Monday, October 18, 2010

On Waiting For My Mother To Come Out Of Surgery

My ninety-year-old mother had major surgery this morning.

These are some of the things I thought:

--People talk too quickly and too softly to ninety-year-olds.  Really, they miss half of what you’re saying.

----A ninety-year-old waiting for the anesthesiologist to come talk to her looks vulnerable and small.

--People in hospital waiting rooms just want to sit and not talk.  The woman who kept asking everyone if they wanted coffee should have just shut up and sat down.

--Hospital lighting is not flattering to anyone.

--I really hate sitting close to people I don’t know, especially when they smell of cigarette smoke.

--While I am in the waiting room, I do not want to watch “Family Feud.”

--Or Dr. Oz talk about the lies women tell their gynecologists.

--An hour and a half is a really long time.

--The relief that comes with knowing that a ninety-year-old has survived surgery is short-lived and tempered with a sense that the future is highly uncertain.

--Sometimes it doesn’t help to remind yourself that ninety years is a long, long time to live, and that you are so lucky.  Sometimes, you just have to feel sad.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Road Trip, Days 13-15

Day 13

Mount Rushmore is amazing in the same way that an elephant is.  It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the pictures—the first time you see it up close and in person, you are awed.  There is shock in realizing that something whose image is so familiar, so pedestrian, still reeks of majesty.  You stand there and think of presidents and history and why this flawed country and its strident, self-serving, uneducated, small, stupid people are still the world’s best hope, and it’s only later that you realize you didn’t think once about whether the couple whose picture you took were Democrats or Republicans.  And that is what you—I—came away with: that for once, it didn’t matter.

The Black Hills are thick with evergreens and what I think are birch trees: trunks as thin and white as bones beneath gold, syrupy leaves.   The hills dump you into the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and then, in Wyoming, Thunder Basin National Grassland.
It really is an awful lot of grass.
The high point of the afternoon was lunch in Lusk, Wyoming.  The café where we stopped was fully decorated for Christmas: plastic garlands were tacked over beams and doorways, and a lit Christmas tree, topped with a white cowboy hat, winked in the corner.  A sign near our table warned, No Firearms.  A really scary looking guy—gaunt, unsmiling, chinless—sat at the next table watching a TV show about some NASCAR driver’s 12,000 sq. foot house.  He didn’t smile or speak until an older woman came in and said, “Well, Ed, how you doin’?”  Then he beamed.  She sat down and they talked about hunting.  I distinctly heard the word “varmints.”  The cashier told us that next weekend, the town would be mobbed.  “Huntin’ season.”  “What do you hunt?” I asked.  “Lots o’ antelope,” she said.  “They gits in my yard, they bug my horses.  You wanna take ‘em out?  Go right ahead. Fine with me.”

(Right over the South Dakota border, but no hint of Scandinavian lilt.  This is cowboy country.)
Now we are in Casper, which is where Robert went to live after high school.  We found the post office where he worked as a mailman, and his first apartment.  (The post office is next door to the Dick Cheney Federal Building.)

He has had a life experience that is so different from my own.  He moved a thousand miles away from home when he was 17 and has supported himself ever since.  No help from anyone.  I am so proud of him.  And so happy to share Wyoming with him, even though Wyoming is practically my least favorite state in the country.  Cowboys and hunting and Dick Cheney and grass are just not my things.

Day 14

I’m tired.  I want to go home.  I don’t want to work out in a hot little hotel gym.  I don’t want to haul my suitcase and my laptop into the elevator.  I don’t want to eat roadhouse food anymore.
Today was more Wyoming.  Wyoming is too big.  There are no trees, unless you are in Yellowstone, which we are not.  There is no place to have lunch, except Cappy’s, in the town of Rawlins, which wins the award for Saddest, Most Beat-Up Town on this trip.  I will say that I ordered a Philly cheese steak at Cappy’s, which is highly out of character for me, because I have a thing about thinking that nobody outside of Philadelphia knows how to make one.  And it was pretty good.  The people at the table next to us prayed quietly before eating their enchiladas.  It was nice.  I decided in my own head that I was going to pray when my food arrived, but I forgot to.  It is a bad idea to attempt to become devout when you’re hungry.
I would like Wyoming more if I could ride a horse through it.

