(The following text was originally published in One Hell Of An Eye on January 21, 2010: The Quiet Beatle)
At 12 years of age my son Christopher was trailing slightly behind me in the long hallway of George Harrison’s Crackerbox Palace at Henley on Thames, England.
With slightly perplexed attention, he was studying the gallery of Beatles pictures stretched all the way down the walls–a complete history of John, Paul, George and Ringo. George had met us at the front door and was silently leading us through the hall to the kitchen where Stevie Winwood and guitar hero Alvin Lee were hanging out over morning tea. George and I were to discuss the photos I was shooting for his album “George Harrison,” an assignment given to me by the late, great Warner Bros. Records art director, Ed Thrasher, and producer Russ Titelman.
As we approached the kitchen, Chris ran up beside George and I and – not quietly – said, “Dad, those guys in the photos…I thought they all were dead.”
Mike, I really love this photo. Great! Mike F.
Thanks. Just found it and Lorraine cleaned it. MS
I love George! My favorite Beatle always. I didn’t even know that we were birthday mates practically. Annie F.
Wow. Cool, Annie. MS
Mike, thank you very much for that photo. We framed the photo of George you gave us. It is one of our favorite things. Regards, Mike P.
Thanks, Mike. MS
Pure romantic deep pop at its best…thanks. Richard L.
Thanks, Richard. MS
I loved Thrasher…Barbra WB.
Great guy. MS
I just watched The Concert for Bangladesh the other day. The first concert to raise money for a social cause. George Harrison brought us awareness of the world. Happy Birthday, George. Bob S.
Superb shot. One of the better ones of him I’ve seen. George was a more interesting and compelling talent solo than any of the others except for John. Sad he had to leave early. rcc
Thanks, Robert. Just found that shot. MS
Great pics, Mike. George seemed like a kind, sweet person. Your pictures reflect that nicely. Mark A.
Thanks, Mark. MS
Hi, Mike, I’ve been listening to him a lot as I paint away. Much appreciated…finding inspiration is a wonderful thing~ Thanks and warm wishes. Trish.
Thanks, Trish. I like your book a lot. I will think of some possible directions for you. MS
Mike, I am always amazed about the work and talent you collaborated with – your creations are legendary – thanks for keeping me updated. Miss you my friend and only the best. Franz
Thanks, Franz. MS
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER is a world on water of every color in the rainbow. Six foot tall birds walk like clowns on stilts past rodents the size of Jack Russell terriers. Spoonbills nibble the edges of a swamp inches from the staring eyeballs of submerged crocodiles. Hawks hover above forty-foot tall trees with Barbie pink flowers. The land that time forgot.
Species from a lost world survived here because South America was cut off when the land bridge to Central America closed over four million years ago. In this upside down world below the equator, summer is winter, downstream is north. The entire Amazon basin was once a great isolated inland sea. The rivers still feed eels, rays and pink dolphins. In the jungle, be careful not to trip over a ten foot long Anaconda, who is still king. (Rescuers are rumored to have discovered that a large bulge in the middle of one captured Anaconda was a Japanese dentist missing from an eco-tour.)
Our escort trucks get stuck with the skeletons of dead cattle on seas of drying mud that are the remains of perennial winter flood lands.
A few turn back. Some take the planes out before we enter the deep tunnels made by the trees of the jungle along the Amazon. I last saw the Hulk sleeping on the seat of his ATV looking a part of the vehicle like a centaur as curious Indians inspected this alien being with the big knife by moonlight.
But Lee, Jeff, David and I kick ass. Sort of. Jeff went in circles. I get lost. And then follows the scariest part of this adventure…
A BIG BLACK BAT THE SIZE OF AN EAGLE stares at me with a toothy grin and flutters to within an inch of my face. Dark. All alone. The path rises up to a muddy hump and is suddenly closed in on both sides by split rail fences keeping any jungle away. There is nothingness in front of me. I slowly creep into the dark then like a roller coaster fall straight down. Into water.
The river water is over my knees. Tires slither in the mud below, almost pulling the ATV out of my grip, but I make it to the dry bank and gain traction. The wall of mud now in front of me seems to go straight up and over backwards at the lip but the Honda drives into the sky, falling down to all fours on the other side. There is Jeff and David. I’m relieved but breathless, scared witless.
