Thursday, July 31, 2008

Day 13: The Cloisters

July 27: A Resting Place

Soundtrack: Carmina Burana

To wake up in Sister Laura’s tiny apartment in New York, surrounded by the photos and souvenirs of a life lived watching movies, was always surreal and delightful. Black and white glossies of the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Jeremy Brett, and David Suchet looked down from the walls; my favorite was a magazine ad for Barney’s with Dean Stockwell in a suit. She had cupboards full of toys gleaned from years of Sci Fi Conventions and movie promotions and kachina dolls collected from curio shops out west.
While watching Catherine Deneuve in The Young Girls of Rochefort, we put together an exotic picnic of hummus and pita bread and baba ganouch, and baklava and left the parking space round the corner from the Rodeo before our quarters ran out. In Chelsea we picked up Barb and started uptown for the Cloisters; it seemed to take forever, but we finally got close enough to park in a lot facing the Hudson and walk over to Fort Tryon Park. We took the tour of the gardens and rooms filled with hangings and medieval artifacts. I was surprised to learn that the building was not brought over stone by stone from Europe but designed to look as if it were and built by wealthy philanthropist.
Twenty years before, Doug and I had brought Charlie to the Cloisters for a Fourth of July picnic, with salmon mousse (!) and champagne on the lawn, before Laura Anne was born. Unlike the characters in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, we were not gathered up by the Grim Reaper.
Charlie had rolled down the grassy hill above the castle and later we took a taxi over to watch the Macy’s fireworks on the other side of the island. It was a rarity in our lives - a trip for pure pleasure, not part of a tour or a gig - just to give Charlie a chance to see his aunt in New York City. Although Laura and I had made the trip by train the year I finished Americorps service, finishing my degree left no time make the cross-country trip with Charlie. The last time we would travel together, in 1999, was to Uxmal in Mexico so that I could research a paper on MesoAmerican Art. Charlie was working on a report on Malcolm X and we had used the Thanksgiving weekend to finish our classwork for the fall semester. It was a lovely getaway, but disappointing since some of the ruins were being excavated. We took dozens of slides for my project and hoped to return when the Pyramid of the Magician was open for tours.
After I started working as a teacher in 2000, Charlie began to gradually show signs of a mental illness that his doctors at Kaiser Permanente couldn’t seem to get under control. With the ensuing roller coaster ride in an out of sanity, there never seemed to be enough time for us to travel the therapeutic “road away from Here” that Steinbeck took in 1960.
So Laura was taking this part of the trip in his place and we still had to decide what to do with the last of his ashes. Laura and Laura and Barb sat in the shade by the high stone wall talking while I walked around, looking at the garden that edged the grounds toward Riverside Drive. I tried to interest them in scattering the ashes in the gardens, but they weren’t into it. There was an enormous oak tree set back near the western wall that seemed perfect to me, behind some hedges so no one would notice. So I went back to the HHR and got the little ceramic vial we had brought all the way from L.A. and walked round and round and round the tree, leaving the last of Charlie in this beautiful place with a view of the sunset over the Hudson River.
That evening we went downtown to a screening of Woody Allen’s Scoop, which turned out to be eerily appropriate. It wasn’t until much later that I found a snapshot of Charlie, age three, standing smiling and happy in an arched window at the edge of the Cloisters garden, not far from the big oak tree.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 12: Vintage Entertainment

July 26: New York City

Soundtrack: Hootenanny Hoot

For weeks I had studied maps, large and small, but maps are not reality at all – they can be tyrants. I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though held by flanged wheels to a rail.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

Despite listening to screams and arguments off and on all night from Brokeback Mountain, Sister Laura managed to get up and go to work at BBC America. I moved the car into a garage up the street and got coffees from the Starbucks down on Third Avenue. But even the house blend wasn’t strong enough to get Laura Anne and me out of the air-conditioned apartment before noon.
Luckily there was an entertaining film on tv: the 1963 Hootenanny Hoot, starring Peter Breck and Ruta Lee with vintage performances by Johnny Cash, Sheb Wooley, Judy Henske, and the Brothers Four, pumping up the folk craze for all they were worth. This was a period I remembered as the time I tried to get my father to buy me a guitar so I could be cool, but he got me a bigger accordion instead. I tried to play the requisite Bob Dylan and Highwaymen and Peter Paul and Mary material on my grandmother’s mandolin, but it wasn’t sufficiently cool for high school. (Forget the accordion!) So I learned the folk repertoire well enough I could host a radio show later at Pacifica Houston. Hootenanny Hoot was quite a flashback for me and Laura dug it since she was a big Johnny Cash fan. I think Charlie would have made us change the station; he didn’t have much tolerance for folk or country.
We decided to maintain continuity by checking out some more vintage entertainment at the Museum of Radio, Television, and Film. The trek uptown was a bit grueling in 90-degree heat, but the place was blessedly air conditioned and we spent the rest of the day watching Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, a Dick Cavett show with Bob Dylan, a Frank Lloyd Wright documentary narrated by Anne Baxter, and screenings of I Love Lucy and All in the Family, with guest star Sammy Davis Junior.
After happy hour at the Rodeo, taquitos and quesadillas, virgin and not-so virginal margaritas, I moved the car out of a parking garage in time for the free street parking. Laura and Laura and I looked over the Rand McNally maps to get an idea of New England so we could approximate the first leg of Steinbeck’s trip. We knew Connecticut was on the itinerary and then Massachusetts and as close as we could get to Maine. Making it to Maine would be quite a feat in the three-day weekend we had ahead, since the next day was dedicated to having a picnic at the Cloisters with Laura’s friend Barb and a taking in a free screening in the evening.
Our Daddy would have drawn a red line for the route like Kerouac had tried to at first, and he would have held to it; we’d been there for the first 20 years of family vacations and that was one thing we were sure we DIDN’T want to do.

Day 11: New York State of Mind

July 25 - Utica, New York to the Adirondacks to Saratoga Springs to New York City

