Life Speeds Up

Once again I sit behind a desk. However, things are a bit different from my former job in Atlanta. For starters, the stress level has decreased while the exposure to natural light has increased.

There are about 8 of us here. Pat comes in at the crack of dawn every morning. No, literally. She’s usually in by 6 a.m. But she leaves by noon, which ain’t too shabby. In the office across from Pat, Susan and My (her name is actually spelt “M-Y;” not to be mistaken with the possessive form of “me”) sit, their backs facing each other. Although Susan is here today, she only comes in a few times a week. Like me, she’s a part time employee. And My leaves by 3 p.m. every day to pick up her son from school. The office catty-corner from Susan and My is occupied by Olivia, a seasoned veteran. Olivia has been here for 4 years and assumes a manager role. And she assumes it quite well, indeed. Silent palm trees and ceaseless sunshine stare through Olivia’s large office window at the mountain of files atop her desk. Across the hall sits Janet and me. They don’t come much more knowledgeable than Janet. I’m preparing my 4nd tax return and have already managed to ask Janet nearly one-hundred questions. Calmly and with a smile, she answers every single one. I’m going to learn a lot these next two months.

I have a question for Mike, the boss man. I walk out of my office and hang a right. To my left is another office. “Hi George,” I say to the stout man with a grey Beatles-era hair style.

“Hi,” George mutters back, flipping his right hand in the air and not looking up from his computer screen.

A few steps more and I reach Mike’s office. An organized desk and a computer monitor larger than any television set I’ve ever owned rest against the side wall of this office.

Mike looks up from his time sheet and asks me if I got a haircut. Before I can respond he cracks a joke. Something about me having obviously had multiple haircuts. It’s a joke I don’t understand but I laugh anyway. Mike smiles. He then stands up and extends a knuckle towards me. I pound it. Standing at least 4 inches taller than me, Mike’s presence is noticeable wherever he goes. “How’s your third day going?” he asks.

“Well,” I say. “I actually have a question for you about this return I’m working on.”

We sit and chat. Mike effortlessly answers this nagging question which seemed impossible to me mere moments ago.

Back at my desk, I check the time: 3:30 p.m. Time to head home; Riley needs the car.

This is my new gig. 4 times a week, 7 hours a day I prepare tax returns. Individuals, partnerships, corporations and trusts. I get a taste of everything. When I have questions, and I have many, I ask Janet. When I complete a return I give it to Olivia to review. I learn more about tax in a day here than I did in 2 semesters in college. Less than a week of employment and my friends are already asking me tax advice.

After work I hand the car off to Riley, who spends the evenings tutoring little Anthony and attending yoga/pilates/barre/core/a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember workout classes. Generally, we’re both home by 7, at which time we cook dinner together and maybe have a glass of wine. By 10 Riley’s asleep. And by midnight, I join her.

I don’t work Mondays. I do this intentionally so I can have the car all to myself with no obligations. A permanent 3 day weekend. It’s the final Monday in February. The weather is still cool and the sun still shines bright. I sleep in, eat a hearty breakfast, grab my black suitcase containing my drone and head outside. I drive around town filming. I get home a quarter past three and upload the footage. A couple more days like this and I should have enough for my first demo reel.

The wooden gate creeks open and slams shut. The squeak of breaks signifies Riley’s arrival from work. She walks in drenched in sweat. I give her a kiss and ask about her day.

“Good,” she says. “I took the kids to the park this morning and made a new friend. She’s from Brazil.” Riley rushes into her room, cutting the conversation short. In 15 minutes she must leave for tutoring. Feeling much less frantic than my girlfriend, I lazily slip into my sneakers and prepare a smoothie. By 4:35 we’re speeding north on interstate 805, heading towards Rancho Santa Fe. While Riley tutors, I sneak a workout at the local LA Fitness (or “Louisiana Fitness,” as Waze [my GPS] calls it).

Wednesday rolls around and Riley’s mom, Anne, and dad, Mac, fly into San Diego. Riley’s grandfather, former South Carolina Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley, is receiving an award at the 150th annual AASA (American Association of School Administrators) conference in downtown San Diego tomorrow. A perfect opportunity for a miniature family reunion.

It’s Thursday morning and by 7 a.m. Riley has already dropped me off at work. I’m back in her car by two in the afternoon. I slip into my nicest (and only) suit and a handsome tie while my girlfriend cruises through the gradually swelling southbound traffic. We arrive at the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Diego and valet our vehicle for the inexpensive price of $12/hour. Might as well park illegally again and get another $60 parking ticket, I think to myself.

