Syncopated Family Travel – The Arizona Painted Desert and Leaving Your Mark

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia .

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
painted desert

Where are we at? Where are we going? Soon we will all be dead, returned to the earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The vastness of Arizona stretches out all around me, home to the nameless dead. For me the sad part isn’t dying.  It’s fading away and being forgotten.  There’s something to be said about blowing your brains out in your prime and living forever, instead of rotting away in eternal obscurity. There’s something to be said about leaving your mark.

I contemplate the markings at Newspaper Rock at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Birds. Deer. Wheels. Serpents. We do not know who made the stone markings, but at least their work lives on.

ancient grafitiIn the ancient myth of Enoch, the antediluvian holy man, was instructed to write the sacred secrets of heavens and earth on both stone and clay.  If the world ended with fire, the baked clay would survive.  If the world ended by water, the stone would live on to tell his story. Written into the myth is this deep throbbing need to continue to tell our story despite all costs.

This is why I write.  This is my story.

Petrified Forest National Park is a nuclear explosion. Rock solid bits of wood litter the land landscape.  Fell trees snapped like broken bone. It’s a pretty war zone. Souvenir collecting is tempting, but condemned by more than just the weight of the petrified forest in Arizonanational park service. There is a higher power at work. Stealing bits of petrified wood carries threats of lingering curses. The information center displays letters of people who stole and lived (just barely) to tell the tale.

painted desertLesson learned: buy your petrified wood from any number of the souvenir shops dotting the nearby backroads. Five-dollars is a small price to pay to avoid a curse so bad that a gypsy would be fearful.

We eschew collecting and enjoy the curse-free vistas, bordering up against portions of the beautiful painted desert.  Here the gentle rock formations are banded with brilliant reds, purples, yellow, blues, and whites. It’s hot, vacant, beautiful.
cadillac ranch texasOur drive continues as we press back toward home, cutting through northern Texas.  Just over the border in Amarillo is the Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation.  Here mid-century Cadillacs are buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle mirroring the Great Pyramid of Giza. The sculpture is a constant work in progress.  The viewing public is encouraged to add their touch, by adorning the cars with spray-can art.   The cars are a constant evolution of graffiti tags in a crayon box of colors.

grafitti in the desertMy addition is an ancient pictograph adorning rocks and cave walls all across the globe.  This same image inexplicably appears across the American southwest, Armenia, Italy, Spain, the Alps, the Middle-East.  It appears on Newspaper Rock.  A squatting stick man, waste adorned by twin dots.  One of the humanity’s first memes.  It’s meaning lost to the ages. What was it to cause disparate cultures separate by oceans to decide to uniformly draw the same image? What was the story they wanted us to know?

Where are we at?

Where are we going?

Vagobond Travel Museum –

Valencia Statues Vagabond Travel MuseumWelcome to the Vagobond Travel Museum.

The web is full of great travel blogs, travel stories, travel photos and travel videos – the hard part is finding them amidst all the garbage. Through the week, I curate the best travel stories I find and bring you the highlights here at the Vagobond Travel Museum.

travel deals in the New York Times The New York Times this week published a great list of 19 websites that can save you money on your travels.

The Irish Times published this very interesting piece about exploring Fez, Morocco with a cookbook from the 1950’s. A different way to see a city that has been written about in sometimes too many ways.

The Guardian came out with a fantastic guide to summer family holidays– including a tree house in Paris and some beach holidays you might overlook.

Life Remotely is a blog from three Seattlites who decided to become digital nomads…If this post centered around a drunk campfire conversation with a Vietnam vet is any indication – this could become my favorite blog.

And while there were plenty of other great travel stories this week – that’s it for this weeks inductions into the Vagobond Travel Museum. To let me know about any great travel pieces, contact me using the contact form here at Vagobond.com

Syncopated Family Travel – The Grand Canyon, The Rio Grande, and Grand Theft Auto

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
The Grand CanyonThe Grand Canyon is not so grand. We’re here because it is another lifetime must-see. Sure it’s massive; but perhaps too big for comfort. The natural wonder is not very approachable. Like a large mural painting, I have to step back to take in the view.  Even then I’m only getting half the picture. Can something be so overwhelming that it is underwhelming?  We stay long enough to take a few photographs to mark the visit and move on.

Williams, Arizona is our stopover.  There we find accommodations at the Canyon Motel and RV park. It’s inexpensive, but a bit on the shabby side — hobo shabby, not shabby chic. Worse, the cable is out and the Wi-Fi signal is inaccessible. We see what the town has to offer by way of entertainment. Due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon, Williams is a thriving cluster of motels and tourist dives.  Upon our visit, the main thoroughfare is blocked off to allow for an exuberant western show to be reenacted in the middle of the street.

Twisters cokeWe bypass the enthralled crowd and duck into Twisters, a kitschy diner with wall-to-wall Coca-Cola memorabilia.  The food selection is limited mainly to burgers and fries, but the old-fashioned soda counter offers a bevvy of carbonated concoctions.  The Cherry Phosphate is a delicious blend of bubbly soda water, thick cherry syrup, and maraschino cherries.  The teenage guys working the diner, offer some impromptu entertainment as I eavesdrop on their conversation.  One claims with conviction that blacks are better at sports because they have extra bone in their legs.  His coworkers nod with belief. The conversation turns to playing the video game, Grand Theft Auto and I turn to my lunch.

The next morning we continue our trek home across the American southwest.  We leave hot and dusty Arizona behind for hot and dusty New Mexico.

The Monterey Non-Smokers Motel in Albuquerque offers us comfortable accommodations for the night.  The grounds of the motel are well kept with a keen attention to detail. Attractive flower beds of colorful geraniums border the walks and the quaint sparkling blue patio pool.

Southwest HotelThe motel is located near historic old town, allowing for a nice breakfast at the Church Street Cafe before our Rio Grande experience.  This area is interesting with rustic New Mexican adobe architecture. We enjoy spicy adovada y huevos and coffee in a charming outside patio.  It would be a great place to linger for a relaxed morning, but we must quickly dash to nearby Bernalillo for our appointment with Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures.

At the Quiet Waters shop we sign multiple waivers in the event that we drown, watch a safety video of people drowning, and get outfitted with life jackets so we don’t drown.  I begin to fear for the worst until I actually lay eyes on the river.

Grand Canyon AnthonyThe Rio Grande is not so grand.  It’s a small stream compared to the rushing, muddy Mississippi back home.  On the plus side, it allows for canoeing and kayaking, something that we’d be fools to try on the mighty Mississippi!

We carefully climb into a wobbly canoe and push off down stream.  Despite being near an urban area, I feel isolated on the river.  For long stretches the only other occupants to be seen are waterfowl, lighting on and off the gently rippling water. Along the way, a small team of firefighters wave from the shore where they are keeping vigilant watch on the surrounding cottonwoods threatened by recent fires.

The change of pace serves us well as we drift slowly by a picturesque backdrop of the surrounding bosque and distant mountain range. In our mad attempt to get back home the the leisurely trip down the Rio Grande is a much needed intermission.  It’s a grand time.

Syncopated Family Travel: The Return Home on Route 66

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

syncopated_blueswallowThe return home from a trip always presents a share of mixed feelings.  On some level there is the disappointment that the excitement of new terrain is coming to an end.  On the flip side there is that draw to that familiar setting, that place of comfort, home.  I am Dorothy standing in the sparkling Emerald City of wonder, clacking my ruby heels together and longing for the black and white Kansas farm, even if it is dirty and smells like pig shit.

