Journeys and Stories
Writer. Traveler. Tourist. Addicted to sunlight and road trips.
Writer. Traveler. Tourist. Addicted to sunlight and road trips.
It was 10:30 in the morning Mountain Time when I landed in Missoula, Montana, and was standing half-awake in a rental car agency parking lot. A train snaked past, and its loud whistle perked me up some. It had been a whirlwind morning: I had left my house in suburban New Jersey at 2:45 a.m. and stood in lines at Newark Liberty International Airport at an hour when there shouldn’t be any lines anywhere, but there were lines because it’s New Jersey—there’s always traffic. Two drowsy flights later—one over Montana’s many mountains in this small Embraer jet that I’m convinced was powered by prayer and hungry gerbils—and by the time New Jersey was sitting down to lunch, I was in Big Sky country. And to be fair, that Embraer jet ride ended up being one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever enjoyed. Trust the gerbils.
Despite on-time, smooth flights across three-quarters of the United States, I was under-caffeinated, over-tired, and famished when I explained to the car rental agency representative that I had booked an economy car online. I wasn’t in the mood for paperwork or chit-chat, but between paperwork and chit-chat, he walked me further out into the parking lot towards the train tracks and said, “Well, we don’t have much in the lot at the moment, but we’ve got Little Blue here.”
I looked up. Little Blue was an eight-cylinder, relatively new Dodge Ram 2500, with the words “Heavy Duty” next to the 2500. Not sure what 2500 meant, but I certainly knew what “Heavy Duty” meant. In fact, the Dodge Ram tagline on its website is “Tow With Confidence.” I had nothing to tow but a large purple floral Vera Bradley bag that contained three outfits, red Tony Lama cowgirl boots, and a donut floatie.
My “economy” car, I soon discovered, required either a small private helicopter to hoist me up into the front seat or the strong arms of Sasquatch himself. The helicopter was too expensive and Sasquatch was likely on a commercial shoot somewhere, so thank God for those body sculpting classes I’ve been taking to mitigate middle-aged metabolism because my biceps were put to the test. Every time I got behind the wheel involved me grabbing a handle built into the door and pulling all of my body weight into the front seat in one quick, hopefully graceful move. My left bicep is now visibly bulkier than my right—at least for now.
I turned the key, and I won’t lie: when I heard that V8 growl for the first time and the truck quake with enthusiasm, I got excited. I felt at home. Everything about where I was and what I was doing felt spot-on. I grabbed my lip gloss and dabbed a touch of red shimmer on to my lips even though I was unshowered and looked like some English lit professor coming off a bender. I was driving a giant truck and wanted to look pretty. Don’t ask why.
GoogleMaps told me where to go, and within 15 minutes, I was at the DoubleTree Hilton on the beautiful and narrow Clark Fork River, and because it was brunch time by anyone’s standards, my room wasn’t ready yet. I greeted this news with unbridled excitement, and said to the woman behind the counter (who was showered and wearing her lipstick much better than I) “That’s ok. I’ll go sleep in my truck!”
I saw opportunity.
She appeared unfazed and quite accustomed to people announcing they’d be grabbing a snooze in their trucks. “No problem,” she said with that smile that people behind counters always have. “We’ll text you when your room is ready.”
The Dodge Ram 2500 comfortably seats six, so I crawled into the backseat, and made a nest of my Yankee white privilege items: my Vera Bradley bag, my Turkish bath towel, my Italian suede shawl. I grabbed my Qantas airline eye mask out of my bag because the sunshine was bright, and I got comfy, wishing that travel could always be like this—long hours of go-go-go capped with feeling cozy and safe inside a truck the size of my first studio apartment.
