Even and Odd: 25 Years of Travel Stories
Note from Me: I planned to publish these stories last November, when I was actually turning 25. However, I was also expecting something wildly different to happen in our election. I ended up taking a huge break from writing -- even when it was only for myself. I've always been a little weird about the "sharing" side of having a blog, but on November 9th I felt particularly silly sharing these stories. But sharing our work isn't trivial. I'm keeping the post the way I wrote it before. It is about turning 25 years old. It's about travel which sometimes makes me really anxious. If for no other reason, I hope you can take the time to read it to learn about an amusing misadventure at the Florence Opera House where I got travel sickness.
This past Wednesday on November 9th, I turned 25. Unless my room mate of the past 6 years pointed it out last week, the day would've snuck up on me (read: last-minute party). The last couple birthdays have been a whole lot of fun -- but you wake up feeling about the same. Side note: I keep seeing posts on Facebook about the election where people say stuff like "I can't wait for Nov 9 when it's all over." So I worry that I'll wake up 25 and it'll actually be the Armageddon.
25 is supposedly one of those inflated birthdays. One of those milestones (18, 21, 25, 30, death) that hold more water than the others. It's a quarter century, which sounds pretty cool if you're going to live to a hundred exactly. It has a neat feeling of closure to a chapter.
I like when things are neat and balanced. But there's no fooling anyone — 25 is not an even number. It's odd. And yet the square root of 25 is 5. Which makes it feel a little more square. A little more even.
I started to think back on the last 25 years.
Then it was like WOAH I'M REALLY WEIRD. EVERYTHING I DO IS WEIRD. WHY DID I MAKE THOSE CHOICES.
Then I realized it's my birthday so I can look at them however I want.
Last year, I was just moving into my current apartment after spending time in Napa with family. The year before that on my birthday, I had just moved out to the Bay Area and had a margarita on a rooftop. This year I'll be switching homes again. If all goes well, it sounds like my next home will be the Presidio in San Francisco, right next to the Pacific Ocean.
There's been a lot of moving around in 25 years. At different points of my life, chatting with myself -- it's fine, we all do this -- I've told myself I'm proud of being adaptable. But now that I'm looking back at 25 years, I see there is an evenly drawn narrative in these different travel stories. I'm in love with needing to switch things up and adapt and find harmony in an odd feeling.
I've pulled together 25 short (micro) stories about travel. If you can work with me on this, I'd love to share.
1. Grothe Circle, Apple Valley, MN
It's pronounced growthy, and my family bought a house in the cul-de-sac when I was in Kindergarten. It was only a few blocks away from where we already lived, but it was a bigger house and from a 5-year old perspective, the short distance was totally exotic.
I and my two neighbors, twin siblings, who are still to this day some of my closest friends, braved through a back yard -- ducking beneath a massive willow to venture across this new neighborhood. The three of us wanted to see the house.
5 is an age where we really shouldn't be walking down the street by ourselves. We kind of knew it, too. When we reached the edge of Grothe Circle, we just barely let the house fall into our vantage, as though by looking at it we would turn to stone. We couldn't even trespass the slight hill. Nearly in tears from discomfort, the three of us turned back.
2. Naples, FL
Some time after 9/11, I was flying to Florida to visit my grandparents who owned a condo on the beach. I was with my two older brothers, my little sister, and my mom. We had taken this flight several times before. Before we took off, I asked my brother if we were going over any big cities or if there were any tall buildings on the way to grandma's and grandpa's. He assured me we'd get there safely.
We played Go Fish, and after a week with my grandparents we were flying home, having built a sand castle, eaten Belgian waffles, walked to a Ben & Jerry's for ice cream, and having nursed a villainous sunburn with aloe vera from a green bottle, I felt much safer flying.
3. Split Rock Lighthouse, Duluth, MN
I've always had a thing about lighthouses. Honestly, that Airbnb has made it so easy to book one for a night has me punching myself for still having a record of 0 nights slept in a lighthouse.
Obsessions start when we're young, but I'm not sure my parents know what first started the craze. All the same, I had lighthouse books and videos and a wall clock (with a fog horn that blew each hour). My family traveled a lot for my brother's hockey tournaments. One of those trips took us up to Duluth. All I cared about seeing was that big mustard-colored oracle situated above Lake Superior. It was the first time going someplace where I knew what I wanted to see.
When I travel now I still put the like, one thing I need to see on the itinerary. But jeez, being tickled pink on a grey day in Northern Minnesota. I'll never forget entering the lighthouse from the main floor, and seeing in a Fitzgerald-era living room the wide brass horn of a gramophone.
