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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Lazywoods Road


Lazywoods Road

It’s been a couple years since I’ve written a blog piece. I managed to complete my first book (“Out of My Kitchen.” More about that in subsequent pieces, I’m sure). But for some unknown or obscure reason, the blog has been neglected. This will not continue, as I still have a lot to write and put out there for anyone who’s interested in reading it.


The articles that precede this one, are the original entries from both my “LSCooks, Stir It Up” and “Kitchen Generations” blogs. I began these in 2008, while living in Bend, Oregon, and the last entry was in early 2017, shortly after moving to Florida. The subject matter was literally all over the map, but there’s a distinct leaning toward cooking and entertaining, as well as family and friends. 


The new blog is called Lazywoods Road; a place that is near and dear to me and harkens up some wonderful memories from my youth. My grandparents had lived in San Mateo (California) for decades but decided to move to the Santa Cruz Mountains when I was about six or seven. They originally lived up the Empire Grade in the Bonnie Doon neighborhood. But after a few years of dodging the deer, and both slow and dangerously fast drivers up and down the steep grade, they opted to move to the house on Lazywoods Road, which was a couple miles outside of Felton. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, this is a quaint little hamlet in the redwoods, just off the San Lorenzo River, about 15 miles from Santa Cruz, and 65 miles south of San Francisco. 


The Lazywoods house was a small country home with an abundance of trees and foliage, and both a view and easy access to the river, which flowed directly behind it. It would be the final home for my paternal grandfather (Grandpa Gene), as well as their wonderful dog Susie, who I grew up with. My grandmother would have subsequent dogs, and would eventually remarry and move to Watsonville, but the memories of the home have remained near and dear to me for all these many years since. 


I believe I was seven when they moved there. My grandmother was still working as a school secretary in Santa Cruz, and days spent there were split between hanging with my grandfather or playing in one of two pools in Felton. One of the pools was part of a motel, where I believe my grandmother was friends with the owners, and we got to swim for free. The other pool, Felton Acres, was a bigger public pool on the other side of town. It was much more crowded than the little motel pool but was memorable to me as the place I taught myself to swim. I’d been going to the two pools for a few weeks, and since we were often left alone (this would never happen today!) with minimal supervision, we had to wear life jackets. But it soon dawned on me that swimming couldn’t be that difficult, and one afternoon I just removed my life jacket and proceeded to swim around in the pool. A vast improvement, as now I could go anywhere in the pool, and not just the “shallow end.” Plus, I could now jump off the diving board! Swimming lessons? What’s that?


The “we” I’m referring to, were the next-door neighbors, Christie and Nancy Murray. Christie was about my age, and Nancy was maybe a year younger, and the three of us became fast friends, spending most of our days together, either at the pools, or in and around the river. I spent the better part of every summer there, as well as many holidays and winter and spring breaks. While I had an abundance of friends in Daly City, where I grew up, Felton offered an escape from both the summer fog, and my ever-increasing number of sisters. Ultimately, I had five younger sisters, and breaks and sunshine, and hanging with the Murray girls became my preference. 


Two doors up from my grandparents’ house was an older Irish gentleman named Pat Farley. Pat was probably in his seventies but managed to get onto the river for some paddling, almost daily. He had a rowboat that was roughly ten or twelve feet long, but had enough room for himself, as well as the three of us. And he’d love to smoke his bent pipe with a big white bowl and row us up and down the San Lorenzo, maneuvering around the plentiful rocks, and avoiding anything bigger than a ripple in the river. 


We also spent lots of time in the river, swimming and playing on the banks. But a rude awakening was about to happen, the first time my grandfather asked if I wanted to go “crawdad” fishing. I wasn’t initially aware that we were swimming and walking among a healthy number of crayfish (crawdads). The mini-lobsters would generally get out of your way, but if you happened to step on or disturb one of them, they did have a couple pinchers that could inflict pain on an unsuspecting seven-year-old’s foot. 


After my grandmother went to work, my grandfather would make me a great breakfast, and then we’d take a ride to neighboring Ben Lomond, where we’d shop for lunch and dinner supplies at Ellis’ Market. Lunch would consist of sandwich supplies or a hamburger for me, and a kidney, liver, or some other god-awful “innards” for himself. With all the cooking I’ve done, and exotic ingredients I’ve experimented with, I’ve never been able to entertain the notion of eating anything resembling “offal.” I think it’s an awful choice of something to be consumed. 


In addition to lunch and dinner ingredients, he’d occasionally pick up a little piece of liver that was specifically earmarked to be crawdad bait. It was simply a matter of baiting a hook at the end of a string, hanging from a stick, and dipping it to the bottom of the river, right off the bank. He had a big net, and when one of us had a bite, we’d raise the stick, and he’d net the little critter. It was easy to fill his sturdy old creel, and after an hour or two, we’d have a huge catch. Like preparing lobster, they were dropped into a big pot of boiling water for a few minutes, then transferred to a baking sheet to cool and dry. While I never understood his love of ripping the heads off and sucking down the green, nasty tomalley (which shouldn’t be confused with tamale!), I loved the meat from the claws and tails. Just like mini bites of lobster, dipped in butter with a little lemon, they were always a treat. 


Late one summer, after spending virtually all of it at Lazywoods, my mom asked if I could stay a couple weeks into the upcoming school year, as she was about to give birth to sisters number three and four, the twins. My mom was 5’5” and normally about 125 pounds, but shot up to 175 or so, with her pregnancies. Big babies, lots of water, and she came home looking reasonably normal. But this time was different. She was up to nearly 200 pounds, and I began telling all my friends she was going to have twins. And this was early in the summer, long before she knew this to be true. She found out a couple weeks before they were born, but I knew it months earlier. Just had a feeling. 


What this meant, was that I’d have to start fourth grade at nearby San Lorenzo Valley Elementary, instead of Westlake School, where I was scheduled to be in Miss Spellenberg’s class. I’d be the “new kid” at San Lorenzo, and then the “late kid”, when I got back to Daly City. At least I knew most of the kids at Westlake School, but that wasn’t the case in Felton. I knew Christie and Nancy, both of whom were in different classes than me, and that was it. But at least we could walk to and from school together. 

This is something else that’s changed over the decades: I always walked or rode my bike to and from school. The only exception was if it was pouring rain, or when Fernando Rivera or Ben Franklin Junior High were more than five miles away, and we had to take a bus. Parents (or grandparents) simply weren’t concerned with their children being abducted or getting into trouble on their way to or from school. We were allowed (make that encouraged) to go out and play, come home for lunch, then go back out until dinner. It wasn’t unusual for us to walk into town (a couple miles), to the little store in Ben Lomond (across the highway, and two miles the other direction), or just hang around in and around the river, all day. 

After a couple weeks at the new school in Felton, it was back to Daly City, Westlake School, and life with what was now FOUR sisters in the little house on Grandview. But winter break was only a couple months away, and I was confident that I’d spend two more wonderful weeks in the country house on Lazywoods Road.


The Long Ride East

The Long Ride East

3444 Miles. That’s the distance from Bend, Oregon to Venice, Florida, via the “southern route” across the United States. Having explored several possibilities for the logistical nightmare of transporting ourselves and our cat Emily to the new home in Florida, we finally settled on the three of us making the drive in my new Honda Civic Touring.

Several options had been considered, including driving a big truck ourselves, towing one vehicle and driving the other. But we simply have too much stuff to fit into a single 26-foot truck. As much as we tried to sell, give away, or throw away as much as we could, we still had a 3000-square foot house full of our collective worldly goods, and there was just no way to cram it into a single non-commercial moving truck.


Next option was for Risa to fly, with Emily sufficiently sedated on “kitty-downers,” in a carry-on kennel. The hitch in this plan was the necessity of flying out of the tiny Redmond Airport in a turbo-prop plane with zero storage under the seat, a layover of at least an hour in Portland or Seattle, then boarding and flying for another six hours, to Tampa. This would also mean that since I would have to pick them up in Tampa (an hour and a quarter from our new home), that I would have to make the five or six-day trip across the country alone, and Risa and Emily would need a place to stay in Bend, for that additional amount of time. Logistical nightmare number two didn’t seem any better than the first.


