Left Foot, Right Foot

*This essay is dedicated to Ryan Rickman and Daniel Vogel, who remind me to breathe, make me laugh, and love me.

 

A minute ago, the world was too much. Burdens heavy enough to break Sisyphus pile on like pyramid stone. Bankruptcy, weighted relationship past, family-society-personal pressures mount and disappear on currents of Caribbean breezes and the voice of a man I’ve let myself fall in love with after wrapping independence around my shoulders like a mink coat.

Cenote Zaci
Taking the leap—jumping into cenote Zaci.

“How did you do it?” They ask by the dozens, pouring off boats from Cancun. Flown in from stateside and global destinations.
How does anyone move anywhere?
I made a decision. Packed my life into a storage unit and gave the rest away.
Sold the car.
Put the house on the market–the one two years ago I swore I’d never part with.
Organized logistics: putting bills online, Mexico phone plan, get my puppy, Bea, on a plane and across borders.
Sleepless nights cloaked in anxiety.
Find a new home for Mr. Kitty. After eleven years together, losing him tore a hole in my heart. My cabin-dweller, confidant, snuggle-buddy, constant companion, couldn’t move to Mexico at age twelve. My fuzzy friend found a last-minute perfect home and now makes someone else’s life a bit less lonely.
Bea paperwork came through.
House was rented.
Ticket to fly and a red service vest for Bea so she could travel at my feet from Chicago to Cancun–the little dog from Peshtigo, Wisconsin.
I haven’t been that excited since I was a child on Christmas Eve.

Daily wood haul
Daily wood haul

Excited to leave the cold; start new; sleep without fear of my ex; live in a community as strong and strange as I am; make a life with a handsome musician and his big white dog.
Excited for change; to not move snow for months; learn a new language; scare myself; challenge myself; laugh again like I used to. Or perhaps, deeper. Longer.
After being alone so many days, nights, hours; not seeing people, speaking to another human for days if I didn’t want to. Lonely always licking the edges of my consciousness and sometimes waking up to choke me. Other days, taking the alone and wearing it like a crown, running naked into the river, bare toes tipped in crushed strawberries. Laughing, while otters played and rolled in a river current coppered by cedar tannins. Some nights, I’d lie awake listening to owls and coyotes call and loneliness seemed a distant ghost. Some nights. Some nights, I burned phone lines missing friends, company, a lover in my bed.

Well troubles
Well troubles

Nights on Isla are full of people–conversations with individuals from all over the world who want the story of a girl from small town Michigan who moved to a little island off the Yucatán coast of Mexico.
I sleep in a king size bed with my boyfriend, our 125 lb. yellow lab and little Bea. Traffic noise is muffled in our back-alley apartment, but I awake often to unfamiliar sounds of dogs barking; golf carts and motos putter and purr; the air conditioner’s cold whirr.

Isla nights
Isla nights

I walk into water so bathtub warm I can’t tell if I’ve stopped sweating yet.
I’m still working to find my niche–writing, food, editing, volunteer work, waitressing, catering…anything to make some money, but also searching out that thing that fits.
It feels closer now.
Less amorphous.
Solidifying in the silhouette of a family here, and behind that a community, and at the center me and all the paper doll layers coming together in 3D.

Family
Family

Last week, I awoke in the dark wee hours of morning when the big thoughts come to claim you and I missed my cabin so much it was hard to breath.
Missed the inhabited stillness.
Just as the ache turned to tears, I heard sweet-satisfied-sleeping dog sighs, and Ryan mumbled, “I love you” in his sleep, as he does half a dozen times a night, and I loved it all so much I couldn’t imagine anything else.
It’s confusing, how to fit the disparate pieces of self that make up “Rachel”, birthed and forged in rural Upper Michigan, to this Mexican island home.
All the fall season’s of my life have been made up of duck hunting, readying firewood, frosty-evening saunas, last harvest canning, apple picking and cider press churning. The first snowflakes falling.
Where does my ability to can pickles, tomatoes, beets function here?
My skills tracking a wounded deer, foraging fiddleheads, building a fire on a cold winter day?

A girl and her .22
A girl and her .22
Homemade cider
Homemade cider

They say time heals all wounds. The quick march of days on Isla seems to be doing just that. The changes are subtle, and I take note of them one by one with some surprise.
Tense lines on my face begin to fade.
My skin, prone to stress breakouts, has cleared.
Painful aches in jaw, neck, and shoulders from holding my body in tight anxiousness have eased, leaving a comfortable fluidity in my limbs I haven’t felt since I was a kid.
For the first time, I smile with my teeth–full smiles of joy that reaches my toes.
I cry less.
Wake fewer times in the night afraid, heart pumping, fists clenched, a scream held in my throat.

OG
OG

Two poles, north and south, stretch my rubber band heart.
Walking down Hidalgo’s main drag, a day or a week ago, I experienced a moment of awareness so strong it took my breath away.
Hidalgo, Main Street of shops and restaurants I’ve seen shift and change over the last seventeen years.
That night, a day or a week ago, I took my usual stroll down the cobbled street to El Patio, where Ryan works.

Ryan playing el patio
Ryan playing el patio

That night, as I approached the restaurant, I heard Ryan’s voice arcing out through the noise and chatter, clear and true. Familiar and joyful, the song’s words and that sweet voice spoke my heart.
If you told me, a cold Michigan-November-year ago that I’d be walking down this island street listening to my handsome man sing, I would’ve either laughed or cried.
My ideas for the future are a universe away from a year ago.
This man, our dogs, a family.
In the past, when days were long and hard, my brother used to say to me: “Left foot, right foot, breathe.”
Some days, that’s all I could do.
Left foot. Right foot. Breathe.
Step by step.
Here I am.

Michigan/Isla Rachel
Michigan/Isla Rachel

Flavors

Fresh Michigan Blackberries

    The first Michigan Blackberries of the season.

