The long last day

A while after leaving Haine’s Junction in Canada, we entered 4 grueling hours of slowly navigating thru an insane minefield of potholes, some the size of tractor tires. The van was noisily tilting sideways then back upright, then tilting the other way, again and again, rattling all the dishes, cabinets, and everything else inside, continuously. I was so worried everything I had built inside the van would fall apart, or the propane or plumbing connections would come loose. I worried a tire might blow out, and I had no idea how much longer or worse this road might be. The minutes felt like agonizing hours.

We finally arrived at the border of Alaska, miraculously, in one piece. I was shocked that the benches, cabinets, and ceiling in the van were all still attached and stable. The big stout border patrol officer was very friendly. His confident “aren’t you crazy for coming this way” smile softened his broad shouldered intimidating and official looking stature. I imagine I was the first person he’d seen in a long while as I had been all alone on this hellish fully perforated dirt pit of a road. I was glad to see him as I had wondered if maybe this border crossing was closed since the “non-road” I’d been on was torn up so badly. I mean, it didn’t just have potholes, it had 2 foot wide one foot deep trenches sprawled out all over it like angry swollen veins on a body builder. Google maps did not even offer it as a route, and kept navigating me to take a 4 hour detour to a different northern crossing, but I bullheadedly went this “direct” way anyways. He was so kind and smiling with a barely restrained amusement on his face. He didn’t grill me at all, probably felt I’d already been more than adequately grilled by the road, and knowing I would have never made it into Canada in the first place without meeting all the requirements. We chatted briefly and he handed my passport back to me stealthily, like he was slipping me something secretly in a napkin, as my passport was now wrapped around a very large milkbone. I had been so whiteknuckle focused on getting the van thru the crash course in one piece, I didn’t think about Nina being stressed out. She rode in the passenger seat so quietly the whole terrible way. I gave the man a very emphatic “Oh my gosh! Thank you so much!” as I suddenly realized that Nina had just been thru all this stress with me. It felt like we were receiving first aid after a crisis. She took the bone so gratefully, like it was the first one she’d ever had, never mind the almost empty bag of treats she’d eaten over the past two weeks on the road with me, it had been smooth pavement all that time. This was different. As I pulled away from the border patrol, I was so deliriously happy to see fresh smooth new pavement that I almost pulled over and got out to kiss the ground. I’m not going to be phased at all anymore by steep downhill slopes. If it’s paved, I’m nothing but grateful now.

For the next couple of hours we went up and around and down this cloudy mountain road that was carved between tall wet trees, occasionally opening up a view of a steep no shoulder drop off while going around a high up curve. We finally arrive to the small town of Tok Alaska. There are a few little tiny stores and gas stations but there’s nobody around anywhere. Then I see a motel attached to a restaurant and the entire population of the town, along with every passer thru, is parked at this one place. A total ghost town everywhere else, and yet not a single open parking spot at this jam packed place called “Fast Eddie’s”. I think to myself “Man, the food must be incredible here..” so I pull in to the parking lot and park alongside of the mound between the parking lot and the highway. I take Nina for a short chilly walk and fill up her food and water bowl before I head inside for something I’d been missing for a long, long time. Beer battered halibut and an Alaskan craft beer. I walked inside and it was warm and busy, every table full of happy chatter and excited eating. Staff moving quickly all about serving hot plates of wonderfulness. And yes, the food really was “that good”.

