Lula Belle’s

I promised, and I must now deliver.

The tale you are about to hear is true, and the truth, perhaps, is not stranger than fiction– but it certainly serves as vivid inspiration.

 

Thus brings me to the tale of Lula Belle’s.

It was a sunny, windy as heck day in a small town in northern Wyoming. As I often do, I headed that morning into the main part of town to check out what antique treasures or hidden-gem coffee shops I could find.

I parked on a random block in town and quickly googled to see what was around. Since it was so windy, I was about to drive to my next destination. I turned the key and… My car wouldn’t start.

Dead battery. I knew it. The battery had been dying slowly since a month before. I have roadside assistance, but since I was in the middle of nowhere, I thought I should ask around for a jump before I called and had to wait hours for the pros to show up.

I got out and walked up to the store I was parked in front of, a “farmer’s market” store selling jam, honey, and baked goods. Inside, a woman wearing a flannel asked what I needed. “Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. “Or know anyone who does? My battery’s dead.”

“Oh, I left my cables in the Jeep and my husband drove it today. Did you already try Lula Belle’s?”

I gave her what I’m sure was a blank stare, because she started to explain.

“Lula Belle’s, it’s down at the end of the street. There’s always, you know, mechanic type guys in there. Old guys with all kinds of tools in their trucks. Someone will definitely have cables. They’d love to help you out.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Where is it?”

She led me outside and pointed down the street. “It’s a diner, last building at the end of the street there.”

I thanked her and went on my way. The wind was blasting but I was going to find a nice old mechanic guy to jump my car, and maybe this diner would have a great breakfast-for-lunch and endless coffee refills. As I walked, though, I passed a boarded-up building, plastic covers on the upper windows flapping in the wind. The train tracks ahead of me held empty cars, standing still. There wasn’t much at this end of the street.

Then I saw Lula Belle’s.

It was a tiny building at the end of the street, on a miniature block all its own, right next to the train tracks. I stepped up to its front entry and got a whiff of nicotine. I stepped into the entryway, which was a glass enclosure just big enough for me, a dry-looking plant, and a bucket full of gravel that I presumed, from the smell, was for putting out cigarette butts.

I pushed open the front door and immediately every eye was on me.

I stood in front of a tiny, wood-paneled room crowded with people sitting at little square tables. Almost everyone in the place was old, and smoking. The air was thick, to say the least. An old woman squinted at me suspiciously and exhaled a gray stream in my general direction.

I walked up to the formica counter. A girl stood behind it, and I hoped that she worked there as we both made hesitant eye contact.

“Hey,” I said. “Um, my car battery died, and I was just wondering if you knew anyone with jumper cables who could help me out?”

The girl said, “Hmm,” and I watched her peel back the plastic wrap on a tray of buns that were so coated in whatever sticky brown substance (don’t think of lung tar don’t think of lung tar) that she had to pry them apart with a spatula. “I’ll go in back and ask. Maybe the owner has some.” She went into the kitchen and left me standing in front of the counter, trying not to look directly at anyone. I stared instead at the murky cowboy pictures and cracked mirror on the wall.

Had I stepped back in time? It felt like it. Smoking indoors was banned in Ohio before I was even a teen. Even in Denver, where smoking in general is more common, it’s always relegated to sidewalks and patios. And at one table, a woman peered over her coffee at a map, an actual paper map, that she had unfolded and spread out.

And then there were the old people.

Here’s the thing: I like old people. Old people like me. I’ve enjoyed the company of my much-elders since I was a kid befriending ladies in church. Old people have taught me how to play chess, paint with watercolors, and tell the weirdest jokes. Most of the old people I know, honestly, are the inspiration for many of my life goals. So it never made sense to me when I would see people dress as “old” for Halloween. I always thought, what, is it like a fear of mortality? A fear of the fact that one day you’ll be wrinkly and probably need a cane? So what? What’s so scary about old people?

