The Masts…Oh, the Masts

sails at Plattsburgh

Here I am once again. I’m sitting with friends at the Naked Turtle for dinner.  It’s located on the shore of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh.  I listen to the conversation but I’m drawn to the eastern view, toward Vermont.  The marina is filled with boats of all sorts…but it’s the sailboats that attract me.

Where are they going for the winter? North to the St. Lawrence River and out to the open ocean?  Will they head south to Lake George?

I wonder…

If they go north, they can use a series of canals to reach the Atlantic.  From there, they can make for the Intercoastal Canal and eventually end up in the Caribbean…on some island…in some port.  Sipping latte or perhaps a margarita. And they can use the wind, however it blows.

Are these journeys behind me (in my dreams?) or in my future?

I look at the boats.  I count the cabins.  I’d like four berths and a decent head.  I don’t favor anything more that I and my wife can handle.

But, a guy can dream, even at my age, a guy can dream

Some of us will sail away and some of us will wait until the right boat comes in,

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Roadside Attractions From The Rearview Mirror

compassRose

I feel like I’ve driven half-way around the earth’s diameter.  Actually, according to the odometer on the red Ford Escape, we did indeed travel that far.

Our total distance driven, including side trips for sight-seeing, came to an astounding 13,589 miles!  If you’re into engine care and maintenance, that’s would be three oil changes (and filter, of course).  And, as we pulled into our driveway, we were overdue for a fourth change.

I walked into the kitchen and saw the calendar next to our Samsung refrigerator.  Take a look:

2015Calendar

That was our departure date, October 15.  I see it was a Thursday.  I took the calendar down (I was thinking there was something superstitious about leaving old calendars on the wall.  I only see them in Auto Repair Shops and they have Betty Page photos and the dates are around 1956 and the guys that work in some of these places often have seen times of hard luck).  It took me a day to locate the 2016 calendar I bought (20% off) at a Barnes & Noble store in Texas.  The theme is Circus “Freaks”.  Changing calendar themes from Vintage England Travel Posters to The Circus Sideshow must say something about my change in tastes.  The sideshows are vanishing from America…but there will always be an England.

Unusual things and marginalized people have always fascinated me.

Don’t ask.

So, here’s the new calendar:

AprilCalendar2016

In case you can’t read the dates very well, we got home on April 1.  I was so exhausted and sore from driving that I didn’t find anyone or anything to play a prank on.

But, the Tattooed Girl will brighten that corner of the kitchen until May 1!  This brings up an interesting thought…this sideshow girl was once considered an oddity…she made her living exhibiting herself in a circus.  At least half the baristas in the Starbucks I visited had tats far more artistic, exotic and erotic than our Miss April, 2016.

Culture changes…but, as I said, there will always be an England.

So, let me run the numbers.  Using the above dates, we spent 169 days out there…somewhere out there, driving, camping, hiking or just sitting on a beach.  This come out to 40.6% of a year.  Nearly 41% of a year of my life has just been spent looking at things.

We emptied the r-pod (we’re going to sell it, but it needs a few repairs first) and I piled our guides and maps and memorabilia on the floor.  Of course, I arranged everything to look haphazard and casual, but every pamphlet and sticker and book and CD is carefully placed to give you an idea what we accomplished.  I probably should mention that I couldn’t find most of the guide books and National Park maps and tee-shirts that we purchased along the way.  They’ll show up sometime in late July.

GuidesOnfloorFromTrip

I even re-highlighted my route on our Rand McNally.  Here it is:

Atlas

I’m aware that it’s hard to see clearly, but you only need to see the orange line and the green/blue line.  The orange line was our route to Palm Desert, California.  This is where we made a turn on a highway that was surrounded by wind-mills, and began to set our course eastward.  That’s the green/blue line.

Far be it for me to brag, but I do think we took in a pretty good chunk of the lower part of the Lower 48.

If you’ve been following the many blogs I sweated and struggled to produce for your entertainment, you will know that I did accomplish quite a bit more than just fill up the memory chip in my digital camera.

