The Road Revisited

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Scared in Seattle, Part 2

Tony and I left the bar we were at soon after his wigger friends, but not soon enough. He was beyond half-in-the-bag. He was all the way in the bag and the bag was stapled over his head. I was beginning to get really scared.

We had made plans to go to the Mariners game the next day, and before we had left the bar Tony secured me a discount ticket in the bleachers from a friend. "You'll have to give me a ride, though, in the morning, to this brunch place because I'm supposed to meet some friends. I'd invite you, but I don't think you can afford it. Anyway, then you can do your own thing until game time and meet up with us later." It had sounded like a plan, but now here I was in an unfamiliar city, in the middle of the night, driving on one-way streets, stealing a cellphone from Tony's drunk hand to talk to drunk Nick to get directions to a place I didn't know, that I didn't want to go to, and all the while Tony is in the passenger seat yelling gibberish and trying to climb out the window. When we finally reached Nick's girlfriend's neighborhood, I parked on the street a few blocks away, to make Tony walk, as punishment. I didn't like him very much at that point. That was a mistake, because he ended up falling in a bush and singing at the top of his lungs, waking several random neighbors. Nick and Friend of Nick intercepted him. "You deal with it," I said, shoving Tony's phone into Nick's hand.

I was sour. I was not a very good party guest. Then again, it wasn't really a party. It was the two thug kids from before, and their two pretty (and pretty young) girlfriends, Tony and I. "Cool lunchbox!" Nick's girlfriend said.
"Thanks." I tried my best to seem cordial.
"You want a beer?"
"Not really. Do you have water?"
"Um, tap water."
I sighed. "Gross, I'll take a beer."

Tony stumbled inside, laughing and shouting at walls, cabinets, people, and furniture. "You fucking guys! AAAAHHHHH!!!!" It made no sense. I excused myself to the bathroom. I stared at my reflection. "What the hell have you gotten yourself into now?"

When I came out, Tony was on the phone. "No, it's just north of Queen Anne. Yeah, the one with all the brick duplexes."
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Calling up a delivery," someone said.
"They're on they're way," Tony said, snapping the phone closed.
Figuring they meant pizza, I busied myself looking at the art on the walls and the books on the bookshelf.

Twenty minutes later there was a knock at the door.
"Sweet! 'Bout time!" Nick shouted.
Two huge, tattooed guys walked in, with a pit bull in tow. They did not look like pizza delivery men. After the dispensary hellos, they threw three bags of white stuff on the table.
"It's what we agreed on?"
"Yeah, here you go," Nick said, handing them a wad of cash.
You would have thought everyone in the room was drowning and the bags contained oxygen, that is how fast they all fell onto it. Compact mirrors flew out of pockets, razor blades seemed to materialize from thin air, and lines were cut more deftly and quickly than a barber cuts hair.
My mind said, "Oh, FUCK NO!" My jaw on the floor, my mouth managed to squeak, "I'll be right back."

I grabbed my phone and ran to the bathroom. I called Nick. Not coked-out Nick in the living room, but Nick that I had befriended earlier that night, with Shan. "Call me if you ever need anything, if you get in trouble," he had said. I was cashing in that favor.

I got his voicemail. "Hi, this is Nick, leave a message."
"Nick, hi, it's Jessica, from earlier. Listen, you said to call if I needed anything and.... I kind of... don't like where I am right now. I'm a little scared. I want to leave, and I was wondering if I could crash on your couch tonight or something? I need directions out of this neighborhood if nothing else. Anyway, call me back."

I went back out into the living room. "YOU WANT SOME?!" someone called.
"No thanks, I'm good." I went into the kitchen, planning my next move. By this time it was about three in the morning. I had no idea where I was. I paced. "Fuck, fuck, fuck...." My phone was in my hand. After about fifteen minutes, I went back to the bathroom and called Nick again. This time he picked up. "Hello?"
"Hey, Nick! Hey, it's Jessica -- I was calling to ask if--"
He cut me off. "I'm with my girlfriend right now." His tone was angry. Then he hung up.

I damn near lost it. Maybe I'm uncool, but cocaine really makes me uncomfortable. I hate it. And for a split-second I was half-tempted to call it quits and point the car back East, and just drive straight home. I closed my phone, ran out of the bathroom, through the kitchen, and out onto the sidewalk. Then I did the unthinkable. I called my dad.
"Hello?" he said, sleepily.
I was crying. "Hi, Dad." It was a squeak.
"What's wrong, honey?"
"I'm with people I don't know and they're all doing drugs."
"Where are you?"I sobbed. "Somewhere in Seattle. I don't really know where. I think I want to come home."
"Well, you can't right now. But can you find your way to a highway?"
"I can try."
"Can you find a hotel on the highway?"
"It's a Saturday night, Dad. They're all going to be full. But I know there's a Wal-Mart in Tacoma I can sleep at."
"Okay. Just get out of there. Find the highway, find Tacoma, and find the Wal-Mart. And call me when you get there."
"And calm down."
"Okay. I love you."
"Love you, too, honey."

But there was one problem. My lunchbox -- and my keys -- were still inside on the kitchen counter.

I could sneak in and grab it, and they'd never know, too busy putting things in their nose in the living room. I tried. But they saw me. "Where'd you go? Oh, my god, what's wrong?!" My face was a mess of tears. Tony all but pushed me up against a wall, grabbing my shoulders and bending down to look me in the eye. "Jess, what is it?! Oh my god! Are you okay?!" The two pretty girls watched in horror as I tried to speak.
What could I say? "Um, well, I hate all of you and I want to leave immediately."? "You all are losers and I want to be as far away from you as possible."? I don't think those would go over well.
I lied. "I'm just a little homesick," I squeaked.
The two girls melted. "Awwwwww!" They fawned over me, herding me onto the back porch, shoving more beer in my hand, hugging me and saying things like, "Don't think about that right now. Just look at this view. Here, sit here. Isn't the view nice? Just concentrate on that, 'kay? It sucks being homesick, but you'll be fine."
I obliged, but I really did want to leave. At one point I managed to get back into the house to use the bathroom and tried to escape again. This time Tony intercepted me. "Where are you going?"
"I'm leaving." I walked out the front door and he followed.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know. Tacoma."
He was making more sense than he had been an hour earlier, speaking clearly and focusing on things with his eyes. He grabbed my hand and focused on me. "Jess, wait. Look, I'm sorry, okay? I'm really sorry I got you into this. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I'm so sorry. But please don't go. Listen -- it's really late and you don't know where you are. You could leave here and end up in a really bad part of town, and then you'd really be in trouble. Or you could stay here -- no one is trying to hurt you, remember -- and just go fall asleep. I promise no one will bother you."
I leveled his gaze, apprehensive.
"Trust me, Jess -- you're not in any danger here. You're better off staying here than trying to find your way somewhere now."
He was right. It made me so angry, but he was right.

I went back inside and claimed a futon in a corner of the living room. One of the pretty girls came over to give me a blanket. She was Japanese, and struggled with the language. "Here is blanket. You... okay?"
I managed a weak smile. "Yes, thank you. I'm fine."
She was adorably sweet, and tried her best to cheer me up in broken English. "Homesick is... hurting. My family.... very far away. I hurting too."
"When was the last time you saw your family?"
"Six year."
I felt like an asshole, even though the whole homesick thing was a lie. "Wow. That's.... that's tough."

Tony somehow convinced the others to party in the bedroom and on the back porch, leaving me with some semblance of peace. He stayed with me for a little while, until I fell asleep. He told me a bedtime story -- his life story. "Like I said, I'm from New York. But my wife lives in Virginia."
"Your wife?"
"Yeah. My wife and daughter."
His eyes fell. "Yeah. I met my wife while I was opening up a Ruby Tuesday in the Shenandoah Valley. It was love at first sight, y'know? Anyway, we were married for a little bit, she got pregnant, and I got out of the restaurant business for a little while and became a teacher. I taught middle school. I was planning on getting my masters. But then one night I got drunk. I got in a bar fight. Some cops broke it up, and one of them hit me really hard, so I hit him back. I ended up in jail for five months. Somehow she stayed with me. I guess for our daughter. So Elizabeth was born and about a year later, my wife and I were walking down the street. I was drunk. I saw the cop that had hit me, but he didn't see me. I went up behind him and cold-cocked him from behind. Then I ran. I ran.... heh. I ran all the way here. I haven't been back to Virginia since. I haven't seen my daughter since. That's why I move so often -- I don't want to be found."
"Why don't you just go back and turn yourself in?"
"Are you kidding? Second-time offense for assaulting an officer? That's at least five years in federal prison. I wouldn't last. I'd go crazy."
I couldn't think of anything to say.
He spoke slowly, quietly, almost in a fatherly way. "Why do you think I drink? Why do you think I snort? I don't do it because I like it. It's not that fun. I just do it to forget."
"That's crazy."
"That's life."

Soon I was asleep. Like Tony said, no one bothered me. From what I heard later, the sweet Japanese girl wasn't so lucky. "Oh, yeah," Tony told me the next morning. "She was asleep on the bed and one of the guys woke her up by shoving a line up her nose. She took it, though."

I couldn't think of anything to say.

I had to think of something to say, though, when I called my father back. I didn't want him to worry that I had stayed where I was, so I lied the biggest lie I’d ever told him. "Yeah, hey, I'm at the Wal-Mart in Tacoma."
"Okay, what are you going to do today?"
"I don't know. I think I'm going to the Mariners game."
"Okay, well just be careful, okay?"
"Yes, Dad. I love you."

I closed the phone and turned to Tony, who had fallen asleep on the floor next to my futon. Shaking his shoulder, I asked, "What time did you need me to bring you to that brunch place?"
He woke with a crazed start. "Huh?! Wha?!"
"What time did you need me to bring you to that place? For Bloody Marys?"
His face fell. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, and buried his face in his hands, elbows on knees. "Oh, God.... I don't even want to go. But they'll be mad... uh... now? Can we leave now? Can you take me to my place and then I'll take a shower, then you bring me back down to this area, then you can drive back up to my place and take a shower too?"
It sounded complicated, but I had already promised and bought a ticket to the game. I was still a little mad from the previous night's events, but made a wager. "Okay. We can leave now, and I can take you anywhere you need to go. But no more coke. I don't want to see it, I don't want to be around it, and I don't want to be around you if you're doing it."
"Deal! That's fine! I was going to say the same anyway -- no more while you're here."
"Okay. Let's go."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Scared in Seattle, Part 1

I walked into the Brooklyn at 10 PM to find Tony stirring martinis and cursing life in general. "What's wrong?"
"Why do I have to work to have money? Can't I just get money? Like, as a gift?"
"Is your last name Rockafeller?"
"Then no, you can't."

