The Mission Inn – The End of a Perfect Day

by Bob Sparrow

(continued from Monday)

Will Rogers probably defined the Mission Inn best when he said, “It is the most unique hotel in America. It’s a monastery, a museum, a fine hotel, a home, a boardinghouse, a mission, an art gallery and an aviator’s shrine. It combines the best features of all of the above.”

chapel2

The Chapel and our Docent

The chapel at the Mission Inn is stunning and is a National Historic Landmark with two original stained glass windows by Lewis Tiffany, yes, that Tiffany, and an alter that is 25 feet tall and 16 feet across completely covered with three coats of 18-karat gold leaf. The ‘Garden of Bells’ has over 800 bells including one dating to 1247 described as the ‘oldest bell in Christendom’. In 1932, son Frank Miller, who had by then taken over for dad, C. C., put up a ‘Famous Flyers Wall’ recognizing over 150 notable aviators.

There are so many nooks, crannies, artifacts and stories that go with them that I couldn’t begin to cover them all here; those who have been there know what I mean and I’m not a good enough writer to describe it to those who haven’t – just go!

Our docent worked overtime as after our tour she took us to the Presidential Lounge and asked us to get an adult beverage and follow her to a roof-top terrace where we watched the sunset. She told us that a song popular at the beginning of the 20th century, was written by Carrie-Jacobs Bond, a hotel guest in 1909,  and was composed as she watched from the hotel as the sun set behind Mt. Rubidoux, just as we were doing. The song is called ‘The End of a Perfect Day’ and I think it accurately summed up my time there.

MI Xmas

The Mission Inn during the holidays

Most visitors like to go to the Mission Inn during the holidays when it is resplendent with nearly 4 million Christmas lights and 400 animated figures, but I’d never gone thinking that I hate crowds and Google has lots of pictures, but now, after seeing how amazing this place is, I can’t wait to see it over the holidays this year. Besides, I know there’s some secret tunnels and catacombs just waiting to be uncovered . . . that would make it ‘The End of a Perfect Day’.

Additional photos

Top of Mt. Rubidoux today and an Easter Sunrise Service back in the day

Sunrise                                        Mt. Rubidoux

 

Bridge over the Santa Ana River (If you don’t see any water, no need to adjust your glasses, it is now dry, so Riverside should be renamed ‘DryRiverBedside’)

River

On the left is the Chamber of Commerce photo of the view from Mt. Rubidoux, my photo is on the right

mt r cc  smog

Interior Stairwell and Chapel at night at the Mission Inn

MI Stairwell   chapel

The Mission Inn and Mt. Rubidoux Tunnels?

by Bob Sparrow

MI entranceA mountain to climb and a visit to an iconic California hotel that has been rumored to be haunted was all I needed to inspire my trip to Mt. Rubidoux and the famous Mission Inn, just 45 minutes away in Riverside. I had no visions of having a paranormal experience or even finding the secret catacombs that supposedly connected these two landmarks which are a mile apart, but it might be fun looking for them and I thought you’d enjoy the journey.

tunnel

Mt. Rubidoux – notice the air duct

My day starts with the hike of Mt. Rubidoux, to be honest, it was more of a stroll than a hike, as it was only about 3 miles of paved trails with a total elevation of 1,399 feet – women pushing baby carts passed me by. The mountain looks like a small geological burp – a boulder outcropping rising out of an otherwise flat terrain. In 1903 the mountain was the site of the first non-denominational Easter sunrise service in the U.S., so it’s got that going for it. I hiked every trail and non-trail on the mountain looking for the entrance to the secret tunnel that leads to the Mission Inn. Just as I was about to give up I discovered an out-of-the-way rock formation that looked like an entrance AND it had what looked like an air duct pipe coming out of it. As I started to move towards it, a female park ranger asked where I was going. I looked at her knowingly, hiked up my pants and gave her that Barney Fife sniff and said, “I found it, didn’t I?” She replied, “You found an old sewer line, now move on.”

catacombs

Where does this go???????

Unable to use the ‘secret passageway’, I was forced to drive the mile to the Mission Inn for my docent-led 75-minute tour – well worth the $13 price tag I might add. The docent, who fortunately had a great sense of humor, introduced herself and asked our group if there was any part of the Inn that was of particular interest to us. I saw this as my opportunity to broach the subject of the ‘secret passageways’ and asked, “Are we going to get to see the passageways, catacombs, tunnels or whatever that connects Mission Inn with Mt. Rubidoux?” The docent rolled her eyes, ignored the question and started the tour.

IMG_3271 (2)

Mission Inn courtyard

We are first told what the Mission Inn is not; it is NOT part of the chain of 21 historic Spanish Missions in California, but rather it was built as a small hotel by Christopher Columbus Miller in 1876, and because Miller was a world traveler (not a surprise with a name like Christopher Columbus), the 30-year construction of the inn was influenced by many architectural styles: Spanish Gothic, Spanish Colonial, Moorish, Renaissance and Mediterranean Revival to name just a few. To my layman’s eye it looked like six committees from six corners of the earth worked on this project independently and Miller just glued them all together for the finished product, but somehow it works – it’s magnificent!

