Living The Dream. Chapter 1.

JUNE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

“Are we there yet?”
Mark hung tightly onto the steering wheel, and pumped the brakes nervously. “I hope so, Jenny, I hope so.” He downshifted just to be on the safe side.
The mountain dropped down steeply in front of us. The road practically melted away in the midday sun. Rocks slipped out from under the U-Haul. Stones and the gravel skidded away with a lurch. Mark swore under his breath. The dirt road was barely one car wide. Boulders blocked the path. I climbed out to move the biggest ones. The sun beat down and the air conditioner cranked out as best it could but it barely kept up. We drove downhill at two miles an hour. Gringo Gulch appeared before us, a steep empty canyon with only one homestead half-hidden in the distance. The gravel slid from under us again. The brakes started to smell. Mark’s curly hair lay flat against his forehead and his arm glowed with sunburn.

“I knew we should’ve come out at least once more. This is crazy, Mark, crazy.” I pulled out my camera and started clicking away.

“Are you getting cold feet?” He asked, patience worn thin. “This was your idea to start with. Let’s move to Santa Fe, she said, let’s buy that land we saw – only the once, mind you – and just move, she said.”

I opened the window and took in the desert heat, the pinions and the junipers, and the wildlife. My cowgirl denim shirt stuck to my back.

“It’s not like we can go back, is it? The school will have replaced me already and you were just…” I put my camera down. “Sorry. I’m tired. I didn’t mean it, okay?”
Mark sighed. “I was just a musician? Is that it? Thanks.” He reached for his cigarettes.

“What’s that?” I threw my apple at a snake crossing in front of us. “A rattlesnake?” I missed as it slithered onwards and upwards, glancing across as we crawled past. I shivered. We didn’t have snakes in Olympia.

“I’m glad we only got the twenty footer. Can you imagine driving anything longer down here?” Mark lit up and drew in deeply. The brakes squealed one last time as we reached the bottom of the valley. Not one person in sight. Deserted. Desert.
“Are you sure this is the right way?”

Mark flicked ash out the window. “Well, when I looked on Google this was the shortest route. We came a different road last time, I guess. But remember that the realtor said your Subaru would do fine out there, right?”

“But I’m not driving this way, that’s for sure, I’d hit every rock. Didn’t he take us down a long flat smooth road, that’s what I kinda remember? There were miles and miles of slow curves and lots of homes in the distance, right? What was it called?”
“Harold’s Way, I think.” Mark kept driving steadily as he checked the maps again and said, “Yep, this is the short cut, the direct route. I don’t know, Jen. We might want to bring your car the other way tomorrow. I’m glad we left it in town.”

We kept on slowly driving, desperately searching the landscape for the driveway, or a sign of some kind. It’s not like there was anyone to ask for directions. We drove on in silence. Beside us, a dried up riverbed followed the lowest point, and we ended up crossing rocky sandstone ledges every few hundred yards. Dead cacti lined the path. Dead pinion trees. Dead dogs.

“Is that really what I think it is?” Mark had noticed it too. We both stared at the swollen black furry body in the middle of the tracks. “I wonder what killed it?” he continued as he steered around it with a slight bump.
“And whose was it? Should we put up a sign at the store?” I looked back out the window uneasily.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Are you going to get out and check its tags? Do you really think it has a city license on a nice leather collar? This is the Wild West, remember, Jenny? We’re not in Kansas any more.”
“We never were in Kansas, you dope. No, drive on. I just want to get home.”
Blue sky beat down on us as we crawled along Gringo Gulch at four miles an hour. With not one cloud in the sky, the canyon was painfully bright and barren. The rise and fall of the hills and creek beds obscured any homes or signs of life. It was bright, too bright for my blue eyes. Where were my sunglasses? The junipers bunched together in clumps with dead straw-like grass scattered over the dirt. I didn’t see a single flower. How weirdly beautiful it all was to me though. I looked all over, my head spinning around and around, noticing branches full of crows and ravens, the incredible silence, and then we rounded yet one more corner.

“I recognize it. This is it, right?”
Mark stopped the truck. He threw his cigarette butt out his window and looked around.

“I think so. I think so. Let’s go see, shall we?”
In front of us, the road split north and south. On the western edge, a driveway, well, a dirt track led out onto towards the mesa, the valley that is, which sprawled all the way to the mountain range far away. A For Sale sign lay flat on the mud embankment. The dirt track had a chain strung across from two wooden posts.

