The Full MONA


The captain on this camouflaged high-speed ferry resembles Fidel Castro. The couple next to me is making out in the sunshine and the two couples behind me are well into their second bottle of wine and chanting “MONA! MONA! MONA!” as if they’re on their way to an Aussie rules football game. 

MONA is the unassuming acronym for the Museum of Old and New Art, better known as the Museum of Sex and Death, built by local Tasmanian hero David Walsh, who grew up poor in a Hobart suburb then founded the world’s largest gambling ring. His two-year-old, $200 million museum at the mouth of the Derwent River, 20 minutes from downtown Hobart is, by his own description, a “Subversive Adult Disneyland.”

That’s where this ferry is heading.

“He’s very controversial. He’s obsessed with sex and death,” my taxi driver told me, unprompted, on my ride into Hobart from the airport yesterday. “He also has Asperger’s and he just got engaged to a lady from New Orleans.”

Walsh and his lady live in a penthouse on top of his museum, which from the ferry, looks like a steel bunker built for the apocalypse, cantilevered into a hillside. I had hoped to meet Walsh but was told he doesn’t grant interviews (unless it’s with Richard Flanagan, who wrote “Tasmanian Devil,” a profile of Walsh for The New Yorker). After the ferry drops us off, the collective mass of tourists climbs what feels like 1,000 steps to what looks like a mirrored fun house. This is the entrance to Sex and Death and I descend. *

It feels like a nightclub down here. A young docent passes me the “O,” a souped-up iPod made specifically for MONA that visitors can use to zap installations to learn more about them—there are no descriptions of the art on the walls. They can also press a “Love” or “Hate” button to indicate a strong reaction to a particular piece. Rumor has it that Walsh will jettison any piece in his collection that gets too much Love, just to keep everyone on edge. I slip around a group sipping cocktails at the cave-like limestone bar and enter the maze of art.

It’s irreverent, edgy, disturbing, violent, evocative, provocative, maddening, outrageous, sexy, and voyeuristic. And most everyone around me loves it, if the surround-sound laughter is any indication. This isn’t a hush-hush, dead-masters museum tour. I feel like I’m at a cocktail party thrown by a twisted Wizard of Oz.

On my “O,” I zap the work in front of me, “Delicacies of the Dead,” and find out that the large glass canister contains artist Alicia King’s human tissue. Then I flop into a beanbag to watch a video installation on the ceiling of a woman in four-inch stilettos delicately walking across an iron grate. It makes me anxious, so I move on to “On the Road to Heaven, the Highway to Hell,” a sculpture of the remains of a suicide bomber cast in dark chocolate. After passing the self-explanatory “Kitten Trophy Rug,” and guests playing ping-pong at a table folded like an accordion where the ball falls through the crack on every play, I enter a room with  “The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum.” Hundreds of dead insects are hung by microscopic string as if to look like a live swarm. Then it’s on to 40 televisions playing an endless, varied cacophony of talking heads, which leads me to a massive space, empty save for a streaming matrix of data running nonstop down a two-story wall. I’m dizzy and mesmerized.

By the time I ascend into daylight I’m fully disoriented, but not so much so that I miss the parking space reserved for “GOD” and inhabited by a Mercedes SUV. The mad genius must be home.

*No photos for personal use on websites were allowed…so use your imagination.


The Ride Of My Life


This is the view I wish the Captain could have seen.

I can barely control myself on a bike, which is why I wonder what inspired me to say “yes” to riding a tandem with a soldier who lost his eyesight in a rooftop explosion in Iraq. It was one thing if I squashed myself like roadkill on the pavement, but to potentially do the same to a man who has lived through hell on the front line of every American conflict in the past 25 years, was an entirely different matter.

The trouble, however, was that the only way Ivan Castro, a Special Forces Captain who is still on active duty, would grant me an interview, which I needed for the story I was in Telluride to report, was to ride a bike with him. Plus, it was his birthday and it’s hard to turn down a charming blind man on his birthday.

So I said yes.

“There are two times people crash while riding a tandem,” Castro told me. He should know. He rode a tandem across the U.S. last summer. “When they start and when they stop.”

I started fine, simultaneously steering, braking, and describing the jagged horizon in front of us. But stopping was another matter. Soon we had exhausted all the cul-de-sacs ending in $7 million mansions in Telluride Mountain Village. As we coasted toward Colorado 145, where out-of-state Cadillac SUVs flew around switchbacks 20 mph over the speed limit, we had two options: Turn around and start the slog back up to the village or coast all the way into Telluride and let the gondola do the heavy lifting on the way back up.

Before I considered the very steep highway grade into Telluride, I laid out our options to Castro, joking that if we made it to town I’d buy him a celebratory birthday beer.