If you’ve never heard of, much less visited, the Mission Inn, let me start your edification of this unique hotel with a list of a few of the august luminaries who have stayed there.

US Presidents: Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, John Kennedy, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush.

Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were married and honeymooned there. Let me rephrase that; Richard and Pat Nixon were married there and Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned there.  Glad we cleared that up!

Why so many presidential visitors you ask? Not that I’m obsessed or anything, but I think it goes back to those tunnels as a security measure; if we ever had an emergency that required us to go to ‘DefCon4’ while a president was staying at the Mission Inn, they would have a secret underground escape route.  OK, maybe that’s just the conspiracy theorists in me talking.

Industrialists: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford

Entertainers: Clark Gable, Spenser Tracy, Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields, Bette Davis, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), he actually worked there for a while as a chauffeur.

Numerous movies have been shot there.

Other notables: Amelia Earhart, John Muir, Booker T. Washington, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller

Will Rogers probably defined the Mission Inn best when he said . . .

(Continued on Thursday)

 

Treasures in the Desert

by Bob Sparrow

ironwood 2My formal introduction to the ‘treasures of the desert’ probably took place in the early 70s, when brother, Jack took a job as restaurant manager at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert and he invited me out for a weekend. I believe it was in March and I was teaching school in southern California at the time; I remember thinking as I made the drive to Palm Desert just how close the desert really was – only about an hour and half drive and yet, I was to find out, a world apart. And while the weather was certainly nice in Orange County in March, it was amazing in Palm Desert, especially the nights. I remember sitting out on a beautifully clear evening with a billion stars all around, wondering how long this had been going on – apparently for quite some time.

painter's pallet

‘Painter’s Palette’ Death Valley

My love and fascination with the desert and its flora and fauna has continued to this day. I was amazed at the colors and the shear beauty of the desert on my first visit to Death Valley where I was also intrigued with ‘desert stories’ like that of ‘Scotty’s Castle’. My two treks through Joshua Tree National Park introduced me to unique rock formations, eerie hidden caves and spectacular views. My hike through Havasupai introduced me to the extraordinary water features in what was seemingly a dry, desolate desert. I recently visited the Desert Museum in Tucson with niece, Shelley Watson and continued to be amazed at all the beauty and life that exists in the Arizona-Sonora desert. The Raptor Show, featuring Ravens, Great Horned Owls and Falcons was remarkable!

Aside from the ‘family treasures’ in the desert, such as my sister, Suzanne living in Scottsdale and my sister-in-law, Starlet in Apache Junction, there’s a small oasis about three-and-a-half hours from home that calls to Linda a couple of times each year; you might know the place . . . Las Vegas. Linda has not met a Top Dollar slot machine that she doesn’t think she can hit the ‘big one’ on, so for her birthday each year, I ‘surprise’ her with a trip to visit our money. This year we did manage to salvage a little education out of the trip with an excursion to Hoover Dam, the building of which was amazing.

primm3

Primm, Nevada

With all the hikes, excursions, timeshare in Palm Desert and trips to Vegas, you’d think I’d have my fill of the desert, but no, there is yet another pilgrimage that we make each year and from which I have just returned – Primm.

Primm, or what used to be called Stateline, is on the California-Nevada border, and at first passing you wonder why anyone would stop there with Vegas just 30 minutes away. The answer is Primm’s two 18-hole golf courses, which have a unique history of their own. Famous golf course designer, Tom Fazio, was contracted by Steve Wynn to design the golf course at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, under the condition that he would not design another golf course in the state of Nevada. Thus, the two magnificent courses he designed at Primm are just over the border in California.

south point

South Point Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV

A group of 12 couples from Yorba Linda Country Club have been going to Primm on ‘Derby Weekend’ since 1996. The outing was originally put together by Debbie Osborne, who with husband Russ, still attend, along with two other original members, John & Judy VanBoxmeer and Don & Marilyn Spradling, who made the trip this year from their home in Fresno. Linda and I have been lucky enough to have been part of this ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ for the last 12 years

equestrian center

Rodeo at South Point Equestrian Center

A small wrinkle in the Primm trip this year was, for the first time, we didn’t stay in Primm. While the golf courses are top quality, the Primm Resort & Casino would be lucky to get the tip of one star in a five-star rating. So, one of this year’s organizers, Chuck Sager, who has ‘connections’ at South Point Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, suggested a change of venue. The South Point Hotel is very unique among Las Vegas hotels – it has 124 bowling lanes as well as horse stables and a full equestrian center, where, last weekend, many of us witnessed our first rodeo. It is truly an amazing place.  Thank you Chuck!  We also changed golf courses to Rhodes Ranch, another ‘treasure in the desert’.

derby

Sometimes a ‘winner’ is a ‘loser’

A tradition at this gathering is a large bet on the Kentucky Derby. We have two legitimate ‘pony players’ in the group, Jack Budd and Russ Osborne, so everyone gives them $105 and they make some sort of boxed, parlay, quinella bet to heighten our interest in watching ‘The Derby’. We actually won about $24,000 in 2011, of course it was split amongst 24 people, but still, it was a lot more fun than losing, or winning the way we did this year. Jack & Russ actually picked the top 4 finishers, but because they were mostly favorites, our $105 bet got us a $30 return, so ‘winning’ produced a $75 loss. But it was exciting for a moment, before we realized that winning was actually losing – more mysteries of the desert!

