Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas 2007

Camp Connell, CA.-- The view from our kitchen window is not unusual at this time of year.
For our friends in the South, we call those shiny things icicles, and yes, one is hanging from a bird feeder.
Actually the temperature soared today, up to the 50s, and snow and ice is melting rapidly. But here on the shady side of the mountain it takes days, or weeks, for things to really warm up. And it has been in the teens at night, so I plan to go skiing after the Christmas crowds go away.
More snow is predicted for later this week, which should make for a very pretty Christmas.
We came home Friday after spending a week painting and patching our Sacramento home(pictured below), where we lived (when not traveling) for the better part of ten years. It is now on the market, and we are hopeful it will sell quickly at a ridiculously inflated California price. If it doesn't, we'll rent it out for a year and wait for the market to improve.
Like everyone else who has fixed up a place to sell, we wondered why we didn't do all that fixup while we lived there. Whatever. It is someone else's turn.
It's a good house, built in the 1930s, lots of character. hardwood floors, and stained glass windows in the cabinets.
But we are quite happy, thank you very much, to be spending this Christmas in our mountain home, complete with snow. Our children are nearby, and the grandchildren are en route right now to help us decorate our tree.
We spent the morning at our historic little church in Murphys, including duty as candle lighters for the advent wreath. Preacher says we represented the new folks in the church, and it is a place where even bearded pony-tailed retired journalists are welcomed.
We like it. One reason why: this is a very small church (around 100 members) in a very small town, and yet the congregation chipped in more than $11,000 this month to Heifer Project International, our favorite charity for fighting poverty around the world. You can check it out at the web site:
People here care about each other, and so do we: particularly for our friends and family scattered all over the world this holiday season.
Merry Christmas to each of you.
And here is a final look (we hope) of our former home.

Fourth Avenue in Sacramento

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Photo chronicles

This is a series of photos of life in the mountains for the LaMont/Gray families.
Nothing fancy, and if you are not as enamored of these families as I am, feel free to move on to other stuff.

The family gathers in Murphys, in front of the historic Murphys Hotel, for a birthday breakfast for all the males in the family, all born in November. Connor is slightly eclipsed by his sister Delaney, not an uncommon event, but he manages quite well.

A better view of the hotel (Black Bart slept here) and main intersection of town.

This is what it looks like in the Fall when you drive along Skunk Ranch Road, where the Grays live.

And this is what Ruth and Delaney look like when they are having a good time together, which happens quite often.

And this is Bodie, the country dog, one year old, relaxing. he does that well. Yes, he is a beautiful Golden Retriever, born in the Bay Area and named for a famous gold mining town.

Here is an action shot of Pat helping out in a sailboat racing contest, held by Connor's Cub Scout troop.

It's hard to tell from this photo, taken at the Twisted Oak winery tasting room, that Papa LaMont was a classmate of Joe Namath at the University of Alabama.

And finally, a picture of the family having fun in Florida last winter when Harold Moon was kind enough to loan us his boat for a ride on the Banana River.

Ode to Donna

To some folks outside beautiful downtown Camp Connell, California, Donna Manning may just appear to be a normal human being, one who happens to run a store along Highway 4 on the Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway.
But for the people who live here (all 105 of us) and those who visit (several thousand in a big week), they know better.
Judy Caverly, one of the more respectable residents of the area, and a real Yankee too, put her feelings about Donna into a semi-epic poem on her last birthday. It works best if you read it aloud in a Down-east accent. Pretend you are a Kennedy clan member.

Here 'tis:


I’m sitting here with pen in hand
Deciding how to honor Camp Connell’s lady proprietress,
The enigma we call DONNA

Surprises always lie in store when entering
Camp Connell’s door. A happy greeting? Yes! I’ll take it.
One thing’s for sure, she’ll never fake it!

The loving side we all have seen, pinch yourself,
it’s not a dream.
Gaze amongst the “artsy fartsy,” you might meet
the “Paper Nazi.”
If all you buy is black and white, you might be in for quite a fright!

The morning crew arrive in mass, tormenting our poor Donna’s ass.
No burritos to start the day?
Watch out Donna, you’re bound to pay!

People come into the store and hug her,
For they all adore
The lady with the snappy wit.
(She’s apt to call your kid a twit)!

She may not call you by your name
(Can’t remember, what a shame)!

Those of us who gather here to honor her this day will all agree,
She’s one fine dame--
We’ll take her any way.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Yosemite: available to the highest bidder?

Camp Connell, CA -- Yosemite National Park has been a special and happy place for my family since our first visit on a snowy October years ago to a now-closed campground named Smokey Jack. It is not difficult to recall the wonder and awe the park inspired in us then.

Yosemite is still wonderful and awe-inspiring, but I am no longer as happy about it as I once was. I am, reluctantly, discouraged about the future of this unique public treasure.

Future generations better visit while they are young and strong enough to rough it in the wilderness, or rich enough to afford the rapidly climbing costs of visiting a national park. The rest of the public may be out of luck. Average Americans won't be able to get in because they won't be able to afford it.

I have visited six major national parks in recent years, but Yosemite is closest to my home and my heart.

