Category Archives: Desert Diary 2012

Crab for Christmas

Well, yesterday I found something to miss about Northern California. Dungeness crab.

Our family tradition is to have fresh Dungeness crab on Christmas Eve. None of the markets around here were advertising it for sale. But when I checked I found out that an upscale market named Jensen’s would have it. The young man working in the seafood section assured me they get in fresh Dungeness crab every day, cooking it themselves at the store. I ordered three and didn’t even ask the price. I figured it didn’t matter since it would make mom happy, and since she has informed me that this is her last Christmas on earth. I was to pick the crab up at 10:00 on Christmas Eve morning and I arrived promptly. I was told the crab was “still in transit” but that was fine since I still had to buy our Christmas day dinner, which I intended to buy already prepared by Jensen’s.

Without paying attention to the cost, (because after all this is mom’s last Christmas and price is no object!), I put gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin soup, yams, gravy, and a pecan pie in the grocery basket. I intended to buy a roasted turkey breast but they didn’t have any sitting out like they do at Ralph’s. When I inquired about a pre-roasted turkey breast, the deli-guy said they had them in back. I asked for a small one. When he came back with “the smallest” it was 7 pounds. I told him I only wanted the breast, to which he replied, “This is the breast.” I’m wondering how many hormones were injected into the bird to give it a 7 pound breast! But, not to be deterred, I graciously accepted the small suitcase-sized box it came in, put it in the cart with the other items, and then noticed the price was $53.17. Yikes! Well, after all, it is Mom’s last Christmas. When I made my way through the lengthy line my pre-prepared dinner for two rang up on the register at $221.37. Holy Schmoley! Well, it is mom’s last Christmas.

Recovering from my shock, I drove home, to get ready for church. I felt that Mom and I could use a little spiritual lift and had read in the paper that Southwest Community Church had a really great Christmas program. Since the crab wouldn’t arrive at Jensen’s until around 4 or 5, I decided to go to the 3:00 pm service. Ushering Mom out the door at 2:15 to make the 15 minute drive and then get a good seat, we arrived at the church at 2:30, only to discover the service didn’t begin until 3:30. Oh, well. At least we would be assured of a good seat. They served Christmas cookies, spiced cider, hot chocolate, and coffee so we snacked and waited. People started getting line about 2:45 so we got in line, to assure a good seat. Unfortunately, there were technical difficulties with the stage and curtain so we didn’t get in until 3:45. Oh, well. At least we got a good seat. Once the music started it was so loud it made Mom cringe, despite that fact that she has lost a bit of her hearing. The minister, dressed in a Christmas argyle sweater, gave a pretty good sermon. We decided to leave just as they began singing the last Christmas carol so we didn’t get caught in the snarl of traffic leaving the facility. Plus, I didn’t want to miss picking up the crab.

Getting in the car, I called Jensen’s but the crab was still “in transit.” I wondered where it had originated, though made the excuse that the weather was bad. We went home so mom could devil the eggs. Jensen’s finally called at 5:30 pm to say the crab had arrived, but they close at 7:00 pm so I needed to hurry. When I asked if they still had to cook it, because they told me they cook all the crab there on site themselves, the young man said that the company had cooked it for them already. Hmmmm?

Mom likes to clean and crack the crab herself. However, I realized all the nut crackers that we use to crack the crab are in storage in Benicia. Jumping in the car I placed an OnStar call to The Alley, a store that carries everything your heart could desire. Yes, they had nut crackers but they close at 6:00. Better head there first.

I finally picked up the crab at Jensen’s with plenty of time to spare. At the check-out counter I nearly froze. OMG! Three crab for the two of us (mom likes lots of crab) came to $83.94, a cost of $13.99 per pound. At home, we could get it anywhere for $3.99 to $5.99 per pound. If it cost more than $5.99 per pound we didn’t buy it. Oh, well, this is Mom’s last Christmas. I had no intention of telling Mom the price.

Arriving home I plopped the crab into the sink, tearing the price off the wrapping before Mom could see it. As Mom began to clean the crab I heard her say, “Yuck! Look at this.” The crab fat was an unappetizing shade of brown. I said, “Oh, they must be okay. They were just cooked today.” However, the inside meat was a doubtful shade of gray. Scooping it up and putting it into a plastic bag, I told her to start cleaning the second one. However, it was in the same shape, as was the third.

It was 6:30. I immediately called Jensen’s, told them their “fresh crab” was not, and what did they want me to do about it. They told me I could either bring it back and they would replace it, or I could just wait until Wednesday and just bring in my receipt. I sure as heck didn’t want any crab and told him so, to which he replied he would give me some beef or something else at no charge. I told him I just wanted my money back and would be there directly.

Throwing off my slippers and pulling on my boots, I jumped in the car, only to realize I was nearly on empty after all my running around that day. I said a little prayer for enough fumes to make it to Jensen’s and then the Mobil station next door. I arrived at Jensen’s with two minutes to spare. I handed Rick, the seafood guy, my bag of smelly crab. The store was in the process of being closed down so there was no delay in crediting my card for the $83.94.

I made it to the Mobil station just before they, too, closed. Then I wondered what to have for dinner that would go with the nice bottle of Prosecco I had chilling in the fridge. Carls’ Jr.? Burger King? Wendy’s? I figured they would be open. Ah, ha! Let’s see if Villaggio’s is open and we will have pizza. They were. In fact, they were hopping with business.

