Category Archives: Traveling Fool

I Left My Intestinal Fortitude in San Francisco

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Guys. I totally wussed out.

I went into SF today to check into my hotel on Haight Street. Now, I have been up here enough in the past 3 years, I don’t know what I was thinking in trying to go into SF on a Saturday. Honestly, you’d think I’d never been here before. Anyway, I got to the Haight and it was just crawling with people and cars. Y’all, I drove around for almost an HOUR trying to find somewhere to park. ALLLL the street spaces were full (and, even if I’d found one, they are metered, which means I’d have had to go feed said meter every few hours – not so handy when I was planning to park my car and leave it for the night). There was no space in front of the hotel to pull up and at least unload my eight-hundred-pound suitcase. I also never did find the parking garage I was told was several blocks away. And the thing is, there wasn’t even anywhere to pull over and consult my phone, or ask for directions. There are no parking lots in that area, it’s buildings, sidewalks, and street parking. That’s it.

After close to an hour I was running low on patience, not to mention the will to live. I was tired of being honked at and stared at, balefully, by groups of people as they sauntered in front of my car at intersections.  I was worn out, hungry, and I’d had to pee since I left the East Bay. At that point I really didn’t even feel like being in SF anymore. I wanted a nice, quiet, easily accessible room where I could spend the rest of the evening chilling and getting ready to head home (pretty early) tomorrow. So I fled the city. I headed south until I got to some suburbs (parking lots! public toilets!) and then I got on my phone and booked myself a room in Hayward. It’s a little further away from the airport than I’d wanted, but it cost half as much as any of the rooms I found on the other side of the Bay. I’ll just have to leave here around 7am to make it to the airport on time. Considering my inability to sleep in on this trip, that shouldn’t be a huge deal.

So my trip to the Bay Area ends a little unpropitiously. However, as I pointed out to myself earlier in an attempt to stave off the guilt of chickening out on my day in the city: I accomplished everything I specifically came here to do. I saw the two concerts, and I got tattooed. Anything else after that was just whipped cream on top. And, really, who needs the extra calories, anyway?

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Time to play “What’s In the Snack Bag?”

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Want to know which snacks my crew is rocking on our 1500+ mile journey? I’m pretty pleased with the variety and health level. Could it be better? Probably. Could it be worse? Infinitely. I figure, two back-to-back 10-hour days in the car entitles you to have a little fun.

Our snack bag contains:

Annie’s organic chocolate chip granola bars

Organic “Grammy Sammy” yogurt-filled sandwich bars

Organic sour gummy worms

Apple-banana 100% fruit pouches

Organic gummy fruit snacks

Thyme-seasoned Kalamata olives

Organic Greek yogurt smoothie pouches

Whole Foods fruit slices (candy)

Quaker strawberry yogurt-dipped granola bars

Sharkies kids’ sports chews

Veggie Straws

Whole Foods all-natural cheese puffs

Annie’s Bunny Grahams

In all of this, the only high fructose corn syrup is in the Quaker granola bars, because I didn’t read the ingredients when I bought them! In my opinion, that makes this a mostly guilt-free collection.

Too bad I’m not interested in eating any of these items. Note to self: in future, don’t forget snacks for Mom.

Psycho-roni, the San Francisco Treat (or “How We Narrowly Escaped Certain Death and Dismemberment on I-40”)

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In 1993, my best friend, Robin, and I were carefree 19-year-olds whose scope of experience didn’t extend very far beyond our quiet, crime-free town on California’s central coast. We had begun to experience a bit of the wandering bug, though, and we decided it would be excellent fun to take a trip, by car, all the way to a small town just outside Dallas to visit a former co-worker who’d moved there. We were eager and excited for the adventure and so, with the sun in our eyes, we went blithely tripping down I-40 without a care in the world, until New Mexico, where everything changed: our trip, our sense of security and our world view. New Mexico was where we met him.

