The GoPro puts a new spin on the time-worn family portrait as Glenn, his brother Sean, Grandma Sorenson and dad pose for the extreme closeup on the final day of their visit in Hemet, Feb. 22. Grandma had never seen the tiny GoPro camera before and wasn't quite sure how it all worked. The hood of a rental car made a fine tripod. Photo by Glenn.

Rites of spring

February 27, 2015: This month's newsletter comes to you from Hemet, California, where Glenn is in the midst of a weekend road trip with his brother Sean to visit their father and Grandma Sorenson at her home. It is a bit of an oddity in that Glenn is making the trip alone, leaving Roni and Ben to anchor down the Gehlke fort in Oakley. Roni was gracious enough to share him for a couple of days, however, probably because he bought her roses for Valentine's Day, and any man who would do that for his lady love on the most romantic day of the year deserves a little bro time away from home, right? Right! So on with the show...

To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.


Last month we showed work in progress on the cleanup of our Writing Sanctuary/library. On Feb. 8 we officially finished the project, and here Roni and Ben are enjoying the new surroundings. Katy and Eevee had to explore too. Photo by Glenn.


Jan. 31 found us at Contra Loma Reservoir in Antioch to take advantage of the springlike weather and get a walk in. Roni would have liked to spend more time enjoying the scenery, but she had her head buried in her iPhone trying to answer her editor's questions on a story she had written. It's Saturday, hon, take a break! Photo by Glenn.


If Roni had looked up she would have been able to enjoy the pelicans swimming in the reservoir. Lots of birds make their home near these waters. Photo by Glenn.


The effects of our December and January rains are evident in the abundance of mustard and poppy flowers blooming on Contra Loma's green hillsides. Photo by Glenn.


This muscovy duck was very aggressive. He waddled around us and made noises like a barking dog. We nicknamed him "Psycho Duck" for his ugly appearance and bizarre personality. Photo by Glenn.


This is the damage done to our fence by our neighbor's fallen tree. The tree came down in mid-January 2014 and had been leaning on the fence for several months. We finally had to contact the landlord to get them to remove it and repair the damage. Photo by Glenn.


The landlord called in some dude with a chainsaw to remove the dead tree on Feb. 2. No, he wasn't part of a professional tree trimming service. Photo by Glenn.


This is the fence repair, such that it is. They went to great pains to rebuild the lattice from scratch, but it doesn't provide the privacy the old lattice did. You know the old saying about when you want something done right it's best to do it yourself? We should have listened to that advice. Photo by Glenn.


Roses? For me? On Valentine's Day? Yummmmm, you shouldn't have. Photo by Glenn.


Feb. 7 saw the first attempt at getting in this year's Blossom Walk. Weather was a factor and didn't cooperate much on this day, but it did make for an interesting photo of almond blossoms with drops of rainwater on them. Photo by Glenn.


With the rain picking up, Glenn sought refuge beneath a parked railcar. It was clear that there wouldn't be much walking today. Photo by Glenn.


Feb. 15 saw the second and more successful Blossom Walk II. Here is our favorite tree, the one we photograph every year, in full bloom on the Cline property near the former DuPont rail siding. Photo by Glenn.


Even the birds were thankful for the sun on this day. One of them rests on the rusted barbed wire fence surrounding the former DuPont property. Photo by Glenn.


The new BNSF mainline with its concrete ties is finally in service. Look closely and you'll see the GoPro sitting in the foreground. Ever wonder what the underside of a speeding freight train looks like? Photo by Glenn.


Westbound BNSF 5292, a General Electric C44-9W locomotive, bears down on our GoPro at about 70 mph. Photo by Glenn.


We are now under the speeding train. Our little camera survived to tell the tale. OK, we can scratch this off our bucket list. Photo by Glenn.


Trains aren't the only thing making tracks through the DuPont siding. Some critter — probably a raccoon — performed a muddy balancing act on this rail. Photo by Glenn.