4. Lake of the Woods, Canada
I've been really lucky that in 25 years I have stories about travel. I believe in my heart of hearts that travel is about growth. That growth is a self-drama, because to travel you must leave home.
Travel is rebellion. In a caravan of fathers and sons up to an annual fishing trip, one of the other dads told me, "What happens on the road stays on the road."
I asked my dad what that meant at a McDonald's restaurant. "It's okay, don't worry." I was twelve or thirteen by this time, and I'd rebelled some. Never been to Canada but I rebelled some.
One night on the house boat, on a clear night after a day of fishing, one of the other sons snuck me a light beer and a vanilla-flavored Swisher cigar. My dad found us sitting on the roof. A little ticked, he acceded vis-a-vis the rules of the road.
5. Buenos Aires, Argentina
When I was 16, I first heard about an organization called American Field Studies that coordinates home stays abroad for high school students so they can immerse themselves in a high school (yikes!) where everyone speaks a different language. My knowledge of Argentina was minimal. I hadn't even heard the word Gaucho. But I heard about the opportunity to travel abroad. I read Buenos Aires was European.
I came to adjust, and I learned more about the country. I studied Spanish intensively and could get along pretty well. After intensive memorization exercises, math homework became more comfortable in Spanish than English. (No longer true. Math=uncomfortable in all languages.) I became addicted to caffeine (via yerba mate) and introduced my host brother to throwing a frisbee.
When I first got there though I was terrified. I was homesick. A simple question, a harmless one, on my first day with my host family sent me staggering into my new bedroom. They'd kindly set up this room for me in a massive and beautiful city, so far from home, to fall asleep in. All they did was ask if I was Catholic.
And that summer I was pen pals with an old friend and sent several letter home. As one of my oldest friends, Kelly was also there that afternoon at the top of Grothe Circle, when I first really left home. A few years later when I left for college, she asked me if I was moving back to Minnesota after graduating. I said I wasn't sure. She raised some doubts. She said when I got a chance to leave home, I did.
6. Boundary Waters
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is in Northern Minnesota. Normally, you paddle a canoe out on a pristine lake past old pines and granite until you reach the other end. You then pull your crap out of the canoe, maneuver the boat over your head, and you walk it to the next lake. You could do this for a month and still not reach every lake in this national wilderness.
That's the normal trip. But since Minnesota is covered in snow for half the year and the good people of this state still need stuff to do in that time, it's possible to snowshoe or cross country ski in lieu of a canoe.
There's no trip I recommend to people more than this. If you ever make the trip, consider these travel tips:
It's above freezing if you wake to hear the birds chirping.
When your pants freeze (they will) bang them against a tree and watch the ice crystals fly from the wool.
You can bring ingredients for a frozen cheesecake dessert.
If you pack moisture-wicking underwear, the only time you'll feel cold is when you get back to town and change into street clothes again.
7. Black River Falls, WI
Wisconsin is one of America's best kept secrets. Interstate 94 is lined with tall pines, and you rip across hills of corn in pillars of summer light. On this trip I'm driving to visit my dad's parents in Black River Falls. I'm bringing an old laptop computer and will record my grandpa Albert telling stories for about an hour-and-a-half on Garage Band.
This wasn't a faraway trip. I would only be there for an afternoon. But like seeing Venice before the sea swallows it, I wandered through the storehouse of my Grandpa's favorite tales. A few months later, I'd return twice to Black River Falls. Once to see an almost unrecognizable man spin his gaunt legs from bed and look at us widely. A few days after that, to a Methodist Church downtown Black River Falls.
8. Iowa City
Mostly every writer comes to a point where he or she tells the folks, I'm going to be a writer. I wouldn't tell my parents for another year or so. But going to Iowa City for two weeks at the Youth Writer's Studio helped me grow comfortable for the first time admitting that I was doing this stuff with longterm ambitions.
It's a summer camp. But instead of stick fights and camp fires, it was the first time that I felt normal telling others that I was a writer. That, although people were attending whatever coffee shop in town, that I needed to stay at a desk and write for a few hours.
Among all the "firsts," my professor there gave me my first book of WH Auden's poetry. I read his "Journey to Iceland" where he writes the most human of people discover
limited hope, as he nears a glitter
of glacier, sterile immature mountains intense
in the abnormal northern day, and a river’s
fan-like polyp of sand.