And there are serious problems:
Too many people want too many different things from the stewards of our national parks; too many politicians and park managers accept short-term solutions to continuing problems, and too many people have made too many bad decisions in the past.

I am not optimistic about the future of this wonderful place.

Unless your grandchildren are rich, they may not get to enjoy it.

Yosemite National Park is becoming a public park for the wealthy.

Park employees are busy trying to survive in a nation where politicians believe all government services must pay for themselves with fees, Congressmen care more about reelection than preserving public access to precious public places, and concessionaires claim they do a better job than any one else so long as they are allowed a very good profit for their efforts. And because they complain louder and are better organized, local business interests, regional politicians and a handful of environmental organizations have far more say in decisions than the average taxpayer who paid for the park and keeps paying the bills.

This is not a new trend.

After Yosemite was "discovered" by white guys in the 1850s very few people came because it was hard to reach and expensive. Only a select few made the arduous trip by horseback or stage from the Bay Area until an enterprising promoter named James Mason Hutchins built a hotel and invited artists and photographers to visit and capture the beauty. He also published a popular magazine, in which he extolled the virtues of Yosemite and published their work. He did great PR. You can see his photograph in most early stereographs.
The Valley's popularity grew among those who could afford the trip. It was good for business.
Just like today.
A few hardy souls, more interested in nature and wildlife than hotels, camped along the river bank and enjoyed the scenery without paying for housing.
Just like today.

The Ahwahneechee tribe members that had lived in the Valley part-time were killed, run off, or reduced to servanthood in the name of Manifest Destiny. The remnants of the those people left today aren't in total agreement which tribe was where when, but they all know they were screwed out of a good deal and a lovely place to live.

Fast forward to recent years, and you'll notice that lots of people still love the place and want to visit. And the conflicts have not changed much, even though it is now a national park.
But, as a public park, it is becoming more and more expensive to visit.
Yosemite rangers do not see a lot of poor people coming into their park.

One reason has to be the cost of access.

When I recently planned a one-night off-season stay in Yosemite I went to the internet for a reservation since I did not want to try to camp in uncertain weather.
The one-night cost for rooms available with bath and heat ranged from $437 at the Ahwahnee Hotel to $147 at the Yosemite Lodge. Nothing was available at the Curry Village except tent cabins, with no bath and most with no heat.

A room without a bath was available at the Wawona Hotel, an hour outside the Valley but inside the park, for a $86.90 plus tax. I took it.

In four recent cross-country driving trips, I never paid more than about $100 for a comfortable clean room with a bath.

Over the past 27 years I have stayed at every Yosemite lodging available, from backpack camps to the Ahwahnee Hotel. (I can afford it, even if I worry because it excludes those who cannot.)
I can vouch for the fact that the Valley is beautiful.
And I can testify that most of the accommodations are just average, but nowhere near comparable in costs to similar places outside the park. And some are really worn, crowded, noisy and uncomfortable.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is an exception,it is a luxury hotel after all, but even so the rooms are just average -- in a pretty building a great location. The lobby and dining room are magnificent. If you can afford to eat there you should.

But if you want a luxury hotel in a pretty location in the Sierra Nevada you can go to Lake Tahoe and stay at a number of places for a lot less money than anything available in the park. The view at Tahoe is quite good, and you can hike or ski all day and gamble all night, if that's your thing.

Working families that live within a day's drive of the park are aware the entrance fee went from $5 per car to $20 per car in recent years. That was scheduled to go higher until the park service dropped that idea. Falling attendance at national parks everywhere might have played a part in the decision.

The median household income of all those people whom own the parks, is $48,000 a year(in 2006). The median American wage earner makes about $12.50 an hour.

Camping is about your only inexpensive option in the park if you can find a place available. Tent cabins, which are often available at average-motel prices can be crowded and noisy and cold.
If you happen to be old, require a toilet, and don't own an RV or want to sleep on the ground, be prepared to pay big bucks.

If you want to stay in a comfortable room the park, you'll pay resort prices.

I know that some people will disagree.

But those of us who live in California, near the highest-average-income regions of the nation, need to remember there's a lot of other people out there who helped pay for this park. They deserve a better chance to see what their tax dollars have purchased.

This situation is not necessary.
Accommodations in the park could be priced fairly within reach of average families.
Congress could provide the support the park needs to fix the things that are broken.
Concessionaires could accept lower profits.
Then we could all compete for the limited space available on an even footing, rather than being outbid because of money.

Whatever your view I encourage you to take part in the discussion by letting the park management or your local congressman, or both, know how you feel.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Another beautiful day in paradise

Patricia's World

Look but do not enter

The Aspen were aglow

The weather has been too beautiful to stay inside lately, so today after church, we returned home to change clothes and pack a lunch, then drove up the mountain to explore. We parked the Subaru at the Silver Lake trailhead just above Lake Alpine.

It took about an hour of steady walking to go down to our destination, Duck Lake. It was/is truly a lovely trail... beauty all around us.
The trees and ground smelled sweet from the recent rain and snow. Sky so blue, sunshine glowing through the trees.

