This #1

It’s not as expected, this apartment. It’s in a basement. To look out the windows, I have to stand up. The dogs see only fake wood paneling. The cat sits on the windowsill, unhappy to be trapped inside. I can’t breathe. The landlady shows us around, quite the good cheerleader, and nodding and smiling, I suppress a panic. What can I say? We’re outdoor dogs, even Little Stevie, or should I call him Cat Stephen now that he’s an adult? Go deep, I tell myself all the time, go deeper. That doesn’t mean into a basement.
In my twenties, I worked for a metal worker in Santa Fe. Taken by the piles of steel in the yard, the shapes and weight, the sounds of the mig welder and that raw sharp smell of the grinder, I walked in, scruffy as usual, looking the part already. Within a short conversation, my unskilled self had an internship with Flip. I worked with him mostly, but helped Larry, the tall twiggy owner, by spraying polyurethane and paint onto finished lamps, tables and gates, sniffing deeply in the afternoon thunderstorms. Flip, or Phillip to his parents, was a stocky thick set local, blackened by the work, and with a huge laugh that flew out of him like a startled rabbit, Flip had ways to box people on first impressions.

“You’re an outdoor dog. There are indoor dogs and outdoor dogs. You belong outside.” Flip chuckled, as he looked me up and down, both of us a similar age and height. “Yep. Don’t be fooled. You’ll not be happy with a desk job. So, anyway, if you can carry that angle iron, the ten-footer over, I’ll set it up for you to grind the edges smooth before I tack weld it to the rest of the framework. Got it?”
Yes, an outdoor dog. Still scruffy, I sit in this basement apartment and plan an escape. It’s been three nights. I can’t do it. This dungeon will kill my spirit, my energy and me. Each night, I close the computer, try to read, and hope for night to fall so I can sleep and start again. Count down to moving out. It’s four o’clock, the rain thunders against the window, the lights are all on, and for a summer’s afternoon, it’s a dark cold afternoon down here. Can I go back to bed? Please? Yes, it’s been three nights. I drove over 2450 miles from New Mexico to move here, into a ‘downstairs apartment with windows overlooking the lawn’ and technically, that’s what I have here but –

But. I see the lawn at eye level. Harold and Rosie admire the fake wood flooring. Stevie makes his escape and sits under a shed by the van. With coffee in hand, I head out with the dogs who run for the trees and lift legs with glee. The clouds hang low over the pines and the many other tall deciduous trees that I no longer recognize after a lifetime in the Southwest. Breathing deeply, I crouch down onto my haunches, sip coffee and watch the trucks and cars fly by on this busy highway. What have I done now? Oh shit. I wanted a challenge. This might be too much. Not a quitter, there has to be a way. A ladder up and out of this dark pit. The mozzies find me and after a shuffle to the van for another layer of pure DEET, I sit back down and consider the options. Harold and Rosie ask to sit in the van, a Dodge conversion van that I’d stripped out and installed with a platform bed, some drawers, stocked with clothes and a basic kitchen set-up, for three pets and myself to drive slowly cross country. It’s a better home than this. Can we simply move back in? Yeah, why not. It’s home. Fuck it. I’ll live in a van.
So what’s so bad about a dungeon? I mean, a basement? Claustrophobia. Depression. Panic attacks. Trouble breathing. Trouble eating. Eyes flicker. Heart races. Blood pounds. Clammy neck. Feet sweat. Trouble waking. Trouble sleeping. Lack of creativity. Lack of room to move. Lack of windows to stare out of as I write and sketch. Lack of light. Did I mention panic attacks? Oh, yes, well, more of those. I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

The coffee is done, time for more. Not one of the critters will come back inside. As I wait for the kettle to boil in this kitchen with no windows, I mentally write a list of my ideal place.

  • Pet-friendly
  • Walks and gardens for critters to explore
  • Under $600
  • Two vehicle parking
  • Well-lit, sunshine, windows, all that good stuff for outdoor dogs
  • Heat and internet included
  • Space and quiet to write and draw

The basics.

Within two days, I’m offered a few places. One is so far out of my budget that I don’t bother checking. The other two appeal. Most of the boxed checked positively, and so with hope, I load up the van with dogs, trick Stevie into the dungeon with wet cat food and a taste of cream. Then we go a looking. Fingers crossed. Toes unstuck from fake floor, I clean myself up quickly but not thoroughly. The usual.

“Up the first street at the lights in town, left after four miles, across the dam and past the pond, drive 1.8 miles and I’ll the first home on the left,” says Carol.
The drive was refreshing, the lake tempting, and with hope in me, we parked outside a single story home in the trees on five acres. Yep. I could do this.

Yes. I can do this. Carol’s dog is a sweetheart, a shy timid Collie rescue called Jim. She’s a forthright, messy and friendly woman of a similar age to me. We get along great, easy conversation, but the room is small even though it has good windows facing south. Carol chats away as she tells me of the room she’d make for me, emptying this shelf, this table, this box, yes, the place is cluttered. “I haven’t had roommates for about six years though, so let me think about this again. Women of a certain age…”

Yes, she said that to describe me. Me! Really, I only just turned fifty dammit, and it’s already begun? Wow. Not a good wow.

“Up County Road, past the Corner store that is also a post office and a pub, head another few miles when it turns to dirt and you’ll see a log cabin set off the tracks a ways,” says Anne.

The road to Anne’s is through open agricultural land, farms, log homes, up and through the trees and past the store. I stop in and poke around the shelves, ones full of healthy dried goods, quality coffee beans, fresh veggies, and beer. In the back is a tavern that’s open four evenings a week with live local music. I like this place. They are looking for help. Hmm…

Anne’s on the deck sweeping off a few leaves. Her shitzu pup wanders over to meet mine and tails wag as Anne laughs, a hearty booming breath up to the skies. She’s a full soft woman of a ‘certain age’ like me, yes I said it, and we hit it off. She shows me her apartment. It’s a dungeon. Even worse than where I am now. I stifle the panic and climb up and out, staring at my camper van with longing. Yep, fuck it, we’ll live in the van.

“I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I explain the fear and terrors that come with dark and closed in spaces. Hands twitch and heart races within my one and only clean tee shirt; humidity kills laundry. Fear does too.
“Well, would you like a coffee any way?”

In the kitchen, we prop ourselves against counters and keep chatting. It’s a shame that the apartment is down in the ground, not even one window to sit at except from the toilet. I know. I know…who could live like that? Not me obviously. Nor my critters.

Anne and I chat about writing, college, and animals. Her big dog died last fall. Her old cat soon after. After mentioning Cat Stephen, Anne shows me a cat door, mudroom for the litter box, and when we put away the now empty coffee mugs, she takes a breath.

“Do you need your own space? What about sharing this home?” She grins cautiously.

“Why? What do you have?” Messy hope slips against grainy hope to live in a nurturing home like this. If only.

Upstairs are two bedrooms in the roofline of this log home. One end of the house is hers, a master bedroom and a bathroom. The other corner has two small rooms looking out onto her twelve acres, a field full of apple trees, and there’s even falling down wooden shed in the meadow that needs help, perhaps for chickens she offers.

“I’m sorry but the curtains don’t close, it’s very bright in here. Too much for me. And in this room,” she shows me the other one, “this room was my crafts and books and storage. You could have both rooms, if you like. This could be a writing studio. If it’s not too bright.”

Looking out of the window, I breathe and imagine sitting up here with a desk and laptop, reading and writing, watching the dogs play in snow as Stevie sits in an apple tree.
“Yes. This is perfect. This.”

Taking Dad To Guatemala in 2005

This is a short piece I wrote years ago but since it’s Father’s Day, I thought I’d share it. I miss him. I miss Mum. Gran. Nan. Viv. My family. Days like this, the pre-made duty filled days are hell on me. Oh well, right? Carry on. Carry on. I am British after all. 

LAST DAYS

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

She had found herself telling complete strangers in Antigua, that colonial city where she waited for the trip back to England. In the clothes shop on Sixth avenue, to the west of the central park, she looked through racks of women’s’ trousers and blouses.

“These aren’t the things I know how to buy,’ she was muttering to herself when the lady offered to help. They spoke in Spanish with Louise describing the need for black, for baggy yet formal if possible.

“My dad died.”

The silence though inevitable was not awkward but natural, as the lady looked at Louise and touched her briefly on the shoulder. She understood. Louise said nothing else as the wave of sudden belief shredded the calm she hidden within. Tears came fast, and she took refuge in the dressing room.

