Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Choo, choo

We spent a week at Rancho LaPuerta over the Christmas holiday.

It started last summer under the massive oak tree that has been resting peacefully for some two hundred years in front of Jackie’s house in the Arbolada. Sitting in the two comfy chairs beneath its canopy, the blessed silence was interrupted with a question from Jackie, “Would you like to spend a week at Rancho LaPuerta?”

Recovering from my semi-stupor, I suggested that the answer to her question required some additional information, “What is Rancho LaPorta?”

“LaPuerta, LaPuerta, not LaPorta” she admonished. “LaPuerta means door while LaPorta means porthole.” Thank goodness for her spot-on translation. Spending a week squeezed into a porthole was definitely not my idea of fancy travelling.

Further interrogation revealed that Rancho LaPuerta is an upscale fitness spa located in Tecate, Mexico, about an hour’s drive from the San Diego airport. So far so good. Additionally, the spa served real food instead of the Bugs Bunny diet enjoyed by Jackie at her regular stomping grounds, the Optimum Health Institute. I was sold enough to suggest a phone call to the spa.

Jackie is not one to postpone tasks. Once assigned, they are quickly disposed of. Grasping her iPhone X with those cute little fingers, she deftly connected to the Rancho. Ten minutes later, my Visa card’s available balance surviving on fumes, we were booked into the Rancho.

Conveniently, Jackie’s plans immediately prior to our Rancho excursion included a one week visit to Optimum Health in San Diego. She would drive to OHI. I would then meet her in San Diego, drive her car to the San Diego airport and take the Rancho’s private bus from there to the Mexican border. To get to San Diego, I could fly from LAX, or take the Amtrak train from Ventura.

Ever since our trip to Costa Rica, I have had sufficient time to hone my dislike of airports and airplanes. The opportunity of a relaxing trip on the train was too tempting to pass up. Checking the Amtrak schedule, I found a 7:30am departure from Ventura that, five and a half hours later, would deposit me in San Diego more than two hours ahead of the Rancho’s bus trip from the airport to the border. Enough time for Jackie to scoop me up from the train and dump us at the airport. It was the last scheduled Rancho bus trip of the day, Missing the bus would cause complications too horrible to contemplate. And my Spanish is not so good, por favor.

I booked a seat on Amtrak 768. And over the next few weeks, I endured the horror stories related to me by the hapless souls who had banked on Amtrak to get them where they needed to be, yet failed miserably. No matter, surely I would be the exception to the rule.

Joy is Ojai’s airport and train station driver of choice. A delightfully gabby woman who combines wit with daredevil driving, she picked me up at 6:35am on departure day. It was Saturday and traffic on the 33 was almost non-existent. The uneventful trip brought us to the Ventura train station twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Piece of cake.

Except for an overhang, the train platform is exposed to the elements. But twenty minutes on a chilly morning seemed like a doable wait. Rolling my suitcase up the platform ramp, I deposited myself in a spot where the sun offered some warmth. There’s a digital time display on the platform that also informs riders of train arrival time. It said Train 768 will be twenty minutes late. I quickly calculated that I now had less than two hours of leeway before I would run out of time. My pulse reacted from the adrenaline rush. Then my logic took over and said “It’s only twenty minutes late, dummy. Not to worry.”

I stared at the clock as it ticked down 768’s arrival time. Then, without so much as a by your leave, the display blanked out and returned with a new arrival time…8:10am. Another twenty minutes charged to my declining spare time balance. Like a watched pot, I’m convinced that the digital clock moved ever slower as I gazed at it. Minutes seemed like hours. My life passed before my eyes.

768 arrived at 8:25, nearly an hour late. Hoping I had seen the worst, I hopped aboard, stowed my bag and found a window seat that gave me full view of the surroundings as we passed and stopped at too many stations. Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Van Nuys. Was there a place on earth that this train was not going to stop? At each stop I mentally shoved the passengers on and off the train, hoping to gain back some precious minutes.

And then the conductor said, “We will be making an equipment change in Los Angeles.” A what? What’s wrong with this equipment, I thought. It’s been good enough to get us this far. Why not just keep things the way they are? I’ve got no time to spare. I’ve got to catch a bus.

And so we changed equipment. Amtrak employees wandered around the train platform like lost sheep. And I lost the last remaining hour of my spare time. Not yet finished teasing me, 768 lost another twenty minutes on the last leg of the journey. I started practicing my Spanish. Donde esta el banyo?

I had been texting Jackie, keeping her updated on our lack of progress, my accelerating heart rate and my rising blood pressure. Poor sweetheart, she had been waiting anxiously at the train station like a war-time wife. When I did arrive, she embraced me like a soldier returning home from the Battle of the Bulge. Her iPhone was hot to the touch from pleading with the bus company to delay their departure.

