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Return to Paradise, Part 1

Plumeria in paradise

On Thursday, September 13th, Laurel and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii, just a month shy of five years after we left the island and moved to San Diego. It was a trip full of joy and remembrance. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you know that when you step off your plane and feel the air and smell the blossoms, you’ve arrived in a special place. And Thursday felt just like that.

We picked up our rental car and phoned our hosts, Cecilia and Neil Paulsen, who run a VRBO up the beginning of Kona’s mountain, Mt. Hualalai, which stretches up behind the town some 8,271 feet. (Two directions that come into play everywhere on the island are mauka and makai. Mauka means up the mountain, and makai means toward the ocean. Wherever you are on the island, those directions are important.)

Banana Hale bedroom

Cecilia and Neil’s place, which they call Banana Hale, is at about a thousand feet mauka Mt. Hualalai. It’s a comfortable home (hale means home) surrounded by, of course, bananas, as well as pineapples, papayas, guavas and all sorts of local fruit and flowering trees. The owners live upstairs, and they play host to a one-bedroom apartment and a studio on the ground level. We stayed in the one-bedroom, and it was a lovely, quiet place to spend the week, except for the early morning symphony of birds.

Around the island, things were unfortunately quiet, too. The recent eruptions of Mt. Kiluaea have scared many would-be visitors away, even though the island is more than 4,000 square miles in size, and the eruptions only affected 3% of the island in the far southeast corner. Friends on the island told us that now that Kiluaea has quieted down, the air is clearer and brighter than it has been in more than 30 years.

Sam Choy’s

We drove down to Keauhou, south of Kailua, for our re-introduction to Hawaiian food. Sam Choy’s sits up high on a slope with a view of the Pacific that’s almost as spectacular as the food. We ordered the Local Mix Plate—teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken and fresh fish of the day, which was opah, also called moonfish, because it looks like a big round flat silver moon. If you’ve never had opah, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s one of the best-tasting fishes in the Islands. The trio also came with a side of potato salad, made with local purple potatoes. We topped it all off with a couple of Castaways, the excellent IPA made by local Kona Brewery. Wow! Welcome home!

Since we had our own small condo unit, we spent part of the afternoon shopping at Safeway, KTA and, of course, Costco, for easy-prep dinners. We decided to save going out for dinner only for a couple of splurges.

Friday is discount evening at the Kona Brewing Company, so we had to head there and fill our growler with the day’s IPA, which was Kua Bay IPA for 20% off. Their slogan is “Liquid Aloha,” which we are in total agreement with. We stopped for dinner and had their terrific bacon cheeseburger pizza. I don’t know why more pizzerias haven’t discovered this taste treat. The chilled lettuce and tomato on top are a nice constrast to the rest of the pizza.

Daniel Inouye highway

On Saturday morning, we hit the holoholo trail, which is the Hawaiian way of saying, “We went for a trip.” We drove across the newly finished belt road named for Hawaii’s famous senator, Daniel Inouye. Forty-nine years in the Senate, Hawaii’s favorite son. The new highway is a major improvement over the curvy old road to Hilo on the east side, the windward side, of the island. Hilo is the largest city in the island, with a population of close to 50,000. It’s also the rainiest city, so it’s not always our cup of tea. But, besides just driving there to see the new road, we have a favorite pond over there where there are always interesting birds, and right nearby is Suisan Fish Market, where we stopped for a nice piece of ono and some of their terrific poke. Ono is known as wahoo in California and Mexico, and it’s a terrific firm whitefish. In fact, “ono” means “delicious” in Hawaiian.

Anthuriums by Laurel Scott

On the way across the island, we drove through a couple of downpours, but when we drove into Hilo, the rain abated, and the sun actually came out for a while, so we attended the weekly farmers’ market and picked up a nice pot of anthuriums for five bucks to liven up our home-away.

We left Hilo and drove north up what’s known as the saddle road, through the Hamakua Forest Reserve and west to Waimea, the island’s cattle country. Home of the paniolos, begun in the 1700’s when Captain George Vancouver brought longhorn cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha. The original paniolos came from old Mexico and taught the Hawaiians how to be cowboys, pre-dating the more famous American cowboy by decades.

Great drinks at Merriman’s

Today, Parker Ranch is the largest and most famous of the ranches in this area, but we had reservations at a restaurant named Merriman’s. We had heard great reviews about Merriman’s, but had never been there. Today, however, we learned that the reviews were all accurate. Located in a simple-looking little house, Merriman’s has some of the best food and drink on the island. I had a Kalua Pig & Sweet Onion Quesadilla, and Laurel ordered Prawns in Kalbi Sauce. The drinks we chose were both inspired—my Manhattan had an infused sauce in it I’ll never be able to describe, and Laurel’s Mai Ttai was topped with lilikoi (passionfruit) foam that was pure delight.

Valley Farm by Harry Wishard

One of our favorite places on the island is the tiny town of Hawi, tucked in the far northwest corner of the Kohala range. It’s a few blocks of art galleries, coffee houses and shops and is easy to check out in an afternoon. About an hour northwest of Waimea, it seemed like a good spot to go before driving home to Kona down the west side. We had a nice chat with Wendy Williams (not the Wendy Williams, but a woman worth talking to). She was host at the Wishard Gallery, an eclectic collection of paintings, photographs, sculpture, jewelry, and just about anything that’s artistic or interesting. Harry Wishard, the owner, is an inveterate collector as well as an excellent painter. Born and raised on the Big Island, he fills his gallery with all manner of fine art.

We left Hawi and drove south, back to Kona, pleased with a holoholo well done.

—to be continued—

 

Seven Nights of the Iguana

In 1964, Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy little beach town of about 20,000 people. That’s when John Huston decided to film “The Night of the Iguana” there, and the ensuing media frenzy over the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put PV on the map in the eyes of U.S. tourists. Partly in response to that, the Mexican government gave a green light to an international airport, and PV hasn’t stopped growing.

Puerto Vallarta zocalo

In 2007, Laurel and I decided to visit Puerto Vallarta and liked what we saw. By now, it had grown to over 200,000 and was a full-fledged city. We found a restaurant called La Palapa right on the beach and went in for lunch. The long wall on the beach side is completely open, and you have a lovely view of the ocean. They almost didn’t take us because they were setting up the place for a wedding: Flowered platform on the sand, rows of linen-covered tables, a classical guitarist playing in the corner. But they offered us a booth in the back and we sat down and ordered drinks and lunch. After a while, with all this happening I couldn’t resist, and I asked Laurel, “When we get married, where do you want to have the wedding?”

She was surprised at the way I proposed, but there it was, and eventually we decided that the LA area made more sense for most people, even though Mexico and Hawaii both seemed romantic. This year, after more than ten years later, we decided it’d be fun to have a sort of anniversary down there.

Green Heron at Estero de El Salado

The town definitely keeps growing. It’s up to about 275,000 now, and a lot of the growth is good growth. There are many new high quality restaurants and hotels, and the state of Jalisco government is doing admirable things in preserving the quality of the natural surroundings. We spent a morning taking a boat tour through a mangrove estuary and were pleased with our guide, Flor, and our driver, Luis. It’s called Estero de El Salado, and it’s a very large nature preserve right in the city.

But there is growing poverty, as well. The magnetism of the place attracts a lot of people from other parts of Mexico and Central America looking for jobs, and its rapid growth has caused pollution in Banderas Bay, the large bay where the city is located. In fact, the people at the estuary have established a breeding program for the local crocodiles, which are dwindling because of the growth and are a major part of the ecology of the bay.

Sunset at La Palapa

On the evening we arrived, we went back to La Palapa, and, true to form, they were setting up another wedding. Folks see pictures of weddings on the beach and flock to lots of beachy spots in PV. And La Palapa, with its excellent food and location, is a major draw. We stayed over dinner long enough to see the ceremony, and I was tempted to approach the bride and groom afterward and tell them how the romance of La Palapa worked for us. In July, we’ll be nine years married.

Monday morning, we took the bus back down to next door to La Palapa. Today we were meeting our guide for a boat ride across Banderas Bay to Yelapa, a cove on the southernmost corner of the bay, for snorkeling, sightseeing and lunch on the beach. By the way, the buses in PV, while some of them are rattletraps, perform punctually every 15 minutes for only 15 pesos a couple. Less than a dollar for the two of us. Travis, our guide with Jet’s Boat Tours, met us on the pier, and we climbed down and boarded a nice, covered panga for the trip over.

Los Arcos

The bay was calm, and we passed by many palatial homes on the way to Los Arcos, a collection of tall rocks jutting from the bay. The rocks are home to the massive numbers of Brown Pelicans that patrol the shores of the bay, as well as a Snowy Egret rookery, where their chicks were visible in nests. We were also lucky enough to see three Blue-footed Boobies, an uncommon bird that lives in scattered spots along the Pacific coast.

