Fangirling!

Hey, is fangirling a word? Well, if it isn’t, it is now!

I’m not normally a gushy, shivering mess when it comes to celebrities. But on my current road trip (I’m starting this post from Cleveland, Ohio, almost at the end of my drive home,) the past two days have been spent paying homage to some of my all-time favorites, namely James Dean and The Beatles!

When you live with a chronic disease like I do, you always have to wonder if you’ll get another chance to do what you love. Then again, life isn’t guaranteed for anyone, so we all might as well be doing what we want when we can! Which is how I ended up in Fairmount, Indiana, again after a twenty-eight year hiatus, and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the precise time that the “Get Back to Let It Be” exhibit is running…

For whatever crazy reason, on this year’s trip I seem to be revisiting places that my beautiful mom and I first saw in 1994, on our very first cross country road trip, which spanned 9,400 miles, seven weeks, and twenty-four states. You know, that trip that is supposed to be “once in a lifetime” but turns into a yearly occurrence? (Smile.) That was the first time I was in Fairmount, Indiana. James Dean was actually born in the small city of Marion, Indiana, a few miles north, but spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Fairmount. When we first arrived in town I was, quite frankly, obsessed with Jimmy, even though he died in his Porsche Spyder eleven full years before I was born! I may have calmed down and grown up a little since then, but I’m still a big fan.

Much of the same can be said for my “thing” for The Beatles; I totally missed the Ed Sullivan experience by nearly three years, and when my dearly departed sister Marie saw them at Suffolk Downs racetrack on August 18, 1966, I was a few months from departing the womb. But I crave my Beatles lore almost as much as I do their music; seriously, what could be more interesting than being a Beatle?! From what I can recall, my first real brush with my four cherished boys was when I asked Marie to buy me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for one of my birthdays in my teen years. And yes, I still have it! Side note: I’ve been to Liverpool (2002) and am hoping to go back later this year, have walked the “zebra crossing” and written on the wall in front of Abbey Road Studios in London twice, have gone to the Imagine memorial in Central Park, New York City, several times. Just recently I saw Sir Paul in concert at Fenway Park in Boston. Another one off the Bucket List, and another piece of the homage completed!

Getting to Fairmount again meant adding an extra hundred miles of driving to my day, so I had my priorities set. The town is so small that it isn’t such a hard thing to drive the whole length of it, which I had to do anyway, as the items on my list were, naturally, on opposite ends. I would have liked to spend time in the James Dean Gallery and the Fairmount Historical Society (filled, of course, with more Dean memorabilia!) like I did in ’94, but what was most important to me is probably what most super fans would want to see: the grave and his boyhood home, which are very close together. I remember Park Cemetery being quite small the first time I was there, and the grave being very easy to find. Now, the place is huge and signs have to point the way or else no one would ever find it. Dean’s boyhood home has also grown considerably in the past twenty-eight years; his cousin Marcus Winslow, who was just a boy when Jimmy was making his way in Hollywood, now runs a full-fledged farm, and it is a beautiful landscape of rolling green fields and white picket fences. Marcus was out on the riding lawn mower the day I was around, and I’m happy to say that he waved to me. My brush with greatness was complete!

Interestingly, “Get Back to Let It Be” was only a small part of director Peter Jackson’s extensive documentary of the Fab Four and was skillfully inserted into the Level O exhibits of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time to see the best of the hall, but because of the location of the exhibit I was able to take in most of the rest of the floor on the way to The Beatles. “Get Back to Let It Be” consisted of long-shelved excerpts of the tapes made of the recording sessions for the Let It Be album, including the famous “concert on the roof,” as well as instruments used, and other memorabilia. Because it was compact, it wasn’t overwhelming to see the entire thing, and to see it well. I was very satisfied with the entire floor!

Pilgrimages have always been included in my travels. Part of the fun is finding what is sometimes a needled in a haystack. Yeah, I think it’s about time to book that return trip to Liverpool!

An Open Love Letter to Utah

Dear Utah,

I remember clearly when we met: the year was 1995, I was with my beloved mom, and we were driving cross country for the second time. The year before we had cut our teeth with a 9,400 miler that inexplicably, did not include a trip through your glory. Yes, there were many other glories, but maybe not quite like yours. This particular trip had a catch: I had just purchased a little bright pink car that we would leave in Southern California once I found someplace to live there. That was my biggest dream leading up to 1995: living in California, and I lived it for five years. But that’s another story for another day, and it’s a long story, for my love affair with California continues. At times, it even competes for my attentions that I usually reserve for you. Believe me, this is not a slight to you, my love. It just IS.

Well, how do you like that! In writing this letter to speak my appreciation, I realize that I have things a bit wrong. 1995 was not the first time I saw you, it was the first time, perhaps, that I REALLY saw you. Mom and me actually drove up to Zion from Vegas in 1993 and stayed a couple of days. Just a little sneak peek at your well known red rock magnificence, and yes, we were impressed. But as I said, 1995 was the deal sealer. As only a road tripper knows, the power to choose where you go and for how long, to have the time to marvel at the color of the rocks in Glen Canyon and wonder how a strip of I-70 can be more beautiful than seventy-five percent of the rest of Planet Earth, will do it. Love at first sight, and forever love at second. And third. And fourth. And…Whew!!

Records indicate that I didn’t make it back to you until 2008 (how can this be?!) and even then, I only flew into Salt Lake City to drive north into other states. Still, I remember that I was pleasantly surprised by random findings along the way.

