How to Road Trip While Chronically Ill

I was asked how it is that with all my myriad medical issues that I’m able to venture out into nature solo on a regular basis and indulge in landscape photography. The short answer is planning! A longer, more detailed answer will follow below. But first, a little about my conditions. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, type 3 – a rare, connective tissue disorder – along with secondary Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome – which is a long-winded way of saying that my blood pressure sometimes takes a nose dive, causing heart palpitations, dizziness, etc – and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder commonly found in people with EDS and POTS.
Hopefully these road trips tips will be helpful for those with EDS or other chronic conditions. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, so please use these tips to inspire and help you figure out what might work for you in your particular circumstance.

Before the Trip;

Research – The day before and day of, I check weather forecasts, make sure the trip is even worth my while. Landscape photographers like interesting weather – clouds, the aftermath of storms, etc. I consult sunrise/sunset charts so that I can time my visits to the hour, for the best light and to minimize having to expend precious energy by waiting around. I check and recheck road/traffic conditions, looking for the least stressful route, not necessarily the most direct one. For example, I’d rather go ten miles out of my way if it means not driving through downtown L.A. during rush hour. I familiarize myself with my route and destination if I’m not familiar with it already – I study maps, figure out what kind of conveniences are along the way, pinpoint rest stops and check out where the best views will be.

At Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Angel La Canfora

Planning – Dealing with crowds or long lines is hard on me so I avoid tourist destinations such as national parks and landmarks on holidays. I prefer to shoot off-season photos anyway as they tend to be more interesting and dramatic. The day before departure, I fill up the gas tank, do laundry, take care of any errands so I don’t have to worry about it the day of the trip and tack on needless activities to my travel time.

Careful Packing – I bring items that will help me get through the day with as minimal pain as possible. Items such as;

  • Salty snacks and gallons of water to keep my blood pressure up.
  • An epi-pen in the event of anaphylactic shock.
  • A pillow for rest breaks.
  • Layers of clothing to accommodate abrupt weather changes.
  • Cash in the event I find myself at a truck stop whose CC reader is on the fritz – happens more often than you’d think!
  • 2 pairs of shoes, one for driving, one for hiking.
  • Common sense stuff everyone should have in their car when they head out into nature like a hat, a 1st aid kit, a flashlight, etc.

Day of Trip;

Pacing – Gently does it. At places like Lake Mead National Recreation Area or Joshua Tree National Park, I go on mini-hikes. I’ll park at a trail head, and walk for about 10-15 minutes round-trip. Back in the car, I take a quick break, then move on to the next trailhead. It may not sound like much but you’d be surprised at how much you can see in these short bursts!

Knowing my Limits – Most of my photo junkets are day trips, sometimes extending to two days but rarely more. Sustained physical activity is my enemy. I give myself plenty of time to reach my destination. If I don’t make it on time, if I get stuck in a traffic jam or experience car trouble or some other unforeseen issue, then que sera sera. I make the best of it and enjoy the journey, look for other stuff to see and do and keep my eyes peeled for photo opportunities.

I’ve been doing things this way now for the last 7 years and my success rate is high. I’ve luckily had very little go wrong over the years. When things have gone pear-shaped, most of the time it’s been due to my own carelessness, such as that time when I brushed up against a cholla cactus plant in Joshua Tree, puncturing my calf muscle in a half dozen places, and had to call it a day. <Shudder>

Angel La Canfora at Joshua Tree National Park sans puncture wounds.

It all comes down to brains over brawn. Sure, I have chronic pain and an ever-present risk of complications but nature fills my soul, makes my life worth living. It’s worth it to me to put myself in harm’s way to be able see some breathtaking views and shoot photos that may one day wind up on magazine covers like this one in the spring issue of  Inlandia Journal.  Yet other photos may find their way into my Shutterstock portfolio .  I have to spend the following day after a road trip once back at home resting, engaging in as little physical activity as possible. So a one day road trip actually takes up 3 days all total. Which is why I don’t go too often. But once a month or so and I’m a happy gal!


And while I have you on the line…

My desert photography and mosaics will be on display all month long in November at the Lost City Museum  in Overton, Nevada, located on the outskirts of Lake Mead. I’m very thrilled and honored to be exhibiting there, as it’s a historic museum in one of my most favorite places, the Mojave desert. Please swing by if you can!


Buh Bye, Britain

Goodbye, Britain! I’m waving a hanky in your direction. It was nice knowing you. Thank you for your music, literature, comedy, films, tv shows, art, science, museums, beer, tea, gardens and eccentrics. I’m glad I got a chance to study in your Cambridge.

Angel in London. 1998

I’m glad I got to get to know many of your own, to the point of marrying one, even. Glad I got to live in your London and learn to navigate your Tube. Glad I got to experience your delightful pubs and walk through your sweet countryside. Oh, and I must not forget that I am one of you. British blood courses through my veins. There’s even a town somewhere in you that bears the name of my ancestors, Wiggington.

I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out for you and the rest of the world. And if, one day, my government or yours, slams the border doors shut and erects internet walls barring us from speaking, remember that I am here and that I love you.

My Great Southern Excursion of 2010

Daily Logs from My Post-Divorce, Solo Road Trip from Virginia to Tennessee


When I think back to some of my happiest memories of recent years, my road trip from Virginia to Nashville and Memphis always comes to mind. I’d kept a daily log on my excursion and had originally published them to my now-defunct personal website. I’m republishing it here to this blog, even though it’s 6 years old, for your reading pleasure. I feel fortunate I was able to take the trip when I did, as our country feels a little less friendly, a little more hostile and frightened, than it did back then. I hope you enjoy the trip!

Day OneNovember 11th, Charlottesville to Wytheville

After a brief visit to my one-time hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia to attend to some personal business, I was ready to hit the highway. The morning of my departure loomed gray and wet, as a massive storm had laid siege on the east coast overnight. One hearty breakfast at the Villa on Rte 29 later and I departed, heading west on I-64, up, over and into the Blue Ridge mountains through thick fog and pounding rain. Tractor-trailers, big enough to have their own micro-climate, barreled past either side of me. Up near the turn-off for Skyline Drive, I white-knuckled it as fog engulfed my car. All around me were drivers exhibiting signs of panic, everyone coping with the crazy weather the best way they knew how – one car turned on their emergency flashers, another slowed to near backwardness, another screamed past cockily. After only an hour on the road since departure, I had to grudgingly pull off and take shelter in a Staunton Starbucks, the intensity of the storm too dangerous for my comfort level. I waited out the worst of it, cursing the delay under my breath as I nursed my cappucino.

On Route 11 in Virginia. Photo by Angel La Canfora

Back on the road, through more temperate rain, I drove for a couple hours, south on serpentine Rte 11 before coming to a lunchtime stop in Lexington, home of the Virginia Military Institute. I strode around its historical streets during a break in the rain, taking in the architecture, Stonewall Jackson’s unassuming house among them. I visited the stately grounds of VMI. Autumn had turned the leaves to brilliant reds and oranges. I made my way to the chapel. The only way to view it was by tour guide. I was met by stout blonde a little older than me, who gave me a terse tour of the chapel, apparently ill-at-ease with having to go through the rigamarole of conducting a tour for only one person.

