Lessons From the Road: A Slice of American Life

The drive from Lake Tahoe to Park City, Utah along Route 80 is like traveling across the moon. It is an eight hour trip through the middle of nowhere. A full tank of gas is a necessity. It is important to remember this if you ever happen to be traveling this stretch of highway.

nevada-route-80

Route 80 Nevada

The landscape is desert sand, sagebrush, salt flats, train tracks, and an occasional cluster of trucks, RV’s and Port-a Pottys gathered together for a dirt bike rally. Exit signs mark various locations, such as Hot Springs, a place where smoke rises from the desert soil like hot water from a steamy tub but the springs are not a destination. A pipeline runs in a mile long circle and what appears to be a power plant stores energy from thermal springs. Rich and I speculated on what exactly was going on there.

Below the sign for the exit was another sign: No Services. Exits with gas stations are far and few between. If you’re ever driving Route 80 across Nevada, keep that in mind.

nevada-rocks

Rock formations along Route 80 Nevada

Economizing, we had rented a small bright red Yarvis. The golf clubs didn’t fit in the trunk so we put the back seats down. It also had a wimpy horn that Rich tooted every once in awhile, making a sound like the Roadrunner. However, the little car that could did occasionally reach ninety miles per hour. Most of the ride we tried to keep to the speed limit of seventy-five. The gas tank was much smaller than we are used to. If I ever rent a Yarvis again, I will remember that.

On the radio, we found a local talk show that filled us in on What’s Happening in Winnemucca, Nevada. Bill, a lifelong town employee passed away recently. He worked at the Water Department, and then Parks and Recreation until he retired. He enjoyed golfing and playing with his grandkids. The local schools in town are being redistricted. One school district has too many kids and the other has too little, so students living at the new apartment complex over by the Good Morning Furniture Store will be sent over to the underpopulated school.

A burst of green would occasionally appear on the horizon and we’d drive by what looked like turf farms or a stand of cyprus  running along a driveway leading to a group of trailers or a small ranch house. A woman on the radio sang, “I hate you. I love you. I hate that I love you.” Rich thought she sounded confused and changed the channel.

There are four exits for Winnemucca, population 7,396.  At the second exit a sign on a building announced Beer and Brothel. Get Off Now. “I suppose that could be interpreted in more ways than one ,” Rich said. The gas stations advertised slot machines but we had a half a tank. The full tank theory hadn’t occurred to me yet. Remember that?

sun-dance-casino-winnemucca-nv

Winnemucca, Nevada

It was a sleepy, quiet Sunday afternoon in downtown Winnemucca. We needed to stretch our legs and find a restroom. I suggested the Winners Inn and Casino where the New England Patriots game was on the TVs. It was Brady’s first game back. Unable to pick up the game on the radio we watched a few plays. Slot players sat alone dropping quarters in machines on a blue sky day and only one blackjack table was occupied with a woman wearing a flannel jacket and stiletto heels and a chain smoking young guy  in a leather jacket and baseball cap. Leaning his elbows on the table, he looked anxious. He hit on a sixteen. Although my husband never gambles a good friend of his does and he whispered, “You should never hit on sixteen.” The dealer, a woman a little older than me, won the hand and swept his chips away. A rancher in blue jean overalls and a white T-shirt headed into Pete’s Kitchen, a 24 hour diner.

Outside I took a few photos. The bar across the street from the parking lot offered an all day Happy Hour. Back on the road, we picked up a good radio station outside of Elko. Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, and Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country. The trippy music set the scene for desert mirages until we lost the  signal and found an old episode of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. On the west bound side of the road, a tractor trailer was flipped on its side. Two police cars and a couple of auto body shop guys were loading the cargo from one truck to another.

In Elko we stopped at Burger King and got the two for $10 Big Mac Meal Deal. Several miles back Rich said we should get gas at the next stop. After we ate we got back in the car and onto the highway where we blew through Wells fifty miles down the road. Twenty miles east of Wells, Rich shouted, “Shit, we forgot to get gas.” The next town was Wendover, fifty five miles east. The red light came on twenty miles after Rich shared this dire news so we pulled into a rest stop to ask a guy in a truck if he had some gas. Everyone drives around with gas when they live in the middle of nowhere, right? No, not necessarily. If you’re ever driving this road, remember not to take that for granted.

“Wish I could help you, but you’re not going to make it,” the guy in the truck said. “There are no exits between here and Wendover. You can’t even turn around and go back to Wells.”

Luckily, we have Triple A so we gave them a call. They found someone in Wells but it would take about an hour for him to get to us. We  immediately started arguing and blamed each other. I said it’s the driver’s responsibility to keep an eye on the gas. He thought I should have reminded him about the gas. On the bright side, there was a restroom in the parking lot. I walked over to use it and Rich paced back and forth along a dirt bike trail. When I returned a woman in a beat up old truck filled with a kitchen table and chairs pulled in to take her sheep dog for a walk. Her short hair was carrot colored and she was wearing a sweat shirt that said, “Over the Hill? I think you have the wrong person.” She appeared to be in her mid-sixties and was driving a faded blue station wagon, the passenger side dented.

