Down East in Maine: back after 28 years

Down East #1

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Mid-summer in Maine and the campground is empty but for three other sites, although the tall fat fella in the white van with a hound dog drove out this morning. Perhaps he’s moving on? Another couple in the big sand colored tent drove by shortly after and it’s not even 8.30. Maybe I’m alone then? Is anyone else around? Time to explore, well, after the morning coffee on the rocks. Rocks on the coast, solid sit-upon boulders, smooth under bum, and slippery under paws (Harold’s).

I’ve been up for hours, the light wakes us around 5am, the lobster trawlers thunder by, deep and low in the water as I sit on those rocks with a plain coffee. The fog is so thick this morning that the boats are invisible even though voices talk back and forth over the rumble of engine and waves, tides and eddies.

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McClellan Park campground is a little known hideaway right on the ocean with ten sites for campers and tents. The road down is winding and narrow through dense woodland but easy on the vehicle, just tight, there’d be no room for anything bigger than a Sprinter. We pull off to let a sedan pass on the way up, and the couple tells me to claim number twelve.

“It’s open, a nice little bit of meadow, and just the other side of the trees is the shore.” She’s missing a tooth up front in that cheery smile of hers, and her husband says something unintelligable. They wave me off. My new neighbors.

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We camped in number twelve as directed with a hundred feet of mown grass, a ring of birch trees and the sound of the incoming tides on the rocks. The fire kept us warm although the wood Dennis, the caretaker, sold ended up being damp and green. That couple I’d mentioned though, they brought me some dry wood one morning.

“I was worried you’d be cold, that other stuff doesn’t put out much heat, does it? Here you go, your cat came by this morning. I saw him in the trees, shy isn’t he? Yes, I told Jerry we needed to bring you some wood, get you warm. It’s chilly today. They say it’ll rain tonight so cover up your stuff, won’t you?”

She’s in striped loose pajama pants, a pink checkered long sleeved shirt, and another purple layer over her shoulders, quite a colorful thick-set woman in her sixites. Her frizzled hair is held back by bright red plastic clips. Jerry wears work boots, pressed blue jeans, and a sweatshirt with Vietnam Veteran in bold white letters. His front teeth are missing, his tongue swallows his words, and his grin is like a ten-yer-old boys, all mischief and innocence. He’s about the same size too, wiry, compact, small as a pre-teen.

“You have to visit Jonesport, it’s pretty. My sister lives in Millbridge, that’s why we come here. We only live an hour away but love camping here each summer. Columbia Falls too, that’s a stop if you’re heading to Eastport. South of here, go see the ferris wheels on the beach. Jerry here was on stage for July 4th. He’s an Elvis impersonator.”

Millbridge is an odd little town in US 1, with very little by way of tourism, just a couple of stores, a diner and a mexican take-out, just what we want on the ocean, mexican food, right? I don’t find anywhere to get clam chowder, a sudden craving on these grey days. There’s a laundromat, library, bank, and a couple of churches, but no cafes or brew pubs that I can see. Bummer. I’ll not be staying here too long then. The supermarket undercharges me for the beer and I say nothing but feel guilty for a moment, and again as I write this. Oh well. I have worse regrets.

The shore is rough with a deep sudden drop from brown-stained rocks into swilling waves below. My brain imagines Harold slipping in and that fear that comes, knowing I’d jump in to save him. Probably kill us both. But I’d have to. It’s Harold. Fuck. “Get away from there!” I startle us both, he slips but not into the Atlantic.

We walk in the mornings, early, mid, late. We walk in the afternoons, every hour or so I jump up from book or laptop, “let’s go, guys.” All three pets bounce up, two dogs and a cat, and off through the trees we go, over the rocks, I sit on the grass to the east of this path and lean back. I can spend hours staring out over the ocean. This calm rejuvinates me, brings me back to myself, and reminds me of the Gower Coast in Wales. The grey skies with occassional bursts of sunshine. The salt on my skin. The damp air curling my hair. I wish there was a way to live on the coast like this, wake up each morning to stare out over the horizon and daydream in the cool breeze off the ocean. Can I? Make this a goal of mine? Why not? Or perhaps just drive along coastlines for the rest of my life? I could do that.

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My brain ticks over, the lists, the stressors, all that needs to be taken care of in the next few weeks. Instead of tackling any of this increasing number of projects and the relevant details, I make another cuppa. This is the week before I move in finally to a rental apartment in Montpelier, start work, and then college. This is problably the last break for a while. It’s time to explore then, isn’t it? So we do. We do. Gratefully.

Mosquitos follow my everywhere but the DEET works well, not that I’d want to live with it on me year in, year out. But who cares about a few weeks here and there? Toxic crap I know but it works. When I go pee though, that was a problem.

