Photo of the month

Leaping into spring: Ben and Glenn pose for a portrait in front of one of the wild almond trees that is in full bloom Feb. 29 during our annual blossom walk on the former DuPont property in Oakley. Photo by Glenn.

March 2008

The sky is blue again at last, and our ornamental plum tree's blossoms are at their stunning best Feb. 28. Photo by Glenn.

What isn't at its stunning best is the weather on the day of our blossom walk through Oakley. The fog has not yet burned off at 8:40 a.m. Feb. 29. It is a bit brisk. Photo by Glenn.

The vineyard on the Cline property near our home looks like a painting in the morning light. Take a look at the full scene. Photo by Glenn.

This is my favorite almond tree. Located on the Cline property, it has pink blossoms, which unfortunately were past their peak by the day we took our walk. Here's a larger view. Photo by Glenn.

Ben takes a break in the former DuPont railyard. These tracks aren't used for much of anything these days except storing empty cars, which BNSF obligingly pulled away the day before our walk. Here's a larger image. Photo by Glenn.

Time to press on. Ben shoulders his backpack with our snacks and other gear and presses west. Photo by Glenn.

Taken as a whole, the blossoms weren't at their showy best the day we took our walk. There were some individual trees that proved the exception, such as this almond. A closeup of one branch. Photo by Glenn.

The former Live Oak School, now a church, adds to the small town country atmosphere of this scene looking south acros Oakley's Main Street. Here's a larger image. Photo by Glenn.

An Amtrak train emerges from the fog on the BNSF mainline. Photo by Glenn.

Train 711 is one of eight Amtrak San Joaquins that pass our house every day. It's right on time this morning. Photo by Glenn.

Another almond tree blossoms near the former DuPont property. We lingered here for several minutes. Check out the big picture. Photo by Glenn.

We've turned south and are walking along the eastern side of Highway 160. You never know what you might find off the beaten path. Here is a buoy that resembles a jack o'lantern. Photo by Glenn.

The trees along Highway 160 approaching the Comfort Suites are looking good. Photo by Glenn.

The blossoms are healthy and plentiful, as you can see more clearly here. Photo by Glenn.

Sorry. Went a little nuts with the camera and couldn't resist loading up the memory card with pictures similar to these. The way development is nowadays you can never be sure that this won't be the last time you get to see these trees. Here's the larger image. Photo by Glenn.

The gate is supposed to prevent folks from doing what we are doing — walking along the base of the freeway embankment. But it's hard to fence off social trails, and this one has been in use for years by nature lovers and vagrants alike. Ben waits for Dad to catch up. Photo by Roni.

A bit to the south we have crossed over to the western embankment of Highway 160 — a new place for us to explore — and are taking a break on a drainage culvert where we ate our snacks of apple sauce cookies. Photo by Glenn.

Just to the south of the Oakley Road overcrossing is this huge vacant parcel. It has been slated for housing development for more than 20 years. The present economy makes it unlikely those houses will be built soon. Photo by Glenn.

These empty rail cars mark the middle of our journey. We are at the Union Pacific tracks in Antioch, too weary and without time to go any farther. Photo by Glenn.

There aren't too many wildflowers out at this time of year, but the mustard adds a dash of color to the green hillsides. Photo by Glenn.

Our shoes are absolutely soaked from the dew on the grasses we've walked through. We still have two more miles ahead of us. Photo by Glenn.

We grabbed lunch at Burger King on the return trip. Ben isn't letting the bag get away from him even as he poses for a picture behind K-mart on the west side of Highway 160. Photo by Glenn.

Row, row, row your boat, gently to the dump... Unwanted and unsalvageable, the "All About A Bitch" is moored for the last time beneath the Highway 160 overcrossing. Photo by Glenn.

We've made it back to the DuPont property and are checking out date nails in the ties. This one from 1929 is the oldest we've seen. Santa Fe Railway and others used to use the nails to identify when ties were placed in service. Photo by Glenn.

Grape vines on the Cline property have been pruned and are ready for a new growing season. Photo by Glenn.

An old traffic cone makes the ideal prop for a few laughs as Ben dons his new hat near the end of our walk. Photo by Glenn.

