Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Memory Ln

One of the benefits of having a van as a home is that I get to live in all the neighborhoods I'd otherwise never dream of living in. My backyards are glistening lakes, my front yards are national forests. I owned a cozy home in downtown Chicago, I lived walking distance to Chatauqua Park in Boulder, on "The Hill" overlooking the University. I park in all the best neighborhoods, on all the best streets.

The view out my front door of my "van down by the river"

View from my bedroom off "Willy St" in Madison

My backyard in Lake Lahontan, Nevada

This week I parked on Memory Lane. I spent a week in my college town, Ann Arbor, walking the tree-lined streets and breathing the autumn air. I haunted my old life, jogging past my old houses, my old dorm, my old job. All inhabited by new souls, unfeeling, unaware of the history they were burying. My history.

"I used to run this store," I mentioned to the barista working behind the counter of the coffee shop I managed back in 2003. The monster of a cafe that ate up all my time that year, that clawed its way into my dreams for months after I quit, that I kept me up into the wee hours on a twelve foot ladder, painting the walls, the monster that shook me awake at 5:30am, tearing me out of my warm bed to go mop up two inches of water that covered half of the floor. This was the place where I met my husband, where we flirted for the first time over giant pots of brewed Tanzanian Peaberry, the place where I was forced to fire my friends, the snarling beast of a coffee shop where I fixed espresso machines, cleaned refrigerators, plunged toilets, repaired tables and chairs, balanced budgets, cried, fought, and laughed.

Nearly every day, I walked in the early morning darkness, arriving before dawn to try to tame this behemoth, the largest store in the corporation. After a year, I hung my head in defeat, dropped my sword and walked away, avoiding the bridges I had burned along the way.

And now? I'm completely disregarded by this punkass barista who doesn't know that he's walking on the floor I mopped, MY floor! He fails to realize that his job is built upon the legacy I left. I could work circles around him on that espresso machine, and do it with style. He didn't care. The bastard charged me full price. Of course he did. And he didn't even bow to me or anything. Kids these days. No respect, I tell you.

So I paid for my latte (mediocre), and walked past the studying college students. I was a college student once too, I wanted to tell them. I went to Michigan too, and studied at these tables while you were still in elementary school. You didn't write the book, you know. What about my history? I'm back here in this place, invisible, and nothing is the same. My friends are gone. I've moved on. Now you kids are taking over with your own stories, and they're probably better than mine. But what about MY past?

Maybe I am a ghost, doomed to haunt my own yesteryear forever. Maybe I died in a van accident on the way to Ann Arbor and haven't realized it yet. Maybe I'm not really even here. Maybe this is one of those dreams, the kind you vainly try to recreate for a friend, who struggles to keep her eyes from glazing over as you speak. "I was in my old dance studio, only it wasn't really my dance studio, it was different, and everybody was older and fatter, and no one could hear me when I spoke, and I tried to do a leap but my body was a marionette and responded with an awkward delay, and my dance teacher cried, and then I looked down and realized I was naked."

Navigating my past as an adult has helped me wrap my mind around reconciling the child I was with the woman I've become. When I set out on this trip, I did so with the intention of figuring out Who I Am. I think part of that is revisiting my past, owning that it's a piece of the puzzle that is Eva Darling, and then letting it Rest In Peace. I'm a sentimental gal, and recognizing that the golden years are dead and gone allows me to let go of them, honor them, and promptly get to work creating new golden years. Seeing who I was and where I've been fills in part of the story, but releasing the ghost of my past from purgatory leaves me with a blank page on which to start a new chapter. Where will this woman go next, and what will her values be? Who will she love? Which talents will she discover in herself? What will her weaknesses be? But the most terrifying question, the one I'm not quite ready to answer, is, who am I at this very minute?

"The past is a ghost, the future is a dream, and all we ever have is now."

-Bill Cosby

If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell.
Just like an old time movie, 'bout a ghost from a wishing well.
In a castle dark or a fortress strong, with chains upon my feet.
You know that ghost is me.
And I will never be set free as long as I'm a ghost that you can't see.

