The Strange California Journey of Ramona White
Online account of my trip to So-Cal and the people and places that made it real.
my e-mail address
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California Cafe Racers
Another So-Cal Survivor
Sacred and Profane
Monday, July 16, 2001
I just finished posting the last entry about my Strange California Journey. (Yes, I am sniffling as I write this.) I kept putting it off because I knew that only when I had finally written it, no matter how long it took, would the trip be truly over. I have always had a tough time saying "Goodbye" even when something great is in the offing and that is especially true when the future is an unknown. I was always the kid who wanted to sit at the summer camp campfire singing every song we knew in order to postpone the long dark walk back to the cabin or tent for the final night which preceded the tearful goodbyes and unfulfilled promises to write.
When I first started posting this journal, I hoped that I had something people would be interested in reading. I was surprised several days later to find that Blogger had named my collection of scribblings a Blog of Note. That afternoon the server went down and stayed down for several days. It was a few days after that that I installed a hitmeter and discovered how many people were visiting. I was amazed at the number. It was if the server being down had bottled them up and it finally coming up had uncorked the steady stream. Some came out of curiosity since my blog was on the front page and left as quickly as they arrived. Others took the time to read what I had written and to sign the guestbook, leave a comment or send me an e-mail to say they were touched and that they had laughed or cried or thought. People were kind enough to add a link to this blog to their sites -many of those are listed on this page- and to send the url to their family and friends. Some folks asked me to say "Hi" to people they knew in the towns we passed through. (My mother misunderstood the entry about the "L" family and rushed to pour oil on those waters to prevent WWIII before the light went on and she got the joke. She doesn't read Jonathan Swift either and there's a good reason.)
To the folks at Blogger, I would like to say "Thank You" for giving me my fifteen minutes of fame and an opportunity to touch so many. To those who were touched, I would like to say "Thank You" for making me a part of your life and for letting me know my writing was appreciated. So, my friends, are you.
When I was a little girl and movies had to be watched either at the theater -which meant sit in or drive-in- or at home on television, we lived for Sunday nights at 7:30 when the Wonderful World of Disney would come on. I'm not sure how many times my cousins and I watched the Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett movies but it was enough to have memorized the theme songs and driven everyone out of their minds. They were relieved when we switched to Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song" despite its glorification of cross-dressing. I'm not sure if they were too naive to realize what it was about -I know we were- as this was before both M*A*S*H* and the rumors about Hoover but they encouraged it nonetheless.
These were not my favorites among the Disney repertoire, though. That honor belonged to "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh". I did not know then that I would grow to be a human version of the silly old bear and become obsessed with sleep and coffee as opposed to sleep and honey. What drew me was the golden voice of Sebastian Cabot. Whether he was kidding Pooh into beginning the next chapter or narrating Tigger out of a tree, he sounded so comforting and competent and gently bemused that you couldn't help but feel good. At least I couldn't. It was like having your ears wrapped in a soft fleecy blanket of sound.
I was thinking about those days and wishing I had a soft fleecy blanket, of sound or otherwise, to wrap around me as we sped through the darkness of a California midnight heading north. I was experiencing the chills you can only properly experience when you have spent part of the day acquiring a first class sunburn. The sunburn felt pleasingly warm in the temperature controlled air of the McDonalds at dinnertime in San Diego and in the car shortly after. Three hours later, it had begun to itch slightly. By the six hour mark, I could feel it starting to bubble in preparation for blistering and, the next time we stopped for gas, I snaked my jar of Noxema out of my tote bag and reached as far back as I could and slathered it over my back and shoulders. Not wanting to smear it all over the car seat so it too could reek in perpetuity, I slipped on a sweatshirt which immediately clung to all the Noxema'd areas thereby gluing itself into place and rendering it cold, clammy and completely ineffectual as a second layer of clothing.
I decided that since I was apparently unable to warm myself from the outside it would be a good idea to try working from the inside out. We had been seeing signs for the last few miles advertising barbecue and chicken strips and, even though it was almost half a day before lunchtime, hope springs eternal. It was nearly time to fill up the car again and Rick, who was by now happy for any excuse to get my medicine smelling butt out of the car, handed me some cash and asked me to come back with some Diet Pepsi and some chicken.
I happen to believe that there should be some kind of penalty for the false advertising of chicken strips and barbecue. If you have a sign posted which clearly states "Open 24 hours" and another that says "Chicken Strips" and they are only available during hours of daylight then one of these signs should be turned off to avoid misleading the desperate and hungry. You, the reader, knew I wouldn't be able to get chicken strips at 2 am. But I was downcast when I found out I would have to settle for a giant peanut butter cookie instead of those crisp but tender morsels. I resolved to come back on a day when my trip was being sponsored by Osama bin Laden, rather than the meager profits of my web design business, and share my thoughts on their deceptive tactics.
Many of the next hours are a blur. I'm not sure if nothing happened or if I was dozing but they are gone. I vaguely recollect a debate regarding the humaneness of spraying defoliants over the coca crops in the daytime and how this was at odds with the government's policy of bombing "aspirin" factories at night when no one was there. I seem to remember fiercely defending the Beatles when Rick said they sucked and the ensuing discussion of how something can be considered a "classic" and also suck. How does a song like "She Loves You" come to be called a classic anyway? Doesn't classic mean violins? Aren't you pretty much finished as a pop star when your songs feature violins and Phil Spectre's Wall of Sound? Do you think Kurt Cobain killed himself because he was gay or because "All Apologies" sounded so similar to "The Long and Winding Road" and he could no longer claim to be anti-establishment? Aren't you just a little glad, for his sake, that he died before he saw how Courtney was going to turn out?
Why do stores and restaurants put signs on the door that say "No Public Restrooms"? If they mean you have to be a customer to use the darned thing then say that. But if that is what they mean then I expect someone to be there to take my money.
Anna had finally awakened shortly after 8 a.m. and, of course, one of the first things she wanted was a bathroom. The only place we could find that was open, having driven in and around Wolf Creek to no avail, was a rickety looking diner sort of place which under any other circumstances she would have turned her nose up at even entering. There was a neatly printed sign on the door which stated "Customer Restrooms Only" in blue ballpoint on white notebook paper. Anna and I stepped through the door, made a sharp left and, in an instant, we were down the hall and in the bathroom with no one the wiser. We had taken care of our business and had nearly reached the outside door when I started to feel bad. They did have some fairly clean facilities and it did cost money to pay someone to clean them and I'd hate to see this place go the way of others we'd seen. So, Anna and I walked back to the glass-topped counter and selected with our eyes several of the brownies that were on display. There we stood with our cash in hand. And stood. And stood. I could hear the waitress making conversation with the breakfast crowd in the next room, but she must have been taking care of the bills at the table for no one ever came out to the register. Or maybe they were Stepford customers whose sole purpose was to sit in the booth and chow down. Is this what farm subsidies had wrought? You can't be a customer if no one wants to take your money, and I was no longer naive enough to think that if I laid some on the counter it would just happen to get to the right person, so we took our green and our ill-gotten relief and walked out.
We did not stop in Ashland this trip, not that I could be tricked into drinking Lithea water twice, and no tires leaped from their perches on trailers in front of us and bounced onto the hood of the car. Someday I will be old and gray and still be wondering what made that knucklehead think he could tie a tire flat on a trailer by running the ropes across rather than through it. Whatever his delusion, the trailer hit a bump, the tire came loose and went flying into the air where it bounced once on the hood of our Geo before going over the wall and down to its final resting place at the bottom. We stopped to be sure everything, including us, was alright. He stopped to come back and give us what for and to demand to know what we had done with his tire. As if this was a ploy on our part to collect them for salvage. We pointed out, to no avail, that had the tire hit just a bit closer to the windshield the airbag would have kicked in, Rick might have lost control of the car and we would both have been dead. The driver was too aggravated or braindead to listen and, after we dealt with his insurance company for several months trying to get the repairs made and paid for, we understood how he got that way.
No matter where I travel in the world and how many beautiful cities I visit and no matter how I feel about the mayor and how she is mismanaging things, the sight of the Portland skyline warms the cockles of my heart. Even when I lived in Seattle -before it became Coffee Central- for eighteen months, Portland was still home. It was the same this time, but I had no time to stop and admire it for we were only passing through and our real home was still an hour away. A long, trying hour through the steadily falling rain which had blown in from the coast to welcome us back.
I dreaded opening the mailbox, fearing the Fibber McGee's closet of junkmail which would cascade out, and when I did it shortly after we pulled into the driveway, the poor thing fell over under the sheer weight of that very dross. We had told the neighbor across the street that we were going to be gone but, since he has some not so savory relatives, we had concealed the length of our trip. For the same reason, we had not asked the post office to hold our mail deciding they would hold it when it got to be too much. They had not reached that conclusion however and had instead continued to cram it into the box. (They did hold our mail after the box fell down and until we replaced it so perhaps subtlety is not their strong suit.)
The message light on the answering machine was blinking furiously as we came through the door to confront the mess we had left behind. We were tired, sweaty, burned and smelly. Our fourteen days in Paradise were behind us and it was time to muster our memories and whatever serenity we had acquired to enable us to cope with their aftermath. For better or worse, the vacation was over.
There was a moment at the end of "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" that I anticipated with the same degree of sadness no matter how many times I watched it. Christopher Robin and Pooh would go to their enchanted place and Christpher Robin would say,"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred." Pooh thought for a little.
"How old shall I be then?"
"I promise," he said.
Then the narrator would say in his dulcet tones, "And off they go together. And wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing." And, even as a kid, I'd bawl my eyes out thinking about the Bear waiting patiently for his Boy to return and take him on another adventure. For there would always be another adventure for them. Just as there will be for us.
Thank you for joining me on this one and, although I'm not expecting you to wait patiently at your Thinking Place in the Hundred Acre Wood, I hope you will come along for the next trip as well. It wouldn't be the same without you.