Before we reached Yelapa, we stopped in a small cove, and Laurel went snorkeling. She said she saw plenty of fish, but the water was green, and the visibility not great. Travis told us that the bay tends to be a little murky this time of year. One major problem with murky water is not being able to see sharks that might be lurking nearby, but he assured us there are no sharks in the bay, because the dolphin keep them out.

Yelapa

We cruised into Yelapa and saw a broad stretch of beautiful sandy beach with restaurants and a few shops at the top. We waded in, and three employees from Tino’s Oasis, the restaurant we were heading to, helped us out of the water. We took a table at the front of the place, looking right onto the beach and ordered two Pacificos. Laurel had lobster, and I had a whole red snapper which fit perfectly on my plate. The service and the food were excellent, and we discovered why everyone raves about Yelapa.

By the way, we met Travis and the boat on a pier called Los Muertos, which means “the dead” in Spanish. Curious about the grisly name, we asked and were told that in days past, pirates used the beach to bury their dead. Ignoring the negative sounding name, there’s a very good brewery a few blocks from the pier. It may be called Los Muertos, but its brews are alive and kicking.

While still in San Diego, we read plenty of 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor about a birding guide named Gerardo Hernandez and had booked two mornings with him. Per the schedule, he showed up punctually at our hotel Tuesday morning at six o’clock. Today, he was driving us an hour north to a dry riverbed in what he called a dry tropical forest. Gerardo has been guiding birders in PV for more than 35 years, speaks fluent English, and knows the area’s birds incredibly well.

Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

When we got to the dirt road where we would start, he rolled down the window and slowed the car to a crawl. We heard a bird sing in the trees nearby, even though it was still only faintly light. Gerardo mimicked the bird perfectly and waited to see if it would repeat the call. It turns out that he knows just about every song of the birds in the region. We got out of the car, got our binoculars and packs on and walked to the riverbed, which was completely sand, and spent the next four hours walking on a beach in the middle of a dry forest under the gaze of grazing cattle, some of them Brahmas, all of them with horns, but completely indifferent to us. He told us that in a month, the rains will come, and the river will be totally filled with water, and this hike will be impossible until next year.

 

 

In El Tuito with Gerardi

On Thursday, he took us south to the small town of El Tuito, which he told us began in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish first came to Mexico. On this hike, we were up at about 2,000 feet on a dirt road in a jaguar preserve. There was no danger, as jaguars are very endangered as well as very shy. We saw many different birds, plus a few of the same. Altogether, Gerardo’s outings brought us more than 50 species, many of which are life birds. (For you bird geeks, here’s a link Puerto Vallarta 5-2018 to the complete list, along with others Laurel and I saw on our own.)

 

If you’re curious why I named this piece “Seven Nights of the Iguana,” I’ll explain by telling you that we stayed at a luxurious resort hotel called the Mayan Palace.

One of PV’s iguanas

The grounds are covered with trees and gardens, and a canal runs through the property and empties into the bay. Anyplace you have green in Puerto Vallarta, you have iguanas. They munch on the grass and eat leaves from all kinds of plants, and they are plentiful at the Mayan Palace, so we saw them every day lying on the walkways or climbing up into the trees. Ergo, seven days and nights of iguanas.

Earlier, I mentioned that the growth in PV has resulted in some high quality new restaurants. One of them is called Tintoque, and it’s just a few blocks from our hotel at the end of the marina shops and restaurants. We had dinner there one evening and were quite impressed. Besides single dishes, the chef prepares either a six- or eight-course dinner that’s fantastic. And the design on the plates is as elegant as the taste of the food, so Laurel had to take a few pictures. You can make reservations through Open Table, and we both highly recommend it.

Three of our fabulous courses at Tintoque

If you’re into craft beer, as we are, you’ll find another new place downtown on the Malecon. La Cerveceria Union has a beautiful view of the bay, a large list of craft beer and wonderful seafood, including oysters on the half shell and grilled octopus.

Misty morning view from our hotel room

Gaining two hours on our flight back to San Diego, it was strange that we left Puerto Vallarta at 4:15 and arrived in San Diego at 4:45, a nice, quick flight after a too quick week in a gorgeous place. PV, we’ll be back.

The Best Coast

Incredible! Wild! Spectacular! Rugged! Bucolic!

Just five of the words that came to us as we drove up from San Diego to Seattle. Wordsmith Laurel said bucolic. As many of you know, I’m originally from Seattle, and I have two daughters and grandchildren up there. So we fly up every year to see them. This year, with all the buzz about road trips, we decided to rent a car and drive up, then fly back.

Why the 5?

Friends have asked us why we didn’t drive up the more scenic highways 101 and 1. First of all, the area around Big Sur is undriveable right now, thanks to a massive slide. But mainly, we chose the sights we wanted to see: San Luis Refuge. Sierra Nevada Brewery. Crater Lake. Eugene. Portland. Mt. Rainier. String them together, and the 5 only made sense. I have to mention that I guess I’ve become a Californian. No one in Seattle says, “The 5.” They call it “I-5.” But with so many highways in Southern California, we’ve learned to call them “the 110,” “the 91,”   or “the 5.”

We left on Friday, June 30th at 5:30 in the morning and beat a lot of the awful rush hour traffic in Los Angeles. We only had one slowdown all the way to the Grapevine north of LA. By about 1:30, we reached Merced. Like most towns in California, it has several new craft breweries. We decided on the 17th St. Public House. Merced was in the high 90s, and the AC inside the place was a welcome relief. We asked to see the menu, and the beertender apologized, explaining that they only serve beer, but we were welcome to buy food elsewhere and bring it in. We followed her advice and walked down the street to Donut King, which had three menus on the wall: Donuts, Subway-style sandwiches and French-influenced Vietnamese bahn mi. We brought a foot-long bahn mi and a bag of chips back to the public house and ordered two pints of one of their India pale ales. The IPA was quite good and refreshing, and the bahn mi was excellent.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles back south of Merced, is the main reason we made this side trip. This refuge is one of the most important wildlife preserves in all of California, for animals as well as birds. Talking to the game warden at the visitor center, we learned that thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly south from Alaska to winter here every year. A few years ago, we saw a small flock of the cranes in Fairbanks, but seeing these kinds of numbers would be a real thrill, so we’ve decided to head back up next February.

Swainson’s Hawk

In the meantime, we drove out into the preserve, where there are several self-guided auto tours to take. One tour travels five miles around an enclosure for endangered tule elk, and we got a good look at a herd of about 30 right near the dirt road. The next morning, we headed east to a trail where the ranger said we might see some good birds. Sure enough, a fair number of birds, including a beautiful Blue Grosbeak and unexpected Swainson’s Hawks.

If you’re really into birds, here’s a link to the full list of what we saw on the trip: Birds sighted on our trip to Seattle

We spent the night in Los Banos, a few miles south of San Luis, and stopped in at Paraiso Brewery, a friendly place that is brewing some very good beer. While we were there, they poured us a taste of a brew in progress. It had cucumber and chile flavors in it, but it was still flat in the barrel and yet to be carbonated. Nevertheless, both of us liked what was happening with it. For dinner, we discovered great Bar-B-Q, as Hot City BBQ & Bistro spells it. A major smoker sits next to the entrance, and you can often find Steve Weaver, the owner, who calls himself Boss Hog, sitting out there. This is BBQ to write home about, and after our first long day on the road, we went to bed happy.

A tip to those of you with big appetites: Wool Growers Restaurant has two branches, Los Banos and Bakersfield. We’ve eaten before at the Bakersfield place. It’s run by a Basque family, and everything is served family-style and in large portions. You won’t go away hungry.

In defense of the Central and San Joaquin Valleys, I need to point out that all of the miles through these areas are not necessarily a boring drive. At times, it’s inspiring because of all the produce California provides the country. In fact, the state grows more than 90% of the country’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, pomegranates, walnuts, garlic, plums, broccoli, nectarines, canned tomatoes, celery, apricots, wine grapes, strawberries, and cauliflower. Laurel had selected an album of iconic country singer Merle Haggard’s, and it fit perfectly with our drive through this rich countryside. While I’m at it, I should remind you that whenever you’re traveling on a secondary highway, don’t forget to stop along the way at local produce stands. Their produce is very fresh, and sometimes you find tasty things that you haven’t tried before.

