Mountains of the Americas

Over the last month I have had the opportunity to observe the variety of nature and culture found in the mountains of the Americas. I took friends from Holland to visit an historic town in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania; I spent a long weekend with friends who live in a resort town in the Colorado Rockies; and I accompanied a student group on a project located in a mountain village in Honduras.

My image of the Poconos had been the cheesy summer vacation destination in the 50s for baked city dwellers from New York and Philadelphia. I still think it is on the cheesy side. The highest point is about 2600 ft. They show the wear of an industrious civilization; the old and new scars of mining have not healed. Our destination was the town of Jim Thorpe, (formerly known as Mauch Chunk which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Leni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain). The historic district is picturesque with many restored Victorian buildings, as the 19th century was the economic heyday for the town. Mauch Chunk was a center for coal mining and railroads and eventually for tourism. But as the industries declined the town did also. The Olympian never visited Mauch Chunk, but his wife was shopping for a suitable site for his remains. As a ploy to draw tourists the town fathers accepted her offer, built a monument to him, and changed the name of their town in 1954. But typical of a government sponsored economic initiative, the decline continued and it was not until the 1980s when the architectural restoration began that tourists returned.

We took the tour of the Asa Packer Mansion that was built in 1860. Asa Packer (1805–1879), a self-made man, who started his career in Mauch Chunk as an apprentice boat builder, became a millionaire founding boatyards, construction and mining companies, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and Lehigh University. His three-story Victorian Italianate building, preserved with the original furnishings, is nice, with many features produced by European artisans. But this 19th century mansion is smaller and less extravagant in some ways (e.g., kitchen and bathrooms) than the typical 5000 square feet suburban house of the early 21st century housing bubble. Packer built another Victorian mansion next to his for his son that was the basis for Disney's Haunted Mansion.

The day after I had driven my Dutch friends to the Newark airport I was on my way back there to fly to Colorado with my friend Jim. We were visiting Scott and Megan, and their children Jackson and Ella in Crested Butte. (A butte is a hill that rises abruptly from the surrounding area and has sloping sides and a flat top, so a crested butte is a bit of an oxymoron.) Scott, an old student of Jim's, was living in Easton with his family for several months. We were immediate friends because on our first meeting at the pub he talked about von Mises and the Austrian school.

Crested Butte is a cuter, nicer town than Jim Thorpe. The scenery is spectacular, with Crested Butte Mountain being just one of the peaks surrounding the old mining town. The substantial real estate bubble there has forced the typical, moderate-sized home over a million dollars. The Colorado mountains seem young, hard and sharp, while also very beautiful.

Our visit consisted of eating drinking, walking, hiking and climbing. I thoroughly enjoyed the first of the four activities listed, but climbing is another matter. Here are my definitions.

Walk: relatively short with small elevation changes

Hike: longer than a walk with significant elevation changes

Climb: extensive use of the hands and feet due to severe elevation changes

Climbing is exhilarating, challenging, demanding, tough, great exercise, character building, etc.; but it is not fun. And as the evolutionary progress of homo sapiens included the development from quadrupedal to bipedal motion, climbing is a backwards step. On the first day we (Scott carrying Ella in a special backpack, Jim and me) hiked a mile or two along trails on the other side of the mountain from the town. The most difficult part was fording a fast, cold stream. We hiked up to a nice stop that afforded seats for us to consume our simple lunch while enjoying a beautiful view. The next day was the ascent up the Ruby Range to about 13,000 ft. Scott drove us in his jeep as far up the trail as possible. From the bottom, the ridgeline that was our destination it did not look that far, and the route did not look difficult. But as we proceeded above the snowline the terrain became steep and steeper such that the last 100 ft or so was a climb. Over the summit of the ridgeline was an even steeper precipice. I was tired and felt compelled to hug the rock where I had stopped. Even the ant that crawled up my butt (not butte), that I could feel relieving my traveler's constipation, could make me move. We did not make it to the ultimate summit because of the threat of rain and the fact that I refused to go any higher. You might think I have exaggerated the difficulty and danger of this climb if you knew that Scott had carried Ella again. And as I was hugging the rock she was standing around eating a sandwich. However that evening the bar tender, whose day job is a guide, confirmed my opinion of the difficulty of the route. Furthermore, I was shocked to learn that there is an old mining road to the peak from a different direction!