Her dad had lived vicariously through her over the last few years. He had researched the places she expressed an interest in visiting, sending long emails full of statistics and anecdotes of the social, political and economic history she would encounter there. Then he sent poems in Spanish as she arrived in Central America, clippings from the Guatemalan national newspapers about the children’s’ plight and poverty. And she wrote weekly of the families she’d talked to, the kids she’d befriended, putting individual names and faces to the facts he would discover for them both.

Antigua is the centre of tourism and Spanish language schools in Guatemala. Louise had learnt a weeks’ worth of grammar before leaving to stay at a smaller village on Lake Atitlan, a few hours away. To be honest, her dad had suggested at least three weeks of school, but Louise was never the scholar her dad is, was…On the Friday at the end of her first week in classes in over fifteen years, her mind crept forward into a game of table tennis, counting and losing over and over to Jose, the teacher.

Antigua is a beautiful city, and when they wrote to each other he mentioned the architecture of the twelfth century, and asked after the three volcanoes surrounding the town of forty thousand. Louise though had found the shoeshine boys and homeless Mayan girls to chat to, juggle with, and play chase around the grassy plazas where tourists and locals alike spent their afternoons. Architecture was not her focus.

Louise had arrived back to Antigua reluctantly drawn from the safe little haven of San Marcos on the lake, stunned and alone. Her dad had died suddenly, unexpectedly. And now she had to fly home, to be there, with her mum, with her brother and his family, see the cousins and aunts and uncles. Her dad had been friend to all, the funny intelligent and compassionate friend they turned to with questions. He fed them with stories and facts and good advice but rarely an easy answer. The thought that he had gone, died, left forever was inescapable yet lingered distant. Numb she sat on the rooftop of Casa Leon’s hostel. Rather out of character she smoked, staring out over the cafes, the narrow cobbled streets, the terracotta plastered adobe homes and private courtyards. Under her unfocused gaze life carried on. Stoned, she still had no appetite beyond memories of Sunday lunches with the family, a ritual she’d hated at the time.

Louise sat alone, in a distant city remembering her brother crying over the phone, telling her that their dad had died in his sleep. A week before. Her knees had given way; she fell to the floor at Stacy’s home, clutching the phone to her ear, not quite knowing what was happening. Mike told her again and again. Then he cried that she was alone without family to hold her, help her. But Stacy stood close, ready for Louise to turn to her, there for her. The baby had been whisked away by Catarina. Pedro had taken off to care for the store. Stacy waited for Louise.

She was not alone, not quite.

On the rooftop, in Antigua she was utterly alone, more than she had ever realised. Daddy’s little girl. The smoke dwindled as she forgot what she was doing, the thoughts of the last letter he’d sent her, about her publishing an article for the first time. His pride and encouragement meant everything to her, particularly today.

Reluctantly yet glad to have another distraction, she took a yellow woven shoulder bag and walked towards the market by the bus station. The streets were busy, well it was a Saturday, and she bumped into an American couple she knew from Panajachel village, at the lake. A quick chat, nothing said of note, Louise didn’t want to tell them, avoided their sympathy unlike at the travel agents earlier, or at the bank, or on the bus with Shane, she had told random people all day until just then. So Louise smiled, made some joke or other and then left to hide in the anonymity of the crowded market.

Tall and fair-haired could she ever be anonymous though? Breathing in the chaos, colours and comforts of this Guatemalan market, Louise found how much she was at home here after four months. She was no longer intimidated by the sensory overload nor frustrated by the languages. The men wore western clothes, trousers and tee shirts, stood and talked to the other vendors. The Mayan women wore traditional dresses of hand-made fabric, all brightly coloured with the designs of their villages. They were normally a bit gruff with the tourists but for once saw something in Louise, and so unusually they reached out to her often, talked as to a regular customer, and gave free extras of avocadoes and bananas. Louise walked, talked, and acted as if nothing had changed. But from now on her life would be defined by this moment. These days alone then the weeks of funeral and mourning with the family in England.

She bought a few gifts for the nieces and nephews from the crafts vendors inside the hall, multi-coloured bracelets and little bags. For her mum it was a different matter.

What do you by someone who just lost their best friend of forty years?

Walking back through the central park Louise sat on a bench, watching sprawling colourful families enjoy the afternoon warmth of springtime. Above her, a cherry blossom tree swung heavy branches saturating the air with memories of their farmhouse in Worcestershire. Those were the times when her mum’s bum would stick out of the overgrown lilac shrubs as she weeded, and dad would always hum to himself as he trimmed the privet hedge near by. She’d hated it at the time.

“Laundry. I must not forget the damn laundry.” She put the book down. It was boring anyway, simply a result of the last minute grabbing of something in English from Stacy’s house on the way out. On the way to catch the boat, to get to the bank, to pay for a ticket, to catch the bus, to get to the city, to buy the ticket, to wait another day, to catch a shuttle bus, to get to the airport, to fly to Dallas, to fly to London, to meet her big brother, and finally to drive home.

Home.

Through the peeling peach plaster of the hotel room Louise listened to an English couple discuss their wedding.

“It’s not a loan, we’ll tell him, it’s a gift because we can’t get married without him, right? Whenever he can, he’s to get a flight to meet us in Honduras, right?” His voice annoyed her, too childish and whiney for a grown man, she thought irritably. Do all British men sound so young? She didn’t remember. It had been twelve years since last living there, and memory was patchy about anything beyond her dad, her mum, and big brother. Every second hit her with a new picture of one day or another when they’d sat around the kitchen table, drinking wine and telling each other stories to make them laugh.

That night in bed when sleep didn’t find her, Louise craved a child. A boy. To call him Tony after her dad. Her body ached with the need for a child of her own. But life had taken her in another direction and there would be no son to remind her of her dad, to fill that void, that desire. She thought of all the kids in her life that light up when they see her. Marley. Freya. Dasen. Freddy. Maria. Thomas. Emily.

“Well, at least I have my little friends,” she said to herself and clutched her old teddy bear.

Time dragged. Two days to wait in an anonymous city, waiting to go home, where she would really feel her dad’s absence from the house, the silences he filled with stories and laughing. Louise packed and unpacked and packed again. Non-stop she fiddled, looked for something, then forgot what in particular, then replaced it all in the green small back pack on the other bed, empty and unused by either friend or lover. Louise wiped the table over and over; her fingers never stopped dancing on the bed. Shoulders tensed and juddered of their own will just as they had after that terrible phone call, when Louise had turned to Stacy and lowered her head sobbing.

During the evening promenade, the orchestra pulled together the wandering tourists and locals and filled the park with rows of wooden seats. Louise found herself drawn in, and ended up sitting next to an old couple and their grandsons.

‘Dolor con suenos de alegria’ means pain with dreams of happiness.

The irony of the musical choice was not lost on her, and she cried again, tired of crying but unable to stop. She listened and cried gentle tears, admiring the stonework of the sixteenth century; the architecture of Spanish colonial times, the arches and pillars, and the fountains reminded her of the family holidays in northern Spain. Age six and learning to swim in Aranda. Eating fresh sardines grilled over the fire in Santander. The huge waves mum dragged her and Mike into squealing with delight.   On Saturday nights, both in Spain and Guatemala people walk and greet each other, sharing ice creams with little children, couples go courting and the shoeshine boys earn whatever they can. Louise stopped one lad to polish her leather boots for the funeral. His hands were blackened and his own shoes were laceless, but his grin reached his eyes as they talked about their families.

Later that night Louise looked around the worn out room, thankful to be going home. To the town she grew up in, to those cousins who tease her. To the uncles and aunts. Family suddenly made sense to her, after all these years apart, she knew she needed them, now more than ever. And they needed her, wanted her to come back, back home.

“I took my dad to Central America. Now he is taking me home.”

…It was time for Louise to go home.

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

 

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So, how are the rattlers at your place?

“How are they? Er, fine, thanks, pretty healthy.”
I smiled and wondered if that’s what he meant, this tourist I was chatting with at the coffee shop in town. Here I am in Madrid, NM, talking about rattlesnakes as usual. It’s the season for paranoia. I’m over it to be honest, looking forward to moving to Vermont, a place of bugs and mozzies, something less life-threatening. I can deal with that.

So what do you say to the question about rattlers? Where do I begin? Do you want the statistics of injuries, deaths, human encounters or animal encounters? The names and numbers of those who’ll come take care of the snake for you? Talk of Little Chris, who once drunk as a skunk, thought he could pick one up with his hand. He ended up in hospital for a week. Stories, you want stories? Are you sure?

