Friday, December 30, 2011

Another Postcard

An Introduction

For the majority of my adult life, my brother has sent me his favorite tunes burned to CD.  He introduced me to Flogging Mollies, They Might be Giants, and even the Bare Naked Ladies before they were wishing for a million dollars.  More than half of the songs I enjoyed, the rest I adored, and I wondered how my little brother tapped into so many great tunes, especially since he was always commenting on the lack of musical diversity in his small town.  Even my own boys adopted the favorite tunes from their cool uncle’s playlists.  He escalated himself to “Favorite Uncle” status when he joined a band and released his first album.

My brother sent me “Banditos” and “Bird House in Your Soul.”  He introduced me to Cowboy Mouth and Breaking Benjamin, and I often believed he wanted me to broaden my horizons, which in the earliest years of my marriage suffered from an extreme lack of visible horizons.  With nearly eight years between us, he was only eleven when I left for college and until the time when he finally went away to school himself, I didn’t know much about his day-to-day teen experiences, other than the fact that his mid-western monotony offered only a culture of small-minded people and insufficient opportunities.  I never felt like a true big sister until the day he told me he had learned how to appreciate true rock music because I introduced him to ACDC’s “Back in Black.”

Anonymously Yours

Our two-week adventure starts in Arizona’s capital as my sons and I vacation in a diamond drive through the national parks, pizza parlors, and wineries of the Southwest.  I haven’t been back to my hometown in twenty years, and the city and state have changed almost as much as I have, so every day is booked with special outings and new adventures mixed with long-buried memories and faint recollections.  I make a point to journal each day about the highlights we experience on our way through New Mexico, Arizona, and even our excursions into Colorado.  And tucked among our changes of clothes, driving directions, and accommodation confirmations, I pack a rubber stamp of a specific ape.

After the postage, the address, the photo’s description, the USPS bar code, and the postmark, little room remains on a postcard to talk about the sites enjoyed by its author.  But for my little brother, we find room enough to send him reminders of the places we traveled together as kids.  And on the back of every stock photo image I write the words that I learned from him, “Another postcard with chimpanzees, and every one is addressed to me,” rubber-stamped with a chimp.  By the time we sit poolside in Scottsdale, observe the night stars in Benson, hike into Carlsbad Caverns, cross the Rio Grande bridge near Taos, ride the train to Silverton, and watch the sun set along the rim of the Grand Canyon, we stuff my brother’s mailbox with the entire lyrics of “Another Postcard,” another memorable song he sent me in thanks for introducing him to the music we both love.  Back in those days growing up together in Phoenix, who knew that I was the cool big sister?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Day’s Lesson

Round Trip

Pick a number between one and one hundred – a really high number.  Numbers in the nineties accurately estimate the percentage of times that the pattern of my road trips resembles a two-dimensional shape.  Not always round, sometimes more triangular, but almost never doubling back to form a one-dimensional mark.  Numbers, percentages, shapes, multiplying by two, lines – but this is no place for algebra or geometry.  On this occasion however, my drive does equate to a defined line segment between Omaha and the North Dakota state line, but this is no math lesson.

Driving through South Dakota, I intersect the route at Sioux Falls that I previously crossed two decades prior, just south of the Big Sioux River.  Don’t be deceived by its name.  In comparison, safely assume that a Small Sioux River would barely qualify as a creek, perhaps even one with a dribble of water trickling in a few places.  Today the Big Sioux flows peacefully, pleasant and petite between its grassy banks and I mentally give it the benefit of the doubt that during the spring snow melt or maybe somewhere downstream, it earns its title prior to draining into the longest river in America.  But on this Independence Day, the Big Sioux, and all its adjoining tributary friends, might reevaluate its liberal use of adjectives.  I could snap a few photos at this picturesque spot, but since I know I will double-back on this same road, I press northward.  And despite this not being a math class, or a geography or grammar class, I am taking notes.

Over the Hill

Farther north I pass fields of wispy, blowing grass, dotted, sometimes heavily, with white rocks and boulders, more than a handful of which would require massive farm implements to maneuver.  Most certainly no one would dump these rocks so haphazardly as to impede farming these gently rolling hills.  But as I lift my figurative pen after jotting this mental note, I suddenly realize there are no stalks of corn nearing detassling stage, no waving wheat fields, and no soy beans sprouting – this isn’t farmland.  I consider the possibility that beyond the movement of the earth itself, the rocks have remained untouched since the shifting of the tectonic plates deposited them.  As my car peaks over the next little vista, I Imagine that the view of the rocks in the field, their white warmth soaked in by the high, summer sun, surrounded by the gently rippling grasses, looks identical to this undisturbed setting centuries ago as the first European settlers came over the rise and chose to make these inviting fields their new home.  They most likely didn’t keep driving onward simply because they still had twenty miles to the Dakotas’ dividing line, but I do.

