Social distancing, the Borneo Way

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‘Forget masks and Purell; just crack open a Durian’

A couple of weeks and a lifetime ago, we were birding our way along a highway (and I do mean “high”) up in the mountains of Borneo when a ramshackle car sputtered to a halt on a steep stretch of roadway right alongside us.

Another roadside attraction. Nope, The Dude isn’t looking at that gorgeous mountain. There’s a bird over yonder somewhere

Our guide sauntered over to see what was what and reported back that the driver was on his way to the City (in this case, Kota Kinabalu) with a load of fruit to sell. He and his load couldn’t make it up the incline, so he pulled over for a smoke.

That’s Mt. Kinabalu, at sunset of the day we survived the durian episode

Now, we’re in Borneo, remember, so by “load of fruit” I don’t mean a whole batch of apples or pears. Not even pineapples or bananas. Nope, these “fruits” were completely unrecognizable. Our guide Hamit (a name I committed to memory by using the mnemonic “hah! meat!”, because what passed for meat in Borneo was pretty darned amusing) — well, Hamit thought it was pretty darned amusing to offer us tastes of some of these fruits and then watch our faces.

That’s Hamit on the right. I not only forgot the guy on the left’s name, but also his mnemonic. He was our driver, and he didn’t make us eat any fruit

Most of these strange fruits were pretty tasty, if weird-looking (at least to the innocent gringo eye). Like the litchi, which rather resembles a cross between a plum and a sea urchin — and tastes rather like neither.

But then Hamit moved to the rear of the vehicle and had Fruit Man open the trunk.

There’s a reason this fruit is in the trunk. And isn’t because there’s a lot of it

We should have realized there was something fishy going on with that trunk. For one thing, it smelled fishy. Well, maybe not “fishy”, exactly. More like a septic tank full of fish. Fish that had been laced liberally with garlic. And then left out in the sun for a really really long time.

“What the heck is that?” our little Birder Band collectively gasped. “It’s durian, a Malay delicacy,” Hamit smirked. “Wanna try some?”

Well, before I tell you what happened, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the durian:

Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away 

Yup. That’s about right. But, believe it or not, there were those of us — myself included — who decided to give the durian a go. “Hey, we’re over here for an adventure,” we agreed. “We may never get to Borneo — or get a chance to taste a durian — again!

One of our Band tries a taste while taking a selfie. He claimed to like it. (Note cigarette-smoking Fruit Guy. He claimed to “eat a durian every day”; he also had very few teeth)

Yes, as I mentioned, I too tried a taste. I did not document my durian sampling, since my iPhone-filming hand was busy holding my nose. Suffice it to say that I was not a fan. Even while blocking my nasal passages to avoid the smell I thought it tasted (at best) like creme brulee with a burnt garlic glaze.

Not everyone, of course, agrees. Or no one would be buying Fruit Man’s durian stash. Wikipedia also says:

The nineteenth-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described its flesh as “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”

Apparently, there are many Durian Fans in Southeast Asia who agree with Mr. Wallace. There are Durian Festivals and Durian Fairs and the fruit is used to flavor ice cream and candies and puddings — there is so much Durian Appreciation that social controls have had to be enacted:

The persistence of its odour, which may linger for several days, has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia

Nope, that’s not a sign warning against durian consumption. Tho it very well could be

So. Maybe if there is a mask shortage and a dearth of Purell, we should just import a bunch of durian and have every man, woman, and school-avoiding child here in the States — particularly in crowded urban areas — crack one open. Trust me, we couldn’t get six feet apart fast enough.

Amagansett, New York. March 2020

What could possibly be worse than a rainforest full of leeches?

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‘Well, how about a cave full of bats?’

If you are the least bit squeamish, you may wish to skip this week’s much-belated post. Belated, because I’ve been bird-hunting in Borneo.

Through a glass, but not darkly, I spot my target: perhaps a hairy drongo?

Borneo boasts lots of lovely avian species, but has less than adequate WiFi. Not that I’m complaining; it’s actually refreshing to be less-than-connected, especially when the news Back Home is of political plotting and pandemic panic.

Speaking of panic, here is the interior of the plane we took from Kota Kinabalu to Taipei, where I started writing this piece

I’m in an airport lounge (thank you, AmEx) writing away while awaiting our plane to JFK — which will be 14 1/2 hours in duration, two hours less than our flight to get here.

As I mentioned, the Bornean birds are beauteous. But one must deal with — gasp — leeches. And, although we took the Proper Precautions (see my piece “Leech Sock it to Me!” for ghastly detail), the little buggers weren’t daunted. Leech socks, as I squeamishly explained, are supposed to keep leeches from inch-worming their way up your pant legs.

