Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Late in January I left Felix for the first time since I got him at the Atlanta Airport last May and early the morning of the 28th Josh took me to the airport for a long flight to California.  Leaving wasn’t easy.  8 months of Felix and my being inseparable was very hard to break.  I got a little teary that early morning when I had to leave. . .I suspect he sensed that something was wrong.

We had done a dinner about 3 weeks in advance of my departure so Layla, who hadn’t seen Felix since he was only a few months old and a lot closer in size to her than he is now, could get used to being around him.  She is 8+ years old and is a mature female who knows how things are supposed to be in her world so dealing with a very large 10-month-old puppy who wants to play all the time and now dwarfs her was a bit unnerving.  The night of the dinner she pretty much hid under furniture the whole time.

When Josh and Alanna showed up at my house the night before I left we had something of a repeat performance.  She really didn’t know what to do about him other than to try to avoid him and Felix doesn’t really recognize that as an option.

Anyway, on that Wednesday morning I flew to Sacramento via Chicago and Denver on United and I have to say that other than a small luggage snafu the trip was not nearly as bad as I have come to expect.  Over the years I have become one of those people who fundamentally loathes air travel so when things are truly horrific it comes as a surprise.

I arrived in Sacramento at 5:00 in very balmy weather and with both of my suitcases present and accounted for.  Robyn picked me up, as she usually does on these trips, only this time we headed out to Carmichael to John’s new place on the bluffs of the American River.  John bought a house last fall with a detached guesthouse on 2.5 acres of land on a steep cliff above the river.  The house was very modern when it was originally built in 1962, designed by a then young architect named Carter Sparks.  Roughly 15 years later Carter would take me to lunch and do his best to convince me that I should go out on my own to practice architecture rather than endure another unsatisfying employment experience.

The house was remodeled in 2005 but in a somewhat ham-fisted manner so a lot of the modifications John is hoping to accomplish involve removing elements of that redo.  Because he doesn’t want to move in until the work is finished, I found myself at his guesthouse in what I can only describe as splendid isolation. 

Each morning I would get up, make myself coffee and walk out to the deck that overhangs the bluff and gaze at the fog hovering low over the river and the parkland across the water from John’s house.  As the sun would come up over the Sierras the ducks, geese, egrets and great blue herons that habituated the shallows on the bank opposite the house became very active and raucous in an oddly pleasing morning cacophony.  It seems odd but the noise was soothing.

I spent a little time each day just enjoying the surroundings as well as attending to a few tasks I had locally.  In the days in Sacramento I saw comparatively few of my old friends.  Part of the reason for this trip was to scope out the property to see if it would work as a base of operations for what I hope will be a 4-month visit to California this summer.  It has been more than 10 years since I moved away and if there is one thing that has become very clear it is that there is simply no way to keep up with all the people I still consider friends if my trips are limited to 10-14 days as they generally have been.  I think by spending an entire season there I will feel like I can see everyone I want to see and do a lot without it feeling hurried or forced.

I was concerned about whether I would be able to stay at John’s place safely with Felix but am pretty sure it won’t be a problem.  The property is fenced on three sides and the bluff on the river side is so steep and high that I cannot imagine the big boy would try to escape via that route.  The biggest risk would be if someone arrived while he was roaming the yard and he were to get out the gate while it is open.

After my stay in Sacramento, I borrowed one of John’s cars and headed to the Bay Area for a quick lunch with Ingrid, which was, as usual, delightful.  After all these years she and I still never run out of topics of conversation.

Then I drove down to Aptos to spend a few days with my friends Faye and Jay.  In a fit of nostalgia the three of us drove down to Big Sur one day for a fashionably late lunch at Nepenthe.  I had not been there since I used to go with my old and dear friend Bernice Slater back in the late 80s and early 90s.  Bernice died in 1994 and had sold her place in Carmel well before that so I believe this visit was probably 23 years or so after the previous one.  Not much has changed.

We had drinks while waiting for a table and had a great time talking about and trying different whiskeys with the terrific bartender who was working that day.  Lunch was pretty much as I remembered it.  They do make a really great burger and the room is almost all glass.  You are perched on a hilltop high above the Pacific Ocean and on a day like the one we chose, with a fog bank hanging just a short distance out from the cliffs on which the restaurant is built, you are treated to some of the most ethereal views that stretch of the California coast offers.

After lunch we walked down to the somewhat hippy-dippy gift shop that is down at the level of the parking lot, shopped around for about 20 minutes and then headed back to the car.  As we approached it a man dressed mostly in black and his rather stunning young blonde companion were getting out of their serious looking black BMW next to Jay’s car and walked past us on their way to the gift shop.  Faye, who it turns out, is something of a celebrity junkie immediately became very agitated and said to Jay and me “Ooh that’s that famous movie star”.  Her delivery wasn’t exactly quiet so when Jay and I turned to see to whom she was referring the man in question turned to look at us.  He smiled and then headed into the store.

