Today, I Made a State Trooper Cry

Today, I Made a State Trooper Cry

I didn’t mean to.

I’ve been on my painting road trip for a week now since leaving Phoenix, and my next stop is with my painter friend Joanne, in Dubois, Wyoming.  I had decided to drive halfway between Park City, Utah and Dubois to a campsite at a little state park in Fontanelle, WY.  As I cleared Park City and the ski areas fell behind me, eastbound I-80 opened up and became a nice, easy drive through low canyons and hills.  It’s at this point on road trips that my mind begins to clear, and the stuff that’s always lurking back there tiptoes its way forward.

The red bluffs marched by.  Perhaps there were a lot of subconscious things working on me- that I had just talked to one of my adopted mommas, Beth, or maybe the signs for natural history museums.  Either way, I found tears gnawing at the back of my eyes, and for a moment, my rational mind fought them. I hadn’t even seen them coming: one minute I was singing Creedence at the top of my lungs, next I was gasping for breath.

Jesus, Caroline, if you can’t be honest with yourself completely alone on some interstate, who are you lying to anyway?

And so I found myself bawling while driving on the interstate, unaware that I had even crossed from Utah into Wyoming.  Thirty, forty, fifty miles? Vision doubled, trebled, as I screamed past truckers in the left lane with tears streaming down my face.

I don’t know how long it had taken me to notice the cherries flashing in my side view mirrors, but I obediently swung over to the shoulder and rolled down my window as I grabbed my vehicle ID and the big white Suburban herded me over.

“Ma’am, license and registration please?” the trooper said.

“Yes sir.”  I tried to control my sobbing, and I could think of nothing else to say as I held my creds out the window for him.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“No sir.”

“You were doing 92.  Do you know what the speed limit is?”

I had remembered seeing 80 as I was clearing Park City.  80 on 80, I recall thinking briefly.   He continued, “Ma’am, the speed limit is 75 here in Wyoming.”  I turned to face him for the first time, tears streaming down my face.

“Ma’am, are you alright?”  In retrospect, I’m sure he had seen plenty of women attempt to weep their way out of a ticket.

“Yes sir.”

“You ought to take a break if you need to.”

“I’m fine.”

He must have sensed I was not an on-demand tears type of woman, for he inquired more gently, “What’s wrong?”

I put my head in my hands and sobbed.

“I  miss my mother.”

I wept for a few more moments before he said quietly, “I’m very sorry, ma’am.”

I turned to look at this person, a stranger, an authority figure, a man, and here I was, a grown-ass woman, crying for her mommy on the side of the interstate.

“Did you just lose her?” he continued.

I could not explain how the loss of my mother 32 years ago had so completely blindsided me on this Wyoming highway, and merely blurted out, “It was the mountains.”

“Excuse me?”

At this point, I had collected enough of myself to realize that I had better start making sense to this highway patrolman.

“When I was little, she said we would go to Wyoming together…”

I was five, just entering kindergarten.  I had told my mother when I proudly descended from the big yellow bus one day that we had had a talk in school about what we wanted to be when we grew up.

“And what did you say, honey?”

“I’m gonna be a paleontologist!”  I crowed. She knew that, and smiled.  My teacher had confessed to my mother during parent-teacher meetings earlier that week , “Mrs. Kwas, that word is bigger than her!”

“And what did she say?” my mother prompted me.

“She said, ‘What’s that?’ and I laughed!  She doesn’t know anything about dinosaurs!”  I was proceeding to lug one of my big brother’s books, one with maps, off the den shelf.  I began pawing through it.

“Wyoming is where this lady found a Brontosaurus!  I’m gonna go there and dig up dinosaurs too, Mommy!”

“And I’m going to go with you. We can dig up dinosaur bones together.”

“Really, Mommy?  You want to go?”

“Of course!  We’ll dig them up together.  Tyrannosaurs, and Packy-leps.”

“No! It’s Pachycephalosaurus, Mommy!”  I knew even then she was teasing me about the name, and she got a kick out of her tiny five year old hurricane of a daughter pronouncing words bigger than her.

“And we’ll take the station wagon and our shovels.”

“Montana too, Mommy?  There were lots of dinosaurs there too!”  I loved to talk about traveling with her.