This year's walk took us by the site where Caltrans is building the new Highway 160/4 interchange near Oakley. All these steel poles will be used to construct the falsework for the new south-to-eastbound ramp. Photo by Glenn.


An American flag flies atop this unfinished ramp support column that stands monolithic against the cerulean sky. Photo by Glenn.


Glenn celebrates his successful ascent of the hill overlooking the Highway 160/4 junction. This was the midpoint of a nearly 7-mile walk. Photo by Glenn.


It's only the second week of February, but some of the trees are already leafing out. This one still has plenty of its blossoms. Photo by Glenn.


Feb. 16 finds us at Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in Solano County in search of the elusive tule elk. Roni brought the binoculars to aid our search. They didn't help. Photo by Glenn.


Grizzly Island is a mostly flat marsh habitat. There are dozens of birds lurking in these bushes, but you'd never know it as a casual observer. The Montezuma Hills wind farm is visible in the distance. Photo by Roni.


What good is the GoPro if you can't take a few selfies? This is us on one of the levees at Grizzly Island. No elk today. Photo by Glenn.


It's Feb. 21 and Glenn and Sean are on their way to Hemet. During a pit stop near Buttonwillow on Interstate 5 we had a chance to photograph these beautiful trees. Not sure what crop this will become, but the snow white blossoms were one of the highlights on a very long drive. Photo by Glenn.


We had gray, dreary weather for most of the drive through the San Joaquin Valley. We started to leave the fog behind as we climbed the Tehachapi mountains east of Bakersfield. Photo by Glenn.


Sean confers with our dad about the timing of our arrival in Hemet. The cameraman offers an assist with the hands-free cellular device. Photo by Glenn.


Grandma is very proud of this painting, which was made by a friend of hers four years ago from a photograph Grandma had taken of a vacant field near her home. Photo by Glenn.


The return trip to the Bay Area the following day saw many moments like this. We were traveling up the Grapevine through Tejon Pass when the rain really started coming down. Things were about three times worse in the Central Valley. Photo by Glenn.

IF AT FIRST you don’t succeed, as they saying goes, you try and try again. That was definitely the case when it came to Glenn’s annual blossom walk this month, which for the first time in years had to be taken on multiple days. It’s not that weather hasn’t previously played a role in the timing or duration of this unheralded late-winter tradition, but never before has there been a “do-over” for a walk that went totally bust.

The challenge of getting in a walk to enjoy some springtime pageantry usually lies in the fact that the blossoms are only at their peak for a short time. Venture out a week too early and the flowers won’t have made much of an appearance. Journey a week too late and there will be nothing but a pile of spent petals on the muddy ground — and we can’t emphasize the muddy part enough; one good storm is usually all it takes to make conditions miserable for a hike along the backroads of Oakley and Antioch. And so it was on Saturday, Feb. 7, when Glenn chose to take advantage of a brief break in a weather system that threatened to rain out the entire weekend.

Rain in February is nothing new. Our California winters are usually dry for weeks at a time and then blam, we get hit by a biblical deluge. That is what was happening on this weekend. We’d had heavy rain move through Friday afternoon, but there was supposed to be a brief break Saturday morning, with rain returning through Monday. With a rare Saturday work shift looming on Valentine’s Day and travel plans the next two weekends, it looked like this little respite from the rain would have to suffice for walking weather.

Indeed, there was sun out at 9:30 that morning, which was what convinced Glenn not to wait around. But by 10:15, when he’d finally made it out the door, the gray storm clouds were amassing their next assault.

What has come to be known as Blossom Walk I was short. It started with a detour around the security guard keeping a vigil by the idle construction equipment being used in the never ending BNSF Railway expansion project at the entrance to the former DuPont yard. Not that the guard cared about Glenn or his goal of photographing almond trees, but why raise suspicion when the plan was to trespass... er, travel through the rail yard? He walked about half a mile down Main Street, skirting the southern edge of the grape vineyard, before finally crossing the muddy field back to the train tracks.