The Hokey-Pokey, leech-sock style

But, even though we leech-socked ourselves to the hilt, er hip, all but two of us got up close and personal with at least one leech. One of our party got three — yes, three — leech bites. It seems those enterprising leeches, attracted by our body heat — which was considerable — were leaping from the bushes and even dropping from the trees.

Me, sporting the Red Badge of Leech Courage. The critter had inched its way thru a vent in the back of my shirt, sucked its fill, then dropped off. So I didn’t even get the satisfaction of stomping it

Oh — there was a silver leech lining, so to speak. Each of us who were bitten got a certificate from Resort Management thanking us for “donating blood” to the local ecosystem. (Interesting note: Prince William and Kate spent their honeymoon at this resort. I bet Kate looked smashing in her leech socks.)

My legs were protected, but my shoulder most definitely was not, leading me to suggest an invention: the leech suit. It would resemble a hazmat suit; full coverage, with two little eyeholes for one’s binoculars. (Don’t steal this idea; I’ll sue.)

But I must say that leeches, though they do (quite literally) suck, came in second in nastiness to the bat cave.

Now, I admit that I’ve never been one for caves at any time or in any place — did you read Tom Sawyer? Does the name Injun Joe mean anything to you?

Well. On this trip we visited a cave festooned with swiftlet nests. These are the nests used in birds’-nest soup. I will spare you the gory details about the nests’ actual harvesting, except to say that sleeping inside a pitch-black cave is involved, since the very expensive nests must be guarded 24/7 against thievery. (I just checked, and you can buy a box of birds’-nests for $690.)

Birds’ nests for sale at Kota Kinabalu airport. Nope, I didn’t buy any

This cave is not only pitch-black inside, but is filled with gazillions of bats, which are constantly producing gazillions of pounds of bat guano. (Which is bats–t, you know.) Seriously, the cave floor is covered with mountains of the stuff. There is a walkway running around the sides so you don’t have to step in it, but the walkway as well as the guano is alive with crabs and cockroaches and rats and snakes. One dare not slip, since one would be required to grab said handrail. (The Wit of our group suggested making Guano Angels with our arms and legs if we were so unlucky as to fall in.)

I actually have a photo of the cockroach-covered handrail, but will not inflict it upon you — here’s a much-less-disgusting proboscis monkey instead

To top things off, one must wear a mask (to avoid inhaling bat fungus) and carry an umbrella (to avoid being drenched in bat pee). One of our group worked in a biology lab; right behind me on the walkway she quietly muttered, “This is my worst effing nightmare.” Only she didn’t say “effing.” I hear you Karen.

Yes, we actually paid good money to go inside this cave. Which must mean we’re even battier than the bats. And how was it? As I remarked upon exiting, “That was most definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Kind of made me nostalgic for the leeches.

Seems like everything in Borneo is out to get you. If not leeches, then it’s Falling Fruit

Taipei, Taiwan and Amagansett, New York. March 2020

 

 

Yep, there is a place called Yap

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‘But can you find it on a map?’

Please forgive the Green Eggs and Ham cadence; I couldn’t help myself. Everyone’s been so crabby lately. We’ve got the Secretary of State yelling at NPR reporters while waving maps — “Go on, Missy! Find Ukraine! I double-dog dare ya!” (She does, then tells on him. What did he think she’d do — she’s a reporter.)

Then we’ve got Our President congratulating the Kansas City Chiefs — from the Great State of Kansas — on their Super Bowl win. This time Claire McCaskill got a little testy:

I’ll let that one slide since she was pretty hilarious, and also because she used to be a senator from, ahem, Missouri. Which is where the Chiefs are actually from. (I used to be from Missouri, too, having spent my formative post-grad new-to-advertising years there. But those are whole ‘nother stories. Which you can find under the “Adland Lore” tab in the sidebar if you are bored and it’s raining like it is here.)

Me, doing something Important as Creative Director of a fair-to-middlin’ size ad agency in Kansas City, Missouri

“But what about Yap?” you may be thinking. Is that Yap up on that map? Well, yes it am, Sam I Am. And why do we care about Yap? Well, I was chatting away on the phone with my mother and we got to talking about the Henry Family. There are waaaaay more of them (my father having been one of eight children) than we’ve got on the Peterson Side.

A mere fraction of — tho quite a few — Henry-Side-People were on hand for my afore-mentioned mother’s 90th birthday celebration last fall

Anyway. We were talking about how we get such a kick out of those Henrys but we’ve lost track of a lot of them, and not just because there are so many. They also have a tendency to move Far Away. We’ve got members of the Henry Family Tree not only in places like Detroit, we’ve got a branch in Spain and even a twig in Montenegro. (Which is next to Albania; I just looked.)

