Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Road Least Traveled—In the Footsteps of Least Heat-Moon

The Road Least Traveled—In the Footsteps of Least Heat-Moon ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
So many decisions! So many choices! After spending hours on the phone with my daughter, under the assumption that two heads are better than one, a cliché not necessarily true but I needed someone to hold my hand, we concluded that there is no wrong road.

I am now homeless. My auction sale is Saturday out at the Havre Fairgrounds, so come, say good-by to me. Early next week I will head out. All the right roads beckon. Being me, I want to drive every road. What way to take? Which way to go? I have two, no, three criteria. I want to visit my son and granddaughter and friends in Seattle. I wish to explore hot springs, so my route will necessarily zig and zag. And I intend to be at the border November 5, to be met by my friend who will help me drive south on foreign roads.

That leaves me a month to travel north border to south border. In the last week I have entertained routes and changed my mind no less than two dozen times. I could zoom over to Seattle, hugs and kisses, and race to the Border. Google map, which does not have my best interests in mind, assures me I could make the border from Harlem in 23 hours. Not my style—no, not my style at all.

Google does not know that I despise Interstate Highways. Interstates homogenize and pasteurize travel. One tends to head up the on-ramp, grip the wheel and proceed as if Death is on one’s heels, as indeed, it may be. Interstates cross through the most beautiful parts of the country and assure that you, the traveler, see none of it. You don’t dare slow down and look. You tend to eat franchise food and stay in franchise motels, all within sight of the ramps.

Like William Least Heat-Moon, I prefer to travel the "Blue Highways", the by-ways and back roads. I want to be able to stop for a power nap when tired, eat in mom-and-pop cafes, walk in the nice little city park along the river, and admire the architecture of the old buildings in the center of downtown. One of my favorite off-the-map motels features a pyramid of homemade huckleberry jellies for sale at the counter. You won’t find that at a Holiday Inn Express.

A couple days ago, I heard from Tara, one of my "girls" from when she and my daughter were in college. Tara lives in Las Vegas. She told me Vegas sits in the middle of geo-thermal heaven with more than three-hundred hot springs. Immediately my mind changed once more. I’m feeling like my neck is on a swivel.

As of today, my loosely held plan is to spend a week or ten days getting out of Montana/Idaho, soaking in hot water at some of my favorite north-country hot springs. I’ll take Highway 2 to Seattle to spend a week or ten days with family and friends, then head south. But I have not defaced my maps with markers. No route is permanent in my mind. Nothing is cast in concrete.

Leaving Seattle is where my fun really begins. This morning I lean toward I-90 to I-82 to I-84 to Pendleton, gratefully exit the interstate for 395 to Reno, a lovely and relatively empty route. From Reno perhaps I’ll head east on 50 to Ely. South on 93 to Vegas to explore and soak and visit with Tara and Tim. Or maybe Seattle to Sacramento to Reno to Vegas. Or Seattle to Ellensburg to Pocotello to Salt Lake to Vegas. See what I mean?

Leaving Vegas, I can stay on 93 into Phoenix. Somewhere along the way, I will need to turn south on 85 which will take me through Why and into Lukeville and to my border crossing. My map is rather vague about how to do this. Tele-transportation, perhaps.

If you look at the US map in the front of your travel atlas, you can see my quandary. In the western United States, there are a lot of ways to get from here to there on relatively isolated roads. Roads where one can dream; where one can imagine what life is like in this town, in that little ranch house way off over there with the yard light shining. Roads where the waitress pouring coffee stops to ask you where you’re going. She’ll tell you about the bridge out up the way and the best place to stop for lunch. Roads with towns that make one want to turn in and stay a while.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

September 26, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

No Habla Espanol But I Do Gestures Well

No Habla Espanol But I Do Gestures Well
Just today a gentleman in Great Falls, upon hearing I will soon move to Mexico, mirrored my enthusiasm, "Oh, I love Mexico. My wife and I go to Cancun every year." Then he followed with "Aren’t you afraid to go to Mazatlan? We hear so much bad news about the drug traffic there. Even in Cancun, when we walk the beaches, we are accosted by people trying to sell us drugs."

"Well," I answered, "I have walked alone and with friends through many districts in Mazatlan and on the beaches and nobody has ever tried to sell me drugs." I almost felt disappointed. Do I look that, what, boring, intimidating, Pearl of the Pure Heart, or just plain old?

Last weekend Terry came to my house with his young son, TJ. They loaded my van with boxes and other items I had packed for the trip. I wanted a test run, so to speak. Since I will be taking with me only what I can get into my van, I needed to see just what would fit. Normally I trust my judgment of spatial relations. But I wanted to make sure I could take all my carefully selected, packed and Spanish- labeled treasures.

