Friday, April 7, 2017

This Week: Redondo Beach, CA

It’s not just the places you go, It’s the people you meet

The hotel’s website said it provided shuttle service Monday through Friday from 7 AM to 11 AM and from 4 PM to 9 PM. The site also said the shuttle had a three mile radius around the hotel. Checking Google Maps, I realized that was not going to work. I was traveling to Redondo Beach, CA, for a press trip and my hotel was the Hilton Garden Inn Redondo Beach, right off the infamous 405. It was three miles east of California’s South Bay, however, Hermosa Beach was in the way.
Redondo Beach is a quirk of geography. The boundaries on a map look like a puzzle piece. There is an eastern half that is three miles inland, sitting behind Hermosa Beach. Then like a diagonal move on a checker board, there is another square section to the south and west that is on the beach. The entire municipality is only five square miles. The Hilton Garden Inn at Marine Avenue put me at the far northeast corner while the actual beach was almost 5 miles away at the southwest corner. I would need that shuttle, but it wouldn’t get me to Redondo Beach. It would only get me to Hermosa and then it was a two mile walk. I would need a good pair of walking shoes.

My schedule for day one at Redondo Beach was paddle boarding in the morning, then lunch somewhere on the boardwalk and then dinner and beers at King Harbor Brewing Company. I asked the hotel front desk for the shuttle. The desk clerk made a phone call and said John would arrive in a few minutes.

As I waited in the lobby an older gentleman wearing khakis and denim shirt approached the front desk. The gal at the desk pointed to me.

“How far can you take me” I asked after he introduced himself. Asking exactly where I needed to go, I explained I wanted to be at King Harbor, but my understanding was the shuttle didn’t go that far. Even though I was talking to John, the desk clerk answered. I could be dropped off at Hermosa Beach and from there walk to King Harbor. John motioned for me to follow him out front. He opened the side door to the shuttle van for me to climb in. After he got in the driver’s seat, he turned around and asked me where I wanted to go. I said as close to King Harbor as he could get me.

“Where exactly do you need to be?”

“Specifically, Tarsan Paddle Rentals on North Harbor Drive.”

“Ok, I’ll just take you there,” he replied.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

Studying John in the rearview mirror I noticed he wore a tan beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Short salt and pepper hair could be seen below his cap and he had a grey mustache. I guessed he was in his late sixties. Since I like to try and figure people out, I imagined he was retired from a long career of something and driving this van was his part time gig. What I didn’t know was if he drove the van because he needed a paycheck or simply because he wanted something to do.

As he drove he plied me with questions. Where are you from? When I said Colorado he responded how beautiful he thought Colorado was. He said he had spent a vacation visiting a friend in Colorado. The friend took him to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I mentioned that the first snow of the season had just fallen in the national park a few days ago and it was still September. John laughed. He then said that LA was going to have a mini-heat wave over the next few days. Today’s expected high was 100 degrees.

He asked what I was doing today and I told him my schedule. He then asked why I was here. I said I was a travel writer and in town as a guest of the tourist board. He chuckled saying that was some job I had. I also told him that I was a beer blogger and had a 4 PM appointment at King Harbor Brewing Company. I half joked about how I would need a ride from him that night because I would be drinking beer all afternoon. While John wouldn’t be able to drive me to the brewery because he wouldn’t be back on duty until 4 PM, he was more than happy to pick me up.

We were only into the drive a few minutes when we passed by the Redondo Beach/King Harbor city sign. A few traffic lights after that he turned onto Harbor Drive and pulled the van over into a parallel parking spot. We were at the entrance to King Harbor. Tarsan was actually a block behind me. John then handed me his business card and said his cell phone number was on it so I could call him when I was ready to return.

I now had six hours to fill. I filled them with two hours of paddle boarding, a huge lunch at Captain Kidd’s Seafood Market and then a walk to Redondo Pier. John was right; the temperature did get up to 100. I stopped inside an ice cream shop to get some chilled relief in the form of a vanilla mocha ice cream cone. Then I took Uber to the brewery.

My interview at the brewery lasted almost two hours, during which I sampled a variety of the brewery’s beers. And because it was Monday Night Football, the brewery had a food truck out front, Bartz BBQ. After ordering some brisket to go I called John. He needed to drop off another passenger first before getting me. I plunked down on the curb as the evening finally began to cool. Because I had eaten so much for lunch and then drank beer, I only ordered a sandwich, no sides, but as I sat on the curb waiting, the food truck proprietor approached and asked if I wanted to take some sides with me.

“I’ll have too much leftover to take home. How about some mac and cheese on the house?” An offer I couldn’t refuse. The server gave me a heaping spoonful of mac and cheese with the little crunchies on top. I love crunchies. A few minutes later, John arrived in the big white van.

“Sorry it took me so long,” he apologized as I entered the middle seat. “Ran into rush hour traffic.” I told him because of his delay I scored some free mac and cheese. He laughed and asked how my day went. I told him I came within a few feet of a sea lion on the paddle board, which was awesome. I also said the beer at the brewery was delicious. He stated Heineken was his beer of choice.

“I drink them at the Mermaid Inn with my friends. I live over in Hermosa, lived there for many years. Will you be visiting the Mermaid Inn?” Since I was a guest of Redondo Beach tourism board, I informed him I wouldn’t be visiting Mermaid, which is in Hermosa. I set up my ride for the next day and wished him good evening.  

The next morning, I awoke early, had free breakfast from the hotel and then prepped my travel bag for a day at the beach. Tuesday’s schedule was to rent a bicycle and hit the beach, then late lunch and restaurant tour of Redondo Pier. The bike shop didn’t open until 10 AM so I had plenty of time. I was in the lobby when John arrived shortly after 9:30.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

“You’re not late,” I said. Once again he opened the van door for me. He then asked where I was going today.

I said Marina Bike Rental on the corner of Beryl and Harbor Drive, only a few blocks south of Tarsan. Shortly after pulling out of the hotel parking lot, John’s cell phone rang. He answered the phone and put it on speaker, which meant I could hear every word. A woman on the phone asked him about a prescription. Since it wasn’t really my business, I looked out the window, trying not to hear. John talked to the woman about visiting the doctor and getting “her” a prescription. Then toward the end of the conversation, they both spoke Spanish. He finished the phone call at a stop light.  John said he was sorry about the interruption, but I said no worries. He said that it was his mother’s Medicare case worker. His mother, who he said was 93 years old, was in the care of both him and his sister and that he needed to get permission before they would approve of things like prescriptions. The case worker was verifying that his mother had seen a doctor before getting new drugs. I marveled that his mother was 93.

We were heading down Herondo Street and South Bay was at the bottom. On my right was Hermosa and on my left was Redondo. John pointed to the hill on the right where the condo buildings overlooked the bay.

“My apartment is over there.”

“That’s close to the beach.” I said impressed. John laughed his easy laugh again.

“Yeah, my sister and I went to high school here and we still have friends from those days. We all get together at either Mermaid’s or Hennessey for a few beers. That’s what I do on my days off.”

