How Route 66 Made Me a Better Person

After a short time of rest and recovery, I’ve come to the conclusion that our Route 66 road trip was a profound and life-changing experience. Not to be overly dramatic, but the sights, sounds, people, food, history and our shared adventure contributed to an extraordinary journey of discovery. And it just might have made me a better person.

Here are some things that made the journey especially meaningful:

1) Our Route 66 trip was an expedition

There are a couple of fundamental things to understand about Route 66. First of all, it doesn’t formally exist anymore. Route 66 was officially established in 1926, consisting of a patchwork of roadways. The “Mother Road” was changed and re-routed over the years, and finally, in the mid-1980’s was officially decommissioned as the Interstates replaced the older roads. Secondly, it takes diligent research and work to follow Route 66 since there are multiple variations, much of it is unmarked and some of it no longer exists. Based on our library of guidebooks, each night my husband (like a modern-day Meriwether Lewis) would plan the route for the next day, download it into the Garmin, and I (his faithful William Clark) would plot lunch, dinner and sightseeing stops. This was no casual road trip.

Our Route 66 Itinerary showing our stops

Our Route 66 Itinerary showing our stops

2) We were purist in our route selection

Since there are multiple variations of Route 66, the traveler has many options along the way: the older routes (usually frontage roads and business routes, but in some cases dirt or gravel roads), the newer roads (which sometimes included 4-lane Interstates which replaced Route 66) or some combination. We opted to mostly navigate the older roads (including some dirt) and use Interstates only when absolutely necessary. This meant we could rarely travel more than 150-200 miles per day, but it took us through small towns and countryside we would never have seen from the Interstate. And we can now proudly claim to have traversed the true Route 66!

3) Route 66 produced a vivid lesson in American history

Driving Route 66 westbound was a fascinating and experiential living classroom on American history and culture. From Chicago through Missouri, we encountered much of the odd kitsch that I expected from Route 66. There were vintage gas stations, cars and motels; a host of giant objects like muffler men, hot dogs, rocket ships, rocking chairs and neon signs, designed primarily to attract attention and lure customers. From St. Louis and especially Oklahoma westward, though, Route 66 really captured me, as it became the story of America’s westward expansion, growth pains and migration. We visited excellent museums that brought to life narratives of the pioneers in covered wagons who bravely crossed rugged western trails (precursors to Route 66), the “Okies” and other human casualties of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression (and their courage, grit and determination in the face of tremendous hardship), the traditions and repatriation of Native Americans, and the history of American vehicles – from covered wagon to Model T to Corvette. As we drove Route 66, which, unlike the Interstates, follows the natural contour of the landscape, resulting in curvy, winding roads and steep grades, we were overwhelmed as we considered what it was like for an entire family to drive these roads with all of their belongings strapped to a Model T with no air conditioning, unable to go more than 150 miles on a full tank of gas. The experience made the tales of American 20th century travel and migration fly off the pages of history books.

4) The landscape was spectacular

On the same day that I took my favorite silly photo of the trip (standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ) we also saw the Painted Dessert and the Petrified Forest.   We went from the lush green and plains of Illinois and Missouri, across the legendary Mississippi River, to the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Kansas to the cap rock and Staked Plains of the Texas panhandle to the purple mountains of New Mexico, and the deserts and mountains of Arizona and California. We saw the southernmost end of the Grand Canyon near Flagstaff. I was left in awe of the Creator of this masterpiece as well as the adaptability of the settlors of such varied habitats.

 5) We learned the importance of roadways to towns

Route 66 demonstrated that roadways are like rivers – when they are re-routed, the effect on the inhabitants is dramatic. In many cases, we drove on frontage roads or business routes right alongside the busy Interstate. Elsewhere, Route 66 was far from major highways. In all instances, there was little traffic on non-Interstate sections of Route 66, and we drove through small towns that the Interstates now bypass. Some of these small towns are surviving solely from the resurgence of tourism on Route 66; others have become eerie ghost towns; still others either ruins or completely vanished. We learned and saw first-hand how decisions (some quite political in nature) as to routing and exits of Interstates impact the very survival of these small towns and their residents. We heard story after story of occupants or even entire towns forced to relocate due to re-routing of roadways over the years.   The ubiquitous abandoned gas station we saw on every stretch was like fossilized evidence of the fluid nature of the Mother Road.

We also realized how much one misses when traveling solely on Interstates. We enjoyed seeing small towns and always made a point to stop at older establishments for lunch. We learned a great deal about the towns’ histories and cultures by talking with waitresses, proprietors and others we met. At the Lewis Cafe in St. Clair, MO, the waitress told us most of their Route 66 tourism business is now European, who see Route 66 as a uniquely American adventure and love eating at the old diners and staying at the old motels along the way. That news was surprising to me (Route 66 was hard enough to navigate without a foreign language in the mix and driving on the opposite side), and a little sad that fellow Americans are not taking the time to experience Route 66. In an older section of Albuquerque, NM, at Mary & Titos (est. 1953), a small hole-in-the-wall family-owned restaurant, we were treated to what was arguably our best meal of the trip, their award-winning carne adovada. The founders’ grandson gave us a detailed account of the peppers that are key to New Mexican cooking, and told us that many of their cooking staff have been constant for over 30 years and that few of their recipes are written (“its all in our heads”). Route 66, like a river, took us on an unforgettable passage through the core of America.

6) We had a terrific time together

I have to admit, I was a little nervous about the prospect of being cooped up in a car for at least 20 days (counting both eastbound and westbound trips) with another person (even if it was my loving husband). The potential was there to really get on each other’s nerves.

