Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah

Near Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City a magnificent park lies at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost all of Utah’s 3 million residents — some 80 percent — live within ten miles or so of the Wasatch Front, which extends north to south for about 100 miles in the state’s northeast region. At the center lies Salt Lake City, a surprising city of 180,000 that is as modern, pleasant, and well situated as any in America. Near the city are magnificent trails that wind up into the mountains, which are drained by cold streams full of trout. Beyond the first ridge line are taller peaks and ski resorts that keep Park City hopping.

Restaurants are good. At Christmas the Mormon Temple grounds downtown are a festival of light. The business district is alive with foot traffic day and night. And the city has a decent NBA team, the Jazz, that this year boasts Donovan Mitchell, a University of Louisville first rounder who may be the rookie of the year in 2018.

To say that I’ve enjoyed it here is an understatement. It’s a western correspondent’s dream base. The airport is 20 minutes away, and flights anywhere in the West are two hours distant. At 85 mph, 600 mile drives to Montana or New Mexico are less than 8 hours away on clear highways, all of which are saluted by magnificent mountain ranges and expanses of tumbleweed desert.

The stories here also are compelling in ways that the East can’t really match. Because of the scale of the landscape west of the Mississippi, the tales to be told also are outsize. I’ve hustled to tell as many as I can. Almost every one has a political dimension that starts either in political Washington, or here in Salt Lake City. I’ve tried to keep the Los Angeles Times in front of other news organizations.

Salt Lake City, capital of Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A multi-billion dollar pipeline that is designed to draw billions of gallons of water annually from Lake Powell to slake the overly abundant thirst of an ambitious southwest Utah desert city. The White House effort to help the West’s struggling coal mines. The president’s attack on the Antiquities Act and his decision to shrink the boundaries of two big national monuments in Southeast Utah. The historically foolish and economically irrelevant administration gambit to lease public lands onshore and off for oil and gas development. The attack on the Endangered Species Act. A nuclear engineers’s dream of licensing an advanced reactor that could revive the U.S. commercial nuclear sector.
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In 2017, At Home On My Native Ground

Mrs. Schneider and me. The highlight of highlights of 2017 was marrying Gabrielle Gray in San Francisco on October 19. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — Maybe because I married in October, and traveled to India in January and to Manila in May to write about environmental heroes. Maybe because I summered in Michigan without any deadlines to meet or editors to impress. Maybe because my mother regained her balance, our friends remain close, and our families and children are making their way so well in the world. Maybe because I joined the Los Angeles Times for a spell and felt the old muscle memory of daily reporting revive so easily.

Maybe because of all of these events, my despair for the nation, and certainly the world, is not nearly as profound as that expressed by so many other people.

I’m 61 now. If I was a blue whale I’d weigh 110 tons. If I was an eastern oak, I’d be 80 feet tall. If I was a bathroom I’d have been renovated three times. I’m old enough, in sum, to understand that every day is a little blessing, and a year is a prayer come true. In other words I’m happy even as I contend with the various bruises that will only mount with every new year.

Two dear friends died in 2017 — my lifelong friend and brother Andy Feinman passed in May; my Michigan friend and brother Dennis Pace died in October. Their deaths are a lingering hurt.

Andy and Dennis succumbed to cancer, which is the scourge of our Baby Boom generation. As kids we were exposed to the most persistent levels of chemical and radioactive poisons in history. Cancer is the unsparing disease born in industrial mid-century America. It strikes decades later when we are well into middle age. For the Baby Boomers, the fifties and sixties amount to a generational kill zone.

If there is any personal solace it may lie in this conclusion: If you survive your sixties you’re in pretty good shape to enjoy as much of your old age as you’re willing to accept. I’m just starting to navigate that sixties kill zone. So far, so good.

In almost every other way, 2017 unfolded in chapters that were surprising, delightful, and satisfying. After a six-year romance, Gabrielle and I were engaged on April 19 in New York where I purchased a ring in the 47th Street Diamond District, dined with my brother Reed, and were serenaded by bluegrass musician friends Dominick Leslie and Phoebe Hunt at a Greenwich Village club that we closed well after midnight. Six months to the day later, we were joined by Maggie Gray and Samson Grisman in San Francisco and were wed in that city’s magnificent City Hall.

Moments after our declarations with Maggie, Samson, and wife Gabrielle. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

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Farewell To My Dear Friend Andy Feinman

Andrew Feinman, Lake George, NY. June 2015. Photo/Keith Schneider

Andrew Feinman, my dear friend, died on May 11 at the age of 61 following a long struggle with prostate cancer. It amazes me to write that sentence. It’s confounding.

Andy Feinman is life to me. His life. Mine. His birthday in April followed mine by five days. Our lives tied together for 56 years. All that trust and knowing. His big heart and fabulous big brass section laugh. His distinctive mix of stubbornness and tenderness. Andy’s death came too soon for his family and his friends. Like everyone who loved him as a brother, I’m adrift. It’s like a mountain mined from the landscape of my life.

I was privy to a lot of what made Andy tick. He and I met in kindergarten at Highlands Elementary School in White Plains, New York. We were five years old. We lived two blocks apart. On our bicycles we roamed the quiet streets of a neighborhood of tall trees and stable families. We played tackle football in the big front yard of Andy’s house on Soundview Avenue. He could not get enough of his brother Bob’s record of an English farting contest. Andy and I spent too much time trying to emulate its sounds of grand flatulence. Harriet, his wonderfully loving mother, called us the “gruesome twosome.”