And so it was, on Christmas Eve, 2012, we changed traditions; we had pizza. The Meat Lover’s Supreme was excellent with Prosecco. But next year I think I will take Mom to Las Vegas. It will be cheaper. And I am confident she will still be here.

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A Poet’s Paradise

In nature, nothing hurries, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu

Meditation really isn’t “my thing.” My mind wanders hither and yon. I’ve tried focusing on a candle flame or a peaceful meadow. I’ve tried the “Ohm” routine, tried to clear my mind and think of nothing, but I can’t even get to the clearing part. Those that are successful at meditation tell me it provides a pathway to a universal center of calmness and inspired intuition. It could, perhaps, enhance my writing ability. But, honestly, I just can’t sit still that long.

However, I’m always up for an adventure. So when new acquaintances invited me to join them one Sunday at Whitewater Preserve for a meditation circle and potluck breakfast, I figured it would be an outing to a place I knew nothing about, and I’d get a meal to boot. I said, “Sure. Count me in!”

As I left the house around 7:00 am, it was already 90 degrees in Palm Desert. I traveled west on I-10 about 25 minutes, then took the Whitewater Preserve exit that wound me north up a narrow, two-lane road. In the silence of early morning, I was the only car on the road. Halfway to my destination, I glanced to my left to see the glint of rising sun shining off the rocky hillside, last night’s white moon still evident in a brilliant blue, cloudless sky. Oh, my! It was going to be a glorious day. I was glad that I remembered to take my camera.

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The Whitewater Preserve is 2,826 acres surrounded by the Bureau of Land Management San Gorgonio Wilderness and includes the year-round Whitewater River. The canyon has a robust population of bighorn sheep, deer and bear, and is an important wildlife corridor between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains. It is a popular summer retreat area due to cooler temperatures of about 10 to 15 degrees. Their website is worth a visit. http://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/preserve_whitewater.html

Reaching my destination, I drove past the log cabin ranger station and parked Thelma under the shade of a cottonwood tree. Opening the door, I placed one sandaled foot on the asphalt, inhaled the fragrance of alder trees, and was immediately transported back in time to my childhood camping days. In an instant, I recalled singing around the campfires at Richardson’s Grove, water skiing at Shasta dam, horseback riding at Ruth Lake, and fried bacon alongside mom’s beer-batter pancakes. Yes, indeed. This was going to be a day to remember.

Meditation was held inside the log cabin rather than outside because the flies were too distracting. I gathered with the group, trying hard to “center and let go.” I gave it my best shot but I was itching to get outside and explore. After the meditation everyone was encouraged to share what they had experienced and/or how they felt during the meditation, what colors they saw, etc. For once, I was at a loss for words since my mind was busy elsewhere. By the way, there were no mind expanding drugs or funny cigarettes used. Simply communing with nature.

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Over breakfast of Starbuck’s coffee, cheese, cherries, grapes, prosciutto, French bread, and Winchell’s donuts, we all got better acquainted. It is an eclectic group of very interesting people, from different walks of life. I am a firm believer that people come into our life for a reason. I enjoyed myself immensely.

Strolling through the grounds after breakfast, I was awestruck by the beauty of the mountains, trees, wild grasses, ponds, and the music of the red winged blackbird. It felt like a sanctuary to me. I had little idea of the magic that waited.

Turning a corner, I came across the first of three rocks that had the words of Lao Tzu, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau carved into them.

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Turning another corner, I came upon a pond containing some of the largest trout I had ever seen. I was flabbergasted when, in my mind, I heard my friend, Paul Zarzyski, excitedly screaming in a little boy’s voice, “Dad! I caught one! Dad! Dad!” Those words are from his poem, “Words Growing Wild in the Woods.” It was appropriate that a poet friend would join me on this walk through Mother Nature’s church.

By the time I was ready to depart this beautiful and serene area, families were gathering at the picnic tables provided beneath a grove of sycamore trees. The smell of charcoal briquettes wafted in the air as moms unwrapped hamburger patties and hot dogs from their packages. Dads chased after children, toting the smallest of them on their shoulders. Dogs on leashes barked to run free to play with other dogs.

I explored Whitewater Preserve as best I could, but in sandals I could venture only so far. One needs hiking boots or sturdy shoes to trek the wilderness trails. I’ll return with my hiking boots when the weather cools, bringing along a picnic lunch to enjoy. Perhaps you will join me.

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Reunion with the One Left Behind

My grandparents, Bernard and Bridget (Crossan) Gallagher, were born in County Donegal, Ireland. Married in 1924 while in their early twenties, they moved to Wales in search of work, with one-year-old Rosena in tow. There, my grandfather worked for a company digging and drilling through rock to lay a pipeline. But the project ended, leaving grandfather jobless.

Bridget’s brother and uncle had immigrated to America some years earlier, ultimately locating in Eureka, California. Confident of finding work in Eureka, Bernard and Bridget crossed the Atlantic, landing at Ellis Island in 1927, leaving the wee one, Rosena, behind. Despite the fact that her passport had been issued, my great-grandmother, Catherine Daly Crossan, insisted that Rosena remain in Ireland, certain that my grandparents wouldn’t stay in America. Heartsick at leaving “Rosie” behind, they took solace in the fact that Bridget’s brother, Hughie, would visit Ireland the following year, returning with Rosie.