We plot our return through the American Southwest; venerable Route 66 is our road home.   It whips and winds through the desolate landscapes and broken towns in Arizona and New Mexico.  Every dot on the map haunts with past ghosts.  It’s like going through a nursing home and looking at the fragile skeletons.  In their dim eyes you can just catch glimmers of past lives full of adventure and glory.

syncopated_wigwamEach turn of the mother road holds shuttered motels forever locked at “no vacancy”.  In those now boarded up rooms, men and women once held each other with the thrill of new love throbbing through their wide open veins.  The neon is burned out with promises made to be broken.  Nothing last forever.  Progress is a motherfucking Interstate ripping through every good intention with the thrill of the open road.  Progress is going from point A to point B in a linear fuck you at 70 miles per hour.  It’s the destination that is important, not the landscape that is  blurring in the side gaze — definitely not the past vanishing behind. Progress is a streamlined sonofabitch.

This leg of the trip is made more poignant with the recent visit to Disney’s Carsland fresh in memory.  The film Cars was based on director John Lasseter’s own family road trip over this asphalt time machine.  As we traverse through the towns and places that inspired fictional Radiator Springs, I have a new appreciation for what I had considered one of Pixar’s lesser endeavors.  Stripped from the Hollywood trappings it is a sentimental lament to what was left behind.

syncopated_me_writing_windowIn Tucumcari, New Mexico, we check into the Historic Route 66 motel.   It doesn’t have the brilliant neon of the Blue Swallow down the road, but it makes up with it in mid-century modern style.   Parked outside is a gleaming black Cadillac.  The bright lobby inside looks like it could double as a Mad Men set.   The standout feature is a front desk counter made out of petrified wood. As we settle down, Cars happens to be playing on the television.  The Divine is really good at serving up these little coincidences to serve as signs telling our sub-conscience to wake the fuck up and pay attention.  The rooms along the motel stretch have curtain wall windows, acting as a looking glass for those who want to watch the world drive by: coming, going, always moving.

syncopated_seligman_carsRoad trips like these offer a neutral space to gaze out of life’s window.  This is us at our most conflicted: forever seeking the new, exciting future and longing for the simplicity of the past.  We want the shiny, we have a soft spot for the rusty and tarnished. We crave technicolor but long for black and white. This is our burden to bare as humans who have the sense to be able to tell past from present, to plot and plan, to remember yesterday, and hope for tomorrow. This is our shared journey through space and time.

Syncopated Family Travel: Yes, I’m a Mouseketeer at Disneyland!

Story by Anthony Mathenia  Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Dirty Disney MousketeerMecca. Nirvana. The Holy Land. It goes by many different names to the faithful, but for the uninitiated it is known as Disneyland. I prostrate myself at its hallowed turnstiles and I am filled with a shuddering ecstasy: one of those big bastard Pentecostal grand mals.
After numerous trips to Walt Disney World in Florida, I finally get to touch the sacred soil of the California mother park. What’s the first stop? Space Mountain? It’s a Small World? The Matterhorn? All in due time. First I pull up a stool at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel.  The bar, named after the infamous Jungle Cruise headhunter, is a piece of kitschy South Pacific heaven.

Disneyland Bar - TikibarThe interior is a cramped space festooned with exotic Polynesian decorations. Outside, luau musicians serenade people lounging around an impressive stone fireplace. The Tiki Bar is everything I love about Disney on amphetamines, it’s not a bar, it’s an experience. I’m served up a tropical drink called the Uh-Oa in what can only be described as a large tiki cereal bowl. As the skipper sets it down before me the whole bar erupts in a chant over throbbing drums: “uh-oa, uh-oa, uh-oa.” Pinches of cinnamon spark as they are flicked on a flaming sugar cube floating atop a pool of rum and fruit juices. Around me, lightning flashes, water sprays, and a volcano goes off. I take a drink and my head spins. It’s that classic wholesome Disney debauchery. If I’m lucky I’ll wake up in the middle of a magical princess orgy. If I’m unlucky I’ll end up floating in the castle moat.

Hotel room at Disneyland HotelMost likely it’ll just end with me sinking into my posh bed near the top of the Fantasy tower at the Disneyland Hotel. It’s decked with fluffy white comforters and navy blue throw pillows reading “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” The dark wood headboard lights up with a twinkling display and plays a soothing When You Wish Upon a Star. Elegance like this comes at a hefty price. In order to pay for the room we nearly had to sell our daughter as an indentured servant in the Disney college program when she turns eighteen.

Disneyland hotel president NixonIt’s worth it for the pure nostalgiagasm of the place. The hotel was opened in 1955, soon after the park opened, and today history oozes out of every crevice.  Just off the main lobby is a collection of frame photographs of visiting celebrities and dignitaries over the years, including that lying crook Nixon. Our room has a framed, black and white portrait of the master of the mouse, Walt Disney, standing under the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Outside the elaborate pool includes water slides made out of old monorails winding down underneath a vintage Disneyland sign. It’s a Disney time warp.

At Trader Sam’s I run up a serious bar tab and chat with another couple. I spotted them out of the crowd and could tell that they worshiped at the altar of Disney. We bond over the fruity drinks and our mutual love of the mouse.  They are California natives so we trade stories about the differences between the two parks.  This particular family one ups me by sharing that they had the opportunity to go to Disney’s new Aulani resort in Hawaii. How was it? “Expensive, but so worth it,” they replied with familiar ecstatic eyes.

Disneyland Small WorldAs a Disney World veteran, it is great to check out the source material. When I clear the Disneyland railroad berm I’m no longer in the middle of busy downtown Anaheim; rather, I’m transported into that happy place.  I skip through the hallowed castle. I bask in the beauty of Mary Blair’s whimsical Small World facade. I join Mr. Toad on his wild ride straight to hell. I loudly catcall to the “red head” as roguish pirates raid the Caribbean town. I never, ever stop smiling.
The Disneyland park is a historical testament to the dedication of one visionary who had invested himself in making so many people happy. It’s an amazing legacy I’m happy to pay homage to.
Disneyland Buean Vista StreetJust across the entrance plaza is the much-maligned California Adventure park. After an extensive billion dollar remodel, the park seems poised to reestablish itself. Through the gates I stroll past the art deco style buildings of Buena Vista Street, a tribute to Las Angeles circa 1923. We enjoy a fantastic meal at the new Carthay Circle Theatre restaurant. The interior of the restaurant evokes strong images of olden Hollywoodland high class.  The first floor bar is a particular treasure. Their specialty is classic cocktails served up proper. I enjoy a gin martini, chilled to perfection with an ice sphere and garnished with an olive.

Beyond is the new Carsland, which note for note recreates Radiator Springs from the animated Pixar movie Cars. When the sun goes down the area sparks to life with brilliant neon.  Life Could Be A Dream drifts romantically out of the loudspeakers. However, for all of the fun of the cartoon version, the real Route 66 awaits us, as we must soon say goodbye to the west coast and head home.

Neon at Disneyland CarslandOur days at Disney end with a viewing of The Wonderful World of Color water show.  Acrobatic fountains of water dance to sweeping music in a wild array of pulsating color. Dr. Leary would be impressed. We ignore the “you may get wet” warnings and take up a position right up front near the cascading jets. To quote the Flight of the Conchords, “I’m not crying, it’s just raining on my face.”  This is heaven.

Syncopated Family Travel – Los Angeles – Beaches, Bums, and Cults

Story by Anthony Mathenia  Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Los Angeles Irony?Hollywood California: swimming pools, movies stars, and a man passed out on the sidewalk with his pants down. This is what we are treated to as we take a morning drive to see LA’s famous sites. The only thing distinguishing this particular scene from New York City is that his bare ass has a nice California tan. Instinctively, we hit the door locks.

