a night alone in an english ruin

journalism

A version of this story first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 30, 2011

The stone cottage stood alone on the hillside, dark and sinister in the gloom of twilight. Pushing open the heavy old door I shone my torch in to the empty silence of the room. A jet black wood burner stood in the hearth, and beside it a fresh woodpile. On a shelf, stacks of papers withered in the dampness alongside the baroque remains of a melted candle in a bottleneck.

The bothy at Warnscale Head in the English Lakes

I laid down my rucksack and collected some kindling. As the cold night drew in I piled the fire high, eating sausage and beans washed down with tea and, a little later, a few nips of whiskey from a hip flask.

I was miles from the nearest habitation, in the wilds of Northumberland, near England’s border with Scotland. In the musty interior of the old farm cottage it felt like I was further away, like I had slipped between the pages of a 19th century novel.

I wondered about the ghosts of the past: whose home this had been and when and why they had left. Outside in the deep of Keilder forest an owl hooted.

In the jam-packed Britain of today finding a place to enjoy the country’s heritage in true isolation is no mean feat. The land is scattered with ancient monuments – castles and churches, runes and ruins – but it’s also littered with fences, admission fees, “keep out” signs and lots of other visitors.

As a solution to this problem I heard about bothies. Dotted across northern Britain, they are ruined cottages abandoned to the elements. Often the former homes of shepherds and crofters, in Scotland many of
them are relics of the Highland Clearances, the forced displacement of the rural population carried out by the British government during the 18th and 19th centuries. One Highland bothy dating from the 18th century is the birthplace of the man whose life story formed the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped”.

Another ruined farmstead at Kearvaig Bay on the northern tip of Britain contains a scrawled message on the plaster recording three generations of the same family dating back nearly 200 years.

They cost nothing to stay in, are left open all year round, and provide only the most basic shelter: a wooden platform to lay a sleeping bag on and a fireplace.

As well as the sense of history evoked by these buildings, there are good practical reasons for staying in them.

The countryside of northern England offers some of the best walking in Britain. The bucolic charms of the Lake District attract visitors from around the world, while to the east the windswept austerity of the Yorkshire moors and the wild, empty beaches of Northumberland are less known. However this being Britain, the great landscapes are not always
matched by great weather. Campouts under the stars transform to washouts in record time.

Since many of them are located close to walking trials, bothies are a good solution for trekkers who wanted to stay out on the hills without becoming a victim of our famously fickle climate.

With my appetite whetted by the online research I slung some supplies into a backpack and went ‘bothying’.

The first trip I made was to the cottage in Keilder. It was a bleak day, threatening rain overhead and below a carpet of snow still coated the wide forestry path that led through the woods.

Situated a few miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, the bothy makes an ideal stop-off for anyone attempting to walk the route of the 1,900 year-old ruins of the defence barrier the Roman leader constructed to define the northern limits of his empire.

Like many of the bothies, the cottage is maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). On its website the MBA asks that visitors help contribute to the upkeep of its buildings by observing a few basic rules – the “Bothy Code”.

At the Keilder forest site I found a guest book. One visitor, who signed himself “Smeagol” after the Lord of the Rings character, ranted about finding the place in a mess. Poor “Smeagol” complained he had walked eight miles in July heat only to find the place in a state of calamity. In a note peppered with expletives, he blamed a troupe of ne’er-do-wells he called the “air rifle muppet brigade” for flouting the code, and signed off promising never to return.

Most of the comments were more affirming: “’Spent the night by the fire with a cracking Chinese stir fry, good wine and beer. Tidied up and left some logs. Till next time.’ Signed Kev and Peter, March 21.”

After a fitful night’s sleep and fried breakfast, I collected some wood and left. On my way out I noticed a withered picture of a windswept Lakeland mountaintop hanging near the fireplace. Just such a place was to provide the backdrop for my next bothy experience.

The walk up to Warnscale Head starts in Buttermere in the southwest of the English Lake District. It skirts the edge of the pretty little lake, along the route of the Coast-to-Coast walk, until at the eastern shore it splits off and heads up the valley on to a scree-covered peak.

