From My Portfolio

We Meet At Last

Welcome. I'm an award-winning journalist, travel writer and author of MURDER IN ITALY, about the Amanda Knox case.

Based in Seattle, I'm obsessed with Italy, Mexico, Africa, the Americas, India and, well, anywhere you want to send me. I can find value in the bleakest of foreign towns. I write about everything from outdoor adventure to true crime, women's issues, business, food and wine.

Catch my stories in Slate, The New York Times, MSN Travel, Art & Antiques, The Chicago Tribune and Alaska Airlines Magazine, plus Seal Press and Traveler's Tales anthologies. I've appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC, Italian TV and CNN's "Crimes of the Century, Amanda Knox." I blog at seattlepi.comWays To Escape and Italyest.

Check me out on Wikipedia. I'm proud to be a Byliner author, a former MSN producer, and magazine and newspaper editor. I love to kayak, ski, climb, hike. I appreciate good food and wine. Born in Spokane, WA., I'm a coastie in Seattle,  not to mention a wife and mom.  I'm a 2012 and 2013 top writer for Quora. You can find me on Linked In and Wikipedia. I have a master's degree from the University of Oregon School of Journalism.

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New York Times: Lost Child Rescues Himself

When my son, Jacob, was 5 years old, I dropped him off at a Seattle day care center, not knowing it was closed for Good Friday. He knocked and knocked on the front door. Nobody answered.
This disaster predated the cellphone. Jacob — blond, blue-eyed, impish — had nothing but my business card. He had asked for it several days before. He was proud that I had one, like the other moms. He had zipped it into the pocket of his red jacket, the one he wore when I dropped him off that day. I was a magazine editor on deadline, young, stressed.
Jacob eventually stopped knocking. He sat on the concrete steps. He did not know what to do next.
My child on the milk bottle, my child on the evening news. Those images haunt me. Yet this story has a surprising twist. Recently, I asked Jacob what that first moment was like. Was he terrified? Twenty-six years have sped by. He’s a lawyer in Seattle.
He laughed and said: “Mom, stop beating yourself up. I have vivid memories of that day. It was an adventure.”
In my shame I had forgotten that children long for new things. They love to explore. In fact, we were experimenting that day. Jacob’s day care provider lived in a rhododendron-draped house in fancy Laurelhurst, at the bottom of a green hill near Lake Washington.
Jacob wanted to run into the house by himself that morning. He wanted to know what that felt like. He had been complaining of being babied. So I watched him go to the door, pull back the screen and knock. I could swear the front door opened. He looked back and waved me off. “Go, go.”
An hour later, a man called my office. “You have a very intelligent little boy,” he said in a cheery voice.
“Yes, I know.” I waited for him to explain himself. He identified himself as a store manager. He said Jacob was with him at the market on Sandpoint Way, a four-lane arterial several blocks uphill from the day care.
“That can’t be my son,” I said.
“Well, he’s got your business card.”
At first I thought Jacob had run away from day care. When he was 3, he had figured out how to burrow under our backyard fence. I caught up with him at the neighbor’s house across the street, minutes later.
Once I grasped this latest horror, I shoved manuscripts into a bag and told the manager I’d come right away. “He must be so frightened,” I said.
“Nope, he hasn’t shown a bit of worry. He marched right in here this morning. He asked, ‘Where is the phone? I need to call my mother.’ He’s very self-confident.”
Jacob sat on my lap the rest of the day. We watched TV. He held the channel changer and ate Popsicles. He is my only child. We learned, and are still learning, how to do this job together.
“I wasn’t scared,” he now insists. “I wondered, could this really be true? Nobody’s here? At first I thought I should wait. But I was afraid of being bored. I didn’t see how I could wait around all day.”
“Why did you go to the store?”
“I knew you had to find a public place to phone.”
“What’s the main thing you remember?”
“I ate so much fried chicken,” he said. “They said I could eat anything I wanted. And I did.”
“You weren’t scared a single second?”
“You have to remember I had wanderlust,” he said. “I always did. I had already been thinking about riding a bike up and down those hills, down to the lake, everywhere. I couldn’t wait to do that.”
He can still recite my office number. He knew he could call me anytime.
“You have to let kids do things,” an Italian aunt used to tell me, when Jacob broke his arm snowboarding or nagged me for skydiving lessons. “If they live, they’ll be strong.”
She meant we can teach courage as well as carefulness. When we stress safety above all else, we forget our trapped childhoods, how we longed to climb boulders, ride ocean waves or float like Huck Finn on a river raft.
We forget how young we were, when we first hungered for freedom.

