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Mudbugs and Drive-Thru Daquiris

June 13, 2019

20190526_143550_resizedSouth Texas

The closer you get to Houston, the more Cajun culture starts to appear. I was delighted to come upon it. Barbecue restaurants give way to signs advertising crawfish and Boudin sausage, gumbo and jambalaya.

My dumbest move of the weekend was to try to go to the beach at Galveston, forgetting that most of Texas would also be heading there for Memorial Day. I made it over the terrifying bridge onto Galveston Island. I gaped at the vast flat muddy expanse that passes for an ocean down there. Then I turned around and skedaddled back over the bridge before traffic got even worse.

The Oil Patch

I grew up traipsing around oil fields, thanks to my dad’s work, but it turns out I had the tank farms I had seen were tiny, miniature, really. South of Houston, the tank farms go on for miles. And miles. And miles. Traveling side roads, you get to see all the stuff that is hidden from the interstate highway.

And then the thing I had been waiting for: Louisiana. It was as overgrown, gothic and mysterious as I had expected. I rattled along through the flooded rice fields, listening to Cajun music on the radio. It felt perfect.

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Lake Charles, where pipelines are overhead.

I stopped overnight in Lake Charles, another oil town, where there are so many pipelines that they make overpasses out of them.

It also has a truly terrifying bridge, the worst of the trip so far. Narrow, tall, rickety – it ticks all the bridge-terror boxes.

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Lake Charles. If you squint, you can see Earl.

Earl Goes Fishing

Out on a fishing dock in Lake Charles, I met Earl, a retired truck driver and father of nine. He talked to me about life and fishing and asked all kinds of questions about my trip. I asked him what kind of fish he was hoping to catch.

“Ah, I don’t mind if it one thing or the other,” he said. “I just come out here to get out of the house.”

Lafayette!

Earl recommended that my next stop be Lafayette, a town full of gorgeous old buildings and moss-covered trees, so I went there. I visited the Vermilionville historical park, a collection of old buildings and historical exhibits, complete with actors playing the residents of the time.

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A parsonage house at Vermilionville

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The hand-pulled ferry at Vermilionville

I was surprised at the mix of visitors – about half were French, exploring this part of their heritage. It was fun to hear the actors speak to them in Cajun French and listen to their difficulty in translating, much like me with Louisiana English accents.

It was hot, though, well into the 90s and of course humid. My stretchable spandex-laced denim pants soon gave up stretching and just turned into dampish bags around my legs, my waistband sliding lower and lower. It made me think of the people who had lived here in that heat, cooking over open fires and picking crops.

I parked Gladis at my first KOA on a little Lafayette lake and went to the swimming pool where I spent the evening watching teenagers do cannonballs around me.

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Cajun Daquiris. Drive thru service.

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Natchitoches, Louisiana

 

 

Relaxing in Austin

June 11, 2019

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The Pause that Refreshes

After my disastrous entry into the great State of Texas, I was thinking about just flying through to Louisiana, but the weather was a mess in every direction, so I decided to huddle in Austin and relax for a week rather than forging on.

There are worse places. Austin is the purple state’s most firmly entrenched liberal enclave, so I knew I could slap my Obama/Biden magnet on Gladis’s bumper and put on my trans pride shirt and I’d be amongst my people there. (I didn’t actually do either – but it’s the principle of the thing).

Barton Springs

I stayed in a conveniently located RV park over in Barton Springs, an area that is geared to touristy activities. Lots of barbecue restaurants with outdoor patios, live music, a whole food truck court, bike paths, kayaking, museums, and so on. Austin is a fun place.

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A river runs through downtown

One night after work, I walked over to the most unique and interesting swimming pool I had ever seen, local landmark Barton Springs. It is a natural pool 3 acres in size, fed by a cold spring that bubbles up from the ground. Some parts are 18 feet deep, and it is a chilly 68 degrees year round, so I didn’t swim. My preferred water temperature is 82.

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Barton Spring Municipal Pool

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The spring itself

Striking Conversations

I did, however, end up in an almost 2-hour conversation with Richard Powell, a fascinating gentleman. A 26-year vocational education teacher in Austin, he also invented a popular baseball pitching machine, the Louisville Slugger UPM . He told me all about his inventions and about his “non-academic” students’ successes, like the one who hated school but loved auto shop and ended up owning one of the largest mechanic shops in Texas.