I secured a safe love in language. I would eventually need to reckon my love for language with real love. But there'd be plenty of time, experiments, and disillusionment before that took its full course.
9. Colorado Springs
You never know what's going to happen in an Orthodox vesper service. There won't be pews, at least not often. People will stand. And for an hour they'll all know when to cross themselves. And when it's time to touch the floor in an agricultural facsimile, you'll look both ways and try not to stand out. But patience, regardless of the faith you held before, becomes a separate office from normal life. Whatever you thought was going to happen happened differently.
After the ski trips to Breck, or hiking Pike's Peak as a dehydrated grump, just beneath the altar of America the Beautiful, there is a small but round cupola dome. In the sunset hour by chants you encounter a small voice inside yourself asking about mercy.
The excitement of travel can suddenly stop.
I was beginning to fall in love with a girl while in London, and I fully intended to do whatever I could to see her again soon. But she was getting off the subway train at Heathrow Airport to return to the states and I was saying goodbye.
It will be hard to forget the face of the woman across the aisle. She was at first incredulous and then she softened. With the great city above me where I felt freshly alone, I was having a tough time keeping my shit together. I rode the subway all the way to Hyde Park, which was nearby that night's hostel. I bought a baguette and some cheese. I found a spot of grass where I could be narrow. I took in the sun, and then went home to my hostel for the night. I read for about an hour and then fell asleep. There'd be an early morning train ride to Paris in the morning.
11. Plaquemine's Parish
Being landlocked most of my life, besides a few vacations, I never thought much of the dangers of the ocean. I also didn't take a close enough look at a map to know that after New Orleans you could keep going south. Plaquemine's Parish is about as far as you can go before falling in the water. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, everything was destroyed. I was down in Louisiana with the Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church as a volunteer chaperone. We were helping to rebuild houses. My faith has had various fluctuations, but helping to set up foundations for a home was a deeply satisfying experience.
One of the people who was getting a new house built was Mr Malcolm. Malcolm had been living in a FEMA trailer for a few years at this point and is the most terrifying/fascinating person I've ever known. In town, stories circulate about the man who shoots rabbits from the front porch. He had plenty of hunting stories to share. Apparently killing a rattlesnake is easy. All you do is hold the head down with a stick and chop.
He told me one night about hunting an alligator. They'd already captured it, which means going out in a small boat, reaching into dark water with your hands, and pulling the dinosaur inside your boat. It takes a group to hold it down and tie up the mouth. They got it all the way back home before letting it loose in the kitchen. The group of men were going to prepare it into steaks and sausages. When the loose gator was charging him, he grabbed the mouth to aim his knife at the top of its head. In the process, he also slit the web between thumb and forefinger. When I think of Louisiana, I still think of Mr Malcolm and how he must have screamed the whole night through as he cooked up gator.
In a previous post, I cover my road trip to Montana. My college buddy Dylan and I spent a long weekend chasing down the ghost of a terrific Montana poet, Richard Hugo. He was and remains among the best of Western US poets. His narratives are of small towns and boredom in the landscapes of flashing skies and storms.
We went up mountains and through shanties. We stopped at blown up churches and swerved through an empire of snow. We encountered a ghostly landscape, but the landscape is all shaken alive by Hugo's verse.
When the weekend was nearly over we had a thousand miles to drive before we'd be back on campus. To help stay awake, we started up a game where we improvised landscape poems ourselves. But there was one important rule to follow.
Evwy wine 'ad to be witten in an Elma Fudd voice.
And wet me tell you -- Da sky was cwyin' a ho wata somethin!!
From Bozeman all the way to Colorado Springs, where we arrived around 3am, we kept this game going.
13. Greece: Athens
The neighborhood of Pangrati was getting its first good rain of the winter. Situated on a hill, I locked up my apartment and walked slowly, carefully, towards my language school, The Athens Center.
"Listen, you know a little bit about poetry. Wait, you love poetry. Name five poets. Yes, of course she'll ask what you're reading." I was a little nervous.
I was waiting to meet with an American poet I first read when I was sixteen. Alicia Stalling's book, Olives, had recently been released. And that year the MacArthur Foundation's people had just spoken to her people. I was asking myself, Should I talk about Cavafy? Also, a professor once said a rude thing about Richard Wilbur -- do I bring that up? Do people even say New Formalism anymore or is that a dark alleyway. Mm. Best avoid it. (In the end I did say, "I love New Formalism.") Ughhhh.
Every artist has a role model and I was just excited. Once she arrived, she wore a hat to bucket away the rain. We both knew a cafe and we still had half the hill to go.
