Florida at last. We arrived at the Crestview home of Bud’s Uncle Paul and Aunt Donna Friday night. This is our fifth visit to the sole surviving sibling of his father, and they are always great hosts. Donna makes the best brisket and Cole sat outside with Paul Saturday morning and had a long talk about snakes (they have a lot of them there). It’s one of Bud’s few connections to his Arkansas roots: They spent time reminiscing about the Black Oak general store and relatives lost to alcohol, accidents, or just age. Donna and I went antiquing in Milton while the guys hung out and went for a bike ride — if we can’t relive the past, at least we can buy pieces of it. I was very restrained: Saw lots of cool things but few bargains, spent $12 on gifts. Goods are better but prices are higher than in the junk stores in Florala. The item I most wonder if I should have bought: a foot stool allegedly made in Italy where the base was a kneeling camel carved out of wood topped by a leather cushion. If it had been $15 instead of $50, it would have been mine.
Bud’s friends and family have provided us comfort on our voyage. His cousins Gail and Jack gave us a gift certificate for Olive Garden that was welcome respite at the end of a long, hard day of driving Thursday. How lovely after all the road food to sit and sip some cabernet and eat pasta. Okay, it’s not Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink — but hey, that’s coming. Tonight, Miami!
Graffiti in bathroom at BP station outside Tallahassee (where there are daily reports of oil conditions at the beach): “Boycott BP: Not one drop of gas in our tanks until every drop is out of the gulf.” Bud stopped there, not me. It’s taken a vestige of the British empire to inspire a grassroots environmental movement.
The interstate gets us to our destinations, but the byways are the journey. For lunch we broke up two days of hard driving by detouring off 49 and into the Louisiana bayou. I think these spontaneous deviations are going to be the most memorable parts of our trip; William Least Heat Moon was right about these Blue Highways. After driving down winding roads past unpainted plank farmhouses and above-ground cemeteries, we followed a local’s directions to Poche’s. Had some delicious crawfish etouffee and jambalaya and stocked up on Cajun seasonings and sauces for gifts. The radio has provided a harmonious soundtrack: oldies that haven’t been drained of their shelf life decades ago and recent Americana on Mustang radio and the “American Roots” show on local NPR. Aretha, Elvis, Dylan, Chuck, Cash, Lucinda, Nina, Snooks Eaglin, etc.
Now we’re driving on Route 10 to Baton Rouge, a four-lane stretch that rises 20 feet above the swamp on concrete columns. Gotta love the engineering marvel of the interstate too.
It’s not what you want to hear first thing in the morning: A water main burst in the bathrooms during the night, the ceiling collapsed, and there are no facilities available at the campground. So half asleep and desperate for a toilet, we bundled ourselves out of the Carlsbad RV Park and into nearby Happy’s Restaurant, a diner filled with yellow smiley-face memorabilia. There’s a forced optimism in the Southwest: lots of streets named after the sun, and now this kitsch klatch. Double bummer since we’d paid extra to stay in a little cabin with AC for the pets to escape the 100-degree heat in while we checked out Carlsbad Caverns. Now we’re on the road without even a shower.
Sunny smiles and dark mysteries: Yesterday we did Roswell and the caverns. The Roswell UFO Museum is a ramshackle affair: partitioned cubicles displaying letters, newspapers, bad artwork, and lots of conspiracy theories — kind of like a permanent school science fair. I was not convinced. But we got a great addition to the refrigerator magnets we’re sticking on the walls of the van: a mommy, daddy, and kid alien in front of a crashed flying saucer, with the words “Family Vacation Roswell, New Mexico.” That’s us.
The caverns were spectacular: one humungous stalagmite, delicately draped grotto, and symphony of soda straws after another. We only had time for the Big Room and the bat flight, but that was enough. I actually found myself battling Stendhal Syndrome, so overwhelmed by the beauty around us that my senses started shutting down and I couldn’t take in much more. The Big Room has been well developed since it was first discovered just a century ago. Elevators drop 750 feet; the abyss houses lit walkways, bathrooms, and even a restaurant. It takes more than an hour to walk around, and thank guide there were trails, as I would have been completely lost. We kept imagining what it was like for discoverer Jim White and the other early explorers, navigating with torches and ropes, not knowing if it was day or night, stormy or sunny.
I got actual chills when the bats started pouring out of the giant gaping mouth of the cave — 300,000 of them. That’s right, 300,000. Almost every summer night, they circle the entrance counter-clockwise seven times, then head off to southern springs for their first drink of the day/night. Presumably, their bathrooms were working.
Yesterday was our last day of sightseeing before two days of hard driving to reach Florida. That means no visiting in Texas or Louisiana, sadly. We’ve dawdled enough. Cole can barely wait to see his sisters and friends in Miami! Me too.
We’ve made it to Florida; staying in the Panhandle a couple nights. I have some posts written but am having technical difficulties getting them up. (This country is not as wired as I had hoped!). Hopefully tonight.
