A pilgrim at Stinson Beach

July 20, 11:30 am — I’m sitting at the southern tip of Stinson Beach, a glorious mile-long stretch of sand that borders the unincorporated, population 650 hamlet of the same name in Marin County, Northern California.

Stinson Beach is a ragged, flip-flops, bikinis, and board shorts kind of town, and whether you’re a Bay Area visitor or resident, it’s a terrific place to stop. A couple of inviting restaurants face each other across the sole street – famed Highway 1 – that runs through town; both have sun-umbrella’d patios that are intimations of heaven on a balmy, blue-sky day like today. There are arts and crafts galleries, a quintessential little-bit-of-everything market, B&B’s, and a beguiling bookstore with a compact, ecumenical and eminently Marin mix of books ranging from Zen treatises and Native American history and culture to mainstream mysteries and fiction, and a proud selection of work by local authors.

I love these riches, but they’re not why I come here. Stinson Beach is about an hour’s winding drive from my house, so it’s not exactly an on-a-whim destination for me; rather it’s a touchstone place where I come to gather myself. And today I need gathering.

So here I am, ensconced on a rock beyond an outcrop of massive boulders that separates this thin slice of sand from the main beach, where a couple hundred people are blissfully surfing, strolling and sunbathing.

I’ve been in this spot for 20 minutes and I haven’t seen anyone — except a teenaged couple who appeared holding hands literally just as I wrote “I haven’t seen anyone” and jumped when they saw me and now have abruptly turned back – and I like it that way.

In the 1980s and ’90s, when I was the travel editor at the San Francisco newspaper, I used to make a pilgrimage here every spring to write a column. This was the place where I gathered my thoughts, looked back on the triumphs and failures of the year past and ahead to the new year’s goals and dreams.It’s still a good place to take stock of things. The simplicity of the scene strips away the veneers of life, reduces the distracting complexities. Sea. Rocks. Sand. Sun. That’s it. The spareness helps me – makes me — slow down and pay attention.

The roar and swash of the waves echo in my ears, the salty sea-smell fills my nose, the sun warms like a hot compress on my shoulders, my toes wiggle into the wet cool sand. The water white-froths in, spreads into rippling fans over the sand, then rushes back. Again. And again.

A seagull web-walks through the waves, leaps onto a rock, scans the water for food. It prances with oddly brittle legs along the sand, flaps to the top of a rock and imperiously surveys the waves.

A slick six-foot seaweed pod washes onto the beach. A tiny insect scurries over my keyboard, a neon-green bug lands briefly on my screen.

I let the sea wash over me, let the waves fill my head and lungs, lose myself to this inconceivably old and ageless place.

I think: This is the same scene I witnessed two decades ago, quite possibly even the same rock I sat on then, scribbling in my journal as I tap into my laptop now. And if I come back in 20 years, it will almost certainly be the same still.

But of course, much has changed in those two decades. My children have grown up and moved on. My Dad and other loved ones have passed away. New jobs, new places, new books, old dreams.

And suddenly these words flow into my brain: Where does it all come together? What does it mean?

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

I palm the rough, sandy surface of the boulder to my left, warmed by the sun, cradling sand in its pocks and green ridges of moss in its cracks, etched by wind, wave and rain.

Wisps like smoke from a seaborne fire drift around me, and on the horizon a bank of gray-blue fog gathers, curling at the top so that it looks like a frozen tidal wave. I think of the tsunami in Sendai, where my daughter traveled recently and saw the destruction with her own eyes, where the local man who was guiding her broke down and cried. All those uprooted lives….

Where does it come together? What does it mean?

The waves push glinting pebbles onto the shore, fan, recede. The seagull flaps away, unsatisfied, searching. Life is precarious, uncertain, brief. There is a precious precariousness at the heart of all things.

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

The waves roar-splash in, getting a little closer now. The tide is coming in; the blue pebble we inhabit is turning in the celestial sea.

Where does it come together? What does it mean?

