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UP IN SMOKE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The Western United States has just undergone one of the most vicious and destructive wildfire seasons on record.  In Idaho, Montana, California, Oregon and Washington over 2 million acres burned this fall.  That’s bigger than the entire state of Delaware.  Worse, nine firefighters lost their lives and over 500 homes were burned to the ground.  There are many reasons being proffered for this increase in activity – lightning, hotter than normal temperatures, and the ever-present idiots who left campfires burning or, worse yet, intentionally set the forest ablaze.  I can personally attest to the smokey conditions that have caused so many problems since we had the misfortune to be vacationing in three of the wildfire areas this summer.

We arrived in the Central Coast in July just as the Alamo fire in Santa Maria broke out, growing to 29,000 acres and spewing black smoke and ash our way.  The following week the Whittier fire broke out near Santa Barbara, destroying an additional 18,000 acres and consuming a Scout camp.  The fires and smoke, coupled with our already disastrous TurnKey Vacation Rentals condo made for a rather  inauspicious beginning to our summer travels.  But we weren’t done yet.  In August during our two week stay in Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite endured several fires that consumed 14,000 acres of brush.  Each day we would stick our heads out the front door to determine if the wind was blowing the smoke our way.  We lucked out about half the time.

But wait…there’s more!  In September, as we prepared for our annual trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, a spate of new fires broke out.  I checked the EPA Air Quality website only to discover that the entire state of Idaho was either red or maroon – unhealthy for everyone.  Our good friends who were scheduled to visit us cancelled their trip due to respiratory issues.  We wavered a bit but ultimately journeyed up and luckily, the air began to clear the day we arrived and has been increasingly better.  Of course, the reason it’s gotten better is that it’s SNOWING.  In September.  Go figure.

So it seems our summer that was planned to contain plenty of hikes and golf games has been replaced by reading novels and hearing  more than we ever wanted to know about air particles.  But our minor discomfort is trivial compared to the small business owners in these remote mountain towns that rely on tourists to make their bottom line.  Both in Mammoth and Sun Valley we’ve talked to many of them who complain about the Forest Service policy of letting fires burn out if they aren’t endangering structures or humans.  This is a rather new policy that has been increasingly implemented over the past decade.  The argument goes that before the European settlement of America, forest fires consumed  20-30 million acres each year (for comparison, we’re on track for 5 million this year).   The Forest Service only began actively fighting every fire in the 1930’s.  But now they have adopted the new policy, citing that the burning of the forest is Mother Nature’s way of cleaning out and allowing new growth to thrive.  The policy has the added benefit of not endangering firefighter’s lives.  But those arguments don’t take in to account the smokey air nearby inhabitants are forced to breathe or the many forest animals who die or the diminished tourist visits that fuel the engine of small town economies.

Soon we’ll be heading back home but as a coda to our stay in Sun Valley, word around town is that Aspen Company is looking to buy Sun Valley Resort, just as they have swallowed up Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley and so many others.  If true, it would signal the end of the last large family-run ski resort in the West.  The quaint and historic Sun Valley we know and love just might be going…up in smoke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death Dive

by Bob Sparrow

As travel stories go, this one is out of this world . . . literally.

If you read this entire blog, I think you’ll find some pretty amazing stuff.  I understand that most people aren’t that interested in astronomy or astrophysics, but I’ve been fascinated with space for a long time; in fact I was told by my teachers early on that I was just taking up space in school. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant – now I do!  I recently finished the best-selling book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and my brain still hurts from reading it, but the parts of it that I understood were mind-blowing! So watching what happened last week and learning details about the entire Cassini mission has been riveting for me.

Depending on your astronomical interests, you may have heard about Cassini’s Grand Finale, which took place last Friday.  The $3.3 billion Cassini project was a joint effort between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency (Don’t ask me why Italy is not part of the European Space Agency), to launch a satellite that would orbit Saturn and send back invaluable information about the ringed planet and its multiple moons. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena managed the mission.  Saturn, as I’m sure you’re aware is about 764 times larger than earth.

Cassini, named after the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Cassini, who made extensive discoveries about Saturn, is a satellite, about 22’ x 13’ in size, that launched from Cape Canaveral in October 1997 and, after a little more than 6 ½ years to travel the approximate 1 billion miles, reached its Saturn orbit in June 2004. So for the last 13 years it’s been beaming home miraculous images and scientific data, revealing countless wonders of this planet, its rings and its 6o+ moons. The most interesting of Saturn’s moons are Titan, the only other body in our solar system that has liquid on its surface, and Enceladus the brightest shining body in our solar system which has geysers gushing up to the surface from hidden oceans beneath the surface.

