Sunday, January 17, 2016

From Analyst to Author to...Poet?

I've been writing in some professional capacity for 19 years. First it was investigative reports when I worked as a Special Agent in the Air Force. Then it was intelligence analysis on Mexican cartels for the State of California. Then it was two books, a homeland security magazine, and now a media outlet and university blog. I've made a pretty good living out of writing about drug trafficking, human smuggling, weapons trafficking, and the deadliest cartel kingpins in the world. There's no creativity needed in this world, for reality and truth is always stranger--and often more disturbing--than fiction.

After my divorce and move to Florida in July 2015, I set out to make new friends. I got the MeetUp app on my phone and discovered an interesting-sounding group called the Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts... (ellipsis intended). They have meetings a few times a month at ├╝ber-hip cafes in the Orlando area where attendees basically tell stories and read poetry. I decided to check it out, and in November I attended my first Short Attention Span Storytelling Hour at the Stardust Cafe in Winter Park, not knowing what to expect.

I should give you some context here. I'm not a creative/artsy person. Yes, I make custom jewelry, and while most would consider that a creative pursuit, I appreciate more the making of it and the use of the tools required than the ideas that pop into my head for my pieces. Whatever; I'm weird that way. I'm the mom who can't come up with an imaginary story for my kids to save my life. I'm the painter who can copy almost anything, but I'm like a deer in the headlights if you put a blank canvas in front of me. The same goes for paper; writing articles and analysis is easy because I have tons of material to sift through and start with. But I novel? Pfffffffft; MUCH respect to writers who can invent entire worlds and the characters who inhabit them because I just can't do it. I'm also not a hippie, or hipster, or politically liberal-minded, so this was not the crowd I was used to. I loved it immediately.

My book excerpt reading
I wasn't sure if I wanted to read anything at my first meeting, but I put myself out there and read the Veterans' Day entry from this blog. At my second meeting, I read an excerpt from my second book where I interviewed a "retired" meth dealer. Both readings were well-received, and I started to make friends among the very friendly and supportive crowd. But more specifically--and more significantly for this blog entry--I met "the poets."

I had heard of slam poetry before, mostly due to HBO's old series Def Poetry Jam from the 1990s. I knew it involved short pieces spoken pretty quickly, and often loudly with a lot of emotion (usually anger) involved. However, I had never seen it performed in person. That night in December 2015 in the Stardust Cafe changed my view of the written word forever. I heard my new friends Curtis, Karis, Eddie, and Matt deliver words in some of the most delicious sequences I had ever heard. Their grasp of the English language and their ability to convey ideas--some funny, some serious--in a way that made me laugh, tear up, smile, and think hard was truly mind-boggling. I wanted more.

Fortunately, "the poets" were kind enough to invite me into their world--much of which is centered at a certified poetry slam venue called The Milk Bar Lounge not too far from downtown Orlando. It was here that I attended my first poetry slam...and I was floored. I will warn you; the content is not for the weak. Some of these gifted poets are young enough to be my own kid. Despite their youth, they have seen things and experienced things--pain, hunger, depression, loneliness, addiction, discrimination--that I can never relate to. But that didn't matter; my politics are very middle-of-the-road, and while I don't always agree with the poets' viewpoints, I always appreciate their passion and their talent.

Being around all this energy made me want to write. But me? A poet? Pffffffft. I'm an analyst; I can't really get that deep on a personal level (I think). I've had a great life, a good childhood. I've never experienced hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, or sexism (despite being a Latina female in male-dominated fields). What on earth could I draw from? It seemed like good slam poetry could only come from a place of pain. But I gave it a shot anyway; I tried to write what I know.

Liquid courage before my
first poetry reading
Thanks to my friend Curtis, who is a coach/mentor to MANY aspiring poets, I wrote my first poems and sent them to him for feedback. I needed to edit, and shorten. Make sure my voice is clear and the audience can grasp what I'm trying to say. Remember that the performance is just as important as the poem, and it's all theater. Curtis also gave me a list of slam poets to watch on YouTube to help me find my personal style and voice. And like any analyst worth her salt, that's exactly what I did.