I became certified in sailing (any keel boat up to 30′).  I posed with Miss Sonoran Desert Queen (and she put her arm around me willingly and eagerly…as she thought of her long deceased grandfather).  I saw my first rodeo, an American child’s dream (if you were raised in the 1950’s).  I saw the graves of dead outlaws and B & B’s that were former brothels.

I drank Tequila in a bar in Juarez, Mexico…the same bar where Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Steve McQueen drank.  I tried to feel their spiritual entities, but looking for the nooks where they sat and kissed and drank, only led me to the men’s room.  We crossed the International Bridge from El Paso.  I looked down at the line of defense our government has built to deter (read ‘keep out’) illegals.  The trenches, fences, walls and razor wire reminded me of the Berlin Wall or the Maginot Line.  I was struck by the seven inches you unknowingly step across that separates two cultures that are so close yet so far apart.  I also did this on a day when I was in constant FB messaging with my son Brian.  I pleaded with him to dig into his iTunes for Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”, so he could, somehow in the cyber-world, be connected with me as I walked across the border bridge…and he would, at that same moment be listening to:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too.  And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through, don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue, they got some hungry women there, and they really make a mess outta you.”

We crossed the bridge.  Brian said he listened.  But it wasn’t raining and there’s no Rue Morgue Avenue in Juarez.  I did find a Mexican busker who sang Cielito Lindo for us, but no hungry women.  But, I’m not such a dreamer to believe that there are really no hungry women in Juarez…or hungry children…or hungry old men who sit and smoke and drink and think.

Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story.  For me, I have to immerse myself in a landscape, get my hands dirty, my mouth full of dust, get pricked by a cactus or bitten by a scorpion to fully understand where it is that I am standing. If I’m in Mississippi, I listen to Delta blues, if I’m in Texas, Bob Wills goes into the CD player.

Anytime on this trip, “Happy Trails” would be a welcome tune.

I drank a Lone Star beer at the Broken Spoke in Austin when Mariam, my friend William McHone and myself took lessons in the Texas 2-Step.  I even bought a pair of cheap cowboy boots for that night.  I didn’t do very well.  I have no sense of rhythm…only the desire to move around the dance floor to the sound of Texas Swing…and hold my honey in my arms.  I still have the boots, but I still can’t dance the Texas 2-Step.

I saw things that made me cry.

I saw acres of cattle, with no place to graze, penned and waiting to be herded to the killing rooms.  The miles I drove past these death-camps smelled of cow shit.  I wondered if it was their diet…or their fear.

I saw shanty-towns of the most squalid poverty and hopelessness.  I saw Native Americans reduced to playing “Indians” for the tourists…like me.

When we entered a National Park, I flashed my Golden Pass, which allowed us, as seniors, free entry.  I pondered the situation of an average family with four kids paying close to $100 to see the extraordinary landscapes that really belong to all of us.

I laid a flower at the grave of a prostitute in Dodge City, Kansas…a luckless young woman (somehow, I prefer the term “Soiled Dove”) who died from an infection caused by bar-room brawl over a cowboy, or was it Bat Masterson, or a banker, or a lover.

I placed another flower at the grave of an old friend of mine who died forty-some years ago.  He died and I lived.  We were hiking the same trail in the High Peaks.  I lived to return to his grave and place that Adirondack wildflower I had picked months earlier.  Now it was dried and withered from months on the road.  A flower from the mountains that were his last views of his life on this earth.

I saw an elderly man after he tripped on the curb outside a 7-Eleven.  He was bleeding.  The EMT’s were all over the situation.  But…was I seeing myself in fifteen years?

I saw a woman crying while she sat an outside table at one of the thousand Starbucks we visited.  She was alone in whatever sorrow had overcome her.  It took me days to get the image of her heartbreak out of my head.

I saw another woman crying in a bar.  She was with a male friend.  What happened?  Was she leaving him?  He leaving her?  I couldn’t tell, but the scene made me turn away.  I sat in her seat more than once in my life.