Mark opened his door and climbed down, stretching his six-foot skinny white boy frame, and reaching high with arms outstretched. His jeans hung low and loose, with a white tee shirt neatly tucked in, and his black boots shone. He suddenly shouted out at full volume.

“WE’RE HOME.”

He turned to me, grinning a wicked smile so huge and happy. “We did it, Jenny. We bought land. It’s ours. All ours. We’re free, Jen. We’re free.” He spun wildly round and round.

I ran to him and jumped into his arms, crashing us against the U-Haul, kissing him deeply and suddenly we’re both yelling aloud, home, we’re home. The echo came back at us, welcoming us here. A huge pitch-black crow flew up off the gatepost, crowing at us to shut the hell up.

I laughed. We’d done it. I wasn’t going to give up this time.

“Where are we going to sleep?”
I looked around at the pile of stuff we’d unloaded. The ramp to the back of the U-Haul was down, and twenty cardboard boxes were stacked neatly under a tree, next to a five-gallon container of drinking water and a cooler of food and beer.

I spread my arms wide. “I don’t see an RV, do you? We did buy 40 acres with an RV, right? Or am I missing something here?”
The heat was relentless. Where was a cowboy hat when you needed one? My face burnt up. I strode around, steaming.

Mark, however, sat on the ground on the shady north side of the truck with a small plastic bottle of water resting on the dirt between his boots. He grinned up at me. He shook his head and held out his hands to me.

“I’ve no idea where it is, but yes, there’s an RV here somewhere, that was part of it. We can look tomorrow, okay? But, hon isn’t it great? We can sleep under the stars tonight. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I wonder if we can see the Milky Way from here?”
He passed me the water and I drank deeply. I shook my head and told him we were too far south for that. Was I thinking of the Northern Lights? I sat next to him and poked him in the thigh.

“So we’re sleeping rough tonight, are we Cowboy? You’ll make us a fire and protect me from the roaming bands of thieves?”
Mark hugged me to him. “Sure will, little Missy, I sure will. And you’ll be making me my dinner of beans and beef over the fire-pit, won’t you?”
“I was thinking of some red wine, the French loaf and that brie we have.”
Mark snorted. “Yeah, that’s probably more like it. But we can make a fire and sit on the rocks and stay up all night, can’t we? I’ll push the worst of the stones out the way and we can pull out the sleeping bags right here. What do you think?” He sounded like a ten-year-old on summer vacation with his best friend. “We can tell scary stories.” He stood up, energized and ready to go again. He brushed the sand off his nice blue jeans.
I laid down, pleading a headache, and I watched as he made us a fire-pit, placing the rocks in a circle, finding a couple of flat flagstone-like pieces for seats, and he wandered out of sight, fetching branches and kindling. I fell asleep.

We’d come with nothing practical, that’s all I can say, nothing but the bare necessities of tent, camping gear, and sleeping bags. Plus a truck full of my grandparents’ furniture I’d just inherited. Fifteen boxes of Mark’s books and his drum set and bass guitars. I’d brought my own guitar I never play, but planned to make the most of living out there, finally able to practice in peace. We had a laptop and our two cell phones. Some clothes, I admit to, but mostly they were Mark’s. I’d bought the land. Mark would build us a home. That was the plan, to live in the RV as we build a home.

The red wine flowed through me easily and freely and I discovered the joys of peeing outside.

“Look the other way.”

“I can’t see you over there. Remember? It’s pitch black from where I am. What time do you reckon it must be? My god, look at all those stars. Do you know any of the names?” Mark kept talking, to hide the splashes, or from pure wonder, I didn’t know. I walked back to the glow of the fire and squatted down opposite him.

I looked at my watch. It was only ten thirty, early for us. I poured out another beaker’s worth of wine. Trader Joe’s best three-dollar vintage was perfectly doable out here, and anyway, I couldn’t see the label, and we had no guests. That made me think.
“Do you think we’ll get visitors out here? My mom? What would she think about peeing like I just did?” I couldn’t picture it.
“Wait until morning when you need a number two,” Mark reminded me with a smile in his soft voice.
“Oh my god, that’s right. Is there an outhouse? Or did you dig us a hole or something?” My voice squeaked embarrassingly. I coughed to hide it.
Mark laughed hard, and told me about how we’d be using buckets, making a compost toilet with straw and sawdust and I tuned out, figuring he’s just teasing his city girlfriend. Then I realized something.

