A Scottish Jaunt in 6 days

On Sunday, Al & I took to the left side of the road for a tour around Scotland. With a limited amount of time, the outer Hebrides and Orkney Islands were out of reach, but our explorations far exceeded our expectations. Scotland is gorgeous. Whether it be the view from vistas above lakes at Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, the misty ancient mountains in Glencoe, or the ever changing, ever lush forest we continuously stumbled into, we spent very little time out of awe with wild Scotland. You’ll find a recap of our route and explorations below alongside a few highlight photos. Our route proved outstanding and is highly recommended to anyone looking for a week long driving tour of Scotland!

Day 1 – We left Durham early in the morning and headed north for a walk around Melrose Abbey, which dates back to the 13th century in it’s original structure. The more recent structure was rebuilt after destruction from English invaders but still boasts a 600 year history. From there, we took a walk through Cottage Garden, a permaculture site, and the oldest food forest in the UK.

Melrose Abbey

In the afternoon, we crept through Edinburgh traffic and into Loch Lomond from the east for a hike up Ben A’an. The 1200 foot ascent challenged our legs, but the view from the top proved well worth the effort. We peered down in awe at two sprawling lakes and took our time hiking down, identifying trees, & stopping on a set of boulders for an afternoon snack. Rain started in only for the last bit of our hike down, for which we were very grateful. Down in the parking lot, we fired up the butane stove & made spicy ramen for dinner before finding our camp spot for the night.

Day 2 – From Callander, we headed north towards Glencoe, not knowing what we’d find. A roadside sign welcomed us to the Highlands and within miles the landscapes transformed dramatically. The rolling hills of sheep disappeared and in their place, misty mountain tops rose high above us. The road narrowed and we twisted through a damp, brown & emerald landscape. “You’re gonna need to take a video of this,” Al instructed me from the driver’s seat. Tour buses became ever present, as did hikers and backpackers on parking pull offs. We found our way into one, to take in the looming mountains in a slower way on foot.

In the visitor center, we regained our bearings, both reveling in the spectacular landscape around us. Al compared it to Iceland, and I agreed with her. These mountains are ancient, more than 400 million years old, & teeming with waterfalls running down steep mountain sides. We doubled back to where we’d already driven, squeezed into a parking area amongst numerous touring vehicles & buses, & hiked up to The Lost Valley. There in 1962, one of Scotland greatest national tragedies occurred, when the Jacobite king ordered the slaughter of the MacDonald clan after his men had been hosted for 12 days. The clan leader was late in pledging his allegiance to the king, and for it many of his clan was wrongfully killed by the king’s soldiers. Others escaped into the mountains where many died in harsh winter conditions. From the bowl of The Lost Valley, I proclaimed, “Long live the MacDonalds!”

Day 3 – From a campsite atop the central mountains of the Isle of Skye, we finally laid down near midnight. The night before we recognized how late the sun was setting. After 10 pm, golden hour was just beginning. Night didn’t fall until midnight, and dawn broke just after 4 am. We had trouble sleeping, but it made for long days exploring. We failed to find Talisker waterfall, for signs deterring us trespassing on private lands. In a parking pull of above a valley of sheep, we shared a mug of Shiraz. The next morning, we took a driving tour around the Isle of Skye, following the road around the Trotternish peninsula & marveling at the deep blue color of the Atlantic ocean so far north. The island mountains of Skye looked like smaller cousins to Glencoe, falling sharply to the sea at their borders.

We found a parking area near Duntulm castle full of tourists exploring the ruins that gave us access to the ocean. Barnacles deterred us from putting our feet in, but we sat & listened to the waves crash, peeking in tide pools full of anemone, limpets, and snails. After 2 days of difficult hikes our legs were tired on our way back to Vana Black, our trusty carriage, up the beach through a meadow and a flock of sheep.

In Glenbrittle, we stretched our legs along an easy hike to the Fairy Pools, highly visited and easily accessible. We climbed down into an empty pool and stripped off our shoes for a soak in the chilling water next to one of many waterfalls. The cacophony of falling water soothed me as Al stared at a mountain upside down. I crossed my legs and meditated to the waterfall and the Mordor like mountain that rose above it. A trek back inland & a drive-by of the Boleskine house for a late evening activity lead us to our campsite for the night, in the valley above Fort Augustus.