The magic words were out of my mouth and no amount of backpedaling was going to get me out of this downhill ride, so we started coasting toward town with me riding the brakes so hard that he told me to relax and ease off.

Halfway to Telluride, BOOM! The tire exploded. The heat from my braking blew the tube to bits and took a good part of the tire with it. We didn’t crash, but of course I had no extra tube, tire, or pump to fix the flat, so I sent out an SOS on my cell phone and we sat along Colorado 145 and waited for a ride.

That’s when Castro told me about his friend Ralph, whose name was on a bracelet around his wrist. Ralph died in 2006, right next to him. Both were riddled with mortar fire on a rooftop in Yusifiyah, southwest of Baghdad.

After killing Ralph, the mortar shrapnel ripped through Castro’s body, tearing up his knee, breaking an arm, ripping off his index finger, collapsing his lungs, fracturing facial bones, and blowing out his right eye.

It took more than 17 months for Castro to recover and he permanently lost his eyesight. But in the seven years since the explosion he’s run more than 20 marathons, cycled cross-country, remarried, and has a 22-month-old baby daughter. Which is to say that the exploded tire on a steep downhill outside of Telluride didn’t faze him.

“I’ve been in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Albania, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I’ve come to realize what war is. And now there are certain things I live by: Positive attitude, gratitude, faith, family, and friends. Ralph isn’t here to have fun,” he said. “Which is why I never do tomorrow what I could do today. There is no tomorrow.”

So instead of sipping a beer at a sunny outdoor table in Telluride, we sat in the gravel on the side of the road and laughed.

Suffering From A Serious Case of NIMBY Syndrome


“Not in my backyard.”

 I used to cringe at NIMBY syndrome, thinking it elitist and out of touch. Then I learned that my backyard is being primed for sulfide mining.

My roots run deep in Minnesota, where I grew up living in a cabin on a remote island part of every summer. My parents still live there. From our dock we can paddle, then portage, into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.3-million acre playground where more than a quarter million people commune with “God’s Country,” the nickname for this part of the world popularized by a Hamm’s Beer commercial in the 70s.

Six years old on my first Boundary Waters expedition, I packed a flannel nightgown. My older brother and sister laughed at me, but those were the days before down puffies and I was plenty cozy as I padded out of my tent in the early morning to watch the mist rise off the lake. In college I guided inner-city tough kids through chains of BWCA lakes with names like Jap and Little Sag. If we were thirsty, we’d dip our cup straight into the deepest part of the lake. The kids were far more afraid of bears and muskie than they were of hanging out at midnight on a North Minneapolis street corner. Most were miserable carrying their canoes across a portage. But it never failed that after surviving a Boundary Waters trip, they earned serious street cred back home. For a lot of them, it was the first and last time they would camp in wilderness. I, on the other hand, took it for granted that someone would be paddling these lakes long after I was gone. That’s the beauty of a federally protected “wilderness.” Right?

It turns out, not really. Lately, mining companies have been exploratory drilling underneath the BWCA and surrounding National Forests. The conglomerates—most of them foreign—estimate that the earth here holds one trillion dollars worth of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, and gold. They intend to procure it by sulfide mining—a procedure so toxic that it can contaminate water for thousands of years. Land-swap deals have already passed Congress. Exploratory drilling is running round the clock. Environmental Impact Statements have been filed. The inevitable march toward sulfide mining has begun.

So, here I sit typing NOT IN MY BACKYARD. Yes, jobs would be a positive result if these mega conglomerates were allowed to mine here. And mining companies assure residents that their new, sophisticated technology will mitigate environmental damage caused by past sulfide mining operations. But what if they’re wrong? Thousands of streams and watersheds in the U.S. have already been irreversibly contaminated by sulfide mining. If even God’s Country is up for grabs, what chance does any wilderness have?

At a Loss for Words

 “What is painting? Do you sense how all the parts of a good picture are involved with each other, not just placed side by side? Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words.”

That framed black-and-white phrase, hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art alongside “The Scream,” “A Starry Night,” “Marilyn,” and some of the world’s most iconic paintings, stopped me in my wandering tracks. I make my living as a “writer,” but often the experiences that trigger my deepest emotions are not accompanied by words. So why do I even try to communicate with words?


I had nothing to say while standing in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” I’ve seen reproductions of the most vibrant version of his pastel series dozens of times, especially since it sold in 2012 for a record $119,922,500 at a Sotheby’s auction. But to see the real screamer despairing under a blood red sky evoked in me such a contradictory convergence of gloom and joy that all I could do was stand there and soak in the emotion.

I had the same reaction a few weeks ago in Santa Fe as I followed photographer Annie Leibovitz through a preview of “Pilgrimage,” her show that opened at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe in early February. “Pilgrimage,” which is also a book, is devoid of humans. Instead Leibovitz photographed famous American landscapes and objects like Ansel Adams’ dark room, Henry David Thoureau’s bed, Elvis Presley’s shot television, and Georgia O’Keefe’s chalk tray. As Leibovitz put it, she was “driven by an emotional need to translate objects in an emotional way. I had no agenda other than being moved to take a photo.”