Last week, I read my first original poems at the monthly storytelling session at the Stardust. I was nervous as all get-out, despite the fact I speak regularly in front of hundreds of people as part of my day job. But this...this was far more personal. I didn't create Mexico's drug war; I just help make sense of it for other people. But poems? These come from a place inside me no one else can see. Exposing that to dozens of (mostly) strangers is a brutal experience, for both newbie and veteran alike.

Ready with my 'Red Light' poem!
Fortunately, my first poems made public were well-received. I decided that the style I felt most comfortable with was my personal experience injected with humor, sarcasm, and a few doses of sexy. I don't have any anger associated with having MS, but it follows me around everywhere I go; it made perfect sense to have that as a backdrop for my work. I like challenging people to think about things from a different perspective, I like shocking people, and I like making them uncomfortable. I don't know if I accomplished any of the three, but the feedback was good enough to give me the courage to enter my first-ever poetry slam competition the next night at Milk Bar.

This slam was a bit different in that it was a team competition. I threw myself into the "mound" of available poets for four captains to choose from. Luckily, my VERY gifted poet friends Troy and Kira decided to take a chance on a newbie and picked me for their team, along with my new friend AC. As we got closer to the start of the slam, the venue grew crowded. The energy was amazing; all these people jammed into a tiny bar to cheer and jeer people reading...three-minute poems! It was insane.

Conspiring with the team
Our team did very well as the first three rounds progressed. AC did amazing in the villanelle round, Troy killed it with his idea for a group piece in the cake vs. pie round (yes, you read that correctly; the war between cake and pie in these circles is a very serious affair), and Kira left us all on the floor with her incredibly searing dis poem. The last round was the red light round--where you read a poem about an experience at a red light or stop sign. I was the last poet to read that night, and I was picked to go after a masterful poet who had read a gripping piece about the experience of not interacting with a homeless man. How in the hell do I follow that with what I think is a fluff piece I wrote just that morning???

I'm happy to say that it ended up working out. My poem was about a woman who pulls up next to a man at a stop light, and in that 120-second space has a stream of consciousness relationship with him from start to finish. I tried to make it funny, and I hoped the audience--especially women--could relate. Somehow it connected with the audience and the judges, and despite a 3-second time penalty, my marks were high enough to help put our slam team in the winner's circle! It took a couple of hours for the adrenaline rush to subside, and I couldn't help going over every amazing little detail of that night--the great people, the poems, the emotions, the good-natured ribbing, and the energy.
A great slam with great friends!

When I woke up the next morning, all I wanted to do was write more poems. I posted some funny meme on Facebook about a tree getting revenge through paper cuts, and Curtis immediately challenged me to write a persona poem about being a tree. Done! The next slam I'm eligible to compete in is on February 11, and my set is ready to go. But does this newfound ease for writing slam-length poems mean I'm a bona fide poet???

I'm still not sure. Does putting thoughts and feelings into some kind of rhyming structure on paper make you a poet? Do you have to read it aloud, or get paid to write it to be a "real" poet? Do you have to use the audience as a therapist and bare your heart and soul with every reading? I just started doing this a couple of months ago, and my team slam victory aside, I'm a big believer in paying dues. I long to hear more poems, I long to write more slam poems, and I long to compete with myself (more so than other poets) to get better at it. I feel very strange putting myself in the same category as these verbal masters. But I'll hang around for as long as they'll let me :).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Whining in a Wheelchair Literally Gets You Nowhere

Normally when I read blog posts or news stories about disabled individuals who have somehow made headlines, they're inspiring or uplifting in nature. But every so often, I read a story that really pisses me off. I mean...REALLY. I'll elaborate.

I'm pretty proud of my independence, and granted, not everyone in a wheelchair has the same physical capabilities I still have to move around, travel, and get things done. But one thing I definitely don't have is a sense of entitlement attached to my MS or accompanying disability. Keep that in mind as I tell you this story.

Model Chelsea Jay
Chelsea Jay is a gorgeous 24 year-old fashion model who lives in the United Kingdom (UK). Recently she was asked to speak on a panel at The Clothes Show, an annual consumer exhibition that was taking place in Birmingham, England. The panel was about diversity in fashion, where she was planning on advocating for the inclusion of more disabled models in the fashion business. Ok...good deal. For the record, she uses a wheelchair because she has a rare condition called POTS where she passes out if she tries to stand up.