But I must say, like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we made a great team!  There was one day where we almost killed each other – the first day we embarked on Route 66 from Chicago. That day, I realized a Route 66 expedition ideally takes four people (the driver, the navigator, the tour guide and the photographer) and that I had three of the jobs. All was going well until we got lost in a cornfield somewhere in Illinois and an argument between driver (husband) and navigator (myself) ensued.   The situation was effectively remedied over dinner that night, when I politely tendered my resignation from the navigation committee. From then on, my husband planned and programed the routes, and followed the GPS.   That freed me to take pictures, look for and point out sights along the way (although I did try to keep an eye on the map, just in case).  Our revised system worked splendidly for the balance of the trip.

The important thing was that we worked well as a team – we enjoyed each other’s company, we resolved any disagreements that came up, and we completed the trip with an enormous sense of shared accomplishment. Although we were tired and looking forward to getting home by the end, we were surprised to both feel a real let-down at the trip end, and we almost immediately felt an itch to get back in the cherry red Traverse……..and do another Road Trip!!!!!

 

What I Learned on Route 50

My husband and I recently completed our first-ever cross-country road trip together, driving eastbound on Route 50 from San Francisco, CA to Ocean City, MD.  After logging 3,889 miles (including detours) through 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, and an astonishing array of landscapes, here’s my Top Ten learnings.

Route 50 signs

U.S. Route 50 runs east-west stretching over 3,000 miles between Sacramento, CA and Ocean City, MD

#1 – Always check multiple sources before booking a hotel room.

Before our trip, I sketched out a tentative schedule for each day, including potential hotels. We then booked rooms each night on our trip for the next night. The night before we drove to Grand Junction, CO, we found a great deal on-line at the Historic Melrose Hotel, which was mentioned in my guidebook, but was not the one I chose for my itinerary. Not remembering why, we booked it.

The Historic Melrose Hotel, which looked lovely from the outside and was in the quaint Old Town section, turned out to be affordable housing for low-income residents – one step up from a homeless shelter. Which explained the great price. Had we checked TripAdvisor (or had I remembered what I learned when I checked TripAdvisor three weeks earlier) we would have been more educated consumers. Instead, we parked the car below our room and spent the night half awake listening for sounds of a break in.

#2 – iPhones are not ideal high-speed cameras

Since we were on a fixed schedule going eastbound, we didn’t make too many stops, so I became marginally competent at taking photos from inside the car through the windshield and side windows (with attendant glare and reflections), avoiding the radar detector and GPS and rear view mirrors, at 55-65 mph. My husband would suddenly blurt “There!” and I was expected to instantaneously (1) figure out what he was talking about and (2) take a great photo of it. He would often say, “Oh, you were too slow” or “Did you frame the picture with the trees?” to which I would always reply “Got it!!” (my strategy being that whether I got it or not he would never remember). I learned where the “sweet” spots were on the windows (and some contortionist positions that worked well) and learned to take multiple photos that I would go through each night to weed out the best shots. I relied heavily on the photo editing tools in the iPhone – as long as I got the subject somewhere in the photo, I could enlarge and crop and lighten. Even so, in addition to a few good shots, I have an impressive library of blurry, blank, and unidentifiable transcontinental pictures. My photo of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC looks right out of “The Blob” (my favorite vintage horror movie).

#3 – Make lunch stops a priority 

Because we didn’t make too many impromptu stops along the way, our lunch breaks were a highlight of each day. Sometimes we were tempted to power through without lunch, but I’m glad we didn’t. First, they provided a much-needed respite from the car and driving. But more importantly, they were consistently fun. We tried to find little towns and older restaurants characteristic of Old Time America. We learned about the towns we visited by chatting with the waitresses and proprietors that we encountered. In Eureka, NV (Pop 610) our waitress told us she had 17 in her graduating class in high school. She said her school offered all the usual sports, but every student had to play most sports in order to have enough players to field teams. In Olney, IL (pop 7.994) , home to a colony of albino squirrels, our waitress instructed us that the best way to see squirrels was to visit the city park with McDonald’s French fries.

 #4 – Rest days were like a stop at the oasis

We spent 12 days traveling across country, but two of those were rest days. On one rest day, we visited dear friends in the Denver area. On the other, we visited my brother in St. Louis.

While in Denver, we had two home-cooked dinners, slept in a quiet comfortable room on a super-comfy bed, took a leisurely tour of the local area, and caught up with our friends. In St Louis, we were also fed and put up in our own cozy room, and got precious quality time with family we don’t see often. Although my husband initially questioned the need for rest days, we later agreed that they really helped us recharge and get back on the road fully energized.

#5 – You must be smarter than your GPS

Our Chevy Traverse has a built-in GPS system, which we have found to be rather clunky. We’ve had to learn multiple workarounds to get it to do what we need. Therefore, we also travel with our portable Garmin as back-up.   In a pinch, I also fire up Google Maps on my iPhone. And of course, there is the iPad.

There were many days when I joked to my husband that he was in the unenviable position of driving with 4 women (including me) telling him where to go. And even with all the help, the Navigator was still a full-time job for me and I had to know where we were at all times and not rely on GPS. Since we were trying to stay on Route 50 (not necessarily the fastest or shortest route) I had to learn tricks to outsmart the GPS (with waypoints, etc.) to get where we wanted to go and mediate disputes between the “women” (our GPS systems).  But then there was the time we drove right by the bank that was just down the street from our hotel because were so busy fiddling with the GPS rather than just looking at the address.

Even with all the gadgets….

#6 – In addition to the [multiple] GPS systems, you still need maps

Before we left on our trip, I visited the local AAA office and picked up 3 bags of maps and tour books, covering every state we intended to travel. Thank goodness, because we would otherwise have been at the mercy of our GPS systems and probably lost somewhere in Kansas. It was essential to get a sense of the route before programming the GPS, plus it was more meaningful to follow along on a map as we drove. The maps told me more details about what we were seeing (rivers, mountain ranges, etc.) so I could act as self-appointed Tour Guide.

#7 – Don’t travel with just one big heavy suitcase.

