Monday, May 29, 2017

The Road Less Taken - L.A. to Reno via Highway 395

"It's one of the most scenic drives in California," I tell my son.

"When does the scenic part start?" he replies.

Can't say I blame him all that much as you have to drive through a lot of ex-urban, partially developed desert land that would be more suited for a role in "Breaking Bad," before you get to the good part.

Prisons, large subdivisions, and the roads that are ill-suited to so many newcomers pushing into these communities just on the other side of the Cajon Pass from San Bernardino put a damper on this part of the drive.

"Be patient, it will be scenic in awhile."

Watch the Video!

Gradually, the last of the gargantuan Southern California's metropolitan sprawl passes by and we get to a more empty desert scenery sprinkled with ghost towns and lonely gas stations serving as rest stops for weary travelers.

Once we climb the grade that separates the desert from Owens Valley at the appropriately named Little Lake, the scenery does change dramatically.

The mighty Sierra Nevadas line our left side view. It's not long before we pull over for a restroom break at Lone Pine to take a gander at snow and cloud draped Mt Whitney in the distance (see picture at the top of this post).

Still, my jaded son is going "I've seen mountains and desert before."

Oh well, you just can't please all the city lovers sometimes.

Soon, I'm pointing out historical points that my wife is slightly more interested in than Tim.

"There's the courthouse where they tried Charles Manson (in Independence)...John Wayne stayed at that hotel while shooting westerns in those rocks to the left...that mound on the left is a mass grave for earthquake victims...(and, most poignantly of all) that big, green building is all that's left of Manzinar."

Tim perks up a bit when we stop at Jack's Restaurant in Bishop...which will always be Jack's Waffle Shop to me...where it was a mandatory meal any time we drove up to Mammoth in my skiing days.

...and now a word from our sponsor.  We're very happy and long-time customers of Paul Kalemkiarian's Wine of the Month Club. We'd be pleased to see you become members, too. Now, all gift purchases get a free wine Accessory. Click the following link for some amazing wine deals: The Wine of the Month Club 45th Anniversary Sale. Thanks for your support, now back to the story...

Bishop also marks the point, about 3/5 of the way to our destination, where I need to fill the gas tank again so we stop at the Paiute Casino and gas stop at the end of town where my wife also buys some Indian fry break being cooked up in a little trailer in the parking lot.

Back on the road, we soon pass the aforementioned Mammoth Mountain, covered in a fat snow-filled cloud (hope it's a good season for them), then climb over Sherwin Summit at over 8,000 feet to get to Mammoth's sister resort of June Lake. 

Lee Vining and Mono Lake are next. Every time I drive through here, I think of Clint Eastwood's "High Plains Drifter," which was filmed along the shore.

Bridgeport is next, a town that gets so snowbound in winter that it'd make you think you're in Montana rather than California, with it's gas prices more than a dollar a gallon higher than what we paid in Bishop.  It gets so cold here that the Marines use it for cold weather warfare training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center located nearby.

Through the Walker River Canyon, where a tragic bus accident happened years ago and 3 airborne firefighters are memorialized with dozens of t-shirts and a roadside plaque near the spot where their C-130 tanker crashed fighting a blaze.

After this beautiful but sad canyon drive, Topaz Lake marks the state line with the ubiquitous casino. Down a hill, Gardnerville and Menden mark our entrance to Nevada's Carson Valley and our ultimate destination while we're here to take a look and see if we might want to retire here.

That's for tomorrow, though, as we continue north...maddeningly...along the highway as the governments here have decided to throw up an unsynchronized signal every now and then, turning a half hour drive into an hour plus when we finally reach our hotel in Reno, across the street from the Harrah estate.

It's been a long, nearly 10 hour drive but you can see the whole thing compressed into 6 minutes in the video above. For now, we'll turn in to our room at the Homewood Suites and continue this house hunters thing in the morning.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved
Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2014 - All Rights Reserved

Friday, May 26, 2017

Davis and the Delta...Exploring California's Sacramento River Delta

Over the years, our go-to hotel in the Sacramento area has been the Hyatt House in Rancho Cordova. It's been a few other names over the years but it's still the same building, sitting across Folsom Boulevard from the Sunrise Light Rail Station.

