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all but the cats write here ... to remember, to share, to mumble, to shout ... follow along by RSS or email if you like.

Filtering by Category: larger than life

Hello, America


I woke up yesterday with a bunch of thoughts gelled in my brain, and while I went about my morning routine I was writing furiously in my head. Words, at last! Then, the road called … the six-mile dirt road that follows the turns of the San Francisco River flowing past our campsite, and off we went.

We wandered past a few homes down next to the river bed, marveled at canyons and cliffs to our right, explored a couple long-abandoned stone huts and walls, tried to figure out the pattern of smashed parts and glass from a nearly-pancaked blue Beretta at the base of a stony track, and hunted for big-horn sheep. Got a glimpse of the top of the mine beyond the far side of the river too. Delightful, hot, bizarre in places, and very remote feeling.

The river flooded badly in '83, demolishing much of the town of Clifton below us, and actually is the reason there's a cheap town-run RV park at the north end of the valley (our current resting spot). The USAC of Engineers won't allow homes at the north end anymore, due to flood fears. The rest of the town is protected with giant floodgates.

Our next stop was to go see the mine a bit better … the Morenci Copper/Molybdenum Mine that's run by Freeport McMoRan and is the largest copper mine in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world. When we headed to this RV park, by the way, we knew NOTHING about Clifton/Morenci. A look at the map showing a nearby Plant City made us assume there might be industry in the vicinity.

The terraced cliffs of the mine were apparent when we pulled in last week, and we'd gotten some amazing stories the day before from an old mine-employed chemist about the history of the place, but hadn't really seen it for ourselves. We headed up Hwy 191, aiming for the spot on the little cartoonized local map that said Mine Overlook.

The map didn't indicate how far the overlook was, or that we'd have to drive underneath the giant conveyor belt system that takes the mined chunks and gradually crushes them down into pieces that can be suspended in a concentrate solution. From there they use electrowinning to make big sheets of 99.9% pure copper. This particular mine produced 902 million pounds of copper in 2015. It's big. Mind-bogglingly huge.

Hard to comprehend, even while driving past enormous sheds, pits that make huge mine trucks look like tiny Tonka toys, and terraced literal mountains of crushed stone that we realized have been built one truck-load at a time. We watched the trucks inch their way up the zig-zagged grade, back up and dump over the side to the terrace below, and then zip their way back down the road for another load. It was like watching something out of Star Wars … a planet being terraformed.

That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

It's come a very long way from the first wagon-loads of copper being pulled to Kansas City for shipping east, back in 1865 when the mine started. Hillsides of black slag speak to the old ways of smelting and refining, and the barely visible corner of the old concrete-block high school that's peeking out of the side of a growing terraced mountain helps give some idea of how much change they've done to the landscape since 1985, when the school was abandoned and they moved into a new building in town.

We've seen the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and the Morenci Mine all in the last 3 months. Three things that make you feel tiny, take your breath away, and are hard to wrap your mind around.

They have a way of putting things in perspective. Long-term perspective. Life and cycles and death and time and the smidgen bit of it we get to spend on earth, and what really matters to me.


Almost all the traveling I did as a child was either driving in a car to visit people we knew, tenting for a week near a lake somewhere, or flying to South or Central America and visiting people dad knew or had corresponded with. Poor people for the most part, living in small towns or remote villages only reachable by perching in the back of an open truck. Some were in cities, like San Salvador or Lima Peru, but we still usually stayed with friends in apartments or in a cheap local hotel.

Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

I grew up thinking that Disney and Resorts and fancy hotels and big museums were for the folks who weren't lucky enough to go to a “real” destination where everything was upside down and backwards and dirty and sometimes scary … except the people. Ahh, the people. The warm, lovely, generous, curious, kind, simply-living folks who opened their homes and hearts and scarce pantries to us. I knew my friends didn't take vacations like that, but I didn't know anything else. I was a little spoiled.

This trip is no different, other than the fact that it's within the boundaries of my home country, the USA. It's a bit of all of it actually … camping by remote streams, visiting people we know, and some we don't. Seeking out the human interaction, the stories, the history, the wants and needs and desires and perspectives of a huge variety of people. Finding the similarities, musing on the differences. Looking for reasons for the differences, when they're hard to understand. Reveling in the connections, the humanity, the deliciousness and terror of what it means to get another day and choose how to use it.

The number of ways of living that we've seen in the last two years is astounding. Chemists who spent their life analyzing every 10th foot of a 1000' core sample and dodging the union strikers, pragmatic Navajo boiler-makers who still teach their daughters to kill and skin wild animals for food, Old Orabai Hopi mesa-dwellers whose homes perch on the remains of the previous thousand years of homes on that tiny little mesa, and trailer park dwellers who cling to that El Dorado that “rides like a living room” as their last ticket to freedom because if they get their night-seizures checked out they might lose their license.

Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

House painters with unimaginable personal losses, kayak-tour snook fishermen with lime green trucks and big hats and dreams to match, struggling marriages with new babies in arms, broken families that still smile and march forward, crazy-in-love spry senior citizens, private pilots, commercial pilots, broken down bus-dwellers, friendly Harley sightseers, retired museum docents that still have the joie-de-vivre of a 6-year-old perfectly intact, and countless people who just want to help.

They'll give you food, give you a new lift jack for your trailer, give you a diamond knife sharpener for your knife-obsessed child, give you bags of groceries, give you work, give you meals, give you love, give you opportunities to love, give you their deepest heartache, give you stories, give you trust, give you keys, give you respect, give you a chance, give you a fat envelope, give you an ear, give you a set of tires, give you their heart.

These humans have been rich, poor, left-leaning, right-leaning, lying down, marching, black, brown, white, hispanic, church-goers, sun-worshippers, Christ-followers, full-hearted, bodies failing, full of optimism, full of fear, satisfied and steady, seeking and restless, building their walls, sharpening their swords. These people have been my fellow Americans, my brethren, my tribe, my loves. My chances to grow. My opportunities to understand. My shoulders to lean on. My voices to learn. My lives to touch. My people.

Hello, America

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Westward Ho! / Wrapping it all up ...


Twelve days from Indiana to San Fran, intense and packed and sometimes heart-wrenching days. Emotional ones at the very least. So much to process, so much to see … life to live, relationships to work on, kids to grow, feelings to feel.

It's funny how, from the outside, it sometimes looks like we're on a multi-year vacation. Yes there is freedom to this life, huge amounts of it, but there are many many balances to it too. Large amounts of insecurity, if you're hoping to know what's next and how your daily needs are going to be met. Great stretches of loneliness, and disconnectedness, punctuated by intense interactions and deep conversations. Bouts of hard work, followed by dearths of any known opportunities to jump in and help.

I've been reading a Louis L'Amour book to the boys for bedtime story recently, and there's a line in it that really struck me. The main character (Echo, a spitfire crack shot 16-year-old-girl outrunning some would-be thieves, of course) was planning to hitch a ride with some settlers going west in a wagon, and the boarding house owner she'd been staying with disparagingly referred to those headed west as “Movers.”

Her response …

“We were all movers at one time, Mrs O'Brien” I said. “Even you when you left Ireland.”
“I suppose so, but somehow it seems different.”
“Settled folks always look down upon the unsettled,” I said, “but somebody has to open the new lands. When they are settled in their homes, they will feel just as you do.”

We're not doing anything new, but we're doing something Other. And I often feel the Otherness of it, keenly, even though the comments made and the sentiments felt by others are not disparaging, but wistful or a bit jealous or just plain encouraging. There's often the feeling of a complete disconnect … this isn't fathomable or understandable. Or perhaps just romanticized in the same way that I intently identified with Laura Ingalls standing and watching the long lines of braves and families wending past her house on the edge of the prairie as they left a council of war … wishing she were a wee one tucked in one of those saddle bags. I so wanted the very same thing, and I think I've gotten it as much as is possible in the year 2016.

There's some Mover in most of us … that bit (tiny or huge) that wants Other, and seeks out new experiences and places. Whether it comes in armchair galloping with Louis L'Amour, Netflix soaring over some new continent, trips of a lifetime that span the globe and inspire FaceBook envy, or choosing to live for decades as an RV gypsy … we get that itch, and we do our best to scratch it however we can.

I'm afraid I've rather systematically tried to debunk the notion that this is a relaxing vacation, or anything other than Life, made mobile for now. I keep bringing up the downsides, the struggles, the hard bits, and don't tend to sing the praises as loudly as I could be. I'm interested in keeping it real, and I think I've always been more fascinated with the messy bits than the pretty bits. Life, and relationships especially, are inherently messy and anything that seems to focus too much on the happy/solved/perfect parts is highly suspect to me. We're all broken, all imperfect, all unfinished.

I find something innately invigorating in the messy stuff, and while it may hurt like mad … it's a chance to change, to grow, to see things differently, and to maybe find a new viewing point. Asking what possible good can come from it, even if it's painful? There's always some answer.

I'm also a huge believer in community, fellowship, and sharing the load when we can. Chasing the joy to be found in connecting, in being seen, and in sharing whatever is to be shared, heavy or light. The joy at the end of this trip was palpable and filling. We shared in Aran and Lexie's joy, and it fed my tired spirit in a way that brought balance to the personal relationship work that kind of dogged the last half of the trip, evening up the keel for awhile. It was delicious. We've had many chances to share sorrow and hurt too, and it's always an honor. Being trusted with someone's pain isn't easy, but it's still a real connection. It's a window I try to never close, so help me God.

I said I was wrapping it all up, and I seem to be wandering in all directions. I've written and erased about 5 different endings actually, and none seem to do the job. I started out writing a travelog and ended up getting personal again … had to balance out all those pretty pictures, right?