We retrieved our luggage sets from the garage before we left, and packed our big suitcases since we would be gone for an extended period. We had every intention of bringing along the smaller weekend bag or the smaller roller bag that went with our sets, but for some inexplicable reason we forgot them.

As a result, every night as we checked into a new hotel (always requesting a second floor room) we found ourselves lugging incredibly heavy suitcases with everything we owned out of the car, across the parking lot and up the stairs.   Then our room (being typically Comfort Inn rather than Ritz Carlton) was almost completely filled with suitcases. We looked like the Kardashians, or more the Beverly Hillbillies, checking into town.

After a couple nights of this nonsense, I started using an empty tote bag I’d brought along to pack one or two nights’ provisions so I wouldn’t have to mess with the Two Ton Suitcase. I will definitely bring that weekend bag along next time, in addition to the Big Suitcase, and plenty of tote bags for flexibility.

 #8 – Document the trip as you go

After about Day 4 or 5, I couldn’t tell you with any conviction where we had been even the day before for lunch. It all became a blur. I found the written itinerary listing all of the lunch and dinner stops and hotels very helpful, and I learned to note any changes or any additional sights we saw along the way. That way, between the photos and the itinerary, I should be able to reconstruct a decent memory book of our trip.

#9 – We need to find a balance of driving and stops

This trip was a little too much driving with too little sightseeing for me. Since we were on a fairly strict timetable, we didn’t have much time for spontaneous exploration of sights and attractions along the way. There were a few unscheduled stops we made – to see the remnants of an old pony express station in Nevada (or was it Utah?)- that were interesting, but for the most part we simply saw what we saw from the car along Route 50. On our next trip, along the old Route 66, we plan to meander more. The trip did give me ideas, however, of places to return to see (Kansas City, for example) in more depth.

#10 – America is a really incredible country

Driving through the entire middle of the continental United States was a thoroughly amazing experience. The vast and varied landscape, from the barren desert of Nevada to the rugged mountains of Colorado to the great plains of Kansas to the lush West Virginia countryside, simply took our breath away. There were days that we turned off the radio and sat in silence taking in the magnificent beauty of the scenery before us. We so enjoyed our encounters with the people we met in small towns across the country. We will never forget the day we smugly stopped for a photo of ourselves at Monarch Pass (elev 11,312) at the Continental Divide in CO and we met two young men who had RIDDEN THEIR BIKES from San Francisco. We emerged from our trip more in awe of the spirt and beauty of this extraordinary nation and its people.

The Loneliest Road in America

And…we’re off!!! On the Great American Road Trip. Our first night was spent at my sister-in-law’s house in the Bay Area. The next day we crossed the San Francisco Bay Bridge and drove to Sacramento, where at twelve noon, ON THE DOT (not planned, but how dramatic!) we hit the start of Route 50 and the Official Route 50 Road Trip began.

 

The beginning of Route 50, just west of Sacramento, CA

The beginning of Route 50, just west of Sacramento, CA

From Sacramento, we drove to Fallon, NV. Our scheduled lunch stop was in South Lake Tahoe, CA at the Red Hut Cafe. The Guidebook urged a stop here at the circa 1959 cafe – the original of several locations. As we pulled up, the neon “Open” light suddenly switched to “Closed” and my heart sank, worried this did not bode well for our trip. I pulled out my iPhone ready to locate another restaurant, when I noticed 3 women milling about in the café and jumped out to talk to them.   These incredibly friendly women (who worked there) informed me that the café just closed but there was another Red Hut right down the street, which was still open. We proceeded to the other Red Hut and had a lovely lunch overlooking Lake Tahoe.

After tooling around stunning Lake Tahoe a bit, we continued to Fallon for the night (crossing the Nevada border at 3 pm ON THE DOT). Up to that point, I hadn’t covered any new ground. Beginning in Fallon, I saw new sights, including the Fallon Naval Air Station (which hosts the Top Gun school) where my son may be stationed someday.

The t-shirt I picked up at the Chevron station in Eureka NV

The t-shirt I picked up at the Chevron station in Eureka NV

Also beginning in Fallon is the stretch of Route 50 dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America.” By the end of that day, we completely understood the moniker. Between Fallon, NV and Delta, UT, we encountered 410 miles of generally straight road, sagebrush, mountain and blue sky. We rarely saw other cars or people. There was no Internet coverage. Our lunch stop was in tiny Eureka, NV, where our waitress told us that her entire graduating high school class consisted of 17 students. While the school offered sports, the students had to play all of them to field enough players for the teams.

The scenery was striking, but hour after hour of relative uniformity became monotonous. I amused myself initially by taking pictures with my iPhone. After 30 or 40 landscape photos looked identical, I switched my focus to Route 50 signs. I found myself increasingly dazed, and the Route 50 signs snuck up on me. It was not easy taking clear photos at 70 mph through the car window or windshield, with the reflection and the GPS and radar detection in the way. Add my trance-like state, and dull reflexes, and an extensive library of blurry Route 50 sign photos resulted.

 

The collection of photos I took with my iPhone on the stretch of Route 50 known as "The Loneliest Road in America"

The collection of photos I took with my iPhone on the stretch of Route 50 known as “The Loneliest Road in America”

My next coping mechanism was my Easter chocolate. After 6 dark chocolate eggs and a marshmallow patty, I felt alive again with the sugar coursing through my veins. After a couple more hours, however, the blood sugar plunged and fatigue really hit us. So we reverted to our secret weapon – Disney songs. For the next few hours, we sang along with our entire Disney Collection at the top of our lungs. From Sleeping Beauty to Jungle Book to Mulan to Pocahontas, we sang all the parts, amazing ourselves at our mastery of the lyrics (from all those years of Disney music when our son was younger).   We came alive!   We had fun! We were silly! Thanks to chocolate and Disney, the Loneliest Road in America turned out to be anything but, and a surprisingly splendid start to our Great American Road Trip.