Seeing places and going to attractions is all well and good, but it is the people who make the place. As my friend Charlie Sill (and talented voiceover artist who you should totally hire) used to say “If you don’t talk to strangers, you will never make any friends.”

La Grange, Home of Fine Kolaches

If you’re heading East out of Austin, stop in LaGrange and get some Czech pastries. I took an online class with a delightful Austinite named Melissa Sternberg, who runs a knitting shop, Gauge. She took me to lunch in Austin and clued me in to the Czech roots of LaGrange and told me to go there to get some pastries. I was not disappointed. I got this poppyseed coconut roll at a gas station named Weikel’s. They also sell the classic Czech pastry called kolach in about 20 different flavors. Best gas station food ever.

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Waltz Across Texas

June 6, 2019
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Welcome to West Texas

Texas began scaring the hell out of me as soon as I got there. Right at the Texas border, the wind kicked up hard – 30 to 40 mph. Gladis turns into a sail during high winds, and driving is more like bronc riding. We swayed and bobbed toward El Paso, my white-knuckled hands clutching the steering wheel.

Down in the West Texas Town of El Paso

El Paso was not nearly as charming as the song would have one expect. I missed Rosa’s Cantina and Felina whirling completely.

Crazy Saints Among Us

Traversing the rutted path that passes for Interstate 10 in El Paso, I saw a wall of brake lights pop on in front of me. Me, Gladis, giant tanker trucks, delivery vans, all screeching from 60 mph to 0. Smoke from brakes. Truck tractors weaving around, trying to keep their trailers from overtaking them.

Directly in front of me, a tiny man opened his door and emerged from an old Nissan Sentra with Mexican plates. He boldly walked into the traffic lanes where trucks were already starting up again and slowly wrestled a large orange plastic traffic control barrel to the side of the road from where it had been bouncing around in lanes, which is what caused the panic. I gave him a big double thumbs-up for being the bravest person in all of Texas at that moment. Crazy dude. God bless him.

Rolling, Rolling

I was determined to cover as much ground in Texas as quickly as possible. West Texas is just gigantic and there’s not much out there (in one spot, it was 110 miles between any type of towns). I put on some podcasts and munched on Sabritas Japoneses (my one real addiction) and drank kombucha and put the pedal to the medal. Well, halfway to the medal, since Gladis hums along best at 60 mph.

Leaving a rest stop with Heather Armstrong on the “With Friends Like These” podcast, I noticed giant clouds on the horizon. About 20 minutes later, my radio burst to life with a squawk.

“WAH WAHN WAH WAHN. The National Weather Service has issued a severe weather alert…”

Haha, but not near me, right?

“One and one-half inch hail and a possible tornado on Interstate 10 between mile marker 257 and 265…”

I looked at the next mile marker. 245. Oh. That’s…close. My heart pounding, I tried to remember tornado etiquette. Something about interior rooms and bathtubs. I started looking for an exit, an overpass, a gas station, anything. Nope. I was shaking with fear.

A few miles later, a lonely exit appeared with no buildings nearby. I crossed the freeway and found only a locked gate leading to a Bridgestone tire testing grounds. I parked by the side of the road and wondered what the heck to do. It was the most scared and lonely I have been on this trip.

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My view from the roadside

Frantic, I consulted my storm watch app, StormShield (damn right I have the paid version), which told me the storm was blessedly moving away toward the northeast at 30 mph. I don’t know what I would have done had it been heading for me.

A couple people leaving the tire place for the day stopped to ask if I was ok – they thought I had a mechanical breakdown – then they left. I sat by the road for an hour by myself, waiting for the storm to move on.

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The storm later that evening

The Honey Badger

When I thought it was safe, I drove on to Fort Stockton, home of the hilariously named Honey Badger RV Park. It was a gravel parking lot with fence around it, but the owner, Naomi, was warm and eager to get me parked and out of the storm.IMG_20190517_191705_993

“That name,” I said, “It has to have a story.”

“Haha!” Naomi laughed. “It’s named after my ex-husband. We were married 38 years, and he was like the honey badger. He just did not give a shit. A good guy, but he didn’t give a shit.”

