Posts Tagged ‘Susan Troccolo’

Written by Contributor Susan Troccolo

What’s better than a road trip with a good buddy? Some people may have thought: boyfriend. Some of you thought, no way, I like to travel with my dog. But girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, dog, or your current stud muffin…… a good road trip friend is a great friend indeed.   Just think what you find out about this—ahem—person: the music she likes on the road, favorite snack foods, if he has a wandering spirit or if he goes straight to the destination. Can he read a map? Does she know the value of a cup of bad coffee and funky cookies at the rest stops? Can he handle a gas pump and get those yucky yellow squishers off the windshield? Can she harmonize to Jackson Browne’s Runnin’ on Empty? (Okay. That’s for extra points.) What have I forgotten? Tons, I’m sure.
La Conner Rainbow Bridge and boat2_small  Last fall, my friend Susan and I went for a week to La Conner, Washington, a trip  of about 250 miles from Portland, where we both live. I wish I could say it was  purely for fun, but the fact was we had so much fun that next time we won’t need  an excuse. No, Susan and I went to look in on my aunt who had suffered life- shattering losses within two years’ time: the deaths of her husband and her daughter, Jenny. It is such unimaginable loss that she has needed lots of support. And in that magical way these things work, I needed some support of my own. In stepped Susan to fill a pretty big void. I had not even thought someone would be ready and able to make such a trip with me, but Susan was. As a road trip buddy, she is an A+.

Have you noticed as we grow older how much we rely on our friends? Frankly, I don’t know what I would do without my friends. I am grateful for them every single day. It’s possible that we don’t even know yet how the depth and kindness of our friends help make life worth living, but as the years go by, I believe it will become clearer and clearer.

La Conner is a charming small town that has retained all itsView of Strait of Juan de Fuca_small charming small-townness. You’ll see the famous Rainbow Bridge that connects La Conner to Fidalgo Island, which includes the city of Anacortes, jumping off point for ferries going to Vancouver, Victoria, and parts of the San Juan Islands. The Swinomish reservation is there and the center of town is a historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The San Juan Islands contain some of the most magnificent scenery in our country. They make up an archipelago in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States between the US mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Four islands are accessible by passenger ferry operated by the Washington State Ferries system.

Butterfly lifecycle sign close up_smallApril and May are great times to visit La Conner and, actually, the entire Skagit Valley, because the annual tulip festival is in all its colorful glory. My aunt describes the show as “rainbows on the ground.” Short of hopping on an international flight to Keukenhof Gardens in Holland, you can’t find a more exquisite display of acres and acres of tulips. Just be sure to book your accommodation early—the sooner the better. And, for you gardeners, you may enjoy the small but lovely Butterfly Garden in the historic part of La Conner. I loved seeing the LifeCycle of the Butterfly at the entrance.

As we left La Conner, we drove slowly through the Skagit Valley,LaConnerSweetShop_small stopping to sample farmers’ markets and flower stands all along the road. Mount Rainier was glorious in the sunshine. Susan bought spot shrimp at a price she can never find in Portland. And then we yakked all the way home.

What a great trip, full of the best life has to offer. Love and service to others, beauty, good food, and lots of laughter. What do you look for in a road trip companion? If you say someone who stops for immodest ice-cream cones, I’ll completely understand.sign-immodest ice-cream cones_small

Cross-posted at Life.Change.Compost.


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Labor Day weekend and a girl’s fancy turns to……pork ribs. And not just pork ribs, how about perfectly tart cole slaw, corn bread and honey, baked beans, grilled vegetables and peach pies with lattice tops–pies so full of farmer’s market Sweet Sue’s that you strain to carry the dish? Now we’re talking.

I’ve been a rib lover since I was three years old. Despite my allegiance to more healthful foods, I crave ribs at least once a year. It is my tried and true comfort food. I know good ribs from mediocre. According to my dad, I loved ribs so much that my folks put me in the bathtub to eat them. You could say I really got into the experience. Sauce in my hair, sauce on my face, ears, clothes….apparently the bathtub was the only alternative until I was old enough to clean myself up.

