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Derek Lundy

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Riding the Edge of America
also available: Paperback
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Remember the Alamo? Part of America was forged there. Almost all the elements of America’s story of itself were present during the thirteen-day-long battle in 1836 at a small, remote, old Spanish mission deep in the heart of Texas. I intend to ride the border from east to west, but the Alamo, in the centre of San Antonio, is a necessary place to start. It is about three hundred miles north of Brownsville at the present border’s eastern end, but it’s as much a part of the history of the borderlands as if it was right on the Rio Grande—the River—or in some nearby dusty border town.
Americans remember the story of the Alamo because it seems to represent everything they hold dear in the United States: courage and sacrifice in the name of freedom; like-minded citizens coming together under arms to resist tyranny; a laconic and offhand heroism; an absorption with democracy and the rights of man; a demonstration of America’s destiny to grow west and south, and maybe north, too (perhaps only the ocean could limit this God-sanctioned expansion and dominion). And military prowess: like the soldiers of the War of Independence, the few men at the Alamo fought for a long time against a superior enemy.
The battle at the Alamo was a siege, and it is the sieges of history that catch the imagination: Masada, Constantinople, Londonderry, Leningrad, the Battle of Britain. The besieged almost always have the choice of surrender, a way out of their fear and suffering. They must keep their guts and hearts strong to resist the threat and press of the encircling enemy over a stretch of time. This is far more than the momentary heroism of battle, which rides on a surge of fear and adrenaline, and is over and done with quickly. At four in the morning, in the dark, with time to think about death, how easy and appealing it must seem to get things over with, to give up.
That’s what another group of Americans did a few weeks after the Alamo fell. Between 400 and 450 men under Colonel James Walker Fannin surrendered to the Mexican army under General Antonio López de Santa Anna after the Battle of Coleto Creek, near Goliad, about a hundred miles south of San Antonio. The Americans had been assured of good treatment and they were briefly held prisoner. But on March 27, 1836—Palm Sunday—their guards, under Santa Anna’s orders, and over the objections of less bloody-minded officers, divided them into three groups, marched them off in different directions and massacred them. Three hundred and forty-one men were killed, in an atrocity that mobilized support for the Texan cause across the territory, and within the United States, as well.
Coleto Creek made it clear that this was to be a war to the finish, but somehow it did not trigger a popular emotional response, as did the Alamo. Far more men were killed at Goliad, but unlike the massacre there, the Alamo was a fair fight in the sense that the defenders chose to keep resisting. Killing them was not, therefore, a crime, but merely cruel war.
The account of the Alamo in U.S. mythology is dramatic and colourful. Two hundred men fought to the death against an army of five thousand. It was to be a victory for Protestants over Catholics and for free white men over degenerate mestizos. The American commander, Colonel William B. Travis, traced a line in the sand and said: “Those of you who are willing to stay with me and die with me, cross this line.” All but one man did so. The defenders knew from the beginning that their position was hopeless, but they fought on. Their battle cry was “Victory or Death!” They died to a man on the mission walls and in the shadowy niches of its stone buildings. Davy Crockett was one of them, and his blood, wrote one historian, was shed upon “a holy altar.”
The story has become a part of the mythology of the United States: how it was founded; how it grew and prospered; how it was a beacon for the world it eventually came to dominate. Every nation tells a story of itself to explain and justify how it arrived at where it is now, and to provide guidance and comfort to its people in the present. The myth is the version of itself the nation would like, and in fact needs, to be true.
Historians and other academics revise or debunk myths. They question the story of the Alamo. How can we know what really happened, they churlishly ask, if every man there died? And the fight for Texan independence from Mexico (in 1836, Texas was part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas) was hardly a battle of cultures. When the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed, David G. Burnet was the president of the new republic, but its vice-president was Lorenzo de Zavala. In those days, a “Texian” was as likely to mean a Spanish-speaking, brown-skinned Catholic whose family had lived in Texas for a hundred years or more, as a white, Protestant Anglo whose parents had recently come from England, Ireland or Germany. But none of these historical nuances or cautions means much to a nation and the story it tells about itself. Historians may quibble, but the people keep the faith.
The chain of events from the Alamo to the border is straightforward. The fight to the death there, and the massacre at Goliad, drew volunteers and aid from the United States. Texas (or the eastern third of the present state north of the Nueces River) won its independence from Mexico with a decisive victory at San Jacinto, later in 1836. Whereas a Texas that was part of a Mexican state could become part of the United States only through invasion and war, an independent Texian republic could join the United States voluntarily. After several unsuccessful attempts (because of disagreements in Congress), the United States annexed a willing Texas in 1845, ignoring Mexico’s loud objections.
For all these reasons of history, I must look at the Alamo if I want to understand the border. I’ll ride to Goliad, too, to find there the antithesis of remembered glory.
Here’s how my motorcycle ride along the two thousand–mile-long U.S.-Mexico border begins: I almost kill myself three, maybe four, times in the first sixty seconds.
In retrospect, this shouldn’t really surprise me. I bought this bike new a few months ago, and I’ve ridden it for about nine hundred miles, none of those in the last six weeks. Before that, I have to go back exactly twenty-five years to the last time I sat on a motorcycle. Now, I’m carrying about ninety pounds of gear on a Kawasaki KLR 650 cc, single-cylinder “thumper,” and it’s the first time I’ve ridden with a heavy load of any sort. I’m wearing my brand new armoured riding jacket, pants and boots—the first time I’ve worn them all together—and their padded bulk distracts me. Protecting my precious skull is a new helmet, different in design from the one I’m somewhat used to. It’s a “full coverage” helmet with a chin guard as well as a plastic visor, and it feels claustrophobic.
I have to pull out of a motel parking lot onto the service road of Interstate 10 on the fringe of San Antonio, Texas; the traffic, even on this road, is moving at forty or fifty miles an hour. I must turn into the fast-moving stream, accelerate hard, crunch my way through the gears, and, as I’m doing that, merge left across three lanes to get onto the highway itself. If I wanted to attempt suicide on a motorcycle, this would be a pretty good way to do it.