There was barely enough time for some quick selfies and to grab some bad shots of the almond trees on the other side of the chainlink fence under abysmal lighting conditions before the skies opened up and the blossom walk quickly turned into a rain dance. By this time Glenn had worked his way to the west end of the DuPont siding and was near a collection of hopper cars that were being used to store rocks used for the track project. They weren’t very picturesque, but they did offer quick cover from the rain. Glenn, already dripping because he had foolishly brought only a sweatshirt and not a jacket, ducked beneath one of the parked train cars and rode out the storm by sitting on a rusty rail and playing a video game on his cell phone.

He thought he had waited long enough when the rain finally let up, but no sooner did he resume his walk toward home then the rain returned with a vengeance. He arrived back home with water on his glasses, water on his camera gear, and just a handful of awful photos. Clearly disappointed, he wondered if there would be another opportunity to get a walk in under more favorable conditions.

* * * * *

T

HE FOLLOWING WEEKEND found Glenn at work on Valentine’s Day, an otherwise lovely blue-skied day that started with us exchanging Valentine gifts. Glenn usually eschews flowers as being too expensive and too predictable, so Roni was all the more surprised when she actually received a dozen long-stemmed roses from him. Of course she also got a box of chocolates, but being that she is trying to diet, Glenn was supportive of the cause and bought her just a sampler. Meanwhile, Glenn has been trying to control his weight too, but that goal got a bit sidetracked when Roni gifted him with a large box of chocolates AND a bag of Hershey’s kisses, the latter of which was consumed in its entirety by the end of the long Presidents Day weekend.

Valentine’s Day was a bust for a blossom walk, thanks to work, but there was still the rest of the holiday weekend. And when Sunday the 15th dawned bright and clear, Glenn was ready to hit the trail for Blossom Walk II (aka Son of Blossom Walk).

This second walk was much longer than the first one — about five hours total — and lasted nearly 7 miles. It took Glenn west through the DuPont yard, south along the Highway 160 freeway embankment, then through the area where construction crews are working on completing the Highway 160/4 interchange. That project is just one of several that have been taking place over the past five years to widen Highway 4 to eight lanes. One of these days it might actualy be finished. The interchange isn’t too far along; there are some support columns in place and little else. Glenn hiked up the hill that overlooks the interchange as well as provides a sprawling view of the Delta and Antioch/Oakley region. He was disappointed that there weren’t more wildflowers in bloom, but thankful for the good weather.

* * * * *

THE BLOSSOM WALKS have for two decades followed pretty much the same course, involving at least a partial route along the BNSF tracks near our home. But while the route has changed little, the tracks themselves have evolved greatly. Caltrans and BNSF are nearing the end of a multi-year project to add a second mainline behind our property. The most recent work has been to convert what had been a siding track into a main track with concrete ties, and to remove the siding switch that had been behind our fence. In recent years the railroad has used the former DuPont yard to store empty container flatcars, which has meant trains visiting the yard every day or two for hours at a time to bang cars back and forth. It was an inefficient and inconvenient process for the yard’s nearest neighbors (us) and motorists who get stuck at the crossing gates. Soon the work on the new main will be completed and then we don’t know what to expect. More trains, certainly. But perhaps also a better way to move cars in and out of the yard so as not to block crossings and disturb residents? We hope so!

* * * * *

ALONG WITH LOUD trains, another recent annoyance we have written about has been our neighbor’s huge dog we not so affectionately have nicknamed Numbnuts. The dog loves to bark at all hours, and sometimes for no apparent reason. He has been set off many times by the arrival of the railroad workmen, who park their vehicles near our back fence and leave their work radios on at high volume. We can sort of understand Numb not liking their presence, but we would rather not hear him bark so often.

In January 2014, just two months after Numb and his owners rented the house next door, a large pine tree in their yard that had been dead for some time suddenly collapsed, landing on one of the fence panels that separate our two yards. At first the fallen tree was an inconvenience and an eyesore, but as it continued to remain where it fell for weeks, then months, it put enough pressure on the fence that the top lattice finally broke under the weight.

