Our Whirlwind Tour of America
Just before leaving Seville, I awoke to find the sky yellow and the city coated with muddy sand blowing up from the Sahara desert. Spain was in the grip of a sirocco, the gritty wind that can last weeks and is said to make everyone irritable and drive some to madness and mayhem. In olden times, if you murdered someone during a sirocco, you’d plead for a lesser sentence due to extenuating circumstances. So far I hadn’t noticed any homicidal impulses in Rich or myself but made a mental note to be on the alert. Online, the air quality was listed as HORRIBLE in bold red caps, followed by hair-raising warnings about dangers to your nose and lungs. I made another mental note to avoid breathing, especially outdoors.
Not to keep you in suspense, Rich and I managed to finish packing, walk to the train station, and arrive in Madrid without killing each other or anyone else. Whew! I didn’t even feel unusually irritated, although the same cannot be said of my respiratory system; I spent the entire flight from Madrid to JFK sneezing, coughing, and blowing my nose. As you can imagine, this was delightful for our fellow passengers and the crew, and I think it’s a tremendous credit to all of them that I wasn’t fitted with a parachute and shoved out over the Atlantic.
We spent the next few days with Rich’s family in New Jersey and Connecticut, mostly telling old stories. Like the one about Rich’s sister Jane, who somewhere around third grade made an ill-advised foray into forgery. Apparently she’d gotten a poor mark on an assignment, and the teacher told her to take it home and get a parent’s signature to prove they’d seen it. Instead, Jane craftily signed it herself — only she signed it “Mother.” In crayon. Her crime was instantly detected, and after the ensuing uproar, the story became enshrined in family lore.
The nostalgia train rolled on into my first-ever visit to Rich’s hometown: Maywood, New Jersey. To my absolute astonishment, it was exactly as I’d pictured it. Built just after WWII, the modest homes were within easy walking distance of the school, the shops, and the railway station where Rich’s father caught a commuter train into New York City seven miles away. When that train line was discontinued in the 1970s, the awkwardness of the commute kept Maywood isolated and preserved as if in a time warp.
Over breakfast at Maywood’s Pancake House, his brother gave Rich a fat envelope. Inside we found family photos, a lock of Rich’s baby hair, and a letter Rich sent home while serving in Vietnam, the kind you write just in case. That letter took my breath away and made me count my blessings.
Speaking of near-death experiences, a few days later we were in Tucson, Arizona having a close encounter with a snake. We'd been hiking in the Sonoran desert for over an hour, and despite signs warning us to watch for rattlers, Gila monsters, and other wildlife, so far all we’d seen was a small gecko. Then a six-foot snake slid across the path right in front of us, so close Rich would have stepped on it if I hadn’t grabbed his arm.
“Saved your life,” I told him. “Possibly the snake’s, too.”
“Wasn’t that just a big gartersnake?” he said skeptically.
Later, one of the friends we were visiting asked, “What color was it?”
“Black with a yellow stripe.”
“There’s a saying about the snakes around here: ‘Black and yellow is a dangerous fellow.’ It was probably quite poisonous.”
Yikes! Maybe I really had saved Rich’s life. On the other hand, looking at online photos later, I noticed the one most resembling ours had a caption reading, “Gartersnake. Harmless.” So who knows?
As we got ready to leave Arizona, temperatures were soaring towards the 90s, scorching the landscape. Our friends had rented a condo in a gated community for retirees, hundreds of identical, low, adobe-style bungalows the color of sand: as near invisible as housing can get. My theory is the residents figure this way when their time’s up, the Angel of Death won’t be able to find them.
I realize I’m not the first to say this, but arriving in San Francisco was like landing on a different planet. We walked off the plane into the colorful new terminal named for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California.
Back when Milk moved from New York to San Francisco in 1972, LGBTQ sex was criminalized in most of the country and under attack from anti-gay-rights activists. “If homosexuals are allowed their civil rights, then so would prostitutes or thieves or anyone else,” said Anita Bryant.
A smart, funny guy with a genius for organization, Milk mobilized his Castro Street neighbors, then Americans everywhere. “If you are not personally free to be yourself in that most important of all human activities... the expression of love... then life itself loses its meaning,” he said. “All men are created equal. No matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about.”
Ten months after being elected city supervisor, Milk was assassinated by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White. As the city mourned, White claimed diminished capacity due to depression involving binging on sugary junk food, famously known as the “Twinkie defense.”
Milk remains a national hero. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and today his name appears on public buildings, schools, parks, a US Navy ship, and now an airport terminal. Time called him one of the “100 most important people of the 20th century.”
Would Milk have achieved as much elsewhere? "The great thing about the Bay Area is that people don't accept the status quo here," says SF Chronicle editor John Diaz.
Betty Soskin, now a lively 100, recalls how her boss built WWII Liberty Ships on high-speed assembly lines, hiring people of all colors to work together as never before in this country. “They accelerated the rate of social change, so that to this day it still radiates out of the Bay Area into the rest of the nation. It’s where the visionaries come to find constituents for their wildest dreams.” San Franciscans are often said to live in a bubble, but I believe it’s actually an incubator for hatching the next generation of change.