Well. Suddenly I understood. These old people were scary. None of them spoke. They ate silently, sitting across from each other, forks in bricks of scrambled eggs. Or else they just  drank coffee and smoked, staring straight ahead, glancing at me. And they looked quite… gray.

Maybe I hadn’t stepped back in time, but into a parallel world, or a movie set. But this was no Little House on the Prairie or even Fistful of Dollars. This was No Country For Old Men vibes, noir, ominous, creepy sunlight slanting into the frame, the stranger comes to town and it turns out everyone is the living dead… That kind of movie.

A few people came out of the kitchen: first the counter girl, then the scrawny dishwasher guy, then the owner woman and lastly, her husband, frowning. “Where’s your car at?” he asked me.

“Oh, thank you,” I said. He walked to the door and I followed. “It’s right down the street.”

We went outside and he looked down the street as I pointed. “Yeah, see, it’s the blue one down there. It just needs a jump.”

“I don’t have cables. Loaned ’em to my cousin and he never gave ’em back. Nobody else has any, either. Checked my truck.”

“Oh… Well… Thanks so much for checking,” I said, as I inched away from the building.

“You could ask across the street.” He pointed to a crew of people who seemed to be disassembling an abandoned building. “I don’t know those guys, but maybe they got something.”

“Okay. Yeah maybe I’ll do that. Thanks!”

There was no way I was asking anyone else. I fast-walked back to my car and called roadside assistance. They got there in half an hour.

Turns out I could have called first and probably saved myself some time and trouble. But I would have missed out on quite the experience.

~Pen

Payphone

Something my brother-in-law will never let me live down is that I had never heard the song “Payphone” until someone literally played it for me last year. (Never mind that he had never heard of Joan Baez…) I still don’t know any of the words except the chorus, but that popped into my head yesterday, as:

My cell phone took a dive and a smack onto the tile floor of the Denver airport. That was that. R.I.P.
My plan for the day was to take a plane to Phoenix and then a Greyhound (my first Greyhound, woo) to Tucson, where Patrick is working for the week. After the tragic death of my phone, we communicated via email and free wifi. But alas, there was a fatal flaw in this solution: Free wifi is always crap.

My plane got me to Phoenix, a wonderful TSA girl and a shuttle got me to the Greyhound station, and the Greyhound got me to Tucson. I used the station’s free wifi to email Patrick several times to tell him to pick me up there after work… But time ticked by (or at least, I assumed– something I noticed sans phone is that there are no wall clocks anymore) and I realized that none of the emails were sending. I glanced around. Through the window I could see a gas station, and being incredibly thirsty (and maybe a little unsettled by the number of men with neck tattoos waiting for the next bus) I decided to head there in search of a drink, and, you guessed it, a pay phone.

Guys, pay phones are not a thing anymore. (AND I doubt they were a thing even in 2012 when “Payphone” came out, just saying.) Both the airport and the Greyhound station had one, but it wasn’t a coin one, but one which you could use for free in the same area code or else you needed one of those long-distance minutes cards. So long story short, I asked the gas station girls if they had a phone I could use. “We don’t have public phones, but….” One girl disappeared into the break room, returning with a cordless landline. “You can just use it.”

Thank God I actually remembered Patrick’s cell number, and that thing where you have to dial “1” before the area code. So I called him, he picked me up, all was well. I told him about the Greyhound:
Me: “It was totally fine. The window had face marks, but otherwise it was clean.”
Patrick: “Hey, you basically lived the ‘Desert Bus’ game!”
Me: “And I won!!”

Honestly I did enjoy the peaceful two or so hours I spent on the bus, reading a book and watching the desert. Plus it’s always fun hanging out in different cities with Patrick. And, as I always tell myself, every experience is “grist” for a writer, and sometimes a lesson for life. Like how I learned that I should have a watch and an atlas, in preparation for the inevitable next time I break my phone….

When you go, can I go with you?

[Note: This was written a few days ago, but I didn’t get a chance to add the pictures until today. We’re currently home and enjoying our Memorial Day weekend in Denver.]

