the biggest little city in a gold buick.

(this story started here…) Long before the joy of Reno 911 came into my life, I got to experience “The Biggest Little City” sitting in the passenger seat of a big gold Buick. This Buick was driven by a highschool friend who was living there with her mom during one of those “break from life” moments young people have every-once-in-a-while. We were both 19. I had graduated high school a year prior, she had just taken a break from college after two years. She was one of those amazingly smart kids that got the principal’s permission to graduate early and start college. I was awed by her ambition, drive, and fortitude. She picked me up in that big gold Buick, complete with a boombox on the bench seat because the radio didn’t work, and I regaled her with my horror stories of Phoenix.

We were a-flutter with teenage energy, nearly jumping out of our seats while talking. We pulled up to her mom’s house: a fairly new two story concoction, not quite as horrific as the architecture of Phoenix but it still wasn’t the gorgeous 100 year old brick and mortar of home. I was still getting used to what “new construction” looked like. The house was comfy, her mom was gracious (as always), and we quickly went upstairs to her bedroom and found ourselves laying on the bed and joking about everything. Then she pulled out this book and was like, “let me read you this story.”

At the time I thought nothing of it, but in the years past I have thought of it so fondly and repeatedly wished she would read to me all the time. Being read to, especially by someone that is good at it, is amazing. It was normal before the invention of TV, now it is weird and unheard of. The best part, it was David Sedaris’ “Barrel Fever” that she had pulled out. I rolled on the floor laughing as she read the story called “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!” and almost died when she got to the now famous “SantaLand Diaries.”

It was the perfect catharsis for my failed trip to Arizona. A friend, a comfy house, a million laughs.

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The next day, my friend and I decided to dine at Romano’s Macaroni Grill, mostly because she worked there part-time – as there was a severe lack of cool-hip-independent restaurants in Reno. We sat down and ordered our Spinach Artichoke Dip – this was back when the phenomena was just beginning – and she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Do you think I’m a failure?” At that moment I could have collapsed. From what? I’m not sure. Surprise, maybe. Or possibly confusion.

This woman that I saw as independent, confidant, interesting, bold, and not afraid to do what she felt was right for her life (i.e. leaving high school early, going to an “alternative” college, moving around the country) was looking at me for approval. I didn’t feel deserving, at all. And I certainly didn’t understand why she didn’t see herself the way I did. It was a definitive “ah ha” moment where I saw the first inkling of what I now know of as perspective shift.

I saw her one way. She saw herself another. We both were looking at the same person, with the same values, making the same choices. One object, two perspectives.

Not clearly remembering what happened next, I can tell you that I told her what I saw. I told her of what those same life choices she saw as failing, were the ones I saw as amazing and awe-inspiring. This was also the beginning of that adult moment when you begin to realize that not everyone is inside your head thinking the same things along with you. I just took my perspective as “the truth” or “reality” – but I was starting to figure out that those things are all very subjective. Don’t worry. It was just the beginning. I have had to (and continue to) learn that lesson many, many times again.

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After the mind shattering conversation at the Grill, we roamed around Reno a bit – checking out a casino, the downtown Riverwalk, going by the “Biggest Little City” sign, the mall. It was all still so new to me, the West. The layout of the cities, the architecture, the flora and fauna. After a few hours of this, we were both pretty bored. My friend suggested we go up to Lake Tahoe and camp for the night.

Camping!! Cool!! I’d seen that in movies (my family wasn’t really a camping family). Oh, I guess I camped once in eighth grade with my “boyfriend.” One of those uncomfortable moments when he tried to kiss me and I ran away and slept in a friend’s tent. I didn’t understand any of that stuff at that age.

Anyway. Back to Reno and Lake Tahoe…so we loaded up the car, that big Gold Buick, with food and water and sleeping bags and hit the road. The hour long drive started in the parched countryside and wound up through the wooded foothills surrounding the lake. I had never been so close to such grandeur before. I had flown over the Rockies once, but to be driving up the windy cliff face at 40 mph was a totally different experience. And did I mention we were in a HUGE gold Buick. This thing took up about a lane and a half on this tiny two lane road that was cliff face on one side and a steep drop on the other. I can’t say I wasn’t totally scared out of my mind as we whipped around turns and passed cars. I began to understand those old cartoons where Wile E. Coyote drives himself off a cliff.

Safely making it to our destination *phew* we found a flat rock to set up camp. We gathered kindling for a fire and laid our things out before it got dark. But there seemed to be something missing – a tent. We didn’t have a tent. My friend seemed like this was normal, so I just put on my straight face and played along.

