How We Road Tripped

 

 

 

With my recent cancer diagnosis, it’s kind of weird to be going back through old photo albums in order to write these autobiographical blogs. But I’m not giving up on them, anymore than I’m giving up on fighting cancer and winning! So let’s pick this story up where I left off: in 1993, when I learned to read maps and the road became my second home. Or more accurately, our second home, because my mom loved the road, too, even if she was always in conflict with leaving our stationary home.

Summer 1993. I get the big idea to do things a little differently. After mom and I cut our teeth with tour companies, and watched things we wanted to see go by out the bus window without being able to stop, we contacted our travel agent (gee, where have you heard that term lately!) and had her book us a cheap package to Las Vegas where we would rent a car and stay at the new Excalibur Hotel for seven nights. I pulled out my trusty road atlas and started planning. We could go to the Hoover Dam! And Death Valley! And Zion National Park! And the Grand Canyon! And…Jeez, could I really make this happen for us?

We’d also make a special stop at Death Valley Junction, a town that occupied a huge place in my current book, a long, handwritten saga of spoiled youth in Southern California. The Golden State was still my Promised Land, and no map made me hungrier than the one of Southern California. I found colorful names of cities and towns across the endearing area and assigned characters to the places. My favorite character of all hailed from Death Valley Junction, which I pictured to be something of a boom town. Small, but exciting. More on our discovery in a few.

Off we flew to Las Vegas and picked up our car. It was our first time in Sin City, and one of the only times I actually liked being there. I love Vegas now for only one reason: It’s a great jump off point to so many better places. Otherwise, I have little use for it, because I don’t care about gambling or the other activities the city offers. But back in 1993, Vegas was everything it was supposed to be. Given its proximity to California, even better.

In today’s world of “influencers” traveling the globe and showing their IG followers only the very best highlights of a grueling lifestyle, flying to Vegas and driving two hundred miles to Zion National Park must not seem like a big accomplishment. But to the me of 1993, a twenty-six-year-old small town girl with stars in her eyes, this was a heck of a big deal.  Did we make it everywhere we were supposed to go? Yes, indeed! But I’ll confess that we took a bus trip to Grand Canyon West, as it was easier to do it on an organized tour. This was long before glass bridges and expensive zip line packages. My favorite part of our trip had to be the Death Valley day. En route to what turned out to be one of my favorite national parks we stopped at Death Valley Junction and found not a boom town…but a ghost town! Another love was born. I’ve sought out as many as possible since then. Here’s a funny page from the magnetic album I made. Check out that cute Mustang!

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I had a dead end job at the time, and that’s what I went back to after this life-changing adventure. Friends got me into some local nightlife, but I never gave up on my pursuits of getting to other places. California wasn’t the only state where I found pleasing town names; I had them for every state. Places like Zook Spur, Iowa (another favorite!) and Summer Shade, Kentucky. Always whimsical, always good monikers to inspire stories that were flights of fancy. And always, always, places that made me yearn to get in a car and drive.

In 1994, I started to connect the dots between towns and to see how state highways, US highways, and freeways led to one another. I connected them so well that I came up with an enthusiastic endeavor to drive from Massachusetts to California and back again on a 9,400 mile road trip that would go through twenty-seven states, a dozen national parks and monuments, and to several other must-see spots in a time frame of forty-eight days. What did I expect my mom to say? A resounding “NO”! But Mom didn’t say no. Because we would have a once in a lifetime experience and be better people for it. Sure, Mom! Bless her heart. We set off in, are you ready for this, my 1990 IROC-Z convertible, all three of us total road trip virgins. Here’s one of my favorite unexpected moments on a trip that I still have not topped for length of time or mileage even twenty-five years later:

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No, you aren’t seeing things! That’s snow in July at Yellowstone National Park! And I was driving a lightweight Chevy Camaro convertible. Beat that, IG “influencers!”