Sometimes the things you want in life, that seem as if they should be the easiest to acquire, turn out to be the hardest. If you do get them, they're often found in a form or place you wouldn't have envisioned.
What I wanted most in the world on the morning of our last full day of vacation, was some peace and privacy so I could write or, at the very least, think. I had spent nearly the entire vacation with Anna in tow and, while I realize a mother's primary duty during these years is childcare, I was ready for a break. During the time that Rick was kayaking in Monterey or taking his sailing instructor course -which he passed with flying colors- on the opposite side of San Diego from us, Anna had badgered me about missing school. Each complaint reminded me that if she was in the care of those babysitters -I mean educators- I could be passing the time as I chose, in peace, rather than listen to her mewling hour after hour. I could not be alone even in the bathroom. I had started sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night or in the afternoon while people were watching television and hiding with my notebook and pen. I would have time to jot down only a few lines before being asked to relinquish either my refuge or more of my attention.
More even than the aloneness, I craved quiet. I have always been a person for whom aural stimulation is all. Pauses in conversation must be filled with words and phrases and anecdotes no matter how irrelevant. Housework is backed by reggae or work songs, sometimes of my own creating. There is talk radio for driving, the Beastie Boys for web design, and Barry White or Percy Sledge for lovemaking. But this vacation with its constant cacophony of trains, race cars, airplanes, shouting, Mariachis, and television had rendered me starving for silence.
When Rick and Anna proposed spending the day at Sea World and asked me if I wanted to tag along, I declined immediately.
"It looks like there are a lot of rides," I explained, "I don't do rides so it would be a waste of money." A series of hormone induced anxiety attacks at Disneyland and a long past, but not forgotten, go round on the Zipper were sufficiently memorable that Rick didn't argue.
"Besides," I said, "I'd only be in the way. Go, have fun, and bond with your daughter." They called a cab, Anna protested my remaining behind, Rick gave me $20 and made me promise not to buy any durable goods, the cab arrived, there were kisses all around -except for the driver- and... Poof! Just like that I was alone.
I had promised not to purchase anything I couldn't consume before they returned at 5pm so I couldn't go back to the Pacific Beach Resort Wear store and buy the sweatshirt I'd spotted while buying Anna's swimsuit. We had checked out of the room, so there would be no napping.
As I stood in front of the hotel, I noticed a small white building directly across from me. I vaguely remembered seeing "business center" and "Internet access" in the hotel guide, but I had pushed them out of my mind knowing I would lack to privacy to derive any benefit from them. It sounds apalling, I know, to consider spending a sunny Southern California day at a computer, but I hadn't been online since my less than joyous encounter with that weird mouse in Santa Barbara, and I needed to reconnect with my cybersisters.
I had whipped myself to a frenzy of anticipation in the time it took to cross the driveway, so I was understandably distraught when I was close enough to read the sign on the door which announced apologetically, "Roadrunner lines are down for repairs. No Internet access is available. Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause." Inconvenience? I wasn't trying to send a fax. I needed to check in with friends and clients. I needed to remind them that I was only out of sight and even that was nearly at an end.
With my hopes for shopping and surfing dashed, I resigned myself to persuing my announced purpose. I decided one of the beach chairs might provide both peace and privacy, so I walked through the hotel, past the Cannibal Bar and, after a brief visit to the immaculate and sweet-smelling bathroom, out into the sunshine where I found the comfiest of the identical chaise longues and stretched out on it. I rolled onto my stomach, propped my feet against the headrest and started writing. Sigh.
The raucous sounds of twenty-something officemates shattered my brief reverie. The initial burst of noise from their conversation was almost immediately followed by the sound of a volleyball net being set up and teams being chosen.
I sat up and looked at the water. It seems a cliche to say that the sky and sea appeared to be a postcard photo shot with a polarizing filter, but they did. This was not surprising. What was surprising was the never ending parade of people who jogged, bicycled, skated, or walked by. I remembered the line of people streaming by our tent in San Clemente and since this was just a bit south of there, they might have been the same folks on a more athletic day. A stunning brunette with her hair drawn back into a gently swaying ponytail, jogged in an easy rhythym first one way down the path then returned. She looked like Salma Hayek, and may have been, and since Rick was a big fan I wondered if she was Miss Hayek and what her reaction would be should I trip her and then hold her hostage pending his return. Mostly though, I tried to ignore these hyperachievers who made me feel lazy despite it being 1 pm on a weekday and them clearly not being at work.
An elderly couple oved into the chairs two down from mine. They looked around conspiratorially then stripped off their trousers and shirts to reveal such extremely modest swimsuits that it would be a wonder if they needed sunscreen at all. They glared at my feet,which I had resettled against the seat cushion, but to my relief, didn't attempt a conversation.
This was a good thing, since there was quite enough conversing going on behind me. Three of the officemates whom we'll call A, B and C had decided to support the volleyball game as cheerleaders rather than participants and they were discussing the merits and shortcomings of a man who was in the game and whose name was Mark.
"So how do you like working for Mark now?" A inquired.
"It's okay. He seems kind of... I don't know. Weird," B answered.
"That's what I thought, too," A agreed. "There isn't anything you can put your finger on but he is definitely weird."
"He's kind of cute," said C. There was an outcry from her friends, but she stood firm. "He is cute. He's probably weird too, but he can't help being attractive." I could hear the thunk of the volleyball being hit and an occasional call of encouragement but otherwise there was silence.
"I thought about him the other day," A said quietly.
"What do you mean you thought about him the other day?" C asked. "When?"
"I was by myself at home and I was ummm," A trailed off.
"Oh my God," said C. "Not him. That is so icky. Jeepers, I get the willies just thinking about it."
"But you said he was cute," B insisted.
"But not like that. That is so sick. I would never, not ever, do that and think about him," C said.
"Why? Who do you think about when you do that?" A asked. She didn't have time to answer because one of the players suggested a trip into the Cannibal Bar in lieu of a beer run and the cheerleaders agreed. I decided this was not in any way helping my writing and this was my cue to move down the beach to a quieter, less interesting spot. I walked about one hundred feet down the sand to an empty space, threw myself down and started writing. I had, of course, no sunscreen on and no shirt over the spaghetti strapped one I was wearing. This was going to be a problem later in the day, but I didn't know it yet.
I was writing so furiously that I didn't at first notice that my sun had been blocked by the shadow of a lawn chair. My first clue that I was no longer alone was a small, high-pitched voice lisping something about seaweed.
"No," a maternal voice replied. "You can't eat it. Put it down."
"You heard your mother," put in a daddy's voice. I looked up to see a man, a woman and 1.5 kids had arrived to share my section of the beach. The little boy was splashing around in the shallow water, picking up shells and, apparently, seaweed.
"But I wanna eat it. Why can't I?" he whined.
"It hasn't been cooked," his mother said.
"Why can't we take it home and cook it?" he asked.
"Because we only eat seaweed from health food stores," his mother said sensibly. "We only eat seaweed that was picked by people who knew what they were doing. Then they process it and package it and we buy it and take it home."
"But why can't we pick it ourselves?" he insisted. "Then it would be free."
"It wouldn't be right to eat seaweed we picked for free," said his mother. "We wouldn't be supporting the health food store and they might go out of business." This impromptu lesson in capitalism convinced me it was time to move off the beach.
I decided that since it was past lunchtime and I hadn't eaten, the best place to go would be somewhere I could eat and write. I didn't want to eat in a place that was expensive or that I had to worry about accidentally getting ink on the tablecloth so the best choice was the Mexican restaurant, a few blocks away, where we had eaten on our second night.
What they called up north a "carne asada with chips" was here called a "nachos supreme". Not to be confused with the puny entree at Taco Bell by the same name, this was a full plate of chips, meat, cheese, beans and guacamole and sour cream. I sprung for the largest soda available and took over the table in the corner by the wall.
We had told Anna that while she was in Southern California she would hear a lot of salsa music, but it hadn't happened. For the most part, the music coming out of car windows was country or rap, and I had felt a bit cheated to miss out on this part of the culture. Here in the restaurant they seemed to harbor no thoughts of assimilation and the radio playing Psulina Rubio made her sound as if she was sitting beside me.
There was a steady stream of customers to the register, all of whom engaged in extended conversations while waiting for their orders, and I recognized the woman who cleaned our room at the Catamaran Resort. Lunch had been served there, and at the other hotels nearby, rooms had been cleaned and it looked as if everyone was free until dinner prep began.
I sat for the next two and a half hours, drinking my soda and nibbling at my nachos. And writing, of course.
When I looked up from my writing to check the time, I realized that the headache I'd had for the last two days was gone. Maybe the pain had been caused by the pressure of the words trying to get out.
A second thing I noticed was that, although there was music playing loudly and conversation all around, it didn't bother me as it had at the beach. Because there was no way I would recognize a song and feel the need to sing along, and because I don't speak Spanish and there was nothing I would hear by evesdropping, my brain had decided to filter all of it out as irrelevant. It had become a kind of white noise that covered everything, leaving me to write free of distractions.
I had told the lady who co-owned the place that I was sorry to be leaving and she had warmly invited me to come in again if I made it back to San Diego. I'm sure she says that to everyone, but I was serious when I agreed I would. In addition to the delicious food, her establishment had provided me with the perfect writer's retreat and once you've found one -no matter how unlikely- it is good to keep track of where it is and even to pay it a visit from time to time.
The five o'clock hour was suddenly upon me. I gathered up the last of the soda, my notebook and my pen. I walked as slowly as I could back to the hotel. I felt refreshed from my time alone with my writing, but not entirely ready for what lay ahead. Rick and Anna would have lots of stories to tell about their afternoon at Sea World and that would be a good thing. But as soon as we redeemed the car from the hotel lot, we would be hitting the road for the long drive home and that I was not looking forward to. Especially with this sunburn.
