Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Guns, Germs, and Machetes

In the latest installment of Lynn Downey's adventuring in Panama we get to see the Indiana Jones side of her job complete with monkeys and machetes. Read on.

She has written the below for the media, employees of Levi Strauss & Co., and this blog.

"Trains, Boats and Trails: The Final Day"

When we last left Levi Strauss (and me) in Panama, he had taken the railroad partway across the isthmus, and floated for a few hours on the Chagres River. His next stop was probably the town of Gorgona and an uncomfortable trip on the only transport available for the final part of his trip: a mule.

There were two trailheads to get to Panama City from the interior: via Gorgona or Venta de Cruces. The decision on which trail to take depended on the weather. In the dry season (January to April) the Gorgona Trail was quicker, since you didn't have to stay on the river another few hours to get to Cruces. Because he arrived on the isthmus in February, it's likely Levi traveled from Gorgona, probably spending the night in town.

The next morning he had a choice: either walk to Panama City or ride a mule. I expect (and hope) that Levi could afford to rent a mule for this last part of the trip. Firms such as Hurtado y Hermanos kept stables full of the sturdy animals on hand for travelers, and once on his way it probably took him an entire day to get to the Pacific, where he caught a steamship for San Francisco.

When Gatun Lake was created by the construction of the Panama Canal, Gorgona and its trail were inundated. But the ruins of Venta de Cruces and its road still survive. My goal for this historical vacation was to experience every aspect of Levi's journey, so on the final day Hernán and I got into an Ancon Expeditions boat and zoomed across the lake to the beachhead of the Cruces Trail.

The trail is well-maintained, and the river rocks used by slaves to pave the road for the Spanish in the 16th century still littered the ground. We walked about a quarter mile to the ruins of the church of Venta Cruces, and Hernán showed me where the altar and side entrances used to be. We trekked a bit further and the road suddenly narrowed to only about twelve inches across. It reminded me of Hubert H. Bancroft's 1852 trip on the Gorgona trail: "Often we passed through ravines which had been washed out by the rain, and so narrow at the bottom that on entering at either end persons must shout in order to notify others wishing to come from the opposite direction."

As we got back into the boat I asked Hernán where the village of Gorgona used to be. We putted to another part of the lake near a tree-covered peninsula jutting into a small bay. "Most of it is underneath us," he said. Then he and the boatman Jacobo suddenly had a rapid conversation in Spanish. Hernán pointed to the nearby finger of land and said, "Jacobo has friends who've seen some old structures in there."

Well, of course we had to check that out, so Jacobo drove the boat deep into a narrow tributary, where the trees grew tall and forbidding, right down to the water line. We found a small spit of land and beached the boat, jumping off the bow and splashing into ankle-high water. Both men had machetes, and before leaving the boat Hernán slipped a 10mm pistol into his pocket.

I followed them at a cautious distance as they hacked away at the thick foliage. We walked uphill, grabbing at branches and exposed roots for balance, and I kept getting entwined in sharp vines that wouldn’t yield to a machete. The men were out of my sight for awhile, and then I heard an excited yell. I climbed faster and came upon Hernán pointing to a thirty-inch square rock and stone pillar, covered with dead leaves. There were at least six more in the same area and looked like the foundations of buildings or perhaps a bridge.

Had we found the last remains of the village of Gorgona?

The three of us wandered awestruck around the site for a long time. We couldn't get close to some of the pillars because the jungle growth was too thick, but that didn't lessen our excitement. I then noticed that I had a cut on the back of my ankle and a very bloody cut on my right index finger, which was drawing some interested insect life. But neither seemed serious, so we kept on exploring, and soon found a tiny brick arch set over what looked like a dry creekbed. Was it part of a sewer tunnel? A walkway over a rushing stream? We chatted about what we'd found as we walked back to the boat, and Hernan said he would talk to his cartographer/historian father about the site. Jacobo treated and bandaged my finger, I slapped some hand sanitizer on my ankle and we set off.