Sierra Nevada Brewery

We drove north to Chico and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company for lunch. Opened in 1979, Sierra Nevada is now a major beer destination in Northern California. They’ve grown into a large facility with tours, a taproom and a restaurant. We saw families in cars from all over the map. After a tasty lunch and brew, we left Chico and headed up to Redding, where we spent the night. It was over 100 degrees, but our room was a very nice, air-conditioned Super 8 on Churn Creek Road. Nearby Final Draft Brewing had plenty of excellent beers and, believe it or not, peanut butter chicken bites, which were crunchy and tasty. It put us in mind of chicken satay, and, now that we’re home, we’re going to see if we can recreate them on our grill.

On Sunday morning, we visited the Sundial Bridge, a large pedestrian bridge that crosses the Sacramento River. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is right next to it, and there are lots of activities, trails, and a museum. We’ll experience more of it sometime in the future, but today we have to drive to Crater Lake, take a look at it, then drive to Eugene for the night.

Into Oregon

Crater Lake

A small aside: A few years ago, we went to Yosemite over 4th of July weekend. We decided to drive in to the visitors’ center to get current information and a map. We sat in line in our car for over three hours, and by the time we reached the center, it had closed. We had to turn around and drive out of the park to our motel, then come back the next day—early! One would think, lesson learned. But no, we’re at it again, sitting in our car and idling up the mountain for two hours to see the stunning lake. It was worth it. Laurel was amazed at how blue the deepest lake in the country is. But never again will we travel to a big deal national park on any holiday.

The drive back down the mountain and north to Eugene was a long stretch of forested country, made better by the fact that there was almost no traffic. After checking into our motel, we took a look at Laurel’s Android for local brewpubs and found one less than half a mile away. We decided to walk there and reached Falling Sky Brewery after Google Maps took us on a silly route that became a full mile instead of half. The brews were very good, and the menu includes an excellent lamb burger. The secluded courtyard made it all even better, and the walk back was only a half mile, as originally advertised.

Hendricks Park

I had checked on local parks and other options for a little morning birding, and we chose Hendricks Park, with its famous rhododendron glen, only seven minutes from the motel. The park was green and lovely, and there were some late rhodies and azaleas still blooming. As far as the birds go, most of them were absent, but we thoroughly enjoyed the walk through these lovely gardens.

It’s a fairly short drive from Eugene to Portland, so we’d decided to check on some of the vineyards in the Willamette Valley on the way north, but we stopped for lunch in Salem first. When we arrived at the industrial park, a rainbow flag led us to Southside Speakeasy. Inside, the large room was empty, but our host, Russell (R.D.) Dean, appeared almost magically and greeted us warmly. As more customers arrived, we saw that the staff enthusiastically welcomed everyone, and most nights there’s live music and a large dance floor. Happily, the beer and liquor is legal now, as is gay marriage.

View from the winery

After lunch, we drove back south a few miles to the Willamette Valley Vineyards. The tasting room is high on a hill, with a terrific view of the vineyards below. Both of us love Pinot Noir, especially with salmon, and the Willamette Valley has a superior climate for that grape. We bought one of their Pinot Noirs and also a Pinot Gris, which is crisp and dry.

Halfway to Portland, in the northwest corner of the valley, is Purple Hands Winery in Dundee. They produce only Pinot Noirs, one from their own vineyard, and several from neighbors’ grapes. We tasted five and wanted to buy them all, but settled for just one, from the Stoller Vineyard in Dundee Hills. Jordan Ernst will probably serve you, and he knows a lot about this difficult but wonderful grape.

Just two doors north of Purple Hands is Deception Brewing Co. We stopped there for a flight of their beers, and they gave us some good advice for Portland, so, after arriving at our downtown motel, we looked up Breakside Brewery.

Breakside brew list

Breakside has three locations. We chose one that was across the Willamette River from us. (Portland is a city of many bridges, some of which connect to still other bridges.) We drove across and found this brewery, which was a total zoo overflowing with families and singles, all seemingly enjoying themselves. But it felt like too much to us, so we drove back to what’s known as the Alphabet neighborhood, which is also much closer to our Travelodge. This Breakside was definitely busy, on the large deck and inside, as well, but it looked doable. We went inside and amazingly got a table right across from the bar and its giant menu of beers. We split a pulled pork sandwich that hit the spot, along with two West Coast style IPAs, Breakside and Wanderlust, which we liked so much that we bought a bottle of each.

A Fourth to Remember

Powells-City of Books

Next day, on the Fourth of July, we spent the entire morning at Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore. It was a morning of discovery for Laurel, since she had never been to Portland, let alone Powell’s before. They call themselves City of Books for good reason. New or used, chances are you’ll find it there.

Blinded a little from reading so many covers and flyleaves, we walked up Salmon Street to The Picnic House, which I had found on Yelp and seemed a good choice. Believe me, it was more than good. Picnic doesn’t really conjure up the classy place we found ourselves in, designed by someone with a flair for creative solutions, including several growing walls covered with plants and other areas with antique printing plates. The cuisine was equally good. Try the wild mushroom soup. And the service was outstanding. Right next door is Barlow Artisanal Bar, owned by the same owners. It wasn’t yet open, but we took a peek, and they’ve done the same thing over there in art deco that they did with natural ingredients at The Picnic House.

Haystack Rock

Taking a hard left off the 5, we headed due west to Cannon Beach on the northern Oregon coast. Full of charm, from cottages to restaurants, the beach at Cannon Beach is dominated by giant Haystack Rock, along the lines of California’s Morro Rock at Morro Bay. Beautiful and sunny but windy, we had to take our binocs out to the rock to see what was flying.

Parentheses: Like many birders, we keep what we call a life list, which is a list of all the species of birds we’ve seen, along with the date and location first seen. When we left San Diego, our list stood at 499, and we were extra excited to see what our number 500 would be.

Female Harlequin Duck, courtesy IllinoisRaptorCenter.org

Well, we found out at Cannon Beach. Bobbing around in the rocks below the big rock were a couple of female Harlequin Ducks. We had never seen one before, so that was number 500. As I said, it was beautiful and sunny, but the north wind was blowing hard, a very cold wind. As we continued to search, my hands got so cold that I couldn’t hold my binoculars steady. My eyes were watering, and the wind blew our tripod over. We finally gave up and decided to drive back down the next morning.

Bridge over the Columbia River

We drove the forty minutes to Astoria, where we had reservations at the Columbia Inn for the evening. I had also made reservations for dinner at Bridgewater Bistro, which has a major view of the mammoth bridge that crosses the Columbia River at its mouth. The restaurant was getting excellent reviews, and, since it was July 4th, we figured we should reserve a table. It turned out to be a wise decision, since the back end of the place was reserved for a wedding party. The bride and groom were still in their wedding clothes, and everyone was making speeches and toasting the happy couple. It made us feel good, since our own eighth anniversary was coming up during the month. We toasted each other with artisanal Martinis. In addition to the very fine food, the service was terrific. Our server, Sharon, lured us into a dessert which we didn’t regret.

Back at our room at dusk, we crossed the street to a viewpoint deck that jutted out into the river. There were about twenty people already there, and in ten or fifteen minutes, the fireworks from upriver began. The neighbor cities of Astoria and Warrenton did themselves proud. When it was over, we walked back across the street to our room. What a nice, easy way to see some terrific Fourth of July fireworks!

On the morning of July 5th, the sun was shining, and the wind was calm in Cannon Beach. We went back out to the rock and saw several Tufted Puffins flying to a grassy area at the top, where they have dug burrows. Number 501! Driving back north, we stopped at Lewis & Clark National Park, site of Fort Clatsop where Lewis and Clark’s party spent the winter as the guests of local Indians who saved their lives. It’s a delightful park with trails that follow in the steps of the explorers and exhibits and demonstrations illustrating everything from the making of tallow to firing and loading a flintlock rifle. We continued up to Astoria and crossed the long bridge that spanned the Columbia between Oregon and Washington, then drove to Long Beach, the home of Willapa Bay oysters. We had a creamy dozen on the half shell and the best clam chowder we’d had in years at Castaway’s Seafood Grill. The new manager/chef Stephen is also a attentive server, and we had some interesting chats about all kinds of seafood.

Now we headed back across the bridge and east on Highway 101 to re-enter Washington at Longview. Coming down the long hill to the city, the view is dramatic, with several pulp mills and stacks and stacks of logs. We turned north onto Highway 5, then east toward the largest volcanic mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Rainier. Paradise Inn is a classic lodge at 5,400 feet on the 14,411-foot mountain, and we had a room reserved. The weather was warm and sunny, and we had some spectacular views of the mighty mountain as we drove up, but we arrived fairly late, about 7:30 in the evening. At the reception desk, it turned out that an error had been made, and they had no room for us. (Later I discovered that I had mistakenly booked an inn at Paradise, CA.)