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Once in Eureka, Bernard found work in the local lumber mills, eventually securing employment with North Western Pacific Railroad. Hughie didn’t return to Ireland until 1946. Bridget gave birth to four more children. Bernard passed away from cancer in 1950 at the age of 49. Rosie never saw her father alive again; can recall his face only from a photo.

Bridget didn’t see her daughter again until 1966 when she visited Strabane, Northern Ireland, where Rosie lived with her husband, Denis McElwee, and their eleven children. Rosie finally visited America for a month in 1982 with her son, Gary, and then again in 1992 when she surprised Bridget on her 90th birthday.

Growing up, I spent many days and nights with Nana Bridget. She would bake sugar cookies and Irish Soda Bread that we washed down with tea brewed in a pot she’d brought from Ireland. Rosie was lovingly talked about throughout the years, never far from our thoughts, and always in our heart.

As an adult I became interested in my Irish roots. I especially wondered what life had been like for Aunt Rosie. I wondered about my cousins living in Northern Ireland. What was their life like? Did they resemble me? Would we have anything in common?

In 2004, I decided it was time to answer those questions. Trafalgar Tour Company had a 12-day tour of Ireland, which just happened to spend two nights in Derry, Northern Ireland. Derry is only twenty minutes from Strabane where Rosie and her family live. I figured Cort and I could spend an evening and a day with them and that would give me my “Ireland fix.” So I arranged for us to break from the tour in order to meet the family, who graciously agreed to come to our hotel once we’d rested and eaten dinner.

They arrived earlier than expected. When I saw Rosie across the room, I knew it was her. She was the spitting image of my grandmother: the same beautiful, silver-gray hair and the same twinkling eyes. We both sobbed, releasing years of pent-up emotions for all the years we’d spent apart. Rosie introduced me to her second-born daughter, my cousin Josie, who is only seven months younger than I am. Within minutes we bonded like sisters. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. I cry now even as I write this, recalling the emotions of the moment as if it happened yesterday.

Josie’s husband Gabriel picked us up the following morning to spend the day getting acquainted with the rest of the family. Our first stop was to see Rosie’s home where she promptly served us tea with milk and sugar, along with ham sandwiches on white bread cut into quarters, crust removed. After tea, she and I spent some one-on-one quality time. She gave me a tour of her humble, two-story home, which was wall-to-wall with family photos; a small village of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other relatives. We sat on the bed in her room to chat. She said to me, “Now, Susan, the last piece of the puzzle of your life falls into place.”

I was speechless. I promptly ran downstairs to grab the book of my poetry I had autographed for her before leaving home in Benicia. I had written on the title page, “Dear Rosie, At last the final piece of my life’s puzzle has fallen into place.” We hugged each other hard, my tears streaking mascara down my cheeks.

The remainder of the day was spent at Josie and Gabriel’s house getting better acquainted. They live in a beautiful home overlooking the River Foyle outside Strabane. Strabane suffered extensive damage during the “Troubles of Northern Ireland,” from the early 1970s and continuing throughout much of the 1990s, with bombings and shootings a frequent occurrence. Strabane was once the most bombed town in Europe per size and was the most bombed town in Northern Ireland. Josie told me that one day when they lived in town a bomb exploded outside the building they lived in, knocking baby Glen to the floor. It is impossible for me to imagine the terror of it all.

Cocktails began at noon. A dinner fit for royalty was served in an elegant dining room filled with family photos. Dinner consisted of roast beef, vegetables, and three different kinds of potatoes, all prepared and served by Josie’s children. Much side-splitting laughter, many bottles of wine, and, oddly enough, on-key karaoke, made for a lively evening. But then it was time to leave.

The next morning I got back on the bus with one hellacious hangover, eyes red and swollen from crying. My heart ached so it felt as if it was splitting in half. I could hardly bear to leave the family I had come to love in a very short time. The visit of one day was not long enough. I vowed to return.

In 2010, I took my mother, my son Kevin, and my daughter-in-law Sarah, to Ireland. Having had such a life-changing experience on my previous trip, I wondered if it would be as emotional the second time around. Regardless, I felt it was important for Kevin to meet the rest of his family.

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I planned a week’s long journey of adventures that did not disappoint. We visited the seaside village of Ballycastle, Bushmill’s Distillery, Giant’s Causeway, and other “must-see” tourist attractions. A major highlight for Kevin was visiting Gallagher’s Oyster Farm on the Donegal coast owned by Edward Gallagher. Kevin and Sarah ate raw oysters fresh out of the bay. He was also able to traipse down the mud flats to gather four dozen oysters to bring back to Josie and Gabriel’s house for all to savor. While this Gallagher is not a relative that we know of, at some point, way back when, I’m sure we’re related. Interestingly enough, while passing through Edward’s kitchen, I noticed a loaf of white bread from Gallagher’s Bakery sitting on the counter. No relation either. Gallagher in Ireland is like Smith in the US.

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But mostly we hung out with family. Kevin and his male cousins bonded as if they had known each other forever, especially during their “down and dirty” paintball game. Thinking he would be cool, Kevin showed up at a party wearing a green sports jersey, the only one he could find that had a name on it spelled similar to his last name of Tracy ─ Tracey Concrete. Little did he know that we were in a county whose colors are red. After a bit of razzing, they provided him with a jersey in the proper colors. Ye can’t be wearin’ a green jersey when yer in red country!

