On a Mountain in Arizona

May 14th, 2018

It is the coming down that will be the hard part, although I do not know this until the very end, until I go to pick a rock out of my sandal.

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I have done difficult hikes. I have done the Samaria Gorge, my calf muscles seizing when I rested them in the cool waters of a spring. I have done the hills of Lipari and the long, strange walks on Capri where there are none but you and the birds and the ruins of some sadistic, long-dead emperor for company. Because everyone else is on the terrace drinking wine and eating antipasto.

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I am not in terrible shape. I am 37 years old. I have swum bays and lagoons the world over. I can walk all day long. I live in a fourth-floor walkup. It’s the heat, though, that I don’t account for. And I dally. This is my problem with everything. I like to look. And in Arizona, a place I have never seen, how can you not look? Saguaros — all spines, arms up in their surrender pose — jutting out of the mountain’s crevices. Red rocks filed smooth by generations of blowing sand. Prickly things, trees, butterflies, long vistas of Phoenix and the valley below. There is always so much to see. But I spent too much time seeing and not enough time walking. Because here’s what I didn’t understand, what no one underlines boldly enough for me: You must finish the trail before the sun is high overhead. Before the boulders and handrails are too hot to touch, because these surfaces are your only way out. You can’t get out without holding on.

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We are more than halfway to the summit when I think about turning back. I can see the terrain ahead, nothing but a long pile of rocks that seem to ascend straight up, fringed by rows of prickly fauna. The leader of our little group of five has gone ahead with two of us, gliding quickly up. This worries me. I don’t want to be left behind. I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to be seen as slow. Too old for this. Too out of shape for this. And as I climb, launching myself over boulders and clutching at whatever can be clutched, this gnaws at the back of my mind. I do not want any part of the world to be inaccessible to me. And I don’t want anyone else to think this of me, that I am limited by by something as basic as rocks.

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It is after I have decided to keep going, somewhere along that grand staircase of boulders, that something clicks. It is not about the people who have gone ahead. They’re not me. And my muscles are capable. I can feel them and they give no obvious signs of pain or struggle. The only pain is my worry, my mind racing up the mountain ahead of my body, the fear of what people think, the pressure to go at a pace other than my own. So I stop my mind, not my body. I forget about chasing someone else, and the someone else isn’t the group that went ahead. The someone else is my own fear. And I put one foot in front of the other. One foot above the other, and I pull with my arms, and I ascend.

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I make it to the summit too late, but I don’t know this. I am transfixed by the smallness of humanity, by the dry wind. By the fact that I am whole, that I am not particularly tired, that I have seen the ultimate thing there is to see.

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I am about a third of the way down when I notice the sun on the trail, the creeping heat. But I have water. And down is supposed to be easier. That’s the logic, right? Gravity does some of the work. I set my mind on gravity. I crawl backwards over rocks that, I am only now realizing, are taller than me. I wedge my phone into my sports bra, stop taking photos. Near the summit, I dropped it on its head and shattered one corner of the glass. It functions as though nothing happened, the lines crawling across the screen like a cowbeb.

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Each step is like solving a puzzle.

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I am almost down, almost, when things start to get very bad. It happens fast, which surprises me. There is no creeping sense of fatigue building in my bones. I can feel my muscles start twitching at some point, it’s true, but this does not feel fatal. It is just a thing that my body is doing as I try to do something else. It is incidental, and surmountable. But in the heat. In the sun, with the boulders getting hotter to the touch. With my water running low. Relax, I tell myself. You’re almost done.

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I can see the parking lot when the rock lodges in my sandal. There have been others, and I have had to stop once or twice to shake them out. But this is a bigger kind of rock and it is right under my heel, its ragged point aimed straight inward. In the end it is the small rock that defeats me. I bend over, and there is something about the blood rushing to my head, something about balance and maybe a little bit of dehydration because I’m out of water. But I can see the parking lot. Civilization is reached. There will be no dying today, no matter what. No matter how your muscles quake. I just fell over. And I couldn’t get up.

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I do get up. And when it put one foot in front of the other, it’s as though I do not know how to walk. I am 9 months old. I am Bambi ready to slide into a split. I see a shadow of myself on the red dirt, bent like the hermit over his walking stick. It is a shape of myself that I don’t recognize — the curve of supplication, the weird shuffling baby steps. I arrive. I walk straight into the shade, straight toward a bench, and sit. I try to speak and cannot.

