Petrified Forest National Park

I left California a few days before the lockdown. I reached Joseph City, AZ by nightfall and parked at a Love’s Truck Station on I-40 where an industrial plant loomed about a half-mile up the road with its lights glowing and smoke rising high in the dark of night.

By this time, I was already considering how best to avoid getting sick, since I still had a long drive ahead of me from Arizona to Fort Lauderdale. I’d never been much of a germaphobe, but now here I was wondering how many people I’d have to dodge suddenly in a place that likely saw travelers and truck drivers come and go every day from all corners of the country.

I’d never paid much speculation to these things before, and now I felt a sting of disappointment at how much current circumstances required me having to think twice about every place I might stop, and how many people I might encounter along the way, and whether I should wash my hands again after briefly touching that door handle which might have been grabbed by who knows how many others.

Yea, it sucked.

In Los Angeles, the biggest talking point concerning the virus was the sudden disappearance of toilet paper in all the grocery stores around town. When I left, businesses still hadn’t shut down but the reality was beginning to sink in, at least for me. Maybe it had something to do with the police helicopter that had been flying over my neighborhood everyday for the past week.

California Desert at Sundown, on State Road 95 outside the Chemehuevi Mountains.

The next morning I grabbed coffee at the Love’s station. It was delicious. I liked it so much I even bought a souvenir thermos. Of all the truck stops across America, Love’s has come to be my favorite. Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s the logo. Or maybe I just bought the thermos as a way to settle down and lighten up. Sure enough, during each of the four nights I was on the road, I’d stay at a Love’s Truck Station.  It provided a reassuring familiarity I’d long come to appreciate over the years on the road; and now as things seemed to be getting more serious everywhere, I appreciated that familiarity even more in everything from the country music and tacky t-shirts to the coffee machines and souvenir shot glasses.

To my added satisfaction, as I set out that next morning I saw another familiar face, a National Park that I’d been meaning to visit for a few years now and that I’d bypassed every time I drove down I-40, because I hadn’t had the time or it was too late at night, or some reason or another. It was Petrified Forest National Park.

Now that it was early in the morning and I wasn’t in any particular rush to get anywhere, and probably because I needed the distraction, I decided that now was as a good a time as any to finally see what it was all about.

A quiet morning outside the park entrance; Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

National Parks have always served as an escape for Americans looking to reset and decompress, an escape from the mundane, or from the stress and congestion of city life.  Yet in the coming weeks, they’d receive a new influx of visitors looking to escape the coronavirus.  So many, in fact, that the parks themselves would become congested. 

As I read now of park officials at Grand Canyon currently submitting requests to close down as they field up to 600 visitors in a single day, visitors with whom they undoubtedly come into close contact, I think back to just two weeks ago when I arrived at Petrified Forest. 

I support that request by the way, though I’ll admit, I’m happy I got to visit beforehand when everything seemed totally normal, to the point that you’d never know anything was going on in the rest of the world. 

‘The Tepees’; Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

I parked at the visitor center and watched a quick film about the park and it’s indigenous history.  It felt good to do something normal like that.  To go in and simply look at souvenirs, or get my park stamps and grab a map like I’d typically do.  The rangers were in good spirits and so were the visitors; though again, just like at the Love’s Station, I was suddenly aware of how close I stood next to everybody and felt the same sting of disappointment at the fact.

Then I left the station and set out on the road and into the park, driving alongside the cliffs overlooking the Painted Desert, an endless vista of pink and red rock leading out to the horizon.  The weather was great.  The sky was still a bit overcast, but the sunlight peeking through the clouds felt wonderful on my face.  I could have easily stayed out there all day.    

Along the way I stopped at the Painted Desert Inn and thought about all the people of decades past who’d stayed there and stood out on that same balcony to take in the view of the Arizona badlands. 

The landscape did remind me of the more famous Dakota Badlands some 1,000 miles to the northeast, which I’d visited nearly two years before.  Still while the shades of the green, grey and brown were the dominant colors of that region, here everything was red and pink, and so I might’ve been more inclined to think of Mars, some vast frozen tundra out in space, were it not for that glorious morning breeze and life-giving sunlight. 

Painted Desert; Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

I closed my eyes like I’d done a million times over the last few years in places like Yellowstone and the Everglades, in New Mexico and the Swiss Alps, along the river Danube or the Mississippi, and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.  I closed my eyes and stood beneath the sun, allowing my mind to quiet with the surrounding landscape. 

As difficult as things are getting lately, I’m grateful that I still have the ability to do this, where I can at least step outside my door and breathe in the air provided to us everyday. 

