Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

Warning: the below recollection may be inappropriate for younger readers.

Landmark Birthdays

This past New Year’s Eve a friend of mine observed that the holiday will never be as fun as the year we welcomed 2000.  Y2K aside, nothing compares to the scale of the end of the twentieth century.  More than a decade prior Prince had it right we he said we were gonna party like it’s 1999 because none of us have partied again like we did that night.  Any legal adult can recall the celebration at that landmark occasion.

We humans commemorate significant dates, remarkable occasions, and landmark birthdays to gauge the passage of time.  Days that live in infamy, quinceƱareas, the last episode of M*A*S*H, Willard Scott’s roll call all hold meaning and recollection for us, and I am guilty of marking the passage of time similarly.  And like many single women, at some point we all take the leap from “a perfectly good airplane” (you’d be amazed how many people use that exact phrase), and for me I marked three decades with such a leap on my birthday.

The Best Analogy Ever

Since childhood I have been a fan of the Looney Toons team of Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote and I adored the moment after the villain passes over the edge of the cliff and lingers in the air, and believe it or not, that moment actually happens when emerging from the door of an aircraft.  No one told me that, and no one mentioned how incredibly difficult it is to breathe when falling nearly 100 miles per hour.  Clearly I did not research the experience, I just took the leap.

Likewise, no one told me how much skydiving ranks akin to really great sex.  First, there is the anticipation and understanding of where the experience is heading as the plane takes flight.  Second, the heart rate increases as the open-door aircraft makes several passes over the drop zone for the variety of experience-level jumpers.  Third, standing at the open door and looking down towards the earth, all the way to the horizon, the excitement of the moment nears its peak.  Fourth, the jump itself is the comparative moment you think it is, and for the next roughly sixty seconds breathing is shallow, often gasping for air enough to maintain consciousness.  Fifth, coasting down from the high that passed, normal breathing patterns return along with time to enjoy the view.  Sixth, touchdown, and the experience is a memory that passed quickly but changes the perspective tremendously.  And lastly, I get dressed and go home.  Take the leap, remember the moment; you won’t regret it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Beautiful Beasts

Swimming in Alphabet Soup

Once, in an effort to maximize my frequent-flyer points, I planned a cross-country vacation from Florida to Washington State.  By paying for only the flights from LAX to GEG and return flight from GEG to LAS, I used my freebies to get most of the way there and back for a minimal cost as four separate flights with a couple plane changes on the longer stretches.  When people travel across country, two pools of thought exist: one, “Change planes?  Not on your life,” and, two, “Sure, I’ll change planes; it gives me a chance to stretch my legs and use a real-sized bathroom.”  I willingly swim in either pool.  But on my way west on this particular expedition, I stumbled into an oversold flight and garnered a big bank account for even more future travel – score!  So instead of four flights from MCO to GEG, I flew MCO to SAT to PHX to LAX to OAK to GEG.  I spent a lot of time that day in the “stretch my legs” pool.

It might seem peculiar, but I take my atlas on the plane with me.  Of course, I use and abuse my atlas (see “Traveling With Boys” from November 2011), so understand that I will never own a pocket-size edition.  Because of its size, the atlas lives in my suitcase and spends the duration of each flight in the overhead compartment.  Only when I reach the terminus of my trip, or during my layovers, do I review my planned journey and see the details of my coming adventure.  But while spending time in the layover pools in Texas, Arizona, Southern California, and Northern California, I have an abundance of time to study the maps of Eastern Washington and Oregon, of Northern Idaho, and of Western Montana.  Undoubtedly this might be the onset of utter boredom for many, but for me, some of the most rewarding moments of my travels stem from my curiosity about the places I find on the pages in front of me.  I really am a map geek.

Look What I Found

Despite touching down or setting foot in nine states, one specific destination headlines my vacation: Glacier National Park (see “Went-To-The-Sun Road” from February 2012).  The atlas, already marked with the bright, yellow highlighter of the roads I plan to drive, covers several pages of maps, so I start with the biggest, Montana, to see what lies between me and the end of the route just shy of the Canadian border.  Between Point A and Point B, I find the Nez Perce National Historic Park, Lolo Pass, and – jackpot! – the National Bison Range.

I arrive in Missoula well after dark despite the long summer days, regardless, the next morning I leap to a quick start to dedicate extra time among the bison.  The drive around the range features one of my least favorite attributes: steep climbs with no railings.  A moment of courage (one of many on this adventure) emboldens me and I ascend the narrow one-way, single-lane dirt road well outside my comfort zone.  As the route returns to a manageable height, I round the turn towards the back forty, and the best part of the National Bison Range comes into view: dozens of American bison grazing the fields, crossing the road, strolling with their offspring and breathing heavily just outside my car window.  Five flights and six airports lead to a morning amid the beautiful beasts of the American West – all because I pulled out my atlas in the alphabet soup of terminals.

