Road Trip to Naples and Cocoa

2013 March 20 Leaf in Stream

There are days when I ‘m that leaf, swept along in the swirls and eddies of a spring-fed stream. Some weeks, the leaf is my boat. I peer over the edge, use binoculars to focus on each new shore; discover new worlds; rediscover familiar ones. All sense of time is lost. It’s time to anchor awhile and reflect.

I have learned why many writers grow beards if they can,  leave their hair long and wild or short and haphazardly chopped; why they’re often thin and pale, and talk out loud to themselves while brushing their teeth or mutter beyond the bathroom door. And something else is at play. Did you ever see one of those millennium countdown clocks  that were popular the year before the 20th changed to the 21st? We were living part-time in Rice Cove in Canton, North Carolina then. One of those damnably mesmerizing clocks was in our tiny local post office there. Buck acts like a man with an atomic clock imprinted on the insides of his eyelids. And not just with his manuscript. There are friends to see, karma to serve.

And so, we set sail in the old black town car, a cruising bath tub, from one end of Florida to nearly the other. I have brothers and a sister in the middle of the state I would like to see — need to see — but this was not that trip.

First stop was Gainesville, one night flying low. We brought a hotel picnic for our friends: big ole’ shrimp from Joe Patti’s Seafood. We poached and peeled them Saturday night before leaving Sunday morning, the 10th. Buck made a  fiery dipping sauce, me a fresh Cole slaw with pineapple slivers for a surprise of sweet, and they went into the cooler with store-bought potato salad and goat cheese. A canvas bag was stuffed with crackers, Brazil nuts, almonds, oregano to sprinkle on the goat cheese, and our staples of peanut butter, dried fruit and trail mix bars. The venue was strangely perfect for distraction-free talk, which was just the medicine. It was a standard Residence Inn style room, so there was a sofa, coffee table and pull-up chairs.

Next stop was a mini-retreat for two in a motel at the base of the Charlotte Harbor bridge in Punta Gorda. The weather was coolish, windy and gray. Perfect. Buck picked up a book I brought in my other canvas bag, the one stuffed with food for the mind, and I haven’t gotten it back since. It was Sol Stein’s classic, Stein on Writing.

Wednesday, we drove another seventy miles south, to Naples, to see one of two remaining high school chums of Buck’s, and his wife (surely one of nature’s life force spark plugs). Each morning, I left their villa early to walk Old Naples, remarkable manicured real estate, down Park Shore Boulevard across the bridge separating Venetian Bay from Inner Doctor’s Bay, then right on Gulf Shore Boulevard, past Park Shore Marina, all the way to the end, where a walking path links to the Gulf or back  across the bayou and to Crayton Road, which is the one I chose. Breakfast and a hot ping-pong match with friends awaited. Yes. Ping-pong. First time in more than forty years. Astonishing  fun. Lots of laughing, jumping, stooping, and heavy breathing. Puts you in the moment and keeps you there.






Laconic joggers crossed the bridge, and couples walked their (mostly tiny, mostly white) leashed dogs along the wide sidewalks, poo bags discretely at the ready. Almost every person I encountered looked me in the eye, smiled and said “Good Morning.” I met a couple with their sweet-faced rescue dog, Bliss. They are best-selling authors and psychologists, Dr. Basha and Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan. We walked and talked together and parted with exchanges of email addresses and hugs. Delightful people. I hope to see them again.


Someone said of this core of downtown Naples: “Nobody works.” Not true, of course, since it takes a subtle army of gardeners, mechanics, restaurateurs and other service workers to keep up this Garden of Eden, like some exotic aquarium, for all the folks here who are Somebody or were Somebody in real life.  The grass here is always green. And if it isn’t, it is swiftly removed and replaced with fresh sod, new palms and flowers — whatever it takes to sustain the aura of wealth and serenity.

I know. I talk like a peasant.  And why not? I am one, and proud to be. It’s beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed these walks and the interesting, nice people I met along the way. It is pretty, but insular, with its own form of genteel regimentation.  I might chafe at the hidden fence. Might.


