Soap Thief!

Okay,  I admit it:  I am a  thief.  Every time I stay in a motel, hotel or guest house, I take the shampoo, conditioner, soap and body lotion.  Fifty, maybe one hundred, bottles and bars of individually packaged cleansing agents — ranging from high-end organic to cheap chemical solutions I would personally never use — fill my luggage and overflow into my Jeep.  I even take the no-name mouthwash.

Now you see it . . .

Sometimes I dream of displaying these items in my guest bathroom as I have seen my aunt Barb do with her soaps from Norwegian and Finnish hotel chains.  Then I remember I live in a 500 square-foot, one bathroom apartment in New York City.  Other times, I consider giving baskets as gift to friends who have too many bathrooms and not enough people to fill them.  But then who would really appreciate a bathing basket of Quality Inn and Motel 8 shampoos and soaps?

In reality most of these hermetically sealed soaps and shot-glass sized bottles end up under my sink in a plastic shopping bag.  There they rest, along with assorted other items I rarely, if ever, use.  Why then am I collecting them?

The best answer I am able to provide is this: I want to feel as though I am getting my money’s worth.  If I spend $59, $89, $109 or more on a room for the night, I want to believe that I maximizing my money.  If all I do it sleep and shower, I think I am not getting the most out of the situation because I then have to spend money on food, soap and other essentials.

Now you don't.
(Although, I leave the shower cap)

If, however, in addition to resting my weary bones, I get free breakfast (and take extra for lunch), take a dip in the pool, maybe get a cookie at check in, well then, I think I have gotten a deal more for the same amount of money.  “Deal” being the key word.

So that’s the rationale, but here’s the problem: these bottles and bars are just more junk I really don’t need.  And besides, I consume too much as it is.  The last things the landfills need are more tiny soap bottles, wrappers or used tidbits from my travels.

Maybe instead of taking these things at the conclusion of a stay, my practice should be to leave an extra soap or two at the next few motels.  At the very least, it might amuse the cleaning staff and maybe even save the next person from a life of soap thievery.

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Houston, We Have a Problem

A week before I arrive at my uncle’s house in the Houston area, a cousin posts to my Facebook page: “How do you look in camo?”  I don’t know what she’s asking about—hunting? guns?—so ignore the message.  Maybe I should have done an Internet search.

Camouflage Pants

My father’s family is German and they drink – and celebrate life – like The People.  Oh, and apparently they are like Hobbits when it comes to holiday meals.  I arrive the week after Thanksgiving to my Uncle Ken and his wife, Carola, preparing “Second Thanksgiving.”  Now, lest I be seen as judging here, let me inform you I am all about this new holiday.  I will eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy any time of year!

My uncle and cousins live scattershot in the northern suburbs of Houston (although one cousin recently moved to Western Massachusetts, to the chagrin of some of his family).  However, they are actually native Californian born and raised, just like my dad, on the beaches of San Diego (though full disclosure, my uncle is . . . [wait for it] . . . a New Yorker!).  They have adapted quite well to Texas, which, incidentally, was a country before it joined the United States.  This fact explains much about the state and is something, I suspect, many residents might regret.  But I digress.

Sara, the cousin who Facebooked me, greets me on the back patio of Ken’s house with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  “Do you wonna ryde?” she asks placing emphasis on the last word.

“Ryde?” I ask back, searching the other cousins’ faces for help.  None offered.

“You’re in Texas, boy, do yooo wonna RYDE?!”

I have no idea what she is talking about, but figure this city boy is up for whatever my Texas cousins can dish out.  “Hell, yeah!” I say back.

“He wantsta ryde, David” she says to her husband, a tall Wisconsin transplant.

“Well, then, we’ll have to get him some camo,” David says back to his wife.  Then to me, “Do you have any camo?”

“Camo?” I’m starting to feel like a parrot.

“Camo, boy, camouflage clothing.”

“Why are you referring to me as ‘boy’?” I wonder to myself.  Then as if seeking to impress, I respond, “Why yes, I have a camouflage hat . . . and gloves!  Are we going hunting?”

The cousins snicker at my response.

