Vacationing, 2021 Style

I am constantly being reminded of how much things have changed since I was younger.

Indeed, I remember flying as a kid, and having a meal on a tray served to me, accompanied by metal utensils, all as part of my ticket.  Flight attendants were called stewardesses and were glamorous and professional.  Airplanes had smoking sections, and one could actually walk up to the gate, show a boarding pass and enter the airplane.

Well, that’s all gone.  And so is carefree vacation travel, it seems.

I have returned from my trip to four of California’s national parks, and while I had an extremely enjoyable time, the reminders that today’s reality is far removed from the past were everywhere.

I have taken to mentioning the “triple-whammy” that affected this trip:  COVID-19, heat and wildfires.

Arriving in Fresno, I learned that the area (the central valley of California) had been experiencing a record-setting 66 straight days of 100°+ temperatures.  The heat and lack of rainfall or mountain water runoff has resulted in drought and wildfires.  A look at the map here suggests the entire Pacific northwest is ablaze (the map in the link is updated continuously).  The rampant fires had two immediate effects:  A smoky haze over the valley (which, I was told, could affect the taste of crops), and the closure of all of California’s national forests.

But once I got into the higher elevations, the sky was clear, strikingly blue, and the parks were tremendous!  But COVID-19 had wreaked havoc on the park workers.  Visitor centers were closed, as were restaurants and a number of facilities.  Earlier closures had caused the workforce to find work elsewhere, and the slow re-opening of the parks found jobs unfilled.  In Yosemite, for example, only the hotels (the Wawona and the Ahwanee) had open restaurants, and the Yosemite Lodge’s eatery was the only other dining choice.

The Ahwahnee Hotel

Ahwahnee Hotel. Built in 1926 at a cost of $1.25 million.

Still, it was the scenery I was after, and scenery I got!  Having visited Yosemite in the winter of 2015, it was quite a change to see it in summer.  The Tunnel View was spectacular, despite that lack of water in Bridalveil Falls.

Tunnel View, Yosemite NP

The famous Tunnel View scene, entering Yosemite National Park, with El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls

The giant Sequoia trees were impressive, even though I found photographing them a challenge (maybe different lenses might have helped?).  Some of the oldest living organisms on the planet, hardy and majestic.

General Sherman Giant Sequoia

It took 32 of us humans to circle the trunk of the General Sherman, estimated to be 2,500 years old.

Kings Canyon reminded me of a lesser-known Yosemite.  The granite formations were similar, and some of the scenery every bit as lovely.

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

But Death Valley was the place I wanted to visit most.  Zabriskie Point, in particular.  I remember having a (vinyl) record album of the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film of the same name.

Zabriskie Point Soundtrack

Album cover for Zabriskie Point soundtrack

I never saw the movie (it can’t be found online today!) but the music was early Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead and John Fahey.  For some reason, images of Zabriskie Point have always appealed to me.  I wanted to see for myself.

Our bus descended down from the heights, and I saw the elevation markers dropping: 8,000 feet, 7,000 feet, 6,000 feet…

Before the trip was done, I found myself at -282 feet.  The lowest elevation point in the United States, only about twenty miles from Zabriskie Point.  Choosing one photo out of the many I took was quite a challenge.  I may change my mind, but here it is:

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP, CA.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP, CA.

The author at Badwater Basin.  Sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat required!

Badwater Basin, Death Valley NP, CA.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley. The lowest elevation (282 feet below sea level) in the U. S.

Suffice it to say, it was HOT.  Some people say that it’s not so bad due to the absence of humidity.  Still, it was HOT.

Furnace Creek (Death Valley) Visitor Center.  At noon.

Furnace Creek (Death Valley) Visitor Center. At noon.

Another notch on the scenic vacation belt!

A Return To (Almost) Normal

A week from now I hope to be traveling through some of America’s national parks again. There was a PBS series a few years ago by Ken Burns, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

Video formats for Ken Burns'

Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” available for purchase in various formats.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve written before (I think) that on my 60th birthday I drove to Great Falls Park and purchased a lifetime senior pass.

NPS Lifetime Senior Pass

National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass for 60+

I still maintain that was the best birthday present I could have given myself!

The COVID pandemic caused innumerable lockdowns and travel restrictions.  Cruise lines halted operations, and getting into and out of countries became a game of chance.  The nastiness isn’t over yet, but there seems to be some semblance of normalcy returning.