I cried one afternoon in the countryside outside of Dallas.  It didn’t have to do with the trip, directly.  I was driving to visit a large cemetery about fifteen miles southwest of the city.  I was listening to NPR and I sat up straight in the seat of the red Ford when the radio host announced that David Bowie had died.  I mulled this over for a few miles.  I realized I didn’t have any Bowie music on any of my playlists.  Then it happened.  They began a segment of “All Things Considered” with the opening riffs…the soaring chords of  “Let’s Dance”.

I didn’t dance.  I pulled over onto the shoulder and wept.  I wept for the lost talent, the lost beauty, the lost art…and another lost member of my generation’s music.

But, I saw sights of jaw-dropping beauty.  Rainbows that lasted over an hour.  Rock colors I never knew existed.  Canyons and valleys and washes and rivers, many that are famous and many that are unnamed.  Actually, I think nearly everything in the world has a name, I just didn’t have the right map.

When you travel, always have the right map.  It doesn’t have to be of any place you’re planning on visiting, but it’s good to have the map anyway.

There are maps of the wild and empty deserts of Arizona and California.  And, there are maps that exist only inside one’s mind.  These are usually the most interesting ones to use as guides.  Landscapes, towns, roads, Interstates, trails and horse paths can change with a sudden rainstorm.

But, the map that has your heart and soul and restless spirit as the compass rose…those are the maps to carry.

You can’t buy them on Amazon.  You were born with them deep in your chromosomes.

FinalPicAtEndOfTrip

To Let: Site # 143/ A Farewell To The Sunshine State

Site#143

[As I write this post, Site #143 is occupied]

On December 30, 2015, around noon, the radio in our red Ford Escape will begin to emit static.  It will crackle and hiss as my favorite country music station fades in strength.  Fort Myers will be receding, falling away into the south…into the muggy soupy haze.  The traffic on I-75 will be roaring past us.  The final songs are playing.  I hear the lines:

“Lookin’ in every trailer park for her red pick-up truck…”

and,

“If you’re gonna cheat on me, don’t cheat in our hometown…”

then,

“There’s a tiger inside of those tight fittin’ jeans…”

I think I hear,

“Tell it like it used to be, when you were still in love with me, before you got so used to me, and wanted someone new…”

Wait, a signal burst from the station,

“Billy gave up his wife and children…just to satisfy your 14 carat mind.”

and, just as the faint sounds of the best country music station in Florida fades into the ionosphere,

“You never called me ‘darlin’, darlin’…you never even called me by my name.”

“Before you got so used to me…”  It’s not that we are “used” to Florida, its just that the calendar will turn over in a few dozen hours to 2016 and we have places to see.  Former sharecroppers shacks in the southern cotton and soy bean fields and places in the western deserts.  We’re trading the Royal Palm trees for the Saguaro.  If you open your Rand McNally and look at the U.S. map, we will be riding along the belly of this great and varied country.  Landscapes will change…but the heart of this traveler will be setting a course toward the sunsets.

Our days and nights in Florida are at an end.  A night in Fort McCoy, another in Tallahassee and then we begin making our way through the heart of the deep south.  Mobile, Natchez and Vicksburg.  There are campsites waiting for us.  I have important personal business in Monroe, Louisiana…I hope it’s not hot and glaring in the sun when I sit beside that headstone in the cemetery in Monroe.  Then Shreveport and onto Dallas.  Mariam will fly back to New York City for several days of business-related meetings.  I’ll stay back…back in Texas where I will plug away on my novel.  I’ll sleep alone in the Lone Star state.  How much trouble can I get into while scribbling away in Arlington.

What are we leaving behind us?  So many things, mostly pleasant and a few not so.  The heat and humidity, unusual this year, will not be missed by me.  (But, I do enjoy going outside without wearing fleece.)

BigCypressNWR

[Big Cypress Wildlife Refuge]

We’re leaving our friends in Jupiter, Brad and Linda, who were so gracious a few weekends ago on the Atlantic coast.