Candace Dempsey is an award-winning journalist, travel writer, and the author of Murder In Italy, the true story of Amanda Knox.T

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Insider's Guide to the Pacific Northwest

I'm proud to be a regular contributor to Alaska Airlines Magazine.
Check out my most recent stories:
1. Head for the Pacific Northwest for your next outdoor adventure

2. Packing secrets of frequent travelers (including me). 

3. A Primate Tour of Uganda 

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Girl Kayak Guides of Juneau, Alaska

If I were in Juneau right now, I'd be taking a nap. Naps are a very Juneau thing to do. Jane, a self-styled "girl guide," told me that while we were feasting on smoked salmon and reindeer sausage at Eagle Beach not far from downtown Juneau, Alaska's tiny capital.

We had paddled our sea kayak — a long narrow boat swift and silent as a shark — to a beautiful outlook where humpback whales rode the chilly waters and eagles huddled in black trees. Way off on the horizon, mysterious peaks pierced the clouds that hover perpetually over the steel blue Gulf of Alaska.

A lanky girl with bright brown eyes, Jane stood on the shoreline and scanned the channel for squalls. Then she scanned the black sand beach, which gave way to lush meadows of fireweed and rye grass. She listened to the squawking of ravens, flying up to stands of Sitka spruce. She sniffed the air, which smelled of kelp and wildflowers. Finally, she yawned.
"Boy, I wish I could take a nap right now," she said. "We're real nap-oriented here. My boyfriend has what he calls a safety nap. He'll spot something dangerous. And he's like, 'Whoa! — time to take a nap!'"
What a revelation. Where I live near Seattle, the lights at Microsoft burn all night. I never nap without feeling that I've taken a sad and possibly fatal turn toward sloth. Now here was Jane, an adventurer, promoting naps as a safety tip. And here was I, a failed kayaker, hanging on her every word. The truth was that before I met Jane, I was thinking about giving up sea kayaking, because I simply wasn't strong enough to stay out of trouble on saltwater.
Just a month before, I had gotten myself in a nasty mess on Puget Sound — the wildcat waterway on which Seattle perches, some 900 miles of icy water south of Juneau. I crossed a shipping lane with a group of kayakers on a glorious summer day. Suddenly, a current caught my boat and tossed it to the right. Everybody else went left. I kept trying to turn the kayak, but it was like trying to turn the head of a rebellious horse. Next thing I knew, I was headed out to sea. I couldn't see a single member of my group, not even their white paddles going up and down — a sight that, from a distance, looks like a flock of tiny, elusive white birds.
Then the wind rose. I had to fight both the current and the chop. I panicked. I knew that kayakers, even experts, died on the Sound every year. My biggest fear was that I would flip the kayak and either get trapped underneath or fall into the icy water and be unable to struggle back into the boat. "There is no lonelier, more desperate maneuver when you are far from shore and help," my kayak manual says.
"Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, made worse by cold, fumbling hands."
I knew I should conserve my strength, in case the kayak capsized. But I kept thrashing around, because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Luckily, a woman from our group finally spotted my uplifted paddle — which she said looked no bigger than a handkerchief in the wind. She doubled back and towed me, humiliated, to shore.
How I longed to be courageous like Jane, who soothes angry bears with compliments: "I see you, bear. I respect you, bear. Brave, brave bear." Jane, who can tell a storm is coming by the smell of the wind. Like the Tlingits who settled this lovely, rain-drenched land, Jane makes tea from a prickly plant called devil's club. She can out-paddle a squall and survive by her wits. 
