Summer Vacation

ink bottle

It was 1972. A wedding in Long Beach requested our presence, a friend in our tight-knit group to join with his true love in holy matrimony. So we embarked on a road trip to the West Coast, that fabled land of golden sunsets and salty air. A 1930s wedding theme had been announced, so for weeks prior to the trip, I had worked feverishly to sew a gangsta-style three-piece suit in pink gabardine for my husband Frank and a long-waisted light yellow dotted Swiss dress for me. Our friend Virginia, who provided her bright yellow VW bug convertible for the journey, got busy sewing her own pink vintage-style dress for the occasion.

We had plenty of fun planning the trip, gathering wide brimmed hats, Frank’s fedora, the gloves, the hand-held fans. Freshly inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing book, we gathered the requisite pharmacy, tame in comparison to his. The itinerary grew with each passing day. On the way out there, we’d see the sights traveling in tandem with Jeff, Robert, and Franz in Robert’s shiny blue Karmann Ghia convertible.

The day arrived. We loaded up at Jeff’s house and then headed west, tops down and hair flying in the wind. In those days, Interstate 40 had not been completed. Especially in Oklahoma we found ourselves detoured through small dusty towns on the well-worn two lanes of old Route 66.

Long before Oklahoma City, we put up the ragtop to stop the torrent of wind tearing around us. Somewhere before that, my beautiful paisley turquoise silk headscarf disappeared into the landscape. Late that night, past Tucumcari and facing into a storm front that lit up the sky with magnificent lightning, the front hood flew open and the garment bag with our wedding clothes blew out. Frank steered to the shoulder, latched the hood, and backed up until we found the bag lying unharmed in the median.

More hours passed. We made the last curve around a dark mountain and Albuquerque spread out below like a bowl of lights. The garment bag fiasco separated us from the other car but we couldn’t go another mile. A cheap motel room felt like the Hilton.

gr canyon

l-r: Frank, Robert with Franz hidden behind him, Jeff tempting death.

The next morning, a quick drive through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest renewed our wonder in the natural world. We made our rendezvous with the other car late the second night at the Grand Canyon. I spent a miserable night freezing in a too-short sleeping bag on rocky ground, probably no worse off than the rest of us. The next morning some of us dropped acid for a walkabout along the south rim. The Grand Canyon is mind-blowing on its own. With LSD, it became a second-by-second discovery of bizarre vegetation, rocks of every epoch, and the mystery of distance, time, and existence. Then we were on our way again.

ghost town

Me and Virginia at the Calico ghost town in the Mojave Desert

The wedding was complicated—people we didn’t know, extended family, a church and reception. Before and after, we wandered through L.A.’s farmers market, Hollywood, Venice Beach and other places along the seafront. With the happy couple off on their honeymoon and the Karmann Ghia headed home, we set off to the north. From Santa Barbara we followed Highway 1, that hair-raising winding roadway that clings to the cliffs along Big Sur. I don’t do well with heights. My knees start shaking at the third rung of a ladder. I alternated between sickening glances down at the waves smashing onto rocks and hiding my face in my hands.

frank at big sur

Frank and Virginia along Highway 1 at Big Sur. Arrow points to two people in the edge of the waves. Perspective.

Exhausted, we gave up just south of Monterey and parked at the side of the road for the night. Thanks to Frank’s heroic decision to sleep outside, Virginia took the front and I had the back. Neither of us could lie down since there was the matter of bucket seats and gearshift in the front and an ice chest and assorted miscellany in the back. As it turned out, we both had it better than Frank who woke us in the frigid pre-dawn fog desperate to get warm.

frank golden gate

Frank at the Golden Gate

Disheveled and bone tired, we toured San Francisco, a drive-by effort to see the Presidio, Golden Gate bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf. We walked through downtown, gawking up at tall buildings, dodging cable cars, and musing over oddities like the man playing bagpipes across the street from Woolworths. We wandered around the fabulous Palace of Fine Arts, a preserved portion of the original 1915 exhibit for the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

temple

Palace of Fine Arts

bagpipes

At this point we had sixty-five dollars to get us back to Northwest Arkansas. There would be no more cheap motels or souvenirs and precious little food. Even with gas at 35 cents per gallon, we hardly had enough to get us home. Fortunately, Virginia had a Gulf credit card. We drove all night, white lines blurring down the pavement as we crossed the gray-white moonscape of Nevada. We hit Salt Lake City sometime the next morning and found a truck stop with showers and a buffet, all of which we could charge on her card.

After a brief gander at Mormon temples, we stuffed ourselves back into the increasingly crowded VW and dove into the Rockies. Up and down we drove, steep inclines, terrifying drop-offs, and legitimate worries about the VW’s clutch and brakes. Frank’s old friend John and his wife lived on the other side of all those snow-capped peaks at a little mining town called Leadville. He welcomed us with cocktails, grilled steaks, and a loft sleeping area in his mountainside chalet.

Oh the joy.

The next day, John took us sightseeing. Included in his agenda was an abandoned silver mine he’d discovered. What is commonly known as a road disappeared before we left the valley floor and soon we found ourselves clinging to the mountainside on a trail of sliding scree hardly wide enough for the Bronco’s wheel base. John was famous for his wild and crazy antics as a Kappa Sig in college, and he’d forged into Vietnam with the bravado only a lieutenant on point can respect. His patrol had walked into a land mine which nearly cost him his life, so when we neared the silver mine and the vehicle canted to a forty-five degree angle and he said ‘oh shit,’ it was truly an ‘oh shit’ moment.

bronco

After an hour of digging, Frank pushes uphill while John tries to pull out. Virginia watches.

slope

How far down is that?

We gingerly crawled out of the vehicle on the high side and while Virginia and I watched, John and Frank began digging out from under the wheels in an attempt to level the vehicle. We lost track of time out there in the thin air. The view was breathtaking. Unfortunately, my breath had already been taken by the vertical drop-off to the distant valley below where towering evergreens looked like matchsticks. I was sure we were all going to die.

bronco2

Success!

Over an hour later, John deemed the vehicle level enough that he dared climb inside to drive back up to level ground. With his success, I reluctantly re-entered the vehicle for the remaining terrifying jaunt to the mine. Scavengers had been here many times, but we wandered around thinking of the old timers who came up here with a mule and a pick to seek their fortunes.

mine shackGlittering chunks of ore scattered over the rocky ground. The old log structure wasn’t safe to walk in, but we nosed around in the scattered remains where I found a little Carter’s Ink bottle buried bottom up in the dirt. It had turned blue-green in the decades since its contents had been used to pen letters home or tally the proceeds of a day’s hard work. I tucked it in my pocket and braced for the slip-slide trek back down.

From Leadville we hurried south to hit our planned stops at Garden of the Gods and Royal Gorge before turning east for the last leg of the journey. If you’ve never crossed Kansas, be warned—it’s the original never-ending story. You drive and drive and you’re still in the same place. We had cleverly planned what seemed the shortest route but which turned out to be a maze of two lane roads to nowhere. It got dark, the gas gauge sat on empty, and we were in the middle of corn fields with lightning forking across the sky.

Somehow we found our way to a tiny town and waited until the local gas station opened. Later that afternoon, crammed into the back seat with relics of our journey towering in the seat beside me, claustrophobia got me by the throat and I had to get out of the car. We stopped while I walked in the gravel along the side of the road and said I could not get back in that car. Finally Frank convinced me to try the front seat and he squeezed into the back for the rest of the way home.

So many memories, so many emotions. Frank is no longer among the living, nor is Robert. The rest of us keep growing older. But when I think about that summer vacation, I’m lost in the past, my hair flying in the wind, our laughter ringing up the hillsides. I hold that ink bottle in my hand and I’m back in the hot sun smelling pine in cool air and breaking my fingernails as I dig it out of that hard packed ground.

We did things, went places, had adventures. We experienced profound wonder that never left us. We grew. I see now—that’s what vacations are for.

A Journey West, Part 1

How could so much change in only six years? I had flown before, many times. Between 1968 and 2008, I lost count of the times I swallowed down excitement as the plane lifted me toward the sky. Airports were the threshold of adventure, the place where infinite possibilities scrolled down the flight departures screen.

But in the intervening years since my last sojourn, I settled firmly at my desk. My adventures became mental journeys into the pages of my writing. I’m comfortable here with my dogs, the woods, my bed.DOGS

Okay, I’m getting old.

So when my friend Ginny extended her invitation, my immediate response was anxiety. Could I sleep well on an unfamiliar bed? What about air travel in these days of crazy passenger outbursts and terror threats? Did I really want to go?

My two older children live on the West Coast. I hadn’t seen Ginny for years, and her invitation made me contemplate not only spending time with her and seeing my kids, but also absorbing myself in that uniquely California environment of salty, kelp-flavored air and laid back attitudes. Of course I wanted to go, but couldn’t I please just instantly appear in Santa Cruz instead of going through the journey?

After weeks of increasing anxiety, I hardly slept the night before my departure. What if I didn’t arrive at the airport in time for my flight? What if I forgot to pack something important? What if there were problems with the flight? By the time I parked in the economy lot and hurried across the vast expanse of asphalt, my pulse hammered in my neck. Breathless, I scanned my ticket barcode to print out the boarding pass then mounted the escalator.

Swallowing over a dry throat, I handed the attendant my ticket and identification, moved forward to the screening line, and took refuge in the actions of those ahead of me. At least I could follow their lead. Carry-on luggage on the conveyor belt. Backpack with my purse inside. Take off shoes. No, attendant said. I didn’t have to take off my shoes, courtesy of the first attendant’s notation on my boarding pass which, I assume, had to do with my age. What are the characteristics one must exhibit at the Northwest Arkansas airport to qualify for remaining shod through security? That and another hundred questions and worries flooded my mind as I accompanied my baggage along the conveyor.

“What liquids…(blah)?” The uniformed guard’s words rolled over me as I tried to remember what I had packed. At the last minute, I had abandoned all hope of forcing my thick crème rinse into the tiny travel container. It globbed up at the rim and cascaded down the outside of the container. So I had stuck the entire bottle in my case. Hadn’t I read somewhere that larger containers were okay?

At this point, my voice had become husky and I shook. It wasn’t like they were going to take me outside and shoot me for packing an oversized container of crème rinse. But it was expensive. Other travelers piled up behind me while I tried to make an intelligent decision. The options for keeping it meant paying $25 to check my bag or walking back across the north forty to my car. No, I’d have to give it up. I watched my nearly full bottle of organic hair product land in their disposal bin.

That was only the first of a day of indignities. Maybe growing older and even more rigidly set in my ways preordained that travel by public conveyance would unfold as a series of rude shocks. Jostling in line to board. Wading to the next to last row of seats. Cramming myself into a tiny seat by a window—which I would have chosen if I had been willing to pay the extra money—but facing out over the wing, which I would not have chosen. Enduring the mind-boggling cacophony of human voices shouting over the engine noise as we made the short trip to Dallas-Fort Worth.

By the time we arrived at DFW, my back had spasmed in my effort not to rub against the passenger in the adjacent seat. Clearly comfortable with air travel and close association with whomever, she spent the trip jawing with the man across the aisle, her conversation frequently punctuated with loud laughter. That her leg touched mine or her elbow periodically brushed my arm seemed never to appear on her personal radar.

100_0575I live in near total isolation on an Ozark hilltop. I see more deer than people. Coyotes routinely howl at my back fence before disappearing back into the oak and hickory forest. Driving into town for groceries and random errands usually results in a hasty revision of my ambitious to-do list so that my time amid busy streets and crowded store aisles is reduced to only the most urgent items. I return home annoyed and clogged with Other People’s Energy.

Now, barely started on my journey, my back aching with don’t-touch-me tension, I hurry along the wide corridors of DFW’s Terminal C to find the trolley that will whisk me to Terminal A. I dodge businessmen and women wheeling fine leather cases, families straggling with children, retirees looking faintly lost and grumpy. After a fast jerky trolley ride clinging to a grab rail, I descend into Terminal A. Even greater throngs greet me there.

I’m hungry and wander along the crowded corridor. McDonalds swarms with customers, deterrent enough even if I could choke down the food. Starbucks isn’t lunch. I don’t want seafood. Taking a tentative space in the line at TGI Friday’s, I’m soon seated facing out over the hive activity in the corridors and presented a menu. After a heart-stopping moment of sticker shock, I order a cup of broccoli-cheddar soup for $7. It comes with four saltines.

Okay. I can do this. Refreshed from my cheesy lunch, I soon board the jet bound for San Jose. Blessedly, I am not seated in the back or over a wing. Cursedly, I am the first aisle seat in the three-seat side of economy class, meaning the aisle jogs right there as passengers move through from first class. Each passage jostles or brushes me in some way. Plenty of leg room, but since there are no seats in front of me, the tray table folds up from the chair arm. Which would be fine in a perfect world. However, I admit to a less than trim waistline and so the table fits snugly across my midsection. Embarrassing and uncomfortable. I drag out my book and try to concentrate on the lovely biography of Doc Holliday.

An hour into this three and a half hour flight, my back is killing me. The friendly lady on my right enjoys a gin and tonic while reading her Kindle. She’s relaxed and her arm touches mine. Her knee touches mine. My need not to touch someone else is so ingrained that I can’t relax even when I tell myself to get over it. Even when she’s asleep.

With perhaps an hour left in the flight, I lurch to the bathroom at the back of the cabin. Here, for a brief blissful moment, I am alone. But these hours of being crammed into a metal box with a hundred other people is taking its toll. My back muscles have seized. My head aches. My nose has become stuffy with breathing recycled air. The thoughts and emotions of a hundred other human beings have invaded my consciousness. Let me out!

Finally the jet screams down the runway and slams to a halt at Gate 18 of SJC. The blessing aspect of my seating reasserts itself as I follow first class passengers on an early disembarkation. I hurry down the terminal’s long passageways to emerge blinking into the bright San Jose afternoon. The air smells of ocean. Moments later, my daughter calls and then appears to pick me up in a borrowed car.

Strange how children always look the same and yet, at least initially after a long absence, appear as strangers. We plunge into happy conversation as if it was yesterday instead of 28 months since our last meeting. I luxuriate in the absence of strangers and the comfort of a well-padded car seat.

The drive over the mountains along Highway 17 is curvy and steep, plagued with heavy traffic. SoonDEST she turns onto a side route that leads into Soquel over the old San Jose Road. Her smile and the sound of her voice are beautiful.

The rich odor of pine sap and eucalyptus starts to clear my clogged nose. The narrow lane winds along sharp inclines cut into the face of newly minted earth—slabs of granite bedrock under hulking chunks of sandstone pushed up from the ocean floor as recently as the last three million years. Even after two years of drought, native vegetation maintains a stubborn gray-green grip on the land, all subordinated to the towering redwoods.

We talk about her flight from Oregon, her plans. The eight days we’ll have together. This is more like it. I have survived. I am here.