Friday, October 30, 2015

CLASSIC TRIP - Maine 1999

Nubble Light

The usual disclaimer, prices and info are vintage 1999...your mileage may vary...

On our swing through the northeast, Maine served as a chance to rest & recharge our batteries in between the more hectic pace of America’s large cities. This trip brought us Wells and Ogunquit.

Public transportation here is pretty much nonexistent so a rental car is in order. I had a Ford Contour reserved, which would probably suit our needs fine, but I let the Hertz agent talk us into upgrading to a Ford Explorer for a few dollars more. As roomy as it looks, the Explorer is really a pretty poor choice for someone in a wheelchair. Oh well, time to move on.

Southwest, again the choice for wheelchair users on a budget, brought us within an hour of our destination from Los Angeles for a mere $99 each way. To get this rate, go to Southwest’s web site and sign up for their e-mail internet fares which frequently have coast-to-coast $99 deals.

We stayed at Village by the Sea, a condo complex near the Atlantic shore. In the fall, a huge 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom condo will set you back only $85 a night. Minus one bedroom and bathroom, the price is only $65 per night (the cost is about double in 2011 - Ed). The unit we chose was wheelchair accessible but did not have a roll in shower. The master bathroom had grab bars and a shower head on a hose.
Perkin's Cove and the Ugly Anne

There’s not a lot of action here in Southern Maine for those of you who live for the nightlife, but the scenery is spectacular. Ogunquit is your typical little Maine fishing village. Many boats depart from its little Perkins Cove to set traps for lobsters each day in the season.

Marginal Way
Marginal Way, a wheelchair accessible beach walk, winds a mile from the quaint cove along rocky beaches and finally ending up in the equally quaint downtown section of Oganquit.

To the north of Wells, the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge offers another accessible hiking trail through a mile of its woods providing breathtaking views along with the chance to get up close and personal with the area’s animals.

Diners head to Maine for another reason, its lobster. You can get lobster season (spring through early fall) many ways. Lobster rolls, stew, chowder, pie, etc. It’s plentiful and cheap. On a tip from the hotel staff, we checked out the Sundog.

The Sundog is a local eatery here in Wells that has kind of an incongruous Alaska motif but serving good food at good prices in a slightly sterile atmosphere. It’s a bit of a shocker for those of us out-of-towners used to seing lobster as the expensive star of a menu. Here, it’s the cheapest thing. Lobster dinner - $8.95. Want 2? $14.95. A chicken dinner was $12.95 and steak was $15.95. The lobster here was sweet, delicious, and local. The service here the best of the trip. (The Sundog may no longer be in business, I can't find any listing for it - Ed)

Other dinners were had at the Shore Café and Barnacle Billy’s in Oganquit. The Shore Café served up some great food and decent service. Barnacle Billy’s was a bit mediocre, good service, a bit overpriced but came with million dollar views of Perkins Cove.

Another, even better, place to eat is Jackie's Too, on the wharf at Perkin's Cove. Along with the fresh caught lobster, they have the best burgers we'd find in Maine.

Since we were there in mid October, the fall colors were spectacular and at their peak. It is not without justification that New England is the most popular place for leaf peepers to visit each fall...although if you time it right the color is slightly more spectacular in the Blue Ridge mountains down south.

The weather was chilly and some towns, such as Old Orchard Beach, were completely shut down due to summer being over.

To sum up, spectacular scenery, a very relaxing pace, beautiful countryside scenery, and delicious seafood is what Maine has in store for the wheelchair traveler.

Copyright 1999 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 26, 2015

Fall Crawl in the Inland Empire

To be honest, we were originally going to head up the mountain to the Oktoberfest in Lake Arrowhead but when we found that this 'free' event would cost us a minimum of $60, we changed our mind.

Instead, we decided to buy a case of wine, sip a beer, and have a great dinner instead aided by a $50 gift certificate for Galleano Winery we'd been sitting on.

Watch the Video!

It's a wonderful day for it, mid 70's, mostly sunny weather (turns out a big thunderhead was sitting over Lake Arrowhead, so that's another plus for changing our minds) and easy traffic.

