Comfort Zones

Out Of My Comfort Zone

A week in the Northeast shows me how much of a Southwesterner I am. Twenty years, more really, spent in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado have shaped me, confined me, held me and let me grow into who I am now. A long way from that arrogant yet insecure young traveling Brit who came to Santa Fe with a backpack and little else, not even a green card stuffed in with the teddy bear and juggling clubs.

This. Sitting in the White Mountains of Maine in a little seven-campsite National Forest spot next to a forty-acre pond deep in the hills. I let the kids, the pets that is, wander freely. No longer do I worry about Stevie the cat, not once we’re in the trees and hills. This is our comfort zone. The first thing I did once here was finally fall deep asleep. For two hours. After a week of running on adrenalin, it’s a sign, reminder, that this is where I need to be, in nature, smelling a musky stagnant pond, watching a symphony of leaves rustle under the command of a gentle breeze that announces itself in the treetops before reaching down to the underbrush.

Instead though, I’ve been frantically moving for weeks now. Setting up my home for a new tenant, putting in that screen door, painting the floor in the main room (easier than cleaning it), and picking up around the acre of fenced property she’ll be using. It’s amazing how many details there are to take care of when moving. I had no idea. This is a first for me, to consciously move, sell up random extras, fix a home for another to love, take care of banking, post office, payments and bills. Then we were off in the van and comfort took over once again, sleeping and driving and exploring brought me hourly smiles. The dogs took to it once again, and Stevie? Well, he hid once on the road, popping out in the campgrounds to climb trees and shit in the woods.

The town life is not for me. Dense woodland is not for me. Loss of mountain views and huge open rangeland stifles me. And then followed by an afternoon in Portland? Well, it was too much, I didn’t see the ocean, couldn’t deal with the traffic all around, the noise of brakes, people yelling, cops and fire trucks streaming/ screaming past us, it’s all too much. Sensory overload, a fragile system shorted out all coping mechanisms. I ran for the country again with pets locked down in the back, we slept on the side of a street in a small town next to a lake before finding this pond in the White Mountains.
The town life of Montpelier is doable. Doable. Not great but I can manage a town of eight thousand, one you can walk end to end in half an hour. I park by the college, hook up dogs to leashes, lock Stevie inside the van with windows and screens in place for a breeze but no jail-break, and off we’d go, me and the pups. None of us are used to cars, traffic lights, construction zones, or walking on pavement. Country dogs we are, myself included. Thoroughly out of our usual lifestyle, I persist because quitting is not an option. We’re here for the next three years.

Comfort zones are interesting to me. What I’ve experienced all these years, the places I’ve dropped into, and the conversations had and images stored. They fill my brain, waking and dreaming, to the point of squeezing them back onto paper is a relief. Writing them out loosens me, like now, at this table in Crocker Pond, Maine. The breeze shakes out a few leaves onto Rosie’s white fur as she sleeps against my left foot. Harold is behind me and Stevie, the little bugger, is under the van once again. He’s been on the shit list today, running off in a town this morning and hiding from me for three hours and twenty-six minutes. He wasn’t lost or he’d call for us. He’d meow until we played Marco-polo and he’d come back. Or that’s the usual pattern. He knew where I was, where the dogs were, where the camper van was, but he would not show himself for three hours and twenty-six minutes. Then I started the van, moved it into the shade of a birch and killed the engine as I mentally prepared to tell my friends that Stevie had moved to Maine while I’d moved to Vermont. Then here he comes and strolls past me. I grabbed him, tossed him inside like an unwanted bag of spinach, and slammed doors shut. Then I swam in the lake, alone, to drown that anger simmering on the surface.

Crocker Lake in the White Mountains appeals to all of us, dogs, cats and human all. The sunshine flickers across this laptop, the beer is cool and the afternoon slow moving. The pond is empty yet I’m not ready to swim in it. The signs warning of black bears haunt the toilets and tables. I’m not worried though. This is better, easier, than a town or city. This is my comfort zone. All those years of bear phobia have turned into a moment of knowing, an ease in the world of predators and prey. I sip the bear, oops, I mean beer, and wonder what that sound was in the trees behind us. The dogs didn’t flinch so it’s nothing much. Harold would be in the driver’s seat if anything scary were approaching. Stevie would climb into the engine bay on the radiator. Rosie is the sole protector, the smaller of the two dogs; she’d stay near me and bark, bark, bark, a monotonous warning. It works. We listen out for each other after six years together.