 

Since I was young, I drew culinary inspiration from myriad sources–many of them random. I loved to read menus in hotel phone books when I traveled, marveling over descriptions of foods I could envision from the photos and short explanations. I read cookbooks like some read romance novels, paying less attention to amounts than combinations of ingredients, flavors, tastes. I’m no good at physics or chemistry, but the alchemy of flavor fascinates me.
The internet has given me such an array of resources that I’m somewhat overwhelmed and find myself going back to hard copy cookbooks for inspiration.
Instagram has provided a wealth of photographic ideas, along with descriptions of ingredient lists that are wonderful guides.
So much of cooking is about experimentation and improvisation. Listening to your senses.
When I read ingredient lists, it teaches me what flavors other chefs are putting together, what might work, and ways I might take both traditional and original flavor pairings and make them my own.
Environment can also be a huge inspiration for cooking. When I’m in Michigan in summer, I have lots of fresh fruit and garden vegetables to inspire meals. Michigan winters make me improvise with available produce–carrots, beets, potatoes, cabbage, rutabagas–that my father keeps in his cold storage. In California, I came across tiny veggies in the grocery store that delighted me. I’d never seen anything like them, and they prompted a delicious white bean and sautéed squash soup. On Isla, I have fresh seafood to glory in. Look around and see what’s local, and fresh–let those ingredients be your guide.

This post’s purpose is to inspire. My travels between Michigan, Isla, and California have afforded culinary experiences I wouldn’t have believed possible a year ago.

If you’re inspired to cook and experiment, or have questions, please share in the comment section. I love to talk food. ❤️

Fresh Grouper
Fish Market Fresh Grouper that made the most delicious sushi and ceviche.
Fish Market Fresh Grouper
It doesn’t get any better than watching your fresh caught grouper get filleted, Caribbean-side.
Fresh grouper
Homemade sushi with ahi tuna and fresh grouper from our local fish market!
Poc Chuc Chicken and Ribs
This Poc Chuc Restaurant is just down the road from us. It’s cheap, has delicious sides, and the grilled meat is smokey and full of flavor. Yummm.
Fresh Shrimp and Fish
Lolo Lorena’s elegant fresh shrimp and fish with a creamy sauce made from shrimp broth reduction.
Gravlax
Lolo Lorena’s gravlax with goat cheese and tomato water.
Grilled Chicken Avocado Salad
Salads are a thing in my family–and they’re one of my favorite foods. I crave them.
This salad is made with Bibb lettuce, avocado, grilled chicken, bean sprouts, roasted sunflower seeds/pepitas, and blue cheese.
Sliders
Slow Down Sliders–one of our favorite island meals!
Fresh Michigan Blueberries
Fresh Michigan Blueberries!
Homegrown Veggies
Part of Papa Mills’ beautiful garden.
Homegrown Broccoli
I’m blessed with a daddy who raised us on homegrown vegetables. Thank you Papa Mills.
Homemade Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
Homemade Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies. Mamma loves to make cookies (and eat them, but only in the morning because chocolate keeps her up at night).
Homemade Lasagna
Mamma Mills’ Homemade Lasagna with garden ingredients. Home ❤️
Homemade Angel Food Cake
Mamma Mills made Grandma Harkness’ Angel Food Cake recipe for my birthday. My favorite.
Garden-Fresh Dinner
My birthday dinner this summer: Mills Salad and two kinds of lasagna. Wow.
BBQ Chicken
This BBQ Chicken place around the corner from our casa sells a whole chicken, black bean soup, pasta soup, noodle salad, and sauces for 150 pesos out the door–roughly 7 dollars. So. Good. Before he packs up your chicken he adds extra BBQ sauce and caramelizes them on the grill a few moments longer. Yes.
Fresh Shrimp Cocktail
Ryan loves to make fresh shrimp cocktail and I love to eat it. We can’t find horseradish down here, so we ask friends to pirate it to us!
Mar Bella Pulpo Diablo
Delicious Mar-Bella Octopus grilled with a red diablo sauce and served on a bed of arugula.
Avocado Toast
Chef Nick’s avocado toast. The flavors here are fresh, versatile, and perfectly balanced.
Chef Nick's Cream of Corn Soup
Chef Nick’s cream of corn soup–it tasted like the essence of late-August Michigan summer sweet corn.
Strawberry, Pecan, Blue Cheese Salad
Ryan loves sweet/savory salads. Fresh strawberries, Bibb lettuce, blue cheese, candied pecans, and a maple-balsamic reduction. Yum.
Fresh Lemons and Plumeria
Fresh lemons and lemon yellow plumeria from Ryan’s mom’s yard in California. Swoon.
BBQ, leftovers, and good wine
Delicious BBQed ribs, grilled pineapple, fresh cornbread with Yucatán honey butter, sweet potatoes and coleslaw. Yep.
Chili peppers and sungold tomatoes
California fresh chili peppers and sungold tomatoes, which are my favorite. I eat them like candy.
Skirt steak and chimichurri
Perfectly medium rare skirt steak with chimichurri sauce.
Snacks and Wine Tasting in Arroyo Grande
Snacks and Wine Tasting in Arroyo Grande–after going for a motorcycle ride of course 😉
In and Out Burger and Animal Fries
My first In and Out Burger with Animal Fries in LA. Oh yeah.
Grandma Walters' Homemade Lemon Meringue Pie
When we visited her in California, Grandma Walters made us homemade Lemon Meringue Pie from her lemon trees.
Seafood platter
This photo is way too dark, but I had to give credit to the amazing seafood and especially the BC oysters we ate on our California trip.
Tiny pineapple
I’ve never seen a pineapple like this…California…☺️
California Roll
This dressed up Tiger Roll was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Seaweed Salad
Seaweed Salad–one of my all time favorite foods. It’s a green/texture thing.
Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles
Roscoe’s Chicken and waffles with a side of candied yams. The yams were like eating the best pie ever.
Tiny Veggies and Fresh Citrus
All the citrus was picked fresh and the tiny veggies I couldn’t resist at the grocery store. I made a delicious bean and sautéed baby squash soup with them.
The North Garden's Tuna Tostada
I’ve learned to love the tuna tostada living in Mexico, and at Isla’s beautiful and delicious North Garden Restaurant, they serve one of the best I’ve had.
The North Garden's Shrimp Tacos and Steak Sandwich
One of the best meals I’ve had on Isla, these shrimp tacos from  The North Garden with grilled cheese, poblano peppers, corn, and a smokey salsa and Ryan’s steak sandwich carried the day.
The North Garden's Lobster Tamal
This beautiful breakfast of blue corn tamale and lobster served with salad, grilled corn and an overeasy egg is delicious and such a lovely contrast of colors and flavors. Another win from The North Garden!
North Garden's Walnut Pecan Eggs Benedict
Can’t say enough about how tasty this Eggs Benedict was–The North Garden again. Isla’s restaurants have taught me how versatile this dish really is. 
Chef Nick's Salt Cured Veggies
Not only is this dish beautiful, but the salt cure makes you want to eat the radish, carrot, and beets like potato chips. Chef Nick of Madera truly knows flavor. #inspiring

