Route 66: A journey of 2,000 miles begins in Bakersfield

Moving boxes in an apartmentLast week marked my two-month anniversary as a Chicagoan, during which time life has at turns felt rushed (the cross-country drive) and plodding (unpacking box and after box). It’s been exhilarating (everything is new!) and stressful (new things are hard!). I haven’t had time for homesickness for the Bay Area.

I left San Francisco – and the little Russian Hill apartment I’d inhabited for nearly eight years – minutes after the moving van drove away. I surprised myself by NOT sobbing as I headed down Highway 101. It probably helped that I had a six-hour drive (read: crawl) ahead of me, and a 10 p.m. ETA in Bakersfield, CA. That left little time for sentimentality.

Tip #1: Driving from San Francisco to Bakersfield with few breaks is an ideal way to experience “highway hypnosis”. I don’t recommend it, but I was eager to kick off my Route 66 road trip as quickly as possible.

Tip #2: I spent my first night as a nomad – no longer a San Franciscan, but not yet technically living in Chicago – at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Bakersfield.  I’d never stayed in a La Quinta before. This one was affordable, spotless, peaceful and the mattress could rival any swanky Westin bed. Options for accommodation in Bakersfield are a bit limited. This one deserves a shout out.

I asked at the front desk whether the hotel had been recently renovated – what else would account for the lack of wear and tear? The clerk said no,  it had been nearly a decade. “We all just try really hard, Ma’am.” I loved that.

Ideally, I’d have meticulously planned my stops along Route 66, but I didn’t have that luxury with so much packing to do. A friend who had recently made the trip had some suggestions, including “The Route 66 Adventure Handbook”. It was a life-saver for someone who, aside from calculating drive times and booking hotels in advance (a must-do, even in the off season), was pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.

Every night, I’d bookmark the section of Route 66 I’d be driving the next day, and pick out a few highlights to visit. I missed some big ones (like Cadillac Ranch), so I’ll hang on to the book in case I try the drive again.

From Bakersfield, I headed to Flagstaff – see you in retirement, fabulous Flagstaff! – then Monument Valley.  This was my second time visiting Monument Valley in less than two years. It is not on Route 66, but it’s one of my favorite places, and I couldn’t bear to be so close without staying at least one night.

I did it for the photos.

 

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Next up: Winslow, AZ, and La Posada – a landmark Harvey Hotel. Then Santa Fe, my favorite small American city.

In Tucumcari, NM my luck with accommodations ran out. The “authentic” Route 66 motel I’d booked was… well, it was no La Posada. I ditched that reservation, in favor of a La Quinta that looked less… infected.  I paid for two hotel rooms that night, but have no regrets.

It’s worth stopping in Tucumcari for its classic Route 66 neon signs and kitsch. At the risk of being unkind… they are really the ONLY reasons to spend time there.

 

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Amarillo, TX lies just beyond Tucumcari.  The thing I’ll remember most about Amarillo is, unfortunately, the smell. Driving along the highway, I was tempted to pull over to photograph one of the many astonishingly-huge cattle yards but… I could not bear the odor. It made my eyes water, and my throat raw. But further upwind, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum was acceptable consolation. (It has AC and the windows are kept CLOSED.) I would love to go back.

To the museum, I mean.

My movers phoned mid-trip to let me know they were ahead of schedule, so I had to speed through the latter half of my drive. I didn’t have time to explore Oklahoma as much as I’d have liked, so I chose to focus on just the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and Tulsa’s historic Greenwood neighborhood (America’s “Black Wall Street” until a race riot of 1921) and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Seriously, can anyone who has ever MET me think I could drive past a cowboy museum without stopping?

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has ample movie memorabilia and galleries devoted to fabulous art, as well as more lassoes, saddles, cowboy (and cowgirl) attire and barbed wire than you can shake a fence post at. Another highlight is a replica cattle town at night: Prosperity Junction. The “sky” is filled with stars, and the air smells exactly like a summer evening. Not sure how they accomplished that…

I’ll never forget the excitement of entering Chicago after my Route 66 road trip, my car so stuffed I could barely see out the back. My GPS instructed me to drive nine miles north on Lake Shore Drive to my exit. I had never even driven in Chicago before. Nine miles!?!?! This is a huge city!