How Our Road Trip Almost Stalled

We have been planning a cross-country road trip for quite some time.   It started with a proposed trip to my brother’s house and morphed into a Great American Road Trip. And then it almost broke down before we left the garage.

Our projected itinerary follows Route 50 eastbound and Route 66 westbound.   I initially wanted to drop some things off at my brother’s house in St Louis, and then we decided to keep going to Annapolis to visit our son. And since we have to get home, we decided to do the return trip via Route 66. Then we added a couple of stops with friends and family…and viola…our delivery trip became a national expedition.

Last month, I spent two full days sitting (without moving) at the dining room table with my laptop planning the itinerary and stops, complete with hotels and lunch and dinner spots. I scored 2 bags of maps and guidebooks from AAA, and my husband ordered me a complete Route 66 library from Amazon so I consulted piles of maps, books and guides in the process.

A small sampling of my planning tools

A small sampling of my planning tools

My husband also found some guy on-line who plotted and posted the coordinates for Route 66 on his Garmin, so my husband was in charge of plotting our exact driving route and making our hotel reservations.

As of 3 days before we were scheduled to leave, I noticed that the hotel reservations hadn’t been made. Which wasn’t critical, since we could always make them as we went.   Two days before we were scheduled to leave, I finished my packing list and all that was left for me was the actual packing. I glanced at my husband’s To Do list, and noticed it was two pages single-spaced, including the laundry.

Then disaster struck. Two days before we were scheduled to leave on our trip, we returned home late that evening from a family event. I remarked that the house seemed rather humid, and I was getting ready for bed when my husband rushed in, looking like a doctor with a grim prognosis. He stated very seriously “We may have to delay our trip. I’m serious.” He went on to explain how he had discovered a broken pipe under our house that was spraying water in the crawl space. The most worrisome part was that this probably had been going on for a while since we had heard a mysterious whooshing sound coming from below our dining room for months. We were concerned about mold. I started researching mold and water damage, and then flights to Annapolis.

My husband turned off the water (no laundry!) and decided to call the plumber first thing in the morning.   We woke up at around 6:00 AM and drove 1 block to the YMCA to use their toilets (I told you the YMCA membership was a lifesaver). After we called the plumber, the pool guy showed up. I only heard part of the conversation but some important “cell” was broken and in need of repair or replacement. At that point, I decided what would be the most helpful was for me to return to the YMCA for my Gentle Yoga class. I also did what I am getting much better at since I retired – I turned the entire situation over to God and decided I would be at peace with whatever outcome, which was looking less and less like an extended road trip.

Two hours later, I returned from yoga to discover that my heroic husband had everything under control. The pipe had been repaired, there was no evidence of mold, the pool part was ordered and the washer and dryer were going. He had made arrangements with the plumber, pool service and our house sitter to have everything handled while were gone.

When I asked if he thought we would still be able to leave, perhaps a day later (since with all the house problems I assumed the To Do list still needed tackling), my husband informed me that we would be able to leave right on schedule.   And we did – having begun our adventures before we even left the house.

Miracle in the Desert

Our recent trip to Phoenix included a profound and inspirational encounter that truly blessed me.  It came unexpectedly in the form of a two-hour conversation on the patio at a public golf course.   It was what I like to call a “God Sighting.”   I asked for and received permission to write about it in my blog.

Kim was my stepson David’s girlfriend.  I don’t recall exactly when we first met, but I know I liked her immediately.  She was very young, tall and beautiful; but she had an endearing sweetness and genuineness.  I thought she was a good match for David.  He was a handful, and Kim was adventurous and athletic enough to keep up, and with a mind of her own to hold him in check.  They had their ups and downs, but she was kind and loyal, and generally a good influence on him. Over time, I really grew to love her.

When David died in a snowboarding accident in 2002, Kim was devastated.  In the immediate aftermath, we spent significant time together grieving. I was heartbroken over losing David and all the other aspects of his life that I would miss – his friends, his future wife, his future children, his future life.  Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I was also sorry to lose Kim as part of my life.

As fate would have it, Kim married VJ, who was one of David’s good friends.  We kept in touch sporadically over the years and through these brief exchanges I learned Kim and VJ moved to the Phoenix area and had two little girls; that she had struggled mightily with David’s death for years; and that she and VJ had encountered significant issues in their marriage.  Her most recent message to me, however, was upbeat, and conveyed that through hard work on their marriage, and God’s help, they had emerged stronger and more deeply in love.  We also agreed to meet when my husband and I were in Scottsdale for our Spring Training trip.

Thinking about Kim reminded me of the ripple effect of a death, and how so many lives are changed forever.  There are untold people or ways we may never even be aware of.  With David’s death, I have been mindful of various family members struggling in different ways.  And Kim was another victim of his death.   The last time we saw her in person, the year David died, she was a frightened, confused and shattered young woman.  I wasn’t sure what to expect now.  Would it be awkward?  Would she still be broken after all these years? My expectation was that our role in this visit might be chiefly support and comfort.

On our first full day in Scottsdale, she met us alone at the golf course.  As we walked off the course my heart leapt for joy as she rushed toward us with a huge smile.  She was a more mature, but still beautiful, version of the girl I remembered.

 “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (English Standard Version, Psalm 34:18)

 As the three of us sat on the patio, we caught up on the here and now, reminisced about the past, and about David, and we laughed and cried.  It was not at all awkward: rather there was an easy familiarity. She was keenly interested in hearing about our son (David’s half-brother) and about us. Then she told us about her life in the years since David’s death.

What emerged was the story of a strong, courageous and confident woman who had walked through the valley of death and by faith and determination had found healing, transformation and redemption in her life and in the life of her family.  What stuck me most was her fierce love for her two young daughters, who obviously fuel her drive.   Her eyes light up when she talks about her girls.  She spoke in great detail about each of them and their special talents and abilities.  She is a mother who listens to and notices the individual gifts of each child and finds ways to nurture them.