We passed two couples each with little children in tow, so I thought that probably I could make it in and out again. The last part was all down hill (so you know what that means, it was uphill to get back to the car! ).

This beautiful little lake is in a small meadow surrounded by Lodgepole Pine and bright yellow Aspen. In the meadow also were three abandoned log cabins, all decrepit, ancient, falling down (don't go inside). One even had an old white enamel woodburning kitchen stove and kitchen sink. I guess they packed those in years ago. Lots of recent cow paddies all over the meadow from summer mountain grazing....and assorted other scat....coyote, deer, jackrabbit, and maybe a bear (hope so anyway, or it was one HUGE dog...or maybe it was a horse...)

We stayed there long enough to look around and take some pix and take a little rest. The hike out wasn't so bad. though it was pretty hard for me, being so out of shape and all, but I did make it, and Sanders didn't need to break out the M&Ms this time. Well, he didn't have any, but I think we may need them for another time...

Dinner later at the Lube Room around 5 p.m..gourmet hot dog and cheeseburger.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Just another day in the mountains

Today was a "found" day as we expected to be tied up with contractors, and then on the road to San Francisco Bay to deal with hauling out our sailboat s/v Good News so we can get the bottom painted, a routine and expensive maintenance chore.

We took care of the first business early.

The contractor who is going to build us a garage came by with the county building permits in hand; actually almost, nearly, possibly ready to start the project. We began this process in Spring, signed a contract in June, and have been messing around with ideas, the county permit folk and an engineer ever since.
So far, we are only about $800 over budget, thanks to surprises from the county permit people regarding the required engineering (about $600 worth) and me paying a totally unfair penalty for the fact the wood shed, 20 years old and built by someone else, apparently did not have a permit. I decided not to argue about it, or tear down the shed, which were options that took too much energy and emotion.
We need the garage as the cars take a real beating when the snow and ice come to stay.
Our plan was to have the garage built before the snow flies.
Well, the snow flew a week ago, though it did not last long.
We remain hopeful, based on today's discussions, that within a week a neighbor will show up with a backhoe and start shoving dirt and gravel around. It is a fairly simple design, so if we get reasonable weather for the next 30 days, we may see a garage before the serious snow begins. Last year we had the first snow in late November. This year it has snowed here once, and just up the road, three times, already.

So, just in case, we will make sure the buiding supplies can be stashed out of the weather in our woodshed if needed.
The second contractor, this one a person who install kitchen counters, showed up before the first one left. That discussion required much looking at colorful tiles of various materials, all horrifically expensive, and suggesting multiple options. We will get a bid in a few days, and probably get one or two more.
This became necessary whe our kitchen counter tile cracked one especially cold winter. I have repaired the damage with duct tape for several years, but we agree it is time for a fix.
But then we were done, as the boatyard where I want to get the haulout done is not available this week.
So we went to the park.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is our near neighbor, two miles down the road, and we almost never go there unless we have house guests.
But today we took off, found a bottle of water under the car seat, and went exploring and hiking.
We have visited the South Grove of Sequoiah (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees many times, but today we drove all the way down the river canyon to the other side, in the middle of a beautiful forest, and hiked into the seldom-visited North Grove.
It is a beautiful time of year to be outside. The weather was post card perfect; sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s. Recent rains have dampened down the forest floor, and created a perfumed scent as a few eager plants have sprung back to hold their heads high.
Only four or five other vehicles were at the trailhead, and it was as if we had a magic place all to ourselves.
The drive down into the park and up the next ridge covered about ten miles of mixed conifer and oak forests, and elevation ranging from 5,000 feet down to 3,000 feet and back up again.
This part of the forest is full of small dogwoods under the larger cedars and pines and oaks, and they have all turned pink and yellow and gold and orange. Quite a sight. And we discovered a tree called a big leaf maple, plendid in yellows down alongside the creeks.
The squirrels are busy everywhere, getting ready for winter, and we even saw a few wooly worms getting ready for cold weather.
The big trees are stunning. They dominate everything nearby, and seem to lurk behind the merely magnificent Sugar Pines and White Cedars which reach upward over a hundred feet. The Stanislaus River and bear and Big Trees creeks were flowing happily.
The guide book says there are more than 1,000 living big trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in the groves in our park. These are not Coastal redwoods, which actually grow taller, but the prehistoric giant trees that are the largest living things in our world today -- the few that are left.
We plan to vsit them all, and not worry about meeting contractors.
We're retired. We have time to do it all.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Cruisin' away from the rustic life

Traveling from Vancouver, B.C., to Los Angeles, CA, on a giant cruise ship was never my idea of a really good time.
Until we actually did it.
Yes, it is conspicuous consumption.
Yes, there are a lot of people of a certain age on board.
Yes, we spent a lot of time discussing or consuming food.
But, man, was it fun!

First, a few technical details.
We sailed on the Norwegian Cruise Lines' Pearl from Vancouver to Los Angeles, with a stop in San Francisco, in the company of Pat's cousins Kathy and Brenda, and their husbands Dennis and Jim. (I consider them all my cousins-in-law, and good friends).
The ship is about one year old, longer than the road between Camp Connell and Dorrington, and taller than most buildings. Just think HUGE. The pictures, which are not in any particular order, will give you an idea.