At the rental shack he pulled next to the bike lane and I exited the vehicle. I told him I would call him that evening for my ride back. He said to enjoy my day and left. It was still a few minutes early and the rental shack wasn’t open yet. I sat on the deck stairs and opened my bag to take out my camera. That is when I made a startling realization. I forgot all my restaurant coupons back at the hotel. All of them…in a little envelope…on the hotel room desk. The coupons were to pay for the restaurants on the Pier.
I considered forgoing the coupons and just paying for my meals, but then decided against it. I barely get paid for the articles I write, let alone make enough money to fully fund this trip. I needed all the freebies I could get just break even. John’s shuttle duty would end at 11 AM. I called him.

“You’re not going to believe this, but I forgot something at the hotel. Can you come back and get me?” John said he was driving another passenger and he could return when he was done.

While waiting for John to return, a large rotund gentleman pulled up to the bike shack in a red scooter with an adorable tan and white Corgi in a basket on the back. He parked the scooter under an umbrella next to the shack’s front deck and moved the Corgi from the basket to the ground. The Corgi walked over to sniff me. After the man unlocked the shack door he asked me if I was renting a bike. I said yes, but that I had to return to my hotel and would be back in about 45 minutes. He shrugged and continued his opening routine. He walked to a large metal trailer next to the shack, undid a padlock and opened a door. Then he pulled out several cruiser bikes one by one. While setting up the fifth bike, a young couple walked up to the deck. Speaking in thick Scandinavian accents, they requested some bikes. They filled out some paper work and he took their driving license and credit card info. Then he put a wire basket on the woman’s bike and off they went. 

Although it only took ten minutes, it seemed like a half hour of standing in the hot California sun. I saw the white van turn down the block and leisurely pulled up alongside the curb to me. I opened the door myself and hopped in.

“Thank you so much. I can’t believe I did that!” He chuckled. He drove as fast the speed limit would allow and in less than 10 minutes we were back at the hotel. He took the opportunity to use the hotel “facilities” while I sprinted back to my room for the envelope. It was right where I left it. I sprinted back down to the lobby and outside.

“That was fast!” he said as I hopped into the van. We were off on the same route we took about an hour and half earlier. It was after 10:30 AM and soon John would be off the clock. He returned me to Marina Bike Rentals and as he opened the door for me, I handed him a five dollar bill and he tried to hand it back.

“You just saved my butt. Thank you!”

I spent the afternoon riding the Marvin Braude Bike Trail on my rented cruiser up to Manhanttan Beach and then I rode it back past the rental shop to the far southern end of Redondo Beach. I think I covered some 10 miles of the 22-mile trail. It was a beautiful Southern California day as I sat on the sand admiring the waves and the sand pipers and the few families who were away from work and school to play at the shore. After returning the bike I enjoyed a Redondo Pier bar crawl during happy hour and ended my day watching the spectacular sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I ended my evening with a dinner of crab cakes and a beer at a fancy seafood restaurant. About 8 o’clock I called John. He asked if I knew where the roundabout was on the south side of the pier. Since I had passed it on the bike, I did know where it was. He said he would pick me up there. This was way outside the boundaries of the shuttle.

I did have to wait several minutes, but there was no mistaking the big white van in the street lights when it came around the corner. I climbed in and said hello. John asked how my day was, but I turned the tables on him and said, “You know I’ve been sent to see all these places, but where do you like to go?”

He said he likes Hermosa, where he lives, and likes to hang out at Hennessey with his friends next door to Mermaid Inn. I had ridden the bike by both earlier that day. He said he and his sister went to high school in Hermosa and when he retired he wanted to return here because he loves it. He then said he was in the service and spent 35 years in Alaska before returning to Hermosa. Then the floodgate opened.

He asked if I noticed him speaking Spanish on the phone yesterday. When I said yes, he said that was because he was originally from Cuba. He was sent to Florida on a boat as a boy in 1962. He was cared for by a foster family for five years until his parents made it to Florida. From there he went to a Presbyterian school in Shenandoah, IA, for several years. He even detassled corn in the summer, something I said we had in common. From there the family moved to Hermosa and after high school he joined the service and spent some time in Virginia and then the 35 years in Alaska. He actually enjoyed his time in Alaska, but when he retired, he knew he wanted to return to sunny California.

While sitting at a stop light he told me his father had a trucking company in Cuba and it did very well until Castro and the Communists came to power in 1961. He said after his grandfather passed away his dad took some money out of the grandfather’s bank account to pay for the funeral. However, the government didn’t believe him and put him in jail for a year. His mother spent that year fighting bureaucratic red tape and had to submit and resubmit receipts to show where the money went. The communists would say the paperwork wasn’t filled out properly or that they just didn’t believe what the money was used for, even though his mother had receipts. After his father was released from jail they decided to leave.

John said he was trying to get a visa so he can return to Cuba, but since he arrived in the States before 1970, there are special regulations he needs to meet making it harder. His sister had already returned. He says his boyhood home is still there and he would like to see it. I asked him if he was scared when he came over on the boat and he said no. He said he wasn’t scared because he was so young he didn’t know any better.

When we arrived at the lobby of the hotel, he got out of the driver seat and for the last time walked over to the passenger door to let me out. He wished me a safe return to Colorado.

“Next time you do one of these trips, come to Hermosa and I’ll show you around,” he said as he waved.

“That sounds like a great idea!” I said as entered the hotel.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

This Week: LAX

*** Part III

Los Angeles International Airport was not empty at 2:30 AM. Airport workers were everywhere. I walked in front of the Southwest ticket counter area looking for an outlet to charge my phone. There were small pockets of seats and chairs between the entrance doors and each one was already filled with groups of young people who had already commandeered those outlets. Even though I didn’t have to go, I headed to the restroom thinking it was a good idea. Upon walking around the entrance wall, I spotted one lonely outlet above the sinks. I plugged my phone in and then hopped up on the counter and used my carry-on as a footrest.

Even in the quiet airport, women still came in the restroom. I made it a point to smile and say hi as various women entered so they wouldn’t think I was going to rob them or something. One woman who came in, who I thought was a bit chubby, spent a good five minutes throwing up in the stall. It wasn’t until she came back out to wash up that I realized she was actually pregnant. Another woman who came in worked for Southwest and as she washed her hands started chatting with me. She told me she had just finished setting up the ribbons that mark the lines to the ticket counters and she hoped the construction crews wouldn’t mess them up. I asked her about the construction and she said while it was a pain in the ass now, the place would be “spectacular” when it was finished. Southwest and the airport were splitting the cost of the upgrade and she said that as the airport finished its many projects that celebrities would be coming out for ribbon cutting ceremonies. She went on to say that some celebs were helping to fund the upgrade in exchange for getting terminals named after them.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be nice when it’s done,” she said as she left the restroom. Things got quiet at that. Out of boredom I would pick up my phone and look at Facebook posts. I also began texting my brother, who worked the night shift at NOAA in Las Vegas, but he responded that he was too busy to text. I went back to Facebook, but not wanting to waste too much battery put the phone back down. Then five minutes later picked it up again. This went on for an hour.

