HAVE LAPTOP, WILL TRAVEL
A Cross-Country Odyssey
By Galia Berry ©1997, All Rights Reserved
Laden to the gills, we are in the car, on our way to Summer Adventure. As the family's unofficial travel agent, I've planned this year's camping trip to the Colorado Rockies. It's a thirty-hour, eighteen hundred mile drive from Baltimore.
My husband is afraid of heights.
I get carsick if I ride more than five miles.
My sixteen-year old daughter, who excels in hogging the bathroom, does not yet know that we are going to a campground with pit toilets and no showers. She so dreads this trip, that she's taking a book of Psalms, and a collection of "Quotable Quotes" that sounds like Readers Digest meets the Book of Proverbs, from which she spouts whenever the occasion arises. ("No man is ever that wealthy that he can afford the luxury of feeling sorry for himself.")
My ten-year-old daughter is interested only in shopping. If there's a mall at fourteen thousand feet, she'll find it. She is concerned that if we can't get to a Laundromat, she may have to wear clothes that aren't color-coordinated.
My fourteen-year-old son is excited about the trip - - because of the CD-Roms we've included with the laptop.
My eighteen-year-old son has decided he'll have more fun working at a camp for kids that have cancer. While I am very proud of his unselfish spirit, it speaks volumes that kids with a terminal illness are going to be more fun than our family vacation to the Rockies.
The only one who looks hopeful is the dog . . . and he's going to a kennel.
I've spent so much energy planning the long drive, I haven't given much thought to what we'll do once we get there. I've got enough junk food to keep our dentist employed for years. Each kid has his own Walkman and assorted tapes. I've been scouring used bookstores for weeks, stocking up on reading material. Anxiety turning to panic, I realize things have spun out of control when I buy a book on Dollar Bill Origami. ("One of life's paradoxes is that almost everyone wants to improve his circumstances, but hardly anyone wants to improve himself.")
My ten-year-old daughter scans the car. "Yippee!!" she shouts with glee. "This is going to be the best vacation ever!" But before I can sit on my laurels, dreaming of kids discovering nature, scaling new heights, and becoming a closer family unit, she adds, ". . .With all the junk food, tapes and computer games, I'll never be bored!"
What was I thinking??? ("In the great bath of life, try not to slip on the soap.")
My husband rolls his eyes when I present the credit card receipts from my pre-trip shopping expeditions. At this rate our "budget vacation" could have taken us to Fiji. And it will cost more per night to board the pooch than it will to sleep our family of five at the campground.
We leave home and go onto the Baltimore Beltway. I ask my husband, "So, which way are we going to go to Colorado?" I had gotten a map from Triple A, with two different possible routes mapped out.
"Oh, I haven't thought about it," he says. "Which way do you prefer to go?"
"Hmmm . . . I don't really know. You choose."
"No," he says, "you choose."
We have just begun an eighteen-hundred mile journey to Colorado, and we have no idea how we're getting there. This is not a good sign.
First mistake: we decide to treat the kids to Slurpees as we leave home.
We stop at every gas station and rest stop the first hundred miles out of Baltimore as cries of "I need to use the bathroom!" resound every five minutes. ("Dig the well before you are thirsty.")
And I am carsick.
Somehow, we finally gain momentum. In fact, it becomes some sort of sick compulsion to see how many miles we can cover without stopping. Other than the usual breakfast, lunch and bathroom stops, the only break we take is in Rock Island, Illinois, where my grandparents are buried.
I've always wanted to see the town where my father grew up. I have faint memories of his stories of a good life, albeit a life lived in poverty. I look for the street where the old clapboard sat . . . and find it demolished to make way for a freeway. I try to find the old shul where my grandfather prayed. It's now part liquor store, part boarded up. We are clearly in the "bad" part of town. Not that it was ever the "good" side of town - - - but in the 1920s and 30s, there was a big difference between "poor" and "bad."
Nothing of the life my father once knew remains. The only constant is the cemetery, where inscriptions on my grandparents' tombstones testify so briefly to the life they once lived, now forever lost.
We finally turn in for the night… twenty three hours and eleven hundred miles later. We are somewhere in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. The town is not important - - no matter where you are in Iowa, you are in the middle, or edge, of a cornfield. We pass two roadside cafes: The Cornstalk Restaurant and The Feed Lot. Obviously, corn is serious business here in Iowa.
The kids are wide awake - - they have been sleeping in the car as a defense against boredom. My husband and I are zonked. And in no mood for "quality time as a family unit."
It's amazing how restorative a good night's sleep can be. I arise early - - it seems like an Iowa thing to do - - and decide to go for a "power walk" along the main street of Adair, Iowa, population 700. The first mistake is taking pepper spray along. Never has such a small canister felt so heavy and superfluous. There is a single police car for the town, but the law enforcement officer spends most of his time cruising the two roadside motels, suspicious of travelers from the "outside." His patrol car has a bumper sticker noting that it is fueled by ethanol - - a fuel made of - - what else? - - corn.
The second mistake is going on a "power walk." People in Adair stroll: exercise is for the cornfields, and it's not exercise, it's good old-fashioned hard work. I feel ridiculous and slow my pace.
The men all drive pickup trucks (if there is a Japanese car somewhere in Adair, I haven't found it.) Every one of them wear baseball caps, but there are no major league team logos: seed and tractor companies are the only embroidery. The old-timers wear suspenders. The women are all blonde. Everyone waves as they pass. And in Adair ("The Town That Makes You Smile"), the silos and water towers are all painted bright yellow and sport giant, twenty-foot high smiley faces. There are six churches, three of which are Lutheran.
I pass a well-ventilated trailer filled with pigs, in that transitory state between farm and slaughterhouse. They crowd together noisily, squealing, snorting, stinking: frankly, they only look like so much bacon. The trailer is parked next to a warehouse full of hot tubs of recent manufacture. It seems risque, somehow, to think of hot tubs in Adair, Iowa. Is that what Iowans do when they are done farming in their cornfields, praying in their churches, strolling along Main Street? Visions of soaking Iowans disturb my conscience. "Hiya, wanna come for a soak in our tub tonight?" It just doesn't work.
There is no racial turmoil in Adair, probably because the only race in evidence is white. Tractors are parked casually alongside the family car in front driveways. Bicycles of all sizes adorn front lawns; none are locked. Little kids in swimsuits scurry with towels wrapped across their necks to the town park, for an afternoon spent with friends amongst the sprinklers.
This is the kind of town you'd like to spend the Fourth of July in.
I pass the town library, which is across from the Adair News, a sad, worn building of pale brick and peeling paint. The display window features pictures from the Adair High School class of '36, '58, and '83. The students have names like Dale, Tommy Lee, Betty Jo, and Helen. It is seven a.m. There is not a single car parked along the ten-store business district, a brick-paved block which begs for Opie and Andy Griffith and Aunt Bea to be among those waving hello. I am taken back to the 1950s, and am waiting for the soundtrack from "Twilight Zone" to start playing in my head.
I buy a cookbook from a gas station (another Iowa quirk: the amazing hodgepodge of items for sale in gas stations). It is a collection of recipes from the ladies of the Methodist Church in Guernsey, Iowa, celebrating the town's centennial (1884 - 1984). The handful of salad recipes all have Jello in them. Cookies, cakes and pies take up the first 177 pages. The section on main dishes takes up twenty, and ten of those pages are casseroles (i.e. "Tater Tot" and "Wienie Beanie" casseroles - - and all of them use cream of mushroom soup). Another plus: it's filled with all kinds of inspirational quotes, so my older daughter will have plenty of food for thought.
There is nothing to do here but tat (lots of lace curtains flutter in windows) and putter and stroll and wave hi.
I love Iowa.