It was not terribly expensive, considering the food supply, so long as you kept your bar bill (that's extra) and casino visits under control.

Our cabins, called "mini-suites," were about the size of a hotel room, slightly narrower but with quality everything, a stocked mini-bar, sofa, desk, television, phones, and a balcony overlooking the ocean. Cheaper cabins are available, but we were living it up.
At one point in the cruise we all hung over the balcony rails and watched the whales spouting off.
We sang to them.
Sorry, but I was too excited to take pictures.

I can't recall how many restaurants there were on board, but I assure you we never found them all, despite our best efforts. The women did discover a cafeteria converted into a chocolate buffet around midnight one night.

We ate at a steak house one night, an Asian place the next, French the next and haute cuisine the next, with other meals on the rear deck or in other parts of the ship.

The guys bowled (they have four alleys), worked at the slot machines, drank beer by the pool, while other people swam or soaked in the hot tubs, used the running trck, played tennis or basketball on the top deck. A few people even tried the rock climbing wall, or shuffleboard. We all shopped, gambled, visited the art gallery, ate and gawked like everyone else.

We saw the Second City Comedy Show, an excellent magician (with attractive young wife in bikini who, unfortunately, kept disappearing). And Pat and I took a dance class to learn how to Line Dance. Picture us doing the "Boot Scootin' Boogie" with about 20 Japanese women tourists.

Mostly, we just stared at people and stuff. There were a few thousand peple on board but it never seemed really crowded except when getting on and off the boat. There were a lot of people over 50, but an equally interesting group of families and younger people, particularly Asian tourists.

The crew was led by tall distinguished Norwegian men named Lars or something similar, had a good representation of women officers, and the majority of the support crew came from the Phillipines and Romania, with a smattering from everywhere else including a nice man from Bali named Iwayan (ryhmes with lion).

When we stopped at San Francisco for the day I was the tour guide, no tips please, so we hopped a trolley car to the Cable Car stop, then took that to the top of Nob Hill for pictures and views. We caught another cable car down the hills to the waterfront, where the sea lions (even as loud and stinky as they are) were the hit of the show.

But it was the ship (don't call it a boat) that was the star of the cruise. It was really magnificant. A tour without leaving the dock would have been a treat.

The cost was about equal to a few nights in the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, but we moved across the ocean and were treated to real luxury not faded glory.

Consider this: some day you may need to choose an Assisted Living Facility, but you could simply stay aboard a cruise ship and be housed, fed and cared for (they have a doctor on board) for less money.

I would do it again, just as soon as I get off my current diet. I look like Mister StayPuff and need to haul a few cords of wood before the snow gets deep.

But now it is nap time. And it is snowing outside.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Fire on the mountain

Camp Connell, CA - The last thing we wanted to see as we drove homeward up the mountain after out grandson's soccer game were the plumes of smoke rising from the ridge just above us.

This has been an unusually dry year, and fire is never far from our minds.
By the time two fire crews roared past us heading up the winding state highway, the concerns grew.

Our home sits on the edge of thousands of acres of forest, mostly private, some public, and we have worked hard this year at creating and maintaining a "defensible zone" around the wood-framed structure. But no zone can protect a home if a big fire gets going and winds blow it up the mountain canyons and over the ridges.

Traffic started to slow down, then stopped just as we approached a Forest Service office along the road. The Highway Patrol had red cones out, and was turning everyone back down the hill. All we could learn was that four separate fires were burning alongside the highway, and crews were flooding into the area in trucks along with helicopters and spotter planes and heavy equipment crews and water tankers.
We did what sensible people do in such times, with a forest fire burning hotly and cutting us off from out home: we went out for lunch.
Information was very hard to get while we ate and shared our concerns with other refugees. There are no television or radio stations in the area, and rumors tend to carry bits and pieces of news that aren't always reliable. We did learn it would be hours before we could get home, and the status of the fire was unknown.
We found the solution at the nearby home of our daughter and family: the local community internet site was "broadcasting live" from their den studio, on the other side of the fire line, including video and still photos.
The young couple that manage the site had been on their way to WalMart, 50 miles downhill, and happened upon the fire line and went right into action.
Their "studio" is primitive and their camera and reporting techniques unpolished, but God bless 'em, they were the only link between us and a potentially disastrous situation. And they did a great job of passing along everything they could learn, as fast as possible.
There were four separate fires, all apparently started by some idiot throwing firecrackers into the dry brush along the road. The area fire departments immediately threw men and equipment into a coordinated attack to keep the fire controlled, and despite the high temperatures and dry brush and parched trees, were able to stop the fires before they spread beyond ten acres.
The road reopened at 7 p.m., and we drove home through the charred areas while several fire crews were still cleaning up the area, and starting load into the trucks.
Our home, eight miles up the road from the site of the fires, was serene and cool when we arrived. No one has been arrested, and life goes on.
But my perspective on access to news has shifted. I'll still read the Sacramento Bee and the New York Times, and watch a little television news now and then, but from now on my primary link to my world will be through an unpolished web site that tells us about local festivals, free music events, the times for the farmers' market, highway accidents and forest fires that just might burn my house down.

