Sunday, December 30, 2007

The far side of the lagoon offers a mirror image view of Biltmore House on calm winter days. Sadly, few visitors to the estate venture this far.
The photo below shows a little less than half of the Grove Arcade on a winter afternoon. Abner and I were waiting for Regie and Spencer who were due to meet us for dog treat shopping at Three Dog Bakery where the boys have a legion of fans. I have always liked this building and recently considered renting an apartment on the third floor for an experiment in downtown living. Ultimately, I decided against it due to the lack of out door living space. The ground flooor of the arcade is devoted to retail, 2nd floor to offices, and 3 through 5 to apartments. Wonderful place.
Posted by Picasa
Hiking with Matt Vande, Amy Musser and Bear along the French Broad River on Biltmore grounds, Matt displays his standard level of dignity while Amy and Abner try to pretend he isn't terminally weird. Bear simply looks the other way so no one will notice him.

Winter seems to have it's own beauty here. The hills are bare but you can see great distances on clear days. We are also almost at the end of the popular tourist season. If I were looking to visit Asheville when I wouldn't have to compete with other tourists, I would come between New Years and the first of April. As you can see below, the tourists may be departing but the Canada Geese certainly aren't. These birds are quite large and beautiful but there is a danger being in the fields in which they spend their winter. Goose poop, and lots of it. These birds produce more than most medium sized dogs and since there are hundreds of them hanging out around the lagoon at Biltmore, the meadow south of their watering hole is a major poop danger zone.
Posted by Picasa
One day in late fall, Matt and Amy and I took Abner and Bear up to a place called Max Patch. It is located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and on clearer days than the one we had, they say you can see those two states plus Virginia and Kentucky. Personally, I will wait to see that proven. At the summit, the Appalachian trail passes over the bald that is Max Patch. Above, you can see Abner posing in front of the AT sign proving that he has, in fact, hiked a portion of the AT. Below is a view back into North Carolina.

Stephanie is one of the professional photographers at Biltmore who spend their days taking pictures of guests. She is one of Abner's big fans at the estate and on this particular day, we turned the tables. After a big hike, Abner get's some down time to recoup his energy for the next one.
Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Today (Dec 23rd) is my birthday and I am struggling with some crud in my throat that makes me cough all night and sound like a basso profundo during the daytime, so I am laying low and figured this might be the appropriate time to post to the blog.

In the time since I last posted my attention has been dominated by a couple of activities. Finding housing for myself has been a big priority for about the last 18 months. Between looking for a house or land with a view, buying the lot, designing a house and getting help producing working drawings and engineering, obtaining bids and going through the previously described ordeal getting a building permit, only to decide when it finally was approved in October, that I couldn’t afford to build the house at this time, I was largely burned out on housing issues. Nonetheless, I decided to look for something that would suffice as an interim location and maybe try out my fantasy of living downtown.

I researched the market with the assistance of my buddy Brian Marshall (who was the real estate agent through whom I found my first house here as well as the first of the rental properties) I set about the task of finding out what was available in the way of downtown condos. Surprisingly there was comparatively little inventory. There is one project under construction next to the Thomas Wolfe House that looked interesting to me but due to a number of problems that arose once I was in specific contract negotiations with the owner, it just didn’t come together. I looked at a number of other properties and found one that interested me a lot. It is a two-story, one bedroom condo in a historic building downtown. The condo itself is an interesting design. The building was apparently gutted in 1997 and rebuilt behind the historic façade. The unit in which I was interested was about 1150 sq ft and came with a two-car tandem garage (a real rarity for downtown) as well as a small storage room in the basement and shared access with one other unit to a roughly 20 by 40-foot roof deck with splendid views.

I was really excited about the possibility of buying this place in spite of what was, in my opinion, an inappropriately high asking price. Brian took me to see the place and I was very interested. We asked for a copy of the condo docs since pets are an issue in many condo projects and Abner certainly is going wherever I go, but the seller’s broker didn’t get them to us. Ultimately, I made an offer and entered into rather lengthy negotiations that took place over almost two weeks. I made my offer contingent upon my review and approval of the condo docs as well as a number of other things.

On the day the owner and I finally met and came to an agreement on price and terms, I was finally provided a copy of the condo docs. Apparently few people involved in this little project were very familiar with the documents because when I read them and raised a number of objections to elements within the 70 pages the owner provided, the president and VP of the condo association were completely flabbergasted to be informed of these problems. Everyone was very nice and tried to be helpful in offering to change language, but ultimately, on the good advice of the real estate attorney I use here, I terminated the deal. In the end, there was no guarantee that Abner wouldn’t be an issue. The documents stipulate that a waiver must be granted for a pet in excess of 50 pounds and further reading indicated that the condo board could revoke any waivers or variances. I simply was unwilling to take this risk.
And so, I am anticipating homelessness in about another 5 months. I have reached a level of burnout on the whole housing thing that I have decided to stop looking for a couple of months. After the last of my January guests departs, I will start looking for a rental that will last me until I can figure out what to do to get the house built. I think that the construction market here is showing signs of finally slowing down after a decade of boom. If that happens, it is my hope to get more realistic numbers and get the house built.

Aside from the never-ending housing search, I have had a few other things happening. I managed to get through the entire month of November without taking a trip. This may not sound like much of an achievement but it was the first month since July for which that claim could be made. In early December though, I fell off the wagon and flew to Puerto Vallarta for 8 days with Judy Carver and Jim Rogers. This trip had been planned since last March when Jim and Jean Ann were going to fly down with me to meet Judy and her brother and sister-in-law. When Jean Ann got sick we had to postpone the trip. At the time we had decided that by rescheduling for December it would give Jean Ann plenty of time to get over whatever was wrong, and would be back into the season when it is pleasant to be in Mexico. Of course, as it turned out, Jean Ann succumbed to cancer in May but Jim and Judy both still wanted to do the trip, so off we went.

All of our flights were supposed to be on Continental, with whom I have had the most consistent good luck of any of the airlines serving Asheville. Unfortunately for us, they stopped their early morning departures for Houston on Saturdays several months ago and booked us instead on a short hop to Atlanta on Delta, with connections for Houston and PV back on Continental. Well, true to form, Delta had a surprise for us when, after arising at 4:00 in the morning and getting to the airport at 5:15. We arrived for check in only to be told that, as usual, the first flight out was cancelled. Delta has gotten to the point that they no longer bother lying about why they cancel this flight. Now they don’t even try to come up with an excuse. They just say it was cancelled due to weather (no doubt there was a storm in Tierra Del Fuego. . .weather in both Atlanta and Asheville was fine).

The guy at the Delta counter who was “helping” us was very nice but seemingly rather deficient in his computer skills. With the line of increasingly irate passengers getting longer by the minute this guy stumbled around for about 30 minutes trying to figure out what to do with us. In the end, his suggestion was that we wait for a flight the following afternoon to Cincinnati, from which we could fly to Salt Lake and from there take a non-stop to PV. I suggested that he look a while longer and asked Judy to run over to the Continental counter to see what they could do. She had much better luck with them. They had a 2:30 departure for Houston that would connect and get us into PV at about 9:00 PM. . .only 6-1/2 hours behind schedule. It meant missing the dinner we had planned with friends from here who would be spending their final night in PV that evening, but we at least would only miss a half-day of our vacation.

When she came back with the information for the Delta guy, he still couldn’t transfer the etickets from Delta to Continental so we ended up with what he said were paper tickets (although we never actually had them). Over the course of the 4 flights on Continental, being stuck with this hybrid the Delta guy had created proved to be a lot of trouble when it came to getting seats assigned or checking in online or even at the kiosk at the airport. Nonetheless, once we were released from the claws of Delta, we got to our destinations comfortably, with our luggage, and on time.

