Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
After six months of COVID stay-at-home and almost a month of forest fire smoke stay-inside, we decided to try a road trip. Travel has been our avocation for a couple of decades (or more?) and these past months have severed our connection with that practice. We have found ourselves wondering if we even know how to travel anymore. Hence, we are trying a pair of road trips, socially-distanced and fire avoiding road trips.
Part one will be five days up in the Sierras, outside of Truckee, near Lake Tahoe. Gabby and Mamal have a vacation home there that they are not using and we invited ourselves to take over. Just us, as isolated as we have been in Fresno, but different surroundings. Next week, we will go over to the coastal village of Cambria and stay for a couple of days at one of our favorite B&Bs, J. Patrick House. We will then assess how the world of travel for us might get restarted.
I am continuing the day-by-day format of our pandemic diary of the last half-year, because, well, we are still in that pandemic and want a record of how we fared, day to day.
Monday, September 14, Corona Virus Day 185
When we got up, the Fresno Air Quality Index was 299 and the orange sun was barely visible through the haze. Despite the fact that Truckee AQI was not all that much better, we finished our (over) packing and filled the Jeep by 9:30. Then we hit the road, or tried to.
As a last minute precaution, I checked the windshield washers, not that we expected rain, but sometimes it's useful to wash away bugs and dirt and ash. When the reservoir needed almost a gallon, I knew something was wrong. We tested the washer and a broken hose sprayed washer fluid all over the engine compartment. A half hour later, I had patched the hose with duct tape, in two places. Not a good portent for the trip.
Leaving Fresno, the air was thick, almost like when ground moisture used to create the infamous Tule Fog. Now, there was no moisture, just dry smoke from forest fires in the Sierras north and south of us. The haze wasn't dangerous, as much as it was simply disorienting, making this first-drive-in-months that much more tense.
We took a break in Loomis, after making it past Sacramento. Two-and-a-half hours of driving had been tense and tiring. We definitely have lost our road-travel sea legs. However, after a visit to Taco Bell's clean rest rooms and to a friendly Starbucks, we found ourselves almost "at home, on the road." Nice.
As we ascended the hill into the mountains, the air gradually improved. By the time we passed the summit, and stopped at the Donner Lake vista, we felt like we had escaped the San Joachin Valley fire haze. I have taken this picture in even better conditions, but this seemed good enough.
We passed by Truckee, over to Martis Camp, where our Rahimi Resort was waiting. We checked in at the gatehouse, received our pass, and wandered the roads, hoping we would remember where, exactly, the resort house was. It is on the back side of the development, so we had a chance to see lots of the fancy homes. We do hope they have good fire prevention plans.
The house was the same as we had left it six months ago, warm and welcoming and as comfortable a place to stay as we could imagine. Thanks Gabby and Mamal.
Dinner was snacks, leftovers, and wine. Too much of the snacks and wine, at least for me, but sitting inside or outside, at the fire pit, was conducive to enjoying ourselves.
The air was not mountain-pure, but an AQI of 90 felt great, considering where we had started the day. Checking air quality has taken over from checking COVID statistics for us. I suppose that's a good thing, as I am certain smoke will clear before the virus. Eventually a yellow sun went down behind the neighbor's trees. The night view from the porch offered no stars, but it still seemed fresher than back home.
And that was COVID Day 185 and Road Trip Day 1
(This day in our history: Frankfurt Auto Show, 2003)
Tuesday, September 15, COVID #186, Road #2
Marianne will meet for lunch with friends and I will do ???
I was up early, just because that's what happens. In the dark, I started routines: make coffee, raise blinds so sun can eventually come in, check fire status and air quality (and note there will be little sun), start on diary, and read online news. I don't spend much time with news, since so much of it is threatening. The West Coast fires have been heart-breaking, not to mention eye-watering, throat-irritating, and lung-clogging. We have no particular breathing condition, so we're better off than many, but it is still pretty discouraging to know there is not much we can do to avoid smoke.