It was late in the evening and we had already travelled a good 10 hours. I had to set my clock back an hour as we had crossed yet another time zone. I should have been ready to park and sleep fat for the night, but we were so close now, only 6 hours from Anchorage. I didn’t think I could stand another 6 hours of driving, especially after that hellroad, but maybe I could last a couple more hours. It was Saturday night and I knew my sister would have to work Monday morning. I didn’t want to show up late on Sunday. So I started the van and we headed toward Glenallen. Nina gave me a stare like “seriously mom? More driving?” I stopped in the small town of Glenallen, close to midnight I think, poured myself a large cup of burnt convenience store coffee, you know the kind of burnt on a burner coffee where the creamer doesn’t turn it blonde, but more of an ash grey instead? Yeah. But it was exactly what I needed as I decided to keep going the whole way to Anchorage that night. And I did. It was the longest drive of my whole journey, around 17 hours I think. The brief Alaskan summer nighttime had arrived by the time we left Glenallen, and I felt like I was in a Harry Potter movie driving those last few hours thru moonlit clouds all over the mountains. I spotted a bright glowing glacier slid between two mountains and glowing clouds in the sky above it. It was the most mystical quiet night drive. I passed so many moose. One was so velvety brown all over, even the rack on its head was covered in brown velvet, it reminded me of those little toy figurines I had when I was a kid.

I pulled up to my sisters house at 3:30am, it was dark and drizzly. I quietly parked, put on my onesie flannel pajamas, tucked under my fuzzy warm blanket, and went directly to sleep. I knew she’d wake up to make coffee in a few hours and be surprised to see my van parked out front. We would have the whole entire Sunday to visit.

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Road Apples (part 2)

Mike looked like an old carnie. He was tall and skinny with long stringy blonde hair and frizzy orange beard. His blue T-shirt was a size too big and had the words “road apple acres” on it in white block letters. His faded worn oversized jeans were stacked over his muddy old work boots and were held up on his thin frame by a tightly cinched brown belt. His face had many hard life lines on it, including the crows feet framing his pained blue nervous eyes. 

They were both slender, and slightly older than me, but I was outnumbered and outweirded. By this point my back up planning inner skeptic had already rehearsed all kinds of strange tactics and dialogue to help me survive and escape this alternate reality I’d found myself in. I’d thought of telling them that my maiden name was “Ringling”, and that I had a great collection of preserved human cadavers in giant pickle jars that I could add to their collection of amusements. (If you can’t beat ‘em, join em, right?) 

Ernie, the host, introduced us. “Lisa, this is Mike”. Mike looked very nervous and formally held his hand out with an anxious smile revealing a few missing teeth. “Nice to meet you Lisa, did you have trouble finding the place?” I told him I noticed the small sign just as I was passing up the road leading here. His eyes grew real wide with shock as he said in a rushed high pitched voice, “But didn’t Ernie send you a map!?” He sounded really upset, as if I were still out on the road lost somewhere. I sensed he had a real genuine concern for my well-being, and for my impression of their camp. I reassured him I did not get lost and had found it easily and quickly told him how amazed I was with the place. He said with great relief and a smile “well that’s wonderful, isn’t it great? Are you ready for me to show you to your camp spot?”  I was relieved to follow him down the stairs. I instantly felt safe with him. His concern for my comfort reminded me of my brother, who is also named Mike, and who always looked out for me and did everything he could to make things nice for me, and who also has a lot of hard life pain in his eyes. 

Mike pointed out a couple of options for places I could park the van and explained with great seriousness how the recent rain had made the road to the hillside area, the one that most of the campers use, inaccessible. I chose the spot closest to the entrance gate, right behind the antique red carnival carriage. By this time I knew deep down I was safe here, but I still felt better being as close to the road out as possible. I’d already gone as deep into this other worldly dimension as I wanted to. My brain could not take in anymore strangeness. Externally, since arrival, I had been pleasant and smiling and making great conversation, but internally I was imagining being chained up in a musty blood red painted room and being anesthetized and tortured to death by crazy people in carnival costumes. And then having the miraculous experience of seeing my own personal and obscure life story albums on his wall, the flashbacks of my childhood. My head was spinning and I needed to sit down inside my van for a minute…. After taking a few moments to park and gather my bearings, I took my hammock chair and set it up by the fire pit and picnic tables. Mike pointed out the firewood and said “complimentary firewood included in your camp registration, would you like me to start a fire for you?”  I said sure. He started the fire and said “On Saturdays and Sundays we also provide free music entertainment if you would be interested. If so, I can return at 8pm with my guitar. Is that something you’d be interested in?” He was being so formal and I could tell that he was really hoping I’d say yes. I said “sure Mike, I would love that”. I spent an hour by the fire, still taking in the strange surroundings. Still stunned by all of this. 