I was mildly irked when the hotel texted only an hour later to say my room was ready (damn efficient cleaning staff!). I gathered my belongings, trudged to room 332 thinking nothing could be as comfortable as the backseat of Little Blue, and then promptly dropped my attitude when I saw the balcony overlooking the river and a fly fisherman working the line. The sounds of the rushing river gave me a Norman Maclean moment, and I realized it was best to leave New Jersey behind for the long weekend ahead and chill the hell out. Just let Montana do what Montana knows how to do, and that’s to wow you with its purple mountains majesty. What was right outside my hotel door was exactly what Francis Scott Key had been talking about.
Over the next four days, Little Blue and I went everywhere together: Jack’s Saloon in nearby Lolo where I compared truck sizes with the dudes who parked next to me; the downtown Missoula Shakespeare & Co. bookstore where Maxim Loskutoff’s new book was temporarily out of stock; Clyde’s Coffee not too far from the bookstore, which serves a fantastic gluten-free breakfast; Polson at the base of Flathead Lake where our paddleboarding reservation was cancelled due to chop on the water; Bigfork, near the top of Flathead Lake, where a breeze blew my donut into the water, resulting in me taking off my sweater and my jewelry and easing myself into a freezing lake to swim in my workout clothes after a flotation device that has accompanied me to four continents, five countries (Cuba, twice!), and six states. Little Blue was parked outside while I ate a bowl of butter pooled around my risotto. He was parked nearby while I accidentally walked into a food truck rally and live concert that ended up being a ton of fun. He was there when my friend and I sat on a ridge at the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in lovely Arlee. I loved seeing mud streaked on its sides. I loved how after the rain it became a brighter blue (and Montana needs rain). I loved how people got out of my way on the freeway.
Like some loyal steed, Little Blue stood in pouring rain or glistening sunshine waiting to see where we’d go next. In four days, I put approximately 400 miles on that truck. I imagine the only other better ways to see and experience Montana is to ride an actual loyal steed or paddleboard across Flathead Lake—when it’s not choppy.
Before that first visit to Montana, I always viewed myself as a Prius-kind-of-girl, driving something thoughtful, leaving behind minimal carbon footprint, patting myself on the back for being a good citizen—all the classic urban blue state virtues.
Yet there was something immensely visceral and satisfying about driving Little Blue through the mountains, curving along the road that hugs Flathead Lake, my hands on the wheel, the road unspooling before us. Mountains. Cherry tree orchards. Rivers. A giant lake. I realized then that perhaps no matter where I go in this world, no matter how liberal I may claim to be, how much recycling I do or tweeting trash against the NRA, I am simply an American woman who loves driving a big-ass truck while wearing lipstick.
There are many things I am not good at, and blogging is one of them. In fact, I’m wondering if I should open every blog post with a self-deprecating “I stink at this,” just to see who sticks around—a litmus test of your dedication, dear 2.5 readers.
But now and then, there’s something worth blogging about, so here you go. Check out Flung magazine’s latest on what some very seasoned travelers are lugging around these days. I’m very honored to be listed among such pros, including Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during a press trip to Cancun in October 2015. (Reflections on that trip here.) Sarah is an actual pro, meaning that she brings high-quality gear to properly capture a moment, and—most likely—remembers to pack enough clean clothes and seasonally-appropriate toiletries. I don’t always pack good gear, I have failed to bring enough clean clothes and once even forgot to pack underwear, and for some inexplicable reason, I bring my A-game when it comes to having enough of the right toiletries. My packing lacks logic.
However, what I never forget on any trip no matter how near or far is my giant plastic inflatable donut and my bathing suit. Usually, I pack two or three bathing suits because we all know bathing suits never dry fast enough when you’re on the go. I may not have enough socks and shirts or decent walking shoes for the trip, but by God, I am ready for the beach or hotel swimming pool!
I just returned from Cuba Tuesday night, and the Cubanos were visibly amused by a gringa walking around downtown Havana with a blown-up donut. The beauty of being 45 years old is that there are many things you stop worrying about, and looking ridiculous is one of them.