Robert E. Lee outside the VMI. Photo by A. La Canfora

I noted the simplicity of the chapel, gawked at Robert E Lee’s marble sarcophagus (which never, in fact, held his remains). At the tour’s end, my guide pursed her lips and said, “you can continue on downstairs to the crypt, but you seem like you’re in a hurry.” Uh, no, I was enjoying the break from the road. Whatever. Downstairs I took a moment to peer at Lee’s crypt situated behind jail cell bars then emerged back outside into the fresh air of non-judgmental skies.

Arriving in Wytheville, Virginia in late afternoon, I took advantage of another pause in the rain to poke around this tiny town straddling the border of North Carolina. In a stiff, sub-arctic breeze, I maneuvered my shivering, inadequately clad self through the crumbling historic district, gingerly avoiding holes in the sidewalk. A monument to Daniel Boone and an original log tavern dating from the late 1700s provided the highlights on my tour.

Wytheville, Virginia. Photo by A. La Canfora

Chain restaurants abounded in this hamlet off I-81 (your Cracker Barrel, your Shoney’s, etc…) and I’d determined when I’d set out on this trip to avoid chains as much as possible, so I settled on what looked like a non-chainey seafood restaurant near my motel for dinner. The tired coffeeshop decor clued me in that any fish that would grace my plate would most likely have not resembled a fish for sometime. I steered clear of ordering any supposed frozen and boxed fish fillets and since I care about my health and ordered off the “calorie restricted” column. This is what I received, follow along, if you will; a slab of over-baked salmon with about 1/4 cup of melted butter on the side, a bowl overflowing with fuzzy tan slugs, er, hush puppies (fried cornbread), a dinner plate full of steak fries, a salad plate overflowing with shredded cheddar cheese with 2 wedges of tomato and some iceberg lettuce confetti with a side of ranch dressing (their “salad” ….all the fun without the guilt! And few of those pesky nutrients!). I’m pretty good at eyeballing food and guestimating the number of calories and I’d concluded that this meal, the “calorie restricted” meal mind you, was somewhere in the ball park of 2000 calories, perhaps more. They say that an adult female of my size (5’5”) should consume roughly around 1500 calories a day. So here before me was a full day’s worth of food and then some! Ah, the South.

I bedded down for the night in a cheap and cheerful, Indian family run motel called the Budget Host. I’d read rave reviews of it online and it didn’t disappoint. The place was basic but immaculate,the bed surprisingly comfortable. My internet connection in the room was zippier than mine at home, and all for the low, low price of $42 (with your AAA card). My gentle and mannerly hosts made me feel welcome and cared for. I almost regretted having to leave!


Day 2 – Knoxville to Nashville

Rising early the next morning, I made my way through the remnants of the storm on the way to Knoxville, Tennessee. As I drove west on I-40, sudden squalls would give way to sunshine beaming down over rolling hills, making for an interesting game of panic versus leisure driving. Pulling into Knoxville at about noon, I plopped down in a funky coffeehouse where I sipped one of the best cappucino’s I’ve ever had ( ).

Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by A. La Canfora

I rested beside a window while eavesdropping on a nearby table full of band members, listening to them outline their plans for conquering the local music scene. After my break, I bought some fruit for lunch at a nearby neighborhood market from some chirpy college kids then resumed my trek to Nashville.

 Upon reaching town, there was some confusion, as the directions I’d gotten off Google Earth turned out to be for a hotel by the same name only at the wrong location. After zipping back and forth on the freeway, I finally came to rest at my Comfort Inn on the west side of town. While my room was fine, the location of the hotel itself was swear-word inducing. Nestled amongst the fly-overs of the freeway system and with lots of street construction to boot, getting in and out of the hotel was a stressful task.

I decided to grab dinner that night nearby my hotel. I cracked and ate at a chain restaurant, a place called O’Charley’s, too tired from all the driving to go on the hunt for something with more character. I sat in the bar and was waited on by an attractive 30-something year-old black guy with stud earrings and an outsized personality by the name of Willie. Willie introduced himself, gently took my hand, kissed the top of it and said, “hello, beautiful. Is it just you? Now why would someone like you be dining alone?” I blushed. He was smooth!

Up at dawn the following morning – yes, by myself – I was happy to see the storm had cleared out. I hopped in my trusty silver Ford Focus rental and drove on the freeway, thinking I was heading towards Downtown. I wasn’t and soon found myself heading into more rural territory. I spied a sign indicating that the Natchez Trace Parkway was accessible at the next off-ramp and I giddily exclaimed, “awesome!” I wound up driving a good 15 to 20 miles on its windy, desolate stretch.

Dawn at the Natchez Trace Parkway. Photo by A. La Canfora

Pulling off at an overlook, I stepped out to watch the sun rise over mist-covered hills, the sound of rushing water close by, the air crisp and winter-cold. I marveled that I had this beautiful place and moment all to myself and shot some photos before hunger compelled me back towards the city.

Sunrise at the Natchez Trace Parkway. Photo by A. La Canfora

After breakfast, I headed Downtown and parked near the Ryman Auditorium. I needed to stop at the visitor’s center adjacent to the arena to pick up a Music City pass (you pay a flat rate of $50 and get hassle-free entry into many Nashville attractions).  A huge crowd had lined up outside the arena so I asked what was up. Turned out folks were there to score tickets to benefit concerts being thrown by Garth Brooks for Nashville flood relief. I next wandered across the street to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, arriving just as they were opening. The museum is housed in a wonderful building with one side looking like a stack of records topped with a radio antenna, while the rest is a curvilinear take on a piano keyboard (when seen from the air, the building in its entirety looks like a bass clef). The history of country music is here represented floor-by-floor in the museum, with the top floor being the oldest. I’m not a huge country music fan, but I like the vintage stuff, such as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams or Patsy Cline.

One of Dolly Parton’s old dresses at the museum. Photo by A. La Canfora

I became especially drawn to Williams after learning of how he battled chronic health problems while simultaneously influencing and shaping the course of modern music. As a lifelong musician and songwriter, I choked up, wiping away tears while gazing down at his handwritten lyrics laying there under glass. This was a musician whose influence is so widespread, so pronounced, that you can trace anyone and everyone back to him – one of those early songwriters of such great importance that many musicians today don’t even realize they owe a debt to him. Hank Williams music is like the bottom-most layer of strata at the base of a mountain range. A musical foundation.

After the museum, I pounded the pavement around downtown Nashville, accompanied by the soundtrack of bands already jamming in clubs at 10:30am. I poked around in shops, got some coffee, and made my way down to the river to take in the scenery.