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Later, in my cool bungalow of a hotel room, on white sheets with the lights dimmed, my whole body throbbing, I will research the number of people who need to be rescued each year on this mountain. The number shocks me — 150. Five of them, on average, die. The terrain is so complicated that it’s difficult to find their bodies. They get logged in crevices, fall down ravines. They are all more or less like me — badly prepared, unused to the heat. I wonder, too, if they are like me on the inside, too — hungry to prove something to themselves, afraid of what they may never see.

A Very Short Story: Mission Dolores, San Francisco

May 9th, 2018

I wait in line at the trendy breakfast place, swaying on my feet, one of many, with people who are in town from Los Angeles and Paris. People with baby strollers. People with neon yellow hair. People commenting on standing for as long as they’re standing, as the line snakes its way around the block. Kids squirm and cry. Nervous moms look up at the clouds, without a plan B. The first place I think to go in the neighborhood is not the Mission itself, but this breakfast place, because that’s what everyone does. Because if you don’t go, you’re missing something. A perfect bite. A thing that cannot be tasted anywhere else.

I finally head to the Mission — the actual Mission — when it’s almost closing time, after I’ve exhausted all my expendable income, curiosity, and energy in the jewelbox-sized neighborhood shops. A fat stack of second-hand books. A black lace dress. I go because there is nowhere else to go, and my visit is the cheapest thing I’ve done all day — $5. The Mission is named, like the city, for St. Francis of Assisi but people call it the Mission Dolores after the nearby creek — the creek of Our Lady of Sorrows. Mary with her heart pierced by seven swords. You won’t see her inside, but you will see the chapel with its whitewashed adobe brick, its neat holy water fonts cut directly into the walls. And the ceiling — all brilliant color, recreated in vegetable dyes in a pattern that would have been known — and created — by the Ohlone tribespeople who lived, and worked, and were converted by, and died within the Mission’s walls. The Mission that stood longer than the cathedral itself, that withstood the earthquake.

A Very Short Story: Barton Springs, Austin, Texas

May 8th, 2018

We go to Target because I forget to pack a bathing suit. I’m self-conscious about my legs, which I haven’t shaved in ages. It’s still winter at home. My sister tells me not to worry. No one knows us here. They paved a riverbed, or built some concrete around it. It flows ice cold and is a peculiar cross between nature and nurture. Fish and concrete. A moving current in a dammed-up pool. The occasional crunchy bit of river grass. Ducks by the diving board. We sun ourselves on a grassy hill with Texan strangers, all of us a little shy about the earliness of the season, searching for the spots of sun between the leaves. I wonder whether we are betrayed as visitors. Something about how pale we are. Or about how we don’t really know how to pick the best lounging spot, hemming and hawing while the water drips down our ankles. We, the out-of-towners or the invaders, out to steal a bit of someplace else for ourselves, to carry home some warmth to where there is none.

A Very Short Story: El Morro Light, Castillo San Filipe del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

May 7th, 2018

The fort held off Sir Frances Drake, whose ships got tangled in a metal chain that the colonizing Spanish strung across the harbor’s mouth. The lighthouse came later, then cracked, then was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century by the Americans, then automated in the early 1960s. The Cost Guard calls the lighthouse’s style Moorish Revival “tower on castle” but the latter part is merely descriptive; it’s not some signature hallmark of the oeuvre. So, too, the fort itself bears some canonical inconsistency. San Filipe was a King, and though he was Catholic, he was no saint — literally.

We didn’t know any of this when we went, too dazzled by the island’s beaches, by its candy-colored old town with its blue-black ballast paving stones. The distractions that put so many lobster-red, booze-fueled tourists on the streets. We climbed up to the light in sandals, us and the other passers-through, a little less red, making our way across the long green stretch that led up to the wall. And all we wanted was shade, water, sunblock, and context. We saw first — walked into the tiny lookout towers, saw the bold blue stripe of sea out the windows — and filled in all the rest later, at home, from the safety of our beds, computer screens lighting our ghost faces.

A New Manifesto

May 4th, 2018

As a traveler, you do not occupy any kind of moral high ground.
Places don’t exist for you and owe you nothing.
Your view is worth something, but it isn’t the only view.
Don’t take photos of strangers or their children.
Don’t gawk at poverty or tragedy. And if you’re genuinely out to learn or understand something, be discreet, polite, and utterly unintrusive.
Do your damn homework.
Always look for context.
Check your privilege. Always.
You don’t need a ton of money to travel — but it helps if you spend what you have wisely.
Stop overpacking. You don’t need all that shit.
Don’t expect famous sites to be uncrowded.
Things will go wrong.
If your relationship with someone is strained, don’t travel with them.
Everywhere is someone’s home.
Everything is travel.