A Sweet Discovery

Dejected and worried about finding any room nearby, we went back down the mountain to the nearest tiny community of Ashford. If there were no rooms there, we would have to drive nearly an hour more to the outskirts of Tacoma. We passed two places with No Vacancy signs, then saw a neon sign in the window of Base Camp Bungalows which said OPEN. When we knocked, the owner came to the door, looked at the sign and said, “Oh, I forgot to turn that off.”

She could see the disappointment on our faces and asked, “How many nights do you need?”

“Only tonight.”

“Well, I have one bungalow left, just for tonight. Would you like to see it?”

We followed her back on a brick walkway between several cottages and mini-gardens. Back around the corner, she stopped and opened the door, “This is “Songbird.” Come on in.”

Inside was the prettiest little cottage you could imagine. Straight out of classic Disney. Polished wooden floor, which I later learned was ash. Everything detailed out, down to fresh-ground dark coffee and a real coffee pot. The view through the multi-paned window was filled with green, plus a little shrine that had two bird feeders on it.

View from Songbird

“Here’s a little bird seed that you can put out in the morning while you drink your coffee,” she said, handing Laurel a jar. “Then sit and see what comes.”

The manager’s name is Wendy, and it was great fun to spend some time the next morning talking to her about what she and her boyfriend have done to the place. It’s a perfect jewel, and the next time we decide to drive up to the mountain, we’ll stop here for sure.

It’s now Thursday morning, and we’re due in Seattle today, but the road trip isn’t quite over yet. We bypassed Seattle and drove up past Bellevue and Redmond, what’s known as the Eastside in Puget Sound country. We drove to Woodinville, a few miles north of the tip of Lake Washington, which borders the east side of Seattle for 22 miles. We had an excellent lunch on the patio of the Barking Frog. (We heard no barks and saw nary a tadpole). Then we drove to one of the nearby tasting rooms. Woodinville has had tasting rooms for large wineries and breweries like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Redhook for more than twenty years. The grapes and most of the bottling happens in Eastern Washington, but major marketing goes on here.

But today we discovered that the place is filled with tasting rooms. We arrived at our destination, Airfield Estates, which grows its grapes in the Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Mountains. To our surprise, it was in an upscale strip mall with another dozen or so wineries. The brochure for the area lists 60 wineries represented right here. We got three bottles at Airfield and three more at nearby Goose Ridge, whose vineyard is in the Columbia Valley, nearly to Idaho and north of the Columbia River. We drove back to Seattle and spent three pleasant and summery days with friends and family.

Taylor Shellfish

We can’t forget to tell you about Taylor Shellfish. I wrote about them after last year’s visit to Seattle. This year, we discovered that they have three branches in Seattle: Lower Queen Anne Hill, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill. We spent one evening at their Melrose Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill and reaffirmed our belief that they have the best oysters you can get. Served in a stylish setting and with great service. Once you’re there, you’ll probably talk to Lance McCune, the general manager, who knows more about oysters than you could imagine.

Oh, one last note: If you’re flying home as we were, Alaska Airlines will allow a full case or half case of wine along with your luggage. No charge. Ask for details.

This trip has gotten me so into the idea of road trips that I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and this fall we’re planning a trip to the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon and Zion. I’ll tell you all about it when we get back.

Good travels,

Vic (and Laurel)

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Cuyamaca

Lake Cuyamaca

 

The areas marked with white lines are now under water.

Seamless in Seattle

 

During mid-July, Laurel and I flew up to Seattle for our annual visit with my daughters, Jenny and Emily, and my grandchildren.

I have to tell you about something I discovered before we left. I had booked our airfare and was looking for a rental car. The prices for six days were all coming in at $600 to $700, which we didn’t want to pay. I searched Expedia and told it low to high prices, and I found a car at National Car Rental for about $340 and grabbed it. When my confirmation came, I noticed that the pickup point was in downtown Seattle, not the airport, so I called National and explained that we were arriving by air. The agent did his alterations on our reservation and said, “That’ll be $660.”

“I asked what happened to our quoted $340 price, and he told me the airport location had more demand, thus the higher price. I told him to move the arrival back to downtown. I decided to compare airport and city hotel prices and found a Days Inn in the city for fifty dollars less than its equal at the airport. Then I went to look for transportation from the airport to downtown. A light rail train has recently opened in Seattle, and it leaves the airport every six minutes for downtown and the University of Washington. The fare is three bucks, and, since I’m a senior, it only cost me a dollar.

We’re thinking that this kind of cost disparity may be found in any city, so from now on when we travel, we’ll look for the differences. We saved nearly four hundred dollars in Seattle.

Mt-Rainier-in-the-Pacific-northwestOn the day we left San Diego, the forecast for Seattle was 77 degrees and sunny. All the big mountains were out as we flew north, first the Three Sisters, Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood in Oregon, then Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in Washington, finished by Mt. Rainier, majestic with its three peaks still deep in snow. As we began our descent, the flight attendant came on air and said, “Welcome to sunny Seattle.”

We picked up our downtown car and drove up to Capitol Hill to one of our favorite Seattle restaurants, the 13 Coins, one of the country’s classiest 24-hour diners. We began our quest for Seattle seafood with Seattle Scrambles, smoked salmon, eggs and onions, and a new beer to us, Elysian’s Spacedust IPA, which turned into a favorite. It was so good that after lunch we drove the twelve or so blocks to the brewery and tried a couple of their other brews. They recently celebrated their 20th anniversary and were purchased by Anheuser Busch. Hopefully, the larger company won’t mess with Elysian’s brewing techniques.

seattle_park_volunteer_artA couple of miles north on Capitol Hill is Volunteer Park, with its great view of the city and the Seattle Asian Art Museum. A fascinating textile show is going on right now—the impact of indigo around the world and throughout the ages. From third century China to Levi’s jeans, indigo has been a major influence to the textile world.

We spent the evening with my daughter, Emily, searching for Seattle seafood. She directed us to a place on the north shore of Lake Union, purported to serve great oysters, but it was closed for a private party. Next, Ponti’s Seafood Grill, which has served wonderful food next to the Fremont Bridge for years, proved to be permanently closed and is now an Elk’s lodge. However, just up the street is The Nickerson Street Saloon, and their craft brews and excellent fish and chips solved our dilemma.

zamboanga 1Friday arrived sunny and bright, and we met our friends Joe and Julia at Salty’s on Alki, which has a panoramic view of the Seattle skyline from its deck. While we were eating, Julia pointed up into the sky, and we saw our first Bald Eagle of the trip. Eagles are plentiful in Puget Sound country.

Joe and Julia own a couple of retail shops called Zamboanga. They import beautiful clothing they have made in Bali, and there are a lot of folk art imports, as well. After lunch, we stopped at their West Seattle store, and Laurel went crazy with her Visa card.

caribou at northwest trekOn Saturday, my older daughter, Jenny, and my grandson, Nathan, picked us up, and we drove south to Northwest Trek, the Pacific Northwest’s answer to San Diego’s Safari Park. Nestled in the shadow of Mount Rainier, this large piece of land was a gift from a family who wanted to create a tribute to the natural surroundings and inhabitants of the country, and the tram takes you past herds of buffalo, groups of moose, elk, white- and black-tailed deer, caribou, mountain goats and mountain sheep. Following the tram ride, we caught lunch, then walked through the areas where wolves, cougar, bobcats, river otters and the like fill out the wild population.

at Drunky's (Custom)By the time we got back to Seattle, it was dinner time, so we picked up Emily. She had just discovered a new barbecue place called Drunky’s Two Shoe BBQ, a cool spot with chainsaw chandeliers and plenty of good draft beers, plus a large open smoker. After dinner, the waitress came outside with us and took a group picture. After all, in Seattle in July, it stays light until nine-thirty or so.

Sunday, July 17th. It’s our seventh anniversary, and we plan to spend it doing things we enjoy most. Looking for birds and listening to jazz. It’s not an atypical day for Seattle in July—bright overcast with a chance of scattered showers. Originally, we thought we might head up Snoqualmie Pass part of the way, but farther inland the forecast is an 80% chance of rain. So we stay in the city and drive over to the Arboretum south of the University of Washington. Being July, there isn’t much action other than a flock of always hungry Mallards who come swimming our way when we stop at the edge of the lake. However, one of the thrills of birding is the unexpected that happens so often. Walking back to the car, Laurel spots a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a life-bird for her. It flies off before I can get back to share it with her, but now she has it added to her list.

