March Post

I tried writing something to post in March, but I didn’t like any of the things that I wrote… probably because I don’t like any of the things I’ve been thinking.  I’ll try to come up with a real blog post soon.  In the meantime, here’s the best thing I’ve stumbled across on YouTube lately: an exquisite performance by The Band, and purportedly the last time Levon Helm ever performed this song.



Winter sneaks up on you.
You’re crafting,
watching Netflix,
drinking tea,
hoping for a snow storm,
still anticipating those days
of stark beauty
and coziness.

You think you’re fine.

Unexpectedly, the first warm day comes—
birds sing,
buds swell,
the smell of damp earth rises
all around you—
and you feel yourself start
to thaw in places
you didn’t know
were frozen.

You realize
you were never okay.

How much of your life
have you spent hibernating
without knowing it?


Cottonwood buds.

Reflections On The Road

PART I: Journal Excerpts


My road trip journal & sticker collection.

Monday, November 21, 2016, Treasure State Hostel, Bozeman, MT
          From Spokane this morning, I started driving down Ye Olde I-90 and found myself in Idaho almost immediately.  Was driving in and out of mountains all day, through rain and a little snow.  Was staggered by their beauty, as always.  Even pulled over right on the I-90 to take pictures a couple times.  Saw at least one other guy doing the same.  I feel a sort of kinship with fellow travelers who pull over when awestruck by the sheer beauty of the landscape.
          I was also amazed by all the different kinds of conifers covering the mountains.  They reminded me of something.  It tugged at my brain until I could name it: When I was in grade school, for choir concerts they would put the whole class up on risers, tallest in back and shortest in front, so every proud parent could see their child’s tiny face peeking through the crowd.  Aww, trees—I’m so proud of all of you!  And proud to call this turquoise planet my home.

Conifers near Wallace, Idaho.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, AirBnB in Sioux Falls, SD
Regarding Yellowstone—
          Approaching the park and exploring within it, I was overcome with a sense of awe, of reverence, of sacredness.  In the car I was playing Josh Groban’s first album all the way through, which I haven’t done in a long time, and as I listened to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” when I could get past my queasiness toward Christianity, I felt that the song was very suited to the landscape.  It has a kind of power and an… epic-ness to it.  And I thought, if Jesu is the joy of man’s desiring, then what is the joy of my desiring?  I thought about how I have teared up at every national park, I who suck at outward emotional expression, who can only cry by cutting onions.  And the answer that came to me was: Wilderness.
WILD (untamed) ER (increasing) NESS (the state of)
Wilderness: the practice of fostering what is untamed.
          I called my mom later on the dark drive to South Dakota, and she told me that when she was a kid her family went on a western road trip, but they mostly went to Catholic shrines instead of national parks.  I thought: the national parks ARE my shrines, and this drive my pilgrimage.  Alleluia.
          I have never in my life felt more patriotic than I have on this trip.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt “patriotic” at all before.  But, let me say this: I love my country.  And by that I don’t mean its laws or its government—I mean the land itself, and the people who care so deeply about the land that they have fought to preserve it for future generations.  And the thought that I might have gone my whole LIFE without witnessing these wonders is terrible and preposterous to me now.  This year, I know what I am thankful for: all of this.  For all of the slim possibilities that converged to allow me to be HERE, under the crazy stars, among the Crazy Mountains, breathing with the bison.

Bison close-up.

Friday, November 25, 2016, my friend’s apartment, Pleasant Prairie, WI
On the road, I feel hyper-sensitized, alive and awake and aware in a more profound way, and small interactions can shake me to my core.  At times I am seething with emotion, cruising down the highway, letting every song resonate through me.  It occurs to me that I’d like to redouble my efforts toward my old challenge.  I am so much more than I manage to appear.  I want to exchange some of this reserve (which I have in droves) for courage and vulnerability.

Crossing Montana.

