Author Archives: Jeff C

Superheroes Run #4 for Child Advocates of Houston

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

“MRE Consulting presents the Child Advocates Superheroes Run, Powered by Direct Energy!”

(As always, I need to make very clear that the kids in these pictures are NOT the kids who are the beneficiaries of Child Advocates’ programs. These are some of the our young race participants who came out to support other kids not quite so lucky.)

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

The start line of the 1K portion of Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

The 4th Child Advocates Superheroes Run is in the record books. I’m proud to say it was bigger and better than ever! We had nearly 1,000 “runners” (using the term loosely in many cases) and raised over $120,000 for Child Advocates.

The costumes get better (and more plentiful) every year. Every superhero you’ve ever heard of and lots that you probably haven’t. And for reasons I can’t fully explain at a “Superheroes” event, there were cows and alligators and goldfish and beauty queens, too! That big orange Child Advocates arch was new this year. (It was donated, so the cost doesn’t come out of CAI operating or sponsor funds.)
Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

I’m proud to have been the Chairman of the event since its inception four years ago.  As I’ve said before, that means mostly that my generous friends get their arms twisted to donate.  A huge, special thanks to all the friends who let that happen.  I don’t actually get to run in the race, but this year I wore a GPS tracking watch, which told me I’d run/jog/walked 7.5 just running around and organizing all the activities!

Each year (2013, 2014, 2015), I’ve made a short pitch in this blog to explain why I think CAI is an especially worthwhile charity. Forgive me if you’ve heard some of this before:

    • CAI helps kids in our own hometown who are in desperate situations through no conceivable fault of their own.
    • CAI’s one-time intervention seeks to permanently and efficiently solve problems and affect the kids’ entire lives, without creating dependency or requiring permanent or ongoing assistance.
    • CAI’s cause is financially undersupported, largely because few potential large donors have close personal experience with, or risks of, this kind of extreme child neglect or abuse. There’s nothing wrong with donating to your own alma mater or church, or to charities addressing diseases that affect you or your family, but that can leave a huge gap for charities like Child Advocates. I think this is true philanthropy.

If you or anyone you know is willing to volunteer, donate, or become an advocate, let me know at jeff@jeffcotner.com.

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Shane Merz, partner in the Race’s founding and “Presenting” sponsor MRE Consulting, grabbed the megaphone and welcomed racers across the finish line.

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The first 3 pics on the second row were our fastest man, fastest woman, and fastest “kid” in the 5k.

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

 

Crown of Palaces: The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

 

If you get up early in Agra, skip the most popular viewpoints near the reflecting pools, and hurry around to the west side by the Yamuna River, you can find yourself mostly alone, watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, with the world’s most famously beautiful building seemingly all to yourself.

 

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Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble “Taj” in the 1600s as a mausoleum and memorial for his favorite wife (and mother of 14 of his kids).  A probably-apocryphal legend says Shah Jahan planned to build a similar black marble Taj directly across the river as his own eternal resting place. But it’s tough being a Mughal emperor, and one of his sons took over and sent Jahan to a far less glorious prison cell for his final days.  The Shah’s final tomb is wedged into the Taj beside his wife, the only thing asymmetrical in the whole place.

“Taj Mahal” means “crown of palaces,” reflecting Jahan’s intent to make it the fanciest place in the world. The signs say he spent around a billion inflation-adjusted U.S. dollars on it, and from the perspective of a visitor 400 years hence, that was a billion bucks well spent.

 

 

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The red out-building to the west — from which some of these pictures were taken — is still treated as a mosque (no shoes allowed), though the identical red building to the east is not.   If you put booties over your shoes, you can go up on the balconies of the Taj itself, which is a fine spot, but the best views are “of” the Taj, not “from” it. Unfortunately, there was some maintenance work going on when I was there – thus the scaffolding on the east side and on two of the minarets.

 

 

 

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I also visited the Agra Fort across town. It’s an interesting complex, but the only real photo opportunities there were its hazy views of the Taj Mahal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A final Agra amusement: I knew the days ahead in northern India would include more than a few nights in cold tents and without showers, so I’d decided to spring for an unusually nice room for the two nights in Agra, with a balcony that overlooked the Taj Mahal complex. The place must’ve been nearly full (or nearly empty?) because they instead upgraded me to a ridiculously lavish top-floor suite with two big balconies, seating for 18, and Taj views even from its glass shower and bath tub. A further amusement was that most of the hotel staff had no idea that I was in Suite 512 only through a flukish free upgrade, so they treated me like a Maharaja! They also let me know that Prince William and Kate Middleton had been in the same suite in April when they were in town.  Pictures of the hotel, and of or from my snazzy suite at the Oberois Amarvilas Agra:

 

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Hauling Ass In Leadville

A preliminary shout-out and photo credit to MIKE SHORT, photographer for all these pictures.  Also: For the record, I’ve limited myself to just one “ass” pun per paragraph.

