From boomtown to the boonies

I can’t get a handle on GPS. Being a moving blue dot on a screen just doesn’t do it for me. That annoying turn left, turn right, go straight is enough to drive me to distraction. So we navigated our way across the Mojave desert using a hand-drawn map that spanned 200 miles. There were times I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn but there had been no wrong turns to take. For miles and miles, all we could see was road, and desert.

IMG_6252 (800x591)IMG_6246 (800x577) (800x577)Lines of lonely mailboxes were clear indicators of the inhabitants and the houses that blended in so perfectly with their surrounds that they were invisible. We drove and drove and nothing much changed. And then we happened across Kelso Depot. Marked with an X on our map, it was somewhere to stop, to break the monotony.

Once a boomtown, Kelso is now home to a renovated train station that houses a museum and a café – a café run by a chap called Mike who wants to sell out and retire, yet again. The 2013 version of this town is a far cry from the 1943 version when troops, tanks, and trucks were shipped through here by rail, creating a hive of activity that begot buildings, people, and commerce. All was well until 1985, when Union Pacific pulled out and the trains stopped pulling in.

IMG_6274 (800x600) (800x600)The old jail – a two-cell steel contraption – was used to house those who caused a ruckus after a few beers on a Friday night. Open to the elements, no one spent more than a night here – anything more would have been close to torture. The town was called after a railroad worker who won a competition to have it named after him. Its main claim to fame in the 1970s was that it was a town without television. Now its main claim to fame is that it breaks the journey across the desert and offers root-beer floats to thirsty travellers.

IMG_6278 (800x600) (800x600)I’d forgotten what root beer tasted like. But the concept of a root beer float (vanilla ice-cream floating in a glass of soda) was too all-American to pass up. And the decor, with its bar counter and  high stools, looked as if it had come off a TV set for a 1960s American sitcom. So we tried them. And didn’t like them. But struggled through. If you’re wondering what root beer tastes like, it’s remarkably similar to that horrible eucalyptus toothpaste – the pink stuff.  Bless him though, Mike didn’t want to take our money. But traffic was light that day so we compromised and paid just $5 for the experience.

IMG_6276 (591x800)America isn’t just big cities, skyscrapers, and football stadiums. At its backbone are people like Mike, ordinary people, trying to eke a living from the cards they’ve been dealt. America is more attitude than atmosphere. That instant familiarity can take a little getting used to but then you stop for sustenance in the boonies and spend a pleasant half hour talking about nothing with someone you know you’ll never see again. And that someone, that stranger, does something nice – like buy you a root-beer float – then you get it. However superficial it might seem, America has an abiding interest in other people’s business, a curiosity about the world outside, and a opinion on just about everything. And when you strip away the commercialism, the bright lights, the designer labels, and stumble across places like the Beanery, and see small-town America for what it is, the kindness comes out.

Getting from A to B

Someone commented once that all too often we are so preoccupied with the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey. We’re so focused on getting from A to B that we don’t see what’s around us. I’ve been arguing for years that life plans don’t suit me – I’m too afraid that I’d miss myriad opportunities were I to focus on one end goal. Granted, I have had one plan in life – when I was 17. I was going to be a teacher, marry a teacher, have two kids (boy and a girl, Tadhg and Maud) by the age of 27, and be ready to retire and travel by the age of 50. When I read that back, I see that my grand plan comprises a number of separate plans, not one of which has materialised. I failed from the outset because I didn’t get into Teacher Training College. I fell at the first hurdle. Never made the first milestone on my Gantt chart. Once I’d gotten over that disappointment (and it was a big one), I resolved that, in future, my plan would simply be to have no plan. And it’s worked – so far. When I travel, I might have a destination in mind, but I’m permanently on the look-out for some place interesting to stop along the way.

IMG_6207 (800x600)The city of Twentynine Palms in California is notable for three reasons. It’s home to the HQ of the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s home to the 932-square-mile Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command – the largest Marine Corps training base in the world. And it’s home to my mate AP’s brother.