We sped across the lake for a a few minutes and the boat pulled up to another small island, where huge trees dipped over the water. Hernán and Jacobo pulled out bags of peanuts and cut-up bananas and started whistling. Within seconds the trees came alive with a family of white-faced Capuchin monkeys, who stood on the branches with their paws stretched out waiting for us to throw them some food. When that didn’t happen fast enough they leapt onto the boat, crawling along the edge or climbing onto the awning, running toward Jacobo for bananas, and also taking peanuts from my hands.

Lunch on yet another island, at a table under a thatched overhang, was next on the agenda (though Hernan had to shoo away a large flock of black vultures first). We ended the day at the Miraflores Locks visitor’s center on the Panama Canal, and I went back to the hotel to pack for my journey home.

I traveled to Panama to understand what it must have been like for Levi to make this tropical passage. I went to the same places he did, but I had to use my imagination to grasp what the experience itself was like. I spent my evenings in comfortable, clean hotels, ate delicious meals and rode from place to place in air-conditioned vans or on breezy speedboats, with insect repellant and sunscreen at my disposal. Levi was at the mercy of heat, bugs, bad water and food, and real personal danger, and I could never recreate that.

But being able to put my feet on the ground that he walked, to see the scenery and wildlife that he encountered, even just to smell the same scented air, has been the thrill of a lifetime.

By Lynn Downey

Text by Lynn Downey
Photos by Lynn Downey

Lynn Downey Website

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Day Two

Lynn Downey sends us the following report from Panama. She has written it for the media, employees of Levi Strauss & Co., and this blog.

"Trains, Boats and Trails: Day 2"

After Levi got off the railroad about midway across the isthmus (as described in Day One), he joined his fellow passengers on a ride down the Chagres River. The Chagres was the lifeblood of historic Panama, for everyone from the indigenous Cueva people to the gold rushers of the 1840s and 1850s.

Until the Panama Railroad began running in 1851, Americans traveling to California via the isthmus had to take a multi-day river journey in small canoes. They stopped for the night at hotels which were sometimes nothing more than bug-infested canvas shacks, and during the day they sweltered in the sun or got soaked by drenching tropical rainstorms. After that was endured there was still a long walk or mule ride ahead of them. But surprisingly, many letters and diaries of isthmus travelers expressed wonder at the beauty of the river voyage and not its horrors.

Joseph Gregory, who published Gregory’s Guide for California Travellers via the Isthmus of Panama in 1850, said of his trip on the Chagres, "I received the greatest pleasure and never beheld more magnificent scenery, or luxuriant vegetation, than I witnessed while upon this river." Hubert H. Bancroft wrote of his 1852 river voyage: “Palm trees of various descriptions line the banks, and gorgeous water lilies dip their fragrant heads as the boat passes over them. Every shower of rain is like the sprinkling of perfume on the vegetation.”

On Day Two of my Panama adventure, I also got to experience the beauty of the Chagres. Early in the morning my guide Hernán and I drove into Chagres National Park outside of Panama City. There, we got into 15-foot long dugout canoes, made by the Embera people, who use them to take tourists up the river to their villages. The boats are long and narrow, with wooden slats for seats. There’s a man at each end; the one in the front has a very long pole, and the one at the back is in charge of something that would have made Levi’s trip a lot easier: an outboard motor.

Levi traveled in a flat-bottomed canoe called a "bungo," rather than the long dugout, maneuvered by native people who used long poles to push the boat along the riverbed. In February, when Levi crossed the isthmus, it was the dry season, so the river was sometimes quite low, making the transit into a crawl. It’s still the dry season in March, and we hit a few shallow spots ourselves, scraping the rocks and almost coming to a stop. When that happened the man in the front of the boat signaled to his partner in the back to cut the motor and he dug his pole into the river bottom, pushing our canoe along until we were free. It took about a half hour to get to the Embera Drua village, which we toured, and then we returned to the starting point the same way.

