Where the Roadside Takes Us

I don’t know that there’s really anything like Natural Bridge, Virginia. Just about 80 miles southwest of Charlottesville and a lovely little stop on your way to Roanoke or Lynchburg, it’s best described as the ultimate in roadside quirkiness. So, when we were stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, we obviously had to go out of our way to see what Natural Bridge had to offer. My only regret is that we spent just one night. I could easily have stayed another 3.

IMG_1249

You know things are starting out on the right foot when your dinner spot has a welcoming party waiting in the parking lot.

IMG_1268

Anything painted pink on the outside must offer nothing but God’s divine mercy and fried chicken on the inside.

IMG_1261

Don’t let the empty diner fool you. At the time, we were on a 5 month old’s schedule, which is roughly the same as a 95 year old’s schedule. We were there with the 4:30 PM dinner crowd.

Ah, but the piece de resistance was Foamhenge…which is exactly what you think it is – a life-size Stonehenge, made of foam. A faux-Henge, if you will. We took a questionable road about 1/4 mile onto someone’s private property. We hit a rock in one of the potholes, which flew through the grill of the Prius and put a hole in something that controls the air conditioner. It wasn’t a problem at the time, which happened to be during a record-setting cold front on Valentine’s Day weekend, but by July I was having some regrets. Nonetheless, we saw what we came for and I can honestly say, it looked a whole lot like that other one.

IMG_1342

IMG_1340

Not long after we visited, the owner decided to dismantle this monstrosity on his private property and move it to Centreville, Virginia. It is actually said to be more photogenic than its original location and the one across the pond because it is set against the backdrop of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains. Further proof that sometimes one visit is just not enough. Here’s the full story on Foamhenge and its creator, Mark Cline: https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/9209

The Art Museum that Walmart Built

When Yale made the announcement that the school was going to offer a free audit of its most popular class, The Science of Well-Being taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, I jumped on it. Not because I miss lectures or taking notes or I need some way to fill these days of Safer at Home, but because what I have learned in the past 2 years is that my happiness is inextricably linked to where the Army sends us. And I’m not the only one. That’s why Army posts like Fort Polk, Fort Bliss, Fort Hunter Liggitt, and Fort Drum are considered, for many, bottom-of-the-list options. A lot of people either thrive or die on the vine based on where they are planted. But after 2 years of living like that, I’ve decided that maybe there’s a better way. Perhaps we can be sent anywhere and I will be able to draw from some eternal, internal spring of happiness and gratitude. I’m pretty angry and annoyed about everything right now, so a spring of happiness is probably just what the doctor ordered.

The first week of class, we were instructed to complete 1 of 2 happiness surveys. I took them both, just in case I did one wrong. That’s probably some indicator of my happiness, or at least my OCD, right there. And then we were assigned a 120-question character assessment. As it turns out, my strongest characteristic is curiosity and I feel that  being surrounded by beauty is vital to life – whether it’s a field of flowers or something hand-painted. So, with that in mind, I’m taking you to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Now, I know when you hear Bentonville, you think one thing: WALMART. And some of you will get a shiver because…I mean…WALMART. But the Walton Family Foundation’s dream of creating an art museum for all (free admission makes it truly for all) on their family land was realized in the best possible way. Although they obviously had to clear some of the woods that Alice Walton recalls exploring with her brothers as a child, they did try to nestle the museum in a natural setting. They’ve intentionally designed a space that unites human creativity with divine creation.

I was going to give you a little background on each piece, but I’ve decided to just post the pictures and you can see it through your own lens, without any navigation from me.

Man on a Bench by Duane Hanson

IMG_8764

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

IMG_8768

Blackwell’s Island by Edward Hopper

IMG_8788

Summertime by Mary Cassatt

IMG_8790

The Reader by Mary Cassatt

IMG_8794

Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife by John Singer Sargent

IMG_8791

The Bubble by Harriet Frishmuth

IMG_8803

Depression Bread Line by George Segal

IMG_8805

Big Red Lens by Fred Eversley

Art tucked into the Ozarks

You can see more of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art here.

Calgon…Take me Away from COVID

I have been at a complete loss as to what to write here in this space. As they say, that escalated quickly…and I found myself woefully unprepared – mentally, emotionally, and with regards to how many paper products we had on hand. At first, it was something of a joke. Every time we visited a landmark, it closed due to health concerns the next day. We chuckled over the path of destruction we left strewn all over Southern California. Of course, it had nothing to do with us, we were just lucky in our timing (and somewhat cavalier in our attitude toward the dangers of continuing to tour areas where others gathered). On second thought, maybe we did contribute to the problem. Maybe we were why we can’t have nice things.