Imagine my face-splitting grin when everything fit—and all in the front of the van. I have lots of room. "Figure out what else you want to take and I’ll come back in a few days to finish," Terry told me.

So I wandered room to room. I carefully considered this and that. Especially the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ items I had first wanted to keep and later rejected. I retrieved my Kitchen Aid Mixer, vintage 1963. I discovered that I had said my good-bys. I am at peace with letting go of my treasures and items of beauty for others to enjoy.

Since I have oodles of room, I’ll ask Terry to spread the boxes over the whole floor of the van. Of course, there will be some last minute additions, some items I still use every day. And some, like a few plates, bowls, a skillet, one knife, fork and spoon, I’ll leave for the new owner to adopt or toss.

I’ve been blessing the house for Kim. I want her to receive as much pleasure from living here as I have. This home provided me a launching pad for new ventures in growth, such as serving on city council and related boards. Where else could I have acquired so much fodder for "Looking out my back door". My intuition tells me that Kim is ready to expand her life too. I want to leave her that legacy, so I go from room to room and plant good memories.

One more week of living in this house, living out of a suitcase and with a depleted refrigerator. But I’m so busy that I hardly notice. Today I attended another final board meeting. I hesitate to say good-by, rather, hasta luego. I have made new friends, some I feel I’ve known forever. We will keep in touch.

Tomorrow Craig is coming to spend a day or two. I met Craig about a dozen years ago when I cast him in "Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music", his stage debut. He spent much of his time on stage with his head beneath the hood of an old truck dropping bolts into an oil pan. We got to be good friends. We do what friends do; we visit.

It is hard to leave the good people I have come to know. Remember, the road runs both ways. I’ll be back to see you. And you will come spend time with me in my new casa, address as yet unknown. So make sure your passport is up to date.

In my new home, because I’m still the same old me, I will surround myself with new art, more books, and every variety of experience. Since I’m a great tour guide, when you visit, I’ll take you places and show you things nobody else would ever think about.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep in touch through my articles. The next couple months I may not write a consistent article a week, but I will keep them coming. After my auction sale, I’ll be on the road, making my leisurely way south to the border. There are a couple hot springs I want to check out along the route. Once I get to Mazatlan and get settled, I hope to keep showing you what is going on out my back door.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

September 19, 2013
Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the High Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at Email

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Leaping Lizards! A Lynch Mob Levels Their Sites at Council Meeting

Leaping Lizards! A Lynch Mob Levels Their Sites at Council Meeting
Holy Baloney! I’ve been on Harlem City Council the entire seven years I’ve been back in this little town of my youth. We’ve begged and pleaded for people to please show up, please. One is a usual number, six cause for celebration and anything more is indicative of a raise in rates.

If the language in the three-hundred fifty little yellow flyers which had been distributed over the weekend asking for answers and accountability from the City’s Mayor, Council and Employees was designed to drag folks out of the woodwork to a meeting, it worked. At one point I counted nearly seventy good citizens of Harlem crowded into our little Council Chambers, holding up the walls, and spilling out into the foyer.

The flyer was emphatic in spirit yet no specific complaints were listed nor did anyone put their name to it. At the bottom of the inside page were the initials GFU, “Getting Fed Up Citizenry”.  I updated my will, donned my Kevlar underwear and showed up at City Hall like a target, with no idea what to expect.

Personally, I get excited when a mob of people fill the room. No matter what they come for, they will leave with expanded understanding and answered questions. Mayor William Taylor opened the public forum part of the meeting by saying he’d like to see this turn out at all our meetings. Nevertheless, we sitting behind the bull’s eye were a bit apprehensive.

Dave Boisvert and Don Richman stood to share positions as spokesmen for the group. Let’s digress: Imagine that CFU is a metaphor for the 8th grade class bully. Imagine that you are at a class function that features 45’s of Pat Boone and Rickey Nelson on the turntable and pink punch with cookies. The Bully stomps across the room, shuffles his feet, and asks, “May I have this dance.” Wowzers!

Boisvert spoke first. He requested an open forum where citizens can express views and problems and bring suggestions. He urged that citizens express constructive opinions. As a former councilperson and mayor during troublesome times, Boisvert  said that he understands public responsibility and the concept of service. He said that the group wants to seek ways to improve Harlem and urged forward movement.