Between Here and There

I’ve watched the flamboyant poinciana trees burst from orange-blossomed brilliance laced in green leaves, to brown-limbed skeletons, to green-seed-pod-strung, like giant beans, and delight in the new knowing.
At the same time, I miss picking blueberries on a cricket-themed evening when the reindeer moss crunches and imprints my bended knee. Standing in a woods so quiet, when a pine warbler calls, it’s like the voice of the forest itself.
Here, on Isla, the sun is hot against the back of my neck, sweat drips. Perspective competes with every picked-blueberry-remembrance.
Moped rides weave poems in my head–make me eloquent. Thoughts, lines, and lyrics a winding narrative that disappears when I put pen to paper.
What to say about this life, this island of Islenos, Mexicans, expats, tourists–boozed, coked, sexed, sunned up one side and down the other?
Expats balanced between here and there.
Indoctrinated ideas of “normal” and “Ok” dogging us here amongst the flowing tequila and a life more complicated than those looking in from the outside can know.

Hurricane Irma Waves

 

***

There’s a surreal element to living on Isla–living on a tropical island in the Caribbean, sun-baked by close-to-equator rays.
A hazy, heat-dazed reality disrupted by hurricane waves, tight budgets, and news of the mainland.
Heat creates a tranquility and slowness I craved in Michigan’s cold weather, but now learn to both celebrate and tolerate. I never napped before coming here, but heat and humidity often make me feel like I’m wading through too-thick air, and my natural energy is tempered, slowed. Day sleep comes easier, and I now understand the siesta.
I turn to day to day activities for grounding. Each morning is a list: walk Bea, shake dog hair off sheets, sweep dog hair and sand, make bed, tidy, do dishes, etc. I’ve always found simple satisfaction in daily chores.
Then it’s off to any number of activities related to my writing work and/or island-living: white sand beach time spent melting beneath palm trees and swimming in ocean so warm the temperature doesn’t change between air and water; snorkeling along reefs undulating with silver-bodied barracuda, rainbow-scaled parrot fish, and sergeant majors dress-scaled in official black and yellow stripes; a bike cruise around the south end to drink a cold Dos XX and lose ourselves in impossible blue Caribbean waters.
As struggles with money, the past, and the recent death of a friend creep in, making both waking and sleeping a 24 hour hamster wheel of anxious thoughts, I remind myself to look around and appreciate the every-night-perfect-in-its-unique-way sunsets; my sweet home life with Ryan and dogs; the turquoise waters others spend thousands of dollars and hours of time to visit for just a week.

Winter Prep

At this time last year, I was plucking the last tomatoes before frost; buying, hauling, stacking firewood; making arrangements for snow-removal; fighting a deep and stubborn battle with loneliness in my backwoods, solitary cabin life; and preparing for my December trip to Mexico that was only supposed to last two months.
The contrast between these two lives is many things at different moments.
Part of me cannot imagine selling the cabin, despite the Remax sign in the driveway.

The Cabin

I’ve memorized the topography. Mapped the acre lawn and all its stones, stumps, and wild strawberry patches. I know where the old road and rock wall undulate, disappear, and reappear, in the thick, swampy woods. I know where the lady slippers appear in spring.

Verdant greens and Lady slippers

Where the otters have their den; where the deer cross; and which side of the woods the Barred Owl calls “Whoo coooks for youu?” Night after night.

Cabin Home

In spring, I became accustomed to falling asleep to the woodcock’s lonely cheeping, soon joined by a cacophony of spring peepers. Changing seasons quickly replaced the peeping choir with a cricket orchestra carried along by coyote howls.
I like walking Bea at night here on Isla, because our sidewalk is adjacent to a salty Salina swamp where frogs make night sounds and sleepy herons croak.
Sometimes I’m lucky, and for just a moment the streets are empty of mopeds, taxis, golf carts, and it’s just me, my panting dog, and night noises.
Mosquitoes, like in Michigan, swarm at sundown.
I’m fascinated by comparisons between Northern mosquitoes and those found on the island. Michigan’s seem enormous in comparison, attacking in clouds even in daytime, but slow and easy to swat with a tell-tale whine that gives them away.
Isla’s mosquitos not only potentially carry tropical illnesses, but are tiny, silent, and fast moving.
Bug spray is an important accessory, in both homes.
It seems to be, that in the comparisons, I find a sense of self. Day by day.

***

9-25-17
The death of my dear friend Kay, who’s memoirs I’ve been writing for the past two months, has made me especially contemplative.
She lived on the island for the last twelve years, moving here from her Texas home because:
“I can be myself here. Nobody gives a damn how I act, what I wear, what I say.”
One of the things that made me want to move to Isla is the island’s sense of community, especially a community of gutsy women. I’ve had the honor of knowing many strong, amazing individual women in my 32 years living in Upper Michigan, but Isla Mujeres–Island of Women–has gathered a community of women to her bosom that I’m blessed to be a part of and ponder often with delight and wonder. I’m not unrealistic about the day to day dramas that play out amongst our group, but I’m constantly awed by these women who made their way to Isla’s shores.

My darling friend Zarah here on the island who bravely moved here all the way from Australia as a single mom with two boys.

Women who, like me, washed up from all sorts of pasts and pull it together to live here, which isn’t easy.
Women like Kay.
She died suddenly on September 13th of a heart attack, but her life and story changed me forever.
Today, for the first time since her death, I picked up her writings again. I read through a Christmas letter she wrote in 2002, and wept for the loss of this strong, sassy, wonderful woman who ended her letter with: “My wish for 2003 is peace–on earth, in our nation in our families, and homes.”

Kay’s 78th birthday in August

 

A Difference of Seasons

Walking through the door of my childhood home is a comfort after living in a foreign country for three months straight. Isla isn’t all foreign territory because of a dozen or so past trips, but the fact remains I’m living thousands of miles from home with a rudimentary, but growing knowledge of Spanish.

Sitting on the dock, toes in the warm, shallow waters of Big Manistique Lake, I look at tan lines from my sandals–my body claimed and tattooed by the Mexico sun.

