The Commonwealth of Virginia is a different country from the ever-marvelous cosmopolitan, glitzy, glamorous, glowing high life of Washington, District of Columbia.
At least when it comes to fish markets.
This afternoon I went into the district to get some touristy gifts for my friends in California where I plan to travel next week. My friends want some sweatshirts with ?Washington D.C.? on them. My friends are undocumented immigrants so I know they would really like some shirts with the Immigration and Naturalization Service logo. They less-than-affectionately call the branch of federal government?La Migra.
But I can?t find any.
And the black CIA and FBI sweatshirts just don?t seem right.
After my 45 minutes of trying to crack packs of middle school kids in the tourist shops, I pick up my husband, Lars, from his office to enjoy a rare dinner ?in town.?
We both prefer great food in an honest and humble setting.
Yeah, D.C. might not be our town.
But Lars knows a place by the down and dirty fish market. We head southwest.
I can?t really say that anything was dirty. Well-worn, more like.
First stop — pure luck — a screech-and-pull-over parking spot right on Water Street.
Turns out the meter isn?t functioning, which I think portends more good luck. I try to pay with my app but after changing my password and logging in twice, am told my account has been deactivated. ?Should we just risk it?? I ask, reading a sign that clearly states we shouldn?t.
My husband reminds me, ?this is Washington.?
The parking cops, instead of giving me a pass as they would in any other American city, would probably not only give me a ticket but tow my car just so they could get another victim faster.
So we pay the eight dollars (in-cash-only, pay-in-advance, don?t-reverse-your-wheels,) to gain entrance to the parking garage where Deep Throat passed on his dirty secrets. At least that?s what it feels like.
Up two flights of grungy stairs with paint worn off the railings to Jenny?s Asian Fusion, my husband confidently leads me. This is apparently a hangout for him and his USDA colleagues, who, being rural types, are desperate to get out of the enormous building in which they are indentured. You can almost see saltwater from here, during the day.
As we enter the place I notice a side table laden with Asian vases, trinkets, jewelry ? and plastic day-of-the-week pill boxes.
Our table overlooks the unlit parking lot of the seafood market. I cannot see the line between the parked cars and the moored boats in the dark, but the boats moved slightly so I know the ocean, or a link to it, is there.
I order the Fiery Shrimp, which has two of three hotness rating stars. I ?use my paper napkin as a Kleenex. It is for real.
Lars chooses the fish of the day, Rock fish. It comes with potatoes. Asian fusion achieved.
I point out how delicious broccoli is when it isn?t overcooked, one of those lines that makes me feel suddenly that I have become my mother. I had been thinking of her too?because, having grown up in Hawaii, she knows what to do with fish.
I make a conscious effort not to look like we’re an old married couple.
For dessert, I have the pleasure of trying to digest the meaning of the following fortune cookie omen: ?The rubber bands are heading in the right direction.?
Maybe it means flexible musicians are headed my way. Or maybe my hair really is hopeless.
I turn to my husband?s slip of paper: ?When you learn to be flexible, amazing opportunities reveal themselves!?
?It says I need to do some Yoga,? he interprets. I think he is off the mark; it clearly means that next time I should get to choose the dining venue.
As we descend the grimy stairs, I try not to look in the many mirrors surrounding a lottery ticket vending machine at the base of the stairwell. We weave through haphazardly parked cars to the bright neon signs of the fish market proper.
I brace my nostrils for what I expect the end of a long week at the fish market to smell like.
But a heavenly smell of steaming crab draws me straight to Captain White?s cooked seafood stand. Not able to imagine eating again within 24 hours, I merely stand and watch. And smell.
A tall beautiful African American woman in a short black skirt with writing across her butt is negotiating with one of Captain White?s fishmongers, a thin man in a grubby black sweatshirt with an ?I?m in love? look on his face. Dressed carefully in a frilly pink jacket, a young girl — also with writing across her butt — stands by the woman, her fingers fiddling with the chain separating the buyer from the fishmonger.
My husband, hands in pockets, is trying to get some answers from a man in a red ?Captain White?s Seafood? t-shirt. An Asian couple lingers awhile and moves on.
Miguel, who moved here eight years ago from Honduras, refuses to understand what my husband is asking about whether the fish are farmed.
But when I asked him in Spanish where the fish are from, he points to some meaty silvery ones, saying they are from North Carolina, others, he points to are from California ? or, pointing again,?Oceana—the red snapper.
I ask him to package up one of the red snapper. He chooses one with a clear bright eye and flops it on a scale.
Fish in fist, I proceed to a favorite literary catastrophe: Jumbo Shrimp.
But these shrimp really are jumbo. And soon to be Jumbalaya. Watching the clientele I guess most the fish leaving this market are going to be served Creole style.
I seek out the oldest man here to ask him how old the fish market is. He personally attests its been here 74 years. He is 75 years old. Then he adds, thoughtfully, “broshmee joga.”?The man is hard to understand because he doesn?t have any teeth.
?Probably older? my husband translates.
A middle eastern guy selling shellfish reports most his customers are retail and that it gets very crowded on weekends. I look around and see just one other customer now.
I want to drive to the district again tomorrow not just for the fish; I want to see who eats them.
It?s getting the clothes back upstairs that?s difficult.
But my child told me it’s really about capitalism.
My son, 16, who we will call ?Seth,? has a busy schedule.
And so do I.
I am not one of those moms who folds and puts away clothes for her children (or for anyone else.) My kids both know how to run a washing machine, open an ironing board and keep an iron moving. That is not to say they ever practice these skills ? or that they know how to unplug an iron and fold the ironing board back up.
When I used to put a laundry basket in Seth?s room he would, as evidenced by clean clothes ending up back in the dirty laundry bin, burrow into the basket for whatever he needed, scattering the other things on the floor.
So I stopped taking the basket upstairs. In fact, I stopped sorting clothes entirely. The laundry went out of the dryer or off the line straight onto a large folding table in our basement.
So Seth, when he gets out of the shower, now tromps through the house to the basement wearing nothing but a towel, to browse through the pile on the table to find clothes every morning. He is slightly more disciplined than his older brother, who we will call ?Chauncey.? Chauncey is now off at college and I have no idea about, or concern for, his laundry habits. I gave up on Chauncey a few years ago.
