Joshua Tree Diary: Baby Steps and First Things

[On the way to Hidden Valley]

I’ve been coloring.  We’ve been coloring.  You know those adult coloring books that are so popular now?  Well, I’m not a bit ashamed to say that Mariam and I have been working separate pages in a book that I bought at a 7-Eleven for $5.99+ tax.

[Occupying time in the desert]

Neither of us have been feeling on top of our game.  I’ve already whined about my chest congestion (and Mariam’s allergies ), but today was a little bit warmer that any day since we arrived here on December 1.  It got to 59 F.  Then our landlord came by to drop off a vacuum cleaner and told us that many people in the Joshua Tree valley have allergies.  Nice thing to know.

My handkerchief looks like a WWI bandage stolen from a war museum somewhere in northern France.  My nose has been overactive.  I never realized until now how important my nose is for breathing.  I always took it for granted.  But breathing up here in the high desert is something that comes with difficulty, determination and prayer.  Still, we were determined to take our first hike in the National Park.  We choose Hidden Valley.  That’s a one mile loop trail through some spectacular scenery.  I’ve always wondered about names like Hidden Valley.  If it’s hidden, how does anyone know it’s there?

Well, I read my guidebook and found out that it was reputed to be a hiding place for cattle rustlers and horse thieves…back in the day.  That sounds like a perfect explanation.  You enter through a narrow notch and then there is this wonderful ‘valley’.  A perfect place to hide stolen livestock with places for lookouts and places to camp.

[In Hidden Valley]

[More in Hidden Valley]

The photos I’m including here don’t do justice to the serenity and beauty of the place.  The problem is that it’s the most popular short hike in the Park…which meant that one was never alone, truly alone, amidst the rock formations and cacti.  We may do the hike again…maybe at night so we can meet the ghosts of the rustlers or hear the neighing of the stolen steeds.

But, we started late and so I had to open the package for my new headlamp.  That was a challenge beyond anything I’ve attempted.  I’m usually good at getting a product out of its plastic/cardboard packaging, but this required a knife blade and the risk of opening a mean wound in my left palm or severing an artery.

[Headlamp destruction]

Yes, we started late, since here in the desert and at this time year, daylight begins to end shortly after 11:00 am.  Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration.  The sun begins to dip below the rocky mounds a little after 3:00 pm.

Our walk took thirty-five minutes.  Short but enough for someone whose feels oxygen deprived.

When we returned to the parking area, I felt the need to use the public rest room facilities.  Inside, I counted thirteen rolls of toilet paper!  That’s must be some kind of record.  I did not take a photo of those.

Pardon me, but I do have some class, dignity and some standards that remain…from back in the day.

I made that clear to the bartender at the Joshua Tree Saloon.

[All photos are mine.]

[Note to readers: The next blog post that will be out in a day or so has nothing to do with my current theme of Joshua Tree Diary.  It’s something totally different that I want I want to post now.]

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Joshua Tree Diary: The First Days

I looked in the mirror late this morning and decided I would need a haircut sometime in the next few weeks.  Trouble is, we’re a few miles from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base (the largest U.S. military base in the world, I’m told) and nearly all the haircut places offer a “military cut”.  Well, I really don’t want to have my head shaved at this point in my life, so I have to find a salon that can make a guy like me look like a guy like me.

So, here we are…in Joshua Tree, California.  The high desert, the edge of the Mojave, the northern edge of the National Park.  Our home is very well appointed with a fenced in backyard and cable TV.  We’re quite pleased with the rental we’ve chosen for the month of December.

[Part of our rental]

[Our private backyard}

I’ve struggled to come up with a catchy title to the blogs that I will be posting for the next month (we’re here only for December before we head to Santa Barbara for a few days of hiking and beach walking).  I’m calling this series of blogs The Joshua Tree Diary.  Lame? Maybe, but you haven’t been through what I’ve been through lately.

We arrived from Los Angeles on December 1 in a rented Nissan.  We passed the Joshua Tree Inn where Gram Parsons OD’d (see an earlier post about that on my website…it’s called “Room 8”).

We seemed to have arrived during a cool spell.  It got below freezing last night and may do so again tonight.  We were treated to the clear desert sky and the rising of the Super Moon last night.

