Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Outside Perspective

The following is an account of our five days in Waukesha, Wisconsin (just outside Milwaukee) with Tressa's mother, who agreed to guest blog for us and share her perspective on the visit. We had such a wonderful time in Wisconsin and feel very fortunate to be able to get and share some insight from a third party!


Heading back to the airport, I find myself looking around the van that has carted me back and forth to classes, to our motel miscellaneous stores for the past five days. I take in the mix of chaos and order — clothes hanging, boxes neatly tucked beneath a large comfy platform bed, the maps, the phone chargers, the random pairs of shoes, the cute little touches of hand sewn curtains, a succulent plant hanging on for dear life.

From the outside, you'd steer clear. The "rape van" joke is a pretty accurate assertion as the first impression one might have. I recall the airport pick up on my first day: the big, white, bug encrusted, lumbering American-made mass rumbling into the airport lines, and in front, in their beloved captain seats, both beautiful and quirky, Tressa and Kelsey. They had navigated through shiny taxis and late model cars, parked, and hopped out to greet me. I was promptly cheesed with a Wisconsin cheese hat, followed by an excited group hug.

There they were, happily adjusted to this life, their van life. Nearly two months into their seven month journey, driving barefoot and sweaty, excited for the next chapter, in which they would join me for a respite of hot showers and meals, while I would take my fifth and final insurance class and test for a hard earned designation I had started four years earlier.

I had coordinated this last class all the way to Wisconsin in order to intersect with the girls' travel path through the United States. Regardless of where the timing coordinated us, we planned to get in a day of visiting and sightseeing. And so it was Waukesha, Wisconsin of all places.

I was unable to secure a room at the fancier Marriott where my classes were to be held, so we settled for what seemed to be a family style Ramada Inn nearby. Though the rooms and service were borderline shabby, the atmosphere and lackadaisical attitude were a much better fit for the five day lifestyle we chose. I had no desire to pay extra to house two more adults, though I did request two queen beds. Could I have ever snuck past the snooty Marriott desk with two giggling girls, several bags of food, dishes, a propane stove, and a large sticker-covered ice chest? I am not so sure.

The Ramada could care less. By day two we were utilizing the camp stove, frying potatoes and eggs, boiling rice, sauteing veggies, and making sandwich wraps from the ice chest filled with a never ending supply of motel ice. Between that and the early morning continental breakfast kitchen, these girls had surely rubbed off on me; I joined in, capitalizing on free food and preparing cheap meals with them. In the most recent weeks prior to our meeting, they had taken to sustaining solely on cooked rice for some days at a time in an effort to save money, so the motel life was like a vacation for them. For me, it was downright fun.

The first day they dropped me off for my class in front of the Marriott, they sent me off with motherly advice such as, "Make good choices!" Their afternoon pic up was even more precarious as they arrived wearing mustaches and captain hats. In true van captor fashion they hollered, "Get in the van!" at me. Oh my...

And so the next few days went — some of which included them posting up at the fancy Marriott for a steady of supply of free wifi, quality coffee with real cream, as well as pastries and cookies from my classes, which I supplied at each hourly break. I received some amused and skeptical glances from fellow classmates as I climbed in and out of the unlikely vehicle each day, making the entire even that much more hilarious.

My studies were intense, but between note cards and reading, I was still able to enjoy and witness their easy banter, their daily lists of projects and crafts, and the plotting of their upcoming destinations. I got to see how they worked with each other in and out of the small space, how they wordlessly took turns with the various tasks of driving or navigating, cooking or cleaning. They clearly had developed a routine and a way with their travels. They were diligent in the home check ins, their writing and photography, and yet seemed to take in the world around them.

There was quiet reflective time, there was dancing and loud music, cooking and food prep, chatting and grocery shopping. They endured my endless out-loud ramblings as I rattled off insurance definitions, concepts and calculations, even in my sleep! And finally the Saturday morning, following my two and a half hour exam, we were able to do some Milwaukee sightseeing! The girls were very excited about taking a Pabst beer tour, which has developed a bit of a cult following.