There was no fence, hidden or otherwise, separating these birds from their morning fishing. Buck made the same walking circuit with me later that day and the next. We saw these beauties on the Seagate side of Venetian Bayou.


The walks and scenery were stimulating. I had a case of cabin fever in the pine woods and didn’t even know it. It was a gift to be blasted out of my comfortable study. Best of all was the company of our good friends and their mellow Weimaraner, Maggie Moo. I needed a good dog fix in the worst way, and I got a joyful one. Nothing like an under-the-chin puppy kiss.


Roy and Bette spoiled us with delicious food, (including lobster tails they caught while diving in Key West, tossed with garlic, tomatoes, basil, Brie, and pasta — whoa), and most of all inspired us with their good natures, love for each other, and zest for life.

We planned to return straight home from Naples Saturday morning, a long but do-able drive. An email changed our trajectory, and we ricocheted from Naples, hugged Lake Okeechobee’s shoreline for a ways, then shot up the east coast on I-95 to rendezvous with friends aboard their Nordic Tug, True North, at Cocoa Village Marina.

Conrad's True North

That’s Tom Conrad, captain of True North. He and Patsy are friends from Pensacola who have not permitted a challenging illness to keep them from their dream of living on their trawler. They are veteran cruisers of The Great Loop. Even now, Tom makes a 5:00 a.m. weather report much relied upon by other boaters.


We joined Tom and Patsy for a visit on board, and then walked a few blocks to Cafe Margaux for dinner. Our server, Andy, was a wise-eyed raconteur, from Kentucky via many years in New Orleans until he was up-ended by Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we returned to the boat for pie and more talk.


We returned to True North Sunday morning to find the galley smelling like a high-end bistro at brunch time. Patsy had “whipped up” a homemade mushroom and Gruyere quiche and a fresh fruit salad for us. My first coffee of the day was there, on the water with sunlight streaming through the windows, in the presence of my lovin’  man and our good friends.

Scene from Cocoa Village Marina, Cocoa, Florida, March 17, 2013

It was nearly one o’clock when we left Tom and Patsy for home Sunday afternoon. We made it as far as Tallahassee, when fatigue, blowing rain, and darkness caused us to stop overnight. The bridge over Escambia Bay leading us home Monday morning was a bright ribbon over lovely, familiar waters. Neither of us would trade anything for the touchstone of being with Roy and Bette, Tom and Patsy, and Neal and Elaine, but home is home and we’re happy to be back in our own bed. Buck is in his cave, furiously editing. He says Sol Stein has caused him a lot of trouble. High praise. As for me, I needed some fresh Florida scenery and culture to confirm words written for my character Grace’s own road trip to south Florida.

I wasn’t online while we were gone, except to check weather, driving directions and occasionally, e-mail. It will be a pleasure to catch up with you all and see what you’ve been up to.

Sit Still Long Enough and Maybe Something Wondrous Will Find You

Let this be a lesson to me.

Buck and I went down the mountain yesterday for lunch at a delightful Maggie Valley spot called the Nutmeg Bakery Cafe. More on that in another post. An impressive thunder and rain storm rattled the windows shortly before we left. Bright sun turned the wet road to curling steam. I watched mountain laurel and rhododendron buds time-lapsing before my eyes into delicate, multi-chambered pink and white blooms.

When we returned to the cottage two hours later, tummies full and a bag of ragged ripe South Carolina peaches in tow, the power was out thanks to a tree that fell after the storm. No TV. No computer. We called the property manager to report, and then decamped to the porch. I’ve been troubled by the original ending I’ve had sketched in for the novel I’m (still) working on, so I decided to sit, rock, and pull back the camera lens of my mind to focus on the larger picture of what this woman is really all about.

Sometimes an “Aha!” moment is more of a “Yes!” It happened, sitting out there with Buck quiet, hip-deep in a lengthy, small print doom and gloom economic analysis. Just a girl and her legal pad.

A few minutes later, I kid you not, a shimmering rainbow appeared. Yeah, yeah, I know the atmospheric conditions decreed that a rainbow would appear when and where it did. I don’t care. I consider it my own personal Rainbow Moment and declare that it sent me a message that I’m finally on the right track with my story.

