U.S. travel

A walk in the woods

Big Sur, June 20th

This morning I tried to find the Buzzard’s roost trailhead, and failed, but ended up having an amazing experience walking through the redwood groves of the deserted Pfeiffer State Park campground.

burnedtree

It was dreamy. Just me in the dim hush of the redwood giants. Writers are told to engage all the senses, and I realized how heavily biased I am in favor of sight. Smell can force it’s way into my consciousness if it’s extraordinarily good or bad. Same with touch. It’s mainly something I deal with if I’m uncomfortable. Sounds I’m definitely sensitive to but don’t retain the memories of very clearly.

fallentree

I really tried to get myself to slow down and think about where I was. It was hard to get myself to wander, not to keep to the road. It was really quiet aside from birds. Redwoods seem to absorb sound and the needles on the ground are a spongy carpet. I made myself touch the shaggy bark, and feel the burned charcoal of trees hollowed out by fire. I imagined how fun it would be to hang out in a tree-bottom cave during a rainstorm.

polished

Redwood bark is pretty rough. These fist-sized bits are near the entrance to a “cave” at the base of a burned redwood, and people have polished it as they climbed in.

I felt so lucky to be there with no people. This park has 186 campsites and I had it all to myself! I made my way to the river and tried to figure out how to describe the sound of of it to someone who’d never been near one. I’d need to be a musician to do that and I’m not. What I heard is many different sounds all at once, higher and lower that blend into each other to make the wooshing gurgling sound of water over rocks.

river

I got back to the room around 11:30–starving. R. was too, so we decided to lunch at “magical” “most delightful view in Big Sur” Nepenthe – a restaurant 3 miles south of our lodge. It was, of course, foggy again. We got there before it opened and the parking lot was already full of fancy cars. We got the last spot and barely fit. The restaurant was cute – big patio with plenty of room for social distancing. The menu said the building was designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students. It had an artsy cobbled-together feel, nothing I’d have paid attention to if not for the menu.

The beet salad was very good and the “famous” burger was perfectly fine. A faint view of the coastline came and went. There aren’t many places to eat in Big Sur so I think it’s fairly easy to get a reputation as amazing. By the time we left the parking lot and overflow parking lot on the road was a cluster f*ck.

I forgot my phone so I couldn’t take any pictures, which was fine. There’s no cell service anyway, and it helped me chill and enjoy myself.

After that we gave the coastal road one more try. The fog was higher and we could see further, but it wasn’t very inspiring. The beaches are generally inaccessible. The vista point of the beach with the waterfall that falls into the ocean from the cliffs was a jammed madhouse both times we passed, so we passed.

We stopped for gas and a cookie on the way back and I walked back to the campground and sat at a picnic table to work on the blog.

special-tree

Right near where I sat, a young bay tree is showered in light.

No one has any idea what poison oak is or what it looks like. It’s painful to watch. A kid went into the brush to get a stick and I was tempted to catch up to him and give him quick lesson but before I could he’d already run ahead. Now I’m watching a guy across the river, maybe 100 feet away, blazing a trail right through it. Ah well.

We found a great place for dinner – the Big Sur River Inn. I say great place because it was a nice setting but fairly average diner-type food. We ordered at a window and got food to go, and ate at a picnic table overlooking the river. The cocktails were excellent! Sadly, or luckily, they closed early and we headed back to the room for movie night. We brought our projector (there are no TVs there) and it worked great.

movie-night

Don’t judge.


The longest day of the year – literally

Big Sur, June 19th

It’s the summer solstice and I’ll be up for all of it. There’s a huge skylight in our room. At home I sleep in pitch black so whenever dawn was, that’s when I woke up. I tried putting a t shirt over my face which worked a bit but I had to stay still or it would fall off. Sigh.

bright room

Good morning! Not.

On the plus side – I was up in time to go for a hike before R. woke up. I took a shower in the sad plastic shower, then headed down to the lodge hoping for caffeine. A little café was open, thankfully (the lodge wasn’t fully operational after being shut for three months), and I got tea and went down to the Big Sur river, sat on a rock, and contemplated nature. Nature was good! The river was wide and shallow and flowing smoothly. Birds flew straight down it, just a foot above water, probably catching insects? It was pretty freaking idyllic and I was happy to be there. This is exactly what I wanted for the weekend, to see beauty and get out of my corona virus news-filled head.

big sur river day one

After that I took a hike up the Valley View trail. A very alarming sign posted at the entrance (along with the stay 6 feet apart sign) declared that mountain lions are very rarely seen here, but if you happen across one this is what you should do. Oh and don’t hike alone. Thanks for that! I found a billy-club sized stick and spent the entire hike playing out scenarios where I defended myself from a mountain lion. I also enjoyed the nature. Even if it was after me.

redwoods

The path was very well-maintained and pretty much straight up the entire time, and went from dark redwood forest to pretty oaks–and the day went from 54 degrees and cool to mid-60’s and sunny. At the trail end was a sturdy bench from which I could contemplate the valley all the way to the sea, which was still covered in fog. There is zero cell coverage on the valley floor but up here I had four bars, so I rested on the bench and instagrammed.

valleyview-2

I found a shortcut back to our cabin on the way down. R. was just getting out of the shower. Perfect timing! We drove a mile south to get to go lunch food from the highly-rated Big Sur Bakery, but they didn’t serve lunch until noon and it was 11:30, so we got deli sandwiches next door instead for our beach picnic.

pfeiffer beach 1

I’d read about Pfeiffer state beach – which is near us and down an unmarked road. Indeed, a “narrow road” sign was the only indication. While not extremely harrowing, it was still my least-favorite type of road. One-lane, blind corners, very few pullouts.

The beach was…foggy. Gray sky melding into gray ocean. I’d forgotten that when we went to the beach in Half Moon Bay when I was a kid, we’d use the towels as blankets not to dry off. There were dramatic rocks but everything was flat and dull. Here is where I always go wrong – I look at the idealized photos on the internet and think that’s what I will experience, and then I’m disappointed. I’m not sure what to do though. I hate to be pessimistic.

 

lumpyrock2

On the plus side, the sand was very nice–fine-grained, silky and warm despite the overcast. I’d read this was a purple sand beach and it did indeed have purple highlights. It’s kind of like the black magnetic sand on other beaches–a light dusting. It’s hard to tell from the photos so I won’t bother.

We ate our delicious sandwiches then hit the road, heading south to see the world’s most dramatic most beautiful most amazing stretch of coastline…and it looked like this.

grayday

Blah. After 10 miles or so we turned around. A nice surprise on the way back – the Henry Miller Memorial Library (bookstore to be more accurate). Henry Miller lived five miles down the road. This was his best friend’s house. Miller never wanted a memorial of any type, as you might guess from his philosophy of really living life, but when his friend died he left his house to honor Miller. It’s a fun, eclectic place with a burning man meets beat poet vibe and a very sturdy cat. I got a book by Brassai – a famous Parisian photographer who was good friends with Miller. I had no idea!

miller

Our lodge is in Pfeiffer state park, so we drove into the park proper when we got back. This part of the valley was sunny and warm. I had R. drop me off at the end of the road so I could walk back along the river. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate what isn’t happening or how things could be annoying. The very large campground that runs along the river is still closed (due to the virus) so I had the river essentially to myself–once I got down to it.

I have never seen such large, lush poison oak bushes. There is poison oak EVERYWHERE. I hope everyone had the girl scout training I had or there are going to be some very unhappy families this summer. The campsites all had small paths down to the river that were lined with exuberant poison oak. Ai yi yi.

swimminghole

The river was so idyllic it was hard to process. The crystal clear water burbled along, only knee deep in most places so I was able to stroll around it as if it were a wide path. I sat on a fallen tree and tried to take it in but most of my brain is still in city mode, and I was snapping pictures on my phone instead of letting it all in. Thankfully we have tomorrow as well so I will go back and try to relax more and just observe.

lovelyriver

When we checked in I discovered the Big Sur Lodge has a pool, so after the river hike I went swimming. It was just me. The hotel is open but I’ve seen very few guests. Fortunately there was a skimmer as I had to do a thorough removal of dozens of not-quite-dead bugs. The pool was heated to a really nice temperature and I floated around for an hour or so, watching vultures (?) and trying to relax. I did relax, and finally began to feel this was a real vacation and not just a desperate escape from captivity.

lonelypool


Anywhere but here – from San Francisco to Big Sur

June 18, 2020

We’ve been sheltering in place since March 16 and as travel-loving extrovert who’s been strictly following the rules I was really starting to go stir crazy. Thankfully, June 15th the rules eased. The powers that be didn’t say shelter in place is over, however all retail is now allowed to open up, including malls (with masks) and hotels are allowed to rent to non-essential people. Heh, that sounds sad. National parks also opened in a limited way. My dream trip was actually Yosemite. I swore the moment they let me out of the house I’d jump in a car and drive there, but unfortunately that was everyone else’s idea as well and when they opened the reservation system, the entire park was instantly booked until September.

I so crushed I cried. I then tried to book ANY house on the Russian River and there were none in all VRBO for the whole summer. Mt. Lassen campgrounds – booked up. I wracked my brain thinking of some beautiful nature place to go and recharge – and hit upon the idea of Big Sur. I’ve driven by but never stopped.

I was fortunate to get three nights at the Big Sur Lodge – today is the first day they’ve been open since the lockdown. It turns out my parents spent the night there on the day they were married–a very short honeymoon!

I worked half a day and we left at 1pm. It was gorgeous in San Francisco and I was really excited to take a mini road trip down highway 1. The drive from here to Big Sur makes many “Top 10 most beautiful” lists, and it looked like this was the perfect day to do it. First stop – after only half an hour – was lunch at Moss Beach Distillery. We got to go food (the only option) and ate on a railroad tie planter box by the parking lot. Not super glamorous, but at least we were out. It was the first time R. and I had dined out together since March.

halfmoonbay

Another first in three months (we’ve barely driven) – traffic. Beach traffic and the beaches were packed. On a Thursday. I was surprised but I guess school is out and 25% of people are unemployed.