Faye was beside herself with excitement but couldn’t remember who he was.  Almost immediately she decided that she had to return to the store in pursuit of her quarry.  Jay and I shrugged and hung out by the cars for a couple minutes and soon Faye returned all aflutter.  The story was that she walked up to him, told him how much she loved his performances and how thrilled she was to meet him to which he replied “You don’t know who I am do you?”  Sheepishly she admitted that she couldn’t remember his name and asked it.  Clearly this guy was having fun and told her he wouldn’t tell her who he was but he asked her to come over to him and give him a hug.  According to Faye she was rewarded with a major bear hug from the unnamed movie star and realized it was time to retreat.

10 minutes later as we were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway back toward Aptos Jay and I were interrogated the still very excited Faye to see if we could figure out who the hell this guy was.  Once she settled down a bit she told me that he was “with Johnny Depp”.  I am pretty sure Johnny Depp is not gay so I questioned this and she said, “No he acts with Johnny Depp”.  “What films were they in” I inquired and after a moment of frustration she said “Pirates of Penzance”.  I pointed out that Johnny Depp was probably pre-adolescent when that movie came out but because I am experienced in conversations with Faye, I realized that she meant Pirates of the Caribbean and said “Orlando Bloom”?  “Yes!” she exploded from the back seat.  “Orlando Bloom hugged me”.  There was a very brief discussion about turning around and heading back but we all decided that would be a tad stalker-ish so instead Faye spent the rest of the drive either calling friends who would be equally agog over this encounter or texting the ones she couldn’t raise on her phone.  It was all pretty funny.

That Friday Faye and Jay had to drive to Los Angeles for a visit with Jay’s almost 102-year-old mother and I was headed up to El Portal and Yosemite for a weekend visit with Rob and Carolyn.  The weather service had forecast a storm the likes of which California hadn’t seen in more than a century but luckily for me (not so lucky for the drought stricken State) it didn’t materialize so I had a very pleasant uneventful drive up into the Sierras.

Rob and Carolyn are now working for a company called Nature Bridge for whom they are environmental educators.  They and their colleagues teach wilderness educational programs in Yosemite to groups of school kids from all over California.  Rob had been working that afternoon but was off and back at the house where he and Carolyn are living in El Portal by 4:00 in the afternoon so once he was cleaned up and changed I drove over to their place for our reunion and dinner.  It was great, as always, to see them.  Both seem happy and fulfilled with this work and they are living in true splendor and are surrounded by a bunch of like minded nice young people.

We chatted for most of the evening and when I left the plan was for me to return at 9:00 in the morning for coffee and to determine what we could do on Saturday.  Since the storm was still being predicted we made no real plans.  Carolyn had been hit with a virus a week before and while she was feeling better she had decided to lay low for most of the weekend and leave Rob and me to entertain ourselves. 

Saturday morning I got up and the weather was actually pretty nice.  It was very mild and while it clearly had rained a little overnight there were just a few patchy clouds and a bit of overcast in the morning, so I headed to their house and had coffee and a little breakfast with Rob and Carolyn.  We then set out to take advantage of the weather break and get in a hike.

I have spent many wonderful days in Yosemite over the years.  I suspect I averaged one visit per year in the 33 years I spent in California but Rob suggested trying a hike that I had never heard of and that he hadn’t done.  There is an abandoned and partially destroyed old road called Old Big Oak Flat Road that used to be the route out of the Yosemite Valley to the town of Big Oak Flat.  Several decades ago a new road was put in. . . California Hwy 120, so the old road was abandoned.  Parts of it are still sort of intact and the grading done makes it pretty easy to walk, but over the years there have been rockslides that have taken out sections of it.  We mostly did easy hiking although there were a couple spots where it was necessary to scramble over boulders.  I was glad I had brought my hiking boots.

Once we reached the point where traversing a large slide might have been a bit more challenging we stopped.  The reward was the single most spectacular view of Bridal Veil Falls I have ever seen, as well as a pretty great view of El Cap and Half Dome beyond.  Suffice it to say, pictures were taken.

We then retreated back to the car and headed to the Ahwahnee for a late lunch.  Rob had never been in the dining room and we lucked out getting one of the three window tables in the “apse” at the very end of the dining room.  Lunch was great.  After that we wandered around various locations in the Valley.  Rob showed me a few points of interest I had not seen before and in the late afternoon we headed back to the house.

Apparently Saturday night is poker night at their house.  Rob and Carolyn are the only ones living in the house but occupants of two rooms in an adjacent structure share the kitchen and living room so they suggested that dinner out might be a good idea for that night.

We drove down to Mariposa about a half hour away and went to Happy Burger for a fun and funky dinner.  When Rob suggested it I thought it might be a peculiar choice but the food was good (I had chili and the salad bar which seemed appropriate for a drizzly mountain night) and the people who run the place could not have been nicer.  This meal was followed by a quick stop at the local beer pub and then we drove back up the hill to El Portal.  After briefly checking in with the assembled poker players I called it a night and headed back to the hotel.

