Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Staying Safe and Comfy in Arby

Arby is a dear and delightful motorhome, but time takes its toll on all things mechanical.   Our choices in the adventure of becoming motorhome owners were essentially divided into two possible approaches: purchase a new motorhome or purchase a used motorhome.  Each had its drawbacks; a new motorhome could tie up finances well beyond what we considered reasonable, and since we had not harbored the dream of the RV lifestyle, we weren't prepared to pay for it.  A used motorhome had the danger of not knowing how well the rig had been cared for.

We had already ruled out the idea of renting an RV after looking at costs and hearing stories of malfunctions on the road.  The whole RV concept was looking unworkable until Helen and her daughter Jeanette got wind of Joe's project and started thinking seriously of offering their motorhome for sale.  This RV had been an important part of their vacation plans for many years, but they were realizing that their trips were no longer as viable as they once had been, and it was an exciting idea to think that their motorhome would be a grand support for a grand adventure.

And so we became the proud owners of a well-maintained and well equipped but slightly vintage 1994 Fleetwood Flair Class A motorhome.  Mechanics have consistently told us that this one is "sweet" - sturdy and reliable, should last for a good bit longer.  And the interior is almost pristine, especially the upholstery.  Little tasks, such as reattaching laminate strips that are coming loose, were easy.

But there are bigger ticket items to deal with, even with a well-cared for vehicle. Tires, for instance.  Because all that we read had said that tires can be unreliable after many years, despite their seeming pristine state, we replaced all the tires on the motorhome soon after we purchased it.  Ka-ching! went the budget.

And because we have the very sturdy and wonderful 1995 Saturn to accompany the motorhome, we also replaced the tires about a month into the trip, when we realized they had a bit of a shimmy to them that wasn't just a realignment problem. Twice (you'd think that once you'd made the mistake, you'd learn, but apparently we each needed to learn the lesson...)  we had made the horrifying mistake of not releasing the tires to roll freely and by the time we realized it (a scream of a sound-- you really don't want to continue moving forward!), we had dragged Toad for a bit, leaving lovely stripes on the street.  Apparently, this intense wear on one side of the tire makes a problem.  So it was not any deep surprise when we were advised to replace the tires, which we did.    Ka-ching! went the budget, again.

It's almost inevitable that moisture finds its way into a motorhome at some point or another, and as Helen prepared it for sale, she realized that water had seeped in and replaced the rubber roof.  Some of that water had come into the bedroom and found a spot to settle in a mattress, which necessitated a new mattress (Ka-ching again, but it's really nice, so that's also a luxury).

Window coverings also need attention.  The blinds were kind of functional, but they stuck and one became disattached at the bottom. So we replaced them. (Ka-ching!) Installation of blinds, particularly behind wooden cornices, is no picnic, but Joe managed.  Some of the water damage in the bedroom affected a window shade and we also wanted to add insulation and light control so we got open cell honeycomb shades. (Ka-ching!) And I wanted to update the fabrics in the bedroom, but that was a grand adventure in do-it-yourself, so the ka-ching in that project wasn't so tough.

Generators are important parts of motorhomes, as are refrigerators and heating systems.  In Arby, the refrigerator is superb, as is the heating system, but the cooling we had hoped to enjoy (and actually ARE enjoying as we travel south from Kentucky into Tennessee) was not available in the long, hot, dry days across Texas.   Helen had advised us that to minimize the strain on the motor and maximize the comfort in the cabin when driving, we should power up the generator and run the large air conditioner for the cab when driving, rather than the car air conditioner, in order to lessen the demand on the RV motor.

But we couldn't get the generator to run when we wanted relief from the weather. Not only would we be steamy for long rides (yes the windows do open, and that was a life-saver, but it's still very steamy in hot weather and we're spoiled Californians), but we would not have option of boon-docking (camping without electrical or water hook-ups) with generator support.

One thing we discovered when crossing Texas is that not many people want to work on RV generators. Places that fix most things in an RV just don't work on generators.  Places that sell stuff for RVs are glad to offer to sell you an emergency generator to get you through for now. Luckily, these places do offer advice about who might be able to help.