I think what I found most amusing about this tour was coming directly from a Risk Management class, to a beer drinking group tour through the facility's construction zone where the owner excitedly shared his plans of creating a Beer, Bed & Breakfast suite, complete with beer on tap in each bed's headboard. Was he serious? The tour continued through cords and ladders, debris and dust. And the best? One of the carpenters watching us from atop a story-high scaffolding in the middle of this construction, enjoying a PBR! Oh the risk, the risk, the risk! I just couldn't believe it.

So what better way to dive into this debacle, but to make friends with him AND with the owner after our tour? We discovered them both to extremely kindhearted and full of stories of the various states represented in their facility tours. I did my best to draw out of them some thoughts relating to home and what it means to them, in the interest of the girls' trip theme. The girls appreciated my outgoing nature and were happy to join in. I took several pictures of them in front of the Captain Pabst statue and we drew some glances as I shouted, "Talk to the camera, speak to me!" while they struck various poses.

The day continued, once filled with lofty ideas of getting tattoos and singing at a karaoke bar, to snacks and rented RedBox movies back at the Inn. After many hours of walking around town, watching the lift bridge and the boats passing through, losing my beloved Pabst souvenir T-shirt at either a Spy Cafe or an Irish Pub — both too annoying to write about, we three rather craved to climb into our beds to watch movies instead.

A greasy diner breakfast in the morning, and back to the airport I am taken. I surprised myself in the back of the van with a large lump in my throat. I was just so happy for them, sad to leave, amazed at their adventure, impressed by their courage, terrified of them backing up the large van in parking lots. (It's one big blind spot, that thing!) They had their next stop planned: camping in Michigan, then a new couchsurfing host in Duluth, Minnesota.

Being a mother of a beautiful young daughter, traveling the way she does, I get that people often worry or wonder about her safety. Tressa has been traveling since she was 16. She is such a mix of wit and innocence. She plans and she frets. She laughs and she loves. Kelsey, who I have known and loved since she was a preteen has this easy way of shrugging off the little worries and diving into tasks with a can-do attitude. Between the two of them, they seem to have it all dialed in. They are careful to lock up, to close their blinds; they have each others' back and these girls mean business.

Tressa texted me later that last day, reflecting that I have managed to join her in every one of her big trips. I hope she continues and that I am able to pop in again at all the various stages of her life. I hope they both push against the pressures of what society says it means to grow up and follow their dreams this way, meeting different people in different places all around the world. The perspective, the empathy, the openness of it all. These girls are truly inspiring. I say, carry on ladies. Thank you for letting me join the fun.

-Cheryl Fessenden
(Tressa's mother and one of our most supportive donors and followers!)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Omaha to Iowa: More Weird Times in the Midwest

As with many places, we arrive in Omaha, Nebraska without much expectation. It’s hard to thoroughly research every town that matters in every state in the country. Instead, we float from place to place, ask around and see what catches our interest. What really ends up thrilling us about Omaha is that there’s a Trader Joe’s. We haven’t been to a TJ’s since we were in Washington and it’s actually incredible how happy we are to be back that health-conscious poor kid haven, grabbing at our favorite crackers, curry sauce, salad greens… We fill up our hand basket until it’s uncomfortable to carry and take turns lugging it around, trying to be frugal but unable to contain our ravenous excitement. The cashier gives us a new set of stickers and recommends we check out the Market District.

The Market District has old-fashioned brick streets and big vintage looking murals, small shops that remind us of Sebastopol and restaurants that make us wish we were real adults that could afford to travel around, eating in highly recommended restaurants and tasting local craft beers. It rains on us for a while, still warm, and then the sun breaks through again.

We find a Couchsurfing host in Des Moines, Iowa, and decide to cut Omaha short since it’s a little hard to get to know without much guidance. Sanjay is from India but is getting his Masters at the University of Iowa and doing an internship in Des Moines. He talks to us about being from a city of 20 million people and then moving to the Midwest, how at first all the silence scared him, and although he has very little in the way of recommendations for things to do in town, he says he likes it here, it’s a more peaceful life. The next morning we come up to the apartment early before he leaves for his internship, and cook in his kitchen in silence while his housemate snores on the living room floor, which appears to be a routine. We head to Grays Lake, at their recommendation, and as soon as we park climb into the back and fall back asleep.

