Going home to the Berkshires

May 7th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s time not only to get back to writing this blog, but also to move beyond Route 66 — at least for now. Perhaps I should go home. Yes, I think it’s time. But first a few moments to reflect. What an experience this RV journey has been, not only for myself but for my children. It really does ground you and put you in your place, while at the same time open the door to endless possibilities of magnitude and depth and knowing without seeing. Feel the energy and let go. It’s OK.

A parting view of the Canyon.

Sometimes I get caught up in the moment, in the minutiae of the day-to-day dilemmas and issues, that I lose sight of the grandness of it all. And the insignificance. Now all I need to think about the Southwest, and other places where I’ve traveled that were larger than life, such as the view of the Himalayas overlooking Pokhara from just outside Kathmandu, Nepal, or erupting Mount Merapi in  Yogyakarta, Indonesia. (Merapi became the middle name of our youngest child.)

My next leg of the journey: Back to the Berkshires. Where there’s plenty going on, and a lot to keep me thinking. I have a few new endeavors that I’m about to embark upon. One is as editor of Berkshire Magazine, an exciting new publication that will hit the stands and the mailboxes by June’s end. Another is I’m finally going back to visit Bali, where we lived for several years. And where we haven’t returned since moving to the Berkshires. And, in the fall, I will start holding occasional youth writing workshops in the loft of our barn. (Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.)

I am invigorated by the challenges and the prospects. Yes, it’s time to go home, to move on to the next chapter.

I can’t wait.

Route 66: Ghosts Towns and Burros

February 21st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

One of many memorials along Route 66.

So this is Route 66? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it looks like the Middle of Nowhere. No 3G signal, so my iPhone’s GPS is inoperable. Golden Acres, the road sign says. Looks like a nondescript dusty watering hole with a smattering of palm trees. Wherever we are, we continue onward and soon come upon several white crosses along the roadside. One reads “Wes Trombone.” A brass instrument comes immediately to mind. But this was someone’s name. Whoever it was, this marked his death. That’s all that the desert was willing to reveal. I pause to reflect; nothing really goes through my mind except a few moments for this person, a thought that this was someone’s child, someone’s friend. This name on the side of the road marked with a cross, like the countless markers within graveyards. Only this one marks the spot, and we were destined to find more along the way. We drive onward.

Cacti Kon. That’s the name that we call our middle child Konstantin at that moment. It’s fitting on this leg of the trip. His is the sort of name that begs for variations, and we’re quick to throw them out. KONserve. KONcrete. KONgo. KONquest. The Wrath of KON. King KON. Butter PeKON. And he doesn’t seem to mind at all. I’ve thought about shortening his name to Kosta (my dad’s nickname), Dean (his cousin’s nickname), Connie (my favorite term of endearment), Dinos, Dino. Yuck. So he will most likely have the same fate as me, where his siblings shorten his name to the first syllable (mine was Ann) that will stick for his youthful days, and then go back to the full Monty as an adult.

So here we are, with Cacti Kon jumping out of the RV parked on the side of Route 66, running through a desert patch in search of his namesake. He stops to pick a limb of a stubborn cactus as a keepsake — no small feat even with a handy little whittling knife. Immediately after Kon extracts the cactus fragment, it finds a new home atop his orange Crock. The battle is on: The Cactus vs. Kon. Kon whips his foot around, bangs it against the RV’s tire, flings off his rubber sling-back and finally managing to free the cactus, but not without one of the sewing-machine sized needles embedding itself in his knee. Leave it to Kon to make a simple request turn into major endeavor. I made the mistake of trying to pick up the cactus from the ground and quickly recoil, wounded. As I suck my bloody finger and tend to Kon’s self-inflicted wound, I look around at the desert landscape and curse under my breath. It’s bloody hot out here, and there’s absolutely no refuge from the sun. Wounded but finally victorious, we climb back into the RV, where Kon inserts the cursed cactus into a sand-packed Venti-sized Starbucks cup, next to a completely different looking cactus pulled from an earlier desert patch. Another bloody story, another bloody time.

Onward, we pass by the turnoff of Catfish Paradise. Catfish. Really? Speaking of fish, Catfish Kon hasn’t let go of the idea that we will come across a fishing spot. He brought his poles on the trip and hasn’t given up, despite the prospect of fishing in desert country isn’t something I’d lay any high bets on.

We continue on what we assume to be Route 66 and stop again after a while, this time at a straggly tree haphazardly adorned with patriotic Canadian decorations, including a flag, ribbons, small windmill and a golden leaf. The tree sparkles in the intense sun with its silver Christmas bulbs. In the midst of this dry wasteland was Canada’s hope for redemption perhaps. From what is anybody’s guess. But it was quite impressive, even though whoever did this left in a hurry. There was an open black plastic trash bag spilling over with more ornaments. Our kids ran around in excitement, gathering anything on the ground that looked interesting. A tie for Richard. A miniature flag on a stick for Francesca. Canada Kon came in with two sparkly silver bulbs, rusted bud light bottle cap and a glittery red snowflake Christmas ornament. We move on.

We come across one abandoned town after another as we drove onward on Route 66. Then out of the desert’s vastness appears a baby burro sucking on its mother’s teat, smack in the middle of the road. There was nowhere to go but stop. Donkey Kon was having a blast with the rest of his siblings, and the kids proceeded to feed our entire supply of carrots to the half-dozen donkeys who came up to our RV.

Stopping to play.

We had entered the dusty town of Oatman, formerly a mining mecca some 30 miles west of Kingman and nestled within the Black Mountains of Arizona. This is one Wild West town that has benefitted from its Route 66 roots. We were among a half-million visitors this year who have stopped to take in the town. The stories about this here location are quite entertaining, considering today’s Oatman isn’t as magical a setting as the tales that are told. That is where the imagination takes hold.

As one story goes, two prospectors struck a $10 million gold vein in 1915 and the town’s population grew to nearly 4,000 people. It became a hotspot to be, even for movie stars. This town is famous as the honeymoon stop of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1939. Gable fell in love with the area and returned often to play poker with the miners and the eight-room Oatman Hotel boasts the Gable/Lombard honeymoon suite as its major attraction. There’s also Oatie the Ghost, an Irish miner who died behind the hotel supposedly from too much alcohol. He was hastily buried in a shallow grave near where he was found, and has yet to leave the premises. Numerous sources say that the Oatman Hotel is haunted, and there are reports of the spirits of Gable and Lombard laughing from their honeymoon room, mixed with sounds of bagpipes coming from Oatie’s room.

