Driving the motorhome and the meaning of life

The strangest part of driving a 30-foot Class C motorhome is you can’t see anything in the rear-view mirror. In fact, the rear-view mirror is a backup camera that only comes on when you’re in reverse gear.

As I took my turn driving down Highway 395 toward Mammoth Lakes, I readjusted the huge side mirrors and the driver’s seat. This was only my fourth time driving the rig. Including the mirrors, our rig was over eight feet wide which can make you feel squished into your lane. But the road we currently traveled was wide with a shoulder, so I smiled at my husband as he headed to the bedroom for a nap.

It was just me and the highway.

Just like he taught me, I shifted my eyes from side mirror to ahead to other side mirror to check my lane position. My hands were a little damp on the steering wheel. This thing was so big! Not as big as a bus-sized motorhome that cost as much as our house, but much larger than my Tundra pickup.

As I rolled down the highway, two challenges emerged. First was keeping my big butt in the lane, even as the wind bumped me from time to time. Second were the hills.

When you’re in a car, you don’t notice the hills as much. Our Corolla zipped up and down the mountains on the way to San Diego like it was motocross. But for a thirty-foot monstrosity, hills take a little planning.

As I spotted an incline in the distance, I reluctantly pushed the speedometer up to 70 mph. At this speed, our rig started to feel like a small boat in choppy waters, so I gripped the steering wheel. When I reached the hill, my speed would start to drop, and the tachometer would start flipping numbers quickly. I divided my attention between the tach and the road, trying to keep the rig within reasonable stress on the motor. Finally, I reached the peak of the hill and could shake out my shoulders.

Until the next hill. Which came soon, as we were steadily climbing into the Sierra mountains.

Hours flew by. As I settled into the routine, I realized that driving the rig could be a metaphor for life. Instead of being able to look at my past directly while I was looking ahead, I had to give side glances at it instead. I had to pay more attention to where I was in my own lane, or life, than looking at others. Looking at the road in front of me and ahead was more important than what was behind. Focus on what I could do now and not past failures.

Lessons learned while driving a motorhome.

San Simeon from a Cage

 

snajodi3

A black line of Harleys wrapped around the mountain, hidden in curves and revealed in straightaways. What was I doing, following in my Corolla, when I longed to feel the ocean wind bite while dancing the twisties?

Most of the time being a teacher is rewarding. Third grade enthusiasm recharges me daily. However, when my school schedule interferes with our riding schedule, grrr. Instead of sitting behind Frank on the HOG overnighter to San Simeon, my fate was to ride up in a cage, joining the others later.

Saturday morning, I followed Frank’s bike up to Monterey where we planned to meet our group for lunch bayside. We sipped coffee and watched sea lions play among bobbing sailboats at the marina. Gentle November sunshine kept us warm in spite of the brisk breeze.

I checked my watch. Almost noon. When were the HOGs going to arrive? I heard a low rumble from up the coast, building to a roar, culminating in the line of Harleys parading onto the wharf in search of parking spots. Every head turned, forks paused at mouths as people took in the sight of chrome and snarling thunder.

We joined our friends for fish and chips and listened to stories about the morning’s ride through misty wine country. They peeled off layers of leather in the bright sunshine, grateful to be warm at last. Everyone rested and refueled for the challenging road back to the motel on the famous Highway One through Big Sur. Then it was time to ride.

That’s how I found myself following them through massive forest, skirting bare edges of cliffs, crashing surf on my right. There was a steady stream of traffic, and no one seemed in a hurry to rush past the dramatic scenery. At every overlook point, some cars would pull off while others rejoined us.

This influx of vehicles separated me from the Harleys, as well as bicycles hugging the blacktop’s edge. Scanning the cliffs ahead, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the HOGs. Knowing that the road would bring me back to the motel eventually, I continued on.

Finally, I came out from around a curve and sighted our group stopped in a large pull out area. I parked in front of them and got out. Jagged rocks rose behind us, waves foaming on the rocks below. No craft dared navigate the churning ocean here. It was a desolate place, defiant of man’s attempts to tame it. Gulls screamed in circles above us as the sun sunk down toward the horizon.

Frank gave me a hug, and a friend took a picture of us with the ocean gleaming in the background. Out of my car, I felt connected to the HOGs again. Even though I had missed the thrill of riding Highway One on our Harley, I wouldn’t have missed this moment for anything.

From Culture to Chaos

getty

 

The Getty Villa in Malibu is not the usual Harley ride we experience with the Harley Owners Group (HOGs). In fact it normally would not appear on our calendar, but someone at the activity meeting raised their hand and suggested it. The Getty Villa was once the home of the Getty Art Museum before its current location near the Hollywood Bowl. The buildings in themselves are works of art, and they house a famous collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.

Early that morning, I shivered even with my layers of sweaters under my leather jacket and leather chaps over my jeans. It was a cool southern California winter day, just warm enough to ride and make Midwestern motorcyclists jealous. Grateful that our Ultra had a windshield, I hid behind my husband’s back as he rode to our meeting place.