I said, “Some.”  I have been alerted that I will need to wear a face diaper (mask) during my air travels, and when required in public areas.  My trip will take me to California, so I can expect to have to wear the darn thing a lot, despite being fully vaccinated.  I don’t like it, but I’m not going to let it be a deal-killer, because my travel bug has bitten me, and I must go.

This will be my seventh Road Scholar trip.  A few months ago, I saw that the company had once again started their in-person study tours (like everyone else, they had gone to Zoom during the lockdowns).  The trip is titled, “Four Jewels” and encompasses Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite and Death Valley.  Believe it or not, it was the Death Valley mention that sold me!

Road Scholar Image: Death Valley

Road Scholar image: Death Valley

I have already begun my preparations.  I’m making sure my camera is fully charged, I have plenty of storage (a 32GB SD card has done me well on other photo trips), I bought a new pair of 5.11 Decoy Convertible pants (lightweight, SPF 50+, packable) and am deciding what apparel I need (weather in the parks can go from hot to cold in the span of hours).  But that’s part of the fun!

I expect to have photos and observations to post here upon my return.  Stay tuned.

A Throwback Vacation

When my father retired to Sarasota, Florida in the late 1980s, he quickly grew tired of the summer weather there and began spending summers in North Carolina.  Beech Mountain is just across the Tennessee border, in the northwest corner of the state, off the Blue Ridge Parkway and nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountain range.  Every year, he’d rent a house or chalet and spend six or eight weeks relishing the milder summer weather.

Map of North Carolina

Boone is 17 miles southeast of Beech Mountain

It turns out Beech Mountain is a day’s drive from Northern Virginia.  I would routinely spend a week visiting with my dad, taking my daughter at times, and we’d enjoy the food, the sights, the attractions and the free lodging!  Dad passed away in 2005.  I don’t recall how many years it had been since he’d made the trip, so it became just a memory.

Along comes COVID.  The cruises and airlines are shut down and after a year of working from home, I felt the need to get away.  Besides, I have so much vacation time built up, I need to burn some.  What could I do?  I’d been to Davis, WV just a year or so ago, so that didn’t appeal to me.  Then it hit me:  I could drive to Beech Mountain and do like dad.  I went online and found a nice small place that was available and rented it for a week.

My fortunes have been good:  Memorial Day is still a week away, so the summer tourist season hasn’t been in full swing, yet.  I spent a day exploring Grandfather Mountain, and another roaming around Boone and Blowing Rock.  The latter so named because of its interesting rock formation when the wind from below seems to blow upwards!

It’s kind of like Old Home Week.  Many of the places I knew are still there; the venerable Fred’s General Mercantile is still the center of town, and Fred Pfohl is still owner and proprietor.

Fred's General Mercantile

South entrance to Fred’s

The Alpen Inn and the ski resort are still there, as is the Famous Brick Oven Pizza.

Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria

Still serving after 25 years

It’s been so long since I was last here, visits to Grandfather Mountain and Blowing Rock were like seeing them for the first time.  Both have seen major improvements.

View From Grandfather Mountain

View from near the pinnacle

Exactly one mile above sea level

It’s been a good week.  I stopped at the Edelweiss restaurant on the way and had a bountiful Schweinshaxe and then found the little condo I’d rented to be perfectly suited to my needs.  Comforts of home, with a view to match.

Perfect as a home base, and perfect as a “home away from home.”  I’m glad I made the trip!

On This Day in 2021

Nothing happened.

The Occupant of the White House kept America’s credit card in his pocket and didn’t spend money (that we know of).  The Washington Nationals, as a result of a four game winning streak, moved into a first place tie with the NY Mets.  But they’re only 24 games into a 162 game season.  And their record is 12-12.  (It is fun to watch future hall-of-famer Max Scherzer pitch, though).

No riots have been reported, and COVID-19-20-21-22 is not the leading story in the news.  Oh, the rule makers are still trying to play it for all it’s worth, but it’s more and more obvious it’s a “plan-demic” as opposed to a pandemic.

Wait.  Hold the phone.  It just hit the news wire:  Bill and Melinda Gates have announced they are ending their marriage.  First it was Jeff Bezos, now Bill Gates.  I guess the pitfall to being the richest man in the world is that marriage is unsustainable.  I doubt this will affect many outside their circle.

All my computers, cars and appliances are functioning normally.  All my guitars are strung and playable.  I get my daily exercise and have now been twice vaccinated.  In two weeks, I’ll be on vacation.  Today, nothing happened.