Whether I’m hiking, exploring, golfing or just losing money, the desert continues to lure me to its hidden treasures.

Beach Music

by Bob Sparrow

beach musicBeach music is the music I hear on the rare occasions I frequent the beach. Beach Music is also the name of a novel by my favorite author, Pat Conroy, who wrote a number of classics, and who sadly passed away earlier this month. He wrote prose like poetry – such a gifted writer, gone too soon. Here a passage from Prince of Tides that I think exemplifies his writing . . .

It was growing dark on this long southern evening and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold.

You and I would just write something like, “Hey, the moon is coming up just as the sun is setting, cool.”

rainy beach

Rainy day in Malibu

Although I have lived nearly my entire life within a half-hour’s drive of one beach or another, I am not, nor have I ever been, a ‘beach person’. So the music I hear is not actual music, but rather the vibe of the beach; the pounding of the surf, the squawking of sea gulls, the spray of the ocean on my face. To me, beaches are most interesting in the winter when it’s cold and rainy. It’s at those times that the coast briefly returns to its natural state of sand beaches with no umbrellas stuck in them and the rhythmic and steady slapping of the ocean on the shore. Even without all the man-made trappings, each beach has its own personality. My destination today is Malibu. I choose it not for it’s popularity or its connection to Hollywood stars, but rather because of its most-interesting history.

malibu homes3

View I never saw!

Malibu’s ‘Hollywood’ past includes being the backdrop for such movies as Gidget, Planet of the Apes and Grease as well as the TV productions of Happy Days, Baywatch and The O.C. – yep the series about life in Orange County was filmed in Los Angeles County! Past residents of Malibu include, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rod Steiger, George C. Scott and Johnny Carson to name just a few. The long list of present residents includes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Whoopi Goldberg.

‘Malibu Beach Music’ – a few of the musical artists in Malibu include Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Cher, Brad Paisley, and Pink.

With all the enclaves in southern California, why have so many stars chosen Malibu as their home? I thought you’d never ask.

It’s all about the privacy, and of course the weather.  And why is Malibu more ‘private’ than any other place? I found the answer to thatK&Q question in a book I recently read called, The King & Queen of Malibu, written by David K. Randall. It is a fascinating story of Fredrick and May Rindge, an odd, millionaire couple from Boston, who came to California for ‘health and wealth’ and in 1891 ended up buying over 13,000 acres of property called ‘the Malibu’, that included Topanga Canyon, the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu Beach.

The Rindges guarded their privacy zealously; hiring armed guards to shoot any trespassers, which they did! They successfully fought off Southern Pacific Railroad, who wanted to establish a railroad line through their ranch, but in 1929 lost an ‘eminent domain’ fight, which allowed the government to put a road through their property along the coast – that road today is the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). But May Rindge, then a widow, kept control of Malibu Beach, and in order to raise much-needed money, she allowed a few Hollywood stars to build vacation homes there, and thus ‘the Colony’ was created.

I decided that I would take the hour or so drive north to discover what I could of what Malibu looked like today. I arrived in Malibu in an early morning fog that would hang on for another hour or so before the sun burned through the marine layer to reveal the full extent of the coastline. The fog was dense and close and a chill rented the air on this last day of winter.

scenic beauty

Really?

Upon entering the city limits of Malibu, I encounter a sign welcoming me to Malibu, stating, “27 Miles of Scenic Beauty’. My research had told me that since being incorporated, Malibu had 6 miles of that 27 annexed by Ventura County, so it’s now only 21 miles of . . . regarding the ‘Scenic Beauty’, when one drives north on PCH though Malibu, the mountains rise sharply up on the right so all one sees is dirt or hillside grass. On the beach side there is a continuous line of two-story homes that are connected so as to limit access to, and visibility of, the beach; so all one can see are garages and the backs of houses. I’m sure the views from the homes are great, but the average Joe can not only not get to the beach, he can’t even see the ocean. And although Malibu’s beaches are all officially ‘open to the public’, beach access is limited and well hidden thus keeping Malibu a secluded and private city; which is why the stars are there.

As I drove further up the coast, I came to the realization that I was not only not going to see Jennifer Anniston walking her dog on the beach, but I wasn’t even going to get to walk on the beach myself.  As I turned around and headed south for home, I remembered why I never really was a beach person.

 

 

Nashville Notes

by Bob Sparrow

Nash notesFollowing are mynoteNOTESnotefrom a recent trip to country music’s mecca, Nashville, Tennessee.

Thursday – Time: 10:00 am – Flew out of LAX to Nashville

3:00 pm – Arrived in Nashville, took Uber to the Hilton Doubletree downtown

3:05 pm – Swept out underwear and headed out and remembered that we were hungry.

3:15 pm – Stopped at B.B. King’s for roasted chicken and collard greens. – the best ever!

