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.


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


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.


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.


Even Spanky was a little sad to see Bessie go

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.


On the Road

Why Worth Packing In?

Road Tripping - Diamond Lake, 1968

Road Tripping – Diamond Lake, 1968

My grandparents were excellent travelers. They thought nothing of packing up the car like an ancient tetris game and heading out into the world from their Bay Area home base. In 1956, it was not uncommon  for them to put my mother and uncle, their ‘spinster’ aunt, and Bronco the dog in the car and head up the coast to Oregon to check on the maternal family dairy farm, to Carmel for lunch and sandcastles on the beach, to the Sierras for camping and trout fishing, or to Arizona, Chicago, and later, the East Coast, where my mother was in college. Along the way, they managed to find Hopi ruins, Chicago’s greatest hauftbrauhaus, California’s widest redwoods – the best of what their world had to offer, without a guidebook.

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