Summer Travel Map

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Escapees Hospitality

December 30, 2009
Wauchula, FL

After we wrapped up in Port Charlotte, we headed inland for an hour or so, and made our way to the Escapees park in Wauchula, the "SKP Resort" ("SKP" is the way we abbreviate "Escapee"). We were able to grab one of the last open spots for a five-day stay. Escapee parks don't accept reservations; it's first come-first parked. This is a nice end spot, with an easy angle for the back-in and full hookups for $14/day plus electricity (shouldn't be too much since we need no air conditioning, but we did run the heat pumps to take the chill off this morning). We'll chill here for a few days, making a side trip to visit friends who live in Brandon, just outside Tampa, on New Year's Eve.

It's been an interesting trip so far. Even though Mom passed away in March, the process of placing the ashes has a finality to it that brings a lot of emotions to the surface, and provides a sense of closure.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mom's Final Resting Place

December 29, 2009
Port Charlotte, FL

Today was the day scheduled for Mom's interment. My brother and family (Rick, Annette, Alyson and Erik) arrived last night, and they were joined by Annette's parents (Gerry and Lois) and sisters (Brenda and Chris). Rick had made arrangements with the church and everything was all set. After the 8:00 AM mass, Father Len led us to the Memorial Garden where Mom's ashes were placed. It was a nice, simple service, and we were very grateful for all Annette's family members who took the time to attend.

After the service, we all retired to the local Cracker Barrel for a brunch, which was good as usual.

Alice Cederholm ~~~ 1926-2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

On to the Sunshine State

December 28, 2009
Port Charlotte, FL

We left Albertville on schedule Sunday morning and had a reasonably comfortable trip south to Florida. We followed US-431 south to Anniston, then I-20 east toward Atlanta. Taking the I-285 bypass to I-75, we started running into traffic. It was pretty heavy and construction areas were slow, but nothing terrible. We were in the midst of two "migrations": snowbirds from the Midwest making the post-Christmas trek toward warmer weather, plus Florida cars making a mad dash back after a holiday visit.

We made a couple of rest stops along the way, and found working dump stations in most Rest Areas. We'd planned to drive to the Georgia-Florida line, but decided to pull up just under 50 miles early since we were running behind due to the traffic. We had a pre-made dinner of pasta and sauce (is it "leftovers" if you planned and packaged it for easy reheating?) and a good night's sleep.

Monday dawned clear and cold, with a heavy frost. We hit the road early, found that traffic, particularly the folks from Florida, had subsided quite a bit. We made good time to the Flying J near the state line and took our time, having breakfast and picking up a couple of things (a replacement CB antenna, plus cheap replacement hubcaps for the steer axle on the coach - one had fallen off somewhere in Texas) in addition to fueling up.

We took our time driving in the Florida sunshine and arrived in Port Charlotte late in the afternoon. We got the OK for overnight parking (in spite of the signs) and settled in for the night.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A great Christmas visit

December 26, 2009
Albertville, AL

We've just wrapped up a great family visit here in Albertville, AL. Tomorrow, we head for Florida, a trip we'll do in two segments.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were easy days with a simple pattern. We slept in, had "coffee and" in the morning, relaxed in the afternoon, had a nice dinner, and turned in early. Not a bad life. Tuesday evening, we made wings and margaritas, with the wings in four different sauces (Buffalo, barbeque, "Dreamland", and teriyaki). Margaritas were on the mild side (not George-a-ritas) as we didn't have all the liqueurs, but they were good nonetheless. Wednesday night, Rick made a pot of Chili.

Merlin and Maya Lynn also got to meet new friends. Rick and Annette have a new dog, Abby, who is a 9-month old English Springer Spaniel (I think that's right). Abby is a great dog but doesn't quite realize how big she's gotten in the last few months. We also met Dozer, a black Cocker Spaniel who is nominally attached to Alyson & Henry (her boyfriend) but living for now with Annette's mother and father. Dozer had a "sleepover" with Abby while Annette's parents headed to Florida for Christmas, so it's been a foursome most of the week. They've been getting along reasonably well, all things considered.

The weather was pleasant and mild, but we knew it wouldn't last. Thursday dawned cloudy and the wind kept increasing during the day. By late in the day, the rain began, and it poured for hours, before it turned cold - ouch!

It being Christmas Eve, Rick focused us on a "traditional" holiday dinner as done in our family when we were growing up. Since our father's parents were from Sweden, the "big" celebration was always Christmas Eve. We had Swedish Meatballs (Geri pitched in here), ham, mashed and scalloped potatoes, slow-baked beans, and a special dessert of pineapple tort. OK, we didn't have the pickled herring and "silta" (a pressed, cured pork dish), but we did pretty well.

Christmas was low-key for the most part, with gifts in the morning after coffee, snacking on leftovers in the afternoon, and another team-effort dinner with Rick making a stuffed pork loin to match with Geri's famous "Grandma Reds" potatoes. Things got a bit boisterous in the evening as Geri and I learned to play "Push-Pull Rummy", a six-handed, three-deck, cutthroat game with no mercy. We also learned that spouses and siblings must be separated during these games.

Today, we wrapped up our visit since we'll be heading out early tomorrow for Florida. We played with Skype (Rick and Alyson got webcams as gifts), lost a few games of Scrabble, and made another major dent in the leftovers for dinner. After another game of Push-Pull Rummy (total domination by Alyson), we called it an early night.

Below:  Abby finds some sanctuary, Maya and Dozer are ready to go out and chase the cat, and Merlin crashes on Christmas night...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Birmingham to Albertville

December 22, 2009
Albertville, AL

We had a great visit with our friends Linda and Wendell at their place in Birmingham.  We arrived mid-day on Saturday, after a restful night at the Alabama Welcome Center.  We woke to another crystal clear day, but caught up with the clouds we'd been chasing after about 20 miles on the road.  Fortunately, we had no rain, either liquid or solid.

We got settled in their driveway parking spot and spent the afternoon catching up.  Dinner was rack of lamb (woo-hoo!), and we were joined by Linda's parents, Til and Bob, and friends Pat and Clarence.  A good time was had by all.  Linda cracked open a double magnum of Coppola Merlot - mmm.

Sunday was a quiet day.  We relaxed, Wendell shopped (anti-relaxation), and then he smoked a whole pork loin.  We managed to have half for dinner; boy was that good!  After dinner, we caught up with pictures from our Alaska trip, at least some of them, until everyone was tired.

Yesterday, it dawned to another crystal clear day.  I made a quick run to the local Land Rover dealer to pick up a couple of wheel inserts, little plastic circles with the logo on them.  We lost the third one before we left AZ; unfortunately, I can't get them replaced under warranty any more.  Now, they go on with a touch of glue.  Once I was back, we readied ourselves for travel, turned the coach around, hooked up the car and made the short trip from Birmingham to Albertville.  It was a beautiful day for a drive.  We made a quick stop at a rest area on I-59 to take advantage of the dump station, and arrived at brother Rick's place mid-afternoon.  We caught up with the family (Annette, Alyson and Erik).  Rick made a pot of sauce, and Annette's parents joined us for spaghetti dinner.

Today is another beautiful day.  We're making a list and checking it twice - for a quick trip to WalMart for fixin's for wings and margaritas for tonight's dinner.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A great trip east so far

December 18, 2009
Cuba, AL

We have had a great trip east, leaving Arizona on Wednesday morning and making it to the Mississippi/Alabama border tonight.  We've had good weather and mostly trailing winds; haven't seen a cloud since we left AZ!

Day 1 was an easy drive, I-10 east out of Phoenix, to and through New Mexico, and to the Texas border.  There's a truck stop we know at "Exit 0", and we fueled up and parked in the RV parking section for the night.  It was reasonably quiet but chilly in the morning.  We were up at 7:00 and on the road a little after 8:00.

Day 2 was a long day.  We had a little over 11 hours of driving to do, 12 hours with rest/meal breaks.  Plus, we lost an hour with the time zone change from Mountain to Central.  We made the transition from I-10 to I-20 in West Texas.  Our destination was the WalMart in Weatherford, TX, just west of Dallas/Fort Worth, and we rolled in just after 9:00 PM.  We'd stopped for dinner (pre-made pasta) a couple of hours earlier, so we were content to just pick up a few things in the store, verify that it was OK to stay the night (there were 2 other RVs in the lot but they looked like residence-challenged folks as opposed to "WalMart Campers"), and hit the hay.  We slept well, since the store was off the highway and pretty quiet.

Today was another long day, but not as much as yesterday.  We stayed on I-20 all the way, stopping for fuel in Dallas and crossing Louisiana and Mississippi to stop just over the line in Alabama.  We'll have a short 3+ hour drive to Birmingham tomorrow, where we'll visit with friends before heading to Albertville for Christmas with family early next week.