As Kim spoke of her mother, Patricia, I remembered that Kim shared a similarly strong bond with her own mother.  Patricia is now a source of support for Kim with the girls. In fact, Patricia just left with Kim’s oldest daughter on a special grandma-granddaughter trip to Paris. Kim has surrounded herself and her girls with love and support.

Kim has not lost her sweetness and genuineness.  She spoke openly and lovingly about her husband, the trials they have been through, and the life they have built together.  I can only imagine how complicated and difficult it must have been to work through the issues of having a “ghost” in the marriage.  But they fought for their marriage, and through prayer and effort, they have strengthened their bond.

 “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. “ (James 1:5-7)

Kim, VJ and their girls at the baseball game in Phoenix

Kim, VJ and their girls at the baseball game in Phoenix

The day before we left Phoenix, we met up briefly with Kim at the Dodger’s Stadium in Phoenix.  She was at the game with VJ, her two girls and her parents.  After hearing so much about all of them, I was delighted to meet them.  As we hugged good-bye, it was the hug of loved ones.  Although she is not family in the strict sense, we walked away knowing we will always be important in each other’s lives.

I felt witness to two miracles that day – the first being the divine makeover of Kim’s family and the second being the restoration of Kim in ours.   I thought, too, of how appropriate that this took place in Phoenix, named for the mythological creature that rose from the ashes to fly and soar.

 “The ash began to tremble and slowly heave itself upward.  From under the ash there rose up a young Phoenix.  It was small and looked sort of crumpled, but it stretched its neck and lifted it wings and flapped them.  Moment by moment it grew, until it was the same size as the old Phoenix.  Then the Phoenix flew up and away.”   (The legend of the Phoenix)

 I am exceedingly proud of Kim and who she has become.    I am inspired by her example of commitment.  I give praise to God for hearing and answering her prayers.  And I am grateful to have her back in my life.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Spring Training

We just returned from a week of Spring Training, and as they say in baseball, it was a rough outing.  In the baseball world, Spring Training helps players get back in shape after a long winter hiatus and prepares teams for the upcoming season.  For my husband and I, the trip was about getting our recreational relationship back in shape after years of career and childrearing, as well as good training for our next season of life.

Here I am in my Giant's gear before our first game

Here I am in my Giant’s gear before our first game

I have several friends who thoroughly enjoy Spring Training games in Arizona.  My husband is a huge San Francisco Giants fan.  So I hatched the brilliant idea of taking a trip to Scottsdale for Giants Spring Training. I went on-line January 9 at 10:00 AM when tickets went on sale, not sure if anything would be available for non-season ticket holders.  When I gleefully discovered there were indeed tickets available, I binged on 5 consecutive game days.   I was sure this trip was going to be a home run!

In the meantime, I’ve been taking golf lessons.  I still stink, but at least I can (usually) make contact.  We recently unburied our golf clubs and bikes in our garage excavation, so we decided to take them with us.  My husband was playing quite a bit of golf when we first met, and riding bikes was a favorite activity in our early years.  My husband volunteered to book the hotel and found a place that was walking distance to Scottsdale Stadium and surprisingly inexpensive.  Man, this was going to be a grand slam homer!

In general, the trip was enjoyable and I would definitely do it again.  We loved the scenic afternoon and sunset drive through the Mojave Desert.  The baseball games were fun and it was interesting to see the different team stadiums.  Three of our games were at the Giants’ stadium in Scottsdale, one was at the KC Royals’ stadium in Surprise, AZ, and the last was at the Dodgers’ facility in Phoenix.  We found some great restaurants, including one quirky place in a former dentist’s office with a lovely outdoor patio in a mostly residential section of Phoenix, where a Charlie Byrd-type character with floor-length dreadlocks and an electric guitar was the entertainment.  On Saturday night, we explored the Desert Botanical Gardens, where there was a special “Chihuly in the Gardens” exhibit featuring spectacular blown glass artwork intermingled with the cacti.  I’d never seen anything like it and it was breathtaking.

We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats behind home plate in the shade for the game against the Royals in Surprise

We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats behind home plate in the shade for the game against the Royals in Surprise

However, the trip was no home run, but rather, as with any typical Spring Training, there were some errors as well as lessons learned.  As I thought about our past trips and recreational activities, I realized that, in the first 23 years of our marriage, we had only two years without kids in the house.  Even our activities during our courtship often included my stepson.  We have been empty nesters the past two years, but until six months ago I was still working and most of the trips we took were to visit our son.  Our married life has predominately been focused on children and work, not on leisure.  So it is understandable that we may be a little rusty in the fun department.

So, in no particular order, here are my observations (or “Coaching Report”) of our Spring Training performance, lessons learned, and things to work on:

1)   Don’t be overly chintzy on the lodging

Once we saw our motel, we understood why it was so inexpensive.  After a lovely first dinner at an upscale pizza joint in Scottsdale, we arrived at the motel, and found that our room included absolutely necessary items but not an inch of excess space or additional amenities.  We also discovered it emitted every sound imaginable.  Cars, trucks, refrigerator, air blowing from the A/C unit, neighbors, babies, you name it.  On top of the noise, the room had an odd odor.   I don’t think I got a restful night sleep the entire time we were there.  Granted we are now on a fixed income, but I am too old and have stayed at too many upscale hotels during my business travel days to go back to Motel 6.  We realized how much an uncomfortable lodging situation detracts from the fun factor.

2)   Be mindful of your partner’s preferences and temperament

After 25 years of marriage, I already knew my husband and I are quite different in certain key areas.  But there is nothing like being cooped up together in a car and a tiny, noisy, smelly room like lab rats for a week to accentuate the dissimilarities.