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Me with Beethoven just after the start, in downtown Leadville, Colorado

You’ve probably heard the phrase about a “rented mule.” Well, my new buddy Beethoven was actually a rented burro (a.k.a. donkey; a.k.a. “ass”). They don’t allow any of those half-ass mules in the Leadville Boom Days Pack Burro Race.

 

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I was a rookie to the event, so I didn’t exactly get first pick of available teammates. The ass I got handed to me was named Beethoven. He was once a wild burro running free on federal land, and his track record as a racing burro wasn’t good: last place in Leadville a year ago; second-to-last in a similar event just week ago (each time in a field of a few dozen racers). His 2015 Leadville results got him the dubious Last Ass Over the Pass award, and resulted in a 2016 rule change limiting the time allowed. Pessimistic, I opted for the shorter course and steeled myself for a long day. Even the “short” course is 15 miles, and it climbs up to 12,000 feet elevation. It didn’t surprise me a bit that our assigned race number was 13.

 

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I’d done some homework – even a couple of hours of donkey-whisperer lessons from Bill Lee (the Santa Claus looking guy in one of the pictures). The trick to burro racing with an ass like Beethoven is to remember that donkeys are herd animals. Try to head off by yourself and things will go poorly. Group up with a handful of other burro teams going at a decent pace and you might – might – have some success.   So I put my ass on the line for a fast start, and tried to coax him into the thick of the action.

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The rules say you can lead, push, pull or even carry your burro – but he can’t carry you. As the pictures reflect, the humans run along on their own power. Sometimes you lead the burro from the front, sometimes you “drive” from behind, and sometimes you just find yourself in a tug-of-war battle-of-wills. I covered my ass (as the rules require) with a 33-pound packsaddle equipped with a shovel, pick and prospector’s pan as a fun tribute to the traditional roots of the sport and the Colorado mining region.

An amusing part of the rental agreement was that I would have to split any prize money with Beethoven’s owners. Unsurprisingly, that provision was of no relevance, but Beethoven and I actually did okay. The little ass only kicked me once; we had a prompt come-to-donkey-Jesus discussion about that and seemed to get along mostly fine for the rest of the day.  There was a lot of slow trudging, but occasionally I’d get my ass in gear and we’d run like a well-oiled machine. Brad Wann (Beethoven’s owner) has an email tagline that says that once you’ve tried burro racing, it’s “hard to walk away.” Several of the other racers I spoke to actually talked about being “hooked” on the sport. I guess it’s a little like golf – hours of frustration punctuated by a few brief moments when everything comes together perfectly.

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The race starts and ends in downtown Leadville, and loops up into the mountains east of town.  There were 30 human/burro teams at the start for the 15-mile short-course race, though a couple of them apparently never got past the first couple of blocks. Beethoven and I spent most of the day running and herding alongside a guy (in sandals) named Pat Sweeney and his burro Mr. Ziffer. (It turns out that Pat is sort of famous in the ultra trail running world).  After helping one another all day, we had a final, awkward “drag race” up Leadville’s main street, Harrison Avenue. Beethoven and I finished about # 16 out 30 teams.  Next year we’ll do better.

 

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The burros’ skittishness about the crowd and noise made for an awkward, slow-motion finish back in downtown Leadville.

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My mom and dad, Joyce and JB Cotner, with me after the race. I’m sure they’ve never been prouder.

South Dakota’s Spring Cattle Branding

NOTE to South Dakota Folks: CLICK HERE for full set of pics.

Late spring is “branding” season in South Dakota. A local rancher who caught a ride with us to one of the calf branding events called them “celebrations.” The cold winter is over and the year’s crop of calves are a couple of months old and in need of vaccines, brands, and more. The whole community works together almost daily, with all the local ranch families taking turns helping one another. It’s both hard, serious work and social event. Notice in the pictures how often people are smiling.

The fire, ropes, needles and knives look harsh to the uninitiated – and I surely wouldn’t want to be one of the calves. But the health of the cattle is a major purpose of the process. A veterinarian was on site at all times. Every one of the hundreds of calves I saw hopped up and scurried spryly back to its mom as soon as its short ordeal was done.

 

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South Dakota rancher, Tom Trask

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Emily Linn (right) takes a turn wrestling the front end of a calf during a branding on the Trask’s Spanish Five Ranch.

 

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Justin Namken, the sole non-family-member “hired hand” on the Spanish Five Ranch.