Whisps of white pollen from cottonwood trees float like giant snowflakes through the air of Albuquerque. The trees tower oak-like at Rio Bravo Park alongside the Rio Grande, but with bigger canopies and more fragility; thick branches break off in the winds. Their fragrance floats with their fluffy seeds: dry, timbery, with a hint of sage. We walked with Bud’s old friend Greg and his girlfriend Tammy through the park at dusk last night, fighting off the first real mosquitoes I’ve seen since moving out West.
With limited funds and a 7-year-old in tow, I can’t honestly say I saw a lot of Albuquerque. We spent some time in Old Town, a Spanish plaza centered around a 18th century church and filled with stores selling Indian, Southwest, and Mexican goods. I’ve seen this kind of plaza before — pretty, but touristy. I liked what I saw of Albuquerque: public sculptures, coffeehouses, taquerias. Yet ours was mostly a social visit. Although Bud and Greg grew up in the same neighborhood, they hadn’t seen each other in almost 30 years. Reunions like that are chancy, but Greg and Tammy were easygoing, generous hosts. Cole loved him. They sat and played checkers together for an hour while Bud and I washed the van. (I’ve never seen the van looking so good.) I’m realizing that for Cole, travel isn’t about seeing things; it’s about playing.
Our drive to Albuquerque was beautiful; it’s been hard to get anything written or read because I can’t take my eyes off the scenery. I have mixed feelings about the Western nostalgia and Native fetishism being peddled in these old Route 66 towns. I don’t feel particularly romantic about the days before suffrage, civil rights, and Stonewall. I think there’s a conservative regression in bikers’ adoption of cowboy ways.
But driving through the West, down the routes that for centuries have brought pioneers and immigrants from the Midwest, East, and Europe, I do share a sense of wonder at the unique beauty of this region. When the designers/architects Charles and Ray Eames took their honeymoon in these lands, they brought a piece of tumbleweed back home with them. It still hangs from the ceiling of the landmark Modernist house they built in the Pacific Palisades — an American symbol if there ever was one.
The last-minute packing is ill named: more like last five hours. One more box becomes six. Finally, at about noon, tank full (there goes the first Benjamin), tires full, van damn near full (too much stuff!), we pulled onto Rte. 110 and began our six-week, 7,000-mile summer road trip. Husband Bud, son Cole (7), dog Otis (aka Odie), and cat Paleface (aka Pacey) all crammed in one white Ford van.
Taking the cat is a definite gamble, but he traveled great when we made the reverse odyssey, moving to LA from Miami Beach last August. We all took a lesson from Pacey’s Zen chillness. He’d never been in a vehicle except for those despicable trips to the vet, and he just lounged into the flow. He was a little less obliging this morning, purring when I plucked him off the floor of our empty San Pedro flat but immediately trying to bolt out the door once I put him in the van. Then, as we aired up the tires, he and Cole stood on the back of the bench seat, kings of all they purveyed.
Cole is ecstatic to be heading back to Miami to see his friends and sisters. He was dancing and singing in the back, a little something called “Goo Goo Ga Ga” he made up on the spot. We regress when we’re happy.
Our journey is taking us to Miami, stopping along the way for some visits and sightseeing. Then a few weeks back in our old stomping grounds. We’ll head up to Wisconsin for my dad’s 75th birthday, then to the Upper Peninsula (Michigan) for a couple of weeks of family and friends and woods. Then we book back home so I can start my new job Aug. 15. We’ll wind up at our new apartment, down the street from and closer to the beach than the one we just packed up and pulled out of. 7,000 miles to move two blocks.
Sounds fun, I think. Except we’re doing this on a meager budget — lots of relying on the kindness of couches, camping, and sleeping in the Econoline van that Bud has turned into a rough RV. In fact, if Bud doesn’t make a few thousand while we’re in Miami and Michigan, we’ll be washing dishes and Cole will be busking “Goo Goo Ga Ga” for gas change. No boutique hotels or glamping on this trip. This is how you have to travel in 2010, when you work for industries devastated by what Richard Florida calls “the Great Reset” — which feels more like getting booted than rebooted. We’ll be counting our pennies and eating lots of PB&J. And blogging as we go.
We were mostly trying to make up for lost time today, heading for Barstow and 40. We did take one spontaneous detour, cutting off a corner of the Interstate in favor of the old route 66. “It might be windy — looks like there’s a mountain in there,” I warned as I looked at the map. Ha. The 60 miles were like a bird’s nest made out of hairpin curves. The road was tiny — no way two Hummers could have passed each other. Every other sharp corner was marked by a cross. It was certainly scenic, especially Oatman, a Western town where the cowboys now ride bikes and burros still wander freely down Main Street (lots of burro dung and flies). There are a bunch of old-style frontier storefronts from which to buy ice cream, postcards, and beer. Reminded me of Pioneertown, but more so. And there are still working gold mines nearby. The detour put us behind schedule but was worth every stomach-lurching twist.
