Smoke & Fire: Mostly Better, Slightly Worse
Golden Eagle
The past few days have seen critical gains against fires burning up in Wine Country. Whereas late last week these fires were mostly uncontained, as of this morning the largest fires are 80-85% contained and the deadly Tubbs fire near Santa Rosa, responsible for many of the deaths in the area, is 92% contained. Source: Santa Rosa Press Democrat article. Cooling temperatures and a smidge of rain have helped, but mostly it's been the effort of thousands of firefighters finally turning the tide after two weeks of battle.

Changes in wind patterns have cleared the air a bit close to home. Getting away to Phoenix for the weekend really helped Hawk get a breath of fresh air, and what we came back to Sunday night was not quite as bad as what we left on Friday. This Monday I could still smell the smoke in the air. This morning I actually saw blue sky.

It's a situation of two steps forward, one step back, though. While the Wine Country fires are being brought under control, a new fire ignited Monday. The Bear Fire is 25 ~ 30 miles south of us in the mountains near Santa Cruz. It threw more smoke into our area Tuesday and Wednesday, and now seems to be getting under control.

Women Drivers. The Rental Car Over/Under.
planes trains and automobiles
PHX Airport - Sunday, 15 Oct 2017. 8pm.

We're still here at Phoenix Airport waiting for our flight. No, the flight's not late; we got here early. We gave ourselves extra time in the schedule so we wouldn't have to rush in case anything went wrong. And nothing's gone wrong. Our punishment for preparation is creeping boredom.

A funny thing happened on the way to the airport this evening. Our Lyft driver was a woman. Overall I've encountered very few women driving for Lyft, Uber, and other ride-sharing services, but here in Phoenix this weekend we're 4/4. Driver safety is often mentioned as a reason why few women drive for these services (even fewer women drive taxis) so I'm pleased at this sign that progress is being made to address safety concerns.

Of course, our experience with Lyft drivers this weekend was all unplanned. The plan was to rent a car and drive ourselves. Except then the rental agencies ran out of cars and ditched our reservation at midnight two nights ago.

As part of our plan we estimated the over/under cost. The rental car and gas would've been about $115. For basic back-and-forth trips with Lyft we estimated $45, plus whatever additional trips might cost. What if we wanted to go to dinner one night, a museum the next day, a quick shopping trip somewhere along the line, etc? Though the minimum cost would be higher we chose the rental car rental so we wouldn't have to worry about the cost of side trips. Plus, we could store our bags in the car's trunk on Sunday while enjoying the water park after hotel check-out time.

Well, the situation forced us into our second choice. And it turns out it worked pretty well. Two trips between hotel and airport totalled $40 and the ride to the restaurant Saturday night was $7. The ride home we cancelled, choosing to walk instead, would've been another $7 (cost wasn't why we cancelled), so overall the cost for Lyft rides would've come in right below half the cost of the car rental plus gas. Nice.

I'm just happy that getting screwed by a car rental agency happened on this trip, when taking Lyft was such as reasonable alternative. We were staying nearby, so rides were easy and economical. If this had been a trip where we were planning to drive 100 miles away from the airport— like our trip to Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park six weeks ago— it would've been ruined.

Wrapping up Phoenix. Pool Weekends Past & Present.
life's a beach
PHX Airport - Sunday, 15 Oct 2017. 7pm.

We're wrapping up our weekend getaway to Phoenix. We're back at PHX airport awaiting our flight home.

As I forecast in my previous blog, we spent the afternoon back at the hotel's water park. Several more laps around the lazy river pool, a few passes at the waterslide, a round of miniature golf, and set of drinks at the pool-side bar to wrap things up. We left for the airport a bit before six.

We've done several weekend getaways for splashing around at this hotel. We stayed in Aug 2014, October 2012, and I'm pretty sure at least one other that I didn't blog about. Possibly two.

Phoenix Weekends Past & Present

Our pattern for these Phoenix weekend getaways goes back to summer 2005 when I was doing a work with a client in Phoenix. I booked a room at a nice-ish Hilton hotel with several swimming pools. It wasn't the closest to the factory but it was within reasonable distance, and the price was good, and hey, why not pick the one with all the pools. Swimming outdoors felt nice in the evening after 111° temperatures (44C) during the day.