When he lived here, Chauncey?s wet towel could be found on the laundry room floor. He apparently simplified the process to the point he was getting dressed in the laundry room.
Seth, at 16, is still one step up from the bottom. He can be glimpsed retreating up the stairs every morning, one hand clutching the towel closed around his waist, the other burdened with the day?s clothing choices.
I know I still have a chance with Seth.
When I told Seth yesterday as he was driving me home from school, that I had finally washed a load of socks, he sounded happy to hear it. I took advantage of his happy mood to suggest he could maybe put the socks in his drawer.
His mood switched quickly.
?Mom, the dresser is just a middleman,? he said. ?It?s corporate greed.?
I thought this was pretty astute so I conceded the point.
He may bottom out soon, but that?s fine with me. Just so long as he gets the bigger picture.
My grandmother?s grandmother is from Cornwall.
She was a Viking. Bred to row boats on the open sea.
Somehow the genes best suited to rowing on the open sea (1/2 inch of insulation, big feet, long legs and broad shoulders) were passed on, unsolicited, to me.
When I went to college, I found myself on the Oregon Ducks? Crew Team. I was one of two in-between freshmen who rowed in both varsity and subvarsity boats. Working girls.
I had to use the men?s room between races in the regattas because I didn?t have time to wait in the line to the women?s room.
When I moved to Virginia 25 years later, I found a team of rowers among whom I was able to enjoy the sport at my own, less-than-athletic level. We row from the Fairfax County side of the Occoquan Reservoir.
The Prince William Crew Team, which rows from the other side of the reservoir, rows at a more-than-athletic level, meaning not only are they all tall, svelt and in-shape, their hair is perfect, their clothes are perfect. We call them ?The Aryan Race.? They are all blonde and sport short stylish coifs. I hear they even compete for seat placements in their boats.
Our team is a little more relaxed.
Well, a lot more relaxed.
Our team motto is: “The Older We Get, The Faster We Were.”
We don?t know who is rowing in which boat until we are all standing outside the boathouse at practice time and we line up, ports on one side, starboard rowers on the other. It doesn?t matter if you are short or tall, male or female, Republican or Democrat, atheist or devout. We are all those things.
For the races we usually get lineups figured out a few weeks ahead of time, scheduling things only after we know whose kid?s soccer team made it to the playoffs. We count heads and decide whether to enter mixed gender boats, an eight or a four. Our boats, called ‘shells,’ we rent from our kids’ high school club.
In the modern racing sport of crew, the bowseat is seat number one. Usually a small person to keep the bow up, this person, whose oar extends off the starboard side of the boat, usually ends up doing a lot of strokes to turn the shell when docking or trying to get out of tight places. Bo is our bowseat, not just because we like to say “Bo in the Bow,” but because she is Gumby, able to stretch from about 5′ 2″ to 5′ 10″ to match the stroke. She really is an athlete.
Counting up to the stern, the middle seats 3, 4, 5 and 6 are considered ?the engine room,? because they are positioned according to laws of physics that remain unintelligible to me, to provide power to move the boat. I am almost always assigned to seat 4 or 6 because, well, because I am of Viking descent … and I always row port.
The most important rower in a boat this size is seat number 8, the stroke. Everyone is supposed to make her oar do what the stroke?s oar is doing. The most difficult job is seat 7, who has to set the starboard-side stroke by watching the oar to her right and mimicking its action with precision.
The stroke decides how long the stroke is, how fast it is, and most importantly, when it is.?Like how a caterpillar walks.?If the oars don?t all go into the water at the same time, the boat is not going to go anywhere except to the bottom of the lake.
The stroke faces the coxswain, a very small person with a very big voice who guides not only the rowing but the boat itself. She is the brain of the caterpillar. The coxswain works out with the team and bears an inordinate amount of responsibility for the boat?s success or failure. The coxswain is the only person facing forward, the only person who knows where the hell we?re going.
Yesterday was the last regatta of the 2013 season.
As I approached the park, my primary concern was traffic. We had Damian in our carpool and his race was scheduled for just two hours from now. Would he make it? I had strapped my bicycle on the back of Karin’s car just in case. Much as I relished seeing Damian, a hunky triathlete, pedaling my decidedly feminine bicycle equipped with old fashioned baskets, I was relieved when a traffic cop gave us the last parking spot near the outermost shuttle stop.
Our boat would launch several hours later, 45 minutes before our 3:20 start time.
We would cheer on the men’s boat as it passed the boat house, two-thirds through the course that wound down the reservoir toward the dam.
We also spent hours wandering among the high school and collegiate rowers slinking up and down the hill by the boathouse. I listened to a volunteer in a neon traffic vest ?yell herself hoarse, repeating “Heads up” and “Pedestrians please stay to the left.” ?I had been assigned this job at last year’s regatta, trying to keep the steady stream of nervous athletes carrying boats down the hill from crashing into the exhausted rowers carrying theirs up. In the mix were teammates carrying bundles of oars like so many matchsticks staggering behind the awkward shells, negotiating among high school parents, children and an oddly large number of lost-looking people who wandered, incognizant, into the paths any long skinny boat. Someone had to direct traffic.
This year I decided to rest up instead of volunteer.
Last year, our Women?s Four placed first among five boats at this race.
The win had naturally been a huge surprise.
The wind was gusty, the waters choppy and our boat a little off-balance.
Add a strokeseat who had never rowed strokeseat before (me — because the normal strokeseats were at soccer playoffs or something,) and a height difference among rowers of almost a foot.
But no one had been more surprised than the men on our team.
Last year, our men?s boat landed at the dock just as the emcee was announcing the results of the women?s race. The men heard ?? and first place goes to Oakton Masters.?
For a full ten minutes the men thought they had won. They carried their boat back up the hill, congratulating each other as they went into the boathouse, racked the oars, then ceremoniously descended to the awards booth to collect their medals.
?Who is here to represent the women?s team?? one of the men recollected being asked.
One of the women on injured reserve, Shafer, collected the medals.
The men had not placed.
