Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day Thirty-Six: Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Food and bathrooms; bathrooms and food. See that? And here I thought I wasn't writing enough about my pregnancy.

Okay, so things were winding down and Mike was as anxious as ever to arrive at our western Massachusetts destination. He tried several times to talk me out of Amish Country, but I wasn't having it. I wanted to check out the life of the horse and buggy. I also thought it might be a really cool thing for Isaac, aka Rocket Boy, to encounter a culture that was choosing to forgo the modern technology he so dearly loved. (Isaac regularly asks me to look up videos on the computer about new technological breakthroughs, he can tell you anything you'd like to know about rocket lift off, and he starts about every third sentence with “When I grow up I'm gonna invent...”)

After grabbing a map and some advice at the downtown Lancaster welcome center, we meandered through the farms, guided by small, hand-painted signs advertising eggs, goat milk, quilts, bird houses, root beer, mailboxes, and my very, very favorite: “Custom Pea and Lima Bean Shelling.”

We made stops here and there, bought some lemonade, some pretzels. Isaac was not at all thrilled with the stop and start afternoon, he wanted to get to our campsite and be done. His motivations didn't quite mimic his dad's “the destination, not the journey” attitude, as I happen to know what he really wanted was to be released from the van to study anthills and beg us to roast marshmallows. However, he was in fact fascinated by the idea of Amish culture and excitedly pointed out horse-drawn plows in the fields.

I made Mike U-turn for the driveway marked with the sweet potato plant sign. There were only a couple days left of our trip and I figured they'd probably survive. Besides, the succulents we'd brought from California needed some company.

We pulled in and we waited. A couple of mellow bulldogs showed up to slobber on us. Children spied us from the safety of the screened porch, then went running, announcing the arrival of the strange white van. Only the smallest was left. As a sweet-faced boy, about three, stepped out into view in his wide-brimmed hat and suspenders, my hand went into virtual spasms trying not to lift the camera. (Photography is frowned upon by the Amish.)

Eventually, a woman appeared and asked how many plants I'd like. I, in turn, asked how much they cost. Twelve cents each. Excuse me? Twelve cents. ----. I. Uh. I....

Mike had to rescue me. I was speechless. We left with three dollars worth – enough for a whole garden of sweet potatoes should we actually find a house where we can plant them. That's what this was, this stop. An act of optimism. I'd battled pit toilets, pig farmers, and Interstate 80. I'd survived gargantuan RVs, fried cheeseballs, and Nebraska. It was almost over, and somewhere deep inside, maybe I still believed that at the end of it all we'd find a home. That we'd make a place where the food was all-natural, the gardens were priority, and the fucking cars just weren't. Okay, two out of three, then. No Amish in Massachusetts that I know of.

Driving from west to east has more than a little in common with labor. Things tend to move slowly at first – big, square western states that never end. And painful. Then, just when you think it'll last forever, things begin to hurry along – roads get busier, states flying by, the next and then the next.

When I was in labor with Isaac, it actually progressed very fast. When it came time to push, I didn't, really. My midwife told me afterwards that she thought I wasn't yet mentally prepared to see the end of this process. (Hell, yeah! I still thought I might be having a litter of kittens!) So my brain and body were essentially stalling to give themselves time to take it all in.

I am not ready for this trip to be done. Everyone keeps suggesting I must be. My husband was eight states ago. But I am not. I can wait. Maybe I'm just afraid of the next step. Or maybe I just need time to catch up.

Whenever I go hiking with Mike, I am always waiting, journal and trailmix in backpack, for the next place to stop. He wants to go further, go longer, go. Sometimes one manages to convince the other of the benefits of his or her preferred method. This trip has been that dance magnified.

“Do you think you'll become Amish one day?” Isaac asked me when I exclaimed for the fiftieth time my affinity for the lifestyle.

“This place is awesome,” Mike said almost to himself as we passed another buggy.

The next day, I was sorry to go, but camping in the Hudson Valley called, and we all said we'd come back. As we left and headed north to New York, I took note that Virginville, Blue Ball and Intercourse, Pennsylvania were all within a short drive of each other. Things were definitely starting to make sense.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Detour: Open Letter to Michelle Obama

Dear Mrs. Obama:

I am writing to discuss your campaign, surely a worthwhile one, against childhood obesity in our country.

I have just completed a cross-country driving trip that took my family and I on a 5,000 mile journey from California to Massachusetts. While I have seen many extraordinary things along my travels, I have also witnessed a plethora of menus that would curl your toes and people sitting behind those menus who, let's just say could have benefited from the type of campaign you have embarked on some years back. It has been no less than a strenuous and continual struggle to eat anywhere close to properly as a 6-7-month pregnant woman also feeding her young child while crossing the (ample) midsection of the United States.

That battle for nutrition was one of the major reasons I was thrilled to arrive in your adopted hometown and former home of mine, Washington, D.C. Thinking nothing of our ability to find a decent lunch while out and about in the city, my family began our day at the Air and Space Museum.

I recently learned that this building is the second most-visited one on the planet (the first being Paris' Louvre Museum). And so, I took my place as one of millions this year that will examine exhibits about the physics of flying, marvel at the bravery and foolishness of those early enthusiasts with not much more than a wing and a prayer, take in the accomplishments of the first African-Americans in flight, wonder about the future of space exploration, and lots more.

And when lunchtime came, we migrated to the food court. There we would make a grave and upsetting discovery: McDonald's. McDonald's, as you may know, or not, has a 100% monopoly on the food options at Air and Space. McDonald's, Mrs. Obama.