The average male gorilla stands 5'6" tall and weighs between three hundred and five hundred pounds. He is five times stronger than a man. The average man stands 5'6" tall and weighs half as much as a gorilla. Even when he is intoxicated, or has consumed a drug like PCP, he is at most twice as strong as usual. A gorilla could tear your arm off and beat you with it and, since he is two and a half times stronger, there's not a damn thing you could do about it. Nevertheless, of the 4,980 aggravated assaults which occurred in San Diego during the year 2000, not one of them involved a victim who was bludgeoned by a gorilla with his severed arm. There are two reasons for this. One is that the gorillas who live in San Diego are in the zoo behind thick panes of glass. The second reason is that, just like your dad, what a silverback gorilla wants is to be left alone in peace to eat and scratch himeself. Since, unlike your dad, a gorilla gets to enjoy freedom from underwear it makes the scratching that much easier and that allows more time for eating.
We reached the San Diego Zoo around 2 pm having spent the morning eating, scratching and watching TV. Anna had insisted that as we were in hotel which provided room service, breakfast should be ordered in. Because I am well aware that I lag well behind my mother in kindness and generosity, she is the grandmother after all, and because I love room service myself and because I was planning to walk Anna around the zoo until all that was left of her legs were stumps, I gave in and ordered the "kids' pancake breakfast". Anna's eyes fell out and rolled around the floor when she saw the tray. Milk, orange juice, bacon, and blueberry pancakes bigger than her head. We buttered them up and syruped them down and settled into TV watching mode.
We don't have television reception where we live -and we refuse to pay for cable until we can also hook up the computer to it since almost anything, from former President Clinton lying about sex to former Vice President Gore complaining about the snippiness of now President Bush, can be watched on the computer- and so Anna devours as much as she can when it's available. Ads, test patterns, info-mercials, she watches them all. I try to watch with her though to monitor her viewing and also to be reminded why eight year olds should not have credit cards. Just the day before she had pounded on the bathroom door begging mwe to buy something she'd seen on television and had to have. They were shoe insoles, called "Bearfeet" or something like that, and the idea was that if you wore them you'd go around all day saying "No thanks. I'd rather walk," to anyone who offered you a ride. I was tempted to get a pair just so I could actually give them to a child and witness the results. I was a child not that long ago and the only time I would have said "No thanks" to a ride was if the end of the ride was going to be followed immediately by a spanking. Even then, if you were smart and would shut up and behave for the last part of the trip, you could usually avoid the spanking unless someone or something reminded them. My brother used to remind my parents himself. I don't know why. Maybe he thought someone was keeping track and if he got behind they'd have to spank him extra down the line aways to make up for it.
After spending only five hours with our eyes glued to the set, I declared "Enough" and we went down to the lobby to ask the concierge how to reach the zoo. I was looking forward to this, because I'd never stayed in a hotel before that had a concierge and it was my understanding that you could ask them to get you anything at all and they were supposed to be able to do it. Now, here I was with a concierge at my disposal and all I was requesting was directions to the zoo. Which they gave us. Each of the three times it took to ask for and finally receive the information we needed. We wanted to go by bus. I never learned to drive a manual transmission and since that was the car we had brought, at my request, that let driving out. And I refuse to pay for a cab when there is a prefectly adequate public transportation system in the city. Not only is the bus less expensive than a taxi, it also gives you the opportunity to see more of the city and the people who live there. You get a peek into their lives and their stories. Sure it would be an hour each way, but after spending the night in this posh hotel and ordering room service two days in a row, I felt I was losing my feel for the regular people and this would be an excellent way to reconnect.
It is hard for me to believe how enamored Anna was of the naked mole rats. To me they were ugly hairless pink things with nasty long teeth who scuttled, both backwards and forwards, as they traveled over, under and around each other while they carried food and bedding material from one large Tupperware cannister to another through clear plastic tubes. I had, as you can tell, a tough time understanding their attraction for Anna and why she wanted to spend so much time watching them. Especially when we had naked mole rats at the Portland Zoo located 1300 miles to the north of our present location and only an hour from home. But I decided it was Anna's vacation too, and a child who had been dragged out of school for two weeks and forced to come to sunny Southern California with her family could probably do with a break now and then. When, after an hour, I dragged her away to look at some of the other animals she was disappointed but decided to give up her ambition of being a teacher and become, instead, an animal behaviorist so she could spend all day at work watching naked mole rats. I considered explaining that animal behaviorists did not usually stay in hotels where men in red jackets rush out and snatch the luggage from your hands nor do they drive 1939 Mercedes Roadsters any more often than teachers do, but I thought better of it. The schooling and subsequent work would keep her off the street for quite a while and having a "real job" would prevent her from becoming a freelance web designer who drank coffee by the gallon, ate Cheez-Its by the box and talked to the screen all day. (Oh, Clippy. I miss you so much.) More immediately, it meant I wouldn't have to look at them any longer than I already had.
Gorillas live in groups of up to twenty. Most of these are females, although there are a few very young males and even some "bachelors" in the group, because the older male chases them off as soon as they are old enough to think about cutting in on his action. The gorilla children love games and will even play with young humans on the other side of the glass. Or at least they did with Anna. One of the "teenagers" walked up to where Anna was standing, pounded on the window and took off running along the inside length of the enclosure with Anna laughing and running on the outside. Quick as he reached the turnaround point, known only to him for obvious reasons, he spun about and raced back to his starting spot. The he turned his back to the window and pretended to ignore us until Anna pounded on the window and started the game again. He always won. This was due in part to his remembering where he had started from and because he had the advantage of using four legs for locomotion rather than Anna's two.
An old man was visiting the gorillas at the same time we were. I was a bit concerned at first that we might make him uncomfortable since I overheard him telling people he spent everyday, and as much time as he could each day, watching the gorillas. (He knew the names of each gorilla and their family and medical history and had put together photo albums much as any proud parent or grandparent might.) But he seemed as delighted as anyone that Anna had made a new friend. Other tourists had brought their videocameras in hopes of catching the young gorillas fighting or playing and several of them shot footage of Anna of the apes. I could just imagine them sitting down someday with their families to watch the movies of their trip to the San Diego Zoo and having to explain that they had no idea who the strange little girl was, that she just happened to be there.
When we had worn out the gorillas, we wandered about looking at the lions and tigers and bears. We couldn't help noticing that more and more we had the zoo to ourselves. There was no longer even a line in front of the pandas or koalas and that should have been our cue to skedaddle out of there as quick as we could. But we had driven a long way to be here, and weren't anticipating that the bus ride ahead would bring much excitement, so we dawdled as long as possible. Finally making our weary way to the busbench in front of the zoo, we sat beside a large Mexican family and talked quietly about our day so far. I had hoped that Anna would fall asleep so I could roll her into the bed as soon as we returned to the hotel. It was tougher than I would have imagined to get used to sleeping in a bed again and a nap was sounding better and better as the moments of waiting ticked by.
Although it was early May, it had been sunny and warm all day. So sunny and warm I had nearly bought Anna a T-shirt at one of the giftshops. Now, the air was coming in from the ocean and it was beginning to cool down. I had noticed a Starbucks on our way to the zoo and decided a warm cup of chai tea would both perk and warm me up so as soon as the bus jerked to a halt at the corner of Broadway and Kettner, that's where we headed. We could see people inside -and they were drinking. Damn them.-but the door was locked.
"That's funny," I said to Anna. "It says here that they close at 7. Do you think it's 7 already?"
"Well," Anna replied reasonably, "If it says they close at 7 and the door is locked then it follows that it must be at least 7." Out of the mouths of babes, eh?
Since there were obviously no warm foamy drinks to be had, we trudged back to the stop and started looking for the carriage which would return us to the warmth of our own hotel room and the in-room coffeemaker. It was then that we discovered why some folks plan ahead and attempt to schedule things.
We had ridden the number 34 bus downtown, from the hotel to the corner of Broadway and Kettner, and then caught the number 7 to the zoo. It should have been a simple enough matter to reverse the process. Except that the last number 34 bus of the evening had left this very corner at 6:26 pm. Remember the Starbucks?
"That's okay," I said. "We can catch another bus back to the hotel. Look down the list and see what else goes there." Anna scanned the list and a moment later announced, "I found one."
"Good," I said. "What time does it leave?"
"It did leave at 6:34," she said. "I guess we missed it. Want me to read you the list of all the buses and where they go and we can find a different one?" My head was whirling. Anna and I had joked, when boarding the bus earlier in the morning, about being "Lost in San Diego" and how it could be the second sequel to the "Incredible Journey" and "Lost in San Francisco". Now the joke seemed a lot less funny. Sure, we could always break down and take a cab or...
"I've got it," Anna said. "Let's call my dad and ask him to pick us up."
"No way," I said at once. "There is no way I am calling your dad and telling him I am such an idiot that I didn't check the bus schedule before we started the trip and now we are stranded in the middle of a major metropolitan city and it is getting dark."
"Then what are you going to do? Just call him," she insisted.
"No. I don't know what I'm going to do, but it isn't that. Just give me a minute to think," I begged. I walked over to the bus map and looked at it again. We had missed the 34 and the 34A. It looked like there was still a 26 but it stopped nowhere near where we were and I didn't relish the thought of wandering around and becoming even more lost. Living in the country for the last five years had made me a bit more skittish and I doubted I would even feel comfortable in downtown Portland despite having grown up there. If only I had someone to call who could tell me about that other bus.
"Come with me," I said, pulling Anna along by the hand. "We're going to find a payphone."
"You're going to call my dad?" she asked brightly.
"No. I'm calling the transit office and they're going to tell me how to get back to the hotel." The transit number was busy at first. Then I was on hold for so long I thought the rest of the buses might stop running before I got to talk to a human. Maybe the office people had all gone home and you just got kicked into the hold queue until either someone arrived in the morning or you developed some sense and hung up. Eventually, a warm-voiced Black woman came on the line and I gave her the information. She sounded so nice and so competent and I was so glad to hear that I would be able to make it home for less that $25 dollars that I didn't really mind when she laughed at me for being a dumbass and staying at the zoo too long. (Those are my words not hers, but you could tell she had heard the story a dozen times before I told my version of it.) Anna and I hopped on board the Blue Line trolley at the Santa Fe station, despite Anna's insistence that if it was really a "blue line" the train should match, and were soon on our way to the Old Town transfer station where we could catch the bus that would drop us off at the hotel nearly half an hour before Rick was expected back from class and no one would need to know the story unless we chose to tell it.