The platform at The Clothes Show
From her statement, her Twitter posts, and a post on The Mighty website about the panel, here's what I gather happened. Chelsea showed up to the panel, which was scheduled for 3:15pm, at 3:15pm. The panel had started early without her (ostensibly at 3:05pm). She noticed right away that no ramp had been set up to get her on the stage/platform, which was 15 inches off the ground. Seeing all this, apparently all she did was leave and tweet that she was "humiliated" by the experience.

“The fact that I was there to talk about disability inclusion in fashion, at a fashion event that excluded me, is laughable, but is not a joke,” Jay said in a statement. “It’s real life and it’s reality to so many disabled people every single day… Sadly, the Clothes Show has just perfectly highlighted the struggles I have had for the three years I’ve been campaigning for this.”

The Clothes Show responded to the incident in a statement (provided to The Mighty) that explained the lack of ramp was due to "genuine human error" and it could not be provided on time. They also said they had tried multiple times to contact Chelsea directly to apologize, but she had not responded. They then took to social media to apologize to her. Click HERE to read the full story on The Mighty just in case I'm leaving anything out.

I'm #sorrynotsorry, but I have to call some serious shenanigans here. To caveat, I understand this happened in the UK and not the US, so some of my comments may or may not be relevant or actionable--but I'm going to make them anyway. First, I'm a professional public speaker, and never in a million years would I show up to a panel at a conference right when it's about to start. Conference organizers ALWAYS want you there at least 30-45 minutes before the start to go over logistics (DUH) and know that everyone is where they're supposed to be. I'm not saying starting ten minutes early when one of your speakers is absent is OK, but she should have arrived earlier if that was possible. A LOT of things might have been prevented or resolved.

Second, hotels and conference centers can't always guarantee that a ramp is going to be there for disabled speakers when they need it. They try, but it doesn't always happen. This is why, as a disabled speaker who is not "the norm," you always have to have a back-up plan, or be prepared to adapt and overcome! So the ramp wasn't there. Big deal! Chelsea just snuck out in silence, tweeting that she was humiliated and blaming The Clothes Show for representing all that was wrong with discrimination against the disabled. Seriously?!?

I say that Ms. Jay is everything that's wrong with people--NOT just those in wheelchairs--who don't speak up and work to find a solution instead of just slipping away and becoming a victim. Why didn't she find someone in charge as soon as she arrived? Why didn't she ask if she could just speak from in front of the platform (which was NOT that high) instead of on it? Why didn't she ask if she could just be lifted by two helpful people onto and off the platform? (This may have been a legal liability issue in the UK, but you don't know unless you ask). I'll tell you, if I want people to hear my message, I WILL find a way to get it out there, ramp or no ramp. And I have no doubt in my mind that the conference organizers would have bent over backwards to help her find a solution.

Another thing that really bothers me is the fact she rebuffed all attempts by The Clothing Show to contact her and apologize. They were earnest enough to take to social media to do it, for goodness sakes! If you feel wronged or slighted or discriminated against (even when you're really not), at least give the alleged offender the opportunity to make things right. in the US, those of us in mobility devices have it easy compared to other countries, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are very few places I can't get into, and those are usually places that are historic, or just older than the ADA requirements for buildings that need to be retrofitted. But the ADA doesn't grant me the right to be indignant or humiliated when the logistical chips don't fall my way for circumstances out of anyone's control. Ms. Jay needs to save her indignant righteousness for a situation where she really is being discriminated against, or else she risks ALL of us being looked at like entitled whiners who just happen to be in wheelchairs (instead of just 20-something Millennials). This incident posed a minor problem that had multiple solutions, and while I admire Chelsea's advocacy efforts, she's going to need thicker skin and more than an ounce of resolve to get her through the challenges that will face her in the UK in the years to come.

