Pure Bliss

7-co-estes-park-rocky-mountain-national-park-xl

The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

Travel Trinkets

travel-ornaments-set-of-3-c

I pick up souvenirs whenever I travel. They are generally small things that remind me of the places I have been. Often they are rocks, shells, leaves, pinecones. I like to decorate my home with framed prints of locales I have seen so that I might be reminded of the joy of my vacations for years to come. I have a thing for books that fill the shelves of my bookcases with colorful and informational volumes about the sights that I have been fortunate enough to have seen. When I find special pottery or glass I am almost always tempted to purchase a piece to join the collections that grace my rooms. I almost never buy kitsch unless it somehow seems to signify a very special moment from my trip, like the gigantic chigger from Arkansas that made me laugh instead of cry when I became infected with bites from those pesky insects, Mostly, though, I’m inclined to bring back Christmas ornaments from each of the sites that I have visited. I have so many now that I copied my daughter and purchased a special travel tree to exhibit my finds each December.

It’s amazing how my collection of ornaments from around the world has grown. Their eclectic nature makes for a whimsical display that includes everything from bears to fine crystal. I have a stained glass reproduction of the rose window from Westminster Abbey and a yellow cab from New York City. One of my loveliest items is a set of old fashioned handmade straw snowflakes from Salzburg, Austria. They add a wonderful finishing touch to the design of the tree. I have glass pinecones, gold dipped aspen leaves, and a number of replicas of Spanish missions. There is a ceramic reproduction of Cafe du Monde and another of a little grocery store in Maine where I ate the best lobster sandwich I have ever had. Perhaps one of my favorites is a set of Revolutionary War soldiers from Boston.

I try to find a representative ornament from each place that I go. Then when I set up my Christmas decorations each year I relive the joy of visiting each place. The little trinkets that I hang on the branches never fail to bring back a flood of wonderful memories. Vacations are wonderful for the way that they seem to soothe any anxieties that I might have and they allow me to set aside my type A driven personality in favor of living totally in the moment. They are a panacea that I don’t take for granted because I know all too well how privileged I am to be able to spend money on trips to wonderful places rather than having only enough to live from day to day.

The vast majority of people in the history of the world have not had the luxury of travel for the sake of enjoyment. My grandparents went from one place to another in search of work. Their parents essentially were born, lived and died in the same place without ever leaving. Such is true of most of the world’s people even today. Those of us who ride down highways in our comfortable cars or fly through the skies to distant lands are fortunate indeed. The frivolousness of vacationing was once only the domain of the wealthy few. Today those of us in the middle class enjoy it in ways that our ancestors would never have known.

I appreciate the freedom that allows me to go see the wonders of the world and those in my backyard as well. My father had been determined to see as much as possible in his lifetime and he was on his way to becoming acquainted with most of the United States when his life was cut short. I imagine that he would have ultimately seen it all and added to his journeys with trips across the ocean. Back before he died I already knew that my family was somewhat unusual in the grandeur of our trips. I got to see Disneyland in the first year it opened and I remember sitting with my father on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago while he fished when I was only six.

After my father died our only family trips were to visit my grandparents in Arkansas. We would arise before dawn so that my mother could drive as far as possible before it grew dark. We only stopped for gasoline and to spend one night in a motel before reaching my grandparents’ farm. Only one other time did we take a vacation to San Antonio and Austin. It was a grand adventure that included visits to the Alamo and the state capitol. I vividly recall how fun it was to splurge by going to see The Sound of Music in a lovely indoor theater unlike our usual viewings at the drive in on nights when an entire car of people got in for a greatly reduced price.

Now I am planning a possible jaunt to Colorado in the spring and a gala trip to Scotland at the beginning of summer. I’m still in awe of the good luck that has allowed me to do such things. The worrywart in me sometimes thinks that the time may one day come when it may no longer be possible to go on such extravagant excursions. The world may change in ways that preclude a continuation of the way we have grown accustomed to doing things. My own health may fail as I continue to age in ways that make it difficult for me to travel too far away from home. It’s important that I do my best to see as much as I may for now and while I’m wherever the winds take me I’ll surely be adding to my collection of Christmas ornaments. 