I exchange pleasantries with Riley’s mom and dad. Other family members roll in and interrogate us about our travels. “How lovely,” they all say. “I’m jealous,” they reaffirm. By 3 we’re walking the quarter mile from the hotel to the convention center. While Riley and her aunts, uncles and family friends trudge behind, Mac and I walk ahead, discussing my new favorite topic – taxes. “Oh yeah, you can totally deduct that,” I tell him.

The conference hall is grandiose. Of the 4,000 people packed in here, the Smith’s, Riley’s and I sit front row. When his time to receive the award arrives, Dick Riley does so humbly and elegantly. He then produces an exquisite speech; one that a hot-rod politician in the heat of a presidential election would be envious of. Yet, Mr. Riley does this at the ripe age of 82. The host comes back on stage and announces a few more awards and makes promises for a better future. Then steps in the guest speaker – Cal Ripken Jr. Rightfully cocky, Ripken delivers a funny speech with an undertone of conceitedness. You don’t become one of the all-time greatest athletes by being modest.

At night we eat Indian food. It’s my 2nd time tasting the spicy deliciousness since my 6 month long battle with Giardia following my backpacking endeavor in India in 2013. The cleanliness of the restaurant quiets my apprehension.

I take Friday off of work to allow Riley to drive her family around town. Riley comes home around 4 p.m., giving me just enough time to say hi to my girlfriend before heading to Shabbat dinner with relatives, most of whom I’ve never met. The food is fantastic and the company is even better. Cousins, cousins and more cousins. I meet relatives ranging from barely 18 months old to nearly 90 years old. Of the 15 or so individuals feasting within this tall-ceilinged house in the hills, I’ve only met 2 – Gloria and Lee Redmon. Gloria is my grandfather’s first cousin. Lee is her husband. And everyone else attending the party is a product. As someone who is not particularly religious, it’s nice to be reminded of my Jewish roots every now and then. L’Chaim.

Saturday brunch is as good as it gets. If there’s one thing the Marriott Marquis has mastered it’s the restaurant buffet. A pair of sunny side eggs is prepared before me. I then load up my plate, and a few more, with lightly seasoned fingerling potatoes, crunchy strips of bacon, caramelized onions, perfectly browned toast with Irish butter and other morning goodies. Oh, I almost forgot the melt-in-your mouth French toast lathered in fresh chocolate chips. To cap off this breakfast of champions I have the softest pound cake in town with a cup of green tea.

After breakfast we pack the Acura with 7 friends and family members and drive back to our neighborhood. I coach tennis at the local North Park Recreational Center while Riley + Co. explore the world renowned San Diego Zoo. We cap off the night at a fine dinner at the Grant Grill with friends of Anne’s, Beegie and Bill. Men in tailored suits, speaking in foreign accents bring out tasters in shot-glass sized bowls. The table orders pricey, yet exquisitely delicious, entrees consisting of lamb, fish and complex salads. Wine pours like rain. Chatter and laughter fill the room.

Sunday marks the arrival of March and the departure of Riley’s many family members. This also marks the beginning of Riley’s cleanse. For the next month, Riley will only be able to eat, well, pretty much nothing. Vegetables are fine. Depending on how they are cooked, that is. Sugars and carbs are no-no’s. Poultry and fish are okay too. Again, depending on how they are cooked. And of course, diet-specific shakes compose a large portion of this regimen. I’m not sure what is in the shakes, but Riley seems to enjoy them.

A week passes and another one of Riley’s friends, Alana, shows up in San Diego. Along for the ride is Alana’s boyfriend, Will, who happens to be close friend with Grant, the guy I told y’all about a few entries ago. The newcomers commune with Grant and Rachel and decide to spend Saturday in Mexico. “We’re in,” we tell the quartet.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and lathered in sunscreen I plop in the driver’s seat next to Riley, who is donning beach attire and a bubble of excitement. We head towards the border. Grant drives like a maniac and I have to dig into my inner Jason Bourne to keep up with his crossing 4 lanes at once and 70 mile per hour turns. We slide $24 cash into the drive-thru insurance window, protecting our vehicles of any damage they may endure in Mexico and make the final 2 mile drive to the border. Getting into Mexico is uneventful. A $2.10 toll and a straight-faced, uninterested police officer.