The goldrush ended in the 1940s, and the population of Oatman steadily sank. It’s lucky if it has 150 residents now, which is quite impressive nonetheless, and it’s one of the most authentic ghosts towns you’ll find in the Middle of Nowhere. The biggest attraction for us were the donkeys, where they outnumber the people now. They’ve been freely roaming since the prospectors skedaddled out of Oatman and let their donkeys go free to proliferate the hills. We were welcome to feed them as we wandered in and out of a few of the shops, hoping for a high-noon gun battle to materialize. It appears as though the showdown happened early in the morning to beat the heat, so we moved on with our tour de Route 66.

Our drive revealed two more crosses with orange flowers, and a 150-foot drop where donkeys graze way below. We’re at 3,550 feet above sea level, and I would imagine that the nameless people plunged to their deaths. Another pause. As we drive on, the only sign of humanity are four mailboxes in a row on the side of the road, and a gold-mining area with no trespassing signs.

Another pause in our journey.

Some 15 miles east of Oatman, we come across a building that looks totally blown out and ravaged by the environment. When I look closer, the sign reads “Ed’s Camp.” Yet another abandoned encampment that was beyond repair and merging with the landscape. (I found out later that the proprietor, Lowell “Ed” Edgerton, originally came to the area as a miner but instead of searching for gold, he constructed a makeshift camp around 1920 for servicing Route 66 travelers. He threw up a few buildings that included the Kactus Kafe, a gas station, a bathroom and a few cabins. He also established a trailer camp of sorts.)

We barrel on and, before we know it, we are entering the outskirts of Kingman and cross under Highway 40. The clusters of mailboxes grow along the side of the road, then come the tell-tale signs: Cracker Barrel, McDonald’s. As we listened to rough cuts of the Beatles on CD, we enter civilization and stop to graze at a Mexican restaurant. The outside of  El Palacio looks old and rustic, but inside new and cleanly done, with clusters of plastic flowers arranged like large wedding bouquets. The food was good, although nothing unique. (Urban Spoon rated it a 78 percent, which is pretty much on the mark.) Looking around, I see a large man roaring from the bar as he watched a Mexican soap opera from a big screen. I see a young woman with bleached hair and black tips, I see an Indian family, several tables of tourists, pretty much a cross-section of America. What runs through my mind is, do these people live here? What brought them here? How do they spend their days? Would they rather be someplace else? Did they like the food?  Trains rumble in the background, making themselves known.

After spending the night in Kingman in one of the best commercial RV camps yet, we hit the high road and pass countless black-shielded Route 66 road signs assuring us that we are still on the right track.  I spot St. Michael’s Catholic Church next to a bail bondsman office. We follow along a train track that has more traffic than the road here. The front of one locomotive reads BNSF, and most of its intermodular freight is labeled “China.”

The constant rumbling of trains through the barren terrain.

Mile marker 99 is also the location of another cross where someone met death. We didn’t stop because cars were right up behind us. Twenty-three miles out of Kingman, we stop at a general store in a town called Hackberry that boasts a post office serving 68 residential mailboxes. The general store has plethora of Route 66 memorabilia, along with an old gas pump, a 1950s Corvette, old cars and engines and even an old sled parked out front. Cardshark Kon nabbed a tin container of Route 66 playing cards and we were on our way. The general store’s website reads, “The rail road came to Hackberry in 1882, loading cattle from area ranches along with ore from the Hackberry Silver Mine. The mine began in 1874 when prospectors built a mining camp near a spring on the east side of the Peacock Mountains. The mine was named for a large hackberry tree that grew near the spring. Mining ceased in 1919 but not before over $3 million in gold and silver had been produced. During this time, Hackberry offered regular services to its residents including a one-room school house, post office and two bordellos.”

Another spot where folks appear to be living in the relics of the past. This one was even enchanting.  That wasn’t the case for our next stop, Peach Springs, an important destination for the kids. Not only is it the headquarters of the million-acre Hualapai Indians reservation, it’s the town that inspired Radiator Springs for the movie Cars, but there was no pit stop in sight. Only some rundown homes, a relatively new nondescript hotel, an indoor fitness facility (huh?) and a small grocery mart. It was a bit depressing and, like the Pixar movie, depicts to some degree the losses that it and many other cities along Route 66 faced after they were bypassed by I-40. The kids lost interest quickly, thankfully, and we didn’t linger.

Entering the Seligma scene.

On to Seligma. It is quite interesting to see how some towns left unkept fall into total decay and a permanent part of the past. Other towns, like this one, are resuscitated and emerge as a tourist destination highlight. We stop to eat at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, a quirky drive-in diner with counter service. Inside, a small entryway is lined with business cards taped on the walls, and little writings from all over the world. Seating was outside, on picnic table benches and metal garden chairs. Here junk is collected and showcased, like an old umbrella stroller seating a few Teddy bears and American flag.  A worn straw broom is propped on display on a wall, near a beat-up white plastic mannequin wearing a black one-piece swimsuit and pink tutu, standing proud. The place is packed with people eating chicken burritos, cheeseburgers and hamburgers, vanilla and strawberry shakes, crinkle-cut and sweet potato fries.

The Snow Cap in Seligma.

Conspiring Kon poking around again.

These joints along Route 66  are magnets for oddball signs, like “No parking except for Bob”, “Route Beer 66″,  ”Rock & Roll Ave”. Betty Boop is sold in every conceivable shop, along with the same fare of coffee mugs, bumper stickers, license plates and keychains. And lining the streets are other appealing establishments such as Roadkill Cafe, Route 66 Motel, Aztec Motel, Copper Cart, Canyon Lodge and Black Cat Bar.

All this and more in the  land of rundown ghost towns still inhabited by people.

