Time Out In Marfa, Texas

Published January 2017 with http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/

Here is a copy of the text for you.

January was a good time to take a road trip, the holidays are over and nothing’s going on. Although, I’ll be honest, having been land-locked in Madrid NM for four months with only a couple of weekends away, town was feeling claustrophobic. It was driving me crazy. Winter so far in New Mexico has been pretty gentle with little snow and mild temperatures, nothing to challenge or keep me engaged. My home was finally finished enough to stay warm and comfortable, and with that in mind, I rented it for a week onAirbnb, packed the camper van, and took off south. I needed a break. I needed a plan of action. What next? How can I make a living as a travel writer? Or as a traveling writer? What’s the big deal about Marfa? Why go there?

Marfa, TX is a small town of 2,000 in far western Texas near the Davis Mountains. Big Bend National Park is 135 miles due south.  Would I head that far south? Who knew.

The night before I left town, it snowed. A good few inches covered the roads and Ortiz Mountains and in a 2wd van, the worries got to me and I didn’t sleep so well. Should I take the interstate instead of a country highway? Which would be safer? Highway 285 was shorter but would there be enough traffic to be safe? Ah, to hell with it, I needed an adventure. Highway 285 from Santa Fe was mostly clear but for some slush and a few snow banks, the traffic was light, and my pets cranky. Rosie, a lab mix, couldn’t settle down. She’d sit in the passenger seat, bounce down, push Harold off the bed in the back. Repeat. For nine hours. Stevie, the cat, hid under the bed, sulking. Poor Harold, a big baby of an Akita mix, shrugged at Rosie’s pacing energy. I drank cold coffee and kept on driving. I needed a time-out. Just like Rosie.

So, yes, why did I head to Marfa? Probably because the forecast was for it to be warm enough for tee shirts in the afternoons, plus some good friends of mine love the place. Suzie is an artist and she’d told me some of the history of Marfa. In the 1970’s, a famous New York artist, Donald Judd moved out to Marfa and created an outdoor sculpture garden of his works in concrete. The Chinati Foundation has become one of the major draws to the town, with celebrities, artists of all mediums, and tourists who all flock to the compound on the edge of town. There is also her favorite place, the Hotel Paisano, where James Dean last acted in a movie before his death. Marfa is now known for its history, the Hotel Paisano, the art galleries, the Public Radio station, and even the Marfa Music Festival in March. It has a lot to live up to.

We arrived late that weekend night and set up camp at Tumble In RV campground on the eastern side of town. I’d picked it deliberately for the proximity to town, its claim to having a walkable path into the downtown district (it didn’t), and a space for tents and campers not just RVs. Late at night, a sub-freezing night, after nine hours driving through snow half of that time, I was depleted and yes, as cranky as my critters. Tumble In was not as I’d hoped. The tent camping area is a bare patch of cut tumbleweeds with strips of gravel to show where to park. No shelter, no picnic tables, no grills or firepits. It was basically a parking lot. I hated it. So did the dogs and Little Stevie, my cat. Too many burrs, no shade, nowhere to walk as we were fenced in by barbwire and three-foot tall weeds. The shower in the morning made up for it. That and a cup of coffee.  Then once refreshed and in a better mood, I looked for a camp host but no, there wasn’t one, just a self-check in booth within a vintage travel trailer. Walking the pups around the RV park, I noticed the overflow area to the rear of the land, closer to the railway but away from the highway and parking lot. With no one to tell me otherwise, I set up camp back there and with Stevie locked in the camper, the dogs and I walked along the path to town. We had to scramble quite a bit so don’t expect a clear pathway to follow, we crossed an arroyo and down a sandy bank to get to a paved street.

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It was a Sunday morning, the church bells were ringing, and having drunk a good cup of coffee at the van, my mood improved with the sunshine and clear skies. The railway was surprisingly busy with three trains shipping containers and vehicles eastward all morning, yet I was still able to let the dogs run free along the track for a while. Until the rabbits tempted them onto the highway to the south of us and my tensions grew again. Damn it. I came here to relax, right? Putting them on leashes is never an easy accomplishment –  they’re country dogs and I’m lazy. Oh well. You do what you have to.

Judd’s minimalist aesthetic really has taken a hold of town; it was a quirky mix of old adobe structures, with rusted iron window frames and clean lines of new concrete. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new but how was it for the long-term residents to see their homes and town be so gentrified? The streets were empty though, that sleepy Sunday feeling perhaps? No, the rest of the week there, it was rare to see anyone walking around. There were few options for hanging out or talking to locals. There were few options for distractions from other people at all. I was alone with my thoughts as usual.

Walking down Austin Street, I came across a laundromat with a handful of folks sitting outside sipping coffees. Frama café didn’t exactly advertise itself but word of mouth and being the only café to be found, it stayed busy enough I guess. I got to chat a little to the others sitting outside, one fella brought Harold and Rosie a bowl of water, and we talked art, travels, and Texas. Most of them were new to town with a newcomer’s energy for the place. I still hoped to find a local who’d grown up in Marfa but never did. The latte was great though but a bagel or something to eat would have helped. Ice cream was the only option, and although it was tempting I didn’t get any. Another time perhaps? Nope, I stuck to coffee there for the next few days. It became our routine to walk to town mid-morning, exploring the four corners of town, and finishing up at Frama. Where was the breakfast place? I lived off the odds and ends in the cooler at the van instead. Oh well. My expectations were nicely lowered after a few days and I began to enjoy town for what it offered. Even the Tumble In campground grew on me for being bare bones, with hot water, little interaction and no one watching over my critters running free.