The Gold Coast: The Millionth Time

August 16th, 2015

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The thing about Australia’s Gold Coast is that I have seen it before. Or I have not.

A long strip of city sprawling along the crooked edge of the ocean. One main drag. Shops selling fringed t-shirts. A Footlocker. Places where you can get tattoos and noodles and cheap haircuts. Motels, all ramshackle and neon, cooler than they realize. Two-story houses that open up onto the bright beach, onto sparkling ocean, and farther down, the skyscrapers. And also hospitality’s new guard, the rounded, shining double towers of Peppers Broadbeach, where I’m staying in a room with a wraparound balcony and an ice maker, perched at the top of the beachy universe.

There are little pockets of places where the enterprising youths see the coolness and run after it. There is street art, cafes serving banana bread and avocado on toast with lemon, a weekend market — the Miami Marketta, which sounds like it might be in Florida — where you can get tempura buns and barbecue and shop for pillows made out of turkish rugs.

At Burleigh Heads, a knobby, high jut of rock at the Gold Coast’s southern tip, I watch surfers bob on the waves while the sun sets. They’re all kids, skinny-limbed in their wet suits, long hair tangled with saltwater, leashed to their boards like unwieldy puppies. And there is so much ocean that you can almost sense the curve of the earth, feel the water swelling and trying to overtake the land.

This is anywhere, a bay with neon sun. It’s Waimea or Sorrento or Agios Gordos on Corfu, a bite out of land where water rushes in, a blinding line of white backed by the green of trees. There are the same tangle of shops selling sunblock and towels on Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, the same skyscrapers on Atlantic City. Only not at all.

It is only here that I will take a bus and hold a koala bear in my arms as though she were an unsquirming, fuzzy human baby. Where I will spend days on end caffeinated out of my wits because in this place, there are, magically, no bad cups of coffee. It is only here that I will see one of the oddest things I have ever seen, a thing that sends me furiously googling and asking eager questions of anyone who will listen — squinting hotel staff, waiters in restaurants: a manta ray skipping out of the roiling waves, a dark, shining pancake, two feet above the surface of the water. I will see this beach as all beaches and as none, as a place with knobby, alien trees, a place where people gleefully eat something called sea bug meat, where there is no real winter, where the forested hinterlands, minutes from the coast, shelter wallabys and all other manner of creatures that jump on their powerful hind legs. Where it is all new, every grain of sand, and at the same time, it is all halfway familiar, a whole new kind of anywhere.

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Travel generously provided by Visit Queensland.

Queensland, Australia: The Beach on the Other Side

August 14th, 2015

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Whitehaven Beach is without footprints. Without debris. Without cigarette butts or the shattered styrofoam of drinking cups. It is without the lazy, slicked-up bodies of sunbathers parked for the day, for the week. It is without sounds, save the wind and the whisper of ice-white sand blowing overitself in rivulets like a horizontal waterfall. There was one thing — a cuttlefish bone half-buried, yellow-white and half-filled with sand, the exact size, shape, and color of an endive. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I first saw it, only the appearence of an endive on a beach on a remote Australian island where the flow of people and things, of anything foreign to the terrain, is strictly controlled, seemed dubious. A little sci-fi. As though you’d be just as likely to see a fire hydrant or a bike helmet planted in the middle of the beach, the sand falling into its metal-plastic man-made crevices.

But Whitehaven Beach is, somehow, like the surface of another planet, the silicate sand so pure under your feet that it squeaks when you walk across it. It is illegal to beach comb, illegal to take anything with you — including the sand itself — when you leave. Boats can only get so close, so visitors wishing to stay for a precious few hours, or maybe a night or two camping on its shores, must tumble shoeless down the metal steps into waist-high waves, hauling their bags, their camera phones and purses, over their heads.

I arrived seasick under cloudy skies with my hair sticking up in every direction and a flannel shirt thrown over my bathing suit, unsure how to regard winter in Australia. The landscape was summer paradise — green trees, white sand, blue water — but the air and the clouds and the choppy seas weren’t so sure. Maybe I was cold. Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I needed sunblock. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I was going to keep lunch down. Maybe I wasn’t. The beach, you see, is near a place called God’s Washing Machine, where the currents spin into whirlpools that are strong enough to knock boats off course, if they haven’t already been discombobulated by waves as tall as houses.

I was grateful, finally, to have my feet down on the strange sand after two hours of bobbing all the way there from my home base on Hamilton Island. Hamilton seemed the opposite of Whitehaven Beach, a place up to its ears in a raucous swarm of humanity, of kids screaming in shallow swimming pools and neon-crowed cockatoos stealing the half-empty sugar packets right off your saucer.