PART II: What I Did and What I Learned

If you ever find yourself with a car and not much to do, I highly recommend driving off to random places.  There’s so much to see!  Everything is an adventure!  If I didn’t have a car I might have considered crossing the country by train, but the nice thing about driving is that it forces you to stay aware of everything around you, so you’re able to appreciate even subtle changes in scenery.  Before this trip, my mental map of the United States was pretty roughly sketched out:us-map-pre-trip
It’s difficult to picture places in detail when you haven’t actually been there.  Now, I have sights and sounds and people and experiences to fill in a lot of that space.  Reading about it isn’t the same as going there and being able to make your own observations.  For example, I went to Tucson specifically because I’ve read a lot of Barbara Kingsolver, but the Tucson I met wasn’t much like the one in her novels.  (A lot of time has passed.)  If I hadn’t gone there, I would have gone on picturing the Tucson of the 1980s.

This was my first time traveling alone, aside from taking a day’s drive to visit friends.  I planned it a chunk at a time.  The most helpful websites for planning where to go, where to stay, and what to do were:
Roadtrippers – helps you plot out routes and easily see which cities have hostels.  It will even help you calculate how much gas money you’ll spend.
AirBnB – great for finding cheap places to stay where hostels aren’t an option, even last-minute.
Couchsurfing – great for free places to stay and meeting locals, but best to use this one well in advance.
Workaway – helps you find arrangements where you work part-time in exchange for room and board.  If you want to spend a larger chunk of time in one place without spending a ton of money, this is a good way to do it.  (You do have to pay for a one-year membership.)
WWOOF – similar to Workaway but specifically for farms: free room and board in exchange for farm work.  More options during the growing season, and better for rural areas.  (Again, you have to pay for a one-year membership.)
National Park Service – if you’re going out west, you should go to some national parks.  It costs $80 for an annual pass and it is well worth it, as the parks cost between $10-$30 to enter otherwise.

I made this trip in a 2011 Ford Focus.  At various points, I had between 0 and 2 passengers.  I packed:
– a plastic bin full of clothes for all weather
– boots, sneakers, sandals, Crocs (a stupid-looking but oh-so-useful piece of footwear)
– a box full of non-perishable food I kept in the trunk, along with a dish, a bowl, a cup, silverware, and a tiny camp stove
– a cooler that I could fill with ice from gas stations and use as a car fridge
– a tent, which I didn’t end up using since most of the places I went were not very warm
– sleeping bag, pillow, blanket
– craft supplies and books
– stationery and stamps for writing to people
– a bucket full of shower stuff
– a dirty-laundry bag
– a square box of tissues that fit in the center console
– DSLR camera and point-and-shoot camera
– car chargers for phone and iPod
– laptop

My technology use is stuck around 2006, but I have to say that this was one instance where a smart phone would really have come in handy.  When I needed to find a laundromat in Spokane, for instance, I had to punch “Find Point of Interest –> Café” into my GPS to get to a Starbucks where I could hover outside with my laptop in the passenger seat running on battery to use Google Maps.  I made it work, but it was kind of ridiculous.  The GPS, at least, was super helpful, except in northern New Mexico where it got pretty confused, and any time I asked it to help me find a gas station.  I landed at a working gas station about half the time, but the rest of the time it was either a convenience store that didn’t sell gas or a gas station that was no longer in operation.

Before I set out, I loaded up my iPod with songs, made a road trip playlist (which I honed as I went), and downloaded a new audio book.  I figured I would get super bored with all that driving.  Not so!  I only got through about 8% of the audio book.  Most of the time I surfed through radio stations, intrigued by what people were listening to in each place I passed through.  I liked to scroll through all the numbers to take surveys of how many Christian, country, classical, hip-hop, classic rock, and pop stations appeared in each place.  I also pulled over to take pictures so often that at times it was hard to get through a whole song.

Driving alone is glorious.  I pulled off at every “vista point” without worrying that I was annoying my passengers.  I listened to whatever I wanted and had conversations with people on the radio, again, without annoying anyone else.  (Sometimes I listen to things that piss me off on purpose so I can argue with them.)  I also took a bunch of pictures while I was driving.  It’s probably not a great idea, but I was focused on the road—I just held up the point-and-shoot camera, pressed the button, and hoped for the best.  95% of them came out terribly, but at least they jog my memory enough to recall what I was trying to photograph.

I’ve been back for over a month now.  It’s been hard to adjust to the mundanity of daily life again, but I suppose one cannot spend one’s whole life in motion.  On the bright side, I’ve officially kept my 2016 New Year’s resolution: to blog at least once in every month of the year.  Let’s see if I can keep it going!