David says, “No, we are not going hunting, but our 10 year-old daughter bagged her first boar just last week. Show him the picture honey.”

A blonde-haired small person walks up and shoves a phone in my face, “Here.  See?” she tilts her head to one side and smiles.  There on this pre-tween’s cell phone is a picture of her with a dead pig, tongue hanging out to the ground.  The little blonde one’s eyes are large and wide, and she grins from ear to ear.  Now I’m a little nervous.

Dinner is an opportunity to catch up with this side of the family whom I have not seen for a while.  It amazes me that time goes by so quickly and then—pow!—we’re all decades older.

My uncle asks, “What do you want to see in Houston?”

“I plan to attend a service at Lakewood Church tomorrow morning. I hear it’s the largest in the country.”  Everyone at the table knows the church . . . and has an opinion about the preacher.

“Oh, that’s Joel Osteen’s church.  It’s nyce, but a little too New Agey for my taste,” Carola comments.  “I need God in my church.”  She and my uncle suggest another church, in their neighborhood, that is like Lakewood.

After dinner, the cousins and I head over to Sara and David’s house a few miles away, cruising in a literal caravan of SUVs.  Sara rides with me to ensure I make it.  She comments on the way, “I’m glad it rained.  It will keep the dust down tonight.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a wide smile on her face.  “The entire state has been in a drought for most of summer and fall.”

At the house, chaos ensues.  Sara sets about finding outfits for the gang, giggling to herself the whole time.  David sets the kids up making Rice Crispy Treats, although they would rather “ryde” with the adults.  “Kids don’t ryde after dark.”  I pet the dogs as I watch the whole process progress.

All Terrain Vee-hicles

Once the Treats are setting in the fridge and the kids are set up with a movie, cartoons, guns or something, David pulls out two All Terrain “Vee-hicles,” also known as four wheelers, out of their garage.  These are what we will be “rydin’” tonight.

Sara secures enough camouflage clothing for everyone in the party to be dressed head-to-toe in the stuff.  With each layer I pull on, she chuckles, points, and then takes a picture.  First the pants, “Oh, my gawd, look at our cousin everyone.  I have to take a picture.”  Snap.  Next, the jacket.  “Ha ha ha” she laughs.  “Now look at him!”  Snap snap. “I’m uploading this shit to Face-book.”

Dressed and ready to go, I climb onto one of the ATVs with Sara in front, driving.  The whole scene feels like a combination of Deliverance and National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, but all that changes as we hit the trail.  The quads are great fun; in no time we are splashing through mud puddles two feet deep and ducking under branches.  If we stop suddenly, my helmet slams into the back of Sara’s like a cartoon.  We both laugh.

After a time, Sara asks, “Are you ready to DRYVE?”

“Drive?  Me?  Yes!” I yell back through the dust-covered helmet.  She jumps on back and, I swear, crosses herself.

Driving an ATV is an interesting experience.  The brake is where you think it would be, by your foot.  However, the gas “pedal” is under your thumb on the steering column.  It takes some getting used to, and the first ten to fifteen minutes Sara and I crash helmets constantly.

All Geared Up! (Before the Mud)

Sara is intent on getting me stuck in the mud.  “It’s a right of passage,” she yells in my ear as we dive into a deep puddle, which nearly covers the four wheeler to the mud flaps.  I lift my legs to avoid getting my boots wet.  She laughs.

At some point, the other ATV with Dave and cousin Kimberly, comes to a complete stop.  They are at the edge of what appears to be a vast interior mud puddle.  It takes up the entire width of the dirt path and rounds the next two corners.  Dave gets off his machine and approaches on foot.

Seeing this, Sara jumps off the back of the ATV I’m driving and into the driver’s seat of the other one.  She guns her thumb and the quad rushes headlong into the brown muck.  Mud and water fly in all directions.  Dave and I watch as Sara and Kimberly bob left, then right.  They stop, apparently stuck, then get unstuck.  Steam rises from their engine, but they make it to the other side.  Sara gets off, removes her helmet and lights a cigarette.

Dave walks back to my quad and climbs on the back.  “Ok,” he says.  “Follow them exactly.”

