The Underbelly

Pros: no seat belts, you can get up and pee whenever the need arises, electrical outlets at each seat, wi-fi, giant windows, no one has to drive (i.e. the parents can read or work and even do things with the kids), boarding is quick and easy, you can take lots of luggage without a fee. Cons: it takes a while.

We took the train from Kansas City to St. Louis for spring break this year. It was my kids’ first time on an Amtrak and they loved it. The pros beat the cons by far. But there was one additional positive outcome, which surprised me with it’s goodness. A plane gives you the bird’s eye view; the car gets you on the ground, feeling the distance and experiencing each place you travel through; but the train shows you the underbelly.

Clouds hung low and full over the fields as we sped through the countryside. The comforting rock of the train car, the clickety clack over the rails, the view from the giant windows all brought back memories from when I was a child traveling from Kansas to the east coast. Watching the landscape change as one state melted into another. Playing checkers in the observatory car, ordering apple juice at the snack counter, sleeping in the tiny bunks – these are the recollections that hang on in my mind. But on this trip, as an adult, I noticed something altogether different.

“The other side of the tracks” is a phrase for a reason. Trains live on the outskirts of towns. They run past scrap yards, through tunnels plastered with graffiti, over rivers lined with tangled wilderness rather than tidy vacation rentals. They frequent parts of the country most don’t often visit – the small towns of little value to many sight-seers. Amtraks’ once sleek, silver bodies have dulled to gray, and like an aging old man they carry the weight and wisdom of years spent traveling the byways. Even the lonesome whistle harkens back to the past, fits this forgotten mode of transport. I, for one, enjoyed soaking up the nostalgia.

The scenery was beautiful and ugly in increments: the greening fields of spring, crumbling walls of cement, Cottonwood trees dotted with eagles by the wide Missouri River, a hodgepodge of trailer homes and ramshackle houses around a lake, fields of purple flowering henbit and deadnettle. But it was all the underside of the creature – the hidden or forgotten or uncelebrated bit. The part of the country you don’t see unless you go out of your way to do so, for which there are no billboards to make it an attraction. And though I’m not against attractions, per se, sometimes it’s good to see the rest. To travel though a space as an observer, seeing just what it would look like without the train you’re on. Highways have en entire economic system built around them: Cracker Barrels, gas stations, fast food restaurants, Lion’s Dens (Missouri’s interstate is lined with adult video stores). But the train simply has tracks and a few scattered, mostly forgotten stations. It gets you where you want to go without the fanfare. But with an internet connection.

The people who take the train are the real deal, too. Not a single person was dressed in heels for travel (as I’ve seen plenty of times at LAX). There were families, singles in their twenties, older folks who needed help with their bags. One man had a lively yet vulgar conversation on his phone during one part of our return trip: “I know, they’re all bitches, but this one is the biggest bitch of all…if I divorce her she’ll take my boat!” The young man behind me and I looked at each other and laughed as we listened, then he put on his Beats and I opened my novel. Some of my fellow travelers smelled. I’ll just say it. And by the looks of their clothes they hadn’t washed anything for a while. But like the public pool, or Checkers grocery store where your cashier may or may not have all his teeth, being in the midst of that reality is good for a soul. To see the spectrum of local humanity and remember that not everyone is exactly like me. The world is much more interesting than that. I’m not ready to have the guy on the phone over for coffee, but I can sit on a train with him. I can learn about life from being thrown together with all sorts of folks.

Next month we will drive to Florida for a family beach vacation, and I will partake in the gas stations and McDonald’s rest rooms (but probably not the Cracker Barrels, and definitely not the Lion’s Dens). I love a good road trip. And such a long distance would take a week on a train, which is just silly. But my little jaunt on the Amtrak to St. Louis was a treat. Not a super-sweet sugar rush but a slow melting bit of dark chocolate – actually good for me even days later. I’ll do it again sometime. And I’ll watch for the secret places, both beautiful and not. Because together they equal what’s real. The top, the sides, the front, the back, and the underbelly.


