Sunday, June 27, 2010

Discovering America, Part Four: Pittsburgh, PA

Two weeks into our trip, we find ourselves in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I find myself wanting to write things down journalistically, recording the who where why when how of every single day on the road, the names of funny roads and the ingredients to family recipes, and yet, at the end of the day it's hard to narrow down just what made each day so extraordinary.

We left off in Durham, North Carolina, home to Duke University, deserted tobacco factories now renovated as hip bars and music venues, and the wonderful and fun Vilgalys family. Rim went to school with us in Santa Barbara, and was happy to show us around his hometown, where we discovered the wonders of cigar bars and "the taqueria with the cow on top of it." We were put up in the amazing Vilgalys home with his parents Rytas and Liz, their dogs Mona and Lulu, and a small harem of wonderful cats. Walking outside their house was akin to wandering straight into the forest. Bullfrogs, chickens, hawks; it was amazing.

My favorite part of our stay in Durham was the hike down the Eno River to a stone quarry which had since been converted into a small lake. There were salamanders, frogs of all sizes, birds, and an amazing diversity of mushrooms. Ryan's highlight was probably our late night trip to Bo Jangles, one of Durham's many fried food joints, and the subsequent revelry with Rim, his brother Gabe, and some of their friends.

After Durham we made our way northward through Virginia and suffered through Washington D.C. traffic at rush hour in time to arrive at Allie and LaToya's apartment in Baltimore. Allie was the first friend I made in college (at summer orientation), an amazing writer, jazz musician and educator. LaToya also lived in Santa Barbara for a year and is one hell of a fine artist--we're talking paintings, sculpture, and she has just started work on her first commissioned mural. So basically their apartment just south of Patterson Park is a homage to good art, books, and happy pets. While in Baltimore, we checked out the Baltimore Museum of Art and took a small detour to the Apple Store because (um) Ryan's computer has decided it needs its own vacation.

From Baltimore we drove through the first of several turnpikes (ask us later how much we love paying for them, state by state--ick) en route to visit Jes Consiglio in South Jersey. Jes and I lived together for five months in Granada, and as anyone who has lived abroad can tell you, the people you meet traveling are the kind of people to whom you are intimately connected thereafter. Jes now teaches Spanish in New Jersey, and so she was happy to give us a tour of Philadelphia, where we saw the Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and LOVE park, before heading to a Phillies baseball game. Our stay in Philly was a very culinary experience, too: first there were the AMAZING soft pretzels and water ice from the South Jersey Pretzel and Water Ice Company, (where Jes' fabulous mother works), then there were the famous Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches from Tony Luke's, and finally there were the crab fries from Chickie's that we bought at the ball game right when the Phillies started really kicking the Toronto Blue Jays' collective ass. And then, of course, more soft pretzels.

Oh, soft pretzels. Jes gave us 12 more when we left on Saturday morning, but they were gone by late that evening, when we had arrived at Cleveland Motley IV's house in beautiful Pittsburgh, PA. Cleve is also a former Gaucho and one of Ryan's good friends (when they both lived in San Francisco, they spent the better half of a year building a playground that generated electricity). We were treated to a pretty special barbeque dinner out on their porch, which is draped in hanging green vines and frequented by fireflies. Pittsburgh is divided by a few rivers and is home to a few major universities, but more than anything I've been amazed at how beautiful and leafy it is. This feels like the kind of place that Raymond Carver wrote about. A place where, in the stillness of late afternoon, characters come and go, and things happen. Thanks, Cleve. :)

We've reached our halfway mark of the trip in remarkable time and with no major hiccups. More than anything, we've soaked up a tiny bit of local culture in each place we've driven through, whether it be Lithuanian liqueur (thanks Rim), to free art in Baltimore, to greens sandwiches in Philly, to Vietnamese sandwiches at the Pittsburgh Strip. From here we will eventually make it to New York before turning our wheels homeward.

Thank you to all our friends and hosts who have been so kind as to let us drive in and out of your daily lives. It has been one hell of a trip.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dateline: Durham, North Carolina, via Vilgalys

Near Honey Island Swamp
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

This is where the boats put in at Honey Island Swamp, Louisiana. Our friends Pat and Dale Bibee of Slidell took us out in their Sea Chaser last weekend so we could experience the splendor and biodiversity of the southern bayou. And indeed we did: we saw egrets and cardinals, wild boar and an alligator, thanks to a pesky Swamp Tour guide who was throwing marshmellows into the Pearl River and prodding the surface of the water with sticks to get animals to surface. We were the lucky ones, though: we had our own, private swamp tour with the most excellent guides!