It's interesting to see the differing road conditions in the various states.  Western states have generally good roads.  West Texas roads are all 80 MPH zones; the US AutoBahn.  By East Texas, things start to deteriorate somewhat.  Louisiana has some of the worst roads in the country, with lots of concrete slabs where the expansion joints are uneven, even if the concrete was paved over.  It's just 190 miles of thump-thump-thump.  Mississippi isn't much better, with the "thumps" localized to the major cities (Jackson, Meridian), but the "country" sections of I-20 have heaves (can't be frost heaves this far south, but they're the same thing) that rival what we had going to/from Alaska last summer.  The people who are responsible for maintenance should be ashamed of themselves.

On the other hand, Interstate Rest Areas are a whole different story.  Arizona has closed almost all of theirs (budget cuts).  New Mexico and Texas have a mix of old and new sites.  Louisiana and Mississippi appear to be rebuilding theirs with stimulus money and the results are great - large parking areas set back from the road to minimize traffic noise.  The I-20 Welcome Center here in Alabama is one of our favorites, with the truck/RV parking completely blocked from the road; we should have a quiet night.

OK; enough for now...

Monday, December 14, 2009

A clean machine

December 14, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Today was day 1 of our two-day trip preparation.  We're in great shape for travel.

We got up early (well, 7:30 AM is early for us) and headed for the storage lot.  Geri dropped me off and headed back home for her coffee.  I went to the nearest truck stop and topped off the fuel tank so we'll be ready to leave Wednesday morning. 

Oh, and in the "it figures" department, the Fed-Ex package we were expecting to be delivered tomorrow which led us to change our schedule:  yep, it was delivered at 9:00 AM this morning.  So much for the accuracy of the online tracking system.

We'll stick to our revised schedule anyway, and today's tasks involved cleaning.  I washed the outside, starting with the roof, and Geri tackled the inside.  Once clean, I loaded routine stuff in the bays (cleaning supplies, spare filters and fluids, tools), so we'll be ready to load clothes, food, etc. tomorrow.  Then we'll hit the road first thing Wednesday. 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The best laid plans...

December 13, 2009
Peoria, AZ

...are subject to change!  We're pretty much all set to head out, with one key exception.  The cover for the front of the Range Rover isn't back from the manufacturer yet.  It was supposed to be shipped Thursday from Southern California, and should have arrived Monday.  Well, I got an email from Fed-Ex with the tracking number and found that it was actually shipped out late Friday afternoon and won't arrive here until Tuesday.

So, after getting fussed about this, I needed to break it down.  Was I ticked off that they didn't ship it when they said?  Sure, but there's nothing I can do about that.  While I'm at it, I might as well be perturbed that they had the thing since mid-November and didn't do anything with it because it was too dirty to work on (or was it that they just wanted to charge an extra $30 to have it washed?).  And I could be ticked at myself for not following up with them sooner, knowing that nobody gets back to you any more and you have to be a "squeaky wheel" to get anything done.  All valid points, but also water over the dam, under the bridge and out to sea.

Next, I thought about how we'd be once again relying on good neighbors to handle another package for us while we're away.  This happened the last time we were gone, and all that does is create stress all the way around.  And this package will be bulky and heavy; the cover weighs over 20 pounds.

Finally, I settled on what the real issue is:  we have the cover to protect the front of the Range Rover and we really shouldn't tow it without the cover on.  We learned this last summer, when I decided to start using the cover one day too late on our trip north, and we got some rock damage.  Now, all that incidental damage was fixed during the repairs covered under insurance after the great hedge calamity, so we should be thankful for our good luck and remember to always use the cover from now on.  (Full disclosure: We had the cover for several years but didn't use it because it's an extra step to put it on and take it off, and we had the dings in the front of the Rover to show for it.)

So, this was another one of life's reminders about lessons learned.  In this case, I learned last summer not to be a slave to a plan.  For all intents and purposes, it'll be very easy to change our plan and leave on Wednesday, one day later.  We can cover the same distance in three days as we would have in four (I had two short 6-hour days planned anyway), and all will be fine.  It took me all of 45 minutes to update my map files so the GPS will track properly, and we can use the extra time today to stage a few more things that'll go with us in the garage and kitchen, which will make loading easier.

There, it's all rationalized and I feel better.  Rod and Bob would be proud.  Now, it's off to Best Buy to get the newest version of the mapping software (might as well put the time to good use!)...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

'Tis the season - for travel

December 12, 2009
Peoria, AZ

We spent much of the last week finishing up preparations for both the holidays and for our trip east. So, what else have we been up to in the past few days?  Other than seeing bits and pieces of every Christmas movie ever made as we troll the DirecTV channels, that is...

Well, we've continued to eat well. Monday was Geri's famous Chicken Pot Pie with a 1997 Beaux Frères Oregon Pinot Noir. On Tuesday, I made a pot of sauce so we'd have some in the freezer for our trip east, and we had pasta with veal parm and a 2000 Damilano Barolo (this bottle was reasonably good, compared to the last one). Wednesday was grilled steak and baked potatoes and the wine was a surprising find: 2004 Rock Hollow Cab Franc from California's Santa Ynez Valley - great match. Thursday was leftover pasta/veal, and another bottle of the Damilano Barolo, which was completely corked, went down the drain, and was replaced by a nice 1997 Notarpanaro Salento. Next up on Friday was Geri's sautéed pork medallions with mushroom risotto and another pleasant surprise, a 2002 El Molino Napa Pinot Noir that was exceptional. We finished the week of tonight with Chicken & Brie and a 2002 Nebbiolo; our neighbor, Mary Ann, helped us polish this meal off.

Other than that, we've been pushing through a list of things to do before we leave. In addition to the coach maintenance done last week, I've finished off the trip plan so I know where we'll stop each evening and where we're plan to fuel up. I've made appointments for coach alignment and repair of a fogged window at places we'll be near in Florida. Our vehicle insurance is updated to handle what we learned about coverage gaps after the September mishap with the tow equipment. Bills are paid, unless they need to wait for the next billing cycle. The mess in the study is all cleaned up, except for the remaining filing (I hate filing like Geri hates ironing). Most of the stuff that'll go back in the coach for the trip is queued up in the garage or in the house.

The next couple of days will be busy. Tomorrow morning, I'll get the coach early, swing by the local Flying J to top off the fuel, and we'll start loading. Since the forecast is somewhere between isolated and scattered showers, we'll focus on loading tomorrow and I'll wash the exterior on Monday. Who knows how long it'll stay clean, but at least it will be when we start out. Longer-range forecasts seem to indicate that we'll have reasonably good weather as we head out and travel I-10 to I-20 in West Texas, and through Dallas, across Louisiana and Mississippi, and into Alabama. Things are predicted to turn colder during Christmas week, but who believes a forecast that far out anyway. We'll be fine...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Another productive day

December 6, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Well, we had another good day. Geri made a great breakfast, with two different kinds of French Toast, sweet and savory. I ran a few errands in the morning and then we all headed over to the coach. For whatever reason, I like having someone else around when I'm planning to spend time crawling around under the coach.

Today's project was to lubricate the chassis on the coach. There are something like 33 different fittings that need to be found, cleaned, and greased. Some are easy and others are complicated. For example, the kingpins on the front end are easy to get to, but you have to take the weight off the axle to get proper lubrication. Think about jacking up each wheel on a car, then remember that we carry over 14,000 pounds on the front axle. Fortunately, a 20 ton hydraulic jack that connects to the air compressor does the job. Next up, other parts of the front end require the wheels to be turned to the side to get at the zerk fittings.

Front done, it's time to move to the rear. Here, there are two basic items. Brake slack adjusters get 2 shots each; you don't want to get grease in the brakes. Then both u-joints, making sure that all four points on the joint yield grease. This time, one of them doesn't want to cooperate, so I'll have some follow-up to do on that one. Then, the hard one: the slip joint on the drive shaft. This is always the toughest one, since it requires three hands. You have to hold a finger on a hole in the end of the yoke, hold the grease gun tip on the zerk, and pull the trigger. Hmmm. Well, you do the best you can, trying to do two things with various fingers. I think I got it; I know I used a lot of grease.

With another one in the "done" column, it was back home to get cleaned up and walk the pups.  When we got home, I found a whole flock (is that the correct term?) of pigeons sitting on the wall in the back.  Maybe they were looking for Uncle Al (birds showed up every afternoon when Al visited a couple of years ago)?  No matter; Merlin and Maya Lynn quickly chased them off.

Then it was time to settle in for some dinner while checking out football on TV. The Giants beat the Cowboys (always a good thing) and now the Cards are leading the Vikings right down the street in Glendale. It was interesting to see the blimp video, since the roof is closed at the stadium. Didn't they know it's cold out? It's 55°F for crying out loud! There's a lot of thin blood out here in the desert.

Dinner was fantastic. Leftover pork from the rotisserie a few nights ago, plus baked sweet potatoes and one of Geri's wonderful asparagus recipes: sautéed with an egg cracked over the top and covered with crispy prosciutto. Oh yeah. With a 2004 Longoria (no relation) Grenache, it made for a fabulous meal. I'm such a lucky guy...