The plan was to meet A&R for lunch and then head across the Mojave desert on the four-hour drive to Las Vegas. I was expecting a catch-up and a good lunch. I got both. What I wasn’t expecting was to find  the MAGTFTC and its 10 000 + military residents. I was fascinated and found myself talking in a rapid-fire parody of an AK47. Who? Why? Where? When?

IMG_6210 (800x598)Since falling for the man of all men, Jack Reacher, he of the Lee Child novels, I’ve had a fascination with Marine life. I would love to take a tour of a base and see for myself what I expect to be true – that they’re mini-towns complete with all the modern conveniences that any thriving town would have – cinemas, bowling alleys, shops, restaurants, etc., and there’s no real reason for anyone on them to leave. In Twentynine Palms, Marines get to train to be better Marines. A simulated rehearsal of sorts. Rumour has it that so real are their simulations, they actually go to Hollywood and hire extras so that the city/culture they’re simulating is accurately represented. Makes sense. But it could go horribly wrong. They would get some shock if they invaded Ireland expecting everyone to have red hair and freckles and talk like Tom Cruise in Far and Away. [I know I could pick ten bad Hollywood Irish accents but Cruise is the focus of my ire these days because he has the nerve to think that he can do justice to my hero Jack Reacher.]

So I read up on it a little and discovered that this place in Twentynine Palms provides training for any size unit from individual to regiment, for any warfighting discipline from infantry to logistics, and from all parts of the combat spectrum from full scale war to establishing local governance. And I found myself thinking how I’d like it if all that was going on in my back yard. But then I remembered the 6000 or so locals employed in civilian capacity on the base and figured that the US Marine Corps is just like another huge corporation … and Twentynine Palms is, in effect, a company town.

IMG_6213 (800x600)Now, I’m a peace-loving gal at heart. The closest I get to war is reading about it. My opinions on the subject can’t be boxed with any regimental accuracy. Yes, it fascinates me. In my darker hours, I see it as a great evolutionary joke  – we used to send our best and brightest way to fight our great wars and what was left behind added to the gene pool. I’ve written recently about the USA and its outward display of respect and appreciation for its troops and while the individual should be applauded rather than maligned for fighting for their country, those in charge occasionally leave some doubt in my mind as to their credentials.

The closest I’ve come to the US Military scene is a friendship with a couple of Coasties in Alaska, a date or three with a Army reservist in LA, and a quick conversation with a retired Marine here in BP some months back. Other American and Australian friends have sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and parents in the service and I know that this blood tie gives them a different perspective, one I can never appreciate fully.

I am curious though – so curious – about a living a life that has unquestioned obedience at its core. To my mind, with that obedience has to come an irrefutable trust in those higher up the command chain – trust that they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons in the best interests of all concerned. In what some might seem a little strange, I have no problem believing in God but I simply cannot get my head around blind trust from a military perspective. The invocation ‘following orders’ brings me out in a cold sweat.

Twentynine Palms was simply a stop along the way – but it now has me questioning so much. As Henry Miller said:  One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. Let the journey continue.

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Joshua Tree

I met Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton back in 1983. We had a chat for 10 minutes or so in what was then the TV Club in Harcourt Street in Dublin. I had no clue who they were and I’m sure none of them remember meeting me. I was singularly unimpressed with yer man then and not much has changed in the intervening years. When I think of U2 now and play a word association game in my head, the ones I care to mention that come to mind are Boy, War, and Joshua Tree.

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Yet if the 64 million dollar question had asked me to describe a Joshua Tree, I’d have gone home penniless. I didn’t know it was an evergreen that could grow as high as 40 feet,  2 to 3 inches a year, and take 50 to 60 years to mature.  So if their ’21’ is 60, it’s not surprising that they can live 150 years. Growing only in the Mojave desert, they have an exclusive pollination agreement with the Yucca Moth, who has evolved special organs to collect and distribute the pollen onto the surface of the flower. She lays her eggs in the flowers’ ovaries, and when the larvae hatch, they feed on the yucca seeds.  Adds a whole new slant to the chicken and the egg debate.

