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Adventure : Adventure

The Same River Twice

Every family has a favorite place. One of ours is the Rio Chama, a 31-mile stretch of wilderness whitewater that slices through the red-rock canyons of northern New Mexico. I've rafted, kayaked, or otherwise floated the Chama nearly every summer since I moved to Santa Fe 19 years ago, for what was supposed to be a three-month internship. My husband and I have camped and run and biked along the river, and when our daughters were born, we started bringing them, too.

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It's not hard to love the Rio Chama. Its banks are lined with 100-foot-tall ponderosas, peachy cliffs that Georgia O'Keefe used to paint, and striated, 700-foot sandstone walls with the faintest outlines of arches beginning to form. Nearly 25 miles have been designated a Wild & Scenic River, flowing through Class II-III rapids and a roadless wilderness that's one of the few places left in the country where you're guaranteed not to get cell service. Floating the canyon—for one day or three—is the ultimate mental reset.

This year, we scored a permit to raft the Chama for three days in the end of May. The first call we made was to our boating friends from Durango, Rob and Amy, and their two adolescent kids. They'd accompanied us on our first multiday float with our then 10-month-old daughter, on the remote San Juan River, in southern Utah, reassuring us the whole way that we weren't insane for bringing an infant. On that trip, they became our de facto family rafting mentors, and we've done a trip with them, sometimes two, nearly every year since.

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Amy and their son, Henry, couldn't come, but Rob and his 11-year-old daughter, Ainsley, and her 10-year-old cousin, Max jumped at the chance to raft the Chama for the first time. They invited their friend Kevin, and his four-year-old-daughter, Sage, whom we'd met two years ago on the San Juan with Rob. From Santa Fe, we enlisted our friend Win, a Grand Canyon river guide who would have brought his wife and their two-year-old daughter if they hadn't been out of town.

Our group of ten launched from just below El Vado Dam, almost exactly a year to the date that Steve and I and the girls set off last year. After late-spring snow, it felt like the first real weekend of summer, and we drifted downstream, through the first small riffles and into the wilder, deeper canyon. So much was the same, and yet even more was different. We had Pete now, our black Lab puppy, who like our daughters, was making his maiden raft voyage at ten months old. Our three-year-old, Maisy, had broken her foot jumping off a wall a month ago and was wearing a walking cast that seemed destined to be destroyed by three days of mud and river water.

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Like children, rivers mark time. No matter how familiar and dear to us they may be, they are constantly in flux, never the same from one week to the next. River levels rise and fall, revealing sand bar camps at low water and then reclaiming them at high water, swollen by spring runoff or summer flash floods. Side canyons disgorge boulders, altering rapids, making them bigger or smaller or more technical or less, and sometimes completely unrecognizable. Logs and branches sail downstream on the current, forming snags that catch more flotsam, stray fishing bobbers and tangled tree stumps, soggy old baseball caps. Someone's wrapped a canoe around a rock in the middle of a long and bony Class III rapid; it will stay there until it gets pushed off or its owner comes to claim it.

Children on river trips only underscore the water's natural fluctuations. They are a month older, or a year older. They have a broken foot. They've started reading. They are stronger swimmers. They can get by, but barely, without their afternoon nap. They've figured out how to reach the zippers on the tent and crawl out on their own. They demand S'Mores, not bottles, before bed. They jump from one raft to another, ride with the big kids in the inflatable kayaks, and are strong enough to paddle the SUP standing up through tiny wave trains. 

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At the first night's camp—by coincidence, the same wedge of beach on a wide bend where we camped last year—we set up our chairs in the sand and watched the stars come out. I marveled about how much had changed since our first family river trip. Putting Pippa to bed in a Pack 'n Play in the tent, swaddled in a sleep sack and soothed by pacifiers—a small army of them, invariably sandy and all too often misplaced. Nursing her in the middle of the night, hoping her hungry bleats wouldn't wake the whole camp. The season when we wedged not one, but two portable cribs into our massive two-room tent, pacing outside in the fading light to make sure all was quiet. The fall trip on the San Juan when 14-month-old Maisy weaned herself, too busy to bother with the distraction of nursing and unimpressed with breast milk that tasted suspiciously like muddy desert river water. And now this trip, when both girls lie side by side in sleeping bags in their own tent (attached to ours), one reading to the other until, exhausted, there's only silence.

