Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembrance of Things Past

Crowds at a Cemetery on Decoration Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, which means the "unofficial" start of summer with its fun and fancy free times.

Originally called "Decoration Day," according to my internet sources, the tradition had its birth after the Civil War when nice ladies would go decorate the graves of fallen soldiers (Some say Southern. Some say Northern. The fact is: a lot of people died and needed remembering). The tradition caught on, and on an appointed day, varying sometimes by city, the whole town would meet up at the cemetery. Graves would get decorated, people would have a picnic or a potluck among the headstones, and a nice time was had by all.

Later, the holiday was made official and meant as a remembrance for all those who died at war. And even later, it became a day for remembering the dead in general.

Now, for a lot of people, our American version of Día de los Muertos just means a day off work, and an excuse to drink a little more beer than usual and eat things cooked on a grill while laughing with each other. Most of us have kept the picnic aspect but have done away with the whole depressing memorial thing. Why not? It's nice not having to get all remembery about sad things.

Me, Dad & Brother --1978
My dad loves Memorial Day. He's a Vietnam vet, and every year he goes to Monument Park in the small town that he lives in and watches the parade. Then he calls me up and tells me about it in great detail, and I get it all mixed up with Veteran's Day, which seems to be comprised of the same people just celebrating those who lived through wars instead of dying.

I don't think my dad has missed this parade many times in his life, maybe just when he was in Vietnam walking the thin line between being one who would get a day to be remembered or a day to be celebrated. Before the war, he would have gone out of a sense of patriotism, and after, maybe out of a sense of entitlement, and now, maybe out of obligation.

Or, maybe I'm just reading into it, maybe he just likes to go to parades. I remember going to a succession of patriotic parades when I was a kid, which is why I have trouble keeping them all straight.

Last year, my dad was in a pretty terrible accident. He lived, but he got all busted up, so he doesn't go much of anywhere these days. He mentioned that he might not be able to make it to the parade this year or to the park. I felt bad, but hey, there will be more parades, right? Then he told me that the reason he most likes to go isn't for the parade but because there is a Vietnam War memorial in the park. His buddy's name is on it. This guy died three weeks after being shipped off to war. My dad likes to go make sure his buddy gets remembered.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington D.C., Credit: David Bjorgen
One of my most foundational memories is of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC with my dad. I was eight years old. It was spring, so everything was very green and alive. Then there was this stark wall stretching out for a long, long way, forever to a kid, really. There were just these names, and I knew they were people who died in the war my dad was in.

When we got to the wall, my dad went looking for the names of people he knew from back home or in the army, and he left me staring at this wall by myself. Some places people had put notes or pictures next to the names, and this made these dead people real to me. It was 1985, so the war had ended officially only about a decade before. There was still a lot of remembering to be done and peace to be made. It was a long, stupid and senseless war, and as is common in the course of human history, a lot of people needlessly died.

I don't want to put big, smart, existential concepts on my eight year old self; I wasn't some kid philosopher,  but I think I understood, even at that age, maybe especially at that age, just how messed up war was because I had to live with its reality every day of my life. My dad, who was never that stable to begin with, was mostly deaf from artillery fire, and he suffered from chronic, untreated PTSD, a condition that wasn't acknowledged by the military at that time or by most of the returned vets and their families. I think only now, after Iraq and Afghanistan are people really starting to recognize this as a common experience for men and women who have been to war. I hope, one day, it's also recognized as a condition that doesn't just affect the soldier, but the family and the community. My dad was in the Vietnam War, and I carry that war with me today.

While I was walking along the wall, I ran into these really tough biker looking types standing around and looking up at a name on the wall. One of them had a piece of paper and a pencil, and he asked if I would help him with something. I was kind of overwhelmed, so the normal admonition against strangers didn't mean much to me. I just nodded, and he shoved the paper and pencil in my hand and picked me up. I was suddenly face-to-face with the name they had been looking at.

I don't remember it, only that the man asked me to take an etching, so I set the paper against the wall, I scribbled until a name appeared in graphite. When I was done, the man put me on the ground again and took the etching from me. That was his buddy who died in the war. He and the other tough looking biker types thanked me, and this guy just held this etching in his hands, stared down at the name written there and cried.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wherever You Roam

But sometimes in a grosstel in Barstow, CA, you feel pretty alone.

Halfway between the Grand Canyon and Oakland lies the city of Barstow, California. It's basically a highway oasis of hotels & motels, box stores and fast food restaurants. Our hotel, the cheapest I could find at short notice, sat a few blocks off the highway. Everything in it had a mealy, dusty feeling. Only half the lights worked half the time, and none of the doors were hung right.