So … it was messy, it was beautiful, it was worth every minute.

Onward ...

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4 / DAY 5 / DAY 6 / DAY 7 / DAY 8 / DAY 9 / DAY 10 / DAY 11 / DAY 12 / Wedding Weekend

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Westward Ho! / Day 9 ... Drama King Drama Queen


Tuesday, August 23

Escalante sunrise

Escalante sunrise

Recovering from yesterday took a couple of hours – groceries to track down, photos to download, emails to send – and we took off again around noon. Our first real stop was a pullout that offered a short hike to a mossy cave and a waterfall.

Red cliffs, a stream, and a few small stone arches added to the appeal. The stream was fed by a 2-mile long canal that had been hand dug in the rock in the 1860s by some settlers trying to get water into their otherwise perfect valley. We enjoyed the view, the boys got to run around, and we kept an eye on some gathering dark clouds.

Michael Instagrammed a pic of the boys and I with the red cliffs and lowering sky, tagging it “ominous clouds”, and then we went on down the road to the Bryce Canyon Visitor's Center.

Just as we pulled up to the fee booth, the clouds broke and it started hailing with a vengeance. Michael flashed our National Parks pass under the agent's nose, wincing and getting pelted, and then grabbed the park map and RV Restrictions notice that was shoved at him with a mirroring wince. Windows were rolled up, bounced 1/4” hail collected, and we sloshed to a corner of the parking lot to wait it out with everyone else.

Ten minutes later it subsided into rain, and Fynn and I dashed into the Visitor's Center to retrieve a better map and some more info on turnaround spots, pushing past steaming wet crowds of fellow tourists who were trying to take selfies with the shoveled pile of hail right outside the front doors.

Bryce has one 18-mile road that's an out-and-back deal, with a side loop that's off limits to rigs our size. We did most of the pullouts, shivering and damp, but loving the deep oranges and hoodoos and rainbow rocks.

At the end-of-the-road stop there were two viewing spots, one being a short hike down the promontory from the parking lot, and we remarked on the path to it on the way to the nearer one. We took in the view, increasingly cold, and Michael agreed to start his sciatica-hobble towards the second viewpoint, while I went with the boys to the bathroom and then caught up with him.

The crowds were getting to me, as was the cold/wet thing, and we were all getting tired. A fearless raven distracted me while waiting for the boys, and then we set off down the ¼ mile path, expecting to see Michael at every turn.

Got to the end, lovely view, no Michael.

We tossed a few pebbles over the edge to see how long a drop it was, took a few pics, and headed back … maybe he'd decided to go to the restroom too? Turned back due to pain?

Checked the restrooms. Checked the first lookout again. Checked the shelter.

Muttered, grumbled, shivered.

Looked into the truck and camper, but both were still locked, and Michael had the keys.

Muttered some more, and got a wee bit uneasy. Where could he possibly have gone?

A man with two kids saw us wandering, and must have seen us together with Michael earlier, as he pointed along the edge of the tree-lined cliff, and said “He's down there!”

“How far?” I asked.

“50 yards or so …” was his answer.

Off we went, tramping noisily down the sorta-path along the edge … no Michael. Then Douglas spies his hat … the ever-present-felt-fedora-ish thing he wears … perched neatly just a couple feet from the dropoff. He picked it up.

“Well, here's Dad's hat …” he offers, his tone bemused, with a dash of hesitation.

I look at it, and the spot where he'd found it, run an instantaneous Michael-over-the-cliff scenario in my head, which about 2% of me thinks is possible … and I've just gotten to the part where my brain says “but if he'd gone over in the 90 seconds since that man told you he'd seen him we'd definitely have heard it” … when he pops up from behind a bush 15 feet down the path, and cheerfully says “Here I am!”

I stare at him … ready to punch him and then maybe toss him over the cliff. Really?!

He'd spent 25+ minutes waiting for us, on the wrong path (at least not the paved path that said it went to the viewing point, which I'd commented on earlier) … assuming that we'd been delayed at the bathroom, and concocting what he thought was a funny prank to play on us. The fact that we'd already been hunting rather urgently for him for 15 minutes already rather took the last shred of potential humor out of it for me. Ha ha.

It was a rather chilly ride on the 18 miles back to the entrance, despite the truck's heater.

Predictably, Fynn needed to pee as soon as we left the park. We stopped at the tackiest souvenir shop yet seen, begged the bathroom key from the dour and very shop-worn proprietress, and after failing at small talk with the woman I tried to be interested in dusty shot glasses, bad wood carvings, and made-in-China-we-don't-even-pretend-to-be-authentic treasures while Michael and Fynn disappeared around the back. When Fynn returned, he bought himself a bandana before we all scooted out the door just as another carload came in asking for the key. I heard her voice drop another level as she eked out her answer.

Relieved to be back outside in the bit of remaining sun, we headed to the truck … only to discover that Michael had left the keys in it, and someone's elbow must have bumped the lock button on the way out.

