Saturday, July 31, 2010

Home From Home

The final leg of our drive home led us to familiar turf. We planned a last stop in Birmingham, Alabama to visit Johnny Coley.I couldn't make up my mind about this sculpture seen at a gas stop. I'd like to think the good doctor has a sense of humor that might align with my own. Probably not, but I do like his brazenly displayed Barbecue sculpture. After so many miles and days of crossing unknown territory it was pleasant to know exactly where we were going so when Johnny's strategically placed apartment building hove into view we knew where we were.As did the man himself. Johnny took up his role as porter, as he usually does when he sees us arrive with all our impedimenta, and our road trip instantly became a visit, which was a pleasant change.On the road conversation tends to turn rather desultory in our car.
"I need to pee."

"Look at that truck swerve."

"I wonder who lives there."

"Are you hungry?" (Hunger is a relative term that could easily be replaced by "bored" in modern America, land of the superfluous calories).

"Stop at the next gas station."

While visiting Johnny conversations take a more dramatic turn, which is a welcome change after weeks on the road, and we discussed politics, Alabama scandals and Birmingham society drama. About 35 years ago my wife joined her sister in Birmingham after she graduated UC Santa Cruz and considered settling there she liked it so much. She lived with Johnny and others in a mansion they called Kudzu Castle, which still stands, and their friendships from that time 35 years ago remain strong. My wife's ability to meet and keep friends never ceases to amaze me. She ran a battered women's shelter but finally went to Hastings School of Law in her home state of California, and graduated from that venerable San Francisco institution and then passed the California Bar exam first try. She decided to settle in California to work as a public defender until I came along and unsettled her again. I achieved that big time by convincing her to spend two years sailing to Key West. I had long wanted to get out of Santa Cruz but my periodic attempts to settle in Florida had never jelled properly. This time I had high hopes, and in fact she took to Key West like a duck to water and remembers from a distance the stresses of law and the gnarly business of defending the occasionally innocent. Teaching is much more to her taste.
"I could live here," she says of Birmingham. We always keep a Plan B in our hip pockets in case catastrophe strikes and we have to move. Oil spills were on our mind this trip. Johnny would like her around but the lure of island living and all her (numerous) friends in the Lower Keys keep us anchored. Besides they are now promising no oil will ever reach the Keys, so that must be true.Even though our life experiences are completely different Johnny shares my ability to view life through a slightly skewed lense. We talked about another resident of Kudzu Castle, Don Siegelman was one of those early friends who said at the time he wanted to become governor of Alabama. That he did in 1999, to my wife's astonishment and was later prosecuted for corruption, charges that appear to have been politically motivated as Siegelman was under consideration for Vice President as a running mate for Al Gore. The US Supreme Court recently voted to send his case back to the Appeals Court for a review. I've never met the man but one has to imagine that Johnny and my wife took the more sensible career paths. Who needs Karl Rove gunning for them? So stopping in Birmingham is a very good thing especially for my wife who gets to feed her nostalgia (I get to visit the Barber Motorcycle Museum of which more tomorrow). For Cheyenne too this was a good stop. I think she was craving the familiar after three weeks of constant change.Why she took it into her head to spend the night in Johnny's closet I couldn't say, but when I woke up the next morning there she was. Perhaps she knew that we had another 900 miles to go and she was sending a signal that she wasn't ready.We had dinner in a fabulous Greek restaurant in the nearby town of Bessemer whose name reminded me of nothing so much as a a Spanish kiss (besame means "kiss me."). The reality is that Bessemer has apparently gone downhill and we were greeted at the Bright Star restaurant by an armed guard in the lobby. I left my camera at home as I wanted a night off after three weeks and 1400 pictures of absolutely everything so now that i have had plenty of time to regret that choice here is a picture off Bright Star's website of their fabulous 1914 dining room.We drank wine and ate lemon fish and corn bread sticks and evening had a couple of puddings worthy of photography. The baklava cheese cake was extraordinary, slices from a roll of baklava pastry with a creamy custard inside. Cheyenne napped outside in the car in the cool of the evening guarding the vehicle from all local evil doers. The next day we breakfasted with Johnny and his 88 year old mother Tippy (who I prefer to think of as Zippy given her mobility) and he went to work at the library and we went home to do our bit to keep 21st century America rolling.Cheyenne would have stayed put, as would we. There was no doubt we were all a bit tired.Normally we can drive from Birmingham to our house in 16 hours. We left the tree shaded street in front of Johnny's home determined to do just that, one more time.Almost immediately we faltered along the enticing shoulder of Highway 82, past Eufaula, in the Peach State."Turn Back!" my wife ordered in no uncertain terms as the fruit stand flashed by. I pulled a fast U-turn. Usually we indulge in spicy boiled peanuts, but this time my wife had other plans. She had set her sights considerably higher. I think one reason my wife has and keeps so many friends is her constant search for the welcome home gift. Our See Food diet was drawing to a close and I was pretty sure this stuff wasn't on the menu for me.We did try these things but I have to say the bacon flavor was weak and the puffs were rather too puffy. We failed to make a dent in the bag. Considering all those chemicals you'd think they would have had some zing. I retired to the loo while my wife shopped. Unfortunately there was a real toilet in there not just a hole in the ground. And if the word "paw" on the rustic key holder should confuse the tourist (do they really need a lock on the loo in this lonely place? Paranoiacs...) they have helpfully translated it into proper English ("MAN") it to avoid embarrassment. I don't think this translates really well into modern gutter American. My colleague Noel, the most cheerful gay man I know looked startled for a minute then couldn't stop chortling. "They've got that right," was his comment. This was why we got no peanuts, my wife was looking for calories elsewhere, and it was well worth the stop.I suspect these fields were peanuts (ground nuts in British/English) though the plants looked vaguely like beans. Cheyenne was not impressed, she didn't even deign to pee on them.
Eventually we saw the word Florida alongside Interstate 75. We were 650 miles from home.
There are those who argue North Florida is more akin to South Georgia and so they put out large flags representing the losing side to drive the point home. That and the Big Oil sign made a juxtaposition Johnny and I could have discussed for hours.
Spending one last night on the road was a mistake though La Quinta in Ocala was very comfortable.The next day was Saturday and by 1pm when we reached the Overseas Highway half of Miami had made the same choice and traffic was s-l-o-w into the Keys. I used some local knowledge to get past the worst of it on County Road 905, but still I called the office to warn them I might not be at my desk at 6pm...We dawdled along at 40 mile per hour with bursts to 30mph and had I not been anxious about wrecking my perfect attendance I might have enjoyed the drive a lot more. The Channel Five bridge rising in the back ground made the perfect back drop to these bridge anglers.It was good to see turquoise waters again. Matecumbe Key.The deeper into the keys we got, the easier the driving became as traffic thinned out. The home stretch- the familiar Seven Mile Bridge. And my garden had been producing while I was gone.How about that? Lovely to be home.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ramrod Salt Flats

