Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Day 32: And that’s how the traveler came home again...

August 15: Grand Canyon National Park to Seligman, Arizona to Needles, California to Los Angeles

Soundtrack: Ancient echoes, NPR all the way home

Suddenly, I didn’t want the trip to be over. I couldn’t stand the thought that I would go to the car now and in an hour or two I would crest my last hill, drive around my last bend and be finished with looking at America,
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent, Travels in Small-Town America

Room 7162 at the Yavapai Lodge was secluded at the end of a long, rough concrete block complex with metal casement windows. I got up and made the in-room coffee. Deer strolled by as I loaded my car and headed out of the parking lot to catch the sunrise at Yavapai Point. On the way, through drifting mists, four elk ambled by, blocking the intersection on the way to the next turnout, where a huddled group of early risers waited for the park shuttle.
Nearly a hundred people of all ages were waiting at the rim for the sun to get high enough to illuminate a red mesa below: the standard photo opportunity, I supposed. The Colorado River wound like a band of pale green jade below, and the sun, already over the horizon, had not yet activated the deep oranges, browns, and buffs of the sedimentary rocks. I was about 15 minutes too late for the sunrise, but rays of light angled down from from clouds a few degrees above the horizon and the effect was Thomas Moran magical.
A variety of languages were being spoken, mostly in hushed, excited National Park tones, as the tourists maneuvered cameras to catch the moment. An Asian boy of about five with his own camera asked his mother for instructions, determined to get it right. One by one the photos were snapped, sometimes by strangers memorializing the moment for couples and family groups; typically, I had left the camera in the car.
I joined the people waiting for the shuttle, who were by this time complaining about the service and joking about adding a Starbuck’s breakfast trailer to the back of the bus. My shuttle stop was the El Tovar Hotel, where breakfast was elegant and rustic at once in the Fred Harvey Style, with china, crystal, and white tablecloths in a room full of Indian artifacts. The expansive Mary Colter building was begun in 1903, finished in 1905, and declared a historical monument in 1974. I had three kinds of pancakes, with bacon and coffee extra, for $15.00 and read about Route 66. Tout sweet! (perhaps too much so).
When I had first come though here with Charlie, he was six and my sister and I brought him with us to visit the scenes of John Ford westerns and Tony Hillerman novels. We had been through Monument Valley and down into the Navaho reservation, where Charlie and Sister Laura mugged for photos at the junction of the Four Corners. An old Navaho woman selling fry bread asked us to leave Charlie with her for a year to help tend her sheep. What an opportunity that would have been! But we passed on her offer as probably illegal, and drove down through the red rock country, stopping to hike the trail at Navaho National Monument and coming into the Park by the East Entrance. Charlie loved the rock tower, running up and down the spiral more than we could keep up with, and we stayed a little too long to get a good place for dinner in the park. We ended up dining at the cafeteria, driving south out of the canyon at night with no vacancies to look forward to.
All the hotel rooms in Williams, Arizona, with its frontier streets and neon signs, were occupied. After an hour of scanning the town, the red No’s on the Vacancy signs seemed to shriek out from every office of every Best Western, AAA, Travelodge, and variously recommended establishment. This was before Van Dyke Parks gifted us with an Automobile Club membership; learning to use the AAA travel guides was a hard-won lesson in survival.