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Josie and I picked up where we’d left off, as if I’d only been gone for a few months. I spent quality time with Rosie, and met a few more members of “the clan.” We ate, drank, and sang karaoke until the wee hours of the morning. They stay up late in Ireland because it’s light out so late at night. They don’t eat dinner until around 8:00 and a party doesn’t really get going until around 10:00. I’m usually in bed by that time, or near to it, but figured I could catch up on lost sleep at home.

All too soon, it was time to depart. Again, eyes red and swollen from crying at the departure, I vowed to return.

In February, 2012, Uncle Pat, who lives in Santa Rosa, called to say that Josie’s daughter, Melissa, was getting married on May 5th. The family wanted him to come to the wedding. Also, Rosie and Denis are now in poor health and this might be the last opportunity to see them. Pat said he would like to go, bringing along my cousin Casey, who lives in Long Beach, because he felt it was important for Casey to meet that part of his family. Sound familiar?

“I wanna go, too!” I exclaimed. So plans were made for another Ireland Adventure.

On April 27th I arrived at LAX at noon, planning to have lunch with Pat and Casey before we boarded the plane. As I approached our departure gate, I heard someone call my name. I turned around to find them sitting in the bar. I knew then and there it was going to be a “wet” trip. Each of them was sipping their second Bloody Mary, ready for a third.

Our plane trip was rather uneventful. We arrived in Belfast where it was … wet! Only a bit of drizzle and a tad gray but what the heck. We’d arrived. Gabriel intended to pick us up in his vintage 1972 Rolls Royce but figured we would have too much luggage. Instead, he picked us up in his Nissan 5-seater truck, with lots of room in the bed. We stuffed it to the gills.

The three of us stayed at the Fir Trees Hotel in Strabane, the town in which the majority of the family resides. This was the second time I’d stayed at this hotel so it felt like old home week. After freshening up, we went to see Rosie. It had been nearly twenty years since Pat had seen his sister, now 86 years old. Emotional doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings that poured out of their tear-filled embrace. Denis, now 88, has been bed-bound for three years. But he follows the ponies, sending his son, Gary, down to the bookie each morning to place his bet.

Josie and I picked up where we’d left off, as if we’d only been apart for a wee vacation. Casey was a bit overwhelmed by it all. I encouraged him to hang in there, assured him it only got better.

The Fir Trees pub is frequented by locals and serves a Guinness that goes down real smooth. Sunday nights a country western band plays classic country, everything from Patsy Cline to The Eagles, but no Toby Keith. The same band was playing there in 2010! The pub was packed. Casey and I got “in the groove,” stomping our boot heels into the wood floor, well-aged from years of party-hearty folks.

My blood has thinned considerably after eighteen months of desert living, so temperatures in the low 40s were tough to handle. I bought a wool pea coat at TK-Maxx, a twin to our TJ-Maxx. I’m not sure why the slight name change there but I didn’t care. I was warmer and that was all that mattered.

Like Kevin, Casey bonded with “the boys” unlike anything he’d ever experienced. He perfected the “pub crawl,” not to be outdone by his Irish cousins and nephews. They drank their way through local pubs named The Farmer’s House and Sweeno McGinty’s. Sweeno’s was a former IRA hangout. You could almost smell the mud, the blood, and the Guiness oozing from wooden floors, seeping from the mortar in rock walls. One night a traditional Irish band sang and played tunes on the bodhŕan, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, fiddle, and flute, belting out tales of the years of fighting in Ireland, including those relating to Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday, sometimes called the Bogside Massacre, was an incident on January 30, 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, in which twenty-six unarmed civil-rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army. Basically fighting between Catholics and Protestants, Bloody Sunday remains among the most significant events in the “Troubles,” chiefly because those who died were shot by the British army rather than paramilitaries, in full view of the public and the press.

Josie and Gabriel threw us a party one night as they’d done the last time I visited, with about 30 people attending. Fabulous food and liquid refreshment flowed freely. And of course, there was karaoke. Father Frank, the priest who was to marry Melissa and Andrew, is quite the singer and loves karaoke. He brought along with him two elderly nuns who had a grand time, or “good craic” as they say in Ireland. The nuns even danced with a few of the fellows that were there. One said she’d never danced before. She evidently had extremely good craic! After they left I found her rosary on the floor. It had come apart and slipped off her neck. You go, girl!

We didn’t just hang out in the pubs; we did some sightseeing as well. We started out in Letterkenny, visiting Bridget’s youngest brother, Eddie Crossan, who, at 95, is young-at-heart with a “bit of the mischief” in his eyes. Eddie’s son, Pacelli, or “Patchie” as they call him, was also there. It was about 9:00 in the morning and we’d caught him without his teeth in. But he didn’t miss a beat. He popped those chompers in his mouth and immediately brought out bottles of Heineken for everyone.

Then it was off to Portsalon in the Republic of Ireland, a beautiful little place in the northern part of County Donegal where Gaelic is still spoken. It is a picturesque area with a two-mile-long stretch of sandy beach and a little harbor situated on the shores of Lough Swilly where the ship’s bell of the bullion-laden “Laurentic” was sunk in 1917 by a submarine, later salvaged, and is now in Portsalon church.

In Lifford, the county town of County Donegal, we walked through the musty, mildewed hallways of the goals, housed in what is now the courthouse. Lifford in the Republic is bordered by Strabane in Northern Ireland. Shopping is not a challenge, however, as both towns readily accept Euros and Sterling. We visited the “old” Gallagher house in Lifford. We wandered the halls of the Castle at Glenveagh, pausing awhile in exquisite gardens of rhododendrons and tulips in full bloom, allowing our minds to drift back to medieval times.

