A Spartan Life

By Neal Moore

Along the Snake River at Nisqually John Landing, Wash.


Brian Bensen stands astride his makeshift home with pride. Bensen was my neighbor at Nisqually John Landing, Wash. Photo by Neal Moore.

Brian Bensen is a minimalist, a fisherman, a hunter, and a survivor. He lives along the banks of this river, of multiple rivers, out of a 7’ x 12’ motorcycle toy-hauler he lovingly calls his house. Attached are a quartet of solar panels, a trio of car batteries, an AC/DC converter, a drop-down bed, an air conditioner, a TV and DVD player, pots and pans and knives and forks, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a tarp, and a blanket hanging off of his higgledy-piggledy back shower featuring Marilyn Monroe. Bensen has spent the last three years shifting this home, along with a Kawasaki 650 off-road motorcycle that clamps down inside, an aluminum jet boat, and a GMC truck to pull them from camp to camp, Gypsy-style. “If you look, especially in the Northwest, in the twelve Western states,” he says, “there are campgrounds that are beautiful where you can spend 14 days, no money involved.” He laughed at the thought, at all the memories of Lolo Pass in the summers and this very spot on the Snake piled with snow come the winter. “And that’s about as long as I want to be in one place anyway.” Bensen is sixty-two and he’s been on the move for all of them. Civilization calls his elemental lifestyle homeless, but he calls it sweet freedom.

 

“I consider myself the king of campin’ because I’m off the grid,” he says. “I’ve been at it three years, perfected a lot of things. Literally, if I have to, I can survive. With nothin’. No help from nobody.” Although there are contradictions to being labeled a minimalist when you have a Kawasaki 650, he might be forgiven because he wants to trade it in for an electric scooter. But either way, he is still a minimalist. And that’s part and parcel of Spartan.

When folks less fortunate come around, Bensen is happy to share. “Just heat up the coffee if you want,” he told his neighbors, a homeless couple from the neighboring trailer at Nisqually John Landing here in Whitman County. “The heater is right there. The creamer and honey, it’s on the shelf.”


Detail of Bensen’s collapsible kitchen. Push comes to shove, Bensen’s going to provide for himself, and he’s going to give to others. “I figure if things get really, really bad – especially after what I seen at Walmart a couple weeks ago, I can always feed myself. Feed as many weary travelers as I can.” Photo by Neal Moore.

 


Detail of Bensen’s solar panels attached to the side of his toy-hauler-cum-home. Photo by Neal Moore.

The world around Bensen, around us all, finds itself in a gut punch of a downward spiral and we don’t yet know what bottom will look like. When asked what advice he might have for others, for people that will soon find themselves, not by choice, but by necessity, out of doors, he thought and then raised his head and his voice like a preacher. “My advice to you if you find yourself in that situation, first off, it’s one day at a time. Think of nothin’ but base survival. And then modify it. That’s what I did. I started out with one panel and one battery – so I could afford about two hundred bucks. And then once I got to know the system, I continued to learn, to graduate farther and farther.”

Bensen bought most of his hardware at Home Depot in the 75% off rack. The solar panels, each twenty-five watts, came from Harbor Freight. The solar system is capable of 14.4 volts. The whole setup with the control module and lights, because he’s a preferred member and he had a coupon, was $149. On top of the trailer are coils that go back and forth in plastic garden tubing which Bensen reckons can handle between eleven and thirteen gallons of water. It’s mounted on a 30-gauge galvanized steel sheeting roof. It gets hot in the summer. So hot, he had to add a cold-water line to mix it. “So, the whole setup you’re looking at – I probably don’t have 2 grand into it, including the power and the trailer – the whole nine yards.”


Brian Bensen shows a passerby the inside of his trailer at Nisqually John Landing, Wash. He calls breaking camp “riggin’ down”. He can rig this trailer down to move on to the next camp in forty minutes. Photo by Neal Moore.

It’s easy to glorify, but difficult to understand a truly Spartan lifestyle. The Spartans of ancient Greece lived with their armaments. They were warriors. They lived with physical emphasis. The emphasis was on combat. Bensen, who was born into the Home of Truth satanic cult in Moab, Utah, was raised up with the group’s, and later his family’s strict and simple ways. He is missing his left eye, and he told me his step-father, who he says he could never please, once yelled at him: “An eye for an eye? No! Somebody takes one eye, you gotta take both.” Bensen has been fighting for as long as he can remember, he’s been scrapping his way to happiness and freedom since he left home, his family and the commune at age thirteen. He admits to an “illustrious life,” including stints on the oil rigs, cowboying like a vaquero, raising his family as a single parent rough and on the road with a child in one arm and a “Will Work for Food” sign in the other, along with stretches in multiple county jails.

The road forward for Bensen and his menagerie of vehicles is fraught with Covid-19-related closures. His favorite camping spot, Heller Bar, surrounded by semi-arid mountain peaks and an entry point for power boats into Hells Canyon, recently denied him entry. Soon after we met, all free camps in Idaho closed their swinging gates. While I was here at Nisqually John Landing, state park rangers came by to cordon off the bathroom, and there are rumors of this camp, of all free camps in Washington following suit.