4:30 pm – Headed out to explore ‘The District’

‘The District’ is a region bordered by the Cumberland River and 4th Avenue on the north and hats & boots south, and Shelby Street and Church Street on the east and west; Broadway runs roughly down the middle. There is a large footbridge across the Cumberland that takes pedestrians over to Nissan Stadium where the NFL Tennessee Titans play. ‘The District’ was originally called the ‘Art District’, but now mostly features the art of the pour, as it is full of bars, saloons and honky-tonks – I guess those are three names for the same thing, but mostly that’s all there is, well, that and lots of places to buy cowboy hats and boots; there is also the Johnny Cash and George Jones Museum. Didn’t see much art. Back to the bars, saloons and honky-tonks – they are all filled with live music, starting in the morning and going until . . . not sure, couldn’t stay up that late!

7:30 – Went into the Benchmark Bar and ran into some guys from IBM all decked out in their shiny new cowboy boots and hats; they looked like . . . guys from IBM trying not to look like guys from IBM!

Time: Not sure. Just cruised from bar to bar, each one with great live music that made you wonder, how did this guy or girl or group not make it, they are amazing?!! Surprised at how inexpensive drinks are – this is good . . . and bad!

Printer's AlleyStill unsure of the time: Strolled over to Printer’s Alley

‘Printers Alley’ was originally home to a thriving publishing industry. The area had two large newspapers, ten print shops, and thirteen publishers. In the 1940s it became a nightclub and entertainment district; sale of liquor for on premise consumption was illegal throughout Tennessee, but restaurants and clubs in ‘the alley’ served liquor anyway, often claiming it had been “brown bagged” (brought in by customers). Law enforcement agencies normally looked the other way on such sales. Liquor sales in restaurants were finally legalized in 1968. 1968!!!!

It honestly has lost some of its vibe, but still has some classic watering holes.

Martini

Chocolate Martinis

Time: Much later: Crawled back to the hotel, but needed just one more drink before bedtime – a Chocolate Martini.

Friday – it’s only Friday?! That was quite a Thursday! Slept in due to possible hang over. Don’t think they actually have mornings in Nashville – all days just start around noon.

Time: afternoon – walked over to Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant. Had BBQ pork (melts in your mouth), onion rings, Caesar salad – most delicious lunch ever! Food here is just terrific!

Hit some shops and the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, but wanted to rest up for the concert this evening, so headed back to hotel and on the way bought a ‘Goo Goo Cluster’ – a candy bar created in Nashville and a local favorite.

Blake Shelton

Linda, Blake & Dana

7:00ish – Walked to the Bridgestone Arena to attend the Blake Shelton concert. The opening act was Chris Janson, who, like most of the entertainment seen in Nashville was outstanding! Blake put on a great performance in which he sang all his hit songs, interfaced with the audience and had a great back-up band. The word on the street was that Gwen Stefani was in town, and perhaps was going to make a surprise cameo appearance, but not to be.

After concert – what else, visited more bars.

Time: about 1:00 a.m. – Remembered we missed dinner, so headed to Merchants, one of only places that didn’t have music, and it was sort of a relief to have a little peace and quiet. After dinner, back to the hotel and opted for the Chocolate Chip cookies instead of the Chocolate Martini. Livers were thankful.

Saturday – Slept in – what a surprise!  What, it’s only Saturday?!!

GOO2

Grand Ole Opry

Time: 1:30 – ‘Backstage Tour’ of the Grand Ole Opry. Tour included videos of Blake Shelton and Charles Esten, (the character of Deacon Claybourne on the TV series ‘Nashville’); very fun and interesting. Also visited the Gaylord Opryland Hotel – magnificent.

Those who watch the TV series ‘Nashville’ will understand that a trip to Nashville is not complete until you visit the Blue Bird Café. Even though it is small and in an out-of-town strip center, it is a legendary venue that has given some of country music’s biggest stars their start; such as Keith Urban, Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks to name a few with whom you might be familiar. Because it holds only about 100 people, tickets are extremely hard to get. But they offer about 20 seats on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Blue bird

Blue Bird Cafe

Time: 3:30 – After about a 30-minute Uber ride from our hotel, we got to the Blue Bird Café and got in line; doors open at 5:30. Looks like we’ll get in. Met two girls from New Jersey, Sherry and Sarah, with whom we shared some chips and a few ‘boxes-o-wine’ while waiting in line. They became our new best friends for the evening.

Time: 5:30, we’re in! Just being inside is an amazing experience when you think about all the stars that have been on this ‘stage in the round’ at the center of the café. It is never a rowdy crowd here, as patrons are expected to remain fairly quiet and listen to the singer-songwriters performing. Lots of songs about love gone bad, not a surprise at a country venue. Great experience!

Box of wine

Linda, Sherry, Sarah with Box-O-Wine

Time: Later – we head back to the bars of Broadway and eventually staggered home

Sunday – slept in! Fortunately the flight home didn’t leave until mid-afternoon, so head back to BB Kings for lunch – brisket, green beans, mashed potatoes; pulled pork, mac & cheese – gonna miss this southern cooking!

