Frontier Women

The legendary Bill Brown once defined the modern frontier as any place more than two hours from the interstate. If you look at a map of the US, there’s still a lot of frontier to conquer.

Crossing Mississippi on US 49, I saw gas prices as low as $2.11. To my dismay, the tank was full when I saw that price, and by the time it was getting low, gas was over $2.35. So when I saw $2.24 at a nondescript gas station, I decided to make a U-turn.

I filled the tank and washed the windshield, but I still needed a restroom and a receipt, so I stepped into the mini-mart, where the woman behind the counter greeted me with, “If you ever decide to sell that van, you should let me know!” I admitted that I’d only had it for two days, so she was going to have to wait a while.

There was something unexpected about finding Janet at Fastmart #09 in Magee, Mississippi. She didn’t have a local accent, so I asked where she was from. The list included New York, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, but she dreamed of traveling in a rig like mine, a follower of the #vanlife movement.

At one point in our lively conversation, I mentioned Strangers Have the Best Candy, and her eyes widened. She reached across the counter, grabbed a big bunch of candy, and pressed it into my hand. “Here you go!” she said, laughing.

Janet had the look of “what am I doing here, of all places?” that I see when I look into the mirror in Dunedin, Florida. Her husband’s family ties had led them there in that flow of life that picks us up, swirls us around, and drops us off in unexpected frontiers, like Magee and Wichita Falls, Texas.


After I passed through Dallas on a Sunday morning, I started a long northwest trek on US 287, with fields and ranchlands on either side. I had passed through Wichita Falls when I realized it was time to stop for the day, but there was nothing ahead for hours. So I turned around, returning to the KOA north of town.

The place was tidy and well-appointed, but the woman running it apologized for its condition. It was under new ownership, and they were working the kinks out.

There was something about Tina that spoke of a broader experience, so I inquired about where she was from. It turned out she was from my old neighborhood, between Havelock and Beaufort, North Carolina!

We had another interesting trait in common: We both had retired too young. She and her husband retired and built their dream house, but sitting and drinking coffee as they gazed at the water wasn’t as fulfilling as they expected. The retired folks in their community were much older than they were, and it was hard to connect. They decided to try full-time RVing instead and set off across the country.

Then the opportunity to rebuild this business turned up, and all of a sudden, they were living on the frontier in Wichita Falls, Texas. Running a KOA campground, rebuilding and expanding it will provide lots of interesting challenges. But six months had barely given them a taste of the traveling life, and I wondered if Tina, like Janet and I, asks herself, “what am I doing here, of all places?”

There’s a story in Strangers Have the Best Candy about a lady who lived literally just up the road from Tina’s dream house in North Carolina. Belle had never driven outside her own county, but she ran a farm stand and strawberry farm on Highway 101. She taught me the important lesson that you don’t have to travel to meet interesting strangers. They will come to you, even on the frontier.

When I look into the mirror and ask, “What am I doing here, of all places?” I’ll remember that.

Gone in an instant

Thanks to some kind friends, my first night was not even in the van, but in a real bed in a house in Santa Rosa Beach. I was extremely grateful, since that first day of driving was super-stressful.

On day two, I continued west through Pensacola and Mobile, and then headed northwest on US 49 in Mississippi. It’s considered a “scenic highway,” which translates to wooded vistas and a wide, 4-lane road. At the end of the day, I pulled into a campground that said “WiFi” and looked like it had plenty of room, with some heavy equipment indicating construction in progress.

I was mystified by the construction and repairs.

A confusing set of signs at the office directed me to “the back.” At first, I tried to walk around the building, then realized they were referring to the back of the property. Back there, I found a handful of very grubby RVs and cabins and the manager, Carrie.

She took my payment and told me to choose any spot. “Except, well, maybe not that part…” She gestured down the road, and her voice trailed off. “And not out front, because, you know…” her voice trailed off again. I didn’t know, but it didn’t seem like a good time to ask.

I thanked her, got in the van, and selected a site near the restrooms. I was excited about my first campout in the new van.

My first night in Muffie!

As soon as I plugged in the electrical cord, magic happened! The house air conditioner started humming and pouring cold air into the tiny (hot) space. The display on the microwave lit up. And I tested the stove burner — it works!

I sat down and read through all the manuals. I am now the proud owner of something called a “cartridge toilet,” which features a custom-molded toilet paper holder. I also have mood-lighting. It’s cool, but not as cool as my toilet paper holder.

It didn’t take long to go through all my new systems. I was ready to stretch my legs and explore this mysterious campground.

It had the feel of a ghost town, where you walk past a cabin and the curtains stir. In the middle of the road, something shiny caught my eye. It was foil from a Polaroid photograph, mixed up with the dirt and a handful of family snapshots. The people were awkwardly charming, posed in their 70’s outfits, washed out by the bright flash.

Why were someone’s precious memories scattered in the dirt?

A few minutes later, a golf cart overtook me, with Carrie and her black lab. I asked her about the photos, and all the pieces fell into place.

Three months earlier, on May 11, there was a record rainfall — almost 15 inches. In less than an hour, this place was completely under water from the nearby creek, and people had to be rescued by boat.

Now I understood. The strangely flat, sandy terrain. The mud stains on everything. The small handful of remaining RVs. The furniture piled up in the office window. “That was my home,” she said. “I had four and a half feet of water inside. I lost everything.” She shrugged and looked at her dog.

A layer of mud still coated many surfaces.

At the time of the flood, there had been 55 families living at the Perk Creek RV Park. They all lost everything. I thought of the handful of photos in the dirt and asked where everyone had gone. “I don’t know,” she said, “but they’re not coming back. They’re scared to.”

Thinking about the former residents, now scattered, left me somber, recognizing how easy it is to lose everything in a instant. But Mother Nature is resilient, and I noted bright green grass poking up through the sand. It gave me hope that a new community will eventually grow here, like the grass. Although the faces and memories will be different, joy and laughter will return to this place, as it does to all of us.

The map of Perk Beach RV Park. Everything had flooded, but the section on the left, farthest from the water, was in the best condition after 3 months.

Meet Muffintop!

This past January, I said my final farewell to my father, and if you’ve read any of the old stuff on this blog (which goes back 15 years now — yikes!), you’ll know that was a big deal. I was my Dad’s mini-me, the kid who knew his whole history and could finish his sentences. He was my buddy, my mentor, and my companion in travel and exploration.

It’s taken me about six months to work through my grief, but one day, I emerged from my chrysalis and just like that, I bought a camper van. I can imagine Dad now, saying, “You bought a WHAT? What did you do THAT for?!?”

Muffintop was named by my friend Karen, who has a penchant for RV-naming. Her own Class A is known as “The Loaf,” due to its bread-like shape.

Well, Dad, I was looking into cabins where I could go and write and paint. And then I thought, why not get a cabin on wheels? Then I can have a creative retreat in any state park, or even a fancy RV resort with a swimming pool!

The teddy bears couldn’t see over the dashboard, so I made them a “bucket seat.”

This is how I ended up with Muffintop, a Chevy conversion van, complete with bed, toilet, kitchenette, air-conditioner, and a 13-inch TV with a VCR. I can stand up inside, and she still fits into a regular parking space!

Muffie belonged to Denise and Bob for many years, until they decided camping wasn’t in the cards any more. They took very good care of her, with trips to Alaska, Oregon, and Connecticut. There were only a couple of minor things to fix, we all thought. But Muffie wanted to test my love, so those turned into a series of hard-to-diagnose issues that almost drove my mechanics to tears. By the time they got done, I didn’t even have time to get used to her. I picked her up in the morning, literally threw my stuff in the back, and hit the road, heading for the Florida panhandle and then Burning Man.

But first, I bought a Good Sam emergency road service policy.

That was about 1000 miles ago, so I think we’re good now. My teddy bears and I are currently sitting in an RV park in Louisiana, with all the comforts of home — well, actually, more comforts than home. I don’t have a microwave or a VCR at home!

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been talking to strangers along the way. I even got some candy from one of them! In my next post, I’ll share some of their stories with you. Thanks for following along, and remember, I Smile First!

Let’s go find strangers with candy!

Choose ART: The adventure continues

For four years, Choose ART, the Burning Man installation I created with Philip “MacGyver” Wilson, languished in storage. His death left me unsure if I could handle the piece — it was heavy, as well as complicated to set up.

I decided to take a chance, because so many artists had put so much effort into it. With the help of a generous art grant from Burnt Oranges in Florida, I purchased a trailer and towed it over 3000 miles across the country.

In 2016, the piece was displayed at AfterBurn in Lakeland, Florida, with the original 16 pieces of art, music, and spoken word. Another grant, from Florida en Fuego, made it possible to replace the artwork and audio and take the piece to Monticello, Florida, for Incandescence.

Here are some photos showing the evolution of Choose ART.

Jack It Out: An original Burner hack by Huggable Meps

Meps, aka Huggable

Huggable Meps

Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many storms at Burning Man that were powerful enough to launch tents. Seeing a tent flying above the city makes me sad. So, at the beginning of each Burn, I hammer rebar into the ground with a sledgehammer to secure my tent and monkey hut shade structure.

Getting those pieces of rebar back out of the ground used to be my least-favorite part of the Burn — worse than port-a-potties! Then I came up with Jack It Out, my personal technique for pulling rebar without damaging wrists and elbows that I’ve already damaged through other Burning Man-related activities. Now my least-favorite part of Burning Man is the potties, not the rebar.

My explanation of the technique follows. It requires two simple things you probably have with you, even if you travel in a small car, like I do. May it make your teardown a more pleasant experience and keep the playa free of abandoned rebar.


How to Jack It Out

  1. You need two items: A pair of Vise Grips (also known as locking pliers) and the scissors jack that comes with most passenger cars.
  2. Clamp the Vise Grips to the top of the rebar and wedge the scissors jack under them, right next to the rebar.
  3. Crank up the scissors jack.
  4. Watch your rebar magically come out of the playa.

4-part photo showing how to jack rebar out of the playa

Illustration of the Jack It Out process

Huggable Meps granted Larry Harvey his official artistic license in 2016. (It has since expired and he has not chosen to renew.) She leads the DMV Adornment and Beautification Team and can be found in the Happy Spot.

#WackyWednesday and “irresistably weird”

Meps pushing shopping cart with Dario in it

Meps with a stray shopping cart of North America

Two years after winning the infamous and international Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year, Strangers Have the Best Candy continues to pop up on lists all over the internet. Here are some of the latest I’ve found in my Google searches.

March 15, 2017: #WackyWednesday: 10 of the strangest books ever written

The Newcastle Advertiser featured Strangers Have the Best Candy at #9, below Pop Sonnets and above Dinosaurs With Jobs.

March 1, 2017: 23 Irresistibly Weird Books You Won’t Believe Actually Exist

Amazon suggested this “Frequently bought together” bundle for $33.45

I noticed one day that book sales were trending up. Not only that, but Amazon was offering Strangers together with How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack and Stray Shopping Carts of North America. A Google search discovered this list on Buzzfeed, with Strangers at #20, below the Bill Murray Coloring Book.

December 7, 2016: 15 Questionable Book Titles That Really Exist

Julie Jarema of Riveted came up with rather obscure, but excellent titles, including How to Raise Your IQ by Eating Gifted Children and The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy.

July 2, 2016: Top 10 Greatest Travel Books

Strangers Have the Best Candy is listed as the #1 Travel Book on the Crushing Tomatoes blog. It’s an honor, but to be honest, the review is completely anonymous and slightly suspect. I prefer the Buzzfeed list, myself.

 

This is a great sign

I Am Worthy sign with ERA YES sticker

My “I Am Worthy” sign from the Women’s March on Washington

When I got home from the Women’s March on Washington, I hung this sign over my bed as a reminder that the moment I’ve been waiting for since my 20’s has arrived: The Women’s Movement has finally been reawakened.

You know that saying, “What goes around comes around?” The ERA sticker was gifted to me by a stranger in front of our nation’s Capitol. It is the exact same design as the 40-year-old button I inherited from my mother, who raised me to believe in equal rights.