Should I have counted for you the number of ice cream stands within the food court? Should I even bother to go so far as to challenge you to find a healthy meal under the (deep-fried) golden arches? Much less a healthy vegetarian meal? The signs posted about McDonald's commitment to the health and well-being of children only caused me to grow more upset. How dare this corporate giant of salt and fat, whose food literally won't even rot, try to school me on health.

I think I know how to eat well, Mrs. Obama. And I think you do, too. It is not at McDonald's. We cannot make people eat well, but the issue is choice.

While clearly, we could go elsewhere for food, to do so was impractical given our immediate hunger and our schedule. We were left to pick at a greasy pizza and some sugared up yogurt. By the time I found myself in the glitzy food court of Air and Space, I had already been a prisoner of poor food options for thousands of miles. My patience was tried. My children deserve better.

Do you sincerely want McDonald's representing a government-maintained, U.S. citizen-owning institution of culture such as the Smithsonian Museums? I would respectfully request that you investigate the issue of nutrition and childhood obesity as it manifests in your own backyard and as it impacts millions of visitors every year in our nation's capital.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day Thirty-Two to Thirty-Five: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Leesburg, VA & Washington, D.C.

The earth is a homeless person. Or the earth's home / is the atmosphere. / Or the atmosphere is the earth's clothing, / layers of it, the earth wears all of it, / the earth is a homeless person...
from Sharon Olds' “What is the Earth?”

Our last day in Ohio, the heat broke. We even got caught in a rain storm and took refuge, shivering, in the impressive Hudson Public Library. And then, we were off.

More friends in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC – two places I used to call home. One has the most down-to-earth people I've ever encountered. The other has motorcades that always seem to happen just when you're trying to get to lunch.

Or the atmosphere is the earth's cocoon, / which it spun itself, the earth is a larvum. / Or the atmosphere is the earth's skin – / earth, and atmosphere, one / homeless one ...

Isaac got to go to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where he encountered the climax of his fossil-laden cross-country adventure...

And he arrived at the much-hyped-by-his-parents Air and Space Museum on the Mall, personally my least-favorite of the Smithsonian museums, but as someone born in the summer of '69, I feel strongly that freeze-dried ice cream is a childhood rite of passage.

Both cities provided some welcomed preggo creds. A woman pushing a stroller at the Carnegie asked me when my baby was due. Oh, to be noticed! (I am consistently told I am small and can hide the belly with the right clothes still. I have very few actual maternity clothes, which adds to the potential for disappearing baby.) She then followed this question with the more than predictable statement: “You look great!” Other women say this to pregnant women all. the. time. It's code for, “You aren't that fat yet!” Consequently, I'm never really sure what to say in reply.

Unfortunately, Andrew Carnegie either didn't warm to great-looking pregnant tubbos, or didn't leave enough of an endowment to put some upper floor restrooms in – two bathrooms, both in the basement. Not. Cool. A preg might be hanging in ancient Egypt on the 3rd floor and, go figure, need to pee. Hypothetically.

Or its orbit is the earth's / home, or the path of the orbit just / a path, the earth is a homeless person. / Or the gutter of the earth's orbit is a circle / of hell, the circle of the homeless...

Another preggo triumph: At the Air and Space, which now requires bags to be x-rayed and people to be subjected to a full body scan, the guard pointed at my belly. “Bomb in there?” he inquired. When I shook my head, he ordered me to bypass the scanner.

While for its part, the Air and Space Museum has bathrooms in sufficient locales, they were – impossibly – even louder than the din of the museum itself. They could have been their own exhibit with the noise and force of the automatic hand dryers. Have you encountered these dryers? The ones that caution you to remove hands slowly? You may think the warning odd, until you notice your skin rippling and curling away from the flesh of your hand.

Honestly, I can't take the auto-bathroom stuff. Toilets flush themselves, except when they don't, water comes out on its own, if you wave your hand around enough, soap, too, sometimes – although more often I've been caught flailing fruitlessly in front of the dispenser of gloppy pink liquid waiting for it to magically fall into my palm... and paper towels appear with a wave, unless, those trusty hand dryers turn on with gale force winds.

But the earth / has a place, around the fire, the hearth / of our star. The earth is at home. The earth / is home to the homeless. For food, and warmth, / and shelter, and health / they have earth and fire / and air and water, for home they have / the elements they are made of...

Perhaps I am alone in my ability to observe exhibits of early flight, of satellites and moon landers, to see full size skeletons of diplodocus and giant prehistoric sea turtles, and leave with my strongest memories attached to public restrooms. These are the things comedy routines are made of, and really dull blog entries.

Living in the moment may not be my strong point. Writing may simply preclude living in the moment. With the exception of newspaper writing, which comes pretty close to being present in one particular moment since you are constantly on top of dates and happenings. Newspaper writing is different than my other writing in many ways – for example regarding clichés. As a poet, I run screaming from cliché, but in newspaper, its the lifeblood. The best headlines are always clichés. I imagine journalism school must be full of courses on cliché: Cliché 101, Intermediate Cliché, The History and Politics of Cliché, Multicultural Cliché. I am a mere novice here, and defer on this point to the “J-men” as I like to call my editors.