Des Moines is cool and breezy, which is a relief. After our nap we walk into town and find an incredible little coffee shop called Ritual Cafe, with this wonderful warm red interior and an entirely vegetarian menu. As we sit and work, a woman starts carrying in and stacking boxes of produce and suddenly we realize she’s setting up her CSA pick up. Although we are eating neither the food on the café menu nor the local produce being sold, simply being in the presence of the CSA bustle fills us with happiness, the environment is familiar and reminds us of home.

After working in the café we explore Des Moines a bit and enjoy the fascinating sculpture garden, complete with this insane rainbow prism sculpture that you can walk inside of. We are retroactively surprised that Sanjay had so little to say about this sweet little city. We spend the rest of the evening by the lake and then continue east, towards Iowa City, where we camp in yet another Walmart.

We park the van at a fairly central park where we cook breakfast and shoo away gnats and flies that no one else seems quite as phased by, and then Kelsey “jogsplores” while Tressa lodges herself in an overpriced café to work. In the evening, we head to a bar called The Yacht Club where a jam session is underway and where they have a cheap PBR special. We sip beer and watch a strange collection of musicians work their way through free-style hip hop, blues, and some jazz until we hear a loud clang and inadvertently make the acquaintance of a self proclaimed alcoholic that’s missing most of his front teeth and had just dropped a large glass bottle of hard alcohol on the ground. He immediately took a liking to us, especially Kelsey. He tells her repeatedly that she’s, “A beautiful ass girl,” but that he wishes she’d take off her glasses. Much to his amusement, she threatens to break her glasses and stab him with the shards, and he feigns terror. We leave shortly thereafter, somewhat tired anyway.

But once outside, loud music and flashing lights catch our eye in a building just behind the bar we were in. We follow the commotion and suddenly find ourselves in a drag bar in Iowa, of all places. What are the odds? It’s interesting because the performers are definitely not quite on the Seattle ladies’ level, but it’s still a lot of fun and we befriend a group of seemingly straight guys, all in shorts and sandals. They all teach at the college, although they aren’t much older than us, and it’s actually one guy’s birthday. Although we still aren’t sure why they chose to celebrate at the gay bar, it’s the first and possibly only time we’ll ever witness a presumably straight bro-type in a camo hat and camo mandals get caught in a gay biracial grind sandwich and be okay with it — a glorious sight to behold.

When the bar closes, we make our way back to the van, parked conveniently near a the College Green, where we are able to have a picnic breakfast in the morning before meandering through downtown Iowa City and checking out the sidewalk sales and boutiques. We continue to be surprised by these little towns. The Midwest ain’t so bad.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Couchsurfing & Camping in the Midwest

The demolition derby in Casper, Wyoming smells like dirt and exhaust and fried food. Tressa is wearing an absurd red cowboy hat she got from a thrift store for four dollars and an old man calls her cowgirl, so we know we’re not blending in. It’s hot and loud and thrilling for a while. We see mothers bouncing three-month-old babies at intermission, while the announcer says not to go nowhere, corrects his own grammar, and then does it again. The little boy behind us is cheering for his mom, driving a red white and blue striped beater that gets shoved out of arena.

Hot Springs, South Dakota is like traveling back in time, all faded red brick facades in one little strip. We drive to the Cascade Falls natural pool and swim for a while, hoping the chilly water will wash some of the sticky Midwestern heat off our skin. We are officially in the Midwest. We see bumper stickers like, “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American” and big billboards proclaiming, “Life is a gift, not a choice.” We park in what we think will be a quiet neighborhood to sleep, and are perplexed by the voices carrying up and down the street, footsteps at 1am on a Sunday in a town less than four square miles in total. We wake up between roadblocks in a construction zone and while Kelsey jogs Tressa discovers that the two coffee shops in town have both been shut down.