As we continue down Interstate 80 on our way out of Iowa, my husband notices a sign announcing the approach of the town of Wiota. "Hey," he chirps, "isn't that the name of that Country Western star?"
"You mean Winona…"
"Yeah, that's it!" he interrupts, "Winona - - what was her last name, again? - - Winona Jugs!" he concludes, immensely pleased with himself.
I give him a quick jab in the ribs, my jowls dissolving into a mock scowl. "I think you mean Winona Judd. That's J-u-d-d."
"Oh, right…" he blushes, looking sheepish.
We reach the turnoff for Wiota. All I can picture are… jugs. Wiota , Iowa will never be innocuous again.
Nebraska announces itself ("The Good Life"). Brochures at the Welcome Center rest-stop claim Buffalo Bill as its most famous citizen, but it occurs to me that Johnny Carson is a Nebraskan, too. Nebraska is similar to Iowa: cornfields. They are green and pretty, though, and I wonder why so many pioneers were compelled to travel along the Platte River, on through the Oregon Trail - - it seems plenty roomy and fertile right here in Nebraska. The road is perfectly level and straight, for miles and miles and miles - - just cornfields. Nebraska is also one of the largest producers of beef; although I don't see cows, the air smells faintly of cow manure, the aroma giving hint to the legacy of Omaha slaughterhouses.
Hours and hours of travel along the still-straight highway amidst the cornfields finally yield an answer as to why the pioneers risked hunger, cold, disease, and Indian attacks to settle new territories in Oregon and the West: at least it was more interesting than Nebraska. When entering into casual conversation with Nebraskans, they all eventually ask, "Where ya heading?" This is because no one actually stays in Nebraska; it is merely a state you pass through on your way to somewhere - - anywhere - - else. Nebraskans recognize this and facilitate this process by making the speed limit 75 mph on the highways.
As we near the Colorado border, the landscape changes. Now windswept grazing land, supporting many head of cattle, dominates the huge open spaces. My children play the aptly named "Hold Your Nose When You See A Cow" game, but soon there are so many cattle, that they are not only holding their nose, they are no longer breathing. They switch to Twenty Questions.
Once we hit the Colorado ranchlands, the people change. The pickup trucks have seen hard, rough use. The men are lanky, lean, tight. They wear dusty cowboy boots and cowboy hats soiled and stained with sweat and grime. They don't say much at all, certainly not the homey, friendly hiyas and waves experienced in Iowa. But they look too used up, and certainly nowhere near glamorous enough, to qualify as strong, silent poster boys for Marlboro cigarette billboards.
We reach Boulder at nightfall, having departed Baltimore fifty hours beforehand (counting the overnight stop in Iowa). We spend the next long hour looking for a motel, none of which have vacancies. We proceed cautiously, as the town is filled with University of Colorado students on mountain bikes, helmetless and without a light to make drivers aware of their presence in the blackness. Finally we locate the Silver Saddle Motel, which is supposedly in the mountains about six blocks from downtown Boulder. It's dumpy and horrendously overpriced, but we are too tired to care. The mattresses are so lumpy, that when I wake up the next morning, I feel like I've spent a full day in the saddle of a horse, and realize the motel is aptly named.
I rise early, and at 6:30 a.m. decide to go for a walk while the air is still cool. I leave the stuffiness of the room and upon opening the door, realize that indeed, the motel is in the mountains. In fact, it is along the Boulder Canyon Trail, an easy walk along a powerful, rushing river. The air is fresh with a delightful breeze; I see three deer who are so used to traffic that they look both ways before crossing the mountain road that runs parallel to the trail.
If granola had a birthplace, it had to be Boulder. Good health and fitness are to Boulderites what corn is to Iowans and Nebraskans. Everyone is thin and muscular with no visible body fat, the result of prodigious mountain biking, jogging, cross country skiing, kayaking, and rock climbing. The men wear ponytails and the women wear tie-dyed t-shirts. But their $100 bike shorts and $900 mountain bikes pronounce this a playground of White Casual Yuppie Intellectual Chic. The car of choice is a Ford Expedition, for those willing to admit they use a car as their primary mode of transportation, instead of using the multitude of bike paths. (It could be that people who pile bikes on bike racks on their cars don't even know how to ride a bike, but feel they need to make a statement. I was unable to confirm this, however.)
Just as my plans for a morning power walk were dashed in Adair, Iowa, here in Boulder, walking seems passe, as jogging rules the road, to be shared only with mountain bikers. Everyone has hard, lean legs; thin, firm arms, tiny waists and washboard stomachs. I feel enormously fat, doughy, and insecure, but I plod along anyway. I expect to see signs: Fat People Need Not Apply. Curiously, between the microbreweries, coffee houses, and health food stores, Boulder has a tremendous concentration of fast food franchises that undoubtedly are enjoyed by the University of Colorado's student population, for whom the invincibility of youth does not play havoc neither with their cholesterol levels nor waistlines (wistful sigh).
I decide to eat a package of M&Ms. ("Swallow your pride. It's not fattening.") I do this because I have just read an article entitled "Ten Reasons To Enjoy Chocolate And Not Feel Guilty." Reason #4 says "Chocolate won't make your face break out." With every M&M, new little patches of cellulite burst forth . . . but it's true, my face has nary a pimple. I eat some more.
Reason #5 states that chocolate has eight percent of the daily value for calcium. And everyone knows what a danger osteoporosis can be for a woman my age. I open a new package of M&Ms.
Reason #7 states that "Chocolate isn't addictive." Yeah, neither are cigarettes.
Reason #8: "Indulging in a food that really satisfies you can boost your diet and exercise resolve." True. I have now walked five miles on the Boulder Creek Trail. So I reward myself with more M&Ms.
Besides, chocolate contains antioxidants. I quickly eat more so I won't get cancer. I feel it is my obligation to play health hardball here in Boulder. ("Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you." - - R.W. Emerson)
I meet up with a ponytailed man in his early fifties, walking his dog along the trail. We have a pleasant chat and I find out that he is a professor of behavioral ecology (could it have been anything else?) at the university. He points out his house - - a magnificent structure costing several hundred thousand dollars - - notched into the mountain peeking through the pines. In the same breath that he speaks of environmental ecology and preservation, he speaks with annoyance of hikers who mistakenly wander onto his property in the woods and invade his privacy. Too, he relates a fight escalating in court, of people who have the gall to want to build a house notched into the mountains not far from his. He bemoans the trees that will be cut down and the potential "crowding" by adding to the number of $700,000 homes (like the professor's) that were there first (and which had to cut down a similar number of trees in order that their houses be built). The irony of his remarks! It appears that anyone living in the mountains sees it as his basic right to do so; anyone who comes after him is an invader and destroyer of mountain ecology.
We spend the day driving to Boulder Falls and a small town called Nederland, which nestles like a jewel in a pocket of mountains at the edge of Barker Dam. I am reminded of a remote Swiss village in a picture postcard.
With only an hour remaining before closing time, we dash off to NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research). Their hands-on exhibits of how tornadoes and storm patterns form manage to interest my kids, but the real reason we're here is so my husband, computer geek par excellence, can pay homage to one of the holy of holies of the computer crowd: the Cray computers. These are some of the fastest, most expensive, and technologically innovative computers in the world, and they sit in full glory behind the thickest of glass so disciples of the Information Age may be privileged with a peek. Alas, as my husband oohs and aahs, to me the boxy machines look like little more than a bunch of overgrown office furniture, and I quietly escape outside to enjoy the expansive view of Boulder's Flatirons mountains.
Our car speaks to us as it climbs the mountains, pop-up camper in tow: "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . . I . . . can't." We sit stranded on the side of the mountain waiting for the car to regain its sense of self-esteem and finally it responds, taking us via Estes Park to Rocky Mountain National Park.
