Saturday, April 21, 2007

Four Good Men

Today I’m thinking about the human landscape of this journey. In particular, I’ve had the pleasure of spending quality time with four good men, all of whom have enriched my travels immensely.

What a great guy! He is everything a brother should/could be – loving, fun, playful, creative, brilliant. He writes the most amazing humor pieces (wish I could get him to publish his letters). He plays music. He can make absolutely anything with his hands – the ultimate craftsman. He cooks fabulous meals. He has been happily married to his lovely Marnie, for ~35 years, and is a super-Dad to his 3 boys. Although he is an actual twin to my brother, Hunt, I often feel as if Dick and I are really the twins. Our DNA seems to vibrate in synch. I love it when he phones me early in the morning and asks “are you working on the crossword puzzle?” and I am, and he is too! Obviously I adore him!

This one I’ve known all my life too. I went to his and DJ’s wedding when I was 11 years old, and they are still happily together. John spent his professional life as a counselor/therapist, working for VA hospitals and local clinics. He is a wonderful listener, and his compassionate heart seems to always be open. What is so striking now is that, although retired, he lives a busy and full life giving to his community. He volunteers on all sorts of projects, is active in his church, spends quality time with each of his grandchildren (such as taking them on wonderful vacations), plays golf, and knows all about everything in his area of North Carolina. He lives a truly exemplary life, and has fascinating stories which he shares with a twinkle in his eye. It was delightful to reconnect with him.

I know him the least well of all these four men, but so much enjoyed deepening my friendship with him and his firecracker wife, Dee. Ben is a passionate and romantic man. The story of how he and Dee found and lost and found each other again is one of the most moving love stories I’ve ever heard. They are devoted to each other with such intensity, and Ben has been an amazing and supportive father to Dee’s two children (now teenagers). He is deeply engaged in the arts (theater, writing, film), a superb cook, and a riveting conversationalist. I loved watching him fill his back patio with candlelight, just for the pleasure of how beautiful it was! Now there’s a romantic guy!

In Grand Junction, Mark is best known for having started the highly successful Main Street Bagel Bakery. There, his creative talents are apparent everywhere – in the design and layout of the building, the choice of menu items, the attention to high quality, the superb food, the music, the inviting atmosphere, the cheerful staff. Mark loves to keep improving, and this work he has chosen lets him do that. My history with Mark goes back almost 30 years. I’ve been close friends with his wife, Missy, since our children were all little, and she and I were just young mothers struggling along. Mark, in those days, worked as a stone mason (did beautiful work), but had little to say to me. He seemed shy and shut down back then, and I didn’t know how to talk to him. Over the years, I have grown to treasure my friendship with him. Like a fine vintage wine, Mark just keeps on getting better and better. He is open and aware, kind and generous. When I come to visit, he welcomes me with such warmth and sweetness, and it is very genuine. His passion is music, and he plays his guitar for fun, and is getting a band together. He loves animals, has a great sense of humor. He is a great athlete and outdoor adventurer. He grows more handsome all the time and stays in great shape. He is a courageous risk-taker, and a truly fine man in every sense.

Men – sometimes you’ve gotta admire them!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rocky Mountain High

Today I'm in Ouray, Colorado, a spectacular tiny town surrounded by towering, snow covered crags on all sides. My friend Missy and I are staying here at a place where there are natural hot springs where we can soak surrounded by these mountains, and by wild deer grazing on the grass a few feet away. I've been in Colorado since Monday, mostly in Grand Junction where Missy and her sweet husband, Mark, own the Main Street Bagel Bakery. This is the most soulful and welcoming place in town, and attracts crowds of hungry people all day long. Mark (below with his dog, Dora) makes the most amazing, frothy, home-brewed Chai anywhere, and their baked goods are just superb. It's worth a trip to Colorado just to eat here!
Missy (photo above shows her at the Bagel shop) and I go way back. We've been friends since our children were little, so probably almost 30 years. Even though we don't see each other often, our friendship is a treasure and we immediately fall into that easy conversation that goes on and on and on for days, deep and free and wandering and wide open to each other. I love her dearly and feel so lucky that we made this time together.

On Tuesday Missy and I drove up to the Colorado National Monument, an area of red rock canyons and hiking trails just outside of town, and hiked up there for several hours of solitary bliss. The trails and roads were so high up that you could sometimes look down at the tops of large birds soaring in the canyons below - awesome!Yesterday was my birthday, and as you can tell, it was celebrated in High style! There was an even more amazing icing on my cake - my niece Amy gave birth to her new baby daughter, Kathryn, yesterday morning in New Hampshire. Those of you who know me know how I adore Amy and her husband, Carson. She and I are bonded at the heart, big time. Even though it wasn't planned this way, for her first baby to be born on my birthday just feels like a huge gift. I'm very excited and thrilled for them and can't wait to see my new grand-niece and shower her with love!