And while there is more technology in our cell phones today than what went into space with Cassini in ’97, it did some pretty amazing stuff over the last 20 years. Part of its mission included the sending of a landing craft to the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The landing craft was named, Huygens, after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan. Both Cassini and Huygens lived in the late 1600s. The information that this landing craft gave us about Titan’s similarity to Earth would amaze you.

So after 20 years of sending invaluable data back to Earth, Cassini, they say, simply ran out of fuel, but hey, they got 20 years to the gallon. It does beg the question, were they using regular or supreme? OK, I’ll tell you what fueled Cassini, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else. It was powered by three radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which use heat from the natural decay of about 73 pounds of plutonium-238 (in the form of plutonium dioxide – obviously!) to generate direct current electricity via thermo electrics. But even that doesn’t last forever, especially when you’re traveling for 20 years at an average speed of around 41,000 mile per hour!

Huygens on Titan

The last hours of Cassini’s mission had it doing its final flyby of Titan, which gave it the gravitational nudge toward the surface of Saturn, where it maneuvered between the innermost rings before it finally disintegrates on its way to the surface of Saturn at around 4:55 PDT last Friday morning. The team planned this ending, as they didn’t want Cassini floating around in space with the possibility of running into something else, like one of Saturn’s many moons.  The Cassini mission changed the course of planetary exploration, it was in a sense, a time machine as it has given us a portal to see the physical processes that likely shaped the development of our solar system, as well as planetary systems around other stars.

If you’re the least bit interested in this kind of stuff, a program I saw it on last Wednesday was on the NOVA channel called Death Dive to Saturn; it may be replayed over the next few weeks on some of the scientific channels.  You can also go to the JPL site below to see more details and photos of the end of Cassini’s mission.

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Total miles traveled by Cassini getting to and orbiting Saturn: 4.9 billion, without an oil change.

 

 

INFLECTION POINTS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Inflection points –  events that not only change the course of  history but our collective psyche as well.  For many of us the first such event was the Kennedy assassination.  Prior to November 22, 1963, we were a nation energized by a young President with fresh ideas and plans – plans that were to be carried out by those “born of a new generation”.  When JFK was cut down it was shocking and unnerving.   And, one could argue, changed who we are.  There is a much-quoted conversation that took place after the assassination between journalist Mary McGrory and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor.  She lamented, “We’ll never laugh again.” He replied: “Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.” Many hopes and dreams died that day, as well as our collective feeling of security and our way of life.  As some sociologists have noted, November 22, 1963 was the end of the Fifties.

The assassination changed us in ways we could not have predicted at the time.  After that, Americans increasingly distrusted the Federal government (particularly after publication of the Warren Report) and yet, ironically, it also precipitated the largest expansion of government into our everyday lives.  We became embroiled in a war that many argue Kennedy would not have supported and our culture was flush with sex, drugs and a whole lot of anger.  Of course, there were good changes as well – civil rights and the women’s movement to name two – but certainly the innocence of the prior decade was gone forever.  It also marked the rise of television over newspapers.  Everyone was glued to black and white screens, watching events unfold for three days.  And why not?  It was compelling and the only way to stay abreast of changing events.  For me, I remember watching Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted down that fateful corridor in the Dallas police station when Jack Ruby shot him.  The experience of seeing someone killed in real time was jarring and disturbing.  Millions of people experienced that same shock.  Coupled with the assassination, how could we not be affected going forward?

The next time I saw anyone murdered was sixteen years ago today – September 11, 2001.  I flipped on CNBC that morning while getting ready for work.  The first plane had already hit Tower One and the hosts were speculating that it was a freak accident.  They mused about whether it would have an affect on the stock market since so many trading firms were in that building.  Then the unimaginable happened – the second plane hit.  I watched it in horror; this time it wasn’t one person I saw killed, but thousands.  Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle we were all witness to  explosions and fire and falling bodies over and over again for weeks.  I’m not sure we yet fully understand the toll that it took on us. Surely our national mindset was altered after watching all of the carnage and grief.  A grief that I believe is still evident after all these years.