8:00 p.m. – Landed at LAX

After reading this, if you’re thinking you’d really like to go to Nashville – me too!  No, I’ve never been, and this vicarious vacationer didn’t lie in my opening statement, these are my notes from a recent trip, but the trip was given to Linda and Dana as a Christmas gift from son-in-law/husband, Joe Borrelli. They both said, “Best Christmas gift ever!”

 

 

 

 

Say What? You Went Where?

by Bob Sparrow

blood_v_cripsAs you regular readers know, I love to travel, but I can’t hike in places like the Andes or the Himalayans every year. Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit of cabin fever (You know how this harsh California weather can keep you housebound all winter), and perhaps a bit ‘blog-challenged’, so I started looking for someplace to go, someplace local, someplace neither you nor I have been before.

I pulled out my map as I recalled some of my experiences from previous ‘local’ excursions, i.e. being thrown off the beach at Nixon’s Western White House, being freaked out by a paranormal experience on the Queen Mary and being ripped off by a phony fortune teller at Venice Beach, to name a few. OK, maybe they weren’t all great experiences, but they were experiences and they were local! Now I was looking for someplace really ‘different’, someplace ‘locally foreign’, if there is such a thing. Then I saw it, starring up at me from my map . . . South Central Los Angeles. No, I wasn’t back at the local Yardhouse being over-served on foreign beer! I thought, why not do a trip into the toughest part of LA, it could be a great experience . . . or you could never hear from me again; either way, it’s an adventure.

Depending on the kind of adventure I was looking for, I could either drive there during the day, or wait until the evening. I thought I wouldn’t get the full flavor unless I went in at night, but I also was really interested in surviving the experience. I’m sure if I left it up to you readers, you’d have me go late a night with $100 bills hanging out of my pockets. So I planned to leave Saturday morning.

watts riots

Watts Riot

I wanted to hit as many of the famous, or infamous ‘landmarks’ as I could, you know, the places where I was sure to find placards reading, ‘Kodak Moment’, signifying great photo opportunities. I actually called some places I found on-line that offered tours of the area, but none of them responded to email or phone inquiries. In fact, truth be told, none of them looked like they were still in business – not a good sign.

My ‘South Central’ map indicated a number of ‘must see’ locations: the site of the Watts Riots (1965), the neighborhoods where crack cocaine became an epidemic (1980s), sites of the Rodney King beating (1991) and where the riots broke out with the subsequent reading of the verdict of the officers involved in the beating (1992), and of course the hangout for the notorious rival gangs, the Crips (late ‘60s) and the Bloods (early ‘70s).

At this point I was beginning to wonder if Disneyland might have been a better choice – I know it would have been a safer one, but undaunted, I plotted my route through South Central on my map and, after checking to make sure my insurance (both car and life) was current, I put on some Snoop Dog and motored north to South Central.

graffiti

Peeps from the ‘hood

scientology

Church of Scientology

It was an unusually warm winter day in southern California and I could see a hazy outline of the downtown Los Angeles skyline in the distance as I exited the freeway and entered ‘the hood’. I noticed that most of the shops, which were liquor stores and check cashing places, had bars on their windows (we don’t see a lot of that in Orange County); I noticed a good number of street people wheeling all of their earthly belongings in a grocery cart. Along the sidewalks I saw lots of clothes hanging from rope lines and didn’t know if these were items being sold or laundry being dried. As I traveled north on Vernon Avenue there were a number of churches, none more magnificent looking than the Church of Scientology, which looked like it was dropped in from a Beverly Hills neighborhood. I wondered as I drove by if that was Tom Cruise out in front waving people into the building. I drove by some old major crack houses (No, I didn’t stop, I’ve been clean for four days!) and then passed the corner of Florence and Normandie, which was the site of the Rodney King verdict riots. Next on my left was Manual Arts High School; it was built in 1910 and was only Los Angeles’ third high school at the time. There was a high chainlink fence around it – not sure if they were keeping people in or out.  I turned on Martin Luther King Boulevard and drove past the Los Angeles Coliseum adjacent to the incongruous location of the private institution of the University of Southern California.  Instead of having ‘Fight On’ as their slogan, it seems like it should be ‘Drive On’ or perhaps ‘Drive By’.  I then headed south on South Central Avenue and drove by the old Black Panthers Headquarters, it didn’t look like any meetings were in session, so I didn’t stop. After several miles of graffiti-filled buildings and walls, I began to work my way over to  Avalon and 116th Street which is where the Watts Riots started in 1965, causing 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage.  As I headed back to the freeway on my way outwatts towers of the hood, I drove by the iconic Watts Towers (right).

The whole trip took me about three hours and I traveled a total of about 90 miles and never saw another white person the entire trip – the demographic is made up almost exclusively of Hispanics and Blacks, while Whites and Asians make up about 1% each.

OK, to be honest, it really didn’t compare to getting away on a mountain trail with pine-scented air, but it was really interesting to take a deeper dive into the history of South Central Los Angeles and to actually cruise the streets. Unfortunately, given recent events, ‘South Central’ seems to be a clarion for the failure on all sides of race relations.

Yeah, maybe Disneyland next time.