It’s a good thing as a machete wielding maniac in a hockey mask approaches our car at the next intersection. It’s startling until we realize that he is just one of many costumed tourist-trappers bilking bucks on the crowds flocking to see Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The tourists size up there hands with those of the stars impressed on the concrete, while being prayed upon by Marilyn Monroe, the Incredible Hulk, and a shitty Spiderman selling photographs. We nope it out of there and careen through the Hollywood hills for a vantage of the famous Hollywood sign. I have an interest in none of this, but today is the kid’s day and she is calling the travel stops.

Jim Jones Cult, Los AngelesThere is but one exception; I can’t visit Los Angeles without visiting the historic church at Alvarado and Hoover. In the 1970’s, this tan brick building served as Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. It’s most impressive feature is the semi circular front porch with rounded arches and fluted columns. A stately brick tower rises up over a red tiled roof. Inside, not much has changed since the Reverend Jim Jones preached here. The building still has the same burgundy church pews were the members of Jones’s cult ecstatically listened to their smooth tongued master and hoped for a better life.

After paying my respects, we leave the former cult building to go see the Cults. Coincidentally the NYC indie pop band is playing the Make Music Pasadena festival. The annual music festival takes over multiple city blocks in Pasadena. Its a great lineup on four stages and, since it is absolutely free, the cost of admission can’t be beat. In addition to fantastic music there are plenty of activities, lots of great food, and some brilliant chalk sidewalk art.

Los Angeles Music FestivalIts shoulder to shoulder as we pack in before the crowded main stage where the Cults are set to play. The crowd is diverse, but as a whole pretty laid back. A group of hispanic men with long black heavy metal hair openly smoke medical ganja and more surreptitiously pass around a gigantic bottle of Jack Daniels. Many of the young ladies around sport the nerd look with huge black glasses covering their faces. Hipsters abound, dressed in sock garters, cut off jean shorts, bandoliers, fringed vests, and rain boots. One holds a small tartan umbrella to block the blinding hot sun.

Hollywood - Here we are!“Holy shit look at this crowd,” says Cult’s guitarist Brian Oblivion, shielding his sunglass covered eyes, as he peers outward across the sweating mass of flesh. The band launches into a soiree of synth infused retro-pop. Singer Madeline Follin croons into the microphone, “I knew right then that I’d been abducted.” Guitarist Oblivion comes in with a wash of distorted electric guitar. She sways in a baby doll dress. He’s a windmill of long black hair.
The crowd erupts at the opening glockenspiel notes of “Go Outside”. It’s accompanied by a sample of Jim Jones. “To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous,” his ghostly voice intones. Follin earnestly sings, “I really want to go out. I really want to go outside and see your day.” The packed crowd sings along, everyone swaying together like a salty ocean. It’s religious.

pop star Soko playing in LAA few blocks down SoKo is playing. She’s one of my daughter’s favorites who she got to meet outside of the vegan restaurant in LA. Born as Stéphanie Sokolinski, she’s a french singer with a fragile voice. The crowd is smaller at the Playhouse District Eclectic Stage, but no less enthusiastic. A guy in the audience yells something out in bad french, causing SoKo to laugh. “I love that’s the only french you know,” she said, then explained to the audience he asked her to take off her clothes.

I’m not so far removed from my childhood to remember the joy of seeing a favorite band perform. Even more, the excitement of getting to meet them. My daughter enjoys watching the show up front, as the musician works through an assortment of songs, from gentle guitars ballads to a raging punk missive while playing drums. During I Thought I Was An Alien she cackles into the microphone in high-pitched alien tongues. It’s definitely a highpoint of the trip for my kid.

LA BeachesWe end the long, sunny day with a drive to Laguna Beach to look at the ocean. It seems that LA traffic alternates between crawling at a jammed snail’s pace to race car fast. We cruise along twenty miles over the limit, trying to keep pace only to come to a dead stop. In this herky jerky fashion we make it to Laguna Beach. The area is appealing, with interesting shops, nice restaurants and quirky houses. If there are half-naked bums, they keep them well out of site.

We manage to score a parking space in a busy area near a beach side park. It’s a pretty relaxed scene. Well dressed elderly men are playing a game of bocce. A family grills out, filling the air with the savory aroma of sizzling flank steak. The beach front is pretty small, but it affords the opportunity to sit on a rock and watch the tide come in and the sun set. It’s a calm end to an energetic day.

Syncopated Family Travel – Leaving Las Vegans

Story by Anthony Mathenia
Photos by Rebekah Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Mojave Desert“I’m hungry,” my daughter whines from the backseat. I can think of few things worse than traveling with a newly minted teenager, especially one that happens to be vegan.

“Food This Exit” declares another Interstate sign. However for her the options at this exit are no better than those at the last.

“You want some fries?” my wife offers.

“I’m sick of french fries,” my daughter moans.

“How about a mandarin orange?”  We have a bag of Clementines in the trunk.

“I’m sick of oranges.” Her voice is fingers on chalkboard.

I must have done something really awful in a past life. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the meatless horizon: the culinarily diverse cities of  Las Vegas and Los Angeles are coming up.

A Las Vegan's Best FriendAs we head west we make a brief side visit to the City of Sin to take my daughter to Veggee Delight. I’m a little worried as the GPS leads us through the Vegas Strip deep into the heart of Chinatown. However, the Vietnamese cafe owners are welcoming to this mid-westerner. It also seems to be popular with non-Asian locals; a few trickle in and take up seats in the tiny dining room.

Wet Noodles are funI scan the menu offering a variety of Asian dishes with fake meat: chicken, beef, pork, tuna. TUNA? I double-check that I read that right. Yes, they have a meatless tuna. I shun the “tuna”, which is barely passable in its legitimate version. My daughter orders some kind of “beef” bowl. I’m not big on fake meat, so I choose something called “wet fried vegetables with noodles”.

I take a moment to ponder the ancient, oriental mystery of how a vegetable can be both wet and fried. Service is quick and soon I am tearing into my dish as fast as my preschool chopstick skills will allow. As it turns out the “wet” is a thin sauce over some fried vegetables (carrots, snap peas, shoots) and some crispy noodles. The food is surprisingly satisfying and soon we are back on our way.

We are only miles down the road before I hear again, “I’m hungry.”

“You want an orange?”

“I’m sick of oranges.” So it goes with vegan teenagers.

Continuing southwest into California, we watch the temperature escalate: 100, 101, 102, 103 … Through the vast Mojave Desert, Joshua trees dot the crispy landscape stretching out into a shimmering, hazy horizon. It looks wet and fried.

Flore Vegan Restaurant in Los AngelesOur travel is interrupted as we are commanded off the road to a mandatory car search. State agents wave our Nissan up to a checkpoint. What are they looking for? Drugs? Booze? Illegal immigrants? “Ma’am do you have any citrus in the car?” a no-nonsense woman leans forward to ask.   My wife nervously looks at me, her eyes as wide as saucers.  Should we run for it Dukes of Hazard style?

Minutes later we are on our way again, but without our contraband in tow. California takes their citrus seriously and our illegal Clementines are not welcome in the Golden State.

“I wish I had an orange,” laments my daughter.

Vegan Breakfast in CaliforniaIn L.A. we treat my daughter to another vegan meal. We arrive at Flore Vegan Cuisine on a Saturday morning while they are serving their weekend brunch. The diminutive seating area is packed with Californians enjoying a leisurely mid-morning meal and the daily newspaper.  For the diners, there is no haste to finish so we join a small line forming outside. I impatiently wonder if vegan food is worth the wait. It is. When our name is finally called we are treated to an outstanding meal, rivaling some of the best I have ever head. I order some beautiful buckwheat blueberry waffles topped with bananas. My wife enjoys a southwest scramble, a tasty tofu version of huevos rancheros.