My rescheduled flight was for 6:30 AM so I figured I would exit the restroom around 4:30 so I could be first in line at the ticket counter. Shortly after 4 AM I noticed more and more women were using the restroom and they weren’t airport workers. I decided I better move. Good thing I did because the ribbons of rows the Southwest gal set up earlier were already full. I lined up behind a group of older women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, and waited. While standing there one of the women in front of me asked if I saw any airline employees around. I said no after doing a brief scan. She then said that she and her friends “found” the woman in the wheelchair sitting in a corner of the terminal facing the wall. She had asked for help as they walked by. The wheelchair woman told them she had arrived at the airport at 2 AM and an airport worker got her from the cab to the inside and then just walked away and left her there.

“That’s awful,” I said. “Yes, it is,” was the reply. The women friends were on their way to Vegas and the woman in the wheelchair was on her way to Dallas or Detroit or DC, some city with a D. The Vegas women were going to help the elderly woman get checked in and then hoped an airline worker would take over from there. They were worried because they knew their flight was already full and since they were meeting other people in Vegas, didn’t want to get bumped.

Pretty much everyone in line including me expected the ticket agents to begin at 4:30 AM. They didn’t. A few walked out from a door behind the counter and began looking around at the computers and other things on the counters, turning things on, unlocking locks and opening and closing drawers with keys that they wore like jewelry on their necks and wrists. Then some went back behind the door and disappeared. It was another 10 minutes before ONE agent opened up for customers. A few minutes later the rest came back and opened up. Slowly the line began to move.

When it was my turn at the counter a smiling woman named Neesi took my ID and I told her I was rebooked on the 6:30 AM flight after missing my flight last night. Since my flight was through Phoenix I asked her if there was any way I could get on the 7:30 direct flight to Denver. She started to say no, but then tilted her head to one side and pointed at her computer screen with a long painted fingernail.

“Goodness, so you’re on the flight to Phoenix, but the flight on to Denver has been canceled.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said as the blood drained from my face.

She tapped her long nails on the keyboard. “Let’s see what we can do here…So I can put you on standby on the 7:30, but there are 10 people already on the list. I can’t guarantee you’ll get on.”

“That’s OK. I’ll take it!” She printed out a new boarding pass for me and I thanked her profusely and hustled to the security line only to wait another 10 minutes because security wasn’t open yet either. 
As I walked by the Las Vegas women, I heard the ticket agent say they would get someone to help the woman in the wheelchair so they followed me to the security line.

Because of the construction, the security line actually started at the base of some escalators and stairs. Once up the stairs, the line snaked through a very tight space, but at least it moved. After security I headed to my gate and passed a few food carts. I was starving, but they all had long lines and I didn’t think I could take the time.

Once at the gate the crowd of people was overwhelming. I went up to the counter even though no one was there yet. My plan was to “check in” and let them know I was flying standby. My hope was to not annoy the gate agent while letting them know I really wanted on that plane. When a woman did show up it took her many minutes to get organized. There was a flight leaving the gate before mine so she had to deal with that first. When she was ready for me I politely told her I was on Standby for the next flight and asked what needed to do to get on the plane. She said the best thing for me to do was to stay close because if you’re not there when they call you, they move on to the next person. I thanked her and looked at the café line again. Still quite long, I instead went behind the gate and sat on the floor because every seat was already taken.

I pulled out my phone and realized it was still in airplane mode. After changing it back I began receiving notification emails announcing my flight from Phoenix to Denver was canceled.
Just for the heck of it I got on Twitter and tweeted to @Southwest “Please get me home, almost there.” Within a minute SW followed me and then sent a DM asking my situation and ticket number. I told them I was on standby thanks to Neesi. I received a response that read there wasn’t much they could do, but wished me luck. I told them how great Joey and Neesi had been in helping with a problem that was created by another airline.

As soon as the first plane left I stood up and shook my stiff arms and legs. The moment of truth had arrived. The Denver flight was posted on the gate board. The gate agents began calling first class and frequent flyer members. Then they called Group A. As people moved around the airline agent began calling standby passengers. Every few seconds the agent said a name. None of them mine. I counted the names and when she got to number 10, my heart sank. As she announced names, various people would arrive at the counter and move on. Then she announced that the overhead bins were full so those in Groups B and C would have to check their carry-ons. I was about to give up and go stand in the café line when she said my name. I asked her if she needed to check my carry-on. She looked at my ticket and said, “No. You’re in Group A.”

Not only did I make standby, but I didn’t have to check my bag on a full flight! Thanks Southwest!
I took my Group A ticket and walked by all the Group B people still standing in line. On the plane I saw a middle seat in the second row. I put my small carry-on above and took the middle seat. I have short legs so I don’t mind sitting middle. I sat next to an elderly black lady who asked me if I was getting off in Denver. When I said yes, she said she was flying to Ohio. I asked why she was going to Ohio and she said it was her brother’s birthday.

“That’s nice you’re able to be there for that,” I said.

“Well, since it’s my twin brother, it’s my birthday too.”

“Oh. Happy birthday,” I told her.

I arrived in Denver at 10 AM, 11.5 hours later than I should have been. I called my awesome co-worker and she said she had the store covered and told me to go home and get some sleep. But first I had to pick up my dog at the dog sitter. So I had to pay for an extra day of airport parking and I had to pay for an extra day of dog sitting. What did I get from Alaska Air? A $200 airline voucher for a future flight. So let’s see. Denver is not really a hub for them so my options for direct flights are few and $100 is what I paid in extras. I appealed to the airline for a cash refund and even asked for the lower amount because all I wanted was to cover my fees. The airline, “after much consideration,” said no. So, where should I go next?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

This Week: Mammoth Lakes to Los Angeles

No Sleep 'til LAX 
Part II

Most everyone else went back into the annex even though the snack bar had closed. I stayed outside. I propped my bag against a light pole and sat down on the sidewalk leaning my back against it. As I sat, a dark green SUV pulled up to the curb and a blonde woman got out. From inside the annex, the woman who had offered a ride came out with her new entourage and the two women hugged.

“Thank you for doing this. You are a life saver.”

“Aw, anything for you sweetie.” The group began to put their bags in the back, but it was haphazard. They had to take the bags out and start over, twice. Third time was the charm and they all piled into the SUV and left. A guy on his cell phone came out of the annex and set his bag on the sidewalk.

“Are you on the van?” he asked me. Yes. “Can you watch my bags? I have to make a phone call and don’t want the van to leave without me.” I nodded, but wondered how many calls this guy had to make? He’d been on the phone since I first noticed him in the ticket line. I could hear his conversation despite the wind. He was calling Avis Rental Car trying to find out if he could pick up his rental after midnight. To me this sounded like a simple question, but to whomever he was talking to it wasn’t because he had to repeat the question more than once. He also had to explain why he wouldn’t be there at his scheduled time. He turned away from me and I couldn’t hear anymore. The scent of smoke from the wildfires was starting to infiltrate the air.

