Friday, April 29, 2016

Photo Friday: Black and Blue

There's not much to say about this week's photo.

I discovered these solar panels, atop several similar structures, in Ashton Station and between Ashton and Prospect. Whether they're owned by the City of Ottawa or the province, they cut a sharp contrast to the sky.

Black and blue.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

When My Best-Laid Plans Turn to Writer's Block

There's a reason why The Brown Knowser came back, and it wasn't just to share my recent vacation.

Last December, I wrote about how my blog was going to take a hiatus while I focused on my novel, how I might occasionally post some photos to let people know that the blog wasn't dead. I started thinking more about the sequel to Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, and would devout the hours that I usually spend on these gentle musings on writing that required more dedication (and would be created with far more thought than this blog spends).

About two weeks before I planned to place this blog on pause (I had already written and set up the posts for the end of December), I became ill. It started with a sharp pain where my appendix would be, had my appendix been on my left side. For a couple of days, the pain was bad and I was in little mood to do anything, let alone write.

As Christmas drew near, the pain wasn't as sharp, but every time I ate, no matter how big of how small the meal, I experienced gastrointestinal pain. On Christmas day, where I usually load at least two platefuls of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, I barely ate one plate and was hardly my festive self. Over the holidays, I was so fatigued that all I wanted to do was spend days in bed.

Thankfully, drinking caused no ill effects and I could happily continue my beer blog.

An initial trip to my doctor led to blood and ultrasound tests, which came back as inconclusive. When my pain returned with a vengeance, my doctor sent me to a hospital emergency room, where I underwent a CT scan.

The CT scan revealed an inflammation and small hernia in my large intestine, but nothing serious. I was prescribed medication for the swelling and pain, and was told that my pain should dissipate in a week to 10 days.

The CT scan also revealed a mass on my liver, and I would require an additional ultrasound to get a better image.

Blood tests were sent to determine if I had a stomach ulcer. "Or cancer," my doctor said. The tests were returned and I was deemed not to have an ulcer.

"Cancer?" I asked my doctor, remembering that she had only given me two options for these tests. She shrugged and told me that she would request an endoscopy, to be sure.

I'm still waiting for that appointment.

All the while, I was far too distracted to do any writing. And the pain remained until mid to late February.

My second ultrasound, the one that focused on that mass on my liver, was also inconclusive. I'm currently on a waiting list for an MRI.

When the pain subsided, I asked my doctor if it was possible that the gastrointestinal trouble could have been a stubborn virus. "It's possible," she said. We didn't know what brought on the pain or fatigue, so there was no way of telling what made it go away.

At least, by the beginning of March, I was feeling better, and by the time my family and I left for our Arizona-California vacation, I was feeling back to normal. The only thing that I felt on that vacation was the occasional windedness from the altitude, but nothing serious and nothing related to my pains.

It has now been more than four months since I first felt ill and lost my motivation to write. I have felt uninspired to work on my novel, been barely able to string together any meaningful words for this blog.

I'm good with words. I know a lot of words. Great words.

I'm easing back into my blog until I feel the inspiration to return to my book. I wait for my MRI, my endoscopy, a third ultrasound, and a sleep test to boot.

I'm in a holding pattern, both with my health and with my creativity. I'll deal with things as they present themselves.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Photo Friday: Third Time's a Charm

About a year ago, my wife and I nursed an orchid back to life. Or what I should say is, my wife diligently maintained an orchid that had bloomed, lost its flowers, and then had its stem trimmed back.

I just moved it into a better spot on the kitchen window sill and periodically let excess water drip from my fingers into the flower pot when I washed my hands at the kitchen sink.

Whatever we (she) did, the stem regrew, buds formed, and the orchid blossomed again.

When the flowers died, we repeated the process, and that brings us to now, where the orchid has marked spring in the Brownfoot household.

Whatever my wife and I are doing right, we hope it continues each year.

To capture this shot, I moved the orchid in front of my TV. Blinds, which I opened to the left of the shot, let afternoon sunshine pour into the family room. I set my camera on a tripod and operated it with my remote shutter release.

To keep the light from reflecting the brightly lit room on the TV screen, I held a black blanket between me and the back of the camera. The photo was shot with my Nikon D7200 with my 24–70mm 2.8 lens, set at 42mm. The shutter speed was half a second at f/8, with EV set at +1.0 and ISO at 100.

I figured, this being Photo Friday, I might as well give more information about taking the photo.

Here's the result:

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

So Much for Good Will

One time, when Starbucks messed up my coffee order, not only did they make me a new coffee right away, they also gave me a coupon for a free beverage of any size for my next visit. Another time, when they made me wait a long time because my order somehow got lost in the crowd, I received a $10 certificate.

