Monday, October 16, 2017

On the Road Again: Going East Intro

It feels like an eternity since I wrote this (http://wander-world.blogspot.com/2010/05/going-west-3.html), and in some respects it feels like yesterday. In some sort of a weird transhumance ritual, we came up to the mountains of The West in the late spring, seven years ago. And now we are going back to lower ground, in the fall.

We don't have the three cats anymore, and the Toyota Echo that brought us across America has long been gone. We have one cat, who is getting to make the journey back, to his home state of North Carolina. Gypsy is sixteen and five months. This time, I will drive alone, if you're not counting Gypsy, and my husband is driving his truck which will be pulling our camper. Our camper will be our hotel throughout the trip. We will start the journey back in two days, but I wanted to get this out there, before my internet dies on us, tomorrow. Tonight is the last night in this house. It will feel weird, and lonely and empty, I am sure, but in many ways we have zero regrets, and are so excited about what lies ahead.

We have learned and grown beyond measure in the past seven years and we have seen a part of the world which many millions of people only dream of seeing. The Rockies have been our back yard, and we have not taken them for granted even once.

It it surreal, really – that we are not going to be able to jump in the truck, hitch the camper and drive to Nebo for the weekend or camp on the side of the road in Diamond Fork, jump in the Toyota and have dinner and see a concert in Park City at the end of a busy week. Surreal that we won't be spending any more weekends at Snowbird in the summer. But alas, the road is waiting and we must go. New adventures, new states to see, old friends to visit, and new ones to make.

I will try to post a little something every day once we hit the road, from all of the many stops we'll have across America. This land is wide open and waiting for us. Till next stop, from yet another state, perhaps … stay well, all, and for those of you in The West: thank you for seven years of friendship, neighborly love, and memories. We will miss you!


Gypsy supervising packing and wondering when are we ready to leave already.

Friday, October 06, 2017

So Long: Saying 'Good Bye' to the Rockies

I started this a few days ago, as I was mentally playing a slideshow of favorite places I have acquainted with in the past seven years of living in The American West. It was supposed to be just a few words, but it took on a life of its own. Hope you have the patience and the time. Here we are …

If spring makes my heart sing, fall makes my heart be quiet. And listen. Listen to the swoosh of the leaves lazily, unconvincingly floating down from trees towards the eternal grave of the earth. Listen for the rain violently hitting the dusty desert windows, in rage and hunger. Listen for the time to pass, the days to shrink, and the nights to swallow us whole for six more gray months. Fall makes me quiet and makes me listen to my life passing and my time being left behind me. Rear view mirror, but no rear drive. This is my last fall in The Rockies, and it's extra special for this reason.

Even people that know me well might not know this about myself, but I had two dreams amongst the many I grew up with. I told myself that if I ever were to move to America (which I did, with the Good Lord's mercy) I was going to have two experiences: one would be that of living in The South. I wanted the diversity, to be close to that history, to that dialect, to the food, to the sweet and gritty people, to the “Gone with the Wind” days of the past. The second one was that of living in The West. I wanted to roam aimlessly across the plains of The West, listen to the enormous silence of the desert, put roots where the soil was too harsh to harvest, climb the majestic Rockies, and step on the same trails where the white man and The Indians met, where the buffalo roamed and the antelope skittishly but confidently called home. And again, by His grace, I did this, too.

And now it's come to the time when I close this second chapter of my American life. We're saying 'good bye' to The West. My husband wrote (http://aaronkuehn.net/tol/?p=825) about all the reasons why, so I won't go into details. I will just say that there comes a time in everyone's life when things must move on. Naturally and without effort. We must move forward. And this is our forward time.

I will have to say that The West has proven to be everything I was expecting and dreaming about for decades, and at the same time absolutely nothing I was expecting. It's bigger. Larger than life, really. Overwhelming. Much louder and faster than I expected it. Less American Melting Pot and more American Puritanical. It's tough, but this was no surprise. I am convinced now that you need more grit to make it out here than you do in the South. The South welcomes you and patches up your wounds. The West digs the dagger into them deeper and makes you bleed more. Makes you a stronger human, for sure, but a more scarred one. People are colder and more aloof here. Their gaze, lost in the red dirt of the desert, looking for that chimera that might never come; dreaming in an abandoned resignation for a forgiveness that might never come. The West is purging. The South is the absolution.

If I have loved The South like I love my mother and father, if I have loved it like the safe, balmy heaven that I need to rest my body and find comfort in when it is tired and unsettled, I have loved The West like you love a sexy, crazy, abusive, but passionate lover. The temptation is huge, the luring is powerful, the scars deep. I love The West like you love a drug that you cannot quit.

The West is made up of stuff the movies, and the legends are made of, and I got to see it, smell it, taste it with my own senses – a bigger privilege and adventure cannot be possible.

Life has not always been easy for us here, if at all. But we made incredibly beautiful memories in this part of the world. I am beyond words grateful to have been given the opportunity to have lived here for seven years! What was but a dream has been my seven (7!!) year reality now. I have the gray hair and the wrinkles to prove it.

I can firmly say that we made a life here, a life that was very different than the one before, but very good, albeit very tough. We had almost no friends, for the most part. The ones we had left sooner than us. We will remember long, lonely years when we reveled into just being on our own, learning the land, camping alone, hiking in search of the next beautiful corner of The Rockies (and that was always plenty!), and finding each other, stronger and more in love.

There are things I won't miss, for sure: I have never used this many bottles of lotion to keep my skin moist as I have in the past seven years. The dry air, and the harsh mineral waters cut your skin. I probably aged faster because of how quickly and often my skin lost its moisture.
Traffic is insane, at least in the part of the country we're in (Utah Valley). Pollution is incredibly and surprisingly high in lots of Western cities, not just in Utah. It's depressing. Services are mediocre at best.

And then there are the people, again: they never answer calls. Waiters and waitresses never acknowledge a woman is sitting at the table. Employers, at least in Utah, severely underpay women for the same jobs (or harder) than men. As a woman you really don't exist in this state, especially as a childless woman.

