Domesticating the Demon – Rounding the Horn

By Andrea Granahan

Just the name used to strike dread into sailors’ hearts – Cape Horn. It has taken untold lives and terrorized those that made it around the infamous passage.

Richard Henry Dana wrote about his experience in his famous book, Two Years Before the Mast.

“…hurrying upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on toward us from the south-west, and blackening the whole heavens.”Here comes Cape Horn!” said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the little brig, which was no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in …threatening to wash everything overboard.”

On our ship it was just beginning to get light. Stewards appeared on the eleventh story deck with its wrap-around views, wheeling in carts with coffee urns which they set up with trays of pastries for us early risers. Some of us had binoculars, and we sat in the padded chairs we had set our alarms before dawn to claim, staring ahead through the mist.

Suddenly we saw it. That great peak, shaped, oddly enough, like Diamond Head on Oahu Island. But this monster did not preside over tropical waters. This was the dreaded Cape Horn that looms large in sea shanties and sailors’ lore. It is the end of all habitable land at that end of our planet, where the Andes plunge into the sea, where two mighty oceans come together in a titan’s clash.

Cape Horn at the southernmost limit of habitable land.

Magellan tried to find the end of the annoyingly huge continent that stood between the Old World and the Spice Islands in 1520. He never did, but he did discover the Magellan Straits that winds its way through the archipelago at the foot of South America. Even getting that far cost him – of the 237 men that set out on the expedition, only 18 made it safely back to Spain (Magellan wasn’t one of them).

Some of them fell victim to the Williwaws, the wind phenomenon peculiar to those latitudes. Cold air builds up behind steep slopes then suddenly spills over the top of a mountain and falls into the sea at hurricane speeds, like an invisible iceberg, making a temporary dent in the water and a great splash. Woe to any boat that is not securely tied up at both ends below a Williwaw. Williwaws notwithstanding, in later years the straits served and still serve as a safer passage for steamships than the vicious Horn. Of course, now, the Panama Canal provides safer, even pedestrian, passage.

In 1525 another Spanish explorer, Francisco de Hoces,  may or may not have been the first to see the Horn. Sir Frances Drake claimed to have reached the end of land and seen open ocean – the historical jury is still out on it. The story is the dapper, red-bearded privateer climbed up the banks and crawled his way through the gales to reach the end for bragging rights, as he came back and told his men, “I have been the farthest south of any  man yet known .” Historians all have to agree he did make it around South America and enter the Pacific where he ravaged the Spanish towns and treasure ships. The sea passage south of the Horn is still called Drake’s Pass.

But it took the Dutch to really use it for trade purposes and to name it. By the early 1600s the Dutch East India Company had claimed a monopoly on the Straits of Magellan. William Schouten, master of the ship Hoorn, named for his hometown, determined to break the monopoly by bypassing the straits and finding another passage that sailors’ gossip had bragged about since Drake. They called the treacherous point Cape Hoorn, which the English later shortened to Cape Horn.

During California’s Gold Rush, the Horn saw a lot of traffic.  Later, around the turn of the 20th century, large steel square rigged sailing ships were specially constructed for heavy hauling around the Horn. Coal and nitrate were the usual freights.

The last tallship to make the passage was the Pamir in 1949.

The Pamir, a German tallship – the last to sail around the Horn.

Before that in 1905 a square rigged ship, the British Isles, tried for 71 days to get round the Horn before she made it. She was one of the two largest three-masted ships ever built and was made for hauling heavy loads. She was full of coal when she tried to round the Horn. By the time they made it, the vessel was a wreck, four men had died, one lost a leg, and many others had suffered permanent injuries. A young sailor, William Jones, wrote of that terrifying passage in a book called The Cape Horn Breed. That same year the Susanna took 91 days to make the trip. No one recorded what must have been that horrific passage. In that terrible winter of 1905 of the 200 or so ships to leave for the Horn, 55 went missing.

The fastest rounding was accomplished with a windjammer, the Priwall, in five days and fourteen hours in 1938. No one has ever broken that record, although some have tried. Generally it took two weeks or more. Some chatted about the statistics as we drew closer to the landmark.

The Priwall, a windjammer, holds the world speed record for rounding the Horn. It was built by the same company that built the Pamir.

“We are exceedingly fortunate,” a ship’s officer told us over the loudspeaker from the bridge. “We are seeing the smiling face of the Horn today.”

While the skies were gray, the seas were relatively smooth, just long slow swells. There were white caps from the wind, but even though it was kind today, not stirring up mighty waves. I was still glad we were not on a sailing ship. I felt secure on our great, motor driven ship.

“In the next few moments the bow will be in one ocean and the stern will be in another,” said the officer. “However, fortunately we are still joined,” he added chuckling.

