Summer Travel Map

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Big weather changes

November 26, 2008
Peoria, AZ

We awoke this morning to the sound of raindrops. After almost 100 days without measurable rain (nowhere near a record for this area but still a pretty long time), we may be in for a record rainfall over the next few days.

It's interesting to gauge the level of excitement around the weather, no matter where we go. It's more pervasive than predicting the outcome of sports events and more universal than prognosticating about the financial markets (well, maybe not lately). Where we're from originally (the Northeast), an inch or so of rain over a few days would be no big deal. A couple of flakes of snow - that's a whole different ballgame. Here in the desert, the prospect of even some clouds brings out the "we're tracking the storm for you; details on the evening news" messages. Given the probability of significant rain, all the news outlets are in a positive tizzy. Fascinating.

In any event, we've been productive over the last few days, tackling projects from the various to-do lists and some that weren't forseen. I took a shot at fine-tuning the alignment of the DirecTV dish to make sure that we get all the HD channels as they transition to the new "birds" (these new dishes require more accurate aiming). I found that the fine adjustment screw on the dish arm has come loose, but I think I managed to get it pretty close anyway. Having a quality hand-held meter is a big plus.

While I was fussing with the setup, I ran another cable to the DVR, replacing one that wasn't showing a signal (the DVR has two tuners, allowing recording of one channel while watching another). I think it's OK, even though I wasn't able to completely figure out where it was going wrong. It seemed like the signal wasn't passing through the outside grounding block (needed in case the dish gets hit with lightning), so I replaced the whole cable and shifted it to another block and was able to get a signal through to the receiver. It still doesn't seem to want to record from the second tuner, but I think a reset of the box may fix that. Of course, I had to remove the wooden trim strips I used to cover up the three cables (2 dish and 1 over-the-air antenna) running along the side of the house, and I need to upgrade the wall outlet box in the living room where the cables come in from outside. I'll reinstall and repaint the trim when the weather clears, and replace the box next time I'm in Home Depot.

We went for a bike ride the other day, now that the temperatures have eased. Now, our rides are nothing like our friend Dave's; he does 70 miles in 5 hours while we do 5-10 in one hour, but at least we get out there periodically. Unfortunately for me, my recumbent turned up lame as we were getting ready to leave - the rear tire was flat and wouldn't hold air. I was surprised, since I'd aired up the tires after the summer storage period and all seemed OK. I had the mountain bike as a backup, so our ride wasn't impacted.

We tried out the new riding/walking trail that was installed last spring/summer along the wash that runs behind our development. The parks department has installed several miles of paved pathway, complete with "rest areas" (benches and water fountains). Apparently, there are plans to interconnect several of these existing and planned pathways over time, so we'll have miles of trails to ride without dodging vehicular traffic.

When we bought the recumbent bikes several years ago, I bought spare tubes, so I had a replacement on hand and made the swap. I have no idea how you're supposed to remount a bike tire by hand; I cheated and carefully used a pry lever to get the tire back over the rim edge. I don't think I damaged the tube in the process. This is the second flat this year; I got a thorn in one of the mountain bike tires in Santa Fe, but cheated and made a temporary fix with a sealant. I'll replace that tube over the winter; it's not critical as I don't use the mountain bike much while we're here. It was nice to have a backup, though.

There's not much new to report on the food front. Sunday, we tried another new recipe, Maple-Mustard Glazed Chicken, which was a tentative "keeper" (we'll try it again with better quality maple syrup), and yesterday we had a nice crusted tilapia with curried couscous.

Well, that's it for now - we're off to Geri's periodoontist for a checkup...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In a groove

November 23, 2008
Peoria, AZ

We've wrapped up the "holiday letter" (way too much work) and gotten the cards done, even though we won't mail them out until after Thanksgiving. I spent a good chunk of time working on the photo side of this project, first selecting about 15 pictures to include, then using Photoshop to make a collage. Once I had my work flow and processes figured out, it actually went pretty smoothly - until I realized I was about 5 pictures "heavy". I'll play around with this technique over the course of the next year, and probably automate some of the tasks. Of course, anyone who follows the Blog has already seen everything that fits in the summary, so I shouldn't waste more time on it here...