It wasn't a happy moment. I let Michael tackle it, still smarting a bit from the hat incident, and yes, sulking. I joined the fray when it was suggested we try to break into the trailer to get a coat hanger, and helped force a window open to boost Fynn in through the slit. After the hanger was bent and I watched him try to press the unlock button with it, I realized that maybe the back window of the truck would be easier to get into as it had no electric lock. A screwdriver twist later, we were in!

Light fading, we made for another patch of Dixie National Forest on Rt 12, assuming we could find a boondock spot. We did come across one pretty quickly, though the access to the site was a bit rutted and dicey … and we'll just gloss over the fact that there was the decision to unlock the bikes and go rambling off on the back roads to see if there was a better site back in there somewhere … before bumping our way to a nice level spot with a turnaround, and plenty of dead wood for a campfire. Whew. Very glad to finally be at rest!

Things seemed a bit brighter by the next morning :)

Things seemed a bit brighter by the next morning :)

lots more pics here and here

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4 / DAY 5 / DAY 6 / DAY 7 / DAY 8

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Westward Ho! / Day 8 ... Utah ... Wow!


Monday, August 22

Matilda in hiding ...

Matilda in hiding ...

Up early, atlas consulted, and decision reached – we'd cut southwest across Utah, and try to hit three national parks in two days; Canyon Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. A brief stop at the Utah Welcome Center modified that slightly, as the very friendly and knowledgeable fellow behind the counter warned me that there were height restrictions between Bryce and Zion that would be too low for us … we're around 12.5' high with our air conditioner. Glad to find out in advance!

We cut off of I70 onto 39 South, and the fun started. The terrain changed constantly … and suddenly. You'd go up over a rise and come out into a whole new planet.

Much of it felt like Mars, for the redness and the nearly inexplicable formations, but it was as delightful as it was disorienting. Cloudy, a bit of rain, and nicely cool.

We hit Canyon Reef first … which was really nice as you drive through the canyons and rocks, rather than peering at them from an overlook. It felt personal and accessible.

Navajo Dome, Capitol Reef NP

Navajo Dome, Capitol Reef NP

We stopped at many pullouts, listened to a ranger talk about the petroglyphs left by the Fremont Indian culture, picked free apples in orchards left by a former Mormon outpost called Fruita, and then took off towards Bryce in the late and rainy afternoon, heading south on Rt 12.

The Rand McNally Atlas has no elevation markings on the state pages, other than the occasional peak height. It's my main form of navigation, as Google is often not available, and I prefer paper in my hands and the “big picture” anyway. So my assumption that the upcoming Dixie National Forest was rather flat was a somewhat misguided one.

We climbed up over the 9600' peak of Boulder Mountain while passing through, and saw a number of boondockers and some cattle dotting the rolling meadows at the top. So tempted to join them (despite the cold!), but we went on, though not without leaving our windows down so we could continue to enjoy the divine smell of wet sagebrush … yum!

One overlook near the top, half lit with the last of the sun, had a view of Mt Ellen's 11,500' peak, and the “biggest” vista I can ever remember seeing. Layers upon layers of buttes and trees and mountains and colors and light. Utterly magical. According to the placard there, we were looking at the last bit of the lower 48 states to get mapped, which happened sometime in the 1850s.

Then down the mountain in the gathering gloom, including a couple spots of 14% grade, heading into the large empty-looking blob on my map labeled as the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. About which I knew exactly nothing. So why we were shocked to come down off the mountain and find ourselves on a wet, winding, very narrow road between two deep canyons, I'm not too sure. It was par for the course.

It was visual overload for all of us, but insanely wild and empty and beautiful, though increasingly hard to see. We wound, swooped, curved, teetered (or so it seemed) through the trackless wild, seeing only a couple other vehicles. The only sign of habitation in the next hour was a coffee shop(!) perched out on a promontory over a canyon, but it sadly had closed at 4pm. I don't think we would have fit in their parking lot anyhow.

We climbed our way slowly up and out of the canyons, headed for the next dot on the map that implied people and services, labeled Escalante. The last overlook offered the story of mule trains delivering mail there, in winter at least, as recently as 1942. It wasn't hard to imagine at all.

The road we'd just traveled ...

The road we'd just traveled ...