“Montana, Wyoming, and Utah.  We’ll get the biggest dinosaur bones, baby.”

Those red rocks of Wyoming and Utah had savagely brought me back to the little girl who had never properly grieved the loss of her mother at 16.

Nineteen-year old me had said, “What’s done is done.  Can’t go back,” as she pounded back a seventh or eighth shot of vodka, and her cousin carried her home.

Thirty-one year old me had barked at best friends, “It’s been fifteen years!  Of course I dealt with it!” as she tore the cork of a bottle of bourbon and danced on the bar.

It took those red cliffs of Wyoming to silently stare at me in my solitude and my vulnerability, to face the hole in my heart that not only had never healed, but had never been addressed.  And I sat there weeping to this police officer– a stranger!– a story I had never even thought to tell my therapist, for chrissakes.  He excused himself, clearing his throat. I looked up at him again with pleading eyes, not for the ticket, but for my sanity.

“Sir, I have not been drinking. Please don’t think I’m crazy.  I left Park City two hours ago and I was fine, I’m on a business trip.  I don’t know what came over me.”  I hung my head in shame, and resignation.

“Please remain here.” He strode back to the Suburban. I leaned back in my captain’s chair, wondering why in the hell I had just told a state trooper some tangential childhood story.  I was probably going to have to do a field sobriety test now.  He returned momentarily, and held out my license and insurance card. I looked up directly at him, prepared for a condescending lecture and a ticket. Instead, he removed his hat with one hand, and his sunglasses with the other.  To my surprise, his eyes were damp, and he leaned down to my window.

“Ma’am, I lost a grandfather who was practically my own Pappy. I went off to the service shortly after he passed, and told myself real men get over things, and move on.  Some years later, while hunting, I saw a duck blind in Minnesota where I grew up, like where he taught me how to shoot and how to be a man, and it caught me probably the same way these mountains did you.  I sat with my shotgun in my lap in the woods and cried like a baby.”

He looked me in the eyes for a brief moment.

“Go find those dinosaur bones.  And don’t ever forget where you came from.”

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The red cliffs of Wyoming, which hold tons of fossils.

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The Maggot Explosion

I have wanted to write this story since I returned from California in December. Actually, no I haven’t. It wasn’t until some time had passed after I returned from California, and I told a couple of friends exactly what happened in my RV refrigerator that I grudgingly decided that I could share this story.

“OH MY GOD! That is the most disgusting thing ever! Did you throw up?”  No, but it was close.

“Do you still use the refrigerator?”  Yes. Of course I do. A new RV fridge runs about a cool grand.

“Did they fly out, or were they crawling around?”  Both, in fact.

I left last September for a couple of months of sun and fun in California, and instead of taking Bubbles, my RV, I decided to wing it in Little Girl, my conversion van. So I packed up the RV and left it at my friend’s farm, and my biggest concern then was packrats invading the engine. My friend Andy promised to peek in the engine compartment and fire her up every few days.

However, I did not plug Bubbles into any shore power. Why I neglected this is beyond me.  I know better.

The first week of December I returned from what had turned out to be a rather harrowing trip (that’s another story). I had a couple of beers with Andy, and took a brief glance inside Bubbles in the failing sunlight. Hmm, smells a little funky, but she’s been sitting for two and a half months. I then went to sleep one more night in Little Girl.

I fired up Bubbles the next morning, and drove to my spot at the Arizona Fine Art Expo. The smell was worse, and I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Maybe a mouse had died in the heating ducts somewhere? I noticed some drippy stuff coming from the refrigerator, and got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I put off opening it until I had checked in with my best bud Christine, who had also arrived on site in her RV.

“I’m a little worried about opening up my fridge,” I confessed.

“Why? Do you smell ammonia?”

“No…I think it might have kinda gone off while I was away.”

“How? Why? Didn’t you have the RV plugged into shore power while you were gone?”

No. I had not. And I had had a freezer full of food.

“That’s not good, but really it can’t be all bad since the freezer is a sealed space,” she said nonchalantly.  But I was beginning to suspect the worst.  I left her RV with dread. Stepping back into Bubbles, I looked closely at the drippies coming from the fridge door. They were quite fresh, and the smell was much stronger.  Gritting my teeth, I grasped the handle and unclasped the freezer door.

