Checking In: Days 19-30
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.
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The day-to-days of an Itinerant Illustrator