Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Mad Mission

Outside the Homestead Crater.

This last week of the trip is bookended by the race last Sunday in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and one on Saturday in Layton, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City, a distance that doesn’t require five days’ worth of driving, so I’m basically stuck bounding around a small area in northern Utah, killing time and wishing I were home. I’m tired, on the edge of homesickness, and bored. My truck is filled with dirt and dog hair, the NapCamper is coated with a paste of bug carcasses, and the inside is a clustery jumble of dirty clothes, more Frida fur, and the whine of mosquitoes.

Floating in the Crater.
I spent one day traveling from Steamboat to Vernal, Utah, stopping at the Homestead Crater , a 10,000 year-old, 55-foot-high limestone dome with a hollow core naturally filled with water.  It is 65 feet deep, and apparently a common scuba destination. I don’t dive, so I just floated around in the mandatory PFD, enjoying the warmth and the experience. 

I was able to snap this picture
before we were booted.
In Salt Lake City, Frida and I visited Temple Square and saw the temple, the Beehive House, the flower beds, and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building before an exceedingly tidy man emerged from one of the buildings, approached us, and informed me primly, “We don’t approve of dogs in Temple Square.”  I was tempted to ask him if he thought Jesus  was a dog-hater, but I didn’t have the guts, and I didn’t really want to get into it with him. But in MY version of things, dogs are welcomed everywhere, even big, dirty Bernese Mountain Dogs who may or may not have peed on the grass just outside the tabernacle. The Jesus I’m familiar with wouldn’t judge, and he wouldn’t value the perfection of a lawn over the joy and companionship of a dog and her human. Just saying.

One of the many, many billboards I encountered in Utah.
Anyway, the Mormons kicked us out, so we left Salt Lake City and settled in yet another KOA south of Brigham City, a forty-minute, billboard-enhanced drive from the holy land. I’ve seen more billboards in Utah than anywhere else on the trip; eerily mingled in with the usual ads for phone service and chain restaurants are a strange number of ads for breast enhancement, liposuction repair, and one that asks, “Tired of Being Normal? Bioidentical Treatments for Men and Women!” There are also those with the occasional LDS-themed messages: Missionary Mall, a supplier for those going on their two-year proselytizing trips and something called Daily Bread, which advertises “25 year food storage” and is recommended by Glenn Beck. “WHOA” and “WTF?!” all rolled into one URL: Buy some now for your next apocalypse.

Deer Feeders! On sale now at your local grocery store.
I suspect the feeding of the deer isn't necessarily for
their own good, however.
Scarier still are the bumper stickers, but not just those in Utah. Everywhere I go, I’m reminded that I live in a liberal community, work in a liberal profession, and surround myself with furry hippies pretty much all the time. So I forget that much of the country is a hunting ground, stuff you don’t see on Glee or American Idol or even CSI (although, CSI: Backroads would introduce a host of intriguing new storylines). On I-40 between Steamboat and Vernal—also know as Brontosaurus Highway—I spotted a sticker that said DITCH THE BITCH—LET’S GO HUNTING! The same truck was outfitted with the classic mudflap décor: silver naked women silhouettes. In this case, however, their heads of flowing hair had been replaced by heads with antlers, making the whole image both deeply disturbing and scientifically inaccurate.  It did, however, remind me that I need to get busy with my plan to patent mudflaps for women featuring a naked man with an erection.

My co-pilot, looking a little cranky.
Probably because of my singing.
So I’ve been all Amelia-Earhart-of-the-Open-Road, or whatever, but despite my peaceful, joyous solitude, I’ve discovered some disadvantages to the solo voyaging, besides the previously documented Carlsbad Meltdown. Besides the lack of backrubs and a sliver on my right middle finger I’ve been unable to extract since Amarillo, one big issue is my lack of a navigator. It’s borderline impossible to read a map and maneuver through traffic. Even in a feel-good city like Santa Fe, for example, where almost everyone was driving from their shaman’s hut to their appointment with their chakra re-alignment guru, there was still a Lexus dealership in town, and its customers were out there, driving the streets, shaking their fists at the crazy lady in the weird camper swerving wildly from one lane to another.