Mike returned promptly at 8 with his guitar and a metal trash can with a lid on it. I have no idea what the trash can was for. He said his music is all original and he began playing and singing a soft slow song. His style is old folk country slow songs and the lyrics were the story of his life. A young farm boy that fell in love with the waitress at the diner, who’s smile made life worth living… the lyrics were simple and endearing, then very sad. He told me that he was never musical at all when he was young, and then one day, when he was in his 30’s, he wrote a song. Said he wrote it in 25 minutes and then took it to Nashville to record it in a studio. He said he would have become famous but he was poisoned by cowboy boots and nearly died. He said a man told him he found a chemical “potassium dichromate” that made him able to tan leather in 6 hours when traditionally it took weeks. He bought the boots and worked in them in the heat 16 hours a day and got heavy metal poisoning from it and was deathly ill for 3 years, unable to even walk. Doctors told him he wouldn’t survive and that if he did he would commit suicide from the pain because there was no treatment for it. But by the grace if God, 12 years later he was mostly recovered. He said “I used to look like Alan Jackson before I got sick but that was back when I was 50 pounds heavier and had all my teeth”. He said he lost his farm and his family and everything. He said he was really down on his luck for a long time, and homeless, but Ernie had taken him in a couple years ago to help him make this camp and it gave him a sense of purpose again. Mike expressed so much gratitude for his life, and so much concern for doing right by others. He was so tender hearted and so proud of not being embittered by all the pain he’d suffered. What a lovely soul. That night I said a prayer for Mike and I slept peacefully in my van next to the carnival carriage that night.

The next morning I took my coffee and albums to the picnic table and was greeted by Ernie. He is a veterinarian for the rural community. That’s why the barn is his “office”, and he does surgeries on animals, that’s why the anesthesia tanks… We talked about Canada, America, culture, politics, healthcare, philosophy, music, and family. He was a very smart and interesting man. He showed me the inside of the old antique carriage. He told me stories of how he and his wife (and his band) used to take the carriage, pulled by horses, to the local rural festivals and fold the wall down and play music for the community.  “They loved it, those were good times” he said. I showed him my Leon Redbone album, the same one that he has on his wall. And then I gave him a different Leon Redbone album “Champagne Charlie” and a few others to add to his collection. He was delighted and ran into his office to get a card so I could write notes for him to put on the albums. We talked for a couple of hours, and gave each other song and book recommendations. He insisted on making lunch for the 3 of us before I left and I couldn’t say no. We had a great meal at the picnic table in the sunshine telling stories and laughing while the dogs played. I hugged them both sincerely and said goodbye.

What began as the strangest and scariest experience of my life had ended up being a truly wonderful encounter with two of the most kind genuine people I’ve ever met.  I will never forget Road Apple Acres. 

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Road Apples (part 1)