We had a few bad years, the moisture and springtime brought an abundance of mice, rats, rabbits and snakes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or rather, I’m going back too far. Let’s talk about now. In May 2017.

This week, Rosie my mini-Husky/ lab mix, went to the vet for blood work so we can start her on heartworm. We had to sedate her, and that alone took an hour to mellow her out enough to then cover her in a towel while Nan took blood. While we’re sitting around after Harold, the other dog, a Collie/ Husky mutt recovered from minor surgery, and Rosie is trying not to fall asleep, Nan tells me of a rattlesnake bite. Damn, already? I’m not ready, already…

Rebecca’s young dog, Nika, was bitten on the nose, spent the night in the emergency care at the local vets in Santa Fe. Costly, scary, not something I wish on anyone. I forget though, how unusual this is, this risk of rattlers. In a presentation given at Overland Expo in Flagstaff, one of the crowd asked me where I lived since so much of the class was spent on the subject of how to take care of rattlesnake bites and more importantly, all those little things we can do to limit the risks. Like move to Vermont, that sounds good to me.

I’ve been at home in New Mexico since 1993. It’s been a while, I come and go most years, most months even, but rattlers are part of life here. No flip-flops on walks. Cut the weeds and grass near your home and on paths. Clean up the piles of lumber, trash, recycling etc to keep rats away and also so there are less places for the snakes to claim as their own . Don’t walk around at night in the height of summer. Don’t walk around in the evenings and mornings of spring. It’s all about timing, temperature, season. There’s so much to consider. Not that I knew any of this when I bought my land outside of town. Finally, I was a grown up! I had property, twenty acres, an adobe shack to create into a home. All within reach of the local village, it seemed perfect. In many ways, it is.

That first summer though was a challenge, emotionally. Living in a school-bus, raising a new puppy, Harold the Handsome, and building a home while working as a landscaper the rest of the week. Damn I was fit. And busy. It was a good life. I had a home! Well, almost. The shack was about twenty by twenty with a flat roof that leaked, broken windows, dark and dank, with straw and dirt floors. The fourth wall, facing the driveway, was incomplete, some windows, some half-finished stable doors and not much else. I put the mattress inside once I’d cleaned up after the last human pack-rat/ squatter had left it filled with pipes, broken tools and gadgets, dirty clothes, old rotten sleeping bags for him and his kid. I’d claimed it back to health, swept the dirt, put in a camp-chair, a mattress, and a stove for coffee in the mornings. Home, I had my own home.

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Harold woke me up with a squeak. Dark inside our new home, I fumbled for the flashlight but couldn’t find it. Harold squeaked a puppy yip of fear. A rattle sounded. I froze. Harold shook. At the end of the bed, a rattler coiled up and stared us down. Saying nothing, I slowly climbed out of bed, clutching Harold to me, and hugged the walls, gently moving around the bed and out the front almost-door.

I stashed Harold in the truck. I locked the doors.
No, I don’t know why, but I locked the doors. No snake would get him now.

It was five in the morning. What the hell was I to do? My friends Alexis and Alan were camped on the land with their two kids. I wrote a note and stuck a rock on top so they’d find it on opening their doors in the morning. First light was creeping over the horizon and I craved coffee. To Java Junction then. Down the dirt road and into Madrid we drove. Harold on my lap, me trying not to cry. It was too early though, the cafe wasn’t yet open. I drove to Carol’s and woke her. Eyes still closed, she passed me the tools. I shook my head.

“You want me to do it?”

Nod. Nod. Desperate nod. Carol was one of our local snake-wranglers, and of course I wanted her to do it. I was too freaked out. This was my home. My supposed safe space. Home. Home isn’t meant to be invaded by things that kill. That’s in movies and books. Not real life. Not my life.

“Okay, give me half an hour. I’ll meet you at Java. I need a shower.”

A shower? At this time? It’s too important for a damn shower…but I nodded, mute as ever, and wandered next door. Elisa came to the porch in pajamas.

“Ooh, yes, let me get my gun! I’ll meet you at Java.” She trotted off excited by my news. No need for a shower for the Minx.

By seven o’clock, I’d rallied a team of gunslingers, hoe-holders, kids, families on holiday, families just curious, Grandmas and kin, all ready to take down this snake for me. We couldn’t find the fucker though. My not-quite-a-home was barren, dirt walls, dirt floors, wooden beams and little else. Where could it be? Carol and I slowly lifted the mattress, nope. Then the box spring, nope. I slashed the fabric underneath to make sure, what a nightmare that would’ve been, to find it hiding in my bed the next night. Then Carol mentions how snakes climb. As one, we all look up at the wooden ceilings, above us in the trees but nothing. Carol stepped lightly in ever-widening circles and under a thick juniper some fifteen feet from the house, she found it. A six-footer. Thick of waist and hearty with hissing, it rattled furiously as she caught it in her home-made noose, and dropped it into a metal trashcan. Alexis slammed the lid. Elisa reluctantly put the gun away. The kids loved it: Viv, Sofia, Zoe and Kathryn, all under ten years old and loving every moment. Not me. Not so much. But we were done, right?

Half of the crew left, and Harold was allowed out of the locked truck. He wandered around, sniffing and peeing as puppies do. Then Carol mentioned that at rattlers often pair up.
“I think there’s another one near by. It’s just a sense.”

Oh great. Just great.

Harold was quickly deposited back in the truck. I hid on the far side of the house, rocking manically when Elisa joined me. Five feet something, a Chicagoan folk artist who inspires me constantly with her quirky views and manners, she pulls up the only other chair. The adobe wall behind us hides us from the Sleam Team and it’s peaceful, briefly. She sighs and picks at a rock, making shapes with the scattered debris at her feet.

“They found another. The dilemma now is, what to do with it. They can’t open the trash can because number one wants out. So, I think-”

Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

There goes Elisa’s gun as she finishes by saying, “-that Alexis is going to shoot the second one. She might even-”

Bam. Bam.

“-shoot the first one too.”

I can’t deal, suddenly I’m sobbing in the corner with Elisa awkwardly being there for me. Pat. Pat. We’re not the cuddly type. Pat. Pat. Young Viv comes around the corner with a bloody rattle in her hand, dripping down her five-year old skinny forearm, happily showing “Look what I got! Dad cut it off for me! Do you want the other one?”

“Viv,” says Elisa, “now might not be the best time.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll show the others.” Viv wandered off around back to the activity out front.

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These days, the old timers in Madrid call me Snake: they don’t know that I’d cried. I didn’t mention that part. I did get pretty good at dealing with the snakes on my own. I’ve caught three or so per year in the last nine years up here, killed some, got friends to catch some, and even called Animal Control at times. All in a summer’s work, right? What’s the big deal? It just never ends…

A few years later, we had the snake season from hell. A neighbor of mine was breeding them, not intentionally, but you know, three acres of stuff, piles of broken down vehicles, trash, lumber, firewood, old mobile homes and trailers, his property was a hotbed of snake sex. Nine dogs were bitten that summer. Three died. One was a puppy, a little boy I’d called Eric, he and his siblings used to come hang out with me next door. Too young, too small, he’d swollen and died. My snake magic couldn’t help him. I did adopt the rest of his litter though, fostered until we found them all homes, safe homes.

Snake magic. I say that with a shake of the head. So Santa Fe, I can’t wait to be gone from those who tell me all about snake magic, ask me what I’m transforming or shaking off, pronounce my need to let go of old ways to shed the skin of blah-de-blah-de-bloody-blah. I’m too pragmatic, too bloody English for such talk. I nod, mutely, and watch where I step.

After getting back from the vet this week, Harold was sleeping in the house after having a lump removed, and Rosie staggered around, telling the cat, “I’m fine, fine. Just can’t walk too well, right now. Oh shit, SNAKE!”

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

The monotonous single bark alerts me. She’s seen a snake. I race out and coach her and Little Stevie, the cat, back into the house. With dog-door closed, I look for the snake. It’s six inches of dried cholla. She was tripping. False alarm. Thankfully. I’m over it. Bloody snakes.

At least the home is finished now.  I can sleep safely.

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Mid-life Fun times/ Crisis?

