The Return (Part 1)

The Return (Part 1)

Following the fantastic time at the Tree Lot (see “A Tale Of Trees“), it quickly dawned on me that we were nearing the time to begin our return journey. Although we still had a few months ahead of us and countless experiences yet to come, I was still filled with a sense of impending finality as we headed south down the California coast. As already documented in Tanya’s post “Californication”, we enjoyed marvelous times in southern California and witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. With stops in Hollywood, San Diego, Joshua Tree, and of course Slab City, our roster of experiences continued to increase drastically as I in turn continually tried to remind myself that there was still plenty of the journey left.

Now that we are back, it seems that most folks are curious about the aforementioned Slab City. Still government owned property, it is the remains of what was once the World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. Now home to Rv’ers, squatters, and the homeless, Slab City is commonly referred to as the last free place in the U.S.. People tend to stay during the winter months and head out in the early spring as temperatures begin to rise to unbearable levels. One of the residents informed us that those who decide to stay through the summer are never quite the same come the following autumn…Slab City (37)REV
For my part, I found it a strange yet intriguing place filled with dichotomies and contrasts running the gamut of all expectations. While looking at some incredible folk art in one area, we could see plumes of black smoke rising from the burn pile of someone trying to clean up their junked up “yard” in another. There were beautiful and expensive RV rigs set up in one section, while others contained burned out shells surrounded by yet more junk, with perhaps a dog tied under a makeshift lean-to for shade. I would have stayed longer if the kids were not with us as I was fascinated by this strange, almost apocalyptic landscape with its denizens of various backgrounds, filled with stories and tales of journeys that led them finally to this… place. As Tan put it, “There was art and there was junk-art. There was hip and there was hippy. There was trash and there was trashy. There was clean and there was dirty. There was young and there was old.”

Turning east again, we tried to take some different routes as we continued along our homeward trek. Some of this territory we had already been through and wanted to change it up a bit so as to not repeat places we had already seen (although some places we did want to see again). One new stop was the town of Quarzsite, Arizona. We had heard about Quarzsite from some fellow RV’ers we had met while doing the Sugar Beet Harvest. Generally a winter destination, the area boasts lots of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land therefore making it an attractive and (like Slab City) cheap place to hang one’s hat for a bit. However unlike Slab City, it is not a lawless community where anything goes until there are serious problems.

Quartzsite is actually a dying destination for RV’ers, although thousands still flock to the town for the winter. Tents, flea markets, and open air markets abound mostly with people selling and shopping for gems and minerals of various nature, along with vendors peddling everything from used books to clothing to RV parts. In recent years the Gem and Mineral Show in nearby Tucson has taken some of the wind out of Quarzsite’s sails and its winter population doesn’t reach the heights it once did, but as a newbie you would hardly know it.
One nearby attraction of interest was the Nellie E. Saloon desert Bar.
Now you all know how much Tan and I love new bars so this was one we couldn’t miss.  Located in (kinda) nearby Parker, AZ, you have to travel five miles down a dusty, dirt road until finally arriving at the desert bar. Pulling into the parking lot after those long five miles, we were more than ready for a couple tasty beers and soft drinks for the kids. The atmosphere was great, and with a good band playing and people dancing and having a good time, we were anticipating a fun afternoon… until we saw the beer choices. Budweiser and Coors Light. That’s it. Yea, you could get a mixed drink, but that just wasn’t what I had in mind. Beer snob that I am, I was hoping for a good IPA or something along those lines. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a frosty Bud after mowing the lawn or some other sweaty activity, and after that long drive on a hot day one of those would have been more than welcome but… I was hoping for a few more choices. Anyway we did have a good time and it was well worth the drive and opportunity to check out something new!

Eastbound again we followed Route 10 into Phoenix for a few days, spending time with a crew of great folks we had met outside Seattle previously. Making new friends is always a welcome event, but keeping in touch and meeting up again is always the trick.  We spent an afternoon doing a little desert exploration while afterwards Riv got to show off his new guitar, and get a few tips from our friend George. AZ (13)REVThese folks really welcomed us with open arms and allowed us a few days of nice rest and relaxation before continuing the trek south and east to Tucson for another stop. Once again luck was on our side and we were fortunate enough to spend some time with a family member who had flown in for the Gem And Mineral Show that week.

