It was early in my career as a TWA Hostess when I visited Albuquerque for the first time. I was still on reserve when called to work a flight that started in Kansas City, flew to Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Albuquerque where we had a layover. Sunport was still a small, charming airport far from the center of town.
The captain rented a car and drove the crew to a restaurant for Mexican food that he said was good and authentic. It was twilight, and the Sandia Mountains glowed in the aftermath of sunset, jutting up to the sky in the wide open desert.
The restaurant was even more remote than the airport, set in the middle of a parking lot. It was full and noisy, the food as good as the captain said, with just the right piquancy to tickle the taste buds, but it was the sopapillas drizzled with honey that dazzled me. They reminded me of the Zeppole my grandmothers made.
It was dark when we left the restaurant and what I saw took my breath away. I’d never seen a night sky like this, so filled with stars. On the drive back to the motel, I sat with my face pressed to the car window to take in that celestial wonder.
Over the years I flew, I looked for schedules with a trip to Albuquerque in the rotation. My last flight as a TWA Hostess was to ABQ.
It was many years before I returned, to attend my son Paul’s graduation from the University of New Mexico. He made reservations at a motel for my stay. When I arrived there, I was astounded to see that it was the place I’d stayed for layovers. The room had the same green and gold shag carpet and orange accent paint. I was even more astonished to see the restaurant next door with the 1960s pendant lamps and atomic décor intact.
While this little corner of my memories remained the same, Albuquerque had grown, now a sprawling city filling the valley, and with that sprawl came well-lit streets that muted the starry sky.
I visited on occasion throughout the years when Paul lived and worked there. Now I was back for his wedding to Heather. In the meantime, I had a home base at Tonya’s lovely home to explore Albuquerque and its environs.
In the mornings, I’d go for long walks around the neighborhood or in the Bosque before the day heated up. In the evenings, I’d sit on the patio and watch Venus grown brighter in the twilight sky, before she followed the Sun below the horizon.
A pall of smoke from the fires on the west coast hid the stars, or cumulonimbus clouds filled the sky. Sometimes the clouds seemed to glow from within from lightning in the distance, followed by the rumble of thunder. It was monsoon season, and while the clouds teased rain, little fell. One night it rained hard for a few hours. When I went for a walk in the morning, there were no signs of the rain that had fallen during the night, not a puddle, not even a dew drop. Everything was as dry as the day before.
“Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors…
There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…” William Weahkee, Pueblo Elder
The Petroglyph National Monument is along a seventeen mile escarpment in the Rio Grande rift valley. One hundred fifty thousand years ago, six volcanic eruptions spread lava out to the east. The lava hardened and eroded, leaving a cap rock of basalt. Into this basalt the Puebloans carved images with stone hammers and chisels. Archeologists estimate that there are over twenty thousand petroglyph images. Most were carved between 1300 and 1650 by the Pueblo people. About five percent were carved by Spanish settlers, mostly sheepherders, of crosses and sheep brands.
The meaning of the symbols is unknown. Today’s native people believe each image has deep meaning, some known, perhaps, only to the maker of the design. Some represent tribal or societal symbols; some are religious entities. The Puebloans believed that the escarpment was “the place that people speak about,” where their spirits go to leave this world and go to the next. Religious ceremonies are still conducted here by tribal people.
The hand images reminded me of the paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France. They reach out from time before as if to say, “Hello, we were here.”
To walk here is to walk on sacred ground. The day I spent wandering the Petroglyphs, I felt as if I’d transcended the mundane and touched the holy. Connecting with these ancient symbols is to know that they were like us: they worked, they played, they lived, they loved.
And in the midst of the desert, a Jimson flower, still beautiful though past her prime.
Looking at the modern from the ancient. A pall of smoke hangs over the southwest from the fires on the West Coast.
Ice cream sounds like a good idea on a hot afternoon. I Google the best ice cream in Albuquerque and decide to visit I Scream Ice Cream.
Beyond ice cream, it is an audio/visual museum of childhood, any childhood, and it transports me back to my own and teen years. The museum is enlivened by Bill, the owner, who is warm and kind and entertaining. He plays rock music from his vast vinyl collection. Today it’s 50s doo wop.
You can have three scoops of ice cream in a cup with one free topping. He let me sample several flavors before I made my mind up. Yes, I went wild and had three scoops, but I did forego the topping. How can you add to spumoni, black cherry, and chocolate raspberry?
I stop in Durango to charge Freedom. I have two hours to look around. The town has preserved much of the architecture from the mid-1800s when assay offices and banks secured the precious metals that were mined in the San Juan Mountains. Now it’s an upscale vacation spot for outdoor adventures. After a quick walk around the historic district, I stroll along the Animus River. In 2015 this river suffered an environmental disaster. A wall was breached at the Gold King Mine in Silverton, CO, spilling three million gallons of toxic wastewater into the river, turning it neon orange, and affecting waterways not only in Colorado, but in Utah and New Mexico as well. Concerns linger over water quality and aquatic life, as well as who will pay for the continued cleanup of the spill, and seepage from the inoperative mines.
The drive to Pagosa Springs is taxing. Traffic has grown more congested since I began my journey. With more people traveling, it’s becoming difficult to find accommodations. I spend most of my time searching the internet for a place to stay in Taos, my next destination. There are no superchargers here, but there is an EV charger near the San Juan River at the hot springs, and a coffee shop with WiFi across the way. I order a pineapple smoothie and sit in a comfortable chair in a corner of the shop.
In the two hours that I spend here, I find no vacancies in Taos. I search the surrounding areas, to no avail. I’d hoped to spend a few days in quiet contemplation, at the Benedictine monastery, but they aren’t accepting guests because of Covid restrictions. The hot springs at Ojo Caliente is closed for the same reason.
I wander along the Riverwalk and watch families play in the river, parents soaking in the hot water coming from the spring, kids splashing or floating in tubes. There are three greenhouses that grow food year-round using geothermal heat and solar electricity. The Innovation Dome is an aquaponic system that grows both vegetables and fish, and conserves water. Food grown here is donated to the local Food Pantry. I’m pleased to see a community that uses its natural resources for green energy and also provides for the disadvantaged.
In the morning, I feel stressed as I pack Freedom. I have not been able to find accommodations, and my reservation here ends today. I’m aware of two little boys outside the unit next to mine. The older brother is trying to get his little brother to go inside. As I run into my unit I hear the little boy say, “I want to say hello to the lady.” I check to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, and lock the door. I turn to look at the little boy and smile at him.
“Hello, Lady.” The boy says. He’s a cute little tyke with shaggy hair.
“Hello. How are you?”
“We’re going home today, but it’s a long drive.” He waves and runs inside.
I’m touched by his wanting to reach out, to share what’s happening in his life.
I return to the coffee shop to continue the search for someplace to stay. I Google every different way I can think of looking for lodging. Nothing. I feel dismayed. I stand up and walk around the shop, taking long, slow breaths. I return to the chair to resume my search. Something pops up that I haven’t seen before, a beautiful adobe inn with charming rooms, and immediately book a room. I pack my laptop, and before I reach Freedom, the phone rings. The owner of the inn is calling to welcome me. Now that’s hospitality. Other than an email confirmation, nowhere else I’ve stayed has called to welcome me.