The time-travel portal that is the entrance to the Galleano ranch takes us from warehouses so big they can be seen from space into a century old farm wedged between them and Interstate 15.

There are a lot of cars here today at this normally sleepy little vineyard. Inside the tasting room, we find out why...a class reunion has descended on it. 

It's packed and Jorge, one of the employees, sets us up at a nearby butcher block table to taste.  I let Letty and Tim do most of the tasting and we end up with a mixed case plus a jug each of port and sherry to take home.

On the porch outside, we find a quiet little table to have a picnic of bread, cheese, and summer sausage from Usinger's in Milwaukee.

Next, one exit down the freeway, lies an industrial park in Norco that hosts Sons of Liberty Aleworks. This constitutional themed microbrewery serves delicious beer and ale in a dark, revolutionary-era setting. 

We sipped a few samples, with their special Oktoberfest brew my favorite, while Letty liked the chocolate porter.

It's their Oktoberfest celebration here...kind of a quiet affair (ok, a VERY quiet affair)...with a barbecue trailer out back cooking schnitzel and brats.

The constitution is more than a theme here...the owner will be very happy to hand you a pocket constitution when you check into Facebook and a local college hosts constitution educations classes on Tuesday nights.

Winding up this day across the IE, we end up at one of our favorite restaurants, Centro Basco, a great Basque restaurant in Chino. We're about a half hour early for dinner so we chill in the bar with some diet cokes and the bartender who chats us up until dinner time.

Dinner is a feast of soup, salad, bread, tongue, cheese, beans, fries, chicken cordon bleu, and ribeye steak.

Very sated, we head out and call it a day of old and new Inland Empire landmarks.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 23, 2015

CLASSIC TRIP: North Carolina, 2000 - Part 2

In Part 1, we went to a NASCAR race in Charlotte and just missed getting robbed. Now we head for the hills...

(NOTE: This is a 'Classic Trip.' Prices and other details have probably changed in the intervening years.)

After the race and another night, we caught the train to Washington, DC (which will be covered in another trip report) and took a week's break there before returning to Charlotte.

Now, we have 8 more days, no plans, no reservations, nothing in mind but we do have a rental car for the duration. We check in to a La Quinta Inn and press on.

We pull out a map and look for somewhere to go. We see that the town of Hickory is within a couple of hours drive so off we go.

The Blue Ridge Moutains Spectacular Fall Color

Being October, the leaves are putting on a show and what a show it was. The hills and mountains were literally ablase with color. Vibrants yellows, flaming reds, glowing oranges. A SoCal boy like me never sees anything like this. We were extremely lucky to hit right at the peak of color (we've been back since and have not been able to time it just right as we did on this trip).

Murphy's Mill, North Carolina

On top of the fall color, the countryside scenery is straight out of Norman Rockwell or Mayberry...which of course is set in North Carolina to begin with. Thousands of little country roads criss cross the state with breathtaking views around every corner. Heading up to Hickory, we round a bend and are hit with a view straight off of the cover of the Saturday Evening Review, Murphy's Mill.

We pull off to take a look at this historic grist mill. We later learn that the state is dotted with such mills. The banks of the placid mill pond with it's rushing waterfall are too much to resist picnicking at.

The General Store at Murphy's Mill

No lunch? No problem, turning around we see this pleasant little country store across the street with all the supplies we need.

At this point, may I just say that the people in the state are also top-notch. You hear about Southern Hospitality but it's something else to experience it first hand. The people here are very friendly and are a pleasure to deal with.

Arriving at Hickory near dinner time, we find another charming little Mayberry-like town that the state is full of. Now Mayberry is, of course, an unobtainable fiction and all towns have problems. But the towns we've seen are beautiful examples of small town America populated by some very friendly folks.

We pull in for dinner at the Hickory Station, a nice dinner and steak house set in the restored railroad depot. As my wife dines on some savory shrimp, Tim on a nice juicy burger, and me on a tender rib-eye, we enjoy the wonderful view of the twinkling lights of downtown and the hills beyond. After dinner, the host invites us into the kitchen to meet the chef and after a nice chat we head on back to Charlotte.