First of all, my husband is not a morning person.  He’s typically unenthusiastic about anything before noon.   He may wake up at a reasonable hour, but he likes to putz around, catch up on his sporting news, and generally ease into his day.  While I am not a crack of dawn person, I (especially since retiring) am probably most hyper in the morning and start to lose steam as the day progresses.  To me, sitting around all morning is an unfortunate waste of half a day.

An example of the amazing exhibit of blown glass at the Desert Botanical Gardens

An example of the amazing exhibit of blown glass at the Desert Botanical Gardens

Second, when I go on vacation, I love to see and do as much as possible.  The world is my oyster and I can’t bear the thought of missing something really cool.  My husband, on the other hand, likes a slower pace and plenty of downtime to relax.  Naps are one of his favorite vacation activities.

Somewhat related, I am also more of an extrovert than my husband.  He can be quite sociable but he is also perfectly happy with solitude and finds extended bouts with people tiring.  I, on the other hand, although not an extreme extrovert, am more energized by personal interactions and can feel isolated with too much quiet time.

With that as background, and in hindsight, it is not surprising that our two morning golf outings in Scottsdale were just short of disastrous.  After our first baseball game on Wednesday (to which we arrived bleary-eyed and sleep deprived after our first night at Motel Chintzy) I insisted we check out the golf course and reserve tee times for the next two mornings (since the baseball games were at 1 pm).  I also decreed that Saturday morning we would ride bikes.   In my current just-released-from-prison-i.e.-retired state, I was determined to not waste a moment!

But as I should have more wisely predicted, when the alarm went off at 7:30 AM the next morning after another rocky night at The Chintz, I realized I had Mr. Grumpypants for a golf partner.   My husband was clearly not happy to be rising so early and barely spoke until the 5th hole, and even then it was something like “Hey, can you move…. I can’t see the pin.”  He had no patience and it didn’t help that:

1)   I whiffed the ball more than I actually hit it

2)   I was averaging upwards of 9-10 strokes per hole

3)   We had a foursome behind us breathing down our necks

4)   I kept asking if I should use a 1-iron (which apparently doesn’t exist), AND

5)   I was texting on the course (which apparently is poor form)

 Things improved somewhat as the day wore on, but I wouldn’t characterize the outing as Fun.  I looked at it more as a character building exercise.  I remember reading about how Tiger Wood’s dad would employ all sorts of purposely disturbing techniques (like yelling or suddenly rattling keys when Tiger was putting) designed to teach focus and resilience and I thought perhaps golfing with Coach Grumpypants would somehow make me a tougher golfer.

And then, if you can believe it, we went golfing again the next morning with an even earlier tee time!  It was an only slightly better but similar experience and thus unfortunately, largely because of poor timing, our first golf outings together weren’t exactly the home runs I was expecting.

I finally got smart, and we moved our Saturday morning bike ride to that evening, which was much more pleasant.  We rode a beautifully scenic bike path along golf courses, parks, a canal (where we stopped to watch crew racing), and stopped to observe another stunning AZ sunset.

3)   Communicate, communicate, and communicate!

I would characterize communication as one of the strengths in our marriage.  We have always been able to talk through issues and resolve conflict through communication.  After we returned from this trip, we had our usual post-mortem debrief.  We both realized that not everything went as well as it could have.  We identified where we could have done better.

Through our conversations, my husband admitted he was deeply embarrassed about the motel room since he was the one who booked it, and that greatly affected his experience of our trip.  Since he prepaid through Expedia, he felt powerless to remedy the situation so he didn’t address it.  However, we concluded that we should have talked about it and our options on the spot, which would have at least called out the elephant in the room (albeit miniature pygmy elephant in that room) to alleviate any sense of shame.

We also talked about our contrasting temperaments and preferences and how we could better respect and accommodate our differences on future trips together.  Some options may include “parallel play” in the mornings, where I find things to do on my own before noon, leaving him to his quiet time, or, for example, having only one golf morning rather than two.  But in any case, giving each other space and permission to do things differently or separately.

We agreed the most important skill for us to work on is better communication earlier, before feelings get hurt and things go south fast.  The two bad golf outings not only colored our later experiences in the day, but also provoked negative emotions that were hard to put back once they were out of the bottle.   One of my disappointments at the time was that my husband agreed to my frenetic morning plans before we left on our trip and I felt we had a “contract”.  But, as much as pre-trip communication and planning is important (and my husband may have honestly thought he would enjoy golfing in the morning) we don’t always know how we will feel until we are actually in a situation, so there must be room for communication and negotiation and change to address one or both partner’s needs in the moment.

All in all, I think we effectively did our own marital version of Spring Training on this trip.  We worked on getting ourselves back in shape as a couple, identified areas for improvement, and prepared for the upcoming season.  And maybe we learned something.  We went golfing yesterday (LATE morning tee time) and had a great day together on the golf course.   My first home run of the season!!!!!

My First Post-Retirement Performance Review

Unbelievably, I’ve been retired for an entire quarter already.  Since I’ve positioned Year One of retirement as scientific experimentation (which warrants some level of rigor) AND old corporate habits die hard, I feel compelled to give myself a post-retirement quarterly review.  Dusting off the old performance review templates from memory banks (and causing myself stress just thinking about it) here goes:

On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = bad/you suck, 5 = excellent/good job):

(1) Progress toward stated Year One goals:

Paris trip – 5

Rest/recuperation – 4 (points off for jet lag)

Have fun – 5

Clean-up projects around the house – 2

Clean-up projects in garage – Q2 – AFTER HOUSE

Route 66 driving trip – Q3 – AFTER HOUSE AND GARAGE

Observations: Q1 was dominated by R&R, travel and fun. I was primarily a big goof-off, which fit my objectives perfectly.  After catching up on sleep the first two weeks, the majority of waking hours was spent planning and executing our fabulous Paris trip, two reunion weekends (my law school and my husband’s high school) and then three additional trips to Annapolis and one trip to San Jose for Navy football games.  We managed to attend all five Navy home games AND the Navy–SJSU game (resulting in all W’s which should bump me up to a 5+ rating on some scale).  Out of curiosity, I tallied days home v. days away and we were clearly away more than home, almost twice as much September through November. Which is a perfect excuse for why I didn’t get more done at home.

