Blogpost Travel Blog

Dimensions beyond Comprehension

Display at Texas Airport Shop
Display at Texas Airport Shop

Time is not only money, it’s negotiating power.

I?comprehend this dimension — of time. Sometimes airlines have extra seats and they drop the prices at the last minute because $200 is better than $0 and that seat is flying across the country anyway.
But last week I got on the wrong side of that deal.

My trip planning fell as the last domino that started with the abortion issue. Without getting into left/right politics, let?s just say that my husband?s travel schedule is at the mercy of the federal government?s budget, which is in turn at the mercy of politics.

When things get iffy, that is, when the possibility of not having a federal budget next month begins to teeter, as dominoes are wont to do, my schedule at the far end of the line of calendars also gets wobbly.

Ultimately, because of the demands of canine care at home, I had to schedule my flight kinda at the last minute; I had to decide whether to pay $800 more or make a stop in Dallas, Texas for four hours.

Yup, what follows is the fascinating lifestyle to be found at this hub of airline travel in the second largest state in the union. And the least likely state to be in that union. Welcome to Texas.

I love a good in-flight conversation so being seated next to the tall, good-looking Jeff Bell from False Church, Virginia is just fine with me. FAHN. The veteran airforce pilot now works for the Navy developing fighter jets like the F35, with an intelligence and curiousity that rides that fine line between being bored with me and being interested in everything else I could think to ask him.

He is heading out to do some hiking in Big Bend National Park, vacation. There he looks forward to shooting some stars, with his camera. He shows me the app on his tablet that helps him identify constellations. Just hold it up, he demonstrates, lifting the thin black device over the seat toward the roof of the plane. The compass wheel on the screen spins crazily and stars, connected by thin red lines, appear.
By the end of the flight I learn that seated next to me is the man who can explain to me how to navigate with a sextant, something I?ve wanted to learn since I first read about Captain Bligh in the Bounty Trilogy. But alas, I learn this at that moment when the entire theatre of the airplane is pinging, as people turn on phones and download texts and voicemail. I am too late.
But if this is the kinda person Texas attracts, I?m eager for my four-hour layover to begin.

I disembark to the spacious terminal where the line to the women?s restroom snakes out and around the corner directly to the source of the problem, Starbucks.

I find a restaurant with exceedingly expensive dining options and lean my carry-on against the window. On the other side, among the men with headphones and lighted batons, I spot this:

IMG_2705(photo) Yes, that blue sticker says ?I go out with runway models.?

As I finish the priciest pile of Romaine I?ve ever devoured, my waiter, ?Mack,? chats amiably about why everything at the airport is so expensive.

?I used to think it was because of the captive audience,? he says. ?But now I know better.?

?It?s the rent,? I suggest.

?Not only that,? he agrees, but everything has to be screened. But yeah, he confirms, the rent is $67 per square foot ? and the kitchen is really small so we have to store everything downstairs.

He comments that Virgin America and Southwest paid millions of dollars for each gate. I look it up. This new terminal, opened almost precisely one year ago, cost half a billion dollars. Beyond comprehension.

I point outside to the Southwest plane-pushing cart out on the tarmac and it?s hard-to-read humor.

?Oh there?s another one that says ‘I?m a little Pushie,’? Mack says.

Mack and I recall the early days of Southwest?s promotional attitude, when anyone who smoked in flight would be asked to step outside. When any delay was attributed to the luggage bashing machine being on the fritz. Joke after joke.

Those were the days when flying was still scary, before 9/11, when it was just understanding the physics that made it scary, the counter-intuitiveness of strapping into an aluminum tube and launching oneself through the air at 500 miles per hour. Again, beyond my comprehension.

I pay my bill, extricate my luggage from the tiny table and wander through the airport.

A shop advertises boots and other cowboy necessities like refrigerator magnets, sugar-free mints and of course, what self-respecting Texas airport shop doesn?t stock horses?

IMG_2707A barrel of stick horses pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond comprehension.


Blogpost Travel Blog

Divide Ride Fried

Bicycling the Canadian Rockies along the Continental Divide.

I thought driving a sag wagon would be great; four bicyclists want to ride the continental divide from Banff, Canada to the border of Mexico, I would go with ? but not actually have to pedal.

Each segment would be about ten days long, to be completed over several years. I would haul the gear and stake out our campsites every night. My husband, who we?ll call ?Lars,? would organize it.

