Last night, I sat by the fire in The House on the Hill, my Grandparents’ house in Colorado Springs that overlooks Pikes Peak. I’ve been here for about a week and a half and plan to stay through the Holidays before wandering vaguely east in January. We ate grocery store sushi while I settled cross-legged on my favorite red Turkish carpet that we picked out together during a trip along the Turquoise Coast when I was 14. Their house is filled with artifacts and collections from nearly 70 years of marriage and trips to countries on 6 continents and road trips to every State capitol. Evidence of their travels is everywhere, but as much as they love to explore, they are happiest in this house.
They built T.H.O.T.H. in 1970 and have added additions every decade so they could have room for ornate bedroom sets their grandparents had in Arkansas that reach 12 feet tall, a 17 ft tall real Christmas tree and it’s many spin-offs, and a 1⁄3 scale train caboose in the backyard that boasts all the names of their grand and great grandchildren painted on the side. Everywhere you look, there is a treasure that tells a story or sparks a memory. It is wonderful.
And it is overwhelming.
If there ever was a metaphor for a life well-lived, it would be this house. The original had enough bedrooms for each of their four daughters but the garage was converted into another room when they took in one more. The next garage was turned into my Grandmother’s office after she got her PhD and started her career as an economist. My Grandfather’s office above the most recent garage has a model train that circles around it while his collection of Coke cans from around the world and programs from sermons he gave are crammed into shelves above. Their garden is edged by rocks they carted down from the mountains, and the trees they transplanted as saplings now stand more than 80 ft tall. There are oyster and mussel shells along the paths from meals they’ve enjoyed together.
While T.H.O.T.H. has evolved and morphed over the last 50 years, it reaches backwards for generations. Few things are ever removed or replaced. Instead, they are reupholstered or repaired. They can point to a table and tell me if it came from the “Prescott House” or Espy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my ancestors were conceived on the bed where I now sit to type this. There is a room that is nearly completely full of scrapbooks. Nana and Grandpa have been extraordinary stewards of this home, but as they age, the weight of their lives and the lives they honor before theirs has become a burden. They spend their days maintaining and organizing T.H.O.T.H. and climb to the third floor on replaced knees and repaired backs every night to sleep. Each day I spend here, I have to battle with competing desires to protect and preserve it all or burn it to the ground.
I think my wanderlust was passed down to me by my Grandparents. Christmases were filled with gifts and treats they brought back from China or Russia or wherever they had been that fall, and butter was served from a ceramic dish from Italy that was too short to accommodate American butter sticks. I was given the model that your possessions would be the record of where you had been, so I eagerly began my own collections. For a time, I collected Coke bottles and Harry Potters in different languages, and amassed stacks of postcards I never planned to send. There was even a period where I collected national team soccer jerseys from different countries, and enamel pins, keychains, and magnets from National Parks. But when I packed up my apartment before leaving my job as an art teacher to wander and live out of my car for as long as I could get away with it, I stood looking at those two boxes full of Harry Potters I can’t read. This is my life. These will always be here. They are heavy. They take up too much space. A low hum of anxiety started to build and has never quite gone away. The first step I took to try and silence the hum was to start sending the postcards.
For the last 18 months, I’ve been on the move. I keep a spreadsheet that tells me where I will sleep on any given night, and I’ve paired down my life to a small suitcase and a backpack. I still collect things, but they are usually ticket stubs and wristbands that can fit inside my travel journal, and I record what I see in the pages of my sketchbooks. I also like to keep whatever is the equivalent of $5 in foreign currency from wherever I go (Sir Edmond Hillary is on the New Zealand $5) and I carry a lucky $2 bill. I have some regrets that I don’t pick up pieces of local art, but that ache is mitigated by the fact that travel inspires my own creativity. What I make will have to be my record.
The fire crackled behind me as Nana took the plates of uneaten ginger and wasabi to the kitchen, and I was left alone with my Grandfather. Since I have been back, he has had two hospital stays; the first was a planned pacemaker replacement, and the most recent was a harrowing few days to clear out an impacted intestine. During all of this, my Grandparents have chipped away a constant to-do list that includes mowing the lawn, clearing the vegetable garden, and chopping firewood. My back ached from splitting the wood so he wouldn’t try to do it the minute he returned from Memorial Central, and the fruits of my labor were what we were enjoying in the grate.
We sat together quietly while Alexa played “The Music Man”. Grandpa’s working memory has been affected by the various medications he’s on, as well as 89 years of life, so I was content to let the show tunes do the work of penetrating the fog clouding his brain. Often, when I am alone with my Grandfather and he begins to reminisce, he slips into his Preacher’s voice. His words become slow and melodic. Every syllable is deliberately paced, and certain phrases are repeated for emphasis. My own thoughts drifted to my birthday that was only a few hours away, and the sad fact that I wasn’t sure that either of them would be able to remember it. My morose musings were interrupted by Grandpa’s Preacher's voice. He told me that he and one of the nurses at the VA Hospital where he worked had always wanted to put on a production of “The Music Man”. I listened as he talked about the support groups for Vietnam Veterans’ wives he led and the framed thank yous he had from them in the stairway leading up to his office. I knew what story was coming because his voice got slower and lower. As “Shipoopi” played, he told me about a Veteran who found him at the Church and said he needed to say something. His job had been to ferry munitions up the Mekong River.
I knew this story. I could already see it building in my mind. I knew what came next. The soldier was on deck as the boat came around a bend and he spotted a mother carrying her baby along the bank. He watched her as she reached into her shirt and had a split second to react in case she was about to pull out a hand grenade. So he shot her. Grandpa told me this story because he said it was a point of pride that he never reacted in judgment, and the veteran thanked him for that. I knew the same was required of me.
Nana returned and the fire died down. My introspective slide began to pick up speed until my brother called me on FaceTime and I snapped out of my funk. He and I talk about anything. None of it matters and all of it is interesting. I also knew for a fact he doesn’t know when my birthday is and never has. As we rattled on about about blood types and how surprisingly easy it is to understand the Wiki article about blood when it is translated to Occitan, I had the reminder I needed that life for me is best lived in the moment connecting with people I love and ignoring the burdens of the past or anxieties about the future. In my 37th year, I’ll do my best to remember that.
I still collect Coke bottles, though.
By the numbers:
42 pages of a new Travel Journal. 2 States and 1 Canadian Province, 6 plein air paintings, 2 digital portraits of the NBA CHAMPION DENVER NUGGETS!, 1 Wedding, 2 hotels, 1 cliffside cabin, 2 nights car sleeping, 2 couches, 2 guestrooms, 1 former roommate, 2 of my Dad’s fraternity brothers, 1 Aunt, 4 National Park Passport stamps, 3 ferries. 29 Books.
Days 41-44: Travel Journal Pages 1-9, Hood River, OR and Alex and Peter’s Wedding
The whole reason for this trip was to end up in Hood River by May 13th. My cousin, Alex, was getting married on the cliffs high above the Columbia River in the shadows of the Cascades. After a leisurely morning, sharing coffee on the porch and giving final ear scritches to Tuna Turner, I followed Chelsea to another adorable neighborhood in Portland to pick up her friend, Tiffany, an effervescent widow who is in her late 40’s, a painter, and a birthday twin to Chelsea. I followed them along I-84 to a Mexican restaurant in White Salmon on the Washington side of the Columbia across from Hood River. We had a lovely lunch, complete with massive margaritas, octopus soup, and a birthday serenade for Chelsea. I left them to check in at a spa and I went into Hood River to get a manicure and pedicure next to the Safeway. I needed to shift gears into family and wedding mode, and I would spend much of the next few days shuttling family members from the Portland airport to The Westcliff Lodge.
After I checked into the Lodge, all I wanted to do was crash, so I wasn’t especially enthusiastic when my Aunt Cath invited me to join her and the Gravleys (my Uncle Adam, his brother Eric, and Eric’s family) to Ferment Brewery low on the Banks of the River. But I summoned my reserves of friendliness and prepared myself for what I knew would be lovely, but what felt deep in my bones that I didn’t want to do. I was so tired!
The Columbia River in Hood River has 2 beaches: one for the wind surfers and one for the kite surfers. They are separated by a jetty, and you can rent equipment for either sport from companies by the river, but you have to stick to the correct beach. It’s Sharks vs Jets and never the twain shall meet.
Ferment was busy, but I got a chance to get to know Arden and Azella, Eric’s daughters who are 9 and 11 years old, respectively. Back when I was 11 years old, my sister and I spent a week on the Olympic Peninsula with Alex’s family, and that is when I met Uncle Eric. Childhood is peppered with celebrity guest appearances—the people who show up briefly but make a big impact—and Uncle Eric was one of those. He was fun, novel, and best of all, not our parents. He was probably in his early thirties but was game to play and build sandcastles. We did a Ranger Walk on the beach, and Eric, my cousins, Emma, and I were tasked with inventing a new animal and building it out of things we found on the beach, and Eric helped us to create a “Frog Dog” out of sand and driftwood. He earned the nickname “Frog Dog” that day and 25 years later, I was cementing my own celebrity status with his daughters. They were the only kids at the wedding, and I spent the weekend painting with them, dancing, and turning cartwheels. I was baffled by my allure to them, as were my family members who rarely see me as being playful, but Arden and Azella were two of the highlights and I hope I’ll get to see them again before the next wedding in 25 years.
