Unabridged Me

JUST ANOTHER WRITER

“What are you doing?” Vivian watches me from the bed while I try to find places to put wet clothes.

“I’m doing our laundry,” I reply, deciding I was definitely going to miss the hangers.

“Why?” she asks.

“Because we packed only a few clothes for each of us. Each time we stay somewhere longer than a night, I will do laundry,” I reply with half my mind on the laundry and half my mind aware she will need food soon or risk a breakdown.

“Oh. Will we stay here awhile?”

“Yes, sweetheart. We will live in this room for three nights.”

“Okay, good. I like it here,” she returns to her tablet while I lean over and kiss her forehead.

“Good, me too.”

*

Today we approached the maze of Fez’s medina, ready to take on whatever history chose to show us. Unfortunately, our travel companion was not feeling well, which would explain her bout of grumpiness yesterday.

I have come down with a moderate case of traveler’s illness, but I’m stubborn and will not miss the tour of the medina for all the stomach cramps in the world. Mind over matter.

We began our day with a driving tour to overlook both Fes el Bali (the original city of Fez, referred to by the locals as the medina) and the new city. From there we drove down along the palace walls and saw the original Jewish quarter along with the gate to the traditional Muslim quarter.

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The new and old city of Fez

After 1950, a lot of the Jewish community emigrated out of Morocco. The remaining Jewish community has long since moved to another section of the city, though this area is still heavily regarded in city history.

Following our walk around the Jewish quarter, we stopped by the Zallige Factory. Sponsored by the state and heavily pushed as an occupation, the factory teaches apprentices how to make Morocco’s beautiful and world renown handmade ceramic tiles and mosaic art pieces.

It was fascinating the steps taken in each touching of the clay, from original gray soil to finished pieces. What blew my mind was each mosaic piece is placed on a mold upside down with the pattern residing only in the master’s head. Twenty-five years of experience before one can be considered a master.

From there we drove to one of the several gates of the medina where we walked in for our lunch. Our travel companion intended to return to the hotel since she was not feeling well. I will admit I wasn’t sure what I would find as we followed our guide through the narrow sand and stucco hallways of the medina. I did not expect to walk through a giant door into a two-story plaza surrounded by colorful mosaics and carved plaster, beautiful in artistry and ornateness.

So far, the restaurant had the best food with an amazing vegetable couscous.

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Wood Museum: Fez Medina

After lunch, three of us continued deeper into the medina while our travel companion went back to the hotel to rest. The tour consisted of narrow hallways that opened into larger courtyards, surrounded by houses, shops, and conservation sites like museums, shrines, and mosques. Deemed a UNISECO site in 1981, the medina is home to over 300,000 residents.

 

Dating back to 798 A.D., the medina is the oldest city in Morocco and still maintains most of the original boundaries, walls, and historical markings. The medina itself has not changed size since the 14th Century, due to the exterior walls.

In 2009, UNISECO considered the site at risk and began funneling funds to maintain its historical nature.

As we learned from our driver, this has caused some needed changes by also stress. Many people live and work in the medina as it is a location that is inexpensive for them to live, unlike the outside “new city.” Yet the requirements for house maintenance have become expensive and time consuming with UNISECO deciding what material can be used. The State provides 10 – 20 percent, but for many families the choice becomes one of selling or living in houses that are becoming safety hazards.

For the families that have chosen to sell, the buyers are often foreigners who are refurnishing the buildings and opening businesses, but the money is not necessarily supporting the locals within the medina.

From a tourist standpoint, the medina is breathtaking. Some sites that were long

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Looking down a stairway at an old theology university

abandoned have been restored and are now public places. An old marketplace for caravan traders is now a wood museum, and an old theology university is slowly being restored to its original grandeur.

What struck me the most was how narrow the streets were for each house to open into wide open plazas with beautiful wood and plaster work, the sun shining down from open (though now covered with plastic) skylights. Each house is its own fortress, surrounded by other fortresses and the exterior wall.

Getting lost would be easy, just as getting overwhelmed by the donkeys and crowds could become too much, but I was just enjoying each moment. However, I was very aware of when I saw someone more than once, especially if they walked past us several times in quick succession or if money changed hands with our guide when he least expected eyes on him.

Also, I often heard “American” after seeing someone walk past once or twice to hear us talk to each other.

The layers of what I see are continuing to develop into a fabric of the tourist trade in Morocco. I am not as bothered by what I see, as I settle into how I observe things at home. No judgement or personal feelings, just acceptance of seeing the small details in human existence.

In fact, I played carrier pigeon after dinner, carrying the small sealed envelope from our supper location to our driver. Though I didn’t open the envelope, I knew the contents were a kickback for bringing business that would be paid for by the tour company. It was one of several stacked envelopes, after we were sat in a room with only tourists in what we were told “is our family home.”

Walking deeper into the medina brought us to the tannery, and National Geographic became multidimensional for me. As tourists, we were provided sprigs of mint for our noses in case we were too sensitive to the smell of lye stripping hides and prepping them for dye.

After watching the proceedings, Vivian decided she wanted to work in the tannery. I think she was fascinated as she watched animal skin take on a bright pink color. She didn’t use her mint once, saying she liked the smell of the tannery.

Slowly we worked our way back out of the medina and to our driver, who took us back to the riad. The plan for tomorrow is Vivian and I will go to a park to give her some free run while my mom and our traveling companion will decide what to do in the afternoon.

The day would not be as we expected, bringing about drama that will make me decide to extricate myself from what appears to be an unofficial tour guide and communicator role that has been forced upon me.

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View from the second floor of the wood artistry museum. Every hotel and riad we’ve stayed in has this same wood detail in the plaza.

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Possible Potion for Failure

April 7, 2019

Most of us are not aware of our cultural indoctrination until we force ourselves into isolation away from our comfort zone. This also applies to our patterns of living and existing.

As far as travel companions go, my mom is probably the least inclined to create conflict since she has traveled on her own in  large groups, often making long term friendships with people she chats up along the way.

Unfortunately, she has not been super chatty this trip due to not feeling 100 percent.

Since I have Vivian and am the person who found the tour company and took initiative on this trip, I am the one who carries the most guilt. Entirely on my own shoulders, created by my own nature.

The other two travel companions are both the youngest and oldest, with 70 years separating their life experiences. Today our long drive from Chefchaouen through Volubilis to Fez exhibited some of our inherent personality traits as well as our awareness to our environment.

Although each of us was emailed the itinerary in both detailed and broad strokes, not all of us read it in the same detail. I did not memorize our path, but I’m carrying it in my laptop bag for reference just in case. Also, I have a general sense that most of our road travels are not direct routes but have stops along the way.

So, did I know we planned on stopping at Volubilis to tour the Roman ruins? No, but I enjoyed and went along with it.