Route 66 (or Election ’12): The Road to Hope, Dreams and Desperation

February 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I wanted to be back on the road, reconnect with the countryside and carry on with exploring the Southwest with the kids. I consider Las Vegas as an unenlightening interlude on our roadtrip. But, heck, it was something different and short-lived. Like a one-night stand, you can say.  On that same vein, we steered toward the border of Californication. Ya know what I mean. That’s what happens when you’ve been slumming it for 24 hours. And that sure was a great album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (I’ve got to pull out the CD again…or download it on iTunes. It’s been way too long.) I still remember parts of that cover song:

“Destruction leads to a very rough road

But it also breeds creation

And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar

They’re just another good vibration

And tidal waves couldn’t save the world

From Californication…”

We blew in and out of California, touching into the Mohave Desert to catapult us onto a well-traveled path. Route 66 was taking us for a ride. What images does that evoke? For me, it contains tail-finned markers of cruising across America on a road that connected one Main Street America to another. In my mind, I travel past diners, motels, mom-and-pop general stores with soda fountains where teenagers hang out after school. Between long stretches of road, there are drive-ins and car washes and gas stations with old-fashioned pumps and friendly attendants with a big cloths tucked in their back pockets, ready to hand-wipe your windshield and chrome bumper. I think of Dr. Feelgood’s over-the-top rendition of Route 66.

In fact, this historic thoroughfare represents the best and worst of times in American history. Following World War II, thousands took to the road in their quest for upward mobility and left the industrial East for good jobs in the suburban ideal of southern California. In essence, moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. That was a huge shift from the Great Depression, when farm families displaced from the Dust Bowl made their way west along Route 66 to California, following what John Steinbeck called “the mother road”:

“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.” (Grapes of Wrath, pg. 108) 

February 1936. Oklahoma sharecropper and family entering California. Stalled on the desert near Indio, California.


November 1936. Young family, penniless, hitchhiking in California. The father, 24, and the mother, 17, came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Their baby was born in the Imperial Valley, California, where they worked as field laborers.

As I looked through the Library of Congress’s photo archive of images taken by Dorothea Lange documenting the travelers of Route 66 and other routes leading west during the Great Depression, faces begin to emerge from the travels through the barren terrain that linked one sparse city with another. Men, women, families walked on foot through these endless stretches in need of survival, or loaded all their possessions into one car, as they moved westward in desperation.

February 1936. Oklahoma dust bowl refugees. San Fernando, California.

Their faces show the same look of exhaustion, emptiness, almost an acquiescence to whatever fate has to give them. At the same time, they were persevering and adapting. What else could you do if you have children? Or no options? What I came across is a window into a life that is no different than squatter camps that I encountered in the Philippines, in what is called Smokey Mountain, a large garbage dump where tens of thousands of people scavenge for their livelihood. It’s estimated that 30,000 people live near the site, making their living from picking through the rubbish. Or in the border areas of northern Thailand and southern Bangladesh, where women are compelled to sell sex for a few dollars to support their households, putting themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS or community banishment. Or in Jakarta where street children are hired by syndicates to beg at intersections and forced to turn in their money only to be given barely enough to eat.

Humans are forced into such harsh conditions, and somehow that survival instinct kicks in. They battle to live. Yet there are so many people with an overabundance of everything, and the thought of spreading the wealth to a greater number of people so that no one has to live like this has not been realized. What’s up with that? It’s a pretty simple concept. Yet the simplest of things are the most difficult to see. This isn’t an issue of religion, or pushing one’s morality upon another’s, or drumming up support for a politician or political viewpoint. It’s about humanity at its simplest form. It’s an individual’s right to dignity, and we have the obligation to make sure others have that very basic dignity. Look at any one of these faces, whether it be the migrants of the Dust Bowl, or the scavengers of Smokey Mountain, or the child beggars of Jakarta or the Burmese sex workers of northern Thailand. They could be one of us, and we’re more connected than ever before, with borders blurred in this shrinking community we call the world.

Although all the images that have appeared so far in my blog have been photographs by my husband, John, who has kindly allowed me to showcase some of his incredible work, the images in this segment were entirely taken by Dorothea Lange. Many of these people traveled on the same road that I found myself on now, and even now I could sense a feeling of emptiness, but full of past content. So much has happened along this route.  I thought I would take a moment to reflect on those who traveled westward out of survival. Because any of these people could have been me and you.

1935. Dispossessed Arkansas farmers. Bakersfield, California. 


February 1936. Migrant family looking for work in the pea fields. California.


February or March 1936. Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Florence Thompson, 32, is shown with four of her seven hungry children in a tent shelter. Nipomo, California.

What’s my point with all of this? Let’s take a step back and realize that, bottom line, the extreme wealthy don’t need so much wealth. Sure, it’s nice to live in luxury, to have it good and enjoy life to its fullest. And those who have that probably worked damn hard to get to it. Or at least their predecessors did. Or someone in their family. Or they got lucky in the stock market. Or lottery. WHATEVER. But there’s got to be a better way to have this wealth distributed so that those people who have such a hard time surviving, who cannot feed or clothe or shelter their children, can have some reprieve. Does anyone deserve to be in that situation? If they do, then they should most likely be in jail, and life in jail probably is a helluva lot better than in the streets.

It’s election time. Oh boy. I wouldn’t say we have entered the age of enlightenment in this phase of American politics.  Most of what we see and hear so far is how one candidates is messing up, or how one is tripping up another, or how a candidate is trying to put out his own fires that started  burning long before he entered the campaign trail. Or whatever nominal items that detract from what the purpose of government: to protect the people and catch them when they’re falling. We should be focused on finding someone who is not defending the rights of an individual to hoard as much money and be protected, but who is defending humanity and the rights of people who are caught before they hit rock bottom. What sort of legacy, what sort of example do you want to leave for your children? For the next generations? That they want to watch their own ass, or that they want to help others? I’ve said my piece. I’m hopping back on the trail again and looking for signs of hope and purpose. We’ve come so far.

February 1936. Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children (same subject as previous photo.)


All photographs by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

Rolling in and Busting Out of Vegas

January 26th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Meet Zoltar and your fortune.

Taxi drivers. Slot machines. Houdini. Elvis. Love gone haywire. Zoltar the mechanical fortuneteller. What do these all have in common? Where are they all pointing to? Our next destination. Vegas. And what came to be the lowest, potentially the most guttural point of this Southwest journey. It was all my idea, my desire to see first-hand this place where many of my friends and family have frequented. I was also looking for a dramatic contrast to what we had been experiencing. We definitely got that.

