William Walker: American President of Nicaragua

Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person that would emerge as one of the era’s most ambitious filibusters was a young man from Nashville, Tennessee by the name of William Walker. Early in life, Walker demonstrated remarkable ambition and brilliance, earning degrees in both law and medicine by the time he was 25. A diminutive 5’2″ in stature, he relied on a robust charisma and commanding presence to develop his following and accomplish his goals. Continue Reading →

The Real Cuban Taxi

Cuban Hitchhikers Boarding Transport Truck in Pinar del Rio

Mention Cuba in a crowd of Americans and two topics will emerge: Buena Vista Social Club and vintage American cars. The Cuban taxi, or taxi particular has effectively supplanted Fidel Castro as the island’s most recognized feature, even though a change in Cuban import law may eventually render the cars extinct. Does the average Cuban really use taxis or is their primary purpose to entertain tourists? It’s not unusual in cities like Havana to see taxis particulares stuffed to capacity with Cubanos, particularly away from the central tourist areas. But taxis are far too expensive for the average Cuban when traveling long distances. Other forms of transportation are available: buses that may not arrive, trains that are frequently delayed, and planes that, in the words of one native, “…are Russian-style; not so good.” After the Russians pulled out of Cuba in 1993, the government faced many new challenges, including transportation. Gas and oil were scarce. The Cuban people were more impoverished than ever. Officials responded with Continue Reading →

A Sweet Spot in Brittany: La Fée Cabosse Chocolat

La Fée Cabosse Chocolat - Dinan, Brittany, France

Perhaps one of the most attractive and well-preserved towns in the region is Dinan, an 11th century walled village that straddles the graceful Rance River. One of my favorite epicurean discoveries while staying in Dinan was the La Fée Cabosse Chocolat shop. Passersby are likely to find themselves as helpless as Hercules in Circe’s grasp when resisting the urge to enter. Continue Reading →

Swivel Heads and Dingbats — Early Logging on the Mendocino Coast

Woodcutter by Vincent Van Gogh (1885)

The Mendocino coast at that time was largely virgin wilderness, much of it unexplored. There were few settlers besides the local Pomos. The heavily forested bluffs and mountains were home to large numbers of elk, black bear, grizzly bear, wolves, pumas, and coyotes. As a result, loggers were often confined to their remote lumber camps for months at a time. Put a large group of men together under those circumstances and you’re likely to hear some pretty colorful language, some of it downright profane. Continue Reading →

Skid Roads Greased the Way for the California Lumber Boom

Ox Team on a Skid Road

Skid roads were the main method to get lumber to a mill on the 19th century Redwood Coast, but one that required enormous effort and cost $5000 per mile. Many of the first loggers to arrive on the coast in the early 1850s had been involved in timber businesses back east. But they had never encountered anything the size our Sequoia sempervirens before. Their crosscut saws were too small to span the redwood’s enormous girth, their method of felling it were inadequate, and, once they wrestled the giant to the ground, they were hard pressed how to transport it. Continue Reading →

Waking Up in Berkeley

DJ, West Berkeley Graffiti

It’s a typical weekday morning and at 5:30, the clock radio kicks in. Disoriented, foggy with sleep, I have yet to realize what I’m hearing. Will I be tazed by a screeching Sun Ra freestyle romp that will jangle me out of bed? Repeatedly nudged by Native American chants that go on just a little too long? Irritated and then charmed by a beatified bebop bongo ballad? Continue Reading →