At 8:30 PM a large white van towing a small black trailer pulled up to the curb. I stood up and grabbed my bag. Cell phone guy also grabbed his bags, but was still on the phone. The rest of the group poured out of the snack annex. The van driver, a young guy with a goatee wearing a white long-sleeve t-shirt, got out. He held a piece of paper in his hand. He had us gather around the trailer and read our names. With every name somebody said yes. There were two Asian names he had trouble pronouncing, an older married couple that pronounce their names for him. After reading all the names the grey-haired lady who complained about not being offered a ride earlier said she didn’t hear her name. The driver ended up having to go inside the terminal to figure out what was going on. The woman, who said her name was Lorraine, followed him. The rest of us were left waiting on the sidewalk.

Minutes later both returned and the driver said something about confusion over another woman who had decided to stay in Mammoth, but still had her name on the list. The Driver loaded our bags in the trailer.

Cell phone guy took the front passenger seat; didn’t ask, just took. Lorraine said something about needing a lot of leg room because she had a bum knee. Four people, all guys, filled the back seat, the Japanese couple and I sat in the middle row and a grey-haired man, a young woman and Lorraine took the front row. The Driver then got in, but before turning on the van he told all of us that the van had a DVD player and he held up a black bag filled with DVDs. Lorraine said, “Can’t we just try to relax on this ride. Why do we have to watch a movie?” The Driver then handed the guy in the front row the DVD bag, started the van and pulled away from the curb.

The van turned onto Highway 395, a four-lane divided road. The mountains in this part of California were still green (the only ones not on fire that summer) and smoky clouds glowed gold in the twilight, the haze of the wildfires intensifying the colors. The man with the DVD bag pulled a movie out and asked if anyone wanted to see Silence of the Lambs. Seriously?!? No one said anything. Then the young woman sitting next to him said sure, why not? And I thought this couldn’t get any worse.
I put my earbuds in and listened to music I had stored on my phone so I couldn’t hear the movie. I closed my eyes, but the light from the TV screen seemed to seep in through my eyelids making it impossible to sleep. I also put my phone in airplane mode to conserve my battery for the six hour ride.

I must have fallen asleep at some point because I was startled when the van stopped. I looked out the window to see we were in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot. The Driver said this was a good place to stretch, take a bathroom break and get some food before we hit the interstate. We all unfolded out of the van and walked like zombies into the restaurant. I had no intention of eating or drinking anything. I made that plan back at the airport. Not knowing what the restroom situation was going to be over the next six hours, I wasn’t taking any chances. Once inside the restaurant I began scouting for an outlet to charge my phone. It didn’t need it, but I wanted to anyway. Couldn’t find one. Our little group had already formed a line for the restrooms so I got behind. The young woman who sat in front of me bumped me with her elbow and said, “Oh my god, I can’t stand bugs.” I glanced in the direction she was looking. The glass doors, floors and ceiling of a corner the restaurant were crawling with black box elder bugs. I grew up with box elder bugs and know they’re harmless so I ignored her, but have to admit it was odd seeing a pile of them in the corner by the door. I asked the woman if she knew where we were, but she didn’t. Then she said, “Bugs are gross!” and actually tried to lean on me for support.

A worker was cleaning the women’s restroom so we all had to take turns using the men’s. It was one of the most disgusting restrooms I’ve ever seen. When I came out some in our group were ordering food. It was a little after 11 PM when I turned my cell’s airplane mode off so I could look up the location. My phone said Big Pine, California. I posted a quick tweet. “Stopped in Big Pine, CA. Still have four hours to go. #nosleeptilLAX.”

Switching my phone back to airplane mode, I went outside and stood with some others next to the van. That’s when I noticed the bug situation approached horror movie level. The bugs were everywhere including flying around in the air. I looked up at a street light and it was dimmed because of the number of bugs covering it. The parking lot was covered with what looked like black dipping dots. The white van had spots on it. Then the Driver walked by me to the passenger door and his white T-shirt was also covered with black dots. I made it a point to keep my mouth closed.

The Driver did a head count before opening the door to let us back in. As soon as I returned to my seat I could feel bugs crawling on my shin. Then there was another one on the back of my neck. As the van rolled out of the parking lot I pulled one off the top of my head. I also saw two bugs crawling on the inside of the van door and another on the ceiling. Unfortunately the movie wasn’t over yet so I had to put my earbuds back in and keep my eyes closed to avoid the bright TV light. Every few minutes I had to shake a bug off of my ankles. I wondered how many bugs crawled around in my hoodie.

I wasn’t really asleep, but I wasn’t quite awake either as I listened to almost every song I had on the phone. The movie had finally ended and we were now on the interstate; “The 5” as Californians would say. What looked like a combination of truck stops and suburbia flew by the windows. My phone said 1:30 AM. I wondered how the driver was doing. Would he fall asleep and roll the van? I could see one side of his face in the rear view mirror. He was drinking a giant can of Monster or Kickstart or something like that, which he kept on the van's dashboard. Most everyone else in the van appeared to be asleep; I could hear someone snoring softly behind me.

I looked out the windshield and some familiar names began to appear on the overhead highway signs, LA street names that have been mentioned in countless songs, movies and TV shows. First was the exit for Sunset Boulevard, then Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard and finally Ventura Boulevard. I could see palm trees lining the highway. We had made it to Los Angeles.
Shortly after passing the Boulevard exits, the Driver took an exit that had the airport symbol on its sign. We were now on the 405. After many hours of quiet, the Driver spoke up asking us what airlines we were flying on so he could figure out where to drop us. Most everyone in the van was on United and the Japanese couple actually needed to be dropped off at their airport hotel. The wife said they were flying out in the morning. The Driver would take them last. I was on Southwest and lucky me that was the first airline we drove by.

The Driver stopped to let me out. He opened up the trailer and pulled out my bag. I thanked him and handed him a tip. As he took it, he slapped the side of his neck with his other hand.

“Damn bugs!” he said, half laughing. “I’m still finding them.” I laughed a bit as I walked into the airport. My phone said it was 2:30 AM. The third part of my ordeal was about to begin.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

This Week: Mammoth Lakes, CA

No Sleep ‘Til LAX

An Ordeal in 3 Parts - Part I

My eyes are closed, but I’m not asleep. I knew going in that there would be no sleep tonight. I’m trying to focus on the music streaming through my ear buds while enduring the thumps and bumps of my vehicle seat.  It’s not working. That’s because I’m in a gigantic white van lumbering down a dark highway with 12 total strangers in it. This ordeal began hours ago, but the part that’s keeping me awake is that when we finally reach our destination, I still don’t know if I’ll be able to get home.


I had just spent a fantastic four days in Mammoth Lakes, CA, a wonderful Sierra Nevada mountain town and the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. For four days I was a professional travel journalist on a press trip learning what makes this town of only 8,000 year-around residents one of the West’s best tourism spots. I was wined and dined and met many amazing people who make the town the charming place it is. I went on guided hikes and was chauffeured to the area’s most beautiful spots. I took notes and photos and recorded interviews. I stayed in a fabulous studio suite at the Westin Monache Resort.