One of the best things about walking in England is the rich tapestry of language it reveals to you. Dialects that have long since dissolved into memory live on in the words for the land. In the Lakes for example, a hilltop can be variously a fell, pike or crag; a lake; a tarn or a mere. Reeling off the place names on a Lakeland map is an act of pure poetry. On my way up to the Bothy I passed (in order): Pike Rigg, Buttermere, Muddock Crags, Lambing Knott, Peggy’s Bridge and Warnscale Bottom.

The bothy is two-thirds up the mountain with incredible views back down the valley to Buttermere. The sun was shining the day I went and a waterfall, heavy with snowmelt, roared away to my left. In front of me the bothy — a ruined shelter for the workers who quarried shale here — was almost indistinguishable from the hillside. The same shale that it was made from scattered the ground around it.

I boiled a pan of water for tea and gazed from the bare interior to the extravagant view from the window. The valley sides looked lime green and burnt orange in the sunlight and the rocky heads of peaks like the chiselled faces of leviathans.

As I was leaving the house to drive over here my dad handed me a book to take. It was by Alfred Wainwright. If you’ve never heard of him, you should know that he is probably the best-known rambler of the English Lakes since William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” here two centuries ago. A fugitive from a grim northern mill town,
Wainwright spent most his adult life here, producing a series of popular walking guides to the area. The guides are beautifully illustrated with the author’s own pen and ink drawings. It was Wainwright who came up with the Coast-to-Coast walk.

By chance the route to the bothy led on to Wainwright’s favourite peak: Haystacks. After a while I tore myself away from my shelter and continued the rest of the way up. The view from the top is breathtaking. Wainwright compared Haystacks to “a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds,” and sitting at the summit you feel the raw power of the black-faced, snow-flecked peaks that overlook you on all sides. Straight ahead the land falls away and sweeps, in one motion, to the lakeside. I sat for a while, buffeted by the wind, thinking how lucky I was that aside from the odd stray sheep grazing the uplands, I had the mountain to myself.

Two months after his death in 1991, Wainwright’s widow, Betty, following his wishes, carried the writer’s ashes up here and scattered them by Innominate Tarn, the lonely mountain lake that sits near the summit. It was an unusually cold winter in England this year and the tarn was still frozen over. But the thaw was setting in and when I stood by the water’s edge I heard the fizz and crack of melting ice.

“For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind,” Wainwright wrote. “The top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.” I watched a black bird dart over the tarn then disappear into clouds that were smoky through sunlight, seeing just what he meant.

a halloween in krakow

journalism

The following was written after a visit to Krakow and to the site of the nearby Nazi death camp of Auschwitz

I was in Krakow as the city was celebrating its independence. It was a fresh autumn morning and its sumptuous main square was bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated in brass marched at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny (it is the largest medieval square in Europe), the veterans narrowly avoided a florid stain on the flagstones that threatened to put an end to the dignity of the moment.

Krakow

When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its medieval ramparts that date back 700 years, it’s a fairytale city of grandiose castles, baroque churches and moderately-priced beer.

This last factor is less of a draw than in Prague, in the next-door Czech Republic. Nonetheless, a fair volume of Western men tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow’s status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else though. Its historic Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious in Poland counting among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late pope John Paul II.

In the evening its present intake mill about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny and down vodka shots in the proliferation of bars there or in the cafes of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.

I suppose if you were being precious you might consider it a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, all this hedonism. But that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced. When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I saw memorialized in the town square) it became part of an independent Poland for the first time in over a century. This independence lasted just two decades until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the wholesale murder of the city’s Jews, they gave way to the Russians, whose rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged. These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist-era is reflected in hostel names like “Goodbye Lenin” and tours of the suburbs and old steel works in a restored Trabant.

No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour’s drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was scene of the biggest act of mass murder ever known. Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The redbrick prison blocks look like warehouses, the chimneystack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.

A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau it accommodated 200,000 inmates in wooden blocks that resembled stables. More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau. New arrivals were herded from the wagons and made to form a queue before an SS doctor who looked them over before ushering them to the left or straight on. Left took them into the camp but majority – around three quarters, our guide said – were directed ahead to the four purpose-built gas chambers.

