Category Archives: Places

Hot Springs Eternal

My favorite getaway will always be to a hot springs somewhere. Something about soaking in hot mineral water is embedded deep within me. I almost always ask if there are hot springs whenever I travel somewhere.

Montana isn’t what I’d call a hot springs Mecca by any means, but I’ve found some of my favorite springs within an hour or two of Missoula.

“It’s a beautiful day in Paradise.” The typical greeting when you call Quinns Hot Spring’s Resort is one of my favorites. The web site asks you to check in and make sure the pools are not taken up by overnight guests, so I look forward to their fun greeting whenever we get ready to go.

Seemed appropriate to begin one of the busiest weeks of our lives with a trip to the springs. I find hydro therapy to cause the most relaxed state I believe I can achieve.

The drive to Quinns is one of my favorite Western Montana trips. My daughter and I looked for deer on the summer-baked hillsides and on the backside of the National Bison Range while Cheryl took a nap.

The rolling highway reminds me of driving through parts of Sonoma County, where I first fell in love with hot springs.

My great grandparents owned a small piece of property in the town of Calistoga, which was nothing more than a little hippie enclave at the time. My great grandfather made wine and spent summers at the cottage known as a dacha. My father and his brothers and sister spent summers at Pachita’s Hot Springs. And years later, that is where I first fell in love with soaking in hot water.

One of the lasting memories I have of spending some good time with my grandmother before she died was at Nance’s Hot Springs in Calistoga. After Pachita’s was renamed Indian Springs and transformed into a very high-end exlusive resort, we’d spend more and more time at the lower-end Nance’s, and my grandmother reveled in the healing hot waters she had learned to love after almost 50 years in America.

Quinns reminds me of the old Pachita’s Hot Springs. It’s rustic and unrefined. It’s woodsy decor has not yet been stuccofied and palm treed like the California resorts.

Gabbers and I enjoy a soak in the warmer pool at Quinns

The pools are quiet as we arrive. After changing into our swim wear, we heard a lyrical language coming from the far end of the cool pool. My wife smiled at me knowingly as she recognized the Russian words for “more people are coming.”

I laughed at her, because no matter what hot springs we visit, we’ll almost always find kindred Slavic spirits abounding. Slavs love hot water. Visit Lolo Hot Springs any time of year and you’ll hear a beautiful symphony of byelaruskaya spoken as you enter the pool. The same goes for Fairmont Hot Springs near Butte.

We settled into the warmer pool next to two couples wearing knit caps and conversing casually about coming to Montana from Canada. I can follow along with Russian to a point, but when native speakers are speaking to each other, the speed at which they communicate is often too much for me to catch more than a gist of their conversation.

At one point, one of the men moved over into the hottest pool and sank down to his neck, his knit cap looked like a black mushroom on the pool surface. After a few minutes, he stepped over the wall into the cold pool, which felt colder than the air temp, which was 36 degrees when we arrived. He sat in the cold pool up to his neck for about two minutes as his companions discussed how many minutes he should spend in the pool to reap the benefits of hydro therapy. Most Slavs believe that soaking in pools with different temperatures is really good for the circulation.

The method the man used is one of my favorite soaking techniques. I like to start out in the middle warm pool and spend about 5 minutes soaking before moving to the hottest pool for 3 or 4 minutes. When I’m ridiculously hot, I get hop over the wall into the cold pool.

The water is so cold it numbs you instantly, and if you do it quickly enough, you won’t feel a whole lot until you are completely submerged. If you’re completely still, the cold water won’t feel like anything, and your breathing becomes very deep and your oxygenated blood causes your body to rise to the surface.

I like to float in the ice cold water until my breathing normalizes. If I can make a full five minutes, I feel completely refreshed. Once you start to move around, you begin to feel the cold water. Panic sets in, and all you can think about is getting into the warm water again.

After soaking in the cold pool, I ease into the larger warm pool for a brief swim to increase the already beneficial circulation effects. My daughter starts to chase me, and I begin the cycle all over again.

Quinns is not always so quiet and peaceful, but as I sat back and craned my head up to watch the sun come over the jagged hills behind the resort, I couldn’t help but be grateful for one last quiet soak.

