Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Late Entry: Nellis AFB, Red Flag and Thunderbirds; Santa Barbara Event; Vandenberg AFB; Port Hueneme; Basket Boats??? Hula Babes

I must apologize to all my Air Force friends for omitting two entries from our BSPFT (Brief Stop for Physical Fitness Training) at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas... the first is for our good friend Bill Bayer, who is a retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel air battle manager ground control intercept (GCI) weapons controller. That's the guy who vectors our fighters to intercept enemy aircraft or to drop bombs on the bad guys just a mile or two away (that's called close air support, or CAS.) Bill had been stationed at Nellis, and spent a lot of time working out of this building, and also in the 120F desert, usually without air conditioning and cold Sam Adams.  Red Flag is the Air Force's premier air-to-air combat training exercise. Think of Tom Cruise in Topgun for the ACM (air combat maneuvering) part, but the Air Force has 75,000 square miles of airspace to play in over the Nevada desert. (That means if they have to bail out of their aircraft, they can land near a casino or Mustang Ranch for R&R... but I digress.)  Bill also was part of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron that flew Soviet (that's what they called the Russians back during the Cold War) MiG-17, -21 and -23 fighters as aggressor aircraft against our fighters.

Nellis is also the home of the Air Force's Thunderbirds, a group of high performance fighter aircraft and pilots who try to emulate the Navy's Blue Angels. (I may not be invited back to Nellis after this blog post... sigh...)  Okay, actually the Thunderbirds are really hot s..t pilots as well!

Now, back to California... this serene sunset scene was taken at Seal Beach, where several hawks were often found in the branches of these trees, on the lookout for a meal provided by unwary ground squirrels.

Up the coast past Los Angeles is Santa Barbara, a thoroughly delightful city about 100 miles northwest of LAX. And it only takes about two to seven hours to get there from the city of the angels, depending on traffic. Did I mention earlier that L.A. traffic is insane, day or night??? We stayed at an Elks Lodge RV park in Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara, where Suzanne gave her Transformative Power of Hope presentation to an enthusiastic group of attendees at an International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS) meeting at Unity of Santa Barbara. Thanks to Barbara Bartolome for sponsoring Suzanne and to her husband Victor for his interest in our RV; hopefully we will see you two on the road soon in your own motor coach! (Basketball fans may recognize Vic's name; he played center for the Golden State Warriors back in the 70s; at 7' tall, Victor is an imposing guy - I felt like a dwarf standing next to him.)

We then motored up to Vandenberg AFB for a week of camping near the beach. This peaceful setting, like the one from Seal Beach, has an almost invisible hazard... well, the tide rips and cold water are a problem for many, but not nearly as deadly as...

... this warning sign suggested...  Yes, great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are not uncommon here, as this area is home to seals and sea lions, which make a high fat banquet for these apex marine predators. (I decided not to swim at this beach.)

We did go for a nice walk on this beach, however. But what's with the jackets in July? Oh, I forgot to mention that this area is quite chilly, with the cold water California Current flowing just off the beach with 57F temperature water and upwelling of nutrient-rich sediments that provide nourishment for fish, such as sardines, mackerel and tuna. Nighttime temps at the campground were in the 50s, perfect sleeping weather, and daytime highs rarely got to 75 while we were there.

After Vandenberg, we relocated to the Port Hueneme SeaBee (Naval Construction Battalion) base near Oxnard. It's right near some major marinas where the pups, being docks-hounds, like to walk. Back when they were much younger, Suzanne was walking them down a pier when Gretchen discovered parts of a dead fish. She scarfed up a piece, but then spit out a pretty disgusting fish eye... even our puppies have their limits. 

In this marina were several interesting yachts, but what really caught my eye was a Vietnamese basket boat stowed upside-down beneath some kayaks. Navy sailors who spent time there will immediately recognize the unique shape and design of these tiny self-propelled fishing boats, often found miles offshore, with one or two fishermen or women using simple hand lines. A mother boat will often drop dozens of these boats in prime fishing areas, and return hours or even a day later to pick up the fisherman and his catch. At night, it was not unusual to see the dim flicker of a Bic lighter a hundred yards or less ahead of your ship, requiring an instant course change to prevent running the boat down. This was the first basket boat I had seen since 1973 when I did my last deployment to Vietnam. 