I did start working on home cleanup projects in between trips.  I managed to make my way through 2 ½ rooms (including closets), as part of Operation Purge, which entails sorting, tossing and trips to Goodwill.  After the holidays, our travel will slow down and Operation Purge will swing into high gear.

(2) Positives:

Flexibility – I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility.  It’s fun to do things spontaneously and go places, like restaurants or the mall or movies, during off-hours and avoid crowds.   When planning trips we can go an extra day or two or (what the heck!) week to take advantage of lower fares or less traffic.

Free time – my free time is now truly free.  In the past, I rarely had a vacation where there was no BlackBerry to check, no email to return, no conference call THAT I JUST HAD TO dial into.  I can really relax and be present and enjoy myself.  On several of our fall trips to Annapolis for football games, we booked extra days and explored the area – we visited small towns we’d never seen, museums we’d never discovered, scenic drives we’d never taken.  With free time, the world becomes an oyster!

Less stress – See two points above.  Friends have commented (with no prodding on my part) that I look physically younger, happier and more relaxed.  I sleep better and my energy level is higher. I didn’t realize how much stress I was under until I was away from the job for a while.

Time with hubby – I was worried (as was my husband!) that too much together time might lead to unpleasant consequences, such as one of us killing the other.  It has been an adjustment (mostly with our home routine that I have disrupted).  However, for the most part it has surprisingly been a non-issue.   In fact, we are really enjoying doing things together, especially the travel.   I am thankful my husband is an available partner in my retirement activities.  If he was still working, I don’t think it would be nearly as enjoyable.

Travel – something I loved about my job was the travel.  I relished staying in hotels, visiting new places and exploring cities.   However, I often didn’t have time to do much sightseeing when I was working.  Although I was perfectly happy traveling solo, expeditions with a partner are much more rewarding. Now, we can go to those bucket list places and do those bucket list things we’ve always talked about, and at our own pace.  I was gratified that our inaugural trip to Paris was a success and gave us the confidence and incentive to do more big trips.

(3) Challenges:

An office – it may sound silly, but I do miss having my own office.  When I was working, I shared our home office with my husband.  But there’s something important about having your own space.  Even in retirement, there are things to do – bills to be paid, appointments to be scheduled, events and travel to be planned, etc.  I am, for the time being, using my laptop and cellphone in our den as my office.    But I have no desk or desk chair or file cabinets (or IT department or administrative assistant or receptionist, but I need to get over that). For now it is working fine, but at some point I would like to set up my own home office space (maybe in my son’s room once he graduates college but don’t tell him yet).

Time management – after being constantly under the gun in the corporate world for the past 25 years, it’s difficult to approach a To Do list with anything other than a fanatic urge to finish as quickly as possible.   I find myself with that old familiar stress when I still have (horrors!) unchecked items on my list, even if they are things like “Look for Ribbon for the suitcases at Jo-Ann Fabrics” or “Sort Magazines on the Coffee Table.”  The other trap is that I am often unsure of what day of the week it is (forget ever knowing the date) and sometimes I have to think hard about what month it is.   Without the structure of work, it is easy to lose track of time. I know I have more time now, but the days seem to just fly by.  How did I ever have time for a job?

Lack of routine – since Q1 was all about travel, I haven’t really settled into a “normal” routine.  I still feel like I’m on an extended vacation.  In Q2, once our travel abates and I start working around the house, I would expect a more normal (or less abnormal?) daily rhythm to develop.

Post-retirement activities – somewhat related to the previous points, I have purposely not made any decisions about how I will spend my time after this first year and have in fact turned down several offers.  It has not yet become clear to me how I would like to spend the bulk of my future time in retirement.  I know that, in addition to our travel, I would like to get involved in ongoing “work,” whether that be volunteer, part-time or non-profit, that will be meaningful to me.    As much fun as I’m having with my life of merriment, I can already sense a need for some “greater good” purpose to be significantly reflected in my activities.  I also miss the camaraderie of co-workers and the sense of pride that comes with team/organizational accomplishments.  Once I have my major home projects under control, I will embark on a more focused search.

(4) 360 feedback:

For purposes of this review, I asked my sole “co-worker” (my husband) for feedback on how my retirement is going thus far.  His response was “You’re doing fine.”  Okay, then! Whether that answer stemmed from an understandable fear of the repercussions of saying anything negative or from extreme laziness in answering one stupid question, (hey I was in the same boat for 25 years, I know the game!) or was, in fact, an accurate assessment (albeit somewhat sparse), I can’t say for sure.  I will therefore interpret his response as akin to the proverbial “Pleasure to have in class” comment I always received from my teachers in grade school and leave it at that.

(5) Overall rating: 

5

That’s the other beauty of retirement.  I’m now the boss and I can rate myself whatever I want!

Travel with the Spouse: The Togetherness Test

I liken international travel with one’s spouse (especially when not on an organized tour) to an Advanced Placement Exam in Marital Compatibility.  And I admit to some apprehension approaching our recent 2-½ week trip to France.  My husband and I had not done much foreign travel together, and had certainly not been together, just the two of us, 24/7 for that length of time since our honeymoon in 1988; and even then (1) our honeymoon was not that long and (2) we both still thought the other perfect.

Although I am not a fan of reality TV (so the following comparisons may not be 100% accurate) I was hoping our trip to Paris would be more “The Bachelorette” (those episodes in which starry-eyed couples are whisked away to romantic far-flung scenic locations) and not “Survivor” (where contestants conspire to rid themselves of each other) but maybe a bit of “The Amazing Race” thrown in.    Though, with respect to the “The Amazing Race,” which I actually enjoy, I had always been vocal in my opinion that I would much rather be on a team with my son than my husband.   My son has a better sense of humor, and I could envision my husband and I being that bickering couple that can’t even agree on how to get the envelope with the next clue open.  We can both be rather, um, opinionated.