With a full moon, the Marfa Lights were not to be seen. Have you heard of them? First noticed in the 1880s by a cowboy, there is still no solid explanation for these colored lights that dance in the dark nights outside on Highway 90. My timing once again was against me; it was too bright for me to see anything. Next time? I’d better do some research before I head on another trip as this one to Marfa was the most disorganized possible. My timing sucked constantly. The best part for me in Marfa was that we walked everywhere for a week. The rest of my days I filled my notebook with web addresses and contact info for freelance writers. Researching different tangential ideas kept me busy and the sketch book let me switch off the word-brain in the evenings. As there were few businesses open at the start of the week, and little to see with high-end stores offering treats for the wealthy, but still I got to relax. I enjoyed wandering the wide empty western streets. Trucks slowed down for the pups and I, waved at us, and carried on slowly out of town. Wherever I wandered, I’d see the Presidio Courthouse. It’s an incredibly beautiful old three-story building that fills the town plaza with all roads bringing you back to the spires. It dates back to 1886 and I walked inside one afternoon, curious to see if I could climb the tower to look out the windows facing each direction. It was closed for cleaning but still worth climbing the wooden stairs that opened onto lawyer’s offices on each level based around a central rotunda. I was alone and the peace of the extensive views impressed me deeply, a sense of history and wonder.

 

Hotel Paisano was just around the corner and it quickly became my afternoon choice. The Trost building dates to 1929, and opened only just before the Great Depression. It became a place for ranchers and tourists to stay as they crossed Texas. In 1955 Warner Bros came to town to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Jett’s Bar is named after Dean’s character and the walls are covered with old photographs from that era. I sat at the bar one day, eating a salad from their limited menu, and chatted to Herb who was visiting. He came from Las Cruces, NM, and was a pilot for a wealthy family who’d come to Marfa for hunting but he didn’t specify what or where.  With a beer in hand, I then sat outside and that’s where I recommend fully. The building is Spanish style with a main courtyard with a fountain and tables in sun and shade. Perfect. I sat and read and listened into the conversations around me. I came back two other afternoons. Now that made me feel like I was truly on holiday. Finally.

The small-town logistics could be challenging for some city folk but since I live in Madrid, NM with a population of 350, this wasn’t a big impact on me. There were limited options for eating out, I didn’t find a decent grocery store, nor ATMs but then again, I’d come with a wallet of cash and a cooler of food in the camper van. I have a feeling my timing really was off, and that in spring and summer, town wakes back up. I’m okay with that though. I like low-key artsy towns. With no traffic lights, Marfa lulled me into a slower pace of life. It worked its magic on me. Afternoons, I’d sit outside the van in the sun and draw out quirky characters or I’d brainstorm on how to keep traveling and writing for a living. I came up with some ideas but it’s hard to make it freelance. I figured out that it’s worth me faking it until I make it. That’s the best I can do for myself.

The Chinati Foundation finally drew me in on the last day in the area. I put down my notebook and we drove over there early one morning. I’d not been too keen to be honest, as a field of concrete sculptures didn’t appeal. It was free so why not, right? I’m glad I went though. With the critters set up in the camper parked in the shade of a huge Cottonwood, I wandered into the main building and asked for the self-guided tour of the gardens. The young woman behind the counter waved me over to the path and asked me not to climb the structures. Nothing more than that, no stories, no information, just “Stay off”.

Okay, okay, so walking down past the other buildings, I strode down the slight hill to the open land with a stripe of fifteen groups of concrete slabs. From north to south, there are Judd’s famous works in concrete, a very minimalistic contemporary feel that reminds me of inner cities in the seventies. Unprepared for the magical energy, I stood and stared at the first group. Three structures made of upright walls of concrete with another identically sized slab across the top. An open-ended room in a sense. Walking to the next group, it occurred to me that I was alone on this kilometer-long pathway. In the field nearby, a small herd of Pronghorn antelope watched me nervously.

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Slowly as I wandered around these works, a peace settled on me, reminiscent of living at a Buddhist retreat in the UK years ago. A calmness came from the simplicity of how Judd played with one size of solid cleanly poured concrete slabs, putting them together in different figurations. There was nothing to explain why it appealed to me so much but an hour later, I walked out of Chinati with a relaxed smile and feeling expansive. Yep, I’d go back. First though, it was time to head north to Madrid, NM, to set up my home for another vacation rental. Yes, Marfa. I get it now. And I had a plan.

Travel can help people in so many ways. One woman took a time out type of trip to Marfa, Texas, and was inspired with a plan for her future as a travel writer.

Photographs

I’ve just set up a Flickr account to help you find the photos of trips, Land Rovers, and the critters. 

But…

Does anyone know how I add a copyright to the images though? I couldn’t work it out. Thanks, s

 

Ireland 2010

Fempotential.com magazine published this story in January 2017, on the anniversary of Mum’s passing.

Here is a copy of article following more photographs that didn’t make it into the magazine.

The phone call came late in the afternoon, my brother’s name popped up on the screen.

“Either you’ve been drinking or something happened!” I joked.

Pause. “Both. Mum, she’s in ICU. She fell. Brain injury. We don’t know how bad.”

In the local pub where I sat clutching a beer and huddled in front of the open fire, a friend came up. Sharon worked in the ER in Santa Fe, NM where I live. I told her the news. “How long was she unconscious?”

“She still is.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She patted my shoulder and said nothing else. I knew then.