Matilda purred her way into town (that filter wash made a big difference!) and we found a pricey-but-we'll-take-it RV park that had a laundromat, WiFi, and a paved pull-through … perfect! My journal entry for the day ends with “exhausted and exhilarated”, and that pretty much sums it up. It was an astoundingly full day of strange and beautiful sights, and the fact that it was all surprising made it even more enjoyable.  Lack of research meant that the expectations were pretty low, and we gobbled up the beauty we stumbled across without having any regrets over things we missed. 

see Flickr for lots more pics for Utah! and Capitol Reef and Grand Staircase Escalante

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4 / DAY 5 / DAY 6 / DAY 7

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Crossing into Florida was a bit anticlimactic. We'd hoped for warm weather for so long, pinning our hopes on getting to the Sunshine State in order to have it in spades. When we finally crossed the state line and made our first pit stop, I was almost tempted to turn around and flee, despite the abundant and delicious sunshine. I've never been fond of Disney in any way, crowded theme parks ceased to hold much appeal in my early 20s, and we were arriving right at the beginning of spring break season. Not a good trifecta for my curmudgeonly self. We hit the Welcome Center on I-95 and I wanted to hide. Piles of Vacation Mode folks everywhere, kitch and hype and crowds, all things that give me hives. The boys delightedly discovered the free juice counter while I was in the bathroom, and the man handing you a little paper cup with your choice of grapefruit or orange juice in it looked like he'd morphed from a human being into a robot long ago. Jaded, tired, completely sucked dry of any emotion or energy … he did nothing to change my own view of things.

Once we sidled our way over to the western side of the state and dropped down into Palmetto (just south of Tampa), I started to revive a bit. Not a theme park in sight, just piles of trailer parks and strip malls, the promise of a hug from Ann Marie, and the ocean. We camped in an old trailer park within walking distance of our friends' winter trailer, which was bounded on one side by an entrance ramp to the highway, and a busy main drag on the other … convenient, cheap, and frill-free. Mostly full-timers in that park, not seasonals, and we'd barely parked when the neighbor lady next door blew in with garrulous enthusiasm, praise for Michael's mustache, immediate pledges of friendship and libations and great times together, and a fine how-de-do. We'd Arrived! (The libations never did, in fact we barely saw her again during our week there. I think she'd had most of them herself just before we showed up :)).

We found our way over to Steve and Ann Marie's, and made ourselves at home for the evening. They wanted help painting their trailer, and I think the promise of our arrival was as much help as the painting itself, as by the time we came back the next morning to get started, Steve was already attacking the front trim with a paintbrush. We jumped right in, and by dusk we had the entire project done! We'd booked a week at our campground, so the rest of the time was spent sailing, talking, flea marketing, hiking the mangroves and old Indian mounds, and biking and swimming.

The sailing was a delight, and pure entertainment to boot. The first trip out on Tuesday was fairly short due to the tides and light breezes, but as it bore the honor of our first experience ever in a sailboat, it was perfect. Steve has an old 17' boat that he keeps stored in the woods just up the road from his nephew's clam farm, so we helped haul it out of the undergrowth and down the road to the dock where he launches. Life jackets, paddles, maps, water bottles, and the tiller and sails were carried down and stowed. The mast had to be set once we were out a bit from land, as the trees were too low on shore. Steve gave calm and patient directions as we threaded ropes, helped rig sails, and got underway. Fynn's incessant questions were handled with equal patience, and we headed out of the inlet towards the mouth of Tampa Bay.

We circled a bird sanctuary island that was really really cool, and Michael especially was just mesmerized. A mangrove and tree-covered island absolutely teeming with big birds … pelicans, roseate spoonbills, glossy ibis, cranes, egrets, great egrets with their fluffy white tails, anhingas, osprey, and more. Every tree had dozens and they didn't bat an eye as we silently circled the island, staring and hopelessly snapping photos and video, knowing that truly capturing the scene was impossible. Steve, sitting in the back with the tiller in hand, quietly delighting in our delight, and offering bird names as we pointed and asked. The boys got a chance to try their hand at the tiller once we were back in the little inlet where we launched, and declared it a perfect day.

We went out again on Thursday, and Fynn had set his sights on going Fast! And Far! He wasn't disappointed on the Fast! bit, as the winds were better at 10 mph or so, and we started hiking our way speedily across Tampa Bay, taking turns working the ropes, checking the map, and swinging the jib. The sun was peeking out and we were just starting to feel like we had a handle on this sailing thing, when a loud CRACK! invaded the quiet and we momentarily all froze, watching the mast swing towards the water, dip in, and start to drag the sails under. Frantic grabbing ensued by all hands, and with a fistful of sail and cable in my arms, I asked Steve “What's the plan of attack?” It appeared that a mast cable had broken, shearing off a pin holding it in place and sending the mast overboard, though it was still attached by two more cables. Steve's “Well, first we need to secure the mast and sails …” kept us busy for awhile, and after it was determined that there was no way to jury rig the sail, we took them completely off and stowed them in the cubby, and lashed the mast to the side. Upon searching the cubby for the oars, it was determined that one of them had been left in the back of the car, leaving us with one oar, a dis-masted boat, and the closest shore about 1.5 miles away!

We tried rowing by tossing the oar back and forth between Michael and I, but that quickly proved futile. Steve tried tying a bucket to a rope and throwing it ahead of us and pulling it in, while balanced on the prow, but that lasted about 3 dangerous and slippery tosses before being abandoned also. Phone calls were made to the nephew, and to Ann Marie, in an attempt to get someone to come tow us in. In the meantime, the boys were tasked with watching for passing boats and waving life jackets to attract attention.