Sun breaks across lake water, a scattering of diamonds. It’s such a different sun than the one I’ve been both enjoying, and dealing with in Mexico. As Ryan says, “The sun in Mexico in the summer makes you feel like a bug beneath a magnifying glass.”

But the Michigan summer sun feels so… Good.

A difference of seasons. In winter the Michigan sun is a lingering wish on a frozen horizon, little to no heat trickling through. In contrast to the Mexico winter sun, which thaws frozen northern bones.

The feel of warm lake water is so familiar.
Three months isn’t that long. But for someone who’s never lived more than two hours from home, it feels long.
The place I chose is so different from this one.

Two bass hover beneath the boat on its lift. Broken clam shells from ducks feeding litter the sandy bottom. One of the biggest leeches I’ve ever seen undulates past like an underwater magic carpet.
I’ve always noticed these small movements in the world around me, but being away makes me notice them in a different light. My senses are heightened. Aromas drift heavy in the air.
All the blooming: lilacs, end-of-spring apple blossoms, spicy-sweet lupin.
The aromas in Mexico are a fast-paced scent-slide-show. Fried chicken overlapped by a tortilleria redolent of popcorn. Moments later overtaken by exhaust, or sewer, or a hot salty breeze overlaid with rotting fish. Aromas in Mexico are heavy, hanging in hot air. Aromas in Upper Michigan are sharper, more pronounced.

It’s so good to be quiet.
But it’s not silent. There’s a cacophony of bird sound, and that’s nice too. A kingfisher, crows, all sorts of warblers.
I was telling my parent’s yesterday, something I thought as we came out of the clouds over Michigan, and I could see an expanse of green and water: ponds and lakes and streams and rivers and swamps, and in the distance the big expanse of Lake Superior. All that fresh water.
I cried. And I laughed. And it came to me that, to be an expat is to always have a little bit of a broken heart, because no matter where you are–here or there–some part of you, and your loves, are someplace else. That’s both such a beautiful thing, and so hard.

***

Perspective and juxtapositions lick my temples–the edges of my ears.

Jungles and mangroves.
Maple woods and spruce swamps.

Salty ocean aquamarine.
Icy cold, deep Superior blue.

 

Spicy ceviche, taco, tostada, tequila burn.
Green vegetable, fresh berry tang and burst.

Mexico, a love in my life for the past twelve years.
A siren song from the south calling me home.
Michigan’s familiar paths, rivers, lakes, fields, and seasons I know as well as the freckle constellations mapped across my body’s universe.
There’s a familiarity to the heat, laughter, living-closer-to-the-edge-attitude here that echoes deep beneath my breast bone.
An anchor with elastic chains that flex as I board the plane going north.

I’ve shaken with anxiety, awoken from nightmares screaming, pounded stone walls with fragile fists, frustration gasps choking me.
Now.
It’s time for strength.
I stretch my fingers. Stare down at the tattoos, ink and meaning imbedded in my ring and middle fingers.
Reminders.
Remembrances of how easy it is to lose yourself. How love can become a slowly tightening noose.
He was always sorry, later.
Every day fading, a living ghost, shrouded in layers of self-hatred, sadness, confusion, fear, exhaustion, anxiety. Always trying to get back to that place when things were good. Until days went by looking in a mirror reflecting, nothing.
I’m one of the lucky ones–a woman who remembered. A woman who pulled apart the veils and shrouds and found her voice again.

Found it living alone.
100 year old, one-room cabin.
40 acres in rural Upper Michigan’s wilderness.
¼ mile Laughing Whitefish River tangling itself through the property.
Found myself in warm summer nights standing barefoot in cricket-symphony darkness watching fireflies wink and float like tiny lanterns.
Found myself in lazy afternoons alone on the river watching iridescent damselflies dance above eddying currents.
Found myself in back-breaking wood hauling and stacking. Hauling and stacking. Hauling and stacking.
Found myself in nights so cold the split log walls popped and shifted and if I didn’t feed the stove every four hours I’d awake shivering, breath hanging in smoky puffs.
Found myself walking wooded paths, Bea-pup by my side–each mossy rock, knobby tree-trunk, and curled leaf edge familiar. Known.
Found myself in long nights half-slept, a loaded gun at my feet, a knife at my head. Stretched between the two stone pillars of fear and determination.
Found myself in a solo July trip to my beloved Isla isle, when the familiar voice of past and future called out together and my answer was laughter and a one-way ticket to Mexico.

 

 

 

 

 

Life’s Layers and Quick Pickles

Life’s Layers and Quick Pickles

4:30 a.m. Isla Mujeres moon over Cancun
4:30 a.m. Isla Mujeres moon over Cancun

Isla Mujeres tests the limits of my writing and communication. Days pile up behind me. It hardly seems possible I’ve been here over a month.
Attempts to write about events coloring my days is like shading left-handed in an intricate coloring book with blunt-tipped neon markers.
It’s a taste of life I’ve always wanted. The woman I’ve always wanted to be.
Sometimes, I feel my younger self beside me, watching with fierce joy and
approval. She comes in many ages—representations of my former selves.
Insecurity, fear, anxiousness, hope, written on her face for a day in the
future she knows is coming: when she’ll fit fully into body, skin, and
heart. Know who she is. Know her purpose, worth, and hold her head—High.

A year ago, at almost this time, I wanted to disappear I was so anxious,
hopeless, and afraid.

I arrived on Isla Mujeres–a place I’ve visited since I was fifteen–just over two weeks ago. Every day I feel my confidence, strength, and experience grow. Sometimes it’s through positive experiences like learning how to navigate the taxi system with my meager Spanish.

32 years old. December 2016
32 years old. December 2016

Sometimes, it’s trial and error as I turn down the wrong street, run out of local money in the grocery store, or confront the blood splatter on our white front steps from the street brawl a couple weeks ago.
Whatever the lesson, I’m moving forward little by little. An evolution process—building myself in layers, like a Russian nesting doll.

***

Mariachi rock chased with beer buckets of perspective and hindsight for Christmas Eve.
Random thoughts trickle, like sand against my restless toes.
Scape of palm fronds contrasts soughing wind through northern
pines.
Wash of waves, tourist laughter, base beat thump juxtaposed in my
Memory to the quiet winter peace next to Michigan’s Laughing Whitefish River.
The new tattoos on my left hand wink black on white freckled skin.