I wait for a hole in the rush of heavy metal, turn out of the driveway, and twist the throttle. Right away, it’s time to change into second. I have to slide my left foot under the shift lever, but I can’t do it. The armoured pads in my pants make it difficult to bend my knee, which also butts up against the pannier bag hanging down over the gas tank in front of me. I can’t manoeuvre my leg to get my foot into position. It just never occurred to me to check beforehand that I could do this. Cars scream and screech around me, braking hard, swerving; I’m going way too slowly. In my rear-view mirror, I see a jagged wall of vehicles bearing down on me; they look like squadrons of tanks. In a few seconds, I pass from worry to fear to sweaty terror. I’ve already begun to change lanes; now I reef the bike back to the right, trying to avoid getting sucked onto the highway at twenty miles an hour. The bike’s engine is screaming in first gear; if I were in fifth, I’d be hammering along at fifty miles an hour. Then . . . there . . . did it—into second gear. I twist the throttle. I throttle it. I signal left again, but then, the same problem: I can’t get into third. I slide back to the right again.
In all these changes of direction, I’m aware of large metal masses flashing by me on both sides, very close. Horns honk in a weird doppler rise and fall—a reflection of how fast the other vehicles are, how slow I am. Someone shouts at me: “Asshole!” He’s right. I feel what I’m sure is the slight “thlip” of a car’s outside mirror flicking the arm of my jacket as it zips by—another two inches and it could have ripped off my goddamn arm. Holy fucking shit! Dear God, nearer to thee: I renounce atheism. This is madness; I’m going to die. I feel the deep sorrow the prematurely dying feel for the people they’re about to leave behind; for my wife, and for my daughter and her teenage orphanhood.
But then a side road appears on the right. I slam the bike into it too fast, and the rear wheel slides; I wobble, unused to the feel of the luggage-loaded machine. Just managing to stay upright, I pull over to the road’s quiet edge. I put my boots down, and sit in the saddle. I shake, I almost puke, in the aftershock of my barely avoided death.
Thoughts pass at random through my alleged mind: I’m so stupid . . . no, I’m a colossal idiot; I’m too old for this; I’ll never make it to the goddamn border, never mind ride its long length, on bad roads, with bad guys all around; what in the name of sweet Jesus do I think I’m doing? Why the hell didn’t I check that I could actually ride this bike with a big load and my unfamiliar riding gear, before inserting myself into heavy traffic? I damn near joined you then, boys, I say to Will, Chris and Mike.
I prop the bike on its side stand and dismount. My legs feel fragile, not quite attached to my torso. I wonder vaguely what my blood pressure was a few minutes ago out there on the road. High, very high. It won’t be the last time it red-lines on this trip, I’m sure of that. I’m old enough that this is something I think about.
I reposition the tank panniers so that I have more knee room, but it’s not a perfect adjustment for my long legs and feet. Sitting in the saddle again, I can get my toe under the shift lever only if I bend my leg out from the bike at an odd angle. I ride up and down the quiet, dead-end side road trying out my technique. It works most of the time, although I often miss the gear, and sometimes I have to look down to make sure my foot is in the right position before I flip up the lever. Taking your eyes off the road’s variegated surface, and away from the close surround of traffic is not at all a safe practice on a two-wheeler. But my adaptation will have to do, and I hope I’ll get used to it.
The second beginning of my border ride works well enough. I reach the highway in jerky, knees-akimbo manoeuvres. I’m glad there are no veteran bikers around judging my greenhorn style as I jam the lever into top gear and reach a cruising speed of sixty or sixty-five miles an hour—without risking my life more than is usual for a ride in foreign, city-expressway traffic. At least I planned ahead enough to avoid rush hour; it’s around eleven o’clock and there’s a medium amount of traffic about. I must have made an even distribution of my load because, once I settle down in my lane, in the flow of vehicles, the bike feels balanced and, even with the added weight, there’s no lessening of power I’m aware of.
In spite of my very bad start, my discomfort is displaced right away by a surge of pure motorcycle happiness. It’s an emotional summary of all the constituents of riding fast: in the open, in the rush of wind, under the wide sky, with the road sweeping by below, everything around brought into insistent and immediate focus. It’s the happiness of adrenaline and the abandonment of constraints—with an edge of danger. When you’re sitting around and talking about riding, it’s easy to acknowledge the possibilities of disaster, but once on the bike, on the road, all those intimations of mortality are swept full away by joy.
I begin my first day by riding away from the Alamo, north and east towards Austin to meet a friend. Jane was a business associate, ex-campaign manager and old friend of Ann Richards, the Democratic governor of Texas whom George W. Bush defeated in his stroll to the presidency. By some unlikely coincidence, Jane lives part of the year on Salt Spring Island, my own small, remote home off the coast of British Columbia.
I head north out of San Antonio, away from the traffic and congestion, and into the low hills, sandy plains and trees—cottonwood, willow and acacia—of this eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country. On this less-travelled road, there are few small towns—Twin Sisters, Blanco, Dripping Springs—and, therefore, only a few gear changes. This is nice, but I’m not getting much practice. As I ride, the weather grows cooler and cloudier. It looks like rain, which is just what I don’t need on my first traumatic day, but it holds off. The wind is a problem, though. It blows across my path or dead against me, depending on the road’s curves. It’s confirmation that this bike doesn’t do well in a crosswind; even a gust at twenty miles an hour blows me around my lane. I’m beginning my battle with the wind, which will continue, most days, for the next four weeks. Twice, it will come close to killing me.
I sit on the curb outside a gas-station store eating a ready-made ham and cheese sandwich on white and a Snickers bar, drinking a coffee. While I eat, I admire my motorcycle. Or rather, I try, once again, to justify—and to appreciate—its ungainliness. The KLR 650’s tall, somewhat broken-backed profile, high fenders and hand guards make the bike look like a large, steroid-pumped dirt bike. It is to other motorcycles as the head-hunched stork is to birds, the humpback to whales, the hyena to land mammals. With the stock nubby tires (I’ve changed to more street-kindly rubber for this trip), it can go off-road under a skilled rider, but it’s too heavy a machine to do much of that.