But now I haven’t been in a store since March 12th. For almost 4 straight weeks, I have been nowhere except in my house, in my neighborhood, and in my car driving around for a few hours on the weekends. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know this is killing me. I mean…not COVID-19 killing me, but it’s really, really, really hard. I’ve cried an ocean over our canceled cruise to Alaska, as well as the fact that we are supposed to be hiking Kanarraville Falls (look it up so you can share in my pain) and Bryce Canyon this week. Instead, I’m baking cookies, sewing masks, taking a million walks through our neighborhood, and watching a little too much Odd Squad.

I, along with so many millions of other people, am trying to flatten the curve without tanking my attitude. The mental health professionals are going to have quite the job security when this is all said and done. While the rest of my family thrives on routine, I am easily bored when one day bleeds into the next without some new adventure to set it apart. And I’ve done all the quarantine things. We went on a bear hunt, chalk painted the driveway, refinished a piece of furniture, baked cookies, purged the closets, spent a Sunday in the hammock, rearranged the furniture, played drinking games with the neighbors on Zoom, learned how to sew and then made a mask, drove through a deserted downtown L.A., and walked around our neighborhood, as well as the surrounding ones.

I’ve done a lot that was being neglected in favor of the next big adventure, including simply spending Sunday afternoons in the backyard. So, this time has not been wasted. But the uncertainty of it all is beginning to wear on my patience, as it is for many more, I’m sure.

So, I’m just going to use this time and this space to share photos of places that make me happy – from our adventures all over the world. Tiny corners of the universe that I love and maybe you’ll love, too. And, someday, this too shall pass.

IMG_0185IMG_0210IMG_0245IMG_0263

The Flower Fields of Carlsbad are the result of almost 100 years of floral cultivation. Beginning with the seeds of the Ranunculus (which I have started calling the “redonculus”) flower, which was originally a single petal with shades of red and yellow, Luther Gage, and later the Frazee Family, harvested unusual seeds from the previous season and then replanted them the following year – thus eventually creating a multi-petaled, stunning flower. We walked through this rainbow about 4 days before the fields officially closed to visitors. And I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see what man and God can accomplish together.

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls

My first task, after we are told where we are moving next, is to look up the city and surrounding areas on Trip Advisor. I know that this particular review platform is not as relevant as it once was and maybe I would be better served by reinstalling my Yelp app, but it’s habit now and old habits die especially hard around me. So, when I typed in “Things to Do”, number one was the Korean Bell. It sounded…disappointing. I kind of wanted a world-renown art museum or maybe an epic science center. But what I got was…a bell.

It turned out to be so much more.

20180606_143329The Korean Bell was a gift from the people of the Republic of Korea to the Americans on July 4, 1976. It was and continues to be a symbol of friendship and trust between the two nations. It also happens to be a fantastic place to fly a kite. Or have a picnic. Or do a little yoga. There is always a breeze and the view of the Pacific from the bell is really unparalleled.

20191108_222209

The Korean Bell also tends to pop up in the most unexpected places…like a Hyundai commercial…and the basketball court adjacent can be found in Viagra commercials. Once you take a solid look around the hidden hamlets of Los Angeles county, they immediately become more conspicuous on the television, too. In fact, that is probably one of most enjoyable aspects of living here. TV and movies no longer seem like products of some far-away landscape…I know that craggy coastline, I’ve hiked her beaches at low tide. I recognize that stretch of highway, I traveled it to Blue’s parcor class every week. It’s not just a peek at the wizard behind his red, brocaded curtain. It’s sitting down and having a kombucha and a korean bbq taco with him. For 24 months.

And look for the bell in that Wednesday night replay of The Usual Suspects on TNT. You might just be surprised.

The Places Where We Gather

Ever since I finished my undergraduate degree, after a college transfer and about 8 years of stops and starts, I really hate leaving something unfinished. Even if it takes a minute, I want to finish what I started. So, yes it is practically the end of January, but I’m finishing this month of SoCal gratitude starting now…

20180528_100811The USS Iowa is a gem in our little town. During World War II, it carried President Roosevelt across the Atlantic to a meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. She has served in numerous campaigns and wars and has now come to permanent rest in Berth 87 at the Port of L.A. We had been here all of 3 weeks when we decided to attend the Memorial Day ceremony held next to the ship every year. A somber moment, observed by local residents next to a piece of history that has seen its fair share of fallen servicemembers. Since then, we’ve toured the USS Iowa and next month we will participate in a Cub Scout camp-out on the ship, where we will eat in the mess hall and sleep in the quarters below deck. For us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For people around here, it’s an everyday sight…but still a constant reminder that freedom is not free.