The next day, we head over to the hometown of Elizabeth Dole, Salisbury. Here, we ride on the historic restored steam train at the railroad museum. The coal fired locomotive gives us a clue as to why it's not used as a fuel on modern trains anymore. Our skin, hair, and even teeth are filled with a fine, gritty soot as the smoke from the burning coal settles over the entire train.

The town offers a self guided tour of its magnificent old homes, some dating back to the 17th century. We marvel at these grand old buildings and head back for another night in the big city.

No, it's not Lake Tillery but another beautiful lake, Lake Lure.

For our last day in Charlotte, we head over to nearby Morrow Mountain State Park and Lake Tillery. We rent a rowboat at the bargain rate of $2.50 an hour a take a leisurely cruise to the other side of the lake, watching the fall leaves drift down to the surface and the snapping turtles drift up. A wheelchair accessible platform hovers over a prime fishing spot on the lake. A few bucks for a license and a cheap rod and reel from Wal-Mart is all that's needed to dip a line here (licenses are free for disabled persons).

The Pinebrae Bed and Breakfast

For a change of pace, we head to the hills for the rest of our trip. Our home is now the beautiful Pinebrae Bed and Breakfast just outside another charming North Carolina town, Rutherfordton. We arrive at 9:00pm hungry. After checking in and unpacking, we head into town to see what's for dinner. Not much at that time of night.

The only place open (and for only a few minutes more) is a barbecue place just outside of town on the road to nearby Spindale. I'm sorry to say that North Carolina barbecue and me just don't get along...just way to vinegary. The food was atrocious but luckily, it's the worst we would have to endure.

The Pinebrae is a antebellum style mansion situated on 15 acres of prime western North Carolina countryside with woods to wander through, great expanses of lawn, and many wild furry visitors popping through.

The owners, Alan and Charlotte, tell us it used to be a home for troubled youths back in the depression years. Now it's a beautiful home with four guest rooms for travelers. And fellow travelers here tend to be nice and quiet since most of their guests are visiting doctors working at the hospital down the road.

This waterfall is not on any map, this is where our hosts led us to.

A great home cooked breakfast awaits everybody each morning and guests eat at a common great table in the massive dining room with Alan holding court leading the conversation. He also tells us of the sites nearby, off the beaten path, that lead to spectacular waterfalls and mountaintop views. This luxurious and homey retreat costs us a grand total of $69 a night including breakfast.

A country lane near Rutherfordton

Travelling through the countryside towards nearby Asheville, we stop at roadside stands to pick up home made jams, jellies, and preserves to take back with us.

We travel over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hike up to the top of Clingman's Dome, the second highest point in the state and the highest point of neighboring Tennessee (the state line bisects the peak).

If you can make it, here is the lookout tower that awaits you at the top of Clingman's Dome

A note here for wheelchair users: although there is a smooth, paved path leading up from the parking lot to the top of the lookout tower with no steps whatsoever, the trail is very steep. A strong power chair with lots of traction and a full charge will probably make it. Be sure to bring a very strong pusher or be in extremely good physical shape if you attempt this in a manual chair. I pushed my son up to the top in his manual chair and was having some very serious doubts as to if I would make it to the end of this half-mile trail without suffering a coronary. It is exceedingly difficult for a manual chair and should be attempted with caution...remember, even if you do make it up, you have to negotiate that very steep downhill slope with a chair that wants nothing more than to break loose and make a mad dash for the fall line.

We did make it after much effort and the view into neighboring Tennessee is astonishing. After a hair-raising walk 'n roll back down to the parking lot, we head over to Dillsborough to board the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad.

The scenery of the Smokey Mountains is up close from the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad.

Here, we board a wheelchair accessible coach - with an onboard accessible restroom also - and take a 2 hour ride up the Tuckaseegee River and marvel at the countryside views of tobacco farms, villages, and the river itself. Just before a tunnel, we are treated to the spot where Hollywood created that fantastic train wreck scene from the Harrison Ford movie, "The Fugitive", complete with the destroyed locomotive and prisoner transport buses.