"My first year in Juneau I lived in a cabin, without heat or running water," she confided, as we climbed into our double kayak to paddle back to our starting point. "The cabin was on an avalanche chute. Every night I had to think, 'Now, where am I going to sleep tonight?' I had seven escape routes." 
She laughed. "But, hey, it was cheap and available. And avalanches bring trees down with them. If an avalanche comes down the hill without hitting the house, you can get your firewood for free." 
Juneau draws many women like Jane — adventurers from the Lower 48 who climb the near-vertical streets in drab raincoats and yellow, knee-high neoprene boots rolled partway down. It is a tilted town of brightly painted gingerbread houses pressed up against a muddy mountainside, with water everywhere. You can't drive from Juneau to any other town, because the longest road fades into wilderness after 40 miles. You step outside your front door into a maze of wild rivers and crumbling glaciers and slippery peaks.
On my wildest days, I like to pretend I have what it takes to be a girl guide. Strength, courage, know-how and patience. How thrilling to rate a chapter in Jane's memoirs, which she plans to call Girl Guides of Juneau. At Alaska Discovery, where she works, girl guides tend to be tall, cool, powerful blondes of few words. But Jane was like a younger version of me — small-boned, dark-haired and talkative. She made me feel that, given the time and inclination, I too could be a guide. I could give up my desk job and survive a winter in Southeast Alaska without running water or electricity.  
All the way back to Juneau, I did the paddling. Jane sat behind me, steering the boat and critiquing my technique. "If you keep jerking back like that, you're going to flip the kayak," she warned, as we skirted the edges of a forlorn island, its tumbled-down buildings covered with moss. Even though it was a balmy day in mid-July, she had insisted that we don life vests, plus waterproof jackets, pants and boots.
"You wouldn't want to fall into that water," she said. "It's 45 degrees. We become animals at that temperature. We thrash around. We go insane."
I loved Jane's stories about careless sailors sent to the deep, hapless tourists who choked on poisonous mushrooms, reckless tenderfoots who thought they could conquer Alaska without studying it first. She taught me that what I lacked wasn't strength but know-how, not courage but cunning. She showed me how to paddle with the power of my entire body, not just my arms. She made me pay attention to the currents and read the wind — a kayaker's greatest enemy.
"You have to look," she kept saying. "You have to be aware."
Suddenly, I got it. The kayak skimmed the water like a sailboat blown by the wind. Chum salmon leapt all around us. An eagle soared overhead. My heart soared too. I remembered why I had started kayaking in the first place. Because I love sea kayaks — boats as gaily painted as kites, so sleek and light that they feel like part of your skin. Because I longed to explore the wily, hard-hearted gorgeous Sound — every island, sea cave, twisted channel and river mouth. Because I was tired of standing on the shore while other people set off on adventures.
Back here in Seattle, 900 miles down the Inside Passage, rain falls all winter. When a Yukon Express blows down from Alaska, rain pounds so hard on the roof of my house that it wakes me up at night. So I read trashy novels. I lift weights to prepare myself for kayaking. I remember the mantra of the girl guides of Juneau.
"Always be prepared," Jane told me. "That's what the wilderness has taught me. I never leave my house without my raincoat — even when the sun is out."
Always be prepared. That's good advice for venturing anywhere. Have seven escape routes. A compass, map and whistle.
When in doubt, take a safety nap.

