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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Yeah, I know – there are so many ways to interpret dreams, you can’t put too much stock in them. Different people at different times have claimed them as omens, portents, visitations. But then again, they could just be neurons firing, the product of a busy, busy day in the psyche. Who knows?

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I dreamed I was in the back of a smallish car. The seats were folded down, and I was lying in the back like cargo. The car kept rising and falling like a ship at sea. A soothing rhythm; if I paid attention I could feel the wavelength – the interval between the moment we started climbing the wave and when we dropped over the crest.

My dad was driving, my mom was in the passenger seat beside him. We were stopped for a moment when I saw him slathering some dark mud on his arms, like he was preparing for an onslaught of voracious mosquitoes. He told me it was important to do this, here. I asked, “Where’s here? Where are we?”

He looked at my mom. I didn’t hear what he said, if anything, but I recognized his gentle, open expression and I knew he was asking her for help explaining. I remember him doing this in life sometimes, when he wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t hear what she said either, and I couldn’t see her face. He turned back to me and said two words: “Astral projection.”

I still wondered where we were going. For a moment I wondered if I might be dying – I guess because my parents have both passed on. I wondered if we were about to crash through some barrier, ending my life on earth. But I was worried only for a moment – and then I felt calm. I thought to myself that everything was ok, because I had faith in this journey, whatever it was, wherever my parents were taking me. I laid back down in the car and tried to feel that rhythm again: the pause on the crest of the wave, the plunge that made me just a little dizzy, then the slow surge forward.

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When I wake up I remember the dream clearly. “Astral projection” though, I’m not so clear about. I know I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure exactly what it means. I think “astral” has something to do with the stars – that’s about all I can dredge up from memory.

I google it:

“Astral projection (or astral travel) is an interpretation of out-of-body experience that assumes the existence of an ‘astral body’ separate from the physical body and capable of traveling outside it.” (Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, 2006)

Strange journeys we take in our dreams, to realms where a dictionary may help more than an atlas. Where are we really? There is no telling.  But don’t forget the insect repellant. There could be gnats like you’ve never seen before, where you’re going.

 

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Out in the Country

Seeking the writers’ conference, I get off the freeway and drive past a couple of barns and some silos, then turn towards the city. Everything starts looking suburban, and thus familiar: a high school, the bleachers for the playing field peeking out from behind the building; a church, and then another, both of them red brick and modern-looking; then strip malls, facing each other across a busy intersection; and finally, a swarm of houses covering the landscape. This is when I decide I must be going in the wrong direction, and head back the way I came, through all of it in reverse: bungalows, strip malls, churches and the school. Then the road crosses the highway that dropped me here, and suddenly the landscape opens up, wide fields edged by woods, roads set at right angles and drawn in straight lines that head off into a seemingly infinite distance. I’m in farm country. I feel awash in light, even under the leaden April sky.

The community college, when I find it, sits in the middle of this vastness like the Emerald City rising from the hills of Oz: new, sparkling with glass, surrounded by fresh parking lot. It’s nothing like the old farmhouse I pass near the entrance, seething with meticulously painted gingerbread, repurposed as an insurance agency or law firm’s office. A historical monument, is how it impresses me as I make the turn off what must be a county road. The colors it’s been painted are so vivid (mustard and maroon, I think) that I’m spellbound, as I drive past and up the long, curving drive into the campus.

Inside the college is almost self-contained, or it would be if the cafeteria were open. Today is Saturday, and it’s closed. So I venture out again for fast-food lunch. I’ve been advised I have to head back towards the city to find a restaurant. I glance in the other direction, looking for traffic before I turn, and see a road empty of cars, bordered by a seemingly endless succession of fields.