Back down towards Texas we went, following the same route we had originally come west on. We tried as much as possible to avoid repeating highways but in some cases it is unavoidable, although seeing the same scenery from the opposite direction can at times be interesting…. I guess. We finally altered our course turning south into Texas and through El Paso. A night in the local Camping World was good enough for us in that city and we continued our breakneck pace across the Lone Star state to a much anticipated stop in Corpus Christi.

We had heard that Corpus Christi is not a particularly nice place, having dirty water and trash washing up along the shore. Fortunately we were pleasantly surprised and found ourselves in the clean, open air of Mustang Island State Park which adjoins Padre Island on the east coast of Texas. Although a little too breezy to swim, we were rewarded with days in the mid-seventies to low-eighties and just enjoyed a quiet time along the Gulf. Even though it was late February, the prospect of returning home began to loom heavily over my head as I began to reconcile the thoughts of life after this. The road had certainly become our home and I was comfortable with the idea of venturing from place to place while still keeping a distant attachment to work and our responsibilities back east…

After just about a week in the state park, it was time to move on again this time with the full intention of returning someplace we had already been. We loved Fontaine Bleu State Park in Louisiana so much the first time that a return stay was well in order. Another trip to the Abita Brewery (this time with the kids) was on the agenda as well as a little more exploration of the area of Mandeville along Lake Ponchartrain. Tan and I were directed to a wonderful Brew Pub (why does that always happen?) along the lake shore that we couldn’t believe we missed the first time around. We loved the little neighborhood there so much that we brought the kids out the next day for a stroll, all the while trying to half-jokingly convince them that we needed to stay.Abita (1) REVWith a pang of remorse we set off again along Route 10 for our final approach back to the east coast. Once again with a destination in mind and friends to see we happily entered the Sunshine State knowing we would be in the Florida sun for a few weeks before turning north towards the colder weather. 

First stop was Orlando to visit friends, and deliver on our promise to the kids to go to a fine waterpark. After finding another state park to hang our hats for a few days, Tan and I slipped out for a little grocery shopping and to solidify our plans with the afore-mentioned friends. With plans to meet that evening, upon our return to the campground we were pleasantly surprised to find our friends hiding in the RV with the kids! It was a truly endearing reunion as they had allowed us the pleasure of staying with them over a year ago when we were on our way out to the vast wilds of the country. Seeing their smiling faces sitting unexpectedly in the RV was such a wonderful sight that will always stay with me. Frederickson'sWe spent the next few days with our friends, enjoying their hospitality and relaxing poolside as guests in their resort complex. The days and evenings were filled with laughter and the comfort of spending time with people you truly care about and respect. The week was capped off by a trip to the waterpark in Disney and we all enjoyed a great time doing the slides, rides, and swimming in the giant wave pool. Sadly it was time to go and we bid them farewell for now…

A return trip to Jensen Beach was up next and I greatly looked forward to seeing my father who I hadn’t seen in almost a year and a half. We were able to secure a spot not too far from where he was staying and spent the week again enjoying the sun and fun that a resort community offers. We reconnected with folks we had met on our first stop in Jensen Beach at the beginning of our trip and talked much and shared stories about our mutual travels and experiences on the road.Jensen Beach (57)REVA pleasant surprise was a visit from my two step brothers who had also come to visit my dad in Florida. We got to hang out with those guys for a few days and really got re-connected. We had never really spent much time together as adults, and although I was not surprised, it was very pleasant to be able to hold intelligent conversations, and laugh and joke comfortably as people who have known each other for a long time do. I can only hope that as many years don’t go by before we can all get together again. 
As our impending return edged ever closer, the time came for us to begin the last leg of our journey. Heading north up the east coast for the first time in 18 months brought feelings of happy anticipation as well as tinges of sadness. Happiness knowing that we would soon be reunited with friends and family that we hadn’t seen for over a year and sadness to leave behind a lifestyle that suits us and that we truly feel at home in…   

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A Tale Of Trees

A Tale Of Trees

I can remember Christmas Tree shopping as a kid when my father would drag us to at least six lots before finally settling on the perfect tree. I remember the feeling of excitement as we drove from the lot across from Quick Check to another lot in Westfield, then maybe over to Bowcraft (was there a tree lot there?) and up to a couple in New Providence and Berkeley Heights. Bounding around in the red M&M delivery van (once or twice with our Fanwood cousins) we would spend the entire evening combing the area for what would be the centerpiece of our Christmas holidays.