It seems that in RV parks, local mechanics will put business cards out and are willing to come out to the park to check your problem.  Luckily we had just pulled in for our first multi-day stay in Austin, Texas, because it took the guy two days to answer our phone call, but he was still a big help.  What he told us was that the voltage regulator was malfunctioning and would have to be replaced.  He, of course, didn't have one, and it would take a few days at least to order one.  All of my anxieties about time conflicts involving keeping a tight schedule and taking good care of ourselves and our vehicles were surfacing.  But there was a solution!  

We checked our schedule to find out when we would next have a chance to be in one place long enough to have someone work on the generator, and found two possible businesses that could do the work our time in Louisiana.  It was a little dicey, as any mechanic generally wants to do his own diagnosis on a problem before attempting a repair.  Ordering an expensive part (Ka-ching!) and getting stuck with it in case the distressed traveler never showed up would not be fun. And the voltage regulator, about the size of two small fists, cost over $300, and that did not count the labor costs in either city.   

It turned out well, but there were thin moments: One shop in Covington, Louisiana didn't offer the service, and when we first called the second shop, the wife who owned the shop asked her husband, who did the work, if he could do it.  "Nope", he replied, not wanting to take the risk of a sight unseen diagnosis on a generator that wasn't familiar (he didn't even usually work on RVs).  Much to our benefit, she encouraged him to just give it a try.  We brought it in at the appointed time, and the mechanic installed it while his wife provided me an air-conditioned spot to wait and some great conversation.  And now, because of them, the 92 degree ride towards Jackson, TN is far more comfortable than the 95- 99 degree rides through all of Texas.  We have a sweet, soft breeze from the air conditioner.

I'm choosing to believe that we have dealt with the more sizable repair opportunities this trip offers. Everything seems to be working fine, and we are feeling more and more at home here.  We have just come back to Arby after a week of staying with friends and family, and it feels like home.  Yay!  One month down, three to go.  Stay tuned for more adventures.   

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Eating on the Road
Normally at home, we eat a pretty healthy diet- eggs and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and dinner often has steamed vegetables.  Not TOO many snacks. 
Planning for food on the road is another thing! When Joe had first proposed that the trip be a series of motel visits, I was simply not interested, partly because eating out endlessly would be hard on the digestion-- and I’d always be tempted to eat more than I should. 
Second only to the primary function of providing us with sleeping space each night, Arby’s kitchen accommodations really help with food planning.  With a microwave, three stovetop burners, an oven, and a refrigerator/freezer built in, there are many options.  Add to that the toaster oven and George Foreman grill that Helen left in the RV for us and we’re in great shape.
Joe's fixed lunch- our first outdoor dining Chez Arby! 
Chez Arby, as we’ve come to dub our personal diner, is a great place for a simple, good meal: eggs and toast for breakfast (with the occasional waffle, natch!) - or cereal and milk if we want it; mostly sandwiches for lunch, and simple dinners not unlike those at home.  We presently favor a cool product- precooked quinoa that’s already seasoned, in packets that make one meal for both of us.  Mixed with sauteed spinach, mushrooms and onions, and maybe topped with cheese, it makes a fast, filling and tasty dinner.  It’s marketed as “Seeds for Change” at Costco. 
But one of the absolute delights of travel is road food. It can be a window into local culture that really expands our understanding, and at the rate we’re passing through states, it’s helpful to have such vivid experiences of the differences between places. 
If you bring in a Billy Bass (those talking novelties), you get a bucket of fish.

The menu. You order, then take a seat. No frills! 

Liar's wall.  People submit photos and narratives of fishing expeditions.