When I come out of the burger joint it’s snowing, but nothing is sticking. That’s how it’s been this April – cold, and everything slow to green. As I drive back to campus, the fields on either side are dull stubble, the branches of the trees in the distance bare and stark against the gray sky. Yet it’s anything but depressing. I don’t know why I find this landscape so reassuring, why it seems to help me breathe. I wonder if my ancestors felt this way, as they cut down the forest and rolled back the wilderness, setting their cows and horses to graze. I’ve never lived out here, never spent much time on a farm – but perhaps it’s in my blood, somehow; something passed down to me from my grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents…

When my sister and I were small, our grandmother would tell us stories about her childhood, growing up on a farm. “I want to live on a farm!,” we’d chorus – mostly because we pictured being around the animals. Grandma would respond that we didn’t want to live on a farm, we’d have to work too hard. She was born in 1897. I’m sure she saw us as city kids who hadn’t a clue, growing up in the ‘burbs in the 1960s. She was right.

I still don’t have a clue, what it’s like to live on a farm. But I’d like to drive into farm country more often. True spring is right around the corner, and I’m wondering where I could sit for an hour or so, in the open, looking at the green, listening to the larks and sparrows calling across the fields, away from the roar of constant traffic.

There’s always the community college parking lot.

 

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Jordan River Ramble

There is no other place like the Jordan River valley in all of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Steep hills rise three hundred feet from the valley floor, creating a high-walled cradle for the clear-running Jordan and its tributaries. The hills are glacial “moraines” – vast mounds of gravel and debris left behind by the glaciers as they retreated from the huge crevasse that is now Lake Michigan. The steepness of the hillsides has inspired dramatic place names like Deadman’s Hill – site of a fatal logging accident in 1910 – and Landslide Creek. Looking out from one of the overlooks above the valley, you might think you’re in the foothills of the Appalachians. But here near its headwaters, the braided, shallow ribbon of the Jordan – crystal clear, sandy-bottomed, and littered with fallen trees as it threads its way through cedar swamp – is pure north woods.

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Ever since we’d day-hiked on the trails that loop around the Jordan River valley, I’d wanted to return for a longer trip. So here we were, on an unseasonably warm September afternoon, slogging through the woods and sweating. Since this five-mile segment was almost featureless on the trail map, we weren’t sure how far we’d come, or how much farther we had to go to get to the campground. The first part of the trail had mostly followed the river, sometimes right beside it so that through a screen of cedars we saw the sun sparkling on the fast-moving water, and the gleam of the sandy riverbed, crisscrossed with deadfalls – many of them blooming with their own gardens of bright green vegetation. Sometimes the trail climbed higher, through hillside meadows where even when we could not see it, the river’s silvery rushing sound floated up to us.

Those first miles had been a feast not only of sights and sounds, but also smells: fragrant cedar, the green herb smell of the meadows, even the pungent, wood-rot scent of a bog as the footpath crossed it, via planks. But now, a couple of hours in, we were deep in the woods and well away from the river. The air was not moving, it was hot, and my pack – I hadn’t carried one in over a year – felt painfully heavy. I had sore spots where the straps rode my collarbone, and my back ached. When we stopped for a water break and removed our packs, I realized I was drenched in sweat (as was my pack). A million insecurities popped into my head: I’m too old for this, I’m not in great shape, I’ve never been an athlete, really; and my legs are short – even for a woman. All of which served to convince me I was foolish to be there. I found myself wondering: why am I doing this?

But when you’re several miles into the trip, there’s nowhere much to go but forward. We hoisted our packs and pressed on, working our way up and down ridges; then up a long incline that left us breathless a couple of times. At the top we suddenly popped out of the woods and were looking out high over the valley. Rows of forested hills marched up the opposite side, and the breeze was fresh and cooling. We lingered for a while, drinking from our water bottles, snapping pictures and basking in the view we’d just earned. I had the acute awareness that there is no place like this, for hundreds of miles – and here I was.

We were still just guessing how far we had to go – a mile? A mile and a half? So it came as a big surprise when after yet another rollercoaster pitch down and a haul back up we walked into a clearing, saw the well pump and the outhouses, and realized we were at the campground. It was unexpectedly early, and I wondered for a moment what we would do with all the time before nightfall. But my feet hurt enough that I was also relieved; and actually, there was enough (but not too much) to do. We walked around the campground, selected a site, set up the tent and unpacked our stuff. We filled our water bottles at the pump, and doused our bandannas to wash off with – amazing how good something as simple as cold water can feel. I doctored a huge blister on my big toe. We checked out the apple tree across from the pump – its small, rosy apples turned out to be sour – and hiked back down the hill and up again a couple of times to gather firewood.