I’m currently working on a donut floatie travel memoir because my donut has traveled to more places than many, many Americans. It’s a lucky piece of plastic, and I’m a lucky, lucky gal, pinching myself every day that someone wants to send me somewhere to write about someplace beautiful. I won’t lie: it doesn’t suck. So stay tuned for more donut floatie adventures.
Meanwhile, I’m returning to California soon, and there’s a hotel in Palm Springs I’m eager to visit. Why? Because this hotel’s Instagram feed is filled with photos of Floyd the Flamingo Floatie. The place is called the Monkey Tree Hotel, it recently underwent a renovation, and apparently (based on the Instagram feed), Floyd and Elvis impersonators hang here. These are my people, so I’m eager to introduce my donut to Floyd, get into the pool, and daydream under the sunshine. Those are things I’m good at. See you there.
Just over a year ago, I started traveling with a giant plastic pink doughnut floatie. I can’t tell you where I got the idea, but I can tell you the doughnut made its debut in a private pool in Coral Springs, Florida, Christmas 2016. It’s public debut happened in Sedona, Arizona—a rather magical place to step out—specifically, the Amara Resort, which had a shallow pool with a great view, an ideal setting in which to begin.
Pools have always been a thing. This goes back decades. I wrote about my obsession with pools for the Los Angeles Times, and more recently for National Geographic Traveler. I’m like The Swimmer protagonist in the John Cheever story, but without the delusions. Water calms me. And connects me.
You might see the doughnut as a silly plastic toy, but over the past year, my floatie has introduced me to people around the world. Kids are more likely to approach me and say “Hey, is that yours?” and then we start talking, though sometimes an adult lounging by the pool will strike up a conversation. I’ll always remember Abdu, the Indonesian pool guy in Macau, who used a pump to inflate my floatie and commented that the Koreans brought floaties the size of deck chairs.
Sometimes, I’m alone dragging my floatie about but sometimes, I’m not. One of my favorite moments happened at Ormistan Gorge near Alice Springs in Australia where I passed a few swimmers carrying their own large floaties. We exchanged smiles. Floatie kin. Another time, I spotted a woman crossing a busy street in Greenwich Village carrying an inflated swan floatie as large as a bike. So, we’re out there, in the desert, in the city, you name it.
In its first year, the doughnut has traveled to four continents, including four countries (Cuba, Italy, Australia and China), and five states (Florida, Virginia, Arizona, California, and as of last weekend, Texas). Family, friends, and complete strangers have floated and frolicked on this doughnut. I travel with it in my carry-on bag. It rolls up better than a pair of jeans. It dries as easily as a bathing suit. After an afternoon at Playa Del Estes on the northern coast of Cuba, I deflated the doughnut, draped it over my hotel room shower, and by morning it was dry and ready to be rolled back up into the suitcase. We have a routine. In fact, the doughnut makes its second trip to Cuba in May. We’re excited.
The doughnut doesn’t judge. It doesn’t care what you’ve got going on in your life or where you’ve been or where you’re headed. If you like being in the water, “chillaxing,” as my daughter likes to say, and looking up at the clouds, then the doughnut is your friend. A best-selling author, actresses, advocates, artists, and kids from Cuba and Venezuela have floated on my doughnut. It embraces anyone. As long as you don’t have any sharp objects on you, you’re welcome to join and take it for a spin.
Private pools, public pools, freshwater, the ocean—the doughnut and I are open to it all. I’ve always been a swimmer, a bad one who isn’t very fast, but I beeline to the water, indoors or out. I took water ballet as a kid. I swam laps (slowly) for college credit. Along the Great Ocean Road, I couldn’t wait to wade into the Southern Ocean. When I saw the movie “The Shape of Water,” I nodded with understanding.
There are places the doughnut and I would really like to go. In no particular order:
– Lake Louise, Banff, Alberta, Canada
– Various chic hotel pools around Singapore via Flung’s new Singapore guide, which I would trust more than TripAdvisor or even Lonely Planet.
– Back to Northern Territories, Australia, perhaps Litchfield National Park this time for waterfalls and swim holes.
