Jun 30, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa –  I meet another journalist aboard the Pride of Africa. Jacques is scouting for a TV-show, the Afrikaans equivalent to Saturday Night Live in the States, he explains.

I write a film traveler column for Moviemaker, so we yap about the industry. How skimpy do the starlets dress at the Durban July horse race? Is the Cape Town Film Commission helpful?

Does he know the actress Sandi Schultz, my cousin's stepmother?

Big comedy double-take. "Know her? She was just on my show three days ago! Her medical drama, Binnelanders, is very popular here."

Jacques punches a few buttons and hands the cell phone across. Sandi's smooth voice welcomes me to South Africa. We all make vague plans to rendezvous later in the city.

The luvvie world is a small one indeed.

And one I routinely flee.

Which I do again, opting instead for Chinese, Chardonnay and slot machines with Miss Betty from Dallas, Texas. We split a nightcap in the hotel bar, all palm fronded and tinkling with lounge piano classics.

"I needed this," she says. "Thanks. You could have been out jet-setting."

I raise my glass and clink hers. "A female journalist disappeared in Joburg last week, I heard. Suddenly an expensive night of cocktails and taxi cabs in a strange city, alone, didn't sound like such a bright idea.

"Plus, a new friend is far more important."

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa –  Here's my big Out of Africa moment: I hobo aboard Rovos Rail for a few hours.

The "Pride of Africa" is the world's most luxurious train. So I wear my Finsbury Park pashmina and Jackie-O sunglasses – said to mask authorial poverty – while sniffing over the tray of crustless cucumber sandwiches. Naturally, I sip champers, dahling.

Then I ruin the whole colonial act, by hanging off the caboose's viewing platform like a spaniel in a truck bed, jowls aflap.

"Liam," I tell my lil' buddy, "we are the only white people on the rails."


"At every station, the passengers – the folks waving – are black. They're probably returning to the townships or suburbs after work."

"Who cares?" Liam is, after all, just seven. Ariel the Mermaid is on his mind, not the aftershocks of apartheid: as it should be.

"We care. That's why we're outside. Because we can see behind factory walls and into backyards from here. We can watch normal people commuting. We shout jokes back and forth at stops and learn what they're like – a little bit, at least."

I almost quote Tom Swick's Columbia Journalism Review article: "What can you know – and feel – about a place when you don't meet the people who live in it? We learn through human contact, and the knowledge that we gain is of infinitely greater value than any number of practical tips. Similarly, it is through human contact that we open our hearts. Enlightenment and love – there are no more compelling reasons to travel, or write about it."

Except I realize I'm being that colonial classic – the pompous bore – and pull back from the brink.

Jun 29, 2006

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa –  "Rurrrarrr," Kaya exhales.

Maybe I'm petting the giant cat too hard? Or is my mild herbivore scent signaling"prey"? I recoil.

"No, no," the handler assures me. "He's purring."


A "cheetah encounter" costs about $US11 at Spier, a Cape Dutch village-turned-tourism-enclave. Though promised 2-3 minutes each, we're hustled along – a photo-op assembly line, as if Kaya were a glad-handling politician.

Then again, he numbers among the fastest land mammals, so perhaps the pace is appropriate.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –  Today we drink wine. First in the elegant Cape-colonial surrounds of Vergelegen, then at Fairview vineyard.

Seven-year-old Liam and I wander outside, despite the goblet-sized raindrops. Because nothing could dampen the hilarity of goats on a tower.

Several billies munch hay on a ramp, which spirals around a fairytale-esque folly. "Goats and castles are my family's crest," I tell Young Liam. "You know how knights wore coats-of-arms? Each family had a different heraldic symbol. Except ours is bogus, because Castlemans were just servants. So this is extra funny."

"Goats are always funny," he replies, then hurtles on to a more exciting topic. "Hey, I found a goldfish in the fountain. It's stuck."

No, kiddo. The bloated, bleached critter is clearly deceased. I dread the explanation, the waterworks, the grim premonitions of mortality shadowing his sunny soul.

"I think it's dead, honey," I say.

"Oh," he frees the carcass from a small weir. "Well, I'd better wash my hands, then, I guess."


Inside, I sample Goats du Roam, Bored Doe and other pun-tastic blends (the Goatfather, unfortunately, isn't available yet). While the Pinotage Viognier is quite excellent, I know my fate lies in another direction.

Castleman Family Crest Beer Steins. Who could resist?