Driving and photography don't mix.
Also, there’s not much to do when driving alone for say, 6000 miles. If I had a co-pilot who could drive, as opposed to a giant furry turdmaker, I could nap, read, space out on the scenery, study the map, and relax. At this point, I’d even welcome someone to argue with. So I’m stuck entertaining myself, which mostly means singing aloud, laughing to audiobooks, talking to Frida, trying to snap photos of landmarks as I drive past (not recommended, and also not very successful, see photo) and attending to minor grooming that can be conducted one-handed and without a mirror. I have just about used up the Chapstick I got in the swag bag at the Austin race. It smells like a urinal puck, but it tastes delicious!

It occurred to me,much later than it should have, that Mr. We Don't Approve at Temple Square didn't just happen to notice that a woman and her dog were strolling the sacred territory.I've seen enough episodes of CSI to know that. He had been notified by someone else, someone who had been watching the bedraggled woman being yanked around by a giant dog--YES! THAT DOG! THE ONE WHO JUST URINATED NEAR THE TABERNACLE! ELDER BRIEFSINABUNCH, THAT'S YOUR DETAIL!--on one of what were probably dozens, if not scores, of hidden surveillance cameras in the bushes, under the eaves, in the bugle of that gold guy on top of the temple. Somewhere in The Joseph Smith Tower of Power, there's digital footage of me and Frida strolling through the square, exploring the country and its history, leaving our mark, no matter how small or smelly. Just two independent gals, fulfilling our mission.

Monday, July 25, 2011

When I'm Sixty-Four

Steamboat Lake, Colorado. 8000 feet in elevation.
While staging for the swim leg at the Steamboat Lake Tri, I chatted with a 67-year-old woman named Kay. I know she was 67 because, like the rest of us, her age was inked in large numerals on the back of her calf. Unlike the majority of the competitors, however, she wasn't wearing a wetsuit. She told me that she'd begun mountain climbing in her forties and is now "addicted to 14s," and she began competing in triathlons at age 50. "I never want to grow up," she informed me.

I forgot to take my camera to the Steamboat Tri, so
here's a picture of my arm. Enjoy.
Kay and I had plenty of time to talk, since once again, my age division was the last wave, grouped this time with women over 50 (there were 5) and Athenas (women 150 pounds and heavier who don't want to compete in their age-mates). Being in the last wave has only one real advantage--you're not constantly being passed by hot-shot twenty-somethings on their 5-pound carbon-fiber bikes with fully-integrated MagicShift or whatever it is the whippersnappers are pedaling these days. Other that than, it sucks to begin last. If you are passed, you know you've lost a division place, or you've been passed by someone older or chunkier. And when you get to the end, all of the good food has been picked over and the speedier racers are packed up and leaving, without even apologizing for taking the last of the Clif Bar samples.

Ray Roberts State Park outside Denton, TX.
Scene of the sunrise swim.
At the Austin Couples' Tri, the last division--individual women--had only 20 racers. I'm a strong swimmer, but even so, it was lonely in the water and when the last ten of us reached shore, one lone volunteer remained to cheer us on. "Stand there and try to act excited," the race director probably told her.  At the Disco Tri in Denton, TX, the swim course was short and the final wave of women much larger, so I rarely felt adrift--quite the opposite. Surrounded on both sides, front and behind me, I was very nearly buoyed to shore. Also, my Lady Land was broached a few times by stray hands.

I prepare for competition.
Race preparation bores me, as do competitors who make a big show of their pre-competition  meal, their gels and lubes, the elaborate lay-out of their transition area, and their (often) overly serious, self-important demeanor. OK, maybe some of these folks are elite athletes competing for USAT rankings, but the guy warming up on his bike trainer prior to a nine-mile ride looked like an idiot. I have two race rituals, both borne out of superstition: 1) I won't wear or use any race swag until I've completed an event and 2) this summer, I wear the same shorts for every race because they are luckier than a unicorn licking a leprechaun. They are also about 8 years old and nearly transparent and I am going to be fielding some complaints at one of these family-friendly events soon. It's a good thing I only have one race left on this trip.

