Friday, March 6, 2015

January 19-March 6: Springtime in the Valley of the Sun

Yes, the weather has been beautiful. Yes, we’ve watched news reports about winter from most of the rest of the country. Yes, we’ve gloated, privately and using Facebook, FaceTime, and even email (Al, you know who you are). But it’s all in fun, of course.

[Reminder: click on any picture to enlarge]

We’ve also had some rain showers, and even a couple of rare days when residual moisture in the atmosphere leads to a foggy morning. Yeah, we take pictures of fog. Go figure…

Since our last report, January was most low-70s with some odd 60s, and February into March has been mostly mid-to-upper-70s with a few 80-degree days. Every year, we’re reminded why we chose to spend most of our winters here. Of course, it was also time to start taking morning coffee and “paper” on the patio.

Mid-February brings that “special week” for us. Valentine’s Day, our anniversary (35th, for those counting), and Geri’s birthday (39th, of course) — all within the space of four days. We didn’t plan much and met our objectives, although Geri did ask for a night out at Outback Steakhouse on her birthday. Steak? Who am I to argue? And that decadent brownie/ice cream thing? Well, we should have shared it with people at nearby tables!

Now, that’s not to say that we didn’t eat well at home as well. What would our Blog be without some food porn, right? This is just a sampling (Geri’s Famous Chicken Piccata over Risotto, Shrimp Alfredo with Homemade Fettuccine, Cheese SoufflĂ©, and Homemade Pizza with Butternut Squash, Bacon and Sage). And, let’s just say that we did an excellent job of clearing the Wine Box of all those pesky “drink me this year” wines that said “2014/2015”!

We recently had dinner with our neighbors, Clisby (right) and Tanis (center). Geri made her famous Alfredo Sauce with Shrimp and I made some fresh fettuccine, pictured above. We also were invited to dine with our friends Ana and Larry. Merlin and Maya really enjoy hanging out with their dogs, Molly and Nami (“Tsunami”), especially when “people food” is involved.

As the winter season gets further along, our thoughts (and to-do lists) start filling up with travel-related items. This year’s major expense was new front tires for the coach. RV people don’t wear out tires; they tend to “age out” and weaken well before the tread is gone. At least I’ve got them spaced out a few years apart by axle to spread out the expense!

The pups continue to do well, or as well as we all do with age. Maya Lynn had her 11th birthday in January. She still has a small growth on her bum but we’ve decided not to subject her to more surgery as she’s had enough, and it hasn’t reached the point of bothering her in any way we can see. Merlin will be 17 this summer and he’s still going strong, although he’s starting to have “control issues” that we’re keeping an eye on.

It wouldn’t be winter without me trying to sell a few things on eBay to make some pocket change. Every year I swear “never again” when it starts to feel too much like a full time job. It seems like it should be as simple as posting a few things and waiting for money to arrive in my PayPal account, but it never is. Unlike past years where I’ve had to deal with a series of questions from people with no intention of buying or who tried to scam me outside the eBay boundaries, this year’s issues were shipping-related. First, I mixed up two shipments, so I had to scramble to get them returned to me and shipped to the right buyers without getting dinged on my seller rating. Then, one of my shipments arrived missing its contents, but with a lot more packing tape. It wasn’t extremely expensive so I didn’t buy the insurance. Lesson learned, as I had to eat the cost and USPS gave me a “too bad” speech. Now, not only do I insure, I take pictures of the packages when USPS gets them so I can compare later if there is an issue.

And, finally, I’ll mention that we had some sports here in the Valley this winter. From a major golf thing to College Football Bowls and the Super Bowl, there was a lot of activity. Fortunately, we didn’t get caught up in any traffic issues, even though the Super Bowl was played about 3 miles from us as the crow flies. At times we had three “competing” blimps flying around (Goodyear, of course; DirecTV; MetLife). It was enough to make you think you were in an alternate universe on “Fringe”. Apparently, there wasn’t much going on in the rest of the world afterward, because the blimps were still flying around when Cactus League Spring Training games started in late-February.