But I felt like writing about it.  🤓

The Most Expensive Photo I’ve Ever Taken

I was going to title this post, “Worst. Vacation. Ever.” But that only begins to hint at the experience I had. Not given to whining, I’ve already put it in the past, but I want to post The Most Expensive Photo I’ve Ever Taken. Ready? Here it is:

Not much, is it? It’s a pleasant enough scene of a tropical location, looking out into the ocean. But it will never win any photo prizes. Or any other prizes, for that matter. Why it’s The Most Expensive Photo I’ve Ever Taken is the rest of the story.

My plan was to scout out Barbados as a potential remote “work from home” location. To that end, I made the most horrendous travel plans and chose to go while there is a global pandemic scaring everyone. I’m going to blame my temporary insanity on my own cabin fever brought on by working from home for the past six months. But I only have myself and COVID-19 to blame.

The first inkling things were going sideways was when I learned (on my own, no thanks to no notification from the airline) that Air Canada had canceled one leg of my return flight. Wanting (needing) to get home for work, I had to reschedule, and that cost me two days of my trip. No reduction in an already high-priced air fare. My itinerary took me through Toronto, where I had to spend the night in the terminal, because to leave the premises would have required me to quarantine for 14 days. 12 hours in a terminal is preferable. But not comfortable.

When I arrived in Barbados, I had my medically ordered COVID-19 test results in hand (negative) and I showed them to the airport authorities. “These are too old,” I was told. The time needed to obtain the results, plus the long layover in Toronto had caused them to pass the expiration time required by Barbadian authorities, which is within 72 hours of arrival. Not to worry though, I was told. We’ll give you a free test here. You’ll have to wait here for the results, but that should take only 8-10 hours. At least they were kind enough to bring me some food while I waited. And, as I expected, the results were once again negative.

But, I was told, you come from a high-risk country, the U.S.A. So even though you test negative, you may still be asymptomatic, and so we require you to be quarantined for seven days at minimum. And, that quarantine has to be at either a military base, which costs nothing, or at an approved hotel, which I would have to pay for. I didn’t like the sound of “military base,” so I opted for the Marriott, which was one of their approved hotels. They made the reservation, arranged a taxi, and I was taken directly to the hotel, where the desk clerk told me that at least I would have a room with an ocean view. The photo above, is the only scenery I saw for the next four days. It’s out the hotel room window!

Calculating the cost. Well, I’m not going to itemize every little expenditure; that would just as insult to injury. Airfare, lodging, plus non-refundable hotel reservation, pre-paid rental car, room service meals, taxi fare, airport parking as well as the cost to comfort (having to spend two nights in the Toronto airport, having to wear a mask except while eating. As well as while waiting in the Barbados airport and during flights).

That makes it The Most Expensive Photo I’ve Ever Taken.

MYOB

As I prepare to embark on what looks to be the strangest vacation I’ve taken, due mostly to the coronavirus and the restrictions it’s imposed, I’m thinking to myself, “I need to get away from all the hectoring. The thought came to me this morning, “When did we become a nation of busybodies?”

I don’t think it’s just because this is an election year, although that may play a large part. The impact COVID-19 has had on our lives has a lot to do with it too, I think. It seems no matter where you go, what you read, see or hear, somebody is trying to dictate their beliefs on everybody else. “Wear a mask.” “Vote this way.” “Or that way.” “Black lives matter (but apparently not others).” Life in the year 2020 has become positively Orwellian. Just 36 years later than predicted!

Having grown tired of the inane, often thoughtless bickering I’ve seen on social media sites, I have come to the conclusion that, “One person’s ‘social justice’ is another’s mental tyranny.” As the title of this piece suggests, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

Recently I posited the opinion that perhaps legislators — whose hypocrisy knows no bounds — are experimenting with testing the limits of their authority. It’s almost as if they en masse have decided to stretch the boundaries of their dictates to see how far they can push the people until the breaking point. The problem is, if and when that breaking point is reached, the result won’t be pretty.

The vacation I’m about to take has already been impacted by events. Flight cancelations have shortened my trip by two days, and I will end up spending the equivalent of two days sequestered in “secure” areas in airport terminals. Certainly not the kind of vacation I had envisioned.

But it’s better than sticking around and being deluged with negativity. At least for a few days.