The salt ponds that stretch west of Ramrod Key are as pretty as a picture.

There is a plaque along Indies Road thanking the Spottswood family for donating these watery lands for conservation.

I find it hard to imagine that even they could have figured a way to develop the salt ponds but I'm sure the donation worked as a tax write off. And now these birds have a place to call home.Including this diver, submerged and hunting:

In summer, during the rainy season the salt ponds become a broad lake of water.
In winter, the dry season, they slowly dry up and become smelly mud flats. As the mud dries it smells like a barnyard, as though a thousand cows have been pissing in the mangroves. It is such an odd smell in such a non agricultural place it is quite mind bending each Spring before the rains come.
Indies Road is a one lane street that dead ends a mile south of Highway One.
The causeway is kept in place by cement bags wetted and placed along the edge of the roadway.
Unthinking drivers like to drive on the edge helping to break down the road.In 2005 the road collapsed here but it was soon fixed. The Spottswoods own an island at the end of the street and they don't tolerate any interruptions to their services.
Houses along here have been for sale for a while. A few years ago a home like this cost more than half a million. Not anymore.
Priceless views, even when the water has dried up temporarily.
The problem for people selling nowadays is adjusting to the new reality. My home was recently appraised at $330,000 and for someone selling a home taking a bath to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars is hard to take. I am not yet keen to move so I try to ignore the matter of values and enjoy the life. It must be tough though if you want to move, or worse, have to move.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

World's Biggest Gated Community

Refreshed, we hit the Kansas Turnpike. I was not expecting mountains. On the Oklahoma Turnpike they ban pedestrians and motor scooters. Bigots.Jayna warned us about the roads around here but as we bounced across the cement joints in the highway: "they charge money to treat us like this?" my wife, the inveterate consumer grumbled. We've all seen this convenience store name haven't we? I guess the corporation hasn't got tired of the scatological joke because here it still is, as reproduced countless times on motorcycle blogs and forums over the years. Inside? It's just another inconvenience store.The winds were ferocious out here, between Kansas and Oklahoma; hot, dry and like a hair dryer trying to blow you off into the middle of next week. Stepping out of the car was a trial. Cheyenne stood, stared, peed and headed back to the air conditioned bed in the back of the car. I wondered, and still wonder why snowbirds leave the relative ease and comfort of a summer sea breeze in the islands in exchange for this Hell on earth each summer. Then we got stuck behind an argument in the toll booth line.We sat and fumed for ten minutes while they debated the ticket. Finally the idiot supervisor had them pull out and wait and we got our turn to pay the absurdly small fee. "Hi honey,"the woman in the booth said. "Wanna bone?"
"What?!""A dog bone?" she was looking at my dog, snoozing, not me."Thanks, I want to go home to Florida." My wife said I was rather curt with the nice lady.At the next booth, perhaps in Kansas, perhaps in Oklahoma I couldn't tell, there were no signs and I forgot to check the mile markers by the side of the road, I met a nice efficient woman where I tried to make up for my boorishness.
"People in Kansas must be supermen," I said abandoning my habit of being gender neutral. "the heat, the wind...the lack of rest areas means you must have bladders the size of footballs."
"Oh honey," she smiled. "That's why we're short and fat around here."Pay the fucking ticket and get a move on! I wanted to scream. I just sat there like the average American taxpayer getting fleeced by banks too big to fail. There was consolation in them thar hills, a reminder of mortality and eventual divine justice to compensate us for all the daily indignities.
Western Arkansas is beautiful. Rolling hills and woods just like those of north eastern Kansas as described to me by Jim CPA in Wichita. We were looking for a friend of ours back from our sailing days in Central America. Barb has retired deep into the woods somewhere around here.
She lives in a place she described as the biggest gated community in the USA, and because it is fifteen miles long and has tens of thousands of residents I dare say she is right. We got stopped at the gate because the guards had lost our permit but after a few minutes we got a day glo green card to stick in the window and off we went. The only sign that we weren't on public roads were the street signs in a peculiar shade of mud brown, with some very odd names, and the lurking presence of the retirement vehicle par excellence- the golf cart.They call this place Hot Springs Village and it is the brain child of some dude who has spent decades sorting out his plan. He bought the woods from a corporation and built utilities and golf courses. It is vast and we got lost.
"Hey Barb," my wife called on the precious iPhone. "We just passed a golf course; are we nearby?"
"There are seven courses. Which one was it?" Barb was married to Bob when we met them aboard Freya, a 43 foot Taswell cruising the coast of Mexico for the second time in 1998. We were on our first sail south of the border and we spent the thanksgiving of that year together in an anchorage north of La Paz, in Baja. Bob was a retired engineer from Tandem Corporation and Barb, a native of Missouri was his long suffering wife. They were a good couple and we kept meeting them along the way. Bob was an opinionated man, cheerful and stubborn,eminently capable of laughing at himself and taking his wife's ribbing with a pinch of salt. he loved to tinker with "systems" and he put up with his wife's incessant desire to explore with as much good humor as he could muster. They were older than us but they were excellent companions and we had lost of adventures down to the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean. He died two years ago and left behind a distraught widow. Then Barb's son died in a bizarre boating accident in the "safe waters" of California's Sacramento Delta, a blow that laid her very low. We had to see Barb at all costs, as it had been a long time.Time as they say heals all wounds and to our surprise Barb has a new man in her life- Bob, no joke.We wondered who he might be and he turned out to be a really nice widower himself. He shared our stories about the first Bob, told us about his late wife, and as he warmed up to us we learned why Barb was looking so radiant and happy. She has found a kind thoughtful man who shares her love of music, dancing and shopping, and who isn't threatened by her multi faceted past and who I want to spend more time with. It was nice to see a story with a happy outcome after years of unhappiness for Barb.
The Hot Springs Villages thing was a source of constant amazement to us as they took us for a tour of their Arkansas domain.Golf carts aren't allowed on the streets here so everyone hauls them around behind their gas guzzlers to where they can use them on the golf courses. Bob said at first he tried to walk his round but it was just too far, and he looked pretty fit... It was a hot sunny breezy day and the place looked magnificent. Houses appeared on the hillsides among the trees and on the shores of the various lakes.Barb and Bob live in an opulent mansion with breathtaking views at the end of a street and so far they have no neighbors. "We could never have afforded it," Barb said in her usual self deprecating way, "but it was a model that was left unsold. Lucky for us." Indeed; the economic downturn has some silver linings!Here's the man who has made Barb so happy. He is much dryer funnier and wittier than I could ever portray in a photograph.The builder of this house had some eccentricities and one of them was pebbles in the guest sink.
"Er, Barb, there are rocks in the sink." She started giggling. "Everyone says that."
"It's true," I replied dangling my unwashed hands.
"Ignore them." So I did.Cheyenne joined the local spaniels with no problems and promptly adopted their style.Nothing like the boat she lived on when I first met Barb 12 years ago...Their driveway:Bob drove us to a lookout to get a feel for Hot Springs Village. Homes are invisible among the woods and all you can see is rolling hills, apparently unoccupied, to the horizon. It really is an astonishing place. They have their own police fire and rescue. I wonder if they need dispatchers?The land inside the community is sold like normal lots anywhere and homes can be built in pretty much any style with usual zoning restrictions. There are a few families with children, not many, and school buses come by to take them to school as in any other town.Barb is home and she knows it. faced with the implacable need to drive yet further we paused for a beer and a snack by the lake.We had the patio to ourselves.It was not sticky and lovely. At last we had left the dry heat behind us and were back in the south.I had never eaten sweet potato fries with powdered sugar but Bob assured us that was the way to do it, so we did. My wife went crazy for the deep fried green beans. I tried not to make a pig of myself as the See Food diet continued. We left by the east gate, better known as Checkpoint Charlie to me and continued the drive to Birmingham. Frankly I was ready to yield to temptation and sit out on Bar's porch with a glass of win and watch the sun set over the rolling wooded hills but my wife was right, time was running out and Birmingham beckoned.Cheyenne was fed watered and made snug on her bed and we kept driving. I saw this car at the gas station and when I told my colleagues at work about the inscription on the back they said: "Cool! Maybe we should do that!" Key West was getting closer. I could feel it just over the horizon.