I drive for many, many miles thru never ending green farm fields down “range roads” (much like the farm roads in nowhere Texas). I passed “Sunnycrest sweet potato farm” which is interesting because I just sold my home on Sunnycrest Street in Corpus. I’m trying to make sense of this hand-drawn map this host emailed me because he said the location on the HipCamp app is incorrect, that his place is a few miles from where the app says it is. After it feels like I’ve maybe gone too far, I see a little sign for the camp on a lonely gravel road I’m passing, so I slow down and turn around to go back to it. I then drive many more miles slowly down this gravel road that seems to go on forever, then finally, it turns down a hill to what feels like the furthest you can get from civilization. I get this eerie feeling. I look down at my phone and there’s no bars. Zero cell signal out here.  I look back up and see another little handmade sign for the camp: “Road Apple Acres” creepily hung right next to a “No Exit” sign. I think to myself “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”. I see down hill at the end of this gravel road a very large old white 2 story barn with a green tin roof and a few smaller storage looking structures around it. I get the feeling this road doesn’t see much traffic, or campers… “But there were great reviews of this place on the app” I tell myself. I make it down the long bumpy gravel road and pull in thru an open cattle gate towards the big barn and the “host” is standing in the drive. He’s an older but fit slender man with soft white wavy hair and a long white wiry mustache. He’s wearing a plaid button up shirt tucked In his jeans. He looks like a skinny farm Santa. I can see that there’s nobody else or any other vehicles around which feels a bit uncomfortable. “Where are the other campers?” I say to myself. I’m alone with a strange man in a far out rural area with no cell service. I roll down my window and he walks up and smiles for a second then looks serious. He seems a bit socially awkward. He says “I was just texting you on the app that I was going to close the gate and go down to the house for dinner, but you’re here now, so pull up by the office and I’ll close the gate behind you”. Im thinking “Umm.. close the gate behind me? So I can’t escape? And what office? All I see is a big barn”. 

“Office?” I say to him confused. He points towards the driveway by the barn and says “just park over there”. I comply, reminding my inner skeptic again about the good reviews…. 

I park by some picnic tables across from the old barn and get out, with Nina. She doesn’t seem suspicious of this man, so I quickly say to myself “see, he’s a nice guy.” My inner skeptic points out how Nina is too fascinated with his giant St Bernard to even notice this old man. 

He says, “let’s go into the office” and starts leading me into a side door of this strange barn. This door opens to a wooden creaky staircase that leads up to the second story. I follow him up the stairs. It smells musty. The argument I’m having in my head now is a calm but ugly one. “You’re about to die in a barn in some really bizarre way” I tell myself. “Oh well” I calmly reply. We reach the top and I can’t believe my eyes. The entire open A frame is spray-foamed bright green and is completely wall covered in record albums. My eyes are so overwhelmed with the hundreds of albums it takes a moment before I suddenly notice all of the floating umbrellas above my head. The entire expanse above my head is filled with different styles and patterns and colors of umbrellas open and suspended in mid air above me. What kind of Tim Burton-Disney-on-acid movie scene have I just walked into? At least the crime scene photos will be the most bizarre ever seen. If I die here it will definitely make a wild documentary. 

I start talking to him about the albums. So many of them I recognize. Sinatra, Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, the Beatles… I recognize a Freddy Fender album and I mention to him that my mom knew him back when. I’m still disoriented by the floating umbrellas and albums and strange old antique furniture. I look out the window and see a real life antique large red ornate circus carriage across the driveway, the kind pulled by horses. I’m so confused. Then I see an antique grey carnival elephant statue with a saddle on its back. Then he says “come here, let me show you the living quarters I made up here”. He takes me to this door and opens it. I’m hesitant to follow him in there. Then I see the walls are painted a dark blood red. In the back left corner there’s a damp looking old bed. Next to it in the back right corner there’s a poorly made makeshift homemade shower. This looks like something straight out of a horror movie. Then he points to the wall to my right just inside the doorway. There’s a a small brown wasp nest on the blood red wall. He points at it smiling and says “yeah, they made a nest right there, I’m thinking about framing it, it’s actually my favorite part of this room”. My mind is racing trying to choose a response to this whole situation but it can’t. Too much tension between the feeling that I’m going to die and my corpse be propped up next to a bearded lady vs the idea that this is just a sweet man enamored with the strange, colorful things in life like wasp nests, blood red walls, old albums, circus antiques, and floating umbrellas. I walk away from that room. This is just too bizarre. I quickly move back to what feels like a safer space, the hundreds of albums. He follows me back to the main area. I notice he keeps looking out the window like he’s expecting someone. My mind says “yeah, he can’t kill you by himself, he waiting for his killer carnival partner to show up.”  Then I see a Leon Redbone album. I tell him “you aren’t going to believe this, but I have this same Leon Redbone album in my van”. His eyes get wide, “No way!” he says.. “who drives from Texas to Alaska with a Leon Redbone album in their van?”  I raise my hand and say “That’s me”. He smiles. Now I’m feeling better because he seems genuinely amused, and in a childlike wonder kind of way.