After the excitement of the road, going back home to our tiny town was pretty tough. I understand a little bit of why musicians go so wild on concert tours then have a tough time readjusting to normal life again. And a pattern started to develop: just take any old job to make enough money to go on the next big adventure. The other idea that I got was that it was about time to get serious about moving to Los Angeles, my biggest dream. Like so many, I wanted to study acting and get into “the business.” I was already past my mid-twenties, so I couldn’t wait much longer. I wanted my mom to come with me, but because of my sister Jeanne she couldn’t even consider it. Jeanne needed her more than me. But as always, Mom swallowed her hurt and told me. “Go to California!”

Still, there was something in it for her: a four week one way road trip to drive my new Geo Tracker to Los Angeles, find a place to live, and fly back to pack up my less than worldly possessions. What turned into a “once in a lifetime experience” in 1994 was turning into much more than that and would continue to, even with Mom and me living on opposite coasts. This particular trip was 5,000 miles one way, and hit many more states that the first one didn’t, including what would become my favorite place on the globe, Southern Utah. Here we are at Monument Valley, circa 1995:

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How about that backdrop? It always reminds me of one of those fake pull-down things we used to pose in front of for school pictures!

While on this trip I took perhaps my favorite photo of Mom. Does anyone remember Highway 666 between Monticello, Utah and Gallup, New Mexico? It’s US 491 now. Ahh, them glory days of road trips!

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Notice how I had Mom in the devil holding the pitchfork pose. I was always putting her up to some bit of silliness, and she was such a good sport! Here’s another classic:

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Living in Southern California was a pretty intense experience for me. I was there for almost five years, and it was jam-packed full of exploration. If I had two days off from one of my many cruddy jobs I’d be on the road in the Tracker. Even one day would be sufficient. Once I drove 700 miles and was home the same evening! Usually, I was alone. But Mom came out several times and we took even more trips together, including a journey up the west coast to Seattle in 1997, and to Alaska the following year. My niece Amanda joined us one summer for fun closer to home, and I made my own trips back to the east coast.

Southern California was where I got my first taste of doing stuff that would freak people out. Notice me in one of the pictures at the top of this post getting ready to go hang gliding. Before that was sky diving!

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Yeah, like I said, quite a five years!

My next fabulous idea was to branch out to our second continent: Europe. Mom had three things on her Bucket List, and we did two of them on our 1999 European excursion: we went to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and visited our homeland, Poland, where Mom paid tribute to her father at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home of the famed Black Madonna. We also got to five other countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. A month away from the comforts of home was a heck of a long time for Mom; she didn’t like the change in currencies or trying to keep up with the rest of the group we traveled with. By this time she already had a knee replacement and would be getting another one before long. I knew that the next time I went across the Atlantic she wouldn’t be along for the ride! But road trips were still of interest to us. We weren’t done with them yet!

By 2000, I was ready to go home. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do in L.A. and after studying acting for a couple of years and getting a bitter taste of “Hollywood,” wasn’t interested or impressed anymore. Mom was getting older, I missed her like crazy, and I wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. I did a solo road trip in the summer of 2000 to get back to Massachusetts and picked up more states toward my goal of visiting all fifty.

My timing, it turned out, was excellent. Mom and I still had four years together, and we made the most of them.

To be continued soon.

 

 

 

Traveling With Mom

 

Jeez, I’m obviously not very good at keeping up with this autobiography stuff. Only two posts all year! Last time I promised that I wasn’t going to take so long to get to the next installment in my life story, a promise that I wasn’t able to keep.  But now that my blog is the focus of my writing life, I may just do better!

At any rate, in case you want to read the first two chapters in the life of me, here’s the story of my first ten years, and here’s the post about my teenage years after losing my beloved Dad.