To this day many of us tear up when recalling the image of the Twin Towers collapsing.  It remains hard to think about the people who perished that day – people who left home for work on a bright, blue-sky Tuesday morning and never returned.  The very notion of that was – is – frightening and causes us, once again, to question how secure we really are.  The fear of an imminent terror attack began impacting our everyday lives that day.  Suddenly we had to remove our shoes at the airport and limit the amount of shampoo we carry on a plane.   Socially, it brought on a lot of change too.  For the first few months after 9/11 it seemed we were able to put our differences aside, but that fraternity soon dissipated and has now devolved to a point where divisiveness rules the day .   In many ways, it has been the 60’s all over again with an extra dose of anger thrown in.

Which brings me to the unintended consequences of 9/11.  At some level we live with fear on a daily basis – fear that it could happen again to us or someone we love.  We  witness repeated terrorist attacks carried out all over the world that target ordinary people doing ordinary things.  I believe that the discord in our society is, in part, a manifestation of that fear.  I hope at some point we can recapture the unity we had in the aftermath of 9/11 and once again pull together.  Hurricane Harvey, as devastating and heart-breaking as it’s been, has shown me that people really can come together when fellow citizens are in need.  Sandra Bullock put it best when she Tweeted:  “There are no politics in 8 feet of water.  There are human beings in 8 feet of water.”  Amen.  Maybe this is a new beginning.  A new inflection point that causes us to remember that more often than not, most of the time we’re all just human beings in 8 feet of water.

Four Seasons

by Bob Sparrow

Well with a title like this we could go anywhere – the luxury, five-star hotel chain who has Bill Gates as one of its majority owners; Jersey Boys backup group to Frankie Valli; the classical violin concerti by Vivaldi, or simply the four seasons.

All weighty subjects to be sure, but the oppressive heat in our part of the country over the last several days, begs the question, “Isn’t summer over?”

Unofficially, Yes; officially, No.

You see when I don’t travel I have to write about stuff like Mayberry, Margaritaville and the weather. Unfortunately, for you, I haven’t been anywhere exciting in the last couple of weeks (OK, I was in Vegas last weekend, but I was reminded that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – I know my money stayed there!), so now you get to read about the changing of the seasons. I can sense the anticipation building already!

I thought the subject appropriate since we’re just sobering up from the Labor Day holiday, which is the ‘unofficial’ end of a summer, which ‘unofficially’ started on Memorial Day. Officially summer begins with the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year in terms of light in the Northern Hemisphere. Summer officially ends with the Autumnal Equinox, when days and nights are equal (almost) with 12 hours of sun and 12 hours of no sun; equinox actually means equal nights. Am I going too fast for those taking notes?

If you’re wondering, like me, whether we get more ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’ days of summer, here’s the math:

Summer officially started on Wednesday, June 21th this year and ends on Thursday, Sept 21nd (at 1:02 PDT to be precise) – that’s 93 days. ‘Unofficially’ summer started this year on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend (perhaps some cheated and started early on Friday night), May 27th and ended on Labor Day, Monday, Sept 4th – that’s 101 days. So we took eight ‘unofficial’ days of summer this year that I suppose we’re going to have to give back at some point, aren’t we?

One would think that because we declared these ‘unofficial’ starts and stops of summer, borrowing several days from the end of spring and giving a few back during the dog days of summer, that summer would be the season that people like the most – that all depends.

A recent survey by YouGov was conducted on this very subject (are you on the edge of your seat yet?), and depending on your age group and the particular region of the country in which you live, the results vary. But if we’re looking at all age groups across the entire country, the results are as follows:

  1. 29% favor Fall
  2. 27% favor Spring
  3. 25% favor Summer
  4.  7% favor Winter

Favorite season by age group:

55+                Spring

35 – 54           Fall

18 – 34           Summer

While Winter didn’t score high enough to even rate a place on the chart, we all know that winter in Scottsdale, Arizona is slightly different from winter in Bemidji, Minnesota, so let’s look at favorite seasons by region. Isn’t this fun?!

In answer to the question, “I like the weather where I live” the results by region are as follows:

  1. West 66%
  2. South 59%

3.  Northeast 59%

  1. Midwest 47%

The ‘West’ is probably skewed by Alaska at 33% and Hawaii at 100% (my figures, not theirs)

But, those who DON’T like living in the:

West say it is too rainy (26%) or too dry (36%)

South say it is too hot (70%)

Northeast say it is too cold (68%)

Midwest say it is too cold (62%) or too hot (26%)

Ok, maybe what happens in a YouGov survey should stay in a YouGov survey.  Hope you’re enjoying these last ‘official’ days of summer.

