Denver at Last

October 21-25, Denver

Whenever we talked about this trip, Denver loomed large as a way station. Neither one of us loves the city itself, but it exerts a powerful draw. First, there’s Michael, who’s been one of my best friends since I was in my early 20s, even though we lost touch with each other for a few years. And then there’s Bill’s friend Tom Furhman. Bill met Tom a few years ago when he took a trip to Denver on his own to spend some time alone at his brother’s cabin in Mancos to write songs and think about life.

Tom had a regular kirtan every Saturday night and so they performed together. Musically, they’re a good match. Bill has a very wide vocal range but mostly sings in the high tenor end of things while Tom has a lusty deep baritone voice that blends well and Bill loves singing with him. Tom admires Bill’s confident ability to improvise his way into anything; he’s a classically trained pianist who more than knows what to do with a harmonium. His kirtan has been meeting regularly for a decade and has slowly taken over his entire house, with the living room piled with rugs and cushions for a kirtan audience to sit on, and a minimum of traditional furniture.

I had never met Tom, though I’d heard a lot about him. When we rolled up and I saw this gentle, bearded man sitting with his girlfriend outside his front door, I warmed to him immediately. Tom welcomed us into his driveway (we’d been planning on a campground between Lakewood, where Michael lives, and Littleton, where Tom lives, but we gratefully scrapped that plan). And with almost no notice, he threw together a kirtan for our second night in town, complete with a really great drummer and a respectable-sized audience.

It was Bill’s first time leading, or co-leading a kirtan in a good long time, and my first time being his backup singer in more than a year. It was a huge amount of fun. One of the kirtan participants, more versed in things Hindu than any of us, pointed out that it was Diwali, the festival of lights, a time when old things are swept away and replaced by new. Seemed about right for us.

Michael came to the kirtan, although all the singing reminded him a bit too much of church, he said. He’d been trying to follow this blog and figure out when we would been passing through, and since we were so behind schedule, the poor man had been trying to leave space for us in his schedule for a whole month.

As soon as we were done performing, I rudely abandoned the kirtan crowd and invited Michael into the van where he could meet the cats–Laird parked on his lap–and we could talk. We got to continue the conversation two nights later after we decided to stay an extra day so Bill could have his right knee looked at. He had sprained it trying to slow down our over-enthusiastic moving men as they jammed our foam-and-latex mattress into the van (yes, we have our very own queen-size mattress in the van to sleep on). It’s been an issue throughout the trip and so Tom took Bill to a nearby emergency place while I tried to catch up on work. Gee, I sound like a really caring spouse, don’t I?

That night, Tom and Bill went off to yet another kirtan, while Michael and I went to dinner at a nearby brew pub that we found using “restaurants near me” on our smartphones.

I hadn’t spent any time with Michael for about four years. Bill and I had taken a trip out west in celebration of my 50th birthday, and I’d reconnected with Michael then after not seeing him in a long time. In the intervening years, he and his sons had been through some very hard times including the death of his wife. He’d pulled them through, but when I’d seen him last time, he was still grieving. Now he had a new relationship, and though there was much still to be worked out, it was great to see how much happier he seemed.

After a nice brunch with Tom and his lady friend Anya–we had some great meals while we were in Denver–we went on our way through the Denver traffic. Back to the road.

Image: Robert Kash via Creative Commons

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A Long, Flat Way

October 20, Lincoln, NE

I used to think of Iowa as flat. That was before I saw Nebraska. Our introduction to the state came when we crossed the border from Iowa on I-80 and the roads immediately became much worse. We didn’t think much about it–Iowa roads had been decidedly better than Illinois or Ohio to the East. The state, I had always thought, had its act together, for instance with higher literacy rates than those around it. Then again, maybe it was the cleverness of making sure Iowa always held the first caucuses of
election season that gave it national attention, brought in national money, and made things generally better.

Past Omaha, the roads got marginally better, although we became used to rolling through construction areas every five miles or so. And each lasted about four miles. At the end, there’d be a sign saying that whatever construction company was responsible for the mess “thanks” you. And then, a mile later, it would start all over again.

