Sunday, November 19, 2017

Biscuits and mutton, snow and sand, old friends and new - a trip across America


This morning I lie in bed in the dark, with the wind howling through our hatches and a gently wave rolling us to and fro. I couldn’t sleep as I struggled to remember his name. Was it Cornbread? Dinky Donut? Snickerdoodle?

We’ve been back on Shiloh from our US road trip for just over a week. And the memories are fading. The states blur along a path of my mind, further and further back and sadly I know that most of it will disappear forever. But there were some places, some people, some experiences you just can’t forget. Things you couldn’t make up if you tried…

Mr. Muffin was a State Park Camp Host who took his job seriously. Tucked up under Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas, the campground was beautiful, framed by a clear river on one side, and in the distance a highway of some sort. Pumpkin Toes protected the premises, circling constantly on his golf cart. And his curiosity led him to slide his two stubby legs, under two gargantuan bum cheeks, down off his perch, and he’d waddle into each campsite bright eyed, to meet the visitors. He was all grins as he slid out his pudgy pink hand to shake. “Welcome! I’m Fudge Ball!” (or something like that). He explained in his syrupy southern drawl, that he and his wife had been camp hosts for a few years at this site. He gave us the camp rules, then asked us what it was we had there on the table?

“Smoked oysters. Great with crackers and cheese.”

He crinkled up his childlike nose but his eyes remained excited and alert. “Can I try? Never heard a nuthin’ like that!”

So we fixed him one and watched, amused, as he stuffed the fishy little package in his mouth. And the reaction was priceless. He barely managed to swallow and quickly asked for some Coke or anything sweet. We rolled around laughing but found him a drink.

And with that, we had a new friend. He stayed for quite a while, completely enthralled by these foreigners from so far away. He’d never left America. Figured they all ate weird stuff like what we’d just fed him! His accent kept us a captive audience as well.
Marita & Biscuit

The next morning Cream Puff pulled up in the golf cart with his wife Love Dumpling to meet us and we all laughed and stood for photos. He gave us his business card. And there it was written in black ink. ‘Biscuit’. It was Biscuit! He explained that it was a nickname that stuck hard and he’d accepted it and embraced it long ago. Biscuit sold Dutch ovens and ran Dutch oven cooking classes. And Biscuit became a dungaree wearin’, twinkie lovin’ memory…

And he and the bath houses and gorgeous town we found there in Hot Springs would not have been discovered if we had done the road trip we’d imagined. Road trips should be fluid in their planning. So that when Harvey and hurricanes like him try to thwart your fun, you simply re-route. Arkansas and Oklahoma were not on our agenda. Never imagined discovering the suburban bliss and gentrified downtown of Tulsa. Couldn’t have known the remote beauty of Beaver Lake and a log cabin complete with true southern hospitality and a lot of massive spiders to welcome us! And it was through cruising we met the friends who welcomed us to these places.
Bath House in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Our friend Dale's lake house, Beaver Lake Arkansas

And then there was Texas. Americans joke that Texas is a country in itself. It definitely has a personality. In Texas the endless fields are dotted with head bobbing machines that suck oil up from the deep endlessly. In Texas we tasted other-worldly brisket. In Texas you can also get a 72 ounce steak. Free if you can eat it all. It is advertised everywhere. It’s all about BIG in Texas. And there are rodeos. 



We found ourselves a real, genuine rodeo. And now I can say I know all about mutton bustin’! In most states it would be considered child abuse but in Texas it’s a lively sport. Toddlers and little’uns hang on for dear life to a fluffy sheep who is let out of the pen and dashes at full speed across the muddy arena. The fans go wild in the stands, music blares from the speakers and the MC urges them on. Meanwhile down in the arena, a tiny child has slipped down under the animal with the speed and agitation and has fallen hard onto the dirt and most likely been stepped on by the panicky animal. Mothers and fathers run out and scoop up the bawling kid while the fans cheer. Texas. 