Keeping Dry

18 November

I am grateful to be an athletic supporter. 

IMG_0697 (2)

I have never had any desire to learn how to surf. Besides the fact that the Pacific Ocean is considerably colder than the Atlantic, even during our summer (which occurs in October instead of August), there are sharks in that water. And surfers have to be very careful about draping themselves over a board waiting for a wave, lest they resemble something like dinner to a shark on the hunt. Also, I don’t swim very well. I can mostly save from myself from drowning (which was put to the test one summer before college graduation), but I tend to not seek out wild water situations.

Because of this, I have never tried to teach Blue how to surf. Or swim. I leave that to the experts. I think he would probably master it more quickly than I expect, but the idea of sitting in sand while he practices just sounds itchy. Twenty years of vacationing in South Carolina and it took 18 months of living in Southern California to realize that I really hate sand when it is part of life indefinitely. 

But it’s great fun to watch the surfers do their thing. And they are a determined sort. Like golfers. They will float on that board for hours, just waiting on their perfect wave. And, if you enjoy photographing them like I do, it often feels like you are out there bobbing with them. Because once they spring into action, so must you.

Neal and I have been watching Lost L.A. on the SoCal PBS channel on our Roku. That show alone has done wonders for giving me a sense of what we’ve missed by arriving 50 years too late and what is still here, waiting to be discovered by someone willing to open a door, scratch beneath the surface, journey to the middle of the desert. On one episode, the host explains the relationship Los Angelinos have with the environment. And you can’t talk about nature in L.A. without discussing the Santa Ana winds. Apparently, these hot gusts from the Santa Ana Canyon create epic surfing conditions, causing the waves to rise up and stay up, instead of being crushed by breezes coming inland off the ocean. I fear I may have missed my chance to photograph surfers on the ride of their lives since Santa Ana winds have most likely subsided until next year. But if one kicks up, this time I’ll be ready!

Not in Kansas Anymore

17 November

I am grateful for diversity. 

20190219_092535

OK this picture is meant to be rather tongue-in-cheek because Ensenada is located in Baja California. If California is still in the name, did you really even leave? But I use this photo because it’s the only one I have to represent the idea that I’m beginning to embrace other cultures besides the ones I’m most comfortable with (which basically only includes the culture of white girls from southeastern U.S.).

When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona for about 10 minutes in 2001, I worked for a gentleman who, among other business ventures, owned a Mexican restaurant. I was his bookkeeper and the slew of illegal immigrants that staffed the kitchen used to call me La Princessa. I’m convinced it was a term of endearment. I also worked as a cocktail waitress at a bar/nightclub nicknamed The Zoo. We had “Latino Night” every week and, when the patrons asked for “la cerveza”, I, knowing zero Spanish despite living in Arizona, gave everyone a Corona. Because I used to drink Corona like water as a freshman in college and I knew that right there on the bottle it says, “la cerveza”. I was a disastrous cocktail waitress (and my tips reflected that), but it was especially awful on Latino Night. I had much better luck with the NAU frat boys on Dime Beer Wednesdays. But that’s a story for never.

The point is, until living in Southern California, I had largely viewed other cultures, and specifically the Hispanic culture, as one to coexist with, but not necessarily to mingle with. I could tolerate it, but I did not necessarily celebrate it. I’m going to get skewered for saying this, but this blog is known for its authenticity so here goes…until 18 months ago, I thought all Mexican food tasted the same, Dia de Los Muertos was creepy, Mexican blankets were silly souvenirs from your Spring Break at South Padre, Mariachi bands were annoying, and not understanding the language was a valid reason for pretending like the Hispanic culture (and its people) were just a phase in U.S. history. Like horchata or kimchi. (However, never once have I chanted “build the wall” and I believe that DACA babies have just as much a right to be here as I do.)

NOW…before y’all start commenting really awful things about what a narrow-minded ho-bag I am, hear me out.