Jun 28, 2006

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –  Continuing the black-and-white color theme, I meet Sister Mary, a drag queen in a chiffon nun costume.

"You have such a cute accent," she declares. "Are you Canadian?"

"Hell, no!" I say. "That's really offensive. Those northerners are all thugs."

Mary pauses, then hoots. "You're funny. Can I hug you?"

We've traded wisecracks, why not share the love?

She crushes me to her habit's bosom. My nose hits well below the white bib. The good sister is quite a substantial Bride of Christ.

I wish we had more time to chat. How does one become a drag nun? Might the sexless penguin suit negate the glamor of the genre?

Later I discover a grand tradition of convent cross-dressing, including the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco.

Controversial scholar Camille Paglia explains they are a metaphor for our sexually dyspeptic culture: "Perhaps today, when divas of the thunderous dimensions of Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis aren't available for parody, nuns are a vestige of the Bitch Goddess Triumphant," she suggests in a Salon column.

"I mean, just how many laughs can you wring out of a Mariah Carey or a Celine Dion, once you get past their Oscars fashion howlers? Drag queens aping nuns may be obscurely miming a myth of the Bad Mother, the sour or impacted mammary whose plumbing has gone dry."

Well then. See how much South Africa has to teach me?

The tour operator promised diversity and here it is, complete with a ruffled petticoat and Oedipal overtones.

Good thing I'm not one then. But I will babble on-air, July 31st at 3.30pm Eastern time.

The Atlanta-based, one-hour show, Escapes, broadcasts on AM 1620. Radio Sandy Springs also streams online to Windows PCs.

Feel free to call in lavish praise about the blog. Direct all packing-tip questions to Rick Steves, please. He cares, he really does. I just make snarky comments about inflatable neck pillows.

Jun 27, 2006

SIMONS TOWN, South Africa –  Penguins infest the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula. The bossy birds colonized a posh suburban beach in 1983 and soon enraged neighbors with their stench. Not to mention the donkey-like bray that gave rise to their common name: Jackass Penguins.

Ornithologists recently tried to bowdlerize the common name to "South African Penguin". But that's no fun to say. Jackasses they are and jackasses they shall remain.

Wee waddling jackasses the size of candlestick bowling pins, in fact. And horribly, horribly self-important.

The National Park now manages Boulders Beach, home to nearly 3,000 penguins, who feed on pilchards and anchovies. They nest among the scrub and sand-dunes, oblivious to tourists mere feet away on the grey-bleached boardwalks.

Bill, one of my companions, best sums up the sublime sight: "You just don't expect to see penguins with palm trees. You expect to see penguins and freeze your ass off."

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –  The city wraps around a working port, which delights me. I miss much of breakfast, photographing cranes and containers.

"What were you looking at?" one of my companions asks, puzzled.

"I used to live on a British narrowboat," I confess. "I have this thing for rusty hulks. Um ... shall we call it industrial chic?"

She turns and blatantly begins another conversation. About shopping.

Oh dear. Wrong answer. For this crowd, at least.


But I can't leave well enough alone. A few minutes later, I grab her arm. "Look at the sandwich board!"

A man strides past the hotel's conservatory, flashing a grin and a sign: "All hail Sir Richard Branson, savior of the South African people?"

"What does it mean?" I ponder.

"Who cares?" she digs at her Eggs Benedict.

One of guides puts me out of my misery. "British Airways and South African Airways just canceled the only direct route to the US," Sandra explains. "Now they're stonewalling Branson, who wants to fill the gap with Virgin. But he's fighting hard and we South Africans love him for it.

"We need the ties to the outside world, to stronger economies, for conditions to improve here."

Jun 26, 2006

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –  "The Indian Ocean and the Atlantic mix there," a seven-year-old announces.

"No, wait. There!" He jabs a finger offshore, where currents swirl in paisley patterns.

The line of demarcation should be clear, according to local lore. The battle-of-the-blues is, after all, one of the Natural Wonders of World.

Sunset honies the coastal crags and distracts from the debate. We're atop Table Mountain, Cape Town's flat-topped icon.

Already, my blanket enthusiasm is tempered. Corrugated steel shanties stretch over the horizon in the townships. Champagne is hard to swallow, after such sights.

"At least we've managed to wire in electricity," our guide Barbara says. "We are trying to alleviate the poverty. It's South Africa's biggest challenge."

My companions – bank travel-club organizers – clink their bubbly flutes. I stare towards Robben Island, the storm-lashed fortress that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 years, now a symbol of anti-apartheid's triumph.