We spent a night at a campground in Lincoln and then had breakfast the next day with our friend Mark Miller, his daughter, and 15-month-old granddaughter. And it was out on the road again. Mark had directed us to a wildlife area on the Platte River where huge crowds of migrating cranes rested on their way through at the end of October. Alas, while we are traveling too late in most other respects–too late for the itinerary we originally planned, too late to visit national parks–we were too early for the cranes. We took a pretty walk by the lush river and got on or way.

Endless corn gave way to giant ranches and the occasional feedlot as we progressed west. And finally, as we crossed into Colorado, we began seeing windmills, mile after mile of them. Wind had buffeted us all the way across Nebraska, but, at least from the Interstate, the only windmills to be seen were the old-fashioned well pump kind made only for supplying cattle with water. Too red a state for that danged alternative energy? We couldn’t figure it out.

We drove on through. And finally made it to Denver.

The Hawkeye State


October 18, Iowa City, IA

When I was 18, I left my home in Manhattan to attend the University of Iowa. I went because it was a well-known school for writers, and also because of an off-hand comment by a professor at an Ivy-League school I was visiting that made me want to jump the tracks of what was expected.

My high school friends had trouble even remembering where I was going, let alone understanding why. “University of Iowa, Idaho City, Ohio,” said a t-shirt that I loved.

Once there, I found myself quite out of place. Long skirts as everyday wear were common in New York City in the late 70s, but wearing them was one of many things that made me stick out in Iowa City. I was a Jewish, slightly Asian-looking, black-haired New Yorker. There wasn’t much hope of my blending in.

But being there was good for me in innumerable ways. Too far to return home for weekends or quick visits, I was truly away from everyone and everything I’d ever known. I had to learn new ways of being, of presenting myself, and of looking at the world. I learned about journalism working on U of I’s newspaper, The Daily Iowan, which was the only morning paper in town. And I got my first taste of America, which is very, very different from the Upper West Side.

So when our route west took us right by Iowa City, I couldn’t resist stopping there. Bill and I had a long breakfast with an old boyfriend and his sister, and then I spent a brief while wondering around town. It wasn’t at all the town I remembered, having grown up into a nice, cosmopolitan little city. Even the Hamburg Inn, there for more than 40 years where Bill and I had a meal for nostalgia’s sake, is much spiffier and much less of a greasy spoon than I remembered. Iowa Book and Supply was much the same as I remembered and I got myself a Hawkeyes sweatshirt to replace my old Iowa one that fell to shreds years ago. And the Old Capital building looked every bit as much the gilded penis that I remembered.

But even things that were the same looked different because one element had chanced completely, and that was me. It was really brought home to me as we rolled through the cornfields that afternoon, the same endless cornfields that made me and my father turn back in frustration after an hour’s drive out of town hoping to see whatever sights there might be. Now I saw something I’d completely missed in three years as an Iowa resident: Iowa farmland is very beautiful. So are the barnboard farms that dot the countryside, though many have been abandoned as big corporations have taken over for farmers whose banks have forced them off their own land.

“Why did I never see this when I lived here?” I kept asking Bill. Part of it was a preference for nature left wild and not submitted to agriculture. And then I craved action and excitement more then than I do now. It comes down to this: You can retrace your steps but the world will not look the same through 54-year-old eyes as it does through 18-year-old ones.

I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Image: LearningLark via Creative Commons


October 14-17, Granger, IN

Bill is the driver (I’d be hesitant to try driving the van; I would never, ever try driving the van/trailer combo). Unlike me, he’s not directionally challenged. So it’s been his job to figure out our route throughout this trip. Before we left Cleveland he declared that our next stop would be somewhere around South Bend, Indiana–because nearby Elkhart was known far and wide as the RV Capital of the world.

My first reaction was annoyance–his obsession with RV life had gotten way out of hand! But then he explained: Surely around there we would find experts who could help with some of our problems.