After a bison burger and a Bloody Mary for lunch, we cruised back to a completely empty set of pools for a few more rounds of hydro therapy. At times I relaxed to the point of falling asleep in the warm pools. A good shot in the cold pool revived me, and when new swimmers showed up, they remarked that I must not have any blood in my system to be able to completely submerse myself in the cold pool.

Knowing that the closest hot springs I can find to Anchorage are in Fairbanks is bit disconcerting. But my plan is find the first Slavic person I can find and ask where closer hot springs are hiding. Slavs always know where to find a good place to soak.


A sense of place

There will be a lot of lasts this week. This is in fact our last Monday in Missoula. Last kickball game tonight, last flag football game for Carson, final cross country practice for Cole. Next week at this time we’ll be in Salem, Oregon meeting up with our trailer that will ship our belongings to Alaska.

Today we are going to take a few hours and go to one of our favorite hot springs. We have a long week of packing our life up into boxes, so I want to spend one last day enjoying the good life of Western Montana.

There are few places like this, and after three years I understand why people carve out a life here despite a poor economic base. The amenities in this region of the Northern Rockies are like nowhere else. Mountains, lakes, rivers, hot springs, national parks and wildlife better than the best zoo are just a few of the reasons people move here.

The adventures we’ve had here as a family can only probably be rivaled by some time spent in the last frontier, but we won’t know that until we have lived it for awhile. Place is the great forgotten character in the story of life. Missoula is a place where people are in touch with that primordial notion of the home pond more than anywhere I’ve ever visited before.

A sense of place defines Missoula so much that people are willing to make less money in return for living in proximity to places like the Rattlesnake wilderness or the Bitterroot Mountains. People carve a life out of some very meager economic sediment. Many of our friends have multiple jobs or cram their families into tiny apartments in order to live somewhere many call the last best place.

I struggled to see this when I first moved here. In fact, for nearly three years I was frustrated at the idea that anyone should earn less because of some nature tax. I still think the idea is absurd, but I’m less inclined to blame those who choose to reside here in spite of the nature tax.

But I will gladly blame city officials and those leaders of the largest industries, including the university, for continuing to make Missoula Poverty With A View. A nature tax does nothing to improve this city, nor does it keep people away as you might hope. Californians continue to move to Montana every year.

Place is integral to our story. When my grandparents told their story, place was a character that shifted with them. It was a trail through mountain passes, a city in northern China, a refugee camp in the Philippines, a boat sailing across the Pacific Ocean. It was an apartment on Geary Street in San Francisco, and I caught up with their story when place was a lovely little house in Pacifica, California.

For others, place is a still point, like every 4th generation Montanan I’ve ever met. They are in tune with the fenced parcel of land back to their great grandfathers who homesteaded these parts. For Native Americans, place is a 10,000-year-old continent finally free of ice where they could roam and have their being.

I don’t have a strong connection to place. If I did, it would be a cedar-lined ocean shore with thundering surf and a salty nose. That’s as close as I can come to identifying with place. I love my parents’ wooded home in the Willamette Valley, but it’s a stop for me. My birthplace of Santa Rosa, California is one of my favorite places. My grandfathers plowed those grape-seeded hillsides and valleys. Richenau an der Rax is where I think I fell in love with mountains, hiking, skiing and life in a quiet woodland. Pasadena, California is where I learned to love big, ugly, sprawling cities teeming with humanity. Salem, Oregon is where I found my best friend. It is also that which is most familiar to me and therefore that from which I most readily flee. Honolulu, Hawaii is where I fell in love with the crossroads, those cities that blend life from many different pathways.

In Missoula, I fell in love with community. No other city exhibits community the way Missoula does. From weekly gatherings for lunch or dinner in Caras Park to First Friday art walks and community runs along the river, I’ve never seen a town so aware of its identity. That I could readily talk to the mayor, leading citizens, long timers and newcomers at any point of any day speaks volumes about how tight this city is.

I don’t have a sense for what Anchorage will be like. Four days there was not enough to get even a small feeling about it. But I can’t wait to find out what I think about it a year from now.