I had a similar feeling – a thrilling combination of fear and possibility — watching my Dad drive away, after helping me move into my first post-college studio in Manhattan.

Fast forward a lot of years. I wandered around my empty Chicago apartment, and stared out at Lake Michigan, completely alone.

The journey to get here was epic. I’m hoping my adventures in Chicago will be just as exciting – with a little less fast food consumed.

Watch this space…

 

 

 

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When the Spirit Moves You

Chicago Skyline

“I give you this to take with you: Nothing remains as it was. If you know this, you can begin again, with pure joy in the uprooting.”

― Judith Minty, Letters to My Daughters

Throughout 2017, I lived a life of not-so-quiet desperation. Of fear and loathing, even. Life is short, so I’m not someone who wishes time away… but I was relieved to see this December 31 roll around.

In January, I watched hopelessly as Donald Trump took office – cue the “fear and loathing” — then marched through sideways rain with 100,000 other Bay Area citizens to protest the man and his message.

Over the summer, I lost a cousin to a heart attack, and an uncle to cancer. At the same time, as Trump and Congress threatened to repeal Obamacare, I was blindsided by a breast cancer scare.

When the biopsy finally came back negative, I locked myself in the photocopy room at work and sobbed with relief. (I am blessed to have employer-sponsored insurance, yet more than six months later the medical bills keep rolling in.)

Finally, in November my 78-year-old mom suffered a significant stroke. Life has been stressful and crazy ever since.

So HELL yes, I am hopeful for a happier — if even more chaotic – 2018. That’s good because in March, after more than two decades in San Francisco, I’ll be relocating to CHICAGO.

I’ll be nearer my family in northeast Ohio — a 6 hour drive vs. a 6 hour flight? No brainer! – but there’s more afoot than that. For the past year or so, I’ve had a gnawing sense that it’s high time I SHAKE THINGS UP.

View of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco BayI moved to San Francisco straight out of grad school in New York. I had an apartment, but no job and just one friend in the Bay Area. When I tell that story, folks remark on how risky/brave it was – which never occurred to me back then. I had confidence that I’d find a job in a few months and meet new people. Everything would be fine, if I took it one step at a time.

So I did. And it was.

Since then, though, I slowly lost some of my pluck and sense of adventure. I became cautious, and looked for a perfect confluence of circumstances — professional and personal – when considering a big change. I was too comfortable. I was feeling stuck.

Now it’s like I’m changing tires on a moving bus, which is both exhausting and exhilarating. I’m working (my job is coming with me), while simultaneously managing my mom’s medical appointments from 2,500 miles and three time zones away, purging my closets and researching moving companies.  I’m also breaking up with dentists, doctors and hairdressers I’ve been with for 20 years. (For some reason, those are the decisions that make the move seem most “real”.)

Northern California LighthouseI’m planning a farewell tour of the Bay Area, but know I’ll barely make a dent in two decades of favorite restaurants, neighborhoods and friends. I’d like to slip up to Seattle for a few days, but may not have time.

Every day, I wake up a bit more excited about my Chicago adventure. I’ve signed a lease for an apartment on the North side, and started watching Bulls games. I bought a big, puffy down coat that reaches my knees.

I’m also mapping out my cross-country drive on Route 66. That drive is on my bucket list. CHECK!

Sign above the Cowboy Bar, Jackson WYIn my bones, I’m a Western girl – with the boots and old western DVDs to prove it. It’s tough to leave, but I figure there’s a condo in Austin, Santa Fe or Flagstaff waiting for me – in retirement, or maybe before. Who knows? The only thing that’s constant is change.

I’ll take the future as it comes, and keep an open mind — because change is good.

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.”

― Helen Keller

 

Old abandoned cars along US Route 66.

Coming Up Short

This has been a difficult year — an annus horribilis for many, to paraphrase Her Majesty the Queen.