He was a man; this much we know for certain. Many of the other details have been lost to history. We do not remember his name, if he told it to us, nor have we any remembrance of hair color or style, age range, or build. Of one other detail, however, we are both now sure: he drove a light blue Honda Civic. It was parked at the rest stop, thirty miles west of Tucumcari, where we stopped, in the rain, to fix a loose windshield wiper blade.

When we arrived at the rest stop, I surveyed the area and decided it was probably safe. In addition to our car there were several other cars, as well as a few semis. At this point, there is a bit of discrepancy in recollection. Robin will tell you that the blue car was already parked in the lot when we pulled in, a few spaces away. However, the way I remember it, the blue car arrived after we did. But, whatever the sequence of events, the car was there and its lone male occupant got out.

The man approached us, after exiting the restrooms, and inquired as to whether we needed help. Robin, standing outside the car, conversed politely with the man while I, sulky, sat inside the car and pretended he didn’t exist. Now, I must explain my lack of attention starting from this point. You see, in those days it seemed to me that guys paid an inordinate amount of attention to Robin. Whether this was truth or merely my cynical perception, when I saw the man approaching I thought, “Here comes another one.” I assumed he was trying to hit on thin, blonde Robin, out here in the middle of nowhere, and not-thin, not-blonde me didn’t appreciate it. That is why when he walked up and began talking to Robin, I completely tuned out. I didn’t look at the man, I didn’t say anything and I didn’t watch when he walked away and got in his car. Fortunately, Robin was a little more alert than I was that night.

The man seemed eager to engage us in conversation and kept talking long after most people would’ve walked away. He was from San Francisco, he said, after seeing our California license plate. He asked where we were from. (Robin, being appropriately vague, gave him the name of the largest city in our county rather than the towns where we actually lived.) Well! By great coincidence, he’d just driven through there not too long before, on business. I wondered why he wouldn’t just go away.

Even then, annoyingly, the small talk continued; Robin wrestling with the wiper blade and saying, “Mmhmm,” politely, and me refusing to acknowledge his existence. After a few moments, he did start to leave, only to stop. “Are you sure you don’t need any help? I have a screwdriver in my car.” (A screwdriver? For a rubber wiper blade? Sure, and if you’ve got  butcher knife why don’t you go ahead and bring that over, too?) Robin brushed aside the offer and the man returned to his car, sat inside momentarily, then departed. Minutes later, Robin had succeeded in forcing the wiper blade into submission and we were back on the freeway, as well.

There in the slow lane, life was still uncomplicated and innocent. So, when we found ourselves approaching the man and his Honda Civic, a few miles down the road, Robin said, “I’ll honk my horn when we pass him, and you wave, to say thanks.” She did and I did, a grumpy jerk of the hand without even looking at him, our chivalrous fellow Californian. I was glad to be rid of him. But then we weren’t rid of him. Although we had come up fairly quickly behind him, passed, and then continued at that rate of speed, he was now catching up to us again. What occurred next was a bizarre game of leap frog, with the man zooming up to pass us then moving over and slowing down so we would go around him again. Robin, more alarmed than I, made a mental note of the Honda’s license plate and said, “That’s enough of this. I’m getting away from him.” She took off like the proverbial bat exiting Hades. As we sailed down the road, we decided that we would welcome a highway patrol pulling us over so we could tell him what happened. We also began to realize how slowly that blue car must have been driving after leaving the rest area in order for us to catch up to him at all. He’d had about a five minute head start. Creepy? Yes. However, as far as we could see, the man didn’t seem to be pursuing us. Perhaps….perhaps we were only paranoid. Sure, he must have been driving under the speed limit in order for us to catch him on the interstate. Certainly he meant no harm. Things like this didn’t happen to us. It was a movie script. It was a “Dateline” episode.