Countdown to Departure

December 6, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Wow, the past week has flown by! We've begun our preparations for our trip east over the Christmas and New Year's timeframe. We've started packing up a few things that "belong" in the coach, but somehow ended up in the house. We're working on having some "travel meals" in the freezer, so Geri made up a batch of her famous pulled pork, which I'll vacuum-pack today.

Yesterday, I tackled one of the key maintenance items needed before we go: oil and filter changes. It's not complicated just time-consuming, as a change takes 9 gallons of oil meaning that there are multiple catch basins to fill. Then there are two oil filters and two fuel filters, plus one filter each for the hydraulic and coolant systems. And then there's the process of doing most of this lying on your back. The things I do to save $100 by doing it myself.

We've had mixed results from the "overdue" wines we've started working through this week. We had a 1995 Zaca Mesa Pinot Noir (last year it was made, I think) with our beef short rib leftovers on Tuesday and, while it was good we both agreed that we were glad we drank it when we did. We made wings on Wednesday and found a 2003 Red Sancerre to be corked, so that went down the drain and we opened a young Zin. Thursday, we did a pork roast on the rotisserie and it paired extremely well with a 1994 Zaca Mesa Syrah that was good but also showing its age. For openers mid-week, we sipped from a 1990 Ampeau red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and a 2002 Santa Barbara Winery Chardonnay that were in similar shape. Friday was pizza night, ordered take-out from Grimaldi's (there's nothing like coal-fired, thin-crust, New York-style pizza) and it went nicely with another older wine, a 1996 Ravenwood Wood Road Zin. Last night, we whipped up some sautéed shrimp with linguini simply done with olive oil and garlic, and opted for a younger wine for a change, a 2005 Curran Tempranillo from Santa Barbara County. Most of the wines we had this week were from California; they're not designed to age like many European wines so we'll probably have more of a focus there over the next few weeks.

Just to show that it's not all eating and drinking at our place, I spent some time mapping out our route east. We'll plan to head out of Phoenix on I-10 and pick up I-20 in west Texas. I-20 will take us right into Birmingham, where we hope to catch up with our friends Linda & Wendell; from their place, it's a short hop to Albertville. After Christmas, we'll head south to Florida in a 2-day trip (Rick and Annette will make it in one day in the car, I'm sure). We'll overnight at a combination of Flying Js, WalMarts, rest areas and Escapees parks on this trip (Rod and Bob would be proud).

That's it for now - Geri's making French Toast!

Monday, November 30, 2009

"99 bottles of wine on the floor, 99 bottles of wine..."

November 30, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Well, we did it. We finally tackled one of the tasks that's been on the "to do" list for too long: organizing the "wine box". Even though it's been hanging over us for a long time, the boxes of wine sitting in the hall since we got back to Arizona was the triggering factor.

So, we got up early, I printed out the spreadsheet inventory, and we started removing bottles. I called out each wine and Geri checked it off on the list. I then started organizing the bottles into one of three groups: wines that should age for a few more years, wines we probably should have consumed by now, and everything else. When I initially packed up the wines when we sold our place in New Jersey in 2005, I tried to do a rough estimate of the year we'd target to drink each. Well, the wines went into storage, first in the bunker in Connecticut (Horse Ridge Cellars) and then in the "wine box" here. While we've certainly consumed, my lack of organization has made that process more of a hit-or-miss proposition.

By lunch, we had the whole wine box emptied. The box has 16 rows that hold 18 bottles each. The racks are two deep, so each row has 9 bottles in the back and 9 in the front. Trying to think ahead, I decided to put all the "age for a few years" bottles in the back, and all the "Drink in the next few years" ones in the front. All of the "oh, wish we'd had that last year" wines will live "outside the box" until we're done with them. I counted 99 bottles in this last category, so needless to say we won't be heading to the wine store any time soon.

I labeled the box like a spreadsheet, with letters for the "columns" and numbers for the "rows" (old habits die hard). By late afternoon, everything going into the box, including a good chunk of our new purchases, was in place and noted, and the box was turned back on. By bedtime, things were back to their normal 55°F temperature. Now all I have to do tomorrow is put the remaining "drink quickly" bottles in the racks outside the box.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Raindrops and Rainbows

November 29, 2009
Peoria, AZ

We've had a weather front passing through over the last few days, bringing some clouds, cooler temperatures, and even a few raindrops.

Friday was "recovery day" from the Thanksgiving feast for us, like many others. We relaxed, we puttered, Geri made a pot of sauce and I made the veal parm.

Yesterday, I focused on our "Holiday Letter", a stuffer we put in with many of the Christmas cards to let friends and family know what we've been up to over the course of the last year. The text was easy, but picking out a few pictures from the many we took over the year is really hard. Dinner was a great rack of lamb with couscous and oven-roasted haricot verts and an almond aioli sauce.

Today, I finished up on the pictures, formatting each and adding a bit of text. Photoshop is your friend, I guess. We both made interesting recipes today. Geri made an asparagus and melon salad with crispy prosciutto and toasted pine nuts and fresh mozzarella. I tried to recreate a dish I had during the summer, making Chianti-braised beef ribs over a butternut squash/brown butter puree with wilted greens. Oh, yeah - keepers all the way around.

We've started pulling older wines from the "wine box", with mostly excellent results. The Chateau Bel Air 2000 we had mid-week was very good, probably reflecting the vintage more than the producer. A d'Arenberg "Dead Arm" Shiraz 2002 was drinking nicely with our Thanksgiving dinner, as was a Fiddlehead "728" Pinot Noir (check out the cover of the November Food & Wine). We used a Trinitas Petit Syrah 2002 as a "opening wine" for the last couple of days - this one was a surprise to me, having been bought at Moore Bros in NJ years ago and drinking pretty well now. An Utni California Syrah 2002 (who ever heard of that) went very well with the lamb, but a Damilano Barolo 2000 was a bit over the hill and port-like with the beef ribs. You can't win them all. This highlights the need to work through wines in the "wine box", as many are at (or slightly beyond!) their peak of drinkability. It's just something we'll have to work through. :-)

Today was sunny for most of the day, with a few clouds flying by at times. We walked the pups late in the day and - surprise, surprise - we got a few raindrops hitting us, and even saw both ends of a rainbow. No pot of gold, though. It'll be interesting to see if the rain was "measurable" on the news tonight, and if we're on track for the record for "driest year on record".

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 26, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Geri and I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving from here in sunny Arizona. We have so much to be thankful for as we enter this holiday season, including a fantastic meal with our friends Ana & Larry and their family. We're stuffed, we're wined, and we're happy...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Towing Again

November 25, 2009
Mesa, AZ

We're back in business! Repairs to the Range Rover's towing system were completed this morning. Since we didn't plan to stay at Camping World overnight (even though we could have), we schlepped home with the coach and I headed back to Mesa in the morning. I was able to verify that the base plate was installed the way I wanted (Loc-Tite Red plus jamb nuts on everything), and had them make modifications to the wiring so that the Rover's signal lights work better. It was originally set up so that the brake lights did double duty as signals.

We're pleased that Camping World stood behind their "lifetime installation warranty", including the fact that they ordered in a new base plate rather than re-installing the old one. Since it was just laying around, I grabbed the old one to use for spare parts (pins, brackets) if needed.

At this point, the only remaining repair item is the cover we use on the front of the Rover. I sent that off to the manufacturer in Southern California about two weeks ago, so I expect we'll get that back next week, in plenty of time for our next trip.

OK, time to head back to storage.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Are we towing again?

November 24, 2009
Mesa, AZ

We'll see. We're at the Camping World store in Mesa, AZ, as I write this, and we're hoping that the towing system will be back in operation by the time we leave. We'll see.

But first, a little bit of catching up from the past week or so. Busy as usual, which is good I suppose. Tuesday was a "rainy day project day". Not that it rained, mind you, but we used the day to catch up on a whole bunch of things in the house. Geri tackled another mountain of laundry and I started catching up on bills, budgeting, and filing. Wednesday, I took the Range Rover over to Scottsdale to have the residual repairs from the September accident handled. All three washer pumps were missing (windshield, rear window, and headlights) and the external temperature sensor, which lives in the bumper assembly, was missing. This took about two hours to estimate (for the insurance) and repair. Replacing the temperature sensor fixed the problem we were having with the air conditioning (funny, the computer doesn't allow the system to blow a lot of cold air when it thinks it's -40°F outside).

Thursday was "medical day". We were up early and on our way to the urologist for Geri's follow-up appointment. She had the second of her follow-up MRIs done in late-October, and we had this appointment scheduled to hear the results. As we expected, everything was fine, the radio frequency ablation was a success, and the follow-up exams will gradually tail off. We'll do another MRI in the spring before we leave and then next winter when we're back. With this good news well received, we were off to the imaging center for her scheduled mammogram, which also came back fine.