While, in my theater previewing, I am loathe to copy down directors' many clichés regarding things such as the “magic of live theater,” regarding headlines, it's always fun to see if I can make up a cliché good enough to stick. A while back, I wrote a piece about the popularity of genealogy research. I named it, “The family you never had.” I thought it was pretty good! But it got bumped for “Find Yourself.” I had to admit defeat. And then there are the puns. Plentiful and glorious. There is a Broadway show called “Urinetown” that has been produced in Monterey a couple of times in recent years. I was sure I nailed it titling my preview article with “To Pee or Not to Pee.” Just goes to show what I know... “Urine Luck.”

Ah, but again I stray, and rather far this time, I'd say! I find I have less to say about my stays when I stay with friends. Perhaps I am subconsciously protecting their privacy. Perhaps I am just better at writing when disgruntled.

In Pittsburgh, I got to hang out on the porch on a warm summer evening, talking with long-time buddies and watching fireflies. Something I can't say I've done in a very long time. Monterey has no warm summer evenings, no fireflies, and few porches. In D.C., I had dreams of going to bookstores I miss like Kramer's and Politics and Prose, but ultimately, our time was short and our accommodations were far (Leesburg). I didn't get to those places. Instead, I store the unfulfilled desire to go, to browse, to replay this dream, while the impressions I write about must revolve around bathrooms and food courts – oh boy, food courts! Don't get me started. McDonald's, you sly devil, you.

as if / each homeless one were an earth, made / of milk and grain, like Ceres, and one / could eat oneself—as if the human / were a god, who could eat the earth, a god / of homelessness.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Days Twenty-Nine to Thirty-One: to Hudson, Ohio

Somehow, I imagined more entries like this one back at Mojave.

Maybe that was a lifetime ago. Maybe I just like to complain. Maybe almost seven months pregnant and 99 degrees (or did the bank's digital display just not have a third number slot??) isn't conducive to thoughtful writing. I don't know. And I am torn between wanting to apologize for whining or just relaxing into what is. We so often think we know how something should feel and then when it feels differently we decide we haven't had the experience yet. We wait for the predetermined feeling, which rarely shows up. Maybe I am waiting for my cross-country trip.

Warsaw, Indiana. We are hanging with an international crowd now, baby. And although the orthopedists who didn't appear to be speaking Polish and their convention took all the king-sized beds, and the Bennigan's menu had no fruit, I did manage a spinach salad and a quesadilla and life was looking up.

We had to escape the lovely (not meant sarcastically, it really was minus the weather) Potato Creek State Park with all $17.36 worth of attractions because after one night in which I was pretty certain I'd suffocate in the heat, we once again were hotel-bound.

Life is nothing if not a paradox, and the cheap hotel vs fancy hotel playground of counter-intuitive-ness is no exception. Cheap hotels: frig in room. Fancy: nope. Cheap: free wifi. Fancy: maybe, or maybe you have to go to the “business center” and pay more.

Soon enough we'd be on the road again and clearing another border, where the world was at our feet. Ohio brought us through Delphos, Lima, and Cairo.

Allow me to pause here to compliment you, America, on the dramatic improvements you've made to the state of road stop restrooms since I last drove across your varied and vast terrain. I've even been greeted on occasion with postings of impassioned pleas by managers asking me to inform them should the cleanliness of the facilities fall below my standards. 

In other random updates, Emily still somehow doesn't hate us. Claws scraping tracks through carpet – always brown or navy and patterned with colored speckles to disguise godknowswhat – as we drag her out from under the hotel bed, she complains briefly, then takes her place in the centerpiece of our lives, the mobile salon of destiny, home, the van. (By the way, the van needs a name. Thoughts???)

She mostly stays to her upper level space while we're going along, though she still visits me sometimes to stare hard out the front windshield or just for a hug. Nine more pounds pressing on my bladder with the already-accomplished fetal creature doing its best to render me a slave to the above-mentioned sparkly toilet rooms is not really ideal, but I figure perhaps by the time we hit D.C., she'll have shed most of that weight from stress.

Ohio eventually remitted the town of Hudson, where we found sanctuary at our friends' Lisa and Scott's. For me, two very welcomed nights of standing in a kitchen talking, while things were chopped, measured, and tasted, with the vague knowledge of children playing somewhere nearby, while my cat relaxed into the central AC, and my vision for what was ahead didn't steady so much as gain momentum from talking about what had come before and the paths we'd each followed since, to land us here, to this square of the world, to this sip of soup. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Days Twenty-Seven - Twenty-Nine: Illinois & Indiana

Disclaimer: Some day this will be more than a chronology of whining. But for now, here is something since I have internet right now and am behind in my li'l storying. Mike said I should. If you don't like it, blame him; it always works for me.

My due date is September 3. In a couple short months, I will be the recipient of an inordinate amount of unsolicited advice. Put a hat on that baby. Take the hat off that baby. When they X, you should always Y. Wait til junior high! It's just around the corner. I know this is coming. So, allow me the honor of bestowing my own unsolicited parenting advice now. Here it is: You must learn to fight well with your partner in front of your children. You will think you are doing them a favor by never fighting in front of them. But then, circumstances will change.

You will find yourself in a van in week five of a cross-country trip.

With a cat in the back, 97 degrees and no air conditioning. 

Or you will find yourself in a booth at a restaurant somewhere you thought was Pennsylvania, but turns out to be Maryland, staring at yet another crap menu of deep fried cheese and no fruit where no one, believe me, will ask you whether you want the green salad or the fries with that, because the only option is potato chips, and where the kids on smoke break from the kitchen hanging out by the back door think it's really cool that you're on the road from California and you look at them, pimply and blowing smoke out their noses, their fingers probably stained yellow and wrinkly from washing potato chip grease off all those plates and you think, Yeah, you try it, asshole, you just try it. And you will not have the option of not fighting. There will be no option. And you will be stuck with each other. All of you. And you will have to live with this. So you better know how to do it.