“I never go hungry because I’ve always got food around. Once the snow melts, and it gets warm, I get up into the mountains. If they block off the roads, I’ll take my Kawasaki – they can’t stop me. Man, there’s wild berries and wild lettuce. It’s a paradise. I eat a lot of fish because I am ‘the master of disaster spin-caster’.”

Bensen’s got itchy feet by nature, and you never know what’s coming next. When his wheels and his boat and his trailer are not in motion, his mind is. “I can literally go wherever I want, whenever I want, for however long I want,” he told me. “My goal for this winter is – I’m headin’ down to Yuma. And wanderin’ around the desert lookin’ for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. For somethin’ to do. To entertain myself.”

 

Introducing 22 RIVERS: traveling from Oregon to New York via canoe

Hi, my name is Neal, and in these polarized times, I’m going to re-attempt to paddle from sea to shining sea, taking journalism slow and low down from the view of a canoe, to listen, curate, and re-discover the threads that bind Americans together.

The re-launch will take place this Sunday, February 9th, 2020 along the storied banks of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. And the journey to New York – encompassing 22 rivers, 22 states, and 7,500 miles – will take two years.

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My 7,500-mile canoe route across America from Astoria, Oregon to New York City.

You can view an interactive version of the above map complete with 100 story-stop towns and cities pinpointed along the way here.

So why not come along for the ride? You can follow the journey on Instagram and if you so desire, sign up for and receive my personal newsletters via Substack as I progress across America.

Together, we’ll go behind the stereotypes and observe and absorb and questionTo take up the fight for the sacred Columbia River salmon, step in stride with an ex-offender upon release from the big house, and crouch down low with a hobo on the tracks, train in sight, that whistle bell a’blowin’.

To come face to face with America’s soul.

 

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“A modern-day Huck Finn” — CNN

 

I have previously paddled the length of the Mississippi River from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to New Orleans, resulting in the publication of Down the Mississippi: A Modern-day Huck on America’s River Road by the Mark Twain Museum Press. Armed with a gaggle of cameras and an Old Town canoe, I traversed America’s mightiest river while sourcing, capturing, and dispatching 50 “Human Face of the Great Recession” stories from the epicenter of the United States.

The route 

In 2018, I attempted a similar sojourn, making it from Astoria, Oregon on the Pacific to Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River, North Dakota – about 1,800 miles in total.

This time around, from early 2020 until New Year’s Day, 2022, I intend to go the distance in a continuous storytelling expedition from Astoria, Oregon, to New York City.

Part One: To the Great Divide: We’re heading for the Continental Divide (yet again) during a time when our nation is truly divided. It’s up the Columbia all the way to British Columbia, up the Pend Oreille, and the Clark Fork to MacDonald Pass in Montana – all upstream and uphill, 1,111 miles. It’s going to be a struggle, but I hope to do it 5 months.

Part Two: To the Big Easy: It’s likely to take at least a week to haul that canoe (plus 300 pounds of gear) over the Continental Divide for 55 miles, but it’ll be worth it to get to Helena, to get back in the water again. Once there, it’s 3,249 river miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, dodging acres of barges, 1,000 foot tankers, swirling eddies, and the Chain of Rocks to the French Quarter, New Orleans. I believe I can do this stretch in 8 months, partly because I can’t wait to get back to the Preservation Jazz Club in New Orleans.

Part Three: To Lady Liberty: It’s a long, tortuous route of 3,127 river and portage miles to Lady Liberty at the edge of the Atlantic, which I reckon will take 12 months. We’ve got to skirt the Gulf Coast in open, often treacherous water, paddle up the Mobile, Tombigbee, Tombigbee-Tennessee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny rivers. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then from Buffalo, it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson to see and know what has always made America great[!] 

More than ever, we need to highlight, understand, and celebrate America’s incredible diversity, to tap into her collective experience.

So, let’s get to it – roll up our sleeves, get our feet wet, and in the spirit of Mark Twain, Light out for the territory.

 

Long after Tiananmen, a simmering dissent

Note: As I’m taking a respite from the rivers, a dispatch from the Far East… 

By Neal Moore

TAINAN – Li JiaBao wasn’t born when automatic weapons fire rang out on Tiananmen Square in 1989, when “Tank Man” brought a convoy of People’s Liberation Army tanks to a halt on the street of Beijing, or even when the Brits handed Hong Kong to Mainland China nearly a decade later. A post-’97 youth, Li, a twenty-year-old who hails from Shandong, is a pharmacy student in Taiwan who calls Xi Jinping “Emperor Xi” in a startling pro-democracy video entitled “I Oppose!”

As the world pauses to remember the students lost at Tiananmen thirty years ago June 4, we can see the unquestionable resolve of those they’ve inspired, like young Chinese exchange student Li JiaBao, and veteran dissident-in-exile Cai Lujun.

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Cai Lujun protesting on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Liberty Square, Taipei. Photo by Neal Moore.

Cai, now age 50, was one of China’s first cyber-dissidents. He was a curious and sympathetic bystander at the protest at Tiananmen Square before the massacre. Only later, when a friend, a young lady, was detained for penning an essay critical of the state, did he find his own voice of dissent. The government gave him every out possible: “Just sign this confession,” they said. The secret police visited his parents and his wife. His family pleaded for him to sign. But he would not.