After breakfast, I walked a little in the neighborhood. Mostly, we are surrounded by massive vacation homes and "cabins", each with thousands of square feet and once-in-awhile occupants. Our Rahimi Resort is just a "guest house", but plenty for us! I only made it a few hundred yards to a nearby playground where I could practice various photography: wildlife (one robin), flora (a few potted plants), sports (bocce balls) and landscape (a small creek). All practice is good.
That was almost the only excitement for the day, in part because the smoky air made long walks impractical and the lighting for photography pretty dull. Instead, I started a 1,000 piece puzzle that I have no chance of finishing while we are here. What was I thinking?
Marianne went over to a Lake Tahoe restaurant to meet up with two teacher-friends from decades ago. Reports are that they enjoyed themselves, eating outdoors and properly distanced. (One of the friends had already recovered from COVID19, but all were cautious nonetheless.) The food was not worth recommending, hence no mention of the name of the place. Standard Trotter diary practice.
On her return, we decided dinner would also be "out", if going to the nearest grocery for take-out qualifies. We probably over-bought, with fresh-made pizza and desserts. Since our resort is so spacious, it was like a fancy restaurant, without crowds.
Evening was quiet, more puzzle for me and video watching for Marianne. Gabby called to ask if I could help Ava with her math homework. Of course! I had to learn some new vocabulary, and the word problems were not all that straightforward, but we managed. I look forward to more of this.
Oh, by the way, Elephant #2 came back for Marianne yesterday. Her heart started misbehaving, beating too much and irregularly. This is her "afib" condition and has been a part of life for ten or fifteen years, but mostly it stays away. Maybe the altitude, or the stress of the smoke and pandemic, or maybe just fate has caused a return and it is discouraging. Marianne has studied the condition enough to recognize it is one of those forever conditions, one that people live with. I think the reminder of vulnerability is more discouraging than the medical condition itself.
That was Day 186
(This day in our history: 2015, Spokane and Grand Coulee)
Wednesday, September 16, COVID # 187
The plan of the day was pretty much open-ended, like all days it seems. Away from home, have few chores and fewer commitments. We started with breakfast, something healthy at home and then a stop at the Cornerstone Bakery. Next door, we scouted Morgan's Lobster Shack for take-out dinner. It all seemed good.
In the Before Times, we would find no problem with puttering around Truckee to explore shops and galleries but now, we had to settle for one museum - and outdoor display of two pieces of mountain railroad equipment. No crowds. Socially distanced. It doesn't get any better.
After breakfast and the museum, we did have a few errands. First, find a place that could sell us diesel to fill up the Jeep because it seemed imprudent to be in the California Sierras in fire season, the worst ever, with less than a full tank. We also needed to buy eye medicine to counteract the smoky skies, although we tried to convince ourselves the haze was decreasing.
Our first real tourist destination was the Martis Wildlife Park, in the valley below the humble mountain cabins of Martis Camp. The sky was a dull gray, but it was good enough for landscape shots of the grass and weed (?) fields. In fact, the shadow-less light was quite good for photos of the blossoms of those tiny weeds and grasses. My last pair of pictures shows what post-processing can do, using Lightroom's "dehaze" button. Unfortunately, our real life view was not dehazed and we still needed the eye drops. By the way, we saw virtually no animals in the Wildlife Park; no deer, bear, foxes, coyotes, squirrels, picas, birds, or even bugs.
Of course, a trip to the Lake Tahoe region is not complete without a trip to the Lake itself, pristine blue, surrounded by dramatic peaks. Nope, not today. The fire haze hung in the lake basin, limiting visibility to under a mile and painting the lake battleship gray.
On the way back, we stopped at Martis Lake park and saw some more gray. I suppose fishermen should be used to this, but I'll bet this one would have preferred sun. I know we would have. Next to the park was the Truckee glider and skydiving field. There were no intrepid fliers and fallers out to point my cameras at. Too bad, maybe next time.
The afternoon was extra quiet, with more movies for Marianne and puzzle-assembly for me. It is interesting that we would feel guilty if we spent the hours doing so non-productively at home, but on vacation, it seems just fine. (I use the term "vacation" loosely, since between retirement and COVID, almost everyday is a vacation day.)