Our travel companion did read the itinerary in great detail, but she seemed to forget we were touring the ruins. Unfortunately, she grumbled a lot during the tour, often asking the tour guide if he intended to walk the whole way around. As she said, she’s seen a lot of Roman ruins in her lifetime. Plus,  tours are difficult for her as she struggles with the accents of our native guides.

At one point she sat down on a wall and we continued walking, picking her up about ten minutes later as we walked by again.

My mom was not feeling well due to driving out of the mountains, so she was struggling to be engaged in her usual manner, which involves notebooks and notes writing down main key points from the tour.

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Vivian’s crown in front of mosaic tile

Which left me and Vivian. The guide made Vivian a crown of flowers, which she took off immediately after he put it on her head. Of course, as soon as she became used to the idea and comfortable with him, she started pointing out every blooming weed as a hint for inclusion in her princess crown.

The Romans knew how to pick a site, as Volubilis is situated at the top of a hill overlooking a fertile valley where they could plant and harvest olives for Rome. After all, Rome was interested in harvesting the resources from Northern Morocco and cared very little for anything else about the countryside.

LRM_EXPORT_79954583244393_20190409_153705638-1.jpegAs we walked, we looked at the various mosaic tiles and what they tell archaeologists about the house’s owner and the society in Volubilis. Currently, 58 percent of the ruins are unexcavated. Also, there was a large earthquake that disturbed the ruins, offsetting Caligula’s gate.

The tour guide had some interesting words to share with our driver when we returned to the van. Of course, I caught the exchange out of the corner of my eye. Just as I am catching many things out of the corner of my eyes and ears.

One thing I have become sensitive to is the word American. In our traveling to date, we have met and had casual conversations with a lot of different tourists. However, almost all are either European or Australian. We have not met another group of Americans.

So my awareness to the word is heightened, knowing the conversation refers to us.

I’m not so unrealistic to assume I can travel the world and immerse myself, blending seamlessly into whatever culture I’m in. The reasons I was so interested in coming to Morocco is because I would be exposed to so many different environments that are unlike anything I’ve experienced or would have opportunity to experience again.

Yet intellectual intents rarely align with initial reality. Part of the pressure on my psyche is I see and am aware of multiple layers of things occurring around us. Our travel companion does not care how other cultures perceive her, partly due to generation and partly due to her age.

Also, she has done a far amount of traveling, setting up dental clinics in Africa and South America with her husband.

My mother has always traveled in large groups, and I doubt her health allows her much awareness right now. Plus, my mother has always been more extroverted and engages with her environment on her terms in her perception, which is strongly rooted in conservative America.

While I do not understand the words between our driver and the guide, I understand the comments he made that I was not supposed to see. Just as I know our driver receives kick backs as he moves us through the country, calling his friends and maneuvering us for his benefit. This doesn’t bother me, as it is no different than any other culture in the world, including America.

I won’t even say I have much culture shock at this point, though I feel like I am violating norms without realizing it.

The part I struggle with the most is having a spotlight on me. I live my life in the background, watching and observing others while going unnoticed myself. I interact on a one on one basis with few individuals at a time, and for the most part am content to observe humanity from the audience. Easily done when I blend into the surrounding culture.

Now I am “American,” traveling with a 4 year-old and two elderly women. Unwanted attention was inevitable.

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Additions to Vivian’s crown.

After our short and what felt like failed “touring” of the ruins, we were on the road to Fez where we will be for three nights. I was sad to leave Chefchaouen, and I’m a bit doubtful this journey will be as seamless and effortless as I once thought, but I’m hopeful about what the rest of the trip will present.

With time and exposure, I will find my own comfort zone within this country and within this travel group of four very different people and a driver, who adds his own complexities to the potion.

For now, I will allow myself to absorb what I see and hear, playing audience despite being on display.

 

Updated: 04.13.2019 to correct the name of the Roman ruin.

Culture Shock and Watching Friends

April 6, 2019

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

“Have a banana and go back to sleep.” I look at the clock. 2:00 a.m. Two nights in a row.

“Okay. Here, I left you a little bit.”

“Thank you, now go to sleep.” I toss and turn, trying to get comfortable despite my aching left arm. No, don’t Google it.

I do, anyway. Of course, first result is a heart attack. Waves of thoughts drown my brain like what if I die in my sleep and Vivian is left alone in the room, by herself, in a country half way around the world from what she knows. Stop, you are not having a heart attack.

My chest tightens and my jaw aches as my brain struggles to get a gasp of rational air. I think about my mom, the issues she’s having and trying to hide, the vivacious and unstoppable person I once knew slowly disappearing under the strain of trying to keep herself the same.

Stop. You are having an anxiety attack, calm down. Deep breaths.

For an hour in a minute, I take deep breaths against a wet pillow. I’m not ready for any of this.

*

We woke to the sound of rain against the window pane. Looking at the clock, I realized I slept past my intended time due to two nights of interrupted sleep. Vivian was still sleeping soundly, so I started getting myself ready before waking her.

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Vivian’s favorite view from our room

Running about five minutes late, we met up with our traveling companion for breakfast before getting ready to meet our guide for the day.

So far, I have been unable to eat everything put in front of me. Not from a lack of trying, the food is delicious. I can see the various influences of cultures from the Roman olives to the foods brought back along the spice routes from India. It’s like I’ve died and gone to foodie heaven.

Unfortunately, the serving sizes are massive. At the risk of appearing rude for not eating all the food, I eat what I can before pushing myself to sickness.

Unlike some of the other tourists staying in the riad, we bravely face the mist and rain in order to experience ChefChaouen. We meet with our guide for the day in the downstairs lobby of the riad. While previous travel has involved wandering around finding nooks and crannies, the compromise involves 4 guided tours.

I’m beginning to understand the benefit of guided tours.

The first thing we learned is why Chefchaouen is blue. There are many reasons, but the primary had to do with diseases and mosquitoes. Children were at particular risk, so in order to protect the children the whole city was painted blue. When asked why blue, the guide’s best guess was something in how they make the blue dye puts off a scent that is a repellent.

It’s true, there was not a single fly or bug to be found in the old medina.

Also, the color blue was specific to the Jewish refugees who were part of the original formation of the medina and is of significance to Islam as well. And the blue repels the sun, creating a naturally cool environment inside the houses in the hot summers.

So really, all the reasons people have heard are true, according to our guide. All except the Jewish refugees coming only during WWII. The Jewish community was second in the country after the Berbers, long before the Moors and before Morocco’s conversion to Islam.

As we wandered up and down the small corridors and steep stairs, our guide educated us on the strong original culture that resides within the walls of the old medina. Despite addition of electricity in 1948, most houses still use candles for lighting, the old Arabic dialect is still used, and protection of the children is still the number one priority of all residents.

Revised rule #1 still stands for this trip, but my first discomfort from cultural shock is slightly relieved while in this small town. As my cultural shock subsides, Vivian’s will increase, though.