Soundtrack: Offspring, Smash; The Beetles, Best of 1964-1969, local radio

I pulled into a rest stop outside Utica on the New York Thruway, a toll road that seemed to charge by the mile. More than just bathrooms and drinking fountains, the place was a great wooden vault with restaurants and souvenir shops, all caged and closed for the night, and a lone custodian sweeping in a corner. The bathroom was the important thing. I took a nap until dawn in the parking lot so it would be handy.
Determined to get off without shelling out more change, I looked up the State 12 exit and went north onto green-dotted road 8 toward the hills and lakes of the New York State of mind. On the Rand McNally map, the blue highways were gray and the next level up was red with green dots for the scenic route. We favored the red-and-green highways because they were usually beautiful AND paved.
Conveniently, the local station cued the Billy Joel song and we were set; when Laura woke up, she resumed her sound track, but I kept switching to local radio which was largely country and faded in and out through the hills.
These were the Adirondacks, rolling countryside with tiny rustic towns built right up to the road, perfect little 2-story cottages surrounded by flower gardens and winding country lanes, like the one I turned off on accidentally, drove ten miles in a scenic circle and ended up at the same turnoff. After a few hours cruising the verges of lakes in and out of shade trees and I was ready to sell out in the Mojave Desert and move to one of these mini-utopias. What a lovely feminist fantasy, to walk away from the domestic scene in California and reinvent myself in a new kind of paradise.
Laura took it as a bad joke. She thought I was trying to get away from her, not just exercising my escapist fantasies, which had, on occasion, come true. The house in Joshua Tree was a fantasy come true, the “place to in the land somewhere” that I wrote about in college, when I was her age. That dream hadn’t been achieved until I graduated from Cal State thirty years later. Because I was teaching in the City and could ony make it out on weekends, I gave this time for solitude and contemplation to Charlie, hoping he would use it to find himself. He was going to college in this best of all possible places, next door to the National Park. I came out the desert to escape from the city over summers and holidays and our lives there were slow-moving, full of books and movies on tv, and long walks on dirt roads in the cool of the evening. He would surf the internet and do his college homework and I would make out lesson plans and correct papers and enter grades. Now the red house in Joshua Tree sat empty, the wind scoured its redwood finish and wore the window screens away, the pipes froze and cracked in winter, and the dream had died with Charlie.
Why wouldn’t I want to escape? These quaint country houses basking in the heat of summer beckoned with the idea of new lives to be lived. These mountains were a new paradise, far from the bare stones and the sad stories in California. Laura’s anger, so unexpected, came out of a feeling that by settling here I would be abandoning her and her aspirations of film school and a fairytale career in the Industry.
O.K., O.K., I was being self-indulgent, reacting to this magical place. North of the road was an enormous wilderness of mountains and lakes that we barely grazed as we headed east on state road 29 into Sara toga Springs. We parked on the main street of the picturesque town, where a Starbuck’s offered caffeine and a restroom accessible to all. Sitting outside at a wire table, we watched the mostly affluent-looking passersby and fortified ourselves for the trek down the Hudson. We had the salmon from the night before in the cooler and needed to get bread, mustard and wine for a picnic on the river.
Here things became a bit tricky, because in the gentrified stores of downtown Sara toga Springs, even the cheapest loaf of bread and jar of mustard would have set us back at least 5 bucks. We finally settled on French bread from the La Brea Bakery in L.A. and found a state liquor store for the jug of wine. After a lengthy discussion on Lake Country vintages with a young salesman, the best buy again turned out to be from California. As for the mustard, we ended up at a general store on the road down the river where a small jar of brown mustard was only $2.49. In this case, it was the principal of the thing. We were saving our cash for NEW YORK CITY!
The picnic was at Castleton-on-Hudson, a swath of green lawn with rest areas in sight of the River. We walked about a little, but the river was edged with boat launching docks and we couldn’t really put our hands in the water. The bridge over the Hudson beckoned and the 9 west ran closer to the river than the 9 on the east side, so we crossed over, thinking there might be a way to scatter Charlie’s ashes so he would drift down to the ocean. But there was no stopping on the bridge, so we headed south for New York, sidetripping into the Catskills to experience Woodstock, a place so perfect even the address signs and mailboxes at the ends of the long forested drives were decorative.
Heading into New York, red highway 9 got itself tangled with toll road 87 and we accidentally got onto the 287 south of Nyack trying to get away from it all. Then we had to catch Interstate 80 to get back in the right direction and spent an hour or so groping through Paterson, New Jersey, Kerouac and Ginsberg territory, a landscape unexpectedly picturesque for New Jersey.
Finally the exit for the George Washington Bridge loomed ahead; we couldn’t avoid paying a toll if we wanted to drive onto Manhattan. The bridge in this case felt more like a tunnel; the narrow roads pumped up my adrenaline with fear of clipping other motorists at 50 mph emerging onto the Franklin Roosevelt Drive. We made it! Turning off onto 20th Street was like coming off a roller coaster ride; we circled Sister Laura’s block a few times looking for a place to park the HHR and we were there.
Sister Laura has lived in a tiny apartment around the corner from the Rodeo Cafe and Bar on East Third for over 20 years. Every inch of wall space in the efficiency is covered with videos and dvds and photos of her media heroes. Her captain’s bed is on one end of the room and the shower, kitchenette, and bathroom are on the other. There is a futon on the wall by the window with the air conditioner and a closet, desk, and rolling tv stand on the other side of the room. Only the essentials.
The three of us walked down to the nearby supermarket, a rarity in Manhattan, and bought crudités and delicacies to round out our supper of champagne and pate on crackers: an impromptu feast. On the way back we passed a band loading in at the backdoor of the Rodeo Bar. A nice young fellow named Sean Kershaw (no relation to the Cajun fiddler) invited us to catch his act later and we said we’d try.
That night we watched Heath Ledger as Casanova and gormandized like Renaissance Italians; we hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain yet and were going to break that out, too, but Laura Anne fell asleep right away, so Sister Laura and I snuck down to the bar.
Wot Larx! After a couple of plastic cups of lukewarm white wine I was ready to PARTY and danced with a 30ish dude in a stingy brim hat and an unseasonable suit until both of us were sweating like the proverbial c & w porkers. I missed the floor collapsed conveniently into my folding chair. The band knew Hank Williams stuff and Johnny Cash and even John Prine. HOO-HAH! That was some fun. All we had to do was take the elevator up to bed, but we still tried to watch Brokeback Mountain, which cycled on noisily through the night from Wyoming to Texas and back again.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Day 10: Over the Falls

July 24: Flint, Michigan to Canada to Niagara Falls

We saw it all. We saw the souvenir shops and sitting
on the mist above the falls the brilliant signs
saying hotels to love in, cigarettes to smoke,
souvenirs for proof; we give you anything you want...
Alan Dugan “Niagara Falls” (1947)

Niagara Falls is very nice. It’s like a large version of the old Bond sign on Times Square. I’m very glad I saw it, because from now on if I am asked whether I have seen Niagara Falls I can say yes, and be telling the truth for once.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

Soundtrack: Pearl Jam; Fiona Apple, Tidal; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas soundtrack (again)

Waking in Flint, Michigan, across the road from the GM Plant, the limitations of our Day’s Inn were soon apparent. In the dark it seemed to be a well groomed, pleasant accommodation, constructed in a u-shape around a courtyard pool and grassy area. By daylight, the swimming pool was defunct and covered with a tarp, the concrete facade was crumbling at the edges, and the restaurant was actually a rowdy sports bar that opened to early drinkers at 8 in the morning. Several of the patrons claimed to have been laid off at the GM plant, including the desk clerk at the motel. We had looked forward to visiting the GM factory and seeing where the HHR came from, but most of the tours listed in the visitors’ brochure had not actually been given for ten years and the ones that remained did not start until after Labor Day. My plan for contacting the General Motors community relations department and getting sponsored for the remainder of the trip were summarily dashed.
I made a mental note to rent Roger and Me and bone up on how this sorry state of things had come to pass.
For now, all we could do was enjoy the continental breakfast, hang out until the Law and Order rerun on t.v. was over, and pack up for the trip to Canada that Steinbeck had been denied because he forgot to vaccinate his Charley. The day was surreally bright, with the sunroof open onto pure blue and the tree-lined streets of Michigan gliding by. Before we left the states there was, of course the matter of the pin button for Michigan, and we stopped into a thrift shop to find one, but no luck.
As we got gas, the attendant was adding 10¢ more to the price board for every grade. I drank a diet coke to wake up for Canada, but again, not much luck, and after the bridge Laura took over, pronouncing the place “boooring.” I couldn’t stay awake to alleviate the boredom the way Charlie always did – with lively game of Guess My Animal, our version of 20 Questions.
And so it went until Niagara Falls, where all tourism broke loose, with mega-hotels, crowded restaurants and parking a mile away down an albeit scenic drive. One more we crossed into the States, and the contrast to the Canadian circus was amazing. In state parks on the northern and southern edges of the falls, we walked along cliffside trails overlooking a great vortex upstream from the falls and dined in splendor overlooking the sunset and the nightly light show from the Canadian side. The portion of salmon on my salad was sufficient for lunch the next day, we took one last look over the edge and left more than satisfied. Now that was a peak experience!
After dark. the industrial jungle south of the Falls beguiled me with other lights on towers and factory smokestacks. It took an hour or so to get back on the road to New York City; the night stretched out a broken line that glowed in the dark between the lanes as I drove our self-sufficient little chamber on to our destination. Laura stretched out in the back, relaxing on the star pillows as if she were in her own bed. The only element missing was Charlie, reduced to ashes and memories.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Day 9: The Wright Spirit Takes Over

July 23: Racine, Wisconsin to Chicago to Lake Michigan to Flint, Michigan

Reality is spirit– the essence brooding just behind all aspect. Seize it!
Frank Lloyd Wright

Soundtrack: Beck, Odelay; Anthony Castellano’s Mix for Laura; Pearl Jam; franchise radio: the River