New Tattoos: Reminders
New Tattoos: Reminders

Reminders of pain—fingernails in skin. Bleeding half moons etched into the new year. When everything changed.
Christmas Eve. A year ago. Thirteen hours to Mississippi. Headlights, dark blur. Hands clenched on door handle. Gas stations like mirages, flashing
by. Sanctuary, lost.
His knuckles stood out like bones on the steering wheel. Clenched.
His words a noose, drawing breath from lungs, leaving me limp. A
deflated, quivering flesh balloon. The spine I climbed into the car with
dissolved in self-hatred, and tears.
A year. One revolution of the earth around the sun. Choices. Change. Worn
as thin as an old white t-shirt. A ghost.

Isla Mujeres--Playa Norte Sunset
Isla Mujeres–Playa Norte Sunset

Here. I’m flesh, blood, skin and liquid pleasure. Otter rolls in ocean water and laughter curled tight in my tummy. A smile I’ve never seen on my lips. All those other Rachel’s, peering into the afternoon sun. Inhaling, deep breath. Planting my feet.

***
My kitchen in Michigan is comparably limited in amenities to my kitchen in Mexico. My pantry is better stocked in Michigan, and I have gas to cook on, as opposed to a rusty electric hot plate.
When invited to a potluck, I was given a moment of pause. It was really–Mexico-hot, my counter is the size of the cutting board, and I was craving vegetables.
Living in the middle of nowhere has taught me inventiveness and creativity. Living in Mexico is teaching me these things, in different ways. Teaching me my own lessons on the importance of multiple perspectives.
The grocery store, less than a block from my apartment as opposed to the half hour drive from my Michigan home, has interesting offers. I avoid the meat department and find that it has about half of what I usually need, but I also revel in sampling different cheeses I’ve never heard of and dodging laughing children zooming unattended down aisles as I shop.
The grocery shopping experience is both familiar and new in Mexico. It’s an interesting balance—attempting to appear as though I know what I’m doing without speaking much Spanish while also ogling the unfamiliar items on offer.

For the potluck I decide to combine flavors and fresh local produce with a familiar recipe I crafted in my Michigan home.

Quick pickles are one of my favorite recipes because they pair well with almost any meal, they’re healthy, beautiful, seasonal, and simple.

I walked the short block down to the SuperExpress and found purple cabbage, jalapeños, radishes, and carrots in the produce department. There was a time, when I first began visited Mexico, I was afraid of raw vegetables because I was scared of getting ill. After living here this long, I’ve realized what will and will not make me ill and vegetables are fine. Even washed in tap water.

Walking to the grocery store, picking out produce, coming back to my own kitchen and chopping, mixing, tasting, make me feel like a local. Make me feel like I’m home.
Home here. Home there.

Today’s Recipe:

Isla Quick Pickle
• 5 large carrots julliened/cut into thin slices
• ¼ slices purple cabbage
• 7 thinly sliced radishes
• 1 or two sliced jalapenos
• Two cups white vinegar
• One teaspoon black peppercorns
• 6+ tablespoons salt
• 5 sliced garlic cloves

Mix all ingredients with ¾ cup water (or enough to cover) and let sit for
at least two hours before serving. Taste as you create the brine and add
more water/vinegar/salt accordingly.

Homemade Spicy Quick Pickles for Poker Night!
Homemade Spicy Quick Pickles for Poker Night!

Days Like This & First World Problems

Days Like This & First World Problems

Home Cabin
Home Cabin

There are many days living in this old cabin where I question what the hell I’m doing with my life. Am I really capable of living in/sustaining a structure this high maintenance? Do I have what it takes—financially and otherwise?

Days like today, when, in the middle of my second load of laundry, the water stopped working. My finances are stretched to the max, dishes aren’t done, and after a late-long-night all I wanted was a hot shower.

I’ve lived without water before: when my ex-husband was renovating the bathroom himself I alternated between showering in the utility sink if it was available, standing in a rubber made and pouring hot water over myself when it was not, and if it was a nice day, utilizing the forest-facing back porch for my ablutions. My tent-dwelling days acclimated me to catching a wash where I could: lakes, streams, waterfalls, etc.

My current situation feels different. It’s up to me to figure out how to fix this and I feel woefully inadequate. Days spent scratching my head in good moments and near tears in bad leave me wondering why we don’t teach more practical, day-to-day things in schools. The U.S. educational system is woefully inadequate anyway (don’t get me started on modern education and the “teach-to-the-test” system that’s pumping out millions of uneducated students unable to think critically), but why don’t we teach skills people use regularly?:

Finances, basic auto mechanics, cooking, basic electricity, plumbing, carpentry, etc.

These are skills that most everyone needs a rudimentary understanding of at some point in their lives.

Broken Water Pump Blues
Broken Water Pump Blues

I need one now. I flipped the switches on the fuse box, tried to get the water pump going manually, called neighbors, solicited advice but I’ve run out of fixes to try on my own. I have to wait for help, which is grating.

The experience has led me to reflect and empathize with former inhabitants of my home who lived without running water. Children were raised here, families utilizing both river and old-fashioned stone well to obtain this necessary day-to-day resource. Hauling water up from the river makes me appreciate the simplicity of a small silver handle turning and almost-instantaneous clean, hot water at my fingertips.

It’s been the warmest early-November that I can remember. I debate washing-up in the bathtub and opt for a chillier but more adventurous frolic in the river.

Just as the sun’s rays dip below the tree-line I make my way down to the river, naked but for towel and rubber boots.

With a shiver, I drop the towel and wade into the pushing current. Leaves still clinging to reaching tree limbs flicker yellow, filtering evening light into golden shadows.

100 year old log cabin on the Laughing Whitefish
100 year old log cabin on the Laughing Whitefish

I’m tired, frustrated, and anxious about how much the water-fix will cost.

Dipping my hands into the cold water is unpleasant at first, but after a few curses, exclamations, and inarticulate noises of exasperation, I begin to enjoy my splashings, pondering how lucky I am: the water pump died on a warm evening; my neighbors can provide me with clean drinking water; I have a community offering advice, support, and fixes; I live on a stunning river that provides for all but my drinking water needs; I have electricity, propane, firewood, and food to eat—not to mention Wi-Fi. By so many people’s standards, this is living in luxury.