A.E. I.O.U. 1 kafe filtrou.
14. Greece: Meteora
We packed up our bags in Athens and caught the last bus north to the town of Kalambaka. Just above town, there are mountains that rise up like fingers, and on top of each peak there's a monastery so soundly structured into the landscape, it's hard to tell where the mountain ends and the monastery begins.
We pushed up early and hiked to as many as we could. You steer up switchbacks, but once you're up there you're on your own. Between stops you pause in a valley by a stream. You break out bread baked with olives. You're sitting above this quiet town in the north of Greece with no idea how you got there, or why. You laugh the entire time.
15. Greece: Athens II
When I missed the boat out of Piraeus, I was stuck in Athens an extra day. I wasn't pleased.
I was supposed to be en route to Naxos. Instead, I was grumbling about doing the responsible thing, to wrap up a grant application to visit Los Angeles for a summer of writing. I slipped into the city center to polish off my bibliography and finalize the poems I'd use for my writing sample.
After work, I was hoofing through Syntagma Square where an elderly, kind-looking man stopped me to ask the time. I responded in Greek, which he liked. We chatted for a little while, walking still. When we left the square, he asked me if I'd have a drink in his bar. We were right in front of it. This is more or less common in Athens. Restaurateurs will invite you in. I said, sure!
Most restaurants and cafes in Greece have big windows that let light in. They also allow for diners to gaze out and peoplewatch. Once inside, it occurred to me that I might be in a little bit of a jam. No light broke through, but the bar was lit in red and bedazzled with cheap champagne. I couldn't help but notice there was only one other customer. A long woman with a lithe green gown.
Shit, I thought. The kind gentleman disappeared through the back of the bar. A bald ogre replaced him, filling the entire doorframe. In my backpack I had the only digital files of everything I'd ever written. Plus that guy looked mean.
Strangely, before I could even get in a word, my Greek language skills were complimented and I was escorted to the bar.
Shit shit shit. "I really should go."
"Where will you practice your Greek?" The buxom bartender countered. "One Ouzo, we'll pratice speaking."
"I need to go."
Long tall Zoe floated to the bar.
"Oh, you should meet my friend! Isn't she beautiful?" The bartender turned to the gowned woman. "He speaks Greek."
"Your Greek is very good."
One: it's not. Two: I hadn't spoken Greek to anybody except the old fart who tricked me. And he's not even here anymore.
"It's time for me to go. I need to go. Thank you, but I can't stay."
Everybody is pissed. "You don't think she's beautiful?"
"What's the matter with you?"
I looked at the ogre, slammed 20 euros on the bar, and shoved out of there, my poetry securely zipped in my bag. And my bag sufficiently turtle-like on my back.
16. Greece: Naxos
The cloud has wiped the blue liqueur away
From mountain islands, now ghostly as the gulls
Held motionless in wind above the bay
That distantly wraps the morning up in gales.
Like chains of flies for a wet mouth, I slipped
Backwards from a bluff but caught a handle
Of rock above the face of waves wind-polyped,
Gray mandible gumming mandible.
The turning steps to what is possible.
The lurch, already I'm afraid of that.
Or breathing heavy on a chosen fate
That came on quickly and seemed improbable
In sleepy heights: warmer, warmer. The threat,
Not a dance you can learn, a churning standstill.
17. Greece: Kalamitsi
In the Peloponnese , the water is still pretty cold in March/April. My professor led us down to a cove just beneath the stone cottage he once lived in. While treading water a short way out, I could see the bottom of the sea from the surface.
I'd later learn that when I started to get far my classmates were keeping track of me with a telescopic Nikon camera. My only intention was to take a short innocent swim, but when I started going I couldn't stop. I loved the feeling of floating. Swinging my arms in the water made the whole sea feel warm. There was an island out there and I was suddenly ambitious after several months of being vapid and bemused.
The waves weren't tough, but when I was tired they were what pushed me chest-first onto the island's stone beach. The sun was shining on my very tired arms and legs and so I promptly disrobed and lied down, starfishing, on the beach.
When I got back to the main shore, my classmates showed me the picture where I was crawling up on the island. I was still wearing shorts then.
18. Los Angeles
Ever since Charlie Chaplin, Los Angeles has been characterized by contradiction. It's in part why I wanted to live there and write poetry. But friends have always asked me about the legitimacy of my stories:
"I don't know if weird things constantly happen to you or if you just tell stories about normal things and make them weird."