We eventually settled on using a nationwide moving company to load, haul, and unload our 15,000 pounds of stuff (United Van Lines, who I highly recommend, by the way), and Risa, Emily, and I, driving the Honda cross-country. Logistical nightmare number three became deciding which route to take from Bend to Venice, given the iffy nature of Oregon winters (as well as many other areas in the middle of the country). We’d already experienced over four feet of snow, and the roads were varying degrees of miserable to drive on. Plus, there was a good chance we’d hit some bad patches of weather if we took the most direct route, which would have taken us through Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. We’d save a little over 400 miles by doing this but running the risk of significant winter weather wasn’t worth it, given the length of the trip and the fact that we simply needed to “get there” as quickly as possible.


We decided that the southern route would be the safest and most predictable way to go, and if we could get to Weed, California without any problems, we’d probably have an easy go for the rest of the ride east. But with winter in central Oregon being the unpredictable beast that it is, we woke up to a new blanket of snow on the ground for the day of our move, and the local weather forecasts were citing Winter Storm Warnings from just south of Bend, all the way to Klamath Falls, which is 135 miles south. But we really had no choice in the matter and hoped that it would melt sufficiently for us to get out of town by the time we had planned to leave, which was mid-afternoon. I specifically added a day to the trip for just this reason; leave in the afternoon, and only drive as far as Redding, California the first day. This would allow us to slow down (or creep along) if we encountered any major snow or ice and would also allow the cat to become somewhat used to the car (we were clearly dreaming, on this part of the equation).

The movers were about 90% loaded by mid-afternoon, and my sister was kind enough to hang around the house, sign all the necessary paperwork, and lock the house up for us. By 2:30, we were on the road headed south, with Emily unhappily riding in her large kitty-condo in the back seat, and the car pretty much packed to the gills with the few necessities we’d need for the following week of travel and our initial couple nights in the new house. This was the first and only leg of the trip, that Emily did not get a morning dose of kitty-downers, which made her day in the kennel, and our day in the front seat, much more bearable.


So off we went, leaving twelve years of life in Bend, behind us. We would surely miss our friends, but I’m confident that many will come visit. I have a sneaking suspicion that the guest room will see quite a bit of use in the winter months, when Central Oregon is getting snow and sub-freezing temperatures, and Florida is generally in the mid-seventies or higher. We’ll also miss a few of our local haunts, not the least of which will be the abundance of local craft breweries and brewpubs. And the only consolation to missing summer kayaking on the Deschutes River and the Cascade Lakes, was the prospect of year-round kayaking in the canals of Venice and the intracoastal waterways.

I’d arguably over-planned the trip, with many possible routes across the country. It became an Excel spreadsheet (like most projects in my life), with lots of variables. The quickest way was across the middle, which would have in fact saved us around 400 miles. But it was winter, and a nasty snowy one at that, and common sense dictated that we take a southern route, via Highway 10. But even this route required a couple different scenarios, depending on when we left on moving day, and what the weather was like at that time. As it was looking like we would likely not get out of Bend until mid-afternoon, and there was a good chance we were going to get some snow, either locally, or somewhere along the first day of travel, I opted to only go as far as Redding, CA and a very familiar La Quinta where we’d stayed a dozen times over the years. Nothing luxurious, but predictable, affordable, and clean. And two minutes of the highway, which meant an easy start in the morning.


A word about La Quinta’s: I’ve stayed at them a lot over the years. Whenever I traveled with any of my companies, it was always my first choice, when I didn’t know the other hotels in a particular area. And for this trip, I could plan the trip based on spacing of La Quinta’s. They even provide an easy way to do this, right on their website. It made for some longer, and some not-so-long travel days, but I knew they’d be predictably clean, convenient to the roads we were traveling, and they accept pets. This was a big concern, as our kitty Emily was making the trip with us, and unlike her driver and passenger in the front seat, she does not like traveling in the car. They varied in quality on this trip, but overall, they ranged from ok to exceptionally nice, and I’d recommend them without question.


The trek from Bend to Redding was surprisingly uneventful. There were some stretches of Highway 97 that had evidence of a little ice, and it was full of recent snow on both sides of the road until we got to Weed, California. From there to Redding, the ride through the Siskiyou’s was a piece of cake. No ice, no snow, and I hope to never see either, ever again, any place I live or travel. Twelve winters in Central Oregon was twelve too many. My friend Marie, who hails from Cape Cod, Mass had a saying that I’ll never forget. To paraphrase … “It’s great to see the first snow of the season fall before the holidays, but when you’re still shoveling your driveway to go to work in May, it gets a little old.”


From Redding, we headed down wide-open Highway 5 through northern California’s Sacramento Valley. 70 MPH speed limits and beautiful weather made for a great travel day. A stop for one last killer sandwich at Granzella’s Deli in Williams was a must, as this might be the last time, I get to partake in one. Salami and Swiss on a sourdough roll, as always.


A word or two about the music for this trip: The new Honda (like lots of new cars) lets you plug in a thumb drive or any Bluetooth device, and the music selections appear right on the navigation screen. I had loaded a 64-gigabyte drive with a wide variety of music that ran the gamut from Adele to ZZ Top, and everything in between. Plus, I had opted for a pitch from Sirius XM that gave me six months of satellite radio for an uncannily low price. I knew I’d be driving cross-country and thought this would be a well-spent thirty bucks. Lots of options, great stations, but the fact that they repeat things on virtually all the stations became evident very quickly. I enjoyed having this option on the long trip, but I did not renew the contract when it came up last month. Suffice it to say that between the thumb drive and Sirius, we were thoroughly entertained for the duration of the excursion.


After a seemingly endless drive down scenery-challenged Highway 5 through the Central Valley, we veered off towards Highway 99 and the La Quinta in Bakersfield, where we’d spend the second night. This La Quinta wasn’t the best. In fact, while it was technically clean and had the same amenities as all of them, it was kind of run down and appeared to be an older hotel that they “bought,” as opposed to the new construction that most of them featured. But we’d live. Dinner next door at a great Mexican restaurant included a combo plate and a Corona, which hit the spot.

Early on day three, we were once again on the road, first on a series of secondary highways, ultimately to Highway 10, which we’d stay on until we ran into 75, in northern Florida. Lots of Highway 10 ahead!


This was going to be a long day. A little over 600 miles of freeway, to the far side of Tucson, Arizona. We arrived after dark, tired and hungry, to an excellent La Quinta. A quantum leap from the Bakersfield location, this felt like a luxury hotel. A big atrium in the check-in area led to several staircases and elevators to the second level, which is where our room was located. Beautiful, big, clean, inviting, this was a gorgeous place to stay. Dinner at the steakhouse located within the hotel next door was also excellent. A steak and a martini hit the spot after a long day of travel. Then it was back to the room, where we tried to console and reassure our cat Emily, who didn’t know what the heck was going on with her normally predictable life.


I could have stayed at the Tucson La Quinta for several days, but unfortunately, we had a schedule to keep. So … it was back onto Interstate 10 in the morning, with Fort Stockton, Texas being our next overnighter. 556 miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and half of Texas. Spectacular scenery, a little rain, but otherwise minimal weather issues, and a long trip. We saw signs in Arizona that warned of gusty winds, dust storms, and possible closures, but luckily saw none of them.


Arizona and New Mexico are rich with mountains and scenery that could provide a lifetime of exploration in themselves. I’d been to Phoenix several times for training on the Fujitsu telecom systems I used to deploy and support, and always enjoyed my stays at the Hilton at South Mountain. The onsite steakhouse was called Rustler’s Roost, and they featured some of the best steaks and prime rib I’ve ever eaten, as well as an incredible (and hot) horseradish that was grown on the property. All this was back in my high-tech days, which seems like a lifetime ago. Phoenix was always warm, occasionally unbelievably so. During the summer months and 100-plus degree temperatures, you find yourself either standing in a pool, or inside somewhere with air conditioning. You don’t “lay out and get a tan” in Phoenix. At least in the summer.

New Mexico, on the other hand, was new to this traveler. We crossed the state line near Lordsburg, and headed toward Las Cruces, then south to El Paso, and the vast expanse known as Texas. Very interesting bit of scenery, with a big (already built) fence separating the U.S. with its friendly Mexican neighbors to the south. Having grown up in San Francisco, gone to college in San Diego, and taken literally dozens of trips to both upper and lower Baja, I have always found Mexico and its people to be stellar. We strongly considered a move to La Paz, on the lower Baja peninsula, before deciding on the trek to Florida. Still may happen someday. Who knows?