March 1 finds us hard at work on replanting the front parkway. Glenn is digging holes for the clay pots that will hold our bareroot roses. Photo by Roni.

Roni puts the finishing touches on the row of rose pots. Photo by Glenn.

Just in case you didn't get your fill of blossom photos this month, here is another view of our plum tree, taken March 4. Photo by Glenn.

And this would be our rosemary bush, still thriving in our garden despite our total lack of care for it. It is always in bloom this time of year. Photo by Glenn.

March 8 finds us confronting the weeds in our back yard. Roni thinks she'll need a bigger weed whacker to tame this year's unruly crop. Photo by Glenn.

The wisteria isn't a weed, but it sure grows like it. The blossoms are at their fragrant best in early March. Photo by Glenn.

Another view of the wisteria growing off our spa reveals Summer's Garden nearby. Photo by Glenn.

One look at Glenn's arm illustrates why concrete and flesh aren't a good mix. This is the result of lugging several 22-pound retaining wall blocks from Home Depot to our home and then carting them from the car to the back yard. Believe it or not, he was wearing gloves. Photo by Glenn.

And this is what we spilled blood for. Two courses of Verdura 10 building blocks have been placed at the foot of the former train garden. Photo by Glenn.

Subsequent trips to Home Depot helped us collect enough Verdura blocks to build a second small retaining wall near the new strawberry terrace. We've been weeding, hence the giant pile on the spot where the wall curves. Photo by Glenn.

Ben is hard at work March 15 weeding the garden area near the rosemary bush. Photo by Glenn.

This is the weirdest mushroom we've ever seen. It was growing beneath the retaining wall at the base of Summer's Garden. We think it must have come from the redwood mulch we used as ground cover. Looks sort of like a sponge. Photo by Glenn.

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Economic recession a source of depression

March 27, 2008

For a while we thought this month we might be expounding on what it's like to file for unemployment benefits and pound the pavement in search of a new career after being tossed out on the street amid a sagging economy. Instead, we find ourselves sitting in a Motel 6 in Hemet, Calif., at the start of a brief vacation we thought we might have to forgo. More about the vacation next month.

But back to the original thought... There's no way to sugar coat that the past month has been an extremely stressful time for us Gehlkes. The Tuesday after returning to work from the three-day Presidents Day holiday, Glenn got the ominous news that his company had to make drastic cuts and would be letting workers go in the early part of March. The newspaper industry has fallen on some very difficult times as real estate, automotive and classified advertising has declined and readers continue to move to the Internet. Glenn's paper had faced similar declines in the past, but none so steep and prolonged that layoffs became imminent. The company offered buyout packages to all its employees, and we were given two weeks to decide whether to apply for six months worth of severance pay and benefits or take our chances on a layoff that would have provided just three months of severance.

It was an agonizing two weeks, filled with lots of soul searching and number crunching. We considered what would happen if Roni had to abandon her home-based business and look for a temporary position somewhere to tide us over while Glenn searched for a new job. We considered how long it would take for Glenn to find the right position, and how long we could hold out on savings and retirement money until that position came along. We considered what it would be like to move or commute great distances, and how best to preserve the lifestyle we've come to appreciate. None of the scenarios seemed good to us, and realistically it was much too soon to be talking about retirement — something Glenn doesn't envision happening for at least another dozen years.

In the end, we made the only decision that made sense for us, which was to bypass the buyout and hope for the best when the pink slips got handed out. Meanwhile, we made sure our finances were in order by freezing some of the assets in Glenn's retirement account and taking out an equity line of credit on the house — just in case.

On March 6, word arrived that 107 people had applied and been accepted for buyouts, which enabled the company to avoid layoffs — this time. Ahhh, there's the catch; there's always a next time, which means we could eventually find ourselves right back where we were this month, sitting on pins and needles waiting to see if we can successfully dodge another bullet. Unfortunately, Glenn says, as long as he works for the newspaper industry this will be the rule rather than the exception. The heady days of the dead-tree publishers are over. The Internet is the new darling of readers and Wall Street. Journalists can either move with the times or get swallowed up in the tide. But the ink in our veins runs thick. We plan to stick it out as long as we can and cross the bridge to whatever is next only when we have to.