Now we’re in Salt Lake City, visiting Robert’s sister and her three adult children.  Her two daughters are friendly and giggly and beautiful, like “The Odd Couple”’s Pigeon sisters, only not British.  Dinner at a brewery downtown.  The Temple is hardly visible amid all the new construction.  I miss it.  The city without its severe, pinched silhouette is just any old city on an interstate, lit up with chain-restaurant signs.

Day 15

Salt lies on either side of I-80 in Utah, mounded and white.  Beyond it, the desert extends in all directions, drably beige.

Lunch in Wendover (or, as Robert calls it, Bendover, which is apt).  It’s just over the Nevada border, where all the Utahns go to gamble.  The marquee outside The Nugget advertised a Deer Widow Weekend special outside the Subway where we got sandwiches.  Chippendale dancers were involved.

More desert, although some industrious Nevadan planted lush, yellow-flowered plants along the highway and in the median.  We drove past Pumpernickel Valley and, two hours later, the Rye Patch Dam.  CDs of Itzhak Perlman, the Everly Brothers, and Billie Holiday alleviated silence but not weariness.  Pink mountains ringed the desert, looking like the carved end of a roast.   (I think I wanted to describe the mountains as meat because the valley and the dam made me think of sandwiches.)

Fifty-minute traffic jam outside of Fernley.  Weather : 94 degrees.  Boy, are we tired. 
Home tomorrow, after dinner with my mother.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Road trip, Days 10-12

Day 10

I love Wisconsin, which I have seen for the first time today.

These are some of the things Wisconsin has:

--Red barns.  Not dilapidated, sagging, Green-Acres barns.  Perfect, meticulously maintained red barns.  With silos.  They’re like the ones in children’s picture books that I used to buy to teach my kids about seasons and the weather.  We’ve seen a lot of barns on this trip, but Wisconsin definitely wins the Charming Red Barn Award.
--Rolling hills, i.e., landforms wherein elevation at the top is higher than elevation at the bottom.  Flint Hills of Kansas: take note.
--La Crosse, a college town of beautiful old homes, only some of which have been converted into student housing.  Driving to the hotel from the restaurant, we saw five shirtless young men through an upstairs window of a grand but slightly seedy house, playing ping pong.  (One hopes they were students.)  Bricks and wrap-around porches figure heavily.
--Beer-batter-fried bratwurst.  Yes, we had some.
--Culver’s frozen custard.  On the menu tomorrow.
--Gas stations featuring live bait.
--Perfect 65-degree weather.
--People with charming accents.
--Kay Cashman Cahill, who it is killing me not to see.
--Proximity to other delectable AListers I am missing.
--Turning trees, leafed in orange and red, flaming against dark evergreens and a pale blue sky.
--Fried cheese curds.
--The Mississippi River.
--A lot of geologic formations I am too tired to look up.
--Cows.  Everywhere, cows.

A note on exercise: I have not missed a day of exercise on this trip.  We stay in Holiday Inn Express hotels, which have decent fitness rooms.   I hate exercise, but I hate not exercising even more.  Hence, the bratwurst.

So, anyway, Wisconsin.  I adore it.  I could even live here if 1) it didn’t have snow and 2) it was in California.

Day 11

The fly in the ointment that is the perfection of Wisconsin and Minnesota in the fall is, quite literally, flies.  We stopped just over the border in Minnesota to take pictures along the Mississippi, and a swarm of flies (or maybe gnats, or midges, or something similarly unpleasant) rose from the grass.  You had the feeling they were looking for orifices.  Back in the car immediately to admire the trees—autumnally bedazzling—on the bluffs.  Windows up.

Lunch in Austin, Minnesota, home to Hormel, the Spam capital of the world.  We opted for A & W.  Ice cream is not my thing, generally, but I did splurge on a root beer float, which I don’t think I’ve had since Lamaze lessons, 1985.  (Nurse Nancy made them after class.)  After lunch, we drove through town, which charmed with leafy streets, porched homes, lawn-scented air.  