Monday, February 20, 2012

George Washington


Along the eastern United States, major ports with enormous industrial cranes tote goods from cargo ships for disbursement and distribution across the country.  And in several of these ocean depots, distinct patches of battleship gray highlight the naval shipyards, an unmistakable color for the assorted government flotillas in ports from New York City to Jacksonville.  At the southernmost end of Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk Naval Station similarly hosts pieces of the Atlantic fleets for extended dry docks, short-term surfacings, and home port check-ins for thousands of sailors before again sending them out on their global sailings.

Summer celebrations of patriotism belong in ports like Norfolk.  Sure, just to the north, fireworks and Pops herald the nation’s commemorative Independence Day festivities, but in Norfolk, the swing of a bottle of champagne and its shattering jubilance against the hull of a shiny new aircraft carrier contribute to America’s independence far more than colorful explosive lights in D.C.’s sky.  The water of the world’s oceans will spray this newest home for more than 6,000 crew members, once the sideways skyscraper secures its commission, prepares to set sail, and embarks on its first voyage into the central Atlantic.

Not The President

At the tail end of the Cold War, the U.S.S. George Washington and its squadron of tail hooks joined the US Navy, commissioned just days before Son #1 and I meet the floating city face-to-face.  On our trek from Canada to Florida, Southern Virginia marks the midway of our travels, but for thousands of midshipmen, it marks the beginning of a Nimitz-class adventure.  From here, the vessel navigates the
Pacific or the Persian Gulf, and both perilous and peaceful places in between, and it sails out to sea while we continue our tour on dry land.

The new core of this American armada stretches along an expansive dock that seems to meet the afternoon horizon as we examine its girth from behind the chain-link fence.  Standing on Pier 12, there appears to be little to see besides its immense size, but from one end, the deck spreads outward like a loosely-bound bouquet.  He barely bobs and quietly anchors in his dock; planes are not catapulting from its deck, whistles are not sounding through the stacked and cramped layers of gangways, sailors are not visible on deck, and fighter jets are not jerking to a stop on its minimal runway.  All of its adventures lay in the future, and in my mind I randomly comb through the places where this ship may travel.  I gaze upon this war craft, jealously yearning for a fraction of the miles this vessel will put behind it during its future service.  I am doubtful Son #1 will recall seeing this ship at such an early age, christened before his birth and commissioned before the age of two, but he most certainly will benefit from its missions throughout his lifetime, and I’ll enjoy my future travels under the umbrella of safety George Washington provides.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Son’s Mecca

Coke Karma

It’s no mystery that I love Coca-Cola (see “Vapor Trail” from December 2011).  Yes, I am fully aware of its properties that enhance my waistline and decalcify my bones.  I don’t care.  If someone makes a healthy drink taste like Coke, I’ll drink it, but until then, keep it to yourself.  On a return trip from Birmingham to Florida, Son #2 and I overnighted in the Atlanta area just to visit the World of Coke.  Of course it is possible to purchase those green signature bottles of caffeinated bliss at the grocery store, but getting the free one (and by “free,” I mean the one that is included in the cost of the admission) at the end of the tour tastes better than any Coke I’ve ever had…well, save one.

Just after school ended in 1985, I had some useless reason to wrap up my work on campus and went downstairs to the soft drink machine only to find it empty.  Sure the old machine behind the cafeteria emptied slower, because rarely did anyone go back there; but in Arizona the temperature rises just above stereotypically hot, and the school saved money in the summer by not running the evaporative coolers for the handful of people wrapping up their loose ends.  So I trudged behind the building to the area where, much like the classic Sigourney Weaver film, no one can hear you scream.  Since the old machine required exact change, I came prepared, but not prepared for the moment of magic that followed when the coins released the beautiful beverage: old Coke!  Not the horribly received “New Coke,” or even the “retro” rebranded Coca-Cola Classic, but the original, before the marketing mayhem of the Coke-yet-to-be-branded.  If more change filled my pockets, I would have emptied the machine.

A Pilgrimage

I journeyed to my own personal Mecca (see “The Mile High Club” from December 2011) and not to belittle the true religious site on the Arabian Peninsula, everyone should have a place that marks the most special geographic pilgrimage they can journey in their lifetime – the site that fills their soul with happiness; every memory of the trek to their own personal nirvana from dreaming to planning to going to remembering should continue to inspire feelings for a lifetime.  Consider it the number-one place on your bucket list.  During his years in high school, Son #1 comes awfully close, but not quite close enough, to his mecca.  As a parent yearning for an excuse to travel, I make the final leg of the journey for him.