Listen, I know what I was doing: I was beginning to explore the world outside of this country, and I was completing the tall task of visiting all 50 states in my domestic travels. I also buried Mom, my best friend and greatest traveling partner (sigh) in 2004, so I was cutting my teeth as a solo traveler and really, just trying to figure out who I was.

And then, a big event took place in 2009: I started hiking. That’s when things started to get serious. Still, the slam dunk didn’t happen until 2013, when I spent two and a half weeks hiking all five National Parks in your awe inspiring southern extremities. Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches. While I loved them all (of course!) one emerged as my favorite, and remains thus: Canyonlands. Even as I chip away at hiking ALL the National Parks in the United States, I just can’t keep away from Canyonlands. Doing the same hikes time after time in Canyonlands. Dreaming of Canyonlands. Not enough time in a lifetime to get enough of Canyonlands. Did I mention I love Canyonlands? 😉

For me, the only other place in Utah that comes close to Canyonlands is Glen Canyon. That narrow strip of excitement between Hanksville and Blanding. Yes, that part of Glen Canyon. The Dirty Devil River. Bridge over the Colorado. Hite Overlook. I take the same darn pictures every time. And I don’t care.

Oh, don’t even get me going!

2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022. COVID19 was the only thing that stopped me from being there in 2020. Our reunion in 2021 was unbelievable, because you see, I found out I had cancer in the autumn of 2019, and guess where I was a month earlier? And the thought of never seeing you again was unbearable.

Cancer sucks. Needles, scans, bad news, one step forward, two steps back. But as I became a pro at all of it, I realized that I had a pretty great defense mechanism: memory. Because of memory I didn’t have to think of scans when I was having scans. I could think instead of all the amazing places I’ve had the incredible fortune of exploring. And, you guessed it: I spent a heck of a lot of time in Utah when I was lying in some MRI beast two thousand miles away. How can I ever thank you for that?

I can’t. But I’ll try anyway, by giving you my continued patronage for as long as I have left in this life.

See you soon, my love.

About Traveling

Hey, this will be my last post for a few weeks. Vacation time is nearly here, and I’m heading back out on the road again. Which makes this the perfect time to write about one of my favorite subjects, for the first time in a while: Traveling!

I always find it so weird when people make it sound like there is some “right” way to travel. That you, as the subject, have to travel in some certain way to be a “traveler” and not a “tourist.” That there is some time frame that you have to spend in a place to make it worth your while and to satisfy others that you successfully “saw” something or somewhere. That one person’s way of traveling is superior to another person’s way of traveling. Last thing I knew, travel was supposed to be fun, like an ice cream sundae, with a learning experience on top, like a shiny red cherry, if you so choose to have one. Then again, maybe a trip is simply an escape from the rat race.

Social media is full of “influencers” who will have you believe that their way of traveling is not only better than yours, but that it’s easy and they’ll show you how to be like them, for a price. You can trot the globe while taking odd jobs like bartending and teaching English as a Second Language. Thanks, I got over working in bars when I was twenty-five, and I teach people’s kids every day and love sending them home at 2:15pm, no questions asked. I like my good paying job with paid vacations. I’d pay to see pictures of those “influencers” doing one of their real jobs in between the glossy shots from the pristine mountain top in New Zealand and the beach in Mexico. I want to see the “influencer” mixing a White Russian and looking picture perfect. Really.

Thank goodness for the unfollow button! I recently had to use it on one of the better known globe trotters that I had been following for a couple of years, because she was being pretty insulting to someone else’s way of life. What the heck happened to live and let live?

The other thought that I don’t agree with is that in order to travel in a worthwhile way you have to go to a foreign country. Make no mistake, I love exploring places outside the United States. I’ve done more than my fair share. But in a pinch, and let’s face it, we’ve been in quite a pinch since March of 2020, I’d take a road trip to the American West above all other traveling. I’ve ticked off forty plus countries thus far and have every intention of ticking off more in my own fashion once I deem it safe for me, but give me that road trip every time. It should come as no surprise that I’m heading to the American West this next trip too! I can’t WAIT!!

Here’s a secret about me that makes me different than the garden variety social media travel giant: I love coming home and I love being home, too. The pandemic gave me an excuse to stick close to home and explore my own backyard more. I always said that “someday” I’d do that more and, well, I didn’t expect cancer and COVID19 to give me the opportunity, but I’ve had a heck of a good time! I’ve always scoured New England in between bigger trips, but not like I have in the past two years. In my favorite movie of all time, Dorothy Gale went to great lengths to find out that her heart was in her own backyard. My heart is still and always will be in the American West, but New England is pretty cool too.

Before my cancer diagnosis I spent the better part of twenty years earning my keep as a special education teacher and traveling on school vacations. Maybe taking an extra day or two on either side to make my time away longer, or even escaping on a long weekend. Now that I haven’t done it for a couple of years I realize that it was exactly the way I wanted to travel. Make my money, pay for a trip, enjoy where I was without having to worry about work, and come home to earn money for more fun. After my diagnosis and through the COVID19 storm I continued my exploration as best as I could. Slowly, I’m getting my travel life back on track, though I’ve decided I want to do things and see places that I didn’t take the time to do and see before. Cruises and islands are of high interest, while twenty hour flights to the other side of the world are not really a priority. Oh, and more road trips, of course! Always more road trips!

In short, the Bucket List is officially made. It was time.

And so, I continue to explore as I see fit, and I am unapologetic.

Travel and let travel.