It is a standard formula of Disney movies and, now that I think about it, movies in general that just when it seems things are on the right track and the people are in the home stretch heading towards a happy ending, along comes a new problem. I'm not sure who, besides me, is writing my story but they have obviously seen too many movies.
He got on the trolley three stops after we did. He was well-dressed. The luggage on the rolling cart appeared to be good quality. But there was something about him that just didn't seem right. Maybe it was the light brown pageboy which contrasted so sharply with the chiseled features of his chocolatey-brown skin. Or maybe it was the fact that he was carrying on a steady conversation with an imaginary friend or at least a friend who was imperceptible to the rest of us. Although there were several empty seats, he took the one directly across from Anna and me. His legs were so long, and the space between the seats so small, that when he stretched out to get more comfortable our knees nearly touched. He didn't speak to us either directly or indirectly but rolled his jacket into a ball, tucked it between his head and the wall and fell into an unrestful sleep. Every jerk of the trolley seemed to waken him and set him to new mumblings. Anna, for once, seemed to understand that this was not the time to launch into a recital of my laundry list of shortcomings or indeed a time to do much talking at all. I looked out the window at the train cars we passed in the railyard and noticed graffiti for the first time since we had been south of Sacramento. These cars could have begun their trip a great distance from here, and probably had, but seeing it added to the tension and dread I was feeling. How crazy was this person across from us? Did he have a gun or a knife? Was he on drugs or just naturally psychotic? We had left the zoo less than two hours before, but the happy time we had spent running our fingers through the wool of the goats and sheep seemed as if it had happened on a different day.
All at once I felt so silly, I almost laughed out loud. What was the matter with me? This man wasn't any more dangerous than the people who stood on the corner of Fifth and Morrison in Portland and shouted that we should all repent or we would meet our maker in the next thirty minutes. He was just a garden variety crazy, that's all.
It was then that I felt two sets of eyes on me from across the aisle. They weren't on me, I realized a moment later. They were following the movements of the semi-conscious man in front of me. I peered into the refelction of the window beside me and saw that the eyes belonged to two swarthy, muscular men who appeared to carry cars for a living. It was hard to imagine these men being afraid of anything, especially a skinny guy who wasn't much bigger than I was, without a reason so when one of them gestured with his head I looked around and, spotting an empty seat behind us, hustled Anna into it before she could sputter into full-blown argument. I had had a long and, for me, trying day which was not made better by her rushing onto the bus at the transfer station before the driver could put his coat over the back of his seat to get settled in or when the man with the Prince Valiant haircut boarded the bus and, again, took the seat right beside us. He rode the bus all the way to our stop then debarked and walked away in the opposite direction from our hotel.
Rick was there when we arrived, having been let out of class early, and Anna gleefully told him about our misadventures in the big city and, only with a lot of prompting, about playing with the gorilla child.
I made a cup of coffee and ate some Ruffles potato chips and read Glamour magazine. The highs of Anna's happy chatter and the lows of Rick's quiet questions devolved into a comforting background music. I read and ate and scratched myself and wondered how it is that gorillas, who are known to be among the most peacable creatures on Earth are kept in glass and metal enclosures, while the people are free to come and go as they please even after they have proved to be dangerous -which to be impeccably honest the gentleman earlier had not? I came to the conclusion that the gorillas are not locked up to protect us from them. But to protect them from us. And not just the poachers.
"This is how affluent people vacation," we told Anna as she ran back and forth from the bathroom to the balcony, ooohhing and aaahhing at the paintings, the tiny shampoo and soap in the basket, the television, the coffeemaker complete with prepackaged filters and condiments. She finally stopped next to the bed and said, "My gosh! It's bigger than our whole tent." Which, being a king-sized bed, it really was.
You might wonder, based on our choice of words, whether we are raising Anna to believe that money is all important. The short answer is "No". We are not teaching her that money can buy you happiness. We are, however, letting her know that it can buy nice cars, sharp clothes, a private-school education for your children, adequate food and shelter, and the ability to stay in luxe hotels which feature clean bathrooms, complete with no foot flushing, and balconies from which you can see the ocean.
The world appeared to have undergone a sea change during the one hour drive south from San Clemente. The increase in temperature and decrease in clouds and precipitation were just the tip of the iceberg. It had still be sprinkling when we broke camp, so we rolled/folded the tent and sleeping bags as small as possible, then tucked them in their compression bags with a promise to unroll and air them later. We had moved ourselves into the car as soon after breakfast as was advisable. I had visited the "day use" toilets and found them far cleaner and better-maintained than the ones near our campsite. Because I was afraid to let anyone use the showers, based on the cleanliness of the restrooms I certainly wouldn't have considered peeling off and walking around in the showers, we had made the most minimal attempts at personal hygiene over the last three days and had clambered into the car wearing clothes with at least one day's dirt on them, anticipating a healthy, if not relaxing, scrub when we reached the hotel.
I knew from the description of the hotel on the website, and the price, that the hotel was going to be plush. While we were in Monterey, Anna and I had wondered whether this was the kind of hotel, which we had passed several examples of, where men in uniforms burst through the lobby doors demanding to park your car and carry your luggage up to your room. Alas, it was not. But for an extra $2 a day, they did offer valet assisted- as opposed to self-serve- parking.
It was a good thing no one had insisted on carrying our bags, I thought, surveying the contents before I climbed out to go to the registration desk. No one else would have known which fruit stayed and which went to the room. Twelve-pack of Diet Pepsi-staying or going? How about this big pile of real estate listing books from places you found by accident and therefore could never move to? We had begun the trip with a small library on the floor of the car. Anna and I had spent almost $30 at the Scholastic Book Fair the day before the trip and had brought half the books along. It wouldn't have been a complete trip to a museum or aquarium without scooping up information on what we'd seen or buying some of the author's works as we had at the Steinbeck Museum. Rick was here in the first place to take the sailing instructors classes and his textbooks and homework were also wedged somewhere in the back of the car. The oddest book we had brought along, had made the trip by mistake. It was a book called "Dreamweaver 3 HOT book" and the author was Lynda Weinman. We had passed Ojai, where she is rumored to live, and I had joked about stopping to get it autographed since it had traveled this far. It was, in fact, traveling the wrong direction. It was supposed to be going north and east not south and west since my friend Crystal was expecting it. I had traded it to her in exchange for some copy she had written and just hadn't made it to the post office before the trip. It seemed like the natural thing to bring the book along and mail it from one of the post offices we were sure to pass in every town. And yet, here it was 1300 miles later, still hanging around and looking as if it might go home with us and delay its journey to Crystal even further.
I generally feel confident and at home no matter where I go. (Sometimes this is unfortunate, because I am not at home but the people around me wish I would go there.) When I entered the lobby of the Catamaran Resort, this was not the case. I felt like Crocodile Dundee. Or as much like him as you can and still be a short, blonde woman.
All around me there were signs reminding visitors that it was Mother's Day. As if we would let anyone forget. My family had already given me my presents in Santa Barbara. I received "A Steady Trade" by Tristan Jones the sailor and, because I had forgotten mine at home, I received a hat with a broad brim. It was a straw hat with a fairly high crown, and the band had surfboards all over it, making it an easily remembered hat. Even if you weren't close enough to smell it. If you did venture that close, the hat would be branded on your brain pretty much until death. I seem to recall reading somewhere that straw hats made in Mexico are dipped in donkey piss at the very end of the manufacturing process and then allowed to dry into their final shape. The chemicals in the urine are supposed to increase the malleability of the straw. I had assumed that my hat was made in Mexico and, although I prefer to buy American if at all possible I do make exceptions when I am helping to support the local people, I wrote of the smell as a quirk of the hatmaking process and planned to wear it primarily outside until the odor dissipated. Examining my hat the next day, when all the tags and receipts had been disposed of, I discovered that this was not in fact a Made in Mexico hat. I felt cheated, and betrayed politically, for this hat was in fact made in China. In China. My Mother's Day hat had been made by the people who stole our nuclear secrets. The people who refused to release our men until we apologized for something they themselves probably did. At first I was merely horrified by the political ramifications of my hat's origins. Then a question slowly worked its way to the top of my brain as the smell seeped into my pores. Do they have donkeys in China? Then what the hell did they dip my hat in to make it smell so bad? Rick had put in his vote for yak urine, but there's no way to know for sure.
I was wearing my Mother's Day hat now, as I strolled past the rock arrangement with a waterfall taller than I am, to hide my unwashed hair and the high contrast between my hairline and everything below it, which had been severly burned the second day in Monterey prior to my receiving the beauteous chapeau. I tucked a stray piece of paper towel, which I was still carrying in case I visited a bathroom without paper, back into my pocket and approached the registration desk, startling a cockatiel as I went. It was my turn to be startled as I realized that the man behind the counter was none other than Hugh Grant. Okay, it wasn't really. But when you've been out in the woods as long as I had. Or, at least, as long as I smelled like I had, then your imagination starts playing tricks on you and you can't really believe your eyes anymore. (I cannot conceive of any possible reason why Hugh Grant himself would be working at the registration desk at the Catamaran Resort in San Diego so we will assert for the sake of simplicity that it was not him. But it really did look a good deal like him and, should this story become a major motion picture, I would heartily recommend him for the role.) In any case, I did not get to speak with this gentleman at length for a young woman, who appeared to have stepped out of Vogue magazine last month and a shower less than two hours ago, was kind enough to overlook my Clampett's yard sale fashions and give me my keycard so I could go immediately to my room and be embarassed in private. Bless her.