Image result for queen elizabeth canadaI have been thinking about Queen Elizabeth a lot lately. She’s the one I’m told I must swear an oath to, if I flee Donald Trump and seek asylum in Canada. (I’ve already chosen a title for my memoir… “Mounties: my path to citizenship!”)

I celebrated a milestone birthday recently. The big 5-0. Up until now, I have taken birthdays in stride. Forty was no biggie for me, because I didn’t feel or look much different from when I was 30 or 35. Fifty is different.

My hair is graying all over my head – not just in a few places. My hairdresser has gone from delicately applying highlights with a little brush, to slapping color all over my head with a spatula.

My knees are shot, the cartilage long gone. And in the past few years, forgetting to put reading glasses in my purse when I go out has become more than just an inconvenience. It renders me helpless.

While I realize getting older is far better than the alternative, turning 50 within a few weeks of Donald Trump winning the presidential election was like a one-two punch to the gut. I was kind of a wreck.

But on November 9, as journalists began speculating about President-Elect Trump’s first 100 days in office, I had an epiphany. I needed my own 100 day plan. My mood wasn’t going to de-funk itself.

It kicked off December 1, and will finish on February 28. Perfectly timed and tidy!

I’m keeping some aspects of my plan to myself because THE INTERNET IS FOREVER. But it’s a combination of healthier living (teetotaling, more walking), professional soul-searching and more giving. I haven’t chosen a volunteer activity yet, but still have 93 days to figure it out.

Another goal is to be braver, so last weekend I asked my hairdresser to chop off my hair. It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn’t thought I had the chin or cheekbones to carry if off. Also, men supposedly prefer longer hair. You’ll recall that Faith Hill fans FREAKED OUT when she went pixie a year or so ago.

And remember Felicity, and the “haircut incident”? A shorter ‘do may have cost the Felicity the love of Ben, and Keri Russell her very first TV series. With the risk of such backlash, I’m surprised any woman ever goes shorter than a “lob”.

 

Younger women worry so much about whether the rest of the world likes their hair and clothes and bodies. It’s exhausting to watch. Now that I’m 50, I don’t care as much. (Luckily, I don’t have a network TV show to possibly lose.)

Long hair is lovely, and if you have it and like it…more power to you, sister! If you need me I’ll be over here, rubbing the stubble on the back of my well-coiffed head, and channeling the great Amy Poehler:

“Good for her! Not for me.”

Stay tuned. You’ll be hearing that expression a lot more from me in the next half century.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn French by watching videos of Justin Trudeau.

justin
Image result for ginnifer goodwin
Psych! Not me. But this is the photo that started it all.

Stuck in an Elevator: a saga in verse

main_chanie_elevator

I set off on my work commute
Along my normal daily route
My nextdoor neighbor followed suit
Into our elevator.

That was when disaster struck
The worst of days! Of all the luck!
In between floors, the thing got stuck
A go-nowhere DUMBwaiter.

Time passed, the damned thing didn’t shift
And no one came to our assist
In this death trap of a lift
I prepared to meet my maker.

We punched the buttons for each floor
Jumped up and down, yanked on the door
My neighbor starting calling for
Someone to come and help her.

Her pleas attracted some attention
Repairmen ended our suspension
And we commenced with our descension
We took the stairs – they’re safer.

Life Behind Bars

Woman eating aloneIf you follow this blog you know I like to travel, and I often do it solo. It’s part conscious choice: I’m an introvert who tends to avoid trips involving days at the beach (there’s not enough sunscreen on earth to protect my pastiness), or hitting nightclubs and casinos. Give me a self-guided walking tour, a few historic sites and a spot of shopping in a mild climate – I’ll be a happy tourist.

Traveling on my own is also sometimes a necessity: I’m single with a lot of coupled-up friends. If I scheduled my trips around their availability, I’d wind up spending an awful lot of vacation time on my sofa.

And of course there’s also solo work travel. I’m not required to do a ton of it, and the trips are usually short so I enjoy them. There’s something about staying in a hotel room that someone tidies for you each day, and eating meals (on the company’s dime) that you neither prepared nor cleaned up after, that feels like an adventure – and not at all lonely.

