March 30, 2017: Spring is here, and good riddance to winter. The year is nearly a quarter of the way done already and we have spent most of it either treading water from one big storm to the next, or blowing our noses from the various colds and flus we've contracted since New Year's Day. Neither has been conducive to accomplishing the things we'd really like to get accomplished, including returning to our front yard landscaping project or weeding the forest of green that has sprung up all around our property thanks to the soggy weather.
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But more than all that, March has always been a meaningful month for us, given that it marks Roni's birthday and our wedding anniversary, both of which we usually celebrate with vacation time. Like the season, it represents a "warming period" in our year, when we turn away from the indoorsy, winter-blah pastimes of TV and computers and high-calorie comfort foods and start taking walks and trips and tackling projects and planning for the activities that will keep us occupied and active through the end of summer. Not so much this year, however. *cough*
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ARCH 4TH PRETTY much sounds like a command to get moving, and so it was on that Saturday morning we caught a break in between the sicknesses and the raindrops and had the makings of a nice spring day. It was a brief illusion, of course, because more rain was in the forecast that afternoon, so if Glenn wanted to get in his much-delayed "blossom walk" then this might be the last opportunity while there were still blossoms to be seen.
Every year for at least the past 20 years, Glenn has picked one day in, usually, February to enjoy the solitude of the now-abandoned DuPont property in Oakley and explore the remnants of what once was a thriving almond orchard before it was converted into a grape vineyard. The weather in February is generally unpredictable, and while there are usually a lot of overcast, cold and rainy days to contend with, there is almost always one weekend to take advantage of the sunshine and photograph the blossoms. That wasn't the case this year, given our state's historic wet winter that coupled with high winds to spoil the peak of the bloom.
By March, most of the blossoms had already vanished, but Glenn was determined not to miss his walk. He got started by 9:30 a.m. that Saturday and followed the railroad line west through the former DuPont siding and as far as the Highway 160 overpass, where he turned north and walked along the freeway embankment to see what he could see. That area in the past has been a haven for homeless encampments, but Caltrans has made an effort to make it less attractive for that purpose, and as a result most of the willow trees and brush that grew along the freeway's edge have all been removed.
The other thing that has been disappearing are the almond trees. Each year it becomes more of a challenge to find trees that have not succumbed to the forces of human activity or nature. While there are still trees to be found on the DuPont property and along both sides of Highway 160 north to the Antioch Bridge toll plaza and south to the Highway 4/160 junction, many of the trees have been removed for the widening of the highway or the expansion of the grape vineyard. A few have simply collapsed in the wind. And by March 4, most of those capable of producing blossoms had already leafed out, leaving behind a scattered display of spring color past its prime.
Perhaps most disappointing of all was the loss of what Glenn has long called his "favorite tree" in the vineyard to the north of the railroad tracks. Growing on a sandy patch of acreage separated and protected from the rest of the world by a chainlink fence, the giant almond tree put out a beautiful display of pink blossoms that was hard to miss even from afar while driving along Main Street. But recent years of drought had not been kind to the tree, and some of its limbs had already been pruned away in apparent hopes of saving it. Sometime in the past year, the tree was deemed unsalvageable by its owners and reduced to a stump that still marks the spot of its once proud existence.
This along with the decreasing number of other trees might have been enough to discourage future blossom walks along this route, but Glenn came away encouraged that the glory days of fruit tree blossoms in Oakley might one day experience a revival; all through the vineyard there have been new plantings of almond trees along the ends of the grape rows. Perhaps the vintners have also realized the value in aesthetics, or maybe it is the trees' ability to attract bees that will help pollinate the crops that they find desirable. In any case, another decade from now we may be writing about the new forest of blossoms that greets us in February.
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LENN RETURNED FROM his blossom walk a little before noon, just in time to join up with Roni for a trip to Somersville Towne Center in Antioch where she had an appointment to cover the Oakley Rocks group for a freelance story she was writing for the newspaper. The "rockers," as they are affectionately known, have become something of a phenomenon around here lately. It's a loosely organized group of creative-minded people who get together at various locations to decorate rocks with pictures or messages that they then hide around town for others to discover. Clues to the hiding places are often posted on the Oakley Rocks Facebook page. Finders have the choice to keep the decorated rock or hide it again for the next person to find.
