Category Archives: clear cuts

A Real-life Toxic Avenger

If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed whether by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.
— Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring

One might think running across a 78-year-old woman living in a cabin on 20 acres near Five Rivers is not unusual. Add to the biography: this activist’s menagerie of a Patagonia parrot; Archie the cockatiel; Patience, a blue-footed Amazon; two Sicilian donkeys, one of which is named Oakie; 25 chickens; two crippled pigeons; her double-barrel shotgun; and a large vegetable garden … and you get Carol Van Strum.

I’m talking with Carol in Debra Fant’s Waldport, Oregon, dining room while she puts away two dozen free range eggs Carol sold her and while I am leafing through Carol’s two penned books that she’s giving me — “my interrogator,” as she jokingly calls me.

At a glance from a typical visitor to our coast, Carol’s appearance (and life) might seem to embody “just one of those quirky (kooky) California transplants who is all into that back-to-the-land philosophy, living out in the boonies to get away from civilization, progress.”

This statement is both true and false as applied to Carol Van Strum.

One book written by Carol is a fictional novel, The Oreo File, concerning protagonist Molly Matthissen, who has been arrested for murdering an FBI agent. The thriller is set in the Pacific Northwest; there are penguins involved (climate refugees); and small-town justice played out.

However, the real meat and potatoes of this profile is Carol’s other book, a nonfiction gem: A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights, written in 1983 (updated in 2014), which follows the case of Carol, her husband, four children, neighbors and residents of Lincoln County and their battle with the state of Oregon, chemical companies, the EPA and the Forest Service.

The stories Carol unfolds are dynamic as they cascade through many labyrinths. She has been in the Siuslaw Forest for 45 years, but her origins start in 1940, the start of World War II. Her roots were first set down in Port Chester, Westchester, New York, with a father who went to Cornell and a mother who supported the whims and avocations of their five daughters.

My mom grew up as ‘Shanty Irish.’ She never went to college. When women at cocktail parties from Smith, Radcliff and Bernard colleges asked her where she went to college, my mom said, ‘Barnum and Bailey university.

Carol laughs loudly like a native of County Cork, Ireland.

Carol Van Strum

Her mother trusted her daughters so much that she loaned the family car the summer of 1957 and let three of the girls embark on a road trip across the USA. “We went everywhere. We went camping. Oh, we did our hell raising, but our parents had absolute trust in us.”

Imagine a life well lived, and then jump to 1974 when she, her then husband Steve, their three sons and daughter, and a menagerie of animals moved from the Mendocino area of California to a homestead in Lincoln County — Five Rivers, specifically.

Her presence here, precipitated by what happened in 1975, has literally changed the narrative around the toxic herbicides timber companies, tree farms and road crews spray both by air and land.

Early in A Bitter Fog:

Where the road skirted the riverbank, overhanging shore and water, they directed their hoses into the water, inadvertently spraying the four children fishing down below. The truck moved on, leaving the children gasping in a wet mist that clung to their skin and clothing. With smarting skin, tearing eyes, burning mouths, throats and noses, they stumbled home. By nightfall, all four were sick.

Carol is clear and unyielding when she recalls the beginning of an uphill battle to fight the Forest Service spraying chemicals akin to the Agent Orange infamously used during the Vietnam conflict.

The garden plants died, “their leaves twisting and wilting in grotesque configurations.” Weeks following the herbicide spraying, chicks, geese and ducklings were born deformed. Some were hatched with misshapen wings, clubfeet, crossed beaks. Their family dog developed oozing sores, and his hind legs became paralyzed.

Readers might have a tough time imagining living through that first spraying of 2, 4-D and 2, 4, 5-T on their own children with noses bleeding and guts hemorrhaging. However, the mettle and inspirational fortitude of locals who have lived here for decades embody the power of democratic principles at both a local and global level.

The very idea of individuals and communities having a right to security from poisons and pollutants is being played out daily in this county and state, as well as worldwide. What Carol Van Strum, her neighbors and the citizens of the Oregon Central Coast and Coast Range have had to battle is the very foundation of existence — the right of informed consent.