It is the nature of family events to have too much to do, including errands and catching up with people you rarely get to see, that downtime is never truly restorative. As a result, the majority of the entries for the weekend of Alex’s wedding were actually written more than a month later and are desaturated by time and distance. I summarized the experience with bullet points and photographs, so the order of events may be unreliable, but our embellishments often reveal what is important to us. My bullet points are brief, but evocative:
If I’ve learned anything about storytelling from my Grandfather, it is that the facts don’t really matter, but there is a grain of truth behind every legend. What I know is that Alex and Peter’s wedding was one of the best thought out and most true to the couple ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed. Every person I met felt honored to be there and blended beautifully with all the other groups and individuals collected there. Beautiful place. Beautiful people. I think about it a lot.
Days 45-51: Travel Journal pages 10-19, Kalaloch and Olympic National Park, WA
“It’s true what they say, that you can’t go home,” I wrote in the first entry from the Olympic coast 5 days after the wedding. Emma and I arrived in Kalaloch on Sunday, May 14th, which was Mom’s Birthday/Mother’s Day, and we would spend the week as just the Green Women in a place that had been a landmark of our childhood. We stayed in Cabin 6 overlooking Kalaloch Creek, and the rocks that appear at low tide and watched as a gorgeous sunset turned from hazey pearl to fiery red. Kalaloch has all of the hallmarks it had from when I was a kid with some aesthetic updates. The Lodge feels much smaller (though I am taller) and the gift shop feels more grown up having replaced the polished rock station with Pendleton blankets and rain jackets. The phone booths are still there and the mercantile has been renovated, but the seagulls have been replaced with swallows and crows.
Emma and I walked down to the rocks at low tide and were disappointed that the tide pools are mostly mussels and barnacles. There were a few snails and anemones, but they used to be teeming with orange and purple sea stars. We wandered along the beach through the mist before turning around and walking back through the campground. I saw a whale spout and crest; they were on their way north, migrating from Baja to the Arctic for the summer.
Mostly, we all needed to take time to let down. Emma was jetlagged, Mom overworked and overwhelmed, and I’d been on the road for nearly 2 months. We read and watched people on the beach from Adirondack chairs high up on the bluff outside our cabin. Even though Kalaloch is a time machine without wifi and limited cell service, I kept thinking of my childhood with fond detachment and I kept waiting for a wave of nostalgia. It wouldn’t hit until one point when I stepped out of the wind on the beach into the protection of the bluff and the sun warmed driftwood smell hit my nose. Suddenly, I was 9 years old again, sunburned, sticky with saltwater and happy.
Emma and I would drive to Ruby Beach for another low tide walk through the mist, and at first we were disappointed because the sea stacks that used to have crowded tide pools were similarly populated like the Kalaloch rocks. But when we turned down the coast to check out the lower rocks along the southern part of the beach, we finally found the orange, red, and violet sea stars piled on top of each other and tucked into the seams of the rocks.
It was a relief.
Later, we would drive out to Cape Flattery, the Northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States and on the Makah Tribe Reservation. In October, I went to the Southernmost point in Key West, and in March 2022, I went to South Point on the Big Island of Hawaii. I’m slowly ticking off the checklist of the perimeters of my country. We had Indian Tacos after a beautiful 2 mile hike to an outcropping of rock over turbulent turquoise water contrasted with vivid green moss and red lichen. We ended the day at the Forks Library where we worked on planning our New Zealand and Australia trip in July and August before driving back to Kalaloch to make dinner.
We would close out the week with a visit to the Hoh Rainforest, and we left Kalaloch before noon but weren’t allowed into the park until 2 pm because they have metered parking (i.e. 1 car in 1 car out). I’d thrown my back out while walking on the beach, and I lay in bed as it spasms and seized, but I felt better the more I moved, so I risked the drive and hike in the hopes it would continue to improve. The Hoh is a place I must have visited but had no memory of beyond hanging mosses and colossal cedar trees. There are a few short loops and an 18 mile out and back to a glacier high in the Olympic Mountains which is another trip for another time. Emma and I stopped at the visitor center where I got my stamp and I asked a Ranger about the different ferns (sword fern vs. lady fern) and then we walked along the Hoh River trail to access the mineral-rich glacial melt water. It was not especially wet and we saw no banana slugs (which can live up to 7 years!), but I felt the tension in my back ease with every step through the 5000 year old forest.
Days 52-61: Travel Journal Pages 20-21- Seattle and Bainbridge Island, WA
Nine days and only a page and a half written here. This is a symptom of burnout, and finally having a home base where I could unpack most of my car and shut down for a while after 8 weeks on the move. I stayed with Aunt Cath and Uncle Adam in their home in Lake Forest Park for 4 weeks, and I would take 2-3 day trips out to visit friends and join my dad for a memorial service at his alma mater in Tacoma. I find I am especially susceptible to inertia, and when I get too settled, I stagnate. On the flip side, when I move too much, I get overwhelmed by the things I've done and the things I need to do. Somewhere around Hood River, I stopped sharing stories on Instagram and posting to my website. I still took pictures to share my sketches, so people could still keep track of me, but the slog of keeping up to date while moving on became untenable.
The two entries I wrote during this time were from Third Place Books where I spent hours doing the administrative parts of being an Itinerant Illustrator (AD emails, portfolio updates, paying bills, etc.) and from the deck of a ferry Edmonds to Kingston. At Third Place, I wrote about long conversations with Cath about art, family, and finding ways to occupy ourselves after leaving teaching. On the Ferry, I wrote about listening to a man riffing on his guitar while sitting in the sun. It was the perfect soundtrack to watching sailboats and cargo ships as they crossed the Sound.
What I didn’t write about was an afternoon in Fremont where I would spend an afternoon painting the Bridge Troll and enjoying the scent of the Theo’s Chocolate factory that made the whole neighborhood smell like a brownie. I didn’t write about watching playoff hockey or basketball with Cath and Adam, nor did I write about my visit with my old roommate, Zoe Peake. I have to remember these things from photos, sketches, and notes on my #WanderingAddison spreadsheet of logistics.
Visiting with Zoe was cathartic. We were only roommates for one year in high school, and the last time I’d seen her was during another epic road trip after we graduated when we picked her up in Hill Country and drove along the Gulf Coast before dropping her off on St. Simons Georgia. She was with me during my first trip to New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. We hadn’t kept in touch but were aware of each other through social media, so when she saw me start moving up the coast, she invited me to stay with her when I got to Washington. I spent 2 nights with her in an apartment where she was pet sitting and we caught up on 17 years of history. I slept on a couch with two cats who would find their way onto my chest during the night and make me feel like I was drowning in fur. Zoe and I talked about adolescence and living unconventional lives and we bonded over reading aggressive amounts of romance novels. This is the fourth time this has happened over the past year where women have covertly confided that they enjoy reading what has been stigmatized as smut, but once they find another “intelligent” woman who is also a fan, it opens the floodgates of recommendations.
Zoe would join me on the ferry back to Seattle where we would meet up with Hannah and Erin Duff, two more classmates from FVS, for a walk around the Arboretum and Lake Washington. Erin has become an expert gardener and she was excited to learn that Zoe had bought a house with an established garden in Bremerton. We stood by the water across from U Dub and watched as crows harassed a juvenile bald eagle, before walking back to our cars and wishing each other a good life with hopes to see each other soon.
Days 62-64: Travel Journal Pages 22-30- North Cascades National Park, WA
North Cascades National Park has been a National Park since the 1960s and it reminds me a lot of Glacier meets Shenandoah. It's about 2 hours away from Seattle, almost to the Canadian border and it follows the Skagit River through gorges and canyons penned in by jagged mountains and a few remaining glaciers. Several dams on the river created Ross and Diablo Lakes which are an opaque turquoise due to all of the suspended sediment from the melting glaciers. I made it to the Park just before 1 pm and got recommendations for hikes and places to paint. I did a few loops up and down the canyon before returning to the Diablo Lake overlook where I painted on the edge of a cliff for about 2 hours. I really liked my drawing and ruined it with watercolor and impatience, but I learned a lot and it was good to have completed something.
I didn’t arrive with much of a plan or interesting food. Maybe I’d hit up the general store in Newhalem, the hydroelectric company town, or drive the whole of Highway 20 through the park. Maybe I’d draw. Maybe I’d hike up above the tree line… It’s possible I miss out when I travel like this, deciding what to do just before I do it, but sometimes I end up doing things I could never have planned for. When I woke up the next day, I drove up the newly opened Washington Pass to draw Liberty Mountain. It felt good to be at elevation and I focused on drawing with purple and black ballpoint, seeing all the details I could through the crystal clear air. Earlier, I took a short hike across the suspension bridge over the Skagit and took time to read signs along the trail that pointed out relics from many forest fires and how some cedar trees behave like chimneys and can burn from the inside and still survive. There was another plaque that showed a row of cedars all in a row that had been saplings on the same nurse log. I loved learning about that.
I ended up at the Mazama Public House east of the park, and I shared a table with a couple from Tacoma. They were retired former biologists and teachers, and the husband eagerly shared with me a large head-sized puffball mushroom he’d found on the side of the road. I didn’t ask for their names, but we shared a meal and excellent conversation before I turned around and went back to my campground on the other side of the pass.
