A leatherback turtle at dawn

Pacuare, Costa Rica: The fight of the Leatherback turtles

A baby leatherback climbs a mountain of sand.

The silver light of a waxing moon, ancient and deliberate, highlights the elevated black and white spotted contours and ridges of the leatherback turtle’s giant prehistoric carapace, as the ancient beast makes its nest on the Costa Rican shore off of the island of Pacuare.

She does this just as all that have come before her have done for the last one hundred fifty million years. Dressed in black, speaking in whispers, and armed only with red LED lights, we have only seconds to get to her as she emerges from the sea, collect and relocate the contents of her nest before the hundred or so eggs of this extremely endangered animal will instead fall into the hands of local poachers. These poachers will then take the hundred or so eggs to the local markets where they will be sold for roughly a dollar apiece to insecure men looking for sexual fortification. Turtle eggs, at least according to local lore, are aphrodisiacs.

Through a company called Tropical Adventures, I have teamed up with a volunteer conservation group called WIDECAST. WIDECAST, also known as Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network is a non-profit organization that works in more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories to protect all endangered sea turtles.

The organization works closely with governmental and non-governmental scientists, conservationists, research managers, policy makers, and educators to develop various programs designed to rehabilitate the drastically declining number of Green, Hawksbill, and Leatherback turtles.Volunteers working the hatchery where more than a hundred babies emerge daily.

Pacuare, located off the Caribbean Coast is just one of their many projects. These turtles, like so many species of marine life have become endangered because of poaching, commercial fishing, and pollution just to name a few. Leatherback’s primary diet is jellyfish, for which a plastic bag can easily be mistaken. Once  in the turtle’s stomach, it will slowly and painfully starve to death.

To get Pacuare is an adventure in itself.  After arriving in San Jose and a quick night of sleep at the Don Carlos Hotel near San Jose’s Central Market, I make my way to the bus station where, I along with a full bus of Costa Ricans make the incredibly hot four-hour cross country trek over an exquisite rain forest to the town of Bataan.  The beauty of the rain forest covered mountain is diametrically opposed to the misery of my bus seat. There is not enough storage room overhead for my fifty-pound bag so it rests on my lap.

To my dismay, a well-fed woman in the tiny seat next to me oozes into my personal space, shifting constantly to find unattainable comfort. Periodically she engages in a heated debate with her sister across the aisle. My limited Spanish leads me to believe a romance has gone afoul. From her tone, I feel that the man has fared well. Each heated spat between the two ends with the peace offering of some sort of toxic-waste smelling Costa Rican corn chip. She offers me one.“Lo siento. Estoy infermo.” I lie, fearing for my life. In case my Spanish is completely incomprehensible, I also hold my stomach, make a frowny face just to drive the sentiment home. Though in the moment, she accepts my decline, it doesn’t stop her from offering the impossibly orange, repugnant chips at least a dozen more times in five minute intervals until I finally get off in Bataan. Like the turtles that return to Pacuare every three years to give birth as they have for millennia, this woman honors ritual.

The camp at Pacuare.

The camp at Pacuare.

In the breezeless town of Bataan, I exit the bus. Instantly, I am dripping and the sun is scorching. Waiting for me is a wiry man named Eric. He is Pacuare’s project administrator and speaks little English. He waits while I find the only internet café in the small town, check my email one last time and then Eric, two others and myself cram into one of Costa Rica’s notorious red taxis and we make our way down a dusty, high-centered gravely road twenty-five minutes to a small dock on an unnamed canal that ultimately feeds into the Pacuare River.

The chaos of twelve hours on planes and airports, a bus ride and mad taxi ride on Costa Rica’s bumpiest road give way to the peaceful chants, hums, whistles and buzzes of the jungle as water laps against the rusty hull of the boat. This peaceful moment is only temporarily broken by the guttural roar of a troop of Howler monkeys in the canopy above us. First, I am in awe then disgust as one of them, from twenty feet above me, urinates.

The boat to Pacuare.

The boat to Pacuare.

