Bold, red font

I was a few years older than both of them- old enough that the words ‘El Salvador’ and ‘Nicaragua’ evoked a deep-gut sense of danger and violence.  I vaguely remembered a news story of nuns and priests being killed, and there’s a hazy memory of men in khaki uniforms with machine guns.  Maybe that’s why, when I devoured guidebooks before we departed on our ten day bus trip, the travel warnings that were written in bold, red type stood out to me.  The ‘places to go’ and ‘things to see’ were intriguing, but it was the red warnings that I really paid attention to.  Of course, like in all places, you shouldn’t walk alone down dark alleys.  But the more I read about Central America, the more it seemed like we were heading into one really big, dark alley.

I had considered myself a seasoned traveler, having spent the previous six years zig-zagging my way through almost all fifty states.  And while sometimes I worried whether I had enough money to get to my next far-flung job location or worried that a wheel on my van would fall off and literally go rolling down the road (again), I had never thought too much about my personal safety.  This road trip was going to be completely different and somehow I just knew that I had to go.

Our first stop on the trip was Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. This strange-named place either meant “in the hills of silver” or “in the home of sharp stones”, depending on whose linguistic and historical interpretation you read.  I read both, and neither made sense to me.  We arrived well into the dark of night at a cement bus station surrounded on all sides by an eight foot wall of rusty metal bars; reminiscent of a cage.  I found it odd that we were in the capital of the nation, but there were no street lights.  As we peered out into the blackness, we could see that the bars were not meant to keep us in, but to keep everyone else out.  Shirtless, wide-eyed men stood outside the perimeter, gripping the fence, and glaring in at the new arrivals.  At this stop, it was just the three of us. We grabbed our backpacks, secured them tightly onto ourselves, exited the cement building toward the gate, and emerged.

Immediately, we were swarmed by the men, each yelling at us, yanking our arms to take us to a “very nice hotel”.  We had memorized the map in our guidebook and headed swiftly with feigned confidence to our “hospedaje”- a home that offers rooms for rent.  It was only about a quarter of a mile away from the bus station, but my heart raced like we were in a marathon.  The men refused to leave our side no matter how many times we said “no.”  One pointed at my water bottle.  I offered him some, casually, as if I wasn’t petrified.  He took it and didn’t give it back; I did not protest.

We finally arrived at a tall wall of cement, topped with embedded jagged glass and saw the hand-painted sign that read ‘Hospedaje’.  After passing in through the gate, we arrived at the door, which was also barred, and waited for our host.  The shirtless men remained behind the glass-topped barricade.  She led us through two more solid doors to our room:  three twin beds, one lamp, and a small window near the ceiling, which was sealed shut. I was relieved to have arrived, relieved to be residing deep within bars and cement, relieved that we were safe.

Quickly, we got used to either eating dinner well before sunset, so we could walk home in daylight, or not eating dinner at all.  We followed all the other red-type travel warnings as well: we didn’t wear jewelry or nice clothing, we didn’t wear any army or camouflage colors, we strapped our passports to our bodies under our clothes, and we carried only small bills and change in our pockets.  I used a small black plastic bag as a “purse” and hid my camera in it.  We avoided being flashy and visible.  I mostly avoided eye contact.  But our pale skin and wide eyes must have given us away because we were often approached.  I rehearsed a sharp, determined “no.” and repeated it until it was second nature.

We spent our daylight hours visiting town squares with ornate old churches and museums that had seen better days.  I took pictures of the empty, crumbling buildings and wondered what had happened.  What did this mean about the people’s faith and the people’s history?  They were just relics of something that might have been, but wasn’t anymore.  We rode dilapidated buses around town along with live chickens and women with baskets of baked goods on their heads.  On one of these bus rides, a few days into the trip, probably in Nicaragua or Guatemala, I can’t remember which, I was sitting with my nose pressed against the window, staring out at the rubble on the other side of the foggy glass.  What was I doing here?   I was hot and uncomfortable, breathing exhaust fumes and waiting for another day of taking pictures of old buildings.  Then I felt a tap on my foot.

I looked down and saw a cupped hand, stretched up from the floor of the bus.  And then I saw his eyes; bulging and desperate.  He made a noise, not really words, but I understood what he meant.  The red warnings flashed into my head: do not give money to beggars.  So I shook my head quickly and looked away, more comfortable to look at a devastating sadness out of a window than the one at my feet.  From the corner of my eye, I could see him moving away from me.  He was crawling on his forearms down the center aisle of the bus, his legs wasted and limp, dragging behind him.  It was difficult to tell whether he was a man or just a boy because his body was so emaciated and dwarfed with sickness and hunger.  I watched as he tapped the feet of the other passengers, all locals, all poorer than anyone I had ever known.  And they each bent over toward him, touched him, and placed coins into his cupped hand.

I was struck by their kindness and immediately I was struck by the harsh reality of my own coldness.  Even as I write these words today, I shudder.  His eyes still haunt me.  I am ashamed that I was so insulated by fear that I did not give change to a starving man.  I did not deserve to be taking pictures of churches.

