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Ride Without Hugs

rock store

The only thing missing from our first official HOG day ride since the pandemic was hugs. Some riders gave “air hugs” and fist bumps. Most riders stood apart and greeted each other with a nod, grateful to see friends in person, not on a screen.

Many HOGs rode during the stay at home order, in small groups that we trusted. Even so, my eyes teared up when Tom passed me the ride sheet. We were back! It feel so good to place ourselves in the protective care of a road captain, with route and stops already planned.

One welcome side effect of this terrible time was the lack of traffic. We cruised over to Glendale Harley-Davidson, our first stop, in record time. The dealership was located in a series of old brick buildings. There were many bikers walking around, and if it weren’t for the face masks, it would looked like a regular day. My favorite part was the vintage motorcycle exhibit which included Harley-Davidson racing bikes and a side car motorcycle.

After another traffic-free freeway ride (on the 101!), we finally reached Mullholland Highway. Now the real ride could begin as the winding road led us up into mountains and past ranches. Horses looked up with pointed ears, envious of our freedom.

When we arrived at the Rock Store, I almost didn’t recognize it. Last time Frank and I were here, we approached from the opposite direction, and rows of parked motorcycles began long before the actual building. This time, we could park in front of the restaurant in the original motorcycle parking lot.

When I removed my helmet, I was struck by the silence. No roar of laughter and conversation from the patio, no live music. We lined up with the rest of our group and ordered our food. When we got it, Frank and I sat on the steps leading up to the main entrance, normally where there would be lots of traffic. Others ate at their bikes, using their tourpak as a table.

As we talked and ate, groups of motorcycles passed by on their way to their own adventures. Even in the midst of a pandemic, riders found peace in roaring engines and wind under their helmets.

When we were finished, our group split up to go home. Frank and I chose to follow Tom, who took the long way on the Coast Highway from Malibu to Santa Monica before jumping on the freeway. Riding next to the ocean never disappoints, although I was sad to see all the closed parking lots. Usually I don’t envy those who live at the beach because of the encroaching crowds, but when access is restricted, it seems like a reasonable sacrifice to wiggle your toes in the sand. After a glimpse of the waves, we headed inland where we found our first real traffic, caused by road construction. Even with the slowdown, we got back to Riverside sooner than normal.

Relaxing in our pool, Frank and I discussed our favorite parts of the day. Great scenery, great food, great weather. Another awesome ride with awesome friends, even without hugs.

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Long Comeback

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Tugging on my cold weather gear after a few months’ break was awkward. The last time Frank and I rode with the HOGs in the dog days of summer, we barely wore jackets. Then my husband’s autoimmune disease kicked into high gear in September, and we were on hiatus until February.

Today we were back in the saddle, joining our riding group to Barrett Junction. As we turned into the Harley-Davidson dealership, I heard a scream, “It’s Jodi and Frank.” The greeting rang sweetly in my ears, chasing away the voices telling us our Harley days were over. Frank parked next to the other motorcycles, and I hopped down to hug my friends.

You would have thought we’d won a race. After the funerals we attended this year, seeing Frank back on his bike was needed encouragement. Not that it was unusual for a motorcycle riding group to see members pass away. Every ride was inches from it. But recently, we’d also lost one to cancer. It made Frank’s victory ever sweeter.

After getting our instructions, it was time for kickstands up. Slowly I lifted my many-layered leg over the seat and hopped on our Harley. Engines growled around us and the group of fifteen bikes lined up in the parking lot. After I plugged in my heated jacket and pants, I pulled on my gloves. It was a frosty 45 degrees, but my phone promised 70s by the afternoon.

Our road captain had called ahead to the tiny restaurant. They told him there was another group of 50 coming in at noon. We had a deadline to get there first, so part of today’s trip would be freeway. My heart raced as we passed cars with our roaring line of bikes. Our backdrop was desert outlined with mountains. Some of those mountains we would see up close in a few hours.