What problems? First there were the skylights in the van that had been leaking badly ever since we’d paid the RV place in New York State $744 to fix a slight leak there. Then there was the non-working toilet dump hose in the van, supposedly checked out by that same despicable RV place before we left–clearly it had never been looked at and had come apart in Bill’s hands. Then there was another big problem which, believe it or not, I haven’t mentioned till now: the unnerving fishtailing of the trailer.

“I officially hate the trailer!” Bill declared once as we drove down the road. I tended not to answer these comments, but feeling the van swing back and forth within our lane–and watching the little bubble careen back and forth in the level on the dashboard–did not make me feel particularly relaxed or safe as we traveled down the road at a relatively sedate 55 to 60 mph, which was as much as we could handle.

The fishtailing was so bad–and Bill was so concerned about it–that I started seriously wondering if we should find a way to abort. In 19 years in which Bill has done 99.7 percent of the driving, I’ve seen him get disgusted. I’ve seen him get angry, and I’ve heard him complain of other drivers’ life-threatening behavior. But I had never seen him frightened before. If he was frightened, there must be really good reason to fear.

“It could be that I’m not accustomed to it,” he said. “Maybe I’m just being a Nervous Nelly.”

There are many areas of life in which Bill is indeed a Nervous Nelly. He tends to suspect that all large spiders might be venomous. Every time I get on an airplane without him he worries that it might go down, although he seems to have no such fear if we’re together. But driving? Never.

“You’re not a Nervous Nelly behind the wheel,” I told him. I thought we could get along without a functioning toilet in the van. We have one in the trailer anyhow. But I wasn’t happy with that fishtailing.

So we headed toward South Bend and wound up at a wonderful campground in Granger where we stayed three nights. The owner directed us to a dependable RV repair place where for less than $600 they put the toilet in the van back in order and largely mitigated our fishtailing problem by adding a load leveler to our hitch. (It wasn’t Bill’s imagination.) Oh, and they finally fixed the leaky skylights as well.

We’d spent our 14th anniversary driving from Cleveland to Granger, arriving too late to go out to dinner or otherwise celebrate. The second night, we did laundry and made a campfire, although the bundle of wood we bought turned out to be a little too damp to work efficiently.

Oh well. We had regrouped. Everything was looking better. Now we could really be on our way.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

October 14, Cleveland

Bill picked me up at the Cleveland Airport and took me straight back to David and Doris’s for a matzoh ball soup family dinner. Thirty-six hours later, after some badly needed sleep and some equally badly needed showers (thanks again, David and Doris!) we packed up to go.
We discovered a few things. First, if you use the toilet in the van just a little too much without dumping it out, it starts to smell. We also learned that the RV place in Coxsackie–supposedly the only one in our area you could trust–got even more wrong than we thought they did. Not only were the skylights they charged us $744 to repair leaking twice as badly as before, they had also assured Bill that the plumbing in the van was in good working order and ready to go. It was a pleasant surprise, since the person who sold us the van had told us it wasn’t working. But they said they’d checked it out thoroughly and would work fine.

I don’t like to accuse anyone of lying. And I suppose they have their own version of that conversation. Maybe Bill heard “It should work fine,” but what they actually said was, “We have no idea–we haven’t bothered to check it.” Because that’s what they meant. We know, because a hinge that held the dumping pipe from the van in place was completely rusted in place and obviously hadn’t budged in years.

If they had checked, it’s just possible they would have noticed that all was indeed not well with the van plumbing. In fact, the fabric part of the dump hose had disintegrated over the years and when Bill tried to pull it out for use, it disintegrated into a giant Slinky.
We managed to get the van toilet dumped out with the hose from the trailer and some gumption. We imprisoned Miri in the cat carrier since neither one of us could face dealing with cleaning up our bed again. And we headed out.

Somewhere in this process, I asked the question. I couldn’t help it. I’d been thinking it and not asking it almost from the moment we set out.

“Are you enjoying this?”

Not exactly, Bill admitted. “I’m not enjoying all the problems but I am enjoying that we’re figuring out how to solve them,” he said.