We told her we had run out of gas and on the off chance, we asked if she had some. “Oh gee, I wish I did. It’s happened to me before so I should be prepared, and by the way, I know the Triple A guy in Wells. He’s a good kid. I was married to a gambler and you know what they say. Fill your tank before you go to the casino. You might not have gas money when you drive home.” It has happened to me before, too. I should have remembered the road trip to Florida.

As her dog sniffed around the parking lot, she told us she was moving to Ogden, Utah. She lived back in Elko for twenty years, “the longest I’ve ever lived in a place. My husband said we had to move there and then four years later he dropped dead. I had a good job so I stayed. But now my daughter in Ogden has scleroderma. You know what that is?”

“Some kind of auto-immune disease?” I asked.

“Yes. Your skin stiffens and turns to leather. Your feet curl up, you can’t walk, your face stiffens up, you can’t eat. Your organs, too. I’m moving out there to help her die.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Forty-five.”

We talked for awhile about life, bad luck, and her plans to take a road trip with her daughter while she could still get around in a wheelchair. Another dog owner pulled into the rest area and his dog jumped out of the car. Her dog got nervous and she said, “I better go. He’s afraid of other dogs.” We wished her well and then she was off. We never got her name. After she left, we didn’t return to bickering. I rolled down the windows in the car, got out my laptop, and started writing. Rich called some friends on his cell phone and spent the better part of the hour’s wait talking on the phone.

The tow truck driver arrived about forty minutes later. He was a handsome young man who had been working at the tractor trailer rollover all day. The truck rolled over one and a half times but the driver suffered only a broken wrist. “He was lucky,” he said, then told us the cost for the gas would be $11.25. The service call was covered by Triple A.

We got on the road and texted our friend Steve in Park City to let him know what happened. He said he’d have cold beer, red wine, and beef stew in the crockpot waiting for us. Thirty-five miles later we saw the town of Wendover in the distance. A mirage with neon casino signs blinking like stars against a pink and blue sunset sky. In the distance was the Utah border and the Bonneville salt flats. It appeared to be a large lake but as we got closer we realized it was an alien landscape flat as a pancake covered with thick crusty salt that looked like snow. To the west the scene was interrupted by mountains, to the east the salt flats appeared to go on forever and you could almost see the curvature of the earth.

desert-mirage-nv-ut-border-wendover

Wendover, Nevada

The view turned to darkness as the sun set and the stars came out. The moon which was just a sliver four nights ago was now a full half moon. I stared out the window at the passing taillights and thought about how running out of gas isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, how their journey will play out. Losing my Mom this summer was sad and I miss her but my loss pales compared to the road that lies ahead for the stranger I met at the rest stop. In a fortunate life, our parents pass away when we are adults and we don’t have to bury our children. The mother I met In Nevada was moving to Ogden to help her daughter die. A cheerful, friendly stranger at a rest stop who I will not forget, delivering a message to not sweat the small stuff when traveling the road of life.

LONG MAY YOU RUN

Three Days on the Road

My car is repacked. We emptied it for the trip to New Orleans and left the boxes in our friend’s garage in Orlando. The ruptured brake line had been repaired but then we discovered the master cylinder needed replacing. Our man Clenard said he could get to it on Sunday so we hung around with our friends for one more weekend, cooking amazing dinners and relaxing. The guys got in a round of golf.

There really isn’t much you can do about life’s mishaps. It’s called the middle class squeeze. Here we are embarking on a new way of life. We’ve reduced our monthly nut once again. We will be living at the inn in a five bedroom house attached to the main house. There will be no rent to pay, no utilities, no drive to work. All that’s left are automobiles, health insurance, one more year of our younger daughter’s college tuition, food, and other miscellaneous items, but before we can even get there we’re hit with a five hundred fifty dollar auto repair bill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The vehicles are old. My car will join the 200,000 Mile Club somewhere north of the Mason/Dixon line. The shocks are gone. The car bounces and squeaks as it carries a heavy load. Let’s hope she makes it. I never gave this car a name and she’s so reliable I wish I had, but it seems beside the point now.

My very first car named himself. It was a blue Toyota Corolla I bought from McGee Pontiac Toyota in Hanover, MA, a client of the public accountant I worked for in Boston who gave me a good price on last year’s model. For some reason I can no longer remember, I registered the car in Rhode Island using my parents’ address. My license plate was ED 937. Ed McGee. Ed was one of those guys you always call by their full name. We have several friends like that. Dave Stott. Jim Green. Mike Mills.

Ed McGee at Daytona Beach 1982

Ed McGee at Daytona Beach 1982

Ed traveled cross country twice. My current car, the Hyundai, has traveled up and down the East coast, spent a lot of time at lacrosse fields in the Mid-Atlantic, and commuted forty-five minutes both ways from Exeter, NH to Ipswich, MA five days a week, fifty weeks a year, for four years. The miles added up quickly but she has required little maintenance other than oil changes which were not as often as they should have been because how do you find the time to change the oil when you’re always driving the car? But she never complained, she just got the job done. Let’s hope she and I make this last trip without incident.