I’d like to say the drive was amazing but we kept hitting thick patches of fog and the gorgeous coves I knew were right below me were obscured. Eh, I couldn’t be that mad. It was really just nice to be out of the house and driving. (I was still disappointed though.) Also – chagrin – this is literally a few hours away and we never do the drive.

foggybog

Foggy bog near Moss Landing

We stopped at numerous vista points and though they weren’t what I’d seen on blogs and travel sites, we did get a hint of the dramatic coastline we weren’t quite able to see.

monastery beach carmel

A break in the fog near Carmel. I’ve never seen it hang offshore like this.

bixby bridge

Looking north from Rocky Creek bridge

viewsouth

Looking south from Rocky Creek bridge

rocky creek bridge

The bridge itself. This is where all the cool social media influencers stand on clear days and take selfies with the bridge in the background. They don’t stay back of course!

Big Sur lodge is nestled in redwoods and…it’s okay. Little blocks of four room cabin-like structures scattered around. We’ve got a back deck one foot from the room next door to ours’ deck and the couple was out there drinking wine so we didn’t feel comfortable hanging out there. The room is fine. Good size. Nice high ceiling and a good bed but the rest of the furniture is mismatched and of varying quality. The shower is one of those all-one-iece plastic things.

big sur lodge

I admit to being underwhelmed when we got to our room – center door.

While the room wasn’t great – this guy came to greet us right away! We fed him some seeded crackers.

bluejay

We went to a general store a mile down the road and bought a bottle of wine, and then had a really nice dinner at the Fernwood Resort. It’s a cute place with campsites, tent cabins, etc. down by the river. The restaurant is above with a nice huge deck with redwood trees sticking out of it. It’s the first time I’ve eaten in a restaurant in three months! It felt great! I’d have stayed longer but it got cold after sunset.

fernwood resort

I love these handmade signs. We don’t have a lot of old-timey camps near me in the Bay Area so this was a real thrill. The MOTEL font is my favorite.

So far a really burning man/hippy vibe here. I need to not be annoyed that this room is $$$ and not very nice and just chill out and go be in nature like I intended. I’ll do that tomorrow. Now I’m full of pizza and really sleepy from a day in the car.

hippycar

Our next door neighbors car


A Seattle Digestif

July 12-13, 2019

We drove out of the gray and towards Bainbridge Island, where we’d catch a ferry to Seattle. It was well past time for lunch, so I picked a city on the map at random, which turned out to be a charming, Norwegian-themed Poulsbo. We ate overlooking the harbor, nearly overheating in the mid-70’s temperatures.

lunchharbor

I must have taken a car ferry before, but I have no clear memory of doing so. I was worried about how it would work, but it’s all very easy and well-organized. The intent is to make it seem an extension of the road. Signs on the road pointed to the ferry, and all three lanes passed by booths, where we paid and were directed to a numbered lane.

seattleferry

It was thrilling and strange to drive into the bowels of the ship, park, and be allowed to walk to the open front that had no real railings, just a net. The kid in me kept expecting to get told to get back in the car, or to go to the passenger seating above.

carferry

It was such a relief to be back in a bustling city. Even the quarter-mile drive from the ferry to the hotel had my mind reeling. What a cute restaurant. Is that Pioneer Square? Nice clothing store. Seattle Art Museum–Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement. I’m going!

R. passed out on the very comfy king-sized hotel bed, so I met my brother and sis-in-law for dinner at a whiskey-themed restaurant in Pike Market. Crowded, loud, with barrel-aged Manhattans and cute, sweaty cooks shaking stainless steel pans over high-flames in the open kitchen…ahhhhhhhh…city living.

The next day I wandered through Pike Market. It’s a tourist attraction but genuinely interesting with its multiple levels and uneven floors and dead ends. I like it!

pikesmarket.jpg

I also went to the museum to see the Victorian Radicals exhibit. I loved the pre-Raphaelites when I was a teen, but to my adult eye, much of it seemed overwrought and pouty…hmmmm…much like the teenage girl I was. I was happy to see some really awesome work by woman artists, and which I thought was technically better than that of their more famous male counterparts.

museum

As the afternoon wore on I ran out of steam. Brain full. I was ready to go home. I think this was one of the more intense seven-day trips I’ve taken recently. Waterfalls, trains, Bollywood, Twin Peaks, family, bonfires, kayaks, gun batteries, the submarine I forgot to mention, bocce, cocktails, the flu that swept through the big house that I also forgot to mention, flightless geese, cider, sad goodbyes, ferries, harbors, Seattle stairs, eating dinner twice in one night, pouty art subjects and finally the flight home. R. and I both woke multiple times Saturday night with no idea where we were – and more importantly where the bathroom was. He got dressed to go and I asked why, and he replied because of everyone in house. Heh.

cementfactory

A cement factory on the way to the airport

Sunday, San Francisco put on a show for me. The sunny blocks around my house sported dog walkers, kids in bouncy houses, couples drinking rose and laughing in the park, fresh fruit at the corner store, people jaywalking to get to the cafe, the inevitable weekend construction projects that irritate me but also ensure this neighborhood will still be here 100 years from now.

I’m so lucky to have a place I’m happy to take off from and happy to come home to.

sfsunset.jpg


Snoqualmie, Washington (pre-family reunion)

Monday, July 8, 2019

I’m sitting on a balcony at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie, Washington. It’s cloudy, and is either raining or else heavily misting so I’ve got an umbrella propped up on the table in a vain attempt to keep my computer dry. It’s the kind of rain that you really can’t hide from–it swirls and floats right under the umbrella. The waterfall below is doing its thing, which is to provide a pleasant and uniform white noise.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We are headed to Port Townsend, Washington for a family reunion. I know, I know, everyone tells me, “It’s beautiful there,” and I’m sure it will be, but I’ve got to kvetch a bit first, because it isn’t fair that I open with arriving there all awestruck by the lovely.

I love my extended family. I feel really lucky to be born into a family of interesting people who get along very well. Our only struggle is that we’ve got a lot of Type A’s and that sometimes leads to everyone trying to be the sheepdog and no one wanting to be a sheep, but that’s not so bad.

My complaint is that I’ve got a full time job and my vacation time is precious. When I take a week off it’s a big deal and I want to go somewhere I want to go. So you say “Family Reunion” and I say “in Hawaii! In Mexico! Somewhere in the southwest!” not – somewhere where it’s going to be 64 degrees, partly cloudy, and sometimes raining. Because that sounds a lot like a foggy day in San Francisco.

dairyfreeze

What’s worse is that if I wasn’t lazy and distracted by work, I probably could have found some great house in Hawaii and pitched it to the group and maybe I’d be in Hawaii right now, eating pineapple and getting ready to go snorkeling. So, it’s my own fault I did nothing and let someone else herd the cats.

Anyhow, Saturday we flew from San Francisco to Seattle. The brown haze covering the central valley gave way to clouds as we travelled north. The car rental place ran out of small cars so we ended up in a huge four-door Cadillac. We thought it might be fun, but it’s too big–we don’t know where we begin and end, but it does have great acceleration.

We came a few days early (the reunion for some reason runs Monday – Friday) to check out the Salish Lodge, aka the Great Northern hotel in Twin Peaks. The waterfall below me is the one featured in the opening credits, as is this hotel, perched on the cliff above it. (I was a big Twin Peaks fan back in the day, and R. only discovered it recently and is a current fan).

What’s odd is that Snoqualmie is kind of in the middle of nowhere and kind of not. It’s only 40 minutes from Seattle and when we sit in the restaurant all we see is trees forever, but it’s really just off the freeway.

When we arrived we were both kind of tired from the flight, which is silly because it was only an hour and a half, but the whole airport experience is always draining. R. laid down for a nap and I decided to walk into town, which is less than a mile away. I crossed a cool bridge, and in the pretty river below were the remnants of a collapsed bridge. Not too far past that, the Northwest Railway Museum has old train cars right along the road. Very nice!

oldtrainengine

The town itself is small with a few restaurants, an intriguing-looking bowling alley I didn’t go into, and a great hardware store that I did.

When I got back, R. and I went to the overlooks near the hotel to view the falls. It’s a very nice waterfall and I liked it, but it’s only a couple hundred feet. It’s hard to beat Yosemite Falls (which is over 2000 feet and you can stand right at the base of it.) Also, it was a total mob scene due to the long weekend, and we had to wait to get a spot at the railing.

thegreatnorthern

We ate at the casual restaurant, The Attic, at the hotel. The food was good, and went to bed early.

This is a very nice hotel. My only complaint is that there is no common area with a view. I like being able to bring my laptop to the lobby or café and get something to drink and write and people-watch. The lobby is nothing to speak of–a few chairs clearly meant only for waiting for the rest of your party to join you before you get the car. There is no separate bar area. The Attic is fairly small and people eat at the bar, and you certainly couldn’t set up a laptop there. Any spot with a view is reserved for private events. This balcony is nice, but the continuous hiss of the falls does get irritating after while, and there is no people watching.

Sunday morning we had a GREAT breakfast here in the fancy restaurant. Sadly I couldn’t finish it all, which is a crime. They have there own beehives here and do a fun thing where they dribble honey on a scone from three feet above it.

6

I coaxed R. into going into town on foot (past all the neat old train cars on the side of the road). We wanted to ride the historic train, which isn’t a historic train exactly but random historic train cars pulled by a modern diesel engine. We bought tickets online as we walked, which was lucky because it was sold out…because….Bollywood film crew!!

The conductor (very cute in his conductor outfit) let us know a Bollywood film crew would be filming on the train, and that they’d be in the center car. They let them on first. It seemed to be cast, crew, and their extended families. We got onto the front car to stay out of the fray, and because it had cool red velvet couches.

filmcrew

It turned out they were actually doing the filming in our car – which was really fun and made what would have been a pretty ridiculously short train ride a lot of fun. The train only goes a couple miles south to North Bend – which had more Twin Peaks buildings and really nice steep high mountains behind it (Mt. Si maybe?), and then reverses and goes back past the station it left from, and one more mile to the hydro electric museum and supposed views of the falls but you can’t actually see them because of land and trees. So, it’s a pretty silly ride. However – a few minutes in – after we opened and closed the windows to suit the women sitting next to us, the film crew came in with a huge camera, a boombox, and started filming the male star walking down the aisle, finding his love sitting alone on a seat, tapping her on the shoulder, then sitting next to her after which they hold hands and gleefully look out the window.