“You want me to drive . . . through that?” I yell back.

“Yes, you can make it!” he says. “Gun it!”

I look at Sara who now has a camera in hand and push my thumb as hard as far as it will go.  The ATV jerks forward.  We leap into the puddle.  Dave’s helmet slams into mine.  The four wheeler sinks slightly, then gains traction.  Water and mud pour off the back wheels as we bob left, then right.

Then, just as Dave yells, “Keep gunning it!” the machine sinks lower and stops moving forward.  “Reverse, hard!” Dave yells.  I do.  No movement.  Only mud and goop fly up—straight up—and rain down on us.  I notice Sara jumping up and down on the opposite shore while the flash from her camera lightens the dark night.

“Again!” Dave yells.  I do with the exact same result – mud everywhere.  I feel it seeping into my boots and down my neckline.  He climbs off and we use a winch to pull the vehicle out of the mud.

Sara continues to laugh and snap pictures.  “I’m Facebooking this shit!” she says dragging on her cigarette.

Once on the other side, I laugh.  So does everyone in the quadravan (that’s a four-wheeler caravan).  It is one of those I-have-never-had-so-much-fun-in-my-life laughs.  You know the kind where you laugh so hard your stomach hurts and you can barely breathe.  “Let’s do it again!” Sara screams with her fists in the air.

“I have to go to church in the morning,” I say laughing.  We push on into the cold, muddy night.

Back at the house, well after midnight, I strip off my muck-covered gear and wonder if I will make it to Lakewood in the morning.  I am exhausted and filthy.  Mud has worked its way down the front of my clothes practically to my waistline.  Cold and smelly!  I strip, shower and head off to sleep in the 10-year-old’s bed (I feel for kids who have to give up their beds for guests).  That night I dream of dead pigs and mud.

Whiteout in the White Sands National Monument

From space, the White Sands National Monument looks like someone spilled WhiteOut on the the New Mexico map.  Up close, the sand is as white as snow and unlike anything I have seen in this country.  Dunes, twenty to thirty feet high, carve the landscape for as far as the eye can see.  This quickly becomes one of my favorite – and most surprising – places.

White Sand Dunes are, um, White

I arrive in the late afternoon at the Ranger’s Station to register for a campsite.  There are only ten primitive sites in the entire park.  A friendly Asian woman staffs the desk.  As I register she smiles and says, “It’s very cool out there.  Oh, and tonight, it’s going to be cold!”  I think to myself that rangers are like news reporters: they like to give bad news with a grin on their face.

She runs through some rules before issuing my camping permit:

“No fires in the dunes.  Please bring plenty of water.”

“Carry in and carry out whatever you need.”

“There are no toilets out there, so bring your own toilet paper.”

“Most people who get lost do so because they set out after dark, so if something happens, just stay put for the night, then make your way back in the morning.”

“What cell phone carrier do you have?” she asks.

“AT&T,” I reply.

“It won’t work out there,” she says.  “If you have an emergency, go to campsite 2, they have Verizon.  Don’t go to 5 – they’re German and their phones don’t work here.”

“I’ll be just fine,” I smile back at her.

“I’m sure you will,” she say as she closes the registration book . . . with a smile.

Camp 2 Neighbors

At the Backcountry Camping parking lot I repack for the night.  The campsite is only a one-mile hike, so I take only minimal gear: tent, sleeping bag, food, water and toilet paper.  I leave the Thermarest Pad, assuming the dune field is soft enough for sleeping.  As I hike, I begin to sweat.  The weight I have gained eating too many burritos and fast food hamburgers feels like steel bars around my midsection.

Campsite 4 is sandwiched in between two 30-foot white sand dunes.  The sun is low in the horizon and colored clouds make an appearance just above the mountains to the West.  I set up quickly, grab my camera and climb up the hillock to watch the sunset reflect off the gypsum.