Poisons 101

I am confronting Carol with the proposition that we have always been Guinea pigs — that no real scientific studies have been done (or can be realistically accomplished) to ferret out the harms any individual chemical/toxin can do to us as humans because so many other Post-Industrial Revolution chemicals are working synergistically in our industrialized bodies.

Carol agrees, and what unfolds is hour upon hour of recalling the vagaries of life during and before Lincoln County — starting college, a marriage and family in California after growing up in New York State. She says she picked the University of California-Berkeley “because that was the only university that had a five-dollar application fee … I didn’t have the money for all the other schools’ fees.”

That was in the early 1960s. Soon, the FBI is surveilling their house because she is involved in an underground railroad for returning Vietnam vets who want to go AWOL in Canada and because she is writing articles for a newsletter under the auspices of the Port Chicago Vigil. This anti-war group — started August 7, 1966 by peace activists — gathered at the main gate of the Naval Weapons Station in an attempt to block trucks carrying napalm bombs for shipment to US pilots flying incineration missions over Vietnam.

Carol has all sorts of asides to flavor her narrative — she lived at 2608 Derby Street in Berkeley while the W.E.B. Du Bois Society was located at 2806 Darby. The FBI got the address wrong, and instead of staking out the members of the politically active Du Bois Society, they watched Carol and her family.

Here, history intersects with Carol Van Strum — Du Bois (1869-1963) was an African-American writer, teacher, sociologist and activist whose work transformed the way that the lives of black citizens were seen in American society. Du Bois was an early champion of using data to solve social issues for the black community, and his writing — including his groundbreaking “The Souls of Black Folk” — became essential reading in African-American studies.

She tells me how she wrestled an alligator at the Steinhart Aquarium to assist a veterinarian with the sick reptile. She talks about Twiggy the Toucan, who she rescued as an emaciated dying bird but was brought back to life with Carol’s recipe of “rich pound cake and blueberries mashed up.” Even the vet at the aquarium asked her secret when one of the zoo’s toucans was suffering.

She co-owned Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley. They had moved a few times in California in attempt “to get away from city life,” but finally they answered a for-sale ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a 160-acre homestead in Oregon. Steve, Carol and the four children had never been out here on the Oregon Coastal Range, but the family bought the forested farm sight unseen.

“It was part of the original Homestead Act. There at the spring in concrete I found his name, Elihu Buck, crudely written with a finger. It had the first telephone line in the valley. The old posts were still there.”

This is an idyllic life until the four children are sprayed. Then the court battles, the scientific investigations (and backtracking and cover-ups) of the real effects of these herbicides. We are talking about neighbors throughout the area, up to a mile away from each other, collectively having multiple miscarriages, children born with genetic defects, adults suffering cancers and other ailments.

The dedication in her non-fiction book is emblematic of the struggle Carol has undergone:

For my children, Daphne, Alexey, Jarvis and Benjamin Van Strum.

I asked her what gives her hope.

The death of our children left me with what they loved — this farm, this dirt, these trees, this river, these birds, fish, newts, deer, and fishers — to protect and hold dear. These became my anchor to windward, keeping me from just drifting away with every wind that blows.

Even that tragic story isn’t simple — there is evidence the four children, old enough to babysit each other, perished in a house while Carol was next door at a neighbor’s house. The fire marshal indicated it was suspicious, potentially the result of arson. Carol has her suspects.

All the legal wranglings have reinforced my chronic intolerance of lies. Ditto the never-ending battle against poisons — that is an industry that could not exist without lying about its products; therefore, it should not exist.

Carol’s life on many levels, including her work to prevent chemicals entering into our watershed, as well as her personal physical and spiritual peaks and valleys, could be made into a movie. I asked Carol what she gathers from these trials and tribulations.

One person can’t save the world, or even see the other side of it. When I was four years old, I set out to see the world — thinking it was a special place like the World’s Fair with carousels and Ferris wheels. After the cops found me asleep in a pile of leaves by the street, my mom asked why I had run away. I told her I didn’t run, I walked, because I wanted to see the world, and she laughed and said, ‘It’s been right here all the time — the world begins at home.’ Lessons you never forget. I can’t save the world but I’ll fight tooth and nail to save this little corner of it.