I realized then that I had been robbed- not by the people here, but by the travel warnings that I had allowed to cloud my experience.  I had lost days of my life staring through windows and not actually looking at anyone.  And for as much as I thought I knew about the world, I had never seen it as acutely as I did that day on the bus.  Nor had I ever had to come face-to-face with the callousness that could exist inside of me.  It was not just fear; it was privilege.  That man on the bus gave me more insight than any guidebook could have delivered.

That is the day I stopped taking pictures of abandoned churches.  I started taking pictures of graffiti and people and flowers.  I bought watermelon slices from the woman who carried them on her head.  I tried to speak Spanish to the people who approached me, which often made them laugh.  I made eye contact.  And I was unharmed.  I realized that you do not have to abandon your humanity to be safe.  I wished the guidebooks had written that in bold, red font for me to read.

I, of course, still never walk alone down dark alleys, but from that day on, travel became a way to understand myself and the world better, even when the lessons came through uncomfortable means.  Travel is not just about what you see, but how you look at it.  Sometimes you see the sharp stones.  Sometimes, however, you see hills of silver.

Hunting for Agates

Minnesota, 20 years later: video

It is a “tourist” thing to do; to creep along the shoreline of Lake Superior with your pants rolled up and search for agates. A well-banded, red agate can be worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Our only instruction on finding them came from an elderly woman who told us, “glance across the stones and if you see one that sparkles, it’s an agate.” And then she opened her hand to reveal her prize of the day: three tiny crystals nestled into the deep wrinkles of her palm. They were not agates, but we didn’t tell her that. By then end of the morning my pocket was bursting with multi-colored rocks. Some, I was sure, were quite valuable.


But we hadn’t come all this way for the stones. It was an anniversary, of sorts. Twenty years ago, Bob and I split up in Utah. He took a bus back to New York, and I took our van up to the tip of Minnesota. We wanted different things then. He was ready for love and stability, and I just wanted to explore. In that long summer up north, I had met three lifelong friends. It was time for Bob to finally meet them.

us n van

Snow had already accumulated on the side of the road, but the sun was shining when we got into the car and it was warm enough to pull off our winter coats for the long ride up. “If you see a green tractor, pull over. It’s Brian,” Dayna had told us. We knew that seeing Brian on this trip would be unlikely. He lived in his hand-built cabin in the woods and tended to his dozen dogs; living a life away from people on purpose. Brian was the epitome of a Northwoods man: solitary and wise. When Dayna divorced him last year I think it was because he was too much of both of those things for her.


“Remember when we swam all the way to Canada?” Dawn asked.

swimming to canada

The road was smooth and monotonous, but its familiarity kept sprouting up old memories. “I do,” I replied. “Remember when we canoed too close to that bull moose?” We were always looking for adventure back then, but this time in the woods, we craved quiet. “Tractor,” Dawn yelled. I looked over and saw Brian perched on the seat of the vehicle. His legs were crossed and he was grinning right into our car, as if he was expecting us right at that moment.


We veered onto the gravel roadside and Brian climbed down from his seat to meet us. He took a big drag of his cigarette, paused, then asked, “How…are…ya?” I had told Bob about Brian’s ‘smoke-talk’ where his words come out in halted bits, followed by a huge puff of smoke. I was thrilled Bob got to see it in Brian’s first sentence. He told us about losing his special dog ‘Pickle’ and how life on the land was getting to be too hard on him. There was no room for small talk on that Minnesota roadside. “I have to get back on the water and paddle,” he explained, wiping the crusted dirt from his jeans. “The people I work with now don’t talk about their feelings (long exhale); they think it’s not manly.” My hands were in my pockets, playing with my new agates as I listened to him.


“What ya got there?” he asked, hearing the sound of them tumbling. Bob and I both pulled out our collections for him to see. “That there, that is a fine rock,” he said and plucked a bland grey stone from Bob’s pile. “I think it just fits perfectly in your hand,” Bob explained, “an ideal holding rock.” He passed it around for each of us to feel. It was silky soft from the weathering of tides and its shape, somewhere in between round and oval, naturally made your fingers want to close over it. I looked at him, proud of his rock, and knew that he was right. It was perfect. I opened up my fist and let my agates spill onto the gravel. He had been right all along.


Eat Your Heart Out, VanGogh.

