By Bruce Northam

Posts tagged “Basil Northam


“The heart doesn’t have to be clever.” (photo: Basil Northam)

Don’t be hot and cold.


To keep things real while visiting developing countries, I prefer to stay in family-run establishments because some of the best aspects of any destination are usually those that pertain to family. Occasionally, I’ll spring for air conditioning. Before setting out into northern Cambodia’s humid jungles on a motorbike, I spent five nights in a Phnom Penh guesthouse either huddling beneath a mountain of blankets battling teeth-chattering chills, or waking up repeatedly to kick off those blankets and lie drenched and shivering in my own sweat.


The horrors of dengue fever, malaria, and other tropical plagues overtook my mind. Getting into a pattern, I’d fling off the covers and gradually cool down until, an hour later, an Arctic frost would send me back under the blankets to restart the ritual. I became practiced at drenching one side of the bed, then shifting to the other side while the wet side dried. On day three, I got a short 50-cent haircut—via a sidewalk barber using hand-powered shears—so my oft-soddened hairdo would dry faster and not soak the pillow. Anyone who has backpacked extensively doesn’t go to doctors unless someone else carries them to one.


Perspiring like a freshly emerged swimmer, on the fourth night, I stormed over to unplug the non-adjustable air-conditioner and discovered instead that sauna-hot air was billowing into the room. As I stood there, relief gushed into my veins. This woeful AC dinosaur had been blowing air ranging from 55 to 95 degrees in two-hour cycles. Just when I’d resigned myself to a hospital visit, I realized that my viral rollercoaster had been instigated by recurring rounds of polar misery upstaged by a humid inferno delirium.


Enjoying a mini triumph, I attached a “broken” note onto the demonic appliance, checked out, met my brother Basil, rented a motorbike, and throttled north.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“The heart doesn’t have to be clever.” —Cambodian motorbike shop owner’s reply to question about neighboring Thailand and Vietnam being more clever at business.


“Hey man, don’t sweat the big stuff.” —Humboldt County, California farmer


(from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)



Walking across England’s Cotswolds with Dad in 2004

Sometimes people who have nothing have everything they need. Near a North Sea oil port, I came face to face with unrehearsed survival. Speed walking through a gritty quarter of Hull, England, I nearly tripped over a rhetorically blessed drifter, living in an urban lean-to, adrift in reverie. After sharing a few canned ales, our conversation swayed to the contents of his tattered olive rucksack.

As he fished each item out, he surrendered multi-colored histories of his worldly possessions and arranged them on the sidewalk, exhibiting and professing the import of rope, tarp, a risqué magazine, airline eyeshades, his “idea registry,” and an antique army mess kit.

Lastly, he produced a damp, hulking dictionary. Holding it high and with eyes widened he swore, “Mate, this book’s got everything.”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

“We need the tonic of wildness.” —Thoreau

A broken clock is still right twice a day. —Polish proverb


*from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons


Water can be habit-forming.


Many vacationers peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon into its overwhelming river gorge, gasp, and then return to their cars to hunt for a burger. After doing just that, I returned years later to explore the guts of the God of all Gullies on a 150-mile rafting trip. Even when you’re a mile deep in the earth’s reddish crust on a raft drifting the length of this colossal culvert, you can’t escape sibling rivalry and city-slicker spite. Down there, the Colorado River has gargantuan whitewater that delineates life or death if played wrong. One set of rapids—really an angry waterfall—forever changed my inner tide.


Joining my brother Basil and his posse of Idaho rancher pals on day three of a 21-day private trip, I hiked down from the canyon’s south rim in the dark and found myself waiting by the river until they floated by the sandbar upon which I stood. I smelled the motley crew, most of whom run a few hardcore rivers every year, before I saw them. I was a New York City whitewater rafting rookie joining a bonded posse way after pecking orders had been established. Needless to say, finding training time to navigate rapids on my own wasn’t easy. Wanting to make sure I made the most of the experience, Basil committed me to a secret challenge before I arrived. This was typical and in the spirit of our childhood dares. After all, he was the one who familiarized me with suburban delinquency and shoplifting patchouli-scented candles years before my peers were allowed to cross streets by themselves. This test was rowing a raft solo over Lava Falls, the most dangerous stretch of the river and one of the country’s most difficult navigable rapids. I had about two weeks to train for it. Initially, a set of oars in my fists made my raft no more versatile than a buoy.