In the upper part of the town near the newer sections outside the medina walls, there were tourists in every pathway and alley. The further we meandered and talked, the fewer tourists we saw. Instead, we found people going about their daily lives. Children ran bread from their homes to the local bakers as we were told about the local infrastructure supporting the elderly with no family and the destitute with no money.

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The medina wall against nature

While my mom and her cousin were awed by how many families live together in a single house, anywhere from two to six families of five or more people, I was struck by the vibrant green of the mountains against the blue city.

After the French defeated the Spanish, the medina was no longer allowed it’s own king and government, and the city grew outside the walls though hampered by the terrain. Also, as the city grew in size the threat from monkeys, wolves, and other wildlife including invaders grew less. However, the old city within the walls remains a cultural entity of purity while an international tourist magnet.

After walking for about two hours, our travel companion was ready to head back to the riad for a rest and I was tired of carrying Vivian on my back while trying to balance an umbrella. Our guide walked us through the maze of streets to the riad, and Vivian and I went in search for lunch on our own.

So far, walking the streets alone with my daughter, finding the restaurant suggested by the riad, and spending an hour just me and her has been a highlight of this trip. For just a moment, we were flexible and immersed in exploring and experiencing.

I am starting to get a sense of watching friends, though. When Vivian and I walked to the restaurant, we were greeted at the door by someone who was expecting us. Yet at no time during lunch did they greet anyone else in that manner.

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The skylight over the riad plaza

We returned to the riad to relax in the room before joining my mom and her cousin for supper. I feel confident of the small portion of the medina we’ve learned so far, walking from restaurants and the riad in increasingly larger circles. Another day or two, and I could easily navigate the tiny town on my own.

However, we do not have a couple more days as we are scheduled to leave for Fes.

The awkward dance of not stepping on each other’s toes will become more awkward the next day after leaving the protection of the tiny blue city in the mountains, as we come face to face with the reality of traveling together, traveling as Americans in Islamic North Africa, and traveling as each struggles with their own bit of travel sickness.

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Wet and Winding Roads

April 5, 2019

Path of Morocco

Day 4: Casablanca – Rabat – Chefchouen

First, I would like to state I am not a professional travel writer. Nor am I professional blogger. In fact, I never considered myself a professional anything, even when I had a professional sounding title many lifetimes ago.

That being said, this journey through Morocco will not follow any specific format. Why? Because this blog is as random as I am.

This morning we left Casablanca to begin the road portion of our trip. In order to see as much of Morocco as we can, we have a few days when we are in the car for large stretches of time. The black Mercedes van is nice, and half the seats face backward.

By default of age, Vivian and I are facing backwards.

My mother gets motion sickness, and I deferred to our other travel companion. Vivian is young, and in general I don’t suffer from motion sickness. Though the mountain road we were on later was going to challenge my tolerance.

After driving the toll road for close to 45 minutes, we detoured to take the coast road to Rabat. A backward perspective gave me a different view of the crashing waves bombarding the sea wall after we passed.

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Kasbah entrance: Rabat

In Rabat, our driver apologized saying we have a scheduled stop to see the kasbah but it is raining. Three of four said meh, who cares about a little water let’s stop. While my mom’s cousin stayed in the van, Vivian, my mom, and I walked the gardens and ventured into the medina a bit beyond the kasbah walls.

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Vivian escorts us around the gardens

A quick side note: my mom and I have different traveling styles. She prefers organized tours where she can feel safe and watched after while exploring all the various countries of the world. And she’s been to most at this point. My travel style is to land in the airport, have reservations for the places we intend to sleep, and figure it out from there.

This Morocco trip is a bit of compromise for both of us. I researched and found an organized private tour company who handled mapping out an itinerary complete with a driver, half board of food, and organized tours in each destination city, and my mom agreed to a small group. Her point regarding Vivian’s age and my mom’s age was valid, and my point about organized tours not liking young children is a fact. This is what we came up with.

After returning to the van just as the rain began to fall in larger drops, we continued on the road. Once again, we began our route on the toll roads, lulling our group into sleepy stupor that ended as we began our ascent into the mountains.

Winding roads, though beautiful and fun to drive, are a challenge to the hardiest of stomachs. Especially when facing backwards.

After several hours, and without any major stomach issues, we arrived in Chefchaouen,

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Vivian gets courageous beyond the kasbah walls

the blue city. Our driver dropped us and our bags, introducing us to the man from Riad Cherifa who would escort us to our beds for the next two nights.

The original part of the city where we are staying is inaccessible by car. Tuktuks bring supplies like propane in and out of the city, while the majority of the residents walk. Built into the mountainside, the blue city took our breath away as we walked for the first time in several hours.

Greeted by aromatic mint tea and biscuits, we made it to our rooms to turn around and eat our first Moroccan meal.

The blue city is comfortable and has an ease about it, though the streets are often crowded with tourists depending on time of day.

The scheduled guided tour tomorrow will be our chance to fully explore the city, learn why the city is blue, and test our endurance for walking.

I’m not worried about myself. My other three travel companions might have a difficult time. Vivian because she is so young, and my mom because she is not at full capacity. Only time will see how we hold up.

Walking back from the restaurant, I experienced my first culture shock. While I will learn I have nothing to worry about within this tiny mountain town, I had my first moments of concern.

Normally Rule #1 between me and Vivian in public is she has to stay within my eyesight. If she can’t see me, I can’t see her and that means she will lose privileges. Other than that, I’m relatively lax about her proximity to me.

Up until this point I’ve seen distinct interest in Vivian from a few women, interest that Vivian shies away from but I can understand the women’s response. In our return to the riad Vivian was leading the party, walking a few feet ahead of us playing tour guide. Along the way there was distinct interest in her from two of the male vendors. I did not respond to the first as a threat because he was introducing her to two children.

The other wanted to show her turtles and pets he has in his shop. I watched with discomfort, stepping in when I felt it was time for us to continue walking.

For the time being Vivian’s new Rule #1 is she is to hold my or her grandmother’s hand when we are walking in public.

Cultural differences are starting to present themselves to my consciousness.

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Vivian and Sparkles admires the sheep with Chefchaouen in the distance

Long Uneventful Days

April 3, 2019

Somewhere a baby was crying.

Not a baby. Close to two years old. I watched this toddler in Dulles while we waited for Royal Air Maroc’s counter to open. Since the airline flies three times weekly from Dulles International, the counter opens only four hours before a scheduled flight. We designed time to relax in Virginia to give Vivian time to stretch her legs and run around before a seven hour flight.

We arrived at the airport 20 minutes before the counters opened: plenty of time to sit and watch everyone else waiting for the airline.

The small child was the youngest in a family of five people. I watched her scream and kick, throw a cell phone to the floor repeatedly, and in general make everyone else watching hope the family would not be sitting near them.