Spooky? Yes. Dangerous? Probably not. It should be said that while it’s true that the Amazon defines remote, about the worst thing that happened to any participant on the Caravana was a broken leg. The doctors patched him up and he was flown out later the same day. Some riders try to make the Caravana a race but most go slowly – I don’t think I ever hit 50mph. The weather, the terrain and the effort it takes to ride a vehicle that has as much torque as an ATV make the Caravana more exhausting than dangerous.
And what’s the point of racing through a jungle as mythic as the Amazon? Forests. Jungle. Jaguars. Tapirs. Wild pigs. Eagles. Egrets. Moths the size of doormats and beaucoup bugs if you stand still and let them have you for dinner. We ride the Hondas under tall ferns with leaves as big as grand pianos. Looking down at piranha, we cross bridges made of rotting wood slats almost too far apart for the axle width.
REST WILL EVENTUALLY COME in a lakeside resort with a bar right out of Casablanca. In Cobija, where hot pink and aqua buildings sun on hilly streets that circle down under shady palm trees to a winding river. The shops seem to have no doors and cash registers are wooden drawers under the counter. After a night in a bar right out of Casablanca, we sleep past noon in hacienda-style hotels with our doors open to the heat radiating from a tiled patio.
We are in Cobija for two nights of rest from the trail. Every hour brings some new variation on Bolivio’clock, but who cares? In Riberalta, Guayaramerin and Cobija there is a big public social club. Like a big western dance hall. The roof is open. The Brazilian cook and his lieutenants will outdo themselves with each meal. Fruit. Salad. Bread and rolls. Pate. Shrimp. Cornichons. Lox. Tomatoes. Roast suckling pig. Duck. Steak, fish, chicken. Rice, pasta, corn, every bean that ever came from South America, yucca and potatoes, carrots, asparagus, aubergines, beer and wine. Parking lot sized tables of deserts. Brazilian coffee. And wine, lots of wine. The mayor and the police will escort us to dinner and join us. Monkeys try to steal food from our plates. Musicians play guitar and sing to us of Bolivia.
We camp the last night on a 150,000 acre ranch someplace where they butcher a steer for our dinner because the supply trucks can’t get through the jungle. Beneath a grapefruit tree as big as a hotel lobby, our chef has been flown in to prepare the feast. (If we did that here, how many permits do you think it would take?)
Tomorrow morning we’ll return to the jungle and in five days we’ll be back in Trinidad, where we started. Lee and Jeff will fly home to their routines in the States, where, we all agree, you’re no longer allowed to have that kind of fun. Who knows where Mick, our CIA cohort, will end up next? Probably as Prague station chief.
TAKING TOO MANY PICTURES, Lee and I have fallen half a day behind the others. We are late. Bolivio’clock. But we are out of the path of the killing sun on a barge hand cut from hardwood jungle trees and held together with hemp ropes. Turned around and punted upstream into the mighty Amazon River with maneuvers of a cattle dog by way of a funky tug that could be the sister of the African Queen.
The sun is setting under a silently gliding flock of pink flamingos. My head is in a cloud of butterflies of any size and color they could be. This is the Amazon. I am in the Amazon. Like the birth of my kids–this is a moment that takes my breath away. A moment at Bolivio’clock.
JEFF AND DAVID ARE LEADING A CONGA LINE around the village square of Trinidad. Under Japanese lanterns blowing in the warm night wind, a loud band plays Latin music. Kids dance like Americans in MTV videos while sloths hanging in the trees watch –upside down. Rushing me from behind, Miss Trinidad pours beer over my head. Lee laughs until he gets his. Looking at the others, they are all wet too. Everyone is laughing. It is our victory party. We all win.
But in this upside down world, who could lose? No elapsed time records. No clocks. There are no deadlines. No real schedules. No maps. We have radios and phones and trail markers. I get lost, but someone always finds me. Hungry? Food shows up. If it is harmless fun, we do it. Stop on the trail for a small party with some other lost riders. There is a guitar. We sing. I try to be understood in bad Spanish or teach dirty words in English. Ride a country road to the store. Ride to the lake for a swim. No tickets. No lawyers. No lawyers’ lawyers. No fast FedEx or fast food but we are free to go fast or slow. Be first or last.