With enough patience, I feel like I can get back to anyone of those places whenever I need.  I thought a lot about this, that day at Petrified Forest, and considered the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to visit again for a while in the days and weeks to come.  I opened my eyes and looked out over the Painted Desert.  Indeed there was nothing petrified about it.  It was in fact teeming with life.

I’d get back there soon.  In the meantime, it would still be here.  Living and breathing under the same sun, beneath the same stars and moon.  And when I consider that, even today, it doesn’t feel too far at all.  Just like every other place I know and love.

Issue #3
Q&Co. 

 

Cambria Kicks

Tucked away on California’s central coast, just a mile or so south of San Simeon leading into Big Sur, the small seaside village of Cambria is home to great people, beautiful weather and stunning coastal shoreline. For all you romantic lovers out there looking for a sweet spot for anniversaries or maybe your Valentines weekend, I’m pitching this your way.

Me and Andrea on the Boardwalk; Cambria, CA

My first real acquaintance with it was years ago when my car’s tire blew out close to midnight and I needed somewhere to sleep. That’s another story for another time, part of which is recounted here in earlier tales. I’ve come to know Cambria more recently in my continued travels along the California coast up Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway).

So why is it one of my favorites?

Me and the Boardwalk; Cambria, CA

For one thing, when you’re looking for a good vacation to simply unwind and relax, few places in the state provide for as tranquil a backdrop as Cambria. One of the best things to do right off the bat is walk along the shoreline, where the town has built a nice little boardwalk that’s perfect for a stroll and breathing in the mist of the ocean waves crashing along the bluffs.

I could easily spend my whole day there just walking, and watching that ocean, saying hello to everyone who comes and goes always with the same, great big smile on their faces, happy to be there with you and happy that a town like this exists at all. I’m telling ya man, it’s a gift; and like so much of that glorious Central California coastline so near and dear to my heart, it truly replenishes the soul.

It replenishes the soul; Cambria, CA

Now I’m not exactly what you’d call a foodie, but if you’re looking for good food, cross over the PCH and head into the east village, as it’s known, and into the deeper corners of town. Linn’s Easy As Pie Cafe is a cool, easy-going, counter-service spot that makes a fine cup of joe, and it’s a definite must for folks like Yours Truly, who appreciate a good slice of pie, particularly in the morning with a cup of coffee. I’m not a big eater early in the day, so yes, it’s my kind of breakfast.

A little further on Bridge Street is the aptly-named The Café on Bridge St., which makes some of the tastiest sandwiches & salads this side of the Mississippi. I would also very highly recommend Sebastian’s just a few miles down PCH in neighboring San Simeon, even though it’s closed for renovations but should be reopening soon. Anyway the Bridge St. cafe is built in what appears to have been someone’s house once upon a time, with a lovely outdoor area in the front and back that makes for a great spot for lunch.

Speaking of Sebastian’s and San Simeon, back towards the coast sits another one of my favorites stops—the Hearst Ranch & Winery. I’ll put it this way, I liked it enough to join their wine club and become a fancy club member, but maybe that’s another story too. The open-air setting allows for a great wine-tasting experience with a complementary ocean breeze provided to you by the great state of California. In any case, it’s the perfect way to cap off an afternoon.

Robin’s Restaurant; Cambria, CA

For dinner, back in Cambria in the east village, one place reigns superior over them all, and that’s Robin’s Restaurant. It feels like a hole in the wall that’s been there forever; or at least, like The Café on Bridge St., a place that feels like you’ve stepped into someone’s home, not just because it may very well have been once before, but because the food is home-made and the service first-rate.  My personal recommendation: Try the lasagna.

Every time I step in there, I’m reminded of why I keep coming back. It’s home.

Then again, I feel that way all day, every day that I spend in Cambria. In that little, unassuming town on the California coast.

Issue #1
Q&Co.

 

Orphan in Toledo

Note from the Editor: Cal Corso. Actor, poet, frenetic wild child and the natural leader of this band of hooligans. Orphaned as a small boy and raised by his aunt. Moved to California in 2017 accompanied by Jude Moonlight where he fell in with an odd assortment of characters and has since been leapfrogging from the backseat of his car to the old movie theaters on the fringes of town, from the bars, cafes and pool halls in and around the city of angels up the golden coast to the cliffs of Big Sur.

Occasionally he makes trips to Spain, which he claims to be his mother country, though this has yet to be confirmed or denied. He began these trips somewhat recently. His first was with a girl he knew, way back when, to Madrid and later into Toledo, the historic capital of the old Spanish kingdom.

I’ll let him take the reigns from here, since I think he might be able to tell the story better than I.

Ren Michael_

Alley cats; Toledo, ESP

I’d just come in from Madrid, on the train which leaves out of the Atocha station at the edge of town.  That is, the old town.  The part where I did most of my running around, with the Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace to the west, the Paseo del Prado to the east, the Reina Sofia museum to the south and the Grand Via to the north; all anchored in its center by the Puerta del Sol.