Day One

I packed a bag of music for each vehicle. Day One I am listening to Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dire Straits, David Gray, and Tori Amos. I play the music really loud and sing along so as not to hear anything worrisome from the car. If I can’t hear it, it’s not happening is my philosophy. I know my reasoning is faulty but to use an expression my husband despises, it is what it is.

Our goal is to drive roughly four hundred fifty miles a day. Today’s destination is Florence, South Carolina. On a long trip like this I become one with the road, the passing scenery, the names of towns, and the geography. So many of the names I see recall scenes from American history. (In case you’ve forgotten, I am the daughter of a U.S. History teacher.) I love the names of the bodies of water I cross-the Rappahonock, the Allegheny, the Chesapeake, the Susquehana.

My husband and I are not caravanning. He keeps an average speed of sixty-five miles per hour because of the weight of his load. I’m traveling between sixty-five and seventy. I report my border crossings. He calls in for a gas station pit stop up ahead or a lunch break. We speak in terms of corridors (the I-4 and the Northeast), beltways, route numbers, and mile markers.

Le

Leaving Orlando

We stay pretty close until the end of the day when I get well out ahead of him and beat him to hotel number one-a Fairfield Inn in Florence right off Route 95. Of course I think of Sam Ryder, the protagonist in my latest novel Life Is All This, writing his novels and blogs at the Fairfield Inn in South Florida. I decide Sam Ryder would be another one of those guys whose friends would refer to him by his full name.

We have dinner at the restaurant next door that looks like a chain but is actually a local place called Percy & Willy’s where we have the best French Dip sandwich we have ever eaten.

Day Two

After the free breakfast at the hotel, we’re back on the road. My music line-up for the day is the Talking Heads, Sting, J.J. Cale, Dave Matthews Band, and Natalie Merchant. A guy from Georgia with a bumper hitch towing a wheelchair with a pillow flopping off the side passes me on the left. I saw this guy yesterday. I wonder if he too stayed at the Fairfield Inn in Florence.

I pass a woman from Florida driving a truck with large lettering on her rear window. A Woman and Her Truck Are A Beautiful Thing. She is also driving solo and hauling a trailer. She looks to be in her mid-sixties. I wonder where she’s headed. There are lots of snowbirds on the road north, driving trailers towing cars with bikes attached to the rear bumper.

Somewhere in Virginia

Somewhere in Virginia

The medians of North Carolina are covered with wildflowers. Red poppies. Yellow black eyed Susan. Something pink I can’t identify at 70 m.p.h. I am on speaker phone with my friend from Rhode Island who shared this ride with me two years ago when I moved to Florida. We discuss Lady Bird Johnson, agreeing the Highway Beautification Project was a great First Lady kind of thing to do and shake our heads at the the thought that something like that could never get passed through Congress in this day and age of crumbling highways and falling bridges. Although I do acknowledge the road has narrowed down to one lane quite frequently on this trip, as I have crossed several bridges that are finally being repaired.

Arriving at our destination together, we pull into the Courtyard hotel in Annapolis at 6 p.m. On the road into town for dinner, we are stopped by a lineup of a dozen cops who ask us where we are from, where are we going, and have we had a drink this evening. “Yes, we had one an hour ago at our hotel.”

“Well, we’re running this DUI checkpoint all night so if you have another one, you will be taking a breathalyzer and you will be over the legal limit.” Oh, really? My husband orders ice tea with his dinner and our waiter tells us the roadblocks are really killing business. It is Cinco de Mayo and we are the only customers at Buddy’s Crabs and Ribs, seated in a large dining hall with a full buffet of raw oysters, crawfish, catfish, and seafood pasta salads. I ate here years ago when my daughter played lacrosse tournaments and college games throughout the mid-Atlantic.

My younger daughter recently asked me, “Do you remember that weird time in our lives when we were lacrosse people?” Yes, of course I do. I made potluck portions of pulled pork that I reheated in a traveling crockpot, or the Barefoot Contessa’s Shrimp and Orzo salad which blew everyone away. I always planned some sightseeing; a trip to Teddy Roosevelt’s house in Oyster Bay, N.Y., a stop at my cousin’s in Bethesda where we took the metro into D.C. and visited the monuments and museums, a visit to the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy, a walk through Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Hey, we drove all the way down here, we might as well see something.

But on this trip north we’re all business. We are anxious to start our new life and get this drive in our old vehicles behind us. We get lost driving back to the hotel and miss the DUI checkpoint. Back in our room, we catch the Teddy Roosevelt episode of a Ken Burns NPR documentary.