In other news, well, there really isn't anything new. We dropped off Merlin's "thank you" cookies, did some shopping, and made some bread (ciabatta - or is it ciabetta? - from scratch and "regular loaves in the bread machine). I had taken the two portable gas stoves from the coach bay because I wanted to fashion some wind screens for them, so I finished that off and we dropped them back at the coach on the way back from the vet since it's on the way. At some point, I have to take the coach out to top off the diesel and propane tanks, but falling prices kind of reduce the urgency of that. We'll probably start pulling out the holiday decorations next week with an eye toward putting them up/out on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It's nice to be able to do that without gloves and parkas!

On the weather front, things have been quite nice, although the TV weather people keep blathering on about above-average temperatures. I'll take low-80s for as long as they're available, thank you very much. They're now predicting a "winter storm" for next week, with temperatures dropping (!) to 67-68° and even the possibility of measurable rain (1/4 inch!!) by Thanksgiving. Wow!

We found another "keeper" recipe last night: Sage-crusted Pork with Mashed Root Vegetables. The pork recipe included an apple-shallot compote that was great, and we had a very good 2003 Barossa Shiraz from the Wine Box. I've been scanning in the "keeper" recipes and creating PDF files for future reference. Now I just have to organize these files along with all the hardcopy ones we've collected. Another "over the winter" project...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More of the same...

November 20, 2008
Peoria, AZ

Well, I told you that we'd be getting back to our winter - and somewhat less interesting - routine. We're there! With Merlin's health scare over (as I type, he's barking at the front door because the UPS guy drove by), things have settled down very quickly.

Monday, it was time to give the pups a bath, which is always an interesting exercise when you do it in the kitchen sink. They emerged none the worse for wear, and Geri soon dried out. For dinner, we tried a new recipe, Mediterranean Chicken with Curried Rice Pilaf. This was a nice match with a young California Zin.

It was Geri's turn on Tuesday, with a planned trip to the hair salon taking up the morning and weekly grocery shopping in the afternoon. We took advantage of the fresh fish at one of the local markets to try another new recipe, this time Parmesean-crusted Cod (OK, the recipe called for Halibut but they didn't have any in the store) in "Crazy Water", which was excellent with (or because of?) a fine 1997 Brunello from the Wine Box. What the heck is "Crazy Water"? Acqua pazzo in Italian, it refers to a broth of vegetables and herbs, in our case zucchini, roasted red peppers, halved grape tomatoes, and kalamata olives. With some onion and garlic, and a dose of orzo, it made a nice resting place for the fish, which was roasted with a panko crust over a layer of pesto as a binder. Woo-hoo!

Yesterday and today involved a bunch of puttering around. I got out the tap and die set for the first time in a while to help out one of the neighbors who needed to fabricate parts for a new sink. Geri made a big batch of cookies, most of which are destined to be "thank you" gifts for the staff at the vet and emergency clinic who took care of Merlin early in the month. And, in one of those "why am I doing this again?" moments, I've been working on a "holiday letter" to include in with our cards this year. While it's difficult to boil down a year's worth of travel and experience in one page (at least without using the very small fonts), it's even harder to select a few pictures from the albums to include. Work on this continues, and eventually I'll wrap it up.

Dinner tonight was another winner: bowtie pasta with mozzarella-stuffed chicken sausage meatballs. The "everyday chianti" we had was slightly corked but drinkable, otherwise it was all good...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Back to our routine

November 16, 2008
Peoria, AZ

I can't believe it's been a week since we were at the NASCAR races. What the heck did we do this week?