Readers of my work might be surprised at the level of inquiry and seriousness of some of the stories I write, especially in a magazine dedicated to people enjoying our coast’s amenities and landscape (originally published in Oregon Coast Today). However, it does take a village to raise a family, and it also takes individuals and groups in a community to make it safe for everyone.

Carol might be impugned as being a “character,” but residents and tourists alike must respect that we in small rural and coast communities make up the fabric of how the place ticks and where the history is both created and memorialized.

Finally, finishing off where this essay stared — the following words from President James Madison make a fine book mark for Carol Van Strum’s life:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. — James Madison, 1822, cited by William Douglas in EPA v. Mink, 1974

A Bitter Fog

In the Eye of the Eagle: From Strict Catholic School to Adventures in Rainforests

A slow, tacking flight: float then flap. Then a pirouette and it has swung on to a different tack, following another seam through the moor as if it is tracking a scent. It is like a disembodied spirit searching for its host…” — description of the strongest of all harriers, the goshawk, by James Macdonald Lockhart in his book, Raptor: A Journey Through Birds

We’re watching a female red-tail hawk rejecting the smaller male’s romantic overtures barely 50 yards overhead.

There it is. Ahh, the male has full extension. So does his girlfriend. I see this every day from here. This courting ritual . . . testing each other’s loyalty. Watching them in a talon lock, spiraling down, now that’s an amazing sight.

I’m with Chris Hatten on his 10 acres overlooking the Siletz estuary along a gravel road. Saying he lives for that typical red-tail hawk behavior would be an understatement. His passion for raptors has taken him to many parts of the globe, and those trips involved exhilaration, danger, risks to his life, and the trials and tribulations of living primitively in tropical zones which Westerners sometimes deridingly call undeveloped countries or third world nations.

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 Wild Harpy eagle being recaptured and treated after being shot in leg, northern Guatemala.

We are traipsing around his property where Chris is ninety percent finished with a two-story 1,400 square foot home, a modern efficient house he’s been building for two years from a kit out of Lynnwood, Washington.

He told me he’ll never do that again – building a full-sized house.

The 42-year-old Hatten got a hold of my name when he found out I write about Oregon coastal people with compellingly interesting lives. He is in the midst of witnessing adjoining land (more than a hundred acres) to his property about to be clear-cut – forested hillside owned by Hancock Timber Resource Group, part of John Hancock Insurance (now owned by a Canadian group, Manulife Financial).

When he first bought the land eight years ago, representatives of Hancock told him that the company had so much timberland it would take years, maybe a decade, to get to this piece of property.

We discuss how Lincoln City and Lincoln County might prevent a clear cut from the side of the hill all the way down to Highway 101. “It’s amazing to witness in this coastal area — that depends on tourism — all this land clear-cut as far as the eye can see.”

The red-tail hawk pair circles above us again, while a Merlin flits about alighting on a big Doug fir.

When he first saw the property — an old homestead which was once a producing dairy farm — Chris said two eagles cawed above where he was standing, which for a bird-man is a positive omen and spiritual sign of good health. He calls his place “The Double-Eagle.”

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Hands on bio blitz Northern Brazil.

Non-Traditional Student Backpacks into Jungles

He’s not living in the house, per se, but rather he has a tent he calls home. “I feel suffocated inside four walls. I want to hear animals, hear the wind, be on the ground.” He’s hoping to rent out the house.

His current kip is set up near a black bear den, where mother bruin and her two cubs share an area he is willing to stay away from. “The mother bear and I have an understanding. We don’t bother each other.”

He’s part Doctor Dolittle, part Jim Fowler (from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom), and part John Muir. My own intersections with blokes and women around the world like him have put me eye-to-eye with pygmy elephants in Vietnam, great hammerheads off Baja, king cobras in Thailand, schools of barracudas off Honduras, and a pack of 20 javelina chasing me along the Arizona-Mexico border.