– Hampstead Heath in London. I swam there in 2000; so I’m overdue, and the doughnut hasn’t been to England.
– Anywhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or Central America.
– Hawaii, Hawaii, Hawaii.
Today is my 45th birthday. I’m grateful for continued good health, family, friends, and the opportunity for adventure and to meet new people. My pool floatie connects these dots. We’re out there having fun, soaking up sunshine, seeing the world, making friends, and we’re just getting started.
Anna and the doughnut, Omni Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
My college roommate from London, Yvette, enjoying the doughnut in Sedona
Siestre Levante, Italy’s northwestern coast
Ormistan Gorge near Alice Springs, Northern Territories, Australia
About eight weeks ago, newspaper headlines scared the crap out of Americans–or fueled their pre-existing fears–that Mexico was a dangerous place, putting five of Mexico’s states on the same warning level as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. A U.S. State Department travel advisory, issued January 10, begins like this: “Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime. Some areas have increased risk. Read the entire Travel Advisory. Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread.”
Mexico, overall, has a Level 2 warning, as do popular areas such as Cabo San Lucas, which is a New York Times “must-see” for 2018, and Cancun . Level 2, according to the U.S. State Department, means “Exercise increased caution” and in Mexico’s case, it’s “due to crime.” Well, I could also say the same about certain parts of 8th Avenue at certain hours of the day. Also, you know who else is a Level 2 destination? Our Anglophile cousins in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, Belgium (Belgium!!!) and Denmark are all Level 2s due to terrorism. Level 1 destinations where you are as safe as you’ll ever be since leaving your mother’s womb are Canada (no surprises there) and Japan, where it’s not only safe but the streets of Tokyo blind you with their cleanliness, especially if you’re coming from Newark Liberty Airport, like me.
Journalism credit where credit is due; newspapers including The Miami Herald eventually brought some nuance to the discussion—nuance sorely lacking in most national discussions these days—to remind readers “Hey, folks, not all of Mexico is scary. Go ahead with your spring break to Isla Mujeres.” (Which is beautiful, by the way.)
I’d like to know where are the domestic warnings about visiting Chicago, which, in 2016, accounted for more than 20 percent of the nationwide murder increase? Or the warning about going to a concert in Las Vegas? Or a warning about simply going to school in America? Instead, we get headlines about arming our teachers and keeping our eyes open while lounging on a beach in Mexico. What are other governments telling people who want to travel to the U.S.? Arrive armed with an AR-15 just in case???
These headlines matter because I’ve encountered these perceptions right here in my neighborhood, a blue-ribbon school district that’s supposedly educating our future to be open-minded. You know how many people make decisions about places they’ve never been to based solely on what they see on TV? Everyone. Most recently, I had lunch with some Australian tourism folks who came to New York, and one said “It’s not like ‘Sex and the City’ at all. No one dresses up here.'”
Many don’t even realize how influenced they are by mainstream media. I’ve had people who have graduated from schools far more expensive and fancier than mine make disparaging comments about Mexico. In 2015, at a dinner, I mentioned I was heading to Cancun, a woman asked if that was safe “because you’re blonde.” At a holiday party two months after that trip to Cancun, another woman asked me “If that was safe, because you know, the drugs.” The drugs??? Suburbs are pumped with benzodiazepenes, pot, and heroin, to name just a few. Vincente Fox frequently comments that the U.S. is Mexico’s biggest customer. More than a decade ago, my mother-in-law, who taught Spanish to children, commented on “dirty Mexicans.” There is a misguided perception here in the suburban Northeast which no one wants to own: Mexicans are people who clean our houses and make our tacos. Folks struggle to see beyond that.