There is little that I would rather do these days than go to new places and revisit my favorite old ones. I never take my good fortune for granted. I have seen gloriously wondrous things that only a few ever get to glimpse. My souvenirs are like a tangible record of my memories. They are wonderful beyond words,

Another Year Has Passed

end_of_year_1_.56377698d5d59

2019 was a fairly typical year in that it had both its ups and its downs. We lost some wonderful family members and friends who will be missed for some time to come and yet we celebrate the impact they had on our lives. I suppose that with the passage of time we will eventually consider only the joy that they brought us rather than the pain of their deaths.

Mike and I took a trip of a lifetime with my brothers and sisters-in-law. We saw the sights of London, York, Bath, Cambridge and the Cotswolds. We laughed our way across the English landscape and grew closer to one another than ever. I realized on our journey that I indeed have the sisters that I always dreamed of having. We shared good times that we will never forget and hopefully we will reunite for more travel in the future.

Mike and I enjoyed two semesters of classes at Rice University from our favorite professor, Dr. Newell Boyd. We learned all the dish about the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, reinforcing the idea that history repeats itself again and again. We humans are a quirky bunch indeed. We are on a waitlist for a trip with him to Scotland this June and I have my fingers crossed that we will get an opportunity to actually go.

We were able to watch our grandson, Eli, compete in the Track and Field Junior Olympics in Sacramento over the summer and steal away for some sightseeing in Napa Valley, San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. It was an unexpected journey that was great fun.

Speaking of grandchildren, ours continue with their educations and dreams for the future. We are immensely proud of the people they have become. They are thoughtful and concerned about the world’s problems. They give us great hope for the future,

We celebrated the ninetieth birthdays of my father-in-law and mother-in-law. We should all be as healthy and active as they are. They continue to inspire us and with their optimism and wisdom. They never seem to slow down. They have truly found the secret to a good life,.

A dear cousin celebrated her eightieth birthday as well. She seriously doesn’t look a day over fifty. Somehow the beauty of her soul shines forth in her gorgeous countenance. Her special occasion gave us an excuse to have fun with our cousins and to make plans for more meetings in the coming year.

We ended  2019 with a mega party for one of our nieces that was the event to top all events. The theme was Camelot and to say it was a stunning occasion is an understatement. We enjoyed three days of eating and talking and laughing and recognizing how wonderful family truly is.

I had tea time each week with another niece that became a special highlight of the year. We used my various teapots and flavors of tea along with special cookies that a former student brought me as a gift. I enjoyed those weekly gatherings in which I learned just how much my niece and I are kindred spirits.

Some of our friends and relatives had a very difficult year dealing with major illnesses and losses. It was hard to watch them suffering and feel so helpless to do anything that might change their situations. All we have been able to do is pray for them and let them know the we care,

We had many fun times with friends and neighbors throughout the year. Mardi Gras, time at the beach, fun in the backyard, lunches and dinners spiced up the routine or our lives. Those were great moments when I realized how truly blessed we have always been.

We checked a few more things off of our bucket list like seeing the Rolling Stones, Mark Knopfler,  a Game of Thrones concert, and Willie Nelson. Now we look forward to watching Elton John this  summer. We also saw our Astros make it into the World Series and up until the last minutes of the final game we thought that perhaps we might win that match one more time. Maybe we will have an even better baseball year in 2020.

We have learned to roll with whatever each year brings and snatch as much happiness as we can. Life roll on with abandon beginning every January 1. Here’s to the coming year. May it bring you many blessings and few sorrows.



