Monday, January 6, 2014

Our Last Day on the Road (for now)

Our last day on the road.  We ran into the finality of it like a brick wall.  There did not seem to be enough money left in the travel fund to refill the gas tank again.  After that realization it became pretty evident we needed to drive straight to Phoenix instead of stopping at the Grand Canyon on the way.  This was a little disappointing as it was a site we had promised the kids they would see since the beginning, but our sadness was mitigated by the fact that 1) it was a pretty cold morning to see it anyway and would be even colder there due to the elevation and 2) we were planning on living about four hours away from this masterpiece, within easy range of a weekend or even day trip from our new home base in the Valley of the Sun.

I packed up the car for the very last time and thought about how as much as I dreaded the early morning packing and impending doom of early checkout times I would miss it when we got to Phoenix just because it was part of the trip.  I will miss the uncertainty of where we would sleep at night, the excitement of finding the perfect campsite or opening the door to a hotel room that was a little nicer and more spacious than we expected.  I’ll miss the momentary silences that overcame all of us when something momentous passed before our eyes and the youthful confidence with which the kids returned to their private conversations or their requests for fast food or potty stops even as the history of the Earth unfolded before our windshield.

I’ll miss sitting in a camp chair next to my wife, playing cards spread out in front of us as the wind outside snaps viciously at the tent and our children snore beneath a hill of blankets and small dogs.  I’ll miss opening the map and trying to figure out just where we are at that moment and where we are going.  I’ll miss the long pauses that came after breakfast was made on the camp stove and a morning fire was burning low and forgotten in the warmth of the advancing sun and my three beautiful children let their imagination lead them just far enough away that I could read or write or play my guitar truly without any care in the world.

I’ll miss getting up in the middle of the night to watch steam rise up from a ridiculously high arc of my urine lit up by the moon.  I’ll miss huddling around the four people I love most for warmth.  I’ll miss being able to pack every earthly belonging I need into a mid-sized SUV.  I’ll miss the freedom to take any turnoff we want, drive along scenic route to glimpse things that six months ago we would only have experienced in movies.  I will miss the fortune of the road, the fantastic yet unplanned experiences that everyone seems to love best, the fearlessness it took to drive toward the horizon with three crying, hungry kids and no freeway exit in sight.  I will miss having to pull over to piss on the side of the road because there is literally no sign of civilization for miles and the map is as blank around that little line of road we’re navigating as a missile testing range in New Mexico. 

I will miss driving through snowstorms that make me fear for my life.  I really will.  There is something empowering about having your fate delivered into your own hands with such clarity.  In those moments you experience the power of free will, for better or worse.  There is no 8 to 5 job to be trapped in, no boring traffic lights to wait on, no friends to offer you diversion.  There is only you and this road that shifts in and out of your vision like a ghost and you have your own life and the life of everyone you love in your hands, poised at ten and two, the round plastic beneath them oddly simple and fragile for the undertaking.

I will not miss taping on the bottom of this broken lantern.

I will miss the understanding of dogs that comes with watching them sleep next to the children on cold nights, waking to them barking diligently at things moving outside the tent at three in the morning, listening to them ravage bones from our dinner with an instinctive gnashing ten thousand years in the making, waiting for them to climb up in my lap after the fire is made and the cold has advanced enough that everyone human and furred has grown quiet, as if our collective concentration will help us absorb the heat more efficiently.  I will miss but always remember my amazement at how two pampered toy breeds we had owned for less than a year flourished on the road and in the wild with us and for the first time in all my years of owning dogs realizing that dogs often find purpose in adversity just as humans do.