On my route back from my northern excursion, I pull off to the side of the road at this exact spot, this same hillside about which I had mused.  I roll down the windows and stare at the tranquil field – this idyllic, bucolic field – with its boulders and grasses and a small, wooden lean-to that may have once been a house, or a barn, or just a storage shack. Undoubtedly these white stones, craggily in their shape and random in their placement, have not budged since the American bison dodged them in their stampede across the northern plains hundreds of years earlier.  Nearly unchanged except for two parallel strands of barbed wire and a concrete interstate bisecting the grassy plains as they ease into the horizon, with rocks too numerous to be calculated, and with sunsets completely filling the sky and dwarfing a rainbow’s spectrum, these enveloping images fill me with the gratefulness that I am passing this way and awe of all those who crossed these fields before me and left them undisturbed.  This highway, both heading northward and returning southbound, transports me back in time and while I ponder and reflect on this day’s drive, the overwhelming beauty of an untouched Dakota field immerses me in a lesson of history, and geology, and math, and geography, and inspiration, just because I noticed the rocks in the fields.  Note taken.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Souvenirs

Bobble Heads

When I travel, and when my suitcase allows for a little breathing room, I bring back souvenirs for Son #2.  Key chains and pens are the most practical keepsakes for a light traveler like me, while t-shirts offer him a “Been There, Done That,” walking billboard plastered across his chest.  Of course, these practicalities cannot be displayed on the shelf in his room quite like his collection of bobble heads.  Yes, those bouncy pre-form caricatures tickle him, regardless of whose face might be bobbing at him.  Abraham Lincoln journeyed from Illinois to his shelf, while his predecessor, Mr. Washington, came from the National Archives.  Bobbles seems to thrive in DC, since Albert Einstein also originated at the Air and Space Museum, but Mr. E=MC2 also includes audio enhancements reciting Pi (insert thinly veiled movie reference here).

Fenway Park, Veteran’s Stadium (see “The Vet” from November 2011), Busch Stadium, and Tropicana Field supply plenty of wobbly figures, too.  Baseball seems to be the hometown bobble favorite, including Kermit the Frog crouched wearing a catcher’s mask and Dodger blue as his head freakishly bobs, even for an amphibian. Mickey Mouse accompanies the green character, and Jack Sparrow seems a natural with his rather odd head movements.  In a variety of sizes, all with oversized skulls, every trip brings the possibility of a new addition to his shelf, and so I keep an eye out for these oddities.

Wine Glasses

Souvenirs, when purchased consistently, create a record of the places and moments spent navigating the planet and absorbing its beauty.  Rather than collecting dust, I cherish my mementos and make time to reflect on the memories of each place they represent.  But I prefer to reminisce with a fine wine in hand.  Like my son’s shelf, my kitchen cabinet contains a treasure trove of reminders of the New Mexican wineries, the 100th anniversary of Glacier National Park, the Food and Wine festivals at Epcot and Disneyland, the bears of Yosemite, the back roads of Missouri, and memories of thousands of miles of journeys.  Pouring a healthy portion of cabernet into any of the goblets I have brought back from my distant destinations reminds me of the places I have traveled, the mental images I retain and the experiences I have accumulated since turning a legal drinking age.

Wine glasses, like bobble heads, present a special challenge as cargo, but unlike the oversized heads in their bubble-packed boxes, a small measure of tissue paper often serves as the only protection between the glassware and the hundreds of miles of my return trip.  These one-of-a-kind purchases from places I may never see again require special handling and care to survive the flight home.  Wrapped in paper, then a simple plastic bag, then gently nestled among my dirty laundry, I have yet to lose a wine glass in transit.  On any given day, the warmest moments of my life flood out of the cabinet, permitting me to remember those adventures spent on the road finding, witnessing and enjoying America’s beauty.  Perhaps my son lives vicariously through me when he opens the door to his room and he watches all the weirdly dancing heads greet him. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Mile High Club

It’s Really More Like Five

The ability to monitor and track airplanes online (or even in the sky while flying) delights a travel nerd like me and the technology ranks above the trip odometer, but just below the wheeling suitcase.  When I was young, my mother would call the airline to find out if my father’s flight would arrive on time before we would load into the station wagon to go meet him at the tiny, one-building Sky Harbor airport.  Now I track the flight from takeoff to landing, watching a small airplane icon inch across the computer-generated map of the United States.

Included in the online flight data, the speed and altitude clue me in as to when the pilot has begun his initial descent into the destination.  Even at cruising speeds of five hundred miles per hour, the icon slowly clicks across the map, but for anyone who has ever looked out the airline window to see another plane zipping in the opposite direction, that flying marvel streaks through the air in a matter of seconds.  Most planes cruise at altitudes of 30,000 feet, which aviators will adjust to avoid turbulents, but for the most part, that is too high a number for me to calculate how high I may be flying.  If I look out the window, I cannot see individual cars, so I would estimate I am flying at a precise altitude of “pretty high up.”  But after applying some simple math [yes, I admit, I used math] thirty thousand feet is more than five miles in the air.  Go figure.

A Different Kind of Club

For years, maybe decades, I imagined my pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York.  I wanted to see Stan Musial’s uniform, Roger Maris’ bat, and every single morsel of baseball history, because I am that kind of a nerd also.  When the day of the expedition arrives, I wake early in the morning with the worst case of food poisoning I have ever experienced.  Cancel?  No!  In addition to the memorabilia of the Hall of Fame, I possess tickets to attend the annual film festival highlighted by Billy Crystal’s 61*, with the director on hand.  How often does a person get to screen a movie with its director, much less this director?  Needless to say, when I finally sit down on the plane, not in my usual exit row seat, but near the back of the plane, I check the seat back pocket for the folded air-sickness bag.

And somewhere over the Carolinas, and thankfully after the captain turns off the seat belt signs, I stumble to the microscopically small space where I finally purge myself of the last remnants of the foul leftovers.  Yes, I become one of those people who gets sick on an airplane.  I now comprehend first hand that given the number of airline passengers who board planes every year, statistically someone is going to be sick, and this time, I hold the honor.  I join a very different airline distinction, and not one of which I am particularly boastful, but I can at least take comfort in the fact that my stomach ailment bought my entrance to the Five-Mile-High Club.  While not as noteworthy as admission to the Hall of Fame, at least I finally make the pilgrimage.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mulholland Drive

History Lesson

William Mulholland, like most Irish immigrants of the late 1800s, left his home country, fumbled around various parts of the growing United States, worked several less-than-prosperous positions, and landed in a career that brought him amazing notoriety.  If his name sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve traveled out west.  If you grew up in California, you know him.  If you are a student of civil engineering, you’d better know him.  Like thousands of others who staked a claim to Southern California’s booming growth, Mulholland impacted the life spring of LA: he provided its drinking water.