Northward and Home Again: Road Trip Conclusion

I spent a large part of my time in San Francisco trying to figure out what to do next.  I planned my trip in increments, the first of which was Buffalo to SF, where I could crash for a while and hatch more plans.  I’d started out with a vague idea that I would try to WWOOF in northern California.  It turns out that even in California there isn’t much going on farm-wise in November.  It took a long time just to gather information about all of my options, and then I had trouble getting responses from folks.  I ended up joining Workaway as well, thinking that if farming didn’t work out I could at least work at a hostel or retreat center for a while in exchange for room and board, but most of my requests went unanswered.  Frustrating.  I finally got a positive response from a laid-back-sounding “tree farm” in northwestern Washington.  Since I hadn’t seen Robert in a month and he wanted to fly out to meet me, I planned a week-long mini-road trip for us from San Francisco up to Seattle.

Robert and I went to Yosemite for a day, then to Davis, CA, where we spent a night with my other childhood next-door neighbor.  My brother met us in Davis the next morning and all three of us drove to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon—we actually stayed in a woodstove-heated cabin at a defunct lumber mill through AirBnB.

My favorite part about driving north from Davis to Chiloquin, OR, had to be Mount Shasta.  The sun was already down, and suddenly, out of the twilight, rose this magnificent snow-capped mountain.  As is the way with mountains, words cannot do it justice.  I’m definitely filing it away under “places I’d like to return to.”  That drive also marked the beginning of the Stan Rogers chapter of my journey: I put his entire discography on my music player and listened to it for at least a couple hours a day for the rest of the trip.  Crater Lake had gotten a few feet of snow the week before we went, and when we arrived at the park it was melting at 35 degrees.  We drove up the mountain and ascended into the cloud hovering over it, and when we reached the top, the fog was too dense to see the lake.  It was just a big misty void.  We hiked through the snow along the edge of the purported lake and turned back when we got too cold.  As we neared the visitor center, the fog magically lifted for about five minutes and we were able to get some pictures.


Crater Lake in a cloud.

My brother headed back to San Francisco from there, and Robert and I drove north again through Oregon into Washington.  I was surprised to learn that in Oregon it is illegal to pump your own gas.  The only explanations the Internet had to offer for this were “Tradition!” and “It keeps people employed.”  (Sure, but then why not outlaw more things, like doing your own laundry or driving your own car or carrying your own groceries?  So many jobs!)  We spent two nights at an AirBnB in Shelton, WA, with a family and an 8-week-old puppy who was, of course, ridiculously cute.  We tried to get to Olympic National Park, but my little car was not able to make it down the pothole minefield that passed for a dirt road leading to the nearest entrance, so we hiked in the surrounding National Forest instead.  Then we drove to Seattle, where Robert caught a flight for home.  Because his flight left so late in the day we had time to explore Fremont.  We visited the troll under the bridge, got coffee, went to a chocolate factory and a fancy beer bar where we ran into some guys from Buffalo, and met up with a high school friend of Robert’s for dinner.  I spent the night at a cool hostel in Fremont and drove north to the tree farm the following day.


Olympic National Forest.

“Tree Farm: I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I thought it meant “tree nursery,” and the place I stayed did sell seedlings, sometimes, but that wasn’t really the point of the operation.  The owner was a woodworker and ran a small lumber mill.  His main source of income seemed to be rental properties he owned in rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods of Seattle.  “Tree Farm,” in the state of Washington, is a designation that one receives for participating in a sustainable forestry program.  So he was raising native trees and planting them in his woods in order to steward his forest.  (Except that many of them weren’t, actually, native trees, but European ornamentals he dug up in Seattle…)  He was a nice, generous older man and was hosting another senior friend as well as four other WWOOFers while I was there.  I slept on a couch in the living room because the WWOOFer quarters were already taken up, so I spent the evenings in the living room with him while he watched Fox News.  I had been planning on staying longer, but for a variety of reasons (upon which I could elaborate, but which I will just summarize as “I wasn’t very comfortable there”), I only ended up staying four days.  I explained, truthfully, that I was concerned about getting my tiny car back over the Cascades and the Rockies in the coming snow storms since I didn’t have chains for my tires.  I picked up a gallon of emergency water and some hand- and toe-warmer packs on my way out of town, and I began my trek back on November 20th.