He calls out for Mike again and then I see big helium looking tanks in a Rubbermaid tub, I look closer at them. It’s not helium. It’s ANESTHESIA GAS… What in the Stephen King hell is going on here??? He calls out again “Mike!”  

Now my heart rate starts to go up. My mind is filled with the most heinous scenes imaginable. There are things worse than death. 

I’m ready to go back downstairs and outside. He’s looking out the window again and says “Mike is my groundskeeper, I want him to meet you. Here he comes now.” I start to head for the stairs and he says “No. We will wait for him to meet us up here”.  Now my stomach turns.. and I start looking around the room at what I can use that’s deadly enough. I’m pretty sure I can take this old man, but I’m terrified of this Mike guy that’s on his way up… 

Then I see an album on his wall that completely blows my mind….

So, about a month before leaving Texas, while packing up my house, I had this flashback of a song from childhood that popped in my head and I couldn’t stop singing it. It was from a Christian children’s album called “Music Machine”. I used to play that album a lot when I was about 6 or 7 years old, when the violence and abuse was too much to cope with. The album was all about fruits of the spirit. You put something in the music machine and a song would come out. This album strengthened my faith in God and helped me thru the darkness. I’d forgotten all about it. 40 years later while packing up my house this song just starts playing in my head. So I stopped packing and googled it. I found the whole album on YouTube, which was surprising because it was so damn old and wasn’t mainstream music. I was blasting it on the Bose when my daughter came home and she was like “what in the hell are you listening to?!”  So I told her all about it and how the album had really strengthened my faith in God when I was a sad lost little girl. 

Anyways, here I am now, a month later, in this really bizarre and scary circus barn in way out rural Canada, and there’s the music machine album on this barn wall, staring right at me. Now I’m wondering if this is a miracle sign that God is telling me I’m meant to be here and it’s ok, or if this is some strange end of life moment being tied together with life’s beginning moments. 

I quickly point out the album to him and tell him the whole story about God and me. He looks stunned. I start singing the song “Patience” to him. He pulls the album down and bam, that song is on there. He’s stares at me wide eyed in disbelief and says “That is truly the strangest thing ever!”

“Mike” appears at the top of the stairs… 

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Wyoming- In a Van

Sunday, July 3, 2022

8:50 PM

It is so strange to be sitting here under a tree in an RV park next to Snake River in Wyoming. It’s beginning to set in that I live in a van now. It’s almost too crazy to be reality, and yet, it would be crazy for me not to be here right now. 

I’m a sucker for a beautiful view. And today I am meditatively grateful for the simple blessing of a hot shower. I enjoy the solitude and peace of the wilderness, just me and my girl Nina untethered by rules and responsibility. After spending several days without the daily taken-for-granted luxuries, like endless hot water and flushing toilets, it’s a great feeling to enjoy them for a day or two before braving the wilderness again. The funny thing is, it’s just as refreshing to go without them for a while too. There’s something about getting away from the common, the familiar, the comfortable, that brings a fresh feeling of movement, like life unfolding. 

I spent the better part of my life deeply plugged in to my immediate surroundings and whatever “it’s” needs were at any given moment; work, life, bills, family ( the love and the inevitable drama), and the “wash-rinse-repeat”ness of it all. I loved my work, my family, and my few very precious friends. But in the last couple of years I became increasingly depressed and lonely. I wasn’t ungrateful for my wonderful job and work family, I had the best you could ask for. I wasn’t ungrateful for my family, even with the insane drama it often brought with it. I can’t really point the finger at anyone or anything and lay any blame. (I could, but that wouldn’t be completely honest). It’s odd really. I feel a strong desire to connect with others and explore new ideas, new territory, new challenges. I have a tendency to tether myself to things and people that need assistance of some kind. And in the beginning it is an exciting challenge, like a new adventure. But once a pattern and rhythm becomes established and it starts to repeat itself again and again, my spirit starts to die. 