We had planned to leave Saturday night to make the trek up through Mississippi and Alabama, but just as we were plotting our next steps, the Louisiana sky turned once again to storm. A huge lightning storm right over the house, actually--we heard a bolt strike the tree next door. So we decided instead to enjoy the air-conditioning and hospitality of Casa Bibee and left early Sunday morning for a long drive through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and ending in southern Tennessee.

There's nothing quite so spectacular for two California natives to drive through five beautiful and humid states in one day. We lucked out when we found the Hiwasse / Ocoee Scenic River State Park just outside of Delano, Tennessee, where the air was not only cooler (under 90 degrees for the first time on the trip!), but the campsite was only about two minutes from the Hiwassee River. Perhaps the best part of the night was watching the fireflies come out--another treat for two West-Coasters.

From Tennessee we drove through the stunning Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the border of North Carolina, which meant weaving our way through traffic to Dollywood (Dolly Parton's Disneyland, basically) in Pigeon Forge first. In the end it was worth it, though, to drive through 70 miles of virtually untouched green mountains, and see a portion of the Appalachian Trail. We passed signs for restaurants selling Frog Jam. Apparently there is also a chain of restaurants in this area called Fat Buddies.

We made it to Durham around dinner time, where we met up with our fellow CCS grad and kickass writer Rim Vilgalys. Rim walked us to downtown Durham, where the buildings are tall and beautiful and made of brick. Today we plan to drive out to a quarry where you can swim. I keep thinking of the movie "Breaking Away." Durham has that kind of feel.

From Durham we will make our way steadily northward, to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and eventually Pittsburgh, before turning our wheels homeward.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Desire in New Orleans

Bourboun Street, New Orleans
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

A short jaunt down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, after we had had our very first gumbo.

Dateline New Orleans: Coco and Bigote Discover America, Part Two

Picacho Peak, AZ - Ry looking manly
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

Today we leave the beautiful, bizarre and steamy city that is New Orleans. In the last 48 hours, we've ran through rainstorms in Jackson Square, visited the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, wandered through Louis Armstrong Park, which is still under construction from Hurricane Katrina, stuck our fingers in the Mississippi River, ridden the trolleys down St. Charles Place and watched the U.S. come back to tie Slovenia in the 84th minute of the World Cup Soccer game.

Our stay in New Orleans was a welcome treat after sweating through the night at Village Creek State Park in Lumberton, Texas--a fascinating and lively park near the border of Texas and Louisiana, in the aptly-named Big Thicket. Many, many thanks to Shirlee and Rick, who have given us the opportunity to stay in an amazing condo here in New Orleans. There really is no comparison between sweating through the night in your underwear, surrounded by frogs and crickets and birds and snakes and swamp rabbits (yes, there is such a species!), and staying in an air-conditioned room with a kitchen and a bathroom and access to ESPN during the World Cup. Muchisimas gracias!

Once we crossed the Texas border into Louisiana, it struck us both that we are finally, ultimately and definitely in the American South. There are times when Julia has to listen two or three times to understand the accent, and there are times when both of us can't help bragging to the person sitting next to us that "yes, we're from California, and actually, we drove here."

Perhaps the best moment last night was when we wandered down to Frenchmen Street, past the insanity of Bourbon Street and the raucousness of the French Quarter. We slipped into a lively little dive bar called Checkpoint Charlie's, where we had seen an advertisement for a burlesque show the day before. We both have taken to carrying little notebooks with us, and before the show started, a young musician with long, black curly hair got on stage and started playing a mean slide guitar. Julia took out her notebook and began doodling -- a rough sketch, really, of the musician with his bushy beard and tight pants and snappy boots. When the bartender came by to refill our drinks, she saw the drawing and squealed with delight, then asked to show the picture to all of her friends. By the end of the evening, we had gotten the singer to autograph it himself -- Domenic was his name -- and Julia was then inspired to draw both the stuffed deer on the wall (with beads hanging from its antlers) and the stuffed raccoon on the top of the stage, framed by a small placard that read "Je t'accuse."

Drawings to come, once we have access to a scanner.

Our next step from here is to visit the lovely Pat and Dale Bibee in Slidell, Louisiana, before turning northward in our continuing search for America.

Yesterday, Julia asked Ryan, "Do you think the humidity will get better as we move north?"

To which he responded, "Definitely not."