McClellan campground costs only ten dollars per site and another five for a generous bundle of (green) firewood. There’s a shower, potable water, trash cans, and a friendly host who lives near by. Yes, come here. Yes, stay a while. Millbridge is within reach of a bunch of interesting smaller villages, one’s you wouldn’t normally come across on you trip across US 1. The camping has been here since 1946, Dennis tells me, but the State only just realized it, so came a knocking over winter, demanding a licence fee, a few changes, and less sites. Dennis just took down a couple of numbers but left the picnic tables and still mows the grass in those numberless places.

“There, done.” He grins, his eyes wrinkle in mischief, “And they left. Not so bad after all. It might help that the Chief of Police runs this place and threatened the guy, but what do I care? Oh, if this fog eases up, tonight we’re meant to be able to see the Northern Lights!”

The fog only thickened though so I went to bed by nine, curled up in the camper with Harold on the front seat, Rosie in her crate (door open) and Stevie the cat at my feet, looking out the sliding window, gazing upon squirrels. We sleep deeply.

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Such utter calm and peace here, looking out over the Altlantic, I’m dreaming of a retreat, a time in a cabin on the waterfront, a deck, some shade, a place to swim, to walk the dogs, and days of peace to read, write, and create more. Yes. I’ll get right on it. Right after I finish my three years of the MFA.

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Next though, it’s Down East/ Up North. Time to find the eastern most town on the United State’s coastline. There’s a brewery there.

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Living The Dream: 21

 

SEPTEMBER: SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS

“Do you have a shotgun?”

“Did you kill it?”
“What happened?”
I poured the French Roast one at a time and answered, “we went to bed.”
The café broke out in laughter; all began talking at the same time. The two tables were full of locals, with newspapers, empty paper cups, plates of bagels, and the various phones and hats they all carried. Eight chairs, seven gray-haired men, and one four-year old little girl in pink. She held court between the snake stories. Mark and I’d gotten off lightly apparently. One local woman had a rattlesnake climb into bed with her. I’m glad that wasn’t me.

The guys all had different ideas as to what we could/ should do next time. No one had the definitive answer that I heard. But here goes, the ideas included but were not limited to:

Shotgun.

Rope on a stick to lasso the bastard.

Metal buckets with lids.

Cats keep away mice and rats, and therefore the snakes don’t come over for dinner.

Clean up piles of lumber and trash. (Little did they guess that I was pretty anal about that already and didn’t need any excuse.)

Wire mesh under the bus to keep out all kinds of critters.

Cat-litter spread around the perimeter.

And again, get a shotgun.
I poured coffees for the regulars and made lattes for the tourists. The café business was slowing down after my mid-morning rush. I took a breath and carried on cleaning, dusting, and catching up. I drank another cappuccino. The two glass doors had been propped open and a soft crosswind took out some of the various odors, not all were that pleasant let’s say. I wiped down the shelves and took a cloth to the shelves full of small colorful silly gifts for those passing through. I looked at my notes. Matthew, a local mechanic, had drawn a sketch for how to make a lasso out of PVC pipe and baling wire. He’d drawn a cartoon of Mark and I chasing down a posse of snakes across the desert. I wanted to frame it; he’d done such a great job. Frida was asleep outside in the back yard of the café, under the elm tree with her favorite blanket and toy near by. She’d been on quivering guard all night long and the poor thing was exhausted. I checked on her every so often but she barely moved.

The morning passed peacefully and for that I was glad. I scanned the paper, looking for jobs for Mark. He’d hate that, but he’d need to do something soon. I couldn’t support us both on what I was doing. I thought of asking at the restaurants but couldn’t face that either. I leaned against the counter and daydreamed.

 

“Hi. Is Anne around?”
Andrew, the birthday boy, stood in front of me with his hat in hands, politely letting me gather myself. He’d pulled up in the driveway in his 4Runner, the engine still running. I checked the calendar and told him she’d be back in the morning but not before.
“Can I help somehow?”
Andrew shook his head but sat down on one of the wooden stools in front of me, his truck forgotten. His long white hair hung loosely and the blue Levis and denim shirt were much more worn out than at his party the other weekend. He wasn’t in his Sunday best, I guess.

“I don’t know, Jenny. It’s my sister; I’m worried about her. Anne’s so good at all of her community outreach stuff, I wanted to ask her help.”
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do?” I poured him a cup of coffee out of habit and sat next to him. I turned down the music. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking to himself before he started to talk.