In October we talked to a handyman who was at the property making repairs and told him about the fallen tree. He said it would be removed in a few days. That never happened, of course, and when heavy winds whipped through our town in late December, the dead tree shifted some more and started dragging the fence panel down with it. No longer could we merely hear Numb barking next door, but now he could jump our broken fence if he wanted to. Still no one lifted a finger to remove the dead tree.

We finally tracked down the owner of the property in San Diego and sent two registered letters to alert him to the situation. He contacted Roni and assured us the tree would be removed and that the fence would be fixed. At last the long-awaited drone of a chainsaw echoed from the neighbor’s yard on Feb. 2. This was not some skilled tree removal service, mind you, but some guy with a saw who haphazardly went about cutting off limbs and tugging them off the fence panel. We wondered if the fence would survive his efforts. It somehow did, but then when he returned two days later to repair the panel, he constructed a new lattice top from scratch instead of merely replacing the entire panel as we had hoped would be done (and likely would have been cheaper.) Now we have a dorky looking patch job on top of a broken fence panel. At least Numb won’t be coming into our yard anytime soon, but we still have to decide what to do about the damaged fence that isn’t getting any better.

* * * * *

GLENN'S BLOSSOM WALKS weren’t the only outdoor excursions we took this past month. On Jan. 31 we took advantage of temperatures in the mid-70s to get some exercise at Contra Loma Reservoir in Antioch. There is a 2-mile trail that circles the man-made lake where boaters and fishermen love to while away the afternoon and birds ranging from egrets to pelicans cruise the skies looking for a meal. With cameras in hand, we made the slow loop and enjoyed trying to photograph the birds and getting a peek at some of the first wildflowers of spring.

Feb. 16, Presidents Day, found us on the road to Solano County for a first-time visit to Grizzly Island Wildlife Area just south of Suisun. We weren’t sure quite what to expect from this 84,000-acre marsh habitat, other than that it was billed as a great place to look for all sorts of raptors and a sizable herd of tule elk. The elk are evidently more elusive than we were led to believe from the articles we’d read about this place, as we tried in vain to find them.

We signed in at the visitor shack as required, then drove along the groomed gravel surface of Grizzly Island Road, stopping at various designated parking areas along the way so we could get out to see what we could find. We saw ducks. We saw sparrows. We saw some turkey vultures feasting on some unseen carcass in the brush. We saw ground squirrels and hawks and geese and herons and even a river otter that went scurrying across the road just inches from our car. But when it came to the elks... nada.

We turned onto a side street called Redhouse Road and drove until we reached a locked gate. We parked the car and walked out Poleline Road into the levee-lined marsh, as a couple of articles we’d read instructed us to do if we wanted to see the elk. Roni had brought the binoculars, which she used to survey the mostly flat horizon. If there were large animals such as elk here, they would be hard to miss unless they were lying down, and it didn’t seem likely they would be lying down in the flooded marsh. Glenn walked on ahead, following the levee trail fore nearly a mile until it didn’t make sense to keep going because it was clear there were no elk to be found. We got in a nice walk, but didn’t see anything we’d hoped to find.

We returned to the car and followed the island road as far as it took us, scanning the fields for anything that resembled a large animal. We saw many fishermen and that was about it. We were there for more than three hours and saw no evidence that elk had ever been on the island. Maybe they had all perished during hunting season. Who knows? Anyhow, we left with lots of photos, empty stomachs (that we filled at an Asian restaurant in Suisun on the way home) and a little surprise that Roni didn’t find until we were home later that evening; she had somehow collected a wood tick that found its way under her pant leg and was tickling her skin as she watched TV. She was thankful to have found it before it got hungry. Of course we checked all of our clothes and the inside of the car after that, but apparently this fellow was a loner. Good thing.

* * * * *

FEBRUARY HAS BEEN a challenging month as well. For the fourth time in a year and a half, Ben took another crack at getting his learner’s permit from the DMV. Given his track record at taking the test, he and Roni took great pains to study for the next attempt, running through sample tests from a website for several weeks to help him build confidence. By the time of his appointment on Feb. 12, he knew most of the material and we all felt good about his odds for finally getting a passing score.

