going home again

The day before we
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
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).
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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.
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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
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.
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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) camera we gave her for Christmas.
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).
My car is
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.

Links
Hotel El Capitan
Lei Low
Pinkerton’s Barbecue
Morningstar

the view from here

 

christmas tree reflectionMorning breaks on Christmas Eve. December 24. Just like last year.

James and the dogs are still sleeping. The only sounds are the clicking of my keyboard, our whirring refrigerator and seabirds passing overhead. I might also be slurping my coffee a little since no one’s within earshot.

Our weather, cold and rainy, reminds me of winters past in Houston (though today, Houston is expected to reach 80 degrees). El Niño has arrived in central California, and the rain comes often. The brown, crunchy land has turned green again, a contented sigh of oxygen coming from the earth. It’s soothing to look at the thick grass and clover covering our yard, and the dogs are enjoying a soft carpet underfoot on which to make their morning deposits.

At night, the ocean is loud. We can hear the waves pounding rocks at the shore. The sound makes me want to run down the hill to the coast, camera in hand, but I never do. Too cold. Too dark. Too drunk.

James and I are off for 11 days, today through January 3. A vacation in the place where we’d travel on vacation if we still lived in Houston. Assuming the rain stays away, we’ll do some hiking in Big Sur. Maybe drive up to San Francisco. Work in the yard, removing the beautiful clover that threatens to overtake our drought-tolerant plants. Read books. Watch TV. Try new restaurants. Go for drives. Take naps. A bit of soul rejuvenation at the end of the year.

Tomorrow is Christmas, our first without family. We knew the dark side of the bargain when we made this move. It sometimes means not being there when you want to be. It often means not being there when you want to be. But our people are a phone call away, and the gifts we’ve exchanged are a tangible connection. And I’m coming home for a visit in less than three months. Time moves so fast now, three months will feel more like three weeks.

The dude abides, and so do I.

However and whatever you’re celebrating as we close out 2015, cheers friend.

 

Dennis did California

Don’t freak out or anything, but this post is out of chronological order.

My dear friend Dennis came to visit James and me the weekend before I headed home to see my family (early May). Here’s what happened.

tripod
Philip, me and Dennis in San Francisco. The three of us met while working at the Alley Theatre more than a decade ago (time flies). Over lunch, we discussed our plans to bring queso to the Bay Area. Million dollar idea. All we need is a million dollars to get started. After lunch, I brought Dennis down to Pacific Grove for the weekend. Where SF is an expensive, exotic cat with vegan dreadlocks winding its way back and forth between your feet, PG is an old hound dog that barely raises its head from the porch. I generally prefer hanging with the hound dog, but it’s fun every once in a while to try to pet the cat.
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The fog started rolling in before we were out of San Francisco, and it followed us south. We teetered back and forth between fog and clear blue skies all weekend. Sometimes at the same time. Dennis is the first friend we’ve had visit, and we weren’t sure what to do for entertainment. So we did what we love–went to Big Sur. Two days in a row.
scamper
We took him to some of our favorite places. This is one of the Garrapata turnouts. I took this from the stairs going down to the beach. James suddenly lit out for some off-roading (seen here, scampering up a hill), and Dennis followed. 
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Here’s where they ended up. And they managed to get down without breaking anything.
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Sitting in the car waiting for the Point Sur Light Station gate to open. We did the once-monthly moonlight tour in April and loved it, so we were excited to see it was happening again while Dennis was here. (Notice the reflection of the ocean. And, though I may wear a cap like a dude, when taking a photo I hold my pinky out like a lady.)
point sur
It was a totally different experience this time–and still amazing. The weather was calm–no gale-force winds. The skies were cloudy, obscuring the sunset and moonrise. Our tour guide was dressed in a vintage lightkeeper’s uniform, and he carried a lantern. There were amateur ghost hunters in the group. Oh, and one more thing.
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Whales! I’d pumped Dennis up to see sea lions, whales and otters (he’d seen plenty of bears in San Francisco), but on his last night here we still hadn’t seen any whales. Even though, just a week ago, I easily saw water spouts while driving down the highway next to the ocean. We were gathered at the base of the rock the lighthouse sits on, and Dennis joked that the whole trip was a bust because I’d promised whales but there were none to be seen. Then someone in our group pointed and yelled “Whales!” Sure enough, there were two gray whales frolicking in the water very close to shore. Not only were they blowing spouts of water, they were also breaching and hanging out close to the surface.
gray whale
This was the best action shot I managed to snap. It was odd that they were so close to shore–hope they weren’t trying to warn us about aliens or great white sharks or great white alien sharks.
Our tour guide, inside the lighthouse.
Our tour guide, wearing a 1920s lighthouse keeper’s uniform. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this same fellow told us some ghost stories later that night.
And then there's Maude.
And then there’s Maude, chilling at the Big Sur river.

I didn’t manage to take pictures of the two times we ate burgers (here and here). Or the time we ate It’s It. Just know that those important things happened. And they were good. So was our visit with Dennis. We’re hoping he didn’t find us too weird and will come out here again soon.