Happy birthday to me.

March 21, 2023

Turned 50 today. As the Poet once wrote (in Kenneth Rexroth’s translation), “Life whirls by like drunken wildfire.”


March 11, 2023

Combing through the results of a ctrl+f search of my hard drive for “induced seismicity” while putting together a lightning talk entitled “Shake It Up: Electronic Terraforming, Radios Made of Mountains, and Tactical Seismic Induction” for a panel on geopolitical topologies at AAG 2023 later this month, I turned up a cache of the annual recaps I used to post every January on Facebook. The last one covered my first year with Eva, and went up a few days before I finally BASE jumped off the platform.

I have no idea how, or why, I would actually do it, but I’m tempted to try recapping highlights from the whole last decade at some level of detail (e.g., “Fording the river Uzh at flood stage, naked, pack above my head, across the invisible threshold of the Zone…”), in anticipation of my looming 50th birthday.

While I consider that folly, here’s a snapshot of how I used to roll:

“2017 began in Amarillo, TX, on a gravitational slingshot around the epicenter of the 1930’s Dust Bowl. It ended on the industrial outskirts of Nashville, TN, in a double-wide trailer bar called Santa’s Pub, as Santa fired his Taser at one of the customers. I covered a lot of ground in between: six countries on three continents, 31 U.S. states, and 17 Indian reservations. I finished 210 books this year, none of which made me happier than Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi. It’s a work of alien genius. Something new, inexplicable and new. I met someone, fell for her, and our relationship bloomed. I bought a car. I moved out of my hotel room into an apartment. After eight months of living in it without furniture, I bought a bed. I climbed Mt. Whitney. And walked across Death Valley. Twice. Bounded up the 1,974 stone stairs from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, gut sick, with a black dog for a psychopomp. Encountered two mountain lions, a white bat, a vortex of white moths, and a mating dance of Purple Emperors. A butterfly folded its wings – the tips of which were the precise color of the rock it landed on – and vanished. “Camouflage,” our Quechua guide whispered. It was a year of ruins. Ghost towns. Land art. Petroglyphs. Geoglyphs. Ship wrecks. Earthships. Rainbow Mountain. A glass church dedicated to the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. An abandoned power station hulking over the French Quarter. A pyramid palimpsest in the Miraflores district of Lima built before 650 CE by a matriarchy of shark worshipers. Lizard tunnels beneath Los Angeles. Caves. Calderas. Exoplanetary landforms like Vasquez Rocks and the Trona Pinnacles. An underground ice lake impregnated with Arctic algae. An incipient continental margin. I saw the Very Large Array again and the Micrarium of the last zoology museum in London. Paid my respects to Rafe Sagarin in the grotto beneath the miniature Sea of Cortez he made at Biosphere-2 before some drunk asshole killed him. Admired 404 dire wolf skulls arranged like a prehistoric Andy Warhol in the La Brea Tar Pits museum. And saw a man crucified on the side of Highway 395. I caused a bivalve extinction event in San Francisco. Ate frog soup in Cuzco. And an exquisite altitudinal meal at Central. Brad and I walked the whole Mississippi River, in a sense. Eva and I did a cannonball run across the United States: 3,000 miles from Boston to Redlands in 2.5 days through Centralia, Cahokia, Picher, billboards for the Uranus Fudge Factory (“The Best Fudge Comes from Uranus!”), and other weirdness. I saw one of my favorite people get married. Invaded walled cemeteries in New Orleans after hours, searching for the tomb of Marie Laveau. Read Bunker Archaeology and did bunker archaeology – from San Pedro to Bergen. I peered into John Dee’s obsidian mirror. Burned my right eye on the light of a black sun. Tore a page from the Future Library. I watched something suck Hugo Reinert’s leg down into the mud – relinquishing it, after a brief struggle, with a sound I’d describe as “amorous”. I read a lot of Tang poetry. Wrote about Trinitite smuggling, Alexander the Great, Jinn sorcery, non-consensual gravity assays, and practical applications of induced seismicity. I retraced the overnight retreat from the Bronx to Coney Island taken in Sol Yurick’s classic street-gang novel The Warriors, yelling “Can you dig it? CAN YOUUU DIG IT??” in Riverside Park. A pleasure android from the new Blade Runner taught me how to play backgammon at Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. I read the Heart Sutra. Repeatedly. I wrote a tarot card. I bought a copy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at a monastery inside the San Andreas Fault. I climbed a Goldsworthy and smudged a Turrell. Ghostbusted haunted houses with Stacey and our mother, and learned that Satanists in Redlands have their own online dating site. I saw a UFO above Mr. Taco. Got a physical for the first time in five years and was told by the doctor, “In my professional opinion, you need to learn to sit still and be more careful.” I wriggled under the largest freestanding boulder in the world. Took a sound bath in an alien device for cellular regeneration. Like an idiot, I watched Ep. 8 of the new Twin Peaks alone in a dark hotel room and IMMEDIATELY fled in its aftermath to rejoin the human herd downstairs. “Got a light?” “Got a light?” I took in my first Eifman Ballet performance in the fifteen or so years since they used to party at my house. And Akram Khan’s powerful Until the Lions. Swooned over Thoreau’s phonetic transcriptions of birdsongs in his 8,000 page journal (to which I was tipped off by Elise Hunchuck, whose An Incomplete Atlas of Stones was another highlight this year). Staring at Thracian anthropodaemonic burial masks, I wondered (half-seriously) if Orpheus had hailed from Siberia. Trekked up to what’s left of St. Francis Dam, which felt like a necessary coda to Adam Rothstein’s ceremony at the Mulholland fountain in 2016: a water offering, sigils, the naming of names. Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. The sarcophagus of Seti I, framed in a four-story column of light under the Sir John Soane house. My graphological giftscape. The Green River knife that Chris Lauer made me. The perfume Mandy Keifetz concocted. The revelation of Krishna’s cosmic form at the Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum. Devotional chants at Hanuman Temple in the Neem Karoli Baba ashram: the other Taos hum. In our two-day London stay, Stacey and I visited the British Museum four times and its extraordinary new Scythian exhibit twice. The first time through rendered me speechless; the second left me with far too much to say. From my notes:

I find the idea that, in the process of mummification, Scythian men had their brains removed and replaced with horse hair quite moving. Mane hair, pine needles, and larch cones were stuffed into the mummy, so that the skull forever contained a horse in the forest. His horse, killed and interred beside him, supplied the horsehair. The horse itself was then masked, to transform it into other animals: deer & goats, initially; later, into griffins and other fantastical beasts. Having relinquished its horse-ness to the man, it must transmogrify. To complicate matters further, the rider had a death mask made, not for his face, but _from_ it, fused to it: a man-mask for the mind-horse. A mirror was then placed in front of his mask. But reflecting what? The man-face, back at itself? The chimera interred beside him, to preserve their autonomy in death? Or were both sides polished, radiating images outward like collapsed waveforms from their superposition _within_ the mirror — a tomb of bronze in the tomb of earth? So many transformations and reflections!

Given how difficult it’s been to remember even this much of 2017, I suppose my resolution for the year ahead should be to keep a journal. But I’d rather just live. I hope to see as many of you as possible in 2018. Let’s tear this whole thing down.”

Editor’s note: He did not tear the whole thing down, in 2018 or thereafter.

A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife

February 24, 2023

In January, I flew to New Zealand, where Myles Sutherland, the CEO of GeoCam, and I rendezvoused with Luke Reid, the Chief Technology Officer, at their office in Dunedin for in-depth conversations about the basic science of their work (now and in the future) and my various practice ideas, as well as the opportunity to observe their 3D cameras being invented, machined, assembled, and repaired. We also discussed the logistics of an artwork I would later title A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife.

Its premise: that I would be buried alive in a suit of elf armor from The Lord of the Rings, and then 3D visualized using ground penetrating radar. I wanted to work, deliberately, in a xenophenomenological medium for the first time – and had decided to make it easier for the radar to see me by wrapping my water-filled body with a more reflective material that had the additional benefit of making it easier to breathe with the equivalent weight of four or five large men made of dirt stacked on top of me, while also playing with the idea of place sensitivity, insofar as New Zealand has become conflated (uncomfortably so, to some) in the popular imagination with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And while radar has been previously used for archaeological surveys of grave sites, to find illegal burials, even to try to locate people buried alive, I would almost certainly be the first person to have ever laid still belowground for a portrait done with it.

Luke helped me to make a DIY chicken-wire haubergeon as a radar-reflective fallback, but through his personal connections, Sir Richard Taylor – the founder of the Wētā Workshop, which did the special effects, props, and costumes for the Lord of the Rings films – became aware of the project and authorized my use of a suit of plate mail belonging to him personally. A few days later, Myles and I flew to Wellington to meet the CEO of Reveal, Sam Wiffen, en route to collecting the armor.  