 

THE END OF AN ERA IN MAMMOTH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

                        Horseshoe Lake

We just spent two glorious weeks in Mammoth Lakes, California.  Glorious because a) the house we were in was recently refurbished, which was a welcome relief from our TurnKey Nipomo nightmare, and b) Mammoth is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Just ask the Europeans – who were everywhere we went.  We thought we had outsmarted the crowds by going when school was back in session but we forgot about August being the “holiday” month for Europeans.  We met some delightful people from England, Germany and Holland but the downside was every restaurant, hiking trail and lakeside was packed with people shouting in a cacophony of languages.  Still, it is one of our favorite places to visit.  My husband has been going there since 1960, when the mountain only had five ski lifts and we’ve been going there together for 30 years.  The majesty of the steep mountains and peaceful lakes never fails to make us gape in awe at the gorgeous scenery.

 

                      Kittredge Sports

Over the years Mammoth has retained a small town feel.  Some might think it too rustic.  Mammoth is known for outdoors activities – fishing, mountain biking and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.  Unlike many other mountain resorts in the West, it has had problems attracting and retaining high-end businesses.  For many years the local outlet mall was home to a Polo and Coach store, but both of those establishments have now closed and their spaces remain vacant.  The only new store this year was a sporting goods place that had the audacity (or bad luck) to open up directly across the street from Kittredge’s – an outdoorsman’s paradise that has been in business for 44 years.  We’ll see how long they last.  The largest employer by far is Mammoth Resorts, which runs all activities on the mountain and in the Mammoth Village complex.  The rest of the town’s population is made up of small business owners and those who are employed by them.  So one does not go to Mammoth to “see and be seen” or to rub elbows with the rich and famous.  Frankly, one of my favorite aspects about the town is that I only have to bring a pair of jeans and a casual shirt and I’m dressed to go anywhere.  In other words, it’s been a great place for slobs like me.  But all that is about to change.

On August 4th a deal was completed for the sale of Mammoth Mountain to the Aspen Company.   In addition to Mammoth, Aspen will now own Big Bear, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, as well as some smaller ski resorts in the Sierras.  They have big plans for Mammoth, although exactly what changes they’ll make have not been spelled out.  We were curious as to how the local population felt about the acquisition so we engaged in some conversations with people who have been around Mammoth a long time.  The opinions could not be more diverse.  For those who work for Mammoth Resorts – whether on the mountain, the Village stores and hotels or the golf course, they look forward to the infusion of money from Aspen.  They cited broken toilets, outdated facilities and general equipment that needs to be replaced.  Of course, they acknowledge that all of this “fixing” is going to come at a price and that price is going to be paid by the consumer. But hotel rooms and lift tickets are not the only thing that will be going up.  Since the announcement last spring that the deal was being struck, the housing market has gone berserk.  Normally one can find a plethora of deals on second homes that owners want to unload.  No more.  It’s a seller’s market in a big way.

Which brings me to the other side of the coin – the average person who wants to work and raise a family in Mammoth Lakes.  Rents have skyrocketed, forcing many people to find housing elsewhere.  One guy who manages the pet store said he felt fortunate to sign a three year lease, even if it was for a lot of money.  Many workers now are living in their cars.  Mammoth has pledged to build more affordable housing, but the sheer geographic limitations make that a remote prospect. We found many people worried about the effect of Aspen marketing to the “rich and famous”, driving out the very people who have made Mammoth such a relaxed and low-key place to visit.  It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

                  Schat’s Cakes

I’m hoping that some of our favorite “haunts” will not be affected.  Burger’s Restaurant offers the best burger anywhere – it’s always our first dinner when we arrive in town.  The Stove is a wonderful place for breakfast – assuming you can get in, as the lines are always long.  It’s the type of place that serves your water in a jelly glass and has wooden benches for seating.   And then there is Schat’s Bakery.  I don’t know how long they’ve been in business but I first salivated at their goodies 30 years ago.  They are renowned for their Basque Sheepherder’s bread and the fresh turkey sandwiches they make, carving an average of 19 large turkeys every day.  But somehow I’ve always been more attracted to their desserts.   To enter their pastry area is to enter Heaven itself.  The photo I’ve included is only one of six display cases.  I can gain weight just standing in line.

I don’t know how Mammoth is going to change in the coming years but I’ll say this: if they do anything that results in the closure of Schat’s they are going to have a lot of ‘splaining to do.