Let me start with last night’s dinner in Memphis.  Flying Fish on Second St. was recommended by our friends Rick and Charlotte, who moved to Whittier from Memphis two years ago. I love this place. Casual, fun, one of a kind, and EXCELLENT food.  With a bewildering selection available, I chose the Hog Wallow (two pieces of catfish, four shrimps, six oysters, all freshly breaded and fried, over french fries) and Joe chose the Gumbo over grilled grits.  We were both supremely happy.  The oysters had been shucked right then, and everything was served so hot and fresh. Joe’s gumbo had that rich brown sauce we’d found in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but this place had shrimp  and okra instead of the chicken and sausage from Lake Charles. (At home, Joe makes his gumbo with catfish, country ham and okra. ) Under Joe’s gumbo was a slab of grilled grits. 
We love grits, and were so happy to finally travel far enough into the southeast to find it on some menus. Grits (for those of you uninitiated in its delights) is bland, creamy, boiled ground hominy, that is great with butter, salt and pepper. Some people dress it up in various ways, from adding cheese to tabasco.  It’s an easy, healthy side dish.  In this case, the boiled grits were refrigerated, cut into slabs and sauted in a pan or on a griddle.  This is a great way to use any extra cold boiled grain.  I remember my grandmother serving slabs of grilled oatmeal with syrup, leftovers from yesterday’s breakfast. 
For most of the restaurants where we’ve eaten, without friends’ recommendations, we became quite grateful for today’s technology. Yelp! is my favorite application on the iPhone for locating great food, and I’m deeply grateful to those reviewers who have taken the time to share their opinions.  I rarely disagree with the overall experiences described. Not only does the app give us great recommendations, it warns if the restaurant is closed (as Rendezvous sadly was on Monday night in Memphis) but it also provides a map and phone number.  Having all that information makes it possible for us to have great experiences routinely.  We are so so spoiled.  And the carryout boxes make for terrific meals the next day, even though by then we’re usually in another state!  
Probably the hardest part of writing about food on the road is deciding what foods deserve mention; no one in their right mind would want to read all I have to say about the foods I’ve enjoyed.  But I will be glad to make summary comments of some particularly memorable spots. 
As you enter the Mad Greek Cafe! 
Mad Greek Cafe as seen from the road.  As if you'd miss it! 

Baker, CA: The Mad Greek Cafe. Kitschy, popular with the traveling crowd, wide selection of menu items and terrific ethnic pride.  We split a salad with gyros atop and almost had left overs; delicious and generous! 
Good friend Marti drove in from Phoenix for dinner at the historic Turquoise Room with us, then continued to Albuquerque for the game the next day! 

Winslow, AZ: The Turquoise Room. Splurge dining- pricy, historic, authentic, local and sustainable. Elk medallions with black currant sauce, wild mushroom corn custard flan; papery Piki bread. Smoked baked wild salmon on polenta.
Albuquerque, New Mexico: Middle Eastern Cafe, east side of town. Converted 7-11 with great charm; hanging drapes separate the restaurant from the store; extremely talented and friendly cooks. World’s best hummus, which they have another name for (appetizer), lamb schwarma - best I ever had! 
Great diner architecture, and hatch chili omelets! 

It really looks like this from the road! 

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Owl Cafe, east side of town. Kitschy, googie architecture, sells tshirts with store logo. Omelet with Hatch chilies, home fries. Really satisfying. 
West, Texas: Czech Cafe: local pride of heritage, decor self-described as “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” - a trip pleasantly back in time. Liver and onions, cabbage rolls, and from a nearby bakery, Skunk Eggs (meat and cheese stuffing in a baked roll)
Austin, Texas: Eastside Cafe: localvore pride (garden in back) converted home, GREAT food: Smoked salmon ravioli, beef tenderloin.  Just amazing.
Alligator on a stick?  Now that's regional food...

Austin, Texas: Sixth Street Festival. Street food: we didn’t buy any, but had to put the photo in: you won’t find this in California! 
San Antonio, Texas: Josephine St. Cafe. Also in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” category. Old building with undulating wooden floor, dining room built around a huge living tree trunk. Liver and onions again for me.  Joe-Cajun chicken with cilantro lime sauce.
Corpus Cristi, Texas:  Water St. Seafood. Lively, crowded, popular place. Redfish, excellent crab cakes.
Midday in the pujo St. Cafe; it already feels like Louisiana! 

Lake Charles, Louisiana: Pujo St. Cafe, airy, dark, white tablecloths: Rich, dark gumbo with chicken and sausage.
New Orleans, Louisiana: MiLa, near the French Quarter. Gourmet’s delight, sophisticated, award winning, modern. Duck with kale, beets and a date reduction. Halibut over fava beans and peas in a light cream sauce. Rice pudding with blueberries and a chat with Allison, wife in the two-chef couple. 
And this wasn't the biggest stockpot they sold in the store.  These people cook large scale! 

