It is October 10th and Felix and I have been home a little less than two weeks. I had ambitions of blogging while on the road, but that truly was an absurd notion, so this will be my attempt at the summer wrap up.
Since it was July when I last reported on our summer out West, needless to say there have been a number of things that have come to pass. Shortly after I last brought you up to speed my friend Brenda arrived from Asheville for a week visit. Brenda had never been to California in spite of being a world traveler, so she left things almost entirely up to me in terms of setting an agenda for our time together.
We did do some of the standard stuff in and around Sacramento and hiked with Felix a few of the mornings before we headed out for other activities but the major events included a day trip to San Francisco, capped off by a stroll through Presidio Heights and dinner at Sociale, one of my favorite San Francisco dining spot. It is hard to visit a city like SF with someone who has never been there and figure out what to do in a single day. We did drive across the Golden Gate for a bayside lunch in Sausalito and then spent a couple hours at the DeYoung and around Golden Gate Park. We drove along the beaches a bit and through parts of the city, including pretty much the entire length of California Street all the way down to the Financial District and then back out along the Bay and through the Marina. I think Brenda got a decent first taste of what San Francisco looks and feels like.
One day we drove to Sonoma to have a really great lunch al fresco at Ken and Dede Goddard’s house and got to see Ann and Bowers’ new house under construction. Felix got to go on this trip and spent much of a languid afternoon in the back yard with Ken while Brenda, Dede, Ann, Bowers and I all took in downtown Sonoma.
I also felt like a quick trip to Lake Tahoe was a necessity since it is one of the truly unique locations in California so we drove up highway 50 to the South Shore, stopped for a short hike near Emerald Bay, worked our way up to Tahoe City and Truckee and then headed back down to Sacramento on I-80. Tahoe in summer is one of the great joys of Northern California so Felix and I had made plans for a longer visit later in the summer.
One night Anne and Rex Jackson came out to Carmichael for dinner and bridge. Since Brenda and I met playing bridge, and since this would be my only opportunity all summer to keep any kind of skill up, it became a high priority. At that point construction on John’s house hadn’t begun so we were able to play in his game room. How appropriate.
After Brenda’s visit things got quieter for a while. Aside from Ingrid and Larry whose day-trip turned into a quick overnight, I had no other visitors staying with me in Carmichael. I did manage to catch up with a number of old friends, usually over dinner at John’s guesthouse although occasionally dining out. In some respects this was exactly what I had hoped to be able to do during the summer. I wanted to settle into something of a routine but get to see lots of old friends without it feeling rushed. There were a few dinners that were deliberate reunions, and those were fun and quite special. There were also the inevitable discoveries that some people were in ill health or had suffered serious incidents and illnesses in recent years. I have come to realize as I work my way into my late 60s that this will be more and more common. Still, these events reminded me how long I have been gone from California and how, in many ways, I am quite detached from the people who populated my existence for the 33 years I was there.
Felix and I did a weekend trip to see my very old friend Risa and husband Joey at their weekend place in Yountville. This was fun but a bit of a shock. I don’t think I had set foot in Yountville since a disastrous lunch at the over-priced, pretentious and hideously overrated French Laundry (of Thomas Keller fame) at least 15-20 years ago. At that time Yountville was a quiet village one passed through when driving between Napa, St Helena, and Calistoga. Now it seems to have turned into a total Trendopolis with toney restaurants, shops and galleries everywhere. I find it somewhat sad when an unspoiled place like Yountville becomes so precious. I sometimes have fears of that happening to Asheville although I kind of doubt it. There is a core weird funky quality to Asheville that I think prevents preciousness from coexisting here.
Anyway, aside from 100+ degree temperatures, the weekend was quite fun. Walking at night was pleasant and when I took Felix out early on Sunday morning there were dozens of hot air balloons ascending just a few blocks from Risa and Joey’s condo. Quite the visual spectacle first thing in the morning I must say.
In August we spent a week at Lake Tahoe courtesy of Larry and Mary Kaye Young letting us use their house at Tahoe Keys. This, as it turned out, was a great base of operations at the lake. With short drives to numerous trailheads we got to do a lot of good hiking. I had done the Angora Lakes trail with Abner 7 years ago but hadn’t been back since so we did that one again. Then we did a loop to Fallen Leaf Lake, which for those who haven’t seen it is one of the larger lakes that dot the mountains west of Lake Tahoe. Fallen Leaf is only a couple miles west of Tahoe off Highway 89 and is probably only about 200 feet above Tahoe in elevation so the hike is quite easy.