I have been telling my visitors for three years now to avoid Delta like the plague. They have the most amazingly consistent policy of canceling first and last flights of the day between Asheville and Atlanta. This creates havoc because not only are you stuck somewhere but since the planes are small in the first place, usually there isn’t any room to get all the passengers bumped from the cancelled flight onto the next one or two or three flights. I can’t tell you how many times I have rented a car at the airport either in Asheville or Atlanta and driven the 3-1/2 hours. They are an awful airline. They have tired dirty smelly old planes, unhappy employees who frequently aren’t as pleasant as the dim bulb who had so much trouble with our flights, and a schedule that they treat as a loose guideline. I am of the opinion that when a company is as abysmally run as this one, they shouldn’t be allowed to stiff their employees, stockholders, and creditors with serial bankruptcy. They should be forced to shut down and their gate space and routes should be split between the airlines that are actually functioning.

Maybe I will start a new blog called I Hate Delta.

Aside from that, the Mexico trip was wonderful. Weather was great the whole time we were there. Matteo, the house Rottweiler was very happy to have so much company and pretty much migrated from Jim to Judy to me in a cyclical pattern so he could almost constantly get his ears or belly rubbed. We had a wonderful lunch at La Laguna in Nuevo Vallarta with Tere Martinez who manages John’s house. This is a restaurant I had visited many years ago after the closing on the original purchase of Casa Del Mar and it was just as good as I remembered. The setting, beside a marshy lagoon filled with turtles and waterfowl (including the occasional egret) is lovely and the food is wonderful. I have only had lunch there but both times it was filled with Mexicans. I think this is always a good sign. When the locals support the local restaurants, the chances are that the food is both good and authentic.

Aside from eating, lounging by the pool, playing cards, and walking the galleries and a few shops, we didn’t do a hell of a lot. We did go to a place called Chico’s Paradise, which is south of Mismaloya about 20 or 30 minutes from Puerto Vallarta. This is a restaurant and bar with some kitschy shops thrown in for good measure but is built in the gorge of a river running from the mountains down to Banderas Bay. The water falls and jungle are quite dramatic and local boys run along the tops of huge boulders and then dive into the falling water in seemingly death-defying spins. They all seem to come up fine so it is pretty clear that the exact spots they have chosen to enter are safe but the diving is fun to watch just the same. Since my camera died a week or two before we left, I have not a single photo from the trip. Jim took a bunch so maybe I’ll get some from him at some point and post them.

No sooner did I return (and this is pretty literal) than the boys from Quality Air showed up to begin the process of dismantling the old heating system in the house. We got home at about midnight on the 16th and they started at 9:00 on the 17th. I didn’t quite understand why the new owners of the house decided that they needed to replace the heating system at this precise moment in time, but I didn’t have much to say about the decision. On the first day, they took out the old boiler and a couple of the radiators. Returning at 9:00 the following day, they removed the remainder of the radiators and left two of them lying on the front lawn. Since they didn’t get removed until the 28th, I got a few remarks from neighbors about the “Grapes of Wrath” quality of the house. One unsigned note shoved into the mailbox a couple days ago asked me when the sofa would appear on the front lawn to go with the radiators.

The bigger issue was that the lower levels of the house had absolutely no heat and we had a couple days when it got pretty cold. I borrowed a portable radiator from Regie and another from the boys at Quality Air, but it still was comparatively nippy for a few days. It then began to warm up just in time for me to come down with the cold that has afflicted half the country. On Thursday night (the 20th) Holly had a dinner party that I planned to attend but I could feel the sore throat beginning to nag at my well-being. I attended anyway but by the time I got up on Friday I felt like I had been run over by the Queen Mary. With full blown symptoms including all-night coughing, painfully exploding sinuses, green ooze coming from my nose, a big gob of mucous in my throat, and eventually a low grade fever and body aches everywhere, I cancelled all my holiday plans. Movies with Anna-cancelled. Birthday Brunch with Regie and Eric-cancelled. Christmas Eve dinner at Rodney and Diane’s-cancelled. Christmas Day with the card group having leftovers from Christmas Eve-cancelled. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t cancelled was the appearance of the asbestos removal crew on Monday the 24th. This was a particularly charming day. It was, from a symptom point of view, the worst day of my cold so there was no way I could leave home for a few hours to avoid the filling-shattering vibrations that came up from the basement as they sawed through 80 year old cast iron steam pipes for 6 hours. Poor Abner didn’t know what to do. It can’t have been too much fun to hang out with me as I coughed up a couple lungs and filled wastebasket after wastebasket with snot filled Kleenexes (did anyone check to see if Kimberly Clark stock is up?). Staying downstairs put him terribly close to the very noisy action emanating from the basement so he alternated between going outside, and spending time with Death’s Head.

So now I have made it to the 29th and am feeling somewhat back to being among the living. I still have some of the symptoms, but my voice is almost back to normal and the cough is largely gone. The fever broke a couple days ago and with it went the body aches so I have started hiking with Abner again.

There is a dearth of photos this month due to the lack of a functioning camera. I hope to have the replacement soon and should be back up to speed in the visual aids for my next post.

January is around the corner, and with it, visits from my friend Risa early in the month and Jim Sundquist later on. I am hoping to have resolved my photo issues before Jim gets here since we are including a trip to Charleston in his visit schedule. With the arrival of the beginning of 2008, I will have completed 3 years of living in Asheville. 2007 has been stimulating but had its bumps. . .particularly in the housing department and with the deaths of a couple of people to whom I had been very close. Nonetheless, the great experiment continues to go well.

I hope all the readers of this blog have a happy, healthy, prosperous 2008. I have come to realize that there are people who follow this blog whom I have never met but I am flattered that you find the stories and pictures interesting enough to read. My postings will probably continue to be sporadic and haphazard but they seem to parallel my life or at least my ability to observe it as it happens.

In the words of Winnie the Pooh, TTFN. Limited pix will follow.

Friday, November 09, 2007

What a month. After feeling like I was in a battle with the City for a building permit, when it finally seemed like there was nothing more that could go wrong, I decided to take time off while I could. With an expected start of construction approaching, and the prospect of a business trip to Switzerland before November began, I figured that the beginning of October was my best bet for catching up with family.

So on the morning of October 4th, with little advance planning, I packed up the car with my stuff and Abner’s and headed off for a week of visiting my sisters and my parents.

Driving out of Asheville around lunchtime that day, the weather was mild and pleasant. We headed west on I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge into Tennessee and it seemed like each mile we traveled the temperature rose. By the time we were on the ring road around Knoxville picking up I-75 to Cincinnati, the temperature was in the low 80s. As we headed north, it kept getting warmer and warmer. In the two years since the last time I had done this drive, I had forgotten how beautiful the Eastern parts of Tennessee and Kentucky are. 75 should be on the maps as a scenic highway. You drive through the western edge of the Appalachian chain for miles and much of the roadway sits up quite high so the views to the east are often spectacular. Much of the freeway is carved through ancient rock strata so you alternate between driving through slots in the stone to being on high plateaus with views for miles. The area around Cumberland Gap is particularly impressive and probably will merit a visit one of these days.

On the 4th though, Abner and I had to make it to Fort Thomas, KY where my newly married sister Jan and her husband live. In case I haven’t said it before, I love my gps. The drive up to the Cincinnati area is an easy one and it is almost impossible to make a mistake. Once you get to the Kentucky suburbs though, all bets are off. The terrain on the south side of the Ohio River is rolling and strewn with rivers and creeks so the roads tend to wind all over the place and the hills prevent you from seeing too far until you are practically in downtown Cincinnati. I had set my Jan’s address in the TomTom when I left home so it took me right to her house. These things are great.

Once there, after having been driving for the better part of the day (6-1/2 hours door to door for those who are interested. . .add time for gas, food and pee breaks), Abner and I were both in the mood for a walk so after letting him get acquainted with Jan’s black Lab Erev, we took the dogs for a short neighborhood stroll. Fort Thomas, at least what I could see of it, seems to look like a lot of residential areas that were part of the boom of the 20s. The houses are generally neo-European styles like Tudor, Norman, and Georgian. Most are not huge but nicely scaled for the smallish lots on which they are built. It reminded me a little of Curtis Park, but hillier (anything is hillier than Curtis Park) and with more brick. Stucco, in the preponderance one sees in Sacramento, is a rarity in this part of the world.