Day Three

We leave Annapolis just after sunrise. Today’s music lineup is Mumford and Sons, Allman Brothers, Miles Davis, and Enya. The day starts peacefully. A drive through the farms of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Heavenly sunlight shines through puffy white clouds onto freshly planted fields. We chose this route because my husband wanted to avoid the beltway around D.C. But the Northeast Corridor lies ahead, always a difficult drive on the last leg of the journey home to New England.

heavenly sunrise

We cross the Delaware bridge onto the New Jersey Turnpike to Route 95. The potholes are getting larger. The highways wear the battle scars of a long Northeast winter. The shocks are no longer absorbing the potholes and there are no breakdown lanes. My car bounces like a trampoline. Squeak, Squeak. I forgot to buy more Velcro to attach my EZ Pass to my windshield as we drive through the tolls that began in Maryland. Leaning forward to hold the EZ pass up to the window as I approach the toll booth for the George Washington bridge, I notice the giant pothole too late. Clunk. Groan. Oh shit.

My nameless girl creaks and wobbles a bit, complaining about why at her age am I making her drive with all these boxes on her seats and in her trunk. Where are we going and what are we doing? Haven’t I worked hard all my life? How many more miles must I travel?

I lost sight of my husband back on the Jersey turnpike while I was driving in the car lanes and he was over with the semis and RV’s but as we reach the crest of the bridge with Manhattan over my right shoulder and rain beginning to fall, we catch sight of him up ahead. Enya is singing a soothing song. I relax into the Orinoco Flow and the comfort we feel when we see my hubby just up ahead calms my jangled nerves. My nameless girl’s chrome heart still beats. She keeps driving the road ahead. The only road we know. We are headed in the right direction.

Crossing the George Washington Bridge

Crossing the George Washington Bridge

It Could Be Worse

When my children were young one of our favorite storybooks was a tale by James Stevenson titled Could Be Worse! It’s the story of a grandfather whose grandchildren think he’s boring because every day he has the same marmalade and toast for breakfast while reading the newspaper. Whatever daily mishaps occur, from splinters to flat tires, he always says the same thing. Could Be Worse!

I have taken on a lot of work during the tax season. As always with accounting, most of it is boring and tedious. Scanning paperwork, paying bills, data entry on Excel spreadsheets. There is never that sense of accomplishment you get when you write a book or paint a house or teach a child how to read.

I have never heard an accountant say, “Look at this tax return I finished. What a beautiful refund.”

Or “How about this report? Do you see the balance and symmetry, how the debits equal the credits. Amazing.”

But it’s always paid the bills, provided the health insurance, and it could be worse. One day this past week, I actually had a pretty good day creating a travel log for a truck driver who had brought in a large stack of of reports detailing his travels. The papers were stuffed in a shoebox, curling at the edges, and covered with coffee stains. My boss wanted them entered on Ye Old Excel Spreadsheet.

Date. Miles Driven. Destination. Next gas receipt. Date. Miles Driven. Destination. An entire year of entries.

Listening to music is not allowed in this office so I found a way to do this tedious task while escaping to a place I love. I got lost in my mind. For you see, I am happiest when I am on the road, the highway stretching before me. This is how my day went:

We load the truck and leave South Florida early in the morning. Rolling past scrub palmetto, a flock of flamingos fly overhead and the tales I share with the trucker take us all the way to New Orleans. I tell him about a trip I made here years ago. The Mardi Gras party I crashed at Al Hirt’s house when I was twenty-five. A late night at Tippitina’s, 3 a.m. and who walks onto the stage but none other than the legendary Etta James. The boy outside the bar who looked like Jackson Browne.

The road west out of the Big Easy brings us across miles of long straight bridges bisecting the bayou. Crossing the border into Texas and heading south to San Antonio we pass ranches with windmills and cacti. Eagles fly overhead and an escaped bull slows us down as he crosses the empty highway.

I tell the trucker about the last time I passed through this part of the country. My girlfriend and I pulled into a gas station and noticed something leaking beneath the car. We went into the small office where the owner was watching a soap opera with two female friends. We told him what was happening and he said, “I’ll take a look in ten minutes, this show’s almost over.” They were watching All My Children, which they referred to as All My Kids. He gave us each an ice cold Coca-Cola from the classic red cooler with the bottle opener on the side, and because we were familiar with the series we sat down and watched too.

Outside in the brilliant Texas sunshine, he checked under the hood, started my car, drove it forward, and took a look at the puddle of liquid on the hot pavement. He dipped his finger in, sniffed, and then licked the tip. “You girls been using the A.C?” he asked.

“Yes,” we admitted.

“It’s water.” He laughed. He checked our license plate. “You two from New York?”

“No, Rhode Island.”

“Yeah, that’s in New York, right?”

“Umm, no.” We didn’t want to insult the nice guy so we politely explained Rhode Island was a state, which is why it has its own license plate. You know, the smallest state in the union? 

“Wow. So what brings you folks to God’s country?” he asked.

Very few cars are on the road to Laredo as the trucker and I discuss Larry McMurtry books. Lonesome Dove. Robert Duvall. I tell him I once took a bus from Laredo into Mexico, to visit the cathedrals in Monterey and Saltillo, places you wouldn’t visit nowadays because of the drug cartels and the murders. The bus driver played mariachi music, a few chickens traveled with us, and the scenery was beautiful, all mountains and sagebrush.