The views in Rocky Mountain National Park are of impressive glacial peaks far above treeline; expansive meadows filled with elephanthead, Indian paintbrush, sagebrush, fairyslipper, and blue columbine wildflowers (Colorado's state flower); and alpine lakes whose still, clear waters reflect a sky that seems impossibly big.
That same big sky translates into a limitless universe with stars so bright that even on a moonless night, a flashlight is unnecessary to illuminate the darkness. After the kids are asleep, we drag our sleeping bag outside and lay it down on a bed of pine needles. We try to take in the constellations blinking back at us; the shooting stars crossing the path of the Milky Way; and an occasional satellite orbiting its way above, probably supplying people all over the world, even Iowans, with things on their television screens they think they can't live without, such as cricket championships from India and game shows in Japanese. It is serene and beautiful and could almost be romantic, but pine needles manage to poke their way through the thickness of the sleeping bag and taunt us with their sharp jabs.
A new day dawns and my youngest daughter dreams of all the shopping possibilities ahead of her. Her disappointment is bitter when she finds out that we are going on a hike to some alpine lakes: Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake. The climb is moderate, but at 10,000 feet, nothing feels moderate and it seems we can't drink enough. The air is so dry that any perspiration from the rigors of the hike evaporates immediately. The sun and glare give hints of future sunburns, but meanwhile the rays warm us deep right through our bones, almost as if someone had given us a full body massage with Ben-Gay.
The campground at Glacier Basin has been designed to cram as many campers as possible into a relatively small amount of space (although admittedly it was even worse in Yosemite Valley when I visited there ten years ago). Visions of camping in the woods quickly backfire. There is probably more space between skyscrapers in New York City than there is between tents at Glacier Basin. Nor can the plumbing keep up with the heavy usage. Sinks and toilets are frequently stopped up, and despite daily cleaning, the bathrooms begin to look grungy only fifteen minutes after park maintenance people have wiped sinks and mopped floors. A park ranger, in an unusually candid moment, quietly releases his frustrations to me in an impassioned and animated conversation. He reveals his dissatisfaction with the federal government's allotment of park funding, noting the tremendous waste and how they will spend only big money for big things, yet totally ignore smaller things that are just as important. He notes the lack of proper campfire rings in about half the campsites, yet repeated requests for the sixty dollar-per-campsite improvements have been ignored.
Since our campground doesn't have shower facilities, we ride into Estes Park in search of public showers. We are horrified to find that showers cost about $2.50 per person. Other campgrounds we've camped at have always included them for free, or for $0.25 for two minutes. Grumbling, we pay the cashier, noting that there is a high price to pay for clean living and living clean.
That night the wind comes up strong, gusting apart our campsite and strewing loose contents everywhere in the dark. We reassemble everything the next morning amid windchill that plunges temperatures from the 60s to about 40 degrees. The forecast is for clear skies, but I question the wisdom of hiking along sheer rock walls under such conditions.
Thankfully the wind proves to be a blessing, as we never really feel the hot sun due to the constant gusts. When we reach Mills Lake at 10,080 feet, we are greeted with such an immense wind that there are whitecaps and spray across the entire lake, and we must steady ourselves lest we be blown away. For a short time the wind dies down. Suddenly, rambunctious teens from a summer camp appear. The boys are full of bravado, undoubtedly trying to impress the girls and each other, and in a fit of capriciousness dare one another to jump in unclothed into the glacier-fed lake. I threaten to take pictures of them if they strip naked and send the photos to their mothers. So they alter their plans and strip only to their shorts (secretly relieved, of course, that they won't have to follow through on their threat and embarrass themselves). Unfortunately for the howling teens who have taken the icy plunge, the wind comes up again in forty-mile gusts. Combined with the forty-degree water temperature, the windchill becomes unbearable and they scramble into the woods (again threatening with their macho bravado - - which is little more than affected teenage insouciance - - to strip and change in front of everyone) and get into dry clothes.
Returning to our campsite, we eat heartily: steak, corn, butter beans, and de rigueur marshmallows, of which I teach my children the art of marshmallow mavenship: toasted lightly browned and crusty on the outside, melted and gooey on the inside. No charred marshmallows here, thank you!
At dusk we circle the campground to check out the other campsites. Thankfully there are a minority of large RVs, but suddenly we hear the roar of a huge engine and a rumbling of tires, and the very ground upon which we walk vibrates like an earthquake registering 3.0 on the Richter scale: a bus-sized monstrosity named Shirley L. Swinger (written in cursive across the back with flashy green paint) pulls up two sites away from us. It rests parallel alongside the road: there is no campsite large enough to accommodate it otherwise. A retired couple (presumably one of them Shirley L., but take it from me, she does not look like a swinger) pull out chairs . . . followed by a microwave antenna dish. It appears that within this campground, there is, indeed, someone interested in Japanese game shows and Indian cricket or whatever it is people must watch on their satellite television sets while camping.
Next to our campsite is a very friendly and sincere yuppie family who are religious Christians (the father wears a baseball cap that says "Promise Keepers" - - but then again, he has three daughters, no sons), and across the way, Native Americans (whose bumper sticker reads "Indian And Proud Of It"). The head of the family has a classic, strong, smooth brown face with high cheekbones, and wears his long white hair pulled back into a ponytail. As dusk turns to evening, he walks off to the woods with his wife and child, each carrying a staff (they refer to it as a bear stick) with some eagle feathers, an owl claw, a deer toe, strip of otter fur and a bell that are attached with rawhide.
It is all I can do to contain my curiosity and refrain from asking them to give me a living history social studies lesson. (Isn't it amazing how cultural sensitivity can alter a person's consciousness? When carried by an Indian, the bear stick becomes an object of fascination. If the bear stick had been carried by a white guy, my immediate reaction would have been, "Gross! That guy is carrying a stick full of body parts!)
I am tempted to do a religious show-and-tell: you show me yours, I'll show you mine - - for my husband's morning ritual donning of tefillin (phylacteries) must look as unusual in their eyes as their practices do to us. It is comforting and wonderful to know that we are surrounded by spiritual people who worship and appreciate the Creator amidst the magnificence of His works, deep within the pine groves of this campground, each in his own special way. The Indian woman lulls us to sleep as she beats a small drum softly to recorded music of Indian flutes and chants. The sound of the drum reminds me of a fetal heartbeat.
And speaking of the Creator: it certainly makes me wonder how anyone in this world can be an atheist, especially after a visit along Trail Ridge Road to the tundra. What an amazing ecosystem! Way up above treeline, summertime in the tundra lasts only six weeks. In that short time, flowers must bloom and be pollinated, and the pikas (rodents with rabbit-like ears) must gather a supply of grasses to last them the other forty-six harsh weeks of the year. The miniscule flowers that grow so close to the ground (one species can actually blossom two feet under the snow!) may bloom only once in ten years. There are many examples of jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit so perfectly to form a larger picture, that randomness is an impossibility; this could only be the work of a Divine Designer.
The elk on the tundra graze contentedly, as does a marmot furtively swiping dropped crumbs from tourists' picnic lunches on an escarpment above its head. There is not much skill in spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park: simply drive along its well-paved and traversed roads, and be on the lookout for a car parked along the pavement. That is a sign that a tourist has spotted a mammal of some sort or the other and it behooves you to stop and see just which animal it is that has caught their attention ("Ooh, ooh! Up ahead! A stopped car! Slow down! Let's see what animal is there!").