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While the rooms and hallways could use a refresh, it's still a clean comfortable place to stay and...thanks to the Hyatt loyalty program...those several stays over the years meant the three nights here were just about free (I was just short of enough points for a three night stay so Hyatt just charged me $50 to make up for it).

(This hotel has since had a year-plus renovation and is now a Doubletree Hotel - Ed)

We've always liked the breakfast bar here, with it's cooked-to-order omelettes, even though at times we've had to jostle in with Olympic athletes or hordes of Little Leaguers competing in a tournament. The days just before Thanksgiving are quiet, though. We almost have it to ourselves this morning.

Today, we're adding a new place to our in-state resume.  Our little band of travelers have made it to just about every nook and cranny of our Golden State but we've never been to Davis before.  Today is the day.

Actually, the morning.  Davis can be the clone of Claremont, another quaint college town near us in Southern California. We wander the streets talking to shopkeepers, browsing the stores, and ending up at a gluten-free, local sourced coffee shop and a grocery co-op, picking up some snacks for the road.

Yeah, Davis can be a kind of hippy town at times.

...and now a word from our sponsor.  We're very happy and long-time customers of Paul Kalemkiarian's Wine of the Month Club. We'd be pleased to see you become members, too. Now, all gift purchases get a free wine Accessory. Click the following link for some amazing wine deals: The Wine of the Month Club 45th Anniversary Sale. Thanks for your support, now back to the story...

It's a cute town but with a heavy sense of de ja vu for us so we take our leave over to the Sacramento River Delta.

Not too long ago, my wife and I enjoyed a delicious Cabernet. My wife liked it especially. It came from Bogle Winery, which we find is headquartered here in the Delta. 

Just outside the town of Clarksburg with some breathtaking driving atop a narrow dike, we make it to the winery.

When parking, we notice the tasting room is upstairs. Quite a few of them, actually. Luckily, it doesn't take us long to find the big, two-story ramp on the other side of the building.

The wines are delicious and there are several sold here that can't be found in stores. We make a bread and cheese platter from the goodies we bought in Davis, and have a picnic with a glass of wine.

Clearance Wine sale from $4.99 Shop Now

The flat Delta views are stunning, especially with the snow-capped Sierras in the distance.

In the morning, after another delicious Hyatt House breakfast (which is included in your room rate), we head up to Gold Country to look at possible places to retire.  We look in three areas...Valley Springs, Ione, and Plymouth...and quickly decide we'd much rather move here than over the mountains in the Carson Valley.

The Amador County Motherlode seems like the place we will spend the rest of our days after retirement. Can't wait.

Afterward, we go to see all of the friendly people who, by this time, are turning more into friends in the Shenandoah wine country, where we end up at a place you'll see time after time in this blog...Story Winery.

Still our favorite winery in the state, we have a grand time visiting with the staff who treat us like family every time we go. 

Letty swaps recipes with master cookie maker Della while I make deals on cases of wine.

Of course, another picnic on the beautiful deck is in order, maybe a little more special this time because last spring, a wildfire came very close to consuming this slice of heaven on earth.

Della points out the spot where a car's hot muffler hit the dry, drought-plagued grass and started the massive Sand Fire. Dead trees and burnt ground mark the fire's path across the canyon, right up to the edge of the wines.  

We're told that this year's vintage of Sangiovese (the closest grapes to the flames) will definitely have their flavor altered from the smoke.

That's it...we're done as we've found our spot to settle down and spend another night at the Hyatt before heading home.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

TRAVEL TIPS: What if there is no accessible transit available?

Though we fly to about half of our destinations, most of our trips turn out to be road trips once we get there.  We'll also end up in places that have no decent accessible public transportation, usually in rural areas.  Places like Montana, Kansas, Maine, etc. 

Watch the Video!

At that point, we recognize that we need to have a rental car.  Accessible vans are available from companies like Wheelchair Getaways and Wheelchair Van Rentals but the cost...with mileage, tax, gas added...can come up to around $200 a day.  That's a big budget buster.

