Travel journal: the unexpected, Part I

Town of six buildings includes a coffee barn

To sum up my vacation: bears and bars.

The dichotomy of obsessing about grizzly bears and full Internet connection on the same trip is puzzling even to me.

Let me explain. I had in mind a somewhat outdoorsy trip. I wanted to do some challenging hiking and climbing, but I also knew that with a five-year-old in tow I was not going backcountry camping. So, I left the tent at home and instead hauled my laptop computer and digital camera along so that I could post daily. (I don’t know what made me think I’d post more while on vacation than I do at home.)

The plan died a quick death. Immediately outside Wisconsin, I began experiencing spotty service. When we arrived in southwest Montana, it became clear there would be no Internet unless I was willing to make an effort to find it. Phone service? Forget it. So much for the mighty Android on Verizon. No bars for this girl.

Feeling like a pouty baby who lost her binky, I wondered when connectivity became a vacation priority. For a while, I let my disappointment and frustration cloud the treasures laid out before me. I realized I’d once again become disconnected from nature. My online world threatened to dominate my life.  And damn is it hard to shake that monkey off your back. (Later into the vacation during a mountain climb, I almost lost my footing on algae-slicked log stretched across a rushing stream. I didn’t think about hypothermia or broken bones or a bruised ego that would follow a spill, I thought about my camera and phone tucked in my daypack and what would I do if they got wet.)

Here we were in this rugged canyon a few miles outside national forest north of Yellowstone National Park. While the cabin had modern amenities such as a dishwasher and a laundry room, only the log walls and metal roof separated us from true wilderness. Hike a small distance outside the door and find mountain lion tracks and animal bones. Signs and notices beg us to remember we are in grizzly country. On the kitchen counter, nestled with the salt and pepper and sugar, is a large canister of bear spray. (More on this in the next post.)

Here we are for a week in what we called a cabin; the proprietors market it as a retreat. After discovering a little wooden buddha carved from a log and perched amid the landscaping, I knew I had to honor the sentiment. I was on a retreat. I took my morning coffee alone on the wooden deck overlooking the valley.  I attempted to memorize the zigzag horizon carved by rock and pine. I inhaled the stiff breeze infused with sage, juniper, and ponderosa pine. I listened to the sighs and whistles of wind sliding past limbs and leaves, the mechanical whirr of the unseen humming birds, the roar and gush of the river below.  I sat in the perfect balance and harmony of the world.

I read two books.

I napped by the side of a snowmelt lake.

I scribbled in my paper journal.

I climbed scrubby, rocky mountain sides, my heart racing for signs of wildlife.

Unless we ventured into the valley, we saw no one else. When we did explore, rarely did I see anyone with their attention and energy directed toward a little screen. Folks were casting fly rods, paddling kayaks, hefting backpacks, pedaling mountain bikes, adjusting lenses on cameras, working with horses or cattle on their ranch, or just relaxing. They were living in the now.

I paid attention to that. I pondered this unnameable “thing” that draws me to this part of the country, that opens something inside me that is fused shut most of the time. My mind assembled a scrapbook of images: well-muscled bodies, beautifully weathered natural faces, an ethos of survival and practicality, a need to live on the edge, an understanding that nature is a powerful force, one that you cannot outwit or outrun.

Just when I felt this “thing” infuse every cell in my body, when I was truly a transformed person, we moved on to Wyoming and Colorado. I gained a strong, clear signal. The door to my online world opened, beckoning me to return. The more platforms I opened, the more I realized how one week can set you behind, how easy it is to slip into the endless stream of other people’s minutia. I felt the anxiety boiling inside. I closed the laptop, grabbed a blanket, and huddled outside under a dome of sparkling black. I counted shooting stars.

The Internet is as vast as the universe above. Why does one soothe while the other agitate?

Much of my anxiety stems from too much online and not enough outside. Oh, and then there’s the need for thrills and drama. What of that?

More in the next post.


Travel journal: Overpacking


I just finished packing for the annual family summer road trip. I’m looking at the bloated suitcases and tote bags lined up in the hallway and thinking, wow, I really overpacked.

“Just throw a few T-shirts, a toothbrush, and a few changes of underwear in a small bag and be on your way,” says my wash-and-wear friend, the one with the athletic build, perfect skin, and tousled beach blonde hair. Sure, it’s easy for her. She makes a shopping bag with armhole cutouts look like high fashion.  She traveled Europe for a month with a carry-on backpack.