Before I travelled to New Zealand, Sam had offered me temporary use of a push-cart ground penetrating radar for the piece, as well as resources afterward to help interpret and visualize the data. After I arrived, he generously also arranged for the use of a property under development in the vicinity of Ōtaki, a full-size digger operated by J.P. Pritchard (one of the developers, who also piloted a quadrotor drone to help document the work), the services of an expert radar surveyor named Alex Fersterer who works for Reveal, and volunteered himself as a safety officer. 

While J.P. dug the grave and Myles got the GeoCam camera ready for the first of multiple ground-level 3D surveys he would conduct, Alex and Sam, acting as squires, helped me get into the armor. Rather than fiddle with all of the tiny leather ties, we used gaffer tape – figuring it would be a lot more efficient to get on and off, wasn’t going to show up on the radar, and wouldn’t even be visible in photographs after wrapping the armor in black garbage bags to protect it from dirt and moisture. 

Because elements of it didn’t fit properly, didn’t articulate the way they would have historically, and/or were attached with tape, the armor was challenging to walk in. And it was pretty much impossible to do anything else. I couldn’t sit down, or lean over, or even bend my knees. Actually, I couldn’t even walk so much as rigidly Frankenstein forward. As I awkwardly crested the lip of the hole shouting, “I’m an all-terrain knight!”, I was lucky not to have toppled over backward. Myles filmed my 4WD moment, barking with laughter, believing it was a real, and potentially hilarious, possibility. 

Inside the hole, Sam and Alex lowered me onto my back like a trust exercise. I was then inhumed – first, with the digger dropping dirt on me from a height; then, having paused briefly to reflect on the wisdom of that approach, by hand, with shovels, as the digger helped push dirt into the void from all around. 

We did two radar scans. Initially – out of consideration for my well-being, and that of the borrowed armor – they buried me in too shallow a grave. Alex got his push-cart stuck in the V-shaped fill repeatedly. I could feel him pressing down on top of me, even when he wasn’t rolling the wheels back and forth across my face. In the end, Sam declared that the radargram would probably “look like dogs’ balls” (a term of art, presumably).

I said I could handle more weight, so they doubled the overburden – to a depth of roughly half a meter. Sam thought this would be necessary to get an image that wasn’t completely “blown out” – i.e., rendered illegible by too much reflectivity. It was definitely heavier. Pieces of the armor gouged into me. The compression around my ribs was increased and made breathing more laborious. Eventually, they shoveled in enough dirt to flatten the grave, and spray painted a proper set of gridded survey lines on it. I was hardly able to feel them walking on top of me. The dirt was now piled too high for them to roll the cart over my face, however. We considered burying my head inside the helmet, but it would have required more care than we had time for (and probably a snorkel). So they left my face partially exposed, put the helmet on top, and crimped a dirt piecrust around it.  

After completing the second radar scan, everyone helped exhume me. As at other stages of the process, there was a lot of physical intimacy: in the armor, I was something between a person and an object. And the less I spoke, especially when my head was covered with the helmet, the more I was handled like material. After one of my long silences, Myles joked, “Guys, we’re presuming he’s still alive.” 

As they jawed about the upcoming Rugby World Cup, I was slowly, carefully, revealed. They dug me out with shovels first, and then by hand (as in archaeology or paleontology); then pulled me free from the dirt, limb by limb. Finally, Sam and Myles lifted me up from behind like a block, as if raising a monolith or totem pole, and Myles, not trusting my balance, held me upright until they could get the armor off. In the photos Alex snapped of us – because of a fisheye filter, the perspective, the fact that we stood at different levels, and that he is significantly taller than I am – Myles looks like a giant, and/or I a dwarf. We had accidently re-created an in-camera trick Peter Jackson used for Gimli and the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. More “place sensitivity,” I suppose.

Nothing looked scratched or dented. The tape came off without leaving any marks. I wriggled out of my carapace and got it stacked up in the crate, still wearing my indestructible Esri hoodie, black leather pants I’d bought at a secondhand women’s clothing store the day before, and a big shit-eating grin. That night, after dinner in a neighboring town, I cleaned the armor in a garage with an air compressor, CRC oil, a rough scour, and cotton rags. Then returned it to Wētā Workshop, to their complete satisfaction, the following day.

