Road Buddies

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

There’s something about tragedy and misfortune that hits the reset button. Much like a kite that’s whipping around in a violent wind, our busy lives thrash us so much we can’t think of much else. And so we get stuck on the proverbial treadmill, unable to slow down enough to appreciate beauty, enjoy moments of laughter or connect with others (much less take care of ourselves.) We somehow employ a mentality that equates such things with slacking, so we buckle down and redouble our efforts. And then the unthinkable happens. Yesterday a tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma and pulverized the landscape. Many are dead and entire neighborhoods lie obliterated. Some of the photos show rows of houses that look like chewed up toothpicks, a pile of shredded wood peppered with mangled cars and random debris—a pair of men’s pants, a kitchen appliance, toiletries and bricks from five different houses that may have stood blocks away from each other. On TV, people stand in front of such scenes and talk about what used to be their homes; it makes me wonder where in the world they’ll go from there. It’s like losing everything in a fire. Suddenly, what may have seemed important 24 hours ago isn’t even registering on their radar. And while the situation is horrible and tragic and you wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it’s also strangely liberating.  My friend Jan and I experienced something similar in 2006.

Jan used to live in Austin but she and her husband, Jared, moved to California to take a job in higher education. Much like most typical Americans, they were super busy and wrapped up in the demands of daily living. One night over Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, Jan passed out after an evening walk. EMS came and they took her to the hospital, where she was [mis]diagnosed with stomach ulcers. It turns out she had such bad internal bleeding she lost a third or more of her blood. The doctors had settled on the ulcer explanation, but when the hemorrhaging started again they sent her to UC Irvine, where she underwent surgery and was promptly diagnosed with stomach cancer. At first they told her that it had spread to 14 places in her liver (which is pretty much a death sentence) but they later realized that wasn’t the case. Still, it was unclear what her future held. They removed a generous portion of her stomach and told her they’d all have to wait and see what happened from there.

In November 2006 I still lived in Austin and was waiting for the court date to officially end my 25-year marriage. I had left my husband in 2005 due to the acceleration of his mental illness and addiction, and my life felt like one of those Moore, Oklahoma neighborhoods. The Harris family had been reduced to a pile of rubble. I lost my husband and the hope of our being a family of five ever again. Due to his financial recklessness (a tragic result of his illness) we had to file bankruptcy, our house went in to foreclosure, and I lost pretty much everything that was familiar to me. I left with about $200 to my name. I had no idea what I was going to do to support myself and take care of my youngest daughter, who was still in high school. I ended up jumping off the career cliff and started anew as a professional photographer but I had no idea whether or not I’d be able to support myself in that line of work. And the jury was still out when I got the call from a mutual friend about Jan.

Jan was still in the hospital when I phoned her, and we had a very poignant conversation about our lives, about the losses and about how desperately we both wanted to live (she, literally; I, figuratively.) For years we had talked about taking a road trip together from Los Angeles to Napa, and during that phone conversation we decided we didn’t have the luxury of waiting until things played out in our lives. We had no guarantee that she’d be here a year later, and we also had no guarantee that I’d ever be in a position, financially and emotionally speaking, to be able to justify taking a whimsical trip to the California wine country. So we threw caution to the wind and planned the trip while we still could. It happened in May of 2007. The photos that follow tell the story (though I didn’t take many in Napa), but to summarize it I’d say that at least for me, it was all about being present: present to laughter, present to beauty, present to a dear friend, present to each and every moment. It was profoundly healing.

 Jan’s dog was quite upset that she didn’t get to go with us. I think this is her best, “How could you??” face.

Before we took off I shot a few photos of Jan and Jared. After all they’d been through, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see them laughing together. Theirs is a true love story.

And away we go!

We like to call this our Thelma and Louise shot. I asked zee French guys to take zee photo.

After visiting several wineries we stopped in Cambria to spend the night, which is on the central coast. (The movie "Sideways" was filmed in and around central California.) I dare say I enjoyed that more than I did Napa.

The “tablecloth” at our dinner table. Not sure what the hieroglyphics are about…probably a wine-induced art project.

We ended every day with a glass of Port and some chocolates. Why? Why not?

Spent some time in San Francisco the second day and pretty much just followed our noses. No agenda. There’s something soothing about just letting the wind take you where it may.

Jan found this hotel in Napa and it was fantastic. Comfortable rooms, gorgeous patio with fire pits. Highly recommended.

Our number one aim in Napa was to hit the wine train. And it did not disappoint. The train takes folks on a leisurely three hour, 36 mile trek through the wine country, and serves a gourmet meal (lunch or dinner) on a restored early 1900’s Pullman dining car. The food was fantastic. There’s also a tasting car, where you can sample a wide variety of wines from around the region.