The next day I would hike 2 miles straight up to Pyramid Lake. I knew it would be brutal, so I waited until the last day because I was going to sweat profusely and didn’t want to stink up my car which I had to sleep in for two nights. I drove the 2 hours back to Cath and Adam’s for a quick shower before driving down to Tacoma to meet my dad who had flown in from Maryland the night before.
Days 65-76: Travel Journal Pages 31-42, Tacoma, Seattle, Whidbey Island, WA, and Vancouver, BC.
Dad came to Washington for two weekends, which was one of my main reasons for staying in the PNW for so long. It’s rare that I get one-on-one time with him, and he was there to attend the memorial service for one of his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers and then his 40th Reunion for the University of Puget Sound. I was glad to have the chance to be his wingman and catch up with his brothers, most of whom I hadn’t seen since I was a child. We sat around a firepit and discussed the reasons for why fraternities should continue to exist and why they maybe shouldn’t. Greek life wasn’t part of my college experience apart from being allowed to live in the SAE house for two years after they got kicked off campus, but this group of men has been my father’s consistent community for four decades. They were there for his triumphs, mistakes, and many of his best stories. I was glad to be present for them all while they honored their Brother, Scott, with a White Rose Ceremony in the Puget Sound Chapel.
Later in the week, Dad and I would drive out to Whidbey Island north of Seattle to visit with his Brother, Nick. We took a ferry and had mussels and a lamb burger in Coupeville before driving to to Ebey’s Landing, a National Historic preserve, complete with blockhouses which were small fortifications that look like elevated log cabins meant to protect settlers from Native attacks. Then we drove north to Nick’s. Nick and his wife Kathy have a lovely beach house and awesome dogs on the northwest side of the island, just north of the Naval Air Force base and just south of Deception Pass State Park. Their home overlooks a private beach complete with soft sand and relentless Tomcat flyovers making regular maneuvers. Nick is really similar to my dad in that he is quiet and attentive, but also a little awkward. When we arrived, I excused myself to walk the beach while Dad and Nick caught up and established a rhythm. I have a default setting to make people feel comfortable, but my inclination seemed forced, so I stepped away to reset and when I returned, we all sat on the deck and shared easy conversation while we watched the tide come in and the San Juan Islands emerge and disappear in the haze.
The next morning, Dad and went for a hike around Deception Pass State Park which is known for a high trestle bridge, rocky beaches and trails. We parked, climbed up to the bridge and then another half mile to the summit of Goose Rock. The weather was fair but we worked up a sweat before wandering down to the beach where we sat on a drift log and watched the rock collectors search for jaspers and agates to tumble.
The rest of the day would be spent driving up to Vancouver where we would walk around Stanley Park (the same Stanley of Cup fame). The park is on the tip of the Vancouver Peninsula and is home to rose gardens and totem poles. The Vancouver totems are different from the ones I saw in Sitka last July. They are more ornate with a wider variety of full figures. We walked along the water to a lighthouse that looked out on the bay where cruise ships docked, rowers rowed, and seaplanes landed. It’s gorgeous here.
We checked into the hotel and decompressed for 1.5 hrs before calling an Uber to take us to Gas Town to see the steam clock (a clock that runs on steam, obviously). We planned to walk to Chinatown for some dinner, but we ended up walking through one of the most sprawling and crowded homeless camps I’d ever seen. Everything in Chinatown was closed after 8 pm, so we ended up at a bar where we watched the Stanley Cup playoffs and ate peri peri boneless wings. We ended the night by walking back to our hotel along the water. We ate gelato and failed to find a Mountie hat. It was a good day.
We did find a Mountie hat the next morning (my father’s shiteating grin was worth the search) before driving back down to the border which would take us an hour to get through. We parted ways in Seattle for the night while he drove down to Tacoma for his reunion, and I watched the Denver Nuggets in the NBA playoffs with Cath and Adam. I’d meet up with him again in Tacoma for a BBQ before I checked out Point Defiance and the Rose Garden, and then again at Four Generals Brewery in Renton, a project of one of his other Brothers that uses a reverse osmosis system to mimic the mineral content of the water in German cities in the brewing process. Dad and I sat at the bar and had a fascinating conversation with the bartender about the state of healthcare in the military. My dad worked for the VA, and she used to be a therapist on base, and I had lots of questions.
By the numbers:
20 pages and one completed Travel Journal. 2 States, 4 plein air paintings, 1 hotel, 1 Railroad Resort, 3 nights car sleeping, 1 friend and former colleague (and bird, lizard, dog and cat), 1 “Camp Friend”, 1 National Park Passport stamp, 1 Art and State History Museum, and 2 artists studios. 9 Books.
Day 31: Travel Journal Pages 220-222- Big Sur, Monterrey, and Heywood, CA
Before this trip, my experience with California was limited to a few Alcatraz swims with the high school team I coached, and one conference in San Diego early in my career that resulted in one of the most egregious hangovers of my life. Yet, California exists as a mythic force in Americana and seeing things like the Hollywood sign or driving along The 101 or Pacific Coast Highway seem like hallmarks of the “American Experience” because they are present in the backdrops of so many TV shows and movies. When I left Santa Maria and made my way up the coast to see my friend/former classmate/former colleague, Cheye, I knew I needed to see Big Sur.
The drive to Big Sur was nice and quiet. It took me through farmland and the Superbloom, but fires and landslides had closed so much of the Pacific Coast Highway that I had to approach from the north. The drive was the experience for the day, and while it was too misty to see the sweeping vistas well, the views still had an epic moodiness that made the trip worthwhile. I pulled off the road several times to watch as massive waves pounded the cliffs hundreds of feet below, while hillsides behind me were blanketed in gold flowers and orange poppies. The mists and pops of saturated color against the gray reminded me of Iceland, save for the massive swells of turquoise and frothing white. I’ll need to find a way to return here.
I stopped briefly in Monterrey to walk the beach and kill some time before getting to Cheye’s apartment in Heywood, near Oakland. I’d spend the next four nights taking up Cheye’s living room floor while steadily working to win over a bird named Mango, a skeptical little dog named Chubbs, and Terryanne, Cheye’s wonderfully wary and introverted fiancee. There was also a cat and a lizard who were unfazed by my presence.
Day 32: Travel Journal Pages 223-226 Haywood and Oakland, CA
A common theme of this trip is reconnecting and picking up where I left off with people who were important to me for a time, but for whom time and distance have been significant barriers to maintaining a friendship. Cheye is one of those friends who fell off the map when she moved to California, but we had been young teachers together and wasted vast amounts of each others’ time when we should have been grading. It’s not always easy to tell how well work friendships will translate out in the real world, but we soon found out that the shared experience of teaching wasn't the only thing that bonded us. I woke up just before 7 am to visit with her since she didn’t teach class before lunch. We talked about anything and everything that has happened since moving to California including her coming out as a lesbian and getting engaged. COVID was a common topic, and Mango, the cockatiel, flew around the apartment and kept chirping and landing on Cheye’s head, while Chubbs, the antisocial mutt, slept against my thigh.
Later in the morning, we drove to Foundation Art Space in Oakland, where Cheye is setting up a darkroom studio. The space itself is full of all kinds of studios including spaces for painters, fashion designers, and printmakers, and it is piled high with dusty equipment and supplies. The rent for an 8 x 10 foot space is between $450-$500 a month. Cheye noticed a better space on the same floor as the sink, so after checking to see if it was available, we spent the next half hour moving her equipment and gallons of water out of her old space and into the new one.
We drove to the Diamond District for some veggie pizza before going to Head Royce, Cheye’s school. It was the first time I’d been back on a non-college campus since I left teaching, and I got the experience of feeling equally alien and native. It was fun to talk shop with other art teachers, but I struggled not to insert myself into casual conversations with students who had no clue what I was doing there.
I don’t miss it.
After Head Royce, I went back to my car to find an angry orange parking violation notice under my wiper. It immediately went into the travel journal and I drove to the Oakland Public Library to write for a while.
Days 33-34: Travel Journal Pages 227-231, Marin Headlands, San Francisco, and Oakland, CA
A month into this trip, and I’m starting to feel the wear and tear of itinerancy, though I wouldn’t trade a day of it. Keeping the balance sheet of Input vs. Output, whether it is money, introversion vs. extroversion, or experience vs. synthesis, saturates and overwhelms me more some days than it does others. I wrote in my journal that I was worn out and didn’t want to do much aside from drawing and listening to my book. Both Terryanne and Cheye had work, so I cleared out and was grateful to have two days where I could embrace Bay Area traffic to get through a few audiobooks and act on my own whims. I drove to The Marin Headlands to hike and paint. I found some peace just sitting on the hard sand of Rodeo Beach, painting the rocks and surfers before climbing around the hills to find the graffitied battlements. At times, I struggled to really relax because there were signs everywhere I parked saying that the area was a smash and grab hotspot for break-ins. Cheye and Terryanne had each told me their own break-in stories, and I felt a similar anxiety that I’d had in New Orleans. I’d have preferred my old ignorance. In spite of all this I felt that if I ever had reason to settle in the Bay Area for a while, I’d feel good about being able to find places like the grassy headlands to escape to.
After painting, I drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and hiked in heavy rain up to some of the higher view points where I took a few soaked selfies and enjoyed looking at the locks on the chain link fences, a trope stolen from a bridge in Paris and the bane of every other bridge’s existence. Crashing thunder hastened my descent and I drove across the bridge before a quick walk around the Presidio, a Park Stamp, and a slow return around the bay back to Cheye’s. Lots of harbor seals and wild flowers. A good day.