In Nashville. Photo by A. La Canfora
Nashville at night. Photo by A. La Canfora

By 1pm, I’d already put miles on the soles of my shoes and was very tired. All I wanted to do was to curl up in my hotel room for awhile but wanted to check out the Hermitage, president Andrew Jackson’s home, located on the outskirts of town. A lover of American history, I’d read a great bio on him – Andrew Jackson: His Life & Times by HW Brands – and wanted to round out the pictures I’d had in my mind of where he’d spent his life.

Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Photo by A. La Canfora

I drove about a 1/2 hour out of town and was able to use my Music City pass to get in. I had to bypass the house tour, as I was pressed for time since I had a show to catch that evening at the Grand Ole Opry. But the grounds were beautiful, the stately trees resplendent in fall color and I was glad I pushed myself to go.

Log cabin on the grounds of the Hermitage. Photo by A. La Canfora

After an hour at the Hermitage I drove back to the hotel to freshen up and shovel some leftover fish into my gob. Then I returned Downtown to the Ryman Auditorium for a 7pm Grand Ole Opry concert.

Ryman Auditorium. Photo by A. La Canfora

I was seated in the back row on the far right side, but still had a great view of the stage. I chatted with an older couple seated beside me. Newly retired teachers Bill and Sue McGowan hailed from Binghamton, New York, and were on a road trip themselves, their final destination being Florida. We joked and gabbed the rest of the evening. As for the show itself, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I’d been hesitant about going, but after polling my Facebook friends and receiving enthusiastic recommendations, had relented and bought a ticket. It was a great experience. I especially adored the bawdy, authenticity of Little Jimmy Dickens. 89 years-old and standing all of 4’11”, a man who was actually an influence on Hank Williams!

Little Jimmy Dickens. Photo by A. La Canfora

A big deal was made that night over the appearance of CNN anchorlady Robin Meade, there to do her first ever G.O.P. performance. It was one of the mercifully few “please shoot me” moments of the night, another being Montgomery Gentry and his testosterone (the man clearly hails from a world where men are men and women are women, and there’d better be no in-between, otherwise yer queer). But another highlight was a fella whose name I didn’t catch, who sang all of one song, but what a song… Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Faithfully rendered, I was thrilled, as I’d had Dylan’s album “Planet Waves” playing in the car during my drive in. I lit up like a Christmas tree and sang along, turning the white-haired heads of the gals in the row in front of me. I didn’t care. I was blissin’ out.


The original entry for Day 3 is missing due to a hard-drive crash. I learned the hard way to always back-up. And then back-up your back-up. But on this day I went to Graceland and that was pretty much it, mainly.  Some pictures survived…

Your host as seen in a cheesy tourist shot.


Day 4 – Memphis

On the shuttle returning from Graceland, I spoke with the gentleman seated next to me, an off-duty bus driver. He told me this was his 12th trip there. He had taken this particular trip, he explained, because he’d acquired a new camera (an Olympus) that would take better indoor shots. He showed me some of his photos and he was right. This made me pout internally about my puny, beat-up Canon Powershot that hates low-light and I made a mental note to eventually buy a better quality camera.

From there I headed to the National Civil Rights Museum. Pulling up to that iconic motel, and stepping out of my car, the quiet felt eerie and somber. I toured the museum, taking careful note of original historical documents such as Rosa Parks police report and legal briefs filed in the fight for equality. I concluded my visit by watching a documentary in the museum’s theater entitled “The Witness,” a powerful film about Martin Luther King and his time in Memphis, ending with his tragic death. The audience and I sniffled, teary-eyed. The film left me feeling shaken so I went to the restroom and hung out for awhile to regain my composure.

At the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by A. La Canfora

After this intense and emotional morning, I was in need of a little levity. First a pit stop back at the hotel, to scarf down some leftovers. I left the car parked and proceeded to hoof it Downtown for the next few hours, up and down and over, until I’d worn my feet raw. I gawked at great old buildings – examples of Italianate architecture, Beaux Arts, Romanesque, Gothic Revival standing elegantly alongside modern skyscrapers. I meandered through the ornate lobby of the Peabody Hotel and winced at the sight of the sad little ducks in the fountain. I browsed the cool clothes at Lansky’s, spent some time on Beale Street, visited my first juke joint and listened to some world-class blues.

Beale street. Photo by A. La Canfora

Beale Street, seemed to me very similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans only grittier and less tourist-trappy. There are only a couple blocks given over to clubs and flashy neon signs, so what you’ve got is an intense concentration of music and lights bombarding you from all sides. I am a sensitive thing (the deafening roar of a snail crawling 50 yards away can give me vapors), had lived the last few years of my life in the idyllic university enclave that is Charlottesville, Virginia, population 40,000. About the flashiest thing there would be the IHOP on Rte 29. Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, along with the Corner, are the party zones, and you just *might* hear someone speak using an outdoor voice. I have a saying; “Virginians use their inside voice outside.” They’re a quiet, non-flashy people. Plus, I’d last lived on the outskirts of town, in a semi-rural environment, with chickens in the yard of my neighbors. I think I’ve hammered my point home. A little stimuli goes a long way with me. But while Beale Street doesn’t have Bourbon’s sleaze – there are no strip joints here – Beale is all about music and most of it, the blues. The more time I spent there, the more I loved it. If I lived in Memphis I’d surely spend much time down on Beale.

After Beale Street, I walked down to the river and around Confederate Park, which features a statue of Jefferson Davis, one-time leader of the Confederacy (to me a little incongruous in this land where civil rights came to its head) then finally heading back across the street to my hotel for a break.

I didn’t last long in my hotel. I’d been itching to pop over the Hernando de Soto bridge into Arkansas, so I could add another state to my “been there” list. It was now going on 4pm and so I got in my car and made the quick trip over the Mississippi. Oh yeah, did I mention I’m afraid of heights? The bridge soars over the river at dizzying heights, giving you the sensation of flying. As a kid, I used to amuse my parents to no end whenever we’d cross a bridge. Whenever I’d see one approaching, I’d yell “duck!” would crouch down and cover my head. My parents thought this was hilarious but I was sincerely scared of heights. So I tried to ignore the woozy feeling in my stomach and concentrate on keeping the car operable, impressed with the sight of the great river below. Once in Arkansas, I drove off the highway and had a look around, noted the farmy landscape, with no hint of Appalachian or Smoky mountains in view, just plain flat.

Back in Memphis and time for dinner, I walked four blocks from my hotel to the Flying Fish restaurant on 2nd Street, where I slurped down some fabulous fish tacos. Emerging onto the sidewalk over-stuffed, I walked back to Beale Street. I wanted more, more, more. I plunked myself down in a courtyard to listen to yet another great band. There was a crowd gathered of about 35 enthusiastic listeners and after awhile, it dawned on me that I was the only white person there. With my blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin, I’m like Lightbulb Girl. All along though I’d found the people of Memphis to be some of the most genuine, truly friendly, kind people you’ll meet anywhere. Folks seated on the bench near me asked me where I was from and soon others gravitated to the conversation. We swapped stories, enjoying the cool weather and wonderful band. Lots of laughs and smiles, lots of warmth. Just a really great time.