Cai went to prison in his home province of Hebei in 2003 for “incitement to subvert state power”, serving a three-year sentence for an online Radio Free Asia essay, in which he argued “all of us are people” … “we should do our best to get our freedom, our human rights.”

Soon after his release in 2006, Cai smuggled his way onto a Chinese fishing boat headed for Taiwan. Ten years later, safe with Taiwan ID card and passport, Cai looks out for his fellow Chinese dissidents here on Taiwan. He claims rightly that most desperately want to stay, but the Taiwan authorities are likely to send most of them back to China.

“What does that feel like? What fate awaits them?” I asked in a joint interview with Li and Cai on Li’s campus of Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan.   

“I know about thirty people that the Taiwan government sent back to China,” Cai said. “They call me on the way out when I couldn’t help them.” Cai explained this with a nervous laugh, fighting back tears. Li, the student dissident by his side, looked on in shock. “Nobody knows what will happen.”

Li is not a child of wealth. But both his parents are teachers back in his hometown of ZiBo City, a small city by Chinese standards, in Shandong’s ZiChuan District. His dad teaches English and Math. His mother teaches English.

Although Li says he knows full well what he’s up against, Cai understands the reality of “the hard road”. Cai gave forceful advice. “You need to speak loud, loud and loud, let more people know those things.”

IT FEELS LIKE STANDING IN FRONT OF A TANK

In his essay “I Oppose!” live streamed on Periscope back in March, Li says, “I have the courage to declare that I am prepared to stand up, just like … those fellow students who were crushed under the tanks and massacred in their youth by the bullets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Tiananmen Square that June 4th night. Those fellow students never got to go home.”

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Li JiaBao, who is currently making news from the BBC to The Economist, at his university in Tainan, southern Taiwan. Photo by Neal Moore.

But Li seems likely to be forced to face that regime, certainly not by choice. He’s a vocal critic of China’s decision to scrap presidential term limits, railing against President Xi, and the direction he’s taking the country.

The denouement will come when his exchange student status ends on July 2. Although he applied for political asylum in Taiwan on April 28, he most likely will be forced to board a plane returning him to face Chinese retribution.

“After you did the livestream, what did you think would happen when you go back to China?” Cai asked Li.

Li replied, “Nobody will know what will happen the next second. But the only thing I’m sure of is your life will start changing the moment you stand up.”

“Li is on the road from which he cannot return,” Cai told us. “I think China is predictable. Nothing will change. Because most Chinese people don’t change. Also, the Chinese Communist Party won’t change. Like I said, if you give China 5,000 more years, will they change? I’m not sure.”

Li interjected, “I have to say, as a Chinese student, that everyone got brainwashed when they were very young. But when you graduate from school and enter society, you will discover the real world is totally different from what the Communist Party told you. Everybody, so everybody, don’t just listen to the teachers. Don’t listen to your parents. And don’t listen to the Communist Party. Walk boldly. Walk bravely. Be yourself boldly. Just be yourself.”

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Cai Lujun and Li JiaBao share a smile, Tainan, Taiwan. Photo by Neal Moore.

 

Cai smiled at Li, and with his fist in the air, he saluted “jiā yóu, jiā yóu,” keep going. To which Li pumped his own fist, and smiled right back, responding, “jiā yóu.”

A TICKING CLOCK

Unless he’s awarded asylum in Taiwan, or can find another government willing to help him, Li will be forced to fly back to China when his visa runs out on July 2. He probably will be charged with the same crime as Cai, “incitement to subvert state power.”

“If I’m able to stay in Taiwan, to continue my studies, I’d like to finish,” Li said. “And devote myself to the democracy and freedom movement. But I’m really worried that the Taiwan government will … not let me stay in Taiwan. I hope other countries can help. America and Europe.”

When Li self-recorded his speech denouncing Xi back in March, all communication with his family was cut off within three hours.

“He doesn’t know it,” Cai told me in confidence, “but the police would have visited his home directly after. They would have definitely shut down all communication between him and his family,” including (as it turned out) his parents’ financial assistance.

As a result, when Li ran out of money a short time later, friends in Taiwan assisted. To help him stay on as a student, even as the date of a forced departure looms.

True to Cai’s prediction, Li has not heard from his parents since.

When asked if he’ll have the courage to board the plane, to pay the consequences for speaking out against the most powerful man in China, Li said, “I think I’ll have courage to face anything that happens but when that day arrives, I will feel sadness.”

And then Li linked his personal struggle to his homeland. “We still need somebody, the young people, to speak out. When the seed of the revolution is snuffed out, I think that will be a sad ending.”

ECHOES OF TIANANMEN

Thirty years ago this week, the crackdown on civilian and student protestors at Tiananmen Square, also known as the June 4 Massacre, would leave hundreds, if not thousands dead. The government’s response against unarmed activists was beyond brutal, and it played out on television screens and newspaper front pages worldwide.

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Photo courtesy Wang Dan.

Wang Dan was the most visible leader of the Tiananmen Square protest. You might remember him. He was the one with the big glasses, slight build, and the bullhorn. After the massacre, Wang was No. 1 on the Chinese government’s “most wanted” student list. He was captured, and served four years in jail before going into exile – first in America, where he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, and then to Taiwan, where he taught cross-strait history at National Chengchi University and National Tsing Hua University.

I caught up with Wang Dan for the twenty-fifth anniversary, and asked if he could remind people of the message he was trying to deliver to the Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square.