Amazingly enough, Sunday was almost as good a day as Saturday had been.  Rob and I managed a hike along the Valley Loop Trail for a bit until we reached a point that would have required walking through flowing water.  At that point we headed overland and walked up to the base of Bridal Veil for a quick look and then continued on a bit until the rain began in earnest.

At that point it was time for lunch anyway so we walked back to the car and got more than a tad wet in the process.  I stripped of the outer layer of my gear and drove into Yosemite Village where we had a deli lunch, sat around and talked a bit, and then called it a day.

Rob and Carolyn made a nice farewell dinner and I hit the road back to Sacramento by about 6:30, getting back to Carmichael and the guesthouse by 10:00.  All in all it was a very civilized and delightful 5 days of gallivanting around with Ingrid, Faye, Jay, Rob, Carolyn, and of course, Orlando.

I had one more day in Sacramento to do laundry, tie up some loose ends with my friend Mark who is doing the work on John’s house, and have one last dinner at John’s current digs before an early night and the long flight home the following day.

All in all, a great trip.  It was made easier by occasional Facebook posts from Josh and Lanny with pictures of Felix apparently having a good time, including one I will post of him curled up on his bed with Layla.  She apparently got over her aversion to puppy behavior.

On the flight from Chicago to Asheville a couple of old friends from way back in the 70s were present.  Ken and Dede, whom I probably hadn’t seen in 15-20 years, were on their way to visit their son Nathan and his wife Julia.  Three weeks before their first child was born and Ken and Dede were understandably eager to meet their granddaughter.  They were here for 6 days and it was really great.  Each morning we had coffee together before they headed over to Nathan and Julia’s house.  Each evening around 9:00 they returned and we sat around for a couple of hours having a drink or two and catching up on what had happened to us all in the last 2 decades.  It was, as it turns out, a great way to catch up without overwhelming each other.  I think they will be frequent visitors as long as Nathan and Julia and baby Juniper are living here.

I continue to try to solve the persistent problems with neck pain with physical therapy but I am starting to think something might be going on that remains undiagnosed.  When I returned to PT a year ago I was hopeful that whatever the source of my pain was could be resolved in a reasonably short period of time but it is starting to seem chronic.  When I had an MRI a bit more than a year ago nothing showed up to explain it so my guess is that after the spinal fusion, I am carrying myself in a different posture than I used to and somehow that is resulting in this persistent neck pain.  Too bad North Carolina doesn’t have legal medical marijuana.

Felix will be a year old on March 11th.  I had planned to have a birthday cake made for him at Three Dog Bakery as I always did for Abner on his birthday, but Felix is going to be neutered two days before so I am thinking that he might not be ready to fully enjoy the day.  He is turning into a big love and is slowly outgrowing his puppy behaviors.  He finally will take the stairs up and down in the house and has consequently discovered the pleasures of downstairs as Abner did before him.  They both love it on the lower level due to relatively sparse furnishings (room to run indoors) and cooler temperatures.  He also hasn’t eaten any woodwork in more than a month so I am cautiously optimistic that we have finally passed that phase.

All in all, things are fine around here.  I am really looking forward to my planned summer in California.  8 months here and 4 there may turn out to be the perfect balance for us.  But of course, all of you who read this will know one way or the other.

I hope you are all well.  More later.
 These pictures were taken early in the morning at John's new place on the bluffs of the American River.

 The main house is perched at the edge of the cliff with great views as seen above.  The guest house where I stayed is snuggled back in a more secluded part of the property, below.
 Above is a shot I took on the drive down to Big Sur and our fun lunch at Nepenthe.  Below is a somewhat posed (ya think?) shot of me with Bridal Veil Falls on my Saturday hike with Rob.

 Above is a great view of El Capitan from the Old Big Oak Flat Road trail. . .with Rob serving as a scale figure.  The shot below is from the balcony of my room at the Yosemite View Lodge.  The hotel has serious maintenance issues but the Merced river flows right behind it and it is only about 2 miles from the entrance to the park.

 I am starting to realize that this blog has a lot of pictures of me wearing that same North Face Parka. . .usually with something scenic in the background.  Below is a "selfie" (a term I hate) at the dining room at the Ahwahnee Hotel.  Pretty good lunch actually. . .

This was a postcard shot of Rob with El Capitan in the background when we were walking the Valley Loop Trail.  It was just too perfect a spot to not take a picture.

 Josh and Lanny and Layla stayed with Felix.  I think he had a great time.  The shots above were, I suspect, a tad posed at my house.  Below is a photo of Felix with some new friend from his outing to Rumbling Bald, and the bottom shot indicates to me that Layla decided he wasn't so bad after all.