Just outside of El Paso was the single government stop / checkpoint of the entire trip. I’d always thought it was interesting that California stops and inspects all the cars coming into the state, but I’ve never encountered it coming or going in any other states. But the stop outside of El Paso was serious. I gather that due to the proximity to the Mexican border, there is a lot of smuggling of people and contraband, and they want to catch what they can. I have no problem with this; our car was free of anything resembling what they might be interested in, and I had no problem with them looking underneath the Honda with mirrors, or with the dogs that were frantically going about their business of sniffing for anything illegal. The dogs and the feds were doing their job, I appreciate them doing so.


From there, it was onward through what would be a two-day trek through Texas. That night’s stop was to be in the booming community of Fort Stockton, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But they had a La Quinta, as well as a decent restaurant or two, and it was pretty much the only place with both of those necessities for several hundred miles in any direction. A great steak and baked potato, awesome salad bar, and a beer, at K-Bob’s Steakhouse, hit the spot.


As someone who absolutely loves to drive, particularly out on the open highway, Texas is a dream. As soon as you cross the border you immediately see the 80 MPH speed limit signs. Only place along our route where we got to open the car up, somewhat. A constant 80-85 MPH lowered our mileage to “only” 35 MPG for this part of trip, but it was well worth the small sacrifice in cost.


Day two in Texas took us through a long stretch of open road that featured everything from mountains to vast fields of wind generating devices, to major stretches of flat open highway. We headed to and through San Antonio, then east toward Houston, where we encountered the first of a couple of hiccups, of sorts. The rain had been pounding for a good portion of the day, and by the time we got to downtown Houston, we were ready to reach our destination for the day, have some dinner, and hit the hay. But without any warning, the entire highway came to a complete stop, and traffic was detoured off of Highway 10, through a portion of the downtown area, and back on to the highway, via a bizarre circuitous route. This cost us about an hour, and I wasn’t amused.


Once back on Interstate 10, it was off to the town of Winnie, Texas, with way too much traffic and persistent downpours to make our life a little more interesting. But I knew, if nothing else, we would have a great meal this night. My friend Mike Blanton grew up near here, likes the same kind of food as I do, and his recommendation to go to Al-T’s Seafood and Steakhouse was bound to be a good one. Excellent Cajun food, steaks, a variety of seafood, casual atmosphere, good prices, friendly servers, and I couldn’t have been happier, particularly after this very long waltz across Texas. I would go to bed tired, but full. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in this part of Texas. Quite likely the best meal we had on the entire trip.


From Winnie, we skirted along the gulf states for what would be the longest leg of the trip; 645 miles to Tallahassee, Florida. This was a tiring, but interesting day through a part of the country I’d never visited before. Across Louisiana, through Lafayette and Baton Rouge, and then a slight detour onto Highway 12, that took us up and around New Orleans and avoided lots of traffic and congestion. Then it was back onto 10, through the lower part of Mississippi, where we encountered the second (and final) hiccup of the trip. Traffic slowed and eventually came to a complete halt due (we were to discover) to a fire that was raging along the highway a few miles ahead. My navigation unit warned me that there was going to be a delay but didn’t offer any reason for it. The suggested detour turned out to be the correct one, and while it cost us an hour of travel time on an already long-haul day, it also gave us the opportunity to see some of the backroads of rural Mississippi. A small, but interesting detour, for sure.

And then through Alabama. My maternal grandfather was born in Mobile, and it felt sort of special driving through it. Some of the stories he told us about growing up in the backwoods outside of Mobile, were priceless. Suffice it to say, he didn’t have a boring upbringing. Amazingly, his incorrigible youth led to a relatively normal adult life, first in the Navy, then as a stationary engineer for a huge commercial laundry in San Francisco. His given name was Noah Edgar Dean; a name he hated his whole life. My grandmother called him “Norm,” and everyone else just called him Dean. He was “Grandpa Dean” to us. And he cooked a mean pot of chili.


But alas, we were on a mission, and still had quite a trek until we arrived in Florida’s capital city. We managed to do it, arriving in Tallahassee right around sunset, on a clear, beautiful night. We had made it to Florida, and this would be the last night of travel, and the last La Quinta for a while. And the last sleepover in a strange place for poor Emily, who behaved incredibly well on this big adventure. Thanks to the afore-mentioned “kitty downers” she slept all day in her comfortable kennel in the back seat. And every night she was rewarded with her usual kitty treats (Temptations, they’re called), a bowl of her favorite food, fresh water, and access to her sandbox.


By the time we got settled into the La Quinta, fed Emily, and made sure that she was safe and sound, it was about 8:30 PM. We headed up Monroe Street in search of some Italian food, which we were both craving. Bend had some very good restaurants, but Italian food was very poorly represented, and is in fact one of the huge draws to Venice, where the choices are limitless. We found a restaurant that was due to close in about fifteen minutes, and they kindly sat us, and assured us that there was no rush … take your time, enjoy your dinner, welcome to Florida!


The final day of travel was designed to be shorter than the previous five, and just slightly longer than the first afternoon, when we drove from Bend to Redding. The primary leg of the trip was also purposely short, but for different reasons; it was a test of how Emily would react to hours in the car, and a hedge against any potential weather delays. As it turned out, she was fine, as was the weather. This last day in the car for the three of us would be a relatively short jaunt of 325 miles, and all of it in our new home state of Florida.


Florida “feels” like Florida. The flat terrain, ever-present bodies of water of every shape and form, wide open freeways, and of course the gorgeous weather, make it unmistakable. Today’s journey would take us along the last bit of Highway 10, which we’d spent the last five days, and nearly 3000 miles, traversing the country. At the junction of Interstates 10 and 75, we’d head south for the final 265 miles of this very long trip. Just above Lake City is the turnoff point, and we were finally on 75 south; a road we knew very well from the previous two trips. Interstate 75 is a gorgeous highway, with optional turnoffs to the main populated areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg, or the direct route … our route, directly south. The only “unfortunate” thing about taking 75 instead of 275, is that we’d miss the beautiful ride over Tampa Bay on the incredible Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which is just south of St. Petersburg. It’s most impressive at night, but even during the day, it presents itself in all its glory, and is a sight to behold. And this is coming from someone who was raised within ten miles of the Golden Gate Bridge.


Once we were south of the 75 / 275 merge, it was clear sailing all the way to Venice. The highway has just blended into one long road at this point, and the anticipation of being in our new home, and off the highways of the United States, was almost too much to bear. We passed the huge University Town Center Mall at exit 213, and began the countdown to our exit, which was 193. Then it was west on Jacaranda Boulevard, past the major artery of Highway 41 / Tamiami Trail, which Google Maps shows as originating somewhere in upper Kentucky and ends in Miami. Long, long secondary highway. Across 41, half a mile south to 776 (Englewood Road), and a final mile south, and we were home. We had timed this day accordingly, so we’d have plenty of time to catch the salespeople at work (it’s a new house), and get our keys, garage door openers, etc.


So here we are, Risa, Emily, and me, in the new home in Venice, Florida.

The statistics: Six travel days, nine states (Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida), 3444 total miles, 39 miles per gallon overall average. Except for some rain in Texas, the weather was excellent the whole way. The new Honda Civic (Touring model) was perfect; the sunroof was open most of the time, the navigation system worked flawlessly, the killer sound system kept us awake and moving towards our daily driving goals. Our kitty Emily was an angel the whole way, even if she took great pains to find some sort of a hiding place under or behind several of the beds in the various La Quinta’s. The hotels ranged from marginal (Bakersfield) to first rate (Tucson), with the remaining ones being like most of the La Quinta’s across the country; clean, predictable, affordable, and pretty much indiscernible from one-another, including identical (free) breakfasts in their lobbies.


I’d never crossed the country by car in the past. I’ve driven extensively up and down both coasts, and quite a bit through big chunks of Colorado and lower Wyoming, but never cross-country. It’s an adventure, and given the time, a reliable car, good toons, and ideally a good traveling companion (or two), I highly recommend it. I’ve gotten so I hate to fly anywhere, between the long lines, high prices, and everything going on in the world, and I love to drive. So, this was the right way to go, and I’d do it again. But with that stated … hopefully not any time soon!