Maybe place moves with me, as it did for my family as they emigrated across the vast Eurasian Steppe. Maybe the cities I’ve lived in collectively add up to place for me. I don’t know. All I really know is that I’ve yet to find that stretch of cedar-lined coast with roaring waves and salty air.


Forcing the Dream Part III

Getting from Missoula, Montana to Jaipur, India is not the easiest of tasks. Start with a $300 ticket to fly out of Missoula, and you’ll find yourself searching anything out of Spokane instead.

Itinerary: Spokane to Seattle on Horizon. Seattle to Frankfurt on Scandinavian Airlines, Frankfurt to New Delhi on Scandinavian airlines. Total flight time: 19 hours. New Delhi to Jaipur by automobile. Total trip time: 28 hours.

I was disoriented landing in a strangely foggy and somewhat chilly New Delhi. I found my bags and wandered around the terminal for about 10 minutes to collect my thoughts. I bought a Coke and a candy bar and phoned my friends in Jaipur.

The taxi sent to collect me was delayed in a horrific six-hour traffic jam coming into the city. For anyone unaware of what the Indian freeway system looks like, think about a post-apocalyptic Mardi Gras celebration with tank-like floats painted garrulous schemes of red, yellow, green and orange with green tarps. At most, they travel at a benign 15-20 kilometers per hour.

I was starting to fall asleep in my chair when my driver shook me awake. For a moment I forgot where I was, and the red and white color scheme on the Coke bottle in front of me and crumpled Milky Way wrapper gave me something solid to focus on.

We hopped in a tiny car and drove into what seemed like California coastal fog, a shroud that New Delhi wears something like 70 percent of the time.

Barely 15 kilometers from the airport, we ran into the traffic jam, something that reminded me of the lines at the passenger ferry terminals in Europe where you wait for hours to be loaded onto the big ships that cruise the Baltic Sea.

The taxi driver, who didn’t speak any English, tried to communicate that we’d have to wait out the jam and pulled over, turned off the engine and promptly folded his seat back and went sleep.

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Sleep sounded good, and although the excitement of being in a completely foreign place was starting to infest my mind, I put my seat back and went to sleep too.  Three hours later I awoke to the sound of a thousand trucks starting. It is not a pleasant sound, in fact it reminds one of the increasing drone of a hoard of angry bees flying in your direction.

I reached over and shook the taxi driver awake, and we inched our way into the slow-crawling line of trucks that make up India’s commerce system. On a good day it’s a six-hour drive from Delhi to Jaipur. On this day it was more than 10 hours with the delay outside of Delhi.

Once on the road, the darkness did what darkness does best. It lent a very mysterious blanket to a place the imagination couldn’t quite conjure up. I found myself trying to stare out in to the field and envision the place, but I couldn’t.

We stopped for tea as the sun came up. Thick, illustrious light raked the fields on either side of the road, illuminating farms and villages that might as well have come from a Dr. Suess book for all the familiarity they had to me. Large disks of collected manure sat drying in stacks in front of huts as burning fuel, and colorful saris decorated clotheslines like whimsical pirate ships.

The sweet tea tasted so good in the cool of the morning. We sat in the truck stop and sipped the tea and snacked on something akin to potato chips. The colors and smells began to resonate with me, causing the synapses to fire and begin the recording process.

 The desert region of northwest India offers the most vistas. Big sandy deserts, palm-treed, roadside oasis’ and azure reflecting ponds that increase the beauty of long-empty palaces are a few of the eye-candy treasures. And Suessical images of elephants and two-humped dromedaries plodding along freeways are so magical you can’t help but smile widely at the sight.

Jaipur is not an oasis. It’s a city of three million people on the edge of the desert. An outpost of sorts, the last stronghold of the Rajputs, Jaipur, the Pink City, is a monument to what I imagine life must have been like during the height of Middle Eastern power. A gilded life of finery and luxury unequaled.

We were stopped several times by police men trying to confiscate the taxi for political purposes. If a politician needs a vehicle to get from point a to point b, he has only to have a traffic policeman find a good car and confiscate it for his purposes.