You can check it out at
(The photo is from their web site)

Tell them I said thanks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

We're okay, really

Camp Connell, CA- Part of learning to live in the mountains of
California is explaining to friends from other parts of the world that
every time they hear on TV that California is going up in flames, or
experiencing a destructive earthquake, it isn't necessarily happening
right here.
Jimmy Buffett sings about fires and earthquakes, and
non-Californians tend to think of this rather large state as one big
shake-n-bake zone. But this is a BIG state, and we rarely even know
there is a problem until our friends back east call and ask if we are
That doesn't mean that we are blase' about fires and quakes. A
few weeks ago I was at the computer late at night when a giant thump
shook the house. That was a small earthquake over on the east side of
the mountains, just a reminder that the earth has not settled down yet.

When you live in the middle of the forest and it doesn't rain for
months, you understand it's only a matter of time before something
will catch fire somewhere. A few days ago the temperature was in the
high 90s even way up here at 5,000 feet, and the humidity was 12%.
Folks in the South Lake Tahoe region learned about the vulnerability of mountain living a week
ago, and more than 200 families are homeless today as a result.
We could smell the smoke from those fires on the evening breeze, even though
it was almost 100 miles north of us. It was a reminder of the
risks of living here in the woods. Now, another really big forest
fire is burning a hundred miles or so to the south.
But we tend not to think about it till something happens close enough to home to get our attention,
even though we are isolated and the only people who live on our
dead-end dirt road.
Helicopters got our attention quickly last night, about the time we were sitting down to dinner.
We had just enjoyed our very first rainfall since March. We could hear the thunder booming higher
in the mountains, like the stories of ghost bowlers, and it reminded us
of Florida's great daily summer thunderstorms.
But the louder sounds
of helicopters and airplanes interfered with our quiet enjoyment of
nature's show and dinner, and pretty soon we were standing on the deck
watching helicopters carry buckets of water directly over our heads.
Not once, but time after time after time. We started sniffing for
smoke, but detected none.
Television or radio were useless, as
neither provide any local news coverage here. Even the local web site
for residents had nothing posted when I first checked.
So I jumped in the car and went to the source of all news in our area -- the Camp Connell Store. It was closed and no one was about.
Next stop, a quarter mile away, the Lube Room Bar & Grill. It stays open
late. Sure enough, a couple of neighbors were standing on the edge of
the meadow back of the bar watching a helicopter attach its big water
bucket before taking off over the ridge. But no one knew what was
happening, or where.
I saw a fire crew in fighting gear in a truck heading up the road.
Next stop was the ranger station up the road in the other direction. A young
couple was sitting on the steps of their home watching the air traffic.
Nothing special, he said, probably just crews knocking down spot fires
from the lightning. He didn't even have his official radio turned on to
So I drove back to the house, reasonably assured things
were fine, and we started talking about what if the danger had been
real. What would we do? What would we take? Where would we go?
Pat made a list.
What's important enough to grab and run out the door? Family photos and
papers, checkbooks, keys and of course the computers. Oh yes, and my
good guitar and her hammered dulcimer.
Everything else can, and probably will, burn if a big forest fire comes our way.
That's just the way it is when you enjoy the pleasures of living in the forest.
Later in the evening a neighbor posted an update on the local website after talking to the local firefighters: lightning strikes triggered two small fires on the ridge above our house, a mile or so away, and crews were on the scene and would stay there till morning. Everything, we were told, was under control.
Irony Footnote:
Sierra Pacific Lumber,the Great Satan of tree cutters in the western U.S., may have made us a bit safer by clear-cutting swaths all around our community, whacking down thousands of trees within miles of our home. I doubt it actually helps,
but you can see what they have done to the once beautiful forest on
Google Earth by plugging in "Fly to 129 Campbell Lane, CampConnell California, 95223."

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Spring at last! Spring at last! Maybe!

Camp Connell, CA -- When you think Spring has arrived around here, it snows.
Maybe not a lot, but enough to remind you that when the long-time local folks suggest you not plant a garden until after Memorial Day (or the Calaveras Frog Jump/ County fair), they know what they are talking about.

The first picture is from about ten days ago, and shows the bulbs trying to survive an early May snowfall.

But then you wait a few days, the sun comes out, and the daffodils bloom.

And then the tulips follow.

And then, the mountain dogwood starts. (A thousand feet below us, in the vicinity of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the woods are filled with dogwood snuggled under the giant trees.)

I asked the local snowplow operator when he could be certain we were done with snow, and he gave me the usual "you never know" answer, but then shared the widely-held belief that winter ends after the dogwood blossoms have been snowed upon.

That didn't help much because at some elevations that has happened already, and at others, including ours, we just missed that event.

One way or the other, Spring will get here.
The birds are coming back in larger numbers. The first hummingbirds are buzzing around the feeder. Flies and other bugs are starting to hatch. Robins are cruising the woods searching for the worms and critters they feed upon.
And the seasonal creek is bubbling happily, for now. It stopped once before when we had a dry spell of a week or two.
I think when it stops this time we will know summer has arrived.