“Just buy what you forget at the local Target.”

I told her I don’t think there are any Target stores where we are going.

“Well, Wal-Mart then.”

Um, no. The Evil Empire gets not a dime of my money. (Actually, I’ve read some bad things about Target as well. My sexy boyfriend with the bull’s-eye tattoo has some dirty secrets. Looks like I’m going to have to reevaluate that relationship.)

“You are being difficult,” she says.

Sigh. Yes, I am.

I harbor a great resistance to packing. I procrastinate. Then I panic and overpack. This wasn’t always the case. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Actually, I do.

This is an act of rebellion. When I use an airplane to get where I’m going, I am so restricted not only in weight and dimension but also suitcase contents.  It makes me feel violated and oppressed. When I travel by car, I can take my entire wardrobe, my shoe collection, a stack of hardcover books, three types of shampoo in the full-size bottles.  I can fill a suitcase full of liquids and sharp objects. I can keep my shoes and belt on when I cross a state line.

Of course, I am not going to get the last laugh this time. My husband called; he wrenched his back. No heavy lifting for several days. You know what that means, don’t you?

Later, I’ll post pictures of myself carrying the kitchen sink up the side of a mountain.

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Random notes from California:

We slipped away in the death grip of pre-dawn, the 13-degree air biting our faces and seeping through our light clothing. I knew that by the time I reached my destination, these same clothes that did little to fend off the painful cold would become sweat-inducing extra layers.

It’s been a wonderful respite to see a dome of deep blue overhead instead of the endless gray blanket. It’s been refreshing to splash and wade in the Pacific Ocean surf at Santa Monica, to feel — feel! the sun on my skin. In the north, even if the sun is out and overhead, it has about all the warmth of a 25-watt lightbulb.

I have not coughed, hacked, blown my nose excessively or had to use any OTC products in order to breathe. Additionally I have not had to repeatedly slather Aquaphor on my hands, elbows and knees.

Is it possible to believe that the drivers here in Los Angeles and surroundings seem nicer than in Detroit? I’ve heard about the traffic out here, and it does appear to be clogged and grid-locked on the expressways. Yet, people here actually allow us to cross a street without threatening to plow us down. Red lights actually stop traffic. Is this an anomaly? Am I hallucinating?

All the walking, fresh air, sunshine, clear skies, greenery and life moving about freely is an awakening. Being a creature of the north who never, ever goes away in winter, I simply grow accustomed  to the hibernation state of the dark months. We stay indoors most of the time, acclimate to the gray dimness and seeping cold. We accept the near-depressed mental state.

For a few days I imagine a different life.

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Good reads and the open road

Photo by Eric I E via Creative Commons

We are going on a road trip.

Yes, we are.

We are pointing the compass West and driving away from the flat terrain of the Great Lakes. We’ll be tearing across that big lawn that separates the Midwest from those pretty purple mountains. How far will we travel before we shed this sticky, scratchy blanket of humidity? How many miles before I breathe that sigh of release?

I look forward to inhaling the scent of sage and  alpine air and complaining of dry skin rather than leaking pores. I’m pretty sure I’ll perform prostrations at the base of the mountains and kiss the earth. Maybe I’ll post a picture.

This is my first road trip out West with full Internet/digital capabilities. As much as I’d like to unplug for 10 days, I know I’d rather document and share the experience.

This also is the first extended family trip — other than that haunted weekend last summerwe’ve had since March 2009, when the severe belt-tightening was just beginning to make our eyeballs pop. It will be on a nickel and dime. Frankly, I’m not sure we don’t have panhandling worked into our itinerary. Most of our adventure is possible due to the generosity of family. It will be challenging, but I also think it will be character building and oh-so-worth-it to see the land I love and spend quality time with family.

Road trips mean endless hours of the same scenery (cows! more cows! cows and barns and silos!), lousy radio stations, even lousier food choices, and my favorite part — books. I’ve already stuffed my backpack full of reading material.

In the spirit of summer vacations and road trips and good reads, here are a few new and recent finds on the Internets. I like to think of these sites as warm and welcoming down comforters on a cold afternoon, as eye-opening as the first cup of coffee of the morning, and as pleasantly wonderful as finding a new best friend right down the street.

Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce — I can’t get enough of this new blog. What a great concept not only for a blog but also for life.