Saint Anthony Protected Me

I have always loved Saint Anthony, but his namesake town, San Antonio, tried to kill me twice within about 10 minutes. The first time was a swerving, lane-ending detour indicated only by about 8 traffic barrels before it actually happened – which would have been inconvenient if I could have seen it, but traffic was heavy and a huge RV was right in front of me, and they didn’t swerve until the last second, so suddenly I looked up and the barrier was RIGHT THERE and I had to swerve at a high speed and almost take someone’s door off and DAMN IT THAT WAS TOO CLOSE.

Then a couple minutes later, freeway traffic came to such a sudden stop that I had the brakes floored and realized I was going to rear-end a tiny Toyota in front of me unless a miracle happened, then I magically found 1/4 inch more brakes and missed hitting it by about 4 inches. I probably left a couple inches of tire rubber on the highway.

Everything in Gladis flew toward the front, including all the fridge contents, where a jar of olive tapenade exited the door, which had flown open, and across the RV, breaking and spewing broken glass and tiny greasy olive bits EVERYWHERE. I have been finding olive pieces ever since.

But we survived, and so did the people packed into that Toyota. My heart is not strong enough for Texas. I was shook up and ready to leave as soon as possible.

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Nice job on the roadside wildflowers, though! Thank LadyBird Johnson for that.

 

 

 

Unearthly Earth

May 28, 2019

The usual dilemma – which way to go. Leaving Santa Fe, I could take the shorter route across the Texas panhandle, or go south and then across the wide fat, 856 mile part of Texas. I was scarred by memories of crossing Texas in the RV with my parents when I was younger. It just felt so endless. 

But in the end, I chose the long way for one reason: White Sands, New Mexico. Located near Alamagordo (famous for the first atomic bomb test), the National Monument is 225 square miles of pure white gypsum sand that remains cool to the touch, thanks to water just under the surface. It is inhabitied by white critters – little white birds, tiny pure white lizards.

It was an experience of calm joy like no other. Instant meditation. At first, the dunes appear at a distance from the road, but by the fourth mile in, the road disappears in a drift of hard white sand and it is nothing but whiteness and desert heat and wind as far as one can see.

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Waiting is the Hardest Part

May 22, 2019
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I pick the most scenic spots

Question

Why did you spend so long in the Santa Fe area, Suebob? Well, now the truth can be told: I needed healthcare. A mammogram, specifically, and of the difficulties I have had on the road, accessing healthcare was the most intractable so far.

Round 1 in the healthcare battle

I found a lump in my breast. I mean, a DIFFERENT lump in my breast. I have plenty of lumps. So many that, so far, I have had one surgical biopsy, three needle biopsies, five breast ultrasounds, a bunch of follow-up mammograms, and a partridge in a pear tree. But this lump felt different – harder and less slippery. It felt, frankly, like a lentil. Small, which is good, right?

So I took myself to one urgent care where they said they would not refer me for a mammogram, and to another one where the doctor said she would, but then when I called the next day as she told me to do, they said they wouldn’t.

“But you’re not an established patient,” the referral person said. So cold. So uncaring. I spent about 45 minutes on the phone, most of it on hold, while they decided to reluctantly grant me the permission to get a damned mammogram.

Round 2 ding ding

Then the mammogram place didn’t want to take a referral from an urgent care, and was so brusque and imperious about telling me I HAD to get films sent from my last 5 years of mammos, and if they didn’t get them, they would just have to reschedule, and their next appointment wasn’t for 3 weeks and no, they probably wouldn’t have any cancellations.

The person on the phone was just so mean. It was like it was a game to her to keep me from getting a mammogram. It was so awful and disheartening and makes me wonder how anyone who is truly ill receives healthcare at all.

So that’s how I spent 3 weeks in Northern New Mexico – I wanted to be within an hour of the imaging center, in case they did have a cancellation, though with the way Sandra treated me, I figured no one would be calling, and no one ever did, so I waited the entire 3 weeks.

The Decision

The mammo was fine. I had a weirdly inflammed tiny lymph node.

Meanwhile

I fell in love with a lady. A lady named Genoveva Chavez.

Well, I actually fell in love with a community center named after Genoveva Chavez, a center located conveniently about 400 yards from where Gladis was parked at the Santa Fe Rodeo Grounds.