Another Vegan Breakfast in CaliforniaMy daughter enjoys something even better than her vegan breakfast.  She delights to spot SoKo, one of her favorite musicians, out for a walk. The French actress/singer is gracious enough to pause for a cell phone picture.  She informs us that she is performing at the Make Music Pasadena festival later.

“Can we go?” my daughter begs.

When she hears my answer she responds with the usual.

“I never get anything I want.”

So it goes.

Syncopated Family Travel – Bryce Canyon Utah

Family hiking in Utah - BryceAs we near the end of our first week, traveling takes on a comfortable rhythm. Like someone training for a marathon, we grow accustomed to the long miles between stops. Packing and unpacking the car each night becomes a precise clockwork. Miles rack up and scenery swaps out again and again. Every few hours we change landscape and it’s always so new. The grass in this place is not the same as the grass in that place: the rocks, the water, all different. Hell, even the sky seems different, by nature or trick of the traveler’s eye, I’m not certain.

As we enter Utah, Salt Lake City brings a momentary rush of heavy traffic, but it quickly dissipates moving further south. A lovely orange waste flashes by our car windows; the outside air is a convection oven. Utah is a dusty Eden with so many natural wonders, it is difficult to narrow down the list to a couple of stops before we press further west to California. Our travel takes us first to the southern edge of Utah. Here Red Canyon gives us an introduction to what we can find further at Bryce Canyon National Park. The road winds through interesting red limestone formations rising above rugged ponderosa pine trees. This place is familiar, if only because the Disney Imagineers borrowed the look of the eroded spires, called hoodoos, for their popular Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceThe majority of travelers to Bryce tend to flock to Ruby’s Inn, a hotel that has been serving travelers for decades. It is a large complex just outside the gates to the national park, offering not just lodging, but shopping, dining, travel activities, and, of course, requisite taffy and fudge. We forgo the crowds and instead set down for the night in nearby Tropic, a small, dusty town of approximately five-hundred. We call ahead to notify the owners of Bybee’s Steppingstone Motel that we might not make it before their front desk closes for the night.

“No problem,” the friendly innkeeper says. “We’ll just leave the door to your room open and the key on the bed.”

Family hiking in Utah - BryceTropic seems to be the rare kind of place where a person can leave their doors unlocked without concern of wandering burglars or serial killers. It’s quaint and rough, just a simple stretch of a few homes, some hotels, a few restaurants, and a couple of shops set against a backdrop of grey cliffs. The Steppingstone houses eight charming, if small, rooms, uniquely decorated with homey touches like patchwork quilts on the beds. The grounds are nicely manicured featuring a rare green lawn, taking parched drinks from a flickering garden sprinkler. By the garden a traveler sits on a bench reading Camus. With such a tight schedule, I regret that I don’t have the leisure to do the same.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceOur first stop on our tour of the area is Mossy Cave Trail, a short, scenic walk situated between Tropic and Bryce Canyon proper. Through here the rippling Tropic ditch canal was carved through the arid land by farmers in 1892 to provide irrigation for crops. Along our walk we delight to view small waterfalls along the creek and above hoodoos and windows carved in sandstone. A special treat are the many colorful wildflowers that dot the landscape.

Next we take in some of the scenic outlooks of Bryce Canyon Family hiking in Utah - BryceNational Park, culminating in a stop at Sunset Point. The overlook is poorly named. Gazing out at the amphitheater positions our back toward the west, so the sun slides down, out of sight behind us. However, the diminishing evening light is supposed to make interesting shadows across the amphitheater. At the rim we join a long line of people poised with cameras gazing out at cliff faces and spires that give the impression of walls and buttresses of an alien castle. To our right, the entrance to the Navajo Loop trail catches our attention as it winds down into the amphitheater funneling into a narrow slip of rock. The lure of adventure beckons and we descend down the switchbacks and pass through a dim hallway of rock, named Wall Street. It empties out to an opening where spindly Douglas fir trees stretch upward in search of rare sunlight from the sky above.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceBy the time we reach the bottom, those inching shadows have covered the floor with deep, dense black. A terrible truth sets down upon us: we must somehow get back to the rim in the dark. Unfortunately for us, this particular trail boasts one of the most extreme elevation changes at Bryce. It’s a daunting five-hundred twenty-one feet back to the top. Climbing is a weary chore. Each step is a painful reminder of the overall lack of activity that dominates my normal life. Each labored breath mocks all those unfulfilled New Year’s promises to “eat better”, “exercise more,” “walk to the kitchen to get a beer instead of shouting at the child to do it.” Speaking of the child, she casually skips up the switchbacks, texting on her cellphone. She is soon out of sight, leaving her mother and me in the black depths of Tartarus.

We press on, sweat-soaked, bones creaking, bodies aching. Stopping. Resting. Resting. Giving up and making suicide pacts through punctuated breaths. Finally, we make it to the top.

“Geez, what took you so long,” snips my daughter as we arise like Lazarus from the pit.

The bed back at the Steppingstone is an exquisite comfort, though hard asphalt in a rat-ridden back alley would do as nicely after such a grueling workout. Too soon it is morning. With sore muscles we walk to nearby Clarke’s restaurant for breakfast. It’s good and filling and some European tourists provide unexpected entertainment as they navigate the puzzle of pancakes, butter and syrup. They quickly figure it out with great enthusiasm. Rested, sort-of, fed, definitely, we pack up the car once again, quickly, and set out eagerly to explore more of what Utah has to offer.

Syncopated Family Travel – Yellowstone, Chinese Tourists, and God Damned Bison

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

one of the most scenic roadways in AmericaWe are up early the next morning ready to enter into one of the most emotionally thrilling experiences of my life time. We head south where the road out of Red Lodge becomes framed by stoic white capped mountains. As we ascend the switchbacks, we put the majestic soundtrack to Disney’s Soarin’ on infinite repeat. My heart swells and I bawl like a baby.

There is a reason that Beartooth Road is considered one of the most scenic drives in America. At each bend and turn in the winding road you are treated to a new spectacle. It begins with a view of the snow covered grey mountains in the distance jutting out from patches of dark green trees.

We take a moment at a pull over lot to enjoy the postcard view. The early morning air is crisp and sweet with pine and chipmunks playfully scurry about. From there we continue on up the pass. The air chills noticeably. Heaps of fresh snow are packed on the side of the road and some skiers dart down the steep slopes, disappearing out of view. At the next turn we are treated to an expanse of icy glacial lakes as we near the peak, just shy of 11,000 feet elevation.

America's National Park TreasureOur descent into Yellowstone National Park, brings us past brilliant, sparkling pools of water reflecting the picturesque mountains along side. Our entrance into Yellowstone is spectacular, wide open fields of gentle green hemmed in by tree-lines, and cut through with glittering creeks coursing over smooth stones.

The roads are lined with wildlife photographers hoisting gigantic telephoto lenses. I stop and pull out our diminutive Canon DSLR to take pictures of scampering groundhogs; I haven’t felt this inadequate since freshman year gym class. Yellowstone is a nature photographer’s wet dream.

You can’t turn around without looking at a scene straight out of a nature painting. In the park we are entertained with views of grazing bison, soaring hawks, mule deer, bull moose, brown bears, and hoards of Chinese tourists. At each stop, buses disgorge them and they trail after guides waving little flags. We follow them along the boardwalk encircling the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the park’s most famous geological features.

the hot water at YellowstoneThere, the ground belches out thick plumes of steam, through which tourists attempt to ward off the gripping stench of sulphur by tucking their faces deep into stretched souvenir t-shirts. Only their eyes are exposed gazing admirably at the rainbow palette of intense geothermal features. There are boiling pools of the most brilliant blue giving way to greens meeting edges of fire-like swirls of yellows, reds, and oranges. There are burping puddles of mud making obnoxious noises, which elicit gapes and laughters from amused onlookers. And there are Chinese —

Chinese everywhere. My wife and daughter torment me by picking out my Asian doppelgänger, a dumpy fellow with stringing hair and thick Coke bottle glasses.

