Guess who's coming for dinner?

I am ten feet away from my stew,
‘Cause a wasp just came out of the blue.
He climbed into my stove,
And he stayed there, by Jove!
Now I’m wondering, what should I do?

Eventually, he climbed out of my little propane stove and flew away, but it was a nervous few minutes. This was at Red Rock Canyon State Park, where the ranger says, “It’s gonna be a baaaad season for wasps…they usually don’t even show up until May.”

Close encounters of the ankle sox kind

“Pull up iTunes,” Barry said, as we were driving. “There’s a particular song by Brave Combo I want to hear. You can guess which one.”

We were a few miles south of Roswell, New Mexico, and I knew exactly which one he wanted:

I wanna see a flying saucer, I wanna see a flying saucer.
I wanna see it land in front of my car,
Or fly in formation over my back yard,
Carry me off to the nearest star,
I wanna see a flying saucer, I wanna see a flying saucer!

We stopped for breakfast in Roswell, and the place seemed pretty normal. There were no green-skinned aliens in the restaurant, just a lot of silver-haired humans. Our waitress was an efficient woman who looked to be in her late 30’s.

One of the two regulars at the next table asked the waitress a seemingly innocuous question about siblings, and she matter-of-factly answered, “I don’t know anything about my brothers or sisters. My Dad died when I was real young, and I guess my Mom had a lot of kids. I came down with TB, and it didn’t look like I was gonna make it. So she took me to the hospital. But, you know, she never came back to get me.”

She refilled their coffee cups and then turned away to the kitchen, leaving the fellows speechless.

After breakfast, Barry and I walked down Main Street, counting no fewer than seven stores selling only alien souvenirs. Most of them were run by silver-haired ladies, one of whom sat knitting behind a counter full of alien heads and spaceship jewelry.

If there was ever a town that took a theme and ran it into the ground, it was Roswell. We laughed out loud at the creative and humorous t-shirts, mouse pads, and bumper stickers — we bought one that shows a picture of an alien and a crashed spaceship and says, “How’s my driving?” Many of the shops had 8-foot inflatable aliens out front. One was wearing an apron that said “Alien: The other gray meat.” A Coke machine in the center of town showed an alien drinking Coke.

We went into the International UFO Museum and Research Center, expecting to spend an hour or two, but came out over three hours later. The exhibits were pretty amateur, but the wealth of clippings related to the Roswell incident were fascinating. If you aren’t familiar with the story, in 1947, a local rancher found the remnants of a strange flying craft that had crashed on his land. Accounts differ as to whether all four green-skinned aliens were dead, or if one of them was still alive. Anyway, he told the sheriff, who told the Air Force, and they came out to see it.

Suddenly, the military decided to hush up the incident, telling the rancher and everyone who knew about it that it was merely a weather balloon. But they supposedly used some pretty strong-arm tactics, and the rancher never spoke of the incident after their treatment of him. Others who were involved would only tell their spaceship and green alien stories 40 or 50 years later.

Of course, the actual wreckage of the ship vanished into the hands of the military, never to be seen again. So there’s no physical proof, only a lot of stories, some that agree and some that conflict, documented 50 years after the fact.

There are enough stories of the military cover-up, I’ll accept that part of the story as true. But what were they covering up? If it wasn’t a spaceship, surely it would be declassified by now? Not special technology or materials; that sort of thing has been surpassed many times over in 60 years. Not a political thing; the Soviets aren’t even our enemies any more. Maybe it really was a spaceship!

Of course, as I worked my way through the exhibits and got to the panels about close encounters of the first, second, and third kind, it became much more difficult to take any of this stuff seriously. The displays showing removal of alien implants destroyed any last shreds of credibility.

My favorite parts? Photos of crop circles, a collection of alien cartoons, and the gift shop, where I succumbed to an impulse purchase: Ankle socks with with little green alien heads all over them. Just the thing to wear to a restaurant with a giant sign reading “Aliens Welcome.”

In Xanadu, with Kubla Khan

When we told our friends we’d be driving the southern route across the US, we asked them for recommendations. One kept coming up over and over again: Carlsbad Caverns.

Along the west coast, each person asked what our next stop would be. The answer was always someone’s name — Todd, Jeannie, Michael, Jo, Bonnie. But when we reached Bonnie and Chuck, our next friends were a thousand miles away, so the answer was “Carlsbad Caverns.”

“Have you seen Karchner Caverns?” Bonnie and Chuck asked. Sure, Carlsbad was worth seeing, but they really recommended Karchner. “A couple of guys discovered it, and they kept it a secret for years.” We were intrigued and had to see this “secret cave.”