We love Florida, have made some amazing friends in the people across the street, love taking the 2.5-mile drive to Manasota Beach to watch the spectacular sunsets over the gulf, and we never get tired of wearing shorts, t-shirts and sandals every day. I haven’t had long pants on since that snowy afternoon we left Bend. And I’d like to keep it that way.


A Very Pungo St. Patty's

A Very Pungo St. Patty’s …

This past Saturday saw the latest gathering of the Pungo Posse. This month’s event was held two days before St. Patrick’s Day, which was on a Monday this year. Commonly, there are a couple members of the group who can’t make it, and just as commonly, a couple guests are treated to one of these undeniably fun food fests, compliments of one of the “permanent members.”  But I’m rapidly getting ahead of myself. First, the humble origins of the posse …


We moved to Oregon, and into our beautiful home in southwest Bend on the 31st of July 2005. While we’re very social and had in fact made many awesome friends shortly after relocating here from the San Francisco Bay Area, everything took a distinct turn in 2010. I’m a realtor and had listed the house next door to ours for the mostly absentee owner, who lived in Southern California. She would visit occasionally for the first few years, then rented it out for the last couple years. But the home was like new and had in fact only been occupied for about two of the five years it had existed.


I received a call from my real estate partner at the time that a couple from Portland were parked out in front of the house, and wanted to see it, if possible. It was short notice, but I was home and could certainly show them the property. We work on commission in this business, and I’m always available to show property.


The couple (Bruce and Carma) and a couple of friends of theirs from town (Cammy and Owen) were all very nice people, and the six of us totally hit it off. I’m not a pushy realtor, I’m very honest, and I’m inclined to point out positive features, and answer their questions truthfully. I of course made a point of telling them that their next-door neighbor (me) was a decent cook, did quite a bit of entertaining in the form of dinners and barbecues, and was pretty good about keeping the neoprene muffler pads on the large drum set that lived in the upstairs media room.


Somehow, I managed to invite them over for dinner that night. Them being all four of them. I think I made a restaurant-sized tray of lasagna, garlic bread and a salad, if my memory serves me correctly. The four of them showed up for dinner, and I just knew we were going to be fast friends, whether they opted to buy the house next door or not. Carma was carrying a couple good bottles of wine, and Bruce was cradling a bottle of Oban; one of my very favorite single malt Scotch’s.


Dinner came out great, the wine was picked with care and thoroughly enjoyed by all, the Oban hit the spot, and a friendship was born. They decided to buy the house, and the gatherings continued. Our house, their house, Cammy and Owen’s house (northeast part of town). And inevitably, they invited several their good friends to the frequent summer barbecues, and we did likewise. Our little group of six grew into a very tight group of twelve to fourteen of us quickly. And the parties began rotating from one house to another, with everyone in the group taking turns hosting.


Fast forward to the beginning of last summer, and those in the group who hadn’t already done so, discovered kayaking in a big way. The bulk of the group had Wilderness Pungo 120’s, a couple had sleeker and lighter Hurricane Santee’s, and we even had a couple of people on fishing-oriented paddle / pontoon boats. Over the course of the first seven years that we lived here, we were quite content to float down one of a couple sections of the Deschutes River, on rafts or inner tubes. The Deschutes runs from the Cascade Lakes behind Mt. Bachelor, south to north, ultimately finding its way to the Columbia Gorge, which separates Oregon and Washington. There are spots of rapids, some runnable, some not. And many calm, meandering sections, which are perfect for the twelve-foot kayaks. The best spots are below Sunriver in the Three Rivers South neighborhood. We always take one extra vehicle, which we park at the “get out” point and drive the rest of them up to the boat launch spot, which is where the journey begins. Amazingly, due to the winding nature of the river, it’s literally a five-minute drive between the boat launch and the exit point, but it provides about five hours of float time. We pack a lunch, plenty of water, and spend the day floating down the lazy Deschutes on the twelve-foot kayaks.


For longer and more scenic day trips, we’ll opt for one of several of the Cascade Lakes. In about a half hour, we can have the boats in the water at either Sparks Lake, Hosmer Lake, or Elk Lake, which have become our faves. Paddling around the Cascade Lakes with the towering Mt. Bachelor, Three Sisters, and Broken Top mountains just off the bow, provides some awesome views. And there’s an abundance of wildlife wandering the banks, otters playing tag in front of the boats, a colorful array of fish just under the surface of the crystal-clear water, and a combination of osprey and bald eagles always keeping a watchful eye from above or perched in one of the hundreds of trees.


After the first half dozen or so trips to the Cascade Lakes, one of the members of our group came up with the perfect name for our dinner (and kayaking) group, reflecting the brand of kayak that most of us had; we officially became the Pungo Posse. This immediately became a private “Group” in Facebook and gave us a forum to both share our kayaking adventures and pictures, but also a convenient way to publicize the “next” Pungo Posse dinner, which was now rotating among eight couples, and eight different abodes that ranged over the four corners of Bend.


The dinners usually take on a specific theme, which is up to the host and hostess for that month. It’s ranged from barbecues (lots of barbecues!), to Italian, Mexican, fondue, and a brunch. Whoever’s hosting will provide the proteins (or whatever the theme dictates), and everybody brings something to contribute, a side dish, appetizer, dessert, and always beer and or wine. Nobody ever goes home hungry from one of these gatherings, which are held roughly once a month.


Early last summer, our next-door neighbors and founding Pungo Posse members Bruce and Carma began planning their wedding. They narrowed it down to the middle of August, which coincided with the date that I usually have my annual Meatfest barbecue. All the dinner club members, as well as many other mutual friends, and of course their families and friends were going to be in town for the wedding, I decided to make it a combination “Pungo – Meatfest – pre-wedding” barbecue. The Meatfest barbecues always end up with fifty to seventy-five people, so this was in no way a major stretch. I’d do all the proteins, as always, and ask people to bring side dishes. Huge success, everybody had a great time and as is typical, went home full.


And the venue for their wedding? Sparks Lake, ON THE LAKE, in kayaks. Yep. Twenty-six kayaks (mostly Pungos) all paddled to a cove on scenic Sparks Lake, to witness the ceremony. A few dozen additional onlookers lined the bank, as Minister Doug (a frequent guest to Posse dinners, with his wife Dianne) performed the nuptials. The bride made a dramatic entrance, dressed in a white one-piece bathing suit and veil, paddling her orange Pungo 120 up the “altar” with her wonderful dog Peabody sitting in the front of the cockpit. The “wedding party” were toward the front of the cove, with immediate family members on both sides of the bride and groom. Wonderful event, uniquely creative, and everybody had a great time.


And now to come full circle, back to the recent Pungo Posse dinner at the Mills’ gorgeous home on the golf course in Tetherow, which commemorated Saint Patrick’s Day, a couple days early. Cathy made an amazing, corned beef and cabbage, guests brought fondue, smoked salmon and cream cheese, several side dishes, and an array of desserts. My contribution was a couple of Guinness chocolate cakes with a cream cheese-based frosting. Alan poured Black and Tans (Guinness and Harp) for everyone, and we made several attempts at getting a proper Irish toast “correct.” After dinner, we smoked cigars, had a wee bit of Jameson’s on the rocks, several people headed upstairs to play pool, and many of the ladies gravitated to the living room to sing and dance. A jolly time was once again had by all.


Next month, it’s once again my turn to host the group. I’ve decided to do a second annual Pungo Posse Brunch, which will be held the Sunday before Easter. I’ll make bacon, ham, and hopefully will be able to find some real English “bangers,” which are awesome breakfast sausages. We’ll also supply mimosas, and if I have the time and energy, I’ll do some beignets in the deep fryer, the newest addition to my cooking arsenal. I’ll no-doubt seek some recipe tips from my friend Siobhan, who made us a special order of her New Orleans grandma’s recipe, the last time we visited her restaurant The Wagon Train, in downtown Truckee, California. If you’re anywhere near Truckee, you owe it to yourself. Best breakfast, best service, and an unforgettable experience. And say hi to Siobhan, who’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever encounter.