Like other successful American legends, an equally unfortunate adversity accompanies the eventual journey to triumph.  For many of those stories, the stumble comes first and teaches a lesson that builds the story to its climax.  For Mulholland, the failure came at the end of his career, or better worded, the catastrophe ended his career.  When the last, and perhaps most memorable, moment of one’s professional notoriety ends with the word “disaster,” as in The St. Francis Dam Disaster, no measure of accomplishment or success erases more than 450 lives lost.  Mulholland’s history mirrors that of every great novel: tremendous highs and heart-breaking lows.

The Backbone of LA

I embark on a drive along Los Angeles’ spine: the tenuous road along the peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains.  The most famous of these relatively low peaks features the first point of interest where atop the Hollywood Hills large, white letters stand watch over the movie industry’s town.  But this drive brings more surprises and more beauty than just a photo op, even an iconic one.  One famous stop, the Paramount Ranch, served as the backdrop for dozens of movies, but it most notably looks like the 4077th compound.  [My Facebook and Twitter profile pictures are from this location.]  I cross the bridge made famous by Carmageddon, I see spectacular homes with breath-taking vistas looking both southward towards the city and northwards towards Simi Valley, I stop at roadside cafes that remind me of Route 66, I cross roads connecting Malibu to everywhere else, and I pass quiet, immaculate trailer parks ignorant of their premier real estate.

The high point, literally and figuratively, atop San Vincente Mountain, where atop a picnic table atop an abandoned radar site, the gracious New Year’s Day Santa Ana winds have blown the smog of the last year out to sea and I am wrapped by the full-circle beauty of Southern California. I see Big Bear, and the moderate skyscrapers of downtown LA, and the Valley, and Catalina Island all in a 360-view of the largest mass of city in the United States.  Postcard images taken on days like this focus on individual highlights of the region – the beach, Rodeo Drive, Griffith Observatory – but never show this image, undoubtedly so the city may keep this treasure to itself.  The full-day excursion along Mulholland Drive, across Mulholland Bridge, peering over Mulholland’s water-fueled metropolis, like the rushing flood waters from Mulholland’s Waterloo, carries me to the ocean’s edge at Leo Carrillo Beach.  Even in failure, I am in awe of his success.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Idiot Tree

On A Bright Desert Highway

Cool wind in my hair adds to my sense of freedom on the open road and rolling down the windows provides an alternative to a sunroof or a convertible.  Regardless of the outside temperature, I cherish this blowing brush of freedom, which tussles my hair and relaxes my spirit.  In the Florida summers, I confess to abusing the environment and driving with the windows down and the air conditioning fighting against the onslaught of humidity.  I do the same in cooler weather calling on the heater to balance out the two extremes.  Along alternate US Highway 93, the interior man-made warmth and the natural exterior briskness balance the temperature and still allow me to enjoy the blustery sensation.

The distant threat of soft rain along the Great Basin Highway bothers me little, as driving with the windows down both refreshes me and defies the raindrops. The brilliant sun disperses its light from behind the clouds and the basin brush shows little color beyond its shades of tan, brown, and sage, but the light, sandy desert still illuminates the day vibrantly.  My primary vision in this mix of monochromatic autumn scenery stems from the writing I scribed seasons before and thousands of miles southeast of this drive.  Here I am searching for a specific site along a distant desert highway yet to be determined, that will fit the needs of my plot.  The story in progress requires a setting similar to the myriad of low lands hiding in the rolling slopes of eastern Elko County, which changes the partially penned work to a more northerly setting, with higher hills, more curves, and fewer trees than the original idea I conceived.  In fact, in this setting, trees are scarce.

A Burst of Color

When I start on this drive from Ely, the sign at the edge of town promises no gas services for more than one hundred twenty miles and it must be said that Nevada is a state of its word.  Even without the sign, my map confirms the posting, so fueling up before heading out seems obvious.  To attempt to traverse the Steptoe Valley and to continue over the White Horse Pass without a full tank of gas would be the act of an idiot.  This most desolate highway allows me the luxury of self-imposed isolation and I escape for a time from the typical worldly binding in which I usually pass each day, until a lone tree ahead of me, drenched in color, distracts me and reminds me of the everyday world.

I drive onto the shoulder, regardless of the dearth of other vehicles on the road, and cut the engine, the vehicle-generated heat, and the noise of the car.  I stand facing the Idiot Tree, or so the stake in the ground reads, and I circle its base admiring the baseball hats, cowboy boots, compact discs, and personal accoutrements hanging from its branches along a completely deserted stretch of the Lincoln Highway.  Written on one hat, the names of a couple, and on another, a date – could these be the names and dates that commemorate an idiotic, romantic error regretted and crucified on this bark?  The leaves vibrate against the cool breeze but make little sound.  Dozens of other individuals made the pilgrimage to this place, stood in its silence, and pounded nails into the living wood as a testament to foolishness, which seems unidentifiable.  Perhaps the Idiot Tree stands as a landmark of lunacy, or a confessional for casual sins, or a mark of idle drivers.  Perhaps this lone tree is just a place where people run out of gas.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Rivers of Idaho

There’s a Snake in My Boot

It’s summer.  It’s warm.  It’s sunny.  The river is shallow along its bank, so why not pull over, roll up my pant legs, shed my shoes and dip my toes in the water I have been paralleling most of the morning?  Jet skis zoom and inner tubes float in the middle of the water where the depth and flow may be more ideal for a fun and active afternoon, but I plan to drive for several hours, so just a quick toe in the water douses my appetite to wet my feet.  River access from a roadside park will do, so I walk barefoot over the smooth, uneven rocks to the water’s edge, and cautiously stroll into the Snake River, far upstream from its emptying point into the ocean to the west.  And as I stare at my feet in the water, this one small step doesn’t represent any of the highlights of this vacation; nonetheless I want to remember the moment.  But even more I want to get back into the car and on my way.