Karchner is very special; it’s a “live” cave where speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites, etc.) are still growing. Two 20-somethings found it in 1974, and they kept the cave, which they called “Xanadu,” a secret for 14 years, until the State of Arizona made it a park. It was a huge risk — if the secret got out, vandals would destroy the delicate formations, but how to keep it a secret when the state legislature would have to vote to make it a park?

It required tricky politics and negotiation, done in the late 1980’s when the legislature was distracted by the impeachment of Arizona’s governor. At the last minute, everything came together, and they told the legislature what was going on, got the bill signed, and sent a 24-hour guard to the entrance.

Then came a tricky job of designing access to the park. Working with a mining company, they created long tunnels with many airlocked doors and a special misting system to keep lint and dander to a minimum. These were based on lessons learned from other caverns, like Carlsbad, where the elevator changed the airflow so much that it nearly “killed” the cave.

It took millions of dollars, and many years, but the result is unbelievable. You can only see Karchner through a guided tour. Each day, 500 people can see the Rotunda Room and Throne Room, and in the winter, 250 can also see the Big Room. As a result, tours are usually sold out.

We got up super-early on April 15th and were the second folks in line for tickets. When offered an 8:20 tour, the fellow ahead of us declined and took the 11:15. We wanted to see both parts of the cave, so we got both sets of tickets.

After all this hype, imagine our surprise at 8:20 am, when we found that the first tour of the day consisted of just ourselves and a guide! Although the cave is usually sold out, the early morning and late afternoon tours don’t always fill up. Our guide, Susan was pleased, because a smaller group can really experience the cave’s magic.

Words cannot describe the beautiful formations we saw in Karchner. And pictures can’t, either — when you go into the cave, you aren’t allowed to carry anything, not a camera or purse or water bottle. So the experience was fleeting but precious, and we just soaked up all the delicious-looking formations with our eyes.

For example, there were cave bacon and fried eggs. The formations ranged from pure white to deep red, with pink and orange and beige and brown. There was no sound but silence and dripping, which is the process that forms the speleothems. When a droplet fell on my shoulder, Susan told us that’s called a “cave kiss.” It’s considered good luck.

There were dramatic draperies and huge columns, and helictites, which one of the cave discoverers called “crazy linguini.” And at the end of the tour, we just sat and looked at Kubla Khan, a 58-foot tall column, more elaborate than any sculpture carved by a human.

As promised, we had a magical, quiet time in the cave. When Susan opened the final door, I was a little shocked to see the crowd standing outside the door, waiting for the next tour. To them, Karchner is something you see in a group of 20 people with a guide explaining it, not a magical, silent expedition into the earth.

At least I was prepared for the group size when we returned for our 11:15 tour of the Big Room. The formations were different, and we learned more about the female bats who come there in the summer to have their pups. The guide for our group, Theresa, was a little sad — this would be her last tour through the Big Room until it reopened in the fall. Both of our guides had a strong emotional connection with the cave, which they view as a living entity.

Partway through the tour, we had stopped to listen to Theresa when suddenly a child standing in the middle of the group created a very large puddle that ran down his legs, into his sandals, and onto the path. We stared at the guide, wondering what she would do with this calamity — would urine irrevocably damage some delicate formations? She told us that the path we were standing on was actually designed with special curbs, and that they actually washed it every day anyway to remove all traces of people. Theresa calmly reported a “bio spill” on nearby telephone, and in a little while, an employee came and washed away the evidence.

I wished there was some way I could take pictures of Karchner’s beautiful formations with me, which is how I ended up in the gift shop, buying a book on the story of the cave’s discovery and how it became a state park. The book has lots of photos of the formations, and it answered many of my questions about how it all happened.

One of the two founders, Gary Tennen, still visits the cave every month or so, but Randy Tufts passed away a few years back. Randy had a strong spiritual connection to the cave, and when he entered, he would bow to the cave god and ask for its blessing. Although the park is named after the Mormon rancher whose family sold the land to the state, it is Randy’s spirit that is preserved in the cave itself, especially on a lucky day in spring when I chanced to see it with only my husband and a tour guide.

As for Carlsbad Caverns, we visited that, too. It’s an awe-inspiring cave, huge and full of formations with names like “the hall of giants,” and “the cave man.” But after Karchner, Carlsbad seemed a bit faded. We hiked down the natural entrance, and then we took a tour of the King’s Palace, the Papoose Room, and the Queen’s Chamber. At one point, the guide said proudly that five percent of the cave is still “alive,” I rolled my eyes. “That means it’s 95 percent dead!” I whispered to Barry.