The weather was spectacular: 65 degrees, a broad, spacious, sunny warmth and, just under its surface, an undercoat of cold that was a promise of something, a hint of what is coming.

Now we’re in Sioux Falls, which is apparently the fastest growing city in the Midwest.  Lots of strip malls and road construction.  Seen on the marquee out in front of a State Farm office: I Just Took An IQ Test And Got A Negative Number.  And on the marquee in front of a computer repair shop:  We Fi x Typ ewriters.  The old section of town is dark brick (as is so much of the region).  Lots of Irish bars.  A huge Catholic church overlooks the town, reminding me of the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere in Lyon.  Well, sort of.

Quite by accident, we found Falls Park, which is where the falls on the Big Sioux River actually are.  The falls are not high, but the currents are strong.   

I had such a lovely thought as I watched them: that I was only here because I’d met a man who likes to do the same kinds of things I like to do on trips: eat new things, drive on unfamiliar roads, laugh at signs directing travelers to eat at restaurants called Schmooters and Senor Wiener.
Lousy dinner at a fast-food place that’s all over the place here: Culver’s.  We ate there because they advertise frozen custard desserts.  I had chocolate with caramel sauce and fresh pecan halves.  I can’t remember the last time I ate two ice-cream-like products in one day.

Day 12

The middle of South Dakota is all sky and emptiness.  Corn fields morphed imperceptibly into grassland dotted with hay bales rolled up like carpets.  Are they still bales if they’re not well-packed cubes?  Fields of dying sunflowers faced east, bowed like mourners.

No hills or mountains on the horizon.  It’s like in mid-South Dakota, mountains haven’t been invented yet. 
Lots of billboards: for the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the need to manage wildlife populations (“WEAR FUR!”),the Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, something called Wall Drug.  For de Smet (home of Laura Ingalls Wilder—sorry, Little House On the Prairie fans—no time to stop), for the rights of fetuses, for caves and caverns, the power of prayer, various camp grounds and trailer parks, for the world’s only corn palace.

It is indeed a palace made of corn.  It’s been in the town of Mitchell, in one shape or another, since the nineteenth century, built by a guy who took umbrage at Lewis and Clark’s assertion that no one could ever make a living in South Dakota.  

Right now, it houses a small arena featuring a basketball court and a stage.  Murals (also made entirely of corn) on the outside of the building are remade every year.

Yes, corn.  The cobs and the husks.  This is one of the murals.

Just outside of Rapid City, I noticed the ‘Maintenance Required” light flashing on my dashboard, which really ticked me off, since I had the car serviced at a Jiffy Lube somewhere in the Ozarks.  We pulled off the road and found a garage.  The young man at the desk was friendly as could be.  He examined the car, figured out the problem, fixed it, and didn’t charge us a thing.  Thanks, Taylor, at Advanced Automotive Repair.

My stomach is upset.  I’m tired.  I will crawl into bed and read Lorrie Moore’s THE GATE AT THE STAIRS (excellent) and try not to feel homesick.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Road Trip, Days 7-9

Day 7

We stopped at a grocery store to buy yogurt this morning.  I waited in the parking lot while Robert went into the store.  While waiting, I realized 1) I have never seen a Same-Day Dentures in a strip mall, or anywhere, 2) in Missouri, 70-year-old women drive pick-up trucks as often as young men, and 3) California does not have grocery stores called Smitty’s.

I don’t really know much about St. Louis.  No one talks about it anymore.  So when we rolled in this afternoon, I didn’t even know what I wanted to see.

From the car, we saw a tall building that turned out to be Barnes-Jewish Hospital, located on King’s Highway and affiliated with Washington University.  The residential neighborhood there (Fullerton’s Westminster Place, on the National Register of Historic Places), is one of the grandest urban neighborhoods I have ever seen.