Finally, we turned off onto a small highway that led past Indian reservations and a large modern casino. Our staggered formation was now one up as we started hugging the curves. A few ranches dotted the landscape until finally we threaded into the mountains. Spreading oaks were slowly replaced by tall pine trees.

Our progress unimpeded by traffic, I was disappointed to see signs that we would need to stop ahead. Men in orange vests brought us to a stop. What was going on? Whirring blades drew my eyes up. A large helicopter was lowering a huge metal telephone pole into place next to the narrow road. All of us were mesmerized watching the precise movements. After the pole was secured, the orange vests allowed us to pass.

In these remote mountains, I lost track of where we were, but soon there were signs announcing that the Mexican border was only 20 miles away. We passed a Border Patrol checkpoint. Barrett Junction was still in California, but at the southern edge.

Turn followed turn as we danced our way down into a small valley. Houses appeared on the sides of the road and nestled into the hills. We turned into the gravel parking lot of a small café. Various models of Corvettes filled the front lot, first arrivals of our rival group. We quickly parked and went inside.

After seating us all at a long table, our waitress brought us menus typed up on a single sheet of white paper. No restaurant name or pictures needed. They made fried fish, burgers, and a chicken salad. Their fish and chips was their specialty.

Frank and I sat and talked with our fellow riders as we waited for our food. Today felt different from the other HOG rides we’d taken over the years. Maybe we had started to take it for granted, that every weekend we’d be on the road with our fellow adventurers. After suffering a forced break, we realized how much we missed it. The back roads, the pulsing energy of riding in a group, the jokes and laughter, the fresh baked goods Jay always brought.

It was great to be back.

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Blustery Day

 

Contrary to popular thought that California has perfect winters, we have wind. Not gentle ocean breezes. Rip your table umbrellas out and deposit them in your neighbor’s yard wind. Destructive and bone chilling, these winds blow into town and linger for days. In the summer, they can be furnace blasts, but the worst come whipping through the winter.

California elementary schools assume we will always have mild weather. There is no shelter between buildings and portables. Students have to brave mighty gusts to have lunch and use the restrooms. “Inclement weather” is declared, and all recesses cancelled for the day. Teachers and their classes remain huddled inside their rooms.

Attention spans diminish, and voices grow louder. Pollen kicks up to spark headaches and runny noses. Already sick children gather at the school nurse’s office while she calls their parents.

Meanwhile, palm fronds land like missiles on cars passing on the streets. Ancient branches raise their arms in surrender and fall on parked cars. Dust and leaves swirl in doorways, waiting to blow in.

Wind makes people angry. A local proverb advises not to make any major decisions on a windy day.

Perhaps we shared a haughty chuckle when it was sunny and 80 degrees last weekend and other regions of the country lie buried in snow. We thought ourselves worthy of that song, “California Dreaming.”

Maybe the wind is our punishment for being proud.

The singing campground: Part 2

“Let go! Got to get a video of this!” Willow tried to pull his arm and phone out of Lilly’s grip

“Shush! They’ll hear us.” She dragged him back into the surrounding trees. The clearing in front of them was a large circle, too perfect to have been formed by nature. But it wasn’t the clearing that raised the goosebumps on her arms.

They both stood there staring like mannequins in a store window. From the singing, Lilly had expected to see real people, sitting around a campfire. But this wasn’t a regular campsite. And the fire was not in a campground fire pit. She was certain that was against the rules. Mom always read the rules to them when they stayed at a new place.

Willow, his head full of stories about the campers lost in a wildfire years ago, expected to have his first glimpse of ghosts.

Neither twin saw what they expected.

Furry, red foxes with white faces, holding sticks in their hands (paws) and roasting marshmallows over a blue fire. Lilly knew fires were not usually blue, except natural gas flames under a stove. This was a blue fire coming out of a huge stack of logs piled in log cabin style.

And the foxes must have heard them arguing, because they stopped singing, and looked toward the trees where they crouched.