I parked my butt on a barstool and a glass of pinot grigio appeared before me. Two early-thirtysomething guys came in, one tall and dark and one short and fair. They said hello to Tony and ordered some oysters. "Guys, this is my friend Jessica," Tony said, introducing us.
"Hi, I'm Shan," the tall guy said.
"Shan? That's a cool name. Nice to meet you."
"You too. And this is Nick."
I shook Nick's hand. "Hi."
"Hey. Hey, is that a real Fall Guy lunchbox?"
"No, but it is a real Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox."
"No way, really? Can I see it?"
Soon we were chatting like old friends. They shared their oysters with me, and they were delicious. At one point Shan asked me, "So are you really friends with... him?" He nodded towards Tony.
"Kind of. I just met him. We're not dating or anything, he's just letting me crash on his couch tonight."
"Oh. Okay."
"Why do you ask?"
His face twisted. "I don't... I just don't like him very much. I used to work here and I quit 'cause I got in a fight with him."
"Because he thought he was like, King Shit of the Restaurant."
"Eh. People get like that, I guess." I wasn't eager to engage in any fighting or side-taking.
"Yeah, I guess."
"If you don't like him, why'd you come here?"
"Best oysters in town."

"How's your heart?" Tony asked Shan.
Shan's face grew serious. "Dude. It was scary."
"I bet!" Tony replied.
I asked what happened.
"I had kind of like a mini-heart attack. But it wasn't a heart attack, it was just a convulsion in my heart. Hurt like a bitch, though. And I was kind of fucked, because I was working at this tiny little lake resort up in Wyoming and the closest hospital was fifty miles away. That was the worst ride of my life."
"Jeez. Well, I'm glad you're okay."
He laughed. "Yeah, me too. Thanks."

Tony was closing up, and tried to bridge the gap between he and Shan. "Jessica and I were about to go get some sushi, do you want to come with us?"
"We are?" I asked. I'd had no idea of any plans besides that sweet, sweet promise of a shower and sleeping on his couch.
"Yeah, I gotta meet someone at the sushi bar."
"Okay." I agreed, reluctantly.
"Sure, we'll come along!" Nick said. "Why not?"

The four of us walked the steep blocks to the sushi place, and I managed to catch a trace of a second wind. For a moment I caught that old familiar feeling of, "Wow -- yesterday afternoon I didn't know anyone here and now look -- friends!" I was content.
All of us were pretty underdressed for the sushi bar, which was laid out like a New York club. Shan, Nick and I ordered tuna tartare and Shan hated it, leaving more for Nick and I. Somewhere along the line we lost Tony, who went outside to make a bunch of calls and ended up running into Three Of The Drunkest People In The Entire World, who were drunk partly thanks to the booze he'd served them earlier. The four of them came inside, Tony, two women and one man. The women were both blonde, one broader than the other. The tiny one kept making out with the man, himself a broad, blonde thing. Tony walked in with a look that said, "What have I gotten myself into?", catching my eye over the heads of the three partiers.
"Oh my god, you have a lunchpail!" the tall blonde woman shouted at me.
"Yeah!""I have a Ramones one from when I was little!"
"That's incredible! Hold onto it. And by 'hold onto it', I mean 'give it to me'."
She cackled, throwing her head back. "I have to pee! Come pee with me!"
I accompanied her to the bathroom to make sure she didn't fall and crack her head on the toilet.

I managed to dodge the drunkards and get back to where Shan and Nick were sitting for a few minutes. Tony wasn't so lucky. Shan asked where I was headed after Seattle.
"Oregon, eventually."
"Where are you staying?"
"With a friend, a very dear friend I haven't seen in years."
"Okay. Well, my dad lives in Vancouver. Write this number down, I'll give you his number."
"But I'm not going to Canada."
He gave me a joking look. "Duh! Vancouver, Washington, not Canada!"
"Oh. I knew that."
"Yeah, I know you did," he teased. "Anyway, his name is Ken. If you get into any trouble, call him."
"Thanks so much. That's very cool of you."
Nick chimed in. "Yeah, you really need people to call if you get in trouble, y'know? Here, take my number, too. Just in case."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, yeah! We're New Yorkers, we gotta stick together!" Nick was a transplant from the North Bronx.
"Well, thanks." I saved his number in my phone.

"Well, we gotta go," Nick said.
"Already? Aww, man!"
"Yeah, already." He nodded toward Shan, who was asleep with his head in his hands.
"Oh. Okay. Well, nuff said. Thanks for the offer to call if I need you."
"No problem. Use it."
"I'm so drunk!" I heard behind me, coming from the mouth of the blonde woman. Tony again caught my eye, flustered.
'Well, get home safe -- get him home safe," I said to Nick, who was corralling Shan toward the door.
"Thanks -- goodnight!"

I begrudingly joined Tony at the table with the blonde threesome. The tiny blonde tore her mouth off the man long enough to tell me about her three kids and her husband. "My kids are so great! My husband is so great, too!"
I looked at the man. "She speaks highly of you, huh?"
"Oh, this isn't my husband," she cut in. I looked at her quizzically and she tried her best to explain. "Look. I loved my husband. We got married and were very in love. Then we had kids. And I still love him. But not like before. But I will again someday. When the kids go to college. We put in on a shelf, kind of. And in the meantime I just..... y'know....."
"No, it's not cheating. This is my best friend." She ran her hand up and down the chest of her companion.
"Um, okay."
It made no sense and perfect sense at the same time, and that scared me. "I'm never getting married," I thought.

Soon, Tony was ready to leave and we walked to my car to drive home. "Jeez, that woman!" he cried, referring to the tall blonde. "I swear, if I have one more woman give me a hotel key card....."
"You got her key card?"
He sounded embarrassed. "Yeah."
"You wanna go for it? I can handle my own."
"Are you kidding me? Hell no! How valuable can it be if she's giving it away like that? Gross! Hey, you wanna go grab a drink at a little place in Queen Anne's for a minute? I need to wind down a little."
I most certainly didn’t, but said sure.
Soon we were at a dimly-lit, cozy bar being waited on by another one of the scores of bartenders Tony knew. "How's your wife?" Tony asked the man.
"Matt's wife is pregnant," Tony whispered to me.

Tony was drinking faster than I could even keep track. I went to the bathroom and came back to find another drink at my seat, even though I wasn't done with the first. "Come on, drink faster," Tony encouraged.
"Uh, in case you forgot, I'm driving."
"Eh, whatever. You can handle it."
I was starting to get annoyed. I pushed the drink away and ordered a water. Tony pretended not to notice.

Some friends of Tony's arrived, and surprised me because they were all very young. The four of them were also white as could be, but dressed like thugs. "Yo, baby, wassup?" one asked Tony, pounding his fist in variety of jabs and finger tricks.
"Not much, man, not much. This is Jessica."
I shook the boy's hand. "Hi."
"I'm Nick. Damn, girl! You got a strong grip!"
"Eh, you know. Would you rather a dead fish handshake?"
"True dat, true dat. Hey, Tony, man, what's going on tonight?"
"I don't know, what is going on?"
"Why don't y'all come back to my girl's place. I think there might be something goin' on there. Right, baby?"
A polished girl with a designer purse nodded shyly.
"Okay. We'll be there a little later."
"Right on, man, right on."
The four of them filed out the door.
"Aren't you tired?" I asked Tony, not excited about being dragged to a party. "You've been working all day and up all last night."
"I never get tired!" he exclaimed. "Anyway, we're only going to stop by there, we're not going to stay very long."
I was uneasy. "Okay…..”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Neo-Geo is a No-Go: Seattle on a Summer Afternoon

Tony's hangover seemed to subside over top-shelf margaritas at a Mexican place on the pier. Margaritas, plural, because he had two, whereas I had only water and the sweet solace of tortilla chips to settle my quaking stomach. "You sure you don't want one?" he asked, licking the straw clean of icy bits.
"Positive." I stuck the bright yellow umbrella in my ponytail and tried to quiet my hands from shaking. "How is it that the hair of the dog can get rid of your hangover, but it's not even the hair of the dog? Weren't you drinking whiskey last night? Bourbon? Now tequila? That's like, the hair of the dog that bit your dog."
"Bit your dog's ass, ha! I like it!" He chewed the ice cubes before pushing the glass back to the bartender.

It was hot. We had walked around the water's edge, in and out of all the market places and tourist traps. "I know the bartender here, let's go in here," Tony would say, and in we'd go to another scrimshaw-and-lifesaver oak-paneled eatery, zip past the hostess and straight to the bar, where Tony would realize he didn't recognize the face shaking the Bloody Marys and off we'd go to the next place. It was like being back in New York again -- especially because Tony was from New York just like I was-- but with Pacific Indian carvings next to every doorway. We finally ended up at Mama's Mexican because Tony had all but exhausted his social parlay in that five-block radius. And the margaritas, he said, were "killer".

On our walk, he had told me about one of the women he was dating, a nurse. "She's so cool, but in a good girl way. She doesn't like my lifestyle."
"How do you mean?"
"She doesn't like when I do stuff."
"Stuff. Stuff?"
"Like, she gets all bent out of shape when I do coke and whatnot. I tell her, 'Hey. I don't do it around you.' Y'know? I mean, I like her a lot. But sometimes I feel like I'm dating my mom."
"Hmmmm. That's too bad." I didn't say much else. For some reason, unbeknownst even to me, coke unsettles me. I don't like the idea of it, I don't want to hang out with people while they do it, and I don't like hanging out with people after they do it. It scares me. Call me square, but it scares me. Maybe I'm the only one, but I don't like it one bit. And I didn't ask Tony how often he did it, because I didn't want to know.

