To the person who stole my bike tire, I hope it takes you far in life

When I came home for lunch Wednesday, I noticed that the rear tire of my mountain bike was missing. The bike was locked to a rack outside my apartment, and I assumed the thief incorrectly thought that taking off the rear tire would free the rest of bike.

I’ve experienced worse thefts. In college, my car was broken into, and hundreds of CDs, expensive speakers and a CD player were stolen. Several years later, I made the mistake of leaving my work laptop in the backseat of my car overnight. An opportunistic passer-by armed with a brick shattered one of the rear windows and took the laptop, once again leaving me with a broken window to fix.

Those crimes I can somewhat understand. Used CDs, speakers, a laptop — all are easy to sell for some quick cash. But a used tire from a dirty mountain bike?

I went to the shop where I bought my bike to get an estimate for replacing the tire. Bummer man, was their response, in a nutshell. A new tire will set me back $150, and that’s if they don’t find anything else that’s broken.

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At least they left the front tire.


Reporting the theft to the cops seemed like a waste of a time, but a contact of mine who works in law enforcement advised me to do it anyway, on the off chance my tire turns up somewhere.
I called dispatch, and within 10 minutes an officer called to get my information. He took my name, number, address and asked what happened. No, I didn’t see it happen. No, I don’t have any idea who did it.

He didn’t ask for a description of the tire (it has a lime green stripe that makes it stand out), which seemed odd since there are a lot of mountain bikes in the Black Hills.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll get called down to the police department one afternoon and they’ll roll in a bunch of tires confiscated from the streets. “Not it. Not it. Hmmm, maybe … Can you roll it closer, so I can see it under the light?”

So, to the person who stole my tire, enjoy it man. It probably needs some air so tread lightly, especially if you’re using it to build a unicycle. Those probably went out of style in 1916, but vinyl is cool again so you never know.

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How Donald Trump made my vacation spot an international story

As the results came in on election night and it became increasingly likely that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States, a few friends who knew I was out of the country jokingly asked whether I was coming back.

I was in Taiwan, a place that — unlike the Chinese mainland — had received little if any attention during the 2016 race. What a difference a few weeks make.

Last week Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke on the phone, breaking four decades of diplomatic protocol and setting off a firestorm with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, and since then no U.S. president has spoken directly to his Taiwanese counterpart.

Policy experts and China watchers are still debating whether Trump was unaware the call could cause a crisis or did it intentionally, as a way of sending a message to Beijing that the U.S. president can talk to any world leader, whenever he wants.

With U.S.-Taiwan relations in the spotlight, I thought I’d share something I picked up as a souvenir. The day after the election, I bought a couple of local newspapers in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to see how they covered the election.

The Apple Daily, the second-largest paper in Tawain, published a special section on the results, in addition to several more pages on Clinton, the protests that followed, and a racy image from Melania Trump’s modeling days.

Taipei 101: A skyscraper with style

Taipei 101. To those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, it might sound like a stiff drink served at an Asian bar. But, for a five-year period from the time it opened in 2004 to the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2009, it was the tallest building in the world.

With a design that pays homage to Chinese traditions, Taipei 101 is one of the more impressive skyscrapers I’ve seen. Its repeated segments are said to invoke a large stalk of bamboo, the plant of choice for China’s beloved Giant Pandas.

There are eight segments in the main tower, each with eight floors. This was, of course, by design as the number eight in Chinese culture is associated with good fortune and abundance.

This design is best observed from a few blocks away; or at night, when the skyscraper lights up the skies of Taiwan’s largest city.

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Taipei 101, as seen from street level.

When Taipei 101 opened in 2004, it was the tallest building in the world.

The view from an indoor observation deck on the 88th and 89th floors provides a different perspective: a 360-degree view of the city.

After paying a US$19 admission fee, I entered a crowded elevator on the fifth floor that takes visitors to the observation deck. My ears popped as we shot hundreds of feet up the tower, arriving at our destination in what seemed like only a few seconds.