I’m also discovering new strength reserves. Several times I wanted to sit my vexed ass down on the wood floor and give myself up to the hot tears threatening to slide down my cheeks. However, I’ve done that before and it only delayed fixing the problem, so I sniff once or twice and square my shoulders.

You chose this life whispers through my mind in my father’s voice. Sell the house and move closer to town. Make things easier on yourself. Blinking away the tears, I reach for the five-gallon bucket and head for the river so I can at least flush the toilet.

Hell, at least I have an indoor toilet that flushes.

The water is ice-cream-headache cold as I dunk my hair into the current, turning fine strands from blond to red, swirling like seaweed.

My whimpers turn to yips of exhilaration. Unable to help myself, I laugh out loud.

If the water hadn’t gone out, I wouldn’t have had this moment in the river. And there it is—the shift in mood—the choice to spin my situation and find joy beneath the hardship.

It won’t always be this easy. The sun slips lower. I step from the river, grateful. So exhilarated from icy water’s tumble I no longer feel cold, just a matching rush of blood in my veins a broken water pump enabled.

November 4th Laughing Whitefish River play time.
November 4th Laughing Whitefish River play time.

 

Helpful Cooking Tips

Helpful Cooking Tips

Lazy Apple Crisp
Lazy Apple Crisp

Too often when planning a meal, we limit ourselves to specific “ethnicities” (Mexican, Thai, Italian), and specific meals (breakfast food vs. dinner), etc.

 

Flavors, are what’s important. Use your senses, and recipes to guide your cooking. If you have an idea something might be good–try it. If it doesn’t turn out, you’ve also learned something: what doesn’t work–and that’s just as valuable as learning what does. (Also true in life sometimes, I’ve found…)

 

Rather than reading a recipe and going out to buy ingredients, research recipes containing ingredients you have on hand. What you don’t have on hand, find similar flavors.

Climbing picnic--Energy Food! Scoop it all up together: black bean/corn salsa; sliced meats and cheeses; cayenne-garlic toum
Climbing picnic–Energy Food! Scoop it all up together: black bean/corn salsa; sliced meats and cheeses; cayenne-garlic toum

 

When mistakes happen, remember: Salty (soy sauce, black bean paste, Braggs Liquid Aminos), Spicy (hot peppers, sriracha,), Sweet (honey, maple syrup), Sour (lemon/lime, vinegars–a little goes a long way–balance flavors of vinegar according to other ingredients; balsamic and apple cider are two essentials in my kitchen), help balance each other. Sometimes, all a recipe needs is balance.

 

Make connections between flavors based on other tasty dishes you’ve had that combined successful ingredients and tastes.

Example: Creamy Potato Soup with a Fried Egg–For Breakfast! (or any meal)

  • Think breakfast flavors: Eggs and Potatoes are delicious together—why not in this form?
Creamy potato soup topped with over easy egg and a dollop of Greek yogurt/garlic toum
Creamy potato soup topped with over easy egg and a dollop of Greek yogurt/garlic toum

 

Lazy Apple Crisp Recipe

Slice 9+apples into a saucepan. Add:

*Honey (or maple syrup), Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger (fresh or ground), vanilla, a squeeze of lemon or a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. Cook until apples are soft, stirring occasionally. Top with granola and vanilla ice cream (or Greek Yogurt mixed with honey/maple syrup).

Laughing Whitefish Cabin Observations:

Laughing Whitefish Cabin Observations:

Fall Front-Door Orchard
Fall Front-Door Orchard
Target Practice with the 22
Target Practice with the 22

 

Fear

I walk the property in deep dusk, with Bea a tiggered, bouncing shadow at my side. Mist hangs, ethereal—a gauzy veil—over apple orchard and south lawn. We enter the tree line—mostly cedar, scrubby pine, and the occasional towering old growth. The world goes from dim to black. The familiar trail becomes a new entity—roots and dips to discover. Trees are twisted silhouettes. Bea disappears, but I can hear the faint “ching” of her collar rise and fall against the river’s chuckling backdrop. Other than that, it’s silent.

I stand still, contemplating the old me that wouldn’t have stepped away from yard-light-safety-halo, let alone out of the yard entirely and into the dark woods. I’m aware, my senses heightened, but I’m not afraid. The absence of fear so recent I search it like tongue to pulled tooth. There’s a freedom here—freedom tickling against my breastbone like moth wings.

“Aren’t you afraid to be all the way out there, on that big property, in that old house, all by yourself?” Friends, family, students, ask me.

The lack of fear was hard earned. Born bloody, out of pain, anxiety, and fear of a different kind. These experiences teach us the real things to fear, rather than the imaginary that so captivate us and keep us out of the woods at night.

22 Target Practice also helps lose fear.
22 Target Practice also helps lose fear.

 

Cycles

I’ve never seen so many mushrooms.

Yard Mushrooms
Yard Mushrooms
Woods Mushrooms
Woods Mushrooms

 

 

 

 

Humans continually speculate as to the reasons reactions occur in nature. For better or worse, we’re a meddling species, always poking and prodding; always postulating. I’ve heard many speculations about everything from the winter ahead: “It’s going to be an average winter.” To the prevalence of mice indoors this fall: “They’re cyclical.” To the sudden and varied explosion of mushrooms across the region. “Perfect ratio of heat to rainfall.” I like these hypothesis, empirically science and observation based—as much as I like the mythological explanations for such events: Poseidon’s wrath at fault for stormy seas. Coyote’s trickery for things going awry. Pele for erupting volcanoes.

Humans are meaning-makers. We seek answers. This aspect of our nature has led to both positives and negatives for both our species, other species, and the planet as a whole. Watching the Trump ascendency and listening to the rhetoric of his supporters, I cannot help but wish for more of this questioning nature across our population, and while I’m at it, the world. Perhaps we’ve become so inundated by our advertising/media/capitalist centered society, we’ve forgotten the importance of questioning, observation, careful analysis before reaching conclusions. On the other hand—and I’m debating with myself at this point—studying mythology shows that, despite scientific advances across thousands of years, humans haven’t changed at all. We still love, lust, grieve. We’re jealous, angry, and start wars. We’re fascinated with one another’s drama. We don’t know what exists before we’re born, and we don’t know where we go when we die. We still don’t know our purpose any more than did the ancient Greeks, Aborigines, Mayans staring up at the stars and making meaning out of constellations.