“Awesome!” Willow whisper-shouted. “They’re foxes!”

“What should we do?” Lilly asked, being the more practical twin.

At that moment, one of the larger foxes set its stick down on a rock, making sure that the partially browned marshmallow didn’t touch the ground. It walked on its back legs a few steps towards them.

“Come out from the trees, human kits,” it said in a low-pitched, deep voice. Lilly’s mouth dropped open. The voice was so human that if she wasn’t watching the words come out of the fox’s snout, she would be certain it was an adult man.

“Run!” Lilly grabbed her brother’s arm.

“Not only can they roast marshmallows, but they can talk!” Willow said, his smile ear to ear. “I want to meet them.”

“We should go. Mom said not to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers are human, silly. These are foxes. That can talk.”

“Come into the clearing,” the fox said. “We are eager to meet you. Did you hear our song?”

“Yes, we heard it,” Willow said. “It was awesome. We wanted to see who was singing it. Are you ghosts?”

The small foxes laughed, and it sounded like water tinkling on glass. Another large fox came near, standing by the first one.

“No, we are quite alive,” the second fox said in a high feminine voice. “But our true natures are concealed by glamour. Those who don’t hear our song, see only normal foxes in the woods.”

“If you’re not foxes, what, or who, are you?” Lilly asked.

The female fox gestured toward the campfire. “See for yourselves. We intend no harm toward you.”

Willow and Lilly looked at each other. When Mom had gone over all the rules about camping, she had not told them what to do when encountering magical talking foxes who ate marshmallows.

“Don’t be a baby, Lilly,” Willow said, making the decision for them both. He pushed her into the clearing where they took seats on large fallen logs around the roaring campfire. One of the smaller foxes handed each of them a carved stick with two marshmallows stuck on top.

“If this is one of those faerie tales, we really shouldn’t eat any food they offer us,” Lilly whispered to her brother.

“It’s only marshmallows,” Willow said. He thrust his stick into the fire. His marshmallows were a burning torch in seconds.

“That’s not the way to roast them,” Lilly said. She carefully dangled her stick at the edge of the fire, avoiding the strange blue flames. After a few minutes, she turned her stick. The side of her marshmallows facing the fire had turned golden brown.

“That’s the proper way to do it,” the largest of the small foxes said. “You can call me Rudy. What do you call yourselves?” The fox licked the gooey white from his claws. The other small foxes huddled together, staring at them with unblinking black eyes.

“I’m Willow, and this is Lilly,” her brother said. “We’re twins.”

“How delightful!” the older female fox said. She shared a knowing glance with the male fox, and then handed Willow two graham crackers and a piece of chocolate. After putting it together like a sandwich, he ate it quickly.

“Mmmm. This is delicious,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

Lilly was still not sure whether she should eat her perfectly roasted treat. She watched her brother, holding her breath. If something went wrong, she would grab him and run back to their campsite.

Willow jumped up from the log. “I can see you!” he shouted to Rudy. “You’re not a fox. You’re a boy!”

Lilly stared at her brother in horror. Did the food do something to him?

“Don’t worry. Your brother was not poisoned by our s’mores. When a visitor eats with us, they can see who we really are,” Rudy said. “Go ahead, eat it. You’ll see.”

She slowly pulled the marshmallow off the stick. Its crunchy gooey sweetness exploded in her mouth. It was the best roasted marshmallow she had ever tasted. As she swallowed it, her eyes were opened.

The foxes around the campfire were replaced by slender people dressed in various shades of brown and green. Two of them looked like adults and the rest were children of various ages from around four to twelve. Rudy looked like the oldest. They could have passed for survivalists living in the woods except for their long pointed ears that poked out from their silky dark brown hair.

“You’re faeries!” Lilly gasped.

“Summer Court, to be exact,” the father said. “You can call me Nettle. This is my wife, Thorn. You’ve already met Rudy. The others are Loden, Sunny, Tawny, and Golden.” The faeries nodded as Nettle named them.