And then Mom mentioned the Cousin in Yap.

It’s a good thing I had just finished my coffee, because I would have spit some all over the rented oatmeal-colored staged-for-selling-the-apartment couch. “Yap?!? There is a place called Yap?” “Yes, there is indeed a place called Yap,” my mother assured me.

Another map. Of Yap. Note there is a town called Maap. I’m dying here

And not only is there a place called Yap, my dear mother continued, “but I’ve been there.”

“You’ve been to Yap?” I was beyond astonished. You think you know a person, right? Well, I’ve known this woman for, well, all my life and I had no idea she’d been to Yap. Will wonders never cease. Or maybe it’s “still waters run deep.” Whatever. I was gobsmacked.

A Threesome of Henrys. So glad they don’t live in (on?) Yap, since they wouldn’t have made it to the party. Or maybe they would have?

I was laughing so hard I didn’t get the details about what on earth my mother was doing on the other side of the earth in Yap, of all places. (I think it had something to do with a plane layover during their trip to Australia and New Zealand years ago.) And I most definitely did not get the full story about the Cousin Who Lives There. (I think she’s the daughter of a cousin; a first cousin once removed — removed all the way to Yap.)

I promise to ask Mom next time we’re on the phone. If I can stop laughing long enough.

New York City (definitely not Yap). February 2020

 

Leech Sock it to me!

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‘If you thought the Amazon had some scary parts, just wait till you hear about Borneo’

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m dating myself when I use terms like “sock it to me” in my stories. But hey, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age with a Certain Television History, which includes not only Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (of “sock it to me” fame) but Hullabaloo and That Was The Week That Was.

But this isn’t a piece about TV. (Though in a sec or two you’ll probably wish it was). I referenced those shows to explain my title and to admit to the fact that I have, as they say, been around the block a time or two.

One of the last times I went around the block — to Starbucks — they got my name amusingly wrong

I’ve also been to Guyana, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, to the Amazon (twice) and to Panama (five times, but who’s counting — besides me?)

But never — ever — while reading the materials one is sent in preparation for said trips have I stumbled upon a passage like this one:

“Beware of loose netting in sleeves, backs, pockets, or pant legs that could allow leeches to crawl in. You may want to bring a pair of leech socks or buy some in Borneo.”

Leech socks”?!? “My stars and garters!” she exclaimed, continuing her Geezer-phrase sock-theme, “what’s this about leeches?!?” (BTW, the socks in the photo at the top of this post are most definitely not leech socks. They are parakeet socks.)

Another photo of the parakeet socks. Cause I’m sure as heck not going to show you any leeches — or leech socks, for that matter

See, my experience with leeches has never been an up-close-and-personal one. I’m more of an “I remember them from that scene in The African Queen” kind of person.

Our floating home on the Amazon, seen here with seaplane at the ready, was up quite a notch or three from The African Queen

And what I remember about leeches from that movie isn’t good. But our trusty trip materials went on to say that leeches “most commonly crawl through loosely-woven material, like socks” and that “leech socks are worn over one’s regular socks and tied at the calf or knee”, that they “keep leeches from penetrating, thus causing them to crawl up instead onto your pants, where you can see them.”

Another picture not of leeches or their socks. Here is a checkered foot instead. With a nifty checkered-floor background

Oh. Okay. Then what?

“You can usually feel them inching along; they can be rolled into a ball and flicked off before they can really attach.”

Um. May I ask who will be doing this “rolling” and “flicking” — of leeches?

Oh, wait. There is an alternative: “Touching their bodies with a bar of repellent will cause them to loosen and drop off.” (I’m so buying a “bar of repellent” — at any price.)

Let me take a small Leech Break to show you what, up until now, has been the scariest thing I’ve encountered on one of these trips. I didn’t have to roll anything “into a ball and flick it”, but I did kind of roll myself into a ball while clutching my armrests for dear life:

The Leech Section of our trip materials concluded by stating that “all in all, their repulsive reputation has been exaggerated.” (Not by me!) And by saying that “if you do get bitten, however, their anticoagulant can cause persistent bleeding. You may want to carry a styptic pencil to curtail the bleeding; a small supply of Band-Aids can protect your clothing.”

Oh. Right, I feel so much better now. I wonder if it’s too late to get back on that seaplane.