With those memories in mind, I enthusiastically agreed when Tan asked me if we wanted to manage a Christmas tree lot in California. I pictured us eagerly assisting joyous customers as they picked out their trees on our small lot. I envisioned myself happily pulling out the various trees for people as their small children stood staring in wonderment, the family picturing each one I displayed for them covered with their own ornaments.

These thoughts were a hazy, faint memory as I lugged the 114th 7’ Noble Fir off the delivery truck in the pouring rain. With only 164 more of various sizes left to unload, and the knowledge that we would be getting another delivery of roughly the same amount in a few days, I had to ask myself what in the name of Saint Nicholas was I thinking?  Sloshing through the mud and dumping the load from my rain soaked shoulders onto the growing pile of trees, I couldn’t help but think about last years’ Christmas in Florida and how the spirit of the season remained so elusive until Christmas Eve itself… but oh how good that sun and warmth would feel right now! Let me back up a little...    

We probably should have known this operation was going to be a bit bigger than anticipated when a steady stream of teenage boys starting showing up at the RV to fill out job applications. Tan and I figured we’d do the majority of the work ourselves so as to maximize our overall profit. How many guys would we really need? After all, how hard could it be? Show a few trees, carry one out to a car, tie it on if need be. No big deal. The kids could certainly help if needed, right? Right! But oh so wrong.

Parked near the lot next to us was a storage trailer. Once work began getting the lot ready it finally dawned on me that this was much more than we thought. Fortunately the area was already set up with fencing, posts and railing, etc. We just needed to set up the tents, decorate, put out the water bowls(?), set up the flocking machine (Flocking? What‘s that?), run power to the flocking machine, run power to the pre-drilling machine(?), make sure the chain saws were running, make sure the cash register worked, make sure we had flame retardant to spray on a tree if necessary(?), learn how to change the nets on the netter(?), set up the stereo… On and on it went as we looked at each other, our eyes glazing over with the knowledge that we had no idea what we were doing and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  However, salvation came in the form of Dale. A relative of the lot’s owner, he was assigned the initial task of getting us organized and help us get the lot ready for business. Without his help I don’t know how we would have gotten our act together in time to open for the crushing throngs of people that wanted to purchase their trees on Black Friday.

Twas The Night Before The Trees
Twas The Night Before The Trees

Then the trees arrived… and arrived. And arrived some more. Not only did we carry the usual assortment of 6 – 8 foot trees, we had 9, 10, 11, and a few 12 foot trees. By this point we wisely had a full staff of high school and college age kids to help unload. My knees grew weak at the prospect of having to load (or even deliver) one of these monsters onto someone’s car or truck. My only hope was that when we sold any of these gargantuans that I would have enough staff to give me a hand. Of course the small trees were not a problem and even Mercy was able to earn some keep by unloading the 3 – 5 footers.

Tree Unload
“And just how many more 10 footers are in that truck?”
Tree Unload
“Really Riv, I can take this one by myself”
Our Crew
Our rockin’ crew

From that day on, our lives were filled with nothing but the constant stream of Christmas music, the ever present aroma of the trees, and the intermittent sound of the chain saws. And flocking…

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

I had never heard of flocking before but was soon getting my first lesson on how to flock a tree. Flocking is the practice (it’s actually an art…) of spraying fake snow on a tree. I don’t mean the spray cans you buy at your local craft store, this is an operation that I soon discovered Californians take very seriously. The dry flock is drawn through a hose into the flocking gun where it meets another intake of water and the combination is then sprayed on the tree in such a manner as to give it the most realistic snowed-upon look as possible. The flock being a chemical, I had to don a mask, goggles, and coverall (actually a black plastic trash bag with head and arm holes cut out) so as not to breathe or get the wet flock on me. At one point I actually had an EPA guy tell me to make sure I had my mask on while spraying this stuff!

Flocking Tree Dance
Flocking Tree Dance

Soon enough we were ready. The next few weeks were spent running the lot from 9 – 9 every day. Tan would open while I hung back at the RV working my regular job. With the mornings not an especially busy time for tree shopping, I could work peacefully while getting the occasional interruption if she needed help with a larger tree or if things got a little too busy. The kids would do some school work then head down in the afternoon. River was able to make quite a bit of money being the only helper on the lot before any of the staff showed up. The Bay Area weather being mild, it was pleasant to get outside a bit and then spend my entire afternoons and evenings in this merry holiday atmosphere. As holiday music constantly played, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the good feelings that the holidays bring. Perhaps I was making up for last year!