In a good summer, we might take three or, if we're lucky, four river trips. That's maybe 12 nights sleeping outside under gnarled old junipers, among the sage, sheltered beneath canyon walls, deep in the backcountry. In the scheme of things, this is not much time. You could argue, and people have, that young children and babies, as ours were when we began, don't belong in the backcountry and are too young to appreciate wilderness rivers; that it's selfish to bring them, that they won't remember the few days they spent bobbing through gentle rapids, held in arms, sleeping against our chests, soft toddler arms taking a turn at the oars. That the risks far outweigh the benefits of those few days.

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But as we sat under layers and layers of stars, and the thinnest wisp a moon hung above the canyon rim, with Saturn beaming beside it, I knew these trips, those few fleeting days, add up to so much more. Our girls are growing up on the river. With each year, the Chama and the San Juan, the Green and the Rio Grande, are becoming familiar to them, known and beloved, like the rafting friends we see year after year. The rivers—like all favorite places and family traditions—hold our memories and mark our milestones. They release us from the busy clutches of routine life, the overstimulation, the schedules, the screens, and offer us deep comfort within ourselves and the world.

Our days on the Rio Chama blended one to the next as the river miles slid by. Maisy crawled barefoot in the mud at the edge of the water, rafted Class III Aragon for the first time, and managed not to trash her boot cast after all. We inched past a rattlesnake, its tail going clackety-clack from its safe haven under a rock ledge, and hiked a slot canyon, the youngest among us clamoring up the pour-overs. And Pete, after desperately flinging himself from the raft into the very first rapid and coming up bobbing like a little black mink, learned to sit stoically at Steve's feet while he rowed. He's becoming a river dog now. 

We can boat the same backyard river twice, three times, a dozen or more, and it will never get old. No two trips on the Rio Chama will ever be the same, because the river is always changing, just as we are. This is why we keep going back—why wilderness will always be a constant in our life—to be reminded that nothing stays at it is, the beautiful impermanence of it all, and to be glad for what we have right now.

No, 12 days is not nearly enough.

Three Perfect Family "Lightwater" Raft Trips

Rio Chama, New Mexico
Do-it-yourself with a lottery permit from the BLM, or hook up with Los Rios Riverrunners, which provides luxury walled safari tents for the two-night, three-day Class III trip.

San Juan River, Four Corners
Like the Rio Chama, the 84-mile stretch of San Juan from Bluff to Clay Hills requires a private-boater permit. Class II-III rapids make this a fun, splashy river for families. Break the distance into the Upper or Lower trips, or float the entire length in seven days. O.A.R.S and Wild River Expeditions offer family trips.

Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons, Green River, Utah
There's not a single rapid in 100 river miles between Ruby Ranch, through Canyonlands National Park, to the confluence with the Colorado River, making this the most mellow of family flat-water floats. As on other desert rivers, summer heat can be intense. DIY in rental canoes or rafts (permits required through Canyonlands or contact Tex's Riverways for guided trips. 

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The Last of the True Cowboys?

It took six pairs of boots, 240 horseshoes, and 24 months for Filipe Leite to ride on horseback from Canada to Brazil. The cowboy traveled 10,000 miles through 10 countries to reach his home in South America, an epic journey that has earned him a spot in the historic Long Rider's Guild, an international association of equestrian explorers that requires its members to ride at least 1,000 continuous miles. 

We last caught up with Leite back in 2012, when he was only three states into his journey and about to cross the infamous and treacherous Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. Since then, the cowboy has snuck through jungles full of drug traffickers, ridden bulls, encountered endless bureaucratic obstacles, and experienced unending generosity on the trail. As he nears the final stretch of his journey, we asked him for an update.