Carlsbad was discovered in the end of the 19th century, and the discoverer had a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to his find. He finally found someone who was interested — the guy wanted to mine the valuable bat guano for fertilizer. Finally, he got a photographer to come into the cave, and once the images were published in the New York Times, the Natural Park Service became interested.

But they didn’t know how to preserve the cave, and when they put the elevator in, it was the death-knell for many speleothems. The 700-foot deep shaft completely changed the airflow in the cave. Then they ripped out a lot of formations, so they could hold weddings and chamber of commerce meetings. They aimed bright lights at the formations, causing algae to grow on them. On top of that, they put in a lunchroom and some bathrooms.

Despite all the evidence of human damage, the shapes were amazing. We dawdled for hours in the Big Room, taking enough photos to make up for Karchner. At first, we felt guilty for taking flash pictures. Then we got out the tripod and used the cave’s lighting system, which made for more dramatic pictures anyway. Tourists rushed by us, audio devices pressed to their ears, stopping only when a sign pointed out a particular named formation. We would often have 10 or 15 minutes to ourselves with the cave.

Our two caving experiences couldn’t be more different. One was precious, jewel-like, saved only in the images in our memories. The other was big and overwhelming, but it resulted in some fantastic cave photography. And at the end of the day, at Carlsbad, we saw the famous bats coming out of the natural entrance, and guess what? Photographs were not permitted — electronics create sounds that interfere with bats’ navigational abilities. So, at Carlsbad, too, there’s a part that is precious, unchanged, and saved only in our memories.

Limerixty-six, for Harley and Annabelle

At a shop that is on Sixty-Six,
They once sold guitar strings and picks,
Now they entertain gaily,
The crowds that come daily,
To hear them and get some good “kicks!”

You can get your kicks, too, at the Sandhills Curiosity Shop on old Route 66 in Erick, Oklahoma. Or, if you can’t get there, take a look at some of the videos.

Cool Yuman Humans

“Take water! Take plenty of water!” We were finally turning east from the Pacific coast, and our friend Bonnie was worried. She and Chuck had been spoiling us for a few days in San Diego, but they’d heard reports of 100-degree temperatures in the desert. That would be a far cry from the sweater weather we’d been enjoying, as we enjoyed elegant drinks by the beach at the posh Coronado Hotel.

A couple of hours of driving confirmed two things: 1) It was hot. 2) The air conditioning no longer worked.

Despite its faded glory and advanced age, the Squid Wagon is the most “luxurious” vehicle we’ve ever owned. That means we have features we’ve never had on another vehicle, like cruise control (yay!), power windows (boo!), and air conditioning. The AC worked great when we bought the van in Florida in 2004. Our long-haired feline traveling companion appreciated it. But after she passed away, we never used it. Who needs AC in Seattle?

At a campground outside of Yuma, Arizona, I sat down on the ground next to an old-fashioned phone booth and pulled out the phone book. There were at least 15 listings specifically for Auto Repair – Air Conditioning, plus another half-dozen mentions of AC under the general Auto Repair category.  Evidently, air conditioning is a high priority for Yumans.

So how does one select the best auto repair place out of a phone book, with no other knowledge? I studied the ads, then went on a hunch. “Here’s a place that’s been in business since the 1960’s — and the owner and service manager have the same last name.” My logic was that a family-run business that had been around for 40 years would treat their customers fairly.

And the folks at Midtown Auto did just that. We walked in and said, “We came down from Seattle, and we forgot to bring any cold with us. Do you have some you can put in our air conditioning system?”

Father and son worked on the air conditioning unit, and Mom sent us over to Bubba’s for a leisurely breakfast. When we came back, we had a nice chat with her. She was very curious about our lifestyle when she found out we were traveling from Seattle to a boat in North Carolina via Yuma, Arizona. “Are y’all missionaries?” she asked.

“No,” we laughed. We explained that we were just out traveling, seeing the world, and meeting the people in it. She was very encouraging, and when we left ($400 poorer, but most of that was freon, not labor), she wished us safe travels and a happy life. Literally, she wished us “a happy life.” Wow.

As we drove away from Yuma, the air conditioner put out ice-cold air as the hot sun shone on an amazing desert landscape. “Look at those rocks!” we exclaimed. “Hey, I just saw my first saguaro!” “Oh boy, TUMBLEWEEDS!”

I don’t know if it was the nice lady’s wishes, or just the way of the world. But we were definitely having a happy, happy life.

Cascading cookies

It started with the cookies. When Barry’s Mom asked if we’d like a batch of oatmeal scotchies for the road, we responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Oatmeal scotchies are Barry’s favorite, and we also looked forward to sharing them with my sister, Julie, in Eugene, Oregon.