Outside of their room, a couple of contractors, waylaid for the evening, had settled down into a couple of plastic lawn chairs to stare out at the desert, smoke cigarettes and drink some cheap beers. The pool was closed by the time we arrived, and M was disappointed. It was the only amenity, really, and after a day of descending down from the heights and into the hot and dusty Mojave, a dip in a hotel pool, even a questionable one, would have been welcome.

I was stuffy from all the changes in elevation, and when I blew my nose, there was blood. I was dry inside and out and covered in a layer of grime. I remembered the first time I'd ever been in the Sonoran desert, how the friend I was with kept reminding me to drink water. I was used to the humidity of Michigan and didn't realize how easily a day in the desert could sap a person of everything. By the time M and I reached Barstow, I was sapped. She mentioned getting food. The thought of getting back in the Jeep or even eating was unappealing. I told her I would just have some of the bread we hunter/gathered at the Grand Canyon quasi-Whole Foods. After a couple of bites, I decided I would just have water.

Reading about Barstow I found out that John Steinbeck had spent some time there, and by time, I think just a night, while researching The Grapes of Wrath. When Okies and others from the great Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s made their exodus to California, they often stopped in Barstow according to my cursory Wikipedia research. I tried to imagine what that must have been like for them.

Just sitting in that grubby room with a bed and air conditioning and water and the wonders of the internet shaky as it was, I felt hopeless. What would it have been like to leave behind everything you knew and travel through an ecologically devastated landscape to something completely unknown? I figure, it probably felt something like the apocalypse.

The next day, driving through the Mojave towards the verdant Central Valley and home. I kept thinking about the Dust Bowl. I thought about my reasons for migrating to California. Michigan's economy was wrecked long before the rest of the country and this sense of tenaciousness punctuated by hopelessness seemed to blanket everything like clouds of dust. Michigan is a tough and beautiful place, and it was hard to abandon.

I wonder if it's just a deep, genetic human impulse to "Go West?" In any case, for whatever reason, I'm glad I did. I wish I could provide a bold, beautiful and sweeping description of California, something to recommend it above all else.

The only thing I can think is: California is grand. There's so much hope here. And while I don't mind wandering--in fact, I like it very much-- I sure do like coming home.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ain't it Grand?

Yo Dawg, I heard you like nature and the earth and stuff, so I pimped your earth with a giant canyon, so you could be totally awed when you are looking at nature.

Leaving Tucson is always bittersweet.

In the morning, my friends' seven-year-old daughter woke up very early. She told me her beloved stuffed animal had gotten out of bed during the night, and she couldn't find him anywhere. So she and I searched her room until we found where he was hiding. After, she and I and the beloved stuffed animal sat down at the dining room table and had breakfast together. We talked for a while about school and the other kids who go there and how when she grows up she's going to be a dancing fighter. I think she'll probably be an artist.

At some point, the kid looked at me, and she said: Sarah, you're happy when you're in Tucson. Are you going to move here next time you come to visit?

I am happy in Tucson, but I am also happy in Oakland. Sometimes I wish transporter beams had been invented already, so I could flash from here to there in an instant; I could walk through one front door and back out another, and I wouldn't always feel so torn in space in time.

But transporter beams have not yet been invented, or if they have, they exist only in some secret military base out there in America or maybe at Google Labs, but I digress. M and I arrived by Jeep, and that was how we left, taking the long road North to see one of the wonders of the natural world.

We left the Sonoran desert and traveled North up through Phoenix (snooze) and through the Verde Valley (Yeah!) where I was fortunate enough to stay for a week last summer with my fellow Desert Rat Writers. We drove slightly East of Sedona and Slide Rock, where the white rocks give way to red, and hit Flagstaff. Then up, up, up, up we went maybe to the top of the world, not really, just up high enough, through scraggy, brushy, desolate land, until we reached Grand Canyon National Park.

After days in the car and dirty cities, I was all ready to get up in nature's business and have a cuddle party with it. I was going to smell the rarified air of nature and sleep under its stars to the sounds of crickets and coyotes.

NATURE in its natural state.

Did you know that there is a fancy store right at the edge of the Grand Canyon where you can get all sorts of beers and fine wines and artisan cheeses and health foods? There's a post office, and city folk restaurants and PLENTY OF PARKING! And everyone is happy and clean like they've just come out of central casting from a Farmers Market. Camping at the Grand Canyon was not exactly roughing it, but I did see some deer and a whole lot of very smart, cunning looking ravens. They were plotting something, I'm sure.

