Homecoming

I cannot imagine a greater blessing in life than to have a friend with whom you can totally be yourself, all the time, and who understands exactly what you need when you don’t have the words to ask.

I’ve had a friend like this for 25 years, ever since we were wide-eyed freshmen starting the new adventure of college. Ok, I may have been more wide-eyed than she, who had just spent her senior year of high school in another hemisphere, while I was making my first major venture away from home. I don’t know when we went from being roommates to the closest of friends, but I have always known, even through the inevitable bumps in the road that come with growing up and figuring out who we wanted to be, that our friendship was bigger than all night study sessions or trips to get nail polish and pancakes in the middle of the night.

So, when my plans for the final weeks of my road trip changed suddenly and I headed back toward Maine, heavy-hearted, I could imagine no better rest stop along the way than my friend Kia’s home, the laughter and mostly-happy chaos of four kids, and the warm hug of a place that feels like home to me.

It’s also fitting to wind down my trip here because this is where I started off, back in May, with an all too brief stop. All those weeks ago, I really felt like Kia’s represented the edge of my world…being here always grounds me, and is as familiar as a favorite pair of jeans. My stop here in May was my deep breath before jumping into the unknown. As always, my biggest cheerleader, the person who believes in me in ways I sometimes don’t even comprehend, was there to give me the encouragement I needed before I set off.

Coming back here a few days ago, I took another deep breath, knowing I had made it. As much as I’ve loved the feedback and enthusiasm of everyone who’s followed me along on my journey, it finally felt real when I was able to share it with her, in person. And the pain in my heart was, blessedly, muffled by the sounds of laughter and life in a place I love even more than I realized.

I have just a couple more days on this crazy adventure, a few more special friends to visit and maybe even a couple more fun tourist stops to make before I arrive home into the arms of my anxiously-waiting family. I know that, when all is said and done, these past few days will be one of my most cherished memories of this incredible summer.

Unhappy endings

A friend asked me the other day what had surprised me most during this trip. Until tonight, all the unexpected twists and life lessons I had not foreseen were wonderful things that have made this adventure all the more magical.

Unfortunately, the one thing I truly didn’t see coming happened last night and is sending me homeward sooner than I had planned. I will be traveling home with a broken heart.

Many people would have a hard time pulling away from their lives to do what I did, because of marriages and children and mortgages and all the other responsibilities most people my age have. I felt fortunate to have the freedom to call a do-over and take off, knowing I could come back when I was ready and make a fresh start. There was just one thing weighing on my mind…what to do with my beloved cat, Tattoo.

I’m sure there are some folks thinking, “Really? A cat almost kept you from going on this trip?” But there are others who know how attached I am to her and how much we’ve been through together in the 17 years she’s been part of my life. She’s the closest thing to a child I’m ever likely to have, and for the past few years since my other pets have died, it’s just been the two of us. She’s been my constant companion, cuddler, and confidant, and I love her more than I can say. If you’re a pet owner, you understand.

And so, I felt terrible about leaving her for the summer while I went on an adventure. But I knew I had to go…I needed this trip more than I could ever have imagined, for reasons that have become clear over the last ten weeks. When my dear friends in Boston graciously and happily offered to take Tattoo for the summer, it was a prayer answered. They have thoughtfully sent me photos from time to time and called to report in that, while she has been a bit reclusive, she seemed to be no worse for wear.

Until last night, when my friend called to tell me Tattoo is in the hospital suffering from a serious liver issue. One I’m all too familiar with because it happened to her once before, about ten years ago…she recovered then, but of course she was much younger. This time, the prognosis is not good.

It’s nobody’s fault that this happened, and yet I am wracked with guilt and sadness that I am so far away. I had to make the hardest decision this morning, and even though I absolutely know it was the right thing for her, it kills me that I was not there to say goodbye.

I have said all along that I would head home when I finished the loop of the US, ran out of money or just knew it was time. It’s time.  My heart cannot be in two places at once.