It was great fun to watch, and I loved that we didn’t have to sign releases and they probably didn’t have permits or anything. They did have super expensive equipment so I have no idea if this is a “real” movie or what. I liked that the main actress was not thin and she was nice and friendly and said hi when we stopped for half an hour at another part of the railroad museum.

historictraincar

Back at the hotel I napped for an hour (I had a terrible sleep Saturday night) and then took a walk to the base of the falls. The forest here is so beautiful. So many different types of trees and the ground so lush with a wild variety of plants. We don’t have that in California–it’s just too dry. All I could think though on the super steep walk down was “I’m going to have to walk back up this. It’s going to suck. OMG, all these little kids. They are going to have to be carried back up. What are the parents thinking? Oh those shoes! She’s going to break an ankle!”

I might walk a little way down again today and just sit on a bench and listen to the birds and stare at the plants and try to quiet my crazy mind. I think of myself as a pretty laid back person but when I get out to actual nature like this I realize I must be pretty wound up in the city because it’s really hard for me to stop analyzing and just look around and absorb.

The path didn’t get that close to the base of the falls and the view was just okay. The walk down was the pretty part.

We drove into town for Mexican food (so so) and watched the end of the final match of the Gold Cup soccer game. Back at the hotel we had a drink at the bar.

This morning, Monday, started cool and rainy and is now partly clearing, and warming up a bit. We ordered room service (always a fun treat) and split the enormous eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, scone breakfast meant for one. Mmmm. In an hour we check out and hit the road for Port Townsend! I’m so happy I don’t have to spell Snoqualmie ever again!

riverabovefalls


Beauty and Frustration in Yosemite Valley

I need to get out of town and away from screens and the internet. My day goes from ipad to laptop to iphone to TV or kindle. There’s glass between me and life and I need the cliché dose of nature to clear my head. I log onto the Yosemite reservation site, not really expecting to get anything at the last minute, but there are tent cabins available. I book one, sure that R. will be willing to go on a last minute trip.

The first glimpse of Yosemite valley literally stops traffic–people careen to the left and right turnouts when Half Dome and various waterfalls come into view. It really is jawdropping, but we’ve been in the car for longer than we’ve expected and just want to freaking get there. The 180 miles from San Francisco to the valley have stretched to a five-hour trip thanks to traffic and two-lane roads meandering through the stoplight-filled downtowns of the central valley.

It’s been a nice drive. No complaints other than the usual, which is that it is impossible to get in or out of the Bay Area anymore. We planned a Sunday–Tuesday trip specifically to avoid traffic and we still find ourselves shaking our fists and asking, “What are you all doing on this road?” The You All of course, being Us. We are part of the problem. So many people.

bridalveilfalls

We don’t pull over at first few pullouts, but when we get to the valley floor we can’t help it. It’s too much. Too pretty. Thank god we do because Bridal Veil Falls is magic. It’s a half a mile hike from the road and a complete change of climate. A cold mist fills the air before we get anywhere close to the bottom and I shiver in my tank top. I’m glad I keep going because when the falls hit the granite they make rainbows. Everyone is soaked and ecstatic.

Which makes our arrival at our lodging, Housekeeping Camp, all the worse. The Camp can’t help but be anything but a crushing disappointment after what we’ve just experienced but I’d swear someone actually tried to take our souls, pull them from our bodies, and grind them into the pine needles.

tentcabin

Housekeeping Camp looks more like a refugee camp when we arrive at sunset. A blue fog of smoke hangs over the forlorn canvas structures. The ground is bare dirt. “Park wherever you can,” the buffed, outdoorsy, 20-something dude at the reception desk tells me. My fellow guests have taken the “wherever” to heart and crammed their automobiles in and around the stones the separate the camp from the road. We squeeze into a space next to a giant pickup truck.

I chose a riverside tent which promised, I dunno, something about waking up and looking at Half Dome. What we got was a creepy, inland, poo-brown concrete block and canvas prison tent, surrounded by other prison tents and located next to our car/the road/the giant dumpster.

I’d warned R. that Housekeeping Camp was a nightmare. Thanks to me expertly managing his expectations, he is pleased by all the “space” we have. He’d pictured a seven by seven tent with no furniture, so what we go was an improvement. 8 x 15 (?) with a patched canvas roof, double bed, bunk bed, shelving unit, two outlets and an indoor and outdoor light. Woo hoo!

Never mind our plastic-covered double bed is littered with sand. The canvas roof and door filthy and held in place by black tape. The bear box opens with a shriek and groan no matter how slowly and carefully we let down the steel door. The fire pit littered with trash. We can’t see the river.

Deep breath. It’s okay. We’re here.

We brush the sand off the bed and unroll the sleeping bag. We put our food and lotions and toothpaste into the bear box as per regulations. We hurry to the store to buy firewood.

We’re good. We unpack. We get the Christmas lights in place despite bringing too short of an extension cord. The river isn’t that far away. The scenery is pretty in an August-in-Los Angeles kind of way. I read that housekeeping camp is the only place you can have a campfire in the valley and I understand why now. I’m bathed in smoke. I don’t know if it’s the wood or the nature of the valley but every fire creates a veil that drifts and swirls but doesn’t dissipate. We move left, right, we can’t escape.

smokeonthewater

We’ve got to create our own fire if we want to eat. We do, and add to the smoke. Our lukewarm sausages and buns are pretty good because we’re starving. Now what? The family next to us is already in bed. The group of friends across from us is drunk and raucous and we listen to their tales of socialism and home invasion. The long, one-act play is entertaining to a point. The only mom in the group is also an audience member, pacing the periphery, bouncing her cute, animal-costumed baby against her chest. Hopefully it won’t be eaten by a mountain lion. Seriously–there is a sign warning parents not to let children walk alone. This little one can’t walk so hopefully she is safe. Though if the mom was trying to camouflage the baby, dressing it as a bunny might not have been the best choice.

Eventually R. wants to go to bed. I’m determined to see the fire burn down. He does, and I don’t, because a camp ranger comes by to “remind” me that all campfires must be extinguished at 10pm. With water.

fire

Heavy sigh. I don’t have a bucket. I find a Taco Bell cup in the car and go back and forth to the bathroom faucet until I’ve put out the perfect-for-marshmellows embers.

Now I’m in bed at 10 p.m. instead of my normal midnight. R. is recovering from a cold so he’s okay with this. He’s snoring and I’m crammed next to him in a double bed (we’ve got a queen at home.) We spend the night wrestling in a non-sexy, exhausting way.

We wake at 6 a.m. to the grumble of a diesel truck and the beep beep beep of heavy equipment. The truck is delivering Pepsi to the store near us. The beeping comes from across the river. Something under construction. Seriously?? I can’t believe this. I thought last night was hell with all the smoke but this is too much.

I get up. R. stays in bed. His ability to sleep in is legendary. I open the bear box as quietly as I can and eat yogurt for breakfast.

Now – to hike! I’m groggy but excited. It’s a beautiful day. A sweet pine-scented, sun-drenched, high sierra dream. I cross the stone bridge near camp. The Merced river is high. It’s been reaching flood stage on and off all spring. What surprises me most about it is not the strange green color of the powerful, turbid water, but the variations in the sounds it makes. When I’ve listened to streams before, they sing a steady song, something along the lines of tinkle tinkle tinkle. This river is wild, roaring and hissing and swirling unpredictably. What’s happening upstream? Giant chunks of snow slipping down slopes, boulders tumbling when the ice that has held them all winter melts? Big things, to affect this volume of water.

moremeadow

I try to make my way to the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. They had to change the name to the Majestic because when Delaware North lost its government contract to run the restaurants and hotels, they claimed they owned many of the famous names – including YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. It’s basically extortion. While this goes through legal channels the park changed the names so the new company could take over the concessions without a problem.

I have a few moments of peaceful bliss before coming upon the road-working crew that woke me up. They are grading and paving a new road with the usual assortment of Cat equipment. A woman stops the motor grader to allow me to cross the fresh asphalt.

From here on, the hike is idyllic. Where are the hoards? I pass charming cabins, presumably to house staff, and spot the webcam with the view of a meadow and Half Dome I’ve been watching.

I find the trail to Mirror Lake and it’s just me, birds, oaks and pines, mosquitoes, and giant granite boulders. I love this landscape. I can’t believe the sheerness of the rock that surrounds me. I make my way to the bottom of a small waterfall I spotted from camp and stare straight up at the sheets of water cascading down. It’s amazing and I’ve got it all to myself. I need this nature time. The flora and fauna I see in San Francisco is ragweed and homeless people.

cascade

Mirror Lake is looking a little fetid these days. Turns out it was never a “real” lake. Entrepreneurs in the early 20th century (?) dug out the area to make a place for Half Dome to reflect perfectly. Now the prissy park department has decided to let it go back to being a meadow…I read on a fancy display sign next to the paved path. <– You get my drift? Fer god’s sake, it’s been a fake lake for 100 years. People love it. What is and isn’t “natural” in Yosemite is up for debate. Dredge the one acre and let people have a special moment. It’s famous!

After I get to Mirror Lake I really want to hop on a shuttle and go meet R. for lunch. I’m tired. But argh…turns out the shuttle is a mile away. I trudge on.

I wait at the shuttle stop with a bunch of other pink-faced tourists. Extreme hiking Dad is trying to convince his five-year old daughter–who’s sitting exhausted on the dirty ground–that they should walk to wherever it is they are going since he has no idea when the shuttle will show up. She resists and I support her. “It will be here soon,” I say. “I’ve been here 15 minutes and it comes every 20.”

Fortunately it does show up and the little girl is saved. : )

Lunch is pathetic. I’m sooooo hungry but I’ve got a choice of four greasy meat things on buns or pizza. All too heavy for a hot day with more walking ahead. I get pizza and only eat two slices and give the rest away to a family. I love when people take food from strangers! Humans are trusting – sometimes!

R. and I try to get on a bus to Yosemite Falls and are turned away from the first one. The buses are crammed. Standing room only squished like sardines crammed. We walk back a stop and wait on the other side because those buses seem emptier, and do manage to catch one, ending up on a 45-minute tour of the park. Which is pretty okay, but the bus is hot, and the driver angry from having to yell, “Move to the back of the bus! All the way back, not partway!” at every stop.

Looks like I had the trail to Mirror Lake to myself because everyone in the park is going to Yosemite Falls. I can see why. The approach is dramatic. We hundreds of tourists are tiny specks compared to the super-sized attractions around us. We try to ruin Yosemite but can’t, it is just too awesome.