New York City. (Not Borneo. Not yet, anyway.) January 2020

 

 

 

Birders gotta bird

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‘Even if it’s from a rooftop, waiting out a plane delay’

Today I almost wrote about the trials and tribulations of dealing with a major renovation on a somewhat minor apartment. But just thinking about it was making me exhausted, not to mention bored.

What I wake up at 3 in the morning and think about

So instead I’ll write another story about our last birding adventure — the one where most of the spine-tingling moments happened wondering when and if we’d ever A) get to the birding location, and then B) get home once the trip was over. (See “Paradise Lost” for excruciating detail.)

What I wake up at 4 in the morning and think about

See, we’ve been on a bunch of these birding trips, but this was the first time we had any problem with the to-ing and the fro-ing. Still, the inbetween-ing was pretty sweet.

What I wake up at 5 in the morning and actually do — at least on these trips

When we had trouble getting to where we wanted to go (this was at the beginning of the trip), our intrepid guide sort of whipped up a bird-bedecked alternative. This was where we got to cross the Amazon — a river that is so wide it makes the Mighty Mississippi look more like Mighty Mouse — in a boat that I wouldn’t trust to go water-skiing on good ole Carlyle Lake. (Note: there is no bridge across the Mighty Amazon; a boat is one’s only choice.)

Mighty Amazon, at the point where the “black water” meets the “white water”. And I almost meet my Maker (or so I worried)

We crossed so that we could spend a day on the Tupana River, an unscheduled stop, but well worth our while — and worth our chances of getting dumped in the Amazonian Drink.

The Yellow Circle marks our unscheduled spot: the Rio Tupana

Of course, after we had our fun we had to retrace our steps, including getting on another boat that was, in my opinion, too small for comfort. But nobody asked my opinion, so I just clung to my life jacket and thought about Other Things. Like new kitchen cabinets.

Incidentally, we got grounded another day. So what did we do? Check out the photo at the top of this post and you’ll see. Yup, birders gotta bird. Even if it’s from the roof of the airport hotel, standing on fake wicker pool chairs. (Out of view: a bunch of befuddled spandex-sporting German tourists.)

Eventually, Intrepid Guide Man gave up on Bad Local Airline and chartered us a plane so we could get to where we were supposed to go. (And see more than airport-hotel-area birds.)

We finally make it to Sao Gabriel and the Rio Negro

We hung around Sao Gabriel just one day instead of the planned three. But, secretly, I was pleased. Because instead of staying at a decidedly-local-color-infused “hotel” in the center of bustling Sao Gabriel, we got to decamp to our floating hotel, the Untamed Amazon. Which was so luxurious — and such a welcome contrast to the Hotel Deus Me Deu, bless its little heart:

Of course, not every second spent on the Rio Marie was so relaxing. There were the two days we (or at least The Dude and I) got up at 3 so we could track down the Nocturnal Whatnot. Which we did find, but could not photograph. Because it was night. Or at least 3:30 in the morning, which is the same diff. And there was the time we chopped our way upriver (or our faithful local guides did), African Queen style:

Well, it’s getting late, and I need to get back to obsessing about bath vanities. Tonight I’m hoping I’ll wake up thinking about the time we stopped smack-dab in the middle of the godawfully-wide Amazon River to take pictures of the Meeting of the Waters.

It’ll make a welcome change from grout.

New York City. January 2020

Paradise Lost

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’It’s true: you can’t go home again’

The Amazon Basin is truly a magical place. Though I wish its magic extended to beaming us home with a wave of a palm-frond wand. The name of the tour we are on (or just ended, depending on how you want to look at it) is “Paradise Revisited”. Our guide told us it had something to do with how they used to visit this part of the Amazon in the Good Old Days, then stopped when air service got spotty. Or maybe it was because once you see the Amazon, you just have to go back. Or something else travel-romantic like that.

The Rio Marie. Sigh. Tempting to go back, for sure

But I’m betting on the spotty air service theory, since that’s what we encountered at the beginning of our Adventure. We went to the airport three times (two of which were failures) in order to fly from Manaus to this remote spot on the Rio Negro called Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira. We were there so much that we teased our guide by suggesting the tour be renamed “Airport Revisited”. Turned out that the airline (MAP) that was to fly us there got bought by some bigger outfit and all its planes in this neck of Brazil (not just ours) got rerouted to more profitable airspaces.

But Mr. Enterprising Guide pulled a charter flight rabbit out of his hat and got us there (finally).

Our accommodations in Downtown Sao Gabriel. Once we got there, that is. Sorry for cutting off your head, Dude. But it wasn’t me who took this picture

This is where the Good Part comes in. After one night (was supposed to have been three) in Sao Gabriel, we were whisked by small boat to a much larger boat that was vastly different from our Amazonian Vessel of Two Years Ago, the Tambira.