The Wind Cave National Park is obviously renowned for it’s cave, but tours are expensive so we opt out and amuse ourselves photographing bison, meandering through the hot, windy hills and trying to get close to prairie dogs. We have a couchsurfing host in Rapid City that warns us that parking for Mt. Rushmore is absurdly expensive, so we cruise past the monument, which is strange and small in the face of the awe-inspiring black hills, all that immense rock, jutting out in round, bulbous formations. We pull to the side of the road and take a few photos.

Every now and then you meet a person and you wish they were a character you had invented, that their life was a story you’d written. Our host in Rapid City is like that, this tattooed twenty something with a beer in hand, two kids, and a quiet tow-headed friend that lives in a tent when he’s not sleeping on the couch. He shows us the wine he’s making, the kombucha he’s brewing, the greenhouse he’s building and the aquaponics system he envisions for it. He shows us the squirrel he is training squirrel to eat from his hand, and takes us to Cabela’s in his beat up hotwired Ford with a chair nailed to the floor as a backseat, a much more legit rape van than even our bulky Chevy. At Capela’s we lay on cots, try on absurd camo outfits, photograph the stuffed bears and buffalo, and Skyler shops for his new home — a hefty 16x14 tent with a chimney. All he needs now, he says, is somewhere to put his couchsurfers.

We don’t know what to expect when we head to The Badlands National Park, and it blows our minds. It’s insanely gorgeous, chalky red striped rock formations where big horned sheep take leisurely naps and then rolling prairie hillsides full of more bison and more prairie dogs and unfortunately, biting flies and mosquitoes for days. But their primitive campground is free. We camp there for two days, hike around, enjoy an incredible sunset over the rocks and some beautiful clear starry skies. On the second night, we nearly run into an ENORMOUS bison that’s lurking in the ditch, contemplating crossing the dirt road we’re driving down in the pitch black. Later, we read that the bison is actually considered more dangerous than a grizzly bear. Terrifying.

We find a couchsurfing host in Sioux Falls, one of the easternmost cities in South Dakota, and actually the biggest city in the state. We arrive loopy and full of weird energy and are excited to find that our hosts are a group of fabulously entertaining goofy men. They try and teach us to play a drinking game that we fail at miserably, and we all go to the bar and have a wonderful night involving PBR, Phil Collins karaoke, and riding in the trunk of someone’s car. In the morning, we indulge in pizza and Lord of the Rings before rousing ourselves to head to a little lake for some lazy fun in the sun. Now we’re headed South to check out Omaha, Nebraska before spending some time in Iowa. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wondering & Wandering: One Month on the Road

One month has passed and here we are, mosquito bitten in our tin can beneath the expansive South Dakota sky, all those stars glimmering nakedly for miles; here we are still so full of awe and so full of questions, constantly wondering if we are doing this right and if we are seeing the right things and if we have learned anything at all.

On good days we feel so alive, we feel American, all fat and grassy and bitter, all humming and hot and dry, all red, all white, all blue, all of the strangeness of her coursing through our veins. On bad days we are tiny, cringing, awkward foreigners, carrying our own fears along long stretches of highway, isolated and incapable of understanding anything more than the scope of our introversion, the impossibility of what we've set out to do, what we've proclaimed our mission.

But there is something amazing about every weird day. Even as I fall behind, scrambling helplessly beneath of weight of all the anecdotes that seem so pivotal, of all the characters pouring in and out of my memory like so many cars along the Interstate, crisscrossing imaginary divides, I am listening to coyotes howl in the Badlands of South Dakota, and tomorrow I will wake up beside a prairie dog town and get bitten by flies while I drink coffee with one of the best people I've ever met. We have to keep reminding ourselves to ask questions, but also that answers aren't really the point.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Eastward through the Wild West.