We tried a new recipe for an old dish on Friday, working on a Lamb Ragu. We found this recipe in the Wine Spectator, and it was a bit of a project. It started with grinding the lamb, which meant trimming a bunch of shoulder chops and getting the grinder out. I was a little short on lamb after the grinding, so I had to make a run to the store in the middle of things. Geri did most of the prep work for the vegetables and spices. We made a "quick" trip for a couple of last-minute things in the afternoon, which turned into a three-store, two-hour project, but the end result was very good. It paired quite nicely with a 1997 Carpazo Brunello from the "wine box". I've got mixed feelings about all the 1997 and 1999 Italian wines I bought years ago. I'm so glad I did, since they are drinking so very well now and they were a relative bargain, but I'm sorry to see them go because I know we won't be able to replace them.

Over the weekend, we finished up on things around the house. Bills are all caught up, the laundry room is cleared out, and Geri started tackling the major housecleaning that's been waiting for us since we got back in October. I even had a chance to watch a little football (Colts and Cardinals won) and catch the final NASCAR race of the year from Florida. Of course, catching up on the finances means I now have a better picture of how much over budget we went wining our way through California and Las Vegas. Oh well, can't take it with us!

Yesterday we were back on the road, first to Geri's eye doctor in the morning (all OK, no glaucoma or cataracts) then dropping the pups off for grooming. I picked up and installed a new battery for Geri's watch in the afternoon, which turned into quite a project since one of the "set" buttons on the side wanted to stick. Some WD-40 and bending of the spring actuator back into alignment seems to have done the trick. We didn't get home from picking up the pups until after 7:00 PM (felt odd driving after dark), but Geri still managed to turn out an excellent Chicken Marsala with pan-roasted baby red potatoes and steamed peas. With a 2006 Curran Syrah that we picked up in our travels (it never made it to the wine box), it was a great end to the day.

As an aside about the weather, it's been almost 80 days since the last "measurable" rain, and they measure it in hundredths of an inch here. It's possible that 2009 may be the driest year on record, as there has only been 2.78" of rain all year against a record just under 3". We're not complaining of course, although temperatures have been cooler than we're used to. Or is it just thinner blood?

So, that brings us to today. We got the coach back to the house in the morning and I tackled a couple of minor projects, trimming a plastic guard that was rubbing against the kitchen sink drain pipe, and grinding the heads off several screws that were sticking up into the carpet in the rear closet. I replaced the broken handle on the washer, although that will take some testing since it doesn't feel like it's right yet. I wanted to have the coach with us so we can hook everything up and make sure it's all right before we leave. We headed over to Camping World for our 2:00 PM appointment. Now, mind you, I asked twice if a 2:00 appointment would allow enough time. Of course, the first thing the shop manager tells me is that there's no way the technician will be able to finish today. Hopefully, he'll have a conversation with his scheduler!

End of day update: "See you tomorrow morning and we'll finish up"...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wrapping up a week at the races

November 16, 2009
Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, AZ

Once again, we had a great time at the race track, spending the week dry camping and attending the races Thursday through Sunday. Today we packed up, headed home and put the coach back in storage.

Monday was set-up day. Parking started at 8:00 AM, and we were rolling around 10:30 (we were about #300 in queue). After a short consultation with the "parking police", we were at our chosen spot and all set up by early afternoon. Since we'd been here last year, I knew exactly where I wanted to park, and checked with the guys managing the entry before parking started. Although they said "fine, it's all open parking", of course they were nowhere to be found when we got to the front of the line. I got a bit of a hard time but prevailed in getting us into the "overflow" area early so we could get a nice level spot near the tram stop. I'll have to try to contact the track and get clarification of the "key words" to use to avoid the hassle next time.

Tuesday and Wednesday were days for relaxing, catching up with Wayne and Eva (we haven't seen them for a while except one evening when our paths crossed in Paso Robles/Atascadero), and a bit of shopping for supplies for the week. Wayne helped me remove the front TV to tighten up the cabinets, and we went to a nice sushi place in Goodyear for dinner one evening.

Racing began on Thursday. There are three classes of NASCAR races (trucks, "Nationwide Series", and "Sprint Cup Series") over the weekend, and practice and qualifying began during the day. Thursday also showcases two classes of USAC open-wheel cars. The Midgets (4-cylinder 900 pounders) qualified and ran a 25 lap feature first, and then the "Silver Crown Series" cars (8-cylinder 1,400 pounds) did a 100 lap race. Both were good races, with a lot of action and a little drama.

On Friday and Saturday, the weather turned cooler and cloudy. We actually had an "Arizona Downpour" on Saturday - it sprinkled for about 20 minutes, just enough to make a bunch of water spots in the accumulated dust on the cars. We had good seats for the Truck race on Friday night, and better ones for the Nationwide Series on Saturday afternoon.

The weather cleared for Sunday's main event, the Sprint Cup race. It was an interesting race, relatively quick with few cautions until late in the game. That meant several green-flag pit stops, and a lot of jockeying for position. We were happy to see several drivers do well (we're not rabid fans of any particular one), even though the end result was a bit of a runaway.

We watched all the races "old school", equipped with earplugs and a program. It was interesting to look at almost everyone around us in the stands, since they were outfitted with all manner of electronic regalia. Most had scanners and headphones, allowing them to listen to driver-crew conversations. Some had microphones and an intercom system so they could talk to each other over the noise. And then there were the people with specialized handheld TVs rented out by Sprint for $49 per weekend that show the race, in-car cameras, and on-demand replays, along with track announcer and crew audio. Instead of "just like being there", it's "just like being home and watching on TV". Hmmm.

We ate pretty well over the week (surprised?). The slow cookers got a workout, as Eva made ribs braised in a homemade barbeque sauce one day and her famous Chili Verde another. I made Rack of Lamb with Mushroom Risotto, we grilled burgers, and we did steaks with baked potatoes and snow peas to finish up on Sunday night. All the cooking was done outside, since we had the grill/stove setup deployed. The griddle and wok got a good workout and seasoning as well; they'll get more use over time now that they're broken in. We shared wine duties all week, with the focus being on California (various Syrahs, Petit Sirahs, and blends plus a very nice 2006 Badge Pinot Noir) and Washington (Syrah and blends), with a range of "value wines" thrown in for good measure. Given the venue, a few Bud Light Limes were consumed as well.

Click here for a picture album...

All in all, we had a great time and are looking forward to doing it again next year. This morning's projects involved putting everything away, dropping the solar panels, and breaking camp. We left around 10:30, routed Wayne and Eva to I-10 for their trip back to the Palm Springs area, unloaded the coach at home and had it back in storage by 1:00 PM. Now, back to the "real world"...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Off to the races...

November 8, 2009
Avondale, AZ

We finished up our preparations for the NASCAR races at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) and made the long (15 miles?) trek to the track.

Thursday was an easy day. Geri and I both went to the dentist for cleaning and exams. With x-rays, it was a pretty expensive stop, but needed. Can't eat without teeth! After the dentist, we did a bit of shopping: Costco, Total Wines & More, and Sears for a new garage door remote - basic stuff). Dinner was wings and margaritas, very good but with probably too much of both.

We started Friday by getting the coach from storage and starting the loading process. We'll be headed to PIR for 10 days. Strangely enough, packing for a short trip is harder than for a longer one. We load less stuff, but are always weighing the need for each item, so it becomes more of a process. On the other hand, we know we're only 30 minutes from home, so forgetting or overlooking something is less of an issue. Dinner involved a take-and-bake pizza - no sense getting too complicated with travel in the future.

Saturday, we finished up loading, I put a coat or two of high-temperature paint on the exhaust stack for the generator, and we were ready to go. Our friends, Wayne and Eva, are joining us for the races, so we waited for their call (they left southern California in the morning), and met them where they got off the I-10, then made the short drive south to the track. I was hoping that we'd be able to get into the RV parking area, but we ended up in the staging area until they open parking first thing Monday morning. Geri and Eva made salads for dinner, and we had a good time catching up before turning in early.

Today was another beautiful sunny day in the desert. We took our time getting started in the morning. I took the pups for a long walk, all the way around the staging area. Many people have been parked here since they opened up for staging on October 30th. There are two lots in use, each holding around 200 RVs; we're about 300th in line. Given that there will be several thousand RVs here by next weekend, that's not bad. In the afternoon, we did some meal planning and ventured out to Costco and Safeway for shopping, so we're pretty well set for the week. We watched the end of this weekend's NASCAR race from Texas (gotta get in the right frame of mind, after all) and snacked for dinner as nobody was particularly hungry (must be those Costco hot dogs we had?). We'll have to get an early start tomorrow, as parking is supposed to start at 8:00 AM. We'll need to be ready just in case they start early. Once we move tomorrow, we should be set for the rest of the week, so we'll do the full deployment of mats, stoves, chairs, dog pens, etc.

Well, that's it for now...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Progress, Progress...

