Category Archives: Arizona

Where Rabid Bobcats Roam

On the shuttle ride from Sedona to the airport in Phoenix, our driver shared with us the following:

— A rabid bobcat attacked a waiter in Sedona who was putting out the trash.

— How Arizona towns along the highway got their names: Bloody Basin; Big Bug Basin, Bumble Bee near Bumble Bee Creek, and the delightful Deadman Wash. As you can imagine, the town names came from bloody exchanges between white settlers and American Indians, between white settlers and deadly insects, and between white settlers who discovered other dead white settlers. You have to wonder if white settlers had stayed home, what the signs would say today—or if there would be any signs at all.

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As he relayed these stories, an almost-full moon was peering from between the giant red rocks, those sentinels of mysticism that drew a couple all the way from Romania. They sat in front of us on the shuttle, on their way to catch a flight to London that night. Even in 2017, despite crystal shops and taquerias and psychics, the outskirts of Sedona—and the extraterrestrial landscape that is Arizona—still appear wild, and somewhat still dangerous. I have an insect allergy (hornets and wasp stings might kill me, though oddly, not bees), and wouldn’t dream of hiking anywhere in Arizona without my EpiPen in my back pocket, ready to draw like a 9 mm, which are aplenty in Arizona—an open-carry state. Not that guns keep you safe from everything in Arizona; there are towns named after folks attacked by bees, red ants, and other things that crawled. Even if you don’t have an allergy to anything, perhaps everyone should travel around Arizona with an EpiPen; the state’s legends alone made my antibodies flare up.

Still, I was safe in an enclosed shuttle where the windows were up and the air conditioner was on, even though it was February, about 60 degrees out, and I would’ve enjoyed an open-window ride despite the risks of bugs nearby. And I enjoyed the driver’s stories. All the passengers did. Including myself, there were four New Yorkers and two Romanians. A self-identified Brooklyn Jew who was in his sixties and worked as a commodities trader sat in the front seat next to the driver, and when the driver wasn’t sharing Arizona lore, the guy from Brooklyn was talking about himself. Because that’s what sixty-something guys from Brooklyn do, go on about how New Yorkers are “the strongest people in America,” though given what Arizona residents endured and live with, I beg to differ. My guess is Texans are pretty tough, too. And Alaskans. They are bad asses up there.

Suburban New Jersey doesn’t have stories like these. I live perhaps 500 feet from the British-Hessian Invasion Route trail, a path marched in 1776, so as you can see, it’s been a long time since shit went down in my ‘hood. More recently, black bears showed up hungry, suburbanites freaked out. The black bears don’t even get a chance to go rabid and taunt a waiter (or bite people). The very idea of black bears wandering about keeps the annual New Jersey Black Bear Hunt legit, some bullshit about keeping black bear numbers in check. Just another blemish on a state that lost any sense of conservation long before I reluctantly unpacked my bags here. Drive to Atlantic City or any spot along the Jersey Shore and you’ll see what I mean; every inch of road leading up to the beach has been commercialized with billboard after billboard; it takes forever to get a clear view of the ocean without something getting in your face to tell you to buy something. It doesn’t have to be this way; in Vermont, billboards are banned so as not to obstruct the lovely view. This has been the case since 1968. Only three other states do this: Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine, three states home to lovely views. New Jersey decided differently, going after commercial potential, as New Jersey does. As for Arizona, I saw a few billboards along the highway, but not as many as I see en route to the Jersey Shore. It’s as if Arizona businesses decided not to compete with the landscape because when towns are named “Deadman Wash” you know who’s going to lose.

I spent a week in Arizona earlier this month. The sunlight and lack of New Yorkers (until the shuttle ride), and the fact that New Jersey was 2,000 miles away were all very rejuvenating. Living here depletes me. We settled in a region we didn’t know to be a part of a blue ribbon school district and close to good jobs. During my 6 1/2 years in this snobby suburb, and my 13 years total in Bergen County, New Jersey, I have grown to detest this state the way I detest Donald Trump, who built up his name in the sandy cesspool that is Atlantic City. Both share a phoniness and materialism. I now try to arrange my days so I interact with New Jersey as little as possible: the traffic, the accents, the entitlement. Yes, those things exist outside of New Jersey, too, but here, those things are an inescapable rash, and I’ve tried every imaginable balm I could think of: getting involved, not getting involved, yoga, meditation, taking trips, staycationing, reading books, making friends, distancing myself from people. Living here is a constant state of coping.