We’re leaving my high school classmate, Katy (and her husband) who prepared a wonderful lunch for us in Zephyrhills.  Katy is my proof-reader.  We’re leaving my teaching colleague, Dianna (and her husband) who showed us the sunny side of St. Petersburg.  Dianna is a transplanted Connecticut yankee.  Good luck in the Florida heat, Dianna.  Teach those children well.

We’re leaving the sublime beauty and stark nature of the Big Cypress and Everglades Parks.

SawGrass

[Sawgrass]

The malls, the walls, the sand and the alligators.  The seashells of Sanibel.  The sunsets over the Gulf.  My learning to sail with Russell and sailing teacher, Randen.

MeSailingDay2

I will miss the Bike Bistro, where I bought a mug and had Mariam’s broken spokes repaired. (The free ball-point pens were orange-colored).  Farewell to Paulette and Emily who provided me with the best iced coffee on the hottest of days. They were more than baristas, they became my friends.

MeJava2

Java2

[Paulette (left) is a gifted artist & Emily (right) has a dog-siting business. They are the top two baristas in Fort Myers]

Gone will be the pink flamingo yard ornaments, adult tricycles, golf carts and circling Turkey Vultures.

Flamingos

Out of my life, like a cool breeze on a hot day, will pass the best public libraries this side of 42nd Street.

I will no longer drive along San Carlos Boulevard and tip my cap at the strippers who are all standing in front of Fantasy’s, waving to the passers-by.

New adventures are awaiting us on the roads to the West.

If you’ve read between the lines of my posts, you may have noticed that this writer is a restless soul.  I feel unspeakably lonely sometimes, even when Mariam and friends are near.  It’s my dark side.  My nightly companion is a melancholy that can’t be described easily.  Have you ever dreaded something and welcomed that thing in equal portions?  Love and hate.  Approach and avoidance.  The beautiful and the obscene.  The sacred and the profane.

Clearly, almost certainly, it’s the air sign of mine.  Gemini.  The twins.  Perhaps that explains my dual nature.

But, I think I can be fixed, like an old Chevy with faded paint that’s not running on all cylinders.  Yes, I think I’ve found the place that could be my Fountain of Youth.  I stumbled on this ghost town while googling the Mohave Desert.  I’ve never been there, but I know it exists.  It will be an unusual place and it bears the oddest of names.  It’s in the California desert.  It’s alongside the dunes and sage and cacti of the Southwest.  I’m not going to tell you (yet) where this place is located.  You will need to stay in touch.

Keep reading my posts.  I have so much more to share.

Good-bye Site #143.  It’s been a great two months.  Perhaps we can do this again sometime.  I’ll buy the wine and pay for the room if you sing that song I love…

Moon&Palm

Christmas, 2015

blizzard

On a Christmas Day, we were mushing our way over the Dawson Trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold, it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

     –Robert Service “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

Wait! Wait a minute!  I lost my place in the book.  Oh, here we are:

On a Christmas Day, we were sitting on a beach on sunny Sanibel Island…

MeBeach

The Lights On The Palm Trees

XmasPalm

A few minutes ago, I was driving along Summerlin Road to get to the Java Coffee Cafe before they closed.  I don’t normally drink an iced coffee at 6:10 pm on a Sunday night, or any night for that matter.  I really came here to use the stronger WiFi signal that the Outlet Mall provides for free.  You see, at our RV Resort (Siesta Bay), we have no signal at our site (#143).  The “strong signals” are either in the library or the breezeway, which is located near the showers and the pool, which is next to the Shuffleboard courts which are between the mail boxes and the tennis courts.

The library can get kind of lonely.  Only a few residents here are avid readers.  And, sitting in the breezeway will only get your ankles bit by tiny things that leave marks on human flesh.  And the signal isn’t that strong anyway.  So, here I am at the Outlet Mall.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a mooch.  I shop here.  Just yesterday, I purchased a light cotton pull-over at Tommy Hilfiger (the first time I’ve ever been in a Tommy store, I think) and the other day I bought a shirt at G.H.Bass & Co.  So, I’ve paid my dues.