I have lived in Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. And Flagstaff, AZ for about 3 months until 9/11 sent me running home to all that was familiar and safe. I have not lived anywhere that has challenged me to accept another culture not only because it co-existed with mine, but because it was the majority and I was not. Stay-at-home white moms are all the rage in pretty much everywhere we’ve been stationed since 2010. I knew how to fall in step with downtown Richmond, Virginia and the Power and Light District in Kansas City. I discovered my place among the Amish and I ordered sweet tea and fried chicken with the best of ’em in Georgia. But here, I avoided the taco trucks because…well…all Mexican food tastes the same, right? And I was annoyed that there are 2 country music stations on the radio, 1 pop rock, 1 hard rock, and the rest are Spanish-speaking channels. Also, I didn’t speak the language. I once said to Mom after we had been here for about 6 months, “This is the closest you can get to living in another country without actually leaving the U.S.” And, I wasn’t wrong, but I was voicing it as a complaint. I should have been praising that observation.

Something happened to me in Ensenada. I allowed myself to become immersed in their culture for a few hours. Yes, I took shots of homemade tequila in the back of one guy’s store until I spent entirely too much dinero on Talavera serving bowls, but there was something else. The Hispanic culture isn’t garish, it is colorful. The people aren’t loud, they are expressive and warm. And, for the love of all that is good and holy about guacamole, not all Mexican food tastes the same. Tumbleweed and Chi Chis should be sued for what they did to this white girl’s palette. Dia de Los Muertos is a beautiful tradition that embraces death and invites us to draw nearer to those who have gone before us. Mexican blankets are the perfect protection between your bum and the desert floor, especially if you are waiting for the sun to set.

20190419_194257

I still don’t love Mariachi bands, but I think that has something to do with my disdain for brass instruments. I barely tolerate the trombone, but I have never been a fan of the trumpet.

The truth is, the Spaniards came up from Mexico and moved into California, establishing the mission system all the way up the coast. The only people who pre-date them are the tribes like the Tvonga people in the Los Angeles area. So, yes, I do actually think that blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls are the minority in these parts, but that’s OK. It has opened my mind and broadened my experience. And I’ve even learned some Spanish along the way. It did not occur to me until recently how deeply I’m going to miss the rich tapestry of heritage that makes up Southern California. A person can live here a lifetime and not fully comprehend the hundreds of cultures that endure, side-by-side, and primarily peacefully. But just by being exposed to them, it has made me a better person.

When the Real Ones Flood…

16 November

I am grateful for canals to kayak in. 

20191116_224228

Oh Europe and your intoxicating charm. Where would much of the U.S. be if Americans had always stayed on this side of the pond and not been tempted to catch a ship bound for foreign ports? The Vanderbilts would have had burlap curtains. We would not be drinking tea. And there would be no Italian canals in Southern California. But as it is, there are 2: Venice Canals at Venice Beach and Naples Canals in Long Beach. Abbott Kinney was first to recreate his vision of Italy on the shores just south of Santa Monica. How was he to know that Venice Beach would become synonymous with freak shows, bodybuilders, and, now, the homeless and the drug addicts? It started out so well…

Many things are more charming after dark. Venice Canals is one of them. Venice Beach is not. Venice Beach after dark is a good place to score some dope, get knifed, or step on a needle.

Long Beach is not much better. People check their life insurance policies before they cross the street. And best of luck finding a place to park anything bigger than a Vespa. But the Naples Canals, which are flanked by beautiful beach cottages, are fun to kayak. And I can’t believe I’ve gotten Blue, Neal, Big Mama and Nana Anna on the water. Rowing with a view. You can’t beat it. I’m not sure they are worthy of the gondoliers that some folks hire to paddle them around in a circle, but for $24 in a rented kayak, it’s certainly a different side of Long Beach.

For a Good Time, Swing On By

15 November
I am grateful for a different perspective. 

20191110_113811 (1)

This is the Salton Sea. We drove around it on our way home from Joshua Tree last week. And by “on our way home”, I mean when we came out on the other side, we were right back where we started that morning. But we were so much wiser because…we had seen things.

The Salton Sea is the result of a poorly constructed farming irrigation canal busting when the Colorado River flooded in the early 1900’s. It started as just a giant sink hole, but when it filled with rain water, folks thought, “Well, this isn’t so bad. Let’s build some bungalows around it and open it up for water sports so people like Sonny Bono can pop over from Palm Springs on the weekends and water ski.” Oh, Sonny. If only he had stuck to water skiing….