I caught up with the laundry at the Knight’s Inn in Racine, which had a washer and dryer and a little room to sit and read On the Road. As soon as I realized I was at the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. I asked the desk clerk, who was very knowledgeable about the town, and she drew me a map of how to get to the factory.
We took off after the the clothes were dry, unhampered by a swimming pool or jacuzzi, and headed toward Lake Michigan. I had intended to take the ferry across the Lake and miss Chicago, but this was to be another day of Wright sites and a validation of Steinbeck’s mid-west anchor point. It would also be a day of allergic reactions to medications and we would cut back on the antibiotic Laura was taking and the Ibuprofen the HMO had prescribed for my hip problems. Laura got a rash all over and my hands and feet began to itch terrifically, so we halved the dosage, which made perfect sense since we were both short people, under 5’4”. (According to Randy Newman, we were the ones with no reason to live, not Charlie, who took after his grandfather and was nearly 6 feet tall.)
There was more to the Johnson’s Wax Building than I remembered from the drawings, including a great golden scalloped canopy as we pulled into the turnout, but the facility was not open for tours. We had to appreciate it from a distance and turn around in the driveway. Back we drove through the streets of nineteenth century, mostly brick, buildings and south down the shore of Lake Michigan.
Unfortunately, the lake remained mostly in the far distance, even along the famous Lakeshore Drive into Chicago. Laura liked the lushness of the landscape and the tiny towns heading south into the city. We stopped at Glencoe and had ice cream at a little shop across from a park on the rail line. Though we never found the Botanic Gardens, Laura was amused by a sign for Roy Radigan’s Wonderful Food.
The way into Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright houses was through a seemingly interminable ghetto. Laura slept through this tedium of crosstown traffic while I listened to a man on pubic radio read his own story about feeling helpless having to trust his son’s life to a hospital. This was a familiar feeling.
We finally arrived at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio around 4:00, too late to take the last tour. So we walked around the block and looked at the Huertley House and the Gale House and two hybrid Victorians around the corner, soaking up the atmosphere under these broad tree-shaded avenues in the cooling afternoon.
Doug and I had brought Charlie here when he was three and we had a 2-hour layover on a flight back from New York City. We had jumped into a taxicab and had the driver show us all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses he could find in the neighborhood. We held Charlie up to the window to see, whether he really understood or not. He had been visiting Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Los Angeles since he was 10 months old, and when I was a docent at Hollyhock House he had played on Sugartop’s porch while I took the tour groups through.
But I had always seen Chicago on the run – as a stopping point cross-country to New York. Once Laura and I had walked around Downtown in between legs of a train trip and gone to the top of Sears Tower. Once I had spent a glorious afternoon at the Art Museum and seen the Auditorium Building and early Wright and Sullivan sites by the long park that edged Lake Michigan. Always we were on a tight schedule, unlike Steinbeck, who used Chicago as an excuse to break from his cross-country camp-out and check into a good hotel with his wife. This trip, we were expected in New York by the 25th to have time to hang out with Sister Laura.
After our walk through Oak Park, we were on the move, or as Laura Anne said, “rushing through,” though we got lost among warehouses on the way out of town and took forever finding on-ramps and exits to the 90. Not that we really wanted the Interstate just yet. Route 12 followed the lake to Michigan City, birthplace of Wright's granddaughter Anne Baxter, where there was a nuclear power facility and National Lakeshore that we never located in the thick woods that buffered it from the town. The suburban closeness of Michigan City to Chicago marked Catherine Wright’s first steps away from her hometown after marrying Kenneth Baxter, who was working in a car dealership when Anne was born in 1923. As the Depression dried up the demand for automobiles and the repeal of Prohibition opened other markets, he took a job with Four Roses, later Seagram’s and they moved to New York. Anne studied with Maria Ospenskaya and was on-stage from the age of 11.
Route 12 wove in and out of little towns, of which Gary and Michigan City were the largest, and merged with Interstate 94 into Michigan. Along this shore the factories were soon replaced by lakeside towns with bars and antique shops and pizza joints lit in neon as the sun sank. A sign on a church warned: “HELL IS HOTTER THAN AN INDIANA SUMMER,” an oblique reference to the sin of global warming.
At the side of the road, a skeletal motel revealed the cellular concrete structure of the common 2-story plan for lodging, the way earthquakes laid open office buildings in L.A. and exposed their inner grid. Toward the lake, the architecture was more inviting: rustic summer cottages lined the streets down to the town of Union Pier, where we stopped for a picnic and a taste of the local ambiance.
As the sun went down, people were leaving the crowded beach with towels wrapped around them, some walking back in clusters to houses nearby or to cars that lined the little lane leading to the lakefront. Laura danced and whirled in the sand and then we sat eating crackers and cheese, watching the sun drop like a red rubber ball into Lake Michigan. The warmth of the day rose up through the sand; we lingered as lights came on in the houses and folks lucky enough to live here sipped drinks on their porches, laughing in the cooling breeze.
Finally, we took our things back to the car and headed back to Interstate 94, which connected with 69 to Flint, Michigan. I wanted to take the HHR back to its origins and that was the city I always associated with Chevrolet, so I told Laura to drive until she saw the General Motors plant. I lay down in the back while she “drove all night on the 69.”
At 2 in the morning I took over and pulled into the enormous parking lot of the General Motors Plant outside Flint. Everything was dark and empty, just a few cars at the edge of the long building that claimed to be a headquarters. I decided, after driving for two days straight, to stay at the Days Inn across the street, where three of the 2-story motel grids we had seen in Indiana were arranged in a U around a dewy expanse of lawn.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Day 8: Mementos Mori

July 22: Houston, Minnesota to Taliesen to the House on the Rock to Racine, Wisconsin

there is a town I dream into
that might be Caldwell, Idaho
that might be Santa Monica
or Thibodeaux
may be you know...
Maybe you've been the place I mean...
Maybe you've walked there in your sleep

lalo kikiriki, Dreams of the Everyday Housewife

Soundtrack: Garden State soundtrack, Beck, Sea Changes and Odelay; Good Stuff for Laura mix

I sat in the parking lot of the coffee shop across from the hardware store mural until the sky grew lighter, then went for a walk though the sleeping town. It reminded me of Caldwell, Idaho, where I went to college, down to the clapboard houses and trim lawns and the city park with a B-52 jet mounted pointing at the sky. Since there were no bathrooms open anywhere, I decided to explore in the car. Up and down foggy streets I cruised, finding shut up coffee shops, body shops, and fairgrounds but no open filling stations. I pulled into the parking lot of a park with recycled art in its native plant garden, a sign at the fairgrounds proclaiming a “hoedown” next week, and (glory be!) a hot water shower in the restroom.
Rather than wake Laura, I napped for another hour and then woke her up to shower and change. On a wire overhead, starlings gathered like a scene from The Birds and the sky glowered, but eventually both cleared and we went back into town to gas up. The gas station attendant was an affable young man, doing a job Charlie could have done, and he reminded me of him. For $8 Laura bought a Hoedown button that would have let her in both days if we could stay, and we took the 16 to the green-dotted 26 south out of Houston in search of the Mississippi River, a suitable bridge, and maybe even breakfast.
Crossing at Reno after being just over a levee for 14 miles without a glimpse of the river, we found a picturesqe erector set bridge that took us into prime riverview fishing territory on the Wisconsin side. We stopped at a fish camp that was serving breakfast at the bar, frequented by vacationers in their skimpy and colorful attire: feathered fishing hats and cargo shorts. A couple of well-bruised local drunks having beer with their eggs and related the previous night’s escapades.
Finally in the rolling hills of Frank Lloyd Wright country, the green-dotted 60 followed the Wisconsin River east through farmland to Taliesen. We signed up for the Studio Tour, one of several options, and followed a docent up and down stairs and back ways, through the drafting room and into the little theater like the one at Taliesen West. Wright was criticized for using his tuition-paying apprentices to run the day to day operations of the Fellowship, but for many young people just out of school the responsibilities of participating in such an enterprise was a education in itself. At least that was the idea. Some students became so rooted to the land and the organic ideal that they never left and they made the yearly trek to Arizona like an extended family. I had spent 17 years as a docent at Hollyhock House and 10 at the Ennis house before the 1993 earthquake shook loose so many elements of each that they couldn’t be visited by the public. Here we were, finally, at the original Taliesen. The landscape was so unlike the compound in Scottsdale that it was a shock: the river and the green hills and the huge trees, stained green on their north sides, were emblematic of fertility and richness that only a rain-drenched country could provide. With or without the architecture, the place was spectacular, but we would soon find that architecture did make a difference when we went south to the House on the Rock.
We bought souvenir house letters for our Eric Lloyd Wright project next door in L.A. and stopped by the little cemetery on the way out. One of the goals of our trip was to put flowers on Anne Baxter’s grave and we read all the headstones looking for her. Among all the Wrights children and aunts and cousins, we couldn’t find her, and I had heard she was buiried by her last husband in Connecticut. But Laura was particularly moved by Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s grave under a big tree, green with moss and vegetable immortality. Frank Lloyd Wright’s headstone was a tall, pointed rock, nearby. Rain began to fall softly as we headed south on Wisconsin 23 to the House on the Rock; the storm darkened the sky overhead and we were caught in rain and hail so violent that we had to take shelter under an overpass. From Laura’s journal:
We are south of Spring Green, Wisconsin. The sky is screaming a wild thunderstorm and spitting bits ice on all the little people in their fancy cars loaded with diapers and trail mix.
I love rain.
Mother Nature laughs above us now, knowing she is a goddess. Every icy diamond that falls rough from the sky, that slaps the wind and lands upon our heads, is an omen. Each one says, BEWARE: The bitch is back and she does bite.
There is no way I can collect this storm in my 2 oz. shampoo bottle; it travels south now as we go east I wave goodbye and waltz in the sun. Rain is a wonderful thing. Yes it does kill, but it has personality.
The House on the Rock had become so overgrown with landscaping that it was very hard to see, but that didn’t stop the proprietors of the attraction from charging arms and legs for looking at it. There were four separate tours with separate charges for each, and though something of a curiosity, it was mostly a collection of mechanical bands and oddities jumbled together every which way. The most inspirational thing about it was how the owner/builder had financed it all - by asking his neighbors and passers-by to give him a dollar to look at his latest improvement and selling souvenirs. You had to admire his ingenuity and the narrow wing of the place that took off over a bosky dell on seemingly thin air.
Near Madison we stopped out of the rain for a Grand Slam and a mediocre grilled cheese at Denny’s. This was disappointing since we were in Wisconsin and one would expect the cheese to be exceptional. The waitress admired the Frida Kahlo necklace, saying it was an antique and probably very valuable. Fortified with coffee and carbohydrates, we took Interstate 94 and the rain kept up all the way into Milwaukee.
I was looking forward to a civilized evening and a shortcut across Lake Michigan on the Muskegan Ferry, but we couldn’t find a hotel and ended up in a Knight’s Inn in Racine, where the office window was made of duct tape and most of the patrons were bikers. It wasn’t until I was doing laundry the next morning that it hit me: we were just minutes away from Wright’s Johnson Wax Building and, unavoidably, Chicago had become part of our itinerary, just like it was for Steinbeck.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Day 7: South by Southwest