Modest entry to a fabulous Pat's Seafood & Cajun Deli in Covington, Louisiana.

Stuffed artichokes- only one of many prepared dishes: best was the corn chowder with crawfish. Divine. 

Pat’s Seafood and Cajun Deli, Covington, Louisiana: a cook’s delight; carryout deli with fresh fish counter, cooking supplies including 80 qt and 100 qt stockpots, and 80 qt. cast iron pots. For serious cajun cooks! Take home packs: stuffed artichokes, shrimp rolls, frozen gumbo and the most delicious ever corn and potato chowder with crawfish.

Abita Springs Brew Pub, Abita Springs, Louisiana: friendly family restaurant pub with brewing vats in the back. Abita Golden Ale, Abita Springs Jacomo IPA, crab cake, soft shell crab, pasta with garlic, tomato, cream sauce, gumbo. 

You make these from green peanuts- just boil them with salt.  Really good - I'm a convert. 

Wonderful roadside stand in Wilmer, on the way to the Mobile, AL game. 

Wilmer, Alabama: Hamilton’s Produce Stand.  Boiled peanuts. These are good. Nothing to them but boiled green peanuts and salt.  So tasty, and part of Joe’s experiences growing up in the South. I’m a convert- can’t stop eating them! 
That about wraps it up for the Southwest and this part of our South. We’re headed on to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the state where Joe and I met and married, Kentucky-- which sometimes calls itself a midwest state! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What makes Texas so interesting?

Where to start, where to start!  Ok, I’ll start soon after we crossed the border from New Mexico. We’re on the road nearly constantly, so getting out and and looking around isn’t always an option. As we come through Amarillo, Joe points out the Dairy Queen while we’re at the stop light, and sure enough, it’s something interesting!  I grabbed the iPad and clicked just as the light turned.  Not sure when I’m going to see horses parked at the Dairy Queen again.  We’re in Texas, for sure!
Riders stopped at this Amarillo Dairy Queen for a treat! 
On to our day’s destination, the Copper Breaks State Park, 12 miles off the road halfway between Amarillo and Dallas. Such serenity-- grasses and flowers lining the country roads, and the park’s isolation.  It was our first state park RV camping, and it was a bit unnerving- we couldn’t make reservations, and had been told to just “come on in”.  At dusk, when we arrived, a sign said to take a spot and check in the next morning. It was unnerving to see no one else there.  After we hooked up to the electricity and water, we realized there was one other camper around the bend. We went to greet them, but they really liked the isolation and scowled at the intrusion.  We locked up tight for the night and wondered about wild animals and the wind.  There had been lots of wind in these travels, and it made different sounds in different places.  Texas wind, here at Copper Breaks, was a little spooky. 
Then on to Lewisville, Texas to visit Bob Orpin and family before the night’s engagement at Frisco Rough Riders.  After retirement from the city of Santa Fe Springs, California, he moved to this Castle Hill neighborhood, which looked like a transplant of medieval estates, if such could be had in a suburban neighborhood.  These houses were really grand in scale and beautifully made.  Bob doubled his square footage from his long time home in Long Beach, California.  Best of all, he had room not only for his baby grand piano but also an electric organ.  Orpin Hall, (as I dubbed it) was a delightful performance space; Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ as breakfast entertainment was truly spectacular! 
City Hall, Lockhart, Texas

Leaving Dallas, we noticed a small town that had a gorgeous city hall-- and a great sense of history!  Lockhart, Texas has really invested in historical preservation.