Today is the last day of another surrounding-state sojourn.
Our first stop was North Platte, Nebraska. To be honest, I was mostly going along on this trip because I didn’t want to be stuck in Denver alone for two weeks again, not because I thought I’d find Nebraska all that cool. I was wrong, though! North Platte was a good time, thanks mostly to the good weather that allowed me to enjoy their various parks. (Most of them were in some way named after Buffalo Bill Cody… Apparently he lived in North Platte at one point.) Green grass, blue sky, riverbanks, fields… The Midwest makes me happy. I spent one afternoon driving around just to enjoy the scenery, and another one sitting at a picnic table, barefoot and reading in the sun. Driving into Nebraska, the sign welcoming you over the state line reads: Nebraska …The Good Life. That pretty much sums it up.

Our next and longest stay was Rapid City, South Dakota. On our way down there we made a stop to check out the Badlands. I kind of wish I had been more into taking pictures, but we’d planned to go back (and then didn’t end up doing it; we hiked in the Black Hills instead).
Before I went on this trip, a friend at work told me, “The Badlands are cool. They’re not, like, beautiful– they’re interesting.” Umm, I think we have different concepts of beauty. The Badlands are otherworldy. Parts of it felt like a fantastical castle-city. Other parts were stunning because of how far you could see, the huge openness. Plus we saw mountain goats (including baby ones!), prairie dogs, a buffalo, and an appropriately ominous gathering of buzzards.

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Dusk in the Badlands

Rapid City itself is more of a small but busy town, kind of touristy because of its proximity to Mount Rushmore. There were some more “local” spots, like the super chill coffee house I basically lived at (they recognized me after the second day). But honestly, when you’re traveling through random towns, you come to appreciate the comforts of tourism. Like the fact that there’s more places to eat than just fast food (or this place called Runza?? Like, there are at least three of them on every main street in Nebraska. What is this place? Why the obsession?). Plus, I had a lot of fun with Patrick taking silly pictures with all the statues of presidents they have on the corners of Rapid City’s downtown.

We spent the weekend checking out Mount Rushmore. Well, actually, we first hit up a beer tasting festival in town.

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We tried going to Mount Rushmore later (after a long nap…) but it was too foggy to see the mountain, so we spent some time in the forest instead. The strong scent of pine permeated everything… Sooo good.

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The next day was sunny and warm, perfect to finally see the monument. Patrick got lots of compliments on his shorts, and some guys high-fived him as they passed us on the trail. Mount Rushmore was kind of more impressive than I’d imagined, and I’m glad I got the chance to see it.

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I thought it was funny seeing everyone take the same picture…

But the Black Hills were my favorite part. They’re so expansive and beautiful, and it restored me to be out in real woods. Hearing frogs, seeing birds and animal tracks, climbing on rocks and fallen logs. I’m a little jealous of Rapid City residents who get to live in the lap of those hills.

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Hiking trail in Black Elk Wilderness area

Now, for the past few days, we’ve been in Scottsbluff, Nebraska… On our way here we stopped at a gas station where I locked the keys in the car and we had to get help from some locals (and found out the gas station clerk girl was a fellow Denverite, just in NE for the summer). I’ve been kind of under the weather, so this last bit has been mostly me lingering too long in this coffee shop and reading My Antonia (a friend lent it to me, saying I should read it on this trip since it’s set in Nebraska. I just finished it last night).

Patrick has some more traveling to do this summer, and I’ve decided to go along. We’re also planning a just-for-fun trip together. For me, traveling makes me want to travel more– and whether we visit a national monument, a different city, or a small town, it’s always worth going.

do now cheer me on

The other day I drove my first solo road trip, to meet up in Albuquerque with Patrick. It was a pretty easy ride– the route was somewhat familiar to the one we took to El Paso (I think I even stopped at one of the same gas stations, heh). I over-caffeinated in the beginning and got really jumpy so every passing road sign made me feel like I was on the verge of a heart attack, and a piece of the chocolate bar I ate melted on the seat/my pants, but besides that, no trouble.