After all that, after dropping my bag on the sand — leaving it to be pecked at by a flock of crows who were fascinated by its shining buckles — all I wanted was to walk. To feel solid earth under my feet, although the ground on Whitehaven Beach shifts and displaces with every step. I wanted to walk until I fell off the edge of the earth. That’s what I thought. Because that’s how the beach looks when you’re standing on it, like the runway to another dimension, a bright half-moon of sand fringed with trees that seems like you could reach the very end on foot until you try to do it. I only made it about halfway and I was alone, my footprints disappearing in the wind, reburied, as soon as I put them down.

That’s when the sun came out. And I thought, let the boat leave me here. Let me be lost. Let my family wonder what happened on a beach on the opposite side of the earth where there is no wifi, no cell phone service, no way to post your selfies. Let me be fully left behind to blow away, a pile of dust as fine and clean as the sand.

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Travel generously provided by Visit Queensland.

Chicago Winter Mosaic

January 20th, 2015

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In the end, Chicago overwhelms me. But not until the end.

Not until I have to sit in this pub on Michigan Avenue with a raspberry beer that’s not very raspberry-ish, the bartender’s words, and a turkey sandwich and a bowl of chicken soup. Not until I stare up at a monitor watching a college basketball game with teams and players I don’t recognize. That’s when it settles. The sense of being stuck dead in the middle of America, sitting at the bar with all of its baggage.

Jazz. The blues. The World Fair. Both of them. The fire. The White City. The serial killer. The coal dust. The skyscrapers. The Gehry amphitheater. Chandeliers hung with enormous garnets like bloody teardrops. The tallest skyscraper that has a new name now. The bean. Tiffany glass and mosaics and chase lights. Theater marquis bigger than ones in New York. Italian restaurants lit up in neon. “Postmodernism” perched on the top of a building with giant green wings. Blue-period Picasso. Sunday in the Park hung on a wall with its two frames, the one Surat painted in dots and the actual wooden one, which is just white. And the little French gift shop while I buy an $8 bar of soap and a tin pillbox from the 1920s. Ice skating in the park with kids half my age, wobbling on my feet. Palmer House brownies under the sprawling Valentine ceiling and going into the vault to see the stacks of Limoges, all the sets complete, gold around the rims of the glasses, all of it commissioned for a party for General Grant.

It knows me, Chicago. All the rooms a little overheated, everyone in sweaters and jeans. There are no heels, no one tottering in narrow skits. Just people laced up to their necks in down and bulky scarves and fur-trimmed hoods. Every menu has a version of chicken soup and hot chocolate. Every hotel has heat lamps. Every car has the vents fully open, blasting warm air. I want New York to be like this too, a little stuffy, the warmth pouring, the wagons circled. A cottony headache all the time.

I walk everywhere that I can bear to walk. North of the ice-covered river past the rock and roll corn cobs. To the building called the Medinah that was built as a theater but is now a Bloomingdales, where the faux-Islamic onion-bulb roof remains intact, along with all the colored glass windows that you can see up close when you go into the second-floor ladies room. Past the weirdly posh Forever 21 and into the Aqua Tower where I sit in the lobby of the hotel by the modern fireplace, a long, long wall of gas-jet flame. Paper lantern fixtures. A wall of something that looks like exaggerated gold chain mail. And I sit in a pink chair shaped like a bubble and listen to a woman talk in a loud voice about a parents mutiny in her son’s boy scout troop.

She said. “He said to me, ‘I have been auditing this troop and your performance. And you’re capable, but there’s a lot of untapped opportunity here.’”

Then I crash, the moment at the bar. In my sweater. Sweating in my sweater. The second city feels bigger, noisier, more jammed than the first. As heavy as the layers of my coat, my scarf, my gloves, the shirt under my shirt under my sweater. Chicago deep-dished, scooped me out. I write in my journal the line, “This might not make any sense, but…” And then I stop. I can’t think of a way to finish the sentence. I drop my pen. The city has swallowed me whole. I try to stop my brain, from following the trails of history. The freed slaves. The native traders. The kids looking for a city in which to come of age. The gangsters that they don’t talk about on a lot of the tours. The socialites. The step before New York, or maybe the step after. I have seen almost nothing. A few blocks, the center of the center. Any more, on this trip, I couldn’t have borne. I would need a subway, a car, a plan. I would need, I would want, a second time.