There were no trees, but lots of moss and grass covered the promontory. Then came the announcement that because the weather was cooperative, the captain of our ship planned to circumnavigate the Horn so we would see it from all sides before we headed off into the Atlantic.

As we came into the lee side we poured on deck to take photos and gawk at the island. Soon we could see the residence of the Chilean naval officer and his family stationed on what must be one of the loneliest places on earth. The family tends the lighthouse, a weather station, a chapel, and greets any visitors. Small Antarctic expedition boats sometimes stop there. We finally got close enough to see the beautiful memorial the Chileans have erected there.

The stunning Chilean monument to those who died rounding the Horn.

Seven meters high, the metal diamond shape features a cutout figure of an albatross – the traditional spiritual guardian of the souls of sailors drowned at sea. The memorial honors all those who lost their lives rounding the Horn. It was dedicated in 1992. The Chilean poet  Sara Vial from the port of Valparaiso wrote a poem that is carved there. The officer read it to us.

I, the albatross that awaits at the end of the world…
I am the forgotten soul of the sailors lost,
rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world.
But die they did not in the fierce waves,
for today towards eternity, in my wings they soar,
in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds.

Everyone grew very quiet as we passed the memorial, our thoughts reaching into the terrible past of the Horn.

These days there is little traffic around the Horn. The occasional cruise ship, such as ours, goes by. Indeed, the biggest attraction to boarding this ship for me, an unapologetic romantic, was a chance to round the Horn. Sometimes Antarctic cruises and expeditions pass, or even stop. Yachts sometimes try it, don’t always make it. There are some insane yacht races to circumnavigate the globe every few years that include rounding the Horn. The albatross cares for the spirits of some of those blue water sailors. Local fishermen are too smart to chance its unpredictable ways.

In the 1980s Argentina’s military government, looking for some conquest to distract their unhappy citizens from the “Dirty War” they were waging against their political opponents, made threatening noises about taking over the Horn. He who controls it, controls the vital air space above it. The Chileans responded by sending their navy and land mining it. So the Argentine dictators turned to the Falklands instead with disastrous results for the country and their government.

Nowadays, things are more peaceful and Argentina has a more benign government. The biggest danger at the Horn island itself is that one of the officer’s children or a visitor might accidentally step on a mine, so they have been fenced off. We could see the fences. The fences are easily removable should Argentine dictators rise again.

In tallship days when sailors rounded the Horn they were entitled to put a small golden ring in their left ears and could put both feet on the mess table as well as sport a tallship tattoo. We were awarded printed certificates. Some ships “baptize” their passengers with a bucket of water from the mixed oceans at the Horn. I was just as glad ours didn’t. Even in summer the Horn is chilly. My ears were pierced already and I had no interest in tattoos. Still I felt strange – as if a part of me had indeed been marked – it had to be in my heart.

At last we were past the Horn and we could see that wave-torn, wind-scarred, brave marker of the seas fade into the mist behind us. We still had almost six degrees of latitude to pass before we reached 50 degrees and had officially rounded the Horn, but as I saw that wild outpost of land vanish in the distance I felt very privileged, like a great milestone had been crossed, and also, I felt as if a part of me had been left behind with the sailors’ albatross – yes, it had to be a piece of my heart.

The Bicycle Built for Beer

The bike found the beer, then the beer built a green empire.

By Andrea Granahan

A battered suitcase turned into art with the help of a porthole commemorates the trip that began New Belgium Brewery.

Combining beer with bicycles might bring to mind a wobbly rider leaving a pub, but in Fort Collins, Colorado, close to Denver, it has created a dynamic business that is socially conscious and a model “green” corporation.

It all began in 1989 when Jeff Lebesch, an avid bicyler and beer lover traveled to Belgium. He had purchased one of the newly invented mountain bikes from the maker in Marin County in California. Wherever he went people asked him about his bike with the “fat tires”. Stopping one day at Brugges Biertje, the beer masters spent the day telling him all about what went into making their fine beers. It was an epiphany for him. It hit him that making beer was not only doable but fun.

On his return to his hometown in Colorado he set about trying to duplicate their beer processes in his basement, jettisoning a career as an electrical engineer to do so. He experimented, and using dairy equipment, came up with two beers that made him happy – Fat Tire, an amber brew he named in honor of his experiences in Belgium, and a nutty brown “dubbel” beer he christened Abbey. He met and married Kim Jordan, who loved his beer, and took over marketing his fabulous beer by knocking on neighbors’ doors to sell it. One of the neighbors was artist Anne Fitch who produced the art still used on New Belgium labels.

From a keg in the basement to top of the line new "green" technology, but the beer tastes the same and it's good.

Growing demand made the couple realize they had outgrown the basement. Before they launched into expansion, Lebesch and Jordan packed a jug of homebrew, a pad and pencil. They bicycled to Rocky Mountain National Park and hammered out the code they wanted to apply to their fledgling business.