There was something delightful in the air though … no real dismay or fear, just the excitement of something to Do!, and a Problem to Solve!, and Steve was the one who set the tone for the rest of us. He didn't seem unduly dismayed, more like a wee bit pleased to be honest, and it truly was entertaining! We had water and snacks, we knew someone would eventually see us, or come find us, and the weather was clear and sunny with a nice breeze. Things could be a LOT worse. Just as Steve got his nephew on the phone and was working through rescue options, the boys managed to hail a beautiful fishing boat with two men on board, and they offered to tow us to Emerson Point. As they were getting ropes tossed and tied, I spotted a Tow Boat going by, and was rather thankful that we got help from passers by instead. They kindly towed us as close to shore as the shallows would allow, and we pulled the boat up on the beach there, a spot we'd hiked to just 2 nights before.

We waited there for Ann Marie, who had braved driving Matilda over to pick us up (their car being at the launch point), never having driven anything remotely like her before. There are some benefits I guess to Michael's penchant for leaving the keys IN the truck! I was as proud of her for that as anything … she rose to the occasion beautifully, and I do believe found her own delight in it all.

We parted ways after a week, though I knew I'd see Ann Marie again in a few weeks, as we had a cruise coming up later in the month, together with my sis Martha and sis-in-law Keren. (Tom really rocked it in the birthday department this year!).

That week set the tone for the rest of our time in Florida. Staying away from big attractions for the most part, quiet adventures and misadventures, lots of water and sand and heat, and most excellent companions to hang out with. And nary a Disney character in sight :).

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Market Square Shuffle


The first time I went to Market Square to draw portraits, I made $101 bucks.  That was the day after the Chalk Walk and I haven't finished writing about it.  The second time I went to Market Square was after two weeks of rain on a Saturday.  The Farmer's Market was underway, and my grassy area was full of tents for the 200th anniversary of the Civil War.  I made my way to the main square and waited an hour for the vendors to pack up.  I chose a nice spot in the shade of a fenced tree, and set up. 

It wasn’t long before a large black man with a bellowing laugh engaged me in conversation.  I could tell by the way he scoped the square while he talked that he was hustling something.  Turns out he’s an artist named Shawn.  He showed me the Mother’s Day card he was selling prints of for $10 dollars.  It was nice.

You’d have to be pretty charming to sell them for 10 bucks, but he was.  He was very at ease and each time he let out a laugh, he’d study its ripple to the far ends of the square.  As we talked, a grungy girl of maybe 30 trudged past, loaded down with sooty bags.  “Hello,” she said.  I was looking at Shawn at the time and assumed she was talking to him.  I waited for him to respond.  “I said, HELLO!” she said indignantly.  I looked up.  She had stopped and was staring at me.  I thought, what’s this homeless girl with attitude want from ME?  Shawn kept his mouth shut.

“Hello,” I said guardedly.

“Unh!”  She turned in disgust and headed for the shade of the next fenced tree.  I watched, puzzled, as she plopped her bags down, keeping her back to me.

“That’s Foxy,” Shawn confided.  “She’s a spray paint artist.  She’s very, umm … temperamental.”

“Ohh.” Now I saw I was possibly in her regular spot and I had not responded to her attempt to be friendly.  Whoops.

Shawn wandered off and I began to draw a portrait of Bethany from my phone.  An older man, maybe 58, in a straw hat and dress shirt ambled up.  He watched me draw for a minute.  “You new here?”

“I was here 2 weeks ago.” I replied.

“I could tell,” he said, “I’ve not seen you before and I know everyone in this square.”  I kept drawing.

“Have you met Foxy over there?”  He nodded her way.  “She’s a good friend.  She has her ups and downs,” he made a roller coaster with his hand, “but she makes nice work.”

“I said Hi to her,” I allowed.

“And down there at the end of the square … that’s Harley.  The Magician.  He’s a friend of mine.  And over there …” he pointed, “that’s my buddy Hank.”

“You must spend a lot of time in the square,” I observed.

“That I do,” he said, pleased I was catching his drift.  “Truth be told, I do a little drawing myself.”

“Really?” I said.  I put my china marker down.  I could tell he wanted my full attention.

“That’s right.  Portraits, like you, only I do mine in pencil.”

“Oh, Yeah?”  I was remembering that event services said there were no portrait artists.  I was also realizing he was doing a territory dance.

“The name’s Doug.”  He stuck out his hand.  I shook it. “Yeah, I’ve been doing this for about 21 years now.  I haven’t set up yet this year.  I’ve had a bit of money come in and haven’t needed to.  But I normally sit at that table over there until about noon then move to that table to stay in the shade.”  As I turned to look, he took the opportunity to lean his bag against my easel leg and sat down in the customer chair.  This was an act of aggression.  I considered starting to draw him but sensed he’d find a way to sabotage it.  My best course was to keep playing nice.  “You had any problems with the police?”