The train makes it back to Dillsborough at 6:00pm and after browsing through the few shops still open at that time, we have dinner at the unpretentious Dillsborough Steak and Seafood house for a delicious dinner before heading back over to Rutherfordton.

We spend our last full day here shopping for souvenirs in town and taking one last drive through the countryside. The next day, after having one last hot southern breakfast we say goodbye to our hosts and take that 2 hour drive back to Charlotte for the most regretable part of our trip...going home.

Copyright 2000 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 19, 2015

CLASSIC TRIP: North Carolina, 2000 - Part 1


(NOTE: This is a 'Classic Trip.' Prices and other details have probably changed in the intervening years.)

Over the course of the years we've been to a lot of nice places. Sometimes really nice places. At the end of each trip though, we were always ready to call it a day and retreat to home sweet home. Out of all the places we've been, none have beckoned us beyond a visit except for one. North Carolina was a place I hated to leave and actually enticed us to try to relocate.

It didn't happen. Oh we tried, I even put in for a transfer to Raleigh, but it just wasn't meant to be at the time although we still hope for the right circumstances to allow us to make the move.

I wasn't expecting it to be that good. In fact, I'd never given the Tar Heel state a second thought until one day we were at my inlaws house, knockin' a few back while we were watching a stock car race on TNN. A commercial came on from the North Carolina tourism board with an offer to call an 800 number for a free visitor's brochure. What made me make the call? I don't know, maybe in the heat of the race (we're big race fans by the way) I thought it'd be cool to see a race at one of those good ole boy tracks down south.

Well the brochure arrived and the timing was right. There was a fall race at Charlotte and we could get dirt cheap tickets. We even found an open room at the Motel 6 nearby (as race fans could tell you, a cheap room during a race weekend is an extremely rare thing...try getting one at Indianapolis during Memorial Day weekend). This would allow us to see the race and then give us 10 days afterward to explore.

Flying to Charlotte, we took US Air which is about the only choice you have since they have 90% of the gates locked up there. It was a great flight and we had the bonus of several celebrities on the plane with us like Jeff Conaway, Don Knotts, and some we recognized but didn't know their names like the guy who played Kevin's older brother on the Wonder Years.

It was a fun flight (It's Jason Hervey - Ed).

Arriving at the airport, US Air have their sponsored car with driver Ted Musgrave waiting to greet arriving passengers. To those of you who wonder why it's a big deal, in Charlotte a big race weekend is comparable to Super Bowl weekend. Anyway, we did the meet and greet with Musgrave who was a superb gentleman and even put our son Tim in the driver's seat of his Winston Cup racer. All in all a wonderful way to start the trip.

We caught a taxi to our motel, which was just your basic Motel 6. Upon checking in, a young man came in behind us at the lobby and held the door for us as we went to our room. 10 minutes later, reality came down on us as the manager who checked us in came to our room and asked us if we remembered what that man looked like because right after we walked out he robbed them!

Luckily, no one was hurt. He just took the money and was actually polite about it. We gave our statement to the police and went on with our trip. We were a little shaken up, but that was the first and last bad thing to happen on our trip.

The motel soon turned into race central and was full of fans.  Motel 6, though basic, is pretty advanced when it comes to accessibility with a roll-in shower and two double beds.  Nowadays, I'd look for something a little more comfortable but back then, it was available and cheap.

We soon realized that Charlotte has one thing in common with Southern need a car. God must have been smiling on us because after calling several agencies, we must have got the last available car in North Carolina at Enterprise Rent a Car.

The next day we drove over to the speedway for the race. Charlotte Motor Speedway is a marvelous place to watch a race. We had great wheelchair accessible seats in turn one and could see all the action easily. It was also quite warm, pleasantly so, we sat in our shorts and t-shirts soaking up the sun enjoying some great NASCAR Winston Cup action.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we head to the hills of Western North Carolina...

Copyright 2000 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Southern California's Hottest New Attraction - Huy Fong Foods...the Sriracha Factory Tour

It's Sriracha season again, let's go back and take the tour of the factory that makes the world's favorite hot sauce...

In the middle of the San Gabriel Valley...mostly know for it's outstanding Asian cuisine, Santa Anita Racetrack, and the Rose Bowl and parade...sits the tiny community of Irwindale, population 1,422, made up of mostly of members of five families.