Nodding, an hour or so later, we ended up in a motel at some wide place in the road west, that had a crazed night clerk beyond Psycho, one lumpy bed with cigarette-burned blankets, a t.v. so snowy we could barely decipher what we were watching from the audio, and a bathtub that ran a thin stream of tepid, black water unfit for Charlie’s nightly calming bath. Since we had carefully reserved the Recapture Lodge and a spa in Desert Hot Springs, this was a miserable experience we never wanted to repeat; the state-by-state guides became our biggest resource on the road. Best of all, they were free!
In later years Charlie was the navigator on trips from California to Texas and back, scoping out turns on the map and choosing the most likely candidates for reservations, miles before we were ready to sleep. We liked to have a pool, preferably a jacuzzi as well, and continental breakfast. The travel guides helped us find the best lodging for the lowest price and we would stop by the side of the road to call every afternoon before it got too late. Ironically, I knew the picture code intimately because he last job I had before Charlie was born was production artist on the AAA guide print layouts.
The weather at the Grand Canyon started out perfect and began to cloud over about noon. I browsed the bookstore in Lookout Studio, where a film of Brighty the Burro played in the corner and Ancient Echoes music drifted over the merchandise like pinon incense. There I devoured the entire chapter on suicide in the best selling book in the park, Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon by Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers. I was especially captivated by the stories of people who had driven off cliff like Thelma and Louise; there was a historical precedent. What I was waiting for was a talk by Ranger Paula Sprenger about condors, which we could see cruising in the far distance off the Studio’s patio. On the walk back to Yavapai Point, I spotted a young specimen with the regulation number on its wing, perched on a stone parapet and enjoying a great view of any stray carrion below.
By the time I headed toward the East Entrance, with a bottle of official Grand Canyon wine in the cooler, the storm was striking, and the lightening show was soon obscured by torrents of rain. I took a nap at Moran Point while the shower thinned to drizzle, and visited the tower on the way out, feeling so sad that Charlie couldn’t be with me in another place he loved. With a few more wildflower cards and some lightening earrings from the park store, I headed through the reconstruction site the East Entrance had become, stopping only at a roadside Indian store for a bead necklace on the way to Interstate 40. On National Public radio out of Flagstaff, I had my first encounter with Andre Codrescu, the Road Scholar, and realized there were many more people out there doing the cross-country thing, bless them all!
The rest of the way back was like another Disneyland ride, off and on Route 66 to Kingman (94°), Barstow (for gas), and San Bernardino, too. For the first time on the trip I had a definite deadline, I had to get back and finish my small painting of the Lady of the Lake for the Echo Park Auction on Saturday. My only concession to the Route 66 mystique was a quick stop at Delgadillo’s Drive Inn (Sorry, We’re Open), in Seligman, Arizona, to sit and lick a dip cone in a peppermint-striped swing among junk and memorabilia, while Rocky closed up shop. I had just made it before closing time, the temperature was down to 79° and the cluttered yard was such a delight! Running on chocolate and adrenalin through Needles, where the temperature was 102, in a few hours I was back in L.A., the night was balmy, and I fell into bed without unpacking.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Day 31: Getting Some Kicks on Route 66