Transformation

I’ve seen some incredible people, places and things in the more than seven weeks I’ve been on the road. Breathtaking vistas, dynamic cities, magical forests, wild horses, colorful and thought provoking arts, intriguing people and inspiring historical sites, just to name a few. The America I’ve seen is a rich tapestry of amazing things, both wild and human-made.

It might surprise you to learn that, of all the things I’ve done and seen, the moment that may have made me the most giddy with childlike delight was my arrival in Leavenworth, Washington a few days ago. No, not the place with the supermax prison—the place that looks for all the world like a Bavarian village nestled in the Alps, instead of a tiny hamlet on the Wenatchee River in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains.

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I was grinning from ear to ear as I drove through the little town and saw that they were all in when it came to playing the role of an Alpine wonderland. Hotels, banks, homes–even Starbucks–along the main way all displayed colorful window boxes, classic Bavarian lettering on signs, and the trademark style that made me feel like I should sprechen Deutsch and yodel.

So, ok…it’s a cute themed town, but one of my favorite places after nearly two months and 8,500 miles logged? Really?

Really.

Here’s the thing…I have been wanting to come to Leavenworth for five years, ever since I first learned of it when I was visiting Seattle and picked up a brochure in a hotel rack somewhere. I was fascinated with why in the world a town in Washington would adopt a theme like this, and I imagined this lovely, quaint little town with oompa bands and lederhosen and beer and bratwurst in abundance. I loved the quirkiness of it, and was sorry I was unable to take a detour there during my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. But I never forgot about it, and as my travel plans came to fruition, I knew I had to go to Leavenworth.

What made me smile is that, unlike so many things in life that can never live up to one’s lofty expectations, Leavenworth was exactly what I imagined, if not better. The drive in through the Wenatchee Valley and the lush fruit orchards as far as the eye can see was worth the trip alone, but seeing this funny, lovely little village appear around the bend was something I’ll never forget. It was a nice reminder that high hopes don’t always end in disappointment.

The thing about Leavenworth that really resonates with me, especially now, is its history. I was, as you may be, curious as to how this Bavarian theme came about. The town of Leavenworth was first settled by several Native American tribes; as the gold rush and the railroad brought prospectors West, Leavenworth became an important lumbering town and swelled with new people and the infrastructure needed to support them.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the railroad and lumber mill moved to other cities, and Leavenworth was a shadow of its former self. For many western towns, that’s where the story ends.

But not Leavenworth. In the 1960s, the townspeople realized they had a choice: they could let Leavenworth die, or they could find a solution to bring the town back to life. According to the Icicle Village website:

The people of Leavenworth realized they needed to make an incredible effort to change their situation and decided to change the appearance of town to bring in tourists. In 1965, after much deliberation and research, the community leaders were swayed by the backdrop of Alpine hills and turned the town into a Bavarian Village. Determined to make the theme deeper than a facelift on buildings, the entire community banded together to create a credible illusion of a true Bavarian alpine village. With costumes that they designed and made in their homes and with entire families working together to man stores and services, the dream has become a reality.

The results speak for themselves. Leavenworth hosts more than two million visitors annually, with a variety of seasonal festivals, a summer theater, bustling shops and restaurants, outdoor adventures and heartfelt hospitality.

What I loved most about Leavenworth, and what had me smiling just as broadly on the way out of town as on the way in, is this story of transformation. Leavenworth made a conscious choice to redefine itself on its own terms, no matter how challenging and improbable the odds, because it knew it could not survive doing the same old thing.

Sounds strangely familiar.

 

Alone time

Judging from the reactions I’ve received, some people do not understand the concept of traveling alone and enjoying it. I get it. It’s one thing when you’re traveling for business and have no choice–but to intentionally go on a vacation–much less a 12 week vacation–without a traveling companion (or entourage) just does not sound like fun to most people.

The idea of vacationing alone used to intimidate me, too…but the idea of sitting still and not traveling because I had no one to go with was way more awful than the intimidation factor of requesting a table for one.