Monday was easy: we unloaded the coach and got it back in storage. Other than finding the beginnings of a leak in the drain pipe from the kitchen sink, this was pretty uneventful. I'll have more to report on the drain issue, which is located where the drain from the sink in the slide-out connects to the fixed pipe in the coach, in the future as I work out a fix.

The rest of the week has been pretty routine. Tuesday, we shopped. Thursday, Geri had a medical appointment and started the Christmas shopping for the grand kids. I cleaned out the shed in the back yard and reallocated stuff between the shed and garage. Yesterday, we did the Home Depot - Post Office - Bank - Farmer's Market - drop stuff at the coach loop. Well, Geri only did part of the loop as she was feeling poorly and I dropped her back at home mid-loop.

We're going to try a slightly different approach this fall to see if we can reduce the grocery bill (one of our top 3 expenses - who'd have thunk it?). We'll shop weekly on Tuesday or Wednesday, and aim to get some fresh fish (as fresh as it gets living in a desert hundreds of miles from the water). This week, we "reverse-engineered" three different recipes to come up with a dish that Geri saw a picture of in a magazine: prosciutto-wrapped halibut with risotto cakes and pea puree. Talk about the long way around! We could have made any one of the three recipes and been OK, I suppose, but where's the challenge in that? We found the fish from one recipe, which also called for a potato wrapper outside the prosciutto which we bypassed. The risotto cakes were from another recipe, starting with saffron risotto, which is cooled, molded, and then sauteed for color. The pea puree came from a third recipe, which also gave us the pea-olive-tomato salsa that was a topper. With a nice 1999 Volnay red Burgundy from the Wine Box, it made for a very nice meal.

We've read that Tuesday may be the best day to find fresh fish, as deliveries may have replenished stock that sat around over the prior weekend. Who knows if this is true, but at least it gives us a routine that's the first step to fiscal discipline. The budget took quite a hit in the last few weeks with Merlin's "mystery illness", and we're working hard to offset the impact with a few months of dedicated saving.

Speaking of Merlin, he's almost back to normal. He's much stronger and still trying to replace the 10% of his body weight he lost by wanting to be fed every couple of hours. He's moving better on his walks and back to playing at night, so we're hopeful that the worst is over for him.

Last night, we caught up on some recorded shows from the DVR. Today, we might catch the NASCAR race on TV, and then it'll be NetFlix movie night. The next week or so will be (hopefully) routine, leading up to a quiet Thanksgiving (for which the menu planning has already begun - more on that later). That's it for now...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Wrapping up NASCAR at PIR

November 10, 2008
Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, AZ

We wrapped up our race weekend and made the long trip (15 miles - ha!) back home on Monday morning.

The NASCAR races over the weekend are broken up into three separate series, or classes. Friday night was a 150 mile race for the "Craftsman Truck Series" (basically the same type of race chassis, just with a body that looks like a pickup truck), Saturday was a 200 mile race for the "Nationwide Series" (the "developmental" circuit for NASCAR), and Sunday was the 312 mile (500 kilometers - so they can call it the "Checker Auto Parts 500") "Sprint Cup Series" (the "big time"). At one mile around, PIR is one of the shorter tracks on the NASCAR tour.

Friday night's Truck race was fun, and educational. We learned that ear protection is important (probably should have bought those $2/pair earplugs on the way in). We learned that our $6 seat cushions worked just fine and that we didn't need the more expensive ones after all. And, we learned that closer (lower) seating is not necessarily better, since the fence that surrounds the track also restricts your line of sight for the first 20 or so rows. Lastly, we found out that, while the free tram to/from the track from the RV parking areas is convenient, it's queue is worse than an E-ticket Disney ride when the race is over and everyone wants to head back at the same time. These lessons will help us immensely if we do this again.

Click here for a few pictures from Friday night.

Friday night, we had more of our pre-prepared dinner menu, still wondering how we'd (I'd?) managed to not realize how much pasta was involved in planning two pasta nights, two lo mein nights, chicken carbonara, and meatball stroganoff. We were lucky, though, that Geri had made and brought a "harvest pie" (apples and pears, oh my). After havibg it for the second night, we ended up sharing the remainder with the two couples next door, who had rented an RV locally after traveling down from Grand Junction, Colorado.