How can I understand anything about this country in a few days? And from such a bubble of privilege?

I wander over to the waitress. "Do you pour champagne all day up here?"

"Yes," she laughs. "It's a good job. And the view is pretty."

"Ever walked up?"

"Maybe someday. The hill is so steep."

"What do I absolutely need to see while I'm here?"

Suddenly serious, the black woman urges: "Robben Island. It is the heart of the people."

"Have you been?"

"Not yet. I am afraid."

"Of ghosts?"

"No. Of my emotions. I will be so overwhelmed. I will cry and cry."

Jun 25, 2006

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –  Mist bands the mountains' roots. I stop on the airport tarmac, gobsmacked. But, of course ... in a dry climate, moisture wicks off the low scrublands...

Dawn in Cape Town, after a 14-hour flight. I inhale deeply – dust and saltwater and fynboos, the fine-leaved indigenous flora.

Africa. How I dreamed of this land.

Here, at last, every sight, every scent, arrests me utterly. I grin and grin, punch-drunk on a new continent.

Jun 24, 2006

LONDON –  Anna's left frantic messages on my mobile phone and email accounts. She expected me yesterday.

"Um, I, er, completely told you the wrong date," I finally confess. "And I'm only here for the afternoon, not overnight."

Last time, she accidentally locked me out of the flat for five hours. Our track record is abysmal this year.

We are highly trained professionals. Do not attempt this at home.


Too much time on the road makes me careless about scheduling, never a strong suit anyway.

Anna lives this life too. She understands.


As usual, she draws me a bath, scented with products as glamorous as her good self. We chatter through the doorway, milking every brief moment with a dear friend.

Ms Melville-James and I met at the Oxford Mail seven years ago. She swept into the newsroom, a powerhouse freelancer from the nationals, bellybutton ring agleam. The men drooled. The women glared. The editors scrabbled for the dress leaflet, a document so dated that it didn't even address piercings.

Soon we were treated as one person: generic trendy young woman. The Bolshy She-Beast, we'd joke.

"Amanda, where's Anna?"

"Let's see, consulting our Gemini twin-mindlink, I'd say she's stuck in traffic."

Often we were late for work together, if she stayed on the narrowboat to avoid the London-Oxford commute.

She taught me to wear chic satin pajamas instead of polar fleece. I taught her to navigate a six-foot gangplank in heels. Together we sat and schemed until we catapulted out of that small-town newspaper.


Here we are now, all grown-up and globe-trotting.

But still utterly unpunctual...

Jun 23, 2006

NEW YORK –  Rail failure and traffic delays devour the three-hour safety margin I'd planned between Connecticut and New York's JFK airport.

Marie texts comforting messages like "you might make it, if everyone holds their breath and leans forward!"

I'm grateful, but dubious. Rightly so. The bus deposits me at the terminal 55 minutes before an international flight.

Somehow, against every rule and precedent, American Airlines permits me to check in. "I've never seen this before," the clerk states. "Don't even wait for the shuttle. Just RUN."

I do. Thus I hustle aboard all breathless. And in a petty moment of control-freak compensation, I take my vaccines. The smurf-blue capsule for malaria. The pink-and-white for typhoid.

Smug, I settle into my shawl and inflatable neck pillow.


Then I bolt awake, supremely nauseous. Because I had my hepatitis boosters two days ago. And they always, always make me sick, especially on airplanes.

I never learn. I always delay the bloody shots till the last moment. Who wants to be ill, after all?

Then Southeast Asia looms. Or Zimbabwe. And suddenly three days of queasiness seem infinitely preferable to a lifetime of chronic crud.


Like a pocket-protected teacher's pet, I raise my hand and beg the steward, "can I please throw up in the lavatory before takeoff?"

(Obviously I lived in Britain much too long. A red-blooded Yank would have simply barfed into the bag without apology, I'm sure.)

He nods. I unbelt and run. Barely make it.

Afterwards, I hunker down and contemplate my expensive typhoid vaccine, completely undigested in a pool of bile and blue disinfectant.


Honestly? I fish the pill out, swaddle it in tissue and jam the foul wad in my purse. Oral typhoid capsules should be taken 48 hours apart. I can't feasibly replace the dose, given my intensive travel schedule.

What's worse? Impaired protection from typhoid or contracting a new flesh-eating disease from Flight AA100's loo?

Don't get me wrong: the bowl was clearly tidy, especially before departure.

But clean enough to eat from?