We strolled through the Ulster American Folk Park outside Omagh, County Tyrone. Here you can walk through history, exploring the historical link between Ireland and America, focusing particularly on the lifestyle and experiences of those immigrants who sailed to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is also, Titanic: Window on Emigration. This exhibition looks at the stories of some of the Irish emigrants. Set in the context of European emigration, you can explore the stories of the steerage passengers and understand why they left for the New World.

Casey and I decided to explore the town of Strabane on our own one afternoon. We wanted a photo of the beautiful old church where the wedding was to take place, without all the cars and people in front. We got some great photos of the building and were quite proud of ourselves. Only problem was, it was The Church of Ireland, a Protestant church, not the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church where the wedding was to take place. Oops!

And finally … the Wedding! At 1:00 p.m. it was 46 degrees outside; so cold I had goose bumps on my goose bumps. But everyone looked fabulous, all decked out in their finery and fascinators. The bride wore a stunning gown in layers of white satin and chiffon, attended by bridesmaids dressed in salmon-colored chiffon over satin. With shining black up-do’s and flawless, porcelain skin, they were drop-dead gorgeous. The men were just as handsome, all duded-up in their tuxedos.

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The ceremony took about an hour and a half, with Father Frank presiding. It was the first time I’d been to a Catholic wedding, or any wedding really, where the priest cracked jokes at appropriate times during the ceremony. It was a “mixed marriage” of Protestant and Catholic, but Father Frank welcomed one and all, saying that God wasn’t either a Catholic or a Protestant, he was a God of love, accepting of all, and we should do the same. I told him later that if I could find a Catholic priest like him in my ‘hood, I’d be tempted to go back to The Church!

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After the ceremony, Andrew and Melissa were driven in a horse-drawn carriage through narrow, some cobblestoned, streets of Strabane. Two hours of photos at Josie and Gabriel’s house, then it was off to the reception at the Villa Rose Hotel in Ballybofey, about 45 minutes away in County Donegal. Roughly 200 people attended the sit-down dinner, followed by dancing to a 5-piece band that played their music LOUD! But that is the way they like it. Uh, huh! Uh, huh!

The family spent the night at the Villa Rose because the party was to continue the following evening. Gabriel had hired Danny McNally, a fine and handsome Irish lad with wavy black hair and cerulean blue eyes, to chauffer Pat, Casey and I back and forth to the Fir Trees so we wouldn’t have to repack. Good thing, too. We came upon a DUI check, which are more frequent and harsher than ours. I would hate to write in my Desert Diary that I had spent a night in the goals of Ireland!

Again, too soon, it was time to head home. The departure scene was the same as the last two trips, with hard, lingering hugs, eyes red and swollen from crying. Josie’s son, Ryan, drove us to Belfast where we spent the night before catching an early flight home. It was fitting that on our last day it rained like the dickens, with dime-sized hailstones hitting the windshield, punctuating the finality of the trip.

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After three trips to Ireland I’ve become quite fond of Guinness, cod fish and chips, and mushy peas. I’m especially fond of my family there. Aunt Rosie, the one left behind, gave me the gift of a world I would never have seen, had she not remained in Ireland. Until I return, I have family photos … and Nana’s teapot steeped in memories.

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Creatures and Critters

Wavelets ripple murky waters of the pond across the fairway from my condo. Like a creature from the black lagoon, a shiny black head breaks the surface. Exposing only head and neck, a yellow tube hanging from a black-ringed mouth, it gazes right, then left … searching.

What in the world? Does the 109 degree desert heat have me hallucinating? Peering through the safety of my kitchen window, I spot a breathing apparatus atop a red inner-tube-type contraption floating at water’s edge. Does The Creature need a breathing machine? I don’t recall seeing such a thing in the movie.

I can’t imagine what he is doing in a pond that, though continuously circulating, is an uninviting shade of moss green. (Have I mentioned that Canadian geese, coots, and the McDuck family with babies have set up house around the pond?) I don’t dare blink, so captivated by the head bobbing up, scanning the surface, and then submerging once again. I fight the urge to pull out binoculars for a better look; I don’t want the neighbors to think I’m a window peeper.

Suddenly, a right palm at the end of a black arm slaps down onto the low bank, followed by a matching appendage on the left. A slight figure sausaged into a black wet suit pushes himself out of the pond. Lifting off a face mask, spitting out the yellow tube, he unwinds a netted bag from around his neck. It is then I see a man who has been collecting golf balls from the bottom. There must be at least 100 balls in the bag. I try not to think of other slimy things that slipped between his fingers. Ewwwww!

Other critters return. One indicator of Season’s end is the additional hummingbirds at my feeders. They hover in increasing numbers, sipping sugar water from yellow plastic flowers molded into the base of the feeder. They are a bit fickle, flying from courtyard to courtyard in search of sweet treats, with little regard for those who feed them year-round. But they are such a cute lot.

A few weeks back, I walked into my bathroom to find all three girls staring straight up at the skylight. Flat noses a-sniff, tails a-twitch, they chattered as cats will do when a tasty tidbit is in sight. To my astonishment, a hummingbird was perched precariously on a ledge just below the skylight. Oh, cripes! Guess I had left the sliding glass door to the atrium open too far.

What to do? Knowing they are attracted to bright colors, I slapped my brain into overdrive to figure out what I could use to entice the little cutie down. In the garage I discovered a flat-head mop with a yellow microfiber duster on the end. Ah-ha!