One footnote for those who read about this being the "driest year ever" in California. That may be true down south, near L.A. and at Santa Catalina Island, but up here in Northern California we had an almost normal snowpack, and at this point it doesn't look a lot drier than normal, which is pretty dry every summer.
Of course that can change in a hurry and we are still clearing the leaves and pine needles away from the house, trimming dead branches off the trees, and observing the rules about burning outdoor fires only at night, and only on designated "burn days."
That's life in the mountains.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

More Californians-as-Mexicans

California really isn't taking over, but a lot of folks from up here and going down there. This is the second post showing a few Sacramento area folks enjoying a winter break in Mexico. Check the next post for more pictures.
Picture one is Capt. Dick Gilmore, retired Bee photographer and well-known sailor, aboard Solitude in Marina Vallarta. he looks happy, but there was a touch of frustration waiting on his sick outboard motor to come back from repair. (Update: he is in Cabo San Lucas waiting for a weather window to sail north.)

Photo two shows Dan and Lorraine Olsen, off the sailboat Zephyrus, having breakfast at Malaque. A day or so later they sailed up from Barra de Navidad to Tenacatita Bay, with Pat and me as crew, to join other friends before heading further north. Guacamole and beer works for me. (Update: they are now in Mazatlan.)
Then there's a bad shot of a shy Dustin Fox in his apartment in Puerto Vallarta. Dustin was headed out early to the docks where he works as a marine electronics specialist.

And then there's my beloved Pat, also at breakfast on the beach. We seem to pull out the camera every time we eat. (Update: we are back in the mountains, and just celebrated Easter at a service in Murphys, then came home and then I cranked up the chainsaw while Pat practiced her hammered dulcimer.)

And finally, a group hard at work in the living room/patio/palapa at the apartment in LaManzanilla. Pictured are Michael, David, Sylvia and Scott. (Update: So far as I know, everybody is back at work, though a few are planning a return to Mexico soon.)
Even though LaManzanilla is a small town, you'll note they are using the wifi link to check out something on Sylvia's laptop. It's a wired world.

Sacramento goes Mexico

Here I was hard at work in the dining room of Casa de Sanza, also known as Joe Santana's home in LaManzanilla. The message I am sending says: "Having a wonderful time."
Photo two is Capt. Michael under the casa's palapa taking a picture of Admiral Sylvia looking at the sun setting over Tenacatita Bay. In the distance is the location of their soon-to-be-built retirement home.

Photo three is Pat, Scott, David, Lily, Michael and Jen, awaiting breakfast on the beach about 200 feet from the crocodiles' location. Where else could you see a teacher, mechanic, banker, corporate executive, college professors and law school student (and a former journalist) having a good time and not talking about business, but about the quality of the food, friendship and last night's rest.

Photos four and five are the members of the group either making music, or eating, something we did a lot.

Maybe it's because of the warm days and cool nights. Or perhaps the sunsets. Or the beach. Or the food. or the friendly people. Or the cerveza.
But for some reason the weat coast of Mexico seems to attract a lot of peope from Northern California, particularly from the Sacramento area.
The pictures show some of the strenuous activities required.
Missing from these photos are a former Bee photographer, Dick, who we caught up with in Puerto Vallarta aboard "Solitude," Dustin, former Sacramentan who now lives in PV and works as a marine electrician, and Dan and Lorraine who we caught up with in Barra de Navidad and sailed aboard s/v Zephyrus to Tencatita. (Check the next blog for those pictures).

And if you are thinking this is only for the rich, think again. A decent hotel room in LaManzanilla costs $37 a night with private bath.
The temptation is to return and go native, but the natives won't buy that when I try to speak my version of Spanish. But all you really need to know is "gracias," "por favor" and los banos?" That'll get you by.
We're all home now, watching the weather forecast (nice Spring weather, but cooler with a chance of showers later this week), but we haven't forgotten this.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The mystery of the missing shoes

LaManzanilla, Mexico -- The climate is so kind here we live in shorts, tank tops and wear sandals or go barefoot every day. Once in a while we wear formal wear, shirts with collars and tennis shoes, for walking on the gravel streets up the hills to see how the rich and famous live.
But we always drop our shoes at the front door when we return from long walks to keep the dust and sand outside, where it belongs.
So the other night after we had a fish fry on the patio palapa with our friends Michael, Sylvia, Scott and David, we retired after the final margarita with a pile of shoes outside the door.
When I got up the next day and decided I need my shoes they were not there. I assumed Scott or David picked them up in the dark by accident. I went and woke Scott up to retrieve them before he left for the airport, but he did not know what I was talking about.
I went back to double check and found my socks, slightly soiled, stuffed into a pair of shoes I had never seen before. On closer examination the "new" shoes were tennis shoes, made in Mexico, and one size smaller than mine.
Javier, the efficient house man, has no idea what happened.
No one knows where my shoes are, or whose shoes were left behind. We were all sober, perhaps not as a judge, but sober, and have only begun to develop the possibilities:
-- One of us has a shoe fetish and does not want to admit it;
-- Someone sneaked into our enclosed patio in the dead of the night, tried on all available shoes, took mine and left theirs. Sort of an upgrade;
-- Or, our neighbor, who shall go un-named, stole them. Not likely, but currently the favorite theory since he is something of an ugly American, loud and pompous.
The replacement pair are too small for me, so only one thing remains certain. When I arrive back in Camp Connell and the snow and ice, I will probably be wearing a thick pair of socks and my Teva sandals.
I don't think folks on BART in San Francisco will think that weird at all.
But down at the Camp Connell Store, they might start talking.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Paradise, not yet lost