The KLR’s real appeal is not that it’s born to do one thing well, but that it can do several disparate things reasonably well. For example, a sleek, chromed Harley-Davidson can hum along a good road, at speed, in comfort, but it gets into trouble when the road surface turns bad. The KLR can bash over ugly, rocky gravel and dirt roads, and, if necessary, go where there isn’t a road; pound along the freeway all day at seventy or seventy-five miles an hour—not in real comfort, but it can do it; carry more fuel than most other motorcycles—a little over five gallons (veteran riders call it the “tanker”); pack a heavy load; and keep going forever. It’s a supremely utilitarian machine with a twenty-year record of getting riders across countries, and around the world, too.
It began as a Kawasaki military design for the United States Marine Corps—a bike that could endure rough conditions and offhand treatment. From the beginning, it was clear that the KLR was one of those machines with a soul; that is to say, that for whatever reasons of luck or human ingenuity, all of its intricate constituent parts worked, and held together, with persistent efficiency. It did what it was supposed to do, and it did so for a long time. The company brought out a civilian version in 1987, and didn’t make a substantial change to the KLR until the 2008 model. Why tinker with the success of such a subtle and rare amalgam as a superb machine? In fact, it’s become something of an icon, and its riders are cultish and devoted. A lot has changed in motorcycle engineering in the last twenty years, but the KLR remains determinedly old-fashioned. You can buy a part now that will fit any year’s model back into the 1980s. That’s the reason I can climb aboard one now, and have everything about the bike look and feel just the same as the last time I rode bikes, back in 1980.
However, the one thing the Kawasaki designers and engineers didn’t spend much time on was looks. Part of the problem is the KLR’s dirt-bike heritage, and its original purpose of lugging Marines from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. The best you can say about the KLR is that it has a kind of robust handsomeness. If you can’t bear to go that far, perhaps you can admit that it evinces the modest, functional aspect of an unpretentious, purposeful machine. Mostly though, you have to admit it’s just butt-ugly.
In Austin, Jane rifles through files, Rolodexes and memories to get me some contacts. She even makes phone calls on the spot to let people know who I am, and that I’ll be calling. I leave with a long list.
Before I have a chance to ride southwest, back towards San Antonio and the Alamo, I get a call from Linda, one of the contacts on Jane’s list. Linda and her husband, Bob, invite me to join them for lunch. We meet at a Mexican restaurant where they eat so often that one of the house salsas has been named after Bob. The recipe is his: cheese, meat, hot sauce and spices. Bob is in his seventies, friendly, folksy, retired. He was in politics for a while, and acted as Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of the interior. He was the main proponent of converting a huge ranch in the Big Bend country of West Texas into Big Bend Ranch State Park—I’ll ride through it in a few weeks. Bob knows British Columbia; he and a partner, together with Linda and their then-young son, once panned for gold in the province’s northern interior. The government shut them down, Bob says, to make a park. He sued and won $3.5 million, but the amount was knocked down to $70,000 on appeal, he doesn’t know why. He’s not fond of Canadian so-called damn justice. I want to know more, but Linda takes over.
She used to be an attorney, and ran the government’s antitrust office in Washington. She’s energetic, firm and precise, holds definite opinions and does most of the talking. I get the impression she keeps amiable Bob sorted out and organized. We talk about immigration.
The United States, says Linda forcefully, is the only country in the world where, when immigrants arrive, they’re immediately considered Americans. Well, I say, Canada does that, too. She looks blank, doesn’t respond. There’s a silence. Canada doesn’t seem to enter into any equation she’s aware of; perhaps nothing outside the United States does, even for this educated, intelligent American. And Australia, I say. I think it takes that attitude too. No, she says. There’s prejudice there; they hate immigrants. A friend was just there, and she told her that.
Bob and Linda don’t like the idea of my border ride. They insist I should call the people on Jane’s list along the way and let them know when I plan to arrive. If something happens to me and I don’t check in with them, they can call the police. Linda is especially concerned. Many parts of the border on the U.S. side are poor and isolated, she says. A lot of the people there have nothing. I have a big bike with lots of new, shiny things on it. Maybe some guys will decide they’d like to have it; perhaps I’ll stumble into a drug deal, or some plain bad or crazy guy. I should just ride through the border counties like Starr, Zapata and Webb as fast as possible. McAllen and Rio Grande City are drug-importing centres; they’re very dangerous places.
I tell them I intend to cross into Mexico at Laredo and ride on the other side of the river for a couple of hundred miles—in Mexico, the road follows the river, while on the U.S. side there’s a long dogleg inland. Bob and Linda look at me in incredulous silence. Bob shakes his head. No, Linda says. Don’t do that. Nuevo Laredo is far too dangerous. Drug wars are being fought out there. And the border road is suicide. But I’ll ride through Nuevo Laredo by day, in the morning, I say—drug guys don’t get up early. And I’ll make a fast nonstop trip. Maybe I’ll cross back into the U.S. sooner, at Piedras Negras, instead of riding all the way to Ciudad Acuña. No, no, no, they say. If I were travelling with someone, maybe; but, alone? No, no, no. Don’t do it!
I tell them I’ll reconsider my plan. I say to myself: Bob and Linda are getting on in years (although they’re not that much older than me), and older people always exaggerate the dangers of crime and violence. I’ve printed out Internet maps of a route through Nuevo Laredo and along Mexico’s Highway 2. My intent has always been to stay on the American side—that’s the border perspective I want—and to cross into Mexico only when the route is shorter there. I assumed I’d be safe in Mexico if I rode by day and was careful. But maybe I’m wrong.
Riding slowly to get out of Austin, I broil and sweat in the muggy heat, maybe thirty-five degrees. In my riding jacket, gloves and helmet (just jeans on my legs), I can bear the temperature at highway speeds. At stoplights, I feel as if my head and upper body are in a furnace. On Interstate 35, the traffic is very heavy; a Harley-Davidson passes me, gets slowed down, and then I pass him. We alternate for a while. Its rider is fat, and wearing a sleeveless vest and jeans. His arms are tattooed, and on his head is a soft hat—no helmet (if you’re over twenty-one in Texas, you don’t have to wear one)—whose brim stands up in the wind like a cavalryman’s. This rider is certainly more comfortable than me, and he can feel the hot wind on his bare skin, but I shudder when I think of what would happen if he went down. He’d probably die; if he survived, he’d lose a good amount of his body’s largest organ, his skin. When denim or other fabric gets embedded in skin after a long slide on tarmac, nurses or doctors must scrub with a stiff brush to get the cloth fibres out. Even morphine won’t take care of the pain. Of course, that possibility is part of the motorcycle’s traditional mystique: if you ride, you take your chances. Getting togged up in pads and armour like mine defeats the whole idea of a bike. To the fat rider with the hat and tattoos, I’m beneath contempt.