“We had two appeals,” Wang told me. “No. 1: Dialogue directly with the government, and No. 2: To modify the April 26 editorial of the People’s Daily.”

The April 26 editorial, titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil,” was broadcast on national radio and television in China, and appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, a Beijing-based mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The editorial, penned by deputy chief of propaganda Zeng Jianhui on behalf of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, deemed the protestors part of “a well-planned plot … to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil.” The piece effectively changed the party’s attitude toward the protestors, based on misinformation. The students had not called on the government to step down, as alleged in Jianhui’s editorial, but for a dialogue of reform and openness first initiated by Deng in 1978.

Tiananmen Square remains a pivotal, game-changing event in the history of modern-day China. Although the students lost their bid for freedom, their argument for a voice carried weight with the rest of the world, and shaped how the world would view China, as well as themselves, in the foreseeable future.

In retrospect, I asked Wang what lessons he believes China, and the world, have taken away from the Tiananmen Square protest?

“The world needs to believe that from 1989, even Chinese people look forward to democratization,” he explained. “Anytime they think they have a chance, like in 1989, they will not hesitate to stand up.”

My final question was what he would like to say to the leadership in Beijing today, and his answer, I believe, could apply to himself, to all those who stood up at Tiananmen, along with the next generation of dissent, like Li JiaBao.

“Think about the party’s future,” Wang replied. “There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.”

 

 

 

 

2nd Place at Lawdog’s Gopher Hunt

By Neal Moore

ELLISTON, MT — I entered the half-empty bar and ordered a Bud in a bottle. There were a number of Bigfoot posters inside and when I gestured at them with my thumb the barkeep said something about an annual Bigfoot hunt and how it attracted folklorists from several counties.

A full color banner of the illusive Sasquatch was staring me down with the caption, Reigning Hide and Seek World Champion. It was all a bit weird, and the day was just too pretty, so I stepped back outside to take in the vista.

Across from U.S. 12 was a set of railroad tracks and a series of undulating green mountains that stretched right up to the Continental Divide, each dotted with larkspur and Douglas firs and lodgepole pines. There were huge rolling clouds and a bright blue sky and a succession-play of light and shadows as the clouds scuttled by along the road.

I was in Big Sky country.

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Photo by Neal Moore. Inside the Lawdog’s Saloon, home of an annual “Bigfoot” and “Gopher” hunt for the past couple decades.

Here in the parking lot was a lineup of Harley Davidsons, American flags, 4×4 ATVs and just up from where I stood, a glistening “Lawdog’s Saloon” commercial sign with a bulldog and placard lettering that spelled out Gopher Hunt.

I was wondering what that could be about when, as if on cue, a slew of laughing kids arrived. Their pickups skidded to a halt and swaggering through the dust kicked up from the road they emerged with gopher tails in hand, hauling them in through the front swinging saloon doors by the armful, in great heaps up and onto the bar.

I came back inside and in time asked one of the lads about his haul.

“Hunting is who I am,”18-year-old Cameron Johnson told me. The kid was big on smiles but you could tell that he meant it, that he meant more than the pursuit of gopher.

Cameron was soon joined by friends Bridger and Tristan. An inseparable trio — you can tell when boys complete each other’s sentences — I would soon learn had taken second place.

I asked if we could step outside for an interview, if they could tell me what the hell a gopher hunt was?

“We come to the bar to sign up,” started Cameron. “And shoot gophers all day long until five and then…”

“…Make sure you cut the tails off…” added Bridger.

“…And then, yeah, you gotta cut the tails off – that’s how they get the count,” completed Tristan.

But the boys readily admitted they’d been late on the draw.

Cameron shrugged when they brought this up. “Well, we got here at twelve and it started at eight.”

“In the morning,” said Tristan.

“Yeah, eight in the morning,” continued Cameron. “So, we were a little bit behind, but we still got second.”

I had already overheard them. The boys had won $50 plus the promotional Coors and SKYY shirts they were now wearing.  But I asked them anyway.  “How many did you shoot? Did I hear fifty?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Cameron. “We shot fifty.”

“And then you bring the tails back, onto the bar?”

“Yeah, you bring them back,” continued Cameron. “And Mike, the owner, counts them. And he tells you what kind of place you get.”

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Photo by Neal Moore. The Lawdog’s Saloon commercial sign lights up in the parking lot in preparation for a night of drinking and singing and counting gopher tails.

“So, fifty gophers – 2nd place.  Do you think if you’d have been here on time, you could have got 1st?”

All three nodded.

“Yeah, we would’ve,” settled Cameron.  “’Cause he dropped his gun on a rock, too.”

Cameron and Tristan motioned to Bridger.

As if to explain, Bridger said, “Yeah, that’s what happens.”

“He knocked his scope off,” reported Tristan. “So, we had to – it was pretty much two shooters there.”

By this time, I was desensitized to the wholesale slaughter of the local gopher population, weighing it out in my mind that here in Montana, this must be a rite of Spring. And I found myself feeling bad for the kid with the wispy beard and the aw-shucks grin. So I tried to shift the blame to the weather.

“I overheard somebody talk about the tall grass. That we’d had a lot of rain here. Tall grass,” I motioned with my hands to Bridger, demonstrating growing grass. “That interfered with the gopher hunting, right?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

“You couldn’t really see them too much,” said Cameron. “They ain’t much taller than the grass, so.”