Slightly more challenging but I think far more rewarding is the hike to Lake Genevieve in Desolation Wilderness starting on the Meeks Bay trailhead. This hike is purported to be an 11 mile round trip with about a 1,200 foot vertical rise. Since the first mile or so of the hike is almost dead flat, the vertical component is still spread out over 4-1/2 miles and consequently never feels like a very difficult climb. The terrain varies between alpine forest, exposed granite outcroppings, streams and finally beautiful, serene Lake Genevieve. There are little glimpses of Tahoe from the trail but mostly it is an intimate exploration of the woefully inappropriately named Desolation Wilderness area. It is so lush in so many places one has to wonder who decided to name it Desolation. The round trip took about 4 hours at a fairly leisurely pace with the requisite stops for sniffing and peeing by the 4-legged hiker.
The final road trip prior to heading back east was my trip to Fort Bragg for Winesong and the accompanying annual reunion of the same group of old friends who have attended this fundraising event for more than two decades. We were a slightly smaller group this year but it still felt like the weekend was an orgy of consumption. Besides eating and drinking all day at the event itself, Friday night traditionally involves dinner at Rick and Louise’s house for everyone who is there in time, and then the Saturday night abalone feed that we all look forward to all year.
The weekend was fun and ended, as usual with coffee and farewells at Rick and Louise’s. I headed back to Sacramento along Highway 20, which passes long the North side of Clear Lake. Considering that one of the worst fires in the entire season in California had started less than 24 hours before, this was a very strange experience. Normally when you drive this route you can see the mountains on the other side of the lake and the drive is actually quite scenic. The smoke was so thick from the fire that you could only see a couple hundred feet out into the lake. You could smell it even in a closed car with air recirculating. There were dozens of fire trucks on the road going the opposite direction and I decided not to stop for fuel until I had made it past all the bad air and into the Sacramento Valley.
It is actually quite heartbreaking to see what has happened along this route in the last year. So many fires have hit Lake County near the lake itself that you drive past huge areas of burned out trees. Those that aren’t burned are mostly dead from drought and other ravages. The entire state is reeling from the serious drought that has gone on for about 5 years now and you see dead trees everywhere. My memory of my 33 years in California doesn’t include the way it looks now and this is sad. I can’t imagine anyone still living there who doesn’t consider climate change to be a very serious issue now. . .not something that may become a problem in the future, or most inexplicably, something that doesn’t even exist.
The final week out West consisted mostly of saying goodbye to people, doing laundry, packing clothes to be sent ahead, and in general buttoning things up after 4 months. I had finalized the route to Indiana the week before Winesong and on the 22nd of September, left Carmichael as planned around 9:00 in the morning.
The first day heading east was a fun one. I drove up I-80 through the Sierras and into Nevada. Shortly after passing Reno there is a turnoff for Fallon and the connection to US Highway 50. I had never driven all the way across Nevada on 50, a route called “the loneliest road in America”. This title is somewhat deserved as there are very few towns or settlements along the road. Nonetheless, it is by far the more scenic route across this largely uninhabited State. 80 goes through Nevada on a far more Northerly route past scenery that lacks the drama of the 50 crossing, and in spite of being mostly 2-lane road, the lack of trucks and other cars, and the very long straight stretches affording limitless visibility allow you to cross this desert without anything delaying your pace. Even if you do come upon a large truck going slower than you want, passing is so easy it never was an issue.
We went as far as Delta, Utah the first day. Delta is not a town where one would feel compelled to stop but I did due to the availability of a dog friendly reasonably priced hotel. We did a quick overnight stop and got up the next morning for the long and scenic drive to Denver. 50 continues southeast from Delta to a junction with I-15 which you take Northbound for a few miles before jumping back onto 50 again. The last 30 miles of this lovely route are almost as unencumbered as the stretch through Nevada had been, after which one picks up I-70 East. This is a very interesting and scenic route through most of Utah. You are South of all the major cities and North of the big national parks driving through widely varied and beautiful terrain. Sometimes you find yourself surrounded by red rock canyons and mesas with almost mystical spires of stone eroded by millennia of water and wind into unworldly shapes. Then, only a few miles on, you will encounter almost white limestone formations. I think this route would be a geologist’s paradise. It would be hard to drive it without stopping every few miles to take in the next natural wonder.
Unfortunately, since one of my headlights failed as I was pulling into the hotel in Delta the night before, and since I had determined that the only VW dealership where I could get it fixed was in Littleton, CO, I was on a mission to get to Denver before their service department closed, so extra stops, even to take in great beauty were not a possibility. As it turned out, with the amount of road construction on I-70 I was not able to make Denver in time to get the repair done before closing anyway so it’s a pity I hadn’t stopped along the way. Lesson learned.
My nephew Ben and his wife Elizabeth bought a house in Littleton in early summer so Felix and I overnighted with them. As it turned out they were tied up that evening and had to leave the following morning fairly early since they had a flight to Cincinnati from which they would drive to Fort Wayne for the same party I was headed to by car. Needless to say our visit was brief.