I found the car and Rick and Anna and I carried the things that were going up to the room and locked the things that were staying in the car. One of the things which stayed was Anna's sleeping bag.
"Won't she be needing it?" I asked in my best discreet tone. Rick blinked at me blankly.
"Why would she want a sleeping bag? We're at the hotel so she won't be in a tent. I can't imagine why she'd want to sleep on the floor when she's been sleeping on the ground for nearly two weeks," he said. I resisted the urge to knock on his forehead and call him "McFly".
"Because there is only one bed in the room," I said.
"Yeah," he said.
"And it's Mother's Day," I added.
"Yeah," he said.
"And sometimes things happen on Mother's Day. Things that make mothers happy. Things that haven't happened on this trip yet," I concluded.
"I get it," he said smiling. I let out a big breath of relief.
"Finally," I said.
"You want to wear a dress and go out for Mother's Day. How does Tony Roma's sound?" he asked. "I saw one across the street." Obviously, getting busy with Angelina Jolie in the movie version of my life was no longer at the top of his priority list as it had been the night before. (I supposed that was just as well, since he would have ruined her for any man unlucky enough to follow in his footsteps.) But I had hoped to at least benefit from those fantasies and now it appeared that, with or without her help, I would be getting messy in a whole different way.
Rick and Anna arranged their belongings in the dresser drawers and closet then announced that they were going to see the beach so I would have a chance to take a bath and write without interruption. After a bit of squabbling over coats versus no coats, the door closed behind them and I was alone. I called my mom to wish her a happy Mother's Day and to describe the view from the balcony. We talked and laughed the way we rarely did when I lived at home. She told me about her plans to take the train down the coast and then leave on a cruise at the end of the line. I recounted some of the highlights of the trip. We laughed some more and then it was time to say "Goodbye". I hung up the phone and the room was quiet except for the gurgling coffeemaker.
I drank a cup of its lifegiving nectar and lay down on the bed to write. I was just becoming used to the silence when Rick and Anna returned. They had said they were going to have lunch at Burger King and since a writer cannot live on coffee alone, try as we might, I had ordered in a grilled onion, chicken and garlic pizza from room service which Rick and Anna immediately spotted and chided me for. Sucumbing to the idea that my writing session was at an end, I bathed and primped and was nearly ready to leave when Rick announced he was taking his book down to either the beach or the pool to get some studying in before dinner.
I must have rolled my eyes, although I have no memory of it, because he asked me what that look was supposed to mean. I began a series of sincere denials. There was no look. If there was a look, I have no idea what it meant since my face mad it without my knowledge.
"Well, there was a look," he insisted. "A smug, knowing look."
"If there was a look," I began, "And I'm not even admitting that there was, it would probably have meant that I was wondering how much studying you will get done sitting either on the beach or next to the pool in sunny Southern California and you would probably be more studious -of your book that is- if you sat your keister down at the table right here in this room. And, further, if you spend nearly twenty years with someone you might get to know them a little bit."
"Ha!" he said. And with that he went down to the pool and didn't come back for several hours. When he came back I wanted to preserve the harmony which holidays are supposed to be reaffirming, so I did not ask him how his studying went. I had a pretty good feeling I knew, but there was nothing to be gained by forcing him to admit it. Secondly, I married him, I didn't buy him. And last of all, I didn't want to piss him off to the point where I wouldn't even get dinenr out of him. (Hey. I may be a bit mercenary at times but I'm honest about it.)
Everyone used the once sparkling, but now less so, toilet one more time even though we were just walking across the street. There was quite a wait for a table -people taking mothers out to dinner , who knew- so thre was time for Anna to itemize a list of everything which had been unpleasant on the trip so far and to sum up by saying she never wanted to go on this trip anyway and wished she were back at school. Rick opened his mouth, probably to declare that everyone was going to be without dinner or something equally dire, and they called our name to tell us our table was ready.
The Buffalo chicken wings were delicious. I had noticed a Hooters next door but decided it would be tough to explain the appeal of the place to Anna and, besides, no one goes to Hooters for the wings so we were clearly better off at Tony Roma's. (It turns out that they had gone out of business long before we arrived so it's not as if our not patronizing them is what did it.)
We heard him long before we saw him. Or, maybe I should say, we heard the commotion he caused. A woman at the other end of the room was roaring fit to burst. A few minutes later there was more laughter from that part of the restaurant . As the hilarity gradually worked its way around the corner we could see what was causing it. And that weird squeaking sound.
The balloon man was dressed from head to toe in black except for his white shirt. The lines from smiling were much deeper than the ones caused by frowning and, adding them together, I placed him near the top of the hill and not quite starting down the other side. Although he wasn't asking for money or laughter as compensation for his jesting and balloon animal making, he was receiving quite a bit of both, and it was clear that this was a man who knew how to work the room.
"I think that's a shame," I said to Rick.
"How that man has to make a living. Being a clown and doing tricks for people so they'll give him money," I said. "He's a walking stereotype." Rick shook his head.
"I don't think that's true. What makes you think he's sold out like that?" he asked.
"Well, yesterday as I was leaving San Juan Capistrano I saw a crowd that wasn't over by the wedding party. I had to walk pretty close anyway so I stopped to see what was going on," I said.
"And, what was?" Rick prompted.
"It was an Indian, I mean Native American, not East Indian man. He looked like he was around fifty. Pretty wrinkly, sagging belly, streaks of gray hair. He was explaining to the crowd that his ancestors used to believe that the food and wind and rain they needed all came from the Earth. That the Earth was their mother and she gave them what they needed and so they performed certain rituals to honor her and to make her happy so she would continue to give them what they needed."
"So what's wrong with that?" Rick asked. "It's true, isn't it?" I leaned forward and put my arms on the table.
"But that's not the distressing part. He said that now they know that all that stuff comes from God. They have put away the old ways and their children go to the schools run by the church and they will have many advantages and he was glad they had given him the opportunity to talk about what the church has done for him. But don't you see? It's just the same. In fact, it's worse." Rick gestured at me to lower my voice.
"He still does all the rituals but now he is serving a male diety rather than a female one," I continued. "He goes out and says what the church wants because he has to in order to keep getting schooling for the children and probably some kind of financial assistance. Only now he doesn't have his connection to the Earth and the traditions of his people. So he gave all that up so the next generation could fail to learn them as well until years down the road some White kids come along and decide it would be sad to lose the Native American culture and they start trying to save it."
Our food had arrived and I shut up for several minutes to enjoy the yummy wings. I love Buffalo wings and get them wherever they are served so I can taste the difference. Some people serve them right with blue cheese and celery sticks. Some serve them with Ranch dressing. At one place they were served with marinara, but since they served their cole slaw with raisins I put it down to a coup in the kitchen rather than poor presentation.
"You still haven't explained what that Indian had to do with this Black showman to our right," Rick said several wings later.
"He sold out. He's like a minstrel show for 2001," I said. The man was now at the table next to ours and a rambunctious Hispanic woman had patted the chair next to her and invited him to take a load off. He rolled his eyes from left to right then back again as if exageratedly looking for someone.
"I hope my wife don't find me here with you," he said. "I tell you that woman was so jealous if I went to the store she was out checking the mileage odometer when I got home." The woman beside us clucked sympathetically.
"Where is she now?" one of the woman's two male companions asked.
"She's far away from me," the balloon man said. "She wanted me to do this in someplace big. Go to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Make a lot more money."
"So why don't you?" the woman asked. I was trying, and failing, not to listen. It really wasn't any of my business why this man did what he did. And I didn't really care. I had already made up my mind that he was an embarassment . I was deeply offended and it wasn't even my race he was embarassing except by letting us play along.
"I tried that," the balloon man said. "I worked for an agency and I didn't like it. Then she wanted me to get a 'real job'. Go to work in an office. Well, I told her that she was just gonna spend whatever money I made anyway, so why do it? Besides, I can't be stuck inside all day. I got to be free. I want to be on the road and see the people and talk with them." The diners at the table next to us nodded approvingly and he stood up so he would have more room to make their animals. Rick looked at me.
"That sounded familiar, didn't it?" he nudged.
"Yeah. Yeah," I said feeling articulate.
"What is wrong with doing something you like and are good at and having someone pay you?" he asked. "Isn't that what you do when you design?"
"Isn't that why you write?" he pressed. "So someday someone will pay you to do something you love and are good at and you can do it more and don't have to do stuff you hate? Not that you do it anyway." I hung my head. I hate it when he's right. The balloon man had moved to the other side of the divider and was creating a bear out of pink balloons. When he had finished, Anna and I invited him back to our table where he made Anna a monkey climbing a palm tree out of yellow, orange and green balloons and ribbed Rick about having let two pretty girls get away from him.
Anna had told us on the way down that she was looking forward to seeing palm trees and we had pointed them out wherever we saw them and tried, without much luck, to learn their names so she was over the moon when she saw the finished creation. The waitress had been quick to box up our leftovers so the next mother and family could squeeze in. Anna wanted to have her photo taken with the balloon monkey before he started to leak and we stood up to begin the long trip out through the crowd and the door. As I passed the balloon man, I put out my hand and slipped him some money while we were shaking hands. We didn't do any secret handshakes, but we didn't need to. We might never be affluent but we could be happy. And happiness is a very good start.
Shortly after dinner tonight, our neighbor across the way fired up his chainsaw and cut down his picnic shelter so he could burn it later on the beach. Actually I can't swear to anything but the chainsaw, the cheering and the comment I overheard about "making your own firewood."
You should probably take most of what I say tonight with a grain of salt. I have gas and stomach cramps from eating my Nachos Supreme too fast at Taco Bell. I rushed to the bathroom as soon as we got back to the campground but no sooner did was I seated than a kid kneeling on a skateboard went zipping past the door sounding for all the world as if he was going to bust in and join me. (I later found out that since the best and smoothest pavement is right around the bathroom buildings, it is frequently used for racing. A bicyclist versus razor scooter race went nine laps before the scooter driver needed a pit stop and broke off to glide through the door of the nearest stall.)