Spokane is the first place thus far where we find a host via Couchsurfing — a young married couple that invites us into their home and shares a tasty BBQ dinner with us. We play bocce ball with them and chat over strawberry rhubarb cobbler. It’s interesting to talk to Joe and Sarah about home because the two of them are actually from the same town in Wyoming and have some differing experiences with their hometown and with making Spokane a home, plus they’re about to sell their house and embark on an adventure together teaching English in France for a year. The next day after a delicious breakfast and coffee routine with our wonderful hosts, we each explore Spokane in our own ways and find it to be quite a friendly place.

Next, we head to the Idaho Panhandle, to go see Kelsey’s stepmom’s aunt Donna (whew, what a title!) Donna lives down a rural gravel driveway with one of her daughters, who has her grandchildren, two adorable little girls about 5 and 10 years of age, visiting. By dinnertime, there’s a full house, 9 of us sitting down to eat together. It’s definitely a different lifestyle, but everyone is incredibly kind and hospitable. After dinner, we watch a sheep get sheared and show the girls our van. They speculate on various ways to stowaway and travel with us.

The next day we head to Coeur D’Alene and spend some time sitting in a grassy park, working on a little crafts projects together before visiting a farmers market and getting some tasty snap peas for the road.

It’s getting dark as we cross the Montana border and cruise through more and more rural stretches of highway, glimpsing snatches of water and mountainous shapes in the darkness. The next day is gloomy and rainy. We drive to Whitefish, a cute little town near Glacier National Park. We have a bit of the rainy day blues, so we spend some time sitting in a cute café, sipping mochas and working on plans, before driving to the park.

Due to what we’ll call an “accidental scenic detour,” we arrive at Glacier a bit later than intended, so we get a camping site and spend some time cleaning and organizing the van before having a cozy dinner and conking out. In the morning, the gloom is beginning to burn off a bit, so we take a hike along McDonald Creek, which is awfully big and fast moving for a creek. The scenery is beautiful, the water is this icy blue green, rushing past and dark craggy mountains loom up ahead, shrouded in theatrical mist. We get drizzled on a bit, but don’t mind much in our raincoats. We even come across this gorgeous and nonchalant buck, zigzagging his way lazily across the trail and nibbling at the lush moss. He paws at it with one hoof and looks at us warily for a moment before bending to his knees to resume his vigorous snacking.
After this hike we still feel like we’ve got a little energy left, so we decide to hit one more little mile loop nearby, but after walking a half a mile or so, it begins POURING, and I mean POURING. Our legs are soaked through and we’re worried about the contents of our backpacks, so we decide to turn back and promptly get lost-ish and end up wandering around in the rain for longer than we’d like.

Our next stop is Missoula, a town that’s come highly recommended to us and where Weyaka, a family friend and basically Tressa's fairy Godmother, lives. The weather is still weird and gloomy, so we’re glad to have a cozy place where we feel incredibly at home to hang out and pet three quirky kitties In Missoula we visit a farmers market, spend some time shopping with Weyaka, her man, and his daughter at an adorable boutique, do our usual wandering, coffee shop and jogging routine, check out the space where Weyaka is setting up her own fabulous bohemian boutique and chat with her about what’s it’s like to be a Californian creative living in Montana for love. We feel like our batteries have been recharged when we leave Missoula on Monday, headed for Billings.

Billings is the biggest “city” in Montana, but it’s hazy, small and kind of meth-y We see a band called Geographer play at a cool little venue that has some alternative looking people in it and really enjoy the music. It’s fun to go out and try and pretend we’re real youths and not just old ladies in disguise. In the morning, we have breakfast at McCormick’s Café, “where locals eat” and walk around a bit. It’s kind of a weird place, and we wonder if there’s a better part of town we should be in. We make the mistake of trying to get Mexican food in Montana, the first place where someone responds to Tressa's request for a vegetarian burrito by saying, “What?” They concede to give her a burrito with everything but the meat and somehow she ends up eating "an $8 bean and cheese burrito that tastes like bitter, bitter disappointment."

Anyway, instead of heading to North Dakota, we’ve decided to dip down into Wyoming first before heading further East. Wish us luck seeing some dope wildlife.

Tressa & Kelsey