Day 4 – We hadn’t planned to explore Fort Augustus but it was a fascinating side adventure! We stopped in for coffee beside a portion of the the Caledonian Canal, built at the turn of the 19th century to connect Inverness in the northeast to Fort William in the southwest. A series of 29 locks linked together 3 lakes & were meant to tamp the risk of ships moving around the tumultuous waters north around Scotland. Unfortunately by the time of its completion in 1822, steam ships had been innovated and were not as vulnerable to the rough northern waters. The Caledonian Canal, pioneered by visionary engineer Thomas Telford, revolutionized labor & engineering in Scotland, & today functions as a recreational & commercial waterway. We stayed around town watching half a dozen small ships be moved up the locks into Loch Ness, & then a charter ship, the Fingal of Caledonia, with a few small boats be transported down. Al & I shared nerd joy about the canals construction & function!

In the afternoon, we arrived in Inverness & checked into the Black Isle Hostel, where we had much needed showers & found a laundromat. An afternoon of regrouping was much needed after 4 days on the road, but by nightfall we shared a nice dinner at Ness Mahal & made friends with a solo Canadian traveler at Black Isle Brewery. We definitely slept better in Vana the night before though, but only because one of our dorm roomies yelled, “Mate! Mate! Are you serious!?” a few times during the night waking the entire room.

Day 5 – We took the morning to wander around Inverness, strolling through the Victorian market, and getting lost in Leakey’s bookstore before needing to renew our street parking voucher. We ate lunch at a popup restaurant, Tiger in the Wall, and kept fried rice & noodle takeaway to have with dinner. Heading out of town, we felt like we’d timed our stay in Inverness nicely, getting enough of its small city centre without missing anything, driving over to the Black Isle.

At Black Isle Permaculture & Arts Center, Clive Brandon toured us around his wife Judy & his 2.5 acre permaculture site, in its 7th year. Clive shone brightly upon our meeting and we shared our backgrounds while he took us around the food forest, through the hen’s backyard, and into his terrace raised beds. On our way around, he shared a binder of information & photos on what the site looked like before cultivation. Grass lawns had turned into dense guilds of herbal, insectary, & food plants. He explained to us how the grass clippings from the walkways were integrated into the composting system. We tasted leaves of lemon balm & apple mint. We gazed in awe of the beauty of lupine, a native Scottish flower, which was in full bloom.

Around the raised beds, he’d weeded to transplant baby annuals, which waited their turn along the path way. Wildlife deterrent fences encircled the beds, with aesthetically placed limbs for function & embellishment. He built a windbreak as part of the fence on the south side of the beds, where the wind howled through. He shared their vision in the space of building a tiered greenhouse on the east side of the garden and asked if we had time to take a walk around the rest of the site.

Al & I walked in awe, taking in so much technical information, following Clive down into the meadow farther away from the house, where he & Judy had woven young willows into archways over the meadow’s walkway. We stopped at a deep nature spring pond in the woods before winding around to two eco cabins that Clive & Judy built recently as vacation rental livelihood.

Inside the smaller of the two, I admired Clive’s woodworking, more deeply after I asked, “And you did most of this on your own?” “All of it,” he answered back humbly. The space was fitted with 12 volt lighting, a foot pump sink in the kitchenette, a shower, & a composting toilet. He shared their vision to donate the living space to volunteers & to artist residents. They’d hosted their first artist in the fall, who worked with natural photography techniques using plants dyes. I’d fallen deep into wonder & awe.

Inside the yurt, Al, Clive, & I took seats as the wind blew in raindrops & I asked Clive about his & Judy’s path to permaculture. We made jokes about being able to survive the apocalypse, & I thanked him (probably too many times) for showing us around. He invited us in for a cup of lemon balm tea & we obliged, connecting more & enjoying nature’s bounty through steeping. “Tuck on in,” he instructed us to sip our tea.

That night we drove into Cairngorms National Park via Aviemore, finding a lovely spot in pine forest off an old logging road. The rain had set in on our drive and didn’t seem like it’d quit soon. We broke into a bottle of wine & waited for a lull to cook potato & leek soup on the stove. It took a lifetime for the kettle to boil, after catching a small fire outside the burner twice, but eventually we slurped up our soup, soaking bread in it, & finishing our leftovers from lunch.

Day 6 – We woke up to rain that had barely quit all night long. It made for a lazy morning. After a PB&J for breakfast, I slid back down into my sleeping back & dozed off, not intending to, but waking up once Al started moving things from the front seats to the back. We’d decided over breakfast to ditch our hiking plans due to the rain & mapped out a scenic drive through the Cairngorms instead. We stopped off for coffee on our way back out through Aviemore & explored through the shops in town. The drive on the Old Military Road through Cairngorms National Park was both challenging & beautiful. Narrow twisting roads opened up to vast valley viewpoints where sheep speckled distant hillsides, giving perspective to the mountains’ size. Like Glencoe & Isle of Skye, we again felt small in the most connected way.