Our “Minnow”, the Tambira

If the Tambira was the African Queen, the Untamed Amazon was the Queen Mary. Not only did it have air conditioning and (gasp) hot water, but it had an amazing chef, a masseuse (we never once used her services, poor thing), and a wonderfully well-stocked wine-and-liquor cabinet. (We were served Veuve Cliquot on Christmas Eve.)

Our floating hotel, the Untamed Amazon, beckoning us with food and drink after a hard days’ birding

Toasting our Christmassy good fortune on board the Untamed Amazon

We spent five marvelous days onboard this floating hotel, taking birding excursions in smaller boats two or three times daily. (Wayne and I were part of the smaller, more intrepid band that left two mornings in a row at 3:30 to stalk the Nocturnal Curassow. Yes, we found it, though I don’t have a picture; it wasn’t light out enough for photos when we found it.)

But then, alas, it came time to depart. Which we did in marvelously exciting style — by seaplane. The Dude had been in a seaplane before; in fact, he had even flown one. But, for me, it was a new experience, and it certainly did not fail to deliver excitement.

Happy Me, excited (and very sweaty) in the Actual Untamed Amazon

I’m writing this post from the very same airport hotel where we spent three nights at the beginning of our Adventure waiting for a plane. And guess what we’re doing? Yup. Waiting for a plane. Turns out our flight from Manaus was cancelled last night. We’re leaving tonight instead — or at least I hope so.

Sunrise on one of the Nocturnal Curassow Search mornings

There are six of us, and we all have connections tomorrow in Miami. Maybe we can have a slumber party somewhere in whatever airport hotel American Airlines sticks us tonight. Because, hey, we’re all in the same boat. Er, plane.

All of us. In the same boat — in more ways than one

Manaus, Brazil. December 2019

 

The Gate Nazi at JFK

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’Forced Bag Check. Even worse, forced Caroling’

I didn’t take a picture of the Gate Nazi (I was way too intimidated to try), though in retrospect I probably should have. Instead I am showing you a picture of where we went so you can see that the bullying we experienced at the very start of our Amazonian Adventure was worth it.

The scene at the top of this post is of a river trip taken on the afternoon of the first day we arrived in Brazil — yes, less than 24 hours after stepping on a plane in New York, we were seated on a small boat on a small tributary of a medium tributary of a larger tributary of the mighty Amazon River. The miracles of air travel are definitely worth every agonizing moment along the way. Even the agonizing moment I’m about to tell you.

Another small-boat moment. Crossing the Amazon, where the White Water meets the Black. Called, natch, “The Meeting of the Waters”

We were nice and early at our gate, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to start. We had planned to carry our duffels and backpacks on board, in fear of losing our gear. (Clothes don’t matter on these trips; it’s all about the gear. I found this out the hard way on our first trip, to Kenya. I came down to dinner in a cute little sundress, much to the amusement of our birding cohort.)

The Dude and our current birding cohort confer with our guide

So there we were, chilling in our birder outfits, complete with hiking boots, when the gate agent starts in over the loudspeaker: “This is a very old-fashioned plane,” she announced, “the kind your Grandma used to take. And there are very old-fashioned storage bins. They are not made for new-fangled modern bags. If you have one of those big modern bags, you’ll have to check it here at the gate. It is complementary. Just bring it up and we will check it through to your final destination.”

Well, we ignore her, since our canvas LL Bean duffels are not what one would call “new-fangled” or even “modern”.

Then she announced, “This plane is going to be very very full. (She wasn’t kidding; it was.) In addition to new-fangled modern bags, we are going to have to check every bag if you are in Group 9.” We consulted our boarding passes; not Group 9. We go back to reading emails.

Then she started roaming around the gate, pointing at bags, seemingly randomly, and insisting they be checked. Again, we ignore her.

Me, after two hours’ sleep, out on the Tupano River, dressed similarly to the way I was the night before at Gate D12

She gets to us, and something about the cut of our respective jibs or the fact that we were dressed in hiking gear instead of sparkly tops and sweatpants must have irked her because she stops and says, “Those bags will have to be checked.” I explained that they did indeed fit in the overhead bins, that we had stowed them many times thusly. But she was having none of it. ”You must check them.”

What could I do? She, as Gate Agent, had complete and total power over who got on that plane, and how. (I say “I” because Dude Man was over in the snack bar seeking pre-flight sustenance.) My reasonable pushback on checking our duffels was having no effect, so I tried asking if we could check them to Miami, where we had a layover. (At least that might minimize the risk of holiday-season baggage misplacement.) Nothing doing. “You must check them through to your final destination.” Big sigh. But rules are rules, I guess. And Gate Nazi was unmovable.

