At the apex

Jakester and I flew in to Chicago on Wednesday. Ceegar and Merlin were on the same plane from Seattle. That was good news. Very good news.

It almost didn’t happen that way. Things got broke, things got fixed, but time was spent and there wasn’t enough Merlin to go around. There was disappointment.  Words were said. Feelings were hurt.

Maybe I mentioned that all the racer boys in this little group are entrepreneurs, self employed. They are risk takers, but have a pretty well honed and intuitive risk/reward brain function. They know what it takes to get it done, and are a little impatient, shall we say, when it doesn’t?

It also means they are Triple “A” Type “A” personalities. That’s one of the things I love most. There is safety in that for me. They don’t roll over me, they don’t let me roll over them, then harbor bad feelings for a life time. They’d rather punch me in the nose than stab me in the back.

And  when one of them says something someone else does’t like, it’s because they are who they are that it has the impact it does. They hold up a mirror, for me and for them, and I realize my life would be much smaller if they weren’t in it.

That’s why we were all on the same plane together on Wednesday. I wasn’t at the center of the problem, but I was “sorta kinda” involved. Things broke on my motor and others. Merlin got jammed up. He rebuilt my engine in a few days so I could get to Road America, and some other stuff didn’t get done for some other people. There were different opinions expressed about that, but not by me. Words were said. Feelings were hurt.

But it got fixed. This may not be pro ball, but it’s not Saturday night at the Dairy Queen, either. I’s hard not to respect the men at this level of the sport. Where there is respect, there can be communication. Where there’s communication, what brings us together can muscle out what pushes us apart, even our own egos. Some times.

And this was one of those times. We got in on Wednesday. By the time Thursday rolled around, most of the bad stuff was done with.

We were racing.

Heading north out of Milwaukee, we entered the essence of America, but some place vaguely alien. It was clean beyond belief. Manicured. Acres of close cropped lawn, mowed by John Deere lawn tractors with triple blade cutting decks that mowed 48 inches wide.

“A piece of trash usually won’t lie by the road for more than a day. Why would we leave trash about?” asked Heidi, hostess at the log B&B where Jakester and I were staying.

Heidi is German. About 60 percent of this area is of German heritage. That may explain it. I don’t know, I’m from MiddleofnowhereOregon. I used to think Oregon was pretty clean. Maybe, but not in comparison to Wisconsin. The roads here are even white, made crushed limestone I’d guess, maybe a white granite if limestone would be too soft.

The incredible track at Road America is made of the same stuff as it sweeps around a small set of hills in graceful arcs. Over four miles long, it climbs and drops and winds about over bridges and under bridges and wraps around a paddock where some of the most graceful and some of the most outrageous cars in the world are parked to go racing. It was humbling to be here, exciting.

Canuck said it wasn’t that big a deal, it just highlighted how lucky we were to have such great tracks in the Pacific Northwest. I disagreed.

“There’s nothing like this on the West Coast,” I said. “Laguna Seca is close, but even that track doesn’t express the complex beauty of Road America.” He just shrugged, but I think he doesn’t want to be impressed.

It isn’t just the physical beauty of the facility, though it match the rest of Wisconsin in manicured attention to detail. But the track itself has flow, pace, harmony. You could put Road America to music. Driving it is like playing music. But maybe that’s just me.

It took all three practice sessions on Thursday to get into the rhythm of it. I’d spent three days running on Road America in a video game, to at least learn the corners. Kiwi, once a professional driver and now a car manager, he hauled my car here, said driving in a video games to driving is like kissing your sister. I never had a sister.

But there is nothing quite like a smooth track pushing back against sticky tires, looping gravity, snarling of a tuned motor on the edge and the gnashing of real gears.

By the third session, “I was feeling it,” as they say. Ceegar and Cowboy seemed to be feeling it too. Falcon wore a smile, though Stang had an issue and was done before the race began. His crank shaft came apart. It was a bad day, and his keys were locked in the truck, too.

“What infuriates me is that they knew it might go, before we hauled it two-thirds across the country and spent $1,600 on airfare” said his wife. Airfare wasn’t a tenth of it, either. She was white and nearly shaking when she said this, but by dinner her steady, gracious self returned.

It’s racing.

Today, we qualify, and we race the first of a half-dozen session. For the next three days, it’s all in. Everything we’ve got. No holdbacks, the way we were holding back in Spokane and Seattle and Portland, saving something for Road America.

Because there’s nothing left to save it for. We’re going to give all we’ve got, leave it all here.

Things break

Saturday was not kind to Canuck. In fact, Saturday was a tough day for the Big Bore Bad Boys, period.

To begin with, in the first race, Canuck decided to do a little blackberry picking. His suspension broke, and the good news was that he wasn’t hurt, nor his car really damaged. But still, he was done for Saturday and would start in last place Sunday morning.

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(This spectacular series captured by Glenn Grossenbacher.)

A few years ago, Mule took a Corvette out for test drive and went up the same hill. That car ended up on its top.

In the afternoon race, FastCat blew his motor at the end of the main straight. Pieces of 12-cylinder Jaguar connecting rod were all over the pavement. I’ve been told there are photos of the fireball. (Somebody have those photos?) He was okay, too, but that motor will be melted into beer cans.

All this mayhem left Ceegar and me to battle it out in shortened events Saturday afternoon. Ceegar was in front. Where I wanted to go, he already was. If he wasn’t there yet, he just moved over to get in my way. Here’s what that looked like from my point of view. I especially like the segment starting about 9:30.

But you know, Ceegar is one of the few I trust to go through The Kink at Seattle at close to 160 mph. On top of that, it’s for a good cause.

It was great racing, and left me thinking about how I was going to approach the session the next morning. I thought about letting Ceegar get out in front and letting Beater go after him. Sometimes that’s worked for me, letting the leaders wear out their tires, get tired, work too hard. But it has risks, especially if the race is shortened like it was on Saturday.

So I decided I needed to get in front and stay in front on Sunday. And considering how Ceegar worked me over on Saturday, I had the attitude.

A long time ago, Cowboy told me to watch the starter’s elbow. “Go when you see their elbow go up, don’t wait for the green flag,” he said. And that’s what I did to Ceegar. When the elbow started to go up, my accelerator went down. By the time green could be seen, my engine was starting to howl. Ceegar was a half second behind me, but that’s all I needed. See it here.

I didn’t drive my best line. But the line I drove kept Ceegar behind me, until finally his transmission broke and he had to pull off. Canuck was getting closer every lap after starting from the back of the field. I made my self wide, and he couldn’t get by before the checkered flag.

He would have had me if the race had gone another lap.

Kuniki chasing
(
Photo by Gayle Jordan)

I didn’t run in the Sunday afternoon race. My black and yellow Corvette did not feel good at the end of the win over Ceegar; she sounded harsh, out of sorts. I decided enough was enough.

Beater put his sinister black car away for the afternoon too, after a couple of excursions into the dirt trying to get past Ceegar.

Cowboy finished the race, but his car had issues. He’s going to have to work hard to fix it. His clutch was slipping, there’s still an unidentified vibration, and he has a long drive to Road America, less than two weeks away.

Enough was enough. More than enough, actually, for this weekend. All three days, Merlin battled gremlins in my engine. Water in the distributor from a pinhole leak in the non-standard intake manifold gasket. Three pistons on the driver’s side had reduced the spark plug gap to nearly nothing. Three times he had to torque the bolt on the intake rocker for the number four cylinder.

On Monday back at his shop, he found that bolt had again backed off, despite being set with Loctite and torqued. The bolt dropped into the crankcase, rattled around and damaged my oil pump. It left the intake valve closed, which was why she didn’t sound the way she does when she’s running smoothly on all eight.

“In hindsight, I wish I’d not let you run in that morning race,” Merlin said. In hindsight, I’m really glad I heard the engine’s distress and didn’t run later in the afternoon.

Canuck won that afternoon race, and he pretty much owned the weekend, despite his little excursion up the hill to pick berries. Even if my Corvette had run on all eight cylinders at some point in the weekend, I wouldn’t have been able to catch him. The truth is, had we been in identical cars, he would have beat me anyway.