We drive 45 minutes south to Rosarito Beach. Here we are escorted by a short, plump man with a mustache and a sombrero to a beautiful spot beneath an umbrella. Stimuli surround us. A man with a wheelbarrow full of melting gummy worms and chocolates walks by us, offering his products. In the stretch of 5 minutes, 7 women and children pass our table, selling sombreros and jewelry. Miniature ponies and cayenne covered fruits are scattered all around us. A thin man with a shy smile stands stealthily in my peripheral. He moves a Sharpie pen along a white piece of multi-purpose computer paper. A hairy-chested sketch of me later, I give this man a dollar. I turn to my left and Riley is lying face down on a towel in the sand. A tanned woman, appearing in her early 40’s hovers over my girlfriend rubbing lotion onto her back. For $4 Riley receives a fine 20 minute massage. Meanwhile, a large Mexican man in a Chicago Bears jersey comes sprinting towards Will blowing a referee whistle. He then grabs Will’s head and cocks it back with his paws. In one hand he snags a tequila bottle and in the other he holds a Corona. He shakes these sun-warmed Mexican beverages and shifts the neck of each bottle towards Will’s mouth. He releases his thumbs and two yellow streams erupt in Will’s mouth. A crowd gathers as Mexicans and tourists alike, cheer Will on. A full beer and a rough-night’s worth of tequila later, Mr. Chicago Bears lifts Will from his chair and swings his 200 pound frame onto his shoulder. He spins and spins and spins before dropping Will onto his feet. I catch it all on video.

After Rosarito we drive another 45 minutes south to Porto Nuevo. We walk into what appears to be a garage but turns out to be a restaurant overlooking the Pacific. Somehow, Grant and Rachel are friendly with the owner and convince him to sell each of us a meal consisting of 3 lobsters, a margarita, a shot of tequila and unlimited fresh tortillas, rice, beans, chips and salsa for $15/person, as compared to the usual $25/person. After this fulfilling meal we walk around the little Mexican shops scoping out good deals on local tequila, cigars and jewelry. I split a handle of homemade blue agave tequila and cigars with Grant and Will while purchasing matching friendship/love bracelets with Riley.

Crossing the border back into the United States takes some time. But at least the wait is entertaining. Everything from coffee and ice cream to life-size portraits of the Virgin Mary is being sold. Riley nearly purchases a puppy, no older than a handful of days, for $5. While I am objectively against the purchase, I must agree the half-palm-sized puppy is adorable.

The security guard scans our faces and then our passports. Not seeing anything suspicious about a pasty, twenty-something year old male with unkempt hair and a Hawaiian shirt sitting beside a tiny, freckle-faced girl with a nervous smile, the short woman waves us through. We’re back in the United States. As I cruise down the now empty highway towards our home, I reflect on the past quarter year spent traveling. It’s been exactly three months since we left Atlanta and 2 months since arriving in San Diego. Our first month living in SoCal was slow. Very slow. Enjoyably slow. At least for me. No job and lots of free time to do, well, whatever I wanted. Now the second month is a different story. We had at least one guest literally every weekend. When we weren’t entertaining guests we were working. Definitely a much faster paced month than I expected. Now having experienced both extremes, I wonder what our 3rd and final month in San Diego has in store for us.

Advertisements

Land of Cheap Gas and Beer

We approach the ancient wooden door. A stone Buddha sits in full lotus to the left of us. A scooter, having seen many better days, leans against the side of the house, motionless. Misha makes a fist with his right hand and knocks three times below the smiling sun carved into the upper center of the door. A fit man appearing in his fifties opens the door. Unkempt grey hair protrudes from beneath his black and white fedora.

“Hello,” the man says.

“Hi. Are you Stephen?” Misha replies.

Still acclimating to this new experience, I stand a few feet behind Misha.

“Yeah, I’m Steve,” the man answers. “And you must be Misha.” He then turns toward me and asks me my name.

“I’m Riley,” I say.

Steve invites us into his cluttered home. Tribal relics and artwork span the unpainted walls. Shelves upon shelves are filled with vintage records and tapes. Another bookcase contains more modern sources of music – CDs. Countless dusty books are stacked atop antique tables. One of the many Buddhas in this home rests peacefully within a wall incision along the staircase leading to the second floor. Steve points out a small tent lying atop aging wooden furniture. “I’m in the process of making that thing waterproof for when I backpack Colombia for 2 months. I leave in a few weeks.”