Just typing these words makes me shudder. It’s no wonder I’m single….

My daughter has this philosophy that when people are new in your life, or new at a job, etc., they will put their best self forward. Over time, once they get comfortable, they aren’t as kind, or as reliable as they initially presented themselves to be. She says “once they get comfortable, things start to go downhill.” I don’t like to believe this. I’ve worked with, and made friends with, some of the most trustworthy reliable people ever. And I don’t want to say that I don’t trust people. I’ve made some good friends that would drop everything and come to my aid in a heartbeat. But deep down I must believe this negative philosophy to be true because I don’t seem to ever get “comfortable” with people. And yes, due to my own lack of discernment, I have allowed myself to love people that did not have my best interest at heart. At the time I believed they did. I’m uncomfortable when people are kind to me, give me gifts, or do special things for me. It’s like I have a fear that if I let myself enjoy it and get close to them, that comfort will come back to bite me. I get deeply hurt when I do trust someone and they get “comfortable” and behave with total disregard towards me. I guess the deep down root message I’ve believed is “don’t get comfortable”.  So I hold people at arm’s length. It doesn’t seem that way to some because I’m a good listener and I can be supportive, but I rarely allow myself to take comfort in anyone. 

Now, this is a conundrum. Because people are human, and no matter how wonderful and reliable they are, they are going to hurt the people they love. It’s part of being human. We’ve all done it. And there’s no way to protect ourselves completely from this unless we live a miserable life of solitude. This has been the brunt of my problem. I got stuck in a pattern and rhythm of relationships where I wasn’t really present in them. I was there but not there. I provided something, like a listening ear, or a shelter, or a job process, or whatever, but I’m not fully in it. I’m just performing something that the situation needs from me. But the situation doesn’t need “me” along with it. Or the situation isn’t something “me” wants to show up for.   

Maybe I have to roam around the country alone with my dog in a van to learn a lesson. Maybe I need to learn how to love. Maybe being removed from all the patterns and repeated rhythms, and being faced with unknowns and new lands, will open my eyes to things I need to see, about others, and about myself. I read a post where someone criticized a lecture by Jordan Peterson. They said “he didn’t say anything new, I was disappointed.” I was floored by this criticism as I have listened to 37 hours of his mind-blowing lectures just on Genesis alone, one topic, not to mention the hundreds of hours on other material and the multiple heavy duty books he’s written. This makes me think of the man who wants to cheat because being married is “like having the same cereal for breakfast every day”. Maybe it’s not the lecturer or the wife who has become lacking in novelty. Maybe it’s the critic who is lacking in fresh eyes and a clean heart. Maybe I have been the harsh critic in my life who has not had enough faith in others, or in love itself. I have been so harsh on myself, there’s no way I’ve been capable of giving others room to be human, and more importantly, I have not allowed myself to be human in relationship to others. I have so many valid reasons, but they aren’t really valid because they are part of the equation. You love, you get hurt. You don’t love, and you don’t get to experience love, which is worse than getting hurt. It’s like criticizing the chef’s cooking and choosing to starve instead. I’m starving. 

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P. Jones

Broken Compass

Don’t read this pit that resides below the depths of self pity

Lost at sea would be an improvement

It would make more sense than being Lost at land

Here there are roads, maps, signs, landmarks, people

Where is the massive quiet ocean

My soul floating like a decaying cadaver

Lifeless, tasteless to the creatures swimming below

Help? … no, don’t

Go away and leave me be

The stench dissipates before hitting the shore

No one will ever know

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