Mercy Fir
“Don’t I look great in green”

The town of Walnut Creek was a most pleasant place to spend the season. With a little shopping area within walking distance, we could get groceries and other necessities quickly and conveniently. Although the lot was located a few miles from the actual town center, when time allowed (not often and after 9pm!) we enjoyed running down to do a little Christmas shopping and perhaps grab a beer.
Finally as the season wore down and after selling a multitude of trees, it was time to bring things to a close. Late Christmas Eve, after our final day of selling trees, I was taking Daisy for her usual nighttime walk. I had circled the block as I usually did and upon returning to the lot saw a car parked there. A man emerged dressed all in black. Black cap, black coat, black pants. The only way to describe him was that he had the look of a cartoon burglar from the 1950’s. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he were wearing a mask!
Ducking into the shadows so as not to be seen, I watched as he quietly made his way over to the small pile of remaining trees (that we had been selling that day for the bargain price of $25). With no more fencing to keep people out, the trees were left in the open for anyone’s taking. I silently followed a little behind and when he reached down to grab a tree, I asked if I could help him. He looked up with a pained expression on his face, realizing that he had been caught. He kindly asked if I minded him helping himself and I decided that since it was Christmas Eve and we wouldn’t be selling any more trees anyway, he was welcome to it. He was very thankful, explaining that his daughter was hoping to wake up to a Christmas Tree and that he wasn’t capable of buying one earlier.
As he started to drag the tree back to his car, feeling an overpowering wave of Christmas spirit, I reached down and picked up the other end. Being touched by his story and not being able to bear seeing the tree so mistreated, I couldn’t help myself. Suddenly and ironically it dawned on me that I was doing exactly what I had asked him… I was indeed helping him. Helping him to steal one of our trees!
Going to bed that night with the comforting feeling of knowing that for the first time in a month we had no responsibilities the next day, I thought of what an exhausting, yet exhilarating experience it was. The kids learned a lot about working a small business. With Mercy helping with the register she got a hands on lesson in customer service and continued her math lessons by making change without the aid of a machine. Riv also got his fair share of customer service by helping people with their trees and loading them into cars. Once he realized the tips he could make, it was sometimes hard to keep him off the lot!

Tree Tying
” I get the tip, right Dad?”

Tan and I got to work together all day, every day and I enjoyed the evenings when it was just the two of us for the last hour, listening to the Christmas music, and trying to keep warm in the little shed, occasionally stepping out to help the few customers that came tree shopping at night. The physical work and time spent outdoors contributed to my overall feelings of healthiness and self satisfaction and I can’t remember a more joyous holiday season in years. The only thing that could have improved it was the presence of friends and family who were hopefully enjoying their own feelings of goodwill back home.

Together at the Tree Lot
Pete’s Trees- Walnut Creek CA
Daisy, our festive greeter
Daisy, our festive greeter
Sugar Beet Harvesting in Montana

Sugar Beet Harvesting in Montana

I write this post for three reasons…..to admit guilt, to redeem myself and to spread awareness.

As a family of four, traveling (living) on only one income is very challenging at times, most times. Brian averages 32 hours per week working remotely.  We always seem to make ends meet as we are simple people and know where our priorities lie. That being said, there are sacrifices that I refuse to make, especially when it comes to keeping myself and my family healthy. I’m talking about food choices.  Yes, perhaps we would have a little extra in the budget if we lived solely off of processed, pesticide ridden or genetically modified foods.   Then again, perhaps that little extra would end up going to remedying the illnesses I’d expect one (or all) of us to contract from eating such foods.

It became inevitable after the first couple of months of being in areas not conducive to our eating habits that we would have to try and pick up some short-term work along the way. So, with the help of  FB, Craigslist, and RV forums, we have managed to supplement our income enough to keep our bodies (as well as our truck) fueled.