Work in Progress: A Thousand Winds

I’ve written and published seven books under the pseudonym Brenda K. Stone. They’re fun and a little frivolous and I am extremely proud of them. Lately, I’ve taken a renewed interest in what I refer to as my “rock and roll series” and plan to read it after a long break away from it. The idea to pick it up and start writing again is a complete possibility. But not much will get in the way of finishing my current work in progress, “A Thousand Winds.”

The best writing I’ve ever done? “A Thousand Winds” is it. Since my cancer diagnosis, I come from a different place, and it’s not always a bad thing. It’s a deeper, more thought-provoking place. Interesting fact: I came up with the outline of the book before my diagnosis, and guess what disease one of the main characters was dying from? You guessed it, cancer. I’ve since changed that to ALS, so it wouldn’t hit too close to home. But like most authors, a lot of me is in the story.

The first few pages of any book are so crucial, and I’ve been reworking the prologues of “A Thousand Winds.” For a limited time, you can still read the “old” prologues here. Please enjoy the “new” prologues below, and drop me a line to let me know what you think!

A Thousand Winds

Janice

The way she looked at me is burned into my memory. The message in her eyes spoke volumes: You’re old. Therefore, you’re worthless.

She has no idea.

She thinks her generation invented sex. Drugs. Rock and roll. Millennials, or Generation Z, or whoever the hell they are, with Facebook and Instagram and TikTok, invented the world as we know it. The generation of youngsters who are afraid to show their faces without a “filter”, because one of their “friends” might see their soul, invented history. The “been there, done that” Me Me Me Generation covering up who they really are with whiskers or a pig nose, think they have the world at their fingertips.

 Will she ever know what it’s like to truly be loved? By the same man, for forty-eight years? Could she find joy in a sandbox? Or playing house in the woods, where the rocks are her toaster, the trees her shower stall? Did she ever have to disappear into that same forest to escape a man that would hurt his own daughter to satisfy his sick fantasies? No, because Jim and I protected her from that.

 I wasn’t so lucky.

 Coachella is a town one stop removed from the nightmare of my childhood, yet her biggest adventure. But was she marching in Selma, Alabama in 1965? Was she in the crowd for the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, 1963? Did she watch the Beatles land at JFK on February 7, 1964, after hitching a ride from California?

Am I old and worthless now?

There’s so much more to tell. The life I’ve led even overwhelms me, to the point I have to leave it in the past sometimes as I struggle to move forward.

Kimberly doesn’t know any of it. All she knows is that seven years ago she found out that I’m her grandmother, and who her parents really were. She hasn’t spoken a kind word to me since.

Perhaps she’ll never know where her grandmother has been.

Because she hates me. And I’m dying.

Kimberly

“You’re such an asshole.” I toss a soiled napkin at Zac. I can relate to the crumpled paper as it floats to the carpet.

“I’m just gonna sleep through the whole fuckin’ scene,” he moans.

“C’mon, you have to help me,” I remind him.

“Grandpa Jim and me don’t exactly see eye to eye, remember? And you know what happens when a guy doesn’t see eye to eye with ‘ole Jimbo.” Zac makes a horrid noise as he pretends to cut his own throat with his index finger.

I blink, because his words sting. I feel like he should know better, and if he doesn’t, that I should tell him that he should know better. But I don’t.

Instead, I keep the light mood going.

“Do you think Kylie Jenner gets a visit from her grandfather that used to be her father the day after Coachella?”

We have a much-needed howl when Zac quips, “Did you forget that Kylie Jenner’s father is a chick now?”

My mirth is interrupted by the definitive sound of a car door slamming somewhere on the street in front of my apartment complex. A quick glance out the sliding glass door has me snatching up the napkin and running for my bedroom to put on the nearest pieces of clothing I can reach.

“Put a fucking shirt on, you sexy slob!” I shout into the living room.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Zac scratches his belly and yawns, but is soon behind me pretending to hump me doggie-style as I’m putting on my underwear.

“I see Grandpa Jim still hasn’t traded in the Oldsmobile for the Porsche he deserves,” Zac deadpans. He seems to think that Grandpa has a lot of money stashed away in his mattress. In fact, Zac is obsessed with the thought. Maybe that’s why he’s so hard to get rid of?

“Shut up.” I suck on his bottom lip and rumple his hair. He’s so beautiful that I put up with all his other nonsense.

Zac pats my butt and chases me for a few steps as Grandpa’s knock falls on the door. I’m trying to stifle a grin when I swing it open to face the man who used to be number one in my life.

“Kimberly…”

The look on Grandpa Jim’s face forces my smile to disintegrate.

Here I Come Again

I don’t know about you, but 2022 hasn’t exactly been a memorable year for me thus far. I’ve just dealt with six months of intense back pain dating back to September 2021, in addition to stage IV lung cancer dating back to October 2019. Yay, me.

But guess what? I finally got what I needed. Did my six weeks of physical therapy, (well, eight!) then my insurance company ponied up for my steroid injection. As I type, it has been a handful of days, and I definitely feel a difference. I’m hoping that as the next week or two passes, I’ll feel even better. Just as important as the way my body feels, is the way my mind feels: I finally have a stepping stone for turning my life around. Again. How many times will I do this? How many times will I be allowed to do this before my clock stops ticking? Somehow, someway, I don’t think I’m done. I think I can move forward. As some people like to say, “You got this.”

What a sigh of relief.