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Jaguar rescue northern Belize.

Hatten’s wildlife adventures indeed take it up a few notches.

“When I finished high school, I wanted to follow my dreams.” That was at Saint Mary’s in Salem, a school that was so constricting to Chris he had already been saving up dollars for a one-way ticket out of the country.

He had started working young – aged 8 – picking zucchini and broccoli in fields near where his family of six lived. “You feel invincible when you are young. You’re also more adaptable and more resilient.”

He ended up in Malaysia which then turned into trekking throughout Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, East Timor, and even down south to Darwin, Australia.

Those two years, from age 17 to 19, are enough to fill two thick memoirs. Upon returning to Salem, he applied to the National Park service and bought a one-way ticket to Alaska, working the trails in small groups who lived in tents and cleared trails with 19-Century equipment – saws, shovels, picks, pry bars.

With his cash stake growing, he headed back south, by mountain bike, along the Prudhoe-Dalton Highway. He hit Prince George, Vancouver Island, and stopped in the Olympics.

He then worked summers and attended Chemeketa College in Salem.

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Finding small spot fire Colombia River Gorge, Oregon, working for U.S.F.S.

Homeless-but-inspired at Evergreen State College

He wanted to study temperature rainforests, so he showed up unannounced hoping for an audience with a well-known scientist and faculty member — Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, who is an expert in temperate forests and sap maples. Chris had read the book she co-authored, Forest Canopies.

Before showing up to Evergreen, Chris had developed a sling-shot contraption to propel ropes into forest canopy. He barged into Nadkarni’s office with his invention. She was surprised Chris wasn’t already student, but she quickly made sure he enrolled in the environmental studies program.

Spending his last dollar on tuition, Chris resorted to sleeping in a tent and inside his 1988 Honda Civic while using campus rec department showers. He told me he received free produce on Tuesdays when the farmer’s market would pass out vegetables and fruit after a day’s sales.

Another faculty member, Dr. Steve Herman, motivated Chris to really delve into ornithology. Chris recalls coastal dune ecology trips, from Olympia in motor pool vans, all the way into the southern reaches of Baja. “We looked at every dune system from Baja all the way back north to Florence.”

The ornithologist Herman was also a tango aficionado, and Chris recalled the professor announcing to his students many times, in the middle of dunes in Mexico, it was time for some tango lessons. “He told us there was more to life than just science.”

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Educational Harpy eagle to take into classrooms Panama city, Panama, has one blind eye, could not be released into wild.

Adventures and Misadventures of a Bird Fanatic

My life’s work has been to produce scientists who will seek to protect wildness. But I also just really enjoy teaching people about birds. I’ve been lucky to get to do that for a very long time.

— Steve Herman, Evergreen State College faculty emeritus Steve Herman, 2017

Chris laments the lack of real stretches of wilderness in Oregon, most notably along our coast. These are postage stamp areas, he emphasizes, around Drift Creek, Rock Creek, Cape Perpetua, but “it’s abysmal.”

We have the Cascades in Washington and the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, and lots of wilderness in Alaska. But really, nothing along the Pacific in Oregon.

After camping in the forest around Evergreen College, Chris still had the travel bug bad. On one foray, he went to Thailand, studying the mangrove forests there. He traveled with Thai army anti-poaching teams who went after poachers. He came across poachers’ camps, witnessed firefights and saw a few poachers laid out dead. “The captain gave me a pistol and one bullet. He said the torture would be so bad if I got captured by tiger poachers that I’d beg for a bullet.”

He’s worked on the island of Hawaii with the USGS focusing on a biocomplexity project looking at how mosquitoes are moving higher and higher because of global warming. The consequences are pretty connected to other invasives – pigs introduced to the islands several centuries ago – disturbing the entire natural ecosystem.

Pigs chew down the ferns, and places that have never seen pooled water before are now wet troughs where mosquitoes can now breed.

Those insects carry avian malaria, and alas, endangered honey creepers can’t adjust to the mosquitoes like their cousins elsewhere who have evolved over millennia to just rub off the insects. The honey creeper is being decimated by this minor but monumental change.