While on a band trip to Dallas, I crash the party, flying into Big D much to the jealous dismay and consternation of the chaperones who rode nearly twenty-four hours on a bus filled with high school students.  I hop in my slick vehicle, since the nice rental-car folks upgraded me to a Mustang, for a one-woman voyage to Waco, Texas.  Waco, often recalled in the phrase, “The Siege at ___,” lies partway between Dallas and the Lone Star’s capital and proudly boasts
Baylor University.  Founded in the same year as the California Gold Rush, Waco’s true “black gold” comes with its own secret recipe in a bottle similar to the gorgeous green swoosh that I adore and cherish and, on that hot Arizona summer day decades ago, savored.  I enter the Waco building, perhaps not filled with quite as much historic notoriety as the Alamo, but with as much meaning and importance to my son.  This simple building stands as a testament to another legacy of carbonated refreshment, and it marks the end of my pilgrimage for him.  And of course I journey back to my son, like Moses descending Mount Sinai, delivering to him two bottles of the nectar from Deep in the Heart of Texas: the original formula, sugar-cane-sweetened Dr. Pepper.  Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Went-to-the-Sun Road

My Executive Office

Cutting through the middle of Glacier National Park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs to the heights of Logan Pass along rocky cliffs divided only by waterfalls gushing in the spring and trickling in the summer.  Around every curve in the road the spectacular vistas appear drenched in sunlight.  Hiking trails measuring fourteen times the length of the drive offer pedestrian alternatives to the one road bisecting the national park, but this road remains my favorite crossing of the Continental Divide.  Whether by car or on foot, no place in the United States (well, maybe Alaska) looks anything like this century-plus national park running along the Canadian border in Montana.  Similar to my prevalent sentiment, if you have never seen it, go (see “The Vet” from November 2011).

As my petite car perches on the edge of a rocky ledge of mostly paved roadway, stopped in a short length of cars holding for the segments of summer construction that keeps the mountainous road passable, a young woman with a neon orange safety vest glances over the roof of my car down into the step valley off the roadside with the morning sun rising at the far end of the scenery.  She stands with her stop sign, waiting for the oncoming single lane of traffic to pass before allowing those of us parked behind the construction trucks to be allowed to proceed.  I look beyond the momentarily vehicle delay into the breathtaking scenery and mention that if she must be working, at least she enjoys a spectacular view.  “Yes, this is my executive office,” she says glancing into the sunlit abyss.

Virtually Reliving

Starting on the western end near Lake McDonald, climbing up into the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and then descending again to the meadows along the ridge’s eastern edge into the Great Plains, the Going-to-the-Sun Road allows passage only once the massive snow-clearing machinery finds the road buried beneath a winter’s worth of accumulation.  Driving the road marvels its passengers with its civil engineering remarkability, but seeing images of the two snow-covered lanes amazes viewers just to think a path could be blazed through the extreme whiteness.

While my memory serves me well and I recall the numerous images of my day along the winding road to Jackson Glacier, having the opportunity to see this massive slab of ice as it slowly melts into oblivion, and to stand in the shadows as the sun barely peeks over the peaks and casts its white light against the snow-capped mountains fills less than one day of my entire summer.  While I acknowledge that spending every day along this road lacks any chance of true feasibility, since my entire lifetime exists along other roads and responsibilities, I keep this day’s drive alive with me for years, every time I log on to the webcams of Glacier National Park and watch the snow fall, accumulate, thaw, and thin.  The road reopens again each summer, and through these online images I remember and relive the day I Went To The Sun Road.

Monday, February 6, 2012

And the Moon Rose Over an Open Field

Simon and Garfunkel

There is no sound of silence in the hum of office life.  A wheeled chair bumps into a desk surface, a soft drink can fizzes open, the arriving elevator dings, a stapler beats a stack of papers into submission, and a muffled conference call yammers in a nearby office.  From my monochromatic desk I hear a pair of shoes clomp down the hall, a less-than-private conversation whispered in the hallway, the heavy stairwell door slamming shut, a fax machine chugging along unaware of its virtual obsolescence, and the overhead vent blowing recycled air down upon me.  The automated reminders pop up on my computer and their dings rouse me momentarily from my catatonic routine.  For no better reason than complete disinterest, I snooze each one for another hour with a click, click of the mouse.  I drown them in the maddening blend of overlapping sounds that fill my day with their numbing office echoes.