Doogie, driver of the blue GT40 in the videos, took a photo of everyone. Doogie is a rocket scientist, and  may be in the photo too. He’s the only one I know smart enough to pull that off. But maybe it’s just the light.

Beater and his gang

I’ve given the photo a title: “The man who would be King.” That’s Beater out in front. For years he’s wanted to be first, the best. And there he is. He might just do it on the track, too, he’s improved so much. On the other hand, there’s a few of us with the same goal in mind.

Merlin is thrashing on my car to get her ready for Road America in two weeks. I’m trying to juggle transportation so my crew chief Jakester and I get to Seattle/Tacoma International for the flight to Chicago, where we’ll meet Ceegar and Merlin and drive down to Road America.

For more photos of the race, click here.

Spokane

Ceegar just flies over the hump at Spokane. 

That’s not a metaphor. His Mustang has all four off the ground. We’re doing 120 mph at that point, maybe a dime more. I feel the drop, and can sometimes smell burnt rubber when my suspension bottoms out.

But Ceegar pushes harder, and gets airborne. Photographers with positions on the back straight that the crowd can’t get to come up to us in the pits, astounded that he flies over that hump. Literally.

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“What do you think?” Ceegar asked after a day of practice. At first I didn’t like the track and I told him so. Spokane’s really tight after that back “straight” and I never had the gears nor the tires to get through turns like that. I don’t much like threading the needle at high speed between concrete barriers, either, but that’s what we do.

George and I had left Middle of Nowhere, Oregon late the day before, got to Portland well after midnight. At 7:30 the next morning we picked up The Jakester, my 13 year-old crew chief, drove on toward Seattle to pick up the black and yellow race car at Merlin’s at 11 a.m., and then drove across Washington State to Spokane, arriving at about 5 p.m.

Whew. The week before I’d done a 1,000 mile round trip in 31 hours to San Francisco to get a daughter home from college. Averaged well over 70 mph, including stops. As much as I like to drive, that was a lot of seat time.

There was more to come. After we arrived at the track, Merlin and Ceegar’s crew chief O.C. asked if we could use my rig to get Ceegar’s TransAm Mustang down to a promotion for one of the sponsors. No problem. Even though my rig is well over 40 feet, Ceegar’s Freightliner and stacker trailer are larger still.

Merlin got some attention when he lit off that motor in downtown to get from the parking lot, where I could fit my truck and trailer, over to the dealership.

I was supposed to follow them back to the track afterwards, but traffic lights and onramps fooled me and I hadn’t followed one of my own rules about keeping Excessive, my truck, fueled for contingencies. I was out of diesel. And lost. In downtown Spokane, which has narrow-enough thoroughfares and one way streets to make a challenge out of driving a truck with trailer hauling a car worth more than my house.

And I’d had one or a half dozen too many sausages soaked in BBQ sauce at the event we’d just left. And I was keeping everyone from dinner. And it was my own fault and I knew it and I was cranky.

George spotted the gas station in the distance and we got there, just barely, took on $140 of diesel, a half-roll of Tums and found our way to the track at about 9 p.m. We left everything as it was and headed out to find something to eat. After one restaurant told us their kitchen had just closed, Ceegar treated everyone to dinner at the casino, though the waitress told us The Jakester shouldn’t really be there after 10 p.m. because even though he’s sometimes the most grown-up in our group, a 13 year-old is considered too young by the law to be around behaviors reserved for…adults.

It was time to tip over anyway.

We set up the next day and I set about learning the track. Ceegar kept saying how much fun it was, but I didn’t see it, not at first. The undulations leading to the short back straight made the car uncomfortable. The back straight itself seemed to be an optical illusion, it seemed long at the beginning but less than a breath of air later it was time to be on the brakes, hard… not hard enough! Hard! and make a sharp right turn.

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“Every turn at Spokane is late apex” I’d been told, which means you don’t even look at where the turn starts but where it feels like it will end. Hard to do, at times. But I got better as the day wore on, and began to see what Ceegar enjoyed about the track in Spokane. And the next morning, I qualified on the pole.

Ceegar came up to me afterwards with his head tipped forward, looking at me over the top of his glasses.

“I guess you like the track okay now?”

But racing isn’t just about driving and I am an absolute bonehead at times. As the first race approached, Merlin and I got involved in a discussion about politics and even though I’ve got a clock the size of a dinner plate always in view, I let time get away from me. I fumbled with straps and buckles and got to the grid after the five minute countdown.

Despite my fastest qualifying time, they made me start at the back of the pack. I was able to get up to fourth, but that was that. Feeling like an idiot, to say the least, though in fact, coming up through traffic is an awful lot of fun.

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“Jakester, maybe you should let me know it’s time to suit up 20 minutes before race time,” I told my crew chief later.

Yeah, I know, not really his responsibility, but even Ceegar’s crew chief O.C. was telling me how much time was left by then, though Ceegar joked that Merlin should get me “talking politics before every race.”

Though I don’t wear a watch, I usually know what time it is, but rarely know how much time is left. It’s how my brain works. Or doesn’t. And I always have a really hard time remembering what happened in races. Those who know racing, or athletics, say that’s a good thing and has to do with what my brain is doing when I’m on the track. I’ll take their word for it.

I know that at some point that weekend, I was behind Ceegar and a very, very fast and well-driven Porsche. In that race, Ceegar took him deep, deep into that turn at the end of the back straight, and the back wheels of the Porsche decided to change positions with its front wheels.

For a moment, I thought I was going to wear that Porsche like a smile, but I got by, and went after Ceegar.

I think that’s when FastCat blew up the brake rotor of his bright red V-12 Jaguar, maybe trying to avoid the Porsche sitting half on and half off the track. I don’t know. Earlier, FastCat had to put a diaper on the differential of the Jaguar that was leaking onto the rotors, which on a Jag are “inboard” near the differential and not out at the wheels. He left the track before I could find out if they were related.

I can’t tell you where I caught caught Ceegar, but I did.

“Like the track enough yet?” he said, afterwards.

George Folmer, a star of TransAm driving Mustangs and CanAm driving a Porsche, decades ago, was the featured speaker at dinner on Saturday night. We got his book, and Folmer signed it for The Jakester and his dad. Ceegar had Folmer sign a piece of art Ceegar had created out of fenders from Folmer’s TransAm Mustang, a car very much like the one Ceegar was driving this weekend.

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Falcon put on a show during one race. Coming out of the slight right to the main straight, there are bumps that unsettle the car. He spun right in front of the grandstand.  Falcon wondered if his shocks had been destroyed by Spokane, he and his car had dealt with far worst than that. The next day, race promoters said they hoped they had his spin on camera, it would be used to promote the excitement of Spokane races in the future.

‘Stang has all the power one can put under that hood. He had a pretty good weekend, too, but Spokane can punish as well as reward. Once at Spokane, ‘Stang tried to go around someone on the outside and caught the gravel on the edge, then the bank on the opposite side, then a large rock. He said he was glad the little building that’s there now wasn’t there then or he would have collected that, too.

Once over the weekend, Ceegar asked me about “trail braking” into a turn. I spent far too much time explaining car dynamics, feeling like I knew something, then realized he was really trying to learn whether I was brake checking him — putting my brakes on to fool him until any advantage I had could be used. Maybe he wasn’t, but he drove right up my tail pipe after that and I could never get away.

In the race Sunday morning, Porsche and I dueled. I could not escape, him, either. I tried to scrape him off on the Studebaker driven by Rex Easly (probably the fastest racing Studebaker in North America, maybe the only racing Studebaker in North America) but Porsche wasn’t fooled. He got by me once coming out of a turn but I followed him close to the next, where he bobbled. I got by him again and then shut the door and that was that. You can see that here.

cockpit photo

In the next race, Ceegar and I freight trained nose-to-tail at the start and our combined power and draft put us both in front of the Porsche.