One of Andy’s gifts was truly inhabiting his deep friendships, and conferring to each of them unique properties. My relationship with Andy was about development and progress. We liked to check the performance boxes of our years. How we were doing. With his other close friends he liked to party hard, or carry on, or be wondrously serendipitous. With me, he wanted to share honest evaluation of how we were faring in life. Kind of a periodic life experience report card.

Andy and Mary, Lake George, June 2015

We invited each other into the various rooms of our souls. Our professional ambitions. Our array of insecurities. Sessions with therapists. The various frustrations, especially early on, of finding – and in my case – sustaining durable relationships with a mate. In our occasional periods of unexpected turbulence we encouraged each other to be resolute.

A Man in Full
Andy married well. His wife Mary, and sons Nick and Reuben, were his core. He was a superb husband — thoughtful and aware and steady. He was a great father — proud and respectful of his boys and completely dialed into what they are about. I occasionally had the chance to spend time with all the Feinmans. Andy had good reasons to be proud of his family.

Andy was well-educated, earning his undergraduate degree in communications from Syracuse University, and his Masters in business administration from Tulane. I spent long weekends with him on both campuses in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. He matured a lot between the two universities.

At Syracuse, Andy was a young lion in full celebration mode. He seemed to know every person at every party. His appetite for fun was immense and his stamina was otherworldly. He could sing every tune and dance with grace, and style, and ease.

The gruesome twosome many years later. Purchase, NY, September 2016
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Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which flowed past the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
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Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s Panama Run

Jim "Jet" Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He's struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City.
Jim “Jet” Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He’s struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson is an American race car driver, born in California and raised in Hawaii, whose living and reputation is entirely based on a tool box of risky virtues. He designs, builds, and drives jet cars so powerful and fast that the main attraction of a Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson event — aiming a jet on wheels down a long straightaway — concludes in less time than it takes to sneeze.

Plainly, Jim Jet is comfortable moving more quickly than most men. “24-7 and fast,” he told me last week. “We go that way all day, every day.”

One of the delights in reporting from nations outside the U.S. is meeting genuine characters. The Maltese entrepreneur who opened a pizza restaurant in Urumqi, a far west desert city in China. The English plumber growing organic vegetables near Barcelona. The Canadian artist building solar plants in Qatar.

Which brings us to Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson and his often frustrating, but soon to be successful sojourn in Panama. About six years ago, when he was 56-years-old, Jim joined the growing crowd of American baby boomers who saw in Panama’s fabulously warm winter weather, and Panama City’s chic and affordable lifestyle, an opportunity to spend time in a developing Central American tropical paradise.

Jim "Jet" Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider
Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider


A Fast Drive in Panama

Not nearly ready to put his jet cars or his career on blocks, he proposed what he thought was a can’t miss opportunity for attracting more attention to Panama. He told Panamanian authorities that for a fair sum he would pilot one of his cars on a city boulevard at speeds approaching 350 miles per hour, faster than any car had ever been driven in Central America. Since 1986, when he started driving jet cars, similar jet car runs on highways and drag strips had attracted huge crowds.

In one run on a Las Vegas highway to open a new hotel Neilson reached a top speed of 391 miles per hour, the world record for driving on pavement.

That’s not fast. It’s dare to be dead nuts. It’s also the sort of daredevil event that people love to watch. Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, the motorcycle racer, became an American icon staging the same sort of events, featuring speed, guts, and a real question of whether the main actor would be alive when it ended.

The Panamanian authorities haven’t been nearly as enthusiastic about a jet car event as Jet Neilson hoped. Permits took years to be granted. Details haven’t been easy to work out. Expenses have become draining.

A Strong and Likely Start
Jim Neilson was born in Van Nuys, California in 1953 and as a child moved with his family to Hawaii with his father Lorenzo Neilson, a fishing captain in Kona, and Verla Neilson, who worked in Hawaiian real estate. He’s the oldest son, and second oldest child in a family of two girls and three boys.

His racing career was influenced by an early moment that produced a small safety measure for the sport. “I was five years old,” he remembers. “My Mom and Dad took me to a quarter midget racetrack at a large shopping mall in Southern California.

“A good friend’s son was racing there. So they asked my Mom if it was okay to put me in the car and just idle around in the pits. He would be standing on the rear axle. My Mom said okay.

“Quarter midgets start by pushing on the pedal. They are a live start and quick acceleration. Well! When they got me started he said, ‘Just give it a little gas.’

“I floored it and never lifted my foot off the pedal. I shot across the parking lot full throttle, in heavy traffic, on a Sunday. I hit the median curb and high-centered it still at full throttle until they ran over and shut me off.

“My Mom said she was horrified. She told me when I was older that she did not know how I weaved through traffic without getting hit. After that weekend they changed the rule nationally. No driving in the pits! It was kind of funny the way my Mom used to tell the story,” Jim says, laughing.

Crashes That Didn’t Kill

Then his face darkens. His mother died in 2012. “This will be the only record run that my mom will not be at,” he says. “She was always there to support me fully even though she hated me racing.”

Jim 'Jet' Neilson's jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring.
Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

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