At kickstands up time, we left Riverside to head toward the beach. The freeway ride wasn’t memorable, except for the light Sunday traffic through downtown Los Angeles. A jagged mishmash of tall buildings looked forlorn as they waited for the work week to start again. Dark clouds hung over the distant mountains, but the western view toward the beach was cool and sunny. A perfect day to ride.

After our group of fifteen bikes took turns to pay parking at the main gate, we were directed up the hill over the rough paving stones, our teeth chattering as we rode. A helpful parking attendant led us to our own section in the covered parking garage.

Our group stayed mostly together as we walked through the exhibit rooms. Rooms were filled with vases and larger than life human figures. The male statues obviously were based on an ideal form and not real men. Many of the statues were missing heads or arms, due to the lack of art appreciation from invading armies. One exhibit featured mosaic floors that had been removed from ruins, with multicolored tiny tiles forming pictures of hunting parties.

After wandering the gardens and courtyards filled with black statues, we had worked up an appetite for lunch. One of the guys suggested Neptune’s Net, a biker hangout on Pacific Coast Highway. We pulled on jackets, helmets, and gloves and lined up to exit the parking garage.

That’s when we became celebrities. As the line of roaring motorcycles (amplified by the covered parking garage) filed out, a group of at least fifty Asian tourists mobbed us with cries of “Harley, Harley!” and “Handsome man!” The woman, none younger than 60 years old, stood next to the front bike as their husbands took photos. Then they allowed one bike to pass, and they did it again for the next one, all the way through entire group. When we finally escaped without harming any people or bikes, we headed up PCH with the wind in our faces and the roar of the surf to our left.

We wound through the tiny communities that hug the beach until we reached the restaurant. It was a small building with mostly outdoor searing with the entire front covered with motorcycles. Not just Harleys but hundreds of sport bikes of every brand. I saw a Ducati parked next to a Yamaha that was next to a BMW. Across the street, on the beach side, hundreds of bikers stood on sand dune, talking and looking out at the ocean.

It took a while to find a spot at the end of the long line of motorcycles parked on the edge of the highway. As we walked up to the line to order lunch, I noticed that in addition to the traditional leather clad bearded biker guys, there were hipsters sporting handlebar moustaches, multiple piercings, and vintage store clothes. There also were families with young children that apparently had arrived by car and sports bike riders in full off road motorcycle outfits.

Thankfully the restaurant owners knew that bikers with full stomachs are happier than hungry ones, and we got our food quickly. My fish and chips were delicious, and the seafood platter I saw down the table looked substantial even for the hungriest rider.

Seating was cramped so some of the groups merged at the picnic tables. We shared stories with a biker up from Venice. After I told him about our rock star experience at the Getty Villa, he chuckled like he was there. He told us about their chapter ride that brought the entire state’s members together that day. Even though our riding clubs were very different, sharing food together at this moment, at the beach, on a brilliant sunny day united us as a community of adventurers.

Finally we gathered up our group and formed a plan to meet up at a gas station a few miles down the road. It would be too dangerous to line up our bikes on the side of the highway. However this did not stop the sport bike club from lining up in the middle turn lane and roaring off together without looking back toward traffic. My husband pulled out onto the road, only to have a huge swarm of roaring motorcycles fly by us. The noise was so loud I wanted to cover my ears but I already was wearing my helmet.

As we allowed the bikes to pass and followed them at a distance, I relaxed against my backrest and tapped my com button to listen to music. I thought about the hushed rooms at the Villa compared to the roar of the crowds at Neptune’s Net. We were heading home from another amazing adventure, one that had taken us from culture to chaos.

Burnt Bushes

wrightwood

The snarling Harley group poured off the freeway and onto the back road that led toward the mountains. Eighteen bikes made it tough to stay together, so the ride captain split us into two groups, each with a captain and a sweep. As we started down the two-lane highway, both groups spread out so that our numbers stretched along the dips and rises of the road all the way to the horizon.

Seated behind my husband, I snapped pictures of the desolate high desert wilderness that surrounded us. A few months previously, a vicious wildfire had ravaged the area, and charred Joshua trees stuck up like stubble on a man’s chin. Dirt roads led off from the highway to lonely chimneys poking out of blackened debris. Trailers sat tethered to the remains of ranch homes. Here and there a house stood on a hill, pristine and untouched. I wondered if firefighters had spent precious water to save the structures, or if God’s judgment had passed them by.

Miles and miles of burnt bushes and trees filled my camera lens, boasting of the fire’s destructive power. I zipped my phone back into my pocket and turned up the Crowder album I had playing in my earbuds. Anywhere I looked my eyes couldn’t escape the chaos. All the overwhelming stress of my life seemed to chase me through the desert –Common Core Standards, screaming parents, bulging school schedule, the new house cleaner that scrubbed the paint off my stove and broke my fairy statue. Even our Harley couldn’t outrun these demons.