Supervised by the cats, I carefully extended the mop into the skylight. Terrified by a giant-sized person poking a long stick into an area where she’d felt safe, the little hummer flitted in circles attempting to escape. I tried to match her flits by swaying the mop back and forth with the hope that she would get the picture. I spoke words of encouragement to entice her onto the pretty yellow mop.

“Come on, baby. You can do it. I’ll take you outside to the honeysuckle. Or how about the feeder I just refilled with fresh sugar water? Yummy! Your favorite!”

The cats moved to the edge of the bathtub for a better view, drooling, waiting for “lunch” to fall from exhaustion. I prayed it didn’t drop something unpleasant on the floor for me to slip in. Worse yet, drop the goo onto my head as I gaze up open-mouthed.

She keeps circling the skylight. I keep circling the pretty yellow mop. After about ten minutes my arms began to fail, shaking as if afflicted by palsy, which doesn’t do much to give the little bird confidence in me as rescuer extraordinaire.

But I’m losing patience here and resort to, “Okay, you little bugger, get the hell onto the mop so I can take you outside!”

As if sensing my frustration, she tests the mop head with one toothpick-sized leg, then another, before settling into the fuzzy yellow fibers. With a silent “Yahoo!,” I bring the mop down slowly, just low enough to make it out the bathroom door. Tip-toeing through the bedroom and into the atrium, I lean the mop head onto the honeysuckle. With an intense, bright-eyed stare at me as if to say, “Thanks!,” she hops onto the honeysuckle, then drops to circle the feeder before flying off into the neighbor’s courtyard. Yep. They’re pretty darn fickle!

Life here in the desert has been hectic these past few months, evidenced by the length of time since my last segment of Desert Diary. But the 2011-2012 Season has come to a close. Gone are the days when every conceivable charity organization crams their fundraisers onto the calendar, hoping for hefty donations from full-pocketed donors. Until next Season, the lavish luncheons, buffed-up bachelor auctions, celebrity-filled soirees, and canine couture shows are put on hold. Nearly-nightly events here at Indian Ridge have been reduced to once a week social hours and monthly wine club gatherings.

The tension that comes with bringing a third cat into an existing household of two is gone, with everyone finding their own favorite spot, but willing to share if someone else gets there first. Reilly has adjusted nicely to being spoiled. Her personality is somewhere between the she-devil, Chianne, and the catnap queen, Dakota. All is well in kitty land.

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Now I can be quiet with my thoughts. It is time to tune-up aging brain cells that have gotten lazy from the winter’s rest. It is time to return to my writing. Who knows what adventures await along the sandy trail?

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Arizona Road Trip

I love the old west feel of Arizona, though their pistol packin’ policies give me pause. In spite of that, and in anticipation of “The Big One,” I decided it is never too early to begin searching for my beach-front Arizona property.

Using MapQuest and Triple A travel books, I mapped out a 4-day trip for late October in order to visit Wickenburg, Cave Creek, Scottsdale, Apache Junction, Florence, and Casa Grande. Never having traveled to any of these places other than Scottsdale, I convinced my friend Barbara that it would be a grand adventure to explore these areas. Ever the good sport, she was game!

Exiting off I-10 just east of Quartzite we took AZ Hwy. 60 through the Harquhahala Mountains and across the high desert. It was as if we’d traveled back in time to the old west, with not much but sand, sage brush and cactus between here and there. Arriving in Wickenburg we found our first great discovery in the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Old Town. Founded in 1960, their website says, “The purpose of the Museum was and still is to collect and preserve the history, lore and mementos incident to the development of Wickenburg and the Arizona Territory.” They have done an excellent job in accomplishing this.

For me, the two most impressive exhibits were the Hays’ Spirit of The Cowboy Collection, one of the largest collections of historic cowboy memorabilia ever on public view, from the collection of A.P. Hays, and The Hall of History Dioramas, which depict important episodes and themes in the history of Wickenburg and its region. In March the museum is the venue for Cowgirl Up! where women artists who work to capture the spirit and the lifestyle of the West are invited to come to the museum to exhibit their western paintings, drawings and sculptures. If you are traveling to Arizona it really is a “must see.”

After stopping at McDonald’s for a snack, no “Old West” there, we headed to Cave Creek. My research for the trip turned up the Buffalo Chip Saloon that sounded like a colorful joint in this sleepy little town and a great place for a burger and a beer. It did not disappoint, and the nearby shopping area designed like an old west town, complete with dirt streets, gave us another chance to stretch our legs, buy some grape-flavored licorice, settle the burger and beer on our stomachs, and contemplate dinner.

The drive from Cave Creek to Scottsdale took us through the town of Carefree just as the sun was sneaking behind the mountains. What a gorgeous area with beautiful homes built to look as if they were part of the rock formations nestled amongst the mesquite. It reminded me of Santa Fe, NM. But you probably can’t let dogs and cats run loose or they would most likely end up coyote or bob cat food. Plus, I kept thinking about the snakes and scorpions that were lurking in the nooks and crannies of the awesome rock formations. I’m such a wuss!

My last trip to Scottsdale was about 10 years ago and I was always disappointed that Cort and I hadn’t made more of an effort to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. I remembered that it sat out in the middle of nowhere at the time. This was not the case on this trip. Now there doesn’t appear to be any “wild west” between Cave Creek and Scottsdale. Housing developments and shopping centers were everywhere. Great if you wanted a track home or for shopping but I want the Wild West!

