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Excerpts of California Travel Diary
State 23 - CALIFORNIA 03 JUN 99 - 20 JUN 99

 

Staying with John and Sheryl in Los Angeles and it's so good to see family again. Haven't seen 'em since their wedding day 10 years ago, actually, 10 years ago today, as we arrive just in time to help them celebrate with dinner, chocolate cake and champagne. Finally get to meet my new grand-nephew, Nicholas, now seven years old, and a perfect angel with a flirtatious wink that wins smiles from young and old ladies alike. Never saw a little boy so polite, so considerate, so easy going, so . . .well, so adult. Tonight we watch the videotape of his mom and dad's wedding day and I notice that every time Ken appears on camera, he's taking a photo of someone or something, forever the documentalist, that one. Ten years later, he's doing the same thing. Always recording memories on film, lest we forget. (I love that about him.) John and Sheryl live in Riverside, a California orange-growing community. This morning while I luxuriate over a cup of good English tea (Sheryl bought three boxes just for us), Ken jogs through one of the nearby orange groves and returns, all sweaty. Between gasps for breath, he exclaims, "Sure feels weird to be kicking oranges out of the way. You should've seen me . . . kicking 'em like footballs." Indeed. The town center has preserved the 150-year old "Parent" orange tree, which we see on our way to dinner this evening. The tree is kinda disappointing, though. Looks like all the other orange trees. (Guess I imagined some sad, sagging tree with cobwebs and big old oranges too heavy for it's frail limbs.) These ubiquitous orange balls are a constant reminder of California's fruitful abundance. We're told that in spring, orange blossoms light up the town and fill the air with a thick, sweet fragrance. "It even comes into the house" Sheryl says, "and fills every room with this powerful aroma --sometimes it gets to be a bit too much." What a wonderland they live in! Orange groves, mountains, meadows and flowers. Flowers in aplenty. On the hillsides white lilies grow wild, and just outside our bedroom window are bushes of beautiful hibiscus and calla lilies. Calla lilies right in the front yard. Back home we pay $5 a stem, but here they're as common as daisies. That's what's nice about California; it's the essence of life.

Since Los Angeles is not a scheduled stop on this "Capital Tour" we end our family visit rather abruptly and head to Sacramento, our ultimate destination. Now it's time to visit Andy. Of course I want to see him after all these years. But the last time I saw him was at John & Sheryl's wedding, six months after Karen's death. Seeing him again, seeing the area where Karen spent the last 15 years of her life is going to be hard on my fractured soul. Karen and Andy were together so long that their names had become linked as one: "KarenandAndy." Now Andy's got a new wife and two children. I remember a friend telling me that the only way I'll get over Karen's death is to have children. "A baby will melt your heart," she said. If that's the case then I'm glad Andy has two. Double indemnity.

That's truckin' . . .

Clear out of LA and head north to Sacramento for a ten-hour drive to the capital. Not taking the scenic coastal route for fear of losing Harvey on some dangerous seaside cliff. We both have seen Route 1 before so don't mind missing it this time around. Instead we take Route 5 through the San Joaquin Valley, (pronounced WAkeen). Tourbook says it will be "ablaze in blossoms." To our dismay, though, spring in California ends in March, not June. So we miss the blossoms on the Fresno County Blossom Trail. But we do see lots of pink and white oleander on both sides of the highway and plenty of orchards of almonds, walnuts, cherries, olives, plums and grapes. Various produce trucks pass us carrying payloads of garlic, sweet red onions, fruit and other natural goodies. It's a kick to see garlic and onions in an open truckbed bouncing up and down like popcorn in a popcorn maker. I have an overwhelming sense of indebtedness to the farmers who work the land for our inexhaustible appetites. Tonight we sleep in a truckstop with other truckers. That's what we do now for one-night stays. In the early part of the trip we would check into a campground, but now we feel it takes too much time to locate an RV park, check in, hook up and unhook again next morning. It's much quicker, easier --and ten times more adventuresome!-- to just pull alongside these big rigs and sleep with the other truckers. And, we're not inconvenienced, either, as most truckstops are equipped with everything an overnight guest could need, including Him-and-Her showers. Surprisingly, we sleep amazingly well alongside these semi's with their diesel engines growling all night. It's unexplainable, but the sleep is solid. A heavy, deep, cement-head kind of sleep. (Probably being drugged by toxic fumes.) And we get a real sense for the gritty, tough life of a trucker, the unsung hero of American commerce. Gotta admit I enjoy staying in these truckstops. Never would have predicted this of myself, this traveler who previously insisted on quaint, plush Bed & Breakfast accommodations. But there's something thrilling about being in the midst of goods moving on and off the road. I love waking up to see who my "neighbors" are . . . furniture vans, produce trucks, oil rigs, all hauling their goods to market in this vast consumerland of ours. God bless 'em.