I spied the beginning of a beautiful sunset, so I walked the few blocks over to the Mississippi River. There I found a place where I could scamper down to the edge of the water, to the fabled banks of the Mississippi and shot a dozen photos of a spectacular, fiery sunset. Standing there, drinking in the view, I was all alone in what looked to be an abandoned industrial area. I realized going down there alone wasn’t the brightest move on my part, but I was willing to risk it since I’d be leaving the next day and the sight was so stunning. But I was cautious not to let my guard down and soon proved right to be guarded, as I was approached by a couple of ragged guys who appeared to be chemically altered. A normally relatively soft-spoken type, at times like this I use my “big, firm” voice and gave them a hearty “hello, nice night isnt it?” They receded away, mumbling to each other, and I decided it was time to scram before darkness fell and an assertive personality would be worthless for a little blonde chick in the black of night in an unfamiliar town.

Amazing sunset over the Mississippi river in Memphis. Photo by A. La Canfora


Day 5 – Memphis then home

Early dawn, I was trying to sleep in my Hampton Inn hotel room but laid there thinking that this was the last chance I’d have to poke around Memphis before catching my flight home later. Besides, a trip is no time for sleep, you can do that at home! So I rose from my bed, showered and dressed. The plan was to find a diner or some place interesting for breakfast. I soon learned that Memphis is not exactly a town of early-risers. I found a Denny’s, a Starbucks, the ubiquitous Cracker Barrel. But nothing, and I mean nothing else was open for business in downtown Memphis at this hour. After awhile I gave up and headed back to the hotel. I queried the desk clerk about any breakfast joints with character that might be open at this hour but she wrinkled her nose and shook her head, said that if I was willing to wait til 8am, there’d be plenty to choose from. I was famished so I gave up on this plan, grabbed a couple hard-boiled eggs from the breakfast bar and went next door to Starbuck’s for a cappuccino. Back in my room, I packed my bags, with the intention to squeeze in a tour of Sun Studio before dashing to the airport.

 Sun Studio is located in a humble little brick building at a fork in the road, a large hollow-body electric guitar sculpture adorning its exterior. It was only 10am but the place was packed with tourists, most of them elderly. It looked like I was the youngest one in the tour by about 5 years. There were few surprises for me on the tour, as I’m pretty familiar with the legend of Sam Philips and the history of his fabulous studio, but it was wonderful to see the artifacts and to bask in the presence of this shrine to early rock and roll. Some items on display; Elvis’s high school diploma and first music contract; the first microphone he’d used to record; early, monstrous-sized recording equipment, etc. The highlight was getting to stand in the actual studio, where some of the earliest rock and roll singles were recorded. I could’ve hung out there for hours, but I had a plane to catch.

Birthplace of rock & roll. Sun Studio. Photo by A. La Canfora

Then it was on to Memphis International for the ceremonial bequeathing of the rental car back to its agency then a nasty salad for lunch in the terminal. On my flight out of Memphis to my connection at Salt Lake City, I had an interesting seat mate, a 50-something year old man by the name of Joseph. Looking like a taller version of the musician Levon Helm and sounding a bit like him too, with a Southern drawl, he told me he lived with his wife, a teacher, on 20 acres in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was taking this flight to visit his son, a smoke jumper for the forest service, out in Idaho. Clad in plaid-flannel and jeans, he had an easy-going, affable personality and wanted to chat. I wasn’t especially happy about this initially as I was very tired and was looking at a long day of travel. I’d been hoping to sleep for the duration of this flight. But I gave up on the idea and we wound up having a nice conversation, lasting nearly the entirety of the 3-hour flight. I learned his story: a high school drop-out, he’d gone into the Navy where he’d become an electrician. Once out, he’d married young and since he had kids to support he enrolled in a technical school and became an electrical engineer. The pay was good so he was able to buy land and retire young. What made his job pay so well, he said, was the fact that he’d done long stints working in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Dubai, a region of the world he came to loathe. While he appreciated the pay and being his own boss, he said that if you dared utter anything negative about the country you were in, you’d get your throat slit; that the level of violence day in, day out was unreal. Joseph and I discovered we both shared a mutual fondness for documentaries, history and archaeology, so we had some common ground. We talked about movies, and he even dared ask my view points on religion and God. I winced and thought “oh boy, here we go…” But while he was religious and I’m most certainly not, we were both delighted to find that we have a mutual respect for others believing however they pleased. He was willing to hear me out and I was willing to hear him out and it was all very pleasant and civil, even humorous, no hint of rancor or condescension on either of our parts. The plane landed, we said our goodbyes, wished each other well.

Now I had a four-hour layover in Salt Lake City. If it’d been a little longer, I’d have left the airport to have a look around, but by the time I’d gotten off the plane and made my way to the gate, my time had already whittled down to 3 hours. So I used it to eat dinner (sushi), read and to type up thoughts about my trip. So I’ll conclude the story of my Great Southern Excursion with my entry from the SLC airport:

Here I am on a layover at Salt Lake City, with a chance to collect my breath and thoughts. I had steeled myself for the fact that this might be a grueling trip. The word “travel” is derived from “travail,” after all. But overall my trip couldn’t have gone smoother. There were some minor hiccups, the worse being an argument with my rental car provider, Avis. Otherwise, the trip went suspiciously well. Little went wrong and the things that did were relatively minor or things that could not have been helped (having to drive in stormy weather or missing an off-ramp, etc…). This was unequivocally one of the best trips of my life. It’s funny, even though I was traveling solo, I rarely felt alone. People (and by “people,” I mean mostly men) gravitate towards me and chat away. Something about me makes me approachable. Maybe with my shiny, yellow hair I’m like a lighthouse, a beacon in the night. Anyway, I shouldn’t question it, whatever “it” is. Maybe it’s that people picked up on the fact that I was having a blast and wanted in on it. Even here at the airport, where I managed to find a quiet corner, away from the obnoxious TVs tuned to CNN blasting Sarah Palin’s borderline screech there are still people (uh, “men”) drifting over to me, asking occasional questions, smiling and saying “hi.” But I felt safe throughout this trip (most of the time), un-harassed, un-hurried (for the most part). I had wonderful luck with all my hotel rooms. Clean, functional, well-priced. The airline didn’t lose my luggage. I didn’t come down with any viruses. And I’ve never encountered so many genuinely kind people on one trip. I ran into only a couple of sourpusses (at Lee’s chapel, or the occasional a-hole who cuts you off on the road). I got to visit with some old friends before the start of the trip in Charlottesville, including my ex-husband/still friend and our miracle kitty, Sigh, survivor of epilepsy.

I think a good measure of a trip is whether or not it changes you, leaves an indelible print and this trip definitely did that. Also, I’d had an epiphany and realized that I’ve come to the end of this particular phase of my life and am now entering a new one. I’m excited, optimistic and hopeful for the future in a way I haven’t been in years.