At one such stop we sped off through a tight alley, a feat that reminded me of some such scene in any one of several James Bond films. We slammed into a wedding party, not literally, but suddenly, and soon we were surrounded by drum playing men and women singing dressed in all white.

I looked over my shoulder half expecting a cop to be running after us, but such things are evidently practiced in India all the time.

We arrived at my friends house nearly 36 hours after I left Missoula. I was exhausted and absolutely enthralled with this place.

I had come to Jaipur to teach mobile journalism to a group of media students in the city. My purpose was to teach them storytelling through digital tools like video, blogs and slide shows. In one journey from one place to another, I would have many weeks of teaching materials to relate to the students, not to mention evenings and days spent around the city investigating the rich tapestry of Indian life.

My love for journalism was completely reborn on those dusty, desert streets. Storytelling as art, as life, as science, as the act of creation itself was more real to me in those two weeks in India than it had been up until that point. Sometimes the familiarity of our lives gets in the way of seeing the color and smelling the smells of storyscapes. To be outside of yourself for even a brief period of time, completely immersed in something totally new is an exercise in scraping the scales from our eyes.

Forcing the dream is expensive sometimes. I’m still paying off that trip, but it was the most worthwhile thing I have done for my career. No training, no seminar, no webinar could possibly open my eyes to the quirks of storytelling like my trip to India in the late fall of 2008.

Aside from all the exciting adventures I had in Jaipur, my sister and I were scheduled to stay in the hotel in Mumbai that was attacked by terrorists. Our reservations were for one day after the attacks. Instead of Mumbai, I traveled to Kolkata to visit with my father who was teaching in another Indian city for a week before traveling on to Bangladesh.

While there I filmed segments of video in the Red Light districts to help bring awareness to the plight of Nepalese girls who are trafficked into India. Some are as young as 10, and they are highly sought after for the light color of their skin and their friendly demeanor.

Here it was, the culmination of how far I had dreamed at the time. To travel to a foreign place where injustices occur with alarming regularity and shine a bright light on them was the goal that had driven me thus far in my pursuit of journalism.

After India I would dream new dreams and plan new goals. But forcing the dream along lines that I had never planned has been the evolving nature of a life well lived for me. I will no longer just dream unsustainable dreams. I will dream dreams so big and wide and vast that forcing them will take up the rest of my life.


Forcing the Dream Part II

I was six months into my first journalism job and dreaming big. Afghanistan, Iraq, I had war dreams where I wore Army issued spectacles and carried a 5D around my neck and a notepad in my hand while giving people a real picture of war.

There are few things I like more than waking up in a new country. New people to observe. New flavors to taste. Big pictures to put together.

I’d sit at my desk and try to envision the steps it would take to get to the New York Times. But the contrasting mind-numbing stories coming from the Marion County Board of Commissioners didn’t promise much of a future unless I could find a huge cover up or a sex scandal.

During the most mundane part of summer, those journalistic doldrums where you can’t reach a source to save your life, I sat at my desk trying desperately to drum up county stories. Aside from a little piece on some new natural product the county was spraying on area dirt roads, I had nothing.

My dad happened to call me that day to let me know he was going to Cuba that summer. The list of interesting places my dad travels to on a regular basis would make the Travel Channel blush.

“Do you want to come with us?”

“Does the Pope pee?”

Dreams often stand on legs we don’t recognize as our own. But they are more often than not related. You parents, your wife, your brothers and sisters.

The sun shone so bright on that first day in Havana, that I thought I was going to go blind. Caribbean blue and colors the rainbow never dreamed of made it difficult to focus on one thing.

We walked through markets and I sat on the Malecon and people watched to my heart’s content.

For five days I observed life in one of Havana’s famous neighborhoods and fulfilled a long-time desire to visit Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban home.

I remember looking up at the huge banners flying above some of Havana’s most famous buildings. They wished Fidel Castro a happy 80th birthday. Still months away of course.

But the world’s most famous dictator was holed up in one of his residences apparently in great pain and worried for his life that day. Word began to leak out that the great revolutionary was on his death bed, and by noon the following day, power was passed from Fidel to his brother Raul, the first such exchange of power in Cuba in more than 50 years.