There is so much to see, but with the clock swinging past
the geothermal heat at Yellowstonenoon, we decide to go and find something to nosh on. Back in the car we cruise past the thick forests, littered with thousands of fallen trees like white bones. These dead trees are a common sight around Yellowstone, knocked over by age, disease, fire, and wind.

We are enjoying our drive when suddenly out of nowhere, traffic grinds to a complete and total halt. Eventually we see the cause, a whole entire herd of bison have decided to use one lane of the two-lane road as a walking trail. My stomach growls angrily. “Run over the mother fuckers!” I road rage to the cars in front of me. They won’t.

According to the vice guide, wanton killing of animals in a national park is a definite no-no. We have to mollycoddle the bastards. Sometimes cars are able to pass them, but most edge back giving the lumbering behemoths the right of way.

the delicious but annoying bison of YellowstoneThe passing lane is blocked by cars going the opposite direction, slowing to take photographs or point and laugh at the long line of us. I learn that the average land speed of a bison on an asphalt road is between three and four miles per hour. After about an hour of painstakingly slow travel, the bison finally decide to get off the road.

We waste no time, exceeding the speed limit toward the Roosevelt Lodge restaurant. When the waitress asks me what I would like to eat. I don’t have to debate.

“One bison burger please.”

“How would you like that sir?”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” I snip.

After getting re-energized with lunch and calming down, we drive over to look at the Old Faithful geyser, another one of those lifetime must-do’s. In the packed parking lot, I pass a pickup truck, where ravens the size of small dogs are ripping the soft fleshy sides of a cooler to get at the meaty corn chips inside.

I make the mistake of walking too close and the nearest raven gives me a beady, black stink eye straight out of a Poe nightmare. “You can have the fuckin’ Fritos,” I say making a wider berth.

In the Old Faithful viewing area we find benches and await the explosion of the well known geyser. As I sit I have the opportunity to reflect on the last few days spent touring such scenic places.

Chinese Twin at YellowstoneMany of the crowd will leave, with a renewed commitment to save the planet. But, I’m not so sure the planet needs saving. This amazing place was carved by fire and ice, forces so much bigger than ourselves. Hell, just underfoot is a super volcano that packs the potential punch of a 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. When it goes it is gonna take a chunk of America with it. It strikes me as egotistical to believe that we can kill or save the earth. The planet has survived things much worse than us and beautiful places like this will probably exist long after we are killed off.

I’m lurched from my thoughts when the geyser begins to churn and the audience perks up. “Ooooh” goes the Americans. “Lalalala” goes the Chinese. The crowd erupts when Mother Nature blows her volcanic load one-hundred-and thirty two feet into the air to the delight of the cheering crowds.

As the crowds dissipate, I duck into a nearby gift shop and look for taffy.

Syncopated Family Travel – Red Lodge Montana, GPS Disasters, and Never Turning Back

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

a shortcut from montana to wyomingWe leave Mt. Rushmore behind vowing never to return and continue northwest toward Yellowstone National Park. Entering Wyoming, the landscape changes again to sage green hills with a backdrop of dark green mountains. What can I say? This country is big and empty and beautiful.

As we head up Interstate 90, I begin to see signs urging to exit west toward Yellowstone. However, my wife insists we continue on toward Red Lodge, situated just north of the National Park across the Montana border.

We are lured by the promise of an ascent up Beartooth Pass, one of the country’s most scenic drives. Judging by our road atlas, we can continue north on I-90 until it wraps back west.

However, our GPS unit seems to know a short cut through Bighorn National Forest. We put our faith in technology, taking the suggested exit. If nothing else, a drive through of a national forest should offer better views than the Interstate.

Bighorn National ForestThe diversion begins in an outstanding matter as we navigate the narrow switchbacks climbing into higher elevation. To our right some fleet-footed pronghorn deer scamper up the rocky side of the road. We continue on through gates that close off these perilous routes during the winter. The need soon becomes clear as the outside air turns ice cold and snow dots the landscape even in summer. Things become even more dreadful in places where the weather battered roads break down.

With a rally car we might be able to make good time, but we have to move slow so as not to careen off road down into deep ragged, inclines. Our GPS continually recalculating our arrival time, pushing it later and later into the night as our fuel gauge creeps toward empty without a service station in sight. Despite our effort, Red Lodge appears as a still distant dot on the GPS display as we cross over the Montana state line. Sleep fogs over my eyes. “Turn left,” demands the GPS. I whip the car around and immediately mash the breaks.

“Road closed” warns a construction barrier. Looking past myshots from the window of the Bighorn National Monument headlight beams I see the reason; where my GPS insists there is a road there is nothing more than a roughly road-shaped dirt stretch loosely strewn with gravel extending off into pitch black night.

“Maybe we should turn back,” suggests my wife, “see if there is a hotel or something somewhere else.”

However, I’ve come too far and I’m too tired to admit defeat. I fly my civil disobedience flag and drive around the barrier. I flip on the hi-beams and hope that the road doesn’t terminate in a cliff and our trip gets cut short in some kind of Thelma and Louise tribute. I push the car further down the road, kicking up dust and gravel. I don’t have to fear for police in such a desolate place; my only concern is the road and the fuel.

The needle of the gas tank gauge is now buried on empty. We hadn’t planned on camping out; hopefully the road lasts. If not, at least we have turkey sandwiches and the last of that terrible Bud Light. The Nissan bounces up and down as we stumble over pot holes, fishtailing a bit around the curves.

My wife grips at the handle, cursing me; my daughter ignores the situation completely, zoned out in her iPod playlist. After a tense fifteen minutes the rumble subsides as the car tires clip back over onto pavement. Held breaths are forcefully expelled. My daring is rewarded because just a short time later we roll into the charming mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana.

During winter months, Red Lodge is a brilliant stay for those taking advantage of nearby skiing slopes. The town strikes the traveler as laid back, and perhaps a bit bohemian. The diminutive main street is filled with a chain of small cafes and bars, a legacy kept from the mining boom past, when the tiny town had twenty saloons. I lament that at this late hour, I’m unable to stop and close down one of them. Lodging is more of an urgent need than a gin and tonic.

We hope to stay at the Yodeler Motel, a kitschy chalet that has been in the area for over a hundred years and lovingly maintained. Unfortunately the outside neon decries “No Vacancy” leaving us looking for other arrangements. We find lodging next door at the lesser Lupine Inn.

There is a bed, but unfortunately the Internet connection is spotty leaving me to boost a signal from neighboring hotels. In our room, we spend the next hour periodically checking to see if Beartooth Road will even be open to allow passage into Yellowstone. Even in the middle of June it is iffy if the deep snow peaks will be cleared. Finally word comes from the stolen Internet, “PASS OPEN”.

 

Syncopated Family Travel – Mt. Rushmore, Sandwich Artists, and Injun Killers

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

offbeat family travelMy eyes furtively glance at the rearview mirror checking for cops as the family car edges close to forty-five miles per hour, cruising west on South Dakota Highway 44. This particular stretch of asphalt is post-apocalyptic empty and flanked on both sides by green and yellow mixed grasses as the road cuts through portions of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

My fourteen year old daughter stretches her short legs to give the car some gas as she accelerates closer to the speed limit. Early morning light floods through the windows catching the glint her subtle smile. This family road trip seemed the appropriate time to bump her into the driver’s seat.