“No soup for you!” Ceegar kept saying every time the Porsche tried to get past him. And that’s how we finished.

“You like this track, yet?” Ceegar asked, after I posted first place and fastest lap time. I had to admit, I had grown somewhat fond of the tight, undulating track at Spokane. I can’t get my wheels off the ground in full flight like he can, but I’ll keep working at it.

Merlin was the mind behind the engines that powered the cars that finished first and second. His reputation doesn’t need any more light around it, but that didn’t hurt.

After Sunday’s races, George and I put The Jakester onto a flight from Spokane to Portland where his mom was waiting, and at 4:30 p.m. after an already long day, we headed south to Middle of Nowhere, Oregon, getting home about eight hours later.

Not much got done on Monday.

The car did not come home with me. It went back to Merlin’s in Seattle. Merlin hasn’t finished finding out why what should be available in that motor doesn’t seem to be there. I’m not going to give you any numbers, or what we’re looking at, or where we hope to find power and torque. Because other people might want to know.

But I will tell you that we’d better find it, because the biggest race in the Pacific Northwest happens in about three weeks, in Seattle. Cowboy, Canuck, and Beater will all be there, with everything they’ve got, and that’s more than anything we’ve seen so far. Who knows who else will show up, from Colorado or California or someplace else?

We have to find more. It’s never enough.

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Not Racing in the Rain

Jakester and I got to Merlin’s about noon, right on time. I thought we’d be there a few hours, go have dinner, be ready to run the next day then race over the weekend.

That wasn’t at all how it turned out, not at all.

To begin with, we didn’t leave Merlin’s shop until after nine. Every minute of the nine hours we were there, every one of them, was a working minute. Jakester helped out a lot, right from the beginning, all the way till the end. I’d picked him up 150 miles south at 9 a.m., and we didn’t crash out to sleep until close to midnight.

Jakester is my crew chief. He’s thirteen. Years ago at Portland International Raceway, he and his dad walked by, and I saw Jakester staring at my car. I asked if he wanted to sit in it, if his dad wanted to take pictures. They were pretty stoked about that.

They came back the next year and gave me an exact model of my car, three inches long. They’d built it over the winter. I was stunned by how little things can have such a big impact. There’s no way to understand all of it, but I started to pay more attention to little things after that. There’s more, but I can’t explain what the family’s friendship means to me.

What makes anything important?

We were at Merlin’s because I wanted “more.” Even if “more is never enough.” If anyone can find “more,” it’s Merlin.

But first he had to find what was broken. The timing would not stay where it was set. My mechanic at home, Shade Tree, couldn’t figure it out, even though he had meticulously built the engine.

Watching Merlin think is an adventure. He cuts a problem into chunks. Big chunks at first, he eliminates the things easiest to look at, and fix. Unfortunately, that’s not where the problem was. By the time we started taking parts off the motor, he knew what was wrong. Shade Tree had replaced a $10 part about half deep in the engine with one just the slightest bit too small. The new part allowed things to move that should not move.

On the phone, Shade Tree was mortified. He is justifiably proud of his meticulous work, more often than not backed up by careful research. He slipped up, he said. It should not have happened, he said. I heard the embarrassment in his voice. I told him it’s not about blame.

Throughout all this, Jakester was getting stuff from the trailer, going under the car for bolts or washers dropped, scraping old gaskets off aluminum parts, putting gunk on new gaskets so they would hold.

The problem was fixed long after the sun hit the horizon. Merlin finally started on finding the “more” I was after. What we found was additional bad news: upgrades Shade Tree and I had been making over the last couple of years had taken the car in the wrong direction.

Sometimes we do the wrong things for all the right reasons. Especially if we haven’t decided on how we are going to test each step along the way.

They were costly “upgrades,” too, that over the next month will be taken off and replaced by what I had ten or twelve years ago. Good thing most of the parts were still in the trailer.

Long after Merlin told his wife to go ahead and have dinner, Merlin walked over to the wall and brought Jakester a carburetor.

“You get the Magic Carburetor Award,” Merlin told him.

As much as anything, it was a statement that Jakester was a member of a pretty small tribe, smart guys who get what they want in life because they know what that is, have the ability to reach for it and will work until they do.

Merlin recently learned a lot about horses, ones owned by one of his neighbors, he worked with the horses because he liked it. Merlin says horses know in a few seconds who you are. He likes things to be right. He combs the gravel of his drive with a harrow, plants flowers, trains his amazing dog to sit until he says otherwise.

At the track the next day, Merlin told others about Jakester, who I’d been introducing as my crew chief. The next thing I knew, Ceegar was driving Jakester around in his golf cart, telling everyone Jakester was HIS crew chief. He didn’t even offer me O.C., the guy that runs his operation and does everything before everything knows it needs to be done.

During the second round of testing on the track, another ridiculously cheap part failed, this time a piece of hard plastic the size of a cheerio. My throttle cable came off the pedal and I was coasting, trying to get off the track.

Ceegar almost hit me when he and Beater came through Turn One at 150 mph while trying to get through a pack of BMWs. I couldn’t be seen around the curve until they were right on me. They got past but so close my car rocked with the wind. I’m glad I didn’t see them coming.

Ceegar came over after the session. I’d found the problem, and Merlin pocketed the piece of failed plastic which he took back to his shop to machine one just like it but better.

“We shouldn’t have been running that hard,” Ceegar said, “going fast in traffic, during in a test session.” I said finding out what you had was part of testing, he and Beater always wanted to find out what they had, what other one had.

“That wasn’t the time and place,” Ceegar said.

Those two have been fighting it out and making each other better, and the cars better, for years. It’s probably the best rivalry out there, right now. I thanked him, but said it wasn’t necessary.

Leaning on my roll cage, Ceegar looked over and asked Jakester if he liked cars. Um, yeah. Ceegar invited Jakester, and by default, Jakester’s dad and me, over to see his collection of cars. I won’t say much about it, but there were some cars there I never even knew existed, and Ceegar was rattling off dates and build numbers and details as only a man passionately in love with his hobby can share.

Ceegar has some others cars in the South. He  keeps them there in a museum that supports an orphanage. Yeah, that’s right. There’s a lot more to most of these guys than you would ever know by seeing them hauling ass around Turn Nine, inches from the concrete wall, trying to get an advantage over the driver just a few more inches away.

As Jakester, his dad and I left the garage on the hill above the valley not far from the race track, Ceegar shouted out to Jakester he would pay him $20 more than I was paying him, whatever that was.

Of course, I couldn’t match Ceegar dollar for dollar, but what he really had to offer was priceless, anyway, and some of that I could put on the table.

The rain held off during practice and qualifying. Beater had a pretty good time, but Ceegar had a personal best, the first time he’d ever broken through the one minute, thirty-two second level. I was a third of a second faster, but wow, has he ever closed the gap.

A third of a second! In a lap of over two miles, at times close to 160 mph, 12 turns, that takes two minutes to cover, and the difference is one-third of a second! At times that just seems impossible to believe.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when tires are hooked up, the engine eager. The car talks to me. Coming hot into a turn, a feather’s touch on the brakes to keep her settled, front tires carve around the apex. Then, most of that over with, I unwind the wheel while putting  power down until the pedal is on the floor, the engine snarling then howling as she urgently leaps forward, clawing her way through space and time.

When in a series of corners, right-left-right-left, the weight of the car rolls smoothly from one side to the other, I hold her eagerness in check and it’s a dance, a Tango, just her and me, it feels like that when we’re alone.

If we’re in traffic, and we want around Ceegar or Cowboy or anyone else, we become predators, and I’m almost secondary to the task. We hunt for an opening, probe for weakness, attempt to dominate. The dance has devolved into ruthlessness.

The races on Saturday and Sunday got washed out. “Stang” was the only one in our group who went out and went fast. He ran well in the rain, even if I thought he was crazy. But he showed something of what he had. St. Vitus went out, too, but he was more cautious, maybe one or two others.