-Gordon Lightfoot

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A special diversion

Shittiest neighborhood I've seen so far. Vanta C and I were scared, but it was worth the effort. Can you guess where it is?


Triple check that the doors are locked!

Boarded up windows! Vampires must live here.

Give up? The house you're looking at is the childhood home of Michael Jackson. 2300 Jackson St., Gary, Indiana.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Many times over I've seen Chicago referred to as Chi-town, but only in print, which leaves me to wonder how, exactly, one would pronounce the cool moniker. Am I supposed to say it like Chee-town, as in the place where Cheetos are made and consumed, and everyone has orange fingers? Or is it Shi-town, like dirty, cow-smelling funky shit-town? Is it Chai-town, the town full of spicy sweet indian tea, or Shy-town, a blushing child of a city hiding behind New York's pantleg?

Not knowing how to pronounce the cool nickname of the greatest mid-western city leaves me to my imagination. As an ex-enthusiast of the discipline of Feng Shui, I think first about the energy, or chi, of the city. I remember reading books about the ideal movement of chi throughout a home, achieved by placing plants in corners, draping cloths over edges of hard furniture, and combining soft curves with severe angles in decorating. The idea is to bring opposing forces of energy, the yin and the yang, into balance so Joe Homeowner can lead a happy and productive life. Here in the windy city, overwhelmed by hard, sooty buildings, pewter sidewalks, metal grates in the ground, and severe grey clouds, an anxious energy dominates. Trains rumble overhead, asphalt cracks underneath, drivers honk horns and gnash teeth, cyclists ignore red lights, and joggers pound the cement while their faces drop, frowning. And the wind, always the wind. Inescapable, it blows the chi around corners, shaking dry leaves from trees and sending a chatter through the bones of the good people of this town.

Countering the hard, anxious chi of the city are the feminine curves of Lake Michigan, to the east. The great lake thrusts her smooth hip into city center, forcing people to turn their steering wheels and soften their gazes. Folks living near the water gently exhale ohhhhhhmm as they stroll the lakefront trail; their hair curls at the ends, and ivy grows up the sides of buildings, cushioning the hard corners. Also, there are the women, my best girls from this life, Sarah and Dannielle. Two installations, artists creating masterpieces out of themselves. Women made of clay, molding their lives according to their own desires. Capable fingers eschewing expectations, creating warm homes and meaningful lives in spite of the hard push of the city. We drink wine together, smile, laugh, swirl our glasses, love each other. These two women balance the chi in Chi-town. They are idealistic, they are beautiful, they are apples in cheeks, they are cinnamon buns fresh from the oven. They are woolen sweaters: practical, comfortable, cozy. They are silk gowns: beautiful and elegant.

Dannielle is Atlas. Strong beyond belief, an articulate genius of a woman holding her world on her shoulders. Her words hit me like a right hook, knocking my jaw open almost every time we talk. Dannielle was the first person I met when I went to college. I saw her in the dorm bathroom, invited her over for Cocoa Puffs. She counseled me through my first real breakup, when I couldn't eat for weeks. Junior year we stole all the dry-erase markers off the doors in our old residence hall, laughing heartily, stoned off each other's company. We spent weeks on end together through senior year, until spring when I moved to Sydney and she took off to Morocco for the Peace Corps. When I describe Dannielle to my friends, I say that she's the only woman who ever broke my heart. I am in love with this woman, and it kills me that we can't be together like we used to be.

I've known Sarah since we were ten years old. It's been my honor to watch her transform herself into a woman. She knows herself better than anyone I know, but she hasn't always. I've seen her sway under pressure from her parents, then calmly consider the facts, anchoring herself against all currents. Sarah is a decisive, classy armadillo in cashmere. She grew up privileged, but never wears it on her sleeve. She's solid, reliable, independent, thoughtful, and always unabashedly Sarah. And she always looks like a million bucks with her timeless fashion sense, perfect hair, and porcelain skin. It's a pleasure to know her as a woman, but also to remember her as a girl. She taught me to drink coffee (Sarah, I owe this addiction to you!), and we giggled the nights away playing chess and dreaming of marrying MTV veejay Steve Isaacs. We were together when we found out that Kurt Cobain died, and we are together now, helping each other be great women. She has been the most constant friend in my life, threading her color through my existence.