  Most of the streets are gated on at least one end, discouraging casual drive-throughs.  The houses are immense, close together with very small setbacks from the street, mostly in the Georgian, Romanesque, and Renaissance Revival styles.  (I’ve been checking out Wikipedia.)   The trees!  The trees!  So lush on every block, rustling in the hot breeze.
Then we crossed King’s Highway and drove through Forest Park, where the St. Louis World’s Fair was held in 1904.  More grand homes on the edge of the park, looking like the house in Meet Me in St. Louis (which, Wikipedia tells me, has been torn down).  The park ends at Washington University, which is surprisingly beautiful.  To anyone with pre-college-age kids: keep Washington U. in mind.  I wish I could go there.

For dinner, we went to Hodak’s.  Obscenely loaded plates of fried chicken.  Excellent cole slaw.  So-so fries.  Robert had two beers; I had an iced tea.  Total bill: $26.
Out of curiosity, I just looked at MLS listings for homes in the Fullerton’s Westminster Place neighborhood.  Several houses are listed for one-third (ONE THIRD) what we paid for our house in 2007.  These are homes with a full three stories.  Some have carriage houses. 
But none, I see, is a block from the ocean.

Day 8

Overheard on morning radio just outside of St. Louis:
Disk jockey #1: My doctor says there are only two things you should do in your bedroom.
Disk jockey #2: Fighting and crying?
Disk jockey #3: I thought it was begging and sulking.

Illinois is the land of corn.  And rhyming billboards: “Where danger lurks/Remember, sonny/That rabbit foot/ Won’t kill the bunny.”  Sponsored by
Now we are in Joliet, about 40 miles outside of Chicago.  Robert grew up here.  Family lore has it that he ran away from home when he was two and was found several streets away, happily heading out of town.  He had to wait until he was seventeen to make another run for it.  Now, he returns for family visits and 40th high school reunions.
Tonight was the pre-reunion reunion, held at an Irish bar across from a football field where Joliet Catholic was playing to packed crowds.  Terrible parking.  Reunion planners are apparently morons. I am so grateful that I (and my children) did not grow up in a community in which football wields such a dominant influence.  There are so many other, more interesting ways to be in the world.

It is so much more fun to go to someone else’s reunion than to my own.  First of all, I’m five years younger than everyone.  Second, a lot of people stared at me, trying to place me, which was entertaining.   Third, there was booze.  Fourth, everyone called Robert Bob.  Five, all the men sounded exactly like Mike Ditka.  Lots of talk about disliked teachers, asshole coaches, who dated whom, who pulled Brenda Jackson’s wrap skirt off in the hallway, who got benched, who hung out at Jim’s Blast Furnace during lunch to smoke.
Robert looked handsome in his black Tony-Soprano shirt.  I was, once again, overdressed.  Why do I always overdress at these things?  Tomorrow night I’m wearing jeans. 

Day 9

A leisurely tour through Joliet.  First stop: Dan’s Candies, where I bought a caramel apple, and where I would have bought more if I hadn’t seen a framed, signed picture of Ann Coulter on the wall behind the cash drawer.  Then we drove past Robert’s high school, which is imposing and castle-like, his childhood home, the streets of a historic district where one of his old friends lived until recently.  Paid a visit to Elmhurst Cemetery, where his parents are interred (near actress Lynne Thigpen, who was four years ahead of him in high school).  Meandered through Pilcher Park, where elm trees shimmered in the wind.  It was cold, and the sky looked threatening.
We had a late lunch at Little Joe’s Pizzeria with Robert’s older brother, his girlfriend, and his daughter, son-in-law, and two high-school-age grandsons, whose genial politeness to me on the two occasions I’ve been introduced to them is worth noting.
Robert went to a working-class, racially integrated high school from 1966 to 1970.   Tonight, people mingled, talked, and laughed uproariously in a downtown bar.  There were no signs of old wounds or divisions, at least none visible to an outsider.  The din (enhanced by a pitiful live band playing sixties classics) was remarkable.  Robert (aka Bob) was popular across all groups.  His “posse” hung out at the bar.  I heard about how he was thrown out of Band for refusing the director’s order to cut his hair, how he and friend Buff got high in Pilcher Park, how he and friend Grant did some painting for an 80-year-old neighbor and managed to see up her dress (where it was determined that she was not wearing underwear).
It occurred to me as I was listening to the conversations around me that when one meets one’s significant other in midlife, it is especially nice to go to his high school reunion.  Tonight I got to know Bob the smartass, the rebel, the popular guy, the stoner, the hippie with long, thick, abundant hair.  It is nice to have the picture rounded out.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Road Trip, Days 4-6