So when I planned a summer party with ribs on the menu, I had to suss out the best that Portland had to offer. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. The catering department of an outfit in town (who shall remain nameless) was doing everything else right, but their ribs were definitely second rate: heck, they weren’t even ribs! They were little hors d’ oeuvresy things: baked in the oven instead of smoked, smothered in a sticky sweet sauce and over seasoned.  And where was the delectable meat falling off the bone? Bird bones was more like it. It was time to find a smoked rib purist, somebody steeped in the culinary art form.

On the trail of the holy grail of summer, we started out with the farmer’s market. The verdict: ribs done in a real smoker? Yes. Local meat? Surprisingly, no, and with a rub that was too aggressive for my taste. Also the meat was dry. After that we checked out the online reviews and tried three other well-known places in town. All disappointing. A great spot in NE didn’t deliver or do large orders, so that was a no go. Time was running out.

Then we discovered SlabTown Ribs and BBQ, a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint at 2606 NW Vaughn. Hard to miss it —the smoker out front is the size of a rail car and just as grungy, the way a smoker ought to be. Inside you can check out the awards and trophies lining the walls while you figure out whether to go with the brisket, the pork ribs or something else on the menu. And sauces?

The staff will offer you one of three sauces: Kansas City Classic, Texas Hot, or Carolina Style Mustard, but like me, you may figure out that the meat is so fall-off-the-bone tender and the flavor so succulently smoky, that you don’t even need the sauce.

The morning after the garden party, I came downstairs to raid the refrigerator still wearing my white cotton nightgown. What is better than ribs and peach pie for breakfast? Only roasted turkey, gravy, and stuffing sandwiches the morning after Thanksgiving has the same cachet.

 I pigged out. I gobbled up three ribs and two pieces of peach pie before feeling completely decadent and satisfied. Then I noticed the fallout: my perfect glossy red manicure covered over with sauce, sauce on my chin, cheeks, and unfortunately, all over my white cotton nighty. I looked like an extra from Dracula.

It occurred to me to call Dad to tell him about the successful party, but should I tell him about the fiasco unleashed all over my face and nightgown? Besides I already knew the answer. He’d just say: Susie, my girl, why didn’t you have your breakfast in the bathtub?

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On our way to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in northeast Arizona, I call ahead to the visitors’ center to ask about a Navajo guide who can accompany us into the canyon for several days. With a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle we can safely manage most of the roadless sand track, but leaving the rim and driving into the canyon requires the services of a guide from the Navajo nation. This is the best way to experience the park and more deeply understand its people and its past. Canyon de Chelly is the convergence of two ancient canyons, estimated to be perhaps thirty million years old. The walls of the canyons are dusky dark red and 1,000 or more feet high. The dwellings of the people who finally came to be known as the Dine’ or Navajo are tucked high into the rock formations, into the layers of geological time. The canyon is one of the most exquisite places in the whole of the American Southwest: dramatic, evocative and still alive with Navajo culture, even if it takes a little work to find it.

We realize that it will be a stroke of luck to find the right guide, someone who is knowledgeable and sensitive to the requirements of a large-format photographer like Patrick. There may be hours of sitting quietly in one place and watching the light change. Black & White photography using a view camera takes great patience. The Canyon de Chelly park ranger on the phone says simply, “You want my wife, Deborah. She is cleaning houses today, but she is the one you want.”

It turns out that Deborah is not a guide, but wants to be. What Deborah is, is better than a certified guide: She is a young Navajo woman born and raised in her hogan a few miles from the canyon, a woman who still visits her grandmother’s land on the canyon floor to help harvest corn, squash and watermelon. The guidebooks call a certain trail “tunnel trail.” Deborah says everybody knows it is “sheep trail.” The guidebooks talk about a high water table in the canyon. Deborah says she used to dig a hole a foot deep to get her own water when she was thirsty. She knows that the pictographs at Antelope House were made later by a man the Navajos call “Mr. Little Lamb.” She is the perfect guide for us.

Deborah has strong Indian features and a mane of black hair that falls down her back. She stands proudly and moves like a cat. In the days that follow, we learn that her real name is Esstaish, meaning soft lady, a name given to her by her father. All Navajos identify themselves by the clan they are born into and the clan they are born from. Deborah says she is from the Coyote Pass People to the Mexican Water People. There are about 130 different clans now, all derived from four original ones.