Krakow

Standing by these same rail lines facing the ruins of the gas chambers I asked our guide Beata if she found it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day. “Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place,” she said. The first director of the museum was an inmate. So was Beata’s uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.

A meek-voiced woman with dark patches below her eyes, Beata pointed out the block where he slept on straw mattresses two to a bed, and where he contracted Typhoid and nearly died. “Afterwards, he was one of those who preferred not to talk about his experience,” she said.

At the outbreak of war there were 65,000 Jews in Krakow. Today there are less than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as “the Righteous Among Nations” by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he doled out medicine (often for free) to the severely malnourished residents.

krakow

Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working class neighbourhood of Podgorze where he employed Jews because it was free labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor, but it was paradise relative to what was going on outside.

The site of the factory has been turned into a museum that opened this summer. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler’s Jews. I went there a Friday afternoon. When I came out it was dark and I walked through Kazimierz, passing a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. The anniversary of Krakow’s independence happened to coincide with Halloween and outside some of the bars rosy-cheeked Polish girls wore plastic witches hats and handed out vouchers for cheap vodka.

At a restaurant back in the old town I ate a goulash that sat within a bowl of bread. I chugged back a few vodkas and moved on to a bar where the house band was stomping on some American rock standards. On the dance floor vampish blonds vogued beside bleary-eyed blokes wobbling unsteadily like bowling skittles. I joined in for a few tracks but I couldn’t get into it. Back on the streets the ghosts of the past crowded in on me as I passed a party of students, their faces painted zombie green.

Krakow is not a memorial ground and focusing too much on its tragic past can seem a disservice to its vibrant present. But the past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walked along I thought about Beata’s uncle, back in Krakow after the war. How often had he repassed the spot where they arrested him in the years that followed?

Crossing the square under the town hall tower I passed the site of the morning parade. A drunk young Brit, his hair jelled flat like a set of railings, approached me. “’Ere mate. You know any strip clubs?”

There was a restaurant called “Roasters”, I said, where they showed boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wore hot pants. This information didn’t seem to satisfy him and he squinted at me suspiciously. “Nice place Krakow innit?” He said eventually.

“Lovely,” I said.

“Been to Auschwitz?”

“Yes.”

He squinted some more and shaking his head he said angrily: “Nazi bastards!” With that the young man staggered off up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorated the otherwise pristine flagstones.

hitchhiking on route 66

journalism

This story was first published in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald on Sept 11, 2010.

hitchhiking through arizona

As the warm afternoon draws to a close, I begin to wonder whether I will ever escape this desert town. Barstow, with its dusty line of strip shops along the route of the old Union Pacific railroad in south-east California, has a corroded kind of charm that you can bear when you know you’re leaving.

The locals aren’t too complimentary, either.

”In Barstow you get all the women together, you still won’t have a full set of teeth,” a guy tells me the night before at the Super J Truck Stop, a few kilometres out of town.

I had been at the truckstop in the early hours, shivering under neon, drinking burnt coffee as I waited for a ride south-east towards Mexico.

The truckers file past in silence, doing their best to ignore me as they head inside to fill up on apple pie and bad TV. For the most part big-bellied midwesterners, they are a sombre bunch. I give up in the early hours. After coaxing a lift into Barstow from a truck stop attendant, I drown my sorrows in an all-night bar.

Next morning I emerge from the bathroom of Denny’s diner feeling dazed and with a numb face after a quick wash with the hand sanitiser. At the city limits, I wait by the freeway, on the old Route 66. The Mother Road, as it is also known, Route 66 passes here on its 4000-kilometre journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. This fabled artery of 20th-century America became synonymous with the spirit of travel and adolescent adventure captured in books such as On the Road.

When I was young, I heard stories from my parents about how they had hitched around England in the ’60s. I wanted to share their enthusiasm but like so many others raised on road movies and the Beats, it was the American landscape that I associated with the romance of hitching.

With his canvas bag and pack of smokes the hero of On the Road, Sal Paradise, seemed the ultimate road warrior, a renegade dreamer who lived by the adage that the journey is more important than the destination.