Focus. Enjoy the moment while you have it. Enjoy your loved ones while you have them. Recognize the gifts the world gives you: Inhale the sea, sink your toes into the sand, let the ocean-roar silence your mind.

Then take this simple scene home with you: Sun. Sand. Rocks. Sea.

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the relationships you forge, the experiences you embrace, the lessons you bestow, the bridges you make, the ideals you seed, the love you live and leave.

Dedicate yourself to creating something of value with your days. Something that will last.

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

Where does it come together? What does it mean?

Sun. Sand. Rocks. Sea. A Stinson Beach clarity.

[image courtesy Erin Drewitz]

America’s most frustrated travelers share their stories

most frustrated traveler

Back in October of last year, we teamed up with Capital One Venture on a quest to find America’s most frustrated traveler. In that contest, 345 of you shared your story, and five lucky winners were selected to receive a fantastic prize, from a $3000 dream vacation to $100 Marriott travel cards.

After the jump, you’ll find the stories from the winners, which really show just how miserable a vacation can be when things go wrong.

[Photo: Flickr | rudlavibizon]

Grand prize winner: Gerry

most frustrated traveler

We were meeting friends in Ireland who had been there for two weeks and were going to spend last two weeks of their month vacation with them.

Friend was two hours late meeting us (after our 14 hour overseas flight) When we arrived the rental car they had was very small and we could not even fit our luggage let alone the luggage they would be returning with. I finally convinced him into getting larger car. House we were sharing was approximately an hour out of Shannon airport.

My friend was driving and got lost. He ran off the road and blew out tire and bent rim. I walked to nearest town (about 2 miles) to find help. When I got into town, I had asthma attack and need to seek help for that.

When my medical situation settled down, I began looking for repair shop that could help us. It was now 5pm and the only repair shop in village had closed. I sought help from local fire station and they found owner of repair shop who thankfully drove me out to repair car. By the time we got to house we were to stay, it was 10;30 pm. Upon arrival, my friend discovered he had left his identification at the car rental facility at Shannon airport.

Next day the drive back to airport had to be accomplished. On the way back to airport, he ran off road and damaged rental car to point where it was not driveable. I was ready to fly back home……Instead, we decided to fly to London for remainder of trip. Upon arrival in London, we were advised the the underground employees had gone on strike…..it took us 3 hours to find ride to hotel in London. Whew…..hurts to recall the trip again…:(

Second prize winner: Maria

My most frustrating trip was a special vacation my husband and I took to Florida for our 10th wedding anniversary. At the time we lived in Montana and left our 4-year-old son with my parents in Wisconsin. On the day we were all to fly back home, my mom was to put our son on a plane to Minneapolis, and my husband and I were flying separately to Minneapolis, where we would collect our son and all fly back to Montana. But tornados delayed our flights from Florida. Meanwhile, my mom was freaked about putting her young grandson on a plane alone and insisted on escorting him onto the plane to get settled.

My husband and I fretted, separately, for hours until we took off. I couldn’t wait to get to Minneapolis, certain that my son was going to be terribly upset. When we finally arrived, my husband and I found each other, and went to find our son. The airline people had gotten him some dinner and were keeping him in a little play area. We walked in and one of the airline staff asked our son, “Who are these people?” Our son looked up, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know.” We were afraid they wouldn’t let us take him home!

In the end, we did get our son but missed our flight back to Montana and had to spend a night in Minneapolis. We were glad to see home the next day, our family intact!

Third prize winner #1: Becca

Flying home for grandmother’s 100th birthday. It’s the US Thanksgiving holiday, but I thought I was smart flying the Tuesday before. No problems getting to JFK and I’m even upgraded for no reason! What could go wrong?

Overbook flight. The majority are business travelers and I’m feeling nice so I volunteer to take the first flight the next day. I get up at the crack of dawn and go back to JFK. Check in/security is a breeze. But, once again: overbooked flight. I’m the one bumped because the airline “forgot” about me. They’re apologetic- give me food coupons, a credit. The next flight is soon and I’m guaranteed on it.