Nine months later, I strode across the cliffs along the Gower Coast in Wales. Behind me, my extended family stretched out in the twilight, chatting, laughing, and telling each other stories of my mum. Rhossilli Bay is a mile long, a broad wide and sandy beach with low rising hills to the east. My brother, Pete, came to check on me. At that moment, my cousins and their families released all those sky lanterns. Dozens of white balloons floated over the ocean and out towards Ireland to the west, the dark sky was calm and they drifted slowly out to sea. Silhouettes against a waning moon. Peaceful.

It would have been Mum’s 70th birthday. Sallie had planned for us all to get together to celebrate her birthday; she’d made us all promise the summer before, but then she died of a brain injury in January. We came here for her. Four cottages were rented, and the fridges filled with her favorite foods and not forgetting plenty of white wine in her honor. Sallie loved family gatherings more than anything. And for this, I am heartbroken because I didn’t understand. I kept my distance, even moving to the States in my twenties and yet there I was in my early forties suddenly appreciating the depth and expanse of family and her magic of bringing us together. My mum taught me, finally, the worth of family.

In the seventies, our old Land Rover was packed with a tall orange and green canvas tent, a folding table, cooking gear, and the clothes and toys needed for two young kids. After four hours driving along winding back roads, Mum called out, “I can see the sea! I can see the sea! I win!” She’d squeal in delight. The Welsh coast opened up in front us as Dad drove down the small highway heading out to Rhossilli. We’d stop at the store for ice, sodas and those last-minute odds and ends, like a plastic shovel and bucket for me, and a kite for Pete. Then off to Middleton, a small village before the peninsula, where we’d set up camp. Well, Mum and Dad would. I’d be off wandering around the campground, meeting other kids and their parents, inviting them back to meet my mum and dad. In the middle of trying to settle in, I’d show up with a small group behind me. Dad would stop what he was doing and pour out drinks and begin to chat. Mum and I’d pass out some snacks. The tent finally got put up with the help of my new friends. It worked out each time.

That night in August though, Pete and I took time alone, time to watch those lanterns float westward. Memories and Memorials.

“Are you okay? Do you really want to go?”
“Yep, I need time alone. You know how I am; this is too much for me. It’s okay, I’ll be back in a week or so.”

He hugged me and let me go. We walked back to the family and then we all wandered in the dark back to the cottages in Middleton. Cousins Tony, Paul and Nanette cooked up a feast and my brother’s kids made a campfire. We sat around late into the night, all of us full of stories and steaks.

Aunty Viv talked of growing up there in Wales. “During the summers after the Second World War, our dad would bring Sallie and I here for a week’s camping. Your gran would bring Les and Andy a week later. They couldn’t leave the farm alone so we split it between us. They chose this place in part because of the name; their own farm was Middleton, but far away in Worcester. The two farming families became close, and Old Mrs. Button still remembers your grandparents. You should ask her sometime. But don’t believe what she says about me and Sallie!”

The next morning, Viv hugged me tightly. The Honda motorbike was packed with gear, and it was time to leave her. My sweet aunt. Sallie and Viv spoke every day on the phone, saw each other often, they were incredibly close. I’d come across Viv down the alley that night before, sobbing her heart out, devastated at losing her big sister. I’d grabbed her to me and let her cry. “But I should be helping you,” she insisted.

“You are.”

Time to leave then, with most of my cousins and families all gone, I’d already said bye to Pete. Saying bye to Viv was the hardest. I didn’t know that it would be the last time. Cancer got her before the year was out.

“How long?”

“Four hours, Miss. The ferry takes four hours; it could be longer if the wind builds up like yesterday. But in good time, there’s no rush is there? We’ll be there by mid-day. Ireland’s only a hundred miles from Fishguard.” He took my ticket and showed me where to tie up the motorcycle on the left side of the ferry’s underbelly.

“Take everything with you, just for safety’s sake. Enjoy the trip!”

The ferry left for Rosslare at the crack of dawn, the sun barely visible on a cloudy overcast day. We’d been lucky in Wales, the sun shone plenty enough for hikes along the hills, and down to the beaches for the kids to play in the waves. Now though, the weather was turning and how appropriate it felt. I hugged Mum’s sweater to me and stood at the railings with the wind slashing slamming and fighting me for my every choked breath.

The Blarney Castle in County Cork was my first destination. The ride across N5 took me through Dungarvan and Youghal, cleansing me inside and out as rain belted down briefly, soaking deep into my boots. The highways were pretty empty and in no time I pulled up outside the Muskerry Arms on the town square. The pub and restaurant downstairs were packed on that Sunday afternoon yet the rooms upstairs were calm and peaceful. I couldn’t face people yet. I couldn’t face the inevitable question about where in the States did I come from. With twenty years in New Mexico, I’d lost much of my English accent. My wet clothes hung on the radiators and I’d emptied out the backpack, looking for John, my teddy bear, who now sat on the pillow of the king-sized bed under the windows. I stared out on the busy village below before falling asleep. With both parents gone, and a mixture of nightmares, grief, and simply being an adult kid alone in the world, no, I didn’t sleep well.

Blarney Castle is famous for the Stone Of Eloquence. The story isn’t clear, some say the stone came from Scotland and that it was a Coronation Stone, others that it dates back to the Crusades, but these days it’s the gift of the gab that it bestows upon the smoochers that is important. As a writer, it seemed like a good idea, right? I walked through the park that is set around the castle, one full of wilderness, gardens and winding paths. On average, some 300,000 visitors come here but in September I was one of a dozen if that. Admittedly, it was early in the morning as I’d had a simple hotel breakfast and walked over to explore more. I climbed the 127 steps in a narrow stone tower and came up onto an empty parapet. The Blarney Stone is set in the wall below the battlements. To get to it, I had to lean backwards, hold onto the railings, and trusting the guide, who grabbed my hips, fall backwards off the wall. The grass was some ninety feet below and I tried not to faint but to make a wish and kiss the stone. A click of a camera above me caught the moment.