But then the music chanted “We Shall Overcome,” and I saw something strange. There were fresh prickly shoots coming out of the black Joshua tree trunks. The wildfire had not killed the trees at all.

The road captain gestured to the left which was repeated down the line of riders. We turned onto the road that would lead us further into the back side of the mountains. Now the road began to twist its way through pine trees. Evidence of the fire diminished until we were immersed in a sea of green. Singed air gave way to a fresh pine aroma, and I took a deep breath.

Finally A-frame cabins and two story homes with railed porches popped out of the forest. We had arrived in Wrightwood, a small ski town north of Los Angeles. Since the November weather was still pre-snow, the town was comfortably uncrowded. Our lunch destination appeared on the left and we turned in, patiently finding places to park our pack of bikes.

The waitress frowned at the size of our group, but barked orders to the bus boys to quickly push a bunch of tables together for us. Then we peeled off jackets, gloves, and outer layers to sit down for a bite. I looked around the table at our riding group. Some of us were married, some remarried, some single through death or divorce. If I looked carefully, I might see the black scars of life’s fires beneath the smiles. But it was covered with life—new and vibrant, full with promise. The roar of a Harley, wind in our faces, and we pressed on toward new adventures on the twisty road we traveled.

The Overnighter- Part One

steep road

 

When she roared into the parking lot, all heads turned as one toward the arriving Harley. The rider slowed to a crawl at the end of the row of bikes, switching off the engine, and settling the massive machine into its tiny kickstand. With the noise level returning to normal, the other riders resumed their conversations. As she unfastened and pulled off her full face helmet, the rider was revealed as a woman in her fifties with a long blond braid. Although her face was still pleasant on the eyes, the men in the club showed her only respect. Hopping off her touring bike, she quickly mingled with the other women waiting for the ride to begin.

Diane looked back at her bike, standing out from the rest with its bright blue color and airbrushed ghost flames on the tank and saddle bags. “Charley better look awesome after all the money I spent on him,” she thought with a smirk. Charley, her name for her bike, was her third Harley, and the most expensive. But with her children grown and gone, and her ex-husband out of state, her motorcycle was her baby. Right down to the crystal bling she had added around the edges of Charlie’s fenders. If someone didn’t see her coming down the road, they were wearing dark glasses and following a dog.

Dan and Mitch were the road captains for this overnighter—three days to Arizona and back. They huddled together over maps and notes. There was a hum of excitement in the air. Hugs and handshakes went around as the day riders and the only-overnight riders exchanged names. Everyone was leathered up for the first part of today’s ride, but half of the luggage they stowed in their tour packs was different layers of riding gear. Protective rain gear, vests, lighter gloves, hats, knit jackets would be taken out as needed.

“Hey, Diane,” a short, dark-haired woman greeted her.

“Morning, Patty,” Diane answered as she hugged the other woman. “Where’s Paul?” She looked around at the guys, trying to find Patty’s husband.

“He hasn’t been feeling good all week,” Patty replied, her face etched with concern. “He insisted that I go without him. I’m not sure if I should go or not.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Diane assured her.

“Gather round everybody,” Dan called out in his booming voice. The rest of the group reluctantly finished their conversations and wandered over to the ride captains. Paul and his wife, Donna, who rode behind him, Bill and Jessica, who rode matching Street Glides, Rod, Diane, and Patty gave their leaders their full attention.

“It’s going to be a great day today,” Mitch said with a big smile that echoed around the group. “It will be a cool and windy morning, followed by heat out in Death Valley, and rain predicted by the time we reach Arizona. We’ll stop for gas every 200 miles, and if we need to put on our rain gear. Our breakfast stop will be in Twenty Nine Palms, and we might not stop for lunch if the rain drives us. Dan’s riding sweep. Any questions?”

He looked around at their eager faces. “Let’s ride!”

“Wait!” Jessica called, throwing out her arms. “Let’s take a picture!” Rod grabbed a dealership guy who was passing by to take the group photo. “How many of these photos have I been in?” Diana thought as she gave her best non-toothy smile. But no matter how many motorcycle trips she had taken, she always loved to look back at those group shots. So many great memories.

The bikes lined up two by two in the parking lot, engines barely containing their excitement. Dan rode up on his silver Ultra to block the lane, and Mitch led the group into the street. Diane lined up near the back, as she loved to see the line of bikes trail out in front of her as they rode. Patty rode ahead on the right, her face still conflicted.

The energy of the combined roar of the Harleys flooded Diane with excitement. “These are my people,” she thought. “The rest of my life is muted grey compared to riding my bike. Especially with the club.”

As the line of Harleys dumped onto the freeway, no one noticed a white Prius that followed them. The bikes ate up the miles, stopped for gas, and rode on. And still the same car trailed behind them. It never tried to pass them, and stayed back a respectable distance. Diane couldn’t see what the driver looked like, only sunglasses. Yet something about it made her think about those creepy stories shared at campfires.