Through the clear water, the gently worn stones and the undisturbed sand of the river bed allow me to see my feet, but the wind’s slight rippling on the surface makes them appear even larger than their already considerable length.  These big boots at the end of my legs make me giggle when I realize the clever quote from my favorite rootin’-tootin’ cowboy.  I pull my camera out of my pocket and capture my over-sized feet and the bright reflection off the water’s surface from the midday sun and post a picture on the web with the remark, “My boots are in the Snake.”

Following the Water

Where the Snake accepts the Clearwater River’s water, the summer flow, probably more tame than the springtime snowmelt rush, marks a turning point in the geography and a turning point of the road.  From here, I spend hours following the river inward and upstream, and along each stretch, I see weekend enthusiasts splashing and sunning.  I worry that my short stint in the water does not do the climate and the scenery justice.  I stop frequently to capture the tranquil images of the flowing waterway, but I keep my feet cozily inside my footwear.  I choose to enjoy the water aesthetically.

The water merges from the Lochsa River and I follow it through the Bitterroot Mountains awing at the beauty in both the sunlight and the shadows, squinting against the sun’s blinding reflection off the water and marveling in the deep, cool colors its absence creates in the narrow valleys between the rising mountain faces.  With each bend in the rivers and my continued driving upstream, the population playing in the summer sun and warm waters thins, but the depth and breadth to which the images along these three rivers snaking through the mountains deepen their impression upon me magnifies. Even with only a few small steps in the water, I drench myself in the rivers of Idaho.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Breathing Windmills

Blowing through Texas

No one prefers the middle seat on the airplane.  Most adults will tell you their preferred seats are the aisle options.  When traveling with kids, grownups put the little ones in the middle seat between two adults, but if given their choice, most kids want the window seat.  Most kids and I.  Looking out the airplane window resembles life-sized Google Earth, and I pride myself on my ability to insert my own mental markers for waterways and highways, dams and deserts, and large landmarks, dozens upon which I have gazed from ground level.

On the dusty fields of Texas, windmills silently perch above the valleys getting the privilege of facing and enjoying an expansive view of the sunset.  While driving US Highway 62, the slender white pillars appear small, peaking high above the eastern horizon.  These massive industrial turbines thrive on the powerful, hot winds off the Guadalupe Mountains and give back their energy to the communities over which they stand watch.  As stately and statuesque as the sentinels appear in the distance, my point of view from seat 12F altered my perspective on their height.  They remind me of strategically positioned pinwheels across the brown landscape, playing in the breeze and tickling the sky while the pumping Texas oil wells drill and scratch against the earth’s belly.

Charging Against Windmills

Wind drives across the continent, howls over its western mountain tops and up the open Plains through Tornado Alley.  Yet in the peaceful, gentle autumn of Connecticut pre-fab signs banged into yard after neighborhood after subdivision rallied against wind power and its toxic influence on its environment.  As I passed these twelve-by-fifteen individual protests, less than three months after the Deep Water Horizon spill thrust its watery environment into a streaming webcam of streaming oil, I imagined those guards along the Lone Star rims sagging in sadness at the objections planted against them.

Just a month prior I sneaked around a curving corner of the smooth Appalachians and surprised myself when peeking out from the top of the hillside, visible out the rental moon roof, stood a white industrial turbine.  Unlike their ten-gallon cousins, the West Virginia windmills, while equal in height, dotted the occasional dulled mountain peaks, rather than an energy-generating army lined up militarily along a ridge.

Lulled in by their individualism, I pulled up next to one, gazed up through the automotive skylight and watched its gentle, slow rotation.  Turning off the engine, I stepped out of the car, stretching my legs in protest against the drive from Pennsylvania (and the jaunt across northwest Maryland).  The full height of my arms reaching above my head still minimalized me against the coal-free energy giant.  With each rotation, the immense blades pushed the air with a soft, deep woosh, woosh, woosh that breathed life into the simple structure, and into the world around it.  And more than a year later from thirty-thousand feet as I gaze at the line of playful pinwheels, I imagine their gentle inhaling and exhaling across the dry, drifting Texas landscape.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vapor Trails

Haikus Don’t Make Sense

Creative Writing 498 required one short story and an exaggerative dozen poems.  Undoubtedly the multiple revisions compounded that estimate because now I recall only four of the topics.  I remember writing a free-form poem about why bubbly Coca-Cola tastes better than room-temperature, low-fat milk.  Imagine pouring powdered dairy product into a low-end 1970s Snoopy thermos and for several hours carrying it around an Arizona elementary school with no air conditioning.  Yum.  I also wrote two Italian sonnets about my seven-year marriage to Ebenezer Scrooge and a BMW that served as a chicken coop, both with similar living conditions.