That code included producing world class beers, a strong commitment to the environment, high involvement from employees, balancing the needs of employees with those of the business, responsible enjoyment of beer and, very important,  having fun – especially with bicycles.

Today New Belgium employs 340 people and produces a half million barrels of beer a year in a plant that has inspired other corporations. And Lebesch never forgot his bicycle that got him to the beer.

New Belgium employees have some unique perks. When they have been working at the brewery for a year they get part ownership in the corporation, and a custom built commuter bicycle. The brewery also has a stable of bicycles on hand for employees to use on errands, including a few motorized ones for long distances. A collection of antique bicycles is on display, and the tasting room is furnished with tables made of old bike wheels. They even have a bike-in movie outdoor movie series every summer with the proceeds going to non-profits.

A parking lot at New Belgium Brewery.

The company also sponsors a number of bike events such as the Tour de Fat, a multi-city, mobile bicycle festival that features a quirky parade of bizarre bikes and costumes, various bike sporting events and beer. The festival is free and the profits of the beer sales are given to local non-profits.

Lebesch also did not forget his inspiration. When employees have been at New Belgium five years they are given a special trip to Belgium where they get to meet the brewers of that country.

Environmentally, New Belgium is at the top of the list of conscientious businesses. The basic design of its building makes maximum use of daylight for lighting,  uses evaporative cooling eliminating the need for compressors and has an array of photovoltaic cells. New Belgium treats its wastewater using by-products for methane generators and nutrient laden sludge for gardens, uses wind power for electricity, and uses specially designed brewing kettles reducing power requirements. The company fosters a “one percent for the planet” movement by donating that much to environmental causes.

Even the bicycle festival is run on environmental lines, using solar powered equipment. It has a program called Team Wonderbike that has 10,000 members who have pledged to offset eight million car miles a year by using bikes instead of cars whenever possible for 12 months.

Tastings at the brewery are free – visitors getting six small tasting mugs of various beers. It’s a popular place on Friday evenings with anywhere from 300 – 1000 tasters showing up for the free suds. Many arrive on bicycles.

Friday night in the tasting room. Much of Fort Collins turns out for the occasion.

The environmental commitment of the company is not a static thing. All employee owners are constantly trying to find more ways to go greener. . The company has helped make Fort Collins a very bicycle friendly town. Many restaurants supplement the plentiful town bicycle racks with racks of their own, and the town has a bicycle “library” where visitors can check out a bike for free to ride around downtown.

The “having fun” tenet has led to employees holding winter bike rally rides, summer rides all the time, a standing Thursday night volleyball game, beer tastings, and parties.

Lebesch has a philosophy of “follow your folly” because following his dream led him from an electrical engineering job to New Belgium. He follows his own advice and has retired from the business as his wife, Kim Jordan, has taken on the job of CEO. He now races sailboats. And from all reports both he and Jordan are still abiding by the rules they set in Rocky Mountain National Park in the beginning by having a lot of fun.

99,000 bottle of beer on the wall....the cavernous bottling room at New Belgium

Quebec City – Europe Without the Euro

By Andrea Granahan

On a snowy day, having worked up an appetite roaming a warren of cobble stoned streets and gazing at seventeenth century buildings clustered under the city walls, I suddenly got a whiff of aromas that made my mouth water.

I followed my nose into a small bistro, Le Lapin Sauté

A fireplace on one wall drew me like a magnet. Low wood beams held bundles of drying herbs. Some old copper pots hung on the wall, others were in use in the kitchen emitting the enticing smells. The place was full of people talking animatedly in French.

I stumbled over my own French but Pierre, my waiter, good-humouredly repeated the specials and translated for me as I pored over the menu. Cassoulet, a classic dish, jumped out at me. Before long I was contentedly washing down the succulent meal with some red wine.

C’est bonne?” Pierre asked. I gave him a thumbs-up sign and he laughed.

Paris? No, I was in Quebec City, North America’s answer to Paris.

Many Americans still tend to think of Quebec in terms of its French fur trapper history, envisioning wooden palisades in the wilderness. While Quebec is proud of that part of her history, and an edgy touch of the wilderness still permeates the sophistication, this is a city that has been civilizing itself since the early 1600s.

For proof of just how sophisticated this city has become you need look no farther than the magnificent Chateau Frontenac. This hotel, in the grand Canadian style of the hotels at Banff and Lake Louise, towers over the city walls and dominates the skyline.

The five star institution boasts Chef Jean Soulard who has won France’s highest award, “Maitre Cuisinier de France” hosts a television cooking show and gives cooking lessons at the hotel. In homage to Quebec’s wilderness tradition he includes wild game on his menu.

Also in keeping with the wild history, the hotel has a ghost who haunts the hotel. The lady had such a lovely time over a hundred years ago when she visited the chateau she has never left. An actress playing the part to the hilt frequently entertains the guests.