I don't think so.

Jun 22, 2006

BRISTOL, Connecticut –  Mountain laurel lumps across the low hills: pale pink blooms on the broccoli clusters. My 87-year-old grandmother and I are daytripping to see the state flower.

Twenty years ago, she chauffeured me. Now I shepherd Emma in the borrowed Subaru: over the river and through the woods...

I am a much, much better driver than Grammy, who once ran OVER another car –  sailing up and across its roof – then landed in a cemetery. My grandfather, a surgeon, unwittingly treated the victims at the Emergency Room, which created some insurance-claim excitement.

This trip is less eventful. We cruise smoothly through the wooded ridges and valleys, the chocolate-box villages, the landscape of my early childhood. The scale irritates now, after greedy gulps of the West. Even the budget bracket is spectacular out there. From my desk, for example, I can glimpse Mount Rainier's cone, a violet ghost on the horizon, and a slice of the sapphire Ship Canal.

“That's big sky country ... for Ballard,” a friend once remarked.

Very true.

The mountain laurel, on the other hand, is a pretty, two-minute payoff for 1.5 hours of driving. Stringing out the anticlimax, I pull onto the verge.

And then Emma produces one of her immortal quotes, which makes the whole trip worthwhile.

“Romance today is hard,” she remarks. “It's not like when I was young. Why your grandfather and I went on a first date at the morgue!”

Oh, for simpler days...

Jun 21, 2006

NEW YORK –  En route to work, I stop to see travel writer Marie Javins and my 87-year-old grandmother.

Work happens to be in southern Africa this week. Ms Javins lurks around New York City like most sensible American authors. Grammy lives in Connecticut, in the Sopranoland's heart of darkness...

"Why don't we buy a cake?" Marie suggests at Grand Central Station. Fresh off a redeye flight (the first of three, Seattle-Cape Town), I stare blankly. Sweets are not really my style. Especially so early in the morning.

Several hours later, the shoe drops. Oh yeah, she meant birthday cake. As in my birthday. Today.


Aunt Jane says a prayer for my jetlag on the Miracle Hotline. The results aren't immediate, but it's the thought that counts, right?


And so I celebrate my birthday in Bristol, bleary, but happy. Every painting, every porcelain figurine, every strip of wallpaper here is intimately familiar: a static tableau, a still life stretching back decades. Only the players have evolved on this stage.

As tradition dictates, I fold the mirror wings around my face in the downstairs bathroom. My pug-nosed profile echoes into eternity.

"Thirty-one," I announce, testing myself.

I study my smile lines.

No It-girl panic attack. No tightening of the mortal coil.

Just a slight hankering for more ravioli and a nap.

Jun 18, 2006

SEATTLE, Washington –  The Inappropriate Beau returned home.

I was, in turns, gracious, chummy and an absolute cow. After much strangeness and snarkiness at my birthday party, we agreed to shelve the public appearances until friend – not ex – is once again our primary mode.

Some people maintain this is impossible. But our years of companionship far outweigh the odd, ill-fated romantic outbursts.

Plus, the man owes me big beers, by way of apology.

And IB's the only reliable witness to my dive bar diva moment, after an unexpected spanking in the Sloop Tavern.


Imagine the outrage: I'd traveled the world for a decade – even lived in Rome, surely the slaphappy capital of female indignity, for two years – without any unwelcome manhandling. Then, mere blocks from my sedate Seattle home, some frog-faced goon gets frisky in my local pub.

He received the worst of both continents: my specialty, it seems. The brisk blow of an offended European lady combined with the roundhouse of the Million Dollar Baby.

His head wobbled on his neck stem. A handprint bloomed on his cheek.

"What did you do that for?" my attacker whined, clutching his face.

And for once, the words arrived when I needed them.

"You slap my ass, I slap your face, asshole," I replied. Then I grabbed my tankard and stalked to a booth. Frog-face was deep-sixed, dragged back to pay the bill and apologize, then bounced again.

The poor bastard shipped out to Alaska on a fishing boat the next day. With his former in-laws, the ingrates who'd bet him $40 to assault me.

Now there's a summer to remember, I'm sure: "Hey Froggy, remember when you went a-courtin' and Miss Mousey whupped your sorry ass? Uh-huh."


Thus IB and I must remain in touch – so we can laugh about the arc of 15 years from Skagit Valley brambles to the Battle of the Ballard Sloop.