On to Austin, where we began to realize the quirks of the Texas road systems.  Joe was startled at certain points where we had to make a choice between two branches of the road, and no signage was provided!  Now, it’s kind of difficult to correct navigation mistakes with 35 feet of bulk and a vast turning radius, so we had to make some guesses, most of which were correct.  My supposition on the signage issue was that Texans must help each other learn the way of something, and never expect anyone new to come along!  
As we traveled on freeways in major cities- Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Cristi, and Houston, we kept noticing that in addition to the actual freeways we traveled on, there were very busy frontage roads on either side that supported endless business access.  People slid back and forth from frontage roads to freeways as they traveled, and variously, the freeway would have a bridge and underneath, the frontage roads would have connectors, allowing “Texas U-Turns”.  It was sort of like the express buses and the local buses, but on adjacent roads.  This takes a massive amount of space, and I supposed this happened because of a very natural abundance of that resource in Texas: it is BIG. Lots of room, so why not stretch out! Later, I read in Wikipedia that this was a convention started by a deal between developers and state engineers, in which they could keep the traffic moving and provide lots of access for local businesses as well.  This causes a proliferation of advertising which creates a strip-mall aesthetic - along the main freeways. This brought attempted legislation to remedy the tradition, but it was quickly turned down in 2002. Don’t look for those frontage road mazes to disappear anytime soon! 
Providing scale and softening the increasing heat of that week were the lovely oak forests all along the roadways.  Oak Forest RV Park, south of Austin, was a fine place for our first multi-day stay.  We parked there and drove back and forth in the tow car (Toad)  to Corpus Cristi and San Antonio, as the hot weather built.  San Antonio was 99 degrees for an 11 am game, with every available seat in the direct sun. Those who know me know I don’t DO direct sun like that, so we left the game early.   
On our last evening in Austin, after visiting the wonderful LBJ Presidential Library, we followed a  longtime Austin tradition and watched thousands of bats fly out from under the Ann Richards bridge on Congress street just south of the state capital buildings. People gathered as if it were fireworks on the 4th of July, lining the bridge itself and filling the fields and waterways nearby.  After the lovely skyline slowly darkened, we first saw small groups of bats, then fluttering masses lifting over the treetops to head southwest to rid some lucky housing development of insect pests. Magical. 

Festive- but everyday event: gathering to watch the bats fly out from under the Ann Richards bridge on Congress St.

Tour boats, kayaks and paddleboats wait for dusk at the bridge just south of the Texas state capital building

In the park below the bridge, families picnicked while waiting for the bats to fly! 

Having finished the Texas singing engagements, we headed to Houston to stay the night with our dear friend Stephanie Davidson, who moved to Texas to be closer to her family the year before I retired. I was so very pleased to see that she had landed really well- her home in Sugarland was magnificent and so beautifully decorated.  Though she and her daughter Sarah worked long hours and had only been in the home less than two years, it was picture perfect, and quite luxurious!  Having a new grandson/nephew just a few miles away made this a truly perfect move for Stephanie, and she glowed.  
Texas: grand and expansive, friendly and varied. Truly worth a visit, if you have lots of time for driving! 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mmm, mmm. Louisiana!

Greetings from Abita Springs, Louisiana! I have to say that this is a lovely spot.  So far we traveled through arid high desert in California and Arizona, majestic northern New Mexico, surprisingly varied Texas locations, and have landed for a few days in this sweet spot just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. 

This isn’t my first trip to Abita Springs.  Nearly 20 years ago, when attending an national teacher’s convention (NEA) in New Orleans, a group of us in the Christa McAuliffe Institute was invited out to fellow CMI teacher Kathleen Duplantier’s home to learn how to make a proper roux. In a heavily wooded spot next to a bayou, her home had a full wrap-around porch.  A lovely large older home, it was charming- brightly colored paint and a very homey kitchen.  There Kathleen demonstrated how dark you must toast the flour/butter mix if you expected to have any flavor-- and that was just short of burning it. 

 Abita Springs bayou © Scott Jensen photography

As we drove from Texas, I looked up Kathleen on the internet (times have changed for the availability of information!) and found that she’d retired and moved to Costa Rica, so I missed seeing her. We had visited her after dark, so I didn’t have a great sense of the locale other than the famous Abita Springs beer, both alcoholic and root. We’re here at Abita Springs RV Resort as guests of the Ocean Canyon properties, which owns a series of RV campground / resorts across the south, and generously offered to host us in return for a session in which they could share the benefits of their membership.  There was much to like about the offer they made, but as we don’t live in the south, it would be impossible for us to make use of the benefits. This is a lovely campground, and a lovely day.   
Joe taking a business call in our happily messy home/office on the road! 