Disneyland or Mayberry?

by Bob Sparrow

One claims to be “The Happiest Place on Earth” while the other just may have actually been.

Only read if you have nothing else to do.

(Cue the whistling of the Mayberry theme song)

Yes, I’m writing about Mayberry this week, or rather something I heard about Mayberry while eating in some international airport during my recent travels. I apologize if you may have heard what I’m about to write, as this kind of thing travels very fast, especially when it’s using international airports.

Let’s first examine the bios of the main characters from that nostalgic television program, The Andy Griffith Show, which took place in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

Andrew Jackson “Andy” Taylor: A pragmatic and genial sheriff and justice of the peace, who never wore a gun or a tie and didn’t have too much trouble keeping peace in this bucolic southern town. He was a widower, who had a son, Opie and a paternal aunt named Aunt Bea.  He had a polite charm and  generally keeps the peace with common sense.

Beatrice “Aunt Bea” Taylor: Aunt Bea was a spinster who raised Andy. She was living alone in West Virginia when Andy asked her to come and live with Opie and him when their current housekeeper, Rose, married and moved out of Mayberry.

Bernard (? middle name) “Barney” Fife: This wiry, high-strung deputy was a comic genius, who played the bumbling sidekick to perfection. He was single, but was seriously dating Thelma Lou. He did wear a gun and a tie, but the gun was never loaded. However he kept a bullet in his shirt pocket for emergencies. Most of the time when he pulled it out he ended up nearly shooting himself in the foot. Although Mayberry had little crime, Barney refers to the town as ‘The Gateway to Danger’.  Not as part of any plot line, there was some controversy over Barney’s middle name. In Season 2 he says his middle name is ‘Oliver’. In Season 4, his high school yearbook shows his middle name as ‘Milton’. In Season 5 he states his full name as Barney P. Fife. Sadly this is the stuff that keeps me awake at night.

Gomer Pyle: Well Gollll-ly! Gomer is the dim-witted, sleepy-eyed, single, mechanic at Wally’s Filling Station with a toothy grin and a southern accent. He is sometimes deputized when Barney needs a hand at screwing up a case. Gomer leaves the show after Season 4 to start a new series, Gomer Pyle, USMC

Goober Pyle: When Gomer signs up for the Marines, he recruits his long lost single cousin, Goober to replace him as the mechanic at Wally’s Filling Station. Both were very good-natured and always willing to help, sometimes to a fault. The actors who played Gomer and Goober where both from Alabama, so the southern accents were real.

Helen Crump: Helen is single and from Kansas and moves to Mayberry for a teaching assignment. She is Opie’s teacher (he calls her ‘old lady Crump’).  When Opie asks his dad for help on a history assignment, Andy’s advice is misunderstood by Opie which leads to Helen marching down to Andy’s office and giving him a piece of her mind. One thing leads to another and the next thing you know Andy’s walking her home and they become ‘an item’.

Floyd Lawson: The fastidious, slow-paced, often absent-minded local barber who dispensed advice along with his haircuts. Floyd is single and his character is said to be based on Andy’s real barber from his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, (sounds oddly similar to Mount Pilot the fictional neighboring town to Mayberry) where he owned ‘Floyd’s City Barber Shop’. Howard McNear, who played the character Floyd, had a stroke midway through the third season and could not stand for any length of time or move very well. But he returned to play Floyd as the writers kept his character sitting down most of the time.

Howard Sprague: The milquetoast county clerk with mustache and bow ties had a penchants for philosophy and culture, but was a repressed ‘mama’s boy’ who lived with his overbearing and manipulative mother. Due to is upbringing, he was socially stymied especially when it came to dating. In one episode Howard tries to be a stand-up comic, unfortunately people laughed at him and not with him.

Otis Campbell: The town drunk who was also sometimes deputized so he could let himself in and out of jail. Viewers meet Otis’ wife in an episode where Otis is jailed for assault, the first time he’s jailed for something other than drunkenness, because he threw a leg of lamb at his wife, missed and hit his mother-in-law. Otis stopped appearing toward the end of the series because sponsors raised concerns over the portrayal of excessive drinking. (Perhaps the beginning of political correctness??)

So what we’ve discovered, if you haven’t already realized it, it’s that all the characters, except Otis, who was always drunk, were not married. Perhaps this is why Mayberry was considered by many as The Happiest Place on Earth.

Hey, I didn’t make this up; I just heard it at the airport and am passing it along for your perusal and consideration.

 

THE MENTAL RENTAL

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The view – its only redeeming feature

Here I am again…I hope you enjoyed Bob’s travel logs as much as I did.  While he was enjoying the midnight sun in Iceland and playing the Old Course in Scotland, I had planned to spend a month in Nipomo, a small community on the Central Coast of California where we have spent time over the past seven summers.  We have always rented through VRBO and have had wonderful relationships with the homeowners.  It was a good deal – they provide us with a nice house and we treat it as if it were our own.  A win-win for everyone.  But the Wall Street Journal ran an article this past winter cautioning against renting directly with homeowners.  They cited all manner of problems, from “phantom” houses where people would arrive at the given address to find no house at all, to owners who weren’t responsive to plumbing emergencies or insect infestations.  Instead, they advised, go through one of the professional rental agencies where you were assured 24/7 care and responsiveness.  So, since the house we normally rent had been sold, we rented a three bedroom condominium at Blacklake Golf Course through TurnKey Vacation Rentals.  We rented the unit for the month of July and eagerly anticipated getting the heck out of the Arizona heat and over to some cool, coastal fog.

                  Cups from 1985

We have been to Nipomo so many times that we had seen the outside of these condominiums countless times.  Our unit was adjacent to the fairway of the ninth hole and has a beautiful, expansive view overlooking much of the golf course.  Unfortunately, that is it’s only virtue.  As we entered the unit it all looked okay – dated, but comfortable.  Kind of like me.  It was only as we began to settle in the following day that we noticed how grungy the place really was.  Clearly the unit had been “glamour shot” on the TurnKey website.  The coffee pot was grungy and the coffee cups weren’t any better, as you can see from the photo.  The pots and pans were filthy and scratched, the potato peeler didn’t peel, and worst of all, the “pry open” wine opener had pried one too many bottles.  It took both of us 10 minutes to open a bottle.  I was getting so desperate I considred cracking the neck on the edge of the table and guzzling wine straight from the bottle.

     The sink that died 20 years ago

As bad as all that was, the sink was straight out of a horror movie.  In all of my rental apartments, as a starving student or poor working girl who could only afford bologna sandwiches on white bread for dinner, I have never had a sink this disgusting.  I tried to recall when we last had a tetanus shot.  So…what to do?  We decided to suck it up.  We drove to the local Ace Hardware to buy a coffee maker, pots, pans and coffee cups.  As for the sink, I scrubbed it within an inch of it’s life.  But cleaning it was futile…its life had been snuffed out long ago.  We made do and ate out.  A lot.  Four days after arrival the Wi-Fi broke down.  A representative from TurnKey came to fix it later that day and acknowledged that the unit was a bit “dated” and had the good grace to look embarrassed.  She said someone from TurnKey corporate offices would be in touch with us on Monday to discuss compensation to make up for the condition of the unit.

Of course, Monday came and went with no phone call.  On Tuesday I went to the mailbox as I was expecting a package and found a letter addressed to “Occupant” from the City of Nipomo.  The letter was pink.  I don’t know much about utility company billing but I’m pretty sure that pink is not a color you want to see.  I opened it, hoping that the city was simply notifying us of upcoming road work or utility repairs.  Nope.  The owner was delinquent in her payments so they were going to shut the water off within the next week if they didn’t receive their money.  So, again, I called TurnKey.  They were shocked, SHOCKED!, to learn of this.  It was going to be taken up with management and someone would get back to me.  Long story short, I finally heard from someone who said they would refund us $100 for our troubles and “not to worry” about the water bill.  Sure…these owners hadn’t replaced a coffee cup in 35 years but I was supposed to sleep soundly knowing they would pay their delinquent water bill.  Two days later I called again, raised hell, and they offered us another $300.

They specialized in LOUD

So now we had $400 to offset our “inconveniences”.  But we weren’t done yet. Every Wednesday evening they have band concerts on the lawn outside our condo.  Not real bands.  More like garage bands comprised of Baby Boomers who, “back in the day”, dreamed of becoming the next Beatles.  Now, they are just off-tune and loud.  But “loud” was redefined the following Saturday night when a wedding reception took place outside our window.  It featured a live mariachi band and a DJ who played heavy metal.  The windows (which of course were vintage 1985) had all the soundproofing capabilities of Saran Wrap.  For FIVE  hours the windows shook and the music blared.  Surely this is how we torture ISIS prisoners.  Needless to say, we were miserable.  We tried to put the best spin on it but our normally pleasing personalities were getting a bit testy.  Finally we realized that it was better to forfeit two weeks of rent and go home than to stay and be unhappy.  That is when, after 30 years of marriage, you know you’ve married the right person.  So we packed up and got out of there.   I called TurnKey to let them know we were leaving early.  The person had no knowledge of our previous calls.  Over the course of two weeks I spoke with seven different TurnKey “customer experience” people and – at their request – sent them photos of the unit.  Most never bothered to look at the email exchanges or the pictures of the unit.  To say the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing was an understatement.  The best example is when a manager called – at last, someone with some decision-making responsibility! – only to have him tell me he was from Florida and was calling about the water problem in the master bedroom.  Nope.  Not even close.

We ended up spending the remainder of the month in Scottsdale, where the weather was blessedly under 100 degrees.  Of course, the monsoons arrived which made my hair frizz and my thighs stick together.  But it was still better than looking at that sink.

North Sea Photo Finish

by Bob Sparrow

First of all on this Monday morning, Happy Birthday to my co-writer, good friend and sister, Suzanne!  Like a good wine, you’re getting better with age, Sis.

Now that I’m not paying 95 cents/minute to access WiF, I decided to extend Suzanne’s writing vacation another week with what I believe are some of our more interesting photos from the trip – hope you think so too.  I might add that I’m thankful that the trip ended when it did, I was on my last belt notch!

The itinerary: The cruise embarked from Hamburg, Germany and we got off in Edinburgh prior to the ship returning to Hamburg.

A rare moment in Bergen, Norway when all six of us were upright on our Segways.

That one sunny day in Norway when the ship’s pools were use.

 

While cruising out of Reykjavik to Akureyri, Iceland through the Arctic Circle this photograph was taken at sunset. What makes it so unusual is that it was a little past midnight!

About 4 hours after that beautiful sunset was this beautiful sunrise

Double rainbow coming down hole #18 at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland

That’s me having a glass of wine and smoking a Cuban cigar in the backyard at our VRBO in St. Andrews with all my friends.  Yes, that’s a bunker – there were plastic golf balls and sand wedges available to practice how frustrating it is to get out of a St. Andrews sand trap.

The last supper together with all 10 in our group.  A pleasure to travel once again with John & Mary Bellham and to meet their friends Steen and Sue, and a really special thank you to Jack & JJ and John & Judy for being such GREAT travel partners.

Thank you to all our blog readers for joining us and hope you’re looking forward to the next adventure, wherever that takes us.

 

Exiled to St. Andrews

by Bob Sparrow

Leaving the cruise early in Edinburgh

With two days remaining on our cruise, blindfolded and with hands tied behind our backs, we were forced to walk the plank once our ship had pulled into harbor at Edinburgh.  Actually it didn’t pull in, as there is not a deep water port, so with our luggage and golf clubs in hand we were summarily marched onto the ‘tender boat’ and into the port of New Haven two days before the end of our cruise, to spend the next four days at the home of golf, St. Andrews, Scotland.

JJ had secured a great VRBO just two blocks from the Old Course and as I mentioned, Linda and my ballot was selected to play the Old Course at 4:30 on Friday, the day we arrived. John and Judy decided to wait around the first tee to see if anyone didn’t show up for their tee time and sure enough they got on at 4:00. Jack and JJ, who had played the course a few years earlier, decided to be available when the owner of the VRBO was coming in to show them the house and give them the keys.

Six on the Bridge

Rain was in the forecast for St. Andrews everyday we looked for the last several weeks, but the golf gods were smiling on us this day as it was beautiful, a few clouds and a slight breeze – unbelievable!

We had a young man as our caddy, Matt, who was born and raised in St. Andrews and a very good golfer himself, so he was most helpful in getting us around this historic course. We did get some threatening clouds about mid-way through the second nine and I was actually excited to feel a slight rain begin. I mean what is St. Andrews without a bit of wind and rain? It only lasted a short while and when the sun came out again, there was a magnificent double rainbow arching over the entire course as we walked up 18 (to thundering applause in my mind!)

We finished around 9:00 p.m., still amazed at how long it stays light in this part of the world.

Rainbow coming up 18

Our Canadian traveling companions, John & Mary, Steen & Sue also departed the cruise early and were spending the next four days in and around Edinburgh. Jack, JJ, John, Judy, Linda and I moved our stuff into our new home for the next four days and found a great little place to grab a bite and a beer, Ziggy’s. The owner, Ziggy, came over to our table and entertained us and treated us to a gin-raspberry liqueur. She also suggested a ‘Crackin’ Rum, for my rum and coke – very good!

Exhausted after a rather full and fulfilling day, we walked back to our new digs and crashed.

Relegated to the Bench

My round at the Old Course on Friday was hampered by the reoccurrence of some sciatica I’d been fighting over the last few weeks, had I been anywhere else I would have stop playing, but it’s the Old Course! Unfortunately playing through that pain cost me playing any more golf for the rest of the trip. The Budds and VanBoxmeers played the ‘New Course’ (‘New’ is a relative term, it was built in 1895) on Saturday and then again on Sunday, joined by Linda, as tee times were most available there. I walked with them on Sunday wondering how and when I pissed off the golf gods. The weather was incredible – slight breeze, mostly sunny with only a few minutes of light rain.

The town of St. Andrews would be a place worth seeing even if there wasn’t a famous golf course there. It holds Scotland’s oldest university, has a picturesque coastline, lots of shops (not just golf stores), restaurants (especially if you love fish and chips) and plenty of pubs.  I even liked the haggis!  Most of all, I must say that the Scottish people are among the most gracious and friendly that I’ve found anywhere in all my travels. 

Heading for home on Tuesday; it’s been a great trip, thank you all for joining us and a special thank you to those who made comments along the way, it’s always good to hear from you – especially you, Maggie Ryan, my dear Scottish friend!

You Take the Lowlands, I’ll Take the Highlands

The Orkney Islands

Skara Brae

As we circle northeast around the top of Iceland through the Arctic Circle, there is an ‘Honorary Viking’ ceremony on board where one can be baptized with the waters from the Arctic Circle. Since I hadn’t been a Viking fan since the days of scrambling quarterback, Fran Tarkington, I decided to sleep in. As we headed to the Orkney Islands we were reminded once again that they are not part of Hawaiian Island chain, as the day was dark and gray with a slight sprinkle for good measure.

There are about 70 Orkney islands, of which 20 are inhabited and they belong to Scotland. It is mostly farmland for sheep and cattle where both trees and sunny days are a rarity, but they do have hairy pigs and all the school children are taught to play the fiddle. This is stuff you won’t find even in an Einstein edition of a trivia game.

The tour meandered through the gentle rolling landscape into the Neolithic Heartland of Orkney, stopping at the ‘Standing Stones of Stenness’ and the ‘Ring of Brodgar’ a huge ceremonial circle of stone dating back almost 5,000 years, Stonehenge-like structures built before Stonehenge, and oh yeah . . .

At Skara Brae there are dwellings half in and half out of the ground that were made of stone and inhabited between the years 3180 and 2500 B.C.!!   That’s older than the pyramids! It was discovered that these ground dwellings had furniture of stone which was placed in the exact same place in every dwelling. (I’m sure Linda would have changed the furniture out several times had she been living there), and oh yeah . . .

Amazing historical venues, great picture-taking opportunities, and oh yeah . . .

Stones of Stenness

We didn’t take that tour; we took the tour to the Highland Park Distillery! While Scotch whiskey does have an interesting and storied past here, I think we got on the wrong bus. As a result, I may not know much about the Neolithic period of this part of the world, but if you need to know anything about barley, peat or the whiskey aging process, I’m your man!

We were lucky to get back on the right ship before it sailed!

Inverness, Northern Scotland

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

We did get on the right bus this time and headed to see Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. Our guide had confessed to seeing Nessie on several occasions and all but guaranteed that we would see her today. We drove through some beautiful countryside and some quaint little villages on the way Loch Ness. The trip was amplified by beautiful weather and trees, something we’d seen neither of for days. The Scottish Highlands were gorgeous on this day! At Loch Ness, we not only caught our glimpse of Nessie, but got to learn a good deal about Scottish history (we learned that both Braveheart and Macbeth took liberties with the historical facts). We spent a good deal of time exploring the grounds of Urquhart Castle, which is on Loch Ness, very interesting.

The Scottish people were extremely gracious, had a good sense of humor and didn’t talk so strangely that we couldn’t understand them. Loved Scotland!

Linda and I got a bit of good news as we were leaving Inverness, our name had been pulled for the lottery, which meant we have a tee time at St. Andrews for tomorrow!

Fore!!!