The power came on after a while, but apparently the television cable was dragged down along with the power lines when the tree fell, so there was still no internet or television. Funny about the TV thing. We don’t actually watch very much, although we’re stock market and news junkies, so the background drone of CNBC tends to be on, at least during the trading day. But TV is a presence, and when it won’t deliver pictures on command, things feel a little “off.” Silly, but there you go.

We made scrambled eggs and toast and headed for the porch again to enjoy a sunset supper. I sipped from a mug of Tazo Zen green tea. We had finished our feast, when Buck spoke to me very quietly: “Move slowly, but get your camera and turn to the right. Bear.”

Two tiny cubs were just out of camera range. Mother Bear approached the porch, leaned snout-first toward us for a long moment, then slowly turned and retreated back into the woods. Much as I wanted a picture of those cubs, I stayed put right there on the porch. Buck and I looked at each other and grinned. Did you know that WOW is an acronym for Wonder of Wonders?

p.s. There’s still no cable service, but I rigged up my cell phone to deliver a little internet so I could post this!

Tiger Swallowtail on Lily in Maggie Valley

Buck and I balanced bowls of  wild rice soup and a saucer of cheese toast on our laps while we enjoyed lunch on the cabin porch here in Maggie Valley. Just as Buck got to the punch line of a new plot twist he is working on, I saw this gorgeous swallowtail butterfly land on one of the lilies in a cluster not ten feet away from my foot.

I tip-toed indoors to fetch my camera. This beauty not only waited for me, but posed patiently.

Lush, generous nature on display at one’s fingertips is one of the many reasons we are drawn to Western North Carolina. I didn’t lurk for hours in an uncomfortable position with a fancy camera waiting and hoping for these photos. It was serendipity, pure and not-so-simple; something that seems to happen here with delightful frequency.

After lunch, Buck and I drove to nearby Waynesville and walked a section of the Greenway— another happy surprise — near the Waynesville Recreation Center.  More on that tomorrow.

Bryce Canyon: Fins, Windows and Hoodoos

I am doing laundry, cleaning the refrigerator, mopping the floor and packing for Maggie Valley. And I am thinking of the gift I received from “The Figure 8” trail we hiked May 2nd at Bryce Canyon National Park. I was afraid to try it. When we hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I dread the ascent, then sing or whistle all the way down. To descend from the rim at Sunrise Point to the floor, with multiple ascents and descents within the valley, and then — at the end of the day at max fatigue — to make a ferocious (for me) steep climb back out to the rim and end at Sunset Point, was daunting. Buck’s cheerful attitude and spirit of adventure carried the day. When we finished the loops and were looking down in amazement at where we had been, my body was tired, but my heart was emboldened and my spirit restored to venture out into wildness again.

When I start trying to winnow down the photos from Bryce Canyon to post only a representative few, I get totally stuck. I want to show them all. I am evangelical when it comes to Bryce. I want to take you by the shoulders and say “Go. You have to experience this place.”

The National Park Service website for Bryce Canyon is a great place to start planning a trip and learning about the evolution of what geologists call the Claron Formation.

Buck and I spent three nights at the outstanding  Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel.  It’s the latest incarnation of the late Ruby and Minnie Syrett ‘s lodging empire at Bryce Canyon that began in 1919 when they pitched a tent at the rim of the canyon to accommodate visitors. The next year, they built “Tourist Rest,” a lodge near Sunset Point. According to literature from Ruby’s Inn, visitors carved their names in the lodge’s heavy wooden doors, which became a wild west sort of guest register. Ruby and Minnie added several tent cabins and an open-air pavilion for dancing, and never looked back.  Sounds to me like sturdy, fun-loving folk gathered there. I suspect there was whiskey drinking along with the dancing. It’s a bizarre image, and must have been exhilarating,  like a fairyland at the edge of the universe.

Today, in the hub on the outskirts of the park, there’s a dinner theater, rodeo, kitschy shops, gas stations, restaurants, a general store, several inns and an RV park. We were there just before the season got into full swing, so even the park shuttle buses weren’t running yet.