I was not prepared for the assault on all five of my senses.

I’m not sure what horrified me more: the smell that hit me like a fist, or the cloud of flying creatures that burst forth.  I do recall thinking, ohmygod this is what happens in CSI before bolting out the door to fresh air.  I stood out there, breathing sweet air for a moment, my mind reeling with that fraction of a second glimpse into hell.  Christine saw me standing there and yelled out her RV window.

“Well?”

I just shook my head and made my way over to her rig.

“It’s bad. Real bad. Things were flying out of my freezer.”

“Things? Like flies? How did they get in there?”

“I don’t know, things with wings! There’s a million of them! What the fuck do I do?”

Of course, I knew what I had to do. I had to clean it. It was my cookie, and I had to eat it.

“Do you think you lost all your food?”

“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t eat any of it even I didn’t.”

She looked at my horror-stricken face, and must have seen my mind trying to scramble a way to deal with the situation.

“You might want to just pull up next to the dumpster and toss it all in there,” she suggested, pointing at the big green dumpster across the parking lot. I stared at it, my mind recoiling from the next steps I had to take.

“That’s a good place to start,” I agreed, steeling myself for the task ahead.

“There’s rubber gloves and bleach in the kitchen,” she added as I walked back out to Bubbles.

“Right. Bleach. Bleach is my friend today.”

Parked alongside the dumpster, I stood uncertainly in front of the black fridge, planning my attack. Christine walked over with cardboard boxes in hand.

“You might want to chuck it all in a box and toss it into the dumpster from your RV.”

“I take it this has happened to you?”

“Yeah, but not with a full fridge and only for a few days.”

“I think I’m gonna take a page from CSI and put some Vicks under my nose.”

I took a deep breath and opened the freezer door again, steeling myself for the stench and flying things. I concentrated on the odor of Vicks as I stuck a gloved hand into the cardboard box that had once held my frozen, ziplocked items neatly together. What I lifted out was a squishy, dripping box from a nasty rotten soup that now filled the bottom of the freezer. I made it halfway out when the bottom gave out in a slushy cascade, and it was then that I noticed the squirming things. They were everywhere. Even the Vicks was losing its power, and I dropped the box and stood on the step of my RV fighting my stomach. Christine was still standing outside, completely unaware of how disgusting it really was.

“It can’t be that bad, can it?”

I just nodded.

“Lemme see…”

We entered the RV and she peeked in.

“Oh man…that’s bad!” She leaned in for a closer look. “Wow…there’s a million of them! How the hell did they get in there? I thought refrigerators were sealed units!”

I reached in and grabbed another rotten package.

“Ewwww…what was that?”

“Goat cheese, I think. Maybe bean soup. I can’t tell.” She peered into the festering mess I was plopping into the cardboard box.

“You know, my dad’s chickens went crazy for maggots. Maybe we can feed them to the chickens here at the petting zoo.”

I turned and stared at her, and picked up the gooshy box crawling with maggots and held it out to her.

“Have at it, sister.”

She recoiled, turned a bit grey and laughed. “Eh, on second thought, the chickens are pretty well fed already!”

Three hours later, the fridge was disinfected with a combination of Dawn, bleach, and baking soda. The freezer got the worst of it, because there’s a bottom panel that liquids can get under and you have to push on it to squeeze any out. To this day, I still have a slight odor and I seal everything in ziplock bags, but the refrigerator part is fine.

People say, “you learn something new everyday”, and not all those things are pleasant. That day, I learned first hand the five stages of a fly’s life, and they’re all equally repulsive. Oh, and don’t forget to keep the RV plugged into shore power if you’ve got a fridge full of food!

What are friends for? Well, sharing your maggoty moments with, of course!!

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What happens in the RV is not always fun and games!

Life at Expo

I’m reflecting on my time here at the Arizona Fine Art Expo as I work on the construction crew during “tear down”. This 44,000 square foot exhibit is being dismantled, piece by piece, for another season, and it’s always very sad as we all part ways for the summer. One hundred artists, not to mention the staff, have all been living, breathing, sleeping art for 75 days, seven days a week, 10 hours a day. Close friendships are formed, and it is unlike any other environment I’ve ever experienced. I affectionately call it “Artists’ Boot Camp.”