That’s also the reason he doesn’t wave at me, or nod. It’s motorcycle etiquette to do so, thus acknowledging the brotherhood of the road and its shared danger, the making of a mutual promise that the riders will look out for each other in the constant battle to stay upright and alive. The wave or the nod is the non-verbal equivalent of “Be safe,” or “Be careful out there.” But the practice has exceptions; the apparent democracy of the motorcycle has its hierarchy. Outlaw bikers or Easy Rider wannabes don’t wave to civilians like me, not even to civilians on Harleys. Harley riders will sometimes wave to non-Harley riders, but often they don’t. I’ll discover that they hardly ever acknowledge the existence of someone on a jumped-up dirt bike. I give this guy on the I-35 a wave, but he shows no sign that I exist.
A short way out of Austin, the traffic slows to stop-and-go. I’m dutifully shuffling along in my lane, changing gear awkwardly, sweating again, when another rider zooms by me between lanes. A little way ahead, he swerves over to the shoulder and rides nimbly along it. I remember that lane splitting is legal in some states, and tolerated in many. Texas must be one of them. I’ve never done this before, and I feel a Canadian hesitation about breaking the rules. But I’m hot and the jam stretches ahead as far as I can see. I swing over to the shoulder and accelerate until I’m bowling along, passing the shuffling cars at twenty-five miles an hour. When the shoulder surface gets narrow and bad, I swing right and bump across hard-packed grass, through a dry, shallow ditch, and up onto the service road, on which the traffic is moving well. The KLR can do this cross-country shift so easily, and I’m happy with its versatility and my own ability to ride over the rough ground. After a while, I see the overturned tractor-trailer that’s causing the jam. I swing back, triumphantly, onto the highway again.
After all my trepidation, getting to the Alamo next morning isn’t bad at all: a few wrong turns, a little heavy traffic, and some missed gear changes. Many of the Texans I’ve spoken to have told me to be very careful on my bike in Texas because the driving is fast and aggressive. But, so far, the drivers have been courteous, almost solicitous. They give me space, and they don’t tailgate—although I’m riding in the most cautious and defensive manner possible.
Soon I’m in downtown San Antonio following the signs to the mission. I give a parking lot attendant a $5 tip above the $10 fee, to look after my bike and gear. He’s happy to do it, carefully stowing my helmet and hanging up my jacket inside his shack. Then he comprehensively parses a four-letter word: “I’ll look after your bike,” he says, “but not that one—Fuck it!” He jerks his thumb at a big, tricked-out Harley parked nearby. “That fucker wouldn’t give me no fuckin’ tip, man.”
The pleasant, grassy, tree-shaded compound of the Alamo is just across the road. It faces the Guinness World Records Museum and Davy Crockett’s Tall Tales Ride.
The Alamo is a shrine—its main extant building is the old mission church—and also a place of secular veneration and devotion. Its care and maintenance were assigned by legislation in 1905 to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. They must preserve it, says the law, “as a sacred memorial to the heroes who immolated themselves upon that hallowed ground.”
The Daughters have produced brochures about the history of the place that are surprisingly well balanced; they recount the Alamo’s exciting legend, while also gently mentioning that that might not have been exactly the way things happened. They implicitly acknowledge that myth and history are seldom the same thing. I’m impressed by this sophistication. Nevertheless, the Daughters make themselves very clear: the fight in 1836 was a desperate and heroic struggle against overwhelming odds by men who were willing to make “the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.” The Alamo is the “Shrine of Texas Liberty.”
It’s cool in the shade of the old trees, but I stroll about the grounds in a welter of tourists. It’s still the March school break, and this is obviously one of the places families go for entertainment, and for patriotic edification. Two and a half million visitors a year make the pilgrimage to the Alamo—almost seven thousand every day. There’s a small museum, a theatre, a library (which is closed) and the usual gift shop.
I must line up for an hour to enter the shrine itself. The people wait in the hot sun and humidity with quiet patience. There are as many Hispanics as Anglos; as much Spanish is spoken around me as English. I wonder if the Hispanics have mixed feelings about this place. How, exactly, do they remember the Alamo?
Just outside the door is a sign that says: “Quiet, No Smoking, Gentlemen Remove Hats, No Photos.” An attendant reinforces these messages as we shuffle forward: “This is the shrine. Treat it as one, please. Keep your voices down. Please respect the memory of these brave Texans.”
Inside, I see many flags: the ubiquitous Revolutionary War’s Gadsden flag with a rattlesnake on it and the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me”; a Texas banner with the words “Come and Take It.” A line of flags represent where the defenders came from: almost all the states within the then-United States, as well as other nations—mostly England, Scotland and Ireland, but there is one each of Wales, Germany and Denmark. There are statues of St. Anthony, and a mission bell. Davy Crockett’s rifle and vest hang in the sacristy, like the relics of a saint. In display cases lie books about Crockett, a pocket watch belonging to the last courier who left the Alamo to plead for help, a silver spoon with the name “Bowie” engraved on it, a document written by Crockett to resolve a lawsuit between two litigants.
At the back of the shrine is the altar. Here, during the siege, were constructed earthworks upon which the defenders set up several cannons. On the sacred and consecrated ground, the Texans loaded and fired, loaded and fired. In the end, either Mexican soldiers overran their position and killed them all, or the Texans surrendered and were executed.
Near the shrine is the “Wall of History,” a line of panels that tell the legendary story of the battle with gusto, and without the Daughters’ qualifications. In front of the wall, a guide shouts out a lurid, blow-by-blow account of the fighting. Although he must have given his spiel many times, he appears, at crucial moments, to be overcome by his own emotion. When all but one man steps across Travis’s line in the sand, and when Davy Crockett goes down in a hand-to-hand melee, the guide must pause to stop his tears and steady his voice. The crowd catches the mood; they listen with care, in silence. I see a few nearby women, and a man, wipe their eyes. I feel the emotion myself. This story of men giving up their lives for an idea has a power that rivets us all. We’re in the brief, intense, universal thrall of martyrdom.