I drove the way back to England while Al navigated & dj’ed, but we made sure not to leave Scotland without a stop at the border & a quick pic. What an adventure it was!


Day 1 –
Newcastle to Coldstream – approx 2 hour drive
stop off at Melrose Abbey & Garden Cottage permaculture site – have lunch

Coldstream to Callander – approx 2.5 hour drive
hike Ben A’an in Loch Lomand National Park – 2.5 mile out & back w/ 1200 ft elevation gain – snack
make dinner & find camping for the night

Day 2 –
Callander to Glencoe – approx 2 hour drive
stop in Glencoe Nature Reserve visitor center
hike The Lost Valley – approx 2.5 miles out & back w/ 800 ft elevation gain – lunch @ summit
Glencoe to Portree, Isle of Skye – approx 3 hour drive
dinner @ Kyleakin on way to Portree (or in Broadford)
restock grocery provisions @ Coop in Portree – explore west of island & find camping

Day 3 –
Driving tour loop around Isle of Skye – approx 3.5 hours
from Portree up to Flodigarry & down west side of Trotternish peninsula
stop at Duntulm Castle – explore ruins & visit the ocean beach
to Glenbrittle for hike @ Fairy Pools – approx 2 miles out & back, easy
drive to Fort Augustus to peer at the Boleskine House, camp above town in the valley

Day 4 –
Into Fort Augustus for coffee & the Caledonian Canal Centre
watch boats travel in the canal locks & marvel at the engineering
midday head to Inverness for the night – approx 1 hour drive along Loch Ness
stay at Black Isle Hostel for the night, wash ourselves & our laundry

Day 5 –
Breakfast & a wander around Inverness – the Victorian market & Leakey’s bookstore
Drive to Black Isle Permaculture & Arts Center – approx 20 minute drive
Drive to Aviemore – approx 1 hour drive
into Cairngorms National Park trailhead, find campsite for the night

Day 6 –
Breakfast at camp, wake up late, back into Aviemore for coffee & light shopping
Scenic drive (Highlands Scenic Snow route) through Cairngorms
from Spey Bridge to Ballater to Perth – approx 3 hour drive
Drive back to Newcastle – approx 5 hour drive, then REST!

Dream Journal 8/31/21

I dreamt of you last night. It’s been three weeks since we’ve spoken.

I had just done some shopping at some indescript box store where I was grabbing general supplies for vanlife. The scene before you appeared isn’t particularly clear, just a few panels of watching my feet walk along asphalt & then looking up to see Zoey parked alone at the far end of the lot. When you appeared behind me, the lighting brightened and my perspective changed. I had been floating along with my bag of goods, but when I heard you running up behind me, I dropped sharply into my body. My eyes focused tightly as I turned to see what the noise was, your arms at nineties as a white sneaker struck the ground. You jogged up to me. You were wearing that plain red t-shirt and black joggers. Your skin glowed against the red shirt and a look of distress faded from your face as I turned. You smiled big and hard at me and outstretched your hand towards me. I stopped dead in my tracks, startled at the sight of you approaching me. I wasn’t prepared for this interaction, and my body tensed as your image sunk in. Rigidly, I stepped back away from your reach.

You spoke to me, but I don’t remember the words. I remember looking up at you and missing your eyes, your mouth, your face, your eyebrows, the way your expression changed as you talked to me. I don’t remember hearing the words spoken, but somehow a message was transmitted. You wanted me back. In a way, you were begging me, but I remained unmoved. I turned away from you and walked towards the rear doors of Zoey, where I popped open the lock and put my bags while you continued to plead. You were talking, but I wasn’t hearing any words. I slammed shut the doors and turned to you quickly.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told you, abruptly interrupting. You face quit moving as you peered down at me. The smile fell from your mouth. “I doesn’t matter anymore.” I wanted to say so much more, but just like I feel in real life, I was tired of making my case over and over again. For the last six months, it didn’t matter how I explained my needs and my feelings, you disqualified them with your own, constantly asking me to make more space for you in my life, and not giving me much back. In my dream, I continued to repeat myself to you, as I walked away. “It doesn’t matter.” And then, right before the dream ended I said, “I do know you love me, but as long as you are with her, that’s it. I just doesn’t matter anymore.”

Vanlife Diary: What a Year

A year ago, I’d begun building the van that is now my full time home. I was about a month into the build. My stepdad had come out and helped me finish insulating the walls before we hung sheets of plywood across them. They were a bright light wood that glowed in the winter sunlight. Now, they’re a dark cherry. The last day and a half, I’d assisted him as he built a chest style bed that he assembled from blue prints in his head. It took me watching most of the process to realize what and how he was doing it. I’d told him I was thinking about a slated bed, like the ones most van lifers have, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. I handed him tools and watched him work, grunting and groaning.