She drove to the airport like a woman possessed, only to see the bus already making its way to the Mexican border. It was, like in the movies, all I could do to stop her from blocking the twenty-ton bus with her tiny car.

And I thought, where was Mussolini when you really needed him?

 

Bargain Hotel

I hadn’t been up to the Bay Area since Ila died. It was time.

On December 30, Jackie and I returned from a week in Tecate, Mexico. That gave us two days to do laundry, spend New Year’s eve with friends and then hop back in the car for the seven hour drive to Berkeley on New Year’s day.

Highway 101 seemed very retro and uncrowded. The sun shone on the rolling hills and I felt the increasing anticipation of a visit too long postponed. Jackie made the trip even more enjoyable as I often glanced at her next to me, bundled up in a tight little package of loveliness.

We had originally planned to stay at Berkeley’s Claremont hotel. A staid, posh establishment that has stood the years gracefully and elegantly. But eleven hundred dollars plus extras for two nights’ lodging seemed like extravagance run amok.

Enlisting son David in my search for comfortable lodging at a reasonable price, he suggested the Durant Hotel near the University. A google search revealed that the hotel had been re-christened the Graduate Berkeley. Booking a room at a fraction of the Claremont’s budget busting rates took little effort.

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and entered a lobby that seemed eerily devoid of other human beings. A relatively dark interior, coupled with comfortable but out-of-style furniture, added to the feeling that we had been transported to the mansion featured in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A kindly desk clerk, without a hump, took my credit card, handed us two keys and pointed to the one operating elevator; the other being out of service for the foreseeable future.

Before schlepping our bags to our room, we did a whirlwind tour of the lobby and environs. The restaurant was cold, both in appearance and temperature. No problem, as the University campus is populated by a flotilla of eating establishments. The twenty-four-hour fitness center, which appeared cavernous on the hotel’s website, contained one elliptical machine, one treadmill and one other multi-purpose device that might have seen service in the Spanish Inquisition. And it too was cold.

Finishing our tour, and yet to encounter another guest, we rode the elevator to the sixth floor, found room 623 and entered a suite that could best be described as quaint. Unable to pass each other in the aisle separating the bed from the wall, we adopted a you first methodology that prevented serious injury. An inspection of the bathroom brought back childhood memories of my parent’s Chicago apartment in Albany Park. The floor was covered by those same tiny white hexagon tiles that look like it took forever to create. The sink (no double plumbing here) seemed designed for Lilliputians. Brushing one’s teeth would prove to be a challenge, focused on preventing a flood of biblical proportions.

I did the usual manly inspection of the heating and air conditioning system. The room had one of those units mounted high up on the wall. The kind you wave your hand at above your head to see if the unit is running, much less delivering the proper air flow. I eyed the thermostat on the wall and did the usual random clicking. There appeared to be only two settings, off and cooling. Surely, I thought, there must be a heat setting. After several dozen repetitive clicks that predictably produced the same results, I cast aside my manliness and phoned the front desk.

“Hi, I’m cold and can’t seem to get the wall unit to dispense any life-sustaining warmth.” The same young man who had directed us away from the non-functioning elevator said, “The wall unit does not dispense heat.” He continued, “There is a radiator in the corner of the room. It delivers heat.”

I had noted the radiator in question but had dismissed it as merely an historic artifact, abandoned in favor of the 1980’s wall unit. The type of radiator that had last been seen at my Bar Mitzvah, celebrated in my parent’s Albany Park apartment. Surely he was jesting about delivering heat through this potentially explosive device. Silly me.

The young man continued, “You just crank the knob at the end of the radiator to regulate the heat.” Feeling I had little choice, I surrendered and said, “Thanks, my mother would be pleased with my newfound skill.” But the young man was not finished. “The heat will only be available at 5:30 this afternoon and every afternoon.” At first, I thought he was joking or pretending we were subject to some sort of World War II rationing. Then I realized he was quite serious.

It was now 4pm and I said, “But I’m cold now. By 5:30 I will have frostbite. You will be responsible for the maiming of an old, cold man who had only asked for a little heat to ward off the aging process.” The young man relented, “I can send up a space heater.” He did, and I stayed very close to it, and to Jackie.

The Claremont seemed like a bargain.

Older but wiser

My son David has religiously organized a biannual fishing trip that had its genesis in 1997 in Baja, California. It has since expanded its horizons to include other U.S. and foreign ports of call.

Named the “Chrysler”, it includes about a dozen loyal participants, all intent on drinking as much alcohol as possible, sometimes to salve the egos of those who didn’t catch fish. Eating large quantities of food often includes the raw flesh of those unfortunate fish who managed, albeit reluctantly, to become part of the bill of fare.

Staying up late is a required component of the adventure, often accompanied by participant music making late into the night, cigars, and more alcohol. Because one’s eyes are larger than one’s ability to retain the libations and sustenance put before them, many a morning has been spent kneeling before the enamel throne while praying for relief and forgiveness. Murmurings of “I’ll never do this again” often accompanies the numerous toilet flushes.

The origin of the event’s name, “Chrysler”, is somewhat hazy. It is emblazoned on the unique designs that appear on cheap tee shirts awarded to the attendees as compensation for the vast sums spent on the event. Other awards are also presented. These include the “Woody”, an ancient wooden erect penis that originally graced some long-forgotten garage sale. Presented to the member catching the largest fish, it often becomes the subject of much discussion. For example, does “largest” mean length or does it mean weight? Much alcohol has been drunk and spilled as the members attempt to fathom the meaning that the Chrysler founders intended.

Other awards such as the Dolan and Fancy Pants also dignify the proceedings; however, the Chrysler award itself is the most coveted one of them all. Cloaked in regal splendor, the Chrysler award is, in fact, a real Chrysler. Not a full-sized, fuel guzzling vehicle, but an eight-inch toy car haphazardly nailed to a plaque. Earning the right to be the current year’s Chrysler winner is no easy feat.

The criteria for gaining temporary ownership of the Chrysler is often compared to winning the Stanley Cup, the World Series pennant or the Vince Lombardy trophy. However, in contrast to those rather well-known and easily understood sporting awards, the criteria for winning the Chrysler is not stipulated. The winner of the award is often unaware why he was chosen from all the others. In some cases, he may have passed out during much of the three-day event and was therefore oblivious to the rationale for his success.

Over the years, Chrysler participants have retained or strengthened many of their characteristic traits, especially alcohol consumption. Along the way, a few lucky women joined the elite ranks previously barred to the fairer sex. Aging has taken its toll as evidenced by graying and thinning hair, a few wrinkles, a bit of a paunch and an increase in worldliness and sagacity. This includes yours truly.

I hadn’t attended a Chrysler for many years but decided to reinstate my membership this year. Approaching my seventy-ninth year, I was more than twenty years older than the average Chrysler participant. With religious fervor and with the event in mind, I have been going to the gym to improve my body and mind. My paunch hasn’t been flatter in ten years and I am able to hike significant distances and elevations without falling on my face. I regularly refuse the help of others who offer to carry my groceries or wish to relinquish their seat to me. I was sure I could keep up with the younger Chryslers. Alas, I couldn’t.

I was able to walk with the best of the Chrysler guys and lift my carry-on suitcase into the Delta overhead compartment without assistance. I stayed up reasonably late during the three-day marathon and had minimal sleep. And that’s where my prowess ended.

For example, walking down the long flight of stairs at our ante-bellum New Orleans home proved to be a challenge. Wanting to look macho as I descended the stairs, I did a poor imitation of throwing caution to the wind. With my Mr. Magoo bifocals adding an unwelcome handicap, I was a sad sight as I bumped along, gripping the railing while doing my best imitation of Walter Brennan.

Cabbing was a problem. Thirteen of us required multiple Uber vehicles, some with a third seat that necessitated clambering over or through the second row of seats. Anxious to show my agility, I usually chose the third seat and managed to squeeze my way in. Exiting was another story. I spent a good deal of time on my knees, and willingly reached out my fingers to grasp at least one helping hand that would prevent me from falling face first into the gutter. So much for balance.

As the trip wore on, I wondered why I seemed to be aging rapidly. After all, I didn’t seem to have these problems in Ojai. And then it struck me. I wasn’t getting older. No, I had just inadvertently surrounded myself with a phalanx of younger people. I was usually with people closer to my age to whom I compared favorably. I just needed to find those older people and reinsert myself into their midst.

So I came home to Ojai and went to the athletic club. I hopped onto the treadmill between two lovely older women and sneaked a furtive look at the speed and grade that they had set on their machines. I set mine a notch above theirs. At the end of my one hour, three-mile trek I smiled and felt much younger. I’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. Hope those ladies show up.

 

Her Face

Just returned from Albany, New York where Jackie and I took part in two Passover Seders. Her gracious cousins, Roberta and Don, opened their Schenectady house to me. A stranger in their land, I thought I should conduct myself in a way that would be both understated yet reasonably intelligent. I knew the understated part would be easy. Intelligence is tougher to display, but can usually be easily achieved by keeping one’s mouth under control.

The trip to Albany required catching a 6am flight at LAX, a change of planes in Chicago and a strong constitution that could withstand waking at 2:30 am, driving for ninety minutes to the airport, removing various articles of clothing at TSA security, squeezing into a seat that was meant for a three-year old, and surviving more than six hours of flight time. But I’m not complaining because all that while I could look at Jackie’s face, stroke her knee, and sneak a kiss whenever I needed one…which was often.

Her face is amazing. It’s one of those “touch me, kiss me” faces that seems to reach out and beckon your attention. I find it painful not to put my hands on either side of her face, caress her cheeks and draw her close. Her lips form a perfect heart shape that cries out for a kiss. And I oblige, often.

It was generally cold and rainy in Albany, punctuated by the occasional appearance of blue sky and golden sun. Between Seders, we rode to Saratoga with cousins Rodney and Jane where we visited shops where I was thankfully able to remove my warm hat in the heated confines of the stores. We had lunch in a kitschy, sparkly restaurant where our pizza left much to be desired, limp, devoid of cheese and moderately cool to the touch. Through it all, Jackie smiled, made sure I had what I needed and made all the world seem bright with expectation.

Sunday we awoke at 6 to catch an Amtrak train for a two and a half hour trip to Manhattan where we had tickets to see Jersey Boys. Jackie had picked the musical after confirming that I had not seen the live performance.

I like trains in small doses. Especially when headed toward an exciting destination, rather than coming back. The train was clean and reasonably comfortable. We passed by depot signs with names that seemed to come from movies or detective stories. Poughkeepsie, Croton-on-Hudson, and Yonkers made me realize I was in a different world, one populated with New Yorkers and their strange but captivating accents.

I watched the light from the rising sun fall on Jackie as we paralleled the Hudson River. Her face glowing with delight as we whisked our way to Penn Station. I managed a few touches and kisses along the way but the excitement of entering foreign territory seemed to preoccupy both of us. We ate the last of our crumbly trail mix and waited for the announcement. “Manhattan…last stop…watch your step as you exit the train.”

And we emerged on Broadway. You know, the one that George M. Cohan gave his regards to in 1904. A Broadway that’s aged reasonably well in spite of its tacky gift shops, twelve-dollar suitcases and enough scammers to fill Yankee Stadium. “Let’s walk to Junior’s” Jackie said through smiling lips and eyes. “It can’t be far.” I didn’t care how far so long as I could catch a glimpse of her face and her hair as we zig-zagged through the myriad of faces that walked towards us as we counted down the blocks from Penn Station to the place where we would find the world’s best and costliest pastrami sandwich.

32nd, 33rd, 34th. The streets came and went as we waited like tourists for the lights to change. And they did, but not before I could squeeze her hand and send a silent message that she would understand and smile to in response. A smile that was worth the walk. I didn’t need the pastrami to make my day.

We finished our pastrami. It was noon and the theater would open an hour and a half later. So we did what all Manhattanites do with time on their hands. We went to a bar. Sitting at the end of the long, highly polished wood bar, I was able to watch people walking up the aisle. Jackie took that walk and, on her return, flashed that cute smile that made me realize how much I had missed her. She had combed her hair with that big, black comb that she carries everywhere, making her glow even more as she stood out from the crowd.

Jackie ordered an unusual mimosa, sipped it a few times, crinkled up her cute nose, and decided it wasn’t so good. Flashing her smile and dark brown eyes at the bartender, she asked him for something else. Who could refuse that face?

Show time. The theater was a block away. We found our seats in the front row of the mezzanine, settled in and discovered that the lead role was to be filled by an understudy. Disappointed, the woman next to me filled the time by revealing most of the details of her life. Funny how complete strangers will tell you things they won’t reveal to their friends. Jackie absorbed the conversation and made small talk while I devoted my attention to the smile on her face.

The show was terrific. I would later discover that I had seen the live play accompanied by my daughter Nancy and sweet Ila more than five years ago. No matter. The songs made my feet dance and my heart sing. I even sang along quietly expecting that the wrath of our seatmates would get me tossed outside in the cold. The actors worked hard at fulfilling our expectations. And Jackie loved every minute of it.

At the end, the actors announced that they would be raising funds to combat various maladies and would be pleased to have their pictures taken with theater goers in the lobby, in return for a fairly generous contribution. We exited and grabbed onto Corey Jeacoma, the young man who played the role of Bob Gaudio, composer of the Four Seasons’ songs. Jackie lined up her majestic sixty-one pixie inches next to Corey’s towering seventy-four inch body. She looked up at Corey and I swear he nearly melted. I snapped the picture and became just little bit jealous. Silly, I know, but love will do that.

We had a delightful Italian dinner in a little, very crowded but typical Manhattan restaurant complete with narrow aisles, argumentative patrons and drafty corners. We both decided it was the best meal of our trip…even if it really wasn’t.

We taxied to Penn Station, boarded our Amtrak train and began the trip back to Albany. Jackie took the seat next to the window, closed her eyes, and slowed her breathing. The sky was darkening but there was just enough light to illuminate the edges of her forehead, her eyes, her nose and her chin. Just enough light so I could pretend that I was sitting next to a marble statue created by a long-ago genius. Just enough light to ease the trip back. Just enough light to see the face that brightens my heart.

 


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