Was this a mid-life crisis? To hit the road alone in my forties? To strap my belongings onto the back of an orange 650 cc motorcycle and ride into an unknown country? Yes, apparently, it is. The Huffington Post described it with an image of a grey-haired woman on a motorbike heading into the horizon. That sounds about right although at the time my hair was still brown and the horizon here was tree-lined while driving south through County Cork. With a map from Viv in the tank bag, I followed the R600 from Kinsale and then onto the smallest most winding roads along the coast. I rode through southern Ireland noting town names, Courtmacsherry, Rosscarberry, Donegal, the Beacon, but talked to no one. My mind was firmly focused on my mum and dad. The roads blurred into a list of numbers, R591, the R592, and back onto R600. Open desolate meadows dropped into the North Sea. The wind slashed across us, the bike and I, as we rode for an hour or so each morning before setting up next to a beach or a stonewall. I’d grab sandwiches and a flask of tea before wandering along rocky shorelines that reminded me of Wales. There I would sit and remember my parents.

After my dad died, Mum and I’d become closer, with my renting a car to take us back to Worms Head Hotel in Rhossilli whenever I was back in the country. We’d stay in the hotel on the peninsula, in a shared room, walking along the beaches, sitting in the hotel pub and staring across the shore towards Ireland. We didn’t talk much, it didn’t come easily, but we relaxed into each other’s company, sharing soft jokes over a coffee in the mornings or a wine in the evenings. We’d neither of us been to Ireland, I don’t know why. Dad and Mum took us in that old Land Rover to France, Spain, and Holland instead. I’d been in Guatemala when Dad died suddenly, and it had taken my brother a few days to locate me and another week for me to get back to the UK. Mum had grabbed me close and held onto me. I’d stayed longer than I’d done for over a decade. Mum and I learnt the rhythms of living together as adults but didn’t talk, not really. We didn’t know how.

Mizen Head, the signal station, the various lighthouses, all those places, as far along the many small narrow peninsulas, that’s where you could find me, alone on a cliff edge. No suicidal urges but an absence of people, of demands, or pity, I needed to surround myself with water. With memories.

As Mum lay in the hospital, in the ICU, plugged into too many machines to count, I held her hand for weeks and talked to her. I reminded her of times we’d been camping in Wales and how we’d leave Dad to carry nearly everything because we couldn’t wait to run to the beaches and how she was just as bad as us kids. Of the beach in Santander, Spain and all those hundreds of steps down to reach it. Of the days on the canal at Gran’s farm learning the names of all the flowers and trees. Running in the fields until the gong called us cousins to dinner. I described my home in Madrid, New Mexico, and the plans for making it into a cottage, a home to be proud of. I’d just finished my first novel and a publisher had written to me about taking me on and so I told Mum. I talked all afternoon long until Pete came after work and took me away. Every day for weeks I sat with Mum. Christmas Day. Boxing Day. New Year’s Day. I emptied myself of all the words I’d held back. Too late? No, she heard me. In that coma, Mum heard me and forgave me. “I know, Sarah, I know you. It’s all right. I know you.”

In Kenmare, I settled in for a few days. Time had been dragging in the sense that each day was full of silence, huge ocean vistas, and quiet evenings alone watching locals chatting in the pubs I’d stay at. I had no words for strangers. On Henry Street though, the main street in Kenmare, I parked the orange bike outside an orange building and wandered off one afternoon. The sun shone, it was a glorious September week and striding downhill towards a church, my heart softened. A one-way narrow road leads the eye to the spire, the grassy hill behind, and a craggier forest beyond that. The buildings were white, yellow, orange, burgundy, the wooden trim all colors and baskets of flowering bright annuals hung from the balconies above. The locals talked to me about the weather, asking about my trip so far, and suggesting that I stay at Foley’s Pub with the rooms above. I responded, chatting happily and easily with them. Along the main street, the Pantry sold organic foods and I stocked up on some quality cheeses, tomatoes, and good picnic food. A bottle of red wine to finish up. (Sorry, Mum, I still don’t like white wine)

After exploring the area on the bike in the mornings, and wandering in and out of the bookstores and galleries in Kenmare, I found a beachside park for a picnic. I spread out the cheeses; the Brie was for my dad and the Gorgonzola for Mum. Toms, cukesFrench bread and a glass of wine. The sun shone on us, the photos of my family were held in place with pebbles, and I toasted them. I thanked them for all that they had given me. The love of travel. The courage to explore. The stories. And the love of a good picnic.

Riding back across N5 towards Rosslare a few days later, a heavy incessant rain didn’t deter me. I’d found peace in my grief. A hotel above the ferry terminal offered a room with a television, a bath and not much else but it didn’t matter. I’d spent a week emptying myself of the painful nightmares and found the memories to refill me, to reassure me. I hadn’t been such a terrible daughter after all. I’m very much the child of my parents. The wanderings, the pubs, and telling the stories later on. Yes, thank you both. You would’ve like Ireland. Now though, it was time to go back to my brother’s home. Family matters after all.

Sallie Leamy August 1940 – January 2010

Thanks Alex T for publishing this travel essay.