Even Cole, the perpetual skeptic, had to admit: The canyon is pretty damn grand. We biked up to the South Rim first thing this morning. You can’t get a sense of the scale of that expanse from any kind of reproduction — the Grand Canyon is not something you can experience virtually. Starting our trip with a seventh wonder of the world seemed like a good reward for all the work leading up to our departure. Just hope it isn’t all downhill from here.
The starting out logistics of our trip sucked. Way too much stuff was crammed underfoot in the travel area of the van, instead of underneath the bed. We left too late and arrived at the park after dark, hungry, tired and irritable. And that’s just how the grownups felt. Mea culpa: I can be such a bitch. Bud likes the feeling of being stowed inside a boat, but I kept bumping against sharp corners and losing the things I need in the things we don’t need.
So we spent the afternoon reorganizing the van. Structural rule: Only have what we might use while we’re driving accessible from in front. Anything we need at night, once we’ve stopped, stow underneath. Like do we really need access to all five containers of coffee and coffee makers Bud brought? Better question: Do we need five at all? Now we have room to maneuver, and I feel much less bitchy. Though Bud will have to wait until he has access to a saw to cut the sharp corners off the table he made. Never really thought about it before, but now I know why boats and RVs have rounded edges.
But before work, play. We hesitated about bringing our bikes; we have to take them off every time we want to access all the stuff we just put in back. We’re already happy about that part of our load. By 9 a.m. we were pedaling off to the rim — rather than fighting traffic or waiting for shuttle buses. You’re not supposed to ride on the rim trail, but for the first mile-plus leg, it was mostly empty, so we were happy scofflaws. Then we hit civilization: lodges, gift shops, busloads of Japanese tourists — I know the latter’s a cliche, but it happened to be true.
Cole was already tired, cranky. His legs hurt, he couldn’t walk — and the next jaunt to Maricopa Point had to be walked. A trip to a souvenir store to buy a stuffed ram hadn’t satisfied his consumerist, electronic lifestyle. He wanted to shop, play his DS, watch a movie — anything but have to look at a 7th Wonder of the World some more. We could have let him ruin our day. But we didn’t. We made him walk, and eat, and stop whining. And finally, after many tears and a forced march, he tapped into some Bakugan spirit energy. By the time we biked back to Mather Campground, he was shouting at me to catch up — as I could barely move my knees up and down.
As soon as we got to the campground, we spied a bull elk wandering among the sites. We’d passed a cow a few minutes earlier. They’re amazingly docile. The bull grazed past a man lying outside his tent with a jug of OJ beside him, seemingly recovering from the night before. “Does that guy even know it’s there?” I asked the man taking pictures next to me — okay, he was probably Japanese, but apparently he understood English, as he cracked up.
We set up our Wal-Mart three-room tent today for the first time. It’s typically American supersized, like an overstuffed LaZBoy or an SUV. Way more than we need right now, but it will be excellent for our two weeks in Michigan, when we’ll be camping on our Lake Superior property.
All in all, a good day. And pretty cheap: spent $22 at a gift store, $13 of it Cole’s own money, the rest for Father’s Day. Paid our $18 camping fee a month ago, and our National Park pass came in handy yesterday.
Happy Father’s Day.
A huge forest fire north of Flagstaff forced us to detour through Hopi and Navajo country — again, the unplanned route was time consuming but worth it. Painted Desert (sculpted too — piles of rock look like statues), plummeting canyons, and plains the soft, silvery green of sage. Outside the Hopi Cultural Center, in Second Mesa, five men were beating in unison on one drum and singing/wailing in transcendent five-part harmony, powerful, full-throated singing. Cole climbed with two small children up a tree. Then the drummers gave us fruit and popcorn; hadn’t they already given us the gift of music? All we had to offer in return was some water and chocolate-covered almonds for the kids, until we finally managed to break a 20 at the center. I wasn’t sure what was more insulting: to pay them, or to not pay them. No question it was worth $10. But somehow we just left Hopi country without me getting any of the silver and black jewelry I’ve wanted for years. Damn budget.
We’ll just have to go back. At the cultural center, we saw a replica of a pueblo village that’s still in operation. Walpi is about 12 miles east of the center. There are no signs, but you can see it high up on a hill. We couldn’t take more time to go visit it, but apparently there are tours. Some day we’ll make it back.
It seems to me that since the economic crash, violence against women, primarily perpetrated by men they know, has proliferated. Bud and I first noticed this in Miami, where often Latin men acted out their rage at economic disempowerment with domestic violence. Tragically, it happened again Sunday night there, in Hialeah, where a man shot and killed his wife and three others, all women. Miami Herald story here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/06/07/1668691/in-minutes-rage-to-rampage-in.html.