At least we had a choice. Those working the race did not. In the pits where racers waited to go out on the track, Roxanne and Karen and Scot and Becky and Fran worked the line, told us where and when to go. People worked the turn stations, with flags to communicate with drivers and fire extinguishers ready in case they were needed; others drive trucks to pick up stalled cars, or wrecks, and there was a crew with the ambulance.

I don’t know why course workers wear white, but at times I think their love of racing may be more pure than that of us lucky few in the cars. They are out there, working in the rain, at other times in ripples of heat radiating off asphalt measured at 140 degrees.

At least drivers get the adrenaline rush. Course workers do it for love of cars and the sport and if they didn’t do what they did, we couldn’t do what we do. Three times Scot had to tell me to get emergency information put on my helmet, just in case I was in no position to talk. Three times his request was erased by the rush of speed, but maybe I’ll remember next time so they can help me when I need it.

There were some bad wrecks in other groups. The passenger front of the first race car I built, a BMW 2002, was taken off in Turn Nine. I hated to see it, that car taught me how to drive. I admired the woman worker who stood at the edge of the track, signaling to drivers going too fast to slow down while safety vehicles were on the course.

At dinner, a emergency crew member told me that he always, always wears a helmet after being launched 30 feet into the air when a car hit one where he was working to help a driver.

“I’ve got daughters to take care of,” he said.

A Porsche was brought back to the pits, pretty much mangled. I heard it went into the wall in Turn 2. They may save parts but I think the car is probably gone, though I’m no mechanic.

Both drivers were okay, if not a little heart broken. It’s just sheet metal, they say, but these aren’t just machines.

Instead of racing in the rain, I sat in Beater’s trailer and we talked about moving dirt and building houses. Beater, like many of these guys, is a contractor, a builder. He knows a lot about money, he said, but that wasn’t his only goal. He loves excavation, construction, building, the planning and design. He thinks of it as his art.

He also loves the fact that 10 days after his next grand-baby is born, that infant will be upstairs in the office where Beater and his family run their business.

“One little squawk and I’m upstairs to see what’s wrong,” Beater said. Talking about it, an air of fulfillment draped across him like a shawl over his shoulders.

Ceegar looked like that too, when he was describing his family, his kids, his quiet work of helping the kids of other people. When Falcon was showing his daughter around, he introduced her as his third daughter, but she said with a smile, “but I’m really Number One.”

These guys have pretty interesting soft spots, even if some people think of them as knuckle-dragging, road racing, ground-pounding Neanderthals and the cars an unnecessary waste of precious resources.

You can bet that Beater is looking for at least one full second as I sit and write this, and for the next month Ceegar will be looking for that third of a second I had over him last weekend in qualifying. Being who they are, it’s pretty likely they’ll find it, too.

But it’s not like I’m sitting on my hands.

The weekend, the first race, wasn’t a complete bust. We solved some problems, are working on others, and we know a little bit more than we did last week about what other guys are bringing to the party. And that’s good, except for one thing. Two things, actually.

Cowboy wasn’t there. Canuck wasn’t there. Each of them has been building something very special over the winter, and nobody knows yet what that will turn out to be.

Tough

Abby has pretty much had it with Boquete. If I were in her shoes, I’d have had it, too.

Abby boarded the bus that runs from San Jose to David (Da-veed), Panama. I’d gotten on at Quepos, on my way to Boquete. Abby got on at one of the rest stops an hour later. A woman was changing a baby in the seat where Abby was going to sit, she asked if she could sit for a moment in the one next to me. Sure. We found out we had Seattle in common.

She was on her way back to Boquete to pick up some things she and her daughter left behind, pay off a few debts. She was starting over in Costa Rica.

Abby has been back and forth across the border between Panama and Costa Rica. She knows the ropes. She guided me through hassles at immigration, even hung with me when I had to go stand in line in the sun to buy a $25 return bus ticket from David to San Jose just to prove to the border agent I wasn’t going to cash in the airplane ticket I showed her so I could live on a beach in Panama. I suppose it’s happened.

Rather than spending an hour jammed into a school bus, we took a 25 minute cab ride from David to Boquete, my way of saying thank you.

Boquete was hard, even for a woman as tough as Abby. From the time she arrived, well over a year ago, until her trip back to Seattle last Fall, she struggled. Right from the beginning, when the guys who hired her down from Costa Rica, to provide massage therapy at their addict recovery operation, didn’t follow through.

There she was, having moved herself and her daughter to a new town in a new country, and the job blew up less than a month after she arrived. But you can see determination in her brown eyes when she looks directly at you, assessing. It’s not just the tattoo, “S.H.A.R.P.,” an arc across her back nearly shoulder to shoulder.

“What’s your tattoo stand for?” I ask on the way up to Boquete.

“Which one?” she responds.

“Um, the one I can see? On your back?”

“Skin Heads Against Racism and Prejudice.”

“Did you date a skin head?”

“I was a skin head,” she says and I get a quick, abbreviated lesson in Skin Head ethos, especially my mistaken association of Skin Heads with the Aryan Brotherhood. The power of Skin Head music. The power of community. Did she date a skin head? What a stupid question.

When the new job blew up, she adapted. She opened her licensed massage therapy business, highlighting her knowledge of Tao healing principles and abdominal massage. She worked at it. She networked. She got to know people. And a lot of people were enthusiastic.

That enthusiasm was obvious when we got to town. Boquete was happy to see her when she and I showed up on Saint Patrick’s Day. She had convinced me that Willie’s Bar & Grill would have the best roast beef I’d ever had, ever, if there was any left when we got there.

From the time the cab from David (Da-veed) dropped us off at the hostel where I’d hoped to stay, until I finally left Willie’s that night to secure a room, any room anywhere, she was getting hugs from those who knew her.

“Abby!! I did not think I would ever see you again!” said one young man. Willie’s wife gave her a hug. The tall guy who came in from outside just to say hi. The older woman who had a hard time getting to her feet. Willie’s clientele is diverse on Saint Patrick’s Day, but everyone was glad Abby was back in town.

Abby got the last serving of roast beef, but Willie’s roast chicken was mighty fine. While Ashley was getting hugs, I was talking to Mike, and Marni, and Diane in the corner, about art and design and the science of laminar flow.

Hey, iced tea in Central America is a beverage to be reckoned with, m’kay?

Over the next several days, we ran into each other at the hostel where I was staying and where Abby had stored some of her things. I paid for a massage to relieve sciatica in my left hip from all the bus sitting. I bought some of her Costa Rican currency because I would need it maybe before she would, and she wanted to pay dollars to some people she’d borrowed money from when things were really, really tight last year.

Abby pays her debts, you see. She wanted to pay them all and frankly, she’d be able to if people who say they want a massage would follow through when they find out it isn’t free. She’d also like it if they didn’t ask her to cut her rates in half — they aren’t that high to begin with.

She’d like it if they would just show up, when and where they say they are going to show up, do what they say they are going to do, when they say they are going to do it, especially when she has made the effort. Like those guys who hired her down from Costa Rica.

I’ll provide an endorsement: After my massage, my sciatica was relieved. Two knots behind my shoulder blades she found with her thumbs (which lifted me completely off the table) are gone. I can actually look over my right shoulder now, for the first time since I fell asleep on the airplane between Houston and Costa Rica with my head lolling from side to side more than two weeks ago.

But people in even an upscale hippie town change their minds about a massage when they find out it’s going to cost real money for her to fix their aches and pains, even when she can get into tissues that hurt, fix problems using skills and an education she paid good money to acquire. It’s frustrating. You know?

Abby going to set up in a couple of communities in Costa Rica where people know you have to pay for something of value.  Not in Jaco. Jaco is a shit hole, a hustle, everybody in Jaco wants a cut of anything you do, she said. Further north, more upscale.

But though she’s got friends there, her daughter isn’t coming back down. Abby had a deal with her daughter, her daughter wasn’t going to go back to Seattle just to hang out, there had to be a plan, college, etc.