The Suniverse — I met this blog’s author at the Detroit stop of Bossy’s (No)Book Tour and fell in love with her style. She makes me laugh and cry all at once. Her posts ring true.

You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me — Another  beautifully crafted blog that spins the stuff of life into colorfully touching tales.

Mrs. Blogalot — Always funny. Always on target.

Momma Mia, Mea Culpa & Redhead Ranting — I found these two blogs through Tribal Blogs and they fast became part of my daily/weekly blog habit. I think if you went out with these ladies for a few cocktails, the night would not be boring, I am sure of that.

Happy reading.

Next report: Live, from cattle country.

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I want the window seat, but I'll settle for Google Earth


I love the window seat. Whether it’s on a bus, car or airplane, I have to have the window seat.

Whether I’m 3 feet or 30,000 feet from the ground, I love to peer out at the world.

Know why? On a clear day, the world seems so still and manageable, especially  from above.*

Everything is reduced to form and function. Details are omitted. Histories obscured. A farm is a farm. A field is a field. A road stretches from one compass point to the next. A river meanders on its path to the ocean. 

On our flight to Arizona, we are blessed with a cloudless view nearly the whole distance. The heartland of America looks like a big patchwork quilt of greens, ambers and browns. Roads are childlike scribbles scratched across a sheet of paper stretching from East to West, writing the story of our country’s development. Perhaps because I was hungry, the mighty Rocky Mountains become row upon row of chocolate chunks topped with powdered sugar. I want to reach down with my index finger and run it through that sparkling frosting.

Google Earth

Google Earth

As I look at the world below in miniature, I realize the  how connected everyone and everything really is. I’ve been hearing a lot about this lately and have had trouble wrapping my mind around it. It’s so obvious when you see the effort put into creating cities and road systems. The shape and size of a farm reflects not only the farmer’s labor but also the output that supports all us consumers. What one person does on his patch of earth does affect neighbors near and far.

Google Earth image of my home

Google Earth image of my home

It’s all perspective. Some days I want to gain altitude, grab a corner of the complicated quilt that is my life and shake it with all my strength. What is good and right will stick. What is bad will project out of my sight and reach.

I’ll try to remember all this when I can’t see beyond my walls.

Oh, and downloading Google Earth helps, too.

Google Earth image of family land

Google Earth image of family land


*All bets are off when flying around or through a storm system.

Long-distance relationship


I was flashed today.

It happened as I pulled back the curtains on my hotel room window. I was startled to find  a set of  voluptuous mountains popping out of the horizon. I stared, speechless. The rocky mounds flanked by swaying palms shimmied like some kind of hula dancer performing a show only I could understand.

Yesterday, outside the hotel I found a gathering of well-muscled, phallic cacti strutting around in the rock gardens. I could almost swear one of them whispered something dirty to me.

I’m nine years into a marriage. But I get weak in the knees when warm sun begins to massage my winterized flesh and achy blue sky winks at me wherever I turn. How can a girl stay faithful to her northern roots?

These trips out west, they’re almost like porn.

This latest tryst finds me pulling back the covers on a part-time lover named Arizona. He moves around a lot, changes his name. Sometimes he’s New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming or Montana. Always though, when we reunite, I melt into his broad shoulders, inhale his sage-scented coat of many colors and whisper promises of “someday.”

The torch was lighted in my childhood on a road trip to the Badlands and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and Devil’s Tower Monument in Wyoming. Throughout my youth, my family covered many miles of road stretching to all points on the compass. But it was the western sojourn that lodged itself in my psyche. Thirty some years later, the grip has not loosened.

It begs the question: Why haven’t I left Michigan? Can’t I divorce this Great Lakes relationship and run away with my Western lover?

The answer is always the same: The time is not yet right. I’ve had offers. I’ve had chances. But, I’m needed here — for now. I’m slowly preparing for my departure, saying my good-byes, biding my time.

Until then, I get my thrills any way I can.


High times

On one of our many visits to Colorado we went to a theme park took the roller coaster road from Independence Pass to Aspen. It is considered one of the highest paved roads in North America. We flatlanders had been in the mountains only for a few days so the initial shock of altitude change had worn off, we thought, but I guess it takes much longer to fully acclimate to the environment.

This picture was taken at Highway 82 overlook, a breathtaking stopover at 12,095 feet above sea level. In my travel journal I describe the air as thin and cold. I observe that we are on tundra, above the tree line.  The views are dizzying and exhilirating. I realize the little squiggle below is really the road we took to get here.

