Thursday, May 13, 2010

“Are we there yet?”

8 April 2010, McKeesport PA USA

My sister Barbara and I made an unexpected and quick trip back to our hometown (McKeesport PA, about 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh) yesterday to attend a family funeral. We’re not sure how we’re related to Margaret’s late husband Elmer. He and our dad grew up next door to each other, cousins of some sort. And my siblings and I grew up calling Margaret and Elmer aunt and uncle. After Mom died, Margaret was like a surrogate mother. Being gone so much, I didn’t get to see her or talk to her much ... but the time we had was well spent. We marked her pending 90th birthday at our Aunt Betty’s party last May.

Before Wednesday ended, we were at the funeral home of choice for our Hungarian relatives. As the oldest in our family, I attended many a wake there with my parents when I was a child, wondering why I had to gaze at dead people I barely, if at all, knew. And as an adult, I’ve returned a few times, lastly about nine years ago for Elmer’s funeral.

After the funeral today, we drove through the city cemetery and found the graves of our Kanyr grandparents and one of dad’s sisters and one of his brother’s. They’re near a fence overlooking a large public housing project, which makes them easier to find. Built on a series of rolling hills between the housing project and city hospital (nice view for sick folks, eh?), the cemetery isn’t particularly well organized, unlike the one in the township where Mom and Dad are buried. We visited them too and drove past our childhood home, elementary school and lots of locations where buildings or friends used to be. Country Club Tavern still sits in the same location. We wondered if they still serve their fantastic fish sandwiches with tartar sauce and wilted lettuce on rye bread, all wrapped in waxed paper. Occasionally we’d eat in, but the sandwiches were never as good as when Daddy brought them home for late night noshing. (In memory of those, Barbara had a fish sandwich at the airport and declared it severely wanting by comparison.)

I’d forgotten how many roads here have only two lanes separated by thick double yellow lines. But given that you’re usually driving up, down, around or through a hill, roadways are narrow and driving can be very slow, even when it’s not rush hour. McKeesport looked surprisingly good compared to our last visit. It’s like someone did a clean-up, fix-up year or three. Very few dilapidated empty buildings remain; they’re gone, leaving too many gaping holes. But those don’t appear to have become garbage dumps as you might expect. Houses seemed better kept, and lots of new attractive public housing has been built -- townhouses and duplexes with parkland, tennis and basketball courts and well equipped playgrounds.

I didn’t forget the way through Snake Hollow to Liberty Borough. En route, we passed the haunted house, now renovated into a huge, gorgeous mansion atop a hill with acres of green grass in every direction. We wondered if anyone had told the owners that it was once a haunted house. St. Eugene’s, our Aunt Rose’s church, is now St. Mark’s, the bridge across the Yough by the old ice house has been improved and the ice house area is now a lovely city park. Our church has merged with other Presbyterian Churches in the city, somehow alternating where services are held.

9 April, Pittsburgh PA USA

Barbara and I moved into the city late yesterday, having taken another round-about sightseeing tour, this one in the gloom of a rainy Pittsburgh day. Barbara wanted to see Braddock. She says she might retire there since you can buy a house for under $5000.

Braddock was named for General Edward Braddock, a British general in the French & Indian War (mid 1700s), much of which was fought in the greater Pittsburgh area. You can hardly pass a few blocks without finding a blue ‘historical marker’ about the general’s exploits, including one titled “Braddock’s Defeat.” He died of wounds received in an attempt to route the French at Fort Duquesne (located near the confluence of the Alleghany, Monongahela and Ohio rivers where downtown Pittsburgh now sits).

A once thriving steel city in the Mon’ Valley, Braddock was the site of the filming of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, because it so closely represented an urban area after a nuclear holocaust. A few months ago the New York Times ran an article about the city’s new mayor who’s quite young and dedicated to reviving his hometown. It’s home to the only working steel mill left in our valley (and it was the first one), so at least there’s that. Because of the many empty buildings, his plan includes encouraging artists of all media with cheap rent and large spaces. I wish him all the best. It hurts to see how devastated the valley where I grew up has become. The hazard of being a one-industry place. For details, read The Wolf Finally Came, an excellent history of the Mon Valley.

The successful riverfront development of nearby Homestead, another former steel town across the river, has given Braddock’s mayor and others hope. Barbara and I drove to Homestead on our previous trip. Homestead now has a huge new ‘town center’ complex along the river where once stood the dead remnants of blast furnaces and mills that had for many years supplied steel to US industries and jobs to thousands of residents. Big box stores as well as smaller shops, theaters, cafes and restaurants serve new developments of condos and townhouses as well as shoppers and visitors from around the area and farther. Yes, it’s an artificial town, but it’s given jobs and life to a place that was all but dead. My hat’s off to the developer who took the risk to get this started.