For dinner I prepare Backcountry Pantry Teriyaki Chicken and Rice followed by freeze-dried spumoni ice cream, which sticks to my teeth in an un-ice-cream fashion.  Exhausted, I check the time to see if it’s anywhere close to bedtime.  5:54 pm.  I scan the sky. It’s dark, midnight dark, maybe my watch is wrong.  I crawl into the tent to rest my eyes.  I dream about magical creatures with bells.

Middle of the night:  I wake, cold and stiff from the hard sand.  “It must be 3 in the morning,” I think to myself.  “Perfect for night writing!” – the long exposure photos I enjoy taking.  I unzip my tent and crawl into the cool desert air.  I shiver, rub my arms fast, then pull on every layer of clothing I have: two sweatshirts and a thin Spring jacket.

Evening in the Dunes

At the top of the drift, I see Holloman Air Force Base shining brightly in the distance.  I snap a few pictures, but it’s too cold so I slide back down the dune to my tent.  Maybe I can get a couple more hours of rest before the sun comes up.  I look at my cell phone.  I was completely wrong about the time.  9:53 pm.  Damn, it’s going to be a long night!

3:00 AM: A chorus of amphibians outside my tent.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  I dream of toads dancing hand-in-hand in a circle around my campsite.  I unzip my tent and shine a light.  Nothing.  Silence.  I zip up and close my eyes.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  Their dancing resumes.  Maybe it’s a special ceremony.  Maybe I am the guest of honor.  Or perhaps the human sacrifice?  I snuggle into my sleeping bag.

5:00 AM: The amphibians have moved off in the distance – maybe onto another sacrifice.  I lay awake cursing the sand for jabbing my rib cage and thigh.  Turning on my back doesn’t help.  I unzip my tent and crawl into the freezing pre-dawn dunes.  The sky is changing color, ever so slightly.  What a wonderful time to snap photos!

I scramble to the top of the tallest sand pile.  “That would make a great shot,” I think to myself looking at the next dune.  I walk.  “That one has no footprints.”  I walk.  “That one is angled differently.”  I walk.  This goes on for some time and I chase the composition in my lens from dune to dune.  As the sun rises into the sky, I strip off one sweatshirt and tie it around my waist.

Time for breakfast!  Starving, sweaty and thirsty, I make my way back to my tent.  The dunes look different now.  Light changes their configuration.  The horizon is different too.  I walk.  And walk.

I don’t find my tent; it’s not where I placed it on the map in my mind.  The sand looks defiant now, angry.  I see one set of tracks leading in the opposite direction.  I compare my imprint – no match.  I follow them anyway.  Then, they fade away into the earth.

Dune Shadow Play

Next I find many tracks: bobcat, snake, barefoot person and hiking boot.  I mentally compare the night horizon with what I see in the distance now: a water tower, mountains, sand dunes.  Can’t figure it out.  I use my camera lens to scan.  I see four tents all set up in a row.  If I can make it there, I can trace the trail back to my tent.

Approaching, I see that they are not tents at all, but picnic shades.  No one here.  Dammit.  I curse the 275 square miles of white gypsum dunes that stand in between me, breakfast and hydration.  I climb again to scan the whiteout.  There I see my salvation: a trio several mounds away.   I practically fall down one hill and crawl up the next.  I come to a road – THE road – saved!  Except, I could be anywhere on a ten mile stretch.

I lunge towards the couple and their teenage daughter, whom I saw in my lens.

“Are you camping?” I ask, screaming “Help!” in my head.

“No,” they reply.  “Are you?”

“Yes, but I lost my tent.”

They laugh, looking at each other.  The daughter comments, “See mom and dad, we should have camped.  That’s how we get sunrise pictures of the dunes!”

“Did you get some good pictures?” she asks.

My mind races, “I’m completely fucking lost and first you laugh, then you ask if I got pictures?  Can’t you see I haven’t eaten anything this morning and have been without water?”  Then, I hear, “Yes, I got some great pictures” come out of my mouth.

“How long have you been lost?” the girl asks.

“Two days,” I lie, looking for a reaction.

Their eyes light up, “Two days?!”  There is the sympathy I seek.

“No, I’m joking.  Just since this morning.”

The group is of no help in figuring out where I am on the road or in the park.  They left their map in the car.