The drive is beautiful. The landscape is rugged, green. There are long stretches of pasture land with cattle hovering near the fences. I wonder if they’re watching cars go by or planning ways to make an escape.
Northeastern New Mexico takes me by surprise. I’d been to Albuquerque and Santa Fe many times over the years, but the terrain here is different. It’s cooler and forested. As I drive along the Rio Grande River, I see that it runs lower than the waterline. The gorge outside Taos is breathtaking. It looks like the Grand Canyon, but not as deep.
It’s early evening when I arrive in Taos. I drive up a narrow, shared driveway to the inn and park. It looks like the photo, but it’s run down, dusty, cobwebby. It looks like the set of a psychological thriller. I check my phone for the instructions on how to enter my assigned room, open the lockbox, and unlock the sliding door. The air inside is stale. I am disheartened, but decide to spend the night and leave in the morning. I walk to a nearby market, assemble a salad, and walk back to the inn. I sit at the table on the patio. As I eat the salad, mosquitos dine on me. I go inside to finish eating and try to close the screen to let in some air. The screen is warped and won’t shut all the way. The ceiling fan barely stirs the air. The details of the room come into focus. It isn’t just dirty, it’s filthy. A lace curtain hangs over the door that looks as if it hasn’t been washed since it was put up, goodness knows how many years ago.
Something snaps inside me. I can’t spend the night here. I call the owner and tell her all the reasons why I can’t stay. She says it was a rough year being shut down because of Covid, and she hasn’t had the money for repairs. She kindly offers to refund my money. I appreciate her not putting up a fuss. I feel for her. She has dreams of turning the main lodge into an art gallery, and offer retreats with visiting artists. I understand. She’s an artist, not a businesswoman. I wish her well and leave.
There are two destination chargers in Taos. One is at a brewery; the other is at a Bed and Breakfast. I’d read stories of people showing up at lodgings to find rooms from cancellations. I decide to try my luck at the B and B. Neither the Tesla charger nor the other EV charger work, and there are no vacancies. The sun is setting, Freedom needs a charge, and my options are running out. I check for the nearest Tesla Supercharger. It’s in Santa Fe.
I call my friend, Tonya, who lives in Bernalillo. We’d planned for me to house sit later in the month when she goes to Santa Barbara. I wonder if I could come tonight. There’s no answer. I leave a message.
Venus appears in the blue hour and grows brighter as twilight deepens. She has been my constant companion all summer. It’s dusk when I arrive in Santa Fe. While Freedom is charging, I look for some place to stay. I even call places that have no vacancies to enquire if they’ve had cancellations. They haven’t.
Charging complete. What do I do now? In the trunk is the sleeping bag that Dennis suggested I buy in case of an emergency. This is an emergency. I could stretch out in the back seat, but where do I park? In the lot of a shopping center? On a residential street? How safe will I be? I feel vulnerable. I remember my son Paul’s former neighbor, Federico, and call him. He kindly invites me to his home.
When I arrive, Federico helps me bring my things in, offers me his room, and says I can stay as long as I like. We sit on the patio and talk. The night air is warm, comfortable, a relief from the daytime heat. He asks about my journey, and I talk about how wonderful it’s been, people I’ve met, and the mistakes I made along the way by not having a plan. I realize that I’ve never had a plan in life, I just go wherever the road leads me. If there’s a fork in the road, I think about it and think about it until life pushes me in a direction, or do something like run into the weeds until another road appears. Now I’m crying and issues come up that I thought were resolved, that I had accepted. Let go of. Forgiven. Federico lets me cry. He listens. He doesn’t offer advice. He doesn’t say that everything will be all right. It’s cathartic to be able to let it all out and not be judged or fixed.
Later, when I’m alone with my thoughts, I remember a line from the movie Buckaroo Bonsai Through the Eighth Dimension, “No matter where you go, there you are.” I sold my home and got rid of most of my belongings to free myself from the sense of stagnation that had settled in during the confinement of Covid lockdowns, but my issues tagged along. I was tired of being alone, and yet I found that the best moments were when I was alone, in nature, nothing but the earth, the sky and me, and the blissful sense of transcendence.
When I closed the door to my home for the last time on June first, I said to myself that every day wouldn’t be perfect, but I’d handle whatever came up along the way. I was kidding myself. I imagined a marvelous adventure, with clear roads and fair skies. I can hear my friend Jan say, “You live in a fantasy world.” She’s right. I like the fairy tale and expect a happy ending. My fantasies are greater than reality, and when they collide, I fall apart.
In the morning, Federico takes me out to breakfast, and then helps me wash my car. I go for a drive to think. I still feel wobbly from all the crying I did, but I realize that I need to dust myself off and get back on the road. Accommodations have opened up in Santa Fe during the week. I book a room and plan to stay a while in that lovely city. Tonya calls as I’m packing Freedom. Gary is visiting. She’d like to go back to Santa Barbara with him. Would I like to come stay at her house sooner? I spend the night in Santa Fe and realize that being with friends is what I need.
It’s fun spending time with Tonya and Gary. We go the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The core collection was donated by Florence Dibell Bartlett with over 130,000 artifacts from thirty-four countries. Tonya is a collector of folk art and her home is as beautiful as this museum. Another day we go to Taos. Because the museums are closed, we explore the art galleries. Gary is a musician and hears from a former bandmate. We meet at an outdoor bar in Bernalillo. There’s a great band playing blues music. For the first time in a long time, I’m out dancing.
The days I spend with Tonya and Gary are the perfect tonic. I feel restored, and when they leave, I stay in Tonya’s lovely home for three weeks and take care of her plants. It’s a base for me to take day trips and visit places I want to see.
Before I left on my journey, my dear friend, Jamie, said that I should see Shiprock, so it’s a thrill when I catch glimpse of it, visible for a stretch on a barren highway, and then disappearing in the curve of a road, re-appearing and disappearing again, and again, as I skirt the Arizona, Utah, and Colorado state lines. It is unmistakable and impressive standing alone in the middle of the desert.
The area I drive to is remote and surrounded by barbed wire. Thanks to the magic of a zoom lens, Shiprock appears closer than it is. Even from a distance, I feel as if I’m on holy ground.
Shiprock is the remnant of the throat of a volcano, formed 2,500-3,000 feet below the Earth’s surface and exposed by millions of years of erosion. Radiometric dating determined that these rocks were solidified about twenty-seven million years ago.
It is located in northwestern New Mexico, a sacred site to the Navajo people. The peak is significant in their lore as the means by which the Navajo arrived in the southwest, transported here from another place. The Navajo name for the peak, Tsé Bit’a’i, rock with wings, or winged rock, refers to the legend of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north.