The last “spring news” I’ll mention is that, for the first time in years, we’re actually making a short trip. We’re done packing the motorhome and we’ll be leaving tomorrow for about a 3-week “vacation”. We’ll be hitting two RV rallies. The first is in Pahrump, Nevada (I know, "Where the heck is Pahrump"? It's about an hour west of Las Vegas.) and the second is in Pomona, California, part of the Los Angeles metro area. We’ll be back in AZ near the end of March, as we have numerous things to take care of before we head out for the summer. One of those things, of course, will be figuring out where we’ll actually go during the summer!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

December 20-January 18: Chilling out for the holidays

We made it through the holidays! Yea!!

Just before Christmas, we had a nice dinner with our friends Ana & Larry celebrating shared birthdays around mid-December (Ana and me). We had a nice selection of wines from the Wine Box, and some good eats: I made a fresh pasta appetizer and then Chateaubriand. 

I had recently posted a graphic on Facebook that I’d seen floating around the Internet, and don’t you know Larry tracked down the real thing!

We finished off with some excellent desserts from AJ’s, a local upscale grocery.

Who knew we'd need heated seats in AZ?
Starting around the 13th of December and lasting well past New Year’s Day, we had “winter”. It was pretty chilly, although by Phoenix standards. We had a week or so where we covered outside pipes to prevent freezing. We don’t have any plants to cover up, but were wondering how some of the neighbors were sleeping at night since it seemed that all their sheets were out covering vegetation. I put the furnace on low in the motorhome to prevent anything bad from happening there. But, it all passed by January 5th and temperatures have been at or above normal since then.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve were quiet for us as usual. I made a “traditional” Christmas Eve like I remember as a kid, with Swedish Meatballs, Ham, and Scalloped Potatoes (no pickled herring!). Christmas Day, we made a Beef Roast with Butternut Squash (my new favorite winter vegetable), plus an appetizer of King Crab Legs that was divine.

We tried something different on New Year’s Eve. We had our Shrimp Cocktail, but rather than the traditional Steamed Lobsters, I made a Rack of Pork. I think Geri was a little disappointed that I didn’t form it into a Crown Roast, but the recipe called for roasting the pork on a bed of red cabbage and other veggies, soaked in half a bottle of sparkling wine. That was a keeper!

On New Year’s Day, we did a simple dinner of more Shrimp and more King Crab. Oh, and Bloodies in the morning…

After the holidays, we tended to relax for a week or so, with the most strenuous activity being taking down the Christmas decorations. We had a few nice sunrises and sunsets (i’m not usually up at sunrise but it’s easier at this time of year). I tried out a few new recipes, including English Muffins a la Model Bakery in Napa Valley. We got to our cell phone two-year contract anniversary, so we upgraded, in a big way, our iPhones (get it, “big” phones?).

We have continued to try out new recipes. Geri made a good Sourdough Boule and we collaborated on Cannelloni stuffed with Sausage, Ricotta, and Spinach (I made the pasta and Geri made the filling). Another keeper!

I spent several days working on the coach, fixing the drain line for the kitchen sink permanently (I made temporary repairs while we were on the road last fall) and adjusting the kitchen slide so it rolls more easily. I also put in a “chip” that’s supposed to help the engine run better by “fooling” some of the circuits. We’ll test that out when we hit the road for a few weeks in March.

With the return of nicer weather, Geri has started using her bike again to get some exercise around the neighborhood. She packs the pups in their little trailer and off they go. And, we’ve been enjoying the patio more in the afternoon and evening!


Friday, December 19, 2014

November 27-December 19: Very Productive

Yes, it’s been a productive few weeks! We had a nice Thanksgiving, wrapped up this season’s medical appointments, and even managed to get another room “done” in record time.

We continued a time-honored tradition of enjoying the Pell family hospitality on Thanksgiving. This is a big celebration for them, with multiple anniversaries in addition to the traditional holiday, and we’ve been honored to be a part of it ever since we started wintering here circa 2006. We enjoyed a great feast, excellent wines, and spending time with the whole crew!

On the medical front, Geri had her last follow-up MRI on her kidney. five-and-a-half years after surgery, there is no evidence of any issues, so she’s no longer in need of annual glow-in-the-dark procedures. Awesome!