Then last week a package arrived in the mail. It was from Phyliss Hoffman, an 80-year-old Washington D.C.-area artist and friend who sent me three of her prints because she’s trying to slim down her collection. My favorite, “Cello Ensemble,” is an etching Hoffman drew on a zinc plate, in reverse, with a lithographic crayon. It’s an homage to Pablo Casals, inspired by Hoffman’s trip to Puerto Rico to hear him play in the Casals Festival.


Part of the process of maturing as a writer is knowing when I have something to say. And while words will never convey the beauty and power these three artists have created, it would be almost irresponsible not to try.

Penguin Therapy


In an effort to make myself useful and to escape the obsessive compulsive stressing that goes along with freelance writing, I help first graders with their schoolwork at a local elementary school every Thursday afternoon. First graders are the perfect fit for me: They don’t need help with calculus and they make me laugh.

Yesterday the first graders’ homework assignment was to write seven sentences about penguins. They could write down any fact they had learned from their teacher’s penguin primer or the National Geographic article on Emperor Penguins that was floating around the room. I liked this assignment. I’ve seen a few penguins in my time and thought that, for once, my experience might come in handy. It turns out that the kids didn’t need any help with their penguin facts. They were on fire about this animal’s quirky coolness and I couldn’t spell the big words fast enough to keep up with the information live-streaming out of their little heads, stuff like…

1. Penguins have feet like crampons.

2. Penguins fish for fish.

3. Penguins protect their eggs with their feet.

4. A penguin’s worst nightmare is a leopard seal.

5. Penguins can jump ten feet in the air, higher than the ceiling in the classroom.

6. Penguins can dive 1,750 feet deep.

7. Penguins like to jump off icebergs.

Even after we finished the list, the kids didn’t rush out when the bell rang. They wanted to keep talking penguins. Unlike me, they could have cared less about statistics and facts that show how penguins are disappearing or how quickly the ice is melting underneath their cramponed feet. All they cared about is that penguins exist right now, which is another reason I like first graders so much.

2012: Deep Thoughts From My Moleskine Reporter Notebooks


Sometimes I’m so focused on looking ahead that I forget to look back. A more enlightened soul would tell me that the point is not to look back or ahead, but to stay present. That’s good if you happen to be a Bodhisattva, but in 2012 my fingers clutched a UniBall Vision Elite pen and scribbled thousands of words on one of many, many little black notebooks. Roughly 33.5 percent of what I wrote saw the light of day. Below are a few random quotes I must have wanted to remember. The collective scratchings make me realize that in 2012 I met some funny, wise, and profound people. Here’s what they told me:

“I love Berlusconi because he loves women, the symbol of Italy. He’s like Bill Clinton.” —Vincenzo Fusco, Taxi Driver, Positano, Italy

“To juice is to do your body’s work for you. It eases digestion and gives you more nutrients. In juicing you get 90 percent of the fruit’s benefits.” —Jillian Lambert, Fitness and Nutrition Specialist at Travaasa Spa, Austin, Texas

“I love a great glass of red wine. To me it’s lovely nectar from the gods.” —Dr. Toni Bark, Evanston, Illinois

“You need to come to Namibia, get down on your hands and knees and look at the small wonders. Spend more time in Namibia. It has a strange way of attaching itself to you. You will be back a second, third, and fourth time and then you’ll start saying to yourself, ‘Shit. What if I have a flat tire out here?'” —Willem de Witt, Pilot, Namibia

“To be a good guide, I recommend a former poacher who used to be a good poacher. My father used to be a poacher.” —John Kasaona, Namibia

“I don’t visit children’s homes to prove that we are suffering. I don’t see why that should be encouraged. People can not eat from people watching them suffer.” —Anna Mafwila, founder of Katu Tours, while biking through Katatura Township outside of Windhoek.

“Think about us as a healthy way of life company. Someone has an interest like they want to lose weight, they want to look good in their bathing suit in the summer, they want to win a fitness contest, or they might want to run a marathon under 3.5 hours. When they come to us rather than saying ‘Oh, everybody needs to go on a fitness machine,’ instead of doing that, we ask you ‘What’s your interest? What do you want to do? What are your goals?’ And then we connect you to where you want to be and achieving the goal you want to achieve.” —Bahram Akradi, Founder, Lifetime Fitness, Eden Prairie, Minnesota

“That’s paradise on the corner of the river.” —Mauricio Becerra, Pilot, Bogota, Colombia

“The cows fight to decide who is going to be queen. They fight in May, butting heads, and the winner gets flowers on her head. It’s fashionable to have a cow here. Piaget, the jewelry maker has a cow here.” —Claude Buchs Favre, owner Hotel Bella Tola, St. Luc, Switzerland

Thanks & Giving

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

—Albert Schweitzer

Rite of Passage


“It’s rare. It’s quick. It has no track record,” my friend Marcus told me from the St. Luke’s emergency room in Duluth, Minnesota, on August 15. We were supposed to have dinner the previous week. When I didn’t hear from him, I knew something was not right. So I called.