The next weekend I problem solved my way through hanging plywood for the ceiling. We’d talked about it. It should only take two pieces of plywood but this didn’t align with the structural ribs across the roof of the van, so I ended up doing it in three pieces. Reason, I suppose, does not always match reality.

Now I’m keeping mental tabs (which need to be physical notes) of little fixes needed around my home on wheels. In some places, the maps on my ceiling are peeling away from the plywood. Most notably so above the camp stove. It seems 90 3M adhesive is no match for regular heat rising off the propane burners. It’s too cold in Denver to do much with the van these days and my schedule has been a little erratic for these sorts of grounding exercises, but I feel I need them.

For now, I am experimenting with van living in approaching single digit nighttime temperatures. It takes a surprising amount of energy to live this way, though I am loving it. I feel empowered and capable, although decidedly ungrounded. I managed to keep my food and my contact lenses from freezing last night. I remembered that coolers work well as warmers too, or at least for combating temperature changes. My REI down sleeping bag has been crucial. Cooking breakfast in the mornings alongside my Buddy Heater heats the van up quickly, although it doesn’t stay once they’re off.

I’m hermiting pretty hard these days in my best intention of completing my book before April 1st departure to Ecuador. I’ve romanticized this type of solitude all my life and although mostly suites me, at times, it is paralyzing. For now, I’ll head to some public place with good heat and power outlets to regain a bit of normalcy. Until next time, live easy and love freely, my dears. ❤️

Where did November go?


My apologies to those of your who may have been expecting something earlier. Undoubtedly, November has gotten away from me, and although I’ve started book-writing, I certainly let a few trips slip by unnoticed here. I’m not one for regrets, but I do regret that.

NYC was just about exactly what I’d expected. Revisiting the major attractions stirred up old feelings in me. I still don’t have much use for Times Square. On the other hand, part of my heart still lives in Central Park. The last day, Sunday, it rained heavily on us, but my friends were good sports while I wandered through the self guided tour of Seneca Village (one of the first places free blacks were allowed to buy land, (very cool, google it)) but the day before we’d spent a few hours snapping photos and ogling at the beautiful bridges tucked in the park, some of them surrounded by wild and some of them backdropped by buildings. Either way, the Park was my favorite part only behind the $2 carousel ride in DUMBO. This tourist area of Brooklyn is very well gentrified. I never thought I’d be able to say I’d walked across the Brooklyn Bridge but damn well, we did it.

As for the cruise, the Caribbean is stunning. I was able to practice my Spanish a tad, got a little sunburn, got a little seasick while trying to ride the elliptical in the gym, and I ate my $500 worth of food, just like I said I would. The contrast between life at each port was stark (Grand Cayman, Belize, Costa Maya Mexico, and Key West). I may go into that more later. The Mayan ruins at Chacchoben we’re breathtaking and full of old energy (my personal highlight) although the whole trip was balanced between relaxing and tiring, just like vacation should be.

Until next time 👋🏻

Manhattan & Brooklyn from One Observation Tower
Central Park colors 🍁💛🍃
A cruise ship sunset
Mayan temple at Choccoben

On Van Life: Month 1

It’s been a month now.  Five weekends.  

The first two I didn’t get out of the city, because I still had moving out to do and a few projects to finish on the build.  

The first weekend I finished moving my stuff into storage and hooking up the solar electricity.  I bought a deep cycle battery at Interstate, a battery box at Home Depot, and though still intimidated by the project of hooking up a solar system, I managed not to fuck anything up.  

Late Sunday night I mounted up the water pump and ran what hose I could to get the sink operating, but I was short a couple of hose clamps and was very tired so I called it quits just short of completion.  

One day the following week, I stopped by the house to hang out with my cat and finish up the plumbing.  He slept with me in the van that night, first curled up on the driver’s seat, but as the night cooled down he ended up next to me.

The next weekend I was so burned out that instead of making a rugby trek into the mountains, I opted to lay around the house with my oldest best friend and binge movies.  It was 100% worth it. I was feeling 6 months of working overtime weeks and van build weekends and I was tired. I may still be, but the more I minimize, the more centered I feel in my decision to make such a radical change in lifestyle.  I’m finding rest in a variety of places now and doing my best to listen to my body and my mind’s desires to be still.

Here are a few reflections from the last month.