Sitting at the bar, Tony let slip how much money he makes and I nearly choked on an ice cube. "Tell me you're investing it," I asked.
He laughed. "Um.... define 'investing'. I spend money, if that's what you mean. I'm completely broke."
"That's bullshit. I throw my bullshit flag at that."
"No, I'm serious. I'm totally broke."
"Well, let's see.... in the past month, there's been baseball to bet on, then Dave Matthews tickets, horse races to bet on, Neko Case tickets, um, I went down to visit a friend in Oregon -- if you ever go, you should go to Multnomah Falls, it's gorgeous -- and then, what else... y'know -- just the regular hanging out."
I knew he meant buying drugs. I didn't take the conversation any further.
"You like Dave Matthews?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. I never miss him if he comes here. Y'know, one time, years and years ago, I was working for the Ruby Tuesday corporation down in southern Virginia--"
"I used to work for Ruby Tuesday, too!" I cut in.
"Really? Cool! Well, anyway, I was down in southern Virginia opening a new store. My friend and I went into this little dive bar just to have some beers and shit. So anyway, this guy was waiting on us and we asked him, 'Hey, is there anything going on tonight in this town?' And he said, 'Well, we have live music later tonight if you want to stick around.' So we did. So about an hour later he comes up and says, 'I have to close out your tab or switch it to the next guy.' So we paid him, and he left the bar. The band was getting ready to play. There was a black guy with an electric fiddle, and a bigger black guy warming up the drums. Then the bartender went over and picked up a guitar and started playing. It was Dave Matthews."
"Shut up!"
"No, I'm dead serious."
"That's awesome!"

"So," he said, slurping the tad-bits of his second margarita, "I have to go to work at three. Are you going to come by later?"
"Are we going to hang out later?"
"That sounds cool."
"Did Mike call you back yet?"
"That's pretty shitty."
I had called Mike to see if I could still take him up on his couch offer, but there was no reply, not even hours later. "I told you," Tony said. "Bainbridge, man. They're all flakes."
"Yeah... " My voice trailed off. In my mind the thoughts went reluctantly rapid. "I showered this morning. I guess I could go a couple days without, although I am a little sweaty from the hangover and the sun. Well, how much is it to park at the lot an extra night? I could sneak into the garage by crawling past the nightwatchman's booth on my knees and he'd never know. That staircase isn't too well surveyed. I could pay on the way out and freshen up at the gas station over on Second." This is not only normal, this is frequent for me now.

Tony could see the smoke trailing from my ears. "Stop it," he said. "Just stay with me tonight."
"I don't know."
"No, seriously. I have a roommate but he's harmless. And I have a couch -- two couches, actually. You can have your choice of either. And I have a shower that you're free to use. Seriously. It's no big deal."
Crawling guerilla-style past the nightwatchman would have made a better story, but Tony had said the S-word -- "shower".
"Okay. Thanks."
"Good, now come on. I'll show you where the library is."
On the way, we stopped at Tully's, a Starbucks-esque chain, for ice mochas. "Let me get this," I said.
"Are you sure?"
I winked at him. "Call it rent."

The Seattle Central Public Library on Fourth and Madison is still considered a marvel of modern architecture, but hopefully someday it will be the standard. The building itself maintains its landscaping with recycled rainwater collected in two large subterranean tanks as it runs off the angled glass ceilings. There are specially designated areas for adults, teens, children, and Web users, spread throughout five floors. Heating costs are kept low thanks to passive and active solar technology. It really is a sight, and looks a bit odd parked right there on Madison amid the early-1900's neo-classical structures. But it is quite nice, even if only half of the electrical outlets work. I spent hours there, catching up on writing, until the staff politely kicked me to the curb. It was early yet, only seven o'clock, and Tony wouldn't be getting out of work until nearly midnight, so I walked around downtown Seattle for awhile. I loved the exercise I got tromping up and down all those hills and city blocks; it made me homesick for the Upper East Side.

Eventually I ended up in a courtyard across the street from the mall. I'm not sure of the official name of the courtyard, but I started calling it Shantytown because of all the hobos. Most were young, probably under 21, and were camped somewhat comfortably beneath trees and on the cement platform stage that bordered the street. I don't know if Seattle has more homeless people per capita than some other cities (besides New York) or if the number is average and it's only that the homeless belonging to other cities are in hiding. But not in Seattle, not this day. And they were set up -- dogs, cats, cat kennels, Gameboys, and enough snacks to stock a gas station. One long-haired, shaggy man in black sweatpants and a cammo jacket even had a nice Dell laptop plugged into an outlet on the side of a lamppost. I laughed to myself, and then tried to find a similar lamppost. Unfortunately, he had the only working one in the park, so I worked off my battery power. In between paragraphs, I people-watched. There was a themed bachelorette party wreaking fun and havoc on the park. The theme was "Totally 80's", and each of the girls was garbed in their best Madonna-wannabe outfits. They challenged the hobos to Running Man and Roger Rabbit dance-offs in the middle of the square, and ran through the fountain. I laughed so hard I almost peed, but I didn't crash the party, much as I wanted to. I was sleepy, and conversation was near beyond me, much less the Roger Rabbit.

A gray-haired but fresh-faced woman walked by and asked the time. She was dressed in pink shorts and a blue t-shirt. Her curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she carried a variety of bulging duffel and plastic bags.
"7:45," I told her.
"Thanks! And do you know where a payphone is?"
"I sure don't. But you can use my cellphone if you want."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah! After seven is free."
"Oh, thank you so much!" She pulled a scrap of paper from one of her bags and took the phone. "I met a lady who needs a fifth runner for a charity relay race tomorrow but I don't know where to meet her!" She laughed a clear, beautiful laugh.
"Oh! Well, take your time," I said. She spoke so well, with no trace of an ignorant accent or anything. "She must have just come from the gym and went shopping," I thought. "There's no way she's homeless. She's too clean and too smart."

It took her a moment to figure out how to dial and send, then she said, "Hello, Gayle? Hi, this is Linda, the lady from the bathroom. Do you still need another runner tomorrow? Okay, great. Should I meet you at the starting line? Do I need a number? The registration booth? Where will that be? Okay. No, this isn't my number, this is someone's cellphone I borrowed. Yeah. Okay, so tomorrow at eight? Okay, thanks so much! I'll see you then! Take care, Gayle!"
She turned to me and handed me the phone. I was still sitting on the ground, looking up at her. She was healthy and pretty, in a very "granola" kind of way. I liked her.
"Thanks again," she said. "That really helped me out." Then her cheeks grew pink as she lowered her voice and sheepishly said, "The reason for the bags is that I'm homeless."
What could I say? "Oh. Well. Huh. Well, good luck tomorrow!"
"Thanks!" She picked up her array of bags and trotted away, with small steps.

That evening my notebook read, "How did she slip through the cracks?"

Laptop Man came over after seeing me sitting Indian-style surrounded by cords, cameras and various notebooks. "What kind of computer is that?"
"An Averatec."
"A what?"
"It's a lesser-known brand. But it works for me."
"Oh, that's cool. Do you like video games?" He sat down beside me. I could smell the tell-tale scent of stickiness and dirt. He whipped out his Dell from his battered backpack, along with a burnt copy of something called "gamezzz". "This is every original Nintendo game. Do you want me to install it for you?"
"Um, no thanks. I'm good. I have a hard enough time keeping myself on track without Tetris being on my computer. What's your name?"
"I'm Mark." He extended a smile and a hand tipped with black fingernails.
"Nice to meet you!"
"So, are you homeless too?"
"Kind of."
"Where are you staying tonight?"
"At a friend's house."
"Oh, that's nice. Are you going to stay there tomorrow?"
"I don't know yet."
"Oh. Well, 'cause if you need to camp, you'd be better off going to the park up on Washington Square. You'd have to go early to claim the bushes, so you could hide yourself. Because you're a girl."
He meant camp in the sleeping outside sense, not the pitching a tent sense.
"Is it that bad?"
"Well, you're a girl. And you don't want people to mess with you. You're sure you don't want me to install this program? It's really fun!"
Only in Seattle and possibly San Francisco will the homeless share pirated software.
"No, thanks. I don't even have that much battery left. It probably wouldn't even work." Still, I felt surprisingly relaxed around him, even my fingers and toes releasing tension I didn't know was there. It was bleeding out into the pavement, leaving me with a smile on my face -- probably from the silliness of it all.

While Mark fiddled with his own laptop, I looked up from mine to watch a homeless kid -- the same I had asked directions from the day before -- plop down on his knees in a crowd of other drifters. With his long neck and big nose, he reminded me of an ostrich. He began making out with a heavy girl in a dirty Old Navy sweatshirt, and she ran her fingers through his yucky hair. I looked away, not in disgust, but trying to pretend I didn't know what it is like to feel a kiss.

"Do you have a job?" Mark asked, snapping me back to reality.
"Not right now. I write a lot."
"That's cool. I tried to get a job but I haven't been able to yet. First I want to buy some new clothes."
"I bet you could get a good set at the Salvation Army."
"Yeah. But because I don't have a job, I don't have any money to get new clothes to get a job."
"Are the thrift stores around here that expensive?" I asked.
"This is Seattle."
"Oh, yeah."
"You're really sure you don't want this program? It's got Neo-Geo!"
I laughed. "Dude. I am totally serious. I don't need video games. I'm bad enough with Myspace."
"Okay." He seemed so dejected.
It was getting late, and I was hungry. I had two dollars and a wallet full of McDonald's coupons.
"Mark, I gotta go. Thanks for the camping tips. Here," I said, handing him the two dollars. "Add this to the new pants fund."
"Are you sure? Do you have enough money for yourself?"
"I have money, don't worry. Good luck finding work."
"Thanks," he said quietly.

I packed up my things and walked toward Third Avenue, waving goodbye as I went.

Welcome Back, Blogger

Well, kids, I'm back at it. It's only been about, oh, 3 years or so?

Rather than start from scratch, I'm planning a new roll-out of all things Road. Within the year I'm hoping to have a YouTube channel for road movies, a page for all the photos and possibly even a TRR Twitter. The book, of course, is forthcoming -- with pictures -- but must wait until after I collect and translate the king's ransom of notes I have scribbled on the back of diner reciepts and wine bottle labels.

Read, subscribe, write me, do whatever. It's just nice to have you back.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Kissing a Fish in Seattle....

I awoke in a fog, pantless, with Ronald McDonald's wallet in my pocket of my crumpled jeans. "Jeez. What a night."

I don't remember how I ended up with Ron's wallet. But it was definitely his, with pictures of he and The Hamburgler at the Space Needle and a driver's license. And some coupons. "I know where I'm eating later," I mused.

I dragged myself to the shower and fielded calls from Tony as I dried my hair. "Where are you?" he asked.
"Getting ready. Did you still want to meet up or whatnot?" I was trying to be casual. I didn't want to give the impression that I liked him "like that".
"Yeah. I'll meet you at Pike Place Market in an hour."
"Sounds good."