*This story appeared orignally appeared on Illustration by Steven Salerno
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Alone Again: Lost in the Far West

In my grandfather's orchard in Italy
I never went anywhere when I was a child, all because of a pig house my mother had burned down. She'd grown up on an Idaho homestead without running water or electricity. Her Italian immigrant mother was too busy grinding pork for homemade sausages, plucking chickens, and performing the million other tasks of the pioneer to keep an eye on her nine children.
One day while playing with matches in a fit of boredom, my mother and her cousins accidentally burned down the pig house. This could have been a tragedy, fire spreading rapidly over the dry fields and wooden buildings of the farm. That didn't happen. Still, that red pig house, its long troughs filled with rotting table scraps, shaped my whole childhood.
"We ran wild," my mother recalls with horror. "I made sure you kids were watched."

this day she claims her greatest mistake was allowing me, third oldest of seven children, to escape to Yellowstone Park for a summer job. When I boarded that dusty Greyhound bus I was seventeen, a skinny girl with a high school diploma and blue plastic suitcase. Never had I been more than 30 miles from the border towns in Eastern Washington and Idaho.

"You'd be a different person today if you hadn't gone to Yellowstone," my mother claims. She means I'd be a household saint, not a travel writer. But I believe wanderlust is in the blood, as natural to certain people as water cascading over cliffs, the tumbling of tumbleweeds across desert sand.
Until this escape, my life had been like a toy train stuck on a single track. I grew up with three brothers and three sisters in a pretty pink ranch house in Spokane, Washington, a landlocked city of stone and pine on the edge of a vast wilderness. After Sunday Mass, we piled the family into two cars and drove across the state line to the Idaho farm where my mother was raised. Down the road on a small lake stood the log cabin where we lived every summer.

We never went anywhere else, because my mother saw no need. Our life was a closed circle of family, family, family.
"You can go, but don't go too far," Italians tell their offspring, whether they are toddlers or grownups with kids of their own. "Stay near your folks. They're the only people you can trust." 
In Italy these rules confine children to the range of the village bell. In America we stayed within range of my mother's police whistle. In summer, that gave us the run of the farm where the pig house burned down; the nearby lake and the meadows above it; woods with makeshift teepees and wild strawberry patches; fields of clover and wild peas. Not to mention the joyful company of countless cousins.
In Spokane we felt our chains. The pine woods above our new housing development offered mysterious caves and tantalizing boulders to climb. Kim Momb, later to stand atop Mount Everest, trained on the black lava cliffs that rise from the Spokane River Valley. But this paradise was forbidden to me.
"Those are city woods," my parents warned. City woods were overrun with perverts and hermits and vandals who pushed stolen cars off cliffs.The fact that nobody ever spotted these desperados did not bother my folks one bit.

So we braked our bikes at the edge of the woods, trembling with fear and desire. The price of disobedience was high -- what my parents called "a good licking." Convinced they had radar that could track our every move, we still defied them with mad dashes into the woods.
The odd thing was the neighborhood kids, who found our old-fashioned clothes and countless rules bizarre, allowed us to follow them into the forbidden realms. Forging ahead through the brush they must have felt like bold adventurers, leading pilgrims through  untamed lands. What they took for granted, we found magical: fields of yellow bells and violets, breathless games of hide-and-seek, the mesmerizing scents of syringa and wild rose. We hunted blue-tail lizards, fled porcupines, waded barefoot across murky ponds floating with water lilies. We shot our Flexible Flyer sleds down snowy slopes called "Suicide" and "Danger." 

"Where have you been?" 
my mother asked whenever we failed to respond speedily to the police whistle. "I've been calling and calling." 
"Just riding our bikes."
Somehow she managed not to see the pine needles in our hair. Once, I convinced her that the wood tick she had to remove from my scalp had fallen from a maple tree at school. My best excuse, although I was afraid to use it often, was I had to go into the woods to retrieve our Brittany spaniel -- a spotted rebel named Penny who hated girls and wouldn't come when I called.
The few lickings we got for our forest explorations made us philosophical about crime. "Damn it, it was fun," we said, once the pain wore off. We vowed to do it again and again.
While my mother kept us home, Dad fed our wanderlust. I'd always suspected he would have been a rolling stone if he hadn't gotten hitched. At bedtime he dazzled us with stories about his days in the Merchant Marines. He knew how rain fell in the South Seas, what Shanghai looked like before "the Commies" took over. He filled our house with adventure books, detective stories, sci-fi thrillers. He read us everything from The Illiad andThe Odyssey to Tom SawyerThe Arabian Nights and The Jungle Tales of Tarzan.
He taught us to believe, boys and girls alike, that we could stride the world in seven-league boots, ride magic carpets, and climb beanstalks to castles in the sky.
These dreams eventually took me places my father did not wish me to go. Anger came between us. Yet he himself came from a restless clan, German and Irish. His German grandmother had a pass on the Chicago-Milwaukee Railroad -- courtesy of her husband, who worked there -- and she rode the rails all her life. 

Sometimes she took her kids; other times she boarded them out with family members. Although based in Spokane, she spoke casually of St. Lous, Minneapolis, and Chicago -- golden cities glittering out of my reach like names on a movie marqee. I never saw a jet rise over Tower Mountain nor heard the whistle of a west-bound freight, hell-bent for the coast, without imagining myself on board. 

"How could she?" my mother says of that vagabond grandma. "How could she dump her children on her relatives and gallivant around the country that way?" 

How could she not? Alone, my great-grandmother could reinvent herself. I like to think she went by a different name on the train (something daring like Carlotta Delmonico), changed her clothes and hair color and said she'd gone to finishing school in Paris. 