The search for wildlife and the game of parked automobiles grows comical when I stop the car to photograph some miniscule wildflowers with my macro lens. Several cars slow down to see just what animal it is I might be photographing, down there in the meadowgrass on my belly. My children, by now tired of my endless stops along the road to take pictures of things they feel are irrelevant (okay, maybe I went too far when I took a picture of Shirley Swinger the RV), laugh mischievously at this new game: let's see how many cars we can fool into stopping. So whenever a car approaches, they nonchalantly point at their mother who is down on all fours fifty feet away in the meadow with a ridiculous amount of camera equipment, and with serious looks on their faces, affect an attitude of remarkable discovery. A few people even stop and get out of their cars, so great is their curiosity for the reason for my intensity. I am oblivious to their presence, of course, since I am worrying about light, composition, and focusing. Driver after driver stops, scanning the concentrated area in which I commune with nature; not finding anything and sure they've missed something important, they trudge back to their cars, looking downcast and puzzled. The kids elbow each other in the ribs and chuckle uproariously as, unfulfilled, the cars drive on.
Which is not to say we haven't seen our own share of wildlife, and I'm not talking about the folks back in Boulder, either. We've managed to see herds of elk, deer, a family of marmots, a grouse and her four chicks, migratory hummingbirds, chipmunks that literally climbed all over us begging for handouts, a coyote, and a weasel. Actually, we've seen even more animals, but those were road kill. And we decided that we'd only count live animals, so the raccoons and skunks that lay bloated and bloody and smashed aren't registered on our list.
Several hiking miles and waterfalls later (Copeland Falls, Calypso Falls, and Ouzel Falls), our week at Rocky Mountain National Park draws to an end.
The biggest challenge yet awaits us: packing up the camper and car so we can hit the road again. It is an overwhelming task, so much so that folks at a neighboring campsite come over and take a picture of the tumult. ("An organized person is one who is too lazy to look for things.")
That seems to provoke interest, and soon our Christian friends next door stop by to wish us well and also take a picture of us for their scrapbook (I insist, however, that they use trees for a background, instead of the mounds of food, supplies, clothes, dirty laundry, pots and pans, backpacks and dusty footwear that await stowing in the camper). They are followed by the Indian woman whose curiosity gets the best of her as she confesses that this entire week she's been dying to ask us about our religious customs (so my earlier fantasy of spiritual show-and-tell was not so far off, after all!).
Now emboldened, I ask her a litany of questions about her own customs, and get more than I bargained for. She unburdens herself to me about the many problems facing her people, from the high alcoholism rates and dependence on welfare, to the extreme distrust and racism accorded half-breed Indians by their full-blooded Indian brethren.
I become half amused, and mildly self conscious, when I realize that here in Colorado, it is we, as visibly Orthodox Jews (the females in our skirts and long sleeves, and me with my hair covered in a scarf; my son and husband with their yarmulkes and tzitzis, the ritual fringes that stick out from under their shirts) who are the tokens: a novel idea for us, living so sheltered in our own little ghetto of fellow Orthodox Jews back in Baltimore. Several times a day, whether miles into a hiking trail or at the campsite or in town, people approach us and sincerely wish us a hearty and friendly "Shalom!" We smile and nod in acknowledgement but can't help but wonder if they wouldn't be disappointed to find out that we don't have funny accents and that my son knows all the batting averages of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Baltimore Orioles.
We head back to Boulder where we'll spend the weekend before moving on to the next campsite at Maroon Bells near Aspen. My kids are fascinated by Boulder and its colorful inhabitants, and the overall funkiness, so different than stick-in-the-mud Baltimore.
My fourteen-year-old son has somehow grown two inches and gained ten pounds in the last week; whatever clothes didn't become ridden with holes at the knees are tight and uncomfortable and a shopping expedition becomes the day's number one priority. As we make our way through Boulder's largest mall, we stop at a store sporting a sign announcing that "In Honor Of Alien Appreciation Week," all science fiction merchandise will be on sale. In Boulder, UFOs are right up there with granola and mountain bikes in importance. I'm sure that the aliens visiting Boulder are all lean and fit, too.
Earlier in the week, my son bought a souvenir t-shirt in the tourist mecca of Estes Park: "The Road Kill Café: You Kill'Em, We Grill ‘Em (Menu Changes Daily)." Here in tofu-loving Boulder, my son gets hostile stares from people reading the message on his chest when he wears the shirt to the mall. My younger daughter the shopper was disappointed when I refused to pay the rip-off prices for more souvenirs in Estes Park. While at the mall at the Target, I spot a $4.00 love-and-peace t-shirt in psychedelic colors with "Colorado" written on it, commemorating our trip. It is hard to say who is more excited: my daughter, because of the acquisition of a souvenir, or me, because the bargain price makes me feel like I've outsmarted the tourist-trap trade.
On the one hand, I love Boulder. I like the energy of its college youth, its gorgeous views, its proximity to recreational venues, its perfect weather. Yet a more intimate look reveals that its political correctness and environmental awareness are in fact excuses, intentional or not, for economic exclusivity that inhibits the touchy-feely diversity that liberal Boulderites are so ideologically proud of (yet rarely realize in actuality).
As the city promotes its greenbelt laws, buying up any and all surrounding property so that the views aren't spoiled and they don't meld into the next suburb, its limitations on new construction create artificially high real estate values that exclude all but the well-to-do. Greenbelt funding comes from a sales tax that extends even to food, and is the highest in the State of Colorado, further limiting those with lower incomes from living in Boulder.
A recent newspaper article (written by a white woman) waxed poetic and positively about the history of the tiny African-American community in Boulder and reeked frankly of a patronizing tone of tokenism. In fact, Boulder has almost no blacks, and an African-American walking down the street in Boulder will be greeted with stares: not hostile, but stares from people who consider them as curiosities. You will not find any similar sugary articles about Hispanics or their historical presence in Boulder: as an ethnic minority with an increasing presence, they bear the brunt of blame from Boulderites for whatever crime, violence, and deterioration in the school system exists. They are distrusted and disliked, yet are responsible for keeping Boulderites' lawns neatly trimmed and their houses clean and dusted.
Although I am extremely disappointed that time doesn't allow us a tour of the Celestial Seasonings Herbal Tea factory (Wild Berry Zinger, Lemon Zinger, and Raspberry Zinger are all favorites of mine), we are filled with anticipation about the week ahead of us. We are travelling to the Maroon Bells just outside of Aspen, an extremely popular destination and one that required my reserving a campsite several months ago.
The drive to the Maroon Bells is long but amazing. A huge tunnel that cuts right through the mountain, known as Eisenhower Tunnel, helps us cross the Continental Divide, all the more astonishing when you realize you're crossing underneath it. All along the side of the road are rickety gold mines notched into the mountains; they're either abandoned or in various stages of decay or disrepair. We drive through several little towns with Victorian gingerbread houses and storefronts and log cabins that look like a Hollywood set - - only this is the real thing, the Wild West and Gold Rush country. The names of the towns reflect the high concentration of minerals, and the importance of mining to the area: Gypsum, Carbondale, Basalt, Leadville. We stop in one of the towns to pick up some groceries; the drug store next door is called "Bargain Drug and Gun." Curiosity aroused, I enter the drug store, and sure enough, in between the pharmacy, cosmetics, and shampoo are rifles, shotguns, and handguns of all calibers.
What better way to know the pulse of a town than to read its newspapers? I pick up several local rags: The Bargain Hunter's Shopper, Western Slope Wheels & Deals (both free), and the Aspen Times Weekend Edition. Wheels & Deals is selling mostly ancient pickup trucks, but they're not being sold as classic cars: a '59 Ford pickup for $2,500 or best offer; a '50 Chevy 3600 Flatbed for $3,500; a '51 M37 Dodge WC, supposedly with only 22,000 miles, for $4,250. There's also a 1950 Lincoln Continental "in excellent condition," but that goes for a whopping $8,500.