The legal driving age in South Dakota is fourteen, so we are not exactly breaking the spirit of the law, though we lack the prerequisite forms and eye exams. I learned this from a vice guide I printed out from the dark basement below the regular Internet.

There you can find practically anything, crazy things like assassins. This particular tome of knowledge provides not just legal driving ages, but also for drinking, smoking, and other activities. It delves across the fifty-two states informing what is legal — some only barely by virtue of long forgotten laws and legal loopholes.

With each state in the union maintaining their own code of law, it can be a challenge knowing which states allow the smoking of salvia or the fucking of pets. In some places you can kill an Indian if he crosses in front of you.

Not that I endorse any such activities, but if you have the urge to get smoked up, screw your pooch, while shooting an injun, it is best to do it within the realms of the law like a good honest citizen.

This is the real fear that keeps good Libertarian men like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson from being viable presidential candidates. What one state views as a felony another simply sees as a wild Tuesday night.

Our next major destination is Yellowstone National park, with a quick bucket-list stop at Mt. Rushmore on the way. The famous sculpture is supposedly something that every God-loving American must see before they kick it.

It comes as no surprise that Mt. Rushmore started out as a mere money making scheme conceived to lure tourists to South Dakota. It’s a legacy that it is kept in tact to this day.

As we navigate the Black Hills region we pass through the small mountain town of Keystone, a terminal place kept alive by feeding on the millions of tourists that flock to see the famous sculpture. Like the corner crack dealer they seem to thrive on dealing their vile product to lobotomy eyed tourists.

Does the free world need this much salt water taffy? We should declare a war on it! Make it where the only way you can get fudge anywhere near a national park is in the ass of a drug mule.

a drive by on the first presidentMt. Rushmore itself is highway robbery of the worst kind. To get up close and personal with the chiseled presidents requires a hefty parking fee. Our annual national park pass is confederate money here. Instead we bypass the lot and hang out of the car window, wildly clicking the shutter gangsta style as we do a drive by shooting of the four presidents.

For those who don’t get suckered into the pay lot, you can pull over for free just around the corner and gaze at the hawkish profile of George Washington. Much like your favorite Hollywood action star, he’s a lot smaller in person.

We take the opportunity to snap some pictures and enjoy a picnic lunch. My wife is a sandwich artist, a true turkey club Picasso, unlike those hacks at Subway. Even though it is a pain in the ass to keep food when living out of your car, the inconvenience is worth the atmosphere.

A deer in South DakotaThe luscious backdrop of ponderosa pine trees and blocks of glittering granite is far preferable to the view of a squalid McDonald’s Play Place, ball-pit littered with dirty diapers and used needles. Not to mention the smell; I inhale the sweet aroma of the pine and it becomes clear what all of those air fresheners have been chemically aping all of my life. I’d love to figure out a way to capture it in a brown paper bag and huff it for the rest of my trip.

Nearby the Crazy Horse monument is carved in Thunderhead mountain to honor the heritage of the Lakota people, or perhaps simply as another tourist magnet. As I eat my sandwich I contemplate a new monument to capture the true spirit of America. I just need to find a suitable mountain to deface with the sculpted visages of Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, and Gates.

We’ll have “God Bless America” playing out of loud speakers, fudge making, and five t-shirts for ten dollars for every man, woman, and child. I tear up just thinking about it.

Syncopated Family Travel: Wall Drug and the Dakota Badlands Food Poisoning

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

South Dakota Family TravelFrom De Smet, South Dakota, we head west toward the Dakota Badlands. The roads are pretty vacant, not seeing much traffic outside of the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, which chokes the Interstate with more well-oiled leather than a fetish club.

Along Interstate 90, a regular sight is garish billboards calling on travelers to visit the Wall Drug Store where 5-cent coffee and free ice water await. Combined with the Theta-state highway hypnosis, the staccato of advertisements is eerily effective. By the time we reach Wall, South Dakota, we figure it is worth checking out.

More importantly, Wall is also a convenient launching off point to the South Dakota Badlands, just a ten-minute drive south. We check in at the Sunshine Inn, a strip motor hotel located just a couple of blocks away from the tourist area, largely taken up by the massive Wall Drugs. The Sunshine Inn is a budget motel, but the beds are comfortable and, most importantly, they have AMC—tonight is the Mad Men season finale I’ve been eagerly awaiting.

An unlisted perk of the motel is John, the proprietor, who is helpful in suggesting travel activities. For instance, he tells us that the Badlands National Park is open twenty-four hours and overnight camping is allowed, which makes it perfect for an amorous nocturnal coupling. When we ask for a good place for dinner, John steers us away from the tourist section to the Red Rock Restaurant where the locals eat.

The Red Rock is jam packed, but we manage to score a seat. I order a country fried steak, my wife a cod sandwich, and my vegan daughter has to settle for onion rings. The complimentary salad bar is shocking in its lack of offerings. In total, it amounts to four items: iceberg lettuce, spring onions, whole radishes, and shredded carrots. Tucked under the yellowing sneeze guard are some macaroni and potato salads that look like leftovers from the grocer’s deli.

When it arrives, my country fried steak is disappointing—equal parts charred and greasy, with enough salt to preserve the whole cow. If this is where the locals eat, I pity them. When the waitress’s back is turned, I pilfer some ribs from the buffet line instead.

Fed, for better or worse, we check out the (in)famous Wall Drugs. History tells the story of the proprietor who in 1936 attempted to revive the dying pharmacy by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. The gimmick worked, and the drug store thrived, expanding to take up several blocks today. The free ice water is allegedly still around, but it is a task to find it through the great maze of souvenirs: magnets, t-shirts, postcards, sharks’ teeth, snow globes, salt water taffy, fake mustaches, puzzles, tiny spoons, whoopee cushions, fudge, geodes, garden gnomes, and more.

Occasionally you emerge from the tacky goods to be confronted with some sideshow spectacle like a roaring robot T-Rex or a giant Jackelope. Each has a crowd of tourists lining up for a picture to say, “Yes, we really saw that.” We manage to fight the spirit of commerce and escape the clutches of Wall Drugs, never having found the free ice water.

With the obligatory tourist trap braved, we head out to the Badlands National Park. At the northern entrance to the park, we purchase an annual “America the Beautiful” pass. It’s pricy, but cost-effective for us because it will grant access to other places in the national park system during our travel. Just clear of the gate, the Pinnacles Overlook offers an amazing introduction of the northern area of the park.

Here striated white buttes, spires, and pinnacles frame low-lying plateaus of mixed grass. Along the sloping edges, juniper and yucca trees are nestled between eroded gullies. It’s a breathtaking view. My daughter and I take a moment to climb out across the hard clay outlooks, while my more cautious wife lingers behind to chastise our hubris.

To the west, we take a short drive over the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, where along the way, the landscape levels out into flat grasslands. Out of our window, pronghorn deer and bison graze in the distance. We park at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, which is home to the park’s largest colony of prairie dogs. We enjoy watching the rodents as they scamper between their many burrowing holes. As I approach, they go into alert mode, signaling warnings to each other with high-pitched chatter. A lone bison lumbers toward us, and we snap some photographs, while keeping a safe distance from the shaggy, black behemoth. The park pamphlet reminds us that the bison are wild animals and capricious.

The sun begins to set as we backtrack to continue our drive to the main Badlands Loop Road, carrying us past other scenic outlooks. My stomach suddenly lurches in disagreement at our earlier meal at the Red Rock.

“Pull over,” I say to my wife, doubled over.

