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.
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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.
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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.
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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 fa├žade. 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.