On the Road, United States

Vernita Falls

There are no pictures, because you are driving and you have to keep going. No pictures but what will burn itself in the memory centers of your brain, just like light burns onto the chemicals of film, the chemicals of photo paper, for you to pull out at a later date and remember. No pictures but what you make on your mind, and what you recall from it because something you see now, through the windshield, tickles something you saw before, in a picture, in a museum, through an airplane window.

90 takes you over the first set of mountains, into the fog, by the sleeping ski slopes, and out the other side. Past Vernita Falls, Dallas Road, Coffin Road, the famous (who knew) Teapot Dome Gas Station. Out past the vineyards, the apple groves in the process of being harvested – apples so big and ripe you can see them from the highway – past the wind turbines and burned fields. Frequently, you want to stop, take a photo. Frequently, you wonder who names these places, and how.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Vernita. She died two weeks, almost to the hour, before I was born. In her honor, my middle name is her first name – because my mother didn’t think Vernita was a nice thing to do to a girl in the 70s. But who, out here, in Eastern Washington State, who knows when, had this same uncommon name, and gave it to a waterfall I don’t have time to stop and see?

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Onto 84, crossing the gorge into Oregon, you travel behind a truck filled with sweet onions, their papery skins flying off behind and a waft of onion scent trailing you both over the border. The land dries, the wind flies, dirt dances up into whirling dervishes of land, lost in its own silent prayer.

Occasionally, an ancient barn will crumble by the roadside. Next to it, the new one, the house built in the years between the two. Occasionally, next to it, nothing but land, nothing but the hills, and the freeway, nothing but these dilapidated remnants of America’s agricultural past. Sometimes, the remains are of a cabin, no town near, no river, no….nothing, but the skeletal remains of Manifest Destiny’s westward expansion and the casualties that came with it. Dead dreams by the side of the road. Road kill of a different kind.

And then a car on fire, fully engulfed in flames. And then a strip mall: Kohl’s, Best Buy, Starbucks, Target. You could be anywhere, but you are here, wherever it is. Soon it is southern, eastern Idaho, northern Utah, the Snake River cutting deep through high dry mesas, creating a fertile green farming valley. Somewhere, the rock is volcanic, black and sharp, and then everything is red, rust-colored. Out 80, into the mountains, the snow fences begin, lined up and waiting for the weather to come like a farm of solar panels waiting for the sun.

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And then Wyoming. Wild, wonderful, heart-breakingly gorgeous, with the green aspen turning gold and the black trunk of cottonwoods striking out behind yellowing leaves, along the riverbeds, up the valleys between hills. Trains snake through the canyons, hug the red-rock cliffs, slither low on the prairie behind the scrub brush and sage, carrying the loot of virgin land. They fade into the distance the same way Vernita Falls faded behind you, the same way the distance fades into fall – nostalgic, fogged over, waiting for weather to come.

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On the Road

Bessie

Yesterday, I hit the 100-day mark since returning to the States. It’s a completely arbitrary milestone, especially since I left the country again less than two months after I returned, but I’m back now, for real, and reality is setting in. With decisions to be made (where to live? what to do?), bills to be paid, and responsibilities to attend to, my attention has refocused to my trusty steed, Bessie, a beloved 2000 VW station-wagon.

Bessie, clean and pretty at the beginning of the road

Bessie, clean and pretty at the beginning of the road…

And dirty and well loved at the end.

And dirty and well loved at the end.

Bessie and I have been on many adventures – 185,053 miles worth. Together, we have lived in four cities, driven cross-country at least twice horizontally and four times vertically, and tolerated more than our share of derogatory comments about station wagons and child-free soccer moms. Last summer, we survived no fewer than 9,000 miles together, though the heat and a two tires didn’t make it the whole way.

Among the places she's taken me is the Middle Fork of the Crazy Woman River.

Among the places she’s taken me is the Middle Fork of the Crazy Woman River.

It is possible Bessie has been better to me than I have to her, though she’s gotten me back with her fair share of expenses. It will be a sad, though much awaited day, when I have been re-employed long enough to replace her with a vehicle that has, oh, I don’t know, decent cupholders and someplace to plug in my phone.

