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July 18th, 2019 Comment

Off-grid

For the past couple of years I reported “The Last Frontier,” the cover story of the August 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

It’s a tale of alienation and ingenuity, politics and weed, and the possibilities of a frontier. I researched it by volunteering with an outreach group and by living off-grid myself over a couple of years, off and on, renting space for my small trailer from a family that is home-schooling their five daughters out on the high prairie, and moving with them when they found a better plot. You can read about them and a lot of other outsiders here or here.

People both seek the edges and are pushed there. Most seem to appreciate solitude and are not necessarily eager to sit down with a writer; getting to know them takes time. That was okay with me. I enjoy space and quiet as well, and the chance to lead a different, more independent life than the densely interconnected world of the city. Back in Rolling Nowhere, my first book, I tried to find words to describe the way it felt arriving in Havre, Montana, on a freight train. The vastness of the place, I wrote, was “more than something to see, it was something to feel … something inside me just became more free and expansive—‘opened out,’ I guess I could say.” That’s still how it is for me.

January 18th, 2018 Comment

The price of dignity

My latest article is “The Strike That Brought MLK to Memphis,” in the January 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers in 1968. Just before his second march, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray, a white supremacist.

Some of those strikers are still alive; some even still collect garbage for the city of Memphis. With the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, I felt urgency in getting the article done … but the bigger driver was the age of the remaining sanitation workers. One, Alvin Turner, died in the month between our first conversation and my follow-up call. Another fell ill and couldn’t keep our appointment.

Elmore Nickelberry with Aaron Coleman, my research assistant

The workers were grateful for special payments recently made to them by the city. But as you will read, not all were convinced that it was actually enough. To answer that, one needs to ask: was the money purely for underpayment? Was it also for mistreatment? Was it to some extent a reparation for racism? The mayor answered no to the last question, but it’s hard not to think of it that way, which then raises the question: can money ever erase the legacy of racism? If so, how much does it take? Is some money better than no money? The workers I spoke with seemed to feel it is.

Dr. King was talking more and more about economic inequality at this point in his life. I wish we could know what he would have said.

 

Here is an interview about this story that I did with Jonathan Capeheart on “Midday on WNYC” on January 15, 2018.

October 23rd, 2016 Comment

Getting Immersed

My new book, Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, is just out. It’s about the kind of writing I’m best known for, where the writer learns by placing himself in the world of his subjects for a time. I talk about gaining access, handling yourself once “inside,” turning experience into story, the special case of undercover reporting, and the ethical issues that surround this kind of longform nonfiction.

Immersion (order yours now!) is full of stories from my own books and articles and from great writers I admire. I’ll share some of these tales at book events at the Tattered Cover in Denver, Book Culture on the Upper West Side, the Meg Cohen Design Shop in Soho, and other spots in the coming weeks, on my events page. For the latest news, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

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August 13th, 2016 Comment

Going Off-Assignment

For years journalists were taught to leave themselves out of the story. Often that’s still a good idea, but in other cases there is an untold story-behind-the-story that is well worth telling.

Lately I’ve been working with a web startup, Off Assignment, that wants to bring to light more of these writers’ stories. This week they published one I wrote for them. “My Guantánamo, and Theirs” tells what it’s like to report under conditions of extreme control at the prison camp, which I’ve done twice now (here and here). A bonus is an interview with a talented and feisty photographer, René Clement, who was also part of my latest group, and whose great photos accompany the story. There’s also an audio interview with me.

September 16th, 2015 Comment

Creatures Great & Small

When I became a USDA meat inspector, I was puzzled that my supervisors were veterinarians. People didn’t head to vet school to oversee slaughter, did they? I started talking to vets who still worked with large animals, and one in particular who helped me to understand how changes in agriculture have changed everything for country vets.

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Buttercup and her new calf.

In my latest article, “Cattle Calls,” a young veterinarian in Iowa, Zach Vosburg, is trying to make a go of it the old-fashioned way. But things have changed. The pigs and chickens looked after by his mentor, for example, have left the farm for giant sheds (also known as CAFO’s, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), owned by corporations which employ their own specialist veterinarians. In Vosburg’s Iowa, farm traditions meet the latest ag science, and animals and people work to adapt.

Goats on the Vosburg farm.

Goats on the Vosburg farm.

January 17th, 2015 Comment

Defining Indefinite

Last January, at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, the admiral in charge tapped his chair and told me that “Twelve years ago, none of us thought that anybody would still be sitting here today.” Visiting journalists didn’t seem to think so, either. Early on the whole affair had a stopgap, seat-of-the-pants feel about it. As I write this month for Vanity Fair, Camp X-Ray, Gitmo’s first containment for prisoners of the war on terror, looked like a kennel complex for very large dogs. By 2003, when I first visited, it had already been abandoned. And today, the replacement facilities I saw then have also been abandoned. I’ve always found the sight of an abandoned prison pleasing, but unfortunately at Guantánamo, the newest prisons, known as Camp 5 and Camp 6, are solid, expensive constructions that look disturbingly early in their lifespans.

inside Camp 5

Inside Camp 5

Though President Obama has released 33 prisoners in the past year, it appears that the outflow—all of them prisoners who were cleared for release years ago—may soon be curtailed. In addition to political opposition, a core problem is that Guantánamo has at least 35 “forever” prisoners, men the U.S. deems too dangerous to release but is reluctant to try in court. As explained in this article, two dozen more “remain in legal limbo, recommended for trial by a federal task force five years ago but not yet charged.”

What I saw during my most recent trip is how Guantánamo has taken the already-extreme practices of punitive confinement on the mainland, and extended them.  To get Guantánamo, you take a supermax (solitary confinement) prison, such as 44 states now have, and subtract the idea of terms and sentences — of a release date. My new article is here.

November 21st, 2014 Comment

Amazing Guy, Gone But Remembered

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June 18th, 2014 Comment

This Is How We Roll

Before I had kids, I used to wonder what would happen when they read my books. What kind of example was I setting with some of the chances I was taking? Early last year, my son read Rolling Nowhere, my account of riding freights with hoboes. First he said he liked it. Then a week or two later came the follow-up: “If I ever wanted to go on a trip like that, would you teach me what to do?”

 

Asa on a grainer in Ogden, Utah.

Asa on a grainer in Ogden, Utah.

 

I knew I couldn’t say no. So I answered, “Well, I would if we could go together.” Last summer we did that, and “This Is How We Roll,” an account of the trip, is in the July issue of Outside magazine. It’s one of my favorites of the articles I’ve written, and the first about being a parent. Read it, share it … and see why I’m relieved that it’s over!