I will miss changing guitar strings in the middle of the trees while my wife sleeps in a patch of sun in the tent and our children climb trees, dig holes, and catch all manner of crawling insects.  I will miss waking to the sound of breaking waves.  I will miss shopping for the absolute cheapest bargains on food we can find and then trying to cram everything into our battered ice chest.  I will miss the realization that $1.62 for a 32 oz can of Miller High Life is a really good deal considering how much better it is than Bud or Coors and how easily it can be chilled inside an overcrowded ice chest compared to a six pack of bottles.  I will miss days when my biggest problem was trying to figure out how we were going to get our electronic devices charged.  I will miss worrying about whether we have enough gas to make it to the next semi-deserted southwestern town and the dusty gas station at the outskirts of it.

I will miss the absolutely soul crushing honesty of having to talk to the kids about a dog that has passed away.  I will miss, but never forget, the window that I was briefly given to see into the deepest parts of each of these four people and myself, to glimpse the things that make them who they are, the things they have been and are becoming, the things they have done, regrets and crowning achievements, the things they love and dislike, their fears and their passions, the things that constitute them beyond the clothes they wear, the toys they play with, or the stories they regaled me with after I returned from a long day of work.

I will miss grasping that work is something you do to provide for your family, not part of who you are.  Four months and I never missed working.  Writing is working, raising children is working, building fires, cutting wood, assembling the artifacts of comfort in the middle of nowhere, that’s working.  The real work we do in life is not governed by a time clock, nor is it evaluated by the movement upward or down of a salary.  Work is living, breathing, eating, becoming.  Humankind’s work on Earth.  Everything else is akin to the frantic scurrying of ants oblivious to the swollen river that’s about to wash them away.  Two hundred years from now no one will remember how much you earned and many of even the most “respected” positions will be looked on with the amusement or even horror that comes with perspective.

I will miss reheating my coffee in a saucepan over a propane flame instead of a microwave.  I will miss the sound of insects around us in early evening, coyotes at dusk, owls at midnight, loons at pre-dawn, crows at dawn, grackles through the day.  

I will miss the not knowing.  As I write this and consider the frustrations in my job search a few days prior I remember this is what I wanted, this is what we had on the road.  Uncertainty, freedom.  It’s only a bad thing if you don’t trust yourself.  And the road.

And so we end this chapter of our life on the road.  Sullivan asked, “Is the trip over?”  “It’s just on pause for a while,” I told him.  I think we’ll enjoy our time in Phoenix but I also know in my heart that our travels are far from over.  I don’t know if our next stop will be Canada or Mexico or maybe back to good old Maine.  I’m just glad that these are the people and pets I will share this journey with.


Windy Winslow


Winslow, AZ.  Unfortunately we were too busy to do any “Standin’ on a Corner,” but our good friends from Acoustic Amateurs Anonymous in Pittsburgh dedicated “Take it Easy” to us to commemorate our arrival.  We were in Winslow for a wedding.  It was one of the few plans we had set in stone at the outset of the trip, a date we anchored our travels around.  The bride, Kim, is actually my good friend Derek’s ex-wife.  They’ve stayed remarkably civil over the years since their divorce in the name of raising their three small children.  Amy and I always tell them they are the model couple for divorcing with kids if there is one.

My kids felt strangely compelled to watch the bride as she made her way down the aisle.  It was like they somehow grasped the enormity of it, the event that creates families and, often, new life.  

I had a good time socializing with my old buddy, but we left the reception fairly early on since we had the dogs in the car.  The weather was cold and the streets felt deserted in the leaden Saturday afternoon.  We picked up food on the way back to the room and enjoyed what was to be our last night of watching Cartoon Network cloistered off from the noise and realities of the world outside.

Drama in the Desert

This morning we ran into some trouble.  Back in Corvallis Jenny had given Amy a nice collection of dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s.  Well this morning while I was getting the Honda loaded up 8 Ball got into the chocolate.  Unfortunately, dark chocolate in even small amounts can be very toxic to dogs.  We had to take him to the local veterinary clinic where they gave him activated charcoal to make him puke in case he had swallowed any of the stuff.  Thankfully they said he was going to be ok though the last of our travel funds were sorely impacted.