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El Rodeo de Santa Fe

Yes, the rodeo seems like a strange place to park, which is why it was perfectly suited to me and Gladis. They had about a dozen RV spots in a gravel parking lot near some horse pens, and it was cheap and super low-key, so there I stayed. You just called a number on the gate and the guy assigned you a spot. “Do you ever want to get paid?” I asked him. “Eh, I know where you live,” he said. “I’ll come by sometime.”

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Where you can find the cowboys. Also, directly behind Gladis.

Genoveva Chavez Community Center (GCCC) is a gem. They have a huge swimming pool, a giant kids’ pool with slides large and small, a basketball court, weight rooms, a dance studio, meeting rooms and an ICE RINK. They are open from about 5 am to 9:45 pm every day.

I was in heaven. This was honestly one of the most beautiful and functional civic buildings I have ever been in. This is the kind of thing you want your tax dollars going to.

So every night after work, I would put on my swimsuit, grab my backpack, and make the short walk over to visit Genoveva. I asked who she was and the lady at the front desk said “She was a mariachi.” Ok, then. Thank you, Genoveva, for making my extended stay at the Rodeo grounds so enjoyable.

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Genoveva, I love you.

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An ice rink. In Northern New Mexico.

A

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I also got to pet horsies every day. This is Doc.

 

 

All Relaxation, No Fun

May 12, 2019
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The spa entrance

I love me a hot spring. When I lived in San Luis Obispo, my favorite thing to do was to rent a hot tub on the side of the mountain at Sycamore Hot Springs and soak in the sulfur water for an hour, watching the blue jays flit around among the oaks.

Ojo Caliente

I was so excited to get to Ojo Caliente, halfway between Taos and Santa Fe, way out in the countryside. It’s a historic hot springs that has been visited by humans for at least 3,000 years and “discovered” by Spanish explored Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca in the 1530s.

They have a hotel, a restaurant, and best of all, an RV/camping area in addition to hot pools located at the foot of some desert cliffs that look for all the world like Radiator Springs.

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Part of the old hotel

I arrived Friday night and spent some time sitting in the RV musing on my good fortune as I watched a woman my age with a German Shepherd and a puppy try to set up two tents. No, thank you. I am not a camper.

Discovering the Pools

At 9 a.m., I took the 1/4 mile walk over to the hot springs. It is a beautiful spa – quiet location, beautiful landscaping, a fancy gift shop, restaurant and wine bar. Aromatherapy scents of sage and lavender float through the lobby, which features some spectacular artworks and Native American artifacts.

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The newer hotel suites

The springs themselves consist of a large oval swimming pool at 89 degrees and a series of smaller pools with warmer water, each containing different types of minerals. My favorite was the Lithia pool, rustic and filled with slippery lithium water, said to help promote a mellow mood. I know I certainly felt fine, soaking with my big hat on in the 102 degree water.

The Iron pool was another favorite because the water rises up from a spring at the bottom, which is covered with a thick layer of gravel pebbles, so your feet get a warm stone massage as you walk around.

I didn’t visit the Arsenic pools because arsenic (I’m sure it’s fine, really), but later I found the arsenic and iron waters are mixed in all the pools. Oops. No ill effects, though…I think.

Getting Muddy

I took a mud bath – a first for me. A water-fountain-like thing pours forth a thin, slippery stream of mud – it’s more like colored water. You smear yourself with it and then bake dry in the sun. A shallow pool of opaque muddy water is provided for a first rinse, then showers made of buckets with holes in the bottom sprinkle you clean (or mostly clean) of the remaining red mud.

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The pool area

The day was a warm spring day, hovering between 65 and 70 degrees and breezy, so a little cool to just lay out, especially since I had chosen a lounge under a shade, fearing the high-altitude New Mexico sun. But I did spend most of the day and evening in and out of the pools and under a towel on my lounge chair, reading or just listening to the Native American flute music they play to set the mood.

Shhh Be Vewy Quiet

The crazy part about Ojo Caliente is the enforced silence. The whole thing is a “whisper zone” – no speaking above a whisper – and they seriously enforce this. Several times an hour, staffers with paddleboards  saying “Whisper Please” and chimes march through the pool areas, rattling the chimes at anyone who dares speak.

If you ignore them, they will stand there pointedly, becoming more insistent and jingling their sign. I didn’t see anyone get ejected, but I don’t doubt it has happened.

I could see that there were groups of girlfriends and families who really wanted to bust loose and talk, but for the most part people obeyed the rules.

