The Death of Common Sense 

“Aw, look at that 2,000-pound bison. I just want to pinch its foot-long horns and rest my head against its bone-crushing hooves.”

Said no one ever … until recently.

A few visitors to Custer State Park in South Dakota this summer have been injured by the animals after getting too close to them. The tally is four injured, including one person who tried to pet a bison on the head (maybe, under the right lighting, they really do look like they’re just dying to be cuddled).

These are the first such incidents in five years at Custer State Park, which is home to around 1,300 bison. 

“The safest place to watch them is from your car,” a park employee told the Rapid City Journal in July.

That should be obvious, but we live in a time when motorists drive off demolished bridges and plunge to their deaths because Google Maps says to go straight; when hikers, in pursuit of a selfie that’ll rack up likers on Instagram, pose at the edge of cliff and fall off; and when teens walk into oncoming traffic because they’re chasing imaginary Nintendo characters on their cellphones.

That said, it’s not a stretch to assume that some visitors to Custer State Park aren’t paying attention to the signs that read: BUFFALO CAN BE DANGEROUS. DO NOT APPROACH.

The park employee, being polite, said an uptick in visitors could be to blame. 

I beg to differ and cite a different reason: Common sense, like the American bison in the 1800s, could be on the brink of extinction.  

Jim Nesbitt was more than just my namesake

My uncle and namesake, Jim Nesbitt, died suddenly Wednesday while grocery shopping in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He lived out his final years there making friends and making impressions on people that would last a lifetime. He was in his late 60s and had a multitude of health problems, so hearing that he had died was not a shock. But, coming to terms with the fact that someone who was so intimately familiar with my personal failures and triumphs is no longer around, is incredibly difficult to accept.

From the summer of 2010 to April last year, I lived in Beijing, China, working for an English-language newspaper. During that time, Jim and I would talk once or twice a year on Skype. After I moved back to the States, our conversations became a weekly affair. We’d talk basketball, politics, complain about relatives; they were always free-flowing conversations, but the common denominator in every chat was, at the end of every conversation, he’d tell me, “I love you and will talk to you soon.”

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Jim and I in Santa Fe, N.M. in 2013.

My first memory of Jim is visiting him in Columbia, Maryland, with my family when I was around 8 or 9. We were watching a movie — Crocodile Dundee, I think — and I stepped out to use the restroom. Jim and his wife at the time, Marcia, had a stack of magazines near the toilet and while flipping through them I found a Playboy. I lost track of time, but apparently spent quite a while in the bathroom. When I returned to the living room, Jim asked me why I had been gone so long and said something like, “You found my Playboys, right?”

Jim loved women, and women loved him. He was the kind of guy who could steal your girlfriend, but charm you to the point where you’d still like him. On Thanksgiving Day in 2007, Jim got sick while on the way to Lexington, Kentucky, for a family get-together and nearly died. I went to visit him in the hospital and he looked horrible. He was pale, and the doctors had taken off his clothes so they could insert tubes and wires in his body.

I immediately began crying when I saw him. Jim, who couldn’t speak because a tube had been inserted in his trachea, pointed to an attractive nurse in the room, looked at me and then nodded his head.

In case I was having trouble understanding him, he pointed to the nurse again and made a humping motion. Here’s a guy on his deathbed, still thinking with his penis instead of his brain.

Relatives have told me that Jim could be incredibly difficult to deal with, and I believe it. He fought in Vietnam and according to my grandmother (his mom), he was never the same after the war. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and only became sober after my father, his baby brother, died in 1989 at the age of 34. Jim was married several times, but never had any children.

Oftentimes, he would say I was like a son, which in reality was accurate. I only had 10 years with my dad; Jim and I got almost 37 years. He never criticized me, but was always honest when I asked for advice or how to handle a problem. According to friends and family, he always bragged about me and my accomplishments as a journalist.

To lose that kind of support is devastating; there is no replacing it. But I’m going to choose laughter and good memories over crying and being sad. Jim and I talked about death many times, and he always said that he didn’t want a typical funeral when he died. “Fuck that shit. I want to have a party,” he would say.

I’m glad his last moments were in public, because Jim loved to be around other people. I imagine him telling a joke to a stranger, checking out the woman in front of him or thinking about a friend in need.