I never did understand neighbors here, either: they are not friendly enough to come over for dinner, or invite you over for a bbq, but they do leave stuff you don't need nor ask for at your door in secrecy. I am not sure I'll ever understand that, even if I were to remain here 20 more years.

But warts and all, I am desperately in love with this place, and I will sorely miss it! There is something surreally cathartic about sitting on the porch of a log cabin overlooking The Rockies, and taking in the rocks, the pines, listening to the trickling river, watching the wild creatures come for a sip of water, and hearing the wind sheepishly crawling through the trees. Like I said: like a strong drug you can't quit, I will crave it painfully. I will miss jumping in the car and driving for 10 minutes to stare at a valley from a high peak. I will miss the camping in crisp cold mountain air, the buffalo on the prairie, and the vast lands, with limitless mountain ranges. I will miss having a mountain view from every window in my house. I'll even miss the snow peaks in the middle of June!

There have been hundreds (with no exaggeration) of memories we have made in the past seven years, and I really would like (another dream) to sit down one day and write my Big Fat Western Memoir. But I will mention just some of them here, just in the hope that someone might need some reasons to move up here. Like I said: it started out with just a few thoughts, and it grew into this …

In no particular order, these have been some of my most favorite moments in my seven years of living in The West:

being able to go on a road trip to Napa Valley and winery hop for our honeymoon. Sipping the best (my husband says) Long Island ice tea on the San Francisco Harbor. Eating at Morimoto's in Napa and experiencing California – every bit of its diversity and noise.

driving on a whim to Vegas for some world famous cocktails and a show. Tripling my money at the penny machines.

playing Bingo in Mesquite, NV, and then getting lost in antique stores down there, full of memories of The Western Past, a mixture of Native Indian art and Old Frontier paraphernalia.

eating at old timey saloons in Park City, Cody, WY, or Jackson Hole. You can smell the stinky leather boots to this day, and trip on the warped wooden floors.

sipping hot toddies at Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City on New Year's Eve, waiting for the fancy dinner to start at Bambara's and for the fireworks show to begin at midnight.

eating the best Thai food in America (to date, for us) at Sawadees in Salt Lake, right before going to see Saturday's Voyeur at Salt Lake Acting Company. How we're going to miss that show!

riding the chairlift at Sundance during a full moon. Coldest summer night you will ever experience! Watching the moose lazily bathing in Silver Lake on Big Cottonwood Canyon, or sipping a cold brew at Solitude on a lazy, Sunday afternoon in July. Just us, the mountains and the tall skies – the Nature's Cathedral just for us.

we went to this tiny little town of Afton, WY one summer for the weekend. Never in a million years would I have wanted to go there – why Wyoming?! What's in Afton?! But they have some of the best cabins to rent and they have the best trails on the edge of Bridger National Forest – gushing rivers and tall firs, rocks and peace, deafening peace everywhere. And believe it or not, some of the best seafood you find here, in a mom'n'pop store in the middle of downtown.

...lakes are deeper and cleaner here – except for Utah Lake. I do believe that there is a huge monster, maybe a whole family of them, living in Utah Lake that spew out neon waste every hour to give it it's gloomy, dirty, neon glow every other day. Outside of this lake, however, the lakes out here are pristine, cold, crystal clear, and deep.

although Utah does have some vegetation (Utah has everything, really, landscape-wise, except for the ocean), Colorado and Wyoming definitely won the coniferous lottery. Montana, in the upper North-West, too … I will miss the firs and the pines. I will miss camping at Ponderosa Campground on Nebo Loop and gathering cones right before winter came. They are big and sturdy cones. You dip them in bleach and they make great d├ęcor for Christmas.

wandering the streets of Ketchum, ID, where Hemingway scattered his last steps before he died. Ketchum has the best breakfast potatoes at Bigwood Breakfast Cafe – a sure sign you're in Idaho.

sampling absinthe in a gourmet store and eating elk chili at the brewery in Jackson Hole, WY. Walking under the elk antler arches in the downtown – nothing says more “wild” and more “West” than that! Afton had the antler arches, too. Or maybe I am wrong: there is at least one thing that says more “wild” than that: wandering in the middle of the desert and running into hungry hawling coyotes and wolves in the middle of the day, or seeing horse, cow, or deer carcasses in almost every hike. Vultures and crows feasting on naked bones in a melting summer mid-day.

...we will probably not run again into many establishments with names that bring ghosts of the past and John Wayne movie memories to mind – places with “wild”, “cowboy”, “lonely”, “ranger”, “Indian”, “saloon”, “claim jumper”, “desert rose”, “one eye”, “buffalo”, “shooter”, “gun” , 'barrel”, “rain(dance)”, “sun(dance)”, “wind”, “last chance”, “trading post” in the name.

going up the Provo Canyon to Sundance on a whim: whether it was a long weekend, a boring weekend with nothing to do, a dinner craving, a Sunday brunch – we could always rely on Sundance to be there for us. And once we were there, the views, the peace, the chill in the mountain air took all the pains of the everyday life away. Bob (as in Redford), we will miss you!

going down to Zion or Moab for the weekend and shooting the moon-like desert life for hours. Getting lost in the redness and getting speechless in the face of a nature like no other on Earth. The red rock is as unique as the limestone mountains of Turkey, the jungle of the Amazon, and the vastness of Antarctica. There is nothing like it, nothing compares – it just must be seen with your own eyes to understand. Or to puzzle upon.

speaking of Moab: if you can only go there once, make sure you eat dinner in the sunset, on the Colorado River at the Red Cliffs Lodge – about 14 miles off the main drag. Leave time and the world behind you and go die for a minute – just you, the mighty Colorado, the red rocks and the sunset. If you still believe that God is bogus, you have no feelings, really …

getting lost in the desert was still my favorite past time here. Going to Bluff, UT in the winter, when no one is there and there is only one restaurant in town open and one gas station with a cranky host gives new meaning to the words “lonely” and “desert”. You understand why the Navajos are not people of many words in these parts: they don't dare disturb the serenity of nature and God. Their turmoils are internal, just like the riveting life of the desert – all under wraps and in the shadows.