Yosemitefallstrees

The falls are immense and like the river, wild and irregular, the huge plumes more like an avalanche than water. The spray is so thick that anyone who ventures out on the bridge over the river comes back soaked. I hide behind a log, prep my camera and jump up for a quick shot.

dramaticyosefalls

We decide to walk back to housekeeping camp from here, though we end up west of where we meant to cross the river in a beautiful, huge, spring-green meadow. The views are amazing…of everything. The scope of the place is astounding.

swimmers

On the other side of Swinging Bridge we find more great photo ops – the falls reflected in a still spot on the river.

prettyreflection

By the time we get back to camp we’re beat. We planned to eat dinner out but parking is awful (most lots are full) as is traffic, and we can’t face riding the bus for 45 minutes – if we manage to get space on one. We get beer and pretzels from the store and sit by the river to enjoy sunset on Half Dome, but it isn’t the most spectacular thing we’ve seen today. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a bit bored. I should recognize this as a symptom of being overstimulated but I don’t. I miss my usual toys. I’m trying to have a tech-free few days and except for a few tweets and instagrams, I’ve kept off the internet and I don’t have my computer. I brought a good old-fashioned paper book to read but after seven pages I’m reciting the overwrought prose out loud to R., who isn’t interested. Neither am I.

I’ve had a great day and am ready to chill but no chill is to be had. Chill being a comfy couch and sushi delivered. The evening campfires are lit and smoke chokes the camp. It seems worse tonight. We both cough. We opt not to build our own fire and eat cold turkey sandwiches for dinner. It’s now 9 p.m. and we are completely unable to entertain ourselves. Pathetic? Maybe. We retreat to the forced snuggling of our double bed and listen to an audio book.

I wake pre-dawn, having to pee, which involves getting up and getting dressed. It’s 5am though I haven’t seen this hour in years, I feel pretty good. I’ve slept six hours and that seems to be enough. We leave today and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to hike, but I’ve now got loads!

burnedtrees

I’d like to be in the big green meadow for sunrise so I set off. All the service trucks are on the road, getting in before the gridlock, but overall it’s peaceful. I check the weather on my phone and find out the river is at flood stage right now. The first sign I see of this is a two-inch deep coating of water over a ten-foot length of the path I’m traveling. What to do? There is no way around it. Though I don’t want to get my feet wet this early, I’m wearing all terrain sandals, so I go ahead.

I make it to where the meadow should be and find a lake. The meadow is completely flooded. This doesn’t seem strange. I didn’t know the meadow well enough to miss it and the lake looks fine where it is.

I cross the bridge and shuffle through cold water to a grass island and watch the sunlight creep its way down what might be El Capitan…not sure what all the big masses of rock are called. I’m surrounded by birdsong, though I don’t see the birds themselves. As the light slowly approaches me, I acknowledge I’m not a sunrise person. Daybreak isn’t particularly glorious or amazing. I know what comes next–whereas sunset thrills me…the start of night…of mystery. The period at the end of the sentence that was the day. Sunrise is ellipses. Not a thing in itself but the start of everything else.

sunrise

The sun is up and it promises to be another beautiful day. I really want to see Yosemite falls again. We saw it in the afternoon and I know it will look completely different now. Every feature in Yosemite has a different golden hour. The problem being that the paved path that leads to it is also part of the lake, fast moving water rushing over the black asphalt. I can see the shore, near the lodge, and it isn’t that far. What the hell. My feet are already wet.

The water isn’t just cold, it’s ice cold. Freezing. By the time I’m halfway across I’m knee deep and my legs are burning. I wonder how long it takes to get frostbite but don’t bother to look it up. It takes only taken five minutes to cross but it feels like longer. I stumble out of the river lake, embarrassed because I’ve done something kind of stupid. Fortunately no one is there to chastise me because they are all SLEEPING. As they should be.

My legs are both numb and burning and I towel them off with my sweatshirt. I take the paved road by Yosemite Lodge instead of the nature path because I’m temporarily sick of nature. I can wiggle my toes if not feel them. I think they’ll make it.

The cafeteria at the lodge is open and I go in for two eggs scrambled and multigrain toast and a chance to thaw my feet. The population of the sunny room is split between dazed people such as myself, and sporty people wearing backpacks with too many straps and pockets.

yosefallsrainbow

When I’m fed and dry I head across the road to the falls and am rewarded by rainbows! Yosemite falls makes rainbows in the morning. I’m so glad I came. I people-watch from a mist-free location. It warms my heart to see adults completely in the moment, and so gleeful in the face of a thunderous and powerful and beautiful force. Thank god Yosemite is a clumsily-managed national park and not a for-profit venture. We don’t need zip lines and the Yosemite Under the Falls Experience. Okay now that I’m thinking about it, I do want that because it would be amazing. And that probably will happen, but back to my point. Watching my fellow humans “have a moment” is really nice. That woman could be a CEO or a waitress and she’d be making the same face. We stand together in awe. I guess that’s what keeps people coming to this place.

I take the long way back to camp, hiking a trail on the north side that puts me surprisingly high above the valley. On the map it’s just a fingernail from the road. I’m completely alone again, just me and the lizards and the birds. My analytic brain calculates the chances of me being raped and murdered and thrown in a crevasse and my creative brain says it’s zero. I’m sweaty and tired and safe and happy and very much living the moment, mosquitos and all. Success.

I needed a few days off the grid and in nature, and although I wasn’t technically off the grid and the nature was interrupted by the hideous structures in Housekeeping Camp, the nature still got me. Despite its awesome power and clear ability to smash and flood and eat unattended children, something in us wants to look up at a clear blue sky and impossibly vertical cliffs and gushing water and rainbows and smile at a stranger and proclaim, “Wow!”

Thanks, Yosemite.

meadowpano


A short, wet drive to a well-annotated town

I don’t usually write about one-day trips. This blog is for significant adventures. Then it occurred to me that most people will never visit Volcano. Most people will never visit California, or even the U.S. I thought about someone in a country I’ll never visit, maybe Poland, taking a weekend trip to a small town. Would I want to read about that? Yes. So here you go.

tovolcano copy

I wanted to take a tour of spring. For a few weeks each April the dry golden hills of California turn a crazy vibrant green and explode with wildflowers. I wanted to see the green, to lay in the green, to take pictures of the green, to find a field of wildflowers and bring back a big bouquet that would make me sneeze once it was confined to our tiny house.

It wasn’t supposed to rain. My dream trip was sunny. I’d prepaid the first night at the hotel with the expectation we’d arrive late after a long day of “car-hiking,” what we call it when we take back roads and stop often to take photos. Now the weather was shitty and we had to go anyway.

The problem with trying to take back roads in a rapidly-developing state like California is that that little squiggle on the map is now the main drag through a city. It took us longer than it should have to get out of the Bay Area because country was now suburb. Our car-hiking was past strip malls.

When we escaped from the sprawl of Concord I finally felt I was somewhere else. The Sacramento delta has an understated charm but the light was crappy and I wasn’t inspired to do much more than snap a few crappy photos from the car.

enroute

I cheered up when we got to Volcano. We’d discovered the town a few years ago when we were driving around the gold country and vowed to come back and stay overnight.

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All the gold rush towns along highway 49 are really cute, though most are sadly soul dead, any normal businesses long gone and replaced with antique shoppes and jewelry stores. Still, the buildings are preserved and if you squint your eyes you can pretend you are back in 1890. And 1890 is ancient history in California. That said, there are more authentic-feeling ruins around. Old mining equipment and such. So even if it is quite new compared to things in Europe or even the east coast, it is part of our history and thrilling to us natives.

Because – if you were wondering – in elementary school we spent about a week on world history and the whole rest of the year on California history. Making dioramas of log cabins  in shoeboxes, taking field trips to Sutter’s Mill to pan for gold, learning about the missions, writing reports on how to grind acorns…

Ai yi yi. As a kid I loved this, as an adult I’m not sure I got the best education. Was it good for me to study our rather unimportant history in so much detail instead of learning about the rest of the world? Would the rest of the world have been too abstract? I caught up later and love to travel so I guess it all worked out.

Anyway, Volcano. At two or three square blocks, Volcano is too small to ruin. There aren’t enough storefronts to attract tacky retail. It boasts two small hotels, two restaurants, a bar, a post office, a grocery store, and a theater. It’s off the beaten path.

Our hotel, the Union Inn, is lovely on the outside and slightly less so on inside, as if some HGTV contestants had $1000 and five hours to make the place “look like a BnB.” Boxes checked, barely.

We walked around town during a break in the rain. Every Single Building in town has in informational plaque. This is simultaneously educational and unnerving. It’s like, hi. You are a tourist. I’m a cute building. I used to be a jail. I’m adorable, aren’t I? Take a selfie with me. Don’t worry. No one will make fun of you. No one really lives here.

prison

Once it started raining in earnest we settled into the bar adjacent to the St. George hotel. And geeze that place works. I worry I’m being manipulated when I’m in a tourist town but the décor is great, the vibe is great and the bartender was an amazing kind soul who told us the history of the place as if he didn’t do that 20 times a day. He actually led me into the hotel lobby to show me a photo of Volcano in its heyday. Population 5000, wood shacks everywhere and a landscape destroyed by strip mining.

A lady from a group of drunks at the other end of the bar informed me that I was in charge of music and that the jukebox was free. I dutifully picked 10 songs. The bartender nodded “good choice” at one of them and I beamed.

I gathered, after a couple hours, that because this place is really close to Sacramento there are “regulars” who often come to Volcano for weekend getaways. We were befriended by a fascinating “May/December” couple. I don’t know if people even use that term anymore but it’s what my mom calls someone very young with someone much older. The man, in his early 70’s, struck up a conversation with us and after a few minutes of yelling he and his 20-something girlfriend moved a couple bar seats over to be closer to us.

I wasn’t sure they were a couple at first but the woman kept touching his arm whenever he got too loud and boisterous, which was all the time, and rolling her eyes at his outrageous statements, then telling us what he thought about related subjects–exasperated with him in that way that only a mate can be.

I’m familiar with the concept of older men with younger women, but only from magazines…Hugh Hefner with his newest bunny, the grizzled president of some South American country with his mistress. No one I know has ever dated someone 40 years their senior. Since it doesn’t seem to happen all that often I wondered how this relationship came about.

I liked them both. They were intense and opinionated and we had a great time discussing California politics, but I did sense some tension. I asked the woman if she’d heard of Roughing It, a book by Mark Twain about the gold and silver rush, and she replied, angrily, “Of course I’ve heard of it. All young people aren’t idiots.”