“University of Washington.” Those were the first words her daughter said when Abby got off the plane. Or maybe when her daughter got off the plane. I lost the thread, but those were her daughter’s very first words when someone got off the plane. Which was kind of a good-bye, said before even “hello.” That hurt a bit, though it’s hard to tell, because Abby is tough, and can be hard to read.

So Abby’s 16 year-old daughter is living with family friends: a teacher where her daughter goes to school and his wife, who makes killer Swedish meat balls in a huge heavy pan, and meat loaf, and those are her daughter’s absolute favorite meals. So her daughter is fine, and Abby brushes me off when I ask about loss.

Abby’s ex has custody of her youngest daughter, something Abby says she doesn’t want to talk about. She’s pretty strict about those boundaries, too. I didn’t get details. Except she tells me, when friends ask if she knows a good divorce lawyer she recommends the one that represented her ex husband.

Abby is working through how to get her daughter’s books, guitar and amp, clothes, etc. from Boquete to Costa Rica or to her daughter in Seattle. At the hostel where they’ve been stored, I try to hold boxes closed so she can tape them, but the tape breaks off and it’s hard to find the end and she tells me it would really be easier if she just did this herself, she’s been taking care of herself for the last 16 years.

The next day, she tries to explain that an extra pair of hands just gets in the way, I say it’s okay, I had work to do. Then Abby pulls a lamp her daughter made for her for Father’s Day — Abby was both mom and dad — out of her bag. She really shouldn’t pay to ship stuff she really doesn’t need. Take it with or leave it behind?

That’s hard. Really hard. Abby doesn’t let on how hard it is, but she lets me talk about “sweet melancholy,” and she approves of those two words about losing connection.

Day after day, Abby grows more discouraged with Boquete. A guy who wanted a lesson on abdominal massage took a client for the same time he was supposed to get that lesson from Abby. Someone else, maybe two, flaked the day before that. The idea of earning money on this trip to pay off debts and get a stake for the new endeavor in Costa Rica isn’t working out.

“I’m starting to see Boquete through my daughter’s eyes,” Abby said as I left town. Her daughter didn’t want to be here, and now her daughter is not. Maybe that stains Abby view of Boquete, but Abby is tough and we’ll never know. I give her the bus ticket for the trip from David to San Jose, the one I’d been forced to buy at the border. Maybe she’ll be able to use it, maybe not.

It was misting when the bus crossed over the central spine of Panama. Most Norte Americanos think Panama runs north and south but it doesn’t, it runs west to east. I crossed from the Pacific side on the south to the Caribbean side on the north.

As soon as the bus got over the top, farms became jungle, lushly dense and dark; houses turned to shanties on stilts; smells went from floral to fecal; music grew louder and more rhythmic. Mist at the mountain top turned to a hard rain.

Along side the road, a young boy picked up a banana leaf, at least as long as he was tall, and held it over his head to keep dry. When the weather here changes, find a shelter if there is one, and if not, find a leaf.

Or maybe just get wet, while waiting for the rain to stop, waiting for the sun to come out once again.

Stupid Monkey

It was nearly dark when Rebecca got to the hostel. She’d flown from New York to San Jose that morning, gotten bilked taking a cab from the airport to the chaotic bus station, just caught the four-hour bus ride to Quepos.

Standing in line to check in, there was a lightness about her. The others had huge, heavy packs jammed tight with anything and everything that might be needed. She had a small, blue, worn daypack, and a tubular cloth bag over one shoulder that did not even seem full. I wondered how it could possibly carry all she’d need to Quepos.

I was working from a bench near the office, the only place with wireless access to the internet. When they arrived from the bus, I asked the group where they were from. The others were from Germany. Rebecca said, “New York, originally from Oregon.”

“Really,” I said, “where in Oregon?”

“Portland.”

“I grew up in Portland. Now I’m from Sisters.”

“I just LOVE Sisters! I was actually raised for a few years in Bend!”

She joined me after checking in. We were soon talking about anything and everything, but my butt was sore from perching on the wood bench and I asked if we could move to the plastic chairs by the pool.

“Let me put my things away, then come back out. Do you mind?” she said.

Um, no, I didn’t mind at all, but wasn’t she too tired after all that travel? Not at all, she said.

We sat by the pool and talked. Every pause was filled by her asking another question: what I did, where I’d been, and how. Each of my questions drew at least two from her. She didn’t avoid answering, just seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything going on around her.

Rebecca works for a Non Governmental Organization in New York, one focused on the environment. After graduating from Berkeley, she earned two Masters degrees, one in Anthropology and the other in Environmental Science. She was debating a PhD., her thesis proposal about how evolution changes itself, that the successful alter the environment that created the success, altering the next evolutionary phase.

The world was her lab.  From what I could piece together, she may have spent more years on the road than at any place she called “home,” since she turned 18. Central America. Colombia. India.

We talked about Oregon, about African Palms spanning hundreds of roadside kilometers along the highway from Jaco to Quepos. They are raised for palm oil, she told me, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer, destroying local ecosystems and often the local way of life. She said returning indigenous people to their native habitat often was a better way of protecting that habitat than walling it off in preserves.

We talked about writing, travel, disagreed about the role of poverty in raising children ready to learn.

“It’s a culture problem,” I said, not knowing the word “culture” has become a “dog whistle” flagging racism.

“What do you mean a ‘culture’ problem?”

“I mean teachers are expected to solve problems that result from changes to culture, often driven by technology. It’s not just a matter of poverty. By focusing on poverty I think we often do the wrong things for all the right reasons.”

That seemed to mollify her. She had friends in New York struggling to do meaningful work, pay the mortgage, and have a family, who give their kids a latte when they pick them up from daycare so they can spend a waking hour with them in the evening.

“That’s what I mean by it being a culture problem. We want to have children, but don’t make the sacrifices, or can’t make the sacrifices, that raising children requires. Day care may not be sufficient. It isn’t just an issue of lacking resources.”

Rebecca is the youngest of six children, of which she said,  “Much, much easier than being the oldest.” That was typical, I’d learn; she looked at most events and situations in her life as a gift.

It wasn’t just that she traveled light. She seemed unburdened, without desire to pour out her story, or in need of affirmation. She absorbs, she asks. Perhaps her soul is like that round shoulder bag, with an extra dimension where the heaviness goes.

After two days in San Jose, where she would learn the priorities of groups she worked with, she was off to the Amazon to meet teams on the ground, and learn even more. She laughed out loud at herself when she said a cab driver asked if she had gotten Friday off work to come to Costa Rica, and she realized that she had completely failed to tell anyone at work she was leaving early so she could spend a couple of days exploring Costa Rica.

I asked if she would be gone for one week, two weeks, maybe a month, with everything carried in a small blue backpack and light round bag that must have an extra dimensions rather than pockets for all the things it must hold. She wasn’t sure.

She planned to go to the famous beachside Manuel Antonio Park the next day. We agreed to meet after breakfast and go together.

I almost didn’t recognize her in the lunch room, she had transformed into someone quite plain. She wore a long sundress, a shapeless ball cap, carried the blue pack. Her work in other countries, many requiring modesty, had taught her how to avoid drawing attention or giving offense.

We saw iguana, and incredible spiders. Crowds stopped to take pictures of sloths, birds, or monkeys. The sky was clear except for tall, bright white cumulus clouds offshore that highlighted the blues of sky and ocean, greens of the jungle that came to the edge of yellow sand where people played in the waves.

Some of her previous work was emotionally grinding: Interviewing Indian women from areas along the Bay of Bengal who had lost husbands, babies, or entire families to the tsunami that rolled in after the earthquake in Indonesia. Many were alone.

“Why do they choose to go on living?” I asked. She didn’t know the strictures in any one religion against suicide.

“There were a lot of tears,” she said. After doing interviews all day, she would go back to her hotel and write up reports intended to put faces on numbers that could possibly describe the magnitude, but never the depth, of suffering. It was hard, hard work in many dimensions.

At the famous Manuel Antonio beach, raccoons came up as soon as we put our packs down and pilfered a banana from hers that had been wrapped in a blue cloth napkin. The couple next to us said the raccoons actually unzipped their pack to get the goodies inside. I crossed the single cord “line” to retrieve her napkin, she laughingly called me her hero.