Today we will probably go up to Telluride, after some hiking around Ouray. I return to Santa Cruz on Saturday. It has been a total joy to travel so extensively around the country and be with so many dear friends along the way. I'm flying!!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pittsburgh, hmmmmmm.........

After four days in Pittsburgh, there is much (and little) to report. Of great interest here is the topography of the city. It sits on a wedge between the Allegheny and Monongehela Rivers, and these join to make the Ohio River, which runs off west to join (?) the Mississippi. Pittsburgh wears dozens of bridges like jewels in a spiky tiara. Some parts of the city are quite flat, while in other areas steep, rocky ridges run right throught the town, and whole sections of the residential areas are built along these precipitous hillsides, scattered up and down in places where some mountain goats might have a second thought about setting out for a walk! Don't be fooled by what appear to be grids on this map - the streets wind and twist and torque about in ways that no street should ever have to go. Driving here is torturous at best, and if we did not have our portable GPS system, we would probably be in Cleveland by now, having given up altogether on finding anything. In addition, this is a city of vast contrasts. Its history is of steel manufacturing, great steel mills down near the rivers, with the steel workers climbing back up those hills at the end of a long working day. Now the steel mills are long gone, but the old buildings remain. The big names here are Carnegie, Mellon, and the city boasts a fine array of huge, gorgeous old buildings, opera houses, ballets, museums, skyscrapers, and even a "Cathedral of Learning" (below, visible from our hotel room). We've seen at least 4 universities here: Carnegie-Mellon, Univ. of Pittsburgh, Chapman College, and Duquesne Univ. Perhaps there are more. There are mansions and grand avenues, and then just as quickly there are whole sections of the city that seem to be boarded up, falling down, and just downright grim. From our hotel, we have been able to walk 1/4 hour in almost any direction and find nothing to eat. Commercial ventures such as restaurants are located someplace else. We are so lucky that we have a car here. Others are not so fortunate. An older Italian couple staying here have no car, and are staying on for several more days - their frustration about having to forage for food is verging on the desperate!

We've seen a lot of art, both at the wonderful Fiber Arts International show in which Daniella is participating, and then throughout the city at other venues. Today we went to the Andy Warhohl Museum, and then a place called the Mattress Factory, which does huge installation pieces only. Interesting. (installation above by Deborah Aschheim).

A few vignets of local color. I pushed the hotel elevator button a few days ago and it slid open to reveal an entire packed car full of adolescent boys in bathing suits, heading down to the hotel pool. Turns out there is a wrestling convention sharing the hotel with us so there is all sorts of young boy energy writhing by.

At a gallery yesterday, two young women sat discussing how to order a commission piece from a gallery artist. The women had a huge wad of cash which they were flipping through. The gallery owner phoned the artist while they sat there. The conversation was "yes, these clients would like to commission you for a special piece. It's for a retirement gift. The man is white and very bald, and they want to have his face made in clay. Do you think you can do that for them?? I have his photo right here and I can fax it over for you to look at." Of course I was eavesdropping, but I was also feeling great gratitude that my fellow workers, when I retired, did not come up with a similar idea of a gift for me!

Our plan is to fly out of here tomorrow, me to Denver and Daniella home. But a huge Nor'Easter storm is bearing down on the East Coast, and rain, snow, and wind are forecast for tomorrow. (Today we only got the rain and icy cold). Pray that we get out of here, and don't end up spending the night at Pittsburgh airport instead! Ciao!!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Feeling the Love ....

Washington DC. What can be said that hasn’t already been written a million times? Grandiose and magnificent buildings, great museums, huge public spaces, wonderful public transportation, enough to make any American proud to be an American (a feeling I’ve been missing for the last 6 years). Honestly, I felt that feeling several times over the last several days and it was as surprising as running into an old lover unexpectedly - tinged with pleasure, slightly embarrassing, but rooted deeply and securely in my heart of hearts. I love our country, I love Washington, and this visit only deepened that relationship. Of course we flipped the bird surreptitiously in our pockets as we walked past the White House (Homeland Security is always watching), but otherwise I felt the joy of loving my country again. Amazing! Travel can help with that too. We stayed in the Georgetown University Conference Center, which was a fabulous choice of places. We walked miles, and ate great food, and were stunned by art and architecture and the vibrant electricity of the city.