I sit across from Daniela,who sheds light on our mission. She is in charge of environmental education and outreach and explains that the team, which is composed of three research assistants and a handful of volunteers from all over the world, has three duties. The first is, rain or shine, to search for turtles between the hours of 8pm and 4am when they come to shore to lay their eggs. Those eggs are then collected and then re-nested near the base in a controlled environment.  To make matters more complicated, not only are our volunteers searching for turtles, but also locals are looking for them as well with far more nefarious intentions. While there is a mutual understanding between the two turtle enthusiasts that whoever finds the turtle claims the turtle, with each poached nest go roughly one hundred baby turtles, each vital to the survival of the species.

The second responsibility, Daniela explains, is to monitor the re-nested eggs. When tiny turtles begin to emerge from the dirt, fifty to seventy days after they are buried, they are to be weighed, measured, and placed into a sand-filled cooler. While this is happening, other volunteers rake a path in the beach so that the young turtles can make their way safely to the water without being eaten by crabs, stray dogs, or birds. Unlike the potentially emotional gravitas that accompanies the pillaging of a nest in front of my eyes, this process sounds far less daunting.

Newly hatched leatherbacks make their way to the beach while a volunteer rakes the way to keep the path a smooth one.

Lastly, it is the responsibility of the volunteers to keep base camp in working order. This includes building cages for the babies, working on the new hatchery and various other day-to-day chores, all of which are done, of course under the blazing Caribbean sun. The objective becomes immediately clear: Sweat a lot. Sleep little. Save the turtles.

As Daniela finishes going over the objectives and responsibilities, herons and egrets rest on the backs of submerged cattle line the ever-widening river as we snake our way towards the Caribbean Sea, which announces itself with a gentle breeze and the thunderous crash of waves hitting the shore.  We have arrived.

The camp, as promised, is rudimentary and teaming with wildlife. There are six sleeping cabins, each with three bunks, an open-air kitchen, open-air bathroom with two toilets and two showers. While the living conditions are not for the faint of heart, to someone who loves adventure, wildlife, doesn’t mind the occasional bug bite and is willing to forego their smart phone for a few days, there is no finer place. How often, I think to myself, do people say something along the lines of “I wish I could escape to a deserted island…” or “I want to make a difference in the world and see something different,” Look no further. But when you say it… Know you have to mean it.

the local sloth

Within minutes of my arrival, two brilliantly colored toucans feast on bananas left over from lunch earlier in the day. Near the gate to the beach, a sloth, with his long curved nails, hangs from a tree, lazily grooming himself. Electric colored lizards and iguanas occupy every sun-exposed tree and rock.  In the distance cry more howler monkeys. A moving carpet of leaf ants move leaves like a green conveyer belt from a large tree to their nest. Birds and butterflies of every color flash like daytime fireworks and there is a kayak next to the river as communal living will demand some for of solitude. It paradise as designed before the days of the Four Seasons beds, fast food and the smart phones. And all of this beauty set against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea whose waves pound the sand a hundred yards away.

After a brief introduction to the research assistants and volunteers, the mission to save the turtles becomes instantly clear. Word comes in of a hatch in the hatchery. Like soldiers going to battle, the volunteers leap from their hammocks, abandon their card games and make their way to the beach. Each has an assignment. The goal is to get these neophytes to the sea as quickly and as safely as possible. Within fifteen minutes, in a flurry of scales, measurers, buckets, and rakes, more than twenty tiny turtles make a mad dash toward the sea where they will hopefully spend the next fifty years of their lives, returning to this beach by way of the earth’s magnetism twenty-five years to lay eggs of their own.

After months in the ground, the baby leatherbacks emerge

The reverie lasts only a moment before another hatch and the cycle repeats. This time I put on some rubber gloves to pretend I can help, which I cannot.  By the time the babies have been sent away, it is time for dinner, which is invariably an assortment of rice beans and either plantains or yucca with perhaps a touch of pork. This is not just dinner but breakfast and lunch as well. Conversation over dinner tends to be about how nice it would be to eat something else. While I find the simplicity of the food somehow refreshing, one could see how eating it repeatedly for months at a time like many of these volunteers do, might conjure feelings of madness.