Oops. Someone has a chip on their shoulder!

After another glass of whiskey she began to high five me whenever I agreed with something she said, and then she’d nudge her boyfriend and say, “See, she understands.”

At some point they went out for a cigarette and smoked and cuddled on a bench in front of the window, then disappeared. I was relieved. They’d been acting something out for me, the audience, and I was confused and not eager to see how it ended.

After that, a bearded, red-faced man who looked like he’d arrived on one of those large, RV-style motorcycles asked if we were from San Francisco, because we looked like we were. I expected some good-natured ribbing when he found out he was right, but he lived in San Francisco back in the day, and pointed out a leather-clad man behind him. That guy’s daughter was the director of a play that was opening in the small theater that night–a soft open for friends and family so we couldn’t go. Too bad.

We had a good dinner back at our hotel and fell asleep early.

The next morning it was still raining. I was determined to get some photos, dammit, so I got the umbrella and my good camera and trudged up Church Street to the old cemetery. The gravestones listed birth and death dates as well as country of origin. People came from all over the world to Volcano to search for gold. What a crazy place it must have been in its heyday. And funny that people still come to California the strike it rich, this time with tech companies.

volcanocemetary

It was nearly impossible to keep my camera dry and absolutely impossible to avoid soaking my feet, so I gave up.

The inn only had four rooms and we were the last to breakfast. I’m not a fan of BnB’s for this specific reason. Breakfast is served from 8:00-10:30 but if you come down at 10:15 you’ll be greeted by a very impatient server. If we came down at 8 like everyone else, he could clean up the food and get on with his day. Not to fault the guy–he was super nice and friendly, just with an undercurrent of wanting us to hurry up and leave.

I’d discovered there was a cave right nearby, and I love caves. The owners of Black Chasm (it’s privately owned) had hand-painted a sign on the road in the style of official brown and yellow government signs declaring Black Chasm a National Landmark. Which I’m sorry to say turns out not be true…according the the NPS website.

helictites

Shrug. It was still a good cave. I liked it. And no rain down there!

firetruck

We had amazing pizza for lunch at Pizza Plus in Sutter Creek. The best sauce I’ve had maybe ever. Still too rainy to walk around, and my feet were still wet from my morning adventure.

We stopped for a few minutes in Locke, a town in the shadow of a levee in the Sacramento delta, built by Chinese workers in the early 20th century. The polar opposite of overly cute overly touristy Sutter Creek, poor Locke is sad and rundown and barely inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for these historic towns.

locke

We got home that evening and despite the cave, my overall feeling was that the trip was a disappointment. I barely took any pictures and saw almost no wildflowers. I didn’t get my spring fix.

ranchosecho

It took me a few weeks to realize that the only problem with that trip was that what I expected to happen didn’t happen, so even though a whole bunch of other things did, I couldn’t appreciate that right away. My expectations create a kind of haze over the real world, a transparent overlay, so that when things align, everything is super colored, super amazing. When things don’t work out, I’ve got this pesky vision of sunny skies overlaid on the gray clouds, fields of poppies on the walls of the dark bar and it’s hard to have a good time because of that.

Should I stop having expectations so I can be more flexible and adapt to the “real world?” Yes, I’d like to be more flexible, but I dunno. I like having expectations. It’s still spring in California so I’ll try again. There are still poppies out there.

Volcanowindow


DTLA

We took a quick trip to downtown Los Angeles to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I didn’t have my computer with me because trips with friends don’t offer much time for contemplation and writing, so I didn’t blog on the spot but I’ll attempt to recreate our weekend now.

We flew from SFO to LAX and took a Lyft to the downtown Standard. We’ve stayed there numerous times in the past and I think this was one time too many. It’s got a very distinct style that they haven’t updated in the past decade. So even though it is still great and if you wiped my memory I’d ooo and ahh, it felt like same old same old.

Gauging from the crowd at the rooftop bar on a Friday evening, it is no longer the hip place to be, which was a disappointment because LA people watching is so fun.

We walked to dinner at Redbird. Downtown LA is definitely NOT gentrified. The denizens are similar to those in San Francisco’s tenderloin district, but the vibe is totally different. Bigger, emptier, more haunting. Many shuttered buildings. No crowds on the sidewalks, just the occasional idiot tourists (us!) and raving homeless person. I didn’t feel in any kind of immediate danger but we all agreed to cab it back.

nohands

Redbird is in an old rectory and photographs much more majestically then it presents in real life. I can barely remember the food because of all the other odd things that happened. We arrived on time and the host apologized that the party at “our” table was having desert and would be done soon. I was mystified that we were assigned a particular table and not the next 4-top that opened up. We didn’t mind. We were happy to have drinks and gawk. Good people watching there for sure! After half an hour we were getting hungry, and the host again apologized. We moved from the bar to a bar table when one opened up–which earned us the ire of the bartender! We’d already had a round, but when we went to the bar to get another he haughtily refused to make us a drink. We were at a TABLE now and the nonexistent SERVER would get our drinks. We sat there drinkless and confused. At some point the host, who was really very nice, told us the table was almost ready and offered to buy us drinks. We were happy to accept and explained that we had tried to get our own and been refused, so he did some magic handwaving and a few minutes later the server appeared with drinks for us.

When we were finally seated it was at the most awkward table ever. The back of my chair was a foot from a chest of drawers thing – which the waiters actually needed to access to get silverware and other supplies. So the whole meal waiters were squeezing behind me and rustling around. !!!!

R. had a headache and felt bad from the flight, so after we ordered he left to go back to the hotel, which meant we ended with way too much food.

Highlight! Actress Riki Lindhome from Garfunkel and Oates (one of my favorite shows) sat down at a table right across from us midway through dinner. She was on a date and I was trying hard to be cool and not stare at her. Meaning, I totally stared at her. And felt sorry for her that people like me stared at her when she was just trying to have a nice night out. Oh well!! : ) Overall it was a good night and they comped us a lot of our food so I had no complaints.

Saturday morning we headed straight to The Last Bookstore.

booktunnel

What a great place! In case you haven’t heard, all the big bookstores in San Francisco are gone. The chains left, and the little indy places are flourishing, but we don’t have any grand spaces dedicated to books. No clean, well-lighted places, just small narrow spaces filled with eau du old paper.

The Last Bookstore is a temple! A cathedral! A maze! Amazing! Built in an old bank it is what a bookstore should be.

horrorvaultAnd…the only bookstore I’ve ever been in that advised patrons not to make a nuisance of themselves while taking photos.

In addition to books, the mezzanine level hosts art galleries. I actually bought some art. My house is very small and I’ve got limited wall space so I was really happy to find some very small original art.

theater

We spent the afternoon at the Standard’s rooftop bar/pool area, which was a very strange experience. Years ago I laid on the exact same couch and had an amazing time drinking and frolicking. Since then, my tastes have changed. I was older than the 20-somethings that surrounded me and therefore invisible to them, which was amazing. A group shared our corner and spoke freely about stupid ass shit. I don’t want to be mean. I was 20, I was an idiot, I admit it. But to see it now played out in front of me…god…the posturing…the insecurity…guys literally comparing their abs…the women tottering around on high heels taking selfies…I so do not want to be young again. I wanted to tell them all they were beautiful and to relax.

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Saturday night, Birthday Night, we had cocktails at Bottega Louie and then dinner at Bestia (down by the LA river). Yum and yum.

To cap it all off, when we left Sunday, I saw that Iron Maiden has their own plane. What!!??? All in all a great weekend.

ironmaiden


Two days in Chicago

September 15-16, 2014

I like Chicago. When we were here a few years ago it was 100 degrees and a thousand percent humidity, so it was nice to be able to walk around the city this time without drowning in my own sweat.

Here are some of the things I saw as I wandered:

wreckingSomething getting knocked down, downtown

carbonArt deco wonderland

flowersNeon sign

ominousclockSlightly ominous art deco clock

dollhouseThis is a dollhouse-scale miniature room. There are about 50 of these tiny rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. I stumbled across them by accident. Jaw-dropping moment.

Weird thing I haven’t mentioned yet. It went from summer to fall during this trip like someone flipped a switch. Indianapolis was hot when we arrived. Kentucky was so hot we didn’t mind the cloud cover and the crappy light. Then, it was cool. 50’s, low 60’s. Too cool to stay long at the concert at Fox Hollow farm. Cool enough in Chicago that I was thinking of buying a jacket. I saw leaves on trees fading to greenish yellow.

As someone who has lived most of my life with California’s faint seasons, this quick change surprised me. I pictured September in the midwest starting out in the high 80’s and then dropping ~one degree every day until it was “crisp” at the end of the month. So, I don’t know if this was unusual, but the phrase, “Fall is in the air,” gained a whole new meaning.

I have nothing insightful to say about Chicago. I haven’t spent near enough time there to understand the place. It’s big though! Makes San Francisco feel tiny. I picked an “L” train line at random and rode north until the end. The city goes and goes and goes. 9 million people I think? We check in at a paltry 800k.

I like the way staring out at a huge city makes me feel. We lucked out and got a high floor at our hotel and I could see city until the horizon. It excited my imagination, but in reality, I can’t use all that city. It doesn’t matter if there are 10 things going on that I’m not doing tonight, or 1000. San Francisco is the right size for me. My friends are within hiking distance, and I’ve never seen a city with so much creativity per square mile.

I’m not sure how this turned into a love letter to San Francisco. Oh yes, I know. Every time I visit another city I think, could I live here, and more importantly, should I live here? Most of my friends are from other states and I have to constantly check in with myself to be sure…it seems so unlikely that I was born in the right place. I think I was though. I mean, the gods were a little bit off course when I landed 20 miles south of here but it all worked out. I found my way home. As I did Tuesday night. I heart SF.

 

sftoday


Willet or won’t it?

September 13, 2014

We had a fairly mellow day, as far as this trip goes. We got breakfast on Frankfort Street, a very cute area/neighborhood a couple of miles from here, and from there headed south to the Willet distillery. The road construction forced us off the highway an on to a pretty small road with farms and hay bails.

willet

Willet was a bit of a disappointment. I’ve been trying to get over the fact that until two years ago, they didn’t produce any of their own bourbon; they bought it all and aged and blended it, or as the woman who gave the tour kept insisting–married it. Since they age for four years minimum, we won’t know if they have a good product until 2016.