I also don't like that her response to the lack of a ramp was so passive-aggressive in nature. What is she teaching other people about those of us in mobility devices? That we're slaves to every inconvenience the logistical gods place in front of us? Sometimes we are, but usually we're not. That we're weak and helpless, and can't get things done through leadership and politeness? That we have no problem being advocates for others, but can't advocate for ourselves? No way. Those of you who know me know I have zero expectations of people or places when it comes to accommodating me because I am not "the norm." That is a reality that I embrace. So when people DO reach out to help me--as I'm sure they would have done with Chelsea--it makes me happy to accept. With a gracious smile, of course :).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Why Are People Pissed at Kylie Jenner in a Wheelchair???

Today I was going through my Facebook feed, and I saw the most interesting post from a website called "The Mighty." Their folks write or repost articles about different disability-related issues, and the message is generally positive and empowering. But the headline I saw today was bizarre, and more than slightly intriguing: "Kylie Jenner's Wheelchair Photo Shoot Sparks Outrage."

For those of you who haven't heard of Kylie Jenner, she's 18 years old and the daughter of Kris and Bruce Jenner--who is now famously known as "Caitlyn" after he decided to become a woman. Kris Jenner is the matriarch of the Kardashian clan, a family best known for their reality shows and generally being otherwise completely useless to the human race. Kylie is very pretty, and she does a lot of modeling work. She is also no stranger to controversy, but this latest one is a bit of a riot.

So Kylie recently did a photo shoot for Interview magazine, which also has a history of controversial covers and photos. Kylie is on the cover of the December issue wearing not too much, in a brief black patent leather strapless body suit with some high heels. That wasn't the big deal. What set a lot of people off was the fact she was sitting and posing in a gold wheelchair. Here's the cover photo:

Wheelchair users everywhere took to Twitter, Facebook, email, pen and paper, and comment sections to say how offended they were about the photos. Long story short, they felt it was an insult to the disabled to show able-bodied Kylie in that kind of outfit supposedly debasing herself with a designer wheelchair as a prop. Here are some of the comments:

Emily Smith Beitiks, associate director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability added to CNN. “People with disabilities are already seen as powerless, and this just reinforces that. I think she’s literally being objectified made to look like a sex doll, and this wheelchair is an added element of passivity they’re adding on.”

Kayla Whaley, editor of the blog Disability in Kidlit, told CNN she would like to see a formal apology. “I’m constantly infantilized because of my wheelchair, denied even the idea of sexuality and agency let alone desirability,” Whaley later tweeted. “But Kylie? She gets paid and praised to wear the shallowest possible illusion of my disability for a few hours. The wheelchair is a prop to her. It’s my mobility, my freedom, my agency, my identity, my reality. A reality I’m often despised for.”

What the hell?!? OK, I get that a lot of wheelchair users out there are in worse shape than me, both physically and (clearly) mentally/emotionally. But now I'm curious why my experience with an electric scooter and power wheelchair have been so different. I've never been "infantilized," and I've certainly never been "denied the idea of sexuality." People look me in the eye all the time. When I travel for work, I dress in pretty/sexy professional dresses - usually from White House | Black Market, and pointy-toed flats. I even did a photo shoot with a formal strapless gown and sexy jeans IN MY POWER CHAIR, and ON PURPOSE. Here's one of those photos:

I hate to break it to all the people commenting on the Interview cover, but I'm definitely not feeling infantilized, and I don't lack for attention from men just because I'm in my scooter at a conference. Why? Because of how I choose to present myself and the attitude/confidence I put forward. All women have self-image issues regardless of whether or not they're in a wheelchair, and I completely understand that a mobility device exacerbates those issues for a lot of people. But YOU have control over the image you present! You can't control how people perceive you, but you can sure empower yourself to make that chair appear invisible to the people you're with. And to the lady who said the wheelchair was her identity? There are so many things wrong with that. I choose to make damn sure my MS and my power chair are NOT my identity. My identity is my family, my motherhood, my knowledge and skills, my personality...not the physical manifestation of an effing disease.

Here's what Interview had to say. “At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions,” the magazine told E! News on Tuesday. “The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.” They continued, Our intention was to create a powerful set of pictures that get people thinking about image and creative expression, including the set with the wheelchair. But our intention was certainly not to offend anyone.”