Tony lived in a condo up in Washington Square and didn't have a car. I was around the corner from the market so I beat him there by about forty-five minutes. I felt cute and city-like, in green cargo clam-diggers and a black wife-beater. I pinned my bangs back in a tiny bouffant and carried my precious lunchbox down to the busy avenue. The sun warmed the brick and took the chill off the breeze coming from the water. It was Saturday, and the pavement was packed with shoes, strollers, skateboards and dogs. A cruise ship leaving for Alaska bellowed from the dock, shaking the wisps of salt-water present in the air. People waved from the pier to the happy cruisers on deck. I slipped in and out of the crowds, looking at everything, taking in every smell, every detail. Reggae music floated out of a head shop and sweet sugared chocolate smells found their way into noses walking past The Crumpet Shop. My bare shoulders reveled in the sunshine and cooled in the shade as awnings hung in every color but never in tandem. Tourists tried out drums, Chinese fingertraps and fudge samples, laughing and taking pictures. I laughed alongside them. But I was still hung over, so I bought a bottle of water and a two-pack of aspirin and leaned on a parking pole to people-watch. To my miasmatic head, it was rejuvenating.

"No way!" came a shout from behind me.
I turned to look; it was a broad Samoan man in a light blue tee.
"The Six Million Dollar Man? Wow! I remember watching that! What was the guy's name? He was married to Farrah Fawcett."
"Lee Majors?"
"That's it! Yeah! Lee Majors! And who was the girl?"
"Farrah Fawcett?"
"No, the girl, the, um.... Bionic Woman! What was her name?"
"Lindsay Wagner." I have to admit, I was proud for remembering that.
"Really? Then who played Wonder Woman?"
"Linda Carter." Oh, yeah. I was 3-0.
"Yeah! Wow. That's a pretty sweet lunchbox. I had a 'Dukes of Hazzard' one. I wish I still had it."
"Dude, me too! I'd buy that off you. That would be, like, the trifecta for me. I've got an A-Team and a Six Million Dollar Man. Adding the Dukes of Hazzard would be the crown jewel."
We laughed, complete strangers, completely comfortable with each other, brought together by a metal effigy of Lee Majors. Thank you, Aladdin Corporation, for providing me with a lunchbox, and, subsequently, friends.

Eventually, my phone rang. "Where you at?" Tony asked. I could hear the same crowd noise in the receiver as I did in my ear.
"On a parking pole at the end of the street, by the fountain."
"I see you." His salt-and-pepper head appeared, then his Buddy Holly glasses. His gap-tooth smile would have appeared too, but he was more hung over than I was. His brow furrowed as he said, "Damn, it's bright out here."
"Do you feel like Dracula?"
"Ha. Kind of. Not really. Eh, I'm fine. I stayed up 'til, like, six playing poker."
"Dude, what?! Oi! Sucks to be you!"
"Yeah. I do that pretty much every night."
I didn't believe him.
"You hungry? I'll buy you a gyro. Best gyros in town, right over here."

He bought us gyros and cold lemonade from a walk-up window, and we made messes of ourselves at a stone table next to the water. Cucumber yogurt sauce dripped down our chins and onto the ground, sending the sparrows into a frenzy. "This isn't exactly 'polite' food. There is no couth way to eat these, is there?"
"None at all," he assured me.
I threw my trash away, asking, "Where do they throw fish? I want to see people throw fish!"
"Let's walk this way. Ugh. You're such a tourist," Tony teased, rolling his eyes.
"Damn skippy!"

We marched through the aisles of gorgeous fresh flowers, calilillies, gerbar daisies, and hibiscus. People were carrying armfulls of goldenrod and sweet sunflowers, leaving delicious wakes of honey and pollen. I wished I had a place to put flowers. Someday. Soon the heady scents of tulips and mums were replaced by tart waves of shellfish and salmon. The temperature dropped immensely as we entered a room packed on the sides with ice. I watched carefully for airborne fish, whipping my head around so fast I was in danger of hurting myself. With excitement. "It's not here, it's over there," Tony said.
"Then let's go!"

We joined a crowd already gathered around a display of enormous King River salmon on ice-- the best and most expensive kind of salmon in the world. Monkfish and scallops were also packed into the ice wall, and a bearded man in yellow rubber pants, known as "The Bear", stood talking to the crowd. "Throw a fish!" someone shouted from the back. (No, it wasn't me.) The Bear rolled his eyes but obliged, picking up a huge King River salmon and shouting, "This one needs a bath!"

"This one needs a bath!" came a chorus from the young men behind the counter, and the man flung the fish high and to the left, into the waiting hands of a hot guy in yellow rubber gloves. The crowd gasped and applauded, and flashes went off like paparazzi. The men continued throwing fish back and forth, singing low and steady, "This one needs a bath! This one needs a bath!" When the air show was over, The Bear called over a petite, shy girl and ordered her to kiss the salmon. For the camera, she did. Then I did. And it was magical.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reluctant Yuppies and Bainbridge Flakes -- My First Night in Seattle.

"That's not a real Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox, is it?"
"Yes, it is."
"You could get a lot of money for that," he said.
"Yeah, you're right. I probably shouldn't be using it as a purse, but oh, well!"

It was Thursday Happy Hour at The Brooklyn, and the bar of tall globe glasses and pounded copper was full of businessmen, muckety-mucks and generally rich people. And a girl in a pale green dress with a lunchbox and flip-flops, bumpkin-tastic. I learned in Missoula that I had nothing to lose by being myself, "some random, weird girl". My notebook that night read, "When you get used to being kicked when you're down, you fight back by forgetting to care."

I slathered another oyster in cocktail sauce and sucked it down, watching the bartender work the room like a pro. He had salt-and-pepper hair and Buddy Holly glasses, and a mischevious gap-tooth smile. I was tired just watching him, and curious when I saw him bury his head in his hands in front of two women on the other side of the bar. He put a business card in his pocket and, red-faced, waved goodbye as they walked out the door. Then he came to where I was sitting and told me, the guy next to me, and the two women next to him, "You'll never guess what just happened."
"What?" asked the young guy.
His voice dropped, forcing us to lean in to listen. "Remember I told you I waited on those ladies a couple weeks ago, before we went to the Gorge? Well, they came back in and asked how it was and I said, 'Oh, we had so much fun, we were tripping on shrooms, it was great!' And the older lady didn't smile, she just put this on the bar" -- he slapped the business card down; it read, "Drug Enforcement Administration Officer".
The four of us reared back, laughing hysterically.

It broke the ice a little. "Is this your first time here?" the guy to my left asked. His name was Mike.
"Yeah! First time here, first time in Seattle."
"Really? When did you get here?"
"About two hours ago!"
He laughed. "What brings you to the city?"
I explained.
"Wow. That's pretty cool. Hey, you guys, this is Jessica. She's a travel writer." He introduced me to his friends, Paula and Tracy. Paula was about forty-five, with long, dark hair. Tracy was tall, in her early thirties, and trim. Both were dressed smartly.
"Oh, how interesting!" Tracy said. "That is fabulous! Well, you'll have to stick with us tonight so we can show you around!"
"Sure! That sounds great!"

We talked all night. Paula told me about her home life, which sounded like a sitcom. "My husband and I moved here from the boonies. I don't really know why, but I just wanted to live closer to the city. So, my son moved here with us and started seeing a nice girl named Nicole. She moved in with us, too. Then they broke up and my son moved back to southern Washington and Nicole moved out too. But then she moved back in with us. She lives with Doug and I now."Tracy cut in. "She's so cool! She's a construction worker. She could literally kill you with her bare hands."
"Sorry, what?"
"No, I'm serious," Tracy continued. "Nicole's such a sweet girl, but she's strong. I wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley."
"She's like a daughter to me," Paula said. "My son gets upset that she's in our house, but I just tell him, 'Look. You brought her into our lives and we loved her. Now just because the love between you two faded doesn't mean your father and I love her any less. So get used to it."
"She's on her way here now, you'll get to meet her," Tracy said.
"I've never met her, either," Mike told me. "To be honest, I'm scared. God forbid I say something wrong and she decks me."
"Oh, stop it!" Paula chided him for teasing. "She's a doll!"
Speak of the devil, Nicole appeared, tall, red-headed and buxom, with square hips and biceps that stretched the sleeves of her t-shirt. She was pretty, and had her hair spun in two pigtail buns.
"Well, don't you look nice?" Paula said, hugging Nicole.
"Yeah, I figured I'd look like a girl for once."
"Nicole, this is Jessica. She's a travel writer."
"Oh, awesome!" she said, shaking my hand. "What do you write about?"
"People I meet along the way, mostly. Interesting people. Like chick construction workers."
"Oh!" She laughed, pulling her hand away. "Don't write about me!"
"Okay, I won't."
She turned to Paula and Tracy. "You guys, I seriously poured the most beautiful slab today!"

Later on, I asked her more. "So, how did you start getting into construction?"
"Well, it's not really construction, it's more like a road crew. I started out holding the stop-slow sign, but that was boring. I wanted to do more stuff, y'know? So I kept bugging my boss until he let me actually get dirty. Then I joined the union. Once I did that, my options shot up. Now I work a jackhammer."
"Wow! Do you like it?""Oh, I love it."
"Tell me more about this perfect slab. What is it?"
"Oh!" She laughed. "I did a sidewalk square -- it came out perfect! It's, like, my baby. I think I might go visit it later."
I was cracking up. "That's awesome! You know I'm going to have to write about you, right?"
"Ugh. Okay."

At one point Mike said, "Yeah, that's great what you're doing. I used to travel a lot myself."
"Really? Where to?"
"I worked for the National Parks for awhile. I spent about four months up in Denali, in Alaska. Got to backpack the back country there for a whole month once.""Jeez! That's amazing!"
"Yeah, that's how I like to do it. I never want to be one of those drive-thru tourists who go in, take some pictures and then leave."
"Yeah, I try not to do that either. Sometimes time constraints get in the way, but I try."

He surprised me, because he seemed like such a yuppie. A reluctant yuppie, but a yuppie nonetheless. Like someone born under the sign of Privilege and raised to stand up straight, play on the golf team, and not touch the trust fund until it's time, but secretly wishes to be a vagabond, to shun showering and live recklessly, grow a beard and maybe even dreads, and while away hours hiking in the woods. He was the first person I'd ever met with that underlying aura. It made me sad for him, even sadder than I'd felt about Max and Willow's situation. At least they're happy -- and somehow, I think, better off.
"Where are you staying tonight?" he asked.
"The Green Turtle Hostel down the way. Tomorrow I may stay in my car at the parking garage over on Second.""What? Oh, don't do that. You can stay with me."
"Yeah, my roommate's out of town." He gave me his card and told me to call if need be.
"Thanks." After the madness in Coeur d'Alene, I was apprehensive about staying with another stranger, but a couch is a couch.