In my booth this year with some new pieces.

We share the struggle of creating art, of selling, of staying focused for two and a half months. There’s joys, laughter, frustration, rubbing each other the wrong way and the right way, happy hours, and sadness, as the advancing age of the core of artists takes its toll on this little village. Many of us work straight through, with no days off. Despite knowing that a day off rejuvenates, I feel I’m missing out the possibility of not only interacting with that next collector, but on the camaraderie and the interaction with my fellow creatives.

Lena Bigelow and I enjoying Happy Hour atop Craig Bergsgaard’s bronze horse in 2012.

It is here that I learned how to be an artist almost ten years ago, and realized I had met my tribe. This little hive of activity reinforces the necessity of being true to myself. Seeing new, young artists come here their first year and be utterly taken by the existence of this place reminds me of why I come back every year: it validates that, in this 9-5 world, we artists, in fact, work nearly 24/7. On the odd night that a group of us have energy and time to leave campus and socialize over dinner and drinks, we talk art. How to be better. How to create more. What we’re going to create in the future. Art is not a job; it’s a lifestyle.

Atalanta Kirk and I goofing around the last day of Expo in my first year, 2011.

Boothmates! Christine Hauber, Beth Benowich and I shared a booth this year and rocked it!

In case you missed it…

Last week, I wrote about the challenges in downsizing to a 29 foot motorhome.  Read about what’s involved here:

A Shift in Thinking

Making the transition to living fulltime in a motorhome requires a shift in thinking. Many things we take for granted living in a sticks-and-bricks house are serious considerations in an RV…read more

A Shift in Thinking

Making the transition to living fulltime in a motorhome requires a shift in thinking. Many things we take for granted living in a sticks-and-bricks house are serious considerations in an RV.

Water is a thing that one doesn’t think too much about in a house, but will be the most drastic adjustment. In an RV, you have a freshwater tank of maybe 20, 30 gallons (more if you have one of those palaces on wheels, but this post doesn’t apply to them). Showers are truncated-”navy showers”, as some call them, and there have been times I’ve gloried in a 2 gallon shower. I often use (and reuse) paper plates while traveling so I don’t have to wash dishes.

This leads me to an awkward topic- poop. If you become a fulltimer, you will eventually earn your own poop stories, and you will enjoy sharing them with fellow RV’ers around some campfire one day. It’s a rite of passage. My RV has a “black water” holding tank of 31 gallons. That’s a lot of shit. And it WILL stink. Especially in warm climates. Many of us use an enzyme-based additive, which has neat little critters that will happily munch up all that poop, smell nice, and also be gentle on the environment. They have to be fed regularly (wink, wink) like any pet. But if you ignore them, and use too little water to flush, you will discover a poop pyramid one day. Trust me on this. And you will have to find a poop stick. But I digress…

My current situation at Expo allows me the luxury of “checking my emails” in a real bathroom, which means my RV bathroom gets less use. Remember what I said about the little critters? They still need to be fed. About once a week. I forgot last month, so enchanted was I with the fancy plumbing available, that the other warm afternoon I returned to Bubbles (my RV) and all I could say was Holy Shit!!! All my little pets had died, and any contributions I had since made to my 401P just, well, you know. Stank. I put that on my to-do list for the next morning: check email and add new critters.

I also don’t like to have to move the RV while I’m here, since my schedule is insane. So before I set my rig at the start of the show, I trundled down to the Shell station, filled my propane and dumped my tanks. And had to reset my body to, ahem, check my email, during the show’s open hours.

My teeny tiny RV head.

This lifestyle brings you closer to things that really matter- seizing unique travel opportunities, whittling down what you need versus what you want, and being more in tune with nature, both outside our bodies and inside. But it’s a journey well worth taking. Just think of the stories you’ll have for those future campfires!

Why is the Sky Purple?