A Piece of My Heart Stays In San Francisco

SFR_599_original

It’s easy to understand why Tony Bennet left his heart in San Francisco. It is one of those cities that never grows old for me. I return again and again to find that I am still enchanted with its beauty. I can’t imagine getting tired of looking into the bay or crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. I am delighted by the undulating hills of the streets that are adorned with the most delightful houses. It is a city comparable to London, Paris or Rome in my mind, and it is only a short plane ride away from my home town of Houston. Periodically I get the itch to return, and luckily I enjoyed the opportunity to be there a week or so ago.

The nice thing about my actual destination of Sacramento is that it is really close to lots of great places most of which I was able to visit in between my grandson’s races. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that next year’s Junior Olympics will be held in a different locale because Sacramento was just perfect in every possible way.

Our brief sojourn in San Francisco was made even shorter by a massive traffic jam that we encountered on the way to the city. Our two hour drive time was almost doubled by some kind of difficulty that we never actually saw. As far as we knew it occurred just because so many people were traveling to the city by the bay on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Whatever the reason we ultimately reached the outskirts and were directed by Siri to travel in an unusual direction that gave us the opportunity to see the bay from the viewpoint of an industrial port. It was a great reminder of how and why San Francisco developed over time and it also happened to be quite interesting.

Eventually we circled around to a high end area on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There were lovely homes nestled in the hills and exclusive shops that spoke of a clientele with excellent incomes. The traffic on the bridge was moving freely but fog covered the structure even though it was an almost cloudless day. The usual gorgeous view was obstructed, but there was nonetheless something quite appropriate about seeing it in this different way. I had always heard about San Francisco fog but never seen it in any of my former visits.

We were specifically searching for the Rothy’s shoe store in downtown so that we might purchase a particular pair of pumps for our daughter who has become a big fan of the trendy flats made from recycled plastic water bottles. The style she wanted is only available in the store, so we knew that she would be quite excited to receive them. We got a cook’s tour of the city as we turned here and then there to reach the tiny shop that was jam packed with excited women trying on their favorite colors and styles. I was able to bypass all of the commotion because I knew exactly what I wanted and luckily they had what I needed in stock. The very accommodating sales lady gave me a wonderful canvas bag to carry my purchase and I was soon waving Mike down as he circled the street again and again.

I had heard vicious rumors about San Francisco streets littered with homeless people and human feces. I saw nothing like that as we drove from one end of town to the other. In fact everything was impeccably clean and all of the residents and tourists seemed to be having a great time. There were smiles all around.

Of course a brief look at real estate prices showed me that few people can actually afford to live in San Francisco. The only home that I found that would cost the same as my house was a six hundred fifty square foot studio. It’s difficult to imagine how much someone must make to afford the luxury of living in that grand city.

We continued our drive down memory lane by traveling over the bridge into Oakland and finally into Berkeley. I saw something there that was both dismaying and at the same time rather nice. A kind of homeless tent city had been set up near a park. There was a sign indicating that a concerned group was managing the care of the people who lived inside the cloth structures that were neatly lighted up in rows. Someone had installed solar panels to create electricity and there was a Porta-potty for the use of the homeless souls.

A few of the people were sitting at a table playing dominoes and all in all it appeared to be a safer and cleaner alternative to the homeless encampments that I have seen across America. Since few of those who are homeless like the idea of being confined in shelters with lots of rules this solution was a rather ingenious one, something that we might immolate everywhere. Because so many of the people in these conditions are either suffering from some kind of addiction or a severe mental illness they need to be actively monitored while at the same time granting them the dignity of freedom. I mentally applauded the group that had taken the initiative to help in small but powerful ways.

We ended our excursion with a visit to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emmeryville where we enjoyed burgers and onion rings. We were happy to see Pixar flourishing across the street and marveled at all of the improvements in the once downtrodden area. What had at one time been an almost abandoned industrial disaster is now looking modern and upbeat.

I was quite happy to be able to visit San Francisco before returning to Houston. I hope that I will be able to see it again and again. There is something magical about it that soothes my soul. A piece of my heart always stays there even if I will never call it home.

