Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Finding Travel Excitement; Here, There, and Everywhere

Main St USA (El Segundo, CA)

Meet me in El Segundo? El Segundo, I know where it is but why would I go there? Suggested by a very hip and cultural poet friend, I was intrigued.  Although I had lived in the megalopolis my whole life, I had never been there.  But taking the hint, I said yes.  Located a half hour south of my home just past the airport, El Segundo is a small city with the reputation of having a small town feel. These days Angelenos carve out areas of activity due to spirit numbing traffic issues.  Certain areas, perhaps no more than ten miles away, can have such an aura of distance that it feels like you need a passport to go there.  I broke the mold this day, turn left , turn left again and suddenly I was off the freeway and in middle America, sampling the local vibe.   Main St is about three blocks long, with the high school at one end and the city hall at the other.  In between on the pedestrian friendly street are all manner of local shops from cleaners to beer bar to yoga studio.  I passed two other local cafes before settling on the Blue Butterfly Coffee Lounge.  It has great outdoor seating and comfortable couches.  I decided to eat there because almost immediately a couple of police sat down next to me.  My spirits had lifted in a ten mile drive as much as a four hour flight to HI.  Something new and at the same time comfortable!

Coffee in Kaimuki, HNL
Much commentary about little?  Well, yes but I am offering a happiness tip that is available to virtually anyone almost immediately.  You can escape from  from funk, from routine, banality,and into the fun of novelty.  We all crave the new.  This hard wired human trait, known by anthropologists as the exploration benefit, developed when we were in the hunter/ gatherer period because visiting new places improved the chances for survival.  When we dip into the stimulation of the new, the unknown, the mysterious, the happiness hormone dopamine is secreted.   Finding the personal balance of the known and comfortable in one’s life with enough of the new and challenging requires experimentation.  A journey to a new place in your city doesn’t have to be saved for out of town visitors who want to see the big sights.  It can be as simple as walking down a new street to your yoga class or driving to work on city streets rather than the freeway.  The key is to stop, look, and linger.   One of my interests is to visit non-corporate coffee houses and soak in the local ambience.  Each is unique in its personality with common features (neighborhood bulletin board) that help to make me feel at home.    I have a favorite locals’ coffee house in Honolulu in the Kaimuki district called Coffee Talk.  When I stop there, I can instantly settle down to work without disorientation.  Last time I was there the barista gave me a kamaaina (locals’) discount.  If I happen to be on the north shore, it is the same vibe at the Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa.  They have a whole lanai (outdoor) section for computer workers.  It is so relaxed that one man posts there every day and interviews tax clients.   Home away from home but discovered by getting off the main travel arteries.
Tropical Coffee & Lanai, Haleiwa, HI

Maybe your thing is spas.  Every neighborhood has a spa these days.  It is easy to walk around a new neighborhood and get a facial.  Major point:  Walk around.  Get on the ground and see life as it unfolds.  Our two ton traveling homes often are an impermeable barrier between our souls and life.  Connecting with a place is connecting with its life.  Perhaps you’re into famers’ markets, most towns now have a weekly organic produce market.  Instead of thinking it is out of your parameters, consider it an opportunity discover that area.  Too much of the same old, same old is deadening. 

Blue Butterfly on Main St, El Segundo, CA
Sometimes it takes a kick start to get the novelty gene online, like the case of my friend suggesting El Segundo.  It wasn’t on my screen, never thought of visiting that town but when the idea arose immediately my adventure gene kicked in.   I investigated possibilities, found a destination, and jumped in the car.  Instant energizer and cure for the boredom blues.  So, keep your eyes and ears open for ideas and invitations to break into a travel adventure right in your own city.   Then find a destination that feeds one of your interests or passions and park the car and walk.  I guarantee within a few blocks you’ll be in discovery mode and ennui disappears.  You’re now foraging in the wilderness and that is exciting.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Apocalypse Now to The Way: The Adventure Awaits

Ever have the experience of let down when you finally visit a famous landmark?  That sense of ‘is that all there is to it?’  That reaction is common and perhaps becoming more common as we get submerged in images and communications about just about every place and everything.  Freshness is hard to come by these days.   Adventure and novelty are essential stimulants for our minds and spirits.  Go back to that visit to a famous place for the first time, the memories you take away from that trip usually are about the people you meet or the weather or the local culture.  That site has been embedded in our minds for so long that often the image is less exciting than the surrounding experience. 