If you read any of my earlier posts, like the ones written during my first year or two here when I thought New Jersey would just be another pit stop, I sound more like an anthropological observer than a resident. Six years in, we bought a house in a leafy burb (yes, they are always leafy—such towns take great pride in their trees) thinking quiet suburban living and great schools were simply the next phase of life, like getting your period or your losing your virginity, a milestone to get through. Honestly, we weren’t thinking of what we wanted in a community, but the education opportunities for our daughter. I had never lived in a suburb before—only farm towns and big cities prior—and genuinely thought “How bad can it be?”

I learned. Quickly.

There’s a discipline called environmental psychology, and as of late, I have felt like a subject in an environmental psychology experiment. Some grad student thinking he or she has a meaty research project is looking down on me thinking “How long will my mouse last in this maze? What if I build another Whole Foods? Will that distract her from her goal of getting out?” The term environmental psychology is self-explanatory—naturally, we are all shaped by our environments. But what happens when you try to fight against your environment? Or try to shut it out? Or try to pretend it’s not as bad as you think? Or try to find different environments to escape to periodically so you can enjoy a reprieve? And how long can you keep this up?

New Jersey is a soft place for soft people who don’t want their views challenged and who love to discuss retail opportunities. Consumerism is a competitive sport here, so I see where the New Netherland name comes from. When I first moved here, I thought jokes about New Jersey were unfair, just Manhattan elitism that people echoed to sound smart and otherize others. Now, I say joke all you want about New Jersey, for it’s likely true. There is judgmentalism everywhere in the world, but if there were a Judgmentalism Olympics, I would put my meager freelance writer’s earnings on the suburban moms who are my neighbors. They would kick ass, and walk away with all the gold medals. These women have an opinion on *everyone* especially people they don’t know very well. These opinions tend to come out after a few glasses of wine, or sometimes they are bandied about in school parking lots. Apparently, if you have a master’s degree, a house worth at least $600,000 (and that’s on the cheaper end), and drive a Honda Odyssey or Sienna, then you know things, the kind of things you can’t dig up at the town library. And these things tend to spill out when the booze flows. (I’m a lightweight, and actually not really all that interested in alcohol. I’ve learned I don’t need it to be interesting.)

Which is why as we were heading south on Interstate 17, with the Tonto National Forest on my left, and hints of the Prescott National Forest to my right, where rocks are so big that they have names, where stars—even the Milky Way—are actually visible in the night sky, I felt jealous of the white settlers who came this way. Yes, they faced infection, illness, starvation, wild animals, American Indians, or simply being lost in a place that was too vast, too lacking in borders to be real. I envied the singularity of their journeys, the uncertainty of their possibilities. For here, back in the Northeast, amidst all this 21st century affluenza, when you have everything, there’s apparently nothing left to do but to strive to keep everything and pass judgment on those who don’t have what you have. Maybe this is what Scottsdale, Arizona, is like today, I do not know. But I would have loved to have walked around one of those Arizona ghost towns with the unfortunate names, listen to the breeze move through dilapidated buildings, think about what people were trying to forge then, what they were risking, and why.

Mai Tais With the Sun

Tomorrow is the start of October, and usually I love this month. It’s glorious. The changing leaves. The variations in temperatures. The sky is a different kind of blue. Autumn, and October in particular, is pretty, though I’m not a fan of everything suddenly becoming flavored with pumpkin spice (that starts on September 1 for some reason, when the American Northeast decides everything should smell and taste like pie).

This autumn, the changing skies feel more ominous to me. Today was a very gray, gloomy day in the greater New York City area. Everyone wore black and carried black umbrellas. It felt like a funeral for summer. Today reminded me of my three years living in Seattle. In Seattle, I would become very depressed starting every November, I’d stay balled up until about April, and then between May and October I felt fine. I couldn’t figure out why. Then we moved to Washington, D.C., where winter seems to last seven weeks, crocuses pop up in late February, it’s generally sunnier, and suddenly I felt okay.

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I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and last winter was my first winter managing things without medication. Folks, it’s hard. You feel dysfunctional for about four consecutive months, that’s one-third of the year where you don’t feel like yourself. It’s only September 30, and today I had to use my light box for over an hour. Just a month ago, I was on a beach in Los Angeles trying not to get skin cancer.

I do all the things they tell people with SAD to do: I sit in front of my light box, which I named Helios. I do yoga, I dance, I bike if the roads are dry, I lift weights, I don’t hide in the house all day, I meditate, I meet up with people for lunch/dinner/drinks. I go outside. Last January, I remember sitting on my front step in 25-degree cold sipping hot coffee just because the sun was everywhere that day. The lack of sunlight is more than just a mood thing for me; ongoing darkness sends my thyroid into overdrive, which sends my body into a state of stress, which causes my heart to sometimes skip a beat—usually while I’m trying to fall asleep—which sucks because winter makes my insomnia worse. No pun intended, but there’s a snowball effect, with the physical following the mental. Darkness makes me anxious.