Bryce Canyon rim elevations range between 8,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level, and I’m here to tell you that you will feel effects from that elevation when you’re hiking. Our first afternoon was spent reconnoitering, walking up to Sunset Point, and making plans for a major hike the next day. I’m a coward. I look for the Easy to Moderate Hikes in the Day-Hiking Trail Guide. Not Buck. He skips over those and the Moderate Hikes, and goes straight to the Strenuous Hikes (steep grades with MULTIPLE elevation changes).  The hike listed at the very bottom of that section was called “The Figure 8.” The description for it said, “Combine Queens Garden, Navajo Loop and Peekaboo Loop into one ultimate hike!.”  I could see Buck’s finger, like the Ouija Board of doom, hover and then stop on that one.

My finger stopped on the “Hiking Reminders” part of the description. It included such bullet points as:

♦  CAUTION – Rocks occasionally fall on most hiking trails. If you see or hear active rockfall, leave the area.

♦  Carry 1 liter of water per 2-3 hours of hiking.

♦  Park elevations reach over 9100 feet. Even mild exertion may leave you feeling light-headed and nauseated.

♦  Remember, you are responsible for your own safety.

 The next morning we strapped on our backpacks, laced up our boots, and headed out to do “The Figure 8.”  I started out wearing my warm Cabela’s fleece jacket. It felt good for about 10 minutes. As we descended into the valley floor, the temperatures rose. I lamented the extra weight and bulk of the jacket stuffed in my backpack.

In most places, the path is wide and safe. The connected loops wouldn’t be particularly strenuous were it not for the somewhat extreme, multiple elevation changes.  An excellent slide show and description of this loop by K. A. Bogan on an IPhone app called Every Trail is here.

Windows develop in rock formations. Through erosion, freezing, thawing, and freezing again multiple times, the formations gradually collapse to form hoodoos.

These hoodoos as still connected to one another. Time will pass, and they will stand alone in odd groupings and shapes.

A hoodoo stands alone.

The climb back to the rim was not a series of fairly gentle switch-backs like our entry path. My heart pounded. Here is where I felt the altitude most acutely. I look at this photo today and smile. We did it!

Tomorrow morning we’ll point the car toward Maggie Valley and the rainforest Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I’ll breathe hard and mutter under my breath all the way to ridge tops, then whistle and sing all the way down, and stay up late rocking on the porch under bright stars.

Next: Salt Lake City — our last road trip destination before heading home.

Zion to Bryce: A Beautiful 72 Mile Drive

It has been almost a month since we returned to Pensacola from our Western road trip adventure. My desert tan has faded a little. Even the Florida sun can’t compete, especially since I’ve spent some time hiding out in the cool, dark cave of our house recovering from a non-trip-related back strain. All healed up now. In fact, we’re packing to head up to Maggie Valley, North Carolina’s cooler air for some serious porch sitting, valley gazing, hiking and visiting with friends.

We drove the 72 miles from Zion National Park to Bryce National Park on May Day. It has a dreamlike quality already, even from the distance of so short a time.

We left Zion from the east, drove through the long Zion to Mount Carmel tunnel built by the Conservation Corps and completed in 1930.

These are images in my mind now. They have become part of my dreamscape. Each of these rock formations have names and an incredible geological history. None of that matters to me in any visceral way. It is, instead, the way their essence has become emblazoned on my brain pan, the way they have absorbed me to become part of themselves, just as I have absorbed them to become an indelible part of me.

The road curves. We hurtle and spin in the surrealistic landscape of geological wonders.

Imagine. This is not a virtual tunnel. It was hacked, blown up, carved and taken out by the spoonful. It is real. It sustains the reality of the physical world. I traverse this tunnel and grow stronger, more real, for having experienced its essence.

Is it butterscotch? The other one chocolate mint?

Red rocks, hints of hoodoos. Bryce is my imagination’s imagination. The way to creativity begins here.

Tomorrow:  Hiking the valley floor at Bryce Canyon.