After dinner, we sat with a drink and watched the sun slant lower on the field in the center of the campground. The dragonflies came out, swooping over the tall grass, and on a dead tree beside the field Sally discovered an insect the likes of which we’d never seen before. (I’ve since determined it was likely a female Giant Ichneumon wasp.) It was quiet, with just the occasional creak of the pump breaking the stillness as the handful of other campers filled their bottles. I was feeling calm and relaxed – but even so, I found myself really wishing for a clean T-shirt and my Teva sandals (I’d packed extra light for this overnight). Sitting in my smelly clothes, my boots unlaced in a feeble attempt to make them more comfortable, the question did cross my mind: Was it really worth it, all that work to be sitting stinky and sore at the edge of this field?

Something happened to me, though, when walking back from the latrine I saw the moon coming up over campsite 14. It was almost full, and unusually bright in the clear, dry air. I started to wonder: how close was that lookout we’d stopped at yesterday? Pretty close, if memory served; and I began to imagine how beautiful the valley would look bathed in moonlight. And I did have a headlamp, and hiking poles… Sally declined to go, but said she’d stay with the fire if I wanted to check it out. I walked through the campground to where the path came in, stepped into the woods and was swallowed in darkness. Training my headlamp down so I could watch my feet, I started down the slope.

It took a mere ten minutes to come out on the hilltop. There was still light up on the ridge; in fact, I’d actually come too early to see the valley drenched in moonlight. Still, I was not disappointed. I stood at the edge of the bluff with the moon on my left, just beginning to silver the lines of trees across the valley, and on my right the rich orange glow of sunset still spreading along the western horizon. Moonrise at one hand, sunset at the other, I stood with my feet planted by the knobby roots of a huge old maple tree, and felt rising in me something hard to describe – a sense of wonder? I had the feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

On the way back to the campground, doubt crept in again. The steep downhill pitch was a little tricky in the dark, and my left knee started to hurt on every impact. Shit, I thought, what if it hurts like this tomorrow? We had almost seven miles to hike to get back to the car. I started thinking again that I was really too old to be out here.

But then I heard a loud call coming from the darkness of the woods, very near; it repeated, and by the third time I heard it I was certain it wasn’t someone fooling around at the campground. It sounded like an owl – maybe just a few yards away but unseen in the pitch black woods. Suddenly the darkness seemed like a magician’s cloak more than an obstacle; and the challenges of getting here, worthwhile.

We slept that night with the yips and howls of coyotes coming to us from off in the distance. My sleep was interrupted by a nightmare involving a car driving around the campsite (we’d heard someone four-wheeling down the hill below us before we’d gone to bed); but I felt energized when we woke to another clear, bright day. The hike that followed, albeit scenic, was hard. The first few miles weren’t bad; but Landslide Creek lived up to its name, winding along the bottom of nearly vertical hillsides covered in fallen trees that just couldn’t hang on anymore against the forces of wind and gravity. The trail alternately plummeted and climbed; we began to complain at every knee-wrenching drop – knowing we were going to have to hike back up. After Landslide Lookout, the afternoon got hot again; and around mile four or five, Sally caught her foot on a root and took a header – a scary moment, and evidence of how tired we were.

But we made it. And that day we’d seen old-growth white pines, towering hundreds of feet over the forest floor; the most delicate of spider webs, illuminated by shafts of morning light piercing the forest canopy; we’d taken in the sight and sound of Cascade Creek, rushing wildly down its gorge much like any stream in the mountains of New Hampshire, accompanied by a freezer-blast of chill air.

Back at the car, we executed a quick high-five and then rushed to take off our boots and put on our sneakers. Later I remarked to Sally that I’m starting to realize that the hard part about backpacking is also something I like about it: I have to rise to the occasion. She remarked that even when it seems overwhelming, it boils down to putting one foot in front of the other.

It sounds cliché – but it’s true. You walk a mile (or 12, on this trip) a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other.