Oh, he's an idiot. Once for running off with a German Backpacker, twice for telling me his new galpal has a diamond-filled tooth. Because we all know I lack the self-control to conceal such a prize tidbit.

But, with any luck, we'll lump along. Friends, after all, can be rare in cyborg-saturated modern life.

Waste not, want not...

Jun 15, 2006

SEATTLE, Washington –  Father's Day is fast approaching. Sometimes it falls on my birthday – Midsummer's Night Eve – which always feels like a rather neat hat trick.

John Castleman is far away, squinting across the desert to the red-mawed Superstition Mountains of Arizona. I miss him, here in the Emerald City, where snow-shadowed peaks gather into a gilded cage.

Long ago, he introduced me to the poet Gary Snyder. Now I buy two volumes of Left Out in the Rain. I want us to read the same words, thousands of miles apart.

The trail fades in the meadow
cairns at each rise to the pass
ash-scars, a ring of stone
– we camped here one other summer –

That was the summer I walked away from childhood. The year we guided together in the backcountry of the the Olympics, the North Cascades. He pointed out Snyder's Sourdough Mountain lookout. Thar's Beats in them thar hills, daughter...

My mother often marvels how similar our stride is on the trail. How our hummingbird brains align.

"You're definitively his child," she jokes. "We're not so sure about the maternity, though."

My father raised me, long before such gender-role-defiance was fashionable. He taught me to backpack, write and – most importantly – appreciate the company of men.

The staccato of his typewriter isn't my first memory, but it's among my most precious.

And so I return again and again to Snyder's "Seaman's Ditty". Though a love poem, the last two stanzas lodge in my head.

I've travelled the lonely oceans
And wandered the lonely towns.
I've learned a lot and lost a lot,
And proved the world was round.

Now if we'd stayed together,
There's much we'd never've known – 
But dreary books and weary lands
Weigh on me like a stone.

Jun 11, 2006

TAOS, New Mexico –  Don't mention Willa Cather in Taos. Really. Just don't. The question "do you have a copy of Death Comes to the Archbishop" is nearly explosive as Germans asking a British tabloid: "where does this hatred come from?"

Ole Willa, apparently, didn't do her homework. The classic 1927 novel – based on just a few weeks' journey – fingered the wrong bad guy, according to locals.

Gordon Johnston sets me straight over a plate of homemade brownies. He's an amateur historian and proprietor of the Little Tree Inn, along with his wife Maggie. Their bed-and-breakfast – rumored to be the only 100% adobe one in the States – is the best I've experienced. Ever. Anywhere. The landscape, decor, cuisine, camaraderie and charismatic animals somehow blur into the sublime, all appropriately chiaroscuro from the legendary light of Taos, New Mexico.

"What stories haven't been told?" I ask Gordon. Because I want to return and linger here, plundering his research library ... maybe while nibbling some of that mango-chutney-drenched Brie they leave under cheesecloth for peckish guests ...

He tells of battles, their fields long lost in the scrublands. Whiskey smugglers and gun runners elevated to territorial government posts. Railway barons and dodgy land grants. Humble farmers rising against corrupt officials. The true tale of Billy the Kid.

"He didn't drink, he went to Sunday School," Gordon protests. "OK, he was a bit of a juvenile delinquent: he stole laundry when he was 14. But he never robbed a bank or a stagecoach.

"Billy decides he's an outlaw, but the outlaws kick him out. He goes from family to family, begging to be taken in. Finally he was hired to be a cowboy and got caught in some ugly events.

"He wasn't a bad kid. And he certainly wasn't a gunslinger."

Enough, enough. I'm sold. I'll return. I may never leave.

Actually, I was sold when I discovered the excuse never to read Willa Cather again...

But don't tell the Johnstons or they may cut off the encouraging supply of white-chocolate scones.

Jun 10, 2006

TAOS, New Mexico –  Fools keep rustling our llama.

Brenda and I had fixed – more or less at random – on a brown-and-white animal. Damien is slender and smallish, so nervous interlopers sidle in, as if they just happened to stroll past with a handful of food pellets...

"B," I say to the Atlanta-based diva, "They're bogarting our beast."

"That's bullshit," she replies. "Let's get a better one."

And thus we meet Hobbes the Abused 4-H Llama. Hobbes ... a.k.a. "Hobstacle" and "Hobstinate".


Hobbes is the camelid nobody wants. He's large and feisty, with good conformation (llama-breeder-speak for "good posture and overall shape"). The problem is that a 14-year-old "hit him upside the head with a 2x4 repeatedly," before Stuart Wilde rescued him.