In the land that time forgot, they forget about time.
…just do it.
www.caravan-atv.com; e-mail: email@example.com
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Hiya, Mike. Sometimes I forget what a cowboy you are. When it comes to crocodiles, my preference for them is on belts. In the Adventure Dept., you are miles ahead of many of us and those animals close up would scare the shit out of me! Some people called Steve Erwin brave; I called him a kook! Enjoy your weekend and stay away from crocs, both the animals and the goofy shoes, too! Best, Pete B.
Thanks, Pete 🙂 MS
Living a part of my life vicariously (and safely) through you. Thanks for a great Amazonian adventure! Fred D.
Thanks, Fred. MS
Great lead – I’ll read the rest at leisure, later. Keep ’em comin’! Best, Jim
Thanks, Jim. MS
Mike, what a story! Felt like I was there. Thanks for sharing! Jeanie S.
Thanks, Jeanie. MS
Is this where you had your picture taken with a crocodile that your secretary sent to the class reunion? You were certainly brave…like I told you, it could have turned its head and chomped your leg off! Rudi L.
IGNORING THE 120 ATVS, 14 TRUCKS, 30 MOTORCYCLES, school kids, politicians, soldiers, beauty queens, a band and the TV crews that have been lining up in front of her open front candy store since sunrise, a woman wearing long black pigtails sweeps the faded red walk that lies between the columns holding up colonial adobes washed in raw colors of pink and blue. This is the main street of Trinidad, which probably hasn’t changed since the 16th century when the Spanish began taking the silver that supported them for 200 years.
This is our point of departure. It is already hot at 10 a.m.
From Trinidad we will ride 178 kilometers to Santa Ana. Then it is a 157 k. ride to Los Lagos. We R n’ R on the crystal clear waters of Los Lagos before two days of over 350 clicks to Cobija. A lost town on the river across from Brazil. This will be the roughest part of the trip. But I am prepared. www.aerostich.com took care of all my needed adventure gear. I could buy all of Bolivia with the Petzl LED they sent for my forehead it is so trick. The ATV RiderCourse provided free by the ATV Safety Institute refreshed my ATV riding.
From Cobija we return to Trinidad under the green darkness of the Amazon jungle.
Three planes, two doctors and gourmet chefs will follow us into the wild from Trinidad. No one will ever be on time including the speechmakers this morning.
Finally, to a grand salud of off-key brass and sporadic gunfire, all 590 wheels are out of town like the Oklahoma land rush on high test.
Locals are on every corner waving Bolivian flags and cheering. Kids have been let out of school to see us. Pretty girls and boys yell from the doorways of white washed walls. Little old ladies stop on the way home from the market to raise their shopping bags in salute. The ice cream vendor toots his horn. The mayor of Trinidad makes a long-winded speech, then, with the accompaniment of the off-key brass band and sporadic gunfire, all 596 wheels are screaming past an abandoned hacienda that signals the end of town. The snake like train of ATVs, trucks and bikes start to race the mile thick red dust left on a road stranded high above the savannah by this dry season. Not us.
Giving the right of way to a waddling tank of an armadillo, we five gringos now on Bolivo’clock, stop to have a lunch break of fresh fish, rice and plantains in the open front of a palm roofed cafe happily painted bright red and sitting between miles of three foot tall anthills.
“I ride ATVs at home when I’m not on my motorcycle” says David who looks too big for anything smaller than a Road King.
Having crossed South America alone on a two-wheeler, Hulk is just too happy being in an organized group with two more wheels under him. “With all the magic of being out in the elements like a motorcycle, but having the stability of four wheels and four wheel drive grunt with light weight, riding an ATV here in the unexplored world is the answer.” Hulk explains.
“So is talking into a shoe phone,” says Jeff barely covering his mouth.
Lee adds: “Racks in the front and plastic trunks add cargo space for a change of clothes, camping gear and plenty of water.”
“I did the Caravana last year,” says David. “The butt friendly soft seat of an ATV is very easy on ol’ El Mister Prostato.”