Just south of the Arboretum is Madison Park, a ritzy little neighborhood where I lived back in the mid-eighties. It hasn’t changed much, although I’m disappointed to see that Madison Park Books is gone, another casualty of ebooks. We have lunch at The Attic, a bar and grill where I used to play darts, and it’s still the same except for the number of taps, a result of the craft beer explosion. Going into The Attic, we have to dodge a few raindrops, but it isn’t much.

Back at the motel, we take a small rest and change for the evening, then drive downtown. The Mayflower Park Hotel has a classy little bar called Oliver’s. In recent years, we’ve started a tradition of going there for a Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans. It’s rye bourbon with bitters and absinthe, and it’s pretty tasty. One drink each, and we walk the block north to Jazz Alley, Seattle’s top jazz club. Tonight, not necessarily in honor of our anniversary, Sergio Mendes is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Brazil ’66. It’s a terrific show, a good way to end our special day.
Hammeringman

Monday behaves itself, and we drive a few blocks south on Aurora to Beth’s Café, one of the oldest and best diners in the city. Their country fried steak, eggs and biscuits are to die for. A few minutes south of Beth’s is downtown Seattle and SAM (the Seattle Art Museum). They have a fascinating show about to end on August 28; it’s an exhibit of printmakers: Durer, Goya, Picasso, Hogarth and Rembrandt. R. Crumb, of “Keep On Truckin’” fame has done pages and pages of drawings with text, the entire Book of Genesis. Up the street and across from the Pike Place Market we find a new brewery—the Old Stove Brewery. The place is crowded with tourists, and they have quite a few brews worth trying.

At the foot of Queen Anne Hill lies Seattle Center, with its Pacific Science Center, opera house and Space Needle. But we were looking for something across the street—namely Taylor Shellfish Farms Queen Anne Oyster Bar. When we lived in Kona on the Big Island we learned about the Natural Energy Lab, an area on the coast where deep salt and fresh water occurs, and they raise Maine lobster, Japanese abalone, seahorses, octopus, and so forth.

taylor shellfishTaylor Shellfish grows the tiny larva for its oysters there, then raises them in many parts of the world. This place offered the best oysters we have ever eaten. Their geoduck plates were also delicious. An example of their attitude about what they’re doing occurred when two women came in, sat next to us at the bar and asked for two glasses of house red. The server said, “I’m sorry, but we serve shellfish here. There’s no red wine on the menu.” The exasperated women left.

For dessert, we drove to the top of Queen Anne Hill and found Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream. Laurel ordered Earl Grey ice cream, and I had salted caramel. They were both wonderful.

We flew back to San Diego the next morning, after another smoked salmon scramble, this time at Anthony’s at the airport. I’m not really interested in moving back to Seattle, but I sure like to visit.

 

 

Big Island, Big Band

homeslideshow_2For any jazz fans out there, if you’re ever on the Big Island, there’s only one best way to spend an evening.

And that’s at the Blue Dragon in Kawaihae, which is near the northwest tip of the island, about half an hour north of us and well worth the drive. For starters, it’s a beautiful, open air restaurant in a lovely palm forest setting. The staff is beyond excellent, gracious and welcoming, and the food is five-star cuisine, using a lot of local seafood, island-grown steaks and vegetables. The chef is very creative, constantly coming up with pairings that you wouldn’t think of, then wonder why when you taste them.

olliephonic hornsHere’s the clincher. About every second Sunday, a jazz big band called the Olliephonic Horns performs. They’re a wonderful band, using excellent charts, and they play just about everything, from Fats Waller to Duke Ellington to Grover Washington. There’s even a large dance floor, and you won’t be able to resist using it when you hear some of their numbers.

The band was formed by Ollie Mitchell, who played with just about everyone on the mainland before he and his wife moved to Hawaii. Sadly, Ollie died earlier this year, but the band is still playing great stuff in his memory.

This is one evening that Laurel and I never get tired of repeating.

blue dragon logoAloha and Mahalo, Blue Dragon and the Olliphonics!

 

The TNT and “The Quartz”

For all you bartenders (and barflies) out there, Laurel has developed a tasty new drink that we call a TNT. It’s very simple, and very good.

lemonUse a lemon, and don’t be shy. We use a quarter of a lemon, cut in half and muddled in the glass, so you have juice, pulp and peel.

Now, think gin and tonic, then forget the gin and use tequila instead.

Top with ice and tonic water, or diet tonic water for a healthier, lower calorie drink.

This has become one of our favorite drinks. It’s lighter and more refreshing than a margarita and shows off the taste of even sipping tequila. For my money, it makes a margarita seem like a Slurpee.

Cheers. Bottoms up. Or, as they say in China, Gambei.

 

Speaking of China, I’m nearly finished with my latest book, a novella that’s the first in the new series, “The Inspector Kwong Mysteries.” It’s called “The Quartz,” and features some of the most popular characters from “Hong Kong Blues.”

Of course, Chief Inspector Lawrence Kwong is still wearing his tweeds and carrying his silver-tipped cane. Matson Tai is back, but it’s ten years later, so he’s 21 now and just graduated from university with degrees in Law and Criminology. He’s six feet tall and has become the more active partner for Kwong when he can get the ladies to stop chasing him.

yellow_mountain_chinaThis time around, they’re going face-to-face against some very powerful adversaries who lead them to Beijing and The Forbidden City.

When it’s finished, which should be by the end of July, I’ll post an excerpt, and if any of you is interested in the manuscript, I’ll happily share it with you in exchange for high praise and/or constructive criticism.

 

Fly with a Happy Face

Something a little happier than infections for a change.

I just realized that since it’s 2013, the Eskimo on Alaska Airlines planes is forty years old. In honor of that birthday, I thought I’d share with you the back story of how he came to be.

golden nugget service (Custom)I started working as an art director for Alaska Airlines’ ad agency in 1967. For some time, the airline image had been based on the idea of “Golden Nugget Jets,” and it was sort of a Klondike dance hall look. In 1970, they got permission to fly into Russian Siberia from Alaska, and this was looked at as the way of their future. We designed a new image based on the airline’s concept: Golden Samovar Service. The Russian connection turned out not to be the way after all. They flew a few semi-charter vacation flights to Irkutsk, but the Cold War was still hot, and Americans weren’t too keen about an airline with a Russian style.

The first time the Eskimo art was used was in a large newspaper ad promoting Arctic Tours. It was the early 70s, and the art style known as black drop-out was popular then. Essentially, you made all the dark tones black and all the light tones dropped out and became white. Since it was a newspaper ad, the initial appearance of the Eskimo was as a large, strong black image. The marketing director at Alaska hated it, even though the ad performed well. He really disliked it and told us again and again. For a while, he was mad at me for even thinking of it!

A few months later, we were given the assignment to create a new corporate image for the airline, and since I was now creative director, the job fell on my desk. At this time the airline had a jet fleet of just nine 727s. They only flew from Seattle to Alaska and within Alaska. They had recently moved their headquarters from Anchorage to Seattle and were taking a lot of political flak for abandoning Alaska. Our direction from the airline was to “create something very distinctive and modern, yet totally Alaskan.”

In retrospect, it sounds easy, but I worked for three months on every kind of jet design I could think of. When you’re working for an airline, the first order of business is the planes. They’re the biggest, and possibly the hardest, items to design in the company catalog. I looked at rainbow colored planes, striped planes, black planes. After one particularly frustrating day, the airline’s account executive was sitting with me in my office. He was at wit’s end—we just couldn’t solve the problem. He stood up and stomped out of the room, shouting, “Oh, to hell with it! You might as well put that damned Eskimo on the tails!” Ta-daaaaaa!

four alaska airlines planes (Custom)I simplified him and made him a nice blue, which mollified the marketing director. It was the “black blob” which he had disliked so much. But Eskimos signify ice and snow, and the airline wanted to encourage tourists to fly to Alaska and not be afraid of the weather. So I looked at the history and culture of Alaska and came up with four designs—blue Eskimo, red gold miner, green Indian totem, and purple Russian onion dome. And for three or four years, when you went to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, you never knew if you would be flying with a totem or a sourdough. But it shortly became evident that the Eskimo was the most popular image. And it was expensive to use all those different designs, so the other three left.

When I first designed him I copied the stern, proud look on his face. A few years later, the airline wanted him to be a little friendlier, and I hired an illustrator in Seattle to make minor modifications to his mouth and eyes to give him the smile he has today.

Back in 1973, when I designed the Eskimo, an elderly Eskimo gentleman in Kotzebue was working as a greeter for the airline on its Arctic Tours. You got off the plane in Kotzebue and he was one of the folks who came up and helped you into a fur-trimmed parka to protect you from the cold. It was sort of an Eskimo version of the Hawaiian lei.

eskimo (Custom)We had photos of him and others during the welcoming procedure. I used one of those photos as the basis for the art. His name was Chester Spivik. Surprisingly, lots of rumors have announced that the art was based on all sorts of people, including Richard Nixon. Once, I heard a story that he was really Bob Marley!