 

Part One: Well, what is it? A crisis? Or fun times? I can’t tell. Mid-life is often described as a challenge at best and a crisis for the rest. So where am I within that spectrum? I don’t know. I honestly don’t really know. Bloody moody though…

Mid-life, yep, I’m turning 50 next month. The number doesn’t worry me. But. What is the “but”? I’ve been restless for a few years now, needing more stimulus than a small village can give me, new conversations, new challenges. So what did I do? Apply for Graduate School. Me? The not so great student of my twenties applied for a masters degree without  telling many. I didn’t want to explain the rejections I envisioned, ego got in the way. I’m glad though I kept it quiet.

Months passed, I worked on my home, finished a new outhouse, painted floors, fixed fences, and planned my escape. Just like when I was a teenager. I feel very much like a teenager again, all grown up and leaving home for new adventures. Sorry, Mum, I’d needed to leave home then. Sorry, Madrid, I need to leave home now.

It’s not an escape, not purely a running away, but with the acceptance to Vermont College of Fine Arts with their relatively new MFA in Writing and Publishing, I’m leaving home. My home that I built, foundations, walls, windows, electric, plumbing, stucco, all of it done by my rough hands and impressionistic nature. I did it. Now what’s next? The thought of spending the rest of my life here doesn’t appeal. In fact, it scares me, there’s such a huge world out there, I can’t stay in one place any longer.

So how did I decide on a masters degree? It was tough, a rough road to map out. The application process is draining yet inspiring. My biggest challenge was finding references as most here know me as a gardener and writer. They don’t know of my educational background, my time at London University, or Freiburg University, or studying spanish in Valencia. The classes I’ve taken over the last twenty years here in Santa Fe or San Francisco. My cover letter focused on a full life of making my own stories, communities I’ve been part of, what I’ve done with myself, self-taught, and productive on a daily level. It was enough aparently, and I’m offered a place at Vermont in Montpelier.

One of the faculty wrote me to introduce herself, praising specific lines and images from the writing sample I’d sent in. Julianna spoke highly of the emotional undercurrent and how it intrigued her, and that she was looking forward to working with me. I wrote back, “But I haven’t been accepted yet, have I?”

“Oops,” she wrote. “Let me check.”

Yes, I was in, a final reassurance and yes, I’m going to grad school! At fifty! In Vermont! Only 2100 miles away, the complete opposite climate to here, five months of snow, bugs the size of black beans, and… well, I don’t know what else. I’m trying to find out by spending hours online researching the area and the curriculum.

I’m moving. Oh wow, I’m moving. When I finally told my friends and neighbours here in Madrid, Andrea squealed, others hugged me and one focused on how she’d miss me. I get it. It’s like I’m jumping ship. I am, but I’m a good swimmer. I’ve been practicing once a week at the Chavez center in Santa Fe.

The logistics though are becoming a nightmare for me. Trouble sleeping most of my life, this level of anxiety and excitement is draining me with dreams of disasters, or rather details. Too many tangents to grab hold of, each with its own alley way to wander down, looking for loopholes and issues. One or two vehicles? How would I take my stuff across country? Do I fill the 4Runner with stuff and have a friend drive it while I follow in my camper van? Or do I drive the 4Runner with my pets and fill a Uhaul trailer?
I look at rentals. Well, not one offers a place for two vehicles. That limits me then. So what do I do with the van? Mary and Stacy will take it, keep it at their place inside a gated yard, with them using it every so often. That’s the latest plan. Open to changes.

My weakness has been for vehicles so it’s not just two: I have four. I need to take care of four. Oh shit. I can’t just sell them. I like them. Well, okay, I’ll have to sell one, I need the money to cross country. The motorbike then, I’ll sell that. Try to. The Land Rover though, I should pass that on. But the day I decided to sell it, five random conversations all mentioned Shorty and how cool it is to see me in it. Damn.  It’s too cool to sell for school. Can I take it? Nope, but…? Nope, I have to store it somewhere safe, off its tires with the hood open, to keep it mice free hopefully. But where? Who’ll keep an eye on it?

Logistics, is this what stops others from making such dramatic life changes? Probably. Finding a home rental is the other biggest challenge. Who wants to rent to someone you haven’t met? I don’t. I’m going through the same problem with renting my own homestead. Sheesh. It’s too much. My days are highs and lows, with numerous naps between tackling the internet and filling out forms. Fun times, fun times, right?

Traveling with two dogs and a cat. Finding a rental. Finding a renter for my home. Vehicle madness. Yard sales. Craigslist. Scholarships. Funding. Moving. Packing. Decisions one after another. Where’s my dad when I need him? I crave sitting at the dining room table with my notes and brainstorming with him over a beer. Or at the kitchen table with Mum and a glass of wine, playing with ideas and options.
I’m not a teenager after all. I miss their help.  I miss my mum and dad.

 

 

 

Living The Dream: 10

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks! 

 

JULY: ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE

 

I woke up to the sun shining in through the bus windows. The sky was streaked in gold and periwinkle. My sweetie was snoring next to me. The wind gently rocked the bus, but in a good way. I yawned and stretched my legs. I climbed out of bed and took three steps to turn on the coffee pot. I stared out another window at the mountains to the south of us. Tall and craggy, they loomed over the valley we lived in.
I got dressed in the usual jeans and red tee shirt, found my new cowboy hat, and poured out a fresh brewed Joe. I opened the door quietly and stepped down on to our almost finished porch. The paint smell had finally blown away.

I stretched tall and touched the tin roof above before bending forward to scratch my toes. I looked all around and once again was overwhelmed by how beautiful the desert can be. Sitting down on the bench we’d made yesterday, I put my feet up. The coffee was perfect. The sky lightened into a teal and orange stripe fest. The silence enveloped me. I sighed. I drank the coffee.

 

“What the hell?”

In front of me stood a small animal. Furry. Four legs. Tail tucked somewhere underneath. She looked like a roast chicken that had been left drying out on the dining room table.

A stray dog, in other words, she looked like a border terrier mixed with something, I had no idea what. I put my feet to the floor softly and she flinched but didn’t run away. The poor little bugger was all skin and bones, panting even now in the cool morning temperatures. I stood up, talking gently the whole time. I took a couple of steps and climbed into the bus, grabbing a green cereal bowl and filling it with water. I couldn’t think of what to feed her.

I came back out and she’d gone. I stood there, water in hand, and started to cry. It was hormones, honest. I put the bowl on the wooden platform and sat back on the bench. Out from under my feet she crawled past me and crept over to the water. She drank half and then burped like a pro. I laughed out loud and she jumped, running back under the porch itself. I could see her through the flooring.

I drank some of my tepid coffee and started to talk. I described the bus and how we’d found it. I told her about the mice and rats. I mentioned my favorite colors. I just talked a bunch of crap really.

The dog came out and sat in front of me with her head tilted. She had long spindly legs and that scruffy wiry creamy straw-like fur that terriers are known for. On her top lip, she’d grown a short moustache. She licked her lips as I spoke.

“Are you hungry, Frida?”
She knew what I was offering and her tail made an appearance, wagging slowly and cautiously. I stood up.

“Well, let’s see what you might like, shall we? Come on inside, don’t worry; the fella snoring is one of those good ones. He’s a keeper. He’ll be nice to you, I promise.”
I looked behind me to see her at the top step, nose working furiously, aimed at the new kitchen. I squatted down and opened the fridge. We had some beans, rice, and tortillas, Mark’s leftover hamburger and fries, a bag of tomatoes, coffee, cream, and beer. Oh, and some eggs. I pulled out what I wanted and put everything on the counter above me. I found another bowl, blue this time, and half filled it with the rice, an egg and some burger and stirred it all together. I headed back outside with the little girl at my feet, staring at me expectantly.

I put the bowl by her water and stepped away.

She sat. She waited. She licked her moustache.
“Go on, it’s yours.”

 

We walked the property with the sun rising behind us. I walked and talked out loud to the pup. She bounced like a puppy, forgetting herself and chasing at leaves and flies. She looked up when I chatted. She played under the pinions and in the sand, digging furiously at a small hole. I wandered over to see what the fuss was and she stopped to stare at me. I squatted down to her height. I leaned against a banana of a boulder. She dug some more. Suddenly a mouse ran between her legs and I squealed. Frida lunged after the little creature and gave chase. I heard her excited yelps growing more and more distant. I waited. She didn’t come back when I thought she would.
I carried on walking. I reached the back half of the forty acres and came across a few deep holes, seemingly old ones, hidden by branches cut from a nearby juniper tree.