What felt like every hour during the flight, she screamed.

Vivian was sleeping, curled into a tight ball that only a 4 year-old can accomplish, with

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The chandelier Vivian wants for her bedroom (Hassan II Mosque)

her head on my lap. My mother was finally sleeping, her pillow propped against my right shoulder. And I was feeling the gentle rise and fall of the plane on air currents, my mind rocking in an ocean of a thousand thoughts as a shrieking toddler kept time.

Finally giving up on sleep, I opened my eyes as dark blue line appeared on the horizon. My unfocused eyes watched as the blue lightened and grew, stretching across the windows as our plane raced east towards the sun. The blue line began to separate and split, forming two blues and then adding a purple as I realized my time for sleep had officially ended.

Just about the time all seven colors of the rainbow had shown themselves and the sun had crested the curved line of the earth, the cabin lights came on beckoning everyone else to join me in the land of the awake for breakfast.

A little loaf a bread and a tiny cup of coffee officially started my day.

Luckily, the remainder of the day held the same slow pace for us as we moved our way through immigration and customs, being shuffled between lines and back again, and waiting for the 4th member of our travel party to arrive.

Then on to the hotel. I start brushing up on my French, with mixed results. Interesting phenomenon: When I am attempting to speak Spanish, I slip into French. Because of this, I thought my French recall would be easier, despite the 30 years since I’ve actively spoken the language. Nope. When I attempt to speak French, I slip into Spanish.

I might skip the Latin languages this trip and try my hand at Arabic.

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Hassan II Mosque: 5th largest in the world

After check-in, Vivian and I chose to take an optional tour of Hassan II Mosque. While it might have been smarter to take a nap, I knew Vivian needed to run after sitting and waiting for so long. A tour was not the best idea.

We abandoned the tour halfway through, and Vivian followed unicorn paths outside for a few minutes until our driver returned.

One of the tour guides saw Vivian playing and joined her for a moment, and then asked me what I thought of the tour. I was honest about seeing only half of it, and when we returned to where the tour began he allowed us back into a roped off section. He said samples of the wood carvings, ironwork, and placard information about the architecture was in there and to provide his name if anyone questioned our presence.

Without a large group of jostling people, Vivian could focus. The two of us rambled around and talked about the beautiful artwork for a few minutes before returning to the hotel. Vivian crashed before we got our food at supper, so getting her to eat will become a priority.

Between Vivian and my mom, food intake has become an unexpected focus of mine this trip.

So far, so good. The food has been amazing, the architecture breathtaking, the social dichotomies as expected, and Vivian’s strong headed nature is showing itself in odd and interesting ways.

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Looking at Casablanca from the mosque pier

Tomorrow is a long day in the car as we move farther into the country. I can’t say this trip is meeting my expectations because I had no expectations. Mostly I’m trying to write regularly (already failed at that) and mindfully soak in every moment.

Stay tuned…

 

 

Ready, Set, Let’s… Wait, what?

April 3, 2019

“We have your test results.”

I sat on the visitor chair, frozen in my indecision whether or not I should go take my mom’s hand or stay where I was. The doctor glanced at me as she slid her rolling chair closer to the ER bed.

“It’s not good news.”

This was not what either my mom or I wanted to hear right now. We were set to start a trip to Morocco in two days. The trip was to be a celebration of my mom’s 70th birthday, my 40th birthday, and a time for three generations of women to explore another country.

Of all the potential options, the diagnosis that eased it’s way out of the doctor’s mouth was one I never considered. I’m not sure what most people do when they hear, whether rushing to their loved one was expected or not. I turned to stone. All sensation left my body as my face felt only the pull of gravity.

The doctor’s words and my mom’s questions came towards me through a telescopic lens while I looked between the two, expressionless. Once the doctor left, the chair released me from it’s hold and I lumbered toward my mom.

I set my hip up on the small bed, holding my mom’s hand that became twenty years more fragile in the space of ten minutes.

How am I going to tell Vivian we aren’t going to Morocco?

My mom and I sit and stare into each other’s eyes for forever in thirty seconds before either of us spoke. To anyone outside the curtain, our conversation might seem odd. Neither of us expressed tears or emotion. Instead, we talked about Morocco as we expressed our initial thoughts. Neither of us had emotion in our faces or our voices as we forced ourselves back from the edge of shock.

The other conversations would come as we left the ER, about phone calls and doctor visits, about what she wanted from me as her support, and what each of us was going to do the next day.

“Are we going?”

“I don’t know. I need to make some calls tomorrow.”

“Okay, I will call the company to find out cancellation policy and…”

“Oh, no. I assume you and Vivian are still going.”

For the second time in that witching hour, I turned to stone. I never considered taking this trip without my mom. And the thought of leaving her at home to deal with this by herself while I’m walking around Morocco was as foreign as trying to eat air. Which is what I was doing, swallowing nonstop as my mind moved at light speed.

“I want to go. Let me make my calls and decide.”

“Ok. Talk to you tomorrow. One step at a time, and no more than that.”

“One step at a time.”

*

Two days later, and we are stepping quickly through Denver International Airport as we grab fast food for Vivian and my mom and try to make our flight to Dulles. Neither my mom nor me really like being rushed to the gate, but today we all moved a little slower than usual.

Vivian is excited, asking a million questions in the space of a breath while I try to keep up. Part of my mind is focusing on measuring my mom, her energy, and how she’s feeling. I won’t tell her I’m doing it; my mom insists on being self-sufficient. But in the space of two days, everything has changed.

While we do not have an official diagnosis, nor do we know exactly what the future holds, both my mom and I feel the pressure of how important this trip is going to be.

The flight is on-time, and we are on our way. We planned a night over in Virginia to give Vivian time and space to stretch her legs, run out her energy, and orient herself before the longer flight across oceans and continents.

20190402_155903.jpgAirtime is usually uneventful, as each of us finds our comfort moments in between jostling our boundaries and hyper-awareness of the hundreds of other people in the contained space. Vivian sits in the window seat, and Mom always wants to aisle, so I am left in the middle by default.

I have one moment where my physical location is a metaphor for my role in life as of two days ago. Now I understand when sociologists talk about the sandwich generation, stuck in the middle of taking care of children and parents.

I’ve never had to think about taking care of my independent and self-sufficient mother.

Stepping off the train from the concourse, I am struck by the distinct difference between Dulles International and DIA. Similarities are they are both international airports and have train systems. And that’s where the similarities end.

While DIA is filled with colors and textures, exhibiting art and paintings on every flat surface and flooded with light, Dulles is all glass and cement. The airport is military and utilitarian, a bunker set into the countryside of Virginia.

At baggage I make a mistake. I grab my mom’s bag and start walking.

“I can grab it.”

“But why don’t I just do it if I am able?”