Some Days You’re The Fly

And some days you’re the windshield. Today I feel like the fly.

Yesterday, the U. S. and Canada extended their restrictions on travel between countries due to the coronavirus, putting my trip to Barbados in jeopardy. I’ve sent an inquiry to Canadian officials to see what the policy on travelers merely transferring between flights is, but even without an answer yet, the prospects don’t look good from the sites I’ve checked.

Which should I list first? The good news or the bad? Let’s leave the good news for last.

I purchased travel insurance for my (very long) flights, but only to cover illness or death. I’m not dead, and technically, I’m not sick. So, I may lose my entire payment. Which is not an insubstantial sum. I did cancel the hotel room I’d booked in Toronto and will get full refund on that, but that’s a paltry sum.

The good news is that I’m flexible, and in doing some additional research, I’ve found I can get a cheaper and shorter round-trip flight two weeks later that goes from DCA to MIA to BGI (that’s Washington Reagan National to Miami to Grantley Adams [Bridgetown] for those not up on their IATA airport codes. Since I booked my lodging through Hotels.com, it may be a simple matter to switch my lodging by two weeks. If not, I can get a full refund and just book something else.

But this is all on me. In the past, I’ve been able to fly from IAD (Dulles International Airport), usually on United Airlines, but this time United couldn’t help me. Thus, I turned to one of the travel aggregators I’ve looked at in the past. That was my first mistake; I’ve rarely found the travel deal that suited me this way. My second mistake was first trying Hipmunk, even though I remember reading they’d shuttered their doors earlier in the year. Well, on to Kayak, which finally found me the flights I eventually booked. Had I been less eager, I would have found out (as I did later), American Airlines has routine flights to Barbados. Either Kayak’s search algorithm is completely whacked, or the dates I chose are somehow not on anyone’s calendar.

While I wasn’t watching, Google added Flights to their arsenal of web technologies. And sure enough, that’s where I found the American Airlines flights. Sigh.

So, I’ve learned an expensive lesson. At my age, you’d think I’d be past making stupid, rash mistakes. But I guess I’m not.

A Scouting Trip

My last post was all about planning for retirement, and possibly considering moving abroad where life is more affordable. I’ve now taken the first step toward that goal!

Encouraged by the offer of a “remote work” visa valid for up to a year by the island country of Barbados, I decided to take some of the voluminous vacation time I’ve accrued and under the guise of burning some personal time off (PTO), I booked travel and lodging for the first week in September. I discovered very quickly that it’s not easy getting to Barbados from here! It turns out I will need to fly out of Washington Dulles airport to Toronto, Canada, stay overnight, and then catch a direct flight to Barbados. I guess the world isn’t beating down the doors to get there.

Sunset in Barbados

I don’t mind so much a six hour trip turning into an overnighter (as long as it’s planned), what concerns me right now is the COVID stuff. Canada is currently prohibiting visitors from the USA from crossing their borders. I don’t know how that applies to transient air travelers. I’ll have to check into that. Then too, Barbados requires a negative COVID test from within 72 hours of arrival. My insurance will cover the test, so all I’ll need to do is find a place that can do it in the time frame specified.

Reading up on the “Welcome Stamp” as it’s called, the Internet is the best in the Caribbean, and the facilities are plentiful. Broaching the topic of working remotely with my employer is something I haven’t done, yet. That could be a tricky issue, as the company culture is to work in an office. COVID has changed all that (which is what prompted this whole thing in the first place).

As the old saying goes, “More will be revealed.” Stay tuned…

There He Goes Again…

Fully aware that I tend to take on a new project or a new pastime by diving head-first into it, only to have it subside — if not die out completely — after a while, I’m now spending some time researching my future.

I recently received a statement from the Social Security Administration (SSA) reminding me I should make my annual review of my statement and projections for what I expect to earn once I reach retirement age.

A few years ago, I would have shrugged off the idea of retiring. Or of even being near retirement age. But that was then, this is now. The fact is, I’m 68 — soon to be 69 — and the way things are going politically, economically, and culturally has gotten me very concerned. There is an election coming up this November that may be the most important in my lifetime; the outcome of that could really push me into going. Or staying.

Going. To this point, I have pretty much set myself to staying put. I bought my home three years ago, and I like it a lot. It’s in a nice neighborhood, has all the amenities I want, and is a 30 minute drive away from my daughter and grandkids. But, calculating realistically, my retirement savings, stocks and Social Security will put me into a new “quality of life” category. My needs aren’t great, but the cost of living when my regular paycheck stops may be too high to keep me here.