The Bargain Hunter's Shopper has equally intriguing ads: a sixteen-foot teepee with poles and liner for $1,200; and "four pairs handcuffs, two belly chains, two handcuff belts, and two pair of leg shackles." Unfortunately, the price isn't listed, so I'll never know if it was a true bargain. But my imagination lets me believe the seller is a retired six-gun sheriff (or perhaps, as my husband suggests - - bursting my bubble - - a reformed sado-masochist).
Both these papers are published in small mining towns, so perhaps that explains the completely different ambiance of the Aspen Times. Here, real estate ads feature homes that average two to five million dollars. The society page details the "high tea and bridal party" of the children, tanned and smiling, of Aspen's jet-setting Old Money and New Money crowds; along with a book-signing party for "The Spa Life at Home," which gives readers a photographic peek at the personal health and fitness rooms found in various Aspen mansions, and which features the Aspenite homeowners as the models. The vehicle ads have two Porsches for sale, and a Ducati motorcycle for $14,000. An article bemoans the lack of affordable housing for resort employees, suggesting that employers come up with subsidized housing or build dormitories to house the myriad numbers of college kids and Mexican-Americans who serve those who can afford all that Aspen provides (including the nine dollar hamburger-and-milkshake at local cafes and the fifty-nine-dollar-per-day ski-lift tickets).
Arguably the nicest thing about Aspen is the Maroon Bells. These two rugged, snow-capped, fourteen-thousand-foot-high mountains (and neighboring Pyramid Peak) are the background for Maroon Lake (which acts as a reflecting pool for the peaks in morning light) and surrounding meadowland which are bursting with wildflowers of every color in the summer. It not only qualifies as one of Colorado's most beautiful landscapes; it is one of the most awe-inspiring panoramas in the entire United States, regardless of the season.
But such beauty is not without a price, both literally and figuratively, especially when it is situated only fifteen minutes from downtown Aspen. Trail usage is extremely heavy, and traffic has become such a burden that the road to Maroon Bells is now closed between the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to all vehicles during the summer season - - except for a pricey shuttle ($5.00 per adult) that runs every half hour during the summer from downtown.
Camping at the Maroon Bells is an unforgettable experience, but not a spontaneous one. Two years ago, a dramatic and very scary avalanche hurled tons and tons of boulders down the mountain, along with everything else in its path. The slide ended at the foot of the Maroon Lake campground, missing a camper's tent only by inches (miraculously, no one was injured).
Due to the instability of the mountain, the National Forest Service deemed it unwise to rebuild the forty-four buried sites at the campground, since they couldn't guarantee the safety of future campers nor assume that a similar slide wouldn't reoccur. The loss of forty-four sites at such a popular location was significant, since only three other campsites exist on the road up to the Maroon Bells: Silver Bar, which has four sites and is for tents only; Silver Bell, whose four sites can accommodate tents or small RVs, and Silver Queen, which has six sites. With a total of only fourteen sites, they are snapped up quickly and require reservations for the summer season months in advance.
All my life I've been a spontaneous person. At least, that's what I'd like my friends and family to believe. The real truth is that I'm just horribly disorganized. ("There's nothing wrong with planning ahead. The problem begins when you plan without a head.") If I do something on the spur of the moment, it's because, had I made similar plans in advance, one more as-yet-unfinished project would have beckoned, and all hopes of actually going wherever would be necessarily dashed (this can be anything from scrubbing the tile grout in the shower, which three years later, I'm still trying to start, to sewing costumes for the kids, which if I finish them at all, it is so many years later, that they no longer fit).
So it was not without trepidation that I made the reservation, no, the commitment, several months in advance, to make it all the way to Colorado from Baltimore and be at Maroon Bells at a certain day and date come hell or high water, when the very idea of a trip to Colorado was an insane fantasy born in a moment of weakness (Calgon, take me away!).
Besides, at only ten dollars per night, the price of commitment seemed doable. I was sure I'd have a mutiny on my hands when the kids found out they'd be using pit toilets for an entire week. ("Everything you say has to be true, but not everything that's true, you have to say.") Not only was there no mirror in the bathroom (the Forest Service figures, correctly, that one doesn't exactly want to hang around the bathroom when it's pit toilets we're talking about), there wasn't even running water (the nearest water was at a pump at the next campground, a third of a mile away). Maroon Creek, a roaring brook fed by snowmelt, ran alongside our campsite. Although its waters were crystal clear, giardia (a nasty parasite causing intestinal distress) is a known contaminant found in Colorado's mountain water, and all water must be specially treated and filtered.
But as we entered the campground, an almost mystical force engulfed the children. It didn't hurt that the campground host told the kids that a bear had been seen only the week before, and that raccoons could be a nuisance, so they should be careful about leaving food exposed ("Cool!"). But the jagged orange-red rock walls (due to the high iron content) that towered above us on both sides, the music of Maroon Creek, and the sight of snowy Maroon Bells in the distance cast its spell. The campsite next to ours was so far away, it wasn't even within sight. Humbled by the magnitude of our surroundings, I knew things would be okay when, after surveying the site, the kids shared their feelings with us:
"We're hungry! When will dinner be ready?"
And when my teenaged daughter declared the pit toilets "not so bad after all," my eyes looked heavenward and I whispered a prayer of thanks to The One Above (and just to be on the safe side, I also blessed the Forest Service for keeping the pit toilets clean). An additional bonus: campers at the fourteen sites can access the otherwise closed road to the Maroon Bells with their vehicles at any time of day, or they can ride the shuttle - - for free.
The next day we decide to hike from the base of Maroon Lake up to Crater Lake. Photocopied trail guides from the U.S. Forest Service have warned that this trail gets EXTREMELY HEAVY USE and is one of the MOST HEAVILY USED TRAILS in Colorado (they are big into capitalizing for dramatic effect). We decide to beat the busloads and get to the trailhead at 7:30 a.m.
"All right! Everyone up!" That's me, sounding like a cross between Maria in "The Sound of Music" and an army drill sergeant. "We've got to get to the Maroon Bells trailhead before everyone else does!" ("Footprints in the sands of time were not made sitting down.")
"Mumble." "Snore." "Grumble." Silence. (That's my family, and it doesn't get more energetic than this.)
Amid cries of "But it's vacation! Why do I have to get up early?" and "I hate hiking! I hate camping! I want to go shopping!" we manage to make it to the trailhead an hour late, but still before the first busload disgorges its passengers.
There are two ways to Crater Lake from Maroon Lake. Although the trail map is unclear, there are carved wood signs with arrows pointing the way. I opt for the "Scenic Trail" on the way up, since it is less crowded than the "Maroon Creek Trail," which is supposedly not as steep.
After about ten minutes, the trail markings are non-existent. But we see a line of dirt that can pass for a trail. ("I see a trail!" becomes my son's trademark cry that afternoon. It's amazing what your mind lets you believe when you're desperate.) It dawns on us that considering we are on a trail that is one of the MOST HEAVILY USED TRAILS IN COLORADO, it is odd that we haven't seen another human being since the first five minutes into the hike. We keep trudging along, climbing higher and higher.
"Isn't this such an adventure?" I gush. Cold stares greet me. ("Be a person that when your child thinks of kindness, caring and integrity, they think of you.") "
Doesn't all this hiking and climbing just energize
your whole system?" Four wan, exhausted faces, all breathing laboriously
(the air is thin at 10,000 feet), look at me in disbelief and simultaneously
collapse to the ground. A mutiny is in the making, so I start talking about
my plans for tomorrow:
"Won't it be great to just sleep in late tomorrow morning?"