Day 4

Seen from the interstate highway system in west Texas:
--Incredible frontage roads that allow one access to nothing and go nowhere.  They just run along the edge of the sparsely traveled interstate and then stop. 
--Abundant, beautiful black-eyed Susans.  (At least, I think they’re black-eyed Susans.  I never know about plants.)
--Just outside of Odessa, the second largest meteor crater in the country (and the sixth largest in the world).  Weird.  Glad we stopped.

--Also outside of Odessa, a billboard reading, Nancy Pelosi—Two Heartbeats Away From the Presidency: This is a Joke, Right?
--Vast oilfields under dark, low clouds.  The air smelled faintly of gasoline.  Surreal, ugly.  You can’t help but wonder what’s in the water.
-- Signs in Midland to The Presidential Library.  (This is a joke, right?)  We drove on.
--Several large wind farms in and around Abilene.  T. Boone Pickens?  There is certainly a lot of wind.

In Abilene, we got off the interstate and wound our way through west Texas back country.  Spectacularly beautiful.  Well-paved two-lane highway through charming Albany and Throckmorton.  Texas drivers are much better behaved than their California counterparts.  Green hills, cottonwood trees—which I only know because of a sign for Cottonwood Road—happy cows, hay bales.  Huge horseflies, but otherwise, really idyllic.

And then, quite accidentally, we drove into the next little town and decided to stop at the Dairy Queen for a Blizzard.  It was hot, so we parked behind the sandstone (maybe?  No better with rocks than plants) courthouse and got out of the car to sit on a bench.  I wandered over to a War Veterans Memorial and was taking a picture when I noticed a book store, Booked Up #4. Puzzled, I crossed the street.

I have never seen a bookstore like this in my life (across the street from the public library!).  Enormous.  Rows and rows of 12-foot-high shelves packed with used books—some leather-bound, some just old—extending the full length of the very long space.  I was the only person in the store; there were no other patrons, nobody at the front table, behind which a sign directed you to “Bring your purchases to Booked Up #1, on the other side of the courthouse.”  I browsed a little, but truthfully, I was afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. I felt like a soap bubble on the edge of an open drain, about to be sucked away.  I do remember a few random books: a compilation of ancient Turkish texts, an examination of 1950s Broadway musicals, and the autobiography of Mary Pickford.

I left the store and went back to Robert, who was still sitting under the tree, not feeling well.  “Where the hell are we?” I asked, and in the next breath said, “I could live here.”

It turns out that we were in Archer City, Texas, home to one of the premier rare and antiquarian book collections in the world, owned by the town’s most famous native, Larry McMurtry.  Here’s one of the articles I found online:

Now, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t buy something.  But I’m so glad I stumbled on the town.  I don’t think I will ever forget that store.
This is why it pays to take the back roads.  And stop for Blizzards.
The only other thing I have to report is that on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, I noticed a turnoff for Anadarko.  And it occurred to me that in Saving Grace (the recently wrapped TV series starring Holly Hunter), the lead character’s name is Grace Anadarko.  Maybe a geographical joke?

Still reeling from Booked Up.  Now watching the Forty-niners/Saints game.  One minute 20 seconds left.  Robert may have a stroke.

Day 5

Oklahoma City’s National Memorial is located downtown, near other Federal office buildings.  It’s a moving, quiet, heartbreaking place.  Two tall, black, stone (marble?  Jeez.  Not sure) arches on either end of a shallow, rectangular reflecting pool.  Inscribed on one arch: 9:01; on the other: 9:03.  The attack was at 9:02; the inscriptions refer to our last moment of innocence and our first moment of grief and, ultimately, healing.  Tiered stone benches on a grassy rise overlook one side of the pool.  On the other: 168 chairs, each bearing the name of a victim.  Nineteen chairs bear the names of children.