She was not the only lady to grace the city. In fact, in the1660s,  King Louis XIV of France , delighted with the furs coming from his new outpost, decided it should become a permanent settlement. To do that, the trappers needed wives.

So King Louis rounded up young women orphans from the convents of France. Rumor has it that a  few ladies of the night were included for instructional purposes. Called “Les Filles du Roi” The King’s Daughters, they all sailed over, 700 in one ship alone, and were greeted by hordes of happy trappers.

Their mission was to copulate and populate Quebec, one they accomplished with vigor. The average number of children per family until 30 years ago was between 13 and 16. Finally, at that time the daughters of those huge families realized they had a choice and it was “NO!”.

Instead of dealing with so many children they don’t know what to do, Quebec is now facing an aging population, an altogether new problem.

The British, eventually disturbed the peace of France’s colony by invading it. As the Quebecois defended the front at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers, the redcoats came in the back way marching across a field owned by a farmer named Abraham in 1759. Today Abraham’s Plain is the site of the annual Winter Carnaval.

One of the gates to Quebec City.

The Brits allowed the French to keep their language and religion (something they didn’t do for their own Catholic countrymen at home). Luckily the French also kept their cooking skills.

While the rest of Canada may survive on marmite sandwiches, and under-seasoned sausage, in Quebec even the fussiest gourmet would have to work hard to find something to complain about, and one doesn’t have to frequent the Chateau to find fine cooking. Small bistros pepper the city (no pun intended). They import their wine but do make their own ice wine, a real delicacy.  The one possible exception to the excellent food might arguably be poutine. It was the French fur trapper’s answer to fast food. It is French fries topped with fried cheese curds and glued all together with gravy. Poutine is a great source of amusement in Quebec cartoons. It sits in the stomach like a brick – you can eat once to hold you over for a week of chopping wood in the snow.

Quebec makes the most of what it has and in the winter she plays with the cold. The commuter ferry crossing the St. Lawrence is swapped out for an icebreaker. Before the icebreakers were purchased the Quebecois cleverly built temporary winter bridges of ice to cross the river. Many restaurants construct “ice bars” outside, illuminated at night with fiber optic lighting, and they even build their famous Ice Hotel. Now that’s something even Paris doesn’t have.

The European feel of the city is especially evident behind the high walls the British built to keep us Americans from invading. These days we invade with dollars instead of bayonets. Pierced by two gates that had to be widened in the 1950s to accommodate motorized traffic, they surround a wonderful maze of streets that make up the Vieux Quebec, old town, of the city.

Artists, craftsmen and artisans joined forces to preserve and protect the colorful heart of the old town called Quartier Petit Champlain. The shopping opportunities get visitors drooling and spending.

Entertainment is also big in Quebec and it has given the world such phenomena as the Cirque de Soliel and Celine Dion. During Carnaval traditional Arcadian (translate that as Cajun) music from the backwoods days is popular and fur coated people wearing the traditional arrowhead patterned woven sash lead street dances in the old town.

Dresssed in tradityional trapper garb for the Carnaval.

Everyone speaks French, but anywhere near Quebec City they also speak English. The Separatist Movement had its heyday and got rules passed requiring all signs to have the English 50 percent smaller than the French. But when it came to a vote, the Quebecois voted to stay with Canada, so it just seems like another country, and no one has a chip on his or her shoulder about the language. The money is definitely Canadian and our dollar goes a lot farther in Quebec than it does in Euro based France.

They are a fun loving people who welcome visitors and, hey, there’s no doggie poo problem like in Paris. It’s not only closer, it’s a lot cleaner.

The Bearly Famous Yosemite Trip – a Cautionary Tale

Yosemite Valley, a symphony in granite.

I love to camp and have spent many happy days swatting mosquitoes out in the wilds. But, sad to say, not all camping trips are successful. One that stands out in my family’s memory is the one to Yosemite.

   My husband and I had looked forward to it for a long time and finally one year carefully chose the perfect sites in the valley floor campgrounds. But nature skunked us in more ways than one.

   That winter floods destroyed those campgrounds and my husband was ill and  on chemo-therapy. But my daughter Heather and I were certain between the two of us we could handle the children and the work of camping so he could relax and the kids could be exposed to the grandeur of granite. Hah!

   She borrowed a VW camping van to simplify things. We had our non-camping van but lots of tents. We took one moody pre-teen, Juju, Heather took another, Jasper, and her other two children, Eva and Cooper.

   Little had we reckoned on the Park Service greed. Having lost hundreds of campsites it was determined to make its revenues and shoved everyone into one campground. A hundred or so of us had to share one restroom, one sink and one faucet. There were always long lines.

   There was a heat wave and the campground was buried under four inches of dust after all the wear and tear, and it was overrun with ground squirrels. The first thing that leaped to my mind was Hantavirus.