In our case, we decide before we leave if the local transportation at our destination will be friendly for a power chair.  If it is not, or we have any doubt at all, we'll leave the power chair at home and take Tim's manual chair.  When we do that and we need a car, we'll rent a standard car, put the manual chair in the trunk, and Tim will ride in the front seat.

The major drawbacks to this are that a) Tim needs to be lifted in to and out of the car; b) we need to get a large enough car, meaning it costs more than a basic rental; and c) I need to push Tim everywhere...he loses his independence with the manual chair.  The tradeoff is that we are free to come and go as we please (not dependent on transit schedules) and the cost is less than half of the wheelchair van.

(Edited to add that Tim has since acquired a lightweight, folding power chair so he can now have some of that independence back - Ed)

The video above demonstrates how we do this on a trip.  I'm not saying it'll work for all disabled people, but this is how we solve the problem.

Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick

Monday, May 22, 2017

Following History...Donner Pass

They say hindsight is 20/20. I can imagine that's what the Donner and Reed families were thinking later in 1847 after the ordeal they had. 

If they hadn't followed that dastardly Lansford Hastings and his shortcut that was anything but. If they'd wintered over in the Carson Valley instead of a late fall push over the mountains. If they'd tried to get some experience before they went. As they say, though, if  "ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas."

Watch the Video!

It was four years before settlers would set up in the area as the party left Truckee Meadows in Nevada heading for Sacramento. It would be over twenty more before the area would become the railroad nucleus called "Reno."

Taking what they thought was a small risk to cross the Sierras in early November, the Donners and Reeds would get stuck in an historic snow fall and have to rely on their almost non-existent survival skills to make it through the winter in that unforgiving place.

Some would even have to resort to cannibalism...eating the bodies of those who make it through. It's one of the most gruesome and infamous tales of early California pioneers there is.

We're following the path of the Donner Party, now a modern Interstate highway, also making our way from Reno to Sacramento. On this November day, 168 years later, we're in no danger of getting snowed in at what we hope is the end of the worst drought in California history.

...and now a word from our sponsor.  We're very happy and long-time customers of Paul Kalemkiarian's Wine of the Month Club. We'd be pleased to see you become members, too. Now, all gift purchases get a free wine Accessory. Click the following link for some amazing wine deals: The Wine of the Month Club 45th Anniversary Sale. Thanks for your support, now back to the story...

The story of the Donners and Reeds has always fascinated me so we make a stop at the Donner Memorial Park, just off Interstate 80 about a mile or two west of Truckee, California.

It's a chilly but dry, sunny day as we pull into the lot. A tall memorial stands at the east end. We make our way into the visitor's center to pay our fee and watch a movie about the Donner Party.

It just wasn't in the cards for them as mistakes, misfortune, or plain incompetence followed one after another. 

Out back of the visitor's center is a large rock, against which a shelter was built by one of the families. 

After the survivors were rescued, U.S. Army Captain Kearney and his troops came upon a cabin in which they found cannibalised remains of some of the party. The men dug a hole in the cabin, buried the bodies, and burned the cabin down.

It is upon the site of this burned cabin that the large memorial is built.  The rocks in the memorial, over 20 feet tall, mark the depth of the snow that harsh winter.

For us, after we pay our respects, it's on to a much easier traverse over the mountains through the pass that now bears the party's name...Donner Pass.

It's a pretty but uneventful drive where we check into the Hyatt House hotel in Rancho Cordova, cross the street, take the trolley over to Old Town Folsom, and enjoy a deep dish Chicago pizza at Chicago Fire.

It's a cold night as we watch ice skaters navigate the old train turntable while we wait for our train home.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, May 19, 2017

Newport Beach, California: Hidden Treasures in the Bay

I've been here my entire life, over half a century. Just when I think I've seen it all, I marvel when I find a piece of Southern California I never knew existed.

That happened to me last week as I took Letty and Tim out to dinner in Newport Beach. I've been to Newport hundreds of times in my life and thought I had pretty much explored all of it but the beach had a new surprise for me.