I Didn’t And It Wasn’t

I drove with my kids to Chicago for Spring Break. By myself. Meaning I was the only adult in the car, able to drive, needing to stay awake. Anyone who has taken a road trip with me is now wide-eyed with horror and amazed that we survived. During our entire trip last to Los Angeles, up the coast to Seattle, and back to Lawrence, the only portion I drove was across the street in Yellowstone. I have what my friend calls carpolepsy – the desire to fall asleep as soon as the engine starts. I’m like a baby. When she fusses and you can’t get her to settle, put her in a car and the gentle motion does the trick. If it wouldn’t also mean death, I would hop in my minivan at the first sign of insomnia.

But as evidenced by my ability to write today, I did not kill four fifths of our family last week. In fact, I wasn’t the least bit sleepy for almost the entire trip. The solution: podcasts and copious amounts of green tea. It felt like I became a full-fledged adult on that trip. Able to drive long distances all by my damn self. It was life-changing.

It seems like a juvenile realization for a 41 year old woman. Who’s had many jobs and been married for 16 years and had three babies and does all sorts of grown up things every day. But sometimes, even as an official adult, you experience something that makes you feel more free, more independent, more capable than you have before. Like the first time you talk your credit card company into removing a fee. Or making a complicated recipe and enjoying the delicious result. Or giving birth. When I pulled up to our friends’ house in Hyde Park, having followed my GPS correctly over seven interstate highways, and a trickier back-road route through rural Missouri and Iowa, I was tired but happy. Look at me. I got us here. We didn’t die and we didn’t have to pull over so Mommy could sleep by the side of the road. You have an adult as a parent. Congratulations.

Maybe you don’t get it – what a big deal driving eight and a half hours was to me. Allow me explain how extreme my carpolepsy has been over the years:

In college I took a spring break trip with two friends to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, from Kansas. (Not the spring break for which three collegiate girls heading to the distant beach hope.  It rained nearly the entire time. I remember seeing two movies in a row one day and eating overly, extremely, I-can’t-emphasize-enough-how-fried, fried fish at a cheap buffet one night.) I drove maybe two hours total.

Marc and I have driven to the panhandle of Florida three times, and I remember driving through part of Louisiana. That is all.

Last summer we took a 31 day road trip all over the west half of America. During the entirety of our adventure I drove across the street in Yellowstone Park.

My husband prefers to drive. In part so he doesn’t have to dole out snacks, change cds, read chapters of books aloud, break up KidzBop vs Raffi arguments. And we both know my typical driving contribution is only minimally helpful – as soon as Marc scratches the surface on work emails I start fading. So, for real, people, I never drive further than Wichita, KS alone.

This trip to Chicago was a big deal. And I just decided to go for it. I figured if it wasn’t going well, Columbia, Missouri would become the destination. We’d get a boba, play at a park, and turn the car around. Better than driving into the ditch. But like the little engine that could, I thought I could. And I was right.

We had a fabulous time seeing our dear friends. We went to museums, played at parks, spent hours reconnecting with some of our favorite people. And we made a memory to savor for years to come. Overall, a complete success. (minus the tornado sirens in Springfield IL while in a Cracker Barrel without a basement/ hotel with the tornado “shelter” located seven feet from the front desk). And all because I decided to try. I could have failed, and that would have been a different lesson. And resulted in a different post. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t, and this is my happy post of victory over carpolepsy.

Yay for green tea and the era of podcasts.

And yay for trying. There’s not much else you can do.



Our Happy Was Too Loud

Sometimes surprises are not-so-good, like when your kid goes in for a check up and you discover she has an ear infection, or when you find a strand of hair in your burrito bowl.  Others are terrible, like waking to your car spinning across all lanes of traffic, and the grass median, to the opposite shoulder of the highway.  And then there are the good surprises.  The ones that make you smile at worst, and inappropriately snort with laughter at best.  My weekend away was this kind of surprise.