I was still savoring these newly made memories when I arrived at the tiny Mammoth/Yosemite Airport. My ordeal had already begun, but I didn’t know it yet because I pre-printed my boarding pass from Alaska Airlines at the hotel, so when I arrived by hotel shuttle the appropriate two hours before departure, I got straight into the security line with a group of six other people. A long line of travelers were standing on the other side of the room waiting for a ticket agent to print their passes and check bags. Those of us in the security line were chatting when a woman wearing a drab green shirt and pants with a bright orange vest approached us. She told us our flight – the only flight– was late due to a mechanical issue and wouldn’t arrive until 8:30 PM instead of the 6:30 PM it was supposed to. The flight would arrive in Mammoth long after my Southwest connecting flight in LA would leave for Denver.

The woman in the vest said we should head to the annex building where there was a snack bar and TVs while we waited for the flight. Everyone in the terminal wearily walked into the annex, a large sterile building that looked like a metal barn. The snack bar was on the opposite end of the doorway with a crowd of wooden tables and chairs and two restrooms in between. A giant flatscreen TV blared CNN above one of the restroom doors. I spotted an unoccupied electrical outlet across from the TV and took it. Since I was now at the mercy of the airplane gods, a full cell battery was vital.
First order of business was to text a coworker because I was supposed to work my day job the next morning. Even if I got to LAX, there was no guarantee I’d make it to Denver. Fortunately my co-worker could cover. After that relief I called Southwest Airlines to see if there was another, later flight from LAX to DEN. I talked to a woman named Joey and she said there was no other flight tonight, but there were flights leaving first thing in the morning. Joey found a flight leaving at 6:30 AM, but it would fly to Phoenix first. It would arrive in DEN by 10 AM.  With good traffic I could be to work by noon. Since I only had a small carry-on, bags were not an issue. Joey said she would book me on the flight anyway even though I had no way to LAX yet.

After my phone call, a group of people sat at a table next to me. A woman at the table talked a bit loudly and provided a lot of insight into the workings of Mammoth Airport. I learned that she and her husband lived in LA and had a second home in Mammoth. They had another couple visiting with them along with the woman’s mother from Ohio. The woman said that there was only one flight in and out a day so if that flight doesn’t make it, there wouldn’t be another until the next afternoon. Also according to her, this was a regular occurrence. She told the other couple they used to fly from LA, but previous bad experiences now cause them to drive back and forth.

“You’ll see, they’ll cancel this flight,” she said. “Keep your eyes on the board. If it gets canceled we have to rush over to the terminal to get her rebooked.” By her, she was referring to her mother. Shortly after this conversation, it happened just like the woman said it would. The board changed showing the flight canceled and everyone, myself included, jumped up from our chairs to get into the terminal. I ended up in the middle of the ticket counter line. Behind me was a couple from Virginia who told me they had a 10:30 PM red eye from LAX to Alexandria. The wife mentioned they didn’t have to be back to work until Monday (today was Thursday), so they considered staying in Mammoth another night, but worried flights to the east coast would be full on a weekend. They also had two young kids staying with grandparents at home whom they hadn’t seen in a week.

The woman with the vest walked by and the couple asked her what happened to our plane. She said there was a mechanical issue that they thought was fixed at the airport before the plane left. However, the issue came back during the flight. She then said Mammoth Airport doesn’t have a mechanic so the plane, which was actually beginning its descent into Mammoth, had to turn around and go back to be repaired. Myself, the Virginia couple and now the man in front of me began bombarding vest woman with questions about what Alaska Airlines was going do to help us. She said the airline would be renting some vans to drive people out, but that there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone.

“WHAT?!?” We all asked in unison. She told us to stay in line and they would come around and take our names for the van rides. The four of us began weighing our options. The guy in front of me lived in LA and was a construction manager of a project in Mammoth. He spent four days week in Mammoth and went home to his family for three-day weekends. He thought out loud that he could just go back to the apartment the construction company rented for him and stay another night and see his family tomorrow. The Virginia couple discussed calling Uber or a taxi service and began searching on their smartphones.

A woman at the ticket counter then announced that a van, and only one van, had been rented and she would take names for it. The van would only hold 13 people. There was at least double that number of people in line. Doing a quick count I put myself at 15. Over the buzzing talk of people on cell phones a woman near the front of the line grabbed her bag and walked to the middle of the small terminal with two other people following her. She announced to everyone that she was getting a ride to LA from a friend and they had room for one more person. Myself along with five other people raised our hands. An older man standing next to a much younger Asian man told everyone that the young man was a foreign exchange student and needed to a ride to LA or he would miss his flight home to China for school break. Feeling that story trumped ours, construction guy and I both lowered our hands. The woman offering the ride said come over. Suddenly a grey-haired woman a few places ahead of me loudly said “Well, that was mean!” Everyone in the terminal turned in her direction. 

“That was awfully cruel of you to offer only one seat then not even take the rest of us into consideration.” In my little group of people all our jaws hit the floor. This woman didn’t have to offer anyone anything. Why talk like that to her?

That little event took four people out of line. I now had a shot at the van. Basically the airline was offering a night in a hotel and a flight out tomorrow or a seat on the van. I didn’t like either choice. The woman with the orange vest reappeared with a clipboard. She was taking names for the van. After each name, that person would grab their bags and leave the terminal. She slowly worked her way toward me. When she got to construction guy I could see a long list of names on her paper. Construction guy was #13.

“So I’m on the van?” he asked her.

“Uh, no. There’s only room for 11 people.”

“They said 13 earlier.”

“Yeah, they couldn’t get the larger van.”

“Why don’t they rent more than one van?” I asked. “If you got 20-odd people that were supposed to be on that plane, they should get enough vans for everyone who wants a ride. It’s their fault, not weather.”

“That’s just how they do it,” she said.

“That’s ridiculous.” I signed.

“I know,” she responded. She took my name anyway, just in case. Just then two people came over to Vest Woman and said to take their names off; they were going to spend the night in Mammoth. Construction Guy became #11. I sighed again. So close. Then the Virginia couple asked me and the two people behind them if we wanted to pool together for an Uber ride or car rental. I said sure. Then the wife stepped in front of me and tapped Construction Guy.

“You know, you should let her (pointing to me) ride on the van since your final destination is LA,” she said. Both of our eyes widen in shock. He grimaced.

“Southwest re-booked me on a flight first thing in the morning. If I miss it, I won’t get back to Denver until late tomorrow night or maybe even Saturday.” Yes, I tried to sound desperate, but I was not lying. Joey had told me on the phone almost every flight to Denver was booked for Friday.

“Go ahead,” he said and waved vest woman over. “Take my name off the list and put her on the van.”