The spider monkey was nearly as bold, but at least he didn’t bare his teeth when we chased him away. He ran off in a gallop on all fours. I  hung our packs on small branches in the tree to at least slow him down.

On a short exploration, we saw a tree dedicated to a biologist. It reminded Rebecca of a book she had read about a biologist who had studied the hallucinogens of South America, how various indigenous people regarded some of these plants as gods, and protected them from the white man.

“I missed out on the hallucinogens,” she said. “My sister was a social worker and had stories of people she worked with, and would say sometimes that drugs were the reason or part of the reason they were so screwed up. That pretty much settled that.”

I confessed to my somewhat extensive background with hallucinogens, noting that I had not had any drugs, not even a drink, in nearly 30 years.

“Congratulations,” she said, but I said that congratulations are not really in order for an act performed with a gun to my head. I asked her about children, why that wasn’t a priority for her.

“Kids would be nice, if that happens. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have children for my life to have value or meaning.”

We agreed on that, but my question was about how she avoided that self-definition, when so many women did not, for what I thought were biological reasons.

“I don’t know,” she said at first, but I pressed. Eventually she said, “When I look at the choices I’d have to make, they just aren’t that appealing.”

Later on she said, “it wasn’t really a choice. It just seemed like that was what happened. One thing kind of led to another.”

I asked if she had no desire to settle down, be with someone, if someone hadn’t asked her to do so.

“Most of the men I’ve dated were good with this, and they were doing their own thing. As to being with someone who wanted to be together all the time, I just don’t think that’s necessary or a good thing. No.” she shook her head and seemed to recoil from the idea.

“No. Just no?” I questioned.

She shook her head at the idea, again as if it gave her a shiver.

I wanted to know why she exposed herself to all that suffering, the futility of protecting an environment against money that would usually, if not always, win. “What are you going to do?” she asked back, as if the answer was simply obvious; the fight  necessary even if victory beyond grasp.

I write about vibrant dreams and crushed hope to gather about me significance, I confessed. By working on behalf of women who’ve lost children, for others thrown off their land or had their culture destroyed by greed and corruption, she feels value, connection, to something important.

“Doesn’t that make us both voyeurs, in a way?” I ask, but realize quickly the question needs far more context, especially with this woman living so far out on the edge, and change my own subject.

Rebecca told me about a good friend who was writing a book, who had served in another NGO as a human shield: The job was to stick closely to a person who was a likely target of murder in a foreign land.

“Either the person already had body guards, or didn’t want them.  It’s a big deal to kill someone from the U.S. She was basically protecting them with the color of her skin, and her passport.”

This same friend said one time to Rebecca, “I’m terribly intolerant of a life without meaning.”

That was the best answer.

We found another beach quite close to the first. There were places in the shade under a large tree that had dropped tiny green apples to the sand.

“Are these apples?” I asked. “They look like apples.”

The leaves of the tree, though not the tree’s shape, even looked a little like those of an apple tree.

I picked one up and carefully bit into the fruit, expecting something incredibly bitter or sour, but was surprised that the initial taste was of tropical fruit, maybe like guava, not unpleasant.

“Why are those stupid monkeys stealing Cheetos, when they have all this good fruit lying around?” I said, trying to be funny. I usually prefer Cheetos to apples, too, given a choice.

About 10 minutes later, my mouth started to burn. We had found a place mostly in the shade, Rebecca had put out her beach cloth, I was on my towel. I had the best cell reception I’d had since the airport in Houston, I read, even made an internet phone call back home.

Rebecca was reading, but before long the Kindle fell to her stomach, her hands to her side on the sand. Her mouth moved, she was talking to someone in a dream.

As the minutes went on, the burning in my mouth became intense, worse than any chili pepper I’d ever eaten. Even though I had eaten none of the flesh, I could tell some of the juice had gone down my throat. My body was generating a phenomenal amount of thick saliva to wash away the heat. I tried to read as I shooed away iguanas that were wandering surprisingly close.

I was relieved when one picked up an “apple.” If the wildlife ate them, I was on safer ground, ignoring that an iguana might have a digestive tract slightly different than mine.

The iguana spit it out.

I stood, I walked, I spit into the sand. I realized the great cellphone reception I had would probably let me look up this little fruit, and at least put my mind at ease.

The phrase in Spanish translated as, “little apples of death.” That didn’t quite put my “mind at ease.” The manchineel is one of the most poisonous trees in the world. Standing under the tree when it’s raining can result in skin blistering.  Eating the little apples with the lovely scent “… may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. Patients with a history of ingestion and either oropharyngeal burns or gastrointestinal symptoms should be evaluated for admission in hospital…”

When Rebecca wakes up, she says, “naps are good.”

“You want the good news, or the bad news?” I ask her.

“The bad news.”

I read what I found about the “little apples of death.”

“What’s the good news?”

“I don’t know there is any.”

She shows immediate concern, but I try to put her mind at ease.

“If this is my last day on Earth, thank you for making it so enjoyable.”

She laughs, then does me one better.

“Those stupid monkeys…” she says.

“Yeah, what could they be thinking? Why raid backpacks when they have all this wonderful natural food available?” I add.

I go out into the ocean to gargle salt water. When I get back, I say, “You were sound asleep, dreaming.”

“I can fall asleep anywhere. One time I was on an airplane coming back from Colombia and sitting next to this nice man. We talked, I gave him my business card. Everyone around us could tell we were strangers. I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was completely wrapped around him, drooling on his shoulder. He called me for a year.”

“Are you a spy?” I ask, but she laughs and says she’d make a terrible spy, falling asleep on strangers.

“Or a very, very good one,” I say, but she convinces me she’s not.

She wanted to take another walk through the park, but what I read of the “little apple of death” made me want to be closer to medical help if needed, get some milk into my stomach and hit my drug supply back at the room. Nexium was one suggested treatment. I had something similar.

“You carry medicine for this?” asked Rebecca.

“You never know when you’re going to want a poison apple,” I said.

Another way of absorbing the poison was charcoal.

“What kind of charcoal?” she asked, wondering how that would work.

“I generally prefer Round Oak, but without the lighter fluid.”

“I admire your attitude,” she said at one point. “I think I would be in more of a panic.”

“Tell them I went out laughing. May I buy you dinner as compensation for missing the afternoon walk?”

“It’s a deal.”

At the hostel I took omeprazole, ate a yogurt, showered and changed, only to find that Rebecca had showered, changed, gone to the bus station to buy her ticket to San Jose, inquired at the front desk what restaurants were recommended, and was ready to go.

She wore a shoulderless long dress, a bit of lipstick, her hair free of the cap. I was stunned how she went from plain girl to such an alluring woman. Chameleon.

I sat at an adjacent side of the small square table so we could each look out at the street, so I could hear her over the din just beyond the step of the restaurant that had no barrier between tables and traffic.

At one point I asked if her heart had ever been broken, that I was sure she had broken many. She didn’t think either was true, her relationships mostly ended by a mutual consent.

“I’ve never been in a wrenching, unbalanced relationship, or ending. We’d talk about it, come to the conclusion it wasn’t working out.” She’d ended a relationship just a couple of months before, after five years. There were plans to get a place in Maine, but it just wasn’t working. He had suggested living together again in New York, but that was just a way of putting off the inevitable.

I confessed to wrenching breakups, suffering more than once from a broken heart. She asked if there was any way my marriage might have worked out, given the successful child rearing partnership, respect and affection I expressed for my ex-wife. I said no, despite the positives, we were just two too-different people.

I asked what she thought was required for a successful relationship. She turned the question around on me, which she was so good at doing. I said, shared vision and values, empathy, respect, and chemistry (letting myself think of how she looked asleep on the sand that afternoon, the balance of strength and and curve).

“You know, don’t you, that when I write my book, the stupid monkeys are going to be in it,” she said.

“You don’t think I’ll write about it?” I said. “I think ‘The Stupid Monkey’ has to be the title.”