Willow frowned. “What are you doing out here? Don’t faeries live in a different realm?”

Thorn smiled. Her glowing emerald green eyes framed by waves of shimmering dark brown hair were so lovely that Lilly and Willow’s hearts felt like they would break. “We’re camping. Like you and your family are,” she said.

Lilly pushed out of her mind the faery’s radiating bliss. From the books she’d read, she knew faeries were tricky and not usually nice to humans. Leaving right now would be the reasonable thing to do.

“Nice to meet all of you. Willow and I have to go now. Dad needs us to help with dinner.” She tried to pull her brother away, but he shook her off.

“Is there a portal around here?” he said, looking around. The surrounding woods, other than the perfect campfire clearing, looked like normal trees. There was no hint of magic.

“Sit down,” the mother said. “It is a long tale, but I would tell it to you.”

Willow sat back down on the log. Lilly sighed but joined him anyway. Her brother had no common sense whatsoever. She felt like she was born as his twin so that she could keep him out of trouble.

Sometimes it worked.

The Singing Campground: Part One

When her dad finally turned their motorhome into the campground, Lily had no reason to believe it was haunted. After all, she had just turned twelve years old, and she considered herself very grown up. She didn’t believe in nonsense like ghosts. Not like her brother, Willow, who still tied a beach towel around his neck and called himself Super Twin.

The sign at the campground entrance said William Heise County Park. It had taken them over two hours of twisty roads to get here. That seemed like a long time to drive somewhere just for the weekend, but Dad was set on eating apple pie at nearby Julian. He had towed our Jeep behind the motorhome so that we could ride top down into the historic mining town on Saturday.

“When we get to our site, everyone helps set up camp,” Dad said. “Willow, that means no taking off into the forest.”

“Come on, Dad!” her brother said. “We’ve been stuck in this RV forever!”

“No whining,” Mom said. “Camping is a team activity. Everyone works together.”

Lily gave her twin her best Mom glare. He took a deep chug of his soda and belched in her face.

“Mom, Willow’s being rude!” she said.

“Willow, settle down,” Mom said. “Be nice to your sister for once.”

Willow stuck out his tongue at Lily who had already decided to ignore him.

After he unhooked the Jeep, Dad followed the signs to their site. Mom followed behind us driving the Jeep. Lily had studied the camp map before they left. This camp had three loops for motorhomes and one just for tents. He turned right at the first loop and drove slowly.

“We’re in site 12. Keep your eyes open so we don’t miss it,” he said.

“There it is,” Lily cried. A small wooden post at the side of the paved pad had the number 12 written on it.

Dad passed the site. Mom jumped out to guide him back into the spot.

“Lily, check the level,” he said when he was in.

Lily grabbed the small plastic leveler and set it on the kitchen counter, in the middle of the small motorhome. She looked at the small bubbles inside. One bubble was for front to back level and the other was for side to side. The side to side one was inside the lines. Level. But the front to back one was not.

“Dad, it looks like we need blocks on the back tires,” she said. She was pretty good at checking levels. She was exact in everything she did.

After the motorhome was set, Lily and Willow helped their mom set up the outdoor rug, table, and chairs. Dad plugged in the electricity and hooked up the water. Then he took down their bikes from the rack on the back of the motorhome.

“Let’s go explore,” Willow said, hopping on his bike.

“Wait! Here’s your helmet,” Lily called after him. He zoomed past her, snagging his helmet out of her hand. She rubbed some sunscreen on her nose. Then she pulled on her mini backpack with drinks and snacks. She buckled on her helmet over her blonde hair swept back in a ponytail. Finally, she was ready to catch up with her brother.

“Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!” she cried over her shoulder.

“Be back by dark,” Mom called after her.

Lily pedaled hard before she saw Willow cruising down the hill toward another loop of campsites. “Wait for me!” she said, although she didn’t have much hope that he would slow down. Suddenly, she raced past him as he stopped at the bottom of the hill.