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Godforsaken Sea

Godforsaken Sea

Racing The World's Most Dangerous Waters
tagged : sailing
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Until Christmas Day, 1996, the race had been a typically robust version of previous Vendée Globe and boc races. If anything, it had been easier on the competitors than most of the earlier events. None of the collisions with flotsam or ice in this Vendée Globe had put the sailors' lives on the line. It was true that the Southern Ocean had behaved as usual-its chain of low-pressure systems moving relentlessly along the racers' path. Storm -- and often hurricane -- force wind had piled waves up to heights of fifty or sixty feet. At times, the boats had surfed down wave faces at thirty knots, almost out of control. They had struggled through the dangerous and chaotic cross-seas that followed quick changes in wind direction and had been knocked down often. For several weeks, the skippers endured this trial by wind and cold, ice and breaking waves, skirting the edge of catastrophe as they threaded their way through the great wilderness of the southern seas.

True, it was still a long way to Cape Horn. The greater extent of the Southern Ocean still lay ahead for most of the boats. There was a lot of time left for something to happen. At some point in every one of these races, most often in the Southern Ocean, a sailor's life becomes problematic, hangs by a thread. Sometimes, a life is snuffed out: by inference at first, as contact is suddenly ended; later with certainty, as enough silent time goes by or the searchers find a boat, drifting and unmanned. Some names: Jacques de Roux (1986), Mike Plant (1992), Nigel Burgess (1992), Harry Mitchell (1995) -- a few of the ones who have been wiped off the planet. Who knew exactly how? What were the circumstances? An unendurable rogue wave capsizing the boat? Ice? Or a sudden, treacherous slip over the side and into the sea, followed by a final minute or two treading the frigid water, watching the boat (with acceptance? anger? terror?) intermittently visible on the wave crests, surfing farther and farther away, its autopilot functioning perfectly.There hadn't been any of that yet in this Vendée Globe. But the dragons were certainly there. The "quakin' and shakin' " was about to begin. During the twelve days of Christmas, the race changed utterly.

From approximately the other side of the earth, at about the same latitude north of the equator as the Vendée Globe sailors were south of it, five hundred miles from the North Atlantic Ocean, sliding deeper into the Canadian winter, I followed the race. There was the occasional wire story in the Toronto newspapers. Nothing much on television. The Quebec media, especially the French-language side, provided more coverage because the race originated in France. More important, one of the skippers, Gerry Roufs, was from Quebec. He'd grown up in Montreal and had sailed at the Hudson Yacht Club, just outside the city. He'd been a junior sailing champion -- a dinghy prodigy -- and had sailed for several years as a member of the Canadian Olympic yachting team.