“Why?” she says.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

“But there’s no—”

“Just do it,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

South Dakota BadlandsThe car bounces as she jerks the wheel over to the narrow shoulder. I don’t wait for it to fully stop before I leap out, grabbing some napkins. I’ll spare the details about what happens next, but it involves me defiling a national treasure. If there is a hell, I’m sure this will not bode well for me in the end.

With the sun setting, darkness rolls over the Badlands and night fades in, casting shadows over the jagged formations. We pull over at Panorama Point and wrap ourselves in blankets as we step out into the thrusting wind to wallow in the splendor of the glittering night sky. As I sip on a can of beer, I’m vaguely aware that the Mad Men season finale is starting, but who really needs that when you have a show like this?

In the parking lot behind us, a black jeep pulls up and a young man slips out, pulling tight a drab-green army jacket. The jeep seems to be loaded with all of his worldly possessions. As he nears, his flashlight settles on us briefly before he slips out of sight, down into the deep solitude of the carved formations.

I think about him and lament the fact that I never took the opportunity to disengage from civilization to wander the country. In that moment, my advice to the new graduate back at the Ingalls homestead doesn’t seem all that foolhardy. I look over at my daughter with her purple hoodie cinched tight over her head and the white wire of her iPod headphones trailing down to her pocket. Perhaps we should send all of our children out into the wilderness when they come of age.They’ll be mired down with homes and jobs and up-sizing flat screen televisions soon enough.

A gentle calmness permeates the air. No one dares to speak, as if our sounds are an unwelcome pollution. I breathe in slowly, as if tasting the cold, crisp air like fine wine. It’s damn good. I have a long way to go before becoming a devotee of the cult of the great outdoors, but I’ll admit that I’m starting to fall victim to Mother Nature’s love bombing.

 

Syncopated Family Travel: Channeling Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ingalls homestead in De Smet South DakotaA travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

On the first day, we travel northwest through Missouri, then skirt the Nebraska/Iowa border up to South Dakota. It is a long marathon of a drive, made possible by our freshness and lack of road weariness. We end up crashing for the night in Arlington, South Dakota. It’s one of those between here and barely there blips on the map kind of towns. The whole of it seems to be a hotel, a restaurant, and a gas station sitting in wide open fields of green nothing.

The desk clerk is friendly as we walk into the Arlington Inn, a small hotel with decorative call-backs to its former existence as a Super 8, circa 1989.

“Are you with the class reunion?” she asks with a wide smile.

Is there a discount? I wonder, though it would be a hard fraud to pull off in what is most probably a graduating class of the six people sitting in the lobby reminiscing over tar black coffee.

“No, we are just passing through to De Smet,” I reply.

“Oh Dee Smet,” she politely corrects my foreign tongue. “Laura Ingalls-Wilder fans, hmm?”

She has the clairvoyance to guess the purpose of our visit, though in a place like this, it isn’t exactly hard. Why else would people stop by, other than to visit the places where Laura lived and about which she wrote in her Little House books? I have no embarrassment in acknowledging that her books are among my absolute favorites. I’m also unashamed to admit that I rip off The Long Winter, in my novel Paradise Earth, with gleeful abandon.

Even without a discount, the Arlington Inn is inexpensive. During our trip, we will repeatedly challenge ourselves to stay as cheaply as possible while still retaining the luxury of a room that doesn’t look like a CSI set painted with body fluid.

After unpacking, I walk next door to the 1481 Grille to wind down with a much needed beer. I’m joined by my wife, but my daughter hangs back at the hotel. It’s probably for the best, I think, as I glance over the mile long menu. My daughter entered this world as a picky eater and spiraled into a mad vegan—the kind that doesn’t eat salad.

I order a Boulevard, a crisp wheat ale garnished with an ample lemon wedge. Drinking the cold beer, I survey the seeming regulars at the bar. Sitting next to me is a slender old woman who looks a bit like the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt. She’s enjoying a Hamm’s lager in a tall pilsner glass with a garnish of olives, a touch of tres sophistique. To her right is a dusty fellow in a camouflage hat and a sleeveless jean jacket with motor oil and Harley-Davison patches on the back. He is draining bottles of Bush Light as quickly as the bartender can twist off the caps. Somewhere between bottle four and six, he dials a buddy to negotiate the purchase of a horse saddle.

“I won’t pay less than a hundred and fourteen dollars,” he demands into his antique flip-phone, sharply pointing his finger toward the nonpresent individual on the other end of the line. I’m impressed; even inebriated, he is a master of negotiation. Satisfied at closing the deal, he snaps shut his phone and orders another Bush Light. He has less success convincing the Cryptkeeper to stick around and suck down beers with him. “Stay and have another,” he pleads.

“I can’t have another DUI,” she protests as she chomps down her beer-battered olives and slithers off of her bar stool.

“I got one of those before. It was a setup,” he says and then takes a long drink from the amber bottle.
I shouldn’t have to worry about a DUI with the convenience of a hotel just next door, but who knows what kind of small-town Barney Fife justice passes in places like this. Besides, we have another long day ahead of us. I decide to cut it off after my second beer. As we get up to leave, the man wants to know if I want to buy a horse saddle.

“It’s a steal at two-hundred forty,” he says with a sly grin, tipping bottle eight toward me.

The next morning, we head out to nearby De Smet. In the town, you can take a walking tour of a variety of locations significant in the life and books of Laura Ingalls-Wilder. Our first stop is the original Ingalls family homestead, just outside of town. It is here that the real Laura walked, not the freckle-faced, bucktoothed television version.

home of Laura Ingalls WilderNothing remains of the original 1880 homestead but the twisted, aging cottonwood trees that Pa Ingalls planted to prove up his 157.25 acre claim. Even today you can glimpse what he saw in this spot. It is quite picturesque, as the low wind rustles the prairie grass and the planted grain. Here, along the walking trails, are newly built period buildings: a school house, a dugout shelter, and a reconstruction of the Ingalls’ original claim shanty.

There is a professional “Ma” on staff, who tends a vegetable garden and the small menagerie of barnyard animals in the hay-roof barn. She gives us a tour and is a wealth of olde-tymey knowledge, like how to make lye soap and braided rugs. “If you lived in Laura’s day, you might already be married and pregnant,” she says to my unimpressed daughter. I muse at the lack of privacy in the tiny, thin-walled shanty and wonder how anyone got pregnant at all.

At a nearby workshop, we learn to make rope, corncob dolls, and twisted hay sticks, the kind that the Ingalls family burned to stay alive during the long winter of harsh blizzards when coal was depleted. The activities are overseen by a plump-faced teenager working her first summer job after graduation from high school. It’s her first week on the homestead, and already she likes it more than her previous job at Subway. I tell her I’m from the St. Louis area, and she gushes like it is an exotic, exciting place.

“I want to leave and become a film director,” she says with a careless optimism that only the young can manifest. When I ask her who her favorite director is, I’m ready to fill in the blanks from a short list. “Tim Burton,” she answers. It is embarrassingly predictable. When she laments that her family is not encouraging her to pursue her dreams, I offer that I think she would be a fool not to. It’s a reckless thing for me to advise, because I don’t think that she can actually make it, but I figure failure is a lesser evil than being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

I complete my tour by scaling the lookout tower and surveying the expansive sea of prairie grass extending miles out across the flat land toward the distant horizon. It is here that I attempt to summon the spirit of Laura Ingalls. I recently watched a documentary about comic artist/professional crazy Grant Morrison, and he claims you can conjure up the spirit of anyone.

What the hell. I attempt to clear my mind as I reach back through the ages to connect with the pioneer girl. She appears on the prairie grass below me, running with her older sister. She stops as if noticing me. I raise my hand and wave hello. She smiles and offers a tentative wave, before returning to her play. I blink and the connection is broken. The young pioneer girl fades back into time.

