This #5

From an ongoing series of sketches called THIS:

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#5

Coasts beckon. She follows, willingly, with books and notepad in hand. Jennifer goes from retreat to retreat, persuading the owners to offer her a place to finish this life-changing novel, the one we’ve all been waiting for. The second in her short career. That first one though. Who would’ve thought it? That Jen could be so talented? Articulate? Organized? That our sweet shy Jen could actually finish something?
This is more like it. This is the third retreat. She has four more lined up. All on coasts, the next one is in Hawaii. She’ll have to borrow the money to get the flight, but she’s not worried. That’s what Go Fund Me is for, right? To pay the way for the ones in need. And Jennifer tells herself that she needs this, as she pulls out the scissors and lops off another three inches from her long brown, long boring hair.
Turning forty isn’t agreeing with her. Her stomach suddenly bloated. Nothing to do with all the beer she’s tried at the various microbreweries. She notices a few stray hairs under her chin and grabs a razor, a dull one but who cares? No one looks at her anyway. Not now. Jennifer avoids the table with the laptop, notebook, smartphone and pens and picks up her camera instead and scrolls through the photos of the last retreat, of Michael. A big teddy bear of a man, soft spoken, a writer like herself, he’d paid attention, unfazed by her birthday blues. He might even have taken advantage of that strong IPA and the loosey-goosey chatterbox that she became for a night. He’d had green eyes, scruffy hair, and baggy jeans to hide his own beer belly. The selfies they’d taken in the morning though, just before his flight to Florida, they’d made Jennifer smile. For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, why she was here, and where she was going next. And the great novel? Nope, nowhere to be found in this congealing soup of sadness. She picked up the scissors again. Nostalgia gets her every time. Cut the damn hair.

 

 

The Importance of Book Reviews

After about ten reviews, Amazon starts including books in their suggestions “also bought” and “you might like” lists.

After more reviews, Amazon is more likely to spotlight the book. This creates a massive increase in visibility and sales. We all want that, right?

Reviews and sales go hand in hand.
The problem for my own books is that most are sold by word of mouth, at events and the such. Then emails and FB posts/ messages tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Then that’s it. Which is wonderful to hear. Please though, can you take a moment and go on Amazon and click on Van Life or any of my books and leave a review. It only takes a moment. I need your help to find the recognition that is beyond winning best fiction with NM/AZ Book Awards in 2012 and 2016, plus being a finalist in 2014 for another. Great Northwest Book Contest awarded Van Life Grand Winner for best nonfiction.
Until I have some reviews though, Amazon ignores these books, which will stay under the radar and only appear if readers are actively searching for my name. The awards don’t help except reassure me that I didn’t waste my time putting it out there.
Seriously, I’d like to find more readers. Whether you liked the book or not, a review will get it noticed. After ten reviews then the sales hikes, the promotion by Amazon, it grows tremendously. But only after review start coming in.
So, yes, please take a moment and leave a customer review. It will make a difference.

Thank you. Thank you.

Yes, thank you.

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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Living The Dream: 16

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

DECEMBER: ONWARDS

Money was flying out faster than I’d hoped or expected what with those nights in motels, a week in Albuquerque, eating out. I worked on my budget while sitting outside on the porch. Angie was at school, one last project that she’s working on in the library. Jonnie was expected to show up later today. Nelson relaxed, fully at home on his blanket, soaking up the sun. I made a decision, a small one, but it was time to move on.

 

“I’m heading south in the morning,” I told them over dinner.

We’d made pizza together, chatting and listening to a local radio station. Their home was toasty and welcoming. I didn’t really want to leave but my restlessness kicked in, and kicked me out. Nothing too comfortable for me, not yet. The ongoing distractions of exploring a new city on foot had revitalized me yet kept me from my purpose: Deciding what was next. What to do about Mark. And the others.