So when we landed on the dock Shafer was able to surprise us, placing blue ribbons and heavy medals around our necks like plumeria leis at the Honolulu airport. The only thing that could possibly have made this better was hearing the men sheepishly recount their tale.
This year was a little different.
Instead of having a goal of ?not DFLing (Dead Fucking Last)? we had a reputation to uphold, a title to defend.
And this year instead of 6 boats in our race, we had 13.
And one of those boats was the Aryan Race.
Bo had the foresight to know we needed a secret weapon.
About an hour before the race she gave us each a paper bag.
I opened mine with trepidation.
Within a finely woven hairnet I found the blondest blonde wig I could imagine.
I immediately put it on.
We could beat the Aryan Race if only we had the right hair, of course.
Some women on a neighboring crew team, the Northern Virginia Rowing Club, spotted us from the next boat house one level down. They seemed to know exactly what we were laughing about and came up the stairs to confirm it.
We happily shared the wigs, each of us transferring our own to one of them. They posed for pictures as we had.
We knew better than to actually wear the wigs in the race. That would not be nice.
Despite the laugh, we were all nervous. Our competition with last year’s win was just five boats. This year we faced 12. And this year, for the first time, we faced the Aryan Race. I recognized that part of last year’s win was sheer dumb luck. This year, although my goal was no longer “not to DFL,” I had no real expectations of winning. And this year, being chosen as stroke was not just because someone else was at a kid’s soccer game. Coach Tom had chosen me. My goal was to really do the best job I could … and my hope, to get a medal. ?It would be really nice to beat the Aryan Race. Really nice.
After weaving through foot traffic to the farthest dock with the boat on our shoulders, we dropped it in at the edge of the dock, handed our shoes to the “shoebabe,” who in this case was Steve. We rowed upstream to the marshalling area above the start slowly to stretch and warm up. It is hard to set the boat (keep it from tipping side to side) when rowing slowly so we rowed just two at a time. The two flat oars resting on the water kept the boat stable.
Susan seemed preoccupied with the curves on the course and she advised me emphatically that I would need to tell her when boats approached from behind. Because Susan had been coxing a boat last year that had been struck from behind on a sharp turn, she recognized the need to be certain of the rules and the enforcement of them might very well be in her own hands. This year, she was prepared; she knew her rights — and her strategy. A coxswain must concede to an advancing boat. If we could approach to pass and thereby gain the inside of a turn, we would slow a competitor significantly.
She studied the buoys on the way up.
Our bow number, 844, was much higher than that of others in the marshalling area; we were early. Trying to stay warm in the frigid air, Susan had us row into the sunlight. We watched the other teams and listened to the boats before us get started one by one.
We had been seeded fourth so I was especially nervous about being passed. We weren’t really as good as our win last year implied but now we had to live up to the expectation. The nine boats behind us would undoubtedly be moving up over the course of the 20+ minutes we would spend reaching and pulling toward the finish line by the dam.
Finally we heard the call for 844. Susan raised her hand in the air and the announcer said we were free to row. Susan gave the familiar command “ready to row … and row,” followed immediately with “building by two in two … one … two.”
I knew she wanted to cross the start line at full speed but going from dead in the water to race pace was something that had caused me to slip a disc two years ago. No matter what Susan said, I would not allow that to happen.
As soon as I heard the air horn that signaled our bow had crossed the start line, Susan was talking about passing the boat in front of us. She said we needed full speed to pass on the inside of the first turn.
At the start of any race I feel I can do anything. I heard the whirlpool made by my blade and the one on the other side made by Karin’s. We were going full bore. I had to pay attention to keep my butt on the seat. We kept it up for about ten strokes. Was the other boat doing the same–lurching from a standstill to airborne like a jet?
“We’re going to pass this boat,” Susan answered my thoughts.
Suddenly my adrenaline ran out.
“Come on, you can do this,” Susan urged.
I knew I had to keep up the pace for the three women behind me who needed me to be, above all, consistent.
When Susan said “ease up on starboard, stronger on port” I knew we were in the turn.
She screamed at the coxswain ahead of us, twice, to “move to the left.” I knew we had a real chance then.
The third time she screamed at the other coxswain, I knew she really meant it. Susan, our calm, reserved, works-in-the-provost’s-office-Susan had become a monster. I was scared. I knew I couldn’t get away from her by rowing harder, but I could see that she really wanted this. I was obliged. And I believed her, trusted her judgment better than my own.
As we pulled past the other boat I settled into a pace that I knew I could keep up. I asked Susan in one syllable, “whatsourstrokerate?” She said we were at a 29. Last year we had kept up a 28 the whole way. I had been planning to try to maintain a 27. We were good.
I brought the rate down just slightly when I heard breathing behind me that sounded just a tiny bit too stressed. I focused on dropping my blade in rather than stabbing it in. I tried to feather smoothly. I tried to remember to hang my shoulders and push with my legs instead of pulling first with my arms. The legs had to be finished before my back opened up, my greatest failing.
I rowed. We rowed.
Susan kept asking about boats behind her. I shook my head. We had agreed I would tell her if a boat got within eight boat lengths. The rules dictated that she had to concede if a boat came within three. It looked like the boat we had passed was neck and neck with another boat, a third on its tail, about eight lengths back. I almost dropped a stroke.
I was paying too much attention to the other boats.
Susan was already calling for us to be ready to ease up on port and pull harder on starboard. We were already at the second turn. Her eyes met mine, I checked behind us. I shook my head an inch, “nope.”
Suddenly a huge orange pumpkin appeared at my right shoulder.
I smiled at Susan. “Goodjob,” I told her, she had cut amazingly close to the first buoy. We had the inside track.
Then I sensed a boat to our left, far left, had we cut too close? Were we off course? The boat was stationary. A fisherman.
We were rowing hard, suddenly focused, I realized that we had not yet reached the Prince William boat house, would we make it? When I felt Karin’s oar falter, almost catching a crab, I knew we were all in the same frame of mind.
Susan looked at her meter. “Twenty nine,” she said. I dropped the pace a tiny bit by lengthening the stroke, reaching farther. It would force us to slow the pace without losing speed.
Soon I felt the river widen, we were passing the cove where the Aryan Race had its den. We were half way and no one was close to us.