This boating photo requires some explanation. I have seen bicyclists, horseback riders and skateboarders using their smart phones, but never a kayak fisherman... maybe he's checking a fishing app for the best bait to use???

It's too bad that we had already filed our income tax return back in April, because fer sure I'd have gone to Eddie for my tax advice had we been in Hollywood Beach... hey, who needs a last name, or some high-falutin' corporation name? Just ask for Eddie!!! "We find money others miss".

Finally, frequent readers may recall Hula Babe, the sexy little number that our dear friends Sharon and Joyce gave me last year. (Hula Babe is Al Gore-approved - solar-powered, non-polluting and low-maintenance). When I saw a dozen of her cousins in a marina store window , I wanted them all, but alas, the store was closed, so Hula Babe won't have any friends to join her in the coach while MLB is on travel...  sigh...    

Monday, July 10, 2017

Still Alive! June Update; PHX and Scottsdale Friends; Prescott Event; Big Rocks; Flagstaff; Las Vegas; Lotus of Siam; On to the Pacific!; "Was It Something I Said?"

Mea Culpa to several faithful readers who sent "health and welfare check" emails recently.  Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. Excuses for not updating this blog recently include: (1) Extreme heat in the desert Southwest; (2)  huge numbers of ground squirrels/prairie dogs/assorted rodents attracting the attention of our fearless miniature Dachshunds Rudy and Gretchen; (3) long days at the wheel of our coach driving through the desolate wastes of desert Arizona, Nevada and East L.A.; (4) several of Suzanne's events which occupied my attention; and finally, (5) malfunctions of critical equipment aboard our prairie schooner, including the diesel generator (still not repaired, awaiting parts)... oh, and maybe (6) some laziness in my old age...

Thinking back to my last post... I think we were in Scottsdale, Arizona... but before we left the Phoenix area, we had to pay a call on our dear friend and colleague Brenda Baker, who has had some real medical challenges lately. Brenda is a fighter, though, and is building up her health and continuing to maintain her great sense of humor. Everyone who knows Brenda knows that "she is a pistol", as my mother used to say... 

Before heading out, we had dinner with Connie Mariano (retired Navy Rear Admiral and former White House Doctor to Bill Clinton) and her husband John Weber, who had taken Suzanne and me up in his sailplane. This was the view from their patio in the hills above Scottsdale and Cave Creek. Their amazing home is like the ones you see in Architectural Digest...

Temps were rising in the Phoenix Valley, and we were looking forward to cooler weather, which we found in Prescott. Suzanne had an event there, and we had planned on spending a week in that lovely area which sits almost 2,000 feet higher than Phoenix, where temps were already up into the high 90s, and this was early June! Here is the SRO crowd when Suzanne spoke at Unity of Prescott, led by Rev. Terrence Padgett.  

We were camped at Willow Lake Campground, near the Granite Dells, gorgeous exposed bedrock and granite boulder formations which called out to be hiked. The trails laced through these rocks for miles, with hardly another hiker or mountain biker to be encountered for hours...

The water level in Willow Lake itself was much higher than during our previous visit, due to the big snowfalls experienced in the West last winter. These trees had previously been between the trail and the water.

While in Prescott, we paddled at nearby Watson Lake, another reservoir surrounded by parts of the Granite Dells. Here you see My Lovely Bride paddling her NC-15 fiberglass kayak smoothly through the wavelets at sunset. It was a gorgeous evening, and only one other boat was out on the water, over a mile away - it was wonderful having an entire lake almost to ourselves.

From Prescott, we drove north to higher elevation and cooler temps at Flagstaff, AZ. 7,000 feet up, "Flag" is a delightful college town with lots of hiking nearby. Since I am planning a Grand Canyon trip in November, I needed to get some steep climbs in for training. Eldon Lookout Trail is a 2,000+ foot elevation gain from the trailhead, and I made the climb while Suzanne was giving a reading in the coach. . On the way up, I met Terry, a part-time Forest Service firefighter who runs a fish hatchery in California. He was wearing full "battle gear", a heavy flame-retardant suit, helmet, and boots, and was carrying his personal firefighting equipment and water. Needless to say, I was moving faster than Terry. I offered to put some rocks in his waist pack for extra training, and he actually laughed at that suggestion, but declined my offer. I have the utmost respect for these forest fire first responders, because they risk their lives on a regular basis in an extremely hazardous environment. Out West, too many instances of serious burns and lost lives occur when a fire initiated by lightning or a careless camper blows up or changes course because of high winds, low humidity and high temperatures, trapping firefighters before they can evacuate to safer ground. 

The view from Eldon Lookout (9,300 ft) was spectacular. A lookout tower there was once manned to locate fires before they got out of control. Traffic in Flagstaff thousands of feet below looked like kids' toys, and since I was the only person at the summit, I got to enjoy the solitude (with only a few birds for company) for 15-20 minutes until I headed back down the mountain.

Another hike, this time with My Lovely Bride, took us to a section of the Arizona Trail near Aspen Corner and Snow Bowl, just south of Humphreys Peak (12,633 ft., the highest point in Arizona). We hiked through beautiful aspen groves and occasional meadows on a perfect day, sunny and 70F, while Phoenix baked in 100+ degree temps 150 miles south of us. Here she is offering her hand to one of dozens of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that were flitting from flower to flower having lunch. Useless trivia: Monarchs obtain moisture and minerals from damp soil and wet gravel, a behavior known as mud-puddling. Similar behavior has been observed in young boys, but it is not admired as much by their parents as those of the butterfly persuasion...

Following that hike, MLB took off her hiking shoes and noticed that she had removed a good part of dust and dirt from the trail; I warned her that the Forest Service has rules about not taking anything with you except memories and photographs...

Our next stop was in Las Vegas to visit our good friends Jerry and Karen Facciani. The foodie highlight of our brief stop was dinner at Lotus of Siam, one of the top Thai restaurants in the US. The cuisine was so amazing that we wound up going both nights we were in town. Lotus also has one of the best wine lists in the world, and we were surprised when Jerry ordered a German Reisling with some spicy Thai dishes - it paired beautifully! Jerry is a world class oenophile, and every time we get together we learn a lot about fine wines. (Yes, we are sampling a red in this photo... Jerry assured us that a Zinfandel would be perfect to sip on in between dishes and Reisling. And yes, it was!)

It was too hot in Las Vegas to run, so we went to Nellis AFB and used their gym - Suzanne ran on an indoor track and I used a rowing machine. Here is just part of the massive indoor fitness center, scaled for use by the several thousand airmen stationed here, as well as visiting aviators and retired folks like us. 

Did I mention that Las Vegas in June is hot? Reported highs were at 121F, but we saw 131F on the coach thermometer which was in direct sunlight... and it was still in the 90s at dawn... too hot to walk the pups outside on the cement, so we had to carry them to the few shady spots around for head calls. 

Suzanne departed Las Vegas by air to Richmond and Detroit for events, and I continued west, arriving in temperate Seal Beach, CA, after a long drive through the desert and the Los Angeles metro area in pre-rush hour traffic. I had been stationed in Southern California in the 70s when traffic was merely heavy, but now it is absolutely insane. SoCal is a different place in many ways, but one positive thing I noticed was the emphasis on physical fitness. Here is a summer camp for kids; they were running along the beach in sand, then would stop for calisthenics. Ooh-Rah!

After a week of twice daily workouts and extreme boredom with MLB being on travel, she returned to enjoy a day or two on the beach before we headed north to Santa Barbara. I took her out for an Italian dinner, and everything was going swimmingly until she mentioned that she had an evening event for a local Helping Parents Heal group coming up that wouldn't require my presence - I merely said, "No problem, My Love, there's a wet tee shirt contest at a beach bar just a mile away." Without a moment's hesitation, she threw a hard roll at me.  Was it something I said? 

More on our California adventures in the next installment, and I promise it will be out within a week.