Let’s start with the taxi driver, perhaps the most enlightened individual in this segment of our trip. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even in Las Vegas when we ventured there for a day, but he sure did get it right when he offered his observations of a place he feels compelled to frequent.

Not to deviate once again, but what is it about taxi drivers? In our case, a taxi van driver. It doesn’t matter where you are, the moment you step into any vehicle for hire, you enter the very close quarters of someone else’s universe, with all the smells, the unkemptness, the hopefully stable state of mind of the person taking you for a ride. If someone ever hitched a ride from me, that lucky individual might very well stumble upon a stash of vitamins, a bottle of Advil and a few (unused) sanitary pads in the glove compartment, a travel brush in desperate need of being de-haired, a partially eaten PBJ sandwich snugly sandwiched within the crevice of the center console and the passenger seat, an emergency pair of undies and pants for my 4-year-old daughter, or some other embarrassment. It’s a constant challenge to keep my minivan in a presentable state. Taxis, my friend, are perhaps no different.

As a passenger of a taxi, you relinquish your control of the universe to this moveable habitat, voluntarily becoming vulnerable — trapped? — and at the mercy of a stranger. And you are compelled to listen to the chatter, and to respond. Maybe it’s just me, but my driver is usually ready to talk about his colorful background (I have yet to come upon a female cab driver, although I am certain she exists), his kids, his country of origin and all sorts of other personal chit-chat that you never would think of discussing with a perfect stranger, let alone your spouse. But it seems quite normal with the taxi driver. I’d put such a character in the same category as people you would talk total nonsense to, while at the same time unload your deepest secrets. Taxi drivers share the same inner circle as your hairstylist, your gynecologist, your local bartender or your manicurist.

I actually admire taxi drivers. They are hardworking hustlers, maneuvering through hair-raising traffic convolutions for a customer who is already late. They stay awake during late-night shifts and juggle with relative ease multiple activities all at once. I recall the varied forms of vehicles that share the same purpose in such diverse countries around the world. There’s the human-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta, and then the upgraded bicycle rickshaws of Dhaka. Or the becaks of Jakarta.

The multi-tasking bit is what was so impressive about Lon, our taxi van driver who picked us up from the Phoenix airport and saw us off at the end of the trip. His rapid-fire chatter, his allegiance to the Israeli cause, his love of his daughter and frustration at the new drivers he’s training, and his ability to hold an intelligent conversation with us while also conversing with the dispatcher and answering a myriad of calls on his cell. What a guy. I was both entertained and in awe at his ease.

Not to mention his observations about Las Vegas were right-on. He was planning yet another trip there, and we had just departed from Sin City. He does the same thing every time: Go to all his favorite all-you-can-eat buffets, catch a show, crash in a cheap hotel and then back home. When Lon was younger, an old man asked him if he wanted to know how Hell looked like. Sure, said Lon. The old man said just cut off the roof of a casino, look down, and you’ve got Hell.

Along The Strip.

That exact vision reemerged in my mind. It was Caesar’s Palace, in the slot machine areas, where people monotonously stuck quarters into the slots, pulled down the lever and watched with veiled anticipation while the symbols stop whirling in front of them. There was an eerie quietness that gave way to the methodical click-clicking of the slot machine’s arm and the spinning of the reels. This I viewed while walking with my three children through a designated pathway along the perimeter of the casino areas. If we ventured off the route, a security guard popped up to point us in the right direction. No kids allowed.

Let’s take a step back and start with our journey into Las Vegas. The day before, we had experienced the magnificent Zion National Park. We were back on the road in our rented Cruise America RV and just passed a sign that said Rockville, Nevada, population 237. Another sign read Las Vegas, 97 miles.  On US 95 South, we traveled through a desert valley with clumps of brush as the only sign of vegetation. A dramatic landscape once again emerges: rock formations jutted out from different angles as we cross a sandy Virgin River. We are in Arizona now, and just as soon as we entered a different state, the dramatic rock mountains ended and there was flatland as far as the horizon can be seen. Desert Springs.

Arizona didn’t last long, and now we were in Nevada, and with it came bigger clumps of grass and cacti springing out of nowhere. Then humanity entered the picture: Billboards began popping up of adult shops, bankruptcy attorneys, McDonalds and gambling casinos. Vegas, baby!

We decided on overnighting at a KOA, and proceeded to wedge our RV into a sea of other similar RVs in this faceless RV park behind Circus Circus. We bought 24-hour bus passes that allowed us to go up and down the long Strip for $7 apiece. What a mistake. Our goal was to go all the way to the other end of the strip, about seven miles, to Chili’s. I had a few gift cards that I was hankering to use. We didn’t go further than two miles in a sweaty, overcrowded double-decker bus before we had to bale out. Visually, Las Vegas was stimulating and even energizing. But that energy was quickly sapped out of us, and we wondered why we ever came here. Maybe it was because of the kids that brought a different reality to our environment. It seems to be a place for men on the prowl, or girls out to party, or to get in a good show perhaps, at its best.

Las Vegas actually became downright ugly to us within a short period of time. After a hundred-dollar dinner at a burger joint in a nameless casino, we waited outside for our overcrowded double decker bus. Suddenly there was an outburst. A belligerent man came within inches of his girlfriend and called her “bitch” over and over again. He raged on and on and I was waiting for him to physically wail on her. She tried to calm him down and even said, “There are children here.” That didn’t stop him at all. If anything, that seemed to enrage him even more. John took the boys away while I held a sleeping Francesca and sat on a slate bench, waiting for the damn bus to finally arrive. I didn’t want to cause a bigger scene but was this far away from laying into him. I didn’t want the woman to get in more trouble than she already was. So I just watched quietly as my boys gaped, feeling bad for the girl who just sat there with her head in her hands. I was at a loss for this woman who had to succumb to the rantings of a man, knowing that there is no way to win and challenging would mean worse than losing. “I felt so sorry for her,” my oldest son echoed later. (We lost sight of them after boarding the bus, but spotted them later sitting in the back, his arm around her shoulders and both sipping stiff drinks from tiny glasses. Another shining example of what this city evokes.)