A huge inspiration for me has been a TV show (since cancelled) on The Sundance Channel called Push Girls. It's a reality show that follows the lives of five gorgeous women in Los Angeles...who are all paraplegics in wheelchairs. Here's a shot of the cast:

I know, right? They're freakin' gorgeous! And physically they're all in worse shape than I am because they can't feel or move their legs at all. They date, they work, and the most "spirited" of the bunch clearly has no problem finding a hook-up. I actually interviewed one of them - Mia - for my new book proposal, and I'm tempted to call her to ask what she thinks of the cover. Something tells me Mia would wonder what the big freakin' deal is.

Not only am I not offended by the cover, but I like it. I couldn't care less about Kylie Jenner, but given my own experiences working to dress and feel sexy in an electric scooter, I think it's pretty cool to see this as maybe a way of breaking the stereotype of women in wheelchairs. How many times have we seen models role playing for a photo shoot? But you never read about teachers or wild animal experts or boardroom executives complaining that they don't really do those things! Grrr! Mind you, it takes a lot of work to offend me, but if you're taking this photo as a slam to the wheelchair bound, then you need to lighten up. And maybe take some inspiration and buy a pair of heels you'll never walk in, but will make you feel pretty damn hot :).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day Six: The Swell, The Peaks, Things Gained and Lost

Today was the last day of my trip through the canyons of Arizona and Utah. But my 5-hour drive from Moab to the Salt Lake City airport wasn't going to be boring--just the opposite, as Utah still had more in store for me before our time together was up.

Cut through the San Rafael Reef
The roughly 150-mile stretch of I-70 between Green River and Salina, Utah contains some of the most breathtaking scenery you'll ever see. Around mile marker 129 you'll find something called the San Rafael swell, where hundreds of millions of years ago, geological forces pushed up a great mass of earth. Over the eons, parts of the earth came crashing back down onto the salt flats and created these canyons and buttes and outcroppings.

In that area there is also a 30 mile-long wall called the San Rafael Reef. From what I was able to read at one of the scenic overlooks, Spanish explorers took great care to go around this wall because it was just impassable. Then finally in 1970, with the help of generous amounts of TNT, civil engineers were able to blast a narrow passage through the reef for I-70 to pass through. Just on the other side of that passage, I was able to get a decent photo of the Swell.

San Rafael Swell
Salt Flats in UT western desert
Although I wasn't able to get off the paved/beaten track to see them, I was driving right through the middle of dinosaur territory. There are petrified dinosaur tracks all over the place in this area, as well as petroglyphs created by the Fremont indian tribes and the Snake Clans. Even more scenic were the Coal Cliffs to the north, striped in shades of copper, pink, and tan.

As I approached Salina and the turn to the north, I entered Fishlake National Forest and another abrupt change of scenery and weather. I was surrounded by pine forests and snow-covered mountains--many well over 11,000 feet in elevation, and the mist was releasing a fine drizzle. All of this lifted on the other side of the range when I turned to the north in Salina. The sun came out and I was treated to views of the valley: snow-blanketed open fields to my left, low foothills to the west, and majestic mountains to the east (the San Pitch range) and north--my first hint of the upcoming Wasatch Range outside of Salt Lake City.

View of Mt Nebo from I-15
It's fitting that Mt Nebo--the highest peak in the Wasatch Mountains at just under 12,000 feet--was my send-off, reminding me of how small I am, and how small we all are, in the grand scheme of things. During a five-hour drive and a four-hour flight, you have a LOT of time to reflect, think, and process. What started out as a bucket-list trip ended up being in large part a spiritual journey. I gained so much understanding and peace being out in the middle of nowhere by myself, and I left a lot of things behind. I left my guilt in a darkened room filled with sage smoke in Sedona. I literally buried my sadness--and hope--in the depths of Monument Valley and prayed the giants above and around me would keep their watch over me. I broke off a piece of my heart and left it peacefully in Moab, knowing I would be okay if it stayed there forever.

Six days, four states, 432 pictures, 1132 miles of driving, and one electric scooter. There were times when I went almost an hour without seeing another vehicle, and even though I've never been so physically isolated in my life, I never once felt alone or lonely. I was never scared or worried. Some people will call me reckless for embarking on this trip by myself when I can barely walk, let alone physically manage in a major crisis. Others will think I'm brave for even attempting this journey. I felt neither of those things.