I stood on the high point that looks over a dry riverbed, an arroyo as they say hereabouts. Sand and river rock lined the route the water must take if ever it flows. We’d still not had more than a slight rain so far this summer. My umbrella stared forlornly at me from the hook on the porch.

I sat down and listened hard. No furry footsteps came my way. I sighed and stood up and walked home. I took the western path, cutting under a ridge with sandstone ledges that scared me; the slightest extra weight could bring them crashing down on me. I spotted a small stumpy cactus that had thrown out a shocking pink flower. Just the one. I got close and stared. It was delicate yet chunky. Solid in it’s new growth, the flower didn’t move in the breeze. Or when I poked it with a stick.
The sand turned a burnt sienna in places, and in others a golden cinnamon toast. I was hungry. I picked up the pace. The sky was becoming more of a gunmetal gray than the periwinkle blue I’d grown used to. In the distance I heard a rumble. It wasn’t my stomach this time.

I walked fast through the silver pale green shrubs and the forest of tall cactus near our homestead. I heard Mark snoring still. I rounded the tail end of the school bus. On the steps sat Frida, with both the water and food bowls licked clean. Her tail wriggled and she stood up and ran to me. She stood on her back legs when I bent down. A lick on the chin, and that was that; I loved her.

 

“What the hell is that?” Mark yelled from the bed.

I ran inside. Frida followed a few paces behind. On the pillow next to my boy was a mouse. A dead mouse. Mark had scooted to the bottom of the mattress. His hair stuck out in all directions and he gave me a frantic look. “How on earth did that get there? Is this some kind of a joke?”
I laughed, which probably wasn’t a good idea. He scowled. I nodded behind me. “I think she brought you a present.”

“Who?” Mark pulled his knees to his chest and stared at me in a foggy daze.
Frida stepped closer to me and peered at Mark from between my legs, all sixteen pounds of her pressed into me for support.

“What’s that?”
Frida whimpered and shook slightly. I looked down at my scruffy new friend. “That is a dog.”

“He has a moustache.”
She, yes, she does. She has a name.”

“What name?”
“Frida, her name is Frida.”
“Oh, right. We can talk about this later, okay? Can you do me a favor now? Take the corpse away.” He pointed to my pillow. “You might want to wash that before tonight.”

I picked up the mouse with his bandana. Frida watched me with her head tilted sideways. Her one ear flopped and the other stood up high. She licked her top lip nervously. I smiled at her and looked back to Mark. “Isn’t she adorable?”
“Does that mean we’re keeping her?”
I smiled sweetly. “Did you want coffee in bed?”
“We should try to find if someone lost her.” Mark said sensibly.

“But what if they did and I have to give her back?”

He drank more coffee and leaned back against the headboard. I sat next to him. Frida looked at us from over the edge of the mattress, her little tufty ears following us back and forth. She watched as we decided her fate.

“What if it was your dog? Wouldn’t you want someone to give her back?”
“Yes, of course. Damn, now we’ll have to go to Oliver and try to find her family, won’t we?”
He nodded sagely, and lightly tapped the bed once. Frida needed no more encouragement and she bounced up. She stood there for a second, all eighteen inches tall, before she circled twice and curled up at his feet. Her eyes watched him closely.

“We can make some flyers or something. Go to the Post Office and ask around at the store and at the cafe. It’s a small enough town that they probably know the dogs’ names more than their neighbors.”

Mark was right; we’d have to go look, and make sure she wasn’t simply lost. To me, there was something wrong about how scared the pup was. That shouldn’t be allowed if she did indeed have a home nearby. Maybe someone dropped her off on the highway? Left her out here on her own?

“What about driving and asking the neighbors first? We could drive up Harold’s Way and ask around.”
Frida sighed and wriggled against Mark. He reached down and petted her absent-mindedly. I said nothing and left them to it.

 

“Hello? Anyone home?”

Mark shouted out of the car window. Three big furry dogs ran up to our Subaru and barked like crazy. Frida hid at my feet. The adobe house had one wall fallen in. A horse stood in a corral and watched us, flicking its tail. The German Shepherds soon got bored and walked back over to the shade of the porch. They didn’t stop staring. The house was pretty big but incredibly run down. Gutters half fell off the roof. Buckets lay everywhere. Empty bottles and trashcans lined the driveway. An old Chevy truck sat on blocks. The firewood pile had cacti growing out of it. The path to the front door was clear and well worn. Where was everyone?
I wanted to get out and look around. Mark wasn’t going to let me.
“Remember what Dieselhead Danny said, about how people don’t like visitors showing up uninvited? Especially folks they’ve never even met. We’re lucky we didn’t get shot.”
He looked around nervously, smoking as he checked his mirrors. “Do you have that note about Frida? We can stick it to the gate post on the way out.”
We turned the car around slowly, trying to avoid the stuff lying everywhere. The gate had been open when we drove up but I got out and pulled it shut behind us. I had some duct tape and I attached the description of Frida to the right hand side. That would get their attention.

 

One by one, we stuck notes on gates and sometimes on front doors, depending on the dog situation. If none charged us as we drove up, I was sent to do the deed. If the car was surrounded, Mark admitted defeat and we drove away with Frida on my lap. Her fur tickled. She leaned against me, nestling in for hugs when Mark wasn’t looking. We spent most of the morning looking for her owners but no one could help. Not that we met many people, but still, we did run into a few and not one recognized her. There was one last reclusive homestead on the way to Oliver we were told to check out first.

The gate was firmly shut but for some reason Mark insisted on going up closer. I got out to push the metal gate out the way when a voice shouted out to me.

“Don’t do that.”
Deep and strong, the voice was of God, booming out from the unseen. I spun around. A tall dark-skinned woman strode towards us. Frida whimpered and ran for the car, bouncing in and onto Mark’s lap. I was on my own here.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I started in my polite middle class way when she reached me. At some six-foot or so, she made a remarkable first impression. The long legs reached higher than my waist. The tee shirt hugged a skinny wiry body devoid of anything extra, (that’s a polite way of saying she was flat-chested), the muscles shaped her arms into string beans, and her hair was a silver gray, and almost invisible it was that short. Her blue eyes took me by surprise. I didn’t expect that. I stuttered out the story of finding Frida. “Are you missing a dog?”
“I might be. Describe her again.” She had a no nonsense approach for such a strange answer.

“Surely you’d know if a dog’s gone, right?”
“Not necessarily. You see, I run a rescue here. That’s why I didn’t want the gate opened by strangers. Look up the hill and you’ll see my dogs are watching us closely.”
I looked and almost fainted. The hilltop was lined with dogs staring at me, bunches of dogs, all eyes focused on my healthy sized thighs, the color of a medium rare hamburger.

“How many do you have?” I shuddered in awe.
“Thirty-three. Or maybe it’s thirty-two now?” She smiled and suddenly I liked her. A childish mischief came out in the twinkle in her eyes. I grinned back.

“Let me show you Frida, she’s with Mark in the car.”
“Okay, that’ll work. I did get some dogs in recently that haven’t adjusted to the pack dynamic. They want to leave. I try to take a handful in to Santa Fe each month to find more permanent homes, you know, but that’s hard to do sometimes.”

We walked back, introduced ourselves, and she talked about the sanctuary. She’d had the place for fifteen years, starting with two rescue dogs that she found wandering her land. Mark watched us but didn’t get out of the car, Frida sat on his lap, and they both stared at us worriedly. Her little ears drooped at the sight of us.

“Is that one of yours?” I asked.

Louise stepped closer.

“Yep, she came in last week. She hates it here. The other dogs are much bigger. This isn’t really the place for a dog like her; she’s too vulnerable. Too small.”
“How did you end up with her?” Mark piped up, curious after all.

“Her owner died of old age and in his sleep. The EMTs brought her here when no family came forward. They’re pretty good like that, taking care of more than just the emergency patients. You could say that she came here reluctantly.”
We stood next to each other in silence. In the Subaru, Frida sat on Mark’s lap and licked her nose nervously. The storm hovered above the hills to the north of us, which were lit by a streak of sunlight within a mix of dark gray and baby blue clouds. Ominous.

“Can we keep her?” Mark said it first. I grinned at him and he smiled back briefly before focusing on the woman next to me. She stood quietly scratching her shaven head absently.

“On one condition,” she answered after a moment spent assessing us both. “You come help me here with the dogs and the property. My husband left me last spring, for a woman with two cats.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I need help, with maintaining the place more than anything, but also taking four or five dogs to town each month to find them homes.” She broke into a toothy gapped grin that made me nod my head without thinking it through. She stuck out her hand to mine. I shook hers and I didn’t wonder why.