Jim, who wasn’t into organized religion but was very spiritual, told me several times that if he ever saw my Dad again, the first thing he would do is punch him in the face. My father died of an abdominal aneurysm, but was an alcoholic and that addiction undoubtedly contributed to his death.

If there’s life after death, I have no doubt Jim already hit Dad in the face, and then helped him up and gave him a hug.

The ‘crown jewel’ of Custer State Park

One of the first places I was told to visit after moving to Rapid City was Sylvan Lake.

It took a few months, but I finally made it there over the weekend. This majestic body of water, located high in the Black Hills and about 45 miles southwest of Rapid City, is considered the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park.

It’s easy to see why: I had planned on jogging the one-mile loop trail that takes you around the lake, but instead walked at a leisurely pace to admire the tall rock formations that sit at the edge of the water.

A word of wisdom to first-time visitors: Bring a hat or wear sunscreen. The lake sits at an elevation of 6,145 feet and the sun is intense, even in the cooler months of the year.

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A devil of a hike

“How much farther do we have to go?” a young boy asked, as he passed me with his family while I descended from Little Devils Tower, elevation 6,908 feet.

“Is it like 35 feet?”

“Thirty-five plus a couple of zeros,” I responded.

His dad chucked, but the kid didn’t get my joke. “You still have a ways to go,” I told him.

Perhaps it was the elevation. Perhaps my lungs are still recovering from five years in Beijing, which at times felt like living in a smoking lounge. Perhaps I’m just out of shape.

The Black Hills, in southwestern South Dakota, is full of beautiful rock formations.

The trail to Little Devils Towers is around 3 miles out and back.

People come from all over the world to rock climb in the Black Hills.

Whatever the reason, I had to stop several times to catch my breath along the winding and rocky path to the summit of Little Devils Tower, one of the highest peaks in the Black Hills. The occasional breaks allowed me to take in the magnificent giant rock formations, which jut into the sky from the mountaintop.

The name of the place, Little Devils Tower, is misleading because there’s really nothing little about it. At nearly 7,000 feet, it’s one of the highest points in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

On a clear day, it is said you can see more than 100 miles out onto the horizon from the highest peaks in the Black Hills.

Little Devils Tower is located in Custer State State Park.

The skies were mostly clear when I visited. From the summit, you can see the spot where the hilly terrain ends and the high plains begin.

The last leg of the journey to the top is the most difficult. The dirt trail gives way to rocks and boulders, and I had to pause a few times to figure out the best way to climb over them safely. A series of blue markers posted on tree trunks and rocks help you stay on the path, but it’s easy to get sidetracked if you’re not paying attention.

A view from the summit, elevation nearly 7,000 feet.

From the trailhead, I was able to reach the summit within a couple of hours. It’s an easy hike to finish in an afternoon, unless, of course, you’ve got a kid in tow who asks “Are we there yet?” every 35 feet.

Amid the Black Hills, I can’t see Beijing’s ills, and yet … 

On a cold January morning in 2013, I woke up to a city drowning in smog. Outside the window of my ninth floor apartment in Beijing, a gray haze had reduced visibility to a few hundred yards. The air, even indoors, smelled of sulphur and tasted metallic.

Air quality readings recorded from a device atop the U.S. embassy were “beyond index,” literally off the charts used to measure the level of particulate matter in the air.

The view from my apartment on a

The view from my apartment window on a “crazy bad” air pollution day.

“Pollution is hazardous at these levels,” the embassy said. “Everyone should take steps to reduce their exposure when particle pollution levels are in this range.”

And yet, despite conditions that some jokingly referred to as an “airpocalypse,” life in China’s capital city continued. Workers commuted to their offices, students walked to class and cars filled the streets during rush hour.

At night, the air pollution, illuminated by street and car lights, resembled a thick fog.

At night, the Beijing air pollution, illuminated by street and car lights, resembled a thick fog.


I took to Twitter to complain about the hazardous air, and a short time later a reporter from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong contacted me. He was working on a story about expats who were thinking about leaving the city because of chronic air pollution.

Are you considering leaving? he asked.

I told him that I had suffered from more respiratory illnesses in three years in Beijing than I had in 30 in the U.S., and while I wasn’t ready to leave, I might consider it if my health problems persisted.