Curious, I couldn’t resist a detour through Joshua Tree National Park, an area in California that covers about 1,234 square miles. But the song that buzzed in my head wasn’t anything from the album of the same name but rather The Fall, by the Black Lillies and that line where he talks about flowers being so rare in the desert.  And yet, all around us, the Mojave desert was blooming. Admittedly the colour palate was pretty short on pastels, but it was beautiful for all its sameness.

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Declared a National Monument in 1936, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t designated as such until 1994. When stopped to buy our pass, the ranger on duty, hearing that we weren’t exactly from around those parts, gave us a lecture on the dangers of dehydration and the record-breaking temperatures expected. Now, I believe that I’ve been in a state of constant dehydration since I was born, a fact reinforced by every beautician who has ever given me a facial. Cream of any sort soaks into my skin in a matter of milliseconds, no matter how much water I drink, yet even I was surprised at how many litres we put away on the two-hour detour on the road from Sedona to Palm Springs.

Dehydration aside, though, I was once again mesmerised by the desert landscape and the variety of what’s on offer. Apparently 250 different species of birds have been spotted here, including the Roadrunner, but he must have had a casting call that day.

 

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Just two hours from the California coast, it’s pretty hard to imagine the size of this desert unless you see it for yourself. That a cool ocean breeze could be blowing so relatively near while the desert air was stifling hot boggles my sense of climatic diversity. This intrastate variety is one of the many reasons that California is so ‘special’, and I use that word advisedly. I had  CA driver’s license for two years. I’ve served my time in a state where 80% of your personality depends on the type of vehicle you drive and the word ‘like’ is a form of running punctuation (Ok, so, admittedly, I was down South.)

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If ever you want to feel how insignificant we homo sapiens really are, spend a few hours in the desert. It simultaneously reinforces both the tenacity and the fragility of the human spirit. And if you’re a solitary soul, the sense you get of being alone on this planet is one to treasure.

Statues and their stories

I’ve a strange fascination with statues. I’ve been known to talk to them and always listen to what they have to say. That’s probably more indicative of my mental state than their ability to converse but that said, I’m drawn to them and often find myself wondering what they’d say if they could talk.

There’s a giant-sized statue of Marilyn Monroe in downtown Palm Springs. She stands 26 feet tall and weights 34 000 pounds. The child of Johnson and Johnson heir, 80-year-old Seward Johnson, Marilyn’s sculpted pose is one from the movie The seven-year itch.

Marilyn formerly reigned in Chicago but the city has passed her on to Palm Springs where she’s quickly become part of the scenery. And she’s in good company. Another of Hollywood’s famous ladies is also in residence.

Lucille Ball is quite the Palm Springs heroine. The Lucy House, one of the first homes she owned with Desi Arnez, is now open for residents. She is one of my  all-time favourites. I even named my first doll (which I still have) after her. I have fond memories of splitting my sides at the ‘I love Lucy’ show which generated what is thought to be the longest laugh in live TV history. She was one funny lady.

 

Another statue that keeps popping up in Palm Springs is that of Sonny Bono. He’s everywhere. When he first went to Palm Springs, he tried to open a restaurant and was apparently so frustrated by the red tape that he decided to be the change he wanted to see – he ran for Mayor.  He served four years (1988 to 1992) but you’d think it a lot more!  In 1994, he became a member of Congress and is still the only member ever to have had No. 1 hit. But his political career was cut short when he died in a skiing accident in 1998.

Sonny might have been king in his day, Marilyn queen, and Lucy Matriarch, but for me, the most interesting statue in town is that of Frank M. Bogert who was Mayor from 1958-1966 and again from 1982-1988. Truly a legend in his own lifetime, Bogert once described Einstein ‘the nicest little guy you’d ever want to meet’. He’s one man I’d like to have met.