1. Firsts are difficult.

The first week was the least comfortable. The first morning I cooked eggs and chorizo on the camp stove was the least graceful (the propane kept leaking). The first time I peed in the middle of the night in a wag bag was the weirdest (as I squatted just a few feet from my pillow). The first time a coworker asked if I needed a place to stay was the most awkward (he completely understood my decision once I explained). Now all of those things feel regular.

2. Food is a relationship.

I purposefully didn’t design a fridge in the build because my intention was to only be traveling in the van.  I was also considering that they use a lot of energy and a bit of space and I didn’t think I needed it. I don’t.  I’m at the grocery store every couple days and I’m (mostly) eating everything I buy. I currently have a jar of strawberry jam and I’m afraid I’m going to be sick of PBJs before it’s gone.  I’ll get back to you about that. So far, the small cooler I have is perfect.

3. Solitude.

I’m alone A LOT which generally suits me since I’m an introvert (also because I’m trying to find an artist’s way aka hustling all my waking hours to do something meaningful), but it has made my weekend interactions more intentional and my chosen tribe more apparent. I’m also very productive, because I have no excuse not to be. Equally, my sleep schedule is on point.

There’s so much more to say, but I’ve run to the end of a train of thought.  More to come another day. Peace.

New Orleans, Part 3: An Impression of Katrina

Elena’s toes pressed against the windshield as I cruised across Lake Pontchartrain back to New Orleans for the last day. I yearned for coffee and donuts. It was mid morning already and my belly ached for sustenance.

The lake extended for miles and miles ahead of us, like the pavement of our vast interstates, broken evenly by light ripples. The road seemed to float just above the surface.

I circled the block once, finding a parking spot just outside the doors of District Donuts Sliders and Brew, in the Garden district of New Orleans. The roads leading to it were lined by rows of shotgun homes alternating with much prettier plantation style houses. There were a series of blocks that were very obviously lower income, but just as they were noticed, larger house began to pop up again.

We enjoyed a variety of donuts. One made into an ice cream sandwich and another a breakfast sandwich toppedwith a dippy egg and the last two of odd flavor- strawberry lemonade and root beer float. Each one was delicious in its own way. They were by far the best we’d had on the trip.

I insisted we do a bit of exploring of the urban decay from Katrina, though I’m sure my compadres wouldn’t have gone without me.

We rolled down Claiborne Avenue towards the Lower Ninth Ward, but passing it first, only finding refurbished homes and new builds spaced out by vacant lots in a nearby parish.

“This isn’t that bad,” Ellie started, “but you know all these grass patches used to be houses. See,” we all stared out the windows, “driveway there, and there, and there.”

I followed the road to the end of land, looking for water, but only finding manmade hills of earth, at their crest a barrier ran the extent. Finally, I found Claiborne and followed it back to a main stretch of the Ward, where now the vacant lots and refurbs became neighbors to boarded up ranchers and gravel cross streets, many closed. It was obvious they had been paved in the past, but now stones lay rubble to their history.

I was hypnotized, in complete awe of the extent of desolation and decomposition. Around every turn, another site awed me. I ventured down one of the side streets to find it closed just a hundred feet ahead. I began my three point turn, and looked up to see an entrance stairway standing alone, wild grasses growing alongside it. It announced an empty lot, grass lush and glowing green in the intense summer sun.

We cruised slowly down a main stretch out of the Ward. Two building sat next to each other. The first, a corner store, the shattered front glass and boarded windows a solemn testament to decay; the other, a barber shop still open for business.

Farther down the block, an aged black woman stood on her front porch, separated from the commercial buildings by three grass lots, the driveways still distinct, but just barely. She looked out in the street, watching us pass by from her front porch, living the life she’d always known, but knowing so much change, so much heartache, so much pain. I could see it on her face, even from the shelter of window glass, potholed pavement, and stop signs.

New Orleans, Part 2: Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street

Elena noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign above our heads just before we found Bourbon Street, with an extra plack that hung below reading ‘Not Haunted’ and pointed it out to me.  At the corner of Bourbon we stumbled upon our destination, Tropical Isle, where we made friends with the bartender, Angela.

We each ordered a hand grenade- it was a ‘when in New Orleans’ drink- and sat down at the end of an L shaped bar across from Angela. Her fine sandy blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, her pencil thin eyebrows were darkened, and her smile was a little crooked.  Her smile was nice though, charismatic and welcoming. She wasn’t young anymore, but we’d soon find out that her spirit was youthful.

At first, she didn’t speak.  I took a few sips of my frozen drink.  It was refreshing against the hot, humid New Orleans weather, and took a moment to survey my surroundings.  Across the bar from us an empty nook full of classic video games, on its perimeter, a breathalyzer test. I pointed it out to my companions and we made a few halfhearted jokes.