There’s a soft rain, and we’re comfy inside typing away, taking a day off from travel and ball parks.  Joe sang last night for the New Orleans Zephers, and we had the very happy occasion to eat at MiLa restaurant, in the Roosevelt hotel, just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans.  We had eaten there three years ago on a holiday over spring break, and loved it.  I was on a taste-testing binge- three great restaurants in three days, comparing the Sazerac cocktails in each. Apparently these are pretty hard to find in bars, not that I either look for them or frequent bars, either, but internet browsing about features of New Orleans got me interested. 
Though the quality of the Sazeracs didn’t much vary, the cooking did.  We had been to Commander’s Palace before (grand, special event, dated, delicious, in the Garden District) and we had been to Bayona’s before (trendy, modern, delicious and in the French Quarter, famous chef Susan Spicer), but we had only read reviews of MiLa. It was amazing: chic, exquisite, modern, and had a rising chef couple who each grew up in the south, found themselves missing the south when they found each other in New York, and returned to open this restaurant-- the name represents their states- Mississippi and Louisiana.  

We had travelled to Napa Valley the summer before where the two highlights of our trip were dinner at the French Laundry (big splurge) and lunch at Julia’s Kitchen (the only restaurant Julia Child had ever approved to have her name associated with, delicious and affordable!- but now sadly closed). It was located at COPIA, an ambitious, though short-lived project that was to serve as the gateway to the Napa Valley,  “American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts”.  We had happily way overrun the vacation budget at COPIA’s gift store, as the selection was incredible.  When we next returned to Napa, COPIA was no longer open. 
But I digress. Back at MiLa, we had heard that chef Allison Vines-Rushing was on her way to the French Laundry for some professional development event, and we sent word back to the kitchen that we had recently visited there.  So she came out and chatted, and explained some of her techniques for the fabulous food.  Last night, we hoped to see her again and mentioned to one of the staff that we had chatted with her shortly before her visit to the Napa Valley and hoped to chat with her.  We were warned that she was very busy and not likely to come out, so we weren’t all that hopeful. 
Our server made a joking comment that she had been delayed in coming out to refill our water because they were “talkin’ about y’all” in the back, and I jumped on the opportunity, and asked if she realized that there really was something to talk about, that Joe was singing the national anthem in 109 ball parks (actually it’s 110-- he’s STILL making appointments!!) this summer, and in just a few minutes, that information had the hoped-for result:  Allison appeared, interested in the tour, and asking about details.  She also explained how she made the fabulous broccoli veloute (soup with shrimp garnish- steamed the broccoli florets, chilled to retain the color, added to a chilled vegetable stock, garnished with a spicy chopped shrimp, light and scrumptious).  We never got around to talking about the French Laundry!

(If you're reading this, Allison, thanks again!!) 
MiLa lobby bar, picture from their website. 
Well, that made our night.  Though we COULD have taken today as a tourist day in New Orleans, we decided to take it as a writing day, as we have so much to say, and not that many opportunities to concentrate on writing.  We’re far more tired after a long driving day than I could have imagined, and writing on the road doesn’t really pan out-- too much to be alert for, even if you’re the passenger, and there’s just constant vibration as you ride.   
The campsite from my front-seat workstation! 
Then when the soft rain fell on the RV this morning, that sealed the deal.  It is really fun to tap away in the comfort of this wonderful vehicle, which is the embodiment of every playhouse dream I have ever had.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Reading on the Road

I'm very lucky; I don't get carsick, even when I read in the car.  That attribute is key to my enjoyment on this four month journey around the country. I'm a compulsive reader of a rather wide variety of texts: magazines, books, newspapers, and even, in desperation, cereal boxes. 

When asked what book I'm currently reading, I have to reflect on the stack of books on my bedside table. Which to claim? My habits in this regard are disturbingly like my tendency to greatly enjoy channel-surfing on satellite signals on the TV or internet surfing on any of a number of computers in my home. I would claim ADD but it's not true.  I'm just interested in everything.