August 14: Amarillo to Tucumcari to Painted Desert to Holbrook to The Grand Canyon

Soundtrack: Radio 98 Oldies, Radio L.A.-N.Y.

Arizona is one of the Route 66 states where tourists can gorge themselves with attractions. The Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, and Meteor Crater alone can keep an army of camera-toting travelers occupied for weeks. There are also subtle enticements to be discovered in the Arizona canyon lands, mountains and high desert. Many of these are tied to the Mother Road. With a bit of luck, they can still be found.
Michael Wallis, Route 66: The Mother Road

Clouds heading into New Mexico were picture perfect over the beauty way of buttes and mesas, but threatened rain off and on. I missed the turnoff for Cadillac Ranch, an attraction which had always eluded me. Route 66 became lost weaving around Interstate 40 into Tucumcari, where the famous neon signs advertising the Blue Swallow and other renovated motels and coffee shops shone among the ruins of less fortunate establishments. I stopped for gas and bought a Route 66 book by Michael Wallis that turned out to be the same one John Lasseter used to navigate the Mother Road in 2000. Lasseter’s love of driving and the alchemy of how he spent his summer vacation became the hit cartoon CARS.
The clouds kept the temperature at 70ยบ all the way; billboards for various Bowlin’s curio stores (easy on/easy off) promised hillbilly figurines, fireworks (they’ll blow your socks off!), cactus candy, kachina dolls, and Minnetonka Mocassins. “We’ve got bears and elephants, too,” one sign declared. I read ahead in the Route 66 book to make sure I didn’t miss any more roadside attractions.
I stopped at one, Cline’s Corners, in the middle of nowhere except weedy remnants of Route 66, and bought a pair of the requisite mocassins in red leather with beads and a couple of Route 66 stickers. From the parking lot, I called the reservation number for the Grand Canyon and managed to book a room at the Yavapai Inn. We had never been able to get any kind of room anywhere near the National Park in all the years we had gone there; I rushed west on the 40 toward the cutoff, slowing only for the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest and a gas stop at Holbrook where there is a giant jackrabbit and a wigwam motel. There were so many delights that had to be deferred: Cheech Marin live at a Casino west of Albuquerque, the Malpais and Ice Caves south of Grants where Charlie and Laura and I climbed a volcano and searched for Anne Baxter’s place, the Swapmeet 66 with its promise of vintage license plates and hubcaps.
Despite only a quick nap and visitor center stop at the Painted Desert, where the colors WERE amazing, it was 10:00 and pitch dark by the time I made it to the Grand Canyon. My room was the last one in a concrete strip of courts among evergreens, basic but comfortable. Under a wheel of stars, I got to sleep early, since sunrise on the rim was the big thrill.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Day 30: Hallelujah, This is Texas

August 13: Johnson City to Holy Ghost Lutheran, Fredericksburg to Amarillo, and the Route 66 connection

Soundtrack: Redneck Country 92.3, Jeff Foxworthy out of Atlanta, Sunday Drive 93.5

Now we stopped dawdling and laid our wheels to the road and went...we drove relentlessly, hardly glancing at the passing of Texas beside us. And Texas was achingly endless – Sweetwater and Balinger and Austin.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

