A Survivor’s Ball, South Carolina

We’ve been through some sh*t together, we’ve been through some sh*t on our own. And last week, we celebrated again by reuniting.

Survivors are not born. They’re made. By struggle. By sadness. By fear. By learning and doing and enduring. I’m not afraid to appear narcissistic by saying that we’ve done them all and more and we’re still here and we plan on being here for a long time.

My beloved niece Amanda is in South Carolina, I’m in Massachusetts. She’s been on a journey of recovery from liver failure for a year and a half now, I’ve been on a Stage IV lung cancer road trip since last September. Neither of us are supposed to be where we are now. But we are. So there.

Traveling is one of the things that I am. I don’t just do it. Though I’ve been criticized for “how” I travel by some who think there’s some hard and fast rules to doing it bigger, better, and faster than me, the truth is that long before I got on an airplane or in a car, I was visiting national parks and monuments on by bedroom floor with a map open in front of my unknowing eyes.  I was discovering foreign lands through age-old National Geographic magazines open on the hall steps. To have the ability to travel taken away from me by cancer was a crushing blow. So imagine the double whammy of rushing down a runway on an American Airlines jetliner and seeing my brave and beautiful niece again all in one compact trip! If this sounds petty to you, maybe you’ll understand someday. I hope you do, but I also hope you don’t have to find out the way we did.

I never cared how I got to where I was going. How much my ticket cost as compared to someone else’s or how good my hotel room was, neither. It ain’t what you’re going to remember when you’re on your death bed. I care even less now. Just let me get there again.

Where was your last trip? Portugal? Good for you. Me, Hell and back. Beat that. But now I plan to make up for lost time, and my sentimental journey to South Carolina was the first step. In a near future blog I’ll talk about the fun stuff we did in more detail, like the trip to the gem mine and the working farm, both with gift shops, of course! But for today, I’ll just recount the more personal aspects of the trip.

Last fall, when I started on my cancer road trip, there was little hope for me to be sitting at my computer and typing this in an upright position, much less boarding an airplane and going places, for a hellishly long time, if ever again. This foray, and my story in general, is one of those miracles you read about in books about someone else. Sure, I was only gone for four days. And no, it wasn’t nearly enough time to celebrate life with Amanda. But in another way, it was the trip of a lifetime, to mark my existence truly beginning again, to set a precedent for getting my life back to the way it was not so long ago, and yet ages ago.

Valentine’s Day had already passed, but not really. February 14th, February 16th, what does it matter? They’re all the same when you aren’t supposed to be where you are, but you are anyway, by sheer force of luck, love, spirit, and whatever else got you there. Lots of presents were shared, tons of dog love, chocolate, and Smarties. How can you go wrong?

We ran around like teenagers and caught up on things. Pretended to be miners in Greenville. Went bowling because the movie choices sucked. Ate at a neat restaurant like the one we’d found in Boone, North Carolina last year. Ended the trip at our favorite China Garden eating seven different flavors of chicken and shrimp and drinking jasmine tea. It was there that I read the Survivor’s Ditty I wrote for us:

Once Upon a Time
Two cute chicks
Survived bad sh*t
Then went out
For Chinese Food
And when they were done
They lived and loved
Like there’s no tomorrow
THE END

Sigh. If only it were that simple.

Early the next morning, I had to leave her and come home to reality and appointments and killing cancer. For four whirlwind days it was like I was normal again. Wait, I am normal again. Maybe I was never not normal? Still trying to figure all this out.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. As I sit and type, I still have treatment to endure. Fingers crossed that I’ve been through the worst of it. And you can bet that I’m hankering for that next trip down the runway. Guess where it will be to? If you guessed South Carolina, you’re right.

Making up for lost time.

Two Great Alternatives Outside Yosemite

One of my close friends and travel companions was recently in the Lake Tahoe area and wanted to do some time at Yosemite. I gave her a couple of alternatives nearby, in case the steep road up to the Tioga Pass was closed. Upon returning, she described Yosemite in two words, the first one being “cluster” and the other starting with “f” and having four choice letters. The sentence went something like this: “Yosemite was a cluster f*** of people.”

Yeah, been there, done that. In my bid to hike all sixty United States national parks, Yosemite was one of the first I eliminated. In fact, Yosemite was the first one I ever visited, way back in 1987 when I was a newbie traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place. Ye olde Yosemite holds a lot of nostalgia for me, as my mom and I discovered it together, and revisited it a couple of times afterward. But it’s not the first park I would run back to, as I hiked it for several days, and oh yeah, there’s that people problem!  (Thanks, John Muir!) What I would do again, however, is hit my two favorite sites in close proximity to the park. If you’re in the area, don’t miss them! And you can see them both in a long day if you only have one.

Mono Lake & the South Tufa Trail

Located on US 395 just north of the east entrance of Yosemite, Mono Lake was nothing more than a crystal blue alpine persuasion the first several times I saw it. It wasn’t until a decade or more later that I learned that the super-salty body of water actually had a trail leading to some other worldly formations of “tufa” made from calcium carbonate. Thus, the South Tufa Trail became one of my favorite trails anywhere. And like so many other incredible walks in the American West, anyone can do it. It’s short, flat, and spectacular.

A brief gravel road leads down to the lake, and a small parking fee is charged once you’re there. Mono Lake is one of those places where the sky makes all the difference. As you can see from my pictures, the white puffy clouds were on my side the day I stopped by.

Like anywhere a stone’s throw from a world famous national park, don’t expect to have the place to yourself. But most of the crowd will be at Yosemite. Promise.

Bodie Ghost Town

Anyone who knows their ghost towns knows that it doesn’t get much better than Bodie State Historical Park. To get there from Mono Lake, continue north on US 395 approximately twenty miles to California 270 east, just south of Bridgeport. Bodie is a fair weather destination; don’t underestimate the power of the three-mile climbing dirt road at the end of 270. The town sits at 8,375 feet above sea level, and you will feel it in your chest as you walk the dusty streets.

If you’re looking for an amusement park, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re looking for a genuine ghost town, you’re in for a real treat. Bodie is kept in what is called a “state of arrested decay,” meaning that it’s preserved but not restored.

You aren’t going to see any slick mining rides or “old west” shootouts. What you are going to see is the fascinating remnants of a once-vibrant gold mining town that at its peak was home to 10,000 residents and offered up as many as sixty-five saloons and a busy red light district. Bodie also has an amazing cemetery. If you love a good boneyard, there isn’t anything that quite compares to a ghost town burial ground. Don’t forget to check out the final resting place of Rosa May, the beloved madame of Bodie, who even in death is still bringing in the cash!

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After you’re done with your walk, don’t forget to marvel at the simple beauty of the landscape. And don’t forget to thank me for a day away from the crowds at Yosemite!