July 21: Devil’s Tower to Mount Rushmore to the Badlands to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Houston, Minnesota

Soundtrack: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, The Essential Simon and Garfunkel;The Rolling Stones, 40 Licks #1; Harvey Danger

...I was not prepared for the Bad Lands. They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley In Search of America

Passing the campground at the edge of Devil’s Tower National Monument, we snuck by the ranger shack too early to need the park card and found nothing open in the visitor center. At a kiosk in the parking lot we examined the list of trails for the tower, a destination for rock climbers from all over the world, inventive names like Up in Smoke, Spank the Monkey, Potatoes Alien, Non Dairy Creamer, Jerry’s Kids, Pee Pee’s Plunge, The Howling, Some Like It Hot, Abject Cathexis, Mr. Clean, Tulgey Wood, Mystery Express, Scott-free, Liken Lichen, Accident Victim, Blotter Is My Spotter, Porcupining Away, Conquistador, and, as Laura put it, many more...
We couldn’t take time to scale the vertical shafts, but took a nameless trail to the edge of the prismatic boulders. On the way out we stopped at the campstore for eggs and toast on a checkered oilcloth and the obligatory pin button. I bypassed the park decal because it was too glitzy, unaware that classy retro stickers like those at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park were the exception in souvenir circles and I would have to make do with similar foil-edged designs at Mount Rushmore and Badlands. Truth was, the glitzy, kitschy ones lasted longer.
South through the Western movie set towns of Lead and Deadwood, the scenery was gorgeous and antique shops beckoned along the brickfront streets, but we pushed on down the 385 to Rapid City, Cary Grant’s famous destination in North By Northwest. I was cruising along looking at the big heads through the trees and I guess I exceeded the speed limit a little in my excitement. Let’s let Laura’s journal write the script for our adventure at the National Monument:
We got pulled ova in Mount Rushmore...
Rollin’ 49 in a 35 about 5 minutes from the parking lot for the monument a ranger pulls us over. At one point she asks:
Ranger: Do you have any weapons in the car, ma’am?
Mama (not making eye contact): Yeah, we got lots.
Ranger: What kind of weapons do you have?
Mama: We got knives.
Ranger: What kind of knives?
Mama: Well, we have a swiss army knife and a butter knife and a cheese spreading knife...
Ranger: O.K., O.K. How about insurance? Do you have proof of insurance?
There followed much rummaging around in the dash compartment and a call to AAA because the insurance card was expired. But the ranger was cool...she eventually let us off with a warning.

When we finally got out to look at the Presidents’ heads on the mountain, we took pictures, went into the restaurant and looked at exhibits, and ate frozen custards like all the other tourists under the flags of the states.
We had departed a little from Steinbeck’s itinerary because he had a hankering to see Fargo, North Dakota, “coldest place on the continent.” We’d seen that movie and opted for Mt. Rushmore, but reconnected in the Badlands, where no one asked to look at our Golden Eagle Pass. Heading east, I let Laura drive, walking up for the Visitor Center but no lunch, just a soda and a couple of wildflower seed postcards from the prairie. We looked about some, but it was too hot to hike; Steinbeck’s trepidation in this wasteland was translated into worrying over running out of gas. I took over driving and brought us into Sioux Falls, South Dakota jonesing for a gas station. We got out and walked around a lovely park built over the falls, climbing pink rocks and just missing a good meal at the restored mill that was the park restaurant. The locals were spread across the grass for a patriotic concert and a slide show of Sioux Falls history, but we elected to sample a mid-western coffee shop called Perkins’ and had a lovely dinner near the on-ramp to highway 90. Night was coming on, and, as women traveling alone, we took some precautions driving after dark, including hugging the main roads where there was a better chance of service stations being open. Laura took over on the Interstate and I dreamed on past dozens of tiny towns across southern Minnesota.
Houston, Minnesota, as Laura says, a “Beautiful town.”
The way we ended up there was eerie. Laura had overdriven the Mississippi River Bridge in the dark and was running out of steam, realizing that she had not been able to get a pin button on the marathon drive across the state. I wanted to make crossing the Mississippi for the first time a peak experience, so I backtracked across into Minnesota and headed south down the dotted line of the riverbank. But at the junction of state roads 16 and 26 I saw a sign for a town called Houston and was drawn off to the west.
Charlie’s middle name was Houston, because I was homesick when he was born and wanted him to have some connection with our Texas origins. Doug and I were both from the Houston suburbs, though our paths did not cross until the 70’s in the Montrose, a bohemian community near downtown. Now signs for Houston lured me down a dark, narrow road shrouded in heavy ground fog. Along the roadside a possum looked up from eating something amorphous, its eyes luminous in the headlights. The road up to well-maintained fencing was adopted by the Houston Police Department, landscaped shrubbery lined the shoulders, and banks of flowers loomed out of the mists that floated like veils across the road. I found a radio station that was playing “classic rock,” but no gas station was open on the way in to Houston, Minnesota.
The radio began to play one of Charlie’s favorite songs, “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” and the tears were streaming down my face as I remembered watching the video with him, knowing this was the song he always played when he was trying to quit smoking marijuana. All the antique streetlights were glowing on the deserted main street of Houston at 3 in the morning. There was nothing open, and the shuttered gas station was cattycorner from a Tru-Valu Hardware with a mural that proclaimed Houston “the best of Bluff County.” I parked on the southwest corner, at the side of the dark Crossroads Cafe, leaned back the seat, and waited under the streetlight for the gas station to open.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Day 5: E-Ticket Ride: Idaho to Montana

July 19: Washington to the Idaho Panhandle to Glacier National Park to Bozeman, Montana

Soundtrack: Ryan Adams, Gold; Willie Dixon; Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Beethoven, More Greatest Hits; Oingo Boingo, Farewell #1; Chicago sountrack; Aviator soundtrack; Wall of Voodoo, Call of the West; Eric Clapton, Unplugged

The next passage in my journey is a love affair. I am in love with Montana.
John Steinback, Travels With Charley in Search of America