It was the hottest of any place we had been. A furnace. Why did anyone want to live here? No ocean around, the spectacular natural scenery is at least two hours away. Why do people go to Vegas? To win after losing so much? Friends of mine, brothers even, love to go and gamble. Seedy is too complex of an adjective to put on something like this. It brings images of the underworld, of the dark layers within someone’s psyche. But this is just so literal, so contrived.  I must say, though, that I desperately wanted to see Elvis. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Plenty of Elvises for everyone.

A day before, we were climbing the sides of cliffs. Now we were climbing escalators and  diverting human traffic as we maneuvered around slot machines and poker tables and unnaturally large-bosomed dealers. There was absolutely nothing natural about this desert oasis. But its extremeness was almost as unnatural as the otherworldly beauty of Monument Valley. It was mind-bending in the realization that this was real. And we existed within all these elements and contributed to their creation and their longevity.

It really wasn’t all bad. We ventured into Houdini’s Magic Shop, where employees performed feats of magic for us for the next 30 minutes. I watched, mesmerized as an employee at the front counter tossed a playing card in front of him that circled him in mid air without any sign of attachment. We walked out with a small bundle of tricks, eager to try them on my poor sister, Maria, the brunt of many of John’s antics. Now he was training the boys in subversive escapades. (The snake popping out of a Pringles can was a real hit.)

If anything, I’d say the boys and Francesca did most of the gambling, or a legal-for-children version of it in the Adventuredome in Circus Circus, with its myriad of carnival games. Monday morning, we ventured back into the dome and Richard braved the double-looped roller coaster with John before we high-tailed it out of Vegas, in search of higher ground.

The bright lights.

A Child in the Garden of Eden

January 16th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Early-morning dictation.

Certain moments strike an intensity when it comes to raising children, similar to mini maelstroms at points in the day like mornings before going to school (pre-coffee is dangerous for anyone crossing my path, although I’ve become a lot better since I have a cup before the others awake), or the after-school confluence of our children having some down time before the chop-chop rituals of doing homework, practicing on an instrument, eating dinner, bathing and getting ready for bed. Despite any planning ahead of time, there’s always the wildcard of one of us having a meltdown for whatever reason. (Except for my husband, who is way too cheerful in the morning and is conveniently tucked away in his studio come mid-afternoon.)

When you think about it, it’s such an awesome responsibility, being a parent. It’s something we don’t necessarily take for granted, but accept by default, and oftentimes we don’t really fathom what we’ve been handed: a human being, utterly helpless at first, totally dependent on us. We are entrusted with guiding that child through his or her monumental, mind-formulating years. Holy moly. And to think that the weakest of humans, ones considered the dregs of society, those you wouldn’t even hire to mow your lawn, can easily be some kid’s parent. And be good at it. How’s that for putting you in your place?

The other night, in my sleep, I was handed a new baby, a dark, curly-haired one this time around, and I was immobilized. At that moment, in my dream, the implications, the repercussions, the depth and breadth of raising another child left me frozen.

Good thing I have a better grip of the responsibility during my waking hours. But there have been moments when the weightiness of it all nearly struck me down. Or so it seemed. As women (I can’t speak on men’s behalf, but you’re welcome to comment), we take on more and more and more, and we handle it all with relative grace. Pretty amazing. We’re sort of like the French mastiff (we have such a dog, Emma, who is nothing short of incredible), who has a strong instinct to protect its adopted human family, yet there’s no clear explanation as to why. She just does it. We women, we’re like a dog on a bone. The bone is our home, our family. It’s just part of our character. My mother oftentimes says to me that I need to slow down, that I need to take some time for myself, that I’m taking on too much. Then I look at her, and see what she has weathered through (rearing me, for instance), and I just shrug her off.

We are human, though, and there are instances when things just break down and have to find some sort of release. Or relief. I think back to a time when we were living in Bali, and, at age 43, I had given birth to our third child. Soon after, I had a second strain of dengue fever, knocking me out just at the worst time. I was the single source of nourishment for my baby (I was in the throes of lactating), we were in the process of packing up our lives after 12 years in Asia and moving back to a place where my three children had never lived. Life was definitely shifting in a major way. At that point, probably because of my frustrations from my illness and everything else piled on top, I felt myself slump.

Actually, there were moments when I thought I was going to die. Really. What made it even more frustrating is that the doctors couldn’t find anything fatally wrong. I had to turn to someone besides my doctors and my husband. So I started talking to my friends and realized that life’s intensity was getting, well, too intense. And I had to take a step back and regroup before moving forward again.

I did, and I came out of my funk, both physically and mentally. I was up for another challenge. This relatively painful process made me realize that there were so many other women who had been through their own major shifts in life, and had to cope with it in different ways. I know some of you know what I’m talking about. And I can now understand, and sympathize, when someone seeks therapy, or takes an antidepressant, or goes on a retreat to get away from it all. You can only take so much before you ask for help. If you don’t, you’re at a greater risk.

Change, or going through dramatic moments, isn’t a bad thing. It’s just life. These moments are life-altering, these challenges are maturing, and they also have shifted my view of life and my understanding of the universe.

I digress. Or perhaps not. What I’m saying is that the intensity of life is what makes it so worthwhile. I thrive on it. At the same time, I have been savoring those moments when we can just hang out. I’ve been trying to do a bit more of that lately as my children grow up at a rapid pace. I’ve been told by a number of my “older” friends that before we know it, our children will be adults and out the door, ne’er to look back. At least not in the same way as they did when they were our little ones.

That brings me to little Francesca. Sometimes, when I look in the eyes of my 4-year-old girl, she looks back at me with an understanding and a connection that transcends age. Her eyes radiate a wisdom that calms me, comforts me, that makes me take a step back and linger in the magic that connects all us humans. It is those moments that reassure me that there is some higher level of being that makes each an every one of us special.