The Best & Worst of 2015

by Bob Sparrow

Where's waldoTwenty-fifteen was a RED BANNER year in terms of playing ‘Where’s Waldo’ and showing up in a lot of fun and interesting places. I’ve enjoyed having you readers come along vicariously, which has prompted many of you to ask, “Where are ‘we’ going next year?” As of this writing it seems I’ll be lucky to get to the end of my driveway to pick up the paper, so forgive me if I do a little reminiscing of the mostly Good, but sometimes the Bad and the Ugly of my 2015 travels.

1st Quarter

Good: Visit with Suzanne and Alan in Scottsdale where I had my Best Cigar of the Year, A Cuban, from Bob Gett, while overlooking Scottsdale sitting in his and Liz’s beautiful backyard after a delicious dinner.

Bad Idea: Using my National Geographic Expeditions to travel the world ‘through beer’; good at the time, bad the next day.

The Best Place to Live: Completing the ‘Southern California Trifecta’ – breakfast at a golf course in Palm Desert, lunch at a ski lodge in the San Bernardino Mountains and dinner at Duke’s in Huntington Beach.

2nd Quarter

Ladder

Ladder Canyon

HAVASUPAI

Havasupai

Great: My time with the ‘odd couple’, Patrick Michael and Marc Webb, on our hike through the unique terrain of ‘Ladder Canyon’ adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

Best time with my in-laws (No that’s not an oxymoron): Rochester, Minnesota celebrating Warren & Phyllis Barnes 70th Wedding Anniversary.

Biggest surprise: Hiking in the draught-stricken Grand Canyon in the Havasupai Indian Reservation with Rick & Chris Fisher and finding gushing waterfalls generated from flowing underground springs.

Bad and Sad: the overweight and unfriendly Indians at Havasupai.

Bad prediction: Saying LA would never have an NFL team; it looks like they could have up to three by next season. Good: Rams; Bad: Chargers; Ugly: Raiders

Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Bad news: The earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal that destroyed thousands of homes, including Dom’s, our Himalayan guide; fortunately the family survived with no injuries.

3rd Quarter

Best time with the family: No question about it, our family gathering at Rocky Ridge at Lake Tahoe – great place, greater people!

Baltic Cruise . . .

Best photo: the photo I took of the ‘No Photos’ sign as I was trying to sneak into Russia at Passport Control in St. Petersburg

no photos

NO PHOTOS!!!

Best reunion: After 28 years, seeting Mira, our au pair for Dana, in Helsinki

Best & Worse: St. Petersburg – spectacular sights, depressing people

Great traveling companions: Jack & JJ Budd, John & Judy VanBoxmeer and John & Mary Billham and of course Linda

Ugly: The living conditions in Sachenhausen, the concentration camp outside of Berlin

4th Quarter

The Inca Trail

WW

Winaywayna, Peru

Good: Winaywayna – the mini Machu Picchu, without the crowds

Bad: Mosquito bites I’m still scratching

Ugly: Disneyland-like crowds at Machu Picchu.

As 100 year old, Frank Sinatra would have said, “It was a very good year.”

So while I’m working on some adventures for this year, I’m sure you’ll find lots of laughs from our politicians in this election year.

 

 

The Inca Trail – Day 4 Machu Picchu

by Bob Sparrow

stones 3We had an early wake-up at 5:00 a.m. At breakfast we could see other groups in camp heading down to the trail and turning left toward Machu Picchu, when we got to the trail, Humberto turned right. We looked at each other quizzically, as we knew he knew that Machu Picchu was the other way, but we also knew that Humberto wasn’t lost, so we followed. After a fairly short hike, we came to a clearing and to a placed called Winaywayna. I’ll come back to explain more.

G killer

Pat and me on the ‘Gringo Killer’

We turned around and headed for Machu Picchu, but just prior to getting there Humberto tells us to go ahead of him, that he wants us to experience this on our own. So we round the next bend in the trail and are confronted with what is known as ‘The Gringo Killer’. It is the trail, or more aptly a ladder, of granite stones going straight up that requires hand-over-hand climbing to scale them. About half way up we look back to see Humberto standing there with a big grin on his face.

Shortly after ‘The Gringo Killer’ we come to the Sun Gate, which is the unofficial entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail; we renamed it ‘Rain Gate’ since it had started to rain again. The Sun Gate is on a ridge above Machu Picchu and was built by the Incas in such a way that the sun would shine through a hole in the stone and onto Machu Picchu on December 21, their summer solstice that marks the half way point of their year.

sun gate

Sun (or Water) Gate

From the Sun Gate, for the first time, we see the vast expanse of Machu Picchu, the mountains that surround it and the incredible stonework that the Incas crafted. The many pictures of it that I’ve seen since booking this trip, and the many descriptions I’ve read, all pale in comparison to standing there and taking it all in. It is such an incredible work of architecture and art that it just boggles the mind to think about how it was all put together. I try to envision how it was back then, the movement and placement of the stones, the terracing of the steep mountain slopes for crop-growing, the creation of intricate irrigation systems for drinking, bathing and nurturing the crops. I try to envision the approximate 400 inhabitants going about their daily lives in this Andean paradise.