The Pungo Posse events have really taken on a life of their own. We generally have the next four to six months planned out, as far as who’s hosting. The themes are entirely up to the hosts, as is the choice to not have a theme, and simply make something good, and ask people to bring side dishes and desserts that compliment it. It doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone has a great time, nobody goes home hungry, and it all seems to work out. There are now seventeen regulars, and between two and four semi-regulars, who are consistently invited as well. And nobody seems to mind if people bring a couple friends, kids, or visiting guests to the parties. We’ve gotten pretty picky as far as adding “permanent members,” mainly because it’s gotten to be a challenge to seat this large of a group in any of our homes. My dining table is big and will seat ten. But this means I have to add an extension table and borrow chairs or open up the pub table in the kitchen eating area to accommodate seventeen-plus hungry people. But we manage, and we all look forward to the monthly gatherings, which I can only assume will carry on for quite some time.


And as I write this, in mid-March, I’m looking outside at a clear, sunny day in Central Oregon. Although, with the temperature reading a chilly forty-three degrees, all of the group members are counting the days ‘til summer, when we can once again spend two or three days a week in the Pungos, and count on our near-perfect summer weather for the monthly Posse get-togethers. The first sign that the seasons are changing is the reappearance of the rock chucks (technically, yellow-bellied marmots), as they come out from their underground dwellings across the street from the Old Mill. And I spotted several of them nibbling on the grass a couple days ago. Summer is on the way, winter will in fact pass fairly soon, and the boats will be back on the crystal clear waters of the Cascades. Can’t wait.


Goodbye to Bend

Goodbye to Bend

The move to Bend in 2005 was the result of an extensive search that took us to several places around the country that consistently scored well in the “Best Places” articles, as well as visits with friends in various areas. And curiously, the same sort of articles served as points of research twelve years later and led to our exit.


Some of the strongest candidates in 2004 were Alpharetta and Roswell, just above Atlanta, and the greater Boulder area. Both had lots of pluses, and very few minuses. Great quality of living, beautiful surroundings, relatively affordable, and full of great people.


But we kept reading about two small areas in Oregon, and a trip to Bend and Ashland in August of 2004 sold us on the idea of a much less crowded environment in the picturesque state of Oregon. It seemed to be everything we had been looking for, in both a place to relocate, and ultimately retire. Small towns, gorgeous mountains, and what all the write-ups referred to as “four mild seasons.”


We enjoyed Ashland, but ultimately decided on Bend, and picked out a great new house, located in the southwest part of town, directly across the street from a gorge that overlooked the picturesque Deschutes River. The Deschutes, like the Willamette, flows south to north, which seemed odd at first sight. Both have origins high in the Cascades, and empty into the Columbia River Gorge, which separates Oregon and Washington.

Among the factors that led us to Bend were the consistent descriptions of the weather, which were supposedly the afore mentioned “four mild seasons.” The first rude awakening to the fact that the winters are anything but “mild” occurred the day after Christmas of 2004, when we made the 525-mile trek from our home in California, to pick out the options for the new house. What was described as the worst snowstorm in 10 years, transformed the usual 8-9-hour trip into a 17-hour nightmare of a ride. Having spent most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, with brief stints in the pleasantly warm climates of Chico, Gilroy, and St. Thomas (yes, that St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands), I was not accustomed to driving in snow. Let alone the prospect of living in it for what would turn out to be many months of the year. But the 2-year-old Toyota Highlander performed like a champ, and we managed to get there, picked out options that made the house seem like “ours,” and moved in on the first day of the following August.


Moving in the middle of summer was a great introduction to the area, with the weather being ideal, and the town buzzing with tourists. Warm, never oppressively uncomfortable days, and cool nights, reinforced the idea that we’d made the right choice. New friends were made, and several long-time friends relocated nearby as well. The gas and charcoal barbecues and the Big Chief smoker were put to constant use, and I even extended the 15-year tradition of the huge summer barbecue party that was dubbed “Meatfest.” But I learned the first year that the traditional Memorial Day weekend event would have to be moved to the middle of summer, where the weather was somewhat more predictable. It snowed the day before the party, which was held at the end of May of 2006. Bend has supposedly gotten snow in every month of the year, except August, during its history. And the weather can never be counted on and will not necessarily be what the evening weather reporters predict. “Wait 10 minutes and it will change,” is an often quoted, and quite true local phrase.


Several years into our 12-year stint in Bend, we took up a new hobby: kayaking. One trip out in a borrowed kayak on beautiful Hosmer Lake, nestled high in the Cascades near Mt. Bachelor, was all it took. We bought a couple used Wilderness Pungo’s, which were twelve feet of indestructible plastic, and very forgiving for new kayakers. These sufficed for three seasons but were about 20 pounds heavier than they needed to be. This was rectified with the purchase of a couple Hurricane Santee’s, as our Christmas presents one year. Awesome boats, and at 35 pounds apiece, they’re easy to maneuver both in and out of the water. My lime green 126 Sport is twelve and a half feet long, and Risa’s Ferrari red 116 Sport is a foot shorter. Both are a total pleasure to paddle, and consistently put ear-to-ear grins on our faces when we get to take them out.


But the summers tend to last a maximum of three months. Late June to very early September is all that can be counted on, in Central Oregon. And the past couple years has seen the last two weeks of both July and August being consistently rainy, and much colder than normal. Our kayaking time was cut to a few weeks a year, and winter seemed to come earlier, get colder, and last longer, each year. Our last winter in Bend would be 2016, during which we had already seen over five feet of snowfall, and the season had a couple months to go.


Once again, the search was on to find a “new” perfect place to live. I became consumed with studying about a dozen areas around the country, most of which were members of the current crop of “Best Places to Live.” Several areas in Texas caught my attention, as did Fayetteville, Arkansas, Athens, Georgia and even Redding, in northern California. But I kept circling back to Florida, which seemed to have it all. But where to live, in such a big state that I knew very little about? Tales of scorching summer temperatures and humidity levels didn’t sound so inviting. And weren’t there alligators and snakes everywhere? This is a place where they joke that the mosquito is the state bird! Could we live there? Are the 20 million residents all crazy to live in such an environment? As it turned out, Florida has a lot going for it. And it only took one trip for both of us to realize this fact.


We managed to narrow the search to a couple broad areas; Daytona Beach, in the upper eastern part of the state, and Sarasota County, in the southern third of the gulf coast. We had friends and relatives in both areas, so we had direct input on the lifestyles, weather, and pros and cons of each, as well as Florida in general. In May of 2016, we booked a flight to Orlando (in the middle of the state), with the idea that we’d drive first to Sarasota for 4 days, and then across the state to Daytona for 4 more. This would give us plenty of time to explore both areas, see a lot of “the middle,” and hopefully decide that we would or wouldn’t like to live in the Sunshine State.


After landing in Orlando at 5 AM, we picked up the rental car and headed out Highway 4 towards the southwestern part of the state. As the one who does most of the driving, I was immediately impressed with the freeways, relatively light traffic, and the vast openness of the state of Florida. Mountains of any sort are conspicuous in their absence. There’s water everywhere. Small ponds seem to dot the countryside in every corner of the state. And once you get near the coast, there are vast waterways and rivers that empty into the gulf. Long bridges connect the urban areas along the coast, as well as the many islands and peninsulas.


While we both fully expected to be blown away with the Daytona area, the rows of beach front condos, rampant tourism, and relatively crowded conditions, weren’t quite what we were looking for. It came as a big surprise that the Sarasota area, and specifically the relatively small beach town of Venice, totally captivated us. Our 8 days in Florida were awesome, and the combination of great people, amazing weather, great restaurants, and the beaches and endless waterways provided exactly what we wanted. And at least in April, the weather was superb every day.


We admittedly had a great time in the Daytona, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and New Smyrna Beach area in the northwest corner of the state, but we were pretty sold on Venice. We took a big leap of faith, listed the Bend house (my listing with the realty I worked for), and began planning both the sale, and our next trip to Florida … this time, to find a house.


