Interstate 10 cuts through some of the worst sections of New Mexico and Texas. I was driving from Tucson, Arizona, to Galveston, Texas. It was a long, hot drive of flat desert that looked barren after the unique, fairly lush
That night I stayed at a cheap hotel in a small town outside El Paso because I didn’t have the energy to search for a camp ground, pitch a tent, or lie on the army cot in the back of my hot minivan. The town was really just a place for truckers and travelers on the Interstate to stop. There were a number of cheap hotels and motels, along with a diner, a few houses, an abandoned, shut down RV park, and a small church that looked like a square, cheaply built cabin of stone and wood with a sign and a wooden cross in front of it inviting people to services three different nights in the week though I can’t imagine where the people would be culled from for its congregation. I complained about Texas on Facebook, revealing where I was. A kind friend from my long ago days of teaching overseas for the University of Maryland on military bases read it, contacted me, and invited me to stay with him for a night or two. I’ll call him D here. A couple of other friends from those “Gypsy Scholar” days, as we called it, lived near him, so I would get to see all three of them. I was going to be driving near where he lived, so I accepted. It was a good break from driving, a chance to see old friends, and a chance to sleep in a real bed.
I met D while both of us taught for UMUC on the military bases on Okinawa almost twenty years ago. I moved on, teaching at other military bases throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and then moved back to the US, but he stayed on Okinawa. Eventually, he and several other teachers from Okinawa retired to this small area in the Texas hill country above Houston. Two of them had also been friends of mine. They are around twenty years older than I, give or take a few years. This was a wonderful opportunity to get back in touch with all of them.
It was no easy task to find his home in Wimberley. The Texas hill country towns are nestled among winding mountain roads that wander past ranches, peach, pecan and other fruit orchards, several small wineries, lots of forest, several small creeks and rivers, and a lot of small, quaint, old towns. It did not fit my past experiences with Texas landscapes; it was surprisingly pretty. Tourism is a big industry there. Eventually I made it to D’s house. We met up with another friend who lives in a nearby town, and we all went out to dinner and had a good time reminiscing. I begged them to take me to see the third friend, whom I had lost touch with over the years because she was terrible at writing letters or email, but who had been a kind of mentor and good friend while we were on Okinawa. I’ll call her B here. B was currently in what is euphemistically called a ‘rest home,’ or 'nursing home,' but is really a place to put old or chronically ill people who can’t function on their own anymore. My friends warned me she didn’t have much memory and drifted in and out of what must be a kind of dementia. She was permanently bed ridden. These two kind, long time friends faithfully visit her every week, bringing her books and anything else she needs.
The three of them had bought houses near each other in this small Texas town, right after they retired. After awhile, B started falling. She called the paramedics to help her after each major fall. After the third call to 911, the state of Texas decided she could not live on her own anymore. She was sent to a home that offered physical therapy to help her learn to get around with her arthritis and other physical problems. She hated it there and convinced one of these friends to help her escape from it. That home refused to allow her back when it became obvious even to B that she was too frail to manage on her own, so she was forced to go to the home she is in now, which is a fairly good one. It took a long time for her to make peace with her situation. She was depressed for a long while. She gradually grew to accept her situation; she drifted in and out of her mind and jokingly referred to her care givers as her “minions.” I can’t help wondering: what if she had stayed at the first home and worked hard in the physical therapy? Maybe she would be able to walk around now, maybe she could even now be living with a companion instead of in the home. Who knows?
My friends agreed to take me the next day to see her. The home itself seemed decent enough as those places go: well run, clean, professional, and the nurses seemed to take good care of the residents. But it was horribly depressing. The hallways were tiled and clean, but smelled like a hospital. It looked like a hospital, with rooms off the corridor, one after another, with two patients to a room. B shared a room with another elderly woman in a similar state. It looked like a hospital room. A curtain separated them when they had company or wanted privacy. B was living in a hospital bed with her legs together, curled up with her knees toward the ceiling, as though she were trying to kneel, but she lay on her back, her legs frozen in that position because of how advanced her arthritis has become. A small nightstand with a drawer stood next to her, just like in a regular hospital, and near that, a tray on a stand with wheels that could be pulled over the bed for her to eat or write. There were several chairs for visitors to sit on, and a window that looked out over a wide lawn. There were no other personal items visible. This was her whole life now.
D announced cheerily, “Hi B. We’re here early this week because we brought someone to visit you! Do you remember Patty from Okinawa?” He brought his dog, which ambled in and sat beside the bed. He and his dog are rarely separated. The home allows people to bring pets into the rooms. The dog is used to these visits and settled quietly by the chair D sat down in, propping his cane on the wooden arm of it. I sat in the chair next to him. B smiled vacantly. My other friend, I’ll call her M, sat on the end of the bed and started talking about things we did together on Okinawa, and all of us spent the next half hour reminiscing. It was clear B had no idea who I was. She tried valiantly to hide it, by not saying much and nodding her head, periodically, saying “oh,’ or “right.” She was thin, and her hair was completely white, thin, and uncombed. M kept bringing up stories from our time together. “Do you remember when we had dinner with Marti, and Susan kept making snide remarks about MFAs, and…” She relayed a whole story that still made her angry, eighteen years later. She was hoping B would remember and verify something about the story. I’d long forgotten the incident, myself, so I didn’t have much faith that B would remember it. She just said, “Oh, sure,” vaguely. “God, Marti was something else,” M said. B just nodded her head to please M. She seemed to have no memory of the people M was describing, let alone the story. I wanted to cry. We got through the visit only because our two friends were gamely talking and telling stories. I joined in, hoping something would jog her memory. She was a big part of my memories of my time in Okinawa. But she never did remember me.
Later, in the car, D and M tried to cheer me up a bit, assuring me that she would probably remember me tomorrow or later in the week. They never knew when and what she would remember. I asked how long the doctors gave her, and they explained she could live like that for years, yet. We dropped M off at her house, and I said goodbye to her; then we drove on back to D’s house, where I said goodbye to him. I got back in the minivan and headed down to Houston, and then Galveston, where I hoped to spend the night at the state park on the island, camping, though I didn’t have a reservation. It seems I, too, have a short memory for certain things.
I cried for most of the way, not sure if I was crying for her, for a friendship I was afraid probably meant more to me than to B, or if I was crying because old age and illness robbed her of those memories, and therefore, changed the way I view my memories of her, of my past, of everything. Was that friendship real if she couldn’t remember it? What do any of our lives amount to if that life ends trapped between four small walls with little memory of the past or the people we had known and cared about? What is our life worth to us or others if it ends with nothing to show for it but financial debt and memories we can no longer access? Emotions we no longer remember to feel for people? She has children, but they live far away and aren’t emotionally close to her, for whatever reasons that she has long forgotten, but clearly they haven’t. She is alone except for those two faithful old friends, who have serious health problems of their own, limping down the path of time toward their own uncertain, eventually final battles with old age, chronic pain, and ill health. All of her travels, two dead husbands, children, a long line of students, adventures in foreign places, are forgotten. Her life has been reduced to those four walls, a bed, and romance novels she reads, sometimes over and over because she forgets their plots and characters, too.
I drove on through Houston to Galveston and then to the end of the island where the state park is, hoping to get a camp site. The sign said there were no vacancies, but I went into the main office and begged, anyway. The woman in charge took pity on me and gave me the last site open, which was in the RV section, but had enough grass for me to pitch my tent. It was too hot to sleep in the back of the van. The tent had screened windows that zip up if it gets cold, and with those wide open to the breezes coming off the bay just yards away, it was cool and pleasant. After setting up the tent, I sat at the picnic table on my site, listening to the insects trill and chirp, the gulls cackle and screech, and other birds call and sing. I could hear the surf faintly in the distance. At that point, Galveston island is not that wide, so the ocean was not too far away though the camp sites were scattered along the bay side. The light dimmed across the estuary water, shrubs, and grasses as the sun set.
My joints all ached from the drive, so I walked along the road that runs through the estuary toward the bay. The twilight matched my mood though the peace and beauty of the area were calming, relaxing. Maybe, I thought, this is the point. To enjoy each moment and never mind how much of it I remember. The truth is, I was already forgetting parts of the first week of my trip. That’s the point of keeping a journal. I’ve forgotten much of my time in Japan and all the rest of my adventures overseas and here in the U.S. My journals and photos remind me of some of it. I don't know if it is because of fibromyalgia, but my long term memory is not very good anymore. What memory loss can’t take away, though, is the joy, fun, love, grief, and all the emotions I felt at the time I lived those adventures, whether I remember them or not, and how I enjoy what I experience now. I can never lose now because I am always here in now. I just hope my now never becomes four, sad, empty walls, a hospital bed, drugs, bedpans, and hospital food. Surely, I hoped, as I stopped and watched the sunset stain the water and grasses of the estuary, surely B gets some joy out of her books and the friends who still visit her, and from whatever she does remember, whatever moments she has with other people. For her sake, I dearly hope so.
I walked back to my tent, lay on top of my air mattress and sleeping bag, which was too warm to crawl into, and listened to the crickets, cicadas, frogs, and other night creatures, and in the distance, the surf, which sounded lovely and peaceful though it was really slowly dumping saragassum algae, a serious problem that summer on that island, onto the sand while the tide inched out, carrying with it a little more sand, eroding the island just a little more, all night long. In the morning, driving down the island in search of a beach to walk on, I discovered piles of the red algae everywhere on the beaches. Most of the beaches of Galveston aren’t really much of a beach. They are small strips of coarse sand (almost no sand during high tide) that were buried under large piles of this dark red, almost black, short algae that looks a bit like seaweed. The piles had an odd odor - like fish mixed with trash. Bulldozers struggled to remove the large piles, but the effort seemed almost wasted. The algae kept washing back up with each tide. Time and weather are really the only tools that will remove the algae for good and stop the ocean from dumping it back on the island’s shores again and again.