My original order was less than $4.

In San Diego, last month, my appetizer came only a couple of minutes before my main course. I didn't notice the delay, but my server apologized and didn't charge me.

In all of these cases, the customer service went above and beyond my expectations, and solidified my loyalty to the establishment.

Last week, my car suffered a major failure, which nearly resulted in a serious accident and could have cost me grave injury—possibly, my life. For my trouble, Ford said "sorry" and charged me $100 to fix the problem.

True, they followed their commitment  to the automobile and honoured my warranty. But as far as making me feel like they cared, they fell far short of the mark.

When I bought my 2012 Titanium Edition Focus, I was in love. It had a nice sport package: a peppy engine, premium suspension, touch screen and voice-activated control system for climate control and synchronization with my smartphone, plus it had a lovely black-and-white leather interior. In the past, I was reluctant to buy a North American car, let alone anything by Ford (my dad swore by them but any time I drove one of his vehicles or rented one, they drove like crap).

See? I even took my car to the beach!
About six months after I bought my car, I encountered my first problem. The transmission began to shudder when I started from a stopped position, or if I was negotiating a turn, when I would take my foot off the gas, brake, and then reapply the accelerator as I was finishing the turn. The shudder felt like the front wheels where spinning, trying to gain purchase on the road surface, even though they weren't spinning.

Do you know that sensation you experience when you start moving on a wet road, and your front wheels lose traction as you roll over a painted stop line? That's how my car felt every time I accelerated.

I took the car in for service and was told that the problem was with the car's software. Imagine: a computer was making the transmission cause the car to shudder. I told them that it certainly felt more mechanical, but I believed that the computer could be acting up, causing the working parts to misbehave. I let the dealership update the software (it's not a car: it's a computer on wheels) and went on my way. I was told that it might take a few days for things to settle down, as the car learned my driving habits and the program adjusted itself accordingly.

It never went back to the way it was before the problem started, but it did shake less severely. But only for a few months: the problem returned, and a definite noise accompanied the shudder.

When I reported the problem, I was told that they could replace the faulty part but that I'd have to wait while they ordered it in, because there was a back order. I endured the shudder and noise for a few more months before it was replaced.

This time, the repair seemed to fix the problem, and my Focus was running as smoothly as the day I bought it. The honeymoon resumed. I loved how the car hugged turns—not that I speed or drive aggressively, but I can push the rules of the road when it's safe to do so.

The problem returned about six months or so later, and it came full on, so much so that my wife didn't think that the car was safe to drive. We contacted the dealership and they told us that a new part had been made, which is dedicated to this problem. Another appointment, another wait, another fix.

We went almost a year before the problem returned.By this time, Ford had sent out a notice, acknowledging the problem and informing us that the warranty on the transmission was being extended. I brought the car in for the fourth time with this problem. When I picked it up, I told the service representative that I was becoming tired of this band-aid solution, and that this would hopefully be the last time that I would be coming in for this problem. Next time, I wanted a new transmission.

A few weeks later, the car was back in the shop. This time, the transmission wasn't the problem. This time, the problem seemed minor, seemed to be something that could be fixed in a couple of hours. Our Focus uses a keyless system. A fob allowed us to unlock the door without touching the fob. We have a push-button ignition. But what started happening was that the fob would sometimes fail to unlock the door, causing us to press a button on the fob to unlock the car. Also, the push button would fail, meaning that we would have to press the ignition a couple of times before it engaged, or we would have to hold the fob against the steering column for it to work. My wife had to remove the cap that covered where a conventional key would go and insert the entire fob to get the car to start.

We figured that the problem was simple: replace the fobs. Our dealership felt the same way, but the new fobs wouldn't work at all. When my wife returned to the dealership at the end of the day to pick up the Focus, she was told that they'd need to hang onto it overnight. The service manager gave her the keys to an Escape and told her she could use it, at no charge.

He knew the value of customer service, at least.

The next day, a solution to our fob problem still hadn't been solved. We were told that the problem didn't seem to be with the fobs (transmitters) but with the receiver inside the car. They had ordered new parts, but it could take a couple of days. We were allowed to keep the Escape until our Focus was ready.

The week came and went, then the next one. The new receiver didn't communicate with the new fobs. A new, dedicated receiver and transmitter were ordered, made together to guarantee they worked.

They didn't work.

After a couple of weeks with our car, DW visited because we had a few things that we needed and hadn't expected to be without our vehicle for so long. I needed my sunglasses and tripod: she needed a pass and some other personal items from the glove box. The service manager gave her warning before she saw the car—it wasn't going to look pretty.