We lingered after dinner until I saw her fidget with her purse; I paid and we went back to the hostel, where she asked if I would mind reading from her Kindle a book on the impact of modernity to religion in India, while she read another piece of my writing, from my phone. Flattered, I said yes.

After she finished reading what I wrote, we traded back and she read her book and I gazed at the day, looking forward and backward in time while trying to avoid the present. She was going north to San Jose, I was headed south, to Panama.

I was sitting next to a woman for whom I would sacrifice nearly anything, maybe everything, at another place and time; gone anywhere to have her as a partner in life, if she would have, at any time, considered having me.

But I knew, even if she were tempted, at another place and time, I would want days that would come from her life’s quest, a sacrifice she could not make.

Her presence was so fluid and free, to reach for her would be to grasp with hands at air, or water, or light. What I could fall in love with would not survive my falling in love.

Even that wouldn’t have mattered. At a different time and place, I would have risked it.

But I could do nothing about the fact that I arrived about 25 years too early, for our first and only date.

Present

The  baby howler monkey reaches for a ride on mother’s back. She lets him, for a branch or two, then brushes him off to move to a new tree, something better to eat.

They leap from branches like squirrels, except mother is the size of a four-year-old child and may weigh as much as three of them with all her dense muscle. The tree bends then sways, absorbing her impact. She hangs upside down (I want a tail!) and pulls off a few choice leaves.

Baby explores, returns to mother who does nothing for him I can see. I’m sure they’re communicating, if only a pattern of nonverbal inherited expectation. Her peaceful foraging tells him there are no snakes nearby. Reassured, baby moves off again, but tethered by awareness of distance.

Given that I’m a terminal Romantic who could anthropomorphize table salt on any given day (“Why are they avoiding me? What does pepper have that I don’t have? Would I be happier as chili powder?”), I attribute all sorts of emotions to their interaction.

Overhead, I hear a boy’s yell. Niko and one of the guides are zipping down the wire cable, tethered together. It was fantastic yesterday that Niko did not melt down when told he might not get to ride the zip line. He might be too small for a harness, they were told, it wouldn’t be safe. Jonathan, his dad, told Niko if he can’t go, then none of the family will go. Niko won’t feel singled out to be left out. He was given a tool to deal with his disappointment. Connection.

But a harness is found and Niko is yelling like Tarzan as he zips over the ravine where howler monkeys feed on leaves in the hot afternoon sun.

A week ago I was in Big 5 getting some gear for this trip when I heard a baby cry. Then I heard her, or him, cry again, more loudly. I looked to see a stroller about six feet away in an aisle, went back to comparing two exercise bands of too little difference.

A minute or so later, I heard baby cry more loudly, clearly in distress. When no one showed up, I walked over and saw the stroller had a blanket draped over the front so baby could not see out, nor be seen. I said something in the soft voice I use to lure puppies and looked up to see mom, down another aisle six feet away, texting on her phone.

She looked at me, took a step toward the stroller as if to protect her child, decided I was no threat and turned back to finish whatever she was saying to whomever it was that wasn’t here where her baby was starting to cry.

This is a grand social experiment we are conducting on our species. There will be winners and losers.

The Internet is everywhere. My cellphone is a Link. Link to the community, link in a chain. Internet in the mountains of Costa Rica, at the beach. Not just travelers. Ticos too, the locals are as linked as anyone. Nearly everyone stares at the face of their phone. Just like me.

I tell the clerk at the hostel in Santa Elena that I forgot to write down the name of the hotel where I will stay in Samara that his partner, Diego, reserved for me. I ask if it is possible to look it up.

“No, Senor,” he says, “it is in ‘The Cloud,’ the driver will know.”

This makes me feel helpless, I am in the hands of an emergent system, I’ve come so far to have no free will.

I sit with a young couple in a small bus on the way from mountains to the sea. I learn they are in their 20s, not a couple but just friends. Jessica is a medical doctor, general practitioner, in San Francisco; Eaton is wrapping up residency in neural radiology in New York. My god, I own jeans older than these two. My favorite ties are older than their ages added together.

I learn as much as I can about Diffusion Tensor Imaging until my brain is about to explode. He is a scientist, and believes that emotion may be explainable by neurons and diffusion pathways (I oversimplify).

“It used to be an artist’s role to explain behavior,” I say. “You’ve taken my job.” He laughs, says something politely self-deprecating.

But I have a card up my sleeve. I ask him to hand me the map in his hand. He is polite, he does. Jessica watches us, interested.

“If my asking for the map was a movement of synapses in my brain, and, through an exchange of non-physical information, just changed the synapses of your brain so that you handed me the map, doesn’t any explanation of your brain have to take into account mine?

He laughs and I think he gives me the round, but only because I cheated.

We stop for coffee, and I see Eaton is not really much taller than I am. He seemed much taller in the seat of the bus. Then I see his arms, which are incredibly muscled, defined. I learn that when he is not watching excited protons illuminate poor blood flow from aneurysms, he works out with guys learning the Brazilian martial art favored by cage fighters.

He thinks that may have something to do with the issue of his lower back, even more inflamed by yesterday’s horseback ride in the mountains of Costa Rica. Ridiculously, I offer an ibuprofen. He’d rather tough it out.

I walk into town after I get to Samara. The altitude of Santa Elena brought coolness to the evenings, even to just shade. I’ve traded that for the crash of waves on sand at sea level. With that comes sweltering heat and humidity. I’ve gone 100 yards and I sweat. A two-mile walk down the beach and I’m dripping.

 Two women and three dogs sit in the center of two fairly small concentric circles drawn in wet sand not far from the edge of the surf. The smallest dog makes forays out of the circles, the largest dog sits with her back to everyone else, the medium dog seems friendly enough but…

“That’s Miss Piggy,” says one of the women in what I think is a German accent. “She needs a home, but it needs to be someone who understands Pit Bulls.” Miss Piggy is ignoring my trepidation and suggesting which side of her solid steel head I should scratch next.

I start to share attention with the big dog but the woman who talked to me warns me off.

“Don’t touch that one.”

I ask if she has been abused.

“She has bad Karma. I’ve had her for nine years. She kills things, she suffers. It’s her bad Karma.” The large dog with bad Karma looks over her shoulder at me, but does not stop sitting with her back to the group like an angry teen.

I’m about 20 feet walking away when I turn around and ask if they take donations. The woman says yes, I can contact them at Animales de Sámara on Facebook, “it’s three words.”

“It’s all one word,” says her partner from the sand.

“It’s one word ‘animalesdesamara@gmail’, but on Facebook it’s three separate words,” says the first, possibly used to winning discussions such as this.

I decide to give them $20 on the spot and bypass possible confusion. I palm her the bill and she blows me a European air kiss as I walk on down the beach, trying to grasp what it means that an animal rescue effort in an out-of-the-way ocean village in Costa Rica has an international presence.

I body surf in perfect waves, the warm Pacific here takes no getting use to. The beach is a wide crescent just like a waning moon, three kilometers  point to point. I go for a long run, and make the man herding horses down the beach laugh when I try to keep up with their slow canter.

I come back to the hostel having had enough sun and exercise for the day. I sit in the shade to write this. Wonder of wonders, my laptop is finally cooperating with the Internet over wifi that seems now to be universal, from poor urban hostels to mountain retreats to this rural beach town pretty far off any path. I am having trouble with the pictures again, but think that is just me being dumb, trying to be smarter than  algorithms trying to help me.

The young man managing this inexpensive hotel with cabanas right on the beach has a laptop he uses every night while lying in a hammock right outside my door. He is on it every morning when I wake up. He has never traveled the two hours down the peninsula where I am headed tomorrow, but has access to the world.

Eventually the sun goes down. Kallberg calls to check in about a race next July. It rings on my computer, which is linked to the Internet where my phone number lives a life of its own and directs callers to wherever I might be.

“Where’re you at?” he asks, and I tell him in the middle of Costa Rica.

“You’re kidding! It sounds like you’re next door!”