There are always exceptions. A family around the corner from us—we’ve been friends for 12 years—go to Mexico every year. They’ve explored the country top to bottom, from sampling different moles in Oaxaca to strolling Mexico City to scuba diving off Cozumel. They haven’t roamed Colima, one of the five states on the State Department’s recent naughty list, but they’re not shying away from visiting Mexico either or ascribing to affluenza notions. Also, Colima is about 150 miles south of Guadalajara, which is where Guillermo del Toro is from. You might have heard of him after last night: his movie, The Shape of Water won Best Picture. He wrote the screenplay and won Best Director. Here he is talking about being an immigrant and finding success.
Clearly, I’m a del Toro fan girl though I still haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth because I already have trouble sleeping and had a feeling this movie would stick a little too much, though that was a few years ago. I might be able to swing it now. When I saw The Shape of Water in a movie theater on a rainy January day, it was me and three elderly people there for an 11:45 a.m. showing. The weather had sent my seasonal affective disorder into a spin and I decided to cocoon inside a theater and escape not really knowing what I had signed up for when I bought my ticket. An hour and a half in, I nearly stood up and applauded when The Creature and Eliza break out into a black and white dance sequence. I have to thank del Toro for that; an artist known for darkness brought sunshine into a dark room on a dark day.
Del Toro isn’t the first Mexican filmmaker to win this honor. Three years ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director (Birdman was wonderful and imaginative, but I really liked The Revenant, my idea of a girls’ night out). Change happens slowly, but it’s happening.
After the disappointing 2016 election, I talked with several people who pined for Canada. The running joke was that there would be a beeline to the Canadian border, and while I’m a six-hour drive from the Canadian border, I’ve often said I’d rather go to Mexico. A longer drive, yes, but Mexico is more me. Not just for the sunshine and palm trees, which I seem to be biochemically dependent on, but because everything about me and Mexico clicks: the people, the bright colors, the architecture, the music, the dancing, the fascination with ghosts and the dead, and the abundance of gluten-free food. Last week, I had lunch at Cosme, a restaurant on East 21st Street that serves what’s dubbed as “high-end Mexican food” because in America, we assume that Mexican food means Taco Bell. The restaurant was founded by Enrique Olvera, a pioneer in the haute cuisine scene, and is run by Chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won a James Beard award at age 25, and who moved to the United States from Mexico at the age of 12. Her corn husk meringue, inspired by her mother’s corn soup, is worth your time and money.
Mexico is America’s neighbor, yet America hasn’t been acting very neighborly these last 14 months. Someday, I’d like to go a neighborhood gathering or a dinner out and not defend my willingness to go to Mexico, which I have done more than once, or explain my love for Mexico, which is only based on three trips to the Quintana Roo region and several visits to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. I’ve got a lot to learn and much more Mexico ahead of me: San Miguel de Allende, Isla Holbox, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Nayarit, where some of my Christmas ornaments were made. So don’t trash-talk Mexico and then tell me about your upcoming weekend to Las Vegas. I don’t want to hear it. Racism and Otherism is both explicit and implicit, and it’s the subtle, insidious comments, like the ones said to me or U.S. newspaper headlines, that build up and misguide. Our options for nuanced discourse may be disappearing, but our thoughts are still ours, and we get to choose what to think and to not buy into misinformed hyperbole.
To say I stink at blogging is an understatement, plus it feels so 1998. Social media is microblogging and vlogging, and now, in 2018, everyone has either a carefully curated online lifestyle or a reactive opinion to something. I don’t know where I fit into this, and remembering to blog about something feels like remembering to pay our utility bill.
I started this blog in 2005 to talk about my family’s vacations, and now I’m being introduced as a “travel writer” to people. This floors me because in 1998 when blogging and my journalism career were in their nascent days, a travel writer to me was an elderly white dude who had worked his way up the chain at a particular newspaper for the past few decades, and who wrote about eating poi in Oahu. Or, it was cracking open National Geographic Traveler (which has published me–twice!) and reading something awesome in long-form by someone who didn’t have an Instagram account but was somewhere far away, and perhaps had hammered out observations on a Smith Corona (and if you’re of that age where you think I’m referring to a type of beer, think again). Now, everyone is a travel writer because everyone has Instagram.