Where is this leading? For me, back to our road trip and a six-hour drive southwest across Utah, from the Arches to Zion National Park. At Zion, we sat among dramatic rock formations and sand dunes. We took a long walk through the crevices of vertical slated rock, towering so high that the sun’s rays never reach the ground. We were in the Narrows, known as one of the most unusual hikes on the Colorado Plateau. That’s because a lot of the trek is in the Virgin River, and for a good chunk of the journey we waded in water that spanned from canyon wall to canyon wall. At one point, the water came up to my chest, and the little ones rode on our backs. We were ready for it, wearing swimsuits and carrying small life vests. We were warned about flash floods that could fill up the slot canyon and trap us, so I couldn’t help but keep a close watch at the water level as we waded through.

John giving a lift through a segment of the Virgin River.

This part of the trip has become a maturing and enriching experience for Francesca. She has become assertive, focused, wanting more adventures. At first, she was inhibited and needed me or John to hold her hand tightly as she carefully walked across rocks smoothed over through the centuries by the currents.  By the middle of the three-hour walk, as I reached for a stumbling Francesca, she defiantly says, “I don’t need any help!” Well! I have a feeling that this is the first of many times she will be saying that as she matures. I was thrown forward to when she is 12 and uttering that same phrase as I try to pick out her outfit, or brush her hair, or walk her into school. And forward further to age 16, when I guide her on how to drive, or how to choose a boyfriend. And forward again to leaving for college, when I offer to help choose her major, to set up her dorm room, or to pay tuition. I just hope we’ll continue to be travel buddies and explore the world together.  And if she asks for help, I’m right here ready to jump in.

"Stand back....I don't need any help!"

I watch her now maneuver through the Virgin River’s knee-deep mild current, a determined look on her face as her blond waves plaster against her face from the splays of water. I see myself through her, a little girl, and savor the moment of being that young again.

Every once in a while, we pass by other visitors hiking the riverbed. But for the most part, we are alone and the coolness of the rocks and shade and brief sprinkling of rain make me not want to leave. The moments pass, then give way to something even more incredible. Francesca looks up. I follow her gaze and time pauses for us. What a vision. Lush plants grow on the crevices of the steep cliffs, and trees fringe the tip-top edges of the plateaus above. A small waterfall cascades done the steep incline nearby. It was as if Eden had opened its doors for a moment.

We later stop at what is called the Emerald Pools, the last one was on the third level. The children throw dampened sand balls at each other in a cavern where caverneers descend from cliffs. It got darker, and after snacking on pretzels, Skittles and water, we descend down ledges and uneven rocks back to where we began. We had flashlights, but the small beams of light barely made a dent in the darkness, and the trek back became a slightly harrowing experience. As we walked further away from our little oasis, I could see the flashlights of the last two caverneers only just halfway down the cliff, calling to each other.  At that moment, my little Francesca turns back to me, pauses, and then grabs my hand, holding it tightly. She’s my little girl again, albeit wet, exhausted, enlightened.

The Virgin River in its beauty.

Devils Garden

January 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Dancing with the sun.

The next day, we headed due north to Arches National Park. The ride was about two hours, and we passed ridges and land formations and dusty dwellings on the way to the town of Moab. It was a surprisingly happening spot in the middle of a vast deserted showcase of monoliths creased out of sand, rock, wind and ocean currents. Moab reminded me a bit of Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border in northern Thailand, a sort of backpackers’ filling station and hangout, just a whole lot more expensive. Here, adventurers regrouped before rock climbing, mountain biking or white-water rafting on the Colorado River.

We decided to forego yet another lunch in the RV of cold cut sandwiches and, the pizza lovers that we were, found ourselves at a small, pretty basic-looking storefront eatery. Our order of two large pies seemed a bit much for just us. Surprisingly, we plowed through it all, and then John and I pored over the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Southwest USA while the kids watched I Dream of Jeannie on a TV in the back room. (John reminded me yet again that this was one of his boyhood favorite shows, so much that he kept a magazine cut-out picture of Barbara Eden in his plastic Flintstones wallet. He was obviously drawn to her curves and smile; I simply loved her bubbliness.)

By this time we had come to an understanding that commercial RV parks were pretty much just nondescript parking lots, with a smattering of trees and a hookup to dump your refuse, fill up water tanks and connect to a power source — all essentials to a family traveling for a while in an RV. But the ambiance wasn’t there. For something more, there are the national parks. (We took a friend’s advice and had purchased online an $80 pass that would get us into all the parks for the next year instead of paying between $10 and $25 to get into each park. Staying in a federal park’s campground is an additional cost, but the entry fee is waived.)

It was late afternoon, all the campgrounds in the Arches were full. So we made reservations for the next day (most take reservations up to four days in advance), then headed back to one of the nondescript RV parks. With the electric hookup, we switched on our AC and kept it on all night. (If there wasn’t an electrical source at the campground, running our generator could become costly. Cruise America charges $3 per hour to run the RV’s generator, plus the cost of the natural gas.) In the morning, I did two large loads of laundry while taking a dip with the kids in the Arctic-frigid swimming pool. The pool deck was barren except for a man with tattoos covering his body, and with piercings on his lower lip, nipples and ears. An attractive woman lounged beside him and nodded occasionally as he guzzled his second Monster energy drink while rambling on about how much he partied the night before. Ah, romance blooming poolside at an RV park. I thought of what I was missing out on, being married for 18 years and three children to boot. Not much, it appears.

Back to the laundry, then time to move on. By high noon, it was hotter than a three-dollar pistol. The thought of going to the Arches campground didn’t hold much appeal at this time of day, but we wanted to stake our claim on the site that we had reserved the day before. We couldn’t resist being drawn into what lay before us: clusters of sandstone mounds, varying in shape and breadth, reaching more than 20 stories high. Size again was at a giant’s scale, and it was truly breathtaking. This area is known for its arches, forever in flux as the ground shifts and they crumble at times. What started as a quick stopping point for John to take a few photos turned out to be a two-hour hike until nearly dark. We meandered through crevices of monstrous slip rocks, then an arch emerged deep within our footpath. Richard played “babysitter” to Francesca as they both held crooked sticks to secure their steps. Then to wildly swing at each other. Konstantin scurried up the red rocks and tumbled down sand hills, with the others following him in scorching heat topping 100 degrees. Every guidebook advises to have a gallon of water for each hiker, and I can understand why.

