Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 6-7 St. Petersburg, Russia

by Bob Sparrow

imageFor me, St. Petersburg is a tale of two cities; one tale of being a city filled with a rich history and unbelievably beautiful and opulent palaces and museums that are beyond compare; the other tale being a city filled with people who match the ‘modern’ architecture – dull, gray and tired. We’ll focus on the former and summarize the contrast with, “It’s a great city, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

It had been raining most of the summer in St. Petersburg, so parks were resplendent in foliage. Our private guide reminded us of how lucky we are to have two such beautiful days to explore this magnificent city.

If you ever plan on visiting St. Petersburg, let me start with a travel tip: To help keep all the Elizabeths, Catherines, Alexanders and Peters straight (I’ll avoid the sophomoric remark about keeping your Peters straight), you must read, Catherine the Great by Robert Massie; it is a wonderful book and it will not only help you keep all the Russian monarchy in order, but it will give you an appreciation for most of the venues that you’d be visiting.

Our first stop was at the Hermitage Museum, which holds so many works of art that it is said if you stood in front of each piece for just one minute, it would take you 11 years to get through the museum. We did not select that option, but we did stand in front of some Rembrants, da Vincis and Rubens among many, many, many others. Adjacent to her ‘Winter Palace’, the Hermitage was created by Catherine the Great, as she became the foremost collector of art in all of Europe during her reign. The Hermitage is magnificent, not only for the art that it holds, but for its spectacular gilded and mosaic interiors. It is truly magnificent. If you see only one thing in St. Petersburg, this is it. But it was just the beginning.

For pure iconic Russian architecture, the Church of Spilled Blood, site of the assassination of Alexander II is hard to beat. During the course of our two-day visit our tours included visits to Peter the Great’s summer ‘cottage’, Peterhof, situated on 100 acres of beautiful park grounds with water features that rival Versailles, France; in fact Peter’s goal when it built it was to build something better than Versailles.  He may have succeeded. We took a canal cruise up the Neva, Fontanka and Moika Rivers to see the ‘high rent’ district of St. Petersburg, then continued on to see Catherine’s palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and Fortress, the room where Rasputin was assassinated. We took a ride on the super subterranean subway and finally hitched a hydrofoil ride back to city center. Toward the end of our second day we convinced our tour guide to make an unscheduled stop at a Russian bar, where we not only got a taste of a local brew, but of the local culture as well. The beer was better than the culture.

It was an exhausting two days, but we absolutely got our rubles worth.

Next: Day 8 A Reunion in Helsinki


Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 5 Estonia and Getting Through the ‘Iron Curtain’

by Bob Sparrow

Day 5 – Estonia   In the morning we find ourselves docked in the city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia where we can get off the ship and walk into town for the day. I must admit that, prior to this trip, if someone had asked me to locate Tallinn on a map, I might have been looking around Saudi Arabia. Fortunately I wasn’t driving the ship. Because it is strategically located on the Baltic; countries like Russia, Germany, Sweden and Denmark have all had their turn at occupying this country. We walk past the gates in the wall that once encircled the entire city and walk the streets of ‘Old Town’. John Billham, the Canadian member of our group has done his homework and guides us through the history of this picturesque town with the help of his Rick Steves guidebook. Lunch is in an Irish Pub; yes, the Irish seemed to have occupied every county we visit – thank goodness!

Getting In   With my soon-to-be-expired passport in hand, I sheepishly disembark in the port of St. Petersburg and head to customs and get in line. I check out the Russian immigration officer who is working the line I’m in. I walk up and hand him my passport – he gives me a stare that could chill beer; he says nothing and doesn’t smile; it appears to me that he’s having a bad day, but as I look at the other immigration officers, they all look like they’re having a bad day. They’re Russians for crying out loud! Contrary to popular belief, being an immigration officer in Russia is not all kicks and giggles. I fear that he’s going to take one look at my passport, see that it doesn’t have the required six months on it before it expires, blow his whistle and have me thrown back on the ship or who knows where. My heart is beating out of my chest, I feel like I’m reenacting the scene from Midnight Express, trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey.

