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.

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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. https://www.worldnomads.com/learn/travel-writing/winner-2015.  It did not win, but was shortlisted)

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 http://wesaidgotravel.com/, We Said Go Travel’s Independence Writing Competition for 2015)

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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Monet Waits

He was Italian, she Slovakian. Stuffed backpacks sit on the ground beside them. I see the guidebook. The entire US of A squished onto the pages of a book the size of a brick. I have held so many of them in my hands, but never, not once, was it my country.   I’m shamefully over-excited by them, or more accurately, by that brick-book they have. They hand it to me and I eagerly flip to the page where My City will be rightfully glorified in words.

“Halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo,” it reads, “sits Rochester, NY.” Then, to put it mildly, it tells you to continue on your merry way because everything worthy of seeing is certainly not here.   I’m hurt.

I’ve quit my job to travel nine times.   But I always return home, to this not-even-a-paragraph-worthy-city in the US.   Travel is always an unleashing of sorts. It is not intended to do this, but then we are there and it happens and we return. We leave for a month and we have been away for decades. And everyone else is still, still pushing something heavy up a hill. Only in coming home do we realize the depth of the journey.

“Go to the museum, go to the steakhouse”, I robotically direct the European duo. It’s a pathetic, soul-less suggestion, and I know it. My city has flesh and I had handed them bones. I want to take it back. I want to re-write that sentence in the book.

My hotel is clean and crisp and immediately I itch to get out of there. Dutifully, as a “tourist”, I head to the museum. Yes, to the one I sent Mr. Italy and Miss Slovakia to, but had never once set foot in. I’m one block away from Monet, next to the railroad-track-dump when I see it, a portrait of feet on the side of a building. It is just two feet, but precisely and intensely a person; going somewhere. It startles me.   I get lost in the immobility of it, the story of it.   There’s a fleeing in them. There’s also a freedom. Then I continue walking, right past the museum.

He’s short, stocky, bald, and smiling and he’s waiting for the same bus as I am. I point over to the feet that blew my mind and he says, “Well, our pockets is ripped out, but we still have hands, right?” He was a Rochestarian, I knew by his ‘a’s. We draw the sound out of our ‘a’’s with a whiny long swagger. The statistics say my city is poorer than I. This frightens me in the way that my mom must have felt when I travelled alone far away. But I was never hurt, bothered, or even cursed in those muggy cities.   I walked next to them and they walked next to me.   But my pockets are still firmly intact. “We still have hayaands”, he said. We have hope and strength beyond substance. I smiled tightly and slowly nodded sideways like a “no”, which is to say, “ain’t that the truth, though, ain’t that the truth?”

I don’t get on the bus.   I just keep walking. I continue past the cascading river and duck in to grab a local blue collar beer. It’s cold and bubbly and tastes like beer, so I have another. There’s a crowd here, listening to music on a Tuesday night. “Roch-ster” people that all seem to want some meatloaf, some spicy hot sauce poured on sausages, and some cold, unpretentious beer. The band plays jazz. These are men with last names like Hochstein, O’Malley, Douglass, and Gonzales. These are men whose great-grandfathers built the railroad and the canal, men with day jobs and neckties, men whose kids draw murals of feet on hidden buildings.

The beat gets stuck in my mind and it becomes my eye-opening soundtrack back to the hotel. Past the old subway stop, past the immense library, past the community garden my mom helped plant, past the mansions and the slums, past all the things I used to just drive by. The bravest thing we can do is to re-examine who we are and where we are and why. Sometimes it takes distance to accomplish this. Sometimes it does not.

I collapse in my foreign bed in my cozy hometown and I have a journal that seems too small to hold all my words. Right here, halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo, in the enchanted land of graffiti-meatloaf-jazz, some flesh got on some bones. I dissolve into my dreams. And a decade passes.

About the Author: Tina Murty is a waitress who saves all her money to travel and never wants to retire. Her journals are her most prized, but most easily burned, possession.

(This story was my first submission ever to a writing contest and won First Place.  http://wesaidgotravel.com/winners-independence-writing-contest-2014/ )