   “Don’t feed the squirrels, kids, no matter how cute they are,” I kept shouting.

   Still things might have been fine except for the “bears”. The ranger manning the gate took one look at my pretty, then single, daughter, swelled out his chest and told her how he had bravely faced down a bear the night before.

   Heather bit. She gasped and said, “I better have my children sleep in the van.”

   “Pooh, bears open a van like it was a tuna fish can. We had a mountain lion here last week, too.”

   My husband and I had camped in bear country, though she had not, and we knew our bear hygiene, so weren’t alarmed but Heather was frantic. We carefully packed all the food and toiletries in the clumsy bear box.

   We set up a couple tents and I strung a hammock for my husband, who found it uncomfortable and went into a tent to nap. Jasper took over the hammock so he could brood about not having been able to bring his buddies. Juju pouted because she wanted to swim. She also wanted a turn in the hammock.

   Cooper and Eva discovered that the battery operated mister fans I had bought them could be recalibrated  to shoot like water guns and promptly filled them with melting ice from the ice chests. Sudden screams from the older kids revealed their targets.

   There were so many bear alarms I decided imaginary bears were worse to camp with than real ones. I finally announced, “The only time I want to hear the word bear is when one is behind me and about to bite me. Got it?”

   Camp set up we set off for the valley. We were really eager to show the kids the magnificence of Yosemite. But just a mile down the road Heather’s VW broke down. Fortunately the chest-beating ranger was behind her and offered to rebuild her engine with his Swiss army knife and her can opener (he soon bailed but she replaced the fan belt with her butter knife).  We took as many kids as we had seat belts. Jasper volunteered to stay behind so he could brood some more.

   The younger kids complained about the heat. Juju still pouted because she wanted to swim. We promised them popsicles from the store in the valley if they’d just be patient and admire rocks and waterfalls on the way.

   The line at the store was over an hour long especially as everyone in line spoke a different language the clerk didn’t understand. Even the kids realized their Popsicles would melt before we could pay for them and agreed to slushies from a hand cart outside.

   On our way back to camp we stopped by the river so Juju could swim. I was tired of complaints so must confess to enjoying the look on her face when she jumped in and realized the river was freshly melted snow. The famous swim lasted 30 seconds.

   While we were gone, Heather’s fears of bears had been intensified by her ranger friend. We began cooking dinner. More campers had arrived and our space had been reduced to something smaller than my bathroom at home. The squirrels were relentless; so were the kids.

   “Eek!” I screamed when I got shot in the back with ice water. “Eva, don’t shot me without asking me first.”

   “But Cooper won’t let me shoot him. He’s a nose booger.”

   “He is not a nose booger. Cooper, don’t feed the squirrels. Jasper, let Juju have a turn in the hammock. She’s allowed to brood, too.”

   Suddenly a space I thought was part of our campsite was taken over by revelers on Harleys.

   Heather, whom my husband and I had nicknamed the “food Nazi’, had brought seaweed chips as snacks. I had brought the makings of s’mores. This led to frustration for both of us.

   “Oh, lighten up. A couple marshmallows won’t kill them.”

   The kids agreed and ate a lot more than a couple getting belly aches. Mom is always right.

   The crummy bear box was difficult to manage. We finally got everything in and between Heather and I we got it slammed shut.

   “I forgot to brush my teeth,” Cooper announced. Naturally, the toiletries were behind all the food.

   I obediently stood in the ladies room line. Some young women had stripped to waist and were using the sinks to bathe since there were no showers. Two young French men ignoring the line, barged in and took over a sink and began their ablutions. When asked to leave they sneered at us. One woman went to find the bear-fighting ranger who had, of course, left for the night.

   Finally, scared by ghost stories, terrified by bears, the kids went to bed and us exhausted adults climbed in the sack and tried to sleep.

   That’s when we discovered our biker neighbors had had chili with beans for dinner. Then the Vietnam veteran on the other side had a flashback nightmare. He sounded just like an enraged bear. The kids woke screaming, as the vet’s wife soothed him back to sleep.

  In the morning I dutifully waited in line for water to make coffee. Heather and I battled because I had made bacon – I always bring it camping just because it smells so good to wake up to. I agreed the nitrites would probably kill the kids instantly, “But they can smell it can’t they?”

   “So can the bears!” she wailed.

   Our ranger friend showed up again with more bear stories. I refrained with difficulty from hitting him in the kisser with my bacon spatula. But then he announced more campers were expected since the weekend was approaching and the heat would reach 109 degrees in the park that day.

   That did it. My husband and I looked at each other and began packing. We bailed, leaving behind hantavirus, imaginary bears, rude Frenchmen, gassy bikers, and growling vets. Air conditioner going full bore we crossed the Central Valley at 117 degrees, making only one pit stop. Heather was not far behind us.