A man at the Hotel Rio bar told us Monterrey was the Pittsburgh of Mexico. He spoke with his hand at the side of his mouth as if everything he told us was a secret and he was whispering it to us, but he wasn’t. He spoke rather loudly as he told us about his bachelor apartment with a serape on the bed and how the Hotel Rio doesn’t allow single women in the rooms of men, and “vice-a-versa”. We were happy to hear that.

The bartender hand squeezed the lemons and limes for our margaritas and I think of those delicious drinks every time I have a fresh squeezed ‘rita on the rocks, no salt.

The city was crowded and dirty with lots of gypsy children begging for pesos, their mothers sleeping on the sidewalk. In Saltillo, no one spoke English. The city had narrow streets and mountain vistas. We bought hand-painted ceramic Christmas ornaments that still hang from my tree each year.

The trucker and I travel many more miles before my Excel spreadsheet is finished. In Tucumcari I really feel like a trucker as I hum the song Still Willin’, thinking about weed, whites and wine. In Flagstaff, I recall a day when I took a nap with my husband, back then my boyfriend, in a park under a tree snuggled in our double sleeping bag with the wind howling through the trees.

By now, I am calling the trucker Bobby McGee because I know he’s about to slip away as the stack of gas receipts grows smaller. I read passages from my second novel, Take Me Home, as we pass through the towns that Josie Wolcott visited. Idaho Falls where she met the Indian hotel owners who served her dal with lentils and naan, and Bozeman, Montana where she spent a rainy day with Dr. Andy Radcliffe.

On our way back to Florida for the tenth time in the tax year 2014, we pass through Ogallala, Nebraska which brings us back to Gus in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I traveled through here with a friend of my husband’s on a trip back home to Vail and we took a two hour break from the road to nap, falling asleep to the sound of mooing cattle in a truck parked beside us.

Finally, we pass through Georgia, not far from Dahlonaga where I attended a pulled pork festival and hiked to the Dahlonaga Falls.

Back in South Florida, I finish the Excel spreadsheet and the work day is done. I save it in the trucker’s tax file and tell my boss it’s all set.

“How’d it go?” she asks.

“It was a lot of fun,” I said.

She laughs. She has no idea where I have been all day. It could have been worse.

HOPELESS WANDERER

Random Notes for A Blog

1) The weatherman often mentions Lake Okeechobee, the seventh largest freshwater lake in the United States. The place where so many late afternoon summer storms begin, an hour’s drive from Boynton Beach.

Rich is on board with my latest blog idea. Gas is now cheap. Today’s headline in the N.Y. Times is: Lower Oil Prices Provide Benefits to U.S. Workers. $35 buys us a full tank.

The Day of the Cowboy is the excuse for the road trip. Outside of West Palm Beach, we leave the high rise condominiums and outlet stores to head west along a road lined with scrubby palmetto trees, fields of cows, and swamp land. As always, there are the birds. Florida is a birder’s delight. A scarlet tanager whizzes by, so close he almost flies into the windshield.

2) Family Dollar, McDonalds, Wendy’s, churches, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, more churches.  I was expecting something a little more quaint. A large sign with large red letters proclaims Prayer is the Best Way to Meet the Lord. Trespassing is Faster.

The strip mall parking lots are full of people sitting on the hoods of cars or the tailgates of trucks, waiting for the cattle drive through town. We join them and strike up a conversation with a man from North Carolina who has been coming to Okeechobee every winter for the past ten years and in summer visits bike week in Loudon, N.H. His business is making caskets that can be pulled behind motorcycles in funeral processions. “It allows me to travel around the country selling my product. That’s the way I like it,” he tells us.

Day of the Cowboy

He tells us Florida has more cattle farms than Texas. He’s never been to today’s rodeo. At ten dollars a ticket, he says it’s expensive, but he’s heard it’s worth it. Three men in cowboy hats and boots are leaning against their truck. We assume they are local ranchers, so Rich walks over to ask them about the rodeo.

Wagon Train

The road is now littered with cow shit. The aroma is intense, but a young man with long dreadlocks is riding on the back of a golf cart cleaning up the mess with a long handled pooper scooper.

“Hell of job, isn’t it?” I ask the man from N.C.

“It’s just for one day,” he replies.

Rich reports back. “Those guys aren’t ranchers. They’re lumberjacks from Canada here for the winter. They say it isn’t worth it. It’s not a real rodeo. It’s just a bunch of tutorials and demonstrations. They don’t think there’s any BBQ there, but they do sell belt buckles.”

3) Friends recommended Pogeys Family Restaurant for breakfast. The line is still out the door at 11:45. We are willing to sit at the counter, so we get right in. We both order eggs, hash browns, coffee, and biscuits. Our very friendly young waitress is wearing a Mile High Football T-shirt and we all discuss football. She is disappointed to hear we are Patriots fans. She hates Tom Brady. Why does everyone hate Tom Brady?

Pogie's

When our breakfast arrives, Rich has hash browns and I have home fries. I really wanted hash browns. The waitress checks her slip and apologizes. I have the wrong plate. The man to my left says, “She did it on purpose. She told ya she didn’t like Tom Brady.”