I was intrigued by the Vendée Globe for a couple of reasons: I'd been an avid -- although amateur -- sailor myself over the years, and I found it impossible not to be fascinated by the race's audacity -- its embrace of the most difficult kind of sailing (single-handed), through the most dangerous waters in the world (the Southern Ocean), in the most extreme form possible (unassisted and non-stop).

I also felt a connection to the race because of Gerry Roufs. He was the first Canadian to have entered the Vendée Globe, and he had a good chance of winning. There was a small but significant affinity between us. Like me, he had trained to be a lawyer, and had then found something different to do with his life, though in his case, something precarious and uncertain, far removed from the affluent safety of the law. After a year, he left his law practice to become a professional sailor, and spent the next twenty years working towards his eventual membership in the single-handed, round-the-world elite.

The traditional sources of information about sailing races-yachting magazines published in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, were always months out of date by the time they were available. The Internet was the real mother-lode. The Vendée Globe organizers had set up a Web site. It contained good background information about the race, the sailors and the boats. The best part was the stream of bulletins posted by headquarters each day during the race, sometimes as many as five or six in a twenty-four-hour period. They were all in French, although a truncated English summary, often in an endearingly eccentric translation, was issued once a day or so. Periodically, the skippers themselves would send a few paragraphs about their daily experience from their boats via satellite fax, e-mail or single-sideband radio, and there were regular reports of latitude-longitude positions for each boat. Like several other competitors, Roufs set up his own Web site as well, on which he posted intermittent journal entries, in both French and English, describing his activities.

Each day, I could read about the homely details of life on board these swiftest of ocean racers, the weather each boat was going through, its progress-through Biscay, the horse latitudes, the doldrums, the long swing around the South Atlantic High, and then to the southeast, below the Cape of Good Hope, and into the roaring forties of the Southern Ocean. It was an electronic feast of information.

"The sea is as near as we come to another world," wrote the poet Anne Stevenson. She called it "the planet ocean." As the Vendée Globe boats made their hard, hazardous journey through the outlandish sea, I watched them from the haven of the planet earth.

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Scott Turow

Scott Turow

Meeting the Enemy
tagged : canadian
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The Bloody Red Hand

The Bloody Red Hand

A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror in Northern Ireland
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The story has two versions. In the first, a Viking war party in a lean, ­dragon-­headed longboat closes with the coast of northern Ireland. It is hunting priests’ gold and ­red-­haired, ­smooth-­skinned slaves. The leader of the fierce Northmen urges on his warriors: the first man to touch the sweet Gaelic strand with his hand or foot takes possession of it. He gets to keep whatever is there – precious metal, cattle, women, boys. There is a man aboard the longboat called O’Neill. It is an Irish name and, perhaps, in the style of slithery allegiances in Ireland, he is a turncoat. He has abandoned his family and sept and gone over to the Norse raiders, wilder even than the wild Irish. This man desires plunder and the haven of his own piece of land. It seems he craves those things more than reason, certainly more than any Viking aboard. As the longboat approaches the shore, the crew strains for the jump and its prize. Then O’Neill, the man from Ireland, lays his arm along the bulwark. He severs his hand with one swift sword blow and throws it ashore onto the sand before anyone else can make the leap. His Viking chief keeps his word. He gives that part of Ulster to his mutilated mercenary, and O’Neill takes the bloody hand as his crest and ­symbol.

In the second version of the story, two rival Scottish clans race each other to Ireland across the twelve miles of the ­wind-­whipped North Channel. They have agreed that whichever reaches the Ulster shore first will take the land. The leader of the MacDonnells lusts for it just as O’Neill did – like the intense desire some men have to keep living when death comes to claim them. He’ll do anything for it. But his boat lags behind and he sees beautiful, wild Ulster, rich in cattle and slaves, sliding away from him. He severs his hand with one swift sword blow and throws it ashore onto the sand. He claims the land for himself and takes the red hand as the crest of the MacDonnells of ­Antrim.

Ireland has a long and complicated history of conquest, rebellion, endemic violence, and political tumult. The Irish struggle against English invasion and occupation now has the aspect of an old story–of history. The people of the independent, and now prosperous, Republic of Ireland see it more and more in that way, too. But the severed red hand still seems to be a perfect symbol for the province of the United Kingdom known officially as Northern Ireland. Its six counties, with their Protestant majority, were partitioned from the rest of Ireland in 1920 in the course of the Irish war of independence against Britain. In the North, the malignant motifs of the Irish past hung on: sectarian hatred, ­oath-­bound private armies, guerrilla war, atrocity and outrage, riots, bombings, British soldiers on Irish ground, political dysfunction, walls and barbed wire, segregation of Protestants and Catholics, war drums and triumphalist parades, forced population movements, propaganda – the whole apparatus of civil ­war.

Low-­level conflict went on inside Northern Ireland and along its border from the time of its inception, but chaotic and terrible open war began in 1969. It went on for thirty years and is known, with quaint understatement, as “the Troubles.”* Now they’re probably over – although perhaps not. To the outsider, their longevity and intensity are almost incomprehensible. It’s as if O’Neill or MacDonnell never stopped hacking off their own hands. They saw away at their flesh, driven on by fear of losing the thing they desire most. Through historical accident during the seventeenth century, the red hand became the exclusive totem of the Protestants of Northern Ireland. It fits them well: Celtic in origin but denoting loyalty to Britain. Yet to the British people it has no meaning. It is, therefore, a ­near-­perfect expression of the strange, ambiguous claim by Ulster Protestants – whose roots in Ireland go back three or four hundred years – that they are “British” and not ­Irish.