This gentle fellow runs Wild Earth Llama Adventures. He rehabilitates unwanted critters as pack animals. Poor Hobbes was so distressed, he spent months munching grass. "Then one day he finally crowded in with the herd, as if saying, 'take me too!'" Stuart notes.


So Hobbes treks. But that does not mean Hobbes behaves.

Don't get me wrong: In our company, he doesn't commit any truly offensive llama acts: spitting to establish dominance or castrating other males with his hooked fighting teeth...

But his impatient hum – a sweet note elsewhere – is more a strangled bellow. Hobbes wants to go. NOW. Very fast. At the front of the group. And exactly where he pleases.


Our friend Jonathan helps wrangle the llama. This requires a pretty firm character and strong arm.

Hobbes balks. Hobbes blunders into the underbrush, devouring shrubs. Hobbes races down the trail, impatient, then freezes when he realizes the herd has fallen far behind and disappeared over the horizon.

The Hobstacle hangs over my shoulder, groaning with impatience. "Goooooooooo!"


We get the pets and children we deserve, according to conventional wisdom. But pack llamas?

Jun 9, 2006

TAOS, New Mexico –  My horse surges up the rain-dampened trail.
I perfect my cowgirl slouch: one hand on the saddlehorn, the other gripping the reins (no English pertness in the Sangre de Cristos Mountains, thank you very much).

As a city slicker, I have been loaned a magnificent slicker – roughly the size and color of a school bus. Honestly, I've owned smaller tents. Two-person tents, even.

But it's the outfitter's boots I covet. No amount of mud could dim their cherry-red glory.

"What's the story?" I tease. "Did you take those off a dead man?"

Al Johnson, owner of AA Taos Ski Valley Wilderness Adventures, chuckles. He's a yarn-spinner, all right, and delivers true to form.

"One year, I hired a good-looking hand, a college boy, with red boots," he explains. "Almost every female client rode right behind him, saying, 'those sure are pretty red boots!'

"The next year, I hired another young man with red boots. Wouldn't you know? Same thing happened.

"So I decided to get myself a pair – handmade with my initials. I showed up, walking tall, at the start of the season. But durned if every woman didn't ride close to the handsome new guide, saying, 'hey, there, those sure are pretty yellow boots!'"


When not musing on mountain couture, Al guides dudes – riding, hunting or snowmobiling. Beyond a job, it's an avocation.

"It's like this," he exaggerates his drawl. "I get to ride a pretty horse on a pretty day with pretty people in a pretty place for a pretty nickel ... well, that's a pretty good way of life.

"Basically, I just want to help people touch the hand of God in the wilderness."

Jun 8, 2006

TAOS, New Mexico – Lightening whips the air. Hard nuggets of ice slice the haze under Wheeler Peak. The group skittles downhill, shrieking. The Kix-sized pellets smart and ten of us gallump into one vehicle: a game of sardines for sardonic professionals.

The windshield wipers smear slush. "Let's go shopping," someone suggests.

Aw, no. C'mon...

Except we noodle about boutiques in Arroyo Secco, an S-curve colonized by hippies. They hawk handmade jewelry, vintage salt and pepper shakers, pottery thrown on-site. I purchase a cobalt mug and organic-fiber potholder silk-screened with a crow – neither of which I need.

But they'll hang in the kitchen, reminders of this day, this grumpy mountain shrouded in afternoon clouds, this accident – be-jeaned amateurs in the fickle-weathered Rockies – that dwindled to anecdote.

Jun 7, 2006

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico –  Jetlagged and cranky, a half dozen travel writers hunch over coffee at the Albuquerque's Sunport. They're idly ripping on "the Starbucks Experience" – cloned fern-bar chic.

"And they're squeezing out the local bean roasters," I add. "Or worse, buying the brand and filling the bags with Bucky's substandard beans.

"I wrote on a piece on it last year for a British magazine. The backlash is growing. You know how the Starbucks website has an outlet locator – punch in your zipcode and it reveals the closest store?"

A colleague interjects: "You mean the closest six stores. On the same block."

"Exactly. Well, a Californian artist collective created its antithesis – Delocator.net – that identifies local cafes nearby."

One writer was strangely silent, studying her rings. Fancy rings. Rings of precious metals and real gemstones.

A finger pointed in accusation. "You've got stock," a young woman hissed.

When the wolf pack corners its own, the results aren't pretty.

Gonna be a long few days...