It is shocking to remember the day of the attack, how naïve we were, how ignorant of what was coming.  Sickening to realize that fifteen years later, we are still a nation where zealots and freaks among us can procure weapons easily and with impunity, under the guise of exercising constitutional rights.  As Chad Ochocinco says, Child, please.

Onward, north.  Kansas interstate is bordered by yellow flowers (that are not black-eyed Susans) and lush prairies.  The Flint Hills are hills in the same way that I am a blonde.  If it were snowy and you tried to ski on them, you would come to a complete stop halfway down.  The gentlest of slopes.  Grasses that shimmer in the wind.  Vast and nearly treeless beauty ornamented with the occasional billboard: ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR AND REPENT Or You Will Regret It.

You know you’re not in California when you are listening to a radio station broadcasting Walter Brennan singing about a mule.

Now in Kansas City’s Westport district, a Midwestern version of Noe Valley.  A tense moment at the front desk of the hotel while I waited in line behind a group of five middle-age men to check in.  One of them graciously allowed me to go ahead of them, and when I said thank-you, there was quite a bit of talk about me buying them dinner and them drinking vast amounts of beer and Joe needing to be careful because “uh oh, she’s got a camera!”  Very relieved when Robert came in with the suitcases.

Later, we walked down the street to the Jerusalem Cafe.  I meant to have fried chicken or a steak in Kansas City, but frankly, I’m sick of meat.   Yummy gyros on a balmy, breezy night.

And now it’s almost midnight.  Robert is sleeping.  Outside our window, the night is yellow with parking-lot light and occasional flashes of lightning.  The thunder cracks and roars, and the rain on the window is sizzling like something roasting on a spit.  I have never known a man who sleeps like this.

Day 6

Drove through the Kansas City neighborhood where Mr. and Mrs. Bridge lived (in the Evan Connell novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, two of the most significant books I read growing up).  Fun to see Ward Parkway and signs to the Plaza.  Then found Swope Parkway and drove to a more modest section of town, where Robert spent summers at his grandmother’s.  The house is still standing, although he says it looks smaller.  His grandmother was the light of his young life: the kind of grandmother who made hot breakfasts for fifteen people, had a freezer full of popsicles that could be eaten whenever you wanted one, and baked the best lemon meringue pie he has ever eaten.  (His older brother used to beg Grandma to make “one of those women meringue pies” when he was little.)

Left leafy Kansas City and drove south.  Narrowly missed running over a tortoise crossing the highway just outside of Harrisonville.  Stopped at an Amish store with “FUDGE” painted on the wall facing the highway in Rich Hill.  (Honestly, all any roadside business needs to do is advertise “fudge” and I will pull over.)  As we parked, two ladies in drab-but-patterned street clothes and black snoods were leaving.  Inside, we found locally made jewelry, jars of locally made chow-chow, eggs in pickled beets, mustard eggs, eggs in pickled jalapenos, butter “made from first cream,”  bottles of traditional Amish wedding ciders, and various kinds of candy and nuts.  We bought honey-roasted pecans, a taffy-like candy called Mary Janes (Robert loved them as a kid), and homemade peanut-butter fudge.  Passed on the pickled eggs, but with regret.

In Joplin, we picked up Interstate 44 heading east.  I’ve just finished a manuscript that takes place in a mythical town between Joplin and Springfield, and I wanted to check out the town of Mount Vernon, whose chamber of commerce website and real estate listings were useful to me as I researched the Ozark area.

Mount Vernon is home to Turner’s Calico Corner, a general store selling candy, fabric, notions, country kitsch, religious paraphernalia (passages from the Bible ran on the electronic neon crawl in the front window), homemade fudge (which I nobly resisted, still so full of Amish fudge that I could barely walk), and country/cutesy signs (“Chocolate, men, and wine are all better when they’re rich”).  I bought something called “MeeMaw’s Recipes” just so I could talk to the woman at the counter to hear her accent.  Then we went to the Red Barn and Grill.  Robert had a huge slice of lemon meringue pie (not as good as his grandma’s, but pretty close); I had a ham and cheese sandwich.  More talking to the waitress, so I could get the accent right.  Not quite southern, but not California-newscaster, either.