On the next flight I’m getting comfy and then the dreaded announcement – 2 seats are broken. No one volunteers to forfeit and I’m cutting it close for grandma’s birthday.

The FA attempts to bump the 2 passengers who checked in last. They refuse claiming they didn’t check in last. They become belligerent with the FAs and we can’t leave until they or someone get off.

At this point, I’m so ticked off at them for being rude I loudly volunteer. As I grab my things, I turned to the two jerks and tell them I will sacrifice my flight AND my grandma’s 100th birthday so the other passengers can get home. I then wished them a Happy f*cking Thanksgiving and hoped they got food poisoning. The passengers cheered, the FAs actually hugged me, but I missed her party.

Third prize winner #2: Cheryl

My husband and I after 10 years of marriage and 3 kids decide to take the honeymoon we never had.

My husband had been in remission for leukemia for 9 months so we figured it was a great time to celebrate. We booked a carribean cruise. We had a 5 hour delay to set sail because a dead body had to be fished from the bay. This was an omen. The ship we sailed on was one that had just been put back into service after being used for the victims of Katrina.

It seems that the septic system wasnt working properly because of the heavy usage. The toilets kept backing up so the smell for 4 days was less than pretty. We would love another chance at a great vacation because my husband is still in remission after 6 years!

Third prize winner #3: Anne

A few years ago, I took an overnight bus ride in Bolivia that lasted about 13 hours. Halfway through it, at about 2 am, the woman seated in front of me marched to the front of the bus and asked our driver to pull over so her young son could take a badly needed bathroom break. The driver refused, muttering something in Spanish that I took to mean, “Tell him to suck it up – we’re running behind schedule.”

Upon hearing this, she calmly strolled back to her seat, propped her boy on her lap, opened the passenger side window and instructed him to take care of business. He did, but sadly most of his urine didn’t make it outside; instead, it landed in my hair, on my shirt and all over my face. And no, I didn’t have anything to wipe it off with – my belongings were under the bus. Grossest bus ride ever.

[Shannon Photo: Flickr/smemom87]

Galley Gossip: Funny flight attendant book – Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase!

Ever since reading the book Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World’s Favorite Flight Attendant, written by Betty N. Thesky with Janet Spencer, I’ve been tempted to do a spin in the middle of the aisle as soon as I’ve finished serving my three rows to alert the flight attendant working on the other side of the cart that I’m ready to move. Normally we’ll patiently wait for our partner to finish serving or we might fill a few cups with ice, restock the cart or offer to make a few drinks, but in Betty’s hilarious book two flight attendants add a touch of disco pizazz to the boring beverage service routine. One of these days I’m going to do it – the spin.

If you’re looking for a book full of funny stories about flight attendants, pilots, ground crew and even passengers this is it! Reading it is like going to dinner with your favorite crew on a fun-filled layover. The crazy stories just keep on coming! While the book is full of laughs, there’s a lot to learn, too. Throughout the book Betty answers common questions asked by passengers every day. For instance…

The reason you have to stow your carry-on items and put away your computers is to avoid the possibility of having them act like airborne missiles.

The reason you have to return your tray table to its upright and locked position is so you won’t impale yourself on it if the plane crashes

The reason you have to return your seat to its upright position is to make evacuation easier in event of a disaster, to minimize whiplash, and to prevent you from slipping under your seat belt in the event of a sudden stop.

By far my favorite thing about the book is all the interesting facts at the bottom of each page, and there are 139 pages!

1. Around 25% of first class passengers pay full fare. The rest are upgrades, frequent fliers and airline employees.

2. Airlines update the fares in their computers about 250,000 times daily.

3. 12 million free tickets are issued annually due to frequent flier miles.

4. Airplanes take off and land every 37 seconds at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

5. The first airplane toilets were simply a hole in the fuselage of the plane through which one could see the countryside passing below.