Finding a hotel that’s close to McKeesport is always a challenge. There are no hotels left in the city, not the Penn McKee where my friends and I danced to ‘60s rock on Saturday mornings nor the fancier chain hotel whose name I’ve forgotten where I attended a friend’s pre-wedding party in the ‘70s. We ended up in Monroeville at a Day’s Inn, as we had when we attended Margaret’s husband’s funeral. Unfortunately not much had changed about the place since then. So one night was enough. I called and ‘cashed in’ a free night that I had available to move us to the William Penn in downtown Pittsburgh. Barbara and I love that this hotel has been returned to the elegance and grandeur of our youth. We checked in, then walked to a nearby restaurant where we’d enjoyed dinner on our last trip. The cherry blossoms are in bloom as are pansies and other flowers. Lots of hockey fans hustled by on their way to the last Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game in the old “Civic Arena” (or Mellon Arena as the sign now says). Built in 1961, the old arena has a hard retractable dome that was only opened on guaranteed-rain-free nights. Our family’s first visit was Daddy, Barbara and my brother Dan going to a hockey game there in late ’62 or early’63. Mom and I went to a nearby hotel for my interview with a Northwestern recruiter. We had a blizzard that night, and I’m sure I would not have gotten to the interview if someone hadn’t given Daddy seats at the hockey game (none of us had any idea about the game at the time; the arena was the attraction). A year or so later I took Barbara and a friend of hers to a Beach Boys concert there.

We had previously decided we’d go to the Andy Warhol Museum across the river since neither of us had been there. But before that, I had to drive by the new arena so Barbara could take pictures to send to her son Christopher, also an avid Penguins fan. The new arena is across the street from the old one, so she got pix of both. Then we set off to find the right bridge across the river. For those of you who haven’t been to Pittsburgh, it’s not only very hilly but is known as the City of Bridges because it has so many -- actually a necessity for a city with three rivers. It’s also a very old city (see remark above about French & Indian War); Pittsburgh was the Gateway to the West as early European settlers moved away from the Atlantic coast and across the Alleghany Mountains. Streets in downtown Pittsburgh were established in the horse-and-buggy days, so they are exceptionally narrow and now often one way, and they were platted in relation to the hills and rivers (not like the midwest’s true N-S-E-W grid), so they don’t often make sense to outsiders. Add to that potholes the size of swimming pools, road and building construction, and more no left turn signs than I’ve ever encountered in one day. So you aren’t surprised that Barbara and I took a grand tour of the “North Shore” before finally getting to the Warhol.

The museum is a must-see -- seven floors that are well organized and incredibly thorough. Warhol’s time capsules of memorabilia from his life at various times provided invaluable insights to the curators. We kids of the ‘60s remember Warhol as the father of Pop Art, the Campbell’s Soup can and Marilyn Monroe paintings, and “15 minutes of fame” ... but did you know he’d done lots of work in advertising and commercial art, including record album covers, and a cable TV program? I didn’t. And he embraced that work, rather than shun it as ‘selling out’ like other artists might. A clerk in the gift shop said that Pittsburgh’s art leaders were determined to bring Warhol’s collection to the city since it had lost two other famous Pittsburgh collections, the Frick to New York and the Mellon to the National Gallery in DC.

Our last adventure before leaving the Pittsburgh area was trying to find a gasoline station to refill the rental car. For some unknown reason, the final stretch of highway that leads to the airport is empty of services. Whereas the one to the not-so-far-away old airport site was lined with gas stations, restaurants etc., this one is not. But alas, there is a service station on the airport grounds ... except that today it was out of gasoline. Next delivery in three hours! A note on the door gave terse directions to the nearest gas station ... just terse enough to send us on a grand tour of Moon and Findlay townships -- rolling hills lined with off-site parking lots, trees, and trailer parks. More than 30 minutes later we found a gasoline station, then we had to find our way back to the airport. Thankfully we had decided to go to the airport very early. The rest of the trip was thoroughly uneventful!

10 April, Minneapolis MN USA

Once a news junkie, always a news junkie. Even if I ignore most of the broadcast news, I look through my online deliveries of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and New York Times as well as emails before I do anything else in the morning. What a shocker this morning to see the first headline in the Strib -- Poland’s president was killed in an airplane crash along with his wife and 80+ others.

I will always think of Lech Kaczynski as a chipmunk, the animal used to portray him and his twin brother in a television program “Polski Zoo” that was popular when I arrived in Poland in 1991. I once saw one of them in the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw and recognized him immediately from the program; ditto Tadeusz Mazowiecki whom I saw on the street one day near my apartment.