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Copper pot still at Willet

Our tour guide was pretty and practiced and seemed as if she belonged in a trade show booth. Not super sincere. Not much work was going on, maybe because it was the weekend?

We were allowed to taste the fermenting grains, and frankly, they tasted sour and harsh to me, whereas at Maker’s Mark, I’d have had a bowlful. I was also surprised to hear they didn’t rotate their barrels at Willet. The temperature varies in the rickhouses where the barrels are stored–very warm at the top and cooler at the bottom (which I noticed had dirt floors). The barrels at the top mature more quickly, so at Maker’s there is a schedule for how long each barrel stays where. The woman at Willet basically said, it is too hard to move them around. We’ll blend them later and it will all be good. The equivalent of not taking a good photo and saying, I’ll just photoshop out the mistake later. Sloppy!

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Rickhouse at Willet

Back in Louisville, we had a southern-inspired dinner that sat like a rock in my stomach. On the plus side, we sat next to a super friendly local couple at the bar who, like many we’ve met, politely inquired as to why we decided to come here. Heh. I don’t think that would be my first question to a San Francisco tourist!

This hotel is so nice though, I hate to leave it. We finally visit the downstairs galleries and wow, room after room and really nice art. Amazing.

enchantingThe lower gallery:

lowergallery

We were going to drive halfway to Chicago tomorrow but I’ve searched and searched and can’t find an interesting place to stay, so we are going to drive the whole way.


Horses and pigs

September 12, 2014

Argh. Woke late with a headache. I’m not going to blame the bourbon, I’m going to blame the gin. One of the cocktails last night was a gin/bourbon combo which I’d normally never drink, but it was a pairing so I did it.

awesomecar

Hotel owner’s car

The woman I sat next to at dinner gave me a couple of suggestions of things to do, including Churchill Downs! I was so focused on distilleries I didn’t even realize that was here in town.

And by “in town” I mean in town. I pictured Churchill Downs as an elegant structure set on a slight hill and surrounded by green grassy fields, horse stables in the distance.

This is the reality!!

churchilldowns

The racetrack is located in a somewhat rundown neighborhood, surrounded by parking lots. The historic building has unsightly modern additions tacked on both sides, mall/Las Vegas style.

The moment I got in I forgot all that. The horses! They were right there! This is so cool–there is a mini ring right inside the front gate, and before each race, all the horses and jockeys gather here.

previewwalk

The grooms walk the horses around (each wearing their number) while an announcer woman talks about them. This is Frisky Kitten’s debut race, things like that. I had no idea that we would be able to get so up close and personal with the horses. You could really see which horses looked raring to go and which seemed to be having a lazy day.

viewing

After the viewing, the jockeys mount and take one more turn around the ring, then head to the track. A man, somewhere, blows a bugle–the signal that the race will begin in 10 (?) minutes. Everyone heads to the stands.

beforetherace

The race begins with little fanfare. I expected an, “on your marks, get set, go!” type thing, but once the horses get behind the gates, they open them with no warning I could detect. We stood right on the rail for the first race. The track is sand, not the dirt I expected, so the thudding of the hooves is somewhat subdued. As the horses approach the finish line, everyone goes crazy, yelling for the horse they bet on, waving their betting tickets like tiny white flags. It is quite exciting!

therace

The winning horse and jockey go into a really pathetic “winner’s circle” – a small square area attached to the track, where they take a perfunctory photo with the owners (?). No garlands or bouquets.

winnerscircle

Then, people head out to get another drink or to view the horses for the next race. It is a fun cycle. I made my first ever bet! I did not win.

From here we headed to Fox Hollow Farm for an outdoor concert and food trucks, another recommendation from the woman at dinner. I thought it would be an interesting local event. I was amazed how the food truck trend is everywhere.

farmworkarea

The event was fine, but we didn’t have the equipment we needed to properly enjoy it, namely, blankets and chairs. The lawn was wet and the night was cool. The farm was a collection of random houses, some nice, some mobile. I explored the immediate area, which featured a very small cornfield, a patch of acorn squash, some beans, and a pretty fenced garden. A ways out we found a pigpen and a few goats and I saw a herd of cattle in the distance (raising grass fed cattle seems to be the main focus).

corn

The farm is all about sustainability, biodynamic, connection with the earth, education, etc. I guess that sounds better than, “We are a cattle ranch with an event space. Hold your wedding here!” I was just a little overwhelmed by buzz words.

We spied on the locals. They looked and acted like perfectly normal people! ; ) The concert was a band from Cincinnati. I loved that they were belting out songs about how no woman is ever gonna do the things to you that I do to you–to an audience of tiny children dancing in front of the stage. Hah!

We headed home early and chilled in our nice hotel room.


Clouds, rain, creeks, bourbon

September 11, 2014

We had grand plans today for touring many distilleries, but everything took a bit longer than expected, and interesting things threw themselves in our path, so we ended up visiting only one.

Traffic all around Louisville is awful due to road and bridge construction. What should have been a 70mph drive south was often 35mph or less. We got trapped on the wrong side of barrier and couldn’t get off on the proper exit, but this actually turned out to be fortuitous, as the road we ended up on took us by the Kentucky Railway Museum.

The scenery (once we got off the highway, which was trees, fields, trees, fields) was pleasant but not mind blowing. Rolling hills, picturesque farms and barns. I’d have liked to stop and take photos but there wasn’t anywhere to pull over other than driveways, and this definitely felt like Private Property. The places were all very nicely kept up so it wasn’t like a guy in a dirty wife beater was going to come out with a shotgun, but I don’t know the rules in this place. The one time we did stop in the only pullout we saw, the next car that drove by stopped and asked if we needed help!

thescenery

I got a taste of “the south” when we stopped in Boston, Kentucky to get gas. Super small town, people hanging out in their pickup trucks and talking, stray dog, gas station/supermarket that sold fried chicken and pizza. When I said the chicken looked good, the woman behind the counter said, “We still got chicken livers, one serving left,” and opened up a Styrofoam container to show me. Mmm yeah. And they all had southern accents! Finally! People in Louisville haven’t really given me the accent experience I was promised.

It was cloudy all day which I think was a blessing. I like the look of blue skies but the sun started to come out once and it was as if I’d stepped into a steam oven.

As we headed to Maker’s Mark, we passed the Railway Museum and had to stop. Dozens of old engines and trains cars sat out on the tracks, beautiful decay. Such great textures. I’ve limited myself to five photos here but I took many more.

yellowblack

liquidometer

One of my favorite moments was discovering that a flatcar had turned into a natural bonsai garden. So beautiful.

bonsai

returnto

As seems to often be the case, there was no one at the museum but us and one other couple.

greenone

We finally made it to Maker’s and were lucky enough to hop right onto a tour. These tours all cost money, by the way, which is too bad. Everyone drove at least an hour to get there, partially on one-lane roads, so it would be nice if the tours were free (not $10 per person!). There is a tasting but I’d say you get less than a teaspoon in each glass.

Maker’s is in a really idyllic setting, all by themselves in nature. I expected to turn a corner and find some huge factory, but no. Small, charming buildings. Feels like a family business. Hard to believe they produce the volume they do.

makersmark

The tour takes you into all the rooms where bourbon is actually being made and in most cases there are no barriers (bottling is the exception). My favorite part was the huge open wooden vats full of distillers beer (?), the first stage of fermentation. It smelled so good. The vats in the later stages of fermentation were roiling. The tour guide had us all stick our fingers in and taste! I was surprised that was allowed until I thought about the rest of the distillation process. Much boiling.

fermenting

In the gift shop, you could dip your own bottle in the red wax, so of course I did that.

We had to hurry back to the hotel to get to a Willet bourbon-themed dinner being held at our hotel’s restaurant. I was very excited. On the way home we passed this scene:

tobacco

Is this tobacco drying? I think it might be. I’ve never seen tobacco leaves!

The dinner turned out to be a quite extraordinary event. I’m writing this through the lingering remains of my hangover, which was a doozy, so I might not seem as excited as I was last night (which was VERY oh my god that was so fun those people were so nice the hotel people were so nice the food was so good that was so fun.)

What made the night so special was the feeling that we were at a very exclusive private dinner party. We hadn’t expected that. The dinner was advertised on the drink menu in the bar and on the hotel website so it wasn’t a secret. And it wasn’t particularly expensive…$65 per person (which seemed to include all but two cocktails). We expected we’d have a corner of the restaurant, the guys from Willet would say a few words, and that would be that.

We changed and hurried down to the restaurant and were told by the hostess that we’d be starting the evening with cocktails in the penthouse. We didn’t even know there was a penthouse. Turns out the couple that owns the hotel keep an apartment on the roof for when they are in town. It was a nice space, huge patio with a view of the river.

penthouse

We walked in and the food and beverage manager from the hotel hurried over to greet us. That surprised me. R. was happy and proceeded to ask him questions about the hotel. Turns out, the hotel is owned by a couple (man/woman, not man/man as I suspected from the 50 or so photos of transvestites that lined the entryway to the main room). They have an extensive art collection and an urge to bring this museum experience to “up and coming” markets. The museum (I’d call it an extensive gallery) here is open 24 hours a day and anyone can visit.

Sounds like a brilliant and sincere business model–to bring a super cool vibe to cities in need. I doubt the Ace Hotel is rushing to build in Bentonville and Cincinnati.

Staff were everywhere, like ghosts, picking up empty plates and glasses the moment we set them down. The manager brought over one of the Willet guys and introduced us–literally dragged him outside to where we stood by ourselves looking at the river. I was so confused. I felt like the guest of honor at a $500 a plate dinner. Like, why is the Willet guy talking to us for so long? This would never happen in San Francisco.

We had a private room in the restaurant. The food was great and the bourbon flowed…way too freely. If you know me you’ll be surprised to hear I couldn’t keep up. Oh crap, another cocktail? I’m not finished with the last. And then, an exclusive tasting of a special bourbon? Ai yi yi. It turned into an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (one of the drunk ones). A woman who worked at the hotel got up to make a speech near the end of the meal and basically mumbled before collapsing into the arms of the chef, who’d just described the dinner in detail. He sat her back down. Thank god we were staying here!

willetdinner

I’m pretty sure I was about to go off on an epic marathon of drunk tweets when a friend of mine from California called and distracted me, thank god!