I don’t know why the mushrooms have appeared in such vast quantities this year, but I’m captivated by their shapes, sizes, colors, and prolific-stemmed-capped-cragged-horned-tilting presence. I’ve seen purple mushrooms, six-inch-tall table-topped Aminitas, brown and white puffballs like blown-bubbles on the lawn, and various eye-popping orange and red fungi that screams “poisonous” in all their fluorescent vibrancy.

They’re delightful, turning the woods and lawn into a there-and-gone fairy world overnight.

The Ancient Britons believed that stumbling into a fairy ring of mushrooms, one risked being taken to the land of faery, where you might never emerge, or, worse yet, emerge after only “one night” to find you’d been gone 200 years in real time. Many cultures have and continue to use certain mushrooms for their hallucinogenic qualities and ability to alter consciousness. Proponents across the centuries believe these characteristics reveal deeper meanings and truths than humans are able to see on a day to day basis.

I suggest a healthy dose for most modern politicians.

Toppled woods mushroom
Toppled woods mushroom

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Cold Weather’s Coming

The change in season happens so gradually, I hardly notice. Subtle shifts in day-to-day routine are always the first clues.

Fall colors over the Laughing Whitefish
Fall colors over the Laughing Whitefish

Less skirts, dresses, shorts and more leggings and jeans.

The windows, always open at night, get lowered bit by bit until cracked just enough to hear the river as I fall asleep.

 

 

I’m hungrier than I was, as though, bear-like, my body’s preparing for cold.

Birds fly in chittering flocks, foraging together in preparation for a flight south I’m eager to imitate in December.

Fields turn green to gold, catching late-day sunlight in haloed reflections.

Late-fall sunset
Late-fall sunset

Days get shorter.

I hauled and stacked three face cords of wood yesterday. It felt like a lot, but I’ll need much more. “Wood warms you twice.” I hear my father’s voice as I bend, lift, stack, repeat. Sweat trickles between my breasts. Thunder rumbles and wind whips errant blond hairs into my eyes and across my lips.

First three face words of firewood
First three face words of firewood

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaves swirl in colored tornadoes.

The cherry tree, first to acquiesce to coming cold, stands, a leafless profile against a gathering-storm-sky.

Stacked
Stacked

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tastes Like Fall

As the seasons change, my culinary fantasies shift from blueberry bursts, sweet corn and BLT bliss, and sugar snap pea sweetness to daydreams of bacon-wrapped-duck breast, apples melted with honey and cinnamon, and buttery-orange mounds of butternut squash.

Ideas and Recent Recipe Concept-Photos to Follow:

*Email rachelmills906@gmail.com for Recipes and Ideas

White beans, sausage, butternut squash
White beans, sausage, butternut squash
Mustard Greens, lettuce, shaved pecorino romano cheese, carrot, purple cabbage
Mustard Greens, lettuce, shaved pecorino romano cheese, carrot, purple cabbage
Gazpacho, sauteed salmon, roasted potatoes
Gazpacho, sauteed salmon, roasted potatoes
Fresh Tomato and Veggie Gazpacho
Fresh Tomato and Veggie Gazpacho
Yard Apples
Yard Apples

 

Lazy Apple Crisp
Lazy Apple Crisp
Butternut Squash, Leeks, Fresh/Sundried Tomatoes, Coconut Milk, Wild Rice
Butternut Squash, Leeks, Fresh/Sundried Tomatoes, Coconut Milk, Wild Rice
Brat with beet sauerkraut, turmeric/garlic roast potatoes, Asian cucumber salad with peanuts
Brat with beet sauerkraut, turmeric/garlic roast potatoes, Asian cucumber salad with peanuts

Sweet Corn Season

Sweet Corn Season

Boiling Sweet Corn
Boiling Sweet Corn

Something elemental in me knows fall is coming on, without looking at a calendar. A flock of robins hurried, heavy-breasted above me this evening. The ditch-side weeds are fluffy and dry—going to seed and taking to the winds, switching directions like winging dragonflies. I crave corn—sweet and salty.

Sweet corn season catches me up every year. I wait all eleven or so months for a handful of tantalizingly-temporary meals containing fresh sweet corn.

I eat popcorn multiple nights a week at all times of year, but there’s nothing like the summer’s first shut-eyed, yellow-crunch, sweet-buttery bite of corn on the cob.

Garden-veggie Panzanella Salad, Herbed Rice
Fresh Sweet Corn, Garden-veggie Panzanella Salad, Herbed Rice

Corn in many incarnations comes our way on a daily basis, but in forms far removed from the yellow maize harvested by early Americans hundreds of years ago. We don’t recognize it any more, it comes in so many shapes and varietals—yet our idea of “corn” is still deeply entrenched in an image of a yellow, husked and tasseled ear.

Corn has developed a negative reputation in our culture—and rightfully so. Its large-scale farming destroys ecosystems; its processing is harmful to both environment and individual consumer; its production exists in a precariously balanced government subsidy program in which, ultimately, the farmers who risk their livelihoods to cultivate the ancient grain, lose—often sacrificing a lifetime’s health and finances.

It’s strange, how human intervention so drastically changed the corn plant—how, as Michael Pollan illustrates in his book The Botany of Desire our desire for certain traits from the corn plant irrevocably transformed corn’s evolutionary trajectory.

Corn was and is a staple diet of many segments of ancient and modern America. U.S. culture visualizes corn as the yellow and white symmetrical rows with green husk and frilled tassel. In reality, there are dozens of strains, in various shapes and sizes. Corn was sacred to many early American societies, particularly in the South Americas. Each variety and function corn represented was respected and even worshiped.

Its significance as a staple crop was recognized and celebrated.

We’ve deviated far from understanding our mutualistic relationship, and that lack of consideration has compromised our health, ecosystems, and connection to a symbiotic plant-human relationship that is crucial to human well being and survival.

I find it odd to ponder that the corn syrup found in soft drinks and candy is produced from the same plant that formed the well-salted, butter-dripping ear of corn clasped between my thumbs and forefingers. It truly is a wonder how humans invented ways to manipulate the natural world. Whether many of these manipulations are bad or good remains to be seen—we’re human experiments.

What concerns me is how often we stop to ask, “Why.” It seems an important question, that’s too often overlooked.