CRoWDS

‘Mucho’ Picchu

But it’s hard, when I look down and see hundreds of tourists milling around through the complex. Unfortunately we arrived on a Saturday and the place was shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all over the world, who had come early by train to see a sun rise over the Sun Gate on this rainy day. That’s not to say that it ruined our experience, it didn’t, it just colored it a little differently than we would have liked.

Back to Winaywayna – when we left camp and turned right, Humberto wanted us to experience something very special. As we came around the corner to Winaywayna (it means ‘forever young’), we all just stood there in awe and said, “Wow”. It is a complex similar to Machu Picchu, only much smaller – stone wall terraces, stone buildings, and irrigation systems that were still working, while several llama were grazing on the terraces. And on this beautiful mist-covered morning, we were the only ones there. The only ones there! We would appreciate that much more when when got to Machu Picchu.  We walked out on several terraces, examined the water features for irrigation and bathing and looked at the living quarters, all made of stone that will be there for centuries to come. The four of us talked about it later and concluded that being at Winaywayna that morning was on all of our ‘top 2-3 highlights’ of the trip. I can’t speak for the others, but for me it was somehow an incredibly spiritual experience.

WW

Winawayna

We spent about three hours touring through Machu Picchu as Humberto gave us vivid and detailed accounts of Incan life here during the 15th century. I mentioned earlier that your guide can make or break your trip – we were extremely lucky to have someone with the knowledge and wisdom of Humberto – he made our trip!

From Machu Picchu we take a train into the Sacred Valley where we meet our van that takes us to the Sol & Luna Hotel, where we have our first shower in four days – you can imagine that our van didn’t exactly smell like a bouquet of roses! We had dinner at the hotel and, exhausted from four exhilarating days in the Andes, we were all anxious to get into a real bed.

The next day we went into Cusco for our last day in Peru. As our van came through the hills over-looking Cusco, we were reminded of the ever-present poverty that exists in this country. Ironically the homes on the hillside that have spectacular views of the city and the Andes, are the most impoverished, as the higher up on the hill a home is, the colder and windier it gets, and thus less desirable.

We knew we were ready to come home when we spent our last afternoon in Cusco in Paddy’s IrishMP best Pub, having a beer and a cheeseburger while watching the 49ers beat the Ravens.

It was an incredible adventure; one I’m glad I didn’t wait too much longer to do.  Thank you to Patrick, Steven and Graydon for sharing this awesome, life-time experience and thanks to those of you who followed along vicariously; as you know, you’re the reason I do this crazy stuff.

The Inca Trail Hike – Days 2-3

by Bob Sparrow

Day 2

DWP

Dead Woman’s Pass

If I just had one word to describe the hike on Day 2 it would be, ‘hard’; if I had two words, it would be ‘very hard’, if I had more than that this blog wouldn’t be rated PG.  It is a ball-buster! It’s only about 6 miles, but it all up – very up. Patrick calculated that today’s hike is like climbing the stairs of a 30 story building . . . 10 times. We are on the trail at 7:30 and Humberto reminds us to take tiny steps to keep the heart rate down. He reminds us that there is no hurry to get to the next camp, that there is nothing to do once you get there anyway, so take our time.

The first section is 4 miles, all up, going from just under 10,000 feet elevation to just under 14,000 feet elevation at the summit at ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ – so called because the mountains at the summit resemble a woman lying down. No women have died there to my knowledge. While we are on the subject of women, we saw a lot of them on the trail, so I asked Humberto if there were typically more women than men on the trail. He said yes.  Did you hear that Dorie Riddle?

Without a doubt there is a certain amount of euphoria when you hit Dead Woman’s Pass, but it is short-lived as the next two hours will be spent pounding down the granite stone steps – not an exercise that is particularly good for my ‘vintage’ knees. After a ‘mere’ 6 miles, we make camp at 12,000 feet, and retire early to another evening of partial sleep.

Day 3

Misty summit

Heading into the ‘rain forest’

As we awake on Day 3, there is a certain amount of relief that we had survived Day 2, but Day 3 is no walk in the park; in fact today it is rainy and cold much of the day, so I guess you could call it a walk in the parka. The day starts with another up-hill climb that lasts about two hours and then levels, which in Incan means up and down. Rain, fog, clouds and mist greet us at the summit as we now entered a more ‘rain forest’ environment – complete with rain!  As miserable as the weather sounds, we all agreed that these conditions added an almost mystical aura to the trek.

When we stopped for lunch, it was cold and windy and the soup the cooks had prepared really tasted good. We actually had soup for almost every lunch and dinner and, I know we were always tired and hungry at mealtime, but the cooks did a great job of offering a good variety of food, which always included cocoa leaf tea – I think I’m hooked; I need to find a dealer in the U.S.!  We continued on until we stopped to make camp (OK, the porters had already gone ahead and made camp for us!) and had covered nearly 12 miles. Coupled with Day 2, it was two really challenging days of hiking – without much sleep.