I search his face for a clue as to what’s going through his mind. He looks at my passport again then looks back at me, then looks back at my passport again. Oh shit, I knew it; I’ve been caught! I try to look exactly like the picture in my passport, but it was taken ten years ago, so that’s not happening. I’m sweating and I’m sure he can hear my heart beating from inside his little glass box. These guys are highly trained to notice people who are nervous. I know he knows I’m hiding something. Again, he looks back and forth between my passport and me several times, expressionless. I put on an encouraging smile as I start to wonder what they will do to me if I’m in violation of their passport/visa laws. Will they just send me back to the ship, or will they make an example out of me and let everyone know that I was trying to get into the country on an invalid passport and . . . OK, I can’t think about what they’d do. The inspector now seems to be studying my passport in depth. How long have I been standing here, twenty minutes? An hour? I wonder if I should run, I look for an escape route. I consider the possibility that perhaps I’m over-reacting. No, I know I’m breaking some Russian law and they are not going to just let it slide; these people don’t let anything just slide. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my vacation is going to end with me breaking rocks in some Siberian gulag. Then I hear the word, “Next” and my passport is stamped and passed back through the window to me. I try to act casual, but I’m frozen in place, I’m pale white and the sweat rings under my arms are now down to my waist. “Next”, he repeats giving me a stare that was colder by several degrees from the one he first gave me. I smugly walk through customs – nothin’ to it!

As I finally walk onto Russian soil, the first question to myself is, will St. Petersburg be worth all the anguish I went through? Absolutely!

Next: Day 6-7   St. Petersburg, Russia

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 3-4 On Board & Berlin

by Bob Sparrow


Guard Tower at Sachenhausen

All of Day 3 is essentially used up getting on the boat and to seeing how well our ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ works. We take a bus from the hotel to the port, get on our ship, the Star, and head to one of 15 or so bars on board. Sorry, I’d like to tell you more about it, but I don’t really remember too much more after that. But I do know that Norwegian Cruise Lines got the raw end of the deal when they allowed each of us couples to purchase unlimited cocktails for 9 days for only $250. We spent that before we waved goodbye to The Little Mermaid.

The morning of Day 4 we cruised into the port of Warnemunde, Gemany, where we got on a train and went to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which is about an hour outside of Berlin. I’m sure most of you have read accounts or seen movies or documentaries on TV about German concentration camps.  I will tell you, and those who have been to one know this, it is noting like being there. The feeling I got as we were toured around the camp and told the many gruesome and heartbreaking stories, was visceral.   As I stared out over the expansive grounds, saw the weathered watchtowers where machine guns mowed down anyone trying to escape and learned of the harsh day-to-day agony that these people went through, I tried to imagine myself experiencing what they went through. We visited the gas chambers and crematorium, saw the gallows where dissidents were publicly hanged and walked through the barracks to see the unlivable living conditions in which the prisoners lived. I could not imagine this example of man’s inhumanity to man, and yet, it wasn’t that long ago. These Nazi bastards were some sick sons-of-bitches.

Sachsenhausen was not just a camp for Jews, it held any enemy of the state, foreign and domestic, which included gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, enemy soldiers and essentially anyone who was not in lock step with the Third Reich. It was a very moving and disturbing experience.

After nearly three hours there, we got on our bus and continued on into Berlin where we made several stops along the Berlin Wall, including ‘Check Point Charlie’ which is now Tourist Trap Charlie.   As we traveled along ‘The Wall’, our guide told us of the many stories of families being separated and people being shot as they tried to escape East Germany. We toured through the city stopping at several iconic landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag government building and the Holocaust Memorial. Because much of Berlin was destroyed during the war, many of the buildings are new and the city was bustling with both locals and tourists. But for me, the atrocities of Sachsenhasen still lingered and hung like a dark cloud over the rest of the day.

The ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ came in handy as we arrived back at the ship for dinner.

Next: Day 4-5-6 Estonia and Russia


Baltic Cruzin’ – Day 1&2 – Passports to Nowhere

by Bob Sparrow

The Golden Tickets

Will they get us in?