 

 

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Seagulls at Liam’s

I’m watching the seagulls at Liam’s clam shack.They seem to have taken over Liam’s, as autumn approaches. It’s September, kids are back at school, and most of the vacationers have returned home. There are just a few people on the beach, surfing in wetsuits or taking the air in sweatshirts and windbreakers. Up here where the clam shack is perched on the dunes, the gulls roam the mostly empty picnic tables, perch atop the umbrellas, and stalk about in the sand, unimpeded by the handful of patrons on this chilly, overcast day.

While I eat my “chowdah” a large gull covered in dove-gray speckles sits atop the table behind me, his gaze fixed on me. He leaves as soon as I dispose of the empty cup – moving along to another prospect.

As I write this, the gulls just drove a family of four into their car to eat. I overheard mom say, “I’m not dealing with this,” as the family, thronged by birds, got up from their picnic table to beat a hasty retreat.

I always knew the ocean, and the beach, were theirs, more than ours – who would doubt it, watching a seagull float on the waves, or come diving in from above to snatch some morsel out of the surf? I’ve read that gulls can even drink salt water – they have a set of glands, located above their beaks, that filter out the salt. But now it seems they’ve claimed Liam’s too and the green-painted tables, the grey-shingled kitchen, the soft sand of the “patio” are their territory. I feel almost an intruder, sitting here among them as they watch me, or break into voice, scolding one another.

I look up now to see a worker scrubbing away at the tables, trying to remove their droppings – yet another indication that we have only just barely carved this little niche out of their territory.

Liam’s is still serving, so the gulls still have an occasional chance to nab the stray french fry or piece of cod or hamburger bun; but I wonder: where will they go, when the clam shack closes and the beach is deserted? I saw some of them today resting on the pavement of the parking lot – a circle of them, each folded into a compact package, sleeping; they must be drawing warmth from the heat stored in the blacktop.

I don’t know where they go; but I have no fear for their survival, even in a climate that will soon turn harsh and wintry. Fossils exist of (now extinct) gulls dating back over five million years, so they certainly have demonstrated adaptability. In fact, some scientists now think that modern birds developed much earlier than was once believed, coexisting with the dinosaurs that were once thought to have preceded them. In any case, their ancestors were around long before ours began the long evolutionary march toward, for instance, the invention of clam chowder.

I watch them today with the queer feeling that perhaps I am the interloper; and the clam shack, although a much-loved and venerated institution by human standards, simply a brief episode in the long millennia of seagull history. I think we must be a tiny blip on the screen of their existence – but they do seem to enjoy our french fries.

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On the Road Again

The road to our kayak spot is mostly two-lane highway. We took it again this year, on the 4th of July.

It’s blistering hot on the blacktop of our driveway as we lash the kayaks atop the car, and we’re glad to get in and crank up the A/C. Very soon we leave suburbia behind. From where we live on the northern edge of miles and miles of sprawl, the landscape on this highway changes so quickly that it always comes as a fresh surprise to me: the sight of open fields, shiny silos beside the ruins of old barns, cattle placidly grazing.

As we work our way north the highway threads a series of small towns like beads spaced along a string. My sense of remoteness increases with the unfamiliar: a sign cautioning horse and buggy traffic, tiny wooden churches painted white (they look almost like miniatures), old tractors set out on the lawns of farmhouses, for sale to passers-by. The silos get bigger and bigger as we head north. We pass a gas station at a major crossroads; the signs on the building advertise not only ice cream and Bud Lite, but guns and ammo.
We stopped there one year for gas; and as we drive by I remember the scores of guns mounted on the walls inside, and the leather-vested bikers who called out “scuse me” and “pardon me” in theatrically loud voices as they pushed past me in the doorway.