DW later described the encounter with our car, comparing it to visiting a loved one in the hospital, someone who had been in a terrible accident and had suffered trauma. The manager, like a doctor, told her to brace herself for what she would see, but nothing could prepare her for what lay before her as she saw the interior pulled out, the dash removed and all the wires stretched out.

Don't worry, she was assured, we'll put it back together exactly like it was. You'll never notice the difference.

In truth, when I finally picked it up—four weeks after we dropped it off—the interior looked like new, had been cleaned and everything was in its place. We never received a full explanation of what the problem was and the description on the service record was full of codes and terms I didn't recognize, but the fobs worked.

The car came back to us in the second week of January and, again, it seemed to drive like a car is expected to drive. Smooth, responsive, and in the case of this car, fun.

And then last week happened.

I had noticed that, while the shudder hadn't returned, the gears didn't always seem to be as responsive, especially when turning corners. When I would take my foot off the gas and apply the brakes to negotiate a corner, and then reapply the gas pedal, I would see the RPMs registering a little high for the speed at which I was travelling, and it would take a second or two for them to come back down, after I pressed on the accelerator. I prepared myself for an upcoming return to the dealership.

Last Tuesday, on my lunch break, I decided to return some ski equipment that we had rented for our kids, and so I made the short drive to the sport store. As I approached the parking lot, which was on my left, I signalled, pulled into the left-turn lane, and applied the brakes, not only to slow for the turn but also to let the oncoming cars to get past me. There was a gap between these cars and two other oncoming cars, and I judged that I had plenty of time to make my left turn. I took my foot off the brake and applied the gas as I pulled into the oncoming lane.

Nothing happened.

I mean, I was still rolling but I didn't accelerate and the tachometer didn't change from its near-idling revs. I also noticed that one of the two oncoming cars was going far above the posted speed limit and had passed the other car that was also heading toward me. I pressed further on the gas, now judging that at my current speed, I didn't have enough time to get through safely.

Putting the pedal to the floor did nothing to hasten the car.

Much to the credit of the driver of the speeding car, he was paying attention. Realizing the imminent collision, he slammed on his brakes. I could hear the squealing tires and I squinted, anticipating the impact. This was going to hurt.

But the collision never came. By sheer luck, my car managed to roll across the lane before that driver intersected. I took my foot off the gas and tried it again, and this time it responded as though there was nothing wrong. The speeding driver leaned on his horn and continued on his way: the other car, which had been travelling at the speed limit, may have slowed, but my mind wasn't on him or her. My brain was trying to piece together what had gone wrong, why my car had failed me, and how close I had come to causing an accident.

Correction: how close my Focus had come to causing an accident. I pulled into a parking space and sat there for a minute or two, shaking. I continued to shake, my heart pounded inside my chest, as I returned the equipment. I trembled as I pulled out of the parking lot and returned to work. For more than two-and-a-half hours after the near collision, my body felt as though I had just chugged a pot of coffee.

The adrenaline coursed through my veins until the evening, helped move me through a tough spin class, after which I collapsed into bed and a deep, exhausted sleep.

I returned the car to the dealership on my way home from work, having called when I returned to the office and explained what happened. My wife picked me up in her vehicle (which isn't a Ford) and drove me home. I complained to Ford Canada through social media, and they had someone chat to me through Twitter. 

The next day, a service rep at the dealership said that they adjusted the transmission and that the diagnostic had found a problem with the shift-control module, and that they had ordered a new one. It would take another day to receive the part and install it, but that it would be ready by noon the next day.

"This isn't going to cost me anything, is it?" I asked.

I was told that it was all covered under warranty, so there would be no cost.

Shortly after, a customer-service representative from Ford Canada called me to follow up. She listened to my story of what had happened and my frustration with the constant issues with this car. "What can I do for you?" she asked.

I told her that I'd like Ford to replace the entire transmission, but she said that because there was also a non-transmission related problem in this case, that we'd put a pin in the new transmission idea. Was there anything else she could do?

"Not right now," I said. "This is covered under warranty, so I'm okay. But I have to tell you: this is the first Ford that I've ever bought, and it's probably going to be my last."

She told me that she hoped that Ford could earn my trust and confidence, and that this would not be my last car from them.

We'll see, I said.

I was called the next day, told that my car was ready and that everything was fixed. I informed the dealership that my wife, who works nearby, would be picking it up. And when she dropped in during her lunch break, she called me to tell me that there was a $100 charge for the work in replacing the shift-control module.