An hour or so later I tried again but my bad luck held. A man on the other side of the wall was experiencing intestinal distress of some kind. It was, of course, impossible to determine which end things were proceeding from but there was clearly a lot of it and he was clearly, and loudly, unhappy about it. We made Anna promise to tell us if she needed to go to the bathroom even if it was only a little while later and we in turn promised to drive her if necessary to a cleaner, nicer bathroom to use. She had been very impressed with the cleanliness and comfort of the bathroom at the Taco Bell and gave them excellent marks on the comment card -which we all refused to sign for fear of a marketing deluge- but no matter how slow she ate her food was finally finished and here we were back in the campground where the cleaning people replenished the toilet paper each morning, which by bedtime looked as if it had been gnawed, and scrubbed the marks from the walls where anyone with any sense, including me after the first day, pushed the toilet flushing button with their foot.
Our bathroom activities completed, or postponed, we crawled into the tent and lay there as the waves of noise swirled around us. It was a carnival and we were on a dark, nonmoving ride. We had written as long as possible at our own picnic enclosure until the light was too dim. Somehow it seemed brighter inside the tent. We watched the stream of shadows crossing and recrossing our campsite. Where were they going to and coming from and why were they not doing it someplace else? The smoky tang of barbecued chicken tickled my nose and my stomach lurched to remind me I didn't really want to eat any more. A man began an old Eddie Murphy routine for the third time while a hoarse voiced woman explained in excruciating detail -to someone young enough or drunk enough to find it interesting- how to make a s'more.
Two thoughts chased each other around in my brain. If you were a former president, even one who resigned in disgrace, and you had all the money and prestige associated with even your former position why would you retire to San Clemente? We had visited so many places along the coast that it was hard to believe this gray drizzly place was the best bet even if all you wanted to do was roll up your pants and scuff along in the sand counting your regrets and watching the world you had once all but commanded that now passed you by.
The alternating shadows and light made out tent appear to tilt drunkenly and then to spin. I heard a man say something about his wife being unable to sing and garlic pwoder being her contribution to the evening. Her singing, poor though it was, continued to reach us punctuated by coarse guffaws from her comrades. The singing and the lying and waiting for sleep brought back other nights of doing the same. A New Year's Eve in Fulda where the Germans rang in the New Year by singing "Yellow Submarine" as they made their unsteady way down Frankfurterstrasse. The shouts and laughter and Mariachi music we'd heard at Laguna Seca. The laughing, well-coiffed teenagers we'd passed on our seemingly endless journey down Highway 1 on the way to San Clemente were meeting friends to build bonfires on the beach and to drink beer and to celebrate youth and alcohol and Friday night. Even people in this filthy Gypsy caravan of a campground had met and made friends and shared spices and songs. Why was I always on the edge of the party looking on in wonder, or disgust, but always with amusement? If writing about things means observing them and observing can only really be done from the outside, does that mean I'll always have to be outside? If you visit campgrounds with dirty bathrooms, write about them, get rich and never have to stay there again, what do you write about?
I heard Anna's breathing change and I knew we were out of the bathroom woods for the night. Behind me, Rick shifted his weight then patted me on the shoulder.
"Get some sleep," he said. "There's gotta be a love scene tomorrow or at least a grope in case Angelina Jolie agrees to play you in the movie."
I closed my eyes, shifted my improvised pillow and let the thought sink in. We were moving to a hotel in the morning. There would be a bathtub, in-room coffee, room service and, possibly, sex. What more could anyone ask for?
When we arrived at the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, after following the most circuitous route possible, we discovered it was undergoing renovation. This is true of much of Southern California. It is hard to find a road that is not being repaved and that means they must first create very deep grooves, I guess so the asphalt will stick better, and that means jouncing along it like a Hot Wheels car on a washboard. (That's a very apt description despite the fact that I have never, by virtue of my size, been inside a Hot Wheels car and that you rarely see washboards anymore outside of jug bands on reruns of Hee Haw. On first thinking about this, you may be wondering what kind of person would watch a rerun of Hee Haw. But I ask you: how would you know if it was or wasn't unless you had seen it the first time? Ahh, the glove is on the other foot now, eh?) I suppose I should be thanking the renovators rather than complaining about them since they are actually contributing to the reabeautification of the state. There are places, and Monterey was a good example, where the citizens have decided not to make improvements. It is not because they can't afford them since the rates for parking in a public or private lot or using a meter were the highest I had seen anywhere. They have decided that the past is to be preserved as perfectly as possible and for them that means that when something old falls down it stays down. If it eventually crumbles to the point of being partially a tumbled down building and partially a vacant lot and someone might get hurt, they put a chain-link fence around it and label it with an appropriately large sign telling the viewer what used to be here. Rick had encountered a similar thinking in Berlin where the number of actual cathedrals was far outnumbered by the sites of former cathedrals which were maintained, clean and empty, in remembrance of the war and the beautiful buildings which had once stood there. Not that any person was to blame for these wars as we discovered at the Museum in Verdun which, despite our American troops having come over and kicked some German butt so the French could go back to their infinitely superior way of life, Rick who was at that moment an American soldier, had to pay to enter while German soldiers were admitted free with proper ID. A monument had been erected commemorating the dead from both sides of the lines which I thought was a very noble sentiment. Further down the tablet, however, the blame for these deaths was placed solely where it belonged. On the shoulders of the entity called "War" which had apparently sucked these young men in and forced them against their wills to kill each other. It did not say whether their leaders were also under the influence. I had a much harder time dealing with that point of view and we left immediately after we took some pin-up style photos of me posing next to large phallic missiles.
Our purpose in visiting the Mission was two-fold. Everywhere we went people had been asking us if we had visited any of the Missions and we had to tell them "no". This caused them to look disappointed and us to feel guilty and sheepish. Here we were nearly a week into the trip and we had yet to visit any of these historic religious monuments. Clearly this was a situation to be remedied. The second reason was less a factor of peer pressure and more one of curiosity. Ever since I was a little girl, I had heard about the miracle of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano on Saint Joseph's Day, March 19th. For years people had wondered what it was that brought the swallows back to this exact place on that exact day. Visitors came from miles around to witness it and, of course, they brought those tourist dollars so necessary to be able to afford the kind of renovations even now being undertaken. People now understood about migratory flight patterns but the mystique and drawing power of the place remained and now here we were at the very gates.
The admission prices were posted in rather large letters and numbers on a sign that was visible as soon as you entered the gate. This was a good thing since it gave the viewer time to adjust to the shock and perhaps to sit and meditate for a moment whether twenty dollars wasn't a lot of money to spend to see some old rocks and birds and couldn't be better spent on a round of Cervezas and taquitos consumed at a table overlooking the waters off Dana Point. (Legend has it that that's where Richard Nixon proposed to Pat. Although beer and Mexican food aren't usually mentioned as being part of their evening, I figure they had to be in there since despite his good job and political aspirations Nixon wasn't exactly every girl's dream date and he must have softened her up somehow.) While we were debating something happened which nearly decided me against going in at all. A man of about fifty, disheveled and obviously nervous, rushed past us to the admission window.
"I need to buy something in the gift shop," he said breathlessly.
"Six dollars," the woman behind the glass replied. She was a round-faced Mexican woman whom I would have been described as pleasant-looking were it not for the fact that her hair was drawn tightly and, it appeared painfully, back as if she had attempted, but failed at, effecting a facelift through hairstyling alone. And then there was her attitude towards the man before her. "It's Sunday so everybody pays to get in."
"But I need to buy something in the gift shop," the man pesisted. "I don't want to see the Mission. Are you saying I have to pay to get in to see something I'm not going to look at and then pay for the medal?"
"Everybody pays to get in," she repeated. He shook his head and she started to turn away from the window.
"Wait," he said. "Maybe you can get it for me. It's a Saint Christopher medal. You know, for travelers." Seeing he still had no intention of paying the admission, she started to shuffle some papers on the desk beside her.
"Does anyone else around here sell them?" he asked. "Anyone that you know of?" She shook her head and he walked slowly away from the window and back out the gate. I was tempted to rush after him. I didn't know what I would say when I reached him. "Give me the money and I'll buy the medal for you?" What reason could he have for trusting me, a complete asshole stranger? What kind of crazy person goes about buying things and doing things for other people like that? Maybe I could tell him that he was wasting his time since Saint Christopher isn't even a saint anymore. That wouldn't be the comfort that he needed even if it happens to be true. And if I ever meet the Pope I am going to break from the tradition which it seems everyone has previously adhered to and ask him about that. How can you be a saint and then not be a saint anymore? When I was a child everyone's parents had Saint Christopher medals on their dashboards. Even people who weren't Catholic. He was kind of like a rabbit's foot without the little toenails. Now, he was persona non gratis according to the Vatican. This overwrought stranger had still wanted one, for whatever reason, and was now wandering the streets looking for it without benefit of Saint Christopher's help.
Deciding the Mission would be an educational history lesson for Anna, and smoked beef fajitas less so, we ponied up the bucks to the woman I now thought of as the Witch in the Window, and walked into the garden. My first stop was the restroom which, due to the dank mildewy smell and in spite of the presence of a flush toilet, appeared to be as old as the buildings surrounding it. Emerging, relieved, I sat on a bench and looked around. All about us there were strange flowers and trees. The only thing I recognized were the roses. Even though my photos typically depict both animate and inanimate objects as if they were victims of St. Vitus dance, I wished I had a camera to capture the beauty of the peach blooms glistening with dewdrops. Or the domestic drama gone awry look of the bottlebrush plants whose flowers looked as if some giant had become frustrated with dishwashing duties and flung the dratted things into the tree where they still stuck.
