Category Archives: On the Road

One Woman’s Brokeback Mountain

Every so often, I come across a human story that rivets me. Here’s one.

Nayla Tawa, a lanky brunette with large blue eyes, was an extreme snowboarder.

nayla eat snowShe flew to Kyrgyzstan to go boarding in uncharted mountains, and to make a film about villagers who were trying to create a winter sports center to bring much-needed income to their town. On the first day , however, she had a car accident that broke her back in three places and stopped the film in its tracks. Ultimately, it set the stage for a different film.

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My Dinner with Mick

When I was in my 20’s, in the Stone Age, I was married to a disc jockey and obsessed with Mick Jagger.  Several close friends and I had rich fantasies about him, so I arranged to write a story about Mick, covering the Rolling Stones’ European tour in 1970 for the Atlantic.Jagger_FentonI was kicked off  the tour after two days, for reasons I’ll explain, but I still had to do the story.  So I wrote a piece I thought was slight—embarrassingly slight.  I hadn’t looked at it in 40 years when I unearthed it last week.

I’m about to downsize, moving from a house in the foothills of the Rockies to a condo in the center of town. I’ve been purging my stuff, going through boxes I’ve been carting around for 30 years but never opened, which contain research files, notebooks, diaries and old articles. I pulled out a 1971 copy of the Atlantic with my story, “Mick Jagger Shoots Birds.” I started reading it and was surprised at how sharp and funny it was, not the embarrassment I’d remembered. Friends urged me to post it now, so I’ve done that below.

WHAT HAPPENED:

I flew to Copenhagen where the Stones were beginning the tour, and joined the crowd of reporters and photographers camped in the lobby of their hotel. I was wearing a lavender, form-fitting nightgown that, in those days, passed as a dress, and I’d straightened my long, then dark hair, so it hung to the center of my back.

003“They’re coming! The Stones!” people shouted. The hotel doors burst open and in they came, along with bodyguards and staff whose job was to keep “the boys” out of reach of the press and fans. The Stones were at their zenith of popularity then, with fresh songs that both created and reflected the zeitgeist: “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man.”

As they walked past me, Bobby Keys, the saxophone player who toured and recorded with the Stones, grabbed my arm.

“You play poker?” he said.

“Um… no.”

He shrugged. “Come and watch then.”

He pulled me into the elevator where I suddenly stood face to face with Mick. I went into shock. Bobby, obviously, thought I was a groupie, and the others started referring to me as “Bobby’s friend.” When we came out of the elevator and headed for Mick’s room, Bobby asked what I was doing in Copenhagen. “Actually, I’m a reporter,” I said. He stopped short, and blew out his breath. Then he said, “Don’t mention that,” and hustled me into Mick’s room

For the rest of the night, I sat paralyzed, afraid to speak, which supported their assumption that I was a groupie, a breed who have learned to be seen and not heard. While the boys played poker, smoked joints, and engaged in raunchy talk, I concentrated on memorizing what they said. I knew that if they found out who I was, I’d be cooked. Around midnight, I made up an excuse to tell Bobby  why I had to leave, and he urged me to come back the next day before the concert.

Bobby Keys, who played the saxophone solo on “Brown Sugar” and other hits, died of cirrhosis in 2014.

Bobby Keys, who played the saxophone solo on “Brown Sugar” and other hits, died of cirrhosis in 2014.

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Bad Trip – Good Story

Part one of a two-part blog

“The worst trips make the best reading,” Paul Theroux, the vaunted travel writer, says, because they’re stories of survival.

When people ask about my recent trip to China, I say, “It was the best of trips and the worst of trips.” Spending time with my son, Andrew, who lives there, was enriching and delightful. But we experienced the biggest travel disaster I’ve known.

Mom and Son

Andrew had gone to China right after graduating from U.C. San Diego. He’d planned to spend a year learning Mandarin, then come home and get a joint business-law degree. Sight unseen, he picked out a language school on the Internet in a city he couldn’t pronounce—Shijiazhuang—that had 9 million people but only a hundred foreigners. He chose that school because it offered four hours of one-on-one instruction every day, which is critical when you’re trying to learn to make sounds like qi and xie.

That was six years ago. He fell in love with China, and with a beautiful and vivacious young Chinese woman, made numerous friends and was welcomed into the city’s business community. He started a Chinese internet company devoted to photography lighting, and found he could lead a very good life—four bedroom apartment, car and driver and a maid who cooks and cleans 7 days a week—for a fraction of what that would cost in America.

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Bad Trip – Part 2

 Part two of the best and worst trip to China. To read part one, click here.