Dressed for church and back on the 290, I thought again about the Joads and how they would have marveled at all the porcelain and running water and ease of travel in the air-conditioned HHR. Across the rolling hills, dry with summer, clouds frowned and threatened and preachers prayed for rain on the radio. Dusty creeks and rivers: the San Saba, Pedernales, Concho, and Cooperas lay under rattling bridges in their nearly empty beds.
With old-timey songs about Jesus and roll to be called up yonder, down-home places like Hog Stop Winery, Wildseed Farms, and Rocky Hill (wasn’t that Dusty Hill’s brother?), it was Texas up to the hubcaps on the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway. In Stonewall, the limestone and rusted iron were wrought into sculptures and at Fort Martin Scott there were log cabins AND a teepee. Hill Radio 93.5 out of Kerrville played “Talk About Jesus” and B.J. Thomas’ version of “Just as I Am Without One Plea” as all of the Hill Country hit the rolling road to church. Coming into Fredericksburg, the Holy Ghost Lutheran Church welcomed me with a sign at the city limits and I decided to take them up on it.
Among limestone and carpenter gothic houses with porches and verandahs and lean-tos, a streetful of churches rang their bells under prayed-for thunderheads. I was just in time to take a program and a Holy Ghost sticker and find a pew. One of the acolytes looked like Charlie, who lit candles in the Episcopal Church when he was seven; there was a video of about 30 white children playing circle games and singing through their confirmation class. Charlie hadn’t had that many companions his age in Sunday School after St. Thomas Episcopal went “high church,” all the parents scattered to the winds, and we went back to Doug’s denomination, Methodist. The sermon was about forgiveness, seven times seventy, said the young preacher, Bobby Vitek. On the way out, the welcoming committee gave me a bag with a handmade wooden cross and a refrigerator magnet, blessings for the road.
Rain began on the way out of Fredericksburg, but by the time the 290 joined Interstate 10, it was sunny and 81•. Hypnotized by the big road, I missed the turnoff for U.S. 83 and ended up on a 2-lane road to Fort McCavett State Park. In the rolling hills and flatlands on the way to Ballinger (which Steinbeck misspelled), Sweetwater and Route 66 at Amarillo, the Kerrville Methodist Church kept up the inspiration with a "Dixieland Service" featuring “Down by the Riverside,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and a choir of girls singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
At the State Park I heard a woodpecker in a cedar tree and took the left-hand turn to the Fort McCavett Cemetery where soldiers rested in their simple plots with the dear departed of six counties, under shady oaks and pecans. One of the first graves I saw was covered with pictures and toys: Justin Cole Behrens, 1979-1999: “Our Greatest Blessing - We Love You.” A picture showed a blond boy of about 10 or 12, feeding gulls from a boat; there were seashells and a Winnie the Pooh on his stone. Iron fences and pickets marked the family plots: the Burlesons, Treadwell, Crumps, Stocktons, and, a little apart, Duartes, Hernandezes, and Riveras, among others with Spanish surnames. Two centuries of memories rested in this pleasant field, “Asleep in Jesus, Blessed Thought.”
“No pain, no griefs, no anxious fear
Can reach our loved ones sleeping here,” read an epitaph from 1894. I walked about, listening to the birds and recharging on bottled water and Energy Now. There was a restroom in the picnic area next door and I was off in search of a gas station, just like Steinbeck, only north to his south, through “achingly endless” Texas.
Near Sweetwater five of six dozen windmills spun electricity, reminding me of the ones in San Gorgonio Pass on the way to Joshua Tree. Up into the Panhandle, my energy was assuredly not “here and now, ” especially in Happy, Texas, where even the baseball parks seemed have shut down their restroom facilities on Sunday. I pressed on to Canyon, a lovely college town on the edge of Palo Duro State Park, but there wasn’t time to linger for more than gas and a rest stop. Taking in the Canyon and the Texas Pageant would mean driving down into the gorgeous gorge where I had frequently camped with the kids, painted like Georgia O’Keefe, and ridden the now-dismantled Sad Monkey Railroad. It was too much of a detour. I called ahead to Fritch, which promised lakeside scenery and an outdoor musical call Lone Star Rising, but the Lone Star Inn was all booked up.
Instead, I settled for another Days Inn, right off Highway 40, in the shadow of a sign for the Big Texan Steak Ranch where anyone able to scarf a six-pound slab of beef gets it free. I made do with cheese and crackers and swam in an outdoor pool, cleverly hidden from the Interstate, noting a “full-frontal falling star” in the darkening sky. At this point I ran out of pages in the Rand McNally Trip Tracker and began to worry about turning in a painting for the Echo Park Historical Society Auction on time.
I would need to race through the rest of the remnants of Route 66 in two days. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to experience as many scenic icons of the Mother Road as possible in approximately fifty hours. Wheeeeee! I read myself to sleep with the Joads in a room with porcelain sanitized for my protection, reveling in the relative luxury of a modern roadside encampment. For them it was the road of flight; for me it was the way home.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Day 29: Houston in My Rear-view Mirror

August 12: Houston to Class Reunion to Austin to Johnson City

Soundtrack: KTRU Houston, KLBJ Austin, KUT World Cafe

What I am trying to say is that there is no physical or geographical unity in Texas. Its unity lies in the mind. And this is not only in Texans. The word Texas becomes a symbol to everyone in the world. There’s no question that this Texas-of-the-mind fable is often synthetic, sometimes untruthful, and frequently romantic, but that in no way diminishes its strength as a symbol.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