“It’s the rescue. She’s drowning in debt but won’t ask for help from anyone. I don’t think she can keep going for much longer unless she gets some money together. I don’t know how. We’re all the family there is, we don’t have anyone to turn to. Mom’s ancient and doesn’t even recognize us any more.”
“So you thought of Anne? How come?”
He glanced at me. “I forget you’re still new here.”
“I’m not. I’ve been here almost three months now,” I said indignantly.

He laughed, “no offence, but that’s not so long, is it? Anyway, Anne’s put on fundraisers before. I thought maybe we could do one for the sanctuary.”
“I want to help. I don’t know how, but I’m sure I could do something. What does she need?” Ready to get involved as usual, I couldn’t keep my enthusiasm in check. I tried not to bounce in my seat.
“Mostly it’s the financial stuff, paying bills, buying supplies for the dogs, paying medical bills as they come up, maybe even making it into a non-profit.” He grinned. “Well, that’s what I’ve come up with so far.” and he tied his hair back and out of the way. His moustache drooped and dipped into the coffee.
“What’s she been doing until now?”
He sighed deeply. “Nothing. I told her to set herself up properly when her husband left, but did she listen to me? No, I’m just her older brother.”
“Mark’s been helping over there, mending fences and stuff. It’s not really what he’s good at. He’s more of a musician than anything else. But he’s good on the computer. Maybe we could do the Internet stuff for her, work on the accounts and look into some marketing?”
“Louisa doesn’t like getting people involved in her life. We’d have to get her okay first. But is it hard to get the non-profit stuff done?”
I shook my head and sipped coffee and grabbed notebook and pen. I started to write down ideas free form. “I’d think it’s probably just lots of details, setting up the different roles and that. We could do it so she has the final say on mission statements and that, but we organize how to deal with the money side of things. If Mark or someone could write some grants, then…”
“She’d be okay? I don’t want her to lose everything in the meantime.”
“Oh, right, that wouldn’t help her out right now.” I stood up and called to Frida. She trotted up the steps and lay down next to Andrew’s boots, and started to lick the one nearest her.
“Been cleaning out the stables,” he explained as we watched my dog.

I wrote down about grants, sponsors, fundraisers, and asked, “When Anne’s done other events, how does that work?”
Andrew added some more sugar and talked about the tavern hosting various shows over the years, with silent and live auctions, music all night long with the local bands each getting a set or two before the community jam towards the end of the night. “For one woman with a back injury, we raised about six thousand, and that took care of her mortgage and those kinds of expenses. The hospital covered the medical bills since she was under the poverty income levels.”

“Do you really get that much support here? There are not enough people, surely?”
Andrew laughed, “I know it seems that way at times, but there’s another four hundred or so folks living out in the mountains, and most of them are artists and writers and sculptors and woodworkers. They all bring their own creations to auction off. The musicians play with each other and with their reputations they bring in more of a Santa Fe audience, the families bring the kids, and it’s pretty incredible.” He had the sweetest smile right then.

I petted Frida. “Let’s do it, a fundraiser then, and in the meantime, Mark and I can work on the long term legal stuff, finding us, I mean Louisa, sponsors. I’m up for it. I’ll tell Mark later today, okay?”
Andrew put his hand on my arm, and still smiling, simply said thanks.

 

The four of us sat at the corner table in the tavern. Papers and pens lay scattered among pints of half-drunk beer and untouched iced water. A bowl of tortilla chips was brought over by the waiter. He left us to it after checking we didn’t need anything for a while. We all talked over each other, one idea after another. Anne took down notes as to names of artists and galleries. I wrote their suggestions for media coverage, which papers and the specific journalists to approach. Radio stations, online yahoo groups, Facebook, all the different social networks came to mind. Mark scribbled his own ideas and questions to follow up on for finding the bands. Andrew stood up after a while and stepped outside to smoke, with Mark following his lead. Anne and I took a breath and stopped talking. The calm felt good. I set the pen down. I breathed in deeply and let it out slowly.

The tavern was empty. Then again, for a weekday afternoon, I should know to expect that by now. Anne drained her first pint and ordered another round, with a plate of nachos for the group of us.
We sat in an easy silence.

The drinks came. The men didn’t.