Your call: Driving home, I was parking my car on Pico Blvd not far off Western. Backing my Suburu into a tight space between two sedans was going to be tricky. That's when I saw the feather boa flourish behind a strong avenue pace. Not again.
I tried to park my car but it was too late and she thought since I did such a cruddy job parking, it must be that I'm soliciting. She did a big circular wave. I cut the air with my hand, signaling No. But I guess that looked like, heyyy.
After some awkward eye contact, the message was clear. She got the picture.
But without explaining, she then moved behind my car and in the red break lights started to beckon me back. She held up two hands, as though to say: I still had about half a foot to go.
My time in Florence was a carnival, in a few senses.
The first: European cities that recognize a patron saint for their city always have on partypants, especially on the celebration days for these saints. Drinking in the streets, evening parades and singing through the narrow roads. I've never been Catholic so maybe I just don't get it.
The second: Fashion was everywhere. While finishing an espresso outside a cafe I watched a woman hop out of a garbage truck. She wore high heels and all Gucci everything. She reached into a trash bin, pulled out the bags and in an axe-like swing, hurled the bags into her truck. She crawled into the cab and drove away.
The third: While backpacking there was only one time we actually needed to be someplace. It was the night the Berlin Philharmonic was performing at the Florence Opera House. They'd be playing two different pieces, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and Brahms' First Symphony. And I blew it.
Tchaikovsky was just getting started and I was beginning to doze off. The British woman sitting next to me nudged my elbow: "This was the best orchestra in all of Europe."
Well, mi scuzi. But I didn't have the hydration to tell her I was in fact privy to the Philharmoniker. If only she could understand that while some of the most impressive movements of the post-Romantic era were grumbling on stage, some of the foulest and lowest bodily things were unfurling inside my stomach. Maybe a bad ravioli, I don't know. It took everything in my bodily power (and all my love for classical music) to endure the act before rushing out to the bathroom to up my Imodium dosage.
Greg and I were in Berlin's main train station, waiting outside the Police Department.
Once they called us up, we gave our story in slow broken English. "Good morning. We were robbed last night on the train. We were sleeping. Someone came in and took our bags. They took our cameras, our money, our phones. We want to report it."
The officer had serious and pursed lips. "No. This is not robbery. This is theft."
We didn't realize we were in a Monty Python skit. Our apologies. Last night, on your train, I was thieved.
21. Madison, WI
After graduating college, I had the privilege to worry about nothing but jogging every day and reading whatever I wanted. I was living with my brother Mike and his wife Jenna.
I didn't venture too far outside the home, but it was the rare opportunity to write without disruption or obligation. I'd wake up in the morning and ration out coffee. From there, I'd spend the next few hours writing until I'd produce 100 lines of verse.
Now that I'm working full time, I've tried really hard to recreate this regiment. Back then in Madison, I was unending and unforgiving about my reading and writing schedule. I often worry I was much better at writing then. Work makes me feel restless. Staying put is an incredibly productive setting.
22. San Francisco
If you want to be a writer, do the most irrational thing possible and leave Madison, WI. Pack up your car and drive cross country. Arrive in the San Francisco Bay Area with Bonnie Tyler blasting. Spend a year in the guest bedroom of your best friend's parents' home. Take a job at a cafe. Learn how to layer foam and pour hearts into espresso. Take the start up job in a garage, blogging. You'll learn what the hell a blog is later. Answer phones. Read on the train. Wake up early. Move in with your friends. Fall in love. Fall out and stay focused. Cut your own hair. Practice Karaoke. Wake up early. Write. Hike. Go to work. Stay up late. But write.
24. Big Sur, CA
Getting down to Big Sur isn't as hard as anyone tells you it is. Just go, or else you'll never see it. Until you finally see such a blue ocean crashing on the continent, you'll never appreciate living in the west. You can love where you live, where you work, where you hang out. But the call to the west is the call to the ocean. Big Sur is loud and it's private. Read Robinson Jeffers.
25. Bodega Bay
The more I work, the harder it is to make time for travel.
Gabe felt the same. So we decided to break the habit and go camping. One night after work we took the 2.5 hour drive up the California coast until we could finally relax. On the drive up, we both admitted we were a little pissed at each other. And I deserved it -- I didn't help pack at all. From my perspective though, Gabe was appreciating the golden hills a little too much while driving my car.
But when we arrived at our trailhead in the dark, what else was there to do? We made peace by throwing everything over our backs, slipping a warm pale ale from its plastic casing, and under the high beams of flashlights hiked a mile uphill in search of our oceanview campsite.