I thought a lot about Levi as we alternately zoomed or inched through the water. Although I was on a different part of the Chagres than Levi was, Hernán assured me that the scenery would have been the same, a wondrous green landscape which varied in color from emerald to palest jade. We saw fish of varying sizes in the clear water, and overhead flew egrets, herons and Amazon kingfishers. I could have stayed on that river all day.

Next on the agenda was a viewing of Hernán’s personal collection of historic maps of Panama. He is the son of Amado Araúz, a legendary explorer and cartographer, and Reina Torres de Araúz, Panama’s most revered anthropologist, and comes by his love of history naturally. A former diplomat, he is a naturalist and a historian, and was the perfect guide for my trip. He’s currently writing a book about maps of Panama which were published between the 16th and 19th centuries, and has been visiting archives and libraries all over the world.

Our final stop was the National Library of Panama, where the librarian, Nitzia Barrantes, let me view original issues of the Panama Herald. This was an English-language newspaper published for Americans and others making the trip across the isthmus to get to California. It had ads for hotels, bars, restaurants, and the latest news from the United States and Europe. It also – most importantly – advertised when the next steamers were headed to San Francisco.

As I wrote in my first article, Levi was able to travel by railroad about twenty-three miles inland before transferring himself and his baggage to boats on the Chagres River. From Barbacoas, where he got off the train, his boat went upriver to the town of Gorgona, a trip which probably took about four hours. He likely spent the night in Gorgona, to rest up for the final leg of his journey; or I should say, the final four legs of his journey. Details in the final installment.

By Lynn Downey

Text by Lynn Downey
Photos by Lynn Downey

Lynn Downey Website

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Panama Day 1

After a full day of trekking and exploring Lynn Downey sits at her desk at the Panama House to recount her travels thus far.

But not before I bombarded her with eager questions. I intentionally did not pose the question I most wanted to ask until she had experienced her first day in Panama: What do you truly wish to discover on this trip?

Lynn Downey responds: “I’ve done all I can intellectually to understand Levi’s life by doing research in historical records. But what I want to do is come as close as possible to experience what his journey across the isthmus was like.

For me, history is a sense: a scent, something tangible to hold in my hand or to touch. I want to smell the air and the plant life, touch the water, rumble and rattle in the train and walk a jungle trail so that I can write more powerfully about what it must have been like for him.

He turned 24 years old on the trip to San Francisco. He had lived for 18 years in a tiny town in Bavaria and almost 6 years on the Lower East Side of New York. What must it have been like to see the tropics?”

She shares the below report with this blog, Levi Strauss & Co. employees, and other media.

"Trains, Boats and Trails: Day 1"

On this first day in Panama I did something Levi could never have dreamed of: I crossed the isthmus twice in one day.

My tour guide, Hernán Arauz, picked me up at my hotel in the historic quarter of Panama City and we spent most of the day driving through jungles and tiny towns to get to the Caribbean side of the isthmus. We saw an amazing variety of wildlife along the way: a tree sloth, howler monkeys, and a black and white anteater, which walked across the road right in front of our car and looked like a skunk with a really long nose.

[Photo: A howler monkey in the trees]

We then visited fort San Lorenzo and the town of Portobelo, built by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they were trying not to lose their treasure ships to pirates – a must for any Johnny Depp fan. Then we ended the day the way Levi started his: on a train.

From 1849 until the end of 1851, the only way to cross the 50-mile isthmus from the Caribbean to the Pacific side was in boats on the Chagres River, then by mule or on foot to Panama City over the old Spanish treasure trail. This trip could take days or even weeks, and along the way, travelers encountered bugs, heat and torrential rain, yellow fever, malaria, larcenous boatmen, and violent bandits, who robbed and murdered many a gold rush hopeful. It could also take weeks for a steam ship to show up in Panama City to take the miners and other entrepreneurs up to San Francisco.

But by the time Levi set foot on the isthmus around the second week of February, 1853, he was able to take the Panama Railroad to the town of Barbacoas, about 23 miles from Aspinwall, the landing site on the Caribbean. From there he took a boat on the Chagres to the trailhead for Panama City. Luckily for him, the bandits had mostly been dealt with by this time, thanks to the work of a former Texas Ranger named Randolph Runnels, brought to Panama specifically to handle the highwaymen (which he did by rounding up and hanging most of them without a trial).

