady tension and the basis for her story about a common mourning, particularly of white’s, not for apartheid, but, she wrote, for “the world that passed with it, a world that predated its demise by at least a hundred years. What they miss most keenly is the safety they had enjoyed – at home, on the street, in the car. In place of that world is now a sort of civil anarchy.”
Freed’s message resonates today. Many South African’s have left the country. Those who stay “take shelter behind high walls and electrified fences, alarm systems, panic buttons and security guards.” It’s unclear if Freed stayed. Damon Gooch, a professional tennis player from South Africa confirmed Freed’s description. “You’re constantly living in fear,” Damon Gooch said. “As much as you are locked in your house, you are locked in your country, too.”
When he was 6, Nathan Gershon’s mother died in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. His absent father left parenting to his mother’s parents.
When his grandparents died before Gershon turned 24, he was left a modest estate. “I’m an only child of an only child and a multiple trust-fund baby,” Gershon said. “I try to do things that give my life meaning.” This included a life of adventure. A student at Harvard University’s Extension School, he embarked this semester on his next venture: to become an author.
A meaningful life for Gershon meant trying new things and taking chances. From San Marcos, Texas, Gershon showed his acting talent as a child for television commercials. As a teenager, he worked on an auto rally race team. In his 20s and early 30s, he owned two nightclubs. He holds an instrument pilot’s rating and degrees in criminal justice and business. His co-invention, a design used with indoor-vertical wind tunnels, simulates “the weightlessness of the skydiving experience.”
Living in the fast lane didn’t suit his personality or marriage. He left the nightclub business. By 2005, he divorced. His ex-wife moved to Israel with his daughter Kaili.
Even though his life had changed. He remained steadfast. A childhood friend, David Carr, said of Gershon, “He is always seeking the next big thing in terms of adventure. He can’t sit still. He is the bounce-off-the-walls guy.” Redirecting his life, he graduated from the police academy at 32. A police officer for a small but affluent town, La Vernia, a suburb of San Antonio, Texas, he’s helped people out of burning cars and burning buildings and learned a lot about corruption. Even with a population of just 1,249 people, the department’s cases model big city crime. “It’s a thankless job,” he said. “Some people can’t be saved, but you can save them that night.”
Hank Fahnert worked overlapping shifts with Gershon. “He’s a loud, loud dude but very nice,” said Fahnert, who described his 6’ 2’’ partner of two years and friend as “a muscular guy in good shape…with the hair of a evangelical preacher.” Fahnert said he has a great sense of humor, dependable and makes sound decisions.
A newly wed, Gershon’s wife, Ruth Gershon, 27, lives in Boston to pursue her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. “I’ve known him for four years,” Ruth said. “We met online … on OK Cupid.com.”
During their first outing at a Starbucks, she noticed he was at ease and intelligent,” she said “I liked the fact that he understood a lot without having to explain.” They had in common their Jewish heritage and grandparents raised them both. “He always has to be active and in control of his own life.” They plan to live together when she is accepted in a residency program associated with Tufts University.
“About my only regret is I missed my chance to go in the military,” said Gershon, 37, who volunteers for the Coast Guard Auxiliary. “Law enforcement gives me what I believe I would have had in the military, a sense of service, duty, honor – and a thrilling aspect.”
In pursuit of his quest to be a writer of religious thrillers from a Jewish perspective, Gershon discovered the Harvard graduate program. “Ultimately, I’d like to be the Jewish Dan Brown,” he said. “My technical writing skills need honing.”