“Yeah, you’re out in the field tryin’ to kill gopher, and they’re layin’ in the grass after you kill them, and you can’t see them.”

“What do you shoot gophers with?”

“Me and Tristan here, we’re shootin’ .17s and Bridger’s shootin’ a .22.”

I nodded as if I concurred, as if I knew exactly what they were talking about.

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Photo by Neal Moore. An unused entry form for the Annual Gopher Hunt, a tradition in these parts stretching years back — although this is a first for Mike Jacobson, the newly minted owner of the Lawdog’s, soon to be renamed the Spotted Dog Saloon.

“Okay – lessons learned for next year?  What would you do differently?”

The three boys hung their heads.

“Ah, show up on time,” said Cameron.

“Yeah, we’d show up on time for sure,” said Tristan.

Bridger brought his head up. “Don’t drop your gun.”

“And make sure you have plenty of ammo,” said Tristan.

“About hunting in general,” I shifted.  “It’s sort of like, from what I’ve been told, a spiritual experience. What would you say about hunting in general?”

“Hunting,” offered Cameron. “Well, it’s a great time. It’s who we are,” the boy said, bringing his me to a we. “You do it for a pastime.  Well, I almost failed school because of hunting. Like, it’s what I love to do.”

And Tristan was nodding. “It’s something you hear about, and you think, yeah, that’s cool. But then you go out and do it and it’s a totally different experience.”

“Yeah,” said Cameron. “No one really knows until they’re out there. With a bow and elk.”

Bridger was looking left out of the conversation, so I prompted him back in.

“Okay, Bridger, what would you say?”

“Well, I don’t hunt much. I rifle hunt. I’ve never been bow huntin’.  Bow huntin’s a lot different.  I don’t know, I don’t hunt a lot.”

“Okay, but today you did?”

“Yeah, I shot some gophers.”

I brought my final question back out to the group. “How would you explain how you feel when you’re out there?”

“It feels a lot different,” Cameron said, referring to his beloved elk.  “They’re a lot bigger than you. There’s way more out there than just yourself. There’s just so much more to experience. And you see the views of stuff, you know, on the internet. You see pictures of animals. But you go out there, and it’s just so much more surreal.”

“You see people in the city talkin’ about it,” said Tristan. “And they’re, you know, surrounded by concrete and steel, and once they come out here, they just can’t describe how beautiful it is.”

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Photo by Neal Moore. From left to right, 2nd place Gopher Hunt winners Cameron Johnson, Bridger Wheat and Tristan Terrell pose for a picture outside the Lawdog’s Saloon.

For Cameron, for all three of these boys, hunting and the great outdoors was their freedom, their release, their adrenaline rush.

“Until they’ve got an elk sniffin’ on their back they just don’t know what it’s like,” Cameron told me. “When you’re bow huntin’ and they’re all around you at twenty yards. It’s a little crazy. It’s intense. It gets your blood pumpin’ for sure.”

 

This story was made possible by Andre de Kock.

A Community Rallying Around the ‘Other’

By Neal Moore

HOOD RIVER, Ore.

The Hood River Valley has a history of ‘others’.  The Finns of the late 19th century, the Japanese of the early to mid 20th century, and now those who identify as Hispanic and Latino. I recently spoke with a number of town leaders and bright light activists. Mainly women, both young and old, who are standing up in a unified voice of defiance. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.

Interviewed for this piece (in order of appearance):

Adriana, 23 – Adriana is “a Mexican that happens to be undocumented in the place that is really hard to be undocumented.” A student and activist, Adriana works nights as a waitress/bartender. “We’re on the verge of a revolution here,” Adriana told me. “Either jump on or get off.”

Paul Blackburn, 52 – Paul is the Mayor of Hood River, one of the few (if not only) Spanish-speaking mayors in the State of Oregon. Paul has formed the Latino Advisory Council and would like to see more Latinos on the city council and as mayor one day. He told me that “as the federal tenor and tone go the wrong way, it’s really motivated us to rally around our neighbors and friends and to work together for inclusivity in our city.”

Maria Elena Casmo, 44 – Maria Elena is a health policy analyst who immigrated with her husband Carlos, a civil engineer, from Chile. After five years in America, her status was changed from ‘non-immigrant’ to ‘immigrant’. She gained permanent residence in 2002. Regarding the current anti-immigration atmosphere in America, Maria Elena told me that people of color like herself, “Woke up. [That] they are not going to tolerate this type of speech.”

Montserrat Garrido, 16 – Montserrat, daughter of Maria Elena, is a Junior at Hood River High School who would like to become a journalist. She recently found her voice as a student activist at Hood River’s “MLK Day” rally. Montserrat has travelled back to DC for the Women’s March and for the Anti-Gun March with the students from Parkland, Florida.

Vicky Stifter – Pastor of Riverside Community Church – United Church of Christ. Vicky’s background is in the law. She has spent years on the Texas border working with immigration issues. A member of the community of Hood River for many years, Vicky tells me that if need be, her church has voted unanimously to shelter those in need as a sanctuary church.