Elements of a Ride

colds

 

Riding Harleys uses alchemy—you can experience the elements of air, earth, water, and fire all in one ride.

The first element we encountered was fire when our planned destination was in doubt when we met at the dealership for a scheduled HOG chapter ride. Coldsprings Tavern was in the mountains east of Santa Barbara which would take us through a newly sprouted wildfire near Malibu. Road closures and smoke warnings forced our road captain to take a different route, one that would ride through the mountain community of Ojai. There were only four bikes and six riders, so it would be easy for us to stay together on the freeway portion of the ride, as well as the many different turns we would need to take on the back roads.

Air quickly became the strongest element of this ride. Summer heat squeezed us as we threaded through traffic, crossing the San Gabriel Valley by freeway. Even though I wore a light jacket, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back. Some of the riders had water bottles in cup holders; an accessory my husband and I agreed was a necessity for the next trip. Instead, I balanced a water bottle inside the front of my jacket, passing it forward as requested. Finally we exited and headed into the mountains, giving us some relief. The air carried to us the fragrant spice of pine trees and hot mountain dirt.

The element of earth performed for us with majestic peaks, plunging valleys, and chiseled cliffs. Every turn revealed new vistas of forested ridges and white granite boulders. Sudden L shaped bends in the road caused me to hold my breath as we slowed to a crawl. The mountain led us onward, up and down until we reached Ojai.

Slowly we crawled through the tiny village’s downtown, flocks of tourists on each side. Leaving Ojai’s Spanish style colonnades behind, we headed toward the coast. We were glad to move faster, for even the mountains weren’t cool enough on this summer day. When we reached Ventura, air and water competed for our attention. Our sweat soaked bodies shivered in the cool ocean breeze full of salty tang. The bright blue horizon stretched on forever and we could still hear the crashing breakers over the roar of our motorcycles. The highway hugged the beach for miles, giving us natural air conditioning during this part of our trip. When we arrived at Santa Barbara, it was time to go back up into the mountains once more, returning to the element of earth.

Soon we turned off onto Stagecoach Road, a small side road that connected with our highway. Although we couldn’t see the wildfire, smoke tickled our noses and made our eyes water. Elements of air and fire worked together to torment us. Suddenly around one of the bends, a small group of buildings appeared nestled in the trees. We had arrived at Coldsprings Tavern. The aroma of grilled steak cut through the smoke. It was time for lunch.

After we devoured our tri tip sandwiches and drank heavily from the local spring water, it was time to head back to the desert. Most of us decided to forgo safety and shed our jackets before jumping back on the bikes. We headed back down to Santa Barbara and took a different route home.

Our road captain had pity on us as he kept us on the coast highway as long as he could. Again the ocean air gave us strength for the furnace that we knew lie ahead. Finally the traffic slowed down, and he led us through the strawberry fields into Simi Valley.

While crossing through the fields, the element of air teased us with the sweet smell of ripening strawberries. In the summer heat, the strong smell reminded me of cotton candy at the fair. I wanted to stop and buy some berries at the farmers’ stands, but the heat forced us onward, our leader seeking to escape the force of the blazing sun.

Finally we met the freeway, and we placed ourselves in the jigsaw puzzle of traffic once more. The hot air pushed down on us, adding weight and causing floods of perspiration. In the maze of cars, two of our group got ahead of us. My husband and I followed the remaining couple back through the San Gabriel Valley. Our water bottle tasted hot enough to make tea so we suffered our thirst for the remainder of the trip.

When we arrived back home, we parked the bike, and quickly changed into swim suits. The element of water welcomed us as we jumped into our pool.

As we stood immersed in the cool water, we talked about the air, earth, water, and fire; the magical elements of a motorcycle adventure.

 

 

 

Sea Turtles

sea turtle

 

Ancient eyes watched me struggle to breathe through my snorkel. An immense shell blocked the sunlight filtering through the water and suddenly I was aware of the sea turtle floating close to me. I backed away from its penetrating gaze. Curiosity drew it closer, but I pushed away in obedience to the guide’s direction that we were not to touch the turtles. Hanging in the current, the creature was completely at ease, for it could stay under water for hours without going to the surface for air.

However this was my first snorkeling trip, and I still felt nervous trusting a narrow tube poking out a foot above the rocking waves to provide me with a consistent flow of oxygen. My breathing was rushed and desperate like a newly trained astronaut on their first mission. I remembered all the snorkelers we saw at the beach the day before, their faces in the water, barely moving their legs, arms at their sides. As my breathing slowed down, my body relaxed into the warm tropical water. I kicked farther away from the turtle and followed the other fins in front of me.

The underwater landscape was a peaceful change from the bumpy ride we endured on our Zodiac raft in route to the diving spot. Schools of black and yellow striped fish flowed around the coral reef with little effort. Turquoise and orange striped fish picked algae off the bottom. Tiny white fish streamed out of holes in the volcanic rock. In the distance I could see the massive shapes of other sea turtles, resting in the cradle of current. Pale grey fish, as large and as flat as dinner plates, swam right in front of my face. Streams of bubbles and chopping of swim fins provided the soundtrack to this alien world. My husband and the others in our group hung on the surface of the ocean, mesmerized by the abundance and variety of marine life.