And I was there to write about it. I wrote a story for our front page and a reporter’s notebook story that I tried to send from within Cuba. I was foiled by the nation’s tough Internet security. But an hour’s flight to Cancun and the wifi at a beach-side hotel provided the link up I needed to get my story back to my newspaper. The story eventually went out on the wires, and I received notes from people who’d seen it on the AP wires the next day.

Dreams don’t always look like you think they might. Sometimes you can force a dream out of thin air, and sometimes they come to you when you least expect it. Dreams are the result of luck, hard work and family. They don’t happen every day but even once in a lifetime can be good enough for those who learn to appreciate them.

It wasn’t the New York Times, but for a day, I was an international reporter. 


Forcing the Dream Part I

I always saw this ad in my head:

The New York Times seeks a smart, fast and ambitious reporter to cover the (pick your war) from our (pick your bureau). The reporter will join an energetic four-person team covering this and other conflicts in the region. This is a high-profile position, as the world is watching to see if this conflict spreads and involves other nations and regions. The reporter will be expected to consistently break wire-moving news and to write insightful features on important developments as well as to report on human rights violations and the lives of citizens caught up in the conflict.

By the time I graduated from journalism school the dream was dead.

The New York Times and Washington Post effectively disassembled their world-wide bureaus during my last two years as a student at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

I used to walk into the study room on the ground floor of Allen Hall in hopes of finding a note posted to the bulletin board announcing internships in places like Moscow, Mexico City or Madrid, but I never did.

By the end of my junior year, I was looking at spending the summer interning at a local weekly paper covering city council and the county fair. My wife was watching my dream die right in front of her eyes, and it was a conversation we had about how we loved to travel together so much that got me thinking about E-mailing some editors at English-language newspapers around the world.

I sent a dozen notes out to newspapers like the St. Petersburg Times, the Prague Post, the Kyiv Post and some papers in China and the Middle East. Within a few weeks I’d heard back from no less than half that dozen.

My favorite reply came from the Kyiv Post in Ukraine.

“You want to come work at this newspaper for free for the summer? I think you’re crazy, but I’d be crazy not to take you up on it. Come on over.”

My dad graciously gave me some of his air miles to purchase a ticket, and I left my wife and two young boys on their own to pursue this journalism dream that didn’t have a raft to float on.

Two days later I was sitting at a desk hastily cleared of old Kyiv Post publications and calling a government source about damages from a huge set of thunderstorms that pounded the region just after my arrival.

Within a week I was working on a story about the 2,000-strong Palestinian community settled right in the heart of the city. I spent time with them in their homes at their Mosques and the Christian services they attended with their Ukrainian wives on Sundays. I wrote my first front-page feature story on a part of Kyiv culture that not even the local dailies would touch.

By the end of the summer, the Orange Revolution was more than just an idea, it had fomented into a huge political wheel rolling toward a November showdown in Kyiv. I wrote about some of the earliest effects like student riots at the U.S. Embassy, even interviewing U.S. Sen. John McCain when he visited the city with a large contingent of U.S. politicians.

I spent many nights at the famous political hangout known as The Baraban (the drum) just off the city’s main thoroughfare. The politics were hot, and reporters recited poetry and defended their latest articles. Some talked of going into hiding after reporting on the country’s four ruling oligarchs, while I soaked it all up like a sponge.

I was as green as you could be in journalism. Not even worthy of being a cub reporter at the time. But the editor, a sharp New Yorker of Ukrainian background, liked my ambition and my sense for good feature stories about culture, people and places.

The closest war-like experience was the explosion of a pipe bomb in a market in the neighborhood I was staying in during my last week in city. And I survived a long hitch-hiking trip across the country on my last weekend there. 

It wasn’t war-time reporting, but it was electric, and I was absolutely sure of what I wanted to do the rest of my life.

With my wife’s encouragement, ideas and blessings, I had forced the dream, even if briefly, and I got a taste for it that is as strong and salty on my tongue today as it was the day I left Kyiv seven years ago.