Sarah, Me, Dannielle

Chicago is a fine city, but unremarkable. To me, a depressed, segregated, tree-less, midwestern shit-town were it not for my two best girls. But because they are here, I'll always long for Chicago. In my mind's eye, Chi-town will always be a warm place. A place where my love swirls like steam escaping a hot Chai. A bustling, glorious, fabulous She-town.

a day in the life of

When I set off on my Vantasy, about eight million people suggested that I read two books: Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck, and On the Road by Jack Kerouak. I've been supplied with these books and have read them both. Good reading. I agree that they should be required reading for someone like me taking a trip like the Vantasy. But I didn't find exactly what I was looking for between the covers. What I was looking for in these books was insider secrets. I wanted Steinbeck to tell me what to expect when traveling with a big old dog. I wanted secrets on where to park and how to find free stuff. I wanted to know how they ate, where they shat, and how they dealt with leaving behind loved ones.

Of course, these practical aspects of traveling make for dry writing, and probably the average person doesn't care about such details. But maybe you do, dear readers, so I'm going to dedicate this entry to the overlooked, everyday details of survival in a van.

Overnight Parking: I learned early on this trip that if I even have any tiny doubt in my mind as to the safety of a parking spot, I have to move because I will never be able to sleep there. I've learned to find free campgrounds, park in residential neighborhoods (but in front of churches or buildings, not directly in front of someone's house), camp in the occasional Wal-mart parking lot, sometimes use truck stops, and very, very rarely pay for a kampsite with water and electricity. I sleep in the small loft above the driver's seat, and Ralgh sleeps on the bench below me. I keep my keys handy in the night in case I have to move quickly, but I doubt that will ever happen.

Domestic Life: Vanta C has a twenty gallon water tank, which supplies my sink, toilet, and shower. If I fill it up I can get about two showers, plus two to three days of flushing toilets and washing dishes. When I decide I want a shower, I light my water heater, wait an hour, get nekkid and sit in the tiny tub near the back of Vanta C. Then I quickly get wet, turn the water off while I soap up, then quickly rinse. It's not a relaxing or warm experience, but my pink bits and head get clean! Between the shower days, I use wet wipes. It's all very glam. So far I've managed to find places to fill my water tank for free and dump my gray (shower and sink) and black (toilet) water for free, but if I'm ever in a pinch I can pay a campground to let me do these things.

I have a broken refrigerator, which I use as an icebox. It works pretty well, but I have to buy bagged ice about every two to three days, which is kinda a pain. I also have a two-burner propane stove, so I cook simple meals which are usually rice or noodle-based. In the mornings I almost always drink instant coffee and eat instant oatmeal. And I try to buy and eat at least one fresh vegetable or fruit every day. My favorite van foods so far are sardines, avocadoes, dried nori seaweed rolled up and eaten plain, fried egg sandwiches, pop tarts (really!), beans and rice, and pre-made boil-in-bag Indian food meals. Van-tasty!

Exercise: Ralgh and I go on runs together almost every morning. We were both new to running when the Vantasy began, so we started slow, running for one minute, then walking for thirty seconds. Now we are up to running in ten minute blocks, but I'm usually dragging him along by the end. He needs to work on his pace; he always starts out too enthusiastically, then he's pooped by the end! After the run I try to do some yoga, but this really depends on where I've parked. And I also ride my bike almost every day.

Budget: Having not saved as much as I initially wanted for my Vantasy, I live by a really tight budget. I paid all of my bills before I left for the trip, health insurance, car insurance, iPhone, and student loans, which left me a laughingly small sum for the rest of my trip. With that money, I set aside $3000 for gas, and the rest for everything else, including the costs of resettling when this is all done. So the budget I created leaves $500 per month for gas and $300 per month for everything else. I came pretty close in September, but didn't quite make it. It's hard to live on $10 a day and still have amazing fun with people and feed yourself. I'm going to try and find a little paid work in my homeland, Michigan, this month. Still trying to decide if I should just get a normal job and quit in an abnormally short amount of time, or be honest with folks upfront at the risk of not being hired for anything. Meanwhile, I'm all over Craigslist looking for general labor stuff like raking leaves for old people.