All the while I was freaking out!!! What if a bear bites my head off, what if a giant spider crawls in my ear, what if it rains?!! So as we drifted off to sleep, with the huge trees and star lined sky above, my fear melted into awe. It was too beautiful to be scared of.

For a minute at least – then I shoved my head into my sleeping bag, as far down as I could go – so no bears would eat it. I awoke to a dewy morning, surrounded by the birds and the trickling stream and the sun peaking through and I knew I had survived the night. Thank goodness.

 

 

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a nosebleed in phoenix.

(this story started here…)

 

So I woke in my little metal frame bed in Flagstaff to the sounds of a hostel: mummering, zippers zipping, showers turning on, half-asleep bodies moving slowly around. I had done it, I had survived my first night in a hostel. Pretty much boring. For being as personable as I am, there is something about hostels that have always turned me off. I retreat in my shell, I don’t talk to anyone, I put up the wall – at that point I thought it was just because I didn’t understand how it all worked, but this has pretty much remained true throughout my life so far.

I packed my big ass green canvas pack – you know, the kind with a big metal frame and about 100 hanging straps and 35 different pockets. Like this – big, square, made in the early 70s:

green pack

I can still hear the jangle of those metal tipped straps hitting the frame and each other. And I can still feel the intense pain from walking around with it packed full of clothes, shoes, and my discman. I only thought about space, not about weight, when packing for the trip – but that lesson would be learned very soon.

With my green pack and Deltron 3030 on my headphones, I boarded a small bus (more like a large van) slated to take us to Phoenix as the morning dew was drying up. For the next two hours I watched the long pines and lush green change to short brush and dusty brown, and the temperature in the bus went up about 25 degrees. It was my first time in a desert, my first time watching a terrain change so drastically, and my first time in the place my father was born.

My dad was born in a small hospital in Phoenix while my Grandpa was working a saleman job there – a few years later his father, mother, and four siblings all moved up to the temperate and more hospitable suburbs of St. Louis. He doesn’t remember his time living there at all, but it lives on in the legacy of our family.  “Phoenix. That’s the place dad was born.”

My only contact in Phoenix was the biological sister of a friend who had grown up with an adopted family. They had recently reconnected, just before the birth of her second child. I don’t know how or why I thought it would be the best idea to stay with them, these complete strangers and their brand new baby – only that my friend was (and is) one of the most open-hearted and generous people I had ever met, and I assumed I would find them the same.

I called their house from a payphone at the bus station and the boyfriend gave me explicit walking directions, “Go north one block, our street is about eleven blocks down on the left. We are the fourth house from the corner, the door on the right.” Twelve blocks!!! What luck! In a few short minutes I would be delivered from the Phoenix heat to the open arms of some complete strangers, Huzzah!

What I didn’t know were two things: (a) Phoenix heat was in no way like St. Louis heat and (b) 12 Phoenix blocks was a whole lot bigger than 12 St. Louis blocks.

St. Louis’s thermostat generally tops off around 95 on really bad days, and though there is no escape from the humidity, you would almost always find your path crossed by the shade of a few of the 1000’s of trees in the Greater Metropolitan Area. Phoenix was hotter, dryer, and sunnier. I don’t think they even have trees there.

I trudged my first block with the 55 pound (oh, I weighed it later that night) pack on my back and many many curse words in my mouth, realizing it was the longest block I had ever experienced. By block four I was sweating profusely, getting a little dizzy, and sort of freaking out. Well, this must have shown on my face because moms in SUV’s started pulling up and asking if I wanted a ride.

I refused them, out of my “don’t get in a car with a stranger” policy. But for cripes sake!! What was wrong with me!?! They were nice soccer moms with big hearts. Many of them couldn’t believe I said no and stared at me shaking their heads as I walked away. I guess they knew just how dangerous that heat could be – I had no idea.

Finally I reached the house, parched but still conscious.

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Their little apartment was littered with toys, rightfully so – a thing I didn’t mind and was actually quite used to from having younger siblings. Their place boasted an outdoor pool and beautiful citrus trees growing all around – these trees and this pool provided the only good memories of my short time in Phoenix.

So I had a plan for my first full day in Phoenix:

-repack my pack and send home what I didn’t need, because I HAD to lighten the load

-go up to see a culinary school in Scottsdale (…I think it was the Arizona Culinary Institute)

I marked the first thing off my list fairly quickly, then on to the second – without the aid of GPS, the internet, or even a cell phone. How did I do it?!? I’m pretty sure I purchased a map and got a bus schedule. Weird huh? Armed with my guidance tools and a bottle of water, I hit the road.