MIDNIGHT WITH A TEMPERATURE OF 100 and the humidity its twin number. This is the longest ride. We missed the overnight stop at Sena and now must put together over 700 kilometers to Cobija. But we are not alone. Half the group is going very slowly just in front of us. All in first gear. The trucks and ATVs are pulling four-wheel drive trying to push a hole through dust the weight of baby powder. Visibility is barely two feet. I cannot get enough water. The skin on my fingertips is drying into potato chips. My heat rash has mosquito bites. My tongue is swollen and feels a tennis ball.
ATVs are bicycling on two wheels in the meandering ruts of ox cart tracks cut into the scabs of the too dry veldt. Motorcycles simply give up.
Yet, there is something magical about following a centipede of taillights twisting over the empty and treeless plain under a sky showing off every star. No phone. No Freeway. No tolls. TV? No worry.
Then, at dawn, like Alice stepping through the looking glass, we break through the curtain of dust. The road slows down and turns into a narrow dirt path at a village of two thatched roof huts and a Coke sign. A hard turn over a big hump and at the bottom of the brown hill is a river. There are two huts in front of a wall of jungle on the other steep shore and a dugout canoe right in front of me.
This looks like a foggy scene from a Fellini film. I roll onto the boat. The twelve-year-old captain pulls a rope which will drag us across the water to the other end of the line and the beginning of another land as wet and green as this is dry and golden brown.
(To be continued…)
For the free ATV RiderCourse nearest you call 1 800 852 5344.
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Great once again…Fellini…My great friend Jim LaJune loved two lines in the Satyricon and I adopted them as well: The young man exclaims apologetically to the huge woman he is supposed to “screw”…”Ai, my sword is blunted.” And: when our hero is about to be cut down he pleads for mercy saying: “I am but a student.” Joe T.
Thanks, Joe. (great lines.) MS
Thanks – I’ve been enjoying your Amazonian recklessness as well…;) JM
High five, Mike!!!! Xavier Pujol Baterno
That was awesome, man!! Gunner W.
Thanks, g.w. MS
Cool. Gene C.
Thanks, Gene. MS
We’re enjoying the ride, on Bolivia time, waiting for Part 3. Kenneth A.
Thanks, Kenneth. MS
Some mornings it just doesn’t seem worth it to gnaw through the leather straps! Much thanx, Mike, for this, it makes my day. Just returned from Savannah where one man’s party is another man’s wife. I will never accept another drink from a urologist. Taking my dog to hunt bear in Montana. Rather go on a caravan with you, pal. Maxx F.
Thanks, Maxx! MS
From somewhere in the black of a dreamless sleep, the ring of a phone begins to define itself through the slow flop, flop, flop of the ceiling fan cutting through the humidity that hangs like a cloud in my hotel room.
“Señor, we will be in the lobby for you at 8 a.m.,” says an accented female voice on the other end. “For the plane.”
The fog lifts off my consciousness and I now remember laying down just a few minutes ago after flying from Miami past the part of La Paz that sticks above seas of clouds to land below them in Santa Cruz de La Sierra — a trip that seems not of our time or of our world.
Looking through the arch of the velvet-draped window past a palm tree covering most of the patio, pink ribbons of morning light spread like dishwashing soap to clear away the dark blue of the Bolivian night sky. In the tree three turquoise parrots with yellow breasts are staring back at me.
On the table by the window is an uncorked bottle of Cristal.
My Submariner says 7:40 local time. I wonder why in the hell am I here in all of this with a first-class hotel room if I am leaving too soon to enjoy it. Taking the bottle, I pull my Tumi out of the room.
In the gilt edged lobby, on the Napoleonic-era clock hanging by a large cactus,
8 a.m. comes and goes past my drooping eyelids. At a bit past noon, the little bellboy wakes me to deliver a message lettered by hand on a small card. It says in English that I will be picked up exactly at 1:00. I hope to finally get on with the adventure I came here for.
That adventure is the annual Caravana Amazonia.
14 days. Crossing the most bio-diverse country on the planet on ATVs. Bolivia. Where mountain peaks over 6,000 meters high pierce the sky above earth’s tallest navigable lake. The most dangerous road in the world races down past Indian women in bowler hats to be lost in the intoxicating Amazon. Lost in a dream like the ancient pink opera house and private railroad built in the jungle by the first rubber baron that we will find.