November 4, 2009
Peoria, AZ

We made some progress on leftover items from the Range Rover "accident" over the last couple of days. Other than that, it's been life as usual.

Yesterday, I was able to notify the insurance folks that we're ready to get the remaining repairs to the Range Rover done here in AZ. I made the appointment at the Land Rover Centre over in Scottsdale to have their work done after we get back from the NASCAR races . Other than that, Geri did some more laundry (will it ever end?) and I picked up a few things at the store to tide us over for the next few days of fine dining. For dinner, we made chicken sausage (Geri found individual links at Sprouts, a local chain, one with parmesan and one with basil) in a tomato-pancetta cream sauce with fresh gnocchi from DiFalco's, an Italian specialty store in Scottsdale. Wow, we range far and wide just to eat. We paired it with a Sicilian Primitivo, a hearty and rustic red wine. Other than not dicing up the pancetta enough for Geri's taste, it was definitely a keeper.

Today, we made the long (30+ miles?) trek over to Mesa to visit Camping World. They are the ones (albeit at their Denton, Texas, store) that sold and installed the tow setup for the Range Rover, and they offer a "lifetime installation warranty". I wasn't sure how much convincing they would need to reinstall everything under warranty, and I suppose I won't be satisfied until they are done. So far, we're not getting any flak. Their first step was to contact the tow bar manufacturer.  Even though the base plate that attaches to the front of the Range Rover wasn't damaged, they want to make sure there aren't any changes made to the parts since 2005 when we had it installed. While I'm OK with that, I really want to get this work scheduled so we can get back to "normal". I'm sure I'll have quite a few follow-up calls to make over the next couple of days.

After Mesa, we made a quick stop at Ikea in Tempe on the way home. It's always fun to get ideas on how we could make upgrades, particularly to the kitchen and bathrooms, even though the economics of the situation don't support making additional investments in the property. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" really applies these days. Doesn't cost much to look, of course...☺

This afternoon turned cloudy, which kept the temperature down a bit from yesterday's record high of 96°F in Phoenix (it was only 92°F today). Dinner was the left over pork roast from the other night, paired with baked potatoes and grilled artichoke. We need to practice on the chokes, but everything else worked out OK. Paired with a Cabernet blend from Tres Hermanas that we brought back from California, it was a pretty good "easy dinner". Now, it's time to watch Game 6 and see if the Yankees can close it out.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Back in the groove

November 2, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Well, we're back in the groove of being here in the desert, or mostly there anyway. I didn't finish the back yard stuff on Saturday as planned, but did get it done, and we've knocked off several things from our to-do list.

Sunday was an easy day. Geri had nail work done and did some shopping to fill in the gaps. I got everything finished up in the back yard (waterfall filled and working, patio and furniture washed off, decorations put out, grill hooked up) and even washed the Range Rover and driveway/sidewalk as a bonus. Geri picked up a pork sirloin roast and half of it went right on the rotisserie. With roasted red potatoes and haricots verts, coupled with a Domaine Alfred Syrah we brought back from California, it made a great meal. The rotisserie takes a while (almost 1½ hours for a small roast) but it's one of our favorite cooking methods for certain things. And the Yankees won.

Today, we were back into the whole "appointment thing", up early and out to the periodontist for Geri's follow-up appointment. Since she had all the dental implants done over the last two years, she's been rotating appointments between the two dentists. She's had "perio" issues in the past, the extra attention is welcome; we definitely don't want to get into scaling or gingivectomies if we can avoid it! Everything is OK right now but we'll keep an eye on it as there are a couple of areas with bone loss.

Once we were back home, we focused our attention to future appointments. Geri scheduled her annual mammogram and I made arrangements to get the Range Rover over to our "local" (Scottsdale, about 30 miles away) Land Rover Centre for the last of the two repairs. I also dug out the receipts from when we had the tow bar installed; we'll have to get over to Camping World in Mesa to make our case that they should do the re-install under the "lifetime warranty".

All day, we talked on and off about what to have for dinner. Geri had picked up a package of butternut squash ravioli, and we were trying to decide on the whole menu. We settled on a recipe that involved a brown butter sauce with crispy sage leaves, and Geri added in her fabulous pork medallions. What a winning combination! We paired it with a bottle of Badge Pinot Noir (this was a special bottle - it was shipped in error during the summer and two neighbors teamed up to "save" it from the heat) from the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. I think they did a great job, as it wasn't showing any signs of being "cooked" (flat and port-like).

On a final note, we heard from the vet late today that Merlin's blood work came back fine, so the "old guy" continues to do well.

OK, back to the Series...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

October 31, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Wow, what a blur the past week has been. I can't believe it's the weekend, or the end of October for that matter. This week was pretty typical for us in terms of the "first week back". We've been getting back in the swing of life off the road.

Since we arrived home in the afternoon on Sunday, Monday was devoted to unloading the coach. We like to move a lot of stuff back to the house for a couple of reasons. First, we're trying to avoid duplication, so we have "one" of a lot of things these days. When I was still w*rking, we used to keep many things duplicated in the coach so we didn't spend a lot of time swapping things back and forth. Now that we're less time-constrained, it makes more sense to avoid the expense of duplication and spend a little extra time managing our belongings. Second, and just as important, the loading and unloading process gives us the chance to make sure we're actually carrying around things we actually need and use. It's amazing that every fall we find stuff in the coach that we've been carrying around all summer (or longer) and just never used. This process is usually a good source for things that belong on eBay or at Goodwill, typical fall/winter projects for me.

Since we did a good job at getting a head start with unloading on Sunday, Monday was an easy day. We started at the front of the coach and unloaded the inside first. After lunch, I pulled the tools and spare parts out of the bays, and by 3:00 PM she was back in storage. With the economy being weak, things seems to have stabilized for the storage business, since I was able to get exactly the same spot as last winter. At least I won't get confused about where to park. Rates went up to $68/month (from $65/month last winter), but it's still the best deal I've found in the area.

Since we knew we wouldn't want to cook after working with the coach all day, I'd booked a reservation at Buca di Beppo, a chain restaurant over by the Peoria Sports Complex. It was "Pasta Day", so their promotion involved free pasta: for every entree we got a free side plus a free pound of uncooked spaghetti to take home. And take home we did, since we had entrees of chicken parm and Chianti-braised beef and took some of both home for leftovers. Marlene would be proud.

Tuesday, we started putzing around the house but the main event was getting Geri over to the imaging center for her second follow-up MRI. Since this isn't an "open MRI" facility, she needed a "happy pill" to calm her down before the procedure. She was happy and everything went well; we were back home by 3:00 PM. We'll get the results when she sees the urologist in mid-November.

On Wednesday, I started working on the one problem we encountered with the house: both our "over the air" TV antennas are out of whack. We can get everything we need from DirecTV, of course, but it's nice to have the local channels when we're here. It's especially convenient because the evening network shows are on an hour earlier in the Mountain Time Zone, and us old folks can't stay up too late. The kitchen TV is getting some but not all channels (no Fox - figures now that the World Series is on!) and the living room/bedroom (both on the same antenna) wasn't working at all. I got a new external antenna from Radio Shack, but didn't have time to do much because we needed to head for the vet in the afternoon. Maya Lynn was due for her Bordatella vaccination. She had that and passed her exam with flying colors.

Thursday was our day to go in different directions. Geri (finally) had a chance for some "alone time", heading out to get her hair done and then some shopping. I spent the day finishing up getting one TV antenna replaced and aimed (which was quite difficult until I realized that the power supply for the in-line amplifier was bad: .15 volts instead of the specified 15). I tried every combination of direct connections and replacement cables before I finally got what I wanted. Since we're feeding two TVs and have a relatively long cable run, I have to make sure that the signal is optimized to make up for the loss in the wires. I think I've got it; now I just need to "find" Fox on the kitchen TV.

Friday was another busy day. We had to head out early (for us) just after 9:00 AM to take Merlin to the vet specialist in Scottsdale. This is where he was referred when he was so sick last fall, and we wanted to follow up with her because he developed a small (2 cm) lump on his side near where they did the liver biopsy. She did a needle biopsy and verified that it was simply a benign fatty growth (a lipoma). As long as it doesn't change or bother him, he's OK - very good news. They're running a full set of blood tests, which he hasn't had since New Jersey; we'll get those results early next week.

Since we were out in Scottsdale (about a 35 mile drive), we decided to make the most of the trip. We stopped at Sur La Table and Crate and Barrel looking for a few things (and looking at lots of things we'd like but don't need). We had lunch at Panda Express and stopped at an Italian Deli we like (every Cento product known to man and mortadella with pistachios - yum) before heading home. It was a long and productive day.

We also managed to eat well this week. We made chicken breasts, pounded and breaded with garlic rice, Geri's famous sausage and peppers with pan-fried potatoes, and finished the leftovers from Monday night. We had good wines with each, focusing on things we brought back from California with us, since we haven't had a chance to shop for "everyday wine" for home.