During the 1980s, the airline started flying to California and Mexico, and they felt their image was confusing people. So they decided to have a new corporate image designed. Whoever did it came up with the idea of creating a logo that was an “A” that looked like a mountain. When word got out that the Eskimo was being replaced, I’m happy to say that there was a great hue and cry over the loss. People in Alaska loved it, and they didn’t want it changed. The Alaska State Legislature even issued a proclamation that it should remain. I was interviewed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and both logos were shown in the newspaper article. My position was that if the airline’s image was confusing, it was because of the name Alaska Airlines, not the Eskimo logo. If they wanted to be a more amorphous regional carrier they should change their name to a version in the Air West mold or, at any rate, something less specific than Alaska. In the end, they decided the name and the Eskimo were both worth keeping. They had the type and color treatment modernized and that’s how it looks today.

eskimo with lei (Custom)It’s still the proudest achievement of my extensive graphic design career. And I still see him turning heads whenever I’m at an airport. (By the way, that’s where the name of my design firm, Turning Heads, came from.) Today, here in Hawaii, I’m happy to see him wearing a lei as he flies to and from the islands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maggots Can Be Good For You

I wrote the following magazine article about the bad infection I went through last winter. The article has been published online at a medical magazine called “You & Me.” Click on their title for a link it. They trimmed it from 3100 words to 1900 words, but they kept the entire heart of the article. Plus, they published a gruesome photo of my leg which I won’t subject you to here.

 

INFECTION:

MAGGOTS CAN BE GOOD FOR YOU

by Vic Warren

  

Monday, November 26, 2012. The array of I.V. bags dripping into my vein includes saline, pain killer, and three or four antibiotics. I’m not aware of much of this beyond the rich sensation that I’m lying in a bed instead of sitting in the wheelchair where I waited for two hours on an extra busy afternoon at Kona Community Hospital’s Emergency Room.

The nurse has covered me with a warm blanket, but my teeth are still chattering, and my body is shaking with fever. The nurse also told my wife, Laurel, to go home and pack an overnight bag. Laurel explains to me that Michael Dunlap, the doctor in charge of E.R., took one look at the nasty wound on my left ankle that has my whole lower leg glowing bright lobster red, and passed on his fears to her. He’s called for a medivac to fly us from Kona to a hospital in Honolulu. He said the spreading wound has reached the life-threatening stage.

The source of all this mayhem was nothing more than a delicate little cut not much more than a quarter inch long, which made the unfortunate choice of getting infected by some vicious streptococcus bacteria. Strep is never good, but when it finds a weak spot undermined by poor circulation, trouble is guaranteed even when the patient’s healing spirit is willing.

Forty minutes later, two paramedics in khaki show up with a gurney.

“We’re ready to go now, sir,” says the shorter man. “I’m Craig, and this is Matt. We’re going to take you to the airport.”

He grabs the bouquet of I.V. branches and attaches it to a shorter, more compact standard on the gurney. The two men carefully pick me up and deposit me, then double wrap me in a sheet and blanket. They strap me on, and I focus on the ceiling as I’m rolled from the E.R. room, rattled over a couple of thresholds and lifted through the doorway. They lower the gurney to the pavement, and I can see the shine of drizzle ahead in the parking lot, Mt. Hualalai’s sharing of its liquid wealth sliding down its slopes. The warm mist is like a refreshing wake-up call.

Craig and Matt pick up the gurney and slide it home into the rear of the ambulance. Craig climbs in next to me and locks my moveable bed into place.

“How you doin’?” he asks.

“Never this bad before,” I answer. “From my toes to my knee, my left leg feels like it’s on fire.”

“Oww!” he grimaces, “I’ll pump up the pain killer.” He looks ahead at Matt in the driver’s seat and says, “Let’s do some miles for this poor guy.”

The engine is already running. Matt turns on the lights and the siren and pulls out of the parking lot north on Highway 11. The siren cries through Kealakekua, and Craig says, “We’re due at the airport about the same time as the plane, but just in case he’s early.”

I look toward the rear of the ambulance and am surprised to see a couple of 1950s West Coast jazz posters displayed on the doors of the glass cases on the sidewalls. “I like the posters,” I say.

When we reach the divided lanes of Queen Ka’ahumana I look out the back window and whistle.

Because of the observatories on Mauna Kea’s summit, the entire island is built for low-level light. The lights on Queen K are like many other island lights, dark on top and bright yellow under. I’ve seen them dozens of times before, but seeing them in reverse, each glossy stripe of yellow receding into the distance, they create a whole new image of the highway after dark.

“Nurse tells me we’re picking up your wife at the airport,” says Craig.

“I guess so,” I say, rubbing my chin. “No one talked to me, but she’s not here in the ambulance, is she?”

“Hmmm, I think I should call her. What’s her cell phone number?”

I give him the number, and he calls it, and Laurel picks up immediately.

“Hi, this is Craig, Laurel. Matt and I have Vic with us in the ambulance. Where are you? Good. Just walk south past the end of the arrival area, and you’ll see a big cyclone fence with a gate in it. We’ll be there in five.”

Matt pulls off the main airport drive and stops. Craig swings the back door open and climbs out. Then I see Laurel silhouetted in the open door. She’s put on a jacket, even though it’s plenty warm in North Kona.

“Move to the front,” says Craig, taking her duffle bag. She slides up the seat facing me and gives me a smile, touching my cheek with her hand.

“Are you okay?”

“No. But better now that you’re here.”

Matt pulls ahead to the gate and waves at the guard. The gate dings open, and we drive out onto the tarmac.

“Our bird has landed,” announces Craig.

*

Dr. Nicolas Nelken is the vascular surgeon who’s going to operate on the blood vessels in my left leg to create enough flow to heal the wound on my ankle. On Thursday, the 29th, he comes into the room and pulls up a chair. He wears a ponytail and a Van Dyke beard and has a professional bearing that makes his look work.

I’m very happy to be talking to him about moving forward. It’s taken three days of antibiotics to bring me to the point where I can speak coherently, and the pain killer level can be reduced.

He crosses his long legs and says, “We have two ways to go on this. I’ve looked at the ultrasounds and decided that your femoral artery is the problem. It looks like what should be a powerful torch is behaving more like a candle. From your groin to your knee, we have blockage. Surprisingly, the three smaller arteries in your lower leg look pretty good.”

He stands up and looks down at my leg. “I want to do an angiogram to get a better look at that large artery. If it looks good enough, we can perform an angioplasty and open it enough to work well. If it’s blocked too severely, we’ll find a good vein and bypass the femoral to get your blood moving down your leg.

“Any questions?”

“When do you think you’ll be doing the surgery?”

“We’re looking at Tuesday, the 4th. Are you free then?” he asks, grinning.

“I’ll have to check my calendar, but I think I can make time,” I answer, smiling back.

*

I need to stop right here to fill you in a little on my medical history, so you’ll understand why I have to joke about this.

I came down with Type 1 diabetes when I was in my mid-twenties. My dad and my sister had both died of it, so I took it very seriously. In spite of keeping good control, the diabetes hit my eyes with diabetic retinopathy, but thanks to an excellent program at the University of Washington Medical Center, I got laser treatments that saved them. In the late 90s, the diabetes knocked out my kidneys, and I had to go on dialysis. It turns out, I was one of the very fortunate ones—in 2002, UCLA gave me a double transplant, not just a kidney, but also a pancreas, so I lost the diabetes after 33 years. I’ll take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of my life, but what a trade-off.

*

I wake up in a room I haven’t seen before. Judging by the banks of instruments and flashing lights on the wall, I could be guest starring on a TV sci-fi drama.

Except for two things. First, the bed. It’s a very comfortable, adjustable bed with lots of levers and buttons on it. But if I were in a starship med center, there wouldn’t be a bed. I’d be suspended in zero gravity to lessen the stress on my injuries. And I’d be surrounded by a 78 degree aura to keep me comfortable, not covered with a blanket. And second, the porthole in the wall would show me a small piece of deep space. This room has a picture window. I can see blue sky with patchy clouds and the top of the peaks surrounding Moanalua Valley.

I decide I must be in the hospital’s post-op area or in intensive care. And that’s confirmed when a nurse with the name tag Teresa comes in to check on me.

“How’s the pain, sir?” she asks immediately.

“Surprisingly, it’s only a two or three, not the tough stuff I was expecting.”

“Well, you’re still feeling the post-op combo Sam gave you. Let me know if it gets worse. Excuse me, but I need to check your bandage,” and she gently pulls the covers off my left leg.

