Category: Travel

Western Warmth, Eastern Oasis

Warmer, brighter, and dryer than my midwestern memories, the arrival of April in the Sonoran Desert means we are a step closer to the oven.

I’ve come to welcome the regularity of the sun and heat. They define who we are: slimmer survivors, comfortable in shorts and sandals minus the cloud cover and weighty coats of our past lives.

No matter the month, if you’re willing to dig beneath the palms that frame the burgeoning Phoenix skyline, you’ll find the Japanese Friendship Garden (named RoHoEn) coexisting with concrete in an urban setting.

Planted at 1125 N. 3rd Avenue (just west of Central Avenue and south of I-10 on the way to L.A.), this hidden Phoenix gem is an unexpected eastern oasis deposited amidst the flurry of western civilization.

Protected by the shade of a high-rise apartment building, colorful koi dance beneath the surface of a shallow lake, a canopy of pines, sculpted shrubs, gentle waterfalls, and peaceful pagodas.

Of course, many come to the Valley of the Sun to relax by the pool. But if you prefer a different kind of escape, the garden is an ideal place to stroll in the shade, pause on a weekday, feed the fish, and nourish your soul.

Eight Days on the Emerald Island

There is no better time than St. Patrick’s Day to pay tribute to the Emerald Island.

In late August 2017–just six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack–Tom and I boarded a flight for Dublin, Ireland.

It was an excursion we had planned months before. But on July 6th (our shared sixtieth birthday) the trip and our future felt very much in doubt as I lie on a gurney in a St. Louis hospital.

Remarkably, my health improved considerably in a month. Doctors in Scottsdale, Arizona–my new hometown–encouraged us to proceed with our plans. The journey to Ireland would help us heal.

Looking back five years, both of us were anxious about traveling abroad, but we also needed to reclaim our joy. As I wrote in An Unobstructed View, Tom and I spent eight days with forty other travelers from around the world. Brian, our capable guide with CIE Tours, led us clockwise around the island.

It’s a bit of a blur now. But in one week’s time we moved from Dublin to Waterford, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, the sheepdogs in Sligo, the Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland, and the Titanic Museum in Belfast … before returning to Dublin and riding atop a double-decker bus with the wind racing through my hair.

Along the way, on our farewell dinner with the tour, we enjoyed an evening of Irish songs and music at the Glyde Inn just south of Dundalk.

In the spontaneity of the experience, I was pulled onto the floor to join in a broom dance. For a few fleeting moments, I rediscovered my spark away from the worries of the previous month.

I also spotted a little old Irish lady, singing her heart out across the room. She resembled my Scotch-Irish mother, who never had the opportunity to return to her ancestral home country. Seeing her there was an important step in my healing process.

In 2019, I wrote The Irish Mist. My poem is a tribute to the comfort I felt looking out over the Atlantic Ocean across the vast Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland as the clouds rolled in on August 27, 2017.

***

I’ll always remember you, rolling in over the gaelic green.

I felt cool comfort knowing the veiled intentions you whispered in my ear wouldn’t be denied.

No matter how much I wanted to gaze beyond the moss and ferns you shrouded, you held me there.

You knew I needed to stand strong above the craggy cliffs of my past.

You knew I needed to feel rooted to the emerald island, thankful for the mystery of my mending heart.

The Reckoning

Kirk and I talked this morning. Every few weeks–usually on Sunday mornings–we connect via phone.

My thirty-three-year-old son is a kind counselor, who lives in Chicago. He lives a full, demanding life. He has navigated the Covid years on his own. I continue to do my best to bolster him from afar.

I always look forward to our conversations. Kirk tells me what’s happening in his world. I tell him what’s happening in mine. He’s planning a trip to Portugal at the end of March with a friend. The trip has been postponed twice due to the global pandemic. We both hope the third time is the charm.

Kirk is the adventurer in our family. He volunteered with the Peace Corps–taught English to children in Vanuatu on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific–in 2014 and 2015. He hasn’t traveled abroad since then due to Covid and career demands.

I admire Kirk’s sense of wonder. He told me he’s missed the opportunity to explore new worlds; to get lost in unfamiliar cultures. I could hear the loss in his voice.

While news of the war in Ukraine rages on, and we global citizens are catapulted into the uncertainty of another international drama, I think it’s likely that many will deny or try to forget the pain of the past two years. But we can’t and we shouldn’t.

At the very least, each of us must have a personal reckoning to account for the pain, anxiety, disruption, and multitude of losses. This is something I’ve contemplated for a while. This weekend it has surfaced more clearly.

During my conversation with Kirk, I recounted my Saturday with Tom. I told him I sang with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus pals at the Melrose Street Fair. It’s a lively community event in Phoenix that has gone missing for two years–for obvious reasons.

As I stood on the stage yesterday on a partly sunny and breezy morning–with Tom and a group of our close friends watching and listening–the last two years came flooding back.

Why? Because our chorus performed at the same event two years ago. It was right before the world stopped spinning and we all retreated. I will always remember the pain of that. None of us knew the magnitude and length of the tidal wave of fear and uncertainty that was coming. Somehow, we endured.

Yesterday’s moment was one to embrace and celebrate. Like a long, lost friend missing in action, the world felt suddenly alive as we sang. I wasn’t sure when or if I would feel that free again. But I did.

As I retold this story to Kirk on the phone, my tears appeared out of nowhere. The full emotion of Saturday’s reawakening arrived on Sunday morning with my younger son listening attentively seventeen hundred miles away.

Though it wasn’t in person, I am thankful that Kirk and I had a few moments of reckoning together. Like all of us who have lived through the darkness, we have earned the time and space to reflect and process all of the madness.