Behind Angela, two tall large cardboard boxes were tucked underneath the drink counter, full to the top of plastic hand grenade cups.  They were translucent, flourescent green with shape similar to that of a tall vase, but the base the impression of a miliary hand grenade.  We each held one ourselves, and they were ours to keep, if we wanted them.

I looked up at her, “So how many of those boxes do you go through typically?”  I wanted to talk.

I don’t think she expected my question, responding, “Well, that depends on the day.”

“How bout tonight?”  It was a Saturday. “I bet you go through a lot.”

“Yeah, well…” she started, thinking about it, “On a busy day we’ll go through almost ten boxes.”

“Wow,” that was a hell of a lot more than I expected.

“Yeah, it’ll get crazy in here later.”  It was only early afternoon now, and the bar was busy.  Not packed, but busy. I imagined it later on, shoulder to shoulder with tourists just trying to get close enough to the bar to talk to her.  I heard the loud hum of a busy bar.

Her manager came from out of the kitchen, opening the guide on the television.  He changed it to Half Baked, at her request. I stared at it for a minute. It was the date montage, the scene with the money counter in the corner.

“I love this movie,” I said, turning back towards her.  She nodded. She hadn’t opened up to conversation just yet.

Elena broke the silence, “So… what’s in a hand grenade?”

She smiled at us, “I can’t tell you.”

We both gawked at her, our jaws fell and our eyebrows lowered.  Ellie had gone outside to talk on the phone.

“No really,” she started again, “I had to sign a release when I started working here.  It’s patented. I’m not allowed to tell.”

“That’s so crazy!”  I exclaimed.

“Yup,” she replied, “but it’s true.”

“Will you tell us if we guess?”  Elena had the right idea.

She grinned at us, “Go ahead.”

“151?,” my first guess.  She shook her head.

“Absolut?” I guessed again.  I knew it had to be a clear liquor.

She shook her head again, “Think higher alcohol content.”  We both paused.

Elena guessed, “Tequila?”  Wrong again.

“Nope, higher.”

“Oh, oh…” she paused, the thought on the tip of both our tongues, “Everclear?”

“Bingo! And triple sec, pineapple juice, and the special mixer.”

We both cocked our heads at that one, wondering.

“Yeah, see this,” she picked up automated drink dispenser, “It’s premixed.  There’s a button for the regular hand grenades here and sugar free here too.”


“Mmhmm,” she was proud of it.  It was very cool.

We went on, talking about nonsense, learning about her background.  We shared with her about the road trip, how much I already was in love with New Orleans, about camping on the other side of the lake.  

She was originally from Missouri, had moved to NOLA with her first husband and then back home briefly.  She couldn’t stand being home.

Then, we found out her age.  She was 37, but I swore to her she didn’t look a day older than 32.  She accepted the compliment graciously. I told her I’d been to Mexico, Missouri for a wedding a few years back, and she commented on her hometown.

“There’s just nothing to do there.  I knew I had to come back here,” she went on, “And the people…  The people here are so much nicer, they’re friendly.”

“Yes!” I agreed with her. “I love the South for that.  Nobody has a problem talking to you, even if it’s about nothing.  The people here that we’ve met, just in the last few hours, are great.”

We chatted a bit more, as the hand grenades started to set in.  It was only two o’clock, but I was three drinks in and I was feeling heavy.  

We left, but not before exchanging affections for the friendly conversation with Angela, and headed east on Bourbon St, towards a whole lot of commotion.

People were starting to flood the streets.  All of the sidewalks and the bars alike were packed full of tourists.  We heard about as many foreign languages there as we heard in the National Parks, but it was crowded and we were drunk, not quite ready for more drinking.

A humid, laborious walk, with a couple pit stops, landed us at the St Louis Cemetery, the most famous of the New Orleans burial grounds.  I tried at first to disregard the signs stating that you must be accompanied by a certified tour guide, but I was stopped by a large, tall black man.

I joked with him, “I was gonna make a run for it,” smiling goofily up at him.

He laughed, “Go across the street there,” he pointed to the grass median, “the woman in the red skirt is Jennifer.  She’s the best tour guide around.”

New Orleans, Part 1: My first taste of Magic

We woke up hazy from our late night endeavor of pitching the tent at Fontainebleau State Park.  Ellie had hardly slept, overcome by her irrational fear of bears. Elena had slept some, but me, I’d slept like a baby.  The moon shone brightly in on my face through the side window of the tent which we’d opened for air flow.

I’ve always slept wonderfully in the woods and that night was no exception, even as the temperature dropped and I curled up tightly in my blanket.  The rhythmic humming of bugs provided the perfect white noise for my slumber.