Given how often I travel alone, and how comfortable I am with it, I often surprise myself when I arrive at a restaurant solo and tell the host/hostess, “Just one for dinner.” Or, “It’s just me.” I can’t explain why I feel the need to include the word just, as if I’m apologizing. Maybe it’s because restaurants so often leave me feeling contrite for taking up a whole table, “just” for myself.

I was recently in Palm Springs for a music festival that my company sponsors. On my first night, I headed downtown for VillageFest, a low-key Thursday night street fair. I arrived early, and found a restaurant that looked promising. I was told I’d have to eat at the bar.

Let me be clear: one of the advantages of traveling alone is I can often eat at great restaurants without a reservation, because I’m usually willing to sit at the bar. But this large bistro in Palm Springs was – I kid you not – about two-thirds empty at this time. There were unoccupied tables for two everywhere, so being booked solid was definitely not the issue.

I forced a smile, said “thanks anyway”, and kept walking, eventually finding a more crowded restaurant where I was nevertheless seated at a real table, like a valued customer. I had two cocktails, an appetizer and main course salad, and dessert. I suppose I felt like making a point.

When I walked past the snooty bistro about 90 minutes later, it was bustling but STILL had empty tables for two. So, what was gained by snubbing me?

Fast forward to this afternoon. I was not traveling, I just had errands to run at San Jose’s Santana Row. Despite its vast array of shops, with even more in a sprawling indoor mall across the street, I’m not a fan of the place. Teslas are on display in the center of the complex, surrounded by beautiful people lingering – being seen by other beautiful people — in large open-air restaurants with white tablecloths and a complete set of wine glasses at each place. In other words, forget every Midwest mall you’ve ever shopped in.

I made the mistake of approaching a French-American themed café by myself, seeing quite a few empty tables, and asking to be seated at one of them. The unsmiling hostess replied that single parties must sit at the bar. Not that there might be a wait, unless I was willing to sit at the bar. I was alone, so the bar was my only option.

I later joked that the swells at Santana Row seemed terrified that I might infect them with my unglamorous single-ness. There were tables to spare, so I can only conclude that the optics of a person dining alone was considered potentially depressing to other diners – an unwelcome appetite suppressant.

Because every ludicrous situation I encounter brings to mind a Seinfeld episode, I laughed thinking of season 9, and germaphobe coworker Peggy who was frantic that proximity to Elaine would contaminate her. Too bad today’s restaurant hostess didn’t leave a keyboard within arm’s reach.

tv comedy seinfeld elaine benez
In 2015, Deloitte University Press released a study focused on a steady rise in single-person households in the United States between 1960 and 2014 that is expected to continue for at least 15 years. While this trend will influence the way communities and housing are designed and built, I hope it will also force establishments like Zin American Bistro and The Left Bank to value the growing number of us who are as likely to travel, shop, dine and reside solo, as in a group.

Show us to a table, if that’s what we ask for, because there’s no more space at the bar.

 

What lies in store?

Pinocchio and Jiminy CricketIt’s a well-known fact that I am a terrible liar. Even little white ones make me blush and squirm and look away anxiously. Once, in high school English, our very stern teacher Mr. Scott kicked off class by checking in on the prior night’s assignment. He knew there had been a big test in U.S. History that morning, and set about trolling for signs my classmates and I had ditched our English reading to study for it.

He started out innocently enough, just a query or two about what we thought of the reading. The other students played it cool, because veteran teachers like Mr. Scott can smell fear.

I, on the other hand, felt my face burning and my eyes glancing upward to scrutinize every crack and cobweb on the schoolhouse ceiling. Mr. Scott pounced:

“I detect a distinct lack of eye contact from parts of the room. So let’s say you put you books on the floor, take out a clean sheet of paper and a pencil…”

Yep, it was a pop quiz… that I think most of us bombed. And I still blame myself for our collective downfall, because as I said I am a terrible liar.