Photo Essays: In Calendar Form

What with all the time spent taking photos this summer,it’s time to get serious again about photography. As a twenty-something, a project of mine got me into an 18 month course at Pimlico Media Centre in London, the stories and images of the squatters in East London caught their attention and with a full scholarship, I studied SLR manual cameras, documentary photography, portraits and working in the darkroom.

Now then, after quite a while without consciously thinking about the skills and cameras I’ve had, it’s time to focus on the imagery of our trips. Three months in the van with Harold, Rosie, and Stevie kept the camera in hand. Now what to do with the results?

First, edit! Edit out the fuzzies and wobblies.
Second, edit! Find the best striking compositions. Those that catch my eyes even after all the times I’ve seen them. The challenge is to not be caught by the memories of each one but to pick pictures that capture the essence of specific places or experiences, ones that translate to viewers.

And third? Publish. After meeting Carlan Tapp this weekend, a local prolific and professional photographer, at his gallery in Madrid, NM, I’m inspired. Sharing stories with him, talking of our road trips, and our cameras and ideas, I’m inspired. I’ve focused on writing and wandering, taking photos it’s true, but it’s time to share those as much as I do the photos.
With that in mind, a photo essay book is in the work. And in the meantime, a few calendars are now available on Lulu.com. I’d like to also find a way to sell via Amazon as they’ve been so good to me as a writer. For now, I’m happy with the quality and flexibility of Lulu.com and the calendars on there.

Little Stevie’s Big Adventures, a road-tripping cat in the Northwest.

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Land Rovers of New Mexico, or rather the adventures of a 1959 Series II and a 1972 Series III.

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New Mexico Skies: a collection of the night skies around Madrid, NM.

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Want a free book?

Click on the link for a chance to win a free copy of VAN LIFE. Only via the app though so pull out your android and click away.
https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/54f123647530401f

 

Anacortes, WA and beyond

Dirt pile. Tall and wide. Thick forests. Cranky cat. Tired driver. Dogs restless. I pull over and let everyone out. We’re hidden behind this huge dirt pile, nose of van poking out, me squatting like Rosie. Finally a moment to stretch our legs after a long and wonderful day. But long. I’d been driving for too long.

We’d left Anacortes earlier that day, not a great place for Stevie, but the marina was good for me. Watching all the sailboats on the water, hearing the chatter from the sails flapping, the chance to do laundry, walk the dogs on a beach, sit at an outdoor bar, yes it was worth $20 a night.

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Taking the ferry across from Couperville to Port Townsend on the July 4th weekend, we were lucky to get tickets on their busiest weekend. Not being sure how the critters would fare on the ferry, I’d stopped earlier on an empty beach for us all to wander round until they chose to get back inside. Perfect. On the ferry, because of the size of the van, I got to park up front, facing out on that grey morning. I tied Stevie down, gave everyone a treat, closed up the windows and left them too it as I explored. Love ferries.

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On the Olympic peninsula my day went downhill. The noise in the van was back, sometimes. The critters were tired of being inside. And I had no idea where we’d camp. That’s what it often boils down to. If I don’t have a plan, I’m stressed, needing a focus point. Which brings me back to that gravel pile on the side of a small road heading west from Clallam Bay across to Ozette, it was the last chance at a campground, all the others had been fully booked and the forest roads were neither obvious nor easy for a van like mine.

A volvo pulled up. Fuck. Really? I wave frantically at the car, asking it to slow down, give me time to grab the cat who is standing in the open. Stevie in hand, I walk back to the van, muttering evil thoughts to myself. Why here? Why not park somewhere else?

“Harold!” A voice calls out behind me. Stevie tucked in the van, I turn to see Dawn climb out of the Volvo, another woman with her. My brain can’t compute. Huh.

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“Dawn? Is this Annie? Dawn? How the hell?”

Dawn’s laughing, Harold is barking, Rosie is running around like a dervish, and Annie says “hello Sleam, I’ve heard about you! Dawn recognised Harold and the van. You’re not camping here are you?”

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Lake Ozette, a little used national park campground, rustic, bathrooms but nothing else, pack-it-in and pack-it-out. I follow the volvo as we drive through the campground once. It’s full. There is nowhere else. Damn. I’m tired and hungry but no longer worried. My closest friend is here, Dawn! She lives in Seattle, we’d met in Madison twenty plus years ago, and she’d even joined me just a week ago camping near Arlington. I’d not expected to see her again for a few years…

“IS that a campsite?” Annie asks as we walk around, stretching our legs. “It is! Quick, claim it, stay here, I’ll go get the car.”

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Dawn and I hang out in the small clearing, and catch up on the last week’s adventures, laughing at the chances of running into each other here, in the middle of nowhere. Annie pulls up, opens up the Volvo, and the dogs find her cooler.

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La Push, and Mora National Park campground is the next day’s goal. Independence Day, and we are lucky to find a secluded site in the trees, with a sense of privacy unexpected in a place with over 90 sites. Stevie gets to run around too, always the hope. The ravens hated him though, would dive at him, crow at him, harrass him, until he froze in the trees and I’d fetch him back to the motel van. Poor bugger. The eagles hovered over the beaches. Washington coast was not a kitty friendly place, just so you know.

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The next couple of days were perfect. Dawn, Annie, and I made great meals, campfires, sat and chatted until tired, and then since Dawn knew the area, we went to her favourite beaches and walked in the rainy afternoons. Yep, I liked it. Rialto Beach is worth visiting. Even on a busy weekend like July 4th, we had the space to run and hang out and not feel the pressure of containing my pups too much.