How I long to possess that train pass, that life -- as beguiling to me as the silver passenger trains that still roll across the dusty flatlands, high deserts, and blue mountains of the west.
Like that mad German grandmother, I am famous for mad dashes, for suddenly deciding I must breathe the air in another state or country. I believe in following these impulses even when they're dangerous. When I was in my twenties and two weeks shy of getting married, I boarded a dented Chevy Nova and hightailed it from my parents' home in Spokane all the way to Eugene, Oregon. About 1,000 miles roundtrip. 
My excuse for fleeing was I'd left belongings in Eugene, where I'd just wrapped up graduate school. But the truth was I feared that brief journey down the aisle, that sudden loss of freedom. 
After marriage my new husband and I would live on the East Coast for several years. I wanted to be alone when I said goodbye to the West, which I had loved longer than any lover.

Listening to my mother's travel advice for the first and last time ("You must get an early start"), I left Spokane hideously early that spring morning and shot south. Plowing across wheat fields and deserts and lava outpourings for many hours, I finally caught I-84 and turned west. This road, which follows the Columbia River along the Washington-Oregon border, is famed for its high cliffs, deep gorge, and bold blue water. It unfolds like a series of beautiful postcards, but the same postcard mile after mile.
Quickly, I got bored. I thought about stopping to drink coffee from the thermos my mother had provided, but I'm not the kind of person who likes to stop. I didn't know I was in trouble, not even when I found myself simultaneously driving and reading a road map. What a sensible way, I thought, to pass the time.
Then sunlight drifted into the car, wrapping around me like a soft blanket. I blinked a few times and then slipped luxuriously into sleep.
Sometime later I felt a jolt. I opened my eyes. The Nova was on the gravel shoulder. I could see a ditch. I slammed on the brakes. That threw the car into a tailspin. Round and round it spun on that broad highway. The spinning took forever. 
I had time to think: This is itThis is how I'm going to die. Scenes from my recent life flickered before me. There I was, cramming for finals, pulling my wedding together, packing up my things. I saw that life was nothing but struggle. It was a relief to give in. 
Then something inside me said no. I grabbed the wheel and held onto it until the car stopped spinning. Then  I steered the car, like a runaway sled, to the side of the road. Finally, it stopped. 
When a highway patrolman knocked on the car window, I jumped. I thought I was hallucinating. He told me he'd been parked at a rest stop and seen the whole thing. 

"I was sure you were going to flip," he said, as though that would have grieved him. "Do you know how lucky you are that nobody else was on the road?"
I shook my head. I felt so lost. I couldn't look that patrolman in the eye. I waited until he left and then tried to pour black  coffee from my plaid thermos into a plastic cup. My hands were shaking so badly that I gave up the attempt.
Then I remembered what wranglers did in movies. I told myself to get back on the horse. 

I rode that Nova all the way to Eugene, 
a lovely red-brick college town of geenery and mist. For two blissful years I had studied journalism there while carrying on a long-distance romance with Mark Rosenblum, a law student in Spokane. 

I'd kept my two lives so separate thant nobody in Eugene knew I was about to get married.  But that night I bunked with a grad-school friend named Jill. Over a bottle of wine, I managed to spill my secret. 

She said she understood. "Sometimes it's hard to talk about the things that mean the most to us." 

The next afternoon, I followed the McKenzie River east out of Eugene and cut across Three Sisters Wilderness and its haunting stretch of snow-draped volcanoes. Then I swept into the high desert of central Oregon, a land of lava spires, dry washes, and fossil beds. 