As an alternative, I considered writing a haiku – short and simple – and quickly discovered writing fewer words complicates the assignment, not simplifies it.  Additionally, traditional Japanese poetry focuses on nature and reflection upon it and in that poorly-lit period of my life, reflection could rarely be achieved with a mirror.  Nevertheless, I did write a fourth poem to fulfill the course requirements and developed an image that remained with me long after reaching the end of the proverbial dark, pre- and post-divorce tunnel. 

All The Closer I’ll Ever Get

For anyone who has spent a holiday season working at a cash register, one single customer berating a minimum-wage cashier changes a tense environment from stressful to hostile.  Having met that type of customer more than once in that profession, I tend to internalize that barking and subsequently spend several nights not sleeping well.  Over time, pushing that individual from my mind became easier, although never impossible, and I apply my “vapor trail theory” to overcome those one-time attacks and make the hectic holiday season easier to handle.

When the humidity decreases and temperatures drop, vapor trails remain in the sky far longer than the planes that create them.  And when those early-departure flights leave their mark before sunrise, the oranges and peaches and pinks in the air appear like perfectly straight strands of wool cutting across the lavender sky.  These man-made puffs provide the natural aspect upon which my haiku develops.  As I watch the softly straight clouds gradually change colors in the brightening dawn, I think about the roughly one hundred people who earlier in the morning passed over my house and through my life. The ongoing contemplation about the people lingers as long as these spun strands of condensation hang in the sky.

Nearly two decades after writing my haiku, I cling to the idea of a person passing through my life, whether a surly customer barking or an airline passenger jetting miles overhead.  As I gaze at the pink, trailing remnant in the sky flying above Yosemite Valley at sunset, I stop to think of the travelers, perhaps more than I should, or more than anyone else would, and I feel sympathy that they came no closer to these majestic granite marvels than a mile high and five-hundred miles per hour.  Never again in my entire lifetime will I cross paths with those individuals and each taught, cotton cloud reminds me of those seventeen syllables that stay with me after the vapor trail dissipates.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

North Dakota on a Napkin

Snacks on a Plane

While most people who remember meals on airplanes recall them to be the adult, airborne versions of school lunches, their meager snack replacements also serve as the only form of discount airline in-flight entertainment.  The few dozen peanuts or handful of pretzels that keep passengers’ appetites contented until landing easily fit onto the cocktail napkins – the ones that accompany the cups of ice with a few dribbles of complementary soft drinks.  But pouring the little bags of snacks onto the small white squares and corralling them from rolling onto the passenger’s lap in 12E (or sliding into the chair-back pocket) converts simple tidiness into a playful game keeping passengers busy for a full ten minutes.

When the sips of liquid are gone, the cold cubes tumbling forward against my nose, and only the salty remnants of the snacks stick to the napkin, I usually stuff the square into the cup and wait for the trash collectors to make their way back through the cabin.  But this time I take a moment and examine the airline’s flight map printed on the napkin, looking at the final destination in the center of the country where I would land.  When I step off the plane in Nebraska, I will be checking another state off the “Been There, Done That” list, and looking at this mini map, I consider the odd fact that I have traveled to every state around it, but never made it to the Corn Husker state.  Nearly twenty years earlier I traversed its northern neighbor checking off the lower Dakota, but someday would need to head back to this destination in order to add the upper Dakota to my traveling accomplishments.

Spontaneity

Stopping for a roadside distraction, a scenic vista or an extended meal routinely fill my solo travels, but a dramatic change of itinerary bothers my budgetary sensibilities and disrupts the mental travel clock that pushes me forward to my daily destinations.  But on a four-by-four white square, North Dakota appeared close and conquerable.  With wheels down, the frequent-flyer-point planets align and the opportunity to spend Independence Day driving along the Missouri River into the Big Sioux valley and across the other continental divide transforms an overnight flight into an unexpected summer road trip.

From the confines of the narrow plane seat, the straight shot journey up and down the northern American plains amounts to the length of a single peanut.  But on Interstate 29, the spacious, untouched fields, the swooping swallows, the sleepy little towns, the glowing mid-summer sunset late into the evening, and rockets red-glaring from distant farms into the darkening sky reward my unusual impulsiveness.  Yes, I check two states off the must-see list instead of just one by doubling the length of this weekend excursion to forty-two hours, but the long-term value of seeing North Dakota on a napkin and choosing to see it in person stacks my mind and my memory with visual moments and quiet scenes unmeasured in my forty-two years.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Outside the Box

Small Town Dining

Taking the passenger seat on a road trip happens so infrequently that I count the chauffeuring on one hand and wonder how I ever managed to sit patiently for that length of time.  On one of these outings, I traveled with a number of aunts and uncles as part of a volunteer moving crew on our way to central Arkansas.  Despite my thousands of frequent-driver miles (and, yes, the less-frequent passenger miles), this trip marks the only time during which I eat at a Waffle House, primarily because I place them in my self-designated restaurant category of “I Can Always Find Something Else I Like More.”  But on this one outing, I enjoyed the scrambled eggs.

All of my travels through Arkansas involved visits with my uncle and his wife, whether packing and transporting his household goods to a new home or passing through on a family vacation.  I remember as a ‘tween seeing the sites of Hot Springs and stopping at the A&W drive-in and getting an earful from my Dad for ordering a Coca-Cola instead of a root beer.  Of the memories I have from my time in Hot Springs, I recall driving up to an overlook, but I retain no mental image of the view besides the parking lot (perhaps since I am spoiled by countless memorable vistas in my lifetime), but I distinctly recall the A&W exchange.