We really didn’t do much while I was there but it was fun anyway. Jan has a new job and had some limits on how much time she could spend with me on Friday. Abner and I just played tourist and checked out Cincinnati in the record-breaking heat wave that hit the first week of October. When we arrived in Fort Thomas it was 91 degrees. The following two days were both in the high 80s and low 90s, which was something of a shock to Abner’s and my systems. Nonetheless we walked around downtown Cincinnati for the better part of the day on Friday and then met Jan mid-afternoon. Friday night Jan, Chuck, and I went to eat Indonesian food at the restaurant where they had had their wedding dinner and then found an art opening that we crashed where there was some amazingly good work. It always is shocking to me the sheer volume of excellent art being created in this country at a time when the school system and our culture itself does so little to encourage the arts in children. I guess creativity is such a fundamental urge that it rises up in people in spite of all the discouragement modern day America throws out.

Saturday the three of us toured the Ascent, the new, almost completed high-rise condo project in Covington KY right across the river from downtown Cincinnati that was designed by Daniel Liebeskind who is currently one of the major architectural darlings in the US. He had two projects going in Sacramento, but I gather neither one will be built. Well the Ascent has been built and is pretty impressive. It is hard to describe but is essentially a helix in plan spiraling up to something like 21 floors at its highest point. At the very top is a 7,500 sq ft condo, as yet unfinished, that is on the market for $5 Million and apparently has some people looking at it pretty seriously. The ceilings reach 36 feet high on the upper two levels (the lowest level of this 3 story unit with its own elevator is all Master suite), and there is a small roof garden. Views are, as you can imagine, pretty amazing from that height. The whole riverfront of Cincinnati including downtown, both the baseball and football stadiums, and the Underground Railroad Museum directly opposite the site of the Ascent are visible without obstruction. At the foot of the building is the 1865 vintage Roebbelin Bridge, which is, in my opinion, a work of art in and of itself.

If I were going to live in the Cincinnati metro area, this is the building I would be in. There are many smaller condos, all with great views, that are more affordable than the monster on the top, but it was fun to see anyway. Even looking at t place like that makes you feel like a high roller or minimally like you are hobnobbing with one.

After a really great brunch on where Abner was a welcome guest in the outdoor dining area (this and the existence of the Ascent leads me to believe that Covington Kentucky may secretly quarter an inordinate percentage of the cognoscenti) and attracted his usual amount of attention, the two of us hit the road north toward Fort Wayne to see my parents. It was, by then, October 6th and in the low 90s as we drove through western Ohio and across into northeastern Indiana. It was actually an easy drive of about 2 hours and 45 minutes during which time my brother Michael called. We talked for about 45 minutes of the drive (don’t get excited. . .I use a bluetooth earpiece when I am driving) which was, I believe, a record. The following day Michael turned 60 and I don’t think that in the almost 59 years I have known him, we have ever talked for that long at a stretch and certainly not in a phone call. Oh well. Records were made to be broken.

We arrived in Fort Wayne before 4:00 but the drive in was a little strange. I drove through all manner of small towns in northwestern Ohio and northeastern Indiana that I remember hearing about on weather reports, traffic and snow announcements, and tornado warnings and sighting reports while I was growing up but realized that I had never known where they were nor what they looked like. It has dawned on me, as a result of this drive, that in spite of my parents having made significant efforts at making travel a part of life for us as children, when we were at home in Fort Wayne, we must have led rather insular lives. I really saw very little of Indiana growing up.

Over the next three days Abner and I just hung out with my parents and a few of their old friends. We ate at their country club and a couple of their favorite haunts. We had dinner with Bud Latz who is one of my parents’ oldest and best friends from when they first moved to Fort Wayne in the mid-40s. He is now a widower and lives alone but sees my parents often. I have never thought of myself as a particularly nostalgic person, and particularly not about growing up in Fort Wayne where I believe I never really fit in, but seeing Bud is always one of the highlights of a visit. There is something reassuring about seeing people who were the adults I grew up around still plugging away, and in many important ways, unchanged. Bud has the physical signs of aging (and who doesn’t?) but when you are sitting at t dinner table with him talking about life, his wit and the intensity with which he involves himself in every conversation is still there.

The day after our dinner I took Abner over to Bud’s house to meet him. Abner likes meeting new people and Bud likes big dogs.

I also walked three blocks away to visit another close friend of my parents from way back. Helen Fine lives in the same house I always remember her in a short distance from my parents’ house. A couple things were different on this visit. First of all, Helen’s husband Bernie Fine (Charles Bernard Fine to be precise. . .professionally known when I was growing up as Seat Cover Charlie) had died a week or so before and I was a little nervous about visiting since condolence calls have never been my forte. Nonetheless, Mom, Abner and I walked up to her house on Old Mill Road and went for an afternoon visit. The house was pretty much as I had remembered it, as was Helen. She has always defied age both in her physical presence and her style. Being around her was much like a flash back to 40 years ago. Her hair is almost the same color (I suspect that was due to some assistance then as now), her face is still younger looking than it should be, and she has the most infectious smile and laugh I think I have ever known. It was really nice to see that despite being recently widowed, all that remained. What was really surprising though was that her daughter Cindy, whom I had known all through the public school system when I was growing up, was also there. I don’t think we had seen each other in 40 years and Cindy has changed. She still looks great (different, but great) but the real shock is that she not only has three adult children (28-35) the youngest of whom was there with her, but she has grandchildren. I cannot understand how someone who is my contemporary can have grandchildren. I mean I understand it in a clinical sense. . .it just is hard to digest psychologically.

We had a nice visit. Abner sniffed around the baby a little and mostly went around checking out the house as he does at every new place we go to. Pyrenees seem to have this internal demand to determine and patrol the perimeter wherever they are. I guess one always has to make sure that there are now wolves or coyotes lurking in an unused bedroom or closet.

During our lunch at the country club one day, we were talking about longevity in Dad’s family. I realized that I didn’t know many of my paternal grandfather’s siblings so Mom and Dad started going through the list about who they all were and how long they had lived. Dad got to my uncle Al, whom I actually do remember, who apparently died about a year ago at the age of 98. My mother then remembered a sister who was as yet unmentioned. “What about Beverly?” she asked. Dad’s reply was one of those priceless comments that you need to write down to tell. “Oh god” he said “she’s about 103” but then he continued barely skipping a beat “but she’s dead”. Mom and I looked at each other for about a quarter of a second and burst out laughing. It took Dad about another quarter second before he erupted as well. . .pretty funny stuff.

Hanging out with my parents is in many ways very encouraging. Dad is now 87 and Mom 82. They are both astoundingly active and sharp. Mom went walking with Abner and me a couple times and looking at her, it is hard for me to believe that she is 82 years old. I have friends who are my contemporaries who don’t get around as well as she does. She works 5 days a week as a social worker at a clinic in downtown Fort Wayne and is still very active in community issues. Dad still also goes to his office every day, manages a complex investment portfolio, sits on numerous boards, writes guest editorials for one of the local newspapers, plays golf, and has a weekly lunch with a group of his cronies. He is very ambitious about his computer skills at an age when the most technologically advanced thing most people do is change the channel. Actually, at 87, most people are turning to dust. I am enormously proud of who my parents continue to be.

The three days in Fort Wayne were all very warm, but we managed to walk extensively around the old neighborhood and Foster Park into which my parent’s house backs. We didn’t do anything dramatic while we were there but it was really a comforting visit. I will be missing seeing my parents this year on the family trip due to some travel conflicts I have so this week helped make up for that.