Shying away from I-84, the highway of my near death, I drove the back roads all day and far into the night. I was determined not to think. I had no one to talk to and a busted radio. There was nothing tbut the wind blowing across the desert and the occasional clatter of a passing truck. Nothing but the grip of the steering wheel, the earth rushing by, the sweet scent of the Oregon blueberries I'd bought for my mother at a roadside stand and stashed in the back seat.
Over the next ridge I saw another trackless flatland. But something glowed on the far horizon. I followed that glow for maybe 20 miles until the lights of a town sparkled ahead. Ritzville, about 60 miles from Spokane. "A pit stop off the interestate," I would have called it a few days earlier. But that windy night it was enchanting. Brightly lit gas stations and burger stands, curtained houses, and boxy tavens with flashing beer signs.
Pulling into a Chevron station, I filled up the tank. Then I stopped at a painted shack for a double burger and French fries. Dipping into the greasy paper sack, which gave off an intoxicating fragrance, I hungered for the road. Even though I'd been gone only a few days, i felt wiser and more joyful than before. I knew now that I was capable of getting myself into terrible jams, but also of wangling my own way out of them.
Nothing could stop me from roaming, not even a gold wedding band. 
All these years later I 
still love to climb into a car for no reason and drive hundreds of miles.
"What are you looking for?" asks my husband. He gew up in New York, where nobody calls driving 30 miles for Marlboros "just a hop, skip and jump." Like many vagabonds, I married a person who never wants to leave town.
"I'm not looking for anything," I tell him. "I just want to go." 
Trusting in the kindness of strangers, I've been everywhere I dreamed of going when I was a landlocked little girl--and I've only begun to wander. I've seen the sunset on Mount Kilimanjaro in Afirca, hopped a plane to Jordan after the Gulf War, watched the moon rise over the olive grovers of Calabria, where my grandfather once herded sheep across the rocky land. 
Like my father, I've seen Asia. Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong. I've seen how rain falls like the wrath of God on the South Seas and  then stops as suddenly as it began. Blue skies appear over the coral lagoons of Bora Bora, coloring the water, and white boats ride the waves once more.
Even though I'm a grown woman with a child of my own, my mother still frets every time I step out the door.
"Something might happen," she says."That's the whole idea.""Can't you go with someone else?""No.""Not even your husband?""No."
I'd rather set off on my own, even when I feel scared and lonely. Something might happen: I might meet a stranger, jump ship, climb an unnamed mountain or lose myself on a winding trail. 
I might forget who I am and where I came from.
Who knows? I might even run away from home.
by Candace Dempsey

From Solo: On Her Own Adventure and Gifts of the Wild, the best of the stories published in Seal Press's Aventura series
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Our Lady of Electricity: Istanbul to Taos

We were in deep need of divine intervention the day we climbed the dirt road to the house of the Virgin Mary, but we didn’t know it yet. 

After three days of hard driving from Istanbul, we had reached the cool green spot in southern Turkey where legend says Mary, mother of Jesus, spent her final days.
High on a mountaintop, where the wind carries the scent of wild herbs and hidden springs, we imagined the Queen of Heaven praying at her gilt-edged altar. We had come to worship this glorious Mary, resplendent in silk robes, golden crown and jeweled halo. She is famous the world over as a curer of broken hearts and cruel diseases, mesmerizing even to fallen-away Catholics like me.
We made up a merry crew that day. My 73-year-old mother, a devoted Catholic seeing the world for the first time. My sister Carmela and I, the two religious skeptics. Eshber, a Turkish friend who'd offered to show us around his country for a week.  
Picture us rolling south along the Turquoise Coast in an elegant old black BMW, stopping on a whim to see the Virgin's house. 
For ease of conversation, Eshber had concocted a handle for each of us. He called my mother "Mama." Carmela and I were Electric #2 and Electric #3, because of our Italian blood, rapid speech and quick tempers. We had two electric sisters, Sherry and Carole, back in the United States. 
Eshber had assigned each sister an electrical rating that reflected dramatic flair, not birth order. 
"Electricity has nothing to do with age," he said. "It's a state of mind."
Carole, aka Electric #1, lived near me in Seattle. Before we left for Turkey, she kept calling to say she loved me. That did seem odd. We were not so demonstrative. But as is my habit, I brushed aside misgivings and hopped aboard a plane.  

The Virgin's house floats on a green hill above the white stone ruins of Ephesus, a magnificent pagan city devoted to Artemis
Like Mary she is a goddess of childbirth and fertility, but with a lusty image. Artists often show her with multiple breasts and eggs dangling from her upper body. Greek scholars called her temple in Ephesus, destroyed long ago, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In this mystical place one might expect to feel a premonition. But the power lines connecting us to Electric #1 had snapped. We didn't know she hid a terrible secret that would swallow us up for the next two years.