Our anything-goes incubator culture enabled Levi Strauss to create blue jeans, Steve Jobs to develop personal computers, and Harvey Milk to dream of freedoms that are now a reality. And there are countless others. We don’t always get it right (see my previous remarks about the Twinkie defense, which semi-worked) but we keep trying.
It’s fun to be back in my home state, where Rich and I will stay until the end of summer. We’re busy prepping for fire season, restocking our earthquake emergency kits and the Apocalypse Chow food locker, and trying to keep the garden alive during the worst drought in 1200 years. I’m bracing myself for whatever comes to this catastrophe-prone state. So far, California's never had a sirocco, but with today’s changing climate, who knows? Stay tuned for updates.
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3/30/2022 06:17:06 pm
Welcome home! Can't wait to see you! and i do so hope you haven't brought any sirocco seeds with you . . . we do have enough on our plates. Though maybe it was your arrival that sparked that lovely rain of the last few days.
Karen K McCann
3/31/2022 02:32:23 am
I can't take credit for the rain, Tobey, but I can tell you it's great to be back. Our returns are always enlivened by such questions as "Where's the hair dryer?" and 'Wait, what? I have an orange sweater?" and "Have you seen the — oh, here it is!" Looking forward to seeing you and Phil soon!
3/30/2022 07:25:01 pm
Great post, yet again! Thanks for entertaining and educating me each time.
Karen K McCann
3/31/2022 02:33:41 am
I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Jean. It was an exciting journey and good fun to write about. Thanks for your kind words and for being one of my readers.
3/30/2022 08:21:56 pm
Welcome back! Glad you had a safe trip and neither of you died by snake or ended up in prison due to too many Twinkies or siroccos.
Karen K McCann
3/31/2022 02:36:02 am
Thanks for the welcome, Shéa! As they say, "Any one you can walk away from!" We dodged a lot of bullets this trip, and are counting our blessings as we catch our breath.
3/30/2022 09:59:49 pm
Glad you missed the snake, although garter snake is no doubt correct. Your friend mangled the saying I believe. There is no reason to think black and yellow spells venomous. But "Black beside yellow, lucky fellow,, black beside red and you're dead." refers to the difference between the venomous coral snake and the harmless imitator king snake.
Karen K McCann
3/31/2022 02:44:36 am
No doubt you're right, Vera! It seems everyone has a different saying about snake danger. After I wrote this, I found another, completely opposite saying online: “Red touches black, venom lack. Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.” I've decided it doesn't matter; in the moment of encountering one, I will be entirely too busy panicking to recall any sayings. My policy is to treat them all as potentially deadly and do my best to keep Rich from stepping on any of them.
3/30/2022 11:12:45 pm
God bless Harvey Milk and Betty Soskin! What would we do without pioneers like them?
, inKaren K McCann
3/31/2022 02:52:46 am
So glad you liked the column, Nancy. I agree, these pioneers make life so much richer and more rewarding for all of us. I can't believe Betty is still giving talks at age 100. As for Harvey, his murder was a tragedy of epic proportions, especially so soon after taking office. We could hardly believe it at the time. And his killer served just five years in prison, in part thanks to the Twinkie defense. What an insane world. Which made it particularly thrilling to arrive at SFO and see the heartfelt tribute to Harvey Milk. May his memory live forever.
3/31/2022 03:53:44 am
Welcome back you’ll, as we say in SW, La.! So happy you’ll made it back safely!
Karen K McCann
4/6/2022 04:35:41 pm
Faye, thanks for your warm welcome! It's great to be back and to know you're enjoying my stories. It was fun to have a chance to share some of these wonderful old family photos and stories. Like you, I was so moved by Rich's letter home from Vietnam ... I count my blessings all over again every time I think of it. I feel the same way when I see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Rich and I both consider ourselves very, very lucky!
4/1/2022 12:00:59 am
Great to learn about Rich's family and those photos are priceless.
Karen K McCann
4/6/2022 04:39:21 pm
Kitty, I did use my mask, every minute I was outdoors; I can't imagine how bad my reaction would have been if I hadn't. That sticky, sandy stuff was everywhere: windows, clothes, shoes, hair ... Boy am I glad to be done with all that! I'm looking forward to my sirocco-free time here; thanks for your warm welcome, amiga.
4/4/2022 06:09:42 pm
Enjoy reading about your travels. I feel I’m on the journey with you and I think you make great travellers and especially love your witty comments and observations.
Karen K McCann
4/6/2022 04:42:29 pm
Vicky, thanks so much for your kind words about the blog; as you can imagine, it's almost as much fun to write about our adventures as to have them. (Sometimes, when they're real disasters, it is considerably more fun in retrospect than at the time!) I hope you do manage to get to Normandy; it's a marvelous part of the world, rich with history and very lovely. Of course, Spain is closest to my heart, so I hope you'll be visiting there as well. Good luck with your travels! And thanks for joining us on our journeys.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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