The day before we left to go home for Christmas, Jean, James’ mom, came to the end of her nine-month battle with cancer. She was still young, vibrant and feisty, so this was a huge blow. Jean used to send me a mother’s day card from Stella the rat dog every year, and she always remembered dates like our anniversary or the day my brother died. Her house was full of things she made with her hands–from paintings on the wall to ingenious inventions to deal with the minor irritations of life (like a lost remote). We shared a lot of laughs over the years, including after the ill-fated whale watching trip where I spent the entire time puking into the Pacific. I’m so glad she was able to visit us out here in 2014 and wish she’d been able to make the second trip we’d been talking about.
When we left in our rented mini van to make the three-day drive to Houston, we knew it was possible this soul wouldn’t be making the return trip with us. She’d been declining for a few months, and she was in pretty bad shape as we set off. Dali died on the shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice and the day before Jean’s funeral. She’d been with us for almost 13 years, and we think she was a year old when we got her. Not a bad run for a crazy dog with two different-colored eyes and a bit of an attitude. She had many nicknames, but a favorite was “Cooj” (rhymes with Baton Rouge, short for Cujo because sometimes she liked to bite us).
We broke the drive up like this: Pacific Grove to Blythe, CA (just inside the border with AZ) –> Blythe to Van Horn, TX –> Van Horn to Houston. After fighting our way through the gridlock that is the western half of Southern California, we expected smooth sailing across the desert with just a few semis to keep us company. But CalTrans decided to do a little road work on the Saturday before the Christmas holiday, and it took us two hours to go seven miles. I considered using this random port-a-potty in the median–I could have easily done my business and caught up with James and the van walking at a casual pace–but I was a bit afraid of using an interstate terlet in the middle of the desert as night is falling.
Van Horn, Texas is just a blip of a town in the moonscape that is West Texas. But it has a super cool, old school (but renovated) hotel with a great restaurant. This is the sister hotel to Hotel Paisano in Marfa, and they share remarkable physical similarities. The hotel in Marfa is a bit cooler because the rooms have patios with fireplaces in them. This place just has a view of the railroad tracks, empty lots and a gas station. But the rooms are nice, the lobby is beautiful and the chicken fried steak with jalapeño gravy is pretty hard to beat.
While in Houston, we had the chance to check out a few new places. This is Lei Low, a “rum and tiki lounge” in the northern end of the Heights and just a short walk from the house we rented for our stay. I had a drink with an umbrella in it that was tasty and not overly sweet. The drink, not the umbrella. I didn’t taste the umbrella. We also had really amazing brisket at Pinkerton’s Barbecue and a delicious breakfast (twice) at Morningstar–both in the Heights. When we lived in the Heights, dining options were Andy’s, Someburger and King Biscuit. The area is an embarrassment of dining riches now, and I wish we’d had more time to try more places.
After a few days in Houston, we headed up the country to see my family, stuff ourselves with my mother’s nonpareil cooking and drink all my dad’s booze. My nephew and niece, almost 8 and 6.5, are at that great age where they’re smart and fun to talk to but aren’t too cool to hang with the old people. I was thrilled to see Molly reading real, live, 3-D books and watch Rowan build intricate Lego creations instead of being buried in electronic devices, staring and swiping like zombies. They both have great senses of humor and a surprising handle on absurdity.
Here’s a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) instamatic camera we gave her for Christmas. She took her photography very seriously and captured some seriously great shots. She also learned a lesson about angles to avoid (like not shooting up toward people’s faces/double chins).
The two times we’ve driven back to Texas since the move, we’ve rented a mini van. Our cars are nine and 15 years old, both on the small side, so the van provides lots of room for dogs and luggage and the confidence we’ll actually get from A to B and back to A without mechanical difficulties. It was nice driving a brand new vehicle for a couple of weeks, but I was happy to get back to my no-computer-display, no-warning-when-a-car-is-in-your-blindspot, stick-shift Mazda. I can’t get behind this no key thing. Pushing a button to start a car, then turning a knob to put it in gear makes for a completely unsatisfying driving experience. On our long drive, James and I talked a lot about automated cars and how in the somewhat near future a kid will be talking to her grandmother about road trips and will be incredulous–“You mean you had to steer the car and make it go by pressing your foot on a pedal? For hours? How did you pay attention? How could you be off (insert relevant social media tool) that long?” And the grandmother will think longingly of a more simple time when you had to balance your intake of caffeine with truck stop availability so you didn’t consider using a port-a-potty in the median of the interstate in the middle of the desert as night is falling.