The bandage from my groin to below my knee is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It looks like it could be polished leather more than two inches wide sealed by a darker section half an inch wide that surrounds it.

Teresa presses her fingers lightly along the edge.

“Quite a bandage, isn’t it?” she asks. “The shine in the material is silver that speeds healing. And the stitches on your wound are all self-dissolving. Any pain?” she asks, pressing on the bandage.

“Not at all.”

“Good. Your operation went really well. Doctor will be in shortly, and so will your wife.”

She goes to the door. “If you need anything, just buzz. Otherwise, enjoy the rest. We’ll get you something to eat a little later.”

I’m just about to drop off asleep when the door opens again, and Dr. Nelken comes in. He’s wearing his blue scrubs.

“Hi, doctor. Looks like you’re having a busy day.”

“Right you are. Surgery is not a nice, neat job where things come in measured doses.”

He crosses to my bed and says, “Let’s take a look at your and my handiwork,” and pulls the blanket from my leg. “Looks very clean, but I had some excellent help. How’s the pain?”

“Nothing much, I’m happy to say.”

“If it gets worse, let the nurse know right away. You shouldn’t put up with pain. It just gets in the way of healing.”

“So did you do the angioplasty?”

“I told you that was a possibility, but when I got in there, it was obvious that it would have to be a bypass, which fortunately went very well. We knew that there was blockage in your femoral artery. That artery, in fact, is harder than a pencil. Completely blocked, thanks to diabetes and years of smoking. It’s fortunate you quit smoking when you did, or you wouldn’t be alive today.”

He pulls the blanket back over my leg and says, “How do you like the ingenious bandage? It not only protects, it heals, as well. We’ll take it off in five days, and your sutures will heal and disappear on their own. I can see that the bypass on your right leg was a lot more complicated.”

“Yeah, it was only four years ago, but a lot of it was staples, and because of the stress on it, the ankle was hand-stitched.”

There’s a short knock at the door, and Teresa puts her head in. “Doctor, Mr. Warren’s wife is here. Is it all right if she comes in?”

“Of course she may. We’re just about done, anyway.”

The nurse opens the door, and Laurel comes in and smiles when she sees me looking somewhat conscious.

“Hi, doctor. Is he all right?”

“We have an excellent patient here. You know yourself what kind of things he’s survived, and thrived on. He has a new bypass replacing his femoral artery. When this is done, he’ll have two good legs instead of the failed ones he had just a few years ago.”

“That’s wonderful to hear.”

“I’ll let you alone now. Mr. Warren, I’ll see you later, but we’ll have Dr. Roedel checking in on you daily.”

*

Viki Lai Hipp is a wound nurse. Her official title is Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurse. She’s a major part of the progressive attitude of Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center. And her talents were a huge help to my coming through this rough period of my life and weathering the storm.

The first time I met her, she arrived with one of the doctors to look at the wound, now that the vascular surgery team had performed a femoral bypass to give me the blood flow I needed to heal. After unwrapping the bandages and gauze, she studied the open wound which covered about fifteen square inches of my lower leg and told me they were going to use something to help it heal. Honey!

Reflecting back, I know that even in ancient times, honey was used for its medicinal properties. And today, she was applying honey over my leg. Not just any honey, but leptospermum honey, honey from bees feeding on the flowers of the manuka, or New Zealand tea tree, which I find out is famous for its ability to work against many bacteria.

As she spreads it on, its soothing feel relaxes me. She covers it securely, wraps it in gauze and says, “We’ll let it work for two days, then unwrap it.”

Two days later, everyone who looks at the results of the honey is impressed. After cleaning the honey off and looking at the improvements, she feels that a second treatment of honey is called for.

In two more days, she cleans off the honey and tells me about the next step they are recommending. Honey can’t hold a candle to the exotic nature of this treatment. For the squeamish, it’s called MDT. In plain words, it’s maggot debridement therapy. Still used in only a few places, it’s one of the most effective treatments for infected wounds, especially for diabetics. And, even though I haven’t had diabetes for eleven years thanks to my pancreas transplant, I still suffer from what diabetes did to me.

An Irvine, California company called Monarch produces disinfected phaenicia sericata larvae, sterile common green bottle fly larvae that are administered to the wound in small nets of between one and two hundred. Maggots are not interested in healthy tissue, so they only eat the diseased areas in their surroundings. They are sterile, so they bring nothing foul with them. When they’re applied, they are about the size of the tip of a ball point pen, but kind of transparent, almost like tiny pearls.

They’re wrapped securely in a nylon sleeve which allows them to breathe, and then further wrapped in thick gauze to help control the increased seeping from the wound. After two days and one gauze changing, my leg is unwrapped, and the maggots wet-vac’d and disposed of. They’ve grown to the size of fuzzy grains of rice, and the wound is much freer of necrotic tissue.

Viki decides that we’ll probably need to clean the wound with MDT four times. Six days later, Viki and Dr. Philip Bruno, an infectious disease specialist, are happy with the results and recommend that I start using a wound vac. This machine is connected to a sponge covering the wound. It draws seepage from the wound and encourages blood flow in the area and is attached by a plastic tube to a power source the size of a small vacuum cleaner that sits by my bed.

For four days, I’m leashed to the machine, and when I go for my daily walks throughout the hospital, I attach the vacuum to my walker, which groans at the extra weight. Laurel and I are relieved when we hear that they’ll be providing me with a home wound vac and sending me home on December 21st. We won’t have to celebrate Christmas in the hospital!

            It’s an interesting feeling, saying goodbye to people that I know so well, yet hardly know at all. I know nothing of their lives aside from the fact that they are good with a scalpel, or administering pain killer, or bringing me an extra blanket. And they don’t really know anything of me. They’ve seen me at my worst, howling with pain, vomiting, fouling my bed. And they’ve seen me heal, and rejoiced in that healing. But they’ve never seen me at my best. They aren’t familiar with the way I live. My likes or my dislikes. My taste in music or food.

As I shake their hands and look in their eyes, smiling with congratulations at my leaving the hospital, I know that I will probably never see them again. I want to hold them close and not say goodbye. After all, they’ve saved my life. At the very least, my leg.

*

We’re given boarding passes when we leave Moanalua, and I go through the lengthy procedure of taking a five-pound shoulder bag, the wound vac that’s cabled to my leg, through security at the airport.

It seems strange to get off the plane at our home airport in Kona. My memories of the flight over are vague indeed. I’m also not used to walking just anywhere and choose my steps carefully crossing the parking lot to our car. It’s not too bad climbing the stairs to our condo, but the pile of nearly four weeks of mail is a little disconcerting. Fortunately, I don’t have too many deadlines keeping me from it over the next couple of days.

I’m scheduled to see Dr. Paul Faringer in two and a half weeks. He’s the plastic surgeon who will be doing a skin graft to finish the wound. Oh, I forgot to mention—I have to fly back to Honolulu for the skin graft. Happily, it’s just an outpatient trip, and I’ll be home the same evening.

In the meantime, I’m wearing the wound vac, and home health nurses are changing the connection every two days.

*

January 28, 2013. I meet with Dr. Faringer for a follow-up look today. He’s very pleased with the way the graft has taken. The donor site for the skin from my left thigh is also healing very nicely. And the best news of the day is that I can shower and wash the healing ankle. I’ve been taking nothing but sponge baths for two months.

 

#

Break-in

Here’s a short story I finished recently which I hope will give you 100% of your daily requirement for suspense.

Frank Marsden was no good at climbing, and he was afraid of heights. So why in the hell did I let Johnson talk me into getting out on the roof, he asked himself. It was pitch black, thick cloud cover with no moon. And there were only a couple of lights turned on three stories below. He straddled the roof’s peak and pulled the coiled rope off his shoulder, then tied it securely, he hoped, around the chimney. At least it’s not raining, he thought, as he took a flashlight out of his coat pocket and double-checked the knot. He knew the balcony he was heading for was directly below the chimney. The fireplace served by the chimney was at the other end of the room attached to the balcony.

Marsden put the flashlight back in his pocket, took the rope in both hands and gingerly pulled his leg over the peak to lower himself down the roof. Suddenly, something whistled through the air, just missing his face.

“Christ!” It was a bat. The damned chimney must have bats living in it. He took one baby step down the roof, and started down hand over hand. He could hear more rustling coming from the chimney. He decided he’d better damned well get off this roof before all hell broke loose.

bats-flyingHe moved down more quickly until he felt air under his right foot. Wuff! This is not fun, he thought, but kept on until his legs hung down off the edge. He looked up as he heard the rope shift on the chimney and watched in terror as a black cloud rose erratically out of the opening, splintering into hundreds of tiny shapes spreading out above him. Only a couple of bats skimmed the air near him. The rest shot up and on toward the forest on the other side of the mansion.