Well past the age when you’re supposed to have abandoned such romantic notions, I make my first attempt at hitching in the US. I have flown into Las Vegas and some friends have dropped me at Barstow. From here I plan to travel via Arizona to the Mexican border.

At the end of the day, I’ve gone nowhere. Hours pass by the roadside. I begin to wonder whether I’ve made a stupid mistake. A couple of online forums I had found suggested travellers are still hitching. The best of them was Digihitch, which contained nuggets of advice including state bylaws as well as testimony from hitchers and rail-hoppers.

The drivers who whiz by are obviously not subscribers and as they speed into the distance, my resolve goes with them. I call to double-check the schedule for the Greyhound bus and I’m about to call it a day when I hear a voice behind me. I turn to see a young man in wraparound shades standing by a truck. He is going to Flagstaff, Arizona, he says. Do I need a ride?

His name is Brook and he is a biologist on his way home to his girlfriend and little boy. And as I watch the desert sweep to the mountains and the sun drop out of the sky, the conversation shifts to the dramatic changes fatherhood has brought to his life.

There are few relationships like that between driver and hitcher, thrown together by chance for a few hours and probably never to meet again. The car becomes their confessional.

A veteran hitcher of five decades who publishes stories on Digihitch, Rex Ingram, believes the chance to positively affect someone’s life, either with your words or by simply lending an impartial ear, is one of the best reasons to hitch.

Ingram, who has hitchhiked through all the US states, writes that the intimacy provided by the automobile is conducive to conducting behavioural therapy on a level only attainable by a psychiatrist.

”I’ve been told of murders and robberies, loves and hates, emotional disturbances of every type,” he says.

Flagstaff is a pleasant college town near the rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrive in a blizzard and Brook drops me at a hostel. After a few days, I look online for a ride further south – it’s now possible to thumb a lift from the comfort of your dorm bed. Social-networking sites such as Craigslist contain sections where you can post notices offering rides or asking for them.

My ad gets a response within a day from a man in a beanie touring the south-west in his VW camper. As we drive to Tucson in the early morning, the hills and canyons of central Arizona are green after the winter thaw. Here and there the tumescent branches of the saguaro cactus rise like alien TV aerials, a cinematic shorthand for the American desert.

My driver, Joel, tells me about riding the rails. In the first half of last century, especially during the Depression, catching free train rides was a common way to travel in the US. Hoboes looking for work climbed aboard freight wagons in the dead of night hoping to avoid a beating from a ”bull”, the name given to the men hired to protect the freight.

A former inmate’s memoir published in the ’20s, You Can’t Win offers some first-hand accounts of this world. Its author, Jack Black, rode the rails in all seasons. In one scene, he describes seeing a young man crushed to death when a pile of timber collapses in his wagon.

No one rides the rails out of necessity any more, Joel says. It is mostly college graduates in search of adventure. ”It’s gutter punk,” he says. ”What a trust-fund kid might do to get his kicks.”

I stay a couple of nights in Tucson. The days are getting hot and in the historic Hotel Congress I sip whiskey sours and read ’30s newspaper articles about John Dillinger, the bank robber and public enemy No. 1 who was arrested here with his gang. As in nearby Phoenix, large areas of Tucson are sprawling suburbs devoid of character. Unlike its neighbour, Tucson makes up for this with a well-preserved downtown, which mixes Spanish-style adobe mansions with art deco Americana.

On my last day here, I wait at a petrol station for a ride along the final stretch – 110 kilometres south to Mexico. A minivan turns up, on the way to the border. The driver wants cash, then crams me in the back beside an old Mexican man with no teeth, sucking on dried apricots. Half an hour later the sky darkens. Streaks of rain bounce violently off the bitumen as I try to recall the Spanish for ”please eat with your mouth shut”.

Many commentators blame the media for the decline in popularity of hitchhiking. The depiction of the psychotic loner, either at the box office or in the news, has struck a chord in the public imagination. Add these fears to an increasingly atomised society, where people feel estranged from one another, and you are left with the impression that hitchhiking is a thing of the past.