As an adult, I periodically encounter folks who lie easily and often – and not just about harmless things, like whether the roast beef is too dry, or your jeans make you look fat. Sometimes I envy them a little, for the way they seem to sail through each day, skirting life’s many little frictions without a hint of remorse.

But if nothing else, the thought of having to come up with – and remember – all those little fibs is kind exhausting. And I wonder… what’s the point of being dishonest anyway, unless you have broken a law and are facing possible jail time? What’s the worst that can happen if you just tell the truth?

An example: Before a recent workout with my trainer, I was stretching on a big mat in the middle of my gym. Mornings are busy there and the mat can get pretty crowded, so I was a little vexed when a woman plopped down next to me and proceeded to text and surf the web on her phone. The only thing she was flexing was her thumbs, while taking up prime gym floor real estate.

Her trainer arrived, and as she stood up he asked her, “So, did you stretch out already?” She looked him square in the eye, and without missing a beat responded.

“Yep.”

Whaaaaat? I was conflicted. I wondered why I can’t lie to my trainer like that, instead of spilling every diet and workout transgression as soon as she asks, “How are you today?” I also questioned the point of lying, since we pay our trainers to work with us. How much we put into (and get from) the partnership is entirely up to us. They get paid either way.

Most of all, though, I fought temptation to call her out, a la “The Princess Bride”. Am I the only person who fantasizes about this whenever I hear someone tell a WHOPPER?

the princess bride liar lying

The thing that stopped me was the knowledge that her stiff muscles were none of my business. Also, the fact that she could probably gouge my eyes out with those power-texting thumbs of hers.

I mean it, I saw them. Those were some champion, powerhouse thumbs.

 

 

Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

“Is it just me, or are they speaking Chinese?”

Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view
Photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

This weekend was a long one in the United States, with many businesses closing Monday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an important holiday that can feel a little déjà vu-ish, falling so soon after Christmas and New Year’s Day. But we unlucky few who have to work on Presidents’ Day are desperate to make the most of it, because we won’t see another public three-day-weekend until Memorial Day in late May. (“Mon dieu,” gasp the French!)

Thanks to El Nino, I spent a lot of the weekend curled up on my sofa binge-watching football and Netflix – “Making a Murderer” and “House of Cards”. Today there was a break in the weather, just long enough for me to head downtown and catch a movie – “The Big Short”. That’s when things got kind of crazy/funny.

I knew something was up when I arrived in the theatre, and the screen was black. No ads, no previews. When the movie finally started, the studio name appeared… in Chinese characters. Then the production company… a Chinese name I didn’t recognize. Actors emerged, singing in a karaoke bar. There were subtitles.

Was it possible that a movie about the collapse of the U.S. mortgage securities market could only get backing from China? I read “The Big Short” a few years ago, and was racking my brain. Was there a Chinese character in the film? Someone who liked to sing sappy pop tunes in public? Neither scenario made sense.

Soon, other moviegoers started to whisper and giggle. Quite a few rushed to the exits, assuming they were in the wrong theatre. Eventually, the movie stopped and an usher arrived to apologize, they had accidentally queued up a Chinese language film called “Detective Chinatown” that was scheduled for later. The correct movie would start in a few minutes.

As the usher was leaving, one patron shouted out, “OK, but what about the previews???” I’m pretty sure he was serious. It was a very San Francisco thing to do. We go to the movies for the WHOLE cinematic experience, especially since some of us pay $30 just to park at the cinema. Plus, without previews how will we know which movies to expect next Christmas?

If “Detective Chinatown” is among the coming attractions, I think I’ll pass. When a “Variety” review starts with “A budding Chinese Sherlock Holmes meets his dumbass Watson in Bangkok…,” I know it is my time to rush for the exit.

Detective Chinatown movie poster

The Change Up

House Hunters International on HGTV, image of Paris
I am in the process of planning a trip to Belgium — hopefully full of frites, beer, and waffles slathered in chocolate. Last night, to “research” my destination, I dug deep into my nearly 40 recorded episodes of House Hunters International for inspiration. (As a perpetual renter in a city where property prices are INSANE, it’s the only HGTV show that doesn’t completely depress me.)