Suddenly I sniffed up some water that had leaked into my mask and I lifted my head, choking on salt water. The waves lifted and dropped me roughly as I found it harder to breathe without the snorkel than when I had my head underwater. My stomach heaved and I got sick, unfortunately still with the snorkel in my mouth.

The guide that remained on the boat called out to me, “Are you alright?”

Not wanting to sound wimpy, I replied, “I am now!”

After rinsing out my snorkel, I replaced my mask and put my face back in the water. The churning ceased as I was back in the calm underwater world once more. This time it was easier to breathe, and I watched the show around me through the window of my mask. Time was suspended. There was no sense of the bustle of the air-breathing world above us. Fish grazed on the algae covered coral like brightly colored sheep. A grey fish with yellow fins and tail regarded me with disdain before swishing past my face. Turtles paddled to the surface for air and dropped back down into the depths.

Gradually I became aware that I didn’t see any other fins around me. Reluctantly, I lifted my head to see the rest of our group back on the raft. The guide waved at me, and I paddled toward her. It was time to return to the world of man.

The Cave Part Six

sea-cave-of-1000-steps-beach

As they traveled down hallways decorated with elaborate paintings of flowers, Meghan and Hardly said nothing to each other. The faery’s boots pounded on the polished wood floors, as Meghan walked silently in her slippers behind him. She held Noodles firmly in her arms, grateful that the Queen had given him back. Too delicate for a pet, the Queen had said.

When they reached a door at the end, Hardly opened it with the ease of someone who was at home. He spoke a word and torches burst into life down the stone staircase. As he led her down the smooth steps, Meghan could stand it no longer.

“What about your friends?” she said. “You’re just going to leave them in prison?”

The faery stopped and turned toward her. “Of course not! I’ll find a way to get them out. I can’t act too concerned about them in front of my sister or she’ll be sure to seek a more permanent solution.” His eyes gripped hers with determination.

“But why did your sister, the Queen, allow you to remain free, and me to return to my world? It seems like favor to me.”

Hardly sighed, and turned to continue down the steps. “Keeping me at court and sending you away are ways to show perfect cruelty.”

“Doesn’t she read minds or something?” Meghan asked. “I felt really weird at times, like she was rummaging around in my memories.”

The faery stopped at the bottom of the steps and faced her. “You are more aware of her talents than most humans. My sister has a rare magic that allows her free access to anyone’s mind, even mine. She uses what she discovers against you. Even I can’t keep her out. That’s why I have to get out of here.”

They walked down a tunnel, their steps echoing off the earthen walls until they reached a large cavern with a wood shack at one end. At their approach, a faery in green scrambled out of his office with a chicken leg in his hand. Noodles started to bark, more for the food than for the sudden appearance of a stranger. Recognizing Hardly, the faery dashed back inside and emerged with clean hands.

Meghan saw a familiar beam of light coming from a hole in the ceiling and a disk centered below it. Although she had been eager to escape the attentions of the Queen, now she was reluctant to approach the portal. Riding with the Dragon Riders Group had been an exciting adventure, and going home only meant locking herself away in her room to avoid the war between her parents. School wouldn’t be starting yet, would it? Her sense of time had become foggy in Faerie.

“Welcome, Prince Heatherope,” the porter greeted his ruler with a deep bow.

“Come on, Greyleaf,” Hardly protested. “It’s just me. You don’t need to give me the prince treatment.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the porter replied as he raised his eyes. “Where are you going today with this pretty human child and her creature?”

“I’m not leaving, but they are,” Hardly answered. “And she’s my friend. Her name is Meghan. The creature is a dog, and he’s named Noodle.”

“Welcome to the Queen’s portal, Meghan and Noodle,” the porter said. “Friendship with Hardly is not easily won. You must have some magic of your own.” He bowed to her with a knowing grin. “Your ticket and destination, please.” He held out his hand.

Meghan had the overwhelming desire to turn and run back down the tunnel toward the palace. Maybe she could help Hardly rescue the other riders and dragons. She turned toward him, as he stood there with an unreadable expression. Does he want me to stay? I wish I had his sister’s magic for just five minutes!

            “I want to stay and help you,” is what blurted out of her mouth.

Hardly looked startled, and then smiled. “I know you do, but it’s too dangerous for you here. This is not your world. You have no magic here.” He handed her an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket. “Come now, Meghan. You’ve had a magical adventure. Now it’s time to go home.”

She gratefully took the tiny linen cloth trimmed with blue flowers and dabbed her face. Why am I crying? I never cry. Noodles sniffed at the handkerchief curiously. She wondered at her feelings that had been buried for so long. It was too embarrassing to have close friends when your parents might erupt like a volcano at any time. For a long time, it had been Noodles and her only.