Peregrine Fund

Right after matriculating from Evergreen with a bachelor’s of science, Chris ended up in Panama, working throughout Central America rehabilitating, breeding and introducing Harpy Eagles – the biggest forest eagle in the world with a wingspan of six and a half feet – into their native jungle habitat.

These are massive birds. They dwarf our American bald eagle, for sure. My job was to follow them when the fledglings were grown and released.

He acted like an adult Harpy who catches prey and puts it in the trees for the youngster to eat and learn some hunting skills. Frozen rats, GPS backpack transmitter fashioned on the birds, and orienteering throughout Belize and Southern Mexico were his tools.

It sort of blew me away that here I was living the dream of studying birds in a rainforest.

Territorial ranges for these birds spread into Honduras and south to Colombia. Wild Harpies eat sloth, aunt eaters, howler monkeys, even giant Military Macaws.

He ended up in the Petén, Tikal (originally dating back 2000 years), one of Central America’s premier Mayan archeological and tourist sites.

His role was to study the orange-breasted falcon, a tropical raptor which is both endangered and stealth. “We got to live on top of pyramids off limits to anyone else,” he says, since the bird was using the pyramids as nesting and breeding grounds.

He recalled tiring of the tourists down below repeating the fact that one of the Star Wars movies was filmed here – “I got tired of hearing, ‘Wow, is this really where Yavin 4,  A New Hope, was filmed? We’re really here.’”

Imagine respecting this ancient Mayan capital, and studying amazing raptors as the antithesis of goofy tourista comments.

No 9 to 5 Working Stiff

He tells me that his idols are people like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough. While he went to school in a conservative Catholic setting where his peers were mostly farm kids —  and some were already pregnant and married (before graduation), his family was not of the same stripe.

“We were like the people in the movie ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’’’ he says with a laugh. His parents took the brood to the Oregon Coast a lot, and that 1976 yellow VW van’s starter was always going out. “I remember we had my sister and mom blocking the intersections in places like Lincoln City while we pushed the van to get it started.”

He’s got a brother, Steve, an RN in Portland, and another Portland-based brother, Mark, owner of a micro-car shop. His older sister, Amy, is a newspaper journalist in Grand Junction, Colorado – a real lifer, with the written word coursing through her blood. She’s encouraged Chris to write down his story.

Their mother went to UC-Berkley, and has been a public education teacher for over 25 years. Their father (divorced when he was 12) got into real estate but is now living in New Zealand.

That one-way ticket to Singapore that got him into Southeast Asia, ended with him running out of money after a year, but he was able to get to Darwin, Australia, by paying a fishing boat in East Timor to get him down under illegally. He spent time picking Aussie Chardonnay grapes to stake himself in order to see that continent.

He was blown away by the kangaroo migration, a scene that involved a few million ‘roos kicking up great clouds of red dust. He ended up going through Alice Springs to see the sacred Uluru (formally known as Ayers Rock). He met undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Greece while making money picking oranges.

We talk about some frightening times in our travels, and per usual, the worst incidents involved criminals or bad hombres, not with wildlife. For Chris, his close call with death occurred in Guatemala where he, his female supervisor (a Panamanian) and another raptor specialist were confronted by men on horses, brandishing machetes and leading tracker dogs.

“’We’ll let you live if you give us the woman.’ That’s what they gave us as our option.” The bird team went back into the jungle, the two male researchers buried their female companion with leaves, and then Chris and the other guy took off running all night long.

The banditos chased them through the jungle. He laughed saying they ran virtually blind in places where eyelash vipers (one bite, and three steps and you’re dead), coral snakes and tropical rattlesnakes lived in abundance.

“It’s a very creepy feeling being hunted by men with dogs.” Luckily, the female team member headed out the opposite direction, with a radio. All in a day’s work for environmentalists.

That’s saying, “all in a day’s work,” is ominous since we both talk about how most indigenous and local environmental leaders in so many countries have been murdered by loggers, miners, oil men, ranchers, and coca processors (many times executed by paid-for military soldiers).