As the man remained absent from our rearview mirror and we approached Tucumcari, our stop for the night, we began to think that maybe he’d just been playing around. Bored on a long cross-country trip, maybe? All things considered, however, we felt it best to get off I-40, so we took the first available exit. It was a long, curving off-ramp that looped around in a u-shape. As we got halfway around the “U”, I turned in my seat and looked back over my shoulder at the freeway and saw a sight that gives me chills even today, in this moment, 18 years later. The light blue Honda Civic was exiting behind us. We’d left it in the dust on the freeway and yet, somehow, the man had caught us. Robin floored it coming off the exit and we rocketed down Tucumcari’s main street. As we swung into our hotel parking lot, which, providentially, was close at hand, we cut the lights and engine and ducked down. When we peeked above the dash there was the Honda driving, driving so slowly–half the speed allowed on the street–and the man was peering intently out the windows.

Being ducked down as we were, we didn’t see exactly where the car went after he passed. All we knew was that when we popped back up the car had vanished and, relief of reliefs, it wasn’t in the parking lot with us. We decided to run for the office to check in. When we got out of the car I noticed that several blocks away, on the same side of the street, there was some sort of light-colored car parked facing our hotel. It was a gas station parking lot but the car wasn’t anywhere near the pumps. It was too far away to tell exactly what color it was and the glare of the reflecting street lights on the windshield prevented me from seeing if there was anyone sitting in it, so we were never sure if that was our pursuer or not.

Once inside the hotel we informed the manager’s wife, who checked us in, what was going on. She was surprised and disturbed by the story. Thankfully, we had especially chosen hotels to stay in that had access to the rooms only from inside the building. Indeed, the only way to enter the hallways of this particular hotel was by going through the front door and coming in contact with the desk clerk, or by having a key to open the back door. We thought we were being safe when we made those reservations, but we never realized just how crucial such safety measures might be. We went back out to our car, with the manager’s wife keeping an eye out from inside, drove around back, and locked ourselves into the hotel with no further sign of the blue car or its occupant.

The next morning we packed and loaded up the car, still keeping a watchful eye on our surroundings. We drove around the side of the building. Robin went inside to check out and I remained behind, cleaning out the car. After ten minutes, she still hadn’t returned so I went inside to see what was delaying her. I found Robin in conversation with the manager’s wife, and what the woman had to say was chilling.

Fifteen minutes after we’d checked in a man had entered the lobby. The manager’s wife felt he was looking for something and he inquired about rates, even though the rates were on the marquee outside. Strangely, he had approached on foot instead of by car. When he left she shrugged it off and went back to work. A minute later she looked up….the man was back. Where could he get something to eat? She suggested the prominently-marked Denny’s, blazing with lights, just a few doors down. The woman was disturbed enough after his second departure that she encouraged her husband to close and lock the lobby doors and windows, an uncommon procedure for them.

With the now certain, unassailable understanding that the man had come for us, we drove across town to pick up breakfast to go. While at McDonald’s, Robin called her parents back in California and gave them a rundown on the situation. She also gave them the man’s license plate. (They, in turn, passed it on to their next-door-neighbor, a highway patrolman.) With assurances that we would be careful and call them as soon as we reached Oklahoma City, we once again resumed our eastward progress, with its unchanging landscape of tarmac, vehicles, tarmac, vehicles.

Somewhere in Amarillo, a driving lifetime away from Tucumcari, we had been lulled into bored complacency as we hurtled along the freeway in the middle of three lanes of traffic, keeping pace with the car around us. Suddenly we were catching up rapidly to the car ahead of us in our lane, and Robin was slamming on her brakes. “It’s him!” I looked, open-mouthed, incredulous–but not at the car. I was looking at Robin. You see, in my fit of pique at the rest stop and on the dark, rainy freeway, I had wrongly perceived the color of the Honda Civic. My mind recalled it as silver and the car now in front of us was pale blue. Robin, though, knew. She knew that we had dodged a bullet only to be fired upon again. She recognized the license plate number of the car that had been keeping up with traffic until our approach, when its speed dropped to under the posted limit.