November 15, 2010






The Unassuming Charm of Boulder City, Nevada

I spent the better part of my Saturday exploring the artist enclave that is Boulder City, Nevada. While I’d driven through it a number of times in the past, I’d only ever stopped briefly for gas or coffee. This time around, I arrived by bus and explored on foot. And I was very pleasantly surprised.

One of many of the gorgeous murals. Photo by A. La Canfora
                                  One of many of the gorgeous murals. Photo by A. La Canfora

Boulder City lay in the hills just outside Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. The town sprouted up in the 1930’s as a result of the construction of the dam. Housing was needed for the workers and so a village was erected by the government and a number of corporations. To keep the men clean and honest, gambling and booze were kept illegal. Not that that really meant much, with Las Vegas only a short 30 miles away. But gambling remains illegal still, while alcohol was permitted in 1969. To maintain the sober integrity of the village in the early 30’s, visitors to the town had to pass through a gatehouse and were allowed in only with a permit. BC ceased to be a company town when it became incorporated in 1959.

I disembarked on Arizona Street in the heart of the historic downtown. Across from me I

Photo by A. La Canfora
Photo by A. La Canfora

spied the Boulder Theater. Opened in 1932 and bought and renovated by Desi “Little Ricky” Arnaz, Jr., the theater regularly hosts ballet troupes and theater companies.

I meandered past bustling, funky cafes and antique shops, enjoying the breeze up there at 2500 feet. The narrow, leafy lanes of the village were packed with Memorial Day weekend revelers. Classic cars rumbled down the streets, on their way to the vintage car show at a nearby park.

Photo by A. La Canfora
               Photo by A. La Canfora

What really impressed me was the obvious efforts to maintain the character and integrity of the village. There was nary a Starbucks or McDonald’s in site. The majority of the businesses were clearly home-grown. And it’s also a testament to Boulder City’s management that even while retaining its history it has maintained a sense of humor. You don’t always see the two together, as oftentimes humor gets lost in a quest for dignity. Whimsical sidewalk sculptures and vintage neon signs, along with shops such as the alien-themed “Flying Saucer,” help keep a sense of joy intact.

Crazy, life-size mannequins of the Blues Brothers and a thrumming, happy-looking crowd helped lure me inside a corner building. Part antique shop, part thrift store, it was teeming with bric-a-brac – every inch seemed to be taken up. And it went on for miles, just a maze of corridors that lead

Lord help by A. La Canfora
Lord help me…photo by A. La Canfora

to tiny nooks and rooms, each with a theme, like “old Hollywood films,” or “antique kitchen.” I gasped and quickly averted my eyes when I spied the vinyl record room, since I’m on a budget and have a weakness for LPs. Jukeboxes, vintage slot machines, framed pictures of Lucille Ball-no doubt the result of her son living in town-vintage coats, leather boots, guitars, Coca-cola bottles….it just went on and on. You could spend years rifling around in there and not see everything. What fun!

I popped into the old-timey candy shop for a snack, a thick and yummy, homemade chocolate milkshake. The best part about it was that it wasn’t too sweet. I sipped as I

Boulder City is a town after my own heart. Photo by A. La Canfora
Boulder City – A town after my own quirky heart. Photo by A. La Canfora

strolled past the shops and through a promenade strewn with wooden benches. I was in love.

I headed up Nevada Way and veered down Colorado Street, where the car show was happening in beautiful green Wilbur Square. Full of massive, towering trees, the park was packed silly with folks gawking at gleaming cars, so lovingly cared for. 1950’s rockabilly blared from speakers and I stood at the top of the park’s stairs and drank in the scene, wishing my dad were alive to see this. He’d have been in heaven.

Across from Wilbur Square, resting atop a hill, is the lovely historic parks and recreation building. I climbed the steps up past the vast lawn where at the top it was lined on either side by a well-tended garden. I walked around to the back of the building where I noticed a pagoda by a cliff. Of course I had to inspect it and was rewarded with a sweeping, breathtaking view of Lake Mead, the water pure blue under a sky teeming with pillowy clouds and thunderheads.

Lake Mead. Photo by A. La Canfora
                                             View of Lake Mead from Boulder City. Photo by A. La Canfora
The historic hotel. Photo by A. La Canfora
The historic hotel. Photo by A. La Canfora

I walked back down the hill and stopped into the historic Boulder Dam Hotel and Museum, attractive with its white colonnade and Southern appeal. The tasteful, Western appointment of the lobby was inviting-I could’ve hung out there all day, reading my book I’d brought with me, poems by Philip Levine. Instead I made my way upstairs to the gallery, where I quickly surmised that my own mosaic art would

The inviting by A. La Canfora
The inviting lobby…photo by A. La Canfora

fit right in with their colorful and contemporary aesthetic. I made a pitch for my art to Rosemary, who was manning the gallery on that day and she gave me an application to have my work juried. Keep your fingers crossed!

What a wonderful day. Thanks, Boulder City! I’ll be seeing you again soon…

The author with new friend. Photo by A. La Canfora
                                          The author with a new friend. Photo by A. La Canfora

My Irish Adventure

I don’t know how it happened, I think it was by way of the Pogues, but suddenly in the mid-90s I became obsessed with traditional Irish music. Not the syrupy, overwrought ballads but the bawdy, colorful pub drinking songs and fast-paced, melody-meandering jigs and reels. The Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Bothy Band, the Chieftains were all on my playlist, so I jumped at the chance to visit Ireland in the fall of 1995. I’d been living in Cambridge, England, where I was participating in a study abroad program and me and a bunch of fellow students decided to rent a van to cruise around Ireland’s perimeter on our break.  For ten days, we – five male students, one male professor and me – drove from Dublin to Galway to Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, Cork City and Waterford then flew back to England. Luckily, having a tomboy disposition and having been the only girl musician in a rock band, I knew how to conduct myself amongst so much testosterone and got along fine with all them. The guys, on the other hand, occasionally clashed with each other, after one too many pints of Guinness.

The memory of the beauty of Ireland stayed with me as I returned to my studies in Cambridge. I was coming up on the end of the program in December and thought, “right. Ireland’s right there – I love it, love its music, its land, its history, its people, now’s my chance.” At the program’s end, I found myself saying goodbye to my fellow classmates and boarding a plane for Ireland, with only a few bags laden with some books and clothes and my Guild guitar in tow.

The Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs of Moher.

I didn’t want to go to Dublin, because that seemed too easy and obvious a choice. I’d fallen for Cork City while there on our trip, had learned at a genealogical center that Cork was the likely town of origin of my ancestors on my mom’s father’s side of the family. I set Cork (the locals pronounced it “Kark”) in my sight lines. I didn’t have much money but did have an overarching optimism and naivete that everything would somehow sort itself out. I boarded a bus from Shannon airport to Cork City, where I disembarked and trudged down rain misted streets. I was looking for a hostel that had been recommended to me,  across from the train station on Lower Glanmire Road (the rough side of town, some locals would later furtively inform me). Inside the drafty Georgian house resplendent in bohemian thrift store junk decor, I was one of only two residents – a German gal, Stephanie, also in her mid-20s and a cranky 30-ish, punk rock Irishman, named Damian. In my upstairs room,  I could look out over the street, a classic Irish scene of row houses, a pub with a blinking neon sign that pierced through the dilapidated, broken slats of the window’s blinds, for which a towel draped over the rod helped to blot out the light at night. I found that the shower had no hot water available, so I shivered as I tried to soap and rinse as fast as possible in the frigid air, an enormous spider resting peacefully in his web in a corner. A sitting room downstairs had an ever-present peat fire burning where I would thaw out afterwards, the sting of the smoke hard on my eyes.