A Perfect Day Hike for Almost Anyone at Zion National Park

The shuttle busses in Zion and Grand Canyon surprised me. There are shuttles in Bryce, too, but we were there a few days before they starting running for the season. I had never seen a park shuttle before, and had the idea that they would be big, noisy, and crowded, with complicated schedules. Boy, was I wrong! The shuttles are wonderful: clean and quiet, with schedules and stops so simple even a navigationally challenged person such as myself could easily figure them out. The Zion shuttles stop right at the lodge, with routes that take them from the little town of Springdale just outside the park all the way to the Riverside Walk Trail that begins at the Temple of Sinawava (a Paiute word roughly meaning Coyote God).

The Temple of Sinawava, despite its evocative name, is not a temple, but rather the entire northern end of Zion Canyon. It is a natural amphitheater nearly 3000 feet deep. Hanging gardens sprout from the vertical walls. The Riverside Walk  is a wide, well-maintained, accessible path along the North Fork of the Virgin River.  The Walk ends at the one-mile point, where seasoned and properly equipped hikers can continue through the canyon narrows, as the “path” takes to the river itself.

What more could a person ask of a day hike? The sheer cliffs of Sinawava, the lovely cottonwood trees dressed in spring green, a cerulean sky, sun on my face and the love of my life as traveling companion.  Heady stuff.

The Riverside Walk was alive with smiling people on the day we were there.  It was an international, intergenerational bunch, all basking in the gifts of sun-kissed breezes, limpid pools, color-striped and speckled rocks, panhandling squirrels, grazing mule deer and a shared celebration of our improbable, joyous existence.

Several guys worked on a portion of the trail while we all paraded by. A boisterous group of 5th-graders from a local school overtook us. Two girls fell into line behind me, then gradually edged up so we were walking side by side. “Like your backpack,” one said. “And your sunglasses,” said the other. “Yeah, they’re cool,” said the first one. We walked, talked, and giggled  all the way to the end of the trail. Anyone who likes to bitch and moan about today’s young ‘uns should have been with us on our road trip. These smart, friendly, engaged girls were the rule, not the exception. We met a lot of kids who didn’t act like anyone over sixty has the plague!

 Signs warn: “Do not feed wildlife!” I saw a seventy-something, elegantly clad Japanese woman look at a squirrel, peek around as if to see if any rangers were observing, then pull a peanut from her pocket. The squirrel had seen this show before, and sat motionless, eye on the nut. She moved very slowly, bent and stretched out her nut-filled hand to the squirrel, who delicately accepted the gift. A happy smile transformed the woman’s face into that of a girl. She put a hand on either side of her face, beaming.

If asked, I would always opt for the solitude of a seldom-traveled trail. But I wouldn’t trade this day and the crowded path for diamonds, pearls or a Mark Twain first edition. What a gift.

Las Vegas — the Skull Beneath the Skin

Las Vegas. Sin City. World’s largest theme park for adults. You can take the woman out of the woods, but apparently you can’t take the woods out of the woman. Doesn’t matter if you stick her in front of a Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, Nevada for a souvenir picture to prove she really was there, she doesn’t want to go in. She’s more interested in the street scenes, in the skull beneath the skin.

Buck and I almost didn’t make the side trip  to Las Vegas between our time at the Grand Canyon and our reservations at the Zion Lodge in Utah.  But we finally decided that it was a phenomenon to see, a man-made landscape rich with images, bits of conversation, and enough bizarre to fill up a writer’s specialty-box toolkit. Our ambivalence showed even in our choice of places to stay: not a casino hotel on the strip, but an older Residence Inn nearby set in an oasis-like low-walled garden lush with pale pink tea roses. We drove in late Friday afternoon from Hoover Dam, and made reservations at an Italian restaurant recommended by a front desk clerk. We wanted something close, reasonably quiet, maybe a little pasta and a glass of red. I looked up the place on the laptop. It was new. I called them. Nice young woman told me their food was great, to come on over. Said if I parked in the back and was nervous about going back to my car, someone would walk with me. My ears began to rotate and prickle at this. I could hear a lot of noise in the background. She explained that was the bar, where ESPN was doing an actuality — something about football. I gave Buck one of my “I don’t think so. . . . ” opinions, but he said, “What the hell, we’re in Las Vegas. We just want some dinner. How bad can it be?” I changed into white jeans and we drove the few blocks to this restaurant. An animated young guy wearing a football jersey rapped on our car window when we entered the crowded parking lot. “Should still be some spaces in the back!” he said. Buck looked at me. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. We went in. ESPN had wrapped up, the young, very sweet,  spike-heeled hostess shouted to us, but “Don’t worry, the live band will be cranking up soon. They’re really good!” Yep. Well, that did it. We drove around some more, knowing that a nice quiet Italian dinner existed somewhere in this restaurant-poor town, but it was late, we were tired and hungry, and nothing sounded more wonderful than going back to the Residence Inn, pouring ourselves a drink, and ordering in Chinese food.