Acting on instinct, Robin floored the gas pedal and streaked past the car on the left. We were doing eighty, again praying to be pulled over. We seemed to shake the Honda and then shot down an off-ramp, hiding in a grocery store parking lot until we were sure the man must’ve passed. Cautiously, we crept back onto I-40 and maintained the speed limit. A mile down the road–so far, so good. Had he continued east, assuming we were ahead of him, hunting for us? He must have. Except….he hadn’t. We rounded a curve in the road and our jaws dropped, for there, sitting on the side of the highway, was a light blue Honda Civic. And our stalker, the man, our very own homegrown psycho, was standing by the car watching the passing traffic. No time to think or form a plan; remembering a piece of advice I’d heard regarding being followed, I locked eyes with the man and stared him down as we passed. “I’m not afraid,” the look said. “We’re onto you.”

It was our last encounter with the man in the blue Honda Civic.

Had my brief, drive-by confrontation with the man really worked? Was it serendipitous car trouble that prevented him from following us? We’ll never know. But the lesson we learned, the reality that sucker-punched us in the gut as we looked back over our shoulders and saw the car following us off that Tucumcari off-ramp, was this: be aware. Pay attention to your surroundings. Robin did, those two days in the southwest, and it very well might have saved us.

Ghosts of the Queen Mary

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As you may or may not know my family and I spent two nights on the Queen Mary earlier this month. As you also may or may not know the Queen Mary is renowned for (among other things) being extremely haunted. As my intention here is not to write about the specifics of those hauntings allow me to direct you to this article that enumerates many of the reported incidences.

My older children (10 and newly-8, for those new to this blog) are currently very much into ghost hunting. With this in mind we booked one of the paranormal tours offered by the Queen Mary, which embraces its “Most Haunted Ship in the World” designation. My children weren’t even supposed to be allowed on the tour, as they normally only allow ages 16 and up. But with a little finesse and finagling we got the powers that be to allow it and off we went on a two-hour nighttime tour to the most haunted areas of the ship, many of which are off limits to the general public.

For the most part our tour was uneventful, contact-wise. Our tour guide was excellent and possibly the most informed human being on the face of the Earth when it comes to the Queen Mary. A lot of the problem may have been due to the fact that the QM was playing hostess to a tattoo and motorcycle convention. Just about everywhere we went there was bleed-through noise from public areas of the ship where people were carousing. I can see how this might have a negative impact on the spirits.

There was, however, one set of events that I want to chronicle because, taken as a whole, they seem like too much to be coincidence. They concern the ghost named “John”, mentioned in the article above, and the area of the engine room near Door 13.

We arrived in “John’s” area as approximately the third stop on our tour. I was standing with my back to Door 13 as the guide began telling us about how “John” died, and then indicated that it was the very door I was nearly leaning against. I yelped and shot over about six feet, away from the door. In my new position I leaned against the railing that ran the length of the metal walkway we were on. Immediately upon doing so I began to experience a pronounced pitching and rolling. It felt very much like having sea legs (something I experienced for days last year after having taken an hours-long cruise around SF Bay). There were several points at which I hastily grabbed the railing because I felt as though I was in danger of falling over. At a break in his spiel I asked the tour guide if we were moving. He explained that, no, there was a very slight movement from the tidal change in water level but that the ship was moored so firmly that it shouldn’t be noticeable. He mentioned that people will have physical reactions to spirits being nearby, including things like chills, goosebumps, temperature change, etc. For my part, I kept thinking surely it was all in my mind. Several times I tried to convince myself I wasn’t feeling the pitching and rolling and I physically tried to center and steady myself, but it continued.

While we were standing there the tour guide pulled out a pair of dousing rods and asked for someone to hold them. Johnny (the then-7-year-old) volunteered. The rods were metal but had plastic sort of grips on one end. The plastic grips fit loosely and moved independently of the rods; in other words, it would be impossible to subtly twist the grips and turn the rods. And I can assure you that my darling son is many things, but subtle is not one of them. He is very bright and very curious but also very sincere and true-hearted and it would never even occur to him to try to skew the results for something like that to make it more interesting.