Dawn and Annie left me there, duty called back in the city. For me, the sea called. The dogs and I walked as often as we could, and in the mornings it was quiet enough to let Stevie wander on the sand with us.
And that my friends is all I experienced of the Olympic Peninsula. Oh, apart from all the signs for that bigotted presidential candidate that made my stomach turn and the van keep driving. Southwards…

What’s in your van?

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The table I moved last Thursday, the bed is now oriented widthways, and the computer sits next to the front seat. A fold-away table now lives under the bed by the back door. Is your van like this? Are you constantly changing it? I shouldn’t be surprised. My home is the same, a constant shuffling and reordering of belongings to suit my current needs. The van though, for some reason, I didn’t expect to change it around as much as I am.
If I didn’t have three animals in there with me, it’d be easy, that’s what I tell myself. However, there is a large plastci container of dry dog kibble, one for cat kibble, a stack of wet cat food cans, a litter box and scooper, foldable cat carrier, hard sided cat carrier, a bag of dog treats, two harnesses, three leashes, and a couple of ten foot ropes. A leash for Stevie the cat hangs by the side door. Oh, and then we have a small 18 by 18 by 24 inch set of plastic drawers full of kitchen supplies. Under the bed, more stuff of course, boots and the such.

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Whenever I see another living out of their camper van, I have to ask for a tour although Van Lifers are a weird bunch. Their eyes are a little too bright, the smiles too friendly. Too bloody happy if you ask me. Then I wonder at myself. Do I come across as holier than thou, now? Are my blue eyes clearer than usual? Is my hair a little wilder and clothes scruffier? Yes, the answer is yes.

Soaking in the hot springs in Pagosa Colorado yesterday, a young man, early twenties is my guess, came in, smiling and happy to be there on that sunny Saturday. We started chatting. Mark is taller than me at 6 foot, skinny and tanned in his cut-off denim shorts. He tells me of his brown van, didn’t tell my what kind, and I thought it was women who only notice color not engine size? Anyway, Mark had bought the brown van in New Jersey a couple of months ago and has been slowly wandering westward. A happy fella but he started to avoid my eyes, slow down the questions, that is until a couple in their sixties joined us. They’re in a Sprinter (white) that’s fully decked out with wood paneling and working kitchen units. Mark relaxed and chatted up a storm. Am I that strange middle-aged woman now? Yes, the answer is yes. Sadly, yes.

My van, a nameless or rather constantly renamed van, is simple inside. I think of all that I could do, given my carpentry skills, plumbing, and electric etc., but I like it as it is. I’d make a desk as bloody writers need a desk. I’ll get to it sometime this winter perhaps? Motel Vera/ Danelle the Vanelle/ Reggie the Regency Dodger, came home with me in May, only a week before taking off for Arizona and beyond. I had little time to modify. The backbench seats were folded down, a sleeping bag and a few blankets thrown on top, and all the stuff of camping life, pet life, went under the bed. I’d kept the captains chair behind the driver for one of the dogs, Rosie. Harold likes the bed in back.

It worked as it was for three months. Now though, I’ve changed it up again. The extra chair is out. The folded cat crate (three foot by three foot) is set up permanently with the door rolled up for access. The small cat carrier is inside with a litter box within, and the cooler to the side. I wanted to use the floor space and still have a place to settle Stevie for those days at the mechanic or in cities. I’ll pull out the cooler, put in his blanket and zip down the door and he’s safe and contained for a while.
On the top of this soft crate is a metal tabletop from a workstation at home. Laid across, it becomes a place to set up the Coleman stove for making coffee inside on a rainy day. The kitchen drawers are to the right and I can pull out the cooler as a bench while cooking. It works. Colorado this week has been sunny all day long until four or five then the rains come down hard. We hunker down inside and enjoy the sound on the roof. Rosie likes to cuddle next to me, so she and I are in the back, Stevie is on his shelf above my head, and Harold claims the driver’s seat. All is good. I wonder how others would set up a small van like this for one human and three owners? I wander in and out of thrift stores looking for a small cabinet or desk to modify but not seen the one I want. It’s in my head, I picture it but drawing is not a skill of mine so I wait and see.
What will I do next week? Where will we be? The deep frost yesterday morning was an intense reminder that winter is coming fast. October, camping in October is doable in the van but still it’s daunting. Back to my cabin in New Mexico until the next visitor rents my place through Airbnb, and then south perhaps? The Gila National Forest? Or Alabama? I’ve not been to Alabama yet and that’s as good a reason as any in my book.

Travel by numbers

“How much did you spend on gas? How many miles did you drive? What did the campgrounds cost? Did you need mechanical work? How much did the van cost?”

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We’re a practical bunch. We want facts and figures. None of this anecdotal crap. Just the facts. Well, some of my friends are scientists, statisticians, more focused on the details than the stories. Me, I’m more of an impressionist than realist, but this is for the rest of you. And no, I didn’t total and summarize any of it. That’s your job. I was too busy dipping fingers and toes in mountain lakes and paddling on ocean beaches.