As were getting ready to finally roll out of town and get on the road to Winslow I got in a verbal altercation with the kids and yelled at them.  There I said it.  It’s embarrassing but you should know, dear reader, that I have a bad temper at times and I often don’t have as much patience for our little ones as my dear wife does.  There’s never an excuse for someone so large to yell at someone so small but looking back I realize the chocolate incident was still weighing heavily on my mind.  I took out some of my unresolved financial frustration on them.

I think too I realized how little of our trip there was left.  Ruminations about bills and the specter of unemployment loomed up in my subconscious and roared out when the right preconditions were met.  But children can’t be expected to understand these things nor should they be.  What they know is they have enjoyed the uninterrupted time as a family with both their mom and their dad, seeing amazing places instead of just hearing about them, and beginning to grasp just how large the United States really is.  Ava, Sullivan, and Juniper have never lost sight of what this trip was supposed to be about.  I’m sure they were very confused about what on Earth I could be so angry about.

Afterward I felt lonely and angry at myself, like an alcoholic after his 50th relapse.  Ashamed.  Frustrated.  15,000 miles and I can’t get away from the things I want to change about myself.  The unforgiving scenery matched the way I felt.  Within a half hour of departing Henderson we were surrounded by isolation in every direction.  Rugged, barren mountain ranges where things die in shadows that veil them beyond even a rumor of their passage.  We perish on this earth like autumnal snow on the peaks, trickling away overnight to leave no trace behind.

Turkey Day!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanksgiving!  I’m so thankful to have been able to take this trip and spend so much uninterrupted time with my wonderful family.  I’m thankful that we’re all healthy and happy with one another.  I’m thankful that I have such an awesome wife who is also the greatest mother on Earth.  I’m thankful for so many other things too but I have to be sure to mention how thankful we all were to be able to spend Thanksgiving in a HOME, not in a hotel or a restaurant.

Jamie, Todd, and their family were so welcoming of us and the food was just fantastic.  Best of all they were football fans so I got to watch the whole Steeler game uninterrupted.  There was a Cleveland Browns fan there who I inadvertently offended— I mean ragging on the Browns is like second nature to any true Stillerz fan— but he was a pretty good sport about it.  In Jamie’s dog, Stella, 8 Ball found the one dog who actually has more energy than he does.  They sparred all over the backyard and not once did we have to worry about another howling dog complaint.

After the game Amy got to reconnect with her friends Dara and Jamie while I played Sorry with all of the various kids who were there.  They also had a lot of fun drawing on the table!  It’s not what you think: Jamie put this long strip of butcher paper on the table and drew circles for plates with each kids name which they then proceeded to decorate.  Lots of fun.

Back at the hotel we were thankful for full bellies and 3 tired kids.  Life is good.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Daddy Loves 8 Ball (and the rest of his furry babies)


Today we checked out of the La Quinta and headed for another hotel in nearby Henderson, NV.  We figured it would be good to get a fresh start hotel wise and plus that would put us a little closer to Jamie’s house for Turkey Day festivities the following day. 

I took care of day before Thanksgiving shopping at the nearest Wal-Mart.  It was not as packed as you would think, although I did get the last 4 cans of sweet potatoes.   

Viva Las Vegas! (well for a minute anyway)

After many hours on the road over the last few days it felt good to take it easy.  We spent some time at the pool and watching shows in the room.  That night we decided to take the kids down to the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip.  We took the hotel shuttle to Harrah’s and walked through the casino to get to the main drag.  Once there we got our picture with Elmo.  It was free because ever since Amy and I went to Jamaica earlier this year I have a policy that I don’t pay people who offer things like they’re free beforehand and then negotiate a payment halfway through.  Sorry, Elmo, try hittin’ up Cookie Monster for a few bucks.

I told the kids we could walk to the big indoor fish tank at Caesar’s first or the Treasure Island Pirate Ship.  From there we planned to take a cab to see a show at Circus Circus.  The kids voted for Caesar’s which was about a ten minute walk from Harrah’s.  I mean, what’s to see at Harrah’s?  It’s not Vegas without a theme and/or gimmick in my book. 