While I have read some of the myths regarding Shiprock, my knowledge is superficial. I do not wish to give misinformation or dishonor the Navajo beliefs by writing about something I don’t know. There is one piece of lore that captured my imagination. According to one legend they were transported here from another place by the Star People (Sky People.) The Star People are considered ancestors. The constellation Pleiades is of special significance in Navajo mythology, and had a practical use as well. The movement of the Pleiades was tracked across the sky throughout the winter months as a celestial clock to determine the number of hours until dawn.
There are also stories even into modern times of contact with the Sky People, and sightings of disks of light, hovering, and then moving at great speeds up, or across the desert. I have never seen such phenomena, but I don’t doubt the existence of Sky People. I have always felt that in this vast cosmos, how could it be that our planet is the only one to hold intelligent life?
The road out of Page is a two lane highway with infrequent passing lanes and no turn outs. Little towns are scattered along the way. Signs mark their existence, trailers huddled in the distance, and a Dollar General store at the edge of the road. It’s the Fourth of July weekend and there are more vehicles traveling, boats and ATVs trailing behind. After a while, the traffic dwindles and I’m alone on the road, music on the radio, surrounded by the shapes and colors of the desert, and the horizon where it meets the sky.
A sign informs me that Four Corners is thirty miles ahead. I look forward to seeing the monument there, and stopping to stretch my legs. I’m disappointed when the Navigation Lady’s voice tells me to turn left onto HWY 191, directing me to the nearest Tesla supercharger. There are long stretches with no radio reception, no music. In the silence, my mind hopscotches from this thought to that, from nothing in particular to wonderment at the majesty of nature, to realizations of mistakes I’d made in not planning this journey in advance. Spontaneity is a wonderful thing, but I could have planned the route better.
It’s been a long while since I’ve seen another vehicle, or even a wayward herd of cows. I feel uneasy with the remoteness of the road when Navigation Lady informs me not to exceed fifty-five miles an hour in order to make it to the supercharger. I look at the charge indicator. It’s in the orange zone. Half an hour later, she says that I should not exceed fifty miles an hour to make it to the supercharger. I’m not panicking, not really. Trust the navigation system, I tell myself. The road seems endless, time and distance elongated. Maybe I should pull over to the side and walk around the car, get a breath of air, but it’s one hundred degrees outside, so I take a few deep breaths and slow down to forty-five, for a little extra assurance. After a while I see a truck driving towards me, and then fingers of a town reach into the desert.
I arrive in Blanding, UT with thirty-five miles of charge left, impressed with the magic of engineering in the guidance system of this vehicle. I bless Elon Musk, plug Freedom into a supercharger and walk to the Visitor Center. It’s welcoming, with clean restrooms open 24/7, WiFi, and a playground. There’s a museum of Pioneer history inside. It’s nearly closing time when I arrive, so I don’t linger. I have a delicious wrap at the Patio diner across the street. In twenty-five minutes, I’m on my way to Cortez, CO to visit the Pueblos in and around Mesa Verde.
I stay at Eco Bella Organique, an Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood at the edge of Denny Park. Inside a private courtyard, the room is cozy, filled with light, and tastefully decorated. The host, Pauline, is friendly and gives helpful information about places I want to see. The five days I spend here are restorative. Pauline is a masseuse; naturally, I had to have a massage. It’s the best massage I’ve had in a long time. I feel the tightness from sitting in the car for long hours release.
The evening air is pleasant, and we chat on the patio, her dog, Honeybee, curled at our feet, her kitten, Tiger Lily exploring. We talk about love and I see a shooting star streak across sky.
If you are ever in Cortez, I highly recommend Eco Bella Organique.
The road to Chapin Mesa is closed for re-surfacing, and I am unable to visit Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling. I spend the day at Far View sites, fascinated by what I see, imagining what it would be like to live in this way.
The Pueblo people moved onto Mesa Verde around 550 AD. They lived and flourished there for seven hundred years. Between 1150 to 1300, thousands of people lived there. The cliff dwellings were built with rectangular sandstone blocks, mortared with a mix of dirt and water. They gathered wild plants, and hunted deer, rabbit, squirrels, and other animals, and farmed the three sisters: beans, corn, and squash. They worked their fields with digging sticks, and built check dams across draws to hold rain and snow. Dogs and turkeys were the only domesticated animals. Turkeys provided feathers for ceremonial use, arrow stabilizers, and blankets. It’s believed that the turkeys’ feathers were gathered and humanely removed during the molting process twice a year. The bones were used for musical instruments.
By about 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. Crop failure from drought, over-hunting, and clearing of trees for building and firewood, changed the habitat for animals that the Puebloans depended on for food. Archeologists believe that around thirty thousand people lived on the mesa at the time. They migrated south to the areas that are now New Mexico and Arizona.
Lower left: Corn was ground here using stone metates. Lower right: This reservoir is designated a Historic Landmark by International Civil Engineers. It is thought that it was also used as a ceremonial site.
Sand Canyon Pueblo is one of the largest prehistoric settlements in the region. I drive on gravel roads, passing an occasional farmstead, to the upper trailhead. There’s a small parking area and a few picnic tables. A family of four sits at a table, eating snacks and looking at a map. I wave and head out on the trail. At first, the trail is flat and sandy, and then descends along a ledge, not unlike the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon, but narrower. I start feeling the effects of height vertigo. Other than the family I passed, there are no other hikers. I decide this is not a hike to do alone, and head back up.
I sit on a boulder in the shade of a pine tree. It’s silent, peaceful, only the chirps and cheeps of birds having a conversation I wish I understood, and a gentle breeze whispering in the canyon. I watch the sky hoping to see an eagle. I read a booklet on Archeological Evidence and Scientific Insights. I write for a while, and then allow my senses to be alive, feeling the heat that is held in the earth, smelling the sweet, pine scented air, unaware of time.
I can’t help seeing a correspondence between the Pueblo migration and the condition the world is in today. Drought, over use of natural resources and overpopulation caused the Puebloans to leave their home in order to survive. We are seeing this happen globally, complicated by wars, political struggles, and environmental changes, as well as over population, and over use and misuse of natural resources. Now the situation is more dire. It’s estimated that the worldwide population in 1300 AD was around four hundred million; today there are nearly eight billion people living on Earth. Harvard University sociobiologist, Edward O. Wilson, estimates that the maximum population Earth’s available resources can carry is nine to ten billion people. The world population is estimated to increase to nearly ten billion by the year 2050.
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” Benjamin Franklin
On the way to the Grand Canyon, I drove through Page, Arizona. The terrain beyond Page captivated me. The colors were vibrant shades of mauve, crimson, and dusky pink. I decide to stay there on my way to Cortez, CO and take a closer look.
On the drive up, I’m dismayed to see heavy machinery bite into the buttes to fill trucks with the colorful sand. I watch these trucks haul their loads on the highway and wonder what would be done with it.
When I arrive in Page, I go directly to the Air BnB where I have reservations. It’s advertised as “a cute caretaker’s cottage.” Close your eyes. What do you see? It’s nothing like that. It’s a remodeled storage shed behind an apartment building at the edge of a commercial/industrial area. The inside is small, but has everything I need to spend the night. I bring in my suitcases, and go to check out the town and have dinner.