I will equally miss the salmon supper in Payson, UT – best, largest wild Alaskan salmon cooked on an open fire - and the Indian food at Bombay House in Provo. The people at the Bombay House were the best hosts I have met in my stay here. The friendliest, most efficient, and most passionate about what they do.

I will miss shooting. Shooting (as in camera) is so easy here: you just point the camera and make sure you have a steady hand. The light is almost always perfect and the landscape is begging to be shot. You can never run out of things to shoot here, but my most special moments were when we chased the buffalo on Antelope Island, on the big Salt Lake, or the birds, frisky with frost, in the deep winter, on Utah Lake. Utah Lake in the sunset goes apey! I will miss shooting sunsets …

I will miss the skies here, mostly. There are no rainbows I have ever seen anywhere bigger and brighter than here. The sunsets and sunrises are glorious odes to God and to Earth, painted canvases in search for an audience. Such show-offs!

I have loved all the trips we took from here – from California to Washington State, from Colorado to Nevada, Montana to Arizona. But the one place in my heart that will remain like the ever-burning flame of my life here, and of my memories of The West will be Monument Valley in the heart of the Navajo Reservation. That place, between the buttes, in July, at sunset, is the place where all of the energy of the world and the universe comes for supper. Time truly stands still and is visible, so you can see it sitting down and having dinner, chewing ever so slowly till the sun dips into the red dirt. If I have to take one picture and one picture only from The West with me, snug in my heart and my sinews, it would be that piece of land right there.

Montana had always been my Mecca. Unlike any other European person that dreams of coming to America for New York and L.A. and Miami, I wanted to come to the US for Montana. The untouched land, the wilderness, the candle-like trees bordering the rocky cliffs – it's all there, and it's what I think about when I think of The Rockies. For a while we thought we might even move there, but alas, altitude got the better of my heart, and we can't anymore, for wanting to live. Glacier National Park was like coming home, finally. Everything I have ever dreamed about and loved about mountains, mountain absolute perfection is achieved there. There is a feeling of reaching an apex, like I felt when climbing the Twin Towers in New York in 1999, of achieving something great when you cross the Continental Divide and stare into the immense valleys below. When you watch olden glaciers melt into water and air right before your eyes. There is also a feeling of smallness and unimportance about yourself, in the grand scheme of things. Montana is all that and so much more.

when I think of more Old West reminders, I think of every other eating place in downtown Park City, I think of The Lodge at Bryce, Irma Hotel in Cody, WY, The Mahogany Grill in Durango, CO, or The Cowboy Grill at The Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, UT. You step into any one of them and you're expecting that Buffalo Bill is sitting at the bar, Bourbon in hand.

I know The American West stops at the level of family photo albums as far as history is measured, but it does have its own history and its own character, to be sure, unfound elsewhere in America, I believe. It's a land of cowboys, hunters, law breakers, women who had to either make it on their own or hide between the husband and 10 kids, and maybe even 2 or 3 other wives. If I had a dollar for every time I said “Wow! We really do live in the Wild West” because someone shot a cop, or made their own justice somehow, I would be rich now. History has caught up with these parts, in some ways, but some people still think the gun and the land run supreme, and nothing and no one will stand between them and those sacred treasures!

some of my favorite time has been spent enjoying the small towns we live in and near-by: going to the rodeo or buying the annual funnel cake at Fiesta Days in Spanish Fork, or going to Park Silly in Park City, or to Oktoberfest in Snowbird. Solitude is such a gem of a resort, and as deep and powerful as the name itself. Pure, crystallized … solitude.

I will miss the mountain streams skipping step from rock to rock in the spring. Camping on the mountain tops in the fall and hearing the tired, not so full sound of the springs running towards the valleys in rest, waiting for the winter snow and ice to mute them.

I will miss the sweet tomatoes my rocky, sandy soil yields – sweetest I have ever tasted in this hemisphere, because dryness makes sweet. Same for grapes. Harvesting tomatoes, grapes, pears and cherries was as close as I ever got to being a true Pioneer woman and taming these dry, stubborn, rock-full lands. I never did learn how to make apple pie, neither here, not in The South. I did learn a thing or two about funeral potatoes. It's not any kind of special recipe, really – it's just whatever potato dish you want to bring to a funeral to share. Why not a wedding, or a christening, I have not a clue!

you get used to driving long roads here, because there is nothing for hundreds of miles but the desert and a few bad barns, leaning on one side. Nothing but beauty and nature, that is. Nothing but wilderness and the almighty sun. But as long as the drives were, I will still miss taking them and being in very different climates, and flora and fauna zones. I will miss planning road trips to places like Lake Tahoe, CA, Yellowstone National Park, Whitefish, MT, Sun Valley, ID, Durango, CO, Vernal, UT.

the winds in The West are what I underestimated the most. I don't believe the tornadoes of the South will make me wince anymore, after having lived here, where 60 mph gusts are the norm. Especially at my house, at the mouth of the canyon. Winds will always carry me back here, on their swift wings …

There are still places I have not seen and I am kicking myself for not having done so. Would you believe that I still have not see The Grand Canyon, or the Sequoia Forest in California?! Or Yosemite? Or Portland, OR? Or Grand Staircase Escalante? For these and many more, I will be back. That is a promise, health and money not being an issue.

I quiet down now and let the wind take my memories away and scatter them across the plains. I came of another age in this place, both wonderful and mean. I am older, stronger, tougher, and I probably used to being lonely, just me and Aa., more than before. We have grown into a couple here, strong and loving, from the two entities we came here as, when we had barely gotten married. Some say that no toughness is built unless there is loss, and as much as we have gained in these past seven years (us, our love, our marriage, our travels, our many hundreds of thousands of photographs, our lives stronger and more accomplished), we have also lost. We lost jobs, two adorable, amazing kittens, money, even (and not in gambling), health, patience … It made us stronger and it shaped our road from here, so zero regrets and much looking forward to the door that is now opening.