Corn on the cob is delightfully messy to eat. It’s a sensual experience, sweet and salty, butter dripping between fingers and across lips and chin. It’s a meal that requires full physical involvement—chewing, picking teeth, licking fingers, wiping chin, sucking sweet juice and butter soaked cob, and then having just one more.

Fresh Sweet Corn and Green Beans
Fresh Sweet Corn and Green Beans

My favorite summer meal is a BLT and corn on the cob. I’m blessed to have had this meal every summer I can remember because my parents raised my sister and I in a dreamy, hard-work-harvest, food landscape. Food and food production plays in most good memories I have.

The corn crop is a passion-project for my father. He puts up electric fences and works tirelessly to keep birds, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, and raccoons from destroying the tempting plants.

The summer I was fourteen, we worked as a family propping up corn stalks after a flattening wind and rain storm almost destroyed the harvest. We crawled on our hands and knees in the black, rain-wet dirt—my mother, father, sister, and me. The sun was hot, and it was humid beneath the tasseled corn-tree-trunks that towered above my bent back. Dirt crawled up my fingernails, and slugs slumped away from my patting hands, as I propped and packed, propped and packed. It was boiling and hard work, but a camaraderie developed between siblings and parents. When the rows stood straight again, we swam, the four of us, washing away dirt, laughing, brushing corn pollen from our hair.

I’ve had a lot of delicious BLTs, but those made in the Mills household will always be the best: my mother’s homemade bread, bacon, fresh-picked tomato, crisp garden-lettuce, and tangy organic mayo. My sister and I were usually given the task of shucking the corn, which we did with gusto, enjoying the squeak and pull as husks loosened and tore. We brought the glowing ears to mama, who lowered them, careful not to splash, into waiting boiling water.

She always knew exactly when to remove them (3-5 minutes).

As soon as the corn was ready, it was time to eat. We rolled steaming, golden-rowed, summer-incarnate ears in butter; salted, peppered, and ate.

It all comes together in flavors that, for me, hold the essence of summer and family. It’s a connection to the ancient grain that binds peoples and generations across this giant American continent, and now, in our global world, across the planet.

Roasted Sweet Corn, Chicken thighs, broccoli slaw, tomato salsa
Roasted Sweet Corn, Chicken thighs, broccoli slaw, tomato salsa

 

Sweet Corn, Cantaloupe, Roasted Jalapeno, Sungold Salsa:

Diced Sungold Tomatoes

Lime Juice

Diced Cantaloupe

Minced Roasted Jalapeno

Boil or Roast Sweet corn then slice from the cob

Minced Garlic

Salt/Pepper to Taste

Minced Fresh Oregano

Replace Cantaloupe with other fresh berries such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, or blackberries.

 

Sweet Corn, Sungold, Cantaloupe Salsa

Sweet Corn, Sungold, Cantaloupe Salsa

Roasted Sweet Corn and Cantaloupe Salsa

Roasted Sweet Corn and Chicken Thigh Tacos

Boil or Roast Sweet corn then slice from the cob

Quality corn tortillas

Sautéed Chicken thighs—chipotle seasoning

Broccoli Slaw

Diced Sungold Tomatoes mixed with diced garlic

 

 

Roasted Sweet Corn

Roasted Sweet Corn

 

Roasted Sweet Corn Tacos

Roasted Sweet Corn Tacos

 

Sungold Tomatoes

Sungold Tomatoes

 

Roasting Jalapeno
Roasting Jalapeno

The Mechanics


The Mechanics

Dirty brake hands
Brake hands

I mow approximately an acre. With a push-mower. I understand the lawn isn’t, technically, necessary. However, it helps keep the bugs down, or so I tell myself. In Deerton, bugs are a constant battle. I will also argue the lawn was mowed this way before, and it’s easy to follow the yard line. I also love how it looks. Untamed wilderness at the lawn’s edges makes a startling contrast to thick, impenetrable brush and trees forming a border around the yard line.

First mower
First mower

I learned how to use both a push and riding lawnmower when I lived with my husband. I liked the rider, as I could have a beer or glass of wine and enjoy my yard one, ever-smaller, concentric circle at a time.

My cabin didn’t come with a mower, so I went down to a dealer in Skandia and looked for something used, aka in my teensy-tiny budget. When I walked into the show-room a gentleman was in the process of buying the only used one available, but changed his mind at the last minute, and for $150 the mower was mine.

I arrived home, unloaded the mower, and surveyed the waving grass blades and bobbing daisy heads. I had just purchased my first lawnmower. Before me were hundreds of laps around the rocky yard, a lot of bug bites, and moments of deep satisfaction, sipping wine and surveying the results of my efforts.

Inappropriate Weed Whipper Attire
Inappropriate Weed Whipper Attire

The work is hard–the yard dips and plunges. It’s full of rocks, and unexpected tree stumps popping out of tall grass to quickly stop a mower blade. The bugs are horrendous: black flies, mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies. I’ve often eaten as many as five mosquitoes in a couple hours just opening my mouth for a deep breath.

But somehow, I don’t mind that much. Perhaps it’s doing it myself; a sense of accomplishment; stubborn pride; single woman goal achievement; forced exercise; a chance to touch each inch of the land I own and inhabit.

The lawnmower wasn’t my first triumphant act, and it certainly won’t be the last.

I learned how to use a weed wacker, switch the propane tank for the two-burner stove, change the water filter, build stone walk-ways, swap my brakes (with assistance), and carpentry work will soon be an addition to the list.

New Brakes
New Brakes
Bad brakes
Bad brakes

My education came out of necessity–I don’t have money to hire someone to do these things, and I’m perfectly capable of learning. But the honest truth is: I probably wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t have to.

My mother asks: “How can you stay alone there, night after night?”

Because I have to. Because it’s my home. Necessity.

New brake pads and a cautionary brake image.
New brake pads and a cautionary brake image.

I lost my fear of the dark. I lost my fear of being alone. Because I had to–either that or leave my home–give it up to fear.

Many times, I’ve thought of my dear friend Dorothy who lived alone in a cabin in the Canadian woods after her husband passed away. Children grown, she stuck it out there for several years before moving closer to town. She lived rustic, created a garden, hauled water, and enjoyed her space–her solitude.

It becomes something you wrap around yourself. Something you own. Out of what is, sometimes, the agony of necessity, comes strength to walk across the pitch-dark yard without a flashlight, and never consider needing one.

Brakes
Brakes