Day 1 – History is rampant with examples of people struggling to get out of Russia; ironically this journey begins with a struggle to get in. The day before we are scheduled to start our Baltic vacation, I discover that Linda and my passports expire Feb 5, 2016, which at the time we booked this trip seemed like the next millennium. It did, in fact, cover the extent of our stay, however, unlike other Baltic countries, which require traveler’s passports to have at least three months before they expire, Russia requires six. To my horror, I discover that we’re two weeks and a couple of rubles short of six months. The stressful exercises I went through for the next 24 hours are too long and painful to recount; suffice it to say that they included, but were not limited to: a) talking to all the ‘express’ passport renewal companies that are only too willing to charge exorbitant prices to take advantage of distressed travelers like us, b) sending pleading emails to ambassadors at the Russian, American and Denmark Embassies, c) asking our cruise line if there was some sort of ‘work-around’, and d) calling our St. Petersburg tour company and begging and pleading for a remedy to my stupidity. As it turns out they did say they might be able to help us get into Russia, but as for my stupidity, they said they couldn’t help me with that. Clearly it was the wrong day to quit my crack cocaine habit!

As of this writing, while we are still in Copenhagen, we’ve been told by our Russian tour company, Alla, that our tour tickets will act as a temporary visa and will get us into St. Petersburg. Praise be to Alla.

Palace Guard - told us to "back off"

Palace Guard – told us to “back off”

This next event comes under the heading of ‘It’s a Small World After All’. After arriving in Copenhagen and resting up from hours of sitting, which seems like an oxymoron, and meeting up with our travel partners, the Budds, the VanBoxmeers (heretofore to be referred to as the ‘Boxes’ and the Billhams, we have an enjoyable walk through and dinner in ‘Old Town’ Copenhagen and are heading back to our hotel, when, on a crowded sidewalk in this foreign city that is 5,590 miles from home, we run smack into good friends, Mark & Barbara Houston, who, along with other friends Denise & Shirley Despie have just completed the same tour we are about to begin. We spend the next several hours in our hotel bar grilling them about their trip.

Little mermaid - back view

Little mermaid – back view

Little Mermaid - front view

Little Mermaid – front view

Not-so-little "R" rated mermaid

Not-so-little “R” rated mermaid

Day 2 – The forecast was for rain, but we had beautiful weather in the low 70s; our itinerary for the day reads like a Rick Steves ‘Copenhagen in a Day’ Guide Book – we visit the shops and restaurants of Old Town, take a canal cruise (see the Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid sculpture from the back), see the royal family palace, see the capital building,

Segway Riders - half of these people would fall and be injured before the day was over

Segway Riders – half of these people would fall and be injured before the day was over

take a Segway tour (see the Little Mermaid from the front), see a military fort, administer First Aid to the three who fell off their Segways, have a beer, go to dinner in a quaint Old Town restaurant, then finish with an evening stroll through Tivoli Gardens. Throughout it all, as all our tour guides spoke 3-4 languages, we were reminded of how lazy we Americans are by not even learning our own language so good

Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens

. . . er, well.

Tomorrow: Baltic Cruizin’ Day 3-4 On Board & Berlin


Barnstorming the Baltic


Suzanne ‘into’ her chocolate cake

(Editor’s Aside: Suzanne & Alan, Jack & Sharon and Linda and I were all on the ‘Central Coast’ last weekend. California’s Central Coast is known for producing a lot of wine, and last weekend we were known for drinking much of it. The occasion? Suzanne’s birthday! I’ll let her tell you which one, although I can tell you that the old Beatle lyric, ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?’ has become moot. But I’m here to say, she hasn’t lost a step, although after last weekend there may be a few brain cells missing.)

by Bob Sparrow

Norwegian Cruise Line Star

Norwegian Cruise Line  – Star

After being released from the Betty Ford detox program after Tahoe and sweeping out my underwear, it was time to ready myself for another ‘road trip’. This time the ‘road’ is a bit salty, or at least brackish – the Baltic Sea, more accurately the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.  No, I won’t be hiking it, but rather enjoying the trip from the deck of the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Star. Linda and I have never been to any of these destinations, so we’re looking forward to checking off these countries from our ‘Visit Every Country in the World’ list. Just kidding about the list – it doesn’t include Iraq, North Korea or Syria.