LaManzanilla, Jalisco, Mexico -- I woke up this morning to the sounds of people walking by on the main street below my second-story window, a gentle breeze floating in, and the subtle thump of the surf. I could hear pleasant early-morning subdued voices of a few early risers, and once in a while a family walking toward the church up the street. It was a happy contrast to the noisy bar patrons laughing and talking loudly that prevailed when we finally put the light late Saturday night. They were happy too, but I was sleepy.
This town has about 2,000 residents, mostly Mexican and a few norteamericanos who have settled here for the peace and quiet and lovely beaches and warm weather.
Peace and quiet is a relative thing, as the bar patron on the loud motorcycle reminded us late last night. With all the windows open all the time, whatever is going on outside is what you hear. But with few exceptions, it is peaceful and quiet.
And peace and quite may be a vanishing commodity. A lot of folks think this little bit of Pacific Coast is in the verge of a land rush that will make Oklahoma's look comparatively mild. Think of Miami before the railroad came. Think Sanibel Island before the causeway, and before condos were invented on Florida beaches.
The rules, laws and attitudes are changing fast here. The land cooperatives which actually own a lot of the land, including miles of prime beach front property, have recently been allowed to claim clear title, and thus the right to sell off land that the rich of several countries lust for. The government is encouraging this economic development, and people who previously have owned very little and lived at subsistence level find themselves in line for a sudden influx of big cash.
I'd like to think this might turn out well, but I suspect that in 20 or 30 years this place will start to look like Purto Vallarta, or worse, Miami. Maybe, maybe not. But in one case we know of the lot prices jumped from $40,000 for oceanfront to a package deal requiring more like $110,000 almost overnight, the result of a land speculator coming through making offers left and right. Our landlord here expects the prices to be over $200,000 quickly, and feels the sky is the limit.
But I like the idea of being able to walk down the street at 10 p.m. and feel secure, the idea that the surf is the loudest noise you can hear on the beach side and that everybody can get to the water anytime anywhere they want. I like the street-side taco stands and the frail old man in a hammock who lives in a room across the street who did his best to help me find coffee filters early in the morning. I like the idea that when I am in most streetside cafes there are more Mexican families than tourists. Even most of the tourists are Mexican, having a good time, genial and tolerant of their sometimes bad-mannered American and Canadian neighbors.
I like fact that merchants and residents spray water on the street twice a day to keep the dust down, and it works quite well. And you might see a burro being ridden on the edge of town.
You'll know the end is near, a friend told me, when they decide to pave Main Street. It may be cobblestone, or concrete. But surely a traffic light will follow. And condos.
I know I am whining, and there must be room for all these fertile people on the planet and the rich always get first call on everything.
But I also remember that Pogo was right: we have seen the enemy, and he is us.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Celtic Whatever

Angels Camp, CA -- Celtic people are taking over these California
foothills, and their annual gathering here is a cultural event that says a lot
about America in 2007.
Exactly what it says is unclear, but bear
with me for a look at my day watching and enjoying Celtic
people and a few wannabees.
This weekend thousands of people who claim Celtic roots, or wish they did, gathered for the 21st Annual Calaveras Celtic Faire. "Calaveras" is the county incidentally. The "Celtic Faire" is a wonderfully strange gathering of people who wear pins that say "Kiss Me I'm Irish," men in kilts, children swinging wooden swords,
large males tossing telephone poles, costumed women with support bras
that would make any engineer proud, adults voluntarily eating Haggis, a
whiskey drinking contest, jousting on horseback, lots of music and
The music was terrific. The crowd was pretty strange, and a lot
of fun.
This Faire was so inclusive that even the Irish and Scots attendees
seemed to be happy one group showed up dressed as English soldiers. Now
that's tolerance.
The wandering crowds included young women
wearing rainbow colored little fairy wings whirling around in circles,
and men in cowboy outfits stomping their feet and dancing jigs that
were part Texas Two Step and PartIrish Jig. And then there were the
people dressed up like the bad guys from The Lord of The Rings, and at
least one young women in a black leather bikini with a skull suspended
strategically. One middle-aged woman dancer was actually wearing a mullet hairdo.
The desire to dress up in costume, almost any costume, and walk around in
public seems to have overwhelmed normally sensible people. Historical
accuracy was not required, though there was a lot of that mixed in with
the belly dance troupe and biker clubs and pirates and village idiots,
and people having their picture taken with an older heavyset bearded
man because he looked just like Jerry Garcia.
The best part of the
day for me was the music. Three indoor stages were kept busy
entertaining standing-room-only audiences most of the day. The big name
bands (for experienced festival goers) were Wicked Tinkers and Tempest,
who were both wicked and stormy, and the local favorites The Black Irish
Band and Golden Bough. When the Tinkers and Tempest were playing you
could close your ears and imagine you were at a Grateful Dead concert,
except the smell in the air was ale and stout instead of the forbidden weed of the 60s. And the throbbing of the drums made closing your ears an impossibility.
A wild and talented band from San Francisco, Culann's
Hounds, pictured above, kept the place jumping into the night. It's hard to describe,
but I suspect they are Irish Punk Rock Fusion Hoedown Bluesy Jazzy
something. Damn they're good.
My big disappointment was that the Concertina/Accordion (?) player got rid of her bright fuchsia hair for something more subdued. A band member explained the fuchsia coloring was making the hair fall out, so it seems like a good decision. No matter, they rocked the joint to the rafters.
international bands (two Irish, one Scots) were there to add
authenticity, but the quality of all the musicians was absolutely
superior. In fact, the only bump in the happy day was constantly flaky sound/power systems, which took the edge off some of the earlier performances.