The moment is sidestepped by a 5 year old. Due to Vivian’s waning energy, I take her bag and Mom ends up with her suitcase.

We planned the trip to Morocco with a certain function in mind: celebrate keystone birthdays while exploring the world. I have a feeling this trip will have more significance to our relationship as my mom and I adapt and navigate through an inevitable yet unexpected life change.

One step, and one day, at a time.

***Contest time again. This short story was written for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Contest. Assigned genre was Rom-Com, assigned subject was a doctor’s office visit, and assigned character was a graffiti artist. I put forth this creation for your feedback. Thank you!***

7:29 a.m. Unlock the door and lock it behind me.

I push my way into a cold and dark waiting room. Muscle memory keeps me from bumping into chairs as I reach for the switch on the wall, washing the gray interior with fluorescent light.

I think the room would benefit from warm colors and wall art other than CDC warnings and HIPPA notices. My previous boss scoffed, believing patients want a sterile place to wait. Warm reminded him of dirt.

Five years, a new boss, and nothing’s changed. Except I don’t notice the pooling grayness on dingy Berber carpet anymore. I daydream while running through opening the office. Computer: on. Coffee: brewing. Calendar: open and review.

7:50 a.m. I unlock the door

7:58 a.m. Dr. Michaels’ coffee is ready, and I’ve checked myself. Makeup: still decent.

8:01 a.m. There he is.

I look up as the bell tinkles his arrival, allowing myself one moment of worship as he steps through the door. The sun streaming through the windows catches the natural highlights in his light brown hair, making me feel like I’m going blind while looking at Apollo.

Normally Dr. Jackson Michaels steps towards reception, giving me a small but relaxed smile before asking me how I am. Today he doesn’t look at me as he breezes past while talking on the phone, grabbing the coffee I set out with thoughtful precision on the gray flecked laminate desk. Not even a nod hello. I absorb the shock in my stomach, pushing down neural pains of rejection.

“Lacey?” he hollers, making me jump a little in my chair.

He never yells for me. Dr. Michaels believes in calling on the phone, despite my desk sitting right outside his office. He’s big on professional image. I step towards his office doorway and stop, my body stuttering from the unfamiliar summons.

“Um, yes?”

“That was John. He insists on having that person paint our alley wall.” John Michaels is Jackson’s, I mean Dr. Michaels’, brother and silent financier of the practice. John’s Wallstreet money meant Dr. Michaels could buy Dr. Aaronson’s full practice and property without having to put in leg work to gain patients.

“That person?” I ask, confused by his agitated voice.

“The graffiti artist who has been painting up all the buildings around here. John’s decided to hire him, feels we need to capture the urban renewal that’s going on,” Dr. Michaels waves his hand, expressing distaste for said ‘urban renewal.’

Over the past few weeks I’ve watched as paint has appeared, welcoming the break in my grey world. The street art is well done and colorful, combining the neighborhood’s history with what it is becoming. Every morning my eyes seek new lines and splashes of color with artistic envy while shoving down sadness for my own dusty art.

“He’s really talented,” I breathe out my words, hoping I don’t offend him.

“No, it’s ridiculous, allowing ruffians to deface historical buildings. It will offend our patients. But John has put his foot down, so I want you to handle it. Keep him away from me,” he says as he looks out his window, dismissing me.

*

“Hi?”

“Excuse me?” I look up at the rude intrusion into my daydreaming about Dr. Michaels proposing marriage in the file room.

“I’m here to paint.”

My eyes take in the fume mask pushed up on his forehead, resting on a black bandana covered in specks of paint. He leans forward on the high desktop, giving me a front row seat to tan forearms dusted with hair. His nails are trim and clean, despite paint covering most of his clothes. Why am I noticing his nails? Hazel eyes with golden flecks stare into my soul, making my stomach nauseous and my heart speed up. Confused and unable to speak, I stare at the man in front of me.

“So. Which wall am I supposed to paint? The design is complicated. I need to get started.” His narrow focus on his art pushes a blush from my chest into my face.

Donning my best haughty persona, I stand up. Feeling him behind me, I walk outside and point to the wall. Turning on my heel, I come back to my desk and sit down with a thud. What is wrong with me?

*

After a few hours of pretending, I can’t resist peeking at the artwork any longer. Peering around the corner, I don’t see the artist. He must be on lunch break or something, so I take a moment to stare open mouthed at the wall. The man has painted only for a morning, and it’s breathtaking.

“Can I help you?”

I jump, spinning around on my heel and losing my balance. I catch myself against the wall. A wall of paint. I stare in shock at my handprint on the wall while I hear him ask, “You okay?”

“Just looking at your work. It’s great. Sorry ‘bout the handprint,” I mumble over my shoulder as I bolt into the office.

*

“So, who’s Lindsey’s new guy?” I toss out the question as I pop an olive into my mouth. Though always wanting the dirt on my little sister’s life, I rarely call her and ask. Me digging into her life brings shovels into mine, and my bland existence does not need exposing.

The largest rebellion of my life was getting an art degree. One talk with my father after graduation, and I returned to the fold of expectations. Expectations meaning a job as a receptionist for one of his golf buddies. The title of Office Manager followed in the expected amount of time. Next step: marriage to a stable, upright guy. A guy like Dr. Michaels.

My sister, on the other hand, is immune to our father’s expectations. She bends and twists wherever the wind blows. She doesn’t ask him for money and is self-sufficient despite snubbing college. He has nothing to blackmail her into expectations. I adore my sister and watch with amusement as she blows through life, changing as clouds change against the sky.

“You can ask me, ya know,” she says, wrapping me from behind and putting her chin on my shoulder, “but then you would need to answer some questions of your own, wouldn’t ya.”

I laugh, turning into my sister’s arms to give her a bear hug. A quick kiss on the cheek, then I lean back to look her. Beautiful as always. Though we both have bright hazel eyes and decent bone structure, genetics gave me carrot red hair, pale skin, and freckles mapped out like the earth’s light pollution. My sister is blessed with auburn hair and skin that would make dairymaids jealous. Genetics are a weird thing.

Something over her shoulder catches my eyes, and I stare. Right now genetics and the universe have the worst sense of humor. Looking at me over my sister’s shoulder is the graffiti artist.

“Supper’s ready, we can chat at the table,” Mom breezes past while air kissing my sister.

At the table, Lindsey makes introductions and awkward handshakes follow as we sit down. My brain doesn’t make it to the table, having turned on its heel and walked out the door, so I think I mumble, “nice to meet you, Lennon,” before I melt into my chair. An alien is forming in my stomach and climbing up my throat while I swallow half a glass of wine like a shot of cheap tequila.

“Lacey, how is work?” my mom asks me, laying her slow-it-down hand on my wine wrist.

“Huh?” the fog settles as I focus on my mom, “Oh, work. It’s fine.”