Numbers of

  • $ spent on mechanics: 716
  • times I thought I’d lost the cat: 8
  • scars on my left hand from grabbing cat and throwing him back in the van: 5
  • times Harold had diarrhea in the van: 2
  • miles driven on Interstates: 346
  • times I spilt coffee in the van: 2
  • weeks on the road: 10
  • motel cost: 76
  • campground fees: 236
  • times I stepped in diarrhea in the van: 2
  • cold plunges in alpine lakes: 6
  • nights spent in a motel: 1
  • books read: 47
  • $ spent on laundry: 54
  • walks per day with dogs and cat: 3
  • walks per day with just the dogs: 3
  • times I bought gas: 26
  • miles driven: 7843
  • times I was scared: 1
  • $ spent on firewood: 15
  • $ in the weekly envelope (budget): 150
  • times I overspent my budget: 6
  • weeks spent on the Oregon Coast: 3
  • nights slept on the beach: 5
  • times Rosie puked in the van: 2
  • Gallons of gas used: 409
  • $ spent on beer: too much
  • $ spent on the road trip: enough

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I’d do it again.

 

 

Taking Cat Stephen for a ride

Taking Cat Stephen for a ride. Okay, so Cat Stephen is more commonly known as Little Stevie, a somewhat feral cat that came to our home when only a few weeks old.

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He’s an indoor/ outdoor kitty, a fierce tiger at home. This is his first camping trip. We’ll see how he does. Since I worry about the little bugger at home, I figure I can worry about him on the road as well. He’s wearing a harness these days, and he’s tied up to a thin leash that is attached to the van itself. This way he can’t jump out when I’m stopped for gas or to stretch my legs.

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Day one in the van with two dogs and a cat went surprisingly smoothly. The first mile out of my place is dirt road, shaking up the van nicely, and Stevie was contained in the large soft carrier. He didn’t like the noise. He didn’t like being contained. It was loud. For about ten minutes. He protested. I reassured. Rosie looked out the window and Harold looked worried.

 

North of Ojo Caliente, about an hour and a half from home, I pulled off onto a Forest Service road and let the dogs out. I opened up the windows, pulled down the screens, and let Stevie out of the carrier. With a bowl of water and the freedom to stretch his legs a little in the peace of a stopped vehicle, I left him to it. Five or ten minutes later, we returned, the dogs had run, peed and pooped, and were in a better mood. This was now the test. Attaching Stevie to the leash and opening the doors for him to explore. He didn’t want to, not really. A very nervous tiger he was, he scooted under the van, but it seemed to help him, to hang out with all of us outside, drink a little water, take a break.

When we set off again, I had him attached to his lightweight leash, which in turn was attached to the thin long dog tie-down. This way Stevie could find a favorite place in the van yet I knew he couldn’t escape through a window or door when I would next stop. We drove quietly for another hundred miles and pulled off on FR250 heading into the Rio Grande National Forest. The river flowed thick and fast, flooding much of the valley to the left of the dirt road. After five miles we stopped for a lunch break and the dogs ran through the meadow to the river and soaked up a gallon each, Rosie returned a brown wet dog instead of her usual white self. Great.

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Stevie timidly stepped down and under the van. He no longer seemed as shocked by the day’s events, but more curious. He showed no interest in running off which was great. We hung out in the shade of the van and ate a sandwich, drank water, the usual kind of light meal. Stevie popped back into the van and climbed up on the shelf again, his happy spot.

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I’d forgotten how far it to get to Stunner Pass and a slowly driven twenty nine miles later, along a narrow steep gravelly switch-back laden road we came to the pass of 10,541 feet. Snow hid in the shade of the barren Aspens. Rosie was getting restless. Harold and Stevie were quiet. The campground of five sites had only one other family. I let the dogs roam free, attached Stevie to the tie-out, and opened up the doors, settling in for a few days here. The Alamosa River is full of snowmelt and the constant roar reminds me of the ocean. This is stunning, a deep valley between ranges, with tall pines and a thick forest of Aspens only just beginning to bud out.

In 1892, some four hundred miners set up camp here during the Gold Rush, with a post office next to the river and mail delivered by sled dog for six months per year. By the early 1900’s though, all but a few miners had moved on looking for more gold, more gold, and more gold. There is one cabin at the entrance to this primitive campground, partially restored by the looks of it, but falling down again.

In the middle of the night, Harold wakes me shaking and whimpering as he looks out the window. It’s cold for sure and I figured he’d seen or heard some animal and was scared. With a blanket over him, I fell back asleep. I woke soon though to the sounds and smells of diarrhea. Yep, Harold shat all over the van carpet. Poor bugger. I struggled to find the flashlight and attach Stevie to a leash. Harold leaps out unhappily as I throw out his bed and the carpet matt. I look down to see I’m standing in wet sloppy brown poop. Shit. Yes. I climb out, it’s bloody cold, and I wash off in the dogs’ water bowl. Harold has climbed back inside onto my bed and fallen asleep, snoring. Rosie is still asleep. Stevie purrs.

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The morning at the campsite is even better than last night, a slow moving mist, the roar of the river, a smoky fire and strong coffee. The other campers left early. The doors are open to the van and all animals are off leash, free to roam. Stevie comes and goes a little, all the sights and sounds and smells suitably awe him. His shelf is his happy place. Harold’s bum is still giving him issues. Rosie is muddy again. And I’m tired and my cheeks (upper cheeks) ache from smiling so much.

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Life is good.

The Art of Solo Travels

“Aren’t you scared?”

Even just yesterday a friend asked me if I ever got scared camping on my own, travelling on my own. No. I don’t. There’s more to it than that, but simply put, no, camping on my own is where I am happiest and most relaxed. In towns, in cities, surrounded by people, traffic, noise, music, talking for the sake of filling in the silence, no, that is not where I relax.

This weekend, I had the honor of being a panelist on discussion about the art of solo travels. I thought I’d write about some of the observations and stories that came up.