By the second day of the project it was evident it'd stretch out to two weeks. Rather than fly home for the weekend then back out to work, I suggested Hawk join me in Phoenix. She came out, and we had a great weekend just lounging around the pools. She even stayed an extra day to lounge around the pools while I was slaving away in the bit mines at work.

Now, that wasn't the same hotel as our recent stays. That was a sister property. It was a bit less kids-oriented, as it only had several lap pools, not a lazy river, or a water slide, or miniature golf. We like that kind of thing so we planned a subsequent trip around it. Now we try to work it into our schedule every few years.

Another Day Splashing Around
life's a beach
Phoenix, AZ - Sunday, 15 Oct 2017. 12pm.

It's Day Two of our quick weekend vacation in Phoenix. It's not even lunch time yet and already we've spent another few hours splashing around in the pools like yesterday. Yes, we got up early-ish this morning to visit the hotel's water park shortly after its opening at 9am.

We're back in the room now to take a break and pack our bags. Yes, we've been here for just less than 36 hours, and already we're having to start the process of heading home. We're going to squeeze every hour out of this mini-vacation, though. Our flight isn't until 8:40pm so we figure we can stay here until about 6. We'll head down to the front desk in a moment, check out of the room, store our bags with the bellhop, eat lunch, and then head back to the pool area for another few hours. The water park has locker rooms, so we'll change out of our swimsuits when we're ready to leave for the airport several hours from now.

Dinner was... Smashing?!!
Phoenix, AZ - Saturday, 14 Oct 2017. 9pm.

We got back from dinner a bit ago. Though I'm not sure whether we went to a restaurant or a riot!

We picked out a restaurant not too far from the hotel, 2 miles or so, and called a car with Lyft to take us there. It's the Greektown restaurant, in a part of town that looks absolutely not Greek. Plus, the restaurant building is pretty clearly a vintage Pizza Hut from the 1970s, with a peaked shingle roof and those trapezoidal windows.

Riotous behavior started moments after we arrived. Having told us just minutes earlier on the phone that reservations would not be required, the staff now scowled at us when we arrived without reservations and told us we'd have to wait because they're busy. "Always busy on Friday night," one admonished me. I didn't bother to point out that a) they told us not to worry about reservations and b) it's Saturday, not Friday.

Seeing us standing near the door, the manager/owner bellowed, "Park it at the bar!" He was so abrasive I genuinely wasn't sure whether he wanted us to stay or leave. I pulled out my phone to check Yelp, quietly explaining to Hawk— who agreed— that if I found a suitable alternative within walking distance before Greektown sat us at a table, we'd leave.

Just in the nick of time (for the restaurant, anyway) they sat us at a table. Watching the owner bound around the room I saw that he was being obnoxiously loud with everybody. It's just his style. That made me feel... not personally insulted by it.

The food was good. There was a delicious home-baked bread that tasted like it was soaked in butter. Mmm, butter! But what we really remembered about the place was what happened during dinner: the yelling and throwing of dishes!

In a scene resembling countless YouTube videos of dinners-turned-riots, the guests and the manager started throwing plates around. Except this wasn't a riot, it was tradition. Tradition! Apparently it's a Greek thing to smash plates in celebration (Wikipedia link). Though sources say the tradition is downplayed nowadays except in touristy pandering, it was alive and well here. The manager personally threw at least 5 plates across the room during our dinner. Each one shattered on the tile floors near the two doors in/out of the restaurant. Thankfully nobody was entering the restaurant for about 15 minutes (surprising, given how full it already was) or they might have slipped and fallen on the shards!

Partly because of the raucous behavior we left quickly after finishing our meals. The manager was having a good time, and the customers who were joining him were entertained, but we were not. At a table across the aisle from us a small child was hiding under the table, so obviously we weren't the only ones concerned about safety.

Outside the restaurant we hailed a ride with Lyft. Normally we would've done it inside and waited 5 more minutes at the table but we were really not at ease with the riotous ringmaster inside. As much as this seemed to be his shtick, he also seemed unstable, like one wrong step might make him spin out of control. We didn't want to take our chances with that. In fact we didn't even like standing outside his door waiting for a car for 5 more minutes, so we cancelled the call and chose to walk 2 miles home. Hey, walking is exercise, which we need! And the cool evening air— cool, as in only about 85° F (30 C)— felt nice.

