I’m back from my Tucson adventure

IMG_20180315_113328079_HDR[1]I have just returned from driving to the Tucson Festival of Books and the associated master workshop in poetry. Three thousand miles. Eight days of driving. Three days of Tucson, Arizona. I know. That’s nuts. I wanted an adventure. I got one. I wanted to see the territory between here and there, not just fly over it. I have seen it.

I’m flailing in an avalanche of receipts, dirty clothes, unmowed lawns, uncleaned rooms, undone chores, books, written notes, typed notes, recorded notes, and memories I don’t want to lose as I sink into the overflow.

I want to hold on to that first sight of desert cactus, the winter-green hills of California where the cattle grazed, the llama watching freeway traffic, the woman at the Canyonville, Oregon gas station who was eating German chocolate cake at 8 a.m. and who called me “Sweetie,” the new writer friends with whom I ate, drank, laughed, and learned, the big hugs from cousins Adrienne and John in Tucson, the excitement when I found the street in Burbank, California, where my late husband Fred grew up, watching the cowfolk in Coalinga, the quirky antique shop at Chiriaco Summit, the incredible banana chocolate chip muffin from Mimi’s in Casa Grande, eating Denny’s chocolate lava cake and talking to my dad while sitting by the pool on a warm night in Blythe, California on my birthday. And so much more.

IMG_20180311_153719123[1]I don’t need to hold on to the traffic in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Stockton; the rain, wind, snow, and fog; the disappointment of the Royal Sun Best Western Hotel in Tucson and the hurt in my feet when the walk to the book festival proved far longer than these old feet could handle in tennis shoes; the really terrible shrimp-bacon-creamed avocado flatbread I ate for dinner one night; the Mexican restaurant run by Chinese people; the tight schedule that made it impossible to turn off I-5 to visit my father or my brother or my cousins; having to leave Annie in “doggie jail,” or the worrisome amount of money I spent. Nope. Let those go.

The Tucson Festival of Books was huge and amazing. I entered a raffle and won a $50 Amazon gift certificate. I bought a few books. I used up two pens and wore out the batteries on my voice recorder. The poetry workshop blew my mind.

IMG_20180308_151037105[1]Was it worth it? I won’t be driving that far on such a tight schedule again. Having to go 400 miles a day in order to arrive at the festival on time and get home in time to play the piano for Saturday Mass took some of the joy out of it. Much better to take time to explore the side roads, see the family, and sit still for a while.

Annie is overjoyed to have me home. My bed feels so much better than every other bed I slept in. The pellet stove is still a pain. The trees look the same. Everything looks the same, but I’m not the same. I think that’s a good thing.

Last night on the phone, my dad, who is 95, asked how old I was. When I told him, he exclaimed, “66! How the hell did you get to be so old?” He counseled that the way to stay healthy into old age is to keep active. If you sit in a chair and do nothing, you die. I agree. Where shall I go next?

I’m eleven bears from my dad’s house

black-bear-2We call it “The Bear.” Stop and let your imagination wander for a minute. No, it’s a restaurant. The Black Bear Diner. Twenty years ago, it was started in 1999 in Mt. Shasta by Bruce “Sugar Bear” Dean and Bob “Papa Bear” Manley. Now the list of Black Bear diners fills a whole page—64 locations in eight states. We could measure trips in Black Bears. Eleven bears from my house on the Oregon coast to Dad’s house in San Jose, California.

What do they serve? Nuts and berries? Well, that, too. I’d rather eat one of their giant bear claw pastries. They’re as big as a baseball mitt but a lot tastier. They have the usual diner food: omelets, biscuits and gravy, Black Bear Benedicts, Mama Bear and Papa Bear burgers, Bigfoot chicken fried steak, etc. The kids’ menu is for Cubs. Naturally. There are even bear footprints on the plates and pictures of bears on the coffee mugs.

The Black Bear diners play on the idea that bears are cute and cuddly while those of us who live in bear country know bears are enormous animals with extremely long claws that they’re not afraid to use. Their long fur is probably not nearly as soft or as clean as it looks from afar.

Giant wooden bears carved by chainsaw artist Ray Schultz greet customers at the door of the Black Bear restaurants. Mom, Dad, baby bear. Sometimes there’s one on all fours that children (and childish adults like me) can sit on.

