A Life Deferred

13 Apr

Ricky Jackson, 58, was sentenced to death in 1975 on the false testimony of a 13-year-old boy. (Photo: Ann Hermes, Christian Science Monitor)

On May 19, 1975, Harry Franks, a tall man with a long chin, was murdered outside a corner store on Cleveland’s East Side. Two men took part in his death. One splashed battery acid in his left eye and tried to rip the bag from his hands. The other drew a gun and shot him twice in the chest. After the men fled, people gathered around the body. In that crowd was Eddie Vernon, a 12-year-old boy who altered the course of three men’s lives when he stepped forward and said that he had seen the murder and he knew who had done it.

That lie led to the arrest of Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, and Ronnie Bridgeman, three neighborhood teens. The three were charged, tried, and ultimately convicted of murdering Franks. They were originally sentenced to death. It would take more than three decades for Eddie Vernon to finally step forward and right a past wrong, recanting his testimony and exonerating three men. Wiley and Ronnie had been released on parole, but Ricky, the alleged shooter, had spent 39 continuous years behind bars–the longest sentence of an exonerated person on record in America–before he finally walked free last November. Remarkably, shortly after he was released, he met Eddie and forgave him for what he had done.

I went to Cleveland to meet Ricky in February, and I spent a good deal of the last month working on a cover story about him for the Christian Science Monitor’s magazine. This was a gratifying story to write. In his life, Ricky has endured more than most. And he has a lot to teach the world about forgiveness, perseverance, and overcoming injustice.

Wheels of Fortune

17 Mar

Two 1934 Hispano-Suizas with custom coachwork grace the green at Pebble Beach in the 2014 Concours d’Elegance. (Photo: Michael Turek)

Last August I went to Carmel, California, to cover the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for Coastal Living. I’m not exactly an auto aficionado (I drive a 1998 Jetta that I start by pressing a button under the hood), so I had do to some research. I found out the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is one of the most prestigious car shows in the world. Cars must be invited to participate. The owners are often millionaires. It’s like the Academy Awards for one-of-a-kind cars. Jay Leno comes every year (I saw him briefly abscond with a 1930s-era Czech motorbike), and the rest of the crowd is well-healed with fancy hats and flutes of champagne. (I fit right in.) At the end of the day, I had a lot of fun, with photographer Michael Turek. My favorite car? This 1952 Jaguar XK120, which held the world speed record in 1953 when it went 172.4 miles per hour. (A speed that would rapidly dismantle my Jetta.) My story is in the April issue of Coastal Living magazine. It’s also available online.

The 1952 Jaguar XK120 open two-seater, at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. (Photo: Michael Turek)

Solar-Powered Flight

10 Mar

Yesterday in Abu Dhabi a high-tech airplane lifted off in an attempt to make the first round-the-world flight in a plane that runs on sun. It’s the 12-year dream of two Swiss pilots, André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard. The flight will unfold in 12 different legs over five months. The plane, called the Solar Impulse 2, flies so slowly that crossing the Pacific will take five days and five nights of continuous flying. The Solar Impulse 2 has the wingspan bigger than a Boeing 747, but is lighter than an SUV. It only holds one person, so the pilots will alternate flying duties. I recently interviewed one of the pilots, Bertrand Piccard, for this small story in the April issue of Outside. Piccard comes from a rich pedigree of scientists and explorers, and is passionate about showing the world what is possible with green energy.

The Solar Impulse 2, before a test-flight in Switzerland. (Photo: Laurent Gillieron, AP)

The Animal Arms Race

3 Feb

The fighting claw of a male fiddler crab can comprise up to half of its total body weight. (Illustration by David Tuss.)

Every now and then I get to do a bit of science reporting, usually about something someone is researching at The University of Montana. I had a fun time reporting this story for the Montanan about Doug Emlen, an evolutionary biologist who studies animal weaponry. His main interest is dung beetles, but in his new book, “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle,” he explores Irish elk, saber-tooth tigers, fiddler crabs and other animals who channel their resources into making weapons of outlandish proportions. In this way, they’re not dissimilar from humans, who have spent a great deal on arms races of our own. It’s an engaging book, even for a non-scientist like myself, with fascinating anecdotes of military history and biological anomalies. But it ends on a chilling tone when Emlen explores what the evolution of animal weapons can tell us about the future of our own nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The story includes fabulous illustrations by David Tuss.