The deck is enclosed, but that didn’t stop me from getting weak in the knees when I pressed my face up against the glass, the only thing separating me and the hordes of selfie-seeking tourists from imminent death.

The view from the observation deck on the 88th floor.


After snapping several photos and checking out the gift store for mementos to bring home, I got in line for the elevator that takes visitors back down to the fifth floor. It was several hundred people deep and — still jet lagged from the travel — I was in no mood to wait.

Forty-five minutes later, I was finally back at ground level, glad I had made the trip but in the mood for a different kind of Taipei 101 — the alcoholic version.

As Mount Rushmore turns 75, Crazy Horse memorial still far from complete

One of the world’s most recognizable stone monuments is practically in my backyard. Twenty-three miles southeast of Rapid City lies Mount Rushmore, a national memorial to four of the nation’s presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

They are arguably four of the country’s most important presidents. Washington led the successful war effort against the British that gave the United States independence and later served as the nation’s first president. Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and advocated for religious freedom and tolerance. Lincoln guided the Union through some of its darkest and bloodiest days during the Civil War, when the country’s north and south states were anything but united. Roosevelt’s greatest legacy may be the efforts he undertook to protect wildlife and public lands by establishing the United States Forest Service.

These men laid the foundation for the prosperity Americans enjoy today. But for the Native people of this land, that prosperity meant an end to their way of life. Their territory became smaller and smaller, until they were forced to live on reservations established by the government through treaties that were often unfair. The American bison, which many tribes depended on for food, tools and shelter, was nearly hunted to extinction.

There was resistance among Indian nations to U.S. military efforts to expand westward, but as the soldiers’ firearms became more accurate and lethal the battles became more one-sided.

One of those resistors was an Oglala Sioux Chief, Crazy Horse, who defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry in June 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. More than 250 members of the Seventh Calvary were killed in the battle, including Custer.

Following the battle, the military hunted down Crazy Horse, and less than a year later he surrended in Nebraska and was taken to Fort Robinson, where he died after being stabbed during a scuffle with soldiers.

Today, Crazy Horse is memorialized on a stone mountain, just 16 miles west of Mount Rushmore. While the memorial to the presidents was carved in just 14 years, the Crazy Horse memorial, started in 1947, remains a work in progress.

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Korczak Ziolkowski began working on the Crazy Horse Memorial in 1947.

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The head alone is 87-feet tall.

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Once it’s finished, the memorial will become the largest sculpture in the world.

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Signs near the memorial warn visitors to listen for blasting signals. 

His face is complete, but Crazy Horse’s arm (263 feet wide) and his horse’s head (219 feet tall) have yet to take shape. White paint on the mountainside outlines the spots where construction crews will blast away rock to carve the horse’s head.

Perhaps the main reason the project has taken so long is, unlike Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial has received no federal funding and instead relies on donations and revenue from admissions.

I was able to get an up-close look at the memorial last weekend during the biannual Volksmarch, a spring/fall hike that takes visitors more than 6,000 feet above sea level to Crazy Horse’s 87-foot-tall head. It’s one of only two times a year that the public is allowed to hike up to the head.

When viewed from a few feet away, its size is staggering. The chin alone is the size of a basketball goal.

Once it’s finished, the memorial will become the largest sculpture in the world, taller than the presidents’ faces at Mount Rushmore.

But the timetable for completion remains unclear.

Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the sculpture, died in 1982. His wife, Ruth Carolyn Ziolkowski, took over management of construction efforts. Under her watch the memorial became one of the top tourist draws in South Dakota, attracting more than 1 million visitors a year.

Ruth died in 2014, and today her grandchildren and children continue the work that her husband started almost 70 years ago.

In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Heidi Ziolkowski, one of the couple’s two dozen grandchildren, said she wonders whether she’ll live long enough to see the project finished.

The final work on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was completed on Oct. 31, 1941, and throughout this year there have been several events to celerate its 75th anniversary.

If you believe Heidi Ziolkowski, who was 24 at the time she was interviewed, it could be half a century or more before the Crazy Horse Memorial celebrates its first.

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.

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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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