To prepare, I stole training time on the raft in the evenings while everyone else was enjoying happy hour after breaking camp on random sandy beaches. I spent most of this time spinning the boat with sharp alternating paddle movements in one direction and then suddenly turning it in the opposite direction. Every evening, I’d go out and twirl myself into a sweat, which made Basil’s Idaho cohorts chuckle about how the city boy needed to find his gym. By day, the brotherly dynamics of being taught how to run unforgiving rapids involved much screaming and frequent reminders of how expensive it is to repair a smashed boat. There was also a repeating bit about how pissed-off our parents would be if I died.


As the days in this geologic miracle passed, I began navigating ripples and smaller rapids. Basil and I shared a tent where we talked about the looming challenge every night until we fell asleep. He decided not to tell anyone else in the group about our secret until the morning of Lava Falls for fear they’d vote the idea down. There was no escaping my city-folk pigeonhole.


When the day arrived, half of the crew was unsupportive of the idea of my solo run. After I agreed to pay for any damages to the raft, it was stripped of everything except the oars, and I was finally given a green light. This gamble would not have been possible on a commercially organized trip, which is propelled by boat engines and signed waivers. Everyone scouted the waterfall from a nearby cliff, and one by one four rafts and three kayakers plunged into the roaring drop. One raft capsized and two others narrowly missed being sucked into the water tornado big enough to swallow a bus.


With a look I hadn’t seen in years, Basil patted me on the waist and then floated away on the fifth raft. I scouted my route over Lava Falls’s millions of gallons-per-minute froth, which helped center me with an adrenaline rush I only remember from the minutes before a wrestling match. It was the sort of anticipation that sets nausea butterflies free in your stomach. I hiked upstream on the trail toward the raft, discovering a series of large, surly, black ravens standing on the riverbank’s boulders and peering at me with tilted heads. I passed one after another, until it seemed I hadn’t yet earned a pass from the scavenger review board. Farther afield, I noticed that a pack of bighorn desert sheep had stopped chewing the brush to gaze my way. When I reached the stripped-down boat, a final raven sat on its inflated rim, staring at me gloomily. It slowly cocked its head from side to side. Losing the ability to maintain an internal dialogue, I swallowed hard and realized there was no turning back.


Trembling like a nudist in a snowstorm, I boarded the raft. It was then that the sound of my heart exploding in my ears overtook the thunder of the misting downstream mayhem. Accelerating toward the rim of the cliff, my panic was ultimately subdued by a strange quieting. This was, after all, a dare. I did my best to hit the mark everyone recommended, but drifted left of center, which, after an initial weightless freefall, meant dancing on the rim of that dreaded all-encompassing whirlpool. Balancing on the rim, I rowed furiously while a blinding froth battered my face. Stuck between heaven and hell, I heard the guttural choking sounds of the vortex trying to consume me. I hoped I was rowing in the right direction. Then, time stood still until I spun the raft and was spit out of the mammoth eddy to cleanly run the lower rapids. The deafening jet-engine roar of the plummet subsided, and I docked downstream. The crowd’s reaction was mixed. It seemed that a few of the cowboys were disappointed I hadn’t flipped. Basil, on the other hand, was validated. We strolled out of sight to celebrate privately. Brotherhood.


Aside from chasing women, the river trench cutting a mile into the parched Arizona desert reset my bar for testing Mother Nature’s wrath. It also made me rethink the trials we choose. The worthiest competitions are sometimes an inner journey with ourselves. The red sand embedded in my hair, ears, clothes, and gear followed me for a month after this voyage. The call of Lava Falls and that black raven’s gaze still do.

Basil and Bruce Northam

Basil and Bruce Northam


What a difference a walk makes.

Strolling across England's Cotswolds

Strolling across England’s Cotswolds

Long-distance walking veterans, my father and I tackled the renowned 240-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Northern England’s rugged terrain in 1996. Two years later, shortly after dad endured life-saving surgery, we tackled Offa’s Dyke, a 200-mile long wall built in the eighth century to keep the Welsh on their side of that giant fence.


On our third walk across the Commonwealth, my father, then 76, and I rambled the width of England’s Cotswolds region, a country paradise defined by enchanting drystone walls dating back hundreds of years. The region has a woolspun history and is picture-postcard flawless. And, one benefit of undertaking an exhausting itinerary is that it left us no energy to recycle any debates about my tenth-grade car-crashing spree.