Pre-race sleep is not a ritual, but a requirement, and it's eluded me twice: in Austin, pool-goers at the Days Inn partied from 3-6 a.m. just outside my room, and the night before the Steamboat Race, when I awoke three times from dreams about, respectively, 1) baby-sitting my parents' pet chimpanzee named Frida, who wet the bed; 2) being a teacher in front of a class and having no lesson plan (there's not a teacher alive who hasn't had that one); and 3) oversleeping  for the race, waking at 10 a.m., and trashing my hotel room like a rock star. I also didn't sleep well last night because the Mormons in Vernal were celebrating their Pioneer Day with fireworks for hours and my dog was terrorized. But there's no race today, so I'll be fine after a nap.
Happy Pioneer Day!

My last race is in Layton, Utah, next Saturday, so I have 5 days to occupy before the event. The drive is short, although if it's anything like yesterday's trip from Steamboat to Vernal, I'll be bored out of my skull, making up games (Name That Roadkill) and spending hours determining which is better, hot Red Bull or hot Coke Zero. I'll listen to David Sedaris, talk to Frida (the dog, not the chimpanzee), wish I'd made some new playlists, and continue to dissect the idiocy of the Law and Order: SVU episode I saw the other night (a man is stabbed by his wife after he falls in love at a swingers' club with a woman who turns out to be a grifter in an incestuous relationship with her con-artist partner, who is also her twin brother. Ha. I think not).  If I get around to it, I'll think about triathlons. Maybe I'll come up with a new racing strategy or a plan for the rest of the summer. Maybe I'll think about what I'm going to try next. Or when I'm 50.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Possibly more ambitious than my summer plan to compete in seven triathlons in seven weeks was my naïve idea that I’d actually spend every night in the NapCamper. Note to self: saving money on mattressing is no savings at all. It feels like cheating somehow to stay in the occasional motel, to have spent a week in my friend Kelli’s guest room, and to be writing this from my KOA Kozy Kabin, but I was forthright in an earlier blog: I did not grow up in a camping family. I also didn’t grow up in a boxcar, or any place else where I might have spent my nights on 2 inches of foam and a slice of plywood.

At McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, TX
The best things about camping—as those of you who didn’t grow up traveling from one Ramada Inn to the next already know—are the very things that would make us bat-shit crazy at home. It takes about 15 minutes to make a cup of coffee, for example. First I have to unpack the one-burner propane stove, screw it all together, swear a few times trying to locate the lighter, wash the soup pan because I didn’t do it last night and now it’s full of ants, wash the coffee cup/press because I forgot to do it yesterday, boil the water, and then wait for the liquid to steep and cool. I would never leave the house in the morning if I had to deal with such a drama. Hiking to the bathroom is inconvenient, showering is sketchy, there are no pillow-top mattresses, ants and skeeters abound, and don’t even get me started about the internet access.

In 1896, Helga Estby, a 36-year-old mother of 8, and her teenage daughter, Clara, walked from Spokane to New York City. That’s right, they walked 3500 miles. I don’t know which is more amazing, that they survived the adventure in the wilderness or that they survived each other’s company, but nevertheless, these two women traipsed across a mostly undeveloped country in dresses and with only a pistol, some pepper spray, and Clara’s curling iron. Compared to this, my “roughing it” moments have consisted of washing dishes with a sock because I didn’t have a sponge and stopping to pee by the side of the truck somewhere in the New Mexico desert because I drank too much Coke Zero between one rest area and the next.

My biggest hardship has been weather—in Texas, it was over 100 during the day, and the evenings weren’t much cooler. Outside Austin, at McKinney Falls State Park (the falls were non-existent due to drought), I slept sporadically because Frida lay outside the camper panting so heavily I thought she’d die. At one point, I draped her with a soaked towel to cool her. She hadn’t shrugged it off when I awoke to check on her hours later.

Frida looks for water moccasins and fried chicken on the
shores of Lake Austin.
The previous night, we had camped at Emma Long Municipal Park, which is “in” Austin the way that Hawaii is “in” the United States. A long, hilly drive—including one so steep I thought the NapCamper would slide off—took us to Lake Austin; I thought we’d see a grocery store along the way, but Woe to She Who Makes Assumptions, so I was low on vittles when we arrived and dinner consisted of four bite-sized Squirrel Nut Zippers, a bottle of warm Perrier, and a Larabar.

Emma Long Park is built along one side of the narrow lake (which according to a local, is filled with water moccasins—“They come out at night and they chase you,” I was told); from it, you can gaze at the mansions lining the opposite shore and relax to the never-silent buzz of jet skis. The picnic tables were stenciled with a list of NOs—no open fires, no open alcohol, no feeding the birds, etc—but sadly, no “don’t treat your park like a landfill.” When the day-goers left at dusk, the grass was littered with trash. I can see how you might neglect a candy bar wrapper or an empty can, but there’s some deliberate decision-making involved in walking away from twelve empty Busch cans and the crumpled box they came in.

Reading at my Kozy Kabin.
Camp-for-pay grounds—a Good Sam in Ft. Stockton, Texas, and a few KOAs—have been a good blend of outdoorsiness and moderate convenience, and with the un-air-conditioned, rustic NapCamper, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling myself. In Amarillo, the elderly KOA employees were exhaustingly friendly and tidy in their khakis and yellow uniform shirts. As campers checked in, an employee driving a golf cart (occasionally with a pet cat riding along) escorted them to their site, showed them the amenities, and drove back to the office 100 yards away. At night, one of these men pulled a haywagon around the grounds with a tractor, Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” playing on his scratchy speakers.

I stayed at the KOA in Cortez, Colorado, a few miles from Mesa Grande on Tuesday night, missing a tornado warning by one night. There I met a nice family from Australia and spied on a group of suspected polygamists who turned out to be Mennonites. What is it with these sects and the French braids and prairie dresses? A nice KOA lady dog-sat Frida for a few hours so I could check out the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, so thank God I don’t have a reenactment of the whole peanut butter-parking lot fiasco. Here at KOA Moab, I have gorgeous view of the red rock cliffs, an air-conditioned Kamping Kabin, and a German man barbecuing in his Speedo next door.

My messy wilderness.
I wouldn’t want to do this every day, packing up and unpacking and hiking to the toilet at 2 a.m. with a flashlight and eating granola bars for dinner and spending my morning boiling water for coffee and planning the day with an atlas and then swearing at the TomTom when its route doesn’t match mine. But there is a satisfaction, despite the fact that I’m not roughing it ala Helga Estby or those two guys who carried their canoe across the Rockies, that I’m a pioneer of sorts, venturing away from the comfortable, safe, orderly routine that defines me at the NapCastle and the library and the gym, and creating another territory within myself, a vacation property that’s a tiny bit rougher, a bit less organized, and a little more elastic around the edges.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Underground Athlete

This story begins with me, sitting on the tailgate of my truck in a parking lot, crying. It gets better after that, but you should know from the beginning that things happen here that I am not proud of. Number one is that I allowed myself to have a mini-meltdown for the first time on the trip. I had thoughts I'm ashamed of, and I did things that I hesitate to confess. 

The crying occurred at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world. It's a little bit out of the way--20 miles off my route, and then 7 miles of winding NP road to the visitors' center and entrances. Not a super-grueling trip, but I was eager to visit the caverns after my mother's enthusiastic endorsement, and hours of hot, hot, slooowww driving deserved a payoff—it was at least 90 degrees out again.

The only glitch was the threatening language on the caverns’ literature about animals: dogs were NOT allowed in the caverns and under NO condition were they to be left in vehicles. Inconvenient, but sensible. It was at least 90 degrees, and the parking lot was completely shadeless. The Caverns were right to employ a ranger to bicycle around the lot and check vehicles for cooking pets; all of these rules made for huge disappointment. I was stuck with the dog, and denied entry to a really awesome natural wonder. But then I read the fine print: the caverns offered a kennel service! For only six bucks! YAY!

The advertised "kennels,” I soon discovered, however, consisted of a series of metal cages located in a windowless storage room behind the gift shop. The space was managed, tangentially, by a gift shop employee who poked her head in hourly to check on the animals. “That’s a big dog,” was all she said when she saw Frida. That’s what almost everyone says when they see Frida. Except people who are natural-born dog-lovers; they immediately greet her with outstretched hands, ready to pet. This young woman, who sold postcards and plastic children’s miners’ hats for minimum wage, had no interest in dogs other than unlocking the cages and breathing a sigh of relief when their owners returned.

Frida, unsurprisingly, was completely unenthused about being caged, and resisted all of my attempts to coax, then gently push, then pull and then finally shove her in. After 10 minutes of attempts to incarcerate her without any assistance from the gift shop girl and the two people she had called to “help,” I went to the truck for Frida’s favorite toy, a red rubber bone with hollow ends that can be stuffed peanut butter, which she will greedily lick for 15 minutes or so. The perfect temptation.

Back at the “kennel,” I slowly spooned peanut butter tantalizingly into the bone. I held it out to tempt Frida, led her toward the cage, and dangled the treat inside while simultaneously pushing her toward the cage. She struggled, backed up, yelped, and finally, like a land-trapped, fur-covered shark, threw her entire body into an enormous twist that spun me around and nearly knocked me to the floor, my arms flailing, and the peanut butter-filled bone smearing against my arms, legs, shirt, shorts, and hair at every possible point of contact. “I give up,” I finally said through tears of frustration to the gift shop girl, who, with her co-workers, had stood and silently watched as Frida freaked out and I was molested by peanut butter. Now they all backed away from me, the dog, and our entire, smeary, sticky messiness.

I led Frida back to the parking lot, wiping away tears of frustration. Frida crouched under the truck in the shade while I sat on the tailgate feeling sorry for myself. Which is when I had the STUPIDEST THOUGHT EVER.  This wouldn’t be so bad, I thought, if were traveling with a guy. A boyfriend, specifically, someone who’d rub my shoulders in a calming, strong way while cheering me up by pointing out the funny parts of the situation, and then help me clean up my peanut-butter covered self, and then patiently come up with an intelligent plan that allowed both of us to see the caverns without turning the dog into a giant, hairy, car-cooked meatloaf.

But I don’t have this boyfriend. In fact (ladies), we all know 2 things about this scenario: 1) LOL; and 2) this man does not exist, and even if he does, he’s either in the clergy or Facebook-official with some woman who doesn’t deserve him. Even if I had a boyfriend with me, in the real scenario, everyone is mad. He’s mad because I’m crying. I’m mad because he’s mad because I’m crying. He’s mad because he didn’t even want to see Carlsbad Caverns anyway, it’s the kind of touristy shit girls like doing when he’d rather be doing some death-defying thing like white-water naked cliff diving or blindfolded bungee spelunking. I’m mad because he’s just standing there looking pissed off and NOT DOING SHIT-ALL TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM AND WE DROVE THIS WHOLE F-ING WAY TO GET STUCK IN A PARKING LOT COVERED IN PEANUT BUTTER.

It was this scenario that made me suck it up and get a strategy. Having a man here would not have changed the circumstances, even if he were the first type of boyfriend, although a backrub would have been nice. I made an executive decision and calculated how long I could leave Frida in the camper while I snuck a peek at the caverns. I pulled the NapCamper curtains tight, assured the screens were completely open, poured a giant bowl of water, and chucked the remains of the peanut butter bone inside. I called Frida over and (of course), she jumped right in.

The elevator ride into the caverns makes a 750-foot drop in only one minute, depositing visitors at the entrance to the Big Room, which has a paved walkway that winds through about 1.5 miles of cave. I was overjoyed but still nervous about locking the dog in the hot camper. The signs estimated that the walk took about an hour and a half, but I scoffed at that. An hour and a half to walk a mile and a half? I think not.

People walk WAY too slowly through natural wonders, I just want to say that. I'm all for appreciating the beauty of nature and gazing with amazement at all of the rare marvels that exist, but COME ON, people! Turn that cane all the way up to 11 and get a move on. You can buy some pretty pictures upstairs in the gift shop.

I'm not saying I knocked anyone over, but I created a slight breeze as I walked, and I got a decent workout in the process. I do want to apologize to the frightened Spanish-speaking boy I accosted. Shoving my camera in his hand and insisting SACAR FOTO POR FAVOR! RAPIDAMENTE! was not my friendliest moment. Lo siento, amigo. Lo siento.
So I saw the caverns. I even remember some of what I glimpsed as I dashed through in a (record-breaking) blur. And Frida, despite my worries, survived her hour in the camper. She didn't even seem to be panting as hard as I was. 

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Petting the Skunk: A Roadtrip with the Boy of Wonder

Frida and I leaving the NapCastle
on the first leg of our trip.
Tomorrow morning I’ll set forth on the next leg of my trip, this time from San Diego to Yuma, Arizona and on to Scottsdale for a race on Sunday morning. This leg, unlike the last, will involve me and Frida and not our previous roadtrip companion, a gentleman who has asked to by anonymized as Boy of Wonder.

Boy of Wonder is easily the best road trip buddy I’ve ever had, edging out my friend Laural only slightly because unlike Laural, BofW has rebuilt two vehicles and possesses an above average understanding of auto mechanics, which he doesn’t sit around pontificating about, but will discuss if asked. His explanation of why AC and hill climbs are a bad combination and why steady braking on declines will destroy your brakes were as clearly and patiently described as anything I’ve heard on Car Talk.

Besides his automotive knowledge, Boy of Wonder is quiet but not moody, conversational without blabbing endlessly about the scenery, weather, other drivers, his own lack of comfort, or anything else that makes me want to strangle him or hurtle myself out the car door at 60 mph. This doesn’t make us candidates for a wacky movie about embattled road buddies, but it did make traveling 12 hours from Seattles to Weed survivable. I have been on roadtrips where this wasn’t necessarily a given outcome.

The NapCamper at the Hi-Lo RV Park
in Weed, CA.
Boy of Wonder also refrained from the following behaviors, which I provide for you here in case you’re planning a long car trip and want to avoid being left at a gas station in the Mojave. Boy of Wonder never commented on my driving, except in cases where our lives were in obvious danger. I have spent many miles in vehicles with men who assumed they knew all there was to know about driving because they were men, as if somehow their penis had a built-in GPS.

Boy of Wonder did not smoke in the car, eat stinky snacks, read aloud every road sign, constantly adjust the temperature, listen to crappy music, or complain when the RV "Park" I'd made reservations for in Weed turned out to be a parking lot behind a motel. He didn't complain about my taste in music (right now, mostly alt-country: Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider, Adam Carroll, Hayes Carll, Missy Higgins, Slaid Cleaves), or fall asleep for long periods while I drove and then insist that I stay awake while he drove in order to keep him alert.

The World's Most Awesome
Rest Area.
Our only major debate revolved around the World’s Most Awesome Rest Area. I voted for the Spanish Mission style stop on Highway 101 near Camp Roberts (see photo), and Boy of Wonder lobbied for one on Highway 2 near Leavenworth, which he described as “rustic.” The stop I championed was an emporium of cleanliness, informative historical displays, and a lush, green pet area. When Boy of Wonder defended his choice of the Highway 2 area by saying that part of its charm was its outhouses, I claimed victory. When he said, “They’re fine if you’re a guy and all you have to do is pee,” I accepted it as a concession.

Boy of Wonder realizing a
lifelong dream.
Our destination, the seaside surfing town of Del Mar, appeared on the horizon at just the right time: a 13 hour trek from San Francisco ended peacefully with a three-day stay at Amy’s home near the Torrey Pines Reserve, where Boy of Wonder finally got to realize a lifelong dream of petting the stuffed skunk on display at the reserve’s historical lodge, eat a California-style burrito (i.e. one stuffed with French fries) at El Indio, and spend some time on the beach instead of waiting on the sidewalk outside the La Jolla Gap while his sister and I shopped the sale rack. I think the journey worked out well for both of us—and now I know how disc brakes work.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Learning Something Every Day

These last couple of weeks before I leave have become a jumble of packing, painting, planning, and trying to get some last-minute training done before I launch. I haven’t had a lot of time to write, but between the gym and ornamentation of the NapCamper, I have had a lot of time to think about what all of this preparation has taught me. The lessons of the largest art project I’ve ever endeavored and the biggest physical challenge I’ve set for myself have taught me a few things.

The first thing I’ve learned is that writing stuff down makes all the difference in the world. I’ve kept a detailed log of my workouts and my changes in nutrition, not because having created a record makes a difference, but because the process of creating a record does. Studies show that dieters who write down what they eat at the time they eat it and maintain a log throughout their diet are more successful at losing weight and maintaining weight loss. It keeps me on track with exercise, too, and it’s helping me keep track of the other minutiae I have to manage as I prep the NapCamper and organize travel details.

The second lesson is that you have to decide what to be and go be it.  I knew the moment I heard this line from the Avett Brothers song, “Head Full of Doubt,” that it would be my mantra for this endeavor. I wrote in on a post-it and stuck it to my dash, and I think about it every single day. It powers my work-outs, it gets me through procrastination, it keeps me from giving up. I know what I want to be and all of my physical efforts and mental energy are focused on that goal. Waiting around for approval or permission is just that—waiting. And waiting isn’t doing.

Last week, my friend and former colleague Jen Bradbury spoke at my school about her new novel, Wrapped, and she said that all of her stories begin with the question What If? What a way to live a life, too: to live every day as an endeavor to answer the question what if. What if I treat my life as an experiment to see how fit I can possibly become? What if I approach every task in my life, like refurbishing a NapCamper or training for triathlons, as an art project--with limited boundaries, full of opportunities to be creative, certain to teach me something, and undeniably fun.

I am still learning, and trying to practice the principle that if you’re not laughing, you’re not doing it right—whatever “it” is.  Whether you’re having sex, exercising your ass off, at work, painting a weird-looking homemade camper, or attending a funeral, if there isn’t at least some portion of the program punctuated by laughter, you’re missing out. Life is ridiculous, inexplicable, frustrating, and temporary, with special emphasis on the ridiculousness, so we might as well laugh.

Learn something every day, whether you want to or not.  The NapCamperwas built by a boatbuilder and the inside does feel like a boat cabin. But that might be true of all homemade wood campers, I can’t say.  All I know is that boats have ribs and my camper has ribs and I thought it would look really cool if I painted them gold. This was a good idea. As a project, it was a pain in the ass (see photo). I will say that lying on my back painting upside down was an excellent way to suffer a preview of what it will be like to awake each morning and thump my head on the ceiling. 

Fail. Fail again. Fail better is a lesson I'm borrowed from absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. In weight training, "failing" means lifting a weight until your muscle(s) refuse(s) to perform. In other words, you work as hard as you can until you can't work any more. Every project requires some failure, or else there's no lesson to be learned. Most of my lessons so far have been small failures that have taught me to plan before I act, to forge ahead with confidence, to trust the people who offer assistance, and not to take myself so seriously. 

Use this day. “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken… awaken. Take heed, do not squander your life. — Evening Chant ,Zen Mountain Monastery

I am thankful every day that I get this one opportunity to be a biological entity on this planet, mainly because I believe that this is it—I don’t get to come back and do it over, or go somewhere else after I die and do it again differently. I’m here now, in this configuration of carbon-based cells, and eventually I won’t be. I’m 15 for a moment, then 22, 33, 45, and eventually I’ve used up my 100 years.  How do I want each year to look? How about each day that makes up each year?  How do I want this project, this trip, and this mission to affect me as I pursue it and after I've completed?“How we spend our days,” wrote Annie Dillard, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Home for the Road