Palm Springs might be a little gentrified, but it has its share of homelessness, too. It might have an aging population, but young people are starting to return home – the boomerang babies, victims of the current financial crises. At the airport, as the dolls of downtown line up in their wheelchairs, made up to the nines, bedecked and bejewelled, they gave me pause for thought. These feisty ladies are a different kind and seem determined not to go gently into the good night. They truly are an inspiration. The motto above the town hall says it all: The people are the city.

In the palm of God’s hand

Palm Springs has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. An oasis in the desert, the city itself was incorporated in 1938. It’s a  place where the mountains literally rise out of the ground and stand sentry. The sun highlights some peaks and casts others into deep shadow. Palm trees reign surpreme and I assumed that this was where the city got its name. But palm trees don’t grow in straight lines – at least not naturally!

When they happened across the area in the early nineteenth century, Spanish explorers called the place, ‘Ague Caliente’ (hot water). So we have the ‘springs’ part explained. They also referred to it as  La Palma de la Mano de Dios or The Palm of God’s hand. Hence the palm. Others say that there were two palm trees beside the spring but that’s a little too obvious if, perhaps, the most likely explanation.

First inhabited by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the reservation itself officially began in  1896. Then the movie stars came east from California and in the 1920s, the city began to boom. Home to the greats like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, and Bob Hope, the street names still tell their stories.

During World War II, General George S. Patton’s troops used the desert to train for their invasion of North Africa. The old El Mirador Hotel (that had a full grown lion in a cage over the entrance) and which is now the site of today’s Desert Regional Medical Center, once served as Torney General Hospital, treating US wounded. The hospital was staffed by Italian prisoners of war, housed at the adjoining detention camp. More recently, it’s famous as a film location with the likes of Ocean’s 11 and Diamonds are Forever being shot there.

The city practically closes for the summer (May-September) and reopens in October. With temperatures as high as 120 degrees, it’s not surprising really. Many residents are snowbirds – those who come to the desert to escape the winters of Alaska and Canada. Many are retired. For the first time in a long time, I was the youngest in the room. But even that wouldn’t entice me to move. Lovely place with some jaw-dropping scenery. But it’s too damn hot.

 

Grateful 21

I had a birthday last week. Another one. They seem to come around with increasing regularity. But as I’m firmly stuck on 36, they’ve long since lost their hold on me. Gone are the days when I’d spend the weeks leading up to my birthday contemplating all I didn’t do that year, berating myself for not being more… well…  something, and bemoaning the fact that I was one year closer to maturity without the associated trappings: house, car, husband, kids.

These days, it’s more about chalking one up to success. A retrospective of this last year gets an 8/10 from my inner jury. On the plus side, I’ve travelled, been involved in interesting work projects, met some fascinating people, read some great books, discovered new corners of Budapest. I’ve entertained and been entertained. I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried. And I’ve finally put handles on my doors. On the minus side, I’ve put on a few pounds, been scammed, not been too healthy, and lost a very dear friend.

This year, I was in Palm Springs on my birthday with the lovely DL-W and VB. We’re three Chinese horses – not quite three generations but close enough. On the actual day, I gave a talk at D’s church. Another retrospective – this time of travel and tolerance. The community was open, friendly, and very welcoming. The discussion afterwards was insightful and thought-provoking. It gave me hope. Hope that we might actually learn to live with one another, without judging.

This week, I’m grateful for shared experiences, for having the chance to travel, and for having opportunities to meet new people. I’m grateful for simply being alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Laid flat in Palm Springs

Palm Springs, California. Flat land surrounded by the San-Bernardino and the San Jacinto mountains that seem to rise up out of the ground. It’s hot. Bloody hot: 46 degrees in the shade (116 F). Posted signs give you an idea of how old the population is and yet when driving around, I didn’t spot any cemeteries. It took a while to reason why. There are no headstones. The only thing that gives it away is the wall surrounding a seemingly empty field.

We came across the Wellwood Murray cemetery, built for the first white settlers in Palm Springs. Wellwood Murray Jnr was the first to occupy this small plot of land in 1894. Once in there, his parents allowed other white settlers to be buried alongside him and in 1914 WM Snr , the pioneer hotelier, was laid to rest. He had opened the first hotel in the area, the Palm Springs Hotel, and set the town on the road to fame and fortune.

A ribbon of towns wends its way through Coachella Valley: Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca with barely a discernable difference visible to the novice eye. Over in Cathedral City, on Ramon Road lies  Desert Memorial Park, another quiet cemetery with nare  a headstone in sight. Home to the some more famous internments (as the guiding map so eloquently puts it), I stood for a while over Frank Sinatra’s grave.

Once, in London, waiting for afternoon tea in the Ritz, I sat near the pianist. He asked if I’d like him to play something for me.  I asked if he new any Sinatra. Knew him? He’d played with the man himself in South America. He asked what I’d like him to play. I told him to choose. He started playingI’ve got you under my skin.

Some weeks later, I was in a pub near Waterloo. The owner, a karaoke-loving freemason, told me he’d sing me a song. What would I like? I asked if he knew any Sinatra. He said he knew just the song for me. And yes, he started in on  I’ve got you under my skin.

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous – and while I have no idea what He was trying to say to me, this song remains a  favourite.

Used to the more ornate and decorative European cemeteries I’ve visited, these two were rather quiet and somewhat sad. The more I think of it, the more I’d like to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in all those places I never got to visit…

Prisons, pelicans, and purchasing power

Cemeteries and prisons. Two things that I’m strangely fascinated with. And as prisons go, Alcatraz is one of the most iconic. Standing on this side of the water, looking out across San Francisco Bay, it’s easy to imagine the desolation of life on the rock.

Back in 1775, Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay and named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translates as the island of the pelicans. Alcatraz is the old Spanish name for pelicans, a word the Spanish borrowed from the Arabic  القطرس al-qaṭrās, or sea eagle. It started out as a military prison and for 30 years (1933 to 1963) served the country as a federal prison. Although it’s been years since I was there, I can still remember sitting in a cell and thinking what life must have been like marooned on the rock with the bustling city of San Francisco visible just 1.5 miles across the Bay. So near and yet so very, very far.

In stark contrast, standing sentry, are squadrons of pelicans. Perched down by Pier 33, they watch as the tourists board the ferry to take  them to the island. I was struck by their watchfulness. Reminded again of my cab driver who shared with me the privilege of noticing the unnoticed, I wondered at how much and how little some of us see.

Some species of pelican can grow to  70 inches and can have a wing span as wide as 10 feet. The chubby ones can weigh as much as 30 lbs. Big birds indeed.  Using their elastic throat as a dip net, they catch fish and swallow immediately. The brown pelicans, the ones in San Francisco, get their fist by plunging from the air but others swim in formation and drive the fish into shallow waters – perhaps this is why they’re collectively known as a squadron.

Strangely fascinated by their graceful lethargy, I could have spent hours watching them. But I was on a mission. I’d come down to the Wharf in search of a Russian wedding ring. And I found one. And the little toothless Asian woman who sold it to me saw me coming. ‘Silver’, she said. ‘Will bring you luck. Fifty dollah. Plus five dollah sales tax.’ A little taken aback at the price, I tried in vain to see if it was stamped but I had the wrong glasses with me. Turns out it wasn’t. But I was a day late and a dollar short. I can only hope that her karma is in good working order.