While studying the disorganization among us and talking with our host, we learn that for a profession Steve imports and sells various items from Indonesia. In addition to the keepsakes and indigenous clothing scattered among the house, Steve has an entire warehouse full of imports he is attempting to liquidate. “Once all this crap is gone, I’m retiring,” he says.

Steve is also working on multiple projects around the house, including renovating his kitchen, painting the walls and setting up a permanent room for Couchsurfers. The more we speak to Steve, the more I realize this is going to be an unforgettable and eye opening 2 days in Santa Fe.

An hour after arriving at our temporary home, Misha and I set out to the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. Unprepared for the 20 degree weather, we only stay long enough to eat dinner and check out a “funky schmunky” (as described by a local couple we came across) bar, named Evangelos. And indeed the bar was funky schmunky. Rugged-looking men with cowboy hats drink in the dim-light room filled with stuffed game and ancient Mexican decorations. We return to Steve’s house exhausted and are soon asleep in his guest bedroom.

With the sun having awoken, Misha and I arise from bed ready to go for a run. Upon stepping outside we are exposed to picturesque terrain. Snuggled between the mountains, Steve’s house is at the end of a development consisting of quaint homes perched among large plots of land. We look into the distance and see snow-capped mountains beyond endless dry fields of golden shrubs and scattered rocks. We run 4 miles along the desolate, snowy street, passing horses, dogs and adobe-style farm houses. Despite the 7,000 foot altitude and the uncomfortable blasts of sub-freezing wind, we make it back to Steve’s house.

Although worn out and cold, I’m determined to experience more of this distinctive city. Our first stop is Madrid. No, not the city in Spain. A 40 minute drive from downtown Santa Fe, Madrid, NM was once a prosperous lead and coal mining town. As with many mining towns, the natural resources in Madrid were exhausted and the economy dwindled, resulting in a ghost town. Some time later Madrid received a face lift and now boasts a renowned artistic community, with a variety of enjoyable shops and galleries lining the main street. As we wander in and out of the aged shops, I can’t believe that I’m in the United States. The culture, terrain, and architecture of Santa Fe is something I’ve never experienced. I soak in each step.

We end the day at the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Unlike the breweries I’ve experienced in the past, in which I receive a collectible glass and six 4oz pours of beer, this brewery sells delicious pints of beer for 3 bucks a pop. This favorable price came as little surprise to us, as gas sells for under 2 bucks a gallon in this town. Misha and I climb the stairs to the second floor where we are surrounded by extravagant Christmas decorations. A Christmas Party will be taking place here later tonight. While sipping our crafts brews we engage in conversation with an older couple from El Paso, TX. We have much to talk about as they are quite the travel buffs. After discussing cross-country motorcycle treks, Couchsurfing, camping, and New Mexican history, Misha and I are ready to conclude our night.

We snag some cheap dinner at a local pizzeria and head back to Steve’s home. We walk into this eccentric home to the sound of Steve listening to calming music and feasting on organic rice, veggies and self-made juice. The stove, positioned half in the kitchen and half in the living room, heats up a pot of organic purple sweet potatoes – Steve’s lunch for the next day. After many questions from Misha, we learn more about our wonderful and caring host, including his passion for preserving our environment and our bodies. We are wildly impressed by his use of composts for the garden, buckets to catch the cold and excess water in the shower, and mason jars to preserve and ferment food. I go to sleep reflecting on my time in Santa Fe; it has been an unusual; yet, amazingly mind-opening experience which I will never forget.

Into the Underworld

If you’re looking for an exciting 8 hours, the drive from Austin, TX to Carlsbad, NM is not for you. Aside from a handful of small towns, this drive consists solely of dried vegetation and empty road. On average we see less than one car per hour, and see more oil rigs than humans and animals combined. To pass the time, we play crossword puzzles, blast Phish through our car speakers and find excuses to pull over and stretch our legs.

After 4 hours of monotonous driving, my cell phone displays signs of reception. A town must be nearing. Moments later, we enter Mason, Texas, a town of 2,000 inhabitants. Seemingly the only awake resident works at the café we walk into. A fairly priced taco salad and roast beef sandwich later, Riley and I are back on the open road. Despite the topography not changing at all, leading us to wonder whether we’re actually just driving in circles, we arrive in Carlsbad, NM just after 8pm MST.