New Mexico was enchanting. All terra cotta homes and Native jewelry and art galleries, and small towns and Pueblos up in the mountains that are a catch all for hippies and cowboys and Mexicans. And more cruising friends welcomed us into their beautiful home. I fell in love with their green hatch chili peppers.

There was Durango in Colorado, which led to Silverton – a place lost in time. A cowboy town nestled between two mountains where you can imagine the stand-off in the street just like in the old Westerns. Where the old steam train pulls in twice a day, chugging black smoke and hooting to announce it’s arrival.


And the knuckle biting mountain edge, no railings drive up into the mountain town of Ouray, the Switzerland of America. Places you didn’t know existed but now will never forget.
 

And then there are the places that you planned for, imagined in advance and held the highest expectations for. The four corners where New Mexico meets Arizona, meets Utah, meets Colorado. The actual Four Corners Monument is a Native run gathering of ramshackle curio stands and abandoned food trucks surrounding a stone plaque. The $5 entry fee covers the salary and bus fare for the grumpy lady who has come from a reservation far from here. A bit of a let down really.


However, all around is beauty. Places where atheists believe that gods have been here. Where a natural world unfolds like a fantasyland of rock in epic proportions. Shapes, caverns, colours. It is all one could imagine and so much more. And the hikes down into the depths of the caverns are humbling. Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Zion, Valley of Fire. Wow.




From the swamplands of Florida, we found ourselves in forests and then deserts. Such diversity!

But there was also routine. Technically, a road trip that lasts longer than a month is a lifestyle. It begins to take on it’s habitual schedules and rituals. Even if it involves driving somewhere further, somewhere new nearly every day.

Daily, after a three hour drive or so, armed with carts and a humble shopping list, we found ourselves in a Walmart in Sulphur Oklahoma or Tucumcari New Mexico or New Iberia Louisiana, we would buy a bag of charcoal, a bag of ice, some meat, some salad, some sweet potatoes, some six dollar wine. And then we’d set off in our travelling beds, to find a campsite for the night.

Campsites in southern Texas where mosquitoes descended in thick black clouds of doom and banished us to our vans for the evening. Swatting, swearing…

Campsites in the mountains of New Mexico where elk in heat screamed in the distance and frost collected on our wine glasses.

Campsites in remote reservations where we refused to pay $15 for a bundle of firewood, found ourselves completely alone with nature, and ran around gathering in the wilderness instead.

So many campsites. 






A couple Airbnbs, a few nasty motels. One so nasty it belongs on an episode of crime scene investigation instead of my blog post.

And in between, Route 66! Graceland! Las Vegas strip. Hoover Dam. A corner in Winslow Arizona. New Orleans! We even visited Chip and Joanne’s Magnolia in Waco Texas on my Mom’s leg of the trip. We got around.



We covered some miles. 6100 to be exact.  Not all miles are the same though. And they definitely can’t be measured in number.

We can only measure by Biscuits and mutton busters, Hello Kitty glasses at the Mexican border in El Paso, the Tabasco Factory, beignets at Café du Monde, random grazing bison on the side of the road, and priceless moments with Mom. 

Unfortunately I had to share these beignets
Good times with Mom!!!
  
And then there are friends. It ties us back to the magical world of cruising and I marvel at how far and wide the ties take us. 
We had three massive cruiser reunions as our trip finale. St Pete, Punta Gorda, Fort Pierce. Taken in by friends, we shared sailing memories, shared our trip stories and confirmed for ourselves how special this life we live, truly is.


 



Saturday, July 29, 2017

From fun to fear and back again; reflections on lightning and friendship

In the grey environs, various ‘once vibrant’ bits of clothing hang from the boat rails around me, heavy, dripping, defeated; water logged in the aftermath.


In the docile day with it’s soft, benign cloud cover, I struggled to conjure up the electric light show of the night before.

In a seemingly endless battle of sky gods hell bent on revenge or destruction, hours passed with thunderous outbursts and a continuous show of light. We the meek and powerless lay below, eyes squeezed shut or sprung open like huge frightened circles, we stared up through the skylight hatch above our bed at the relentless rage of the sky.