Anyhow, I’m still puzzling out how this amazing dinner was so cheap and wasn’t mobbed. I’m guessing $65 goes further in Louisville than it does in San Francisco and that maybe this hip art hotel is still finding its audience here in Louisville. Or maybe there isn’t a huge “foodie” culture? Any theories or facts? I’m eager to hear them.


A new state

September 10, 2014

We woke to the rumble of trains. I figured out why it is so strong in our room. The steel beams that surround us aren’t a charming decorative element–they are the same beams that support the platform that holds up the trains that run about 50 feet away from us in the actual station.

Again, who was thinking what when they designed this hotel?

boyfallingMy cousin-in-law requested more ghost statues.
Here we have the charming “Boy about to fall to his death.”

We visited a few historic neighborhoods before we left Indianapolis: Lockerbie Square and Fountain Square. Fountain Square is cut off by a freeway, so I figured it might be the Williamsburg of Indianapolis one day, economic gods willing.

lockerbieCute and well-maintained Lockerbie Square neighborhood

The drive to Louisville, Kentucky was uneventful. We didn’t try any tricky back roads. I learned my lesson. Even so, it took longer than it should have because everywhere we go, road construction precedes us.

Our hotel is pretty freaking awesome. R. and I investigated hip hotels in Louisville and both picked this one independently.

This place is a serious art gallery and our room feels like a studio apartment decorated by someone with good if slightly different taste than ours. After spending the day in the car it is nice to be able to twirl without hitting a bed or a wall. Oh and the window has a view of the outdoors, so, woo!

We got a late lunch and then caught the last tour at Evan Williams distillery. Technically, they do distill one lovingly-prepared barrel a day at this (urban) location, but I don’t begrudge them this sleight of hand because our tour guide was so enthusiastic. I remembered the bored super-French lady at Mumm Champagne. Analogies fail me. Tired puppet on Xanax? Sleepwalker? Angry sorority pledge?

The woman at Evan Williams was all in. She led us through ridiculous dioramas and reenactments, but I still loved her. She took it all very seriously, in the end declaring all the bourbon makers in the state are not competitors, but brothers, working for the good of Kentucky. I raised my glass to her in tasting room.

We walked around downtown. I’ve got no read on this city yet. I see many signs of art and “revitalization,” but I also see many places for rent. Please be advised that my photos in no way reflect the real city, which isn’t on the verge of collapse! Okay, well maybe a few facades are, but overall things looks good.

facades

elevators

fridge

gunswmusic

I’ve got to title this “Guns with Occasional Music”

We ended up in our hotel bar, a civilized oasis, where it was easy to forget we’d just been drenched in sweat and humidity.

So far, this city remains a mystery.


People of the Midwest

September 9, 2014

I had to get out of our interior room ASAP this morning, but I wasn’t quite awake, so I headed down to the lobby with my computer to slowly ease into the day. There wasn’t a soul there, or in the adjacent restaurant, so I went to Starbucks instead.

The first half of the day followed in this theme: post neutron bomb-esque lack of people.

nopeoplepark

I’m guessing I missed the morning rush to work, and I’m also guessing no one actually lives around here. All the highrises have company or hotel names on top. I don’t require New York or Tokyo-level crowds on sidewalks to feel at ease, but no one? Creepy. Seriously, it was like a freaking De Chirico painting.

De Chirico:

delightsReal life:

delights2

Can you see what I mean? A little bit?

I wandered over to the Indiana State Museum, which I knew had a couple of art exhibits in addition to the permanent exhibits. NO ONE WAS THERE. Okay, to be totally honest, there were two other people in the museum. But aside from the three of us, only the people that worked there populated the cavernous space. It’s a really nice museum. Natural history, state history. I just finished “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu and he discussed the early days of radio and TV. The museum had examples of really early radio broadcast equipment, mechanical TV, transistor radios, and TV cameras.

1920radiostationA 1920’s amateur radio station

3inchtvA 3-inch TV, the first widely-available television

I asked an employee why there was no one in the museum and he burst out laughing, telling me I should have been there Monday. He offered that a home-school group had been in that morning. ????

I walked along the river walk (by myself) to the river. It’s obvious that someone has put a lot of time and money into creating some really beautiful public spaces and parks in this area, but they are severely underutilized.

A lot of my questions about Indianapolis were answered at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library! The library/exhibit space was small but quite nice. I’m not sure why I didn’t know this, but Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden–when it was bombed in WWII. He hid in a meat locker in a slaughterhouse during the blitz. After that he was pressed into service to help deal with all the bodies. 25,000 at least, maybe more. I didn’t realize his wit had been forged on such a harsh crucible.

typewriterKurt Vonnegut’s 1970’s typewriter

Anyway, the guy that worked there was really nice and seemed to have some time on his hands, so I asked him about Indianapolis–specifically, why no one used the parks and the only people I saw outside were smokers clustered 10 feet from the door to their offices.

He told me that Indiana is not known for physical fitness or enjoying the outdoors, and that the state ranks something like 49th in healthiness or something like that. I asked if people like Parks & Rec and he said yes, and that everyone suspects it is based on Muncie, where he went to college.

We were still chatting when a blue-eyed, white-haired man rolled in on a bike. The clerk said, “This is who you should be talking to,” and introduced me.

He turned out to be a Rails to Trails advocate who has lived in the area for 40+ years. He is also a distant cousin to Kurt Vonnegut. We discussed the donut effect that happens to cities, where the core dies out and the suburbs prosper, and also the reinvigoration of the cores that seems to be happening now.

indmapWhen I got back to my computer I checked out the map of the city, and sure enough, it has that familiar highway death noose wrapped around the center. 65 to the north, 70 to the east and south, and the river on the west. I can’t believe how many cities were killed by freeways.

All the landscaping I was noting is relatively new, and up until a few years ago there weren’t any super markets nearby. You can see the problem. Not many apartments, nowhere to buy food, no parks, no reason to live here. As a city you’ve got to jump in and beautify and hope development follows. An attractive, three story apartment complex (looks to be a full city block) was under construction across from the Vonnegut Library, so I think it might be happening.

He gave me so much good information about the city, answering all my silent questions (I didn’t get to talk much). It was as if he was a character brought to life by my imagination. An urban renewal expert and a relative of Kurt Vonnegut? I mean, WTF?? Life is too strange sometimes. Although I guess there is something to be said for actively engaging in your interests and showing up. Still.

After chatting with this guy, I left with the sense that Indianapolis is dressed up and ready for a party, but the guests haven’t arrived yet. There is no reason this can’t be a happening city.

After this I wandered over to an “art area” which is a few fun blocks of stores and galleries. We came back here for dinner and Indianapolis was redeemed. My snarky comment that Tuesday would be better turned out to be true. I’m happy to eat my own words if they are served up with tacos.

funrestaurant


MidwestWorld: Chicago to Indianapolis

September 8, 2014

I’m sitting in the most depressing hotel room ever. Our room has a view of the wall of a completely enclosed interior atrium. I can’t see sky or trees or anything. Who designs a hotel like this? As far as I can tell, none of the rooms can see outside. The crappiest, sketchiest motels we’ve stayed in have had, at worst, a view of our car in the parking lot. This is not how I expected to be greeted after a day driving through wide-open cornfields.

The building itself is an unhappy marriage of modern construction and old train station. 80’s strip mall meets turn of the century steel and glass. It just doesn’t work. Full-sized train cars run down both sides of the building (or maybe, half cars?) that are hotel rooms, but I didn’t see lights on in any of them. In theory I should be raving about this, but all I felt is confused. I mean, they aren’t even featured. You can’t see them from the lobby or the central atrium. We made our way down a hallway to our room, turned a corner, and there they were. Adding to the weirdness are all these ghost sculptures of former passengers. Life-sized figures. So creepy! I always complain about hotels not having original art, but geeze, is this some “devil granted my wish” type thing? This greets us when we leave our room:

ghost

So, slow clap, Crowne Plaza Hotel. You called my bluff.

Did I mention the “gentle rumble” of trains from the nearby station? My god, it feels like an earthquake when trains go by! After being woken from sleep a few times I either got used to it or the trains stopped for the night.

I didn’t think we did much today until I looked at my photos and realized, oh yeah. There was that.

I got up early and took a walk around old town Chicago. Really charming houses. Hard to believe I was in the heart of a city. I was checking out a “for rent” sign at one place (curious about prices) when a building manager ran out to greet me. Long story? I ended up hearing his. He was in his mid-30’s and from Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was a war refugee that ended up in Germany. He’d been shot seven times and still had three bullets lodged in his back. The German surgeons didn’t think they could remove them without crippling him so they paid for him to be sent to North Carolina (?) to see specialists, who removed the bullets. From there he came to Chicago to visit a friend…got 6 months free rent from the U.S. government and a stipend…took English classes…got a job as a valet…hated it…got a job as a bouncer…started doing heroin and challenging people to fights and never got his ass kicked.

I was nodded and tried to keep up. He showed me his scars and his tattoos and talked about religious wars and racism and I wasn’t sure if he was saying racism was better or worse in Chicago. He seemed like quite a nice guy. I didn’t get any strange vibes off of him at all. Not joking.

Anyway, he’s been sober for 4 years. Apparently it wasn’t the drugs that got to him, it was that he was getting fat. He said he’d order big cakes (and made signs with his hands to indicate a 2×2 foot square cake) and eat all of it in one night. I said it must have been hard to quit heroin and he said not at all. He just worked out.

Then he showed me the reward he got for being sober–an adorable toddler (son). I saw pictures of that cute kid all over Chicago. Oddly, none of his wife, and no mention of her. I was curious but also kind of wanted to get going so I let that be.

To round things out, he showed me a YouTube video of a “Mexican” guy diving into what appeared to be six inches of water (and hurting himself) and told me a couple of Mexican jokes. I still don’t understand his view of other races. English as a second or third language makes it tough to decipher.

I’ve never really thought about what it means to take in war refugees who are severely traumatized. How odd that several countries spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fixing this guy up physically but then (presumably) completely neglected his mental health, leaving him to wander the streets of Chicago in a PTSD and heroin haze, beating people up! Who knows though. Maybe they gave him a social worker and he never went?? I know I don’t have the full story.