Ah, but I'm getting way ahead of myself again.

Iowa stunk. Now, pay attention. I told you I found good food there and we even got our first “Howl” there.

Hard to say though if he really knew what the heck the bumper sticker was talking about or if he just felt like howling. (more on the bumper sticker another time...)

No, I mean stunk. Like hold your nose those cows are livin' too close together kind of stunk. Ew. So, despite my food triumphs there, despite the local morning show gardening advice segment playing on the TV above another charming hotel “breakfast” (“I have various weeds in my yard. What should I do?”), despite “Cow Appreciation Day” at the Iowa City Children's Museum, despite the fact that it was the first day in forever that the winds died down, despite the wifi at interstate rest stops and the maintenance man in the final one for I-80 that tip-toed around the building with Isaac to show him the baby ground squirrel, we left.

We crossed a by-now rather well-behaved Mississippi River into Illinois.

The Johnson-Sauk State Recreational Area had a lake, trees, a round barn (the devil hides in the corners), and 90 degree weather, 85 percent humidity... at 9:00 p.m.

We bailed. Repacked and drove 6 miles back on the road we came in on to the hotel. I wish I could share with you that it fell somewhere in the list of more amusingly named lodging options. We'd seen the Settle Inn. The Sleep Inn. And, of course, the AmericInn. Alas, it was only a Best Western.

There was a wedding party in town – though we were hard-pressed to figure out where the “town” was. We got the last available room. Small, barefooted little girls in white dresses scuttled around the hallways giggling. This would do fine. I needed sleep.

In the morning everyone checked out but us. I had convinced my husband that we needed a rest day. Let this be a lesson to you - this is what happens when you don't stay longer in the places that are cool. You end up having to hang out in other places.

At the restaurant in town the next day we could spot the other outsider easily. A blonde/grey-haired man in his fifties wearing a Lady GaGa shirt whom we suspected belonged to the Honda with the New York plates parked out front sat eating some of that yum salad bar fare I mentioned in the last post. It was the last day for the “Annawan Fun Days,” though it was announced to us that we'd pretty much missed it, but for the beer garden and the hacky sack contest. Sometimes you just can't win, eh?

The states were starting to come fast and furious for us now, baby. We dove into Indiana and it's 97 degree predicted temperatures.

80 East is a nightmare of construction and semis. It is easily 100 degrees on this highway. We are stopped dead in three narrow lanes of traffic. Emily is panting. We are all ready to join her. I begin to cry out of helplessness. Mike takes the next exit and we drive through random neighborhoods in the general direction of out.

Then, we are 6 miles from our exit. From all accounts, it will be a lovely place called Potato Creek State Park. There will be boat rentals for the lake, shade, a playground. Isaac is asleep, a rarity. He has not done at all the things I thought he would on this trip in the van—draw, create postcards, read, make up games. He has sat, asking how much longer; he has watched some DVDs.

Suddenly, there is a bang from the back of the van, a sound that feels like part of the engine must have exploded. We wobble to the shoulder and thank goodness there is one. The engine is still attached and functioning; it's a blown tire. Mike declines the prospect of lying in the right lane of 94East to change it, and so we need to call AAA or Geico. Oh what the hell, let them race. Mike is on his phone to Geico, while I call AAA. We are “premium” members. This against my better judgment. While it had been known to save us 7, even 8 whole bucks on hotel rooms on this voyage, I remain highly skeptical of these roadside heroes. You can read about my last preggo/AAA adventure here.

I speak to someone named Clark about where we are (eastbound, mile marker 33, approaching Michigan City, Indiana) and what he can do about it. He is tapping, typing, hemming and hawing. Finally: “I think you might be in a different part of Indiana than I can help you with.” Uh-huh. If only I were in a different part of Indiana, the part that was Ohio and less than ninety-f-ing-seven degrees! WTF??!??

“Let me transfer you. It will take two minutes.” Two minutes I will never have back.

Clark, Clark, Clark. You are no Superman. “How's Geico doing?” I call to Mike.

We are in relative shade, though the thistles are lashing my legs. We've brought Emily out with us in the carrier. Isaac is calmly inspecting wildflowers and leaves. 

“Thank you for calling AAA roadside service, how may I help you?” And I know immediately. This person knows nothing about my last call. I am starting over again. I rat out Clark and then grumpily start in again – the AAA number, the issue at hand, the location...

“And what might he have meant by a 'different' part of Indiana?? I mean y'all are somewhere random anyway. That was a crock!”

“I'm in Michigan, ma'am.”

“Exactly. That counts as random.”

“Make, model and year of your vehicle?”

“'81 VW Vanagon.”


“White. As opposed to all the other '81 VW Vanagons with blown out tires at mile marker 33 on I-94 East right now.”

An hour later our spare is in place. My hat off to the man who did in fact lie in the right lane of 94 East to change it for us. He, of course, has nothing to do with AAA. He's with the local tow company.

Way too long later we arrive at Potato Creek State Park and find the camping kiosk. “That'll be $17.34...(wha?)... $2.66 is your change.” Did we just pull up to the Wendy's drive through window when I wasn't looking?

I'm thinking tolls in Indiana must cost something like $4.09.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Days Twenty-Five & Twenty-Six Part 2: Eating in Iowa

Maria Bamford - Cults
JokesJoke of the DayFunny Jokes

Any vegetarian, or budget traveler for that matter, backpacking in Europe knows that if you want a decent meal for not so much money, you find the Hare Krishnas. They aren't hard to find; they usually find you. You eat their food, decline their other offers of circle chants and head shaving parties, and voila! You're back in action.