Back in June, I came across a thread on the Fulltime Families FB page, one of the on-line family travel groups I belong to.  Folks were talking about working a sugar beet harvest in Montana and how insanely lucrative it had been for them in the past. Upon doing my research, I learned that the job required little experience, the commitment was for roughly one month during September and October, the employment agency put you up in an RV park with full hook ups, and the pay was indeed desirable.  Perfect for us!  We planned on visiting Glacier in early September so we’d be in the area anyway.  Not to mention we had just spent a chunk of cash on RV and truck repairs, setting us back quite a bit. Applied. Hired. Happy.  Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure what a sugar beet was.  Nonetheless, the idea of working outside, in the fall, in the dirt was quite appealing . I bookmarked the company’s website and forgot about it.

Until…  sometime after arriving in Montana I came across information that sugar beets were amongst the top GMO foods in the country… not good!  GMOs are food products that have had their DNA altered in a lab to make them drought, herbicide and pesticide resistant.  Sometimes referred to as “Frankenfoods”, they have been altogether banned in many other countries.

Red flag went up.  I panicked. I researched. Suspicions confirmed.

I had signed us up to work for the devil…otherwise known, in this case, as Monsanto!

I was discouraged, the kids were horrified, and Bri , well, let’s just say he’s the reason to my rhyme.   After a fairly lengthy discussion we decided to honor our commitment and show up to the job.  Yes, we were compromising our principles and going against our beliefs.  But, as Bri pointed out, it was a necessary evil. We had already counted on the money to get us to California.  And, in my defense, none of our earnings would be knowingly spent on Monsanto supported foods.   Furthermore, we could use this opportunity to spread awareness.

We pulled in to Sidney, a remote town situated in northeastern Montana with relatively low expectations.   We learned that the area was currently in the midst of an oil boom, which was clearly evident by the shoddily constructed “man camps” we observed along the way.  We had also heard that there had been a fairly recent murder in the community, which, once again, made us rethink our decision.  We decided that we would show up to the RV park (aka county fairgrounds) and if at that point things appeared overly sketchy, we’d skip town. Fortunately, that was not the case and upon our arrival we were greeted by our camp host and security guard who assured us that we had nothing to be concerned about, safety wise. Aside from the two other families there with kids, the majority of the RVers in the lot were retired couples with fancy rigs and small dogs.  If it was safe enough for them, then we had nothing to worry about in our 04 model 5th wheel guarded by our ferocious watch dog Daisy May.

Nearly half of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beets and in Montana it is a $60 million industry.  Local farmers are contracted to grow the beets  and are paid based on yield and  sugar content.  Here is where my issue lies. The farmers are only allowed to plant approved seed varieties.  And guess what?  Ten out of the twelve approved varieties are “Roundup Ready” seeds.  Yes indeed, a Monsanto product.  I’m not quite sure about the other two varieties but that really doesn’t matter.  If some growers did plant the other varieties, and if they aren’t GMO seeds, cross pollination would contaminate those fields anyway.  So, it is my knowledgeable assumption that all of the sugar beets that Bri and I worked with were genetically modified. Very bad!

Beet field
Beet field

During the harvest, the beets were delivered by truckloads to a factory yard where they were weighed and piled and random samples were collected for testing. I was part of a 6-7 member crew who worked in the factory yard for 7 hours a day.  We kept the piler running, the area clear of all stray beets and collected the samples. From that shift, I went to work inside the factory with Bri for another 4-5 hours.  It was more or less an assembly line job where we weighed, washed and dried the samples before the pulp was extracted and sent into the lab for sugar content. Neither position was difficult but the hours were long and went by ever so slowly.

Beet factory
Beet factory

We worked with many interesting people, toting quite diverse backgrounds during our time there. Aside from our fellow RVers, we fraternized with a group of transient 20 something year olds ,a train hopper, a retired local schoolteacher (who came to our RV bearing fresh, produce from her garden), a car salesman (who brought us fresh, local eggs)  and “Cowboy John” (who provided us entertainment via song and ferrets).  I’m pretty confident in saying that I don’t believe many of these people are even aware of Monsanto and their evil ways. I do know that most are aware of my affection for kale which did prompt some words of healthy living from me. And though I do feel a bit hypocritical, I’m glad we had this experience.  Especially, if it adds more members to the Millions Against Monsanto campaign.

Piling beets
Piling beets
Weighing beets
Weighing beets
Elk and Moose and More Elk, Oh My!

Elk and Moose and More Elk, Oh My!