I’m not sure of the succession rules in Poland, so don’t know who takes over etc. But the country is resilient. There will be mourning and perhaps some anti-Russian demonstrations. But I don’t expect to hear of rioting in the streets. The Polish president, his wife and the delegation of government officials were en route to a commemoration of a 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish soldiers in the Katyn Woods in western Russia. Only in recent years did Russian leaders finally admit that a former government had ordered the killings. How ironic and sad that the martyrs of the original Katyn massacre are once again put aside, this time for another massacre near Katyn. Life will go on in Poland as it did in Macedonia after President Trajkovski’s similar death and in the US after President Kennedy’s assassination. But it is no less a tragedy to be endured by my friends.

12 April, Minneapolis MN and Austin TX

Today’s Janet’s last day as an airline gate agent, a part-time job that she took 10+ years ago to help maintain her sanity post-retirement. She’s had enough of the dysfunction of the Delta-Northwest merger and retired again. Wish I could be there to celebrate with her (she has a late shift today), but I headed to the airport at 7 am. The first leg of my next adventure -- Austin TX -- to visit with Susan. She and I met as Peace Corps recruits, bonding before we’d left Miami (our staging point) and later declaring ourselves “Peace Corps Bestest Friends.” Pre-PC, Susan owned a travel agency in west Texas so tourism was her speciality. She was a fantastic help when we undertook the first tourism conference in southeastern Poland. Now Susan does tourism consulting for projects like those on which I’ve worked. In fact, she helped get wine tourism started in Macedonia for my project there.

Susan met me at the airport and true to her tourism background, had an itinerary planned for today and my whole visit. Since it was early, we could see some sights in Austin before heading out to nearby Georgetown, where she now lives. We wandered through the marvelous Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History. One interesting feature of the museum was its uneven concrete floor. At first I thought it was a bad job of pouring and laying concrete. Then Susan pointed out that it was on purpose -- to make walking on the hard concrete surface easier on the legs. And it was. Normally my knees and back are killing me after 15 minutes on concrete ... but not this time. Something for other museums to consider.

Next we walked over to the state capitol where we had an incredibly good tour guide, one who could tell a story as she imparted the facts. Wish we’d had her as we were trying to exit the building via its new underground extension. There was supposed to be an elevator but after several attempts in vane, we took an exit that required walking up several flights of steps to fresh air and sky. This two-story underground area is humongous -- several city blocks -- yet you don’t feel underground. A huge central atrium with skylights rising above lets in lots of light. It’s a very attractive office area.

14 April, Waco, TX

Susan is an wonderful hostess and tour guide. Today with Hannah, one of her granddaughters, we headed up to Waco. We stopped at the Texas Ranger Museum where about 90 percent of the inventory is guns or rifles or other weapons. We watched an interesting historical documentary film on the Texas Rangers, which do still exist, and I bought some postcards for the 17 kids that are on my mailing list. Then we went to Heritage Homestead, a Christian commune of about 500 acres, outside Waco. The commune includes a grist mill, iron monger, weavers, wood shop, restaurant, general store, school and more. Kim, the daughter of a Peace Corps friend of ours, her husband and three daughters live there. The place is amazing. I know when I wrote “Waco” many of my US readers rolled their eyes or got their backs up a bit ... but this nothing, nothing like the Branch Davidians who were burned out in Waco years ago.

I don’t know the basis of the group’s religious beliefs, something akin to Mennonites in my mind. They are excellent stewards of the land -- growing what they need for food and even for weaving. They make furniture for their own use and to sell, and it is the most beautiful, perfect work I’ve ever seen. Ditto the iron work, apparel, gift items, you name it. If the work isn’t perfect, it doesn’t go on sale. The group also offers classes to anyone interested in learning wood working or weaving etc.

15 April

Rain was predicted and finally arrived in the afternoon. Good thing as we cancelled our trip to Fredericksburg because of forecast rain. Like me, Susan isn’t thrilled with driving in rain after dark, which would’ve been necessary if we’d gone to Fredericksburg. Instead we went to two more shelters and saw kittens - none of them the ragdoll kitten that Susan really wanted, but one at each that really seemed drawn to her. In the afternoon we took Hannah back to meet these two, and she loved the one that was my favorite. This kitten has a tabby mark on its forehead, but its body and coloring look at lot like a ragdoll. She’ll be spayed next week, then Susan can take her home. Mission accomplished.

After dinner, we drove into Georgetown to the library thinking we’d hear a speaker Susan thought might be of interest ... but alas, we were at the wrong library. So homeward we went for an early bedtime since we need to arise at 3 am. My flight is at 5:55 am (have I been transported to Skopje where every flight I took seemed to leave at 5:30 or 6 am?)