Three enormous pictures of the entertainment adorn the front of the Caesar’s entrance: Celene Dion and two others I can’t remember.  Might have been the Osmonds; they were at like three different casinos.  I’m guessing they’re trying to cash in on the last few people living who actually know who they are.  At any rate Ava took one look at the pics and said, “Those people look weird.”  “Hmm.  They sure do,” I agreed.  In Celene’s defense I don’t think a 60 foot high picture of me would look very good either.

We were only inside Caesar’s for about ten minutes before we got a phone call from La Quinta.  It seems there had been some complaints about a howling dog.  Hmmmm.  Apparently our visit to the strip was going to be dramatically abbreviated.  Just before we got in the shuttle to go back I told Amy that was the shortest and cheapest trip I ever made to the Las Vegas strip.

Back at the room 8 Ball was a little frantic.  Sorry, neighbors, but what were you doing in your Las Vegas room at 8 PM anyway?  I mean, even if you’re a Gamblers Anonymous member at least go lay by the pool or something.  Live a little. 

We made it to Vegas!

Back on the road early.  Bizarre hill ridden, rock strewn plains like the moon or some prehistoric landscape.  Enormous ranges of grassland interrupted only by narrow dirt road switchbacks for delivering calves or mending fences.  Then, seven large mounds of black dirt by the side of the highway and at the top of one an easy chair decked out in white upholstery with pink flowers.   
The land flattened and gave way to prickly Joshua trees, the only spots of green in the sea of amber rocks and sand all around us.  Further on, smooth featureless mountains with ridges trickling down like folds in a blanket of brownish gray. 

Finally we crossed the Spring Mountain range with its light dusting of snow, the features of rock and frozen prairie grass still showing through like there wasn’t quite enough white paint for the artist’s brush.  Just inside the Nevada state line the first casino came into view, a stark white outpost in the middle of the desert.  The scrolling neon sign said they had ice cream sundaes for $1.25.  They must be pretty good to get people to stay there because the place is seriously over half an hour from the strip. 

We came over the last rise and saw the strip spread out before us, the Luxor’s smooth black surface and the orderly smattering of light leading to the Stratosphere at the northern terminus of the strip.  Our hotel was about a mile off the strip.  We got settled in the room and gave the kids some time to bounce their road energy out on the beds.  Ava made an entire series of paper toe rings to sell.

I thought it was sweet that the kids wanted to be sure I got to watch the “Regular Show” Thanksgiving special before we went to swim at the heated pool.  I’m typically not one for appointment television but I really enjoy watching that show with the kids.  All three of them are getting really confident in their swimming and they had a lot of fun at the heated pool that night.  There was a hot tub too so when the cold air got to be too much they could warm up.  Hot during the day and dry and cool at night.  We had finally made it to the desert.


Miles and miles of California

In case any reader is unfamiliar with what a “late checkout” is I would like to take the time to explain this magical idea.  I remember when I visited Laughlin, NV one of the first times to gamble with my wife and our best friend, Rich.  There was a lot of wagering and imbibing free drinks and late night breakfasts so the day we were finally supposed to leave I was feeling a little rough around the edges.  I remember seeing the red numbers on the little hotel alarm clock and thinking “Oh no.  We’re never going to make it.”

“It’s OK,” Amy said, “I’ll call the front desk and get a late checkout.”

And just like that we had another hour to get out the door.  I had never heard of late checkout prior to that day.  This trip it has proven to be vital to our survival, particularly when 11 becomes 12.  I mean, 11 is barely time to eat a continental breakfast and get showered much less cram the luggage into your overflowing Honda Pilot.