I-90 crossing the mighty Columbia River.

I drove I-90 the whole way back to Buffalo, which took me a week.  Because I went to Boston in 2005, I’m pretty sure that I’ve now officially driven the entire length of I-90.  The places I stopped were Spokane, WA (AirBnB); Bozeman, MT (hostel); Rapid City, SD (weirdly cheap hotel room); Sioux Falls, SD (AirBnB); Pleasant Prairie, WI (former roommate’s apartment); and Fremont, OH (my great-aunt and uncle’s house).  I spent Thanksgiving with my former roommate and her romantic partner, a trained chef who can roast veggies to perfection.  The western part of I-90, all the way up to Illinois, is toll-free, and its rest stops are basically just restrooms and parking lots.  Once the tolls start, the rest stops include fast-food restaurants and gas stations.  The highlights of this leg of the trip, which I titled “Get Home Quick!,” had to be Montana and South Dakota.


Wallace, Idaho.

I had never given much thought to Montana before.  When saw it, the source of its name dawned on me light a light bulb: Montana = montaña = mountain = I am in love.  I spent the night at a funky hostel in the quaint-yet-hip college town of Bozeman.  I got to walk around the town a bit in the morning, and then I drove down to Yellowstone, about an hour and a half south.  The drive was absurdly, breathtakingly scenic, fields and ranches spread out at the base of snow-capped mountains all around, rivers a deep cerulean, and so much sky.  I pulled over several times for mountain pictures.  (Do people ever get used to living amid such beauty?  Do they ever stop staggering around in awe?  I hope not.)  Most of the roads in Yellowstone were closed for the winter.  I hiked on the maze of boardwalks around Mammoth Hot Springs, the only easily accessible geological feature at the time, and drove down the only other open road to try to find bison.  The bison found me!  The herd was blocking the road, making all the cars stop.  I rolled down my window and got some really close pictures.  I also spotted elk, mule deer, and a bald eagle.


Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone.

I spent most of the day there and then had to drive eight hours in the dark to get to my cheap hotel.  Even as I was driving down I-90, I could tell that the stars were incredible, so I pulled off at a “parking stop” in Wyoming to see.  Got out of the car and turned off my headlights.  I wasn’t near a town and there were big gaps in the highway traffic, so minimal light pollution, and I was out of the mountains, so the stars stretched from horizon to horizon.  The moon was not up.  Orion and the Big Dipper had just risen, and I drove east toward Orion for the rest of the night, watching him ascend.

The day after Yellowstone, I drove across South Dakota.  I wanted to stop at Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in DeSmet, but I knew I didn’t have time for all three.  I got up pretty early after not much sleep to maximize my touristing time.  I drove for about half an hour and hit a Wall of Fog, which was at least as thick as pea soup.  I passed the exit for Badlands in the midst of the fog and ruled it out, figuring I wouldn’t be able to see much.  I did stop at Wall Drug long enough to get the free bumper sticker their signs had promised.  I was trying pretty hard to make it to DeSmet before the museum closed, and I called them to make sure they were open (it was the day before Thanksgiving).  The woman in the gift shop who answered the phone assured me that they were open but said that she would like to leave early, and she asked me to call back when I was getting close.  So I drove over the speed limit (rare for me, since I have too many points on my license to risk getting pulled over) and didn’t stop for lunch, bathroom, or anything else…

…BUT:  I had forgotten to account for the hour I would lose in the middle of the state due to time zones.  I called the gift shop again when I was getting close—my e.t.a. was 2:20—and the same woman told me that she wanted to leave at 3:00, so I should let her know if I was going to be any later.  I figured that at best, that meant I would get a rushed 30-minute tour.  I was driving down country roads surrounded by fields, passing signs like “Town of ____, Population 108,” when I realized I was almost out of gas.  Miraculously, I came across the first gas station I’d seen in an hour and performed the fastest fuel-up of my life, race car-style.  I got to the museum around 2:30.  The woman on the phone, it turned out, was not the tour guide, and the actual tour guide was totally willing to hang out as long as I wanted.  I got a private tour of all the buildings and it was the best tour I’ve ever had of anything, period.  I got to ask all the questions I wanted.  He was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, a sometimes-high school history teacher who had just moved back to the town where he’d spent part of his youth.  He was able to draw me back into that prairie town I’d loved so much at fourteen and made me want to reread that whole series.