These armchair obituaries annoy Ingram, who still hitches from his home in Chino Valley, Arizona. He says his golden age for hitching rides was the ’60s, when his US Marines uniform was an ”open ticket for the road”. But he disputes the idea it has become so much harder, or defunct, as a mode of travel.

”It’s always been hard to get a ride and it’s always been easy,” says Ingram, who once got stuck in Barstow for four days waiting for a lift. ”It’s not the time of year or the decade, it’s the getting out there.”

the fool on the hill (part 6)

* virgil, hermits

In between my trips to see Virgil I had driven the dirt road out to the I-17. Ostensibly to resupply but also to put some distance between myself and the stark, haunted world that he occupied.

the fool on the hill (part 3)

Next to the freeway I found myself in the town of Spring Valley. It was everything Cleator was not: new, neatly ordered and lifeless. Gone was Bloody Basin Lane. Instead, in the front lawns of the plastic-looking condominiums garden gnomes of sombreroed Mexicans rode plaster horses along streets called Meadow Lane and Peach Tree Road. The wild west reduced to kitsch.

I drove the freeway south 40 minutes to a strip mall where I spent the night in the parking lot of a Walmart. The supermarket chain allows camper vans to stay overnight for free on its premises.

I stayed up late reading a book called “You Can’t Win.” It is the memoir of an ex-con, Jack Black, and recalls his life as a hobo riding the rails. It is a rare firsthand account of the underbelly of early 20th century America filled with opium dens and pool parlours, cat burglars and safe houses.

Outside a gale blew hard pushing shopping carts over the tarmac and making the camper sway.

My presence there was an overcorrection, a thirst for the bright lights of the city after the somber vigil of candlelit nights in the desert. Looking out of the camper’s rear window the large neon Walmart sign was oddly comforting, something to zone out to.

In the store itself I was garroted by light. Neat pyramids of fruit sat on islands of freshness and overhead plasma screens showed Walmart TV on a loop.

In one of our conversations Virgil had told me about a winter he had spent trapped on the mountain after the December snows had not cleared. It was mid-February before the thaw came. In the meantime it got cold and as the weeks stretched out, wood for the burner grew scarce.

Outside the snow had lain in slabs across the corrugated roof and the guttering, hanging loose on loops of wire, was clogged with ice so that only a thin drip of water found its way through the cut-up oil can into the tank.

In the Walmart restrooms I found a document on the ledge over the urinal claiming that the world was under the control of the Evil One. It said that all true religion is personal and complained that mankind was a victim of his own “Image-ination.”

In the store an alarm beeped obnoxiously as I leaned on my trolley in front of some sports bras, trying to decide if I needed batteries. Walking around Walmart, looking at the world in boxes, I imagined Virgil shivering in his cabin in the predawn. The narrow scoop of canyon must have felt like an animal trap he had fallen into that winter.

Pushing his barrow he searched for the broken off branches of dwarf Juniper and Pinyon Pine and, on the way, collected the miniature baskets of bird’s nests, dusty and fibrous like the pipe tobacco he shaped into cigarettes using squares cut from his journal.

He made a path through the snow up the bank out on to the ridge to where the billycan, eaten by rust, swung in the dawn wind. And there he waited.

In an introduction William Burroughs’ wrote for “You Can’t Win,” the Beat writer lamented the passing of a world where life was cheap but where a man could clamber aboard a freight train in the dead of night and in the axle grease and coal dust taste what it meant to be in the Land of the Free. Burroughs asked the question: would the hobo author have been better off spending his life at some full-time job? He immediately decided not.

“He has recorded a chapter of specifically American life that is now gone forever. Where are the hobo jungles, the hop joints, the old rod-ridding yeggs?…As another thief, Francois Villon, said, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?””

Virgil too still believed in that romantic vision of the old west. His fear of going back to what had replaced it – the strip malls and condos of a nation consumed on image — was the reason he stayed on the mountain. This, and a concern that he might drink himself to death faced with too much society. “I love life,” he said to me more than once, his face fierce with candour.

As I paid for my AA batteries I thought of him at the billycan, watching the faint gnat of light of a car on the freeway some twenty miles to the east, heading back to “stinking civilisation.” I saw him crouched low, an arm slung round his shins, waiting for the first sunrays to hit his dirty and cracked face and for the ground to grow out of the darkness.

the fool on the hill (part 5)

* virgil, hermits

The last time I saw Virgil we drank beer by the billycan. It was a warm March day full of promise.

the fool on the hill (part 5)

Below the ridge the ground fell steeply away until it reached the dusty track that led to Cleator after a series of switch backs. The track replaced the railroad that was ripped up in the war to make armaments. Further along from us another path barely visible cut a diagonal down the hillside through the scrub and loose rock.

He had cut this path for the cowboys, he said, who still ran their cattle this way to market at the end of summer.

The cowboys — red-faced old timers who alternated between riding horses and quad bikes — paid him five dollars an hour but he would probably have done it for free, he loved the work so much. It had taken him two years of hacking and digging to finish the thing and he had followed the route of the old cart road from Alexandria.

He knew the layout of the old town intimately and on his porch there was an old photo of the Peck Mine from the turn of the century.

Listening to him I saw again the powerful connection he maintained with this disappeared world and I felt I had him figured out wrong. I had viewed him as an exile from life, as someone frozen in time, unable to shake off the painful memories of his absent family and yet equally incapable of moving on.

Yet seeing him this way betrayed how little I really understood about the reality of his life up here. In some sense, his solitude had allowed him to live outside of time. The need to move forward, to progress, to make plans. He did not feel this imperative and to tell him that he should was not just patronising, it ignored the simple beauty of his existence here. It was like the old joke about the rich tourist who goes up to the juice seller on the beach and starts to lecture him on how he can grow his business, and that with some hard work he might be able to pay some staff a few years down the line and, who knows, then he could take some time off for himself. Meanwhile the juice seller lays on his hammock casually scrutinising the mad man.

Aside from the concessions of the gas tank and a small FM radio Virgil had left modern life completely. He went down off the mountain only a few times a year, usually straying no further than Cleator.

Up here he wandered around the canyon finding the detritus of old Alexandria — the mouth organ combs, the vintage soda cans — and it helped to evoke that old world, just as the hysterical outpourings from the radio no doubt made the contemporary one seem more hostile and remote.

Nearby some animal tracks were pressed into the thin dry dirt. They were too large for a pack rat; maybe they belonged to a bobcat he said. I wondered if he ever got scared up here alone.

He knew he was vulnerable but he tried not to think about it too much. “Ya can burn yourself up thinking. It’s the same with that metaphysics junk. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground, live a day at a time. I mean ya don’t see a dog sitting around taking itself serious an’ shit.

“I can’t handle your civilization. All those responsibilities.” (He gave a weary wave of the arm.) “When my wife kicked me out I let her have everything. I walked away with nothing. I didn’t care. I was like that woodpecker nested in the cactus; only I lived in a crack in the sidewalk. You know I saw that lil’ muthafucka fight off a hawk one day. Kept coming back at him till the hawk got sick of it and flew away.”

His children would be in their forties; did he ever think of trying to find them I asked.

“That’s what you’d do I suppose,” he said. “Not me.”

I wanted to press him on it but he cut me off. He returned instead to the subject of the woodpecker. He asked me if I knew how it was that the bird knew where to look for grubs.

“I used to wonder about that,” he went on. “One day I was watching this muthafucka and he’d keep looking off to the side like he was watching out for something. Then I figured it out: He had his head turned to listen for grubs scratching under the bark.

“I guess there’s smart people who know that ‘cos they read it or seen it in a documentary. But how many of ’em learnt it ‘cos they seen it with their eyes?”

The day was ending and the sun had already dipped below the Bradshaw Mountains to the west, the bumps and curves of their dusty grey silhouettes like two lovers laid down to sleep.

america in lockdown

journalism, solitary confinement

This story was first published on the website openDemocracy on September 6, 2010.

solitary confinement

For Nelson Mandela it was the most forbidding aspect of prison life. When he looked back on the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner in his memoir, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela remembered solitary confinement as the experience that came nearest to breaking him.