In other news, neither of us have had to unpack a sweater yet.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dateline: Motel 6. I-35, Austin, TX

We made it to Austin. It's been five days since we left San Jose, four since we left California, three since we climbed halfway up Arizona's Picacho Peak (although we alternated between calling it "pinochle" and "pistachio"), two since we swam the Rio Grande at Leasburg Dam State Park in New Mexico, and it was just yesterday that we descended 750 feet into Carlsbad Caverns before settling down at Guadalupe Mountain National Park on the border of New Mexico and Texas. And then, just this morning, after hiking Devil's Hall trail and spotting 10 lizards and 3 deer, we headed due east for Austin.

Today has been the hottest so far. Also, most mileage logged. Most This American Life podcasts listened to.

We're making a tally of the best signs seen along the road (starting with "STATE PRISON: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS", "GET OFF FACEBOOK AND INTO MY BOOK -- GOD" from a church in Santa Monica, "DIABETICS: ASSESS YOUR CONDITION" from the entrance to the caverns, and ending with "MARGARITA BREAKFAST TACOS" in the lively Texan town of Fredericksburg, which wins for cutest green town we've passed through yet).

Souvenirs bought thus far include a 25-cent placemat of a spaceman contemplating a crater (doubles as our cutting board while camping), a Nevada Barr murder mystery set in Guadalupe Mountain (a bad idea to read a murder mystery set in the very campground where we're sleeping, as I learned after swearing I saw a mountain lion in the parking lot at 2am, and lay awake breathing heavily for half an hour afterward), a button that reads "Bats need friends too," and some barbeque sauce from Rudy's here in Austin.

Our plan from here is to make our way across Texas to Louisiana, where we'll stay two nights before heading to visit family friends in Slidell and then turning northward. There is still so much to see.

Our first night in Arizona I was struck with a sense of awesome peace that I realized I'd been waiting for a long time to feel. It was like I had finally exhaled. I forgot how, when you travel, you focus so much on the minutia of getting where you're going and appreciating it when you're there, that all the major day-to-day worries seem so fleeting somehow.

With that, Coco & Bigote sign out...

P.S. photos soon!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

...And We're Off!

It occurred to me recently that I embarked on my first big international adventure ten years ago this month. Newly 16, I was lucky enough to spend six weeks in Israel with my youth group--a voyage with its spiritual and political roots, but inevitably what made it magical was not its original aim but all the little surprises that came along the way.

I'm feeling a similar excitement tonight as Ryan and I get ready for an ambitious drive across the United States. We're not crossing any oceans, or learning any new languages, and yet I can't help feeling that this trip has the same level of possibility--if not more--because we're going to be seeing an entirely new side to our country. Who knows what we might find...?

Sayonara, San Francisco!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pippic for Thought

Moishe's Pippic
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

I spotted this when walking down Hayes Street in San Francisco. It was Bay to Breakers and I was dressed (rather half-heartedly) as a zebra and had to cut across lanes of foot traffic to snap this shot.

Incidentally, my great-uncle's name is Moishe, and my first word was pippic. I later printed out this photo and mailed it to my 87-year-old Amah, who laughed herself silly when I called to ask if she got it.

This picture gives me hope, that maybe, during normal business hours, somewhere in San Francisco a family is making their ends meet by selling bellybuttons. Belts? Salami? Or maybe just good old-fashioned belly laughs.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Jobs: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Live Without 'Em

This New York Times opinion forum on whether or not recent graduates should be choosy in their initial job offers struck a familiar chord. It seems like the old cliche about the pressure to find an ideal first job is now so ubiquitous that experts from all fields are now questioning whether, in this economy, it's a smart idea to wait out the job search for the best offer, or to simply accept any job in the interim.

I understand the first job out of college to be an anticlimactic precedent; as if, upon graduating with a bachelor's degree, one has an obligation to find the kind of job that aligns perfectly with their degree requirements. That might be all well and good for an engineer or computer scientist, but what does that mean for those of us who devoted most of our college days to deconstructing literary theory or writing plays? I've always understood that the pursuit of a creative lifestyle meant accepting the financial and societal uncertainties that sometimes accompany it. With that in mind, I've often been placed in the odd social moment of talking myself into a corner when someone asks me how I put my degree in creative writing to good use. By being creative. By writing. By being a creative writer in basically everything I do. And one can write creatively about anything: other writers, current events, scientific studies, socks, commercial products...the weather.

One thing I'm trying to do less is justify my interests and passions as an extension of my academic plans. I've applied the skills I learned in college in various jobs around the world, and to date, they've served me fine. I started working as a junior in college, and have worked either half or full time ever since. Secretly I'm glad that I already had a degree when the housing market crashed in 2008.