But the DMV threw him some new curves. Since his previous try in September, the Pittsburg DMV office had closed for renovations, and now the license tests were all administered by computer instead of the old paper and pencil method. You’d think that would make life easier, but not really. Poor Ben still had to wait in a long line to register, despite having an appointment, and then the new format of the test threw him off. Test takers can opt to delay answereing a handful of questions until the end of the test while they finish the other questions, but once you miss six, the test stops and you have to try again; you only get three attempts per registration fee.

The first time through, Ben got most of the questions correct, but it was one of those put-it-off-until-later stumpers that came back to bite him on the very last question. He was so rattled by the near-miss that he couldn’t focus on the second and third attempts and failed all of them. It didn’t help that there were a few questions he hadn’t studied for because they weren’t on the practice quizzes.

So no learner’s permit for now, and if you are keeping score that makes 11 of 12 times he has failed the test. It could be a record, but the good news is that he isn’t giving up; he already has plans to take the test one more time next month. Stay tuned.

* * * * *

ALL THIS BEAUTIFUL weather we’ve been having recently apparently is contributing to the flea population, or at least that is what our vet told Roni when we had to take Eevee in for a checkup last week. He’s still pretty spry at 14, but lately we’ve noticed that he seems to favor his hind legs when we walks or lies down on the carpet. Roni decided it would be a good idea to take him in just to be sure he is healthy.

While we were preparing for Eevee’s vet visit, Glenn discovered some seed-like things on our bedspread where Katy likes to sleep. He had noticed them at other times, but always chalked it up to birdseed that might have been tracked into the room from elsewhere. (Yeah, that happens to us a lot because we go through so much birdseed on our backyard feeders that it gets all over the place.) But upon closer inspection Glenn also saw a little wriggly black thing and what appeared to be flea droppings. Hmmm.

We looked all of this up online and came back with what later proved to be the correct diagnosis: tapeworm. Despite the evidence, we still weren’t sure how Katy might have contracted it, as we have two indoor cats — have had them that way for years — and haven’t had a flea infestation in more than a decade. If you don’t know anything about tapeworm, it is spread through fleas, which ingest the eggs and then in turn get ingested by the cat when he or she grooms. Once inside the cat, the eggs become worms that attach to the cat’s intestine and they grow longer, with segments containing new eggs that break off from the worm and find their way out of the cat’s body. The segments resemble sesame seeds and apparently have the ability to move around on their own. It is all quite disgusting, actually.

Just to confirm our suspicion, we packaged up some of the “seeds” in a baggie and let the vet take a look when we brought Eevee in. She said they were in fact tapeworm pods, and she prescribed Eevee a dewormer along with a topical flea treatment. She also prescribed medication for a touch of arthritis in Eevee’s hips — the original reason we took him in. Of course it was Katy where we fist saw the worm segments, and the vet required us to bring her in too before she would prescribe the same course of worm treatment for her. Cha-ching!

But back to the fleas — how could we have them when we hadn’t even seen them? The vet said that this has been a bad year because of the drought, and that fleas can find their way into your house as easily as hopping through an open screen door. You can bring them in on your clothes. The flea larvae can live up to three years in an undisturbed environment, such as the Writing Sanctuary which we just put back into service after more than two years. Any of those were possibilities, but the fact remained that we had a flea problem whether we knew where it came from or not. Nothing to do but try to kill the fleas along with the tapeworms to prevent a reinfection.

We brought Katy in for her appointment the following morning, and you would have thought we were abusing the poor baby. She howled in her carrier for the entire half mile between our house and the strip mall where the clinic is. She took a piece out of Roni’s lip as we tried to get her into the small cat carrier we had only used once before, but oh did Katy remember it. She wanted nothing to do with the carrier. She settled down once she was inside the clinic. The vet thought it might be easiest to do the whole appointment with Katy in the carrier, but Roni decided it would be kinder to let her out, and Katy behaved remarkably well after that. She got her rabies shot, had her temperature taken and was more than willing to go back in her carrier when the appointment was over. Back home she acted as if nothing had happened. Wish the same could be said for our checkbook, which was lightened by $440 between the two cats, but hopefully we’ll conquer their little nasties and won’t have to do this again.