How then am I going to deal with Montpelier? If I’m at home in the hills, in wide-open spaces or with water to gaze upon? I don’t know. Finding a home in the country was the first challenge and I’m thankful to be offered a home share not too far out, in a log home with a meadow and apple trees, gardens and sheds, one that I can explore and fix up as I stay there. The hills aren’t closed in on the home; the deck looks out to a bigger picture than most do in this place of dense forests and private land. I can do it, there at Anne’s place, I can breathe. I’ll be working, yes, in another city, commuting through the passage of thick forests and past farmland, a drive of an hour each way. I’m okay with that. Driving is my place of comfort even if it’s for work and not pleasure, I can do that.

What is your comfort zone? For some I know, it’s the same old conversations at the local coffee shop and pubs, day in and day out, complaining about having to drive to Santa Fe for errands, reluctant to leave their little town of like-minded liberals. The home brings comfort. I get that, the home base, it’s a beginning and an end for me, where to relax and where to leave as often as possible. An ongoing split of desire for my familiar and the need to see, observe and note the new. How will I ever truly relax though if I need both? How do I create both in an unfamiliar place like Vermont? By that, the mix, finding a new mix that will work with responsibilities of pets, home, work and college.

I’m hoping that my stay at Anne’s will give me the steadiness of a home, and that the commute to a social job in Burlington will feed the need for conversations and the physicality of driving.

As to college? That’s the reason I’m here, breaking through to a new layer in myself. Tired of not living up to my potential, a phrase that’s haunted me since middle school, I need the challenge. I’ll get it too. A master’s degree in Fine Arts will challenge me thoroughly. I can’t wait. I need this. Stability in the storm of an unsettled mind like mine. I just hope the faculty like me in person and not only my words on paper and screen. Off-centre in an unfamiliar and academic setting, I’ll not be at my best, but my writing comes freely, it’s containing it that we’ll be working on, looser yet tighter both, stopping this stream and the inconsistent floods of verbal diarrhea and creating a sustainable process despite all the upheavals I put myself through in the aim of ‘experiencing’ life. This will be interesting as is homemade beer. Try it and see, I tell myself; it’s all part of the process.
Now then is time to make that campfire, grill up the mushrooms, and settle in for another night in the woods. I’m okay with that.
2.

What is it about a basement that affects me so? Instant depression. Lying down to hope that tomorrow comes faster. Why? This would still be my temporary home, wouldn’t it? Claustrophobia? What’s the opposite of agoraphobia? Scared of waking those suicidal tendencies? Monsters haunt the attic of my brain. The worst of the worst climbs out and claims me. This basement’s damp cold sends me to bed with clothes on and covers over shoulders. The dogs and cat claim the other inches left free on this single bed. The rain starts up once again.

“Is this more rain than normal?” I asked the landlady as we mopped the kitchen floor.

“Yes. This hasn’t happened before though.”

Seeping through the tiles, the kitchen and bathroom have puddles building day in and out and we were sliding towels under our sandals.

The rain comes in the afternoon and the wheels of the trucks speeding past my dungeon window reminds me of days, months in London that drove me down into a darkness that scares me. Is is still within me?
The drive back from Maine was through thick dense woodland, searching for an open field, a meadow, a picnic table overlooking a valley below in the Green Mountains. Knowing these exist in a packed landscape will be my escape route. Finding them, the challenge.
Claustrophobia usually refers to rooms, attics, and basements, not the bigger environment. Am I spoilt by those years in New Mexico? Huge views that cross an empty mesa and valley to the Jemez Mountains to the west of the twenty acres I call home? Sunsets down past the Sandia Mountains? And not another home light to remind me that I’m not alone. But maybe I like being alone? That’s another discussion. This is space. Use of space. Psychological space. Physical space. Comfort of space. Need for it, cravings, passions, itching, breathing, and tall open high space. Need. But why? Why? That is the question of my childhood. Apparently I haven’t grown out of it. Nor have I found the answers.

 

3.

The larger range of space that a person considers to be “near,” the more likely it is he or she will feel claustrophobic, according to a study published in June in Cognition (Vol. 119, No. 3).

At root is a phenomenon by which phobias either cause people to perceive the world differently than those without such fears. “We’ve known for a long time that fear and anxiety can disrupt cognitive processes,” says Stella F. Lourenco, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, who led the study. They found that the larger an area that the person claimed as ‘near space’, the more claustrophobic and anxious they become as that large space shrinks. It’s hard to explain the process of this study but it seemed that we have a comfort zone of a specific distance and as it gets closer to us, our visual perceptions also change as to how close that really is. Perhaps then, the sixty miles of empty high desert has ruined me for anything else? In which case, three years in Vermont will be one hell of a challenge.

Systematic desensitization is the process recommended for agoraphobics, the opposite of my own anxiety. Well, yeah, that’s the only way I can figure this out since I’m here in the woods and valleys of Vermont, desensitize myself. What will be the escape route though on a daily level? Finding a home with open land nearby, one to walk easily and breathe deeply. The sense of congestion is worse when my views are limited to only hundreds of feet. Chest tight. Fingers twitch. Nerves shake. Patience gone. Sorry pups. I don’t mean to bitch.

“Patients must remain in the situation until anxiety has abated, because if they leave the situation, the phobic response will not decrease and it may even rise.” A related exposure treatment is in vivo exposure, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy method that gradually exposes patients to the feared situations or objects to lessen the reactions over time. Yep. Time for a walk in the woods then. Followed by a cup of tea in bed.

 

4.

Polly. Meet Polly, a blind and mentally impaired goat. She used to panic when she couldn’t sense her humans near by. But then they found a duck costume in the kids’ section of a local store. Polly now wears her costume and even falls asleep in the shopping cart as they go to the grocery store. Polly is calm.
Imagine us then in the forests, walking Harold and Rosie, with Stevie the cat following along, and with me in a yellow duck costume. Happy. I can do that.

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.

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.

Van Life: Exploring the Northwest with two dogs, a cat and a van

It’s true. A new book of my travel stories just came out. It’s a work in progress so forgive the mistakes, I’m working on it! This travelogue follows our adventures in the Northwest, the details about the small places we found along the way, the people we met, and the critter’s advice when I was having a hard time. Lighthearted and engaging.

Thanks!

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.

The Mixed Bag Of Washington

 

Washington State, a place of such mixed experiences that I lost the desire to write, worried that I’d offend someone by the over all relief to arrive in Oregon. I look though at my notes and it wasn’t all claustrophobic. Only the Olympic Peninsula, the rain forest, the coastline, those choice places I’d heard so much about left me cold, left me with a bitter taste of claustrophobia.

Spokane surprisingly enough was energizing for me. A busy city environment, traffic filling the roads, construction creating detours, and people everywhere. I liked it. I liked the business and chaos. I day dreamed of moving there and even mentioned that to the cashier at Trader Joes. Meredith laughed and asked where I was from. Santa Fe, I told her. “That’s where I got married!”

Trader Joes, the first I’d visited since leaving work on May 15th at TJs in Santa Fe, was a familiar comfortable place to restock. Dog food that the pets like and treats for Stevie cat and me. Known staples for my kitchen. Yep, I was glad to be there, talking to Nate the Mate who sent his hello to my own manager in NM. It’s a small world at Trader Joes.

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Coffeepot Lake, WA, caught my attention and we headed there for a few nights of BLM free camping next to water. It really was in the middle of nowhere, long open range farmland, few homes, and little traffic. I drove down the slippery gravel and dirt road and turned to corner to see a nice sized reservoir with eight huge cottonwood trees and camping spots between and under each tree. Perfect. The campground is about an hour and a half from Spokane, down Hwy 2, and then south on WA-28 near Harrington. Pulling up into the shaded site, it was time to release the Hounds, and cat. It was safe enough for all to run free. Finally I wore shorts and a tee shirt.