As we do business, a gekko crawls up the window screen feeding on bugs drawn by the lights of my room.

I find a place to have dinner, torch lit, my toes digging into coolness found deeper in the sand.

I have to change tables at one point because there is a very drunk woman wandering around the table behind me, talking in an explosive voice and grabbing at the chest of each of her clearly embarrassed table mates. I don’t notice my cell phone slip out of the too-shallow pocket of my swimsuit/shorts into the sand.

When I look at my camera 20 minutes later, I realize I am one device short. I go back and check my room. I rake the sand at the old table with my fingers. Panic is rising.

“She picked it up,”  says a woman sitting nearby who notices. The waitress had taken it to the bar. When I pay my tab, her tip is more than the cost of my meal.

A young man with pale complexion and long hair sits at a table nearby with an exquisite young woman of short black hair, smooth dark skin, and a brilliant smile that could warn ships away from rocks guarding the bay. That smile carries a different warning, though, when she sardonically asks her date if he’d prefer a table closer to the TV, where he’d gotten hung up once watching sports. He blathers an inanity about Tiger Woods.

A pitcher of sangria sits on the table between them. But now there is something more important, at this very moment! on his cell phone, and that is what he looks at, rather than at the beauty sitting across from him.

(For photos of Samara, click here).

Monkeys

There is a culture, on the road.

That isn’t exactly right. Maybe I should have said, there is a culture OF on the road. Or maybe I should have said: There is a culture of “on the road.”

I mean it in the way they used to talk about a “ tribal culture.” And actually, I should have just said tribe.

There is a tribe of “on the road.”

James Michener wrote about it once in “Drifters.” I was one of those, on one of the circuits between Europe and the Mideast and India. Others rotated between Europe and Africa, and visited places like Marrakesh. We’d meet in transport centers like Istanbul, or on a kibbutz in Israel, on trains to and from Afghanistan.

Not through Afghanistan. There we’d have to disembark and get on buses or jeeps in Kabul or Herat to cross one or another of the borders. There are no trains through the Khyber Pass.

Then, as now, it is fascinating how many accents there are on the road. Yesterday, I was the lone North American.

“People in South America call themselves ‘Americans,’ too,” said Cheyenne, my seat mate on the bus up from San Jose. The accents are French, German, mostly. There are Dutch, and Poles. There are Canadians and yes, there are young people from Massachusetts, Texas. But most of the travelers grew up in other cultures, speak with a heavy accent, and speak Spanish fairly well, too.

It seems to flow, this tribe, driven not by season as much as by a blend of curiosity, common values, similar definitions of beauty and “cool,” and ease of living. This  “on the road” culture of my past is obviously still vibrant, and I obviously don’t “belong,” because I’m too old, wear too many clothes, and frankly, was never really that carefree or good looking.

God these kids are good looking. Some of them are surfers, all of them seem amazingly healthy, quite apart from their youth. Maybe it’s fresh air and sunshine. Maybe it’s the minimal diet of beans, rice and fish, many of them are vegetarians. Maybe it’s genetic, and they are the spawn of good looking privilege. But so many of these kids are genetically gifted, it’s not like walking down any major city street. It’s not even like walking across a college campus.

And they have their own style. T-shirts, shorts and sandals, mostly. Dreadlocks abound, those of some young men longer than those of any of the women. But some of each have shaved heads. Tattoos are essential, either simple ones, like the small tattoo of an Native American dream catcher on the neck of the young Polish woman at the bus station in San Jose, or incredibly ornate “sleeves” of multiple colors. Backs, shoulders, ankles, chests… all are a canvas.

Earrings, nose rings, other rings certainly. I’m sure some could set off an airport metal detector, but they don’t fly much, except maybe between continents. And if airlines allowed them to stack themselves six-deep to save a few bucks, I think they would.

At the butterfly sanctuary are some wonderful young people. But they are no more members of the tribe than I am, perhaps even less. My barrier is age, theirs is earnestness. They are between jobs, or between university and a job, working for room and board in Costa Rica, which is a pretty good gig, after all.

They are responsible. They wear polo shirts with the logo of their employer. They are not “on the road.” Or maybe they are, but at one end of a spectrum.

At the other end are what I used to call the “stayed too longs.” I don’t remember which of us coined the phrase, but I do remember the first reference. We were wary of those who had spent too much time, and spent all their money, in Goa on the coast of India. There were drugs of every sort in Goa. Hashish, opium LSD… You could get high for pennies in the 1970s, eat for a few pennies more, and sleep somewhere for not too much more than that.

We’d see those who had burned through everything they had, and more, who were drifting back to Europe. For some reason, many were French. Sometimes English. Occasionally American. Their clothes were in tatters, most of their belongings could be knotted up in a bindle, and they were horribly skinny.

“Whoa. He stayed too long,” we’d say.

Eventually, it stuck. We called them “StayedTooLongs,” and kept away from them, because they’d steal your ear wax to sell you a candle.

They would be at the other end of the spectrum from the young etymologists at the sanctuaries today, waiting for the female scorpion to give birth, excited to watch her carry her young on her back, or feeding the spectacular butterflies (some bigger than my hand!) with wings that iridesce to warn off birds with a message that they are poison if a mouthful.

I don’t see any StayedTooLongs on the road here, in the rain forests near Santa Elena. You have to want to get here, it takes effort. And once you’re here, there’s too much to do. Maybe they are all down at the beaches. But then again, that’s where the surfers are, and where the sport fishermen from Texas were going, men my age, the ones wearing polo shirts over big bellies and jeans and deck shoes, in a group laughing loudly on their way to the plane from the airport bar in Houston.

Some call these young travelers nomads, and that makes sense. And perhaps that’s another reason I don’t belong. Even though I’ll be here, somewhere, a month or so, I still have a home and things to do I’ve got to get done. A young man from Switzerland, I believe, has an incredibly awkward Hang drum on his back. He explains that it’s worth it, though, he can earn a hundred dollars or so playing for an hour and that nearly pays for his trip.

Then there’s the wonderful family from Canada. Mom, Dad, Akayla, Niko. The tether between parent and child is strong but flexible. These kids don’t know what they have, but will always be better for it. They will always be part of this tribe.

Today I headed into the jungle. Sort of. I did the zip line, because you just do. I walked the forest trail, because I’ve been told to be wary of snakes. The bushmaster is the largest of the pit vipers, and the fer-de-lance is called by some the ultimate viper because it packs seven times the venom. I hoped I see one or the other, from a distance to be sure, and maybe a sloth, and a monkey.

Being here offers both sides of jaded. The concrete lined trails were not very romantic, the suspension bridges more contrived than the trails through Forest Park in Portland, those up South Sister, at the tip of Fidalgo Island. But rather than jaded, it’s also possible to realize how incredibly lucky we are in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, I’d hoped for something a little more raw.

Until I came upon the monkeys.

(For photos of the forest trail, click here)

Final countdown

In little more than a day, I’m off to Costa Rica. Took a photo of home, and a dinner from the last week to test the camera and the links. (Click here for photos. Please let me know if something is not working).

Those pictures are also to remind me what I get to come back to when I’m stuck  for a day or two in a bus station where fluorescent lights draw clouds of bugs with teeth, stingers, or suckers, and the hotel, if any, is too far to walk at 3 a.m.

On the other hand, my hope is to see butterflies larger than your hand. And listen to a cacophony of  howler monkeys. To get there, you have to go there. In some places, avoid a couple of poison snakes, and poison dart frogs. Covered in DEET and netting, too, I suppose.

But the ocean beaches are spectacular, I’m told, and warm weather will be a welcome respite. It snowed here again this morning. I’ve been told by experienced travelers that Costa Rica is the most beautiful place they have ever been. Two days of work left and 30 hours to get it done, and I can hardly wait.

It’s been decades since I’ve trekked with no agenda, time targets roughly defined by “or so.” I’ll be in San Jose for a day or so, Jaco for a few days or so, Golfito and David and Boquete for a few days or so each. Back in a month or so.

More to come.