Saturday, March 27, 2010

THEN & NOW: Road Trips

Ray and I are about to leave on a road trip to Oklahoma, where I get to read poems at the Scissortail Writers Conference. I was sorting my first-aid accoutrements alphabetically and by container size, and it occurred to me that I don’t pack like I used to “back in the day,” as the Whippersnappers are fond of saying. Here’s a little comparison…

Preparation THEN - Turn off the lights.

Preparation NOW - Start planning and list-making at least 2 months in advance. As departure nears, set thermostat schedule, leave list of directions for feeding dogs, frog, parrots, peacocks and barn cats, stock fridge and pantry for pet-sitter and maybe bake a nice cheesecake to leave, make list of phone numbers (two cell phones, hotel, vet, neighbor, conference coordinator, conference hall), water plants, clean aquarium and parrot cages, do laundry, clean house, wash sheets and change beds. If there’s still a little time, re-paint living room. Day of departure, check all water and gas lines, check stove, lock all doors and windows, turn off the lights.

Packing THEN - Sundress, halter top, one pair of jeans, crocheted shawl, broom skirt, all in a backpack. Underwear is just a symbol of The Man’s attempt to keep us down.

Packing NOW - Enough clothes in every conceivable combination to survive several months without wearing the same thing twice, including enough clean socks and underwear to supply a Girl Scout jamboree. Three suitcases: one for basic clothing, one for 15 pairs of shoes, sandals, and boots, and one for various weights of jackets and sweaters.

First-Aid Kit THEN - You’re kidding, right? The Universe is watching over us. Besides, if you plan for accidents, that’s just what you’ll get, Star Child.

First-Aid Kit NOW - Assorted creams (antibiotic, antifungal, antiitch), Advil and any stronger pain meds on hand, 17 shapes/sizes of bandaids, gauze pads, tape (paper, surgical, duct), finger & nose splints, Betadine, iodine, alchohol, witch hazel, Imodium, Tums and 22 homeopathic remedies, essential oils, and flower essences.

Toiletries THEN - Leather cords for wrapping braids, toothbrush & toothpaste (maybe), patchouli.

Toiletries NOW - Comb, brush, 6 kinds of hair accessories, foundation makeup, eye liner, mascara, 2 kinds of lip gloss, 2 kinds of antiperspirants, talc, nail clippers, tweezers, shampoo, conditioner, 3 colors of nail polish and polish remover, toothbrush & toothpaste, mouthwash, soap, day cream, night cream, cucumber peel, eye serum, neck serum, patchouli.

Extras THEN - Guitar, maracas, sleeping bags.

Extras NOW - Cell phones, travel mug, thermos of Ethiopian coffee, 2 gallons of filtered water from home, camera, laptop, iPods, chargers, travel Chemex coffee pot, coffee filters, corkscrew, beach towels (good for wrapping Chemex), pillows, blankets, travel neck pillow, parkas/gloves/stocking hats, guitar, maracas.

Cooler THEN - Boones Farm Strawberry Hill wine, peanut butter, Wonder bread, brownies.

Cooler NOW РGaucho Club Malbec wine, yogurt, hummus, oranges, grapes, blueberries, goat feta, flatbread, spelt crackers, V-8, freshly-ground Ethiopian coffee, prunes, figs, organic half & half, homemade deer jerky, protein shakes, frozen water bottles, Chubby Chipmunk cr̬me brule truffles.

Navigation THEN - Love & luck.

Navigation NOW - MapQuest directions, road atlas, AAA phone numbers, fear & trepidation.

Lodging THEN – Kansas cornfield, Oklahoma city park, sleeping bags, stars.

Lodging NOW – Advanced reservation confirmation printouts for Holiday and Comfort Inns, showers, 2 queen beds, breakfast buffet, whirlpool tub, sauna, fitness center, wireless, cable TV.

The drive THEN - Long conversations, frequent stops to play & sing & eat peanut butter sandwiches at roadside rest areas, reorganizing the gigantic box of cassette tapes, listening to one album at a time all the way through, brief playful romantic interludes in the car, at the rest stops, in the bathroom of a Kansas IHOP.

The drive NOW - Alternating driving and napping due to exhaustion from preparation. Occasional minor arguments over whose iPod rules. Frequent stops to go to the bathroom and double-check maps. Frequent texting to make sure kids, pets, and pet sitter are okay. Silent admiration of the diversity of the American landscape. Silent wishes that you were back home already.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Ides of March - a poem


The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.

It’s a dangerous time, peering

through iced windows at the jeweled

tease of crocus and daffodil.

We've weathered another season

of deep-freeze, locked up tight

in muscle and mind. We're tired

of winter’s grey and gritty leftovers.