Oh, I could go on for another 10 pages, but I am looking at my count and I am into five of them right now, so I better stop! These are all things that came to mind as I am sitting here, on a windy Tuesday night, all alone, pondering upon the recent past.

It is somewhat poetic that the end of such an adventure comes in the fall for us: it's when my heart gets quiet and can think and reflect on things past, somewhat melancholy, somewhat longing, but always accomplished.

I am already longing for some of the places I stopped to document here, for posterity. As much as my heart is filled with the apprehension of what my next chapter back in my beloved South might bring, it is also filled with the memories and the emotional baggage I have stored in these past seven years.

And speaking of my heart: there will forever be a more organic, more material connection to this place than to any other place in the world: when they took my aorta and my aortic valve out of it last year, you could say that a piece of my heart will forever stay in The West. Quite literally. The West is not for quitters, that's for sure. And we are not that. We're just ready for the next road trip.

So long, Utah, and Montana, and Wyoming, and Colorado, California, Nevada, and Arizona, too … Till next time …







Monday, September 18, 2017

When I Am in Love with the Mountains

You know, my least favorite day of the year, since I moved out West is that first day in late August, or could even be early September, when you go outside and you feel the first bite of fall. The air is cooler, the crisp is sharper, there is a chill down your spine and your exposed toes remind you they need to be covered: you got the wrong shoes on! 

It's a mean day, really, because as much as I hate the chill in the air, and the long sleeves, and the sweatshirts ... I love the mountains this time of the year. I love when the mountains and the trees are still deep, dark green (before they turn into the muted and deaf brown), and the prairie grass looks like the melted liquid balloon of the sun burst and poured all over it. The contrast between the gold and the green can only be achieved by one painter and one painter alone - and He lives up there, in the sky. 


Prairie grass and mountains outside our neighborhood

And speaking about the skies: that's another thing that makes me fall in love with the mountains, here in the West - and this goes for any season, really: the sunsets and the sunrises are out of this world eerie. The colors you see out here are impossible to find anywhere else - the deep reds and yellows, the crazy, tormented, confused and complicated clouds, moving at surreal speeds, and the height, this crazy Big Sky of the West that dwarfs you and makes you feel like an ant. 


September sunrise in my backyard



September sunset in my backyard

It's all love and helpless abandon. And all awe. And it's going to be imprinted in my brain, no matter how bad my Alzheimer's might get one day. No matter how far away from it all I will be ... 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Puddle of Love …

I tell this story all the time, of how I remember my sister's birthday, on a hot August day when I was 3 years old and a little bit. And I do – as long as I have some remembrance in my brain, I will always see that day, somewhat fuzzy, but the sound of that news will be clear.

It's been 39 years since that day and my baby sister is getting ready to enter her last year of the third decade of her life. A life that's been fun, and hard, and challenging, and interesting, sad, and incredibly funny, lonely at times, and not so lonely for the most part, and all in all, a life that's been worth it all! This much time passing just about knocks the breath right out of my chest! 39 years!

I have more memories with my sister than I have with anyone else I have ever met, I believe. Even when we're apart, we pick each other's brain – maybe more now that we're adults and respectful of each other than when we were little and picking on each other all the time.

I have learned so much from her. First off, I learned how to stop being the spoiled brat only child I was when she came along, and how to start sharing everything with her. She taught me that we're not alone in the world. We have a soul mate. And she has been mine. Not in the “exact match” kind of soul mate, but more in the “ying-and-yang” sense of the word. She is the light of my darkness, and I am hers.

As a typical second baby, she was always the competitive one. I learned patience to yield to her and teach her things. I taught her how to read and write, and later on, she taught me music and art. She has taught me love and warmth all my life, and goodness.

She is an odd mix of tender and bitey, small and powerful, meek and don't-f*-with-me-people!. Above all, she has the most beautiful, most pure smile, and the most clear twinkle in the eye.
She makes me melt only by thinking of her.

We've been through everything together and through it all, I always know she's got my back. She's raising her own family now, but I still feel like she and I share a heart just as much as when we were kids and shared a bed. Our relationship will always be strong and unique, no matter the rest of our liaisons in life. There is this bond, this sacred understanding, this blood that runs through our veins and connects our every thought that will always be there, no matter how many thousands of miles or people are between us.

Today, I remember everything: how we fought, how we laughed, how we made pranks together. I remember climbing mountains, tanning at the beach (she never burned, unlike me), eating berries till our tongues would turn black, fishing for trout with our bare hands. I remember her tom-boyish years when she was hung by her leg in a rusty nail on a tall fence. I remember fighting for boyfriends, and crying ourselves to sleep with a sigh. The following morning, we were sisters again.

I remember when she went to the ER as a small kid, with an infected hand, full of puss, and she spent days hooked up to IV's and I could not go visit her. Broke my heart! I remember dancing in clubs on the beach when I was in college and falling asleep in each other's arms, in the sand till the first rays of sun would sneak under our eyelids and wake us up.

I remember when she went to France the first time in middle school, when I thought she would never come back home. I remember how her world fell apart when I moved to the States and I thought I'd never see her again.

I remember her wedding. Her first pregnancy, every heart beat of it, every emotion, every notebook she filled with knowledge about “what to expect when you're expecting.” Then, the immense love she had to give to this small baby. I remember my wedding. Her second baby. I remember all four of us, with mom and dad, smiling for pictures and knowing that those moments were precious as they would be rare.

I wish you the best in life to come, sis, and more bright days than not, more sunny summers than not, more health, more love, and more abundance than ever before. As you approach your 40th year of life, I thank God that you exist and I thank you for giving us your all. May the next year be your best one yet, and may you forever smile and keep us guessing …

I miss you more!