“You’re more than welcome to stay,” Angie offered. “It’s so easy to have you and Nelson around, no trouble at all. In fact, you could stay here for the holidays on your own if you like. I’m going back home for a couple of weeks and it’d be good to know the place wasn’t empty.” She drank some water and offered Nelson a taste of ham from her pizza. “Well, think about it, no pressure.”
“Where are you thinking of going to? Not north I hope. More snow is expected this week, and they say it’s going to be a warm and wet winter.”
“Whatever that means.” I jokingly finished for him. “I don’t know but I like the idea of going across to Arizona, see Jerome and Sedona and that area. It’s probably only a day or two’s drive for us, we stop every hour or so. Anyway, I’d like to keep exploring, camping, daydreaming…”
“ – and deciding?”
“Yes, there is that. I miss the bus as well.”
“But you’re not ready to go back yet?”
Jonnie passed me a glass of wine and we all followed him onto the porch, our nightly routine. “I can understand that. Have you heard from Mark?”
I sipped the malbec and leaned back in an armchair. “Yep, he’s in L.A. having a blast, he said. He even got to play bass for some band one night. They’d had a car accident on the way to the gig and, well, he was in the right place at the right time. It’s a dream come true for him, so I can’t blame him, not really.”

Jonnie brought out the rest of the pizza and picked at a slice as we chatted away companionably. Nelson yawned. Angie petted his head, playing with the long soft ears.

“Well, you have to stay in touch with us, okay? I’ll miss you both. You’re always welcome back. And if you move back to Oliver, we want to come visit, right?”

“Right, I’ll let you know where I end up, we end up, that is. To new beginnings.” I raised my glass to them both with a smile.

“To new friends.”

“To pizza!”

Glasses clinked and Nelson sat up, hoping for food, that’s my happy boy.

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER: SHOW ME THE WAY

 

 

“What the hell? You’re joking right?”

Five DEA agents surrounded Mark. They demanded that he hand over his plants. Mark stood there in his shorts and boots, bare-chested and indignant. A couple of black SUVs blocked our Subaru in the driveway. Helicopters, four of them hovered overhead, passing back and forth as they had all morning. I stood on the porch, holding onto Frida who wouldn’t stop barking and growling when anyone came close.

“Your ID please, sir.” An officer stood in all-black clothes and dark sunglasses and he had a gun. He held out his hand to for the license.

Mark laughed, “Where do you think that might be? I’m practically naked here.” he turned and started walking over to me, when the officer stopped him forcefully.
“No sir, you can wait with me and your wife can fetch both your IDs.” He nodded in my direction.

“Girlfriend,” muttered Mark. He put his hands in his pockets and pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “They’re tomatoes,” he muttered under his breath once again.

Two officers followed me to my car and I pulled out our wallets and handed over the documents. One stood next to me silently and the other read them before handing them to his partner. Mark asked why they’d come to harass us.

“We were told your wife –“

“Girlfriend.”

“- had been talking about her pot plants at the coffee shop.”
“Her potted plants.” Mark said, and he looked over at our home. The patio was covered in hanging plants of all kinds. Mint. Toms. Lettuce. Onions. Creeping vines. Geraniums. Wildflowers. You name it, I’d planted it.

The man with my ID passed it back and headed for his boss without a word to me. He had a potbelly big enough to hold a drink if he’d leaned back just another inch or two. I tried not to think about it. I coughed under my breath.
“It’s who we thought.”
Mark smoked in silence. Frida whined. I shook. I wish I had my boots on, I felt vulnerable in flip-flops.

“I’m Detective Anders. Would you take us to your pot plants please Mark.”

The man had cropped gray hair and a belt full of his important toys and symbols. And a gun. He lifted his sunglasses briefly to make meaningful eye contact with Mark, who set off in the direction of the bus. I joined him on the porch. I quickly grabbed my boots and sat down. Mark stood next to our pots.

The officer didn’t move. “Well?”

Mark pointed out two tomato plants at the front door. “That’s all we have.”
The officer didn’t smile one bit but reiterated his request. The take-me-to-your-leader kind of an order. “We spotted some twenty pot plants near by and your home is the closest. I suggest, sir, that you comply with my requests. Take me to your plants.”
Mark sighed in exasperation. “We don’t have any. I don’t even know what you’re talking about, as if we’d grow pot plants on our property. That makes no sense. Neither of us smokes anything but this stuff.” He pulled out the cigarettes from his back pocket and held them out.

Another SUV showed up and drove past the other vehicles across my front yard. He pulled up next to us.