I splurged on a port wine sampler and the bartender, Tony, gave me a fifth glass for free. It is safe to say that I was housed by closing time. "Come with us!" Tracy shouted. "We're going to the Nock-Nock! They have salsa dancing tonight!"
"I'm on it like white on rice, baby!"
Yeah, I was wasted.

The Nock-Nock did indeed have salsa dancing that night. I nearly broke a flip-flop trying to keep up with a tall black man who spun me in circles tighter than a drum. When I became too dizzy, I panted in a booth with Paula and Nicole. "That is so interesting, what you're doing," Tracy repeated. "We are just so happy to have met you, you are fabulous!"
My face was magenta from dancing and blushing. "Thank you so much! I'm having so much fun with you guys!"

Tony the bartender met up with us, toting his uniform in a shoulder bag. He had changed into a t-shirt and shorts. "How are you?" he asked.
"Retarded! And you?"
He laughed. "A little behind you. I guess I need to catch up."
I went to the bathroom and he went to the bar, leaving Mike, Tracy, Paula and Nicole at the table.

Two minutes later they were all gone.

"Where did Tracy and all them go?" I slurred.
"Did they just up and leave us?"
"Guess so."
"That's.... huh? I don't get it. Tracy was just telling me how much she loves me and all this stuff about how we should hang out tomorrow and whatnot."
He looked at me like a father looks at a child who doesn't understand why her fish has to go in the toilet. "Let me explain something to you. Those are Bainbridge people. They're flakes. They're fake."

He walked me back to the hostel at last call. "Don't stay here, it's freaking me out. These people are weird. Come stay with me."
"I can't, I already paid! Besides, I don't even know you, silly!"
"Okay, well, sorry those dorks left you."
"Eh. At this point, I'm almost used to it. Almost."
"Yeah. Ha. Welcome to Seattle. You got a firsthand taste of the Bainbridge type."
"Ha. Yeah. Just like L.A. Blow smoke up your ass and then drop you the next minute. Must be a Pacific thing."
"No, it happens everywhere."
"Yeah, you're right. Well, goodnight."
"Goodnight. Let me buy you lunch tomorrow, to make up for tonight."
"'Kay." We exchanged numbers and said goodbye, and I fell asleep on my mattress on the floor, being careful not to wake -- or step on -- my roommates.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Leavenworth to Seattle in Four Chapters.

Before heading to Mt. Rainier National Park, I had to see Leavenworth. I mean, I had to. Sure, it was a tourist trap but what am I at the core but a very apprehensive tourist?

Leavenworth, Washington straddles Rt. 2 as it reaches west to the Pacific. Coeur d'Alene Steve had been right, it was extremely Bavarian. All the buildings were built in the Bavarian gingerbread style, and speakers mounted on telephone poles piped polka music out onto the streets. The cashiers at all of the stores wore traditional Bavarian costumes, with white puffy sleeves and high black bodices. The men wore short pants with tights and feathered hats, and most had beards. The stores specialized in Bavarian souveniers, Bavarian chocolate, Bavarian clothes and German food. Scents of sauerkraut and kielbasa wafted throughout the town. And, just like Steve had said, the McDonald's looked like a gingerbread house.

However, I wasn't in the mood for a Big Mac. Instead, I ate at a traditional German restaurant, Andreas Keller. It was fantastic. The dining area is below street level, with low stone ceilings and booths nestled between stone columns, giving the place a feel of a very old gaststätte. I was a bit shy being there myself in the midst of families and couples, but the waitresses, dressed in Bavarian dresses and frilly petticoats, made me feel right at home. I ordered the house special, a sausage sandwich with spicy grain mustard, with potato salad and weinkraut on the side. To drink was, of course, Hefeweizen. I ate slowly, trying to savor each and every salty, tangy bite. At one point a black peppercorn the size of a ladybug rolled out of my sandwich and I was glad I didn't bite into it, as the mustard was peppery enough. I had been starving when I entered, and left almost laboring to climb the stairs to the street. I couldn't really afford it, but it was well worth it.

At a fudgery I asked a man with a white beard how the town came to be Bavarian. "Are everyone's ancestors from Bavaria?"
"Well, yes and no," he explained. "There's a lot of German here. But years ago, this was a logging town, just like most of the towns around here. But when the government put restrictions on logging, the town started to die. So back in the fifties or early sixties, someone got the idea to 'Go Bavarian', and turn it into a tourism town. So everyone went for it -- what other option did they have? They made rules about the stores and the gas stations, the McDonald's. And the town's been Bavarian ever since."

I walked around the town, past the Maypole, past the apple orchard, through the Christmas store. Finally, when the tourist in me had seen enough of humels and nesting dolls (including a Princess Diana and Dodi set that was done in extremely poor taste) and grandfather clocks, I bid Leavenworth a fond Auf Wiedersehen and drove on southwest, towards Mount Rainier National Park.

The drive was sunny and gorgeous. The hills rose on either side like hunter green camelbacks and two falcons swooped low past my car, looking for lunch. I listened to The Postal Service as I climbed higher and higher into the foothills.

Then suddenly, almost on a dime, I turned a corner into.... nothing. Or, at least what Fantasia looked like after being attacked by The Nothing in "The Never-Ending Story". Thick, thick fog clung to every living thing, palpably dense. The song on the stereo, "Natural Anthem", was perfect; delectably bizarre, mechanical and distant. I tried looking out over the edge of a sharp curve and saw only gray. To see twenty feet in front of me was an accomplishment. Narrow, winding roads and the murky shroud lent themselves to an air of confusion, ethrealism. Soon, the shoulder of the road became sprinkled with white, then piled with snow, and eventually a thick wall of gray, with black horizontal lines showing where each new layer had fallen. The snow had literally been cut where the road lay, leaving a tell-tale cross-section on either side. My jaw gaped for no other reason than I felt I'd driven into Narnia. I was in flip-flops and a wife-beater, with a thin cotton shirt overtop. How had this changed so quickly?

Reaching the ranger station, hidden in the miasma itself, it was evident that the fog was here to stay. "How long will it be like this?" I asked the ranger as he checked my Parks Pass.
"Can't say. Maybe a few days."
"Will I be able to see the mountain at all?"
"Can't say that either."

Driving into the park, the scene was the same. Large gray and white snowdrifts lined the road. RVs were stopped here and there, people making snowballs and putting them into plastic bags. I stopped as well, and had my picture taken standing, toes bare, sleeves rolled up, grinning atop a picnic table that had been cut free of snow, but still had about 8 or 9 feet of snow around it and overtop the edge. "Be careful, it's slippery!" the woman taking the picture warned as I picked my way down the slick wooden bench in my flip-flops.
"Oh, I'll be fine, thank you. I am going to change my shoes, though!"
Sweatshirt, wool socks, hiking boots. I was ready to camp in Rainier.

I picked a campsite and paid the shy, cute, corn-fed boy in the green uniform. At least the campground was snow-free, although chilly. Tent pitched, soup eaten, I wandered down to the campfire circle where a ranger program was being held, "The Total Trekker". The ranger giving the program was an experienced hiker and gave us -- a large group of Mennonite girls, three couples, a family of four and myself -- tips on what to carry and how to avoid injury during hiking. I felt special because most of the emergency gear he recommended I already owned. When it was over, I walked, sans flashlight, back to the campsite and built a fire.... that wouldn't end. I had bought wood earlier that day but didn't realize it was so slow-burning. Not wanting to carry dirty, bug-infested wood in my car, I tried burning it all. But I didn't have the wherewithal or patience -- I was sleepy, and finally double-bagged what was left and vowed to burn it before I reached Oregon.

There were no stars that night. Clouds that had fathered the fog sat stubbornly high, refusing to budge. We had a staring contest and I dared them to move, but no luck. As I crawled into my tent, I gave them one last long gaze and wished on the star light, star bright that lay behind them that the fog and clouds would lift and I could actually see the moutain in the morning.

The next morning, my prayers were answered. I unzipped my tent onto a bright, beautiful, blue sky. Crisp Washington mountain air kissed my cheeks as I made oatmeal and coffee, and nipped at my heels as I changed my socks. I broke camp and all but leapt into the car, anxious to see the mountain. I was not disappointed. I turned a corner and lost my breath.

Mt. Rainier rose from the pines like a god, like a temple, like a monolith, like a list of cliches that could go on forever. My jaw was in my lap as I pulled over, wetting my thigh with drool. My little eyes felt inadequate, unable to take it all in at once. Camera in hand, I bolted to the edge of a scenic overlook (one of many) and started snapping. "It's hard to believe, isn't it? Would you like us to take your picture?" an older man asked. He was standing next to an RV and another older gentleman.
"Sure!" I looked a mess, but even Angelina Jolie would look a mess next to something so terrifically spectacular.
"Is this your first time? You're a long way from home," they noted, pointing to my license plate.
"Yeah, first time. It's amazing! Is it your first time, too?"
"Oh, no! We do this every year. We usually do a loop around or so, to Bellingham and Mount St. Helen's. We've been watching it change."
"Watching it change?"
"Oh, yes! Something's brewing in there. The top is changing. It's getting bigger on one side and smaller on the other. We've been watching it for the last few years now. Something's definitely going on. Are you here all by yourself?"
"Yes, sir."
"Well, how about that! Seeing the world, are you?"
"Exactly! And everyone in it!"
"That's just great! Well, you take care and be safe!"
"Thank you, I will. And you, too -- you're the ones hanging out near volcanoes!"

At the visitor's center I took time to go through the museum that chronicles the history of both Rainier and St. Helen's, including the eruption. There were exhibits on the local Indians, how they lived, the first woman to climb Rainier, and how Harry Truman died, refusing to evacuate after the eruption of Mt. St. Helen's. The museum itself winds its way up three circular floors, eventually ending in an observatory. From the observatory, Through large metal telescopes, one can see the ranger station set high atop the mountain for climbers, and even some climbers themselves that bright, clear morning. Leaving the center, more truckloads of climbers sat laughing, strapping, counting, packing, pinning and anxiously awaiting a trip up that mountain.