I was born in the Snow Belt. I grew up in a house where everyone yelled, where fallen apples or too much snow covered the ground most of the year. I lived in upstate New York until I was 22 years old. Summers were hot and short; winters were long and bitter. I believe my restlessness and need for travel began there in my childhood home, two miles from that moody Lake Ontario shoreline; I can’t recall a time growing up when I didn’t want to be somewhere else. And now, on this overcast day, as I watch neighbors’ Halloween decorations go up, as I overhear people revel in that “crisp fall air” vibe, I feel incredible isolation, for all I want to do is head to Mexico before Trump builds that wall, eat tacos, read on the beach all day, and dance at the clubs all night. This year, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Bahamas and Cuba, two late-spring trips within just a few weeks of each other. Let’s just say the Caribbean (and Mexico) is medicinal.

Last October, I went on a press trip to Mexico and noticed a change in my body chemistry while there. The trip was annoying, but my body felt calm. Sunshine flooded me. I came home four days later, daylight savings kicked in, which meant it was now dark by 4:30 p.m., and once again, I was huddled on the sofa trying not to think about death.

When I say sunshine and palm trees give me the feels, I mean it—literally. We are looking to move to Los Angeles, but that won’t happen until 2018, so I still need to cope with the Northeast for another year and a half. I would probably do very well with a Colorado winter—that state gets so much sunshine year-round it’s like someone smiling at you all the time. As I keep telling people, it’s not the snow or the cold that bothers me—I love to ski! It’s the lack of sunlight, the cloud cover, even the lack of color in the sky. The heaviness of this kind of weather sends my serotonin tanking. Today, I had practically every light on in this house just to counter the darkness outside, and we’re less than two weeks into autumn.

This fall and winter, I am armed with more strategies, now that I have a sense of what to expect off-meds. We are going to Florida in December. I am visiting a friend in Arizona in February. I am chopping up winter into more bite-sized chunks, unlike last year where I thought stubbornness and focus would help me slog through the entire season. Instead, I huddled at home. Nature showed me who’s boss—again. This time, I plan to soak up whatever sunlight I can wherever I can, and store it like a camel. I’m even getting on a plane to seek out sunshine, and I hate flying, but I figure a trip somewhere will take me out of the spiral that is SAD. And then in mid-March, we set the clocks forward and daylight will start to stretch into 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. That’s when I feel the tension subside, negative narratives melting with the snow. Longer days mean more possibilities. The sun signals psychological relief, even optimism. And then we get to June when the sun lingers until 8 p.m. or so, like some dinner date where the conversation is going so well that you lose track of time, and you say “Yes! You’re still here! Let’s order Mai Tais!”

All Diets Fail

Last year sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day—that week of excess and reflection—I vowed in a half-assed but hopeful way to go on a travel diet for 2014. It was time to save more, spend less, do all the things that the financial commercials advise you to do. The first item on any financial adviser’s chopping block: the family vacation.

But as anyone who attempts to stop eating bacon and doughnuts every weekend because of a New Year’s resolution can tell you—all diets fail.

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“The Year of Austerity” also known as “Travel Diet 2014” never really had a fighting chance. We kicked off the new year flying home after visiting friends in Arizona (on this day last year we were traveling from Phoenix to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon). By April, we were on a plane to Iceland. Two months later, we were smothered in sunscreen and hiking Colorado. A few weeks later, our July trip to California was cancelled last-minute when Mike’s mom passed away, but later this year, he was back out on the Left Coast—twice in three weeks. In fact, my husband’s travel surpassed my own this year: he white water rafted in Idaho, mingled with Jedis and heroes in Atlanta for DragonCon, spent two days sequestered in a hotel conference room in Orlando, Florida, then flew to Pasadena, and came back for two-and-a-half weeks before heading back to California for stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He arrived home less than three weeks ago with some winter respiratory virus that’s left us all hacking and begging for NyQuil. In between all this we scored a gorgeous late September weekend in Cape Cod, and I escaped to a magnificent week in the Berkshires. Not traveling is just not who we are.

Science has shown that vacation planning boosts happiness. This certainly feels true for us; the anticipation of any trip brings a bounce to our daily routine. A 2010 study suggested that the excitement of any upcoming vacation was all that was needed, for apparently after a family holiday, folks became grumpy again. Not us. We’re buzzing before the trip, during the trip, after the trip. Travel is a geographical adventure, not an emotional escape for us; we’re happy at home or on the road, but not having a trip on the calendar would certainly darken my mood. Travel is my Prozac.