I feel my traitorous freckles trying to step into the spotlight as I blush under Lennon’s gaze. His hair is dirty blond. Just long enough for me to push my hands through it and pull. What the hell is wrong with me?

“How’d you guys meet?” I manage to squeak around the sudden image of hot, sweaty sex with Lennon.

“Oh, yeah. Lennon is Mark’s roommate, the guy I’m seeing. I told Mom I was bringing Mark, but he had a last-minute gig. Lennon said he was hungry, and I thought why not. At least you two have something in common,” she replies, looking at me with an evil grin.

“We do?” Lennon asks with a kind smile across the table. I wonder if it’s possible to slide from my chair and out of the room like a Looney Tunes’ character.

“Totally. Lacey here is an artist, mostly oils. Could probably earn money,” Lindsey pauses, then shakes her head, “no, not probably, definitely could.”

“You’re biased,” I mumble past the wine glass now attached to my mouth.

“Instead, Lacey made a rational decision after graduation and now has a bright future in business administration,” our father states to no one and everyone.

“How do you like Dr. Michaels, Lace?” my mom tosses her innocent question while looking down the table at our father with a not-now grimace.

I choke on meatloaf, sure they all know about my marriage fantasies. I hack and heave, trying to catch a tiny bit of air into my lungs while they stare on sympathetically. With extreme effort, I answer, “um, good. He’s a great boss.”

“I talked to him. He seems like a cool guy,” Lennon adds, looking at my mom.

“No,” I cough out.

“No, he’s not a cool guy?” Lennon tilts his head as his brows furrow.

While I answer, “I meant you talked to his brother,” my sister mutters, “he’s a douchebag.”

“Linds!” my mom admonishes my sister.

“It’s true, Mom. Lace’d never say anything bad ‘cause she’s got a thing for him, and why not after being around an old guy and old patients, but he’s a complete ass,” Lindsey accentuates her last word by stabbing her salad and pushing it into her mouth.

Lennon’s expression makes me decide slinking is not enough. No, I need an Acme black hole to open below my chair.

*

“Hey,” a familiar voice pulls me from my intimate relationship with an Excel spreadsheet.

“Hi,” I smile, looking up at Lennon.

It’s been several weeks since he completed the art installation, which is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Suddenly I am my sister’s preferred companion for outings, and she cannot do anything without me. Since he’s Mark’s friend, Lennon is usually with us. I catch looks of glee from my sister, but she’s faster than my brain. I can say I don’t panic now when Lennon looks at me. The man still reeks of sex, but I’m starting to enjoy my reaction to him. In fact, Lennon now plays lead star in my fantasies, completely different visions than my daydreams of Dr. Michaels.

“Want to get some coffee?” he smiles down at me, tapping a rhythm with his fingertips against my desk that now seems so much warmer.

“Like, a coffee date?” I quip before becoming aware of what I said. My face begins its slow transition to tomato, but Lennon laughs.

“Yeah, like a date. During your lunch in 15 minutes?” he raps the manufactured wood with his knuckles as I nod acceptance, “cool, see you then.”

“Lacey?” Dr. Michaels’ hollers from his office as Lennon raises one eyebrow and turns towards the door with a quirk of his lips.

Second time in a month. The pit of my stomach is not prepared for whatever this break in routine means.

“Yeah?” I stand in his doorway, unsure of what to do with my hands.

“Please sit down.”

In the seven months I have worked for Dr. Michaels, I have never sat down in his office. Am I being fired? Familiar nausea is saying hello to the back of my mouth.

“I heard you talking to that guy just a few minutes ago,” he states, pushing files around his desk until they line up with the desk edges.

“You mean Lennon? Yeah, he’s a friend. He’s gone now,” I respond, my brow creasing in my confusion while I put my fidgety hands in my lap.

“You know, Lacey. I consider you a good worker. You keep my office organized. I’m sure one day you will make someone a great wife, organizing a man’s life as well as you organize my day,” his measured tone is at odds with my flash of irritation, “As your boss, it’s my responsibility to take care of you. Spending time with a street thug is beneath you.”

“Excuse me?” I sit up straighter in my chair, unable to keep the fleeting scorn from my face, “he’s an artist, not a thug…”

Dr. Michaels waves off my words, “Lacey, please. You deserve more than that. A professional who can give you the house and life you need.”

I feel my temper rising, a thermometer of rage boiling up my neck and close to exploding from the top of my head. Dr. Michaels becomes superimposed with Dr. Aaronson and his aversion to color and my father with his aversion to creative risks, and I stand up. Dr. Michaels looks up in shock.

“Lacey, sit down. There is nothing to get agitated about,” he says using his best bedside manner.

“I quit.”

“Lacey, what? Did I say something offensive? Really, this is just a small conversation between friends,” he leans forward on his desk, lowering his voice and widening his eyes.

I turn on my heel, stopping only to get my purse. There is nothing else of mine in my holding pen of five years.

*

“You what?” Lennon looks in my eyes while trying to hide a smile.

“Yeah, walked right out,” I choke down a giggle, my body humming with adrenaline and weird bubbly emotions rising from my solar plexus.

“That’s amazing,” Lennon says, smiling into my eyes as we stand outside the coffee shop, “what will you do now?”

“I don’t know. I have some money saved, so maybe paint for a little bit. Ask a friend of mine if he needs a helper with his street,” I smile up at Lennon, my eyes briefly settling on his soft lips.

“I’m sure he would oblige. Maybe you should start seeing someone, like seriously,” he whispers, moving closer to my mouth.

“Maybe,” I breathe towards him, unsure if he can hear any of my words.

In response, he grins as his hand slides around my jaw to the back of my neck, pulling me towards his mouth. All my daydreams evaporate. Instead, I lean into his burning kiss, losing myself in the colors and textures exploding in my head as I breathe in Lennon’s scent.

An ending here would be the like a story from a fairy tale, with everyone living happily ever after. The truth is I moved back in with my parents while I apply to art galleries and museums. I started painting again, and I’m sending portfolios to every dealer and gallery I can. Lennon and me? Yeah, we’re good.

 

I step outside, avoiding the water puddle on the concrete breezeway as I move my way out into the cloudy day. I should sweep that for my dad when I come back. The rain has stopped for now, and inches of water are either rushing downhill or coming to rest in low spots. I gain the road and turn right, beginning my walk. I always turn right, unless I’m thinking about it and change directions.

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Humidity causing lichen to grow on every surface

The warm moist blanket of air settles around my head and on my shoulders. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought my jacket. Instead of going back, I take off my hood and keep walking. Wet wood and decaying leaves invade my nose, scents heavy with moisture and rot. My eyes search past the houses on my right, seeking the ranch across the valley that has a red barn and white picket fence. The clouds still hang low, and my eyes don’t reach the bottom of the hill.