"No," I said, "I was told that there was no charge."

Apparently, there was. Because this faulty part was outside of the basic warranty period (which expired last October), my extended warranty covered the part but there was a $100 deductible.

"That's not what I was told on the phone, yesterday," I said. I told my wife to leave the car at the dealership, that I would contact the Ford Canada customer service manager, and that she would make it right. After all, she had asked me if there was anything she could do for me and she wanted to restore my faith in Ford.

It took until the next day to get through to her. We were still without our car. And what she told me did the opposite of what she said she wanted to do only two days prior. She had read the terms of my warranty and, after talking with the service manager at the dealership, had agreed that the module replacement fell within the bounds of my extended warranty and that if I wanted my car back, I had to pay the $100.

In all the years that I've been a loyal Starbucks customer, I have easily received more than $100 in coupons, gift certificates, free coffees, cold beverages, and food items. And not once has any of their products come close to causing me bodily harm, or possibly killing me.

I paid the $100, collected my car, and drove home, not knowing if I trusted this vehicle. My wife now refuses to get in it, doesn't like me driving it. In another year, my eldest daughter will be old enough to start learning how to drive: she won't be doing it in the Focus.

If we didn't still owe money on the car, if we wouldn't take such a big hit on trying to sell it, we'd unload it. The 2012 Ford Focus is the worst car I have ever owned, is the most unreliable car I have ever driven (and I've driven a lot of cars).

Never. Buy. One.

The customer service manager was good at sounding sympathetic to my concerns, was apologetic when she learned that this car came close to causing an accident. Indeed, had that driver plowed into me, the problems with the car would have gone away. Possibly, taking me away with them.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" the customer service manager asked.

Yes, there is. Buy back my car. Admit that there is a serious problem with this automobile (there are plenty of forums that can back me up, including some petitions to sign), and say you want to start over. I've heard that there are some pretty satisfied owners of newer Ford vehicles.

If Starbucks is able to make amends for minor errors, at several times the cost of the original sale, what can you do, Ford?

Giving me back my $100 is the very least you can do.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Photo Friday: The Forbidden Shot

He approached me in the middle of a crowd. Hundreds of Bernie Sanders supporters were exiting the San Diego Convention Center, gleefully chanting "Feel the Bern!" as they flooded into the Gaslamp Quarter.

The convention centre was on the other side of a set of tracks: one set, for commercial freight trains; the other, for San Diego's light rail. Traffic was brought to a standstill as the barriers came down and a commuter train stopped to let passengers depart and enter. I set up my camera on its tripod and held the remote, waiting for the doors to close and the train to start moving. As the doors closed, I started my 30-second exposure by pressing the remote button.

"Excuse me, sir, how are you this evening," said the voice next to me.

The uniformed officer was young and, surprisingly, shorter than me. Short, dark hair and a thin face with piercing eyes.

"Fine," I said, "it's a beautiful night, isn't it?" Indeed, it was a lovely evening. The stars were out: it was cool, but not cold. My hoodie kept me warm, and there was no need for gloves as I took my night shots.

"Do you have a permit to be taking photos?" the officer asked.

"No, do I need one?" I knew that you do need a permit to use a tripod to take photos in Paris, and in some areas of New York City. I never thought that I needed one for San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

The commuter train had passed, but the barriers remained down. On the other set of tracks, a freight train was coming through, its horn sounding its arrival.

"Taking photographs of our transit line is prohibited without a permit," he explained in a gentle voice. "We allow photographs with cell phones, but not with professional cameras."

"I'm sorry, I didn't know," I said, my voice raised to compete with the train. I knew that ignorance of the law was no defence. "My camera isn't professional. I'm just a tourist, taking shots of your beautiful city." The 30-second exposure ended, but the officer didn't hear the mirror fall back into place. He was standing such that he couldn't see the image appear on the display at the back of the camera. In five seconds, it was gone.

"Yeah, well that kind of camera on a tripod is not allowed. You can't take any photos."

I picked up the tripod and slung it over my shoulder. "Very well, I won't. Again, sorry, officer." I turned to walk away, and he seemed satisfied.

"Where are you from?" he asked as I started moving.

I turned back to him and smiled. "Ottawa, Canada."

"Enjoy the rest of your stay," he said, and let me go.

I didn't see the shot until I returned to the hotel. It's okay, but I would have taken another, when the next light-rail train had come along, had I not been stopped. I might have fired my flash, while the train was stationary, to expose it more.