The first house where Laura lived when she moved to SD.

This post concludes the major events of the road trip.  I might write one more just to assemble my thoughts and general observations about it all.  Stay tuned!


Map of my route from

Road Trip Interlude: Three Weeks In San Francisco

I stayed with my brother, his wife, and their dog Pixel from October 18th to November 9th.  They just bought their house in the Outer Sunset in May, so I was excited to go visit them.  My brother is three years younger than me and has lived out in California since 2011 when he was hired at Google; I usually only see him for Christmas, so it was nice to actually have a chance to hang out.  Because I lived in San Francisco for a year (’08-’09) for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I’d already done most of the tourist things and didn’t have much interest in doing them again.  I hadn’t been back since my last brief visit in 2012.  Here are some highlights from this visit:

I got my car fixed!  By the time I got it to SF, it needed an oil change, new brakes, a new serpentine belt, and a new wiper fluid nozzle.  All this cost me somewhere around $1400.  Hooray!  (Sarcasm.)


I tried fixing it with electrical tape first – ha!  It didn’t work.

Most days when I didn’t have some other adventure planned, I took little Pixel on walks to the beach, helped cook meals from Plated. meal subscription service, and tried to identify the foreign (to me) succulents and cacti growing in their yard.

I bought a new Muni map, put some money on a Clipper card, and attempted to refresh my memory of the bus system.  Last time I lived in SF, I didn’t have a car, so I took public transport by default.  I tried driving in the city a couple of times on this visit but it was way more of a pain in the ass than it was worth: I would spend as much time circling around trying to park, as I spent driving to my destination.  So I mostly bussed it and hoofed it.


Takin’ pictures, waitin’ for the bus.

I met up with my JVC supervisor for lunch and she caught me up on her life and developments in the San Francisco non-profit world.  My uncle, who’s living in Palo Alto, also met up with my brother, his wife, and me for brunch one day.


Cappuccino at Outerlands on Judah.

I went to a Google-sponsored, Halloween-themed glass-blowing workshop with my brother and his wife at Public Glass, where we each got to make a glass pumpkin.  Pretty cool!

We went to two concerts: Bon Iver at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, and the Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre where we saw Neil Young, Metallica, Roger Waters, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Willie Nelson, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Cage the Elephant, and Nils Lofgren.   It turns out it’s really hard to get tickets to anything in the Bay Area because the scalping is out of control.  Good luck getting to a show unless you’re a computer wizard or willing to pay twice the retail ticket price.  I enjoyed the shows we saw, but the ridiculousness of getting tickets made me glad I don’t live in such a major population center.


Bridge School Benefit Concert.

I took myself to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens for a day and had a nice time wandering around looking at all the exotic plants.

My brother and I signed up for a two-hour surfing lesson together in Pacifica, CA.  It was not all that I’d hoped—our instructor was not terribly helpful—but I did get to surf a little, so I can say that I’ve done it.  After a few facefuls of salt water, I decided the surfing was not the thing for me… but it sure does clear out the sinuses.

I went to Muir Woods about three times and admired the majestic coastal redwoods there (Sequoia sempervirens), as well as the bigleaf maples in their autumn gold (Acer macrocarpa).

My childhood next-door neighbor, who I hadn’t seen for about 12 years, met up with my brother and me for a walk up the Land’s End Trail from the Sutro Baths ruins to Sea Cliff.  Pixel got to meet her skateboarding bull dog!


Mile Rock Beach, San Francisco.

My brother and I drove back down Highway 1 to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a day to go hiking.  The trail wasn’t well-marked.  We thought we were on a trail, albeit a challenging one that included ropes dangling down rock faces from tree trunks that kind of required us to rappel… until it just petered out and we realized it was never a trail.  We basically hiked up a gorge and found some cool waterfalls.