The asphalt bends to the left, beginning my circle, and my cheeks are slapped with misty fingers of the South’s winter hand. I zip my coat up to the top, huddling my chin a little lower. A neighbor’s steel lawn ornament windmill creaks in a steady rhythm of a paused rain storm.

I hesitate then turn to my left. I will take the long route today. My father and stepmom live in a development on top of a hill; the road is designed in a sideways digital eight sitting on three legs. My father’s house sits on the far right of the eight, with a left turn out of his driveway taking a traveler along the lower right bend and past one leg. The center leg is a switchback road driving off the hill. Walking the eight including the center cross section is one mile. Today I will walk the full eight and two of the three legs. One and a half miles.

The red birds that chirp a nonstop chatter by my dad’s house are missing as I cross the eight. The deep silence pushes my ear drums, wrapping me deep in thoughts as my indifferent eyes mark red brick houses they’ve seen several times over during this vacation.

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Fishing pier of Lake Dardanelle

Yesterday we went into town for lunch and a movie. Designing our day based on Denver time, we ended up with a lot of time to waste. So we took a small drive to Lake Dardanelle, walking around the visitor center and out to the fishing dock. The ecological study of the lake does not interest me much, especially as the visitor center hasn’t changed in the 6 years since my last visit, so I wandered around looking for photo opportunities.

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Leaden day

Maybe I should take more interest in intellectual studies. I love learning about new things, but I’m easily bored. I count the chairs on a front porch I pass, all of them aimed across the road. Chairs for watching, not conversation.

The conversation during our meandering around town and towards the lake was about architecture and old houses. “I really like that house,” I said, trying to peer at a green Queen Anne Victorian with a full wrap around porch while focusing on the car in front of me.

“We could buy it for what we paid for our tiny house, and probably have some left over,” he quipped. “But then, we would have to live in Arkansas.”

My measured steps drive this thought between my ears. We could buy 4 times the house here, in this beautiful housing development on top of a hill. I pass a For Sale sign before bending to the right onto the lower line of the main eight. Vivian could live just down the street from her grandparents, and living in a small town isn’t so bad.

“But then we would have to live in Arkansas.” I shudder.

I mock myself for my elitism, but I acknowledge the reality of his statement. I turn left down the third leg. The South moves at a different pace, at a leisurely jaunt through the week and church on Sundays. Urban hurry is my standard pace.

Bored with houses, my eyes wander beyond to the breathtaking views of valleys and trees. The houses sitting on the inside of the eight are the only ones without a view.

Brown wetness surrounds me. The earth, unable to drink any more water, forces swamps to develop. I fill my lungs to the bottom with damp molecules as I reach the end of the leg, turn around, and head back to the main road. Pausing, I watch water rush from under the road and down an aqueduct made of lichen covered stones to pool in another pond. Ugh, mosquitoes in waiting.

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A bend to the left. Sundays in a secular city are more likely to involve mimosas and brunch than church. I don’t really participate in those, either. Following the road past a low portion filled with water, my ears differentiate the freeway hum and a helicopter. Water pushes through a drainage pipe under me, letting out on the downhill side of the road. I follow the water in its trenched path, past a sodden white farmhouse. No views but water drains away, flooding their neighbors.

Vapor is settling on my hair and cold cheeks, my lungs pulling in film it’s unaccustomed to. I should have brought my inhaler. Wait, no. There’s so much oxygen here, my lungs are doing half the work. Dampness makes my lungs feel like I’m being smothered.

My legs move faster as I cross the eight again, horses who sense the barn is close. I ponder if I should skip the leg closest to my dad’s house and just head home when my brain realizes my feet made that decision 10 steps ago. I continue down the leg, looking at the houses with wide front porches and four car garages.

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Lake Dardanelle, always in view of Arkansas Nuclear One

Summer here would be unbearable. My internal heat pushes against the clamminess of the air, creating a sheen on my exposed skin. The slow pace is a matter of survival for those who live here. The current speed of my legs would not be possible in condensed mugginess.

I would not survive the humidity. My mental health would not survive the banality. There is not enough healthy activity to burn off mania nor urge me out of depression.

I stop before heading down my dad’s jagged, root filled asphalt driveway, sweat meeting dew to create fog on the inside of my glasses. Idyllic for visiting in the winter, this is not the place for us.

I do this every time I travel, wonder if I might want to live where we are visiting.

I saunter down the driveway, my eyes noting the moss and mildew bleeding from mortar between bricks on my dad’ house. I squeegee standing water on the breezeway concrete into the decomposing leaves rotting on a flower garden before stepping into a kitchen warm from holiday cooking.

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
Leon C. Megginson

Regardless of where I might travel, adaptability is key to enjoying a trip. Even the best laid plans can go awry, and enjoyable experiences mean going with the flow in the moment. Even if the travel is a short family vacation to Russellville, AR.

Located near the Ozark National Forest, a trip to Russellville usually means

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Mt. Nebo entrance

day hiking trips. Rather than taking a full day to drive and hike in the national forest, we decided on a quick hike at Mount Nebo.

Mount Nebo is located just off Lake Dardanelle and is one of the state parks in Arkansas’ system. At a total elevation of 1,345′, hiking around Mount Nebo does not offer challenges (like how to breathe) faced in other regions with higher elevations. However, the state and federal parks around Russellville offer a large amount of history that cannot be found by hiking a 14,000′ mountain.

Mount Nebo was one of thousands of development sites established and worked on by the men in the Civilian Conservation Corp. Passed by congress in 1933, the CCC was a program developed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and was the most successful part of the president’s New Deal. Putting thousands of young men to work each year, with a total of 3 million participating by the program’s end in 1942, the CCC focused on developing and preserving U.S. natural resources while housing and employing the country’s young men.

Almost 90 years later, the state and federal forests around Russellville have buildings, parks, and trails distinguished by the CCC’s trademark masonry capabilities. Every year I see these monuments of an innovative Great Depression recovery program, and every year I am astounded by the artistry and lasting nature of the work.

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View from the CCC pavilion

After eating a quick picnic lunch at the pavilion, we headed over to the visitor center where we picked up the trail head for the Rim Trail. As suggested by the name, the Rim Trail wanders around the edge of Mount Nebo, providing hikers with a 360* view of the surrounding landscape. After a steep decline from the visitor center, the trail turns to either the left or the right, with left as an easy route to another trail head and right a strenuous route to another trail head.

After a quick discussion, we decided we will head to the left. The hiking party included me, my sister, my husband, and Vivian. The plan included my father and stepmother picking up the hiking party at the trail head where easy became moderate, about 45 minutes along the rim from the visitor center.

With Vivian in the lead, we started off. Although the property belongs to Arkansas,

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CCC mason work

private residencies still exist along the top. The houses cannot be expanded, and no new development can occur, which means all the houses are 1920’s and earlier remodeled construction. The beginning of the Rim Trail takes hikers along the front of the houses, providing an amazing view of the valley and beautifully restored homes.