“Cheers.” she toasted me. “Welcome to Oliver. You’re truly a part of this place if this is how you spend your time off.”
I tipped my glass and took a sip. “Yep, I feel like I can help out. I know Louisa. If it had been anyone else, I don’t know that I’d be as keen as this, to be honest. But I like what she’s doing up there. Maybe I can help set up a website, tell people about the specific dogs looking for homes.”
“She’d do well with a monthly newsletter to keep us in touch. She’s not good with people, that’s for sure, but I’ve known her with these dogs, ones you’d think should be quarantined because they’re so unpredictable. But she works with them, teaches them manners, and finds them homes. It’s such a shame her husband left her, but I reckon she’s happier without him.”
“Really? Why?”
“It wasn’t his dream, you know? The ones that don’t make it out on the land, well, usually one or the other is just going along with it to keep the partner happy. After a while, hauling water, or chopping firewood, or waking up to a raging windstorm, it gets old for some.”
“Not me. I love every minute of it. I didn’t know I would, but I do. And Mark’s been amazing too. He’s so great with the pup, and with getting his hands dirty, all the while he’s grinning and giggling and whistling to himself. I’ve not seen him this happy before. It’s pretty amazing.” I stared out the window and we watched Andrew and Mark chatting away, big smiles on their faces, non-stop back and forth. Mark pushed his curls out of his eyes and tied a bandana around the unruly mess, as he stroked his goatee absently. He finished his pint as he listened to the older man. Andrew’s faded denim shirt glowed in the direct afternoon sunlight, and his weathered skin suited him just fine, so much so that I imagined my boyfriend in his seventies looking somewhat like his new friend. I smiled to myself and turned back to Anne. She was reading her notes distractedly, fiddling with a strand of hair.

“Where’s Graham today?” I asked suddenly.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Something about the fire department, taking out a new volunteer to check for wildfires. He said they’d be back late afternoon sometime. We’ll see.”

She shook her head and focused on writing reminders to herself when Mark wandered over. He took a seat next to me just as the nachos arrived. He helped himself, humming away as he ate. I watched them both.

Solo Travels: Tips for women

Tips on how to travel solo, especially as a single woman. How to. Q&A.

http://www.fempotential.com/scared-solo-female-traveler/

“Aren’t you scared?”

Just yesterday a friend asked me if I ever got scared camping on my own, travelling on my own. No. I don’t. There’s more to it than that, but simply put, no, camping on my own is where I am happiest and most relaxed. In towns, in cities, surrounded by people, traffic, noise, music, talking for the sake of filling in the silence, no, that is not where I relax.

Last year, I had the honor of being a panelist on a discussion about the art of solo travels. Overland Expo West 2016 had almost 10,000 people all interested in vehicle dependent travels, whether local or worldwide; we all were there to get inspired.

To hear the stories from others who just have the wanderlust in their blood like I do was reassuring for me. I’ve been settled for too long now, and I’m restless again. I have been for the last few years, working towards getting on the road again.

That weekend at Overland Expo, I talked about crossing the States at 22 years old, hitch hiking with a small backpack and no credit cards or money, just following my distracted ideas of what to do next. I talked about riding my 1976 Yamaha XS750 across the Midwest repeatedly even though it would break down every other day, street performing in Guatemala, and driving the high elevation passes in Colorado in a 1973 VW Beetle. I never knew what to expect — these stories are part of me. I lost my two front teeth in Tarancon, Spain. I woke up on a train in Switzerland, not quite sure which country I was in. Hitched to the Munich beer festival. And yes, I travel alone. And I like it.

I admit, I once traveled with someone. It was 1989. Steve joined me in Chicago, a friend from my small hometown. I was walking down the streets in the city, knowing we’d find each other somehow but since neither of us had phones or hotel rooms, it would be a challenge. I walked with my backpack clunking away against my hips when I saw Steve sitting on a bench smoking. I sat down next to him and took his smoke.

We crossed to Maine, New York, Washington; we took trains, hitched, and then stayed at random homes of the families we met along the way. It wore me out. Steve let me make all the decisions. It wore me out. The responsibility. The constant discussions as to what we would eat that night, where we would sleep.

There have been other moments, a week here and there, spent on a road trip with a friend, but nothing as extended as that initial travel with Steve, bless him. Since then, I tend to go off on my own, I’m happier that way.

You see, it’s that on my own, I’m free to follow my nose, or rather the signs that capture my attention. It’s usually the ones that say ‘lake’ or ‘4wd only”, and off I go. I generally have a loose plan, places I’d like to visit if I’m in the area. I set a few goals, for small weeklong trips and for the extended travels. These days with the Internet, I plan a lot more, looking at photos, reading forums, and asking for suggestions. Whether I follow the ideas, that’s another story. I tend to forget to read my own notes.

 

Since I’ve done a bit of everything, backpacking, hitching, motorcycles, busses, trains, VWs, trucks and now a van I’ve learned that I have to be aware of what I bring. Packing has become more complicated nowadays, as two dogs and a cat come with me. I’ve made a short list for this latest configuration, and with the idea in mind that I might have to abandon ship (van) in an emergency, all the necessary items must fit in a small backpack too. I can leave the rest. I have before, in a dead VW bus in the middle of nowhere Missouri. I never did see that red camper again. I miss that van. Oh, well. But it was an adventure…

I love that I can eat what I like and when I like. Frito pie for breakfast? Bacon sandwich before bed? Chocolate? Cheese and crackers? Veggies and eggs? Whatever I like, when I like. It’s wonderful and one of the biggest perks for me.