After watching the climbers, I was ready to do some hiking myself. A ranger gave me a list of good trails and I picked a 2.5-miler that went past a waterfall. It was moderate, but it had been over a week since I'd hiked or even worked out, so I struggled a bit. But as I huffed and puffed my way up the base of that mountain, I thought about Willow, about her learning to walk again by going up and down those steep and grassy Montana hills, over and over. I couldn't complain about shallow breath while thinking of her. And thinking of her also made me think of Annie. Annie is a friend I lost in Tower 1 on September 11th. When I piss and moan about things, I try to think of her, and how she never got the chance to revel in whatever it is that's making me whine. She accompanies me on many hikes when they start to get too strenuous.

I don't know if I made it all the way to the end of the trail. I made it to a waterfall, I know that much. And when I started to get too tired, I turned back around, teasing chipmunks as they scuttled past and watched me, hoping I would drop a crumb or two. "I see you, silly boy!" I laughed at one as he cocked his head to one side.

When I finally reached the bottom, I said goodbye to the mountain. I was ready for a shower, and Seattle.

The drive to the Pacific was beautiful, and fraught with anticipation. Seattle, like nearly every part of the country I'd seen to that point, was uncharted territory. Thoughts passed through my head so fast they were merely words. "Fish-throwing!" "Pacific Ocean!" "Mariners game?" "Shower." "Hostel?" "Car-sleeping?" "Wear my green dress!" "Awesome!" I had been trying to save money up to that point so I could have one good, spoil-myself-rotten night in the city -- dinner at a nice restaurant, maybe some nice glasses of wine.... I couldn't get to Seattle fast enough.

Finally, I saw the tops of skyscrapers begin to appear on the horizon, then the middles, then the Space Needle. I let out a shout, a manic utterance from the depths of my lungs that no one heard. The one-word thoughts became even more rapid. "Left?" "Sign?" "Pike Place?" "Huh?" "Wi-fi?" "Parking?" "How much?" "Oh, God." "I smell bad." "Hope I can afford this." "There's the sign."

I parked at the mall because it was the first parking sign I saw. The streets reminded me much of New York City, although this time I felt less like a know-it-all and more like Robin Williams in "Moscow on the Hudson". Well aware of how out-of-place I looked, I wandered around, face to the sky, mouth open, laptop and lunchbox in hand, trying to find someone who could direct me to free wireless internet so I could look up some hostels. Then I could worry about long-term parking and showering and food. The guys at Gamestop were pretty helpful, telling me that I could probably just go out onto the street and use the free wi-fi signals that float along the streets of the city. That led to me getting some strange looks as I set up my computer on the edge of a planter and trying to sign on as palm sprouts blew in my face, but I didn't care. However, I couldn't get the damn thing to work, on the planter or on a bench in a nearby park or anywhere. While in the park I watched four young black guys slip behind a retaining wall and spark up a joint, and a homeless Native woman unwrap a bloody and bandaged foot, then re-wrap it.

The connection wouldn't work, so I asked directions from someone I thought was an expert on Seattle hostels -- the panhandler on the corner with the faux-hawk. He sat cross-legged and straight-backed on the ground, and with his long neck and large, hooked nose gave the impression of an ostrich. He answered with a mouth devoid of teeth. "There's the Green Turtle Hostel down two blocks and around the corner." I gave him 64 cents for his help.

The Green Turtle Hostel was almost full that Thursday night, and had no beds available the next day, so I paid for only one night. My room was on the third floor, the bed the one closest to the window. I laughed as I opened the door, because the hostel was certainly doing its best to ensure they got the most out of the available space -- the beds were actually thin mattresses on the floor, squeezed into the room shoulder-to-shoulder like sardines. Not stepping on someone else's bed was nearly impossible, but no one seemed to mind. The only other girl in the room at the time was a sweet, hung-over Swede. She lay under the covers, reading a French-English dictionary. It was nearly five o'clock and she was still recuperating. In a soft, rolling accent she introduced herself as Christine and informed me that it had been a long night. She was in town on a guided bike tour of Northwest Washington and southern British Columbia. The tour was set to begin Sunday and she came in a few days early to check out Seattle. "I must go downstairs now because there is problem with my reservation. I made online, yes? And the thing, it did not make reservation for this place, but for hostel in San Francisco. And now there is no room for me tomorrow, so I don't know what to do. I hope they fix."
"I hope so, too," I said, as I went off to find the showers.

The building was very old, with high, pre-war ceilings and claw-foot bathtubs. Each bathroom was individual, with black and white neo-classical tile patterns and a full-length, wood-framed mirror. The tell-tale signs of shared hostel bathrooms abounded, though -- razors "hidden" atop the crown-molding above the door, and three different colors of dried toothpaste in the sink. Luckily, I'm not very germ-phobic and it just makes me giggle to see such things.

For my big night on the town in Seattle, the plan was to dress up -- or, at least, my version of dressed up. That meant pulling out the green and white vintage dress I had bought second-hand in Chicago, pairing it with beige Dollar Store flip-flops, and actually putting on mascara. I let my hair air-dry to a mish-mash mess of waves that I managed to finger-comb to something resembling acceptable and applied lip gloss. Match said green dress with a happy smile and a bright blue metal lunchbox and I was stylin' and profilin'. Well, really, I looked exactly like what I was -- a silly, excited girl who didn't give two shits if she was wearing the right shoes or not, because she was going to eat oysters on the half-shell and drink pinot noir and have a fabulous night anyway.

I marched down the avenue, hair a-flying, lunchbox swinging, face about to crack from grinning, in love with life and all it has to offer if you bust your ass.

Leavenworth Pics!

McDeutsche's? No, McDonald's.

Gag me -- Princess Di and Dodi nesting dolls.

Bill, Julie and Mike ;)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"I Bet You Have Moms All Over the Country, Don't You?"

I woke up in the driver's seat with frozen toes and a kink in my neck, but I didn't care. I had plans to meet Julie, Bill and Mike for pancakes and bacon that morning and plans to hike Mt. Rainier that night, so nothing could ruin my day. I actually ended up eating two breakfasts that day, as while I was getting my clean clothes together for a shower, the big family from across the way, the Humels, invited me over for waffles and eggs.

Roy was there, along with his son and very pretty daughter-in-law and their four kids, as well as his wife, who was busy inside making breakfast. Through the screen door I heard her tell one of the small daughters to ask me how I like my eggs. The shy girl, about ten, emerged from the camper and picked her way slowly down the metal steps. "How do you like your eggs?" she asked in barely a whisper, cheeks flushed, eyes shifting, face painted with a shy smile.
I tried to ease her shyness with a warm smile of my own, only half on purpose. I was feeling very shy myself, overcome with welcome. I had nothing to give these people in return. "Over-medium. Thank you."
She looked down at the ground and whispered, "Okay" before turning quickly to scamper back to her grandmother.

There was also another old man, a thin, white-haired man in a well-worn cap and boat shoes. He sat crossed-legged in a lawn chair, leaning back and watching the activity through large, dark glasses. He said nothing, but a smile played at his lips. I assumed he was the blonde mother's father.

Roy and his son, Rob (it's too cute) asked me tons of questions and pretty soon the conversation turned to marriage and children. I spoke about The Old Standby Conundrum, how it seems all my friends are getting married while I'm a reckless little girl who sleeps in a Civic and can't maintain a successful relationship with a man, much less a stable, healthy man to save my life. How I manage to fall for the jobless, the uneducated, the alcoholics, the pathological liars, even a convict. They laughed as I regaled them with horror stories, but I wasn't laughing on the inside. "Part of why I'm out here is to figure out why I do that," I told them. "If I can learn more about myself, then eventually that has to reveal itself, don't you think?"
Rob nodded. "Yeah. But you're still lucky."
"I know."

And to prove my point, both Rob and his wife, Melinda, looked awfully young to have four children, only in their early-thirties. I watched Melinda tuck her blonde curls behind her ear and kiss a boo-boo. She was such a natural, and didn't look at all harried or sullen because of her kids like so many young mothers do. She and her family had just celebrated her thirty-second birthday, but she could still pass for twenty-four. "How does she do it?" I wondered. "Your children are beautiful," I told her.
"Thank you," she said. Her voice sounded like music. Why couldn't I be like her?

Rob was somewhat more what I would imagine a young father of four to be: overwhelmed, annoyed at what his life has become. More than once during our conversation he remarked on how lucky I was to have freedom from responsibility. I didn't like the way he looked at me sometimes, as though he was undressing me in his head. I could easily picture him not thinking twice about leaving his wedding ring in the car on a night out with the boys in the hopes of getting a hand-job from a random girl in the back booth, just to regain a sliver of the feeling of being young and reckless. Yet he had made his choices. He had married Melinda of his own free will, not because of an unexpected pregnancy. And here he was, with a gorgeous, kind wife and four beautiful, polite children. But it didn't matter. Like so many men, he doesn't see the good in what he has, too busy dwelling on what he doesn't. For as lucky ss I am, he doesn't realize how lucky he is.

When the conversation lulled, Roy leaned back in his chair and yawned. "Yep, this here's four generations of Humel's right here."
"This here's my father." He gestured to the white-haired man sitting quietly beside us.
"Oh my gosh! Really?!" I was amazed. It was so nice to see such a large family gathering, even if the third generation was creeping me out.

Eventually I excused myself because I was late to meet Julie, Bill and Mike down at the common room for (more) breakfast. I thanked Mrs. Humel for her fantastic cooking, then jogged down the hill. I found the three of them in the game room, Bill and Mike wrapped up in a hot game of Air Hockey and Julie playing Mrs. Pac-Man. Breakfast was just about over but I grabbed a coffee and a couple eggs since the cooks were getting ready to throw them out anyway. (I hate to waste food.) Julie turned briefly to say hello, then went back to eating ghosts. Bill laughed his terrific laugh every time he or Mike made a good shot or defensive move on the hockey table. Mike won and we all clapped. Then together we made our way back up the hill to our sites. "You did pretty good at that Mrs. Pac-Man!" I said to Julie.
"Oh, yeah, I used to play all the time! My girlfriend and I, when we were working, we'd take our lunch breaks and go to the arcade. We'd laugh, because our kids were in school but we were at the arcade playing Pac-Man!"
"So what're your plans for the rest of the day?" Bill asked me.
"Well, I'm going to Mt. Rainier. And I guess I should go into Leavenworth, too, just to check it out since I'm here."
"Oh, yeah, you gotta see the town," they all said.

Julie asked for my blog URL so she could keep up with me. "I bet you have moms all over the country, don't you?"
She was right, but it made me blush. "Eh. People check up on me sometimes."

I didn't want to drive away. I wanted to take them all with me. But, like always, there was no room, so I just waved goodbye.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Happiest Man in the World is Happy Because the Tumor was Removed.