16 April, Georgetown TX and Reno NV

Until I arrived in Reno to visit my brother Dan and his wife Ann, I hadn’t realized that I’d crossed two time zones. That meant that I’d gotten up at 1 am CA time to get to my 5:55 am-TX-time flight. No wonder I was exhausted but enough so that I couldn’t go out to dinner with Dan and Ann and play a few casino games.

18 April, River Bend RV Camp, near Forestville CA

More than 200 hundred years ago today, Paul Revere set out on his famous ride. Today Bob and I set out on ours ... okay, we’re riding in a 3/4-ton pick-up truck and hauling a 5th wheeler RV (recreational vehicle) behind us. But I have no doubts this trip could be almost as famous, at least among my readers.

At precisely 7:30 this morning, my brother Dan and I pulled into the huge and largely empty parking lot at WalMart just west of Reno ... and at the opposite end of the lot, Bob pulled in with the truck and RV. I was determined not to be late so this dual arrival was quite a feat. After good mornings and such, Dan and I transferred by suitcases, computer tote and a reusable sack with some groceries to the RV and truck. Then Bob and I took off for a nearby gasoline station, and $75 lighter (half a tank of diesel) we embarked on our road trip at 8 am.

Interstate 80 through the mountains was beautiful if rough on the CA side. Sometimes it felt like we were on a country road made of concrete balcony slaps like one I traveled in Poland years ago. The trip up the Sierra mountains and through Donner Pass went more easily than Bob expected. The roadway is pretty steep. Down the other side we navigated past the capitol, Sacramento, and made a pit stop not too far from Davis. We finally exited the freeway and traveled across the top of San Pedro Bay -- mostly a beautiful marsh where we were. We stopped to stretch our legs and take a few photos, then onward to US 101 north into wine country.

Bob had used a new MicroSoft map and GPS system to help us get to the camp site. And therein lies the rub. With me reading directions from the computer, Bob left 101 and turned onto a local street. As we made a left, we saw a sign that said “No Outlet.” I figured this must lead directly to the campground ... NOT. We hit a dead-end on the narrow road we’d taken for about half a mile. I can hear you saying, ‘not a big deal,’ right? But have you ever tried to turn around a 33-foot RV? You don’t just back into someone’s driveway and pull out in the right direction. Nope. It’s a very tricky business.

There was what looked like a wide driveway right where we were, and the owner was working on his car. So I walked in and asked if we could turn around in his driveway. He was quite nice and even tried to help ... but after several futile attempts and the loss of a few of his wife’s flowers, we gave up. He showed us a nearby opening into a field, but we weren’t sure we could get out once we got in and decided not to try. But just beyond this spot, I noticed a house with a very wide and graveled front area. I knocked loudly several times to no avail. So Bob started his maneuvers, forward and back up, forward and back up, a laborious task. It took several attempts and he pruned a few branches from a tree, but he finally made it.

After finally exiting this dead-end, we powered up Bob’s laptop and found the campground’s website with simple directions from where we were to where they are. About 20 minutes later we arrived. As the owner promised, a map with our assigned site was taped to the door. By this time, we were both starving; it was after 3 pm and our 11 am pit stop for coffee had been our last sustenance. After his previous practice, Bob backed the trailer into its spot with minimal difficulty. Then we hooked up and tested the electricity, water and sewer, put clothes etc. away and headed out in the truck for Healdsburg, a quaint town in the midst of wine country right off 101. We took a back road, rather than the highway, passing several dozen wineries. We stopped at Thomas George Winery thinking we’d partake in the advertised tasting. But tasting six or so wines on an empty stomach .... Instead we tasted their zinfandel and bought a bottle ($27 and well worth the price).

A quick walk around Healdsburg’s tree-covered square found us the deli that my brother had mentioned, and we split a sandwich before heading to a Safeway supermarket on foot. Six bags of necessities in our arms, we walked back to the truck, then ‘home’ to the RV using the highway.

Bob made salad while I cut up a rotisserie chicken and with bread and wine, we had the best meal on earth on our picnic table overlooking the Russian River as the sun moved slowly toward setting. Now Bob’s enjoying his cigar outside while I do this. Tomorrow we meet my friend Jean and Lisa, her daughter, in Healdsburg for lunch, then will likely try to find our way to the ocean.

20 April

Update: Had an email from Susan today. She was turned down for her kitten adoption because she’d mentioned that she was going to have the cat de-clawed. Apparently that is now a no-no with the animal humane society. I wonder what it’s called when you get clawed trying to clip the cat’s claws ... or when you find a hole in the wall side of your sofa where it’s honed its claws? The voice of experience. Anyway she’s now the proud owner of a $700+ ragdoll kitten.