I took my first serious solo vacation about five years ago. I had an opportunity to go to Seattle, a place I’d always wanted to visit, at a time when no one I knew had the time/money/interest in joining me. So, I took a deep breath and booked the trip anyway. And what I discovered was that–for me–traveling solo was awesome. I go where I want, for as long as I want, and I don’t do anything I don’t want to do. I don’t have to wait for anyone, or worry that anyone is waiting for me. I don’t have to make apologies for the fact that when I’m on a trip, I don’t like to run around like a crazy person and fill every minute of every day–and that sometimes I leave my hotel room in the morning without any real idea of what I’m going to do that day. Sometimes I just want to wander around and see what looks interesting. Or sometimes I just want to sit in a cafe and drink coffee and people watch.

I know I could never take the trip I’m on now unless I were able to do it alone–I am the type of person who needs significant alone time, and frankly it would make me crazy to spend this much time in the car with someone, no matter how much I loved them (and I’m quite certain I would be most unpleasant to be around as a result). I know it’s hard to imagine, but I never get bored in the car. Sometimes I listen to the road trip playlist I made–all songs I can (and do) sing along to. Sometimes I surf through the local radio stations to get a flavor for the area.

And sometimes, I turn the music off and drive in silence. Yes–silence. I used to do this only when I was driving in really crazy traffic and needed to concentrate, but more recently, I was driving through a really spectacular area in New Mexico, where there was nothing but static on the radio and my playlist was played out. What I discovered was that I was able to appreciate the amazing views and the moment itself so much more when I could use all my senses to soak it in. I loved it. (Now you’re really glad you’re not in the car with me, right?)

Of course, I’m not alone all the time, nor would I want to be. One of the great joys of this adventure has been seeing old friends and reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in years (or, in some cases, decades!) I’m so grateful for all the folks who have opened their homes to me, or made time to get together over a meal or a drink or even just for a quick hello. And I’ve met wonderful people along the way–ironically, traveling alone makes me much more social than I’m generally inclined to be. I talk to people in line at attractions, or at restaurants (solo traveler tip: sit at the bar–it’s much easier/less awkward to strike up conversations and get tips about things in the area to see and do), something I rarely do when I am out with people who are naturally more social than I am.

On nights like tonight, when the days of driving have really caught up with me and all I wanted to do was eat an early dinner, put my feet up, watch a little TV and go to bed early, I am grateful that I can do that without feeling that I am keeping someone else from having a fun night out, or that I will feel obligated to go out and end up being grouchy tomorrow.

For me, the best part of this trip is that I have completely shed my self consciousness about being alone, and I have been able to embrace the fact that I enjoy my own company and am not afraid to be alone with my thoughts–which was not always the case. If that’s the biggest epiphany I gain from this journey, it will have been more than enough.

 

Enchanted

If Texas was like another country, then New Mexico is another planet.

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Tell me you don’t see a creepy face in those shadows! I bet you’d have been a little jumpy, too.

My adventures in the “Land of Enchantment” started at Carlsbad Caverns, a magical underground world that started as reefs in a 250 million year old sea, and now comprises over 300 limestone caverns located about 750 feet underground. On arrival, you have a choice of taking the elevator down to the Great Room, the largest cavern accessible to the public, or walking down via the Natural Entrance, a winding one-mile path that takes about an hour (yes, one mile an hour…seemed crazy slow to me, too, but trust me…it really takes that long).

It’s somewhat daunting to enter the mouth of the cavern, with swallows flying overhead (I did confirm these things swirling very close to my head were not the bats that reside in the cave…they don’t make an appearance until dusk), and to begin descending into darkness, where the stalagmites and stalactites take on eerily human shapes while your eyes adjust. I might have jumped once or twice (or five times) at what amounted to my own shadow.

What was truly surreal, however, was the sound of silence. At the cave entrance, a park ranger asks all visitors to whisper while in the cavern, since the sound of one’s voice can travel half a mile inside and, “frankly, we’re not that interested in hearing your secrets.” As a result, NO ONE was saying anything during most of the descent…while I knew there were other people on the path, as I had seen them enter before me or after me, I felt utterly and completely alone for much of the hour as I wound my way down to the bottom of the cavern. At times it was completely creepy–I couldn’t help imagine the perfect setting for a ghastly horror movie, starring me as the unwitting victim–and at other times, utterly serene to be surrounded by these amazing features created essentially by drops of water over millions of years, and not to hear a sound. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

But that was just the beginning. After a fun visit to the crazy International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell (totally cheesy and delightful!), I headed toward Santa Fe. I fell in love the moment I arrived. It was so different from anything else I had yet experienced on my trip. Santa Fe is a city alive with colors–the rich reds and browns of the hills and earth and unique adobe homes that dot the landscape; bright blues, greens, yellows and oranges of the colorful mosaics and painted tiles and swirling flowered skirts and art in gallery windows; the bluest sky; green and red chile–the flavors of New Mexico–adding heat and earthiness to nearly every plate of food.

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I especially loved the people I met in Santa Fe and everywhere in New Mexico.  Folks were approachable and friendly, but not overbearingly so. I was lucky enough to be in Santa Fe when there was an art fair in the Plaza, and I was able to talk with many artists, never feeling that they wanted me to move on if I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money at their booth. (Incidentally, I definitely contributed to the New Mexican economy during my four days there!) Even in the expensive galleries of Canyon Road, I felt welcome to browse and chat and wander and enjoy the beautiful and provocative things, whether or not I had any intention of buying.

What I will remember most, I think, is the quiet, yet intense, pride of place–people I talked to seemed deeply and genuinely delighted that I loved their home so much. At the art fair, I met an

The photo does not do justice to how lovely this piece is--it's especially precious because of the time I was able to spend talking with the artist who created it.

The photo does not do justice to how lovely this piece is–it’s especially precious because of the time I was able to spend talking with the artist who created it.

artist named Mark Jiminez, who makes gorgeous jewelry. Mark and I talked for quite a long time–he was very interested in my story about my adventure and I in his long history in Santa Fe and the surrounding region. His family, he told me, are descendants of the original inhabitants of Santa Fe, which is America’s oldest state capitol (Santa Fe was settled a decade before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower). While he comes from a family of weavers, jewelry is his passion–and he imbues meaning into each piece he creates. I’m proud to wear one of his pendants, from his “Teachings” collection. The markings represent the importance of learning from the generations before us, and for passing those learnings on to the generations after us.

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The mesa at the edge of Zuni lands…what a beautiful place.

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The Inn at Halona is the only sanctioned lodging for outsiders in any of the New Mexican pueblos. It’s a charming little place run by a sweet man named Roger. I’m glad I learned about it in time to stay here, even if only for one night.

This spirit of valuing tradition and learning from elders is also embodied in Zuni, the oldest pueblo in New Mexico, where members of the Zuni nation maintain the culture and traditions of their tribe from generations ago. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay in the pueblo (Zuni is the only one that allows this), in a charming little bed and breakfast in the heart of the village. Zuni Pueblo is not like Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg–these are not actors coming in to entertain tourists for the day. These are native people who live and work here–80 percent of the residents are artists who make beautiful pottery and jewelry in traditional styles and manners–and who maintain their own language, religious practices and other traditions. Outside visitors are asked to respect this by not wandering through the village without a Zuni guide, not taking photos without a photo permit (including NO pictures of cultural or religious practices) and generally being quiet, unobtrusive observers. Even with these restrictions in place, I found that the Zuni I spoke with (mainly at the shops and roadside stands selling their wares) were incredibly warm, welcoming and generous. I am thankful for the privilege of staying in their pueblo, even for a brief time.

As advertised, New Mexico was enchanting in every way. I am already looking forward to my next visit, even as I anticipate my next adventures further west.

A Marfa-lous time in west Texas

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Sunset over Marfa, Texas

I mentioned a few things about Marfa, Texas in my previous post, but this place deserves its own entry. It’s a one of a kind town that I had never heard of a few short months ago, and yet my road trip would not have been the same without experiencing it for myself.

For all I had read about Marfa, and for the reactions I had received from the handful of people I know who had heard of it before–Oh, Marfa! I have always wanted to go there!–I think I was picturing an oasis of hipness in the desert, a picturesque little town teeming with artists and intellectuals, and galleries and artisans on every corner.

Not exactly.

Marfa is not a “pretty” town by nearly any definition. There are many run down buildings and vacant storefronts, and the mostly one-story homes are in various stages of disrepair. There is a stately, pink-hued courthouse in the town square, but not much else that immediately hints at all that’s really going on here.

And there is a lot going on. The Chinati Foundation, which I referenced before, was–at least by some accounts–the thing that put Marfa on the map when Donald Judd purchased an abandoned WWII army base in the early ’70s, then snapped up many other buildings in town to house a personal residence and other ventures for himself and his contemporaries. Art lovers and art makers have come to Marfa from all over the country to study and work at Chinati, and scores of tourists make at least one pilgrimage to Marfa to see “art in context,” which includes giant concrete boxes in a field, 100 aluminum boxes installed in two artillery buildings, and a six-building fluorescent light masterpiece by Dan Flavin, among others. (Ok, this is where I stop pretending I really understood the art–but I can tell you it was really, really cool, no matter whether you “get it” or not). Despite some disses on Trip Advisor that claimed Chinati was run by humorless hipsters, I found everyone I encountered at Chinati to be knowledgeable, friendly and warm (and I am the epitome of tragically unhip).

This series of concrete boxes was the first work installed by Donald Judd, and is accessible to the public at no charge (unlike the other installations, which we were not permitted to photograph).

This series of concrete boxes was the first work installed by Donald Judd, and is accessible to the public at no charge (unlike the other installations, which we were not permitted to photograph).

There’s also an interesting foodie culture going on in Marfa. When I arrived late in the day on Tuesday, I was famished and, with my hostess not yet home from work to make a recommendation, I struck out in search of dinner. One challenge in Marfa is that many things are not open except on the weekend–which itself is tragic, as I really, really wanted to experience The Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour, which is only open Friday and Saturday nights. I did, however, find Cochineal, a hidden gem (truly hidden–there is barely a sign out front) where they grow their own vegetables on site and I had an incredible meal that would rival any restaurant in New York, Boston, Portland. I laughed out loud when asked whether I had a reservation–seriously? There are ten people in this town!–and was shocked to learn I would not be able to get a table since I didn’t (fortunately I was there early enough to get a seat at the bar, where, as it turns out, the roommate of my Airbnb hostess waited on me (and mixed a mean drink!), For breakfast, I found another incredible place–Squeeze Marfa–also tucked into an alley with only a tiny sign on their fence to alert anyone of their existence. (Incidentally, Squeeze served the best cup of coffee I’ve had in weeks…one observation about the South is that they are not big on strong coffee. Squeeze is run by a Swiss woman who makes European style coffee–hooray!)

I mentioned Airbnb earlier–I think this is a great way to stay in a place like Marfa, with someone who lives there and can give you an insider’s glimpse of what Marfa is all about. Katie, my hostess, is an East Coast transplant who holds several jobs (which, she tells me, is the norm for Marfans), including her “pay the bills” gig as a blogger/ghostwriter for someone in New York; she also bakes bread for Future Shark, part of the Marfa Food Shark “empire” (that also includes a popular food truck and the aforementioned grilled cheese place). She’s been in Marfa two years; her roommate Chris has been there six. It seems like a young town–the population is just under 2,000–with many transplants who wanted a more relaxed pace of life. While I can imagine it’s not exactly an easy life (the closest city of any size is El Paso, which is about three hours away), I can see the appeal. It’s a charming, if rough around the edges, place with a vibe that is unlike anything I’ve experienced. I can see myself going back there again…on a weekend (I really want that grilled cheese!

A random art installation along the side of Route 90 just outside town.

A random art installation along the side of Route 90 just outside town.