[The Super Moon on Dec. 3. Sorry, but the iPhone doesn’t do well with this kind of photo]

Okay, so how did we spend our first days here?  We’ll I got here running a slight fever and a cough that would freak out most circus animals.  My throat felt like I had hosted a demolition derby and my chest felt like I inhaled  a quart of vanilla yogurt…I was not well.

We did manage to get to the National Park Visitor Center where I intended to purchase a Golden Pass (we left our other one home).  This allows seniors free admission to the Parks.  Two years ago when we purchased one at Devil’s Tower National Park, the cost for this lifetime pass was $10.00.  Now they charge $80.00!  And, these parks are ours anyway, we pays taxes…don’t get me started.

Next stop was getting a temporary visitors card at the local library.  I gladly paid $10.00 even though I will only be using it until December 31.  I’m not carrying anymore “book” books.  They are heavy and bulky.  I’ll give my copy of David Copperfield to a woman who runs a tiny used bookstore a few miles away along Route 62, towards Twentynine Palms.

I bought a copy of the Hi-Desert Star…couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times anywhere.  An ad caught my eye and it was then I realized that we were living amidst a culture that is quite different from Upstate New York.  I hope this guy finds his goal and makes off for the hills and gets rich from a lost mine (there are many out here).

[Ad from the Hi-Desert Star}

How am I feeling today?  I think I turned the corner.  I don’t think it’s hit or miss anymore.  I don’t think it’s touch and go.  I don’t feeling like I’m going to die out here…and become just another statistic.  I felt well enough to drag myself and Mariam to the Joshua Tree Saloon to sip a glass of Lagunitas.

[Joshua Tree Bar & Grill]

All of the above happened in the first four days.  We haven’t set foot in the Park yet.  Maybe on Wednesday we’ll hike the Skull Rock Trail.  It’s short and the ‘skull rock’ boulder is looking more and more like me.

Having said all that, this is what we’ve left behind:

[An Adirondack scene. Pretty, but no shoveling]

Right now, I’ll take the desert and deal with sand in my shoes and not frost on my finger tips.

Love At The End Of The Tunnel

[My photo. Elias leaves pre-K.]

The longest and most uncomfortable, painful and seemingly endless flight I ever undertook began at 4:00 am on Monday, November 20 when I forced myself out of the bed.  I forgot our wakeup call was for 4:15 am.  Our flight was scheduled for 7:00 am.  It was going to be a long day.

We were at a lower level Marriott about two miles from Logan Airport.  Our shuttle picked us up at 5:00 am, on time and the driver was even awake and courteous.  I was numb with lack of sleep.

The first leg of our flight required a stop-over in Chicago.  Time to breathe real air and stretch our legs for an hour.

Then we boarded American Airlines flight #1239 for Seattle.  I bought one of those neck pillows but it did nothing but keep me upright with my head forced into one position, much like you see in the photos of the poor souls in the electric chair..  Everything in my body hurt when we finally landed.

We were on the first segment of our winter vacation.  First stop was to visit and spend Thanksgiving with my daughter, Erin, husband Bob and, my one and only grandson, Elias.

From their home in Orting in Washington, we were due to fly to LA and then spend the month in Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert of California.

But, I digress.

We called Erin who was waiting in the cellphone lot.  Within a few minutes, she pulled up in front Pick-up Station #1.

We loaded her 2013 Hyundai Accent.  We drove south for about forty-five minutes and we were at her home in Orting.

I had been awake since 4:00 am and was drugged with Valium and Dramamine so I was grateful when every one else left to do some shopping, I drifted on the sofa, the large black cat, Guinness, sleeping on my lap.

Everyone returned from shopping.

Then the real fun began…Elias began to remember his grandpa and Emmy.

It seemed to me to be the longest and most painful flight I’ve ever made.  But the love at the end…made it all disappear.

[My photo]

Postscript: Guest proofreader for this post is my daughter, Erin.]

Roadside Grief

You see them along the Interstate highways in Kansas, Arizona and nearly everywhere else in the country.  Those haunting small white crosses and bouquets of flowers that are mostly plastic.  That way, they survive the weather.