After a lazy morning yesterday, Bob and I drove a different ‘back way’ through California wine country to Healdsburg. You can always tell you’re in wine country; it’s well branded everywhere, including identical small roadside signs at the entry road to each winery and tall directionals at each corner identifying which winery is down which road. I haven’t seen one of these with less than half a dozen wineries marked and usually there are a dozen or so arrows.

We arrived in Healdsburg early enough to check out an independent bookstore (read: buy books) and have coffee on the patio behind. Jean and Lisa arrived from San Francisco a little early too, and after a bit of discussion, we selected one of the restaurants they’d scoped out on line. Our almost-two hour lunch was unique and delicious. We shared Lisa’s cheese platter and ‘thousands of fries’ plate. Thin as a rail, Lisa is also a vegetarian. I had chicken livers, a favorite that I haven’t had in 20 years. Jean had an ahi tuna sandwich and Bob a lamb burger. The service was impeccable, something we all commented on because service in the US is rapidly becoming non-existent. We chatted comfortably through introductions, tales of past adventures together and current plans, books and more. Afterwards we took a leisurely walk around town, then Bob and I took off for the ocean and Jean and Lisa returned to the city.

Never been so grateful that we didn’t have wine for lunch. The mountain road from Healdsburg to CA Highway 1, the coastal road, is a roller coaster ride par excellence. About half the trip was on a solid two-lane road with double yellow lines down the center, visible white lines along the edges and a sturdy railing along the downhill side, which was generally very steep ... and with an awesome view of the forest. Redwoods, cypress, pines and a few deciduous trees blanketed much of the mountainside in varying shades of green. Rarely were the hundreds of S-curves, L-bends, switchbacks marked ... perhaps because they were too numerous and/or CA ran out of money to maintain the signs. Then we hit a narrower road with virtually no lines and rarely anything between us and the scarily-steep downhill side. Bob’s a good and considerate driver, but I still white knuckled a lot of the ride ... and worked hard at not ‘putting on the brakes’ a second ahead of his doing that for real.

While I definitely got my mountain fix, Bob was seeking an ocean fix that was accomplished and then some. The Pacific opened up in all its majesty as we approached the end of our mountain road at Stewart’s Point. The coast road was more like the latter half of the mountain road but with majestic ocean views of rocky outcroppings, crashing waves and trees gnarled over the years by the winds. We turned inland at the sign for Cazadero which would take us to Guerneville and then home. The woman at our RV park office had said there’s a Safeway in Guerneville and we needed a few things. All along the route we were searching for an entry into the Armstrong Redwoods Reserve but none was found ... until we got to Guerneville and at last saw a directional sign. But by then it was 6 pm -- we’d been driving for almost four hours on some rather treacherous roads, were hungry and agreed that was a trip for today. We’d previously talked about staying one more night here and now the decision was made. Shortly we’ll leave for the redwoods and for Point Reyes on the coast.

21 April

The forecast was for rain and that it did as we set out for the Armstrong Redwoods State Preserve. I didn’t have rain gear and hadn’t been able to find a cheap plastic poncho in Safeway the other day. But Bob had brought his old yellow United Air Lines slicker and an umbrella. Gentleman that he is, I got the slicker. Topped with my new Steelers baseball cap, I was a picture and ready for the drizzle that fell.

To describe the experience of walking through the redwoods as awesome is to diminish the experience. It was spiritual in many ways. The trees rose to unfathomable heights. The treetops kept out most of the rain, but glimpses of bright sunshine peaked through occasionally -- breathtaking. We photographed the oldest tree: The Col. Armstrong is estimated at 1400 years old and was named for the man who moved to the region in the late 19th century and became enthralled with the redwoods. In the visitors’ center we bought books, cards and such, then headed out for the coast.

Our route snaked through mountain pastures over a less-than-ideal roadway, but the scenery was as gorgeous as the impressive mountains of Tuesday. As we followed Route 1 down the coast, the vast Pacific loomed to our right with its wide sandy beaches, white foamy waters and rocky cliffs. On the land side we passed rolling pastures, many with grazing dairy cows and occasionally a herd of sheep or goats. It was incredibly windy so many of the cows were lying in tight groups, looking like a coven sharing secrets. We passed several authentic villages, that is, places that looked more ready to serve locals and oh-by-the-way any and all tourists, rather than the reverse.

At the intersection to Port Reyes we found that we had another 16 miles to go and knew it would be slow going. But having come this far, we decided to continue despite learning that the lighthouse and visitors’ center were closed. We passed a series of ranches, each originated in the mid 19th century, each identified by a letter from A to H -- “Historic A Ranch” etc. -- and each still a working establishment. Nowhere did we see an explanation for the unusual naming of why the ranch was historic, other than its origination date.