By cocktail hour we’d checked into the Marriott hotel located adjacent to Old Town Scottsdale which was perfect for walking off the happy-hour nachos and Margaritas. This area has fabulous art galleries and restaurants. They happened to be celebrating a new art exhibit so there was lots of activity, which made for great people watching. There was also a guitar-playing, singing cowboy on horseback that added to the old west flavor. I didn’t need any artwork (no wall space) but I did discover a book store in a state of perpetual chaos that had a book of Maynard Dixon’s wonderful artwork of the West. Another treasure!

The second great discovery, one not to miss if you are in the Phoenix area, is the Goldfield Ghost Town located northeast of Apache Junction on the historic Apache Trail, gateway to the Superstition Mountains. (The mountains are a bit ominous looking but breathtakingly beautiful. They obviously live up to their name given the fact that a plane recently crashed into the side of the mountain leaving nothing but a black smudge.) I am a sucker for ghost towns and have traveled to quite a few, some more ghost-like than others. Goldfield is definitely a tourist destination but is really quite authentic, journeying you back to the 1890s Old West. You can wet your whistle at the saloon (are you picking up a theme here?) and tour a brothel complete with charming young ladies playing the part of soiled doves. I cringed when she told us how many people shared the same yucky bathwater. ‘Course the madam always took her bath first. You can purchase trinkets at the general store, or buy your sweetheart a treat at the jewelry store. There is also a working gold mine, though the miners who own it won’t tell you whether or not they are bringing in any gold. A narrow gauge train takes you on a short trip around the outskirts of the town and period actors play out the gunfight scene in the middle of the street. Corny but always fun.

The following day we visited the Heard Museum North, just north of Scottsdale, a smaller version of the main museum in Phoenix. There you can spend about an hour, which was just our attention span, taking in Native American artwork and artifacts. We also went to Taliesin West and took the tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s impressive architecture and artwork. Built in 1937 it was Wright’s winter home, studio and architectural campus. Wright would not be pleased with how close the town has moved towards his property which was originally out in the desert boonies. It remains as an accredited architectural school. The tours are well worth the time.

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The fourth day circled us home through Casa Grande and on through the Chocolate Mountains. When choosing destinations and travel routes it is always fun to pick places that have interesting names. As it turns out, AZ Hwy. 95 through the Chocolate Mountains and the Castle Dome Mountains is in the middle of the Yuma Proving Grounds, one of the US Army’s largest military installations. I didn’t read the fine print on the map before embarking on this route so didn’t notice the restricted areas. Fortunately, we weren’t in the line of fire of any missiles. Nor did we see any chocolate or castles in the mountains.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road, though we did pass a few snowbirds in RVs headed for Yuma and other parts south. But there were some great “whoop-de-dos” in the otherwise straight-as-an-arrow road that made us glad we hadn’t had a large breakfast. Remember when you were a kid and your dad hit those areas of the road that made you throw your hands in the air and yell, “whoop-de-do!”? The highlight of the day was the huge, pointy speed bumps in the road just as you pulled up to the little kiosk that looked similar to a border patrol building. We hit them hard and dead-on! We were laughing so much by the time we pulled up to a very-serious looking young service man, (I don’t remember what he asked us), we even made him laugh. Hey! What trouble can two old ladies bring? Plenty!

This was a thrill-filled adventure. It made me realize how much I like green grass and palm trees and that this is the best place to be…at least for now. I will worry about “The Big One” later.

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It’s the Little Things that Tickle Me

“Poet’s Paradise” is how I think of life in the desert. It is rich in happenings, etching snapshots into aging brain cells, poetry and prose blossoming like a faded lily rejuvenated by hi-grade fertilizer.

My kitchen window is like an IMAX movie screen with short films playing throughout the day. Hummingbirds flutter like fairies in the spray of the sprinkler, gleefully screeching to each other as if to say, “The pits! The pits! Don’t forget the wing-pits!” Red-tailed hawk sits patio-side eyeballing Dakota sleeping in her perch, oblivious to the hawk’s need to eat. Multi-colored hot air balloons drift in formation the length of the valley, silent except for the occasional whoosh of hot air lifting them higher.

This past year has been a smorgasbord of discoveries, from exploring desert “must-sees” to finding a good belly laugh lodged in the mundane of everyday life, fueling the muse, feeding my need to write in flavors full-bodied and sweet—like a pairing of Cabernet and juicy strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.

Have I ever mentioned how friendly the people are here? Some encounters have been a little friendlier than others, with a few leaving ever-lasting visuals.

“Joey.” One day last February I was walking across the parking lot at Ralph’s Market after a mani/pedi appointment when I heard a male voice behind me yell in his New York accent, “You have the most beautiful red hair!” That got my attention. I whipped around to see a Joey Buttafuoco look-alike coming up behind me. “Uh, thanks,” I replied, not knowing quite what to do with a man who approaches me in a parking lot with a statement like that, except to continue walking.

He followed, chattering on as I responded in one-syllable answers. I have to admit that I was flattered. I’d like to think I’m aging gracefully and when I apply my “Bondo and paint,” as Cort would have called it, I don’t look too bad. But I was a bit nervous. Reaching my car I turned to face him.

“Ya know, we should get together sometime…for drinks or something,” he said.