The stars had aligned.  We had one night free, it was slated to be cloudless, and the moon was just a sliver of its full self.  So we packed the car and headed to one of the darkest spots on the east coast to camp for the night.  Cherry Springs State Park in north/central Pennsylvania is an astronomers paradise.  Perched atop a small mountain and surrounded by valley-hugged small towns and wilderness, light pollution is virtually non-existent here.  See that small black dot on the map?  That’s Cherry Springs.  And a cloudless, moonless night here will blow your brains map

Not that it should be so strange to see so many stars, but it is.  We are humans that deny the night in many ways.  For nearly all of human history, the night sky was the teller of tales past, of myth, of religion, of mystery.  And as we sat there in a crowd of people, none of us seemed to know which bright dot was a planet, including, sadly, me.  I felt estranged from something that was as much a part of me as the eggroll I ate on the car ride.  We are all made of stardust and apple pie, Carl Sagan had explained.  And barely any of us in this country get a chance to just hang out and look at ourselves.

dark sky

I didn’t even really need the star map we brought.  Honestly, the names of the twinkling dots didn’t mean as much to me as just seeing them swarm and smother the blanket of night.  I don’t think I’ve been anywhere more romantic than sitting on that little bench, neck crooked backwards, soothed by the predictability of the star’s existence.  Bob leaned his head on my shoulder and I kissed his cheek.

The Least Einstein-y Version of the Theory Of Relativity

ac distant on gravel

My Aunt Carol-slender, beautiful, and nearly eighty, is standing like a flagpole atop a mountain of gravel she just climbed in her open-toe sandals. She is wearing wispy white pants and has a t-shirt wrapped around her head in an ingenious attempt to create a hat and scarf in one.


We are gazing into the depths of Jökulsárlón Bay, where hunks of jagged ice float across the placid aqua lagoon. The wind is blasting through our flimsy clothes and smacking our faces like a mother in a rage at her naughty kid. But as any truly naughty kid knows, the beating is totally worth it.

We departed the endless glass and crisp buildings of Reykjavik three days ago and were immediately swallowed up by moss roofs and gingerbread. That’s when everything started breathing.

moss roofs and gingerbread

Icelanders believe in elves and magic and this no longer surprises me. The landscape is alive. Water pounds and hisses; it gurgles and erupts.  Deep in the interior, volcanoes churn and conspire.


sulfur springs

Even the air is thick and pregnant, like if you scooped it into your hand, a tree would sprout from its nothingness.

But as the clock hands wind around the dial, the pulse of the world grows louder to me.  We prepare for the inevitable by piling blankets on top of the drapes, on top of the curtains, on top of the blinds, trying in vain to mute the midnight sun. “Maybe our luggage will arrive tomorrow,” my Aunt Carol hopes out loud, and tosses me her pair of eye-shades.  She is fierce and graceful in a way that 80-year-olds are not.

I had imagined I would be clutching her elbow everywhere we went.  Yet, she, poised in her brand-new, neon-green nightshirt emblazoned with the word ‘PARTY’, is eagerly anticipating another day of traipsing through the frigid wilds in her filthy sandals.  I am a sack of potatoes; Aunt Carol is a Viking.

Time, I discovered, is relative- in both age and the pretend nighttime of the northern summer.  Outside, the sky repeats the tease of sunset, like it is broken and trapped- trying to claw its way into a new day. But darkness never arrives.

seydisfjordur church

Pale violet brush stokes pierce, undeterred, through the layers of our blockade until, finally, marigold creeps in, swiftly taking over again. And another night’s sleep is stolen.  Here, where the world already looks like a hallucination, the line between reverie and delirium is slippery and thin. I stretch my arm out from under the leaden blankets and cup some of the morning air into my hand.  I am certain a tree sprouted from it.

me n carol; tatooed

A Reflection on Bowie

Today, one of the most creative and groundbreaking artists died.  Just in case there is anyone out there that thinks he was just an artist and not a revolutionary, here is a paper I wrote about him and the song ‘Afraid of Americans.’  Its not exactly about travel, but it IS about compassion and global awareness– the foundation of any quest for human understanding.

McCulture: “Afraid of Americans” As a Reflection on the Injustice of Globalization

Music critics almost universally dismissed David Bowie’s 1997 song, “Afraid of Americans,” as a last-ditch effort by a flailing rock star to get another bite of the pop-culture money-pie. But the singer, who changed his last name from Jones to Bowie, the revered American fighting knife, slices deep in this song, evoking the horror and injustice of commercial global domination. Bowie once again carves his initials into the framework of music’s ability to shock and enlighten by reflecting and revealing an overlooked societal reality. But this time, instead of a jaunt through an artistic asexual exploration of art and music which he became famous for, Bowie’s song emerges with a political theme: the downfall of global cultural freedoms at the hands of American commercial exploitation. “Afraid of Americans” expresses a profound sense of terror that results from the takeover of the individual by the commercial machine. Bowie deftly weaves his vocals to reflect fear and anger, allowing the audience to experience these emotions, and encouraging them to stand up against exploitation. With this song, which is so eloquently angry and so politically potent, Bowie successfully contradicts his critics, proving himself hungry not for the money-pie, but for global justice.