After a long day, and a giant gourmet salad consumed by the light of a long burning fire log, I built a nest inside the Jeep and passed out for a few hours, until the sound of sirens from a fire truck or police car or something woke me up. It's cool. It kind of reminded me of home.

M and I ate some artisan bread and fancified peanut butter, took showers and hopped a shuttle bus to the edge of the canyon. By then, I just felt disillusioned with this whole nature business. And then, we saw it. And, you know what? It was pretty damn awesome!

Let's rename this sh*t The F*cking Amazeballs Giant Supergrand USA USA USA  Canyon!

I was impressed!

Everyone around us was impressed. I was so happy with nature at that moment that I offered to do something nice and took a picture of a couple with their baby in a stroller with the canyon as a backdrop. As I looked through the lens of the camera, I realized, their "baby" was actually a dog in a stroller. We all felt shame.

But who cares? I was at the GRAND CANYON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Live, in color, and all yours: A Giant Canyon!
How did the Grand Canyon get here?

Well, it was amazing to hear my fellow Americans speculate (even though there were placards everywhere, a visitor center, brochures, a museum within yards with a 3D IMAX movie that explained everything, and something called the internet). One woman said: Wow, a meteorite created all this! and her husband answered: No, it was the Noah Flood. The flood made this big rift and the only thing left was the ark. 

I'm pretty sure it was nature, dudes: water and wind. That is pretty impressive. Nature, I am all up in your business after this.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Home Away From Home

Finger Rock Trail Head

After TorC, we spent six hours driving to Tucson for a quick visit with a dear friend and fellow writer, Monica Friedman. There's not much between TorC and Tucson, except for some land and some tourist traps, namely "The Thing? Mystery of the Desert," which M was very intent on seeing. Having been a passive victim of the roadside tourist trap more than once on this trip -- this is a girl that can not turn down the Americana spiced delights of every Cherokee Trading Post in the nation -- I would not deny M "The Thing? Mystery of the Desert."

"The Thing? Mystery of the Desert " just to spoil it for you, is the mummy of a "cowboy?" housed in a "museum?" attached to a gas station in Benson, AZ. It exists in the same building as a car that might have belonged to Hitler as well as some torture porn created by artist Ralph Gallagher. It was only $1 to see, and M paid for it. Also, the gas station was full of the requisite tourist swag I just cannot get enough of, so all in all it was a win for everyone.

Follow these footsteps to "The Thing? Mystery of the Desert."

Anyone who knows me also knows that Tucson, AZ feels like my second home. We weren't there even a full day, just long enough to climb briefly up the Finger Rock Trail head, eat some Sonoran food, catch up and visit the mission of San Xavier del Bac.

St. Xavier Mission

I make a pilgrimage here once or twice a year to get all spiritual and stuff. It's one of my favorite places in the world, and if I have any money when I die, I want to leave it to the Mission San Xavier del Bac for restoration and upkeep of the grounds and art.

St. Xavier covered in milagros

After visiting with St. Xavier, M and I bought candles and lit them in a quiet space outside at the back of the Mission. I kept thinking about all of the milagros, photos, hospital wristbands and notes pinned to St. Xavier. All the things I want in life at the moment are pretty selfish, and I'm lucky that the things I want are exactly what they are. For what it's worth, when I lit the candle, I asked whatever exists out there in the cosmos to pay attention and give all those people the miracles they are looking for.

We climbed up to the grotto above the Mission. Looking at all of the milagros and intentions and tokens left behind, I couldn't help but think of the cemetery in New Orleans and all of the requests and tokens left at the grave of Marie Laveau.

I wonder what they asked for?
Wherever you go, people aren't so different after all.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Truth or Consequences

Rabbits, Truth or Consequences, NM


About a decade ago I spent a summer traveling through Europe with a buddy of mine. We didn't have a car,  just public transportation, our feet, and our backpacks. We were broke, but we figured out that once we got across the ocean, we could live on practically nothing, so we made compromises. Most days we splurged on good coffee, then ate some Tesco peanut butter spread over fresh bread. We filled our water bottles from town square fountains, hitched rides to and from the trains and buses with kind strangers, and slept on trains and shared rooms in hostels.

We were out there in the world so long and living so light and tight that it was easy to forget the day and the place. It was easy to forget that I had a life in America at all. I started to feel like we were on the run from something.