As a solo traveler, I interact much more with locals. Since they appreciate how trusting I am, it’s always come back to me that these strangers treat me with the same level of trust.

As a twenty-two-year-old, I was hitching through Wisconsin, heading north to catch a ferry across to Michigan. My destination was a tiny village along the small blue highways in the Midwest. A truck pulled over, and two men started chatting to me. Two men and myself as a young woman? I talked to them, the father and son, and they offered a ride, but first they wanted to call ‘Mother’ and ask about dinner. I listened in as one of them chatted away, grinned, and said it was okay with her but I had to agree to come over to meet her! We ended up sharing a meal, they put me in the son’s bedroom, and dropped me off at the ferry in the morning, after introducing me to the Ferry Master. Safe? Yes, I remember them so clearly all these years later.

You see, I’m curious. The people I meet and their stories feed me. I also found that when I first crossed the States alone that many families I met wanted my stories of other states, places, towns, ones they had never visited themselves. My anecdotes of their own country paved the way for their hospitality. It was a trade in a sense. The armchair travelers got to explore their own country through me.

But I have to admit, I’m not very safe. I go places I shouldn’t. No one really knows where I am these days. I follow roads, conversations, and dreams. I have no back-up plans. I take risks. I fly by the seat of my pants and all without a safety net. I like it. Traveling like this wakes me up. Opens me up. To answer the question I started with, have I ever been scared? A couple of times. That’s all. First was when I had to get myself back from the South of France as an eighteen-year-old who’d been fired from her nanny job. I had a passport and a plastic bag of clothes. No money. No credit cards. And this was before cell phones, not that I would have called my parents, I preferred to get back and then tell them. I didn’t like to worry them! Poor buggers. I stowed away on a train, stole food, had a guard try to rape me, smashed him in his privates, and locked myself in a bathroom on the train. That was the first big solo trip and the sense of achievement at the end was incomparable: “I can improvise. I can get out of trouble. I should keep traveling!”

And I have. Looking back, even in the last ten years of ‘settling’, I took a ferry back from Alaska and a salmon cannery down the Canadian coast, camped all over the Southwest, spent three months in the Northwest, took a winter living on communes in North Carolina and Tennessee, rode my motorcycle across Wales and Ireland, studied in San Francisco, and had many other random shorter trips in the States. Not bad, not bad…

In my twenties, I just traveled without thought, it was an addiction, a need. I couldn’t sit still for more than a few months. I settled for a while but that addiction has kicked back in. I built a home, worked, settled and now the last few years, the need to explore new places has taken over.

If you haven’t traveled alone before though, you’d need to ask yourself: Where are you happiest? How do you spend your days? Are you mostly surrounded by friends and co-workers? Or do you work alone? Live alone? What are your social needs in other words? Think about what stresses you out and what makes you relax. For me, time without words, yes, I know, ironic since I’m a writer, but still, empty heads talking at each other wears me out. I like silence. I like mountains. And I like the company of animals more than people. But that’s me…and then after a couple of days alone, I love to sit and chat to friends and strangers alike. I have the energy and desire to hear their stories. To tell mine. To connect. Knowing yourself is one of the amazing benefits of solo travels, you have to take care of yourself and you will. There’s no one else.  Each time, I learn new rhythms and routines that are mine, pure and simple.

Close friends still ask, how do you find meaning when you have no one to share the experiences with? But I do. I write. I photograph. And simply sitting next to a lake in the mountains alone with my dogs, I know that our world is magical, stunningly beautiful whether I am there or not. I am a very small speck in a huge world and that is reassuring to me. I relax.

There is an art to solo traveling and the more I travel alone, the more I appreciate nature and the random conversations with people I meet. I am not afraid. I am open to life and adventures…and after doing this since I was a teenager much to my mum’s horror, I’m getting the hang of it. Finally. The question for me is where next? And when?

To hear more about Sarah Leamy’s solo travels, check out her book, Bring a Chainsaw & Other Stories From My Solo Travels

Solo traveler Sarah Leamy shares why she loves to solo travel and why it doesn't scare her to see the world alone.

 

Living The Dream: Chapter 3

DECEMBER: CAMPING

The sun woke me. Nelson poked his nose under the covers and scooted closer against my shivering sleeping bag clad body. He sniffled contentedly as his warmth seeped through the layers of blankets and I laughed. The sun peeked over the mountain, and steam rose from the lake in front. The frost on the windows shimmered as it faded and dripped. The fire pit beckoned.