I can relate to that. Overcoming challenges is very satisfying and we’ve had a few of them on this trip so far. And I see why it’s working for Bill more than me: He’s been the one solving the problems. I’ve been more like an innocent bystander, at best, and a heckler at worst.
But when I said this, he protested. “I couldn’t do it–wouldn’t want to do it–without you,” he said. In fact, he admitted that late at night while I was away in San Francisco, he’d asked himself what he would do if I did not return. “I probably would have hunkered down. Maybe wound up in an apartment here. It’s not that I couldn’t have figured out how to pack up and go with the cats and everything, I just wouldn’t have wanted to.”

In fact, some friend or other had, half-jokingly, suggested just this: Already on the West Coast, I stay there and wait for him. But of course I would never do that.

“You don’t really think I would have done that, do you?”

“No,” he said. “But it was late at night. I started wondering, ‘What if her plane crashes?'”

“So if my plane had crashed, your biggest concern would have been how to get out of Cleveland??”

That at least got a laugh. I’ll admit I continued pretty moody, and difficult, and miserable for many more miles. After all, none of this was my idea. On the other hand, I agreed to it, and here we both were in the middle of it. So we continued west. Determined that things would get better.

I Lose My Cool and Get It Back

Getting paid well for my work is really nice. Having that money go missing when I’m counting on it, not so much.

Earlier this year, I was offered a job managing a new website for a large company. It was a big job–many hours a month–but with a nice monthly payment just at the time we needed it to finance our move and the improvements to our house needed to rent or sell it. All had been going well since then.

But then, as our move approached, I faced the same question for each of my clients: Given the time lag between when I send in an invoice and when I get paid, should I put my old address or my new one on the invoice? (Some readers may know that we don’t have a new place to live yet–the new address is a post office box in Lake Stevens where our good friends live.)

I’ve been working for the company that publishes the website for more than a decade. In all that time, no invoice has taken longer than four weeks to get paid. It was a big check and we needed the money soon, so on August 12, knowing we wouldn’t leave before September 15, it seemed like a no-brainer to have the payment sent to my Woodstock address.

It seemed like a slightly worse idea on September 14 when the check still hadn’t arrived and I dropped a short note to my contact to ask if the payment had hit a glitch. Payments from the company are “net 45,” she responded, and these days were taking even longer than that. Net 45? It had never taken me that long to get paid. But it was taking us longer than expected to get ourselves packed up, and I could wait another 13 days.

On September 26, with still no check and knowing we’d be leaving in a week or so, I emailed my contact again. Would it be possible to have the check sent to the new address instead? Maybe it had already been mailed, she responded, but if not she would. When we left eight days later and the check still hadn’t come, I figured it had gone on to Washington and didn’t worry about it. Since all other checks were either accounted for or invoiced with a Washington address, and since our departure was singularly disorganized, I hadn’t worried too much about changing our address in a huge hurry. On the other hand, my P.O. box rental had been due October 1. I was away that day so Bill picked up my mail and paid the rental–with a plan to close down the box and get most of the payment refunded before we left.

Wednesday, I flew to San Francisco for the ASJA board meeting and conference. On Friday morning, having taken an online look at how our bank account was dwindling, I wanted to make extra sure that the big check had gone to Washington. So I sent another quick email asking for confirmation. She wrote back immediately to tell me that–so it turned out–accounting was required to send a payment to the address on the original invoice, so that’s where it had gone. So sorry she hadn’t told me sooner.

That threw me into something of a panic. The big check–the one we were counting on to pay the multi-thousand moving bill for our container of things that we sent ahead, along with lots of other debts–had gone to a P.O. box that was cancelled? What would the post office do with that mail? Return to sender? Route it to limbo? Would we ever see that money?