“Oh my god, thank you!” I almost started crying. Virginia wife patted me on the back. I grabbed my carry-on and went outside because my body temperature had skyrocketed with all the stress I had just endured. The cool wind felt good on my face. I looked at the Sierra Mountains and saw a beige smoke cloud creep over the ridge from the summer wild fires. The time was 8 PM. My ordeal was only just beginning…

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

This week: Kauai, HI

The Search for Kauai’s “Aloha” Bench on the Okolēhao Trail

The sweat on my forehead mixed with sunscreen as it dripped down my face, stinging my eyes, which is ironic because the trees had blocked the sun a quarter mile ago. Ferns whipped at my arms and legs. The only place with any space left was at my feet. I pressed on thinking, it can’t be much farther…Can it?

I had set off earlier that morning on a quest. The previous night a bartender told me about his favorite hike, the Okolēhao Trail. I spent my after-dinner downtime researching the trail on my smartphone and decided it was suitable for my skills. said the trail about 2.25 miles one-way and climbed about 1,250 feet in elevation. Easy peasy for this Colorado girl. The site also said there were two overlooks with sweeping views of the Hanalei Bay area. Also intriguing were some social media photos. An image search revealed several pics of a faded green bench with the word “Aloha” painted on in white. I wanted to add my photo to the collection.

Then I came across a blog by a German who had hiked trails all over the world. He had hiked the Okolehao in 2013 and divided it into two sections. The beginning section he described as incredibly easy, even with the elevation gain. The second part he called a “true adventure hike” with jungle-thick vegetation, a narrow cliff-hugging passage and four strategically-placed pull ropes to help hikers in tough areas. The blog ended with a photo he took of his girlfriend surrounded by ferns below blue sky. His conclusion? If his girlfriend can make it, anyone can.

The trail was right where the bartender said it would be. Just after the long one-lane bridge that separates the village of Hanalei Bay from the rest of the island, I turned onto Ohiki Road, which divides the lush Hanalei Valley where taro fields spread out like a patch-work quilt. Two waterways sandwiched the gravel road, the Hanalei River and an irrigation ditch. About a half mile in I found a small parking lot on the left and a wooden bridge with the trailhead sign on the right.

While sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open tying my hiking shoes, a woman popped out of the dense trees and crossed the bridge followed by a large Golden Retriever. She unlocked her small grey truck to let in the dog. As I walked over, I heard a loud splash. The woman, already in her truck, stopped and reached over to open her passenger door. Suddenly an even larger black Labrador emerged from the ditch and shook his dripping fur, spraying water everywhere. The woman called, but the canine walked over to me instead.  

“Do you see my dog?” she asked.

“Yeah, he’s here.”

“Hey, boy, come on.” she called. The dog walked over to her door and sat. “No, go to the other side.” The dog didn’t budge. With a sigh the woman exited her truck so the wet dog could enter.

“You picked a great day to hike the trail,” she said re-entering the truck.

“It sure looks like it.”

“But it can be slippery. You should find a walking stick.”

“Thanks!” I waved as she passed, but was thinking, ‘where the heck am I gonna find a walking stick?’ Then I crossed the bridge to find a pile of sticks at my feet. Laughing, I selected one that seemed appropriate for my height and set off.

Okolēhao means ‘on your butt’ in Hawaiian. The name actually refers to local moonshine, but for this predominantly vertical hike, it also fits. The beginning of the trail is a service road, so it is quite wide and consists of easy switchbacks, equal parts sunny and shady. Tree roots weaved their way across the path like veins lying underneath reddish-brown skin. The slippery roots made the walking stick useful indeed.   

After passing a few people, I quickly reached the first overlook. This overlook is the base of a giant electrical tower and the space cleared around it made for all-encompassing views of Hanalei Bay to the west and Princeville to the north. Moving on from here the trail narrowed to sidewalk-size. I noticed a trail marker that said 1.50 M. I hadn’t seen any before, but at less than a foot tall and painted the same reddish-brown color as the ground, they were easy to miss. Only the sign’s yellow numbers were noticeable.

Shortly after passing the 1.75 M marker I came to the second overlook. While smaller in cleared space, the views were even more remarkable. The westerly view over the taro fields led to the village of Hanalei. The Na Pali Mountains loomed in the distance. To the east were the smaller, but still dramatic Makaleha and Anahola Mountains.

After taking photos I looked ahead to continue, but stopped short. Below me was a pull rope going down. According the hiker’s blog, this was the start of the “adventurous” section. But I had yet to come across the Aloha Bench. Did I miss it? Based on the last mile marker, I guessed I was at two miles so it wasn’t much farther. I decided to give it a go.

I grabbed the pull rope and lowered myself. Sullenly I noticed spider webs strung from branches across the trail ahead. Apparently no one had walked this part in some time. Boy, was I glad to have that walking stick because it was now my web machete. I soon came upon another pull rope, this one going up. The hiker’s blog had said there were four ropes so I assumed I was getting close.

After many minutes of endless jungle, the qualms began. The tree roots underfoot turned into jagged rocks, soft fronds changed into sharp branches and the incline increased substantially. I wasn’t alone anymore either. Tiny lizards invisible when I lifted my leg would scamper before every footfall. Then a shiny green-grey rock moved. I gasped. It was a giant dark green cane toad. He crawled underneath a large fern when I tried to take a picture. Camera shy I guess. Then a loud buzzsaw disturbed the eerie quiet. As I scanned for the source, a small white cotton ball floated by. An island bee. Strangely I had yet to see a spider. Either they were too small or I was incredibly lucky. I chose lucky.

Continuing I held the stick out in front of me to combat webs while keeping my head down to check my footing. I hadn’t seen a mile marker since starting this part of the trail. I also had yet to see a bench. Somewhere up ahead lurked a narrow ridge I’d have to traverse and two more ropes. Where does this end? I was lost in these thoughts when, EEEEEEK! I ran face first into a spiderweb. I stopped to wipe off the web, but mostly succeeded in smearing it with my sweat.

“OK, I’m done,” I said to whatever creatures lurked nearby.

Returning was easy since I’d already removed the webs. In no time I was pulling myself up the first rope that would return me to the overlook where a couple from Utah greeted me. While admiring the view we chatted about Kauai. This was my first trip while they had been here before.

“So where’s the Aloha Bench?” I asked.

“What bench?” they responded.

I have since come to the conclusion that the overlook where I stood with the Utah people was where the bench used to be. Where it went I have no idea. If you do, drop me a comment, let me know!