Willard and Kurtz in Apocalpse Now
After a trip to a far off place, it is often a great joy to return home to the comforts and routine of our lives.  It feels good to reenter the known and relatively secure world of home.  Finding that sweet spot of the novelty balanced with the comfort zone is an interesting challenge.  Since we have compiled many years of experiences, it can be especially daunting for Boomers moving into maturity.   The contrast between youth and maturity is illustrated in two classic Martin Sheen movies, Apocalpyse Now and The Way.

A Man on Orders
In each film Sheen plays a man who is charting his own course.  In Apocalpyse Now (1976), Sheen plays Willard who is assigned by the brass to go up the river to take out the rogue officer Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando).   In this interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Willard faces all manner of madness set in the Vietnam War, where tribal loyalties carried more weight than any government.  He is assigned to kill Kurtz who has gone rogue.  They have a meeting of minds and he seems to sense the hopelessness that presaged the madness.  Although he understands and we suspect sympathizes with the reasons for Kurtz going off, Willard completes his mission and takes out Kurtz.  He returns to the command and it is implied that the road has been paved for a successful military career.  But underlying his compliance with orders, Martin Sheen’s encounter with freedom and the unknown has clearly changed his world view.  Fast forward to 2010’s The Way produced and directed by Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez.  Again we see Sheen in the role of a conventional man (in this case an ophthalmologist in Santa Barbara, CA) who has a call to destiny that changes his life.  His twenty something son leaves graduate school to see the world and begins at the pilgrimage of St. James in northern Spain.  On the first day of his two month hike, the son is killed and Sheen decides to take his place. After that decision his life changes irrevocably.    

In both films Sheen is summoned to pursue the unknown through no wish or will of his own.  While on the journey he faces unimagined foes, characters, situations, and inner turmoil.  In the earlier film his reflections are prompted by the external evil of the Vietnam War and a renegade US Army officer, while in the recent movie the loss of his son provokes an inner journey into the darkness of the soul while the characters around him are largely benign.   In Apocalypse Now one can imagine that even though Sheen goes on to success in his career and a conventional life and he is forever changed.    In The Way, Sheen’s character is traditional as indicated by playing golf and working as a doctor for 30 plus years, but this veneer of complacency is broken by his son’s sudden death.  Picking up his son’s back pack, he addresses his grief and steps into a new world.  The film ends with him turning his back on the comfortable life and opting for the unknown and adventure.
New adventures on the trail of life
Seeing  the films as bookends of a typical life helps to illustrate the significant transition of moving into retirement for the counter-cultural generation.  Our formative years were spent in rebellion, creative expression, freedom-seeking, and community.  Then on cue most of us settled down (like Willard) into careers, mortgages, children, and routine, everyday life.  Turning our back on the chaos of our time symbolized by the horror of going up the river to take out Kurtz, our generation became intensely materialistic and self-obsessed.   That phase ends or fades for most of us somewhere around sixty.  Now, the doors to freedom can be thrust wide open and the call of real living can be heard.  This new adventure is not the horror of Vietnam but the joy of friendly, interesting companions and activities found on a new road, The Way.  We no longer need to stay on the roundabout of life that takes us to work and back with an annual two week vacation.  For many the opportunity is there for recapturing the spirit of youth tempered with the wisdom (hopefully) of age.   Places unknown beckon and we may rediscover the youthful spirit of curiosity and discovery.   We can leave behind the ersatz Paris/ Venice/ New York of Las Vegas and get out into the real world.  Sure, go to the tourist sites and then be sure to poke around the nooks and crannies of the side streets away from the monuments.   And best of all, when we are done with excitement we can go home and power up the hot tub and the HD TV.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pursuit of Passion (Hot Springs) Leads to Adventure

Among my lifelong passions re-energized in this stage of life is hot springs (from luxury spa to hot water bubbling into a make shift pool).  My all time favorites include the steam bath/ pool in the lava flow on the big island of Hawaii as well as the chic full service spa at Glen Ivy in Corona, CA.  Orienting my internal compass to this avocation leads me to unexpected adventures and discoveries. 