(Later, after we were seated on the plane, we saw many other much bigger bags go trundling by our seats. Oh well, not everyone is charmed by my winningly persuasive personality. Or so it seems.)

Dude Man doing his Dude Thing less than 24 hours later

Miss Grab-The-Mike-And-Make-Loud-Announcements, heady with power, then proclaimed that no one would be able to board the plane unless he or she “gave her a big smile”. She meant it, too. I saw her accost the Boarding-Pass-Scanning Lady and tell her that a hapless wheelchair passenger couldn’t board unless she smiled. With teeth.

Our guide (and a local dog) demonstrate a wild-animal trap. Part of me wants to set it up outside Gate D12

But wait — there’s more. Then, she grabbed the mike and insisted that we all sing Jingle Bells. We thought surely she must be kidding, but no. Nurse-Ratchet-Disguised-As-A-Gate-Agent started singing, and when we didn’t immediately chime in, exhorted, “I can’t hear you!”

So, jingling all the way, we dashed not through the snow but through the throngs onto the plane and into the night.

“Oh what fun it is to ride”, it seems, does not apply to American Airlines.

The Dude in his element. More adventures coming soon, internet willing

Manaus, Brazil. December 2019

A Sterling character

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‘A Ray of Sunshine brightens the road home’

I really should be sorting scarves and/or dredging out drawers, but this morning I woke up (heck, make that “sat up”, since I wasn’t actually asleep) with a horrendous head cold and I need a bit of a break from the utter sturm und drang of this whole business of getting-ready-to-sell-an-apartment-in-New-York.

See, it’s no longer a simple deal of making your bed and putting away the cat toys. No, these days you must stage your apartment — make it easy for your potential buyer to imagine that he or she lives there instead of you. Everything personal must go: the collection of shells and beach glass arrayed on the mantel, the foreign stamps stuffed in a hand-thrown pot with a red heart on the front, the carefully-curated display of evening bags on the hat rack in the bedroom. Even the framed photos of The Child and her cousins taken at various stages of precocity, from being dressed as pumpkins to being garbed in grad gowns — it all must be erased.

I can’t show you any of those things — they have been erased — but I can show you this collection of Henrys

I cleverly “gifted” a batch of framed photos featuring The Child’s cousins to the Cousins in Question present at my Mom’s Big Birthday Do. Which got me some puzzled looks as well as nice thank-yous. (I doubt that Young People are as “into” framed photos as People My Age, which is no doubt why I was urged to make them go away.)

A trio of Henrys shares a laugh, maybe over how hilarious it is that their cousin has to downsize

But, as they say, all good things must come to an end — from our run in the Apartment of 26 Years to my Mom’s Big Birthday Do.

A batch of Henrys bids good-bye to the Phil branch that had to snap off early

For more about what happened at the party before it (*sniff*) came to its cake-crumbs-on-the-floor and wine-dreggs-in-the-glassware end, check out last week’s story, “So far, so good”.

And as for the end itself? My branch of the Henry Family Tree, all three twigs of it, was one of the first to leave on Sunday morning. Very early Sunday morning. Too early, in fact. Which should come to no surprise to those who know me. I’m one of those get-to-the-airport-early people. Once I allowed four hours to get to JFK for a 10AM flight to Bonaire. When we got to our gate at 7, I thought my family was going to suffocate me with a plastic bag.

The driveway that led to the road that led to the highway that led to O’Hare

Well, this trip I was worried about returning the rental car and about catching the shuttle to get to our respective terminals. (I’d been told to allow two hours for this.) Well, turns out the only two hours involved here was the two hours too early that we got there.

But hey. I promised a Ray of Sunshine, did I not? When we scampered to the Place Where You Catch the Shuttles, there was a shuttle, ready and waiting. But it served Terminal 1, where the Kids were going, and not Terminal 3, where I was headed. The Child and her BF and I were engaged in a heartfelt goodbye hug on the sidewalk when we hear a booming voice over the shuttle loudspeaker:

“This shuttle goes to Terminal 1…and to wherever it is that Mom is going!”

The driver, bless his Mom-loving heart, did indeed take all the now-very-smiley passengers to Terminal 1, where they all nodded and wished me well as they disembarked with their wheelies and whatnots. Then Sterling — for that was his name — took me, all by my lonesome, off to Terminal 3.

“Here you go, Mom,” he said, “Have a nice flight!”

And so I did.