Madrid Atocha; Madrid, ESP

I only start in Madrid because that’s where my adventures in Europe began.  While it is the heart of Castilla and the La Mancha region, at least officially speaking, for me the true heart and soul of Spain lies in Toledo.

I’m one of those old-fashioned cowhands who thinks that to truly get to know a place, you have to dive into its history. As I mentioned, Toledo is known as the Imperial City and once served as the capital of the old Spanish Kingdom. Its long history of steel-working and sword-making date back to the Roman Empire. In fact, today you can purchase some of the finest steel blades produced in all the world.

I might have even pictured myself as some valiant knight just once or twice, between every glimpse of medieval architecture as I walked the town’s narrow, labyrinthian alleyways.

I’ve always been a good navigator, and I got lost almost every time I walked from one end of town to another. Not that I minded in the slightest, since each time I discovered something new. A cafe, castle, cathedral or chocolatier I hadn’t yet seen.

Labyrinthian alleys of Toledo; Toledo, ESP

The real crux of the matter is this, most of what you see there has been around for many hundreds of years, and when you imagine the old kingdom rising to prominence from this city perched on a hill surrounded by the river, as a moat surrounds a fortress, you can’t help but get swept up in its beginnings and visualize those knights and soldiers walking beside civilians up and down the streets every day.

Shadows in the alley; Toledo, ESP

Now yes, my ancestors do come from this part of the world, it’s true; and you might have heard that I was orphaned as a young lad and so maybe there’s some part of me that’s always seeking to better understand where I come from. Maybe lineage is more important for me than it is for others, and with that comes a deeper appreciation for history. But I’ve never been one to remember dates or any one king or queen’s name.

Twilight on the edge of town; Toledo, ESP

In Toledo, I was far more caught up with simply being in a place that was, and still feels very much like the heart of Castilla, the heart of Spain. Maybe it was the surviving architecture, or maybe the people. Maybe yet, the prevailing sense of quiet whenever I looked out over the rooftops or turned down some secluded street corner that lent itself to something bigger, and older, than what I could see with my own pair of eyes. In any case, it wasn’t something that I intellectualized too deeply or even thought twice about. I just felt it. It hit me the moment I first set foot in town and in some ways, it’s stayed with me ever since.

View of the Alcázar de Toledo from across the Rio Tajo, Toledo, ESP

Few places in Toledo left so great an impression on me as one particular point near the Alcazar, the main castle on the west end of town. As you pass through the main courtyard there, beyond the statue of Cervantes and down the stairwell descending toward the ravine, you’ll find a pathway leading to an overlook with a view of the bridge crossing the river.

I wrote a sketch not long ago when I was there.

Rio Tajo; Toledo, ESP

Hidden
from the city
an outpost, abandoned
dry, graffiti on the walls
I stand, try to frame
the sky at dusk

and the river…
running through
the bridge of cobblestone
the lonesome,
strung-out
croon
the whole world’s waiting
from the gaping canyons, high
to the European sundowns
as the mighty knights cry:

Welcome to Toledo, brother
in the shadow of the dawn
we are but ghosts, old
soldiers, still at night
you might hear
our song

& your shoes are torn
you’ve got no sword,
you’re like a man
without a name
yet in your heart
your family mark,
know we’re with you all the way

“Carry on, dear son,” I hear
“I am ever at your side.”

so I take my shoes and ride in the night
‘Neath the stars
of the Spanish skies

‘Rooftops of Toledo’ by Ren Michael

I can relate to that old painter El Greco, the Greek who decided to set up shop in Toledo, where he lived and worked for the latter half of his life. Much of his work can be viewed throughout town, in various cathedrals and also at Museo del Greco, in the Jewish Quarter, on the opposite end from the Alcazar.

My own favorite El Greco painting is actually in New York City, but still it’s a view of Toledo, as the name indicates. I think it honors much of how I personally feel about the city. Toledo, a place so closely tied to the surrounding land, river and sky that all seem to be one singular force, some kind of phantasmal city where the ghosts of knights reside, keeping their vigil, still honoring an age-old devotion. Even in death.

‘View of Toledo’ by Doménikos Theotokópoulos ‘El Greco’

There’s a monastery close to the El Greco museum. San Juan de los Reyes, it’s called. Saint John of the Monarchs. I pictured myself living there, as a monk. I figured if any city allows for a life of humble living, of quiet study and reflection, it’s Toledo. Not exactly a rambunctious town, but certainly one where you can take a pause, a moment of silence, and reflect on those who’ve come before. In this city, after all, it’s like they’re never really gone.

Issue #1
Q&Co.