I couldn't get the idea of throw-away children out of my head. Ramen didn't help, even Rainier cherries didn't help. I sat down to read some Least Heat-Moon but quickly realized that is not exactly the cure for the blues. Lonely girl on the road reads book by lonely guy on the road equals lonelier girl on the road. I was trying to mope in secret, behind my car, when the bearded man from across the way came over, one of the card players I'd given the peaches to. "Hey, uh, would you like to come play with us?"

How could I refuse an Uno invitation? I couldn't. No one can. "Sure! Thanks!" I called with a big grin.

I took a seat at their picnic table, which was covered with the awning from the fifth wheel. "I'm Bill," he said. "This is my wife, Julie. And this is her brother, Mike."
I shook hands with each. "Hello, I'm Jessica."
"Sit down, we'll deal you in!"

"So where are you folks from?"
"Spokane," Julie said. "We just tried to get away for the holiday weekend. We've been here since Thursday and we'll probably leave tomorrow."
"That's a nice little jaunt, huh? It must be nice to live so close to the outdoors."
"Oh, yeah, we love it. Bill drives a school bus so we get a pretty good break in the summer. We raised our kids camping."
At that moment I had no choice but to play a Skip. "Sorry, Mike. It's the only yellow I have."
It was obvious that Mike was a little slower than normal, but his blank face held kind eyes and I liked him. "It's okay," he drawled.

"Hey, can I get you a beer?" Bill asked. "I've got a couple of Coronas."
"That'd be great, thank you!"
As he went inside, Julie played his turn for him. "I can do that, I'm his wife," she joked.
"How long have you been married?" I asked."Twenty-six years." She smiled proudly, as well she should.
"Jeez. That's amazing."
"Yeah, and it's not easy, either." Bill emerged with the beers and she called, "Isn't it, hon?"
"Isn't it what?"
"Hard work being married so long?"
He let out a guffaw, a high-cadenced swoop of a laugh that I loved. He did it often. "Oh, yeah, yeah, of course. Hard work."

It wasn't a subject I was ready to let go of. "Why? What does it take? I'm twenty-five and all my friends are getting married and I still don't know what they mean when they 'hard work'. Hard work, like, picking your battles? Hard work, like, settling for something you hate in the name of love? How do you draw the line between standing up to your spouse but not being a doormat? That seems like the hardest thing in the world!"

They laughed. "Calm down!" they teased.
Julie explained. "It doesn't mean being a doormat at all, or settling. Never settling. It just means being patient, and willing to work out problems. Sometimes things come up that neither one of you can control and it's just a matter of not taking it out on each other. Or being patient when there's an argument. You can't just storm out and say, 'I'm done!' You won't get very far doing that. And it has to be mutual. It can't just be one person working hard and the other not at all. That's when you get into doormat territory."
"Oh, yeah, that's no good," Bill chimed in, laying down a red seven. "It's about working together, not just working."
It was good advice, but it was still like trying to explain a rainbow to a blind person. If you have no frame of reference, where are you?

"That's great what you're doing," Julie said at one point. "Bill got to drive cross-country last year for work, all the way to South Carolina."
"Whoa! That's a hell of a long way to take kids to school!" I joked.
"No, we were just transporting the busses," Bill said, laughing. "The company asked us if we wanted to go and I said, 'Sure!' It sure was interesting to see all that country."
"How long did you take to drive it?"
"Four days."
I nearly choked on my beer. "That's it?! Did you see anything at all?"
"Oh, yeah. But we were on business, y'know? We couldn't really take our time."
"That's a shame. Still, I'm glad you got to do it."
"Oh, me too."

I loved spending time with them. Mount St. Helens came up at one point and I asked, "Do you remember exactly where you were when it erupted? Like 9-11 or the Kennedy assasination?"
"Oh, yeah!" Julie exclaimed. "We sure do! I was in the hospital giving birth to our daughter! I was lying there in the room and my mother was with me, and Bill came in and said he heard it on the radio."
"Was there ash everywhere?"
"Oh, yes. We still have some. Most people who live around here do, in jars and things."
"Were you scared?"
"I was mainly worried about the baby breathing the ash. But we all came out alright."

We played and played. I've never had so much fun playing Uno before (my apologies to my beautiful cousins, of course.) Bill and Mike regaled me with tales of old cars they'd owned, and their fathers had owned. Julie explained their family tree so well I could draw it myself if need be. The last drop of dusk sank into the earth and they fired up the propane lantern, making our faces glow a shade of light green. Eventually, we put the cards away and just listened to the river rushing below and the coyotes calling to each other. "Aren't you gonna pitch your tent?" Bill asked.
"Eh. No." I glanced at what little sky was visible through the treetops, navy buttresses of cottony cloud with no stars in sight. "It looks like it may still rain. Or what if that hail comes back, y'know? That would suck. So I'll just stay in the car."
"Where in the car? In the back?"
"Oh, god no! All my stuff's in the back. I just try to put the driver's seat back as far as I can. Which isn't very far but it's better than a flooded tent."

"When do you go back to work?" I asked Bill. Julie and Mike had gone inside to clean up and get the beds ready.
"A couple weeks."
"Do you like your job?"
He spoke quietly, passively. His eyes lost their sparkle for a moment, dull in the green light of the lantern. "Yeah, it's nice. It's something I can do even though I'm disabled."

I thought he was kidding. He was tall, broad and fit, with happy eyes and a fantastic laugh. I chuckled, teasing, "Oh, come on! You're disabled? I don't believe you."
I was waiting for his trademark crack of laughter but it never came. "No, really," he said. "I'm disabled."
I wiped the smirk from my face. "Oh. How so?"
"I had a brain tumor about ten years ago. I used to be a mechanic. That's why I did so much work on that old Barracuda I was telling you my father-in-law owned before he died. But after I had the surgery, the state said I was disabled and couldn't work, at least not on cars."
"But you can drive a schoolbus?"
"Yeah, since I have all my wits about me and it's not manual labor or anything. There's no lifting, things like that.""Rowdy kids in a moving vehicle are less dangerous than oil changes?"
"I suppose so. But I still work on friend's cars. I get my fix of engine things. And I do like driving the bus, I like the kids."
"How did you find out you had the tumor?"
"I kept having headaches. All the time, really bad. So I went in for a cat-scan."

Julie had come out of the camper by this time and was listening. Bill continued, "The doctor called and said I needed to come in. He wouldn't tell us over the phone."
"It was New Year's Eve," Julie added. "We went in and he told us it was a tumor, and would need to be removed. I asked the doctor, 'We're supposed to go to a party tonight, is he allowed to go to a party?' He said, 'As long as he doesn't get drunk and fall on his head.' We were clueless. We weren't sure what to expect or how much it would change our lives."
"Were you scared?" I asked them.
"Of course," Julie said. "But we got through it. It's just like what you asked earlier. We got through it because we didn't take it out on each other, we just worked though whatever it threw at us."
Bill nodded, staring off into the trees. "Yup. Just hard work and patience."

That night as I was falling asleep in the driver's seat I wondered just how far Bill and Julie had been pushed, and how long it took them to recover. But just like rainbows and blind people, it's something I may never know.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Lost Socks and Lost Children

I lost a sock. Not just any sock. A red monkey sock. One of my favorite socks. The washing machine at the Leavenworth KOA has an apparent penchant for red Paul Frank socks and helped itself. When I folded my laundry on the trunk of the car, it was gone. I all but climbed in the washer and dryer looking for it, which made an old man giggle at me, which made me giggle too. "Lose something?" he asked.
"Eh, yeah. A sock." I pawed through the lost and found items and found only old granny panties and a leopard-print bra.
He was standing in the doorway, walking a tiny Pekingese. "Looks like you're not the only one who lost something."
"Yeah, but I don't really need these big undies. Are you on vacation?"
"No, ma'am, I'm retired! My wife and I are taking our RV around."
"That's great! Must be nice!"
"Well, what about you, young lady? Are you in school?"
"No, I'm on about the longest break between college and grad school one can take. I'm a Future Law School Dropout!" I said proudly.
He laughed. "Well, reach for those stars."
"All the time."

He wished me well as I went back up the hill towards my camp. I watched a four-point buck meander through the thick brush at the bottom of the hill from my site. He stopped to munch, taking fifteen minutes in all to cross in front of me. From their vantage point, my neighbors couldn't see him, and I was glad, because the children would have probably scared him away. I made some Ramen noodles and watched the little kids at the site near mine careen the hills and curves with their training wheels. I was having a nice enough time alone, but the neighbors were still staring at me, making me nervous. So I watched them back. The large family whirled a birthday cake out of their RV and sang to the pretty mother in a variety of cadences. The three people next to them, and across from me, two men and one woman, played cards. Every so often both families would stop to look over at me but say nothing. While I waited for the water to boil, the hairs on my neck prickled and my cheeks began to flush; the tell-tale sign of being pissed. But this time, I was determined not to give into it. I couldn't give into the assumption that RV campers were superior and unfriendly again. I had to do something nice for them. All I had to offer was instant coffee and five peaches, and I didn't have enough for the big family. But I pulled the paper sac from the front seat that held the peaches and walked across the tiny road to the three card players.

Of all games for three middle-aged adults to be playing, they were engaged in a hot game of Uno. "Awesome!" I thought. They waved as they saw me come over. "Hi. Would you like some peaches? I bought them today but they're so ripe I can't eat them all in time."
The happy man with the brown-gray beard and the blue t-shirt smiled wide. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, yeah! They're so good, I just can't eat all of them."
"Well, sure, then! Thank you!" He took the bag and smelled the fruit. "Aw, these are great! Thanks!"
His wife, a red-headed woman in a flower print t-shirt, asked, "Are you here all by yourself?"
"Yes, ma'am."
"Oh, my. You're a long way from home. Did you hear that, Mike? She's here all by herself."
The quiet man in the gray tank top glanced at me and spoke slowly. "Yeah, that's a long way."
We made small talk for a few moments, mostly about the town of Leavenworth, until I realized I still had water on the stove. "I have to go, I have to make soup!"
They laughed as I scampered away, calling, "Thanks again for the peaches!"

As I stirred the noodles, the father of the kids next door came over to visit. "So, it's just you here, huh?"
"Yup. Just me."
"That's cool. So how long did it take you to drive out here?"
"I left a month ago."
His eyes widened. "Oh, man! That's.... wow. Man."
He made me giggle. "Yeah, I took a very, very scenic route."
"I guess so. So, can I ask... why?"
"Of course you can ask why! I'm a writer. I'm writing a book about all the people I meet along the way."
"Well, now. If you want stories, you should talk to my dad. Hey, Dad! C'mere!"
"Why your dad?"
"He's a juvenile corrections officer."
"Okay, 'nuff said."