It wasn't the last photo I had taken that night, but I stuck to the buildings and streets of the Gaslamp Quarter. They were the last photos that I would take on the trip. The next day, early in the morning, we were leaving San Diego, driving back to Phoenix, where we would return the car, make our way to the airport (thanks again, bro'!), and fly back home.

It was a great trip. Ten days in Arizona, four days in California, and two days of travel. We were met in Toronto with an ice storm that cancelled our first flight to Ottawa, then delayed the second flight—twice—before it was cancelled and then rescheduled again. Twelve hours after we arrived in Canada, 33 hours after waking in San Diego, we were home.

And making plans for our next vacation.

All of my vacation photos are available on my Flickr album.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Thoughts on San Diego

When I look at my bucket list of places to visit before I die, the United States doesn't have a lot of entries. I would love to go to Ohio, to visit my dear friends, Jason and Jami, but it's not Ohio that calls to me. It's my friends, who I would meet anywhere in the world, if I had the resources to go anywhere whenever I wanted to see friends.

As far as the United States goes, I have already seen most of the places that are on my bucket list: I love New York City and will still go as many times as I can. I love Chicago but have only explored it at night, having only visited it on business and not having time during the day to visit its museums, galleries, and parks. One of my oldest friends, Stu, and I have made plans to get away for a guy's weekend out, and The Windy City is at the top of our list of venues in which to meet.

I've been to Washington, DC, and to Savannah, Georgia, two places that have held my interest. I have now been to the Grand Canyon—with an added bonus of nearby Page—which leaves only a couple of other places that I'd like to visit: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.

When my wife and I were planning our recent vacation, I had three objectives in mind: visit family, take lots of photographs (and I've put a ton of them in the past blog posts), and seek out as much craft beer as I could handle and still enjoy the other two objectives.

DW had a couple of other objectives, as well, including the exploring of Route 66 (we both wish that we had spent more time looking for the original roadway—maybe that's a new bucket list item?) and driving out to the California coast: specifically, San Diego.

"San Diego?" I cried, "What's in San Diego that you want to see?"

"The San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the world," she said.

"Not interested," was my response. I've seen lots of zoos, including the one in Toronto and in the Bronx. The saddest one I've had the misfortune of seeing is the one in Chŏnju, South Korea: the animals lived in miserable environments and the visitors treated them like beasts, feeding them, climbing into their pens for photos (I wished some of those idiots tried climbing into the lions' den).

I don't like zoos and would be perfectly content to never visit one again. And, it seems, my kids agree with me. They had the same response when their mother expressed her desire to go.

"What else is there?" I asked.


"Not interested." Last fall, we visited Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto. It was fabulous, but I've now been there, done that. I'm not a fan of MarineLand, in Niagara Falls, so I think I can strike further aquariums from my must-see list.

"Beaches," she said. "You can take some fabulous sunset shots."

Point to DW.

"There's a beach where sea lions like to go." Again, more photo opportunities.

Another point to DW.

She went online, searching for things to do in San Diego. "There's the USS Midway Museum. It's an aircraft carrier that houses a lot of vintage planes."

I knew that we were already going to visit Pima Air and Space Museum, in Tucson, but she knows my love of aircraft. I have also never been on an aircraft carrier, though I have promised myself to visit the USS Intrepid, in NYC, in a future visit.

Point three to DW.

"Hey, get this: San Diego is apparently the craft-beer capital of the U.S."

Game point. I was sold.

We spent our first night in La Jolla. The next morning, we were still fairly tired from driving all day to get there, plus a fog had rolled in, so we had a leisurely morning in the hotel (swim and a soak in the hot tub) before we packed up and checked out. We explored the La Jolla Tide Pools, walking along the coastline and into the village itself, where we did some shopping (I found my replacement expedition hat at Hats Unlimited), checked out a few art galleries, and had a fabulous lunch at Jose's Court Room. It was there that I came to the conclusion that spicy Mexican food and a high-hopped IPA go hand in hand. I had a Sculpin IPA by Ballast Point Brewing with a chicken enchilada, and it was magical. (More on that in an upcoming Beer O'Clock post.)

After lunch, we explored more of the coastline, including a cave that you access from inside a shop along Coast Boulevard, where it joins with Cave Street. You walk down a long, steep, damp staircase (hold onto the handrail and duck your head) that has been tunnelled under the rock, and you come out into a grotto that has been carved by the ocean waves. It's quite spectacular, but what makes it especially fantastic is that the opening to the cave, looking out into La Jolla Bay, is that the mouth of this cave is shaped like a bearded, pointy-capped gnome.

Do you see it?