Indeed, our first few days in Paris were trying.    If the journey was an AP Exam for us as a couple, it was a physical endurance test for my husband.  For starters, he is very tall, doesn’t particularly like big cities or crowds, and is lactose intolerant. Consequently, he deserves bonus points right off the bat for venturing to the most densely populated city in Europe, where the apartments are so small he could barely fit in the shower with the door closed (much less turn around), and which is chock-full of cheese.    Add fatigue, jet lag, inclement weather, and the language barrier to the mix and we had a recipe for disaster brewing.  In fact, observing my husband, clearly at first a fish out of water in Paris, I was initially worried that my “dream” trip was headed towards spectacular calamity.  The fatigue led to grumpiness and unlike home, where one can simply go to the other side of the house or run errands, there was nowhere to escape each other and those irritating moods, quirks and habits. (Yes, we have discovered some imperfections in each other in the ensuing 25 years.)  I have also learned, over the years, that my husband is not a “Gee whiz, we are in Paris and isn’t this swell!”  kind of a guy.   He will instead often plod through a day impassively and then later declare it a wonderful experience.  Accordingly, all I could do was trust that this trip would ultimately prove to be at least retroactively fun.

On our recent trip to Paris

On our recent trip to Paris

As the days progressed and we recovered from our fatigue and jet lag, got our bearings and the weather mercifully improved (and we learned to ignore the French) we fell into a happier, more comfortable rhythm.  The days were mostly  “The Amazing Race” and we learned to function like a team.  Happily, our evenings truly were “The Bachelorette” and we had wonderful, romantic evenings with candlelit dinners and strolls back to our apartment along the River Seine.   And to my great relief, we never had a serious “Survivor” moment where we wished we could vote the other off the island.

Traveling with one’s spouse can be both rewarding and risky business.  Here’s my take-aways from the whole experience:

Teamwork and engagement are important.  I’m the planner in the family so I did all the pre-trip planning, and consequently began to think of it as “my trip.” I initially approached our days in Paris like a self-appointed Tour Guide and did all the legwork and made all the arrangements and it began to feel like a job. Even though part of me had trouble giving up control of “my trip”, I found to my relief that things worked much better and we both had more fun once my husband fully engaged and took on tasks.  There was much to figure out on the ground with respect to transportation (metro system, trains, street maps, etc.). He became our Chief Navigation Officer and was responsible for getting us to and from places with his iPhone navigation apps, and took ownership for some of the planning, as when he spearheaded a wonderfully memorable night walk to take photos at some of our favorite monuments.    Next time, I will look for ways to get him more involved earlier.

Go with the flow.  When traveling to a foreign country, especially on your own like we did, there are numerous surprises and things that don’t go according to plan. We both had to learn to be flexible with our plans and with each other.  There were times when I really wanted to do something, but I could see from my husband’s face that that something might put him over the edge.  It’s also important to recognize when one or both parties might need some alone time to recharge, or to do separate activities.  And some of our favorite experiences stemmed from spontaneous detours from plan that I might have initially resisted.  I hated the idea of going to a falafel place in Paris but we did and it was great.

Girlfriend trips are different.  I have gone on great trips over the years with my female friends.  We usually laugh, shop, talk and do all the other things girlfriends do when they get together.  A trip with my husband is fundamentally different, because the relationship is fundamentally different.  I love both types of trips , but I have learned the types of trips and activities that work better with my friends and those that work better with my husband, and its better not to mix the two..   Trying to get my husband to spend a day shopping or wandering aimlessly or playing bingo with me on a cruise ship is just not going to work.   That’s what my girlfriends are for!

Know when to bite your tongue.  Big one for me!  Once one or both of us gets tired and cranky, it doesn’t take much from the other for things to quickly escalate out of control.  And when together constantly, it can become a pressure cooker situation with no place to hide. It can start over the silliest things – like when I stopped to take a picture of a flower stand and then realized that my husband had taken off without me and then I finally caught up with him on busy Blvd St Germaine and was ready to tear his head off but thankfully thought better of it before I got too far in my “commentary”.  We had made a pact before we left home not to let any disagreements ruin our time together on this trip.  There were some minor flare-ups, but nothing serious, and it helped to count to ten and remember our pact.

Granted, these take-aways may seem to be rather basic relationship advice, but are things that can trip my husband and I up under normal circumstances, and it was important to recognize that extended togetherness can put additional strain on a marriage or other relationship and must be carefully managed.  International travel can be hard work!

And if this trip was an AP exam, what was the result?   We certainly didn’t get a perfect score, but we found ourselves to be surprisingly compatible!  That we successfully overcame every trial we faced together (sometimes smoothly, sometimes ugly) was a real boost to our relationship.  It was a challenging, incredible, life changing and shared experience.   If I had done this trip with someone else, I would not have been able to adequately convey what I saw and experienced to my husband.   Now that we’re back home, I love hearing him enthusiastically tell other people about all the things we did in France and his perspectives on the experience.   The trip confirmed and deepened our level of trust with each other.  When I got sick on the train coming back from Giverny (I’ll spare the details), I was exceedingly grateful that I was with my husband because I have the utmost confidence in him.   After years of balancing careers and family and tag teaming and co-parenting, now that we’re retired empty nesters, we re-discovered our abiding friendship.  We still really like each other! My husband may have some really annoying habits, but so do I (although I’m convinced mine are less annoying). Nonetheless our more unvarnished acceptance and affection for each other is a richer and more satisfying companionship.

Probably the single best indicator occurred before we had even left Paris, enroute to the airport for our flight home, when my husband turned to me and said (with palpable enthusiasm in his voice) ”So where should we go on our next big trip?!”