Gladys Rivera, 28 – Gladys was born in Hood River in 1989. At the age of four, her mother (at the time six-months pregnant) was deported back to Mexico. She tells me that her mother took her by the hand and hopped back over the fence into America the very same day. While growing up, Gladys told me that she felt confused about her identity, that she “was never Mexican enough and never white enough.” Today, Gladys is an outspoken community member with Latinos en Acción (Latinos in Action) and the Latino Advisory Committee, amongst other groups. She is a mother of three.

Graciela Gomez, 47 – Gracelia arrived in America from Mexico at the age of 14. She wanted to attend school as a child, but her father told her that they were here to work. Graciela has cleaned houses, worked in fruit packing houses, and has picked cherries, pears, and apples. For the past 33 years, she has petitioned the government for a green card, which she received this past year. But she says it doesn’t mean anything when others in the community have yet to receive theirs. “If we don’t say something we are going to keep living in the dark,” Graciela told me. “And it’s time to bring a little light.”

Matt English – Matt is the Hood River County Sheriff. He tells me, “In our area, at least a third of the community is Latino, and so many of those people have some cultural differences that we need to work together to understand. And there has been a real push within this organization to build trust so that the Latino community is trusting of us.”

 

This story was made possible by Robert Coberly.

 

A brush with the wild

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CC Fish & Wildlife Service

Here on the Columbia I’m keeping my eyes and my heart open to everything nature and natural. The river itself in all of its glory, the currents and sky and the cliffs. My days are spent observing the whirl of an eagle, the thump of a badger, the jump of a fish — the life underneath and around and above as I paddle upriver.

Just past the town of Wanapum I was aiming to make camp on a beautiful stretch of island when I startled a deer amongst the sage, sand and prickly pear cactus – the second I’d seen the very same day. I paddled myself on and shortly thereafter just under the dense and jungle-like trees and laid out on top of a patch of tall grass was a broad snout and large nose pad and a small set of ears pointed straight up. The beast was substantial — larger than the coyotes I was raised around in the foothills of Southern California. I believe it was a Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) – the very first I’ve ever encountered in the wild. It sat up and stared, watching me intently. It never did flinch and the moment was amazing. We locked eyes as I paddled slowly past and I knew that this island belonged to him.

I made camp on a nearby sandbar and late into the night came the Call of the Wild. A solitary wolf singing up to the vault of heaven and night sky. It’s moments like this that I wish I could share with you. But the fact is I never did reach for my camera or attempt to capture audio. It would have spoiled the moment. What excites me more than anything is the promise of more wildlife to come. As I begin to enter genuine backcountry into north-east Washington, Idaho and Montana. As I begin to feel wild myself.

The Undercurrent of America

By NEAL MOORE

Along the COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON and WASHINGTON

I knew that traversing this nation’s first waterways in a canoe would be a challenge, along with the hope of a tribute to the first people who for millennia have called America home.

The word tribute is a great word because it’s a river word.  Rivers that flow into larger rivers are called tributaries. Where they meet is the confluence. And their source point is the headwaters.

And if you scratch the surface by taking a canoe out and onto the water, and take a good long look all about you, and listen, and most importantly, feel, you’ll find the undercurrent, the rhyme and reason of the journey.

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The Columbia River today with a replaced Celilo Indian Village seen on the left, and the Oregon Trunk Rail Bridge further downstream. Photo by Neal Moore.

There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge where people still speak about the village that once was, before it was washed away by the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957. The place was called Celilo Falls, where a cascade of high-current whitewater gave way to platform scaffolds and fishermen and the giant chinook salmon that swam up through the rapids and jumped over the falls.

If Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, is celebrated as the first U.S. settlement west of the Rockies (founded in 1811), it is important to note that Celilo Falls stretches back quite a spell further. For 15,000 years, Celilo was a gathering place for the Native American people, the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, and a mecca for traders who came for the salmon from far and wide.

“I remember the sound of that river and of those falls,” Wilbur Slockish, Jr. told me. Slockish, who was raised on these waters, is the chief of the Klickitat people, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest. “I used to make money by packing one or two fish – the fish were bigger in those days. And I packed them up for the fishermen so that they could fish and I would struggle up there. And that’s where I got my strength, for that was my exercise.”

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Original previously unpublished photograph of Celilo Falls in the 1950s by Chet Coats showing the falls that are now submerged by the damed up river. Although inaccessible, it is said that the falls still flow. Courtesy the Coats family.

And Slockish was not alone. During my time on this portion of the Gorge, I visited several of the 31 native fishing in-lieu sites. I toured and met with different tribes who make up the Columbia River Indians — the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce.

Down in Cascade Locks, I met with young Nez Perce natives who were busy getting ready with their boats and their nets for their ceremonial fishing.  The first fish of the year, the spring salmon, are collected by the tribes for their ceremonial needs. Extra salmon are brought home to fill the freezers for the years ahead. Only once the quotas are met, will the tribes consider fishing commercially. Although this year’s spring salmon is late, these Columbia River fishermen were hopeful.

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Bud Herrera, 54, casts one of six poles out into the Columbia below at Rufus Native In-Lieu Fishing Site below the John Day Dam. Photo by Neal Moore.

Bud Herrera, 54, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, fishes below the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. Bud, a Umatilla, tells me this could be one of the lowest seasons on record since 1939 for the spring chinook salmon. Bud fishes by scaffold and by line, and while this year’s catch is low, he likewise remains confident.