As the sun came up we crossed the last bridge over the Columbia River, just before it joined the Snake at Pasco, Washington, and headed north toward Coeur d’Elene. Having passed the only designated scenic section of Highway 84 in the dark, the road to Idaho was fairly plain in this direction, with rolling hills occasionally through farms and empty stretches of prairie. Laura slept on in the back, even when I stopped for gas somewhere on the 395. I was on autopilot by this time, but we managed to avoid Spokane and pulled into a sweet little cafe on the edge of Coeur d’Elene for breakfast. It had historic Idaho photos on every wall and I I walked around looking at them all, listening to locals talk real estate and home improvement.
We drove into the picturesque lakeside town, again shopping for a pin button for Natalie, and found one, with a tiny glass crescent moon for Charlie’s memorial, in a glass-making place in a restored brick storefront. Northeast through pines and mountains into Montana, we cruised through Glacier National Park like a Disneyland ride, wishing there was more time to stay at one of the expensive lakeshore hotels, take the quaint open air shuttles and sightseeing boats, climb the rocks up to snow, and luxuriate in the pure air. Stopping beside a snow-fed stream near one of the visitor centers, we waited as mountain goats crossing the road jammed traffic and everyone got out for the photo opportunity.
Since we were in Montana, Laura had to get another pin button, so we visited the visitor center and I found an octagonal retro decal that used the Glacier National art from the WPA project illustration. Laura and I took each other’s pictures with the backdrop of Going-to -the-Sun Mountain; I was wearing my Vincent Price shirt, which was appropriate since he once made a murder mystery in the Park.
Down State Road 89, Browning, a Blackfoot Reservation town with murals and natives in pickup trucks displaying Red Pride stickers, led into high plains. We saw a red fox, what Meriweather Lewis called “the most butifull fox in the world” when he encountered one in Montana, and trailing behind him were two sashaying skunks by the side of the road. What a tableau!
South of the Park into green rolling hills, we came to a town that Laura decided was perfect: Choteau, Montana. Under shade trees, past churches, and houses with sweeping lawns and a park with whooping children in a swimming pool, the road curved into the Lewis and Clark National Forest. She swore she wanted to retire there and open a bakery or a candy store, after she made it big in the industry.
But we bore southwest through rollercoaster hills toward Bozeman. Laura was driving and I tried to get the Heritage Motel on her cell phone to make a reservation. As the guy on the Verizon commercial said, it was a “crapshoot:” The disembodied voice of a young man came and went with the elevation and it took four calls just to transmit the number off the credit card. As it grew dark, I took over and Laura dozed in the back.
The short rode to Bozeman became a maze of detours and missed turns and deer in the headlights. Does and fawns were trying to cross the road in the dark; I passed several inert forms and narrowly missed pale shadows coming out of the rocks on a ten-mile stretch of gravel and roadwork over Bozeman Pass. It was staring into blackness and white-knuckes on the wheel the whole way to keep from hitting them. The whole experience was made more poignant by the remembrance that Charlie had thought of the deer as his totem animal, like Harry Potter with his stag.
Finally, we pulled into the parking lot of the Heritage Inn and met the owner of the disembodied phone voice, who reminded me of Charlie at 16. We were welcomed by a huge blond grizzly bear, standing over ten feet high, next to the rustic fireplace in the lobby. After the dark passage through the backroads, we found comfort and joy, real beds, and a heated pool in the morning.

Day 6: Yellowstone, Stoned

July 20: Yellowstone National Park to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Soundtrack: Cake, Fashion Night; Best of David Bowie; Frida Soundtrack; The Rolling Stones, 40 Licks #2;

Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland. This being my natural attitude, I don’t know what made me turn sharply south and cross a state line to look at Yellowstone. Perhaps it was a fear of my neighbors. I could hear them say, “You mean you were that near to Yellowstone and didn’t go? You must be crazy!”
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

In the morning we got up, steamed in the sauna, and soaked in the hot tub at the well-appointed Heritage Inn. Getting towels from the desk, I struck up a conversation with a lanky, loquacious local girl who was curious about the Frida Kahlo necklace Lucinda had given me. This curiosity about the photo would be a recurring theme across the country, like the doppelganger HHRs and significant souvenirs and the sidetrips where Charlie seemed to ride with us. The girl had never heard of Frida Kahlo, but we got to talking about artists and how she liked Georgia O’Keefe.
She said the bear was not a hunting casualty but a rare blond grizzly that had died naturally and been stuffed when it was found lying in the woods. “Maybe he had died from a pneumonia or batch of bad berries,” she suggested; somehow that made it better than just another hunter’s trophy.
Taking the continental breakfast up the back stairs to our room, we watched Your Cheatin’ Heart until checkout. It was always a joy to introduce Laura to my heroes and Hank Williams was someone I had grown up listening to in Shreveport, Louisiana in the early 50’s. There were dark rides with Daddy in the Chevy along the backroads of Caddo Parrish, listening to Louisiana Hayride. We often drove into Marshall, Texas to avoid paying sales tax on groceries; the radio made the drive magical, especially after dark.
I bid fond farewell to the stuffed grizzly bear and the chatty girl in the lobby and turned in the keys. From the darkness and distress of the night before, the day was bright and cheery and we started south to Yellowstone, following a green-dotted line down scenic highway 89 to the great stone arch of the park entrance. First there was a short stop by a high curb in the lusty town of Gardiner, where we found a drugstore and bought other things that were needed for the road: eye-drops, tissues, anacin, vitamin c, and a new Timex, since I’d lost mine at Sycamore Springs.
Outside on the charming board sidewalk we crossed paths with a bearded young man named Christopher from Silver Lake, who had been working at Yellowstone for several years. He said all the people up at the park were crazies and he was spending his vacation back in L.A., where the people were normal. His mother still lived a few blocks from us off Fletcher Drive; he recommended that we see the newly restored hotel at Old Faithful.
Flashing the Golden Eagle, we took the National Park map and paper from the ranger and drove the few miles to our first stop at Mammoth Hot Springs. The skies were clouding over the mineral deposits, but we managed to picnic on the green, hike around a couple of formations, and pick up a decal, pin button, and pillbox with a frozen Old Faithful on top at the park store. Rain came and went all the way around the park and after waiting about 20 minutes in showers under a tree, we watched a rather wind-blown and misted-over eruption of the real Old Faithful at 3:38 in the afternoon. The parking lot was full of vans and campers and family-packed cars from all over the states, moms and dads and kids and grandparents emerging to squabble and dry out and take advantage of restrooms and other amenities.
After we left the Old Faithful lot, cruising by the Lodge, which was still in the process of remodeling, we saw bison and elk off to the side of the road but no bears. Steinbeck found that his dog Charley had an in-bred hunting reaction to bears that made it impossible for them to stay in the park, sort of like Ringo the dalmatian had when he smelled smoke. This automatic response to selective breeding in dogs is a curious phenomenon. Ringo slunk along low to the ground and whined when there were fires in L.A. close enough to bother him; he also bolted and ran fast enough to keep up to a fire truck when he got away from us in Runyon Canyon. Otherwise, like Charley, he was usually an easy-going fellow.
On the way around the lake I tried again to fire up the joint again in Charlie’s honor, and although there are photos of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone that prove that we were not only there, but bent on getting the postcard view, I really don’t remember much about taking them.
Charlie’s drug of choice had long ceased to be a comfort to me, but it was unfortunate that if he had lived longer the combined proliferation of medical marijuana clinics and his disability paperwork might have made it legal for him to take the one thing that seemed to soothe his depression. The collateral damage he suffered from the drugs the HMO gave him (Zyprexa, Depacote) ate into his self-respect; the inmate treatment at the hands of clinic personnel undermined his pride.
Each person has his own chemistry, as I knew from my short exposure to the “mental health” system in Houston after I lost my radio show in 1973. An inappropriate prescription can wreck even the strongest brain for months and Charlie had been given one drug after another in the search for something effective to overcome his bad experience in the military. Marijuana was the one thing that worked, but, it being illegal, he broke the law to use it and try to grope his way back to sanity.
In 1973, I had found a drug that worked, Elavil, and after elevating a brain damaged by the first prescription - the experimental tranquilizer Stelazine- I was able to wean myself from Elavil and go on. The closest thing Charlie found to approximate normalcy was Wellbutrin. It got him out of bed, but the speed effect that helped working people function through the day just seemed to give him enough energy to carry out his sometimes aberrant ideas.
One day in Joshua Tree he gave me one of his 300 mg tablets and, boy, did we get things done! We cleared the overgrown cactus off a path and lined it with desert-varnished stones and, after it got too hot to work outside, we cleaned up in the house and took a walk in the cooling afternoon. Sitting and looking at a tortoise for nearly an hour, Charlie found a nearby property where someone had stored about a dozen old appliances in fairly good condition and began to arrange them in a circle. I had at first followed him onto the property, but became apprehensive about trespassing on someone else’s land.
While I hiked off the energy generated by the anti-depressant, he completed his installation and ordered me to come see. I was too afraid to set foot on the private property again, so he got mad and turned each of the carefully positioned refrigerators, stoves, and washers face down in the sand. This was disturbing to me: this was not his property; scorpions and snakes could now nest in the appliances and the metal would rust out in contact with the soil. After he had taken his anger out on the installation, he came back to my side and walked home, fairly calm, as I explained to him that I was afraid since he was in sight of a house that maybe this was their land; they might call the police on him.
When we got beck to our house, the full moon was rising and I pulled my chair around to watch it. Charlie still had over-amped energy and was acting manic. (The HMO never seemed to figure out what was wrong with him). I asked him to calm down and quit acting like a mental patient, but this unfortunate choice of words really set him off. He grabbed me from behind before I could sit down in the lawn chair, choked off my nose and mouth, and wrestled me inside.
“I’m acting like a mental patient?” he growled, “You’re the mental patient! Let me show you how they treat mental patients.” And he made me stay on my twin bed for the rest of the night, taking my keys so I couldn’t drive away and blocking my way every time I tried to get out.
If I said I had to go to the bathroom he had to go with me to “make sure I didn’t harm myself.” I realized this was the kind of treatment the HMO had given him and I began to feel so sorry for him; I decided to go to bed and let him calm down on his own. While I was trying to sleep, he initiated one of his marathon calls to his sister that had run the phone bill up to $400 the month before and kept her from getting any rest for school. I tried to get him to end the call, but he reminded me that I was a mental patient and he didn’t have to listen to me. I managed to get the keys to the car and drive back to L.A. while he went on talking. When I got home 2 hours later he was still on the phone with Laura. And when he realized I had gone back to L.A. without him he was furious.
Wellbutrin just seemed to fuel these manic episodes and he couldn’t concentrate enough to go back to school. Now (2007) the FDA was finally warning that anti-depressants could lead to suicide up to the age of 25, but this news hadn’t come out in 2003, in time to save Charlie.
When he had first moved out to the desert to go to Copper Mountain College and did nothing but smoke grass, he had managed to go to class and even work for a while, pay the bills, and get good grades. The only downside seemed to be that smoking was illegal and I thought about that now as we drove through the national park, high, scanning the rearview mirror for rangers.
Across the rolling plains of Wyoming, out of the park and east on State 14 and 16 until they merged with the 90, we wound along the dotted road through the Powder River Pass, coasting out of the pine-covered hills west of Buffalo, coming down to earth.
By nightfall we were on the Interstate and by the time we got off to seek out the entrance to Devil’s Tower National Monument, around 2 in the morning, Laura had fallen asleep in the back. I could just make out the shape of the mountain in the distance under stars. Inviting close encounters, I leaned the seat back and curled up under my jacket, unaware that a few miles up the the park road there were cozy cabins and campsites that could have made our night much more pleasant.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Day 4: Oregon and Onward