Amid the droning functions of the office and its constant, dull soundtrack, the occasional snippets of easy-listening background music waft through the noise and I heard a familiar soft song from Paul and Art.  Typically distant music just fills the empty space between white noise and printers churning out rhythmic copies, but on this day, a handful of words tumble across the office and I jot them down in my at-hand notepad.  “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” the man singing softly muses to the fellow bus passenger sleeping at his side.  For me, amid all the audio clutter, I hear these lyrics above all other sounds and I understand the sentiment of needing to speak words even if no one hears them.  Feeling a familiar frustration coupled with just as much internal uncertainty in the midst of all the surrounding repetition and routine, I stare at the words on the paper scribbled between the reminder to confirm tomorrow’s meeting and the incident number issued by the IT department for the umpteenth computer challenge.  By the end of the song I still strain to hear the melody over the surrounding cacophony, but it occurs to me how desperately I desire to leave this mundane monotony and walk off to look for America.

For Amber Waves of Grain

After descending Pike’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates captured a visual description of the sites towards the eastern slopes facing the American Great Plains.  From this bounty, the country nourishes itself and other nations and provides the wealth of agricultural
plenty for millions. But more than one bread basket feeds America, and I choose to enter in on this summer night.In eastern Washington State’s subtle hills, in sharp contrast to the Cascade’s peaks and the Bitterroot Mountains on either side, the golden farmlands roll for miles yielding their wealth of wheat to this corner of the world and beyond.  In this hearty region, I find my respite from office life and nourish my spirit.

Once my final flight of the day touches down in Spokane and I complete the routine rental car process, I drive amid the city lights until I find myself southbound among these wheat fields in the late summer evening.  Starting its tardy rise, the moon hovers low on the horizon, dipping below the taller hills as I skirt through the countryside.  While the moonlight glints against the earth, the land appears to move and shimmer in the low light.  No amber waves splash over these nocturnal hills; but regardless of the minimal light, the gentle summer breeze creates movement and flow of the ripening crops just slightly visible in the night’s solitude and silence.  This peaceful drive, free of distracting sounds, marks the beginning of the great escape I craved at my desk months earlier.  I adjust my focus from the dark slopes to the nearly-full orb rising beside me illuminating the path ahead of me.  And the moon rose over an open field.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Conan the Hoosier

Get Out

If I could write one redeeming quality about my first college, it would be this: nothing.  Admittedly, I did not make the most of my college experience, and leaving after three semesters seemed to be the highlight.  One semester, finding myself short of funds, I opted against buying any text books; fifteen semester hours later, I only had one C, and simply because the professor graded on attendance (which I found ironic since he skipped class more often than me, sending his undeservingly pretentious grad student in his place to turn on the projector).  Sorry, but if the snow was falling, I would not be in class.  I lacked passion for my alma mater so I gladly packed up my 45 hours of credit and took them elsewhere.

For Thanksgiving break of my first semester, my family insists on driving over and picking me up late Wednesday night.  The outstanding post-secondary institution shuttered its dorms well before the family station wagon arrives on campus, so I drag four days of clothes across campus.  I recall thinking how clever it would be if in the future all suitcases come with wheels.  One building remains open for the students, like me, who choose to spend Thanksgiving on the Island of Misfit Coeds, so after an exhausting trek across the deserted sidewalks, I settle into the lobby of the dimly-lit building for a five-hour wait.

Just Me and Arnold

Thankfully, I find myself alone with a television so no one stops me from getting up and changing the channel.  I recall thinking how clever it would be if in the future all televisions come with remote controls.  Growing up, we did not enjoy a wide selection of viewing opportunities, and our living room
rabbit ears received five stations: 3 (ABC), 5 (independent), 8 (PBS), 10 (CBS), and 12 (NBC).  If Disney re-released a movie in theaters, we would go see it.  Two years prior to college, my father splurged and bought our family a video-recording device, but not a VCR.  He felt the Beta format would be the future of home video technology.  So for the next five hours, I delight in possessing full reign of the wide selection of cable channels.

At the top of the 8:00 hour, after flipping through random programming that adequately passes time, I stumble across a jewel, a film completely out of all categories of television and movie programming to which I had been subjected in my youth and adolescence: Conan the Barbarian.  Dark and dismal, much like the university environment in which I sit, this film sings of forced subjugation in deplorable conditions, just like college life in the Midwest.  James Earl Jones transforms himself into a snake and slithers away.  I can get onboard with that; at least if I had slithering abilities, I wouldn’t have to wait five hours for someone to arrive to pick me up.  I don’t recall anything from my long holiday weekend with my family, but I remember those two hours passed the fastest of the entire lost weekend.  While certainly not a crowd favorite, to this day I still believe that quirky introduction of Arnold Schwarzenegger into American culture beats the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade anytime.