I chat with one of the research assistants, Rachel. She is delicately spoken, intelligent marine biologist from England. Her passion for turtles, like everyone here is infectious. “Every time I see a turtle I have to go into turtle mode,” she tells me, her eyes lighting as she talks.  “There is a process that has to be followed, but I always try to take a moment to appreciate what an amazing animal it is and how lucky I am that it is a part of my life.”

Measuring the newly hatched leatherbacks.

As dinner ends, darkness falls. The only light becomes that of the moon, which on this particular night happens to be full. Lightning flashes are a constant against the backdrop over the sea. Head lanterns become light sources and the evening’s patrol groups are laid out. The seven-kilometer beach is broken up into three sections. Starting at 8pm, each section is assigned to groups of two to three people led by a research assistant. One group watches from 8pm to 12am. The other from 12am to 4am.  Thankfully I am assigned the first watch.

There are few better ways to get to know someone than four hours walking up and down a Costa Rican beachfront in search of endangered sea turtles about to go into labor. My watch partner Amy is from Maine and fell in love with sea turtles after spending a summer in Crete. Since then she has traveled back to Crete several times, adding a stop in Kenya before landing in Costa Rica. It is admirable devotion.

As we walk, I notice the shadows of small men walking in pairs and groups of three, the embers from their cigarettes burning. They are poachers and tonight, they want the same thing we want.  Turtle eggs. Given the broad expanse of beach, often they first spot the turtles, who are more than six feet long and impossibly slow, emerging from the water. They arrive before us and we have no choice but to watch as they collect the poor turtles eggs and vanish to sell them as some crude sort of endangered reptilian Viagra. Unaware of what has happened, the turtle buries the hole anyway. It is heartbreaking. I am determined not to let that happen again. Poaching turtle eggs and killing turtles in Costa Rica is illegal, and while it carries a one to three year sentence, very little is done to stop it. On Pacuare, nothing is done at all.

An hour later, after having mistaken several rocks and logs for turtles, we see something dark and grand emerging from the water. Its slow cumbersome gait is unmistakable. It is a leatherback. She zigzags out of the water, searching for the perfect spot to nest, leaving enormous tracks in the sand behind her. It is as if an ATV came careening from the sea, only compared to a Leatherback an ATV is small.

Tracks of a leatherback

After she has found a proper place, the turtle first “makes its bed” with her front flippers. This explosive process involves the turtle throwing sand all over the place like some kind of a turtle fit. Fine sand hovers above the turtle like smoke after the implosion of an abandoned hotel. Next the turtle shifts her attention from the front to the back. It is almost our time. We are instructed to wait until she is finished making her bed before moving in.

Once the nest has been dug, the turtle goes into a strange birthing trance. We get inches behind the turtle, our eyes inches from its giant George Lucas-esque tail. The slowly wagging giant nub looks like something from Mos Eisley on a mission to kill Luke Skywalker. Using its massive flippers like alien hands, the turtle scoops sand with one flipper then the next, moving its mass from side to side with each dig. This process lasts for about 15-20 minutes depending upon the turtle’s attitude toward perfection. As she digs, we pull sand back from the hole behind her allowing us to put a plastic bag under the turtle when she finally begins to lay her eggs. Finally, the turtle takes a long breath. It is time.

A leatherback moments before it leaves land for the next twenty-five years

I put one hand under each flipper to hold the plastic bag in place. The turtle arches it’s neck and lets out a painful breath and with that, an egg falls. Then another. The tail wriggles and as it does, the Star Wars theme song plays in my head. More eggs fill the heavy bag. Each one a chance that this species may get to stay on this planet a little bit longer. The research assistants take measurements of the shell size and checks for microchips as I sit there, speechless. When all the eggs have been laid, in this case, nearly a hundred, we cover them with sand until we are ready to move them back to the hatchery. The white of the eggs, even though we have claimed them will attract poachers. The turtles are never fully safe.

I walk around to the front of the turtle and notice it’s eyes. She looks like she is crying. Though all that is happening is a salt excretion from the glands located behind the turtle’s eyes, I can’t help but think, that like me, the turtle is thinking that life is precious.  Having survived on the planet for more than 150 million years, I’m sure that somewhere is her genetic coding she understands this with far greater clarity than I could ever conjure.