She slowed down and turned around to join him. Willow stood with his feet down on either side of his bike, staring into a deep green thicket of forest.

“What do you see? Is it a deer?” Lily said, putting her feet down.

He turned to face her. “Wait. Do you hear that?”

Lily listened carefully. Chirping birds, droning insects, faint laughter from a campsite. “What exactly should I be hearing?”

Willow’s curly blonde hair almost hung into his eyes, but she could still see that he was freaked out about something. His mouth scrunched up in annoyance. “Come on, Lily! Can’t you hear it? It’s singing! And a guitar. Some campfire song I kinda remember from summer camp.”

Lily listened again. This time she faintly heard voices singing along with a guitar. It did sound like an old song they’d heard at camp:

Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon, you’re out too soon,

The sun is still in the sky.

Go back to your bed and cover up your head,

And wait til the day is night.

            She would have expected to hear this song coming from a campsite at night. Instead, she heard it coming from the forest somewhere beyond them.

            “I want to go see who’s singing,” Willow said, pushing down the kickstand on his bike and setting it up on the side of the road. “Wanna come with me?”

            Lily looked around. Their bikes would be safely out of the way. There was still plenty of daylight left for them to explore. Besides she was curious about the song, too. “Okay,” she said. She left her bike and followed her brother into the woods.

            There was no trail, so Willow had to beat down the underbrush with his sneakers and push branches aside to make progress. Lily defended herself against the branches when they snapped back in her face.

            “Who do you think they are?” Lily asked. She had already decided the mysterious song came from some campers roughing it outside the regular campsites. There was something haunting about the way they sang though.

            “Ghosts, of course,” Willow said over his shoulder.

            “Seriously? How do you get ghosts from a group of campers singing a song?” Lily said with a chuckle. “You are so weird sometimes.”

            Willow stopped and held back a branch so he could see her face. “Did you hear Dad talking about it the other night? The reason we were able to get last minute reservations was because campers say this place is haunted.”

            “A haunted campground?” Lily said. “Dad must have been trying to scare you.”

            “I thought so, too. But then I researched it on the internet. Ten years ago, there was a huge wildfire up here. Almost took out the town of Julian. All the campgrounds were evacuated. Except there were some campers that went out into the woods to get away from other people. They didn’t realize the fire was that close. The wind blew up and none of them escaped alive.”

            “Wow! That’s terrible,” Lily said.

            Willow nodded. “Yeah, it was. The camp was closed for the rest of the summer, until they could make repairs. The next year when campers came back, they started to complain about hearing strange sounds. Singing in the woods. Some people said they were the ghosts of the campers who got caught in the wildfire.”

            “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Lily said. “Maybe someone is playing a prank.”

            “Let’s find out,” Willow said. He pulled out his phone from his pocket. “I’m going to take pictures of the ghosts or pranksters. Whatever. When I post this on Instagram, I’ll get thousands of new followers.” He turned and continued toward the music.

            Lily followed behind him, wondering how she allowed her brother to get her involved in another one of his ridiculous schemes. The singing was getting louder, and now she could tell that there was at least one adult and more than one kid singing. It sounded like only one acoustic guitar. She suppressed a shiver. It was chilly in the shade here, compared to riding in the sun. She was glad they were both wearing jeans since it was hard to tell whether they were walking through poison ivy.

            They were surrounded by young trees growing close together, the canopy of leaves overhead not yet thick enough to block patchy sunlight from filtering through. Blackened stumps and fallen black limbs poking out through the undergrowth were the only reminders that a wildfire had destroyed this area years ago.

            The singing went on, song after song. It was getting louder. Now Lily could also hear the crackling and popping of a campfire. They kept walking toward the sounds.

            Willow pulled aside more branches, and a clearing opened before them. A large fire was burning in the middle, contained by a ring of rocks. The singing stopped.