The roommates and their friends were gathered around the table, feasting on our traditional White Trash Sunday meal when I announced, “That’s it! I’ve made a decision! I’m done trying to figure out what to drive on my trip!” I’m not sure anyone even looked up from their food. Ian had made a fantastic ceviche, Daphne a salmon, Amy and Erin salads, and I’d stuck vegetables on sticks and called them Fresh Garden Skewers. In addition, Obama was on TV, announcing that bin Laden had been killed, and all of this clouded out my announcement, which probably no one cared about anyway. (Shut up about your trip already the likely refrain in their heads). I kept talking. “I’m taking the truck, getting a canopy, Chris is building me a bed. End of story.”  I was done thinking about it. Until I wasn’t.

The word of the week had been reframe. Thanks to what I believe is scientifically known as a “f****** bucketload” of rain and its negative effect on my ability to do anything outdoorsy and fun, my interior monologue had been cranky, defensive, and critical. As the Springtime of Soggy Desolation neared its end (giving way to the Summer of Sweaty Southwestern Solitude) , I finally got around to rearranging my attitude from I wasted all this effort getting fit so I could wear sweatpants and hoodies? WTF?! to Well, at least I’ll look decent skinny-dipping in Arizona. 

This reframing meant that I abandoned my disappointment in not finding the Camper Van of My Dreams and settling for a less romantic option: a canopy for my truck, a built-in bed/storage unit, and well, a lower score on the Awesome Scale of Awesome Awesomeness than I would have liked. It also meant the guys had won--Ethan and Chris had been the first to suggest "why don't you just sleep in your truck?"--a truly testosterone-inspired idea if I'd I ever heard one. And now, dammit, here they were, victorious. 

Reframing was not pain-free. My Fantasy Van (not as porn as it sounds) was SWEET. Vintage, heavy on character and low miles, expertly maintained, great price, plenty of room for the dog. I had homemade curtains, throw pillows (lots of the soft plush ones), kick-ass organization (love that labelmaker), lots of room in the cockpit for me and Frida and/or the occasional hitchhiker (just kidding dad). It was as cool as the Mystery Machine, only less inclined to overnight breakdowns at haunted houses run by evil proprietors in disguises.
...and it was just right!

So there I was, reframing my way from “WHY AREN’T THERE ANY COOL CAMPERVANS FOR SALE?!?!” to “Great! I’ll sleep on a padded board in the bed of the Toyota—how adventurous! How outdoorsy! How sportswomany! What fun to write and complain about!” when my reframe broke. Monday morning I did my usual Craigslist check (this time for a cap for the truck) and there it was: exactly, precisely what I needed, only without a hot tub and George Clooney: One-of-a-Kind Camper for Sale. I immediately called the seller, who said another guy was coming to check it out that day. I wanted to locate this other potential buyer and have him neutralized.

I am a believer mostly in random chance; I don’t generally think “things happen for a reason” unless you drive drunk and total your car smashing into a bus stop or have unprotected sex a gazillion times and get pregnant. Obviously there is cause and effect at work in the universe. I just don’t think it applies to road-tripping librarians and Craigslist. Every now and then, everything we need to happen just happens at the right time; a young couple decides to sell their homemade camper, a multitasking internet surfer finds an ad for it and KAPOW! worlds collide, money is exchanged, and a new, tiny universe known as the NapCamper is created.

I did not grow up in a camping family. Our bi-yearly trips to San Francisco to visit the Belbens were punctuated by overnights in Ramada Inns, and I am in no way complaining about that. I love an ice machine, a swimming pool, and color TV as much as the next lazy traveler. But this backstory—learning the word “Vacancy” and memorizing the license plate number—has left me deficient  in the realm of outdoor skills, and I think that will make for some entertainment for all of us, as I attempt to operate my Coleman 2-burner stove and try to figure out how to make s’mores from scratch. I’m pretty sure I can learn about this stuff between now and departure date, but first I’ve got to finish sewing those throw pillows for the NapCamper.