Newport Bay stretches for a few miles from it's connection to the Pacific at Corona Del Mar inland almost all the way to John Wayne Airport. Most of the back bay is set aside for nature as wetlands but the outer bay is host to busy marinas, a small amusement park, an historic ferry, a few manmade islands and has been home to such luminaries as John Wayne, Dean Koontz, Humphrey Bogart, and Chuck Jones.

Watch the Video!

A boat tour leaving from the Balboa Pavilion is a nice, relaxing way to see some of the homes of the rich and famous.

We're here tonight because Tim hasn't had a good lobster roll since we visited Boston a few years ago. I've heard that the Bluewater Grill has them on their lunch menu at a not-too-unreasonable-for-California price of $18.95.

It's getting to Bluewater Grill that I find a piece of Newport Beach that has been missing from my puzzle...Lido Peninsula.  Now I know Lido Isle and the little block of shops and cafes that surround its classic movie theater.  I used to hang with a friend who lived on the little island but this part is new to me...I'd never even thought there was another neighborhood a block behind the theater.

At the end of a canal lined with multimillion dollar homes on one side, half-million dollar mobile homes on the other, and big yachts docked all along, there are a few restaurants lining the small turning basin here.

After finding a good parking spot in the lot (valet after 4pm), we head in and are given an outdoor table overlooking the water.

Bluewater charges no corking fee and I had some good wine at home. Some warm bread goes nicely with our Amador County souvenir.  Tim orders his roll, Letty the cioppino, while this non-seafood lover gets the thyme/garlic roasted chicken.

The dinner is delicious. Tim and Letty devour their dishes and I'm glad to report the chicken was outstanding...usually the non-seafood dishes at a seafood restaurant are at most an afterthought. Here, they are prepared with as much care as the ocean dwelling creatures.

It's also helpful to note the good food at a restaurant with a view, which breaks another stereotype.

Completing the meal with some sweet desserts, we take a stroll through the neighborhood watching the locals have little wine and cheese parties on their electric boats.

I'll have to remember this place. The traffic was a nightmare, coming and going, today but the destination is fantastic plus the beach is just yards away.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

TRAVEL TIPS: Safety and Security

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Fear and insecurity keep many a would-be traveler firmly ensconced at home.
What if I’m mugged? What happens if I’m trapped in a disaster? …I get lost?...robbed? …or worse?
Yes, security is a concern and I’m not going to say bad things will not happen to you. I will say that even everyday life is a game of playing the odds. Can all these bad things happen to you on a trip? Yes. Can they happen to you at home too? Yes. Is there a great chance that they will happen? No.
It is rare that anything bad happens to you while traveling but it can crop up. Keep in mind that I travel a lot more than your average tourist, but all of the following have happened to me at one point or another in my 50 years of traveling…riot, terrorist attack, pickpocket attempt, lost in the wilderness, injured, taken to the emergency room for sickness, car accident, blizzard, tornado warning, and floods.
…but I still travel, still enjoy it, and still go with little to worry about. Why? Because these were very rare occurrences and by being prepared and level headed, I was able to emerge unscathed.
Here are some tips I’ve come across over the years to keep my family and me safe when traveling…
Secure your house when you leave. Don’t let the world know you’ll be gone.  If you have a trusted family member or friend, ask them if they can house sit for you.  If not, have a trusted neighbor keep an eye on your place. Ask them to check for any fliers or newspapers left on your doorstep. Have an order at Amazon on the way? Ask them to watch for that too.

Visit your local post office and have them suspend mail delivery while you're gone. You can also do this online at but that has never worked for me, an in-person visit is better.
Get some timers from the hardware store. They’re not expensive and you can program the lights to come on and off at various times while you’re away.
Leave a radio tuned to a talk radio station and turn it up loud enough so that someone outside might think someone is home.
If you have two cars, park one up against the garage door so that it would be impossible to open without moving the car.