It was early morning, California time–I’d awakened before dawn thanks to jet lag–and I had to stop what I was doing and hurry down to the hotel lobby or miss the shuttle to the ASJA conference that day. Frustrated, I stomped into the bathroom, slamming the door behind me hard enough to shake the walls. My makeup bag, which I’d set on the only available spot, the back of the toilet, slowly keeled over and tumbled into the toilet. Of course it was open and all my makeup (which admittedly is pretty minimal) dispersed into the water.This resulted in about as much cursing as you might imagine.

Later that morning, I texted Bill, still in a financial terror tizzy. He told me calmly that 1) He’d made sure to leave the P.O. box in place for the moment till we knew that forwarding was underway, and 2) that he would mail our mailbox key to our friend Gordon who’s both contractor and caretaker for our house and Gordon would retrieve the check and deposit it in the bank for us. Crisis solved. Lipstick soaked unnecessarily. I felt pretty relieved, and pretty stupid.

That afternoon, I felt like I needed a break. I also felt, in my post-presidential state, more entitled to play hooky from ASJA doings than ever before. The conference was fantastic–I never would have left if I was looking for writing work, but I’m turning work away these days. So I snuck out of the conference a bit early and bailed on dinner with other board members. I’d found out that Friday was women-only day at the baths in Japantown, and one of my fondest memories from an earlier San Francisco visit was an afternoon spent chatting, soaking in the hot bath, and making quick visits to the cold bath (one after the other is highly relaxing) and slower visits to the sauna.

So I walked up San Francisco’s hilly streets to the Japan Center, and the baths were even more wonderful than I remembered. I think they may have gotten an upgrade in the decades since my last visit. Finances be damned, I splurged on a massage after a bunch of soaking, then crawled into the sauna, then lay on one of the of the wooden benches until I realized that if I didn’t get up and go back to the hotel soon I wouldn’t have the energy to ever leave. Mmmm…

The following day I went back to the conference and then went to bed at 9 pm so I could rise at 3 and catch a 4 a.m. van to the airport for a 6:20 flight back to Cleveland and life in a van.

Image: Karl Baron/Creative Commons

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Things Get Better in Cleveland

Dinner at Davids

October 8, Southwest Flight 1698, aisle seat 

One of the complicators attached to this trip has always been the ASJA regional conference and board meeting taking place this week in San Francisco, where I simply have to be. No problem, or not much of one, had we left the first week of September as we planned. As our departure date slid precipitously, I began pressing Bill: Where should I book my flight from?

We discussed options. We could drive to San Francisco and he could wait for me with our cats in a campground somewhere near town. Or I should book a flight from SeaTac, and we would make sure to get there. As the delay lengthened and this seemed less possible, we formed a backup plan: We would drive as far as Denver, I’d fly to the conference from there and Bill would stay and visit our various friends there.

But as our departure delayed some more even this plan seemed impossible. What to do? Though he knew it didn’t make sense, Bill was getting resentful of the San Francisco trip and the way it was tangling up with our plans. And so I decided to let it go. I would wait till the last minute and book from wherever we were.

By the time we finally pulled onto I-90 on October 4 it was clear we wouldn’t make it to Denver in time. Buffalo seemed about right as a place to fly from, but Bill vetoed the idea of sitting and waiting for me there. (He says he feels about Buffalo much as W.C. Fields felt about Philadelphia.) So we pressed on to Cleveland, arriving after midnight at an RV camp inside an over-55 trailer community where we couldn’t get the electric hookup to work the first night.

But then things started to look better, thanks to the wonderful community of ASJA friends. David Budin came to our RV park, picked us up, ferried us to a car rental place where we got a cheap car for the week, and then back to his place for a delicious meal of pasta with tomatoes, peppers, artichoke hearts and olives that he whipped up from what he had on hand. (Who knew—he’s a professional chef besides being a professional writer and rock musician.) Mary Mihaly and Christopher Johnston, two other Cleveland ASJAns joined us. There was wine, laughter, much storytelling about rock stars past and present, wine, ice cream with raspberries, and guitar playing. Also, I got to do some badly needed laundry.

Ahh, a home-cooked meal–a phenomenally good one–after days of making do with convenience store sandwiches for dinner. Good company, good conversation, and a respite from the frustrations of on-the-road life.