Guarantee: when the heat is gone, the snow comes early. On the pass outside Bozeman during an early snow fall. Bessie makes an excellent tripod.

Guarantee: when the heat is gone, the snow comes early. On the pass outside Bozeman during an early snow fall. Bessie makes an excellent tripod.

This morning, as a matter of routine maintenance, I took Bessie in to get her tires rotated. (Don’t be impressed – it’s probably the first time ever.) When I handed over my key, the tech at Discount Tire asked me if there was a special lock required to get the tires off. Without pausing I looked at him and replied, “Hell no. It doesn’t take more than one midnight tire-change on the streets of DC for me to get rid of the locking lug nuts.”

Don't be impressed by tire rotation; this mirror was cracked for two years before i replaced it.

Don’t be impressed by tire rotation; this mirror was cracked for two years before i replaced it.

After 14 years, it is easy to forget some of the incidents Bessie and I have shared, but that simple question – is there a special lock on the tires – was enough to take me back ten years, to a time I lived in DC right after grad school, and en-route to meeting a friend for dinner, turned a corner too tightly and hit my tire on the metal gutter-guard on the sidewalk edge. My right rear tire went from full to flat in half a block, and I limped Bessie around the corner and into a blissfully available parking spot.

My dad taught me to change a tire early on because he considers it, along with proper use of duct tape and WD40, one of life’s essential skills. But after loosening four of the lug nuts on this tire, then struggling with the fifth for an extended period of time, I remembered being told about the lug nut key when I bought tires five months earlier. The tech made a big point to inform me I better not to lose it. And then, apparently, he never put it back in the tire-changing kit.

Bessie in the Tetons, on a happier adventure.

Bessie in the Tetons, on a happier adventure.

It took a good two hours for AAA to send a tow to Georgetown on Saturday night, but it was worth the wait for Ulysses, a wanderer of the Southern States with five children and a ‘good woman,’ this one, finally, after the other three. He seemed aptly named and he ferried Bessie and me into the far east side of Capitol Hill, to an all-night tire drive-through garage with cars lined out the roll-up store-front and partway down the street, waiting to buy used tires that were stacked as high as the garage roof.

Ulysses refused to drop me off, alone and conspicuous, so late at night, and so we sat in the idling cab of the tow truck for 30 minutes while he regaled me with stories of his travels, until it was our turn to pull in to the shop, where people without cars walked up to the pay window and left with paper sandwich bags of something other than tire parts. We had a store like that where I went to college; a Snapple cost $25 and came in a bag with a fun surprise, if you catch my drift.

The mechanic seemed tempted to file locking lug nuts under “white people problems,” and I can’t say I blamed him. After confirming multiple times that I understood he may strip the nut and I may need to buy another, he went at it, first with a compressed air impact wrench and then with a variety of other tools I have no ability to name. I’m not 100% positive one of them wasn’t a crow bar. At last, it came off, and Ulysses insisted on changing my tire for me, since that’s what AAA paid him for. Tire changed, spare on, Bessie was ready to go. I tipped Ulysses $20 and paid the mechanic his $35, and figured it was a cheap price to pay for such an adventure.

 

Through rain and sleet and snow (and the windshield, which has been replaced at least once).

Through rain and sleet and snow (and the windshield, which has been replaced at least once).

Life Skills, On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, United States

Where I’m From

Three months before I turned 40, I spent a month obsessively looking at new cars on craigslist. When I realized I was perfectly happy with my 12 year-old stick shift station wagon, I left the cars behind and decided just to pierce my nose, like I’d wanted to do since I was 14. Suddenly, I was freed from the socially-acceptable expectations of mid-life, and welcomed into the decade that would allow me to just be me. Midlife crisis narrowly averted.

Not even a full state from Texas, a crisis of an entirely different order arose. I took refuge from a torrential downpour at a café on the Taos plaza, and got to talking to a woman about her dog. Naturally, she asked me where I was from. A normally chatty human being who can carry on a conversation with anyone from the Pope to a wall, I was struck silent. I didn’t even stutter; I just couldn’t answer. I was faced with a geographic identity crisis.