HHI follows an expat couple or family (usually American) as they navigate byzantine housing markets in some of the world’s most desirable and exotic cities. Participants present a local realtor with their wish lists and budget constraints, and in turn are shown just three properties from which they must choose.

A few things are almost inevitable:

  • Each adult in the equation will have a different wish list for his or her new home, and the biggest point of contention will be modern vs. quaint/historic/charming.
  • The house the participants left behind – usually in Texas or the Midwest — was big, with a spacious open kitchen central to their family and social lives. Mom/wife will cling to this ideal like grim death, refusing to entertain (pun intended) the notion that guests could gather and socialize in a dining or living room, adjacent to a tiny kitchen.
  • The old homestead will also have had a massive backyard, shielded from the prying eyes of nosey neighbors by mighty oaks or acres of cornfields.
  • “Home” will be less expensive than the destination city. I’ve yet to see participants from San Francisco. It’d be too boring to watch a couple high-fiving during a walkthrough, and giggling over how much money they’ll be saving in Hong Kong/Paris/Melbourne.
  • At least one property will feature a toilet that is separate from the bathroom. This will provoke confusion and/or consternation in my countrymen, accustomed to having several bathroom suites to choose from whenever nature calls.
  • Participants will plan for a constant stream of visitors, requiring a guest room and (if possible) a bathroom. “Yes it’s $200 over budget, but we can’t expect Great Aunt Gert to stay in a hotel if she comes!”
  • Nobody will be satisfied with the size of the fridge.

Mini European Style Refridgerator

Also certain: whichever property I say will win out, I will be wrong. I rarely pick the house that’s over budget – but some participants do. I say, more money spent on housing means less spent on gelato, shoes and train tickets.

The fact that no one follows my telepathic advice can be frustrating. What really chaps my hide, though, is watching people with the chance of a lifetime – an adventure in a beautiful, historic city like Brussels or Antwerp – fret because life will be DIFFERENT.

Because that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

If the fridge is tiny, you can hit the market daily and become great buddies with the lady who sells stinky cheese. And if your kitchen is too small for entertaining, invite friends over just for drinks.

If your kids’ rooms are smaller than in the US, I promise they won’t be scarred for life.

Besides, they should be running outside on the cobblestone streets, eating waffles slathered in chocolate – not hanging out in their bedrooms.

Change is good.

Fortune Cookie: Change is good

Fleet Week 2015, San Francisco Style

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Every October, the San Francisco Bay Area celebrates Fleet Week — a highlight of which is (for most of us) the participation of the U.S Navy’s elite Blue Angels.

The above cartoon perfectly captures the conflict Bay Area citizens face each year, as we weigh the environmental and monetary costs of this enormous spectacle… with how unbelievably COOL it is when a lethal fighter jet buzzes your building.

“Hey, I can see the pilot’s helmet from down here!”

I think you can guess I’m pretty firmly in the right brain camp on this one.

Back in the Saddle

Moonrise over Mendocino, California.
Moonrise over Mendocino

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged — a LONG time. A bunch of seemingly important projects and commitments, during a particularly busy spring and summer, got the better of me… or the worse, depending on how you look at it. In retrospect I’m not sure how important all that stuff really was but… the cost is sunk.

So, I’m back in the blogging saddle. (Yee haw.)

This resurrection post features photos taken on a trip to one of my favorite California destinations: Mendocino County. I drove the 160-ish miles north last weekend to kick off what I’m calling my #BayAreaBucketList tour. I’m taking in new places and events that have always sounded amazing, as well as some old favorites like Mendocino.

I’ve got no plans to pull up stakes right now. I’m just making a conscious effort to better partake of the opportunities that exist around me in one of the biggest — and prettiest — U.S. states. We Californians often pay handsomely to live in the Golden State, so why not get our money’s worth? Or at least try to…

There’s no better time to visit Mendocino than around Labor Day – the unofficial start of the Bay Area summer.