What I did feel was joy, peace, and contentment. Many tears flowed during this trip, but not from sadness. It was from the release that comes from true healing, and letting go of toxic emotions and things in your life that make you unhappy. I'm not saying you need to crawl into a cave for a week to do this--hell, my idea of "roughing it" is a night in a Motel 6--but there's a lot to be said for immersing yourself, and only yourself, among some of the most overwhelming things the Earth has to offer and pondering just where you fit into all of it. I'm so lucky that having MS didn't prevent me from having this experience. And if *I* can do this alone, so can any able-bodied person. You have no freakin' clue how much time you have left. Figure out what you need to let go, where you need to be to do it, and just. Freaking. Do it. There's no time like the present ;).

Canyonlands Adventure Day Four: Four on Four, Motoring to Moab

My last Monument Valley sunrise
This morning after breakfast, I said one last goodbye to Monument Valley before heading out to my next destination. The sunrise and ensuing morning light was even more glorious than yesterday, if that's even possible. One of the biggest lessons I've learned on this trip so far is that the best things may have actually passed you by, so I'm always looking behind me (as safely as possible) to examine the new view. Once again, Monument Valley didn't disappoint. It's stupefying to see the most gorgeous panoramas of your life through both your windshield and your rear view mirror at the same time.

Wash at VotG's entrance
Fortunately yesterday's brutal winds died down and the temperature rose a bit to make things much more comfortable. My plan after leaving Monument Valley was to visit Valley of the Gods about 30 miles to the northeast, which is supposedly a mini/compact version of the former. Unfortunately, as soon as I pulled into the packed-clay loop off the highway, I read a sign that said "Wet roads are impassable," or something along those lines. Then I looked in front of me at the wash that was...wet. Honestly, it was only a couple of puddles, but I had no idea how deep they were. And I was in a rental sedan. Nonononononono.

The view from Four Corners
So on I went towards Four Corners monument. I had read in some online guide that the area surrounding the monument was isolated and bleak. It is definitely isolated, but I actually enjoyed the scenery; definitely a change from what I had been seeing the previous two days. Lots of rolling grassy hills, with scattered rock outcroppings and the snow-capped La Sal mountains in the distance to the north.

Four Corners Monument, AZ/NM/CO/UT
Feet in four states!
I knew the monument itself wasn't going to be much to behold, but it was actually quite nice. It was a small concrete plaza with the metal circular marker in the center. There were about four rows of circular amphitheater-style seating, for what is anyone's guess. This place is in the middle of nowhere and I can't imagine what would draw so many people there that those benches would be filled. But, whatever. There were about a dozen or so people milling around, which is a dozen more people than I expected to be out here in November. This is NOT a destination attraction, lol...people come here like me because it's sort of on the way to...somewhere else :). Anyway, I went to the marker and took the requisite photo of my feet in four states at once. I bought a little souvenir from one of the 40 or so vendor stalls that was actually occupied, and then I was on my way to Moab.

La Sal mountains and canyons
Wilson's Arch
The roughly 2 ½ hour jaunt between Four Corners and Moab started out pretty blah. However, after an hour I was rewarded with one of those surprise-over-the-summit moments. One of the strangest juxtapositions I've ever seen was laid out before me--red rock canyons in the foreground, and huge snow-capped mountains with pine forest creeping up the sides in the background. I didn't take this photo (once again, no safe place to stop for a photo, but it will give you an idea of my view for the next hour until I pulled into Moab. I was also able to pull over and take a picture of this gorgeous arch.

Uranium Reduction Co. mill, c. 1960
I'll admit, I knew very little about Moab, Utah before arriving here today. I only knew it was located in the Utah canyonlands, was very scenic, and was a mecca for mountain bikers. Wanting to learn everything I could about each place I visited, I discovered that Moab was actually considered the "uranium capital of the world" in the 1950s after the mineral was discovered flourishing in mines here. Due to the "popularity" of nuclear weapons at the time and the Cold War, the town boomed and the population grew by 500 percent in a very short time. After the uranium mines closed in the 1980s, everyone left and much of the town shuttered up. Now it makes most of its money from tourism.