“Not yet.” I said.  “I talked to a couple cops two weeks ago when I set up.  They didn’t seem to know what laws applied to me.”

“Well, I’m good friends with the sheriff…”

What followed was an hour of him giving me advice that was largely unnecessary and telling me stories that revolved around how well connected he was.  I had to pull out my “I worked in Times Square” card to take a bit of the wind out of his sails.  Eventually he left, and I went back to drawing my wife.

Within 10 minutes I felt a presence watching.  I looked up hoping for customer, only to find a balloon vendor rocking on his heels and grinning a practiced stage grin.  “Hello! I’m David and you’re new here!”  He stuck out his hand.  It was a welcome contrast, this straightforward communication.  I seized his hand. 

“I’m Michael!” I belted back. “And I am!”

“Well, that’s a firm handshake!  And you have a very professional setup!  AND you do very nice work!”

“Thank You!”  A flat wire basket hung from his neck at chest level, in which he kept his twisty balloons and a hand pump.  Several pre-twisted balloons and a sign were attached.

“Are you, sir, aware of the laws governing your table?”  He asked.

“This, my good man,” I retorted, “Is NOT a table.  It is an Easel.”

“Well put!  An Easel!”  He marveled.  “Good answer!  For you know, it is Illegal to set up a table without a permit.  That is why I,” he gestured to his basket, “carry my table with me.  I can see you are an articulate man,” he flattered. “Let me ask you this: How much do you charge for one of your portraits?”

“Nothing,” I smiled. “I ask only for a donation.”

“Another good answer!” he exclaimed.  “We are not allowed, as buskers, to SELL our wares.”

We proceeded to have a lengthy conversation concerning the laws of the square, in which he was very well versed.  His speech and approach were so like my Father’s, I found it quite enjoyable.  He told me stories of encounters with event services and the police.  His lawyer/girlfriend, Peggy, researched and provided printouts of the most current legislation.  He used to set up a balloon tent with a helium tank.  He also plays clarinet.  He used to bring drums and instruments in for the kids to play.  He’d play the clarinet while the kids played drums and had balloon sword battles.  I was delighted!  Then they changed the law to disallow tents for buskers.

While on this topic, Doug returned looking a little redder in the nose.  I could tell from his approach that he was seething with aggression.  He planted himself standing almost between David and I and folded his arms.  There was the slightest hesitation in David’s story but he went on “ – and so I removed my tent and I replaced it with a table.”

“Only an asshole would set up a tent,” Doug declared.

“That’s true!” David smiled in agreement, as if Doug meant breaking the law.

Vehemently Doug said “No!  YOU’RE an asshole!”

David took a step back, bowed his head and said “Thank you sir.”  Then stepping forward again, “I don’t believe we’ve met.  The name’s David.”   He stuck out his hand.

Doug took a step back, arms still crossed.  “I know You and you should know me, I saved you from getting punched in the face.” David looked at him for a second.  “Thank you,” He said sincerely.

Then turning back to me, he continued. “And then they changed the law to exclude tables.”

It then fell to me, whether I would continue conversing with David, tacitly agreeing the matter was settled and the interruption was over, or would I respect Doug’s misgivings as to David’s character and seek to delve deeper into the mystery of its origin.  I reasoned in myself that even if Doug’s assessment of David were true, his method of conveyance broke social protocol and made him appear to be the very thing he accused David of.  Our anger at others, more often than not, is directly proportionate to our intimacy with that very shortcoming in ourselves.  I concluded that David’s graciousness had netted my attention.  “So that’s when you started wearing your table?” I asked.

“It is!” David beamed.  “Now I carry everything with me and wander freely about the square.”

Doug stormed off in a trail of obscenities and entered the nearest bar.

“What do you suppose that was about?” David’s eyebrows were raised.

“I don’t know.  You handled it very nicely, though.”

“Why, thank you!”  He gave a little bow.

“Perhaps he felt that I was his territory since he spent an hour telling me, the nubie, the ropes of the square,” I suggested.

“Hmm … very insightful,” he mused.  “Perhaps.”  Then  he launched into the story of how 16 nails had been pounded into all 4 tires of his car while in a parking garage some years back and the culprit had turned out to be a bar owner who had recently gotten out of prison for laundering drug money for his brother.  (That bar right there, actually, where Doug had gone in.)  David didn’t know why the guy hated him, but he’d gotten a brand new set of tires out of it, from his insurance.  He said he has a strong personality and it sometimes has that effect on people.

While he talked he noticed my attention drifting to Foxy, who was explaining how hard and stressful being an artist could be to a glazey-eyed couple.  They kept nodding soberly. “That’s Foxy,”  David pointed with his chin.  “Steer clear of her.  She’s Manic.”  Well, everyone can agree on one thing, I thought.  “At least she’s out here making art,” I said.  