Two countries. 2,000 kilometers. The per-person price (check rates at http://www.caravan-atv.com/) includes ground transportation, hotels, breakfast, dinner and a Honda ATV with four-wheel drive and a semi-automatic transmission. Organizer Juan Carlos Salvatierra adds an extra gas tank and throws in oil changes with all other maintenance. You have to go out of pocket for gas, water, a few meals and tolls, which average about $1.50 per for a crossing of some of the most beautiful water scenes this side of Thomas Kincaid.
“Señor, sue coche esta aqui.”
A Lexus SUV with opaquely tinted windows sits in the black shade of the porte cochere. It is now a bit past 1:30. A tall man in a black bomber jacket who looks like a bodyguard for a dictator puts my bags in the back. Without speaking, we drive through Santa Cruz on cobbled streets under roofs of red tile burnt at the edges like homemade bread.
There is a precisely executed cathedral. A canvas-tented mercado of fruit and vegetables. Raw red meat. Fish dried hard. A thatched-roofed hospital. Rows of barefoot tailors spinning old sewing machines. A bank sits high on the tiled sidewalk with a lone guard cradling a rifle in his arms waiting in front for the return of Butch and Sundance.
A half hour passes. We turn onto a white gravel road — the kind usually found only south of Jacksonville. On an airfield whacked out of the jungle for the surreptitious comings and goings of the CIA or for the dropping of large bundles of entertainment produce from the sky, a rusty DC 3 lies dying on the edge of burnt grass.
Is this the runway my plane into the unknown will finally take off from?
“Bolivio’clock,” says Jeff Shulz, a forty-year-old housing contractor from Riverside, California when I apologize for being so many hours late.
We are standing on the linoleum floor of the anteroom inside a lonely tin hanger. He is wearing a Fox Racing off-road jacket like mine so I figure we are in this together.
David Wilmot, the big, bearded truck driver from Memphis, introduces himself to me. “Welcome to Bolivia. Time is told with a different clock down here.”
‘’Lee Klatcher. Minneapolis,” says a cherub-faced twenty-something offering his hand to shake mine.
Sitting on tubular chrome chairs that must have been in a 1920’s beauty parlor is the fifth American of our party — ex Green Beret Mick Hogan– now working in the American Consulate of some third world oil-producing fiefdom, and his very tall dark-haired wife.
Jeff whispers, “Mick Hogan is CIA.”
“And I think she’s the Dragon Lady,” says David.
“Mick is big and blonde enough to be Hulk Hogan.” Lee tells them both.
Looking silently past our chit-chatting cast, beyond the doorway with no door into the darkness of the hangar, I get a little anxious seeing a propeller on the ground under a turbo prop with one flat tire. A dirty Tupperware bowl under the motor appears to be filling up with oil. If I don’t find a tranquilizer before we take off in this crate, I just may walk to Brazil.
Pointing to a new and very clean white Brasilia: “Ese es nuestro aeroplana alla,” says a guy who looks like Ricky Martin in a starched white shirt with epaulettes.
”But the captain went home for lunch.” says David.
“Bolivio’clock,” repeats Jeff.
Like a thousand pound gorilla at a Chuckie Cheese birthday party of overweight school kids, delay in Bolivia is accepted as the norm. So is fun.
There are no lap timers or pulse meters. No snooze buttons. And no one will be hiding in the bushes with a citation book just in case you might enjoy yourself. The few cops around have other things to do.
I got used to it. Changed my life.
I uncork that champagne. “ To Bolivio’clock.”
The plane didn’t leave until sunset. I don’t think we noticed much except the awesome view as we flew low above the serpentine river that turned orange in the sunset snaking through a green world empty of anything human.
(To be continued….)
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Nice. You have even more fun than I do. Raymond B.
Thank you for sharing! (you have truly been putting me in awe…) Trish O.
Cool, Mike! Hey, when will you come to Brazil? You are my guest! Demian
Wow. Thanks, Demian. I should come to Brazil again. MS
Let’s plan this, my friend! Demian
Respect for not being all cushy all the time ;). Love the shot with the mariposa. Rebecca O.
Wonderful! Joe T.