What I've learned more recently is that if you are a vegetarian or a budget traveler road tripping in the Midwest, you follow the university students. May I introduce Ritual Cafe in Des Moines and the Red Avocado in Iowa City. Oh, but don't go running to the pork farmers – I'm sure those crazy kids are just in an “experimental phase.”

Before we left Walnut, Iowa, we were treated to a free continental breakfast where Isaac eyed the Fruit Loops with the little grin that he uses when he knows something is off limits but he'd going to try anyway. I cupped my hand under the dispenser and pulled the lever gently. “Here,” I said, handing him the colored sugar Os, “This is your lifetime allotment of Fruit Loops. Enjoy.”

Looking ahead to Annawan, Illinois – where we bailed to a hotel because the state park we wanted to camp in was 90 degrees and 85 percent humidity at 9 pm – we'd enjoy things like the Annawan “salad bar” that included, in fact, many salads: tuna salad, macaroni salad, bean salad, potato salad, jello salad... Then there were the “fried cheeseballs” which in desperation we ordered from the menu and Isaac wouldn't touch (bless his little California heart). Have these people even heard of leaves?

But before all of that, there was also this...

I got one for ya. No, no, listen. Okay, here goes – a pork farmer and a vegetarian walk into a bar. Pork farmer says...

We were at Glenn's Pub in Walnut, our one and only choice of eating establishment, ordering homemade pizza from the owner, whose name, naturally, was Jerry. “And I'll have a beer,” Mike says. “Bud Light?” says Jerry shooting my husband with his finger gun. It is not a question. Mike stumbles momentarily, “Uh, I...Sure. Bud Light.”
We were pretty much exhausted; we wanted to eat and crash. But the three locals sitting behind Bud Lights at the bar would not let the foreigners off easy. You see, it had come to their attention that we had not ordered any meat toppings on our pizza.

“You ain't veg-e-tar-ians, are you?”

I thought about shouting “Boo!” and seeing if that'd take care of it. These were (GMO) corn-fed Iowans, though, better go for the big guns. Hocus-pocus vegetable stew, bring me some wheat grass or I'll infect you!

The next 30 minutes of my life were dedicated to trying not to ask my pork farmer friend if he enjoyed ramming his fist up pigs' asses. “Wull, whyyy are you a ve-ge-tar-ian?” He'd ask again every so often. But mostly he talked. And talked. Punctuated by the always good for a punchline phrase, “What you hear in the (Ed.'s note: bleeding heart liberal) media is bullshit! It's bullshit!”

Look, I don't preach and I don't pry. Eat whatever the hell you want to. I sit across from friends eating meat all the time. What had I done to deserve this??

“One of my best friends is from Iowa and she still talks to me,” I tell him, desperate for peace.

“Yeah, but not much.”

“What would you do if your granddaughter married a vegetarian?” I ask.

“It'd be okay with me. I just wouldn't pay for the wedding.”

May she marry a vegan.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Days Twenty-Five & Twenty-Six Part 1: Choices in Iowa

As a human species, we believe strongly in borders. How we can make artificial lines and call one side one thing, the other something else. Kind of like smoking and non-smoking sections of restaurants in the 80s.

We just wanted to get across the border into Iowa. Get away from the wind, the threat of something yet unnamed, cross the Missouri before the flooding found us. Jerry Seinfeld has an old routine about how if your seat cushion “becomes” a floatation device, why doesn't your plane just “become” a boat.

Everything would be better in Iowa. Iowa would be milk and honey and streets of gold, every promise of every mythical city. It would all be different, if we could just get to the other side.

We passed through one city whose large brick high school proclaimed proudly that it was “Home of the Cyclones.” We kept driving.

Naturally, my knowledge of tornadoes comes mainly from the “Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy banging on the cellar doors with her yet to be ruby-slippered feet, flying monkeys, that sort of thing. I have this vague of idea of a stillness involved either before the twisters twist or at the center or somewhere there is stillness. Isaac is reading the Magic Tree House series by Mary Osbourne Pope. In the books, 8-year-old Jack and his 7-year-old sister Annie go on adventures to different times in history in the magic tree house they find in the woods behind their house. At the end of every first chapter, there is the same scene/same lines. The wind begins to blow and the tree house spins. “Then, everything was still. Absolutely still.” Isaac recites the lines with us – or rather blurts them out before we can get to them.

I had a heat rash and no ankle bones, and then, before you knew it, there was Walnut. Walnut, Iowa (population 895). The antiques capital of Iowa. With Camelot, er, the Econolodge waiting for us.

And things felt different. They really did. Another border conquered. The wind probably hadn't lessened, but it's like buying something expensive – you have an investment in it being good and so you believe it is better than it may be.

We walked into the Econolodge lobby and said hello to the desk clerk. In that moment Isaac and I turned our heads toward the enormous flat screen TV where someone was just about to fire something explosive at someone else, and BLAM! The dream was dead,

The desk clerk, who was in fact the manager, a San Diego transplant, complained bitterly of his fate stuck in “Hillbilly Hell” and took refuge with his internet access to current movies. “I got 'Kung Fu Panda' on over there, if you want to watch!” This was directed at Isaac. He probably said it 100 times. I viewed him suspiciously – how does one just end up in Iowa – to stay? There is so little we have control over. But, see Iowa? should be one of those things we have total control over.