If the room assigned to you seems like it’s in a sketchy area…say way in the back, next to a stairwell…ask the hotel to move you to a room you are more comfortable with.  Unless the hotel is completely booked, management should accommodate you. I have yet to run across a hotel that wouldn’t work with you if there is some reason you don’t like your initial room.
While you’re in the room, always latch the dead bolt and hang up the “Do Not Disturb” placard.
When you’re out of the room, leave the “Do Not Disturb” placard on the door unless you’re expecting housekeeping to clean the room while you’re out. Leave some lights on. Leave the radio or TV on. Make it seem like someone is in the room.  Either lock your valuables in the safe (if there’s one in the room), have the front office lock them in their safe, or take them with you.
If you have a car, park it as close to the entrance as possible unless you really need it by your room. A car in a populated area is less likely to be broken into.

Travel in numbers. Families traveling together are great because they’re a ready-made group. If you’re going solo, try to be where there are a lot of people...think Times Square, not some quiet street in the Lower East Side. I’m amazed when traveling to see young, attractive women walking alone along quiet streets or through parks after dark. That is the one thing you don’t want to do…always have someone else nearby.
Avoid dark, lonely places. Seems like a no brainer but sometimes when you’re out and about you might be confronted with the choice of dark and lonely or darker and lonelier. Again, try to at least be with a group if you can or go back the way you came to find a better route. We had this happen to us in France where we ended up walking by a small park after dark where a man was shooting up heroin with his big dog by his side. Fortunately, we were a group of five and felt a bit more secure in our numbers.

Keep your valuables out of sight and out of the “usual” places. Men seem to keep their wallets in their back pockets 99% of the time. Put it in your front pocket to keep it away from pickpocket fingers or use a money belt. On a very crowded Metro in Paris I felt someone reaching into my back pocket. With my wallet in the front pocket, all they got was the used Kleenex that I had just blown my nose with.
Make copies of your passport, credit cards, travel vouchers, and any other paper work you might need along the way. I will depart with many of my travel expert brethren and say DO NOT bring these copies with you. If they fall into the wrong hands, you might as well hand them the credit cards to begin with.
Instead, leave a copy with a trusted family member or friend that you can call if needed. Also, I scan this information, put it into a Word document that I have encrypted with a password, and e-mail myself a copy…that way I can retrieve that e-mail anywhere in the world when I need it.
Some people also recommend you keep a twenty dollar bill in your pocket in case you are robbed. Give it to the robber, or toss it at them if you can, and beat a hasty retreat. Whatever you do, don’t try to stand your ground…it’s just money and not worth getting hurt or killed over.
If you’re going to have a car, make sure you have valid insurance at your destination. American insurance is not valid in much of the world; call your agent before leaving to see if you are covered. If not, procure coverage either before you go (cheaper) or at the rental counter (expensive). If you’re in an accident, contact authorities immediately or have a local do it for you. Keep cool, calm, and collected. If there are any injuries, focus on the injured getting help before anything else. (I'm adding this as an update, if you buy insurance beforehand, get a memo from the insurance company that specifically states it is good for the country you're visiting...Costa Rica would not have been such a drag if I had done this ahead of time - Ed)


I remember very well the July morning in 2005 when we were turned away from the Underground in London due to an “electrical malfunction” and no bus would let us board outside. After returning to our hotel, the BBC let us know what really happened…terrorists had set off a number of bombs in the Underground and a bus killing many people. The city was shut down.
Luckily, we were near our hotel and had a home to return to.

When disaster strikes, if you are in or near a safe place…stay there. Wait for official word to tell you what to do. If you are not in a safe place, seek out other local people to find out the best route to safety. If you’re in a wheelchair, keep in mind that many people will not be automatically thinking of the most accessible route…you may have to depend on the kindness of strangers to help you. Fortunately, in our experience, locals around the world tend to be kind to strangers in need.