David Bowie’s most celebrated imprint on pop culture was through his decidedly ambiguous creation of himself in the 1970s. At the time, his demeanor and dress blurred the boundaries not only between man and woman, but also between human and animal as well as human and alien. He created himself as the embodiment of the indefinable by transforming into “self” and “other” simultaneously. The confounding multiplicity of his created personas defied quick analysis. Critics adored it. His avant-garde approach broke ground in a way that defined him as a pioneer who opened the world’s eyes to ways to think, act, and behave more openly. His message was of acceptance and freedom. But then he cut his hair and lost his soul, they said.

When Bowie experimented with Dance and Industrial music on the album Earthling, which contains the song “Afraid of Americans,” he was heavily criticized as being a trend follower instead of continuing to be a revolutionary artist (Baltrush). According to Bowie, the critics’ lack of appreciation wasn’t due a decline in the artist’s creative abilities nor did their criticism reflect inadequacy in the music itself, but instead he felt that their dislike stemmed from the critics’ own deeply rooted prejudices. He explained that in America, “where the abyss between races is really terrible,” there is a parallel aversion to blended music styles (Laban). But noting that drum n bass seemed to attract a multi-racial audience, Bowie expressed a hope that this blended music might actually help to “improve the social level” (Laban). He demonstrates his conviction in music’s powerful ability to enlighten and unite people in his desire to use music to improve a severely divided society. And they claimed he lost his soul.

“Afraid of Americans” exemplifies his drive to improve society on a global scale. Bowie explained that the inspiration for the song came about from seeing a McDonalds being built in Java (Virgin). Instead of the export of fair democratic ideals and the instillation of human rights world-wide, globalization, as he saw it, was dominated by American commercial exploitation. According to Bowie, “The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life” (Virgin). He believed the globalization of the world was dangerous to what he identified as one of the most sacred aspects of life: expression. Reflecting on his past musical and artistic success, we can see why expression would be such a vital issue for Bowie. His message of freedom and openness catapulted his success and influenced his audience.

While Bowie’s sentiment is rather artistic, the co-writer of the song Brian Eno, expressed a more political distaste. A 2003 Time Magazine piece, written by Eno, succinctly and eloquently lambasts the contradictory nature of American “values”, pointing out that the nation that prides itself on its economic strength, pounds its chest with claims of fair democracy, and asserts supreme morality in its adherence to law and order, is actually a nation with extreme poverty, run by wealthy government puppeteers, which consistently evades global pacts in order to pursue its own interests (Eno). He gave severe criticism of America’s flimsy, counterfeit portrayal of justice and righteousness as it exploits the world in a profit-driven frenzy.

While Bowie is disturbed by an evaporation of culture and Eno derides the hypocritical nature of U.S. policies, sociologists are most concerned with a deepening divide within and among societies that has resulted from globalization. Studies have found that globalized markets have created “consolidated black holes of human misery” (Castells 2), where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is not only growing, but solidifying. In the wake of this disparity is an increase in criminal behaviors which challenge the power of the state, the complexities of which Katja Franco explores in the book, Globalization and Crime (Franco). The growing economic and health disparity and its link to crime create a compounded injustice which seems to eat its own tail. Many researchers would agree with Bowie and Eno that the current state of the world’s global interconnection is a threat to social justice that needs to be corrected.

Listeners feel the palpable intensity of this threat throughout the song- at their most heightened, the vocals evoke a pulse-pounding fear, and at their most subtle; a profoundly sinister warning. “Afraid of Americans” begins with a simple, digital sound, a harmless “doot-doot, dee-doot,” which is then matched by Bowie’s vocals, “uh-uh, uh-uh”: an almost lustful, guttural utterance which sounds like an unclear, slightly forced agreement. In this moment, he aligns the individual with the industrial “threat,” creating the sense of the person morphing into the mechanical. Throughout the song there is a competition between the two for strength, which mirrors the overall theme of the work as the individual and cultural struggle against the dominating, consuming force of commercial oppression.

As the song continues, the lyrics begin to intensify this fear. Bowie sings, “I’m afraid of Americans./I’m afraid of the world./ I’m afraid I can’t help it./ I’m afraid I can’t […]” (Bowie). This chorus, repeated eight times, dominates the four minute and twenty-five second song. His words seem to trail off; the sentence is incomplete — as if the singer has either succumbed or been hushed into silence, representing the individual’s powerlessness to oppressive forces. While these lyrics appear to point the finger at Americans on an individual basis, the overall message is definitely broader and indicts commercial interests as the real target of blame. The lyrics emphasize the idea that Americans are synonymous with commercialization and exploitation.

Even the fierce independence that defines American culture seems to be a product of this insidious commercialization of society. Bowie glimpses into the American psyche, noting, “No one needs anyone./ They don’t even just pretend.” (Bowie). What everyone appears to need however, possibly to fill that void, is something to consume.

In the second and third verses, the lyrics follow ‘Johnny’ and his consumptive drive: “Johnny wants a brain./ Johnny wants to suck on a Coke./ Johnny wants a woman./ Johnny wants to think of a joke” (Bowie). The images of a need to consume, purchase, and sexually exploit are the driving forces of this unwitting being. Johnny is the stereotypical stereotype: the Willy Lowman; the Everyman; he is no one and everyone combined, but he is the “face” of Americans globally: the unemotional, unintelligent consumer. Johnny lacks ambition, depth, and, most importantly, morality.