A leatherback turtle at dawn

A leatherback turtle at dawn

That night, the group will save the eggs of thirteen turtles. The poachers will get the eggs of six. Over the course of my stay, we will save 959 eggs from 13 turtles, and 437 hatchlings will rise from 15 different nests. For every thousand eggs hatched, one will make it to sexual maturity and will be able to reproduce. It is a bitter victory but a victory none-the-less.

Somewhere in Costa Rica, after eating a turtle egg, a man will try to convince himself, according to preposterous myth that his libido has increased exponentially at the expense of a species. I will return, sweaty and sandy, tired and torn to my powerless room and with the company of the moonlight, the buzz of the jungle and the eternal grind of sea meeting sand and as the turtles make their way back into the hazy mysteries of the ocean, I will sleep.

Kearney Nebraska: The Sandhill Crane Migration

A sandhill couple

It is half past five in the morning and most, myself included have been up for two hours sipping tepid coffee and shivering in an elongated rudimentary blind at Rowe Sanctuary just off the gently undulating water of the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

Morning on the Platte River

Around me are twenty or so individuals who have gathered from ten different states.  Each is armed with a complex combination of scopes, binoculars and cameras with impossibly long lenses. Were it not for the lack of machine guns and the fact that the average age of the individuals in the blind, myself excluded, is within five years of  Wilford Brimley, one might think you were on the frontlines of a foreign battlefield. But this gathering, though passionate and patriotic, is far less violent. These individuals are not soldiers but Birders. A quirky group of khaki and camo clad nature lovers with a passion for all things winged and feathered. Upon first light we will witness what Jane Goodall has often said to be one of the most magnificent spectacles in nature. The sandhill crane migration.

On one side of me, a seventy-five year old man who has driven from Colorado just to see the cranes pours a celebratory splash of Bailey’s into his rapidly cooling java. “Nothing goes better with early morning birding than a little Bailey’s in your coffee,” he tells me as a terse Japanese man flanked with cameras with canon-like scopes shoves me forcefully out of my spot, jockeying for better position. The Bailey Sipper chuckles as the Japanese man sets camp in the spot I had just been standing.

The Bailey Sipper

“He takes this seriously,” I comment to my new friend.

“You bet he does,” says the Bailey’s Sipper. “He came here all the way from Japan.” Then he changes the subject. “Bailey’s?”

“Only in Kearney and before sunrise…” I say reluctantly, and with that he pours.

Behind me two men bicker in aggressive whispers over the species of a sparrow spotted the previous night. Were the Japanese man able to speak English, I’m sure he could have weighed in his own opinion but now he uses the light from his phone to adjust yet another setting. With internationally recognized gesticulations, the sponsor from the Audubon Society scolds him, much to the temperamental man’s dismay. “The blind,” he explains, “is to remain totally dark and silent in order not to disturb the cranes.” So in silence we sit.

Though nearly hidden in the deep amethyst of pre-dawn, the hundreds of thousands of statuesque prehistoric silhouettes of sandhill cranes cast garbled, moon-cut reflections onto the Platte. The oncoming day seems to vibrate with the peaceful trill of the birds’ collective lullaby. The silhouettes stretch out like a grayish fleece to both horizons of the braided river. Soon the sun will rise and as it does, show shall the nearly five hundred thousand of these majestic, spiritual birds in an annual avian ritual that has been occurring on this tiny stretch of river for more than a million years.

Sandhills getting ready for the day.

Sandhill cranes stand between three and a half and four feet tall. Their feathered bodies float like grey clouds above twiggy black legs. Their elongated necks lead to a pointed black beak and contemplative eyes settled just under an explosive crimson crest. They are playful birds with a unique variety of calls. Each call serves a different purpose and is commonly referred to as bugling. Devoutly loyal, they mate for life and often travel with their extended families. While each bird, with its regal appearance and honorable sense of family is commendable on an individual level, it is the action of the entire species that distinguishes it as one of nature’s most remarkable creatures.