Exiting the building, we walked out onto the rocky point, along which hundreds of birds, including pelicans, gulls, and cormorants, perched on the cliffs. Despite the warning sign of unstable cliffs, we ventured out, where we could better see these birds and also get a spectacular view of the bay, with sea kayakers, and the California coastline, with its multi-million-dollar houses.


It's a great view but the stench of bird crap is enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon (thanks, George Carlin!).

Venturing back along the coastline, away from the shops, we found the beach where the sea lions soaked in the sun. You could get right up to them, and some spectators even tried to stroke one (the sea lion protested, loudly, and debated the prospect of attacking the idiot. I don't recommend that you do it). It was a great experience to get so close but, again, the stench is overpowering.

Leaving La Jolla, we drove to the Gaslamp Quarter, where we checked into the hotel where we would spend the next three nights, The Bristol. Admittedly, The Bristol isn't exactly in the Gaslamp Quarter, but rather on the edge, but it's in a great location that allowed us to leave the car in valet parking so that we could walk to most of our destinations.

Those destinations included the USS Midway Museum, which everyone in the family loved. The kids received a booklet that contained some challenging questions: using their audio guide (it's free with admission), they sought out various spots throughout the ship and would have to punch in a code on their device. After listening to the audio, they would write their responses in the booklet. When they answered all the questions, they returned the booklet to the volunteer at the information booth (who was a retired air serviceman): he would verify the answers and, in a ceremony, present the kids with a set of wings that they could pin onto their jackets.

"You have to earn your wings," he explained, as he gave them their booklets. DW and I missed the ceremony because we were 10 minutes late for our rendezvous (we let the kids roam freely, together, while we explored the ship and aircraft at our own pace) and they were too excited to wait. We didn't know that there was a formal ceremony until after it had taken place.

The audio guides are invaluable in learning everything there is to know about the aircraft on the flight deck and in the hanger deck, and about this war ship that participated in the first Gulf War. What I particularly enjoyed was that some of the actual pilots of these planes provided their take on what it was like to fly these planes or about a particular event that happened to them in the plane that you were looking at. Many retired servicemen were around to talk to you, face to face, and answer your questions. 

There is also a well-done film about the battle of Midway and the sinking of the USS Yorktown. While it was obviously a re-enactment, one of the survivors of that battle appears, and tells his story.

The museum is well worth a visit.

Another spot that is a short walk from The Bristol is Richard Walker's Pancake House, home to the German baked pancake. It's a popular breakfast spot that draws a long lineup, so get there early. We also were only a few blocks away from Karl Strauss Brewing Company, which I had planned to visit as soon as DW told me that San Diego was a big craft-beer town. I plan to say much more in an upcoming Beer O'Clock post, but let me say that their food is amazing. My kids found their mac and cheese to be life-altering.

We liked Karl Strauss Brewery so much that we went twice.

We explored more beaches in the area: Coronado (remember the film, "Some Like It Hot"?), Ocean Beach, and Mission Beach, stumbled upon a brewery next to a vintage video game store, and wandered the Gaslamp Quarter for an evening photo walk. Imagine our surprise, as we walked down Fifth Avenue, toward the convention center, to be met with an energized crowd of people, waving Bernie Sanders signs, chanting "Feel the Bern!"

Hotel del Coronado, from "Some Like It Hot."
Ocean Beach
Mission Beach
Gaslamp Quarter
It wasn't hard to absorb the positive energy and be in a cheerful mood, even when a police officer approached me and challenged me about taking a photograph. (More about that, tomorrow.)

The bottom line is that even though San Diego wasn't my choice for this vacation, wasn't a place that I have ever considered visiting, I'm so glad we went. I even wish that we had had more time to explore (we visited the Natural History Museum but didn't have time to thoroughly explore it or the rest of Balboa Park). I had planned to visit more brew pubs (although, I did try lots of craft beer in the three full days that we were there) and take in more of the nightlife.

And while evidence of homeless people was prevalent (more than I've seen in other American cities), I felt safe and I would definitely consider returning.

Hey, Stu: maybe, instead of going for a weekend in Chicago, what do you say to San Diego?

I'll wrap up my final thoughts on our vacation tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

California Dreamin'

It's not the car I would have chosen.

For our Southwestern USA trip, I wanted an American car, one that I wouldn't ever want to own, but one that fit in with our trip. I envisioned a Ford Taurus or a Dodge Charger: something with a big engine that would take up the road. Big. Bold.


When we arrived at Avis, in Phoenix, my brother-in-law, who drove my wife and me to the rental agency, joked with the agent about us taking a Mustang convertible: the agent, who was typing up the agreement, looked at me and asked, "Do you want a Mustang? I can give you a Mustang."