Richman, also a former public servant in Harlem, requested that the group conduct themselves in a constructive manner. He stated that the “roomful of people here have the responsibility to step forward and ask, ‘What can I do to help?’” He further declared “there is no blame (for problems) to be placed unless it is on all of us. We have let the city go downhill. We can work through this.” Richman then asked, “Can we work with you to make Harlem better?”

Several individual issues were brought to the floor such as summer water quality, the state of the streets and alleys as the result of fiber optics work, a clogged drainage ditch, the difficult to enforce decay ordinance, the stream of water which flows down the streets from Albertson’s coolers causing pits, the lack of trailer court ordinances and the ever-buckling surface of 4th Street.

Then Boisvert suggested that “working together, we take one issue at a time”. He requested that since “everyone has one or two pet issues”, tablets be sent around the room to gather suggestions and concerns.  Mayor Taylor called for tablets to be distributed. Richman agreed to tally suggestions and help prioritize topics.

Harlem, like every shrinking small town on the High Line, will never look the same as it looked fifty years ago. Yet, as one citizen said “We are responsible for the way our town looks today but we need help from the City to enforce ordinances.” Richman agreed, saying, “We need to take responsibility to make our town pretty. It needs to be a cooperative effort.”

No matter how long the citizens’ list of concerns, Council is familiar with every issue. We share the frustrations of trying to create the best possible City structure in which we can live and grow.  I’m excited. People are talking, are motivated to help, to pull in tandem.

After public forum, I sat in tears as City Clerk Rebecca Skoyen read my letter of resignation from Council. The people I have worked with in City government have become my best friends in Harlem. Mayor Taylor took the opportunity to suggest to the crowd that now is a good time for someone to step forward to finish the remaining two years of my term. I’m excited to know that Harlem will continue to grow and improve. Hugs, anyone?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 12, 2013

Woman on the Move in Full-Blown Panic Attack

Woman on the Move in Full-Blown Panic Attack
Storm alert:  All points bulletin. High anxiety winds precipitate storm of indeterminate velocity and duration. Woman in full state of panic attack. Coordinates unknown. Situation critical. Last seen headed toward the deep end. Take cover.

For no identifiable reason. At least, none I can put my finger on.

Early morning. The phone rang. One of my readers called to wish me well; she showered me with words of encouragement, praised my courage, asked me questions. I bluffed my way through the conversation, especially the one itty bitty question for which I had no real knowledge to answer. At the end of the conversation I felt quite smug. 

I enjoyed a normal morning, puttered around my boxes, straightened this, tossed that. Tried on all four bathing suits to see if they still fit. I don’t even swim. I had purchased three of the suits on different trips over the years when I forgot to pack one. I know. Nobody flies to coastal Mexico without a bathing suit. Shrugged and decided to take all of them.  

Ate breakfast. Phoned the phone company about my defective service. Read four newspapers. Scanned my three-page list of last minute things to do before I move.

Something nagged at me—some little detail. Some question plagued me. I had talked with ex-pats, explored online, official and unofficial websites, read books, out-of-date and recent.

Without conscious thought I found myself in front of my computer, reading and re-reading, searching articles about immigration. I cannot say I found anything new. If anything, I found an updated report on new immigration laws to be encouraging. Yet, everything I read, I read with dark glasses. What yesterday made me feel jubilant, today skidded me into the slough of despond. 

Okay, so maybe that is not totally truthful. It might have been such a silly thing that threw me into a tailspin. You know the herbs I had so carefully cultivated in my backyard bird-sanctuary herb garden, the ones I dried myself and stored in colorful and whimsical glass jars. The ones I had packed and then re-packed. I can’t take them. Nothing that comes from seeds or nuts can cross the border.

This paragraph followed the paragraph about no guns in the “what not to take” section with a neat reminder that a bullet could land one’s jolly bottom on a jail cot for an indeterminate stay. I actually giggled. I own neither gun nor bullet. I do have a genuine faux antique vase made from a brass shell casing, cannon sized, I bought outside a lovely old cathedral in the mountains. It stays.

So I cannot take my herbs or spices. Big deal. But why does my head feel like a ping-pong table with six simultaneous games? Could it possibly be the fine print about a complete inventory of each packed box, in triplicate? Could it be the realization that I have to open, scrutinize, itemize and repack every single box? Itemized in both English and Spanish. I swear, I never read that fine, fine, fine print previously. The good news is that I’ll know the Spanish name for everything I own.

Ah, well. Better here than at the border crossing, out on the asphalt, under 118 degrees of unclouded sunshine, scrutinized by unsmiling armed guards who don’t see any humor in the situation.