And so we start by landing in my hometown, Missoula, Montana. Lars knows I love and miss Montana. It?s where cool people have cool names like Tarn and Sasha and Cricket. Lars would fit right in, he just doesn?t know that yet.

My job would be to pack up camp, zoom ahead to claim a camp site, then have the rest of the day to hike or explore the gorgeous country on my own.

Well, beautiful it is, but time gets eaten up pretty fast when bicyclists miss the messages I leave on bulletin boards; decide to change destinations in the middle of the day; decide to stay in a motel; or miss the turnoff ? and I have to find cell service to figure it out.

Did I mention that three of these guys are federal employees? Not relevant of course but ? and I?m not sexist about communication either. Men CAN communicate. If they want to.

But don?t worry, this ends well.

It?s day seven and we?re within a bone?s throw of the end of the trail. The boys are still missing messages on camp bulletin boards and I am losing hair. So a visit with a friend near Whitefish, Montana, is not, by my sights, to be resisted. I met Sasha, a man with classic muttonchops, at my friend Tarn?s 20-Years-in-Remission Party last year.

So I make it clear to my four crazy boys?for at this point I?ve decided ?crazy bicyclists? is redundant?that I?ll be at the Red Meadows campsite tonight. If they?re not there, I?ll backtrack. But I?m not?no way? giving up my visit with Sasha; not going another route; not waiting for them to drink their coffees in some caf?; and I?m not going to a motel. Period.

Sasha is just as full of interesting updates as he was when I saw him a year ago. He?s selling 1,700 organic head of beef out of southern Albert annually. He tells me where to get the best brew in the new Whitefish, a town I used to know but that has mysteriously become a metropolis. He tells us where to dine, should I be tired of cooking, where NOT to dine, how cold it?s going to get tonight.

And, ?Oh,? he says, ?be sure to check out the Whitefish Bike Retreat.?

His friend, Cricket, a former record-holder for the Banff-to-Mexico ?divide ride? (she did it in 20 days, sola) built a cool resort for bicyclists. It?s right over there, he says, pointing east to an endless forest of dark evergreens. He gives me directions and Cricket?s phone number. I promise to check it out, but I doubt I will.

After I depart he informs me via text he has talked to Cricket and she?s looking forward to my visit.

He?s right, I will thank him later.

I find the place a few miles up a winding dirt road, a road hemmed by dark tree trunks.

A sign crafted from sprocket wheels greets me, so subtle and tasteful I almost miss it.

At the office, a one-room log cabin, I?m greeted by Zack, who, stepping out from behind a huge computer screen, offers a tour.

The lodge at Whitefish Bike Retreat

He points out the bikewash station as he pulls on the mountain bike handlebar that is the doorknob to the lodge. Once inside he points to the spacious kitchen where we are free to cook our own meals and use whatever the last visitors left behind. Cups, plates, pots, silverware and staples line the walls.

?We?re not allowed to sell alcohol,? he says, but the fridge is stocked with microbrews. He points to a place to donate to the beer fund.

Old bikes decorate the walls, mirrors are framed in bicycle wheels. The railings along the stairs are actually bicycle frames, leaving the impression there?s a mountain bike race going on right here in the communal living room.

Repurposed skis?

Through the insulated top-of-the-line glass doors I see a fireplace surrounded by wooden chairs that look suspiciously as though they have been built from old skis. I detect Cricket?s second passion.

Photographs throughout depict mountain bikers, diminutive in the grandeur of their surroundings, framed by leaves and branches as though they are elusive wildlife, which perhaps they are.

Clutching a brochure, I thank Zack. Then I head up the long lonely valley toward Red Meadows Campground, stopping at every intersection to consult my map; one thing I know about Forest Circus roads, one bad turn and you?re lost for days.

Don’t depend on signage.

Three hours later I am at an elevation of 9,000 feet. I?ve passed a meadow with red grass, there?s a dark brown government-issue outhouse. This must be it.

It?s been raining, which means it isn?t as cold as it feels. It?s four p.m. and no one, no one is at the campground. In fact, my tire tracks on the road are the only evidence of life since it rained. The silence of the place overwhelms me. I am at the tree line and a steep shale-fall looms over me to a peak south of a crystalline lake. It?s just stunning.

But where are my bicyclists?

I continue down the dirt road which quickly becomes so steep I use the manual gears so the brakes don?t wear out.