This shouldn’t need to be said but always go away from danger, not toward it. Don’t go to the waterfront to see the tsunamis approaching, or outside to see the twister, and stay away from buildings after a big earthquake.
If you are injured, let someone know you need help.
In extreme cases, look for someone in authority or a relief provider and stick with them until you are safe.
What about travel insurance to help you in these situations? Be aware that insurance only helps afterward and does not prevent. Balance the cost of the insurance versus the benefit.
Our car and medical insurance is valid throughout the United States and we usually go without travel insurance when we’re in country. The hotel and airfare won’t cripple us if we need to forfeit it so the risk doesn’t balance out with the cost for us here.
When we’re traveling internationally, however, we always get insurance. A good policy will include emergency medical, auto accident, trip interruption and cancellation, medical evacuation, personal item coverage and more. We like the peace of mind and rarely have to use it but it’s nice to know we have it if we need it…it did help one time when we had a fender bender in France.
Always read the policy details very carefully before purchasing. Note that many policies won’t cover things like trip cancellation if it is because you just changed your mind or your office cancelled your vacation time.
Now that we’ve covered many bad things that can happen to you on vacation, know that it is an extremely rare occurrence. Yes, some of these things have happened to us over half a century of traveling but, usually, they just make for a good story when we get back. Don’t let the fear of the unknown keep you at home. Manage it and use these and other common sense tips to minimize the chance that anything bad will happen to you and enjoy the world.

Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, May 12, 2017

Crossing Over...California's Delta

Well, it was a fun but hectic couple of days in the city. Crowded bar hopping and people watching in San Francisco, then a fun baseball game in a decrepit stadium.  We won't mention the inadequate hotel accommodations...

Now it's time to hit the road for more bucolic locales but first it's a race against time as we have 100 minutes to drive from Coliseum in Oakland to the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.

It's a jam trying to get out of the ballpark's lot but when I see a couple of cars peel off in a direction nobody else is using, I take a chance and follow along. A minute later, we're whizzing off on Interstate 880 and we make it to the Jelly Belly parking lot at 4:55 when they close at 5:00.

No worries, we're not there for the tour...which is fascinating, by the way...just to run in a get a few bags of Belly Flops.

The Flops are the jelly beans that do not meet the rigid quality control standards of the company. The seconds, if you will.  Supposedly, only sold at the factory (but I've seen them online, at Costco, and the 99 Cent Only store), they are just as good as the others, just oddly shaped sometimes.

As I enter the door, I here the announcement: "attention Jelly Belly fans, our facilities will be closing in two minutes."  I've been here so many times, it's not a problem. I know just where they store the Flops in the bins, pick up 5 bags (buy 3, get two for free), and head to the counter.


Just a couple of blocks away is the entrance to Highway 12, the route across the Delta.  It's a leisurely hour drive through this scenic and endangered outlet where the Sacramento and the almost-gone San Joaquin rivers converse and meander across the flatlands heading for San Francisco Bay.

Occasionally, you'll see large tankers navigating the narrow channels, causing the drawbridges to rise.

It's on to Interstate 5, where we pass the hotel where we got stuck outside of Lodi, then into the city itself. Today, though, we're continuing through to the hills beyond.

That will be another adventure for another day.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

TRAVEL TIPS - Local Transit

There are two ways to really get to know the locals when you go on a trip.  One is to visit local restaurants and, especially, pubs or taverns.  The other is to use the local mass transit.  This lets you really see how locals live and gets you a taste of their everyday lives.

Tim and I both are big boosters of public transit, both here in L.A. and beyond.  On vacation, locations with good mass transit offer you (usually) an accessible way to get around quickly; a cheap mode of transportation; local culture immersion; and a safe way to get home after a late night at the pub.

This is the main reason you see our Transit Reports here.

Rental cars are expensive...wheelchair vans are ungodly expensive, so we like to do without as much as we can.  Taxis are also expensive and accessible cabs usually are hard to find.  There are a few exceptions, London springs to mind as an easy place to get an accessible taxi but they are still expensive.

Some great destinations that have good, accessile transit include New York, San Francisco, Seattle, London, Boston, and Munich.  Many more locations have at least adequate transit, like here in Los Angeles.

If it's possible, we recommend that you use the public transit option as much as possible.  It has really enhanced our travel experiences when we do it.  Below are some examples:

London Step-free Underground Map (PDF)

New York Subway Map (Look for wheelchair icon next to station name)

San Fransisco Transit Map (PDF - Look for wheelchair icons)

Boston T Map (Look for wheelchair icons)

Munich Barrier-Free U-Bahn and S-Bahn Map (PDF)