“We are closing the gap,” Susan was saying. She had said this before, which meant she wanted to pass another boat. I was not that ambitious. I knew if we merely stayed close we would beat it because it had started before us.
“Let’s walk it up,” Susan encouraged. She knew we could, at walking pace, pass the other boat. I focused on sitting up straight, the boat was off to port a tiny bit and it was straining my back.
Somehow, I suddenly knew the boat ahead was white. I could here its blades splashing into the water, I could hear the oarlocks turning. But oddly, I could not hear the coxswain. I would do whatever Susan said. I was no longer in charge of my body, it was on autopilot, reaching, dropping the blade in, pulling, pushing down to pop the oar out with my left hand, rotating to feather with my right. Rotating back to drop again. Drop and pull, release, slide slowly and repeat.
“We are approaching the flagpoles,” she said, suddenly we could feel the crowd. Other coaches would see my sloppy form. I straightened.
Then I heard them, our manly men who had come in last, yelling for us, the low moan of “GO OAKTON.”
I felt hot at that moment. They deserved something too, they really did. They were all such good guys. We should win this for them.
Drop, pull, release. Drop, pull, release.
“Twentyseven, no, twentynine,” Susan answered, “What’s behind us?”
I shook my head with as much energy as I had. It wasn’t enough. Speaking took too much energy, but I did it anyway. “Nothing.”
Then Susan sat up with attention. “Harder on port,” she called, we were on the last turn. It was time to pass the white boat. Then I heard their coxswain. They were going to put up a fight.
I settled down our pace. We would draft them, I imagined, like bicyles. If we pushed too hard at this point, we might catch a crab.
I saw a man in the trees then, right behind our boat with the lens of a commercial photographer. He had caught us.
The last section of the race took about two days to complete, or felt like it. Finally I heard the air horn signaling our bow had crossed the finish and I fell forward just as Susan said “Paddle,” the command to row at zero pressure.
“Sorry,” I said, and picked up a slow-motion rowing.
We were finished.
We wouldn’t know whether we had placed until all the boats were in, of course, but we had rowed a good race. Since no one had passed us, we had a chance at a medal.
As soon as we could talk we were comparing notes, “It felt fast,” someone said. Someone else agreed.
“It felt fast, because it?was fast,” I said.
Susan, alone, was still on the job. She had us row by pairs back upstream to the boat house. We watched the subsequent rowers finishing. Soon too many boats for comfort were coming up behind us. We are about to get run over, I said, remembering I was supposed to warn Susan. I imagined the line to land at the dock. It could get very messy as exhausted rowers dawdled to lift their boats over their heads.
As we approached the dock one of the boats behind us pulled up fast. It was a collegiate team of four men, all in good shape. Really good shape. As it passed I stared at their beautiful forms. The stroke was shirtless and had a fine dark dusting of chest hair. They moved with beauty and grace. As I felt our boat listing to the port I realized I was twisting to watch the men pass, entirely distracted, as had been the three women behind me. We all laughed.
As we approached the dock I heard Coach Tom. He had volunteered as dock master. Yes. He called for us to come in, telling the gorgeous men to go to the other dock. Soon we were in the boathouse and Bob had a handful of plastic bags. “Our women have done it again,” he said. “Congratulations.”
I was not as thrilled as the others to receive our third-place medals, and too tired to open the package. I handed mine to a person nearby, Steve. “I can’t open this.” He obediently pulled apart the wrapper, handed me the contents and we were all posing for pictures again. Almost in a whisper, someone asked who was first and second. Bob obliged. “Prince William was four seconds behind you.”
Despite our variations in size, hair color and discipline (Karin is a marathon runner, I walk the dog) we managed to beat the Aryan race by more than four full seconds in a 22-minute race. Nice.
My friend Terre is a crazy-ass, smart-as-hell, up-for-anything buccaneer.
It?s funny how wise and organized she turns out to be.
I visited my former home in northern California recently and could not miss a visit with this old beer-drinking buddy of mine. It was her birthday so I said I?d take her out to dinner. We tried a new place and it was terrible so we made another plan.
?Let?s go to Crabtree Hot Springs tomorrow,? I said.
The natural springs, a mini-version of heaven hides among conifers north of ?civilization? about two difficult hours. Few of us know precisely where.
Terre confessed she had not been back there since moving up from the city eight years ago. Crabtree was the reason she moved to Lake County but she blushed to admit, now that she lived here, she hadn’t had a soak.
?I hope we can find it,? I said, counting back the years since I last stopped by.
On that visit, I remember taking turns in a beautifully formed bathtub built into the side of a narrow canyon. Someone had created a drain that could be plugged with a tennis ball. It filled from a gurgling, steamy source wedged in what appeared to my amateur geologist?s eye, to be serpentine rock.
Downstream a natural ledge formed a wide clear pool where we splashed in cold water from the creek into which the hotsprings poured.
Terre and I recounted our memories of it while we waited for our terrible dinner.
At some point in this story I must confess to knowing full well that this hotsprings is located on private property. I must also opine that unique natural wonders such as Crabtree Hotsprings belong on the list with Yellowstone, Going-to-the-Sun Pass, Half-dome and the Bright Angel Trail. Places that should be everyone?s.
Because I had almost always accessed the hotsprings from the north following a hike up Snow Mountain, I was unsure how to get there from the south. Knowing that we always descended to Highway 20 from Bartlett Springs Road, I figured that is where we should start.
But Terre is pretty smart and, pointing at a topo-map, reasoned that the seasonal road behind her house in Upper Lake would be shorter.
I was unsure. ?Let?s go back that way,? I suggested.
So we headed up Bartlett Springs Road.
Terre, I knew, had a Subaru, the perfect vehicle, I felt, for the trip.
“The all-wheel drive doesn’t work,” she informed me.
“But I have a new Jeep,” she then confessed.
But it was January.
We wouldn’t want to destroy a new jeep.
Besides, I was already looking through the dirty restaurant window at my rental wheels.
I, by shopping for the cheapest deal-of-the-week at the SFO rental garage and by skirting the question “Where are you heading to this week?” at the rental counter, had landed shiny white never-been-broke Jeep. She commented that my rental Jeep needed to get out a little.