Sharon also gave me a treat: A big bag of dried Michigan cherries.

A couple of days later, we were packing the van after a visit with Tom and Gudrun in Yelm, Washington. Barry asked if they had a little ice for our cooler. Instead, Tom gave us three frozen bricks of homemade pesto. This was in addition to the bottles of homemade wine he’d just given us.

And so we traveled south to Eugene, carrying cookies and cherries and wine and pesto.

The cherries were a big hit — we shared them with Julie in our morning oatmeal. The cookies were perfect after a long day of skiing with Daisy. And when we went to Ellen and Gary’s house, we opened a bottle of Tom’s wine.

“We have some homemade pesto, too,” I told Ellen. She whipped out rice crackers, put the pesto and some swiss cheese on them, and zapped them in the microwave. Because of the merging of Italian pesto and Asian crackers, she named them “Marco Polos.”

That evening, Ellen and Gary also gave us a huge 2-horned parsnip from their garden. I thought I would make a pressure cooker stew in a few days.

A couple of days later, they invited us to a potluck dinner with their friends Barbara and Joe. We took along some more of Tom’s pesto, and when Barbara found out we were traveling, she gave us two more gifts: Homemade applesauce and elderberry jam. It was a joyous coincidence, because we’d once lived with a dear friend, also named Barbara. She’s gone now, but she made the best applesauce and elderberry jam in the world.

We were planning to visit that Barbara’s son Michael in southern California, and we couldn’t wait to share the elderberry jam with him.

And so each precious gift we receive travels down the road with us a little ways, and then we stop and share it. Then we receive another gift, which makes its way to the next stop. And the cycle continues.

We continued to the Bay area, where we visited Jeannie and Cliff and Jerry. We shared more wine and cherries, and they gave us oranges for the road.

We finally made it Michael and Doeri and Eliza’s house, with our offerings of elderberry jam and homemade wine and pesto. Remember the parsnip? It got roasted instead of stewed!

And in the middle of a conversation with Michael about a completely unrelated topic, he stopped me and said, “When you leave, don’t forget to take your jam!”

“What jam?”

When we left, he gave us many jars of his own elderberry jelly, peach jam, and burnt kumquat marmalade to enjoy and share. He’d made them for Christmas, but a kitchen remodel interfered, and they never made it into the mail. We were delighted to receive our Christmas presents in person in April.

Now we’re in San Diego with Bonnie and Chuck, eating Michael’s elderberry jelly on sourdough bread, along with fresh-picked oranges and grapefruit.

The cookies and pesto and parsnip are just fond memories now. The cherries are almost gone, too. But we still have plenty of homemade wine and jam to share, along with something sweet and crunchy to replace the cookies — caramel corn from Barry’s Aunt Jo.

When we left home, we weren’t planning to gather food and share it all the way down the west coast. It just happens that way. As Gordon Bok sings,  “Everybody puts their cookin’ hat on when you’re leavin’ in the morning.”

We’re leaving Bonnie and Chuck’s in the morning. The van seems a little overloaded, and I think we’re carrying more food than when we left. That just means we’ve been falling down on the job — we need to share it!

Round-robin ping-pong

The room filled with much merry sound,
Three sisters who mooned as they clowned,
The game was revamped,
We laughed and we stamped,
As ping-pong was played in the round.

We discovered a fun way to play ping-pong at Highlands pub in Eugene. Four people play round-robin, each one hitting the ball once and then rushing around the table to the other side. The results were a few collisions and some hilarious video footage. Do not try this in a pub with dartboards!

Traveling at the speed of fun

We’ve been out almost one week, and finally, we’re catching our breath. You can’t have fun all the time; sometimes you have to stop and write about it!

We were having such a nice time at Barry’s parents’ house, with spring flowers and daily rainbows and bald eagles overhead, home cooking and Tumblebugs and weenie roasts, we almost forgot to leave. But on Monday, March 24th, we tore ourselves away with a few tears on both sides and headed south.

Not too far, though — we only drove 60 miles. In Seattle, Jim and Barbara treated us to a farewell dinner at a breathtakingly beautiful restaurant with a view of Elliott Bay and downtown. The Pacific Northwest is a hard place to leave, filled with natural beauty and good friends. But there are grand adventures beckoning, and we talked about them over stuffed scallops and grilled mahi-mahi:

1 – March-April: The drive from Seattle to North Carolina in the Squid Wagon. Squidley is distinctive, a big blue Ford van with a tiny incongruous wooden dinghy on top. We’ll see friends from Seattle to San Diego, then turn east, camping and visiting more friends in Oklahoma and the Carolinas.