            Lily gasped and grabbed Willow’s arm, pulling down his phone.  

How Violet got right

Violet did everything right.

Every week, she created 10 TikTok videos, posted 21 pictures of her meals on Instagram, and liked all her friends’ memes on Facebook. She answered every text and email immediately upon receiving them. All her friends loved her.

Not only did Violet do everything right, but she also had the right job.

She only drove to the office once a week. The remaining days she worked from her spare bedroom in her tank top and yoga pants. Her colleagues lived around the world, creating ad campaigns for top companies. All her friends envied her.

In addition to doing everything right and having the right job, Violet had the right boyfriend.

Anthony was a firefighter, with tousled raven-colored hair, the kind you wanted to run your fingers through. In fact, he was so hot he was hired to pose for a firefighter calendar that benefited families displaced by wildfires. All her friends loved him.

And yet, Violet did not feel right.

She felt like social media dictated what she should wear and care about. Her bosses expected more from her since she worked at home, so often she worked all night. Anthony worked long hours during the fire season, so he felt like she should run his errands and be available to him without any notice.

She suspected she might need to get rid of some things in her life so she could feel right. She turned off her TV and computer. She deleted her social media accounts. She quit her job and started working at Starbucks. She broke up with her firefighter boyfriend. Her friends pushed each other out of the way to try to date him. Although she was surprised she didn’t care that much about losing these things, she still didn’t feel right.

Violet starting writing again, and that felt right.

Years ago, she loved writing horror stories, but her life became too busy and too right. She pulled her old stories out of the desk drawer and revised them. Then she submitted them to magazines who eagerly accepted them for publishing. She started working on a children’s book. It was about a little girl who was surrounded by adults that told her what she should do. The little girl ran away into the forest, where she ended up living happily in a tiny cottage with her pet rabbits. When the book was ready, she submitted it to a literary agent who loved it so much, she signed her that day.

Violet started to feel right.

She wore clothes that looked good and felt right on her. Her job at Starbucks paid the bills so that she could write books when she got home. She even met a guy at her first book signing who seemed right for her. He was smart and creative. He wanted to start his own publishing business and publish all her books. He did things for her, and that felt right.

Even though Violet felt better, she still knew she wasn’t right. She bought a Bible from a used bookstore. Every night, she would read a chapter before bed. After a while, she understood what she needed to do.

She started attending a church down the street from her house. The pastor said things that didn’t make any sense, like giving money to the poor and caring about people who were not right like her. This intrigued her so she decided to find out more. She bought a Bible from a used bookstore and started to read. The words were different from all the things she had heard online and from her friends.

That’s how Violet finally found out how to be right.

The Mystery of Summer Vacation

Unless you are a teacher, you will never experience the mystery of summer vacation.

The school year grinds relentlessly through your calendar for ten months. Deadlines loom like boogie men. State tests. Report cards. Awards. Room inspection. Then one day, you leave your key with the school secretary and walk out to a new world. Your chest relaxes and you can breathe. The sun smiles at your secret summer plans, and for a moment you forget that it will burn you. You don’t realize that you have started to giggle, causing others around you to stare.

Except other teachers, who share a secret smile.

During summer vacation, mornings are quiet and leisurely. Birds chirping outside are the only ones busy at work. When you finally roll out of bed and stretch, the sun is well on its daily trek across the sky. Devotion time is not rushed. Coffee is savored. Plans for the day include reading on a lounger in the pool. No grading papers. No staff meetings.

The first few days are a blur. Your mind is resetting itself for summer mode. But after a while, you notice other people racing around in their cars during the day, especially in the morning and early evening. That’s right! You forgot that other people go to work. In the back of your mind, you know that you’re only on summer vacation for ten weeks, but now you can only see empty, uncommitted squares on your calendar.

However, you are a teacher, so you have made plans for some of those days. Beach trips, camping, visiting relatives. But those events are not squeezed into the school year, so your forehead doesn’t wrinkle when you think about them. You’ll have plenty of time to shop and pack in the days to come.