Greg’s wife Patti rose early for her job as manager at a Sherwin Williams paint store and an hour or so later the cousins got up and dressed for a walk down to the bayou. Greg sold real estate out of his house, after years in a Coldwell Banker office; he made us pancakes and bacon. Now we had carbohydrates to walk off and we set out under the famous partly cloudy Gulf Coast skies, crossing the drainage ditch where goldfish, procoscopi, and red slider turtles had been released and grown to enormous proportions along with the native snapping turtles and catfish. In the mud below the bridge, this menagerie cruised and lurked in rain-swollen luxury; we stopped and watched them for a while. Barbara and Jon were the Lacy cousins Charlie spent his summers with for most of his childhood, from six or seven on, and they had the same fascination he had with nature.
We took a path down the easement behind the fenced-in suburban yards to where the ditch joined a deep branch of the bayou, pooling at the end of the subdivision. Here blue herons - great and lesser, egrets, killdeer, and sandpipers patrolled the shore and dug for crawdads. We spotted an alligator gliding along in the placid water, snout in the air and serrated spine cresting the surface, trailing a little wake like the Loch Ness Monster. With all the talk of home-invading alligators on the Mississippi, it was amazing to see one swimming right here on the edge of Sugarland, in plain sight of this middle class bastion of civilization.
When we got back to Greg’s house, dripping with sweat as was the custom in Houston humidity, I cooled off by going on the computer to pick up my mail. After three weeks on the road, I had over a hundred messages, mostly spam. The regular senders: NORML, College of Idaho, Echo Park Historical Society, Therrien who was Not Too Good for Him (NYG4 Jesus, of course), and occasionally Lucinda, had to be read and dealt with and everything else deleted. But there was one message I didn’t expect: Westbury High School was having a mini-reunion for a few people who had missed the one in 2005; the Classes of ‘62 - ‘65 were invited to happy hour that afternoon at a hotel in the Galleria. All right! A social occasion.
I called up my high school sweetheart, Bobby, who had similarly gotten married and had a boy and girl, and he agreed to meet me so we wouldn’t be stuck among our boring fellow classmates who had stayed in Houston. Bobby had bought real estate in the Heights when it was cheap and still lived here, but his life had changed from being a techie, first with the telephone company, then with the school district, to earning a pretty good living as an artists’ model. Both Doug and I had been models in our 20’s, but here was Bobby, at 60. still baring it all in the cause of art.
I packed up the HHR and hugged the in-laws good-bye. The Marriott West Hotel was back toward town; I had a couple of glasses of wine in a bar with a verandah inside the lobby and hung out with Westbury High graduates who had stayed in town. The main thrust behind the second reunion was an artist who had been in Europe during the previous celebration, which had come with flashback name tags and a loose-leaf binder telling whatever became of everybody who had been located by the organizing committee.
This time around, as well as Bobby’s marathon political diatribes and the congenial whatever happened to yous? I talked to a amazingly slim and trim lady named Gayle who had spent most of her life as a teacher and Steve, an old flame who hadn’t been a radio star like I thought he was, but hadn’t let that get him down and the class brain, David Wald, late of the Slide Rule Club, who had his own business imparting his financial expertise to the world less savvy than he. I was less savvy than almost anybody, so I took his card. Most of the rest of the Westbury alumni were the usual high school successes who had taken roads more traveled by and held on to their advantages. At the previous reunion there had also been a table for the deceased, most of who had fallen victim to cancers and accidents. One boy had killed himself over a girl. The happy hour was for survivors and we drank each others' health until the sun went down. I hugged Bobby goodbye in the parking lot and set off for Austin, where I was supposed to connect with, Captain Macho of Pacifica Radio, who had remained a family friend.
The two glasses of wine made me drowsy a hundred miles out 290 West and I pulled into a roadside park under the full moon to take a nap. After a couple of restless hours, some teenagers shooting off their leftover 4th of July fireworks in the picnic area startled me awake. Driving on to Austin, I hit town just as the bars were closing and clots of drunken locals lurched about laughing crazily. In the dark, with all the one-way streets and Saturday night crowds, whose friends let them drive drunk, I couldn’t locate Macho’s place and found myself on the road again.
The moon kept heading west and so did I, past the cliff ‘round the bend at the edge of Austin, and into the Hill Country. The University station kept me company with exotica until I found a friendly all-night Texaco at 4:30 in the morning. The boy attendant, plugged in to an ipod and liberally pierced about the ears and tongue, seemed glad to see anyone at that hour and I bought a pack of cookies and a diet soda to keep right on going. The fuel lasted until Johnson City, the President’s town sleeping under yellow streetlights, a quaint crossroads of quarry stone and rolled metal roofs, with not a single light burning at a window. Outside of town, I barely missed an armadillo turning into a rest stop in the dark and lay down on the pillows in the back until sunup.
The shelters and buildings were made of the same pale limestone and tin as the town, immaculate, with a pine-paneled ceiling in the restrooms and three wild kittens frolicking under a picnic table. As I washed up and brushed my teeth, a pretty blond lady in a dress came in humming a hymn, reminding me that this was Sunday. I changed into a skirt for church in a sunny stall, thinking, as I enjoyed the amenities, of the Joad children and their first encounter with indoor plumbing. They would have loved this place, with its swings and slides and kittens to play with in the cool of a Texas morning, and Charlie would have, too.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Day 28: Another Country