Little House on the Prarie - the recreation of the houseAs we leave the homestead, I latch on to a vagrant Internet signal and my phone blips as fresh e-mail funnels in. I read the first one, where the editor of my novel Happiness: How to Find It is taking me to task for my use of the word “boughten.” According to her, using archaic, nonstandard English begs bad reviews.

What she doesn’t realize is that the 19th century colloquialism is another one of my nods to Laura’s books. Will I consent to a change? I look out at the prairie, diminishing in my rear view mirror, before sending a reply. Absolutely not.

 

Syncopated Family Travel : Hitting the Road

A weekly travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

The Road to South Dakota I’m simultaneously trying to keep a blanket wrapped around me and keep an insipid can of Bud Light wedged between my chattering knees, as heavy gusts of wind whip across the South Dakota Badlands.

Despite this being an otherwise scorcher of a summer, the weather at night in the national park is positively arctic. The cutting chill is a small price to pay for the nighttime spectacle—the overhead dome of black sky is lit up like the best Christmas ever.

My God, where did all those stars come from? Back home, the air is choked with acrid refinery smoke and the stars are blotted out by the spillage of city glow. When you have a chance to really see the stars in the most pristine air in America, you don’t ask why the ancients were always looking up. You totally get it. I get it, even though by anyone’s measure, I’m not the outdoors type.

South Dakota is our first stop on what will be a two-week long family road trip. Truth be told, I was dreading this trip. Thousands of miles crammed in a car to see trees and grass and endless stretches of nothing, except for the occasional smeared road-kill—I didn’t think it would be my thing.

I’m not into climbing or kayaking or tree-hugging or whatever else draws people out of hard-won modern comfort to fight the so-called great outdoors. I counted it as an achievement that I made it to my mid-thirties without setting foot in a national park.

When my wife and I first got married, our travel coalesced with the touring schedule of our favorite rock band, Throwing Muses, and the solo performances of front woman Kristin Hersh. Our fandom carried us to cities like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York. I love cities—the culture, the entertainment, and especially the restaurants. Fifteen years after the fact, I’m still waxing poetically about a revelatory meal at Nobu, New York, like it was the birth of my child.

When my daughter came along, we traded big city rock clubs for sunny, saccharine jaunts to Walt Disney World in Florida. This was our travel for ten years, until we blinked to find that our pixie-dusted princess was a withdrawn teenager with a faux-hawk.

I think that is part of what lured me out to the road. Somehow an old-fashioned great American family road trip seemed like a last ditch effort to capture a moment before it slipped away forever. It seemed a reasonable effort to reconnect as a family, forced into a Nissan Altima with no place to retreat.

So in the summer of 2012, we decided to tackle this majestic nation, starting from Alton, Illinois, going west and back, hitting as many scenic must-dos as we possibly could. We considered it a tasting sample of the best America has to offer. We had no planning except for our midpoint of southern California and a list of national parks that were positioned between here and there and back again.

We headed out on a Saturday morning, after a Tetris grand master effort of packing our car for our two-week excursion. My mind was stuck on my day job. Would they be able to get along without me? It was tough to get away from my long-term place of employment, because unlike most first world countries, America has a deep-seated grudge toward vacation time. It made me feel strangely ashamed to opt out of productivity like a shiftless vagabond.

It was only for two weeks, but it felt like a guilty luxury, despite other places in the world where three weeks or more was standard—a fact that I was reminded of by the glut of Europeans at most of our stops. I did my best to push the guilt out of mind as I shifted the car into drive and left home.

 

Italian Witch Hunting in Naples

Witch Hunting in Naples, ItalyLike Salem is to America, the city Naples is home to a rich and mysterious history of magic and witchcraft, or as it is called in Italian, stregheria. It is not at all uncommon for European cities to boast such a past, as the pre-Christian world was ripe with healers and folk magic, but the area around Naples continued their mystical traditions well into the Christian age.

During the late 1800s, an author by the name J.B. Andrews conducted a series of interviews with known Neapolitan strega (witches). He discovered that each witch seemed to specialize in his or her own area, whether it be sea magick, earth magick, herbalism, and even astrology. He was curious as to whether or not they learned their practices from sacred text but discovered that the tradition was entirely oral, “given by mother to the daughter.”
Stregheria is still prevalent in modern day Naples and has been highly influenced Hermetic groups. Of course today, we all have access to the spells and rituals that Old World strega used to practice thanks to a large interest in the occult and a number of volumes that have been printed on modern Paganism. Italian-American author and Salem, Massachusetts resident Raven Grimassi is one of the few writers to focus on Italian witchcraft today.

Italian WitchesIf the mystery of the occult piques your interest, then Naples and its surrounding area is the perfect place to plan your next European escape. Try a trip to Benevento, also called Italy’s “City of Witches,” a mere 50 km northeast of Naples. Here once stood a sacred walnut tree, known as the place where witches would gather on their sabbats to sing and dance. When Saint Barbato converted the Duke to Christianity in 622, the Duke proceeded to have the tree chopped down. Legend says it didn’t take long for the stump to magically begin to grow, restoring the old walnut tree to its previous glory. Even the transcripts from the Italian Witch Trials make mention of it. It is believed that this particular tree still stands near Avellino in Stretto di Barba and that modern day witches secretly meet there.

witches in SicilyNot just concerning stregaheria, but Naples history in general has a lot to do with its relationship to Sicily. With a car rental in Italy, you will easily be able to travel down the coast to Villa San Giovanni and hop a ferry. Sicily was home to the famous Fairy Witch Trials. It is believed that the fairies and elves would make human contacts in Sicily and carry them away to Benevento. The fairies and the women who were involved with them were named the “donas de fuera.” During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were an unknown number of witch trials held in Sicily. Unlike the Salem Witch Trials, the women on trial said nothing of the devil, but instead spoke of the fae and were tried for sorcery. Far less violent than the US trials, most of the sentenced were simply banished, put in prison, and some were even set free.

What is interesting is that all of these events can be traced back or lead back to Naples. Plan your next vacation in Italy and discover the magic for yourself!

Melissa Rae Cohen is a travel writer in love with all things mysterious and magical. Her family immigrated to Ellis Island from Naples during the early 1900s. Today she lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two naughty cats and works as a travel writer for Auto Europe.  

Photo Essay: The Beauty of Doors

There’s something about doors that just make my brain fill with wonder. Like travel, doors always lead to something new and often to something unexpected. Like the story of the Lady or the Tiger or Let’s Make a Deal.
BCN Door
This door in Barcelona seems to lead to a classical place where graffiti monsters rule. Aren’t you curious what lies on the other side?
Bergamo Italy Door
Does this door in Bergamo, Italy actually lead to anywhere? Why is it locked. What’s it hiding? Does it lead to Narnia?
Door to Bordeaux
Is there a French family drinking Bordeaux behind this French door? Can you almost hear the laughter? Oui.
Door in Belgium
This Brussels, Belgium door is altogether more serious. Are there great works of art on the other side or serious EU business going on?
Door in Fez
Couscous perhaps? Maybe a carpet shop? What does your imagination say is behind this door in the Fez Medina?
Cave Door in GrenadaWhat about this door from a cave in San Bernardino above Grenada in Spain. How do the troglodyte gypsies pass their days. Beer, fortune telling, black magic? Or just a card game and some cooking.

Marrakesh Door
Rabbit Hole in Marrakech

Finally this one in the magical city of Marrakesh. Don’t you feel like you are falling in?
Lao Tzu famously said that without opening your door you can see the world and I think that might explain the fascination with travel. We all wonder just what is on the other side of the door and sometimes it’s even more wonderful than we imagine.

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