May 25, 2014

I've discovered something over the years, in the course of my travels: if you are a lady who can in any way be perceived as "girlish," you will come across certain people who will find your solo voyaging charming and brave. such was the case at the rental car counter in palm springs, where the sweet middle aged rental agent, after hearing my plans to wander through joshua tree and to go solo camping, lowered her voice conspiratorially and said, "you know, we have a mustang convertible. I could give you the friends and family discount -- it would cost you $11 more a day than you're spending now."

"so ...$22 more? that's it?" she nods.

and that is how I end up cruising around the california desert in a 2014 convertible, listening to 90s music on the satellite radio, with a folded up tank top wrapped around my forehead to keep my face from getting too horribly sunburned. from palm springs to joshua tree, where I turn off the radio in reverent silence, and then through box canyon, my head swiveling in every direction at the rocks all around me. down country roads dotted with arid farmland, and finally to salton sea, the sea that isn't really one.

my new friend from vancouver was horrified when I told her where I was camping. "but ... you know you can't swim in it, right?" I explained that yes, I knew that the beaches were made of dead barnacles and fish bones, casualties of the increasing salinity of a body of water with no incoming rivers or streams. I knew it was speckled with ruins of buildings from a time when there were resorts all along the coastline, and that it might smell funny and wasn't very popular. I reassured her that those things were totally my bag. she did not seen convinced. in all honesty, her reaction secretly worried me a little. was I about to camp at the cali equivalent of onondaga lake -- a toxic dump that smells, well, like a toxic dump?

but she was wrong. or maybe she was right about the sea, but wrong about the camping. it smells like the ocean -- the saline level is somewhere between the pacific ocean and the great salt lake -- and it's surrounded by coastal grasses, full of the sounds of birds. The campsite is just occupied enough to make me not feel nervous, but not busy enough to be loud. herons stand gracefully at the banks; pelicans fly overhead. a nice paved path, obviously newly built, meanders through the brush for half a mile, ending at a small quiet stretch of beach. (admittedly, a beach made of dead barnacles.) in the morning I run up and down the banks and then walk over to the tiny camp store for $1 coffee. I inquire about the kayak rental sign but decline in the end -- "I've kayaked twice. will I drown?" I ask. "I've been kayaking for 25 years and I probably wouldn't go out today." okay then.

I pack up my gear and toss it into the trunk of my MUSTANG CONVERTIBLE and I slather on sunblock, put the top down, turn on the radio, and set off. it's just before 9 am. the roads are mostly empty, as is all the surrounding land. I make my first stop 8 miles down the road, at the ruins of bombay beach, formerly a little coastal hamlet. now it's something between trailer park and ghost town, some of the houses completely gutted, others very ramshackle; the occasional one has a car parked out front, which I guess means it's still lived in. there is incredible graffiti. the beach is strewn with the beams and foundations of old buildings. the skeleton of an abandoned pier is overrun with seagulls.

then I drive for a long time, realizing in amazement (because I am hungry) that this is the longest I think I've ever driven without any sign of fast food. I get preoccupied with the joy of being in a convertible in california, driving through the desert with my ponytail and my coffee, flipping between beachy tunes on the radio. I completely forget my next stop -- like, I completely forget that I am even supposed to be aiming for a next stop -- until I'm thirty miles past it. I've stopped to eat a cheeseburger when I look at my map and realize. But it's 11 in the morning and my goal is to be in san diego at 7, and that is such a hilarious amount of time to drive the distance (not even 200 miles) that of course I turn around.

salvation mountain is a huge ... art installation? building? shrine? built by a man named leonard knight after he had a vision from god. I can't really even describe it. it's paint and adobe and bales of straw and tree limbs and old telephone poles, and everything says "god loves you" or a variant thereof. it's big and colorful and weird. art cars decorated in a similar style dot the nearby landscape. behind it is slab city, a sort of hippie commune of RVs and tents, people living off the grid. you may have read about it in jon krakauer's "into the wild." the mountain is manned by volunteers (knight himself died this past february). today's caretaker is quick to offer to take your photo on the mountain the moment he spots you with a camera. when I walk back to the car I overhear him cheerfully giving directions: "so, you get to this place where there's no rail between you and the canyon, then you drive past two or three 'no trespassing' signs, and at the end you can see the whole coachella valley."

the rest of the drive is more or less comprised of trying to figure out the prettiest and most out of the way route to my destination, and then of driving through canyons on long empty snaking roads. I listen to a lot of 90s music. I drink water out of a gallon jug because my one water bottle is dirty. I stop once at a county park and hike 3 miles in my flip flops.

when I arrive at my sister's I have been driving for 10 hours and am coated in a mixture of sweat, sunblock, road grit and dirt but she hugs me anyway because she's my sister.