August 11: Houston, Steinbeck-style Texas party

Soundtrack: KTRU Radio, KPFT Pacifica Houston

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

I woke up to read The Grapes of Wrath and clean five pounds of shrimp for Cousin Jon’s birthday party. In the overstocked home of my brother-in law Greg, with its cupboards filled with canned goods and convenience foods, I relived the Travels with Charley vibe of the Texas orgy Steinbeck had with his in-laws.
These were Doug’s relatives; my parents had died and my sisters left Texas years ago. Laura K. went to New York straight out of college and Pamela had sold off both hers and the folks’ houses; she was finally leaving home bye bye and landed in California. The extended family were three brothers, two sisters-in-law, two sets of cousins and six child cousins, while I had only my sisters and one niece. We were a dying line, but the Lacys lived on, mostly solid southern and respectable. Even the gay brother was an opera singer with a Ph.D. Charlie had spent most of his summers from the age of six going back and forth between the Lacy cousins’ and my folks’ in the piney woods of Nacogdoches. His name was Houston, after all.
The morning was spent clearing off the dining room table for the feast. Greg sold real estate out of a home office after years of working for Coldwell Banker; he mentioned that the house across the street was for sale cheap after Katrina refugees had trashed the place and moved out. He had the keys and we took a look inside. he bathroom had leaked into the kitchen and the ceiling was sagging and moldy. A few battered pieces of furniture remained, including a black and gold television console that looked a little like a puppet show with shelves on the backside. One bedroom was littered with discarded toys and clothes; another had a huge hole in one wall. Greg said that a man from New Orleans had moved his relatives in after the hurricane and went back to work on cleanup and reconstruction; the people he had left behind brought in an unsavory element that had ruined the property. What had been a respectable suburban house was now an abandoned wreck.
in the afternoon I took the car for an oil change at the local Chevy dealer and bought salad and wine, my contribution to the celebration. I also was pleased to see that Kinky Friedman not only had hit records and books and ran for Governor, but was marketing his own hot sauce at Safeway!
When the clutter was removed from the table and safely stored in the spare room, the table set by Cousin Barbara, and all the plates and bowls set out, the rest of the family arrived. Jon was 25 now and only adults showed up for the party. He had two grandmothers and a grandfather, an uncle and an aunt, as well as his mom and dad and sister at the table. Grandmother Lacy sat at the head of the table in her wheelchair, smiling sweetly and occasionally nodding off as the evening wore on. What do people talk about at such affairs? Even Steinbeck was vague. One thing sure, we were not to discuss religion because Jon had just returned from an organization in California that his parents considered a cult; he was bit of a fanatic about the improvements that his Master had made on the Bible. Doug and I were glad he had found something to believe in; Charlie had questioned everything to the end. After dozens of shrimp and cake and a couple of glasses of wine, having achieved a “proper insensibility,” I read a little more Grapes of Wrath and curled up on the couch.