The Next State

On the return to Missouri where the caravan began its travels southward, we stop well into the evening at the familiar golden arches in Blytheville to grab a bite to eat before resuming the final leg of our trip.  My mom’s sister, a bubbly woman who engaged each and every person she encountered on the planet in a brief conversation that established her gregariousness and her impulsiveness, initiates a discussion with a Blythevillian teenager trapped both sweeping the floors and in my aunt’s general vicinity.  At the northeast corner of this southern state, the young lady’s drawl reminds me that its geographic location stands at the entrance to the South – just a short distance from Missouri and just across the Mississippi River from Tennessee.

The Great River brought the both the French settlers and the early Spaniards deep into the North American continent.  The Army of the Republic pushed through the solid defenses of Vicksburg and Nachez and other Southern strongholds along this same waterway on its way to the Gulf of Mexico separating the Confederacy from the lands to which it hoped to expand westward.  Blytheville lies at the junction of the travels that have shaped the United States for centuries, but in this simple conversation, my aunt discovers that this young woman had never left the state of Arkansas, not once ever.  For everything I remember about Arkansas, even above the A&W debate, the prospect of a self-imposed limitation floors me.  I cringe at the idea of never stepping outside the box.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Next Chapter

Long-Stemmed Gesture
 
Stellar moments happen in the most unexpected places, like one of those police stories where a woman gives birth on the Long Island Expressway or a marriage proposal gets squeezed in during the middle of the fifth inning.  You’ve seen the plethora of YouTube videos changing these moments of excitement into blasĂ© banality, because the scenes become frequent and fleeting Internet sensations rather than memorable, life-changing moments.  I once played a part in these moments following a future fiancĂ© around a theme park with an engagement ring in my purse until moments before the evening’s fireworks finale.  But rather than publicize the proposal, we relied on the disinterest of the surrounding sweaty spectators, and since I did not post it online, I wonder if anyone besides me and the couple witnessed and remembered the moment.

I recently recalled that isolated engagement when an equally apathetic group of passengers on the city bus, worn from a full workday and just starting their lengthy commute home, failed to notice the gentlemen quietly seated with the bouquet of red roses.  Often people avoid direct eye contact among their fellow riders in hopes of keeping the double-wide bus seat to themselves, so their focus, either down, out the window, or possibly asleep, kept this genuine gentleman from being noticed.  I watched him, though, because this ride represented the preface to the next passage of his story.  And as the climax built and the bus moved along its route, I watched to see if the approaching stop, whenever it might occur, would be his exit into possibly the best chapter of his romantic tale.  He patiently traveled, not giving away any sense of impetus, not reaching in his pocket to fumble nervously with a boxed gem.  When he finally disembarked, I watched him walk off just as mysteriously as he sat, but with a gait that made me wish I could follow him.  I didn’t have to though, since I knew how his story would unfold.

Regrettably

While at an Interstate 10 rest stop on a pass from one end of the Florida Panhandle to the other, I worry about my sons in the adjacent facility.  Nearing sunset, a higher number of tractor trailers started filling the lot, many preparing to park for the night, and the general transient nature of their presence makes me apprehensive about a nine- and three-year-old unaccompanied even for a few minutes in a roadside restroom. Amid my self-centeredness and overly mothering qualms I suddenly realize I am not the only occupant of the room – a woman with a fussy baby busies herself at the sink.  The steam from the faucet lifts towards the mirror as the water tumbles over a bottle of milk she heats for the infant using the hottest temperature possible.  In the narrow space between the mirror’s edge and the fogged center, I see the young woman’s face and the dark circle near her eye.  I finish washing my hands and leave to corral my sons.

Preparing for the next leg beyond Tallahassee requires an assembly line of reloading, repacking, and re-buckling the boys into their booster seats on their respective sides of the car.  Finally finished, I walk around the front of the car to take the driver’s seat in my little vehicle dwarfed by the big rigs, and ahead of me, I see the woman climbing into a cab, the bundle in her arms and the bruise on her face.  I catch her gaze and in that moment, wonder about the next chapter of her story.  I gesture to her to inquire if she is okay.  She nods in response, but I wonder if she considers this a casual inquiry.  My concern changes from parental nervousness about my boys to a gnawing angst about what will happen when she closes the truck door and rides away.  I ask again with all the sincerity the distance between us affords.  She repeats her response and turns her gaze away, not wanting to look me in the eye, as if I might do more than occupy the seat next to her.  I question my ability to change what may happen next for her and her child if her answer had been something different; I couldn’t change it when I witnessed and remembered the moment in my own life.  I drive away with my boys wishing for the courage to follow her.  I knew how her story would unfold.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ad Placement

Car Commercials

Closed Road.  Professional Driver.  Do Not Attempt.  Or so the fine print indicates.  But those advertisements show fancy new vehicles skirting the ocean cliffs, swirling through a road of falling leaves, or exploding across the desert as the waves of heat rise and wrap the glimmering speedster.  We want more than that car, we want that driving experience.  These commercials tempt us, pretending our alternate career as professional drivers lay in the ownership of this four-wheel fantasy, but one commute to or from my office reminds me that our collective night job eludes an overwhelming majority of America’s driving population.

Locating a completely abandoned road, however, becomes the greater challenge.  My travels have taken me through several deserts, most of which are purloined by the Defense Department, but the military frowns on my driving on the runways of its test-pilot facilities.  The seagrape-covered dunes along the nearby Florida surfside roads obscure the few paltry waves that reach the cliffless shore.  Do these places really exist, or are these closed roads computer generated?