So big . . .

"Why do we allow such big states." Complains the weary driver along this long stretch of Route 5. "Really, we should have 75 states instead of 50," he persists.The passenger prone to daydreaming imagines the scene, and a whole new map of America. Yes, that would be good. In fact, in 1848 when Congress made such a big fuss about admitting California as a state, arguing whether it should it be a slave state or a free state, why didn't they just divide it in half? The South could have been a slave state, the North could have been free. Instead, their arguing delayed California statehood for a long time and made Californians itchy for some kind of rule, self-rule if necessary, as the state was loaded with gun-toting goldseekers running amok. I wonder why didn't Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, propose splitting the state?

Gone with the windshield

On the way to the Nixon Museum a few days ago our windshield cracked and today, as we travel Route 5, the crack crawls across the windshield like a deadly snake. We agree to take care of that in Sacramento. But right now we have a different problem. Ken at the wheel, eyes straight on the road says to me, as calmly as if asking to pass the salt, "Just lost another window." (Did I hear right?) He pulls Ruby and Harvey into the breakdown lane, gets out of the truck and trots down the highway to see if he can find the window that blew off. I sit in the passenger's seat and watch as he disappears into the horizon. Soon a shadowy figure reemerges. Looks like Ken. And it looks like he's captured the runaway window. All in one piece. I peer intently watching Ken get closer and more in focus. Yeah, it's the window all right. The doggone thing just flew off with no provocation whatsoever. Yet, miraculously it didn't break. Now we have two windows to deal with when we get to Sacramento. While waiting for Ken, a car careens off the road about an eighth of a mile in front of me. A frantic woman runs up to me, just as Ken is arriving and asks to borrow some gas. Can't help; we only have diesel. She seems angry, like she doesn't believe us. Tells us her cousin just had surgery and they are due in court in five minutes, as if somehow the reason for needing gas would make us change our story. (Oh, I see, it's a REAL emergency, then. Okay. Here's your gas.) "But we only have diesel," we insist. As a consolation, we offer our cell phone for her to call a gas station or call the courthouse, or anyone else she wishes to call. But a white car pulling alongside interrupts us. The woman runs to the window, gets in and is suddenly whisked away. In her absence I walk ahead to the broken down car to see if the surgically repaired cousin would like to use the phone. She snaps, "No thanks. We don't need your help now." Somehow we have offended these people, but don't know what it was we did.

Jelly Bellyaches

We are now comfortably settled in the state capital. Andy and his family are visiting us tonight and taking us to dinner in Old Sacramento.I'm surprised to see that Andy looks the same. Imagine, after 10 years, looking exactly the same. (That's California for ya. People don't age. They don't. It's Magic Land.) We arrive in front of a lovely old restaurant filled with Victorian furniture. Makes us feel like we're back home in New England (sigh). After dinner we stroll along the wooden sidewalks past restaurants, shops and candy stores. We enter one of the candy stores for some "Jelly Belly Beans." Andy's wife, Kathy, is our guide. She tells us all about these unique jelly beans with really weird flavors. "You bite into them," she explains, "and can't quite make out what the flavor is. Then all of a sudden you realize it's Peanut Butter! You're just not expecting a flavor like that. And on the back of the package they give you recipes for mixing two flavors together, like a coconut jelly bean and a lemon jelly bean for lemon meringue pie. Or Peanut Butter and Jelly for a JellyBelly sandwich." As she's describing these jelly bean recipes to me I bite into one that tastes like gourmet coffee from Starbucks. Really. Just like coffee. "Oh yeah," she continues, "if you ever have to give up coffee, these jelly beans fill the void." Kathy is a lovely person to be around. Very lighthearted. Her eyes sparkle when she talks, and she seems so full of love. I'm glad Andy has found someone so kind to spend his life with. And the children are miniatures of him. Cute little Andy buttons. Because of his happy new family, I'm able to hold back the tears througout the entire visit. They drop us off at the trailer and Ken and I go inside, full of warm thoughts, fond memories, and . . . loads of Jelly Belly Beans. Our bellies are big as beach balls and we are sick with devastating Jelly Bellyaches.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