Standing across from me was the ruined cathedral. Prominently placed on it were the signs "Danger! No Entry!" and "Hardhat Zone". Behind the signs was the historic building we had paid to see which was covered almost entirely by scaffolding. In summary, we had paid twenty dollars to be allowed to not see either the inside or outside of the building and instead to wander about in a garden and look at the small brown birds who flitted here and there and stopped now and then to wash themselves charmingly in the fountain and to cock their heads at us as if to say,"You came all this way and paid all that money to see little old me?" We had also been given permission to not hear the bells which had been damaged in an earthquake over a hundred years ago and not repaired. A sign said new ones had been ordered from Switzerland where they were being made from the original molds but they hadn't arrived yet. It was hoped they would be delivered in time for the swallows' return the following year, but one never knows. We strolled as much as we could stand and watched a wedding party setting up for photos and commented on how old the bride appeared to be considering she was wearing a virginal white gown and talked about how things are never as advertised any more and maybe they never were but at least everyone agreed on what the pretense to be maintained was. At last, Anna could be mollified no longer by admiring the beautiful dresses of the bridal attendants whom she now wanted to trip nor making faces at the little birds whom she now wanted to splash and it was agreed that she and Rick would head back to the car and I would follow with a bottle of Diet Pepsi after a visit to the gift shop to buy some postcards. The selection of postcards was varied, and the price was not exorbitant, so I set to work examining them. I should get a picture of the cathedral we didn't see, that was a given. A picture of the bells that didn't ring, ditto. Now what else? My attention was wrenched away from the cards in my hand by a sound which wasn't quite a squeaky hinge and not quite the cawing of a crow. A moment later I heard it again. It seemed to be issuing from the old lady behind the counter. I hesitate to call her a crone because despite society's generally negative connotation of that word I consider crones to be wise old women who deliver babies and dispense herbal remedies and impart the wisdom of being in touch with the earth and in sync with your seasons and those of nature. Nevertheless, if anyone else had been making the identification, a crone is what she would have been called. The voluminous floral dress she wore could not hide the fact that she was thin almost to the point of being emaciated. Her Brillo-topped head was balanced precariously on a matchstick neck. Her hands resembled talons rather than the plump providers of yummy edibles I remembered at the end of my own grandmother's arms. One of these horrid things was now pointed at some children who had committed the grievous error of touching something. It puzzled me as a child, and even now as an adult I am still frowned at by saleshelp, that people can be expected to by something without examining it thoroughly. How can you buy a dish or a figurine without turning it upside down to see where it was made and by whom? (One of the early stories about Princess Diana and her roots among the "common people" was the occasion when she gave in to this urge at a State ceremony of some sort before anyone could step in to stop her. Good for her. Wouldn't do to have someone present you with a ceremonial plate from Will O'The Whisp and then find out the thing was made in China.) How can you select fruit and vegetables without squeezing them or, with the produce man's permission, popping some into your mouth to taste-test them? How can you select material without running it through your fingers, it's called "hand" after all, and carrying the bolt over to the mirror to imagine how it will look on you once the seamstress has done her magic? And how, in these children's case, can you be expected to know whether you want to nag the bejeezus out of your mother to get her to buy you a small box of overpriced rocks unless you can see what they look like in some way other than the photo you would need a microscope to see properly? That, as I've said, was the crime these children were engaged in committing. They were about to open the little plastic box, which once opened would never close in the same way again, and release a shower of very small "gems". As it was, their mother swooped in and moved them to another part of the store where they were nearer her own watchful eye and less likely to get into other trouble. I went back to my browsing and it was perhaps three whole minutes before I heard the screeching again. This time they were endangering some eye-catching but, of course, extremely delicate glass birds. Some were bluebirds and some were swallows but to a one they were guaranteed to break if you so much as looked at them wrong. These children who were clearly more gifted in the areas of grace and coordination than I am had picked up several of them and were turning them in their hands to admire them before setting each one down as gently as a mother cat with her kittens and beginning again with the next one. Their mother, feeling harassed and embarassed, moved in once more and herded them out the door of the gift shop before she returned to apologize profusely to the shopkeeper.
"I tell them and tell them," she said regretfully. "They are good children but they don't listen. They must touch things."
"Don't feel bad," the old lady said expansively. "All I can say is they weren't the first ones and they won't be the last, if I'm any judge of children." The poor mother thanked her again for her understanding, paid for her purchases and left the shop. In spite of my increasing reluctance to do anything that would benefit this place financially or otherwise, I placed my postcards on the counter and paid for them. As I did, I asked the woman if she knew where I could buy the bottle of Diet Pepsi I had promised to bring Rick.
"There's a machine outside the gate," she said quickly. "We could never sell anything like that here. It's against the rules." I picked up the small bag that contained my postcards and went out. I found the gate without any trouble, the "Please exit through gate" sign was a big help, bought a bottle of Diet Pepsi as requested and walked to the car. I was quiet during the car ride to the restaurant and much of the meal that followed. Rick sensing trouble asked the cause of the silence rather than just enjoying it. I told him what had happened in the gift shop. Although he was less disturbed about it than I was, he agreed that the woman behind the counter could have been nicer and said this seemed to be a common thing in stores run by old ladies.
"It's not just the stores," I said forcefully. "They're everywhere. They run the whole church now. That's the reason no young people go. The Pope can apologize all he wants for the Holocaust or whatever but unless he finds a way to get those crinkled up old ladies to lighten up and give folks some breathing room there will continue to be desertions in record numbers. And it isn't just the Catholic church. The Protestant churches are the same way. Little old ladies doing good deeds and trying to save up Brownie points so they can get a better seat in Heaven." Rick mentioned that might be a little harsh.
"Well, I'm mad," I said. "They've taken all the fun out of religion. When I was a kid, church wasn't just about following the rules. There were rules and you were supposed to follow them, but it was out of a sense of joy. They were supposed to bring you closer to God and also make your life better. They were a blueprint for helping you create a more harmonious society. If people didn't kill and steal and so on then we could all get along. But it became about the letter of the commandments rather than their spirit. I think that's wrong. So do a lot of other people. That's why I don't go at all anymore and other people have abandoned the "traditional" church and become Wiccans or Pagans or Unitarians." I had run out of steam and so I sat quietly for another long while and sulked.
At Dana Point, Rick continued studying for his instructor's test while Anna went to the surrounding tables and met all available dogs. My favorites were Sable, a Pomeranian, and Silver, a Weimarner. And then there was that Poodle we chased down whose name I didn't quite catch.
I ordered a small Mocha Borgia, which had orange flavoring added, then stood and read my book, See Jane Win, while I waited for my drink to come up and watched a larger version turn increasingly runny and disgusting. I will never know why they didn't exercise the customer service skills necessary to give me the big one, which was an extra from an earlier order, rather than wasting it and making me wait just as I will never know why that woman at the admission window was so mean and wouldn't eat the six bucks to let the distraught traveler in so he could buy his outdated Saint Christopher medal. Perhaps principles are worth more than people. Perhaps commandments are worth more than comraderie. Perhaps, as I too get older and wiser, I will stop wondering about questions to which I can't possibly know the answer. I hope not.
In San Clemente, it rained. Not a true cleansing rain or a soft spring shower, but a drizzly pissy trickle that turned everything gray and sticky.
I had been wakened by the sound of a child screaming "No" and "Fuck you" repeatedly but I decided they could solve their problems without me and I rolled over and went back to sleep until the pain from my full bladder forced me out of the tent. I knew Anna would appreciate the change in the weather, but she had been very critical of the bathrooms on this trip and if she hadn't liked the looks or smell of the AM/PM in Mojave she was unlikely to approve of this one. At least until the attendants cleaned the feces from the wall.
The earlier screaming seemed to have been the alarm clock for the rest of the campground. Birds chirped louder than I'd ever heard. Waves crashed in the distance. People began fixing breakfast -bacon, eggs, hot chocolate or coffee with Kahlua. Children ran and played, calling to each other or one of the dogs who barked and snapped at their owners and had short names ending in "e" sounds and no manners.
I lay in the tent considering my day. I couldn't go back to sleep but I wasn't ready to be awake. I would have to call Bluestone and deal with Lorraine or Andrea and the tub that was permanently fixed every eighteen months. I wished I was back in Mojave viewing bombers or sitting in the Motel 6 watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" It was warm and sunny and we hadn't checked our messages.
I thought about Rick saying the vacation was over and my assuring him we had a few more great days. As I sat listening to my stomach starting to growl, the rain spat on my legs through the moisture flap in the tent fly. Two sites over a man coughed and spat. Edie's owner, or mother, called over and over for her with no results. I realized that Rick was right. The trip was over. Although we were a thousand miles away it felt like home was just outside the tent. Except home wasn't ever this noisy or crowded or gray.
The telephone trilled shrilly and I leaped for it out of habit.
"Good morning," said the voice on the other end. It was familiar but hard to place like when you see your dentist in the grocery store and he's not wearing his mask or smock.
"This is Tom Bodette," the voice continued. "I'm calling to tell you you've won a million dollars." Clearly the Motel 6 ads were no longer enough for old Tom and he had gone over to the Publisher's Clearinghouse team.
"Not really," Tom said, sounding pleased to have put one over on us first thing in the morning. "I'm just calling to tell you it's time to get up." I hung up the phone and looked around the room. If ever a wake-up call had been unnecessary, this was it. In the hour I had been awake, I had made a coffee and newspaper run to the lobby, a trip to the car for my book and to the vending machines for a Diet Pepsi, and a return trip to the vending machines for the requisite breakfast pastries.
It seems to be one of the rules of human nature that people behave differently when they stay in a hotel or motel. Folks who barely scan the headlines at home snatch up free copies of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. People who bathe twice a week switch to once a day, I guess so they can try out all the different sizes of towels. Tidy folks throw their stuff around since someone else has to pick it up. (I've been told by cleaning ladies that women's rooms are the worst and that goes for restrooms, too. Having cleaned restrooms used by both genders, from preschoolers on up, I would have to agree that women are messier than men. They're also poor tippers in restaurants, but now we're getting off-track.)