Football and fishing are the topics along the counter. Rich gets advice on the best bait to use for catching bass. “There’s the wild and the farmed shiners. Eighteen dollars a dozen for the wild, but you gotta have ’em. You won’t catch nothin’ using the farmed.”

Crappie Day

4) Instead of the rodeo that is not really a rodeo, we stop at the Okeechobee Trading Post/Flea Market before checking out a trail along the lake that one of the guys at Pogeys told us about. Rich has stumbled upon his idea of shopping paradise. For over an hour, I keep losing him in the alleys and warrens of this barn like building where he buys a golf club:

golf clubs

Sandpaper:

sandpaper

Wrenches:

wrenches

And sunglasses. He spends thirty minutes trying on different pairs and chatting it up with the husband and wife who have worked their booth for twenty years.

sunglasses

I bought six garlic cloves in a net bag.

Lake Okeechobee is larger and more picturesque than we imagined. We walk around a bit, stopping at a mucky pond where two alligators stalk a bird, but one of them ends up with an empty can of Yahoo stuck in his mouth.

Rich makes this observation: “See what pollution is doing to the environment. No one gives a shit. They throw their trash everywhere. This guy is going to swallow that can..”

It did take the gator quite some time and quite a bit of work to get the can out of his mouth. The birds escaped unharmed.

5) We drove home a different route, along the lake through miles of Over 55 trailer parks past more religious signs and crosses, tree farms, and sod farms with acres of beautiful silvery ornamental grass swaying in the breeze. Air boats were in every backyard, like snowmobiles in Maine.

ornamental grass

Passing through Pahokee, the population appears to be one hundred percent African American and housing is mainly rows and rows of apartment buildings with laundry hanging on clotheslines. A local boy claimed his fifteen minutes of fame when he asked President Obama to help his community overcome its economic plight. They appear to still be struggling, as witnessed by the numerous buildings that were boarded up.

Outside Pahokee, the road opens up to miles and miles of sugar cane fields which lead us to the opposite end of the American spectrum. The wealthy town of Wellington, where Bruce Springsteen and Tommy Lee Jones own one of the many horse farms here, and people play polo.

6) Rich knows of a little burger joint/dive bar in West Palm where they sell the best burgers in South Florida. He looks at me and asks, “Brass Ring?” Why not. I’m hungry and I’m not sure if I found what I was looking for today.

The Brass Ring is on a section of  Dixie Highway lined with car dealerships and furniture stores. It’s a cinder block box with no windows that you can drive by without noticing, unless you know it’s there. The delicious aroma of grilled burgers hits you the minute you open the door. College basketball games are on the multiple TV’s. The A/C is set on high. Pool tables fill the back of the room, and in one corner a group of guys swing a brass ring on a rope toward a hook on the wall.

We take a booth across from the bar, order burgers and wings, and a $5 pitcher of Amber Bock served with a Ziploc baggie of ice floating on top. The mugs are frosted, the burgers are juicy, and the wings are messy. License plates and bumper stickers line the walls made of worn tongue and groove oak boards covered with graffiti. Everyone’s been here, including Alecislicious, Tom & Sue whose names are in a heart with an arrow, and of course, Kilroy.

The guys at the bar discuss the upcoming football games on Sunday. No one likes Tom Brady, but some admit he is formidable. Especially at home, on a cold day.

7) Stepping out of the dark bar into the fading daylight, we squint into the sun sinking to the West. We decide to take the coastal route home. There is very little ocean to see along this route. We pass through the hegemonious hedges of West Palm, wondering which home was owned by the Kennedys, and who else owns these mansions of the 21st century.  Are they all Wall Street robber barons? How the hell do they make their money?

Along most of the road the Intracoastal is to our right, but we can’t see that either. Through gated driveways I occasionally catch a glimpse of a postcard perfect sunset, but the view is fleeting. It belongs to someone else, not me.

8) So I have all these notes that I kept throughout the day in my Buddha notebook, which fell out of my purse in Pogey’s, and I quickly shoved back in my pocketbook, because I saw the bumper stickers in the parking lot, echoing the sentiments of the big red sign that greeted us when we arrived in town. I am left wondering what is this mission to find the real Florida? What happened to my country? How did we get here? What am I searching for?

“That was a good day,” Rich said. And yes, I agreed it was, as we settled in to watch Philomena on Showtime, with bowls of chocolate chip ice cream. But I am left without words to explain all that I saw on my road trip through a small part of South Florida in a very large place called America.

 

 

IF I HAD A BOAT

Sailing from the port in Hollywood, FL

Sailing from the port in Hollywood, FL

The walk of life is a winding path. Sometimes you lose your way. Saturday was one of those days.

We drove to John Lloyd State Park in Hollywood. No not the Hollywood where everyone’s a star and an author’s book can become a blockbuster movie. We were in Hollywood, Florida where hundreds of containers were stacked at the port.

Containers

Across the parking lot was a lovely beach where we took a long walk. We pass men fishing from a pier, people setting up for a wedding, and a Middle Eastern family, the older women dressed in head scarves, long black skirts and shawls, enjoying the beach as they smoked from a hookah set on a pile of rocks.

wedding on the beach

We set up a picnic further down the beach and watched five cruise ships depart one tropical shore for another.

cruise ship

Planes leaving the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport crisscrossed overhead; Southwest to our right, American Airlines to the left, a small seaplane below them. A flock of pelicans in V- formation approached the beach from the north.