We drove downtown so the kids could see the Haight and Ashbury district.  They wanted to know what the significance of the place was so we talked about the cultural upheaval that took place in the United States during the 1960s.  We talked about how a lot of things changed very quickly including civil rights, women’s rights, music and much more and the heart of much of this change was in San Francisco.  I think the fact that they had been to the civil rights museum helped put it in context for them.

From there we drove away from the city by the bay south to Santa Cruz where “Lost Boyz” was filmed.  Amy is a pretty big fan of the film so it was fun for her to see the boardwalk where part of the movie was shot.  

It seemed like a pretty sleepy town otherwise and with our financial situation being what it was we decided to see how far we could get tonight on our journey to Thanksgiving in Vegas.  We left the beautiful coast behind for the straight, flat, mind-bendingly boring route to Interstate 5.  

The deserted local highway plowed through the orchards and lettuce fields southeast, the weight of the darkness holding the horizon flat and featureless in every direction.  There were no exits for miles.  We had to pull off onto a dirt road running in front of a large grove of nut trees for a potty stop.  It was so dark I had to dig the flashlight out for fear of losing one of the dogs.  I took a look at the map but the lack of little dots marking towns was not very encouraging.  

After another half hour on the road I saw the glow of lights beyond a small rise ahead of us.  I excitedly told my wife that had to be the glare from some kind of town where we could find dinner and plan our next move.  Unfortunately as we got closer I saw that it was actually the cold, yellow glow of a power plant, the enormous column of steam huddled against the lights that speckled the metal framework.

Further into the oblivion of night.  Finally finally an exit that actually had some services instead of just roads to nowhere.  We had to drive about four miles but the road led to a real, live Chuy’s not far from Bakersfield, CA.  I had never actually been to the Chuy’s chain before.  They don’t have them in Pittsburgh and when we lived in Arizona we felt no need whatsoever to eat at a chain Mexican food place much less a Tex Mex chain.  But Chuy’s was great.  The kids loved having the big open place almost completely to themselves and Amy and I were pleasantly surprised with the salsa bar.

Once we were all stuffed it was only a little farther to Motel Wal-Mart.  We had taken a big chunk out of the drive to Vegas.  It felt good to fall asleep knowing we were going to make it there tomorrow.

San Francisco

We only had one full day in San Francisco but we really DID IT UP.  We let the kids sleep late while I raided the La Quinta breakfast bar for everyone.  You would be surprised how many hard boiled eggs our family can eat if you include the dogs.  They are actually one of Abigail’s favorite foods.

We got a shuttle ride from the hotel to the airport, the closest place to catch the BART train.  (Bay Area Rapid Transit I think.)  A very nice volunteer at the airport told us which way to go and gave each of the kids an airplane keychain and pencil topper that they had a ridiculous amount of fun with.  

They flew them in impossible arcs around each other’s heads while we waited at the train platform and created horrific midair collisions.  I feel lucky to be able to watch them have so much fun together.  The trick, of course, is not to let them know you’re watching.

We got off the train north of downtown and walked north toward the bay.  We had originally planned on taking one of the old wooden streetcars that Amy and I used when she took me there for our anniversary many years ago.  Unfortunately the fare was steep: $6 apiece each ride, no transfers.  Really?  Come on San Francisco.  It’s a streetcar not a ferris wheel.  

We decided to walk to Fisherman’s Wharf instead. 

After a few more blocks we were able to walk along the Embarcadero and all of its numbered piers.  There was some kind of new science center there called the Exploratorium with lots of cool outdoor exhibits for the kids that we didn’t even have to pay for.  The biggest one was these monkeys. 

They hung from this bizarre metal contraption that was connected to 8 little electronic drum pads.  There were some directions nearby that said the monkeys were powered by the rhythm of people playing the drum pads.  The more people playing in time with one another the faster they would turn.  Once they got turning there were monkey masks you could put on that added a strobe light effect that made it look like the many monkeys were actually one monkey swinging from the trees.  Interestingly enough from across the street it looked like they were actually moving as well. 