I got to my hotel relatively early, so I plan to just relax tonight. I've been fighting altitude headaches since I got here, but it's a weird conundrum; I can help myself by drinking a lot of water, but I'm spending my days driving for many hours at a time with no bathrooms en route. So, I suffer in silence and self-medicate with ibuprofen and caffeine. Now, time to write up an article for Breitbart Texas, finish reading Childhood's End (the miniseries on SyFy starts on Dec. 14!!), and fall asleep while watching HGTV. Bliss...;)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day Two: Spirits, Snow, and Surprises

I started out today a bit anxious and nervous. Not exactly the way to feel on vacation, right? But I have my reasons. I'll tackle one at a time.

As some of you may know from a recent blog post, I've been through the emotional ringer in the last year. I came through it in one piece, and a better person for it. But the healing process that has to take place doesn't happen overnight. I'd like to think I'm a fairly self-aware and introspective person, but I never turn down the opportunity to bring in an outside perspective or explore an alternative method for self-discovery and healing. So, I decided to do a one-hour energy realignment session (and a massage afterwards) at my hotel spa before checking out.

I was anxious going into it because (a) I had never done it before and didn't know what to expect, and (b) I had no idea what condition I was going to be in when I finished. My therapist/healer was a native Apache with Mexican heritage, and she was AMAZING; it was honestly one of the most profound experiences of my life. I won't go into what she did or how it went because, well...I really don't want to. But I will say that I think it's important for people to open their minds to things that explore the spirit. She was Catholic just like I am, and religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. This was one of the reasons I came back to Sedona, and I'll never forget this visit.
One of my last views of Sedona

So now comes the nervousness. It's snowy and windy today--which I totally expected and was prepared for, but now I have to drive for five hours in it through very remote parts of northern Arizona. After my massage, I checked out, loaded up the car, and...the sun came out!! So of course I had to take advantage and take a few more pictures in Sedona before heading north ;).

Oak Creek Canyon
After that, I had to make the decision of playing it safe by taking the interstate, or hoping the snow would stay light and fluffy (i.e. not slippery/icy) and take scenic route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon. I took a chance and decided on the latter; and BOY, and I ever glad I did. That was frankly the most awe-inspiring 20 miles I've ever driven. Oak Creek is a long, windy, and narrow canyon with a river at the bottom, a pine forest in the middle, and towering red rock cliffs climbing to the top. Because of the snow and fog, the cliffs were partly shrouded and I felt like I was being watched by gargantuan ghosts the whole way. Fall just came to Sedona, so at least half of the trees were a very bright golden yellow, forming a canopy over my car. I wish I had taken the picture you see to the left, but I had to steal it to give you an idea of what I saw, since there was no safe place to stop and take a picture.

Painted Desert
Northern Arizona badlands (Mars)
By the time I topped out at the end of the canyon, the snow was falling more heavily and the roads were very wet. Fortunately, I made it to Flagstaff without incident, where...the sun came out. Again. Yay!!! The first hour north was pretty boring, but soon the surprises began. It was one of those situations where every 15 minutes I would crest a large hill and see a completely different landscape than the one I just left...along with a different form of precipitation. First I was reintroduced to the Painted Desert, which I first visited during my solo Grand Canyon trip in 2000. The colors are pastels and much more subdued than the bright, deep reds and greens of Sedona, but gorgeous and inspiring nonetheless. Again, I stole this photo because I couldn't stop anywhere. After that, I crested a hill and saw the place where they had to have filmed 'The Martian,' I kid you not. For a solid 20 minutes you would have had to work VERY hard to convince me I wasn't on Mars. It was completely surreal, and I deeply regret not being able to stop and photograph it.

Entrance to Monument Valley
Entrance to Monument Valley
But at last, after sun, snow, rain, snow, sun, snow, and rain came...Monument Valley. And as luck would have it, I was arriving about half an hour before sunset. I promise you there are a LOT of people cursing the woman in the silver Nissan Altima because I pulled over at least every ten minutes to take another photo. #sorrynotsorry. There were a few puffy clouds in the sky and the angle of the setting sun made the scattered spires before the entrance to the actual Navajo Park look exactly like they do in the movies...but better. Then add the fine layer of snow and...well, here are some pictures :).