I get it. It’s a spa. It is for relaxing. But some people relax by talking and socializing. I think there should be an area for talkers or a time of day set aside for a more lively interchange.

As a solo traveler, I realized there was no way to get to know anyone, as friendly as they might seem – because you just can’t walk up and begin whispering animatedly to someone. You would seem demented. It’s too weird.

Chow Time

After I got done soaking for the day, I had an excellent flatbread and glass of wine at the bar and ended up talking for about an hour and a half to one of the massage therapists. He was fascinating. We talked about energy, body senses not normally recognized, protecting your body while giving massage, neural massage, and a lot of other stuff. So I got my talk on. Whew.

So my advice is go to Ojo Caliente with your mind right. You’re going to relax, which is probably what you need. But hush your mouth, or seek the wrath of the guy with the paddleboard.

*No pics of most of the pools, because I didn’t want to invade swimsuit-clad peoples’ privacy.

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Even a little spiral labyrinth!

Museumspiration

May 5, 2019

20190501_183741_resizedI had a three-museum weekend. First, I went up to Taos, about an hour from Santa Fe at 6200 feet elevation. Taos is a gateway to a ski area, a home to many artists and musisicans, and a tourist destination.

It’s also just gorgeous. The dark blue sky, the wide-open spaces, the mountains, the sage-covered plains. I mean.

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The Harwood Museum of Art

Harwood Museum of Art

I wedged Gladis into a parking space at the first museum, the Harwood Museum of Art. It is a small museum housed in a historic building with classic New Mexican architecture. The collections feature mostly Taos and local artists. It was a good introduction to the area.

Taos Art Museum at Fechin House

Next up: The Taos Art Museum at Fechin House. I had no idea why it was important to mention Fechin House in the name until I got there. Fechin House was small home that was expanded and remodeled by a Russian artist, Nikolai Fechin, in the late 1920s. He hand-carved all the woodwork, and he was a master. The design of the home is so lovely that it seems to be modern, even almost 100 years later.

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Some of Fechin’s woodcarving

The museum houses art exhibitions and the adjacent studio hosts art classes and events. It’s worth coming to just to see the home, though, and to sit in the pretty little garden.

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Fechin’s graceful doorway

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Back in Santa Fe, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on Sunday. I do love a museum devoted to the work of one artist. Getting the lifespan view of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art allowed me to see the flow of her work – from early learning to experimentation in abstraction, to the more familiar surrealist or fantastical work, then back to abstraction.

The painting that stopped me in my tracks and made my heart pound wasn’t one of the more famous ones. It was this:

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That green leaf. It caught me because just the day before, on the way back from Taos to Santa Fe, I had been captivated by that same color in a patch of spring-leafed trees on a hillside. I jerked Gladis over to the side of the road and jumped out to try to get a photo, but the moment was gone by the time I got there.

It struck me that that is the work of artists and creative people – we get possessed by a thought or image or feeling, then we just have to try to get it.

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not. – Georgia O’Keeffe

Sometimes I question what I am doing, running around the country in Gladis. Someone accused me of trying to avoid “real life” and that stung a bit.

But Georgia’s leaf painting – it made me proud to be someone who, in my own way, wants to do what Georgia did. Someone who lets themselves be caught by things and tries to express them as best I can.

New Mexico, the Honey Badger State

April 29, 2019

“Honey badger don’t care. Honey badger don’t give a shit.”
Randall’s Animals

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The road to Taos

Driving Me Crazy

New Mexico drivers really put the Mexico in New Mexico.

Those of you who have driven in Mexico know what I mean. There’s a certain shall we say loose interpretation of the driving laws and norms that govern traffic in most of the United States. I swear I have seen more right- and left-hand turns from the middle lane in the past few weeks here than I had seen in my life up to that point.

“Oh, why bother changing lanes?” they merrily think, cutting in front of someone traveling 40 miles per hour to make the turn.

People take that carefree attitude toward passing on two-lane roads as well. Why wait for a straight or non-hilly section? Just ZOOM GO GO GO!

No Pasaran

But who can blame them? Unlike other states, which considerately provide passing lanes in hilly section, in New Mexico, you can go hundreds of miles without one.