Get Warm, or Get Wintry

27 Jan

I have two conflicting suggestions for how to spend your winter in this month’s issue of Outside. First, you can escape it, with a trip to the tropics, specifically Nicaragua, Hawaii, Mexico, Dominica, or the Canary Islands. It might look like this, if you’re cruising through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, near Tulum, Mexico:

It’s like the Everglades, but with Mayan ruins and spider monkeys. Photo: Tophoven/Redux

Or, you can embrace the winter with a visit to the Ranch at Rock Creek, a luxe dude ranch near Phillipsburg, Montana. It was recently ranked the most expensive hotel in the country, and it’s the sort of place celebrities like Kate Bosworth choose to get married. This is what it looks like (well, in summer, anyway):

The Trapper Cabin is part cabin, part canvas glamping tent, a short cast from the Blue Ribbon trout water of Rock Creek.

Gators, Broga, and the Bitterroot Star

5 Jan

Happy 2015, everyone. My story about fly fishing the Florida Everglades is in this month’s issue of Rhapsody magazine–United Airline’s first- and business-class inflight magazine. If you’re not flying first class anytime soon, you can flip through a digital copy online. I have a bio here (on the same page as supermodel Molly Sims!) and the story starts here. Photographer Mark Hartman and I had a blast down there, spending two days with Capt. Charles Wright, navigating the mangrove swamps, and casting big streamers to all the likely places. We caught a bounty of different species, and saw some amazing wildlife–roseate spoonbills, spotted eagle rays–even a gator.

I also have a couple short pieces in the January issue of Outside. This one describes my troubled relationship with yoga, and my admiration for my wife’s practice. It’s about men doing yoga in general. One company calls it “Broga.” And this one is about Island Lake Lodge, the British Columbia getaway where my wife and I spent our brief honeymoon. We were there in summer, when the fishing and hiking are great. In winter it turns into a world-class catskiing destination.

Island Lake Lodge, Fernie, B.C. (Photo by Matt Kuhn)

And I also have a story in the 2015 issue of the Montana Journalism Review–the oldest journalism review in the country. My story is about the Bitterroot Star, an independent weekly community newspaper holding out in an age of corporate conglomeration of the media in their home valley. Michael and Victoria Howell started the Star on a whim, 30 years ago, at the suggestion of a homeless hitchhiker they picked up in their school bus. Lately they’ve been doing some hard-hitting reporting on local officials that other corporate-owned papers have missed. My story is available online.

Summer and Fall Stories

2 Dec

I’ve had a busy summer and fall of writing. I started in May with a trip to California for Coastal Living. My assignment was to write about the farm-to-table food scene along the Central Coast, from Santa Cruz to Big Sur. It was a tough assignment, eating all that delicious food, but someone had to do it! I was even luckier to have my wife, and our month-old son along for the ride. We started in Santa Cruz, and ate our way south, through Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. It was great fun. That story was in the November issue of Coastal Living, with some beautiful photos by Jessica Sample. It’s also available online.

The Pacific coastline on a bright early summer morning, near Big Sur's Esalen Institute.

The Pacific coastline on a bright early summer morning, near Big Sur’s Esalen Institute.

The organic gardens at the Esalen Institute overlook the Pacific. Not a bad place to grow your food.

The organic gardens at the Esalen Institute overlook the Pacific. Not a bad place to grow your food.

I’ve done some traveling for upcoming features, too. I was in California again in August, writing about the elite Concours d’Elegance car show for Coastal Living. (That story should be out next spring.) In October, I was in the Everglades, fly fishing for snook and redfish, on assignment for Rhapsody, the inflight magazine for United’s first- and business-class passengers. (I love it when my interests in fly fishing and journalism collide.)

Cars have to be invited to be shown at Pebble Beach's Concours d'Elegance. They're among the most unusual autos in the world.

Cars have to be invited to be shown at Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance. They’re among the most unusual autos in the world.

I continued to write for Outside, about a high-end lodge on Peru’s Lake Titicaca that I’d love to visit one day, about a $450 bicycle floor pump that I could never afford, and about the new rules of maple syrup, which gave me an even greater appreciation for that nectar of the gods. I’ve got small stories in upcoming issues about yoga for men, Island Lake Lodge in British Columbia, and how to have your best winter ever.

I’ve also been writing about some of the research going on at The University of Montana. In late spring, I wrote about UM’s new Brain Initiative. Later, I wrote about UM’s School of Journalism turning 100. (The school began in 1914 when the venerable Arthur Stone pitched tents on the Oval because no classrooms were available. Incidentally, Dean Stone’s great great granddaughter was in my Current Events class this spring.) I wrote about a UM spinoff company that uses corn syrup to produce an eco-friendly dishwashing soap that may transform the industry. And I’ve got two upcoming stories about the economics of wolf depredation on Montana’s cattle industry, and a new technology that can search vast troves of legal documents.

It’s been a good year of interesting assignments, and I’m excited to see what 2015 brings.


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