“Good luck!” they yell as I walk down yet another hill of white sand.

“Good luck?” I think to myself.  Good luck that I don’t find your car and have a sharp object in my pocket!

I strip off clothes and follow the road.  It doesn’t matter which direction I follow.  My stomach flip flops eating itself for sustenance.  I walk.  Then, a miracle.  My car!  Dusty – the amazing lesbian Jeep that has carried me thousands of miles.  True salvation!  Only, my keys are in the tent.  Dammit again!  But, at least I know where the tent is now.  Only a mile away.

Approaching my car, I hear “Gud mornink.”  A young couple is smoking by their black Ford 500, both dressed head-to-toe in black spandex.  I smile.

“Morning,” I reply.  These must be the Germans from Camp 5.

“Nice car,” I say.

“Ya, vee thought vee look like Men in Black,” they look at each other and laugh.

I nickname them Boris and Natasha.  I know they are not Russian, but the names seem to fit.  They are from Munich on a six-week US road trip.

“You must be from camp 5,” I say.

“Ya,” says Boris.

“Und yooo?” asks Natasha, blowing smoke over her shoulder.

“Camp 4, but I got lost this morning.”

They look at each other and laugh.  “How deed you git lost?  It’s only one-point-one miles to the camp,” Boris says with some authority.

“I was taking pictures of the dunes.”

“Oh, ya, vell, stay on da trail today!”  Boris says.

“Ya, on da trail,” Natasha adds for emphasis.

They puff on their cigarettes and laugh as I walk towards my breakfast in the sand.

Obviously, I find my way back to my tent, water and breakfast – freeze dried eggs and bacon.  After eating and hydrating, I consider my experience.  I determine it unwise to set out on foot without water, food, and car keys.  But, I also think that getting lost in the pursuit of such immense, otherworldly beauty is well worth the humiliation of a few snickering strangers!

The Fibitz Dune Tracks

Sedona: Does this Vortex Come in a Tablet?

“Do you know where this vortex thingy is?” a man asks heading up the red dirt trail.  “I think it’s up in that direction.  You’ll see a bunch of people meditating.”  I cough, then walk the other way.   “Oh, goody,” he says clutching a Canon Rebel and smiling at his female companion.

Energy Tourists at Boynton Canyon

Sedona, Arizona is a spiritual tourism mecca and one of those places that people say, “You must stop and see.”  I have come in search of energy.  More specifically, in search of the energy vortexes  said to be scattered around the area.  My visit comes at a time when I’m nursing a bad cold, complete with sneezing, fatigue, fever and cough.  I have three days to see four sites.  More than enough time if I can find the, uh, energy.

The problem in locating, precisely, these “vortexes of subtle energy” is that there are no x-marks-the-spot signs indicating “here is the vortex” or “this way to the energy.”  Instead, one must read online accounts and feel their way to the right place.  One website (John and Miki’s Metaphysical Site), the one I use to find the vortexes, says: “You’ll notice that the energy is strong as soon as you get out of your car” in certain areas.  “Strong” is a relative term.

Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock

The first vortex I assail is Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock, located on Route 89A to the west of town.  As instructed, I enter Crescent Moon Park, pay the $9.00 fee, and continue to the farthest point where I can park.  From there, I walk a short distance along Oak Creek through beautiful maple, juniper, sycamore and oaks trees.  Fall leaves are an intense golden yellow with splotches of orange and green.  On the path are pillars, six-inches to two-feet high, of smooth river rocks stacked precariously one on top of the other that people have carefully erected.  My cell phone abruptly stops functioning and turns off completely.  I click it on several times to no avail.

The website says this center “strengthens the feminine side” that exists in all spiritual beings.  I didn’t know that energy has gender, but I’m open to the idea.  As I walk, my heart beat increases, though I am not certain if it’s the DayQuil, extra weight I carry around my midsection, or the vortex.  The prominent emotion building in me is anger.  I scream, in my head, at the other tourists who linger in several landscape photos I wish to take.  My iPhone still will not click on.

