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Finding Zen In Searchlight: A Haibun

Susan Heiligman's Blog

The tracks of Highway 95 are laid down along the Mojave and run north and south between Las Vegas and Laughlin.  About mid-way the highway comes to the tiny desert town of Searchlight, Nevada.  I end up in Searchlight when my GPS goes awry.   It’s almost noon Saturday late Spring.  Pulling into Terrible’s Casino with its combo gas station, I’m ready for a break and decide to explore this unintended stop.Attachment-1  Searchlight serves pretty much as a pit sop for those on their way to party at Las Vergas or those on their way to jet-ski the river at Laughlin.  Searchlight’s lone gas station is busy.  Inside small sacks of gold nugget bubble gum, toy cap guns and salt and pepper shakers in the design of cactus are all part of the mounds of kitschy stuff overflowing from the crowded shelves.  I am tempted to look around but resist. …

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Lucy Lee Go Lightly

Happy Birthday to my granddaughter, Lucy Lee Heiligman, on her 6th birthday!

Susan Heiligman's Blog

I was a reluctant grandmother.   To be a grandparent was not something I resisted but life was good, full with  friends and personal interests.  Forgotten was all that baby, little kid stuff, cloth books and rattle toys.   On the day though that Lucy Lee happened,  life became rich and enlivened anew.   Grand parenthood is  the grand adventure.

Like a splashy wave hitting the shore, she arrived on a cool breezy September evening in Newport Beach, Hoag Hospital.   Lucy Lee enchants me.   She runs to greet me.    I rush to her.   Mutual adoration is the special phenomenon that is grand parenthood.  We head to the beach with a skip as she begins to tell me all that matters.

“Lucy go lightly wherever you go, light as a lark, from your head to your toe.  In slippers you float and in sandals you flow, so Lucy, go lightly, wherever you go.”  …

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Finding Zen In Searchlight: A Haibun