“Coming out, Nelson?” I sat up and grabbed the jacket and hunter’s cap. Nelson claimed the pillow instead and wagged his tail. “Okay, okay, you just warm yourself while I make the fire, get the coffee going and fry up some eggs, is that it?”
Thump. Thump. Nelson smiled his doggy smile as I opened the door and climbed out. The only problem with the 4Runner? You can’t open the tailgate from inside. I can live with that though.
Ravens flew overhead, crowing to each other as they swooped and soared in the light breeze. I shivered but poked at the embers. I added some old pinecones, yesterday’s newspaper, and a handful of small sticks. The fire took within minutes. I set the grate over the rocks and prepped the coffee pot. With chores done, I settled back on the tailgate.

I’d woken only the once during the night. Well, Nelson woke me. Another nightmare, I guess. He’d nudged his wet nose in my face until I took a deep breath and woke. Thump. Thump. I recalled reliving my memories of Mark and living in the hills together, walking along the arroyo to the school bus. The overnight solstice party at Andrew’s home with all that live folk music. Louise’s dogs greeting me on my weekly volunteering visit with her rescue. My heart broke to think I could lose all that.
I shook myself free of the images and tied my hair back into a loose ponytail. The coffee pot farted its readiness and I used the jacket sleeve to grab and put it onto the campsite’s concrete table, my new kitchen. I moved aside a crate of canned soups, snacks, teas, and cooking supplies. I poured out a mugful and added cream and honey. My days always start in such comfort if I can help it.

Nelson groaned softly then jumped out and ran down to the lake and drank deeply. Then he peed into the lake.

“Hey, bud, you hungry?”

Nelson bounded up, ears flat and tail wagging, and I passed down a full bowl of kibble. I’m constantly amazed at how much this boy can put away.
“What should we do today, then? Head west? Or simply find somewhere warmer than here? Like Arizona, you think? I wish I hadn’t forgotten the map at that tavern but oh well eh? I can fake it. The truck will take us wherever we want, and in comfort too, right boy?”

Nelson burped and sat down at my feet, staring into the hills around us, as if looking for someone.

“I know, I know, I miss Frida too.” Nelson looked up at me, hearing her name, but his ears drooped and he lay down across my boots unhappily.

In the bus together last summer, Mark had liked to sleep in with the dogs, but not me. Up and out early for me, sitting on the porch, watching the birds cruise the neighborhood, listening for the coyotes in the hills. Grabbing my journal, I wrote a few phrases remembered from the day before, just my passing thoughts, little reminders of sights and sounds on the road, just the two us, a girl and her dog. Those short interactions at the gas stations. The conversation with Salty Dan at the tavern in Farmington, meeting his wife, and talking of books we’ve loved. Finding the cemetery at the end of the national forest road, one that was in memory of firefighters who’d lost their lives protecting a nearby village. The eagle in the ponderosa. The snakeskin on the boulder at the signpost for this campsite. I made notes about Mark too, his comments that still hurt, and the ones I could answer now, too late I know. I carried this book with me, in the jacket, with a notebook of tasks to be taken care of if I decided to stay in Oliver. If I decided to make a go of living alone in the bus in a small community like that. I didn’t yet know, didn’t know if I had it in me. To go back or to see everyone again.

I stood and gulped back the last of the coffee.

“Ready yet, fella? Ready for a walk?”

Time Out In Marfa, Texas

First published: http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/

January was a good time to take a road trip, the holidays are over and nothing’s going on. Although, I’ll be honest, having been land-locked in Madrid NM for four months with only a couple of weekends away, town was feeling claustrophobic. It was driving me crazy. Winter so far in New Mexico has been pretty gentle with little snow and mild temperatures, nothing to challenge or keep me engaged. My home was finally finished enough to stay warm and comfortable, and with that in mind, I rented it for a week on Airbnb, packed the camper van, and took off south. I needed a break. I needed a plan of action. What next? How can I make a living as a travel writer? Or as a traveling writer? What’s the big deal about Marfa? Why go there?

Marfa, TX is a small town of 2,000 in far western Texas near the Davis Mountains. Big Bend National Parkis 135 miles due south.  Would I head that far south? Who knew.