I spent an afternoon wandering around the Mission and went back to visit my old apartment (just the outside; I didn’t knock).  The billboard on the side was gone for the time being, and the businesses that used to be on the first floor had changed—Glama-Rama Salon was now Lotus Center Healing Collective, and the Housing Rights Committee was a guitar shop.  (The previous businesses still exist; they just moved.)  My old laundromat was being remodeled and turned into apartments, and the abandoned gas station that used to be across the street from our apartment is now a swanky new five-story apartment building.  Otherwise, things seemed more or less the same.  All the shops I remembered on Mission and on Valencia were still there, and the 16th and Mission BART station was still a shit show.


Possibly the coolest thing I did during this visit was participate in Food Not Bombs at 16th and Mission.  We met in the kitchen of a housing collective & anti-capitalist event space that was shockingly clean (by my Buffalo housing co-op standards) and full of radical flyers and posters.  About 15 people came to prepare the meal, and most of us set to chopping all the produce that had been donated by local grocery stores that would otherwise have thrown it away.  A couple of people were in charge of putting it all together into a meal.  Those who participated were from all over: Lithuania, France, Boston, L.A., Virginia, and even Brockport, NY!  When the cooking was finished we had pasta, ratatouille perfectly spiced, pinto beans, salad, fruit salad, and apple cobbler.  We ate together with the residents of the collective before taking the rest of the meal down to the BART station to serve to whoever wanted some.  The food was gone within 15 minutes.  It was a great way to meet some awesome, friendly folks and restore some faith in humanity.

My last full day in San Francisco happened to fall on November 8th.  Robert flew out to meet me that evening so that we could embark on a mini-road trip together the next day.  I had a hell of a time trying to find him at the airport—why would a flight from NYC end up at the “international” terminal?—but I finally did manage to pick him up, and we stopped at Safeway for a six-pack to bring back with us while we watched the election coverage.  The cashier asked us if we were sure we didn’t want something stronger.  That was my first real indication that things were going the way they did—I’d been listening to NPR that morning and everyone on the radio seemed pretty confident that Hillary had it in the bag.  As it happened, I was pretty much off the grid for the following three days.  Before I had embarked on this trip, I had created a road trip playlist on my mp3 player, which I tinkered with throughout the journey, adding and deleting tracks.  One of my favorites ended up being “Grand Canyon” by Ani DiFranco, which is more of a spoken-word poem than a song.  During that first week or so after the election, it was the only thing that made me feel better about the state of my country.

Road Trip Highlights So Far: Westward Bound

Since updating as I travel hasn’t worked out too well, please enjoy the highlights below!

Pleasant Prairie, WI, 10/4/16

R and I crashed with one of my favorite former roommates and her partner and met her dog named Dragon!  Driving through Chicago sucked.

Hancock, IA, 10/5/16

Crashed with a friend of a Buffalo friend who runs a small organic farm.  He was an amazingly generous host who cooked us a delicious dinner of farm-fresh veggies.  Slept under a bunk bed with a SLIDE attached!


Hancock, IA Soybean Field

Denver, CO, 10/6-10/8/16

Drove the entire length of Nebraska, which was all corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see.  The rain that accompanied us turned to snow, and the temperature plummeted.  As soon as we crossed the border into Colorado, the farm fields disappeared and were replaced by pasture full of brush.  We stayed in a super swanky AirBnB in the RiNo neighborhood for three nights while R attended the Great American Beer Festival with his coworkers.  Went to Rocky Mountain National Park for a day and saw elk—and they saw us!  They walked right in front of my car.  Also swung through Boulder.  R and I parted ways in Denver on October 9 so he could return to work, and I continued the journey alone.


Bull Elk, Rocky Mtn. National Park

Taos, NM, 10/9/16

I took the scenic route through the Rockies down to Taos and stopped frequently at “vista points,” designated or not.  Passed many beautiful abandoned ranches.  The whole drive was insanely picturesque.


Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Spent some time looking for coffee after 5pm on a Sunday and finally found it in Salida, CO.  The sun went down, the views disappeared, and I skipped around radio stations trying to catch Presidential Debate #2.  Got quite lost at the end and had to drive back into cell phone range to call the hostel and get directions, but I finally made it to Taos.  Got very little sleep due to the bed bug siege.  Finally gave up on any prospect of sleep and got up around 6:00 a.m.  Went to Black Rock Hot Springs on the Rio Grande, in the process of which I got quite lost again, drove down a seven-mile rut-ridden dirt road and thoroughly messed up my car’s shocks.


Should have rented a Jeep.