It was sweltering in Ephesus that day, where tourists perch on broken-off marble columns and faded signs point to whorehouses older than Christianity. 
 We felt miraculously cool, driving up the winding road to the mountaintop where Mary's house once stood. From the parking lot, it's a short dusty climb to that spot, marked by a pocket-size Byzantine church.
Believers say Mary arrived here about six years after Christ's death in the company of St. John, who found her a simple house. It fell into ruin after her death, its location disputed until the 1960s. Then Pope John XXIII declared the mountaintop a place of pilgrimage, the only one in Turkey.
We joined a slow-moving line of pilgrims waiting to get into the church. Mostly gray-haired women in neatly ironed cotton dresses and sensible shoes. The Muslims among them wore longer dresses, their black hair poking out from white scarves. We learned the Virgin is "Meryemana" in their faith and honored as the mother of the prophet Jesus.

Giant leafy trees lined the path, an amazing sight in that part of Turkey, where gnarled olive trees crouch on brown hillsides like bent-over old ladies. 
"Olive trees have such a desperate look," my mother said, attributing this miracle of greenness to Mary.
"We're getting closer to her now," she added, lowering her voice in respect.
At the door of the tiny domed church
two blue-robed, buck-toothed nuns sang "Ave Maria" in soft tones. Smiling and nodding, they motioned to us to cover our heads. Soothed by the familiar rituals, we  entered the vestibule and dipped our hands in holy water. 

We breathed in the scents of incense and polished wood, then bowed our heads before a bronze statue of Mary in a stiff robe. Her eyes were downcast, her empty childless arms pointed toward the earth.

In the next room, we saw Muslim women praying under framed excerpts from the Koran. Instead of spotlighting Mary as goddess or mother,  these tracts emphasized her meekness before the Lord.

"O, Mary, be obedient to him, kneeling, bowing and prostrating before him."
We hurried out, feeling like intruders. In the churchyard, amid souvenir stands offering holy cards and plastic statues of the Virgin, we stopped to drink little glasses of hot sweetened tea.
From that vantage point, I noticed something startling about the surrounding trees. White dots covered their bark like little stars, high as hands could reach.
"Bits of paper," Eshber said. "People write prayers to the Virgin on tissue paper and stick them into the bark."

"Why?" I asked.
"They believe Mary comes here every day to read them."
"Prayers for what?"
He shrugged. "What if a woman can't have a baby? What if somebody is ill? It could be lots of things."
Tree after tree was covered this way. So many scraps, so many sorrows.
Many times I've remembered that conversation.
I was a stranger to grief, a believer in my own good luck. But I got a jolt when I returned to Seattle two weeks later. 
My husband, who doesn't drink coffee, took me to my favorite coffeehouse.

"I have something terrible to tell you," he said. 
It turned out that soon after I left for Turkey, my sister Carole had called him from a hospital to inform him that she'd just had a mastectomy. Worse, she was in Stage 4 of breast cancer -- Stage 5 being death.
I told myself this was just some horrible joke. That it would all go away the second I talked to Carole. So I picked up the phone and called her. She confirmed every detail.
"Why didn't you tell us?" I asked.
She sighed. "You wouldn't have gone to Europe. Mom wouldn't have gone. It wasn't fair."
As time went on, I continued to be in denial, even when Carole emerged from  chemotherapy with a bald head, which she refused to hide under a wig.
None of us could imagine her dying from anything. Wasn't she Electric #1? She could start a firestorm on any topic, from how to pronounce gnocchi to whether the nurses on the TV show "E.R." follow proper medical procedure. 
"I'm a nurse," she'd say. "I think I would know." 
She died, a little more than two years after the mastectomy. I could not accept this rude unnatural event. Not only did my parents end up burying their daughter, but Carole never got to finish raising her six-year-old son. 
Both of us had wanderlust. We used to compete to see who could cross the most destinations off the world map. On her deathbed she pointed out that she'd been to Egypt and Israel -- and I had not. 
She was my younger sister. I was impatient with her. When we were little, I called her "the tagalong," because she insisted on doing whatever I did, even though I was four years older.  If I went to bed at 10 o'clock, then she would fight with our parents to get the same bedtime. If I got to ride the bus downtown with my girlfriends to go shopping, then she would lobby for that too. 
Now she had managed to cut in front of me. She dashed ahead. 
I handled her death in a typical way. I insisted on going somewhere I had never been before.
"Pack your bags," I told my husband and son. I reminded them I had a cousin down in New Mexico. "And she's been asking us to visit."
In Albuquerque we stayed with my cousin and then we started driving. We got all the way up to Taos in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains before we turned around. 
I stared into Taos' famous indigo skies, mesmerized by the blue mountains that hover over steep canyons and dry washes.  
How could you die? I asked Carole. You said you weren't going to. You were a nurse. I thought you'd know.
We took the long way back to Albuquerque, descending along a narrow black-top studded with white crosses  that mark sites where people have died in car crashes. We saw elaborate altars decked out with red plastic flowers, Teddy bears, tricycles, dolls, bright paper and snapshots of the departed protected with plastic wrap.
I bought a holy card in a shop along that spiraling road. It shows Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, Nuestra Senora de los Dolores. Six shiny swords pierce her heart. Blood drips from her wounds.