OUTSIDE: Aside from countless miserable border crossings, what has been the most difficult part of the ride?
LEITE: Keeping my horses healthy. I have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with these animals for the past two years. As we made our way south, we created a bond only comparable to that of father and son. When I didn't have the basics to offer them, like water or a pasture to graze, it broke my heart. We crossed many countries where vets were extremely hard to find and medication for horses even more so. Keeping my animals healthy required me to work extremely hard and become a bit of a vet myself.

This Long Ride has also been full of dangers. We crossed paths with a grizzly in Montana. One of the horses (Bruiser) fell in a deep ditch in New Mexico. The other (Frenchie) was hit by a truck in Southern Mexico, and the third (Dude) walked into a cattle guard in Nicaragua—nearly breaking his leg. I remember having Dude's head on my lap after finally calming him down while he lay there with his front right hoof stuck in that cattle guard thinking I was going to lose him. These were by far the worst moments of the trip. These horses are an extension of my soul; they are my children, my heroes, my everything.

What type of schedule do you maintain to give the horses, and yourself, much-needed rest?
On a Long Ride like mine, there can be no set schedule. You must always listen to your horses and let them rest as they need it. I always try to ride no more than 30 kilometers [nearly 19 miles] daily and allow my ponies to rest for a day or two every four to five days of riding. This has been a good system for us. I have also stopped for a month at times in order to give them ample time to rest or recover from an injury.

Scariest moment of the ride?
Hearing a husband trying to kill his wife with five gunshots just outside my window in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I will never forget her yells of desperation as the gunfire silenced her pleas.

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What about the loneliest moment of the trip?
The loneliest moment of the trip was crossing a mountain in southern Wyoming. I spent several days riding without seeing another human being. It was only the horses and I, and I had an extremely hard time finding water for them. I remember coming down that mountain into a town of 25 people, swallowing my tears. I ended up staying with an elderly gentleman who lives by himself in a ranch home. It's funny how life works out. It was one of the deepest connections I made on the journey.

You've traveled through jungles infested with drug traffickers and passed through dangerous cities. Was there ever a time you've been afraid for your life or the life of your horses?
My entrance into Honduras from Guatemala was with the protection of a major Honduran drug lord. He not only rode with me but also hosted me in his fortress for two days. His house was in a little village in the mountains and sat behind high walls and a thick metal gate. His house was a mansion with plasma TVs, a home gym, and even a small petting zoo. While trying to sleep the first night, I kept imagining the shootouts and killings happening at the hands of the drug cartels in town nearby. Needless to say, it made it hard to get some shut-eye.

You've been posting video segments throughout your journey. Tell us how you film while riding alone, edit footage, and post updates while on the trail?
Filming my Long Ride has been extremely difficult! I have to get off my horse, set up the tripod and turn on the camera, get back on, ride by the camera, then go back to stop filming and fold up the tripod—all while making sure all three horses are watched after. My girlfriend, Emma Brazier, has helped me a lot in this aspect. The moments she has traveled with me, we have been able to capture moments I couldn't otherwise. The dispatches are edited in Nashville by OutWildTV. I'm very thankful for having such an amazing group of professionals behind me. It makes all the difference.

Most of your nights are spent camping in a tent. What key items have made this possible for two years?
My Leatherman is always on my belt. Other items include a one-burner stove for preparing dinner, my MEC Tarn 3 tent, MEC Mirage sleeping bag, and peanut butter. I've also been carrying Naomi's ashes. In Colorado, a gentleman who hosted me asked if I would carry his sister's ashes to Brazil with me. He told me how she loved horses and adventure and had recently passed away. He felt as if faith brought me to his home and that Naomi had to go on one last ride. I have carried Naomi's ashes all the way to Brazil and will spread them in the field where the horses will be retired.