The energy in Page is heavy. There are few smiles, little eye contact. I came to learn that the Navajo people are the largest sector of the population in the Glen Canyon area, and the Navajo Nation was heavily affected by COVID19. The loss of elders of the community is also the loss of knowledge and traditions that are handed down verbally.
In the morning there is clanking and grunting of trucks in the parking lot behind the cute caretaker’s cottage. The room is heavily scented. I have a headache and my eyes are irritated from the phthalates in the cleaning products. I can’t spend another night here. I check out and go to the hotel where I’d charged Freedom, and then on to view Lake Powell.
The visitor center is closed. I walk around and am disheartened by what I see. Lake Powell is quite low, a painful example of the effects of climate change from higher temperatures and not enough rain and snow.
I return to the hotel. There are washing machines down the hall from my room. I throw clothes into two washers and return to my room. Having seen how low Lake Powell is, I feel guilty for using the water to have clean clothes. Raised Catholic, I spent every Sunday morning at mass, on my knees in church saying “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” and to this day I feel guilty not only for my faults, but also for all the wrongs in the world.
Drought conditions are extreme and accelerating in the Colorado River Basin. It supplies water from Rocky Mountain snowfall runoff to around forty million people in seven western states and Mexico. Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Tucson, Los Angles, San Diego and Albuquerque all depend on it.
Next year Arizona will lose eighteen percent of its share from the river, eight percent of the state’s total water use. The allocation to farmers in central Arizona comes from water deemed extra, making them the first to lose it during a shortage. They are the state’s largest producers of livestock, dairy, alfalfa, wheat, and barley.
“There is little to no livestock feed available in the West, farmers are considering selling their livestock or land, and many species of wildlife are suffering from wildfires and lack of water.” Democratic Representatives, Joe Neguse of Colorado and Jared Huffman of California, wrote in a letter to the President in August.
In July, the water levels in Lake Powell fell to one hundred fifty-three feet below full pool and have continued to drop, holding just thirty percent of its capacity. If the water level continues to drop below 3,490 feet, it will reach “dead pool,” meaning that there is not enough water to flow through Glen Canyon Dam’s gates to generate the hydropower to the West’s electric grid. It provides electricity for about 5.8 million customers from Arizona to Wyoming. Lake Powell’s water levels are projected to drop to around 3,586 feet by the end of the year. There is a one in three chance that the dam will not be able to generate electricity by 2023.
What can we do? We can be mindful of how we use water. We can take shorter showers and not run the water to wash dishes. A fully loaded dishwasher uses water more efficiently than handwashing. Do we really need lawns, not only in front of our homes, but in public places? We can plant native and drought tolerant gardens.
For energy conservation, turn off lights we don’t need. Use energy efficient appliances. We can weatherize and insulate our homes. Get a programmable thermostat. Do you need a new roof? Get a solar roof; excess energy that you generate is shared with the grid.
While we need to take responsibility for our day to day behaviors, the meaningful changes we need to make to the way we live, with forward thinking innovations, will take cooperation between government and business, locally and globally. We need investment in green energy and infrastructure. We need to stop seeing the ways we disagree and start seeing that we all have the same basic needs. People with jobs in fossil fuel industries need to know they will have training and jobs in green industries. Write to your government representatives and let them know if you have positive input for change, or to business leaders if you have a novel idea to resolve the issues we are facing.
Elon Musk is offering a total of one hundred million dollars for workable solutions for reducing the planet’s CO2 emissions in a durable and sustainable way. The contest started on Earth Day this year and will continue to Earth Day 2025.
Recovering and rebuilding from fires, floods, and other disasters costs billions of dollars, and human, animal, and other species’ lives. That money could be used in making the changes needed before “natural” disasters becomes more extreme.
“Our motivation should not be fear, but hope.” Sir David Attenborough
It was early evening when I arrived at Yavapai Lodge on Grand Canyon’s south rim. It was a long drive from Escalante and I was road weary. After I checked in, I had something to eat and returned to my room.
There’s a dark sky policy in the Grand Canyon, and I’d looked forward to sitting outside seeing all the stars in their glory, but clouds shrouded the sky. There are two threats to starry nights in Grand Canyon by sky glow from Las Vegas, Tuba City, Flagstaff, and Williams, and the push for development just outside the park.
I made my way to the Bright Angel Trailhead, sunhat on, water bottle full, camera and other essentials in my backpack.
After admiring the beauty before me at the viewpoint, I started out on the trail. When I turned on to the first switchback and looked out, I had to back up to the canyon wall and hang on. I have acrophobia, fear of heights, but I’d never experienced such an extreme physical response; my heart was racing and my knees felt as if they would buckle under. I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing to pull myself together. In my mind, I knew the trail was safe. Many people were walking on it, many people have walked it before. Why was my body reacting this way? I opened my eyes and felt the same physical response. I turned towards the cliff wall. I only felt uneasy physically when I looked out, yet I was still in the same place. It made me wonder if acrophobia is a visual problem. If the eyes send messages to the brain whether one’s surroundings are safe, could there be something in the way the eyes report heights to the brain that causes a stress response?*
As I pondered this, a man walked by. The saying on his T-shirt read, “Because I said I would.” I decided to make this my mantra, and resumed the trek down the path. I found I was fine as long as I looked straight ahead rather than into the canyon. For some reason, looking through the camera viewfinder did not affect me the same way.
There were so many people walking the trail that it soon felt like a party. Most people smiled and waved. Sometimes there was a hello, once in a while a brief conversation. There were people from all over the world; a couple from France asked me to take their picture, and a family from China was astonished that I was traveling alone. I saw the same people taking breaks; sometimes they’d pass me, other times, I passed them. I also noticed that as I walked lower into the canyon, looking out didn’t trigger a physical response.
Along the way there were squirrels begging for handouts, and a condor gliding the thermals in the canyon. There was a desert bighorn ewe nibbling on grass, unbothered by passing hikers. The sheep are native to the U.S. deserts of the intermountain west and southwest. They are considered sensitive to extinction. They eat grasses, clover, and sedges in the summer. They also eat food wrappers, plastics, and other human discards, causing digestive problems that add to their vulnerability.
There was one shady rest stop where several groups of people lingered to get out of the sun for a few minutes. A couple passed us, coming from below, huffing and puffing. The woman said as she passed, “Remember that when you go down, you have to climb back up.”
It was at about the two miles on the trail; it gets steeper from here. I looked up the path and realized that it was steep enough. “Because I said I would” turned into “next time when I’m better prepared.” I turned around and headed up the path.
After a while, I came upon a smiling face. “I told my family I wanted to walk with you.” It was Prasad. I’d passed him and his family several times on the trail. As we walked he told me that he’d just graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in accounting, and in the fall he planned to go back to earn his Master’s Degree. We talked about travel and family, and before I knew it, we were at the canyon rim, his parents and brother waiting with warm greetings. They are a lovely family and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend time with them.
I went back to my room to shower, and then to the village for dinner. During dinner there was rolling thunder and a downpour. Afterwards, I walked to the post office across the way to mail post cards. On the way back a rainbow appeared.