Love, sorella

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

East Coast, West Coast and Beauty Somewhere In-Between

Ooh Ms. Parsley sing it out as a prayer
It's floating on sensational
You make the change in the air
Let's let it be all right
Step it up to life” (Jeb Puryear - Ms. Parsley)

I can't remember as far back as when I was first introduced to Donna the Buffalo. I was single, living in North Carolina, in my early 30's, and I was 'friends' with this guy on My Space. Remember My Space?! His name was Turk (or so he said) and he was a veterinarian (so he said). I never did keep in touch with Turk, but he will always have a special place in my heart for opening it to Donna the Buffalo. He sent me an illegal link with hundreds of Donna concerts. I downloaded all I could download and I got myself my first 100% pirated 4 cd's and I was hooked! He said “if you like The Dead, you will love Donna.”

And he was right: I only like The Dead, and I do love Donna.

I am not sure what it is about what they do, but their music is hypnotic to me. I can be tired, head-achy, moody, wanting silence and a heavy bowl of mashed potatoes, and I listen to a Donna song and it's like elements align and the world makes sense again – no pain, or discomfort, just peace. Works better than Tylenol, every time.

When I lived on the East Coast, the opportunities to see them were numerous. They are a house band, almost literally, for the Shakori Festival, and they come to NC often (sometimes several times in the same month). But when I moved out West, things got pretty sketchy: I subscribe to their newsletter and they seldom, if ever, come out there. I have lived here for seven years now and I only know of two times that they have come close to Utah (I believe they made it out here more then this, but not close enough within driving distance for me): one was four years ago in Montana, at the Red Ants Pants Festival (I am not making this up, this is the real name – https://wander-world.blogspot.com/2013/08/chasing-some-dreams.html), and the second time was this month, in Park City.

This second time, I could almost not believe my eyes when I saw the announcement: Park City is practically home for me. How did I get so lucky for these folks from Upstate New York to wander all the way over here?! So, it was a no-brainer: even if I was on a stretcher, I had to figure out a way to go see them. And thank God, I was not on a stretcher.

I have seen them all in all live for about 4 times, I think. And every time I tell myself: you've got to really love them to really keep coming back. And it's not the music: the music is amazing, and it's not even much of an acquired taste: it just has one of those melodies that just appeals to just about anyone. Not many people remain motionless and don't start to dance while listening to them. They are catchy. Beyond that, they are all also really great musicians. The organ player has always been my favorite, but what Tara does with her instruments is not short of amazing, either. Jeb's guitar picking is what gives them their unique sound, I think – they are all pretty much flawless when it comes to their peerformances.

But … there is this stage presence thing … My mom used to always say that a singer must know how to dance, or how to let us know they're happy to be on a stage in order for them to be memorable. For me, most people on this band have always been struggling just a bit with this part. Especially Tara: as talented and flawless as she is as a musician, as inspiring as a song writer, she does not look like she is having fun on that stage. She looks like she has a very serious, and very constraining job to do and she is trying really hard not to get in trouble. What she does does look very natural and very effortless. But she does it with … fear and concentration, for lack of better words. She is tense, and crisp. And frowning … I feel like she is forced to be there, rather than enjoys to be there. I am pretty sure I am wrong – being on the road for almost 20 years must offer some amount of pleasure to you, or else you'd stop doing it. But …

Jeb has some loose moments, although he can be very serious, too. For the most part, he is a warmer presence, softer, his voice very much drone-like just flows. He is more like a very easy-going hippie than an official business person (like Tara). From the other three musicians, only Kyle, the bass player, seems like he really loves being on stage, and he really loves his audience. He is the one making eye contact with people, smiling, winking, moving about, dancing. And there is another thing: I know that Kyle is the bass player, because the wiki told me so: they don't present their band on stage. I think it's the same thing for Tara and Jeb – I know their names because I investigated. As warm and inviting and party-like as their music is, there is always this guardrail at the edge of that stage, and for some reason, we are not fully invited in.

I have also noticed that they are so much more relaxed and well received by the audience (or maybe relaxed because they are well received by the audience) on the East Coast than here, in the West. I guess, to some extent, that's understandable: they are a household name back there, whereas here they are a rare apparition. I remember going to their shows in NC and people at work knew exactly who I am going to see. I have had their bumper sticker on my car for years here, and not a soul knows what the heck that means.

The other night, when we saw them in Park City, this couple approached us before the show, to ask us if we like them and if we have ever seen them live. They had never seen them live, but they listened to them, and “they sounded good”. We said yes, we had seen them live before, but I was nervous to talk them up. I love their music and I think that anyone in general should give them a listen, but especially anyone who likes bluegrass. But when it comes to their live performances, I am afraid people will be put off.

The show we saw in Montana a few years ago was a disaster, I thought: what very few people know (including us, at the time) about Montana is that it is wicked windy! Think hurricane winds as a matter of fact, howling and constant. The festival is in this wide open prairie, and there is no tree, nor mountain around to stop the wind and the sand whipping your face. Non. Stop. They came on stage and their guitar picks were blown away in the wind. The sound blew away with them. Tara got visibly mad. They were rushed, and wanted to get it done with, it seemed. People started leaving early. The crowd dwindled, and that was painful to watch. For the first time, everyone there was not there for Donna. It was new to me.

The Park City show was much, much better, I thought. The venue was small and intimate (an underground cocktail lounge called O.P. Rockwell). The sound was a bit hard, as they sounded very loud, but you got used to it fast. Tara had issues, again, which strained her nerves, visibly, because her mic was not loud enough, she thought. Their sound was a bit flat (all mics sounded like they were tuned equally, and I would have liked the instruments to be a bit more dimmed than their voices, perhaps), but they sounded good, overall, if you were not picky! And Tara is.

People were great sports. Most everyone danced and stayed till the end. They played for more than two hours, solidly – almost no breaks between songs, no introductions. They did have a short intermission.