Other than that we now had the beach to ourselves.

Yesterday I thought I would self-publish my upcoming novel. Today I am confused. I read a discouraging article in the NY Times that painted a not very pretty picture of publishing. A dog eat dog eat world where Amazon is the top dog. What’s a writer to do?

This writer wanted to hop a boat but not a large cruise ship. I know it wouldn’t appeal to me. The planned activities, the crowds, the casinos. Dinner at eight.

Sitting on the beach at Trunk Bay on St. John several years ago, my family and I watched as dozens of cruise ship travelers packed up their Royal Caribbean towels to leave the beach at two in the afternoon. When they were gone, we had the beach to ourselves. An hour later we walked over to the tiki huts where locals hung out listening to The Jam Band. We ordered Cabana drinks and smoothies for the girls and ate spicy meat patties before taking the jitney back to Cruz Bay where we had more food and drinks at a little harborside restaurant. We followed our own time table. It’s the only way I know how to travel.

It’s also the only way I know how to travel through life. In Hollywood, I tried to come up with a plan for navigating the new year. How do I publish my book? How do I sell my book? My mind wandered as it always does. I imagined myself on the sailboat that cruised by. I wanted to catch the trade winds, get out of town, sail back to St. John with just a few bathing suits, sundresses, sandals, and a laptop. Writing for the joy of writing.

I thought about a Lyle Lovett song.

The mystery masked man was smart
He got himself a Tonto
‘Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free
But Tonto was smarter
And one day said, kemo sabe
Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I’m going out to sea.
~ Lyle Lovett, If I Had a Boat

I write these blogs for free, they are a labor of love but I also write them to entice and amuse. And to sell books.

What is happening in publishing today happened to the music industry a few years back when songs became available on free downloads. Musicians hit the road. The summer highways are full of traveling tour buses. But what do writers do for money when books are sold for $1.99 or given away for free? Would anyone attend a lollapalooza of writers reading from their books?

 

FREEDOM TO CREATE

This past weekend we visited the Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale. The weekend festivities included an orchid sale and gourmet food trucks.

Orchid Sale

The house was built in 1920 by the hardware distributor and Chicago artist, Frederic Clay Bartlett, and his wealthy wife Helen who’s father Hugh Taylor Birch gave them the property as a wedding gift. Birch was a wealthy Chicago attorney and general counsel for Standard Oil. By a stroke of luck he met Henry Flagler. If you live in this part of South Florida, you are very familiar with the Flagler name. It’s everywhere.

Flagler was a railroad tycoon who turned to real estate and began to develop South Florida. The two men met on a train traveling from north Florida to Hobe Sound. Birch wanted to travel further south and Flagler lent him a small sailboat. I guess that what’s wealthy people do, they borrow each other’s boats. Setting off alone, he was caught up in a storm and sought refuge at an inlet where he eventually bought the land where the Bonnet House was built.

Sadly, Helen died of breast cancer five years after they married and Frederic rarely visited their Florida home until he met Evelyn Fortune Lilly. A fortuitous middle name indeed. She was the daughter of Eli Lilly, yes that Eli Lilly of Big Pharma. After marrying Bartlett she took up painting and many of her still lifes are on display in the former guest room.

Pallette

The museum guide in that particular room told us one of her Palm Beach girlfriends once criticized her work and Evelyn stopped painting. I loved her paintings and as a writer who has been on the receiving end of criticism I wish I could have told her that woman was no friend and you can’t let the critics hold you back. I am not sure why people spend their time criticizing other people’s efforts but you need to ignore them. Their criticism says more about them than you.

Bonnett House Kitchen

But this is easier said than done. I understood her reaction to the critics. It was just one of the things I liked about Evelyn. The other thing I liked was the casual elegance of her home. The plantation style house was built around a central courtyard.

Bonnett House Courtyard

It’s an eccentric design, none of the rooms are connected, you enter through doors off the courtyard. Whimsical artwork is everywhere.

Ostrich

I couldn’t stop taking pictures. There was something to look at everywhere I turned. I loved these colorful umbrella shutters.

Umbrella shutters

It was outdoor tropical living at it’s best. A rambling house that fits in with the landscape of sea, sand, and tropical flora.

Mrs. Bartlett lived to the age of 109 and many of the guests that day marveled at her longevity. “How did she do it?” they asked. My theory is she lived a charmed life in a beautiful home by a tropical beach and had the time and means to pursue her passions. I envied her pursuit of her art without the mundane worries of middle class life in the 21st century.

There is one more thing I admire about Evelyn Fortune Lilly Bartlett and that was her foresight . The City of Fort Lauderdale aggressively pursued the Bartletts for years, trying to purchase this piece of property for development. In the present day gilded age of new wealth and robber barons, I can tell you there is very little public beach front left in this part of South Florida. Highrises and mansions that rival the Newport of the roaring twenties block most of the once scenic drive along Route A1A. When Evelyn first expressed concern about this she had no idea what South Florida would look like in 2014 and I am grateful she saved this beautiful piece of property for all to enjoy.