Twelve miles later I find them. Three of them look exhausted. The fourth, Lars, looks exhausted and hypothermic. I start to unfold the bike rack, informing them that they are not going to make it up the hill I just came down. But they are not so sure. I tell them it?s a 1,500 foot ascent and there?s a lake at the top we?ll be able to walk on by morning.

They?ve stopped moving and one of them, the one without the raingear, is visibly shivering. His teeth are actually clattering, his lips are actually blue.

I hand over the brochure for Cricket?s bike retreat.

The most senior of the federal employees cuts to the chase, ?how far is this place from here?? he asks, indicating Cricket?s brochure.

?About two and a half hours,? I tell him. But I don?t know if she has any room and we won?t have cell service for two hours.

It doesn?t take long for them to make a decision. But just to be sure, I tell them they are not allowed to decide until they see the campground at Red Meadows. ?It?s stunningly beautiful,? I promise.

He?s willing to risk it and begins loading his bike on the rack. The others have now seen the brochure and are eager to get to the hot showers too.

But Lars, the one shivering, is not ready to give it up. And neither am I.

?You have to see the campground ? it is ssooooo beautiful,? I repeat.

I work on the boys some more, defining ?retreat? as something only losing armies do.

By the time we get to Red Meadows the car?s heater has convinced us that enjoyment of the campground can be effected in a 15-minute stop, time enough to down a beer. We do this and move on, vowing to start from this point tomorrow morning. They don?t believe it?s two hours back to Whitefish and they are right. I scare up a bear as we rumble down the valley, not stopping at the intersections I now know. And convincing Lars the bear bell I strapped on can stay on his handlebars.

Cricket greets us in the morning before she takes her kids to school. One other couple shares our spacious, warm retreat, two young men from New York, driving a rental car, wearing tight jeans: posers. Well-educated and polite they are quick to move on, as if they know they don?t belong here.

But we do.

In the morning, the boys are still certain they want to go back up the mountain ?yes, to actually retreat?to Red Meadows campground. But they will bicycle directly back to Cricket?s Retreat.

Starting from Red Meadows Campground in the morning, retreating to the Retreat.

?Let?s start here next year,? the only non-federal government employee?says.



Blogpost Travel Blog

Train of Thought

I was super ready to go to Florida on a road trip to deliver my kid to college.

Until the day came we actually had to slide in behind the wheel and calculate the distance to the first break, two hours down highway 66.

I was no longer ready to go.

Not for the reasons you think.

I had just driven from Virginia to L.A. so I was tired of driving.

I?d flown back to Virginia to deliver the youngest to his school 1,000 miles south.

This kid, who we?ll call ?Seth,? was not eager to be stuck in the car with mom for 25 hours, although he politely didn?t put it that way.

?Why don?t we put the car on the train?? he asked.

So we did.

Girls watch for their family’s car to emerge from the Amtrak Auto Train in Lorton Virginia this week.

I think my agreement surprised him because he rattled off the cost of hotels and gas as though he?d done the research in preparation for a debate.

The train cost about $600 for two passengers and the Mothership, an aging white Subaru.

I advised him he?d taken the wrong angle.

?With moms it?s all about safety,? I coached. ?Statistically, taking the train for 17 hours is safer than driving for 25 ? I?d pay for that.?

Assess the risk, that?s where the money is found.

Sensing the conversation turning south to insurance fraud, I commented that taking the train is far more romantic too.

I then lost my son in thought as he calculated things concerning his girlfriend, who will be at William and Mary in Virginia this fall.


The first time I put a car on a train I was hoping to get to Patagonia cheaper, faster and more scenically than the roads south from Santiago, Chile would take me.

I?d borrowed my uncle?s Japanese jeep, it was 1988, fall–March or April. The train car, built in 1926, meticulously preserved the very odor of the pre-depression era in its honey-colored velvet drapes. And my hopes were exceeded.


Today my Suburu, which I have named ?Mothership,? boarded the only auto train in the United States in Lorton Virginia.

The seventeen-hour trip precludes smoking anywhere anytime and when the crew changes out in Florence during a 15-minute refueling stop, no one will be permitted to disembark. We are warned.


As I write, six hours later, we are hurtling along at an average speed of 55 miles an hour while I listen to less-than-agile passengers wobble through the lounge car to a bar featuring drinks slightly cheaper than those on the last flight I was on.

?If this were a drunk test, I would fail,? a young woman stumbling through says.