One of my favorite things to do in these RV campgrounds is to take the trash out after dinner. I enjoy the after-dinner walk by myself, alone in the cool night air, humming and swinging my little trash bag at my side. The campgrounds are usually quiet, and the moist night air is filled with the smell of sweet flowers, dewy grasses, and charcoal grilled hamburgers. This little night walk is my way of saying hello to the stars and goodbye to the day. Our first night here I did my usual trash routine and enjoy the walk so much that when I returned to the trailer, I grabbed Ken and made him walk back with me to see how our neighbors decorate their lots. It's easy to miss in the daytime, but at night, with their party lights and other lights, you see so much more. One yard has a water fountain that's a sculpture of a little boy and girl under an umbrella with rain trickling down over their punkin heads. She's got a white picket fence around her "garden" of potted plants, and accent lights everywhere, like little twinkling lightning bugs. I'm amazed at how RVers can make their temporary living quarters look so permanent and so homey. I love these night walks. But tonight I skip the Trashcan-Walk cuz I've got to take Ruby on an errand. As I pull out of the driveway I see a bicycle leaning up against the dumpster, and a young, blond man sitting on top of the bin, perched on the pile of trash like an old chimney sweeper sitting on the pitch of a roof. He's picking through the trash and filling his bicycle baskets with his treasures. My first impulse is fear. "Ohmigosh! " I cringe in horror. "I could have run into him if I had taken the trash out tonight. My God, what would I have done?" How would I have handled the meeting of our two different worlds. Would I simply hand him my trash, and say "Help yourself." Or, say, "excuse me," and dump the trash beside him? What would I have done? Of course, now I'm afraid to do my nightly Trashcan-Walk. Not because I think he'll harm me if I run into him, but because I don't know the proper etiquette when we meet.

Shut your trap!

I'm alone in the trailer while Ken is in the campground club house uploading the postcard. A knock on the door startles me (no one knocks on RV's). At the door stands the owner of the park. "Is your trap shut?" He asks. (Excuse me?) "We've got a sewer problem and I want to make sure you keep your trap shut." (Oh, he means the door that holds back the gray and black water . . . the nasty side of RV life.) I hate to tell him the bad news, so, reluctantly, timidly I reply, "Well, yes it is closed. (uhm) Right now it is. But, (uhm), I was intending to dump it just now." (Actually, intending to get Ken to dump it.) "Oh," he says, slightly disturbed. "You need to dump it, eh? Hmmm, let me think. Well, okay. Hold off a minute while I tell the guy to get out of the sewer. Then go ahead." Grimacing, I trudge to the "trap" and let 'er rip. We'll be unable to dump for two to three days we're told. Yuch. That means we must take showers in the public restrooms and be very careful doing dishes, and other water-related activities. Such is RV life.

Cat on a hot tin roof

At breakfast this morning I hear someone walking on the roof of the trailer. Strange to hear distinct footsteps on one's roof. Ken investigates and finds a big old yellow cat prancing about, nice as you please. He shoos away Old Yeller. But many cats populate this RV Park, and "Old Yeller" soon spreads the word that Harvey is a nice place to visit. More cats tour our roof, our awning, and nap under Ruby. We are overrun with felines.

Flower power

Go to the grocery store today and, as always, peek into the florist department. Back home I always bought a bouquet of flowers as a reward for grocery shopping. But while RVing, where we move so much, I can't keep fresh flowers. I can only visit the floral department and reminisce. Today, the florist is the best I've seen. They've got everything from the common carnation to an exotic bird of paradise. But what really amazes me is the price. Three bouquets for $10. I snatch up a bunch. I'm really going to miss California, Land of Plenty.

The last goodbye

We're at Golden Gate bridge today.(How many times have I been here with Karen?) Everyone in the family, I'm sure, has a photo of himself or herself standing beside Karen in this very spot, in front of this red-gold bridge that she loved so much. I recall her saying to me, "Sometimes after work, I cross the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, and I can't believe I actually live here." She adored her adopted state. After touring the area, and remembering all things that are Karen, Ken asks me to show him the house where KarenandAndy lived before she died. Before her life was taken by a madman with a gun and a grudge. "Homicide" her death certificate reads. My friends think I hate flying because Karen died in a plane crash, which is true. But the plane didn't crash because of a malfunction; it crashed because of a malcontent. A maniac with a grudge against the airlines boarded the flight while concealing his gun and his intentions. Somehow he got through airport security, and in his suicidal urge for revenge, took 44 other lives with him. Karen and the other passengers on that flight experienced two frightful events: being at the mercy of a terrorist, minutes before their lives were to end in a horrible, fiery plane crash. All these people gone because of one despicable man. And to think of all those years mum worried about me because of the dangerous places I've visited in a such faraway and distant lands. Yet, the daughter who gets killed is the one on a domestic, one-hour business flight. The world is full of insanity.

As we approach Corte Madera I'm not sure my heart can handle seeing Karen's house, but my mind wants to see it very much. Since her body was never recovered, I've never felt I've said goodbye. (I remember a long time ago discussing death with you, Karen, when we were so young and death was in the abstract. You said you never wanted people parading around your dead body saying, "doesn't she look good," as they peered at your lifeless face with the fake smile forced on it. I remember your words exactly. "I don't want anyone looking at me!" You insisted. "I want a closed casket with a picture of me, as I am, standing at the kitchen sink, pink curlers in my hair, washing dishes." You and I laughed at the image, back then, unaware that Death was just outside the door waiting for you, and unaware, too, of how unfair your demands would be on us survivors. You see, Karen, a memorial service is not like a wake, where the bereaved can see the deceased laid out in a coffin, and know for sure they're dead. When the body is never found, closure never comes. Never. When you died, Karen, I was lost and confused as to how to say goodbye. Your empty grave had nothing to do with you. Just a brass nameplate on a cold piece of turf. So deep inside, in the deepest crevasse of my consciousness, I know that seeing your house is the right thing to do.)

But now, driving on the highway in the setting sun, my stomach and my mind are in tangled knots. I try to give Ken directions, as best as my memory can serve me, as best as my nerve can steel my quivering voice. A wrong turn. A suppressed tear. Another guess. Another street. No, that's not it. Sorry. I guess I can't remember how to get there. Meanwhile, a conflict rages within. Part of me hopes we don't find the house at all and can just go home; part of me wants desperately to see it. Hope and fear fight a battle for my heart. Oh-no . . . things are starting to look familiar. Yes, we're here. This is definitely the neighborhood. Ken takes a corner to turn around, once again, and head back the other way. "Wait. Ken, Stop. This is it." There it is. Right there. We're in front of her house. My God. It's her house! Karen's house, still here, but my poor darling, where are you? It's dusk. No one notices us standing on the sidewalk staring at her house, drinking in every detail -- the windows, the doors, the garden. My body crumbles under the weight of the grief. Poor, sweet Karen. All the work she put into this house, and every phone call she made to me proudly announcing her latest home improvement. All the little things she did to make this a home. It looks exactly the same as when she lived here . . . except . . . well, the doorway is bare. Oh yes, the white swan planter is missing. (I wonder if Andy has it?) Otherwise, the house is still Karen. But she's gone. Really gone. As much as it hurts, I'm relieved I came. (Ken is so wise for insisting). Karen, I miss you so much! You're irreplaceable, that's the problem. Walking back to the truck I suddenly remember a line from your favorite Simon & Garfunkel song, "The Sparrow." Do you remember? You used to sing the words so tenderly, "For all I created, returns unto me. From dust you are born and dust you shall be." Goodbye, Karen.

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