   We made up our differences on the phone that night and she designed a T-shirt with paw prints on the back that said, “We bearly made it out of Yosemite.”

   From now on I will stay in lodgings in Yosemite. The Park Service has done the same things for the pleasure of camping that airlines have done for the pleasure of tra



On the Trail of the Pack Rat Poet

Larger than lifesize murals of Neruda decorate the streets of Chile.

He was a poet beloved by the world. He was an ardent politician – a communist. He was a hero who once rescued 2000 people. Above all, he was a passionate collector, a true pack rat, who collected everything, including, it seems, women.

I wanted to know Chile, and to know Chile, I had to know Pablo Neruda, her most revered son.

I had read his work; loved most of it, excited by some of it, driven to righteous anger by much of it, impressed by it all. But because of his legendary collections, I realized to really get to know Neruda, I had to visit the pack rat’s houses.

Houses, plural. He built three. Yes, he collected those, too.


Living room at Isla Negra with ships’ mastheads. Photo courtesy Neruda Foundation.

There’s a small stone tower that defines the house, but Neruda kept adding to its structure to house his ever growing collections of ships items, pottery, shells, books, statuary – you name it.

He began working on the house with his second wife Delia del Carril. He had begun an affair with her while still married to his first wife, a Dutch woman, Maria Hagenaar, from Indonesia.

Delia, a gifted artist, his best editor and critic, and an ardent political colleague, was also from a privileged Argentine family with many servants. As such, she never learned such basic domestic skills as cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Neruda, a thorough Latin male, was no help, and was always adding to the construction-zone they lived in, so the early years of Isla Negra tended to be messy and chaotic, but fun.

Delia was 20 years Neruda’s senior and eventually, after 18 years of marriage, the latter years strictly platonic, he began an affair with Mathilde Urrutia who became his third wife. Delia got a form of revenge, though, through longevity. She lived to be over 100 and outlived both Neruda and Mathilde.

At Isla Negra Neruda built a bar that only he was permitted to tend since he loved dispensing drinks to his friends. He also beached a boat for cocktail parties saying one did not need to go to sea in a boat to feel unsteady if one brought a drink.

The drinking boat and ship’s bell to summon the neighbors.


He installed a great ship’s bell he would ring to let his neighbors know he was home and party was about to begin.

            In his living room he installed most of a collection of ships’ mastheads, reserving a couple nudes to surprise guests in other parts of the house. Artist friends contributed various works to Isla Negra as well as his other houses. In his dining room large windows look out over the sea and opposite, over the garden. He placed his collection of blue and green vinters’ jugs on the sea side, the earth-toned ones on the garden side.

            Galleries linking living spaces are lined with other collections: masks, pipes, Indonesian idols (he served as Chile’s ambassador to Indonesia in his youth – and had a passionate affair with a wild and violent native woman), sea shells, fabrics – you name it. On one wall is a plaque donated after his death to Isla Negra by the descendants of the Winnepeg. That was a Canadian fishing vessel he managed to commandeer in France that he used to rescue 2000 refugees from Spain’s Civil War who were dying in concentration camps.

            His writing studio features a desk made of a hatch cover . He saw it bobbing in the waves and told his third wife, Mathilde, “I see my desk coming.” He waited on the beach all day until the sea delivered it.

            His bed was set at an angle so he could see the sea from all directions. He had furniture built to maintain the angle after the housekeeper insisted on moving it to sweep.

            Towards the end, he lay ill and dying on the bed looking at his beloved sea. Pinochet, who had just murdered Neruda’s dearest friend and newly elected Chilean president, Salvatore Allende (uncle to Isabelle), ordered his soldiers to invade and trash the house of the communist poet.

            But when the young officer burst into the room,  Neruda said, “Look around  – there’s just one thing of danger for you here  – poetry.” The soldier was overwhelmed at actually seeing the revered Nobel Prize winner. He apologized, ordered his men out and left Neruda and Isla Negra in peace.

The bed at Isla Negra where he was last conscious. Towards the end, he lay ill and dying on the bed looking at his beloved sea. Pinochet, who had just  murdered  Neruda’s dearest friend and newly elected Chilean president, Salvatore Allende (uncle to Isabelle), ordered his soldiers to invade and trash the house of the communist poet.


            Neruda  and his wife Delia had a house in Santiago but when he brought Mathilde to Santiago, the lovers bought a piece of property and began building a home for her as a trysting place. It is nowhere near the sea but Neruda and Mathilde’s  house still feels like a ship.

            Although Neruda was a tall and burly man, he favored small doors and narrow steep stairs like a ship. He designed an artificial stream to water his gardens and so he could always hear water – it no longer exists, alas. His dining room is long and narrow, like a captain’s dining saloon. Narrow walkways link living spaces, and secret back spiral staircases pop up everywhere.

            The house overlooks Bellavista, a poor working class neighborhood until Neruda moved in. Artists followed him, mingled with or grew out of the workers’ numbers until now Bellavista is the lively, colorful, Bohemian district Neruda envisioned when he built his home there.

            He called his house La Chascona which means woman with wild hair after Mathilde who sported an unruly mop of a vivid maroon shade of red still favored by some Latin American women.

            The artist Diego Rivera painted a portrait of her with Neruda’s distinctive profile emerging from her curls. It hangs in La Chascona.

            This home, sadly, Pinochet’s soldiers did tear apart, burning his books. They ripped out the artificial stream. All the while Neruda lay dying in a nearby hospital. But Mathilde insisted a few days later, after Neruda’s death, on holding his funeral amidst the flooded ruins in a pouring rain.

            The city rose in sorrow and protest, to march by the thousands behind his casket to the cemetery. They chanted a roll call: “Comrade Neruda. Present! Now and forever!” The foreign press was out in force so Pinochet was helpless to stop the brave procession

Mural painted for Neruda outside La Chascona, restored after Pinoichet’s fall..


            As Neruda had loved blue-collar Bellavista, he also loved the tough working class of the gritty but colorful port of Valparaiso. He had fallen in love with the place when he was in hiding from a hostile government there, before he made a famous escape for his life over the Andes on horseback to Argentina.

            Valparaiso, or Valpo, as the locals dub it, cascades down 42 hills to the bay at its feet. Neruda chose a steep top peak for his home like a sea eagle’s eerie. He and Mathilde bought an unfinished home and began to reshape it to suit Neruda.

            Smaller than the other homes, the shiplike feeling still permeates this house. A porthole replaces a window, blue and green tiles in a bath suddenly take you underwater. The bedroom at the top of the house seems to hover over the sea port below. Mathilde’s dressing robes still hang in the closet.

This house, too, was demolished by Pinochet’s soldiers after his death. Mathilde got a frantic call from neighbors to come to Valpo and see if she could somehow seal the house. Even the front door was gone. Shortly afterwards a friend of Neruda’s was in Valparaiso when he saw a huge crowd gathered around the house in an uproar. It turned out an angry eagle had flown into the rooms at the top through the broken windows,  frightening everyone and it wouldn’t leave. This struck all who knew the poet because Neruda had always said if there was such a thing as reincarnation he would come back as an eagle.

            La Sebastiana is not only the smallest, but seems in some ways, the most personal and private of Neruda’s homes. Despite his love of entertaining and the ever-present bar for him to tend, this home feels as though two people shared many close times here.

            Neruda wrote a poem about watching La Sebastiana grow organically, and it is still on his desk written in green ink as he wrote all his work – saying it was the color of hope.

            It took ousting Pinochet before the Chilean people could demand that La Chascona in Santiago be restored, and that all of Neruda’s homes be opened to the public as he had wanted. Isla Negra had to be sealed for years to legally protect it from being seized and destroyed by Pinochet, so it was the only one to survive intact.

Mathilde was active in making it all happen. She wanted a foundation in his honor established, but while she put all the pieces in place, the foundation couldn’t  operate until after her death when Pinochet was finally gone. 

             Neruda would get a chuckle out of the prosperity of the once poor neighborhoods in Santiago and Valpo whose inhabitants capitalize on visitors’ interest in his homes today. Souvenir stalls abound; handicrafts as well as refreshments are hawked outside La Chascona and La Sebastiana.

            His and Mathilde’s bodies were eventually moved to Isla Negra where he wanted to be buried and they lie beneath the slope. It is the most peaceful of the three homes he built, and even free of the souvenir stalls.

            The houses are the fruit of a life lived fully, richly, generously, without restraint. The collections are not merely acquisitions, but obviously loved and honored. Like his work they excite, depress or anger you, but they always enrich you.

             Pablo Neruda, I think I begin to know you now. I think I begin to understand your beloved Chile.

You can go home again!

“Look girls, cowboys!” my friend Bev said. My other friend Devorah said, “Yippee ki yay.”

Sure enough our vehicle was met by some nice looking young men in Stetsons and chaps, and by one older, smiling, bearded gentleman.

The cowboys, Dale and Chad, whisked away our luggage to our cabins and Jerry, the ranch owner led us to the sprawling main ranch house. The sign at the door didn’t say welcome, it said, “Welcome home.” That said it all.

Chad, a wrangler.

Most Americans have had a family farm in their backgrounds or wish they did. A laid back, comfortable home where you are always welcome, the kitchen always smells good, and there are wonderful animals to get to know.

The Bar Lazy J ranch in Parshall, Colorado is exactly that place. The minute we arrived we felt totally at home. The old log buildings from the early 1900s with their slightly out of square angles as the buildings have settled comfortably, the stone fireplaces, the warm, slightly worn furnishings are part of the homey charm. But the real secret of the ranch’s lure is the people who live and work there.