And now, to continue…

So there I was, with two new loves, writing and maps, but with a family shattered by the death of my dad. My interests didn’t stop me from heading down some wrong paths for a few years, even as I obsessed over road atlases my mom would buy me and created wild stories in my head and on paper about characters who traveled, fell in love, and were a heck of a lot happier than me.  At a very young age I found temporary infatuations with drinking, smoking, and being a pothead. I’m not sorry about doing any of those things, because by the time I was eighteen I didn’t care about any of that anymore, but did care about my stories and my Rand McNally’s. Back then I didn’t think I had any chance to travel or live a life even close to the stories I was writing. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Like a lot of people, my travels started out in the obvious place: Disney World, of course! I was fifteen, it was 1982, and Epcot was just opening. My mom scrounged up enough money for us to go together. It was my first flight, and we also went to Sea World, Cypress Gardens, and Busch Gardens, on a guided tour. The travel bug was planted! I have my mother to thank for that. Here’s a real oldie of me from that trip, at Cypress Gardens. I was really in my Ugly Duckling phase in ’82!

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Florida was a dream, but to me the real prize was getting to California. It didn’t happen for five years after Florida, though we took some smaller trips. Between 1982 and 1992, Mom and I also made it to Amish Country, Washington, DC, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Bermuda, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not a bad take for two ladies who had really never been anywhere! I’ve included a picture from each trip. I have to stress here, too, that this wasn’t all about me, it was about Mom, too. Traveling was a new beginning for her. Not an easy or quick one, but eventually a welcome escape from the black hole her life seemed to be without Dad. She always said that Dad would have been behind her decision to take me places. I’ll just bet he would have been pleased to know that she was finally starting to get some satisfaction out of life again.

Mom never forgot her first and only love. But I fully believe she was finally able to let go of him more after fifteen years, ten years of which we were going places together.

I held down a full-time position in a local factory during most of these years. Our travel schedule wasn’t too wild yet, so I was able to squeeze the trips into paid vacations. That would get trickier as our travels got more sophisticated…and personalized.

While Mom and I were bonding ever closer and getting better at the travel thing, relations in our family were falling apart. Assumptions of favoritism were rampant, resentments cropped up that my sister, who is disabled, had to be taken care of while Mom was gone. Money problems were always at the forefront of every conflict. Things didn’t get any better, though everyone said they wanted Mom to enjoy life. In fact, things got steadily worse. I used to say that we weren’t a dysfunctional family, because that would indicate we were functioning, just not the right way. Hardly the case with us; we weren’t functioning at all. Because of this, Mom and I could never be completely happy traveling. She was filled with guilt for leaving her daughter, who required total care, in the hands of someone else, when she had always provided for her. Being far away from home without the option to get back quickly was tough for her. Sometimes she would cry and worry. My job was to cheer her up. It didn’t always work, but we still had plenty of good times.

We didn’t give up. Soon, traveling would get even more interesting. We’d leave the guided tours behind and start making our own fun.

That’s when I learned how to read those maps I was obsessing over. The United States and Canada were soon to be our oyster!

Hiking Moab: Outside the National Parks

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You don’t have to know me too well to know that I love hiking, and if I had my choice of doing it anywhere in the world, I’d choose Southern Utah. I’ve been a heck of a lot of places on the globe, but I just can’t get enough of my coveted Promised Land. Most people who’ve been to the vast and exciting area choose to go to what I call “the other side,” meaning Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. I completely understand why: easier access from Vegas, much more well known. Guess I can’t blame them. And hey, less traffic on “my side,” which is the east side of Southern Utah. Moab and I  met way back in 1995, quite by accident, when my beloved Mom and I wanted to see Arches and maybe just a bit of Canyonlands on one of our first road trips. Which we did! Love was born. Love has only grown. In fact, when I buy an RV and head out to live on the road in a few years, guess where I’ll be heading first? Maybe I’ll never leave!