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The Rio Grande

Similarly with pull-outs, which California so kindly supplies and provides signage to – a nice smooth section of the road on the right-hand side where slow vehicles can pause to let traffic go by. Instead, New Mexico has spots on the right side of the road, but they often have about a 6-inch drop-off from the roadbed to the pull-out, enough to cause an RV to crash down like a drunk elephant.

New Mexico, the Honey Badger State! They just don’t care!

Eyes on the Pennies

Well, there is someone in New Mexico who cares about the roads. Every so often there is a sign talking about highway repairs and how much they are costing taxpayers. In California, it would say something like “Highway Repairs paid for from the Gas Tax Fund. $197 million project due for completion 1/2020.”Highway.jpg

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Shortly before I headed to Taos Pueblo, where Officer Romero caught me.

Here, the sign says “Highway Repairs. Cost $10,800,556.04”

Someone at the highway department cares. They care down to the nearest penny. Bless their calculating little heads. I wonder if they get upset if the final total is $10,800,556.08?

My Friend Officer Romero

Ah, don’t mind me! I’m just bitter because I got to meet Officer Romero of the Taos Pueblo Police the other day in his speed trap. Yes, I got caught in a real actual speed trap! The road goes from 35 mph to 20 to 15 in a space of about 300 yards. I was really applying my brakes hard, but he still got me.

I told some native ladies at Taos Pueblo about my experience.

“Oh yeah, he sits there all weekend and gets so many people,” they said.

So if you come to New Mexico, bring quick reflexes and a sense of humor. Also bring $30, because that’s how much the ticket Officer Romero gives you is going to cost.

 

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Home sweet Gladis.

 

 

Holy Holy Holy

April 25, 2019

The Princess Bride is my favorite book in the whole world. In it, the brilliant William S. Goldman solves a bit of tedious storytelling by editing it down to “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

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So I’m here to say “What with one thing and another, I spent a week in Albuquerque.” Maybe there is a reason Google leaves it off Google Maps almost completely. No, seriously, look at the map – that lower red marker is where Abq is.

After that, I headed up to 7200 feet of elevation to Santa Fe, home to many museums, some spectacular churches, and lots of artsy ladies wearing massive chunks of turquoise.

I’m not making fun of it. I like it. I’m all for a new-agey, foodie, artsy town set among scrubby trees at at the base of a mountain range. No, I’m not talking about Ojai. SANTA FE, people, stay on task here.

Fact: Santa Fe is the capital occupied by Europeans for the longest time. Spaniards arrived here in 1607.

IMG_20190421_043612_504_resizedTaking a walk around the downtown tourist area, I found a labyrinth in front of the cathedral and gasped in happy surprise. My bestie CC and I are labyrinth hunters from way back. We have gone on epic labyrinth-finding journeys, guided by – what else – the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator. You can read more about labyrinths at Veriditas.

A lady was walking the labyrinth with brisk determination, so I waited for her to finish. I always walk slowly, because I find the labyrinth is a pretty much perfect meditation tool for me. It takes me about 20 minutes.

It was the Saturday of Holy Week, so I meditated on Jesus and the journey to Easter. It got very emotional and deep. I spent much of the walk crying, which probably made the tourists posing for selfies wonder about me, but whatever.

I thought of how Jesus left everything behind on the road to resurrection – at the end, even his life. And I thought about the losses of the last year, and the changes, and how what is taken from us is also a gift.

The labyrinth winds back and forth in a way that is just complicated enough to keep from being predictable, but not so unpredictable as to be stressful. You arrive in the calm center, where you can take time to gather yourself before heading back out into the world again.

It has been said that the labyrinth is a symbolic journey, and at the end of Saturday’s walk, I certainly felt I had been somewhere.

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I love a town with good coffehouses.

Fortified by my meditation and a cup of really decent coffee (thank you, Santa Fe, for having an espresso shop every 50 yards or so), I wandered the downtown and appreciated all the Southwestern loveliness it has to offer.

I’m still here after a week and I might stay a while. There are so many museums to visit. Suebobian heaven.

The Beauty of Forever

April 20, 2019

For the whole three weeks in Tempe, I couldn’t decide where to go next. North, or south? Arizona is just such a huge state and everything is so far apart that I was paralyzed with doubt. North seemed to cold and south too hot.

Finally, on the Thursday before I was to leave, my friend Coco posted photos on Facebook showing herself and her sister in Monument Valley, about 3 hours north just over the border into Utah.