Lake Michigan, looking just about as sparkly as Sterling’s soul

New York City. October 2019

 

 

 

French Lick, the WaWa Goose, and the Oregon Trail

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‘Summer vacations, Midcentury Midwestern Style’

The Child is on Day 18 of her solo hike of the John Muir Trail. The JM is a 200-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico. Her Childness started in Yosemite National Park a couple of weeks ago and will finish in three or four more days at Mt. Whitney.

Here she was on Day 13. Well, here is where the satellite said she was, anyway

We’re not too panicky, since we can track her via GPS. And sometimes, when she has cell service, she calls or texts. She even Facetimed us from the top of Half Dome.

The Child Instagrams from Half Dome, where there were still a few people. Unless those are bears in disguise

Now, I’m glad (sort of) that she’s doing this. But I must say that this kind of trip is certainly not my cup of tea. The blisters and bears and dehydrated food and being alone for hours at a time wouldn’t bother me so much. (In fact, I rather like being alone.)

Nope. It’s the sleeping outside part that’s the deal-breaker for me. Let me explain.

The Child’s home away from home. A veritable trailside Hilton

See, when I was a kid, when we took a family vacation, we drove. We didn’t know anybody who took planes. For one thing, back in those days taking a plane with a family with at least three kids (and ultimately five) was way too pricey. At least for families like mine.

Trains were on the expensive side too, though I remember taking one once from Memphis to Chicago. That was the trip where Middle Brother Roger (who was the youngest at the time) sat on a fancy lady’s lap and asked her why she had a string of dead squirrels around her neck. (It was, in fact, a mink stole, and she didn’t even get mad, he was so adorable.)

Surly Teen Me, with Laura and Roger, on a rare trip that (I think) did not involve sleeping outside. We went, for some reason, to French Lick, Indiana, and stayed in an old resort at the hot springs. (Oldest Younger Brother Scott snapped the photo)

And when we were on these driving vacations, we didn’t stay in motels. (See same reason given for not flying, above.) Nope, we slept outside. Well, not outside-outside, exactly. We stayed in a popup camper. (See our Nimrod in the photo at the top of this post.) In those days these things were too hot or too cold, mosquitoes (and little kids) whined around inside, and when it rained the canvas leaked.

Once in a while on a road trip, we wouldn’t even bother with the Nimrod. Dad would just pull over by the side of the road and we kids would grab some Zs on a mattress that was back in the cargo area of the Ford station wagon. (But, hey, at least it wasn’t outside.)

Getting ready to hit the road back home to Memphis after visiting the Peterson relatives in Northern Illinois. At least our luggage is on top, and the mattress is in the back

We drove and camped our way to Colorado, a trip I associate with the aroma of Alberto VO5. (It was super-hot in the car, no automotive AC available in those days, and the goop had liquefied. Younger Only Sister Laura, who was a mere tot at the time, had been playing with the jar and spilled its contents.)

Regardless of the smell, I also remember walking in the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail and being amazed by the vastness of the Badlands. Great Mom Quote: “Just think, the early settlers rode in their covered wagons straight into the sun for months at a time — and they didn’t even have sunglasses.

A couple of good kids (Scott and me) out in the Badlands

We drove and camped our way to Canada, too, a trip I associate with instant mashed potatoes “cooked” on a Coleman Stove and with “toasting” rinsed diapers on a stick held over a campfire. Heady times. I also recall a side trip to see the WaWa Goose. And I will never forget driving over the Mackinac Bridge, which is the longest bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the source of many a nightmare of mine to this very day. 

Dinner in the “dining room” — a tent that attached to the front of the Nimrod

Basically, though, these family trips were a lot of fun and made memories to last a lifetime. But I did promise myself that when I grew up I would never ever sleep outside again. And I haven’t.

Not even on the Upper Reaches of the Amazon River did I sleep outside. We had no hot water, but we did have real beds in that boat there in the background

Amagansett, New York. August 2019

The time my (Austin) America let me down

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‘In the middle of my twenties in the middle of Missouri in the middle of the night

Oh, and if that weren’t enough “middles”, it was also in the middle of a rainstorm.

But before I start my exciting tale of alone-by-the-roadside automotive woe, let me tell you exactly what it was that sparked this sodden, scary memory.

See, The Child is in her fourth day of a three-week hike along the John Muir Trail in California. It’s 200+ miles through High Sierra wilderness — and she is doing it alone.