My sister and I were discussing the ideal location, as long as there were no ice storms, when we came to a fork in the path. Without a pause, my husband starts walking downwards, following a path marked Bench Road Trail. After a beat, I stopped and commented taking a right seemed to take us away from the rim. As is normal with our family, we followed the one most convinced he was right.

We descended down the mountain and into the trees as my sister and I kicked 2″ gray cobblestone that seemed to make a roadbed. Slowly our party of four was separating into two parties of 2 with Vivian walking fast in the lead. I realized as the two in front picked up speed that we were the worst prepared hikers considering our obvious deviation from the plan. Not only did we not bring a snack, I left my water bottle in the car. I mentioned this to my sister. She replied after a thoughtful moment, “we won’t be out here long, and this is an easy walk.”

Vivian and my husband reached a four way sign before my sister and me, and they waited for us to catch up. We were informed we did take a wrong turn, and now we have

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CCC lasting legacy

a choice of four roads. Instead of taking the left road in an effort to cut back up to the original trail, and knowing all three adults were averse to going back the way we came, we decided a right turn towards Observational Point. We remembered driving past the point, so we knew where we would come out.

Lately Vivian has been in a phase where she wants everyone to hold hands “because we are a family, and families hold hands,” so we continued our walk four across down a dirt road marked by blue tree tags. Although we talked about what the blue might signify, we didn’t get our answer until the next divergent path.

Suddenly rising off to our right were moss covered stone slabs. At first, Vivian was just curious to walk up one or two. I was drawn to the stairs but they looked very steep, and my sister is a researcher and needed to know where we would end up. After a quick Google search, we learned Nebo Steps would take us back to the visitor center, were considered strenuous, but the entire hike was only 3/4 mile and we were on a small portion of it.

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Trailblazing

Up the stairs we went. Vivian scampered with energy fueled by excitement as the adults grumbled and made various cryptic remarks about our decision. I kept thinking how history changes perception. We were complaining about the steepness of the steps, but at some point each stone was placed by a worker while standing on a steep hill.

We reached the top successfully and called to alert our ride that we were back where we started. Although we deviated from our intended plan, we saw an amazing aspect of Mount Nebo’s charm. The whole adventure reminded me that wandering can afford us more growth and experience.

Today I enjoyed sleeping in until the late hour of 7 in the morning, accomplished only because there is now a house full of adults who can tag team one hyper 4-year-old.

Yesterday we finished our route from Denver to Russellville, AR, by way of Dallas Love airport. While a direct flight is available, it is needlessly expensive and requires flying on a carrier I refuse to do business with. Despite the 12 hour journey from house to house, the pace of travel was relaxed.

Russellville is a small town located northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas’ state capital.

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Arkansas Nuclear One, the state’s only nuclear plant

Although the town has a local airport, we choose to fly into Little Rock due to availability of flights and carriers. Also located in Russellville is Arkansas Tech University, Arkansas Nuclear One, Tyson Foods, and ConAgra. The town is heavily reliant on manufacturing as the main employer, with half the population earning wages via manufacturing.

Originally the area belonged to the Cherokee tribes as part of their original agreement with the U.S. government. However, in 1828 the Cherokee located in this area were moved to Oklahoma and the region became available for white settlers. In 1834, a settler by the name of P.C. Holledger built the first house of what was to become Russellville.

As a Colorado native, all I  knew of Arkansas during my childhood was it is a state somewhere in the South and where my stepmother grew up. About 10 years ago my father sold his business in Steamboat Springs, and 9 years ago he and my stepmother relocated here to assist her aging mother. Although we visited once before Vivian’s birth, we now come once a year so she can spend time with her grandmother and papa.

Sitting over a dinner of cheesy chicken enchiladas, we discussed what activities we can do. We decided, with our stomachs full of casserole, roller skating was a needed activity.

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Kudzu: smothering the South

I haven’t roller skated since I was 12, and barely once a year then. Yet I am game to try and do almost anything when I’m traveling. According to my stepmom, the roller rink is a small, family owned establishment that is open maybe 2 hours a day and for private birthdays. As she said, “we aren’t really sure the hours, but I know it’s open on Saturday mornings from 10 to 12.”

Holiday house parties for our family usually means people get up when they want, fix themselves coffee and serve themselves whatever casserole was thrown in the oven by the first riser, and in general be ready by the agreed upon departure time. Since we keep different hours, the shower schedule seems to work out well.

A few minutes before 10 a.m., all but my father are in the car and ready to go. My dad recently had a hip replacement, so his activity is still restricted.

We arrive at the skating rink, and my low expectations are met by the exterior of a cinder block building with signage missing and poorly replaced letters. Entering the building, I almost walk past the ticket booth where we pay for entrance. Standing on the other side of a Plexiglas window with a circle for speaking and handing money through, I look into what appears to be the office. A row of 10 pairs of scissors hang to the right above the ticket seller’s head along a wall, and file cabinets overflow with paperwork and cardboard boxes.

We pay, and we funnel through to the small desk to order our skates. We step around a

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The magic begins in the dark

family sitting directly in front of the counter and give our sizes to the same man who sold us tickets. Picking up skates that look two decades too old, Vivian and I walk towards a bench that sits along a gray cinder block wall surrounding the dingy cement roller rink. The two side walls and back wall are straight, forming a rectangle, while the front is curved, a pony wall separating booths and benches from the rink itself. In the bright mercury light, the rink belongs in a county jail.

Despite the well worn and lackluster appearance, we put on our skates and are excited to begin our adventure. My stepmom sits at a booth while I join my sister in an awkward dance of balance and orientation as we acclimate to wheels.

Having jumped at the chance to skate off with her daddy, Vivian returns to get a walker made of 7 PVC pipes joined into two sides of a cube in a 45* angle. Three wheels allow the pipe to become a support system for brand new skaters.

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An easy ride

Then the lights dim, the music starts, and I remember the magic of skating rinks. There is only so much a business can do with concrete floors and gray walls, but when the black-lights shine on neon wall paintings and the music is blaring, no one cares about the near dilapidated building’s reality.

For two hours we skate in various ways, my husband moving quickly around the outside circle while Vivian shuffles back and forth in the center. I regain my wheel legs, though images of fractured wrists and concussions make unwelcome friends with my consciousness.

Then it is over. Lights come back on, neon magic is broken, and Vivian is left wondering why she can’t keep skating now that she conned us into pushing her and her walker in a faster circle around the edge. The adults of the group are each mentally thanking the restricted hours of the skating rink, as our thighs burn and strain.

The afternoon is spent wasting away, as tomorrow is hiking in one of the many natural parks around Russellville. First solid day is done. Though we are still early into this holiday, I sense how time will slide through my fingers.

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