And the rain came. Locking us inside, airless, sweating, still. And water like soldiers, pelting, running, stabbing at the boats and the surface of the sea. With more and more intensity it attacked the hatch above me, crying, drumming, beating in increasing intensity like a dark ritual while the thunder shook the hull and the crescendo an earth shattering ‘bang!’ as the sky lit up. 

I bolted out of bed and up the stairs. JW was already there, standing guard for us.
Our history with lightning storms has not gone well. We are on high alert despite knowing there is nothing at all we could do to thwart a strike should we be ‘on the radar’. And last year in this town we were the sole victims of one strike that targeted our anchorage.
This time we are spared. The strike has hit the famous monument on the hill beside us. I begin to think this might be one of the reasons cruisers flock to this anchorage! Our masts are NOT the tallest things around. I sigh with relief and descend again to the stuffy cabin where the air is hot and stale and where our tiny cabin fans are proving their inefficiency, lightly shoving around the limited air.


Hours before, we lay sprawled across the front deck of Alleycat. Digesting a world-class lamb curry and a store bought key lime pie in honour of Al and Marita’s 44th anniversary. We contemplated the expanse of the universe by the light of the endless stars. We marveled with our new friends about all the friends we make while cruising. The friendships that endure through time and space. The ones where you meet in Grenada and run into each other in North Carolina or the Exumas and catch up with excitement and enthusiasm. Friendships where giving and sharing and appreciating laughter and star gazing are at the forefront. But where there is a deeper appreciation and understanding. The knowing we’ve all chosen something from life that brings extreme risk and extreme reward. We are outside the safety net of society so we provide that for each other.

And then Kim smelled the rain coming in the air and beyond the sea of stars we saw the duller, darkness of storm clouds rolling in. And we dispersed to our boats with the knowledge that we would be there, listening on the radio, ready to assist, should the storm bring big winds, or the unthinkable – a lightning strike.

But alas, the storms roared and the rains poured but it was all bark with no bite. We’ve all made it through the night, though a bit groggy from lack of sleep, to hike and swim and party another day. 




And our decks are now rinsed of the salt from our three boat flotilla sail down to Georgetown, and we’ve gathered some rain water for washing!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Brown Like Bread: Compliments of Little Farmers




The velvet of the dusty deep blue couch sticks to my sweaty thighs. It is reminiscent of something from Downton Abbey and yet here we sit in 35 Celcius in a tiny yacht club in the Bahamas. The condensation from my Bud Light drips into my lap and trickles down onto the worn velvet. Beside me, Roosevelt Nixon leans back, chatting freely. His laugh lines are deep and his kind eyes at ease. He has welcomed us here, into the hodge podge sprawl of his domain, the bright red building built on the rocks at the northern tip of Little Farmer’s Cay. 


We are not marina guests. Just passers by, we emerged from our sweltering walk across the partially paved roads, roads lined with tamarind and sapodilla trees, past his tiny derelict outdoor basketball court, and appeared – disheveled, sweating and in need of cold drinks. Mr Nixon was obliging. He literally abandoned his errands, getting out of his running car, to invite us in.

In fact, since we zoomed into the little harbor this morning in our dinghies, we have been greeted and welcomed and embraced and befriended by each and every resident of this island. Google tells me that the population is 66 and by the end of the day we have met over half of those.

First, Captain Conch at the dinghy dock who took our lines, helped us up and told us he’s a descendant of Somalia. After the small chat he offered to introduce us to Simon and Jeffery, and began bashing a machete on the dock to call the turtles. Minutes later, in the crystal clear water below, he literally had turtles and colourful box fish eating out of his hand. A family of tourists arrived in a speed boat and paid to join in the feeding while we looked on in awe. We felt like tourists for the first time in a long time. In fact, we felt part of something bigger, having now been isolated to our little tribe of four on the two boats once again for nearly weeks without other human contact.


We wandered off the dock on a little high. All smiles, we passed the tiny souvenir shop waving and promising to visit on our way back, and the emerald green one room post office, boarded up and so tiny it warranted a photo. 