The burly old man walked over, limping a bit with age and experience. He wore a white t-shirt and cotton shorts. His gray hair was slicked back in the way only old men are capable of. He reminded me of Brian Cox. "So you're a retired corrections officer I hear?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said in a deep, gruff voice. He made me explain my mission, then cut in with a "I can tell you stories."
"Like what?"
"Stories about throw-away kids. How no one wants to take the time to educate the children nowadays. Most of these kids aren't bad kids, they're just learning disabled."

His name was Roy Humel. He was a Brisbane, Washington juvenile corrections officer with experience in child psychology. "I stayed in corrections until I couldn't take it anymore. Watching these kids file past you all day, with no one helping them, it got to be too much. I tried to change the system. I convinced the powers that be to conduct a study, in which the children were taught basic skills through methods that had been proven to work for children that are learning disabled, and they all did well. Then they were tested for those same disabilities, and diagnosed. It was such a simple process. But nobody wanted to see it through. So today you still got kids fighting just to live, because no one's taken the initiative to figure out why they're still in crime. They say it's too expensive, too time-consuming. Throw-away children. They're everywhere."

"Check out this website," he continued. " That's the results of the study released in an article I wrote." I checked it days later. It didn't work. Neither did .org or adding various punctuations. Perhaps those who try to help troubled children are as easily written-off as the children themselves.

He left me to eat my noodles in peace.... and slightly depressed. He was right. And if I had a dollar for every time I thought about being a social worker or child advocate or family court lawyer or guidance counselor, I could pay for grad school. But the thought of feeling helpless in the face of a system built of red tape and money keeps me waiting tables, tending bar, and on this crazy road.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

How Crazy Do You Have to Be to Swim in Melted Snow? I Can Answer That....

Driving through the Yakima Valley was like Eden with cars. Pregnant fruit trees drooped under the weight of pecans, apples, figs, apricots, peaches and cherries, and the ground nearly exploded with tomatoes, peppers and root vegetables, all bursting forth in delicious colors. The radio harbinged a hail storm and for a moment I thought it had caught a far-away frequency, as the sun was drenching the entire valley in a cozy glow of copper. Then I saw the steel-gray clouds ahead, over the mountains, right where I was headed. "Well, at least I have another hour of yay."

I bit into a peach and the juice dribbled down my chin, onto my shirt, onto my hand, down my arm, onto the seat and onto the steering wheel. It was as if the juice was lying in wait, just below the skin, for the perfect moment to pounce on every surrounding surface. With sticky fingers and messy face I waved at the immigrant workers in the fields. "I hate that you're here, but thanks for the peaches," I whispered through a smile. They gingerly waved back.

As I climbed into the mountains that cradle Leavenworth, my destination for the night, I called my little brother. "Tommy, guess what! There's, like, a tundra in Washington State!" (For the record, we of the DelMarVa peninsula consistently refer to Washington State as "Washington State", because it is Washington State and not Washington, which is not a state.)
"Wow. I thought it was just pine trees."
"Yeah, me too! Well, there's pine trees now, but earlier it was just grass and wheat fields. But it's beautiful here! So are you still with that girl, the brunette?"
"Uh, no, you didn't hear what happened? Well, she was at work...."
Being on the road means getting all the family news second-hand and two weeks late. I'm still getting re-used to that.

After a few minutes I interrupted him. "Tommy, hold up -- there's all these... white rocks on the side of the road! I think it's... quartz? Have you ever seen big piles of quartz on the ground?"
"Seriously, I can't figure out what... that... is it snow?"
"Is it snowing?" he asked.
"I didn't think so. It was hot in the valley. I guess it's just... OH! Sweet god, it's HAIL! Whoa!"
"Did it hail there?"
"Yeah! There were these big ugly clouds earlier and, man, these things are huge! I'm glad I wasn't around, or I'd be driving home in a bucket of bolts! Wow! Honey, you could take some of these to the driving range!"
"You're a nerd."
"Yeah, well, you learned from the best."

We said goodbye just as a monstrosity of an RV flew past me, NASCAR-capped man at the wheel, tribal arm tattoo resting on the window. Apparently he was transporting a small army and a year's worth of rations inside, because whatever didn't fit in the cabin was strapped to the top -- badly. The lid flew off a 10-gallon tupperware box, followed by paper plates and napkins. The highway behind them looked like a ticker-tape parade. I sped up and caught them at a red light. I rolled down my window and tried to flag them. The driver looked at me in disbelief, then guiltily at his wife, who leaned over him and glared at me, finger a-flying. I think she may have even spit at me as the light turned green. I didn't stick around to find out, gunning my 4-cylinder lawn mower engine and leaving the monolith in the dust, yelling, "I hope your Dale Earnhardt Jr. collector's cups blow all the way to Missouri!"

Pretty soon I was reaching the outskirts of Leavenworth. Already slight traces of Bavaria were cropping up along the highway -- hand-painted pictures of bodiced women and over-alled men dancing under fig trees drawn larger than life on barns, and the tell-tale dark trim decorating white buildings. Entering Leavenworth itself was somewhat surreal. The local Safeway was not made of brick and concrete, but white terra cotta and wood, with a sign spelled out in pretty script rather than the store logo. The entire front of the building was painted with flowers and vines. So was the Subway, so was the 76 station. I made a right towards the KOA -- my last resort at that hour of the evening. I was less than thrilled with the idea of a campsite that cost the same as a motel, but at least most KOAs have a pool and a hot tub.

This one was no exception. Like every KOA it offered many amenities and like every KOA it offered campsites the size of a matchbook and like every KOA it charged thirty dollars and like every KOA it berated you for not having the KOA membership card. I never get the card, because I'm afraid of being tempted to stay at KOAs more often than only when completely necessary. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing the matter with KOAs per se, but personally I'd rather stay in a state park and not have to fight with as many McMansion RVs and their endless supply of wires and cables laying across the roads. Not to mention the inhabitants of said RVs.

The office-cum-camp-store-cum-gift-shop-cum-ice-cream-parlor was amass with people. There was no real line, and a man with four kids in tow got mad at me for "cutting". They rented their go-karts (yes, go-karts, which drive on the same roads as the cars, much to my "enjoyment".) I paid my fees, was handed a map, and told to pick out a site on the far side of the grounds. The tent sites themselves ended up being slivers of dirt on the edge of a cliff. I settled on the largest one. "Where am I supposed to pitch my tent?" I wondered, since the picnic table took up more than half of the site itself. I was starting to feel the old, familiar foul mood come over me once again.

I parked, staying in the car for awhile, debating whether or not to actually pitch the tent underneath the cloudy sky. The ground was still a little wet from the day's storm and I decided to sleep in the car. The neighbors across the road, RVer's, were staring at me. I could see them in the rearview mirror. "What are you staring at, dammit! Haven't you ever seen a woman traveling alone?" Granted, the fact that I'm a solo girl with Maryland plates in Washington State (not Washington) draws some long glances. For whatever reason, it pissed me off unnecessarily. I knew deep down it was only because I was annoyed at the size of the campsite and having to pay so much for it. Still, I didn't know why the littlest things could upset me so much.

I waved to my neighbors as I finally emerged from the car. There was a large family with a gaggle of children in one RV site and three middle-aged adults in the other. I waved and gave a meager smile as I packed up my laundry and headed down to the laundromat. I waited ten minutes for my turn in line at the counter to get some quarters, then threw a load in the washer and dropped in the change. Nothing happened. I went back to the line again, dreading having to ask the over-worked ladies behind the counter for more help, as they didn't seem very in the mood to be accomodating. Luckily, the manager, a sweet lady with short blonde hair, offered to kick the machine into gear -- literally. "You just have to kick it sometimes!" she explained, giving the washer a good punt. Her sweet smile ebbed my annoyance almost completely. For as quickly as it comes on sometimes, it goes away just as quick when people are friendly.

The washer now working, I walked past the pool crowded with children, floaties, noodles, tubes, and parents and immersed myself in the hot tub. Ah, the hot tub. After a day of driving, it was well worth it. Not quite worth thirty bucks, but worth something. I laughed to myself, remembering the night a year ago I had spent in a hot tub in Keystone, South Dakota, just one in the motliest of crews: myself, a 22-year-old firefighter from Louisiana, an 11-year-old boy, his 15-year-old sister, their father, a young Hispanic couple, a 40-year-old biker dude, and a 51-year-old man in the process of a bitter divorce. We were all soaking and chatting when a vicious thunderstorm snuck up on us. We tried braving the rain until the lightning sent us racing for the bathrooms, wide-eyed. Giggling, I wondered where they all were now.

But after awhile, the spa made me really hot. Cooling off in the pool was out of the question -- all I could picture were chocolate bars that weren't chocolate bars. I was going to jump in the shower.... but the Wenatchee River was right there.... hehehe. The sun had just slipped behind the mountain as I made my way down to the rocky bank. The current was strong, the water frigid. For a moment I wondered if I was insane. I was, but I kept walking, slowly, into the ice-cold water. The river was really just mountain run-off, just melted snow. My thighs blushed pink, then my belly, then my forearms as they rested on the surface. "God, this is freezing!" I whispered, but thought about the swimming hole in Cassadaga last summer. Diving into the cold water had been an adventure in itself, an action that became this entire journey personified. Was I crazy to leave behind the cushy job with the great benefits package to live income-less in a car? Just as crazy as I would be to swim in melted snow.

A mother walked her four small children down to the bank. I could hear tiny voices over the rush of water. "Mommy, that lady! Look at that lady!"
"I see her, honey." She called to me, already in up to my chest. "I can't believe you're in that far!"
"Neither can I!"
"Well, you might as well go in all the way now, huh?"
"Yeah, guess I should," and with that I dunked my head under. The frosty water surrounded me, rushing past my ears. I let my feet float up and the current carry me about ten yards down-river. "First down, Johnson." Then I grabbed onto a rock and swam with all my might to get back to the starting point, visions of Kristen in Utah dancing in my head. "We've already had about four or five deaths this year because people underestimate the current!" I didn't want to be that statistic.

All in all, I was in the water about ten minutes. I liked lifting my feet above the surface and laughing at my magenta toes, then putting them back in the water, which felt honestly warmer than the summer air. But when it became painful, I got out, and walked back up the steep hill to my campsite, toes still pinker than my bathing suit.