The night before I left town, it snowed. A good few inches covered the roads and Ortiz Mountains and in a 2wd van, the worries got to me and I didn’t sleep so well. Should I take the interstate instead of a country highway? Which would be safer? Highway 285 was shorter but would there be enough traffic to be safe? Ah, to hell with it, I needed an adventure. Highway 285 from Santa Fe was mostly clear but for some slush and a few snow banks, the traffic was light, and my pets cranky. Rosie, a lab mix, couldn’t settle down. She’d sit in the passenger seat, bounce down, push Harold off the bed in the back. Repeat. For nine hours. Stevie, the cat, hid under the bed, sulking. Poor Harold, a big baby of an Akita mix, shrugged at Rosie’s pacing energy. I drank cold coffee and kept on driving. I needed a time-out. Just like Rosie.

So, yes, why did I head to Marfa? Probably because the forecast was for it to be warm enough for tee shirts in the afternoons, plus some good friends of mine love the place. Suzie is an artist and she’d told me some of the history of Marfa. In the 1970’s, a famous New York artist, Donald Judd moved out to Marfa and created an outdoor sculpture garden of his works in concrete. The Chinati Foundation has become one of the major draws to the town, with celebrities, artists of all mediums, and tourists who all flock to the compound on the edge of town. There is also her favorite place, the Hotel Paisano, where James Dean last acted in a movie before his death. Marfa is now known for its history, the Hotel Paisano, the art galleries, the Public Radio station, and even the Marfa Music Festival in March. It has a lot to live up to.

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We arrived late that weekend night and set up camp at Tumble In RV campground on the eastern side of town. I’d picked it deliberately for the proximity to town, its claim to having a walkable path into the downtown district (it didn’t), and a space for tents and campers not just RVs. Late at night, a sub-freezing night, after nine hours driving through snow half of that time, I was depleted and yes, as cranky as my critters. Tumble In was not as I’d hoped. The tent camping area is a bare patch of cut tumbleweeds with strips of gravel to show where to park. No shelter, no picnic tables, no grills or firepits. It was basically a parking lot. I hated it. So did the dogs and Little Stevie, my cat. Too many burrs, no shade, nowhere to walk as we were fenced in by barbwire and three-foot tall weeds. The shower in the morning made up for it. That and a cup of coffee.  Then once refreshed and in a better mood, I looked for a camp host but no, there wasn’t one, just a self-check in booth within a vintage travel trailer. Walking the pups around the RV park, I noticed the overflow area to the rear of the land, closer to the railway but away from the highway and parking lot. With no one to tell me otherwise, I set up camp back there and with Stevie locked in the camper, the dogs and I walked along the path to town. We had to scramble quite a bit so don’t expect a clear pathway to follow, we crossed an arroyo and down a sandy bank to get to a paved street.

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It was a Sunday morning, the church bells were ringing, and having drunk a good cup of coffee at the van, my mood improved with the sunshine and clear skies. The railway was surprisingly busy with three trains shipping containers and vehicles eastward all morning, yet I was still able to let the dogs run free along the track for a while. Until the rabbits tempted them onto the highway to the south of us and my tensions grew again. Damn it. I came here to relax, right? Putting them on leashes is never an easy accomplishment –  they’re country dogs and I’m lazy. Oh well. You do what you have to.

Judd’s minimalist aesthetic really has taken a hold of town; it was a quirky mix of old adobe structures, with rusted iron window frames and clean lines of new concrete. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new but how was it for the long-term residents to see their homes and town be so gentrified? The streets were empty though, that sleepy Sunday feeling perhaps? No, the rest of the week there, it was rare to see anyone walking around. There were few options for hanging out or talking to locals. There were few options for distractions from other people at all. I was alone with my thoughts as usual.

Walking down Austin Street, I came across a laundromat with a handful of folks sitting outside sipping coffees. Frama café didn’t exactly advertise itself but word of mouth and being the only café to be found, it stayed busy enough I guess. I got to chat a little to the others sitting outside, one fella brought Harold and Rosie a bowl of water, and we talked art, travels, and Texas.

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Most of them were new to town with a newcomer’s energy for the place. I still hoped to find a local who’d grown up in Marfa but never did. The latte was great though but a bagel or something to eat would have helped. Ice cream was the only option, and although it was tempting I didn’t get any. Another time perhaps? Nope, I stuck to coffee there for the next few days. It became our routine to walk to town mid-morning, exploring the four corners of town, and finishing up at Frama. Where was the breakfast place? I lived off the odds and ends in the cooler at the van instead. Oh well. My expectations were nicely lowered after a few days and I began to enjoy town for what it offered. Even the Tumble In campground grew on me for being bare bones, with hot water, little interaction and no one watching over my critters running free.