Tonight we’re camping. Seems like a reasonable thing to do for a young, adventurous couple. Especially since it’s saving us $80. We pull into the only open grocery store in town and load up on ground beef, vegetables, Weenie Beenies, beef jerky, aluminum foil, charcoal and water. Ironically, our campsite is across the street. Not quite the backcountry camping I imagined, but it sure is convenient. Using an old camping trick Riley learned back in her early teens, we season the purchased beef and vegetables, enclose the concoction in aluminum foil, and set it atop the grill. 30 minutes later – pure deliciousness. We light some candles in honor of the first night of Hanukkah, pop open a brew, and feast on our inexpensive, yet delightful, meal.

Once the food settles and the fire dies down, we realize it is freezing. Mid to high 30s didn’t seem so bad when talking to the campsite owner earlier in the day about the impending weather. Riley and I each put on three layers of clothing and bundle up in a single sleeping back and an airplane blanket inside my tent. With Riley and I relying solely on each other for warmth, sleep is hard to come by tonight.

It suddenly becomes uncomfortably warm beneath the blanket wrapped around Riley and my head. I unzip the tent flap and am blinded by the glare of the desert sun. It’s 8:30 in the morning and nature wants us awake. We munch on whatever foods we can find in our car and pack away our belongings. By 11a.m. we’re at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Although not quite the longest, deepest or widest, these caves are largely considered the most beautiful in the world. For 4 underground miles we explore Dogtooth Spars, Cave Pearls, Helictites, flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites and aragonites. We emerge from this fairy tale land unscathed, ready to treat ourselves to an authentic Mexican lunch; one not named La Salsita.

After a fulfilling meal, Riley asks if she can drive. Over the next 4 hours, we ascend to an altitude of 9,000 feet to Cloudcroft, NM; one of the highest elevations in the U.S. and descend 5,000 feet to Alamogordo, NM. I feel a bit unsettled as Riley slices through the Sacramento Mountains, among rain, snow, oncoming trucks, and pitch darkness. Despite me fearing for my life, Riley drives exceptionally well and we arrive at our Super 8 in one piece.

The only source of food at this hour is a Japanese/Chinese/Thai restaurant. As we order sushi, I can’t help but wonder where the restaurant obtains its fish from when situated in the middle of the desert. We return to our abode for the night and pass out. Having slept less than a handful of hours the night before and hiking for most of the morning and afternoon, we sleep like kings (and queens) tonight.

We wake up in time for the all-too-familiar continental breakfast. We then set out for White Sands National Monument, a not-too-well-known gem consisting of 275 square miles of snow-white sand. We stop by Staples and plead the store employee for an empty cardboard box, so we could use it to slide down the 50 foot sand dunes at White Sands.

Upon entering the park we drive 8 miles deep to the starting point of the longest hiking trail and the area with the largest sand dunes. Despite all our best efforts our pieces of cardboard refuse to slide more than a few inches before becoming immobilized by pounds of white sand. To our delight, the young quartet sitting behind us at breakfast shows up with flying saucer sleds and kindly offer us a ride. Riley and I slide down the steep sand dune at a much more respectable speed. Everyone laughs as I make a last second dive out of my sled to avoid crashing into my terrified girlfriend.

We hike barefoot for over 5 miles of sand dunes, coming across only a handful of people along the way. The sand is so white that it can easily be mistaken for snow. And by 2pm it begins to feel like snow as the sun lowers into the horizon. 3 hours of fresh desert air later, we get back into our vehicle and head to our next destination.

The strenuous hike has led us to a state of hunger. A promising billboard reassures us that a celebrated café is in the nearing town. 15 miles later we arrive at a dilapidated building, seemingly having been closed for the better part of the last century. Looking around, we find that the entire town has a similar appearance. Onto the next town. Unfortunately for our stomachs and bladders, the next town is 50 miles away. We arrive in this sleepy town and pass through its 1 mile diameter, slowly losing hope that we will ever eat again. Pleasantly surprised to have reception, I do a quick Google search and am pleased to find an open restaurant on the cusp of town. Another mediocre Mexican joint. But one that is very much needed in this time of extreme hunger.

Our appetites satisfied and our moods improved, we get back into the car. After 3 hours of high speed driving through darkness, we arrive in Santa Fe, NM. About 15 miles past the downtown exits, we pull off into a small mountain town. Another few miles later we turn onto an unlit road, boasting a sign that we are entering a land grant area. A little apprehensive about the lack of civilization around us, we continue driving until reaching an eerie looking house in the middle of nowhere. We have arrived at the home of our Couchsurfing host.