Since it’s been years, I can’t remember how long we wandered. I just remember when it hit me, suddenly: I missed home.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Munich after being on a train all night, my buddy and I were waiting to catch a bus to a campground. There were these old drunks hanging out at the stop drinking beers and smoking. They had these ratty, wire haired mutt dogs that kept circling our legs and making us giggle. We played with the dogs for a long time, and the drunks sang to us. At some point, we realized the bus wasn’t coming, so we decided to walk. I was tired, so tired that I didn’t care when we did end up somewhere in a tiny, humid, dirt encrusted popup trailer on the edge of a river in somewhere Germany. It seemed more like a place to cure meats than to rest one’s head, but it didn’t matter. I just crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I wanted to be home. I wanted to be home so bad, it hurt. I looked over at my buddy sleeping on the other side of the trailer, and I said: I feel like I’m running from the Feds. Let’s go home. 

So we did.

Every traveler should be lucky enough to enjoy such art.

I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where this trip has become “going home,” as opposed to being out here in America. Something is off. I’m think this project has taken a turn. I’m not sure where it’s going. I’m not sure, at this point, if I care. I’m sitting in a purple themed room at the Charles Motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Something about this place makes me feel like I’m on the run. Something about this place feels like a truer America than we’ve seen so far. I’m not sure what it is.

Dude, where's my motel?


In the morning, it was raining, just enough to make a pretty, sleepy noise. I walked outside and stared up at the misty mountains rising over up the Dude Motel and the liquor store across the street. I still felt like going home. I also felt like I was there. I still felt like we were on the run, and also that M and I were both very unimportant and who we are or what we did meant nothing at all.

I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be that kind of bath house.

M and I decided to check out the bathhouse attached to the motel. The whole town is built over a hot spring, and you can’t spit without your phlegm landing on one of those places. After receiving instructions from the attendant, I let my tub fill with hot spring water and climbed in. I laid back and floated for a while. I tried to meditate. There was something transcendent there, with the plonk, plonk of rain, and birds singing just outside the window. There was something that felt timeless there, and placeless, too. I could have been anywhere in the world. I let air fill my lungs and my body float up to the surface tipping this way and that.

Man, it was great. Then, I heard some noises drifting in from the adjoining tub room. “Noises,” if you catch my drift, not, scrubbing the tub or derobing or getting settled noises, but you know, sounds of a Sapphic variety. I started to fret: I hope it’s not that kind of bathhouse. Not that I begrudge anyone their personal enjoyment, but I was having a transcendent moment, after all.

The moment had passed and rather than become a reluctant voyeur, I let the tub drain and got out. It was a good thing I did, because a few moments longer, and I probably would have fainted anyway. The heat had turned my bones to jelly, and I went back to our strange room to sleep.

They said it was a safe area, but you can't take Oakland out of the girl.

Later, M and I drove into town, which revealed itself to be a charming queer friendly mix of old timers, new comers, artists, weirdos and regular folk. Of course, I wanted to buy a house there right away, and had already done so in my head before coming back down to earth. I guess it’s easy to forget you have a life somewhere when you are out on a meta-run.

Section Art, Truth or Consequences, NM

We stopped at the post office to take pictures of the art and wandered around downtown for a bit. At the Geronimo Museum and Gift Shop, the clerk, a local, was insistent we sign her guest book, as if we were stamping a passport for her with which she could dream of other places than where she was. I told her I liked the town, and she said it was a "special place," in the way a person might speak about an old person type relative that they aren't particularly fond of. She asked us where we were going. When we told her we were headed for Tucson, she said she wished she could go too, and I think she meant it. Funny, because I wished I could stay in Truth or Consequences for a good long time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

West of Center

First sight of the day: this giant Indian at the Cherokee Trading Post

I feel too tired to write. Today was another long haul. This country is all edges of noise with vast desolate patches making up its insides. This trip is just the right length to be impossible. We have spent whole days in the Jeep getting from one place to another, and then we’re in a place only long enough to catch glimpses.

What are Americans like today? It’s the question I started with. So far, I think Americans are exactly what they think they are. At base, Americans are a good, kind, thoughtful, strange and beautiful bunch of people. I believe this from the top of my head down to the tippy tips of my toes. But, I’m a positivist. My edges are all cynicism, but my insides are all hope.

This trip began with that exchange between those teen girls comparing their Southern identity to others. They agreed other cultures were great, but their shared culture was the best.  When you get two people together from the same region of the country, it’s old home week between strangers if only for an instant. By the end of the flight, it was clear, those girls were going to be BFFs forever and ever. I wonder if they would have even looked at one another if they had first met in Biloxi.