The memory makes me nervous. I feel suddenly how visible – and vulnerable – we are, two lesbians sporting short hair and a couple of kayaks atop a 14-year-old Honda. I’ve read that there are militia groups here, too; I start thinking it is an unlikely mix of populations: farmers, Amish people, Christian fundamentalists, militia; and then there are the pot-smokers. Every time we’ve taken this trip we’ve detected a large aromatic cloud of pot smoke, wafting over the boat launch on its way out to sea. (We haven’t pinpointed its exact source – but I admit we’re curious, in a sort of sociological way.) When I wonder aloud how they all get along, the farmers, the militia, the fundamentalists and the marijuana smokers – Sally replies that maybe they’re all smoking pot. She might be right. (Except for maybe the Amish…)

Out of the car at the boat launch we feel the heat again, and I can’t wait to get out on the water. We paddle up the channel, then round the point and we’re on Lake Huron – and in another world. Long fingers of rocks – some covered in brush and becoming more like peninsulas or islands – jut far out into the water, forming a series of coves. The colors of the Lake are so bright they’re almost unreal: rusty gold in the shallows, bottle green and turquoise where it’s deeper, indigo at the horizon.

The shallowness of the coves keeps all but the smallest boats out, and despite houses peppered along the shore, this place feels serene. I feel the breeze on my face; hear only the sounds of wind, waves and birds. From the first small island comes the racket of hundreds of seagulls, who send up an unending cacophony of screams and chuckles. (Sally remarks she has never seen so many gulls in one place, other than following the garbage scow in New York harbor). In contrast, a smaller gull colony stands like statues on the rocks of the next point and makes not a sound at all.

After we paddle for a while we take a swim. Clear as crystal, the fresh water of Lake Huron feels clean on my skin, and is just cold enough to make it tingle. A treat; almost like actually getting that snowball fight you sometimes wish for, on a scorching hot July afternoon.

The return paddle is tougher than we anticipated – the wind coming out of the west keeps trying to turn our boats. We’re tired by the time we get back to the boat launch, and repack our kayaks and the gear. When we finish we have a picnic, sitting in lawn chairs along the channel, screened by brush and small trees taking root among the boulders. Sipping beer and munching, we watch the dragonflies dart about and the boats heading out for fishing; red-winged blackbirds serenade us as evening comes on. Some kids, unseen on the other side of the path behind us, can be heard cavorting, and occasionally someone comes along walking a dog; but otherwise, it is blissfully quiet, especially for a holiday.

“We need kayaks with skegs,” I remark, thinking of the wind, and rubbing the knot in my shoulder. Sally agrees. And then we talk about how this kind of trip – the essential experience of water and sky, sun and wind and a quiet spot in which to reflect – is our favorite kind of trip.

Beer and cheese sitting in a lawn chair on the channel is better than a banquet and feels, for me, profound. A kind of communion. I feel part of something very big indeed, this summer night.

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Sermon at Big Mike’s (2004)

The sign grabbed our attention from the road. “BIG MIKE”S ROCK SHOP,” it proclaimed, in letters too large to ignore from a passing vehicle. What was even more arresting was the head at one side of the billboard, rendered in a bold black and white sort of monoprint effect, labeled for clarity: “BIG MIKE.”

SEE THE MYSTERY HOUSE, the billboard went on, and promised restrooms and tourist information. We were more interested in the rocks, piles of which could be seen in bins and dumped on tables outside a low building. A house and some outbuildings sat a little farther back from the road, nestled in the hills. With some time to kill, we had to stop. Kentucky = caves = rocks, right? It seemed almost mandatory.

So we pulled into the Big Mike’s parking lot, got out and started ambling about the outdoor displays. There were heaps of small stones for as little as five for $1, so I knew immediately I wasn’t going to leave empty-handed. I started picking through a table of quartz crystals while Sally wandered, looking for a good souvenir for her nephew. I was vaguely aware that a woman had appeared and was engaging Sally in conversation. “Now if you want two more of those it’ll be cheaper ‘cause they’re five for $2,” she was saying, in reference to some fossil or other that Sally was examining. “Really? That’s a good deal,” I heard Sally responding, and “What are these?” I wasn’t really following closely, as I was wondering if I should get a crystal for my friend James. Then I thought of Jennifer, a friend of a friend who had recently been ill and had once given me a crystal. I must find out how she’s doing, I mused…

I snapped out of this guilty reverie to hear the proprietress saying, “No one religion has all the answers. They all want us to think they do, but they don’t.” That’s true, I thought, she’s right about that; and moved over to the next table. I didn’t hear Sally’s response; and the woman disappeared into the shop.