Once parked in the lighthouse lot, of course we had a winding and windy half-mile walk straight up hill to the farthest point of the peninsula. Wind-blown cypress trees leaned toward the hillside to form the occasional tunnel. Although the tourist sign said whales could be sighted from March through August, we saw none ... just stunning views of the ocean almost 360 degrees. Thankfully the stairs down to the lighthouse were closed, or I might have felt obligated to make the trip described as equal to a 30-story building.

Our placid day was broken on the return trip. We took a shorter route over to Highway 101 and hit a combination of rush hour traffic and road construction just north of our entry in Petaluma. But even that could not dent the day’s serenity.

22 April, Pismo Beach CA

Chilly and overcast today in Pismo Beach. Our RV park is right on the beach so a walk is on the agenda for later.

Yesterday’s almost seven-hour drive was exhausting, even for the navigator. By taking CA Route 116 from Guerneville, we avoided a stretch of construction on 101 and enjoyed the last of our snaky drives through gorgeous forests and lovely small towns. Once we hit the interstate, the rain started, increasing the challenge of navigating a 5th wheeler from one ring road to another as we rounded the Bay Area. But a helluva lot easier than staying on 101 and driving through San Francisco itself. It did require driving over a bay-spanning bridge with the very steeply arched roadway that I found a big daunting as we approached but managed to ride across with minimal anxiety. As we attained the far side, I recognized two news trucks by their rooftop dishes that were parked along the shore. I feared a dead body had washed ashore, and indeed one had, but Bob could see it was a whale, not a human. Unfortunately we didn’t have access to the SF news to find out what had happened.

The rains poured most of the day with the occasional drizzles, like when we stopped at In-and-Out-Burger for a late lunch. Located on the edge of a shopping center, we were able to find a place to park the rig while I introduced Bob to the best fast food hamburger on earth. Our teenaged order-taker had the most genuine smile that Bob complimented her, and she had the grace to say, ‘Thank you,‘ without coyness. This young woman will do well.

Turning the rig around in the Borders Bookstore parking lot afterwards was a lot easier than a turn down a ‘no outlet’ would’ve been. (Since our ‘no outlet’ episode on day one, that’s become a running joke.)

The scenery along this route was rolling fields of farms that will send vegetables and fruits to feed us. In some fields, harvesting had begun, identifiable by the ‘traffic jams’ of porta-potties, tarps, stacked wooden crates and equipment to support the pickers who worked in the rain. At one point we passed acres and acres of grapevines with no winery signs in sight; probably table grapes. I don’t recall ever seeing so many grapevines in one continuous field.

Our arrival at Pismo Coast Village from 101 was easy, no detours to a ‘no outlet’ although once inside, Bob did have the campground map upside down and took a left rather than a right to our sight. Backing in and hooking up went fairly smoothly under a fine rain that waited until we were inside to pour.

Last night was cold ... in the 40s. I’m glad I discovered that I’d been sleeping on top of a sheet and blanket. Bob had made my bed up so well before we left Reno that I thought the fleece blanket was a fleece sheet. I’ve had a down comforter too.

23 April, Morro Bay CA

At last sunshine. We awoke in Pismo to a cloudless sky and sun for the first time since we left Reno. Yesterday we walked on the beach for almost two hours. Bob took pix and video of sandpipers running hither and yon on the surf-touched beach, then taking off in big clouds of birds only to descend again nearby. We also did laundry and went to a nearby supermarket to stock up the ‘frig.

We had dinner at a small and informal cafe on the campgrounds, salivating in advance for the pork ribs I’d heard the BBQ’r mention. But alas, they were out of ribs; we had ‘tri-tip,’ a beef cut that was new to me but delicious and perfectly cooked. It was served with beans and rice and a side of the requested BBQ sauce. Ahhh. Excellent but too much food for me so I brought the leftover meat home.

This morning we learned that there was ‘no room at the inn’ for tonight. A cancellation spot was possible, but we packed up because we’d have to move regardless. Once we were shipshape, we decided to move northward to Morro Bay, having been able to get a guaranteed spot at a campground right on the ocean. And I’m so glad we did. This place is great; somehow it has more charm that Pismo.

Bob brought his ‘traveling kite,’ a Triad box kite, with him, and we’d previously decided to fly it on the beach somewhere. And what better place than on this beach over which other kites, far more exotic, were already flying. A Snoopy and an octopus plus a kite with a very, very long black-and-white tail hovered above the beach. A parasail went by pulling a go-cart type vehicle, as did another low-slung vehicle with its own sail. Bob got his kite flying and shortly a man walked over to tell us about the kite festival that starts tomorrow. He was from Reno, quite a coincidence, and all of the kites we saw overhead were his.