“There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks,” he wrote. “Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”

The harmful effects of locking someone up in isolation have long been known about. As far back as the mid-19th century medical reports observed the impact. Between 1854 and 1909 there were nearly 40 reports in Germany alone, all of which identified solitary confinement as the major factor in the development of psychotic illness among prisoners.

In 1850, doctors in England were noting the high proportion of inmates that had to be removed from cells in Pentonville prison on the grounds of insanity – 32 out of every 1,000.

It was this body of evidence that played a key role in the gradual unravelling of the system of large-scale solitary confinement in the late nineteenth century. In America too, where the system had its roots among the Quaker communities of Pennsylvania, who believed that silent reflection in separate cells was the best way for criminals to do penance (hence, the penitentiary), it came to be recognised that isolating prisoners for long periods was both inhumane and ineffective. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

A century on and the lessons from history have either been forgotten or they are being wilfully ignored. In America, its use in a burgeoning prison system has increased dramatically in the last 20 years.

This increase has coincided with the growth of the so-called supermax prisons, a new generation of high security jails designed to keep social contact between inmates to a minimum.

The US now holds more people in solitary than anywhere else in the world. An accurate figure is almost impossible to come by, since the population within the punishment blocks of general prisons, known as Special Housing Units (SHUs), is too transient to monitor. Even so, observers estimate the numbers somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000.

At the Federally-run supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, inmates considered to be the greatest security risk are kept in conditions of extreme isolation that would leave even the Pennsylvania Quakers in awe.

High profile prisoners like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Arab terrorists convicted of arranging the 1993 World Trade Center bombing are kept in rooms constructed of poured concrete and steel for 23 hours a day. The windowless cells are illuminated day and night and are heavily insulated so that the inmates are denied either the sight or sound of other human life.

One inmate held in Florence is Tommy Silverstein. He has been kept in solitary for 27 years now, longer than anyone else in the Federal prison system. Silverstein was made the subject of a “no-human-contact” order by a judge after he murdered a prison guard in 1983. For much of his isolation he was held in a specially built unit — known as the Silverstein Suite — at a prison in Kansas where he had his own exercise yard. This meant his only human contact was with the guards or via the occasional visit, where a thick layer of plexiglass maintained his isolation. He has referred to his existence as “a slow, constant peeling of the skin.”

Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University, represents Silverstein, 58, in his case to have his isolation ended. Rovner wants the courts to recognise his treatment as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and therefore unlawful under the eighth amendment of the US constitution.

It is the same argument put forward by activists in Louisiana on behalf of the Angola three, a trio who between them have spent over a century in solitary. Two of the men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been nearly 38 years in isolation. A third man, Robert King was kept there 29 years before he was released in 2001 after a series of appeals.

Much of Rovner’s case is concerned with laying bare the harmful psychological effects of Silverstein’s condition. There are a number of contemporary studies of inmates in isolation and, just like their 19th century predecessors, most express grave concern.

“What you see when reading these studies is the same constellation of symptoms coming up in different cases, and they’re simply too common not to be a pathology arising from the isolation,” said Rovner.

That constellation of symptoms includes agitated and self-destructive behaviour, anxiety and hypersensitivity, auditory and visual hallucinations and, in some cases, a permanent intolerance to being around others.

Rovner said the impact of his lone existence was evident during legal visits with Silverstein. “At the start of our meetings with him just an hour spent with us would send him into a tailspin for a couple of days, needing to sleep for 15 or 16 hours at a time.”

Professor Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California who evaluated over a hundred supermax prisoners and who has compiled a report for Rovner on Silverstein, wrote that “many of those subjected to it (solitary confinement) are at risk of long term emotional and even physical damage.”

The only one of the ‘Angola three’ at liberty, Robert King, said his ability to see distance was permanently altered by his years alone in a cell. “I had no concept of how you actually looked further, as a result of living in such a small space,” he said.