Today has been a day for catching up in the study, making sure bills are paid and money is moved around, and catching up on blog posts. I still need to get the patio washed down and get the waterfall going in the back yard - that's next!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Back "home" once again

October 25, 2009
Peoria, AZ

Today's drive from Las Vegas to Peoria was mostly uneventful, unless you count when Merlin tried to eat the inspector's hand when we stopped for the checkpoint at the Hoover Dam. Until they finish construction on the bypass (scheduled for "2008"), there are checkpoints to ensure that we're not terrorists before anyone is allowed to drive across the dam, and all RVs need to be searched. I asked the three guys to step back while I came out with the dogs to have Geri hold them, but Merlin's leash was too long and one guy wouldn't take direction. Hey, he's just protecting his territory. Like most security checkpoints these days, the examination is cursory at best (open all the bay doors but don't check anything in there) with more attention being paid to my reaction than the vehicle itself. If I'd acted wrong, I'm sure a different crew would have taken things apart, but we know the drill and were on our way in less than 10 minutes.

We could have avoided the dam by taking US-95 south and taking NV-163 to Laughlin and AZ-68 to Kingman, but that would be a lot longer than the 10-minute checkpoint. We followed US-93 from the dam, through Kingman and along I-40 for a bit, down to Wickenburg. We were surprised to find that a bypass of sorts had been built to connect US-93 to US-60 without entering "downtown" Wickenberg; we haven't been out that way since early-2008. From there, it was a short drive on US-60 to the civilization of Sun City West and Surprise before we got to Peoria. We were "home" by 3:30 and tackled some of the unloading, primarily the refrigerator and freezer. All house systems checked out OK, with no heat damage over the summer and no leaks as I turned the water and gas back on.

We had a great summer "vacation". We travelled about 11,200 miles round trip and used 1,950 gallons of diesel fuel. Because of our creative traveling companions, our per-night cost for parks was $23.25, and that was because we stayed at a few "expensive" places toward the end (we were right around $19/night coming back from Alaska).

Now, we shift gears and spend a few weeks off the road...

"Tonight's Gonna Be A Good Night"...

October 25, 2009
Las Vegas, NV

After getting warmed up with the cheesesteaks, it was time for evening entertainment. The ladies were off to see the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity at New York New York, and the guys headed to Sam Boyd Stadium at UNLV for the sold-out U2 concert. We found a place to park just before the stadium, which paid dividends in terms of easy-in/easy-out, and found our seats with little trouble: second row up at about the "fifty yard line" (of course, the stadium wasn't set up for football, but you get the idea). I'd gotten the tickets during a pre-sale (before availability to the general public) on; since U2 is my favorite group, I've been to see them on every tour since 1987.

The opening act turned out to be The Black-Eyed Peas, a pretty popular group in their own right. They opened with "Let's Get It Started", a perfect way to begin and ended their 45-minute set with "I Gotta Feeling" (the chorus is "Tonight's gonna be a good night").

U2 did their standard 2 hour+ show, opening up songs from their new album ("No Line On the Horizon") and then mixing in both new and old material for the rest of the show. Like many of the other shows I've seen, classics from early albums like "The Unforgettable Fire" and especially "The Joshua Tree" got the biggest fan reaction, with the newest material receiving a more muted response. This seems to be pretty typical, as there aren't any new break-out hit singles and the album seems to need time to grow on you (at least for me). It was similar a few years ago when "Pop" and "How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb" came out.

It was interesting to see the varied age spread in the crowd. There were parents with kids in the 10-12 years old range down on the floor dancing around, lots of twenty-somethings, and even a few gray-hairs like me. The area we sat in (well, stood in - at a U2 concert, you're on your feet from the beginning until the lights come up after the encores) was filled with die-hard fans, not surprising since we all bought the tickets in the pre-sale. There were a couple of guys behind us who were on a three-week trek to see as many shows as possible (pretty good at $250+/ticket), and a couple that already had tickets to see them in Helsinki next year, as the tour continues. I'm pretty sure I'll hold off on buying a ticket (Geri's "retired" from U2 shows) for the next round of North American tour dates unless there's a follow-up album that will change things up.

Overall, it was an exceptionally good show, and I think Al and Mike enjoyed themselves as well. It's not "classic country" or "classic rock" like some friends enjoy, but U2's music continues to be my favorite...

Saturday was a time for breakfast in the morning, then some preparation for Sunday's travel in the afternoon. We went to "Hash House A G-Go" off the strip for the biggest plates we've ever seen. The ladies all had hash, and each one came in its own cast iron skillet - full. Leftovers? You bet! Back at the coach, I dumped and flushed, put the bike back on the Range Rover, and brought the awnings in. Geri straightened up the patio furniture and put away most of the stuff on the inside. We knew we wanted to get a relatively early start in the morning, since she didn't want to be driving after dark - and it gets dark so early! We definitely got spoiled with the "midnight sun" up in Alaska.

We had one more event to handle, though. Mike had made reservations at Lawry's for a final (for us - the Connecticut Crowd was staying in Las Vegas until Tuesday) for prime rib, so we continued our Adkins-like culinary experience with more beef. We had a great time, Al picked out perfect wines, starting with a lighter Pinot Noir and finishing with a Cabernet blend (Paraduxx from Napa Valley). We made friends with the six ladies from New Orleans celebrating a birthday at the next table and finally left when we noticed that the staff was standing around the edge of the dining room waiting for us to get the hint that they wanted to close up. Typical for us...

So, this morning we're up and at 'em, ready to head back to Arizona. As soon as I finish this, it's "dish down" and "wheels up".

Friday, October 23, 2009

Always good to catch up

October 23, 2009
Las Vegas, NV

Last night we had fun. First, it was off to dinner with Cindy and Larry. We make it a point to catch up with them each time we visit Las Vegas. Come to think of it, we seem to visit Las Vegas quite a bit in our travels, considering that we're not gamblers, although it's been a year-and-a-half since our last real stop. We don't count passing through on the way north in April, since we only stopped at the Camping World for a new tow bar.

We met for dinner at the new M Resort casino, which was very convenient for both as they live in Henderson and we were near I-15 just south of the Strip and airport. Las Vegas Boulevard continues south for quite a while (11 miles?) from where the major casino-hotel complexes are, and the M Resort is about 8 or 9 miles south, about as far as you could go for development along that line. You can tell that the place is new (I think it had just opened when we passed by in April), as some areas are still under construction or final deployment, and some of the signage was generic ("Steakhouse" or "Italian Restaurant" instead of the actual name of the eatery).

Anyway, we found our way without too much difficulty and met Cindy and Larry right on schedule. They're both doing well and looking good. We caught up for quite a while before we took the hint that the waiter really wanted us to order. The food was pretty good, too; lots of places need quite a while to get their "sea legs" and consistently put out good food, and Marinelli's is doing well.

After coffee, we said our goodbyes and headed back. Now, normally we'd be heading back home but in this case, we were going to meet the Connecticut Crowd (Pat, Al, Mike, Lynne) once they arrived. They chose the Oyster Bar at Harrah's even though they were staying at the Flamingo two hotels away, but who are we to argue. We arrived first and parked with the valet (I'd already called to see if we had a vertical clearance issue with the roof pod on the Range Rover - yes, so let the valet deal with it), and Geri was already done with her first round of oysters on the half shell by the time they arrived, along with another couple that Mike knows who happened to be in town at the same time. We hung out and finished our wine while they all motored through some seafood platters (air travel makes you hungry since they stopped serving food). Around midnight, they hit the wall due to the time difference, the waitress wanted to go home, and the party broke up. We headed home to walk the pups.

Today was a pretty calm day, as all we had planned early on was to have the Connecticut Crowd over to the coach for a late lunch/early dinner (pre-show). We made our kicked-up "Philly" Cheesesteaks. I put "Philly" in quotes because we have enough experience with the real thing to know a) you can only get the real thing at one of a handful of shops in Philadelphia (no matter what they tell you somewhere else) and b) ours aren't authentic in any way since we can't get the right bread or meat on the road. So, we do the best we can with what we have. We'd bought the meat (half of a whole beef tenderloin, trimmed and chopped up) and cheese (aged provolone and something with truffle), and prepared the sides (caramelized onions, sautéed peppers and onions, and fried mushrooms) earlier in the week.

The Connecticut Crowd arrived by cab around 3:00 PM, we fired up the grill for the griddle, and the cooking was under way as soon as we'd popped the cork on a California Pinot Noir and served a couple of vodka tonics. With the truffle cheese and a drizzle of white truffle olive oil, the sandwiches were reasonably good, even if the roll to filling ratio was a bit on the high side (you don't want the rolls too big so the meat and cheese get lost). The wines were very good as well, highlighting that California can do pretty well with Pinot Noir (Mike's a fan of Oregon Pinots, but coming around).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Now, that's more like it

October 22, 2009
Las Vegas, NV

First, let me say that it's not like us to go out to dinner two night s in a row, much less to two steakhouses in a row. But hey, it's Vegas, baby!