The Child, on top of Half Dome, at the end of her first day on the John Muir Trail. Fingers crossed that a bear did not take this photo

A view of The Child and her 47-pound pack, pre-hike

The Dude and The Child’s friends, not being mothers, are all “wow!” and “isn’t this exciting!” and “good for you!“, while I am all “but there are bears” and “must you do this alone?” Trying to reassure me, The Child said, “But I’ll be running into other people on the trail all the time“, and I said, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

The Dude and I out on a trail in the wilderness. But with other people. And rum

Like I say, I could relate to being in my twenties and taking a trip by myself. Though mine wasn’t on the John Muir Trail, but on I-70, which is the interstate highway that I would drive from Kansas City, Missouri, where I was living at the time, to Carlyle, the small town in Illinois where I grew up.

Me with my Dad at about the time of this story. We look pretty hot and sweaty, so this must have been a summer visit

I lived in Kansas City for close on to seven years, and made that drive so many times it became easy-peasy routine. Except for this one time.

On this particular trip, I was driving my Austin-America. No, no, not the Aston Martin, which is that James Bond car. And not even the Austin-Healey, which Wikipedia says Helen Mirren drives. No, the Austin-America was a British car that was supposed to be a competitor to the VW Beetle, but wasn’t nearly as sleek, as sexy, or as reliable. Tiny, boxy, and (in my case) brown, it was probably the clunkiest car ever to park in a driveway. (Ever wonder why it is that you park in a driveway, but drive on a parkway?)

How I happened to have this car is a pretty interesting story in itself. I bought it for $800 cash from a woman who was saving up so she could flee from her abusive husband. And how did I know this woman? I worked with the husband.

I showed up, as instructed, when the hub wasn’t home. She took me in the kitchen, where I handed over 800 one-hundred dollar bills. After counting them carefully, she folded those bills and hid them inside a Ritz Cracker box, which she then put back in its spot on the shelf.

You wouldn’t be lonely for long if you broke down in the middle of this highway. Though probably no one would stop to actually help you

Me, I walked out with the keys to the Austin-America. Which I drove without major incident (except this one time I’m going to tell you about) until it finally conked out a few years later. When it did, it had absolutely no trade-in value, though I briefly considered turning it into a planter or maybe a bus shelter. It did get great gas mileage — so great I probably only had to fill it once. Which was fortunate because, among other things, the driver’s side window wouldn’t roll down. Which meant I had to speak to the gas station attendant through the little flip-out wing window.

Anyway. Back to the “major incident”.

I was driving back to KC after visiting my parents. I’d lingered a bit too long in Carlyle, probably enjoying another slice of my mother’s excellent banana bread, and got a late start. So late that, when it started pouring — and in the Midwest, if it starts pouring, we mean pouring; like some Rain God is emptying a giant pitcher over your car and everything around it — it was, like, three in the morning.

I’m soldiering along though, not tired one bit, squinting through the sheets of water slashing my windshield, trying to keep my spirits up by listening to Top-40 Radio KXOK, when the car starts slowing…and slowing some more. Before it can coast to a stop, I wisely steer it to the shoulder. Where I sit. What on earth is wrong? I wondered. The lights are on, the gas tank is half full.

No one has invented portable phones, much less cellphones, so there is no way to call for help. So I turn off the engine and lock the doors — and sit there.

Me, a few years and a completely different hairstyle later, still living in Kansas City, but now with a Mercedes. And yes, there’s a story there too

This being the middle of the night, there are very few cars on the road, even though it’s an interstate. Where are all those Highway Patrol Guys when you need them? But there are truckers. And, sure enough, after about half an hour a big ole rig pulls up on the shoulder just ahead of me.

I roll down the window as he approaches the car, and explain the situation. “There’s a truck stop up ahead,” he says. “I’ll give you a lift so you can get help.”

I do see a glow of mercury-vapor lights on the horizon, and he didn’t look too terrifying, besides which I didn’t relish the prospect of sitting in a wet car all night, so — bless my heart — I got out and went with him. And sure enough, as he boosted me up to the truck’s cab, he says, “You know, I’ve got a bed in back. You’re welcome to stay here if you want.”

Gulp. I can’t remember now how I managed to gracefully get out of that one, but he did indeed take me to the truck stop where a helpful mechanic listened to my story and goes, “Oh, one of them little Brit cars, eh? They’ve got their engines mounted sideways. Which means the alternator can get wet when it rains as bad as this. You just wait till it stops. It’ll dry out, and you can drive it on home.”

Which I did. And, trust me, I never drove that car in the rain again. Not even in a sprinkle.

But back to The Child. So far, she’s shown pretty good judgment, so I just have to cross my fingers and trust that she’ll be safe out there on the Trail all alone. At least I can console myself with the thought that it’s highly unlikely she’ll run into any truckers, helpful or otherwise.

Amagansett, New York. July 2019