King now campaigns for the release of Woodfox and Wallace. The men’s isolation stems from their conviction for the killing of a prison guard, found stabbed to death in the early seventies in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

Wallace, 68, and Woodfox, 63, have always denied the killing and insist their convictions and continued isolation are punishment for their political views. At the time they had started a chapter of the Black Panthers at the prison.

The men’s case gained international recognition in recent years thanks in part to the efforts of Anita Roddick, the late Bodyshop founder. Roddick’s involvement inspired her friend, British filmmaker Vadim Jean to make a documentary about the case called In the Land of the Free, and released earlier this year.

Rovner said the publicity surrounding the Angola three was part of a growing clamour for the US to change its approach. The legislature in Maine recently considered an amendment aimed at abolishing the use of solitary in the state. Meanwhile, a ruling in July in the European Court of Human Rights upheld a complaint by four British nationals facing extradition to the US on terrorism charges that they faced having their human rights violated if, as was likely, they were transferred to solitary at the supermax unit in Florence.

Yet in spite of this, there is no end in sight for Silverstein, as well as Woodfox and Wallace. All of whom had their recent appeals turned down.

“Sadly, the overwhelming public sentiment here is that they are getting what they deserve,” said Rovner. “The irony, however, is that if you asked anyone in long-term lockdown they would freely tell you they’d prefer the death penalty to what they’ve endured.”

‘after 29 years, I never really left solitary’

* robert king, journalism, solitary confinement

This story first appeared in London’s The Guardian newspaper on 28 August, 2010.

A solitary cell at Angola from the early 1970s

Robert King

I first entered Louisiana State Penitentiary in the early 60s, at the age of 18. I was in and out of that place for the rest of the decade. Back then, if you were young, black and had a record, police in New Orleans would come looking for you when they had a backlog of unsolved cases: it was called cleaning the books.

In 1969, I was locked up for a robbery I didn’t do and, while inside, I joined the Black Panthers. Three years later, an inmate was stabbed to death on my prison block and, because of my politics, the authorities saw a chance to pin it on me. In 2001, I was cleared of this killing but, by then, I had spent 29 years alone in a cell.

It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.

Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.

At times I felt an anguish that is hard to put into words. To live 24/7 in a box, year after year, without the possibility of parole, probation or the suspension of sentence is a terrible thing to endure.

I was kept in the closed cell restricted (CCR) wing of the penitentiary, which is also known as Angola, after the slave plantation that was on the site prior to the prison. Three times a week I was let out for an hour to go to the exercise yard, where I was kept separate from other prisoners by razor wire.

The wardens tried to discourage us from talking, but we defied them. We were beaten up and prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Whenever I was disciplined, it was for talking. I didn’t care, I refused to let them dehumanise me.

The worst punishment was the “cold box”, our name for the cell within Camp J. It was down a long hallway through three sets of secure doors, and when they pushed me inside, the isolation was total. They would keep me there for a month, in blocks of 10 days, shoving food through a slot in the door. I went for days without speaking to anyone. That kind of sensory deprivation was torture for me – to survive I knew I had to keep my mind active.

One pastime I had was smuggling out praline candies that I made on my cell floor. I traded tobacco to get the ingredients of sugar, peanuts and powdered milk. I made them using a cold drink can for a pot and burning toilet paper to melt sugar.

Another thing I did was to fold up toilet paper into squares and stick them to the floor with toothpaste to make a chessboard. I would call out moves to other inmates. When we were in nearby cells I played with Herman Wallace or Albert Woodfox. Like me, they were Black Panthers kept in solitary because they were seen as a threat. They had started a chapter of the Panthers, which had helped mobilise inmates to curb some of the abuse going on inside Angola at the time.

They are still in solitary after nearly 38 years – more than any other inmate in the American prison system. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re innocent.

Since my conviction was overturned in 2001, I have travelled constantly, educating people about the widespread use of solitary confinement in America. The words of the US Constitution prohibit what is called “cruel and unusual punishment”, and yet that phrase could have been written to describe solitary confinement.

When I walked out of Angola, I didn’t realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I’ve found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there. I made a statement when I was released that although I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me. Until Herman and Albert can join me on the outside, I have to make good on that promise.

As told to Paul Willis

To learn more about the Angola Three go to this Website.