The one thing that I can clearly see that could alike them to The Dead is their long jamming sessions. They get into these long instrumental rifts that go on for a good 20-30 minutes sometimes, just wailing away. They have instrument solos during it, and dialogues, and are somewhat psychedelic, very 60's-like. They did several of these the other night, too, and the crowd exploded a couple of times.

They sounded as great as usual – like I said before: these folks surely know their stuff. It was great to hear some old songs (Positive Friction, Everyday, In Another World), but also some new ones. I would tell you what they are called, but they didn't tell us. I guess they might be on their next album, if bands do albums anymore?!

Every single song had the same effect their music has on me: feels like every blood cell in my blood stream moves with their rhythm. It's like your whole body becomes plugged into some unseen electrical outlet which makes it move with the music. They are powerful, and entertaining, but on a more cerebral level, I suppose.

If I have one bit of advice for trying them for the first time is this: listen to their recordings first. If you like what you hear, then, listen to more and more of their music. If you really think you're hooked, then, go see them live. You can be very forgiving when you love them for their music first. And they are truly lovable because of what they do and because of the precision and energy with which they are doing it. They take their seriousness and attention to every note and “step it up to life.”

Donna is the reason why I would never sneeze at an unknown hometown band – because beauty and talent does not always need a Grammy to be legitimate.

I leave you to one of my favorite tunes, and in this video Tara looks like maybe she is having just a smidgen of fun.

Proud to be a herd member! 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Lost Paradise: My Story about L.A.

"The whole place is a glaring, gaudy, nightmarish set, built upon the desert." (Ethel Barrymore)
There are very few things that are more intrinsically American than a drive through the desert. Just long, empty roads, unfolding like slick, enormous snakes, winding through thousands and thousands piles of emptiness.

There is hardly any American roadtrip movie ever made that does not include a long and hot ride through the middle of Nothing, USA, and more specifically the Southwest. Where else in the world do you have millions of miles, it seems, of perfectly paved roads connecting emptiness and no one?! Even bad, actionless roadtrip movies go through the desert. Because the desert always speaks for itself while it makes room for any possibilities.


Driving through the Arizona desert, somewhere between Salt Lake to Las Vegas

The most talented painter of the Southwestern desert is, in my opinion, Charles Bowden. I do not possess an iota of his brilliant talent and mind to even attempt to describe it, so I'll quote:
The Southwest is a place where everyone slips their moorings and just drifts. The cities and towns are ugly, the populace footloose, the crime frequent, the marriages disasters, the plans pathetic gestures, the air electric with promise. There is so much space and so much ground that no one can for a single moment doubt the basic American dream that it is possible to make something worthwhile of life. Everything a desert tortoise is – calm, a homebody, long-lived, patient, quiet – the people of the Southwest are not. […] The landscape comes from the far side of the mind – black slopes, blue sky, burning sun.” (“Blue Desert”)



How you know you have reached the end of the Last Frontier and possibly of the world. When settlers and trail blazers have named new places everything there is to name a place they run out of inspiration or sense for what to call the last one. So, they just string some random letters together and they come up with Zzyzx Rd

The only thing more impressive than getting lost in the desert is coming across a huge metropolis springing out of nowhere in the middle of it, a huge chimera of a lost dream. Las Vegas is such a chimera. And so is Los Angeles.

I think that no matter where we are from, we are all a little bit fascinated with LA. It's an undeniable platitude to say that this city is at the very least intriguing for all of us. Some of us love it, some hate it, some are puzzled by it, but we all can tell at least one story that started there. Movies alone are great ambassadors of this.

As for myself, I feel like I grew up with Los Angeles as a distant constant in my life. My whole existence has been dotted with LA stories, movies, and music. Like the decorated chest of an old vet, little pictures of LA, old and new, are forever engraved on mine. 

When I was too young to even know how to read a map, I remember my dad telling me that his friends' daughters emigrated to the States and now they live in Los Angeles. He reminded us every day that we should aspire for that: that one day, we would grow up and move to LA. It was never “move to the USA”. It was always “move to LA.” And this LA was established in our young minds as this place people go to that offers wide open possibilities and opportunities. A place where you work your butt off, string a few dollars and live paycheck from paycheck, but you get to live next door to the very privileged, and get to absorb the culture it offers endlessly. That place where miracles happen and lives are made.

Later, in my teens, I saw “Pretty Woman” for the first time. We could not afford a VCR, so some of our friends invited us over to watch it on tape. Our friends' son was about 10 years older than us and he commented on the opening as well as the closing scene of the movie which shows this homeless (I think) guy who says something like this: “Welcome to Hollywood. What's your dream?! Everyone comes here. This is Hollywood. The land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don't, but keep on dreaming ...” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GuWouH2RMY) Our friends' son said “this is the definition of LA and the definition of America. It's a place where you are free to dream." Some dreams come true, some don't, but they make up the fabric of the real world, just like a McDonald's burger. I continued to live into my young adult years to still wish that one day I will reach that land.

Later on, during my college years, I watched “Beverly Hills 90201” - another “American made” dreamsical piece, another story of people starting up in the world, trying to find an identity in a big, foreign city, right next door to “plastic” people.



We had arrived

In college it is when I also discovered the music of The Doors and Janis Joplin – listening to them, watching them took me back to no other place but LA. Again. Like a perpetually spinning record, LA kept coming again and again into my life. I dreamed of one day walking the sidewalk on Venice Beach and listening to the sounds of the homeless bands there. Watching the standstill traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, and watching the roller-skaters gliding gently on The Hills “until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.”

Then, it was the religious watching of The Oscars ceremonies, complete with the red carpet interviews, every year – even when I lived in Romania and had to get up at 3 AM.

During my whole 42 years of life LA and Hollywood have been part of my life. There has been something, at every point in my life, that connects me, albeit remotely and most times virtually, to this chimeric place, rising from the middle of the American Southwestern desert. Like a giant cobra, dancing in the heat. Appealing and wild. Scary and so seductive, at the same time.