The Romans laid out this part of Europe in ten-acre plots. Don’t dare suggest it was the French. Today, these plots have matured into showcases of a fading way of life. These serene river valleys of sheep pens on soft rolling hills with limestone buildings and outcroppings remain out of harm’s way from developers. It endures as a haven of trout-filled streams, quaint stone hamlets, stone walls, and romping horses.
Unfolding our map and our sense of humor ensured that we had a grand time losing our bearings, never a long way from a stone wall or a friendly character. Our route from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold started on a forgotten, car-free single-lane road that visited woods, farms, cottages with window-sill flower boxes, tiny medieval stone villages, bounteous wildflowers, and rare fellow walkers. Roaming 10 to 20 miles per day, sort of with a plan, we slept in archetypal English inns. Predictably, these accommodations were made of stone with low-overhead medieval-era doorways. We become aware of separate hot and cold water faucets, uber-creaky stairs, and twin beds so short that our feet were left dangling.


On the trail, my ears adjusted from urban car horns to ewe-speak. The footpath broke into farms divided by stiles; turnstile gates allowing ramblers to pass but not livestock. Dad had no trouble covering our daily distances, or hurdling the older five-foot-high wooden stiles.


Minutes before sunset, we encountered a stone wall and the man working to preserve it. Today’s stone-wall builders preserve an ancient tradition that both pays the bills and safeguards the Isles’ uncommon landscape. The hardworking stone mason, a chap with meaty hands, massive forearms, and steady phrasing, assured us his art form couldn’t be mechanized. A dry stone wall uses no mortar, only limestones, gravity, friction, and a talent for made-to-last jigsaw puzzles. A symbol of national pride, this typically inherited craft merits prestige; wall building is to Britain what gourmet cooking is to France.


Dry stonewall architects obsess about their materials, describing shades of limestone as passionately as interior designers might salute skylights. They wax eloquent about subtle hues from specific quarries, renowned builders who left unmistakable signatures, and how an able mason can dismantle and rebuild—stone by stone—an identical wall. Like radiance passing through a prism, stone walls share ancestry and imagination.


As the sun set behind us, the wall builder chuckled, “The last ramblers passing this way asked me ‘What I made building walls’…and I told them I make people heave a sigh.”
Dad then asked about optimum stone sizes and which stone position in the wall was the most vital for longevity. The Englishman rested a hand on the wall, looked at the ground, and then slowly raised his head to trace his eyes along a mile of accomplished stonework behind him. Turning his glance my way—but slyly gesturing at my father—he mused, “Just don’t pull that card, or the whole thing collapses!”  After that wily epiphany and another chuckle, my dad and I trekked on.
On our final day, we strolled through a retired nobleman’s digs with miles of hilly lawns and well-spaced chestnut oak trees, some 800-years-old with trunks having 24-foot circumferences. We paused at a 13th-century water mill and agreed that we were in an outdoor museum. In the final mile, we climbed a steep ridge near a two-house settlement that wound past friendly miniature ponies, another hundred sheep, and led to a bench set on the high point.


I sat on the bench and watched as my dad walked slowly with a slight limp up the steep path toward me. He was puffing a bit, scaling a mountain once summited by Alexander Cromwell. I thought again about the cunning dry-stone wall builder who had said—speaking about his wall’s hidden power—but also I think in retrospect, about parents everywhere…


“What you don’t see is the strength of the wall.”


It was then that I vowed to keep discovering the charms of life with my dad—that vital card in my familial deck and a stone wall of love—one step at a time.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“Wallers do it in all weathers.” —Drystone Waller’s credo on a bumper sticker

American Royalty!

American Royalty!


“We make the road by walking it.” —Rosa Parks

In the midst of fourth coast-to-coast walk across Britain with dad

In the midst of fourth coast-to-coast walk across Britain with dad

What if you only had one more opportunity to take a long walk with your dad and ask him those ultimate questions, the ones you wish you had asked before it was no longer possible?


Where a son takes his father for a precious ramble depends on his dad’s favored backdrop. Mine treasures sweeping fields and birdsong, and no haven for wide-open strolls matches England’s countryside. But I knew that our trekking savvy would be put to the test this time around, our fourth in Britain, because dad was more fragile than during our earlier rambles. After initially declining my suggestion for one more trek—at 79, dad didn’t want to slow me down—he thought better of it. We used this trek to discover England’s Midlands, and our shared history.


Our 10-day walk navigated the 147-mile Viking Way, a trail across Lincolnshire, which borders England’s central east coast and the North Sea. Named at the suggestion of the Ramblers Association to reflect the influence of Danish law in Britain’s eastern counties, The Viking Way met dad’s demands for mild hills, woodlands, livestock encounters, and villages of stone houses with gracious inhabitants.