I recenter myself – after all, this is a special place and I am trying to have a spiritual experience.  Breathing in the fresh air and scenic location, I build a small rock tower.  Not as nice or elaborate as some, but it adds to the multitude of altars.  I pray and set an intention to welcome more feminine energy into my life.  Then, I walk back the way I came.  Before making it back to my car, I notice a man sitting on a log.  He grumbles, then pushes over some of the rock pillars.  Apparently I am not the only one who feels anger here.

Boynton Canyon 

Sedona Road Runner

The next center I pay homage to is Boynton Canyon, northeast of Cathedral Rock about 4 miles.  In the parking lot, I notice “parking permit required” signs.  Other cars display papers in their windshields, and after minor investigation I see an automatic pay box where for $5 a day I can get a permit – credit cards accepted.  I hate being nickled and dimed, so grumble to myself while inserting my card.  Total amount to see the two energy sites is now $14.

I follow the Boynton Canyon Trail to Vista Trail, just a short walk.  Along the way, my cell phone, which I have clicked a few times, reboots itself.  I overhear someone comment, “I don’t know where this what-ever-it-is is, but let’s go this way.”  I go the opposite direction, not wanting my experience to be disturbed.

Juniper trees jut out of smooth red boulders.  A couple in front of me points out a roadrunner off in the distance.  On this trail, I notice a vibrational hum coming from the earth.  I hear it in other places, but it sounds deeper here.  The website, which I pull up on my iPhone, says this energy center helps “balance the masculine and feminine.”  Again I feel my heart beat faster as I approach the supposed site.

I never find what I consider the exact location of the vortex, but decide my visit here is complete after saying a short prayer in an area where others are praying, meditating and even napping.

Airport Vortex

View from Airport Vortext

The third vortex is due east of Boynton Canyon on Route 89A at Airport Road.  Up a short trail, the site overlooks the city of Sedona.  I see the same “permits required” signage, which makes my masculine blood boil.  Here I decide to use the same permit from the last location – and rush through the experience less I be caught.  Not until later, do I realize that the permits are good for all locations, all day.

Before walking into the area, I center myself to see if I can really feel the energy.  I’m expecting it to hit me like a tab of ecstasy or LSD.  It does not.  By now, I am exhausted from the short walks taken in the name of spiritual growth.  I pause, breath deeply, then walk 200 feet up the path to the overlook.  Other visitors surround me, meditating, talking, walking deep in thought.  Images of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead play in my head as someone shuffles by expressionless.

This location actually has a pile of rocks enclosed in a metal cage that appears to mark the spot.  Offerings – dollar bills, flowers, personal notes, pictures – are placed carefully in between the red stones and wire.  I consider reclaiming the dollar bills, but decide karma might not look so kindly on such an action.  I have nothing in my pockets but my phone and wallet.  I thumb through it for something to leave, but find nothing.  I offer another prayer and set another intention.

Once again I experience a light, rapid feeling in my chest – my heart center – sort of like a strong cup of Starbucks first thing in the morning.  Being that this is the third time in as many locales, I determine the experience must be due to the vortexes.  I meditate, finding a nice, smooth boulder on which to sit.  The few moments I spend are filled with incessant chatter . . . from my own head.

Bell Rock

Bell Rock, Sedona

The fourth and final vortex I visit is located south of town at a pull out just off Route 179.  Pulling into the parking lot, I leave the permit from the previous day on my dashboard hoping to skirt the $5 fee (which I do).  It means I have to rush through the vortex or risk a ticket should some meticulous cop cruise the lot.

Bell Rock is a short, beautiful hike to a very “Sedona” place.  It overlooks a large bell-shaped geological formation covered in smooth red boulders and juniper trees.  The website says of finding the specific location: “Notice the twisted Juniper trees.”  I see branches twisting on themselves in a circular fashion as if growing in a slight whirlwind.  People are abundant in this location.  I notice tourists with cameras, maps, and a familiar look in their eyes – almost as if they have just spotted big game on safari.

This vortex supposedly strengthens all three of the previous areas: feminine, masculine, and the feminine/masculine balance.  I don’t notice much in this place – maybe because I haven’t paid my fair share of parking or maybe because the DayQuil is just kicking in.  Either way, I pause, then say a prayer for the land and breathe in the fresh air, red rocks, trees and land.