“Can I come see you?” I asked. I didn’t want to butt in, but I did. Coco replied. Of course I could.

I headed north on Friday at lunch, wanting to get as far as I could that day, heading up into Flagstaff. Rain began pattering on my windshield, then hail. Then the ground was white. Being from Southern California, I had a good five seconds of thinking “What IS that?” before I realized I was driving in snow for the very first time in my life. In a 23-foot vehicle. Really not something I ever wanted to do. Ever. And yet.

It turns out prayers do work! I survived! With physical therapy, my shoulders may someday unclench.

After an overnight in Tuba City (very disappointed by the lack of actual tubas involved) I arrived in Monument Valley at 9 a.m. on Saturday, pulling up to the grocery just as Coco and her friends arrived in the spot next to me.

“We’ve got to find Effie and she’ll take us down into the valley,” Coco explained. I had no idea what any of this meant.

It turns out that Effie is Effie Yazzie, a Diné (what we used to call Navajo) woman whose family has lived in Monument Valley since people have lived there. Coco and Effie met 25 years ago on a horse camping trip that Effie led. Coco offered to write a book about Effie’s family and has spent years coming to Monument Valley to research it.

Coco and I jumped in Effie’s four-wheel drive truck and headed out into Monument Valley. At the toll booth, Effie chatted in Navajo with the toll-taker.

The road into the valley is rocky and unpaved and makes hairpin turns down with no guardrails or shoulders. We passed a sign to a restricted area. It turns out we were heading to Effie’s home, far out in the valley where only Diné guides can take people.

Effie and Coco talked on and on about family, catching up, telling stories.

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Effie’s place.

A traditional Diné home is a hogan, a round structure of wood and earth with a hole in the roof, the door facing east. Effie has a hogan on her property, as well as a more modern-looking small home – though still lacking electricity or running water. She raises sheep and keeps horses and guides horsepacking trips, and dyes, spins and weaves wool.

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The welcome sign on the door of the hogan on Effie’s land. “Welcome, friends, come in.”

She has three wild horses she saved from starvation because food in the valley had become so scarce that their bones were poking almost through their skin.

“I pay $260 every 2 weeks for hay to feed those guys,” she said.

Over a lunch of store-bought sandwiches and bananas we had brought, Effie was telling us about experimenting with some plants for purple dyes.

“Oh, I have some outside!” she said. She went out and began to pluck dyed wool from the tree outside her house where she had hung it to dry, showing us the soft purple color produced by some flowers a friend had sent her in a big envelope in the mail.

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Naomi and Molly, the indefatigable pug who accompanied us on our journey. Ok, somewhat fatigable – she slept in the truck a lot.

After lunch, Effie gave us a four-wheel drive tour of her yard – the miles of red rock formations in Monument Valley. She showed us where she had played as a child, pointing out petroglyphs hidden in little crevices. She told us about herding sheep, riding horses, camping.

She told us stories of her family, her ancestors, and the Anasazi, who some say were different people and some think were just Diné from a different time

We talked about school.

“I was seven before they caught me,” she said, laughing bitterly.

She was talking about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who came out to the land to snatch children from their parents and take them to English-speaking boarding schools far away.

“I hid under the bed, but they got me. My parents just had to stand by and watch,” she said. “Imagine that…those were horrible people, doing that.”

At one point, we stopped to see a huge domed rock formation called The Big Hogan. Sitting on a hillside covered with red sand, Effie began to sing a pure, haunting melody in Diné.

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Wild horses live in the valley.

“What is that?” I asked. “It sounds like a lullaby.”

“It’s a warrior song,” Effie said. “My brother taught me. But when he sings it, it sounds different.”

Effie knew every inch of the valley – every spot where the sand was deep and she had to gun her truck, every fork in every unpaved path. She even has a spot picked out for her next hogan.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t find words to tell Effie what the day meant to me. It was such a privilege to have her show me her beloved valley and her home and to share her stories and the stories of the Diné people with me.

I told her I would never forget it and bought her a tank of gas and a hamburger, but I can never repay her for showing me her home, another world, a world where I hope her children and grandchildren can live forever.

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The Big Hogan

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Effie shows us petroglyphs. To the left of her hand is a snake and a little deer. In the top center, some people with spiral heads.

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Coco and Effie, lovely friends.

 

 

 

 

 

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