We splurged with a barbecue steak dinner, with baked potatoes, something else that seemed right on a vacation. Our mountain restaurant was perfect; a nice view, plenty of space, excellent service. Why would we need restaurants (we keep telling ourselves)?
From dinner to bedtime, movies and my puzzle.
That was Day 187
(This day in our history: Gualala and Sea Ranch, 2019)
Thursday, September 17, Day 188
This was another quiet day, topped off with a bit of socializing. As I write this a day later, I can not remember a single thing we did all morning.
Just after noon, we started preparing for guests by going to the grocery store for cookies. Raley's has been our most favorite stop this trip, now that inside bars and restaurants and galleries are impossible, or at least impractical for us old and compromised folks. Marianne's teaching friend from decades ago, Sharron, and her husband, Dick, were going to be our first house guests since the COVID-19 destroyed socializing.
Coming from home in Colorado, they were vacationing in Carnelian Bay over on Lake Tahoe, something they do every year. This was one of their few excursions this year as well, in part because they both spent six weeks in March and April fighting the Coronavirus. Despite their probable immunity and noncontagious, they were as masked and cautious as we were. Interesting.
We snacked and chatted, outside and distanced, for a couple of hours, thoroughly enjoying the social interaction. Marianne and Sharron caught up on history and gossip, while Dick and I exchanged stories of our own lives. The only thing that interrupted the talking was a coyote visit in our yard. The neighborhood apparently has plenty of inquisitive bears, but we did not have to share our snack this afternoon.
After friends left, we picked up take-out seafood at Morgan's and brought it home. The food was good, although cooling in the fifteen minute drive may not have been beneficial. Still, a recommendation.
The evening was spent as-Truckee-usual, movies for Marianne and the 1,000-piecce puzzle for me. I almost gave up when the remaining four dozen parts all seemed the same, but bit by bit, I finished.
In the course of our quiet evening, Marianne said: "We have to talk." This is sometimes not a good introduction, but, as usual, she was right. We talked about how we will need to face the future, given all the recent warnings that COVID-19 will not be "gone" for a year or more. Masks, limited social interaction, no significant travel, and, even in winter, outside interactions rather than inside will all be features of the future life. We resolved to concentrate on small things, doable activities, sanity-helping actions. Do we see the whole course? No, but like my Cats in Positano puzzle, we will fit the pieces, bit by bit.
That was Day 188
(This day in our history: Rodi Garganico, Italy, 2012)
Friday, September 18, COVID DAY 189
A day to pack up and go home. As the light was just showing up, I could see clouds! This is the first time in weeks that our skies have been other than uniform smoke-gray. A very good sign. (Fresno AQI: 46!)
Since we would only need about four hours for the trip home, we started slowly with breakfast and house cleaning. Campers like we were should always leave the wilderness at least as clean as it was when we arrived. Part of packing was destroying my week's work, work done and ready for someone else. Contact me if you want a lightly used jigsaw puzzle.
As we were puttering, the sun and sky kept looking better. We were so excited at seeing clouds!
Just as we were driving out, Marianne spotted some wildlife on the driveway. I'm not sure what this, but we let him run off, after posing.
Driving out of Truckee, the sky was blue, with puffy clouds, far nicer than the gray that had welcomed us. In the end, the drive took a bit more than five hours, including construction on Interstate 80 in the mountains, a Starbucks stop, and construction and one accident on Highway 99. I don't think we are ready yet (or ever?) for real, long-haul driving of six or eight or ten hours, but maybe we will build up to that.
Back at home in Fresno, there were no surprises. It was warm, in the 80s, and the air was OK. The house had developed a musty odor, but otherwise was as we had left it. Neighbor Steve had collected our packages as requested (thanks). We were too pooped to do the watering we should, or to join in Friday game night with Brian, Jen , and Geoff, but satisfied that we had managed the driving day.
(Shortly after we arrived home, we learned that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had passed away, dampening the mood of our successful trip. We are both sad at the loss of a leader in social justice and disturbed at the prospect of another conservative appointment for the highest court in the land and the political disarray the appointment process will entail.)
That was Day 189
(This day in our history: Rauma, Finland, in 2005)
Saturday, September 19, COVID Day 190
Our goal for the weekend was to to unpack and repack, while enjoying the fresh air. It really was remarkable how much better everybody felt after the smoke gray turned to blue.