We climbed into the RV and drove a few more minutes to our campground slot Number 48, equipped with a fire pit, a picnic table and a nearby communal toilet without running water. Before darkness fell, we went on another trek. We passed by long-eared rabbits and tracks of other small animals. The boys found a boulder that reached up to a large opening. After a long struggle, they finally climbed on each other’s shoulders to reach the opening and carried on with their exploring from high above. Usually John lets them go off on their own if they want to do some “Indiana Jonesing”, but after a while he was getting a bit concerned himself and started calling for them. My mind raced: predators, sun stroke, falling down a large opening, or something even worse, even more unimaginable. Lost in the desert. My heart started racing alongside my thoughts of doom.

Trying to reach the opening above.

Finally, a faint, distant response from above, and we looked up while walking toward their voices. I’m just not into heights at all, so my stomach did a slight tumble when I spotted the boys way up high, in the center of what is called Landscape Arch. I ogled at their tiny bodies the size of my fingertip, then cringed and turned away as John told them to stand taller and go out a bit more so he could take a photo. My mothering instinct took over and I just wasn’t into it anymore. I couldn’t watch.

An apprehensive (and cheering) mom watches her sons in the arch.

Just before it became totally dark, we went back to camp and John started a fire in the pit while I washed up the kids in the RV’s shower. We grilled chicken and had that with white rice and peas (a favorite staple from our Hong Kong days) and then topped it off with Richard’s version of S’mores: sandwiching a toasted marshmallow between an Oreo cookie. Talk about a sugar injection.

It wasn’t a good night, with temperatures seeming to hang in around 80 degrees with very little breeze. Inside the RV, our sleeping arrangements oftentimes shifted, but pretty much were as follows: The boys slept in an expansive bed above the driver’s area, in the front cabin. Francesca was in a convertible bed that, by day, was a dining table. And John and I slept in a curtained-off queen-sized bed in the back of the RV. Konstantin woke up three times: once for water, another to move in with Francesca, and a third time to move back to his bed. Before each move, he tapped my leg to let me know what he was doing, while shirtless Daddy slumbered away.

Our plan was to wake up at 6 and climb more rocks. At 7 a.m., after an utterly restless sleep (if there are no electrical hookups at federal campgrounds, generators usually cannot be run between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.), I pulled myself out of bed, poured cool water out of the cooler and filled it with more ice from the freezer, boiled water over the gas stove to make coffee in our French press, and sat outside to write.

Before me was a red sandstone formation, and the sun was already making a pronounced statement. I drank my coffee and waited for the dark liquid to jump-start my engines. A small squirrel came to my feet, and an unusually blue-colored bird and a black crow swooped near a tree limb nearby. By 8:15 a.m. a group of Japanese tourists attempted to scale one of the rocks, stopped halfway and then collectively turned around for their guide to take a group photo. Then my little Francesca woke up and, in true form, stated, “I’m hungreeeeee.”

Our breakfast wouldn’t be a usual order for any roadside diner: Francesca, scrambled eggs, white rice and blueberries. Richard, just white rice (he isn’t much of an early-morning eater). John, Special K with berries. Me, oatmeal, and Konstantin was yet to be determined. At 9:15 a.m., he was still in bed. As I look around this cul-de-sac shaped driveway with camping lots spaced evenly off the road, I see a fellow Cruise America family parked nearby. There was also a van with a folding table set up beside it with the huge spread of breads and cheeses, coffee and pastries. Ah, the French know how to set up a campsite. Then there was a two-person pop tent right next to us that sheltered a young couple. I felt bad that they were stuck next to us, following a night of giggling and horseplaying by our two boys playing iPod Monopoly from their bed.

Then someone’s car alarm goes off, echoing into the caverns and reminding nature that we humans were here. After an eternity (10 seconds) the honking stops, and we are quickly put in our place. The earth dominates again with its awesomeness.

We befriended three chipmunks and Richard started tossing blueberries to them, which they happily held in their front paws and nibbled away. Even with Francesca chasing after them in her underwear and tank top, they came back for more within minutes. I guess the choice was to scavenge food from a dry desert with a bunch of big rocks and little vegetation, or eat succulent blueberries while a 3-year-old girl tried to catch you. They chose dodge-the-girl-and-eat-the-blueberries diet.

A fine morning.

So here I am now, catching up on some writing in the parking lot of Sand Dune Arch, watching tourists with bottles in hand, sunglasses on and hats pulled down to shadow their eyes even more. Soon enough, I found myself shifting into the RV, generator churning away with the AC cranked, while John and the kids explore outside. I’m looking at the map to get an idea of where else we should stop in the Arches, and the names given to the various points sound intriguing, but not quite the oasis that I was now yearning: Fiery Furnace, Salt Valley, Dark Angel, Devils Garden. I go back to writing until the rest of the gang return and we move onward to our next destination, wherever that may be here in the searing Southwest.

Coming of Age at Monument Valley

December 29th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Hanging out in Monument Valley.

John was getting more than a little frustrated at my map-reading skills as he steered us onward. Frustration won out, and he pulled off to the side of the highway not only to get a final view of magnificent Grand Canyon, but also to turn the wheel over to me. It was about time; I took the reins, and he headed to the kids’ zone at the rear of the RV.

In the driver’s seat, I noticed something was remiss. Music. I popped in the Indigo Girls, then barreled onward to Monument Valley. It was a perfect choice. I’ve always felt connected to this genre of music: reflective, yearning, insightful. And just fun. It reminded me of my desire for more out of life, while savoring what I already have. One such refrain from “Closer to Fine”:

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in a crooked line

And the less I seek my source for some definitive 

The closer I am to fine.

I hit replay. This sort of lyrical connection transcended to other artists like Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman, and emerging, equally dynamic ones (which my husband and 12-year-old son play over and over) such as Chris Pureka and Danielle Ate the Sandwich. For now, the Indigo Girls were just the right fit as we traversed through more incredible landscape.

Monument Valley is, coincidentally, the name of the middle school that my son is attending. It’s his first year there, sixth grade, and the challenges and promises and dreams of the future are just emerging in his psyche. It’s quite different than where he had been attending classes, at an elementary school down the street in a village within the Berkshires, with one class per grade, and with peers who were quite respectful but not connecting with him. They seem preoccupied with hunting, guns, going out with dad, tracking game, and, just to mix it up a bit, daggers, knives and other instruments to prey. That is very much a part of reality among quite a few individuals in this area, but my reality lies elsewhere.