But this is no time to get careless,

toss a floorboard heater through

the beveled glass and go out,

where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat

embroidered in pinks and greens,

leaves us gaping, breathless,

in air still cold as a knife blade,

stripping off the down.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flatlander Confession

I realized midway through our recent road trip to the Black Hills that I am a flatlander. My oldest son and his family moved to Rapid City, SD a month ago, so we headed out to see them. The drive out was pleasant and uneventful. We made the perfunctory stop at Wall Drug for nickel coffee and deerskin gloves. It’s off-season west river, so traffic at Wall and across the state on I-90 was sparse, just the way we like it. We cruised along with Patti Griffin, Los Lobos, the Pretenders, Loggins & Messina, Aretha, Leon Russell and Randy Newman. We ate car food. We took turns putting our feet up on the dusty dash. We were on Spring Break. Ah…

We arrived at dusk. The Black Hills aren’t really hills; they’re mountains. They’re smallish mountains, foothills of the Rockies really, but compared to 0 feet above sea level at home, Lead/Deadwood’s 4500-5200 feet is certifiably mountainous, dangit. So as we drove through Rapid and started climbing that night it hit us—the unsettling transition that happens when flatlanders meet elevation. The curves and ascents/descents sent us into Acclimation Mode—a period usually lasting a day or two and marked by slight nausea, faint dizziness, shaky legs, and a sudden propensity for swearing. And if it’s winter, and if Jack Blizzard has been particularly puckish that winter, multiply the severity of symptoms by a bazillion.

The undulations of Rapid City itself are okay, because “civilization” can dim one’s awareness of elevation, but my son lives west and north, up and over, up and over, 10 miles from the city limits in a little hilly hamlet. And it isn’t the elevation itself, or even the constant swaying motion of side-to-side driving that does it; it’s the fact that we can’t see what’s ahead. Back home on the plains, we can See.For.Ever. We KNOW what’s coming. If a crazy driver suddenly veers into our lane, say, we can simply choose to ease off the road and let the foolish probably-texting-teen driver whoosh by. And if we slip off the road on ice or snow, we’ll glide gently, almost in slow motion, to rest in a snow-filled shallow ditch, where we can sit in our car, hold hands, and admire the expansive horizon until a kindly neighbor comes along to pull us out.

West river, every fifty feet of driving is a spine-tingling unknown. The “Falling Rock” and “Watch for Bighorn Sheep” signs don’t help, because now we have to navigate turns, avoid the plummet-to-your-death guardrails, pop our ears, pry our hands off the overhead hand-holds, dodge plummeting boulders, and veer around rutting rams (and possibly peacock-pilfering mountain lions)—all in the same split second: rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. If we slip off the road in the snow or ice in the Hills, they will need the Jaws of Life to pull our mangled, unidentifiable bodies from our compacted car, and that’s only if they can see down far enough to find us, and only if we haven’t landed in a lake or creek. You know those “Why die?” cross signs along the Interstate? They line Black Hills roads like a picket fence.

Okay, slight exaggerations because I’m a total wuss. So Ray and I perfected our Annoying Old People Driving skills on this trip. By white-knuckle driving at a staggering 25 mph, and by calling out sweetly “slow the *&%# down!” whenever Ray was driving, we survived the daily drives to my son’s house, the obligatory Chubby Chipmunk chocolatier run (she now has a truffle vending machine out front—brilliant!) and a quick trip to the slot machines (won then lost $4) in Deadwood, dinner with friends in Spearfish, and the breathtaking drive through Spearfish Canyon, where we continued our family tradition by “baptizing” our new grandson Clyde in Spearfish Creek water.

The real flatland kicker, and a delicious irony, was that as we left the Hills behind and headed home, we found ourselves driving in near-blizzard conditions on I-90. This put the kibosh on our planned drive through the Badlands, and kept us swearing, sweating, and swerving for 7 or 8 hours. We counted a couple dozen cars, trucks, SUVs and semis in the ditches, flipped over, jackknifed, or hitched up to tow trucks between Rapid and Sioux Falls, and there were times when we weren’t sure we were still on the road. Still, I knew that if I could avoid other cars and they would avoid me, sliding would mean a fairly soft landing, and I would SEE it coming. From Sioux Falls to home, the dreary rain, the grey melting snow, and the withered brown corn stubble as far as the eye could see was the most beautiful vista I could imagine.

Don’t get me wrong—I love love love the Black Hills dressed in any color except white. I’ve been all over the country, and still, I once thought my dream life would be teaching English at Black Hills State in Spearfish and maybe living in a cabin on a creek up in the Hills. But I think I’m finally ready to admit that I’m a flatlander. I want that endless horizon. I want to squint and believe I’m looking at Wyoming. Like the song says, don’t fence me in…not even with the breathtaking beauty of the Black Hills.