Albuquerque, NM, 10/10/16

Stayed at a cool hostel in an old adobe mansion.  Hung out on the porch in the evening sharing beers and chatting with hostel staff and other guests.  This hostel had mattress encasements and forbade guests from bringing their own bedding inside: smart.  Explored Albuquerque Old Town in the morning and asked a local whether anyone calls it “Albuquirky.”  The answer was no.


Albuquerque Old Town

Flagstaff, AZ, 10/11-10/12/16

Since I don’t have a smart phone, before I left, I meticulously hand-wrote directions on how to drive the old Route 66 from Albuquerque to Flagstaff.  (Yes, I learned about Route 66 from the movie Cars.)  I managed to stay on it basically until the Arizona border when the sun went down, because a) the speed limit is much slower than on I-40, and b) I stopped a lot to take pictures.  Route 66 is an urban explorer’s paradise, full of modern ruins.  They are perhaps a little TOO ruined for some people’s taste because you can just walk into most of them.  In Arizona I drove through the Navajo reservation, where I stopped at a “rest stop” that was just a couple picnic tables and a fire pit.  I was able to catch a Navajo language radio station for a while.  The Flagstaff hostel, called the Grand Canyon International Hostel, was a converted motor lodge from the 1930s, which I got a big kick out of.  I’ve wanted to stay in a motor lodge since I started reading Stephen King’s short stories.  This wasn’t quite the same, but it was fun nevertheless.


Worn down by 80 years of travelers’ footsteps.

I chose it because it was the closest hostel to the Petrified Forest National Park, which I explored on my second day there.


Petrified Forest National Park – “The Tepees.”

Two Guns, AZ, 10/12/16

I spent hours exploring this I-40 exit that is entirely abandoned.  You can find a lot of information about it online.  I came first to the abandoned KOA Kamp and gas station; then I followed a dirt road toward some cobblestone buildings in the distance that it turned out were an abandoned zoo.  Everything has been deserted since the 80s, I gather.  I read that there was a caretaker living in a mobile home on the property for a while to keep trespassers and vandals away, but he committed suicide in 2000.  The mobile home is still there in ruins.  There were other tourists exploring the place as well: a young woman with her dog, a couple of guys in pickup trucks, a man with a camper, and family from Illinois with two little kids where the dad was giving them a tour based on a guidebook he brought.


Abandoned KOA, Two Guns, AZ


Abandoned Zoo, Two Guns, AZ

Sedona, AZ, 10/13/16

Before I left Flagstaff, I hiked the Aspen Loop Trail in the San Francisco Peaks.  The aspens were in their full autumn glory, and it was a wonderful hike.  (My favorite part of this trip has been any time I’ve been near mountains!)  I went through Sedona between Flagstaff and Tucson mainly because of the Houndmouth song.  I was again fascinated by the landscape changes.  I drove through Coconino National Forest and Oak Creek Canyon, full of deciduous broadleaf trees—even sycamores!  When I came out of the canyon, traffic slowed to a snail slither approaching Sedona, and I was awed by the crazy rock formations rising out of the forest.  South of Sedona, the trees abruptly gave way to saguaros—then the sun went down.  I played with the radio until I ended up on an AM station with some racist radio hosts, then switched to my audiobook.

Tucson, AZ, 10/13-10/14/16

This was my only Couchsurfing stay so far, and it was very nice.  My host was an interesting and kind woman who liked to garden and told me about desert plants.  I met another visitor/tenant from Virginia who was familiar with one of my favorite bands (Carbon Leaf!), and the second night I met a lovely couple from Ontario, Canada who took me out for tacos and traded travel stories.  I had wanted to go to Tucson mostly because I’ve been a Barbara Kingsolver fan since I read The Bean Trees in the 10th grade, but it seems like Tucson has changed a lot since the 1980s.  I was kind of underwhelmed.  I saw a lot of strip malls and (non-native) palm trees, but it was hard to find an interesting city center.  I eventually consulted my Slingshot organizer and found myself at a radical bookstore where I chatted with the owner and her daughter and picked up a Slingshot for next year.  The highlight of my Tucson stay was Saguaro National Park, where I learned SO MUCH about saguaro cactuses and had to stop myself from trying to take a portrait of every saguaro in the park because they’re all so unique!  In a place with few trees, I guess I just fall in love with the tallest plant around.