We were in Mexico for my friend’s 40th birthday celebration – eating, drinking, talking.  Just what a group of nine women of a certain age need to do from time to time.  Without children or husbands or the constraints of our everyday lives.  We sat by the pool, ordered guacamole and chips and an assortment of tropical drinks.  And we laughed til our faces hurt.  We were splendidly ridiculous in our adolescent-like silliness, and it felt like breathing in a lungs-worth of fresh air.

I only knew half of these ladies before the trip began, but I’d count them all as my friends now.  Perhaps it was the generous amount of caipirinhas and margaritas (by the way, when you mix them, they go to a whole new level of yum), or the freedom we felt with the all-you-can-eat set-up (the humor in each person ordering two appetizers…before we ordered two entrees each, was not lost on our giggly group), but we bonded immediately.  There were different personalities – some quiet, some boisterous, most both at turns – but we meshed unpredictably well.  I wasn’t sure the result of throwing together this assortment of women would be good, let alone fabulous.  I was cautiously optimistic.  But my hesitation was overcome as early as the first night.  I knew I liked all these people.  And I knew the weekend was about to get amazing.

One evening, after a day of shopping in sweat-drenching weather in Cabo San Lucas, we showered, dressed up, and headed to dinner on a farm.  It was a lovely set-up with twinkly lights and paving stones, a bamboo-covered canopy, star shaped lanterns and the best (and only) watermelon Julep’s I’ve ever had.  Much farm-to-table food was consumed, many yummy drinks were tried (the smokey Mezcal margaritas were also incredible), and so much stinking laughter was shared.  Fairly loud laughter.  There may or may not have been lawn acrobatics occurring.  At one point I stepped back and saw the scene we had created for the first time.

I had been in the mix of silliness for a while and hadn’t noticed the circus attraction our group had become.  As I took in the scene, I was a bit embarrassed.  Three waiters stood, arms crossed, likely making sure we kept our antics to the outskirts of the outdoor restaurant.  The table of girls who were there celebrating someone’s 30th birthday, the younger version of our wise old group, had vacated.  Likely due to our celebratory volume.  It made me think of a favorite quote from a movie I love: “Their happy is too loud.”  Our happy was, by all means, too loud.  But in this instance, at this age, in this far-away place that seemed outside of time and space, I realized I didn’t much care.  If your happy is too loud, it seems to me, life is pretty darn good.  I decided to go with it.

The rest of the patrons seemed unaware of our revelry – the waiters were doing a good job.  So no harm, no foul.  When was the last time I’d been truly silly?  I didn’t know.  Therefore, it had been too long.

As the weekend ended and we said our goodbyes, I realized I would not see any of these people for a long, long time.  I was the only one coming from Kansas – seven out of the other eight live in L.A.  And I felt a loss.  I began the trip slightly unsure.  But I ended it with several new friends, and with friendships of the past rekindled.  Many of them can recount with each other our lovely weekend together, but I’ll have to store it away in my heart.  Ready for the next time I see these fun and funny women.  Under the category of excellent, mile-marking experiences of my life.  Thanks, ladies, for a weekend outside of reality.  Outside of Kansas and responsibility and serous, adult behavior.  What a pleasant surprise it was.


Planting Seeds

We arrived home at midnight and it felt like another dimension.  The house seemed strangely familiar, like something I’d seen before but of which I didn’t have an actual relationship.  As in a dream I walked from room to room, remembering what our couch looked like, recognizing the kids in the picture frames as my own, realizing that our kitchen table doesn’t match our kitchen at all.  And we were only gone a month.

31 days to be exact.

During the last days we wished so hard to be home, in our own beds, eating homemade food, pulling clothes from drawers instead of packing up our bags every morning.  And then we were there.  And it was weird. Like “I don’t think I live here.  I’m pretty sure I live in my car.”  And I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in my house, in Lawrence, KS, in the middle of the country.  I felt pulled toward the coast.  For obvious the-west-coast-is-beautiful reasons, but also due to a mysterious tug of the heart.