Sally decided that an excellent gift for her nephew would be geodes – egg-shaped rocks he would have to bang open with a hammer, and which might or might not have crystals inside. The appeal was obvious – who could resist that kind of suspense, or cracking something open with a hammer? Not me, and we were betting probably not 10-year-old Alex. So I helped Sally pick out what we hoped were five likely geodes (five for $3) and we headed inside with our selections.

Of course, the really good stuff was inside, and although we weren’t in the market for a pair of polished agate bookends, we ooh-ed and ah-ed over them, and I found a beautiful fossil called a nautiloid that I decided beat the crystal idea. There were necklaces displayed too, which the proprietress caught me studying. “That’s lapis,” she said, “It’s supposed to have healing properties. And that one underneath, that’s chalcedony. It’s mentioned in the Bible.” Sally and I murmured polite responses: “Really? It’s a beautiful color,” and brought our stuff – finally – up to the counter where the woman stood over a case filled with rings and bracelets. We kept up tourist prattle, how we’d better not spend too much time in here or we’d blow our budget, etc.

“I notice you touch the rocks,” the woman said to Sally. “Well, you’re supposed to, right? To pick the right one?,” Sally responded. Actually, I had heard something like this once – at a wedding reception for a radio astrologer where I was invited to take home the crystal that called to me, from a table of them laid out for the guests.

“I sense one of you is into healing,” the woman said. I noticed classical music was playing in the background, and thought it must be an NPR station. And then without thinking about what I was doing, I threw Sally under the bus. “You’re kind of into that stuff,” I said, thinking of a shelf-ful of her books at home: Deepak Chopra, Dr. Wiel’s Plan for Healthy Living, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. “Well kind of I guess,” Sally said good-naturedly if doubtfully.

“Hold up your hand,” the woman said, and there was an awful silence, other than the radio, as she and Sally stood, palms raised and apart no more than two inches. Watching them, I thought: if I burst out laughing right now I will die. “There’s no such thing as a healer really,” the woman said. “When you open up to that energy you’re just a vessel – just a conduit for God.” Still they stood there, palm to palm, and I sensed Sally wanted to laugh too; but we didn’t. We all stood kind of rooted there. The rocks we were about to buy lay waiting on the counter.

“You feel that energy?,” the woman said. “Well, yes I guess so,” Sally replied kind of sheepishly. I knew she was trying to be agreeable. Our friend didn’t seem to notice any lack of sincerity. “There’s a reason we all are being called together,” she said. “Nothing happens by accident.” Silently I thought, yeah, I believe that. The woman dropped her hand, releasing Sally, and went on. “I mean, the people like us who are aware of these things, there’s a reason we’re brought together.” She began now to add up our purchases, adding the prices out loud and then wrapping the more fragile items in small paper bags she bound with masking tape. “You know God energy is both male and female,” she continued. “In Genesis it says ‘Let us create man in our own image.’” I thought yeah, I kind of remember reading something about it – that plural thing. “But that balance was thrown off in the Garden of Eden and we were banished, because of sexual sin.”

Our rocks were once again forgotten on the counter. “We are all sexual sinners because of the fall. And we need to regain that balance. That’s why you see girls with girls, and guys with guys.” I couldn’t look at Sally, or the woman. Did she really just say that, I thought? Did I just hear what I thought I heard?

“Maybe if men treated women the way they should be treated things would be different,” she said. “I saw my Mama abused terribly by my Daddy. If men would treat women as they should things would be different.”

I finally found my voice, and spoke. “If everyone treated everyone the way they’d like to be treated themselves, we’d be getting somewhere,” I said, trying desperately to get her off the gender track. Although really it was too late; the Big Mike’s locomotive had already chugged way out onto the trestle and around the bend.

She suddenly seemed to remember we were buying something. “The world is really out of balance these days,” she said, resuming wrapping and taping. “I have a friend who works on the Hubble telescope, and he keeps me up on these things.” She fixed us with an intent stare. “Watch when the sun sets – it doesn’t go all the way down to the horizon anymore.” Sally and I were still gamely – or lamely? – trying to keep up. “Really?,” we asked politely, although I couldn’t help following up with “You really have a friend who works on the Hubble?”