For the eight, mostly uncomfortable years I lived in Dallas, I told people, “I live in Dallas, but I’m from California.” This is the technical truth – I was born in San Francisco, and consider myself a Californian – but it isn’t the whole story. I arrived in Dallas a full seven locations after I originally left my home state. As a result, I’m a committed recycler with aggressive driving skills, a very northeastern way of flipping the bird, a New Yorker’s style of walking through a crowded urban center ignoring everyone around me, a Northwestern desire to be outside even when the weather fills with rain and wind, and a Texan belief that my boots and a good buckle should work for any occasion. When I say, “I’m going home,” I could be referring to Seattle, San Francisco, or Dallas. But I don’t know how to tell someone where I’m from, because choosing one place feels like a lie.

I hoped this issue would resolve itself when I left the country, but it got worse. Complete strangers took a kind-hearted interest in the specifics of my personal history, and weren’t satisfied when I told them simply, “I’m from the United States.” People in other countries know a surprising number of US states; they also watch a lot of bad tv. Texas is on the map for Dallas (the original), Walker Texas Ranger, and George Bush. Telling people I’m from California garnered a lot of, “I’ll be back,” “oh…Ah-nald,” and, “California?…Hollywood?” So I tried Washington.

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Cold, beautiful west coast

Understandably, it’s confusing to foreigners that the state of apples, Starbucks, and the Olympic peninsula is both not the same as the capital city that shares its name, and is located on the other side of the country. I didn’t bother correcting people who responded to Washington with, “ah! Obama’s house,” until the questions about DC got too involved, and I would confess that I was actually from an entirely different place (though I’ve lived in both).

Washington State

Washington State

The irony of all this is that it actually doesn’t matter. In earlier eras, outside of Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, and great migrations, people rarely moved far from home. Now, we’re in a shrinking global community, where constant population flux consistently alters cultures, blending them across geographic boundaries, until good barbeque isn’t just found in the south and good bagels aren’t held captive in New York. The San Francisco of 2013, with its dot com billionaires and microapartments for a million dollars, isn’t the San Francisco of 1993, with its distinct neighborhoods, affordable housing, and hippy funk. (When people ask me if I’m moving back to San Francisco, I feel compelled to point out that San Francisco isn’t there anymore.)

And yet, for all this movement, for all this homogeneity of culture, place matters. When I go out for coffee, place matters. Am I walking there, biking there, driving there, or taking public transportation? Is it Dunkin’s coffee, Starbucks coffee, local coffee, organically sourced and priced up coffee? Or maybe it’s Turkish, Thai, or Vietnamese white coffee? Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth roasted, or bitter? Am I standing at the coffee bar chatting with neighbors, sitting at an outdoor café under a heat lamp, or grabbing it to go while I drive off someplace?

Place matters for the most simple things, because it’s the simple things that form who we are. The personality of a place shapes our approach to the world; it demonstrates for us how we absorb information, how we respond to stimuli around us, and how we view what we see moving forward. Thirty years ago, when I moved from the Bay area to Boston, this mattered a hundred times more.

I left a place of cold oceans with rough surf and foggy-day picnics on the beach, of yoga and recycling and home-made peanut butter, and went to the land of green pants with blue whales, classmates related to passengers on the Mayflower, and ‘one if by land two if by sea.’ As a result, though I longed regularly for the west coast of my childhood, I was raised using the T, rooting for the Celtics, watching my first baseball game from the Fenway bleachers, and busing out to Great Woods for one concert after another. There is no mistaking that these experiences gave me some of the independence that I enjoy when I travel, and that the longing to get back to the other coast, to see what was beneath me when I flew from one to another, gave me my desire to actually buy a plane ticket and do it.

New York subway

New York subway

So when I tell people I’m from California, I feel like I’m disrespecting half of my roots. And I feel like my roots have more than two halves. Didn’t summers on a small island in Puget Sound teach me to love reading, staring at the water, and the smell of fresh wind? Didn’t college in New York help me understand that I can only do cities  for a moment before I shut down? Don’t we continue to grow, to absorb place and its personality, and to change as a result, throughout our lives? I didn’t move to Texas until I was 30, but didn’t it warm me a bit, teach me a about expressing myself respectfully to people with opposing viewpoints, and help me understand myself better? Isn’t growth and absorption of place the only thing that explains Madonna’s fake British accent?