Never Return or There Will Be Tears

Two telling quotes from world-renown traveler and writer, Paul Theroux, strike me as apropos for a story about Chris Hatten:

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.

You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.

We talk about a crackling campfire being the original TV, and how being out in wilderness with 5 or 10 people for an extended period gets one really connected to working with people and counting on them to be friends and support.

“It’s tough going back to places I’ve been,” he says with great lamentation. In Borneo, a return trip years later discombobulated him. “The rainforest is being plowed over daily. I couldn’t tell where I was walking miles and miles through palm oil plantations. It was as if the jungle had been swallowed up.”

What once was a vibrant, multilayered super rich and diverse place of amazing flora and fauna has been turned into a virtual desert of a monocrop.

This reality is some of the once most abundant and ecologically distinct places on earth are no longer that. “This is the problem with any wildlife reintroduction program. You can breed captive animals like, for instance, the orangutan but there’s nowhere to release them. Everywhere is stripped of jungle, healthy habitat.”

The concept of rewilding any place is becoming more and more theoretical.

We climb the hill where the clear-cut will occur. Chris and I talk about a serious outdoor education center – a place where Lincoln County students could show up for one, two or three days of outdoor learning. We’re serious about reframing the role of schools and what youth need to have in order to be engaged and desirous of learning.

That theoretical school could be right here, with Chris as the lead outdoor/ecological instructor.

All those trees, terrestrial animals, avian creatures, smack dab on an estuary leading to a bay which leads to the Pacific is highly unique – and a perfect place from which to really get hands on learning as the core curriculum.

We imagine young people learning the history, geology, biology, and ecology of where they live. Elders in the woods teaching them how to smoke salmon, how to build a lean-to, how to see outside the frame of consumption/purchasing/screen-time.

Interestingly, while Chris has no desire to have children, he has taught tropical biology/ecology to an international student body at the Richmond Vale Academy on the island of Saint Vincent (part of the Grenadines).

Koreans, Russians, Venezuelans, Peruvians and Vincennes learned organic farming, bio-fuel production, solar power design, how to grow passion and star fruit. There is even a little horse program in the school, founded by two Danes.

Chris said that the local population is taught about medicinal plants, recycling and responsible waste disposal. “Everything used to be wrapped in banana leaves in their grandparents’ time. Now there is all this single-use plastic waste littering the island.

Like the dynamic rainforest that once carpeted the Central Coast – with herds of elk, wolves, grizzlies and myriad other species – much of the world is being bulldozed over, dammed and mined. Wildlife leave, stop breeding, never repopulate fractured areas where human activities are the norm.

But given that, when I asked Chris where he might like to go now, he mentioned Croatia, his mother’s side of the family roots. He may have swum with 60-foot-long whale sharks and kayaked over orcas, but Chris is still jazzed up about raptors – maybe he’d end up on the Croatian island of Cres which is a refuge for the spectacular griffon vulture.

“Nature has a purpose beyond anything an extraction-based society puts its monetary value on trees. We have to show young people there is value to natural ecosystems beyond extracting everything for a profit.”

One-Minute Q and A

Paul Haeder: What is your life philosophy?

Chris Hatten: Make the best use of your time. Time is short.

PH: How do we fix this extractive “resources” system that is so rapacious?

CH: We need to value forests for the many multitude of services they provide, not just quick rotations. Forests are not the same as fields of crops.

PH: Give any young person currently in high school, say, in Lincoln County, advice on what they might get out of life if they took your advice? What’s that advice?

CH: Get off your phone, lift up your head, see the world for yourself as it really is, then make necessary changes to it and yourself.

PH: What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve experienced — what, where, when, why, how?

CH: I have had very poor people offer to give me all they had in several different countries. Strangers have come to my aid with no thought of reward.

PH: In a nutshell, define the Timber Unity movement to say someone new to Oregon.

CH: They are people who mostly work in rural Oregon in resource extraction industries and believe they are forgotten.

PH: If you were to have a tombstone, what would be on it once you kick the bucket?

CH: “Lived.”

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Running in step, at sunset on the beach with horse St. Vincent and Grenadines