Each year, after spending the winter in parts of Florida and all along the gulf coast extending into Mexico, these elegant birds begin their journey north to Canada, Alaska and Siberia where they will spend their winter and lay their eggs. While migration is common in many species of animals, one cannot help but marvel at the crane’s curious pit stop on the small stretch of the Platte River. Each year, between mid-February and mid-April, or as the locals say, Valentines Day to Tax Day, hundreds of thousands of cranes from all across the southern United States and northern part of Mexico gather in Southern Nebraska to feed on corn left over from the harvest in order to fatten up for their long journey north.

Sandhill in a Nebraska cornfield fattening up before migrating north.

While the all-you-can-eat buffet of corn and fresh water shellfish are no doubt a draw for the sandhills, The Platte River also plays host to this colossal roost because unlike anywhere else in the migratory path, the river offers the cranes an unrivaled sense of safety. The Platte is often described as a mile wide and a foot deep.  This type of wide, braided river is without vegetation and allows the birds to roost safely on sandbars and in the shallow water through the river at night. To sneak up on this massive gathering without being seen or heard would be nearly impossible.

For two months, the stripped, brown cornfields of Kearney are dotted with slow moving grey blobs and these cornfields go for miles. At any given moment, five of six groups can be seen in various parts of the sky, making their way, in either a straight line of a “V” shape from field to field searching for a yet-to-be-discovered field of corn.

The town of Kearney has taken full advantage of this annual visitor. Restaurant walls are adorned with artwork featuring of massive flocks circling the Platte and close-ups of bugling birds. On the front desk of the visitor’s bureau is a stuffed sandhill that apparently flew into a power line. Under a photo of a flock of cranes at a local diner, locals ponder the likelihood of spotting whooping cranes, an endangered crane that migrates with the sandhills. When another man interjects, saying that he’d seen one the previous day, the men react with the bliss of a golfer getting a hole in one.

Birders about to head to the blind

At the Rowe Sanctuary gift shop, the woman in front of me buys eight shirts; one for each of grandchild, a hat, and a sweatshirt she waves me up in line and sets out to buy more. I buy a beautiful book by local photographer Michael Forsberg, a documentary film about the cranes, a tacky card making light of procreating cranes, an adorable plush crane for my nephew, and a bonze figurine for myself. Though tempting, I resist buying a shot glass or a collector’s spoon. The gift shop, and the town itself is like Roswell, New Mexico gone bird. I adore it.

Chain hotels begin serving bagels and coffee at obscenely early hours to satisfy the palates of avian-loving guests setting out to get a look at the early morning roost before the birds take off for their own cornfield dining experiences.  The masses of quirky bird-loving visitors that arrive to this sparse, quaint Nebraska town are arguably as much a spectacle as the birds themselves. Let us not forget my Japanese friend, the Sparrow sparring gents behind me, or the Bailey Sipper. And that was in one corner of one of three blinds at Rowe.

Like many wonders of nature, the sandhill migration is threatened. While their numbers are not particularly small, with development, the river is changing. What was once a nearly sixty-mile stretch of river has been reduced to roughly six. So embedded in the crane’s psyche is this migratory pattern that to eliminate the river’s security blanket, would be to eliminate the species itself.

A regal-looking sandhill

This potential elimination is hard to imagine of course, as the sun curiously peaks onto the mid-march morning, casting an orange light onto the endless fleet of cranes. They begin to shuffle, nervously as though to stretch out after a long rest. Cameras click and anticipatory whispers in the blind turn to whispers of awe. The argument over sparrow species abruptly comes to an end. By light, the grey blanket, spotted with the red of the bird’s crests, seems to be moving. The trill grows louder and begins to vary in tone, rising in volume in accordance with the sun. It grows so loud that it drowns out thoughts. A feat that only nature’s most awesome expressions are capable.

One bird begins to hop up and down.  The leaping is infectiously joyful and soon, others follow suit. They begin to jump, alternating turns, circling, leaping against the hypnotic rhythm of their call. The cranes cast their necks back and ruffle their back feathers and bounce in a dance that feels as old as time, and slowly, in groups of three’s and six’s and twelve’s and then twenty-four’s, they begin to take off, the sun glowing orange and massive, watching them on their way. Three deer watch indifferently from the other side of the bank while the twenty or so birders, myself included, watch in what went from a deliberate, curious quiet to a breathless, reverent silence filled only with the ever-echoing call of the sandhill crane.