I’m winding down another 3 months of living, breathing, and sleeping art here at the Arizona Fine Art Expo, and I’ve just finished my last big painting before I head off to California for the summer. It’s a grueling 10 weeks, since the show is open 10- 6, 7 days a week, plus I also help run the cafe. It’s difficult to paint while the show is open, since there’s always people to talk to about your art and sales to be made, but I managed to complete 15 paintings this season. This last painting I titled It’s Not Easy Being Green, and it’s 30 x 60. Usually I sweat and groan over naming my work, and often turn to my fellow artists for suggestions. This one, however, was named inadvertently by a patron. A woman was watching me as I had just started it, and it was a hot mess of orange and purple. She obviously loved my colors, and stayed to watch me splash those first strokes down (yeah, that takes some getting used to, having people watch you paint, knowing you’re probably making a giant mess of things) and then went to get her husband. A few minutes later, she returned with a bored looking husband in tow, and raved to him about the colors in my work.

“Aren’t cactus supposed to be green?” he grumbled. Poof. I suppose they left me and bought a green cactus. I hope he’s happy. I hope she’s happy.

But it made me think about how I explain my wildly colored view of the desert landscape, besides “It’s my damn world!” It takes not only imagination and vision, but courage to put those colors down, and know that while some people will absolutely get what I’m trying to convey, others won’t. Sometimes those people will be married.

It’s Not Easy Being Green, 30 x 60, oil on canvas. A quick shot by fellow artist Ron Kirk. Still not color retouched. EDIT 4/17: This painting sold on the last day of the show!

 

I’ve been a photorealistic painter, and I began painting in this style to convey my emotional response to nature through color and move beyond reality, and allows me the freedom to use imagination. Why is the sky purple in this particular piece? Because when I stood at the base of this giant saguaro two weeks ago and it was lit up by the rising orange full moon, there was more to that scene than a blue-black night sky and a dimly lit cactus. There was a gentle majestic giant in front of me, soaring into a velvet sky, and he deserved to be lit up in gold and crimson like the king of the Sonoran Desert that he is. He needed that deep royal violet sky to complement him, to surround him, and most of all, he deserved a lot of color.

My RV as Art Studio

As a traveling artist, I have my studio in my motorhome. It’s taken a lot of downsizing to adjust to working in a tiny space. Before I took off and left the sticks-and-bricks lifestyle, I had a nice sized room with plenty of shelves and storage. Now, everything must be carefully considered, down to the size canvases I plan to work on over the next few months. I work in oil, and I like to have several paintings going at once at various stages of completion. It can get a little hairy with wet paintings hanging out everywhere, and needless to say, my RV has paint smudges everywhere- the bathroom, microwave, inside the fridge. This used to drive a former OCD boyfriend insane, (and mercifully out of the relationship) but I am a slightly chaotic person and this is one of my occupational hazards. I have become accustomed to purple and green smudges on my sheets.

 

Two views of my work space in Bubbles, my RV. Yeah, it gets messy.

I can comfortably work on anything up to 18 x 24, though I’ve lived with a couple of 36 x 48 pieces while finishing my project for Mojave National Preserve. I’m a box hound- I scrutinize every box we are discarding here in the cafe at Arizona Fine Art Expo to see if it could work in the 29 foot mobile studio I also call home. When you’re living and working in the same small space, finding the right box balance is crucial.

Taking a selfie break.

Have Brushes, Will Travel

For the past six years, I have traveled through the country exhibiting my paintings. Inspiration can strike me anywhere, and I’m always ready with paints and brushes. For the past eight years, I’ve called the Phoenix area my winter home, and I’ve worked and exhibited at the Arizona Fine Art Expo. I’ve fallen in love with the Southwestern deserts and their brilliant sunsets. Traveling solo has allowed me to discover myself as well. One of my most empowering experiences was when I spontaneously decided to take off in “Little Girl,” my conversion van (yes, I must be able to sleep comfortably in any vehicle I own) and camp in the Mojave Desert. I saw no one for three days. After being told for years by a partner that I couldn’t travel alone, that I couldn’t manage such a big, old, and unreliable vehicle by myself, here I was sleeping under the stars, surrounded by cactus and the sound of coyotes (on my built-in-bed with the van doors open!).

This spring, when I leave Expo again, I am considering exploring Utah and Wyoming to visit a painter friend. I’m not sure if I want to take my RV or just the van; it depends on how off-road I may get. But the idea is exhilarating, and I’ll be finalizing my plans as this show winds down at the end of March. Stay tuned to my blog, as I post RV adventures along with my artwork!

Bubbles and I ready to roll!

 

Little Girl nestled in the Joshua trees somewhere in the Mojave Desert.