New Orleans, a While Later

November 22nd, 2014

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New Orleans is the dream city of wrought iron and powdered sugar. Of sandwiches as long as my arm and kids playing the trumpet in the street at 10:00 pm while people stream out of the bars, away from the bands they paid to see, to drop dollar bills in a box. Bourbon Street smells like vomit in broad daylight and the famous cemeteries are crumbling and shattered as the bones beneath them.

We see the Preservation Hall Jazz band in the front row that’s even closer than the front row, because we’re on the spindly chairs by the piano and the band has to walk around us to get to their places. And I am in this blue dress that I fancy makes me look like a vintage 1940s princess, and even if I don’t, there is no one to tell me that I don’t, because this is vacation in the dream city and I cannot hear bad words about anything.

And mostly I just feel like I have dressed the part because the room is a step back in time. It is what places in New York pay millions to replicate — a kind of weathered, low-lit perfection that makes people want to eat and dance. I have to move my hurricane so the saxophone player doesn’t kick it over. The piano player says, “Hello, ladies.”

I smile the whole time, the smile that I can’t see but that people have told me about — dreamy, elsewhere, perched on the edge of my seat.

A_____ makes me walk out onto Bourbon after “just to see it” and the horror is real. Fights everywhere and crowds. We don’t stay long. Later in the trip, I will walk around the neighborhoods and take photos of people’s houses like a creep, but I want to take them all home with me, or put my home into one of them, even though I have no idea how I would sort this out. How I could split my life in half, buy another one and set up shop in this other place where it’s always warm and where the food would make me gain weight in a month. Where I would have no job and no friends but I would have a house with rainbow-painted gingerbread and two front doors and the kitchen way in the back and strings of lights in the trees. I would have everything and nothing in the dream city, the real city.

Where to Live in Paris, France

October 31st, 2014

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In the Paris apartment, up the long winding staircase on the 5th floor — the 4th floor in Paris, as it were — I shower, or maybe I just bathe, in the cramped tub, taking turns between water and lather because you can’t do both at the same time. Otherwise you’ll drop the shower nozzle — the telephone shower, as we call it — and get water everywhere. I have had more comfortable bathing situations, no exaggeration, in parts of the developing world.

But this is Paris, and all I can remember as this is happening, is the warning at the beginning of Rick Steves Paris 2006 where he says something to the effect of: If you’re ready to travel, you have to accept that showers are not always hot, cups of coffee are not always the size of your big American face, and that beds are not always comfortable.

Well, let me go further. The showers in Paris are not always showers. Sometimes they’re just a faucet and a basin and a hot water tank that’s smaller than a mini-keg of Stella.

I rinse off my jetlag and wash my hair upside-down and the water pools around my ankles, blue-black with the dye from my new jeans. I leave my bracelet on because if I take it off, they may not re-admit me to the festival and that would be hundreds of dollars down the drain. And I would miss St. Vincent.

But for all the bathroom’s hazards, its soup bowl of a sink and slippery tiles, the apartment itself looks like the set of Last Tango in Paris. Plaster ceiling moldings and hardwood floors and fireplaces in two rooms. A brass doorbell. A wrought-iron window grate. Books on a shelf — Paul Auster, the same novel I brought to read on the plane. Collages with flowers. A kitchen smaller than the bathroom, and no trash can, and a view over the street below and the long row of buildings just like it, a march of wrought-iron and blue roof tiles and cream-colored stucco.

The heat is just little electric space heaters that cost a fortune to run and don’t heat the space very well anyway. And there’s no insulation. No soundproofing so the neighbor’s argument is your argument. The crying baby upstairs is your baby, your headache, your sleepless night.

My apartment in Paris, when I lived here, was just like this. Drafty, up a long flight of beautiful stairs, a nest above the city where I turned up the expensive heat as high as it would go and huddled under blankets in January and read news from home using the excellent free wifi. Where I got really good at taking 7-minute showers. It was all love and discomfort. I kept a bowl of clementines on the table and ate mache salads every night with balsamic and kiwi and whatever weird thing I found at the market — maybe the clementines. I don’t think I’ve even seen mache in New York. If I found it, I would buy it.

And the rental apartment of this vacation, this non-living situation, which looked so perfect in the photos, actually is perfect. What I had not realized, before I walked in the door. Before I twisted the complicated double-pronged key in the sticky lock — all Paris apartments of a certain age have a double-pronged key and a sticky lock — is that it would not be such a surprise or such an adventure. It would be perfectly typical — a thing that has not changed. That is what it is — sheltering and imperfect and sure of what it is.