That night, Mike and I would have enough time, space and air conditioning to review what was going on for us. He explained that he felt a sense of irresponsibility to be doing the trip at all. I always knew there was a term for what I was, and all these years, it had been just beyond my grasp. Ah, yes: irresponsible. How could it have escaped me? He was wasting his time in these Midwestern towns that felt like stuck energy, “fly paper” he called them. Unpaid leave?? Who ever heard of such a thing?? He was going to arrive too late to continue the opportunity his job had given him to work remotely; they'd fire him; we'd never buy a house; we'd all end up destitute. It went something like that.

“So is the key to alter the feeling of irresponsibility, or to avoid doing the things that make you feel irresponsible?” The latter. Well, that puts us in an interesting position at the moment.

We continued to share our little hang ups and dreams in the stale air of room 119 – his fly paper to my fear of routine, his need to provide to my need to create. Until our hearts were fully unresolved but fully exposed. I guess that's why they call it the Heartland.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Detour or Day Twenty-Four (You Decide): Motherhood, Weather and the Unsettling of Minds in the Heartland

Flying at Night

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
- Ted Koosner

The next day, I woke up in the Stuart City Park in Stuart, Nebraska (population 685). Let me clarify – I was not face down in a puddle of my own vomit or anything. I was in the camper van, camping.

Huge shade trees I could not identify, talked and talked about the wind. I couldn't decide whom I was more angry with about missing the cabin last night – Mike and or myself. Nevermind, though. Same result. I was in a state.

Slights were accumulating. Remember Hot Springs, SD? The lazy river on inner tubes, the happy van? I wanted to stay. Just one more night. We left so fast; we had to leave, according to my husband, to go east. And now, my cabin resort up in smoke. The imperative. Hurry! Go! GO!!

“How come I've only felt the baby move one time?” Isaac asks me.

“Because you're too impatient to leave your hand there longer,” I tell him.

The same goes for his father. It's complicated. No one can be with me in this, and yet, I think I want them to be. I think I do; I spend great swivels of the mind being lonely around my lack of company in it. But on some level, simultaneously, I know it is ridiculous. Others will inevitably fall short; they are not a home to this child. And so I am faced with the question of whether I am enough. Me. To honor it, take care of it, tell my driver when it's time to stop the van.

“You didn't sleep that well last night, huh?” my husband tries. “I wonder why.”

You know the old game of adding “in bed” to the end of every Chinese fortune? My game, the one I have carefully reserved – through desert, the Arizona heat, the Santa Fe cold, the Rockies, the Black Hills, in short, thousands of miles – adds “because I'm carrying YOUR CHILD” to the end of any response. I think it, but don't say it. I will not walk into this trap of my own making. I will remain silent in my righteousness. I hear some preggos have king-sized beds and body pillows.

The boys return from the restroom and report a bird apparently trapped there, unable to find its way out. “That thing's confused,” Mike says dismissively. Later, I will see the bird shoot from the men's room door and notice the nest expertly attached to the crook in the wall just outside of it. She knew exactly how to get out; what she wanted was for them to get out. She was protecting her babies. For this she was dismissed, crazy.

My mother's picture taped up in the back of the van is staring at me. It is almost the one-year anniversary of when she left this planet. Just left. Can you believe it? Left the bowling alleys, the boarded up gift shops, the city parks with their camping spaces and bird's nests. In the picture, she is standing on one of her favorite garden paths next to a sign that reads, “Why Are You Hurrying?”

I am teetering.

Mike has left the radio on for the weather report and then gone out to fiddle with something van-ish. Between books of the Bible, I catch something about a tornado in Western Massachusetts. I think I've made it up. Nonetheless, I switch off the radio so that my overly anxious and imaginative six-year-old doesn't inquire about whatever it was. I text my sister. Yes, tornado. Springfield. Westfield. Four dead. Very close to where we are moving. Westfield is where my in-laws are. Mike returns and I say nothing.

Norfolk is listed as a “major city” along the Cowboy Trail. We find a lunch place and though I am embarrassed of my red swollen eyes, the also-pregnant waitress takes me in kindly. I eat every scrap of my food, and then, we exchange birth stories.

Outside the winds are still blazing hot and strong-armed. I am searching the horizon. I do not know for what.

At the Norfolk Public Library, I overhear two women talking. One has just been to Joplin, Missouri to try to help the tornado victims there. They mention the twister in Massachusetts. The state has been declared a disaster area. “The weather here today feels... (the woman pauses) ... stormy,” she finishes meaningfully.

Someone has an odd-sounding ringtone on their phone and I jump at the siren-like sound.

I discover I will miss poet and native Nebraskan Ted Koosner's visit to the library by less than a week. Why has it taken me 3,000 miles to remember that it's poetry that will help me make sense of the senseless?

I tell Mike about the Massachusetts tornado, and he goes to the van to call home.

There is a rule in metaphor. You never choose a point of comparison that is in reality exponentially more significant than its partner point. Still, I can't shake the desire to recall how after 911, I flinched at the sound of airplanes for months. There was a rootlessness to that time that I can taste now. We are nowhere; this is where tornadoes happen, not the other side of the country where we will try to make a home, a home, how is that done again? my mother is missing, or maybe I am just missing my mother, I will be a mother, I am a mother, how is that done again? The world is upside down, and they won't stop the ride.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

More Day Twenty-Three: Ending up in Stuart, Nebraska

Thanks for all the comments, all. I appreciate you reading along as I write towards figuring out just what this trip has to tell me, what it's about which is certainly not the ins and outs of interstates. I appreciate you reading and I appreciate your patience.