“Is there a problem here, Anders?”
“No sir, we were just taking them to the site. Would you like to come with us?”
“Not at all, I’m staying in the air conditioning. Speed it up though. We have another sighting a mile away.” He closed the window and backed out. Tire tracks everywhere. I’d have to rake this later.

“Come along. You can let your dog loose, Ma’am. My officers aren’t afraid of a little runt like that.”

He strode off without a glance at Frida snapping around his boots. I grabbed my hat and caught up with Mark. We followed them down the arroyo on the right, through the hundred-foot bed of coal dust, and past the burnt-out pinion, the result of a lightening strike was my guess. The midday sun wore me out but I kept up with everyone, all ten or us. Although I hated to admit it, taking that hike was easier than digging in fence posts for the chicken run. I spotted some orange paintbrush-like wildflowers on the southern slope. The ridge took us up and over into a neighboring meadow of cacti and silvery stunted shrubs. We walked over the scrubby grasses, along the riverbed and past trees dead and dying. The entourage stopped next to a clump of junipers. Mark and I looked around us.

“Where are we?” he whispered.

“Please, sir, if you have something to say, say it to the group.”
Were we in high school again? Mark said nothing. I coughed. He snickered. Frida found something and ran off. I heard her digging furiously.

“Stop that dog. She’s tampering with evidence.” They ran after her and someone pulled her out from under a tree by her tail. The poor girl yelped and raced over to Mark, jumping into his arms. She buried her head in his armpit.

“What had you found, girl?” he talked softly to her. She looked up briefly, saw Anders walking over, and whimpered.

“This way please, Ma’am, Sir.”
We looked at each other and followed him into a clearing. A bunch of tall bulky and bright green pot plants lay on the dirt. Pulled out by the roots. Each one was at least four or five feet tall, I’d guess, thick and furry.

“Wow. Those are huge.”
The agents watched us closely. I stepped up to poke one with my foot. “Are there more?”
“Why?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.” I practically laughed in fascination. I bent down and picked at one. It stank. I picked off a piece and put it to my nose before someone yanked me back.

“That’s enough. Where are the rest?”
“Huh?” I stood up and brushed myself off. “You tell me. You brought us here. This isn’t even our land.”
“Nope, never been out here before, have we Jen? I like it. Is this on our property?” He asked Anders who had a bundle of Xeroxed maps in his hand. Mark went to look and unthinkingly took the top copy. It was of a map of our forty acres and both properties on either side. The road cut through ours in a pretty diagonal, across the two arroyos.

“Isn’t that us?” He held it out to me and I looked over his shoulder, or rather under his shoulder. My finger followed the road, the paths we usually took and found our campsite and the bus, somewhere in the middle. We’d placed it well, apparently. I nodded and handed it back to him. Mark passed it to Anders.

“That’s our place, right? Here’s the road, the bus, our gardens and the boundary where we walk the dog. See?” Mark in his innocence started to walk back the way we’d come.
Two of the officers blocked his path. They kept their hands on their hips.

“Unfortunately, sir, that might be true, but you two live right next to this large collection of illegal plants. We don’t believe you, to be blunt. Now, where are the rest? Someone who grows this many usually has at least another ten or more hidden nearby.”
“Couldn’t your helicopters see any?” I piped up.
Anders stared at me. “No, they didn’t.”
I shrugged and sat in the shade on a huge rock the size of a VW Beetle. Frida tried to join me but she kept slipping off the rocks. She sat at Mark’s feet instead. Anders watched us both carefully.

“Show us the path you use to bring the water out here,” he asked after a while.

“No, you show me.” Mark was getting braver and braver as time went on. I was quite proud of him. “Because there isn’t one and you know it. You know that this isn’t our doing. We’re too effing naïve, aren’t we? Oh, and to add to the equation, we haven’t lived here long enough. You might want to check your records before you try to pin anything on us. I only moved to Oliver, what, two months ago at most.”
Anders looked between Mark and I. He looked down at his paperwork.

“Is that right?”
We both bobbed our heads in agreement. He started to sweat.

“Damn. Who owns this bit? I’m going to get in such deep trouble for messing this up.”

His officers hung back, slowly melting into the trees around us. Frida headed for the freshly dog holes and stuck her face back in them, sighing loudly. I almost felt sorry for Anders. I came to look at the map he held. I recognized the driveway he pointed out as being the nearest. I said nothing.