Passing by Pembroke, North Carolina, we have been told we are on schedule. We are hoping to arrive in Orlando, Florida on time, at 9 a.m., 17 hours after departure.

An intercom voice repeats that no smoking is permitted in any section of the train and warns that this includes restrooms. I look around for the culprit.


If I had paid an extra $50 I would have had the privilege of being among the first 25 passengers to be reunited with their Motherships. But I am too cheap so I fear I will be the 261st, or dead last. I?m sure that would delay our arrival in Coral Gables where my youngest son is due to check into his freshman dorm between noon and 2 p.m.

I?m not too worried about a timely arrival and fortunately, neither is he.

We are enjoying the notdrivingness.

Our train, a voice over loudspeaker informed us shortly after departure, is half an hour early (how do they DO that?) Other fun facts: the train comprises 16 passenger cars carrying 550 people and 22 car cars carrying those 261 vehicles, which include eight motorcycles.

The train–and at 43 cars that means there must be 5 engines– is three-quarters of a mile long. The voice did not enumerate, just told us that the power totaled that equal to 8,000 horses.


We arrive, haltingly, in Florence, the halfway point, for refueling and crew swap.

A man pleads with the barkeep to be allowed to descend. He is holding an unlit cigarette and a lighter. The man in a blue suit answers with ?right here? and points to the nearby exit stairs. The passenger intones that he might kill someone if he doesn?t get a cigarette. The blue suit says ?don?t go far and be sure to reboard right here? in a voice that indicates he is bending backward for this indulgence.

Wifi passwords, scrawled with a pencil on a scrap of cardboard and jammed into a window frame, offer no sensical derivative. But they work ? slowly and best in towns.

As I get to know the routine of this lumbering yet dreamlike train ride, I realize I am a newbie and this thing, this snake of logistical practicality, is a part of people?s lives. ?They used to serve wine at dinner,? a tablemate remorses. ?Free.?

I inquire. Pinot Grigio, no name given, is $16.50 for a half carafe. I decline.

In operation since 1983, the train shortens the trip for ?snowbirds,? people who migrate seasonally from homes in the north to homes in the sun.

As people wobble back and forth through the cars, pile bagels and milk boxes from tubs laid out on the lounge car tables into cardboard trays for their seat mates, I grasp for a moment what makes the train romantic.

About to fall in any stranger?s lap, about to spill my coffee on someone?s blanket, I am humbled. The risk of embarrassment, the likelihood of encroaching into someone?s personal space ? it forces us to look into each other?s eyes and smile.

It?s an intimacy.

Then moments of magic slip by. I stare out the window pretending not to hear the man across the aisle snoring unevenly. His partner, a woman his age, tries to wake him but I signal for her to let him sleep. He has been sneezing and sniffling ? there?s a box of Kleenex out. I mouth the words ?he needs some sleep.?

Then I turn away, ?Oh yeah,? I remember, it really isn?t any of my business.

A break in the greenery slips by in the early morning southern Virginia sun revealing a glimpse of the Roanoke River. Backlit mist rising from the water takes my breath in and I hear someone else several seats back, also gasp at the splendor.

The scene passes too quickly for anyone to share it even with a seatmate.


We arrive in Sanford early enough that Seth must be wakened in order to get breakfast. He reports that he only just now got to sleep.

We descend the train and wait two hours for our car, one of the last to emerge from the tunnels of two-story train cars that line up at 3 stations to disembark. A team of orange-clad drivers carefully delivers the vehicles, which are announced like horses at a track, as they round the bend, by number.

Passengers wait for their cars at Sanford, Florida Station.

After three days of orientation I face a lonely drive home on interstate 95. After the four hour drive from Miami I pull over after I pass the turnoff to the Sanford train station, at a rest area. I check online ? tickets remain available so I look for a phone number on my old ticket folder.

I laugh when I see it: 1-877-SKIP-I-95. That sounds awfully good to me. I calculate that if I stay at a hotel tonight, the cost of driving home is about $250. And I am getting sleepy.

I splurge and spend $445 to take the train.


Blogpost Travel Blog

Subcontracting Black Bears: lessons from a road trip

Last weekend?s 1,300-mile road trip took me where I didn?t know I needed to go. I learned how to capitalize on bears shitting in the woods; why the greatest vector for rabies is my friend; and where to find a little wisdom from a ghost.

My father loved sailing on Flathead Lake.