I buckled down this year and got right to this season’s home improvement project: renovation in the “study”. Last year, I procrastinated and ended up doing the master suite and spare bedroom in February. Actually, it took me from late-January to early-March if I recall correctly. But, that involved laminate in the bedrooms, tile in the bathroom, and lots of complicated surfaces and angles on the painting.

Our house was designed to have three bedrooms or two bedrooms and a “study”. I’m never sure what to call it, since “office” makes it sound like we’re working in there (Ha!) and we definitely don’t use it to “study”. But, it’s a nice place to have a couple of desks where we can set up all our computer gear and it’s the only room that the Wine Box fits into! The room technically can’t be called a “bedroom” because it has an archway instead of a door, and the indent for the closet was never finished off. This makes for a much simpler room to paint.

When we bought the laminate flooring last year, we got enough to do all three “bedrooms”, so it would match. The flooring has been patiently waiting for me ever since. 

All that's left of our wine collection,
waiting for the Wine Box to be moved.
With Geri’s awesome help, we emptied the Wine Box and moved it to a temporary spot in the Living Room. It has “feet” instead of wheels, so we laid down cardboard and slid it all the way. Once the wine was back in it, and all the other “stuff” was moved out, it was time to tackle the room.

"Before": Furniture and carpet out,
painter's tape in place.
I ripped out the old, nasty carpet and padding first. The only one sad to see it go is Maya Lynn, since she liked to roll around on her back in there. Then I removed the baseboard, being careful to number (and not break!) each piece for easy replacement.

Painting took three days: One to do two coats on the ceiling and a primer (the room had never been painted since the house was built in 2001) on the walls, the second to do two coats on the walls, and the third to clean, sand and do two coats on the baseboard. Yeah, I know; all the paint people advertise one-coat coverage these days. Bunk.

"After": ready to move everything back.
Installing the laminate floor took another day. I was able to get the flooring down, reinstall the baseboard, remove all the blue painter’s tape, and put back all the switch/outlet covers and the like.

The next day of the project involved moving back and re-assembling the desks (for cheap “Walmart furniture” items, they certainly are heavy!), moving back the other furniture and setting up the computer stuff.

The final step of the plan was to empty, move, and re-fill the Wine Box. I took the opportunity to go back through my inventory spreadsheet and do some reorganizing to move the bottles we plan to consume soon (through 2015) to the front.

So, it took me a week. If we’d hired the work out, it would have been done in probably three days. Considering the cost savings, the extra time was well worth the investment.

"Not going back": 2003 vintage tower
computer. Parts will go on eBay!
We still have a few things to put back, but we need to go through the rest of the “stuff” and see what needs to go to eBay vs Goodwill vs back in the “study”. That can happen over the holidays.

Once the dust settled, so to speak, I was able to turn my attention to other things. I made up our annual “holiday card” and Christmas missive that we send out. Generally speaking, that’s all done electronically these days; we’ve got a handful of actual physical cards that go out to people who aren’t “connected”. We’re doing our part to put the USPS out of business. I’ll do a version suitable for posting here as well. Plus, I’ve got some emails and bills to catch up on after being distracted with paint and flooring for a week.

I took some time to make sure that our various devices are working on the “latest and greatest” releases and converted myself back to Safari from Firefox to take advantage of iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite cross-platform sharing options (yes, except for a couple of speciality applications like media serving and vehicle monitoring/diagnostics applications, we’re fully converted to Apple products at this point).

Meanwhile, we continue to eat well and enjoy our fine wines. Geri’s on her second batch of Snickerdoodle Cookies as I type, I’ve continued to practice my pasta making, and several new recipes are in the process of being perfected.

It wouldn’t be Arizona if I didn’t need to mention the weather. After a nice sunny and warm (not “hot”) stretch, things finally turned “normal”. We’ve had temperatures in the 60s, lows in the 40s, and even some rain. Nothing like they have been getting in parts of California, but enough to wet the streets, dirty up the cars, and even form the odd puddle here and there. Of course, passing storms can also lead to nice sunsets and rainbows, so in the final analysis, it’s all good.

I hope you are, too…

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November 5-26: Another whirlwind!

The first few weeks back at our winter place in Arizona are always busy and this year has been no exception. Almost every kind of appointment we make is crammed into the calendar: doctors, dentists, groomers (human and canine), the vet, etc. We arrived back in the Valley of the Sun to an extended stretch of beautiful weather, so that makes up for the busy couple of weeks!

We started off on Wednesday, the 5th, getting an on-time start from Cottonwood. It’s almost exactly 100 miles to home from there, following AZ-260 south to I-17 to the Loop 101 west to Peoria. We arrived back at the “Cederholm Compound” a few minutes after noon, as planned.

It’s always interesting to see what we’ll find after being away for so long. As usual, we had a couple of minor plumbing issues that were easily addressed. The first was a leaky main shut-off valve. This house has two “main” valves, one buried in the yard by the water meter and the other on the side of the house where the main line enters. It’s the latter valve that has given us trouble twice now. A couple of years ago, it wouldn’t open. This year, it started a slow leak once the city turned the service on. We had a small puddle near the whole-house water filter that dried up quickly. Solution: ignore it for now and replace it with a proper ball valve “someday”.

The second issue was also relatively easy to fix, although it took a couple of days to get around to it. The o-ring for the whole-house filter stretched out and wouldn’t seat properly. I’m thinking that I caused this in the spring when I prepared for departure. I always remove the filter cartridge and replace the housing, specifically so we don't have a puddle in the garage. I’ll bet I buggered up the o-ring when I did.

This should be pretty simple, right? Just use the spare o-ring and replace the spare at your leisure. Um, gee, I don’t have a spare o-ring for some reason. Off to Home Depot, Lowe's, and Ace Hardware, none of which have an o-ring in the exact size needed. That’s what I get for buying a mongrel brand filter on the Internet. Back to Home Depot for a replacement filter assembly I go.

Of course, nothing can ever be simple. I thought I was really clever when I mounted the filter between the water softener and the garage shelving — until I needed to replace it! I cut the copper tubing (thank goodness there was enough clearance for the tubing cutter!), replaced the head, and reconnected the copper using compression fittings. Whoever invented these SharkBite fittings is right up there with the sliced bread and Post-It Note guys in my book.

None of this stopped us from getting the house back in working order quickly. When I installed the water softener several years ago, I included a bypass system for just this kind of circumstance. I had the water and gas back on quickly, the water heater filled and restarted (it’s gas-fired with a pilot light; how quaint), and the TV equipment moved back from the coach in a couple of hours. Most important, the Cable Internet modem fired up and connected without incident!

As is tradition, we headed off to the local Grimaldi’s Pizza restaurant for dinner. You can’t beat coal-fired New York-style pizza…

We had the coach unloaded by Thursday afternoon. I made arrangements for storage at our usual place, and it was all “tucked in” before dark. It was time to relax on the patio with a libation.

Before things got really busy, we had our friends, Ana & Larry, over for a simple Steak & Bake dinner. Did I mention that there was wine involved?

Things really got started on Monday, the 10th. We had things scheduled every business day, stretching all the way to the 19th. All of this was routine, except for Maya Lynn’s trip to the Vet. We could tell that the tumor on her rump had started to return, even after two surgeries and several different chemotherapy treatments over the past several years. We’ve decided not to put her through than again, so we’ll see what the future brings on that front. She still seems plenty feisty and happy, her diabetes is under control, and the Vet’s analysis of a sample puts it at a “stage 2” level so we’ll take it one step at a time.

We continue to eat and drink well, making several nice dinners and once again having access to the good wines we keep stored in the house. I’ve continued to practice the art of making fresh pasta, with reasonably good results if I do say so myself.

We finished up this season’s round of appointments over the past few days. Our teeth are clean, our prescriptions are refilled for another year, and we don’t look as shaggy as we did on the road. Now, we’ll switch gears and head into the “holiday season”, even though the store displays and Christmas music on the radio started weeks ago…

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

October 29-November 4: Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Cottonwood, Arizona

We’re back!

Yes, we’re back in Arizona after our summer travels (well, the Grand Canyon is in AZ as well, but that somehow felt different), and back at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. 