Like it just fit.

Those who know me will find this ironic.  And possibly infuriating.  When I moved to L.A. in 1999 with my new husband, solely because that is where he wanted and needed to live for his work (movie-making), I hated it.  Truly, I did.  I dreamt of Lawrence constantly for two years, longing for the familiar place I understood – its seasons, its trees, its small-ness.  L.A. was foreign and crowded and hectic and enormous.  It took me several more years to really think of it as home, or one of my homes, and be glad about it.  I was happy when we moved back to my roots after having our first baby.  We took a collective sigh of relief for the slower pace, the bike-able/walk-ableness, the non-existent traffic.  I had been overwhelmed for years and was ready to settle the hell down.  Lawrence was the perfect place for having babies.

But (if you read my earlier post My Old Friend, you’ll know) when I reached Los Angeles and the central California coast on our trip, I was shocked to realize that this felt home-like, too.  After all those years of struggling to enjoy life there, I found myself pulled toward it.  Suddenly it felt familiar.  Which is such a funny turn of events it proves you never know what’s coming.  No one would have pegged me as headed to the West Coast when I was younger, and no one would suspect I would want to go back.

So why the inconsistency?  Why the fickle hatred-to-longing feeling?  Is it The-Grass-is-Greener Syndrome?  Is it because I’m (cross my fingers) done having babies and don’t need as much settling down as I did before?  Is it a legitimate pull toward something, or a restless running away?  Is this a problematic theme in my life – discontent – or a stages-of-life reality?  I do not know that answer to any of these.  I’m pondering.  And the pondering will continue as home prices in L.A. are well beyond our means for now.  But the seed has been planted.  We’ll see how it grows, or if it dies in the dirt of settling back in.

If you have a freakishly inexpensive home in South Pasadena you’d like to rent out for part of the year, specifically during the months of February and August, let me know.  In the meantime, here’s to pondering, and the idea of home, and awesome road trips that might just change the course of your life.



Another night of driving in the dark.  This trip has had many.  Tonight’s took us out of Yellowstone National Park, through part of Grand Tetons National Park, to our lodge.  A full, blue moon above the Absaroka Range and a handmade Spotify playlist were our companions and they gave me perspective on our road trip for the ages.  A collection of singer-songwriter stuff set the mood and worked it’s magic.  Hero from the movie Boyhood made me melancholy the moment I heard the first line, like a potion of guitar chords and earnest lyrics.  I looked at my boy in the back seat, nearly not a boy anymore.

Luke called a friend three times on this trip, a first for him – missing home, missing friends, thoughts far away on his own life.  He gave us a good 10-year-old dose of attitude, a pre-cursor to the next eight years.  And he posed for pictures with a serious face, clearly thinking he was cool and maybe even good-looking.  These are new concepts for him, and for us.  And it made the significance of our trip sink in.  Nearly gone are the days of us as the center of Luke’s life.  His allegiance and interest are shifting outside of our family, as it should be.  Just as the brain science and child development books say will happen.  He’s writing the preamble to his declaration of independence, slowly pulling away and becoming himself.  Which is good.  Which I love.  And which makes my heart ache.

There were many moments of connection with our only son on this vacation: when he listened to the Start Up podcast with us, season 1 and 2, which prompted all sorts of good questions about being an entrepreneur, dating relationships, appropriate and inappropriate swearing; making massive sandcastles on the beach with Marc for hours; a long walk involving deep questions and answers with my cousin and me; hugs and kisses and snuggles.  So all bets are yet to be off.  But I know those moments will become fewer and farther between as the years go on.  As the hormones rage and his brain re-wires itself.  Making this epic road trip one for the record books, as one of the last times Luke (mostly) wanted to be with us for a while.