While Patrick is photographing, Deborah teaches me about the Navajo language and the old, almost-forgotten words. She tells me there is a single word for  those who travel in groups, another for they came again into being. There is a word for to where he has never been and one for because there are bodies of water there. One word, nizhi, means someone’s name, voice and body–I guess, in a way, nizhi is the totality of that person.

There is a particular rock face that Patrick loves, and now he stands studying it. He takes in the sky and the gathering clouds; there is not enough light to get the photograph he wants. Hawks ride thermals high above the canyon floor and the wind howls.  Deborah is sitting in the sand eating pumpkin seeds, her cascade of black hair lifted on the ends by the wind. Soon we hear heavy thunder and see the electric white jag of lightning. The clouds are moving in opposite directions; the top layer moves east to west, and the layer beneath it, heavy with black rain, moves west to east. Sometimes the clouds break apart for a few seconds and we see sun and a light sky behind them. In those moments, the rock face glows with an unearthly light.

Deborah says she will name this rock Patience Rock. Says the rock is a she.

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There are two tantalizing stories in the airline magazine on the plane to Maui that grab me: one about the newly emerging bluegrass scene, the other a write-up announcing the annual Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival. Oh boy, what lucky timing. During my stay on the island, I can hear a celebration of music created on the Hawaiian steel guitar–featuring Henry Kaleialoha Allen, one of the kings of the genre–and some bluegrass jamming on the beach. It doesn’t get better than that.

The festival is being held at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, known as “Hawaii’s most Hawaiian hotel,” committed to maintaining a genuine Hawaiian cultural experience. The hotel made National Geographic‘s list of 150 truly authentic and sustainable resorts. I walk from the place I’m staying and find myself in a soft universe with one big pool–shaped like a whale–and acres of green lawn dotted with grass umbrellas and lawn chairs. People are making leis out of flowers and seed pods, local folks are tuning up instruments and drinking beer at the Tiki bar. Steel guitars, metal-bodied Resonators for playing rock and roll and the blues, even ukuleles are for sale. As well as some types of guitars I’ve never seen before.

It isn’t a big stretch from the lap slide steel, dobro and pedal steel guitars, associated with country music and bluegrass, to Hawaiian music and vice versa. Playing a guitar laid flat and using a bar to slide up and down the strings has been done on the islands for a very long time; the first musicians probably used whatever they could get their hands on to slide up and down the neck of the guitar–a hollow or solid metal bar, a metal tube, a knife edge–hence the name “steel” guitar. It makes the distinctive fluid tones that many love and drive others crazy.

The formal lineup for the festival starts late: the major is here, other dignitaries too, and they want to talk about all the things dignitaries like to yak about. But there is no stopping the jamming all around the edges. And to my surprise, when the musicians come on, they are more jazz than Don Ho, more Yoshi’s than Blue Hawaii. This is Hawaiian Fusion–a little Appalachia, a little Aloha. And the crowd is about as mellow and welcoming as you would expect on a warm, sweet night with the fragrance of plumeria, tuberose, and orchids in the air.

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Swan Island dahlia farm, oregonSeptember is casting its slant light, some days are still bright and some are wet and steely gray; but before autumn blankets the ground with leaves, try not to miss the fields of sturdy and magnificent color at the Swan Island Dahlia farm in Canby, Oregon. It’s a great tonic for the fall and winter ahead.

I went to the Annual Dahlia Festival on its last day, September 6th. It was a brilliant day and the fields were filled with people strolling, laughing at dahlia names (Hissy Fitz, Rock Star, Mango Madness…) and admiring the immense variety. Families brought picnic lunches and sat alongside the fields, and the staff was busy taking orders for shipment in the spring. Although the festival is over, you can still visit the fields through September: seven days a week from 8 am to 6 pm. Fresh-cut flowers are always available, so you can take huge bouquets to fill your home and give away to friends. Swan Island currently has 40 acres in cultivation with more than 350 varieties of dahlias. This family-owned and operated business is now the country’s largest dahlia grower.