I come to the conclusion that feeling energy in each of the locations is nothing like drugs.  In most cases it is not even as powerful as a cup of coffee.  But, if I am willing to pause, listen and breathe, I might notice something just below the surface of perception.

Before I leave town, I catch up with my new friend, Malaika, the Australian/vegetarian/dance instructor I met in Oregon.  She has spent a month in Sedona – full of adventure – and is about to head off to Florida in a van she bought for $4500.  We review her and my adventures, misadventures, love, and loss on the road. It’s fun to compare notes.  We agree to meet along the way, perhaps for lunch in Austin or a swamp tour in Louisiana.

Wagging Tails at Taliesin West

I don’t have much scheduled in Phoenix after my time at St. Mary’s Food Bank and know little about the city.  To find activities, I Google search “Top 10 Things To Do in Phoenix.”  On the fourth page of the list on some website, I spy a short blurb about Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright estate to the North of here.  I have never visited a Wright house – and love the Guggenheim in NYC – so figure it would be worth a trip.

Taliesin West in the Hills

I arrive in the late afternoon, intent on capturing the right light in photos.  Tours are required; no one is allowed to wander around the home unescorted.  A Brooklyn native working the ticket counter assumes I am with the man in front of me and offers two options. “You can take a 90-minute Highlights tour leaving in 5 minutes or a 60-minute tour leaving in 45 minutes.”  It’s a no brainer. Both the man in front of me and I take the earlier tour.

We each reach for our wallets.  He buys two tickets with an American Express Black Card.  When I try to pay for my own ticket, the woman comments, “Oh, you’re not TOGETHER?”  Her NY accent dominates the area.  “No,” I say, “I’m single.”  The other man laughs and walks over to his boyfriend who glares at me.  I cup my own credit card to prevent the men from seeing it and pay for my single ticket.

Taliesin West Courtyard

Carol, a goofy, brown-haired tour guide, invites “all red tickets” to join her in the courtyard.  I like her instantly and she brings Taliesin to life.  Outside, Carol introduces us to the “Phoenix landscape.”  It seems an odd place to start but makes sense soon as I realize that FLW buildings are all about context.  “Notice the hills around the house,” Carol says.  “Frank would never build on top of a hill because it would obscure, well, the hill.”  The main feature in Taliesin, based on the surrounding mountains, is a triangle.  It’s a shape, and non-shape, I might add, that repeats over and over in the structures here.

Mr. Black Card smiles and makes several comments to me about the architecture (“nice chair; it’s actually comfortable”) before introducing himself as Dave.  He and his “partner” are visiting from the UK for a Thunderbird B-School reunion in the area.  The boyfriend, also an amateur photographer, keeps his distance – and a close eye.  It’s a funny juxtaposition: Dave seems to be wagging his tail, the BF seems to be showing his teeth.

The tour enters Wright’s office where he drew and presented work.  Carol clears up any confusion about FLW’s height.  “The average height of a man back then was 5’7”, Frank was 5’8”, so he was actually tall for his generation.”  It’s one of those bits of information that adds to the experience and explains why the building’s clearance is low, and the chairs sit so close to the ground.  I try different seats along the way to get the full experience; some are quite comfortable.

Taliesin Chairs from Above

Next, we enter the entertaining room. “Mr. Wright and his wife had connections to Hollywood and often watched unedited movies sent up from friends,” Carol notes.  “His wife said that Frank would watch just about anything.”  Walking through the concrete tomb of an entertaining room, Dave comments, “It feels like I could build this myself.”  And, in a way, it does.  Taliesin makes modern architecture look years ahead, but also out of context and sterile.

The tour ends.  I thank Carol and say goodbye to Dave and his boyfriend, who smiles tightly at me, then looks me up and down before walking away.  I don’t dare suggest the three of us get together for drinks or dinner.  In the end, Taliesin reminds me to pay attention to the context, not only physical, but also situational.  I guess if I had a boyfriend with a Black Card, I might also squint tightly at the single dudes.