So Glenn still has his job of nearly 20 years, but on March 11 he lost a number of coworkers which has made for more stressful times at work. And the weeks of uncertainty while we were waiting to hear what would happen caused us to put a lot of things we wanted to do on hold, including plans for vacation, car repairs, doctor appointments and birthday/anniversary celebrations. And we had just started getting back into gardening and yard care before the layoff news hit. Last month we wrote about a few of our early projects, including the strawberry terrace that we built from scratch and had nearly completed except for the strawberry plants we needed to purchase. Those planned shopping expeditions to Home Depot and Lowe's got put on the back burner immediately.

Because we didn't feel at liberty to spend like we might normally, and in part to help Glenn take his mind off the stresses of his job, we suddenly found ourselves putting more energy into the one thing that didn't cost us anything, which was weeding. For a few hours each morning before leaving for work, Glenn dutifully hacked out the rest of the crab grass in the front parkway and got the area ready for planting. We had already purchased several bareroot roses along with five large clay pots to plant them in as protection from Mr. Gopher. They were already leafing and we wanted to get them in the ground before they died of natural causes (lack of water.) So on March 2 we did just that, digging holes just deep enough so each 16-inch pot could be buried up to its rim. The effect is a more-or-less straight row of pots with roses spaced evenly apart up the length of our driveway. The bushes are still trying to get established, and we have hopes that they'll survive our shaky gardening abilities.

The results of that project inspired Roni to other gardening goals, namely the removal of the weeds that had risen from bare sand in less than five months to overrun our backyard. She brought out the weed whacker on March 9 and laid low several hundred square feet unwanted plants. When she ran out of cutting line we resorted to pulling the buggers out by hand — or by glove, which was the only way to avoid the many thorns we have in our soil. Glenn raked around Summer's Garden, we plucked out weeds from behind the retaining wall near the stairs, and all that looked so nice that we then weeded the former railway garden behind the mulberry tree.

Things were slowly starting to come together in the garden by the time the fear of the layoffs passed. Ideas had been percolating even as we had tried to rein in our spending. By now, there was plenty of pent-up demand for another trip to the home improvement stores. Remember that strawberry terrace? We had yet to get the berries and made finding them priotiry one. Only problem was that neither Lowe's nor Home Depot had any strawberry plants in stock. Roni nagged the clerks at both stores to find out when new stock was expected. "Any day now," they told her. "We keep telling our supplier we need them." Lotsa luck. We learned that basically we'd just have to keep showing up with the hope that the berries would magically appear.

While the berries never did arrive, our search did bear fruit of another sort: tomatoes. Roni found several varieties of tomato plants, then discovered some herbs she wanted to plant in the half barrels we'd bought last month. While she merrily filled up our cart with seedlings, Glenn went off in search of other things and eventually found himself in the rock and brick aisle. There on one of the end caps was an open pallet of the Verdura 30 yardstones we had used to build the retaining wall in our backyard nearly a decade ago. In 2006, during the time when we were rebuilding our fallen fences, we had also tried to complete the wall in the former train garden behind the mulberry tree. But Glenn underestimated and we wound up five blocks shy. As luck would have it, Home Depot not only had the same color blocks in stock, but they were on clearance. For about $5 we picked up what would have cost us $35 normally, and the wall was complete.

At 65 pounds each, those Verdura blocks aren't easy to lug around. Fortunately they have a smaller cousin, the Verdura 10, which weighs just 22 pounds and was also on clearance for a buck a piece. Our weeding of the former railway garden had left us with another slope to retain, and it was Roni who suggested these small stones would be perfect for the job, seeing as they already matched our existing wall. So the next time we left Home Depot — Wednesday, March 12 — we brought back 20 of those blocks in the back of Roni's car. So eager were we to see how they would look, Glenn hastily cleared a foundation for them and we laid two courses of the blocks in half an hour before he had to go to work.