Chinanti Hot Springs on the Rio Grande, TX
Driving an unpaved road in my Volvo subcompact for an hour in Southwest TX, epitomized my devotion to hot springs.  The siren call of healing waters inspired a long side trip.  In fact, the call of hot springs was the theme of a three week driveabout  of the southwest USA.  From the recently upgraded Ojo Caliente (near Santa Fe, NM) to Truth or Consequences, NM (formerly named Hot Springs) to Eldorado (outside of Phoenix) each has its own particular style, mood, and reward.    And in each place the camaraderie of the hot springers prevails.  This spirit was highlighted at Chinanti (at the end of that unpaved road), where the soakers bantered about the relative merits of a couple dozen hot springs from Big Bend, TX to Wasilla, AL.

But getting there was more than half the story.  Fueled by memories of past hot springs trips located in natural settings, soothed by the mineral waters, and mostly by my sense of adventure, I headed south from Marfa, TX and opted for the shorter (by half) unpaved route.  This folly was based on my many years of travel to war zones, nature outposts, and the Mojave Desert.  How bad could it be?  I found out, a lot worse than I thought.  Just before the paved section ran out, I spied a Border Patrol truck pointing in the direction of the Mexican border.  I recalled a recent news report on how smugglers are prone to bring their human cargo overland through the Sonoran desert.  Initially, the unpaved section was well graded and easy to drive but eventually led to a single lane, ungraded, winding mountain road.  Picking my way through the large rocks and steep climbs, the 405 at 5 pm suddenly seemed speedy.  Stopping at dry creek beds to move rocks out of the way, all the while praying not have a breakdown of some sort.  Or even worse meet one of those smuggling crews who would have nothing to lose by commandeering my vehicle.   Needless to say, my imagination was hard at work conjuring up disasters and I had no cell service.  Passing rusting ruins of old vehicles did not lighten my mood.  After about an hour without seeing another car, I met an old truck coming the other direction.  I wanted to stop and tell my story but the old guy just waved and kept rolling.  Upon hitting the paved road at a village called Ruidosa, I felt like an old time cowboy riding into a frontier town.  But there was no saloon, just a boarded up church.

When I finally reached Chinanti Hot Springs and told my tale to the proprietor, she just laughed and declared my passage to be a miracle given the condition of the road.  She also said even if I had broken down, Border Patrol had a blimp in the air and they knew my every move.  So much for isolation.  After my hour’s soak and kibitzing with my hot springs colleagues, I took the twice as far paved route back to the Interstate.   Enough adventure for one day.

Riverbend Hot Springs, T or C, NM
Another hot springs surprise (albeit not as adventurous) was my foray into the strangely named, Truth or Consequences (or T or C to locals).  Although right off the Interstate, it is a town that looks like was abandoned in 1955 and then rediscovered a couple years ago.  Old broken down hot springs motels litter the town.  Boarded up and derelict they look like a scene from Mad Max, but on the main street  there are several gentrified shops selling everything from organic vegetables to crystals to used clothes.  The gem of the town is Riverbend Motel & Hot Springs which has four tubs of varying temperatures overlooking the river.  Recently, it was redone by the thirty something owner in a style reminiscent of the Palm Springs chic ‘mid-century’ look.  

Funky luxury near Santa Fe
Santa Fe, NM yielded a wild and scenic surprise.  As a frequent visitor to this acclaimed and unique art town, I had sampled its local spa treasures, the city adjacent chic spa, 10,000 Waves.  Enticed by the by friends’ recommendations for Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, I drove an hour north of the city.  A shower of yellow leaved cottonwood trees greeted me upon leaving the highway at funky Espanola (notable only for its $2.98 per gallon gas).  Mile after mile of the yellow leave road was a delight comparable to the fall leaves in New England.  The hot springs offered the greatest stew of different mineral baths that I had ever encountered; arsenic, lithium, sulfur, lead AND a separate mud bath.  I was like a frog jumping from jumping from pool to pool. 

Homemade resort in Tonopah, AZ
On the final leg from Tucson, AZ back home to L.A., my hot springs passion led to the obscure El Dorado Hot Springs in Tonopah, about an hour west of Phoenix.  Beat up construction vehicles decorate the front yard and as you enter the compound (walled in with wild bamboo) an electronic alarm goes off.  Walking into the yard is like going to an old west movie set, wood frame out buildings, an old trailer, and an outdoor office set up on a table.  On the table is a collection of rocks and broken bottles and I asked the toothless proprietor about that collection.  She reported that it is just stuff they pick up in the yard.  On one side of the dusty yard are the semi private tubs and at the entrance one is warned that this is a nude area.  A collection of five old claw foot tubs and one converted aluminum water tank comprise the baths.  No juice bar, massage sign ups, or changing room.  Take off your clothes and jump in.  It was a foray into a do it yourself trailer style hot springs resort.