Read about my visit to Kauai's Tiki Iniki @ The Drink Nation 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

This Week: Steamboat Springs, CO

Dine without the Dash, Part II

As we continued a few more people came walking up the trail. A family, mom, dad and two boys, passed me. The boys were jumping on rocks and squealing like boys do. Old Man asked the parents how much farther to the bottom and the dad’s eyes opened wide.
“Uh, you’re a long way from the bottom. You OK?
“Oh yeah, we’re fine, but I brought the wrong shoes for this trail.” They looked at his feet and saw shoes just like theirs.
“Well, you know, it’s actually easier to walk up if you’d like to follow us,” Dad began, but was immediately interrupted.
“Oh, no. Not going back up. We’re going down.” I winced every time he said “we.” The mom then looked over at me. I smiled weakly.
“OK then. Have a nice day,” she said and the four of them took off. After only a few minutes of walking Old Man asked me how much farther we had gotten. Because of my smartphone, I knew exactly where we were at.
“One mile. We’ve only gone one mile,” I said matter-of-factly.
“How long is the trail again?” he asked.
“Four miles.”
“Shit,” was the response. “This isn’t what I thought it would be,” he finally admitted. Like the two guys and the family that just passed us, I too began pleading with him to go back up.
“We’re much closer to the gondola and then we could ride it down.”
He remained firm, but then said, “My legs can barely handle going down. There’s no way they can go back up.” I too began explaining that going up was actually easier on the muscles, knees and back, but he stopped me with a wave of his hand. I turned around and began going down again. I made it a point to get a bit farther ahead than I was before because I was now doing a Google search for Steamboat Mountain Rescue’s phone number. 
Just then I heard another rustle in the leaves behind me. I turned around in time to see him fall backward into a bush. I ran over to him and offered my hand as I asked if he was OK.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He took my hand and pulled himself up.
“Do you think you could turn around?” he asked shooing me away with other hand. “I have to pee.”
“Uh, OK.” I walked down the trail a bit to give him some privacy. I thought I heard a zipper and asked if everything was OK.
“How embarrassing.”
“You gotta do watcha gotta do,” I said. We began walking again, this time in silence because I had run out of things to say. As if reading my mind, the Old Man said,
“So, if I can’t make it down, what happens?”
“I can call mountain rescue to come get you.”
“They can come up here?”
“Well, yeah, they’d have to.”
“But how do they get up here?”
“They hike.”
“They do? But that’ll take forever.”
“Well, they’re a lot faster than we are. They train for this sort of thing.”
“How do they get me down?”
“Well, on one hike I once saw rescuers carry a guy who twisted his ankle down on a stretcher.”
“I don’t wanna be carried out on a stretcher.”
“I’ve got a phone, if you want me to call.”
“No, no,” he said emphatically. “Let’s just keep going. We’ve got to be coming up on the end soon.” I took another glance at Google Maps.
“We’re not even half way,” I said. He waved me on.
We walked on in silence and once again I got a bit ahead of him, Eventually, I could see an open space through the trees. I quickly walked to the clearing where a large maintenance building and one of the gondola towers stood. I then ran back to a huffing and puffing Old Man.
“There’s a clearing up ahead,” I shouted. Old Man looked up at me, raised his arm and said “Really?” But then fell over backward again into some tall grass.
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed as I came running over. “I didn’t mean to make you fall. I am so sorry. Grab my hand.”
“I’m fine. Just lost my balance.” When he stood up, fresh blood was now running down his leg. I handed him a Kleenex I had in my pocket. The wound wasn’t deep, just a raspberry, but it covered a large area of his calf and was bleeding profusely. To add insult to injury, the fluffy white cloud above us began spitting rain drops.
“Do you think you can call that rescue thing for me,” he asked.
“Yes! But let’s get you over to the building so you can rest.” As we moved toward the building a young woman came out of the opposing set of trees walking toward us.
“Are you from here?” I asked.
“Yeah, do you need help?”
“Do you have the mountain rescue number? I can’t find it.”
“Yeah, I have it in my phone. You never know when you’ll need it.” She dialed the number and spoke to a dispatcher and then put us on speaker so I could answer her questions.
“Elderly man…can’t finish hike…has cuts and bruises…at maintenance building.”
“We’ll be right there,” the dispatcher said. We then found a metal folding chair next to the building and brought it to the Old Man so he could rest.
“If you guys are good, I’d like to continue on,” the woman said. “Want to get to the top before the weather turns.”
“Of course! Go on ahead. Thank you,” I said.
As she left, the clouds were still spitting, but it was a friendly rain. As we waited, a man walked up the trail with two teenage boys. They walked around the base of the gondola tower and then walked over to the building and stood under the eave to avoid rain drops. They appeared to be lost, but I had other things to worry about.
“So you think it’ll be long?” Old Man asked.
“Not too long.”
“So how far did we get?”
“This is only halfway.” I watched as some of the joy left his face.
“All that work and we’re only half way?” He shook his head. “This trail was not what I thought it would be.”
After about 10 minutes a large dirty white Suburban lumbered up the gravel maintenance road from behind the tower. Out of it stepped a tall slender blonde woman. Not only was she pretty, but I could see sculpted biceps in her arms; she was probably a climber.
“You the people that need help?”
“Yup,” I said. “This guy here took a few spills on the trail. I think they look worse than they really are, but they sure did bleed.” She bent down to examine his leg.
“I’ve got some bandages if you want to cover those up. Maybe some ointment so they don’t get infected.”
“Actually my leg is OK, but my arm is starting to hurt.” He held out his arm displaying a gigantic purple stain of a bruise.
“Ouch,” she said. “Doesn’t look like anything is broken. I’ll get some bandages.”
“No,” Old Man said. “I just want outta here.”
“Can you stand up?” she asked. I held one arm and she held the other as he wobbly stood up and then took some wobbly steps to the Suburban. To get inside, I held his arm steady and the woman had him put one leg on the rim while she pushed his back as he got into the vehicle. As I rounded the vehicle to get inside and the woman opened up her door, the man and two boys I’d forgotten about walked over.
“Are you heading back to the Square?” the man asked.
“Why yes. You guys OK?”
“Well, we’re from New York and my son seems to be having trouble with the altitude. Can you take him down?”
“Sure! No problem,” she said. The younger of the two boys got in the back seat with the Old Man. The boy’s dad and brother then continued up the trail.
“So do you know each other,” she asked me as we drove down the maintenance road.
“Oh, we just met up at the chalet,” I was quick to say. “We did the Wine Festival nature hike this morning. After lunch a few of us decided to hike down the mountain.”
“There were more of you?”
“Yeah, but the other people took off and didn’t wait for us.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” The boy then said he had a headache.
“When did you get here?” the woman asked him.
“You just need a day to acclimate. Take it easy tonight and maybe a couple of aspirin when you get back. You’ll be fine tomorrow. Oh, and don’t forget to drink lots of water. Easy to get dehydrated up here and that causes headaches. How about you? You doing OK?” she asked Old Man.
“Much better now.”
“So what resorts are you staying at,” she asked.
“I’m at the Grand Hyatt,” said Old Man.
“I’m at the Ptarmigan” said the boy.
“OK, I can drop you off at your hotels. How ‘bout you?” she said to me.
“I’m staying in town. I just need to be dropped off at the shuttle stop.”
“That’s right next to the Grand. Easy enough,” she said.
As we continued down, the road snaked around the edges of the ski area and soon condos and homes came into view.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make the wine walk tonight,” the Old Man said disappointingly. The maintenance road then turned into a paved road and Gondola Square came into view. The Rescue Woman dropped off the boy first. He said a mopey thank you and walked away. Then Rescue Woman turned the big Suburban around and drove to the other side where the parking garage, Hyatt and bus stop all were. As we pulled in the bus area, a small dark blue pickup sat nearby.
“I think that’s my son,” said Old Man. I took a closer look and saw there were wine boxes stacked three high in the truck’s bed and also to the roof inside on the passenger seat. A tall handsome man in khaki shorts and dark polo shirt got out. Rescue woman got out and opened the backseat door and Old Man swung his legs around. The Young Guy came over to help.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” was the greeting Young Guy gave the Old Man. Rescue Woman pointed out some of his injuries and the Young Guy softened his tone.
“Jees, dad, you could have had a heart attack up there. You’ve had enough adventure for today. I’ll take you to your room and we’ll get you cleaned up.”
“How did you know I was here?” Old Man asked.
“I have a radio,” he pointed to his back pocket where a black radio antenna stuck out. “I heard the call when it came in. Somehow, I just knew it was you.” Old Man asked his son if he could have a ride across the street to the Hyatt.
“Dad, my truck is full. You won’t fit.”
“I can take him,” said Rescue Woman. She helped him swing his legs back in the vehicle and Young Guy shut the door. He then looked at me.
“Were you with my dad the whole time?” He asked. I nodded. “Sorry about that.”
“Oh that’s OK, We made it.” I said.