Now we are holed up in Springfield.  Too fat to eat a real dinner, but I had a salad downstairs.  Our waitress was a cranky woman in her seventies who lived in Santee, California for many years.  “Do you like it in Springfield?” I asked.  “I hate the winters,” she said, which made me think we were smart to plan this trip for September.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Road Trip, Days 1-3

Day 1

Beautiful day of fog and eerily warm weather on the central coast.  Tightly wedged into my ordinary car (which is not as zingy as Robert’s, but does have the advantage of being cheaper to fuel), we made the now-familiar drive down 101: past Salinas and Gonzales and Greenfield, past exits to Fort Hunter Liggett and Paso Robles, down the precariously steep Cuesta Grade into San Luis Obispo, through Pismo Beach and Nipomo (“Gary Bang Harley Davidson”) and the seaside splendor of Santa Barbara (which is starting to look like a strip mall for rich people).  On to Ventura (which always makes me think of Tori Amos) and the gloriously named western suburbs of LA: Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Calabasas.
Eagle Rock is a funny little corner of Los Angeles: still full of neighborhood shops and small, well-kept bungalows that haven’t been McMansionized.  It’s a neighborhood that isn’t particularly pretty or quaint, but it’s a neighborhood—it has that kind of feel.  You can eat at the Oinkster or Auntie Em’s Kitchen, where the red velvet cupcakes are divine.  There’s a Baptist church, a Christian Assembly, a church for Seventh Day Adventists, and St. Dominic’s.  I overheard someone at Swork Coffee say that most of the parishioners at St. Dominic’s are Filipino.
We had dinner with both of my kids at our favorite area restaurant, Café Beaujolais, whose authentic French food is served by authentic French waiters.  One always wonders if they are out-of-work actors.  I ordered a chicken leg stuffed with cheese.  “I have a big one for you,” our waiter crooned Frenchly.  I said the only possible thing there was to say—“I like big ones”—which thoroughly mortified my daughter.  We split a bottle of wine.  This marks the first time I have ever had wine in public with both of my kids.

Lots of fun conversation, which involved discussions of relationships, school, work, west-coast swing, whether my daughter should text her boyfriend (who was partying with fraternity brothers in Vegas), why my son should date Jennifer Connelly, should she ever become available, how I have a huge personality and interrupt people when I am comfortable with them.  And how I am quirky. 
Now it is 1 AM and I am suffering from the insomnia that arises from a combination of an unfamiliar bed, the roar of an overzealous air conditioning unit, and the peculiar-but-ultimately-gratifying realization that my children think of me as an actual person rather than just their mother

Day 2

We drove down to Del Mar because Robert is training to ride his bike cross-country in a year or so, and we wanted to scope out the beginning of the trip from the safety of a car.  We wound our way through endless housing developments, none of which existed when I lived in San Diego in 1979 with my then-soon-to-be-husband.  Eventually, we ended up in Poway (“the city in the country” said the sign, which was lying, because “the country” is actually “the Godforsaken desert that no one in his right mind would live in”).  More driving up hills studded with brush and some sort of burnished grass.  Julian, at 4200 feet, is home to Mom’s Pies and a crowded biker bar, but we couldn’t linger. 
Onward through hot, desolate, mournful desert.  Twenty cars all afternoon.  Temperature hit 112 at 1:30 and remained there for hours. 