Customer satisfaction

Prime rib. Baked potato. Fried calamari. Elk. Little Debbie’s swiss rolls. Biscuits and sausage gravy. My American food wish list. Short. Specific. And very much doable in San Francisco. Dinner at the House of Prime Rib knocked two of those off my list. Prime rib and baked potato. Established in the late 1940s, it’s an insitution. The waiters are happy, energetic and enthusiasic. They only serve prime rib – and getting a reservation requires some forward thinking.

Everything is done with great fanfare. Waiters wield the fixings like cocktail waiters play with bottles. Lots of waving of arms, a running commentary, and a genuine appreciation for what they are doing. It’s a joy to watch them work and a very vivid example of how you can work a table for tips. These boys make some money. I know that American customer service is the prototype that many attempt (and fail) to copy. Think Budapest. Think Dublin. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been in Europe where customer service even comes close.

The cuts come in four sizes ranging from 6-8 oz to the King George – a hefty 15 oz. All cooked to perfection and cut to order. Served with a choice of creamed spinach or creamed corn and a house salad, tossed with great aplomb at your table. Culinary heaven.

Next on my list was the fried calamari – from Fisherman’s wharf. The place is jammed full of stalls and stands and restaurants selling fresh crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, seafood medlies – fresh and fried. I had a double dose – a crab and shrimp cup with some prawns – and then my battered, crispy, calamari. Walking down by the famous Pier 39, I was in fish heaven.

Later that night, we cooked duck and elk back at the flat. Score 3! I have my order in for my swiss rolls and am heading back shortly for some of Helen’s famous biscuits and sausage gravy. List complete. Cravings satiated. Waistband expanded. One very satisfied customer.

Noticing the unnoticed

It was shortly after midnight. I was standing on a street corner near Fisherman’s Wharf waiting for a cab. Up the road, one stood waiting outside Fiddler’s Green, its light on to show it was vacant. I assumed it was waiting for someone to finish their beer so I didn’t walk towards it. Instead I waited. Patiently. I was in no hurry back to my hotel.

It crawled towards me and stopped. I got in. The driver turned and said that he liked what I was wearing. It was very colourful, and if he might be so bold, he also liked the frame on which it was hanging. I laughed.

Robert Graham is a self-professed connoisseur – by which he means that he notices things that other people don’t see; he enjoys what he terms ‘the privilege of noticing the unnoticed’. Of German and Irish ancestry, he has racked up more then sixty years on his meter and has been driving a cab in San Fran for the last twenty-five. Before that he wrote garbage for the Associated Press – his words, not mine.

As we started to climb the hills to Fillmore and Fell, he talked. He spoke of life and how disposable it is. He spoke of how we no longer see each other; we no longer take the time to really look. He told me that he meets lots of interesting people and that his friends are always amazed because they never seem to meet anyone of note. He said it wasn’t rocket science – you just had to look, to notice.

As he’d noticed me.

He told me that the Irish were known for their introspection, and for conversing with their muses. He is writing a book that his agent reckons will make him rich in his old age. But he doesn’t need the money. He has enough. What’s more important is that he leaves a legacy; something to show what his life has stood for. He is convinced that he was put on Earth to write his books and to share with the world the things he’s noticed – the things they would never notice unless he pointed them out. He wasn’t boasting or self-aggrandising. He spoke with a quiet conviction that left no room for incredulity. I believed every word he said.

He told me that I was almost at my destination and that he regretted that the trip had been so short. He would like to talk more to me, to get to know me, to whisper in my ear. He told me he saw the beauty in me and that quiet certainty that said I knew myself.

The meter read $14.50. I gave him a $20 and told him to keep the change – it might finance a few words, perhaps even a whole sentence. He said he wanted to give me something and that all he could do was to give me a discount. He asked if I’d accept $10 change. I thought about insisting that he take it all and then realised how selfish I was being. This was his cab, his story, his show.

I said I’d keep an eye out for his book. He said that if ever I was walking down the main street in my home town and heard a fat man calling to me, it would be him.

I laughed and said goodbye, knowing he’d already left a legacy – he’d shared with me the privilege of noticing the unnoticed.