Today, I’ve done so much hiking in Arches and Canyonlands that when I went back this summer I decided to explore outside the parks. Frankly, Arches is wonderful, but it’s so small and there are so many vehicles choking the roads that I take a pass now. I’ve pretty much hiked everything there and with plenty of other wonders to keep me busy, I’m not hankering yet to do them again. On the other hand, I still have not had enough of Canyonlands. It’s much more remote, way bigger, and offers four “districts,” two of which I haven’t even set foot in yet. So, I did spend some time there yet again, repeating hikes I haven’t done in a few years. But here are a couple of treks beyond the famous parks that I’d give about seven hundred stars to. They’ll feed your hunger for the Arches and Canyonlands, with a lot less human traffic.

Fisher Towers

Located on the gorgeous Utah 128, Fisher Towers is an absolute stunner about 20 miles east of Moab. Leave I-70 at exit 214, SR 128 West, not at US 191 the way the interstate signs say, and take this lesser known and used route to Moab. You can thank me after you do it. I’ll talk more about the highway itself below, but for now let’s concentrate on Fisher Towers.

As you near the majestic and castle-like towers, there will be a few pull-offs along SR 128. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any of these are the official parking areas for the Fisher Tower Trail; they aren’t. The actual trail is about a mile down a well-maintained gravel road that is accessible by any vehicle and has its own clearly seen sign. Any of those other lots will have you on horse trails. I made that mistake, though I can’t say I’m at all sorry, as I was hiking surrounded by arguably the most incredible scenery on Earth, and different 360 views than the Fisher Towers Trail. But if you only have a few hours to hike before you continue on to Moab, take the signed dirt road.

Before I did this hike I found some misleading information that designated the trail as easy. Don’t make this mistake, either. Fisher Towers isn’t easy. It’s rocky, the footing is tricky in some places, and there’s 1,800 feet in gain/loss over approximately five miles round trip, including a ladder. I suggest full hiking gear, most importantly sturdy boots and socks high enough to keep you from collecting dirt. There’s also very little shade if you’re hiking in warm weather, not a drop of water, even though the Colorado River is not far away on the opposite side of SR 128, and slippery sand in several places. But make no mistake about it, the payoff is grand. The rusty sandstone towers resemble man made ruins, so much so that when I posted pictures on Facebook I had to explain that the scenery is the handiwork of none other than Mama Nature.

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The entire trail is a spectacle to behold, but the real payoff is the first mile and a half. Expect nothing better than that and you won’t be disappointed when you get to what appears to be the “end” and find many little side trails to views your jaw has already dropped for a thousand times. Find your personal favorite and have lunch before you head back to your car.

Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail

This is one of those trails that I can’t believe I didn’t do the first several times I was in my favorite place. Do yourself a big favor and don’t GPS this one! The route GPS or Google Maps gives you is misleading. The trail is totally simple to get to from Moab. Just head toward Arches National Park on 191 North from town and turn left on SR 279, another beauty, albeit a short one. Drive with your head on a spindle until you come to the well-marked trail parking lot on the right hand side.

The Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail is another hot, dry, sandy one with a big time reward. It’s much flatter than the Fisher Towers hike, with less than 500 feet in gain/loss, a lot of it on the initial climb from the parking lot. If not for some rather tricky cables and a ladder, I’d rate it as easy. The hardware makes it moderate. And yes, you can see the arches without ascending the ladder, but don’t you dare miss a closer look.

I had the whole fabulous area to myself, though All Trails rates it as “heavily trafficked.” It’s fair enough to say that the cables and ladders will keep some people away. Don’t be one of those people; it’s takes about two minutes to do both, and the cables have very good footholds, though I wouldn’t recommend doing it with dogs, children, (including those on your back) or in wet or icy conditions. This trek is real National Geographic stuff and better yet, can be done in a matter of two to three hours, including all the silly selfies you can muster.

