Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Inspired by Antoine Saint-Exupery, author of Wind, Sand and Stars

The hiker ascending Costa Rica’s Rincón de la Vieja, an active volcano east of Golfo de Papagayo, climbs 5,000 feet and passes through several ecosystems. First, near the entrance to the park, the forest spills over the footpath in a restless green vandalism. You see the horde of tree and fern sucking at the rich, moist soil and stripping from the sunlight all its effulgence. In the gloom breathes an armored blue iguana, invisible until it moves, like a thousand turquoise stones organized suddenly under a primary volition. Farther up the hiker meets a cold mist, and trees cowering away from a firm down-slope wind. Every few hundred yards the ground rises more steeply. At each switchback, the vegetation grows up from the thin, stony soil more dwarfish and hardy. At last there mounts up into the white mist, scoured by the wind, a trackless pate of gray and broken rock.
This afternoon, with my husband of six days, I climb over and under downed trees. For several days, the park closed as high winds uprooted trees and felled thick limbs, but today is calm. There is something foreboding in the stillness of the green canopy, where so recently the violence of the wind brought the dumb trees to a pitched and groaning battle. We walk through a world muffled and tangled, a world secretive to strangers.
The secrets of these volcanic forests include pools of bubbling, breathing mud and, higher up, ancient craters scalloped from the heights in eruptions of fire and ash. In the vanishing views offered by the shifting mist, the water-filled craters appear from above as smooth and luminous as the faces of cut gems; the crater walls seems to drop into them as if in homage to beauty, and from their hot, acidic surfaces steam rises toward the cooler mist. When the volcano last erupted, it rained plumes of mineral-rich ash down upon its flanks. Now insects unknown to science hum and bore into the wind-felled trees. A delicate biology thrives improbably upon the marriage of wind, water, and fire, not unlike man holed up in his pockets of civilation.
In the middle of the forest a single ficus tree with two interlocking trunks has grown high into the canopy and deep into the earth. It gathers into its trunks all it can of sunlight, rain, and nutrients. It draws us to it to itself to marvel and gape. It is a kind of forest deity, the two-in-one god. Locals call it Los Gemelos, or The Twins.
Near The Twins we hear a large party of Costa Ricans descending the trail. They round a bend, and we see them. Their eyes are round and vanquished.
“Turn back!” they say to us, who would venture. “Turn back, because the trees are down, and the way is slick, so you cannot pass.”
Having come so far, however, my husband wants to continue. We gamble that we are tougher than those that the crater has turned back, a family party with an old man amongst them. So I follow my husband over the raspy girths of downed trees, through the damp softness of muddy earth, behind the opacity of emerald curtains.
Finally, after hiking for several hours toward the summit, we cross above the last of the big trees. We see where we have come. A bird rides the air currents down to the dry, golden plain of Guanacaste. A gulley, carpeted with green, passes away to the east.
 Above the trees grow only stunted shrubs with oar-shaped leaves. The earth is pink as a blood-soaked napkin, and fissured by a muddy watercourse which we traverse slowly, marking off the yards in roots for grasping. Slick ledges for toes. We make halting progress. Streaked with earth, I nearly cease to believe in the warm, humid, arboreal tent and sweet, loamy footpaths of this morning, effaced as they are by the chill, eager billows of descending cloud.
We rise up to the lip of the crater where nothing grows. It is a trackless, lunar ground, the unfriendly slope of a perfect cone. The wind has become a personal malevolence, and it hurls itself across the ground with a force I have never felt outside of a hurricane. Its noise rises like a pained cry and falls like stitches are being ripped from a garment. I halt and double over, afraid that if I stand up the wind will get a firm enough hold to toss me off its hip.  My husband leans into the slope above me, zigzagging between rocks. Every several paces he stretches a long-fingered hand to the loose ground, as if ascertaining the reality of the earth in a dreamscape. He turns to look for me. The mist passes before him. Obscures him. He calls something that the wind carries away, so that his voice sounds to my left instead of above me. I hesitate, then struggle up to where he waits for me. We brace ourselves together against a fresh lash of wind. His thick hair flattens over his brow with the gust, and I laugh.
We are here on the edge of the cold, white abyss beyond the trees and all wise admonitions. All this whiteness! The cloud has erased everything, and there are no longer in the world any signs of life, of green, or warmth. There is only me and the man I said vows to at a church six days ago, who is still nearly a stranger. And there is our mysterious covenant to conquer this whiteness, and not to be plucked from it. How naked and doomed and brave now seems the pact between us, set down in a world that will never in truth offer us more clarity and hospitality than this cold and truncated circle! From whence will we draw the strength to arise from our isolation day after day and go to succor each other? The vows he and I have repeated seem but fragile links forged in a tender hour: a wind could tear them up, a fire burn them. Now we have climbed up above our heedlessness.
Yet we are together now. Somehow because of that sole fact I am not afraid. Together we dare the fierce wind and the white cloud and the universe to sunder us if they can. We may thrive improbably against all the violence. This absurdity and this unquenchable comfort are in my laughter hunched over on the rough, sliding stones. I read in the curve of my husband’s answering smile a similar exhilaration, a secret to bear down between us through the forest and among the habitations of men. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Helping Hounds

His eyes concealed behind dark sunglasses, Chris Goehner walks into a restaurant in Washington, D.C., shadowed by his service dog, Pelé. When Chris sits, the large, sunny-coated retriever curls up on top of his feet. The restaurant employees notice Pelé and assume that Chris cannot see—until they spy him typing text messages on his cell phone.