The Old West

virginia-city-940x624

I grew up watching westerns with my Uncle Jack. I loved all of those shows about the old west but perhaps my favorite was Bonanza with its stories about the Cartwright family. Hoss and Adam and Little Joe were heroes to me and I loved the tales of their adventures. On many an episode they wandered into Virginia City to take care of business or meet up with friends. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of those long ago towns where folks endured hardship in search of gold or silver or some better way of life. Imagine my delight when our recent travels took us to the real historic Virginia City in Nevada just outside of that state’s capitol, Carson City.

This was once the site of a booming gold rush town. The decaying remnants of the old mines still litter the hillsides in a haunting way. They serve as a reminder of the ebb and flow of booms and busts in the story of mankind. Once they were alive with frantic activity designed to pull riches out of the earth. Now there is little more left than worthless mine trailings and rusty tin walls.

The road into Virginia City climbs through the hills along a paved highway that was no doubt a muddy dirt trail that people from across the globe traveled in the latter half of the nineteenth century in search of opportunity. Most of the buildings in the town date back to the glory days after the 1849 discovery of gold. An old school house tells of the families that came and a saloon is evidence of a different way to create wealth through a more insidious form of entertainment. The buildings are alive with history and seem to be whispering that if one only tarry for a time the secrets that are buried there might be revealed.

As we drove along the main street of Virginia City I found myself feeling the spirit of its settlers of old, people hoping against all hope of finding the mother lode or earning enough to survive by providing services of one kind or another. “Who were the folks who traveled here?” I wondered. What motivated them to leave everything they had ever known to travel to this desert like place where there were no guarantees that their efforts might be rewarded? What dangers lurked? How many if them left broke or forever changed?

We like to romanticize the old west but it was truly a harsh existence. There were many dangers not the least of which was being broken by the challenges. Somehow the folks who came here never thought that perhaps the land they were invading might already belong to Native Americans whose roots were hundreds of years old. They somehow assumed that they had a right to make claims of ownership without compensating those that they displaced. I truly wonder how they could not have known that there was something a bit wrong with their thinking, but then I wasn’t there. Humankind’s journey has been fraught with battles between opposing groups claiming ownership of land since the beginning of time.

Virginia City is a place where time seems to have stopped. It is a tangible piece of history that tells us a story of folks desperate to make something more of their lives. Fortunes were made and lost there. Lives were treated to elation and great disappointment. We have romanticized those tales and made them part of the tradition of the hero’s journey when perhaps they were little more than ordinary efforts to survive. Maybe back then it took great courage just to eke out a living from one day to the next, but there was probably very little glamor in any corner of places like Virginia City.

My paternal ancestors never ventured very far from the land east of the Mississippi River. It was my maternal grandparents eventually found their way to Houston, Texas from Austria Hungary. They had heard stories of a new kind of black gold, oil. While they never engaged in the search for the goo that gushed from the earth they understood that other kinds of services might be needed and they were willing to work long hours cleaning other people’s messes to provide a decent living for themselves. I suspect that their story is mirrored in the lives of those who set out to tackle the old west. Many never became rich but they found ways to work and enjoy a better lifestyle than they might otherwise have had. I suppose this is what people everywhere have always done.

We now debate whether or not this decision or that choice of our ancestors was right and just without ever knowing what peoples’ real motivations were. It is in reality a kind of self righteous judgement on our parts for we will never be able to truly understand what life was like or how the thinking of the past influenced people. Until we are able to walk in a person’s shoes we are only conjecturing as to their thinking and there is something rather presumptuous about that.

I am fascinated by the old west and all of history. Our human imperfections are in full view in the chronicles of the human story. The people who came before us made mistakes just as each of us does even now no matter how well intentioned we might be. We can never judge the actions of others without demonstrating some of our own imperfections. Perhaps it is best just to learn from them and to change our own ways rather than judging whether are not they were worthy of our respect. What happened happened in a world far different from our own. For now it’s just fun to visit the places where people once did their best to make life just a bit better for themselves and their families. It’s really cool to see vestiges of how they lived and to realize the scope of human efforts through the evolution of time.