July 18: Gold Beach, Oregon Coast, Portland, Multnomah Falls and the Columbia River

Soundtrack: The Essential Johnny Cash, Pulp Fiction, Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits, Best of Bjork, and KBOO-FM “serving the lesbian, queer, transgender, transsexual, and questioning community. – If you’re straight but not narrow.”

Portland is a city of readers. The rain, no doubt, has something to do with it, but it rains in New Orleans, too, and we don’t have Powell’s City of Books. The largest independent bookstore in the country, Powell’s takes up an entire block and stocks one million titles,
Andrei Codrescu, Hail Babylon

At dawn I went walking on down the private path that doubled as a high school track, to Gold Beach. The trail led around a lot with parked carnival attractions, through piles of driftwood and makeshift shelters above the water line. Laura slept on, getting over her infection, and I left the little cottage by the back door so I wouldn’t wake her. In the distance, dark rocks rose from the sea with birds wheeling around them, and as the tide came and went, quartz and jade pebbles floated in and out of the sand, which was dark gray, not gold.
I wrote “Travels without Charlie” in the sand with a stick and, coming back, met a young carny roustabout from Tennessee named Matt. He said that he got to drive up and down the coast assembling and running the rides set up for fairs and carnivals, like the ones in the parking lot. What a great life!
When I got back to the cottage, Laura and I watched Made in Paris, a 60’s movie about fashion a la Pret a Porter or The Devil Wears Prada, but showcasing the charms of Ann-Margret and her romantic dilemma choosing between worldly Louis Jourdan and All-American Chad Everett. A chick flick if ever there was one, it was a flashback to the trip we took to Paris two years before, with the kind of couturier clothes we could never hope to afford.
The tourist court was a rag-tag assortment of old beach cabins and trailers and kit houses like the one we stayed in, but it had the ambiance of a little campsite right on the beach for $85 a night. We could have had one of the older cottages for less, but it was diverting to be in a brand new place, smelling of sawdust and fresh paint; Laura had lived in old houses her whole life and this was a new experience for her. We luxuriated in the opportunity to take long bubble baths and left for Portland about noon.
As we started up the Oregon coast on Highway 1 again, winding between beach and forests, cliffs and river mouths, Laura took over driving and I napped our way to the Portland turnoff. It took a leap of faith not to worry about the 30 mph curves, but Laura had the AAA Driver’s training and I had to trust to that.
Sometimes you just get in groove with a city on the way in and head straight for your destination. We had no GPS but there was a little map included with the gift certificate to Powell’s and we followed downtown streets one way and the other to one of the corners of the block-long store. Because we arrived around four and had 2-hour parking with no problem after 6, we didn’t worry about feeding a meter and browsed the three-level treasure trove until the sun went down and the $50 gift certificate was gone.
I got an old paperback of Grapes of Wrath for $4.95 to plot my second half of the journey, Laura found a slightly used Running With Scissors, some stickers and drawing materials and, inexplicably, a signed copy of Calvin Trillin’s A Heckuva Job, (maybe the result of book store overload). The one book I couldn’t find was Iris Bolton’s. My Son, My Son, the legendary work for suicide survivors, which was in their warehouse. We couldn’t wait for that. We staggered out with our bags, put them into to the car and, unburdened at last, went walking around the neighborhood looking for a place to eat. We were too starved to consult the AAA guides and just took off blind.
Somehow, serendipitously again, we happened upon a marvelous place called Jake’s, where Humphrey Bogart once dined under stained glass windows and huge dim murals of the Oregon landscape.It was analogous to trusting potluck on the streets of Hollywood and walking into Musso and Frank Grill. The menu was so sumptuous we had a difficult time choosing from all the delicacies, finally settling on Kodiak wild Alaskan salmon and native(!) Oregon crawfish. It took a cup of coffee and creme brulee to get over the meal and propel us out into the evening to start the easterly leg of the trip.
What I remembered as the old Idaho/Oregon State Highway 30 was now all Interstate 84, following the Columbia River across until it split in two and headed for Washington. The last time I had come this way was to see W.H. Auden at Reed College in 1968. The on-ramp to the Interstate was easily found and, a few miles down the road, the off-ramp to Multnomah Falls Came up, one of our peak experience sites. So, although it was after 10:00 at night, I pulled off into the parking lot and woke Laura. She went to Multnomah Environmental Magnet School and we had learned that this phenomenal landmark and Indians native to Oregon were the origin of the name of her school. We had to at least have a look.
Through the tunnel under the highway, past the closed bridge, gift shop, restaurant, and snack bar, the falls glowed in the dark, hundreds of feet high and “unimaginably real.” The drifting spray was chill and refreshing; it was amazing that the full force of the falls drained into a narrow, translucent stream feeding the Columbia. Laura took it in and then lay back to sleep under blankets on the car-bed as I drove. I stopped just past the sweep of the Dalles, at a park where a section of the land was set aside for native fishermen and the lawns were being sprinkled under streetlights at 3 in the morning. After a nap leaned back in my seat, I drove under stars toward the Washington cutoff and the way east to Glacier National Park where we looked forward to another chance to use the Eagle Pass.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Day 3: From the Redwood Forests

July 17: Fort Bragg to Redwoods to Gold Beach, Oregon
Soundtrack: Lucinda Williams. local radio stations.

...they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time. They have the mystery of ferns that disappeared a million years ago into the coal of the carboniferous era.