Saguaro National Park

Slab City, CA, 10/15/16

I enjoyed driving across southern Arizona, admiring the desert vistas and skipping around Spanish-language radio stations, some of which were actually broadcasting from Mexico.  The California border was a bridge over the Colorado River and marked another sudden transition, from Sonoran Desert to huge sand dunes.  Drove through two Border Patrol checkpoints.  I then found myself driving between the biggest agricultural fields I’d ever seen, stretching almost to the horizon.  I’d originally wanted to spend a night in Slab City, but I was nervous about it as I didn’t know what to expect.  Most of my expectations were based on Into the Wild, and I know better than to base too much on what I see in movies—so I just stopped by for an hour or so.  It turns out Salvation Mountain is actually a pretty major tourist destination.  There were people there speaking all different languages climbing the mountain and taking pictures, and one Slab City resident sitting under a tent taking donations and enforcing the signs that told you where not to walk.  I had been worried that it would be weird for a random tourist to show up at this off-grid camp, but not so.


Salvation Mountain, Slab City, CA

Big Bear Lake, CA, 10/15-10/16/16

I only had this one on my list because I found a cool hostel there through (without which I’d never have been able to plan this trip), but I’m so glad I went.  I drove past Joshua Tree National Park, through the Mojave Desert, and up into the San Bernardino Mountains—as I climbed the desert dissolved, and the higher I went the more wooded it became.  The hostel was called the Mountain Adventure Lodge, and it included breakfast and had a fire built in the common space every night.  I met lots of Workawayers there from other countries, a couple staying there via Groupon after attending Oktoberfest, and a couple of college students from L.A. trying to catch a bit of fall on their school break.  I hiked the Pineknot Trail to Grand View Point in the San Bernardino National Forest and met one of my new favorite trees, the Jeffrey Pine.  A park ranger told me that they’re nicknamed “Gentle Jeffries” because you can cup a pine cone in your hands and it won’t prickle your skin.  They’re tall and majestic, and their bark smells like butterscotch.  Seriously.


Closeup of a wildfire scar and bark regrowth on a Jeffrey Pine.

San Luis Obispo, CA, 10/17/16
The next phase of my plan was to drive up Highway 1 to San Francisco, but I needed to split it up, so I picked SLO as a midpoint to spend a night.  California driving is my least favorite thing.  I spent hours crossing the state in aggravating traffic but was finally rewarded with the Pacific Ocean.  For some reason it hadn’t crossed my mind that I’d be seeing the ocean that day, since I was saving Big Sur for the next day.  I smelled it before I saw it: the moist salty air and the unfortunate gym-socks scent of eucalyptus.  I missed the first exit labeled “beach access” and took the next one, which had some (intentionally?) misleading signs but ended at a small beach with only three parking spaces.  I took off my shoes and ran through the surf.  There was one other person there, a middle-aged woman walking her dogs, and when I returned to my car she asked me if I’d really driven from New York.  I told her about my trip before I continued on to SLO.

First Pacific Ocean sighting!  (On this trip, anyway.)

San Luis Obispo is a cute little city that has good taste in street trees and gives the impression of wealth.  (Its main drag is full of shiny new mall-type stores.)  I only spent a night there so I don’t have much more than passing impressions.  The hostel I stayed in had the best sense of community: everyone hung out and shared drinks and played music in the common space until we all trouped down to a bar for open mic night.

Music Room in SLO Hostel

Highway 1 and Big Sur, 10/18/16

Driving Highway 1 takes FOREVER, but you are rewarded with incredible scenic vistas.  I stopped at one labeled “elephant seal viewing area,” thinking, “Yeah, right, how do they know there are seals there right now?”—but they were!  Got lots of good photos.  If anyone but me had been driving I would have been incredibly motion sick.


Highway 1, California, Bixby Bridge, completed 1932

I also greeted my favorite California coastal plant, whose name I finally learned: coyote brush!  It smells like lemon and mustard and dill and I can’t stop crushing little leaves between my fingers to sniff every time I see it.


Coyote Brush – Baccharis pilularis

And on October 18th I made it to San Francisco, where I’ve been hanging out for three weeks—and that will be another post.