As the song continues, morality becomes the focus, but not in its revival or redemption; instead morality is explored in its ultimate exploitation. Bowie sings, “God is an American,” and he repeats this eight times — the exact same amount of times he repeats the chorus, “I’m afraid of Americans” in the body of the song. From this repetition, we feel a second “theme” emerging. This shift in focus could have many interpretations. It could symbolize the next wave of global domination: the missionary who aligns truth and salvation with the “American God.” Or it could be seen as a deluded justification for American global dominance, as righteousness is linked with all things American and efforts to globalize are touted as morally-driven instead of profit-centered. Whatever the intention of the “second theme” of the song, the clear impression of the phrase is a threat — sung in a disturbing monotone which evokes a sense of brainwashing. This phrase becomes more and more hushed with each repetition, eventually fading away in step with the beat to end the song, leaving the listener to feel a little hollow and a little horrified.

But sometimes, that disturbing combination of hollow and horrified is what motivates people to action. The song “Afraid of Americans” feels like a call to awareness, a call to protest, a call to create change. That theme is reminiscent of the music of the 60s, but instead of mellow, peaceful acoustics, “Afraid of Americans’” driving industrial sound and paranoid vocals portray a fierce sense of urgency. It is like the urgency associated with suffocation and strangulation; when the relinquishing of a soul is imminent. But here, it is culture and individuality that is struggling for its existence. No, Bowie has not lost his soul. Maybe the negative critics were just hoping for more tambourine.

Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Woodie Guthrie Version

The place was eerie even in daylight. But in the dark of night, it petrified me. After kicking out the last drunk cowboys and shutting off all of the lights, I would dart to my room with my heart pounding in my throat. I can’t explain the goose bumps: maybe it was the screeching cat I would hear from the other side of my locked door or maybe it was the cold heaviness in the air that pressed on my skin as I lay awake in bed. I worked for a month at this desolate hotel/bar in Cimarron, New Mexico. But unlike many who stayed there, I got out alive.
The St. James Hotel was built in 1872, seven years after the Civil War ended, when the west was a place of outlaws and vigilantes. Many infamous gunslingers spent nights among the thick, scarlet curtains and ornate brocade wallpaper of the hotel. And in the spirit of bullets and lawlessness, dozens of murdered men became its permanent residents.
If you are willing to sleep with the blankets over your head, book a room at the St. James on the second floor in the old hotel; sadly, the new addition is not nearly as haunted. When you arrive, ask for a tour. This is an ideal time to use the black and white settings on your camera, as the ambiance will deliver excellent grays and imbue a sharp sense of past to your photos. Request to see the always-locked Room 18, haunted by TJ, an angry and violent ghost. A few doors down, you’ll find the communal bathroom. I’d recommend finding a bucket or a large jar to keep in your room; that short walk will be frighteningly longer in the middle of the night.
But there is a softness and sweetness in this town whose name means feral and wild. You can find it in springtime, when the blooming desert wildflowers add a touch of color to the rolling tumbleweed and, more importantly, the summer tourists are still months and miles away. Everyone you meet will be a local: genuine horse wranglers with tight Levi’s and a loose drawl in their words.

st james hotel 001
Seemingly, the entire town will push through the batwing doors of the saloon around 8pm for a whiskey and a beer. Join them. Underneath the calluses and worn leather are small-town gentlemen with warm fire-side manners and a knack for lively conversation and storytelling. You will be swaying arm in arm with them, singing cowboy songs, and trying on their big, sweaty hats until closing time- when some lone barkeep has to kick everyone out, shut off the lights, and dart to her room.

(This story was my submission to World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.  It did not win, but was shortlisted)

Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Part II

Why did I stay through the horror of the nighttimes in this way-out-west horse-wrangling town?

I was no southern chic.  I was pure alabaster with Yankee blood and city manners; never even rode a horse, didn’t own blue jeans, and preferred my beer dark and heavy.  I was out of context, the wrong verb form of myself.  Yet I stayed a month.  It was the cowboy locals that kept me there, wanting another sunrise.

I had nearly accepted a volunteer position at rainy National Park up in Washington, but I could barely get the bus fare there from my friend’s place in Los Angeles.  And I only managed to get to L.A. because I had spent almost all my money on the train there from Miami.  And I had only wound up in Miami because I was required to purchase a return ticket before they would allow me into the Bahamas.  And I only made it through three months in the Bahamas because I was kinda stuck by a karmic duty; the type of sentiment that is really strong when you live in a yoga ashram.  These are the types of serious decisions that vagabonds make, and I was about to choose the dirt path to that haunted hotel.