When the sun had just risen, even before breakfast, I noticed the light in our backyard and the nice effect it had on pink roses. Here is a bouquet for readers (and me.).
Unfortunately, snapping pictures of pretty flowers wasn't all I needed to do in the back yard. The patio was littered with the start of Fall, no matter how warm it has been. I am not fond of our trees in this season, because leaves drop for at least three or four months, always enough to make me feel guilty if I ignore them. Oh well, we needed the new table uncovered and umbrella set up anyway.
Somewhere in the day, I also walked over to Normal Avenue (I wonder where Abnormal Avenue is?) to see what inspiration message the black garage door held. "If all to do today is to help one person, you help everybody". Inspirational enough.
Next up was chores and shopping, away from 904 E. Cambridge starting with a car wash and abstract photo op. That was followed with hardware shopping at Fresno Ag, Lowe's, and Costco, just like olden times. A stop at the cleaners was next, and then clothes at Eddie Bauer's, cash from Citibank, and one last bit of shopping at the art supply store. All this "normal stuff" was somehow reassuring and non-COVID, even though masks were everywhere and I squirted sanitizer on my hands a dozen times. Maybe that's the way it will be for a long time.
Speaking of a long time, while I was out, Marianne went to Eric for her first haircut in over nine months! She came away excited about her new look; stylish, modern, and a significant departure from the olden days. It looks great, but she didn't need ME to say that.
Our afternoon-evening dinner was served on our new patio table, the first meal we have served on there. We would have preferred all eight chairs to be filled, but it may be quite awhile before we can do that. We didn't linger though, because the mosquitoes are particularly bad this year and the buzzing and subsequent itching drives us nuts.
After all those calories, I needed some time on the Peloton, my first ride in almost a week. I'll admit, I did not want to start, but by the time it was over I had to admit it felt good.
That was Day 190
(This day in our history: 2005, John's Construction Project)
Sunday, September 20, Semi-isolation Day 191
Sunday was a quiet day, a very quiet day. As I write this diary less than 24 hours later, I can not remember doing anything. My phone had one snapshot of dinner, and I recall another bike ride for both Marianne and me, but that must have been it.
(This day in our history: Seattle in 2015)
Monday, September 21, Day 192
In this segment of our two-part travel experiment we explored how to deal with hotel stays and restaurant eating on the road. We chose the J. Patrick B&B in Cambria because we had been there a pair of times before and thoroughly enjoyed our stay, particularly the hospitality of the innkeepers. The coastal town is a relatively easy two to three hour drive, so that seemed doable.
On our way out the back door, Marianne noticed a gas smell and, when she pointed it out, so did I. Not the way we wanted to start a trip. We called PG&E and got connected to a very solicitous and helpful person who made arrangements for a service person to show up ASAP. They take the "smell of gas" thing seriously. Within 20 minutes, the technician showed up and started sniffing with his high tech gadget for leaks around the gas meter. His low tech nose noticed the smell, even before the electronic probe did.
After several other questions, he asked if we had used the barbecue lately and I admitted we had. When I took the cover off, he noticed that one of the burner valves was open, probably from when the cover was put on. That's really not a problem if the valve at the tank is closed, and it seemed like it was, but the instrument and noses all around detected that the problem was indeed a propane leak, possibly through a not-quite-sealed bottle valve. Time to recycle the tank. With that decided, PG&E went his way and we started on ours.
On the way out, we checked in at the neighborhood garage door that posts inspirational messages and today it was a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to follow you." Our country will miss such wisdom.
From there it was on to Highway 41, heading south, before bending west, toward the Pacific. The first part of the trip is farmland, orchards, vineyards, and such. After the water runs out, it is dry and dusty range land and hills. This is not our favorite part of California.
Normally, we would have continued on the big, straight, dull, highway to Paso Robles before cutting over to the coast, but today we veered south, over a very small and twisty road that eventually led us to Atascadero. The town was founded as a Utopian experiment in 1913 and 100 years later it still looks pretty inviting, close enough to the coast to be green, but far enough away to be warm. Unfortunately, we had not planned a stop here, so after getting out to stretch and snap a picture of historical City Hall, we were on our way to Morro Bay.