She stepped closer to the car and leaned down and into the window. Mark held onto Frida. Louisa laughed softly.
“Don’t worry, she’s yours. I’d say she’s about three years old, and I know she’s had her shots and been spayed. I have the records for you. She’s a good dog. Thanks for taking her.” She petted the pup gently. Louisa looked into Mark’s eyes. “I’ll see you on the weekend, shall I? Not too late, I get up a six.”

Living The Dream: 8

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Click on the image for a link to the whole novel if you can’t wait.  

 

JULY: TOURISTS

“You look damn pink for a New Mexican.”

The man stared at me, taking in the fried shrimp color of my arms and legs, and the boiled lobster of a nose. “Are you sure? Don’t you come from the Midwest or something? We do.” He turned to his wife and introduced her. “Maggie, these two live here now and I’d thought she came from Ohio or something.”
His wife giggled nervously and pulled on her denim skirt, trying to bring it past her knees.

“I’m impressed,” she said, “but don’t you get bored in a little town like this? There’s nothing to do, no mall or movies or anything like we have in Lafayette.”

Her skin glistened with sunscreen and her tidy brown hairstyle wilted. She smiled though, enjoying the newness of everything even as she complained. Her white sneakers shone in the afternoon light. The sky, as usual, offered no break from the relentless sunshine and heat.

Summer. July Fourth to be exact. Oliver had it’s own Independence Day Parade. How cool is that?

The man stood next to Mark and asked about the festivities here. Mark lost his cool edge by admitting we’d only been here a couple of weeks.

“But you live here now?” The woman piped up, taking a gulp from a can of sweating coke. She held a pink plastic cowboy hat, and tilted her head so she could look up at him. All of five foot nothing, she had to lean back to see into Mark’s eyes and from where I stood, I half expected her to crash backwards against the truck. I have the same problem being five foot five to his six foot two.

Hundreds of motorcycles, a few sedans and more than a handful of trucks parked along every free space in front of the stores on the highway. Straw hats and baseball caps gave a minimum of shade to tourists wilting in the dry heat. Elm trees offered dappled cover to the lucky ones. Town was packed. I was glad we’d parked up the north end of town, as we’d be able to get out of here whenever we wanted. The Fire department had stopped all traffic. At each end of town stood one of four volunteers with a big red fire engine. Suddenly I wanted to wear a uniform like theirs. Although, perhaps not in this heat. The firefighter wearing full gear and even a helmet had sweat dripping off her nose and she wiped her forehead repeatedly.
Horns blasted. Whistles blew. The parade had started. Tourists cheered encouragement. I hopped up and down, craning over the heads of all the kids near by. It was in the nineties and dry, not a humid percentage to be counted. No clouds came to threaten us with those monsoons we kept hearing about. Not a drop in sight. Mark kept up the conversation.

“Yes, well, we moved here from Olympia, Washington. We’re building a place outside of town, in the valley out to the west of here. It’s a rough road or I’d offer to take you,” Mark said, lying through his bandana.

She asked all about what brought us here and when. The details. It was a good practice run for us. What to say, and what not. The city lifestyle they understood. The compost toilet didn’t go over so well.
“You what?”
“Shit in a bucket,” answered Mark helpfully.

She put her hand to mouth as if to stifle a scream of disgust, or to call down the wrath of some god for our disgusting heathen ways. I coughed and covered my giggles as they made excuses and wandered off to stand in the full sun. Mark held out his bottle of water to me and I took it. He wore his usual blue jeans and a faded green tee shirt that he’d found at a thrift store. His face looked the color of cinnamon and tasted of sweat and smoke. He’d grown a goatee and kept his curls under the bandana.

A cheer went up and I stood on my toes to look to the south end of town. You can see one end from the other; it’s that small here.

“There. The Fire Dept. is leading the way. You should join them, Mark. Make some friends and get involved. Right?”
“Why not you? You’d look good as an EMT.”
“But I hate blood.”
“There is that,” he conceded.

A fire truck passed us with a man in seventies style aviator sunglasses waving at everyone he passed. The sirens boomed suddenly and we all jumped, squealing in surprise. He grinned and threw candy at me. I caught a melted ginger sweet and ate it, smiling to myself. Mark nudged me.

“Got a new boyfriend already, eh?”
I laughed, glad that he wasn’t the jealous type by any means. I poked him back. Pointing behind him, I joked, “and you just want a little ass.”

A donkey strolled past us and Mark laughed, hugging me to him. The donkey had a blanket on its back with a poodle sitting upon that, and an older couple walked and talked to each animal, stroking ears and tapping tails. The donkey pooped as it walked.

Next along came tan or twelve young kids in costumes, ranging from Spiderman (he’s still cool?), to ninjas, Madonna, and cuddly Pooh bear and friends. Quite the gang, they took candy from the audience instead of throwing any. I’d already eaten mine and had nothing to offer the four year old in a George Bush mask.

A couple of old beat up cars drove past at two miles an hour with local twenty-somethings leaning out of windows, waving flags and laughing hysterically. People walked by, some brought dogs wearing stars and stripes, others brought goats, horses and even llamas. A motorcycle crawled along and in the sidecar sat a clown who didn’t smile. Very odd.

Lastly four or five middle-aged cheerleaders strode past in big boots and not much else, doing handstands and cartwheels. The tourists liked them a lot.

The parade was over.

After standing in the full sun, I’d wanted some cold water or a shower or something. Mark suggested we follow the crowds (such as they were) to the tavern and get a beer before heading home.
“It’s not like it’ll be any cooler back there, is it?” he reminded me with a grin.

“You’re right. It’s no better there, heat-wise. But at least I could get out of my tee shirt and lay in the hammock under the junipers.”
“Well, I like that idea too. Hmm, half-naked girlfriend in the desert? Or a beer at the tavern followed by half-naked girlfriend in the desert? It’s hard to decide.”

We walked with the donkey’s people. I wanted to ask a ton of questions even though my brain was fried but the husband, an old guy with long black dreadlocks said to get in touch some other time and gave me a business card. The Donkey’s card that is, Frodo The Burro had a local number. I pocketed it, thanking him.

“Did you win the bet?” a rather sun and wind weathered woman in brown leather chaps and sport’s bra asked Mark. He blushed and looked over to me for help.

“What bet?” I asked politely.
“Oh, we make a kitty of a dollar a guess as to how long the parade will last. I heard this one was eighteen minutes. One of the better ones.” She shook his hand, introduced herself, and studiously ignored me. As we came to the corner and crossed the road, she passed him a piece of paper with her address on.
“I don’t have a phone but come by some time.”
Mark glanced down at the paper. When he looked back up, she’d gone down some small alleyway. “She lives half a mile away from us, Jenny. That’s probably our closest neighbor. Should I tell her?”
I pulled him into the bar as he made to follow her. The door swung open and I pushed him through the crowds in front of us. A cheerful and very sweaty waitress headed over but I waved her off. She smiled briefly and then focused on a family of four behind us. We stepped up to the bar instead.

“A pale ale for me, thanks Mark.” I headed out to the porch for some fresh air.

 

I tripped over a dog lying in the middle of the doorway and almost fell off the porch. The mutt barely flinched. He raised his big brown mastiff head and stared at me, decided I wasn’t worth the attention and fell back to daydreaming. I found a corner where I could lean against the wooden edge and looked out over the parking lot. Filled to the brim with Harleys and the weekend bikers, I noticed a scattering of clean sedans and family wagons from out of state. That reminded me that I wanted to find the DMV next week and change my own plates. Get a New Mexico license. Post Office box. The list grew as I waited for Mark and my pint.

“You’re the new couple out down Gringo Gulch, right?”
I turned to see an older cowboy checking me out. I put out my hand and introduced myself. “Yes, in Pete’s place, I guess.”
“How’s it going out there for you? Hot, ain’t it?” He grinned widely and settled in next to me. His blue jeans were worn to a pale shade of gray. The black tee shirt was tucked in place with a leather belt. The cowboy boots were working boots and not for show.
“George. My name’s George Whitlow. Pleased to meet you, Jenny. I’d toast you but you’re without a drink.”
I grinned and explained my boyfriend was waiting at the bar for us.