“If I have to shit in a bucket, I want a dog.”
“Huh?” Mark scratched his chin; the day’s stubble was itching already. “I thought you didn’t like dogs?”
“Well, I do now. And a donkey.”
Mark choked on his wine and spat it into the fire. I pulled my leather jacket closer to me as the wind had picked up.

“Forty acres and a mule.” I explained. “And a dog, a nice big hairy friendly dog.”
“For the buckets?”
“Yep, if you want a compost toilet, that’s the deal, okay?”
He stood up and reached for my hand. “Deal.”
We shook.

The night ticked way and I wobbled off into the shadows every few hours. We talked about how this all came to be, the incredulous looks our friends had given us as they waved us off last week. Mark lay down and climbed into this sleeping bag, saying so quietly I almost didn’t hear him, “damn, it’s beautiful here, isn’t it? And it’s so empty and silent, I can’t believe it.”

We listened in awe. Here the world turned on a sigh.

“No-one telling us what to do.”

“No bills.”
“No permits.”

“Nothing, no traffic, no cop cars, nothing like a damn city with its never ending noise and rules.” I pulled out my camera. “This is the life, Mark, it really is pretty magical here.”

I stumbled up hill. Falling over rocks and into cacti made for a slow progress. Finally, I stopped and I turned slowly three hundred and sixty degrees. The silhouettes of trees and shrubs filled the landscape eerily. I saw neither houses nor lights. I’d heard no traffic all night long. Only in the far distance, the interstate showed some stream of cars’ headlights as they drove north to Santa Fe and beyond. I heard nothing but for a coyote. Suddenly I laughed aloud. I’d heard a coyote. I stood stock-still and stared into the darkness, willing one to come up close to me. I’d read all about this kind of stuff on the drive across Idaho and Utah. A power animal is one that comes to you repeatedly. They have messages for us if we listen. I planned to do just that.

I waited for the coyote to come back.

“What the hell was that?” I whispered as I poked Mark with my boot. He murmured in his sleep. I poked harder. “There’s something out there.” I hissed at him. “Do something.”

“What?” he sat up fast and looked at me. “What? Oh, my head. Why does it hurt? I didn’t drink that much, did I?”
“Who cares about that, Cowboy? You’re meant to protect me. I heard something in the boxes, in our stuff. What is it?” I poked him once more and for good measure I grinned sweetly in the darkness.
Mark sat there in his brand new sleeping bag around his waist. His nice clean white tee shirt looked rumpled by sleeping on the sandy ground. So much for him trying to smarten up, damn musicians are scruffy buggers. He stood up, shedding his bag as he stretched, groaning slightly. I turned on my flashlight and passed it to him. He tucked his tee shirt back in and grabbed a fleece sweater from my pillow-pile. With another of his easy-going smiles, he told me to wish him luck. I blew him a huge wet kiss and sent him off to be the ‘man’. I watched the light flickering up and across our belongings as he looked for signs of life. He said nothing but kept moving closer. He checked the cooler and the boxes of books first. He went round back and into the U-Haul. I lost sight and sound of him. I sat huddled in my sleeping bag and cuddled my knees against my chest. I poked the fire and put on another log. I waited nervously.

“I think I know what it was.” Mark came back over to my side of the fire, bringing his bag with him. He spread out next to me and lay me down, spooning me through REI’s idea of a comfortable bed.
“What was it? A coyote? An owl? What?”
“A rat. A pack rat to be precise.”
I sat up quickly. Mark told me that he’d seen pictures of them in Mother Earth magazine.

“Oh, and they’re pretty cute by the way.”
“Cute? A rat is cute? And it’s in my stuff?”
“Our stuff. But yeah, it was cute and settled in for the night. We can do something about it in the morning okay Jen? Not now, I’m tired and it’s pitch black out here.”
“But how are we going to kill it?”
“We?” he asked, teasing from behind me, out of reach.

“Well, you, how are you going to kill it?” I giggled as he snuggled closer.

“And so spoke the vegetarian pacifist? What about your love of animals? What about those power animals? What if this is one of yours?”
“Ha, ha, very funny, just don’t let it any where near me tonight, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m on duty right now as I…” and with that he fell asleep. I lay there and listened intently. The flashlight stayed close by. I flinched at every whisper and rattle. I kept the fire bright. I finished the bottle of wine alone. Like I said, Mark slept soundly, the bastard.