The Grand Canyon Park Rangers say that it’s more than a view. The canyon is over one mile deep, two hundred seventy-seven miles long and up to eighteen miles wide. Fewer than five percent of those who visit descend the canyon rim to see the wonders that are below.
Mother Nature had a human partner in creating some of the park’s beauty. Her name is Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. She was an interior designer and later the chief architect for Fred Harvey Co. During her early years, her work had to be signed off by a man because women were not allowed to be architects. Her architecture was created to fit in with the natural beauty of the area, incorporating Native American design and Spanish Revival architecture. She created the Desert View Watchtower, Lookout Studio, Phantom Ranch, Hopi House, and Hermit’s Rest.
Her legacy lives in the lovingly preserved buildings, and in 1987 Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Desert View Watchtower, and Lookout Studio were added to the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark. I spent only one day at Grand Canyon, but I was so inspired by it that I vowed to return to spend time on the canyon floor camping, exploring, enjoying the natural quiet, and the starry nights.
*Later in my journey I shared my thoughts with someone on whether the way the eyes send information to the brain is the cause of acrophobia. He asked if I’d researched it. I hadn’t, so I did. Thank you, Kelly, I learned a lot.
It seems acrophobia is a common phobia. Some of the symptoms are increased heartbeat, shaking or trembling. Height vertigo is a conflict between vision and parts of the inner ear and brain that process sensory information that controls balance and eye movements, and part of the sensory nervous system associated with body position and movement. It creates a spinning sensation even though the person is not spinning. While I had the symptoms of acrophobia, I believe my intuition was correct that the vision and brain receptors were the cause.
It concerns me that acrophobia is considered a mental disorder when it has physical causes. It is treated with cognitive therapy, and hypnotherapy. It is also treated with beta-blockers, sedatives, or an anti-biotic thought to affect certain receptors in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, but does not treat the phobia. For height vertigo there is vestibular physical therapy, an exercise based program to improve balance, and reduce problems related to dizziness.
As far as phobias are concerned, yes, there are things I fear, but I’ve never let them stop me from doing want I want to do. Because I said I would.
“I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences Don’t fence me in.” Cole Porter
I’d hoped to spend time in Zion National Park, but there were no accommodations available, so I drove around the edge of the park before heading to Bryce Canyon.
The terrain of the Utah desert is varied and colorful. In the midst of far-flung emptiness, it seemed a mirage grew in the distance. After several miles, the outline of a town became clear. Soon, I saw that it was a city under construction, sprawling out into the desert, isolated, remote, complete with a fitness center and McDonald’s. Farther on, there were several other cities mushrooming up in the wilderness. What do people do to earn a living out in the back of the beyond?
Driving was enjoyable on that two lane road, going through small towns surrounded by orchards, many miles between them and the new urban areas. When I entered Hwy 89, it was heavily trafficked, especially by trucks, going well over the speed limit, passing each other for road dominance. I found it unnerving driving behind trucks hauling multiple trailers like wagging tails. I let them pass me and tried to stay out of their way.
The highway started a long incline, dark clouds looming in the distance. There were flashes of lightning as the clouds drew nearer. Suddenly, they were overhead and there was a burst of rain, lightning, and thunder. The windshield wipers worked as fast as they could, and rain bounced off Freedom’s hood, still the trucks sped ahead, passing each other. I was terrified. This lasted for fifteen minutes, and then the sun came out, the roads and hillsides dry, as if nothing had happened.
I was relieved to turn onto Hwy 12, a narrow, winding road that led to Tropic, Utah, where I spent the night. The main street is about half a mile long with a view out to Bryce Canyon. Besides tourism, they raise hay for feed, and I saw a fair amount of cattle as I drove through the area.
I had the thrill of watching the full moon burst through the clouds over the canyon.
In the morning I went to a coffee shop for breakfast and to write a few postcards. I asked to have my coffee in a mug rather than a throw-away cup. The shopkeeper went off about how there’s a drought and he’d have to waste water washing a cup. Meantime, sprinklers moved back and forth across the hay fields to keep them watered.
I love Escalante, UT. I spent three lovely days there. It’s peaceful and quiet, with birds singing to greet the day. The people are friendly, genuine, mostly from someplace else, there for the season to work and enjoy outdoor adventures on days off. The food I ate was fresh, delicious, and prepared with care.
I was fascinated by the abandoned brick homes that were built around 1900. I wonder why they haven’t been preserved and turned into a museum. And there is a whimsical phone booth.
A cloud floated by, reminding me that love is everywhere.
I spent a day hiking in Kodachrome Canyon. I went in search of Shakespeare’s Arch only to learn later that it had collapsed in 2019.
It’s peaceful in the desert. Still. Quiet in the sense that there is no human made noise, other than the hellos of other hikers, but there is the sound the breeze makes as it flows freely across the open space, the crunch of sand and rock under one’s boots, and my breath, in, and out.
I’m in awe of the majesty and power of Mother Nature, and feel comforted by it. I am in awe of the indigenous people who lived here before us, in the heat, or the cold, in dry conditions, or monsoons. They took what Mother Nature served them and lived, and thrived.
The next day I hiked the Petrified Forest Trail. It’s a steep climb up, then an easy walk for a while, with a scattering of petrified logs among the basalt boulders. Pine and juniper trees dot the landscape.
The Trail of Sleeping Rainbows branches off and descends into a ravine. The petrified logs are larger, and numerous. Some logs look like quilts of many colors and feel like glass. I’m surprised that they are cool to the touch, even in the blazing desert sun.
The sweeping vista is filled with the varied colors and shapes of the sandstone and mudstone plateaus and buttes that were formed during the Upper Triassic epoch. I’m surprised at the amount of vegetation in the valley below.
Along the way, I pass a young woman hiking alone. We chat and sip water for a few minutes. An older couple sit on a boulder enjoying the view. Other hikers pass, say hello and move on. I enjoy stretches of brisk walking, and stops to take in my surroundings. My senses are alive with the sight of color and texture, the sounds of a hawk above and birds hidden in the vegetation, and the breeze scented with the sweet fragrance of the juniper trees.
The trail ascends again. At one point I decide that whoever designed the trail was a sadist. There’s a series of switchbacks, some going down, yet always ascending. Every turn seems familiar, but I know I haven’t walked this way before. The day has gotten hotter. The trail seems to have come to an end, and I am at the top of the plateau, within a bowl. There are no trail markers. I realize that I haven’t seen any footprints on the trail in quite a while. Do they disappear easily in the soft sand, or have the other hikers not been this way?
I sit in the shade of a juniper tree and sip what remains of my water. It’s peaceful, quiet. Too quiet. Not a breeze. Not the shriek of a hawk. I wonder if I’m lost. I stand up and look around. Everything is unfamiliar. I wonder if I should go back down the way I came? If I am lost, and if I start moving, will I get even more lost? I wonder if there are any wild animals here, or worse, scorpions and snakes? My imagination goes on a wild ride. I need to do something.