The low wall looked great, but we had one block left over. Where to use it? Roni suggested that we could do the same thing near the strawberry terrace, where digging sand for its construction had left another area of soil that needed to be retained. So it was back to Home Depot the following day for another load of 20 blocks. Friday morning Glenn awoke early to place as much of the wall as he could to determine how many blocks we would still need to complete the project. We decided we'd need another eight or nine. So later that morning, with rain threatening, when we trekked back to Home Depot we returned with another... 20 blocks. By this time the pallet we'd been buying from was running low, but we were coming up with more ideas for how to use the stones. Better to grab as many as we could while they were still available, so we wound up going back a second time on Friday for 24 more stones. In case you've lost count, that's 84, 22-pound blocks in three days, all hauled in the back of Roni's weary car and then lugged out to the backyard by hand. We were beat, but at least we had more stones than we'd need for the bargain price of a buck each.

We were almost on a first-name basis with the clerks in the garden center, so we decided it was time to give them and our wallet a rest for a few days while we returned to our gardening.

When gardening, it seems one project always leads to another. Building the new wall near the strawberry terrace caused us to repair the sprinklers and weed the sand behind the wall. Cleaning up the weeds led to pruning the flame grape, which then needed to be staked up. Staking up the grape meant having something to stake it to. So we build a quickie arbor out of a 4x4 post we had leftover from the fence project and some scrap 2x4 we had on hand. Next we plan to paint it and add bird houses to the top of it.

Over behind the mulberry tree, the new retaining wall there required a transfer of sand to bill in behind the bricks. Once that task was complete the section looked so good that we simply couldn't leave all the ugly weeds in front of it that blocked our view from the patio. So we over the course of a week we raked out all those weeds too. And we still had about 30 Verdura blocks remaining with nowhere to place them, so Roni pointed to a spot under the ash tree and said "put a flower garden here," so soon we had weeded under the ash tree. We were an unstoppable weeding machine.

Even Ben got into the act when we promised him he could earn a new Nintendo DS game if he would pull some weeds in the garden. He wasn't too excited by the idea at first, but each day during his vacation he went out to do a bit of work, and suddenly he had created a weed pile taller than he is. We nicknamed it Mount Weedablo until it gets bagged and tossed away. He is eager to get home from southern California so he can finish the rest of the garden, even though we told him he didn't have to go into the back corner because the stickers there are so thick and fierce.

And remember our endless search for strawberries? We found them at last at Orchard Supply Hardware in Antioch. We determined the reason Home Depot and Lowe's didn't have them was probably because OSH got enough berries for all three. We stocked up, purchasing a flat and a half of Sequoias. Roni planned to get them in the ground right away, but she had to delay that plan when one of our seasonal wind storms kicked up over the weekend of March 15-16. Wind has always been one of the top killers of new plants in our yard. We waited a couple of days and then got the berries planted in the terrace where they so far seem to be doing okay. If they haven't succumbed to lack of water by the time we get back from our trip, we should have a nice crop of strawberries by April.

DOVE DISASTER: We were excited in February when the mourning doves returned to their favorite hanging basket on our pergola to begin a new nest. We had often wondered why they picked that basket, which spins back and forth on its hook whenever a good wind kicks up. Yet they seemed to weather the weather just fine until Saturday, March 1. The constant wind action apparently took its toll on the basket's hook, which popped right out of the aging wood and sent the nest crashing to the patio below. The result was a pair of scrambled eggs. We repaired the basket, but the nest was beyond help. We haven't seen the doves near it since that day and wonder if they will attempt another nest there this season or have decided it's not a safe place to raise a family. (Like duh! If they'd asked us we could have told them that.)

LEAPING INTO SPRING: As has been our family tradition each spring, Ben and Glenn took their annual father and son almond blossom walk along the backroads of Oakley and Antioch. Weather was a factor this year and forced us to delay our walk until the very last day of February. By then the blossoms were past their peak and the show not quite as spectacular as in previous years, but there were still enough to make the hike worth it.

Ben had the day off on Friday, Feb. 29, so we left about 8:30 in the morning to allow enough time for a decent hike before Glenn had to leave for work in the afternoon. We covered a lot of territory in five hours, walking at least four miles west past the former DuPont property then south along the embankment of Highway 160, stopping for snacks and lunch along the route. Our feet were soaked from the damp grass, and we were exhausted by the time we returned home, neither of us used to such a long hike, but it was worth it for the adventure.

And speaking of adventures, we'll share more of ours in southern California next month. Hopefully you'll find opportunities to enjoy some nice spring weather and accomplish your own projects in the interim.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 00:39 hrs.

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