That said, there was Johnny with the dousing rods. Once he was gripping them correctly (these had a tendency to turn outward, away from each other, by the way) the tour guide began speaking to “John”, asking him to cross the rods. And the rods crossed. Johnny got excited and jiggled them and they uncrossed, so the tour guide asked “John” to cross them again. They crossed. I really have no explanation for this as I was staring at Johnny’s fingers the entire time, making sure he didn’t subconsciously move the rods somehow.

The tour guide took the rods back, talked some more about the various things people have seen or heard, and then asked “John” if he’d give us one more sign – anything – that he was there. As soon as the guide made the request a large piece of machinery on the wall kicked on (and every last one of us, to a man, jumped at least three feet in the air). In the interest of accuracy it should be noted that this was a functioning piece of machinery that is supposed to run. However, it does not operate on any particular schedule and our guide stated that he has been in the engine room for as much as ninety minutes at a time and has not had the thing turn on.

The guide then asked, “John, will you turn it off?” He paused, but nothing happened. He then said, “Okay, John, we need to move on. You are welcome to follow us but it’s time for us to go,” and he turned around to leave. He had not gotten two feet outside the door and I’ll be damned if that machine didn’t shut off, God as my witness.

The tour continued after that with nothing to report, at least on my part. Am I completely sold that we experienced spirit contact? No. Nothing definitive happened. I take the dousing rods with a grain of salt, and the machinery could be chalked up to weird coincidence. The pitching and rolling I felt is my most inexplicable experience. It was so pronounced and so real as to make me feel like I was losing my balance. To be fair, I should disclose that I do have some issues with water, especially deep ocean water. At the time we entered the engine room the tour guide informed us that we were, indeed, underwater. So it’s possible that the pitching and rolling I experienced were psychosomatic symptoms of my phobia. But I should also disclose the the pitching and rolling stopped – dead, cold stopped – the minute we walked out of “John’s” area – despite the fact that we remained far under the water line for at least the next hour.

Hey, this was really fun. We hope you liked it, too.

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I find myself on the eve of another “last day in California” and I don’t like it any more than I ever have.

I can’t say this trip zoomed by. Honestly it seems like an age since we left Oklahoma and I feel like we crammed a lot of activity into a short time here. So it’s not that the time went by fast….it’s that, as always, there wasn’t enough. Slow-moving, fast-moving; it doesn’t matter. It’s never enough.

Obviously, then, my first choice would always be to stay indefinitely. Just as obviously, that isn’t going to happen. This results in differing degrees of disappointment when the end of my stay arrives. Some trips (most often the ones I’ve stayed for a month or more) I am…not ready to go home, as in desirous of such…..but accepting of it and maybe even looking forward to things we have planned once we’ve gotten there. I may not want to leave but the amount of time until the next visit seems manageable and there is plenty to distract me in Oklahoma.

Then we have trips like this one. This time I’m not holding up quite so well. I can’t really pinpoint why that is. Maybe it’s because it’ll be about six months before I get out here again. (Between this visit and the previous one was only around four months, and I had a trip to San Francisco in between!) Maybe it’s because of the return to the school routine when we get back. As I may have mentioned before (eight thousand times) I HATE having my kids in school. I wish they could be home all the time. I hate missing out on that much time with them and having to kowtow to the school district’s schedules and rules. We get back and go right into all of that again, slogging through the seemingly interminable stretch from after-Christmas to Spring Break.

OR perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’m going back to a house which is still in a state of chaos from our move three months ago. The amount of junk I have yet to deal with and the fact that there’s nowhere to put it is fairly depressing to me, not to mention overwhelming. I’m an ideological/theoretical neat freak. I crave everything being organized to the hilt but I don’t have the mental stamina nor the energy to make it so, which causes a lot of angst, ennui and discouragement, along with a healthy dollop of guilt just to help it all slide down like a glass-shard-and-thumbtack Jell-O mold.