Jerry and Cheri Amos-Helmicki, who own the ranch, have a philosophy. “We have three priorities: first the help, second the horses, third the guests. If the first is happy they take good care of the second, and then when the first two are happy, so are the guests,” Cheri explained.

It definitely works. The Bar Lazy J is the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado. Everyone who works there from the wranglers, both male and female, to the kitchen staff, loves the ranch and their work. That doesn’t stop the wranglers from teasing greenhorns, but it’s all good natured fun.

The cabins, like the ranch house, date back to 1907 – 1911. They all front on the Colorado River which runs through the property, making fly fishing a popular activity. Equipment is available in the Fishin’ Shack behind the wranglers’ bunkhouses.

The first afternoon that guests arrive they learn about one of the unique events the Bar Lazy J offers – the running of the horses. The ranch herd of 70 to 100 horses have a pasture a short distance from the guest facilities where the barns and paddocks are located. The wranglers let the horses gallop from one place to the other. The horses clearly enjoy the wild race and everyone enjoys the sight and sound of such a large herd galloping by. The morning and evening run is one of the high points of the day for people and horses.

The running of the herd.

One of the first things the crew likes to show visitors is the “bottomless cookie box” – a chest kept constantly filled with fresh offerings. The kitchen is open to the guests to fetch coffee, cocoa, or cold drinks between meals. The meals are something else. It’s not the “bacon and beans most every day, sooner be eatin’ the prairie hay” of the old song. It’s a gourmet spread three times a day with a little exotica like buffalo meatloaf sometimes added to the menu. The ranch house bell rings a half hour before meals to warn riders, fishermen, hikers, and loafers that the grub is coming, and then again when it’s time to go to the table. No one misses the meals.

The first night after dinner guests got to meet the horses that would be theirs to ride for the duration of the stay – usually a week. Cochise, a paint, was mine because I was a novice rider. It’s a relationship that develops rapidly, easily becoming a love affair.

One guest who has been coming back for several years (three quarters of the guests are returnees) walked up to the corral fence. The horse he had ridden each year recognized him from across the paddock, neighed, and trotted right up to nuzzle him.

Jerry believes in a thorough education before he trusts anyone with his beloved horses. After breakfast the next morning he and Shawnee, another paint, carefully instructed us newbies in horsemanship.

“You are not a passenger. This is a partnership,” he said. After his 45 minute orientation, a group of wranglers got us all mounted and led us to a hill top where they put us and our horses through our paces. Before long the wranglers were satisfied that we knew how to control our mounts and that we felt secure. We had learned some of our horses’ personal quirks and habits – Cochise was having a hard time resisting the new grass.. After a buffet lunch on a screened porch overlooking the river, we were ready for the trails.

Bev opted to sit by the river and read a book, Devorah decided to learn the intricacies of fly fishing from a pro, while the rest of us rode. About two hours later I dismounted and discovered Cochise had not done all of the work. My muscles barely allowed me to hobble to the hot tub for a solid soak. That made all the difference.

In fact, by the time Jerry and Cheri had launched a laid back cocktail party, I was ready for a cold one. After a while, the bells rang, the horses ran, the bells rang again, and we entered the dining room where a fire blazed in the fire place illuminating the wonderful Western art collection on the mantel. The meal was spectacular.

Still weary from my ride, I sat on the screened in porch of my cabin and listened to the river. I had snagged a cookie from the bin on the way back to my cabin and nibbled it. In a bit I’d join the girls in the living room of the ranch house in front of the fire.

I thought about my family farm in the South. It had long since passed out of the family when my grandparents died. I thought about my husband’s family farm in Minnesota, snatched up by an agribusiness when his uncle died. We’d never had a ranch in the family, but the Bar Lazy J was so familiar because of the farm memories. I realized even if there had never been a farm in the family this place would feel the same. It’s as if we share a national nostalgia, a collective memory of what should be.

I sat back and nibbled my chocolate chip cookie and realized at the Bar Lazy J, contrary to conventional wisdom, you CAN go home again, even if you never had one in the first place.

To contact Bar Lazy J –

Rates are $1725 a week for adults and include all meals, horse riding and other activities

$1195 for kids 7-12, $995 for kids 3-6 – includes special children’s activities

5 weeks of the year are set aside for adults, and there is 10% discount, and some 3 day stays are offered during the adult weeks

Meet the meanderer

I have a zest for adventure. I love going to new cultures and learning how the people there solve the basic problems of life. I love seeing new animals, plants, places. I am a woman alone wandering the world, but when I can I find a good travel companion. Before I leave for a new place I try to learn about it as much as possible – explore its history, art and music. Once there I let it swallow me whole. These blogs are from my journeys, inner and outer.