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Living The Dream

 

DECEMBER: NOT ALL WHO WANDER

“I know. I know. I’m lost. I don’t know where we are either.”
Nelson stared at me with those odd eyes of his, one blue and the other amber, unblinking, waiting for more. I shrugged and rearranged the cushions behind me. I propped myself up with a sigh next to him.

“It must have been last night, at that tavern in Farmington. I bet I left the map on the table or something. I didn’t see anything in the motel room when we left, did you?”
Of course he didn’t. He’d already been waiting in the 4Runner. As usual, he’d been impatient to hit the road.

I sipped my cold coffee and stared out the truck’s windows with a smile. I’d already folded the seats down and installed a memory foam mattress, cushions, and a thick pile of blankets and sleeping bags. We were living in style these days.
A blue-gray lake filled a valley’s basin, it was small by most standards but for New Mexico, not bad. Mountains surrounded us filled with ponderosas and cedar, native grasses, and shrub oaks. We’d walked the hills and explored various animal tracks earlier, picking up dead and down wood for the night’s campfire. Empty, the land felt empty yet loved and I saw no one. No one to ask for directions. All I knew was that we were somewhere in the Apache reservation, on a campsite next to a lake. I’d paid the five bucks in the envelope and settled in for the night. I still couldn’t find the damn map though. I figured we’d just drive west in the morning, sun to our backs, and follow these dirt roads through the wilderness until we came back out into the Carson National Forest.

Nelson sighed and licked my hand. His pale tongue rasped against my dried skin. I reached over and petted this friend of mine. A husky mix, I wasn’t sure what he’s mixed with, but he’s tall and rangy, shaggy caramel fur with a classic husky face. He’s not the wanderer though, more of a nervous Nellie, hence the name.

I stroked his head. “I don’t know where we are either my friend, but it’s not bad eh? Just the two of us? No more arguments with Mark, no cold school bus to wake up to, just us for a while.”

I finished the coffee and set the mug on the tailgate. I scooted out and stood in the cool evening air. I pulled the coat closer and called Nelson to me. Reluctantly my dog jumped down and stood next to me. He took a drink from the ever-present water bucket and then stared at me. I nodded. He ran to the lake and stopped, with paws only slightly wet, he drank his fill. The real deal, water from a lake, is much tastier than from a 5-gallon container a few days old.

I grabbed his bowl, filled it with kibble, and poured on some oil from the skillet. I hunkered down next to the fire pit and lay the paper, kindling and sticks in a pyramid. Lighting the flame, the fire crackled and took. The wind had luckily died down with the sun. I knew how to judge the fire risks these days. Nelson ate fast then wandered back to the water’s edge.

The campsite was barren, with not a soul in sight, and only a distant owl softly announcing the night to come for company. Clouds filtered out the last of the day’s winter sun and I shivered. Nelson stayed in sight, paddling carefully, and poking among the rocks. Like I said, he’s not the usual husky. Timid boy. Loving boy. He stays close to Mom. I sat on a boulder, enjoying the growing darkness.

I opened the cooler and pulled out a cold pilsner, one a day, that was my limit. It would be a challenge after those last few weeks with Mark, fighting, partying, and all with the background of Thanksgiving. Mom had even come and gone, oblivious of what was really happening in my happy home, well, maybe she knew. Mark announced one morning that he was leaving too. He left the next day.

Happy Holidays.

The fire flickered and embers cooked my potato. Nelson lay on the tailgate, happily watching me cooking, his own belly full, and bed warm and comfortable. That’s one thing I’ll admit to – I’ve learned how to camp in style, in comfort. Only what, six months ago was it that we moved into the bus? That I left the city life? Incredible really, I’d had no idea what I was getting myself into. How could I?

I sipped on a beer, poked the fire, pushing the potato off to the side, and using tongs, rolled it onto a plate. Nelson perked up. More food coming he knew, since I was not one to eat much these days. Nelson sighed in contentment and nudged my knees. I reached for his big head and scratched behind his ears.

“Yep, not bad eh? Not bad, this is living the dream, my friend, living the dream.”

The lake shimmered in the moonlight, clouds lingered, and the fire warmed us. Yes, not bad at all. I can do this. I can do this, with or without Mark. I hope.