Our previous experiences in the U.K. had impressed upon us the respect Britain pays to its walkers. Foot travelers rule in Britain, on ancient rights of way. Once, Madonna (locally known as “Madge”) purchased a mansion adjacent to a public footpath and then spent millions trying to block its public access to no avail. A testament to ramblers’ solidarity, the right to roam endures.


Our wanderings led us to villages forgotten by modern highways and high-speed trains. In Lincolnshire’s rolling forested wolds, the most timeless scenery on our itinerary, each village offered a weathered stone church from the 13th century, usually positioned on the settlement’s highest point and left unlocked. We stayed in homey bed and breakfasts (you must adore dogs and horses) and archetypal English inns that make New England’s historic buildings seem like new. Viking helmet signage marked the trail, and when it escaped us, the British national habit of tending gardens made getting directions easy. Birds and sheep galore provided the soundtrack.


Most English homeowners post the nicknames of their houses on a placard out front or along the driveway. Handles like Willow Croft and Lilac Cottage prompted me to ask my father, “What should we have named our house?” Dad first suggested a memoriam to our dog and cat, “Ben and Chelsea’s Pee Palace?” Then he corrected himself with a moniker honoring his three sons’ reign of mild suburban delinquency: “Wild Antelope Range.”


My father imparted my middle name, Thoreau, hoping that I’d sympathize with the philosophical naturalist. Today my standing as a professional wanderer pleases him. In high school, I had difficulty distinguishing the family station wagon from a daring off-road all-terrain vehicle. Dad frequently discovered muddy grass clumped in the wagon’s wheel wells and forbade me from borrowing it. No measure of lawn mowing, firewood chopping and stacking, or kitchen Nerf-basketball tournament victories could reverse his decrees. We were the lone residents in suburban Garden City who burned storm-toppled trees for heat and used our backyard as a hedge-to-hedge vegetable garden.


During our trek, Dad enjoyed interviewing unguarded Lincolnshire locals about birds, flowers, and heritage. These included the truck driver who rescued us when we had to hitchhike our way back onto the vanished route. Our feet held out without incident. I’m told that when my English-born great-grandfather and his son walked the south coast of England together, my great-grandfather had some trouble with his feet and poured a bit of whiskey into his boot “to make the leather more supple.”


Dad’s sporty, self-styled, extreme suburbanite hiking outfit for the ramble was an evolving mélange of trusted sweaters over button-down shirts; khaki or corduroy pants; his hiking boots plodding a confident, sturdy gait; and a game face shadowed by a traditional British flat cap or farmer’s cap, as it’s called locally. Plus, a nose devoted to smelling blossoms.


Swinging through charming Normanby le Wold, in need of directions, we encountered a woman hosing down her mastiff who demonstrated the Anglo-specific custom of agreeably ending nonquestioning sentences with either “isn’t it?” “doesn’t it?” or “wouldn’t it?”


“Well, it would be that way then, wouldn’t it?” she said.


I looked hard at Dad. He looked hard at a bird.


We used the ubiquitous medieval churches—cool and still inside, stained-glass light bleeding in, bird chorus outside—as pit stops. The All Saints Church, its 1226 character intact, sits on a hilltop overlooking Walesby and beyond. Dad decided “The Ramblers Church,” nicknamed that because it holds Sunday services and weddings for rambling enthusiasts, was an apt place to pray for the continued absence of fast-food franchises on Long Island’s North Fork, where my parents live.


Lectures on art and Long Island history aside, Dad declared another signpost of his retirement from teaching: The self-appointed status of back yard-reclining, binoculars-raking-the-sky air traffic observer. An elderly couple dining at an adjacent table pretended to not hear the conversation, but then I suggested an attempt to short circuit the often obligatory jests about anyone’s Long Island heritage by renaming it Isle de Long. The couple broke down and peered red at us. When Dad steered the chat toward our family’s established legacy of “booming,” a familial term for inspired but aimless wandering, they left.


After getting our urban fix from an Indian meal, we returned to 360-degree views of the horizon. Trotting past another screaming-yellow crop of rapeseed (harvested as cooking oil and a base for butter alternatives), Dad reminded me that “prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession … farming is.” Dad’s flora identification computer was heating up again as we crossed into a young green field of wheat. He petitioned the next three people on genus and species. Isaac Newton, a Lincolnshire native, would have been proud.
Whenever I stopped to take pictures, Dad obliged by allowing me to tilt up his farmer’s cap stylishly to allow sunshine on his face. After a fence-leaning shoot, I tried talking him into taking up modeling back in Manhattan, such as Mom did in the 1950s. He immediately focused on the dung stuck to his soles.