“Thank you,” said Young Guy and he got back in his truck. I walked over to the shuttle stop bench and then, as if this afternoon hadn’t been long enough, I sat on a bench for another 20 minutes before the shuttle arrived, just enough time for the small cloud above to drop all the rain it contained on me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

This Week: Steamboat Springs, CO

Dine without the dash, Part I
“So, you walking down?” asked the Old Man sitting next to me. He wore a teal polo shirt with the name of a Las Vegas casino on it, matching teal golf shorts, a white golf cap and white running shoes. He was very tan with a Tom Selleck mustache and dark sunglasses. He sat hunched over his plate with a bit of a pot belly, but skinny arms and legs.
“I dunno. I haven’t decided.”
“Well, if you do it, I’ll do it.”
“Uh, OK,” I stammered.
To be honest I hadn’t been paying attention, but the conversation at the table was whether or not anyone would hike down Mount Werner. About 12 of us had signed up for a nature hike as part of the Steamboat Wine Festival. The hike was followed by lunch paired with local beer and wine.
Our group of hikers had met at Gondola Square three hours earlier and rode the gondola to Thunderhead Lodge.  When we stepped off the ramp onto the lodge deck we were greeted by bright sunshine and a picturesque green pine forest. The sun rose higher in the August sky bathing the pine trees and us in warmth. We then walked the Vista Nature Trail loop at the back of the chalet with two nature guides who pointed out the different tree and flower species and gave a history of the ski resort. Afterward we entered the chalet for a sandwich buffet lunch and some craft beers on the outdoor deck overlooking the town of Steamboat Springs below.
As we finished up lunch and I munched on some brownies a couple from Denver asked our guides about hiking down the mountain instead of taking the gondola. One of the guides said it was about four miles on the Thunderhead Hiking Trail and that walking at a leisurely pace would take about two hours or so. It wasn’t a difficult path, but it was steep; Mount Werner is a ski mountain after all. At a few minutes before 1 PM, I calculated I would get down around 3 PM. Plenty of time to clean up before the evening Wine Walk in downtown Steamboat. Walking off the brownies seemed like a good idea. Along with the couple from Denver, another couple from Aurora also decided to walk down. Including the Old Man, that made six of us.
We said our goodbyes to the rest of the group and made our way to the exit. But first, we three women decided it would be prudent to use the restroom. After doing so, we exited the building where the men were waiting on the back deck. The Denver woman retied her shoes and I was adjusting my backpack when the Aurora couple just up and left for the trail head. The Old Man decided to adjust his fanny pack and retie his shoes too and asked if we would wait. I stopped while the Denver couple kept going.
The deck where we just had lunch disappeared behind the tops of the pines trees as we descended. I walked ahead at a good pace and I could hear the Denver couple chatting ahead of me. I was happy to be hiking, not just simply walking as we had done earlier that morning. It was a fantastically beautiful day on Mount Werner; shining sun, a few big puffy clouds here and there, but nothing threatening. In the shade of the trees, the temperature was perfect. I began to day dream about the upcoming wine weekend and what a great place the area was. Maybe we should get a second home here? As I rounded a switchback the backsides of the Denver couple came into view. From behind me came a shout.
“Oh, Shit!” and a crackle of branches.
I turned around to see the Old Man slide down the switchback on his butt. He had scraped his elbow on an aspen tree and it was bleeding, quite runny, down his arm.
“Are you OK?” I asked as I approached.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” I could tell his pride hurt more than his arm. He propped himself against a tree. “I need to rest for a minute,” he said. His breathing was heavy. I wondered if I should continue on. I never said I would hike with him, just that I was hiking. Instead I grabbed his arm to help him stand up.
“Damn,” he said kicking his feet into the dirt. “I wore the wrong shoes.” His shoes were regular tennis shoes, exactly like mine, but a different brand.
As we began walking down the trail again, I paid more attention to him and realized his breath was labored.  His walk slowed to a crawl as he began tiptoeing around every switchback touching trees for balance.  I slowed down with him and the once clear voices of the Denver couple disappeared.  Eventually, I had to stop and wait for him to round the switchbacks. He asked if we could rest.
“So, where you from?” I asked trying to break the awkward silence.
“Las Vegas, been living there since I retired.”
“When was that?”
“Oh, about 20 years ago” I raised my eyebrows. This guy even was older than I thought.
“So what brings you here?” I asked.
“My son invited me. He runs the wine festival and got me free tickets.” Remembering the wine walk, I glanced at the time on my cell phone and casually said we should get going.
“How much farther do you think it is?” he asked.
“I dunno. Let me look.” I was able to get on Google Maps and clicked a tab that would find my location. We had only walked a ½ mile, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that.
“We have a long way to go,” I sighed.
We started and once again I had a good lead on him, but would pause until he made a switchback and was at least in my sight. I heard voices and soon two young, rather strong looking men came up the trial. We all said hello. Then Old Man came around a tree.
“Say you don’t know how far it is down, do you?” he asked. The guys looked quizzically at each other.
“Um, the trail is four miles or so,” one of them said.
“But how far is it from here?”
“Well, you’re practically at the beginning. If you’re having trouble I suggest you come up with us and ride the gondola down.”
“Go back up? OH HELL NO! I ain’t doing that!” he yelled startling all of us.
“I know this sounds counter intuitive, but walking up is actually easier.”
“No. There’s no way.”
“If you want, we’ll carry you. We can do a cradle lift and get you up.”
“No way. I’m not going back up.” The guys then looked at me.
“Are you with him?” one asked.
“Yeah, I’m with him,” I said.
“Good luck then.” The guys quickly disappeared above us. He rested for a few more minutes, but I was getting antsy.

“If we’re going to make the wine walk, we need to get going.” As we walked, I began to talk about what a lovely day it was and asked him questions about the wine festival, anything to keep his mind off his difficulty and keep him moving. Every time we stopped, it took him longer to get going. At this pace, it would take us four hours to finish. 

To be continued...