RMNPWhen we first drove into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado I was so amazed by how awesome they were. I felt like I had just walked into Narnia. There were so many mountains, and rivers in the distance. This was my first time going to the Rockies and it is definitely not going to be my last!

After driving a few hours we made it to the campground. It was not at all what we expected it to be. I thought there would be lots of trees and plenty of privacy, but I was wrong. Well it turned out there used to be lots of trees there, but all that’s left is a bunch of stumps. I guess they had to cut them all down because of a tiny little bug called the pine beetle. The beetles infest the trees which kills them so they have to cut them down. As we were driving along the road, I noticed a bunch of log piles in the woods. They were piles of pine trees that had to get burned because they got infested, and believe me, there were LOTS of piles! It’s hard to imagine what the campground would look like with a bunch of trees, but I think it would have been a lot better. Oh, and almost every evening we would have a herd of elk visit our campground.Mercy's Elkfriend At first the elk were cool, but then we would see them EVERYWHERE and they sort of started to get boring. I mean, they would be on the side of the road like ants would be on a chocolate cake that got left outside! While I’m taking about elk I might as well mention the moose too. We saw about 6 or 7 moose on our visit to the Rockies that’s including a mom and a baby munching away on some bushes by the river. Since the baby follows the mom everywhere, at one point the mom pooped on the baby! It was really funny! So we saw a mom and a baby, about 3 bull moose with antlers, and a few more females. They were all so cool!

Mama/baby mooseWe also attended a ranger program about moose, which was really interesting! Did you know that during the rut (the mating season), to attract the females the male moose do this thing called scraping. Scraping is when the moose picks a spot in the dirt and scrapes it with his hooves, then he urinates in it. Next he will then roll in it. I guess this makes him smell good to the females, although I don’t know how having pee all over you would be attractive!

The next day we drove on trail ridge road, the highest continuous paved road in America! The road’s highest point is 12,183 feet in elevation! That’s 4,183 feet higher than the road they take in “The Long, Long Trailer” which is like my favorite movie starring Lucille Ball, well…… actually it’s the only movie I’ve seen staring Lucille Ball. But anyway when we got to the top we were at the alpine tundra. It was about 47 degrees up there, and 77 degrees down at the bottom of the mountain! The wind was soooooo fierce and strong that if you jumped with your sweatshirt out like wings, you would fly about a foot in front of you! It was really fun, but what was even better was getting back into the nice and warm car! Tundra Girl

While we were driving along the trail ridge road we stopped at the continental divide. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s an imaginary line that runs from Alaska to Mexico where on the east side of the line all the water and melted snow flows to the Atlantic Ocean and on the west side it all flows to the Pacific Ocean. The Rocky Mountains were truly amazing, and our stay there was beautiful! This was absolutely one of my favorite parts of the trip so far, I will really miss it!