“There is nothing left along the shore. There is nothing left except this place from Miami to Palm Beach. I don’t want it to change.” ~ Evelyn Fortune Bartlett

Bonnet House exterior

There might be another secret to Mrs. Bartlett’s longevity. She enjoyed entertaining and had a bar that I covet.

Bonnet House Bar

Some people attribute her health to the house cocktail she served but others say she never drank it herself. Her cocktail of choice was a gin and tonic. Either way, the house drink sounds like a delicious combination of New England meets the Tropics and I am definitely going to be making it for this weekend’s Christmas boat parade. Here’s the recipe:

RANGPUR LIME COCKTAIL

4 parts Barbados Eclipse dark rum

1 part fresh Rangpur lime juice

Sweeten to taste with Vermont Maple Syrup

Combine the rum and lime juice in a pitcher and mix well. Add enough syrup to sweeten to taste. Chill, covered, until ready to serve. Pour over crushed ice in a short glass.

If you’re ever in the greater Fort Lauderdale-Miami area, directions to the Bonnet House are here. It is without a doubt an afternoon well spent.

God & Miniature Golf

To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition. ~ Woody Allen

It is well known in my family that I am not an athlete. Early in my relationship with my husband, on a trip to Steamboat Springs, I broke my tib-fib in a butterfly fracture that put me in a full length cast for three months, followed by another three months in a walking cast. This happened while cross-country skiing BUT we had been in the hot springs, it was getting toward dusk, and the trail was steep and VERY icy.

So when we decided to go mini-golfing on Hilton Head over Thanksgiving I was not expecting much.

“Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or is God merely a mistake of man?” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

There were three courses on the island to choose from. It was a damp foggy day so we vetoed the pirate themed course and went with the one with lots of trees overhead, assuming if it started to rain we would have some cover.

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” ~ Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

mini-golf landscaping

We immediately noticed something strange. At each tee there was a placard with a quote from scripture. Nowhere was there a sign warning us this was a Christian golf course. Not that they necessarily had to tell us but it felt odd and strange. All four of us were a little uncomfortable with it.

“No swearing if you end up in the drink,” I said.

There were a lot of difficult water obstacles on the course. The girls and I were in trouble by the second hole. When my ball splashed into the water, I was the first to say, “Oh, shit.”

balls in the water

The Bible has noble poetry in it…and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.” ~ Mark Twain

My husband brought his putter and his own ball. We at first thought this might give him an unfair advantage. He definitely thought he was going to win.

Rich at mini-golf

“It’s a big mistake to think that your own cause, or your own country, or your own side has God in its corner. For one thing, it commits the sin of pride.” ~ Christopher  Hitchens

After the second hole, my game picked up. I shot a total of four birdies despite the signs that guided my way through the course and sort of rattled me. It bothered me, this let me preach my religion while you golf sort of thing, because of course I wondered, what if someone wanted to open a Muslim golf course? Could such a thing exist here on Hilton Head Island?

golf and god

Freedom of religion only goes so far. Of course the furthest reaches are atheists. I once heard it said that we would see a Muslim elected president before we ever see an atheist take the oath of office. I am not sure if that is true, but George W. Bush once said, “Lincoln said you cannot be President without spending some item on your knees. I have repeated that and a bunch of atheists got all over me. Wait a minute. Does that mean that you cannot be President if you are an atheist? I say yes that does mean that.”

But what did Lincoln mean by item? I have never heard that expression before. Could spending some item on your knees have meant gardening, as in communing with nature? I’m with Einstein on this one.

“I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” ~ Albert Einstein

I was raised a Catholic, most of my family still practices religion. I have no problem with religion but I have to wonder why you need to profess your faith at a miniature golf course where people from many walks of life holding different beliefs are just trying to enjoy a little family time. This is the proverbial slippery slope. I began to imagine my own mini-golf course. I Googled quotes for the placards at each of my holes and am sharing them with you. I wondered if I could ever get it past the Hilton Head planning board.

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” ~ Richard Dawkins

‘Tis the season for wishing folks a Merry Christmas, but during this joyful season there is always that noisy, Scrooge-like crowd who are offended and outraged at the simple cheerful greeting Happy Holidays. They feel stores should require employees to say Merry Christmas. They have forgotten we are a diverse nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion. Maybe they should do all their holiday shopping at Hobby Lobby.

When Christopher Hitchins was dying from cancer many people were waiting for his deathbed conversion. He made this observation, “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know but who are unbelievers and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind?’ That is considered almost a polite question.”

He wondered what would happen if a group of non-believers went around the hospital telling you the jig is up, there is no God. “I don’t think it would be very ethical, it would be a breach of taste. But if it’s in the name of God it has a social license,” he said.

But here I was playing miniature golf with God by my side and I won.

scorecard

And I  don’t care. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “An atheist is a man who watches a Notre Dame vs. Southern Methodist University game and doesn’t care who wins.”