Walk talk stimulates recollection, anywhere. While ensuring the survival of bottomless memories, my two-week trip abroad with Dad transcended the proverbial pat on the back after watching a game together. We retuned to that global circuit of father and son connections. It was the perfect time to thank him for helping me earn my Walker Laureate.
On the path, I enjoyed the role reversal of being in charge. When we inevitably found ourselves lost in a muddy field of cows—and all of us wondering what we were doing there—I drove the boat, er, station wagon. I intentionally delayed answering his question about what sort of meat was hiding in that Indian food.


The 30 meals we shared along the route afforded me ample time to encourage Dad to recount his life story, the entire odyssey. These discussions made us realize that our greatest fortune was also our supreme bond: my mother. Rural England is a rare zone where humans have improved upon nature. Somewhere in the dream of hunting for Viking Way signposts, I discovered my best friend, the bird and jet watcher.


In the end, after hiking at least 10 miles a day, wiry Dad slept less and ate more than I did and seemed to have more energy. He also noticed every birdsong, flower, shrub, tree, gardener, and cloud. Once again, we’d simplified parent-child recreation, without props. At the Viking Way’s lakeside end, Dad unlocked from an expression recalling a medieval frieze we’d seen and raised an eyebrow to declare, “When my mother turned 100 on Long Island, she received a congratulatory telegram from the Queen.”


Pause. “But it was routed through Philadelphia?” he added.


At London’s Heathrow Airport, my dad, who loves Big Band jazz and once suggested his epitaph read simply “Clown,” let his inner actor shine by faking a docile, demented stare to secure me a standby seat to New York.


The eternal revelation surfaced mid-trek, en route to Tealby, while strolling along a green hillside as magpies chattered to each other. I finally asked, “Dad, what gives you hope?”


He paused to reflect, there in the midst of England’s secret rambling magic, changed his expression to glad, and declared, “You.”


Looks like I’ve got another shot at borrowing the station wagon.


(This story is a chapter in The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)



(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)


“A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” —Thomas Jefferson


Now that childhood seems to be officially over, only occasionally do I dare people to do things. Not the case with my eldest brother, Basil, who routinely challenges me to perform illegal tricks for his amusement. I routinely caved into his cons until I turned, well, about 35.


Our family summered in New York’s Adirondack mountains annually starting in 1967 after my father bought 16 acres of remote hillside land there for $800 from a farmer who needed that amount to buy an oil burner. That was back when achieving the American Dream was doable, even affordable.


As seasonal Adirondackians, July Fourth is my father’s favorite holiday. Although he’s still mad about being persecuted as a Walden-carrying Communist during the 1950’s McCarthy era, he remains a loyal transcendentalist. His favorite Americans, after Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, include Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Our family beheld the annual fireworks show on a hillside overlooking touristy Lake George, N.Y. Throughout the crackling airborne display, my otherwise publicly measured dad would loudly thank our founding fathers for all to hear. It embarrassed his three boys, but his glowing pride let us know this was important.


After my father’s 1972 patriotic public declaration, “Thank you, Thomas Jefferson!” my brother Basil challenged me, a fourth-grader, and brother Bryan to summit the lakeside A-frame roof of a nearby fast food restaurant. With Basil and hundreds of people watching from the fort’s hillside, Bryan and I galloped up one side and over the other side of a roof that we soon realized was made from soda-can-thin aluminum-bubble shingles that crushed audibly under the weight of our steps. For everyone crammed on the hillside, we became the show.


The audience lounging on the hillside applauded our crunchy roof summit. The ovation surged when, once back on the ground, we sprinted into the crowd hoping to disappear. Feeling safe, we then strolled calmly away from the scene of the crime until the restaurant owner grabbed me from behind, spun me on my heel, and screamed “You’re coming with me.” As he dragged me back toward his damaged snack shack, the still attentive crowd booed my capture. Basil yelled out at the top of his lungs, “Boo…Run!” (Family, old friends, and a few cousins occasionally still call me Boo.) I twisted out of the man’s grip and bolted. The onlookers, thankfully not including my parents, gave me a howling standing ovation as I sprinted toward freedom. And so the lessons on eluding authority continued. Once I caught my breath, far in the distance I heard someone yell, “Thank you, Benjamin Franklin!”

Basil and Johanna Northam enjoying mellower times in Geneva, FL (photo: Basil Northam)

Basil and Johanna Northam enjoying mellower times in Geneva, FL (photo: Basil Northam)