These are the roadside memorials for those who lost their lives, while driving along major highways and lonely roads.  I don’t remember seeing them when I was growing up, but they seem to be so common these days.

The memorial (photo above) is the closest one to where I live.  A young man couldn’t manage the turn on our road and skidded into a utility pole.  I knew the moment this young man passed away because I was reading, late at night, about 1 am when my reading light went off.  All the lights went off in our house.  A power outage.

Little did I know at the time that when the room went dark, so did the lives of this young mans family and friends.  It’s been several years now, and the ribbons, the messages and the notes are all faded.

Faded by the harsh Adirondack weather.  But, I’m sure the memory of this boy has not faded one tiny bit in the hearts of his loved ones.

Every time I see one of those white crosses along I-81 or I-75 or a county road to a desolate town in northern New York State, I try to enter the minds of those left behind.  Could they afford a proper headstone? Mostly likely they could, but some need within the family wanted drivers, strangers, to pause for a moment to reflect on the loss of a life that meant the world to them.

But, for the rest of us, it’s only a glimpse of a place where some live human being, for whatever reason, left this life abruptly and without preparation.

When you pass one of these memorials, pause your thinking and mutter a farewell prayer for the forlorn soul.

 

 

Donkey Oatie, The Atlantic Ocean and More: A True Story

[Pam.  Photo: Patrick Egan]

Every so often I run across someone with a story to tell.  Often, the encounter is in a pub in New York City, Yuma, Arizona, Juneau, Alaska or someplace in between.  For example:
  • About twenty-five years ago I met a guy who claimed he had parachuted off one of the Twin Towers of the WTC.  He said he was promptly arrested.  I didn’t buy into the story at the time.  Maybe he did…maybe not…guys say a lot of stuff in bars.
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  • A few weeks ago I met a musician in an Irish pub on Amsterdam Avenue.  He said he knew Bob Dylan quite well.  He said that Dylan called him one day about ten years ago and complained to my new friend about his (my friend’s) recording of One More Cup of Coffee.  The phone call ended with Dylan hanging up on my friend.  I don’t doubt the truth of this story.  They guy seemed genuine and quite sincere.
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Then, a few nights ago, at our home on Rainbow Lake, NY, we had our friends Pam and Hans over for some wine and cheese.  (This was the couple who sold us the R-Pod that I blogged so much about during two cross-country trips). We sat in our screened in porch and talked.  I told them of my long time dream to hike the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail (I’ve never really had much interest in the Appalachian Trail).  Then Pam began a story that made me pull my chair closer to her.  I grabbed a notebook and a pen.  I took notes about her adventure.  I paid attention this time.  It was a story worth hearing–and it was a story I had to write…
Pam was twenty-something in the early 1970’s when her father passed away.  Her dad was the rock, the foundation of her family.  Her parents had met and married during WWII.  He was apparently a man of big dreams and those dreams brimmed with adventure and travel.  He dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail–he considered walking across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  When he died, his dreams died with him.

The bond between Pam’s mother and father was sublime and solid.  So it was no great surprise that his death created a void in the world of Pam’s mom.  She went into a deep depression and this darkness alarmed the family.

. . .

One New Year’s Eve, Pam and her two brothers sat at the dining room table pouring over their father’s maps and articles, thinking of his unfulfilled travel dreams.  The siblings sat and pondered about what they could do to honor their dad’s memory and perhaps to bring their mother back into the light.  That night a plan was made.  Why not take their mom on a journey–something that would approximate the cross-country hike?

But, could their mother, now in her 60’s carry a full backpack on a lengthy hike?  It seemed unlikely, so another decision was made.  They would use a donkey to carry some of the load!  The Sicilian donkey was purchased from a farm in Massachusetts.  One of the siblings came up with the name Donkey Oatie.  It seemed to fit.