As a parting gift, Sam gave me a MALÅ Easy Locator Core ground penetrating radar. I had initially piqued his interest in a collaboration with the idea of fooling a radar into seeing something that isn’t there: a spoofed hole in the ground (e.g., a recreation of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in specific electromagnetic wavelengths, or an illusory pit of Tartarus detectable below the Campi Flegrei). This was his way of encouraging me to get after it. What we didn’t realize at the time is that – for reasons neither I nor the geophysicists at Reveal can make sense of – the radar had not seen something it should have: the armor. Our 3D radargram didn’t come out. 

Despite certain companies making irresponsible claims to the contrary, detecting living bodies underground with radar is difficult to do. Hence the idea of encasing myself in metal. It’s inexplicable to me that the armor, made as it was of steel and aluminum, and buried as I was under dry soil, wasn’t detected by a functioning radar operated by a qualified surveyor. But there it is. I am making experimental art, after all. And my practice – like all practices – involves trial, error, learning, iteration, and, occasionally, irritation. Is the radargram what A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife was actually “about”? Not exactly, no. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try it again. Next time, equipped with a SCUBA tank. 

Almost Auric.

February 22, 2023

Cards are starting to trickle in ahead of my 50th birthday (March 21st is the big day). The photo on this one, from my pal Jared Rogers (with whom I’ve shared countless adventures since we first met in a Portland, Oregon climbing gym, a week before our respective pre-divorce nuptials in the summer of 2009), is from the last day I was forty.

In 2014, Jared and I flew to the island of Roatán, thirty-five miles north of the Honduran coast, to meet up with a guy named Karl Stanley. Karl is basically the Han Solo of the global submariner community, and we dove with him to a depth of 616 meters (2020 feet) in a yellow submarine he’d built from scratch – figuring his incentives for survival were more or less perfectly well aligned with our own.

Dropping off the island shelf, sandbags at our feet, we huddled together in the nose cone and watched the jump to hyperspace: rings of aqueous light (and aquatic life) rushing past the glass as we plunged two thousand feet straight down into the midnight zone of the Caribbean Sea.

We prowled the dark water listening to Portishead and DJ Shadow on a small battery-powered radio Karl had in his cockpit. Flashing our lights, a whole cavern of tiny creatures, thinking we were sexually signaling them, bioluminesced back. At some point, water started dripping from the roof of the cabin. I asked Karl if it was anything to be concerned about and he laughed, saying we were at sixty atmospheres, and that if we did spring a leak I wouldn’t have time to scream before the submarine was crushed like a beer can. Thus reassured, I wiped at the condensation with my sleeve, donned a red Jacques Cousteau hat, and started munching chocolate chip cookies.

We were below the basement of photosynthesis, but there were animals – some quite ancient – that appeared to conserve the morphology of plants. If you waited long enough, some of them would stand up and walk; others, leaden with coils of symbiotic worms, were preyed upon by rangy white horrors.

Oh, yeah. A gravid, 13-foot-long tiger shark tried to kill us, twice. Once with her teeth, and once by trickery. Jared managed to pack this and a number of other visual impressions into a short video afterward (that he soundtracked to “When the Music’s Over” by The Doors, which Karl had blasted on our descent).

After a few life-altering hours down there, Karl needed to get back for a softball game (a surprisingly competitive affair played on a campo de sueños hacked out of Roatán’s jungled interior). So he adjusted the buoyancy and we slowly wound our way topside, past the remains of a diver who had committed suicide a few years prior, landed on a deep shelf, and had his face eaten away by marine life (no photos, for obvious reasons, but it looked like something from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride).

Before taking our leave of Karl to go drink too many Salva Vidas while watching silent Bear Grylls re-runs on a cracked TV at Booty Bar (where an Englishwoman, who appeared to be down to her last nerve, sat wearily at the head of a long wooden table of squirming, squealing children just before the bass dropped and the nightly gangsta-rap karaoke competition began), I asked him about, well, Atlantis. SEALs at Guantanamo Bay have beer lore of a sunken city – complete with pyramids – somewhere in the vicinity of Cuba. Karl got his start underwater probing around the Cuban archipelago for stuff to sell to the Smithsonian (yes, he sells sea shells by the seashore – or did). So I asked if he had caught sight of it. He very pointedly refused to answer my question.

Anyhow, I could write a book (or two) about the decade that’s passed since we did this. And maybe I should. But I’d rather face forward and race headlong into whatever comes next.

So, here’s to my fifties making my forties look like a rough draft.