And it went on like that for awhile. Until the early 90’s when it started to evaporate at an alarming rate. And since it’s a terminal lake with no outflow and the only inflow coming in from the nearby farms (with all their skull-and-crossbones fertilizers and pesticides), the fish started dying. The mud became toxic and the only sea creature able to survive it was the hardy tilapia (consider that the next time you order fish tacos). While Neal was trying to convince me that you can, in fact, swim in the Salton Sea, I was busy convincing Blue that it was a toxic wasteland of sludge that would make his penis turn purple and fall off. And with good reason. I only use soap and detergents that rate as “1” on the Environmental Working Group’s app. Why on earth would I then let my only child go swim in a glorified puddle of Round Up?

The concern is that climate change is going to cause the “sea” to continue shrinking, which will expose the mud, which will dry to dust and then whip across the state every time a Santa Ana wind makes up its mind to blow. According to an Atlantic Monthly article I read recently, the residents of Imperial County, where the Salton Sea is located, already has the highest percentage of respiratory illnesses and hospital stays. It doesn’t help that it’s also one of the poorest counties in the state.

But in the midst of…this…

20191110_104546

artists are still arriving in droves to create dynamic installations that shift with the weather and the seasons. As one local codger (on a 4-wheeler with the Confederate flag waving from a pole on the bumper) casually mentioned to Mom when she asked about the “art”, “If they can’t eat it or screw it, they set it on fire.”

So a lonely swing set sunk into toxic mud, surrounded by water that has killed everything but Walmart fish, does make a statement…

20191110_113915

 

It’s a Date

14 November

I am grateful for a date. And the shake it makes. 

20191108_133213

My experience with dates goes something like this: Oh look! They have these little date snacks rolled in crushed almonds! That looks like a healthy alternative to Snickers. I should buy these. *she buys these, she eats 3 on the way home, 2 more for dessert, and then sticks it in the pantry*

A couple weeks pass and the healthy date snacks get pushed back…behind the pretzels and the animal cookies and the hot chocolate mix.

Another couple weeks pass and now they are behind the risotto and the canned diced tomatoes and the bulk purchase of Lipton tea bags.

Another couple weeks pass and they have fallen through the back wall of the pantry into a land like Narnia but with more goats and less curious children. They are never seen again.

Until we move and they are recovered, a science project for a fair that has already passed.

Another couple weeks pass and I’m in Sprouts. I pick up a package of dates, rolled in almonds. I rub my Snickers-swollen belly. I should buy these. And I eat 3 on the way home…

Cultivation of the date plant did not arrive in the Coachella Valley along with post-modern houses and the Stagecoach music festival. The Spanish tried growing them at the missions along the coast in the mid-1800’s, but the conditions just weren’t quite right. Seeds of date palms ended up in the Coachella Valley in the early 1900’s and, as they say, it was love at first sight. Date farms exploded in and around Palm Springs, which is no small thing considering how much work goes into farming a date. As the film, “Romance and the Sex Life of the Date” explains at the Shields Date Farm, farmers must intercede between the male and female, helping the process along with a sprinkle and a dusting. These dates need help to have sex. Unlike most of the guys I knew in college.

Once propagated, the baby dates need constant care and attention. The roots must be flooded, but the dates can’t get wet. And they mature at different rates (also like most of the guys I knew in college) so the same bunch must be handpicked almost daily. But the result, at least at Shields, is a variety of dates, from Blonde and Burnette (which can only be purchased at their farm) to the more popular and well-known Medjool and Deglet dates. After learning about the sex life of the date, you can walk through the garden, which features a sort of life-size Stations of the Cross. Then follow that up with the cafe’s signature date burger, topped with sauteed Deglet Noor dates, bacon, and melted bleu cheese. (I will never eat another burger prepared any other way.) And then finish the whole thing off with a date shake, mixed with date crystals, dates, and vanilla ice cream.

So, we bought some dates. Then, two days later, we mixed half the container with 2 cups of ice cream and some milk and had another delicious date shake, minus the drive through the desert. Going forward, you can keep your root beer float, your In-N-Out chocolate shake, your Frosty, your Chick Fil A frosted lemonade, even your Starbucks peppermint mocha latte. Hand me a date shake and I’ll be a happy girl.

For the best date shake recipe, here’s the link: https://smittenkitchen.com/2016/04/palm-springs-date-shake-monkey-flip/ Thanks, Smitten Kitchen. You’re a top-rate date.