Just then, from out behind a bush, rambled a tall, emaciated man with only a few long teeth. Leaving his yard work behind, he called out “Warm roasted peanuts!” “Come and get. Come and see!” Though none of us were hankering for unsalted peanuts in the heat of the day, we couldn’t resist his quirky charm. Gingerly traversing the tiny path by his cabin, nearly tripping over the blind dog, we came upon his peanut cauldron. Most of them over-roasted, bordering on burnt, and then wrapped carefully in small paper bags. He was proud to offer free samples. Grinning ear to ear, his handful of teeth finding it difficult to stay inside his lips, he explained “I grow herbs! Here is Spanish thyme. Smell!” “This is tamarind. Let me open one for you. Taste! You can use it for steak sauce or on fish. You can take some!”. “Come and meet my goat called Billy!”. 
Apparently a wild dog had killed the female and Darren was saving up to buy a new one. With peanut sales most likely. So at this stage, we knew we were in for at least a couple bags of peanuts. And then he threw in some fresh lemon grass too. In the end, he asked only $2 per bag of nuts and we thought wow, it’s gonna take a long time to get that new goat at this rate. We bought the nuts and added a tip for all his info and enthusiasm.

We moved on down the dusty road to our loose destination – the yacht club. Cooling down in the bar there, flanked by boxes of windows to be installed and random sparse furniture (including the royal blue velvet couch), we listened to Roosevelt’s stories of his descendants. Apparently Nixon was a British loyalist who fled the US in the late 1880’s and like many in his position, was offered any island in the Exumas by the British. He took a slave wife, and the population of Little Farmer’s Cay was underway. Roosevelt says he carved off the entire northern end of the island as his own and now it holds a private airstrip as well as some homes and his yacht club. He’s not doing too badly…

But we wanted to arrange for supper somewhere and had our hearts set on a place in town called Ocean Cabin. So we headed back toward the ‘centre’ of town – the little harbor. Their sign is ‘world famous’ in the cruiser Bahama world. We took the obligatory pic. 


But inside, despite the inviting décor, we must have met Ernestine on a bad day. She seemed annoyed by our presence as she huffed and sighed and rolled her eyes. We left and found ourselves down the road in the far less prestigious establishment of Brenda’s – called Kenya’s Deli. It consisted of an outdoor concrete slab with one long bench facing the street and four chairs. The perfect number for us.


Later that evening, lined up as we were on Brenda’s table, our ‘2 Buck Chuck’ wine on hand, we contemplated the beauty of humanity. The Baptist Deacon with sciatica who can still wind her generous waist looked after us. “How you all so nice and brown?! Brown like bread!” she exclaimed. She rubbed my arm and admired our tans. We shared our wine and talked about traveling. The village drunk, her nephew having arrived and intrigued by our presence, she kept at bay at the edge of the platform, chiding him and gently begged him away.


Full bellied we found ourselves on a twilight stroll and came upon J.R., village sculptor and enthusiastic small farmer. He dragged us through his yard at the top of his 68 year old lungs, shouting gregariously about his pomegranate tree and the many varieties of sapodilla. His wood carvings, all with the same broad nosed indignation, peered at us from their display board as we followed him around dutifully. And then the aloe – the magical cure! He stood above the slighty brown crop and explained he eats it every day. He smokes, yet the tar can’t stick to his lungs… and he offered some for Al’s itchy ankle. Before we knew it he had torn a prickly shoot, chewed off the end and smeared the slimy substance all over Al’s leg. And as if he’d willed the Gods himself to show us the power, the rash disappeared.  We pried ourselves away and wandered on a bit further, but the experience will not soon leave us.

Indeed, this is the other side of cruising that keeps us going. There are the isolated bays with white sand and peaceful lapping waves that inspire us, but then there is this. The imperfect vulnerability of strangers who open their lives to you. The lopsided grins and helpful hands. The friendly tour guides and little farmers. These experiences are as beautiful as gazing over a turquoise sea. They restore our faith in people and society and remind us what it all should be about.