(A favorite room at The Roxbury called “Amadeus’s Bride”)
Lately, I’ve been writing about hotels. For reasons I’m still trying to understand, this brings me absolute joy. And it’s so weird to arrive at this point at almost-45, to feel wow’ed by sharing your opinions on hotels, for tourism boards to invite you to places. You see, my parents did not attend elite four-year universities–or any university–to be groomed for greatness. We struggled financially, and I was raised to attend college, get a job, get married, pay the bills, remain within a short drive from the family, have at least two children, and ride out the years without complaining (I complained). Travel was a luxury, and if you could afford it, was something you did one week out of the summer to some place within driving distance; for us, that was usually Mystic, Connecticut. I was the first on either side of my family tree to actually leave town to attend a four-year, in-state college and come out the other end with a bachelor’s degree. It sounds sad that this would be considered pioneering in 1995, peak Clinton years and the dawn of the Internet, but that’s how I grew up, raised by parents who preferred bubbles of their own making. I didn’t even know what the Foreign Service was until my late 20s when I was building my journalism career, and I look back and wonder if anyone during my high school years had explained to me what the Foreign Service was, would I be schmoozing in nice hotels with ambassadors in places like Riyadh or Dubai? Because I do have schmoozing skills. Sadly, I’ll never know.
(Sails in the Desert near Uluru in Northern Territories, Australia)
So hotels. I can’t get enough of them, and I realized my fascination with them goes back to November 1998 (a pivotal year, now that I think about it), when Mike and I took a boat ride up to Victoria, British Columbia, and as we got off the boat, I saw Fairmont’s Empress Hotel. We weren’t staying there; we stayed at the Bedford Regency, which also sounded classy and was right on that main thoroughfare, Government Street. But still. The Empress was as regal as its name (and on Government Street). It had opened in 1908, an Edwardian chateau-style party house for passengers of Canadian Pacific’s steamship line, which had a terminal a block away. Canadian Pacific Hotels eventually became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. If there’s a chain hotel I’m addicted to, Fairmont is the one. One glance at the Empress and I was hooked. I would have afternoon tea and spend a night there two years later.
Since then, I’ve sought out hotels that had character and swimming pools. There are no points programs for going off-brand. One of my favorite hotels is The Roxbury up in the Catskills, which is adding a pool (thank God!). Other favorite hotels are in the fall 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveler, and I recently gushed about this lodge on Australia’s Victorian coast for Flung magazine. I’d love to return to Paris’s Grand Hotel Des Gobelins, which had this majestic staircase, tiny rooms, and this phenomenal breakfast buffet that was served in the bowels of the building (this was 2011, so maybe they changed that). Or go back to the QT in Melbourne where I stayed last November and soaked in another amazing bathtub. Or walk out on to my balcony to listen to the birds before the heat of the day hit at Sails in the Desert Resort near Uluru. I’m eager to try out The Rookery even though I have no immediate plans to return to London. I’ve wanted to check out El Convento in Old San Juan for about a decade. Macau has hotels sprouting up like weeds. Trying out hotels wasn’t something that was encouraged at home or at college: hotels were cheap places with the same non-threatening taupe decor and dentist office art where you crashed for a few nights. Hotels weren’t the vacation.
(Ah, Le Sirenuse)
Maybe I still want to blog about travel after all but it’s taking on a new form: waxing poetic about beloved hotels (or scrutinizing them for something annoying, though if I’m there in the first place, it’s because there’s something I like). For some people, the excitement of travel begins when they arrive at the airport or board their train or pack the car. For me, it’s sliding the key into that door and seeing what’s inside. Is this hotel about local history? Is it pretentious? Is it an architectural puzzle? Does it want me to have fun? To relax? To sit up straight and take this place seriously? To forget or admire where I am? To disconnect or reconnect? Does it smell like carpet cleaner or someone’s cigarettes? What’s the view?
And that’s the fun, isn’t it?