We left South Dakota and headed – amazing for people planning on landing in Massachusetts from California, I know, but finally – east. With a small adjustment to our Google directions, we dropped into Nebraska earlier than we originally planned, following li'l Route 20. Hey, I mean, you know what my philosophy has been all along – the sooner we get to Nebraska, the better! We followed 20 East across the top of the state - the Sand Hills, as it would be.

People have asked us if we have a “nav” system. Um. We are driving a 30-year-old van and carrying pay-as-you-go phones. No, we do not have a NAV system. We have stops along the way that happen to have internet access and we have a laptop. Direct any further questions to our technology department.

“Whaddaya got? Mountain lion?”

“No, sir. Regular cat.”

“Then, I suppose that'd be alright.”

I was on the phone with the owner of the Long Pine Resort in Long Pine, Nebraska. “Resort” sounded somewhat ambitious from what I'd seen of the state so far, but what did I know, maybe it really was different. It was some kind of cabin, it was an hour ahead, and it was to be our rest for the night. The first two places I'd called didn't exist anymore. The incredible cross winds had been buffeting us around the roads relentlessly and the landscape had been overwhelming us with its monotony and we were done. Isaac finally fell asleep for the last leg, lulled by our lie of how-much-longer, but Mike and I were wide awake and sniping at each other.

Then: “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere” a sign, that featured a trifecta of nowhere – Johnstown (population 48), Ainsworth (population 1,870) and Long Pine. Finally! I think. Someone is finally willing to tell the truth!! No more of this crap:

We hit the mile mark where the resort should have been and ...nothing. We went a little farther – nada. I was leaning forward in my seat despite the cramping belly pushing against the seatbelt. No sign of a resort or anything else. We hit the next town 10 miles up the road. “What do you want to do?” my husband asks me. “Jump from something very high and take all of Nebraska with me,” I thought. Repeating even a fraction of a mile in this state was out of the question – we couldn't go back. Calling somehow didn't occur, though we may not have had reception. “Can you hear me now?” No, fucker, I'm in Nebraska!

Something truly desperate happens when you are staring out at nothing for hour number five, knowing that in about 20 miles, things will break out into the next “town:” a car repair place, a bar, a gift shop that closed years ago, the place that sells tractor equipment, and, if things are really cranking - an army tank parked in the main square and a bowling alley. The sun is dropping; you are probably dehydrated again. You bang your head backwards on the headrest and whimper, just audibly. You think you understand how people can just snap. Just lose it. You rub your belly, talk to the baby, because you need something to soothe. It's all lies. “It's okay. We're okay.”

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Days Twenty Two & Twenty Three: South Dakota's Black Hills, Rushmore & the Mammoth Site

After breakfast in Custer, South Dakota (an event with its own inherent adventure, see pictures...), we left our friends whom we'd camped with in the rain for two nights and struck out on our own again. We drove slowly through Custer State Park and the Black Hills, admiring everything from turtles to bison. I was beat and felt like I wanted to move about as much as the wildlife; sunning and chewing were approximately my speed.

Eventually, we ended up at Mount Rushmore. Mike and I had been through these parts in our original drive out to California 13 years ago on a very foggy day. We stared into the distance at cloud trying to make out a nose or a forehead. So, a matter of principal, we were going to see it this time. We'd already cast off the Crazy Horse Monument in the interest of time and energy; that one we'd managed back in the summer of 1998, and Isaac would just have to live with dead white men for his cultural lesson of the day.

So there it was: Washington prominently leading the pack, Jefferson tucked behind, Teddy Roosevelt with the artist's masterful suggestion of glasses, Lincoln with his deep set eyes emphasized in the afternoon shadows. Like so may things, natural and unnatural, even staring at it in person you can't really grasp the scale. Or, in this case, the purpose.

We caught the 14-minute video, where a much younger Tom Brokaw narrated the ins and outs of the monument's inception, the grand plans of those memorialized and those memorializing. There was much talk about men, and the rights of men, and the accomplishments of men, and what men should always remember, and men who should always be remembered, and damn if they didn't talk a bit more about menfolk. If I was weary before all this, I was downright ready to snooze now.

My interest in this little national rally is exactly that. I am interested in who the country is when it decides it will fund a 14-year long, dynamite-blasting art project. It runs through the Depression and into the time of World War II. It is the fervor of America as some kind of goal.

There could be a hundred different faces worthy of carving into a mountain. Or there could be none that warrant such a defacement. Two million people a year go and look and click and leave.

Here is the picture we made Isaac pose for.

And here is the picture Isaac asked us to take. I found it interesting that he wanted his picture taken off to the side, in the trees. He looks considerably more content.

We rolled into Hot Springs about an hour after Rushmore. Cranky from having belly cramped in the van, but jazzed by the lack of rain and cold and enamored of the lilac bush laden little town, I headed into the visitor's center.

There is just one woman who works in all of the visitor centers everywhere. You've met her: Coiffed grey hair, full make-up. No matter what the weather is she is wearing a hounds tooth blazer over a white turtleneck. Clip-on pearl earrings. Her drawn in eyebrows raise in delight as she greets you and asks where you're from. Then, only after you sign her book, she settles in to expertly circle attractions upside down, tells you how much your little boy with enjoy the Pioneer (or, fill in the blank kind of) Museum. And you watch her go on and on and the weariness and the trip ahead and the things behind, it all creeps into your bones until you have to lean hard on her plexiglass-covered map and how can you tell her that what you need is for her to come 'round the counter and clasp you in her arms. To hold you to her hounds tooth breast, right there, next to the displays of Mount Rushmore magnets and postcards of the Black Hills. And maybe that's just what she needs too – to forget for a minute about her kids, grown and flown, who don't call enough. To just be what she's best at being – a respite for the visitor. But she is smiling expectantly at you now and you figure you've daydreamed through something and so try to recover, come to the present moment.