Post-kite flying, we reorganized our outdoor space: moved the truck and a picnic table, opened the canopy on the side of the RV, got out the comfy camp chairs. Then we sat for a while. We had a warm chat with one of the staff who was going off duty; he’s worked here 20 years. And we each took a spin or two around the RV park on Bob’s bicycle. Thankfully the place is pretty flat and I didn’t have to figure out how to shift any gears! Some interesting campers -- Airstreams (those aluminum bullets or coffins), at least motorhome in the style of Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” vehicle, and several that were obviously at least 25 or 30 years old. A handful of tent campers in slots with low wooden fences on three sides to protect them from the strong winds. Some ‘land cruisers’ -- the bus-style motorhome you often relate to traveling entertainers -- with multiple push outs (extensions that push out from the side of a camper to enlarge its indoor space). Apparently the number of push outs determines the caste system of RV-hood; the more the higher up you are.

Tonight Bob grilled salmon that we bought yesterday while I steamed asparagus. Dinner doesn’t get much better. And we’ve done a pretty good job of sharing chores, whether it’s setup or take down of the RV or preparing or cleaning up after a meal. No hassles, no arguments, a neat fit. Makes of a stress-free vacation!

Tonight we thought we’d walk over to the town of Morro Bay after dinner. Bob went out to take sunset pix, so it was dark before we set out. We couldn’t find a path through the beach area that would lead in the right direction ... so decided not to walk.

We drove through a charming shopping district used by locals as well as the kitschy tourist town along the beach. We were looking for an ice cream shop. We finally settled on ‘Foster’s Old Fashion Freeze,’ definitely a spot frequented by more locals than tourists. I enjoyed a hot fudge sundae complete with a sprinkling of chopped peanuts on the real whipping cream and a bright red cherry with a stem on top. Worth every calorie.

26 April, Carmel Valley CA

Been busy since arriving at Carmel on the River RV Park in the Carmel Valley. Our trip here was a bit hair-raising along the coastal Hwy. 1 -- the two-lane road hugs the mountainside, sometimes close to the shore, more often snaking steeply up, down or around the mountain ... or across a deep ravine on a long narrow very high bridge. The views were spectacular, and I even saw most of them! And generally the pavement was pretty good -- an occasional area where mudslides had occurred or other repairs were underway.

Although I had wanted to see Hearst Castle, because of the time required for the tour (almost two hours) and our inability to predict when we’d be there to allow me to order tickets (because we are both slow in the morning), we decided not to stop. I could see the castle atop the mountain even from as far away as Hwy. 1. Another trip.

We did stop to see the elephant seals -- hundreds of them littered the beaches for about half a mile -- lounging on the sand, laying at the shoreline or cavorting in the shallow water. They’re quite funny as they undulate from the water to wherever they want to rest; their noses actually dig into the sand as they slide along. Once they’ve wiggled into place, they use a flipper to flick sand onto their backs. I took video with my camera, and it came out well. Check for this video and other pix of the trip. From the informational signage, these seals were adult females, pups and young adults as this is their molting season; the much larger adult males are at sea. We saw one who looked like a male and was having a difference of opinion with another, smaller seal -- they were bumping chests for a few seconds.

We passed the Eselan Institute, famous for ‘est’ and the human potential movement of the ‘70s, but made a rest-snack-potty stop at a charming tourist complex nestled in the woods between the road and a creek/river at Big Sur. The Big Sur Marathon, which starts not far from where we’re staying, was in preparation for the Sunday race.

Arriving in the Monterey area, we found our way to the RV park with a bit of trepidation, remembering our ‘no outlet’ experience in Windsor. The road to the campground was narrow and long, much more so than the campground’s map led us to believe. But the owners have a sense of humor -- at the top of the hill, the sign announces, “Well, you’ve almost made,” and directed us down a short but very steep hill. The campground is lovely, one of the nicest we’ve been in. A high row of hedges separates each campsite, lots of colorful blooming flowers are everywhere.

After arriving and discovering we had wi fi but no mobile phone coverage, Bob used Skype to call his oldest and best friend. Bruce and his wife Margaret live near here with their 14 year old daughter, Leilani. We went to their house in Pacific Grove for pizza and made plans for the next couple of days. Bruce and Margaret are both massage therapists who work at several facilities around the area.