And it was great. Buck went down to the lobby after our feast and bought a couple of pints of chocolate ice cream from the inn’s store.

The next day, we donned shorts, t-shirts and jogging shoes and set out to hike The Strip. We walked at least 8 miles on this warm sun-filled day, stopped for lunch at a restaurant in one of Steve Wynn’s casinos, and toward the end of the day wandered through the labyrinthine MGM Grand until we found the Monorail station, which we rode back to the Las Vegas Convention Center right across from our hotel. I had brought along a slinky black dress and high heels just in case we (a) stopped in Las Vegas and (b) went to a slinky-black-dress place for dinner. But I was the one who wound up suggesting to Buck that we put up our feet and order another delivery supper from the same restaurant we ordered from the night before.  We had seen the show, or skimmed the surface anyway, and were ready to get on to the splendid natural environment of Zion National Park in neighboring Utah.

I have a swirl of conflicting thoughts trying to write even a few descriptive paragraphs about our short visit. Some character sketches I’m saving for my “Judge Kate” mystery series (slow, but in process!).  Vegas is a target-rich environment for wanna-be writers, that’s for sure. Glitzy to garish, it’s all there.

The grass is absolute perfection at Wynn and Encore. Should be — it’s SYNgrass, good for a desert eco-system and helps promote the image that perfection is not only attainable, but sustainable.
Opulence reigns at Wynn.
Even over the tasteful music and soothing sounds of rushing water, I could hear the electronic beep of the slots. People walked by with Tiffany shopping bags. I felt as though I had fallen through a worm hole in the time-space continuum and landed in someone else’s Holodeck fantasy.It was beautiful, but strange.

Out on the street I saw giggling gaggles of tipsy girls. They were over 21, so maybe I should call them women, but let’s face it, these kids were still girls, college-age adorable colts wearing faux designer mini dresses, teetering along in stiletto heels. Looked like bunches of brides and their maids. Innocence itself, but from the high sober distance of age and experience, I saw sharks circling and hoped their larks ended safely back home in Peoria or Charleston.

That first evening, circling around blocks in our fruitless search for a quiet booth and even quieter Sinatra, we took a lushly landscaped wrong turn by one of the huge casino complexes bordering The Strip and found ourselves facing a security booth manned by a two-legged, highly trained Doberman, just waiting for the dog whistle for his professional smile to turn dangerous. He looked like armed muscle, and not altogether ready to believe that two lost-looking tourists in a black Lincoln Town Car with Florida plates had strayed onto his turf accidentally. He asked where we were trying to go, gave us rapid-fire instructions (twice) on how to use the tunnel under the hotel that would drop us off right in front of the Convention Center, then raised the electronic gate so we could u-turn and get the heck out of there. The tunnel under the hotel idea sounded pretty sketchy, but we barreled into it nonetheless, zigged when we should have zagged and wound up in the “Taxi Cabs and Limos Only” line, where we emerged at the front of the hotel and were subjected to some derision and verbal insult by the professionals. By this time, we really were ready to get back to our nice, comfy Residence Inn room! Which we did, followed by scotch and water for me and a fine Manhattan cocktail for Buck, then the aforementioned Chinese food and chocolate ice cream.