I reach into my backpack and pull out my cell phone. I Google “nearest park ranger station” and call the first number that comes up. A man named David answers. I tell him that I think I’m lost and I’m almost out of water. I’m stifling tears. I feel foolish. David reassures me that calling was right thing to do. He asks questions about what I see around me, and tells me to stay where I am. Someone is coming to help.
I sit under the juniper tree, admiring how green and alive its spiny leaves look growing on long branches of seemingly dead wood. The berries are a beautiful shade of blue. Gin is made from juniper berries. I wonder what they taste like and reach to pick one when the phone rings.
“Hello, this is Tom from emergency services. Is this Frances?” He says that David contacted him for additional assistance. He tells me to hang up and call him back. I do. He answers and asks me to hold while he triangulates my location. It’s quiet for a minute.
“I know exactly where you are,” he says. “I want you to start walking up the hill.” I walk about a hundred feet and there is a trail marker. Now I really feel foolish. He reassures me as David did, that calling for help was the right thing to do.
The trail continues to ascend and then curves around to a clear path. Tom stays on the phone with me as I walk. Soon I hear someone call, “Frances? Is that you?” A tall, good looking, young man walks towards me. It’s David. He brought me two bottles of water. Tom says I’m in good hands and says good bye.
We talk as we hike down to the parking lot. David asks why I called that particular number. He says he’s not a park ranger, he works at Yonder an RV park and campground. He came on his own to find me when I called. I feel humbled by the kindness this act shows. He says he graduated from college with a degree in creative writing, but felt he needed to have more life experiences to become a better writer.
I say that I’m a writer, too, and that he sounds like me when I was his age. We talk about writing, and I encourage him to write every day, even if it’s just to keep a journal. I hope to someday read his published work.
The evenings are still. I watch Venus appear after sunset and grow more radiant in the twilight sky. That little dot above the Circle D Motel, where I stayed, is Venus. She was larger and brighter in the sky than the photo shows.
I sit in the twilight and recite a poem I learned as a child.
“Star light, Star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight”
With all my heart, I make a wish.
P. S. Utah is a beautiful state, with lots to see and explore. Unless you like it hot, I recommend going in the spring or fall.
“Life springs eternal on a gaudy neon street, not that I care at all…
Oh, I’m leaving Las Vegas, and the lights so bright…
and I won’t be back,
no, no, no, I won’t be back.” Sheryl Crow.
I did a farewell drive around Santa Barbara, and by the time I reached Ventura, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough charge to reach my destination, so I ignored the directions to HWY 126 and stopped at the Tesla supercharger in Oxnard to charge Freedom rather than trust the extraordinary Tesla navigation system, the first of a number of hard lessons learned on the road from my own mistakes. After charging, I was re-routed through L.A.
Traffic was bumper to bumper, and if we’d crept through L.A., it was stop and go through Rancho Cucamonga, inching along as four lanes merged into one. Once through the bottleneck, I saw one black SUV in the middle of three blocked off lanes, surrounded by six California Highway Patrol cars.
Driving through the Nevada desert, there were miles of nothingness, so my curiosity was piqued when I saw a bicyclist up ahead. He had on a white shirt, khaki shorts, and a white cloth on his head. It was one hundred one degrees outside. I thought about that man until I reached Las Vegas. It was the middle of nowhere, how far would he need to cycle to get somewhere? Should I have stopped and offered him water? Should I go back to see if he was okay?
Miles outside the city, there were homes and apartment complexes being built on both sides of the road. They looked like the tentacles of a huge monster growing larger on the horizon. As I drew closer to the city, residential areas became denser, as did the traffic. When I exited the freeway, the road was torn up. There was construction going on everywhere, and the streets were crammed with cars and people.
I finally arrived at my destination, a large hotel in the midst of the growing city. A drive that was supposed to take six hours had taken nearly nine hours. A valet promised that Freedom would be fully charged in the morning and drove her into the depths of the building. A porter took my luggage and said it would be delivered to the room as soon as I was registered.
The front desk staff was friendly and efficient considering the long lines of people checking in. I was surprised to see how many people traveled with dogs. The confines of a hotel don’t seem dog friendly to me, but perhaps they were used to apartment living. Once registered, I had to go through a maze of corridors to the casino, and show my key to security guards to get to the tower elevators. If you want to make a security guard laugh, ask him if there is a non-smoking casino in the hotel.
The suite I was assigned was almost as large as the house I’d just sold. The bathroom had a large soaking tub, a walk in shower, a double sink, and a large vanity with a light-up mirror to make sure one’s makeup was applied properly. The king size bed was studded with pillows, and the sitting area had built in couches, a desk, a dining table, and a window with a sweeping view of the landscape below. Each area of the suite had a large flat screen TV. Yes, I got an incredible deal on the room.
As fascinating as all of this was, I was exhausted. Rather than venture out for dinner, I decided to shower and splurge on room service. It felt good to wash the stress of the day off, and to loll around in my pajamas, writing in my journal. It took an hour and a half for the salad I ordered to arrive. It came on a linen lined cart. Oscar set the table and pulled out the chair for me to sit. He even shook out the napkin with a flourish, and it floated through the air onto my lap.
I’d ordered an Asian chicken salad. The picture on the menu showed a bed of crisp greens interspersed with colorful vegetables with pieces of chicken scattered across the top. The salad was wilted, probably from sitting on the cart for an hour and a half, and the pieces of chicken were cold McNuggets. I scraped those off and picked through the salad to eat the least soggy of the fare.
Early the next morning I went to find a cup of coffee and something to eat. The coffee shop had a refrigerator and several name brand yogurts. I read the labels to check the ingredients. The yogurt I usually buy has milk and active cultures. I was shocked to see the selection offered made with corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, and a number of other artificial ingredients. I put the yogurt back and wandered with my coffee.
I looked down into a lobby that was filled with the word LOVE. Being a fool for love, I loved it. I rode down escalators and strolled hallways lined with designer label stores, their windows darkened, but alluring to elicit desire. I felt like Alice in Wonderland lost in a labyrinth of gondolas, streams, and fountains when I was drawn into a deserted courtyard by a blue sky and the pink of the sunrise. I stood there looking at the sky, thinking, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” I noticed some objects in the sky and asked a lone security guard what they were.
“Security cameras,” was his terse response.
“How did they get them up there?”
“They’re in the ceiling.”
“Oh, is there a glass dome over the room?”
“No. It’s the ceiling.”
“But, isn’t that the sky?”
Sigh and eye roll. “No, ma’am, the sky is painted on the ceiling.”
I was startled back to reality and asked for directions to the tower elevators. I looked straight ahead as I walked, so as not to be sidetracked by all the distractions designed to lure you into the make believe world of Las Vegas.
Why did I stop here? It’s not me. I read that Las Vegas no longer depends on the casinos for their revenue, billing itself instead as a destination vacation. The hotel across the street from where I stayed has a golf course, perhaps the only outdoor activity I saw. Although the hotels have pools and gyms, they are huge, airless, self-contained monoliths to every sort of excess of consumption.