The railroad had been conceived as a way to speed the U.S. Mail across the isthmus, but it turned out to be a boon to gold rush travelers, who were happy that they could ride even part way through the steaming jungle. Hubert H. Bancroft, an early historian of California and whose book collection formed the beginnings of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, crossed the isthmus in 1852, and also took the train. He wrote a memoir of his experience and included this comment: “Railway passengers wish the ride was longer, wish they could so ride all the way to San Francisco.”

The Panama Railroad was completed in 1855, and spanned the entire isthmus. This made the trip to California faster and more comfortable, though the Panama route was abandoned after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States in 1869. The train was used by the French and the Americans during the canal building years and is now run for tourists.

We caught the train in Colón, not far from where Levi boarded. But before heading to the station we drove to an nearby area facing the Caribbean waterfront so I could see, out in the distance, where Levi’s ship from New York would have landed. Today’s Colón was yesterday’s Aspinwall, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the sight of a steamship heading toward the distant breakwater.

[Photo: The breakwater in Colon, on the Caribbean, where Levi's boat would have docked in 1853.]

We spent most of the train trip in the enclosed, air-conditioned car, but at one point headed out to a covered, open air platform, so I could come close to what Levi’s experience must have been like: hot, windy, and surrounded by dense mangroves, like being in a tunnel of leaves. Robert Tomes, who rode the railroad in 1855, described the varied scenery: “So we hurry from scene to scene, pushing on through the flood of tropical vegetation, with endless vistas of beauty that come and go like the dreams of a summer’s day.”

Today’s train parallels the old 1855 route, but many of the towns that it used to pass are now at the bottom of Gatun Lake, created by the construction of the Panama Canal. Barbacoas, where Levi got off the train to take the next step on his journey, found “a last resting place in the mud and slime” of the lake (New York Times, December 24, 1911). Hernán, a certified diver, told me that you can dive in Gatun near these places and touch the steeples of ancient churches.

Our trip across the isthmus took about an hour. In 1853 Levi took about two hours to go half as far. When my journey was over, I rode in a comfortable van to my equally comfortable hotel. But Levi still had places to go and things to do, which I’ll share with you next time.

By Lynn Downey

Text by Lynn Downey
Photos by Lynn Downey

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Panama at Last

We checked in with our traveling historian. She has safely arrived in Panama and stayed the night at the historic Canal House in the old quarter of Panama City.

She sends us warm regards and a message. "I may be tired, but my plane flight and beautiful historic hotel suite are worlds more convenient than what Levi had to face. More on that in the coming days."

Today will be a day full of adventure.

We hope she finds what she seeks. Good luck, Lynn!

Photo from The Canal House

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who is Ande Whall? Part II

Ande Whall is one man who does not need to answer to questions of efficiency and costs associated with factory production. His dedication to giving customers handcrafted products show in the details. The usual construction points denimheads expect are present: hidden back pocket rivets, donut buttons, single needle stitching, hidden selvage on coin pocket with "peek-a-boo" detail, selvage fly, and the newly introduced chainstitched hems.

But there is more to it than meets the eye. My second pair of customized Ande Whall jeans (Raker model) shows some great details.

This jean comes with lined back pockets, which I sorely need.

The special, labor-intensive seams used to put together the back yoke and rise is particularly beautiful. This construction is found on garments from the late 1800's. Ande refers to it as the "late 1800's hand sewn flat felled seam." From inside the jean you will see only one stitch. The outside of the jean will show that two stitches were used. The second stitch is tucked under the felled seam and depending on how the denim shrinks it will cause interesting ridges and valleys inside the seam.

The subtle contrast color threads are very well balanced.

The hidden selvage belt loops were a bonus. There are lavishly extravagant benefits to supplying your own fabric and not caring about the wastage.

Even though I am partial to chainstitches I am particularly enamored with the waistband construction. I am still trying to get a clear understanding of it but it is beautiful.