It was another sweltering, insanely hot and sunny day in Lovely Arizona. No, really, Phoenix is a dusty bowl in the desert:

phoenix

I thought the phrase “fry and egg on the side walk” was funny and appropriate in St. Louis – oh no! it was meant for this little piece of hell.

While waiting for the bus I discovered the trick of spitting water on the ground and watching it IMMEDIATELY evaporate. It was cool! It was scary.

I boarded the bus with a few dusty people – no, really, they had dust on them – and found a seat near a Latino grandma. The foreign architecture rolled past the big bus windows. It was like Phoenix was made up of crappy apartment buildings from the 70’s. Ugly siding and nothing higher than four stories. Growing up in St. Louis and spending most of my time in the middle states, I had never seen a city that was so young before, one that wasn’t built around grand turn-of-the-century stone buildings with broad walkways, giant iron gates, and majestic spires.

Then the bus stopped. And wouldn’t start again. So we all sat in the sweltering oven of a bus until another one showed up. Then, a few blocks later, that bus stopped. And wouldn’t start again. As I exited the second broken-down bus my nose began to bleed, bright red blood trickled down my chin onto my shirt and hands. I am assuming this was from the intense arid climate and dust. Either way, it was the awful icing on a shit cake.

At this point I was officially freaked out and very hungry, so I walked to a nearby Chinese Restaurant with tissue in my nostrils and tried to drown my sorrows in some fried rice. BUT no one warns you that Chinese food tastes different in other parts of the country – I mean it all comes from China, right?! I choked down my weird “Chinese” food and defeated, deflated, tired, and very hot I got on a bus going back to that little apartment with the pool.

I never made it to that culinary school in Scottsdale.

I have never gone back to Phoenix either.

from the beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got here, (whatever “here” is: in Washington, in this small town, cooking in someone else’s kitchen, an author, a blogger, a chef) and been feeling like I want to explore the stories that brought me to this point.

It’s hard from me to do this chronologically – because I don’t think the human mind really works that way – but I will start back in the day.

A few weeks ago, I rode the Amtrak from Seattle to Portland and many memories were jostled inside my head. Mostly regarding the trip I took, when I was young and wide-eyed 19, around the country via the train in search of the right cooking school. Now, this sounds MUCH more poetic than it really was. I was actually just an anxious kid looking for a way to get out of the small town I grew up in. It should be noted that I never actually visited any schools during my month long trip.

Somewhere in my young life I heard about the Amtrak Rail Pass (still in existence, but a little different now) where you could ride as many trains as you wanted in a 30 day period for about $600. Seemed pretty damn epic at the time, actually it still seems pretty epic. Unlike the Euro Rail Pass, I couldn’t just hop on any ole train any ole time – I had to plan out my trip ahead of time and then get all the tickets printed out. But….I could change the tickets at any time during my trip. So really, effectively, I could get on any ole train any ole time.

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The first leg of my journey began through the Southwest – on the Southwest Chief. I got a sleeping car for this 27 hour trip (thank god) because of a slip up from gentleman that printed my tickets. It was the longest, and most comfortable, hours in a row that I would be on a train for the whole trip. After that I would master the art of taking up two seats to sleep across or finding a comfortable corner of the sightseeing car.

The sleeping car was more like a closet with two seats and a tiny table – flanked by a sliding door, and a huge window. Not a spacious and beautiful room you saw in old movies.

northbynorthwest2

At night an attendant came and pulled down a bed from the ceiling, making my sleeping spot, basically, a little metal train coffin that rocked back and forth all night. Truly one of the weirdest nights of sleep I’ve ever had.

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The first major stop on the line was Albuquerque. It was a “stretch-your-legs-and-have-a-cigarette” kinda stop. So I wandered off the train and around the rosy pink Spanish colonial style building, where native people were selling jewelry and wares as they must have been doing for quite sometime.

FHAlbuquerque

This was my first time being in the Southwest and I had momentary culture shock, I certainly felt like I was in another country. The people, the buildings, the air – everything was so different. A little loopy, I hopped back on the train and we headed towards my stop: Flagstaff.

Flagstaff was actually just a way-station to my first real destination, Phoenix – but the train didn’t go that far south, so it required a short trip on a bus. I stayed a night in Flagstaff.

This little college town afforded me my first hostel experience, my first time in the mountains, and my first night on a long and mostly solo journey through the States and Canada.

As I laid extremely stiff in my tiny hard bunk bed, sore from a far too heavy pack and long walk, I thought, “Well, I guess this is it.”

 

 (the story continues here…)