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            Here’s how the branding process works: The cattle – usually a few hundred pairs (mother and calf) at a time – have been gathered in advance into a single section of pasture. On the morning of the branding, the first hour or two is spent herding them all into a set of pens. Next, the cows are separated from the calves, generally by horsemen urging the adult cows one by one through a gate while a handful of sorters (on foot) push the calves in a different direction. Most of the attention will be on the calves, but the cows may also be sent through separate chutes to get vaccines or other treatments. Batches of 150 or so calves go into a medium sized roping pen adjacent to the branding area – which is set up at the edge of the big pasture.

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A minor glitch in the process of sorting moms from babies.

            Three or four mounted ropers go in and out of the calf pen, roping calves by their hind legs and then dragging them out one at a time. Pairs of “wrestlers” (mostly teenagers and younger men) take each calf. One grabs the roped rear legs; the other grabs the tail and shifts quickly to the head. With a swift and skillful yank, they flip the calf onto its side, hold it down legs splayed, and release the rope so the roper can go get another.

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            Now things really start to happen: people converge on the calf like a pit crew on an Indy car. Two give shots containing multiple vaccines. Others apply treatments for worms, flies and ticks. Another person walks up to crop an ear. If the calf is male, someone with a sharp knife deftly castrates it – an operation that takes about 20 seconds and produces surprisingly little blood. Preschool-aged kids follow the castrators, carrying the self-explanatory “nut buckets.” An antiseptic foam is sprayed on the incision site. Depending on the breed, the calf may be de-horned (by burning the budding nubs of horn using small irons similar to the branding irons). And of course, there’s the brand itself: just an old-fashioned piece of red-hot metal that burns the hair and scars the skin. Between calves, most of the crowd have a beer or two from the cooler – which is usually in a pickup bed next to the laden nut buckets.

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A “nut bucket.”

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Tom Trask owns around 20,000 acres next to the Cheyenne River east of Rapid City. He and his sons lease several thousand more, for a total of nearly 50 square miles of land. His brother Pat’s ranch is just to the north; his cousin Todd’s place is just to the south. Tom got much of his land from his dad, whose U.S. Army uniform is hung proudly in Tom’s home.

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Mark Trask (My apologies to his brother, Mick, and sister Tomilyn, for whom I failed to get good portraits).

 

If you imagine life on a rural ranch as serene or simple, you should spend a few days with the Trasks. The most striking aspect of my visit was the remarkable array of skills and knowledge required to run a huge ranch like this. They can do an emergency bovine C-section, battle weevils on their hay crop, raise bees to pollenate their alfalfa, train horses for roping, milk cows, build their own houses, weld broken tractor parts back together, recommend the perfect ammo for prairie dog eradication, and drive a pickup through a muddy field without getting stuck. It should tell you something that the one “hired hand” on Tom Trask’s cattle ranch has two college degrees: one in animal (livestock) science; the other in “range” (grazing land) science. They dig 75 million year-old fossils from the creek for extra money. They host paid deer hunts in the fall, and can butcher the venison onsite and do the taxidermy work to mount the trophy.

 

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Todd Trask

 

South Dakota winters are biting cold, the summers are scorching, and blistering spring winds don’t allow much relief in between. The work is hard and the hours are long. Around huge animals and farm machinery, the risks of accidents and injuries are a routine part of life. I overheard one conversation about which kind of tractor would be most easily operated by a young woman with a devastating farm injury that left her with very limited use of her legs. These folks are tough and resilient.

 

The county sheriff’s office is about an hour and a half away in Sturgis. As in other areas of their lives, the folks here view it as their responsibility to take care of themselves and of their own families, and they’re ready to do so. There are a lot of guns, and people know how to handle them. They say they have very little crime out here. {Note: They’re right.  South Dakota’s homicide rate ranks #44 among states; its gun ownership rate ranks #4.}

 

The folks here are hardworking, loyal, patriotic, and proud – and I think they’d consider those descriptions to be the highest of compliments. In the last few years, I’ve been on six continents and met fascinating people in exotic cultures, but the lives and lifestyles in a down-home and close-to-home place like South Dakota are every bit as interesting and in many ways probably far more relevant for other Americans to appreciate and understand. These folks will vote in the same elections and will have to live by most of the same laws as people from New York City and Washington D.C., and yet each group often has only a faint caricatured picture of one another’s worlds.

 

My dad and I were in South Dakota in late May and early June. The weather cycled between rainy, chilly, windy, and hot. We stayed in a modest small-town Best Western, and the local Subway and Dairy Queen were the best restaurants in town. Yet it was one of my favorite trips ever. Getting to know the Trasks was a real treat.

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A multigenerational “pit crew” descends on a calf (under there somewhere) as Rob Powell pulls the Spanish Five branding iron from the fire. That’s Mick Trask in the camo cap, holding down the head.

 

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Tyler Trask with an “it’ll do” roping result: this time catching just one leg.