Weeks go by. Smiling comes easy. Your family enjoys your company. Your dogs wag their tails at the door as they wait for their morning walk.

As July comes to an end, anxious thoughts poke their way through your summer brain. Will I have a good class this year? Will our principal do that same old team building activity during our first staff meeting? You rebuke these thoughts as it is not time yet.

Then a letter arrives. Your spouse laid it on the kitchen counter without a comment. You pick it up with trembling hands because you know what it means. Your principal sends it every year.

The dreaded Welcome Back to School Letter. With all the dates for meetings and days you can get your key to work on your classroom. Each line cuts into your soul.

Summer is almost over. Frantically, you try to jam in as many activities as possible before your report back date. Your smile is fading now. Your laugh sounds a little forced.

And just like that, summer vacation is over. How can you walk away from your school building one moment, and then in the blink of an eye, you’re back stapling up new paper and counting out school supplies?

A mystery no scientist has ever solved.

The retreat that pushed me forward

Attending my first in-person writing retreat after the pandemic was like a dream. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had been forced to hold virtual events for the past two years. This year we were back. A few weeks ago, twenty-five writers, editors, and agents met in the San Jacinto Mountains face to face.

We slept in tiny cabins at Tahquitz Pines Conference Center in Idyllwild, California. Our meetings were held at a lodge nestled in the tall trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, 70s in the daytime, 50s at night. Meals were served in a cafeteria. Staying there evoked memories of childhood summer camp.

During four magical days, I fellowshipped with other writers. Real people like me who sit in front of a computer and type out stories. A few still wore masks, a lingering reminder of the past two years. At first, it felt awkward sitting and talking to people, but as days passed, it seemed like COVID never happened.

The days leading up to the retreat, I was terrified. I was bringing a brand-new story to my critique sessions, raw in its first draft. During Zoom critiques, I could turn off my camera if I didn’t want anyone to see my reactions.  Now I sat at a round table under the gaze of six other writers and an editor. Nowhere to hide. Then I noticed everyone else seemed a little nervous, too. We were all eager to share our work yet afraid it was not enough.

Once we started, it grew easier. We became invested in each other’s characters. We celebrated beautiful imagery and clever dialogue. We discussed how the story could be improved.

Outside the four critique sessions, we had time to stretch our socialization legs. Some worked on revisions in the lodge. Others hiked the forest around us. A few rested in their cabins.

We ate together. We shared. We laughed.

We highlighted. We questioned. We encouraged.

And when our days were completed, I drove back down the mountain to my normal life. Not alone revising my story for the tenth time, but part of a supportive group that lifts me up above the silent negativity that slays books before they’re written.

That’s how a retreat can push you forward.

The Unreached Mountain

After our first Jeep trip to the Salton Sea, I thought our Wrangler was invincible. My husband, Frank, and I rode through sand, rocks, ditches, and narrow squeezes as easy as driving the freeways of Southern California. Sometimes even at the same slow speed.

The next trip we camped near Anza-Borrego State Park. The other four-wheelers with us had brand new Broncos and a 2003 tricked-out Rubicon. We were a little outclassed. Our 2004 Wrangler had 32” tires but otherwise was stock. However, we weren’t too concerned. The trails we planned were considered “easy” and “moderate.”

A few hours into the ride, Frank and I sat eating sandwiches inside our Jeep looking up with regret at our crew perched on the mountain.

Our day started out easy enough. Our group of four vehicles entered the windswept sandstone canyon and followed a creek bed. At first, we saw regular motorhomes and four-wheel drive trucks camped under the shade of the canyon walls. Other Jeep groups and single off-roaders passed by on this main part of the trail. I wouldn’t have camped there with all that billowing dust.

As the canyon walls closed in on us, we still saw a few Jeeps and trucks with popup tents on top of them. Full camping kitchens were balanced on rocks. People sat under EZ up canopies to block out the unrelenting sun. The trail became narrow with sharp rocks that poked out of the sand, waiting to pierce our tires.