View from a blind

The moment stands still. Thousands have taken off for the day and yet the density appears unchanged, hundreds of thousands thick. Though they are  threatened, it is hard to imagine them all gone and as that thought occurs to me, an eagle traces the bank of the river. And with his graceful soar and shrill cry, the cranes scare, leaving the roost all at once in a mad exodus of flapping wings and panicked bugling. So dense is the abrupt departure that the sun has to work its way through the birds as they circle and circle in a massive grey and red cloud, splitting up into groups heading in a thousand directions all at once and then they are gone. Jane Goodall was right. Magnificent.

The eagle circled back on the other side of the river, which was now empty. I had always found eagles to be majestic, but not this day. The Japanese man puts away his gear. A journey across the globe at it’s apex. Some talk about the cranes and others say nothing. The debate of the sparrows, I assume, will start up again soon. I finally take a sip of my Bailey’s but it has gone cold. The Bailey Sipper offers to top me off. I decline. He raises his glass in honor of the cranes and pours himself another. Tired and hungry I make my way out of the blind, stopping to pick up a feather. Examining it, I feel like I can fly. As I go, I glance back at the Platte for just a moment, and watch it as it rolls on and on and on.

The last sandhills into the sunrise


Seventh hole at pebble

Walking with Giants: The Pro Am practice round at Pebble Beach

As I inhale the smell of cypress mixed with salty ocean air and merge that scent with the sound of sheer metal slicing through air, pinnacled with a compressed thwack, I know that I am someplace special. So special, in fact, that to even take in the greatness of this particular merging of land and sea at its greatest expression, one must pay upward of five hundred fifty dollars, subject themselves to potential rain and wind, not to mention a reasonable amount of frustration.  I, like most Americans do not have the money to thoroughly subject myself to such a peculiar blend of tranquility and torture, so usually my journey to this magical place begins and ends with a glass of wine at The Lodge.  This lodge of course, is located on the 18th hole of The Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Seventh hole at pebble

Seventh hole at pebble

From across Ocean Ave. in Carmel, CA visitors can catch distant glimpses of Pebble’s 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th holes which stretch regally out across a sheer Cliffside that drops savagely off into the mighty, crashing Pacific.  For a fee of roughly ten dollars, tourists can drive the seventeen-mile drive across Pebble, catching fleeting glimpses of many of the peninsula’s eight courses.   For thirty dollars a person, in addition to the ten to simply get onto the property, members of the public can play a nine-hole par three executive course called Peter Hay, which, though it sits near the famous coastal masterpiece and is owned by the same company, is a far cry from the majesty of it’s big brother.

This week, Pebble Beach is home to the AT&T Pro Am.  While I am eager to watch Tiger’s return to the tournament after a ten-year absence, Bill Murray and his ridiculous hats defend his title, and Bill Belichik try and regain some dignity after The Patriot’s Super Bowl loss, what I am most excited about are the practice rounds the days before the tournaments.

On these particularly glorious days, true enthusiasts can actually to grace the rolling grasses of three of Pebble’s most noted golf courses; being Monterey Peninsula Shore Course, Spyglass, and of course Pebble Beach itself.   I take in each hole as I walk along.  Number six, an epic par five leads out towards the water is arresting in its nuance and scale.  I look across the ocean at the beach where for years I’d looked at the very spot I now stand.  The enthusiasm and optimism of golfers as they play their last drive from eighteen towards the lodge is infectious.

Tiger plays a quiet, unwatched round at Monterey Peninsula, Mike Weir peacefully contemplates putts on a putting clock and OU football coach Bob Stoops crushes a drive off of the second hole on Pebble.  When watched this way, these titans become simply men playing a game.

Watching these talents in their element, apart from the throngs of screaming fans one finds on a typical tournament day, somehow makes these legendary courses feels in a strange way, less magical and more real.  From now on, when I watch tournaments for the comfort of my own home, I will know that the place where these golfers are playing actually does exist and isn’t some surreal exit from reality.  And somehow despite the fact that from now on these golfers won’t feel like characters in my favorite films set in mythical locations, the game of golf itself becomes an even more beautiful and challenging thing.