Chris is not blind. He returned from military service in Iraq with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious anxiety disorder triggered by traumatic events. Pelé, trained by a special group of inmates in New York, helps Chris cope with the otherwise crippling effects of his condition.

Invisible Battle Scars

Chris comes from a small, closely knit community in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley. Eighteen days after his high school graduation, he enlisted in the Navy. Though his grandmother offered to pay for college, “I felt like I could do something better,” says Chris. “I could do something more.”

He received training as a medic and served two tours of duty. On the second tour, Chris worked at a base 30 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital. At all hours of the day and night, wounded soldiers arrived by truck, helicopter, or tank. “If you’ve seen the TV show M.A.S.H.,” remembers Chris, “it was pretty much like that.”

In 2005 a suicide bomber destroyed a bus near the base. A young boy wandered into the field hospital with a severe shrapnel wound.

“Boy walked in,” shudders Chris. “Not crying. Not screaming. Not blood everywhere. He moved his hand. Moved his bandage. And you could see right into his abdomen . . . You remember that stuff.”

Now, when Chris sees his young nephew, the image of the wounded Iraqi child comes rushing back.

Chris left Iraq in March 2006. Though he had left danger behind, normal events unsettled him. Fireworks caused a panic. Loud noises irritated him. Many nights, he lay awake for hours. When he did drift into sleep, he would wake from a nightmare covered in sweat. When suicidal thoughts plagued his mind, he decided to seek professional help. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

A psychologist prescribed medication to treat Chris’s anxiety and insomnia, but the young veteran still suffered. Though bright and articulate, he struggled in school, as though he had forgotten how to learn. He tried to find simple work in a hospital emergency room, but even with all his experience, no one would hire him.

Chris’s relationships suffered, too. Acquaintances judged him for serving in a controversial war. Old friends misunderstood him. His marriage, too, became a casualty. Nervous in public and distrustful of strangers, Chris turned inward.

Finding Help

A turning point came when Chris learned about Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), founded by New York resident Gloria Gilbert Stoga in 1997. Under this innovative program, now active in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, inmates volunteer to raise and train puppies. With careful instruction from inmates and PBB’s staff instructors, the canines grow up to become guide dogs for the blind, bomb-sniffing dogs for law enforcement, and life-changing companions for veterans like Chris.

Pelé, who was born in 2008 and named after the Brazilian soccer legend, was raised by inmates at Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison in New York. Pelé lived with inmates 24 hours a day. In addition to normal obedience training, Pelé learned specific commands that would help him serve a veteran. He learned to “block,” or stand close to his handler and keep strangers at a distance, and he learned to “pop a corner,” or go ahead of his handler to check for danger.

Pelé and Chris finally met in November 2009, when Chris traveled to New York to receive a service dog from PBB. Before Chris could take Pelé home with him, though, he also had to go to prison and meet the inmates who raised Pelé. Never having been to prison before, Chris was nervous. To prepare himself, he watched every prison show on television, and his tension mounted. He expected to find scary cliques of tattooed, muscle-bound toughs in the prison yard.

Instead, he found a clean, well-kept facility with inmates who were “nice and respectful.” Some had also served in the military.

The inmates who had raised Pelé sat down with Chris to help him understand his dog’s personality. And they shared some of their own struggles, chief among them the difficulty of reintegrating into a society that judged their past and ignored their contributions, like raising Pelé.

Although Chris realizes the obvious differences between serving time in prison and serving in the military, he empathized with their struggle to reintegrate. Wow, he thought when he heard the inmates’ stories, that’s kind of like getting out of the military!

A New Life

Pelé has made an enormous difference in Chris’s life. Chris no long suffers from nightmares, because Pelé jumps onto the bed and licks his face. Chris finds it easier to control his temper, because Pelé tugs on his sleeve when he raises his voice. Chris has stopped taking five of his psychiatric medications, and he has the confidence to venture into public. Together, Chris and Pelé have been to the White House, Las Vegas, and the inside of the Hoover Dam. Pelé even provides an easy conversation-starter when Chris meets strangers, and he is learning how to trust people again.

He also wants to help others like himself. Recently Chris worked for a senator on the Veterans Affairs Committee, helping to write a Senate resolution clarifying the rights of PTSD-affected veterans with service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Chris and other veterans are not the only ones to benefit from Puppies Behind Bars. Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the organization’s founder, says that inmates who participate also reap rewards.

“They learn compassion,” she explains, “and also increased self-esteem. They learn that they can undertake something difficult and succeed.”