I pleaded with the hotel to give me a job before the season started, saying I could clean, paint and get ready for the hustle and madness of the summer.  I may not have written I AM BROKE in all capital letters on my application, but that was a part of my motivation.  I also had this deep fondness for New Mexico.  It seemed raw and cleansing; a place of dust and art.  But more than either of these things, what really drew me to the state was its license plate.  I wanted one of those red and yellow suns bolted onto the car that I didn’t own yet.  I liked the idea of having a sunrise attached to me and my travels.  And I desperately wanted to live in the ‘Land of Enchantment’.

I didn’t know the place was haunted when they offered me the job.  I suppose that even if I had known, it wouldn’t have mattered.  There’s a lot of magic that I believe in, but ghosts weren’t any part of it; especially of the angry sort.  I imagined it would be a minor curiosity, like the ‘smallest pony in the world!’ at the state fair; somewhat intriguing, but a waste of a quarter.

I was wrong.  I literally slept with the blankets over my head and a large jar in my room.  Actually, I don’t remember my feet hitting much of the carpetting between the door and the bed.  Usually, I would lock the door and simply leap onto the mattress; as if the longer I stayed standing the more vulnerable I would be.

st james 001

But each night I would sit along the beer sipping horsemen and sing another slow, banjo-y song with them.   And from under the blankets, I would hum those western lullabies until the creeps that wandered up my spine became less intense.  I never got the license plate that I wanted, but those cowboy regulars, with their big sweaty hats, made me feel like there would always be a sunrise attached to me and my travels, even if angry ghosts were right next door.

Wits ‘n’ Guts

I board the plane crisp and respectable and promptly feel myself morph into something wretched and inexplicably slimy. Flights do that to a person. But after all the rearranging of doll-house-sized pillows and the moments of fitful sleep, the end is near. I know this because the nice lady just handed me a slip of paper- the entry form.

This is all they want to know about me: Name, Date of Birth, Passport Number, and Reason for Travel. The last one always stumps me. It’s a ‘why’ question and there’s only a couple boxes available to check. There’s definitely not enough room for my answer.   I search for something that says, “If you need more space, please attach another sheet’, because this is what I really want to say:

“Dear unsmiling uniformed officer,

No, I am not carrying more than $10,000 in currency, nor do I have any goods to sell, though I heard that blue jeans were a hit in Russia some time ago. And, no, I have no fruits, seeds, or meat. The truth is, I ate them all on the plane ride, mostly 10 minutes before disembarking because I knew they were illegal to carry in, and yes sir, it was a lot of food. For some reason, I always think that an eight-hour plane ride will require the nourishment to sustain a marathon; as if I would starve to death right there in seat 23E and embarrass myself in front of the Window Guy and the Aisle Lady.   So, I have just consumed three apples, a banana, a bag of beef jerky, and a pound of pistachios. Yes, the pistachios were the most difficult; with the shells and all, but the jerky was quite a struggle too.  I apologize if I look rather bloated.

But you are obviously busy with very serious business, so let’s get to the point.  Yes sir, I did spend a really long time in South America.  No sir, I do not have any involvement with drugs.  I went to study Spanish, you know, the language.  Wouldn’t that be the most obvious reason to go away for many months?  Can you believe I didn’t meet a single drug lord?  I met ladies that baked delicious breads and sold them out of a basket on their heads.  I met boys determined to enter politics and change the future of their countries.  I met children begging for small change.  Uh oh, I apologize.  It appears that I have offended you.

So, as I was saying, yes, I have a passport full of stamps, and honestly, I’m not exactly sure why I keep running away and returning.  It’s not like everything was cake and berries, no, sir. There was the time I got locked in a self-cleaning bathroom in Rome, and the time I got lost in a grizzly bear preserve, and, yeah, the seven horrific food-fails in Asia. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, all of my trips were fraught with misadventure- delays, missed buses, bad street food, and one too many moments of inadvertent nudity.   I got lost, cold, hungry, and embarrassed every single time, but I kept wanting more.

Then one day, I stumbled upon a list. Not any old list, sir, but a list that smacked me hard on the face. It was titled, ‘Common Traits of Americans’ and it scared the sweat out of me. Every single item on that page was something I had assumed, until then, reflected who I was at my very core- my innermost passions, my innate sensibilities, and even my quirky nuances. But it wasn’t me, it was my culture that made me that way.  I was defined and shaped like a hunk of clay- and the potter was my society.  It was so blatant that it was subtle; possibly the greatest magic trick in the book. The truth is, we are all shaped this way.  And really, this is not such a bad thing, but it made me wonder; beneath all the ketchup and denim, who am I, really?

Travel, it turns out, has a way of stripping us down to our innards; separating us from that ‘list’ and the expectations of our society. People boast of freedom behind the colored and symbolic flags of their nations, but I sir, tend to think that the only true flag of independence is the white one.   When we have surrendered all of the things that define us, all that is left is wits and guts. It’s so very Wizard-of-Oz-y:  there you are on some cobbled road, a much more potent and colorful version of yourself.