Overland Expo West 2016 had almost 10,000 people all interested in vehicle dependent travels, whether local or worldwide; we all were there to get inspired.

To hear the stories from others who just have the wanderlust in their blood like I do was reassuring for me. I’ve been settled for eight years now, making a home base, setting myself up, writing, publishing, and taking short trips around the Southwest. I’m restless. I have been for the last year or so, working towards getting on the road again. This weekend at Overland Expo, I talked about crossing the States at 22 years old, hitching with a small backpack and no credit cards or money, just following my distracted ideas of what to do next, riding my 1976 Yamaha XS750 across to the Midwest repeatedly even though it would break down every other day, street performing in Guatemala, driving the high elevation passes in Colorado in a 1973 VW Beetle, not knowing what to expect, these stories are part of me. I lost my two front teeth in Tarancon, Spain. I woke up on a train in Switzerland, not quite sure which country I was in. Hitched to the Munich beer festival. And yes, I travel alone. And I like it!

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I admit, I once traveled with someone. It was 1989. Steve joined me in Chicago, a friend from my small hometown. I was walking down the streets in the city, knowing we’d find each other somehow but since neither of us had phones or hotel rooms, it would be a challenge. I walked with my backpack clunking away against my hips when I saw Steve sitting on a bench smoking. I sat down next to him and took his smoke.

We crossed to Maine, New York, Washington; we took trains, hitched, and then stayed at random homes of the families we met along the way. It wore me out. Steve let me make all the decisions. It wore me out. The responsibility. The constant discussions as to what we would eat that night, where we would sleep.

There have been other moments, a week here and there, spent on a road trip with a friend, but nothing as extended at that initial travel with Steve, bless him. Since then, I tend to go off on my own, I’m happier that way.

Planning: on my own, I’m free to follow my nose, or rather the signs that capture my attention. It’s usually the ones that say ‘lake’ or ‘4wd only”, and off I go. I generally have a loose plan, places I’d like to visit if I’m in the area. I set a few goals, for small weeklong trips and for the extended travels. These days with the Internet, I plan a lot more, looking at photos, reading forums, and asking for suggestions. Whether I follow the ideas, that’s another story.

Packing: light as less is best. Since I’ve done a bit of everything, backpacking, hitching, motorcycles, busses, trains, VWs, trucks and now a van. The packing has become more complicated as I’m taking two dogs and a cat with me for a few months up north. We’ll see how this goes! Packing though does seem to stay fairly consistent, the basics of a change of clothes, bedding, kitchen, water, tools, and now critters’ food and bedding too. A short list, and with the idea in mind that I might have to abandon ship (van) in an emergency so the necessary items all fit in a small backpack too. I can leave the rest. I have before, in a dead VW bus in the middle of nowhere Missouri. I never did see that red camper again.

Eating: I love that I can eat what I like and when I like. Frito pie for breakfast? Bacon sandwhich before bed? Chocolate? Cheese and crackers? Veggies and eggs? Whatever I like when I like. It’s wonderful.

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Engagement: As a solo traveller, I interact much more with locals. I’m seen as trusting them and it’s always come back to me that these strangers treat me with trust. It sets the tone; we open up and chat over a coffee, a campfire, or a beer at a local brewery. I’m interested in what people do, what’s important to them, the work, home and community. This is why I travel. I’m curious. The stories feed me. I also found that when I first crossed the States alone that many families I met wanted my stories of other states, places, towns, ones they had never visited themselves. My anecdotes of their own country paved the way for their hospitality. It was a trade in a sense.

Safety: Hmm… I’m not very safe. I go places I shouldn’t. No one really knows where I am. I follow roads, conversations, and dreams. I have no back-up plans. I take risks. I fly by the seat of my pants and all without a safety net. I like it. Traveling like this wakes me up. Opens me up. To answer the question I started with, have I ever been scared? A couple of times. That’s all. First was when I had to get myself back from the South of France as an eighteen year old who’d been fired from her nanny job. I had a passport and a plastic bag of clothes. No money. No credit cards. And this was before cell phones, not that I would have called my parents, I preferred to get back and then tell them. I didn’t like to worry them! Poor buggers. I stowed away on a train, stole food, had a guard try to rape me, smashed him in his privates and locked myself in a bathroom on the train. That was the first big solo trip and the sense of achievement at the end was incomparable. “I can improvise. I can get out of trouble. I should keep traveling!”

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Know yourself: Where are you happiest? How do you spend your days? Are you mostly surrounded by friends and co-workers? Or do you work alone? Live alone? What are you social needs in other words? Think about what stresses you out and what makes you relax. For me, time without words, yes, I know, ironic since I’m a writer, but still, empty heads talking at each other wears me out. I like silence. I like mountains. And I like the company of animals more than people. But that’s me…and then after a couple of days alone, I love to sit and chat to friends and strangers alike. I have the energy and desire to hear their stories. To tell mine. To connect. Knowing yourself is one of the amazing benefits of solo travels, you have to take care of yourself and you will. You’ll learn new rhythms and routines that are yours. To share your experiences, that is some friends ask about, how do you find meaning when you have no one to share with? But I do. I write. I photograph. And simply sitting next to a lake in the mountains alone with my dogs, I see how the world is magical, stunningly beautiful whether I am there or not. I am a very small speck in a huge world and that is reassuring to me. I relax.

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There is an art to solo traveling. There is a science to it as well but I’ll write about that another time. However, let me say that the more I travel alone, the more I appreciate nature and the random conversations with people I meet. I am not afraid. I am open to life and adventures…