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

In the shining morning with hanging flower baskets abloom on the covered wooden walkways, I went down to the swimming pavilion and left Laura sleeping for her health. I swam my usual 20 laps in the indoor pool and then woke her for the complimentary breakfast in the coffee shop. Before we could get back on Highway 1, we had to stop by a drugstore and get Laura’s prescription filled. By the time the pharmacist called us for the pickup we had a basketful of water bottles and cokes and insect repellents and flashlights and assorted other impulse items. Such is the peril of convenience.
As we left the parking lot and Laura took her antibiotics with one of the waters, we heard Lucinda Williams on the radio: “Real Live Bleeding Fingers.” She was Charlie’s baby sitter when he was six and several of his birthday parties were held in her backyard. I worked for an accounting firm downtown and didn’t get off until 5:00, so Charlie spent his afternoons with her, first at Greg Sowders’ tiny house and later in a duplex across Glendale Boulevard from us. She got a job in the same building as mine, Arco Towers, I got laid off, and we walked around Silver Lake together for a couple of years until she went away to Nashville to get famous. It was always an affirmation to hear her, a proof that success was possible.
The road north to the redwoods led past a dinosaur park like the one we used to go to in East Texas, so we stopped to investigate. It had the same wooded paths, the same hand-lettered signs, the same stiff dinosaurs modeled in concrete with piped-in roars, the same gift shop with dinosaur souvenirs that always delighted Charlie and Laura through years of trips to see the grandparents in Nacogdoches. Today, there was also the sound of sandblasting and polishing power tools and a young man had roped off the ankylosaurus to paint it in garish colors. The idea that dinosaurs could have bright patterned skins had developed since I learned about them in the ‘50’s; then they were expected to be gray or brown like elephants and rhinoceroses, maybe lizard green for variety. Now the vogue was for display and camouflage; who would know, really? After a pleasant walk over creeks and through the woods we headed out of his kitschy prehistoric world, inland to Redwoods National Park, where we stopped for a picnic under the big trees on the way.
This was the real thing: a tree you could drive through and rings to count, like in Sequoia National Park; but now the General Grant was off limits to automobile traffic. I drove though the Chandelier Redwood and Laura took a picture of the HHR halfway in, me waving through the sunroof. Now that’s tourism! I bought a knockoff Swiss army knife with Redwoods National Park printed on it and my first decal for the car window and we started back up Highway 1 for Oregon.
Laura’s godmother had given her a $50 gift certificate for Powell’s City of Books in Portland, so we headed there, but by 4 in the afternoon we were running out of steam and found an odd little motor court annexed to a trailer park right on Gold’s Beach. For $70 to $85 cash the born-again Christian proprietress gave us a choice of a vintage bungalow with shabby sofas and spotted rugs or a recently constructed kit house at the end of the gravel turnaround. We paid the extra and took the brand new cabin at the back of the court with windows facing the setting sun. We dined on salmon from a pouch, cheese, and crackers and finally opened the champagne for the sunset. Laura had never lived in a newly built house, with the smell of sawdust, fresh-painted sheet rock. and undusty corners. She was thrilled.
Breakers surged in pale rhythm and the moon came out to reflect on the water as the night drifted into our dreams.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Day 2: Coasting and Toasting, up Highway 1

Day 2: Big Sur to Salinas to San Francisco to Fort Bragg
Soundtrack: "Me and Bobby McGee" on radio; Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here; Carmina Burana; Sublime, 40 oz. to Freedom; Violent Femmes

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold – rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of an Italian city which never can have existed.

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

The atmosphere was chill and clammy, shreds of fog hanging in the air as we pulled back onto the Coast Highway out of the tiny picturesque town of Cambria, where there was no room at the inns. The road wound along beside the Pacific, rocky beaches and viewing turnouts drifting in and out of the veils of mist, hills to the right of the highway transilluminated and enshrouded, peaks and treelines flattened to gray cutouts against yellow sky. I pulled off into one viewing area where elephant seals rolled and bellowed on wet sand and woke up Laura, who did a National Lampoon’s Vacation quick take – look, nod, and hurry shivering back to the car.
One of our goals on this trip was to create and re-create peak experiences in sublime landscapes. I remembered the first time I rode through Big Sur in 1974 in a Pontiac convertible with my Iranian boyfriend. We had picked up a hippie hitchhiker who introduced us to Colombian weed. Talk about your double whammy! It made a Disneyland ride of the road from San Simeon to Monterey Bay, with tiny houselights dotting the high canyons as the sun set, each a private universe and refuge. At dawn we awoke on a beach covered with hundreds of intact sand dollars. Naturally, I wanted Laura to have a similar peak experience, so we fired up one of the joints. After a few puffs and much coughing and gagging, I returned the Charlie Lacy commemorative roach holder to the dash compartment and drove merrily along.
Laura found the silhouette of Hearst Castle, backlit by the rising sun and haloed in mists; she nodded off again, dozing through the magnificence of the Coast Highway and Big Sur. I have a vague impression of the road being shorter than I remembered. The magic and colors of my first sunset trip never materialized out of the fog and we pulled into the Salinas town square twenty minutes before the museum was set to open. So much for The Sublime.
In the Steinbeck Center we were thrilled to find the prototype Travels With Charley pickup camper, Rosinante (the name inscribed in flowery script on its flank), with its back doors flung upon provocatively and all the lovely wooden appointments exposed. Steinbeck had a little table in the center of his rig and a seaworthy bunk with storage underneath, all the things to make a vagabond’s heart glad. He kept a fully stocked liquor cabinet that would have got him pulled over for open containers now; he was lucky that gas was so cheap then because the mileage must have been terrible on that big truck. But I had to feel thrilled to attempt his feat, and even though the little HHR seemed puny by comparison, it was another Chevy after all. We took in all the interactive exhibits and I selected a road copy of Travels With Charley that had a sketchy map of the route, drawn by the ever clever Don Freeman. We had bypassed Monterey in favor of Steinbeck’s home town, so the way in to San Francisco lay through Watsonville and San Jose, away from the sublime and hazardous coast road. As Laura slept on, I fumbled north into San Francisco by farm roads and detours through an unmemorable rural landscape.
Laura woke up in time to enjoy crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, a reminder of pride and sorrow to our family. In the 60’s my sisters and I took our first trip to California with our parents in a newly air-conditioned Chevy Bel-Air, visiting the bridge my Uncle Lawrence helped paint orange and touring the Bay with him, his wife Opal, and cousin Eddie. In an itinerary that included Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert, San Francisco was the most magical of destinations; I was 14 and used my newly accumulated discretionary income from babysitting to buy an incense burner, coolie hat, and hapi coat in Chinatown. We hiked through the sequoias in Muir Woods and ate blackberries from the vine. I envied cousin Eddie and wished I could stay in California, never go back to Houston, where the weather was miserable in most seasons, and the tedium of suburban life was nearly as stifling as the summer heat.
But a few years later Aunt Opal disappeared and her car was found parked next to the Golden Gate Bridge, a scene straight out of Vertigo. She had been despondent over the failure of her furniture business, and we were never sure what happened to her. Soon after the Summer of Love, cousin Eddie, who taught me to play “North to Alaska” on the accordion and had successfully made the transition to guitar, came in after a gig with his band and was found dead in his bunk bed, leaving Uncle Lawrence with nothing to hold him in Hayward. He returned to Oklahoma to live out his days with Aunt Laura, who had never married and stayed her whole life in the frilly pink room where she grew up.
It may have been the stereotypical Okie’s dream to move to California, but we were always warned away from the dangers of eternal sunshine and the easy life. The family suspected that Opal had jumped from the bridge, though her body was never found. The romantic appeal of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge has lured thousands over the years to almost certain death; there is no stopping allowed on the way across, but don’t think it didn’t cross my mind, that long way down.
Through the wooded slopes of Marin County and back up the coast we drove into the setting sun, heading for Fort Bragg, where the motels were cheaper than Mendocino but still in walking range of the ocean. As usual, we called ahead and reserved a place where we could swim and get a free breakfast, switching to the AAA Guide for Northern California and pulling out the Oregon/Washington guide for inspiration. Steinbeck’s route out of Monterey was sketchy aside from a cruise through the redwood forests that Woody Guthrie made famous. We were looking forward to Redwoods National Park and our first chance to flash the Eagle pass.
But Laura began complaining of a sore throat, stomach cramps, and shortness of breath, and all her sleeping became a sign that something was wrong. Tetanus? Mono? Meningitis? Like my mother before me, I always feared the worst when anyone was sick. We checked into the Fort Bragg Trade Winds Lodge, but there was no time to enjoy the dining and dancing establishment on the premises, flashing with light and music on the second floor, or even drink the champagne we brought with us.
Following street signs, we groped our way down dark streets to the Mendocino County Hospital and Laura checked into the emergency room, sharing the small facility with a couple of drunks and a screaming crackhead. Otherwise it was a slow night in the ER and I had time to follow the boys On the Road into Mexico. Laura was diagnosed with strep throat and given an antibiotic and a prescription to fill in the morning. Back in the room, we snacked on applesauce and cereal bars out of the cooler, fell asleep listening to the wind off the ocean whistling round the veranda, and dreamed ahead, without the anticipated walk on the beach.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Day 1: Out of L.A.