Lately it seems a lot of my friends (and semi-related friends, i.e. cousins-in-law) are traveling as well… People are heading out to the West Coast for internships, one friend of ours moved to Denver too, another friend applied for a job that requires moving. One of my cousins-in-law is working with AmeriCorps out here in the West (I think she’s headed to Texas soon), one lives in DC, my brother-in-law lived in Ireland for a few months, others have taken trips overseas. I know everyone says that posting about trips on social media is fake or trying to make your life seem cool or whatever, but… I guess I’m glad they’re all posting about it everywhere. I feel like we’re all in a sort of club, spreading out and exploring the country. It inspires me to not miss home too much.

While I drove yesterday, telephone wires spooling along beside me, rocks rising out of the horizon, strange plants bristling across empty fields, I imagined myself years from now gliding on some other open road somewhere. And why not? Life is short and gas is cheap. (Uh… right now, anyway. *has horror flashback to 2008* *horror flashback switches from gas prices to my fashion* Yeah guys, forget the past!!! Seize the day!!)

Albuquerque is familiar in a weird way… They have a parkway across from their zoo, which is reminiscent of Old Brooklyn; even the signs for the zoo looked the same. Of course, the parkway went through a forest with signs warning of fire dangers, and all the trees were pale and dry. The path through the woods was just dust. You could walk without making a sound– or hearing a sound. I sat still for a while, though, and saw some small birds and one woodpecker.

Tonight, Patrick and I are driving to some other town in northern New Mexico… As I’m really growing to like this state, I’m looking forward to seeing more. Plus, it’s really spring here! Besides that park, there are many trees budding and blooming. Imagine new, bright green and a clear blue sky against all the subdued shades of brown (which is pretty too). Add in the ~~power of the sun~~ and it’s hard not to feel alive even on an ordinary Thursday.

The title of this post is from “Erin” by Joanna Newsom… A song I think about on just about every road trip. Erin, Erin, Erin across America! Some people say it’s also a mondegreen for “Erring” which I like too.

Yours from the road,
Pen

Sun City

So this is getting into my second week in El Paso, Texas. And THIS PLACE FREAKIN RULES. First of all, everything is pretty. The sun, the palm and cypress trees, the washed-out colors. Secondly, this city is huge and looks even bigger because you can see right into Juarez from the highway. (And the highway– it’s raised up so you can sweep fast over the city and feel like you’re on Coruscant.)

The only downside is that I’m apparently allergic to the desert (thanks, mountain juniper), so my eyes were red and burning for the first week. I think it might finally be subsiding, though. If I’ve finally found the magic combination of allergy medicine, I’m going to start looking for a tiny house on the outskirts of town, with a little metal fence around the yard and a tall, skinny cypress tree beside it. Seriously, though. If I don’t end up coming back here or somewhere near to visit frequently in the future, be warned: I am not actually me, I am a clone of myself and I am probably plotting destruction.

I really loved the drive down here, too. It was a little over nine hours from Denver; I drove most of the way, but the time seemed to go quickly. Instead of passing cow field after cow field, there were mountains and open spaces and forgotten towns. We also took historic Route 66 for a little while.

 

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Sunset desert in New Mexico

I’ve been spending my time here working on stuff for a writing workshop I’m taking online through my Denver writers’ group by day, and trying to improve my billiards skills by night. Also, Patrick and I went to a scenic view place one evening to climb on rocks and look out at the huge metro area.

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Our first scenic lookout spot
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Nighttime city

We spent Saturday afternoon half walking half sliding hiking down a mountain.

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Patrick kept putting the camera on rocks and setting the timer

Also, there’s bonus hype because Pope Francis is going to visit Juarez in a couple of weeks (right after we leave, actually) and, if that wasn’t already close enough, people say he might briefly visit El Paso too.

Although I’d say a brief visit won’t be enough– I’m glad I have several more days to enjoy being here.