Ongoing Construction

Also known as “summer” in many northern parts of the United States, the peak periods of construction frustrate drivers in our efforts to get from here to there, slowing us down, blocking our way, and detouring us from our destinations.  While Bob obviously has a thriving business, we despise his barricades and their flashing yellow lights.  Yes, we want new, smooth roadways, but please do not impede us to get it paved.  And those painted lines constrict us, telling us we cannot pass the one vehicle leading a long line that refuses to meet, much less exceed, the speed limit.

But I found it.  I found the elusive county road in early October in northeastern Connecticut.  On a midday Monday I passed the only opposing traffic – a mail truck – on the lazy afternoon sweep headed towards Rhode Island.  Despite the warnings of road work, painting the yellow and white parallel pavement restrictions remained the only unfinished business by the men-not-at-work.  With so few travelers, the autumnal droppings formed small piles and with a gentle swerving, I allowed my new-to-me rental car to have its way with the road.  Glancing into the rear view mirror at the spiraling leaves stirred behind me, I imagine the madmen crew captures the moment on film for a future envious image for future sales campaigns.  Open road, outstanding driver.  Attempted.  Succeeded.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rapid City, Rapid Change

Upheaval

When I left Colorado in 1991, I was shaking up my life completely.  Son #1 and I embarked on a circuitous journey that would end with our first residence at our first military instillation, but when we left our southern home, logging so many miles through so many states had not been part of the plan.  The drive from Florida started in May and continued through August; we crossed thirteen states, many of which didn’t even lie on the route the crow flies.  A seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-month-old and I spent the summer marking the beginning of my adult road trips, christening my passion for setting a course and paving a road to a new experience, a new view, and in this instance, a new life.

Measuring the magnitude of this outing in miles, or the vastness of its incredible isolation from my known routine, or the singular companionship of an infant all compounded the route that the military meanderingly identified for us and challenged me to go where the wind would carry me.  The first assignment landed him in Texas, then on to Colorado for training, so I followed him to Colorado upon his arrival in the Mile High state.  The military issued orders for Arizona and I prepared to keep a temporary home in Colorado until our departure to our permanent duty station.  But new marching shipped him back to Texas for more training and new driving directions diverted my plans to see the Grand Canyon state.  The military radically changed the direction of our lives, and now it changed my planned travel from the sun and dry warmth of Arizona to frozen forests of Michigan.  Admittedly, this trip exemplified uncertainty, but instead of creating a lifetime of travel-related anxiety, the trek initiated my driving impetus and my sense of “itchy feet.”

Revolution

When you’re sick (think scratchy throat and achy fever), down a dose of cold medicine, steep a cup of hot tea with honey, and tuck your toes into the blankets on your bed.  That’s where you want to be, not driving away from Colorado, across the desolation of eastern Wyoming, and into the Dakota plains.  The Sudafed helped, and even putting aside the oncoming bacterial storm long enough to enjoy George, Abe, Jeff, and Teddy carved into the mountainside couldn’t stave off the sleepless night ahead.  My baby boy snoozed soundly through the night, but my system refused to follow suit, and I begged to be lulled away from the ill effects pummeling my physiology, aided by leaving the television chattering with the best early-nineties, round-the-clock, adult-sitting, aching, stuffy-head, fever, unable-to-rest network: CNN.

Inevitably when life kicks my butt, I witness and am reminded of people tackling a greater illness, overcoming a tougher obstacle, or conquering a taller hurdle.  Or climbing a tank, or being held hostage by old-world Soviets.  As I lie in the hotel bed in Rapid City, South Dakota dozing and swallowing hard against the sore throat, I witness the struggle of others as the Cold War dramatically ends.  A hemisphere away from my new military future, the entire course of another military, a super-power nation, and the planet’s future is transforming.  I hate being sick, but I endure a night of uncomfortable sleeplessness.  I bemoan the military’s indecisiveness, but I witness the entire world change forever.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Vet

Just One Day

On more than one occasion I have dropped into a major city by sheer circumstance, usually because I happened to be close by on business.  I firmly believe that if given the opportunity, fitting an excursion into my non-vacation travels personalizes the trip, and since the cost to get to Point A is covered, I opt not to sleep in, but to voyage out.  On a sidebar to Washington, DC: a pop in at the National Archives to visit the Declaration of Independence.  Twenty years had passed since I first pilgrimaged to the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, and for anyone who has walked through the Archives, seeing it is challenging due to the fading writing, while the intentionally dim lighting preserves what few words are still legible.  Reading the words penned by our Founding Fathers should be our nation’s journey to Mecca.  If you have never seen it, go.
In these beautiful cities I see the highlights that existed before me and will remain for generations after me, yet these moments fill only a handful of my total days on the planet.  Sometimes longer stays afford me extended opportunities, like the five hours in the Smithsonian American Art Museum browsing among the Catlins and getting lost Among the Sierra Nevada, California.  Yet, when time is not on my side, I visit what I can, ideally something new to me, and appreciate the fifteen minutes in splendor as an alternative to a lifetime of never seeing the beauty of the United States, both natural and man-made.
Brotherly Adoration
Philadelphia smacks of patriotism and tourism, and I am guilty of briefly taking absolute advantage of its highlights.  Again invoking the one-day plan, I park the rental downtown, and step towards a group of stately buildings in close proximity unknowingly finding myself face-to-face with the Italian Stallion.  As a fan of pop culture (and the Eighties), I recall when the City of Brotherly Love presented Rocky Balboa with a life-size sculpture of himself, shortly before he took a beating at the hands of Clubber Lang.  I capture the standard self-portrait with the heavy-weight champion in bronze before heading to the next noteworthy metal structure – the one with the giant crack.  Again, if you have never seen the Liberty Bell, go.
But the baseball freak inside me forces a visit to the Phillies’ home field.   In time I have come to despise the Phillies, not because of their outstanding work ethic or superior on-field performance, but on behalf of my beloved Rays and that 2008 World Series.  A handful of years before that matchup, Philadelphians granted the Phillies’ wish and built a shiny, new baseball stadium, but as the Atlanta Braves step onto the field in front of me, their footsteps count among the final few at Veterans Stadium, in fact the next to the last game at The Vet.
I certainly value aesthetic treasures that generations before and yet-to-come will enjoy, but to take one day and see one structure that has stood witness to decades of history by a team that Philadelphia adores holds just as much value.  I watch the final win at a stadium three years my junior, a concrete circle shortly to be imploded, an architectural humdrum delighted for the final time by a favorite son hitting a game-winning, tenth-inning double after his bottom-of-the-eight home run.  Making this stop, even for one afternoon of one day, develops into an excursion never to be repeated and never to be forgotten.  If you desire to see a remarkable structure, a significant piece of art, or a fleeting landmark, go.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Traveling with Boys