But it’s not the sticker or the phrase, “I Am Worthy” that made me hang it up. There is something even more special, and it’s for you as well as me.

The bus ride from Washington D.C. back to Melbourne, Florida took about 17 hours, and we were all completely exhausted. A few hours before we reached home, I stood up and called for my fellow passengers’ attention. I held up the sign, to which I’d tied a pen, and asked everyone to sign it with a message of hope for the days ahead.

It took a couple of hours for the sign to come back to me. When it did, I was blown away by the sentiment, a wide range of powerful, inspiring messages. This is the real reason the sign hangs over my bed.

These messages are not just for me, they are for all who believe in equality and are willing to stand up for what is right. I’ve done my best to transcribe them below, in hopes that these powerful words, written on a cardboard sign, will travel far and wide to bring hope and encouragement to all.


Sign with dozens of handwritten messages.

The messages of hope on my Women’s March sign.

“Remember the story of the snowflake; no two are alike, they are all beautiful, and while one by itself doesn’t seem like much, together, they are a force of nature. Surround yourself with snowflakes.” Debra

“When you feel discouraged, remember your aches and sore muscles from today. Remember the march you did with us. Remember you are a part of HISTORY now! We forge a path for our young women. THIS IS YOUR LEGACY.” Roseanne

“We were heard across the world, and we will continue to be heard, using our kind, loving, yet strong voices.” MB&Zzzz

“You were on the right side of history on this day! And you are not alone. We stand with you.” Jill

“At the core of you is all peace & freedom, ready and eager to be unleashed upon the world. Reach deep, see it in your sisters, give your gift. TY!” Elizabeth

“Don’t ever forget, we are all with you in solidarity. We will stand together, One Love.” Anne

“We are strong together. Girl power!” Isabelle

“Remember on your journey, whatever it may be, my hope for you is that you laugh until it hurts, love like there’s no tomorrow, live every day like there’s a million tomorrows, dance until you can’t…”

“Never forget what a group of women can do when we unite our voices!” Koreena

“Always remember why we march – for those who cannot! Stay strong, stay proud!” Tina

“Our children & grandchildren need us to fight.”

“Stay strong. As women united we stand.” Betty

“Be true to yourself.” Lauren

“We’ve just experienced a phenomenal reawakening of the power of women. You’re part of a sisterhood, and we can change the wrongs as a group together – and we are – you are NOT ALONE!” Cynthia

“May all your aspirations be blessed and fulfilled to benefit all beings and our planet.” Janice

“Hope will always keep you going.”

“There are a lot of us! Hang in there.”

“We are stronger together and I’ll keep in touch with you!” Christine

“Stronger together.” Cheri

“Hillary said, ‘Please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.’ We just marched with thousands who agree –remember that!” S

“We were glad to be part of this history-making day, Women’s March 2017. We can happily say that HOPE is still alive. Seeing young families with their children, seeing the elderly in their wheelchairs, kept this hope alive.” Leigh

“Stay strong. Stay fierce! Fight the good fight! We are all in this together.” Elizabeth

“Stay strong and march on!” Carol

“Nasty women never stop fighting.”

“Keep the strength alive. #Women’s March.” Alicia

“Never let anyone try to convince you that you are not powerful.” Karen

“The world heard us yesterday! XO’s!” Susan

“Girl power! Stay in the fight! T

“I “We have seen an awakening, and we will be there to support each other. God bless.” Jenny

“Just never give up.” Gabe

“The future belongs to the young. They know it, and they will never let this happen to them again.” Frank

“You have a voice. Let it speak always.” Trish

“Remember the community of women (and men) that have come together this special weekend. We are not alone, we just have to find each other. ” Barbara

“When you feel frustrated with how people are treated badly, remember the March and the hope and empowerment you experienced with the awesome ladies from Brevard.” L

“I have your back. Remember this weekend and the memories will get you through. We stand together forever, Women of Brevard!”