“Let’s start at Harriman State Park in New York State and head west.” I could hear the brother say.  “We’ll see how far we get and when feel we’ve had enough, we’ll end our trip”.
The family looked at each other and must have been thinking the same thought: “An impossible journey…it’s 840 miles of walking!”  But the planning went forward, nonetheless.
They mapped out a trip through New Jersey and Pennsylvania using State Parks as campgrounds.  When they reached the Keystone State, they ran into a problem.  NO PETS ALLOWED in many of the parks and a donkey was classified as a pet (?).  So they took to the back roads and soon found that this “very private trip became a very public one”.  A family friend was an AP photographer and he began phoning newspapers and Fire Departments along the route.  It wasn’t long before the travelers were being greeted by small crowds in small towns and villages.
But, it was on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town where the story takes a special turn.
They were invited by a woman to have lunch on a lawn.  This stranger, this woman brought her mother out of the house to join everyone for lunch.  The mother had her own story to tell.  Sadly, the mother had terminal cancer.  She had also lost her husband.  Pam’s mother and this woman spoke about dreaming of destinations.  It was a widow to widow conversation.  The ill woman said that her life-long dream was to see the ocean..but something always came up and the trip never took place.  The daughter sat nearby and listened to the talk of the unfulfilled dreams of two women–who had both lost their husbands.  The ill woman told Pam’s mother how much she admired her efforts to fulfill her dreams and that of her late husband.  Pam’s mother told the woman that the sea wasn’t so far away.

The daughter sat and listened.  Several weeks later she did indeed make the trip with her mother, who finally got to look out over the sea.

The woman died two weeks after the trip.
Her daughter wrote later and told the family that she would always be grateful for the advice of Pam’s mother.  She said in the letter that those two weeks gave her that precious time to bond in that final way and to say good-bye to her mother.
Since that evening on our porch, I’ve thought about my own dreams of making a journey..but my plans seemed lame and insignificant when compared to the story I had been told.
And, besides, how could I ever make such a difference in the lives of two strangers from a simple lunch on a lawn in Pennsylvania?
The answer came to me during a sleepless night.  You really can’t plan for such outcomes–they somehow seek you out and fall into your lap.  The important thing is that you take that first step on the journey that only you can begin.

And, why are all such journeys of such importance?  Why was the terminally ill mother and her daughter’s trip to the Atlantic of such importance?  Why did Pam’s trip with her mother..attempting to honor the father’s fascination with journeys..make such an impression with a stranger on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town?  And why did the story touch me so much?

It’s all been said so well in a cliché, an old saying, a common remark made in many situations..You just don’t know how long you have on this earth..every moment is precious..and can never be regained. 

Kissing Manhattan Goodbye

So, it’s time to say farewell to the city I love.  A week from today, if you have a drone, you will find us driving north on the I-87…through Albany…onto Exit 30…and then fifty more miles, through Lake Placid, to our home at Rainbow Lake.

I’ve heard it said so many times: “New York City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Fine, I understand everyone has different tastes.  Besides, it’s all true what people say about New York.  It’s so big, crowded, diverse and varied, that whatever anyone says about the city… is true.  It’s safe, dangerous, cheap and way too expensive.  It’s all true…but I love the vibrant life, liberalism, culture and gravity.  Yes, there is an intense gravity to this place…someone once said that everyone should live in New York City at least once in their life…and I agree.

I lived on the Upper West Side for over twenty-five years.  With some exceptions, I loved every minute of my time.  Then, I retired and in 2011, Mariam and I decided to get bought out (our building was going condo) and we decided to head north to our place on Rainbow Lake.  We needed the quiet.  Mariam went part-time, working from home on the computer.

We got our quiet…sometimes, it seemed to me, a little too much.  I was lonely.  Only a few of our friends made the six-hour trip to visit us.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to come back for six months, on a full salary, to put things in order at Mariam’s place of business.  We got a sub-let on W. 74th Street and became New Yorkers once again.  I saw my son more often and reunited with old friends.

But, not all went as expected.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I found myself falling into a mild depression.  I brought many of my “works-in-progress” for my writing  projects.  I lost the creative energy to plug-in my memory stick and write a few chapters.

The winter was wet and chilly.  The spring was little better.  Then it got really bloody hot.  But, we saw a number of Broadway and Off Broadway shows that were fantastic.  We made friends at our local pub, the Beacon Bar.  We had a good time.

And, now, we’re packing things up…unread novels, unread magazines and putting away unfulfilled trips.

This was kind of an experiment ….to see if we could ever move back here.

I’m conflicted.

The “Dream House in the Woods” can sometimes  be something you’re not expecting.  Where are your friends and local pubs “where everybody knows your name?”