As I drove away, I remembered the terror I felt as a child watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and think of the feeling I had of being Alice as I wandered the labyrinthian halls of the hotel. She was a girl who felt bored when she followed a whim and fell down the rabbit hole. I am an adult Alice who felt stagnant and followed a whim into the rabbit hole of a massive hotel in the middle of a desert. What would the rest of this adventure bring?
“Oooh baby do you know what it’s worth? oooh, Heaven is a place on earth…” Belinda Carlisle
Driving south on HWY 101 I pass the junction with HWY 154. It is here that the terrain changes from the vast, farmed Santa Maria valley bordered with rolling foothills into the Santa Ynez Mountains. A gentle grade leads to the Gaviota tunnel, and I remember the first time I drove through it.
“It furthers one to have someplace to go,” the I Ching had advised me. I couldn’t imagine any place better than Marin County and San Francisco. Then, at an Astrologers’ conference in San Diego, everyone I met talked about Santa Barbara. How spiritual it was. How beautiful.
Not long after that, I made my way down Hwy 101 in my Volkswagen van with my four year old son, Luke, filled with the anticipation that comes with not knowing what to expect.
Through the short afternoon, the sun hung low in the sky, casting long shadows across the freeway; a fleeting twilight gave way to evening. It’s dark as the van crawls up a grade. When we emerge from the Gaviota tunnel, I feel something is different here, and roll down the window. The air is alive with the smell of the ocean, hints of citrus, sage, eucalyptus, and the oil that is being pumped from the ocean floor.
I find a place to stay and carry my sleeping son to bed.
In the morning, the sky is brilliant, blue; palm trees rustle and sway in ocean breezes. We walk down State Street and through El Paseo. Long legged poinsettias with startling red blooms cling to white stucco walls. I fall in love with this beautiful city and stay. Of all the places I’ve lived, Santa Barbara feels most like home to me.
I remember walking on the beach, cold, wet sand squishing between my toes; hiking in the foothills, and then running down the trails full speed, laughing with joy, my senses alive with the colors of sea, sky, and earth, and all of their scents. I can still smell the night air after spring rain, aromatic with pittosporum and damp earth, and then the hillsides green and blooming with wildflowers and California poppies. When the fog rolled in for the June gloom, the jacaranda bloom, their violet flowers electric in the grey mist. I think of neighborhoods painted with purple morning glories draped over fences or clinging to walls, trumpet vines with hot orange blossoms, hibiscus trees filled with delicate white flowers, and silk trees with pink, furry blooms. In the fall, the golden hillsides made the magenta and orange bougainvillea growing along Foothill Road appear even more vivid. The wind carried scents of sage, grasses, and eucalyptus, and always, always, the ocean with its salty, organic smell, and a tinge of petroleum. Each fragrance could be discerned separately, but they combine into a perfume uniquely Santa Barbara’s.
That was the 70s, when it was easy to get by on a waitress’s income. Rent was the largest expense, but utilities were low because heat was rarely needed, and ocean breezes provided air conditioning. There were avocados, oranges, and lemons from friends’ or neighbors’ trees and, occasionally, jars of honey. It was the land of plenty, or, as a KTYD disc jockey called it, “Paradise with an ocean view.” Yes, it was idyllic; and like everything in life, it has changed.
At that time, Santa Barbara’s motto was “Small is Beautiful.” There was a struggle to find a balance between the need for housing and keeping this little piece of heaven from growing too large. When Reagan was president and vacationed at his home in the Santa Ynez mountains, the press corps invaded Santa Barbara and did their broadcasts on the beach with the mountains as a backdrop. The graceful curves and slopes of the mountains, with rolling foothills facing the Channel Islands, and sandy beaches with undulating waves that surfers love, were televised nightly. Soon this fair city became sought after by the wealthy, causing the cost of housing to soar.
In 1986 I moved to the Ellwood area of Goleta, the outermost developed part of Santa Barbara. I was a single mother again, and this was the perfect place to raise my youngest son, Paul. A few blocks away was a sandlot baseball field, and behind us open space that led to Ellwood Beach. The mesa was a rich ecosystem of vernal pools and wildlife, and was bordered by a eucalyptus grove that was the overwintering home for monarch butterflies. It wasn’t long before developers set their sights on all this open land.
I became a founding member of Save Ellwood Shores (SES) to protect this unique bubble of life. County meetings were attended, neighbors were informed of planned changes, petitions were circulated and signed, and studies were done to show the impact development would have on the fragile habitat of the Ellwood area.
In 1996 there was another major change in my life, and I left Santa Barbara. My friends in SES kept me informed. A few years later an agreement was reached, protecting Ellwood Mesa, with concessions to the developers. I returned in 2002 for a year and a half, and was disheartened by what I saw.
A shopping center that included a Costco, Home Depot, and a cinema, had been constructed next to the once sandlot Little League fields that were now groomed athletic fields for soccer as well as baseball. Development had begun, with large swathes of land set aside for future construction. Yes, Ellwood Mesa had been “preserved,” but was heavily used. Cars lined the street and field where I once lived.
Santa Barbara became a leader in environmental causes when an oil well blew out in the channel in January, 1969, causing the largest oil spill in the United States by that time, with devastating effect to Santa Barbara’s beaches, and marine life. Local organizations formed to protest the oil companies and their activities, and to do something about the problems they caused. On the first anniversary of that event, Rod Nash, a professor at UCSB, created the Environmental Bill of Rights. The first Earth Day followed a few months later in April, 1970 to increase awareness around the world of the care that needs to be taken of the Earth. But even with all the good legislation that came from this activism—clean air and water acts, the endangered species act, and more—it was not enough to change the growing climate crisis we are now experiencing, and Santa Barbara has felt the impact with severe fires caused by the intensifying drought. Since 2006 there have been thirteen major fires in Santa Barbara County; the most devastating was the Thomas fire in December, 2017. The embers of that fire were barely cooled when a torrential rainstorm caused mud, rocks and debris from the scorched mountains to flood residential areas below.
All these years later, memories fill me as I drive through the Gaviota Tunnel, and I’m eager to see the landscape I missed. Along the coast the peaceful ocean rolls to shore, bathers and surfers playing in it. It is hot and dry, the hillsides already brown. I can smell the ocean, but not the perfume of citrus orchards.
By instinct, I know where to get off for Ellwood, the last place I lived, but it is no longer called the Winchester Canyon exit; it’s Cathedral Oaks-Foothill-Hollister. When I get to the top of the ramp, I’m shocked. The Sandpiper Golf Club, once hidden behind a grove of eucalyptus is now open and exposed to view. The left side of the road has been developed with rows and rows of townhouses.
I stop at the school Paul attended from kindergarten to sixth grade. Aside from the addition of a traffic light to facilitate the flow of cars through the parking lot, it looked the same with its blue and white tile entry. It comforted me to see something that hadn’t changed. I drove by the condo where we lived, no longer tan to blend in with the environment, but now painted a shocking white. The field behind the condos is developed. The monarch groves and trails through Ellwood Mesa are closed indefinitely due to the drought.