My Love Affair with the Atlas

As a tween traveler, my favorite part of a road trip involved monopolizing the atlas.  I watched highway signs near, knowing what town or junction we approached.  I searched for the origins of creeks and rivers long after we had traversed their bridges.  I estimated how far and how long each leg of our drive would take and knew without asking that we weren’t there yet.  Better still, for my sisters the bound book of maps mattered little, so unless someone in the car’s cockpit needed it, I occupied myself in combining my sense of direction to my geographic curiosity.  I easily could have earned the title of Backseat Navigator had my family realized how intimately I studied and adored its pages.

Of course, the road trips with my own children possess three features that the family station wagon of the seventies lacked: seat restraints, a solo driver and ADD-diagnosed boys and their bladders.  I possess an atlas of my own, but I doubt my cartographic fascinations genetically transferred to my two passengers.  Still, my boys rarely ask the classic road trip query, “Are we there yet?”  My secret: when we stop for a meal, I fill the tank – mine and the car’s – and the boys unload theirs. They detour for a pit stop on arrival and before departure, but in between they burn off energy on the playground, whether at a rest stop or a restaurant.  We grab their food to go, I’d buckle back in the driver’s seat, and they feed their faces without driving me crazy.

No Services for the Next Fifty Miles

But despite the skills of a master navigator, boys will be idiomatic, and on the fifty-mile stretch between Las Cruces and Alamogordo through the White Sands Missile Range, Son #2 announces his need to leave his mark in the sandy shoulder of the road.  The occasional portable men’s rooms strategically placed to aid motorists with like-minded boys appear just slightly less frequently enough than needed, and distinctly less frequently than the “No Stopping” signs.  During his sixty seconds of unauthorized precipitation, the only passing vehicle, a Wal-Mart diesel rig, honks in salute of his raining on the military proving ground’s parade.

Back in the car and back on the road, we resume the journey and commence the familial razzing that the situation warrants.  Laughter about his “moment of glory” in the New Mexico desert, another feature missing from the old days in the family station wagon, continues long after we catch up to the discount store semi, which again honks at our family’s follies.  We certainly aren’t there yet, but traveling with my boys distracts us from how far we have traveled, and makes how long each leg of our adventure will still take blissfully unimportant.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Desert Dust

Unpacking

It’s like washing all the dishes after Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s like taking the trash out with the bows and wrapping remnants of Christmas.  It’s like those billy-goat vacuums that follow a parade sucking up the last shreds of the festivities.  Usually within forty-eight hours of arriving home, I unpack the laundry from my vacation and begin the process of completing the last travel-related activities.  I don’t enjoy it, but it needs to be done.

When the unpacking commences, my toothbrush and favorite souvenirs make it out of the suitcase shortly after the front door closes behind me, but dirty clothes hold a lower priority and can stay in there until tomorrow, maybe the next day depending on my schedule, converting my suitcase into a laundry basket.  Cleaning my travel wardrobe erases the fragrances, both aromatic and foul, the spills and the splatters, and the visible memories of the most recent adventure.  And with a wash, a rinse, and a spin, my vacation is completely behind me.

Beaten and Blown by the Wind

Twenty five years ago the desert of southeastern California inspired the album cover of Joshua Tree, and the prospect of driving to that site and letting the desolation of the sandy, scrub-covered landscape absorb me and remove me from the noise and structure of my everyday life enchanted and excited me.  Over a small hill, I abandon my rental car and walk amid the uneven desert floor, mindful that those shallow holes and connecting tunnels could contain rodent wildlife or venomous residents.  In both reasonable proximity and the farther distance, less than a half dozen Joshua trees watch over the landscape and take no action against my entering their domain.

A quarter-mile walk leads me into the open desert and I reach into my pocket and pull out my pre-queued soundtrack for this exact, planned moment.  Beyond a place where the streets have no names, I stand where I want to be: where the streets have no pavement.  I use my small sneakers to leave a mark in the sand – one that will only remain until the wind blows it away – and like an elementary ballet pupil, I spin to the song’s introductory riff kicking up the dirt around my ankles, making a mess and not minding at all.  I don’t even mind the sand in my shoes rubbing against my feet when I hike back over the hill to the solitary SUV.  And now three weeks later, the rest of the laundry is washed, dried, hung, and perhaps even worn again, but the sand coating those shoes remains, not to avoid cleaning them, but to preserve the visible memory, and because I want the desert dust to continue to be at my feet.