So, who am I? Well, sir, here’s the bad news: I’m still trying to figure that one out.   My mountain of travel journals and the well-inked passports may look like just paper and words to you, but I see them as the remnants of abandoned cocoons. You see, every time I go somewhere, something inside of me is outgrown and something brand new is born.   And, alas, my question is still unanswered.

And, that, officer, is my ‘Reason for Travel’. I hope this helps explain things and again, sorry if I look so slimy and bloated.”

(This story was my submission to, We Said Go Travel’s Independence Writing Competition for 2015)

We’re the Arnett Gang of Rochester, and if you have money, buy me a fur.

I grew up in the middle of the city, in a 3 bedroom house with 11 brothers and sisters, and about 16 neighborhood kids my age that lived close enough that I could still hear my dinner bell from their yards. Our lives were ruled by two horrible things: that dinner bell and the street lights. Both signaled the immediate end of all fun.

I can picture us all happily running around the designated kickball backyard, and hearing the clang from that cowbell. It always seemed like our dinner was ready before everyone else’s was and this made me very irritable. My brother and I would pretend that we didn’t hear it. But the other kids just wouldn’t let it slide. “You better go home. That’s your dinner bell.” Whose side were they on? Everything, at that moment, becomes stupid, including my stupid friends who have just pointed out the obvious stupid bell to us. Don’t take this lightly, ‘stupid’ was the absolute worst insult one could dole out to something. “Stupid’ was the biggest gun we had back then; the closest thing we had to a swear word. But the kickball game was totally at a stand-still, everyone staring at us in disbelief that we were still there and the bell had been rung! Our faces turn into the mixed emotion of anger and destitution, our shoulders sag heavily toward our hips, and our little heads of unbrushed hair swiftly drop downward to the ground, as if pressed on by the weight of the world.   My brother and I would kick the ground and slowly, angrily, shuffle our filthy little bodies all the way home, 4 houses away, heartbroken, as if headed to a punishment, instead of a plate of hot spaghetti. This happened every night.arnett 002

The homes on Arnett Blvd. were nestled up next to one another, with thin driveways in-between, each family with one solitary tree out front. Denise’s was the only one worth climbing. I can still picture the two giant branches that were low enough to grasp onto and big enough to sit on. That was Denise’s claim to fame; her tree. The Keller’s had the kickball yard. Our front sidewalk was usually the hotbox field.  The Schramm’s had the hide-and-go-seek front porch, which we used for all variations of the game, including sardines and our version of ‘ghost in the graveyard’, which we called ‘bloody murder’. That one was a favorite for us kids because we could run around the yards screaming ‘Bloody Murder!!’.  We never got in trouble for that game and never were told to stop playing.  This still baffles me.

‘Wilderness’, in my city neighborhood, was what we called a 10×5 ft. patch of dirt behind my family’s garage.  There was a sense of deviancy back there; a feeling of risk and adventure, even though we were barely out of earshot of our parents.  Back there, behind the garage, we were wild and free.  This is where the big kids went to be bad, we knew this. We could do anything we wanted.   But we were still made of sticks and stones; sugar and spice. We didn’t exactly know what to do to be rebellious in the emptiness. Sometimes we just stood back there doing nothing, yet feeling proud and strong, like pirates who had successfully stolen a treasure. But usually, when I was deep in that tiny wilderness, I would get a broom and sweep the dirt.  Somehow, this was the logical thing to do for me: sweep.

People like to say how life was simple back then. Not us. Life was complicated. There was not enough time in the day to eat or sleep, so avoiding those things was a very high priority.  It was also vitally important to race. We could be walking to the bathroom, to the phone, even to the dreaded dinner table, and we would have to race. I don’t remember winning any races, ever. Mostly because a classic race usually involved some degree of technical wrestling skill. If the other runner advanced an inch ahead of you, it was imperative to grab one of his limbs- ideally, the leg, but if necessary, or the leg is unreachable, an arm could be sufficient. While these are the standard rules, mostly what we did was grab the back collar of the t-shirt and yank, which really wiped a winning grin right off of their face. I cried a lot. And my brother Danny’s t-shirts had very overstretched collars.arnett 001

Danny had the proud distinction of the “y” sound at the end of his name, which most of the kids in the neighborhood had.  I was one of the few who did not, but I did have an official Mr. Schramm nickname, which made me feel like I WAS somebody.  Even when he would use that nickname to tell me to join his kids in doing some chores around their house, like cleaning up after the the dog, Black Jack.  But because I was ‘Tina the Ballerina’, I could handle a little dog poop.  This wasn’t strange to us to have to do chores at other people’s houses.  And if you happened to be at the Keller’s, you might even get a cold hotdog for all your hard work.  Mr. Keller worked at the hotdog company and I always felt like their entire fridge was loaded with them, like a cold shrine of deliciousness.