It was a tough decision, this changing schools, with inspirationals such as the larger-than-life 5th grade teacher Mr. Keller, and the talented, somewhat (lovingly) scattered and tremendously supportive music teacher Ms. Petty pulling us back. (When I was in 5th grade, teachers like Mr. Hostetler at Farmingville Elementary School in Ridgefield, Conn., nurtured my love for writing and for learning, two important elements in my trade as a journalist.) Despite the exceptional teachers and the school’s close proximity, I knew that Richard had to move on and we had to mix it up a bit, introducing him to kids from all over and a jazz band program that was unequal in the region. He was at the edge of entering adult reality, trying to figure out and explore life, and we wanted to open the door a bit wider for him before he stepped in.

My thoughts veer back to the road. This remote corner in northeastern Arizona is staggering in its beauty. I have also never seen so many mobile homes peppering the stark landscape, which, although breathtaking, seems as inhabitable as the lunar landscape. The mobile homes look pristine next to the few rundown wooden structures barely able to stand up. It’s a harsh life here: little work, land where farming is futile, and a sense of utter remoteness. The juxtaposition of these box homes seemed out of place against the scale of beauty where they inhabited, with natural temples borne out of sand, and where desert life in any form or species has got to have it rough.

I have read about the mesas in Lonely Planet Guide to Southwest USA, and have come across that term and another one that is not so dreamy — butte — in other readings. If I were to write a guide book and came to this section of the journey that lies along Highway 163 on the Arizona-Utah border, I would put aside my more descriptive inclinations and put down the following: Go to Monument Valley! You have to make the stop and stay overnight. Your life will be completely changed and you will realize the grandeur of this universe. It’s indescribable.

A magnificent mesa within Monument Valley.

As I watch John photograph the monoliths that night, shifting from one spot to another with his lens on his tripod, I am struck with the thought that even he won’t capture the essence that surrounded us. It’s too huge. It’s too overwhelming, and the magnitude is too awesome to encapsulate in a single image. Or two. Or more. And I sit outside our RV at the edge of several buttes, with a glass of wine in one hand, my head up to the sheet of stars covering the sky, and a group of people sitting by a campfire talking about their day in the near distance, it suddenly strikes me. The enormity of the sky, the stars, the moon, have found their balance in the largess of the mesas that lay before me. And the Grand Canyon that I experienced for the first time just a few days ago has now found a balance. My concept of dimension and size have been blown out of the water. The vast ocean, the endless sky, the moon and the sun have found companions on earth with these natural wonders.

I took a three-hour tour the next day with a Navajo woman named Hope, who was barely voting age, and we climbed into a beat-up jeep that took us across the sand dunes and into the land of the gods. Her slight physique and gentle talk was transformed into this focused, almost possessed guide who took control of some of the roughest terrain that I have ever driven through. As I careened from left to right, trying with all my might to keep from being jettisoned into the landscape, I was struck by the revelation that I was actually not in a foreign country.

I was mildly impressed when Hope spouted off butte trivia. John Wayne made films out here, she said as she pulled into a makeshift tourist stop. And there he was: A life-sized photo cutout of the Duke in all of his cowboy regalia was looking out from a glassless window within a makeshift plywood cluster of buildings where Navajo-made silver and turquoise jewelry was sold. I was aching for a cold Diet Coke and eyed an oasis of a cooler in front of one of these structures. A handwritten sign in front of it said, “Cold Drinks.” Here was my chance. I questioned its validity, though, when I was within a meter of it and a half-sleeping man sat nearby, his chair pitched on its two back legs. “Not cold, only water,” he said. I had to see for myself. I opened the lid and there they were, two bottles of water at the bottom of a bone-dry cooler. Bummer.

The Duke makes a reappearance.

I had some time to talk to Hope as our children tumbled again and again down the sand dunes. She graduated early from high school and needed to make money to go to business school. At first she wanted to be a veterinarian, but channeled that desire into helping stray dogs and other animals in her Navajo community by one day opening up a business. There are plenty of stray dogs roaming these tourist points and campgrounds, scavenging food. It was reminiscent of our days traveling around the Yukatan Peninsula in Mexico, where dogs were left to fend for themselves. My sister, our travel partner at the time, befriended a dog and named it Celestune, which we still talk about.

Hope continued on her tour-guide rhetoric, noting that Metallica made a music video atop one of the mesas, on a restricted area only accessible by helicopter and adventurers driven to scale the steep inclines. Tom Cruise filmed a piece of his Mission Impossible 2 over there. And Clint Eastwood even scaled one of the tall fingers for one of his flicks.

Now it was my children’s turn at stunt making. They tumbled down again and again the steep sand dunes, rolling out of control with the fine crimson dust splaying from their tiny bodies and long hair. They scaled the base of these monuments and looked even more diminutive than they already were, but just as fearless as Tom or Clint. To do all this in the playground of the gods was something I hope they keep with them for a lifetime. We stopped at different sandstone formations with names such as Sun’s Eye and Ear to the Wind, and for each of them I had to throw my head back and look up to the sky to take in the massiveness.

And the small details are just as inspiring: a small creek running through the sandy terrain, a smattering of greenish of green bushes and flowers, their colors vibrant despite their diminutive size against the massive backdrop. Wholly cow.

I was transported back 20 years ago  — was it that long ago?  — when I stood at the precipice of a valley in the chilly early morning hours in Nepal, struck by the emerging beauty of the Himalayas. Another wholly cow. Here we are at Monument Valley, with just a third of a tank of water left in the RV tank, no water source to hook up to, and all of us caked in red sandy dust. The plan was to strip naked outside the van in the darkness, brush off as much of the earth as possible and then shower in the closet-sized bathroom by turning the water on and off between sudsing. The boys’ faces were thickly painted with the red sand, and they quite possibly swallowed a good handful during their tumbling escapades.  When all was said and done, when everyone was washed, I fried up homemade burgers and baked beans for dinner, we ate outside under velvet black sky punctured by incredibly bright stars and called it a night.

Wandering through the land of the gods.