We’d lived in the Bend house for 12 years and had amassed a huge amount of “stuff” that we knew early on, would not fit in what would likely be a much smaller house in Florida. The contents of a full 3000 square foot home with a 3-car garage, just wasn’t going to fit in a house that was probably going to be half that size. We began packing things that we could do without until the home sold, selling off items that we just didn’t want to move (and try to find room for), and giving things to Goodwill, Bethlehem Inn, and the Humane Society Store, where they would be repurposed to someone who could use them. But there was still so much stuff, and it was clear that it wasn’t going to fit in the new house. We also had no problem parting with the bulk of our winter paraphernalia, including ice and snow scrapers, “yak-trax” (indispensable when you’re walking on ice, which is a frequent occurrence in Bend), and my prized snow blower. My wife planned and executed very successful yard sale, which made a big dent in the extra possessions, and brought in a few dollars at the same time.


The plan was to wait until the house was in escrow (a 30-45-day process), and then take an extended trip to Florida, in hopes of finding a home. The Bend house took longer than I’d anticipated to get an acceptable offer, but it finally happened in mid-December, and we immediately booked a two-week trip to Florida. This time we’d fly into Tampa (vs. Orlando, on the last trip), drive 75 miles south to Venice, and stay in a centrally located motel near the major freeway and cross-town roads. This would allow us to thoroughly explore the area, get a “feel” for the day-to-day lifestyle, and connect with the realtor who had been sending us listings.

The flight was a breeze, and the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Tampa International to Venice was gorgeous. One immediately noticeable difference in Florida and Oregon was the quality of the roads, and the higher speed limits. Central Oregon just raised the limit on rural and suburban roads to 65 mph, a year ago. This was previously 55 mph, and it made for a long, slow ride in any direction. Plus, the roads in Oregon leave a lot to be desired, mainly due to the weather. The potholes are legendary, and the tire companies tend to get swamped after big snow and ice events, repairing tires and wheels that managed to find a deep rut in the road. Driving on the wide, relatively uncrowded Florida freeways at 70+ mph, with no snow, ice or potholes to be concerned about, was truly a pleasure.


After checking in to the Best Western at Highway 75 and Jacaranda in Venice, we decided that we were both craving Italian food; something that is sorely lacking in Bend. There are a couple national chain restaurants, but nothing resembling “real” Italian fare. There were so many options in Venice, and we simply cruised down Jacaranda to Venice Avenue, and picked Valenti’s, which was the first one that looked interesting (and had a crowded parking lot; always a good sign). We dined on some great homemade pasta, “house” Chianti, and couldn’t be happier. Our server, Donna, made us feel at home, and told us a little of the history of both Venice and Valenti’s Italian Restaurant.


We met our realtor, Karen, the next morning at her office. I had narrowed down the dozens of places I’d explored over the past months, to a pretty short list of 5 or 6. And she added a couple more that had recently come on the market. We toured all of them, liked some, didn’t like several, and had kind of “this might work” feelings about the last two. All of them seemed to have minuses that outweighed the pluses. We left Karen around four o’clock in the afternoon, and headed back to the hotel, with the agreement that we’d do some exploring around town over the weekend and get together on Monday to look at some more homes.


We’d no sooner arrived back at the hotel, when the phone rang, with a very excited Karen telling us to get back in the car and meet her at a house. A ten-minute drive had us in the south end of town, at a new subdivision called Rapalo. And by sheer coincidence, the builder was the same as our Bend home; D.R. Horton. Karen had pointed these out in our travels earlier but said they wouldn’t work for us because they didn’t allow pools. A stop on her way home, and a brief meeting with the salesperson, confirmed that yes, they do indeed allow pools, and that there was ONE house left in the current phase of the development, and it was nearly finished. We’d be able to move into the house at exactly the time we’d planned to move out of the Bend house, which we were “renting back” from the new owner for two months.


The timing couldn’t be better, the house was just what we were looking for, and it was at the low end of our price range, meaning we’d be able to put a pool in after we moved in. We’d planned to have a much tougher time finding a house, and planned accordingly with a two-week visit, so we were now able to thoroughly explore Venice and the surrounding areas. And for us, it was such a “treat” being able to wear shorts and sandals and enjoy the days of mid-seventies and clear skies, and not have to worry about bundling up to go outside or slipping on the ice or snow. Winter in Florida is awesome. Summers can be a little warm, and includes some high humidity, but this was the reason we wanted a pool and proximity to the beach, and with beautiful Manasota Beach a mere two-and-a-half miles away, we’d have both.


The remaining days of our visit were spent driving around the lower gulf area, walking around Venice, and taking several trips to an area that became an immediate favorite on our last trip: St. Armand’s Circle. I believe we managed to eat at least a half dozen additional Italian meals during our stay, including a second one (take-out pizza) at Valenti’s. We would no longer be hurting for Italian food, in Venice! New favorites included San Marco, Made in Italy, and a combination restaurant and Italian market called Angelo’s.


Our return to Bend meant some quick planning and packing. We’d considered driving both cars, or possibly Risa flying with our cat, but finally opted for she and I and the kitty to drive east in my new Honda. The second car would be transported, and all our possessions would be moved by the capable people at United Van Lines. The “trick” was to pare down our possessions to the few items we needed daily, the clothes we’d need on the trip, and the blow-up queen-size air mattress that we’d need for our first couple nights in Venice. And of course, the luxurious kitty-kennel, portable sandbox, sand, food, and most importantly the “kitty downers” that Emily would need to survive six days on the road (stay tuned for “The Long Ride East”).


Bend was generally a good-to-very-good experience, with some exceptions in both directions. Making a living there is tough, and the fact that the big recession hit two years after we arrived, didn’t help. It’s not an inexpensive place to live, and it was a struggle, and not something that we (or anybody) planned for. My research of so many potential places to move, showed that Oregon, as well as most of the west coast, was so much more expensive than most of the rest of the country. With the exceptions of Honolulu and New York City, the west coast was about the most you could spend on housing, taxes, food, transportation, etc. But Florida came out at or close to the top of all of the “Best Places” lists, at least in 2016. Reasonable housing prices, no state income tax, diverse population, a water-wonderland, and of course the weather, which overall, was excellent.


But I was concerned with the “dark side” of the weather, meaning hurricanes and other tropical events. Everyone knows that Florida gets hit periodically, but the Venice and Sarasota area (as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg) seemed to be less prone to any major or direct hurricane hits. It happens, and there’s certainly a chance of getting brushed by an arm of a passing storm, but chances of major storms and consequential damage, are minimal here. And our house was built to all the current standards, which was comforting as a buyer, and much more cost-effective when it came to buying insurance. And since we’re not in a flood zone, we didn’t have to carry flood insurance.

I also started to get a little “freaked” over the prospect of all the various critters that everybody reads about. There are a million and a quarter alligators in Florida, and it’s common knowledge that they might be found in any fresh water body. This would include golf courses, canals, ponds, and pools that don’t have the ever-present aluminum cages around them. There are varieties of snakes, spiders and other creatures that don’t seem particularly enticing, but if you take normal precautions, you’re not likely to run into them or have them in your house. We’ve seen one alligator in the pond behind the house, and it was kind of fun to watch him. I named him Boris (for some unknown reason), and we watched him move to various parts of the pond and the banks for about three days. They’re known to do a lot of “pond hopping,” and tend to not stay too long in any one place. The exception is the Myakka River, where they seem to be everywhere … all the time. A day trip to this state preserve proved to be an eye-opener.


On the “up” side of the natural wildlife scene, we have an amazing array of birds, that seem to relish in putting on a display for us every morning and afternoon. The ducks seem to be around all day long, but sightings of majestic sandhill cranes that stand four feet tall, as well as ibises, great blue herons, great egrets, wood storks, osprey, woodpeckers, and more, are common. It’s a birders paradise, and we always have several pairs of binoculars and our cameras out on the patio that overlooks the pond behind the house.


As I finish this, it’s July 1st, and we’re in full summer mode. The temperatures average around 90 during the days, and “dip” all the way down to the mid 70’s overnight. It tends to cloud up in the afternoons and rain heavily for a while, then it’s back to sunshine and partly cloudy. We get some wild cloud formations and thunder and lightning, and the rain commonly comes down in torrential downpours for brief periods. It’s more humid here than the “high desert” of Bend, Oregon, but it’s quite bearable and hasn’t proven to be at all oppressive. However, the A/C is on in the house most of the time, although we’ve learned to live with it set at 77, vs. the 72 that we’d keep it at in Bend. Afternoon breezes from the gulf are a huge help and reinforces our decision to locate a couple miles from the beaches.