But till a couple of weekends ago, I have never seen it in real life. Although I have been in the US for close to 20 years now, my travels have not taken me there. After driving in 111F delirious heat through the Mojave Desert from Salt Lake City and then from Vegas, we reached LA one early afternoon. On a Saturday.



The proof that the heat was no joke.

I know I will not do much justice to tell you what it felt like, and what all these landmarks I have mentioned look like in reality, so I won't even waste my time or yours. I will just make a brief list of 10 things that will stay with me, as a vivid testimony that my eyes have seen this, my skin has felt this, my pores have absorbed this dreamy, raw, real, dirty, loud, busy, wide, smelly, green, balmy (at an almost constant 75F), claustrophobically agoraphobic, surreal, shameless, shameful and intoxicating city.
  1. We have parked our car on Sunset Boulevard, and walked around Whisky a Go Go. Call me  a hippie if you want, but this was my number one must see. We did not care for the bands playing during the weekend that we were there, and wanted to explore other parts of the city that evening, so we didn't go in. But just to see the building, with its historic marquee and hear the sound of music coming from inside was breathtaking for me. I could only imagine Jim Morrison walking through the door, on the way to his first concert there. Or last. What is the difference?!



    Whisky a Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard.
  2. I have always wanted to see the stars on Hollywood Boulevard (is there any human in the whole world who doesn't know about these?!), but I never imagined that the very first star I would come across with would be … The Doors. This is not made up. Right as we were coming out of the subterranean parking lot, the first thing I saw when walking my first steps on The Boulevard was The Doors star.

  3. I think “Pretty Woman” made Rodeo Drive famous, too, and the movie does it justice. Stores lined up like forbidden fruits, so posh and upscale you feel dirty and low class, no matter who you are. I walked into one, just to see if I felt different, and I did: like I was breaking into a house that wasn't mine. They have a hostess and a personal shopper and an assistant to check you personally out at the end – all personalized, all yours. I don't think I have seen enough dollars in my life to afford something from one of these places. But it was good to put some real pictures and a palpable experience into my brain.
      




    Cars, people, billboard, and road signs on Rodeo Drive.

  4. Another thing that I believe defines a place is the food. California always stands out for me in freshness. Especially when it comes to veggies and fish, they seem to do a good job, just about anywhere you go. I also look for what really a place has to offer that is singularly theirs.

    The fish tacos on Venice Beach, at
    On The Waterfront Cafe (http://www.waterfrontcafe.com/) did disappoint, I must say. It was one of those fish sticks businesses, which was disheartening because we were on the beach. However, the guacamole was better than the one I had in Mexico or anywhere else. Californians know their avocados. At least. And you had a taco and a cold brew on Venice Beach. How much more picky can you get, right?!


    Street food on Hollywood Boulevard, outside the Chinese Theater.

    Although a (local) chain,
    Creme de la Crepe (http://www.cremedelacrepe.com/) was amazing. It had a cozy, small boutique eatery kind of feel, very French and very fresh. Where can you get warm fresh French baguette for breakfast with a serving of homemade strawberry jam?! As my husband said “that jam was not jam, it was the strawberry!”


    The very inviting, very French Creme de la Crepe Restaurant
     
    We ate at Dinah's (http://www.dinahsrestaurant.com/),
    too which is a local emblem, we found out, having appeared in many movies (google it to find out). They had a collection of vintage radios and you really feel like you stepped back in the 50's when you walk through their door.





    Dinah's Restaurant in Culver City.
  5. Speaking of Venice Beach – it is everything you see in the movies, except not as swallowingly huge – bright, busy, eye-popping, gregarious, loud, fast, sandy, and smells like a cross-between sun lotion and stopped up public toilet ... We walked for about a couple of miles (one in either direction) alongside homeless people, artists, t-shirt stores, palm readers, beer patios, walls covered in murals, cafes wreaking of pot, and (very) high end small apartments sprouting almost right from the sand.

    Venice Beach has a timeless quality about it. You have the feeling that this place has seen pretty much everything there is to see: from sex on the beach to murder, homeless folks dying in DT spasms, from Flower Power beauties clad in leis, from
    "couples, naked race down by its quiet side" to the police chasing riots and putting away protesters. The history of Venice Beach, no doubt, can be captured in one family album's worth of time, but it would be a thick and diverse album. You also have the feeling that the story of Venice Beach is far from being wrapped, yet. 
    In a city that has almost exclusively million dollar homes, I wondered how much an apartment on Venice Beach would cost. I researched this: a one bedroom apartment was listed at 1.85 million dollars. Now, why would you spend this kind of cash in a building two feet away from people peeing on walls and drunks throwing up 24/7?! I suppose because you can and you only live once. LA is nothing if not the American Sybaris.


    Parade of flags on Venice Beach, with the Romanian flag to the right. Somewhat of a full circle. 

















    Venice Beach visuals
  6. Remember that movie with Michael Douglas, “Falling Down”? His car breaks down in rush hour LA traffic, and he abandons it where it's at and starts walking across the city, all mad as hell. I always thought “yeah, right, Michael! Who does that? Who leaves a car abandoned in traffic?!” Well, I am here to tell you that LA people do! We were on this severely backed up highway, just a few minutes (normally, but there is nothing 'normal' about LA traffic) from hour hotel, in a high-rise residential neighborhood, and there was this car flipped completely upside down in the middle of the road. The traffic was backed up for miles and we were not going anywhere. Some people pulled on the shoulder or in the median, stopped the car, took their backpacks, put in their iPhone earbuds, and off they went. All I could think of was that they must live nearby in the many flat buildings we saw around us, and they could just walk to their homes and come back later for the car?! Very strange indeed. And traffic was, by the way, where we spent about 30% of our time in LA. 

                                     


    Traffic on Rodeo Drive
  7. Possibly the most recognizable landmark of LA is The Hollywood sign. I wanted to ensure that I would not leave this city before I took one shot, at least, of it. I am not sure what it is – it is nothing but some huge, horribly industrial-looking letters, kitschily displayed in blinding white paint on top of a random hill. They have nothing of the reverence and history of Louvre and The Tower of London, and nothing sacred and awe-inspiring like Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey. And yet, they are, to me, as pausing, and as reflective. They bear in their name and symbolism the essence of this city: LA would be nothing without the world of Hollywood. America would be a very different country without Hollywood, as well. And to so many LA is America, still.