She directs us to a campground just outside of town. What we find is perfect. Doesn't the van look happy by the non-flooding stream under the trees?!

The next morning we left early from our lovely camp and drove to the spot that drew us to Hot Springs in the first place: the Mammoth Site. A giant sinkhole that trapped dozens of Colombian and wooly mammoths some 27,000 years ago, it is now a museum and active dig site.

We did the general tour and then Isaac got to do a “junior paleontology” excavation. He uncovered the skull of a giant short-faced bear – what did YOU do today? The staff was great and I'm happy to say that the excursion with so much riding on it was not a disappointment.

All of the over 50 skeletons of mammoths they've uncovered so far (and they have at least another 45 feet to go) belong to males. After working around journalists for a number of years, I have learned that you just lay down the facts. That editorializing, although the heart and soul of blogging I suppose, is certainly not always necessary. Just lay it down. All male. Sometimes, however, one is still tempted to type sentences like, “Hey, dude. Wanna go check out that sinkhole?” “Rad, yeah, let's go!”

Friday, June 03, 2011

Days Fourteen – Twenty-One: Colorado to South Dakota

Fifty miles into Wyoming the rain stopped and the fog cleared.

It wouldn't last though. A Hundred miles later we were again in a steady mist. At least it gave us something to look at besides the construction sites (“Pay Attention or Pay the Price!” the friendly signs urged us.) Okay, I'm being unfair. Eastern Wyoming also offered temptations like “Wildlife Management Areas.” Instead of, say, parks, I guess. I imagined these turn-offs lined with men in Wranglers, rifles on their shoulders.

But my favorite were the signs that read “Roadside Table ½ mile.” Pretty much puts the Wy in Wyoming. These were in demand? Travelers floundering about for miles and miles hoping there was somewhere to site down properly and gnaw on the deer leg they'd dragged from the management area perhaps.

Emily had apparently not gotten the memo on how cool the van is or on the stellar attractions of our least populous state. She was in her third steady hour of meowing. After six nights of chilling in houses with friends, we'd had to broom her out from under Sheila's guest room bed to rejoin us on our journey.

The birds scattered off the highway in front of us like kids in a rare moment of disturbance playing on a dead end street. We pulled into Torrington, where the motels felt the need to inform us they had “clean rooms.” Torrington sported a population of 5,776 and a mercifully lower altitude than Colorado had shown us yet: 4,104 feet. Still not so great for the sinuses or the wheezy preggo in need of iron supplements, but something. I was beginning to think my baby would not recognize its mama's voice when it came out – I hadn't heard my real voice unobstructed by cold and cough for weeks now.

Colorado had been cold and rainy, too – an unusual state of affairs by everyone's estimation – but other than the first night when our campsite in Fort Garland was so bad I cried for the first 20 minutes we were there. (“It's okay, Mommy. Look over there. There's a spot of grass!”), we had been warmed by three different friends' hospitality in Denver and then Fort Collins. For a week we got to be part of other people's routines and homes.
 Butterfly Pavilion, Westminster, CO
 with his buddy Joel at Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collin, CO
 Creating with Heather in Denver
"Farm Day Friday" in Fort Collins

Our one friend's three-year-old unwilling to buy that my name is Kitty, had renamed me Cupcake, a more plausible monicker by her standards. I figure Kitty and Cupcake likely both work at the same strip joint. There is in fact a dubious looking joint in downtown Denver called Kitty's that we passed on our way to Tattered Cover Books. There is always a Kitty's. It is always dubious looking.

I also saw a midwife in Fort Collins, who checked baby and me and said basically that we are fine. She recommended more iron. More food, more often. More sleep. And more exercise. Maybe pole dancing. I could pick up one of Cupcake's shifts.

Entering realms of normalcy. Isaac gets to hang with Casey and Sam.

We saw Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Dinosaur Ridge. We visited a butterfly pavilion and checked out Horsetooth Reservoir.

We arrived in Hill City, South Dakota to cold and wind and rain for Memorial Day weekend. A flooded creek. A pool we wouldn't get to use. Water, water everywhere and nothing to swim in. Mike and I attempted to plot our next stops, but the nation seemed covered in bright green splotches – flood warnings – when the tornadoes weren't crowding in. It was going to be a trick to cross beyond Iowa for sure.

Dinosaur Ridge - Isaac with his hand in a fossilized Iguanodon track
More kids! Isaac was happy. This miniature camping crew survived cold, wind and rain.
And so we linger in the west and its fossil past, read about possible stops that included saber-toothed deer (wildlife manage that one, Suckers!), proto rhinos, and the long-extinct North American camel. Not many of us likely think that much about proto rhinos in our daily life, which, I suppose is just one more way our little five-week adventure is unique. If you grew up around the places I did, you probably don't think that much about tornadoes either. But here we are, in the elements again. And so, grassland fan or not, we are tied to the spaces between the roadside tables. We are counting on some kindness from the skies, the rivers.
South Dakota

Lower elevation, the lack of flood warnings and tornado watches...could I be looking forward to Nebraska???

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