We agreed the clean indentured vehicle needed to be emancipated from its daily routine of visiting the tourist sites and convention centers of metropolitan San Francisco.
Emancipate it we did.
Our first obstacle was a pickup truck full of rednecks barreling down the first leg of our trip?the switchbacks up Bartlett Springs Grade. Self-preservation trumps the right of way rule. We tucked ourselves into the gulley of roadcut so they could hurtle by without taking us with them.
The road was muddy on this sunny slope, we noticed.
What would it be like on the north side?
?One way to find out,? we said in unison.
Soon we were on the short stretch of highroad along a ridge, then we were descending a deeply crevassed road facing east.
“We are not getting back up this,” I said.
“Good we’re going back a different way,” she said at the same time.
We slid to the right — but did not roll over.
Then we slid to the left.
Finally, I decided to let the ravine have the wheel so it would at least hold us from sliding sideways. The mountain was now in charge. We rolled down, down to a shady lane that followed a stream north.
Soon after we had achieved the bottom of the valley and had regained a normal pulse, a dark-colored Suburban full of out-of-season hunters hurtled toward us. We did not want to be witnesses to their crimes so we looked straight.
?Those guys are no way gonna make it up that hill,? Terre said.
I stepped a little harder on the gas.
Soon we came to a branch in the road. Follow the road up along the creek? Or take the sunny slope zigzagging up the mountain?
I remembered the angle of the hill where we pulled over by the hotsprings.?Without pausing, I chose the high road.
The first time we got stuck was when we bottomed out. I had driven too slowly over what can only be described as a mountain in the road. If I had gone faster, we probably would have bounced right through.
Good news: the gas tank was not leaking.
We discussed backing out and taking the other road.
I think this is where Terre produced a small silver flask and handing it to me, said ?Maker?s Mark.?
It only took me one sip to figure it out.
I had Terre stand on the front right bumper so that wheel would touch the ground. If we could get a little traction there, we could maybe pull through.
We continued up the mountain until a wheel got stuck in a small gully that had eroded the road.
This time, Terre figured it out; she had had more than my one sip.
We jammed branches in front of a rear tire until we climbed out.
Soon we were on our way downhill again, this time on a kinder road.
We had been right. Soon, I recognized the creek crossing that marked the hotsprings.
The creek was pretty high so we parked without crossing and agreed I?d take off my shoes, cross over and walk the one-half mile to the hotsprings to check if they were as we remembered.
The water was colder than ice, I reasoned, because it was moving. And snow lurked in patches where the low angle of the winter sun couldn’t reach.
I had to cross twice more before I arrived at the place the tub had been.
Trees had fallen and worse, a landslide appeared to have completely buried the hotsprings.
I touched the sides of the canyon walls where water trickled, hoping for warmth that might reveal the spring.
Then sadly returned to where Terre waited.
We drove back her way, disappointed at not getting to soak in hot water in the middle of a National Forest over two hours from any pavement.
The road all the way back was smooth and almost dry. But we felt the journey was worth it; I know the Jeep did.
Asking her help today to remember the details, her words confirm: ?Maybe I should drive up there today ??
I am not one of those moms who willingly heads up school committees. But I feel obligated to volunteer, preferably aligning my limited kid-management skill set with the needs of the organization.
In Saturday?s case, my applicable skill set included sheer tolerance for long loud bus rides with many teenagers.?My skill set was challenged.
Challenged and rewarded.
Oakton High School Marching Band, all 131 members, was scheduled to depart Vienna, Virginia at 5 p.m. Destination: James Madison University, 2 hours, 15 minutes west.
The bus to which I was assigned, known at the outset as ?The Asian Bus,? ?the Freshman Bus? and simply, ?Bus Four,? was not the most populated. At least not at the beginning of the trip. We had only 25 kids.
Four buses, 131 kids, eight chaperones. Go ahead, do the math.
That?s right, ours was the least-popular bus. But our numbers swelled to 45, the most raucous, bouncy, messy ? yes, we were the party bus by the time, 1:50 a.m. Sunday, we arrived back to Oakton High School.
Yes. At ten minutes to two in the morning.
The Oakton High School Marching Band is not like the marching band my children knew back in rural Lake County, California, which led two or three parades down Main Street of bucolic Lakeport every Memorial Day, Labor Day and Halloween ? and that?s all.
The East Coast has something else in mind entirely when it uses the term ?Marching Band.?
The origin of this marching band culture is Revolutionary War soldiers with drums and piccolos, charged with entertaining and motivating soldiers. And it goes way back from there.
As we travelled through Manassas, flying by the sites of the battle of Bull Run, Ox Hill and probably a dozen other civil war bloodbathtubs, I realized we were a historically significant cultural entity. I realized why my ‘pacifist’ spinster sister who preaches tolerance rejected this form of musical entertainment. It was about war.
By the time we got to Harrisonburg, home of the JMU Royal Dukes, I realized marching band skill was rooted in primal needs. Survival meant rhythm, spirit, camaraderie, order and simple brotherly, sisterly love.
These guys take marching band seriously. For a good reason.
At Oakton High School, where football culture is the venue for marching band performances — but the marching band membership exceeds football team in both numbers and popular support — the origins seem hardly relevant. What remains true is band geeks are the brains of the outfit, the spirit of the society, what holds it all together.
The competition for which we were destined required rental of two 26-foot equipment trucks, the four orange buses and a list of parent volunteers. Each bus had been stocked with a black bag labeled with a red cross, two cases of water bottles, snack bags for each student and two hardy volunteers armed with two-way radios, site maps, schedules and rosters.
Our bus driver, a kind-looking man named ?A.J.? who appeared to be first generation Indian from India, drove skillfully, cautiously. Despite a gap in the steering linkage that made our bus sway from side to side, this man gracefully conveyed his roaring load of postpubescent teenage angst to its destination with only one wrong turn.
Upon arrival, landing about nine bus-lengths behind the others in the congregational lineup at the JMU parking lot earned him the derision of our three other bus drivers?all women. He was verbally attacked for being too slow, for not keeping up, for getting lost.