To prepare for this jaunt across country, a few months ago, I began reading aloud to Joe in the car.  We began with a delightful series by Mark Schweizer’s "Liturgical Mysteries", in which a chief of police / church organist ingeniously solved murder cases in his small North Carolina town.  The truly funny stories made the 35-minute drive to and from choir practice in Tustin very enjoyable.  Discovering that many others had enjoyed the same series intensified the fun - we could mention key words for funny scenes and everyone would bust up.

On the recommendation of a choir friend, Lee Ditkowsky, I read travel accounts to Joe, most notably "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson, a masterful author that every other habitual reader seems to have discovered much earlier.  Chalk that up to my tendency to read more vintage books, such as Sigrid Undset's 1928 Nobel Prize winner for literature, "Kristin Lavransdatter" as my first choice after retirement; it's such a huge book (1,400 pages) that you'd have to set aside some real time to stay on top of it. I was just as fascinated now as when I last read it at the age of thirteen, by its keen observations of daily life in medieval Norway and its characters' emotions. 

That saga was too long for car trip reading aloud, and both Joe and I wanted to brush up on writing narratives, so what better way than to read narratives, particularly of travel?  The writing voice has much in common with the speaking voice; one can pick up a rhythm and sense of organization from excellent writers much as an accent is picked up by listening to daily conversations.

By chance we picked up Charles Kuralt's "A Life on the Road", which was a particularly good preparation for short vignettes suitable for blogs, and provided tips for RV living to boot. But now the current read is back to Bill Bryson – “At Home – A Short History of Private Life”.  It’s an amazing compendium of easily understandable explanations for things we’ve always wondered about – such as why salt and pepper are so highly valued as to be the only two flavorings to be added to the table.

If we don’t write as often as we had planned, it is definitely going to be because we are reading more than we expected.   As much as the travel and discovery of new places is enchanting, this bookaholic also draws new delight from each page of a good book. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Homesick already? I just left!

“No shit, Sherlock”, I muttered, in response to an interruption on the screen as I tapped on my laptop on the way to Las Vegas.  
“Your preferred networks are not available”, says the computer, when I had not asked to get onto WiFi.  I knew that! We were halfway between Barstow and Baker, in the high desert of California, and apparently someone nearby had a locked wifi connection and the computer was doing its duty of constantly scanning for connections. 
Not only was the internet connection not available, neither was much in the way of greenery.  There were millions of little desert shrubs and dry hills with bits of valiant chlorophyll desperately trying to get a foothold, but it’s a harsh environment. 

Roadside on the way to Baker, CA

Mind you, I acknowledge the beauty of the desert intellectually, but seen from the freeway with bits of shiny litter in the median, it’s nowhere as appealing as the varying terrain in Whittier, whose semi-arid natural state is blessed with one of the natural wells which produces abundant water for nearly every plant to thrive.  As a result, Whittier is “Prettier”.  We have pink blossoms on trees in November, very few deciduous trees, and each yard seems to be populated with plants from a variety of places around the planet.  It’s a profusion of flowers in Whittier nearly year round, and trees everywhere.  
The house is about 100 feet higher, up the stairs.

Steep part of the yard-grass protects from erosion

And April in Whittier is the lushest month for greenery.  On our final day of packing, I had taken a break to take pictures of our yard. We use way too much water, but we’ve need it to maintain the stability of the hillside.  We’ve put in as many native plants as possible, and justify the grass on the steep slope as necessary to stop erosion. We’ve already seen quite a lot of erosion, especially in the first two years before we got the grass put in. I have no intention of making the news by having the house slide down the hill because we failed to protect it! 
The "flower forest", as a former student called it, on the canyon floor beyond the big gate.
It’s a pretty spot, as we’re at the mouth of a canyon, and the house is situated so that we see few houses, and those at a fair distance.  The canyon floor is a fire break managed by the city, and the far side of the canyon is conservancy protected, so we have a wonderful, quiet spot surrounded by nature, yet right in the city.  Yes, it’s true. I’m spoiled when I’m home. 
Very popular and fun Mad Greek Cafe in Baker, CA

But now I’m traveling, and am discovering the delights of the road, especially eating establishments.  In Baker, California, we discovered the wildly kitschy Mad Greek Cafe. How could we resist?  And the gyros salad was great. Ah, things are looking up.