Discreet and not-so-discreet relatives gathered in Missoula, Montana, my home town, for my father?s memorial service last Thursday. With friends, we mooned over photos of the man’s handsome young self, we told stories, moaned the loss of his brain, personality and dedication to preserving environmental beauty.
We cried plenty.
Then, from the side of a sailboat, we cast his ashes by the handful into the clear, hauntingly blue waters of his favorite place, Flathead Lake. We watched him sink.
We cried plenty more.

In conversations surrounding the memorial, a Great Man emerged, as I suppose, occurs at every form of funeral.
But greatness aside, I noticed we were each talking about a different person. My sister mentioned several times that he spoke seven languages, (including Quechua, the Peruvian barber claimed); his students would miss his enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity; his colleagues mentioned his kindness and crazy ability to land Fulbright scholarships overseas. His brother told a touching dog story from their youth in Argentina; his ex, (my mother,) told a funny bear-in-camp story and his girlfriend revealed a bitter truth — about his inability to process emotion.
The man?s gift to me was teaching me the fine art of road-tripping.
To plan loosely, to allow opportunities to define the path. My father and I had road-tripped through Patagonia, the North American West, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica ? hell, the whole of the Americas pretty much. As I listened to my siblings debate the values of paintings, destinies for his many books, origins of his furniture, I felt the urge to clean the windshield.
I should drive to California instead of fly.

So I rented the smallest Uhaul I could for the shifting, splintery desk that had been in our family for five generations. I added the five crates of burlap-wrapped mosaic tiles my mother, an artist, had picked up in Italy 50 years ago but had abandoned when she divorced the man and moved to Maui. I also heaved aboard a preposterous number of vinyl records ?something my 16-year-old son has recently started coveting.
An extra futon-couch destined for a California cousin also got loaded cheerfully into the truck. It looked more comfortable than where I had planned to sleep, (a rocky ledge in the Ruby Mountains south of Elko, Nevada.) I threw in a surplus army sleeping bag, an empty gas can, a bag of almonds (my father?s favorite snack) and I was on my way.

My fishy friend riding shotgun.

Emancipated for a few days from all things probate, I departed my father?s home with a huge intake of air. The house overlooking the lake had been inhabited for a week by everyone except the man who belonged here, a condition I found unbearably sad. My laundry bag bulging, just a few clean options left, I looked at the empty passenger seat and on impulse, for company, buckled in the 5-foot stuffed fish my father had kept in his empty bathtub.
I stuffed my father?s most-worn cowboy hat on my hair to keep it from blowing around and headed south with the window wide open.

My favorite route, over Lolo pass ? where Lewis and Clark had started eating their horses ? was closed because of a wildfire. I headed straight through the smokehouse that was the Bitterroot Valley instead, stopping for a few hours to visit my college friend, Jennifer, a K-12 art teacher whose work belongs at MOMA.
Jen reported her husband, Matt, was out collecting native seed for his new nursery business. ?Matt?s excited,? she reported in a text shortly after I left, ?His ?seed collecting? black bear is working for him again.?
I confirmed that this was a way of saying that Matt was scooping poop.
?The bear works the night shift, too,? Jen responded.
The last time I stayed at Jen?s bright yellow house in Hamilton, Montana, the fire department had been called the next block over to get a black bear cub out of a tree.

I headed for Lost Trail Pass instead of Lolo. I would be tempted, as always, to hang a left at the pass and go through Wisdom, Montana, where beaver-slide hay dumps rake the sky. The last best country, this is where Chief Joseph fled, vowing to ?fight no more forever.?
Knowing that such brief delight would land me on Interstate 15, the faster, straighter route to vast Nevada, I kept true to the path less traveled, pausing only at the Lost Trail Pass ski area to adjust my fishy friend so I could see to the mirror.
The smoke only worsened when I passed the “Welcome to Idaho” sign.
As I wound down among the lodgepole pines and the occasional mountain meadow through the Salmon river drainage I thought I would tell my father how many new houses seemed to be sneaking in, that new road signs cluttered the landscape and more pickups were parked along the river. To report back: No longer could I pull over to pee behind a tree, now portapotties marked every river access; trails to the river?s edge had become perennial.
Then I remembered my father?s phone had been disconnected.

Oh, and he was deceased. I would never again hear his answering machine message: ?Hi, this is Chris, since I am neither here nor there, please leave a message.?
Feeling neither here nor there myself, I searched the landscape for comfort.