“Well, I should let you get back to drawing.  It’s been an unparalleled pleasure!”  David bowed and sauntered away.

I went back to drawing Bethany, but my phone was dying.  I was getting antsy.

Finally, around 7:00, two young black girls approached. “How much are your pictures?” one asked.

“They’re for a donation,” I said.

“We only have two dollars,” she mourned.

“Have a seat,” I commanded.

While I drew them, I felt a presence lurking.  I knew it was Doug without looking.  After a lot of throat clearing he leaned into my space and said “I’m gonna leave my bag here, I’ve gotta go to the market.”  He started to put it against my easel leg.  “You’ll be here for awhile, right?” 

I didn’t look up from drawing, but pointed.  “Not on the easel.   Put it against the fence.” I commanded.  He tried to say something else but I was really focused on the portrait.  He left.  I did a respectable job finishing and the girls were delighted.  Unfortunately I had pulled in no more business and was sitting idle when Doug returned.  He was fairly drunk.  I leaned against the fence to help him avoid using my chair.  He leaned beside me and offered me some corn liquor from a water bottle.  I declined.

“Sorry for embarrassing you, earlier.  It’s just that guy is a … well, he’s been really nasty to some good friends of mine.  The owner of this bar here.  He’s a really good friend.  He lets me draw in there late at night when the crowds out here die down.  That’s a good gig, you know, people are really generous in a bar, of course you can never draw for long because people keep buying you free drinks!”

“Well, what did he do to your friend?” I ask.

“It’s a long shtory,” he said, with a sidelong glance to see where my loyalties lay.  “Too long to tell,” he decided.

“Well, I gotta pack up and go home to my wife,” I said, realizing how much I was missing her.

“Will you be out tomorrow?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said flatly.  I packed and left.

As I carried my things past Foxy I glanced at her work.  It was painstakingly wrought.  Not the slick caliber of the NYC spray artists, but at least it was her own, not formulaic.  I thought, You go, girl, but I did not engage.

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Face Off


Face Off is a contest where people put makeup on people and go in front of judges to see who has the best makeup.  And they don't just use eyeliner and lipstick, they use professional special effects makeup like airbrushes and fabrications and different clothes.  In the building they have hundreds and hundreds of different things that you might need.  So that's what we did, and we did a mini one.

This is us planning and getting ready to do Face Off tomorrow.  We had two teams.  The first team was me, my dad, and Bobby.  Team number two was Douglas, Keren, and my mom.  So we planned the first day, and worked the next day.  In planning, we had 2.5 hours, and the same for working.

And the way we came up with our characters, we had a list of different elements and jobs, and numbers next to them.  The teams took turns rolling dice.  You would roll twice for the elements, and once for the jobs.  The different elements that we had were dirt, lava, water, and metal.  Our team got dirt and metal.  The other team got lava and dirt.  And for the jobs, we did the same.  Our team got a postal worker, and the other team got an engineer.

And at the judging time, what we would get judged by ... we had to have a back story, and how the character looks, and how the elements were incorporated. 

Our backstory for what we were putting on our character was that the earth had gotten mostly destroyed, and there were small chunks left with people on it.  Our character was a giant postal worker that is slowly terraforming the moon, and making it into dirt, and all the silver and copper in the moon are going into his arms.  And also he has the moon for his head.  And he has the moon for his head.  He has the moon for his head. 

And on the bits of the earth there is a rumor traveling around that the EARTH BRAIN MOON MAN is going to come back and remake the earth.  Bobby was our model.

The other team's idea was to have siamese twins, one was immune to fire and lava, the other was made of dirt.  They were chemical engineers and were exploring in volcanoes trying to find the fountain of youth.  Douglas was dirt and my mom was lava.

My mom partway through being painted.&nbsp; The red is lava and the black shapes are going to be crusty lava.&nbsp; The red was grease paint and acrylic paint and red sharpie marker.&nbsp;

My mom partway through being painted.  The red is lava and the black shapes are going to be crusty lava.  The red was grease paint and acrylic paint and red sharpie marker. 

We were allowed to use anything in the house.  And we only had a few supplies of makeup and stuff.

Our model before he put on makeup.

Our model before he put on makeup.

Douglas being made, at the age of one minute.&nbsp; And the vines on his arm are real.

Douglas being made, at the age of one minute.  And the vines on his arm are real.


Earth Brain Moon Man

Inside his head is the terraforming of the moon turning into dirt for the earth.  We made the dirt out of grinding up styrofoam bits, then pouring in paint.

team two's finished model


Our judges were Opa and GramGram, and we were judging on skype.  They judged us by making a list of three categories which were Backstory, Makeup, and Incorporation of Elements.  Each team got a different amount of points in each category.

Waiting for the judges

Waiting for the judges

This is the end of the Face Off and the winning team is ...

Team Number Two!

I liked the Face Off thing and I would want to do it again, and it was my idea to do it.  Most of the people didn't want to do it at first, but we all had fun.

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