Speaking of the ladies, it has been reported, and I have noted in my own experience, that women are more amorous away from home even if they are still in the same town. I think it is the fact that nothing more productive can be expected of us by others or ourselves. There is no pile of laundry to move off the bed or trip over. We can't wash or put away dishes. Unless there is a child in the bed, and even then they can be moved, there is nothing to hold you back from wild, uninhibited nookie all night long. Laissez les bon temps rouler, as they say in New Orleans.
In my family, hotels mean breakfast and it had better include at least a pastry and a beverage. These are best enjoyed while watching TV in your underwear as Anna was now. Rick, doing his part to exhaust the towel supply, was taking a shower. He stuck his head out of the bathroom and called, "Who was on the phone?"
"It was Tom Bodette," I said. Delightedly I related the details of the call sounding less like the victim of a poorly attempted practical joke and more like someone who has cheated Death and lived to see the sun rise again. For, indeed, that is how I felt.
Seeing Rick's towel-clad reflection, as he searched for desert appropriate clothes, made me wish, and not for the first time, that I could discover the cause of my migraines and prevent them. They often occurred premenstrually, so I attributed them to a temporary hormonal imbalance, but yesterday's had not so I had pinned the blame on the snapper. Whatever the cause, it had cost us a night of, relative, privacy in a bed and tonight we would be camping again.
At least the pain and nauseau had fled with the night. I drank my free coffee -real sugar plus half and half equals yummy- and ate my ham and cheese sandwich. I had just persuaded Anna into some clothes and was considering how best to disguise the story Helen Gurley Brown told, of her father dying in an elevator when he jumped on to impress two women, according to her mother, and the door closed on him -and now, of course, my chance is lost forever- when Rick emerged from the cloud of steam, like Jeannie who was even then emerging from her bottle on TV, and announced that it was time to leave for Edwards Air Force Base where we hoped, and that is the operative word here, to be taking the tour.
Because I am both passive-aggressive and inattentive to detail, I am perhaps not the ideal person to make travel arrangements. It's not that I deliberately screw things up. It just kind of happens sometimes. I work on a project for a while and then it drops off my screen, most likely to reappear at a point down the line. They say that God watches out for fools and children, and he must also keep an eye on those of us with short attention spans, since I had pulled situations out often enough to consider it my due. I had bought enough tools from "closed" stores and found enough seats at SRO events that I felt the signs were put there for other people, not me. "Gotta have an envelope so there's something to push," I always said.
Rick had asked, then nagged with increasing vehemence, that I make arrangements for us to go on the flightline tour at Edwards. Now I am as patriotic as the next person, more patriotic than many if the number of seat bottoms I've nudged with my foot to encourage people to stand during the National Anthem is any indication, and while I maintain a healthy respect for American engineering and weaponry, holding the airshow program while Rick shot roll after roll of film of planes that were mere specks in a deep blue sky and could no longer be identified when the photos were developed and left to languish in the box with their predecessors hadn't exactly lit a fire under me to see more.
I had, as he instructed, visited the EAFB website and sent off several e-mails regarding our upcoming visit and desire to see the grounds and planes. I placed a number of calls and left messages in voicemailboxes. Did I ever speak with an actual human or receive any kind of confirmation that my efforts at contact had been successful and that they would be expecting us? Well, no. To be completely honest, I figured I had done my part and it was now up to them to get in touch with me if they had any questions. Our welcome presence on the tour was a virtual certainty in my mind and the space that thoughts of it had taken up was quickly filled with something else. (It may be recalled that I was not committed to even making this journey until shortly before the actual departure and that might have had something to do with my casualness, some would probably say negligence, regarding explicit assurance of our ability to participate. Then again, maybe not.) It was not until two days before the event that the topic arose again and it was Rick who broached it in no uncertain terms.
"Tomorrow," he began, "we are leaving for Mojave."
"Mmm-hmmm," I replied, my nose buried deep in "Travels With Charlie".
"We will be going on the flightline tour the following morning, which is Friday," he continued.
"Mmm-hmmm," I replied again.
"What time did they say we needed to be there?" he asked.
"The person you spoke with when you made the reservations for the tour we're taking Friday morning."
"Oh, nine or so," I hedged.
"That's what they said?" he barked. "You said, 'We're coming to Edwards to go on the tour' which by the way is only held on Fridays and which if we miss it will make me extremely upset since I have looked forward to taking the daughter there for a very long time, and they said to you 'Come around nine or so'?"
"Well, yeah." I was being backed into a corner and feeling the wall behind me for handholds so I could start climbing.
"I have never heard of anything associated with the military being run on that kind of schedule. Do we at least have directions for how to get to the museum?"
"As a matter of fact, no," I said, sensing a way out of this mess. "Perhaps I should call them and get those directions right now. Let's go back to that cybercafe we were at yesterday and I will go to the website and get the number and we can call them."
It's a fact of life that no matter how fast a connection to the Internet sounds when you're discussing it, it seems too slow when you actually try to use it. When I sat down in my little cubicle to use the computer, I was relatively calm despite the fix I was in. I had spent the morning sitting in the sun reading whatever I chose, while Rick and Anna groused about their homework and how it wasn't fair that I had none. I had drunk no coffee in several days so I was feeling relaxed if a bit fuzzy. No sooner did I feed my money into the slot at the workstation and click on the mouse to begin, than the tenseness began to return to my body. I was jiggling my feet again and tapping my fingers on the desk while waiting for pages to load. The machine, which accepted ones, fives, tens and twenties, dispensed ten minutes of online time for each dollar deposited. Ten minutes is a long time if you are a child who has been sent to time out. If you are a grown-up who was sent to time out for that length of time, I would have to wake you up to tell you your sentence was over since in all likelihood you would have fallen asleep. Ten minutes of Internet time, or twenty in my case since I was unable to bear the thought of being cut off in mid-transmission, is an entirely sufficient time to scan your e-mail or the headlines, visit the Edwards website and write down a phone number, and fire off an e-postcard to your family or friends to tell them what a swell time you were having before you got online and became a maniac again. And yet, there I sat. Muttering under my breath for the machine to hurry up, and that always works so well, and bouncing around in my chair as if I was mainlining Jolt. It took quite a bit of finessing of the Jello-filled trackpouch, but I found the number for the tour desk and called it while Rick and Anna were picking out postcards.
"I'm sorry," the woman said, when I had identified the purpose of my call. "The list of people going on the tour has already been sent to the gate."
"You don't understand," I said. "We have driven nearly 1100 miles to go on this tour. We came from Oregon and we are going to drive into the desert tomorrow and stay at a Motel 6 so we can be there in time to see these things we have heard so much about." I could feel her sigh through the phone.
"If you come to the museum and are there when the bus arrives, you can probably get on the tour. Museum visitors get preferential treatment. Now the way to get to the museum is -" But I was no longer listening. We were going to go on the tour. I hadn't irreparably damaged our chances through my usual errors of omission. I handed the phone to Rick and ran off to admire the ocean.
"Isn't that great?" I asked a few minutes later. "All we have to do is be there at 9 am on Friday and they'll whisk us onto a bus and we can see everything." Rick shook his head.
"That's not what she told me," he said. My heart flew to my throat. You often hear people say that and it sounds sickening. The reality is much worse.
"What did she tell you?" I asked anxiously.
"She told me that we have to call the museum at 9 am and then they can put us on the waiting list and maybe we can go on the tour. She didn't say it was definite." I made a vain attempt at laughing gaily.
"But that's silly. Of course we'll get on the tour. It's still May. Most families with kids won't be on vacation for another month. There should be plenty of room," I said, hoping it was all true.
As it turned out, it was. We called from our car just outside the gates of Edwards. There was a bit of a hassle getting through the gate but only because we had been out of the military for so long we had forgotten about the red tape and exactly which pieces of ID they would want to see. (The fact that one of the guards was from Oregon and Rick was able to schmooze our way in, despite our insurance card having expired, is testimony to his charm and the obviously good influence I have been on him all these years.) The museum itself was educational and thorough and we saw everything we wanted to and more, except the XF-11 which Howard Hughes had built and piloted. The tour bus was only a quarter full and they were delighted to have us along to round out the group. The day was breathtakingly hot, but it was a dry heat which really does make all the difference, and everyone complained about it but me. Perhaps it was the proximity of all the B-52s which had been in the air for over forty years themselves and were undergoing a midlife evaluation yet showing no signs of retiring, but I felt healthier and more alive than at any other time in my thirty-nine years on this planet and swore to anyone who would listen that I would one day pack up my belongings and move to Mojave so I could enjoy every day from then on.
In the afternoon, we took the NASA tour which was led by a woman who had only recently returned to Mojave from the world outside.
"My kids will be leaving soon," she said. "It's going to be hard, but I'm going to make them. They have to see that there's a whole big world outside of Boron and getting a job at the Borax factory. This is a good place to be from and it's a good place to come back to, but it is not a good place to stay."
Later on in the day, as I was dancing in the hot sun and singing James Brown's "I Feel Good" on the way over to the NASA press office to pick up the envelope of photos and propaganda they were giving Anna, I thought about what our guide had said about staying. They were hiring office workers for the summer and it was easy to imagine myself spending the day in an air-conditioned building and only peeking out in order to hurry to another such building on an errand or to my climate controlled car to go to lunch or to go home. By the end of the summer, I'd be brown as a berry from lying out on the weekends and since there were few stores, and even fewer coffeehouses, I'd have a big chunk of change in my bank account to show off too.
A nearby cell phone brought me back with a chirp from the life I was building to the life I was living. Mojave was not my home any more than I was an office-worker. (A friend once described me as being "the poster child for self-employment".) We had five days of vacation left and nothing was going to keep us from fulfilling our appointed rounds. Should I ever choose to return to Mojave, the way would be clearly marked and easy to find. After all, Tom Bodette had promised to leave the light on for me.