February 12, 2023

I visited Eva for a perambulation of Rome on Friday. After knocking around in the Vatican museums – giving me a chance to revisit marvels like the huge painted maps of Italy in the Galleria delle carte geografiche, Raphael’s The School of Athens, Michelangelo’s Laocoön and the Sistine Chapel (an unexpected coda to reading Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants last week) for the first time in sixteen years – we walked a ten-mile king rat of cobblestones that led us past the monument to (the desolation called) peace erected by Eva’s bae Caesar Augustus, multiple Egyptian obelisks, the site of the tennis court of the French ambassador to Rome (now a parking garage) where, in 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel over a welched bet and subsequently fled the city (into the arms of the Academy of Secrets in Naples), the three Caravaggios at S. Luigi dei Francesi, the two at S. Maria del Popolo (to whom I kept referring, aloud, as ‘Mary of the Poopalope’), the one at S. Agostino, and a copy of his Deposition at Santa Maria in Vallicella (for which Caravaggio painted the original, as the alter piece of a chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows; from which it was looted during the Napoleonic invasion; and to which it was not returned – going instead to the apostolic palace at the Vatican while the ‘Chiesa Nuova’ makes do with a mediocre knockoff by an obscure Dutch painter they don’t cop to on their shadow-enveloped signage), which Eva wanted to visit in order to make a direct appeal to the bones of the patron saint of her grandfather’s Campanian village for a bureaucratic easement. We got there by way of Raphael’s sibylline mural at Santa Maria della Pace and a stone Sphinx so lean its ribs were visible (needing to step up its riddle game, presumably, in a city of mama’s boys), a marble melee in Piazza Navona (started by Giacomo della Porta and finished by Bernini) so crazy that Poseidon teabags a giant octopus in the middle of it, making out in the Alley of Divine Love, and my purchasing Freya Stark’s personal copy of Alexandra David-Néel’s My Journey to Lhasa (an edition with Hopkirk’s introduction, natch) as a gift for Eva in an antiquarian bookshop where the customer ahead of us told the slightly perplexed proprietress he was the grandson of a king of Jordan and one of Saudi Arabia. And so on, unto falling asleep with the laptop on my lap, watching Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio for the umpteenth time.

A full-featured day in the Eternal City.

“The finest mountain in England”

January 1, 2023
Photo by Rob Petit

The man who passed us up the ridge told me, in a viscous northern accent, that I was standing upon “the finest mountain in England.”

I’m not so sure about that, but if I ever do get around to sorting memories from 2022, the climb of Helvellyn along Striding Edge last month with three friends – two of them, roped; two of us, not – will go into the same box as Pavey Ark up Jack’s Rake, Blencathra via Sharp Edge, and Scafell Pike by way of Wasdale Head in a blizzard: the one labelled REALLY FUCKING GOOD.

Photo by Rob Petit
Photo by Rob Petit

…and I feel fine.

December 21, 2022

One More Life*

December 6, 2022

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”

Nineteen years ago today, something exploded in my chest while I was doing push-ups. I finished the set, smoked two cigarettes by the pool, and decided I was having a heart attack. So I drove myself six miles, in increasing pain, by way of my office in Palo Alto to check work emails, finally crawling across a parking lot into the ER of the Stanford Medical Center. The triage nurse didn’t like the look of me, though, and decided I could wait. “We have a lot of sick kids here today, Mr. Chambliss.”

So I waited. For two hours, slumped in a wheelchair, unable to breathe properly, and convulsing in pain, I waited. I finally got sick of waiting, rolled myself outside, lit a cigarette I couldn’t smoke, and was on the verge of driving back home to take Advil when birthday-boy Ilya Druzhnikov and Shenly Glenn showed up. They persuaded me back inside and convinced the nurse to admit me. Shenly even helped the idiot attending physician interpret my chest X-ray. Doctor: “I don’t understand what I’m looking at.” Shenly: “That’s because there’s no right lung.” Doctor: “Ah.” A spontaneous tension pneumothorax.

Two chest tubes (my lung collapsed again, seconds after the first tube was inserted), MUCH bellowing, and a pachyderm-slaying quantity of morphine later, they got me re-inflated. At some point during the procedure, choking and flopping like an upstream salmon while the doctor extracted the first tube (with which he had hooked a rib nerve), I turned to the group of med students huddled around me who had been invited to observe, spat froth, grinned wide with pink teeth, and growled, “Are we having fun yet?!”, prompting one woman to flee behind the curtains.