Our travel companions for this excursion include Jack & JJ Budd (previous travel companions to Ireland, South Africa and Charleston/Savannah), John & Judy VanBoxmeer (Ireland and Charleston/Savannah) and new additions from Canada, John’s sister Mary and her husband, John. I guess it’s always good to have two Johns on board. Come to think of it I guess we actually have three Johns, since Jack’s name is really John. Can you ever really have too many Johns? I’ll let you know in about three weeks!



We will all meet up in Copenhagen; some will get there via ‘1st Class’, some via ‘Business Class’ and then there’s Linda and me, in . . . ‘No Class’. On the leg from Chicago to Brussels I believe we have to serve coffee, make one trash pick up and prior to landing, remind passengers to return their tray tables to their fully upright and locked position; but those chores will give us some relief from our two middle seats in the rear that don’t recline.

Once in Copenhagen, we will have a couple of days to see that fair city, which we will do in part on Segways, a vehicle that the group practiced on recently in Newport Beach – the injuries should be fully healed by the time we get there. We also plan on sampling and rating ‘Beers of the Baltic’, ideally not while we’re still riding the Segways. We’ll start with some of Denmark’s most popular beers, Carlsberg and Tuborg, but we hope to get into some of their more interesting beers such as their top-rated, Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel; say that three times fast . . . after you’ve had a few.

Baltic Ports-of-Call

Baltic Ports-of-Call

After departing Copenhagen, our first port-of-call is in Warnemunde, Germany, where we will take a train to a Concentration Camp in Berlin, which is not known for serving beer, but somewhere along the way we’d like to try Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a beer that is said to have a smoky flavor that tastes like beef jerky or leather – yeah, that’s what I looking for, a beer I can get my teeth into. Next stop is Estonia’s capitol, Tallinn, a city and country that has had a long history of German and Soviet domination. Then it’s time to move on to the happier countries. Oops! Our next port is St. Petersburg, Russia, that is if Mr. Putin has not annexed anything before then or declared war on someone. If we mysteriously disappear on this trip, this would be the first place I’d look for us.

Our final two ports are the Scandinavian cities of Helsinki and Stockholm, before we return to Copenhagen, where we will undoubtably spend time trying to find all the items we left there the previous week.

I know our ship will have ‘connectivity’, but the frequency of my blog submissions may be determined by just how much they’ll be charging me to use their precious cyber space. I’m sure I’ll figure out a way to ‘bring you along’ on this adventure. We look forward to you joining us.

Emails from Nepal

by Bob Sparrow

buildings crumbling


Yes, I had heard from the travel agent that both Dom and Kiran were OK after the initial earthquake, but my three emails to Dom continued to go unanswered. All kinds of scenarios were running through my head as I wondered if the travel agency in New York really knew what was going on in Nepal and specifically with Dom and Kiran? I certainly wanted to believe they were OK, but wanted confirmation from Dom. I realized that responding to my emails had to be fairly low on Dom’s priority list at a time like this, but none-the-less I had hoped to hear from him to first, confirm that he and his family and Kiran were truly OK and secondly to try to get a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ perspective of how the nation of Nepal, and Dom specifically, was coping with this disaster.

I checked my email day and night, several times. Six anxious days passed and finally an email arrives from Dom. It reads as follows (I’ve edited it for easier reading – I think we’d all probably have difficulty writing in Nepalese if the situation were reversed):


Namaste, (nom-ess-tay – a traditional Hindu salutation meaning “I bow to the divine in you”)

2014-06-05 18.27.35

Kiran – the mighty porter

     Thank you for your email … yes there was big earthquake. Sorry for late reply, my phone was destroyed so I’m using a friends – the Internet and electricity have been out for many days. Kiran is fine and I am fine with my family as well although we lost everything. Our home was flatted along with everything in it. We now live in a tent in an open field away from buildings, along with most of the people from our village. Because I know the Himalayas well, I have been in the mountains trying to help some of the more remote villages where help cannot reach. Thanks for your thoughts and all the blogs about our trekking.  I am so happy to keep in touch with you.