After the old town, I took a walk on the beach, then we packed up and headed to The Art Institute to see the Magritte exhibit. As a teen I loved Magritte, particularly one painting of a house where the sky was daylight and the house was lit as if it was night. That one wasn’t in the exhibit, but they did have “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” and some other cool ones I’d never seen.

thebean

We took a quick look at “The Cloud Gate,” had a sandwich, then hit the road for real. I don’t know much about the different parts of Chicago but whenever we travel, I’m always astonished by how large all the houses are…and that even a “low income” home probably has the same square footage as a million dollar house in San Francisco.

junkyard2Junkyard just outside of Chicago

If I ever say “I read on Wikipedia that…” again, will you just punch me? I read on Wikipedia that Highway 41 was the main highway before 65 was built and thus was the equivalent of Route 66, with abandoned gas stations from the 40’s and 50’s blah blah blah.

For the first 40 or so miles, the highway is nothing more than a city street, 35mph speed limit, through modern and not very interesting towns. I’d call them Merced-esque. Finally we broke through to cornfields and a 55 mph limit. The rolling hills, corn, and clumps of thick forests were pleasant but not inspiring. It was the kind of landscape that caused R. to muse, “You can see why people say California is so beautiful.” Where were the abandoned gas stations I was promised?

We stopped to get something to drink in Kentland, Indiana, and I lucked upon a ruin of a motel. Super cool, but a little tough to photograph because the sun was shining right in my face.

room4

room3

room2

room1

I don’t want to give the wrong impression though. This and a barn or two were the only ruins we saw. This was no Route 66. Maybe it gets more interesting in the south but we gave up and cut over to 65 after hours of not much wow.

Driving through one small town with my window open, I heard one biker exclaim to another, “Three beers for seven bucks, you can’t beat that.” As he got back on his motorcycle. Groan.

Indianapolis underwhelmed me as we made our way off the highway to our hotel. At 7pm, the streets were pretty much empty. No buzz, no life, no excitement. It was Monday night though, so who knows. I hear Tuesday nights are nuts.

walkway2

 This is either the most awkwardly designed walkway between two buildings,
or a shipping container fell from above and got stuck.

 


Santa Fe roadtrip day 12: Flagstaff to Las Vegas and home

I felt a bit melancholy as we sat in a diner on Route 66 in Flagstaff this morning eating another greasy breakfast and watching the freight trains rumble slowly past. When we were heading out on the first day of this trip, crossing the Arizona border made me feel so far from home–the first step on a grand adventure. This morning, Arizona didn’t feel exotic at all, but instead like the beginning of a slippery slope leading to California. I wanted to back up and keep traveling. I had more national monuments to see! Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon were only miles from the motel!

Sometimes I’m homesick on these trips and ready to return, but not this time. I think it is because a friend of ours graciously offered to stay at our place, so I haven’t been plagued by worries about the cat, the yard and all that.

As we approached Nevada, we seemed to be driving straight into a thunderstorm. I was nervous about this thanks to our last southwest trip when I learned a German tourist was killed by lightning on the rim of Bryce Canyon. Fortunately, either the road skirted left or the storm moved right, so all we got was enough rain to wash the windshield free of smashed bugs.

thunderstorm

We stopped at the new Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge near Lake Mead. That’s a mouthful! Unfortunately we were *on* the bridge so we couldn’t see the bridge, but I gotta say, this is the most substantial shadow ever!

Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

The middle of somewhere…that is what I learned this trip. At first this made me a little sad. I like the idea of “the middle of nowhere.” On our last southwest road trip I was completely out of my element, the way burning man used to make me feel. I liked this.

This time I had enough dots to connect to make a picture. The towns weren’t isolated. Every lonely road was one that numerous people used to get to work every day. For instance, we took the road that goes northeast from 70 (below, right of center). That looks like a whole lot of nowhere, doesn’t it? Especially when you do a side by side comparison with a map of the Bay Area.

Yeah, we had very spotty cell coverage and drove through some amazing, seemingly untouched scenery, but this was not The Middle of Nowhere. We rounded a bend and there was a huge power plant.

I’m a romantic, but also a realist. Am I willing to trade my dream of a rugged, uninhabited southwest for one of small towns populated by people like me, sitting on the couch on a Thursday night watching Tivo and arguing over which designer should be cut from Project Runway? Reluctantly, yes. : ) Those people could be my neighbors.


Day 10: Santa Fe to Flagstaff

I’m eager to hit the road, but as soon as we do, I realize the magic spell is broken. We aren’t meandering, we are headed to Flagstaff–the first step towards home. What makes this feeling worse is me knowing it is all my own state of mind. I wish I had to power to compartmentalize this day and make it as special as any day on the trip out here. I try my best.

This route is along a very busy train corridor, and the skies, as usual, go on forever. I’m almost glad not to live here so I can’t get used to it.

A particularly large, red rock formation rising straight out of the valley floor is too much to resist, so we pull off and hike around Church Rock, New Mexico for a bit.

church rock new mexico

As we get closer to Flagstaff, the scenery changes to pine trees and flowers.

We get into Flagstaff and after driving for hours I’m not up for doing an archeological dig into the conflicting Yelp reviews of the two old-time hotels in town. Awesome! Sucks! Loved it! Hated it! Great room! Noisy!

Guiltily, we check into a down-at-the-heels Hampton Inn. We luck out with a quiet ground floor room with a nice view. We go to dinner at a brew pub and get an “our kinda town” feel from the waitstaff and clientele. Must be the nearby university. I imagine an alternative universe where I went to school here and had a good time.


Day 10: Kicking around Santa Fe

Everyone spent the day preparing for my parent’s anniversary party that evening. You can skip the rest of this post if you aren’t interested in rants about bad customer service. You should skip it! This is old news to all of us…the familiar problem of trying desperately to give a company money and they just won’t take it!

I’ve been trying for over two weeks to get a cake ordered from “the best bakery” in Santa Fe, according to Yelp. I went to the bakery website, found a cake I liked, and called the bakery.

“I’d like to order a cake.”

“Oh, lemme transfer you.”

I am put on hold for a long time. Minutes.

“Hello?”

“Hi. I’d like to order a cake.”

“Do you know what kind you want?”

I do, and I rattle off all the specs from the online menu they have…but this is where I ruin everything…”I’d like custom decoration. I’m looking at your website and I’d like it to look just like the one on your gallery page, second row, last cake.”

“Can you describe it?”

“Well, I’d rather have you look at it. Do you have a computer?”

No, the person on the phone did not have a computer and I’d have to call back and talk to the cake decorating lady who was not in right now. I ask if I can send an email with a picture of what I want. They say yes and I ask if the email address on the webpage I am looking at is correct. No – instead of emailing the bakery I have to email a gmail address.

Needless to say no one emails me back. I call a few days later to check in and the cake decorating lady is not in. A day or so later I get a voicemail message from her acknowledging my order and asking me to call to confirm and give my credit card number. I call back, she is not in.

Now we are on the road and it is hard for me to make calls during business hours. Cell service is really spotty. When I do manage to call, she is not in.

Screw it! When we arrive in Santa Fe I go to a nearby Whole Foods. The people at the bakery are super nice. The woman who does cake decorating is there and she comes out from behind the counter and looks at my computer and does a sketch based on my photo. She doesn’t want a down payment, and the price of the cake is (bizarrely) about half what the other bakery was going to charge me.

Today we pick up the cake and it is absolutely perfect. Just like the photo. (Sorry about the crummy photo *I* took. The restaurant was dark and a flash ruins everything.)

I want to patronize small businesses and time after time I hit a brick wall when I try to do so. Anyone at “the best bakery” could have helped me if they were willing to go beyond their job description but no one was.

Ironically, when I try to send a thank you letter to the manager of the Santa Fe Whole Foods, I discover the store has no email address online. : )


Santa Fe roadtrip day 9: Bandelier National Monument

Why have I never heard of this place? In fact, why is nearly every national monument I see on the map a complete mystery to me? I’m embarrassed to be so ignorant of the facts of our county, but on the other hand, I have a problem with getting overly excited about places and things I read about, so on this trip I’ve been trying to figure out what will be interesting without learning too much.

I’m predisposed to like Bandelier National Monument, if only because I really want to get out of Santa Fe. For nearly a week we’ve explored wide open spaces with skies that went on forever, and I’m feeling a little claustrophobic in the suburban sprawl. I can’t get my bearings. I’m eager to spend one whole day outdoors and on my feet. The scenery on the way there is fascinating. I’m ready to jump out of the car right now and explore!

mountains near Los Alamos

We arrive in Los Alamos, where we have to take a shuttle the last 20 minutes to the park. There was a flood a while back and…well as far as I can tell the shuttle was probably needed for a few months but now no one wants to fire the drivers, because I can see no reason we couldn’t have driven right in. Everything is fine.

Anyway, the park is way better than I expected. A pretty, 2-mile round trip totally level walk along a river canyon, with native American stone houses and cave dwellings.

bandelier national monument

This rock, if I remember correctly, is actually compressed ash from a volcano, and this lends itself to all the cool, naturally occurring caves and holes! You can see, on the photo I took when we were driving in, these holes are everywhere in this area. This seems like a good place to live in olden days. I like that you can still see evidence of wallpaper, aka plaster with decorations. The round holes are where the logs for the roofs were secured.

The best part is that, at the end of the trail, you can climb up a sheer cliff face on wooden ladders to get to a really big cave. I’m amazed this is legal in the U.S.! Wow! I hate to even write about this because I don’t want to bring this to the attention of the wrong person–who will start a campaign to get the ladders removed. None of my pictures can do this justice so I won’t bother posting them. Instead here is another neat scene. You can get an idea of the scale from the tall pine (?) tree up on top.

bandelier national monument

That night after dinner we met our friend Aneel–coincidentally also on a southwest road trip–at a nearby dive bar. I felt very out of place when we walked in. Everyone but us was dressed up in southwest style garb, well over 60, completely drunk, and dancing to an extremely loud cover band.

There was one thing I could do to fit in, and it wasn’t dance. After a few drinks I began to relax it all made more sense. These retirees were Getting Down! I haven’t seen such enthusiastic dancing in a long time. They spun, they waved their hands in the air,  they ground pelvises. After each song ended, the dance floor emptied as everyone collapsed into chairs for a breather, but once the band started they jumped up like jack in the boxes. They were having a blast!

It was an inspiration. I saw my future and I wasn’t sitting in my front room yelling at the hovering drones the pesky teenage kids were using to spy on me. I was in Santa Fe in a dive bar swing dancing with a cowboy. Yee haw!