After two hours of climbing the “Path to the Heaven” with no end in sight, my knees gave out and I refused to go further. Terry, my sister, went on climbing hoping to find help, and after a few minutes, called to me that she’d reached the top and found my son, Andy, and his girlfriend, Yang Fei. They scampered down to help me to the top, where we saw a wide road with buses ferrying Chinese tourists up and down the mountain. We hadn’t seen a soul on the Path to the Heaven and now we knew why: everyone else took the bus! I learned, later, we had climbed 3,000 feet.

Exhausted, feeling nearly crippled, I swallowed some Advil and sat happily on a bench while the others took a tour of the Avatar sites, which they said were magnificent and surreal.

The next morning my knees were okay, but we had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the first of two flights to Shijiazhuang, my son’s home. (Henceforth I’ll call it Shiz) We had a six-hour layover between flights. Andy discovered a spa at the airport, where we could have massages and rest. Every day we’d been in China we had foot massages that are like no other foot treatment in the world. We were given a private room with four beds, a flat screen TV, and served tea and snacks when we wished. As we stretched out on the beds in the airport spa, four therapists walked in carrying tubs of warm milk with rose petals floating in them. As we soaked our feet, they massaged our heads, necks and shoulders.

They spent 90 minutes on the feet, kneading, rubbing, pounding and pressing tiny points on the toe and between toes and under and over the bones with such specificity that it was breathtaking. All for about $12. When they finished, my feet had never felt so alive, as if fireworks were going off under the skin. I could feel every fiber of my sock when I slipped it on. We watched a movie and took naps until it was time to check in for our final flight.

That’s when disaster struck. The flight was canceled at the last minute because of fog around Shiz. The airline said they’d put us on a flight the next night or refund our money. The next night was not an option. Andy had allotted us only one full day in Shiz before we had to fly home from Beijing. The main point of my coming to China was to see his home, his company, meet his staff and his dog and have dinner with Yang Fei’s parents. If we couldn’t get to Shiz for that last day, we’d have to leave China without seeing any of it.

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Naked, With Bats

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I had a peak experience over Labor Day that involved hundreds of thousands of bats, a double rainbow and naturists of all ages. I would not have had this experience if I hadn’t accepted a peculiar travel suggestion from my sister, Terry, to go to Valley View Hot Springs in southern Colorado with several friends. I’d long heard of Valley View as a former hippie watering place. Although I love hot springs, I imagined it would have funky bathroom options, messy kitchens and spacey people concocting meals that contain no meat, no gluten, no dairy and possibly no taste.

But… Terry told me there was an extraordinary natural phenomenon to be witnessed there. A large colony of Mexican Free-tailed bats spend the summer months in a collapsed mine near the hot springs. At dusk every night, the bats fly out of what’s called the “Glory Hole,” creating a flying black river across the San Luis Valley. I decided to go for the bats.

Photos by friend, Cheryl Vonn

Because it was a holiday weekend, Valley View–which has campsites and cabins–was sold out except for a room in a community house, where people use a shared kitchen and shared bathroom across the dirt road. I took it, thinking it would be like camping, with an indoor bed.

Checking in at the Welcome Center, I was told the entire resort is clothing optional. I’d been to places like Esalen in Big Sur, hot springs by the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Strawberry Park near Steamboat, Colorado, where the drill is: you walk to the hot pool area, take off your clothes and slide in, and after emerging, put the clothes back on.

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Dodging Bombs and Tsunamis

The guesthouse where we stayed in Afghanistan last fall was attacked on Thursday by Taliban, who killed 16 people, including Indian doctors and other foreigners working on humanitarian projects.

The insurgents set off a car bomb, then a suicide bomber detonated himself and the insurgents stormed the Park Residence where I’d stayed with 8 members of a women’s peace delegation organized by Code Pink. (Click here for report on that trip) I was on a plane to Hawaii for a writing retreat when this happened, and on hearing the news I went into shock.

There but for fortune…

Faces flashed through my mind: the stooped Afghan lady who cleaned my room, the porter, the desk clerks and the foreigners we met in the dinning room. The guesthouse was modest and shabby by Western standards, but our guide had chosen it because he thought it was “safe,” unlike the fancier hotels where journalists and diplomats stay.

I felt, with renewed force, the anguish that Afghans live with every day, and found it difficult to enjoy the 80 degree sunshine and luxuriant waves, sand and tropical flowers. Why had it been their time and not mine? Why would this war never cease, and even if it did, wouldn’t others arise in its place? Where is peace, and what can we do to hasten it when few good deeds go unpunished?

The questions roiled in me the following day and I slept fitfully that night. At 5:30 a.m., I heard my cell phone go off. Who the hell could be calling? Someone from the mainland who didn’t realize how early it is in Hawaii?

It was my niece, Summer, in Honolulu. “There’s a tsunami coming,” she said.

What?

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