Carnevino was this evening's destination. It's in the Palazzo hotel, which is a new addition to the Venetian property on The Strip and billed as the world's largest "green" building. Carnevino is an "Italian Steakhouse", which certainly combines two of our favorite culinary genres. We each decided on a three-course approach: appetizer, pasta, entree. Geri had Calamari, Bucatini and a Pork Chop Milanese. All were excellent. The sauces for the squid and pasta were spot on, and the chops were pounded thin as a scaloppini. I had a Carpaccio done with aged skirt steak, "Spago" pasta with a lamb ragu, and a Filet Mignon. The salad had fresh arugula with a lemon vinaigrette that was crisp and peppery, and the pasta sauce was much lighter than the version that I make at home. Geri and I switched pasta plate halfway through so we each got a chance to try both. To top it off, the steak had to be in my "top 5" best I've ever had. At one-third the price of the Waygu we had the night before, it was a downright bargain!

This restaurant has wine service down as well. They had three roving sommeliers covering the dining room, so accessibility and visibility was excellent. I selected a 1999 Carlo Giacosa Barbaresco, and didn't have to ask for decanting. From the table, I was able to see the wine service station clearly, and noticed that the first bottle was tested and conferred over, then discarded. The sommelier then brought over another bottle and told us that the first wasn't acceptable to him and the wine team. Before service, he seasoned the glasses and verified that the second bottle was appropriate. As someone who has (unfortunately) had to send corked wine back on occasion, I really appreciated the attention to detail and honesty.

We finished off dinner with dessert, another out of character thing for us. We shared the "pumpkin donuts", which we more like donut holes filled with a pumpkin puree and lightly fried (is there such a thing as "lightly" fried?). They were paired with a Solera-style dessert wine (the name of which I neglected to retain - d'oh) and we ended with cappuccinos.

As we were leaving, I asked to speak to a manager, simply to let him know how much we liked the food and appreciated the service. I think he was expecting a complaint, poor guy.

Today, we picked up a few more things from the grocery, made sandwiches from Geri's leftover pork from last night, and did some more prep work for Friday's pre-concert/theater snacks. Tonight, we're headed to the new M Resort south of town to have dinner with Cindy and Larry, friends we've been visiting here for several years. After that, plane schedules willing, we'll meet up with the Connecticut crowd at Harrah's Raw Bar for a nightcap once they arrive in town.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When is good not great?

October 21, 2009
Las Vegas, NV

Last night we went to the MGM Grand on The Strip for the evening. Back in August, I'd purchased tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show Kà online. As is our custom when we go to shows like this, we made reservations for a restaurant in the same hotel to avoid travel complications.

So, we drove over to the hotel with no traffic issues and parked in the garage. I was a little worried about clearance since we have the roof pod on, but the 8' 8" sign at the entrance made us comfortable. I'd picked Craftsteak for dinner, since we've tried some of the other restaurants in the MGM Grand before and like to try new things. We decided to try their Wagyu beef steaks, the domestic version of Japan's famed Kobe Beef. While good, neither of us found it to live up to the hype, so lesson learned there. We did pair it with a very good Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2001 vintage - on the recommendation from the sommelier (yes, guys do ask for assistance at times).

We were stuffed (overly so, actually) as we walked across the casino to the Kà Theater, and only had a short wait before they opened for seating. Since I had ordered the tickets so far in advance and done so through the "Cirque Club", we had seats in the first row center. The show was very good, perhaps a little more focused on dance and storytelling than most of the other Cirque shows that feature acrobatics. The seats were very good as well, although some of the aerial action took place over and behind our heads; the best seats are probably about 10 rows back. The seats did have embedded speakers in the headrests, though, so that made for a very good auditory experience.

It was after midnight when we got home, but we still walked the pups before bedtime. All in all a very good evening.

Today was the day for getting up late and taking an afternoon nap. In between, we did some prep work for Friday afternoon. On Thursday night, Geri's daughter, Pat, arrives from Connecticut for a few days of vacation with her husband, Al, and their friends, Mike and Lynn. On Friday, the guys are going to the U2 concert at UNLV and the gals are going to Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity burlesque show. We'll have everyone over here for kicked-up Philly Cheesesteaks in the afternoon, coupled with a bottle or two of the California Pinot Noir we collected, I'm sure. So, we have the whole beef tenderloin (I did mention kicked-up Cheesesteaks?) trimmed up, onions are carmelized, peppers are sauteed, and mushrooms are braised. With aged provolone and truffle oil, we should have a winner.

I also finished up a task that's been on my list all summer: writing up and posting online reviews of all the various RV parks we stayed at this year. Since I rely on these reviews as part of selecting parks where we stay, it's only fair that I submit my perspective for others. Since we stayed at about 20 different parks, this took up a good bit of the day, but I'm happy it's done.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October 20, 2009
Las Vegas, NV

Sunday was our travel day and everything went like clockwork. We tried a different route, designed to avoid most of the potential issues with Los Angeles traffic. We hit the road roughly on schedule at 7:20 AM (early but not out of bounds, as the sun was already up). Hopefully, we didn't wake too many of the neighbors as we eased out of the relatively tight spot, with about two feet to spare given the other rigs and parked cars.

Our route took us south on US-101, then east on CA-126 once we got to Ventura. This was a great 4-lane road, freeway to Santa Paula and an easy drive over to Santa Clarita. We hopped on the I-5 south for only a couple of miles then north on CA-14 toward Palmdale/Lancaster. We've been up this way several times for rallies at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds. We cut off on the Pearblossom Highway to CA-138 to CA-18 directly east to Victorville. From there, we turned north on I-15 right into Las Vegas. We stopped for breakfast along CA-126 and for fuel and lunch (both "fuel", I suppose) in Barstow, and rolled into the Las Vegas Motorcoach Resort by mid-afternoon. Perfect.

The weather's been nice but breezy. OK, windy. Temperatures were warm to start but are supposed to be in the low-80s for most of the week. We're looking forward to that, as we've got several activities planned for the week.

Monday was a day for chores. Geri knocked out a couple of loads of laundry and we each spent some time on the phone arranging things for when we get back to AZ. Geri's got hair lined up, plus her next follow-up MRI to verify that her kidney is OK. Merlin and Maya Lynn are going to the vet. I've got city services (water - sewer - trash) restarted, and made arrangements to reactivate our high-speed internet service via Cox Cable.

I decided to do that since we had some capacity issues last year with the Verizon "air card"; there's a 5 gigabyte limit on that service and we came close to going over. Who wants to be constrained? Cable is cheaper, I can suspend the air card, and it's faster as well. With the new cable modem I picked up (thanks to a Best Buy coupon), we should have 20mbps service by the time we get home. Installation should be a snap since all the wiring is done from the service we had before.

We also did some shopping Monday afternoon, checking out a new Whole Foods right on the strip north of here (Blue Diamond), plus Wally World and Costco. Since we're eating out most nights this week, I decided to fill our dance card by booking a reservation at Carnevino, a new Mario Batali/Joe Bastianich venture in the new Palazzo Hotel for Wednesday night. is our friend. To prepare ourselves for feasting, we just had a small salad with some sautéed bay scallops for dinner.

Today was a relaxing day, as we spent most of our time at the coach. Tonight, we'll head to the MGM Grand for dinner and a show.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Wrapping up our Buellton and California Stay

October 17, 2009
Buellton, CA

As always, click on any picture to enlarge it...

Wow, the week has passed quickly! Once the rains ended, we did some shopping to make sure we have enough supplies, and managed to work in a few more wineries. Surprised?

Wednesday was still cloudy and showery after Tuesday's heavy rains, but we decided to venture out anyway in the afternoon. We headed north on US-101 to Santa Maria, where I had a coupon I needed to use at Best Buy (new cable modem for the AZ house - more on that later) and we made a supply stop at Costco. We did one of their rotisserie chickens for dinner; always good and enough for leftovers. On the way back to Buellton, the skies started to clear and by evening the starts were out. Storm over.

Thursday was a brilliant sunny day; not a cloud was to be seen. We dropped off some of the Costco loot at Geri's sister's place in Lompoc after having brunch at Ellen's, a local Danish-oriented (cuisine, not pastry) breakfast/lunch place right next to the RV park. We've been going there for years, usually once each visit. This gave us the strength for wine tasting, so after a quick stop in Solvang (Danish-themed "village") we headed for Los Olivos. After a stop at the local gourmet shop, we aimed for Lincourt Vineyards, one of the "sister wineries" to Foley, where we stopped on Monday. It was named for the owner's two daughters, so that term really applies. Geri found a neat driveway gate across the street, then we tasted; we bought; we joined their wine list. we also got a recommendation or two of other places to visit.

