I found out recently that a story I wrote last year for the Christian Science Monitor won a Sigma Delta Chi award for feature reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. I’m happy to see this piece recognized; it was my favorite one from 2015. I was lucky to have met Ricky Jackson, who walked out of almost four decades in prison without bitterness, and with the ability to forgive the man whose lie put him there. He’s a remarkable man, and I’m happy to tell some of his story. My article is available online here.
Last August my wife, our one-year-old son, and I boarded a plane for Holland. When we arrived in Amsterdam, we took a train to the coast, and then a ferry to Texel, a low-lying island in the North Sea that has green fields full of sheep, sunny, laid-back locals, and beaches full of treasure. Because of tides, wind currents, and shipping lanes, Texel is the beachcombing capital of the world. Anything adrift in the waters near Northern Europe has a good chance of landing on Texel. The island has two museums commemorating the most unusual finds. I had an assignment to write about Texel’s beachcombing scene, so I spent my early mornings scavenging the sand. All that looking paid off on the last day, when I found the best treasure of all: a message in a bottle. My story about the trip is in the May issue of Coastal Living. It’s not online, yet.
Last May I spent a three days trying to hit the legendary Rock Creek salmonfly hatch just right. I had some help from Patrick Little, a guide at The Ranch at Rock Creek, who was monitoring the bugs’ journey upstream. We scheduled a float for the time and place where the bugs should have been most prolific. But like fishing in general, the salmonfly hatch is never a sure bet. We were rained on, catapulted downstream on a runoff current, and waited in vain for the bugs to swarm. But we caught some fish. And we marveled in the incredible life journey of a prehistoric insect. Photographer Brad Torchia captured the experience with his beautiful photography. The story is in the May issue of Rhapsody, United Airlines’ first-class inflight magazine. If you fly coach, like me, you can read the story online.
I wrote a short essay for the April issue of Coastal Living about a solitary journey I took in France when I was 22. It’s not available online, but is short enough to paste here.
I recently unearthed an old journal from the clutter in my closet. It’s a small, mauve diary I kept during a trip to France when I was 22. The entries are penned in cursive—cursive, I remember thinking, was the only way one should write about France. Back then I was committed to rules like this. I made two more for this trip: I would travel alone, and I would be out of contact. No email. No telephone. Just France and moi-même.
Old journals are disconcerting because they demand a reconciling of your past and present selves. The man in this journal makes me cringe. I was so impressionable! (April 11: Bordeaux inspires me to get rich.) So inane! (April 9: I love bread.) So melodramatic! (April 12: Like vineyards in spring, I traverse my life in straight lines.) But he also makes me nostalgic. When I stepped off the ferry in Calais, I had long hair, a big backpack, and a working theory that the world was more friend than foe. Rereading this journal ten years later, I can’t help but root for him.
In Paris, I checked into a crumbling Montmartre hotel, the kind of place prone to burning down in the night. It was my birthday, and I was thrilled to be in France, but by evening I was lonely. Tempted to check email, but will resist, my journal reads. Need to come to peace with myself. It’s all I have.
I walked to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica with a bottle of wine, a baguette, some Camembert, and the vague hope of company. A gallant girl named Sophie rescued me. She was throwing a ball for her dog. We started talking and she brought me home to meet her parents and her puzzled boyfriend. We shared dinner. They suggested places to visit. It was a wonderful, unexpected present. Sometimes you have to unplug from the world you know to connect with the far grander one that you don’t. The lesson feels even timelier today.
By instinct, I stuck to the coast. I hitchhiked to Pornic, a seaside village where I pitched my tent on the beach. The ocean was a comforting presence, familiar but ambivalent, a companion that asked nothing of me. Seashells tinkled under the waves. I found a starfish. I rolled a message into a wine bottle and flung it into the Atlantic, a ping to the universe.
I was used to holding strangers at arms’ length. But in my communication fast, I craved their kinship. In Nantes I met Somphone, a refugee from Laos who escaped the revolution in 1975 by swimming across the Mekong. Now he made propellers for boats. We went to his house for lunch and then to the corner bar, where he lost money on horses and argued with a Turkish communist dressed in black. I left him there, looking a little forlorn.
Down the coast in La Rochelle, I shared a hostel room with Chris, a teenage runaway from Manchester. He had fallen in love with a classmate from Sri Lanka but her parents forced them to break up. We sat on our beds and split a bag of pears. He ate his from top to bottom because the bottoms were juiciest and best saved for last.
In town, we met some students in a bohemian grotto where people drank flavored wine called guignette and tapped cigarettes into seashell ashtrays. Among them was a French tutor named Delphine. We walked to another bar and danced until late. Delphine wrapped me in her arms and kissed me. I walked her home along the moonlit beach and she told me she was in love with the world.
I traveled onward to a Mediterranean village where Matisse came to paint, so transfixed was he by its light and colors. I felt less lonely now. Three weeks had passed and I no longer missed my email or phone. And then an epiphany hit me one afternoon in Nice. I drew a box around the idea in my journal. I was walking up a crowded street in the amniotic spring sunlight when it struck me that if I left the life I knew and everyone in it, I could build a new one here on this shore or on any other. People teemed around me, strangers, close enough to touch.
For the coldest six months of the year–from October to April–David and Rebecca Wilson look after Many Glacier Hotel, on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. Hunkered down in a century-old, two-bedroom cabin stockpiled with a winter’s worth of food, they spend their days checking on and fixing the damage that the elements inflict on the hotel. It’s an isolated job, but for an entire season they have some of Glacier’s most dramatic views all to themselves. Unless you count the moose, bighorn sheep, grizzlies, and wolves.
Last December, Hilly and I hiked seven miles to meet them. We brought our son, Theo, along. He lost his boot along the way and got very cold on the walk. It may not have been our strongest parenting decision, but we soon warmed up in the Wilson’s cabin. I wrote about the Wilsons for the spring issue of National Parks magazine. The story is online here.
I was in Thailand for most of January with Hilly, my wife, and our son. Hilly was participating in a human rights attorney exchange program. I got to tag along as two Thai lawyers showed us the ins and outs of two important issues in Thailand: migrant labor and stateless people. I wrote a story about statelessness for the Christian Science Monitor, which is online today. More than 15 million people around the world are stateless, meaning they have no citizenship in any country. Without citizenship, they cannot study, work, own land, or sometimes even marry. Thailand has one of the largest stateless populations in the world. I wrote about Wakuloo, a stateless boy we met in a village. He hopes to become a Thai national, but the process is anything but easy.
Last October I went to Bermuda to write about celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s new restaurant–Marcus’, in the Hamilton Princess Hotel. The self-described Swediopian (he was born in Ethiopia but was adopted and raised in Sweden) has a passion for global soul food. His palate has carried him around the world. His menu in Bermuda was delightful–the food was both comforting and innovative–but it was Samuelsson’s concept of food as a social force that I found most interesting. To him, food is the glue of a community. Happily for me, during my few days on the island, that glue looked like this jerk pork belly with fava baked beans, red cabbage slaw and a jiggly quail egg. The story is in the current (February) issue of Coastal Living and available online here.