Bud’s cousin, Cort Herrera, 54, a Umatilla, spoke to me about how family and fishing go hand in hand. “It just goes together. You know, we catch the fish together and have good times here – make memories together on the riverbank. Just have fun, you know. That’s what it’s all about – to teach the younger generation, so they can do it when we’re not here. Just like we learned from our family relations.”

While I was documenting the Herrera family, Bud’s nephew helped his 9-year-old nephew land a spring chinook salmon. The kid’s face said it all. His gap-toothed smile was priceless.

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Cort Herrera, 54, checks his lines as the Willamette C tug pushes barges of juvenile salmon downriver, assisting their natural progression around the dams. Photo by Neal Moore.

The reason for the 31 in-lieu sites goes back to the Treaty of 1855, which Wilbur Slockish Jr.’s grandfather was a signatory of. When asked to remind us what the treaty promised the local native tribes, Slockish explained: “We were to retain our lands, certain lands, and to retain our fishing rights and our hunting rights. We were to retain all of our other food gathering activities. Places that we fished at. And we gave land to the federal government in exchange for that. We were promised adequate healthcare and they were supposed to build a hospital.”

Today, with the construction of the dams and the washing out of the villages, living conditions for the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama Native American tribes at the original in-lieu dedicated settlement sites along the Columbia River Gorge remain unsafe and unsanitary. As residents await the federal government’s decades-old promise of “adequate permanent housing” to replace their once-thriving communities washed away by the construction of the dams.

“A lot of people here,” said Slockish, “they seemed all to think that the government and the courts gave us hunting rights and fishing rights — not realizing who gave what to whom.”

There is a connection to this land and river that the native people understand. That they live and breathe and practice and teach. “That is what is important and I try to protect it,” said Slockish. “Because these are the gifts that our creator gave to us. We protect them and take care of them and in turn they will take care of us. Because we don’t own them — the future owns them … So that’s why we value them. Our bodies are made from this land and everything will return to the land – the law of the land – go back to it.  So why would you harm it?

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Wilbur Slockish, Jr., chief of the Klickitat people, at Horsethief Lake State Park, just downriver from where he fished at Celilo as a youth. Photo by Neal Moore.

“You know when people from the east came this way, they saw all of this land up by the Tri-Cities and down the Gorge and thought it was idle – Idle land, look at this. We can irrigate it. Think of the profits we can realize from it — but they didn’t think, they didn’t realize that it was our supermarket. There was deer, elk, rabbits, grouse, other birds that we ate. Medicine, roots, all within that idle land and that’s why they thought of the dams. That was in the 1920s. People from the east are always doing that — comin’ out here and altering — they altered the landscape. And our foods aren’t the same anymore. Our roots are coming earlier, our salmon are coming later. We should have already had freezers full.”

Cy Jim, 51, who identifies as a Warm Springer, fishes on the Washington side of the river just below the John Day Dam, one of four U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dams of the Columbia River Gorge. For him, it’s more than just subsistence.  It’s a way of life.

“Fishin’ just keeps us goin’,” Jim said. “This river keeps us goin’. It’s something we’ll never give up.  As long as there’s fish here, we’ll never give it up.  We’ll always do it.”

But Jim wasn’t always able to fish. His father, like Slockish’s father, turned away from fishing the Columbia following the washing away of Celilo in 1957. It was too painful, and besides that, there was frequent animosity towards native fishermen over competition for fishing rights that followed.

“I’ve been shot at, I’ve had rocks thrown at me,” Slockish said. “I’ve had boulders rolled down the hill at me, and I’ve been cursed, all over my own food.”

And then there was the “Salmon Scam” of the late 1980s. “We were blamed for 43,000 missing fish when it was aluminum plants that poured fluoride at John Day Dam. See that dam right there? There’s a big gravel bed there – there used to be 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 pound salmon spawning in that area – and with those gravel pits they built the dam and killed it and they poured fluorides in there and the salmon, they lost their sense so they just spawned in a different area, they adapted, but we got blamed for it and I went to prison for three years for it.”

Slockish laughs at the memory of his incarceration at El Reno, a medium-security United States Federal Correctional Institution for male inmates in Oklahoma. “I always called it my government sponsored vacation.

“But I’m still here. This is my homeland.”

 

This story was made possible by Syd Goldsmith.

Roots and Branches: Voices on the journey

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Photo by Maija Yasui

JOURNALIST Neal Moore at the Hood River marina with his Navarra canoe, shortly after his arrival in Hood River. Moore hit the Columbia River again April 9 and two days later it cracked during portage around The Dalles Dam. Moore found a new, stronger (and lighter by six pounds) canoe through a private seller in White Salmon and expected to continue his journey by Thursday.

By MAIJA YASUI

 

Chance encounters can sometimes be life changing in grandiose or miniscule ways. You may not realize at the moment of the encounter, but years later, you may look back and say, “Hey, if I hadn’t responded to Kirby’s call and connected with Neal Moore, we may have missed the opportunity of having our youth featured in a story in the New Yorker, a documentary on CNN or a book detailing a canoe voyage across America.” The journey of 7,500 miles from sea to shining sea is described as a “voyage of discovery into the depths of America’s soul.” Moore’s desire is to tell the stories of the diverse communities he encounters along the way in an effort to “understand and celebrate individuals, families and communities rising above themselves.” What was to be a brief stop in Hood River turned into a week of discovery for Moore and the community.