Funny/not funny what pain does to you. I can almost handle the cancer, because the odd truth is that my life continued much as it did before my diagnosis once I was on the right treatment plan. But this back stuff? It has tormented me beyond anything physical I’ve ever dealt with, has delivered a crushing blow. Add sucky New England weather to the mix and it’s a true recipe for disaster. I have not been to my favorite local hiking haunt in two months! This is horrific news! From September until November I continued my exploration of the trails around Quabbin Reservoir even though my back ached, and it kept me sane. Since the snow and ice shut me out of much of my outdoor activity I’ve been yearning to get back outside with the animals and the trees, to get my feet moving, take some pictures, feel like I’m alive again. Here I wait (impatiently) for a stretch of weather that’s warm enough to melt some of the ice and give me a Saturday afternoon to get back out there and forget about stuff for a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve kept myself busy with my “indoor” loves: writing my latest book, posting to this here blog, doing my special brand of artwork, reading, working on photo albums, continuing my studies of the Polish language. I’m not giving any of that up! I just have to get back to walking off those steps and miles that mean so much to me and keep me grounded. You really don’t know how very much something means to you until you can’t do it.

Know what else I need to do? Plan travel. I’m heading to South Carolina again in a couple of weeks to see my beloved niece. I need more on the calendar after that. I’ve always kept myself going by making plans. I’m seeing Southern Utah, Cape Cod, California, Oregon, and Portugal in the not so distant future. Maybe later in the year I’ll reschedule my canceled trip to Costa Rica, but COVID19 has to look a lot better before I even think about leaving the country. As long as I go somewhere, I’ll be okay. The idea of getting back to globe trotting and country hopping is always a possibility, but is not the necessity that it used to be. I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff, and I’ll do plenty more, but safety is first and doing what appeals to me most runs a close second.

Right now, my number one goal is to drive twenty miles to the north and walk a flat trail down to the edge of the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, like I’ve done hundreds of times before. Having the sun shining would be a big plus. Melting snow, even better. And silence. Lord, give me silence! Five miles of silence. I have not done a five miler in several weeks. Several weeks too long.

Even though my feet aren’t quite moving yet again, just being able to wrap my mind around the possibility of resuming my active life is a miracle. Maybe 2022 will have some happy memories after all?

Hey, guess what? I got my airfare to Albuquerque, my chosen gateway to Southern Utah, last night. Booked my hotel on Cape Cod earlier in the week. The forecast for this Saturday is for sun and 50 degrees. I’m adding hiking to that forecast. It can’t come soon enough.

Yeah, I got this.

Unhappy Trails

It’s hardly a secret that I spend a lot of time in the woods, near and far. International parks, national parks, state parks, town parks, any park. Long trails, short trails, no trails, any trail. The forest is my refuge, where I go for silence, reflection, exercise, clarity. I’m hardly the only person on Earth who practices this. Millions of individuals do. And it seems, as I’ve observed once again, that there are just as many people in the forest that don’t care about silence or reflection or exercise or clarity. Worse, the example that they set for their children says, the forest and the trees and those dummies in hiking boots don’t matter. Don’t worry about them! This land is our land, like the song says. Do whatever you want with it!

To me, no matter how much I travel, a road trip in the United States is the best thing that could happen to me. This summer, I was lucky enough to complete two. I can’t even count how many I’ve taken in this crazy life of mine. But I can count how many times I’ve been disappointed by the behavior of other Americans and their offspring: every single time. The ugly American is alive and kicking and exhibiting several other forms of bad behavior, too.

Here’s my disclaimer: I’m not a parent. I never wanted to be a parent. I will never be a parent. But I am a teacher. I’m that person that takes care of your children for you seven hours a day while you earn a living. I’m the person that gets your child through the least favorite part of their day, and I do it without yelling, swearing, or even being allowed to touch them. Meanwhile, you have them for the part of the day that they look forward to the most, and with all the tools you have on your side your children are disrespectful and you let them be. You bring them to my playgrounds, my refuges, my shrines, and you turn them loose to pollute the silence, the rules, the trees, the rocks, the dirt, and the water and don’t teach them to respect these things. My heart, folks, is broken. Broken like the carved trees and the trashed lands and the sacred air that is pierced with their screams that have no real purpose other than to make noise. But wait, I’m missing something here. The reason that they act like that is because you act like that. You set the example of bad behavior and they follow it. They don’t know any better because of you. Is there a solution? There is. Read on.

The world has places that are made for noise. Disney World. Six Flags. Rock concerts. Sporting events. Go to any of these places and you’ll look like a Scrooge if you aren’t yelling. I know, because I’ve been to plenty of concerts and sporting events, and while everyone is drinking and smoking and acting cool, I’m just enjoying the music and the spectacle and being quiet like I am on the trail. The point is that there’s a time and a place for everything, and the time and place for obnoxious behavior is not on a beautiful hiking trail.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I GOT IT. We live in a free country. You paid your twenty bucks for a week of touring a national park just like I did. Your kids are going to be brats once in a while. You’re going to be a brat once in a while. You need to let your hair down and decompress SOMEWHERE. So I need to stop complaining and mind my own business.

I won’t. Because the way you act goes against everything nature is meant for. Here’s a perfect example. “Mommy, do you think we’ll see some animals?” little Joey and/or Janey asks Mommy and Daddy. “Maybe!” Mommy and Daddy answer with gusto, as Joey and/or Janey pick up rocks and throw them here, there, and everywhere, stand at the top of a cliff and “practice their echo,” and slip and fall and howl for ten minutes because they aren’t following the rules of wild places. Any animal that would possibly want to come out of hiding to meet Joey or Janey would be of questionable character. Maybe a hungry grizzly? Get your camera ready!