I think Americans are all more alike than we want to believe, like how some rap songs and country songs are basically about the same things: imbibing substances, braggadocio, and getting laid. The artifacts are different, but the outcome is the same. A forty of malt liquor = a Dixie cup of cheap whiskey = a glass of fine wine. People are the same wherever you go, except they’re different.

I don't even know where we are. I just liked this mug.

Last night, we slept in Oklahoma. In the morning we ate a diner next to the hotel. The waitress could have fallen out of a novel about a big hearted woman in a small town in Oklahoma. She cracked jokes with us like we were any of the regulars who came in every day. And most of the people in the diner did. I felt at home in the way a Midwesterner feels at home in the Midwest.  I wonder, is Oklahoma the West or the Midwest?

Checking out, I chatted up the desk clerk. I told her I thought Oklahoma was beautiful. She said when she came to live there from Texas, she thought it was a swamp with all its humidity. Humidity, now that is something people can connect over. I told her about summers in MI. It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. True ‘nuff.

Oklahoma: I think it must be the Midwest.

After that we got on the interstate. We were on our way to Albuquerque to visit with our amazing friend and fellow writer Anna Redsand. We’re on the road, but she’s standing still, staying in one place for one year and learning it, possibly getting to like it, too.

Me, Anna and M

Anna and M and I went down to the old part of Albuquerque, where we grabbed a bite and a beer. I ate too much and whined about it, so we walked it off by visiting a tiny shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The shrine, it turns out, was damaged by fire, so it was closed, but the contractor working there let us in so we could look.

After our short visit, we headed down I-25 on our way to Truth or Consequences. Do you know what’s dark? Rural New Mexico at night. Do you know what’s tough? A truck stop in rural New Mexico at night. Do you know what’s pretty? Opening the moon roof and staring at real stars while you haul ass down the road.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Everything is Bigger in Texas

This Longhorn Greeted Us the Moment We Arrived.

Alexandria, LA --> Natchitoces, LA--> Shreveport, LA --> Dallas, TX --> Oklahoma City, OK --> Wherethehellarewenow, OK

If everything is bigger in Texas, everything is a tad off in Louisiana, and everything is just okay in Oklahoma.

Today was the beginning of the long haul out of the South and into the Southwest. We packed it in last night in Alexandria at some hotel off I-20. The only room left was a smoking room. It smelled so heavily of cigarettes  that I was worried I would get nicotine poisoning if I walked around in bare feet, so I kept my shoes on until it was time to go to sleep. I was also pretty sure the room was haunted. Maybe everyone in town knew and that was why it was the last room available. Such are the travails and important worries of the delicate paranoid flower that is me.

In the morning, after a complete breakfast of hotel coffee, a banana and well-preserved hard boiled eggs, we were off. I should note, before we left the hotel, we decided to peel off the Obama/Biden bumper sticker from the Jeep. Maybe it is my road-anoia, but I just feel it's better to be as discrete as possible from here on out. The vibe has shifted from the easy going Coastal South (is that possible?) to something that feels more serious.

What does this list say about the state of the state of Louisiana?

We drove for a while before stopping in the adorable town of  Natchitoces, LA, home of the Screaming Demons, strange name for a college mascot in the deep South, but to each their own, I say. Wow, what an adorable place. I think Steel Magnolias was filmed there. I wish we had more time to wander around.

A fountain in adorable Natchitoces

Then we were off. After many miles, we arrived in Texas. And, you know what? It was amazing. The moment we got there, we were greeted by fancydancers, longhorns, cheerleaders and country singers. Texas began in the most amazing way.

I hope I win this prize!

We happened upon some sort of rally, and just went with it. Everyone was nice. We got some cozies and t-shirts and swag. We also got a "Don't Mess with Texas" sticker to replace the empty spot where the Obama/Biden sticker once was.

I talked to a woman from a small town that has Post Office art. I wanted to go see the mural, but we had to move on. I think that this might be my next trip, to go see Section art across the country.

I got this rad, giant "Home of the World's Largest Bowl of Salsa" t-shirt for free. Jealous?  You should be.

After the rally, we drove. We drove for a long time.

We drove, and drove, and drove, and drove.

It started raining at one point. I had a panic attack. Then I cried. Then we kept driving. It all looked the same. We ate crappy food. We got to Oklahoma, which is actually quite a pretty place. We saw a truck with a bumper sticker that read: "If you have an Obama sticker on your car, it might as well just say, 'I'm a Dumbass.'"