“Don’t worry. Once the staff starts to recognize you, your pint will be already poured by the time you try to order. The benefit to living here in tourist season.”
We started chatting about the land and Oliver and what the plans are. Daniel lived out in the hills to the south of town, and he described the roads to get his place as being impassable in the rainy season. There was a short cut from his road to ours. I didn’t trust those short cuts any more.
“We keep hearing about these rains but I haven’t seen anything yet. Is it really that bad?”
“It can be.” He wiped his neck and talked of one year how the big rains flooded out his stables and he’d had to move the horses up hill, tying them to the trees and watching over them even as he got soaked himself. “I couldn’t risk them getting spooked and running off because of the lightening strikes.”
“So what did you do?”

“I pulled up my collar, pulled down my hat, and settled in for a long night.”

“Since it rains like that, how come our neighbor hauled in a few truckloads of water last week? Isn’t it about to rain again?”
“You mean Danny Dieselhead?”
I nodded. “Does he grow his own food?”

Daniel kinda laughed. “Yep, he likes to grow his own.”
Mark showed up with drinks for the both of us. I introduced them to each other and sipped the cold beer. It hit the spot perfectly. Good shot.

“If there’s so much rain, is this a good place to do rain catchment?” asked Mark.
“Yep, you’d need a huge tank or three to store it all for the times of year when there’s nothing. It’s been a rough year around here; the weather’s been strange. Very dry and windy. It makes the fire department nervous. They’ve banned fires and are on the watch for anything risky. No fireworks today, for one. That didn’t go down well with some in town.”

“Even if they know why not?”
Daniel laughed bitterly. “We’re a town of outlaws. We don’t like to be told what to do.”
A young woman in her early twenties came out of the tavern and walked up. She nodded at me and turned to our new friend. Her hair was long, black, and loosely tied in back. Her skin was like a milky coffee with a splash of honey.

“Dad? You’ve got to take us home now. Mom said.”

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Click on the image for a link to the whole novel if you can’t wait.  

Solo Travels: Tips for women

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 in limbo

February. Most of my friends are having a hard time. Winter never really came, the snow didn’t turn town in a wonderland, it’s just been cold and the tourists left us alone. I like it. Winter that is. I do. I like wearing layers, making fires, cooking big hearty meals, and sitting in bed early as I draw, write or read. It’s a good time for me. Usually.

This year is different. The snow didn’t fall, well apart from a dusting once or twice. There’s been no challenging drive through the drifts in my four-wheel drive, no tromping through the untouched crisp of ice and sugar frosting. My home is comfortable, maybe too comfortable for someone like me. It’s, well, boring. I’m done. The floor is in. The wood-stove is oversized and I sit around in tee-shirts and jeans. The windows are now double-paned, and curtains keep the heat in over night. Not so long ago, when this was a shack and nothing more than dirt, broken windows, and one room, I’d wake up in a union suit, shivering and cursing, struggle to light a shitty little leaking wood-stove, and then with the insulated coveralls on, I’d set up up the camp stove to make coffee. It was great!

This year is different. Here I am in tee shirt, the dogs and cat are lounging around near the wood-stove, there’s a spitting of snowflakes on the dirt outside, and I’m in limbo. It’s not just the time of year, not just the weather, or that I’ve renovated my shack into an off-grid comfortable home, it’s more.

Last year, I spent summer living in a van with the two dogs and a cat called Stevie. We wandered around the Northwest for months, finding little towns, great back roads, camping in the hills and on the beaches. It was incredible, so inspiring and relaxing. I read tons, day-dreamed, wrote and photographed the time we spent together. While on the road, I kept checking out each town, each area, talking to locals and visitors, seeing how they found those places. I was looking for a new home.

I need a challenge apparently. Life is just a tad too easy on me right now. I’m enjoying it, being self-employed, scrambling for money each month is nothing new, and I’ve found a talent for sketching, for cartoons and that keeps me engaged in the morning and evenings when the computer and internet are turned off.
I need more. Does that mean I lack a sense of contentment? No, for me it means that I know life is precious, a gift, there are no guarantees. I want to grab life, force myself into new situations, discover sides to myself I’d not noticed earlier. I want to live. Fully.

It’s not enough to stay in this little village of three hundred or so. It’s not enough to talk about the weather, the return of the local band, or who was so drunk the other weekend. I like all that, I do. The familiarity. But it’s like I’ve grown up, I need to leave this family of sorts as if I were a teenager again. It’s time to claim my place in a bigger world. To discover and be discovered. I don’t know how that looks, but it’s time to leave the nest.

With that in mind, this winter has left me living in limbo. Each day I sketch, learn from artists, and practice drawing. Each day, I write and submit to magazines and newspapers. I read avidly, although I’ve a had a few weeks with no writing or reading, unusual for me. I’ve applied for freelance work and seasonal work. I’ve sent out ideas all across the Northwest and even the Midwest. Now I wait.

There is nothing I can do but wait. Practice, draw, write, read and research. I wait. I’m told that by the end of March, I’ll hear back. In April, my brother and his family are visiting me here. It might be the kid’s first and last time in Madrid, I might be gone. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

And this state of limbo has me appreciating the snowflakes on the doorstep, the muddy prints across the kitchen floor, and the conversations with old friends. You just never know. I’m grabbing each minute here. With my friends and family. You just never know.

 

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?”

Taking Mum to Ireland

Fempotential.com magazine published this story today, January 2017, on the anniversary of Mum’s passing.

Here is a copy of article following more photographs that didn’t make it into the magazine.

 

The phone call came late in the afternoon, my brother’s name popped up on the screen.

“Either you’ve been drinking or something happened!” I joked.

Pause. “Both. Mum, she’s in ICU. She fell. Brain injury. We don’t know how bad.”

In the local pub where I sat clutching a beer and huddled in front of the open fire, a friend came up. Sharon worked in the ER in Santa Fe, NM where I live. I told her the news. “How long was she unconscious?”

“She still is.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She patted my shoulder and said nothing else. I knew then.

 

Nine months later, I strode across the cliffs along the Gower Coast in Wales. Behind me, my extended family stretched out in the twilight, chatting, laughing, and telling each other stories of my mum. Rhossilli Bay is a mile long, a broad wide and sandy beach with low rising hills to the east. My brother, Pete, came to check on me. At that moment, my cousins and their families released all those sky lanterns. Dozens of white balloons floated over the ocean and out towards Ireland to the west, the dark sky was calm and they drifted slowly out to sea. Silhouettes against a waning moon. Peaceful.

It would have been Mum’s 70th birthday. Sallie had planned for us all to get together to celebrate her birthday; she’d made us all promise the summer before, but then she died of a brain injury in January. We came here for her. Four cottages were rented, and the fridges filled with her favorite foods and not forgetting plenty of white wine in her honor. Sallie loved family gatherings more than anything. And for this, I am heartbroken because I didn’t understand. I kept my distance, even moving to the States in my twenties and yet there I was in my early forties suddenly appreciating the depth and expanse of family and her magic of bringing us together. My mum taught me, finally, the worth of family.

 

In the seventies, our old Land Rover was packed with a tall orange and green canvas tent, a folding table, cooking gear, and the clothes and toys needed for two young kids. After four hours driving along winding back roads, Mum called out, “I can see the sea! I can see the sea! I win!” She’d squeal in delight. The Welsh coast opened up in front us as Dad drove down the small highway heading out to Rhossilli. We’d stop at the store for ice, sodas and those last-minute odds and ends, like a plastic shovel and bucket for me, and a kite for Pete. Then off to Middleton, a small village before the peninsula, where we’d set up camp. Well, Mum and Dad would. I’d be off wandering around the campground, meeting other kids and their parents, inviting them back to meet my mum and dad. In the middle of trying to settle in, I’d show up with a small group behind me. Dad would stop what he was doing and pour out drinks and begin to chat. Mum and I’d pass out some snacks. The tent finally got put up with the help of my new friends. It worked out each time.

That night in August though, Pete and I took time alone, time to watch those lanterns float westward. Memories and Memorials.

“Are you okay? Do you really want to go?”
“Yep, I need time alone. You know how I am; this is too much for me. It’s okay, I’ll be back in a week or so.”

He hugged me and let me go. We walked back to the family and then we all wandered in the dark back to the cottages in Middleton. Cousins Tony, Paul and Nanette cooked up a feast and my brother’s kids made a campfire. We sat around late into the night, all of us full of stories and steaks.