It’s just another move in our lives.  Mariam will be retired and I need a hobby.  I was thinking about carving duck decoys….I’m serious.   Maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. Maybe I won’t.

Maybe I won’t and just drift on my kayak.

Stay tuned.

Allison, Me And The Ghosts Of Judy Garland

marquee

“Who could ask for anything more?”

                     –Ira Gershwin

Ok, so I pulled a few strings.  Actually, it was only one string.  The daughter of my wife’s boss (Dr. Chris Walsh from Mount Sinai Hospital), was playing the lead in the hit Broadway show, An American in Paris, on the night of September 7, 2016.  We purchased the tickets and made a discreet phone call to Dr. Walsh.  Would it be possible if he had a word with his daughter, Allison Walsh, to give us a backstage tour after the show?

playbill

alysononstage

[Allison during the show]

It worked out like it does when you have some strings to pull.  All we had to do was be at the stage door after the show and mention we were guests of Allison Walsh.  We were on the list and we were led into the bowels of a storied and famous Broadway theater, The Palace.

The show itself was fabulous.  Allison, a trained ballerina, stood out as a total professional and got a standing ovation at the end.  But, I’m not a theater critic.  I’m going to take you behind the scenes and below the stage where so much real action takes place.

stagedoor

[Stage door]

3ofusbackstage

[Me, Allison and Mariam]

After descending miles of spiral staircases, we found ourselves in a warren of rooms and hallways filled with costumes, dressing rooms.  There were ropes and cables and sound boards and schedule lists and mailboxes.  I couldn’t imagine the action that took place down there during the show.

makeuproom

[One of the make-up rooms]

I thought I’d impress young Allison with the fact that we were both veterans in the Big Show, the glamorous life of a star, knowing the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd.

“I had the male lead in the Senior Play when I was in high school…back in 1965,” I said, feeling confident she’d see me as another thespian as herself.

She stared at me and said: “Oh, really?”

I estimate her age to be around twenty-five.  So she would have been born in the early ’90’s.  That would be about twenty-five years since I had the male lead in the senior play.  No wonder she seemed a bit quizzical at my comment.

Allison led the two of us (and another couple who had known her in high school) through the quick changing rooms and the wig room and back up another mile of stairs to reach the stage.  I caught up with her and said: “Is this place haunted?”  I whispered the question, not wanting to frighten or alarm the others.

allisonwig

[One of Allison’s wigs]

“Many who work here say it is,” she replied.  “They say that Judy Garland has been seen many times.”

We five arrived at the stage.  The house was empty.  There was a “ghost light” center stage.  We posed for a few pictures and I stood for a moment, thinking I was alone, looking out at the empty seats.  I nearly strained a muscle in my neck trying to look up to where we had watched the show (the nosebleed section).

Suddenly, the empty seats became filled with 3,000 Judy Garlands.  They stood and made a deafening  applause.

“You’re over the rainbow,” I heard the Judy who sat in the front row shout.  “You were amazing!”

I didn’t think that Judy Garland ever saw my senior play…then I turned around and saw that Allison was standing in the shadow of the Ghost Light.

“We loved you, Allison!”

I stood back and realized that my moment in the spotlight was long ago.

“Not to be mean,” said one Judy,in the third row, addressing me, “but you aren’t over the rainbow…you’re over the hill.”

I knew the real star of the evening was Allison.  She made a gracious bow to all the Judy’s…waved and then left. Stage right.

“Hey, wait for me,” I called as I hurried to catch up with the others.

stagelight

[The Ghost Light]

dancingwithallison

[Allison poses with an aged tourist]

We thanked her and said our good-byes.  I nearly got run over by a taxi as I stepped out to get a shot of the marquee.

I am grateful to Dr. Chris Walsh for arranging our tour.  I thank Allison Walsh for taking the time to show us around, knowing that she was probably exhausted after the performance. (I would have been heading for the nearest pub if I were in her place).

So, what did we do then?  Mariam and I headed for the nearest Irish pub to reflect on our strenuous tour of a great Broadway show.  If you haven’t seen it…go!  It’s closing in a few weeks.

And, just in case you think I made all this up…

autograph