For all the shrinking of the world, place still matters. The more we create these hybrid humans who herald from multiple cultures, possibly without much leaving their own, the more confusing the question ‘where are you from’ will become. I, for one, am looking forward to it, so I’m not the only one suffering from a geographic identity crisis.

Crazy Dallas weather

Crazy Dallas weather

On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized, United States

Heaven on Earth

I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately, driving around the United States and finding myself fully realizing the words to ‘America, the Beautiful,’ as amber waves of grain roll by my car windows. I’ve fallen into describing the awe-inspiring landscape as “heavenly,” meaning it brings peace, visual pleasure, and possibility into my frame of visual reference, and thought. In hotels, I’ve slept on more than one ‘heavenly bed,’ some because they are branded that way, and others because they bring the possibility of sleep and the chance to unbend my frame from it’s too-frequently seated position.  And from airplanes, of course, I’ve looked down at an ocean of puffy white cotton-like clouds outside the window and thought, ‘this is what they say heaven looks like.’ Yet upon my return to Orcas (the island I’ve made home base this fall) after a few weeks away, it occurred to me that if there is a heaven on earth, it is not a place or a vision, but a smell.

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Smell transcends time and place. It can carry you from where you are now to where you were when. Think about it: the smell of fresh-baked cookies – anywhere – in a home or a bakery or wafting down a street in any small town or large metropolis – any where  in the world, can pull you from the moment you are in, to another moment, possibly long ago and far away, that is anchored by the smell of warm chocolate chips and dough that sinks back to hug them as they cool on a rack, and defined by the moment of peace or hope that it brought to you back in that time and space. Isn’t that what heaven is? The transcendence of the present to a larger realm of peace and possibility?

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

I am a person of place. I always have been.  I engage in a place by falling in love with its landscape. When I lived on the east coast, I often longed for the west coast with its cold ocean and high foothills. I longed for the hilly streets and old Victorians of San Francisco. I longed for the stillness of this island on which I’ve spent much of the last two months, and for the serenity of the view from where I now sit – over the grass, beyond the apple trees to the sound, to Lopez Island, to the sky above it and the Olympic mountains standing guard behind. For most of my life, I have associated this anchoring, this peace, with this place. I believed, for much of  my time living in Dallas, that what made it difficult was that city had no hills, not enough trees, too much strip mall cement.

And then a week ago, I drove off the ferry, cracked my window, and was in my heavenly home. The smell of clean air, laced with sea salt and rained grass, rushed in to welcome me.  In the distance was a top-note of wood-stove burning off fall chill and deep, deep beneath it were undertones reminiscent of the sun warming sugar out of last summer’s blackberries.

Suddenly, all the smells came to me. It wasn’t San Francisco I missed when I was on the East Coast. It was the smell of old book stores filled with history and revolution. It was salt floating on fog on early mornings when I waited for the bus to work. It was eucalyptus  trees carrying their native Australia to Tennessee Valley. Strip malls weren’t the problem with Dallas. The air was. Except when it was raining, and the air was filled with the electricity of a storm, Dallas atmosphere stagnated. There was no news being brought on the wind. You couldn’t tell where the ocean was by inhaling. There was no possibility blowing through.

And so, as I prepare to leave for lands that smell of dewy mornings in thin air, of the dirt road beneath your feet, the slow burn of trash in a neighboring field, the diesel of combis and collectivos that roar by, I’m taking some time to absorb this heaven. Lying in bed last night with a rain pounding wind down through the alder and rushing the scent of leaves and water through the roof eaves to where I lay, I inhaled deeply and held my breath, absorbing just a little bit of heaven on earth to bring with me on the road.

Heaven is the smell of true north

Heaven is the smell of true north

On the Road, Uncategorized

Are YOU My Cemetery?