For a second, I even think that if I put away twenty dollars a month for about thirty months, that I too could play this course just like these guys.  And in the two and a half years I would take to put away that money, I’d have plenty of time to get good enough to actually play the course well.

As I watch a young pro sail a drive from the tee box over the green on the seventh hole and into the pacific, followed immediately by another ball meeting the same fate, I think to myself…  Maybe I’ll save ten bucks a month for six years.  Two years at my skill level seems a little too soon to face off with this mighty merging of land and sea. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my wine at The Lodge.




Opera house in Woodstock

Woodstock Illinois: Home of Groundhog Day the movie

On the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax in the heart of Los Angeles, there are several buildings of note, primarily for their cultural relevance, but also because of their role in Hollywood.  Specifically, a diner called Johnie’s Coffee Shop.  It was in this vintage diner, designed by Architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis in 1955 that Walter Sobchak guaranteed The Dude that he could deliver a toe with polish by 3pm then petulantly declared that he would not leave until he finished his coffee in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski.

Opera house in Woodstock

Opera house in Woodstock Il, as seen in Groundhog Day

This diner was also immortalized in the films Miracle Mile and American History X not to mention dozens of commercials.   While the historic blue and white edifice might occasionally stop the curious tourist, the majority of Los Angeles roles by the iconic and abandoned diner without so much as a glance.

Living in a city like Los Angeles it is challenging to go more than a block or two without recognizing some park, house, apartment building, street sign, or even street performer from some classic film.  As a Los Angeles resident, and even as an individual who has worked in the film business most of his life, while I appreciate the cinematic nostalgia, rarely do such locations stop me in my tracks and most go unnoticed, unless of course, these popular locations cause traffic jams at which point they are simply annoying.

That slightly cynical sentiment begins and ends in Los Angeles.  Never was I more aware of that truth than this summer during a quick visit to see my friend Curtis in Woodstock, Illinois. Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould called this quaint suburb home and it was in Woodstock that Orson Wells cultivated his creative passion as a young man at Todd School for Boys.

This town is most notable, however, not for it’s comic book icon, or the king of cinema’s temporary residency but rather for its role in the classic comedy Groundhog Day.  Groundhog Day, as it turns out, was not shot on the wintery streets of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania but rather nearly 600 miles away in Woodstock, Illinois.

Without question, this unforgettable 1993 comedy about a snarky weatherman stuck in the same day in a small Pennsylvania town falls into the same category as such classics as my favorite film, The Big Lebowski. Yet while I live in Los Angeles, home to “The Dude” and could care less about passing Johnie’s Coffee Shop, in Woodstock, AKA Punxsutawney, I become the gawking, visor-wearing, traffic stopping, confused tourist that in my own city, I have come to loathe.

I find myself snapping pictures of everything.  Residents shopping at the Farmer’s Market watch as I carry on about the gazebo where Bill Murray danced with Andie MacDowell and the Opera House from where he took his fateful plunge.

I pull up a youtube video of the scene with Needle Nose Ned Bryerman and spend fifteen minutes trying to match storefronts so that I can take a picture of my friend and I recreating that moment.  It pains me when I discover that many of the storefronts have been repainted and renamed and I might not have the photo exactly right. The whole experience brings me a great and unexpected joy.

The film is about a man who lives the same day over and over but really what it is about is second chances and looking at your life differently.  I spend the rest of the day walking around ChicagoThe city, like my own swells with cinematic history and I eat up every second.

While the clogged streets of Hollywood will always be frustrating, perhaps the next time I come across some meandering Oklahoma tourists with their star maps and their fanny packs, I’ll have a little more patience.  Or maybe even better…  the next time I hit that hellish artery that is Fairfax and Wilshire, home to Johnie’s Coffee Shop and I’ll look at the blue and white diner where Walter finished his coffee in The Big Lebowski and I’ll see my life a little differently… . Maybe even more enthusiastically.