I spent the next day at The Oakland Museum of California, an art, history, and natural history museum all for the price of one. I sat and journaled in an Eames recliner while facing a massive painting of the Sierras from the 1800s, and I was reminded of the Thomas Morans in DC of western canyons that I make semi-annual pilgrimages to see. Familiar spaces in unfamiliar places. The art museum focused on California with an emphasis on Bay Area artists and featured 1950’s drag costumes along with Hockneys, Dorothea Langs, and Ansel Adamses.
I ended up spending the whole day wandering between the three museums and a special exhibit on Angela Davis, the Civil Rights Activist and first woman to end up on the FBIs 10 most wanted list. The history wing begins by telling the story of the Tribes in each region of California, and like the Alaska State museum, it doesn’t pull any punches. The museum uses the term “Genocide” to describe the attempted eradication of native peoples by the U.S. Government and it talks about colorism, and the preference of white San Franciscans for “white” Spaniards vs. “dark” Mexicans when romanticizing “Old California''. One of the highlights of the art wing was a collection of photos and paintings by Hing Liu, who was trained to create hero portraits for the Communist Party in China, but shifted to creating striking massive portraits of real life using historic photos from the Chinese diaspora.
I ended the night playing Zoom trivia with some of Cheye’s friends and Terryanne told me about her tattoos. I left feeling comfortable that my presence was a net positive, rather than a negative.
Day 35: Travel Journal Pages 132-233- Fort Bragg Glass Beach, and Dunsmuir, CA.
When moving from place to place, timing is often tricky to get right. I need to plan my moseying to accommodate peoples’ work days or when I’m able to check into a hotel or campsite. I needed to clear out of Cheye’s when she and Terryanne went to work, and I couldn’t check into my campsite at the Railroad Resort near Mt. Shasta until after 4 PM, so I swung wide along the coast for a stop at Fort Bragg. Terryanne told me about the Glass Beach, a relic from when the military base there used to toss its trash into the sea. The accumulated glass has been tumbled and tossed into a remarkable beach of multicolored gemstones, all because of litter. I’m a sucker for beach glass, always have been, and it suits my magpie tendencies to collect it wherever I find it. Two years ago, I sat on a beach in Varenna, Italy, a small town on Lake Cuomo, and for two days I dug through the sand filling a water bottle with tiny chips of glass. I spent two days doing this, and I ended up with a heavy bottle full of the pieces dropped into the lake from generations of tourists and rich Italians blithely tossing their empties off their boats and into the water. Oddly, I wasn’t tempted by the Fort Bragg glass, and I happily left it for others.
Instead, I sat high above the surf on the cliffs and watched the ground squirrels run between the rocks. I would have loved to paint the high stacks of rocks that were capped with red and green scrubby bushes, but it was windy and wet. Overall, it was a half-hour stop on a three hour detour that was totally worth it since it sent me through tiny windy highways deep in massive redwood forests. When I turned inland towards Shasta, I got on the Interstate for the first time in over a week and as I gained elevation, it got colder and rainier. I never ended up seeing the Peak itself, and when I finally exited in Dunsmuir to get to the Railroad Resort, a kooky campsite and hotel where you can stay in an old caboose for the night, it was a complete downpour.
I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant that was in a passenger car from the 1940s. I sat at the bar and wrote up the day in my travel journal while a truly abysmal troubadour murdered Bowie. It was one of the few times my friendly stranger mojo wasn’t working until a local named Sam who was a week out from open heart surgery sat down next to me and ordered a Cinco de Mayo margarita. We talked for a bit about Colorado and being nomadic. He’d lived in Woodland Park and Denver 30 years ago but moved when the hippies started becoming yuppies, so he relocated to Dunsmuir to find what he’d loved about “Old Colorado”. I wished him a lovely night and then walked back to my soggy campsite where I would test out a car mattress I’ve had for a few years but never got a chance to use. It was tricky moving things around in the back of my Subaru to make room for the bed to inflate without getting soaked, and the final result was a cramped night while the rain battered the metal roof. I set the car alarm off twice and raced to shut it off before I woke up the whole campsite. It was rough.
Days 36-37: Travel Journals Pages 233-236, Nehalem State Park, Oregon Coast
Planning for this trip started in March and was reverse engineered from a single fixed point: a wedding in Hood River Oregon on May 13th. One of the first people I reached out to was a friend in Portland who had been asking me to stay with her for years, and I felt like it would work for me to stay there the week leading up to the wedding. I also knew that my friend Chelsea, whom I had met six years ago at the Illustration Academy in Kansas City and had one of those intense summer friendships with, was also turning 40 that week and might have had plans. She responded that she would love to see me and I was welcome to be there for anything she had going on and we would play it by ear. I penciled her in on my spreadsheet and then we both went about our lives.
While I was circumnavigating the country, Chelsea was traveling around Europe with her mother and we were both vaguely aware of each other’s meanderings through Instagram stories. After an awkward string of texts with Cheye the week before when we worked out that I was planning to stay with her for 4 nights when we’d left that part vague, I figured I should confirm my plans with Chelsea before I kept moving north. She left my messages on “read” for a few days and I started to get anxious. When I finally got a response, she told me she had just broken up with her boyfriend who was still living with her, but crashing on the couch, the guest bed and occasionally in her room, but that she was looking forward to seeing me but everything was a little up in the air. Worse comes to worse, I could stay in “The Ambo”, an ambulance she had converted into a camper a few years back. I responded that if she wasn’t up for company, I’d happily find a Plan B, but that I wanted to see her even if it was just for a night.
She left me on “read” for another day, so I started making plans.
My sister had camped along the Oregon coast a few years back so I texted her for a few recommendations. I booked two nights at a campground at Nehalem State Park in Manzanita, and a night in a motel in town. I’d stay with Chelsea in Portland for one night before clearing out and driving to Hood River for the wedding. I texted her my plans and I could feel her relief from hundreds of miles away.
I drove for 7.5 hours through “bite the back of your hand” beauty in Northern California and out to the Tillamook Coast. I've never been to a prettier beach; the Oregon coast has the cliffs and temperate rainforests that you find in Washington combined with the soft white dunes and grasses that are common in The Outer Banks. Add to that the light and sunset you usually find in New Mexico and I was in love. I don’t know whether it was the lack of expectation, kismet, or the gorgeous weather I had the entire time I was there, but I was genuinely enchanted. The high cloud cover filtered rays of sun and turned the surf pearlescent and luminous. I slept in my car again with a much more comfortable configuration, and I managed to set my car alarm off once more.
I spent the next day painting and catching up on work at a Starbucks across from the Tillamook factory. I was glad to have a few days to be in time-killing mode before Alex’s wedding. I read a few books, worked on my road trip playlists, and drove into town a few times to mail my ballot for the Colorado Springs mayoral runoff election and get coffee. My grandmother has been mailing ballots to me all over the country for the past year, complete with printed emails and literature from her neighbors about who to vote for. I love automatic mail-in voting!
Days 38-40: Travel Journal Pages 236- 240, Cannon Beach and Portland, Oregon
Chelsea decided a night on the coast was just what the doctor ordered to distract her from her break-up, so she packed her dogs up and made her way to her friend’s house in Manzanita. I spent the morning painting Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach and eating spicy Cheez-Its. Most of the paintings I’ve done on this trip have been better for the experience rather than the outcome. I had a mentor who recommended I use the paintings to both document my trip and also as a means to fund future travels. Mostly I’ve been giving them away. I’m not a perfectionist, but like many artists, I still question the merit of my work. I never trust that it’s worth more than a few likes on social media, even when somebody hands me a check or shares a picture of my work hanging on their wall. I know it’s irrational and counterproductive. But it's true.
I joined Chelsea at her friend’s house where I met her dogs Bernie and Tuna Turner. We took them out for a hike to an overlook that was accessed by a locals trail on one of the coastal overlooks and were joined by Chelsea’s friend Lindsey and her dog, Oliver. We drank wine while watching the sun descend and I marveled at the difference between the places I discover on my own and the places that are revealed to me when I have a playmate. We stayed up there until the dogs started to fight so we packed up and moved down to the beach. Chelsea and Lindsey were two of three women I met from Portland who were ex girlfriends of musicians from indie bands I’d listened to in college. They were full of stories, and some regrets, and I was a little in love with both of them by the time the sun set. They are both older than me and reminders that a life well-lived isn’t always simple or pretty.
The next day, Chelsea and I had brunch in Manzanita and I painted Short Sands (her favorite beach for surfing) while she worked on email. I followed her into Portland later that evening and met her Ex. He’s a fisherman in Alaska and was leaving town at the end of the month. Chelsea lives in a beautiful Craftsman in Southeast Portland, that she bought in foreclosure a few years back, and her home is covered in handmade art and homemade bongs and penises. Chelsea recently bought a building and opened a gallery called “The Purple Door” a few blocks from her house and down the street from her favorite local bar where everyone knows her name. We walked around town and she introduced me to her friends and shared the gallery space. No one was a stranger to her and she rolled her eyes at me when I called her a “Pillar of the Community.”
