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.
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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.
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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.
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The photo above is Jan Waldrop's son Jeffrey who, as none of us can quite believe, is now in his mid-30s and married to Alyce, his new French wife. Both seem to be happy. Go figure. Below is a pretty typical shot. Everyone at this event has a camera and we all end up taking pictures of each other. At left you can see John's hands focusing on someone in the group, Tommy is hiding behind Kim Delaney who is doing some up close and personal photos of Rick, and sandwiched in minding his own business and his wine is Duncan Waldrop.

John's niece Katina, who is a real sweetie pie from Oklahoma, came this time and brought husband Robbie. Above she and Matt are hysterical about something. Below you can see Robbie politely standing in the background, no doubt amused by the rest of us. Pretty eclectic crowd.
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Above are old buds Dan Delaney and Jonathan Boynton. These two were responsible for my becoming a rock climber. Below are Alyce, Sebastian (her friend who came to visit from France) and Matt Guerena having a good laugh.

Tommy and Rick Garlick above, checking out the scene while, in the background Matt and John Ballenger are chatting. . .as usual. Below is an intense shot of Louise Garlick and Shaghig watching Jonathan's almost nude diving stunt.
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The above shot is more of Jonathan looking for abalone. Below you can see him heading down the cliffs on this harebrained attempt to win $50.

Winesong is fun for all the old friends who get together there for a weekend of obscene consumption and good company. Above are Tommy, his wife Hillary, and Shaghig Kodbashian who you all saw here back in April when she and Jonathan came to Asheville for a visit. Below, is Dan Delaney in one of his typically dignified poses.
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Above is an early morning shot from my balcony at the Harbor Lite Motel. Not a bad view to wake up to. Below is one of the regular scenes as you enter the harbor in Fort Bragg. There are dozens of seals that like to play around the entrance to the harbor and actually on the docks as well. This signal buoy near the narrows where the Noyo River flows into the Pacific is a favorite spot. Usually if you get close enough to get a shot of one of these guys they dive off before you can get one, but his particular seal wasn't too interested in moving.

I believe it is pretty well established that Jonathan Boynton is nuts. Above you can see Jonathan's method for storing his catch of abalone when he is finishing his dive. Other ab divers will have a net bag or some place on the boat for their stash and will give you each ab as they bring them up. Jonathan doesn't bother with return trips to the boat. He just lets these big suckers hang onto his wetsuit until he has his limit. In the photo below you can see an almost naked man swimming through kelp and 50 degree water between rocks and swells on a dare to find an abalone at Winesong. . .that would also be Jonathan. Everyone will be relieved to know he made it back from this stunt with chattering teeth and few signs of brain damage.
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This is Brandon, the latest of the Abner fan club to make it on the blog. Brandon works at the Inn at Biltmore and sees Abner frequently but wasn't around when the last group of valets and bellmen were posted here, so he gets a spot all his own. Abner, as usual, was quite relaxed for this photo.
These amazing butterflies are everywhere right now. Unlike most of the others they seem to enjoy hanging out on gravel roads which makes them far easier to photograph. Jesse Ivan, the wonderful photographer at the Outdoor Center looked them up for me and IDed them as Red Spotted Admirals. Who'da thunk it? You should check out Jesse's outstanding nature photography at his website at
This little snake was on Rocky Cove Road in the Arboretum when Matt, Amy, Bear, Abner and I were walking by. Amazingly enough, I was the only one who noticed. Abner almost stepped on him but he didn't budge. He is most likely a garter snake and is pretty harmless but a snake bite is a snake bite and I wouldn't want Abner to get one.
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Monday, September 03, 2007

A lot of people ask a lot of questions about Abner when we walk in public places and I have gotten used to most of the remarks people make. Most people are friendly and are excited to see Abner and in general, are polite about asking to pet him or take his picture. Every once in a while though, one comes along that amazes me.

Today, we went to Biltmore for a nice hike, mostly in lightly traveled trails, but we did end up taking a break in the stable courtyard under the arch on one of the benches where we usually stop for a treat or two and some water. It is shady, frequently has a nice breeze, and I can usually get a bench to myself so I can put Abner's water bowl down next to me on the seat. The arch is also the route into the Stable Cafe and several of the gift shops so lots of people do walk by, and we are quite accustomed to chatting with passers by and answering the inevitable questions about Abner's breed and a few other standard queries.

After we had been there for about 10 minutes, and Abner had had his treats and water, I was just about ready to pack up and head back down the Ambler's Trail to the lagoon where we were parked, when a woman and her young daughter approached us. She asked me what kind of dog Abner was and I responded that he is a Great Pyrenees. She looked at me somewhat skeptically and asked if I was certain. I assured her that of this particular fact, I was absolutely certain, whereupon she began to argue with me that she thought I was wrong. It seems that Abner is a dead ringer for her dog which she informed me is an "Antarctic Sheepdog". I almost burst out laughing on the spot. I resisted asking her what a sheepdog would do in Antarctica unless they herd penguins and seals. She was positively insistent that Abner had to be the same breed as her dog because they looked exactly alike other than that he is bigger. Of all the guesses people have had as to what he is, this was the topper. Polar Bear and Newfoundland Dog are the most common guesses and one woman once concluded that if he was from the Pyrenees then he must be Egyptian, but no one had ever come up with the highly rare Antarctic Sheepdog before.

I decided that it was odd enough that the situation merited its own little post.