Sea Stacks in Bandon

I’m chasing my ancestors down the path of their history, backwards through the towns they settled along highway 42 in Oregon. The route wraps around the south side of the Coquille river, starting with the warm fog that twists its way around sea stacks in Bandon and heads into Pleasant Valley, where the sun blinks through overcast skies.

My goal is to visit the graves of my grandmother and her family before tearing north on I-5 to make the 9 pm ferry for the San Juan Islands. But a 20-year absence from this part of the country and a couple well-placed questions from my mother have got me reinventing that kids book I used to read in kindergarten, “Are You My Mother?” Instead of a bird asking every living animal or machine if I belong to it, I’m a human screeching off the highway every time I see a sign for a cemetery.

“Are YOU my cemetery,” I asked this morning, after taking a hard left and tiptoeing through the remains of Coquille, to arrive at the Masonic Cemetery. Coquille’s main street looks like a movie set – a stately bank, sculpted storefronts, and too many empty windows in front of which few people move.  The cemetery is so small and non-descript I couldn’t believe the Masons claim it. I u-turned illegally in front of the high school marquee announcing registration dates and head back to 42, conspicuous in my dirty black foreign wagon with the Texas plates.

“Are YOU my cemetery,” I asked again, outside Coquille, when a cemetery sign pointed up a small hill to the Myrtle Crest Memorial Gardens. The hill and quiet atmosphere were promising, but the cemetery was new and compact, one small loop of road with grave markers on either side, and four groundsmen tending to the sprinkler system. One moved his truck out of the one lane so I could get by without running over the dead, and while I headed back down the hill I thought it must be true what they say: the only two things you can count on are death and taxes, and the death part is an increasing certainty in this part of the country, where the land is what you count on, and there isn’t much else.

View of Pleasant Valley from Norway Cemetery

In my memory, at least, MY cemetery sits high on a hill with a view of the valley and a two lane road winding beneath it. There are pine trees, and graves from the last century, and an A&W not far down the road. I remember thinking the last time I was here that this wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend eternity. But things have changed. The winding two lane road is now a six lane arterial, and the town of Norway, which I believe is where MY cemetery is located, doesn’t show up on my iphone map. Still, the road winds on. To the left, hills rise and fall, and to the right, the valley lies down, throwing up a lumber mill, new or abandoned, or a dairy farm, from time to time.

The Chandlier Drive-Thru Tree

They know what they are doing here, and they’ve been doing it for more than a century. Sheep and cattle graze the flat lands, timber is cultivated and felled on the mountains, and milled beside the busier transport roads. Always, trees are left bundled and tall along the most visible pathways, as if the pine curtain can hide a naked mountain of clear cut, or the low bush where trees begin to grow back, only to be cut again in how many years? 40? 50? Nothing will replace those that came down a century ago – like the ones along the Avenue of the Giants I drove yesterday on my way up California. There are no more “Drive Thru Trees” being grown, no more “One Log House.”

Mechanical memories of yesteryear

Mechanical memories of yesteryear

While I am gaping yet again at a truck cab speeding past, hauling his own back half on his mid section, the empty hitch and fork of a logging truck without the load, I see another cemetery sign out the corner of my right eye. As it registers, the turn-off passes on the left, blurred by the roadside leftovers dancing in the wake of the Mac cab. I take the next opportunity to pull off the main drag and circle back on old 42, slow, narrow, littered with mechanical memories of yesteryear. This is the southern Oregon I remember. This is my America.

Welcome to Norway Cemetery

I miss twice before making the turn. The new road is up ten feet higher than the old one. To get up the cemetery hill, you must first go down into a rut. “Historic Norway Cemetery,” the sign welcomes. Then validates, “circa 1875.” My grandmother and great aunts, their parents and aunts and uncles are where they were left.  The view is little changed, though the trees slightly overgrown. A lone gardener tends to some of the grave sites.

I sit with my family, have my communion with the dead. The dog chooses my great-great uncle’s stone as a cool place to lay his head on a heating day. I update everyone on my sisters, my niece and nephews, who looks like whom and acts like who else. I sit in silence and look at the valley, then wander around the gravesites of pioneers. And then I head out, communion finished, twist back down  to the new 42, and speed past the A&W to head north.

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