And much though I hate leaving things to work themselves out, they did. First thing the next morning Bill dropped me at the airport and I boarded this flight to San Francisco. And here I sit, looking down on the territory we’ll later be driving across. And I’m impressed, and daunted, all over again.

(In the photo, that’s David standing, Mary and Christopher seated near the camera, and me with my glass in the air.)

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We Hit the Road and the Road Hits Back

October 5, Cooperstown, NY

To borrow a phrase from the musical Annie, “Yesterday was plain awful!”

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, our departure date, originally contemplated for September 1, has been delayed, and delayed, and delayed again. Until this week when we made a pact: We would leave Friday, no matter what.

Well we didn’t quite. As Friday evening wore on and it was clear we weren’t ready to leave, we decided to spend the night in our van, in our driveway. Not a bad plan for our three cats: Give them a chance to get used to the van for a night before being driven away in it. But it left us disappointed in ourselves and grumpy and in a rush to leave as soon as we could on Saturday, yesterday.

We did leave, but didn’t get that far. Yesterday was the first big rainfall our region’s had in weeks so that’s when we discovered that the skylights in the van–which were slightly leaky when we bought it and which we’d paid more than $700 to have sealed up super-tight–were now twice as leaky as before. Water dripped on us as we headed down the driveway. Then we heard a loud, not-good-sounding noise.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Trees,” Bill answered. He told me he thought the top of the trailer had hit a low branch as we headed out which seemed logical enough. “I hope it didn’t damage anything,” he added. Neither of us considered that there’d been no such issue with low branches when we brought the trailer in through the driveway couple of months earlier.

We were both hungry, so first stop was the diner/pizza place by the Thruway in Saugerties, which has the kind of spacious parking lot we now need. I hopped out of the van, headed toward the trailer and stopped, stunned. Then I did what I always do in an emergency. “Bill! Come here! Come here now!!” I shouted.

The first thing I’d noticed was that the trailer doorknob was  bent around 90 degrees, but then we realized that the awning on the side of the trailer had  been ripped off completely and the electrical outlet on the outside of the trailer had been torn off with its wires left hanging. One of the two poles that holds up the awning was also gone, presumably in our driveway somewhere along with the awning itself. The other pole was still hanging on, but none too tightly. As Bill shook it to see how well attached it was, several wasps came crawling out, so he banged the pole to chase them away…and it slipped out of his hands and bounced off my head. Fortunately, it hit me hard enough to smart, but not hard enough to leave a bump or cause any injury. Still, I was in such a high dudgeon that I stomped away to the other side of the parking lot for a while.

Next stop was the RV place, where the only response to our complaint about the skylights was to hand us a tube of caulk since they couldn’t do any further fixing while it was wet. We hinted around about a refund–no dice. On the other hand they got the trailer door open (no small feat with the doorknob bent over) and replaced the doorknob for free.

And so we headed off in the rain…to LL Bean which is our happy place. We’d been going there anyhow; Bill had some items he wanted to return and get a bathrobe instead. Still it was a true when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-go-shopping moment. My raincoat was soaked through so I got myself a new truly waterproof one also a down vest, a bit of an impulse splurge that I came to greatly appreciate in the frosty weather at the campground where we spent last night. Both should be pretty useful in the Pacific Northwest weather.

I won’t go into the mess we discovered when we let our cats out of the enclosure where we’d kept them all day, along with a small travel litterbox that turned out to be completely unequal to the job. By that time we were so exhausted and frazzled that more mishap didn’t seem to matter.

I don’t like to admit it but there have been a few moments in the past 48 hours when I’ve gone over in my mind the sequence of conversations and negotiations that led to me agreeing to this trip and wondered if I should have vetoed it instead. Insisted on driving a normal car from motel to motel like normal people. But I love the trailer and it’s so nice sleeping in our own mattress with our own covers and cats. And the weather’s dried out, at least for now.

We’re finally out and on our adventure. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.