They are unmoved and unmoving. I threaten to yodel. They stir slightly. I break into a boisterous version of "Climb Every Mountain." They promise to continue walking, if only I'll stop singing.
We are 2,000 hard-won feet above where we started, on a high ridge of aspen and pine and boulders. Although we are in "ONE OF THE MOST HEAVILY USED AREAS OF COLORADO," because we took an "alternative" route (translation: we are lost), we are completely alone. Surrounding us on three sides are gigantic mountains; a valley lush with meadowland; wildflowers; and alpine Maroon Lake, far, far below. If there's any time to actualize a Maria/Sound of Music fantasy, this is it. So I belt out "Climb Every Mountain" anyway, and even throw in a yodel or two.
"C'mon, kids!" I say, in my most chipper Maria-like lilting voice. (Confession: I am tone deaf, and I never sing in the presence of others.) "Doh, a dear, a fe-male deer…"
The kids walk much faster, albeit in the opposite direction from me.
"Aw, don't be embarrassed, kids! We are lost, for Heaven's sakes! There's no one around for miles! No one can hear me singing!" (Life is like a shower - - one wrong turn and you're in hot water.")
Finally we reach Crater Lake. What should have been a two hour hike has become a five hour march. The movie "Bridge Over the River Kwai" comes to mind.
We sit down in a heap and rest our weary limbs. The emerald green water is still and reflects a verdant mountainside. Only a few people (the smart-alecks who took the Maroon Creek Trail and who aren't directionally challenged) lull about. My children go exploring around the lakefront, and come running back to me.
"Guess what, Mommy? We overheard the people sitting over there talking. Guess what they were saying? They were laughing about some crazy lady they heard singing "Climb Every Mountain" and yodeling!"
I shrink into the ground and look up sheepishly. Gathering my dignity I say, "Isn't it amazing how good the acoustics are in the mountains?" and, gathering my backpack, slink as unobtrusively as possible out of the glen.
This is what my ten-year-old daughter writes to her best friend on a postcard the next day:
"Yesterday my family got lost and went bushwacking. Ask your parents what bushwacking means."
On the way back, about a mile from the car, we hear a clap of thunder. Clouds move in ominously, and the temperature drops. Within two hours, it goes from eighty degrees to thirty-five.
"Isn't this invigorating?" I say enthusiastically, upon return to our campground. I am barbecuing under the boughs of a pine tree in the rain while the kids huddle under down comforters inside the camper. If dirty looks could kill, my teenaged daughter would be a murderer. ("Dispel inner violence with silence.")
The next day my husband and I go for a scenic drive. The kids are allowed to sleep in as promised. I'm not convinced that they're really sleeping, but at this point in time, yesterday's memories are painfully fresh. When they hear me approach their sleeping bags, they quickly go into a theatric snore and bury deeper under their pillows. I get the hint.
We venture into the charming town of Basalt, and proceed in the direction of the Ruedi Reservoir. All along the way we follow the Frying Pan River. Known for its trout, we see fly fishermen who look like they are straight out of an Eddie Bauer or L.L.Bean catalog elegantly casting their lines into the clear, swift water.
Unfortunately we hit a rut in the road and are soon grounded, as the pop-up trailer gets a flat tire. After changing it for the spare, we head back into the town of Basalt to get a replacement at Big O Tires.
"Oh, that's no problem!" says the young man at Big O, "I'll just hammer out the rim." After reinflating the tire and doing a dunk test, he declares it ready to roll. We ask him how much we owe for the repair. "Oh, that's okay - - it's on the house. It was really nothing." (The difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is the little extra.") So now a word from a satisfied customer: BUY YOUR TIRES FROM BIG O IN BASALT, COLORADO.
We pass through a hamlet known as Thomasville. There are maybe five structures in Thomasville; the most significant is a saloon and motel that has a real cowboy sitting (creating cowboy poetry, perhaps?) on the second floor veranda. There is a tiny church, which has an important-looking sign over the worn front door, its paint peeling. I squint to get a closer look. It says "HOWDY."
The next day we take a scenic drive to Independence Pass. The town of Independence was a boom town that went bust . . . only fifteen years after its founding, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Aspen may have million dollar homes, but Independence has million dollar views. At 10,080 feet, it sits amidst a glen of emerald green meadows, streams, and snowy mountaintops. A general store is under restoration, but most of the remaining cabins are roofless. The only evidence remaining of a life once lived is the broken shards of thick brown and turquoise-green glass bottles, strewn in piles on the ground. Evidence of a bar fight? A trash pile? A sign warns that archeological research is in progress, and that it is STRICTLY FORBIDDEN TO MOVE OR REMOVE ANYTHING FROM THIS SITE, and that anyone moving so much as a broken piece of glass WILL BE SUBJECT TO A FINE OF UP TO $20,000.
So we leave the ghosts of Independence behind, antique litter and all. I ponder man's capacity for energy, and how greed fuels his tenacity and creativity, but once deflated or unrealized, his lack of motivation sinks him and all that he's built into oblivion. ("One thing wrong with self-made man: he starts to worship his maker.")
On the way back, we pick up another local newspaper. This one has a special pull-out feature celebrating the opening of the summer rodeo. I'd love to take the kids, but the only night that we'll be around happens to be the Opening Night, which is being done as a charity event for the Aspen Camp for the Deaf, and the price is way beyond our means. They plan to have a picnic barbecue, the rodeo, and a concert with John Denver appearing.
Although the newspaper advertising and concert booking were made several weeks ago, it is unclear whether John Denver will actually show up. He is in court, having suffered a head injury while driving his car into a tree, the victim of his own personal kind of Rocky Mountain High.
But the locals are clearly excited about the rodeo coming to town, and the ads in the newspaper reflect that:
From a real estate company:
May your stars be bright,
Your coffee strong,
And your ropes be true.
Good luck Cowboys!
Of course the ads are not limited to rodeo well-wishers. There are many adventure outfitters who lead bike, jeep, and hot-air balloon tours, as well as whitewater raft trips:
BILL AND HILLARY MAY BE TIRED OF WHITEWATER, BUT YOU'LL LOVE IT!
We decide to take the plunge, so to speak, and splurge on a whitewater rafting trip for all five of us. We call an Aspen-based company, where the fee for a three-hour trip on the river per adult is $55, and for a child it's $34. Splurging is one thing, but going into overdraft at the bank is another. So we call another company in Glenwood Springs, where the price is $25 per person. Due to heavy snowmelt, the river is Class IV.
Rivers are rated according to their difficulty in negotiating them. The higher the number, the more challenging and wilder the ride. Class I and II are gentle rapids, Class III and IV are like the like the scariest roller-coaster rides at an amusement park and almost always include someone falling overboard, Class V is for the pros, and Class VI rates right up there with death wishes.
The minimum age is ten, so fortunately our daughter just makes the cut-off. Am I being an irresponsible parent by putting our children into a potentially dangerous situation, all for the sake of a little fun? I ponder this, but convince myself that the rafting companies, with their certified guides, safety vests, state-of-the-art equipment, and insurance, would not offer such trips if the risks were truly great.
So we take the trip to Glenwood Springs, where facing us are the Class IV Shoshone Rapids on the Colorado River. The rapids have names like "Tombstone" and "Maneater."
Only one thought crosses my mind: I AM GOING TO DIE. ("Don't let anyone who hasn't done it talk you out of it.")
One consolation: it won't be alone. Also signed up for the ride is a nice family from Arkansas, and two very boisterous families from Texas who do everything in a typically BIG Texas way. They laugh LOUD. They drink HARD. They tell LOTS of jokes. None of them are funny, but Texans are so BIG, they need only themselves for an audience anyway.