Signs continue the bear theme: Caution: Mama bear on duty. Bear with us—Please wait to be seated. Welcome to Camp Grin and Bear It. The menus are printed inside old-fashioned newspaper pages with actual stories from a long-ago year—I got 1937 last week. You can keep the menus if you want.

Bears eat big. Even the so-called smaller orders are huge. My meat loaf at the original Black Bear diner in Mt. Shasta last week would have lasted me three days at home. And my Reuben sandwich down the road in Willows was so big I needed a couple of those bears to help me eat it. It’s all good. Not spectacular but dependable, down-home comfort food served by friendly people in Black Bear tee shirts and suspenders who might just call you Sweetie or Honey.

The Bear is always crowded. Expect to wait in line for the little bear’s room while singing along to oldies playing over the speakers. In Willows, I found myself belting out “Aquarius” with the Fifth Dimension, then looked around and realized all the others in line were too young to remember that song and were probably thinking I was a little crazy. Too bad. Mama Bear can sing whatever she wants.

Don’t forget to hit the gift shop for a bear mug, T-shirt, water bottle or even a wooden bear to keep you company until next time.

No, the Bears didn’t pay me to write this, but I couldn’t resist.

If We’re Going to Sit This Close Together, We Ought to at Least Say Hello

The man next to me in Row 28 of the Alaska Airlines 737 was handsome and tall, nicely dressed in a white shirt and brown slacks. The lady squashed into the window seat was thin, her red hair sparse. None of us spoke to each other the entire two hours we were in those seats. Window woman knitted. Handsome man worked on charts on his laptop. I read on my Kindle. His leg was touching mine for most of the trip, but we did not say a word, not until we landed and I asked him if he was leaving or going home. He was visiting friends in San Jose. I said I used to live in San Jose. I didn’t mention I was here for my cousin’s funeral. Then we got off the plane and rolled our rolly bags away.

Across the aisle, a man with huge headphones watched a movie on his iPad. The guys next to him dozed. In front of him, an Anglo man with equally huge headphones seemed to be reading Chinese on his laptop. Directly in front of me, all I could see was the beige back of the Row 27 seats with menus and the airline magazine in the pocket. I could barely see the window past people’s heads and the wing blocked our view anyway. Might as well read my book.

It’s crazy how people don’t talk to each other anymore. When I got to the gate in Portland, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone already seated at Gate C2 was staring at a phone or laptop. So I got my phone out, too.

On the return trip, where I had the middle seat in Row 29 of 32, the woman on my left had her sunglasses on and read off her tablet from beginning to end. She switched to games on her phone as we landed. My efforts to talk got nowhere. The woman on my right was a little younger and clearly a regular on these flights. She knew the menu and knew the flight attendants. She plugged in her headphones and had her eyes closed or focused on a magazine the whole trip. The whole vibe was “don’t talk to me.”

Everyone seems to want to be alone. We’re all staring at our phones, tablets, computers, and books. We seem to want to become invisible. People used to talk on planes. I remember a trip long ago where I almost had sex with the handsome guy sitting next to me. We talked the whole trip. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Aside from a few couples whispering to each other or a baby screeching at takeoff and landing, I hear only the roar of the plane and an occasional garbled announcement from the captain. With WiFi in the plane now, why talk? Right?

I couldn’t help thinking how much more fun it would be with a friend or a mate. We could talk. Also, we could go to the bathroom at the airport without having to take all our stuff. We could share a table at the restaurant with a person instead of a suitcase. We could make wisecracks about all the people staring at their screens.

I think we’re all nervous about flying, about going through security, about the possibility of the plane crashing, about being late. We’re uncomfortable being so close to strangers. I know I’m a bundle of anxiety when I fly. So much so on the return trip Friday that I handed the TSA agent my debit card instead of my ID. That got me a trip to the possible terrorist line. But they let me through.

These days, with no husband or kids, I always travel alone. Flying solo, you have to ask all the questions, do all the planning, and do all the heavy lifting of luggage. And you have no one with whom to share the memories, the laughs and the experiences. I miss that part the most. That and having someone to greet me when I stagger off the airplane at the end of the journey. But you’d think when you’re sharing an armrest, you’d be able to strike up a conversation. And hey guys, we’re 30,000 feet in the air traveling at a ridiculously fast speed. At least look out the window.