May 23, 2014

yesterday I awoke early, as usual -- I have fully become my mother now, waking effortlessly at 5:45 without an alarm -- and put on a sundress and walked a mile or so to the little cafe where I had breakfast every morning the last time I was here. The place was full of men in wife beaters and ridiculously colored shorts. I drank my latte and ate a sandwich and read my book, then came back to the hotel and camped out at what's become my favorite corner of the pool. I floated for awhile in an inner tube, then made friends with a retiree, a woman from Vancouver who first warned me that I was about to hit my head on the railing, then told me all about her travels: driving down through Oregon, her time in L.A., how she would do this forever except she missed her cat. later she came over and offered to buy me a beer, which I accepted, and we chatted about our love of driving and what books we were reading.

the sky got greyer and greyer, increasingly ominous, with the occasional grumble of distant thunder. I fell asleep in my chair, awoke feeling groggy and faintly sick (which always happens when I fall asleep in the sun), and went upstairs, where I ate lunch and watched an xmen marathon for the remainder of the afternoon, waiting out the storm that loomed ever closer but in the end never came.

I went for a run, looking forward to following the concierge's directions to a nearby canyon, only to discover that it was the canyon where I went horseback riding two years ago. a coyote loped away, stopped, turned back, all the while silent and cat-like.

today is my last day here -- I embark on part two of my many-faceted adventure in a few hours. I got to the pool 6 minutes after it opened. The sky is brilliant and everyone here this morning is european. yesterday I thought I was done with indolent pool living but today I recant that sentiment. that might just be because I like being able to swim whenever I like. also for this next part, I'm going to have to put on more clothes.

I don't know what it is about the desert that so compels me. it is, these days, the place I am most likely to want to go. any desert really -- here, or eastern oregon, or santa fe or the sahara. it is clear and hot and mildly alien. the palm trees are endlessly tall and spindly; the rest of the brush is low and ragged. the agaves are as big as dogs.

I think I have already forgotten what it's like to work.

I was reading a magazine yesterday, an article about all the cool ways to spend the 14 weekends between memorial and labor days, and all I could think of was a day two summers ago on my then-new bike, pedaling out some back road in coastal oregon, the sky blue and mist rising from the fields. and of biking to salem, the tractors plowing the fields, the grit of the road on my arms and legs. I had forgotten all of this somehow, in fatigue and misery. it is so good to remember.

May 21, 2014

wake up, drink coffee on the balcony, eat eggs benedict down at the hotel restaurant, lounge at the pool, finish a book, read a magazine, order a margarita at 10:30 am, borrow one of the hotel's beach cruisers and marvel at how much fun and how different they are from road bikes, go back to the pool, drink another margarita, eat guacamole, swim, fall asleep in the sun, read another book, go for a run, eat ceviche, drink a beer, take a shower, crawl into bed at 8, watch cartoons. listen to the low trickle of the hot tub out the open balcony door.

there are so many hummingbirds. the hotel is a giant sized crayon box. the sky is impossibly blue. the palm trees and low slung houses and sand are powerful reminders of something but the memory is out of reach. it's the off-season (normally too hot for tourists), so I'm sharing the place with no more than 30 people. at night there is no one at the pool and I tiptoe back and forth between swimming and sitting in the hot tub, the pool water a long expanse of flat glass, the stars visible through palms. everything is so quiet.

I have made it to the other side.

May 19, 2014

the end of things, the beginning of things

my time at the opera ended this morning, early -- 7 AM, before anyone else was around -- with the placement of my key card on my desk and one last lap around the building, one last nuzzle of the costume shop cat.

I have done so many crazy things at that job. planned parties, played roles onstage, made backstage sound effects, ran titles, stayed in the office until 2 AM working on parts, stayed in the office until 2 AM drinking, laughing, crying, hunting down weird instruments, teaching myself crazy things (synthesizer programming, latin). I've run up and down the riverfront shirtless to advertise events. I've had panic attacks, I've lost sleep, I've had sometimes two months or more without more than a day or two off. but mostly, the job was about my colleagues, the people who became my surrogate family: incredibly hard-working, hilarious, wonderful people who have gotten me through tough times and have been a huge part of the best times. I love them, and can't imagine not working with them. I will miss them immensely.

I won't talk about why I left. I'll say only that I have a history of toughing it out a little too long: romantic relationships, injuries, neighbor conflicts, the ant problem I had a few years ago where I only called the landlord when they started crawling across me in bed. I tend to think that the problem, whatever it is, is me. I think I can fix it. I try really hard to fix it. but sometimes it's just time to go.

my new job, which is here in town, has normal business hours and will provide me with a significantly larger salary. I can't help but think of it as finally getting back to my life. of all the things I haven't done in so long that I've forgotten I even like doing them. hiking. spending weekends at the barn. having weekends. having adventures: going camping, going swimming, having evenings to cook and play games and take walks. having time, that most elusive of commodities.

it's as if I've been carrying a dead body for all this time, for so long I've forgotten that there was ever a time that I didn't. there has not been a moment not colored by work for at least the last two years. I look forward to finally putting it down. I'm not sure I even know how light it will feel on the other side.

May 4, 2014

I have begun,
when I'm weary and can't decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling -- whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,

to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy's ashes were —
it's green in there, a green vase,

and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy's already gone through the frightening door,

whatever he says I'll do.

-- marie howe, my dead friends


I'm leaving my job at the opera. my last day is may 18, the day after closing night.