Irwindale is pock-marked by giant pits used to extract gravel for concrete. As these pits give out, the city is trying to transform them into industrial lots and other commercial uses. It famously made a deal with football's Raiders owner, Al Davis, to build a stadium in one of them but it fell through with Davis taking the city's $10 million good faith fee.

Watch the Video!

It's also infamous for dealings that, from time-to-time, tend to send council members to jail for lengths of time.

Into this nine square mile of rock pits, factories, dumps, and a brewery, stepped David Tran. Tran also has a very colorful story.

He's a Chinese Vietnamese refugee that escaped that country and is a "boat person." The Boat People crammed into any vessel they could and set out to sea to escape the incoming Communist regime after the fall of South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

With nothing but a recipe and determination, Tran started to make the hot sauce he made back in Vietnam and selling it to local Vietnames and Chinese restaurants here in the San Gabriel Valley.

It took off like wildfire and soon he was pumping out his famous Sriracha Rooster Hot Chili Sauce from a small factory in Rosemead that used to house famous hula hoop maker, Wham-O.  When production outgrew that facility, the city of Irwindale made him an offer and, in 2010, he moved to a giant, new facility in their town.

Three years later, relations with the new city soured when about 60 complaints of offensive odor came in to city hall. The city promptly started actions to shut down the factory as a "public nuisance."

Threats to the highly popular sauce meant that this news spread world-wide. Reporters descended on the factory, noting that they really couldn't smell anything (note: I drove by the plant, which is a little over a mile from our house, several times and never smelled anything), and that almost all of the complaints came from 4 households with ties to a city councilman.

Lawsuits, inspections, and millions of dollars spent on air filtering equipment, and multiple offers of other jurisdictions that would be happy to have Tran and his hot sauce in their town, finally convinced Irwindale to back off but never admit they did anything wrong.

Tran is also one not to give in. He's a fighter with a sense of happy humor so, to prove the city wrong, he's opened up the mammoth Sriracha factory during what should be the throat-stinging, smelliest part of the year...the season when they grind the fresh jalapeño show everybody just how strong, or not strong, the smell is.

So during the fall harvest and grinding season, anybody is welcome to come to David Tran's factory in Irwindale to experience this for themselve. We decided to go.

In a festive atmosphere, we don our hairnets (and beardnet for Tim), and set off. Here's our tour (it's self-guided):

Since Tim has a goatee, he also gets to wear a beardnet.

The building is massive. Expansion can also take place in this large warehouse, where pallets of hot sauce await shipment.

Trucks bring in a special hybrid of jalapeño peppers grown on one farm in Ventura County, and dump them in the hopper to begin the process. You can help yourself to a sample (see picture at top).

A conveyor takes the chiles into the factory.

The chiles are washed, inspected for debris, and ground up in this room.

Additions like salt, garlic, and vinegar are mixed in and ground up with the chiles, making them Sriracha sauce at this point.

The finished sauce is pumped into 50 gallon drums and stored in a warehouse for use in filling the bottles throughout the year.

This machine makes the plastic bottles that will be filled with the sauce.

After the bottles are manufactured, this machine fills them up and seals them.

Next comes the shipping department where the freshly filled bottles are boxed and palleted for shipment.

Upon exit, Tran has put up a banner facing the Irwindale City Hall.

The Rooster Room gift shop and free food samples await after the tour.

We also get a free cone of soft serve Sriracha ice cream.

Lastly, we pick up a free t-shirt and bottle of Sriracha sauce to take home.

So, does it pass the smell test? Between the three of us and several people we asked, outside the plant we could not smell anything. The nearby Miller Brewery and a garbage facility produces much more aroma. Inside, a very faint smell of garlic, and in the grinding room, we could feel it in our throats but that room was well insulated from the rest of the building and the outside.

Tours are conducted during harvest and grinding season, according to the city the smelliest time of the year, to make sure visitors get the full effect.  That runs August through November.  No tours are given if it's raining.

Contact Huy Fong at (626) 286-8328 to make arrangements for the free tour.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved