Los Angeles

The Jig Is Up

I’ve never been great with milestones. When I left New York after five difficult years of college, the friend with whom I was driving cross-country asked if I had anything I wanted to say or do to mark the occasion. I said, “yeah, get in the car and leave.”

Setting intention isn’t historically my strong suit, and sabbatical-ing around the world was no different. As I mentioned way back when, I landed in Bogota with a four day hostel reservation, an around the world plane ticket, a six-year-old copy of South America on a Shoestring, and two weeks to get to Bolivia. Advance planning: not my strong suit.

So how do I mark today, the momentous last day of freedom before I return to work? With gratitude, with friendship, and with adventure – the same way I spent my time out and about in the world.

I walked the dog this morning the same way I have most days I’ve lived in this neighborhood. I happened, today, to see the owner of a home that I have watched, dog walk by dog walk, be lovingly restored and re-landscaped in a neighborhood where homes are more frequently torn down and replaced with McMansions. I got to tell her how much I’ve loved watching her house come back to life – and see how happy she was to be thanked.

Dogwalk LA today

Dogwalk LA today

I went to the Broad Museum, just opened last week, and saw amazing art with a friend who took the same semester off from college in 1991; the last cultural thing we did together was use my dad’s tickets to see La Traviata at the San Francisco Opera, which we left after one intermission because we were both crying so hard we couldn’t take anymore. But even today, we both remembered that evening for its beauty, which I believe is how I will remember today. Something old, something new, something inspirational.

Me beside a chair in Robert Therrien's Under the Table, at the Broad

Me beside a chair in Robert Therrien’s Under the Table, at the Broad

These plates are taller than I am. My grandfather always said, "Don't stack the plates!"

These plates are taller than I am. See the person in the background? My grandfather always said, “Don’t stack the plates!”

And then I delighted in the mundane. I went grocery shopping. I cleaned my room. I changed my sheets and unpacked my suitcase from last week’s adventure. I hardly remember how to go to work, despite some contract jobs here in LA (like that time I worked on the Oscars, which I’ve yet to report). So I’m trying to remember what I need at a desk, what one wears to an office, and to bring my paperwork to prove I’m a legal, able to work, resident of the USA. Thank goodness my passport is close at hand.

This transition – this last day of ‘freedom’ – is one of many lasts I’ve had since I packed up and hit the road over two years ago. There was my last day in Dallas , my last day ‘out and about in the world, which took place in Turkey, my last drive in my beloved Bessie.  But this transition also marks one of many more firsts on this adventure my life has become: my first visits to 16 countries, my first published piece, my first new car in 15 years, my first time (and second, and third) in the Eastern Sierra in 25 years, and tomorrow, my first day at a new company since 2005.

My last day out and about in the world, in the harem in Istanbul.

My last day out and about in the world, in the harem in Istanbul.

My last day out and about in the free world (today). Do I look THAT different?

My last day out and about in the free world (today). Do I look THAT different?

The struggle with this transition is the looming question, “Is this the end?” Is the adventure over? And while, of course, I’ve had moments of panic at this very thought, the reality is no, of course not. The adventure began where, somewhere along the way, I learned to let go of fear and let in life. To take risks that were previously unimaginable because I would have rationalized my way out of them, before even starting. Quitting my job was a risk. Moving to LA was a risk. Taking this new job is a risk – it seems safer than the wander but the truth is, I will be measured against or among a number of incredibly competent people while undertaking new and unfamiliar tasks, and I may not measure up. But at least I will have tried.

What I have learned these last two years could fill a book – and hopefully, it will.  In the meantime, I will be toiling away at something new – at a desk, or on a page, or here in LA – and storing up time and resources for the next great wander. And I will be doing it with a degree of gratitude and compassion that I’ve only discovered in myself because of the amazing trip I’ve taken.

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(PS: This isn’t goodbye. There are at least three half-written blog posts on this computer crying to be published, not to mention that in looking for that picture of Turkey, I realized I never wrote about Turkey (or Morocco, or Patagonia, or…). So check back…)

Goodbye, Los Angeles

Driving Off Into the Sunset

I’ve said goodbye to many things over the last few years. Things, and people, and experiences. My dufflebag was first. It was followed by a bandana that fell off while I was hiking in Parque Tayrona, (and washed up on the beach an hour later so is once again with me). My travel pack sprouted one structural break after another starting somewhere in Asia, got repaired in Kenya, and sprang another leak before I got back to the states. More significant are the less physical things to which I’ve said goodbye: economic security, a physical grounding in place, an emotional safety net. Recently, constant adventure. And now, the perfect combination of them all: Bessie.

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I should know better than to blog about Bessie. Last time I waxed poetic about my reliable steed, she countered by ‘stranding’ me in Oregon for three days while she was fixed to the tune of more than her worth. It was late last summer, and I was heading down to LA to confirm I should move there. Despite having been on the road in some form for over a year at that point, I had just begun to feel homeless, in the sense that I was not in one place, but should be. I was unrooted. My movement was less of an adventure and more of an aimless pause in a waiting room of mid-life.

The Eugene stranding was a blessing in disguise. It was a reminder that wherever you are, there is an adventure to be had, something new in the mundane. I visited the museum at the University of Oregon, where the art was amazing and the campus a cool respite from the heat.

A Buddha of layered paper

A Buddha of layered paper

I managed to get to the Bell Telephone Pioneer Museum, with cool switchboards and a badass phone-fixing Barbie, during its four open hours of the week. There was good beer (hello, Oregon), decent food and more important, always, than any of this, were the unbelievably nice people of Eugene, from the motel clerk to the amazing team at Action Automotive, who cheerfully ferried me around town. Even when she lets me down, Bessie builds me up.

Colorful phone wire becoming obsolete at the Bell Pioneer Telephone Museum

Colorful phone wire becoming obsolete at the Bell Pioneer Telephone Museum

Since then, Bessie and I have driven almost 14,000 more miles. My commitment to be the one to get her over 200k miles has wavered as I contemplate all the places she may strand me when she gives up the ghost. Lights I’ve never noticed have lit up – and stayed on – in the dash display. Twice, the brake fluid has needed topping. I finally listened to the signs she was giving me. At 198,890 miles, we said goodbye.

When I began to clean Bessie out to sell her, one memory after another came pouring out. There was the fossil found behind a friend’s house in Taos that I keep for good luck, the Italian notebook I use as a travelogue, and the 20-year old swiss army knife I use for everything and anything. From the stick shift, I removed a rosary from Chimayo and from the rearview, a Hello-Kitty phone decoration a friend brought back from a business meeting in Japan. And then there was the visor organizer

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A small collection of small collections in my visor

Inside, I found an entrance ticket to the Santa Fe museums dated Dec 22. The only Christmas I drove to Santa Fe was in 2007, the first year I owned my home, which means that this ticket was used two days before my house was broken into the first time. While unfolding it, I could smell powdered sugar melting into the thumbprint cookies I was making when the alarm company called. 

The art before the con

The art before the con

Tucked into a mesh side pocket of the organizer I found a stack of business cards, dating back to 2003. The gold US Senate crest on one of them reminded me that my parking sticker from some Capitol Hill garage is still tucked way down at the base of my window.

My 1.5x3 inch life

My 1.5×3 inch life

I found a faded receipt from the Dry Clean Super Center in Dallas, onto which had once been written the address and phone number of the owner. The store lost a new dress of mine, and the employee with whom I was discussing this lured me outside the shop to finish our argument because he could tell the rising tone of my voice was attracting the attention of other customers. The dress had only been worn once, and he wanted to pay me no more than half its value. My fury was mostly about the way he bested me in our negotiations, and my frustration at the degree of my anger. Despite it being the least expensive cleaning location in town, I never went back. Two nights ago, while looking for someplace to eat in Red Bluff, California, I noticed Yelp has messaging. In my inbox was a note he had written me several months after the incident to say that he found my dress but had been too embarrassed to contact me. The note is only dated “more than two years ago;” the faded date on the receipt says 2009.

A faded, angry dry cleaning receipt

A faded, angry dry-cleaning receipt

One after another I dug these bits of my life from the nooks and crannies of my car. There was a flyer for a friend’s short film  that showed at AFI Dallas, also in 2009. The friend is now a successful director.  Behind it, two thank you notes, from 2006 and 2007, evidence of my bad habit of opening mail in my car (and not cleaning it out, but that was obvious already). They are wedding thank-you notes from a brother-in-law and a sister.

Long-forgotten, still beloved thank-yous

Long-forgotten, still-beloved thank-yous

In addition to some pots and pans, the sister also thanked me for the flip flops I got the bridal party members to wear during the reception when our heels proved too much. Mine were grey with bedazzled flowers on the thin thong straps. I remember them well because I hardly wore them until the fall of 2013, when I took them with me around the world, and left them with my hosts, and a bit of my heart, in Kenya.

Long-forgotten, still-beloved flipflops

Long-forgotten, still-beloved flipflops

I pulled a removable decal from the windshield.

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It’s a tinkerbell-like fairy.  I have no idea where it came from originally, but I found it on the kitchen window of my apartment in Seattle – the one I moved out of in 2002 when I headed to Texas. She has been flying right in front of me as I drove these last 13 years, and it was time to say goodbye. But now is a time for new adventures. 3,000 miles into my next car, I’m ready to tuck away some different memories that will last me the next decade and a half, and I’ve got a door-pocket full of national monument postcards to prove it.

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Even Spanky was a little sad to see Bessie go

Los Angeles

My Hello Happy Place

I’ve died and gone to my happy place, and it’s full of Hello Kitty.

I have loved Hello Kitty for as long as I can remember, and I blame my maternal uncle. Long ago, for a birthday or Christmas, he individually wrapped and gifted to me about 20 individual, adorable, itty bitty Hello Kitty toys. Tiny erasers, tiny stationery sets with tiny kitty and tiny flowers and tiny stickers to close the tiny envelopes around the tiny little itty bitty notecards. I’m talking a couple inches here, if that. There was a tiny colored pencil set in an itty bitty see-through envelope with a red snap closure and tiny decorations on it. There was a coin purse. There was a pencil case. There was just a bunch of red and white and black vinyl and kitty and joy, individually wrapped, and it stamped the glee of Hello Kitty on me for life, and left me with a disproportionate appreciation for stationery, pens, and sending mail.

This was the mid-70s, and Hello Kitty was younger than I, by two years. The founding principle of her character – a little gift with a big message of friendship – has stuck with me since then. My childhood love for her turned into a teenage nostalgia, a 20s appreciation that morphed into some form of girl-power in my 30s, at which time she experienced a huge, popular and pop-culture resurgence. I didn’t resurge until my 40s, at which time she may have jumped the shark (MAC cosmetics line, Beats by Dre, Swarovski bling, back off).

My active adoration for her continued unabated and public this entire time. In my 30s alone, I was gifted a hTequila_Servers.jpgello kitty Tote.jpgtoaster, which toasted the face of hello kitty, complete with bow, into a piece of bread, to make your morning more joyful; a tote bag, which I still feel is unparalleled by any other tote, and you can see I have loved part of its face off; a cell phone trinket, which dangles from my car’s rearview mirror; and juice glasses, which we use for tequila in my house, but that’s beside the point. This year, I turned 43 and a friend gave me this:

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It doesn’t stop there. A lifelong friend lived in Korea, then Japan, and bestowed upon me an endless stream of fantastic gifts that arrived in vague connection to Christmas and my birthday. The mouse pad next to me right now, barely larger than the mouse and in the shape of Kitty’s head; chopsticks; duct tape; something related to shoes that neither of us can figure out because all the package writing is in Japanese; origami paper; candy; food-like items I was eventually forced to discard because, due to my inability to understand Japanese, I could never figure out what they were.

So  imagine my relief, my first week in LA, slightly out of pace with the world and myself, trying to wrap my head around this ‘staying in one place’ concept, when I saw that the Hello! Exhibit – Exploring the Super Cute World of Hello Kitty – had just opened at the Japanese American National Museum downtown. If HK herself was here for a while as well, clearly LA was the right place for me. I vowed to get downtown as quickly as possible. On the red line, because I was determined to use public transport in LA.

I finally made it, in my car, six months later. And it was ever. So. Awesome.

Even without the big sign outside, you know you’re getting close to the Hello Kitty exhibit because people of all ages and orientations – male, female; Asian, Caucasian, African American, Latin – are wearing the ridiculous paper Hello Kitty crown you are given with your admission. Case in point: the first couple I happened upon the minute I walked into the exhibit: The_First_Couple.jpg

Where else would this man put on this crown? (I don’t know him, so maybe he wears Hello Kitty PJs to bed every night, but judging from his response when I asked to take their picture, I’m guessing not.) And yet EVERYONE was wearing them. Giant Polynesian dude? Wearing it. Two elderly women accompanying an even more elderly woman in a wheelchair? Wearing it.

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Me? Wearing it! Happily, but not well.

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The exhibit starts at the beginning: with a coin purse, a man, and the concept kawaii. The term can be translated as ‘cuteness,’ but is also related to the Japanese word for ‘pitiable,’ “suggesting a fundamental emotional basis of empathy and caring.” By using the English-language greeting with the character, the brand welcomes the customer as a friend and marks Hello Kitty as a global, social character. The original creator, Shintaro Tsuji, intentionally focused on items that “foster ‘social communication,’” which explains why so many of the early Hello Kitty paraphernalia was stationery-oriented. Also, Hello Kitty is a twin – who knew? Poor Mimmy must feel very much in her sister’s shadow – and her last name is White. And they live in London. Wait – what? They are very international. Also, Hello Kitty is not a cat.  I just have to leave that one alone.

Adolescence_of_Joy.jpgThe first half of the exhibit focuses entirely on the building of the brand, by displaying a growing family of branded items. Since I’d had the toaster, the small appliances came as little surprise. I’ll confess the motor oil, in a three quart can caught me by surprise, and the toilet paper just made me jealous. As did the sanitary napkins. I mean, what can make a period happier than HK tp and maxi pads? HK candy, I suppose.

This, however, blew my mind, and there was no description for it other than “mask.”

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A glimpse of the inevitable fetishization of anything girl-plus-Asian appears with the hello kitty vibrator, which Sanrio assures is just a “massage wand,” (though even the exhibit plaque puts that in quotes). They assure the visitor it is, “designed to buzz away one’s troubles around the neck and shoulders with a quick flick of the switch. Ahhh!”

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The Hello Kitty Kiss dolls  are all in good humor and part of her resurgence as some sort of pop icon. Clearly, if HK is becoming a celebrity, she’s going to rub shoulders with the big (shoed) boys. And as those of us who grew up with her help Kiss_Kitty.jpgmorph her character into something we can still use as adults, she is bound to grow too (though the exhibit notes multiple time that Kitty’s birthday is November 1st, “but she never gets another year older!”). Hence, her inspiration of Japanese street fashion (always inspired)

Japanese_Street_Fashion.jpg or her appearance in the western fashion industry, with an entire slew of outfits featured on America’s Next Top Model.

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Then comes the art, which also walks the line between nostalgia, pop art, and fetish. How is this not a sexualized cross between cosplay and a blow up doll?. When did Kitty get boobs (she never ages…)?

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Dark but less sexual is this one, titled, “Uh Oh Kitty Ho.” I’m not sure that isn’t reproductive organs on her shirt.

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She goes on a Life Aquatic-inspired ride with Paul Frank’s Julius and friends,

Paul_Frank__Hello_Kittys_Submarine_Ride.jpgmorphs onto Lincoln, Scott_Scheidly__Hello_Lincoln.jpgstorms Tokyo as Godzilla, . Mark_Nagata__Hello_Kitty_Kaiju.jpgimpersonates the Sphinx, Hello_Kitty_Sphinx.jpgand bursts into bloomMichael_Courville__Hello_Kitty_in_Bloom.jpg 

My favorite artwork, though, is Marc Dennis’s Allegory of Love. Nothing else sums up so perfectly what Kitty has provided to the women of my generation, who were introduced to her when we, and she, were young, and have relied on her to grow, change, express and nurture ourselves, while holding on to a simple, happy semblance of childhood to console or strengthen us when we need it. All of that is wrapped up in this image, which I stood in front of for quite some time, smiling…and wondering where I could buy that sweatshirt.

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On the Road

7 Steps to a Better Road Trip

Road Trip! 

I was westbound on highway 60 in Arizona, between Wickenberg and the 10, when a friend texted to say he was planning his first ‘significant’ road trip, and wanted to know what tips I could offer. I’m a little late in responding, but he called me an expert, so I feel obligated to take his request seriously.

I’m picking a lucky seven of tips because road trips shouldn’t be ruined with too many rules. I’m on the road again when writing this, this time in the Eastern Sierra; I adhere to all of these, and they’re still working for me.

012c6aae4b270b26e7793775155e934133c20abdc4   1. Use a Map – The Old School Way

Los Angeles is huge, and I’ve caved to using Waze to get around it. It’s an excellent tool, and a damaging crutch. As a result of my GPS-addiction, it’s taking me much longer to get to know LA than it would have in the old days, when I looked at a map – you know, a paper map – before leaving home, and wrote down directions. It was a method less adaptable to changes in traffic flow, but a great way to get to know the place where I was driving. I’m not saying buy a Mapsco of the entire USA, but don’t be afraid of an old fashioned map to chart your main route. It doesn’t mean you won’t wander off of it. It simply allows you to see the overview of the geography you’re entering. The lay of the land around the road that you are on.

01defdf2eeae2e4c86b5466c67a19ea33c56e807c5   2. Take the Blue Highways – The Journey is the Joy

On an old-school map, the less developed roads, those more rural, but still paved, were blue. The notion of sticking to these was made famous in William Least-Heat Moon’s book of the same name , which chronicled his journey on the small roads of the USA. Depending on time and distance, it may not be possible for you to stick to these completely. Honestly, it may drive you crazy, and be horrible advice. But if you wanted the fly-over approach, you’d be in a plane, not a car; interstates, bless them for what they give us, are the fly-over drive. The reality remains that most of America happens off the interstate. Admit it, when you are driving a stretch of I-40 that bumps up against the old Route 66, you want to pull off the highway and hop onto that crusty, weed-pocked stretch of broken asphalt, for nostalgia if nothing else. I say: do it.

018d9c9d31045a3a3078a37737c86e80dfde09fa76   3. Revel in Kitsch

Whether you are on an interstates or a dirt road to some historic monument, revel in the kitsch at hand. It’s everywhere, and it’s AWESOME. Ever seen a sign for Wall Drug? If you’ve driven on I-70, I-80, I-90 west of Chicago, or trekked the Everest circuit, you’ve seen a sign, or a sticker, for this place. Maybe you missed Wall Drug but made it to Little America, smack dab in the middle of Nebraska. Maybe you’ve visited the Biggest Ball of Twine (a goal I’ve yet to achieve – and there’s a dispute about who really owns the claim), but you saw the largest red pepper or the Corn Palace. These are the big guns, but the little ones, the ones that truly flavor the road, are even better. Stop for gas on the Navaho reservation and buy a dream catcher. Stop at the meteor crater in Arizona and see where NASA trained astronauts to walk on the moon. Taste the fudge at some olde time candy shoppe by the road. Buy magnets in the shape of the states, or patches from all the national parks, or a random trinket from Teapot Dome. Steal a street sign with your name on it. Actually, don’t do that; it’s illegal. The line between history and kitsch has something to do with nostalgia, is very blurry, and should be entirely entertained at as many roadside stops and historical points of interest as possible.

0102adf4de263a6d41ed6e429af278aa087ad8f81d   4. Listen Local, Read Local

There is no better way to learn a place than these two things. Local radio, even if it’s being pumped in by syndicate from far away, gives you a great taste of where you are. When I moved to Dallas, I found there are no fewer than seven Christian stations on the FM dial. One trip across West Texas, I listened to AM radio, half of it in Spanish, for about 100 miles out of El Paso while literally watching tumbleweed roll across the highway.  Last week, driving out of LA, I listened to Rush Limbaugh on a local station. You don’t have to like everything you hear. But it helps understand a place to know what they may be hearing. Similarly, local papers are the absolute best way to learn what’s going on where you are eating lunch, spending the night, or pulling off the road for a hike. They’ll tell you who’s in office, who’s trying to get them out, and who got arrested last week. They may also tell you what music or food you must not miss in town.

0140f292c44437a0b9c943d3289d0d78668f97fab0 5. Eat Local

This is a no-brainer, and it’s easier than ever, with every small town sprouting a brew-pub, and every small town diner being covered by Anthony Bordain or that Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives dude. Don’t rely on Yelp. It’s a construction. Ask at your cheap motel, your campground, the local bar where you may have stopped in for a drink. A bartender always knows. Whether it’s frito pie, pozole, philly cheesesteak, or a farm-to-table mesclun salad with a seared farmed ahi tuna steak, it’s going to be better when someone in-the-know recommended it to you. Asking a local for a recommendation is like attempting to speak even crappy Spanish in Mexico: people will be pleased that you care enough to engage at all, and the help will flow from all directions.

01eec584a78fa402bf771b59c21e65c633b2b9ae6c   6. Let There Be Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos

So yes, eat local, but let’s be serious, you are on a road trip, and there is a food situation that goes with that. It is frequently one that is accompanied by Tums, and that’s ok. I drove across country one summer with a lactose-intolerant friend who insisted on eating a DQ Blizzard every day, at least once. I got so tired of pulling over for DQ while craving a Slurpee, that I made him go into a Circle K in Arizona and ask where the nearest 7-Eleven was. They told him to keep going straight (we were on I-40) until he got to California. Likewise, my college boyfriend and I had a rule that, if he tried to get me to eat Cheetos or Peanut Butter Captain Crunch for breakfast three days in a row, I was allowed to kick him out of the car. That said, I have enjoyed my fair share of drive-thru fries, drive-up cranberry lime-ades, over-sized gas-station Chewy Sweet Tarts, and a flat of raspberries or strawberries bought by the side of the road, and you should to

IMG_6238   7. Talk to Strangers

I know our parents taught us not to, but you’re a grown up now, and you can make your own decision. Talking to strangers – and, more importantly, listening to them – is one of the absolute hands-down best parts of a road trip. On my way to Joshua Tree a couple weeks ago, I stopped off at PioneerTown (see number 3, above) and had a great conversation with a guy named Rick who lived there. While Spanky made friends with his Jessie May, Rick told me the story of the etched silver Native American figure pin attached to his well-weathered hat. Turns out Cecil B DeMille had given it to his clairvoyant Mohegan grandmother when they sat next to one another on a flight. Last night, outside a bar and pizza parlor in the Sierras, I met a private pilot for a wealthy family who regularly flew them between their 12 different homes in the US and Mexico. The night auditor at a hotel I stayed at in Dallas, TX was a descendent of Quanah Parker, and I met the two jokers above at a temple in Burma, and traveled with them for a week. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly joyous.

The truth is a road trip is all about your attitude. My car no longer has functioning cruise control, which leads to right leg cramps on long trips. The seat is starting to collapse, which sometimes makes my back hurt. I could let these things bother me, but what’s the point? I’d rather find the local country station, slide the window down to let in the sweet smell of spring blowing off tree buds while I sip on a lemonade purchased by a road-side stand. Whatever your attitude, do one more thing: wear sunblock on your window arm. If you do nothing else I recommend, I promise you will thank me for this one.

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Life Skills, United States

The Importance of Feeling Small

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of feeling small. We tend to think of it as a bad thing: feeling “less than” others. Feeling unimportant. Feeling hidden. But there is another aspect of feeling small. The one that allows you to feel the mighty wonder of something else. To feel small against it, and in relation, to feel its power, and relocate our own.

 

I suppose this may sound like a religious sentiment, and ironically, I’m writing this on Easter. But I’m not a religious person. I get my feeling small from being out in nature, and I love it.

 

I started contemplating feeling small in October, when I was traveling through Utah. Newly reunited with the dog after a year of separation, I was generally gleeful, and grateful, but I was also venturing to a new territory and a major life change: living in LA, looking for a job, staying in one place.

 

Spanky and I set out on a couple of hikes – two in Goblin Valley State Park – in Little Wild Horse Canyon, where we had to stop after a mile or so because poor Spanky couldn’t scale the narrow sandstone walls, and out the Curtis Bench Trail, where we wandered among hoodoos and I contemplated how similar they were to the fairy chimneys of Cappadoccia, and marveled at the amazing things that Nature creates. The next day found us in Escalante, heading toward Lower Calf Creek Falls on a sandy trail through a valley where fall foliage danced in the sun. Turning a corner the last quarter mile before the falls, the temperature dropped at least fifteen degrees and we were met with a cool wind, and then a misty spray, and then the falls themselves, rising 100 feet up a cliff of reddish rock. We stood small against it, had our picture taken, lapped the cool water, and wandered back toward the car tired, happy, refreshed.

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From there, we made our way to Devil’s Playground to watch the sun set. The unpaved Hole In the Rock Road stretched ten washboarded miles into unblemished Utah, depositing us in a playground of rock formations that look almost like sand towers and the waves that break them. Spanky was nursing a bloody foot pad from two excited days of pantering through the sand, so we kept our wandering to a minimum. I sat him in a stay while I climbed around and recalled with joy the sense of adventure I’d had all over the world at similar sights – formations of natural origin so astounding in sight they seem otherworldly, which reminds me, always, how magical the world really is. And the lookout from that place, out on a valley of alien sights, familiar to me because I had seen something similar a world away, and new and strange here in my own country, made me feel so wonderfully small, so thankfully little in comparison to the magical mastery that is Nature.

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This week, today, April 5th, marks one year since I flew back into the United States, after visiting 17 other countries. Lately, in Los Angeles, looking for the place where I fit and the job that I can both master and enjoy, I have on occasion felt small in the bad way. The way that makes one feel inconsequential, unnoticed, not fully worthy of the wonder that surrounds and as a consequence, less capable of seeing it, even right there in front of me. It is a great reminder to put myself in the place where I feel blissfully small, and so it happily coincided with plans to hit the road.

 

Which is how I found myself in Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. Dogs are not allowed on trails in the National Parks, so Spanky and I wandered on dirt roads around Hidden Valley, again staring up in wonder at stone formations – Intersection Rock, of climbing fame, and Skull Rock, of tourist fame. We drove south to the 10 through the cholla patch, the cactus flowering around us, the sacred datura blooming in treacherous, ostentatious piles by the road side. The ocotillo waved red paintbrushes up at the sky. And the Joshua Trees, of course, scratched up at its surface.

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And then here, to what could easily be considered a Phoenix suburb, where an easy morning hike puts you up against a hillside of cordon cactus, one of which is older than my great grandfather would be, were he still alive. . And 30 feet tall. There was a cautionary rattler sunning itself by the creek, whose watertable is now starting to retreat to its summer home beneath the ground.

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At night, the same trail by moonlight has a different face. Cool breeze through the wash, red-spotted toads hopping across the footpath, which you take more slowly in the dim brilliance of the full moon. No headlamp. Just Nature’s magnificence to light your way. And still, you can make out the outline of the giants, standing tall, prickly, resilient among their history, making you feel small in the best of ways. You shrink beneath them, and you feel closer to the ground. Grounded. Your problems less insurmountable. Your place potentially still unsure, but certainly less tenuous. Your place, here.

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