The epilogue: a few months later, in New York City, it happened again. As it turns out, I (like my mother) am opiate insensitive. So morphine, and even Fentanyl, don’t have much analgesic effect. I explained this to the ER doctors at Beth Israel. Their response: Oh yeah? They dumped so much dope into me that I passed out cold. When I woke up, I was inside a CAT scan machine (I’d cried out during surgery, and they thought I might have had an aneurysm), my lung had collapsed again, and I was asphyxiating. Dying, and too far gone to communicate what was happening to the med tech wheeling my gurney, I was saved by a doctor in an elevator with a penknife and a properly flexible interpretation of his Hippocratic oath.

After lung surgery, the hospitalizations, everything, I continued to smoke. It was so physically painful to do so, however, that I finally sought out an alternate delivery mechanism. I wound up slapping on a patch every day for the next seven months (developing an allergic reaction to the adhesive, until I looked, shirtless, like the sex partner of a giant squid). And then, in November of 2004, I quit altogether. Far easier to withdraw from a longterm nicotine dependency once you’ve already gotten used to the idea of being a non-smoker, IMHO.

Now it’s all but 2023, and I will soon be fifty. I’ve run thousands of miles since this happened, won track races, survived ultramarathons, climbed hundreds of mountains. Which is all to say, if you find my broken body at the bottom of a sheer, thousand-foot drop somewhere, please make sure to stick a needle in my eye before you call the coroner. Because I may piss and moan about my aches and pains, but when it comes down to it, I am hard to kill.

*According to the poet Joseph Brodsky, “…to forget one life, a man needs at minimum / one more life. And I’ve done that portion.”

Notes from Sardṓ

August 28, 2022

I recently spent thirty hours in Sardinia with Dr. Thomas Dekeyser and Kieran Toms that began – after a short flight pondering the gesamtkunstwerk of the Earth, reading Matthew Barney (circa River of Fundament) discuss his translation of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings into “more electro-chemical terms”, as well as the relationship between his own work and Robert Smithson’s, and sketching out some ideas for art interventions on the island to do with Daedalus (e.g., staging a radar spoof of a boy-sized object falling from the sky), who supposedly paused there between stops at Sicily and the Cumaean coast in his flight from Crete (which is how some classical Greek geographers accounted for the characteristic, alien architectural form of ancient Sardṓ, now referred to as nuraghe, but which they called daidaleia) – in an underpowered Fiat through a stretch of powder-keg Sassari landscape winding up toward an abandoned NATO communications facility atop Monte Limbara by way of a riposo-emptied hamlet called Calangianus, which I, more than once, slurred “e-coli-in-anus”, where we acquired, in order of their priority: cold beers (it was 40° C) in the piazza, pizzas, and (for our wild-camping) more beers.

After parking the car discretely off-piste behind a statue of the Madonna of the Snow (figurative representations of which should always be measured against Masolino’s bonkers Il miracolo della neve, in which Christ and his mom ride around in a UFO, causing a snowstorm in August that freaks out Roman potentates trying to play golf) that overlooked the whole gloaming province, we slung hammocks in a woods upslope of the base, and headlamped back down to it for a looksee.

I’m not sure if the head injury I acquired immediately prior to climbing a 25-meter tropospheric scatter antenna – a surprisingly deep impact crater near my crown chakra we discovered after I’d climbed back down and taken off my blood-wet No LiDAR hat – contributed to the weird visitation I had later that night. Insomniac, skull-bruised, luftwaffled by mosquitos, unexpectedly cold, and disturbed rather than lulled by a repetitive noise from above us on the mountain – neither animal nor mechanical, exactly – that got inexplicably louder and quieter, I had the sudden conviction that Thomas had stood up out of his hammock, lit a cigarette behind me, and said to Kieran, “Safe, but joyless.”

Needless to say, Thomas doesn’t smoke. Kieran was snoring. And I am continuing to process the remark.

Sometime after an ultraviolet pre-dawn hush, and before full light, we gave up on the possibility of sleep and decamped to explore the base more thoroughly.

There was a lot of this sort of thing:

There was also an intriguingly complicated contestation of ideologies playing out – sometimes in parallel; others, as palimpsest – over the surface area of the ruins: indigenous far-right slogans/screeds and antifascist ones, anti-Americanism, anti-NATO, anti-capitalism, anti-EU, anti-Italy, anti-immigrant, pro-labor, pro-Nazi, pro-Sardinian separatism, as well as traces of drug/music/dance-themed peacenik-ery.