Edwin Hoc, the director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, describes a situation that hits close to home: that of recent grads who gain experience in a non-profit field in hopes that it will make them a more attractive candidate for jobs in the long run. Hoc says that for these students, "turning down a job offer with a minimal starting salary and few prospects for advancement can be preferable to accepting the job, especially from a 'long-run' career perspective. However, not everyone, not every new graduate, can afford to make this kind of choice. Those that can, count on a safety net of support (generally parents) that allows them to survive and thrive while avoiding initiating a career path with a minimal early return."

As someone who has worked as everything from barista to international student advisor, in radio, web and in print, I wonder, too, about that "minimal early return," and at what point it's smart to start prioritizing that over my delicate and sometimes bleeding creative heart.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bathroom Stall Series, #4

I'm dying to know what exactly it was that motivated this particular bathroom graffiti artist to write this on the stall wall. Did she have a copy of the latest Harry Potter book open in her lap? Had she just lost a bet? her real name Ginny Weasley?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Does health insurance affect your heart?

Health insurance isn't for the weak of heart.

Well, technically, it is, but in our country, I get the feeling the entire industry weakens the heart.

I'm a middle-class Caucasian woman with an entire network of family, friends and medical professionals who have proven, time and time again, that they can help support me. I'm in good health for someone of my size and age, with one major flaw. I deign to have a pre-existing condition.

I've been over this before, and I have a feeling I'll be going over it every day until type 1 diabetes has a hard and fast cure. But lately I have been particularly flummoxed by privatized health care. I was reminded again this week when my family and I were contemplating options for me as I transfer grad schools and have exhausted three years of COBRA coverage. That's the word these companies use: exhaust. I don't think I've exhausted COBRA as much as it's exhausted me. And for the past four months I've been navigating this world of conversion policies and HIPAA plans, trying to find a creative way to continue coverage without draining my parents of their retirement or forcing me back to Starbucks while I get a Masters degree.

And then I came across this article, written a mere three days after I was diagnosed as diabetic back in 2001. Miguel Aguayo is an artist who lives in Canada, which has socialized health care--something he appreciates as a deaf man. Apparently the American privatized health care system was looking attractive to some Canadians, who grew tired of waiting in long lines, and thought that perhaps our system offered the same services more quickly. But then came the unforeseen sacrifices: Aguayo speaks of how, when he and his family lived in the U.S., they often had to postpone medical treatment until legitimate emergencies, and even then, the hospital bills were as paralyzing as the illnesses themselves.

It seems silly to have perfectly good medical facilities that are only available to those who can pay for them, and even then, to ask them to wait until they are truly risking their lives. This is not health insurance. This is disaster relief. And it's expensive.

I don't know what I hope to aim by writing this. I'm preparing to spend another week on the phone, getting transferred from department to department of a huge, profit-seeking health insurance company whose employees see me as a subscriber ID number, one with a pesky little condition that ultimately will cost them more if I keep myself healthy than if I don't have access to the tools I need to stay well.

I wonder what undocumented immigrants do? I wonder what Canadians do? I wonder what these so-called proponents of privatized health care do, when they lose their jobs, get diabetes themselves, or have an unplanned pregnancy?

I might take a cue from Aguayo and head north. As soon as I get off the phone.

Sign of a Good Day

big sur. julia fords river
Originally uploaded by Julia_h_j

The water was a bit deeper than I originally anticipated, but it was worth it to get to the other side of the sand dunes at Andrew Molero State Park in Big Sur. My housemates, boyfriend and I drove down the coast this morning, stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, ate tacos near the river, and tromped around because tromping is the singular best activity for a birthday. The older the better.

Adventure is in the air. Ryan and I have planned an ambitious road trip with stops in Phoenix, Austin, New Orleans, Atlanta, Durham, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver and St. George in mind. We might very well be underestimating the size of the United States. But you know, I'm okay with that. Underestimation. Size. Time. Not knowing. I think, as I reach the cusp of my 26th year on the planet, I'm getting more and more comfortable with the idea of just letting the things I can't control dictate the things I can. So be it.

We hope to blog, take pictures and draw comics of the trip as we go. And then make up all the money we spend in gas by printing the comics into handy little zines that eventually we sell for gobs of money, in which case we celebrate by driving to who knows where.

Seriously though, I hope to be fording more rivers this summer. Bigger ones, greener ones, faster ones. Stay tuned and I just might.