Entrance to Monument Valley
Tomorrow my plan is to hire a Navajo guide with a 4x4 vehicle and let him educate me while driving me around the park to get some great photos. Technically, anyone can drive the 17-mile loop through the park, but it's packed dirt and tends to get nasty when it's wet. We picked up a couple of inches of snow tonight, and that crap is going to be melting all morning--yuck :(. My Altima will be toast in that mess, and my guide will be pleased that I won't even want to get out of the car. I'm also excited to be woken up by the sun. I'm staying at the View Inn--the only hotel inside the park (Navajo run, of course) and aptly named because every single room has its sliding doors and patio facing the park...with three huge spires only a few hundred yards away.'s going to be an epic sunrise :).

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Canyonlands Adventure Day One: Sedona, Sprinkles, and a Scooter

Red Rocks State Park
Welcome to the first installment of my trip diary! More or less on a whim, I decided about two weeks ago to knock yet another item off my bucket list: Monument Valley, AZ/UT. I've wanted to visit Monument Valley for at least 15 years, if not longer, but it's not exactly the most convenient park in the country to visit. I knew if I wanted to see it, I'd need to make a longer trip out of it, so that's exactly what I did! Over the next six days, I'll start my journey in Phoenix, work my way through northern and northeastern Arizona, then scoot up eastern Utah to see some of the most incredible geology and topography this, this PLANET...has to offer.

View from Airport Mesa
This isn't my first solo trip to this area. About 15 years ago, I went to Sedona and the Grand Canyon on a solo trip and had a blast. However, I was very able-bodied back then. For this trip, I had to plan more carefully, and not just when it came to reserving handicap accessible rooms. I'll be driving through very remote areas on my own, so safety precautions are a must. My first accoutrement was a Spot GPS device and extra batteries. These are used mostly by hikers and bikers who travel into canyons and places with no cell phone reception. It allows the user to send an "I'm OK" message to cell phones and emails, and can also request emergency assistance using GPS satellites.

View from Boynton Canyon
My flight out of Orlando this morning was early, but fortunately uneventful. My scooter made it in one piece, and I had no trouble getting to the car rental place on Hertz's accessible bus/shuttle. My "horse" for the week? A sleek-looking Nissan Altima, which is bound to get a few bumps and bruises on the undercarriage in the next several days, is my trusty steed and will hopefully keep me safe the whole way to Salt Lake City on Friday.

I knew the weather was going to be spotty today, but I was hoping for at least a little bit of sun. I got ten minutes worth all in all, but it was better then nothing. The endless on-and-off rain started on my way to Sedona, but there was enough dry time for me to get some good photos from the car. My first destination was the Upper Loop Road through Red Rocks State Park. It's not long, but offers spectacular views of the red rock formations Sedona is so well-known for. And the leaves!! The fall color change is happening everywhere here, which you wouldn't expect since the assumption is Sedona is just as dry a desert as the rest of Arizona (which is another misconception). Because it takes longer for things to turn colder here, the trees are really in peak color right now and almost exclusively yellow. It's gorgeous!

Cathedral Rock
Then it was off to Sedona proper, and drives to some of the famous rock formations that are said to be vortexes (Sedonans don't call them vortices, so I'm not flaking on my grammar) for energies rising up from the earth. If you've never heard of Sedona or been here, it's an ENORMOUS enclave and attraction for the more spiritually minded. I was able to see Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Chimney Rock. Sadly, Airport Mesa--the best sunset view in town--was mostly a bust due to the rain. However, I was soon rewarded during my final loop visit through Boynton Canyon. The sun actually came out for ten minutes! And I got a rainbow! Very cool indeed.
The result of a 10-minute window of sun!

The sun sets around 5pm now, so it was time to head to my hotel for dinner at the bar, some blogging, and an early bedtime. Tomorrow is going to be an even yuckier weather day, with temperatures dropping and maybe some snow in the morning. Which is why I'm getting pampered at the hotel spa before driving through all that crap to get to Monument Valley ;).

More to come tomorrow on Day Two!