I have always believed that building relationships is key to living life fully. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that if you are open to interacting and potentially forming a relationship with those you meet, your life will be enriched. Much can be learned about yourself, about those you meet and the way they perceive the surrounding environment.

Back to Kirby’s phone call. It came at a somewhat inopportune time. I was in the emergency room with my youngest granddaughter waiting for the doctor to come in and do an examination. She had exhibited some painful symptoms that morning at school which suggested appendicitis. Aya is a wisp of a second grader, who seldom complains about physical discomfort. She reminds me of a willow sapling, tall and slender, physically strong, swaying in the breeze, family roots and love grounding her. Seldom do tears well up from monkey bar blisters or brother’s inadvertent kicks or pokes. Insensitive remarks or inequitable treatment are another matter, turning on a fire hose of tears. All turned out well. No appendicitis or nasty flu bug detected. Rest and relaxation were the words from the wise doctor and we followed the orders precisely.

I visited with Kirby briefly, hearing tidbits about a man he hoped I would speak with, a man who had paddled upstream from Astoria on a journey of discovery. These tiny morsels of information intrigued me, and I said “Sure, have him give me a call.”

*

That afternoon Neal Moore gave me a call and I learned a little bit more of his journey. It would be 7,500 miles across American, from “sea to shining sea.” He would chronicle his journey and document through film, newspaper article and book the stories of small towns and big cities along the way. These were stories of hope and inspiration that underscored the spirit of our country and its remarkable diversity. I was all in at this point, and agreed to meet at the library the next morning, spending a day introducing him to the people and places that would showcase our community.

As I pulled up in front of the library, I could see a soggy young man standing on the steps in the pouring rain. My bad. The library didn’t open for another hour. We sought refuge in my home in Odell. Over several cups of coffee and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, we began a lengthy conversation about Hood River and the people who make this such a beautiful place to live.

Neal said he had enough stories to research that would take him through the weekend, but he hoped I could connect him with a place to stay and store his life possessions now packed in his canoe on the marina. I first offered my home, but thought better of it when I realized that the people he would need to talk to lived down the valley and transportation by canoe is limited in that respect. We pondered this transportation dilemma and agreed to meet later in the day after I went to my blood donation appointment. I was optimistic that I could find someone willing to house him for the next few days.

*

As I waited in line for my Rapid Pass review at the Red Cross station, I began texting folks living in town, and who are connected to activism, the theme Moore chose to highlight. Let me tell you, a lot of networking gets done at a blood drive. Like-minded people seem to extend their hands and hearts as well as their arms to give life to others. After a few “out of town” replies to my texts, who before my astonished eyes would appear, but an angel in fashionista clothing, Barbara Young. We chat. “Sounds interesting,” she says. “We have an RV in the driveway he could use. It would be better than the pouring rain camping on the rivers edge.” Relief. A warm place to stay and one of the connecting hubs of activism in our community. After a brief call to her husband Gary, Barb learns that they have plans the next three days.

I move behind the “veil of secrecy,” a curtain used by the Red Cross staff to review my health history. Suddenly I hear Barb’s sweet voice calling. “Hey Maija. I am waiting here with Paul Blackburn and he says he has a room.”

I am ushered to my donor bed and the needle is inserted, blood filling the bag rapidly. At the precise moment I finish, Paul plunks down on an adjacent gurney. I fill him in on a few details and the connections begin to fall into place. The Blackburn/Dillon household is full of activism and connections for our intrepid paddler.

*

The following days are a whirlwind of conversations with Gorge Ecumenical Ministries, Latinos in Accion, The Next Door, Somos Uno … From there, he is on to the individual activists’ stories, Vicky, Gracy, Adriana, Montserrat, and Cristina. Moore has to extend his time in Hood River another three days to make all these connections. He has just scratched the surface.

Moore’s story begins in a community where helping hands, hearts and arms are extended willingly and compassionately. It is the story of many generations who have met discrimination and adversity head on, inspiring a new generation of movers and shakers.

My story is the story behind the story; of the list of friends and acquaintances who began making the connections for Moore to meet our youth, our dreamers, our student activists. These students passionately believe that all lives matter, that our schools should be safe, that people of every age, gender, ethnicity, and faith should be respected. Their belief has been transformed into action, raising their voices, mobilizing their peers, proposing solutions to the problems plaguing our society.

I like the story behind the story that Neal Moore will tell. It is the story of our community at its finest moment, day in and day out.

Launch from Astoria, Oregon

thumbnail-4A successful launch from the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. A treacherous stretch of river awaits, along with the promise of adventure and stories and friends over the next two years. Cheers to Floyd Holcom, Tom Hilton, and Peter Marsh in Astoria for their hospitality, assistance with preparations, and camaraderie, along with all of the families I interviewed in Astoria for the very first story to be (stay tuned). Also thanks to my friends around the world for their support and belief in this project. The big idea — to paddle a canoe 7,500 miles across the United States — from the Pacific to the Continental Divide to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, to the Atlantic at New York city — in search of the American dream.

Photo courtesy Floyd Holcom; video courtesy Peter Marsh.