We’re all in for pluralism, but swastikas have to go. So Thomas broke out a bucket of paint and got to work.

I climbed back up the biggest of the antennae for a better look.

An aside. The base was abandoned in 1991. So these things were almost certainly last used to relay atmospherically secured communications between the battlefields of the first Gulf War and NATO’s Allied Forces Southern Europe command in Naples (where my father worked) during my senior year of high school.

Once we had all had a chance to sneak off and do as bears do (one of us, not me, apparently left a proto-coprolite in a situation that would be a head scratcher for some deep-time archaeologist, and a potentially day-ruining horror for any explorer closer to the present day), we made our way down the mountain to Tempio Pausania to forage for caffeine. It was there, in sight of a brutalist pagoda atop a different mountain ridge, that Thomas – an inexperienced tea drinker, presumably – did something involving two sachets of English Breakfast, two lemons, and three bags of sugar in one saucer that seriously affected his equanimity.

We had a rough goal of making it to Monte d’Accoddi – a 6000-year-old Ozieri ziggurat on the northern coast – and then camping somewhere in the tree verge near the beach, but by the time we reached the archaeological site in the late afternoon it was closed due to a sky-blackening, helicopter-battled brush fire a couple of miles distant.

It had been a long day already. We’d stopped at a charming little archaeological museum full of what looked like headstones for extraterrestrials where Thomas – to the delight of my ears – pronounced the word “necro-polis” several times; let ourselves into the fenced-off site of an ancient well, in broad daylight, surrounded by apartment buildings full of potentially nosy villagers, after knocking repeatedly at the door of the supposedly open neighboring museum; circumambulated an elephantine freestanding roadside boulder domus inhabited by locals since the Neolithic; slithered up the helical tunnel that runs from root to crown of the Nuraghe Paddaggiu (one of seven thousand or so broken-off towers produced by the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization: stumps of a stone aspen stand that once covered the whole ancient island); crawled through prehistoric tomb holes in the guts of a rock elephant; rocked out to “Take the Skinheads Bowling” as we entered Castelsardo, and basked on black boulders there, like three salt-pans, after Mediterranean ablutions.

Most of what remains of the Nurag is hidden inside the hill.

Which is all to say: a fire wasn’t going to stop us. Some other site-seekers had gone on ahead and we followed them down a cobbled quarter-mile path to the gate of the actual site. We waited until they turned back then considered our options. Being good eggs, we decided not to risk damaging the archaeology by jumping the fence and instead crossed over the wall of the path into a fallow field, followed barbed-wire around the perimeter of the pyramid as helicopters raced back and forth directly overhead, snapped a few photographs of the mysterious structure, and retraced our steps. A uniformed park employee ran down a dirt road toward us as we sat on the curb outside of her visitor center deliberating our next move, and panickedly shouted something to the effect of “Can’t you read? Get the fuck out of here! There’s a fire!”

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my middle-aged thermostat is on the fritz. I might be a good egg, but I was getting soft-poached. And so, although we had found a decent, discrete campsite in a conifer clump nearer the seaside, Kieran and Thomas – outstanding adventure partners, both – were kind enough to consent instead to hotel room beds before dropping me back off at Olbia airport the next morning. It’s thus we found ourselves, after a last few beers and “for old time’s sake,” rooftopping the tallest building in Tempio Pausania with uncanny ease.

The second door we happened onto was made of glass. Beyond it was an elevator – the door of which stood inexplicably, invitingly, open. I pointed at it, astonished, as Kieran walked up beside me and pushed on the outer door. It wasn’t locked.

“Always try the door,” he counseled. Words to live by.

Photo by Kieran Toms

Coda | Dirge

Having moved to London from a place where the fire season is now three hundred days a year, I thought at first that the park ranger at Monte d’Accoddi might have been overreacting, a bit, although I was certainly sympathetic as to why. In retrospect, though, I don’t think it was panic in her voice. I think it was PTSD.

Sardinia has been devastated by wildfires for the last three years – to an extent that paramilitarized European Union firefighting resources have been semi-permanently seconded to the island to help forestall what seem – to me, at least – inevitabilities of this new pyrocene (e.g., forced evacuations) that many, most, of us are contributing to. Each according to our means.

So, an unquenchable flame, surrounded by blue water. Driving past the first abandoned structure we had explored just a day before, the landscape was newly dead, gleaming like pitch: massive devastation – melted road signage, all the scrub gone, hectares of trees scorched black.