I came late to dahlias. Maybe it was the prim little Pom Pon varieties in pastel colors that fooled me, but that was before I understood Pacific Northwest gardening. I wasFreedom fighter dahlia, swan island dahlias, oregon slow to understand what it would mean in late October or even November, to have a big, assertive, and showy flower willing to bloom boldly in the fading light. When the chickadees were pecking out the last of the seeds of the drooping sunflowers, when all the color was draining meekly out of my perennial beds, the dahlias–tropical in origin and sassy in spirit–would stand against the gray and bloom big until one freezing day, when they would suddenly turn to black, messy rags and be gone.

But until that one day in late autumn, a dahlia will give you its all. And that is something.

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The landscape of Bhutan is beautiful–rugged mountains, green rice paddies, mango and banana groves, rhododendrons, pine forests. There are white orchids and hundreds of bird species. But it was the warm, hospitable people and their customs that thrilled us most. Happiness is a high value here.

Lhaden, girl in Bhutan, Bhutanese schoolgirl Young Lhaden was pleased to have her picture taken and to talk with us. English is the second language of Bhutan and most people, especially children, love to try it out. She told us she is the eldest of seven children and hopes to go to college, and she probably will. It’s free for all children whose grades are good. At a rural school we visited, with gifts of simple books in English, paper and pens, we were rewarded with broad smiles.

When we met the youthful monks at the Punakha Dzong monastery they laughed and posed in their red robes with saffron collars as they stood near red and gold prayer wheels. Shy and polite, they were also playful, pretending to throw one of their brethren over the monastery wall.  This lighthearted attitude is part of Bhutanese Buddhism.  The most popular figure in Bhutan’s history is a 15th century monk, Drukpa Kunley, known as Divine Mad Monk. He was known for his shocking behavior, singing and teaching in non-traditional ways.

Along with icons such as the snow leopard, dragon, tiger, and garuda (a mystical bird), penises are seen everywhere in Bhutan. They’re drawn on buildings and carved in wood, often with a carved sword, which signifies the cutting away of ignorance. Our guide told us that the phallic symbol, called “thunder dorje,” stands for protection of the home, and the many legends around it stem from, who else, Divine Mad Monk. Apparently he used dorji (“thunderbolt” in Bhutanese) to subdue demonesses. Whatever the truth of the unruly behavior of Divine Mad Monk, most men adore hearing they have a thunder dorje, instead of the standard issue.

When we left, enriched by the landscape, stories, and people, Lhaden’s farewell words took on all the meaning of Bhutan: “Madam, wish you happy!”

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Susan TroccoloBefore I had the pleasure of travel for fun, I traveled as a road warrior in pantyhose and girl shoes. For one full year, my territory was western Canada. I wasn’t traveling “lighthearted” yet–work is work after all–but I did learn how to pack light enough to toss my bag from the dock onto a commuter sea-plane.  

One of my frequent work destinations was the futuristic, wind-swept city of Calgary, Alberta.  As a small town southern California girl, I never got used to stepping outside the airport to bitter winter winds that made my nose hairs freeze. 

The night that opened my heart to lighthearted travel occurred in icy February. I arrived late in Calgary and checked into one of those homogeneous high-rise hotels for business travelers like me. The only thing on my mind was the swimming pool in the health center on the top floor. But where was the fluffy white hotel robe that is de rigueur? And why the heck didn’t I pack any flip flops along with my bathing suit? I’d packed only a thin cotton robe. 

At ten o’clock, the hotel halls were quiet. I looked right, then left. Nobody. Just the ubiquitous trays of soggy leftover cheeseburgers and fries, tiny salt and pepper shakers, one vase with one limp daisy. 

I pushed the elevator button impatiently; this was going to be a quick dash up 5 floors to the pool and back again.

When the door opened, I gasped. The elevator was filled with men carrying briefcases: eight gentlemen in long white robes, with white turbans and wisps of long wiry hair. They looked at me and I looked down, wiggling one bare toe over the other. 

Then the oldest of the gentlemen spoke in a kind, but weary voice, like a grandfather:     “Come in dear, you will never be safer.”

Susan Troccolo is a writer, gardener, and community volunteer. She travels light and lighthearted whenever she can.

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