So, where to? That’s what I’ve been researching. I love to travel, as I’ve documented here many times. Could I move to another country and live comfortably there? Thanks to the Internet, I can do all the research I want from the comfort of my sofa!

One of the best sites I’ve found, and visit often is International Living. This may be the granddaddy of ex-patriate (expat) living, since it’s been around since 1979. Today, it’s a pretty data-rich web site that offers a subscription service on top of its free articles. I may take advantage after some more investigation. I started out with a couple of places in mind, but only one I’ve been to and the other is likely too expensive to live on a pension: Costa Rica and Austria. Surprisingly, though, some other countries have popped up that I want to look into further. They are

  • Portugal. This seems to take the top spot every year for expat retirement living.
  • Panama. With the U. S. Dollar as its currency and ties to the U. S., this ranks high.
  • Costa Rica. Beach living or mountain living. It’s all there, and it’s al Pura Vida.
  • Malta. European/Mediterranean. I know little about Malta, but its location is gravy!
  • Belize. English is the official language (it was formerly British Honduras). I didn’t see any expat communities when I was there, but I know they are in off-the-main-road settlements.

What about staying in the U. S? Well, once again, the November election might have a big influence there. One site, Best Places To Live has a quiz that you can enter your likes and dislikes, and it will suggest locales that have the specifics you’ve entered. Three times, in my limited experience with the site, has Hot Springs, Arkansas been the result. It even shows real estate listings, and some of the homes there going for less than half what my home costs, look quite nice.

I don’t have to make that decision right now. But the SSA says I have to start taking distribution of my allocation when I turn 70. Better to start planning now, right?

Love In The Time of Coronavirus

It had to happen. Everyone else is talking about COVID-19, as the novel coronavirus has been designated. So I might as well join the crowd.

First, I’m writing because this slate has been blank for a while, and it needed updating. Second, because I went on vacation, which meant that I was supposed to self-quarantine upon my return. Which is what I’ve been doing. For the most part.

So, to rewind a bit…

Every first Saturday in March is the annual Salvador Dalí Museum dinner. I’ve written about it before, so no point in re-hashing that part. Since I was making the trip, I booked a Caribbean cruise to extend my vacation time, and thus, off I sailed. Two of the ports of call I’d visited before, so I had no desire to go on any excursions there. Two others were new to me: Mahogany Bay (Roatán) and Belize. I booked a visit to the Mayan ruins in Xunantunich in Belize.

Belize is the former British Honduras, and as such the official language is English. Given that all of the neighboring countries are Spanish-speaking, the majority of Belizeans speak Spanish. The signs are all in English, however. The ruins at Xunantunich (the “X” is pronounced “SH”) are spectacular! I was glad I made the trip. Getting there meant driving the full width of the country (about 68 miles!), since the ruins are near the Guatemalan border.

Xunantunich Pyramid

Two days out from Tampa I learned that due to the spread of the Coronavirus (I still don’t know if it’s supposed to be capitalized or not), the major cruise lines had suspended operations for 30-60 days. I had no doubt I was going to be allowed to disembark, and as I did, it was strange to note there were no passengers waiting to come on board for the next sailing!

The flight home — on a full flight! — gave me no reason to think things had changed, but once I arrived home and went to the grocery store to re-provision, that’s when I noticed the empty shelves! Since I’d been overseas, the CDC recommendation was to self-quarantine for 14 days. I had no problem with that, because I had planned to spend the next two weeks at home conducting online training, so it was a nice synchronicity.

Here I sit, on the eve of my fourteenth day. I have taken the opportunity of being home to spend more time playing guitar and adding songs to my repertoire. While on the cruise (I took my KLŌS travel guitar), I started going back to my “roots” and learning or re-learning songs from one of my favorite bands of the 1960s: Love.

Love was kind of a hipster band. They had only one minor Top 40 hit (which I believe made it to #37), they refused to tour, and their leader, Arthur Lee, was quite idiosyncratic. But I loved the music they made, and their third and final album, “Forever Changes” has been ranked as number 40 on Rolling Stone magazine’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Love – Forever Changes (1966)

Thus, there is rhyme to my reason. Or method to my madness, if you will. The title of this post is a play on “Love in the Time of Cholera,” a 1985 book by Nobel Prize-winning author, Gabriel García Márquez