Since this would be our last evening on the trail, we had a little farewell ceremony with the staff, where they presented us with a bottle of wine (our first alcohol in three days, although we did have the cocoa leaves going for us), and we presented them with their tips. We wanted to present the ‘rookie’ porter with a little higher tip, as he was the one who had to carry the ‘potty’ and the gas butane tank (a bad combination), but we were told that would just spoil him and he’d always want to do that. The cook also ‘baked’ us a cake – I don’t know how he did that out in the wilderness with no oven, but it tasted pretty good!

We were excited that we would finally get to see Machu Picchu in the morning and we were also very excited at the thought of taking a hot shower and sleeping in a real bed tomorrow night!

Next: The Inca Trail – Day 4 to Machu Picchu

 

 

Moray, Salt Mines and On to the Inca Trail

by Bob Sparrow

Humberto

Inca Trail guide, Humberto

After a good night’s sleep, we wake up Tuesday and meet our guide, Humberto, at our hotel. Your guide can make or break your trip – Humberto made it, in spades! He is 54 years old, head of the Inca Trail Guide Association and has made nearly 1100 trips (yes, 1100!) up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; we felt fairly confident that we weren’t going to get lost. Aside from his technical skills, he had an engaging personality, and easy smile and a great sense of humor; he fit right in to our group.

Moray

Moray

Today we drive out of the city to our first stop, Moray. It is best described as an Incan agricultural laboratory. From the picture it looks like it’s just a hole in the ground with some circles dug out of it. It is that, but the location is well chosen for it topography and rain fall and the circles are intricately scribed at precise levels creating various microclimates so that a variety of vegetables can be planted to see which ones thrive best under which condition. Ingenious!

Our next stop is the salt mines. On the way we are surprised to see prickly pear cactus and agave lining the road – very desert-like. Humberto tells us that the road to the salt mines is “lined with tequila” and with the salt from the mines, all we’d need is a lime and we’d have the start of a great margarita!

salt mines

Incan Salt Mines

The salt mines were originally created by the Incas and have been a source of salt and employment ever since. We were able to actually walk through the sections of salt and see how the natural salt water coming from inside the mountain collected and produced literally tons of salt each year.

We hiked about 5 miles down the hill to our van; I think it was Humberto’s way of giving us a little test run – we all did fine; it was mostly down hill and we were starting to get acclimated to the thin air. By late afternoon we were back at our hotel for a little rest before we went to dinner at a restaurant that Humberto had recommended.  We had a glass of wine to celebrate starting the hike in the morning and to the fact that we would not have anymore wine for the next four days!

The Inca Trail – Day 1

4 start

Me, Steven, Graydon & Patrick at the start of the hike

Our ‘team’ consists of the four hikers, Patrick Michael, who is not only a hiking buddy and a neighbor, but a good friend, who reignited my interest in hiking when we hiked Mt. Whitney several years back.  We have done numerous hikes together since then including Half Dome and the Himalayas. Steven Bernardy, who I just met while training for this hike, is a successful financial planner, who’s full of life and rarely at a loss for words – good hiking companion, as there is never a dull moment. Graydon Bernardy, Steven’s 22 year old son, is a recent graduate from the University of San Francisco and an intelligent and insightful young man; and me, AND our guide, Humberto, a cook, an assistant cook and 8 porters; so yes, a cast of 15 set out on Wednesday morning.

Meal tent

Meal tent

Today’s hike will be approximately 7-8 miles that are fairly level – actually there is no ‘level’ in the Andes – ‘fairly level’ just means not crazy up hill. Our porters and cooks take off a little after we do, but quickly pass us like we were standing still. We will see them about 3-4 hours later when they have set up our ‘meal tent’ and the ‘kitchen tent’, had lunch themselves, then cooked and served our lunch. Once we finish, we head out on the trail again, while they break down the tents, clean up the pot, pans, dishes, stove, pack them up and then we see them passing us on the trail again to set up for dinner. This is how it works for the whole trip, except when they get to the spot where we’re spending the night, they also sent up our sleeping tents and the ‘potty tent’. Patrick even saw a porter carrying a woman ‘piggyback’ up the trail – that’s above and beyond the call of duty! These guys are truly amazing athletes and just great people.

cocoa leaves

Cocoa leaves – illegal in the U.S.

Due to the barren topography, low clouds and mist, there is not a lot of great sights along the trail, but it’s just as well, with our heads down, our brains oxygen-deprived and our mouths full of cocoa leaves, we probably couldn’t see anything even if there was anything to see.  But the trail has history and it is a true hiking test. Oh, the cocoa leaves?  They are offered to us to chew on, put in our tea or do with as we wish, as they help the body remain strong under stressful hiking conditions. These are the same leaves from which cocaine is made, and are against the law to grow or import into the U.S. The reality is they’re really safe and I could hardly feel the affect of them, except that one time I saw a psychedelic llama dancing with a lavender alpaca.

tent

Our luxury suites

We cover about 7.5 miles before we reached our ‘home’ for the night, which is a two-man tent on the ground; our shower is a bowl of warm water and a paper towel and our bathroom is a small tent around a seat with a bag under it – not exactly the Ritz Carlton. Sleep, even after a long, hard day of hiking, comes begrudgingly if at all.

Next: The Inca Trail – Days 2-3