Passion leads us to the unknown in ourselves and the world.  It pulls us into situations our analytic mind may reject.  My passion for hot springs pushed me off the fast route, the interstate, and into surprises.  Beautiful vistas, friendly people, scary roads, strange architectures, healing waters, and a variety of sublime moments were my reward.   Find a passion and PURSUE IT.  Don’t let your fearful, comfort seeking mind take your eyes off the prize.  Your reward is the experience and the experience cannot be televised, tweeted, or skyped.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Detours Can Lead to Miracles & Art (Marfa, TX)

The typical reaction to a detour is frustration; the trip will take longer, the road may be rough, probably miss certain scenery.  But I discovered an intentional detour can offer the real boon of a road trip.  Even in daily life in the city, as was said by Robert Frost ‘the road less traveled made all the difference.’  Pushing through habits, routines, and expectations offers for the rebirthing Boomer, the excitement of discovery.  A side trip to the mysterious town of Marfa, TX had all of my favorite elements; desert, art, classic hotels, and hot springs.  Approaching from the east on I-80, the setting sun against the mountains in the distant horizon beckoned me to the unknown.  

No one here but us sagebrushes
The state highway, a straight ribbon of asphalt traveled only by jumbo, six wheel pick-ups and the occasional short semi, stretched to the end of the horizon.  I first learned of this town from a chance acquaintance at a gym in Santa Fe, I was challenged as an artist and an adventurer.  Is it worth a three hour detour?  But what could be more exciting than an art town that had no silver jewelry shops with the southwestern motif of the Indian dream catcher.   Even the celebratory website encouraged its obscurity, with its most significant landmark an ersatz Prada shop done up in a derelict roadside cafĂ© thirty eight miles outside of town.  The website announced the super cool chic motel (Thunderbird Motel with its appropriately retro name and minimalist style) and the classic, luxury old downtown hotel (The Paisano built in 1930).  I knew there must be something about the burg, when the website mentioned a set of renovated (in desert art chic style) casitas that are fully booked til February.  The final enticement was the declaration that this ‘art town’ did not even have one dive bar.  Whoa!  Isn’t that one of the enduring stereotypes, the long suffering artist with a shot of Jim Beam on the counter?

I headed toward the Rio Grande with the open mind of the curious, off beat traveler tempered with recent experience of the bus tour shoppers at Santa Fe.  It is a curious tension to be an artist and art lover and at the same time be a bit bugged when the cool art town becomes a commercial hit and caters to motifs that are sure to sell; wolves baying at the moon, angular whistle blowing kokopellis, and authentic turquoise big belt buckles.  Following the call, I barreled down the road in real Texas cowboy country, every twenty miles or so the 75 mph speed slows down to about 20 for the cow guard in the road.  The first one I hit with a bang to the suspension and the next I go nice and easy. 

Art imported from L.A.
Before arriving at Marfa you must pass through Ashley, which is the proud home of Sul Pass State College.   College town but no coffee shop hang outs.  The majority of excitement seemed to be at the local Dollar Store.  Downtown shops are boarded up but a brave tourist information center proudly offers free coffee and wi fi.  I pick up some fruit in anticipation of slim food choices in Marfa.  Those fruit saved the day on my trek out to the hot springs the following day.  Just before getting into town, I note a viewing platform on the side of this flat road.  (Mental note to come back later). 

Not a church, a studio
Marfa turned out to be a one of a kind.  It has been the location shoot for at least three Hollywood movies (Giant with James Dean, No Place for Old Men, & There Will Be Blood).  I can see why with its windblown desert ambiance, the stately county courthouse, and the regal Paisano Hotel.  A quick stroll around town revealed boarded up shops in the center of town right next to a gallery with an installation from L.A.  Across from the converted gas station pizza parlor is another gallery whose pieces are in the $30k range.  In a side room the gallery owner was in intense negotiations with a well dressed, mature art maven.  The scene could have fit in West Hollywood or Greenwich Village.  Next to the new NPR radio station was the public library which that evening had a showing of original animation shorts by a local filmmaker.  Within a couple more blocks was the regional headquarters of the Border Patrol and their housing area with clean, rectangular, nondescript abodes.  Walking back to my luxury hotel I passed beat up old houses with the roofs caving in next to super chic gentrified old adobes.   The coolest was a converted church.  And nowhere was a live person to be found. 