Tuesday morning I packed up the car and we headed off on the relatively short drive to Lisa and Dave’s house in Carmel, IN. Carmel is a very large suburb on the north side of Indianapolis where they have lived for the last 8 years so with the aid of my GPS and a special suggestion of a newly opened route that Lisa had told me about, we made good time getting there. Mostly what I did in Indianapolis was hang out. The first day Lisa and I ran errands, had an outdoor lunch in the recently cool weather (dramatic change the day I drove down to Indy) picked up and dropped off various children, most of whom were Lisa’s and in general, had a Lisa-and-Dave standard two-day experience. Since my nieces and nephews are getting older (all in their teens now) the conversations are a little different. We attended a football game (7th grade) that Zachary played in and in which he caught a pass to score a two-point conversion. Pretty exciting stuff. It had been about 16 months since the last time I had seen Lisa’s kids and there were some dramatic changes. Cort’s voice has changed and he has gotten tall and a lot older looking. Zack and Kailee both are much taller and older looking as well. . .particularly Kailee who still has this sly smile that I think will take her places. The only one who seems just to keep going along on her own schedule is Arlee. She has always bee something of a free spirit, living in exactly the world she has chosen, and that seems not to have changed. She is more mature looking than the last time I saw here, but the change is less significant than in the other three. With two sets of boy/girl twins, it is very interesting to watch how different their development is.

Finally on Thursday morning, Abner and I hit the road for home. We headed south on I-65 to Louisville, east from there to Lexington, and then retraced our path back to Knoxville and Asheville. We were back in my driveway before 5:00 on the 13th having had a very full week.

All this travel has really been getting to me. In August I spent a week in California for Jason and Maren’s wedding. In September I was back there for Winesong for another week. Now October featured a week in Kentucky and Indiana. I was supposed to go to Switzerland for a week in late October or early November to consult on a remodeling project for one of Sue Boeger’s nieces but that, thank God, has been pushed back to January or February. In December I am scheduled for 8 days in Puerto Vallarta as well. It’s a good thing I am home enough to do laundry.

In Asheville things have pretty much settled into the fall scene. On the weekends the streets are clogged with the fall tourists who come to see the leaves and who this year are probably pretty disappointed. Between the late freeze last April, the drought of the summer, and the very mild fall weather we have had, there isn’t nearly as much color this year as last. The town is still fun for people to visit and there are lots of mini-events going on, but it just isn’t the same as the spectacle of color to which we were treated last year.

Abner and I had a brief bonus as a result of our being buddies with the folks at the Garden Shop at Biltmore. A few weeks ago they had an end of the season sale to get rid of as many of their seasonal plants as possible before the cold weather sets in. It is a two-day event that they hold on the West side of the estate at their commercial nursery facility. Passholders are invited to come during those two days to snap up major bargains on various beautiful specimens. If I weren’t anticipating a move, I might have even have made a purchase. We dropped by anyway, partly just to say hi to a number of our friends from the shop who were over there working the sale, and partly to see what a little of the West side looked like. I had never been there before because it is generally accessible only on guided tours operated by the people at the Outdoor Center.

Anyway, while we were there, Jackie Allison who manages the Garden Shop and with whom we have become quite friendly introduced me to Dawn who manages the nursery. Jackie asked Dawn if there was any reason why Abner and I couldn’t hike occasionally on the West side since we have done all the trails on the East side hundreds of times, and Dawn said it would be fine on Wednesdays and Saturdays as long as I checked in with her first.

Well this was great news since it would potentially open up 4,000 additional acres of land to us for exploration so I thanked them both profusely and made plans to go on a Wednesday to check it out.

So a couple of weeks ago on a warm but mild October day, Abner and I drove over to the West side, checked in with Dawn, and headed off on a really great loop that took us up to the vineyards and their small headquarters building, through some woods, down to a trail that parallels the French Broad River, back up through more woods and around the East side of a small lake (although probably 4 times the size of the lagoon on the East side of the estate) and finally back down through the vineyards again. I took pictures some of which will be included in this post. Unfortunately for us, as it turned out, on our way back to the car we met a young man who works for the company police who was quite curious about who I was and what I was doing there. I explained the arrangement to him and assured him that I had permission to do this hiking. He pointed out that I should check with the company police office on days that I intended to hike since during the hunting season, from time to time the Biltmore Company will grant permission for fund-raiser hunts on the property. It wouldn’t be a good idea to be walking around in the woods with Abner if there were hunters on the grounds. I agreed with him and assured him that we would obey the rules and would check in before hiking to make sure it was safe. He acted like everything was fine and even gave me the phone number for the company police office.

Well, the access to the West Side was short lived. When we showed up yesterday and checked in with Dawn, she said that no sooner had I left that Wednesday but this guy came up to her office and informed her that she was to tell me that I couldn’t continue to hike there. I guess he is the resident ranger for that side of the property and is a real stickler for the rules. Pity. It was really beautiful over there.

My housing situation is more unsettled than ever. As those of you who are regulars on this site or who talk to me with some regularity know, there have been a lot of bumps in the road toward getting my house built. In September we found out that the newly-enacted Steep Slope ordinance was going to be applied to my lot and I had to do a whole lot of extra and costly compliance work in order to get a permit. To make a painfully long story short, the process of working through the multiple divisions of City Planning in order to get this permit was frustrating, lengthy and expensive. It took just over 7 weeks to obtain a permit (the City quotes a turnaround when you submit of 5-7 days) and was characterized by countless miscalculations, errors and delays on their part. On more than one occasion, I was forced to recompute a number for personnel because when they had calculated some ratio or other it indicated that I was non-compliant when in fact the opposite was true. The end of the process was an approval of the application on October 23rd. Unfortunately this was about 5 days after the contractor with whom I had been working since last spring on this project told me that he had redone his spreadsheet for our contract and had discovered about another $44,000 in costs that we hadn’t worked in the last time. After having already cut about $60K out of this plan, I really wasn’t in any kind of mood to eviscerate it further so I have put the plans into temporary hibernation. My thinking now is that I will buy a small downtown condo to live in for a couple of years. Meanwhile, I think the construction industry here may find that it’s ten-year boom may soften a bit over the next year or two and there might be a little more competitive pricing of some of the subcontracts. Some of these guys are so used to being busy that they don’t even bother returning phone calls. There is one HVAC contractor who is actually 5 weeks late in returning a phone call (and almost a month since he sent me an email saying he would call that day) who doesn’t know that I have temporarily abandoned the project and apparently is so loaded with work he doesn’t care.

So for the last two weeks I have been scouring the MLS and ads looking for the right downtown space. My thinking is that one of three things will result from this plan. In two years or so, I will decide that I really want to build the house and will put it out to bid again. By then I will be getting very close to being able to collect Social Security which should help put me in a position to more comfortably afford the house even if there is no reduction in costs. Possibility number two is that I will like living downtown and will sell both the lot and the condo and buy a bigger one and stay downtown for the foreseeable future. After all, a downtown condo/loft was what I had wanted to do when I first came looking in Asheville almost 4 years ago. There was just very little available that I could afford. Possibility three is that not only will I like living downtown, but I may even get used to living small (most of what I am looking at is in the 1,200 sq ft range) and will sell the lot and use the proceeds to buy Abner and me a place up north somewhere to spend the summers. Today I made an offer on a space so we will see what happens. No doubt there will be more to report on the next posting.

As you may gather from the above, while I am disappointed about not being able to build the house and have my gorgeous view, the options available aren’t so bad and I don’t have to give up the land to try them out. So life is still good.

The weather has now turned considerably cooler and it is starting to really feel like winter is on the way. Some of the trees are still green and others are almost done shedding their leaves. It is a strange phenomenon of having had such warm weather a month ago I guess. The drought persists here but there was a good drenching a couple weeks ago and then the weather turned cooler so the rate of evaporation is somewhat diminished and people who seem to know about these things feel like the worst may be past us. I guess October is statistically the driest month of the year here so things should get better.

I am going to leave other stories for another post. It has taken me way too long to finish this one. Don’t forget to click on some of the pictures below. When viewed full-sized some of them are pretty impressive.
In the ongoing process of posting shots of all the people who do so much to make Abner (and me) feel so good about living here, I am adding two of the folks who work the entry kiosk at Biltmore. Above is our friend Jennifer who is probably the most enthusiastic Abner spoiler of the front gate crowd. Carlos, below, is lower key in his approach but still never fails to have a smile and friendly word for us.