You're trying to pass through the largest rodeo in Latin America, the Festa do Peao de Barretos. Think you'll make it?
Definitely! Because I left from the largest rodeo in Canada, the Calgary Stampede, it has always been my goal to pass through Barretos. This past year, they began sponsoring my trip and are currently building a monument of the horses and I that will be forever in the rodeo grounds for people to visit. On August 23, I will ride into the rodeo's arena as more than 50,000 people watch from the stands. I imagine it will be a very emotional moment.

What are your plans for after you arrive?
I will retire my horses at my parents' farm in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo, and work on a documentary on my ride. I will also be writing a book on my two-year journey from Canada to Brazil.

Can we expect to see a Journey America documentary from your travel?
Absolutely.

Catch all of Leite's Journey America videos at OutWildTV and follow along as he finishes his journey at @FilipeMasetti on Twitter and Instagram.

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The Land No Man Would Claim

"No man’s land" is a term that, to the modern ear, can sound like stepping onto a battlefield. In fact, the phrase refers back to the idea of unclaimed land (recorded as "namesmaneslande" in the Domesday survey of England of 1086) and still carries an echo of perennial hopes for free land, for places beyond the control of others. Ordinary places become extraordinary in no man’s land.

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Such in-between places remind us how dependent we are on borders—that our sense of order and certainty draws deeply from the knowledge that we are in governed territory. No man’s lands may be vast stretches of unclaimed land or tiny scraps left over from the planning of cities, though the uncertainty of the no man’s land is especially keenly felt in places that the outside world refuses to recognize or that appear to be between borders.

The notion that places might slip down between borders led me on a geographical quest. I went looking for the farthest possible distance between the border posts of two contiguous nations, to see how far they could be stretched apart.

Most border posts face each other. A change of signage, a different flag, a line on the road, all combine to signal that no sooner have you stepped out of one country than you have arrived in another. But what happens if you keep on opening up that space?A few years ago, with the help of hours spent blinking at the tiny fonts favored on travelers’ Internet chat forums, I found what I was looking for. Along a road between Senegal and Guinea in West Africa the distance between border posts is 27 kilometers.

It is not the world’s only attenuated border area. The Sani Pass, which runs up to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho from South Africa, is the most famous. It’s a rough road, although much visited by tourists in 4x4s seeking out the highest pub in Africa, which sits near the top of the pass. The drama of the trip is heightened by the thrill that comes from learning that this is no man’s land. The South Africa border control, complete with "Welcome to South Africa" signs, is 5.6 kilometers away from the Lesotho border office.

Another specimen is to be found in the mountainous zone between border posts on the Torugart Pass that connects China and Kyrgyzstan. Central America also has a nice example in Paso Canoas, a town that can appear to be between Panama and Costa Rica. It is habitually described as no man’s land because, having left through one border post, you can go into the town without passing through immigration to enter the other country. Some visitors relish the impression that the town around them is beyond borders. Partly as a result, Paso Canoas has developed a darkly carnival atmosphere, as if it were some kind of escaped or twilight place.

What these gaps reflect back at us is our own desires, especially the wish to step outside, if only for a short time, the claustrophobic grid of nations. We probably already suspect that it’s an illusion. Shuffling forward in a queue and making it past the passport officer does not mean you are, at that exact moment, leaving or entering a country. Such points of control exist to verify that you are allowed to enter or leave. Their proximity to the borderline is a legal irrelevance.

Yet this legal interpretation fails to grasp either the symbolic importance of the border point or the pent-up urge to enter ungoverned territory.The fact that Paso Canoas is split by the Panama– Costa Rica border rather than actually being between borders doesn’t stop people from describing it as an "escaped zone."Similarly, the steep valley up the Sani Pass is nearly all in South Africa, and the road down from Senegal into Guinea is always in one nation or another, but that isn’t how travelers experience it or even what they want.

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The attraction of these in-between spaces has a lot to do with the fact that they are on land. Going through passport control at an airport provides no comparable thrill, even though international airspace is far more like a genuine no man’s land than any number of dusty miles on the ground. It seems that escaping the nation-state isn’t all that is going on here. There is a primal attraction to entering somewhere real, a place that can be walked on, gotten lost in, even built on, and that appears to be utterly unclaimed.