The tracks of Highway 95 are laid down along the Mojave and run north and south between Las Vegas and Laughlin.  About mid-way the highway comes to the tiny desert town of Searchlight, Nevada.  I end up in Searchlight when my GPS goes awry.   It’s almost noon Saturday late Spring.  Pulling into Terrible’s Casino with its combo gas station, I’m ready for a break and decide to explore this unintended stop.Attachment-1  Searchlight serves pretty much as a pit sop for those on their way to party at Las Vergas or those on their way to jet-ski the river at Laughlin.  Searchlight’s lone gas station is busy.  Inside small sacks of gold nugget bubble gum, toy cap guns and salt and pepper shakers in the design of cactus are all part of the mounds of kitschy stuff overflowing from the crowded shelves.  I am tempted to look around but resist.  Through the archway Terrible’s Casino has penny slots and still hand counts its payouts, a throwback considering slot machines today dispense bar coded tickets that are scanned by computers spitting winnings like any ATM.  The locals don’t seem to mind if a passerby opts to join them at the poker table.  Across the highway the Nugget Casino’s diner, the hole-in-the-wall kind and run by a former madame, advertises bottomless coffee for ten cents and a mug of cold beer for a buck.  Madame’s dyed blonde hair is swept up in a sloppy French roll and gold rings are loaded on her every finger.  She knows no stranger and refreshes beverages with a regal bearing.  She’s telling a local guy she wants to retire to Montana.  I have a hunch she’s talked of a change of scenery for a long time.  The bikers gather here in their tie-dyed bandanas and cowboy shirts with the sleeves ripped out.  The ribbons of roads that maypole from its center present endless opportunities for the ultimate thrill ride on a hog.  One couple has flown their motorcycles from Chicago to Las Vegas to ride the washboard desert roads.  They are exhilarated.  Other bikers laugh about the voice on their GPS forever informing them she is rerouting.  No wonder.  This is the place to reroute. Attachment-1(2) I like the humor and the harmony of the group.  I can imagine the birde still in her white gown on the back of her groom’s bike as they celebrate their Las Vegas chapel vows with a ride down the road, the bridal veil fluttering in the wind.   Searchlight’s vibe is laid- back and the desert warmth feels good.  The morning shadows lift as the sun sweeps across the huge expanse of desert and expose the white dunes and mountain profiles in the distance.  Big-horned sheep and fringed-toes lizards wander among the rocks.  To travel to Searchlight is to escape the hurried path.  It’s easy going here.  I linger as the town’s calm engulfe me and lures me to stay for just a little longer.  The old gold mining camp which dates back to the Gold Rush of the 1890’s is like one of the Baby Boomer bikers who’s mellowed and is aging with grace.  The storied and tainted past of Searchlight is nothing now but fodder.  Legend is the town got its name when searchlights were used to guide patrons from the dozen or so clapboard saloons to the brothels.  A string of cathouses conducted business in the town where patrons were led to a crib by any number of available ladies.  During its hey-day of the Fifties the secluded hideaway known as the El Rey Club was the hot spot for dining and dancing and was Searchlight’s primary bordello. Attachment-1(1) Flamboyant owner Willie Martello held court for his patrons he treated like royalty.  The mob-connected Martello put in a fancy pool, hired a trained chef and brought in nightclub orchestras.  He built an airport to ease the travel constraints of Searchlight’s outpost location.  In the end, the remoteness of Searchlight was an obstacle too difficult to overcome.  Fortunes lay in gaming and the early business fathers of Nevada looked to Las Vegas as the promised land.  The El Rey burned to the ground one night as the town’s glory days began to wane.  Broken, Willie Martello moved to Las Vegas where his brothers lived.  He died there a few years later.  Along with his brothers, the legendary Las Vegas casino and real estate developer Del Webb served as one of his pallbearers.  Webb’s presence at the burial foretold the changing landscape of Nevada and new lifestyles to come.  Clark County which includes Searchlight eventually outlawed prostitution and focused its energy on gaming and different adult-slanted industry such as quickie marriages, quickie divorces and live stage extravaganzas with show girls in elaborate topless costumes.  The working ladies of Searchlight packed their bags and left town.  Perhaps Searchlight native son Senator Harry Reid has helped bring the peace.  Reid whose mother took in laundry from the brothels is glad the chaotic times are gone.  New days bring an art gallery to town.  A flyer with schedule for painting and drawing classes at the community center is taped to its window.  I hear the buzz around town about wind farms coming in and gold mines reopening.  In the midst are blue sky and few clouds.  I head to the car.  I stop to take in a deep breath and savlor the beauty of the desert full with the blooming yucca and the fragrance of the sage.  Leaving Searchlight and the desert floor the  95 passage gives rise and I begin to wind through the mountains. Attachment-1(3) The mammoth Colorado River lies ahead.  The teddybear cactus has vanished.  My moment of Zen in Searchlight is over.

immense desert

in quiet whispers

hidden beauty




The Real Juice On The California Wine Trail

980965_10151663259423809_1498158608_oThe glistening ocean breaks against the rocks as Highway 101 reveals Santa Barbara with its white stucco bungalows and terra cotta-tiled roof tops.  Just north the landscape opens wide to find ochre-colored hillsides covered in grape vines in every hue of green and purple.  The California wine trail is long and like a giant Sequoia, Highway 101 spirals through its valleys and coastal mountains. First stop on the weekend wine getaway finds us on the road to Lompac where vineyards and wine barns are found  all the way to the Pacific Ocean.   We watch surfers hang ten while tasting varietals of Rhone, Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Each tasting seems better than the last and the mystique of the wine terroirs of the Central Coast where small family-owned wineries offer outstanding wine lives on.