“Oh yes,” she assured me briskly, “and he confirms this. The earth is out of alignment. You can see it for yourselves – the sun doesn’t set at the horizon anymore. It disappears before it gets there.”

We continued to express our amazement, at the same time fingering our money and hoping we could move her along, thus avoiding any more talk about sexual sin and the imbalance in the world, which had caused us to behave with such depravity – caused us, in short, to be gay.

“That comes to $32.95,” she announced and we breathed a silent sigh of relief as we paid her. Yet the intensity of that palm to palm thing still had me in its grip; that, and the woman’s unmistakable desire for contact. Who knows what it’s like to work – and live – at Big Mike’s? “It was a pleasure meeting you,” I said and held out my hand, and she shook it firmly, and then shook Sally’s, and we left.

In the car, Sally said, “Hoo boy, I need a drink of water… or maybe whiskey?” and we laughed, because it was 10:30 Sunday morning, and while we do imbibe, we don’t really like whiskey. Still, I did feel a bit rattled – as if something bracing like a good belt would be in order…

We drove back down the drive and I got out to take a picture of the billboard. Big Mike’s face looked a little ominous to me now; I wondered if he was real. So strong was my feeling of surrealness that it seemed possible the woman in the gift shop had simply invented him, and stuck his picture up there along with “LARGEST ROCK SHOP IN KENTUCKY” and “WELCOME TO MAMMOTH CAVE.”

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The Beauty of Road Trips

I love road trips.

Not only do they refresh my soul, they’ve taught me a lot.

What I’ve learned from them is to embrace the unexpected. Looking for one thing, I’ve so often found something else entirely – something I didn’t even know existed.

I’ve learned the importance of being open. On arrival, the place I sought might disappoint – but the surprises, the unexpected wonders, never will – so long as I remain open to the experience.

This was never truer than on a trip to North Carolina my partner Sally and I took a few years ago.

We really enjoyed the events we planned: visiting with my Aunt LaVerne, rock climbing in the Pisgah National Forest, hiking in the Smoky Mountains.

But what really stands out in my memory are all the unscripted, unlooked-for moments that happened all by themselves, without any forethought or effort on our part.

Take our motel, for instance. It was a Days Inn, kind of crumbling if not entirely falling down. Located near the bus station, it seemed to be on an invisible pedestrian path popular with the more footloose segments of Asheville society. Not exactly what we had expected (you really can’t trust the pictures on the internet when choosing accommodations.)

But our motel had cable television, which we did not have at home. Every night when we returned to our less-than-spotless room we surfed the channels, including Turner Classic Movies. One night we joined in progress a 1930s black and white gem starring Barbara Stanwyck as a gun moll who is adored by the straight arrow district attorney. It was fantastically kooky – Barabara wound up in the women’s prison, where all the dames do each other’s hair and while away the hours singing to the accompaniment of a ukelele – what a hoot! The prison population included a butch lesbian, dressed in men’s attire (“watch out for that one – she likes to wrestle,” a veteran warns Barb on her first day of incarceration). Eventually there’s a happy ending when the D.A. professes undying love for Barbara and steadfastly vows to marry her, even though she just shot him in the arm five minutes earlier. Ah, love.

So even though our hotel was kind of shabby, it did have TCM. And it was sort of funny, in a poignant way, that we couldn’t use the touted free internet access one morning because the owner’s son was on the only computer. “I’m sorry – he’s learning disabled, and he’s obsessed with this website,” the owner told us as the strains of “It’s a Small World After All” played on in the dingy lobby. And on, and on. (The owner let use his laptop instead).

So although it was far from glamorous and in fact we probably wouldn’t book a room there again short of desperation, we found in our motel a certain – well, maybe not exactly charm; it was more like its very inadequacy inspired some affection. Our last night there, after our rock climbing adventure, we pulled chairs out on the dusty balcony in front of our room. Surrounded by the silhouettes of mountains, we talked about the day and sipped a beer. Twilight came on; a couple of unsteady souls stumbled across the parking lot; and strangely, we found the peace that had eluded us in the cafes downtown.