Scott and Megan were living in Easton for those few months because their son Jackson has been very ill. In fact, if it were not for their intelligence, patience, persistence, courage, economic resources, and most of all, love, Jackson would not be alive today. They believe they have finally found a physician who has properly diagnosed the illness and who has prescribed a proper treatment. My hope is to return to Crested Butte for a visit, more to see the grandeur of the love of parents for a healthy boy than of those magnificent mountains.

After I had made reservations for the Colorado trip, I was asked to accompany students of the Lafayette chapter of Engineers Without Borders to the village of Lagunitas, Yoro district, Honduras. My trip from Crested Butte to Lagunitas began with a four-hour drive to the Denver airport. The flight from Denver to Newark was rerouted to Cleveland due to thunderstorms. After a short stay for refueling we left for Newark, arriving about 1:00 AM. I went with Jim to the car, changed bags, and returned to the terminal. My flight to Houston departed at 6:00 AM. I arrived in San Pedro Sula in Honduras at about 11:00 AM (1:00 PM Eastern time). I was met at the airport by two of the students who had arrived a week earlier with another professor. They showed me the way on the two-hour bus ride and subsequent 20-minute hike up to the village. All of the buses in Honduras are old school buses from the US. The drivers fly down the mountain roads, passing as many as 6 cars at a time by my count. The roads have no guardrails and the rains have washed out several sections. In total, the travel time from Crested Butte to Lagunitas was about 29 hours.

The students were working on a project to design and help construct a water distribution system for the village. The source is a spring about one mile away across the mountain. During previous visits the students did a topographical survey and researched specific needs of the villagers. The villagers had dug a trench by hand that one-mile across the undulating mountain from the spring to the village. It is an impressive bit of work. Still to be constructed are a storage tank and the local distribution system within the village.

In teaching design I have contended that engineering is a humanity; if you do not take into consideration the people for whom you are designing and the people who will be building the design, then it is unlikely that a good design will result. Thus, other disciplines, such as cultural studies, economics, language and communication must be part of a proper engineering education. The EWB project in Lagunitas is the best engineering project I have ever been associated with in that the usually implicit requirement that engineering design be complimented with other disciplines is obvious.

Also no project I have ever worked on, including during my time as a practicing engineer, was more important to the user than that water system is to the people of Lagunitas. The complete role of an engineer was encapsulated in the meeting of the students with the water board, where the options for the community were explained in Spanish. I am proud of the work ethic and professionalism exhibited by the students.

The approximately 230 villagers live in houses, usually in groups of 2 or 3, spread over a half-mile radius of the mountainous terrain, the peaks being about 3000 ft. The 400–500 ft2 houses are constructed with adobe walls, tin roofs and dirt floors. There is no power. There is an existing spring-fed water system such that a limited number of the houses have a single tap, but there is only enough water for drinking, cooking and hand washing. There is no bathing or sewage in the village. The new water system will provide for all of the houses, but still will be limited to drinking, cooking and hand washing. The common latrine was upon a slope that required a little climb (i.e., the use of a hand) to reach it. The dirt, smell, and insects in the little box made me welcome my traveler's constipation. The grounds around the houses consisted of dirt and trash. Milling around and within the houses on the dirt and trash were chickens, dogs, an occasional pig, transient horses and burrows, and many barefoot children.

Each village is a reflection of the indigenous tribes that existed before the Spanish colonization. I was told that in some of the villages the people do not speak Spanish but an aboriginal dialect. Also each village is akin to a tribe or clan; perhaps all the inhabitants of a particular village are related to each other.

The living conditions for the students and me were primitive but better than those for the villagers. Our hut was relatively luxurious, with concrete block walls and a concrete floor. Every meal was primarily beans, rice and tortillas, with a small side of meat.

As no water in Honduras is safe for North Americans, we had bottled water available. For protection against disease I had 4 shots (tetanus, hepatitis, typhoid, and polio), took malaria pills, and had the antibiotic ciprofloxacin for traveler's disease (which I needed to take once at the end of the trip while in the beach town of Tela). To avoid insect bites I had a repellant that was 100% deet. It was like taking a petroleum dip. But it was effective, and as the English medical student who was touring Central America we met stated, the 100% deet was valuable like gold because it was impossible to find there.