Nevertheless, the bloody red hand is an apt symbol of what both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have done during the thirty years of the Troubles. Viewed from outside the province, the ­hard-­liners on both sides (who, in Northern Ireland, constitute the majority) seemed to be acting out a part in some bizarre and bloody anachronistic pageant. Could this terrible hysteria really be taking place in Europe in the late twentieth century, among people who look just like us, in a region of Great Britain, supposedly one of the most civil of ­societies?

The Protestants, in particular, have created an appalling public image for themselves. They look like unreasonable and unreasoning bullies and bigots who refuse to share political power with Catholics, shout “No Surrender!” and “What we have, we hold!” loud and often, and insist on marching through Catholic neighbourhoods in peculiar parades that mix bowler hats and rolled umbrellas with the harsh, primitive rattle of the giant Lambeg battle drum. Many of them follow the preacher Ian Paisley, who isn’t kidding when he calls the Pope the Antichrist. During the Troubles, they tortured and killed Catholics and set off bombs in Catholic pubs and sports clubs. On the gable ends of their mean little row houses they painted murals depicting a ­seventeenth-­century Dutch prince called William, whom they idolize. They sprayed graffiti on walls that said “No Taigs on our streets!” (“Taig” is an abusive term for a Roman Catholic and is the insulting equivalent of “Prod” for a Protestant); “Fuck the Pope!” or just “FTP!”; “Remember 1690!” (the ­long-­ago year of a battle on the River Boyne); and “Still Under Siege!” (referring to the Catholic siege of Protestant Derry three hundred years earlier). They formed numerous paramilitary militias–one of which called itself the Red Hand Commandos. They swore loyalty to Britain, a country whose people and government detested them and who thought they were just another bunch of violent paddies. For fifty years, until their sectarian regime went under in 1972, they ran a government that kept Catholics down, using a Protestant police force that looked like an army, with its heavy weaponry, and auxiliaries who were always ready with the truncheon and the ­gun.

The Catholics have always looked better. They appear to be conducting a version of a political movement – and a guerrilla military campaign – for civil rights and equality, for “liberation,” that resembles many such struggles around the world. Their fight also looks like a continuation of the ancient Irish striving for autonomy from British control–or from domination by those British stooges, the Ulster Prods. Catholic ideology and goals appear rational and comprehensible in a way that those of the Protestants do not. However, as we’ll discover, that rationality is more apparent than real. And, of course, “there’s bad bastards on both sides,” as someone once said. No one could outdo the Provisional Irish Republican Army (the IRA) or the Irish National Liberation Army (or more recently, the splinter groups, the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA) for atrocity. The IRA acted at first as a ­self-­defence force to protect Catholics from Protestant pogroms, but it soon branched out into sectarian outrages of its own. It invented the car bomb, the mainstay weapon for all contemporary terrorists. Its hard men, too, killed, tortured, and bombed, often at random. Almost sixty percent of the military, police, and civilian dead of the Troubles were killed by Catholic gunmen whose violence–compared with the sporadic activity of Protestants–was sustained and unrelenting. Their goal was to shoot and bomb the Prods of the North into a united Ireland against their will. The IRA and its offspring, like their Protestant paramilitary equivalents, degenerated into criminal gangs and mafias years ­ago.

The numbers involved look small (almost 4,000 dead, 40,000 wounded) compared with the casualties in other places – the Balkans, some African countries, the Middle East. But there aren’t many Irish (or, if you like, British) in Northern Ireland. If the numbers of casualties during the Troubles were proportionately reckoned in the United States, they would amount to almost 800,000 dead and more than eight million wounded. The effect of such killing was intensified by the small size of Northern Ireland – it’s half the area of the state of Maryland. And a majority of the casualties were suffered within a segment of the population: among the farms, villages, and little market towns near the border with the Republic, and especially in the crowded, scummy city precincts of the working class. In the narrow streets of Belfast and Derry, the cramped sectarian territories abut each other in ­close-­by chunks and blocs. The slaying was sometimes intimate–the killer and victim well acquainted, perhaps neighbours. That fit into the ancient Irish pattern; it was a sort of comfortable tradition. But things were worse, went the old saying from some previous insurrection or sectarian outrage, when the hard men began killing people whose names they didn’t even know. During the Troubles, both forms of communal murder happened all the ­time.

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The Way of a Ship

The Way of a Ship

A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail
tagged : adventure, history
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Them was the days, sonnies,
Them was the men,
Them was the ships
As we’ll never see again.
C. Fox Smith, “What the Old Man Said”

To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time,
a passing phase of life . . .
Joseph Conrad, preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”
There never was a sailor’s tale that wasn’t a damn lie.
Kenneth Roberts, Captain Caution

Baltazar is anchored in a small bay on the east side of Isla Herschel, on the Paso al Mar del Sur, almost exactly seven miles north-northeast of Cape Horn. We’re recording a sustained wind of more than sixty knots at deck level and gusts of close to eighty -- although they’re as much as 30 per cent stronger at the masthead. The anchor is dug into the sand bottom, good holding, with two hundred feet of chain out and two nylon snubbing lines to absorb the shock of the waves.