In late April, after nearly five years in Beijing, that day finally came. I left China to take a job with a newspaper in Rapid City, South Dakota, which — in almost every measurable way — was the polar opposite of Beijing. It had endless blue skies, was sparsely populated and largely untouched by human development.

Dinosaur Park, overlooking Rapid City.

Dinosaur Park, overlooking Rapid City, shows a wide expanse of clear, blue skies.

Flume Trail in the Black Hills National Forrest.

Flume Trail in the Black Hills National Forrest, outside Rapid City.

Large areas of South Dakota are sparsely populated and full of wide open spaces.

Large areas of South Dakota are sparsely populated and full of wide, open spaces.

A stormfront moves in near Rapid City.

A storm front moves in near Rapid City.

The crisp mountain air in Rapid City, situated 3,250 feet above sea level, and its unfettered views tens of miles out into the great plains are jolting to my senses after years in Beijing. Not a morning goes by that I don’t wake up and appreciate the pristine environment around me.

Yet, there are elements of Beijing and China that I will always miss. The variety of food, from the numbingly hot peppers of Sichuan to the juicy, tender lamb chuanr (barbecue) cooked by migrants from Xinjiang province. The close friends I made from different parts of the world. The way strangers warmed up when they discovered I could speak Chinese.

Living in China also gave me a new perspective on what is truly “historical.” For example, my new home state, South Dakota, became a part of the Union in 1889. At that time in China, the nation’s last dynasty, the Qing, was about to enter its final three decades, after ruling the country since 1644.

China’s power has ebbed and flowed over time, through the rise and fall of dynasties, battles among warring Chinese states, and attacks and occupations by foreign forces. The China of 2015 is a global power, and it can be argued that like the British empire of the 19th century, the sun never sets on its current sphere of economic influence.

Despite that, droves of Chinese with the means to leave their homeland are making investments in other countries, allowing them to establish residency and send their children to foreign universities. Some of these transplants, according to media reports, are motivated by a yearning to live in a cleaner environment.

Comedian Bill Maher, speaking about the state of the global environment during a recent episode of his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” said: “It blows my mind the human propensity to just adapt. I see people wearing the masks in Beijing and New Delhi.

“Really? You wouldn’t want to take more fundamental steps to cure the problem?”

Since I left China in April, I’ve been keeping up with my friends’ lives in Beijing through WeChat, the country’s most popular mobile-messaging app. Lately, pollution levels have been low, and many of them have been posting pictures of the clear skies.

“蓝天白云!” (Blue sky, white clouds!)

“最美是北京!”   (Beijing is the most beautiful!)

Reading through their posts, you’d get the impression that a blue sky day was something that called for a celebration. The human propensity to just adapt blows my mind too.

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Trees in bloom at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park.

Spring is a popular time for photo shoots at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park in Beijing. The trees are in full bloom, and when the wind blows, white and pink petals float down on the heads of passers-by. On blue sky days, engaged couples flock to the park in their suits and white gowns to have their pictures taken.

I passed this young woman on a recent afternoon, dressed in a traditionally inspired red gown for a photo shoot. Walking in that dress without any help has to be difficult.

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Postcards from Chengdu 

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known for its spicy food.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known throughout the world for its spicy food.

Chengdu is well know for its street food. Here, a vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist site.

A vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist area.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year.  2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year. 2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

Vendors from western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

Vendors from western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

The city at night. With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

The panda is the national animal of China, and there’s no shortage of shops in Chengdu selling stuffed toys, T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring the animal.

Let’s (hopefully) get it on!

It’s a chilly weekday afternoon at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Base, but a huge crowd is gathered around a large enclosure to get a closer look at China’s national animal. There are signs posted throughout the base asking visitors to be quiet around the creatures, yet the throngs of children perched atop their parents’ shoulders are repeatedly shouting “xiong mao,” the Chinese word for panda.

Pandaheads watching the real thing.

The animals seem to be playing to the crowd as they chomp on bamboo shoots. They crack the long sticks with their mouths, as if they were toothpicks, while onlookers record their every bite with camera phones. Visitors are packed so tightly around the enclosure that a security officer stands on a chair and yells for everyone to move along. It’s not exactly an intimate environment for an animal that has so much trouble getting, well, intimate.

Must … keep … eating … bamboo.