I often don’t feel like a main character in the story of my life. I’m stoic and undramatic, and while I am likable and interesting in my own way, I probably wouldn’t pick up my own memoir at the bookstore. Yet, spending time around people like Chesea—of which there are few, she is truly a diamond in the rough— reminds me of a concept of “The Neutral Mask”. In his book, “Understanding Comics”, Scott McCloud talks about the idea of a neutral mask being a universal stand-in that allows an audience to see themselves in the place of the main character. This is achieved through having limited detail or a bland personality, thus allowing the reader to insert themself into the role of the protagonist. The more colorful and interesting characters are reserved as side characters. This idea is seen over and over in some of the most successful movies of the last few decades which are led by cartoons, masked heroes, or dull protagonists with standout sidekicks, i.e. Luke Skywalker vs. Han Solo, or Will Turner vs. Jack Sparrow. The characters we love the most are rarely the ones we identify closely with. I am the Neutral Mask and Chelsea is the Jack Sparrow of my story. I’m fine with this. I like collecting sparrows.
We would end the night after crawling to a few different bars where Chelsea made friends with strangers and I explained my wanderings over and over again to every new audience. The common refrain was “don’t be an asshole and try to see how long you can get away with it” when I described how I was living my life. By the end of the night, I felt I’d successfully distracted Chelsea from her breakup and she was eager for me to return to Portland soon so she could share more of her life and friends with me. I fell into bed unsure if I could keep up with her for long, but glad to have had the time exploring her city with her.
Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time." -Jean-Michel Basquiat
Maybe it’s a sign of my impending middle-age, but I don’t typically start posts with quotes; I prefer to find my own words. Yet, I’d like to add that the road trip playlist decorates both time and space. All my life, songs have become inextricably linked with moving landscapes and I can go back to different albums and see the mountains or the prairie in my mind’s eye because the songs followed me around the world. I am transported back to my adolescence driving between Kansas City and Denver, or to the summer I spent living in Amsterdam finding solace in familiar songs even when I felt lonely and out of my depth, or strutting through Harvard Square while listening to Daft Punk shortly before slipping on a leaf and rolling my ankle.
Since 2014, I have collected “Those Songs” that have followed me throughout the year. I find them in cafes and between sets at concerts. They are in the background of TV shows or rediscovered when shuffled through the random rips and downloads I’ve been collecting since I was 14. They are the ear worms that hook me during a hike and lock into something emotional that name feelings that I wasn’t always aware of. Shazam is my Virgil helping me identify the artists and the songs that add texture to my experience.
I begin and end my playlists in June. I suppose this is a holdover from being a student and then a teacher, but endings and beginnings will probably always be associated with the American academic school year. This timeline also has the benefit of early summer concerts that provide a solid foundation of songs that play on repeat during summer road trips. Over the years, these playlists have become time capsules of both my tastes and my travels and listening to them is like visiting with old friends and sharing memories.
June is done, and so is the playlist for 2022-2023. It began in Alaska after I left Fountain Valley and was gathered across 34 states and 2 countries. It has been to the southernmost point in the Lower 48 (Key West) and the northwesternmost point (Olympic Peninsula) and all the miles in between. It is eclectic, it is random, and it was me last year. I know posts like these are self-indulgent, but if you are reading this, then chances are you like to indulge me too. So here it is. Enjoy!
Note: Day 22 is a sad day. If you don't want to be sad, skip to Day 23.
By the numbers:
26 Pages of the Travel Journal. 1275 miles, 3 States, 5 plein air paintings, 1 studio painting, one crappy pencil sketch of the Griffith Observatory, 2 digital portraits, 1 hotel, 1 friend and former colleague, 1 former roommate, 1 friend and parent of a former classmate and students, 1 National Park Passport stamp, 1 Art museum, and 1 “Art Experience”. 1 Hollywood premier. 7 Books.
Days 19-21- Travel Journal Pages 193-201- Las Vegas, NM
I arrived in Las Vegas sunburned and in desperate need of a pee. The drive from Amarillo was really pretty, but state highways took me through massive ranches and tiny towns that were shuttered, and I wasn’t confident in the protective cover of the roadside bushes, even though I saw only a handful of cars over 2.5 hrs. Las Vegas would be another pause where I could catch my breath and I had 5 nights to visit with Carol Smetana, one of those family friends who was so present throughout my life that the emphasis on the term has shifted away from friend and more toward family.
Carol is a Chicago-bred Bohemian with a capital “B” who bought land in Canyoncito outside of Las Vegas in the 90’s to serve as a writer’s retreat while she worked in the film industry and later the Foreign Service (I know, she’s my hero, too). Las Vegas is a tiny town that still boasts a stop on the Southwest Chief train from Chicago to Los Angeles. There is a university and a historic Plaza where film and TV shows shoot regularly, but it’s otherwise quiet. Carol moved into the center of town just as the Hermit’s Peak fire started to blaze last year. Fortunately, her land is ok, but her friends who lost everything are living there for now.
Carol and I can talk about anything and everything, and though she is nearly 4 decades older than I am, we always learn a lot from each other. I followed her up into the canyon to meet her friends Ganga and Libbie, and I walked their land and painted a quick sketch of the ponderosas that were remarkably resilient and still alive after the fire. I didn’t spend too long on the painting because I was busy dealing with Amarillo sunburn and altitude sickness for the first time in 20 years. Less than a year away from Colorado and I’m already a flatlander. The shame!
Over my time with Carol, we would walk around Las Vegas and drive an hour to Santa Fe to see the original Meow Wolf (delightfully weird and overstimulating) and eat chile verde and sopapillas on The Plaza. She drove me up to Montezuma, and we stopped at tiny churches and surveyed the fire damage. In Las Vegas, there was a wooden statue in front of one of the historic hotels that was titled “El Campesino” and was carved sometime around 2012. There was a picture of the artist and the statue in the gift shop of the hotel that showed the statue with minimal paint and a finish over the original brown wood color. Since then, the statue has been painted white and it has mud smeared all over its hands and up its neck. There must be a story there…
Day 22- Travel Journal Pages 202-203- Taos, NM
Days are not good. Nor are they bad. Most days are a balance of both, but some days ping pong back and forth so violently that you get whiplash from experiencing the highs and lows one on top of the other. When I left Carol to make the 2 hour drive to Taos, I was feeling great and at peace. My headache was gone, I was in the mountains, and I was on my way to see some of my favorite people. The windy roads paired with the right playlist had me experiencing flashes of what I refer to as “incandescent happiness” which are brief moments of peace that usually occur when I am moving through a beautiful place on a beautiful day. I was so struck by this sensation that I pulled over on the tiny Highway 94, across from a pasture with a curious horse, to share my contentment on Facebook. Who knows if that moment taken to appreciate my life and be present would be the factor that put me in the wrong place at the wrong time less than 30 minutes later.
Highway 94 connected with Highway 518 to Taos in a small town low in a valley. Many of the houses next to the two-lane road were dilapidated and I noticed lots of dogs laying in dirt driveways just off the road. I was going the speed limit, but had a line of cars on my tail urging me to go faster as I drove through town. When the tiny white puppy darted out of a bush and across the road, I had nowhere to go. I hit it.
Almost two months ago, I lost my dog Stella!. I think it was a heart attack. She had a health scare the month before, but she had rallied and my miracle dog gave me 4 more weeks before the day she crawled into her chair and died with her head in my hands. It had been a good day. When she died, I sat on the floor in front of her and stroked her fur trying to memorize her softness. She looked like she was sleeping.
I love you. I love you. I love you.
My parents and I wrapped her in the cobalt blue twin bed sheets from my childhood bedroom and we took her body to the animal hospital. One week later, I was stunned when the UPS driver with the pretty eyes told me he was sorry for my loss. It wasn’t until I was back in the house that I realized the package I’d signed for was her ashes. That had been a good day, too.
I pulled over immediately, locked my car and ran back to the puppy on the side of the road. His parent and sibling also came out of the bush, sniffed my hand and slunk into the yard next to the road. The puppy lay panting while opaque and garish red blood seeped from his mouth and onto the road. I stroked his head as he died. He had soft white fur and a dark patch over his eye and ear.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I Iifted his limp but still warm body and carried him from the side of the road. A neighbor who had seen the accident came over to take the body away from me.
“These people are assholes.” She told me. “They don’t give a shit.” This didn’t make me feel better. I walked back to my car and thought of all the dogs I knew that had been rehomed from small northern New Mexico towns before my friends had gotten them at the humane society in Colorado Springs. I was on my way to see one of them that afternoon. I called my mom to tell her what had happened as I climbed out of the valley and over a mountain pass. I was calm. But sad. I missed Stella!.
When I was over the pass, I pulled into the almost empty parking lot of Sipapu Ski Resort and let silent tears slide down my face. I let out the occasional yell on an exhale and felt like scum. As I quietly cried in the parking lot, the only other person there busied himself putting on his boots and slinging his skis over his shoulder. He was a ski patroller and I’d put him in his mid-60s. The resort was closed, and there wasn’t much snow left, but he and his dog geared up and walked slowly up the mountain. I watched him appear and disappear through the trees as he made his ascent. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I got out of the car, sucked in some deep breaths and washed my hands in the snow melt of the Rio del Pueblo until my palms were numb and I’d replaced the feeling of the puppy in my arms.
I got to my friends Rob and Kristin an hour later. Rob was my high school biology teacher and swim coach and later my colleague and one of my best friends. He and Kristin built the house on a stunning piece of land outside of Taos as their retirement plan, and when I pulled up to their gorgeous house I gave their dog, Luna, a long hug. I didn’t tell them what had happened. I needed it to be a good day, again.
Days 23-25- Travel Journal Pages 204-207- Taos, NM
The days with the Gustke’s were filled with beautiful views where the sunsets went down over the Gorge to the west, but reflected off the clouds and mountains to the east. I always try to remember to look east during sunset, because the show is sometimes more spectacular than the sun itself as it drops behind the horizon.
My timing to see Rob and Kristin wasn’t great since they were dealing with jetlag after a month in Belgium and the Netherlands, and I was happy to have some down time to work on a painting in their guest casita. When traveling like this, the balance between being present and making myself scarce so my hosts don’t always have to feel they should entertain me can be hard to find. Likewise, most of my alone time happens on the road, so when I am with people, I sometimes feel the pressure to be charming enough to merit the clean linens. This isn’t pressure that comes from my hosts, but rather from me. Inviting someone into your home is never simple, so staying with people whom I love but who also understand my need for space is a real gift. Rob, Kristin, and their daughter, Julia, are cut from the same cloth, and I was able to explore the area on my own at times and have long discussions about the nature of meaningful work and the book we want to write together about the art and natural history of northern New Mexico with the family around the dinner table.
I went for a walk with Rob and Kristin around the development and up and down the arroyos near their home. We talked about the school we had both left that had shaped our lives for so long and how surprised we were that we didn’t miss it. Yet we still fell into the familiar rhythm of talking about Interim trips and what we wanted to teach people about our experiences, even though we no longer had classrooms. You can take the teacher out of Fountain Valley, but you can't take Fountain Valley out of the teacher.
I drove into town on my own to see the St. Francisco de Assisi adobe cathedral. I always look for St. Francis since he reminds me of my maternal grandfather, and the church is one of the rare buildings that still uses traditional adobe rather than stucco. It has to be re-mudded annually. One year, after a particularly wet monsoon season, the cathedral sprouted grass and flowers. I’d have liked to see it with little yellow flowers on its shoulders.
The visit to the Cathedral didn’t take long, so I decided to briefly check out the Taos Pueblo on the other side of town. The Pueblo is a world heritage site and one of the oldest (if not the oldest) continuously occupied settlements in North America. I wasn’t totally mentally prepared for my visit, and I sometimes get caught up in what I expect a “tourist” experience to be: well-designed informational plaques, historical reenactors, a room or two set up with artifacts about how they used to look during a certain time period, etc. I don’t love this about myself, but it is my default-setting expectation. The Taos Pueblo isn’t like this at all. It’s essentially charged admission to an historic neighborhood where the residents have mixed feelings about strangers taking pictures of their homes. After paying my $25, I was handed a photo-copied map of the North House and descriptions of a walking tour. Many artists and silversmiths had tables set up outside their homes, but there were just as many blockades telling visitors to keep away from the residences. I’m downsizing and trying to live lightly, so I have a tough time going into art studios or shops when I have no intention of buying anything. So I walked to a log bench and sat down to draw, instead. On my way out, I bought frybread, which was delicious.
The next day, Kristin drove me around to the Gorge Bridge (650 ft above the Rio Grande over what is actually a rift, and it’s just as vertigo-inducing as it sounds) and also to The Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument. I’d spend 20 minutes painting by the River on the way out of town the next day.
Day 26- Travel Journal Pages 208-209- Drive to Flagstaff, AZ
Not much to report. Dusty, dry, and windy. Some days are just a commute. I listened to “Ariadne” by Jennifer Saint which made me agitated. Lots of agitating audiobooks on this trip.
Days 27-28- Travel Journal Pages 210-214- Los Angeles, CA
I bought a $26 mechanical pencil at a stationary store in Larchmont. Not sure why. It's red and has a nice weight to it. The pencil I bought at Meow Wolf cost $1.50 and turns pink from the heat of my hand. L.A. is a city that people are always surprised I’ve never been to, and it’s also a city I could see changing me. And not in ways I’d be proud of over time. I stayed with my high school roommate, Charlene, who has been working as a casting director in LA for 14 years (She did the casting for “Beef” on Netflix. Go watch it!), and she was eager for me to have a good impression of her adopted city. She practically bent over backwards to make sure I ate great food, saw the best sights, and came away with a positive experience.
When I arrived after driving 8 hours across the Mojave, we caught up and watched the Avs play terribly before an 8:30 reservation at Musso & Frank’s, a classic and historic Hollywood Steakhouse. The food was good (though stupid expensive) and my old fashioned was so-so, but I got to meet Steven, Char’s good friend and an actor from the Bay Area. Meeting Steven was actually one of the highlights because one of my favorite things about seeing an old friend is meeting the people who also realize how important and cool my friend is. They clearly have excellent taste and are without a doubt trustworthy. Steven was warm, friendly, and I liked him immediately.
While I was in LA, I would go to LACMA, The Grove, Biancos in DTLA, and up to the Griffith Observatory. The Griffith is my kind of place: excellent views, a gorgeous building, sciency, and free access to a rooftop. This last part is why I have no doubt I will return someday. I journaled and sketched one of the green patinated domes while tourists from all over the world milled about. Char perched on a low wall and took an industry phone call from the rooftop while I drew and I was tickled by how her Hollywood meeting must sound to the other visitors. Here she was, a woman I’ve known since I was 14, trying to convince an up-and-coming Canadian director to make sensible choices, while British Honeymooners eavesdropped hoping she would mention the name of an A-list actor.
One of the most surreal experiences I had when I was in Los Angeles was when I found myself on another rooftop at a premier for a genre horror movie called “From Black” that starred one of the actresses from “True Blood” and John Ales, a man who gave me a long hug and was eager that I be safe on my road trip around the country. I liked his acting. You should see his movies.
The premier was alien to me in many ways, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I wore a light blue athletic dress that I bought for $7 at Sierra Trading Post but that doesn’t wrinkle when shoved into a backpack, badly applied eyeliner, a leather jacket, Burt's Bees tinted chapstick, and a pair of Birkenstocks with a hole walked through the left heel and that had nearly floated away in Georgia. They were, however, gold Birkenstocks, so… fancy? I didn’t have time to care and I didn’t look in a mirror or take any pictures. I was glad I’d at least shaved my legs at the Howard Johnson in Flagstaff. Char and I parked down the street from the theater in Hollywood, stepped over Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s stars on the Walk of Fame, and dodged streams of urine. We were handed shots of mezcal at the door and told to climb the stairs to the roof where the screening would take place. Neon signs for the Church of Scientology and the Broadway Hotel loomed above us and I marveled at being in a place I’d never have placed myself.
As weird as the experience was, it was also very familiar. We’ve already established that I’m good at talking to strangers and I know how to work a room. The screening was just a celebration of a piece of art, like a gallery opening, or a cast party after a play, and I wish I had been better prepared to talk to some of the actors and crew members. Next time I’ll be ready and with better eyeliner!
Days 29-30- Travel Journal Pages 214-219- Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Montana de Oro State Park, CA
I left Char on Saturday and began my journey north for the next few weeks. I drove the 101 through traffic, fog, and a super bloom of wildflowers and I listened to music. After weeks of being with friends, I had an introvert hangover to nurse, so I found a beach in Santa Barbara called Mesa Steps (Lots of steps. Much heavy breathing!) and selected a spot against the cliff to set my Crazy Creek and paints. I stood with my feet in the sticky, salty water for a few minutes, before nestling into the rocks. I drew with a purple ballpoint pen that I stole from my brother and discovered I liked the subtle look underneath the ochre of the watercolor. I’d repeat the technique the next day at Montana de Oro State park, farther up the coast. I’m running out of pages in my current sketchbook and travel journal and I’m proud of the weight of both. They are tangible artifacts of my experience and proof of my accomplishment. My choices seem irresponsible to some, and decadent to others, but at least the books are substantial.
I drove through the mountains to Santa Maria where I would stay in the casita of a parent of some of my former students. She reached out to me on Facebook when I posted about my wanderings and I was struck by her willingness to support a near stranger on her journey. The trust and support humbles me and is something I wish to pay forward someday. Grace has been following my travels and making suggestions for places to see for weeks; her cheerleading means more than I can express, and I’m grateful to anyone who reads this and thinks my ramblings are worth their time.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t see much of Mike, Grace’s husband, and none of Grace at all since she had to drive back to Colorado, so my time in Santa Maria included my first forays back into “Generica”, the tried and true (and cheap) multinational chains that you can find all over the country. I ate Chipotle, Jamba Juice, Starbucks and Panera Bread because there comes a time when you cannot absorb a new experience and have to submit to what is familiar.
Read Part 5 here.
There’s a picture of you and me standing on the balcony at a ranger station on top of a mountain on the Olympic peninsula. The balcony is supposed to overlook the Olympic range with a view of Mt. Olympus and the Puget Sound beyond, but the clouds had rolled in and it was snowing. It was the end of May and I remember being alone up there. No rangers. Just the two of us: our crooked smiles the mirror image of the other’s, our cheeks rosy. My hair was redder than yours, the color chosen from a box from a drug store. Yours also came from a box, but did not quite mask the grey at your temples. I look back at the picture now, but I know now that we couldn’t have been alone. Somebody else must have been there to take the picture.