The first drive over Lake Pontchartrain was breathtaking.  Thirty miles of four lane highway across the massive body of water.  In the center, only a faint outline of the New Orleans skyline was visible.  We ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed at it for the first fifteen miles, and for the last fifteen, spent time trying to capture a good photo of it.  I didn’t realize just how extensive the Lake was until I was in the middle of it, although the map never lied to be. The actual experience is always so much more than what a book can tell you.  We found our way into the French Quarter but first wandering into downtown and passing the St Louis cemetery on the way.

As we wandered back down to the Quarter, I was full of anticipation.  The next right put us just on the outskirts. My jaw dropped. Beautifully stylized rowhomes lined the streets, many with cast iron rungs on porches hanging above street level.  The detail in the iron work amazed me, but they weren’t all adorned with porches. I glanced down an alley between homes and was teased by half an image of courtyard with a water fountain overgrown with lush, green plant life.  

We found a parking lot to leave the car between Decatur St and the Mississippi River, which was a struggle to get into, the street flooded with tourists.  We passed Cafe Du Monde. I craned my neck around, trying to take in the white and green awning hanging above all the tiny tables. The line of people to get the most famous beignets extended down a couple of blocks.

We decided to explore around, find food elsewhere, and not lose time standing in that crazy line.  Just before the parking lot while we were stuck at the an intersection, I noticed Cafe Maspero on to our right.

“Let’s go there,” I suggested.  “My friend’s friend grew up in New Orleans and said we should try it out.”

They agreed.  

On foot and ready for a meal, a girl with beautifully clean blonde dreads greeted us at the door.

“I really like your dress,” she told Elena who glowed with satisfaction.  It was the jumper she’d bought in Daytona, which I’d approved in the beach shop dressing room.  

She seated us across the dining room against a window which opened outwards like a shutter.  The glass was frosted slightly from age. Across the restaurant a couple archways separated us from the bar, atop which two large glass infusers were full of olives, pickled onions, roasted red peppers, and vodka.  I soon learned that vodka infusions were a specialty of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Later that day at the Royal House, an infuser sat atop the bar directly next to me. Their kicker in the mix was spicy green beans.  Our lovely bartender Cindy had handed us an entire cup of them for munching.

I scooted my chair in as far as I could, shaking the whole table as I bumped my knee against it.  Soon, our waitress stood above us, young and tan, dark-haired, and smiling.

First she brought us a round of bloody marys, which were exceptionally good, the spiciness exactly what I wanted it to be.  Then our food came out.

We’d worked out quite a spread of creole dishes.  Jambalaya, red beans and rice, a famous Muffalata, and an alligator sausage sandwich.  We dug in, passing around our plates periodically, so everyone got a bit of everything.  

The food was absolutely amazing, full of flavor and authenticity, and filling us with our first NoLa experience.  Ellie stepped outside to smoke as Elena and I waited on the bill and our to-go drinks. That was a completely new, but captivating idea to me- the to-go drink.  I even learned a few days later that in Mississippi, you are not only allowed to have an open container, but you’re allowed to have it open while driving, just so long as you blow under the legal limit.  I was stunned.

We walked away from the bay, deeper into the Quarter, more wandering than anything, but hoping we’d stumble upon Bourbon Street.  We were on a mission for our first hand grenade when the bright sounds of a brass band caught my ear. I looked back at the girls with a look on my face of excitement while picking my feet up a bit faster.  

The end of the block revealed to us was an eight piece band, the lead trombonist sliding around on a solo, the tenor sax and trumpeter hitting chords behind him through the changes, as two men held down the percussion alongside a standup bass.  

My heart exploded in my chest at least twice as we stood there listening to the group play with their hearts and their lungs, all dancing a little as they grooved out notes.  The song ended and the crowd that had formed around us clapped. The bass brought in the next tune. The horns joined in after eight bars. I recognized the Ray Charles standard, as the trombonist lowered his horn and began belting out,

“I got a woman/Way over town/She’s good to me”

Elena and I danced in the street as his voice echoed off the quaint Quarter homes, leading alongside the timbre of his horn friends.  We stood still for the rest of the song, and I fell very deeply in love with New Orleans.

My first taste of SoCal, courtesy of Old Town San Diego


I’m finally having a Southern California experience.  The idea was to wander all the way to the water, to the Ocean, for a spiritual Pacific sunsets.  The ones where pinks and blues stain the coarse sand grains as waves crash over igneous rock formations.

I realize in the middle of writing that sentence how far in the past my imagination was.  My venture began for nostalgia, remembering a Big Sur sunset, one from more than two years prior.