The car was in the same class that we reserved, and I was tempted, would have said yes if it was only my wife and me on this trip. I'm sure the kids would have been over the moon if we pulled up at my in-law's place in a performance car with its top down, but they wouldn't have liked to sit in the back, with luggage crammed around them, for the entire journey.

When we were in France, we rented a small Renault, and the kids had to put up with a cooler and camping gear, limiting their movement. I vowed to never do that to them again.

No, they deserved a spacious back seat, so I stuck with the car that they had held for me (which was parked next to that bright-red Mustang in the Avis lot).

It wasn't American, didn't stand out in the lot. It was a smokey grey Toyota Avalon. Off-white (light grey), leather interior. Not fully loaded but had lots of convenient features, including XM Satellite Radio and shiftronic transmission. What was important, though, was that all of our suitcases, plus my camera bag and tripod, my wife's backpack, and shopping bags fit in the trunk, leaving the kids plenty of room in which to stretch out.

The Avalon was also really good on gas, which saved us enough money that my wife didn't complain when I decided to pick up those extra bottles of beer at the Whole Foods. Gas prices shot up between Arizona and California (double), and so we filled up just before we crossed the border and only had to fill up once, in Temecula (where my company's North American head office resides) before we returned to Phoenix.

Interstate 10 cuts right across Arizona, coming in from New Mexico in the southeast, turns up through Tucson, and hits Phoenix before it heads due-west, into Southern California, where it ends in Los Angeles. It's largely flat and straight, between Phoenix and Indio, the mountains staying off to the sides, not really becoming a factor until you pass Palm Springs. Traffic was around you but never a problem, and I could keep the Avalon in cruise control, without overriding it, for most of that stretch.

The Avalon cruises like a dream.

We stopped for lunch in Palm Springs, home of the rich and resort area of movie stars. We ate at Sherman's Deli and Bakery, which is famous for its food and for spotting the famous. While we dined, I recognized two people that I have seen on screen and television, but whom I only recognized by face alone, and not by name (I'm famous for being really bad with names). One, an elderly gentleman, who I recognized from many police or crime dramas; the other, a younger man of Indian or Pakistani heritage, who I am pretty sure does comedy.

While I scanned the room, looking for more celebrities and eating my smoked meat sandwich, I received a tweet from another celebrity, one who lives in Los Angeles and who, over the past couple of years, has become virtual friends with me, thanks to my blog post about my Top 5—the fabulous Kate Kelton. Kate had read my tweet, in which I posted the photo of the LA/Phoenix road sign (see above) and wrote that I was California-bound, and in her response had invited me to an art show that she was having later in the week.

Yes, that's Kate and me, having a
FaceTime chat, back in October.
Yes. Kate Kelton invited me to an event. Me.

I immediately stopped looking around Sherman's for other celebrities I didn't know and who didn't know me. My day had already been made.

What changed my elation to heartbreak was that Kate's show was on the coming Thursday: by Wednesday morning, we were on our way back to Arizona and, by Thursday, we were back in Canada. From sunshine and surf to desert heat, to an ice storm. How I wished we could have stayed just a little longer.

So close but yet, so far.

It was my eldest daughter's birthday, that day (15 already!), and so we treated her to a delicious slice of chocolate layer cake from Sherman's bakery, but our real celebration would be later that day, when we reached our destination.

At La Jolla, we checked into the posh Hyatt hotel, where BMWs, Mercedes, and Porsches were being valet-parked. Boy, did I wish I had that shiny red Mustang then. We were only staying here for our first night, but we thought we should give DD15 a nice place to stay on her birthday, with a heated pool and hot tub as well as a comfortable bed.

As soon as we had finished checking in, we headed to La Jolla Beach to enjoy the sunset on the open Pacific. We walked out onto Rocky Point and watched the waves crash against the rocks, while pelicans and seagulls coasted in the wind.

It was a breathtaking sight.

Sadly, with all of our travelling through the day, having awoken so early in Phoenix, our birthday girl was exhausted and in no mood to celebrate, let alone wander the beach. Or eat. Or swim in the heated pool at the hotel. Or relax in the hot tub. We left the beach after the sun disappeared, picked up some take-out food, and returned to our hotel room.

Birthday girl was asleep soon after. Dreaming, I hoped, of a better tomorrow.

The California leg of our journey continues on Thursday.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Riding the Apache Trail

There's something mystical, even in its name: Superstition Mountains.

And even though we did not take the Apache Trail on horseback, or with a wagon train, you could still get that feeling of the Wild West. And even though we were travelling in only two vehicles—my brother and his family, leading in their Chevy Suburban, and me and my family, in our rented Toyota Avalon—it felt like a convoy, nonetheless.