There was also a little rickshaw with a mirror and camera that allowed you to look at everything around you from inside, a plastic sculpture for everyone to climb on, and a skateboard exhibit complete with instructions on how to “Ollie,” boards to practice with, and exhibits like this one that showed how skateboard wheels work.

Once we extricated the kids from the climbing sculpture we continued on to Fisherman’s Wharf with Coit Tower looking on from the west.  We were hoping to find ice cream but there was some kind of meet the Disney characters thing going on so all of the indoor eateries were just packed.  They had this enormous Christmas tree set up that upon closer examination proved to be real.

By now the kids were pretty tired and hungry too.  We went to four different restaurants in search of beer for us and ice cream for the kids but all of the dessert menus were the same: tera misu and chocolate cake.  It was like they all got their desserts from the same Cisco food rep.  Finally we tried one last place where we were told yes we could have vanilla ice cream.  The host said we could sit in the bar area where there was a guy playing piano and having a good time with the crowd. 

He was quite the showman, wanting to know where everyone that came in was from and giving people a hard time accordingly.  I put in a request for “Fire and Rain” which he encouraged us to sing the chorus to when it came around.  The waitress brought the kids each a bowl of vanilla ice cream complete with strawberries and whipped cream.  I got a pint of local Anchor Steam and wifey had some house vino.  It was soooooooo nice to just sit and watch the piano guy have fun with people after so much walking.

Once everyone was recharged we had to figure out how to get to Chinatown.  The kids loved Chinatown in New York and Montreal so we had to take them to San Francisco’s.  We had planned the ice cream and beer as an appetizer.  We thought about trying to take the streetcar and instead opted to go for a cab which my wife hailed quite expertly while I helped the kids across the street.  The fare was literally a third of what it would have cost us to ride the streetcar.  I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here but it’s hard not to see the price pointing on those things as a little exploitative.     

We wandered around the glitz of Chinatown, red paper lanterns dangling from above, storefronts teeming with golden Buddhas or elaborate menus with vertical script.  There was a lady making her way down the street with advertisements for one of the restaurants so we figured we would just go with that one.  She had us follow her back to the place, turning off the main drag into a poorly lit alley where I had some brief concerns about safety and finally into the bustling little restaurant. 

We were the only non-Asian people there which I think is always a good sign at a Chinese place.
We got half a fried duck, egg drop soup, lo mein, all the staples.  The kids polished off the soup and made a valiant effort on the lo mein as well.  The duck was so rich we had quite a bit left.  All in all it was a greasy great time.  I don’t know how we will ever eat non Chinatown Chinese food again.

By then we were starting to worry about the dogs who had been in the room all day.  We walked from Chinatown to the BART stop that would take us back to the airport.  Inside there was a number of homeless people sleeping on the floor, their blankets and sleeping bags wound around their dirty clothes like a mummy’s wraps.  One of them was sleeping sitting upright in a corner next to the turnstile.  A BART worker walked by and told him he couldn’t sleep there and had to move. 

“Let me get my stuff together,” he barked and promptly went back to sleep.

Ava and the other kids have seen homeless people before but this situation made quite an impression on her.  They’ve all had moments during the trip where they have lamented not having a home of their own, a room of their own, but they could tell that the situation these people faced was altogether different.

Ava had many difficult questions about how people become homeless and how they survive on a daily basis on the street.  I answered as honestly as I could all the while thinking of the folks in the Neighborhood Living Project downstairs from me at Western Psych that do their best to deliver service to these people day in and day out.  We talked about addiction and mental health and what I had seen in my work in the past and how some people actually choose, albeit passively, to live that way, free from bills, rent, landlords, bosses, any of the foibles of daily life we face as second nature.

“But isn’t it dangerous to be homeless, don’t they get cold?”

At that point she told me that this year she didn’t want to get any birthday presents.  She said instead she wanted people to give food and clothes to help take care of homeless people.  She is such a kind and empathetic soul.  She always sees the best in people and wants to help them find happiness.