Stammering at the “or something,” I listened to him continue. “Oh, by the way, I’m married. Is that a problem?”

“Uh, yeah, dude, it is. Give my regards to your wife.” Driving off I took satisfaction in watching him search for his car. So taken with my red hair, he’d forgotten where he’d parked.

“Target blonde.” Several months later I was putting my Target purchases into the back of my car when I heard a female voice behind me say, “Excuse me, this is a bit forward of me, and probably inappropriate, but could I ask you something?” Once again I whipped around to see the face behind the voice— a striking blonde 40-ish woman driving a fairly new white Mercedes SUV.

Now what? I thought, remembering my last parking lot encounter. Hesitating, I asked, “Yes?”

“Well, I was wondering how much you paid for your car. I’m getting a divorce and just found out this morning that they are repossessing my Mercedes this afternoon so I need to buy another car.”

When I told her what I had paid for Thelma, my Cadillac SRX, she bemoaned, “Oh, I think that is over my budget.”

Without missing a beat I told her to get a different attorney, to which she responded, “I think I better. You are the second person to tell me that.”

“Nick.” Chico’s is my favorite women’s clothing store. In this area it is not uncommon to have young men as sales clerks in cosmetic or women’s clothing stores. That doesn’t bother me. Popping into the store one day, looking for something new to wear, Nick wandered my way and quickly became my best friend for the afternoon. He was a slender 23-year-old young man with close-cropped blonde hair fashionably gelled to a slight point in the middle. He worked with me for about half an hour, learning my clothing likes and dislikes.

He pointed to a couple of tank tops that would co-ordinate nicely with my chosen heap of clothes bear-hugged in his arms. I told him I really didn’t like to wear tank tops because my bra straps always end up slipping off my shoulders, to which he replied, “I know; I have the same problem.” As he spun on his heels and trotted off to my dressing room with the armload of clothes, I stood there, mouth hanging open nearly to my chest. Say what??

After unloading the heap of clothes into my dressing room, he returned to my side with a sly grin on his face, knowing full-well what thoughts were running through my head. Matching his sly grin I inquired, “Okay, Nick. What is with you and the bra straps?”

He proceeded to tell me that he was a female impersonator of Carol Channing, with whom he had lived for several years. He even had some of her clothes, boas, jewelry and shoes. He said he sang her songs, as opposed to most of the impersonators who do Karaoke. I used to love to go to Finocchio’s in San Francisco back in the 1980s where a talented group of cross-dressers would sing and dance, the audience enthralled with their performance. It was great fun.

Nick was a delightful young man, very helpful, with whom I spent three hours, leaving with a good portion of “the heap” neatly folded into three large bags. I told him I would like to see him perform some time so we exchanged email addresses.

A couple of days later I received an email from Nick telling me that he would be performing in Palm Springs at Street Bar, advertised as a “friendly, neighborhood bar attracting locals and tourists.” It is also a gay bar. Hmmm. My friend Lanita, who lives in Sacramento, was coming for the weekend and she is always game for anything. A quick phone call had her replying, “Uh… sure.”

As it turned out, several of the women sales clerks from Chico’s showed up so we stuck together. Seven women, 50 and older, in a gay bar, filled with an assortment of men— young, old, most of them quite good looking, definitely gay. No dating options here. For the most part they were respectful, with the older men more accepting of us than the younger men.

One of the gals had quite a bit to drink so naturally had to go to the bathroom. OMG! No women’s bathroom! Well, duh! It’s a gay bar! She had to take care of business while five guys looked on, snickering in amusement.

“Nicky” did a great job. Dressed in one of Carol’s gorgeous blue gowns, silver pumps, yellow boa, and dripping in “diamond” rings, he belted out songs in a quirky voice like that of Ms. Channing. The joint was a bit rowdy but he did a good job of working the crowd, settling them down, and bringing them to attention. An hour into the show La and I began to get a bit antsy, especially when a couple of bare-chested guys walked by strutting their stuff. I figured if clothes were being shed, it was time to leave.

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I can now cross, “Visit a gay bar,” off my bucket list.

“The best!” I took Thelma to the car wash last week to spruce her up a bit. I ran her through the floppy things that swish back and forth, wiping the foamy soap across her exterior, treated her to a protectant polish, followed by dressing her tires, then through the dryer that, if you let the dog put his head out the window, his lips would flap and blubber just like Hooch, the wrinkly faced Dogue de Bordeaux in the movie Turner and Hooch.

After being cleansed and dressed I drove Thelma to the vacuum area so the attendants could clean out the interior crevices. As I walked over to the bench to wait for Thelma, I smiled at an 80+/− year old man waiting for his car. I sat down on the bench to his left to check e-mail on my iPhone just as he leaned a bit to the right and, well…passed gas. Now, I understand that as we get older we have gastrointestinal issues, and I have a few myself. But Jeez Louise! I tried not to laugh, biting the inside of my cheek so hard it drew blood. I could barely contain myself! Did he think I was hard of hearing? Did he think that the sucking sound of the vacuum would drown out the noise of his public mishap as it snapped out, reverberating off the metal bench? I tried to focus on my e-mail. I tried to think of something that would make me sad. I tried to think of anything except that “snap.”

AND THEN! They beckon him to his polished-to-mirrored-gloss black Ferrari. He climbs in, revs the engine a bit, eases the beauty onto Country Club Drive, and hauls ass in a cloud of pent-up testosterone. By the way, have I mentioned before that Viagra is a big seller here?