Route 88, as it's called now, leads northeast out of Apache Junction, a small community on Phoenix's eastern end. The winding road climbs and dips from ridge to ridge, and as you approach the tiny town of Tortilla Flat, with its population of six (thought the tourists and shop employees seemed to outnumber the residents by about 10 to one), you encounter a large reservoir of Canyon Lake, along Salt River, and you're taken aback from this desert region. Pleasure boats cruise about and you feel as though you're no longer in Arizona, but in the Finger Lakes of upper-state New York.

That is, until you see the cacti on the hillsides and step out of your air-conditioned vehicle and into the dry, sweltering heat.

We drove without stopping until we reached Tortilla Flat, and decided that we would start our adventure by filling everybody's bellies. The lunch hour was approaching and it was best to eat now than be hungry while searching for food.

Originally a stagecoach stop, Tortilla Flat has remained virtually untouched for more than 100 years. The three main buildings host a general store, a gift shop and post office, and a saloon. We wandered the town while we waited for a table to be ready, and then dined on some typical, but pretty decent, pub fare.

For the first time since our journey began, I ate in a restaurant but abstained from consuming any beer. They did offer craft beer, but I had already tried what was on tap and I was more interested in trying a cola that I hadn't seen since I was a kid and didn't know still existed: Royal Crown.

Does anybody in Ottawa remember RC Cola?

The walls and sections of ceiling of the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant are completely covered in dollar bills, including notes from other countries. We saw some Canadian currency on the ceiling, and I was surprised to see Korean won notes nearby. Both currencies hold meaning to me (being Canadian, of course, and having lived for two years in Korea).

Appetites satiated, we returned to our vehicles and continued along the Apache Trail for a few more miles, where the paved road changed to dirt and the twists and turns climbed even higher. You know that when the maximum speed is posted at 15mph, you need to slow down and pay attention to the road. Eventually, we came to a lookout spot, where we could park and wander some trails.

Distance is hard to judge from atop the rocks in this region of the Superstitious Mountains, but at one point we could see where the road continued, on to Theodore Roosevelt Lake, and the minuscule size of the vehicles that periodically passed through showed us that we were up a fair distance.

Not Grand Canyon high, but high enough.

The view was beautiful, too.

On our return journey, I warned my brother that I would be pulling over at times, to take pictures. He could stop and wait, or he could continue on to Phoenix. We had plans to get together that evening, in Mesa, and we could catch up after we checked into our next hotel (my family and I had remained in Tucson, overnight: we were spending our last night in a hotel that was along Hwy. 10, from where we would set out for California the next day). My brother stopped a couple of times with us, but eventually moved on.

Along the Apache Trail, just after we crossed the bridge over Canyon Lake, we noticed cars stopped ahead and a couple of people out of their cars, some with cameras. In the middle of our lane, a rattlesnake lay still, his tail straight up. Cautiously, we pulled around the traffic tie up while my wife snapped a few quick photos as we passed. When we stopped, a short way away, to capture more pictures of Canyon Lake, my wife remarked that her shots of the snake were blurry and she wanted us to go back, for us to pull over where we could both photograph the snake, assuming it was still on the road.

It was exactly where we last saw it, on our return, and it wasn't going anywhere soon. Someone, either through neglect or through carelessness (I don't want to say on purpose), had driven over the snake, its muscular body split out of its skin. It was a sad sight and I wished that I hadn't been talked into turning around.

One final stop, as we headed out of the Superstition Mountains, was at the ghost town, Goldfield. More like a tourist attraction, it was crowded with visitors and reminded me of Upper Canada Village, with a bit of Disney mixed in. It was worth a 10-minute stop to capture some photos, but then we moved on to find our hotel.

In Mesa, that evening, we were treated to a live show at The Underground, a small concert venue underneath the Nile Theater. My brother's eldest son was a guitarist in a metal band, Inertia, and we were lucky enough to be in town for one of their performances. There were several bands playing that night, and the atmosphere was charged with young people throwing themselves about the dance area in front of the stage.

While my nephew's band performs music that is not quite to my taste, I could appreciate the talent of the four men on that stage, even though it took a few hours afterward for my ears to stop ringing.

We met with my brother one last time, the next morning, for breakfast, but then the Brownfoot clan set out west, along Hwy. 10, toward Los Angeles, where we turned south and stopped in La Jolla, just north of San Diego. It's the first time that I had seen the Pacific Ocean up close and personal, and that's where I'll continue this journey, tomorrow.