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There was a path leading away from the boat ramp, and with Stevie tucked up in the van, the dogs and I explored the lake in the afternoon sunshine and solitude. A few boats of fishermen dawdled in the warmth. Our walking under his tree irritates a hawk but I keep my head down and follow the pups over a ridge and down the other side. An empty beach tempts me. I strip off and swim near the mallards.

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Washington, yes, the east side I liked more than the western coast which was unexpected. Disappointing really. I’d been playing with the idea of moving to Washington, a place highly recommended by friends and co-workers who know me fairly well. They talked of the mountains, the ocean, the forests, and the places to visit. They didn’t warn me of the political signs, the overwhelming presence of the racist misogynistic presidential candidate. They didn’t warn me of the huge number of churches of all denomination that outnumbered any other type of community meeting places like libraries, cafes, or pubs. Nope. The culture I found on those back roads as I crossed the state was not one I could relax within. I kept my mouth shut, head down, and hid at the North West Overland Rally near Leavenworth.

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It’s been hard to stop still on this trip so far. I’ve racked up so many miles, taking local county roads through small villages and avoiding the cities and interstates, always looking for rivers and lakes but even when I found them, I didn’t relax for more than a couple of nights at a time. Curious. Restless. Call it what you will, but I keep on going…

The NWOR will need a blog of its own; I’ll get back to that. With this travel report from Washington I’d hoped to beat down my reluctance to write about the state and to get through my writer’s block. It’s working.

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Open rangeland, farmland, high desert, huge lakes, and ocean beaches, these are the places that relax me. My eyes widen and yet also half close as the sense of distance, emptiness, and space reminds me of how lucky I am to exist, and how life carries on whether I do or don’t. My insignificance is reassuring.

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I didn’t write much as I crossed from Leavenworth towards Bellingham and Arlington. M notes are incomplete, rough, images and reminders but little worth for anyone else.

Cascades NP

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Methow River valley.

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BLM dirt tracks over mountains with little shade but empty of others. Perfect after the business of a week at the rally.

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Twisp, an amazingly good selection of food at the local supermarket. Great cheddar, organic veggies, and the freshest of peaches and nectarines.

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Winthrop – a cute tourist town on the river that was busy for a Monday morning. I didn’t stop except to grab a coffee.

Gorge Lake campground in the Cascades National Park was free and therefore busy. I found one of the last sites that lunchtime and glad to be able to park in the shade, I set up for one night. Critters out, then cat back inside, as this was bear country, active bear country. I shared my campsite with three others who’d arrived late and tired. I moved the van forward and they put up tents and offered me a beer and conversation.

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Washington was the state where I had van troubles, ongoing noises that worried the hell out of me but no one else neither heard them nor believed how bad it sounded. Typically I’d be alone taking a left hand corner, slowing down, a tight turn and then crunching, clacking, grinding sounds from the front wheel would stop me cold. The wheel’s falling off! Time to stop and smell the rivers.

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Washington was a place of five mechanics, all with different ideas as to what was going on. Each time, something would be fixed, replaced, and then within half an hour or even half a block, I’d hear the wheel complaining loudly. Finally, after a day in Seaview WA at a higly recommended mechanic shop, they’d fixed one thing, sent me off, and yep, by the time I reached the beach five blocks away, that noise returned. I drove back, pulled up, grabbed the mechanic, and took him with us. Clunk. Scrape. Crunch.

“That’s the wheel bearing!” he’s as excited as a kid with a new toy. “I can do that easily. Let’s see what’s going on down there.” He fixed it in half an hour and for less than $150. The noise hasn’t returned.

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Five mechanics. Five bills paid by credit card. Total spent. $786.

Bring A Chainsaw

It’s done, I published the travel memoirs finally. After all these years of being asked if my novels were autobiographical, here are the stories, the experiences, the travels that brought me to New Mexico, to writing and traveling more. It’s here. The truth behind the introvert in the hills. If ever you had any questions about hurricanes in Florida, clowning in Guatemala, nightclubs in Russia, strip clubs in London, mountains in Colorado, making adobe bricks in New Mexico, I might have a story for you.

Enjoy! The printed copies will be available in May 2016 but for those savvy folks with Kindle, you get first dabs. Thanks again for your support and I hope you enjoy…

Bring A Chainsaw (and other stories from my solo travels)

 

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