?Hey, we arrived alive,? I had to defend the guy as I watched this stairwell drama at the bus entrance.
Lisa, the president of the band boosters, (also a full-time employee of the Federal Aviation Administration) directed bathroom trips and costume changes in the parking lot upon our arrival. My only complaint was her decision to order the kids to change their shoes prior to disembarcation. Removal of 25 pairs of tennis shoes on the bus is not good news to anyone?s nose.
Decisions such as whether to first assemble instruments or zip up uniforms were made by individual students. Painfully, I watched kids place trumpet bells on the parking lot surface in order to remove a sweatshirt in exchange for a uniform jacket. Multiply this times 131, all occurring between two foreign buses in a parking lot servicing 46 bands from all over the state. It was delightful chaos; the kids thrived in it.
James Madison University, like every other campus I?ve seen on the east coast, seems to have been built sometime after the highway system was put in place. The hundred buses were separated from the performance venue?a stadium that seemed to reach to the moon?by a major highway. But a tunnel for pedestrians allowed students and instruments a shortcut.
Unfortunately, the parent volunteer tasked with getting the percussion section, some 20 talented kids, in full uniform with shoes so shiny they reflect the moon well enough to make me squint, didn?t, apparently, know about the tunnel. A college student had told him, he confessed later, to go that way.
A dedicated organized, in-charge kind of guy, Mr. W fearlessly led the percussion students and the entire entourage of parents requisite to moving a rhythm section. We followed Mr. W up a hill across a dark street just before a blind curve with no crosswalk, down a right-turn lane, where, had it been any other hour, we would have had to compete with cars in traffic. We then achieved a sidewalk of sorts, crossed a bridge and recognized in the distance what could be nothing other than the stadium to the sky ? a half mile away.
I remembered the bus-ride energy this would take out of the kids and smiled. I didn?t actually mind the walk.
But one of the volunteers had an asthma attack and had to be left in a parking lot enroute, diminishing our number by three as two other chaperones stayed to assist.
We marched relentlessly, jubilantly almost, on.
Finally, we arrived at the trodden grass lot where our trucks, the instruments and golf carts with trailers awaited loading.
Soon we were circumnavigating the stadium in order to enter from the farthest corner.? I saw one boy, a marimba player, pushing one instrument while pulling another. I offered to assist. The boy, named Julian, seemed very grateful.? We rolled up a long sidewalk, across a street, down another sidewalk, around a corner, through a gate where each parent was inspected for identification. Finally we were told to “shush” as we wheeled our train into the glaring stadium. We were warned that if we stepped one foot on the turf our performance time clock would start.?Eeeek.
We halted at the edge of the first row of aluminum bleachers and watched the Westfield High School Band perform what appeared to be a middle eastern wedding ceremony. Three enormous props ?white pyramids–set the scene behind the performers. In front a long line of painted desert scenery informed us of the climate.? The biggest TV screen I?ve ever seen displayed closeups of individual marchers on what the other volunteers called a ?Jumbotron.?
Girls ran around waving flags and tossing fake rifles in the air, which I had learned, is requisite to every show.
At some imperceptible signal we began rapidly pushing and pulling all the instruments out to the field.? The hundred or so other members of the band filed neatly in from another entrance, the drumline setting the perfect pace. I sat down to watch.
The show was titled ?For Queen and Commonwealth? and intended I believe, to bridge the ocean between England and Virginia. Beginning with God Save the Queen and ending with American patriotic melodies, each of four sets evoked the historic connection between the two.
At the outset I was distracted by three tightly-dressed men, judges who, talking into hand-held electronic devices, wandered surrealistically among the marchers as they performed.
The band, in perfect unison marched left, right, forward, back, formed circles, crossed backward through each other all in perfect step, while impossibly playing beautiful music. During a pause in the brass and drum carnival, a tall thin boy with a tenor saxophone sang out a sentimental solo, playing Yesterday with enough spirited intonation to make Paul McCartney sit up in his grave and applaud. Then a smaller, sweet-looking boy picked up the melody on what appeared to be a grown-up trumpet (but am told is a mellophone.) It was beautiful. It really wasn?t cold but I felt that chill.
Then in 15 minutes, it was over.
While an emcee told age-appropriate band-geek jokes, (how do you make a trumpet sound good? Throw it in the trash and get a trombone,) we reversed the process, hauling the instruments out a different gateway to be loaded back onto the trucks, to remove the uniforms, to pack up the flutes, oboes, clarinets, mellophones, trumpets, alto saxes, tenor saxes, tubas, marimbas, timpany, cymbals, drums and 131 hat boxes with feathers or ?chickens? that had to be collected and stored separately.
Back on the bus we counted heads, crammed ourselves into the straightbacked seats and listened to the sound only a busload of teenagers can make.
One highlight of the trip occurred when I overheard a young voice somewhere to my right say ?I?m not going to tell you with a chaperone sitting right there.?
?It?s okay,? I told the darkened seat across the aisle, ?I?m not listening.?
Don?t get the wrong idea, these kids are good kids. Among the best in the country, according to their test scores.
But teenagers are teenagers.
About halfway home the driver?s radio crackled. One of the other drivers was getting a signal, an alarm, and was going to pull over.
We pulled over too.
A half an hour later, I informed the kids we?d be getting 20 more kids on our bus. ?If you want to sit next to your friend, move now,? I hollered. With a fan blade through the radiator the bus would have to be towed. This had happened to me on a tractor. “At least you didn’t get a hot shower like I did when that happened to me,” I told the woman.
Soon the door opened and a file of tired, loose-eyelidded teenagers clambered aboard. ?It?s the freshman bus,? I heard one acne-ridden girl say. But that was the meanest thing said. Soon kids who had chosen not to sit together were all crammed in physical proximity.
It was fun.
I watched two boys share their common passion for whatever video game they were playing. They used words like ?deviation? and ?erroneously.?
It was ?epic.?
Girls fell asleep on shoulders, a boy with dark eyebrows but blonde hair had that unmistakeable look on his face that comes only from trying incredibly hard to ignore that dark-haired girl sitting next to him. She was doing the same. By the end of the trip they were talking nervously, although neither one was turning completely to really face the other.