Buck’s NRA (National Rifle Association) cap and sinewy old guy swagger largely inoculated us from the outstretched hands of the smut leafleteers who litter the sidewalks. Unlicensed street performers had big-eyed, sad-looking confederates talking them up, trying to draw a few paying customers. The street performers had to be sweltering in their get-ups. I saw several Darth Vaders, one Chewbacca, a dwarf Elvis and several break-dancing guys in military costumes covered with theatrical paint designed to make them look like bronze statues come to life. I wondered if the stuff gradually suffocated or poisoned them.

There are casino-hotel-entertainment complexes designed to evoke city skylines, like New York New York.
Or “Paris.”

On almost every street corner I saw nondescript folks wearing some sort of uniform that made me think of a prohibition-era temperance society. They were soliciting money, they said, to help provide shelter for the homeless. Since coming back home, I have learned that some of the Las Vegas homeless have turned the city’s underground flood channels into dwelling places. Check out Matt O’Brien’s 2007 book, Beneath the Neon, and his 2010 collection of stories, My Week at the Blue Angel. I bought a Kindle edition of Beneath the Neon today.

Most of what I saw in this day-time stroll were gawkers and hawkers, but I did see plenty of hard-eyed watchers, staggering drunks and some folks passed out on the curb. The open container laws are permissive, so plenty of people walk along turning up a bottle of beer or drinking from a massive souvenir slushy drink. Those big drinks range from 32 to 100 ounces of fruit juice, sugar, crushed ice and Everclear grain alcohol. They cost anywhere from $12 to $30. That’s a lot of brain-dead, right there.

There was this guy we saw. He walked in that wide-legged stance assumed by a drunk man trying to use his legs as a two parts of a tripod. He clutched a huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass in one hand, paused by an open city-provided trash container, reached over into it, came out with another huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass, dropped the one he had finished into the trash, turned the scavenged drink remains up for a long pull, and emitted a roar that sounded like a water buffalo: part primal pleasure and part warning. “Mine! I found it. It’s mine!”

I’m still shocked, stunned by this and will never forget that sound, or the look of this man-beast as he lumbered and stagger-stepped past us, mad blue eyes wide and staring in the blinding desert sun.

We sat cross-legged on the bed in our Residence Inn room Saturday night, bags repacked, goggle-eyed from the fun-house mirror we had walked through all day. We talked about all that we had seen and done so far on our road trip odyssey and wondered what Utah would bring to the table. We were eager to get on the road to Zion.

The Grand Canyon — Just Being There

It’s the planning before a trip that almost kills it. I’m not a happy-go-lucky trip planner. It’s my nature to over-engineer, to want to tie down every little detail, to fret about all the uncontrollable and unknowable elements that constitute an adventure. What if? What if? What if?  Then I worry about things that might happen while we’re gone, everything from an early hurricane to a water leak that floods the house. Once all those concerns are tamped down, the existential ones begin. What are we running from? What are we running to? Do we really want to go anywhere?  Did I ever tell you I’m a really fun gal?

Sometimes a trip is just a trip. I’m sorry now that I was still wrapped too tight to go down into the Grand Canyon. After our experience at Bryce, I understand now that (a) I had the physical ability to do it and (b) our experience at Grand Canyon would have been even fuller, more dimensional, and we would have in some ineffable way, become part of the canyon.

This insight, however, is like life in general, where the “if onlyies” can only be seen backwards, and each step along the path, even those tentative ones where we edge up to the rim, have to happen before we can enjoy the lush valleys of life, before we build the emotional strength to descend into arid canyons, play among the rocky amphitheatres and struggle, victorious, to the sky.

I don’t mean to leave the impression that we just walked to the rim and peered over. Over our three nights there, we hiked both paved and unpaved portions of the rim trail, from Mather Point all the way to Pima Point, near Hermit’s Rest, where we caught a shuttle back. We rousted ourselves out of bed about 4:30 one morning to go out to Yavapai and Mather Points to watch a sunrise. We walked the Trail of Time.

The Grand Canyon Village, at the South Rim, is a crossroads of pilgrims from all over the world. Roughly five million visit every year. The average visit length is two hours.