Last night we were royally entertained by old friends from 20 years ago at UCSC, a lovely family who cooked us a yummy Persian meal. It was great to renew that friendship after so many years. Hamid was always one of my favorite students. In all the years I worked at the university he had a special place in my heart, and that hasn’t changed!

Today we drove by back roads across Pennsylvania (my favorite way to travel – I avoid freeways). Somehow everything struck me as funny. The first thing was a pit stop at a very rural McDonalds where an older woman sat smoking in a booth. Her white hair was coiled in rolls across her forehead, row upon row, like little sausages. Beneath that, she wore rosy pink eye shadow, lots of it, under her deeply penciled, steeply arched eyebrows – think St. Louis arch in deep brown. Their shape bore no relationship to her head or her eyes, but were a construction purely of her own desire. Face was powdered a chalky white. Back of her hair looked as if she had run out of white coloring – it was a mix of many colors, not a pretty sight. She was as close to a Diane Arbus photograph as I’ve ever seen in the flesh. I longed to photograph her myself, but couldn’t think of a polite way to ask. We moved on.

Next were a series of places we passed: “Johnny’s Motel – Private Showers and Free TV” (as opposed to group showers??); ‘’Exotic Dancers Here Every Friday’’ (next to a falling-down building out in the woods, surrounded by abandoned and crumbling cabins; “Shy Beaver Boat Center”; “Snake Springs” (a town where goats were grazing freely along the roadside). “Clearance Sale on Display Homes” next to a row of dismal trailers rotting haphazardly along the roadside; “For Rent – Tower for Release” (on a peeling-paint billboard, topped by something that looked like angel wings); Hoke-E-Geez (a business of unknown content). Roadside sign: “For Sale: Fresh Fur Pelts, Home-Grown Beef, Ginseng”. We were mystified by the sheer number of houses that had a huge metal five-pointed star on the front of the house (perhaps 2-3 feet in diameter). A little internet research seems to point to them being Amish symbols for good luck and health. They were everywhere.We saw beautiful stone houses and log cabins from the 1700’s. We rode along lovely rivers, through forested meadows, trying to imagine what this countryside would look like in summer when the leaves were on the trees. We saw birds nests in all the bare branches, and a couple of times spotted eagles soaring way above the Allegheny mountains.Tonight we are in Pittsburgh, an elegant town by all accounts. Here they have opera, ballet, symphony, theater, art, and rivers of steel. We will be here until Monday and will explore it all!

One for the Road

When I travel I always look forward to some good reading time. I set out on this trip with Wallace Stegner, a favorite writer, and a second (big) book Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. I thought those would last me for the length of this trip. I finished the Stegner right away, but haven’t even started the other one. I got side-tracked in Augusta, or maybe blind-sided is a better description. Our friends there handed me an absolutely stunning memoir, All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg. I read the first few pages with my heart pounding in excitement. Since then, that’s all I’ve wanted to read. It has been the perfect thing to read in the South. I can’t put it down. I’m already grieving that it will be finished soon and I’ll have to move on….

I’ve read and loved a lot of southern writers – Lee Smith, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Pat Conroy, and many other great ones. This book of Bragg’s is so beautifully written, so elegiac, and his stories just burn into my memory. He writes in great tradition, yet his work is unique and tells his life with such truth and humor and dignity. I’m completely absorbed in it these days, dreaming it by night and day-dreaming it by day. I think he has written more. I need to read all of his books. If you’re looking for something fabulous, read this book!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Road Trip, Part 2

This morning finds us in Washington, DC, on a chilly morning when "snow flurries" are among the forecast possibilities! Since we packed for Florida and a warm southern spring visit, we have been freezing our butts off for the last few days of bone-chilling temperatures. Yesterday, in Charlottesville, we sought out the local Goodwill store to stock up on turtle-necks and sweaters. I'm not sure that will be enough, but it is a definite improvement in our lot!