* * * * *

WE’RE RUNNING LONG this month, as usual, but just a little more about Glenn’s Hemet trip before we go.

While the occasion gave Glenn the opportunity to spend some time with his dad and brother over the 36-hour excursion, the real purpose of the trip was to retrieve Glenn’s dad from SoCal, where he had been since earlier in the week. He had flown down to Ontario and driven a rental car to his mom’s place in Hemet to help her take care of financial matters and other things. The drive to meet him there was an alternative to making him take a plane back home.

Ben rode with us to meet Sean in Tracy at 9 a.m. on Saturday and start the day with breakfast at the Black Bear Diner. Glenn and his brother were on the road by 10, racing down Interstate 5 with a goal of arriving in Hemet by 5 p.m. Glenn wasn’t sure that was going to happen, but the fact that Sean made it work says a lot more about the insane speeds folks travel on that outdated 4-lane than anything else.

Sean and Glenn were in agreement that traveling through Los Angeles was a bad idea, so they gladly ditched the interstate in favor of state highways 223 and 58 over the Tehachapi mountains, making great time through the Mojave desert and arriving in Hemet at almost the precise stroke of 5. Sean had been in communication with their dad the entire drive, and it was only as they were nearing their destination that Glenn learned his grandma hadn’t been told they were coming. His dad’s idea was for Sean and Glenn to surprise her when they showed up on her doorstep.

As it turned out, Dad had been stalling for time at the house until there were no more diversions to use. Just as Glenn and Sean arrived in town, Dad and Grandma were on their was to dinner at the local Pizza Hut. After the weary travelers checked into their room at the Motel 6, they drove over to the restaurant where Dad and Grandma were already seated in their booth enjoying some beers, Grandma’s back to the door. Strolling up to the table, Sean took a seat next to Dad while Glenn smoothly slid into the seat next to Grandma and put his arm around her. But rather than jump out of her seat over some stranger off the street plopping down next to her, Grandma seemed to take it all in stride. Surprised? Definitely, but in a good way. The foursome enjoyed a couple of pizzas and drinks before heading back to Grandma’s house for conversation and Hershey's kisses for dessert.

The next morning there was time for breakfast together at CoCo’s restaurant in town before it was time for the Gehlke Bros and their father to hit the road for the airport in Ontario so Dad could drop off his rental car. From there, the three of them traveled together up I-5 and through a storm on the Grapevine to continue the journey back to the Bay Area. The rainfall in Tejon Pass was nothing, however, compared to the deluge that waited a few more miles to the north.

After a fuel stop in Buttonwillow, Sean handed the keys of his Ford Taurus to Glenn to drive the next leg of the trip. It was just minutes later that the menacing skies opened up with a torrential cloudburst that brought freeway traffic from 80 mph down to virtually a dead stop in seconds. The wiper blades could barely keep up with the sheets of water sluicing down the windshield. Glenn quipped that the storm brought more water in five minutes than he’d seen in five years. Somehow he managed to drive through it, and once they were past Fresno, the skies cleared up for the duration of the trip.

They arrived in Tracy around 5:30, just in time to meet Ben and Roni who were coming out of the theater at West Valley Mall. They had decided to watch a movie before meeting everyone for dinner. The five of us managed to agree on Red Robin for our meal. It was amazingly crowded for a Sunday night, but no one seemed to mind the wait after we were all seated around the table snapping panorama photos of the group on our phones. Good times.

And speaking of times, it is high time we wrapped up this month’s newsletter and post it. We're missing those extra two or three days we’d have to procrastinate in a normal month. We’ll see you again in March.

 

Glenn, Roni and Ben