“It’s very aggressive, Steph. I’m not going to have chemo. It’s not an option. The cancer started from inside, with small polyps on the colon, and moved to the liver. My liver is full of tumors.”

By September 13 Marcus was dead. The last time I saw him, he was sitting like a Buddha on a sleeping pad under the Norway pines outside the log cabin he built in the woods. Marcus loved to push around boulders and trim Minnesota pines into Japanese bonsais to create a Zen garden where he could read and think. Eighteen years older than me, Marcus was a brilliant, liberal theologian who enjoyed a dissenting opinion as long as it didn’t have anything to do with telling him how to paddle a canoe or live his life.

A rugged guy, Marcus didn’t have many personal mementos. I have nothing tangible other than the photo below to remember him by—not even his memorial service. Marcus’s family and friends are scattered across the country. His only son lives in Boston, his mother lives in California, his sisters are from St. Paul, many of his friends live in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but his closest buddies were a cluster of doctors, construction workers, and woodsmen from northern Minnesota. He wanted the memorial service, which he planned himself the weeks before he died, to be held in the town near the cabin he loved and considered home. To give everyone time to gather, his son set the service for November 12. By then, I was gone.

I’m not sure what kind of closure I’m expecting from watching the mailed DVD of his memorial service, but I know that being absent from the real thing has been much harder than expected.

Missing the service makes me think about ritual. A synonym for the word funeral is “laying to rest,” which makes a lot of sense. Without that last communal goodbye, to share a laugh and a memory with people who loved Marcus, the world just moves on as if he didn’t exist. I guess that’s why I wrote this post—to use it as a place holder. It’s an attempt to let Marcus rest, but also to keep him alive.


Twin Peaks at the ATWS 2012 Summit

The sun is high, the snow is bright, and we’re in a mad dash with a crush of teenaged ski racers to catch an 8 a.m. ride on the Matterhorn Express. Rock skis tangle as their owners, wearing stretchy Lycra, run toward the red car, hell-bent on getting up the mountain first. We squeeze in before the doors close behind us and the excitement builds as the gondola slowly floats up past the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn! To our right, white clouds swirl around Europe’s most famous peak, its iconic lines and sheer face at once elegant and deadly. It’s a thrill to see, but I’m thrilled I’m not a good enough mountaineer to feel pressure to climb it. Instead, I focus on the peak to the left, the 13,661-foot Breithorn. With a hook-nosed summit, its shape resembles an eagle. From this vantage point the angle of the slope is intimidating. But our morning’s objective is to summit it by noon.

We exit the gondola at roughly 12,000 feet and I rope in next to a Scottish explorer, a Swiss mountain guide, a Nepali Sherpa, a few fellow Americans, and our host from Zermatt. Our mission is to have a good time and get down alive.

At around noon, after a change into crampons and a thigh-burning climb, we summit. As we bask in the sunshine and glory of the jagged peaks of Switzerland, Italy, and France, I’m thinking about the week ahead. Here we are, in Switzerland, a bunch of strangers from around the globe attending the 2012 Adventure Travel World Summit, but we’re undeniably bound together to achieve a common goal, whether it’s climbing a peak or taking adventure travel to a higher level. If only we could all be like the Swiss, our hosts for the week. Their trains run on time (down to the second), they put a premium on sustainability and environmental protection, and they feel no guilt while indulging in wine, fondue, and the world’s finest chocolate.

Real Colombia


For the past weeks I’ve been traveling through Colombia reporting a story for Outside magazine. As a travel writer, the topic that fascinates me most is how a country with a warring, violent past can transcend its history.  While Colombia is far from perfect, the people here are tired of living in a murky shadow world and are making tremendous progress in trying to move beyond the dark trail of violence left behind by Pablo Escobar, FARC, ELN, the paramilitary, and all other terrorists that have used power to intimidate, exploit, and extort anyone who gets in their way. The proof of Colombia’s desire for real change is everywhere, from Medllin’s immaculate Metrocable, a public gondola that allows people who live in the hillside barrios to safely and efficiently work in the city, to eco tour lodge operators who are working with locals to promise tranquil vacations on the Pacific coast. It’s an exciting time to be in Colombia. Stay tuned for my upcoming story in Outside, then visit this vast, complex country for yourself.