 His email brought to life for me the nightmare that he and many of his countrymen must be going through . . . his home is now a tent in an open field! It was so like Dom, insuring that his family was safe, then setting out into the mountains that he knows so well to help others.

I wrote him back, thanking him for his email and telling him that Patrick and I would like to send him some money and asked how to do that. He replied . . .

2014-06-05 19.09.59

Dom in the Himalayas

Thank you very much for your email. It will be big support for me. I have a bank account but for a long time not using so better send by Western Union money transfer.

Name: Dom Bahadur Tamang             Address: Okhaldhunga – Shreechaur -7, Nepal

 I am very grateful for you and Patrick. It’s not easy even to write email. I am using friend’s mobile. Sorry for late reply. Thanks and best regards. Dom from Kathmandu 

With all the scam charities out there, Patrick and I gave money with the satisfaction of knowing that our donation was not only going directly to someone who actually needed it, but someone who we actually knew and admired.

I asked Dom to let me know when he received the money, as I didn’t want it to end up in the pocket of some Western Union clerk.  I had confirmed that it was picked up last Thursday, but had not heard from Dom, so I wasn’t sure he was the one that picked it up.  Finally, this past Sunday I received an email from Dom saying he was sorry for the delay, but he was helping in the village and yes, he had picked up the money and returned to his village to help with the reconstruction process. He was very thankful.


Nepal ‘tent city’

The second earthquake, which fortunately was centered in a more remote region of Nepal, still killed over 90 people at last count and injured over 1,200, bringing the death toll for both earthquakes to well over 8,000, injuries to over 20,000 and physical damage to over half a million homes.

‘Tent cities’ have sprung up throughout the area and are filled with people who have lost their homes as well as those afraid to go back to their homes for fear of another earthquake.

The losses from these two quakes will be felt for many years to come. As a trekking guide, Dom will have less opportunity to earn a living, as tourism to the Himalayas will certainly drop off dramatically in the near term.

To Dom, Kiran and all Nepalese – “Namaste, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”



Feeling the Nepal Earthquake Here at Home

by Bob Sparrow

2014-06-01 23.15.59


Those of you who have been following us for at least a year know that I was in Nepal a little less than a year ago visiting Kathmandu and trekking in the Himalayas, so I felt particularly saddened by the news of the recent earthquake in Nepal. Like most of you I felt so bad for these really good people, who had so little to start with and now have less – their whole world has been turned upside down – literally.

Additionally my personal concern was for the two wonderful people from there that I got to know very well by trekking with them for a week in the Himalayans – Dom, our guide and Kirin our porter (They are pictured on my Facebook homepage). They both lived in and around Kathmandu, Dom with a wife and two children, Kirin, is single. I emailed the travel agency in New York that booked our trip to ask if they had an email address for Dom, or any way to check on the status of both Dom and Kirin.


Everest Base Camp

I heard yesterday morning from the travel agency that Dom and his family are OK, but no word on Kirin yet. Although I knew that communicating with Nepal right now was difficult at best, I sent another email pleading with the travel agent to do everything she could to check on Kirin’s status.

The riots in Baltimore and the continuing California draught have pushed the Nepal story out of the headlines, but those still following it know that the death toll has risen above 5,000 as of this writing and could get to as much at 10,000 before it’s over. Tens of thousands of people are living in tents and are still without adequate food and water, as relief is slow or non-existent to many of the outlying villages.

If you’re so inclined, there are plenty of places to donate to this cause, I chose the one here on Facebook at,

2014-06-01 23.16.11


The quake that rocked the tallest mountain in the world devastated Everest Base Camp; two major avalanches over the last two years have killed at least 27 Sherpa guides. The climbing season, which just started, is now over for the year.


PS; I just received word from the travel agent this morning that Kirin is all right as well!! Happy for them both, but so heartbroken for all those Nepalese living this nightmare.


Hiking Lost Palm Oasis and Ladder Canyon with the Odd Couple

by Bob Sparrow

3 hikersNow that the rainy season in Southern California (2 days in January, maybe just one this year due to the draught) is over, it’s time to hit the hiking trails. Spring’s first trek takes us back to Joshua Tree National Park and to Mecca Hills Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon for the first time.

(For new subscribers or for a re-visit, here are the two links to our Joshua trip two years ago:

The Cast

Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael, my Nepal trekking buddy along with hiking novice, Marc ‘Swizzle Stick’ Webb, who stirs up all the neighborhood parties with his wit and enthusiasm make up our hiking trio. Patrick, the engineer and Marc, the salesman, invariably look at almost everything from two completely different perspectives. I felt like I was watching an episode of the ‘Odd Couple’ all weekend. The banter between them was constant and hilarious on virtually every subject.

Pat Marc

Pat & Marc disagreeing about something

We leave Orange County, Friday morning in Patrick’s Avalanche truck, which is pulling a 25’ camper – so we’re not really roughing it this time by sleeping out under the stars. As Marc’s wife, Lisa says, “You guys are going glam-ping”. We arrive at Cottonwood Springs campsite inside Joshua Tree National Park around noon and set up camp, which entails winding out the awning on our camper, unfolding our chairs and cracking open a beer.

2015-04-25 10.23.49

Lost Palms Oasis

Lost Palms Oasis

This hike was about an 8 mile round trip trek over a series of ridges and valleys and after reading the brochure’s description of this hike, below, we were very excited about the hike and having lunch at the oasis.

Large boulders, pools of water, intermittent streams, willow thickets and sandy beaches make this a delightful spot to pause.

That description of the oasis turns out to be a verbal mirage, as there were no pools of water, no streams, not even intermittently.  There was sand, lots of sand, but no beaches – I think water is a requirement for a beach. We did find some moist ground in places, so perhaps it once was as the brochure described, but thanks to the California draught we ate our lunch in a dry riverbed. But the hike was not without its redeeming features.

French toast

Banana, bacon French toast

Those who think of deserts as just brown mountains and sand would have a hard time imagining all the beautiful flowers, robust plant and animal life and beautifully colored rocks that are abundant here. When we realize how the flora and fauna in the desert gets by with so little, we almost feel ashamed wolfing down our banana, bacon French toast and New York steaks, but not ashamed enough to eat lizards and cactus instead.

Back at our campsite, dinner cooked under a billion stars and wine enjoyed around the campfire was all the stage that ‘Felix’ and ‘Oscar’ needed to continue their discussion of things like Patrick’s list of ‘trailer cleanliness tips, campfire protocol and bathroom ‘Dos & Don’ts’ – no matter the rule, Marc managed to ignore them all.

Ladder Canyon

This was the more interesting hike of the two – much more interesting! However, while researching this new hiking destination, we found the following . . .

“The geological formations of Mecca Hills are among the most unusual of their kind in the world and were formed by the convergence of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate along the San Andreas Fault, which is overdue for a large quake.”

Which is what?!! ‘Overdue for a large quake’! Well isn’t that special.

We also should have read this other not-so-subtle admonition about the hike . . .

“Wear proper clothing, have proper equipment and follow these hiking tips or you may pay with your life.”

‘Pay with my life?!! Wow, I guess we should have read those hiking tips!

So, if you’re reading this and it ends suddenly in mid-sentence, you’ll know that the hiking tips were more important than we thought or ‘the big one’ hit.

We set out with the hope that the tectonic plates in Ladder Canyon were feeling very comfortable just where they are. The canyon is so named because the walls of the canyon are so steep in places that ladders are needed to get up and down the trail.


Trail to nowhere

The Trail to Nowhere

The hike is incredible; the canyon walls get to 50+ feet in height and as narrow in places as shoulder-width – not for the claustrophobic. Once through the canyon, we were supposed to continue the loop around through Painted Canyon, but we took the ‘Trail to Nowhere’ and had a view of Painted Canyon, but not a way to get down into it, so we ended up having to double back through Ladders Canyon to get home.

The day ends with another beautiful evening around the fire and another episode of the ‘Odd Couple’ discussing their opposing views on campfire flatulent etiquette.