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.

 

 

Resisting the Trump Regime (and don’t look the other way)

Crazy times, crazy times.

I live in  a small town of around five hundred people, one with a reputation as home for artists, free-thinkers, vets and the odds and ends who resist the mainstream media. The night of the election 2016 will stay with me. The local tavern was full of locals, a big screen had been erected on the stage, and early on in the evening, the conversation flowed. Families and friends sat at the tables sharing dinners and drinks once again. It’s a ritual, one I’ve experienced here in New Mexico for years now. This time though, the conversation began to die after the results came in strong and hard for Trump, a predator, a public figure spouting hatred, deportations, and so much more that scares me. It should scare you too.

The conversations died, faces became blank, and the bar filled with anger, tears, and disbelief. This is a progressive place, that’s what I’d thought. Yet, some folks at the bar admitted to voting for the sexual predator, the racist white rich man who refuses to pay his own taxes. Others, friends of mine, admitted to not-voting. “It makes no difference.” Are you serious? Do you not pay attention?

I’m all right, Jack. That is the mentality that stuns me into silence. I don’t know how to confront, to talk reasonably, or how to stir that attitude into action. I’m all right, Jack.
Even my close friends this Christmas talked of how we should keep focused on our little town, that’s all. Nothing else, it’s community that counts. Yes, it is. Community has saved me many a time, kept me strong when I lost all, supported my writing and encouraged my wanderings. I appreciate that, I do. But. But…

Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, all were powerful men, able to rouse strong emotions in their supporters, encouraging actions of hate, murder, and terror. What did everyone say though? What did the common man do? They looked the other way. I’m all right, Jack. I’ll focus on my town, my neighborhood, my street, or even just my own family. That’s what is  important, right? Take care of your own?

That’s what such regimes rely on. Our looking the other way. The focus on what I need, what my family needs. Me. Me. Me. We need to look beyond our own comfort zones. We have to stand up regardless of how comfortable we are in our towns, neighborhoods and families. I have to. It’s bigger than my own small life here in New Mexico.

We need to pay attention on the actual issues. Each time we or the media disparages the Predator-elect for his looks or his public personality, we’re giving him free advertising and more fame. It’s his actions and those of his supporters that need to be watched and questioned. The Democratic party could look for ways to work with the new president, make him follow up on some of his campaign promises, such as improving the nation’s infrastructure, and calling him on his own business practices of shipping work overseas and asking for waivers for immigrant workers when there is no need as we have the workers here. (And I say this as an immigrant myself.) Critical thinking is needed and we can’t trust mainstream media or social media, we have to research and question for ourselves. I’m trying. It’s in the details. We need to focus on details not his personality, right?

But my voice isn’t heard. It doesn’t make a difference. Wrong. It does, each voice has an energy, a worth, some of us spoke up on behalf of the group Rockettes who were being forced to perform at the inauguration, threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t. Public opinion held power, the Rockettes are no longer performing for that fateful day.  I signed a petition. Thousands signed that petition. Social Media brought too much attention to that simple issue of women being forced to dance for someone they didn’t support. And now they don’t have to. My voice was one of many. It was heard.

Planned Parenthood is one of many organizations under threat. Women’s health being of little importance to many people, this right wing “christian” threat to dismantle PP is being ignored by many friends of mine, even those with daughters. These fathers (usually) don’t see how Planned Parenthood’s future affects their own families. It’s in conversations like that which leave me speechless. I’m no great orator, my mind blanks, I’m so stunned at the short sightendness of these friends, that I have to leave in disgust, partly at myself for not talking it through, but at my neighbors for the I’m all right, Jack mentality. Planned Parenthood is the nation’s major provider of health for women, men, youth, and race, religion, immigration status, or income matters not. This is a huge much needed resource. We all need to stand up and protect their services whether we use them ourselves or not.

Such I’m all right, Jack thinking will allow such places as PP to lose funding or legitimacy if we don’t stand up, speak up, and support them. No, I haven’t used their services, do we even  have such a place in our town? No. Does that mean I shouldn’t pay attention? No. We have to look beyond our own needs, our neighborhoods, our towns. We have to look up, out, and take action. Focusing on my town allows dictators to gain even more power, it allows others to lose their health, their ability to live by their own religious beliefs and cultures. Do you get the difference? How else did Hitler’s Brown Shirts take the “Jews, the Gypsies, or the Homosexuals” away to the camps to be tested, stripped, starved and ultimately killed? People looked to themselves. They looked the other way.