There are many factors that make it difficult for pandas to breed, not the least of which is that females are only fertile for 24 to 36 hours every year. For male pandas averse to responsibility, it’s a dream come true. But for advocates of the endangered animal who want to ensure its survival, it’s a major roadblock to growing their numbers. There are an estimated 1,600 pandas in the wild, all found in China. The Chengdu breeding base was established in 1987 to further the Chengdu Zoo’s conservation efforts. The base is a huge, beautiful facility; even the “quick” tour suggested on a sign near the entrance takes a couple of hours. I went in the afternoon, when most of the pandas were sleeping — they’re most active in the morning. There are images and symbols of the animal at every turn: panda paw prints guide you from one exhibition to the next; stuffed pandas hang from trees smiling down at you; even in the bathroom, there’s a picture at the urinal of a panda giving a thumbs up and asking guests to “Please Aim Carefully.”

Good advice, panda.

Here, there’s no such thing as overkill when it comes to promoting the endangered species. And, when it comes to motivating the animals to get busy, there’s no method that’s too bizarre. In 2006, officials at a zoo in Thailand prepared a DVD of pandas having intercourse to show Chuang Chuang and Lin Hu, a couple that was having difficulty mating, in hopes that it would get the animals in the mood. In another case, a male panda named “Strong Strong” was given a dose of the male enhancement drug Viagra. Sadly, the BBC reported, he “did not live up to his name.” In the animal kingdom, sometimes it’s “Survival of the Horniest” — not the fittest — that determines the fate of a species.

China’s block party

One day last year, during a bout of homesickness, I tried to log onto kentucky.com to catch up on news from my home state in the U.S. Kentucky.com is the website for one of the state’s flagship papers, the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The page wouldn’t load. I assumed it was a connection error, so I checked my modem and refreshed the page. Still, it wouldn’t load. I knew that websites like Facebook, Twitter and Google were blocked in China, but the Lexington Herald-Leader? What does the Chinese government have against bourbon and college basketball?

I emailed a friend who works at the Herald-Leader, which is owned by The McClatchy Company, and he said it was possible that all of the company’s newspaper websites were blocked. The Herald-Leader had also recently published a story on the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government considers to be a violent separatist, after he visited the state, so that could be the reason, he added.

To access the newspaper’s website, I had to use a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows Internet users in China to get around the “Great Firewall.” VPNs are illegal in China but have largely been tolerated until recently, when government interference made them harder to use.

A senior official with China’s Ministry of Information and Technology told local media last week that the crackdown on VPNs was a move to foster the “healthy development” of the country’s Internet.

If the last few years are any judge, “healthy development” means more censorship. Among the major news sites that have been blocked are the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (both published stories on the wealth of Communist party members and their families before the plug was pulled).

Instagram joined the long listed of social media sites banned on the mainland after the protests  in Hong Kong last fall. Google, which has long been at odds with the Chinese government, is no longer accessible, and Internet users can’t log into its email service, Gmail, without a VPN.

The ramped up censorship comes at a time when nearly 700,000 Chinese are studying abroad. Most (30 percent) attend college in the U.S., where they inevitably use Facebook to build their social networks and Google to research for coursework. It’s conceivable that, in a few years, these internationally savvy students will return home and connect to a Chinese Internet that is more closed off to the world than the one they left.

Despite the uptick in online censorship, not every website that gets the ax goes dark forever. The popular movie site IMDB (Internet Movie Database), which was blocked in 2010 after its homepage featured a preview of a documentary about the Free Tibet movement, was unblocked in 2013.

Earlier this week, while using the Internet without a VPN, I discovered another site that had been unblocked: kentucky.com.

I guess the Chinese government likes bourbon and college basketball after all.

Postcards from Panglao Island

The resort I stayed at, Amorita, has a beautiful infinity pool overlooking Bohol Sea.

Bohol province is one of the Philippines’ top tourist destinations. The resort I stayed at during my visit, Amorita, is located on Panglao Island and has an infinity pool overlooking Bohol Sea.

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The peak tourism season in Bohol is from March to May.

Fishing is one of the top industries in Bohol province.

Fishing is one of the main industries in the province.

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Alona Beach has become very commercialized and is full of restaurants and bars.

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On a clear day, you can see Cebu province off in the horizon. Traveling by ferry from Bohol to Cebu takes about two hours.