Stephanie and I fell into an easy friendship. She was waitressing nearby at a cafe and I’d pop in to visit her on breaks. We would sit al fresco, sip coffee and talk about our lives. I told her about how I had once lived in Seattle. Stephanie furrowed her brow quizzically, looked at me and said “you mean SEET-le?” I laughed and said “See-AT-le!” She reached over and pinched my arm playfully.

Village in Ireland...
Village in Ireland…

Since I was fast running low on funds, I began pounding the pavement, dropping into pubs, restaurants, shops, wherever, inquiring for work, pitching my services. But the moment proprietors realized I was an American who didn’t have a work permit they’d shake their heads no. I placed a call in response to a wanted ad for a strawberry picker, but even they were reluctant to hire me without the proper documents. So I did what every musician does in these circumstances, I took to the streets with my guitar. Standing under cloudy skies, chilled to my intestines, with my Guild’s case propped open, I would strum and sing for loose change. I didn’t dare sing Irish songs and open myself up to criticism from traditionalists (“coals to Newcastle” indeed). I stuck with classic rock standards, crowd pleasers – your Beatles, your Dylan, etc.

One afternoon I met a young woman (whose name I can’t for the life of me recall), an aloof, slight, bashful gal with thick, long wild Irish hair, bundled in an oversize brown coat and fingerless gloves. She, too, was a starving musician, played the pennywhistle on a street corner down the block. Since she and I were in the same poor boat, we hung out to enjoy each other’s company but agreed not to perform together. Playing together would mean less money. We each did our “shift,” her on her side of the street, me down the block within view and then we’d meet up at the pub afterwards, where we’d warm up and compare notes. She told me her story: she hailed from a farm in a small village in the Irish countryside but couldn’t take that lifestyle any more. Against her father’s wishes, she’d come to the big city of Cork to see if she could make a living playing traditional music on her pennywhistle.

Friends would say to me, “just find an Irish guy and get him to marry you. Then you’re in and won’t have the work permit problem.” But I found the idea of using someone to further my purposes repugnant. Even though I didn’t have a problem meeting guys at that stage of my life. There were many…like Tim, who I met in a dance club. He was cute, slim with tousled, brown hair and had thought I was a native Irish person. He tried to kiss me after awhile but I shoved him off. I didn’t want a fellow, no matter how cute. That would only complicate things at this stage.

After a couple weeks, I decided that it was time for me to move out of the hostel on Lower Glanmire Road. It was too far from the city centre where all the action was, too long a trek and too seedy an area. I said ‘bye’ to the scowling punk and ‘see you soon’ to Steph and schlepped my belongings from the wrong side of the tracks to a more swank hostel across the road from the university. As I walked in the front door, I could hear the strains of Bob Dylan’s song “Jokerman” playing which made my heart puff up with joy.

This new hostel was cheap, cheerful and crowded, packed with tourists from all over the world – Scandinavians, Italians, Japanese, Australians – it was like a Bennetton ad. This hostel had working showers with genuine hot water, blinds that actually kept out the light and a roomy drawing room with a TV which seemed to always be tuned in to Australian soap operas, go figure.

I settled in and continued my routine of daily busking when the weather allowed. Afterwards I’d hang out with Pennywhistle Girl, pub-hopping to find live music. My days were both monotonous and tense – would I make enough money to get something to eat? Would it be raining? Where was all this leading? How was I going to get my hands on a work permit?

I got an impromptu gig in a pub, where I sat on a chair in a corner, the muted steely gray afternoon light illuminating the patrons faces, people who were so polite and attentive it took me aback. They were thrilled I knew Dylan songs and called for more. I sang some favorites stored up in my head – “Tangled up in Blue,” “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right” and “One More Cup of Coffee,” each song ending with appreciative applause. So unlike the jaded crowds of my native southern California!

A few days later, I found the weather too bleak and blustery for busking. I wasn’t about to sit around the hostel all day, though, so I went for an hours-long walk. I visited the ancient jail (“gaol”) up high in Cork’s hills where I had a magnificent panoramic view of the town down below. I popped into cathedrals, admired their heavy stone facades and stained-glass windows. But I was starting to feel defeated and hunger was eating me. I was getting by in part by the kindness of tourists from the hostel, people who’d give the silly blonde a slice of pizza or a piece of toast. There were others there, who like me, had come to Ireland not as a tourist but to try to settle in awhile. They were poor, too, and so we all helped one another out when we could.

One evening, a young male resident of our hostel burst through the front door excitedly, in his hands, massive turnips. Dozens of enormous purpley-white turnips had tumbled onto the road from the back of a truck. We all bounded outside and giddily harvested the bounty and set about trying to figure out how the hell to prepare them. Even with all the countries represented among us, none of us had eaten turnip before. It was put to a vote and decided we’d slice them up and fry them, like french fries. We all helped out in the massive, industrial-size kitchen, all of us hungry and giggling. We took our plates heaping with our fries in the TV room and agreed that they were terrible, hardly edible, but washed down with a little beer they helped stave off hunger for one more day.

After a couple months, I had to acknowledge to myself that this wasn’t working out. The only way I’d be granted a work permit was if I applied back in the U.S., I’d been told. It was either that, marry an Irish guy or busk and starve for God-knows-how-long. My health was deteriorating from the poverty, the lack of nutrition and I gee-whiz realized why my Irish ancestors immigrated in the first place. After a call home to the States and a teary plea for help, a plane ticket to SoCal was arranged for. But first, I had to travel to London to catch my flight.

I left Cork City for good early one winter evening, Pennywhistle Girl and Stephanie accompanying me to the bus station. I hugged them and said a tearful, exhausted goodbye and then clambered aboard the bus, where I gazed out the window as we toodled through rain-damp villages, towards the coast, to catch the late night ferry across the sea to England.

Trim Castle
Trim Castle

My Grand Canyon Excursion

January 15th will forever be an important and special date on my calendar and not just because it’s Captain Beefheart’s birthday. It was the day I finally got to stand astride the Grand Canyon, a dream I’d held for a few years. As an amateur landscape photographer, I’d spent many hours studying photos and documentaries about the Grand Canyon, learning about its geology and history, fantasizing about the day when I’d finally get to see this wonder of the world up close. I moved to the Vegas valley in 2012, the nearest metropolitan hub to the GC, so after a couple years, it was starting to make me crazy that I hadn’t seen it yet, knowing the Grand Canyon was RIGHT THERE. But I was always thwarted by something, either the lack of money, time or health. I finally managed to get to the GC last Thursday, for a brief overview excursion and it was well worth the hassle.