The denim itself is a 14.75 oz American selvage with a khaki colored weft yarn. Because the denim is not singed it looks particularly hairy.

To get to know a designer through the products he creates is an experience that has become rare to find. Luckily Ande is upholding that tradition.

So what is next Ande Whall? The answer:

Jute twine embedded beltloops? Keep your fingers crossed for beautiful beltloop fades.

Ande Whall Website

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Preparation

We checked in with Lynn Downey as she prepares for her expedition. In her pack are the essentials of any traveling historian: pen, journey book, and a photo of Levi Strauss. Bon voyage!

Downey begins her trip tomorrow. T minus 1 day. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: The Isthmus

Who knew Panama had anything to do with Levi Strauss? Apparently, Levi Strauss & Co. Historian Lynn Downey did. She is about to undertake an epic journey worthy of a Jules Verne novel to recreate part of Strauss's journey to Gold Rush San Francisco via the isthmus of Panama.

In the 1840s a young Levi Strauss emigrated from Bavaria to New York. When the California Gold Rush hit the news he and his family decided to open a west coast branch of their dry goods wholesale firm. Going through Panama was the shortest route but it posed dangers ranging from yellow fever to murderous bandits. Strauss made it out alive and arrived in San Francisco in March of 1853.

Denim News will be tracking Downey's progress as she rides a historic railroad, maneuvers the Chagres River and hikes an ancient mule trail. Watch for live updates and thoughts from the Historian herself.

When asked about the timing of this trip Downey replied, "It is actually my spring vacation. I am undertaking this trek as part of the research for my next book, a biography of Levi Strauss."

The adventure begins on March 25. Stay tuned!

Levi Strauss & Co Website

Written with contributions from Lynn Downey.

Image Credit: Crossing the Isthmus, from "Mountains and Molehills" by Frank Marryat (1855). Courtesy Robert Chandler.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Who is Ande Whall? Part I

When asked who Ande Whall is I usually start with He is a guy in New Zealand with some sewing machines at home (he just acquired a chainstitcher) and some awesome denim. Although that may sound like an oversimplification this usually impresses my audience of the next two minutes since he or she probably works in the industry and knows how difficult it is to put together a quality pair of jeans.

In fact one of the beauties of supporting up-and-coming designers is to see their growth through construction details. Every upgrade in sewing details is a physical manifestation of their passion and talent.

My first pair of Ande Whall jeans showed up about six months ago and the slim Grifter model was an instant success with fashion industry professionals who admired the modern fit. Others were curious about the "Ande Whall" signature I requested to be placed on the backside of the jeans near the hem. Being able to customize the jeans was supremely gratifying.

I even sent in my own fabric, which was an especially light American selvage denim. I decided on this fabric after my many visits to the beach last summer. At 11.25 oz it is the perfect hot weather weight. At the time I was also inspired by designer Thom Browne and so asked Ande to cut the inseam much shorter than I otherwise would have wanted. In this post I share the results after six months of daily wearing plus a home machine wash and dry (the jeans were originally raw).

The back pocket took a beating from holding coins at all times.

This is the first time I have experienced such interesting looking, destructed honeycombs. It is probably due to the combination of a very tight fitting jean and a lightweight denim being worn continuously.

The blue and pink selvage lines are not only appropriate for a lighthearted summer but functional too. If this material is ever bleached (eg, during industrial washing) the blue line disappears since it is not colorfast.

In the next Ande Whall post we will review some of the exciting jeans construction details Ande is working on. Stay tuned!

Ande Whall Website


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scott Morrison Leaves Earnest Sewn

Scott Morrison is no longer with Earnest Sewn. Morrison is one of the original founding members of the company and until now head honcho of design. He will retain his minority stake in the corporation.

There are speculations on why he is leaving his post but the official word is that the designer and management no longer share the same vision about the company's future.

I expect to see their number of doors grow in the next year or two. Nobody is certain if product quality and brand equity will be affected as a result of Morrison leaving.