6. The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, sells about 10 million items from lost luggage annually.

7. One of the biggest planes is the Boeing 747. If set upright it would rise as high as a 20 story building

8. Air travel is the second safest mode of transportation. Only the elevator / escalator is safer.

9. Tolerance for alcohol drops by about 30% when you’re at 30,000 feet, so a few drinks will go a long way.

10. The longest flight in the world is the nonstop flight from New York to Hong Kong which travels 8,439 miles over the North Pole in 15 hours and 40 minutes.

Betty N. Thesky is a flight attendant who works for a major airline and the host of the popular podcast Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase. You can read more about Betty on her website BettyInTheSky.com

The Bookmobile: swapping stories and hitting the road

It’s appropriate that at Litquake — the recent week-long celebration of books in San Francisco — I’d find out about unconventional ways of honoring the written word.

I came across the Bookmobile, parked on busy Valencia Street with its doors open wide, inviting visitors to come inside.

‘Is it a library or a bookstore?’ I wondered, trying to categorize it so I could understand it. The thing is, it’s neither.

It’s a truck that’s empty inside, except for wooden shelves on each of the side walls, which are filled with books. The concept is simple and brilliant: step inside and get a book. In return, they don’t ask for money. They ask to videotape your response to the question “what book influenced your life?”

Creative and thought-provoking, right? Even better, the Bookmobile will soon put its wheels in motion to reach people in small towns along the Lincoln Highway. It’s set to leave San Francisco in April and arrive in New York City in mid-May.

At the helm is founder, Tom Corwin, who has had success as an author, music producer, and film producer. And if you think the driver looks familiar, you’d be right. Along the way, different authors — including Amy Tan, Tom Robbins, and Dave Eggers — will be joining the road trip and taking their turn at the wheel.

At the end of the project, Tom will combine the interviews with a history of the Bookmobile and create a documentary, appropriately named “Behind the Wheel of the Bookmobile.” He hopes to finish the film by spring 2011.

“Books influence our lives in ways too often untold,” says Tom. “Our trip is designed to tell some of those stories while our back roads route connects the project to America’s literary history.”

You can only imagine the stories waiting to be told — both by people along the Lincoln Highway and the authors themselves. They’re likely to be as varied as the books out there. Already in the archives is the story of Ralph Eubanks, the Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress, who recalls being thankful to visit a bookmobile during his childhood. As an African-American in Mississippi, he could get books there, when he couldn’t get them at the library.

The Bookmobile on this trip is authentic, alright. Until recently, the “Old Gal” made her rounds of the suburban Chicago area for 15 years (and 70,000 miles) to bring books and the love of reading to children and adults. Bookmobiles have been used as mobile libraries for towns without library buildings and for people with difficulty accessing libraries — the first U.S. bookmobile ran in Maryland in 1905.

Books have already been donated by libraries and publishers, but what the project could use now are money donations (from $35 for ‘buy a mile’ to more for ‘buy a state’).

If you’re not on the cross-country route, you can still be a part of the Bookmobile experience. Submit the story of the book that influenced your own life (in 200 words or less) to the Bookmobile website. And follow along via the website’s blog and interviews, or get updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Gadlinks for Wednesday 6.10.09

Here’s a sampling of the best of the rest from around the travel world:

  • Planet Eye brings us a great list of eco-travel mistakes. After a month of traveling back and forth between the mainland and Hawaii I’m feeling like I should memorize this list.
  • This summer could be the year of traveling by hobby, and the Independent Traveler has a cool list of outfitters and online resources to get you started.
  • MSNBC breaks down the world wide web’s newest online travel sites.
  • Why do you need to write a good travel story when you can write a bad one? World Hum brings us a humorous list of suggestions on how to write crappy travel tales.
  • Do you like dim sum — or just staring at the meat hanging in Chinatown store windows? BootsNAll brings us a great list of the world’s best Chinatowns.

‘Til tomorrow, have a great evening.

For past Gadlinks, click HERE.