Category: Travel

Alive Again

The arrival of October 2021 has signaled a significant and welcome change … a downtick in temperatures and an uptick in tourist activity in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona, to bolster the hungry tourism sector.

Scottsdale, Arizona is alive again. September’s scorching heat has been replaced with cooler October mornings, ideal-and-swimmable-eighty-degree afternoons, shorter days, and dazzling sunsets framed by palm trees gazing west.

Tourists are back too–in relative abundance, in posh pools, in surviving restaurants, in newly-minted hotels, on mountain bikes, on sidewalk scooters, on rolling streams of Segways.

It’s a far cry from the desolation of April 2020 when Old Town Scottsdale was first shuttered by a raging pandemic that persists eighteen months later, though many imagine it has vanished.

A view of an empty, ghost-town-like Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona … looking east down Main Street … near the start of the global pandemic in April 2020.

In Autumn

After living through four summers, autumns, winters, and springs in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve decided autumn is my favorite time of year here.

Most 100-degree temperatures are vanishing from our ten-day forecast. The monsoons have packed their bags and left town with the dusty drama and wet havoc that only unexpected and unwelcome guests incite. And large flocks of snow birds have yet to fly in.

Mornings are a notch or two cooler–in the 70s–than they were in late summer. Perfect for sipping coffee outside under the eaves.

Did you know we’re frost-free? You won’t find icy substances on our pumpkins or windshields. Ever.

You won’t witness a foliage kaleidoscope here either. Or crunch through piles of leaves. Or rake. Stay away if that’s your thing.

I didn’t intend for this to be a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce ad (though it sounds like a back-handed, bizarre one). But if you like plenty of pool days, pleasant dry mornings for hikes, warm-to-hot September and October highs, shorts, flipflops, spiky saguaros, and startling sunsets long after Labor Day is a distant memory, come to the Valley of the Sun.

Do it in autumn.

I captured this autumn sunset on September 25, 2020 at Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona, a mile from my Scottsdale home.

Midwest Reunion: Part One

It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.

At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.

After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.

For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.

The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.

It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.

Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.

***

When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.

Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.

I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.

About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.

Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.

I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.

My parents, Walter A. Johnson and Helen F. Johnson, are buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis, Missouri. Walter was a sergeant in the Army, who served in World War II. Mom and Dad met on January 4, 1948 and married on September 4, 1948 in St. Louis. Walter died one week shy of his eightieth birthday, on November 26, 1993. Helen passed away on January 26, 2013. She was eighty-nine years old.

Midwest Bound

Tom and I are flying to St. Louis tomorrow. On Saturday, I will attend an outdoor reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America’s circa-1970s employees. About 200 of us will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the amusement park in the rolling hills of Eureka, Missouri thirty miles southwest of the Gateway Arch that towers over the Mississippi River.

Now called Six Flags St. Louis, the theme park is where I landed my first job in 1974. It’s where I learned to “drive” the River King Mine Train, the park’s first rollercoaster. It’s also where I began to navigate life’s ups and downs. Who knew the experience for three summers would become a metaphor and catalyst for a book I would write more than forty years later?

This will be my first trip to St. Louis since July 2017. I’m overdue to write a new and rejuvenating chapter in my original hometown … one that doesn’t include heart trauma and a personal detour that spawned uncertainty on my sixtieth birthday.

I’m excited and a little anxious about this journey, given the relentlessness of our global pandemic. But Tom and I have been fully vaccinated and will mask up for this adventure.

No doubt, the trip will reignite a flame of familiar faces and memories. I expect there will also be a few surprises and a mix of bittersweet feelings and observations seen through blended bifocals and sixty-four-year-old eyes. We’ll see.

After the Missouri reunion–plus a visit to my parents’ graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a few hours reconnecting with my cousin Phyllis in St. Charles, and coffee with a St. Louis friend I haven’t seen for more than twenty-five years–Tom and I will drive to Chicago to see my son Kirk and our sisters Sharon and Diane.

We haven’t visited the Windy City … a place I called home from 1980 to 2017 … or spent time with our siblings in the suburbs there since June of 2019. Of course, the pandemic is the culprit that accounts for that gap.

I wrote the poem that follows five years ago. In 2017, it first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of reflective, light-hearted, growing-up-in-Missouri stories.

Perhaps these words will resonate with you–wherever you were born, wherever you call home. The poem certainly has special meaning for me as I return to visit my homes in Missouri and Illinois that account for most of the first sixty years of my life, before Tom and I created this warmer, lighter, and simpler life in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

***

Coming Home

I saw you there day after day. We were together leaving the station. We made our way around the track. But now I don’t see you anymore. Where have you gone familiar ones? Could it be you left the track and vanished? Am I alone looking down from my perch? Are the markers and signs all that remain? What became of the rises and falls? Have you left me in charge to man the controls? Am I enough to carry this forward? Why have you brought me back here? Oh, that’s right. I remember now. I was on a journey. I was coming home.

I wore this badge for three summers (1974-1976) as a rollercoaster operator at Six Flags Over Mid-America in Eureka, Missouri.

Counting Life’s Numbers

Writing is my thing. Not arithmetic. It has never been my forte. Going way back to 8th grade, I was lost in algebra class. That precipitated a math do-over in 9th grade.

Nonetheless, I realize we live in a number-centric society. Keeping track of and understanding numbers allows us to measure progress or lack there of.

Of course, the most obvious and disheartening example these days is the accelerating number of COVID cases and deaths, thanks to the Delta variant and a disturbing number of Americans who are still unwilling to get vaccinated for their sake and those around them.

But that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about the personal side of math–when you find yourself counting life’s numbers and celebrating the love, commitment, and longevity they represent.