I insisted we pull into Chimayo, the "Lourdes of America." Graced by a little adobe church amid baked red hills, this sanctuary had the same scraggly lawns and humble intentions of the  Virgin's house in Turkey. Hidden in cottonwood and piƱon trees, it's cheaply built yet mesmerizing. . 
We arrived a week after Easter, the most popular time, and yet the parking lot was packed with pilgrims. They come here from all over the world, the most devout lugging giant crucifixes down the road at Lent.
We crossed a patch of crooked gravestones to get into the church, which has twin bell towers and high ceilings. We weaved past pilgrims who leaned on crutches, rode in wheelchairs and coughed into Kleenexes. Then at last we entered the little chapel, a small square room with stiff-pews and 12 luridly painted Stations of the Cross depicting the death of Jesus. 
I bowed before the altar, taking in the gnarled crosses and paintings of bleeding hearts. But I skipped the rest of the rituals, since both my husband and son are Jewish. They were ready to get back on the road. To go home. 
To the left of the altar, we found the narrow prayer room that calls pilgrims to Chimayo from around the globe. In this unadorned sanctuary, priests cut a rectangular hole into the wooden floor. This allows pilgrims to stick their fingers into the dirt, which is believed to have a healing power. The lame rub it on their legs; the blind, on their eyelids.  
What a scene it was. Amid cast-off crutches and canes, pilgrims of all ages and nationalities were kneeling on the floor. Japanese tourist scooped dirt into white business-sized envelopes to take home. 
Snapshots of the unfortunate lined the walls. Baby after baby. Police officers with black mustaches. Teenagers leaning against motorcycles. Shawl-wrapped old ladies.
What had happened to all these people? I wondered. Were any of them still above the ground? 
Suddenly, I couldn't breathe. Dizziness overcame me. 
My husband helped me push against the crowd until we got outside. 
There, to our surprise, we found a charming open air cafe. Leona's Restaurante, shaded under a big green catalpa tree. Soon we were sitting at a rickety table, dipping handmade tortillas into a succulent, mood-altering posolo. The first food that had tasted good since my sister died.
Then I remembered a comical conversation about Chimayo I'd had with my journalist friend Eric, another Italian-American and fallen-away Catholic. Yes, he had fallen under its spell. He had even scooped up a bit of the healing earth.

Afterward he couldn't help feeling a bit skeptical.
"Think how many people go there each year," he said. "They have to run out of dirt. I bet they truck it in new dirt in the middle of the night, so there's always a great  big pile."  
Even in that sorrow-drenched place, I found that remark funny. 
Before I left, I forced myself back into the church. I needed to do one final thing without my husband and son.
I had learned that love, like electricity, is a powerful but unreliable force. Lines can be cut at any moment. We can't repair them by ourselves.  
In the sweaty cramped room with the wooden floor, I knelt with the other pilgrims. I scooped up a handful of earth. It was reddish, with a pungent smell. I couldn't decide what I should do with it. 
Finally I rubbed the dirt on my forehead and on the back of my neck, where the pain seemed to be coming from.
Please, I prayed. Let everybody in my family be all right.

Illustration by Ellen Chavez de Leitner. Gracias per la mia hermana. 

By Candace Dempsey

From Passionfruit and Travelers' Tales Turkey. In memory of my sister Carole.

"Sister, there is nothing I would not do."-- Louise Erdrich
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