I hope my son is able to re-ignite his passion for travel in Portugal and find a little solace … maybe even realize a dream in an unfamiliar place in late March.

Ironic or not, one of the songs our chorus sang yesterday was Come Alive from The Greatest Showman. Let the lyrics wash over you and rekindle your best instincts. We have all earned the reckoning.

***

And the world becomes a fantasy, and you’re more than you could ever be,

’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.

And you know you can’t go back again to the world that you were livin’ in,

’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.

So come alive!

Tom captured this moment as the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus prepared to perform at the Melrose Street Fair on March 5, 2022.

Pocatello Moments

Nearly six months ago, Tom and I were driving south through the plains of Idaho after a pleasant visit with friends in Bozeman, Montana.

A green road sign told us we were approaching the town of Pocatello. Late on the morning of June 28, we pulled off the road to explore. I wanted to see a place I had never been, though–in an alternative universe–it might have become my world. Let me explain.

In the early 1970s, Mom was a staffing specialist for the Defense Mapping Agency in St. Louis. One day she came home from work (she was the bread winner in our family after Dad suffered a heart attack) to tell us her job might be transferred to Pocatello, Idaho. If so, we might be moving west.

As it turns out, we didn’t come close to moving to Pocatello. We stayed in St. Louis. But, as a teenager, I believed for a few months that an Idaho existence was a real possibility; that we would leave; that I would need to make new friends in an unfamiliar, remote state. That mindset was my motivation for wanting to examine Pocatello with my husband fifty years later.

For the next few hours, Tom and I roamed the streets of Pocatello. We took photos outside the local high school, paused at the site of the Chief movie theater (it burned in 1993), inquired about the repurposed status of the Hotel Yellowstone, and gazed through the windows of an abandoned Greyhound bus depot.

In front of a thrift store with a rainbow flag in the window, we had the nerve to stop two young men (one was wearing a Schitt’s Creek T-shirt) to ask them what it was like to be gay and grow up in Pocatello. They hesitated for a moment but discovered Tom and I … a couple and a couple of writers … had no ulterior motives. We simply wanted to know what it was like to live there; I was mining future story ideas.

So, they obliged. They told us they had carved out decent lives, gone to a local college, and made friends in their community, though–they confessed–it was tough being openly gay in predominantly Mormon Idaho and Utah. We thanked them for stopping to say hello and sharing their insights. We wished them well and said goodbye.

Before Tom and I walked back to our rented SUV to continue on our journey, we made a final stop in a local art gallery. That’s where I spotted a speckled-blue glazed mug, made by a local potter. It bears the shape of the state of Idaho. I couldn’t leave without buying it. I needed a physical souvenir of the spontaneous moments Tom and I shared in a town that might have been mine, but never was.

Since that unforeseen experience in June, I have consumed dozens of cups of coffee and tea from my Idaho mug–many while writing the next blog post or poem. In a sense, the sight of the mug stirs my creativity, especially when I need a jolt.

As Christmas approaches and 2021 draws to a close, this artful mug reminds me how important it is for all of us–writers or not–to leave the highway of life from time to time. To keep our minds open to diverse people and unfamiliar worlds. To explore the “what ifs” that keep us wondering where the next story will come from. To seize the Pocatello moments when they appear and imagine the possibilities of what they may inspire in 2022 and beyond.

Arizona Fall League

Where can you watch promising, future major league ball players perform outdoors in seventy degree temperatures in November, while spending just seven dollars a piece for two seniors to sit behind home plate?

At Arizona Fall League games at Sloan Park in Mesa. Consider it the perfect spot for baseball purists, major league scouts, western hat wearers, avid autograph seekers, foul ball hawks, and anyone simply wanting to chill in the shade and eat peanuts under the radar on a glorious afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.

Final score on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 (as if it really mattered): Glendale Desert Dogs 3, Mesa Solar Sox 2.

What Is Remembered Lives

Long after the most cherished and meaningful moments pass, our memories–good, bad, vivid, and foggy–endure like saguaro cacti dotting the terrain of our vast consciousness.

***

Over the weekend, the lone survivor of my mother’s prized African violet plants died. Tom and I discovered it withered on the window sill of our Scottsdale condo. I supposed it succumbed to the heat of the desert’s afternoon sun.

I’ve chronicled the journey and symbolism of Mom’s African violets before–here and in two of my books: From Fertile Ground and An Unobstructed View.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom when she moved north to be closer to my sister Diane and me in 2004.

When Mom died in January 2013, Diane divided up the remaining African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

For the next four years, my cuttings flourished in our Mount Prospect, Illinois home. In early July 2017, Tom and I wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. We brought them west from Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

On the road, after I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis and couldn’t lift anything for a few weeks, I remember my husband carrying the African violets between our car and hotel rooms in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico to protect them from fluctuating temperatures overnight. It’s a memory I will always treasure.

When we arrived in Scottsdale on July 12, 2017, Tom and I deposited the plants on our southern-facing window sill. The pink African violet lived two more years before petering out in 2019. Now the purple one is gone too. It last bloomed ten months ago in January 2021 … eight years after Helen Johnson’s passing.

Of course, I feel a twinge or two of sadness. This marks the end of a long, circuitous chapter, connecting my present life to the past memories of my nature-loving mother.

But, at this point (four-plus years in my Arizona home), Tom and I feel rooted in the desert. We have chosen and nurtured plants that embellish our life in this warm, dry place: bougainvillea, desert roses, succulents, even a bird of paradise.

To be sure, though their physical evidence is gone, the stories of the traveling African violets and the memories of their captivating blooms will be with me as I hike the rises and falls of the Sonoran Desert with Tom.

What is remembered lives.

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.