I’m not a mom who longs for the days of babies and toddlers and changing diapers.  Those were precious and cherished years, but I’m great with remembering them instead of living them again.  However…I’m not immune to the heartstring-tug of change.  Of knowing that this road trip will not be possible in this form again.  Luke will call friends more next time.  Will complain more about not getting Taco John’s.  Will think Marc and I are dumber and even more out-of-touch.  (I already understand less than 10% of his obsession with Minecraft.)  The reality of that hurts.  It’s inevitable, and ultimately what’s best.  But a little bit sad.

As we drove through the dark, I looked back at Luke, up at the bright moon, and wanted to cry.  Just for a minute.  At that moment, everyone was happy – the girls playing “triage” with their fake laptop (learned earlier on the trip from a visit to the ER – see prior post for details), no one melting down despite the late hour, Luke pondering his upcoming Minecraft youtube channel.   The trip took on a rosy haze of nostalgia, though it wasn’t yet over.  I saw into the future by weeks and months and years to the time when we remember this trip as a past adventure, laughing at the mishaps, smiling at the good times and skimming over the bad.  And I prematurely looked back with a smiling, aching heart at this trip when the moon shone down on our car full of kids, on our boy who was still a boy, shuttling through the dark summer night.  Into the future.


Wilder Mind

All road trips need a soundtrack.  And because this one is so long, there’s been a lot of music involved.

One of my favorites:

1. Mumford and Sons’ new album, Wilder Mind.  I’ll always remember hearing it for the first time: driving through the pitch darkness of Southwestern Colorado/ Southeastern Arizona, the music’s heated, pumping energy keeping Marc and I awake as we tried to make it the last four hours to Flagstaff.  Passing by the Four Corners at midnight.  Kids asleep in the back.  So different from their other albums, which I also loved.  Charged and wild and fabulous.  Full of emotion: angst and anger, love and celebration.  The blackness of the night aided our listening – sound and stars and a two-lane road were all that competed for our attention.  I could hear the intricate rhythms, the crackle of Marcus Mumford’s voice, the feeling busting out of the lyrics.  It was musical magic.

Some people don’t like the change in style that Mumford and Sons has played with on this album.  But I like both the old and new.  If they were lesser artists, I might wish they stayed with what they knew best, but clearly they do everything well. So I say let them be, and enjoy what they create.

We’ve listened to the album again and again at other moments: along the Pacific, among the vineyards of Napa Valley, through the redwoods on our way to Eureka (again at night – again amazing), but the first time was something set apart.

This trip will equal that album in my mind forever.


*My kids listened to Pop N Fun 1 and 2 as we drove through the redwoods, so they will equate the beauty of those majestic, ancient trees with the Mexican Hat Dance and Who Let the Dogs Out.  Awesome.


My Old Friend

We haven’t lived in Los Angeles for almost nine years.  I only lived there for eight.  So really, I should feel less at home there than I do in Lawrence, Kansas where I’ve spent the greater part of my life.  And mostly, I do.  But on this trip back to the land of my twenties, my young newly-married self, the landscape has felt surprisingly familiar.  The landmarks have seemed less like famous places to visit than old friends I haven’t seen in a while.  The magnolia trees and neatly trimmed bushes, the tropical flowers, even the bermuda grass bring nostalgia.  Not that my twenties were so great – they weren’t (marriage was hard, I felt awful, I didn’t know yet who I was).  But this place has clearly carved a place in my heart I didn’t know the depth of until this trip.

We drove north from Calabasas along the coast today.  Stopped in Santa Barbara for lunch (hello, sunshine and delicious grilled veggie sandwich), past countless rvs parked on the side of Highway 1, grabbing a slice of ocean view for themselves.  Past surfers and surf to the left, parched hills and shrubs to the right.  The drought has made the landscape different, like a friend who has gone gray and wrinkled with age, whom it takes a minute to recognize.  But as you stare you see that familiar face, beneath the wear and tear, and smile.  As we turned inland toward San Luis Obispo, our destination for the night, a rush of “Oh yeah…I know this,” hit me like the waves I had just been watching.  I remembered this exact drive from many trips to the Central Coast for wine tasting and fabulous, frivolous wandering.  The high hills that rise into mountains in the distance.  The curve of their backs lit up by the sun.  They welcomed me like a relative coming home for a family reunion.  “It’s so good to see you.”  Hug.  Kiss on the cheek.

“This could be the Flint Hills,” Marc said as we drove north of Morro Bay.  Perhaps why this place has always felt so familiar.  Like a taller version of my beloved, treeless rolling scape in Eastern Kansas.  With an ocean to one side.  Enough sameness to be instantly comforting when I first glimpsed the area at twenty-five, but different enough to be new and completely alive.  And on this July afternoon in my 40th year, happier in almost every way than when I was twenty-five, the Central Coast of California feels like a worn, nubby blanket from my youth.

The next phase of Highway 1 rises in elevation, craggy and majestic above the Pacific.  It’s a bit more foreign to me.  Grand and romantic.  Flashier and louder in it’s “look at me” popularity.  I’ll enjoy the drive along it’s cliffs, taking in the scenic views.  But my heart belongs to it’s lowly neighbor to the south.  Less dramatic, but dearer to my heart.  Quietly beautiful.  Full of air and sunlight and space.  I’m even more at home in crowded, crazy Los Angeles, where I spent a good chunk of my younger years peeling back it’s layers.  Southern California and the Central Coast are my second home, I was surprised to realize on this trip.  More a part of me than I knew.  Surely willing to welcome me back like an old friend the next time I get to visit.


Speaking of Surprises

Speaking of surprises…

Mae slipped while getting off a merry-go-round at a park in Pasadena, and that was that.  Split chin.  A trip to Urgent Care where they charged us $99 to tell us she needed stitches, but they couldn’t do them.  Since our four year old wasn’t going to sit still while the doctor stuck a needle and thread through her skin, we had to move along. (After much complaining they later reversed the charge, to their credit.) So we spent the next five hours in the Huntington Hospital Emergency Room.  Six stitches later we had a sad but mended preschooler, and headed to Hermosa Beach.

The show must go on.

Again, the unexpected is actually to be expected on a road trip.  Anything you aren’t planning is fair game.  Agendas need to be held loosely, with your sense of humor in tact, in order to brave a days-long vacation via car.  The more days, the more surprises.

When Luke was not quite a year old we drove from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon to spend Thanksgiving with my brother and sister-in-law.  It was a long, exhausting trek with a not-yet-walking-but-desperate-to-crawl baby.  His hands and knees were perpetually blackened from scooting along brewery floors as we made our way up the coast.  I nursed in the car, in gas station parking lots, tucked back into restaurant booths.  We shoved Luke’s pack-n-play in the bathroom at each hotel – fan on to provide white noise –   and shuffled to the lobby to brush our teeth each night.  But all of that, however tiring, was par for the course.  The usual for people traveling with an infant.  What wasn’t on our radar was the flu.  Just after our Thanksgiving meal it was clear Luke was ill.  He slept for days in my brother’s dark basement, waking only long enough to nurse and get an affirmative flu test at the doctor’s office.  We left nearly a week later than we had planned, Luke only somewhat better, with the entire length of the United States before us.  Poor baby.  Poor us.

Not the trip we had envisioned.

So said every person who ever traveled anywhere.  We lost our Shinkansen train tickets in Japan, got separated from one another at the largest outdoor market in the world in Bangkok, left Marc’s glasses at the bottom of an inverted trail in Hawaii, only realizing the mistake, of course, when we reached the top.  The unexpected is our constant travel companion.  At times because we’re dopey, but at other times because life is jam packed with twists and turns, and why should vacations be any different?  We make an itinerary, do our best to schedule only fun, but life sneaks in and throws us of course.  It’s bound to happen.  So be it.  Open hands and a sense of humor.  The most important things to pack.

Luckily, we brought two suitcases.