So for 2015, I’ve reframed the resolution so that I don’t set myself up for immediate failure because clearly I need some amount of travel in my life so I don’t become depressed. I hate to use that buzzword “balance” but for a lack of a better word, I’m aiming for balance in 2015. And I think I already accomplished some balance this past fall. For example, a small inheritance from my mother-in-law allowed me to pay off my student loans earlier than expected, a balance that hit “zero” right before Thanksgiving (the best kind of loan balance of all!). I suppose we could’ve blown that money on a trip, but that never entered into the equation. Getting rid of that loan was the smart, prudent thing to do, and not once did I feel tempted by ads of dreamy, sandy beaches. Student loans suck—especially at a rolling 7 percent interest rate, which is what I had been paying since 1996. Class of 2013 graduates have an average of $28,400 in student loan debt; mine was significantly more than that, and we squirrel away money every month so our daughter won’t carry such a financial burden. Not every dime earned disappears on vacation. See? Balance. And it’s not even January 1!

Other expenses need to be paid off as well and our old house always needs some TLC. Our dishwasher sounds like NASCAR and our lawn mower can barely chew a blade of grass, but that’s middle class life in America. Appliances will get replaced, cracks in the ceiling and walls will get fixed. Unlike middle class America, I don’t spend weekends dumping a few hundred dollars here and there at Target or Home Depot, something I hear my neighbor talk about. We’d rather put that money towards trips, which is what we’re doing in about seven weeks. We’ll be heading to the Caribbean spending February break soaking up some much-needed vitamin D in the Bahamas, specifically Exuma. We skipped the all-inclusive scene to do something a bit quieter, though not necessarily cheaper, and we’re looking forward to swimming with pigs and feeling the sun on our skin. January and February in the Northeastern United States are my two worst months; I struggle with darkness, go fetal on our couch and beg for Persephone’s return. In my opinion, the Caribbean is cheaper than eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, especially given the hourly rates New York City shrinks charge.

Bahamas will be it for international trips in 2015. We’ll putter around the continental US, fix some things around the house, pay some stuff off, ease into the new year with essentially more of the same, which works for us. If this time next year I’m blogging again about the cool places we visited and the sites we hope to see in the coming year, well, then I couldn’t be happier.

Chasing Chihuly

Experiencing Chihuly in a museum in downtown Montreal and experiencing Chihuly in the Phoenix desert surrounded by agave and cacti are equally amazing and completely different even though some of the works of art overlap. Now through mid-May the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is showing a selection of artist Dale Chihuly’s pieces that are situated across the grounds as if colored glass–instead of Arizona’s hallmark colored rock–had pushed through sand overnight.

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Two pieces were saw in Montreal and that also appear in Phoenix are works from “The Boats” series and “The Sun.” How is that outside, glass takes on a whole different meaning than it does when behind walls? Inside, it’s something to step gingerly past to avoid breaking. Outside, amid flora plucky enough to beat the heat, the glass appears less fragile and more vigorous. Chihuly’s glass works, when viewed outside in the desert, imply water where there is none. I compared the Montreal exhibit we saw last fall to snorkeling through glass, for Chihuly’s pieces take me below sea level and evoke the colors of the Caribbean. In Phoenix, I felt like his art brought the sea to the desert, as if lifetimes ago, back when meteors were striking Arizona, heat and glass and color had bubbled up from the depths of Sonoran rock, and the residents of Phoenix simply built garden walls around their discovery.

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Tickets are $22 for adults, and the exhibit is best enjoyed starting at sunset, a time when Arizona shines. Silhouettes of cacti are everywhere as you walk through the garden, and sunset colors ricochet off Chihuly’s art before disappearing altogether and letting you view the garden in magnificent darkness (and all those stars in the Arizona sky! Wow!). We were lucky to be there during the holiday luminarias, which added even more beauty to an already spectacular evening. The 140-acre garden, established during the height of the Great Depression, is home to about 21,000 plants, including many indigenous plants that are being threatened by mass development (drive around suburban Phoenix and very few homes look older than 20 years). Paths crisscross through the greens and pass traditional adobe buildings. The Desert Botanical Garden is the American Southwest at its finest; that fierce love and respect for nature is encapsulated there and meshes beautifully with Chihuly’s art. I felt a bit rushed since we were there with little kids, but I soaked up what I could. If I lived nearby, I’d return to this exhibit at sunset again and again and again until I knew the names of the all plants that lived there and they would come to recognize me, that giddy Yankee gal at the gate ready to skip through a manicured piece of desert.

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