The rules of the bus, according to A.J., included that everyone had to sit. I tried to enforce that one rule.
The kids had performed beautifully. They were good kids. With one minor exception, no one was throwing things (okay, it was me.)
I teased one kid who was opening a family-sized bag of M&Ms that there was chocolate tax on this bus. He willingly handed some over. Another kid, a freshman, looked terrified when I suggested the same thing. A tiny boy who can make the marimbas sound like a movie score, squinted through thick glasses at me as he munched some sushi. ?How are you, Caleb?? I asked, restraining from informing him that I had hemmed not only his pants but also the sleeves of his jacket because he had grown precisely an inch and a half since last season. I looked at his sushi packed neatly into tupperware. I looked at him. I looked back at his sushi. I smiled my best smile.
His friend told him to give me some sushi. ?Oh,? he said, obliging. It was the tightest, best sushi ever.
We pulled off the freeway nearing home to see a major intersection blocked by firetrucks, ambulances and police cars flashing red, blue and white, not an uncommon sight, especially late Saturday night.
We had to detour.
I saw bus one go straight into a subdivision where I knew she should turn left. Bus two followed.
But A.J. turned left.
Bus Four was the first to arrive at the school. I couldn?t resist and asked the kids to give A.J. a round of applause. ?He might be the slowest driver, but he seems to be the only one who knows how to get to Oakton High School, so we got here first.?
It?s been raining for the worst half of a week and I have cabin fever.
Columbus Day. Time for a voyage.
Okay, driving three hours is hardly a voyage.
Or is it?
I head west with three destination choices printed out with Google maps by my husband: A monastery, a mill or an arboretum.
I choose the arboretum.
But it is a long drive. After an hour, the dog wants out.
I know that cemeteries are revered ground.
(No, I?m not going to say they are ?hallowed ground,? it?s October. Sheesh.)
A lot of love goes on in cemeteries. A lot of emotional baggage is left behind. Landscaping is maintained assiduously and nobody is there to argue with you about anything.
Not only do graveyards make great campsites in a pinch, they tend to be very quiet, have water on tap somewhere findable and ? well, I just never feel alone in a cemetery.
It?s hard for me to pass one by, especially one with full-grown cedars and cypress in the heart of Virginia.
So today when our dog gets antsy I pull into the Ivy Hill Cemetery, a few feet from the pavement in Upperville, Virginia.
My husband notes a sign stating that no plastic flowers are allowed during the spring and summer.
This is my kind of place. While hubby, a wad of plastic bags in one hand and a leash in the other, heads out with our chocolate lab/Chessie to the future?the smooth earth to the west, I wander into the past, among the graves, looking for good names. Spitler, Gibson, McCarty and Lee abide.
A scraping sound turns me toward a small building to the north where I spot a man with a small tractor and hand-built wagon. As I wander nearer I see he is wearing a Redskins cap, a blue plaid shirt, undatable jeans and new leather workboots.
I comment on the wagon, the sturdy welds, and ask whether the hitch is made from a shovel handle. He doesn?t know, but agrees it might ha? been. This wagon has been here for 50 years. At least. The man?s eyes stay on the wagon, he won?t look at me.?But it might be the sun.
This cemetery is the final resting place for 110 confederate soldiers, the man informs me. In the soft Virginia version of the classic southern accent, he tells me the confederate gravestones are marked by large black crosses, which my husband later points out, are eerily similar to the symbol of the second Reich in World War I, a dark symbol used again in WWII on medals of bravery.
This man with the soft southern voice, who goes by ?Jimmy,? is on a different schedule than those of us who live an hour east in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
I watch as he slowly scrapes a shovel and a rake together.
Jimmy thinks for awhile then reports that the cemetery dates to the 1840s or ?50s. With curiously beautiful eyes he seems to be hiding from me, he squints at his shovel as he cleans yellow mud from it with the tines of his rake. Or is he cleaning his rake with the shovel? Both seem to be afflicted with a yellowness, a yellowness that has stained Jimmy?s hands as well.
I ask Jimmy more questions, questions about the trees. He forgets about hiding his eyes and looks straight at me, telling me how hurricane Sandy ripped out eight full-grown trees last year. I see now that one of his eyes is not obedient, his right one, and it wanders away. I look into the left. It is blue and clear with dark lashes and sees straight through me. I am guessing he is a Scotsman originally.
The wood is all stacked up back there– he points north.
?It must have been a lot of work, cleaning up eight trees,? I comment.
It had rained five or six inches, just like last week, he tells me. Ripped them roots right outta the ground.
I wince at what might have come with those roots in this not-too-roomy graveyard.
Speaking of storms leads to Jimmy?s recollection of the snow of 2010, the worst since 1966, he says. He describes how a Greyhound bus got stuck right there in town when they closed highway 50 and his wife and some others had to feed the passengers for near-on a week until it opened again. I?m not sure if he is talking about 1966, the year I was born, or 2010, the year I turned 44.
I?m not sure he knows which it was either.
He goes on, his voice like water, just the sound of it making me happy.
Soon Jimmy has told me the unmarked equine facility I?d passed at the edge of town is the oldest horse show arena in the country and he?s soon talking about the TWA flight that crashed December 1, 1974 right on t?other sahd of that hill there. Only the tail was left. ?Mount Weather,? he says. FEMA hill. He points to some communication towers.
Other things this town is known for, Jimmy volunteers, scarcely stopping to breathe, include the filming of Hitchcock?s Topaz? ?Filmed just up there,? he informs me, pointing over the fence to a farm house I can?t quite make out. Jimmy explains Hitchcock chose it for the stars. ?The way them stars come down ?? and I realize he means stairs.
He talks about someone who is ?retard? here. “Robert Duvall” ? and he lists some movies. “ReTARD.” I realize he is saying retired.
I could listen all day but soon the hubby has pulled up with the car.
As I make my way around to the passenger door, Jimmy goes on, the mud on the shovel now dried. Drahd, I should say.
I thank him, thank him again and wish him well.
We drive out, gravel crunching under the tires. Tars.
?I love the way that man talks,? I tell my husband.