The drive down (both direction and elevation-wise) from the Grand Canyon was mostly easy, even though I got into an argument with the GPS along the way. I had my route all set in the computer but the first time it recalculated, it decided to go a different, longer route. We had to listen to about 15 miles worth of “Off route - Recalculating” nonsense before it acceded to my wishes.

We left the campground and made our way to US-180/AZ-64 heading south. Where those route split, about 15 miles south of the National Park entrance, the GPS wanted me to continue on AZ-64 south to Williams and then east on I-40 to Flagstaff. Well, US-180 angles southeast directly to Flagstaff, and that’s the way I’d chosen. We saved about 15 miles (yes, that’s almost 3 gallons of diesel fuel!) but did have to do some in-town driving through Flagstaff. That was a small price to pay, according to me.

Once in Flagstaff, it was easy to make our way to I-17’s northern terminus. Heading south, we soon reached that piece of Arizona topography called the “Mongollon Rim”. It’s actually an escarpment, and involves an elevation change of roughly 2,000 feet. In practical terms for us, that means road signs warning of 18 miles of 4-6% grades. The good news for us this time: it’s all down hill when you’re headed southbound.

Once we leveled out, it wasn’t long before we found the exit to YC-30 (Yavapai County Route 30) west through Cornville to Cottonwood. It wasn’t long before we were parked and set up for the next week. We were even treated to a nice sunset on our first night.

We stayed here in 2012, right around the same time of year. It’s a convenient “last stop” before we get back to our winter roost in Peoria. It’s about a two-hour drive from here, so we’ll get home in the late morning with plenty of time to get organized.

The Cottonwood/Cornville/Clarkdale area is right in the heart of the Verde Valley (named for the Verde River), about 2,100 feet higher in elevation than the Valley of the Sun. It’s a touch cooler here, nice at this time of year but much too cold for us sensitive types in the winter.

The last time we visited, we basically used this as a kind of decompression point after spending time in Southern California. This time, I planned to do a little more exploring in the area.

On Friday, we drove up the side of the mountain to the little artsy town of Jerome. While it may be “hip” now, it’s actually a mining town that almost disappeared when the mining industry moved on. We’ve driven through before, several years ago when my brother and spouse, Rick & Annette, visited and we made a day trip to Sedona. We didn’t have time to stop that day but I made a mental note to return at some point.

We can see the little town of Jerome from our spot in Cottonwood. It’s perched about halfway up on the side of the nearest mountain. Although it doesn’t look far, it’s actually about 2,000 feet higher in elevation. The road is pretty steep and has some hairpin curves. Even the parking spots can be tricky!

Hard to believe there is a 500-foot
drop right on the other side of this building!
In addition to quite a few “funky” shops, Jerome is home to several high-end art galleries, a slew of restaurants and bars, and two wine tasting rooms. Can you guess where we ended up?

Can't do a wine tasting without posting a few pictures to Facebook!

Since it was Halloween, we saw quite a few of the “locals” dressed in costume. Our server at the Caduceus tasting room was a good sport. In the small world department, it turns out she’s a transplant (no Zombie pun intended) from Collingswood, New Jersey, just a few miles from where we lived in Berlin. As we were checking out, for fun I asked the staff if they knew what we were dressed as for Halloween. After a few seconds of blank looks, they came up with “Snowbird Retiree Tourists”!

Over the weekend, we had a little cooler weather and quite a bit of wind. That made it a little difficult to enjoy outside activities. By Monday, things calmed down and we were able to do a little more exploring. We actually hit the trifecta of sites associated with ancient tribes in the area. Montezuma Castle National Monument is an adobe pueblo built high up on a rock wall overlooking Beaver Creek. Montezuma Well is a natural basin several miles away that’s fed by underground springs. And Tuzigoot National Monument is a preserved ruin very close to our campground.

"Watch that first step"! 

Montezuma Well is more of a spring-fed lagoon in the middle of the high desert landscape.

Montezuma was never here, but the Spanish expolrers who tramped through here in the 1500s just assumed...

It's hard to see here, but the outlet of the lagoon is just a small crack in the rock wall.