The pool is under construction, and we expect it to be completed in about 3-4 weeks. The community pool opened earlier in the month, and provides a great spot to hang out, cool off, and work on our tans. I suspect we’ll be tan all-year-long here, as the temperatures rarely get below the mid 70’s, even in the dead of winter.


I haven’t worn long pants since the snowy day we left Bend, in early March. People live in shorts, t-shirts, and sandals here. There’s never a need for a coat or sweater, or any of the snow and ice paraphernalia that I left behind for the new owners.


So … so far so good. We’re struck with the friendliness of the people we’ve met, the quality and abundance of great restaurants (particularly Italian and seafood), the beautiful waterways and bridges, and of course the weather. Time will tell if we’ve found the perfect place to live and retire, but for now it seems like we made the right decision. And we will look forward to a snow-free winter for the first time in 13 years!


Baja in May

Baja in May

This was our second trip to Baja California, and I had high hopes that it would be vastly superior to the first trip, which was last October. You may recall that I began the trip with rash (which was initially mis-diagnosed as shingles), and to add to the merriment, I tripped and pretty much destroyed my left knee on the third night of the vacation. So instead of seeing the sights, enjoying the food, walking around downtown and swimming in the crystal clear 85-degree ocean, I spent the bulk of the last four days in the condo with my leg elevated and an ice pack on my knee. What was supposed to be our first vacation in eight years, as well as a fact-finding mission to see if we might like to move to Baja someday, turned into a miserable time for me. But this trip was different in just about every conceivable way. I’ll state right up front that this time was a ball. Great weather, amazing food, fun with friends, lots of driving around, and no mishaps, physical or otherwise.


Flights to Baja from Bend, Oregon are a challenge. There are a couple flights each week that “only” take eight hours. They leave Roberts Field in Redmond at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM, feature a three-hour layover in San Francisco, then a painless three hour flight to SJD … San Jose del Cabo International Airport, which is located about fifteen miles above Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja California.


Car rentals seem to be a consistent pain here. On our first trip, we had two successive cars with their “check engine lights” on the whole time, and the second car having little to no air conditioning. And Baja is hot … almost always. For this trip, the car fun was via two extremely rude and painfully indecisive dudes from San Francisco ahead of us. They quite literally questioned everything. The prices of all the services, how to get places, why do we need insurance, can we switch this car out for a jeep … Twenty minutes of unnecessary banter with the very nice and extremely patient car rental agent.


There are two ways to get to La Paz from Los Cabos, and we opted for Highway 1 going up the cape, and Highway 19 coming back, since we’d be spending the last three days in Todos Santos, on the Pacific side.  The two-and-a-half-hour trip up Highway 1 was hot and long, but uneventful. There’s a view of the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California) for much of the ride, and some interesting, though curvy and windy roads through the mountains.


Upon entering the busy outskirts of La Paz, I remembered the car fumes and specifically that they got ungodly in the more congested parts of town. Say what you want about our mandated emission limits being a violation of our liberties, but a trip to Mexico or many other countries will demonstrate why it’s necessary.


No problem finding our way through town, and back to the familiarity of the ideally situated, through somewhat dated La Concha hotel and condos. The first trip was spent on the second floor in a two-bedroom place, in order to accommodate four of us, but since this was only going to be the two of us this time, we opted for a smaller studio condo, situated on the third floor (view from the deck, left). While the first condo was immaculate, this one was not particularly clean, but we’d make do, considering all the other attractions in the area. The condos directly overlook the pool, and out over the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular, falls short of an adequate description of this view.

A quick change from tennies to Tevas, and it was off to the hotel’s poolside palapa bar where we knew a couple of giant Margaritas would be available for the asking. It was a pleasant surprise to see Giovanni was serving this day. He was our favorite server from the October trip, and a great guy. Killer nachos, fresh fish tacos, and a Pacifico beer made up for a long arduous day.


Early to bed after a long day that began at 3:00 AM, and an early wakeup call thanks to what seemed to be every small bird in Baja having a morning meeting just off the deck. Coffee to the rescue, followed by looking over all the restaurant and site suggestions, and we were off on our first venture into town. Weather on the first day was very Hawaii-like, meaning it was pleasant and high-70’s instead of 90’s. Lots of walking around town, and a late lunch / early dinner at Kiwi, which is on the Malecon, right off the bay. Two huge Mexican combo plates, fresh chips and queso dip, two beers each (I’m on vacation) came to 300 pesos … About $25. We walked the Malecon to burn off some of the calories, and then did some major shopping for “staples” for the week. Chips, fresh salsa, two giant size Coca Cola Lights (WAY better than the Diet Coke we get in the states), bananas, limes, a big container of mango juice, coffee, sweetener, 2 bags of ice … plus a six pack of Dos Equis, a liter of decent rum, and a bottle of 1800 tequila … The total came to about fifty bucks. This tequila alone runs $35 in the U.S. Everything resembling food and beverages costs less in Baja.


First time at the Sunset Bar, which is adjacent to the dive center and a short walk from the hotel restaurant. We met an interesting expat who was originally from Saratoga, California, who now runs an eco-friendly surf and dive center in Bocas del Toros, on the Caribbean side of Panama. Both the surf camp and Bocas sounded very enticing. I envision a trip there at some point!  Another amazing sunset, which seems to be a daily thing here.


Day 3, and still no Internet or phone access, but life has a way of going on. We had a great breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant. Risa had eggs Benedict; I had a breakfast burrito plate with THREE great burritos, and the ubiquitous dollop of refried beans and a couple tortilla chips. This is the norm here, pretty much everywhere. You know that huge mess of beans they serve you at every American Mexican restaurant?  Usually with a half-pound of melted cheese?  Not in Mexico.


We spent a lazy day by the pool, which always seems to be at the perfect temperature for cooling off from the sometimes-relentless Baja sun. I believe we’re at about ninety degrees today.


I’m currently midway into the first of what would be four complete novels, over the course of the trip. Getting into the last Michael Crichton novel, hanging on the deck with a couple Dos Equis, sips of 1800 Reposado, killer chips and salsa. I suppose we’ll have to think about dinner at some point, but for now, it’s just me, a great book, a beer, and the Bay of Cortez.


Dinner ended up being at Rancho Viejo, located a block south of the far end of the Malecon. The restaurant is very authentic, and the servers spoke very little English (this isn’t common, most speak it well). Both condo owners had recommended this place as being very good, and very inexpensive, so we thought we’d give it a shot. The food was in fact awesome, and as expected, very authentic Mexican dining. Risa had 3 shrimp tacos and I had the beef arrechara special (seasoned, grilled skirt steak), fresh tortillas, a huge selection of garnishes and dips and two Dos Equis. The total came to about $25 including tip. Excellent dinner and service, again at about half the price we’d pay at home.


We would have lunch at Rancho Viejo a couple days later, and it was equally amazing. Half a kilo (about a pound and a quarter) of arrechara, cut into taco filling-sized cubes), a dozen fresh tortillas, avocado dip, pico de gallo, salsa, chips, a selection of garnishes, two beers … $16. With every meal and every trip to a market I’m wondering how they pull it off. Or more correctly, why are we getting gouged so much in the U.S.?


One meal a day, two tops, seems to be the norm, at least on this trip. And I’m totally getting into eating my main meal around two or three in the afternoon, with maybe a small snack later. Not sure why, not the heat, or I would have adapted this pattern while living in Chico or Gilroy.


Still no cellular or Internet, but that would change later tonight, as we’d been told that wireless is available for the asking at the Sunset Bar. Amazingly, the initial withdrawal from email, Facebook and contact with the rest of the world, becomes bearable very quickly. As I sit on the deck, writing notes from today, listening to the tiny little ripples rolling in from the Bay of Cortez, I’m beginning to think of needs versus habits.

We visited a market (a “super mercado”) called Mega earlier today. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven after spotting the salsa aisle. Yikes. I resisted buying one of everything and settled on a Buffalo brand salsa classic, a La Viuda Negra “japones” salsa, and a La Anota chile habanero salsa. These will be smuggled home, but the red and green salsas, some shredded queso cheese, and a dozen tortillas will be a snack for later, and breakfast for several days. The 24 tortillas were still warm and ran under a dollar. The salsas were 65 cents each.