He breathed a sigh of relief and went over the side. Looking down, he could make out the balcony just a few feet below. He dropped and rolled onto his side and lay there, his heart pounding. When his breath slowed, he stood up and looked around. The night was perfectly still, no wind, no more bats, nothing but the pulse of his own heart in his head. He crossed to the French doors and put his hand on the latch, turning it gently. It was unlocked! A nice wrinkle, he thought. They don’t expect visitors from the sky.

Marsden let himself into the room from the balcony. It was a large, long room appointed with a gallery of portraits in gilt frames, personages that looked Napoleonic and Edwardian. In the center of the room was a grand desk polychromed in scarlet and gold. This was the senator’s office, and Marsden immediately knew he had hit pay dirt. The safe would be somewhere in this room.

He worked his way down one wall, testing the paintings and the manner in which they were hung. Nothing. When he reached the far end, he noticed the fireplace that was the source of his chimney panic. In the dark corner next to the fireplace was a modest little painting in a relatively simple frame. He smiled as he realized that this was the greatest masterpiece in the room. It was a portrait by Vermeer of a young woman looking out an open window. As he looked more closely at it, he found himself holding his breath. He could feel the breeze brushing her pale skin.

Just beyond the fireplace, a door quietly opened, and Marsden froze where he stood. A man walked slowly into the room. He was built like a linebacker, probably one of the mansion’s guards, Marsden assumed. The man was dressed all in black, thick turtleneck sweater and slacks. His shoes were large and heavy. He hadn’t noticed Marsden in the darkness and walked straight to the open balcony door, pulling something out of his hip pocket that glinted silver in the shadows.

Marsden shuddered when he realized what he had to do next. The guard stepped out onto the balcony, looked around, then crossed to the railing and looked down. Marsden hit him in the back with all his strength. It was easy, really. The guard was still moving forward and the momentum took him right over the wrought iron railing. He crumpled with nothing more than a dull thud on the pavement below.

Marsden stepped to the railing and looked down at the guard. He wouldn’t be raising a cry of alarm. The pool of blood growing beneath his head caught the light from the nearby lamp post and shone darkly.

mansion darkFocus, he said to himself. You’re not done yet. You still have to open that safe. He went back to the Vermeer. It swung easily out from the wall. It was a copy, as he had figured. He rubbed his fingers on his pants and began to spin the lock. In the silence of the room, he could plainly hear the mechanism moving. He stopped, spun the dial back, then back again. There was what seemed to be a deafening click, and he turned the latch and opened the door. Piece of cake, he thought. He took the few papers that were inside and, without looking at them, stuffed them into his inside pocket.

That was when he heard the growl. It was coming from outside. From the ground below the balcony.

Shit! Some guard dog’s found the body, and there’s sure to be someone on the other end of the leash who’ll be up here in no time. He silently opened the room’s door and peered into the hall. It was empty and lighted only at the other end where the main staircase must be. The pine paneling in the hall was interrupted on both sides by several closed doors.

As far from the balcony room as possible, thought Marsden. He turned down the hall and put his hand on the doorknob of the last door on the other side of the hall. Turning it quietly, he opened it a crack and to his delight saw another dark room. He let himself in and closed the door behind him. In the dim light, he could see that he was in a small bedroom, probably one occupied by a servant high enough in rank not to be housed in the separate building he had seen outside. He pulled back the curtain and looked out the window. All was still quiet below, and frankly, he was surprised not to hear a commotion stirring anywhere. The gable of the roof above him connected here with yet another wing, and just two windows south of him was an iron fire escape, installed long after the mansion had been built. There was a candle burning in the first window. The light from it flared and flickered, nearly guttering out from the window’s draft.

I need to get to that fire escape, he thought. He went back into the hall and turned the corner.

“Ooof!”

He had walked right into a woman dressed as a maid, nearly knocking her down. She was short and pudgy with blonde hair, in a stretch still in her 30s.

He put his hands on her shoulders, keeping her from falling. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was moving too fast.”  Think, Marsden. “Are you on your way to the meeting?”

“What meeting? And who are you?”

“Forgive me again. I’m Schwartz, the new secretary. I was sent up to collect everyone for the meeting.”

“Oh, how do you do, Mr. Schwartz.”

“The meeting is down in the drawing room. You’d better hurry. I have to go make sure everyone is coming. I’ll see you down there.”

She smiled at him and said, “Of course, I’ll see you there.”

As she started down the hall, he asked, “Sorry again. What’s your name?”

“It’s Gretchen, sir.”

“Okay, nice to meet you, Gretchen,” and he turned toward the end of the hall, his heart pounding in his chest. How could she not hear it? She had turned the corner, and the very next door was the room with the fire escape. Whoa! She’s going to go down and ask about the meeting and who’s this Schwartz character, and cause ripples through security, and I’m going to be up shit creek if I don’t get out of here.

He opened the door to the next room. Another small, dark bedroom. He closed the door and crossed to the window. The fire escape was right outside. The window was sticky, but he managed to shake it back and forth, loosening it and finally sliding it up. He looked out and around. Might as well avoid blundering into someone else. There was no one he could see. No guards. No guard dogs. He swung his leg through the window and started down the iron stairs.

A shout from the other side of the building froze him. And then he realized freezing was the absolute opposite of what he should be doing, and he raced the rest of the way down three floors of stairs and dropped the five feet to the ground below. He ducked back into the man-sized azalea bushes that edged this part of the mansion.

He heard someone running and faded back so he could see through the sparse lower branches. Another guard, also in black, came around the end of this wing of the mansion. He saw something and changed his course away from the building. Marsden looked to his right and saw the guard’s target. It was a gray-haired man wearing a tuxedo with a velvet collar. Marsden recognized him. He was the owner of this estate, Senator Ted Warrington from Ohio, one of the wealthiest men in the Senate. Influential. Powerful. In love with his power. And not afraid to wield it. He was the reason that Marsden was playing spy tonight. The papers from the safe that were now in his pocket could help destroy the connection Warrington had built for illicit arms sales around the world.

Warrington and the guard spoke too low for Marsden to hear them, except for the words “dead” and “balcony.” The senator slapped the guard’s face and sent him away to the south, around to the other end of the building, then went back inside through what must be French doors from the garden.

Marsden brightened. He might have a chance after all. He moved along the wall behind the length of shrubbery until he reached an area toward the end of the wing that was, unfortunately for him, open ground. Ahead of him, twenty yards past the mansion’s corner, were the pine woods Marsden had come through before climbing to the roof. His car was parked on a rutted lane at the far side of the woods.

dark forestHe took a deep breath, then jumped up and ran for the woods. As he entered them, he heard the same growl he had heard earlier. He kept running, dodging between the young pines at the edge of the forest. He glanced back and saw a Doberman pinscher racing after him.

It was moving fast, and he didn’t like the way the foam was spraying from its open mouth. He tried to speed up, but the trees were getting thicker here, and the freight of his age didn’t help. Dodging one tree on his left, he tripped over a root and fell headlong into the brush, rolling to his right in time to see the dog leap past him. There was a shot, and the dog fell from midair, dead.

“I never much liked that dog,” a voice said. Marsden looked up and met the steely gaze of a lanky man with a gray beard and a shotgun. Instinctively, he put his hands up.

The man smiled and lowered the gun. “I reckon you’re going to be okay, Sonny. I saw your car back through the trees a while ago. I’m the game warden for this part of Fairfax County. Name’s Miller.” He reached down and gave Marsden a hand up.

“Did you get what you came for?”

Marsden nodded, and Miller said, “Good. You better get goin’ now. They heard the shot and’ll be slitherin’ in here before long.”

“Thanks, Miller,” Marsden said, patting the barrel on the other man’s twelve gauge.

“Any time, and when you see Johnson, tell him I said hello.”

 

End

Click here to read the true story about Yamashita's Treasure, the inspiration of the book.

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"If one wants to follow a captivating couple pursue their careers in exotic climes brilliantly described,
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“The author, Vic Warren, skillfully weaves in actual political events into his tale, making it seem so real. I can’t help but congratulate him for making me stop at parts and ask, is this fiction or fact? I would highly recommend it to readers who enjoy a gripping tale of high adventure.”
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Vic Warren is an award winning Art Director, credited with creating the "Eskimo portrait" as the aircraft tail logo for Alaska Airlines. If you need help in designing your book cover, check out these designs.

Stairway of the Gods continues to impress. The book's cover just won the Best Self-Published Book Cover Design Contest sponsored by A&A Printing.