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I saw this blimp flying overhead on Wednesday; today as I was leaving town I saw it tethered in a field, at what is apparently an Air Force installation of some sort.

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The infamous Prada Marfa…this is on the side of Route 90 about 35 miles outside of town, in the middle of nowhere. It was installed in 2005 by Elmgreen and Dragset as a statement about consumerism (or so they say). There are real Prada purses and shoes inside, provided by Miuccia Prada herself. Seriously.

 

 

A whole other country

When I crossed the border from Arkansas to Texas several days ago, I received a gorgeous map and visitors’ guide. The title of both? “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.” I chuckled to myself, and instantly knew I was going to like a place that had a bit of humor, as well as pride, about how different it is than the rest of the U.S.

First of all, Texas is huge. While I knew this in my head, I had no appreciation for how massive it truly is until I started driving across. It has taken me two full days of driving (I’m talking more than 8 hours of the car actually moving each day, not including rest and meal stops) and I’m not even at the western border of the state. In that time (which, fortunately, has been broken up by extended stops in Austin and Marfa), I feel like I’ve seen more changes in landscape than in the previous 2+ weeks of driving combined. From lush green trees and fields of corn, to rolling hills covered in live oak and vineyards, to the cityscape of Austin to mountains and desert plains, Texas truly does have a little bit of everything–and I realize I’ve only seen a little bit of it, despite over a thousand miles of driving when all is said and done.

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Texas has gorgeous wildflowers growing everywhere! I’m told it’s the end of the wildflower season..can’t imagine what it must have looked like at peak!

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The arid desert area in the western part of the state is dotted with ranches and not much else.

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No matter the size of the ranch, many of them have beautiful, well-maintained gates at their entrance.

 

The people in Texas I have met have been extraordinarily friendly. Even the highway signs ask travelers to “Drive friendly.” There’s an easy charm here that makes me feel like I’m with old friends, wherever I go. As a solo traveler, I find this aspect of Texas particularly appealing.

My two Texas stops–Austin and Marfa–couldn’t be more different, aside from their residents’ pride in being different. “Keep Austin Weird” is a familiar slogan around the booming capital city, which has a much different, more lively feel than many state capitals I’ve seen. I loved the proliferation of food trucks everywhere, serving every kind of food you can imagine–from tacos to frozen hot chocolate to pad thai, and everything in between–as well as the colorful, funky shops and live music venues lining the streets. Austin is alive in every sense of the word. I also loved that, despite everything it has to offer, one of the top tourist attractions is to watch a million bats fly out from under a downtown bridge each night at sunset.

Hundreds of locals and tourists alike flock to the banks of the river at dusk to see over one million bats depart for their nightly insect hunting. It's a sight that is beautiful beyond explanation.

Hundreds of locals and tourists alike flock to the banks of the river at dusk to see over one million bats depart for their nightly insect hunting. It’s a sight that is beautiful beyond explanation.

If Austin is weird, Marfa is just plain odd. A dusty little west Texas town, Marfa appears on the surface to be largely abandoned. Few of the intersections even have stop signs, because there’s little traffic at any given time. And yet, Marfa is humming with life just below the surface. The people who live here–fewer than 2,000 of them–have come from many different places to enjoy a quieter, quirkier pace of life. There are gourmet restaurants hidden in alleyways and on food trucks, and a world-class art installation that put Marfa back on the map near the turn of the 21st century, after the loss of its military base and drought threatened to wipe out the little town altogether. It’s a place famous for mysterious lights that dance on the horizon just outside of downtown (which I’m going to check out for myself very shortly) that no one tries too hard to explain, because what would be the fun of that?

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One of the great, and surprising, food finds in Marfa is Squeeze, a little cafe with a Swiss flair, which serves breakfast and lunch. The food and ambiance were fabulous!

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One of artist Donald Judd’s art installations on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation, which was once a World War II army barracks in Marfa.

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While I’m looking forward to seeing what New Mexico has to offer, I’ve enjoyed my time in Texas and have a feeling it’s not my last visit.