Saturday's race was in the late afternoon, and our seats were higher up (row 42). With everything I was carrying, and knowing where the seats were located, I decided to not bring the heavy camera gear because I wouldn't get many pictures beyond the snapshots I'd taken the prior days. These seats gave us the height advantage to see the whole track without too much interference, and we were pleased to see that the three top rows in the grandstand (42-44) all had built-in back rests that the lower rows didn't. With the seat cushions and the backrests, we were much better off.

On the other hand, we got to our seats too early (about 2 hours, to watch the final practice for Sunday's bunch) to sit in the desert sun for so long. We'd applied sunscreen liberally, so we didn't burn, but we definitely baked. New lesson: light-colored clothing is a must. Even with three bottles of water, I was parched by the end. Geri needed a break from the sun early on in the race, and didn't want to tackle the climb back to row 42, so she caught the majority of the race from the concourse and from an empty seat in a low row. We learned a new lesson: seats in the grandstand section on the western end of the track were in the shade for the whole race. To avoid the tram jam (clever, eh?), Geri positioned herself there just as the race was ending. I avoided the queue after the race was over by just walking back to the coach. It took me about 25 minutes; no big deal for me by myself but not an option for Geri.

Somehow, Geri found the time to make a new appetizer recipe: brucetta with white beans and sun-dried tomatoes. We had plenty to share with the neighbors before digging into the night's carb-heavy meal.

Sunday's "big event" started earlier, but the weather was different. As opposed to Saturday's blazing sunshine, we awoke to mostly cloudy skies and breezy conditions. Even though the clouds started to break up just before race time, it was much cooler on Sunday. I decided to do some exploring on the mountain bike in the morning, and ended up riding all the way through the RV parking areas, checking for possible future locations and seeing "the sights". In the areas where the earliest arrivals probably parked, some of the most decreipt and ramshackle "rigs" (and I use that term loosely) could be found. One crowd actually had a 35' houseboat on a trailer parked in amongst the RVs, lawn chairs and gas grill on the roof, "anchored" to a pair on Honda generators. I wish I'd brought a camera.

We decided that I'd wear a white T-shirt, take 3 liters of water, and ride the mountain bike over to the track (I'd seen hundreds of them locked along the fence the day before) and that Geri would take the tram when the race was about 1/3 over, giving the sun time to shift to the west a bit. This was a halfway decent plan, up to a point. That point came as Geri was just leaving the coach.

A series of clouds formed overhead, the wind picked up to about 50 MPH, and it started to rain and hail. In Phoenix. Go figure. Anyway, they actually stopped the race for about 30 minutes, just about the time that Geri was chasing our 9x15' patio mat around the RV parking area and trying to make sure that our chairs didn't blow away. At this point, her plan changed ("Why don't I just stay here and watch on TV?") and I started making the trek down 42 rows to the loo (not so parched after twice as much water). In true Phoenix fashion, the "weather event" was soon over and the only lingering evidence was thedust in the air from the winds. The race finished later than expected (Geri sasid the final few laps were cut off from the TV coverage; something about "America's' Funniest Videos" being a more important commitment) with another exciting ending.

I was glad I had the bike for the trip back to the coach, and glad I'd remembered to bring my regular glasses (it was well after sunset and the sunglasses needed all day would have been a hindrance). When we got back settled and chatted with the neighbors, the offered up a couple of grilled rib-eys for dinner - how could we refuse? They were great with some left over mashers we had from earlier in the week and a side of corn, along with a nice Aussie Shiraz/Cab blend ("Pillar Box Red", a Costco special).