It’s inevitable that one of the Goomers (troll dolls) will manage to sneak into the luggage and join us at our vacation destination. This year’s stowaway was Maureen, who was one of Risa’s first, after joining the crazy Sullivan clan. They’re generally fun little creatures but they’ve been known to sneak into your liquor cabinet and raid your booze or eat the last piece of pizza you were saving for breakfast, while you’re sleeping. But like puppies that pee on the floor or the occasional overshooting of the sandbox by your favorite kitty, you tend to overlook it. Don’t sweat the little stuff.


Saturday morning in La Paz, Baja California South (BCS). Woke up to a gentle early morning breeze coming in over the Bay of Cortez. Coffee on the deck, waited for my longtime friend Deborah to arrive for a trip to a little street market, followed by lunch. Fun little market. Locals and a couple expats were selling handiworks, trinkets, souvenirs, and food. Overheard a lady using the phrase “I was fixin to …” and had to inquire which part of the south she hailed from. She and her husband and two (then) young boys escaped from Florida 7 years earlier. I learned years ago from my good friend Carolyn that “I’m fixin to” is as southern as y’all can get.


Lunch at La Bartola was memorable in many ways. The owner, Omet hails from the seaside town of Veracruz, which is situated just north of the Yucatan Peninsula. He said that his goal was to serve non-traditional Mexican fare. No tacos and enchiladas, but great regional selections from the Yucatan, as well as his native Veracruz. And he totally succeeded. I had a cochinita pibil, which is a pork dish that’s wrapped in banana leaves (very common in Yucatecan cooking) and slow simmered under hot rocks overnight. Amazing flavor. Traditional garnishes of red onions in olive oil and habanero chilis, and a small portion of black beans completed the dish. Deborah had a rice and seafood dish that was also amazing. Omet gave us a complimentary shot of his homemade torolito, which was cocoa, and milk based, with a bit of white rum. Perfect ending to a great lunch.


While we’ve been mostly eating only one big meal a day, we broke the habit that night and went into town for a burger at the Tailhunter, across the street from the Malecon.


We’d eaten at the Tailhunter on the first trip, and the burgers were good enough to warrant a return. We weren’t disappointed. We opted for an upstairs spot along the bar, where we were treated to yet another spectacular sunset, while enjoying a couple great burgers and Negra Modelo beers.


Back to the condo, and another trip to the Sunset Bar, which has become our nightly hangout for an hour or so, and it’s the only decent (and free) wireless. And we totally love Julie, the server. And then once again, it’s back to the deck of the condo. I listen to the several small groups of locals congregating on the beach below us, laughing, singing, enjoying their Saturday night. The crescent moon disappears below the horizon, the palm trees are flapping their branches much like Sally Rand doing a fan dance, a warm breeze brings just the right amount of cool air, and I marvel at the wonder of it all. I could get used to this environment very easily. Did I mention it never snows here?


Sunday morning, up early, alone on the deck watching a clear, windless bay, empty and peaceful, other than a couple small fishing skiffs, undoubtedly pulling in a couple of yellowtails, which currently are in season. I sleep well here, waking up rested and ready for the day. We toyed with exploring beaches today but opted for the peace and quiet of the pool. Beaches will wait ‘til manana. Plus, I need to do some laundry this morning (a small dose of reality).

So, Monday was beach day. We drove north past beautiful Pichilingue and Balondra and stopped at Tecolote. This is one of the most picturesque beaches anywhere. The crystal-clear turquoise water reminds me of St. Thomas and the Caribbean. The water was about 85 degrees, meaning it was the perfect temperature to counter the 90-degree sun. I settled in under umbrella, ordered a couple cold Pacifico’s, some guacamole and chips, and proceeded to enjoy the afternoon. Tecolote is a playground for both locals and touristas. Unlike the beach in front of the condo, which is usually very sparsely occupied, this beach draws a good number of people to its shore every day. And the reasons are obvious; the water’s clear and warm, the view of the bay and Espiritu Santu Island is incredibly, they offer everything from jet ski rentals to excursions, the food is fresh, and service is excellent, and it’s simply a great place to spend a day in the sun.

Great dinner Monday night at the hotel restaurant. I had chicken breasts stuffed with a spinach mixture; Risa opted for the sea bass over arroz (rice). While more expensive than Rancho Viejo or Kiwi, this meal was still about two-thirds of what you’d pay in the U.S., and both the food and service were very good.


Monday morning breakfast continued the trend of a couple tortillas, some queso cheese, a couple salsas, and a squeeze of limon (small limes) for breakfast. They serve small wedges of these native limes with literally everything here. The fresh tortillas from Mega were holding up nicely and lasted us the rest of the week. Today we’re going to do some driving around and exploring, followed by dinner tonight at Il Rustico with friends Gary and Susan Hackney, our Bend friends who moved to the El Centenario area a couple months ago.


We checked out a couple more super mercados today. If I’m even going to consider settling here, I need to be able to get (at least most) of the food staples that I use daily. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most everything I consider “necessary” can be easily found here. Soba noodles, sriracha sauce, a wide variety of rice and pastas, good, canned tomatoes, and some very nice-looking produce. For some reason the lettuce didn’t look great, but the size and quality of onions, tomatoes, most vegetables, as well as the wide variety of fresh peppers more than compensated. I can cook here.


This was our last full day in La Paz. Tomorrow it’s off to Todos Santos for a couple more days, then home. We did some tooling around mid-town La Paz, which is too crowded, and of course the driving is crazy. One thing we noticed on our first trip was what the Mexicans call a “rolling stop” at stop signs. The logic is that they’ll slow somewhat when approaching a controlled intersection, and if nobody appears to be coming from the side street, they roll right through it. And they’ll HONK at you for coming to a complete stop!


We then had yet another great lunch, which today was at Bismark-cito, on the Malecon. Four tacos with four different kinds of fresh fish, two beers (between us), chips, salsa and guacamole dip … ten bucks. Very good food and service, as well as the hottest hot sauce I had on the entire trip. They warned me, I went for it, they were right.


After a final trip to the Sunset Bar where we finally met Carla, who’s normally the bartender, but had been off all week, we spent the evening packing up and getting ready for the sixty-mile trip across the peninsula to Todos Santos and the Pacific side. I suspect a much more laid-back environment awaits.


Wednesday morning, we bid farewell to La Paz, and head across the peninsula to Todos Santos. Check in wasn’t until 3:00, so we walked around town a bit and dropped into a friendly little restaurant for lunch. Once again, I had a great arrechara, guacamole, rice, and beans, and of course a Mexican beer.


Los Colibris is a very unique spot, and we were treated to phenomenal views of the Pacific from the small casitas that line the cliff. The ride from town was over a crazy bumpy dirt road, so we opted to make do with chips and a Dos Equis for dinner. Again, I marvel at the fact that one or occasionally two meals a day has been perfect on this trip. I’d be surprised if I haven’t lost weight on this vacation. Tomorrow we’ll explore Todos Santos, eat somewhere special, and come back for some quality pool time and undoubtedly another amazing sunset.


An observation today:  lots of Americans here, both tourists and permanent expats. And the Mexicans in town all speak very good English. Smaller town, but much more slanted towards American visitors and residents than La Paz.


Thursday would be our final day and night in beautiful Todos Santos. We started with a light breakfast at Cafe Felix, followed by a walk around the four-block downtown shopping area. Then it was back to the casita at Los Colibris and a few hours by the pool, before doing the bulk of the packing for the trip home. We’d heard great reports both from friends and in online research, about the Santa Fe Restaurant, so we decided to splurge and have a great meal for our final night in Mexico. Risa had lobster raviolis and loved them. I had spaghetti with a meat sauce which was also very good. A glass of Don Simon Spanish temperanillo was excellent, and a good recommendation from our server. We were apparently both hungry, and both got “clean plate awards.”  Following our great meal, we walked outside and joined the festival that was going on across the street. This was apparently one of several stops for a Mother’s Day celebration, which goes on for a whole week in Mexico.


Off to Cabo tomorrow morning, then home to Bend. While this trip was an amazing adventure, I’m feeling ready to be home. I miss friends, the familiarity of the house and “stuff,” my kitchen, and Emily, of “The Only Cat” fame. The trip was a lot of fun, the food was good to excellent, weather was great, but for me, the jury remains out about a permanent move here. Time will tell, I’m sure.