Now she had a friend, and actually more friends, although they were locked up. But Hardly was right. She had to go back.

“Thank you for being my friend,” Meghan said, trying to smile. She hugged Noodles and handed the silver ring to the porter. Then she stepped onto the portal disk. “Back to my world. Carlsbad campground, please.”

The faery prince acknowledged her with a bob of his head right before the light whited everything out around her. She felt like she was flying, riding on Petal again, but she could see nothing.

Then she landed firmly on wet sand and realized she was back at the mouth of the sea cave once more. Noodles barked and wriggled out of her arms to chase a sea gull. The surf crashed close to her feet. She got up and brushed off sand, and headed off after her dog.

The Cave

sea-cave-of-1000-steps-beach“For once, I’d like to eat something that wasn’t charred black!”

“Why do I always have to cook? If you don’t like what I serve, do it yourself!”

Meghan could hear her parents argue from the other end of the campground. She wondered why they even went camping when all they did was argue, just like at home.

“Come on, Noodles,” she called to her tiny wire-haired dog, who was busy sniffing every deposit in the dog run. Noodles looked up, his black eyes shining, and trotted back over to the entry gate. Meghan clipped on his leash and closed the gate. She walked over to the worn wooden stairs that led down to the beach. After looking in the direction of her parents’ trailer, she sighed and started down the three flights of stairs.

A battered sign announced that dogs were not allowed on the beach, but during the week they’d camped there, the ten-year old had noticed that in the mornings dogs accompanied people on the beach with no consequence. Before the lifeguards set up on their towers, of course.

Camping was supposed to bring families closer together, she thought as she descended the creaking stairs. But the tension that hovered over her parents followed them wherever they went. At least she could get away from it on the beach for a while. At the bottom of the stairs, she jumped down onto the sand which had eroded into a large gap. Noodles jumped down with her and stopped, waiting for her to unleash him.

“Here you go,” she said as she unhooked him. The black and white dog sped away onto the beach, looped around and headed back to her. He would repeat this pattern during their walk, never leaving her sight. Meghan tied back her shoulder length ash hair with a pony tail, slipped off her flip flops, and wallowed through the dry sand to the water line. She started walking down the shoreline on the wet, firm sand.

The crashing waves, hissing foam, and the early morning mist made her forget about her volatile home life. The sky and sea blended together in tones of grey, the horizon a mere smudge in the distance. She took a deep breath, suddenly realizing that she had been holding it. Noodles barked at a sea gull and chased it, the bird waiting for the last possible minute to launch into the sky. Meghan smiled for the first time that day.

Noodles continued his pursuit of sea gulls which led him close to the cliffs that rimmed the beach. A small ground squirrel poked its head out of some dried seaweed, and the dog changed his direction. The squirrel raced for the shelter of the cliffs with Noodles in pursuit. With the small creature almost in reach of his barking jaws, the dog entered the cave.

“Noodles, get out of there!” Meghan cried, fearful that her dog would uncover a snake or something worse. She slipped on her flip flops and followed him into the cave.

Damp coolness made her shiver, in spite of her warm hoodie and jeans. The walls of the cave were smooth from the tide and slanted back far beneath the cliff. Years of pounding waves had carved out a larger space than the entrance indicated. Other than large flat rocks, the cave was empty.

            “Noodles!” she cried. “Noodles, Noodles.” The cave echoed back to her. She looked behind every rock but there was no sign of him.

She sat down on a rock, tears springing to her eyes. She pushed them away, for she would not cry. Her parents’ endless drama had drained her of emotion. Her dog had to be here somewhere. She took a deep breath and looked around.

From her seated position, she could see a large gap under the rock in front of her. It was large enough for a person to crawl through, and definitely large enough for a small dog. She got up and inspected it, discovering familiar paw prints. There’s where he went!

            Thoughts of snakes and rabid squirrels forgotten, she crawled through the hole. Suddenly she fell to soft sand in darkness. Meghan took out her smart phone and turned on the flashlight. This cavern was not as tall as the one above it, but it was wider, and she heard water trickling nearby. Next to her on the sand she could see a dog-sized impression and paw prints going away.

What am I doing? How am I going to get out of here? The flashlight revealed that the hole she fell through was at least ten feet above her. The smooth walls gave no hope of climbing. Sighing, she turned to follow Noodle’s trail. She hoped there was another way out somewhere.

The cave split into several tunnels at one end, but the paw prints led her the right way. Fortunately the tunnel was tall enough for her to walk standing up. The ground was sandy but to her right a trickle of slimy water flowed, draining from somewhere.

“Noodles!” she called. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cave echoed. No answering bark. She continued to follow his trail. Her flashlight gave her glimpses of green mossy dripping walls, but thankfully no large bugs. Her heart pounded anyway with the thought that there had to be other creatures down here.