King of the Cowboys

by Bob Sparrow

get your kicks

Route 66

I had the occasion to travel to Apple Valley, CA for work last week; no, it was nothing like having to travel to the island of Kaua’i for work as I did a few years ago, but it was not without some redeeming qualities. An hour and a half’s drive away, bucolic-sounding Apple Valley is located at the southern end of the Mojave Desert at an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet and is considered ‘high desert’ – apples are no longer grown there. The historic ‘Route 66’ winds through the area, but the quiet, pot-holed streets and boarded up shops would indicate that very few are still ‘getting their kicks on Route 66’.

Interstate 15 now runs adjacent to  Apple Valley and I rarely traverse it without thinking of Roy Rogers (It’s on the way to Vegas, so I’ve made the trip a few times!).  In the late 40s and through out the 50s Roy was a staple in the movies and on TV and helped popularize the musical Western.  Roy and wife, Dale Evans, who had long careers in movies and on TV, retired in the mid-80s to their ranch in Apple Valley, which was home to the first Roy Rogers Museum, which contained artifacts from his movies and TV show, including Roy’s horse, Trigger, who was stuffed and placed in the museum.


Andy Devine


Gabby Hayes

Most everyone in my generation idolized Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and got to know his many sidekicks who provided comic relief; Pat Brady, who drove a Jeep named ‘Nellybelle’, Andy Devine and George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, who both had voices that made you wince and faces for radio. We also became acquainted with Roy’s faithful German Shepard, Bullet.  Rogers and his entourage appeared in over 100 films and had top rated radio and TV shows in the 40s and 50s.

Roy was born Leonard Slye (a name Hollywood had to change!) in Ohio and quit high school at 15 to work in the family shoe factory. The family moved to California during the Great Depression where Roy worked driving truck and picking fruit. He was always interested in singing and yodeling and worked with several bands over the years until he and a friend formed a group that became the ‘Sons of the Pioneers’ and ultimately signed a record deal. In 1935, Roy’s good looks landed him his first bit part in a Gene Autry movie.  Three years later, when Autry was demanding more money (probably saving up to buy the California Angels!) the lead part was offered to Roy and he was on his way to becoming a matinee idol.

RR & SoPRoy always wore a white hat that never came off during a fight while he was knocking out the bad guys, in black hats, with one punch. Towards the end of each movie or tv/radio episode, after he’d righted all the wrongs, he would pick up his guitar and sing a song, often accompanied by Dale and his back-up group, The Sons of the Pioneers, whose songs can still be purchased on iTunes.

Dale was a story unto herself; born Francis Smith in Texas, she was married at 14 and divorced with a child at 16, yet continued to pursue her singing career. Her marriage to Roy, his second and her fourth, lasted 51 years, until his death. She wrote their theme song, Happy Trails.

He was dubbed, ‘King of the Cowboys’, she, ‘Queen of the West’.

Roy & Dale

Roy Rogers & Dale Evans

Roy died in 1998 and Dale three years later.  They are now both interned at the Sunset Hills Memorial Park . . . in Apple Valley.

If you’re ever passing by Apple Valley and want to visit the museum . . . the original Roy Rogers museum was erected in 1967 in an old bowling alley in Apple Valley, it moved to a bigger building in neighboring Victorville in 1976. To draw more people it moved again to Branson, Missouri in 2003, but eventually shut down for good, due to lack of interest, in 2009.

The passing of an era . . . a very good era indeed for those of us who were fortunate enough to have lived in it.  Thank you Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, for all the Happy Trails.


Best Place to Live – A Day in the Life

by Bob Sparrow

Top10A couple of recent ‘Best Place to Live’ surveys reminded me of my business travel days when I crisscrossed the country and would often be asked where I was from. When I responded, “Southern California, Orange County”, I would hear things like, “Oh, a surfer dude”, (I’ve never surfed), or “Oh, is that why you wear those cool shades?” (I wear sunglasses BECAUSE IT’S SUNNY THERE!), or, “Aren’t you afraid that an earthquake is going to cast California into the Pacific Ocean?” (No). If the conversation continues, people feel compelled to remind me that, 1) there are too many people in southern California, 2) the traffic is unbearable, and 3) the air is unbreathable.  Then, feeling the need to ‘throw me a bone’, they’d say, “But the weather’s nice” and then they’d remind me of the earthquakes again.