It was very difficult to choose between going inside a venue to listen
to the great music, or wandering outside and feasting on the costumed
and slightly crazy crowds.

So we did both, and had a great time.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Gale-force senior skiing

Bear Valley, CA -- The first ski day of the year is picture perfect: clear blue skies; crystalline snow; groomed slopes, and me -- right there with the beautiful people -- looking youthful and slim.

In my dreams.

Today was -- for me -- the first day of the ski season. I even bought a season ski pass, determined to ski more and better than ever before.
Snow has been erratic so far this year. The ski resort 20 miles uphill from my home has been putting on a brave front for weeks, trying to entice people even though the snow pack has been the type that scrapes the bottoms of skis and sends you to the repair shop.

Today, according to the forecasts, looked perfect. Below freezing temps, but not brutal. 12 inches of new snow on top of the old thin base. And "breezy" weather.
So we packed up the Subaru with all the excess stuff I always carry, plus a good book for Pat to read while snuggled down in the lodge, and headed up the mountain.

The road up the mountain was reasonably clear,  and the breeze blew bits of snow across the road en route.

When we drove over the shoulder of the mountain, known locally as Mount Reba, the wind seemed to pick up a bit. Then a lot more. Then a whole lot more.  By the time we reached the lodge the wind was howling like a banshee. Parking lots were crowded, but a suspicious number of cars seemed to be pulling out and heading downhill.

We started to walk toward the lodge one hundred yards away. A gust of wind almost knocked the skis out of my hands, and Pat was  sent reeling, hanging onto her hat and book bag. Imagine the Weather Channel guy in a hurricane, and add snow.

None of the chair lifts that lead to the top of the mountain  were operating, and the two that serve the lower slopes were stopping a lot. And swaying a lot.

The lodge dining room was jammed. At 11 a.m. this is not a good sign. We found friendly people from Alameda to sit with, and squeezed into a corner to wait for the weather to change. It always does.

After an hour I became restless and decided I only wanted to get in a few early-season runs. How bad could it be? Really? Pat told me later that as I went out the door the P.A. system announced that the wind on top of the mountain had just been clocked at 70 miles per hour.

When I stepped out the door it was blowing pretty hard, but I was too busy messing with gloves, scarf, goggles, wool hat, parka, fanny pack, poles and skis to notice.

I managed to get down the short hill to the chair lift. The wind was blowing so hard in that area I had to use my poles to move forward, and I noticed there were no waiting lines.

The seats on the lift chairs kept folding up in the wind, creating a challenge  for the operators who kept pushing them down so people could sit.

The ride up the mountain on the lift chair was interesting. I was torn between watching the blizzard-like conditions below me on the ski run, and locking my arms around the metal  seat frame so I would be blown off by a gust. Below me the wind was driving grains of snow across the surface in wild patterns, pushing far up the slopes above us. It looked like those pictures you see on PBS of the wind blowing across the Arctic, tracing beautiful patterns, beautiful so long as you are in your living room.

I managed to get off the lift chair without embarrassing myself, and looked for a sheltered route down the slope. There was none available.

The slope in this area is not steep. I immediately discovered that when the wind clocked around into my face, it stopped me from sliding downhill. Sliding downhill is, normally, the purpose of skiing.

So I used my poles to push myself downhill a hundred feet or so at a time, then stopped to rest with my back to the wind. I was bundled up well, but quickly developed an ice cream headache from the cold wind and snow blast on my face. I wondered how long it would take to develop frostbite.

I have been in winds of about 40 knots sailing on San Francisco Bay,  technically a gale  and ranked as an "8" on the Beaufort Scale.  But it can still be fun.

Today, on the ski slopes, I am pretty sure it was something between a "strong gale" and a "storm", which would be a "9" or "10" on the same scale.

Not fun.

Back to the lodge.
Back to the car.
Back to the house in time for a late lunch and a nap.

Maybe tomorrow.