After what seemed an eternity of listening to her own breath and walking in the dark, she saw a light ahead. Afraid to hope, she trudged toward it. The tunnel made a dog leg right turn, which was where the light originated. When she made the bend, another large cavern was revealed, circular with natural ledges sticking out like balconies. The light came from a large hole in the roof, shining down in a beam to the ground.

A joyful bark announced the wet dog circling her ankles, and Meghan scooped him up, pressing his matted down fur to her face. “Noodles, Noodles,” was all she could say. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cavern agreed.

Now that she had found her dog, Meghan turned her thoughts toward getting back up on top of the ground. She walked around the edges of the cavern, but she found no other tunnels. Then she walked into the center of the room to stand in the beam of light. She squinted as she looked up to the ceiling. The hole was large enough for her to get out, if she could just find a way up to it.

Suddenly, she heard a rumbling from the side of the room she faced. Looking down, she could see the edges of a dull metal plate under the sand she was standing on. She bent down and wiped away the sand. It was a dark metallic disk with no markings on it. It looked almost as ancient as the cave. The sound intensified as the huge rock that she had assumed was part of the wall slid aside. With Noodles in her arms, she entered the new room.

Another hole in the ceiling filled the room with light, and Meghan couldn’t believe what it revealed. The surrounding walls were covered with tapestries in bright red, green, and blue. Their patterns were of trees, flowers, and fruit. The room was filled with antique wooden furniture, including chairs, tables, and small sofas. Then she realized that she and Noodles were not alone.

“Welcome to the Carlsbad Portal, young miss,” announced a thin, dark-haired man dressed in dark green tunic and pants. “Where might you be traveling today?”

“What? What are you talking about?” Meghan asked, with her arms clenched around her dog.

“This is part of the Faerie Portal System, miss,” he explained patiently. “From this station, you can visit Summer or Spring Courts. Which would be your destination?”

Meghan stared at the man, suddenly noticing his bright green eyes and slender, pointed ears. “Are you an elf, like in that hobbit movie?” She looked behind her. “Where are the cameras and the director? You’re shooting a movie, right?”

The man cocked his head to one side, and looked at her carefully. “I understand. You’re not fae. Not to worry, miss. I have visas here. You can visit on a day pass.” He went over to a small desk, and took some paperwork and pen out of a drawer. “All you have to do is fill in your true name and your family homeland, and you can be on your way. The weather at the Spring Court is lovely today.”

Realizing that he was serious, Meghan stood there speechless.

“The price for a day pass is only a song. We’re running a special this month,” the man continued, motioning for her to join him at the desk.

“A song? What do you mean?” she said, her curiosity overruling her unbelief. She set Noodles on the ground and firmly clipped on his leash. Then she walked to over to see the paperwork.

“Any song will do, miss,” the man explained, “but lullabies are preferred. Come, fill this in, then you can sing, and you’ll be off.”

Meghan looked at the paper on the desk. It was a printed ticket titled “Day Pass, Mortal Use Only,” and had a rather large paragraph of fine print. At the bottom was a blank line for her name and her hometown. Convinced now that somewhere in the tunnel she had hit her head and blacked out, and this was her dream, she decided to go along with it. She signed her name and Riverside and handed the pen back to the man.

“You want me to sing now?” she asked. The man nodded, and took her paperwork. He stamped it and handed it to her.

“Okay, here I go,” she said. She sang the only lullaby she knew, even though as she grew older she understood it had a grim ending:

Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top.

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will fall baby, cradle and all.

“Very good, miss, that will do nicely,” the man said. “Now step into the portal. Don’t lose your ticket. You’ll need it to get back.” He gestured toward a metal disk directly below the skylight.

Meghan took another look around the strange room. Is this real? Am I really traveling through a portal into Faerie? Her worried parents’ faces flashed through her mind, but she shook her head. They were too busy fighting to even notice that she would be gone.

Even if this is not real, only a dream in my head, why shouldn’t I go on an adventure?

“Thank you, sir.” she said with a nod, and she stepped onto the disk. The bright light blinded her as the room around her disappeared.

 

The Almost Grand Canyon Trip

amboy

Our first Harley road trip to Arizona was full of storms. When the trip was planned for May, we weren’t expecting any rain. It was unfortunate we couldn’t have made arrangements to test new motorcycle gear, since we experienced every possible weather condition, short of a tornado. In spite of extreme weather, it was an adventure that built friendships and trust.

At 6:00 a.m., things are not as easy as later in the day. Frank and I were layered up with thermals, sweaters, leather chaps and jackets, with rain gear over it all. We never rode with rain gear before, which became immediately apparent when I tried to get on the bike behind Frank. My leg, which never had the range of a dancer to begin with, would not go over the bike. My husband, who has terminal anxiety about being late, looked over his shoulder to see why I was taking so much time. Finally with his help, I was seated, perhaps permanently.