Since sit-down meals were such a hassle, snacks were of utmost importance.  We could rate eachother’s homes by its choice of snacks.  While the cold hotdogs were obviously pretty tough to beat, the Case’s were hands-down the most luxurious snack distributors on the entire block.  They were the first to get fruit roll-ups, and unlike at our house, they weren’t specifically allocated to school lunches, and certainly weren’t the generic kind.   They were authentic, name brand Roll-ups, which were surpassed only by the other treat that really sealed the crown for the Case’s: Doritos.  Truthfully, I may have only had these treats once, but even so, the Case’s climbed the golden ladder of snackdom so high that no other family could even get close.  It also gave me the impression that they were filthy rich, which was a bonus for me, because I got all of Julie’s hand-me-downs.

Lost and Found

I did not feel like a total idiot.  But there I was, halfway up a mountain in a Kodiak Bear Preserve, bloody and exhausted, clutching what little remained in the one small water bottle I brought on the trail-less hike.

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Six of us had started out together, but after an hour of hiking, the tangled masses of brushwood and the incessant bee stings became too much for three to handle.  They left claiming pain and possible allergies.  Wimps.

Boredom brought us here, into this rugged and relentless mountainside.  The cannery had no fish which meant no work.  We were stuck in a town that wasn’t even a town.  There was no main street.  There wasn’t even a road leading to somewhere else.  Coming and going was by plane, by boat, or by foot.  We had feet.

I was sitting on the rickety steps leading to my dorm, reading a letter from home that morning when someone asked if I wanted to go for a hike.  “Sure”, I said.  I put the letter in my bag and left.  One person pointed to the mountaintop, as if asking a question, and we all shrugged an indifferent agreement and headed up.  It was all very nonchalant.

But getting to the top took hours and by then our entire bodies were a mess of bleeding welts.  Our arms, our legs, and even our faces were shredded like we had been swimming through barbed wire. We cheered for ourselves for making it, but the victory was not wholehearted.   We each knew the peak was only a half-way point.  I wondered what those wimps were doing back at the Cannery.  I was envious of all of them.  This hike was a disaster.

I grew up in a city.  My family never camped.  ‘Wilderness’ in my neighborhood was what we called the 10×5 foot patch of dirt behind our garage.  We played there and felt untamed and free.  But I vividly remember sweeping the dirt.  Somehow, it was part of the game of wilderness for me; sweeping.  I had no business in this Alaskan forest.

Each new type of land had been a milestone to cross- getting through the bushes that were well over our heads, reaching the shrubs that hit our knees, and then arriving on the grassy top of the mountain.  We looked to the next obstacle to pass as we sat on that peak.  There were two options: attempt to go back down approximately the same way we came up with the barbed wire, the bees, and the immense piles of fresh grizzly scat or go down the other side of the mountain toward the ocean.  The latter headed even further away from the Cannery, but appeared to have less brush to wrestle through.  We stared down from the peak at the sheer, rock-covered cliff that we would have to descend.

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One by one, we slid down the gravely rocks until the first row of trees got in the way of our tumbling. From here, we couldn’t see the small beach that we would eventually get to, but we knew it was waiting for our beat-up bodies.  Once there, we would walk all the way around the mountain along the shore to get to our starting point; our boring and now very appealing home.

The patch of brush on the way down was equally as treacherous and sharp as the way up, but this time we didn’t make a sound as the edges ripped through our skin; we didn’t even try to stop the bleeding.  We just kept pushing our way downward focused on that beach.  But when we finally barreled through the last wall of razorblades, our precious little beach had disappeared.  Tides had stolen it.  Instead of the idyllic walk along the beach, we faced a new challenge: rock climbing.

I had just scrambled over the eighth shaky rock wall and I was perched on top of it looking down at the base of the ninth.  The ocean was crashing into the sides of it, frightening me.  It was a climb or drown scenario.  And I just stopped.   I felt like there was nothing left under my skin; my muscles were gone, my blood was dried up, nothing hurt anymore.  The appropriate reaction would be to cry or scream, but I didn’t even have the energy for emotion.  I just stared down at the rocks; empty.

We weren’t even really friends, the three of us.  We worked different shifts, maybe said hello to one another, but weren’t close.  I’m paralyzed on top of a rock cliff, they are ahead of me scaling the next pile, skirting around the narrow edges, about to fade out of view.  And I don’t care.  They call my name and I don’t respond.  They call again, encouraging me to keep moving.  The encouragement became begging, and then became screaming, “Stand up and Go, Tina!”

Alaskan summer nights are bright.  It was 10pm.  We had started our hike in the morning.  There was four hours before a true darkness set in.  The boys understood this.  Maybe they didn’t sweep a ‘wilderness’ in their backyard growing up.  They came back to me, still screaming, then begging, and then encouraging.  And with one ahead of me and one behind me, they herded me like a sick animal through the last hours of the climb.

When the rocks ended we were in a meadow of wildflowers.  It may have been the garbage dump or the plane runway, but I remember it as a meadow.  The sun was just fading when we arrived back at the barracks of the cannery.  I was still clutching my now-empty water bottle and had my arms around the shoulders of my two best friends.

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