Monday dawned sunny and bright, even if a lot of the inhabitants of our little temporary city were "slow moving". If I wasn't for the fact that most of the RVs and camping equipment deployed near us was relatively new and in reasonably good shape, you'd have thought we were in the midst of a refugee camp, or something out of the "Mad Max" movies. With the smoke from dying campfires and people milling about or packing up, it was in interesting sight.

Since we didn't have much stuff deployed, breaking camp was pretty easy. I packed up the patio mat and chairs, took down the generator exhaust stack, and put up the window awnings while Geri secured the inside and brought in the slides. Since we were so close to home, we decided that we wouldn't bother to hook up the car for towing. Geri headed off with the pups for home, and I took the coach over to the local Flying J truck stop on the premise that I'd top off the fuel and propane tanks, both of which were about 1/4 full. What a great idea. Too bad everyone else had the same idea first; the access road to the truck stop was jammed 1/2 mile all the way back to I-10. I ended up doing a drive-by, not getting stuck in the jam up, and just headed for home. I'll make a run over there some time over the next few weeks, as it's always a good idea to store the coach with a full tank of fuel to prevent condensation, but it's not critical here this time of year.

Overall, we had a pretty good time at the races, learned a bit about what to do next time, and met some niice folks in the process. I'm pretty sure that tickets go on sale in March, so I may send an email to a few folks in January/February to see if anyone wants to join us next year.

Friday, November 7, 2008


November 7, 2008
Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, AZ

We have an excellent spot in the "unreserved" section of the RV parking areas at Phoenix International Raceway ("PIR"). We're glad we arrived relatively early, on Tuesday afternoon. I say "relatively" because they opened up the RV parking on October 18th! From the looks of some groups, they had plenty of takers.

There are three different type of RV parking here. Actually, I should say "camping", since there are about 15% tents, plus a few 18-wheeler tractors mixed in. The first is "reserved", in which each space is striped off at about 20' wide by 40' deep and numbered. Many groups reserve a block of sites and then park in a square or "U" pattern, with a common area in the middle. These spaces are pretty tight together and we wouldn't fit well (too long).

The second area is what they call "campgrounds", but they aren't in the traditional sense since there are no services present. These are just dirt sections carved out of the brush, also striped off into small "spaces". This area is too tight for us to maveuver.

The final section is comprised of three "lots", large hard-packed dirt areas with "roads" laid in using some kind of oil to make for a contrasting color. The roads are about 80' apart, but no spaces are striped out, so we were able to "claim" a space about 30' wide by 80' deep, just by showing up early. Since the whole area is situated in rolling desert, we were also able to claim a relatively level spot as well - nothing to sneeze at after we saw some of the rigs parked at steep angles or jacked well off the ground. (Dave will recall how we had to leverage the coach into position at his place up North.) We're close to the tram stop (we're about a miles from the track and trams run every few minutes) and not too close to the porta-potties, so we're in excellent shape.

Of course, we're not exactly die-hard, rabid NASCAR fans, either, so we're keeping a low profile in some ways. We have no "stuff" with numbers. No t-shirts and hats, no banners, no chairs and seat cushions, no decals and bling on the Range Rover, no flags attached to 30' poles hanging on the coach. Most of the people we've met are very into certain drivers and/or teams. Of course, this also means that they're also not into "competing" drivers and/or teams. We certainly don't know all the "rules" and "tribes", so we just nod a lot. It's more complicated than the WWF.

Anyway, racing actually started yesterday, Thursday, with two USAC events in the evening after various practice sessions were completed during the day. I rode my mountain bike around during the afternoon, checking out the various parts of the layout and getting a handle on the "shopping" area (every driver/team has at least one huge trailer selling "stuff" - generally all the same "stuff"). We had an early dinner and headed over to the track around 5:30 PM, where we caught the end of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series practice session, followed by two USAC (the other major track racing organization beside NASCAR) sanctioned races. The first was a 25-lap Midget race which took forever (caution laps don't count in races under 100 laps) and the second was what they call the "Silver Crown" series, which reminded me of the "Modified" races we used to see as kids. These are open-wheeled, small-block powered cars that are basically roll cages with tires. They were running lap speeds over 130 MPH on the 1-mile track, so they're pretty quick. The pole-sitter won the race, leading all but 4 of the 100 laps. The same guy won the earlier Midget race, so he had a pretty good night.