The two guides are named Steve and Sebastian. Sebastian is from Ireland, and seems to be a rather gentle soul with a kind face and melodic voice. Steve is, crudely put, a hunk: tall, dark and handsome with bulging biceps and a washboard stomach. His I.Q. falls somewhere in the blonde range. His vocabulary seems to be limited to two expressions: "All right!" (said with a drawl in a voice that crows with satisfaction) and "Yi haw!" which is appropriate since the rapids we ride are similar to a bucking bronco, tossing us madly into the air. Balanced precariously at the edge of the rubber raft (you don't sit in it, you sit on its rim), we drop several feet into a "hole" and then, soaked, come up again, gasping for air, only to be hit and smashed and engulfed by a wave. We love it. We ask for more. We are obviously sick in the head.
Suddenly the raft carrying the Texans is in trouble. They fall into a "hole" and when they surface, they do a body count. It appears that there is a man overboard. They turn to the guide for guidance. Then the paddlers from Texas realize: it is the guide who is overboard. Poor Sebastian. Upon retrieval, those BIG Texans just can't wait to verbally reenact the scene again and again. ("It's hard to soar like an eagle when you act like a turkey.") Sebastian begins to feel morose. He has also lost an oar, which means that if he can't find it, he owes his employer $100 to replace it. And even worse is the river guide's Code of Honor: if a guide or any piece of equipment goes overboard, he must not only survive the relentless kidding and jibes directed against him by his fellow river guides, he is required to buy beers for the entire staff. Since both Sebastian and his oar took an unplanned dip, he has to buy two rounds for each staff member, for a total of 60 beers.
But there are still more rapids to conquer. As the BIG Texans hold on for dear life, a wisp of a ten year old girl peeks over her shoulder through the spray and looks back at Sebastian, checking after his welfare. After each run, the tiny girl yells assuredly in her LOUD Texan voice, "HE'S STILL WITH US!" Sebastian is truly depressed, now.
Meanwhile we enter another sinkhole and a wave buries our raft. As we emerge, we all look at one another and grinning, mouth the words: "All right! Yi-haw!" and sure enough, Steve doesn't disappoint us with his vocabulary-challenged voice. "That was a big one," I say breathlessly, "but it sure was fun!" To which Steve answers: "All right! Yi-haw!" Later Steve asks where the people sharing our raft are from. When they answer Arkansas, Steve answers, "All right!"
Meanwhile my youngest daughter (who has been convinced to go river rafting with a bribe of buying something in the gift shop), gasping for air after yet another wave, screams and moans, "My hair is going to look so messy!" Never mind that she is soaked through to her skin and resembles a drowned rat. We are on a river that has Class IV rapids. . . and she is bemoaning a bad hair day.
We complete the river run, flushed and excited. Sebastian looks like he is going to cry. In a moment of self-pity he suggests that at the point of the river where he wiped out, it be named in his honor. The proud Texans interrupt. "Nah, it should be called ‘Texas Distraction'" and as they slap their knees and their BIG bellies jiggle with their "Har-Har-Har" laughs, the littlest Texan gives a worried glance over to Sebastian.
We return to the parking lot and grab a change of clothes. In the dressing room, I hear the little Texan girl discussing the river run with her aunt.
"Rebecca, darlin', how did you like the whitewater rafting? Were you scared?"
"Oh, I had a good time," she replies with deep seriousness, "but I don't know about Sebastian."
"Why do you say that, honey?" asks the aunt.
"Well, first Sebastian went overboard. Then he lost his oar. Now he has to buy beers for everybody. And he owes the boss $100 for the missing oar. And- - he swallowed a fly!"
It is all I can do to contain myself from bursting out into song: Per-haaps she'll diiieee ("There was an old lady, who swallowed a fly; I don't know why she swallowed a fly. . . perhaps she'll die"). But before I can say "boo" someone else in the dresssing room belts out the words to the Old Lady/Spider song and I burst out laughing, as do at least ten other anonymous chucklers from behind their private dressing room curtains. As we all leave the dressing room in our clean, dry clothes, we pass Sebastian.
We don't mean to be cruel, but we once again start laughing until we are wiping tears from our eyes. And we are humming the music to There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly.
It was a great finale to a wonderful vacation, and now we must head back to Baltimore and normal (?) life. We stop overnight at some acquaintances in Denver before starting the depressingly long drive home.
Our friends live in what was once a thriving Jewish neighborhood on the west side near Downtown Denver. Now it is a barrio. My feelings of insecurity are not imagined. Crime (muggings, rapes, robberies, and burglaries) is rampant. People no longer stroll on hot summer nights; they are afraid to go out of their homes after dark. There is much unease between Jews and Hispanics. As I walk with my daughter down a quiet, if somewhat decaying street, a teenaged Hispanic girl stops in front of us and stares us down, daggers in her eyes and anger in her mouth.
After two weeks spent camping in the wilds of Colorado, it is in the back yard of our friends in Denver that, ironically, I get the first mosquito bites of the trip. I itch and scratch, itch and scratch for the next several days.
As we leave our friends, we stop at a 7-11 gas station to fill the car. While waiting for my husband to pay the bill, a young Hispanic man approaches two nice-looking black men sitting in a convertible. "Check this out!" the youth calls out. He produces some very hot jewelry from his jacket pocket. When the two men let him know they're not interested, he shrugs, putting the jewelry back into his pocket until he can approach another "customer." It all seems so unreal, after the incredibly peaceful previous two weeks spent in Colorado.
I am well prepared for the trip home: we decide to leave Denver at night, so that we can pass through Kansas in the dark. Figuring it will be much like Nebraska and Iowa, but with wheat replacing the corn, we are not prepared for the lonely beauty of the stark black nightscape; of the fields illuminated by brilliant starlight swept with a sharp prairie wind. As day breaks, however, I begin to realize the genius of Frank Baum in using Kansas as the setting for the Wizard of Oz. It is such an ordinary sort of place, Kansas is, that it makes the wonderful fantasy that is Oz all the more out of the ordinary.
I read in the newspaper that Burma Shave has just announced that they will revive their billboard advertising campaign from decades ago. The tediously straight and level I-70 is practically begging for Burma Shave billboards. I am tempted to write Burma Shave and suggest the highways of Kansas as their inaugural flagship.
There is something pleasantly wholesome about Kansas, and the presence of all those wheat fields serves as sober reminder that the heartland is truly the breadbasket not only for America, but for much of the world at large.
I feel no such fondness for Missouri, however (my ten-year-old daughter accidentally mispronouncing it "Misery" in her cute ten-year-old way. The name sticks for the rest of the drive through). The smaller "rivers" are mostly brown, stagnant muddy creeks that evoke pity. Rest stops along the way (which are appalling for their filth and disrepair) hold depressing brochures noting all the "fun" one can have in Missouri, such as this one: "Camping in Missouri is a special experience. Nothing is nicer than finding a gravel bar along the river and setting up camp. The mosquitoes are fewer, too." Doesn't a gravel bar sound like the epitome of beauty, comfort and fun? As they say: location, location, location.
And the heat! There is simply no relief from the merciless oven wall that engulfs us, even with the car's air conditioner running full blast. If there is anything I admire Missourians for, it is their fortitude.
To be fair, it seems that every place east of the Rockies is suffering a terrible heat wave, and travelling home in our overladen minivan (lesson learned: our next car will have rear air conditioning and tinted windows) isn't fun. But the thought of stopping overnight and extending the time spent on the road in the heat is unbearable. We take a vote and decide that we'll proceed all the way from Denver to Baltimore without stopping (the count is unanimous except for one dissenter: me. My bones feel too old and creaky to sit in a car for thirty-six hours without stretching. I also assure the rest of the family that I am not all that desperate for writing material nor to see our names in the Guiness Book of World Records, but my protests go unheeded. As my ten year old daughter remarks, "Normally, I'd want to stay in a hotel. But the kinds of hotels our family stays in, the sheets don't even match!" So I am outvoted and relegated to the back seat for the long haul).