It was another beautiful day on Friday, although warmer. We left the air conditioning on for the pups, and headed over to Solvang to pick up wines we had already purchased from the "wine club" at D'Alfonso-Curran wines. We picked up a year's worth of wines (three paid-for shipments, plus the November release that'll be shipped out in a few weeks). Good deal. From there, we headed to one of our favorite wine routes, the "Foxen Canyon Wine Trail", which heads north from Los Olivos. We stopped at Foxen, which has built a whole new winery/tasting room near their old place, lovingly referred to as "the shack". We had a nice tasting and picked up a few more bottles for the collection there, then headed back to a relatively new winery, Tres Hermanas. This place is great: for every few bottles of wine you buy, you get to stay in their on-site RV park "out back behind the barn". Now, that's our kind of place! We headed out toward Santa Barbara for dinner, catching up with Geri's niece, Cindy, her husband, Mike, and their daughter, Jennifer, for a great dinner.

Today was another hot day. It's "never" this hot here. We headed back toward Lompoc today, stopping at Geri's sister's to say "so long" to Kathy and Lloyd for this trip, then visiting two wineries right in Lompoc's "wine ghetto". This is the name given to an industrial park of warehouse condos set on the outskirts (OK, the "in"-skirts, since it's the first place you see when you get into town), "behind the Home Depot". We had an appointment to visit Black Sheep Finds, a small husband/wife operation making some nice wines from purchased grapes (we "found" them when we bought a bottle of their "Genuine Risk" Merlot when we were on our recent caravan, in Truckee of all places). We tasted a couple of barrel samples (can't wait for the 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir) and ended up with a mixed case of Bordeaux and Rhône varietals. From there, we traveled 200 feet to our next stop, Fiddlehead, where we tasted some very nice Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs, met the winemaker, joined another wine "club", and added a few more bottles to the collection. Thank goodness this was our last winery stop!

When we got home, I did a lot of the departure activities (dumping and pumping) so we'll have a clean start tomorrow morning. We headed to dinner tonight at one of our long-time favorites, the Hitching Post ("as seen in Sideways"), where Geri had a great grilled artichoke and we both had steaks, coupled with a 2004 Hitching Post Pinot Noir. Great match! After dinner, we finished up our pre-departure activities for the night, and we're ready for an early (7:00 AM) departure tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Winter rains starting early

October 13, 2009
Buellton, CA

We knew that today would be a day for "rainy day projects" from the weather forecast. A large storm is moving in off the Pacific and, although we're along the southern edge of the impacted area, we're still expected to get 2"+ of rain by tomorrow. This is quite a concern on a couple of fronts. With all the fires in California this summer, a lot of areas will be susceptible to mudslides this winter. They're calling this the first of the "winter storms", even though winter is a long way off and the rainy season doesn't usually start until December-January.

The second area of concern is for the grape harvest. Rain at harvest time brings a couple of risks. First, wine grapes need to be very concentrated when they're crushed; wine grapes are smaller than blueberries, not like the big ones you see in the grocery store. Excess water absorbed after a rain can dilute the juice and make weak wines. The other worry is mold that can form on the grapes before they are harvested. While some wines benefit from some growths (some types of sweet dessert wines in particular), it can be deadly for most table wines. We'll start hearing later in the week (it's supposed to clear up by tomorrow afternoon) how the vineyards have fared in this rain.

The pups aren't fazed by the rain, so we got our foul-weather gear out and have already walked them three times. We look like reporters from the Weather Channel out in the downpours with 30 MPH winds blowing us around.

Geri's making Swedish Meatballs for dinner, with pan-roasted potatoes and sautéed carrots. I'll be digging out a nice Australian Shiraz, quite a change of pace from the California wines we've been focused on lately.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Family Visit

October 12, 2009
Lompoc, CA

Today, we visited Geri's sister, Kathy, over in Lompoc. We headed that way late in the morning and had a nice visit with Kathy and her friend, Lloyd, over lunch at a local restaurant. We stopped back at her house for a while afterward, and waited for Geri's niece, Debbie, to arrive from work. We hung out with them, and Debbie's dog Spike (an 8-pound Dachshund-like pup), catching up on things. Kathy's been having some health issues, and Debbie's working hard to provide extra in-home care as needed.

On the way back to Buellton, we made a quick stop at the Foley Estates tasting room, and added several more nice Pinot Noirs to the inventory. We've met the winemaker for Foley, Kris Curran, before, and enjoy her wines quite a bit. She makes wines with her husband under the D'Alfonso-Curran banner, and we'll stop by their tasting room in Solvang later in the week. We're on their "wine list" and have several shipments "on hold" for our pickup.

Dinner was simple: a salad with Geri's vinaigrette, olives and sautéed shrimp, which went nicely with a Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Travel day - Oceano to Buellton

October 11, 2009
Buellton, CA

Today was a simple day. Get from one RV park to another: Oceano to Buellton. Since it was only 50 miles, we did our packing up and preparation in the morning and hit the road just after the 11:00 AM check-out time. We were at our next destination, Flying Flags RV Resort (named for the street it's on, Avenue of the Flags) in Buellton a little after noon. We were prepared for a wait to check in, since past experience told us they were sticklers on the 2:00 PM arrival time, but were pleasantly surprised to see that they've loosened up quite a bit since we were here last in March of 2008. We knew that they were doing site upgrades at that time, and were please to see the results this time. They leveled and graded most of the sites, installed new grass and small poured-concrete patios, and opened up the area with the judicious removal of some trees. We were able to get parked relatively easily (being an older park with upgraded sites, it's still quite tight for maneuvering), have a clear shot for a satellite signal, and took our time getting set up. We had a nice chili for dinner that Geri had made a few days in advance, allowing it to mellow and blend a bit. Paired with a value (Bogle) Zinfandel, it made for a nice travel-day meal.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pismo Beach visit wrap-up

October 10, 2009
Pismo Beach/Oceano, CA

We wrapped up our stay on the dunes today after a couple of days relaxing and enjoying the cool temperatures. After a series of cloud-free days, we started to get a marine layer in the mornings, and it burned off later each day. Obviously, the weather's changing. We've used the heat each morning to "take the chill off". Today, I ran the diesel-powered furnace instead of the heat pumps (just the roof air conditioners running "backward") to give it the monthly exercise.

Thursday was a relaxing day. Geri did some laundry and we booth spent some time reading. I caught up on some back issues of Arizona Highways (a fabulous magazine, by the way), and actually finished a novel. I wanted to do this because I have the new Dan Brown book, sequel to The DaVinci Code, queued up next. Two books in one summer - haven't done that in quite a few years. I used to be a big book reader but got away from it in my working years, since life was just too fast-paced. Four-plus years later, I guess I'm starting to slow down enough to read a book again.

Friday started cloudy and stayed that way until well into the afternoon. Since we're still in "wine country", I did some research and selected two wineries to visit. There are many more, of course, but our capacity (both for our consumption and storage in the coach for purchased bottles) requires a bit of restraint. Let's say we're more focused in our approach. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Anyway, we visited the two tasting rooms, starting with Domaine Alfred, a long-time (15 years, which is a long time in this area) producer in the Edna Valley. This operation was purchased by an investment group a little over a year ago, and they're in the process of changing the branding to the Chamisal name (What - Domaine Alfred doesn't have enough sizzle?). The holding company also owns Archery Summit in Oregon, one of the top producers of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, so this bodes well for the California property. They still make a hodge-podge of wines but seem to be settling on varieties from Burgundy and the Rhône. We tasted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as a 100% Grenache that was excellent (but too pricey at $80) and a Grenache Blend. I know that my friend Dave, a dedicated Rhône-ofile, would have enjoyed these wine a lot. Someday, we'll get him out to the west coast for something other than skiing.  With a four-pack of various wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and an odd-ball Pinot Gris - just because) secured

Our next stop was at Talley Vineyards, another established producer, in "the next valley over", Arroyo Grande. This was a much more commercial property, with a larger tasting room offering more wines for more money. As in Napa, the days of the "$5 tasting and you keep the logo glass" are over here on the Central Coast. I realized afterward that Tally actually charged us twice for the $15 "reserve" tasting (the same thing happened at Justin up in Paso Robles), so they'll be getting a complaint letter. That said, we focused on the Pinot Noir tasting and the wines were quite good. The 2007 vintage was very good for Pinots in California, so we're happy to grab some while we can.

Saturday was another relaxation day, until Geri reminded me that I'd promised to take her to a local restaurant called "Steamers of Pismo" for dinner. I made a quick reservation via OpenTable, and we were good to go. She loves steamed clams, so this was a natural. She had a half-pound as an appetizer and King Crab legs for dinner. I had a seared Ahi tuna starter and Shrimp Jambalaya. I had the Jambalaya because Geri doesn't care for it, so it's better had "out". Geri definitely "won", though, as the crab legs were very good and the shrimp we almost missing from the Jambalaya. We paired the meal with a nice split of Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine to start and a Laetitia Pinot Blanc with dinner.