Finally, I drove to the eastern end of the island and parked in the line for the free ferry to Port Bonita, which is where the cars disembark to drive along the Bolivar peninsula. Fairly undeveloped, Bolivar still contains long stretches of estuaries and marshlands, along with meadows of grassland where cows and horses graze. Beaches line the outer side of it, until it all becomes more grassland with oil wells bobbing up and down. There are some houses and even small communities with stores, bait and tackle shops, small restaurants (serving mostly fish), almost all built on high stilts. Eventually the peninsula becomes a highway that stretches across it back to the mainland, where the road connects to the major arteries, such as I-10, which is where I ended up, driving onward toward Louisiana.
Though I now had no more timelines to follow, no place where I needed to be by any particular date, I felt an urge to keep driving, to keep moving. Now I regret not slowing down the trip and stopping at more places, but my pain levels at the time were increasing, and I wanted to get home to my own firm mattress. I stayed in a cheap motel near Baton Rouge. The bed was hard as a wooden plank, but my back seemed to like it. I felt better the next day as I drove toward New Orleans. I stopped along the way to visit the Houmas house and plantation in Darrow, Louisiana, a plantation that had been preserved and was now a museum. The house and grounds were beautiful, but there was surprisingly no mention of slavery – which built the plantation and kept it going. I visited the Louisiana State University's Museum of Rural Life in Baton Rouge, which devoted a whole section of the re-created plantation, and other types of architecture and homesteads that played a big part of the state’s history, to slave quarters and slavery’s history on the plantations. These sites were good breaks in driving on the long route from Galveston to New Orleans. I camped at a KOA outside New Orleans.
Parking is difficult to find and expensive downtown there, so the campground shuttles people back and forth in the morning and evening. That meant I had to see the city during the heat of the day, which around noon hit in the mid 90s with about 90% humidity. I walked until I couldn’t anymore and then took shelter in a small restaurant, ordering an iced tea and the local version of bread pudding. The woman serving me was kind and kept bringing me glasses of ice water, too. She told me I looked like I needed it. I then found a bus tour of the city and sat on an air conditioned bus for the rest of the afternoon. The bus driver took us through the French Quarter and other sections of the city where the houses all seem to get larger and more beautiful. We stopped off at one of the old cemeteries to see the famous tombs and oven vaults. The cemeteries have a unique and interesting history there. We were able to walk around, which was a good break, but as soon as we were outside, I immediately missed the cool air of the air conditioned bus. The bus driver also drove us through the ninth ward, where the most damage was done during Hurricane Katrina. Many of the houses were not rebuilt, and there were still some left exactly the way they were after rescuers went through looking for survivors or bodies. The spray painted marks they left on the walls and doors to identify what they found in the houses were still on some of them. It was sad, but also extremely interesting to see so much of the history and architecture of the city. The bus driver left me off near the ferry landing where I was to meet the shuttle bus driver from the campground. I ate a small salad for dinner near there; New Orleans is not friendly to vegetarians. The restaurant close enough to where I could still see the pick-up site and get there quickly could only offer me a salad. It was good enough, along with a micro-brewed beer. After the heat, I didn’t feel like eating much though I know food is important to feeling good the next day. The shuttle came and a small group of us returned to the campground.
Despite feeling exhausted and sore, it was pleasant in the tent at night because there was a cool breeze, but the next day I left. There was no way I could walk around the city in that heat again. In Biloxi, Mississippi, I got a hotel room. It was a relief to lie in a comfortable bed among air conditioning. Later, I walked along the beach and tried to swim in the shallow waters of the Gulf. It was like being in a huge bath tub. The water was warm, glassy calm, and only came up to my knees no matter how far I walked out. I sat on the sandy bottom of the Gulf and let the warm water massage me as I waved my arms under the water to give it motion. Swimming in water helps relieve muscle pain tremendously, though this particular body of water wasn't that much help.
The rest of the trip went pretty much like that. I drove long distances, then found either a campground or hotel for the night. In some places I stayed a few days and wandered around, taking in the sites. I went from Mississippi to Florida and St. Augustine, then up the coast to Charleston, Carolina Beach, and eventually home. I saw more plantations, historic sites, beaches and beautiful landscapes. However, I was glad to be back home in my own, firm mattress and regular schedule again though there are many places where I now wish I had stopped or stayed longer. With each day, though, I had a little less energy and a little more pain in my back. So I kept moving. Still, I proved to myself that I could do it despite chronic pain and all the other problems that come with fibromyalgia and arthritis. I’m not going to allow those problems to confine me. The present, the now, is all any of us really has, no matter how good one’s memory is. Whatever awaits in my future, it can’t take away the pleasure I had each moment along that trip, no matter what I remember about it, later. And for now, I get great pleasure in reading my journal, looking at my photos, and remembering what I can.