Splashing Around in the Desert
life's a beach
Phoenix, AZ - Saturday, 14 Oct 2017. 5:30pm.

Though our weekend trip to Phoenix got off to a slightly rough start last night, it has smoothed out nicely today. Sleeping in late didn't happen-- I got up around 8am, my weekend usual time, despite not getting to sleep until about 2. But I've made up for that by doing pretty much nothing except recreation all day.

Around 10:30 we headed out from the room to the hotel's water park. It encompasses two large swimming pools, a separate 130' long water slide, and a lazy river pool. I took 3 or 4 trips down the water slide, and then Hawk and I spent about an hour doing a few laps around the lazy river.

Lazy river pool at our hotel, Oct 2017

The picture above shows just one corner of the lazy river loop. Each full lap takes about 15 minutes. ...I'm just estimating the time because we weren't watching the clock. It wouldn't be lazy if we were carefully timing it.

We ate lunch at the bar area in the water park. Yup, sitting on a stool in a wet bathing suit, eating nachos and drinking beer: that feels nicely decadent!

In some other environment sitting in a wet bathing suit would be uncomfortable, but not here in Phoenix. Mid-October means the weather has cooled down to merely the high 90s (36-37C) midday. In fact the hotel has misting hoses set up near the bar to keep patrons cool.

After lunch I hit the water slide a few more times and then we did another few laps around the lazy river. We also waded in one of the swimming pools.

One of several pools at our hotel, Oct 2017

Throughout the day the weather has been nice. It's warm, but comfortably warm. Especially with pools to soak in and shade to retire to. And the sky's so clear it's a constant surprise to us. Definitely a nice improvement from the smoky air back home.

Late this afternoon we left the water park and went over to one of the smaller pools in the interior courtyard of our hotel building. This hotel has, like, 10-12 pools total. We took a dip in one of the hot tubs. The air's hot enough to make that kind of intense, so I stayed in the water for only about 10 minutes. Hawk stayed in longer while I retired to a lounge chair in the shade. Everyone sitting around me was reading an electronic device of some sort, so I felt a bit odd having nothing in my hands. But to me that was the point: being unplugged.

Okay, so I am plugged back in at the moment. We're back at the room drying off, cooling down, and discussing ideas for dinner. It's slim pickings here at the hotel. In fact the one of the hotel's restaurants is actually named Slim Pickin's. And it's closed! Tonight Yelp is our friend.

Eastern Sierra Roadtrip Wrapup
cars, road trip!
First of all, yes, it's now been two weeks since we finished our weekend roadtrip to the eastern Sierra. I've been so busy I've gotten backlogged on pushing out blogs with pictures. And yes, right now I'm actually on another trip, this one a weekender to Phoenix. I intend for that one not to get as badly backlogged as this one. If for no other reason than I intend to write only two more blogs about Phoenix, as opposed to the 15-16 this earlier trip has stretched to. And yes, that's 15-16 blogs from just over 48 hours on a trip. Sometimes the days are just packed.

This road trip two weeks ago ended with us pulling into our garage between 10-11pm on Sunday night. We'd been on the road for almost six hours since leaving Mono Lake. The fastest route might have been to drive 120 through Yosemite like we did on the way in, but we decided to mix it up a bit by driving 108 home through the Sierras. The scenery is stunning, with towering granite mountains and yawning canyons thousands of feet deep. Too bad it was getting late and we were too tired/concerned about time to make stops.

Do "wall to wall" weekend trips like this (leave Friday after work, return Sunday late) has become less common for us. Part of it is that we got tired of dragging to work half-asleep on Monday morning. We still do it occasionally, though, and by doing it occasionally we usually can manage the energy levels. We did this time. Though that in turn was part of the reason we stayed near home the following weekend. The weekend after that, though... wall to wall again. How will that one turn out? I don't know yet, I'm still a few hours from home!

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake, part 2: Hawks!
hiking, in beauty i walk
Sunday, 1 Oct 2017. 5pm.