We drove some more. We ate more crappy food in a tee-pee shaped dining hall at a  Cherokee themed gas station. I now regret not taking a picture of the giant, gaudy buffalo statue replete with a giant, gaudy red, white and blue rhinestone head dress.

We drove some more. We ended up at some roadside hotel on the edge of Oklahoma. At least the room is nonsmoking! Tomorrow, we will drive again.

Monday, May 7, 2012

New Orleans

Welcome to New Orleans!

M and I arrived in New Orleans on the tail end of Jazzfest. We thought we might even catch some of it, but what we caught was a big accident on I-10 that shut down traffic for miles.  A car flipped the divider and ended up upside down blocking most of the bridge. We sat for a long time in the heat and traffic. I thought about Katrina and wondered if it felt even something like that, but with fear and apprehension, too.

Coming in, Katrina’s leavings are still very apparent. You can see her in the roof tops all a-scatter, the empty parcels of land, stalled construction and deserted neighborhoods. Much better writers have written loads on Katrina and know and love this city way more than I could. I'm just a passer-througher. What more could I add to that story? Not much.

It’s 2012, and much of New Orleans is back. As far as I understand, the culture of drunk so pervasive in the French Quarter before Katrina is alive and well. So no worries, if you are planning to go to NOLA any time soon and drink until you piss yourself, you are in luck!

After we passed the wreck, we got off at Canal and drove down to Bourbon where our accommodations were located.  We stayed in the Hotel Fancytown overlooking Bourbon Street, where a valet whisked away our chariot, and delivered unto us a luggage cart.  With its sleep masks and air conditioning, it was a far cry from our beach camp, but I figured it would do in a pinch.

We decided to check out what the French Quarter had to offer. Walking down Bourbon St. after dark, I was irritated. It was probably the insomnia. I told M I thought it was the antitheses of authenticity. I could tell she was annoyed with me, since she loves the city so much. It’s my experience, I said. It feels like Disney to me. I was looking for something more real than a giant frozen drink and a live girl show. We stopped at a restaurant that was filled with tourists. I ordered beer and red beans and rice. M had crawfish pie. I really just wanted a bowl of oatmeal with a touch of almond butter.

After, we wandered through the streets for a while. M argued for the city, and I ho-hummed. Finally, I gave my leftovers to some guy on the street and went back to the hotel, where the internet sucked, and slept until M’s snoring woke me up.
In the morning, I exercised for the first time since we started this journey. M and I fought over routes, people and places. Honestly, I don’t care where we go, as long as we get through Texas, which I look forward to with a sense of dread. We called a truce and decided to go on a cemetery tour before leaving town. We met up with the group in front of a café in the French Quarter. Our guide, “Creole” Gwen, loved the city, and it was nice to spend time with her and hear her take on the city and the history of Louisiana. She talked extensively about Creole/American relations. There is such a rich history here, too, everywhere we go. 

I'm getting to the point again where I realize just how huge, diverse, and interesting this country is. This trip is too short. It's like flipping channels through the history and space. Everywhere there's something I want to see more of, and I can't stop to see it. It's rewarding and maddening. I keep thinking, I need to come back here, every "here" I get to.
Shrine of St. Jude, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church

I left an offering for  Marie Laveau.

We visited St. Jude’s/Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and talked about the Voo Doo/ Hoo Doo religion and practice.  Then we went to the parish cemetery where  Marie Laveau, famed Voo Doo priestess is buried. I left an offering and clapped three times. No whammies, no whammies, no whammies. We wandered around in the heat for a while, taking pictures and following Gwen. She asked M and I if we were staying in New Orleans any longer than a day. When we said we were moving on to Texas,  she crinkled up her face, laughed and said: Stay. Texas is just a land mass. It takes up space and has mass.

After the tour, we grabbed a quick bite and fruit from a market and ate it on the steps of the New Orleans parish church.  I decided I wanted to have my palms read, so we went to a touristy Voo Doo shop in the French Quarter where a nice woman, Miss. Irene, read my palms and cards. She was about 80 and completely adorable. She said the yellow bandana I wore reminded her of a box of Whitman’s chocolates. She said, when you get old, all you think about is food. And since, according to her, I’m going to live to be 100, I’m going to be thinking about food a lot.

I hope I get it together financially in the second half of my life, so I can eat well. According to Miss. Irene, I will! All that and have a long marriage to a well-to-do divorcee. I like this psychic stuff!

So much sugar.

When this was over, we went to Café Du Monde for benoits and coffee.

We said "Goodbye" to New Orleans with a traffic jam, and passed over the mighty Mississippi shortly after. 