But even with me and my husband alternating driving and naptimes, it is more than we can handle. So our sixteen year old daughter, whose driving since getting her license has been limited mostly to short trips to school and the mall, is soon getting lessons on how to drive with a twelve-foot trailer in tow. ("Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.") We're the ones whose camper is now fishtailing along the road like a boat crossing a wake. And I'm the one who looks green with carsickness.
However, for the first time since the trip began, now that she is behind the wheel, my older daughter is enthusiastic about the trip. Too bad we're on the way home, and I didn't figure this out sooner.
We do make one compromise, however: rather than take the shortest way home, which would have led us through the industrial areas of Ohio, we opt for a more scenic route through Kentucky and West Virginia. I've always been curious as to what Kentucky looks like. I think of thoroughbred racehorses, rolling green hills, and mint juleps. Unfortunately, Kentucky proves to be a disappointment: when we finally cross the state line it is 11:15 p.m. and pitch dark.
(Actually it is 11:18 p.m. My incredibly precision-oriented husband has an amazingly nerdy and annoying habit. He predicts times of arrival with remarkable accuracy to the minute, and never the "rounded" minute. For years now, he's been calling on his way home from work, saying things like, "I'll be home in twelve minutes" (never ten or fifteen) or, "I'll be home at 6:38" (never 6:30 or 6:45). Worse, he's always right.)
The darkness is so intense, I can't tell you if there are green rolling hills, or Iowa-like cornfields outside. My husband suggests if I want to see Kentucky all that badly, I shine a flashlight outside the car window. I give him a dirty look (which he can't appreciate because it's dark in the car, too) and try to remember Colorado. Frustrated, I doze off. When I wake up, we are in West Virginia. I've missed Kentucky, totally.
"Hey, hon," my husband says, "it's been kind of foggy outside. But you know, the little I saw of Kentucky really looks nice!" He then waxes poetic about the Daniel Boone and Bluegrass Parkways, all kinds of State Parks, etc. "It would be really nice to go camping here! I'm kind of sorry we missed it . . . and I'm sorry you were sleeping for the Kentucky part of the trip . . ."
Right, hon. Gee, thanks.
It's now the middle of the night. I'm driving all the way through West Virginia, through the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Mountains . . . and I can't see a thing. A heavy fog, thick as soup, has limited visibility to ten feet in front of me. The roads are pitch black. No other cars are on the road; the kids and my husband are sound asleep. At four a.m. my eyelids feel like barbells are pasted to them; it takes supreme effort to stay alert enough to continue driving.
I notice the car is low on gas. I follow a highway sign that directs me to a gas station that is just off the road. Every moment the fog continues to thicken, and the twisting road becomes increasingly difficult to follow. I'm feeling mildly panicked. I finally reach the gas station in some little hamlet miles off the highway, only to find it closed. So I carefully find my way, going no more than fifteen miles per hour through the fog, back to the main highway.
After finally locating a gas station that is open, I fill the car. I must look pretty awful, because the proprietor offers me a free cup of hot coffee. I decide to take the hint, and rather than accepting the cup of joe, I park at a Kmart parking lot somewhere in the middle of West Virginia at 4:30 a.m. and, glancing back at my peacefully snoring family, lock the doors, open the window a crack, and sleep until dawn in the driver's seat.
As morning breaks, the fog has mostly cleared. We find a rest stop and wash up, brushing teeth, changing shirts, smoothing hair. We feel almost human again. Maryland - - home - - is within reach, now. But first, we must pick up our dog Sandy at the kennel.
I call at the Maryland state line to make sure the dog is still alive. Let me explain: Sandy is not kennel material. Oh, he's not spoiled, as dogs go. But he has his quirks. For instance, he refuses to drink from a normal water dish. The only source of water he finds acceptable is from the toilet bowl.
This makes for some uncomfortable moments when we have guests. Let's say they ask to use our bathroom. As they open the bathroom door, our dog makes a mad dash for the toilet, too.
Or if Sandy has quenched his thirst before the guest finds the bathroom, the guest is left with a wet toilet seat. Now, the guest doesn't know that what's on the toilet seat is clean water. The guest thinks that whatever person used the bathroom before him made a terrible, unsanitary mess of the toilet seat, and that I am a horrid housekeeper for not noticing it. But it's only dribbled water. (Somehow that's not a comforting thought, I know.)
Since we've been on vacation, the entire East has been going through a serious heat wave and drought. I have visions of a very thirsty Sandy, unable to access a toilet bowl at the kennel, and going on strike rather than submit to a standard water bowl. I have visions of a dehydrated dog. I have visions of a dead dog. (You can lead a dog to water, but you can't make him drink.)
So I call the kennel to let them know that we are on the way, assuming, of course, that the dog is still alive. The kennel manager assures me that Sandy is still very much alive; so much so, in fact, that he's been very active and a real pain and they can't wait to get rid of him. So how soon can we come and pick him up?
I get directions from the kennel manager. Later, as I exit the highway, I bear right. My husband gets excited. "No, no! You bear left! Left!"
What is it about men and directions?
I tell my husband that I have received directions from the kennel manager, and he told me to bear right.
"Impossible!" my husband says with supreme confidence. "Turn the car around and go left!"
I am tired. I am grumpy. I am hot. I have been in this overloaded minivan for more than thirty hours. I do not want to argue; I just want to go home.
I turn the minivan and trailer around, and proceed according to my husband's directions. Within five minutes, we are hopelessly lost.
We have gone nearly four thousand, nine hundred miles. We have crossed the country. We have seen prairie and mountains; we've been in cities and remote areas. We have never gotten lost. Now we are within an hour of home. We can't find the kennel, and we don't have a clue as to where we are.
I stop the car at a pay phone. There is no way I am calling the kennel; after all, the manager gave me precise directions. So I make my husband talk to him. I wouldn't be surprised if he is saying something like, "my wife got the directions mixed up," but I don't care, as long as we can pick up the dog and get home. ("If you really want the last word in the argument, try saying, "I guess you're right.")
We retrace our steps and follow the kennel manager's directions. Within five minutes we are there. Sandy is alive and well. My kids have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they are happy to see him. On the other hand, they now have to go back to walking him four times a day. So the dead dog fantasy is not all that unappealing.
We make it home. After three weeks of vacation, twenty rolls of film, four thousand, eight hundred sixty miles later, and thirty-eight marathon hours after leaving Denver, we are in our driveway in Baltimore. We have tons to unpack and put away.
But the kids are nowhere to be found. They have run into the house as fast as their legs can carry them. I call out to them, that they should help unload the car. Silence.
I enter the house. The house looks familiar, but I still feel like an intruder; it will take a few hours before it feels like home again. I call for the kids, but I don't get an answer. So I search for them, room to room.
Finally I find them . . . and the dog. The kids and Sandy are all standing near the toilet seat, looking wistful. The dog is salivating . . . his water bowl! The kids are just looking at the toilet, not making a sound. Finally, our son slowly reaches over, and flushes. The kids' eyes never leave the toilet bowl. As the water gurgles and empties from the bowl, the kids break into a smile.
"Yippee!" my younger daughter cries. "FLUSH TOILETS!!!"
"All right!" my son calls out. "Yi ha!"
My older daughter mumbles a prayer of thanks.
The phone rings. Someone from my son's school asks if I can be at an emergency PTA meeting in three hours.
My daughter's notebook collection provides the trip's final Quotable Quote:
"There are two things people worry about. One is that things never get back to normal and one that they already have."