Leaving the 101 at San Jose we cross the back bay and arrive at the heart of the California wine trail, the Napa Valley.  When Napa Valley wine producers won the  “Judgment in Paris” — the famous blind tasting of the Seventies — everything changed for the state’s wine industry, turning things from few noticing its great wine to a modern day Gold Rush.  I visited Napa Valley just a short time before the historic Paris event and the limited number of wineries sprinkled along St. Helena Highway seemed thrilled to have visitors stop by.  The complimentary pours were generous and the atmosphere was friendly and casual.  My return to Napa finds stark contrast.   The vast number of wineries today is mind-boggling and I’m curious to check on the wineries I fondly remember, the historic wineries of Charles Krug, Robert Mondavi, Ingelnook and Christian Brothers.

photo(2)Dirt roads and make-shift parking spaces that once led to the wineries have been replaced by vineyard-lined winding driveways and lavishly landscaped grounds with elegant fountains and benches.  There are attractive tasting rooms and posh wine shops.  Tastings run about $20 and the ultimate wine experience is available complete with limousines and VIP tours of caves and cellars.   Napa Valley is upscale and visitors from all over the globe have come to relish in the experience.  Stopping by the four wineries I visited long ago I discover much has changed, yet still a constant abiding commitment to organic farming from family-focused businesses.

photo 5Ingelnook Winery gods owe a debt of gratitude to Francis Ford Coppola.  After the success of his film The Godfather, Coppola bought most of the Ingelnook estate that had befallen to the hands of jug wine producer Heublein.  Since Ingelnook was the first to produce Bordeaux-style wine in the early days, Coppola’s ownership would begin to make things right.  As recent as 2011 Coppola finally bought the iconic Ingelnook trademark, admittedly saying he’d paid more for the name than the entire estate.  Today its grapes are entirely organically grown and non-irrigated.  The vines naturally mine through the sandy soil to find the water table deep below.  The copper-roofed chateau welcomes visitors to a wine bar which also offers a small plates menu.   We take our glasses of Zinfandel and cheese pairings to the outside tables to savor the deliciousness and bask in the beauty of the surroundings.  The Ingelnook label assuredly will continue a legacy of natural farming and top wine.

photo(1)The mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery remains focused on elite wine.   With its rich vineyards that Robert Mondavi began growing in the mid-Sixties when he broke away from his family wine business at Charles Krug, it satisfies the ardent wine lover.  Mondavi was visionary for the Napa Valley viticulture.  He spent a great deal of time studying wine operations in France and brought valuable insight to California wine-making.  The art of blending varietals belongs to Mondavi.   Since his death in 2008 Mondavi’s French partners clearly carry on his legacy.  The tasting room during our visit is crowded and we enjoy a stroll among the breathtaking gardens showcasing the sun-drenched vineyards in the distance.

photo 1When the Mondavi family bought the Charles Krug winery for $75,ooo in the 40’s it took only a year to pay the note.  Robert and Peter, the sons of Italian immigrants, were quick to bring innovation to wine production.  Each had studied viticulture at Berkeley.  Peter implemented cold fermentation, essential to producing white wine while Robert brought the concept of small French oak barrels for aging the reds.  The famous split of the brothers left Peter to manage the winery, now the job of his sons.  The Bordeaux-style of wine making continues today.  Where Robert Mondavi Winery feels nouveau, Charles Krug Winery is old world.  We find the tasting room welcoming and enjoy a tasting.  The wines ranging from Fume Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are delectable and we linger to chat with our host, learning that the elderly Peter Mondavi still lives on the property.

photo 2Christian Brothers Winery, started by an order from France to fund its schools, is today the home of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.  The school offers classes for food and wine professionals and boot camps for the enthusiasts.  The field to fork movement is everywhere.  The vegetable and herb garden of the swanky French Laundry Restaurant is full with tourists when we drop by.  We find the chef there inspecting the rows of fresh vegetables and selecting some fresh herbs.

photo 4We dine at the Long Meadow Ranch and Farmstead which offers their own locally raised meat and preparations fresh from its garden right outside the dining room.   Our organic beef sliders with carmelized onion rings are succulent.   We wash them down with a bottle of rich peppery Cabernet 3