We passed a camel farm (selling milk, cheese, and rides for children).  It was like Afghanistan, except for the music we listened to: CDs of Buddy Guy and Andrea Bocceli, a couple of decent rock stations.  Weirdly, just east of Yuma, we heard part of a documentary on Count Basie narrated by Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme).
After descending the mountains east of Julian, we turned onto a road with a sign noting that it was the southern stagecoach route of 1849.  Apparently, no one has been on it since then.   Forty-seven miles from the turn-off to the town of Ocotillo.  The only people we saw were some Border Patrol officers about a mile outside of town.
I’m always fascinated by the kind of terrain that people find appealing.  I know lots of people who like the desert.  I do not.  I like farmland: old houses with porches, rolling, green hills which speak to abundance and self-sufficiency.  The desert is terrifying and angry and sullen: a surly teenager in a nasty snit.  Halfway through the afternoon, I started to wonder what I would do if one of us had a heart attack or (almost worse) if the car blew a tire.  What I realized is that there’s no margin for error out there.  One mistake and that’s pretty much it.  You’re done.  (In my head, I’m hearing my friend Jim saying, “A roast is done.  You are finished.”  But in 112-degree weather, I’m sticking with “done.”)
Robert is discouraged.  We have to find another way for him to get over the mountains.  More research necessary.
Billboards outside of Yuma: “Do You Miss Me Yet?” (over a picture of a smug-looking George Bush; “Remember When We Really Had Hope and Change?” (over a picture of Ronald Reagan).
Outside of Tucson, a jagged mountain looks like an open-mouthed fish emerging from the sea.    Who the hell lives here?  At 9 PM it was 100 degrees.  At Texas Road House, where we went for steaks, enormous TVs broadcast the Arizona-Iowa game.  Men and women all over the restaurant were riveted, silent.  I am so glad I don’t live here.
(Lest anyone think I am incredibly self-deluded, I would last about three days on a farm.  I am not built for chores that involve sweating, tractors, or smells.  I would like the pie, though.)

Day 3

Temperature as we loaded the car at 9 AM: 97 degrees.
Drove past Tucson developments in which all the houses look like clay adobes.  Lots of Saguaro cacti.  Sky a brilliant blue, except at the horizon, where it was tinted sepia, as though it had been singed.
Near the New Mexico border, we noticed a billboard advertising a winery in Fort Bowie, Arizona.  We couldn’t pass it up.  We drove into a sad, dusty town, past metal trailer homes, a wooden house painted pink, in the shape of a teepee (with windows), boarded up, a For Sale sign out front.  The only thing that seemed to be thriving was a beautiful orchard of tall, thick pecan trees. 
We found a little store by way of a sandwich board out front: “Wine, fudge, pecans.”  

Nothing else about the building looked remotely like a retail establishment.  But we went in.  There were shelves of wine made from the grapes of a local winery, “chocolate merlot” and “caramel chardonnay” sauces for ice cream, and a variety of fudge home-made on the premises.

I skipped the mint julep fudge and settled on peanut butter chocolate.  Quite wonderful.  We bought a  syrah and can’t wait to drink it at home.
New Mexico was all sky and puckered clouds.  Crossed the Continental Divide, where successive billboards advertised a trading post selling moccasins, saddle blankets, turquoise jewelry, Mexican pottery, cowboy boots, porcelain dolls (“from $18.99”), and leather whips.  Far-off, smooth-sided mountains with severe peaks looked like pyramids.  Temperatures in the high 90s all afternoon.  Happily, we had good CDs: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Smith, the best of Sly and the Family Stone.  And just outside of Las Cruces, El Paso’s KOFX 92.3, playing 60s R & B.  Sang along to “Wooly Bully” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”
Reached El Paso mid-afternoon.  Situated directly across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, where crumbling shacks and huts crowd the riverbank.  From the freeway, we saw an enormous Mexican flag flying proudly in the near-distance. 
Once out of El Paso, we drove through more high desert, then mountains, then more desert.  “Drive Friendly—The Texas Way,” warned the signs.  The clouds were different from those over New Mexico: scattered, but thick and dark.  Serious Border Patrol guys held us up for a few minutes while their dogs sniffed our car.  We had to open our cooler.  The agent, wearing a bullet-proof vest, seemed disappointed at our cache of Crystal Geyser Sparkling Waters and waved us on.
We saw a rainbow and what looked like dry lightning.  At sunset, the light against the clouds was very Sistine Chapel-y, which went well with the Marfa NPR show featuring West Texas swing from the 1930s.  We drove in the dark for a time, coming to rest in Pecos, Texas.  I can hear the semis out on the interstate, heading back to El Paso, or north to Odessa, where just today, a Vietnam Vet and rabid Republic of Texas supporter was finally captured by Rangers after a shootout.