He folded up his papers and looked around for his men. They’d gone back without him.

“How do we get back from here?”

He turned in a circle, desperately looking for someone to lead the way back. The clearing stood empty but for five dying plants and the rear end of a digging dog.

“We follow the little runt,” said my boyfriend with a sweet smile. “Frida, let’s go home.”

 

“Another pint, Jenny?”
“Hell yeah.”

We stood at the bar surrounded by locals, Dieselhead Danny being one of them. He’d been telling everyone about watching us with the cops and how suddenly they’d all just left, driven off, no charges, and no further searches. Or finds.

“They didn’t get the others,” he announced proudly. He kept buying us drinks. The tavern was pretty empty but it was a Wednesday afternoon. The tourists took over town on the weekends. After we’d found out that little detail, we had adjusted our drinking times suitably, still trying to fit in. Anyway, Danny kept slapping Mark on the back, thanking him for not mentioning the water hauling or anything like that.

“Oh, right, I’d forgotten about that. I just hated the way he called my dog a runt. He pissed me off.” Mark leaned against the stool I was sitting in and gave me a quick kiss on the ear. That third beer was doing wonders for his mood.

We’d got back to the bus with Anders in tow and had made ourselves a cold drink. All three of us sat on the deck and watched as Frida found a rawhide and fell asleep with it under her front paws. One SUV waited for him as he finished his lemonade and apologized in a roundabout way. Finally we were alone again. I got up and raked out the tire tracks. Mark took a sponge bath. Frida napped.

Half an hour later we drove to the tavern, under the watchful eyes of two helicopters. Mark gave them the finger. Frida panted. For once, I drove.

 

Danny wandered outside for a smoke and Mark joined him. I sat there alone for a while, I was glad the day was over. The bartender came over and handed me a pint of cold water.

“You’re looking a little rosy,” he said politely.

I snorted. “I know. It seems to be my New Mexico color, I’m okay, just a little flushed after this morning.”
He laughed out loud and grinned with me, and had no teeth missing. The job must pay better than most.

“Yeah, I heard. That was a close call, you realize that, don’t you?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here. I need to forget how close a call. Does that happen a lot around here? It was crazy. Do you think the cops even know whose stuff it was? Is?”
“Probably, but I’d forget all about that if you can. At least now, you’ve made a friend for life with Danny. He’ll look out for you for as long as you live near by. He’s as loyal as a puppy if he likes you.”
Once a year apparently the cops come around, hoping to find fields of green. Instead they bust two or three people for having a handful of pot plants. After seeing the five ‘copters and twenty or so ground personnel, SUVs, even a couple of all terrain vehicles, I have to wonder how much that all cost?

As usual, Mark interrupted my deep thoughts.

“There’s a BBQ out on Alaska road on the weekend, and we’ve been invited. Want to go?”
“Sure. Whose?”
Mark grinned. “I don’t remember but here’s the address for us. Dusk onwards, and he said bring beer, instruments, and dogs, not bad eh? Frida’s first party.”
More importantly – it was going to be our first party in Oliver. We’d finally arrived.

 

 

Before Coffee: the comic book

Well, you asked for it. Here we are. The first volume in the ongoing series of comics. Available in all the usual spaces…and for now, get it at https://www.createspace.com/7125650.

Before_Coffee_Cover_for_Kindle

Thanks everyone for the incredible support.

Time Out In Marfa, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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?
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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.

Amazon Giveaway: Free copy of Van Life for those lucky buggers

Click on the link for a chance to win a free copy. Only via the app though so pull out your android and click away.
https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/54f123647530401f

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Don’t forget the other books too.

 

Van Life: Exploring the Northwest with two dogs and a cat in a van.

Time for another book, methinks. It’s a work in progress but I really wanted to get it out there. I’m still writing and working on the travel report from this summer in the van but as I’m about to head out again for another three months, I needed to finish up this first. I reckon while I’m on the road I can go back to edit, tweak, add and subtract as needed. For now though, I’m pretty happy with the book.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1540359441

Enjoy and pass it on! Thanks.

I forgot to download the cover but here is the back and front, better than nothing.

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 Other books are just as good though: