By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

We’ve been spending a lot of time this past month in the historic city of San Luis Obispo – a city of many dichotomies. Where else can you visit a historic religious site and be solicited by Greenpeace crusaders on the same block? Or mingle with whiz kids at the coffee house and then potentially sleep in a room dedicated to one of the biggest pop stars in the world? San Luis Obispo (or “SLO” as it’s known here), that’s where!

San Luis Obispo Mission and the statue of Father Serra before he took off.

San Luis Obispo Mission and the statue of Father Serra before he took off.

Our first visit on this trip was to the beautiful San Luis Obispo mission. It was fifth in the succession of missions established by Father Junipero Serra, built in 1772. Yes, that’s right. He founded the mission before the first tea bag was even dumped in Boston Harbor. Father Serra had traveled through SLO some years before and remembered it as a place of abundant flora and fauna, in addition to almost perfect weather. And bears. Yep – here on the central coast of California apparently the area was rife with bears.

He quickly made friends with the local Chumash Indian tribe and engaged them to help build the mission. But shortly after the cornerstone of the building was set, Father Serra said a quick mass and hightailed it back to San Diego. The history is unclear as to what sent him running back to civilization before the building was complete. My guess is it was the bears. In any event, the mission was completed two years later and is still thriving today. It remains an active Catholic parish and its plaza is considered the town center where on any given weekend you’ll find a wide array of concerts, fairs and festivals.

After leaving the Mission we decided to grab a quick cup of coffee before visiting our next stop. A few steps later I was approached by a

A typical Cal Poly geek

A typical Cal Poly geek

rather scraggly young man who told me that I looked like a nice person. So right away I knew he was no judge of character. He then proceeded to follow me down the street, talking about the rain forests and whales. He gave up on me when I showed no interest but at the next corner I ran across one of his counterparts who made no attempt to assess my personality but gave me pretty much the same pitch. Turns out they were students at Cal Poly-SLO and worked for Greenpeace in their spare time. Cal Poly-SLO is a school for high tech geeks. Think of the characters on “The Big Bang Theory” and you’ve pretty much nailed the average Cal Poly student. Still, I hadn’t been solicited by Greenpeace (or anyone else for that matter) in 10 years. I felt as if I’d been transported to another time and space. But actually, that phenomenon was awaiting me at our next stop – the Madonna Inn.


The Madonna Inn

The last time I had been to the Madonna Inn was in 1971 when I was a college student traveling between San Diego and Marin County. It was a good mid-way stop for coffee, food and bathroom breaks. I still remember the pink flocked wallpaper and gold fixtures in the restrooms. I assumed that the Inn would have gone under lots of modernization since then. I was wrong.

The Madonna Inn opened in 1956 and specializes in “theme” rooms. Their website offers 110 such rooms, from the “Caveman” to “Oriental Fantasy”. I think for my next job I want to be the room namer at the Madonna Inn. In any event, I wanted to see what modern-day changes they had made so I looked up the Madonna Room. I assumed it might be adorned with pointy bras and maybe some Vogue magazines or posters of Sean Penn or Warren Beatty. Nope.


Madonna Inn suite


This is a picture of the suite – named for the wife of Alex Madonna, the founder of the hotel. Apparently Mrs. Madonna was quite find of pink. I didn’t even want to see what the “Barrel of Fun” or “Jungle Rock” rooms looked like. I did get a glimpse of a room that had a safari theme with a huge buffalo head mounted on the wall staring down on the bed. It’s things like that that made Father Serra run for the hills.

All on all, SLO is a fabulous little town, well worth visiting. But unless you’re into gargoyles and pink, you might want to stay at the Marriott.

Missed Saigon

by Bob Sparrow

MissSaigonPreface   Back when the earth was still cooling and I was in the Navy (Yes, ours), I was stationed in Japan at Atsugi Navel Air Station and was an Ensign (Yes, and officer and a gentleman by an ACT of CONGRESS) on the staff of COMFAIRWESTPAC, which was ‘Navy-speak’ for, Commander, Fleet Air, Western Pacific.  My duties, aside from getting the Admiral’s coffee and newspaper to him in a timely manner each morning, eventually included arranging for the shipping of damaged helicopters out of Viet Nam to a repair facility in Japan and then shipping the repaired aircraft back into Viet Nam.  I had three seamen working for me at the time who took turns ‘escorting’ the repaired aircraft on the ships going back to the port of Da Nang, in South Viet Nam. 


I hate these ‘magnificent ceramic elephants’!

I eventually wanted to have a better understanding of what these escorts actually did and since I was in the Navy and had never set foot aboard a ship, I asked my commanding officer permission to be out of the office for a while and escort the next batch of helicopters headed ‘in country’.  Permission was granted.  I had a buddy, who was flying supply missions in a C-130 transport aircraft between Da Nang and Saigon, who told me he could throw me in with the cargo anytime if I wanted to tag along.  So I requested and was granted a couple of extra days for my trip.  This was 1969 and the war was in full swing and I wasn’t looking for a vacation, but rather wanted to see first hand, from a relatively safe distance, what was really going on.  Three days before my ship sailed out of Yokohama for Da Nang, my commanding officer had an opportunity to go to Bangkok, Thailand to pick up some ‘magnificent ceramic elephants’ for his wife and told me I needed to stay and man the office, that I could be an escort another time.  A ‘Reduction In Forces’ memo came out not too long after that and there was not ‘another time’, I was soon on my way home and out of the Navy (Yes, honorably).

welcom     So I never got to Da Nang and subsequently Missed Saigon, but I live in Orange County, which I’ve come to find out, has the largest Vietnamese population in the world, outside of Vietnam, some 200,000.  So my ‘in country’ plan evolved, after 44 years, into my ‘in county’ plan and eventually permission was granted by my commanding officer – my wife.


The Beginning of ‘Little Saigon’  After the Fall of Saigon in 1975 many Vietnamese refugees migrated to Southern California because, well, why anyone else would migrate to Southern California, the weather.  More and more gathered in the City of Westminster and eventually in 1988, then Governor George Deukmejian officially designated part of Westminster as ‘Little Saigon’.

Most of the literature I read about ‘Little Saigon’ prior to driving the 15 miles over there, described the food, the jewelry, the food, some temples and the food.   I learned that Pho (pronounced ‘Faa’), which is a noodle soup consisting of rice noodles, broth, meat and some spices, was the most popular Vietnamese dish.

The Trip – My son, Jeff is a lover of all food foreign, so I asked if he wanted to meet me for some Pho and an exploration of ‘Little Saigon’ – he obliged.

  We met at the HA NOI restaurant (Must have been in the northern part of town) and had a wonderful meal served by an older  gentleman who didn’t speak one word of English, but recommended several dishes by pointing to some pictures on the menu and making some Jeffsort of cooking gestures – what ever we ordered, it was delicious.  Jeff likes his food spicy, so he added some contents from a container on the table to his food; from his reaction, it might have been a bit too spicy, but it said it was good . . . through watering eyes.

Unfortunately that was the highlight of our trip.  I checked to see if there were any tours of ‘Little Saigon’ available – there are none.  ‘Little Saigon’ is a place of contradictions; it is of course East meeting West, so we shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Sun Moon Bakery or the sign in the jewelry mart reading, ‘Lien Phat’ (Lean Fat?), which was more confusing albeit less disturbing than ‘Dai Phat’.

2013-08-01 17.13.24       dai phat       DaiPhat

But for me there was too much West and not enough East. I expected narrow streets lined with colorful garments hanging from two-story wooden buildings, the smell of spicy food offered by traditionally dressed street vendors, Asian music playing – basically some Far East atmosphere.  What we got was a series of strip malls on a busy Southern California street.  It was sort of like Barstow with strip mall storefront signs you could only partly read.

2013-08-01 17.20.47

The Conclusion – For my money, if you want some good Vietnamese food, visit ‘Little Saigon’, if you want to get the feel of old Viet Nam, see ‘Miss Saigon’ or go to old Viet Nam.






by Suzanne Sparrow Watson 
Normally we are healthy eaters, if one can overlook the occasional foray to   Dairy Queen and In 'n Out. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only reason  the local kale farmer is in the black this year. Butwhen we are in Nipomo, as we are now, we throw caution and our cholesterol to the wind and eat at       Jocko's. Jocko's has put Nipomo on the map. Okay, that might be a slight      exaggeration since most people still don't know where Nipomo is. Nevertheless,it is likely that for those who do know where it is it's because they've been to Jocko's. Jocko's inside

As you can see from the picture Jocko’s has all the atmosphere of a cattle barn. I think the last remodel was done sometime in the 50’s. The 1850’s. But people come from far and wide to eat here so they must be doing something right. That something is their beef. It is grilled over an oak BBQ, with just the right amount of charring on the outside and tenderness on this inside. We went there last week with my brother, Jack, and his wife Sharon. It was a Tuesday night and we had a reservation for 6:30. We were not seated until almost 7. For those who didn’t have a reservation the wait is closer to an hour and a half. Let’s just say that the bar business at Jocko’s is quite brisk.

It’s the type of place thatJocko's bar serves drinks in those old-fashioned jelly jar glasses but that’s just what you’d expect at joint that has paper place mats. The wait staff is cheerful, which is astounding given that they serve over 300 dinners a night – every night. The menu has a wide array of beef dishes but their chicken is also out of this world. The steak sandwich is HUGE and comes with a salad, antipasto dish, beans, potato, and then, as if your veins aren’t already coursing with enough fat, vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

The price of all this? $17.00. Or, to put it in perspective, $1 less than Bob paid for two beers at Del Mar. JSB NIPOMO

Speaking of Bob, we just had our annual family golf tournament here in Nipomo.
There was a lot of pre-tournament revelry, as you can see from the picture of us three.

I think Bob had just said something about winning the golf tournament. Or some such foolishness. In any event, there was much revelry on Friday night. By Saturday morning there was some talk of needing resuscitation but the group rallied in time to take a stroll through the quaint town of Arroyo Grande. As it turns out, there was a vintage car show on the Main Street and we had a ball walking around looking at all the old cherry cars. Until we realized that we had either owned or ridden in most of them. It is a sad day indeed when you realize that you are “vintage”. Jack decided to sit in front of a local winery with our dog,Dash, and just watch the world go by.

20130728-172158.jpgHe always was the smart one.

In any event, our golf tournament later that day was a bit of a bust. We played the 12 hole Challenge Course at Monarch Dunes. Some of us were more challenged than others. It is a prickly little track with greens that defy the normal logic of putting. To make matters worse, I was in charge of scoring but I completely forgot to record one of the holes. Which on a 12 hole course is pretty pathetic. And tells you everything you need to know about my short term memory these days. But since I was in charge and had the scorecard I just declared that the girls won the tournament and the guys were no wiser. Until they read this.

But never let it be said that a little cheating at golf got in the way of a good time with our family. We all know that we are so lucky to be related…and better yet, good friends.

Opening Day at Del Mar (Part 2)

by Bob Sparrow

DSC00675    On the way to my seat I pass the ‘Cross Over’ – a path through the bleachers where all the horses and jockeys travel  on their way from the paddock to the racetrack – I stop to watch the parade for the first race.   To  my amazement even  the horses are wearing little silk hats on their saddles in the shape of a joc . . ., no wait, that is a  jockey, my gosh they  are small.  I’ve seen a jockey bigger than that on my neighbor’s lawn.

I finally make my way to my seat.  When I bought my ticket over the phone, I was told that my seat was in the ‘pole  position’; I thought the pole position in racing was a good thing – not so much.  Fortunately, my poor pole position  seat  was minimized by my lack of betting acumen, so I never really needed to see the finish line at the end of the race, as my horses were in no particular hurry to get there.  The picture to the right shows that long after the race was finished, I was still waiting for my horse to round the club house turn.DSC00645

“Another beer?”

“No, think I’ll have one of those Mint Julep things, you know, kind of get into the spirit of things?”

“You’re not at Churchill Downs.”


“Do you want some fruit and an umbrella with that?”

 “Hey, are you saying that it’s kind of a girlie drink?  I thought it was a ‘racing drink’.”

“Sir, there’s a line behind you?”

 “Fine, I’ll take one . . . and a shot of tequila!”

Guess I showed her who’s a man!

DSC00679     Aside from a few pre-historic creatures with faces you could bounce a trifecta ticket off of, the crowd was generally  very  young – I kept wondering, ‘Do their parents know they’re here . . . dressed like that?’  And I found that most of  these 20 and 30-somethings paid, even for a single drink, with a card, not cash.  I understand that that generation  really doesn’t  use a lot of cash, but I’m just hoping they were using debit cards and not credit cards; otherwise those $9  beers, with interest, were  costing them about $10.75.

With a bratwurst, a beer (Oh yeah, I got another $9 beer) and my racing form, I sit down in my pole position seat and  watch the people parade.  I must admit that the ladies do a great job at ‘dress up’ – I guess that’s in their DNA; most of them look great.  The guys?  Not so much, although a couple of ‘dandies’ (left) did stop and pose as well as a guy (right) in a seersucker jacket – Sears made it, a sucker bought it.DSC00680

There were a few party fouls perpetrated by ladies who tried to pour their 12-gallon bodies into an 8-gallon dress and top it off with cheesy chapeau; consequently ‘Where the Turf Meets the Surf’, became ‘Where the Hat Meets the Fat’.  Thankfully, no pictures are available.

DSC00681  Here’s me ‘tearing it up’ – my ticket that is, on some nag with a catchy  name that ran  like she was headed to the glue factory.  You can see that the guy sitting  next to me was  less-than-amused with my racetrack antics.

Surprisingly, I didn’t win a race all day, but with great weather, great refreshments and great scenery, I managed to eke  out a good time.

For those worried that I may have been driving under the influence on my way home, worry not; I took the train; not that I was being so responsible, I just couldn’t remember where I had parked my car and OK, I accidentally got on the bus to the train station.  It was just as well, I couldn’t find my keys.

Disclaimers: The Del Mar Opening Day experience was wonderful, my seat wasn’t as bad as it looked, the horses were awesome animals (just not the ones I bet on), the jockeys are courageous athletes, I did see a few over-weight people there, but they all seemed very jolly and, the beers were in fact $9 each, but I only had two of them (honest, Officer).

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Opening Day at Del Mar (Part 1)

by Bob Sparrow

DSC00657      I can count the number of horse races I’ve been to by scratching the ground with my hoof three times, and the number of Opening Days I’ve been to without scratching the ground at all.  But I live about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Del Mar where Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Durante, Pat O’Brien and Oliver Hardy, all part owners, celebrated Del Mar’s first Opening Day back in 1937, so I felt it was time for me to join some 43,000 other fans and open up this year’s racing season at the Del Mar Race Track. 

     I was told to get there early and use the entrance by the ‘Turf Club’ – that’s where all the Hollywood stars go in.  As I’m waiting for the gates to open there, I did see a couple that was trying very hard to look like Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper, but came off looking more like Rosie O’Donnell and Alice Cooper, in stupid hats.  It seemed as if Silicon Valley had moved a little south for the day, but this day was not about nipping and tucking, in fact it wasn’t even really about horse racing . . . it was mostly about hats!  One could find hats of every shape, color and description, and some that were beyond description – some elegant, some hideous.

   DSC00636    DSC00666   DSC00646   DSC00662

     The ‘show’ had started and I wasn’t even inside yet, and it became painfully obvious that I was not going to be let in at the ‘Turf Club’ entrance (I think my skin was too loose), so I meandered down to the ‘Steerage’ gate and was herded through.

“I’d like to buy a  . . . schedule . . . a list of the races . . . a program, a . . . ”                                                                                                                                         “Racing Form?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “Yes, that’s it, thank you”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     “Good luck buddy!”

With racing form in hand, I pretend to study it, or do whatever it is one does with a racing form.  It makes me thirsty and son of a gun if they don’t have plenty of places to buy a drink.

“That’ll be nine dollars”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           “I’m sorry I just wanted one beer”                                                                                                                                                                                                                       “That’s all you’re getting for nine dollars”                                                                                                                                                                                                           “But it’s only 10 ounces, that’s almost a dollar an ounce!”                                                                                                                                                                                     “Sir, there’s a line behind you”                                                                                                                                                                                                                               “Fine!”

     The beer went down too quickly (Hey, it was only 10 ounces!) and I soon find myself back in the $9 beer line reading the racing form and having a little trouble understanding some of the jargon therein.  I asked another $9 beer line-stander for the definition of a ‘furlong’; he said, “Let me put it this way, with your racing knowledge and proclivity for drinking, your money won’t last furlong.”  I didn’t like his answer, so I turned to another line-stander and ask him to explain what the ‘odds’ meant.  He said, “All you need to know is that they’re always against you”.  I quit asking, but continued to study the racing form and found out that horses in a ‘Maiden Race’ and I have a lot in common, neither of us have ever won a race.

     But today the horses and racing are really secondary to the festivities, and I don’t want to bury my head in racing form statistics while all the ‘festivities’ walk by in short skirts, high heels and bodacious . . . hats.

     I asked a group of young ladies if they wouldn’t mind posing for me for a picture.  The picture below shows their response.



Thursday: Opening Day at Del Mar (Part 2)  My ‘pole position’ seat



Captain Dana Tree
Hopefully he didn’t hang people from it

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This week we’re doing the best thing you can do in Scottsdale in the summer.  Leave.  I can hardly contain my excitement.  If it weren’t so darn hot I’d do a dance, but blinking my eyes while lying in a heap on the couch will have to suffice.  For several summers now we have spent a few weeks in Nipomo.  If you’re typical of my friends you have just asked yourself – where in the heck is Nipomo?  I’ve had people guess that it’s some quaint village on the coast of Italy.  One person thought we were going to a remote city in Japan.  I have even discovered that if you write it in a blog, spell-checker doesn’t recognize “Nipomo”. Fact is, most people have no idea where it is and that’s what makes it so good.

Nipomo is a quaint coastal village and it is remote (sort of) set between Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo in the Central Coast of California.  We discovered it several years ago as we were driving on Highway 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  There was a Trilogy development that had just opened in Nipomo that we wanted to check out.  For those of you unfamiliar, Trilogy is the name Shea Homes has given to all the “active adult” communities they’re building. Guess it sounds better than “old geezer housing”.   Being active and adult (okay, not always but at least sometimes) we wanted to see if it might be a place to live one day.

We told the sales person we had never heard of Nipomo and he said that it was once the answer to the “Jeopardy” question: “Where is the most consistent weather in the United States?”   Given that NO ONE I know in California has ever heard of Nipomo, much less contestants who might be on Jeopardy, I suspect that it was just one of the many lies that the salesman told that day.  But we were intrigued enough with the surroundings to come back the next summer and stay in the Blacklake Golf community and have done so most summers ever since.

Turns out that Nipomo was first settled by the Chumash Indians.  Ne-po-mah is the Chumash term for “foot of the hill”.  It probably should have been “footing the bill” given the success of their current day casino.  Rancho Nipomo was one of the first and largest of the Mexican land grants in San Luis Obispo County.  Modern day Nipomo was founded in 1837 when the Mexican governor granted William Dana, a Boston sea-captain, 38,000 acres in the area.  He married a woman from Santa Barbara and in 1839 they built the Dana Adobe, which served as an important stop for travelers between Mission San Luis Obispo and Mission Santa Barbara.  It also became the exchange point for mail going between Northern and Southern California, thus becoming the first regular mail route in California.  I wonder if they lost as much mail back then?  But I digress.

Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother

Nipomo became a large farming area and was a major stop for the Pacific Coast Railway from the 1880’s through the 1930’s.  Turns out that one of my favorite photographs (right)was taken in Nipomo:  “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange .  Apparently during the Depression Ms. Lange worked for the Resettlement Administration and would travel the old US Highway 101 photographing migrant farm workers.  The name of the woman in the picture is Florence Owens Thompson.  In the 1950’s the current Highway 101 was built west of the old road.  Fittingly, the old highway was re-named Thompson Road.


Blacklake Golf Course
Odds are I’ll be in that trap

By the end of 1942, the train tracks had been removed for the war effort and Nipomo became just another small farming community.  Today, it is known for two things:  golf and Jocko’s steak house.  The golf is good, with 27 holes at Blacklake, 30 holes at Trilogy (including a fabulous 12 hole 3-par course) and a beautiful course in Arroyo Grande, just a mile from Nipomo.  Notice I said it was good – not great.  The Nipomo Chamber of Commerce describes the golf this way: “The prevalence of golf has led some to refer to Nipomo as a mini Pebble Beach, only with better weather.”  I think the “some” they’re referring to are a) members of said chamber and b) people who have never actually been to Pebble Beach.  But then again, in Nipomo you don’t pay $500 (plus cart and caddie) per round.  Nor do the golf courses in Nipomo require that you stay at their lovely Lodge for two nights at $700 per night in order to play there.    So all in all, it’s a good experience and you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to hit a little white ball.

Jocko’s Steak House is famous up and down the coast of California.  Even on a Tuesday night the line to get in wraps around the corner.  It’s so good that, well, I’ll just say this:  I don’t eat red meat and I make an exception once a year to eat at Jocko’s.  In fact, it is SO good that I will devote my next blog entirely to Jocko’s – assuming that I haven’t gone into cardiac arrest before I can write my review.















by Bob Sparrow

stregisbentley‘Road Trip’ was the simple headline in a local magazine; those words however are always a clarion call me and thus seduced me to read on.  This road trip was described as ‘one of the world’s most iconic drives’ – cruising the coast on Highway 1 between Orange County and San Francisco, taking in Big Sur and the beautiful coast line along the way.  I read on to discover that this ‘Pacific Grand Tour Aficionado Package’ was being offered by St. Regis Resorts.  As a rule Istregisoc try to stay away from packages with the word ‘Grand’ in them, as it usually refers to the price. Add words like ‘aficionado’ and St. Regis and I can almost feel my bank account wither as I’m reading.  But it gets better . . . or worse.  What makes the tour so grand is not only that it includes two nights at both ends of the trip in St. Regis Resorts in OC and SF, but it also includes a Bentley Mulsanne.  For those who think Bentley Mulsanne is a footman on Downton Abby, it is not; it is an expensive automobile – a very expensive automobile, like $300,000 expensive – if you don’t want any extras.  Undaunted . . . OK, I was somewhat daunted, but I continued reading and finally found what I was looking for . . . the price.  “Prices start at $6,900”, it said.  “Whew”, I breathed a sigh of relief, for a moment there I thought it was going to be up in the $7,000 range.   It doesn’t really say how far that ‘starting price’ will get you, but probably not out of the shadow of the St. Regis from which you are leaving, but I read on imagining myself tooling up Pacific Coast Highway in a Bentley.  I looked good.

When I finished reading the article I paused and wistfully thought to myself, I haven’t made that drive in many, many years and it is beautiful and what a thrill it would be to do it in a Bentley; I have the time and I’m not getting any younger, so . . .

zzyzxYou guessed it, I threw the magazine away and wondered what I was thinking.   But I’d been put in the mood for a road trip, so I decided to create my own package – I called it ‘The Grand Fun Bus to Barstow, Baker and Beyond’ – mostly Beyond.  It wasn’t in a bus, but it wasn’t in a Bentley either that Linda and I headed for Vegas tocdsLOVE celebrate her birthday.  Now I’m not saying that the Zzyzx Road turnoff reminded me of Big Sur or that Baker’s giant thermometer, as majestic as it is, compared favorably to the giant redwoods along the coast, but I’ll tell you this, we had $6,900 worth of fun, maybe $7,000.

The fun included a great room at the Mirage Hotel, an evening at the greatest Irish Pub (and I know my Irish Pubs) this side of Killarney, Ri Ra at Mandalay Bay, a liquid lunch (their specialty) at Margaritaville, where the bartenders put on a show that you’d pay to see, and the Cirque du Soleil LOVE show – an amazing performance that we did pay to see, AND we left town with about a thousand dollars more than we came with.

1000                                                                                                         NOW THAT’S A GRAND PACKAGE !

  I’m thinking that if I can do that 300 more time I can buy that Bentley!



By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

“Where the wind comes whistling down the plain” … Oscar Hammerstein. 


I swear this is what the wind felt like

Never let it be said that Mr. Hammerstein wasn’t the very essence of understatement.  Hays, Kansas was the next stop on our journey to Kansas City.  It is the largest city in western Kansas, boasting a population of over 20,000 hearty people and no Starbucks.  As we drove up to the hotel we made the “rookie” error of facing the car into the wind.  As it turns out, there was a tornado watch in effect.  I had to use both arms to push the car door open, and then attempt a quick exit before the door could swing back and crush me.  Welcome to Kansas.  Once in the lobby, my husband casually asked the clerk if the hotel had a storm shelter.  “Well, no,” she chirped, “everyone just crowds into the laundry room.”  My husband paled.  “So..”, he asked, “you must not have many guests staying here tonight.”  After a quick consult with her computer she looked up and said brightly, “Well, actually we’re almost full so if we do have a tornado some people will just have to take shelter under the stairwell.”  We slept with one eye open and one foot on the floor.  In the event of disaster we were going to be the first people wedged between the washer and dryer.

As we left Hays the next morning, bleary-eyed from our own “tornado watch” and no Starbucks, we were dismayed to see that the scenery had not improved overnight.  I could write about how very boring the drive was but then that would make for a pretty boring post.  Let me just leave it at this:  If ever you get the wild idea to drive through western Kansas – DON”T.

Luckily, 90 minutes down the road is the city of Salina, which not only HAS a Starbucks but is the demarkation point for where the terrain changes.  I don’t think those two things are related but you never know.  Within the space of a mile, suddenly the flat, dry plain became luscious, rolling  green hills.  As we made our way toward Kansas City the vistas became more beautiful, until we finally arrived at our destination – Leawood, Kansas – home to our newly-relocated family.

Wendy's Fountain

A typical neighborhood fountain

We set out immediately to get to know the area.  First of all, Kansas City is known as “the city of fountains”.  This picture (right) is on our daughter’s home street and is pretty typical of the neighborhood fountains.  Both my husband and I come from California and have seen some pretty fancy neighborhoods but we both agreed that we have never seen so many contiguous miles of beautiful homes.  These places were so big they would make Donald Trump happy.  There are parks everywhere and wide boulevards with medians filled with huge trees, colorful flowers and, yes, more fountains. No less a journalist than Edward R. Murrow once described Kansas City as “the Paris of the Plains”.  Alas, that was not due to its beauty or the meandering river that runs through the center of town.  He was referring to the fact that during the heyday of Prohibition, Kansas City had a  reputation for debauchery.  Thanks to its corrupt police commissioner, not a single citizen was convicted of manufacturing, transporting, selling or even possessing booze during the 13-year period when alcohol was banned nationwide.The wide-open party town attracted both the criminal and the creative, including jazz musicians who made the city one of the most exciting of the time. At the height of Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s, there were more than 100 jazz clubs hosting performances and jam sessions that would launch the careers of musicians such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker.


The Plaza – bring your credit card


Today things are a bit more sedate.  The crown jewel of the city is Country Club Plaza, or just “The Plaza”.  It was the first shopping center in the world designed to accommodate shoppers arriving by automobile.  It was patterned architecturally after Seville, Spain, with wide streets, tiled roofs and, you guessed it, more fountains.  Even the chain stores and restaurants somehow look better here, which shows you what a good city planner can wrestle from a monolithic corporation.  For example, the outside eating area of the Cheesecake Factory is in a cobble-stoned courtyard, planted with fabulous flowers and of course, the requisite fountain.  I think the beautiful surroundings might make you forget that you’re ingesting a 2,000 calorie salad.  There is every store imaginable on The Plaza but one that is truly unique to Kansas City is Hall’s.  As in Hallmark Cards, which happens to be headquartered in Kansas City.  Hall’s is so upscale that their motto ought to be “where you care to spend the very most”.  The influence of the Hallmark corporation is everywhere and suffice it to say that every gas station and grocery store have displays of Hallmark Cards that would make one of our local Gold Crown stores weep.


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Here we are with Jack Stack’s bull

 But the real reason to visit Kansas City is to eat some of its famous barbecue.  Our kids suggested that we go to Jack Stack BBQ, which has been in business for over 50years.  “Diet” and “BBQ” do not intersect at Jack Stack.  We started with their baked onion rings.  “Baked”  means low-cal, right?  I further deluded myself into ordering the baby back ribs, on the theory there wouldn’t be as much meat on them as a half-pound burger.  Delicious doesn’t begin to cover it. Instead of the greasy, drippy ribs I’m used to, these were succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender with a smokey flavor.  I would have licked the plate if there weren’t so many people around.  Hell, I would have licked the plate with so many people around but I thought setting a good example for our grandsons was paramount.  I discovered that Jack Stack has a mail order division that ships anywhere.  I think I’m in big trouble.


We left for home the following day, still longing to see more of KC, and with what can only be described as a “rib hangover”.  We’ll have to save further exploration for our next trip.  Which – make no mistake – we will do by plane.  We were thoroughly impressed by the city and its surroundings.  Although we have both traveled to most large U.S. cities for either business or pleasure, neither of us had ever heard of Kansas City as a place to visit.  As our son-on-law so accurately said, “Kansas City isn’t just below the radar, it isn’t even on the radar.”  Whatever the reason, we were happy to discover this charming, beautiful city. As Dorothy once said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” and we’re sorry we’re not.

TO THE LAND OF OZ: Part One – The Santa Fe Trail

imageHopefully  by now you have read my brother’s fabulous account of his trip to the dark continent.  While you were reading about his encounters with wild animals, smiling people and beautiful sites, my husband and I, along with our faithful dog Dash, were about to embark on a trip to the dark continent of …..Kansas.

Earlier this year our daughter and family moved to Leawood, Kansas, which we thought was somewhere close to Antarctica.  We envisioned flat terrain and not a Starbucks in sight.  But, longing to see our grandsons, we decided to pack the dog in the car and drive the 1200 miles to their new home.  We are always up for a driving adventure and since we had not seen this part of the country we decided to make the most of all the sights along the way.

The first day we got as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We have only been there once before and found it to be a charming city.  On that trip we walked the Square, bought art on Canyon Drive and ate at Geronimo’s and The Compound.  At night we returned to a lovely resort.  We found out the hard way that none of those things are possible when you travel with a dog.  This time we stayed at a LaQuinta Inn near the freeway.  Not even a new LQI.  This one closely resembled the Bates Motel.  And we soon discovered that finding a place to eat dinner with a dog in tow is tantamount to finding the Holy Grail. We consulted our “Traveling with Fido” resources but they offered imagesuch gourmet delights as McDonalds and Sonic Burger.  My husband batted his baby blue eyes at the hostess at the Olive Garden and she let us take the dog out to the patio to eat with us.  In 30 MPH winds.  And, sadly, we were thrilled.

The next morning we set out for the wide open spaces, with a goal to reach Hays, Kansas by nightfall.  We were excited to get off the interstate at Trinidad, CO. and begin to see the “real” countryside via “blue highways”. We talked about seeing the original Santa Fe Trail – Dodge City! – and reliving some of the scenes we saw on all those Westerns on TV in the 50’s.  We lasted 10 miles.

After numerous potholes, uneven pavement and several near-miss side-swipes, we decided that maybe our kidneys (and nerves) were too old for this trip.  I’m not certain, but I would almost swear that the dog whispered into my husband’s ear “Please get us back to an interstate”.  So after 75 miles heading east on the Santa Fe Trail, we made a sharp left turn and high-tailed it up towards Interstate 70.

We followed State Route 71 in Colorado through farmlands and small towns.  When one thinks of Colorado one normally thinks of mountain peaks and snow.  John Denver made a lot of money singing about that image“Rocky Mountain High”.  However, eastern Colorado looks a lot like the midwest.  Wheat and grain fields dot the country side.  You can see from the picture (right) that there is not a hill in sight.  I think Sara Palin can see her house from here.  We drove through lots of small towns along the way and we both felt as if we had been transported back to our childhoods, where Main Street was filled with small shops, a gas station and one market.  Most of the towns had one store where its citizens buy everything from a bow tie to shoes, from cradle to grave.  I’m quite sure the locals haven’t ever seen a J. Crew or Banana Republic and they appear to be getting along just fine.

Finally, blessedly, we reached Interstate 70 at Limon, CO.  Another McDonald’s and a gas station were the highlights but it looked like an oasis to us.   We continued east at 80 MPH and entered Kansas.

Our first clue that Kansas might be a bit boring was when we saw signs offering free coffee at the border station.  I suspect, now that I’ve driven through the state, that the wise officials in Kansas knew that without caffeine the countryside would lull drivers to sleep at the most inconvenient times – like when driving in the fast lane.  The only exciting “attraction” along the Interstate were the billboards every 10 miles touting the museum in Colby that housed rattlesnakes, coyotes and a five-legged cow.  Rattlesnakes and coyotes are a dime a dozen where we come from, but a five-legged cow?  Now THAT’S an attraction.  Unfortunately, we were at the end of our day, not to mention our wits, so a detour to Colby was out of the question,   But it did capture my interest so I looked it up when we got to our hotel and, sure enough, someone had posted a picture of it online.  So in the interest of satisfying everyone’s curiosity I’m re-posting it here.  imageWho would have guessed that the extra leg would be protruding from its neck?

I think I’m glad I didn’t see it in person.


Next time:  Kansas City, the Paris of the Plains.  Honest.




African Diary: Epilogue Townships & Tea Bags

by Bob Sparrow

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Jill Heyes

If you’ve read my ‘African Diary’ series you’ll know that I wrote briefly about the ‘townships’ or shanties that line the freeway for miles outside of Cape Town and throughout South Africa.  These shanties were created principally in the Apartheid Era, which ran from the end of the 1800s until the early 1990s (yes, 1990s!), when blacks were evicted from their property and relocated to the shanties .

An accurate count of how many people are living in shanties today in South Africa is difficult, but it’s somewhere in the 8-10 million range.  They live in shacks made of tin, wood and brick, have little water, which is of poor quality, sewage is an on-going problem, electricity, if they have it, is achieved illegally through exposed power wires, presenting a constant danger to inhabitants, especially children.  Schools are ill-equipped and inadequate and many children end up dropping out and joining  gangs, which are prevalent among the teens living there.  Believe me, it makes one feel pretty grateful for what we have and very sympathetic to the plight of the shanty inhabitants.

One person who saw all this and decided to do something about it was Jill Heyes, who came to South Africa from England and lives in Hout Bay near DSC00168Cape Town.  Jill taught crafts at a local church and regularly passed by the shanties on her way to and from home and was horrified at the poverty she saw.  One day while having tea with a friend, they were discussing the living conditions in the shanties and trying to figure out what one person could possibly do to help.  Her friend looked at the tea bag in her cup and got an idea.

Original T Bag Designs was born.  Jill started a business making crafts out of discarded tea bags and in the process hired people out of the shanties to create and make these crafts.  That was over 10 years ago, today her business is thriving.  Several who have come to work for her have now earned enough money to buy a home and move out of the shanties.  You can see a short video on Jill’s inspirational story on You Tube at the following link:

You can also visit their website at:   and buy something!  Then you’ll know that you helped create one of those great smiles that you see in the pictures on their website.

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