Pavey Ark – Blencathra – Scafell Pike

August 25, 2022
Sharp Edge – Blencathra

Supine on the floorboards – between convulsive, Mr. Bill face-making spasms hypocentered in my lumbar spine (that’ll teach me not to write prematurely about doing a 50K at 50!) – I’ve been giving some thought to the highlights of my year thus far – trying to keep my spirit buoyed beyond the clutches of Davy Jones. 

Whether I ever attempt to summarize 2022 the way I used to per annum on Facebook from 2013-2017, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much fun I had in the Lake District this late March with my friend Jared Rogers – the partner with whom I have climbed/hiked/run the most peaks (as well as made a 2,020-foot-deep dive in a homemade submarine) – to belatedly celebrate my 49th birthday among the most charismatic mountains in Blighty. 

Armed with a hire car (+ total coverage), a copy of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes gifted to me by Harriet Hawkins, a flask of Lagavulin 16 whisky (strictly for medicinal purposes – I was heading out with a damaged ankle and, as it turns out, a torn calf), and our duffel bags of soon-to-be-bog-dank equipment, we set off for the Lakes from central London listening to the audiobook of Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind (which includes a wonderful description of Samuel Johnson – “Six feet tall and some sixteen stone heavy, the formidable body of Dr. Johnson was itself almost a sublime presence.” – among a great many other attractions).

We arrived at the precipice of evening and hoofed straight uphill – directly into a headwind of jet lag for Jared – to scramble a line called Jack’s Rake to the summit of Pavey Ark with the last of the light. An instant classic.

The route:

En route:

And atop, before descending via the summit of Harrison Stickle and returning to the Britannia Inn in Elterwater (our logic = a base camp with hot showers + local ales on draft + full English breakfast > backpacking in rain):

Shearing season!

We spent the first full day in the Lakes as one does: aslosh, ambling the sinusoid of fell and dale in a cold pissing rain. We stood atop eight or nine bigger hills such as Lang How and Heron Pike, plus loads of cairned small fry. We also took the opportunity to visit the graves of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and, finally, down among the slate mouths (inside one of which, I shit you not, a curled dragon and a rock scratched, “Wayne Was Tasty” are being slowly masticated), Rydal Cave.

The next morning, we raced the rain up another all-timer: Sharp Edge – the dragon spine of Blencathra.

Honestly, on this occasion, Jared was a cooler cucumber about the exposure than yours truly.

After grabbing the summit, and two of the sub peaks chained to it (Foule Crag and Gategill Fell Top), we quick-stepped down as the rain resumed, duck-puttered back to Elterwater, and talked our way into Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn, despite the site being officially closed, by professing an abnormal – but well-received – appreciation for the rhododendrons. 

Leaving, we were tasked with shepherding a bunch of unruly sheep out of the compound and down a stretch of narrow country road against traffic. A fair trade.

We had one more day. Time enough for a last classic: up Scafell Pike (the tallest mountain in England) by way of Wasdale Head. In a goshdurn blizzard. 

Beard ice!

The third weirdest thing to happen that day: 

To an extent we’d never seen before, and can’t really explain, the trail down remained clearly visible even when everything else was swallowed by white. Like the Lord’s own runway. So, despite rapidly worsening conditions (being lashed in the eyes with horizontally blowing ice pellets, for instance), there were no navigation issues as we descended.

The second weirdest thing to happen:

Shortly after Jared and I had settled into our first pints before the fire of the Brittania Inn’s cozy bar, a middle-aged man blatantly, resoundingly, began hitting on me in front of his wife and kids. I’ve still got it, I guess!

The weirdest thing:

At 3 AM that night, I was robbed by a paranormal entity. It stole the indestructible plastic I ❤️ LIQUOR bag I had used to transport my smelly kit in since holing up on the wrong end of Miami Beach to wait out a flash flood with bad beer and an audiobook of Hemingway short stories after clearing out of the Versace mansion in the autumn of 2020*. The story of its invasion of my room seemed to scare the shit out of the inn’s proprietors, who claimed nothing like it had ever happened there before, but looked like they might have been lying. 

I realize this sounds weird. It was.

Anyhow, that was it. We decided to leave Striding Edge on Helvellyn for a hypothetical future return to the Lakes (one must always sacrifice something, some surplus, when venturing forth if one hopes to return), packed it back in, and set off for the M6 south by southeast again. 

*My room at the Versace mansion:

Just saying.