Since my last post, we've been having a fine time! We spent an afternoon and overnight at Peckerwood Plantation, a gorgeous spot owned by our friends and their relatives. The photo at the top shows the lake with all the flowers blooming around it, and the little fishing dock where the bass and bream are just popping out of the water. We experienced more great southern hospitality (all along the way), and slept like babies in the silence of the deep woods around the lake. It was hard to leave, but we had to get on the road and head north.The next day we visited my cousins, John and DJ, in Salisbury, NC. This was another gorgeous small town, and we got the royal treatment, and the benefit of DJ's phenomenal cooking including a fabulous Easter dinner, with baked ham and coconut cake, and all the trimmings! Here the dogwoods and azeleas were blooming full-out as well, just lovely everywhere. Yesterday we were in Charlottesville, Va. for a specially planned lunch date at a new restaurant there, Orzo. Our friend Ken Wooten recently opened this new place, located in a wonderful "food-oriented" complex of businesses, somewhat like a mini-Ferry building for those of you familiar with San Francisco's most mouth-watering spot. Anyway, the lunch did not disappoint us. Every bite was fabulous, so if you're ever in this part of the world, be sure to put Orzo on your agenda!

Now we're off to explore DC. We'll hope it warms up, but we're going anyway!

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Surprising South

I just wanted to check in and just let y'all know where we are in our travels.

We are in Augusta, Georgia, this morning, staying with friends from many years ago. We are here in the tip-top height of the dogwood and azalea blooming season, and the town is sparkling with color and beauty. The Masters Golf Tournament is happening a few blocks away, and thousands of golf faithful are swarming everywhere like locusts. Weather is cool and sunny (60's), hospitality is fabulous. We've been eating grits, collard greens, sweet potato-pecan pie, and other delicacies of the area. Today we are going out into the countryside where this family has a vacation compound called "Peckerwood Plantation" (no kidding!), where we will lounge about, eat a picnic, and meet the rest of the family, all the Bubba's and Mary Sue's and Miss Debbie's we've been hearing about. Local stories are gothic and full of drama, murders on the front lawn, suicides, lots of divorce and pregnancy dramas.

Throughout the South, the biggest surprise for me has been the absolute abundance of spectacular trees and bird life. Everywhere we've been (and I do mean everywhere) the air is filled with the sound of birdsong. In Florida, my brother lives on a small lake in Sarasota that was swarming with herons, ibis, bald eagles, many varieties of ducks, and numerous song birds, cardinals, mockingbirds, and who knows what else. I could have spent every day there just staring at the birds coming and going. But of course we did so much more - went to some fabulous tropical gardens, with orchids, banyan trees, ferns, and many exotic plants. Walked on the snowy sands of Siesta Key beach (see photo above). Visited the Ringling family home, Ca d'Zan, and fabulous art museum. Spent precious hours with my adorable brother, Dick, and his wonderful wife, Marnie, catching up on the years and having great family time.

We drove across Florida at racing speed in our clunky Mitsubishi rental car (not a lovely car in any way) so that we could make it up to Savannah for Passover dinner on Monday evening. Daniella had written to the synagogue up there to see if anyone would take us in, and received an invitation from the family of a woman rabbi. As it turns out, we were the guests at a small family dinner, in a spectacular home out in the "lowlands" on Skidaway Island, a place that looked right out into the wetlands with - you guessed it - more gorgeous trees and water birds everywhere. This family was sparkling and delightful. They had out the crystal, silver, best china and linens, and the evening was full of laughter, singing, and fantastic food. It was a very moving and extraordinary Seder - I'll never forget it, especially the two children who were so bright and involved in the ceremony.

The next day we explored Savannah, walking for hours through the city's shady squares, and looking at the amazing old houses. It was hot and humid there, and we decided to try to find a place to stay that was smaller, near the water, and a little less citified. So we headed north to Beaufort, South Carolina, where we found a motel right on the waterfront (Savannah River). Despite my misgivings (this is Marine training central, a few hops away from Parris Island) this little town was full of charm, more fabulous colonial era homes. It is the spot where "The Big Chill" was filmed. Our favorite part was a walkway along the riverfront where there were dozens of hanging swings (like some people have on porches) where you could sit and swing and watch the river go by. What a wonderful idea!

On Wednesday we explored Charleston for a little while (didn't have nearly enough time there) and liked it better than Savannah. It is elegant and has a beautiful light reflecting off the buildings. Every street seems to be steeped in history, the buildings so ante-bellum, Victorian, or neo-classical, white pillars, wrought-iron railings, trailing wisteria (blooming of course), dogwood, huge trees. It is gorgeous and artistic. We'll go back there for sure. We drove out of there on tiny back roads, past old plantations that used to be staffed by slaves (now open to the public as museums, but we didn't have time). Made it to Augusta, and here we are now.

After Peckerwood, we'll leave tomorrow for North Carolina. I'll try to write again in a few days - sorry this is so long, but it has been a long trip! We feel so lucky to be having this adventure!