Love: The Vantasy is a celibate trip. I don't want to hump my way across the US, and honestly this trip was about being alone with Eva. I've learned since my divorce that I've been really bad at being single. I want a mate so badly, but I need to be okay with flying solo. I need to love being alone. When this trip is over, I will be able to enter into a relationship confidently, and not because I need the company. My head will be clear, and hopefully clutter-free. Until then, I get all my cuddles from Ralgh, and I kiss him all over his face every day. Lucky dog!

Journey: I wake up every day and decide where to go, or if I want to stay. I have difficulty sticking to any plans beyond today. I listen to my gut. If it says "time to go," I lock down Vanta C, pick a place on the map, and drive there. I take side roads and avoid interstates if I can. Usually I don't drive for more than three hours in any given day. I meander across the country freely. It's an amazing thing to be able to this in my own time. Lucky me!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Secrets and lies

I hate secrets. Even cute ones. To see two lovers or friends whisper in each other's ear irks me. What's the big mystery? Why can't you tell me? I empathize with the fifth grade teacher, "Would you two like to share that with the rest of the class?" I guess that probably stems from my very human need to belong. But there's more than that. I think secrets bother me because they are one step away from lies. Withholding information, making shit up, and embellishing stories are all on the continuum of lying, and I've always had a problem with lying. The values of honesty, justice, righteousness and integrity are so instilled in me that I've just always been incapable of it.

On some level, I think that everything that I do, even the things which could be considered "bad" are just human, natural, and excusable, so there's really no need to lie. I generally believe we people are a bit too secretive. We are a guilty, guilty culture, living hedonistically then punishing ourselves for it. We extol personal freedom while judging others for exercising it. Then we keep secrets in order to avoid being judged for something we did, didn't do, said, or didn't say, laid or didn't lay. Even the "bad" things we do have their place among an imperfect people. Problem is, we think we're perfect, that our friends and family need us to be perfect (maybe they do), so we lie about who we really are and what we are doing.

I've been toiling with this dilemma all week. After rolling half-way across the country, I've managed to hand out a big stack of business cards directing people to read my travel blog. Friends, family, acquaintances, lovers, ex-lovers, bosses, ex-bosses, future bosses, strangers, and probably Michael Jackson are reading the accounts of my travels. How, as a writer, do I frame my experiences in a way that can be digested by such a broad audience? Furthermore, how can I relay the bizarre and beautiful events of my trip without betraying the trust of someone along the way? I'm an idealistic gal, and I believe in honesty. I believe in owning my experiences, including my mistakes. I believe in loving those "whoopsies" as a part of being an idiot human being. It's funny after all, the crazy things we imperfect people do.

What's not funny, though, is hurting people. Or airing someone else's secrets inadvertently by airing my own. And therein lay the issue, my friends. This past week was a doozie. One that would make for good writing in an anonymous world. What's worse, given my lack of shame I think I could write it well. Even worse than that is that I have a burning need to get this week and the accompanying thoughts all over paper like meat juice at a butcher shop. I'm not a good secret-keeper because I'm not a good lier. But I have no choice. I have to be like Oprah and go with my gut. I have to be like the LA police and protect the innocent. I have to be like Bill Clinton and say "I did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky."

The only thing that brings me peace in this is the knowledge that the future is coming, and with it will be the ubiquitous hindsight that makes everyone see things so much more rationally. This will all one day, folks, be in the past. The past is fair game, and when my trip is finished I'm going to write the shit out of this week with a cool detachment. And y'all will eat it up, I swear. And everyone will smile, saying, "Eva, you are out of your mind and that's why we love you!" And then we'll toast our wine glasses high and sip gratuitously, laughing at our good fortunes. And our hearts will meet, and we won't need secrets because we'll all be free and in love.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Madison, WI

Read THIS. I couldn't say it any better. Thanks to Trina for the tweet.