We kept up with the rest of our group despite our lower stance. Jeff, our experienced leader, turned off the main trail and headed up a side wash. The rocks were a hand’s touch from the sides of our vehicles, especially the wider Broncos. We crawled over the boulders and inched past the protruding edges of the canyon walls.

The trail turned sharply to the left. A sandy trail led straight up the face of a cliff. There were many tire tracks showing the success of others before us. We all stopped and allowed each vehicle to climb the mountain alone in case they had to back down and try again.

Jeff in his Rubicon made it up there easily. Then one of the Broncos scaled it. It was our turn. Frank adjusted his gears and gave it some gas. I hung on and closed my eyes. We bounced up to the top. I turned toward our dogs in the back, and our border collie, Davey, had a wild look in his eyes. Our beagle, Harley, was buried in the seat.

Our group joined several Jeeps that were parked on a flat mesa overlooking the mountains and desert. We got out and took a break, talking about our next move. Should we go down and try another branch of the canyon? Above us was another trail that went up onto a sandstone ridge. I could see a few Jeeps parked up there. We decided that would be our lunch stop.

Jeff found the trail leading up and we followed slowly. The side of the cliff was deep soft sand with patches of rock. Frank and I got stuck a couple of times and had to drop back and try it again. One last section remained before the top.

Jeff parked and stood out on a rock with his radio so he could spot us. Our first Bronco went up and got stuck. Jeff gave him directions on the radio, and with a few adjustments he was up the hill. From our viewpoint, his wheels were all twisted different directions as he clung to the uneven surface.

It was our turn.

Starting on soft sand made it hard to get up the speed we would need. Frank threw it in low gear and we shot up. Near the lip there were several deep ditches close together. We hit the first one.

Clunk! Spin! We were stuck. Frank threw it in reverse and tried it again. Clunk! Spin! Jeff offered suggestions which we tried unsuccessfully.

We were too low to navigate the ditches.

Frank backed down and found a place out of the way of the other Jeeps coming behind us. The last Bronco in our group made it up the hill. I stepped outside to give the dogs a break, but heat radiated off the deep sand and the dogs were not interested. We decided to stay inside and eat our lunch.

After a while, Jeff radioed us that the group was coming back down. We joined them and completed the rest of the trip.

Were we disappointed? Yes. Were we embarrassed? Not really. Our friends are people we’ve ridden Harleys with for years. There was no condemnation. You ride your own ride.

Back at camp, we talked about our favorite parts of the day. Red rock sculptures and vast desert vistas unseen by regular roads. Old rusted minecart trestle covered in bright colored graffiti. Groups of people gathered to shoot their guns at a desolate mountain. A tiny bar filled with thirsty off-roaders.

Tomorrow we would go back to our regular lives, but for this weekend we were explorers and adventurers.

And I would have to complete a few more days of substitute teaching to pay for upgrades to our Jeep.

Blustery Days

I hate wind!

I hate how it makes my hair flat and full of static electricity. I hate how it pushes pollen up my nose so that I sneeze all day. I hate how it makes a sunny day feel cold.

But I’m not the only one who hates wind.

My border collie puppy hates wind. Terrified by scuttling dry leaves, he stops and assumes his watchdog face, certain a murderer is creeping up behind us on the way to the park.

Trees hate wind. My street is lined with 70-year-old Chinese Elm trees. When the wind blows, parked cars get hit by falling branches. Happened to me twice in one year. One day I came down the street to discover it completely blocked by a gigantic limb.

Umbrellas hate wind. I’ve lost a few outdoor table ones during windstorms. Later I found them battered and broken, upside down in my neighbor’s back yard.

Californians hate wind that whips up wildfires.

It is said, “If you sow the wind, you’ll reap the whirlwind.”

I don’t know who’s been planting wind, but I sure wish they’d stop it.