We were there, you and I, because Emma had just graduated with honors from your almost Alma Matter. Emma still had two weeks of training left before Nationals for Division III Crew and she chose to stay with her team in Tacoma. Dad had work, Kiefer had school, and you and I had time to kill.
We chose to take the southern route through Port Angeles rather than the northern route by ferry and along the strait of Juan de Fucha. I would have preferred the ferry. There’s something appealing about being in a car on a boat. The Olympic Peninsula is unlike anywhere else in the country with snow-capped mountains surrounded by rain forest and water on three sides. Most of the peninsula is a National Park and inaccessible by car, but we managed to drive out there every summer for most of my childhood to stay in a cabin overlooking the Pacific. When we moved to Maryland, we stopped going. The Northwest was just too far away, I suppose, so I looked forward to going back even if it was only for a night.
Sometimes we talk in the car. Sometimes we listen to the radio. When Dad is driving, we listen to country music late at night when we need something ridiculous to keep us awake. The longer road trips require books on tape, but mostly, we listened to CDs. In more than twenty years, the playlist hasn’t changed, though we’ve made an addition or two. Pink Floyd and The Allen Parson’s Project are meant to be played at night on mountain roads, the car’s stereo and the twisting asphalt allows the music to surround you. Certain songs get inextricably paired with certain landscapes, like scent with memory, and my own meanderings with music regularly transport me thousands of miles away to a car with you at its wheel.
Conversely, the picture of you and me standing in front of the misty Olympics and the temperate rain forest brings to my mind "Watershed" by The Indigo Girls.
Up on the watershed, standing at the fork in the road,
You can sit there and agonize until your agony’s your heaviest load.
You’ll never fly as the crow flies, get used to a country mile.
When you’re learning to face the path at your pace,
Every choice is worth your while.
That song came on a few miles outside of Olympia, and you burst into tears. It had been a difficult weekend for you. Emma’s graduation was a return to a place you had left, a place that couldn’t handle you, but a place that had fully embraced your eldest child. For you, the University of Puget Sound was a false door. Getting married and having children was not part of the plan. You would have gone into the Peace Corps. You might have majored in archeology. You would have moved to Montreal. But you met my father and you said that after you got married, kids were the next step.
I get the idea that you wanted more. You tell me that you have no regrets, and that your greatest accomplishment is your kids and I believe you. But I cannot help but conclude that things should have been different for you. They have to be different for me.
Watershed brought you to tears because, with your school behind you and your middle daughter beside you in the rented Chevy which automatically turned the stereo up when it accelerated so that its loud engine wouldn’t drown out the music, the lyrics and the melody were able to replace the turbulence in your mind with clarity and comfort. The relief made you cry. When the song came to the line, “Every five years or so I look back on my life and I have a good laugh…” you grabbed my hand.
“I’m sorry,” you told me.
I didn’t need your apology. I still don’t. I understand that most of life’s choices aren’t made, they just happen. I graduate from college in fifteen days and with my degree ends the well-paved interstates of my education, and so begin the potholed, unmarked back roads of indecision. So-called “real-life.” There are few road maps and many detours and perhaps the drive is more important than the destination. Doesn’t mean I’m not scared shitless, but with any luck I’ve inherited your sense of direction.
Part 4 here.
Later that summer, you picked me up in Vermont where I was visiting Grandma, and we drove down the coast to Florida with Dad and Kiefer. My two oldest cousins were getting married in Orlando that weekend: one to his middle school sweetheart, the other to the girl he knocked up. We had a few days so we we decided to forego I-95 in favor of a night on Cape Hatteras, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We played the Counting Crows and drove down islands so narrow you can see water on either side of the road. Open water makes me nervous, but I love it, like standing at the edge of an escarpment. The sea threatens to consume me like gravity threatens to consume the space I occupy between the ground and the sky.
You and Dad spent a lot of time talking about the weddings. Amy and Adam had been dating since they were fourteen, and he proposed to her at your parents’ house at Midnight on the Millennium. David and his pregnant fiancee had been dating only a few months. He was nineteen and she was seventeen. So young. But you were barely seventeen when you met my father in college and he was only twenty. He says he first saw you while you were sitting on a brick wall outside the Sigma Chi fraternity house smoking a cigarette. You wore a white button up shirt, a tapestry skirt and clogs with wooden soles. So young.
Dad followed you and Brutus, back to Colorado. You got caught in a blizzard in Idaho, and the snow was so thick that the only clues to where the road went were the tail lights of the car ahead. Brutus’ heater had broken sometime after the 5,000 mile road trip to Alaska, so you drove wrapped up in a sleeping bag. The car in front of you lost its grip and slid off the road, and Brutus slid too when its brakes failed. Dad, in his Subaru, blindly followed your tail lights into a ditch.
You were married a few months before you were legally allowed to drink the champagne at your wedding toast. Sixteen years later, we sat on a beach eating pieces of blue crab from the Chesapeake on Trisquits, pretending not to care when the wind blew grains of sand into the open container of crab meat.
My shoulders blistered and peeled while my brother’s skin appeared slightly bluish and sickly. The sunscreen that I had neglected to put on but that had diligently been applied to Kiefer’s chest, back, and face was that Coppertone spray kind that would be blue when you put it on so that you could see the spots that you missed. It was supposed to fade away, but never fully did, making him look hypothermic. We were quite the pair, me lobster red, Kiefer frozen blue. We were so young.
Part 3 here.
Two weeks after we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, the family loaded into the car and drove back to Colorado for the weekend. Over the next few years, we would make the eight and a half hour drive every other month, and by the time I was in high school, we had memorized that length of I-70. The halfway point is Walkeenee, Kansas, and always has a trooper parked by the westbound exit; the museum in Hayes has a life-like animatronic t-rex which made Kiefer cry; there’s a silo on the Kansas-Colorado Border which informs passersby that “Happiness is a Crock of Beans.” Sometimes, you would wake us up in Colby, Kansas, which is home to a college and a large industrial feed lot. This “Oasis on the Plains” is bookended by two white statues of anatomically correct bulls, complete with low-hanging testicles that stand out against the blue Kansas sky.* One time, you banged on the steering wheel and pointed out that some wise guy had painted the bulls’ scrotums fuchsia. We laughed about that for several miles.
There are camels in Kansas, as well. A herd of them. You were the first to see them, and for a long time, you were the only one. They used to graze along I-70 in the eastern part of Kansas which is marginally less flat than the other half and you would often declare, “Camels!” and point emphatically out the window. By the time we looked the camels would be gone.
“There are no camels, Mom.”
“Yes there are!”
“There were never any camels, Mother.”
Eventually, you would provide photographic proof that the camels were real, and our game of gaslighting you would end. They were dromedary camels. One hump.
Those drives along I-70 cut across Tornado Alley, the flat stretch of country between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River through which tornadoes tear with desensitizing frequency. Sometimes the violent winds would force the van towards the edge of the road and you would fight against it, your forearms flexing and cramping as your hands gripped the wheel to compensate.
You called home once when you were making the drive eastbound, and I picked up the phone. I listened to your awe as you sped along the interstate and watched three twisters touch down around you. No rain falls during a tornado so the air is clear enough to see the clouds churn and contort into a funnel which gradually descends from the pewter grey canopy until it finally connects with the earth. Tornadoes have been recorded to span up to two and a half miles across and you estimated yours to be between three and five miles away. You weren’t nervous or scared, just incredibly excited, and I wanted to be there with you. I didn’t ask you to pull over and lay down in a ditch, a strategy given to me by my fifth grade science teacher. I knew tornadoes to be selective in their destruction, leveling one side of a street, while leaving the other side intact. I knew these tornadoes wouldn’t touch you.
By the summer I was thirteen, we had been living in Kansas City for nearly three years. Our trips to Colorado were becoming less regular, and Emma and I were finally warming to a few aspects of living in the Midwest. We took sailing lessons on our small lake and learned how to tie knots. We went to soccer camp at KU, and discovered frozen custard. Our proximity to the eastern half of the country led to road trips to Florida and the Northeast. The farther east we went the more densely populated and twisty the states became. Major cities were more frequent, leading us to drive fewer miles but longer hours through thick traffic and low speed limits. We expanded our definition of what a road trip was, and that summer when I was thirteen, we altered it to include the drive between Kansas City and St. Louis—a mere 246 miles—when you and I went to pick Emma up when she flew in from Paris. For you and me, the drive was more important than the destination.
I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis crosses the Missouri River several times which used to confuse me. Rivers are rare in the west and roads hardly ever encounter them, so I had come to associate crossing the Muddy Mo with crossing the state line between Kansas and Missouri. You and Dad used to kiss every time we crossed the border between states, and when I was in the passenger seat, we would blow air kisses. I puckered my lips every time we crossed the river in central Missouri, but my kiss would go undelivered.
We listened to Sister Hazel’s album, "Fortress", in the car. The opening track, “Change Your Mind,” was your new anthem, its poppy refrain calling you to change your mind if you are tired of fighting battles with yourself and if you “wanna be somebody else.” The entire album is a reminder to be grateful for what you have and its super saccharine message coupled with the movement of the car seemed to tickle you. During the line “I’ll follow you wherever when you lead me by my nose on another great adventure,” you gently punched my shoulder.
“See, that’s like us. I’m leading you by your nose on another great adventure.”
You said this with a self-consciousness that you had adopted recently when talking to me, as if you were pleading with me to forgive you for something. You still do it sometimes. I sat with my feet up on the dashboard with my hands pinched between my knees and looked at you through a pair of dark sunglasses. I smiled a small smile and you continued singing along to the song and I watched central Missouri slide by.
You liked to plan special stops when we took road trips, a few hours here and there to stretch our legs and learn something. Most trips included pit stops at monuments, historical reenactment sites, battle fields, and occasionally complacency bought by peppermint sticks and rock candy. The drive to St. Louis takes about four hours and my sister wouldn’t land until the next day, so we decided to stop in Fulton, Missouri, to see a section of the Berlin Wall. This sojourn took us off the interstate and onto a State highway, where the speed limit was slower and the scenery was closer to the road.
Central Missouri is full of Anytown, U.S.A.s where the cars are old, the Main Street is well manicured and freshly painted, and fences white, and picketed. Fulton appeared to be much of the same, so the twenty four-foot section of the Berlin Wall covered in anti-war graffiti was surprising and out of place. The Wall was part of a sculpture called “Breakthrough” and was given to Fulton to commemorate a post WWII visit by Winston Churchill to the local college. During his visit, the former British Prime Minister delivered his infamous “Iron Curtain” speech where he coined the phrase to describe the division between Western powers and the area controlled by the Soviet Union. The speech marked the onset of the Cold War, and 43 years later, Churchill’s granddaughter, Edwina Sandys would cut two human silhouettes into the wall in a sculpture that would mark its end.
The Wall appealed to you for a number of reasons. You were a self-proclaimed “punk rocker with a hippie soul” in your adolescence, and a cold war relic covered with anti-war graffiti spoke to that sensibility. But what really seemed to draw you to Fulton was intellectual starvation. You dropped out of college when the hills and valleys of your depression blurred your academic focus. You were too smart to be left alone with your own mind and for a while your daughters were too young to keep up with you much less challenge you. You hungered for information, especially information that most people knew nothing about. The Berlin Wall in Fulton, Missouri the perfect coalescence of history and random chance, about which most of the country was oblivious.
Our trip through Fulton and subsequent attempts to find the interstate again got us lost on dusty roads between bucolic pastures. Rain had battered the Midwest throughout the summer, and the rivers had over-spilled their beds leaving many fields submerged. No rain had fallen in over a week, though, so the roads were dry until they vanished into a premature horizon, the reflections turning farmland into sky. We approached one of these evanescent lakes standing between us and the interstate and drove through slowly. The water rose faster than we expected, reaching our door handles before we had driven 10 feet. We stopped.
“Lets go on,” I said, “we can make it.”
You looked out at a yellow road sign, its post visible only two feet above the water.
“That’s probably only three feet deep,” I urged again. “Let’s do it.”
I can’t remember whether we made it through or if we turned back. I only know we didn’t get stuck.
*When I wrote this, it was before I had a license and would make the drive across Kansas on my own, so I accidentally combined details about Colby, Oakley, and Hayes, Kansas. To figure out what I got wrong, you'll just have to make the drive yourself!
Read Part 2 here.
After you had children, you stopped picking up hitchhikers. I remember you bemoaning your full car once when we passed a father and his two kids sitting with all their ski equipment at the bottom of Berthoud Pass near Winter Park, Colorado. There wasn’t room for them anymore, so you shared the journey with your kids, instead.
We have to remember things collectively or else we forget them. We remember serene things, like the sunflowers that pursued the sun as we drove west through Nebraska, their yellow faces turning to watch us go. We remember funny things, like the time when Taj was a puppy, and we were driving through Idaho when he climbed up onto my shoulder only to pee on me and my pillow. We remember scary things, like the time we got a flat in Great Falls, Montana, and we had to change the tire while daylight edged away.
But neither one of us can remember why we were in Seattle that October. We used to visit Washington every summer but the trip to the Northwest in the fall was unusual. We know it was October because I was ten years-old, and in a month, I would turn eleven, and three days after that we would move from Denver to Kansas City. Emma and Dad had to fly home early leaving me, you, and Kiefer, who must have been only two years-old, to drive back.
We knew this drive two ways: We usually took the northern route through Eastern Washington and the neck of Idaho, in and out of a number of identical valleys in Montana, until we had to drop south through Wyoming. The southern route was the one you took with your hitchhiker through Oregon and Southern Idaho and that swung south and then east through Utah. This time, we decided to take the northern route but we would drive most of the way the first day so we could take an extra day to see Yellowstone National Park.
We did the things you do when you go to our Nation’s first National Park. We waited and watched Old Faithful erupt, saw the 30 minute documentary in the visitor’s center, and bought a Wyoming state pin to add to my collection. I remember the geyser being smaller than I thought it would be. We had to stand 100 feet away behind a low wooden fence. A park ranger told the crowd that it was a cone geyser that shoots 240 degree water 180 feet into the air every 90 minutes. I thought about how hot that water was and tried to imagine what the pain would feel like if I touched it.
We piled back into the car and drove into the heart of the park to Mammoth Hot Springs. The hotel there was built early in the century a short walk from the hot springs which got their name from a mountain that looked more like a sleeping bear than an ancient elephant. A heard of elk grazed in front of the hotel while you checked us in.
A bull elk’s bugle resonates like a scream of terror and carries on the wind like a sound effect from a bad horror movie. While you were inside at the front desk, Kiefer and I walked hand in hand across the dead grass towards the elk. We stopped thirty feet away from the herd and the harem ignored us, but the bull raised his head periodically to issue a bleat which rent the otherwise silent scene. We turned back to the car and saw you standing on the veranda of the hotel watching us. Later you would tell me that if the bull elk were to charge, you knew I would have thrown myself in the way to protect my brother. The thought hadn’t occurred to me and made me uneasy.
You didn’t sleep well that night. You never seemed to get much sleep when we were on the road and we regularly piled into the car at daybreak in an attempt to satisfy your itch to get moving. You put us into the car early the next morning, before the Park could emerge from the fog that had settled during the night. The road was narrow and winding, but you are an excellent driver. Your sense of direction is uncanny, and you are at ease behind the wheel in almost all conditions. We cut through the mist and you showed me why it is dangerous to drive in fog with the brights on. You briefly switched on the high beams and a wall of white collided with the car. You flicked them off, and ghostly aspens emerged through the fog and we could see more of the road in front of us. As the road gently curved, you showed me the effect again and the trees disappeared once more.
By the time the sun had burned away most of the moisture, fatigue had caught up with you and we stopped in the parking lot of one of the geothermal points of interest. You told me to go ahead on my own along the path to see the boiling, dove grey mud pots and cobalt basins, while you stayed in the car with my sleeping brother. I wasn’t gone long. I practically skipped along the boardwalk that traversed the cracked and buckled earth. The colors there spanned the whole spectrum, and yellow sulfur bubbled and fizzed around the pillars of the boardwalk, supplying the air with the stench of rotten eggs. I walked the entire loop in fewer than ten minutes, bypassing elderly couples and bus loads of tourists. I didn’t want to be alone for long.
Read Part 1 here.
When you drive, we make really good time. You speed exactly nine miles over the limit because if you are caught going ten miles over, the fine doubles. You hate driving in the east because there are too many cars and the speed limits are too slow, but you love driving in Montana, where you can legally drive as fast as 90 miles per hour. You know when to slow down outside of small towns and cities which often place state troopers a few miles on either side for the first and last exit. I’ve seen you get pulled over before, like that time outside Boise, but you never got a ticket. How do you do that?
You picked up a hitchhiker once. This was before I was born, obviously, because you were still a student at Puget Sound and you were driving Brutus back to Tacoma from Colorado after a break. You had told your parents that you would not be alone and that a classmate would be driving with you. But there wasn’t anybody else. At least there wasn’t anybody else until Idaho. You said it was raining and dark. You thought you had seen somebody wet and at the side of the road when you drove by. That’s a human being, you thought. He must be miserable. You doubled back to see if he wanted a lift. You told him to get in the car and he whistled for a wet dripping dog to get out of the ditch in which he was hiding. The hitchhiker apologized and said that he knew that nobody would stop for both him and a wet dog but you interrupted him and told them both to get in the van anyway.
May I please take this moment to interject that you would kill me if I picked up a hitchhiker in the rain at night? Especially if I was by myself. Your story is a textbook beginning to a horror movie where you end up dead in a ditch. But you didn’t. In fact, it was lucky that you picked up that hitchhiker. Brutus was rapidly approaching his final days, and he stalled at a rest stop by the border between Idaho and Oregon. The only way to restart the engine was to hold the clutch in while you were rolling. Your hitchhiker had to get out and push Brutus while you popped the clutch. When the engine started and the revived van began to roll away, your hitchhiker had to run to catch you and jump into the moving vehicle, his dog frantically barking in the back.
Brutus could barely inch up the steep mountain passes in Oregon but he made the time up on the downhill and probably ended up averaging the speed limit, so that’s what you told the state trooper who pulled you over. Your hitchhiker was in the back of the van packing his pack so he would be ready to get out in a few miles, and when the trooper saw your passenger, he informed you that hitchhiking is illegal in the state of Oregon.
“Oh, William and I are old friends,” you lied. And perhaps you were old friends, or you are now, at least. It didn’t matter that his name wasn’t William, or that you would never see him again. He had been there for you, and you for him, and his presence in your own personal mythology now seeps into my own.