Grand Canyon Tour Co bus
Grand Canyon Tour Co bus

I booked a South Rim tour, a bargain at $79, with the Grand Canyon Tour Company. Now bus travel has always been my least favorite form of travel, so I was trepidatious about the whole thing. I knew it would be hard and girded myself for the worst. But it turned out I didn’t have to worry. The bus was comfortable and gleaming, not full to capacity so I had an empty seat next to me and could spread out. My traveling companions on board were some of the world’s best tourists – quiet, polite, well-behaved folks from China, Singapore, the UK and Italy. Aside from the driver, I was the only local on board. No screaming babies, no drunks, no rude people jostling or yelling. I couldn’t believe my luck. The driver was friendly and professional and you could tell she cared deeply about everyone’s comfort.

Sunrise over Vegas, seen from the bus before departure.
Sunrise over Vegas, seen from the bus before departure. Photo by Angel La Canfora

Still, it was a bus and I was on it all total for something like 11 hours that day. A coach is like an airplane on wheels. And you know what it’s like to be in an airplane – the constant jarring motion, the lack of leg room, the miniscule, cramped restroom, it all gets to you. But traveling is arduous. You have to expect to be uncomfortable for awhile and keep in mind it’s only temporary.

We made a few stops before arriving at the Grand Canyon. We pulled over at Hoover Dam,  Kingman, Arizona and lunched at Williams, AZ. I was alarmed when Tess, our driver, announced that water wouldn’t be available at Grand Canyon. They don’t sell bottled water at the Grand Canyon for environmental reasons and, she explained, that they’d shut off the public taps because of the winter weather. So everyone had to stock up in Kingman with enough water to get them through the day. I have a medical condition that causes chronic dehydration and have to drink 2 to 3 gallons of water a day or else suffer serious consequences. Had I known about the water issue, I’d have brought along a jug to see me through. As it was, I had to buy about 15 of those little water bottles in Kingman, about $22 worth of water. I was irritated but I’ve traveled a lot and was prepared for unforeseen circumstances. I placed the bottles in my backpack, and was grateful that I’d had the cash on me so I could purchase them at the stop.

The Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam. Photo by Angel La Canfora

We pulled into the quaint mountain town of Williams, AZ for an all-you-can-eat lunch, free with the tour. We were seated cafeteria style in a pleasant lodge-like room, my companions, two tiny Japanese girls who looked to be about 18 years old or so. I sat down with my plate, a modest salad with a veggie egg roll, while these ladies had two dinner plates each, with mountains of food piled high. They had salisbury steaks and french fries and stir fry chicken and vegetables and egg rolls, etc. I tried not to gawk and marvel at the amount of food these small women were shoveling into their mouths, thought it was funny how little food I had comparatively, seeing as I’m a foot taller than them. I asked if they were enjoying the trip, they nodded and smiled. I asked if they spoke much English, they glanced at each other and said, “uhhhh…” So I left them alone to inhale their food while I picked at my iceberg lettuce. I couldn’t help but notice when one of them speared an enormous broccoli floret and held it up to bulging eyes, both of them leaning in to it, chattering away excitedly. I guess they don’t have big broccoli in Japan?

Back on the road, we zipped up to Mather’s Point at the South Rim, where we were given the option of checking out the view for awhile, then getting back on the bus and being taken to Bright Angel point, or we could hike the two miles from Mather’s and meet up with our group at Bright Angel after a couple hours. I chose the hike and I’m so glad I did. It was the highlight of the trip for me.

The view from Mather's Point, Grand Canyon. Photo by Angel La Canfora.
The view from Mather’s Point, Grand Canyon. Photo by Angel La Canfora.

The path skirts the edge of the Grand Canyon, in some places, perilously close with no rail or wall to protect you and the views, of course, are awe-inspiring. The weather was on the warm side for this time of year with clear blue skies. We landscape photographers don’t like clear blue skies, we like bad weather to make for more dramatic photos. At a minimum, we want some clouds but there were none on this day. I wasn’t bothered by it though, as I was just so excited to finally see the GC after all these years. Fact is, nothing can ever really prepare you for the real-life sight of it. It’s all about the scale. And pictures simply can’t capture it, no matter how beautiful they may be. You’re standing there, thousands of feet up and the canyon stretches off into the horizon. I saw one woman, about thirtyish, standing there with tears streaming down her face, so freaked out by the height, she was demanding to be taken back to the bus. I heard people gasping, saying “woah.”  Really, if you don’t gasp when you see it, then there’s something broken in you.

As seen from the path at the South Rim. Photo by Angel La Canfora.
As seen from the path at the South Rim. Photo by Angel La Canfora.

Confess it DID make me feel a bit cranky, when we first arrived at Mather’s Point, that I had to weave through crowds with their selfie-sticks as I tried to near the railing to look out over the GC. So I decided that the sooner I could escape them, the better. I soon left behind the crowds at Mather’s and had the path mostly to myself.

South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Angel La Canfora

There were still patches of ice on the path from a recent snowfall making it so that I had to watch my footing. But the walk was beautiful, maybe the most beautiful that I’ve ever taken. The path dips and curves and rises and at 7,000 feet, if you’re not reasonably fit, you’ll shortly be huffing and puffing. I was huffing and puffing.

At one point, a large mule deer lazily grazed right past me, startling me and sending my heart up into my throat. You’d think that for someone who once lived alone in a rustic mountain cabin at 7,000 feet, I’d be a bit less wussier. I blame my up-bringing – you can take the girl out of Orange County, CA but you can’t take Orange County out of the girl!

As I closed in on Bright Angel lodge, I heard a young female voice, coming from the canyon side, crying out, “help me, please help me!” I looked over and couldn’t register what I was seeing for a moment. All I could see was the head and hands of a young, slight, Chinese gal, as she held on to the wrong side of the cliff. I rushed over, saw that she was standing on a very narrow ledge – one slip and she was going down. I grabbed her right hand, made sure I had firm footing and wasn’t on a patch of ice and yoinked her over the edge as she pushed herself up with her other hand. She was crying out in fear as I maneuvered her onto terra firma. Thankfully, she turned out to just be shaken but otherwise unharmed. She thanked me profusely and I went on my way. Just another day at the Grand Canyon, I guess! It looked to me like what had happened was she had seen the small ledge off the main path and thought it would be a cool place to take a picture, so she set her camera and purse down by the cliff, climbed down to the ledge, realized how precarious it was and panicked, because there wasn’t actually much ledge there and she had no way to hoist herself back up. I wasn’t afraid during the whole thing, because it all happened within the span of seconds. It wasn’t until I was walking away that the gravity of what had just happened really struck me! After a quick Google, I read that on average, 12 people die at the Grand Canyon each year!