My childhood in the Rattlesnake Valley north of Missoula, Montana seemed normal to me — at the time. As normal as your own name. The good folks of the logging-slash-cattle-slash-crossroads town of Missoula survived temperatures in winter in the forties-below. In summer my home on a west-facing slope achieved a hundred. I now know it was a place of many extremes.
Extremes beget extremes.
One of those extremes was the character of my childhood classmate and friend, Clint Harris. He goes by ?Clintus Harrisonii? now. He is a physical therapist living in idyllic quarters uphill from Hood River, Oregon. But back then, in the 1970s in rural western Montana, he was … a kinda weird kid.
What made Clint weird is not definable, whether a product of extreme Montana conditions or something even more mysterious. What made us realize he was weird is only slightly easier to discern. Clint has oddly square knees, an impish grin ? and not just a sparkle in his eyes, more like a blazing fire, a conflagration, damn near an inferno. Although he had greater capacity to get in trouble than anyone I know, he seemed to avoid it. He had good sense. He was not a trouble maker.
But he was weird.
For example, Clint rode a unicycle to school.
Kids did not laugh at Clint. He was weird, but he was cool. He locked his unicycle with the bikes, like it was just like them. He acted as though he were just like us. We liked to think that he was.
I lost track of Clint for about 20 years.
When I caught up with him a few years ago I learned his home was smack-dab on a two-day route from my house in California to my home in Montana, so I took him up on an offer to visit. My two pre-teen boys, our dog and I camped on his porch and played all daylight hours we were on site.
Clint introduced me to an apparatus that maximized the distance my dog would have to run to get a tennis ball while minimizing my elbow work (he would later teach me how to fix my tennis elbow exacerbated by throwing the ball for the dog.) His wife, Megan, made us a fabulous dinner, expressed her passion for all things equine and described her dream of starting a bakery. Which she has since accomplished.
Clint hauled out his newest unicycle and demonstrated to my boys how it was done. We all giggled our way through the afternoon as the boys took turns trying it out. With shoulders wrapped together, three of us could make it work, the middle person riding the unicycle.
It seemed crazy. Impossibly difficult.
But Clint could do it.
We tried again. By dinnertime we were all flat on the lawn, sore not so much from trying the unicycle, but from laughing.
I was reminded of this incident this morning when I received an email from another Rattlesnake Valley childhood friend, this one named Tarn Ream (right up there on the weirdness scale herself …) Tarn sent me this:
In a frighteningly fast series of events, I shared this with my youngest son ? the one who plays saxophone remarkably well. He is tall, lanky and has that Harrisonii flame in his eyes. He quickly proposed that if I got him a unicycle, he would learn to play the saxophone while riding it.
My husband, who is on furlough, had mentioned he was going to a bicycle store to get his wheel fixed when he went out the door about a half hour ago. When I saw my son?s offer, I texted my husband immediately.
On any day in Washington D.C. you can walk into a culture war, or a gender bender, or a deeply heartfelt protest march about anything.
And on special days you can walk through things like the Turkish Festival.
Not everyday can you get a henna tattoo while listening to Turkish jazz musicians (did you know Atlantic Records was founded by a Turk?) or enjoy a Halal sandwich while watching a wedding dance performed by two men in costumes barely masking the fact they are rubbing their bellies together ? and loving it.
But that is what I did today.
Okay, I didn?t actually get the tattoo, but I thought about it.
While I was in line for a sandwich, my 16-year-old son, a saxophonist about to perform with the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra at the east end of the festival, texted me that he had forgotten his neckstrap. He couldn?t do his solos without something, something. Did I have any string? I left my husband, beltless, to deliver two slim alternatives–the belt and a flashdrive lanyard?to the greenroom.
The first tent I knocked on was full of gypsies in what appeared to be belly-dance uniforms. So sorry. (Oh my god, do you own stock in a mascara company or what?)
The next tent was filled with overdressed teens in steaming nervousness. The temperature inside the ?greenroom? had to be a full 20 degrees higher than outside. I spotted my son immediately.
I handed over the goods.
Wearing the goose-shit green REI belt recently removed from my husband’s shorts, the kind that clips with a little plastic ?snap,? as a neckstrap, this tenor sax cat was not on his game. The flat reed was not to blame, my son said later, he just wasn?t having a good day.
The Turkish kids who went before him were awesome, he had to admit, even though they stole one of the American kids? songs, Cheesecake. The Blues Alley kids did their best considering the circumstances, first performance of the season, only two rehearsals behind them, lots of seniors, lots of talent gone on to college.
But the magic arrived with the Turkish singer, whose name spelling I can only guess as ?BeJesus.? She sounded like she stepped out of the 1940s with a dress to match. Welcomed onstage to perform with the Americans, she sang ?A Tisket, A Tasket? as though it were a love song. ?I lost my little basket,? she lamented.
The boys in our band crooned the harmony. ?Was it red? Was it green? Was it blue?? But instead of singing her part, she accidentally picked up the back-up parts, singing ?Was it red? … then she realized it mid-note ? but did not flinch.
She smiled a little smile and made the song into a child?s game, knowing full well what she had done, recognizing the teen boys were singing the same part she just sang.
She went with it.
The boys drooled.
I watched a small child in front of me who had a Turkish flag painted on his cheek play a hand-slapping game with another, stunningly handsome dark skinned, curly-haired boy with deep dark eyes. My husband saw the flag and started to take a picture.
An older woman behind us stopped him ?Do you think you should ask the parent before taking a photograph of the child?? she asked in an ancient accent.
I had been to journalism school. I had taken the law class. ?This is America,? I wanted to say. ?This is a public place. He can photograph and publish whatever he wants without any permission whatsoever.?
But I held my tongue. Was the woman asking a legal question? Or was she being a citizen of the village, protecting its children. Who were the parents? Did either of us even know them?
My husband put his camera away.
I watched as all the Turkish musicians regained the stage, invited by the director of my son?s group. For a few songs, all of the kids jammed together. It was a beautiful thing.
I did not question the woman behind us. She is right, I thought, to protect all children from potential harm. But her innocence, I realized, is what was being protected. How long did she have to live? A decade? She has probably earned that innocence and I decided to let her keep it.