Day 1: July 15 - Los Angeles to Ojai to Sycamore Springs to Cambria
Soundtrack: American Splendor soundtrack; Best of the Steve Miller Band, 1968-1973; Ojai Classic Rock Festival; Oingo Boingo Farewell #2; The Best of Taj Mahal

We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

The 15th of July was another perfect day in L.A., clear with a high of 85º. I woke up speeding as usual (a holdover from doing a morning show on public radio), reading On the Road in bed and mentally ticking off the to-do list in advance.
The Chevy HHR was set up with the new Route 66 seatcovers, the double backseat rigged out with long pillows and blankets for sleeping. The AAA travel guides made a 3-foot shelf in the cargo net in back, leaving space for groceries, one duffle bag each for my daughter Laura and me, the ice chest and cooler on the floor and a hanging canvas saddle bag of necessities we had put up for every trip since the ‘80s. Besides these, we both had backpacks with writing materials, including the Rand McNally Trip Trackers that Charlie had saved to use on our road trip and one of his old notebooks from Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree. Laura had 3 cases of cd’s for entertainment; she threw in a last-minute cd stash in a Macy’s totebag we got with a coupon from Playbill (Fiddler on the Roof) in New York City. New York City was our destination this time, too. We were taking Steinbeck’s route in Travels With Charley backwards from the midpoint, but without her brother Charlie this trip.
Laura had been the music programmer for all of our road trips since she was 3, though Charlie had his own ideas and we took turns when he was along. He liked the Blues Brothers, classical music, and ZZ Top. But Charlie was usually plugged into a gameboy; he was the official navigator and kept the roadmaps on his side of the car to check whenever we came to a fork in the road. Sometimes Laura had her own cd player and did a private soundtrack in the backseat, so she was an old hand at music selection. When she gave me a choice of music I always said, “Sublime” or “Oingo Boingo.” She had plenty of both.
The last minute equipment: ice, water bottles, gas, whatever was missing from the hanging bag, we always got on the way to the Interstate. We were starting out on the 5 North out of L.A., and though we intended to be off by noon it was closer to 3 when we finally pulled out of the AM/PM on Fletcher Drive. Laura stayed tuned to the Independent station as long as she could, up to the 118, then lost it in static and broke out the cds with the soundtrack from American Splendor.
I wanted to see the old Moorpark road I’d discovered with Charlie, where there were rainbow colored rock formations and a fragrant pig farm on the downhill grade, so we took the scenic route to Ojai. We found that the colored rocks were being quarried, the stink was gone, and a Christmas Tree farm was at the bottom of the hill, certainly a better fragrance. Stopping by the Beatrice Wood Studio, I consulted Janat Dundas' first edition of Travels With Charley that had the original illustrations and mentally compared our rig to Steinbeck’s Rosinante. The round retro profile of the vehicles was similar, if less capacious, and I was surprised to find that the artist was Don Freeman, the creator of Corduroy. Janat, who had lent me the book over Christmas, was in the throes of a fundraising party and had no time to talk over our itinerary, so we took a quick look and put the book back, satisfied that we had the idea of the journey, if not Steinbeck’s capacity for comfort.
Our trip would be like his route in reverse, starting up the west coast,
taking the northern trek across to New York, and hitting as many National Parks as we could. That’s the way our Charlie would have planned it. On his last manic binge he had bought an National Park Eagle Pass, hoping his extravagance would inspire us to use it with him, and we had renewed the pass every year since. It was 3 years later, we were finally making the trip we should have made with him, and all that was left of him was a vial of ashes. I intended to take it to New York and scatter him somewhere, maybe be a little along the way, but I figured he could still let us know somehow what he wanted done.
In May three years before, he told me he hoped to take this cross-country trip and see his aunt Laura in New York City, but his old Axxess van would never make it I had been unable to promise to drive with him, since he had been so unpredictable and even violent in the months before. Besides, I had to finish my Masters thesis and hoped he could help with the online research. Then we could take what was left of the summer for our trip, if he was o.k.. After he died, I felt that if I had held out the hope of that trip to him he might have stayed around long enough to see me keep my word. Ideally, the trip would have cheered him up and given him a reason to go on. All I could say at the time was, “Maybe” and that was not enough for him.
After meeting sister Laura in New York, Laura Anne would have to rush back to start classes at L.A. Film School and I would take Steinbeck’s road through the South alone, once again visiting as many National Parks as I could before returning to L.A., a city that Steinbeck had avoided altogether in 1960.
Cruising down into Ojai in the golden slanting light of summer, we stopped at the Libby Bowl to listen to a cover band cycling through The Who catalogue and browse the hippie gear in the stalls of a retro fair under the oaks. I bought a feathered roach clip that would have been de rigeur on the trip I took 30 years earlier in my Volkswagen van, but now was just a slight accommodation to the 2 joints we had procured to smoke in Charlie’s honor. Laura found a psychedelic pin button for her friend Natalie and we were off into the dusk, rolling over the round brown hills to San Luis Obispo.
One of our traditions that had emerged over years of trips up and down the California coast was to stop at Sycamore Springs for the hot tubs. Clever landscaping on the upslope had created nooks where redwood tubs were set into completely private little gardens, open day and night for skinny dipping and rented by the hour. The place had become more upscale recently, with a restaurant and wine tastings and a picturesque spa lodge. Cute New Age names like Tranquility and Aspiration were inscribed over the hotel doors; the hot tubs remained, a little pricier but still natural. Laura and I drifted into the overflowing parking lot around 9:30, too late to dine and facing a 5 hour wait for a mineral water tub. But there was a freshwater pool available, with heated jets and a waterfall, an innovation that the nature-lovers disdained in favor of authentic sulfur-scented springs. We did not care, and spent a lovely hour luxuriating in the jets, swimming round and round through the cascades under stars and oak boughs. Refreshed and a little chilled, we set out for the foot of Big Sur, uncertain as to how far we would go or where we would stay.
As I began to nod off in Cambria we drove through shut down streets where every motel, inn, and pictureque Bed and Breakfast had a bright neon NO on its vacancy sign. I finally pulled over under a street light and went around to lie down on the pillows in the backseat. Laura had already curled up on the front seat and would not be roused. So I slept for a few hours and woke to a cold and gray mist, bruised by a lump in the sleeping arrangement that felt like the princess and the pea’s problem. It turned out to be the campchairs crowding under the starry bodypillows that made up the bed, easily rearranged, and we were soon back on Highway 1.

This trip is all about Charles Houston Lacy, a boy who died too soon

Charlie he’s a good old boy
Charlie he’s a dandy
Charlie he’s a good old boy
He feeds them girls on candy

Shady Grove, popular folk song

Charlie was my good old boy. Charlie was my darling. I called him brown-eyed handsome man, young dude, rooster, and booger and stinker and fortunate son. We were virtually inseparable when he was growing up because we had few friends out in California and his daddy was on the road a lot with bands.
Charles Houston Lacy led, it seemed to me, a charmed life. We were never really rich but not really poor. Sometimes I worked, sometimes, magic times, I stayed home with him and we took walks, made gardens, read books; I painted during his naps.
Every week we cashed Doug’s checks from Jackson Browne and Billy Joel and Electric Light Orchestra, Rickie Lee Jones, Stevie Nicks, Todd Rundgren and The Tubes. When I walked to the bank in my red satin hotpants, pushing Charlie in the stroller, I was the rock and roll housewife, clicking up Sunset in high-heeled Candies and reading the names of the stars to Charlie on the way back down Hollywood Boulevard. We celebrated when his Daddy was on hiatus by building a captain’s bed for him and a log cabin studio next to our shotgun shack in Silver Lake, where we moved when he was nearly 2. Charlie and I traveled to Joshua Tree to climb the rocks and Idaho to meet his great granddad and Big Sur to see the elephant seals.
Charlie’s first real shoes were blue hiking boots, bought at a little shop on Hollywood Boulevard. He was was one of the first to officially walk Runyon Canyon in 1981, before it became a part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He was only a year old and had to be carried down the estate road on Doug’s shoulders half the way back. He grew up hiking in the derelict estate that became a park the year he turned four and the canyon stayed his favorite place, through Sunday afternoon tours and tree plantings and full moon hikes. Later he and Ringo the dalmatian favored the “meadow,” as he called the abandoned Red Car Right-of-Way at the end of our street. Both these short stretches of urban paradise would host ”in the end, his epitaph.”