Highway 128

Okay, it isn’t really a hike, and if you’ve never been to an area like Southern Utah you probably can’t fathom a highway being a destination, but take my word, SR 128 to Moab is a trip in and of itself. When I go to the area now I’m prone to just parking on the side of the highway, donning my backpack, and setting off to see what I can see. When you leave I-70 it’s going to take an hour or so of driving for SR 128 to “get good,” but when it does, oh, it’s pretty fantastic! The Colorado River will start out to your east, on the left side of the road, but will eventually flow underneath the highway and end up on the right the remainder of the way to Moab. Before long you’ll enter the Colorado Riverway Recreation Area, scene of delight for paddlers and rafters. I had my first trip on the river this summer, but that’s another blog! Soon Fisher Towers come into view on opposite side of the road, with Castleton Towers thrown in for good measure. I’ve always thought that this land of wonder could be a national park. Maybe it will be someday.

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Closer to Moab on 128 are Grandstaff Canyon and Icebox Canyon. I intended to do Grandstaff while I was there this summer, but I ran out of energy! Next time.

My side of Southern Utah offers so much, inside and outside the national parks. This is just a morsel of what the area offers to hiking fans, not to mention mountain bikers, BASE jumpers, and many other adventure seekers. I like to say that if you ain’t been to Moab, you ain’t really been. When are you going?

My New Direction

 

Did you ever do something you’ve always wanted to do and ended up wanting to do something else instead? Well, I did just that!

For decades, I wanted to write and publish books. With the opportunity that self-publishing brought, I went for it and gave birth to seven works of fiction, all of which I love and am very proud of.  Those seven titles came out between January of 2017 and April of 2019. Meanwhile, I started blogging here about a year and a half ago and realized that I also love doing that. As I went along, I noticed that more than anything I was writing, my travel and hiking blogs were attracting attention. Made me wonder if maybe I had to rethink my focus, as there’s only so much time in a day, particularly when you already work a full-time teaching job. Even as I wrote books about rock and roll groupies, it was always on the back burner to align all my writing with the things I do everyday and love to do. Makes perfect sense, right?

Cut to the beginning of this year. I start my 2019 travels. Trips to see my niece in South Carolina. Patagonia. Portugal (again.) Road trips. Sri Lanka. In between, lots of hiking and weekend trips. The book writing starts to slip. And then, it naturally takes a back seat. To the point that I hardly even want to put out that last book, as hard as I worked on it. I did it anyway. Got some blogs out there, too. And wished that I could find time to post more. The outdoor fun continues, and soon, the fiction writing is totally derailed, even though my plan was to have ten books “out there” before I considered a change in focus. Suddenly, traveling, hiking, and blogging about traveling and hiking are the most important things, and what continue to garner me the most attention.

Well! I did revive my fiction pursuits for long enough to edit two more books this summer, and I have two others in pretty good shape, one of which I totally forgot existed! But after an incredible year of travel and adventure (with still more to come!) I had to make a decision. And here’s what just kept coming up: I want to get paid to take road trips. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but that’s what I want, and that’s what I’m pursuing. I plan to take an early retirement from my teaching job in three years and live on the highways of the United States and Canada in an RV (and to further explore Australia, New Zealand, and any other countries that beckon in the same fashion.) Until then, I’m going to learn how to support myself doing what I love to do most. And folks, I loooooove being on the road.

My blog will be the cornerstone and first step toward that dream. Soon, I’ll be monetizing. Yeah, I love looking at my website so pristine and pretty and without all those annoying flashing ads. But if I want to live my dream I have to get going on figuring out how to pay the bills while on the road and to supplement my retirement income.

Some other ideas are to start a YouTube channel, get public speaking gigs, and write how-to books. I’ve already begun a guide to being a pro at road tripping. Click here for a preview. I’m also collecting names for an all-new newsletter with more travel, hiking, and lifestyle advice and information. You can sign up here if you would like to receive it.

Changing directions is so tough, even if you know it’s what you should do. But I feel excited and optimistic about my decision, like everything is aligning just the way I want it to!

Thank you to everyone who has supported my writing career thus far, to everyone who has followed my blog, and to those who have read and enjoyed my work.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!