Colorado Rockies


Final Thoughts On The Grand Canyon: A Comedic Interlude 2

Final Thoughts On The Grand Canyon: A Comedic Interlude 2

    We were hiking down one of the Grand Canyon trails that leads down to the Colorado River. The trail winds it’s way down the cliff side through a series of switch-backs. Although not a particularly difficult or strenuous hike, it is quite steep at times and there is a real danger of getting yourself killed if you manage to fall over the edge.
    This particular day was slightly busy with plenty of other tourists and hikers. Some were prepared with plenty of water and the correct hiking attire, while others astonishingly decided to brave the dirt, dust, and turning inclines with heals, black slacks, and designer handbags. Oh, and plenty of bling! Of course you don’t have to journey all of the way to the bottom. Along the descent there are stop offs at the 1.5 and 3 mile marks, where you can refill your water and use a restroom if need be. It being a hot day, we decided on the 1.5 mile stop (making for a 3 mile hike round trip). Not a long one I know, but enough to get a taste of what it’s like deeper in the canyon, and enough that by the time Mercy starts complaining we are almost done.  
    Of course we weren’t the only ones thinking this way, so needless to say that upper tract of the trail was heavy with traffic at some points. Eventually we managed to run ourselves up (or down rather) into a large school group being led by a couple Park Rangers. Being on a school trip I suppose, they would stop often while one of the guides would explain this or that, and ask the students some questions. With all of the stopping it soon became a bit of a burden for us, so at an opportune moment during a little rest they were taking, we decided to bypass and continue down our merry way.  
    As you descend further down, you get some fantastic views of the canyon walls and edge which are now above you. With a different perspective than viewing down into the canyon from the rim, you get a closer view of the various plateaus, cliffs, and sub-canyons that make up the whole GRAND Canyon system. While truly a remarkable sight, I found myself repeatedly gazing up at the walls and down into the valleys trying to take it all in.Don't try this in heels!
    During one such gaze, I was looking back up the trail along the cliff side to see where that school group was. As I turned in my track, taking in the mesmerizing view, I somehow lost my footing and… you guessed it. I went head over heals over the side.
    Fortunately for me though, I fell to the INSIDE of the trail. The Grand Canyon experts and engineers had been wise enough to dig a little culvert of sorts about 8” lower than, and separated from, the main trail by 16” -24” high boulders to allow for rain water to run down the sides without washing out the trails. This is what I fell into. When I lost my footing I went over those boulders and with the weight of the backpack making me a little top heavy, I tumbled over into the culvert. I think I even screamed… a little (again!).
    So there I was with my upper body in the trench and my legs sticking almost straight up and kicking as I tried to get some leverage to right myself. Mercy finally came running over as I was able to extend an arm for her to pull me up. Unable to do it alone, Riv was fast behind her to give an extra hand and they were able to pull me up and back over. Tan of course thought I was faking the whole thing with my legs kicking and cries for help!
    I must admit that I was somewhat mortified. Suffering nothing more than a mildly bloody palm scrape, I was embarrassed that I, with my hiking boots and preparedness, was the one to suffer such insult rather than the lady with the high heals and designer city-wear. After my snippy and angry attitude wore off I realized that it was probably better me to weather that slight than the unprepared fools who wander down the trails as if they are entering the gift shop. THEY may actually go over the WRONG edge to the delight of some mischievous cliff spirit. And that wouldn’t be pretty.

BIG and Beautiful BIG Bend

BIG and Beautiful BIG Bend

As our drive out of Austin took us south into some vast open land, my soul felt as if it was headed north into some boundless open air.  This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy our time spent in Austin. I most certainly did. I love city living. I love city working. I love city partying. It’s fast, its social, and it’s a necessary balance when one is living on the road. Nevertheless, there’s something to say about being at peace with nature…..for me anyways.

For one reason or another, we never made it to Big Bend during our travels 20 years ago.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t even really sure what the draw was, then or (up until) now.  It is not one of the busiest National Parks and in doing my research, I hadn’t found much information outside of the fact that it was in the desert, very picturesque and pretty far off the beaten path .  It was more or less word of mouth that convinced us to make it a destination this time around and I am convinced that the decision to stick with this plan was by far the smartest one yet. I must admit that due to the reality of its remote location, our time constraints, and the outrageous jump in gas prices, we almost nixed the plan entirely. What a grand mistake that would have been. I now know and understand the reason why the majority of the visitors to Big Bend are return visitors.   We had 2 days  to explore and experience this enchanted land, and that we did!

Located in southwest Texas, the  park expands along the Rio Grande River, occupies the upper third of the Chihuahuan Desert and contains the entire Chisos Mountain range.  The unique geological structures, formed years ago by the earth’s faults are absolutely stunning!  Rising up from the desert floor into the openness of the blue sky, these formations of nature extend as far  into the horizon as the eye can see. Waking up to these views of grandeur each day was more of a perk than my morning cup of coffee.

We hiked along the river that serves as the boundary between the US and Mexico.   We descended down into a canyon laden with volcanic rock.  We climbed limestone cliffs embedded with prehistoric evidence.

We stood at the foot of a 1500 foot high canyon wall.  We sat  in the naturally purifying hot springs.

We witnessed colorful sunsets with the bats.   We enjoyed the starlit night sky with the coyotes.

We camped without hookups, without cellphone service and without wi-fi.

AAAHHH……..