Some of the overland tourist trips that occasionally rumble along the Senegal–Guinea highway offer camping in the no man’s land as part of the package. Like other examples, it’s a zone that provokes people to muse on allegiance and belonging. In his essay Life Between Two Nations, the American travel writer Matt Brown describes encounters with villagers along the Senegal–Guinea road that provoke speculation on the nature of national identity:

I stopped my bike to chat with the woman pounding leaves. I asked in French (my Pular only goes so far), "Is this Guinea?" "Yes," she answered. Surprised that she even understood French, I posed a follow-up question. "Is this Senegal?" I asked. "Yes," came the reply.

A little later Brown sits on "a nationless rock" and imagines these villagers as freed from the "archaic, nonsensical national borders drawn up by greedy European leaders at the Conference of Berlin over 100 years ago." Stretching out border posts does seem to break the seal on the national unit. The resultant gap may not be of much legal import, but for travelers on the ground it creates a sense of openness and possibility.

Yet while travelers may relish this expansiveness, the consequences for those who have to live and work in such places can be less positive, such as heightened insecurity and a sense of abandonment. This is one of the reasons why African states have been trying to close the gap in such anomalous spaces. The African Development Fund, which supports economic infrastructure projects across the continent, has made "establishing juxtaposed checkpoints at the borders" of its member states a priority, including at the Guinea–Senegal border.

What most concerns the fund’s members is the impact that these distant border posts have on the flow of trade. Along the Guinea–Senegal route there are nightmare tales of vehicles being sent back and forth by officials who keep asking for new documentation or demanding new bribes. In-between land can easily turn into a place of bureaucratic limbo where both travelers and locals are uniquely vulnerable to tiresome and corrupt officialdom. Patches of ground "between" nations are places that can be thought of as free, but they are also places where we are reminded why people willingly give up freedoms for the order and security of being behind a border. 

Excerpt from Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Copyright © 2014 by Alastair Bonnett. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Do Animals Feel Love?

There is “absolutely no doubt that animals love,” says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals. What makes him so sure? Years of observing wolves, coyotes and other animals in their natural habitats.

“A long-term close relationship, commitment to another person,” Bekoff says. “You travel with them, you defend territory and food, you have a family, you miss one another while you’re apart.”

That loving behavior he observed is supported by an experiment detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Dogs (and Cats) Can Love.” In the experiment, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University Paul Zak collected blood samples from a dog and a goat after they played with one another. He then measured the animals’ levels of oxytocin, or “the neurochemical of love.”

The dog had a 48 percent increase in oxytocin, meaning it viewed the goat as a friend. The goat, however, was enraptured. “It had a 210 percent increase in oxytocin,” Zak explains. “At that level of increase, within the framework of oxytocin as the ‘love hormone,’ we essentially found that the goat might have been in love with the dog.”

And what of those animals that pair up for life, such as certain types of birds? Although penguins don't mate for life, they can sustain long-term relationships, says Dee Boersma, the cirector of the Magellanic Penguin Project at the University of Washington. One pair she observed was together for 16 years.

Boersma’s Ph.D. student Jeffrey Smith studies why female penguins, given the choice, will pick one male as her mate over another, but they have yet to pinpoint a reason. “We’re not sure if it’s a behavioral thing or if she sees a nest that she likes,” he says. Could this X factor be love? 

Boersma cites a story of seeming heartbreak among Galapagos penguins. When a male penguin disappeared, his mate remained in the nest waiting for him. Even when another male lured her away, she continued to return to the old nest.

“Was she pining away for her love?” Boersma asks. “She was distressed but was it love? With a bird brain is it the same as human love?” Perhaps not, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less like love, just different.

“It’s not to say that dog love is the same as human love,” says Bekoff, “but your love might not be the same as mine.”

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