 

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Calf roping is an equal-opportunity and co-ed endeavor. Kelly Anders seemed to be one of the best ropers in the county.

 

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Mick’s daughter, Annie.

 

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Lunch

 

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That’s my dad below (green hat) with Todd Trask.  He met Todd and Tom 20+ years ago when they were all hanging out together in the mountains of southern Colorado.  That’s me (orange vest) with my calf-wrestling buddy/instructor Matthew, who works up at Pat Trask’s ranch. (I didn’t catch the name of the photo-bomber).  Matthew taught me how NOT to get kicked in the face by a calf as you restrain its rear legs. It’s harder than you might think. Actually — restraining a 150-pound calf while it’s being castrated is probably exactly as difficult and awkward as it sounds.

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CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOUTH DAKOTA 2016 BRANDING WEEK IMAGES 

 

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The big sign in the “middle” of Elm Springs, South Dakota gives directions to all the community’s homes. (For example, 3E 1N means you drive three miles to the east, then 1 mile north).

Panama Canal

If you want to get a boat from the Pacific Ocean to the western Atlantic or Caribbean, you can brave the three-week trip around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America — or you can spend one sunny day in the Panama Canal. Big cargo ships pay $100,000 or more to get through; it cost me about 200 bucks.

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It’s easy to get turned around in Panama.   My Panama City hotel room window looked east onto the Pacific Ocean. A hundred miles due west of me was the Atlantic (Caribbean) coastline. The highway route to North America heads southwest out of the City, and the flight to the nearest major South American airport heads northeast to Cartagena, Colombia. If you travel the Panama Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (as I did), you go mostly north-northwest.

 

The history and identity of the region arises mostly from that tiny distance – as little as 40 miles — between its two coasts. Spanish control dates from the 1513 crossing by Spaniard Vasco Balboa, who became the first European to see the Pacific coast in the New World. In the early 1800s, the “Isthmus Department” was a part of Gran Colombia after Simon Bolivar led their collective split from Spain. By the turn of the 20th Century, Colombia was in civil war. Panama was able to declare its independence thanks to an agreement with the United States, which effectively created both the Panama Canal and Panama itself. The U.S. committed to provide military assistance and protection for an independent Panama, and Panama gave the U.S. the right to build and control the Canal – all “in perpetuity.”

 

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Big ships like this have only a foot or two of clearance on each side of the locks. Those train-like “mules” on the side walls pull and guide the ships through.

 

A French group had attempted a canal before, in the late 1800s. Their plan was a sea-level passage – a simpler design that wouldn’t need locks but which failed because it required way too much digging. Twenty-thousand people died in the French construction attempt.

 

J75_5578The U.S.-built canal has six pairs of locks – three up and three down — that raise boats to an elevation of 85 feet for most of the passage then lower them to the opposite ocean. The physics are driven by the good fortune of a major river (fed by seasonal tropical rainfall) in the middle of the isthmus. It’s dammed to make a huge lake, and water flows out in both directions – into both the Pacific and Atlantic – filling the locks along the way. The locks are in pairs to allow two-way traffic.

U.S. control of the Canal Zone lasted 65 years, from its completion in 1914 until 1979, when Jimmy Carter gave it (and the adjacent U.S. military bases) to Panama. From America’s perspective, the controversial (curious?) politics of that decision looked worse in hindsight: within a few years, Panama was a military dictatorship with drug-trafficking General Manuel Noriega running the country. By 1989, the U.S. had to send troops to oust Noriega, stabilize the country, and preserve the availability and integrity of the Canal.

 

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Today, Panama seems to be doing well, thanks in no small part to the revenues of the canal. As our boat guide said, if you come to Panama expecting a third-world country, you’ve come to the wrong place. The skyline of downtown Panama City looks like Miami Beach. Donald Trump has a big hotel and casino here. The main highways are in great shape, and I jogged one of the most impressive running paths (a two-mile bridge looping around Casco Antiguo) I’ve ever seen. This was not one of my off-the-beaten-path adventures.

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The Canal – aging though it is – is still considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  Its hundred-year-old gates swing dozens of times a day to connect the world’s two largest oceans.   A new, larger set of locks is under construction for the canal, but the effort seems to be half-complete and floundering in delays.

 

My own coast-to-coast passage was a bit on the touristy side – narrated in three languages, with lots of selfies, bad food, and Panama hats. We saw towering ships loom above us – some with 3,000+ cars inside, others carrying nearly 1,000 semi-truck-sized containers each, still others full of LPG and grain. The trip was long and slow: we shoved off early into Pacific saltwater and docked after sunset in a Caribbean harbor. I wouldn’t have missed it, but was glad I brought a book (and a hat, and sunscreen, and snacks).

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