In spite of all that, it was a good trip. Lots of hugs, lots of sunshine, lots of quality time with family, one of whom gave me their cold. Rest in peace, cousin Jerry. I’m going to miss you. Thanks for bringing us together.


Motel roulette: you never know what lurks behind those doors

IMG_20150529_082338657[1]Motels are a gamble. I was in Eugene, preparing to attend a series of events at the University of Oregon related to my winning a prize in an essay contest. I had made reservations online from the comfy Best Western in Yreka that I wrote about last week. The new place was a little beyond my budget, but hey, it was the last two nights of my vacation. I figured I’d drive all day, check in, go for a swim, eat a quick microwaved dinner, and go to a reading at The Duck Store.

I check in. Ask for a downstairs room. Ask why the second night costs seventy dollars more than the first night (not mentioned online), get told there’s an Eagles rock concert in the auditorium across the street on Thursday night. Are you here for the concert? What concert? I’m here for an essay contest. My fee is nonrefundable at this point, so I get my card key. I notice the big sign saying the pool is closed. Oh, we’re waiting for a part, don’t know when it will arrive. Swell.

I move all my stuff in. Notice the security lock does not work. Notice there are no shampoos, and there’s no Kleenex. Iron all my wrinkled clothes and hang them in the closet. Notice the clock is not illuminated, and the light next to it does not work. Crawl around plugging things in. Set the clock. Unpack my instant Chinese food and stick it in the microwave. Set it for two minutes and push the button. The microwave goes on, but shuts off after two seconds. What? I reset it, push start, it shuts off after two seconds. After about six tries and one fist punch to the front of the microwave, I throw a big Portagee fit. No pool, no lock, no clock, no micro. I tell the Stepford Wife at the front desk that this room is F-d, and I want a refund. She calmly offers me an “upgrade” to a river view room upstairs.

Now, I travel with a lot of stuff, three or four loads worth, guitar, computer, clothes, food. I had spread my stuff all over my room, and I needed to be at the reading in less than an hour. You know those whirling dervish cartoon characters? That’s how I looked grabbing clothes, books, and papers, stuffing them all into bags and hauling them up the fourteen concrete steps to my new room, where the river was dark and sludgy, the refrigerator didn’t work, the air conditioning was iffy, and the toilet didn’t always flush. But I didn’t have time for another fit. I ate a few bites of my dinner, walked myself a new blister getting across the campus and arrived at the reading sweaty and stressed. Wine? Oh yes.

On the second day, my card key would stop working, a guy would be power-washing the sidewalk outside my room in the morning when I was trying to write, and the entrance would be blocked off so I couldn’t drive to anywhere near my room the night of the concert. But I did have a nicer view, including a few ducks and geese, and I got to inhale some complimentary marijuana smoke from the Eagles fans a few balconies away.

It wasn’t all bad. The pool got repaired, the Wi-Fi rocked, and the continental breakfast included a pancake machine, first one I ever saw. It was nice looking at the river, especially after my experience in Red Bluff where another river room offered a view of rocks and dirt, that section of the river dried out in California’s drought. And Sam’s sports bar next door was fabulous.

But you never know. That’s why I dream of buying a camper someday and taking my room with me. It might not offer a free continental breakfast, but at least I’ll know where I’m sleeping every night and if something doesn’t work, I can fix it.

I arrived in Eugene after a week with my dad in San Jose, a good trip, lots of bonding for both of us. We also made another visit to Kaiser Hospital, this time to replace his pacemaker. It went well. Dad is fine, but it killed me to say goodbye. Always does.

I hit Eugene on the way home to collect my prize for winning third place in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives essay contest for a piece called “When the Lights Go Out.” The prize included not only cash, but a master class with contest judge and fabulous author Lidia Yuknavitch and a chance to read our works to an audience at the university. Then we got taken to dinner at the posh Excelsior restaurant. Crab raviolis!

I felt like a princess by the end of the festivities. Twenty-four hours later, I was home mowing my lawn, but I have my memories. And at the moment, everything in my house works. Plus I have Annie. Home is not a gamble.

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