My return to wander the vineyards along the St. Helena Highway has been parts wine, gardens, tasting rooms old and new, food, and upscale ambiance where wine takes the stage.  It’s been an enjoyable weekend and I’m hit by the wine bug once again as we emerge onto the 101 South to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.   The real juice on the California wine trail is no secret.   Excellent wine is California’s forte, an agriculture industry unique to its rolling hills, its coastal setting and its mild Mediterranean climate. The beauty of the vineyards is not to be missed in the Golden State and wine lovers can be found at the wineries enjoying its bounty.980687_10151667934928809_1694874373_o




In love with #Berlin

img-212050816-0001img-212051421-0001 img-212050948-0001 img-212051032-0001 img-212051008-0001 img-212051403-0001We begin the day at the Polish flea market in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate where huge pieces of the Wall remain.   For the moment my love of crystal takes over and I’m absorbed looking at the exquisite pieces I find laid out on the peddler’s blanket.  I choose a delicately etched water pitcher after difficult deliberation.  The boys are jazzed with a couple of old Russian watches.  Happy for now with our purchases we hit the street to see old East Berlin.  The Wall has down for only six months.  The mystique of what life was like before the Wall fell hangs thick in the air.  It is an exciting day to be in Berlin.  The Wall panels that have yet to be dismantled fascinate us.  They are covered with years of graffiti from the hands of artists and poets alike.   Only the West side of the Wall was ever painted  by all of the unknown artists over the course of time it stood.  The East side is blank.  As we walk the Wall’s footprint, we are in awe and uplifted by the messages found in the grafitti.  The contrast of the life of East Berliners and their separation from freedom to the the free spirit of West Berliners lives contained in the their writings and paintings is apparent.   Now the barriers that separate us have come down.  On this day in Berlin we feel the sense of victory of the many lives that had cried out for peace and love.   The boys have fun hammering for their own personal pieces of the Wall.   We are joyful as we talk and excitedly share what we see.  The former divisive Wall is now art work that brings our family together.  Our next stop is Checkpoint Charley.  The museum is in a state of flux, attempting to reflect the recent historic event.  East Berlin soldiers in their stovepipe boots march their sentry steps, then hang around smoking and look abit uncertain of their mission.  We have  our passports stamped and look around the museum, reading stories of those who attempted and sometimes succeeded escape to the West.   Many of the shops in old East Berlin are now shuttered.  We find a Russian shop still open, although the shelves are very sparse of merchandise.  What remains is primarily pottery and those ornate Russian dolls.  We buy souvenirs  using a combination of German marks and  East Berlin currency.    The day has its strange yet magical moments.  We stop for dinner at the elegant Oranian Cafe, a famous Jewish eatery which was once frequented by the many local university students.  We feel oh so hip that we are here to frequent it as well.   Oranian’s is now part of the Berlin of bygone days.  I know for us the day will end with memories of a wonderful time together in a magnificent city facing and adapting to rapid change.  Like this great place, my boys and I will all too soon find our lives rapidly changing.  We will take with us the messages of the Wall to light our way.  Peace and Love.

August: Osage County — Not Far from Home

Susan Heiligman's Blog

When I heard Tracy Letts  was developing his Pulitzer prize-winning  play August: Osage County for the big screen, I was thrilled.  I saw August: Osage County when it played on the LA stage.   “All roads lead to home.”  I could see the country, the sweeping prairie, the old hills encrusted with huge boulders, the gnarled oak trees and the miles and  miles of blue sky with breathtaking sunsets.   I knew the place Letts revealed.  The conflicted characters and how they have endured heartbreak while looking for  happiness seemed like people I knew.

Tracy Letts is the son of Oklahoma writer, Billie Letts, whose works many of us know and love.  Her best-selling novel Where the Heart Is was made into a movie starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd.  Both mother and son write about women, women who stare down fear and bitter disappointment to journey forward and rebuild their lives.  The expectant teen mom abandoned in an…

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On the California Wine Trail

Find my latest publication “On the California Wine Trail” at http// where I write about a recent trip to rediscover 4 historic wineries in Napa Valley that I first visited in the ’70s before the blind tasting in Paris.   Cheers!