San Pedro Sula (the name Sula derives from the local dialect Usula, which means “valley of birds”) is the worst city I have ever visited. The air is polluted and the streets are dirty. There is a large bustling market but there is nothing of quality or interest. One of the student's backpack was pilfered during the 10-minute walk from the bus to the hotel (my room was like a cell) during the middle of the day. However, the airport is nice, it being the only nice place I saw in Honduras.

Our hut was adjacent to the home of Porfirio. He is the leading citizen of the village. He is intelligent, ambitious and hard working; as well as being very friendly with a quick and hearty laugh. If he were born in the United States he certainly would own his business or be the mayor of his town. In other words, he should have become wealthy like Asa Packer did in 19th century Pennsylvania, but he lives in a shack with no toilet and no power. Why is life so perverse?

The mountains in Honduras in August are beautifully green and lush. The butterflies are extraordinary. But in truth, the country is dirty and ugly. It was rare, nonexistent in Lagunitas, to see any attempt to create or maintain an aesthetically pleasing environment. There is very little decoration, nor plants or flowers. The architecture is shoddy and completely functional. No attempt is made to control litter to the point that it is difficult to find a trashcan in the country. We carried out our trash when we left the village for the final time. Porfirio suggested that we chuck it off the side of the road down the mountain. Individual dress was similar, all function and no form. It was the rare exception to see a woman who attempted to look good, even in the city. Furthermore, people rarely washed or changed clothes.

I am certainly not the first to observe that beauty follows wealth. The absence of beauty is depressing. It seems ingrained in the culture, but perhaps is better explained economically. If one is just subsisting, how can it be justified to expend resources on "nonfunctional" beauty? An exception that was like a spot of color in a black and white image was Porfirio's 12-year old daughter Kinya. She wore more than one outfit while I was in the village. She wore earrings. Even her bearing was more refined. In a word, she is elegant.

In Lagunitas economic laws are easily observed compared to modern industrial society because the division of labor is primitive. The villagers do most of the work, and make and grow most of the goods they use and consume. The broken window fallacy would be absurd to them. When hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998 it did not cross anybody's mind that the rebuilding would be good for the economy as they had to do all of the work themselves to return to the status quo. During the rebuilding they lost work in the fields. Spending scarce capital on rebuilding materials required sacrifices in other areas. Only with an advanced division of labor does it seem the economy grows because the glazer or carpenter has more work. It also struck me when I heard the description of the terrible conditions that the survivors of Katrina endured: lack of water, food, sanitation, heat, and insects; that these were typical of what the villagers endured everyday.

They also understand the basic economic laws of price and supply and demand. When a new project was discussed with the villagers of Lafortuna, Porfirio emphasized to them that they must charge each household individually even though it was a community project. He knew that a commodity priced below the market level would soon be scarce.

As you probably have surmised Honduras is a poor country, the poorest country I have visited. I have been to very poor parts of Mexico, but also saw very nice neighborhoods there. I am sure there must be nice places where the elite live in Honduras, but I did not see them. Why are they so poor? Certainly they lack access to capital and are engaged in a limited division of labor. Both of these conditions are necessary to the accumulation of wealth but are difficult to achieve for isolated communities.

I referred to Tela above. We spent the last day of the trip at the beach. The Hondurans would like to make Tela another Cancun. The water is wonderful but the beaches have plenty of flotsam and jetsam washed up from the sea, or perhaps just discarded by the locals. There are a couple of decent hotels, but this town is also ramshackle and dirty. However, we did have one wonderful meal on a lagoon adjacent to the beach. We could observe a man carrying our lunch in a bucket, several healthy fish (perhaps mullet) into the cabana. They were fried whole and served with rice, beans, salad, and beautifully, lightly fried plantains. Eating this meal, sipping on a cold Vida Salva cerveza that cost 10 Lempiras (about 50) with a view of the Caribbean, I could think Honduras was a wonderful place.

Built in 1860, the home of Asa Packer, founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University. The mansion is not a restoration; it is essentially in the same condition as the Packers lived in it from 1861 to 1912.

Students surveying in the tropical jungle-like valleys.

The highlands where there are even pine trees.

A typical house in the village.

September 17, 2005