Other than a few idiots shooting off fireworks between midnight and 1 AM, we had a pretty good night as well. This morning, we did a little shopping (the obligatory seat cushions, new sunglasses for Geri) and I took a few more pictures (film this time, to give the F6 some working time). Click here for a link to what I've posted so far. This afternoon, it's been a bit of relaxation (OK, I fell asleep in the chair while we were "relaxing" outside), and we'll have another early dinner before heading over to the track for tonight's Truck race.

So far, so good!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back to normal - and off to the races

November 5, 2008
Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, AZ

Life is getting back to normal after Merlin's health scare, and we've completed a couple of projects prior to heading for PIR ("Phoenix International Raceway") for this coming weekend's NASCAR races.

Merlin is much better, and getting stronger each day. He's still a little unsteady on his feet at times, and has taken to "slow walking", but he's cleared a stronger, slimmer (he lost about 2 pounds, we think) dog than he was 10 days ago. He's having a bit of trouble with the 5 steps up into the motorhome, but we can help him with that if needed.

Over the weekend, I finished up the installation of the water softener and whole house filter. First, I put in a true bypass, which allows the water to the house to be on, even if the filter/softener loop is being serviced. This should have been done when the prior installation was completed, but they clearly didn't care about future maintenance. I had to re-solder a couple of connections (note to self: don't sweat water pipes when you're distracted by a sick dog), but everything worked out fine. When I put in the filter/softener (putting a whole house water filter in line before the softener helps extend the life of the charge by reducing sediment and other impurities), I had a couple of additional points of seepage where the copper tubing connected to the nylon fittings of the softener (you just don't want to over-tighten these things), but they were easily resolved. I could notice the difference in the water right away; you actually get suds in the shower now. Our next step will be to take a cleaner (like "CLR") to the shower heads and the inside of the dishwasher.

We'd originally planned to head for the race track on Sunday, but realized it would make a bit more sense to wait until Tuesday since that's when Geri had an early morning dentist appointment. This was to remove the stitches (well, the ones that hadn't already fallen out on their own) from the "uncovering" (removing little flaps of gum that had healed over the metal implants over the summer). As always, she was a model patient, and the healing process is going extremely well. She has one more appointment with this dentist (the periodontist) before the other one (the prostodontist) does the impressions and has the crowns made. With the holidays coming up, that whole process will take 8 weeks instead of the normal 6, starting December 1st and wrapping up in late-January. In the meantime, though, she's back to soft, non-spicy foods for a few weeks.

Before we left with the coach, I wanted to work on one last small project. Over time, we've learned that being in close quarters with other RVs can lead to problems with generator exhaust. Our generator is in the front of the coach, and the exhaust is right under the driver's seat. Depending on location and wind, it can definitely make being outside a challenge. When we're "dry camping" (aka "boondocking" - staying in the coach without benefits of electrical service), we usually run the generator about 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the evening. This supports the coffeemaker and microwave, and charges up the battery bank. for the rest of the time, we a) conserve and b) use the 3,000 watt inverter to supply AC power. Well, when we were at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, my friend Wayne and I started to fabricate vertical exhaust extensions for our generators. We had each invested about $25 but didn't have workable units - yet. We both had ideas, though, and neither of us was interested in paying the $150 that Camping World wants for their exhaust stack. So, I made up a bunch of "s" brackets and extended the pipe I'd bought in New Mexico. We'll test it out this week!

After Geri's dental appointment, we headed over to the storage yard and brought the coach home. We were done loading it by Noon (we don't need a lot of stuff since we're only "out" a few days and we're only 15 miles from home). We found a spot and parked relatively easily. I'll pick up the tale, and hopefully have some pictures in my next post.