A Day in the Life of a True Blue Southerner

A Day in the Life of a True Blue Southerner

I once told my kids that when the genie asks for my 3 wishes, one of the three would include the chance to live a day in the life of everyone.  It certainly wasn’t the answer they expected to hear and definitely made for some interesting conversation.   That was a few years ago. Truth be told, I frequently ponder that wish, most often while traveling.   Passing through cities I may glance upon a high-rise and wonder;  Who lives there?  What do they do?  What have they experienced?  Who do they love?  Are they happy?  Or, it may be while passing by an immaculate country home,  a gated mansion, a working farm, a run-down trailer in a low-income trailer park.  Up until we set out on this trip, I always imagined my wish taking place in the present lives of ordinary and extraordinary people (well, with the exception of maybe Janis Joplin). But now, I am taking my wish back in time.

Traveling through the south has been a very eye-opening experience for me personally. From Indian burial grounds to slave territory, civil war battlegrounds to the civil rights movement, the birthplace of jazz to the heart of  blues, I am constantly envisioning and imagining myself in the skin of those who experienced life during these different eras and events.

Highway 61

The historical road running north and south following the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Minnesota.  Also referred to  as “The Great River Road”  or the more familiar, ” Blues Highway”.  We did travel north along a portion of this road, and unlike Bob Dylan, I don’t feel the need to re-visit. Perhaps my expectations were too high.( After all, I was just coming from New Orleans where I was wishfully in a smoke-filled bar on Bourbon Street witnessing  Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday wow the crowd.) Expecting to see an abundance of jukejoints and the likes, I was disappointed and saddened to bear witness to the undesirable sites along the way. Factories spewing fumes into the air, run down homes and boarded up family businesses made for some depressing scenery.  Not to mention acres and acres of unkept fields, capable of providing enough crops to feed an army.  Through it all though, I found myself sitting on a  front porch,  slapping my knee to the beat of the weathered instruments being played by my neighbors while belting out some melodic bluesy songs about life in the south.

Natchez Trace Parkway

A 444 mile historical path running from Mississippi to Tennessee. First created and used  by Native Americans, later to be the travel route for traders and explorers, the parkway is now a scenic drive devoid of modern-day necessities and conveniences.  The fact that the campgrounds along the Trace are all free made it even more enticing and we spent a few days exploring the trails and the surrounding towns.  One historical landmark that the kids particularly enjoyed was an old Inn, built in the late 1700s, much of it still preserved.   Run by a woman widowed twice with 10 kids, travelers were charged 25 cents for a place to sleep and a hot meal.  I  immediately removed myself from that scenario once the number of children she bore was mentioned!

A short distance off The Trace we encountered an incredible site seemingly very out-of-place today, yet still a reminder of  the changes our country has gone through. The ruins of an Antebellum Home, constructed by slave labor, Gothic in structure and set back in the woods was breathtaking. How fun to host and entertain  in my own mansion. I’m guessing I wouldn’t really have to break a sweat as I am the wife of a wealthy landowner, in Mississippi, during the slave years.

Montgomery

The capital of Alabama and a  major site of events in The Civil Rights Movement, we spent a day there so River could complete a project for English class.  The museums, along with a self guided tour through the city provided us with more than enough education about the struggles for equality in the 1960s.  MLK spent his time there during the bus boycott and The Freedom Riders encountered a violent mob scene upon their arrival. Try as I may, I can’t fathom being consumed with that much hatred.  Likewise, I may be second guessing my decision to stand up for what is right as my life is in great danger.  

Nashville

Not being much of  country music fans, and having been to Nashville before, our stay was short. Apparantly, there are two sites for The Grande Ole Opry.  We happened to be camped by the “out of season” one.  In addition, due to major flooding in 2010, many areas were still closed or being re-built. Nonetheless, I was gracing the stage as Lorretta Lynn singing” Coal Miners Daughter” while Mercy was hoping to bump into Miley Cyrus somewhere outside the Gaylord Opreyland Hotel.

Just north of Nashville is where Mercy and I went hunting for Civil War relics.  Although the finds were absolutely amazing, I was holding out for some more personal belongings. Like the wedding band of my young husband or the family keepsake I gave to my son barely old enough to fight in the war between the states.

Memphis

The music, the legends, the food, the fun!  Sometimes I think that it’s a good thing  that we’ve experienced places like New Orleans and Memphis in the off-season, for the kids’ sake. As fun as it would be for Bri and I, I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t enjoy the nightlife when the streets are lined with young tourists taking advantage of the fact that you can order ‘ to go’ beverages in the bars. Furthermore, I don’t know how proud they’d be of their Mom….the gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis.  You know, the one that tried to take Mick Jagger upstairs for….something!