The next day we headed back towards Michigan, with a planned detour into eastern Kentucky. We had two destinations: Sally wanted to see a rock formation called the Natural Bridge, and I wanted to check out the Red River Gorge.

First up was the Bridge. I had a picture in my mind of a tourist attraction within sight of a jammed parking lot, the kind of place where cars and tour buses pull up and people hop out just long enought to take pictures.

But here once again we were treated to the unexpected – it was nothing like I’d pictured, at all. Instead we hiked over a mile to the Bridge, passing by high cliffs of weirdly sculpted limestone and the dark entrances to caves. When we got to the Bridge, we found a narrow set of steps carved in the rock behind it. We followed them all the way to the top, where we were amazed by what we did not find: there were no fences, no guard rails, not even a warning sign. We were free to wander atop the arch to our heart’s content – even though it’s 65 feet high from its base, and the ground drops steeply away from the bottom. It’s a long drop from a span of stone that’s only 15-20 feet wide.

We walked the 75 feet across – I had a mild attack of vertigo in the middle – and then along the clifftops on the other side, taking in the views and admiring the little teal-colored lizards basking on the rocks. There were no crowds – we encountered just a few other people on the trails, and we reflected how stunning it was that the park must be almost exactly as it was back in the 1930s, when the CCC built the trails and carved the steps behind the arch.

The campground at Natural Bridge State Park was another lesson in staying open to the unexpected. After the beauty of the Pisgah (where we didn’t get a chance to camp), I was dismayed by our campsite. It backed up to a highway, and was wide open to view from the picinic areas just across a small creek. Although the highway was screened by trees, we could hear trucks rumbling by as we set up camp. I quickly went into a funk, thinking about the beautiful wilderness we had hiked through in the Smokies.

But then road trip magic happened. When darkness fell, the truck traffic dropped off, quiet descended, and scores of fireflies appeared. We sat outside and watched them float through the treetops, their light competing with the myriad stars now poking through the foliage. If we weren’t exactly in the wilderness at our site by the highway, we were certainly aware of it surrounding us, nowhere near the light and sound of a city.

The next day was our last day out. But before heading home we set out to see some of the nearby Red River Gorge.

Consulting the map, we got on a narrow two-lane highway cut through steep hillsides, sprouting worn-looking little trailers. We saw a man collecting water from a pipe that jutted out from the rocky cliff along the road. “That’s something you don’t see every day,” I remarked, and then we came around a bend to see the road up ahead disappear into a dark hole yawning in the rock. It was the entrance to the Nada Tunnel.

“Woooooooo,” we said in unison, completely surprised and a bit apprehensive. The hole looked awfully small for something you drive a car into. A sign posted outside read “One lane tunnel – turn on lights.” We rolled up to the entrance and peered in – it was pitch black and we could barely see the other end, due to a curve in the tunnel. Water dripped from the rock face and pooled in front of the entrance. “Let’s just do it,” I said. Sally hit the gas – gently – and we drove in, the rough-hewn walls of stone swallowing my Honda Civic.

We’d never even heard of the Nada Tunnel, but later we read about it on the internet. It was built in 1910, blasted from the rock and then finished by workers with hand tools – hence the rough, craggy texture of the walls and ceiling. It’s only 13 feet wide and 13 feet high, but bores 900 feet – three football fields – through the rock. We also read that some people think it’s the site of paranormal activity. (We didn’t see any ghosts in our headlights – just grafitti).

We got through the tunnel without mishap, grateful that the car didn’t stall, and it was the highlight of our day. The rest of our drive around the Daniel Boone National Forest was scenic but somewhat uneventful. Although I’d hoped to come across some rock climbers, we never did find any.

But that’s the beauty of road trips. I was expecting a tourist trap, when we hiked across the Natural Bridge. I was getting glum, pining for “wilderness,” when the stars and the fireflies came out and surrounded us with their light. And we sure weren’t looking for the Nada Tunnel – but we found it, anyway.

Just thinking about it makes me want to hit the road again.

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