I’ll do it, of course. I will. I’ll open each box, discard anything I think might be the slightest bit questionable, seedy or nutty. I’ll be the only thing both seedy and nutty. I will create an itemized inventory to be the envy of any bean counter. If I wear to shreds both my English-to-Spanish dictionaries, small price to pay. And if I spite myself, well, I’ve done that before.

Meanwhile, I’m going to bed, pull the covers over my head and have a pity party for one. I don’t care if it is mid-afternoon. Don’t wake me. I’m not getting up until I weather this storm. Don’t bother to call. Don’t bring chicken soup. There is no comfort, hot or cold. Oh, I’ll get over it.

Or maybe I’ll just move to Jordan. You know, between Mosby and Brockway. There are similarities to Mexico. It is almost a foreign country. Cultural differences are huge. I don’t speak the language. I’ll be as much a gringo in one place as another. But I won’t have to repack my boxes.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 5, 2013

Thirty Four Wooden Spoons and Other Objets d’art

Thirty Four Wooden Spoons and Other Objets d’art
 My house sold. My business is officially closed. My belongings are going on the auction block.
 About the time of first snow, I’ll head south of the border, down Mexico way.

 I am currently filling the gap between leaving my house and the first frozen flakes of impending winter with sorting and packing. If I didn’t have scads of business materials and tools and equipment and if I didn’t have 4,500 books and if every wall in my house were not a gallery, the job would be simple.

 Bob, my auctioneer, strongly suggested that I leave for a week, hand over the keys to the house, and when I returned, everything would be boxed and ready to go. He assured me I would never miss a thing. He is probably right. 

Part of my problem is that I plan to drive my van, my only vehicle. That means I can take whatever I can make fit. In the beginning, I blithely sailed through my house marking this and that to make the trip with me—a microcosm of my present life, totally disregarding volume and weight.  Each day, my van, she shrinks. 

When I moved from Seattle to Harlem, from a metropolitan area to a third world country, eastern Montana, I made several trips to Costco and other Big Boxes and loaded up with everything I could imagine I might possibly need and be unable to buy within a hundred mile radius of my new home. Plus I brought most of my possessions, a process of several tedious trips.

What I seem to forget is that I am moving to Mazatlan, an international port for centuries before American and Canadian tourists ‘discovered’ it. A real city, with both modern stores and traditional markets. 

While Bob’s suggestion sounds better each day, I’m stubborn. I have pared down to a few kitchen tools, some bathroom supplies, bedding and personal items. That sounds perfect. Or, it would be if I could remember when I pack a box that I won’t need forty-two towels. Just pack six towels, something to get started. Right? 

But I have to do it the hard way. For example, one day I packed a large tote with spices. Well, I grew and dried most of them myself—except for those things which do not grow here and probably originated from Mexico in the first place. Most of my spices inhabit delightful glass containers. And I must take this spice which I use for pickles is impossible to find on the grocery shelf in Harlem. That spice I bought in India; I haven’t used it yet, but I will. Pack. Re-think. Re-pack.

The following day I tackled my collection of teas. Teas from China, some from India, others from Britain by way of India, Malaysia and China; exotic and special teas. I filled another sizable box.
That night I lay awake, thinking. Why, Sweetheart, are you taking stuff you can buy fresh at the market in Mazatlan, silly woman? And let’s talk about your teas. You packed teas you don’t ever drink. Why not take only what you use, only what you envision using in your new life? Sometimes I hate that night voice.

Why not indeed! So this morning I opened the spice tote and condensed it by half. Then I tackled the teas. I have three, maybe four, favorites. They easily fit into the spice tote. Along with dish towels and miscellaneous kitchen items. Do you know anyone else who owns thirty-four wooden spoons? Do you realize how hard it is to pick four favorite most useful spoons and shove the other thirty into a drawer, out of mind. 

I love my iron pelican. How can I leave her behind? My collection of Japanese green glass fishing floats? Every piece of art, painting or pottery, has a story. I feel as if I am abandoning children. Ah, books. My 4,500 beloved books. Rocks. Teapots. Ceramic fish.

Every day, as I wander from room to room, my eye alights on treasure. Oh, I must take that. I look at the stack I’ve already boxed, harden my heart, and let it go.

I’m an artist. When I find my new home, I’ll fill it with delight, with beauty, with love, with stuff. I always do. In my new country, I won’t want just another version of my life and surroundings here. And isn’t there a law about nature and a vacuum? So I remind myself each day, let it go.

In my new home, I’ll take my time, create a new me in my new surroundings. And possibly I’ll buy a new wooden spoon. Or two. Hand carved by a local artisan.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 22, 2013