But I digress.

I was driving along Summerlin listening to my favorite country radio station.  The song that was just finishing had the line:

“Somewhere tonight, he’s a live wire”

It was followed by:

“I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?”

Just as I pulled into my parking spot, my current favorite song came on:

“I’m messed up in Mexico, living on refried dreams.”

Some songs will always be classics in the songbook of my life.

My point here is that between the country songs, and the mall background music, I have never heard more Christmas tunes in my life.  (I had to endure that dreaded Chipmunks song twice today.)

And that is a good thing.  I’m out of my element (the cold North Country) for the first time in recent memory.  For a New York Stater, this is alien territory.  I’ve written before about the juxtaposition of palms trees and sand with lights and Santa lawn ornaments.

But, here’s are my final thoughts on spending Christmas in the Sunshine State:  It’s rather nice.  I’m sitting outside the Java Cafe right now in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you hang your tinsel, as long as there is love in your heart and you do something, anything, to let your cup of joy spill over, like a leaky dam, into the lives of those around you.

There are lonely, hungry and lost people all around you.  The users, the drifters, the two-time losers…they all need a little snowflake, real or plastic, in their lives.

Our time here in Southern Florida is running out.  We will drive away from Site #143 on the morning of December 30, for parts west.

Into the setting sun.

Away from the waves of the Gulf of Mexico.  Away from the alligators, the insects, the spectacular sunsets, the country songs, the Everglades.

I plan on posting a final farewell to Florida blog after Christmas.

Meantime, you don’t need me to remind you that it’s time to raise your glass to the Spirit of Christmas.  Have a Happy Holiday and…

Believe.

A Day For A Splash Of Rum

Sailing

The Ancient Mariner is home from his lonely voyage.  He’s waiting beside the tavern door to tell his tale.  The Old Man is back from the Sea…did he win the fight with the great fish?

The story of my journey to being a sailor is over…for now.  I have completed the final task which was to set sail into the Gulf of Mexico, without the instructor on board.  It was just Russell, the other student, and me.  It was up to us to go out and return without incident.  Experienced sailors will shrug at this, and I can not speak for Russell, but it was a large step for this novice, this beginner, this “mariner-to-be”.

The forecast called for rain and moderate winds.  As I was preparing the boat, an official looking man on the dock said:

“Keep your eye to the west.  There’s a front approaching and a strong possibility of lightning.”

We had been trained for “man overboard” drills, but nothing was ever said about lightning.  I looked around and saw only the small cabin as any protection from preventing me from acting as a lightening rod.

One strike from the gray clouds overhead would have put an end to my story rather quickly.

We motored out into the channel and followed the markers to the open water.  I kept my eyes on the darkening skies to the west.  Mariam was video-taping the departure.  As she fell from view when we turned, I regretted not telling her to drive out to the tip of the island and walk to the beach…walk to the beach and watch Russell and I raise the main sail, the jib and sail away.  No, she wouldn’t see me kill the motor and raise the sail into the wind for the first time, and let the wind take me.  There will be no photograph of that moment.  No video to show to a bored friend.  No tangible evidence that moment happened.  It will exist only in my own mind.  Russell will have his recollections, but only I will have that chance to see and feel that moment, again and again in my memory.  The instant I cut myself free from the land and became part of another world.

This was the moment I’ve been waiting for…sometimes with some anxiety, sometimes with excitement.

We headed up wind on a close haul.  We tacked.  We jibed.  We came about and relaxed…we talked.  I watched the sky grow darker to the west.  The blue sea turned to lime-green.  The wind eased.

The front moved slowly toward us.  It got darker…more ominous.

“I think we should think about heading back,” I suggested, still thinking about lightning.  “How do you feel about it?”

“I’m not one to enjoy sailing in a downpour,” said Russell.