I had an appointment to have the headlight fixed in the morning that took longer than I thought it would but Felix and I eventually hit the road around 10:30 in the morning. What I hadn’t remembered is how mind-numbing the drive across Eastern Colorado, all of Kansas, and part of Missouri can be. It seems that no matter which East/West route you take, there is a stretch through the middle of the country that will kill any interest you have in road trips. I have crossed this stretch on I-20, I-40, I-70, I-80 and I-90 and to one degree or another it is lethal on every one of them. I had somewhat expected this for the Kansas section but had forgotten that the Eastern 200 miles or so of Colorado is just as flat and featureless as most of Kansas. Speed limits are usually 75 in these areas and I took advantage of the opportunity to get through it all as fast as I could. We made it to Columbia, MO that night although considerably later than I would have liked. The next morning we did the drive to St. Louis with little in the way of delay but once we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Illinois it was nothing but delays. I-70 all the way across Illinois and for about the first 15-20 miles of Indiana is in varying degrees of construction. We would hit a wall of traffic that would slow to 30 and then stop and go for long periods of time. Eventually we would get past the blockage, traffic would speed up, and then in another 6 miles the exact same thing would happen. This is true all the way across Illinois. I don’t know how long these road improvements will be underway but there is no way I would opt for that route until they are finished. It was torture.
Eventually we made it to Fort Wayne in the early evening. I got us checked into the hotel, changed into slightly more acceptable clothing and headed over to my parents’ house for dinner with the various members of the family who had already arrived.
Saturday was the day of the party for my mother’s 90th and my father’s 95th birthdays. We had arranged for a bouncy house in the front yard, a couple tents with table and chairs for dinner, and some live entertainment as well as a Donald Trump piñata for my liberal parents to take a swing at. Guests were invited to arrive around 4:00 with dinner sometime after 6:00. During the day Jan, Lisa, Dave and I worked at getting things set up. Stringing lights all over the tents was my task, which mindless though it was, was kind of fun. Lisa decorated the tables really nicely with flowers and framed pictures of our parents in various stages of their 70 years together and Dave and I made an attempt to hide the mess in the garage with sheets hanging from ceiling joists so the musicians had a somewhat acceptable space in which to sit and play.
All in all the party came off well I think. The little kids used the bouncy house. . .never did convince either of my parents to try it out. Dad and Mom both took swings at Trump and then we started with the youngest of the kids with everyone taking a swing at it until my niece Arlee did some real damage and then her brother Cort eventually broke him open.
People stuck around until 9:30 or so and then we all trundled off to our various housing locales for the night. Most reassembled for a catered brunch my mother had arranged for Sunday morning and then all but my brother and I started peeling off for various homes.
On Monday morning Felix and I got a reasonably early start since we were facing the 9-hour drive back to Asheville but it really went without a hitch or delay. We had good weather the whole way back and unlike most of my experiences with this route, we encountered no problems in Southern Kentucky or Northern Tennessee. We made it home in time to have a quick visit with Josh and Lanny who had been in the house all summer and then headed off to the vet so some sores Felix had developed on the trip home could be evaluated.
That night, September 28th, I slept in my own bed for the first time since May 14th and it felt good.
In thinking about the summer I have drawn a number of conclusions. After 11 years away, I am no longer, in any way, a Sacramentan. Sacramento has changed a lot in that time. Among other things the population has increased by something in the neighborhood of 600,000 people and you can see it everywhere. Traffic is horrible almost all day on the freeways. There is a lot of construction going on but almost none of it to improve infrastructure to handle this huge increase in population. In short, Sacramento is no longer as easy or comfortable to live in as it was when I was living there.
Another observation is that my relationships with some of the people there could start up as if no time had passed at all, and others were somewhat awkward. Some friends seemed to be almost unchanged and others, particularly those whose health has taken some hits, are very different. Consequently the dozens of interactions were widely varied from gratifying to sad, to outright squirm-worthy. Some people seemed virtually ageless and others seemed to have aged shockingly, which of course made me think that some of them probably had the exact same reaction upon seeing me.
It was really nice to be able to see so many people and places that I remember fondly, and to spread out those visits over the whole summer, but in the end 4-1/2 months is a long time to be away from home, even when you have the comfort of a friend’s guest house all to yourself. Returning to Asheville and spending the last few weeks slowly getting back into my “normal” life has served as a reminder of why I love living here. I am lucky enough to be in a very beautiful place that affords me many comforts and enjoyable experiences but is easy to live in and to get around. After almost 11 years here I have a circle of friends and acquaintances who differ greatly from those in California, if for no other reason, because they met me at a completely different time of my life, but these relationships are still rewarding and give me comfort in the place Felix and I call home. We are both glad to be back.