The vineyards on the West Side are just amazing looking. They are astoundingly well tended and follow the slopes around the lake like contour lines on a survey.
This view is from the top of the vineyard area looking back at the barns by Biltmore's commercial nursery facility.
Posted by Picasa
This is the French Broad River from the West Side of Biltmore. There has been so little rain lately that not only is the river crystal clear but it is so shallow and so slow that it is more like a pond. We could have waded acoss at this point.
Most of the vineyards on the West Side are arranged on voluptuously rounded slopes that flank a long lake. It is achingly pretty.

Posted by Picasa
As regular readers of this blog know, I have something of a fascination with mushrooms and other fungi when they appear in the fall here. I don't know a thing about them other than to not eat them, but the variety, size and profuseness of them never ceases to amaze me.
The one day Abner and I got to hike the west side of Biltmore was really a delight. Above is the approach to the lake around which many of the vineyards are planted. The house below is an old ruin that seems to be disappearing back into the woods.
And this is still another of the old Biltmore barns. They all are of largely the same design with the Lioncrest symbol on their gables, but this one appears to have not been restored. It was hard to tell if it is still in use.
Posted by Picasa
Regie and I don't take the dogs up to the lawn above the house as often as we used to, but this one afternoon they were in a very playful mood and it is a good spot with few people. We turned around near the top and were treated to this view. I have probably posted a version of this shot almost every year, but it still is beautiful.
The picture above is of the Ascent in Covington KY. If you read the text of this post, you will know that it is a Daniel Liebeskind designed condo project nearing completion that Jan, Chuck and I toured when I was visiting there.
The pergola in the Walled Garden this year featured loofahs hanging from the rafters along with the grapes that come back every year. I didn't go as nuts this year on the fall fungi, but this guy was pretty appealing.
Posted by Picasa
Abner is shown above with Will who is one of the photographers at Biltmore House. Eventually I should post pictures of several of the others because they all tend to lavish affection on Abner.
The walled garden was spectacular with mums this fall. This is pretty much the standard planting for the Fall display but it seemed splashier this year.
It is now clearly fall and although the Bass Pond isn't as dramatic as it was last year, it is still beautiful this year.
There are four wild turkeys who have been hanging out around Biltmore House this fall. There are scads of these birds around the estate but this particular group have been favoring the lawn west of the house. I'm not sure where the 4th one is in this photo. . .perhaps hiding behind the tree.
Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Today was pretty overcast all day and the temperature probably stayed below 80. There was an ever-present hint that rain was on the way but it never arrived. My fear is that this is a harbinger of the wait for autumn. We finally got past the hottest August on record and are largely through a warm September, but last week we had about 6 or 7 days in the low to mid 70s culminating in a heavy rain on Friday. It was a delicious preview of a fall that I suspect we will continue to await.

Progress on my house seems to be on the same program. I am not going to go into the details of the problems we have had getting started on this thing, partly because I think they would bore many of the readers of this blog, and partly because, on the off chance that one of the people from the City of Asheville who have been whatever the opposite is of helpful might stumble upon this blog, I don’t want to be punished for not using fake names. Suffice it to say, we still haven’t submitted drawings for the building permit after apparently being ready on September 5th, and have had so many dates and details thrown at us from people who work for the City, that I am beginning to get the impression that these people are making stuff up as they go.

So yesterday Abner and I took a day off and drove to Winston-Salem. This is a town to which I had never been in spite of having skirted it on Interstate 40 on trips further east. Winston-Salem is part of the Triad along with Greensboro and High Point. People tell me that if you aren’t looking for furniture, High Point is definitely to be skipped, and I haven’t heard anyone rave about all the fun things to do in Greensboro, but one gets the impression that Winston-Salem may have something going. First of all there is Wake Forest University on the north side of town, and there is Old Salem, which was a historic part of colonial North Carolina in the 1700s. None of this, however, was our main motivation in going. Abner went because I asked him if he wanted to go for a ride and the answer is always a qualified yes. I went to look at an Airstream trailer. Yes, you read that correctly. One of my current fantasies is to have an Airstream and to travel around with Abner and stay wherever we want. . .no more worrying about hotels that allow dogs.

I have to admit that the seed for this fantasy was planted about 6 months ago when a DWR catalog arrived with a picture of a positively Lilliputian DWR special edition Airstream on the cover. I checked it out on line and completely fell in love with this little bug of a trailer. On several of our walks and ventures to the park for the dogs to play, Regie and I have talked about maybe pooling our resources and going halves on one of these things since neither of us would probably use it for more than a couple months per year. When she seemed to be as enthusiastic as I was about this idea, I started doing some online research and discovered a number of interesting things about Airstreams. One thing I discovered was that I actually preferred some of the slicker more aeronautical designs the company offered than the tricked out version offered in the DWR version.

Anyway, partly as a reaction to the frustration I have been feeling over the inertia I am required to overcome to get this house under way, and partly just because I was curious about whether or not I would really like these trailers, I went online and located a dealer outside of Winston-Salem who appeared to have a large selection of Airstreams and schedule the trip down the hill to see them.
W-S is about a 2-hour drive from here, so as adventures go, it wasn’t a bad day trip. We got to the dealership a little past noon and spent an hour touring 4 or 5 versions of Airstreams. I had no idea there were as many models and options as there are, but since I was pretty certain that if I did get involved in one of these things, I didn’t want to be dragging some 30-foot monster around the country, I limited myself to trailers 20 feet long and less. Starting with the DWR version, I quickly surmised that the 16 footer is simply too small. For one thing, Abner was positively claustrophobic in it and couldn’t wait to get out, but the other big drawback for me was that it has something the company euphemistically calls a wet bath. What this means is that the little room the toilet is in is also the shower. Now I have stayed in European hotels where this arrangement worked just fine, but in the confines of a teeny tiny trailer, I am thinking it really doesn’t work all that well. I noticed that there really isn’t much room for you to put your feet if you are standing up and showering. You might literally end up with one foot on top of the toilet and one of what little is left of the floor. Looked a little precarious to me. Another problem is that you would have to get rid of towels and toilet paper every time you wanted to shower since nothing can be protected in this little room

The other problem I had with the DWR special edition was that it was a little too 60s retro for my taste. I lived through that decade once and really feel little compulsion to revisit it.

From there, we moved on to the 17-foot Safari model. Safaris are intended to be toward the bargain end of the Airstream range and they are indeed slightly cheaper than the fancier International models, but some of them seemed to have pretty difficult layouts and had almost deliberately dowdy interiors. I am certain that they are just as well built as the slicker looking models, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around buying the 17-footer. Besides other problems I noted, if you, for whatever reason, had both beds in use in the layout of the one I saw, the occupants of the bed at the end of the trailer would have to literally walk across the convertible bed in the middle to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. . .a clear negative from my perspective.

When you jump up to the 19-footer, in either Safari or International, you have made a big step up. For one thing, you now get a full bath (well no tub, but a real shower that is separate from the toilet). It is amazing what 2 or 3 additional feet will give you in one of these silver bullets. Abner was considerably more comfortable and seemed to turn around easily inside this size. There was also a 20 foot Safari model with a bigger kitchen, but I really doubt that I am going to turn into a mobile Julia Child if I ever hit the road in one of these things, so I didn’t feel like that was an important plus for me.

What just about did me in was the 19-foot International. Mamma Mia that’s a nice trailer. It was very well laid out and had really slick finishes. The interior surface of the shell walls is all aluminum, which contrasts with charcoal colored walls and cabinetry on the other interior walls. There is a profusion of discreet little halogen lamps, a flat screen TV, 10-disc cd changer, air conditioning, furnace, fridge, and a very nice little combo microwave/convection oven so I can roast a very small chicken if I want to.

This one had a very comfortable bed at the rear end and the dinette in the front converts to an almost equally comfortable guest (or dog) space. Even though this was about the most expensive one I looked at, I really liked it.