2 – April-July: Living and working aboard our Freedom 33, Flutterby, in a boatyard in Beaufort, North Carolina. The boat’s currently hauled out, but we can stay aboard while we work on it.

3 – July-???: Sailing from Hawaii to Australia aboard Complexity with Jim and Barbara and Abby. We have been dreaming about this trip since 2005, when we sailed with them to Alaska. This year, we all think it’s going to be a reality!

We made another important stop in Seattle, saying farewell to Mike and Nita aboard Odessa and buying Odessa’s original stove and oven for Flutterby. They had a new one, but it took a little prodding from well-meaning friends (us) to get it installed, since Nita was attached to the old one. She told me that knowing she could read about her trusty old stove on the Foodie Gazette website was a factor in letting it go.

Our second stop was Yelm, Washington, home of Tom and Gudrun. We’ve stopped at their 100-year-old house several times to share conversation and design silly labels for their homemade wine. We helped with Badda Bing and Goodie Two Shoes labels, and this time we did OPG: Other People’s Grapes. I love doing projects with friends, especially these two!

When we first pulled up to their house, they came out for a look at the Squid Wagon and our gear. Tom studied it a bit and then asked, “Is this everything you own? How much did you leave in storage?” After our answer (“not much”), he started to tell us about a time when all his belongings fit into the back seat of a drive-away car. I don’t think he intended the story to take all evening, but it did, like this:

“How did you end up in New Mexico?”

Then came the whole story of the girl and the overloaded convertible with the gigantic roof rack and the canoe, his friend who towed him to Virginia Beach, where he learned to hang doors and replaced the sportcar with a Ford Falcon. And then the story went to Wyoming.

“But what happened to the girl?”

And then the whole story of Wyoming, and how he got word that it was time to move on from the sheriff, and he packed up the Bellair, the car that saved his life —

“But what happened to the Ford Falcon?”

And then the story of how he and Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog rolled the Ford on a patch of ice, and it came out right-side up with no injuries, but the windshield got shattered, so it was a mighty cold drive home that night.

“So how did the Bellair save your life?”

Well, that had to do with the fact that he didn’t have a girlfriend, so he stopped to see a promising prospect in Colorado. Some miners stopped by her house, and evidently, they didn’t want competition for the only girls in town. Tom escaped their beating by jumping out of the window of the house, then circled back on foot to his Bellair. The miners chased him down the highway, shooting at him — but they couldn’t catch the Bellair, so it saved his life.

“But what happened to the Bellair?”

He came out of a cafe and found someone trying to steal it. He thwarted that one, but then his stereo was stolen. So he sold the Bellair and drove from the Southwest to Connecticut without stopping for sleep. In the driveaway car, a taxicab, all his remaining belongings fit in the back seat. Which brought us back to the genesis of the story: Is this everything you own?

We left Tom and Gudrun’s house laden with gifts of wine and pesto and a grinder, and after a stop at Cabela’s (which I teasingly called “REI with guns”), we continued south. Somewhere before the Oregon border, I woke Barry from his nap, exclaiming “Holy cow! It’s snowing!” Five days later, as I write this, a rare spring snow is falling again here in Eugene, followed by blue skies and cold sunshine.

Our stay in Eugene has lasted longer than expected, but there’s so much to do with Julie and Ed and Daisy and Ellen and Gary! We’ve played pool and ping-pong, soaked in hot tubs, taken walks, visited some amazing workplaces, made dinner, had dinner made for us, ripped vinyl records to digital files, repacked the van, shopped at REI, and yesterday, we had a ski adventure with Daisy, Meps’ sister.

Daisy has discovered a special spot which has not been covered by snow in 26 years. It’s a lava flow, the kind of place that’s impossible to visit on foot or by vehicle. But covered with a thick blanket of snow, it’s possible to ski or snowshoe into this magical place and enjoy vistas and immense trees that have never seen humans.

Our friends Ellen and Gary loaned us skis, and Daisy led us into the silent white wilderness. She’s a strong skiier, but she got a tough workout, breaking trail for us. All was fine until I fell, then I discovered how hard it was to get back up!

We went up and up, and until we turned around and went down and down, I didn’t realize that it was easier going up. It had been so long since I’d skiied, I fell over and over, spending much of the day on my back like a fleece-covered cockroach. Happily, I didn’t fall down on every hill, and got to do my share of  “Wheeeeeeee!” that wasn’t always followed with “Damn!”

We have one or two more adventures planned here in Eugene, then tomorrow morning we’ll hope for clear weather over the passes to the south. Next stop, San Francisco (I think).