Aunty Viv talked of growing up there in Wales. “During the summers after the Second World War, our dad would bring Sallie and I here for a week’s camping. Your gran would bring Les and Andy a week later. They couldn’t leave the farm alone so we split it between us. They chose this place in part because of the name; their own farm was Middleton, but far away in Worcester. The two farming families became close, and Old Mrs. Button still remembers your grandparents. You should ask her sometime. But don’t believe what she says about me and Sallie!”

The next morning, Viv hugged me tightly. The Honda motorbike was packed with gear, and it was time to leave her. My sweet aunt. Sallie and Viv spoke every day on the phone, saw each other often, they were incredibly close. I’d come across Viv down the alley that night before, sobbing her heart out, devastated at losing her big sister. I’d grabbed her to me and let her cry. “But I should be helping you,” she insisted.

“You are.”

Time to leave then, with most of my cousins and families all gone, I’d already said bye to Pete. Saying bye to Viv was the hardest. I didn’t know that it would be the last time. Cancer got her before the year was out.

“How long?”

“Four hours, Miss. The ferry takes four hours; it could be longer if the wind builds up like yesterday. But in good time, there’s no rush is there? We’ll be there by mid-day. Ireland’s only a hundred miles from Fishguard.” He took my ticket and showed me where to tie up the motorcycle on the left side of the ferry’s underbelly.

“Take everything with you, just for safety’s sake. Enjoy the trip!”

The ferry left for Rosslare at the crack of dawn, the sun barely visible on a cloudy overcast day. We’d been lucky in Wales, the sun shone plenty enough for hikes along the hills, and down to the beaches for the kids to play in the waves. Now though, the weather was turning and how appropriate it felt. I hugged Mum’s sweater to me and stood at the railings with the wind slashing slamming and fighting me for my every choked breath.

The Blarney Castle in County Cork was my first destination. The ride across N5 took me through Dungarvan and Youghal, cleansing me inside and out as rain belted down briefly, soaking deep into my boots. The highways were pretty empty and in no time I pulled up outside the Muskerry Arms on the town square. The pub and restaurant downstairs were packed on that Sunday afternoon yet the rooms upstairs were calm and peaceful. I couldn’t face people yet. I couldn’t face the inevitable question about where in the States did I come from. With twenty years in New Mexico, I’d lost much of my English accent. My wet clothes hung on the radiators and I’d emptied out the backpack, looking for John, my teddy bear, who now sat on the pillow of the king-sized bed under the windows. I stared out on the busy village below before falling asleep. With both parents gone, and a mixture of nightmares, grief, and simply being an adult kid alone in the world, no, I didn’t sleep well.

Blarney Castle is famous for the Stone Of Eloquence. The story isn’t clear, some say the stone came from Scotland and that it was a Coronation Stone, others that it dates back to the Crusades, but these days it’s the gift of the gab that it bestows upon the smoochers that is important. As a writer, it seemed like a good idea, right? I walked through the park that is set around the castle, one full of wilderness, gardens and winding paths. On average, some 300,000 visitors come here but in September I was one of a dozen if that. Admittedly, it was early in the morning as I’d had a simple hotel breakfast and walked over to explore more. I climbed the 127 steps in a narrow stone tower and came up onto an empty parapet. The Blarney Stone is set in the wall below the battlements. To get to it, I had to lean backwards, hold onto the railings, and trusting the guide, who grabbed my hips, fall backwards off the wall. The grass was some ninety feet below and I tried not to faint but to make a wish and kiss the stone. A click of a camera above me caught the moment.

Was this a mid-life crisis? To hit the road alone in my forties? To strap my belongings onto the back of an orange 650 cc motorcycle and ride into an unknown country? Yes, apparently, it is. The Huffington Post described it with an image of a grey-haired woman on a motorbike heading into the horizon. That sounds about right although at the time my hair was still brown and the horizon here was tree-lined while driving south through County Cork. With a map from Viv in the tank bag, I followed the R600 from Kinsale and then onto the smallest most winding roads along the coast. I rode through southern Ireland noting town names, Courtmacsherry, Rosscarberry, Donegal, the Beacon, but talked to no one. My mind was firmly focused on my mum and dad. The roads blurred into a list of numbers, R591, the R592, and back onto R600. Open desolate meadows dropped into the North Sea. The wind slashed across us, the bike and I, as we rode for an hour or so each morning before setting up next to a beach or a stonewall. I’d grab sandwiches and a flask of tea before wandering along rocky shorelines that reminded me of Wales. There I would sit and remember my parents.

After my dad died, Mum and I’d become closer, with my renting a car to take us back to Worms Head Hotel in Rhossilli whenever I was back in the country. We’d stay in the hotel on the peninsula, in a shared room, walking along the beaches, sitting in the hotel pub and staring across the shore towards Ireland. We didn’t talk much, it didn’t come easily, but we relaxed into each other’s company, sharing soft jokes over a coffee in the mornings or a wine in the evenings. We’d neither of us been to Ireland, I don’t know why. Dad and Mum took us in that old Land Rover to France, Spain, and Holland instead. I’d been in Guatemala when Dad died suddenly, and it had taken my brother a few days to locate me and another week for me to get back to the UK. Mum had grabbed me close and held onto me. I’d stayed longer than I’d done for over a decade. Mum and I learnt the rhythms of living together as adults but didn’t talk, not really. We didn’t know how.

Mizen Head, the signal station, the various lighthouses, all those places, as far along the many small narrow peninsulas, that’s where you could find me, alone on a cliff edge. No suicidal urges but an absence of people, of demands, or pity, I needed to surround myself with water. With memories.

As Mum lay in the hospital, in the ICU, plugged into too many machines to count, I held her hand for weeks and talked to her. I reminded her of times we’d been camping in Wales and how we’d leave Dad to carry nearly everything because we couldn’t wait to run to the beaches and how she was just as bad as us kids. Of the beach in Santander, Spain and all those hundreds of steps down to reach it. Of the days on the canal at Gran’s farm learning the names of all the flowers and trees. Running in the fields until the gong called us cousins to dinner. I described my home in Madrid, New Mexico, and the plans for making it into a cottage, a home to be proud of. I’d just finished my first novel and a publisher had written to me about taking me on and so I told Mum. I talked all afternoon long until Pete came after work and took me away. Every day for weeks I sat with Mum. Christmas Day. Boxing Day. New Year’s Day. I emptied myself of all the words I’d held back. Too late? No, she heard me. In that coma, Mum heard me and forgave me. “I know, Sarah, I know you. It’s all right. I know you.”

In Kenmare, I settled in for a few days. Time had been dragging in the sense that each day was full of silence, huge ocean vistas, and quiet evenings alone watching locals chatting in the pubs I’d stay at. I had no words for strangers. On Henry Street though, the main street in Kenmare, I parked the orange bike outside an orange building and wandered off one afternoon. The sun shone, it was a glorious September week and striding downhill towards a church, my heart softened. A one-way narrow road leads the eye to the spire, the grassy hill behind, and a craggier forest beyond that. The buildings were white, yellow, orange, burgundy, the wooden trim all colors and baskets of flowering bright annuals hung from the balconies above. The locals talked to me about the weather, asking about my trip so far, and suggesting that I stay at Foley’s Pub with the rooms above. I responded, chatting happily and easily with them. Along the main street, the Pantry sold organic foods and I stocked up on some quality cheeses, tomatoes, and good picnic food. A bottle of red wine to finish up. (Sorry, Mum, I still don’t like white wine)

After exploring the area on the bike in the mornings, and wandering in and out of the bookstores and galleries in Kenmare, I found a beachside park for a picnic. I spread out the cheeses; the Brie was for my dad and the Gorgonzola for Mum. Toms, cukesFrench bread and a glass of wine. The sun shone on us, the photos of my family were held in place with pebbles, and I toasted them. I thanked them for all that they had given me. The love of travel. The courage to explore. The stories. And the love of a good picnic.

Riding back across N5 towards Rosslare a few days later, a heavy incessant rain didn’t deter me. I’d found peace in my grief. A hotel above the ferry terminal offered a room with a television, a bath and not much else but it didn’t matter. I’d spent a week emptying myself of the painful nightmares and found the memories to refill me, to reassure me. I hadn’t been such a terrible daughter after all. I’m very much the child of my parents. The wanderings, the pubs, and telling the stories later on. Yes, thank you both. You would’ve like Ireland. Now though, it was time to go back to my brother’s home. Family matters after all.

 

Sallie Leamy August 1940 – January 2010

Thanks Alex T for publishing this travel essay.