Today marks 25 years since Tom and I met. In this ever-changing society, I’m proud of that significant number, though it pales when compared with the total our neighbors Mary and Earl have accumulated. They will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary in October.

At any rate, Tom and I are thankful to be together for a quarter of a century. We’re escaping the summer heat of Scottsdale to spend a few cooler nights in a cozy B&B in Flagstaff, a mountain community we love.

We’re like a lot of gay couples in the sense that we remember and celebrate 2 anniversaries: the day (August 17, 1996) we met and the day (September 6, 2014) almost 7 years ago when we were married in an outdoor courtyard on a gorgeous late summer afternoon in Illinois, surrounded by 60 friends and family members.

In 1996, we didn’t imagine it would ever be legal in the United States for same-sex couples to marry and receive equal rights to those of straight ones. The idea of marriage equality was barely a whisper. Less than 2 decades later it became a reality thanks to a movement we fully endorsed … proof of an astonishing, positive shift supported by a majority of American people.

In the time since Tom and I met at a northwest suburban Chicago gay bar, we have emerged from a hidden life to an open one. Along the way, we have counted life’s numbers.

Collectively, in the past 25 years we have: raised and counseled my 2 boys into adulthood; loved and lost 1 adorable basset hound and 1 crafty cockatiel; cared for and buried 3 of our parents; endured 36 years in the workforce; vacationed in 4 European countries (Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and 10 or 12 American states; watched our favorite baseball teams win 3 World Series (2 for my St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011; 1 for Tom’s Chicago Cubs in 2016); written and published 5 books; and survived 1 mild heart attack during 1 cross-country move. As I write this, we continue to navigate our way through 1 global pandemic that won’t end.

Of course, the glue that keeps our relationship going isn’t really about the numbers. It’s in the love and laughter we share, the relationships we’ve formed with friends and neighbors, the hundreds of movies we’ve watched together, the countless Scrabble games we’ve played over coffee, the unexpected hospital visits we’ve negotiated, the quieter moments reading and writing we protect; and the sense of day-in-day-out respect, comfort, and security we provide one another.

When it comes to the most important relationship in my life, it makes perfect sense why I’m not a math guy. I simply can’t put a number or value on the love Tom and I share, the hurdles we’ve cleared, and the successes we’ve realized.

Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Tom and me in October 1996 enjoying a Wisconsin weekend.
Tom and me in June 2021 during our Montana vacation.

Crossing Lakes of Consciousness

Every time Tom and I cross the wash at Vista del Camino Park, we inhale the distinctive, earthy bite of three sycamores planted in a sea of palms and eucalyptus.

It’s a pleasant surprise to learn sycamores survive in the desert. Hybrids growing by lakes and streams are like midwestern transplants: leaner, smoother, tanner. Don’t be fooled. Their roots are one-hundred-percent sycamore.

***

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1971, I traveled for the first time to a much wetter region of the country with my father, mother and sister. We left St. Louis for a week to explore the Great Lakes.

Our vacation was by no means a full immersion. It was more like motel-and-diner hopping on a shoestring budget as we headed north and then east.

Dad insisted we stop on the north side of Chicago just long enough to dip our toes in frigid Lake Michigan. From there, we continued on in our Chevy Biscayne to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to board a car ferry and cross the same lake together.

In the eyes of this fourteen-year-old passenger, the ferry was faster and far more intriguing than the prospect of driving a few hundred miles on congested highways past Illinois’ and Indiana’s stained ports, steel mills, and smoke stacks.

Under a bright sky, we squinted at the lake’s choppy waters and stood on the top deck of the boat with other passengers, while below attendants squeezed vehicles into the hull for ballast. Gulls danced and dipped in the air above.

Our destination? Ludington, Michigan … a town I knew nothing about on the eastern shore. I remember Ludington as a quiet, clean community with deep beaches. We didn’t stay long. Dad wanted to drive us north to Sleepy Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where I would climb more steep midwestern piles of sand than I could imagine.

Eventually, we made our way farther north to Sioux Ste. Marie and zipped up our jackets. A cool summer breeze buffeted our hair as we watched international vessels line up and pass through the Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

Toward the end of our weeklong Michigan adventure, we found our way south to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. I felt the sense of history there, but none of it compared with the exhilaration of the ferry ride near the start of our trip.

Fifty years later, it is the lake Dad and I crossed together–and the real and metaphorical channels we navigated as father and son–that I remember most.

Dad and me on the ferry crossing Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan in July 1971.

On the Shelf

Possibilities pose on the shelf of creativity. In the sculpting hands and firing synapses of the committed artist, a wedge of alabaster, foreboding canvas, or blank page evolves into something profound and present, provoking the imagination of those who linger and remember.

The Midpoint and More

The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.

By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.

Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.

Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.

Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.

Bryce Canyon National Park

This must-see geological wonder in southern Utah proved to be more spectacular than imagined. On the last Tuesday in late June, threatening skies produced little rain over the hoodoos (spire-shaped rock formations) in the drought-stricken west, but plenty of photo opportunities.

Already dazzled by the majestic skies of Montana and Idaho, two sixty-something, homeward-bound, Scottsdale-Arizona guys hiked 1.5 miles along the Rim Trail … high above the Bryce Amphitheatre depression … from Bryce Point to Inspiration Point without slipping, tripping, tumbling or losing consciousness.

Utah and Idaho

Traveling through the West, it is the beauty, desolation, and vastness that inspire me most. The sky and geography of Utah and Idaho collude to create soaring, lasting impressions. They seduce me, whispering ancient tales and promising a blur of stories of high plains, dusty buttes, painted plateaus, river rapids, and arid summer days.