My instincts don’t lead me to far though, about five blocks from the hotel.  I zigzag along the streets looking for Old Town San Diego, guessing its location by the directions of well dressed Californians.  Women wear long flowing dresses with round-brimmed straw hats and sunglasses, and men sport short sleeved button ups and loafers or sandals.  The energy that flows through their small groups is magnetic like the start of every great Friday night. It allures me to follow.

It’s Friday anyway and though most all of my teammates are back in the hotel playing games, swimming, or sleeping, I thought it best to get out and away for awhile.  I invited Sal along, but she was enjoying the pool to much to venture with me.

I knew I was getting close when I noticed locals with handmade ‘$5 parking’ signs on the street pointing in their driveways.  It only took a couple more blocks North before the street I’d been flanking ended into Old San Diego square.

The beginnings of it underwhelmed me, a candy shop and a cafe and a couple others selling taffy and popcorn.  There was more sidewalk space between them than I’d seen in a historic area ever. The sidewalk was concrete and for pedestrians only, but wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic.

Then as I noticed a man ‘cawwing’ back to his running partner, I realized that I’d stumbled right into the grassy knoll of a historic square, just the way I’d known them.  A grand old tree leaned towards me at the corner and up into the air more than two hundred feet, extending its canopy out over a wooden picnic bench where no one sat. I told myself I’d go back and sit with the tree sice it’d spoken to me so clearly, but for now, it beckoned me forward.

I continued along slowly, trying not to lose the tree, but not ready to stop quite yet, while making mental snapshots of beige stucco buildings with low awnings and ceramic red roofs.  Looking up at their roofs, I notice the hills of houses around Old Town and their contrast of scenery, lush green palm trees and assorted hues of cacti.

The square ended so I made a right, noticing a man snap a photo of an overgrown bonsai underneath which his friend sat posing.  I overheard them compliment the beauty of the bonsai tree.

I strolled past a Mexicali restaurant smelling heavily of hot peppers and spice that lacked a single open patio table.  I gazed in as a pair of patio patrons cheersed one another and took a sip from their oversized margarita glasses. I caught glimpses of others grabbing bites of fajitas between the tortilla that lined their fingers.  Then the real attraction.

Casa de Reyes.  Fiesta de Reyes.  Tienda de Reyes. I entered another era beneath a log decorated archway announcing its contents.  Immediately I noticed a stage at the center of the block where people were beginning to fill in the split log benches.  Half a wall and low height garden alternately divided the center section of music and food from the perimeter shops. It was impossible to see the world beyond this, the authentic Old Town square.  Shielded by pepper trees and wooden awnings, the stucco buildings only broke to the street where I’d just entered and then barely at the corners. Even the hills and houses that had hung above it disappeared.  Stone walkways gave way to brick ones and then back again. Lush palms and cacti stood testament that anything could grow here.

I walked slowly still, peeking into the shops on the north walk, hearing more Spanish than English, loving the rich colors of blankets, pottery, and hand painted tile for sale.  I found my way around the square and up to a blue Southwest patterned rocking bench, taking a seat to write, just as the band started playing.

Now couples poured in alongside families.  Most of the seating inside the courtyard was already taken, but none of them were deterred.  The garden surrounded them carefully like a barrier from the wanderers. These people knew what they wanted.

A few times, families arranged themselves in front of me for a photo op.  My bench was just barely offset from the grand archway of Old Town, but even now that I’ve lost my seat, I’ve found another nook for tourists photographing.  There are no places hidden from the eye of a tourist here, not even a place to sit and write.

Where I sit now, two vases painted vibrant colors sit on a stone ledge, leaves and latice lay below them.  Wrought iron handrails adorns tiles stairs that lead up to some private place with a little awning for peeking down at the stage.  It’s perfect for a full body photo, for the young and old alike to remember, at least a part of their stroll around the square.

A few minutes ago my pen ran out of ink.  This is how I lost my rocking bench, the first place to write, but the man at the tile shop was kind enough to give me another.  It was the second time tonight he was kind without uttering a word. It seemed he chose only to communicate in head nods, even when I tried a little Spanish with him.

The band really got me going for a little while too, first with a transitions perfectly executed from “Oye Como Va” to “Black Magic Woman.”  I fell in love with them on my way back from the tile store though, singing in Spanish again to a bachata beat, while the women spun beneath their partners lead hands.  Others moved without rhythm. Others still kept along, awkwardly with their hips, but keeping their feet moving patterned with the salsa.

Here is culture.  I am surrounded by it, and though I am different here, I am surrounded by something that intrigues me.  I can’t say it’s not American, but it isn’t strictly something else either. It’s a split, it’s a meld, it’s Californian.