Our visit to the ocean-side town was also too quick to give it justice. Our goal was dinner, and the first place we stopped was Tognazzini's Dockside Restaurant and hunger made the decision. I was glad we stopped, because the place was not fancy (nor cheap), but the seafood quesadilla was great and Morro Rock was right in front of us.
After dinner, we headed north to Cambria, along one of the nicest drives in the state. We made it to the J. Patrick B&B as promised, a bit after 3:00 check-in and that's when we discovered probably the biggest disappointment of the trip: the original owners had sold out earlier this year and we would no longer receive the level of service they had provided. The B&B is now part of the much larger Moonstone Corporation, along with other properties in Cambria and elsewhere in the west. Our unique little B&B had become "another property", OK enough, but not as special as we had expected.
It was still early enough for a walk and the best walking destination we remembered was the Cambria Nursery and Florist. This really is a sprawling place, with plants, garden decorations and equipment, and a variety of seasonal items for sale, including Christmas decorations twelve months a year. This time of year, Christmas fights for space with Halloween and a wide range of other kitsch. Overall, it's a fun destination, but our sense was that it was suffering from less attention to detail than we had seen in earlier trips. I suspect the COVID-caused fall off in tourism and the inevitable staff reduction is to blame. Still, it was OK enough, if not as special as we had expected. (Nevertheless, the temptation to photograph way too much could not be resisted.)
Lots of normal plants and a few unusual.
Halloween hearse, goblin, tombstones, and tiny dioramas.
Plenty of German Christmas decorations, including Steiff bears and wooden Erzgebirge decorations.
We were not done yet, because Marianne had forgotten how cold feet can get in California coastal towns, so we needed to buy socks. I suggested we go to Parts Unknown, MY favorite clothing shop in town, where we spent more on two pairs of socks than I normally do for a dozen at COSTCO. Oh well.
Then we splurged on cookies and excellent coffee at Mojo's Village Bean to round out the day.
That was Day 192
(This day in our history: Blue Angels, 2019)
Tuesday, September 22, COVID Day 193
I started the day with a drive into town for coffee and a little work on the diaries, just like the old days, except, this time I had to sit in my car. The French Corner Bakery opened early for the to-go coffee and it forced me to buy some goodies. When it was late enough, I returned to the room with Marianne's cappuccino and her part of the goodies. It was all kind of our old regular travel routine. OK enough.
We considered a walk along the beach, but were discouraged by the cold and fog, just not our thing. We shifted to a drive through residential neighborhoods and went up and down San Francisco-like hills past a surprising number of very nice homes. Cambria isn't Carmel, or at least today's Carmel, but it's nice. Should we move? Nah, kind of isolated.
Finally, we fell back on that old tourism standby: shopping. It's not like we had much that we needed, but Cambria has a fair number of unique shops and even I like looking around here. Our first stop was the Squibb House and the Shop Next Door. In the past, we have considered ordering some of their Amish-crafted furniture, but thankfully we are past the acquire-furniture stage in our lives. Nice to look anyway and chat with the friendly owner.
Next on our stroll was to a large store stocked with colorful lamps, clothes, and kitsch. We have bought some of each in the past, but not today. All I walked away with was a photo of a little fountain. It's always fun photographing moving water.
Marianne did have one shopping goal: an old book, one she could tear apart to collage into her art work. Rich Man Poor Man had a large assortment and she found an interesting old technology book, one I will have to read before she destroys it.
We did have one required art stop: Patrick Gallery. Patrick Dennis uses the space as both gallery and workshop and is always generous with explanations of how he does his craft, useful for our own artist. In March, he had shown his work in Milan and escaped quarantine by hours, but some of his painting got stuck in Europe for several weeks. He said business has been quite good, despite the drop in travel. Maybe people have more time for home decoration.
While I sat on a sidewalk bench, Marianne went about finding "something arty" to wear at her next art exhibit. That's being positive! She did not decide on anything this day, but would return to New Moon Boutique on Wednesday. I will try to remember a picture.