The South Rim.
The South Rim.  Careful out there!  Photo by Angel La Canfora

At Bright Angel lodge, I had time enough to order some fries in the bar and chat with a couple of tourists from South Carolina. The lady and I had a conversation that went like this;
Me: “I’m divorced, thinking of moving to Phoenix.”
Her: “You don’t have children?”
Me: “No.”
Her: “So you’re free?”
Me, shrugging: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Her, rolling her eyes: “Must be nice! Well, you’re young enough looking that you can get away with it.”
I’m still not sure what she meant by that…
Anyway, back on the bus for an uneventful ride home. The bus driver did, however, show a video of Terry Fator, which made me cringe (I don’t understand ventriloquists. They’re amusing for about 4 seconds. But an entire hour?! Kill me now… )

As the bus pulled into Vegas, it had to stop at everyone’s hotels. With me being a local, it meant I had to go back to Main HQ so I was the last one on. When the bus was emptied of tourists, I moved up near the front and chatted with the driver, who was delighted to find out I live in Henderson. She explained that an elderly lady from our group had taken ill at lunch and that it was serious enough that her family members wanted her hospitalized, but the old lady had refused, insisted on continuing on the trip. Tess said she spent the rest of the day worrying about her. I told her I admired her, that it must be a tough job, to drive a huge coach over treacherous mountain/desert roads while also having to be concerned about everyone’s safety and well-being. She explained that she has every other day off to regroup. I think everyone needs to hug a bus driver today, for they have an awfully difficult job and get little recognition for it.

The Grand Canyon, has to be seen to be believed. Photo by Angel La Canfora
The Grand Canyon, has to be seen to be believed. Photo by Angel La Canfora

A Special Thanksgiving Birthday, or “How I Partied in the Desert with a Rock Star”

On the 31st floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.-Gram Parsons

Four years ago, on November 25th, I spent a great deal of that day driving and exploring the desert around Joshua Tree, California. Caught up in the throes of post-divorce existential angst, I drove off-road and came to rest in the middle of a wide desert valley-my only companion, the wind. As I stood by my trusty Outlander, with the wind whipping my hair around and the sun warming my face, I marveled at the thought that at that very moment, families all around the country would be sitting down to their Thanksgiving meal, bickering over the volume of the TV (“turn it down!” “But the game’s on!”), passing the stuffing, etc. And here I was in the middle of the Mojave desert, not another human or vehicle anywhere in sight. I distinctly remember thinking, “why am I like this? Why can’t I be normal?” — and there’s even a video to commemorate that moment: — It occurred to me that no one on earth knew where I was. My cellphone had no bars and I was far from the main road. It was all at once exhilarating, liberating and scary. I realized that if I were to get a flat tire or sprain an ankle, I’d be stuck out there. Confess I felt a little thrilled by the danger of it all.

The beautiful Joshua Tree desert...
The beautiful Joshua Tree desert…

That evening I headed to the Joshua Tree Inn, where I was staying the night in my not-at-all-depressing-choice of a room, the Gram Parson’s death suite. I wasn’t a huge fan of his music, thought it was pretty but lacked the edge and bite that I prefer. Mainly I was here at the Inn because it was funky and reasonably priced, a charming Spanish-themed bungalow with rustic appeal, an idyllic courtyard with a zen garden, vines climbing up beams. And I was fascinated by Gram’s story, so out of morbid curiosity, booked the Gram death room, to have a poke around and to be able to brag to my friends that I’d stayed there.

Gram Parsons memorial at the Joshua Tree Inn.
Gram Parsons memorial at the Joshua Tree Inn.

I’d been back at the room for only a little while when there was a knock on my door. The owners, a boho couple around my age, wanted to know if I’d like to join them for the Thanksgiving meal. I was incredibly touched, accepted their offer and soon met up with them in the dining room off the reception area.

Candles and Christmas lights gave the room a warm and cozy atmosphere that I appreciated as I sat at the long wood table with the other diners. There were about a dozen of us in total-a young, obviously newly-wedded German couple, a bunch o’ Brazilians, the proprietor, his wife, a soft-spoken male hippy employee who seemed to talk about chai tea every chance he got (“I make my own! It’s very good. You should try some in the morning.”). We nibbled pie and turkey, strummed guitars, everyone passing around the wine bottle which I declined since I was planning on making the long drive home early the next morning.

After an hour or so, a phone jingled in the reception area. The proprietress jumped up to answer it. In a few minutes, she returned and said breathlessly, “that was Ben Harper. He and his buddy will be here soon.” She went on to explain to everyone there that this was a popular point of pilgrimage for musicians and that they regularly had big names stopping in: Clapton, Robert Plant, Bono, etc. The Brazilians had never heard of Harper so they were filled in quickly before Ben’s arrival.

Ben Harper soon strolled in-tall, dark and handsome, with the uber-confident air of a politician or, uh, a rock star. He was followed by an equally handsome, yet blonder, male. Greetings all around and then Ben took a seat at the table beside me. Inexplicably, everyone in the room suddenly fell silent, awkward and self-conscious in the face of musical royalty. I couldn’t stand it for very long so I turned to Ben and said, “have you had a good Thanksgiving so far?” Leaning back in his chair, glass of wine in hand, clad in a plaid flannel shirt over a t-shirt and jeans, he answered effusively in the positive. He explained that he’d spent Thanksgiving at his mom’s house in Claremont and that he and his friend had decided they felt like doing some camping, so they had driven out here to Joshua Tree to camp overnight, under the stars.

By now everyone at the table had relaxed again and Ben talked in detail about his latest recording project with Charlie Musselwhite. During the conversation, the proprietress blurted out that it was not just Thanksgiving, but my birthday too. Ben seemed genuinely surprised, said, “you’re kidding?!” The memory of Ben Harper leaping to his feet unhesitatingly, stretching his arms out wide toward me, exclaiming “happy birthday!” is one that is permanently etched in my brain. I rose, giggling, and hugged his tall, fit frame, then sat back down to the sight of the other women at the table drilling daggers at me with their eyes (Ha! Sorry, ladies! Get your own rock star…).

Turned out Ben’s pal had never seen the infamous Gram Parsons’ room, so they asked if they could check it out. Of course I said yes. So Ben and his friend took a quick look around, said their goodbyes and then headed out into the chilly desert night for some stargazing.

Later that night, alone in the Gram Parson’s death room, I felt very much alive and content and realized that I couldn’t post about any of this to my friends on Facebook right then, dammit. I didn’t want to blow Ben’s cover. There were only a few campsites open at Joshua Tree and I didn’t want to be responsible for leaking his whereabouts out to the internet. I could just see some rabid, psycho-fan driving out there, Ben waking to them hovering over him, a flashlight shining on his face (“AAAKKK! It really IS you! I love your music!”). So I posted some innocuous pictures of trees and that day’s sunset instead and basked in the secret that I’d had an extra special Thanksgiving birthday.

The "gold-plated door." Me outside Gram's room.
The “gold-plated door” leading into Gram’s room.