I’m no historian, no politician, nor a great essayist. I’m one voice, it’s a voice of a woman, queer, immigrant, living below poverty level, who is trying to live a good life. Turning my focus onto this little town isn’t enough. At school in England in the Eighties, our history classes talked in detail of the Second World War, it was real to us. I read the books, learned the stories, and couldn’t believe that more people didn’t stand up in protest. Too many looked the other way and in my mind, that holds them culpable. They didn’t help but nor did they hinder the fascism, the destruction of communities based on religion, race, or sexual orientation. They looked to themselves. I’m all right, Jack.

For me then, what do I do? I don’t honestly know. The commitment to sign and share petitions that resonate with me is solid. Our city to the north has promised to remain a safe sanctuary for immigrants. There are groups focused on educating immigrants on their rights and legal ways to stay safe and in the community. The Muslim community is scared, and rightly so, as Trump’s website still has a statement of his about stopping all Muslims from entering, as well as forcing them to register. Kinda like the Jews in Germany, right? Or am I missing something here? But do resolutions from city councils make a difference? I don’t know. Without those statements though, who could feel safe? Don’t we all want our communities to stand up around us, keep us strong, keep us welcomed?

I’m all right, Jack is no longer an option. We have to stand up for those under threat by policies, rhetoric, and the new regime. We have to take our heads out of our small towns, out of homes and look for how this new political climate will affect others. Health, housing, work, immigration, environment, all of it is under threat. What I can do about any of this, I don’t know. I still don’t. I have no real answers and all that is online is just as vague. Somehow though, I will stand up. I won’t look the other way. I’m all right, Jack is not good enough for me.

Calendars: A photo essay

Walking around Madrid, NM on the weekend, I spotted a new gallery. Popping in, I had an epiphany. Photography! It’s a passion of mine, another that I’ve been dabbling and studying all my adult life, even getting on an 18 month professional training in London as a 23 year old. It was too easy; I took it for granted and since then photography took a back burner to my wanderings and writings. But why?

Carlan Tapp has published numerous articles, had various photo shows, and published books of his motorcycle travels with his Harley. The gallery was on Hwy 14 and was brightly lit by sunshine and good humor. We chatted for ages, all about our travels and the cameras we’ve loved. Right now he uses a Fuji dSLR and strongly recommended I look into them. I will. It’s time to upgrade. His photos are a true travel essay, a way to describe a vanishing Americana. Backbone of America is available online as a photographic journey, an interactive book with maps, routes, motels and all that he recommends from personal experience. He rode his Harley from Highway 50 from Missouri to California, all on small local roads, talking to the folks he met, staying in mom’n’pop places, and recording all with his camera: Black and white strong iconic images of America.

How could I not take myself as seriously? What have I done since leaving England in my twenties? What do I still do? Travel, write, and photograph. On motorcycles, on a route very much like Carlan’s, I took Hwy 56 from Santa Fe, NM to northern Michigan, on my own with an unreliable 1976 Yamaha XS750, stopping in some heavy monsoons at a truck stop and being adopted by a group of truckers. When it was time to leave, they drove their semis on all sides of me, keeping the other night drivers in that storm from running me off the interstate. When my exit came up, they all slowed down, flashed lights and wished me well on my solo travels.

But why haven’t I told you about this? Why no photo essay either?
img_20161102_074238596.jpg

This summer, three  months in a van with Harold, Rosie and the cat called Stephen, my focus was consistently on photographs, wishing the camera was a dSLR for more control. Coming back to NM, I’ve since written up the trip report and published a travelogue. The photos lingered on my computer, tempting me to do something with them.

Talking to Carlan was a revelation, his positive attitude, like-minded presence, stories and willingness to chat with me about our road trips and photos has inspired me to take the photo essay seriously again. A documentary about squatting in London was the entry in that full time course at Pimlico. So why not start again? Refresh my skills?

With that in mind, I just signed up for a photo class at the local college. I’ve set up an account with Lulu.com for publishing calendars.

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There are now two calendars available. The first is focused on Land Rovers, the old classic Series III. The second calendar offers up the night skies of New Mexico. Please check them out. This is a new beginning. A photo essay book is in the making.

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

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

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

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