The streets feel narrower as I continue on and witness all the changes. I’m relieved that the avocado orchard is still on the other side of the Glen Annie overpass. Along Cathedral Oaks Road I drive through familiar residential areas and remember fields where Paul played soccer, and houses where friends lived. I cross the terminus of HWY 154 where Cathedral Oaks becomes Foothill Road. Along the stretch between Morada and Ontare Roads, I look for the magnificent magenta and orange bougainvillea I loved, but see only a few draped along a fence and wonder if the rest had been lost in one of the fires that scorched Santa Barbara. I am torn between the changes in the landscape and my memories. I drive through Mission Canyon until I reach my destination.
I’m greeted with hugs and kisses from my friends, Dennis and Suzanne. It’s been five years since we’ve seen each other, but time and distance haven’t affected the bonds of friendship. We sip wine and talk. Much has happened in our lives and the world, and our conversation flows late into the evening.
Dennis and Suzanne host a potluck dinner, a tradition of our gatherings over the years. It’s a feast of flavors from friends who are all great cooks, and best of all are the hugs from Gary, Jeff, Tina, Rob, and Jon, people I love and have missed. We have a long history together, having shared the joys and sorrows life has doled out along the way. Tonight, we are happy to be together, and make plans to see each other over the next few days. From the front patio we watch the sunset. The sky deepens to twilight blue, and lovely Venus emerges in her brilliant beauty.
The next morning, I meet Jeff for a walk at Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro.) The fog is dense and our conversation is quiet as we enjoy the gentle sound of the ocean splashing on the shore. We talk a lot about his brother, Stephen, who passed away suddenly last fall. I met Stephen not long after I moved to Santa Barbara. We traveled together, backpacking, hiking in the mountains, and scuba diving. Though our paths took different directions, we remained lifelong friends. Jeff talks about how he dealt with his grief after loss; I remember Stephen’s presence in my life as a gift as I rebuilt my life after divorce. Jeff picks up a heart shaped rock and hands it to me. “Stephen is with us,” he says.
It’s a beautiful afternoon when Suzanne and I hike through the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens. The Jesusita Fire in May, 2006 burned part of the gardens. Mother Nature has healed the scars, but the long term effects of drought are seen. It is June and the hillsides are already brown and dry, however, the gardens exemplify how to live in harmony with nature. There is beauty in all of the drought tolerant, native plants that sustain the ecosystem.
Another morning, Dennis, Suzanne and I walk from Shoreline Park down along the waterfront. It’s foggy, and I’m grateful for the June gloom that has cooled the days and shows off the jacaranda trees. There’s a yoga class in the park, and people are setting up a child’s birthday party near the playground. Boats rest in the harbor, their masts reflected in still water. This part of Santa Barbara was always busy, an attraction for tourists. It is even more crowded than I remember. Before HWY 101 became non-stop through Santa Barbara, there were stoplights to cross the highway, and one overpass on the way into town. The graffiti on that bridge and beach restroom walls was, “Welcome to Santa Barbara, now go home.”
The days pass quickly. I see as many friends as I can, and visit the places I love about Santa Barbara. I rest and relax in the quiet of Dennis and Suzanne’s home, Armonia, so called for their desire to live in harmony with all living things. On a wooded lot, their home has been threatened by fires, but they work tirelessly to keep it free of underbrush. They have hens, compost, and an organic garden. It is a little oasis that attracts a wide variety of birds. Coyotes yip at night in the distance. They only thing not in harmony is the invasion of ground squirrels whose habitat was lost from the Thomas fire. With no natural predators in the area, and the abundance of food, they are thriving. They are cute, but are invasive pests. Dennis struggles with the most humane way to deal with them and bring the natural ecology of Armonia back into balance.
In the evenings, we look at a map of the United States, and Dennis and Suzanne suggest places to visit. Dennis is concerned about my safety traveling alone. He suggests that I buy a sleeping bag and a few other supplies in case I’m stranded and need to sleep in the car. I make reservations for my next stop. Refreshed from a week of loving friendship, delicious, healthy food, and with a full heart, I drive through downtown Santa Barbara on my way to my next destination
I drive south on HWY 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. There are delays caused by roadwork going through Carmel, but as I drive on towards Big Sur, the traffic thins out. A bank of fog floats in and out, flirting with the coast line. The sun is shining, and the sky and ocean are their own shades of blue. Cars are parked along the side of the road, surfers pulling on wetsuits, hauling surfboards down to the rolling waves.
The road winds, sometimes through stands of sequoias, sometimes along the edge of steep cliffs. I’m filled with eager anticipation as I near Nepenthe. The last time I was there was in the late ’80 with my beloved friend Jacquie. I don’t know if it was the hour of the day, or the day of the week, or the time of the year, but we were the only two people in the restaurant that day. Today, cars are parked along the side of the road near the entrance. I boldly enter the parking lot and get a parking place right away. I smile at my good fortune.
There are people everywhere. I climb the stairs to the restaurant, nestled in trees on one side, a breathtaking view of the ocean in front. The waiting area is filled, and there’s a long line outside the hostess’s podium. We are informed that the wait for a table is forty-five minutes. I decide to try my luck at the Kevah Café.
There’s is a line at the café as well, but not as long. I place my order and settle at a table in the shade to wait for the salad to be served. I write in my journal and watch a blue jay perch on a ledge, and then sweep across the patio, looking for scraps of food. The salad is served and I dig in. My taste buds are thrilled. The bitter, peppery taste of the arugula is offset by the sweetness of the orange supreme, the goat cheese and dried cherries are a tangy combination, and the shaved red onion and sunflower seeds add crunch, all are enrobed in a perfect citrus vinaigrette. I eat slowly and savor every bite.
I wander down to the gift shop to buy postcards to send to my grandkids and end up on the back porch. It’s peaceful, the breeze playing in the windchimes. I stand at the rail and watch the ocean roll to the shore and remind myself that nepenthe means anything inducing a pleasurable sensation of forgetfulness.
I pull onto Hwy 1, behind a silver haired man in a blue Corvette convertible. I follow him down the winding road at a safe distance. I love the way Freedom handles the road, moving gracefully around the curves.
Foggy days have allowed the wildflowers to flourish. There are patches of bright California poppy, mustard, and lupine. Sometimes we drive through dense fog, and then blue skies, the fog lurking out at sea. After a while Mr. Blue Corvette pulls onto a view point and waves. I wave back and drive on.
For a long stretch, the road is steep and has more curves. I slow down, grateful that there is little traffic. The road lengthens and in the rearview mirror, I see Mr. Blue Corvette. We drive in tandem along the coast.
I come around a curve and the scene before me is captivating. The ocean is turquoise and violet, above it a puff of fog, and an architecturally interesting tunnel clinging to the hillside. I pull onto a view point to take a photo. Mr. Blue Corvette waves as he drives past.
Continuing on, the road becomes straighter. There is more traffic, and more homes and ranches. I drive through San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle. Cars leave the road to go to the beach, or the castle, and soon I am behind Mr. Blue Corvette. We drive through Cambria’s business section and then residential areas.
Mr. Blue Corvette turns right onto a residential street and waves. Waving farewell, I drive on towards the 101 to continue my journey.