Can you see the LIGHT?
Needing a drink to assimilate this incongruity, I walked back to the hotel bar with its collection of older, well heeled, and proper guests.  The conversation was too erudite for my taste and I split for a slice of organic pizza and spinach salad at the converted gas station.  I overheard a local’s comments about the Marfa lights, got the skinny and headed back out of town again for the evening spectacle.  No bar in town so this seemed like the only game in town.  At the previously noted viewing platform about a dozen tourists traded tall tales they had heard about the ‘lights’, having been prepped by the locals where to look I instantly saw the light.  It was like a flickering star but very low on the horizon.  The blurb on the newly constructed platform declares there is no scientific explanation.  It is considered a ‘miracle.’ 

Reflecting on that word, miracle, on the way back to town, I realized I got more than I asked for in Marfa:   A one of kind art town whose best work is itself, vacant shops, high end galleries, luxury hotel, too cool motel, Border Patrol, and best of all the Marfa Lights.  This was gold for a road trip; unexpected, unplanned, unusual, and different.  Glad I made the three hour detour, I remembered that miracles happen when you least expect it.  Like the Marfa Lights, they are better left unexplained.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No Tie, New Self: Review, Release, & Reinvent

A pile of a couple hundred ties lay strewn about a table in my bedroom.  Forced to move them when I painted the closet where they were hanging.  Collected over thirty years of professional employment, I treasured my ties.  They were a symbol of my professional attitude.  Although, not required to wear a tie in my former job, I chose to wear a tie virtually everyday,  even as the work culture became more casual  and ties became less and less common.  The tie was my symbolic uniform of my job.   When I put on a tie I was preparing for work.  Almost all are silk with various dramatic patterns from cubist renderings of Picasso paintings to musings by Jerry Garcia to red, white, and blue for American holidays and even one made of aluminum shaped like a zydeco washboard.  Ties were my expression of individuality and style.   Careful to wear the Casablanca tie on Valentine’s day as I was to wear the snowman around Christmas.  When it was hot out I would wear the cotton batik from Bali.  Without exception, I made sure the tie of the day matched my pants and jacket.  Looking good was never sacrificed for my occasional sartorial eccentricities.

Soon after my retirement with my new girlfriend, I went to county line beach and made a bonfire of my work shoes, and a stack of ties.  Intent on ritualizing the change in my life, I thought the transition would be quick and easy.  It has not been.  I haven’t been able to deal with this closet of ties since that night at the beach.  They just hung there, limp, purposeless, like a collection of clothes in the Smithsonian.  Forced to move them, I am reluctant to place them back in their display case.  What for?  I never wear a tie these days and probably won’t until the next funeral I attend. The end of another year seems an appropriate time to look at closure of that phase of my life.  I don’t intend to return there.  I am transforming in 2012.

We all have remnants of past personae hanging around our homes.  Could be gifts from a past lover that we never use.  Or maybe sports gear from an earlier obsession now done.  How do we handle these relics?  Do we allow them to use up space in our house and in our minds?  How do we dispose of them?  Toss them out unceremoniously following the biblical admonition, ‘let the dead bury the dead?’  Perhaps we pack them away in a storage bin or attic because we just can’t bear to part with the memory attached to the thing.  

The end of the year is often used as a time to release old baggage but my inquiry is on the way and manner we release, toss, trash, and store our past.  Do we do it with appreciation of the person and situation that the thing represents?  Do we reject the feelings of loss that may arise?  Do we practice a small ritual to recognize the transition we have made?  A New Year arises on Jan 1 like it does every year and can we approach the New Year complete?  Can we become complete with the stories, persons, and places that passed through our experience for the past 365 days?   By complete I mean to get up to date and embrace the whole thing; the good, bad, and the ugly.  These days between the winter solstice and January 1 can be used as days of reckoning with our year just past.  Make that long promised phone call.  Send that email to a friend that fell out.  Maybe even write a note to yourself acknowledging the successes and failures of the past year.  The tradition of making resolutions or intentions is a powerful way to begin a new year.  It is helpful to clean out the closets first and release the old stuff that no longer serves.    The ties won’t go back, just as I won’t go back to the old job and it is time for them to hang out somewhere else.     Make some space for the new by going into the closets, inner and outer, and reviewing and releasing or renewing.