Also a little hard to know from a picture, this Sycamore tree has its roots right at the outlet.
It must be six feet in diameter and grew out on an angle to get sunlight.

The Tuzigoot Ruins are completely different than Montezuma Castle, as they are built on, not into, a hill.

Archeologists have recreated what they believe to be original building techniques. The differences in construction style and, to a lesser extent, building materials is used to identify the timing and sub-culture responsible for the settlement.

Initially, I thought this was a flood plain of the nearby Verde River, but it's actually reclaimed land that was a toxic waste dump for the copper mining industry in Clarkdale off in the distance. It was flattened, covered, and resurfaced in the 1990s.

Back home, we were able to sit outside for a bit and use up the last of our firewood, and enjoy another nice sunset.

On Tuesday, our last day in the area, we decided to take a ride to Sedona. As I often do, I suggested that we take the “scenic route”. I’d read about Schnebly Hill Road a couple of times in off-road articles and in Arizona Highways magazine (an awesome publication, by the way). It’s described as an “easy” 12-mile drive between the outskirts of Sedona and I-17 to the east.

Well, if this road is “easy”, maybe I don’t need to see “difficult”. We (OK, I) decided to drive the road from east to west, so we headed up (literally) I-17 to the Schnebly Hill Road exit. We immediately left the pavement behind and entered Ponderosa Pine forest. The road was rutted and uneven, albeit relatively flat. We were “above the Mongollon Rim” on the Kaibab Plateau, so that was expected. We did well to maintain a pace of 20 MPH, but we weren’t in a hurry.

The scenery was nice enough but got a little boring quickly, so there was pressure to turn around but we pressed on. After about five miles, we turned to the north and were greeted with a nice view of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance. Now, we had just driven past these mountains on the way south from the Grand Canyon and they were snow-free. We could tell that what we felt as chilly and windy weather in Cottonwood had brought the season’s first snow to the mountains of northern Arizona. Here’s looking forward to a snowy and wet winter — for them!

Another mile further on, we came to an abrupt change in the scenery. The vegetation rapidly changed from Ponderosa Pine to Juniper, then thinned out considerably. We soon came up to a vista point turnoff where several other hardy travelers were parked, talking and taking pictures. The vista point is perched right on the edge of “The Rim”, looking down several thousand feet into the Red Rock country surrounding Sedona.

Yes, you can see a trace of the road we'll need to use to get to Sedona across the center of the picture!

All of the folks gathered at the overlook were traveling in the opposite direction as we were; they had driven up from Sedona. One of them asked my how the road was back the way we came. I explained that it wasn’t too bad, but that the scenery was, shall we say, “consistent” once on the Plateau. Everyone told me that the road was much worse between the vista and Sedona. Geri wasn’t sure how that could be possible (she’s not an off-road girl), but they were right.

As soon as we left the vista point, we started downward on a road etched into the side of a vertical cliff. The road surface was pretty rocky itself, and was also littered with rocks and small boulders that had fallen from the cliffs above. Our pace slowed to 10 MPH, and we had several spots where we had to stop and try to figure out which side of the road to use for the “smoothest” ride.

While the road was pretty rugged, the scenery was awesome! This portion of the drive certainly made up for the relatively boring ride through the pines earlier. It seemed like we needed to stop every few yards for another photo opportunity. Most times, I tried to pull off the traveled portion of the road. I was glad that the Rover has an air suspension system that allowed me to gain an additional 3 inches of ground clearance!

We started to encounter vehicles from the Sedona-based “Jeep Tour” companies heading in both directions. Most of the passengers waved but the drivers seemed annoyed with us “interlopers” getting in their way, especially on sections of the road that seemed to only have one good vehicle track. We even saw one couple heading up the hill on a motorcycle. Good for them!

We continued to stop for pictures all the way to the beginning of the paved road as we entered Sedona. It will be interesting to try this drive another time in the morning when the sun is coming from the other direction.

Once in Sedona, we realized that we’d pretty much spent the day doing the drive, so we didn’t really poke around any further. We headed back south on AZ-89A and were soon back in Cottonwood, prepping for tomorrow’s departure and the end of our “summer vacation” for this year!