With a full moon, the Marfa Lights were not to be seen. Have you heard of them? First noticed in the 1880s by a cowboy, there is still no solid explanation for these colored lights that dance in the dark nights outside on Highway 90. My timing once again was against me; it was too bright for me to see anything. Next time? I’d better do some research before I head on another trip as this one to Marfa was the most disorganized possible. My timing sucked constantly. The best part for me in Marfa was that we walked everywhere for a week. The rest of my days I filled my notebook with web addresses and contact info for freelance writers. Researching different tangential ideas kept me busy and the sketch book let me switch off the word-brain in the evenings. As there were few businesses open at the start of the week, and little to see with high-end stores offering treats for the wealthy, but still I got to relax. I enjoyed wandering the wide empty western streets. Trucks slowed down for the pups and I, waved at us, and carried on slowly out of town. Wherever I wandered, I’d see the Presidio Courthouse. It’s an incredibly beautiful old three-story building that fills the town plaza with all roads bringing you back to the spires. It dates back to 1886 and I walked inside one afternoon, curious to see if I could climb the tower to look out the windows facing each direction. It was closed for cleaning but still worth climbing the wooden stairs that opened onto lawyer’s offices on each level based around a central rotunda. I was alone and the peace of the extensive views impressed me deeply, a sense of history and wonder.

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Hotel Paisano was just around the corner and it quickly became my afternoon choice. The Trost building dates to 1929, and opened only just before the Great Depression. It became a place for ranchers and tourists to stay as they crossed Texas. In 1955 Warner Bros came to town to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Jett’s Bar is named after Dean’s character and the walls are covered with old photographs from that era. I sat at the bar one day, eating a salad from their limited menu, and chatted to Herb who was visiting. He came from Las Cruces, NM, and was a pilot for a wealthy family who’d come to Marfa for hunting but he didn’t specify what or where.  With a beer in hand, I then sat outside and that’s where I recommend fully. The building is Spanish style with a main courtyard with a fountain and tables in sun and shade. Perfect. I sat and read and listened into the conversations around me. I came back two other afternoons. Now that made me feel like I was truly on holiday. Finally.

The small-town logistics could be challenging for some city folk but since I live in Madrid, NM with a population of 350, this wasn’t a big impact on me. There were limited options for eating out, I didn’t find a decent grocery store, nor ATMs but then again, I’d come with a wallet of cash and a cooler of food in the camper van. I have a feeling my timing really was off, and that in spring and summer, town wakes back up. I’m okay with that though. I like low-key artsy towns. With no traffic lights, Marfa lulled me into a slower pace of life. It worked its magic on me. Afternoons, I’d sit outside the van in the sun and draw out quirky characters or I’d brainstorm on how to keep traveling and writing for a living. I came up with some ideas but it’s hard to make it freelance. I figured out that it’s worth me faking it until I make it. That’s the best I can do for myself.

The Chinati Foundation finally drew me in on the last day in the area. I put down my notebook and we drove over there early one morning. I’d not been too keen to be honest, as a field of concrete sculptures didn’t appeal. It was free so why not, right? I’m glad I went though. With the critters set up in the camper parked in the shade of a huge Cottonwood, I wandered into the main building and asked for the self-guided tour of the gardens. The young woman behind the counter waved me over to the path and asked me not to climb the structures. Nothing more than that, no stories, no information, just “Stay off”.

Okay, okay, so walking down past the other buildings, I strode down the slight hill to the open land with a stripe of fifteen groups of concrete slabs. From north to south, there are Judd’s famous works in concrete, a very minimalistic contemporary feel that reminds me of inner cities in the seventies. Unprepared for the magical energy, I stood and stared at the first group. Three structures made of upright walls of concrete with another identically sized slab across the top. An open-ended room in a sense. Walking to the next group, it occurred to me that I was alone on this kilometer-long pathway. In the field nearby, a small herd of Pronghorn antelope watched me nervously. Slowly as I wandered around these works, a peace settled on me, reminiscent of living at a Buddhist retreat in the UK years ago. A calmness came from the simplicity of how Judd played with one size of solid cleanly poured concrete slabs, putting them together in different figurations. There was nothing to explain why it appealed to me so much but an hour later, I walked out of Chinati with a relaxed smile and feeling expansive. Yep, I’d go back. First though, it was time to head north to Madrid, NM, to set up my home for another vacation rental. Yes, Marfa. I get it now. And I had a plan.

 

Travel can help people in so many ways. One woman took a time out type of trip to Marfa, Texas, and was inspired with a plan for her future as a travel writer.

Airbnb: My quiet and creative adobe home near Madrid, NM

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2102601?guests=1&user_id=8342997&re f_device_id=69da415b18251f93

Restless again, I put my home up for rent. It’s winter which I like but that means more work up here. I can’t leave the chickens alone as the water freezes. Perhaps just a week away, three weeks? Would you like to stay here? In the his writer’s retreat? 

We’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed. Maps out. Carry on…