Last week in a California survey done by Movato Real Estate, I discovered that my city of residence for the last 38 years, Orange, was selected as California’s best city to live in.  In fact, Orange County had seven of the top ten cities.  If you’re interested in seeing the rest of the cities, here’s the link to the survey:

I hope everyone feels that they live in the ‘Best Place to Live’, but I wanted to confirm and perhaps help justify this elevated status for Orange County, so last Friday, February 27, I set out to help prove that it is, in fact, one of the very best places to live, in part due to its proximity to such a diversity of environments. Thus my journey began . . .

The Desert


pre-dawn at Desert Willow Golf Resort


Sunrise for a perfect day of golf

I woke up at 3:45 a.m. (The things I do for you readers!) and with an assortment of wardrobes in tow, I’m out the door at 4:05. It takes me 95 minutes to drive the 103 miles from Orange to the beautiful Desert Willows Golf Resort in Palm Desert – golf’s winter mecca. It feels like I’m in a whole different world, because I am. It’s 50 degree at 6:18 when the first sliver of sunlight appears over the  Little San Bernardino Mountain range and softly lightens the Coachella Valley below.  It will get to 77 degrees here today. I’m envious of the golfers that are teeing off at first light in perfect weather, but I have a full day ahead of me, so I order breakfast, read the paper, write some of this blog and then head to my next destination.

The Mountains


Photo taken from the sun deck

DSC01796I cover the next 85 miles to Big Bear Mountain in 115 minutes and arrive at Snow Valley Ski Resort where the cloudless sky is deep azure blue. I’ve gone from an elevation of around 200 feet to around 7,000 feet in less than two hours. It will get down to 21 degrees here this evening.  Bear Big Mountain provides great local skiing and snowboarding in the winter and great hiking trails in the summer.  There was a storm last week and another one coming in this weekend, but I am fortunate to find a window where chains are not required to negotiate the assent on this winding mountain road.  Once at Snow Valley, I step out of my car and take a deep breath and feel immediately exhilarated by a blast of fresh mountain air – this is air that no one has breathed before!  I enjoy a cup of coffee as I hang out on the upper sun deck of the lodge watching the skiers on the mountain and wishing I were amongst them. I make a snowball, because I haven’t done that in years, and throw it at a nearby tree . . . and miss. While I’m in the neighborhood, I decide DSC01799to head over to picturesque Lake Arrowhead – another 25 minutes and 14 miles. Back in ‘the day’, Lake Arrowhead was the mountain retreat for many Hollywood stars including, Shirley Temple, Tom Selleck, Patrick Swayze and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (photo at right is one I took of Wilson’s former lake house) to name a few. Today Arrowhead Village  it’s fairly quiet; it’s off season – no boats on the lake, no stars in sight!  Time to head down off the mountain.

The Beach

HB sunset

Huntington Beach sunset


Huntington Beach pier

I drop from 7,000 feet to . . . zero – sea level, as I drive 87 miles in just under two hours from Lake Arrowhead to Huntington Beach. I could have gone to any number of great beaches in Orange County from Seal Beach to San Clemente, including tony Newport Beach or artsy Laguna Beach, but I wanted to visit my favorite beach restaurant, Dukes at Huntington Beach – ‘Surf City’. I find a place at the bar and watch surfers and street entertainers as the sun disappears slowly and beautifully into the Pacific Ocean.  My day is complete – sunrise to sunset.

I do understand that proximity to the desert, mountains and beach is not everything, but it just adds to all the other factors that make Orange County a ‘best place to live’.

I make the 23-mile trek back home exhausted, but feeling great about completing the ‘trifecta’ – desert, mountains and ocean all in one day. Next time I’m thinking it should be the ‘Trifecta Triathlon’ – same venues only I play golf, ski and swim.  Maybe not.

PS: For those wondering – 312 miles