We brought down the main sail and furled in the jib.

We motored back in a heavy rain.  I was soaked by the time we reached the mooring.  Mariam was there, safe and dry under her umbrella.

It was over.  We had completed our trip…a little shy of two hours.  Another instructor from Off Shore Sailing was on hand to help us put the boat back together with everything tied and secure.  She didn’t want to be out there in the rain.

“This is a day to be home and sipping a mug of tea…with a splash of rum in it,” she said.

Yes, this was a day for a dash of rum.

So Near Yet So Far Away/The Three Hour Tour

Posing on the boat Day4

You’ve been waiting.  Waiting by your warm hearths sipping an extra strong egg nog.  You’ve posted your last holiday cards and only two remaining items are on your “to do” list.  You have to figure out who is going to get the re-gift this year.  But, what you’re really waiting for is the next chapter in the Tale of the Old Man and the Sea, the Ancient Mariner saga that has your friends and relatives making late-night phone calls and flooding your email accounts.

What happened to him?  Did he finish the sailing course in Fort Myers?  Or, did he give in to his insecurities and bail out in favor of scoring early tickets to Star Wars?

He’s resting now, but I just spoke with him and he gave me permission to announce the news we have all been awaiting.  His stomach was fluttery last night as he went through his stack of 3 x 5 index cards in a desperate attempt to make sense of the alien language of the sea.  Jibe.  Jib.  Cleat.  Luff and Tack (which has three different meanings).

He was sore in places he hasn’t felt soreness since 1964.  Should he take a Valium to help him sleep?  (He did).

The fourth day was to be a brief two-hour sail and then the written test!

He has been a teacher for over thirty years.  Now, he was expected to be the student.  He had to study.  He had to pass a test.  He had to make the monetary investment pay off.  What would his future be like if he walked away…a failure?  He’d spent too many years thinking of himself as a failure.  Was this going to end up with the girl leaving him in the parking lot of life beside a cheap after-hours bar?  Was he going to lose another election and chance to be the King of the Dance Classes (like he did in 1963)?

Was another manuscript going to come back from Random House with a sweet note of rejection?

He desperately needed to remember that port is left when you’re on a boat.

So, here’s your Holiday present, my friends! [I’ve switched to the First Person just now.  It’s me talking.]

I passed the test!  The one question I missed was the one that I debated over and went with my second choice.  Now, I have a nice certificate and a classy logbook.  When I get back home in April, there will be a stamp from the U. S. Sailboating Association (or whatever the name is, I don’t have the paper in front of me).  I will place this stamp in my logbook.

I will be officially certified as a person able to take out a sailboat up to thirty feet in length.

The logbook?  What will the future entries contain?  A trip out of a port in the British Virgin Islands?  A voyage into the Gulf of Mexico out of Key West?

There is a story that is yet to be written in this little book.  This story will be a record of where I go from here.  Will I file the book away and think no more about the salty air and the beam reach and the tacking?

I don’t think so.  I was thinking about the dynamics of sailing on Day 2 of my classes, around the time I wrote The Old Man and the Sea blog.  I can’t tell you the history of how the Phoenicians first used the sea beyond the sight of land, I can’t tell you of the ancient Greek fishermen.  I can’t speak to the spectacular technical achievement of Columbus, Magellan, and Cook.

But, I can tell you that it is truly humbling to hear such stories.  To be in a boat, upon the limitless sea, beyond landmarks, beyond the sight of your home port…out where the curvature of the earth can be seen.  To do this and use the stars to find your way back to the arms of your family, is a very intense and awesome concept to comprehend.

To sail into the wind is a contradiction in terms.  But, you can do it.  It’s always puzzled me how this can happen.  Now I know.

It’s a profound idea and now it is something I can do.

Like my passport, I intend to have entries in my logbook that say something about me.

That I tried to see as much of the world as I could.  It’s really a wonderful and a small world that we have been given.

And, it’s a Wonderful Life.

Sweet holiday wishes to all my friends and family….

LogbookCertificate