Before the front crossed over, the wind was out of the northeast. We were almost wide open in that direction, out into the Bahia Arquistade and beyond it, to the great Southern Ocean itself. For twelve hours, we pitched into seas eight to ten feet high before the wind backed first to the northwest and then west, rising to near-hurricane strength as it clocked round. By then, the low, grassy hills astern and on our sides gave us the protection we had counted on.

Apart from the anchor, we have three lines out to shore, two secured to wind-carved dwarf trees one hundred feet off our stern and one running off our port side, shackled to a cable we have wrapped around a large rock. The lines are fouled with hundreds of pounds of cleaving kelp, broken away from its beds by the storm. The weight adds strain to the lines but also dampens down their surges as the wind slams into the hull and rigging of our fifty-foot steel boat.

Two of us dragged the lines ashore in the rubber dinghy, paddling in frantic haste like commandos storming a beach. Baltazar was difficult to control in the rising and gusty wind, and we had to get the stabilizing lines secured in a hurry. Our skipper, Bertrand, worked the engine to keep the boat off the close, encirling rocks. Twice, I scaled the low cliff behind the beach and tied off two lines. Such exertion was unusual for me in my sedentary life, and afterwards, I slumped on the rocks gasping, heart thumping much too fast. I wondered if it was my destiny to die on this stony shore.

Weatherfax maps limned the growth of the unfolding storm. Twenty-four hours earlier, it had been an unremarkable, loose-structured low-pressure system. We would keep an eye on it as we rounded the Horn, but we wouldn’t worry too much about it, maybe even using it to make a fast run across the Bahia Nassau and back to the Beagle Channel and shelter in this corner of inhospitable Tierra del Fuego. Then the barometer began to drop fast, going down at a sixty-degree angle until its line disappeared off the graph. The next weatherfax disclosed that the system had tightened up, its isobars bunching together until they almost merged, air pressure down to a frightening 950 millibars at the centre. The Chilean navy broadcast a securité, warning all vessels to get to shelter immediately. We began to see the cirrus and cirrocumulus clouds that signalled the depression -- the “mares’ tail and mackerel sky” that makes any sailor apprehensive. After clearing the eastern tip of Isla Hornos, we ran hard for a haven.

Bertrand is a fifteen-year veteran of these waters, and of many voyages across Drake Passage to Antarctica. He’s never seen a storm that looks like this one, he tells us. And when the worst of the wind hits us, it is the strongest he’s ever experienced. That’s when the barometer begins to rise again, its tracing line reappearing on the graph and shooting up almost vertically. I didn’t know a barometer could do that.

Fast rise after low foretells a stronger blow. With anxious fascination, we watch the wind lay our boat over on its side as if it was sailing close-hauled into a strong headwind.

The Horn has lived up to its reputation again. In twelve hours, its malign influences have transformed an innocuous summer low coming in out of the Southern Ocean into the most dangerous of storms: what the old square-rigger sailors used to call a Cape Horn snorter.

On deck for ten minutes to check shore lines for chafe and take photographs, dressed in my modern warm and impermeable foul-weather gear, I can, nevertheless, feel the windchill, fifteen or twenty, or more, below zero. The weight of wind is like a soft yet powerful, unyielding wall moulding itself to my body. It’s impossible to keep my eyes open looking to windward; raindrops are tiny, blinding missiles. I must concentrate on not getting flipped off the deck and into the sea. Later, from our snug, dry cabin, I look out at the horizontal rain and hail, the fog of sea water as the wind lashes the sea’s surface into the air.

I often think of the nineteenth-century square-rigger men during the two days we wait out the storm in our little bay of refuge. I say to Bertrand: “How could they have done it?”

It’s the question I’ve been asking myself since the storm began. It’s the question I have come to Cape Horn to try to answer.

Day after day, week after week, summer or winter, wind-ship sailors endured just the sort of battering wind and deluge we were comfortably observing. They went aloft a hundred feet or more on icy ratlines and footropes, up masts that could whip to and fro through ninety degrees of arc in a few seconds, to grapple with homicidal sails, certain death just one small mistake, a slip, away. In leaky oilskins, always soaked, no heat or light in their squalid fo’c’s’les, malnourished, scurvy -- the sailor’s ancient bane -- still a possibility even at the end of the nineteenth century.

One writer, a square-rigger sailor himself, coined the phrase “the Cape Horn breed” to describe the men who worked the beautiful, widow-making deep-sea sailing ships in their dying days. It felt apt to me. Those seamen’s work was fraught with so much danger, their plane of discomfort such true suffering, that the men who matter-of-factly did it seemed remote and alien, like shadowy warriors in old and vanished wars.

I had a personal interest in these sailors. Some of my ancestors had been Cape Horn seamen. One of them was my great-great-uncle Benjamin Lundy, at sea in the 1880s. I had some of his letters and I knew what he looked like; I had met his descendants and become friends with them. I wanted to write about his voyage around the Horn. In that way, I thought I would come to better understand the men who sailed the last square-riggers, and what the experience had been like for them. Maybe I could answer the questions that had bubbled up with such urgency in our Cape Horn refuge.

South from our storm anchorage, past the low sheltering headland, lay the Horn, and beyond it, the Southern Ocean. That’s where the wind ships would have been a century ago: fifty or a hundred miles out, or several hundred, close to the Antarctic drift ice, beating endlessly into contrary and hostile wind and seas, mothering their cargoes -- the only reason they were there at all -- struggling to make their westing before they could finally turn north, clear of the continent’s lethal lee shore, towards benign seas, warmth and harbour.

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