    We drove up this steep hill (Muholland Highway) through a very posh neighborhood, to get closer to The Sign. The streets were almost Italian in width – extremely tight and with cars parked everywhere. Lots of “do not park” signs and “stay away from my gate.” But we managed to reach the closest point to it, and I jumped out to snap my shot, my husband frightened someone would shoot him for stopping on this narrow lane, guarding the car. Another bucket list item crossed.


    The Hollywood sign, as seen from Mullholland Highway

  8. The Dolby Theater, home of The Oscars, star attraction of the Hollywood Boulevard, although done up in red regalia and about half a trillion natural white roses, for a multi billionaire's daughter's wedding, was old, drab, and very dirty. Emphasis on very. It definitely did not have the posh allure that E! portrays in their broadcasts before the ceremonies. Hollywood Boulevard was wall to wall of people that day (a Saturday of all days!), very similar to the Vegas strip on a torrid day, or New Orleans during an exhaustingly humid afternoon. I kept thinking I have waited 30+ years to see this theater and all I wanted to do now was get the heck out! I felt about seeing The Dolby somewhat similarly to what I felt when I saw Buckingham Palace – the shine, the glamour, the stones and glitz are missing in real life.





    The Dolby Theater
  9. You go to cities like LA, and New York, and Paris, and London for their history, but also for their art. You are almost always guaranteed to see an exhibit or ten that hub really important and remarkable artistic works. We only had two days in LA, so we could not afford the luxury of time to visit all the artistic venues it hosts, but we did visit The Getty. It was the best time spent during the whole time we were there – and this was surprising to us. The complex is not only a masterpiece of modern architecture, its location is also key, atop a hill with the entire LA bowing down at its feet, but it also collects beautiful works of art, amongst which: 17th century oil paintings, a collection of pastels, even, which were amazing in detail and elegance and quality of preservation, old Irish photographs, Greek and Roman statues in a state of impeccable wholeness, Louis XIV furniture, and some of the most elegant gardens I have ever seen. But the one exhibit that really shocked me was the one on concrete poetry. I will let you google it yourself and find out what that means, because it was news to me, ashamed I am to say, because I am, after all, a literature major. It was truly a mind-opening, enriching experience.

    And this is ultimately why I travel, right?! The good and the bad and the different all blend in to create an experience which is like no other, stranger and newer than my stomping grounds that I see daily, and that much richer.








    Concrete poetry and gardens at The Getty

  10. The last thing that will forever stay with me was probably the most shockingly ubiquitous: the smog. I have read about the California smog for decades, but I have never seen the LA skyline quite so mucky, desolate, and gray in any of the movies, pictures, or friends' albums. I have never shot a skyline more desperate, and more disarmingly desolate. If it were not for the hub-bub of the traffic, I would have thought we were in a town after the atomic bomb has fallen and everyone has died. 

    I was shocked that the fog never lifted in the three days (some partial days, too) that we were there. Like a hopeless burka, it enveloped the city into darkness, in the middle of an otherwise calm and cool day, hiding its beauty away. The vibrant city I was hoping to find was alone, stranded, smelly and remote, with only the sick and threatening warmth of a human burning oven … 


    Despite the dirt and the filth in the air, the mighty city of LA borrowed something from the mighty desert that surrounds it, and the dirty polluted “a
    ir felt electric with promise”, secrets; you almost can hear its heart beating bloody and unapologetic into another day …

    I commend you to cut through the smog, though, and dare to explore. Driving around Beverly Hills, with the posh lawns, giant palm trees almost snapping they are so tall, and thoughtfully diversely architectured homes is a treat you don't see anywhere else. The hole-in-the-wall eateries are worth the traffic fight. But unfortunately, what will stay with you, the 'overall' summarizing picture of LA, from afar, will be the skyline – and that is a sad sight. Saddest I have seen in a long while. It is sort of ironic: California is always a leading force behind recycling, anti-pollution, renewable energy, and the likes. And its most iconic city fails to live up to those efforts.

                                    

    As you enter the state of California, from Nevada, you see this immense solar power plant. The giant mirrors intensify the sun rays and multiply its power million-fold. It looks amazingly intimidating and powerful, and yet ... it's just the sun. The intensity of the heat around these few miles of road is the highest I have ever felt in my life.

I could not help but pause at the irony of this picture: the LA skyline.
People of LA are happy and content, but also tired. They are not the pawns walking in robotic gestures of the metros of New York City, hurryingly staring at the pavement. They walk slower, and smile more. They are making up a perfect and customary American mosaic adding to it their different backgrounds, cultures, skin tones, music, accents, and attire. They are not boring, for sure. Nothing about LA is remotely boring. Just a bit lost, and a lot sad, and tired. But there is this life you feel the pulse of very clearly as you watch lights coming on across the metropolis, and the sky dipping behind the hills into another night. This energy that makes the heart of the city beat, in the dark cloud of smog.

As I look back at LA, I hear Jim singing:

Well, I just got into town about an hour ago
Took a look around, see which way the wind blow
Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalows
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel?
City of Night, City of Night ...
L.A. Woman, L.A. Woman
L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
(...)
Drive through your suburbs
Into your blues, into your blues (...)
I see your hair is burnin'
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin' down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman...
So alone, so alone
(...)
Motel, money, murder, madness
Let's change the mood from glad to sadness
(…)
(The Doors: LA Woman)

And now, many moons after I heard this song for the first time, I actually know what he means. 

The dream, as all dreams, was worth having for 30-40 some odd years. And it's good to meet your dream. Even when it wants.


Click the picture to access the album that captures this trip. The true beauty of The Getty gardens and art, details of Hollywood Boulevard, more Venice Beach life, and more await ...