Once we hiked out to the tufa towers at Mono Lake we stayed for a while. The setting sun provided nice lighting, its deeply angled and gold tinted rays highlighting the bizarre rock structures to make them seem even more unusual.

Tufa Tower at Lake Mono, California. Oct 2017.

As we were gazing out across the lake we heard a bird squealing. At first I thought it was a sea gull or similar. "No, it sounds like a hawk," Hawk said. I saw a large bird swooping low across the water, so I pulled out my 'bird shooter' telephoto lens and caught it as it landed atop the leftmost spire in the tufa formation pictured above. Sure enough, it was an osprey!

Ospreys at Lake Mono, California. Oct 2017.

Actually, it was two ospreys! One was in the nest atop a rock 100 meters out from shore, and the other had just flown in with a fresh catch of fish.

We stayed a while and took turns watching the birds through the scope before heading back uphill to the parking lot.

Running the Gauntlet to Phoenix
planes trains and automobiles
Saturday, 14 Oct 2017. 1:30am.

This evening— well, Friday evening— we headed out to Phoenix. This quick weekend trip is my last-minute plan to escape the smoky air at home. Actually getting to our hotel in Phoenix, though, has involved running the gauntlet of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

First our flight was delayed. Yup, Southwest. We got a text letting us know a few hours ahead of time. Then it got delayed more. Then it got delayed less. Then it was actually estimated to leave early. Then it was back to on-time. We left basically on time.

My row mate on the flight was drunk. I figured that out when he was being overly friendly to me. Then he blacked out. I figured that out when it was time for landing preparations and the flight attendant asked me to help wake him up. We couldn't get him conscious. As the plane touched down he slumped forward in his seat, head dropping between his knees. He stayed in that position through taxi and until after I got up, grabbed my bag, and left. Passed out drunk guy is not my responsibility.

Our rental car reservation was a failure. By the time we arrived at the PHX airport depot the agency I booked with, Thrifty, was sold out of cars. So much for a "reservation". (Cue classic Jerry Seinfeld rant.) Thrifty sent us to Dollar, one of their sister companies, but they were also sold out. And there were a lot of angry customers in line. All the clerks there could suggest was, "Try another agency." Riiiiight... like paying a walk-up rate at midnight is a thing normal people would opt to do.

Fortunately for us we had a reasonable alternative to renting a car. Our hotel is in town, so we decided to call a Lyft car. We'd considered doing that instead of making a rental reservation a few days ago. We'd opted for the rental for the flexibility of having our own wheels. But taking Lyft may work out to be cheaper, if not quite as convenient. If only we'd known in advance the rental car thing was going to be a clusterfuck we could've saved ourselves 30 minutes of transit time, walking around, and waiting in lines.

On the way to the hotel we both had the munchies. Knowing there's a 24-hour Walgreens just down the road from the hotel (we've stayed here a few times before) we asked our Lyft driver to make a detour. She offered to wait for us, which was great. We grabbed a few drinks and snacks and got back in the car to complete the ride to the hotel.

It was going on 1am by the time we got to our room. It's good we don't have anything planned for tomorrow morning... except to play in the pool all day! And the lazy river and water slide don't even open until 10, so there's no point in getting up early.

Out of the Smoke, Into the Fire?
planes trains and automobiles
This weekend we're jetting off to Phoenix. We'll splash around in the pools at a favorite hotel there and generally relax for the weekend. It's a last-minute trip I thought of Tuesday night and booked Wednesday morning. ...Okay, I've been kicking the idea around for several weeks, but until Tuesday night it seemed like we'd probably put it off until next year.

What changed? What changed was all the smoke in the Bay Area (blog from yesterday). I suggested doing this trip Tuesday night after seeing how much Hawk was suffering from the smoky air. So tonight we're going to Phoenix to get away from choking on the air. That's ironic because it's like getting away from the smoke... by going into the fire. Consider these memes about Phoenix:

Phoenix, according to King of the Hill
It's hot in Phoenix

Fortunately Phoenix isn't going to be that hot this weekend. It's not summer anymore, see? It's autumn. The forecast calls for relatively pleasant highs around 95 F (35 C) both days.


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