I think I’m going to peg it as a combination of all three things and call me analyzed.

My point in all this is I’ve already started to circle the drain. I hate it when the spiral starts before I even leave because then I feel like I waste my remaining time feeling bad instead of enjoying myself. I’ve been feeling anxiety about the actual trip home for days – driving “all the way” to Oakland, being on time for the flight, the actual flight – the usual pre-trip bullshit my brain comes up with to drive me insane. That’s just my preemptive worrying, though. Once we get to the airport on time I will relax and everything will go well. And then….I’ll be home. That’s when, I’m afraid, the problems might start. I’m not liking the way this is shaping up so far. It feels like I might be in for a major crash and burn.

And, on that happy note, I’m calling it a night. Here’s to me being wrong and holding up better than I think I might.

Just what I’ve always wanted!

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Every year, during the planning phase of our California trip, I invariably utter the phrase, “I’d really like to get out there as soon as possible after school gets out.” It never happens; the quickest we’ve ever made it was late June, by which time the kids had already been out of school a month. Airline ticket prices and availability, not to mention our schedules here, always conspire against us to push the trip further down the calendar than I’d ever intended. And, as always, I’m just plain glad to be there, never mind what month it is, but I do still cling to the hope that “maybe next year” we’ll do things my way.

This year was no exception to the above. It was July before we got to California; mid-August before we returned home. Now I’m sitting here looking at the ten-day forecast and realizing, “Hey, maybe there are some advantages to a later trip, after all!” – namely that we were gone for most of the godawful Oklahoma summer heat. Yes, it’s been hot since we got home, but we’ve only been home a week-and-a-half. After today we will be dipping down to the low 90s and high 80s here. Heck, I even see one glorious 83 coming up (which is actually still too hot for my taste but compared to 105 it’s nirvana). Now I’m not trying to say fall has arrived or that we won’t have any more bloody hot days. I have a very distinct memory of attending an OU football game on September 2, 2000 at which the temperature was 106 at kickoff – at 6 p.m.! (Try that when you’re 7 months pregnant. It doesn’t go well.) But we are surely on the downhill slide and we missed most of the really unbearable weather – while on California’s central coast which, incidentally, has had an unusually cool summer. We didn’t just trade up slightly, we were flat out spoiled. We were in Atascadero from July 2nd through August 13th and my parents ran the air conditioning maybe ten days the entire time we were there.

Quite characteristically of me the realization that later trips aren’t all bad has come after we’ve already made our plans for next year – plans that include leaving for CA within days of school letting out and returning at the end of June or beginning of July. Yay, me! I get what I’ve always wanted, right? Kids and I will leave CA just as it starts to really heat up and be home early for once….just in time for the hellfire and damnation that is an Oklahoma summer. I won’t be surprised if we find brimstone on the lawn when we get here. And that, dear friends, is a fairly fine example of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

You Know You’re a Parent When…. #463

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You know you’re a parent when the notion of a direct flight makes you want to sing, dance and strew rose petals around your immediate area.

Our flight back to Oklahoma (which is zooming up far too quickly for my taste) takes us from San Jose directly to Dallas and I couldn’t be more thrilled. It may not seem like much but plane changes and layovers are the banes of my existence. After spending the entire first leg of the trip in a state of low-grade paranoia about whether we’ll make it in time for our second flight, I have to re-pack all the paraphernalia we’ve disgorged from our bags, deplane and make our way through yet another airport – either running in a panic because we are late or shuffling along like tortoises because we have hours to kill. There’s a second set of snacks to be bought, a gate to be found, the boarding process (again), and the digging out of all the crap I just packed up (and will have to pack up again shortly). Compare to that the direct flight which entails only one of everything and that is why I want to do the happy dance. I mean, really – if I have to go home, isn’t it nice to make it as painless as possible?

Now to figure out the DVD situation. The portable DVD we brought with us has perished and I don’t have my laptop. I am not sure I have the intestinal fortitude to attempt a three-hour flight sans video anesthetic.