The drive to Aspen is nothing but a series of hair-pin turns and switchbacks through the peaks and valleys of the central rockies. It was the equivalent feeling of stepping off the Tilt-A-Whirl at the local carnival — after you’ve unwisely ingested a hot dog with everything.

This picture was taken in 2004. I could have sat on that bench all afternoon, soaking up the sun, feeling the wind whip my hair, and inviting the utter peace and serenity of the landscape to infuse my soul.

It’s a feeling I can only get in places of nature’s extremities. The surf crashing on the rocks at the seaside or on a snow-covered peak in the mountains. I’m not a religious person, but these moments are the closest thing to feeling a God, a higher power, a presence greater than myself.

Why I can’t get that feeling in a Michigan cornfield I don’t know.

Last Vegas post, I promise

Can you tell I don’t get out much? Our trip to Las Vegas last week was the first time I’d taken a plane anywhere in two years. Sure, I’ve had plenty of little driving trips to regional cities and I’ve headed out to the woods for camping. But since Girl from the East came along, I’ve been a bit of a homebody.
So, take that into consideration with this post. Oh, and the fact that I found a puppy on the street in Las Vegas, which I have named NaBloPoMo.
This yapping, wiggly ball of fuzz seemed so cute and irresistible on Oct. 31. But when I woke up on Nov. 1 to his persistent demands of Post! Post! Post! I worried that I’d made a snap decision. Will I still want my little NaBloPoMo on Nov. 30?
I hope some pictures will calm him for a day.

So, in review, here is where we stayed, day view:

It’s even prettier at night:

I love the palm trees and the pink buildings:

I’m not sure what this is.

But it promised this:

As near as I could tell, it was some kind of human car wash experience. I lurked a bit to see if anyone would get into these pods. But no one did. Hmm…ideas anyone?

So, this ends my talk of Las Vegas, pictures of Las Vegas and any other reference to that city in Nevada. I now have 27 more days to go in which I must think of 27 non-Las Vegas things to write about.

Every day is Halloween


Photo from Encyclopedia Brittanica

Photo from Encyclopedia Brittanica



Is every day Halloween in Las Vegas?

There are plenty of tricks: husband encountered some prostitutes yesterday.

There are lots of treats: Oh, the eye candy. And the shopping! And the food! And the Bellagio fountain show at night! There is something to satisfy all of the five senses here.

There are the costumes: Hello, shows?

Also, there is a lot that’s scary:

  • In the throes of a major caffeine withdrawal, I went to the lobby coffee shop to get my fix and marveled at all the people strolling around with cocktails in hand, sucking on cigarettes, parked in front of slot machines  — or all of the above. At freakin’ 6 a.m.
  • I’m not talking about young people with stamina or high rollers who can afford to lose a wad of cash. I’m seeing seniors on Social Security. Folks in wheelchairs and walkers. I’m barely coherent at this hour. I wondered: Have they been there since last night? Or did they rise even earlier than the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. to gamble? I don’t mean to be insulting, but this is a world I just don’t understand.
  •  This is a city that never sleeps. Traffic, both on the sidewalk and on the streets is pretty thick and erratic. Attempting to navigate this town on foot with a stroller was daunting at times. Then I saw a dad pushing a triplets stroller and felt humbled a bit.
  • Con artists and shady characters abound. Apparently I am a bulls’ eye, being a woman alone with a small child. While out walking “The Strip” yesterday, I had several men approach me with all kinds of crazy pitches and propositions, including a handsome 20-something who encouraged me to “come with him. He had something to show me. Something for my skin.”
  • I’ll be he did. Incredulously, I pointed to my baby girl in the stroller and reminded him that I had a small child to attend to. Oh? Is she yours, he asked.  I couldn’t resist checking for my valuables after that encounter, fully convinced something had been up.

Let me just clarify right now: The husband is here on business.  Girl from the East and I tagged along. I had reservations about coming to Las Vegas with an almost 3-year-old because just about everything there is to do here in Sin City is the direct opposite of what you do with a toddler.

There is to be no unbridled drinking and foolishness for the MomZombie on this trip, although I get offered free drinks everywhere I go. There will be no Chippendale’s revue or Blue Man Group experience on this trip. There will be no “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” moments. Sigh.

Know what’s scariest of all? Imagining what I’d do if I came here with a group of friends.