Sunday we hiked at Point Lobos, an awesome park along the bayshore where Bruce was our guide. (Margaret had to work.) Then we went back to their house where Bruce barbecued pork ribs for a divine dinner. Today Bruce and Margaret came to the RV park for brunch -- I made veggie and cheese scrambled eggs, fresh fruit with yoghurt and crunchy toast from Safeway Renaissance bread ... and forgot about the hash browns that were in the freezer. Bob did clean up. Afterwards we toured the area -- a stop at Carmel Mission, a leisurely stroll through the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea where we bought hand made candy, and a drive through Pebble Beach, which requires a pass that Bruce has because he has clients there. Lots of big, expensive real estate ... incredible cypress and other giant trees -- fantastic seacoast -- the famous golf course. Because Margaret had to work, Bruce took Bob and me to the Monterey Aquarium in the afternoon; it is at the old Cannery Wharf. For almost three hours we wandered through this magnificent place. Most of the sea life is indigenous to the Monterey Peninsula, and the exhibits are all replicas of the natural habitats. We saw fish and aqua life from anemones to zebra fish. The aquarium is geared to education -- of all visitors but with an emphasis on the children who visit with school groups or parents. Again Bruce, who’s visited the aquarium dozens of times over the years with Leilani, was a most effective and wise guide.

Finally back ‘home,’ Bob grilled one of the two steaks we’d bought earlier in the week for tonight’s dinner. We devoured that (medium rare) along with fresh garlic bread and ‘Bob’s salad.’ Bob’s invented a tasty combo of cole slaw mix and spinach, dried cranberries, chopped walnuts, avocado and sprouts that we top with my homemade salad dressing. While it always seems like we have too much salad, it always seems to get eaten ... like tonight.

Now we’re checking conditions for the drive back to Reno. We’ve had ideal weather during our time on the Monterey Peninsula, but rain and very high winds are predicted for I-80, the highway we’ll take over the mountains to Reno. If tomorrow it looks too gusty to drive the RV, we’ll take me to the Sacramento bus station and I’ll take a bus to Reno (about 3 hours). For now, Bob’s contentedly hammering away on his laptop, and I’m ready for a fresh glass of wine and an episode of ‘Boston Legal’ to end a perfect day.

30 April, Minneapolis

Well, it was quite an adventure returning to Reno. Weather forecasts weren’t good and as we left the Carmel Valley, the dark clouds were already rolling in. Thankfully we got everything unhooked, stowed and on our way before the rain started ... which it did. Rained most of the trip to Sacramento where the still shone brightly. We’d scoped out alternatives if Donner Pass was unpassable in the RV -- Suzi takes a Greyhound bus to Reno, Bob finds a motel for the night. A call to Bob’s son Ian in Reno confirmed that we’d have to go to Plan B.

We arrived at the terminal just as the bus was to depart, but it was leaving ‘in a few minutes,’ the ticket agent said. Plenty of time for me to retrieve my bags, say goodbye to Bob, buy a ticket and get in line ... for what became an hour-long wait. I haven’t been on an inter-city bus in the US since college. Nice to see that the bus was clean (although I didn’t try the restroom). The ride itself was pretty uneventful and only included two stops, one a very quick passenger off-on, the other a 10-minute break for the driver. She had told us we might need to stop to install chains on the tires, but we didn’t. We did stop so that someone who’d applied Ben-Gay or something with a similar odor could go to a rest room and wash it off. The scent permeated the bus. Such odors were a definite no-no, along with smoking, alcohol, going shoeless and talking to the driver while the bus was moving. These and a few other rules had been loudly told to us before we left.

To avoid watching the dreadful weather too much, I read my ubiquitous trashy mystery, glancing out the window only occasionally. Not sure when we lost the sun but I did eventually see lots of fresh snow on the roadsides though not the roadway, then a steady and heavy rainfall. Less than four hours after leaving Sacramento, I arrived in downtown Reno in a downpour. Believe it or not, I got a taxi in under five minutes and was quickly at the Nugget Hotel & Casino on I-80 not far from the airport, my home away from home for one night. Bob had found a motel and was still west of the mountains. On one attempt the highway patrol was stopping vehicles and requiring chains. Bob had chains, just not enough for all of the wheels -- the four on the truck and the four additional tired on the RV. Back to the motel. He ended up staying two nights.

Big highlight of my evening at the hotel/casino was winning $15 playing a video poker game. I started with $10, played three hands and ended up with $25. Not bad, eh. of course, now I had a $20 and a $5, so I played and lost the $5.

Up at 4:15 am the next morning to get a 6:25 flight to Salt Lake City, then a connection to Minneapolis. I was pooped but happy to see Janet drive up to where I awaited my ride home.

Now I’m enduring medical and dental appointments -- the annual kind, nothing to be concerned about -- and preparing to leave for Poland on Tuesday. Lunch with Marilou today confirmed she’s doing well with her radiation treatment for newly diagnosed colon cancer. For those who know her, check for her updates.

And for my photos of this trip, check

‘Nuff said for April.

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