The very reason you’re in the woods is negated by your rotten behavior. Get it?

Please, please, please don’t tell me that children have to scream and yell and crash into me to have a good time. That they don’t have to follow basic etiquette after a long week of being cooped up in school. That just because it doesn’t cost anything to walk a trail, the experience has no value and therefore, no rules. You’re wrong on all accounts. Every so often I hike with kids that know how to act because they have parents that know how to act and pass it on. And let me remind you, I see your kids at the worst of times and show them how to be on their best behavior.

Teach your children well. I do.

California Reunion

Hey, if you don’t mind I’m going to take a break from talking about living with a chronic illness for a post or two. I have to tell you about my reunion with California!

This joyous reconnection with the Golden State was extra special because it came so frighteningly close to not happening. In fact, as I said in my last post, which I wrote while I was on the road, the trip got cancelled twice, the first time because of cancer, the second time because of COVID19. For weeks I was sure that once again something would stop me from going, that it wasn’t meant to be. It was so nice to be wrong! And the trip could not have been more perfect.

If you said that I’m kind of “prone” to hiking trips, you would not be mistaken. However, this wasn’t a hiking trip. Which is not to say that I didn’t do any trekking. Of course I did! But the entire plan was based around seeking out graffiti in Southern California and born from seeing the works of a professional photographer on Instagram who travels the U.S. taking pictures of really cool stuff. I did my research and strung several sights together, then figured that while I was there I may as well just take another week to see some old favorites, and there was my California reunion!

I lived in Los Angeles for five years from 1995 through 2000, and traveled extensively in and around the state. I guess I didn’t really realize until now how blessed I was and am to have been able to do that. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived other than Massachusetts, where I was born and currently reside, and I have to say that for me, a lover of the American West, there could not have been a better place to be. Mother Nature took one of everything amazing and tossed it into California. Sometimes, more that one of everything amazing. Though I’ve been a million other places around the world, I’ve never quite fallen in love with anywhere like I have the American West. I used to crucify myself for never having lived in a foreign country. How silly that all seems now.

Unlike most people, who think the desert is “too hot” and “boring”, I absolutely love it there. Deserts have ghost towns, tumbleweeds, and cactus. What’s not to love about that? I spent several days driving around the Salton Sea, an imposing but fascinating (and smelly) remnant of a failed experiment to lure vacationers and home buyers seeking the good life. If you’re like me and looking for graffiti, sand, and desolation, wow do you ever have to see the Sea! In addition to all that there’s Bombay Beach, an almost ghost that was revived as a quirky artist’s town, and Slab City, an “off the grid” settlement where people live for free. There’s lots of additional interesting art in Slab City as well as East Jesus, the eastern corner of the “squatters paradise.” I even did some research into one of the towns near the Salton Sea because I was inspired to use it for a locale in the book I’m writing. Such excitement from a place most people pass by without giving it a second thought! Is it any wonder why I choose to travel alone so often?

Didn’t I tell you that California has one of everything? Or, let’s make that more accurate: California has EVERYTHING!! Let me expand on that.

The post-graffiti part of my trip brought me to the Sierras, where the best ghost town in America nestles. No, Bodie isn’t in the desert, but it is at the end of a wild dirt road about twelve miles east of Bridgeport, California, and it is a state park, so there is a small fee (I paid $8) that goes to Bodie’s upkeep, which is impeccable. On the way I drove a few hundred miles of US 395, which I have to proclaim one of the country’s great highways. I stopped off in Lone Pine, which is still very much like the desert, and did a short and stunning hike to Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills, where I also got a pretty special view of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the “lower 48” at 14, 505 feet. Did I mention that you can see Whitney through the arch, too? No, the thrills just never end.

Mono Lake and the Mono Basin are right outside Yosemite National Park. To me, Mono is so good it’s okay to skip Yosemite to see it. Don’t miss the short hike through the odd fantasy of the South Tufa Trail. You can bet that I didn’t!

Girl, take a breath…

The June Lake Loop is a sixteen mile drive around four lovely lakes at an elevation of 7,600 feet. Of course I had to get some hiking in here, and I encountered some bristlecone pines, that are said to be the oldest living things on Earth, even older than sequoias and redwoods. Even older than me! The loop was my last stop in the mountains before I headed back to the desert. I had to have one final jaunt in the hot sand before I came back to reality.

Death Valley Junction is the gateway to the park of the same name and a charming little desert hamlet with a hotel and opera house, much of which are beautifully hand painted by its former owner. Read her incredible backstory here. I’ve loved this town since I first saw it on a map as a dreamy-eyed teen, and it was so special to see it again before I moved on to Death Valley. Yes, I intended to hit the trails, but at 100 degrees at seven in the morning, I had to rethink my plans. Hiking had to be done in short bursts with plenty of time in the air conditioned SUV in between! Death Valley has been getting a lot of attention lately for record breaking temperatures, but the mercury varies greatly depending on what part of the park you’re in. I headed to Dante’s View to marvel at the salty Badwater Basin far below. It was twenty degrees cooler and with a hair-mussing wind. Lastly, no temperature was hot enough to make me miss wandering through the pastel hills of the Artist Palette. I felt like I’d fallen into a giant vat of ice cream!

Two weeks, a two thousand mile loop, and I just barely scratched the surface of the greatness of California. Oh well, looks like I’m just going to have to go back!

How We Road Tripped

 

 

 

With my recent cancer diagnosis, it’s kind of weird to be going back through old photo albums in order to write these autobiographical blogs. But I’m not giving up on them, anymore than I’m giving up on fighting cancer and winning! So let’s pick this story up where I left off: in 1993, when I learned to read maps and the road became my second home. Or more accurately, our second home, because my mom loved the road, too, even if she was always in conflict with leaving our stationary home.

Summer 1993. I get the big idea to do things a little differently. After mom and I cut our teeth with tour companies, and watched things we wanted to see go by out the bus window without being able to stop, we contacted our travel agent (gee, where have you heard that term lately!) and had her book us a cheap package to Las Vegas where we would rent a car and stay at the new Excalibur Hotel for seven nights. I pulled out my trusty road atlas and started planning. We could go to the Hoover Dam! And Death Valley! And Zion National Park! And the Grand Canyon! And…Jeez, could I really make this happen for us?

We’d also make a special stop at Death Valley Junction, a town that occupied a huge place in my current book, a long, handwritten saga of spoiled youth in Southern California. The Golden State was still my Promised Land, and no map made me hungrier than the one of Southern California. I found colorful names of cities and towns across the endearing area and assigned characters to the places. My favorite character of all hailed from Death Valley Junction, which I pictured to be something of a boom town. Small, but exciting. More on our discovery in a few.

Off we flew to Las Vegas and picked up our car. It was our first time in Sin City, and one of the only times I actually liked being there. I love Vegas now for only one reason: It’s a great jump off point to so many better places. Otherwise, I have little use for it, because I don’t care about gambling or the other activities the city offers. But back in 1993, Vegas was everything it was supposed to be. Given its proximity to California, even better.

In today’s world of “influencers” traveling the globe and showing their IG followers only the very best highlights of a grueling lifestyle, flying to Vegas and driving two hundred miles to Zion National Park must not seem like a big accomplishment. But to the me of 1993, a twenty-six-year-old small town girl with stars in her eyes, this was a heck of a big deal.  Did we make it everywhere we were supposed to go? Yes, indeed! But I’ll confess that we took a bus trip to Grand Canyon West, as it was easier to do it on an organized tour. This was long before glass bridges and expensive zip line packages. My favorite part of our trip had to be the Death Valley day. En route to what turned out to be one of my favorite national parks we stopped at Death Valley Junction and found not a boom town…but a ghost town! Another love was born. I’ve sought out as many as possible since then. Here’s a funny page from the magnetic album I made. Check out that cute Mustang!

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I had a dead end job at the time, and that’s what I went back to after this life-changing adventure. Friends got me into some local nightlife, but I never gave up on my pursuits of getting to other places. California wasn’t the only state where I found pleasing town names; I had them for every state. Places like Zook Spur, Iowa (another favorite!) and Summer Shade, Kentucky. Always whimsical, always good monikers to inspire stories that were flights of fancy. And always, always, places that made me yearn to get in a car and drive.

In 1994, I started to connect the dots between towns and to see how state highways, US highways, and freeways led to one another. I connected them so well that I came up with an enthusiastic endeavor to drive from Massachusetts to California and back again on a 9,400 mile road trip that would go through twenty-seven states, a dozen national parks and monuments, and to several other must-see spots in a time frame of forty-eight days. What did I expect my mom to say? A resounding “NO”! But Mom didn’t say no. Because we would have a once in a lifetime experience and be better people for it. Sure, Mom! Bless her heart. We set off in, are you ready for this, my 1990 IROC-Z convertible, all three of us total road trip virgins. Here’s one of my favorite unexpected moments on a trip that I still have not topped for length of time or mileage even twenty-five years later:

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No, you aren’t seeing things! That’s snow in July at Yellowstone National Park! And I was driving a lightweight Chevy Camaro convertible. Beat that, IG “influencers!”

After the excitement of the road, going back home to our tiny town was pretty tough. I understand a little bit of why musicians go so wild on concert tours then have a tough time readjusting to normal life again. And a pattern started to develop: just take any old job to make enough money to go on the next big adventure. The other idea that I got was that it was about time to get serious about moving to Los Angeles, my biggest dream. Like so many, I wanted to study acting and get into “the business.” I was already past my mid-twenties, so I couldn’t wait much longer. I wanted my mom to come with me, but because of my sister Jeanne she couldn’t even consider it. Jeanne needed her more than me. But as always, Mom swallowed her hurt and told me. “Go to California!”

Still, there was something in it for her: a four week one way road trip to drive my new Geo Tracker to Los Angeles, find a place to live, and fly back to pack up my less than worldly possessions. What turned into a “once in a lifetime experience” in 1994 was turning into much more than that and would continue to, even with Mom and me living on opposite coasts. This particular trip was 5,000 miles one way, and hit many more states that the first one didn’t, including what would become my favorite place on the globe, Southern Utah. Here we are at Monument Valley, circa 1995:

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How about that backdrop? It always reminds me of one of those fake pull-down things we used to pose in front of for school pictures!

While on this trip I took perhaps my favorite photo of Mom. Does anyone remember Highway 666 between Monticello, Utah and Gallup, New Mexico? It’s US 491 now. Ahh, them glory days of road trips!

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Notice how I had Mom in the devil holding the pitchfork pose. I was always putting her up to some bit of silliness, and she was such a good sport! Here’s another classic:

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Living in Southern California was a pretty intense experience for me. I was there for almost five years, and it was jam-packed full of exploration. If I had two days off from one of my many cruddy jobs I’d be on the road in the Tracker. Even one day would be sufficient. Once I drove 700 miles and was home the same evening! Usually, I was alone. But Mom came out several times and we took even more trips together, including a journey up the west coast to Seattle in 1997, and to Alaska the following year. My niece Amanda joined us one summer for fun closer to home, and I made my own trips back to the east coast.

Southern California was where I got my first taste of doing stuff that would freak people out. Notice me in one of the pictures at the top of this post getting ready to go hang gliding. Before that was sky diving!

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Yeah, like I said, quite a five years!

My next fabulous idea was to branch out to our second continent: Europe. Mom had three things on her Bucket List, and we did two of them on our 1999 European excursion: we went to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and visited our homeland, Poland, where Mom paid tribute to her father at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home of the famed Black Madonna. We also got to five other countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. A month away from the comforts of home was a heck of a long time for Mom; she didn’t like the change in currencies or trying to keep up with the rest of the group we traveled with. By this time she already had a knee replacement and would be getting another one before long. I knew that the next time I went across the Atlantic she wouldn’t be along for the ride! But road trips were still of interest to us. We weren’t done with them yet!

By 2000, I was ready to go home. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do in L.A. and after studying acting for a couple of years and getting a bitter taste of “Hollywood,” wasn’t interested or impressed anymore. Mom was getting older, I missed her like crazy, and I wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. I did a solo road trip in the summer of 2000 to get back to Massachusetts and picked up more states toward my goal of visiting all fifty.

My timing, it turned out, was excellent. Mom and I still had four years together, and we made the most of them.

To be continued soon.

 

 

 

Traveling With Mom

 

Jeez, I’m obviously not very good at keeping up with this autobiography stuff. Only two posts all year! Last time I promised that I wasn’t going to take so long to get to the next installment in my life story, a promise that I wasn’t able to keep.  But now that my blog is the focus of my writing life, I may just do better!

At any rate, in case you want to read the first two chapters in the life of me, here’s the story of my first ten years, and here’s the post about my teenage years after losing my beloved Dad.

And now, to continue…

So there I was, with two new loves, writing and maps, but with a family shattered by the death of my dad. My interests didn’t stop me from heading down some wrong paths for a few years, even as I obsessed over road atlases my mom would buy me and created wild stories in my head and on paper about characters who traveled, fell in love, and were a heck of a lot happier than me.  At a very young age I found temporary infatuations with drinking, smoking, and being a pothead. I’m not sorry about doing any of those things, because by the time I was eighteen I didn’t care about any of that anymore, but did care about my stories and my Rand McNally’s. Back then I didn’t think I had any chance to travel or live a life even close to the stories I was writing. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Like a lot of people, my travels started out in the obvious place: Disney World, of course! I was fifteen, it was 1982, and Epcot was just opening. My mom scrounged up enough money for us to go together. It was my first flight, and we also went to Sea World, Cypress Gardens, and Busch Gardens, on a guided tour. The travel bug was planted! I have my mother to thank for that. Here’s a real oldie of me from that trip, at Cypress Gardens. I was really in my Ugly Duckling phase in ’82!

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Florida was a dream, but to me the real prize was getting to California. It didn’t happen for five years after Florida, though we took some smaller trips. Between 1982 and 1992, Mom and I also made it to Amish Country, Washington, DC, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Bermuda, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not a bad take for two ladies who had really never been anywhere! I’ve included a picture from each trip. I have to stress here, too, that this wasn’t all about me, it was about Mom, too. Traveling was a new beginning for her. Not an easy or quick one, but eventually a welcome escape from the black hole her life seemed to be without Dad. She always said that Dad would have been behind her decision to take me places. I’ll just bet he would have been pleased to know that she was finally starting to get some satisfaction out of life again.

Mom never forgot her first and only love. But I fully believe she was finally able to let go of him more after fifteen years, ten years of which we were going places together.

I held down a full-time position in a local factory during most of these years. Our travel schedule wasn’t too wild yet, so I was able to squeeze the trips into paid vacations. That would get trickier as our travels got more sophisticated…and personalized.

While Mom and I were bonding ever closer and getting better at the travel thing, relations in our family were falling apart. Assumptions of favoritism were rampant, resentments cropped up that my sister, who is disabled, had to be taken care of while Mom was gone. Money problems were always at the forefront of every conflict. Things didn’t get any better, though everyone said they wanted Mom to enjoy life. In fact, things got steadily worse. I used to say that we weren’t a dysfunctional family, because that would indicate we were functioning, just not the right way. Hardly the case with us; we weren’t functioning at all. Because of this, Mom and I could never be completely happy traveling. She was filled with guilt for leaving her daughter, who required total care, in the hands of someone else, when she had always provided for her. Being far away from home without the option to get back quickly was tough for her. Sometimes she would cry and worry. My job was to cheer her up. It didn’t always work, but we still had plenty of good times.

We didn’t give up. Soon, traveling would get even more interesting. We’d leave the guided tours behind and start making our own fun.

That’s when I learned how to read those maps I was obsessing over. The United States and Canada were soon to be our oyster!

Hiking Moab: Outside the National Parks

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You don’t have to know me too well to know that I love hiking, and if I had my choice of doing it anywhere in the world, I’d choose Southern Utah. I’ve been a heck of a lot of places on the globe, but I just can’t get enough of my coveted Promised Land. Most people who’ve been to the vast and exciting area choose to go to what I call “the other side,” meaning Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. I completely understand why: easier access from Vegas, much more well known. Guess I can’t blame them. And hey, less traffic on “my side,” which is the east side of Southern Utah. Moab and I  met way back in 1995, quite by accident, when my beloved Mom and I wanted to see Arches and maybe just a bit of Canyonlands on one of our first road trips. Which we did! Love was born. Love has only grown. In fact, when I buy an RV and head out to live on the road in a few years, guess where I’ll be heading first? Maybe I’ll never leave!

Today, I’ve done so much hiking in Arches and Canyonlands that when I went back this summer I decided to explore outside the parks. Frankly, Arches is wonderful, but it’s so small and there are so many vehicles choking the roads that I take a pass now. I’ve pretty much hiked everything there and with plenty of other wonders to keep me busy, I’m not hankering yet to do them again. On the other hand, I still have not had enough of Canyonlands. It’s much more remote, way bigger, and offers four “districts,” two of which I haven’t even set foot in yet. So, I did spend some time there yet again, repeating hikes I haven’t done in a few years. But here are a couple of treks beyond the famous parks that I’d give about seven hundred stars to. They’ll feed your hunger for the Arches and Canyonlands, with a lot less human traffic.

Fisher Towers

Located on the gorgeous Utah 128, Fisher Towers is an absolute stunner about 20 miles east of Moab. Leave I-70 at exit 214, SR 128 West, not at US 191 the way the interstate signs say, and take this lesser known and used route to Moab. You can thank me after you do it. I’ll talk more about the highway itself below, but for now let’s concentrate on Fisher Towers.

As you near the majestic and castle-like towers, there will be a few pull-offs along SR 128. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any of these are the official parking areas for the Fisher Tower Trail; they aren’t. The actual trail is about a mile down a well-maintained gravel road that is accessible by any vehicle and has its own clearly seen sign. Any of those other lots will have you on horse trails. I made that mistake, though I can’t say I’m at all sorry, as I was hiking surrounded by arguably the most incredible scenery on Earth, and different 360 views than the Fisher Towers Trail. But if you only have a few hours to hike before you continue on to Moab, take the signed dirt road.

Before I did this hike I found some misleading information that designated the trail as easy. Don’t make this mistake, either. Fisher Towers isn’t easy. It’s rocky, the footing is tricky in some places, and there’s 1,800 feet in gain/loss over approximately five miles round trip, including a ladder. I suggest full hiking gear, most importantly sturdy boots and socks high enough to keep you from collecting dirt. There’s also very little shade if you’re hiking in warm weather, not a drop of water, even though the Colorado River is not far away on the opposite side of SR 128, and slippery sand in several places. But make no mistake about it, the payoff is grand. The rusty sandstone towers resemble man made ruins, so much so that when I posted pictures on Facebook I had to explain that the scenery is the handiwork of none other than Mama Nature.

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The entire trail is a spectacle to behold, but the real payoff is the first mile and a half. Expect nothing better than that and you won’t be disappointed when you get to what appears to be the “end” and find many little side trails to views your jaw has already dropped for a thousand times. Find your personal favorite and have lunch before you head back to your car.

Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail

This is one of those trails that I can’t believe I didn’t do the first several times I was in my favorite place. Do yourself a big favor and don’t GPS this one! The route GPS or Google Maps gives you is misleading. The trail is totally simple to get to from Moab. Just head toward Arches National Park on 191 North from town and turn left on SR 279, another beauty, albeit a short one. Drive with your head on a spindle until you come to the well-marked trail parking lot on the right hand side.

The Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail is another hot, dry, sandy one with a big time reward. It’s much flatter than the Fisher Towers hike, with less than 500 feet in gain/loss, a lot of it on the initial climb from the parking lot. If not for some rather tricky cables and a ladder, I’d rate it as easy. The hardware makes it moderate. And yes, you can see the arches without ascending the ladder, but don’t you dare miss a closer look.

I had the whole fabulous area to myself, though All Trails rates it as “heavily trafficked.” It’s fair enough to say that the cables and ladders will keep some people away. Don’t be one of those people; it’s takes about two minutes to do both, and the cables have very good footholds, though I wouldn’t recommend doing it with dogs, children, (including those on your back) or in wet or icy conditions. This trek is real National Geographic stuff and better yet, can be done in a matter of two to three hours, including all the silly selfies you can muster.

Highway 128

Okay, it isn’t really a hike, and if you’ve never been to an area like Southern Utah you probably can’t fathom a highway being a destination, but take my word, SR 128 to Moab is a trip in and of itself. When I go to the area now I’m prone to just parking on the side of the highway, donning my backpack, and setting off to see what I can see. When you leave I-70 it’s going to take an hour or so of driving for SR 128 to “get good,” but when it does, oh, it’s pretty fantastic! The Colorado River will start out to your east, on the left side of the road, but will eventually flow underneath the highway and end up on the right the remainder of the way to Moab. Before long you’ll enter the Colorado Riverway Recreation Area, scene of delight for paddlers and rafters. I had my first trip on the river this summer, but that’s another blog! Soon Fisher Towers come into view on opposite side of the road, with Castleton Towers thrown in for good measure. I’ve always thought that this land of wonder could be a national park. Maybe it will be someday.

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Closer to Moab on 128 are Grandstaff Canyon and Icebox Canyon. I intended to do Grandstaff while I was there this summer, but I ran out of energy! Next time.

My side of Southern Utah offers so much, inside and outside the national parks. This is just a morsel of what the area offers to hiking fans, not to mention mountain bikers, BASE jumpers, and many other adventure seekers. I like to say that if you ain’t been to Moab, you ain’t really been. When are you going?