I am halfway home.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Four States, One Day

Down with People; Up with Solitude
Last night could not have been more perfect: a temperate breeze off the water, birds out there calling I love you, I love you into the dark, the smell of camp smoke, the moon as bright as day and the homey ropes of white fairy lights strung up into the scrub trees by the campers in the popup next to our tent.

Last night could not have been more perfect except for the pervasive insomnia I can’t shake. I laid there for hours in the dark, listening to the birds, then M sleeping a few feet away, and then M’s soft snoring, which only made tired me turn into angry and depressed me. I tried every trick in my insomnia repertoire, changing positions, shoving earplugs in my head, counting, telling stories to myself, but just at the edge of sleep, something would jolt me awake again. 

I'm pining for my bed.

Desperate and annoyed, I grabbed a pillow and jumped into the Jeep, reclined the seat halfway and tangled my body into an impossible position with my feet in the driver’s seat and my trunk in the passenger seat and my arms wrapped around a pillow. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was quiet. I thought, Yes! It is going to happen now! Then a park ranger came through and slapped a note on the windshield of the Jeep, and that was all she wrote.

At 6am, knowing it was a lost cause and just relieved the sun was up, I strapped on my shoes, grabbed my camera and a bag and walked down to the water. The beaches of Fort Pickens were glistening and white; the water was a bright aquamarine (that’s just blue for the less sophisticated) and the surf was gentle. Scrub jays and red wing black birds were making a clatter, and for five minutes, on the water’s edge, I felt at peace. 

For a few minutes, I was alone. Then one of the camp dads came clacketing through with a roller cart and beach gear to set up a nice colorful real-to-life Corona commercial on the beach. “You save some water for the rest of us?” He asked in a deep drawl. “A little,” I said. He smiled, and I said to myself: Self, make this a great day! It doesn’t matter how tired you are! You can do it!

I went back to camp, and changed into a suit. M did, too, and we ran down to the surf. Woot! I thought, Okay, I’m tired, but this is great! Great day, here I come! It’s just like a Jimmy Buffet song. This is paradise, and I am a cheeseburger. 

After slathering on a whole lot of sunscreen, and taking off my glasses and flip flops, I walked down to the water. But something was wrong. There were all these little ooey-gooey pink blobs all over the shore. Without my glasses, I could only see the bigger blobs. M told me the water looked like a stew when the waves broke. Stinging Jellyfish Stew. That sounds like something you would pay a lot of money for in some fancy restaurant in North Oakland, but when you are really tired, and you just want to go swimming, it feels like the sound: Wha! Wha! playing after a big fail. 

I kind of wonder how they taste.

When I did put on my glasses, I saw that the stew for myself and then I noticed kabillions of human plastic leavings, bottle tops, tampon applicators, spoons, condoms and cigarette butts in the dainty lacework of the seaweed on the shoreline. It was sad. Lesson learned: Never wear glasses. Always wear sunscreen.

Look, but don't touch.

After this terrible disappointment, M and I drove up to Fort Pickens, and that was pretty cool. The fort was built by slaves and during the civil war, held by the North, much to the ire of the Confederates. It was all vast and tunnelly and according to the volunteer manning the gift shop it was totally haunted. After hearing his stories, I wanted to go back and look for the ghost of Manassas the dog, but we had to move on.

Fort Pickens was especially cool.

Before heading out of town, M and I stopped at a beachwear shop in Pensacola Beach proper where all of the workers were beautiful Russian women. Yes, folks, there is a place where the 80s are still alive and well. Actually, I think beach towns just are the 80s forever, salt water taffy, I’m with drunky t-shirts, nipple mugs and all.

Rawr! Move over 2012! 1986 is staring you down!

As much as I love basking in the glow of a bygone era, it was time for us to move on. New Orleans is only about two hundred miles from Pensacola, but to get there, you travel through four states: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We had coffee in all four states because the Welcome centers in each one offered it for free. The lesson here is such: free coffee doesn’t taste all that good, but people are eager to give it to you, and free coffee makes you pee just as often as coffee you buy with money, which necessitates a stop in consecutive welcome centers along the Gulf Coast.

Mobile, AL surprised me in its beauty. It was an absolutely lovely city to drive into.
Mississippi’s welcome centers are stately and look like mini-plantations.
People in the South are the most aggressive drivers.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Florida is a Long State

Party! Party! Party!