We met up with the brave riders who ignored the weather reports, and Frank removed me from the bike. Feeling like a scarecrow, I peeled off the rain gear. The other riders assured us that rain would hold off so we didn’t need to worry about it until after the Mojave Desert portion of our ride. The ride captain had checked the weather reports for the towns we were passing through, and he was somewhat confident that we could make it through the day.

The first leg of our journey was a blur, not due to excessive speed but the blasting wind as we fought through to Yucca. But my head did not fall off, and we finally reached Twenty-Nine Palms and the desert.

The real kind with sand and no vegetation. Nothing but sand and asphalt.

The old Route 66 went through here, and I tried to imagine cars with no air conditioning crossing the massive emptiness. Then I thought about horses and wagons coming out to California for the gold rush. Were we as crazy as them?

After nothing for miles, we stopped at an antique gas station in Amboy. Two pumps and some restrooms. A motel from the 60s era with a huge sign that said Roy’s welcomed us, but it didn’t look like anyone stayed there. We took a break in the bright sunshine, peeling off leather jackets and chaps.

Time that day was measured by gas station stops, the next one in Needles. The clouds that were threatening all day stretched above us like water balloons. The road captain consulted his phone for weather updates. We traveled a little while longer until we stopped underneath a freeway overpass. Leather and rain gear came back out, for we were headed up in altitude, towards Williams, Arizona.

Instead of taking the freeway, we continued to follow old Route 66 through wind-swept Native American reservations. Miles of scraggly bushes and cows stretched out in all directions. The mountains ahead were obscured by clouds. Bitter cold cross winds came up under our helmets and made our eyes water. Then the rain arrived as mist on our windshield.

As the line of bikes snaked its way across the rolling hills, rain caressed us gently, often mistaken as wind. Cold air pressed down on us as we rode directly through a low pressure cell. In the distance, I could see slivers of blue sky, but I couldn’t tell if our capricious road would loop away or toward the hanging clouds.

Onward we traveled down an endless road littered with the ruins of motels, gas stations, restaurants, and car repair shops that had closed up after the freeway had been built. Route 66 was a road through ghost towns, everything frozen in time.

Finally our road connected with the freeway which had killed it, and we stretched out on the wide, separated interstate that would lead us to our hotel in Williams. The mist continued to fall, but our rain gear did its job, and we stayed dry. The road captain threw up his arm to turn off, and we headed for the hotel. The rain had stopped when we arrived, and we went inside to check in.

Again Frank and I proved to be newbees as we tried to check in, and found our credit card cancelled. After a phone call, we found out that our frequent small purchases at gas stations along the way had created a fraud alert, which blocked our card. After we got that straightened out, we went outside to unload our luggage when it began to hail.

Huge gumball size ice balls pelted us as we grabbed our bags and headed for our room. However, by the time we were ready to walk down the street for dinner, the storm had stopped.

Our range of weather continued the next day as we rode to Flagstaff for breakfast. Instead of the relentless pelting of rain, we could barely feel the gentle caress of flakes. Our warm breath clouded the visors of our helmets and our fingers felt stiff. When we reached the restaurant, I realized I’d been holding my breath the whole time, praying that no one would skid out on the slippery road. But we made it to Cracker Barrel safely, and our troubles were forgotten with the help of coffee and pancakes.

During breakfast, the ride captain studied maps and conferred with his phone, weather again a concern. The Grand Canyon was at a higher elevation that included snow in the forecast.

After much deliberation and a vote from the group, we decided to take a scenic loop outside of Flagstaff that would head back toward Williams instead of proceeding to the Grand Canyon. As much as it was a disappointment, I was relieved that we were going to stay lower where we would face rain but not snow.

Our group rode into Flagstaff past the university and back out to the wilderness. The narrow two-lane road led us through woods and meadows, past ranches and houses that seemed like freckles on the huge expanse of land. Rarely did a vehicle pass us, and when it did, it was a Jeep or a four-wheel drive truck.

But the clouds had not forgotten us. A massive black one loomed to our right, a grey curtain of rain extended from its bottom. Would we make back to Williams before getting hit by a deluge?

On we rode and the road took us where it wanted us to go. The sky became more dramatic as sunshine hit us on our left. and the cold storm front pushed us from the other side. I felt like we were storm chasers, only without the protection of a van. Even if we stopped, there was nowhere to find shelter in the barren rolling land.

Suddenly, I felt a bucket of water dumped over my head. The storm had caught us! The ride captain slowed down as we were lost in a wall of rain. Only the yellow center line reassured us that we still followed the road. I shut my eyes for there was nothing to see. Surely we would stop somewhere and wait for the storm to pass.

But the road saved us as it turned to the left, away from the storm’s fury. We kept following it until it led us back to the freeway. Two short exits and we were back at the hotel, taking hot showers, and getting ready for dinner.

We all shared our stories that night. Some of us knew each other before the trip, but others, including us, were new. Some of it was more personal than the lunch conversations of a day trip. But riding through wind, heat, rain, sleet, and snow had changed our group. After surviving the storms together, we were ready to share the other storms of our lives as well.