In my first shot, you can see a spider web with white ash from local forest fires. This sprinkling was common throughout my close-ups. The air must have been miserable! Maybe that's why the bees and hummingbirds were so busy, grazing in the flowers now that the air was clean.
For lunch-dinner, we chose Linn's, based on an adequate food selection and good spacing for outdoor dining. That's our new restaurant criteria. Marianne had fried chicken with a thick crust and mashed potatoes, vacation fare. I had a seafood pot pie, coastal comfort food. We generally take pictures of nice plates, but I was so hungry my plate was empty before I remembered. Use your imagination.
We hurried (by vacation standards) back to J. Patrick B&B to have our Tuesday Zoom Cocktails with Adrienne, Tony, Rita, and Pete. (Gabby was busy with a Zoom conference about opening schools, more important.) I'm not sure we covered much of earth-shaking significance, but we all endorsed repeating in a week.
Just as the sun was going down, I decided I needed a photo shoot, not because I thought the pictures would be wonderful, but because I enjoy the process of looking and seeing and trying. I walked across the road to the gardens of the Cambria Pines Lodge, and wandered. My favorite spot was the fenced garden with its garden shed and end-of-the-season plantings.
That was Day 193
(This day in our history: Cool CA Coast, 2014)
Wednesday, September 23, Pandemic semi-isolation Day 194
An almost-regular travel day start: coffee and diary work at (or near) the coffee shop, the French Corner Bakery in this case, not Starbucks. I brought home coffee and croissant for Marianne's breakfast, served before the hotel-supplied box breakfast. The box food was not bad, but we miss our travel tradition of leisurely eating and chatting with staff, other travelers, and each other.
After we packed and checked out, we went down for a walk on the beach boardwalk. We looked for whales, but not seriously. A painter was enjoying the fresh air from her beach chair. Wildlife and flowers were also enjoying the warm morning sun.
We started the trip home with a stop at Harmony, population 18 and proud to note they have had NO COVID cases. We bought a fish bowl at the pottery shop but passed on the offerings of the glass-works. Cute little town, if you like kitsch, and sometimes we do.
From Harmony, we drove over the coastal hills to Paso Robles. This time of year, the hills are golden, not green, and the vineyards are mostly picked over. From Paso, we took Highway 101 North, unsuccessfully looking for a side road to avoid freeway driving. We did manage to get off the big highway to drive through Bradley, a humble village where old cars outnumbered people many-to-a-few.
A little north of Bradley, we turned right onto the John McVeigh Jr. Memorial Highway (SR198) and spent over an hour twisting and turning over two sets of coastal hills, with hardly another car to be seen. The drive gave the sense of having dropped into old California, with golden grass fields and rugged hills and not much else.
Up near the top of the second grade, when we stopped to take pictures, we were joined by an SUV from the Pinnacles National Park Condor Project. Two researchers got out and started to set up an antenna to look for the radio-monitored birds. We talked with the bird watchers and learned that the Pinnacles NP Condors range over these hills as well as over Cambria itself, many miles to the west, looking for dead animals to feed on. Unfortunately, nine condors have apparently been lost due to the Dolan Fire, when the flames went through their nesting grounds at night, a time when condors do not fly.
Once out of the hills and across Interstate 5, we entered the farmlands of the San Joachin Valley and miles and miles of straight road. In this 90 minutes, I think there were just five turns before we reached the Fresno outskirts. Marianne made good use of the time by sleeping, while I passed mile after mile of nut orchards and vineyards. Seeing some of the thousands and thousands of almond trees planted in Fresno County, it's easy to believe that this is what supplies all of America with the oval nuts and, in normal years, supplies much of the world as well. In this year of Cornavirus, it is unclear what countries choose to still be buying.
Back home there were no surprises. No propane smells on the patio nor musty odor inside. Steve had properly picked up our mail. Thanks. Neighbors were still sitting on porches.
Marianne started discussing the merits and results of our two-trip travel experiment, but conclusions will have to wait for a subsequent set of diaries.
That was Day 194
(This day in our history: September and October Visotors in 2006)
Stay healthy. Do what you can to stay sane.
John and Marianne