Of course I quickly got into a technical conversation with the sales guy who managed to discover that the towing capacity of my Audi is 3500 pounds and this Airstream weighs 3575 pounds without anything in it like water, propane in the two tanks, and all the crap I would be taking with me in the available storage space. The maximum load is 4,500 pounds which is probably enough to leave the very costly transmission of the Audi lying on an Interstate in Colorado somewhere if I tried to drag this thing over the Rockies. Actually, I would probably never make it over the mountains that separate us from Tennessee.

So now, in order to live out this particular fantasy, I would not only have to pay for half the trailer (assuming Regie and Eric picked up the other half) but I would have to trade my car for something that can accommodate Abner and me and pull 4500 pounds of Airstream and assorted stuff. The fantasy seems to be getting distant.

After an hour or so of fun looking at the trailers, we headed into Winston-Salem because I thought as long as I was there, I would get a quick look at the town and take Abner for a walk on campus at Wake Forest. Since the University has a reputation for being quite pretty we went there directly from the trailer dealership, the route for which took us through downtown Winston-Salem. From the freeway, it looks like a reasonably presentable smallish city but it does have one large new high rise that looked awfully much like a vibrator. . .not that I am all that familiar with vibrators, but there was something disturbingly phallic about this building.

As promised, the campus of Wake Forest is lovely. There was some kind of fund raiser run going on at the main quad in the center of the campus so we parked ourselves on a bench and watched for a bit while I ate my hastily purchased lunch. My dining was interrupted frequently with the inevitable questions about Abner but I managed to finish and take him for a walk. I liked the look of the place a lot and everyone we saw seemed to really like it there. I was curious about it since I remembered Marc and Carole Sussman telling me that Rachel was interested in Wake Forest as one of her possible choices for college in a couple years. The only drawback that I could see was that it seemed a little isolated from town. There didn’t appear to be the usual collegtown type of commercial area just outside the campus. . .at least not from the side from which we entered.

All in all, it was a fun day away from worrying about making no progress on the house.

In the month since I last posted though, quite a bit has been happening. I had returned from my August trip to California that I mentioned in my last major posting, and really got down to the task of finishing the working drawings for the house. While we were a little behind schedule, it looked like all the drawings including architectural, structural, and landscape would be complete prior to my leaving for my September trip to CA. It kind of came down to the wire, but sure enough, I had prints of the completed drawings on September 5th and I was leaving for San Francisco early on the 6th. Things, however hit something of a roadblock that week.

Back in March, when I first found out about this land, I had had a meeting with a planner at the Planning Department of the City of Asheville to determine, among other things, whether or not the newly drafted but not yet approved Steep Slope Ordinance for the City would apply to this land. After about 40 minutes of consulting old drawings and files, the planner with whom I was meeting came to the conclusion that, since the property had been platted in 1991 and, as such, predated the ordinance by 16 years, it would be grandfathered in and wouldn’t have to comply with the terms of the, as yet, unfinalized law.

Well, it was upon this basis that I decided to buy the land. Needless to say, when Mark Ambtman, my over the fence friend who happens to be a landscape architect and who did the landscape drawings for the house, called an old colleague of his at the City to see if there was anything extra he was going to have to put on his drawings, the colleague asked for the PIN number for my lot so he could look it up. I turns out, according to him, that the property does have to comply with the new ordinance.

This was very bad news. For one thing, it meant that the three lots I had bought, ranging in size from .95 acre to 1.15 acres and totaling 3.15 acres, and zoned RS-2 meaning that they allowed 2 single family residences per acre, would have a considerable reduction applied to the allowable density. With the restriction the new law would apply, the land required for a single residence would be 2.5 acres. As such, the economics of my purchase, which required me to sell both of the additional lots on which I wasn’t planning to build, were thrown out completely.

When Mark dropped this little bomb on me I though I would have a stroke, but he continued to talk with his contact and eventually determined that, indeed, the lots would be grandfathered as far as the density issue was concerned, but that they would have to comply with all other aspects. According to the City, which uses topography maps provided by Buncombe County, and which are widely known to be grossly inaccurate, the average slope of my lot is almost 46%. Since the threshold for compliance with the new law is 36%, I was firmly in its grasp. I am somewhat convinced that my slope is a lot closer to 35% (it is, for example, 34.7% in the area where the house and driveway will be built) which, could I prove it, would eliminate the necessity to comply with the rather stringent requirements of this new ordinance, but by the time I found out that I would have to deal with this, it had been more than 4 months since my survey work was completed and the cost and delay of having the surveyor return to do a topographic map of the remaining two thirds of the site appeared to be more painful than just caving in.

The biggest requirement appears to be a geotechnical test and report. This essentially relieves the City of any responsibility if my house collapses into a sinkhole or slides down the hill. It is very expensive work and resulted in a 3 week delay (minimally) and that is only if the engineer I retained finishes as promised early next week. There is also a possibility that there may be a problem with the height of my garage but we should also know about that around the middle of next week. Consequently, if things go my way in both the completion of the soils report, and Planning’s comfort with my garage, I will submit for a permit before the end of next week. If things don’t go well, I may buy and Airstream and hit the road.

The California trip this month was shorter but very enjoyable. The travel part, of course, was not. I have had some Delta miles left over from when I used to fly Delta to get to Florida in the days of doing the beach house for Ann and Bowers. I had used most of them, but there were still enough miles languishing in the account that I figured I’d better use them before the airline did something to render them completely valueless. So, in spite of the advice I always give my visitors to avoid flying Delta to get here, and in particular, not to fly through Atlanta, that was precisely the itinerary I had for my trip to San Francisco.

After an early morning goodbye to Abner who would be spending 4 nights at Spencer’s house, I drove to the airport for the seemingly civilized departure time of 8:00 in the morning. Since all the flights in and out of Asheville are on fairly small aircraft, there is never a big line at security so you can arrive an hour or slightly less in advance of your departure time, and still have time to kill at the gate.

I checked luggage without incident and plunked myself down in the departure lounge, chatting with a woman who was headed out on the same flight to Atlanta. Delta boarded us at the assigned time and it appeared to be going way too smoothly for this particular airline. Well not to worry. Once everyone was wedged into his or her microscopic seats I’m sure we all thought that we could endure the short 34-minute flight to Atlanta without too much pain. Well, that was a premature thought. As soon as we began to back away from the terminal to taxi, the pilot announced that due to air traffic problems in Atlanta we were going to be held for at least 35 minutes out on the taxi way. I cannot understand why they do this rather than allow you to stay in the relative comfort of the departure lounge, but all the airlines strap you into the iron maiden that a typical coach seat is now and make you wait out the delay there.

Since I had less that an hour scheduled for my layover in Atlanta, I was worried about making the connection and rang for the flight attendant. She came immediately, appeared to be very sympathetic but said that they could do nothing whatever from the plane and that I would have to call Delta direct if I had a cell phone. So out came my cell phone and that of everyone else on the plane. I called Delta and miraculously got through to someone quickly who proceeded to inform me that there was nothing he could do because they didn’t show that my flight was going to be delayed (it had, after all, left the gate on time) and that any change could only be handled by the ground staff in Atlanta. I asked for his supervisor.

I never did get to talk to the supervisor, but after listening to repulsive music and recorded ads for Delta’s fabulous international service, he came back on to tell me gleefully that his supervisor agreed with me that it was absurd that they couldn’t find me an alternative since I would probably miss my flight, and he was booking me on the 11:00 departure for San Francisco, precisely 1 hour and 10 minutes after my original flight. He could not, however get me an assigned seat so my exit row that I had worked so hard to get went bye bye and I faced the prospect of a middle seat for a 5+ hour flight. Nonetheless, at least I was covered.

We finally took off and got to Atlanta at about 9:30 in the morning. I raced through the terminal, changed concourses on the little trains that connect them, raced through the departure terminal, and arrived at the gate, only to be told that it had been changed. One more breathless run to the new gate where there was no one left in the gate area, but the door was still open. I raced onto the plane sweating but relieved and sat down.