Two hours. I thought that was a typo when I read it in some park literature. That was before I saw the tour buses lined up like runners at a marathon line, the bass notes of diesel engines ever-present. Tour directors blew whistles at their charges and barked instructions like drill sergeants. “Okay, people. Look at your watches. It’s 10 o’clock. One hour! Got it? The rim is that way! Be back eleven o’clock! Not back? Long walk to Los Angeles!”

Most of the visitors we saw were Japanese, Chinese, German and French. This was true not only for the Grand Canyon, but Zion and Bryce as well. We heard many languages, and saw beautiful children. We mingled with folks at the geology museum, rim restaurants, and on the more highly traveled paved portions of the rim trail.

Mostly, though, we found spots out on the unpaved portions of the rim trail, areas where most visitors had neither time, inclination or perhaps ability to wander, and we stood or sat, and just took it all in.

Next: Hoover Dam, then Las Vegas

Romancing the Road Trip

 On the road again, goin’ places that I’ve never been. Seein’ things that I may never see again. And I just can’t wait to get on the road again.  Willie Nelson, from On the Road Again

Sometimes you just want to get the hell out of Dodge, skedaddle, vamoose and let the Devil take the hindmost. Other times there’s something way across country that you have a burning desire to see and experience. Sometimes the muse is bored and needs stimulation. And sometimes the spaces all over the house the beloved old dog occupied get too damn empty to bear. When Buck and I hit the road a few weeks ago, it was a big, messy gumbo pot sloshing over the sides with all of these reasons and more.

I woke up this morning smelling fried chicken. Only memory, but a potent thread in the cotton quilt of childhood family road trips. Those trips were “back home” to see the folks on the farm. Daddy’s people were in Dixonville, Alabama, a spot between the small towns of Brewton, Alabama and Jay, Florida . Mother’s clan plowed and preached from Newton, Mississippi and its environs, from Meridian to Kosciusko, Hattiesburg, and all sorts of burgs in between, including Morton, Pelahatchie, Brandon, Pearl and Barefoot Springs.

Those childhood road trips were a pilgrimage from the city, either Miami or Tampa, back to the farm; a touchstone. The night before these long car rides, Mother fried great batches of chicken, deviled dozens of eggs, baked biscuits and cornbread, and brewed sweet “is there any other kind” tea. She packed her ever-present can of Lysol for her “you kids stay in the car” motel inspections. And we headed out.

For children, it’s all about the destination. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? But for those of us who have more summer days behind us than we have ahead, the in-the-moment, make-it-last-as-long-as-it-can journey is the prize.

Heading out is the celebratory opening salvo for any road trip. Whatever happens next cannot be predicted, and that is part of the shivery, little-kid excitement of the adventure.

That day came for us on a pretty morning in late April: too early to worry about a hurricane hitting while we were gone, and early enough to miss caravans of families traveling with kids on summer vacation. The car was filled with liquid black gold, rain-washed and ready to load. Despite vows that we would not, we loaded it with too much; everything but the African Violet in the kitchen, it seemed.

We turned off the water, checked the thermostat, made sure all doors were locked, and then stood silently in separate rooms of the house mentally going over the details, pondering what we might be leaving undone, pondering our ambitious agenda, pondering. One more self-appraising glance in the foyer mirror and I was out the door, into the unknown. Of course, it’s all unknown, but travel tends to focus the mind.

Digging Deep

Pictures are easy. Words are hard. I’ve posted quite a few photos from our trip on Facebook  for friends and family. That’s fun  — a piece of cake — like a shady stroll to our gate to fetch the morning paper. Words are more like the tough,  “Figure 8” hike we took from the rim to the floor of Bryce Canyon and back again. We began at Sunrise Point, continued on the Queens Garden Trail to the Peekaboo Loop, and finished with the Navajo Loop and ascent back to end at Sunset Point. By the time we got back to the car, we’d done about 10 miles. Not so far on flat land, but this day was larded with significant elevation changes. That last long steep grade almost whipped me. I had to stop numerous times to catch my breath and allow my hummingbird heart to slow before continuing. Anyone who knows me well enough to have been with me in tough spots will recognize what they’re looking at in this photo. It’s me, digging deep.