St. Augustine -> Pensacola Beach

I’m writing, now, from a picnic table at a campsite in Fort Pickens, a tiny finger of white sandy beaches, jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Above, the biggest moon of the year is on the rise. To the front of me, maybe a mile off, birds are making a ruckus, their sound carrying over the scrub brush and water; in my ear a mosquito is making a ruckus; behind me some drunks are  making a ruckus. That’s car camping for you: somewhere between modernity and nature.

Super Moon in Super Imax!

It’s pretty out here. The sky, as the sun set, was all there was, pink and gray, and clouds in real Imax 3D. And if that lady in the other campsite would stop telling her companions how she’s going to pee in a bush, though the real human bathroom is just steps away, it might even be peaceful.

This morning we wandered through St. Augustine, where everything is just “the oldest.” What a history, and it's ours! In St. Augustine Church, established 1570-something, we bought some St. Christopher medals for the road. I wanted to stay longer, but we had to move on. 

A Sacred Heart

We went down to Flagler College. J told us that it used to be a fancy hotel and folks would come down from up north and pay $300 to stay a season, which was a fortune in the olden times. We've had snowbirds forever, I guess.

Flagler College: Rich People have the Right Idea.

I spent some time interrogating J about what she thought Americans were like today and recording it for posterity. Now I want to write an essay called, “You Kids Don’t Know Just How Good You Have It, and Neither Do We.”

We also stopped by the Fountain of Youth but did not go in. It's okay, I drank from the Fountain about seven years ago. I haven't aged a day since.

Where all models get their start, including me.
We spent the rest of the day driving through Florida’s scenic panhandle to Pensacola. The highlight was our stop at the Flying J Travel Center where any traveler can make all of her magic wolf dreams come true.

Nothing is radder than this, except a whole wall of this.

Now we are in a beautiful place with a big moon and water and sand and heat. M has pulled out the banjo to play, and it’s nice, just nice.

Still, I’d like to be alone for a while.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Away We Go

Are we having fun yet?

Charleston-> Savannah -> St. Augustine

Today was a long day. I feel sad, not so sad, as melancholic. Last night I told M my favorite part of  traveling is connecting and reconnecting with people. I could spend the whole trip visiting. I think I could spend a lot of time just visiting.  My modern family is scattered. I know the purpose of this trip isn’t to visit, but it could be.

I’m not sure what M’s looking for in this trip, maybe the answer to a question that has never been asked, maybe just a long stretch of road. M likes to drive. It's nice to have a traveling partner, but there is a big part of me that wants to be alone without someone else to mediate the experience. Next time.

M behind the wheel of the Jeep.

All the rural roads through South Carolina and Georgia seem no different from the rural roads of Michigan. Instead of corn, there’s cotton. Instead of blue berries, there are peanuts. Where dunes might stretch out, there are lush tidal pools and salt flats populated with white long bodied cranes. The country beach culture of the South is as familiar to me as anything.

Me being non-plussed about the South

I wrote this earlier today: The America I’m out looking for feels like the America I already know. I hope I’m not naive, looking for an authenticity of experience that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did at all. 

When we reached Ponte Verda, everything changed. We stopped for the night at the home of my old college roommate. I haven’t seen J for three years, and we’re bad at keeping in touch. But when we saw one another, the old rhythm and rhyme of our friendship was there. J and her husband are both former Michiganders, Catholic, liberal folks living in the bible belt.

We went out to Jacksonville Beach. It felt great after two days of jet lag and rampant insomnia to be out of the car with my toes in the sand. As we walked J, and M and I talked about things. In between the how’s-its and who’s-hows and so-forths, were the questions of region and money and age in America.

Jacksonville Beach, FL. I find myself more plussed about the South.

At twenty-two Jeanne and I lived in the same run-down apartment in the Vine Street Neighborhood in Kalamazoo, MI.  The place was fantastic with the exception that half of it was uninhabitable half of the year and half of it was probably not up to code, but at that age, it was what we could afford, and we loved it.

Today we live on separate coasts. J and her husband have built a house in a lively subdivision in Ponte Verda on the edge of another subdivision, a ghost town with a beautiful, empty parkway to nowhere. It was built up pre-housing market crash. They have two dogs and a garage painted like an Irish pub.

I live in a small apartment in Oakland, CA that is semi-uninhabitable half the year. I doubt it’s up to code at all, but it does have a great view of the city, and it's in a great neighborhood. I don't think I'll be owning anything anytime soon. On the other side of advanced degrees, Jeanne and I both have student loans. Everyone we know has student loans, and as we talk, it becomes a familiar conversation, one I've had with countless young professionals emerging from the working class. I plan to write more about this in the future.

This crab: a 10 on the Funmeter!