The short version of the next part of this story is that we sat for more than an hour and a half in this plane without taking off. We didn’t leave until slightly after 11:00 in the morning for a 9:50 scheduled departure. The other noteworthy thing was pretty much nothing worked on the plane. At least nothing that might have helped the passengers. In the two coach cabins not a single seat had a functioning light, audio, or call button. I almost burst out laughing when the flight attendant grabbed an elliptical hand hold to stabilize herself while we were taxiing and the grommet from the inside of the hold fell off. That was before the door that was supposed to hold the drink cart wouldn’t stay closed and rolled out crashing into the jump seat where she was supposed to sit. We all started to wonder what kind of shape the wings and engines were in. The attendant, who it turned out, had a terrific sense of humor, started a pool on how old the plane was. As it turned out, 20 years was the winning guess.

45 minutes into seriously delayed flight they got the electrical problem solved and started the movie. Armed with my new sound deadening headphones purchased for a bargain on Ebay, I settled in for what I hoped would be an otherwise uneventful flight. It was not to be.

When we were coming into San Francisco, by now about an hour and 45 minutes late, we approached over the Bay from the South as usual and had two wheels on the ground when the pilot suddenly gunned the engines and we took off again. The more nervous passengers either gasped or pooped in their panties depending on how nervous and the rest of us sort of raised eyebrows and looked out the windows for the great view of downtown SF. The pilot quickly explained that he didn’t like the amount of jet wake he was feeling from the large plane taking off on the next runway over so he decided to abort the landing and try again. 15 scenic minutes later we finally landed.

Once off the plane everything became pretty much standard Delta/SFO/Goldstein travel karma. For this trip I vowed to travel light and kept my promise. Last spring I bought a new Costo rolling duffel bag and I managed to fit all my possessions other than what I carry on with me, into it. I was so proud. Keeping things small, however, I have discovered, does not mean that your bag comes up any sooner. Quite the contrary. On a fully loaded 767 with well over 250 passengers, when my little duffel finally came up, I believe there were about 10 of us left waiting. Nonetheless, with my history of lost bags, I was pleased to find it at all, grabbed the telescoping handle and rolled my way up to the Airtrain to the rental car building.

As had happened last year for this trip, I had bid very very low on Priceline for a compact rental car and Hertz took my bid. Once again, there was a larger line at Hertz than at any of the other rental desks, but it moved quickly due to the large number of agents working. When I got to the front of the line and a young woman squawked “Next Person In Line” at about 90 decibels at me, I toddled over to her, confirmation, drivers license, and credit card all at the ready with my best cooperative smile on since I was, by this time, in no mood for another problem.

Last year when I got to this point I was cheerily informed that I was getting a two class upgrade which translated to “we don’t have the car you paid for and you are stuck with this crappy Monte Carlo that will make you look like an unsuccessful pimp”. This year the problem was different. I don’t know if she had been having a hard day or what, but no matter how smiley I was, she was cranky and busy. She rarely looked up while typing what seemed to be the original manuscript for War and Peace into her computer. What, I wondered, could possibly take this long given that I had prepaid this rental through Priceline, had everything she could have asked for and had handed it all to her as soon as I arrived. It turns out that she was quite bent out of shape that I was more than two hours later than I expected to be and hadn’t called to notify her. I couldn’t call, I explained, due to being in an aircraft, probably over Texas or New Mexico about the time I was supposed to be landing.

At this point she became something of a harpy and began to lecture me about the trouble they go to arranging the parking positions in their garage to coincide with the anticipated drive out time of their customers and that my car was now in a location where all of the other rentals for the time of my original drive out were gone. This was, she informed me, very disruptive to their otherwise flawless organization. I realized that this was a discussion that couldn’t have a positive outcome so I said I was sorry to have caused this inconvenience to Hertz but would be happy to move the car now. Begrudgingly she gave me my precious envelope of papers permitting me to take the car.

I got to the garage and, pretty much as she had described, my car was in a largely empty bank of cars and I had to drive out in the opposite direction to this large phalanx of returns that were being directed into my row. Most unnerving. It felt like I was driving the wrong way on a very wide one-way street. Nonetheless, I escaped with my little Ford Focus and drove to John’s house directly.

On the way, I decided to put John’s house keys in the center console but when I opened it I discovered a petrified partially eaten croissant or brioche that had been overlooked by who knows how many thorough cleanings by the Hertz staff. Make a note to oneself to remind the intake guy of the existence of petrified baked goods upon returning car.

Once ensconced at John’s house, the trip turned into the voyage into my recent past I had hoped for. I spent what remained of the afternoon in the design district visiting old showrooms I used to haunt with my clients only now I was looking for myself. Due to an oddity in tax law, these showrooms, many of whom are only in California, can sell to me as an out of state buyer, with no sales tax and ship to me in NC. This can add up to a significant savings on some of the very costly plumbing hardware I want to use if I ever get the house going.

By 5:00 I realized that I hadn’t eaten any real food all day since all Delta gives you is a “snack” consisting of 4 crackers, a cookie, a miniscule box of raisins and a small tub of very rubbery cheese. While good for carb loaders, that combined with a couple diet Cokes wasn’t enough to sustain me for a whole day, so I popped into Starbucks, ordered a breakfast sandwich and chatted with the man on the neighboring stool who was watching his Golden Retriever entertain passersby outside on the sidewalk.

At 7:00 I met Ingrid Haubrich, Larry Lee, and Anya Goldstein for dinner. Ingrid is my ex-sister-in-law and still a very dear friend. Larry is her husband whom I have known almost since they became a couple, and Anya is the younger of my brother’s daughters who is almost 24 and enormously entertaining to be around. We had a lovely dinner at Sociale, one of my favorite little neighborhood restaurants for probably the last 5 or so years in San Francisco. Since the only time I had seen Ingrid and Larry since I had left California was a similar dinner a year before, most of the evening was spent catching up on all my exploits and also hearing about what Anya has been up to. It was a lovely evening that ended around 11:00ish. What I realized as I was getting back into my car to drive back to John’s house, was that the reason I was so exhausted was that on my body clock it was 2:00 in the morning and I had been up since about 5:00 the previous morning. Long day that.

Friday morning Matt Guerena came by at about 8:00 and after a civilized latte at the Dolores Park Café (a wonderful spot to begin the day if you have never tried it, at the corner of 18th and Dolores) we loaded up the Focus and headed for highway 1.

As some of you know, the tradition John and I and a number of our other Winesong regulars had held onto for years was to meet at Mustards in the Napa Valley for lunch on the way up to Fort Bragg. Well, in my relatively new spirit of independence, I had decided that I was going to drive all the way to Fort Bragg on Highway 1. For those of you who have never done it, this is the Pacific Coast Highway aka PCH and in the stretch from the Golden Gate Bridge up to Fort Bragg, passes some of the most scenic parts of the entire west coast of the United States. First you go through Marin County. On the coast, Marin is mostly open country punctuated by such picturesque hamlets as Bolinas, Olema, Inverness and Point Reyes Station. You drive by Tamales Bay, a huge fiord like protected bay sandwiched between the peninsula of Point Reyes and the mainland. Then you get to the Sonoma County coast with such highlights as Jenner, Timber Cove, and Stewarts Point (which if you blink, you literally will miss it) before coming to the northernmost stretch of the Sonoma Coast. . .the last 15 miles which constitutes Sea Ranch.

Matt had never driven this stretch and I hadn’t done it in probably more than a decade so it was a real treat for us both. Once you cross the Gualala River (the G is almost silent) you enter the town of Gualala and Mendocino County. There are sections of this drive that are so twisted and convoluted that you almost feel like your are navigating someone’s intestinal tract. Much prettier though. Passing through Anchor Bay, Point Arena, Elk, Albion, Little River, Mendocino, Caspar we finally arrived in Fort Bragg around 3:00ish in the afternoon. We checked into the Harbor Lite Motel (I kid you not) and unpacked for the weekend.