“Persistence – with a strong voice – can accomplish anything and everything. Love & light.” Kristie

“We have been and will continue to be a positive change in history! That gives us all the hope in the world.” Lindsay

“You are not alone! Stronger Together! We can make a difference – and we are!” Crystal

“Remember to always follow your heart…do what you know is right, even if it is hard.” Pamela

“Women who stand together can create miracles.” Robin

“Stronger together forever!” Mary

The children’s march

Marching on the Mall

I lived in Seattle in 1999, when activists and protesters turned the meeting of the World Trade Organization into “the Battle in Seattle.” I’d seen firsthand the broken windows and burnt-out bus shelters. I lay in bed listening to concussion grenades going off a short distance from my home. Estimates say that about 40,000 protesters were responsible for that chaos.

In the days before the Women’s March on Washington, I wondered if I was going into a situation like the Battle in Seattle. Even though the organizers were telling us to keep it positive, emails were circulating that warned us how to deal with things like being arrested or pepper-sprayed. While I traveled on a overnight bus to the capitol, the media reported that several hundred protesters at the inauguration were arrested for vandalism, setting fires, and damaging vehicles.

When we arrived at first daylight, we found no evidence of that violent anger. Our group was bubbly and excited, pressing our noses to the bus windows as we passed the Pentagon and the Lincoln Monument and crossed the Potomac River. Once we left the bus and joined the throngs, there were pink hats, clever and creative signs, and a hugely diverse group of people.

Everywhere, I saw strangers being kind to each other.

Some offered me free stickers and signs. In the potty lines, people shared their tissues and hand sanitizer. A woman on the street handed me a bottle of water, right when I needed it the most — I had gotten a headache from dehydration. I passed out Happy Spots and York Peppermint Patties.

Free Hugs

Free Hugs

There were over a half million people at the Women’s March on Washington, including thousands of children. They rode on their parents’ shoulders, carried their own signs, and even led chants with megaphones to amplify their high-pitched voices.

I overhead one father tell his son that on this day, he was allowed to say any bad word he wanted, as long as it was about the president. The little boy whispered something in his father’s ear, and the man’s eyebrows shot up. Then he nodded, and said “Yes, you can even say that.”

There was not a single arrest at the Women’s March, even though there were three times as many people there as at the inauguration. What a wonderful example we have set for our children and young people, showing them that peaceful resistance is possible.

 

This is what democracy looks like

U.S. Constitution: Amendment I

"Now you have touched the WOMEN! You have struck a ROCK! You have dislodged a boulder! You will be CRUSHED!"

“Now you have touched the WOMEN! You have struck a ROCK! You have dislodged a boulder! You will be CRUSHED!”

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This past Saturday, there was a peaceable assembly in Washington D.C. Over a half million people took to the streets with signs, hats, and chants to speak our minds. This is our right under the First Amendment.

The mood was positive and every single person I met was kind. In addition to sharing a common dismay at the current regime, we share a belief in each other. We share a belief that we are all worthy, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and ability.

This is what democracy looks like.

Why I still march: 2017

Al, Nancy, and Pat, who met at the parade over a decade ago. Old-timers from Clearwater, they loved talking about what it was like in the “old days.”

There’s a chapter in Strangers Have the Best Candy entitled “In or out? The dilemma of every parade.” Although I marched in the Brunswick MLK Day parade a couple of years ago, this year, I chose to be on the sidewalk, photographing marchers in the Clearwater, Florida MLK Day parade. By sharing my pictures and stories, I am making their voices heard.

Al, Pat, and Nancy are three old-timers who met on a corner, watching the parade, 12 years ago. Every year since then, they look forward to meeting on the same corner and watching the parade. I listened to them talking about the way things used to be, here in Clearwater. In the 1950’s, Al was going to an all-black school near downtown Clearwater. Then the schools were integrated, and he went to Kennedy School, to the north, for the rest of his education. Nancy, who is white, sent her children to that same school.

On MLK Day, we can celebrate our accomplishments for equality, but we must not forget that there is still work to be done. We must not become complacent.

This Saturday, I’ll have my camera with me at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. I won’t stand for anything less than equality for women, the disabled, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

Two years ago, I marched in a Martin Luther King Day parade in Brunswick, Georgia, surrounded by African-Americans who are still fighting for their rights. You can find the photos, along with the article “Why I still march” on my former blog, mepsnbarry.com.