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Castaway by choice - another level of paradise and a shark

John is on shark patrol. He walks slowly around the perimeter of the boat, donning the all important polarized glasses, scouring the endless clear blue for that long black slithering mass. The good thing is that we can see them for miles.
I am perched on the back ladder, armed with only a bottle of liquid soap, wearing nothing but a nervous grin. “Coast is clear?” “Yep, go for it”. This is not some swim-with-the-sharks adventure game. This is our daily shower routine. Rinse in ocean, soap up, immerse in ocean again, then jump out for a quick fresh water rinse.
We haven’t Googled anything in days. The phone reads boldly: “NO SERVICE”. Haven’t seen a building or heard the motor of a car. We are castaways by choice on the island on Conception in the outer Bahamas. It is apparently protected as a nature sanctuary and there is nothing here but white sand beaches, some bushes and the rugged rocks where the tropic birds nest. Oh, and the sharks. We used to swim and snorkel with wild abandon but the day before we left the relative civilization of Cat Island, we heard that a girl on an organized snorkeling trip in Nassau had her arm bitten off by a reef shark... Gives one a small cause for concern.
When we are not swimming in the shallows – ever alert for our black finned friends, we are walking expanses of sand - day or night. 


Back on the boat, the fridge has gone on the brink and we are testing what can be stuffed in the little freezer and what will last without growing mold here in 85% humidity and 33 degrees C.
Generator is pumping away on deck, charging up the batteries so we can desalinate some drinking water and run lights and TV at night. This is life off the grid. Disconnected but with all the modern amenities we need.
Occasionally another boat will arrive over the horizon to drop anchor here and sit with us in relative isolation and breathtaking beauty. And after a day they are off. Maybe they miss Twitter or the grocery store. Maybe they are on a tight schedule, heading back to the states for hurricane season. Perhaps they know something we don’t about the weather headed our way. We are oblivious. Haven’t seen a weather App for a week. We are reading the conditions the old fashioned way – look and see.
Today looks windy, a bit hazy. Think I’ll make a curry and we’ll take a long walk later. Bit of ‘house cleaning’ before exploring. Tides are our time. The beach is best to walk at low tide. Snorkeling best at slack tide. A dip in the rock pool on the north beach is wonderful at high tide when the ocean crashes violently through a crack in the rocks into the serene warm pond.



Yesterday we discovered the massive steel ruins of a ship that have literally grown into the rock around them. My mind exploded with wonder. How old is this ship?! What really happened? Were there survivors? If so how long did they live? What did they eat? Did they make shelter? It dawns on me that they were truly castaways and this is not Hollywood. This is a genuine story of adventure and tragedy. One that no one will ever know. It’s possible we might discover something if we Googled ‘Conception island ship wreck’. But you’d need Internet for that. Oh well, white tropic birds with their long tails flutter above, the turquoise of the ocean reflecting off their bellies. Who needs Internet?!

There are reefs surrounding the island, populated by the colour-by-numbers parrot fish and every other imaginable shape, colour and size of reef eater. I’ve been trying out my new gas-mask style snorkel gear with moderate success. No water or steam gets in but it seems to jam my jaw upward. It’s a first world problem. I can still see the beauty around me. 



I will happily sacrifice fresh milk (we’ve got the lovely powdered substitute), laundry (not wearing many clothes anyway), and the constant saltiness for this paradise. My skin is crispy, leathery, a disturbing terra cotta hue. My hair used to have highlights. It’s gone from styled to wild pretty quickly. The little greys poke out through the black roots while the rest is dry, wiry, wispy and toxic orange. Sun kissed rapidly turned to sun baked and now I’m basically fitting my role as castaway.
JW is mopping what we believe is migrated Sahara dust off the solar panels while I’ve tied up my orange mop and I’m sautéing onions in prep for my curry. I’m thinking it’s nearly time for a swim but then, through the galley window I spot him in the distance. The black slithering mass in the endless expanse of blue, winding his way toward us…