Now this was a new place for most of us to stay. For probably the last 7 or 8 years, we have stayed at the Lodge at Noyo River almost right across the street from Rick and Louise’s place. This was always very convenient because it meant that you could make a disgusting pig of yourself Friday night at the abalone orgy that has become an annual event, and then, when you really couldn’t stand it any more, stagger across the drive to your room to moan for the rest of the evening. Then, Saturday morning, you could get up, walk across to see who was alive at Rick and Louise’s and plan your morning leading up to the inevitable 10:00 AM departure for the botanical gardens and Winesong.

The problem this year is that after doing a small remodel, and buying all new furniture for our rooms, the owners of the Lodge decided to bump their prices from about $120/ night to about $420/night. Now I think the new furniture is swell, and it is really great that the old aluminum miniblinds that were so bent and corroded that they deserved a decent burial, have been replaced with slick new window coverings, but c’mon. . .$300 more per night?! This place isn’t the Ritz-Carlton. So we all deserted them and moved to the Harbor Lite. I actually love that it is called the Harbor Lite rather than Light. It makes it seem a little tackier. . .kind of like it is the diet version of a fancier place. The Harbor Lite is in a great location a couple blocks from Rick and Louise but still within easy walking distance. It overlooks Noyo harbor and from my balcony, I could watch boats head out to go fishing early in the morning. The rooms are pretty basic but reasonably clean. They throw in a little breakfast in the morning and it costs about ¼ what the new prices were at The Lodge. I believe I am a convert.

Since I described this event last year in some detail I will not spend a lot of time doing it again this year. We had a great dinner at Rick and Louise’s Friday night. Everyone agreed that the abalone has never been better, on Saturday morning we all met at the RV park where Jan and Duncan park the coach each year, Winesong was wonderful as usual although a little cloudier than usual this year, but still a perfect day.

What has changed though, is that the cast of characters in our group is getting younger. Years ago, we convinced Dan, Jonathan and Shaghig to come. Then Dan started bringing Kim. This year Jonathan’s friends Tommy and Hillary with whom he lives when he is in the Bay Area came another couple of friends of his from Paso Robles came late in the weekend. John, Rick, Louis, Jan, Duncan and I are starting to feel a little geriatric.

After the standard 4-hour waddle through the botanical gardens eating and drinking, we all usually end up together out on the cliffs looking at the ocean and commenting on how beautiful it all is. This year though, we were treated to a new form of entertainment. Tommy, who seems to have a pretty good idea of how to pull Jonathan’s chain, bet him $50 that he couldn’t swim out into the swells directly below the cliffs on which we were standing, and bring back an abalone. Now this would have been pretty illegal since Jonathan hadn’t brought his license and abalone are well protected in California these days, but it also was a very unlikely spot for the Coast Guard to catch him without a boat around, and cite him. I’m not sure Jonathan would have gone for it on the basis of needling from Tommy alone, but when Rick started in on him that was all it took.

He climbed down the cliff which is not that easy to do anyway, stripped off all his clothes but his underwear and Crocs, and swam about 200 feet out to a spot where there was a kelp forest that would aid him in getting down to the bottom. In order to appreciate quite how insane this is, you would have to see the size of the swells, feel what 50-degree water is like on bare skin, and try to swim in a pretty substantial current with nothing on but undies and Crocs. Then there is the matter of trying to see under 20 or more feet of murky water without a mask. Jonathan later reported that he found a coupe abs but that he couldn’t grab them fast enough because the visibility was so bad so he eventually came up empty handed. The whole thing took between 10 and 15 minutes but for those of us watching, it seemed longer.

When he swam back and got dressed, Jonathan’s teeth chattered for some time. I haven’t heard the reports of any permanent brain damage but really, how could you tell the difference? He had to be a bit demented to have gone in in the first place. Attracted quite a crowd though.

Saturday night we were a pared down group but still had to split up into smaller groups to eat at the Brewery in downtown Fort Bragg. Lots of fun though. I guess I’ll try to make it again next year.

The drive back to San Francisco was pretty but uneventful. We had all brunched together at the Moose Café in Mendocino and done a little shopping before heading back. The sun came up part way down the coast so Matt and I were treated to a really beautiful drive back to the City.

Dinner Sunday night finally became a small affair with John, his niece Katina and her husband Robbie who were visiting from Oklahoma, and I went to Delfina’s, another wonderful neighborhood place on 18th Street in San Francisco. After a late dinner we went back to John’s house and to bed. My flight home wasn’t until 1:00 on Monday, but I was tired from all the driving, drinking, eating, and mostly the stimulation of being surrounded by my friends from California.

I realize that even though I am getting pretty settled in to my life in Asheville and have people about whom I really care, there is something about getting back together with more than 30 years worth of friends from my life in the West that will probably always mean a lot to me.

Delta produced no disasters for the trip home and aside from it being pretty late when I finally got to bed on Monday night, I was glad to be sleeping in my own bed with Abner near by. It had been 4-1/2 very full days out and back but worth it.

We have had a couple interesting encounters at Biltmore since my return. One day we were on the path leading from the Bass Pond overlook down to the pond itself when I spotted a bear on the other side of the deer fence. He growled at us which I have to say was a little unnerving. I have seen bears in California dozens of times and actually once or twice before here, but generally not in broad daylight, and I had definitely never seen one that growled at me. They tend to be kind of timid and generally scurry away when they see humans.

The other interesting encounter was actually a group of encounters. For several days this week there has been a festival for home schooled kids and their parents. It is an interesting event because lots of organizations whose focus might interest these kids set up tents with information and activities all over the gardens of the estate and the kids wander from booth to booth. What was interesting was that these kids definitely seemed different from the typical kids we meet at the estate. For one thing they tend to be pretty uninhibited, exhibit virtually no signs of “attitude”, were more inquisitive, and seemed, for the most part, completely comfortable striking up a conversation with an adult stranger with a big dog. I have to tell you that there was something vaguely Steven King-esque about it. They were probably great kids, but they seemed almost like they were possessed. They were so different from the kids we usually meet there and elsewhere that they almost didn’t seem real.

Since getting home, things have gotten largely back to the norm. Abner and I really enjoyed our one cool week with daily hikes again. There has been considerable drama and frustration about the house, but what else is new? My back is in pretty good shape and the prospect of cooler temperatures is tantalizing, so all in all, I guess things are going pretty well.

I have a bunch of pictures to post and will try to get them organized into some kind of sensible order. Best to all of you. Maybe I’ll buy an Airstream and come see everyone.
I never cease to be amazed at the variety of insects and crawly things we encounter on our walks. This guy was in a surprisingly big hurry to get across the trail when Regie and I were walking Abner and Spencer in an area of the estate called Arbor Trace.

The photo below is actually of the Bass Pond but a side that I have never shot or posted before. This is the far side of the bridge where the creek either flows into or out of Biltmore Forest.
And this shot is of the old market building where the public used to come to buy produce from Biltmore when it was a functioning farm. The enormous field around it is one of the ones planted in soybeans for the second year in a row. Apparently after each year of corn, they plan soybeans for two years because it helps replenish soil nutrients.
Posted by Picasa
It seems a little early for these gargantuan mushrooms to have begun appearing again, but Regie and I saw this perfect specimen on the woodland trail at Biltmore in early September before I left for California.

On another rather toasty day, we stopped mid-hike with the boys for a little rest in the shade of a tree on the estate.

The photo below probably will only make sense if you click it and blow it up to full size to look. There are two finches each perched on top of the remains of these gigantic daisy-like flowers that come up every summer in my side yard. They apparently really like the seeds because there were dozens of them on the flowers for days after the petals fell and the centers were pretty dry.
Posted by Picasa
Kim and Louise are both really excellent at hamming it up for the camera. I actually think it is really interesting that the most exaggerated facial expressions I can get out of any of my friends are from Kim and Dan, and now they are married. Can you imagine what their kids will be able to do?

These are two virtually identical shots from the front balcony of John's house in San Francisco. Great view day or night.
Posted by Picasa