On this Saturday, a handful of the rockers were gathered at the mall with their paints and each other to create some new designs. Roni interviewed them while Glenn wandered through the mall to see how the place has changed since the last time we visited. It had been a very long time since we were inside the place for something other than a visit to Sears or Macy's, the two anchor tenants. Malls aren't what they once were, as online retailing has mostly killed off the indoor mall scene. Somersville today is mostly a collection of niche clothing stores catering to teens, and a few local businesses that have found ridiculously low rents in what used to be a premier shopping destination in our community. The mall has a bit of a bad reputation, given its location in a seedy part of the city that has gotten seedier since the recession of nearly a decade ago.
Roni finished up with her interview and we were heading out to go find lunch when we noticed an older woman in distress on the sidewalk outside the shuttered Gottschalks store. A passing motorist asked her if she needed help, and she said she did, so Roni pulled out her cell phone and put in a call to 911 while Glenn sat down on the curb next to the woman to find out what had happened and if she was all right. Turns out that the woman — Donna was her name — had been walking back home from the bank across the street when she had a dizzy spell or some similar medical episode and slipped on the curb. She thought she had hit her face on the pavement, although she didn't appear to be bleeding, and that she might have broken her ankle because she couldn't stand up.
We sat with her a few minutes until the ambulance crew arrived, by which time she was already doing better. She had requested the ambulance, but the whole time she kept telling us she was worried whether her medical insurance would cover the trip to the hospital. It's hard not to relate to that, given that our own insurance plan went from something affordable and halfway decent last year to something now that is more expensive and covers barely anything. Our mantra these days is "don't get sick."
Relieved that is appeared Donna was in good hands with the medics, we drove downtown to find lunch, arriving at Canton City on G Street in Antioch. We had never been there before and are always looking to try someplace new, not that these guys hadn't been around for years. We discovered the reason why. The place is very much a hole-in-the-wall for Chinese grub, literally an order counter with a few tables inside for those who wish to eat there rather than take out. The food was nothing to write home about, but it was cheap and the portions were generous, which these days is pretty much the benchmark for fine dining in Antioch. We enjoyed our lunch inside the aging diner before taking home the leftovers to enjoy during the week.
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E HAVE DWELLED on the events of March 4 because that was one of the only days this month that resembled normalcy for us. Just a few days later, we both came down with slightly different versions of the creeping crud. In Roni's case, it was a chest-rattling cough that wouldn't quit. For Glenn, it was a runny nose and congested sinuses that later developed into a deep cough and fever, just as he thought he was turning the corner and returning to good health. The effect was more than three weeks of spent tissues and sleepless nights as we downed NyQuil and tried to ignore the crackling sound of mucus in our lungs.
Unfortunately the colds extended into our vacation time near the end of the month. We had been looking forward to the nine-day stretch between March 18 and 26 to enjoy the anticipated arrival of spring and get some work done on our front yard project, maybe hit the road for some day trips to check out birding sights and get in a walk while the weather was nice and starting to get warm. Instead, we spent the first few days of our time off battling our respective illnesses, watching the dark skies outside our window and not feeling like doing much of anything. We watched some movies. We read books. We slept a lot.
We also made the mistake of trying to get in some yard work on the first nice afternoon we encountered. That meant a return to the strip of sand along our driveway that we had started excavating in October in anticipation of laying concrete pavers to expand our driveway (and in the process eat up some of the yard that would otherwise be producing weeds.) We got stopped by the rain season, and the two pallets of pavers that arrived in November have been clogging up our driveway ever since. Our goal in revisiting the project during our vacation was to get the old keystone pavers removed from the area and to level the sand in preparation for adding paver base rock and then placing the new concrete stones.
The problem was that Glenn was in no condition to shovel and haul dirt, given his cold. The mucus in his chest left him wheezing and winded after just a few minutes, so not a lot of work got accomplished. Roni fared little better with her cough, although she did help with weeding and hauling cartloads of the old pavers to the opposite side of the garage. It would have been slow going regardless, because the roots from our plum tree are so dense that we have to dig around them and decide which ones to cut or keep before we can level the ground around them. In all, we got in four days of work during our nine-day vacation, and although we made good progress toward preparing the driveway space, there is still much work to do. We have seen the city's code enforcement officers making the rounds of our neighborhood again, so it is our hope they will let us be long enough to finally get the driveway installed so we can move on to other things.
In the meantime, we have been struggling to keep the weeds down. The heavy winter rains have produced an abundance of weed growth in both front and rear yards. We've made haphazard efforts to clean up the backyard, removing some of the fallen wisteria pods and the tallest weeds shrouding our bird feeders, but the bulk of the work will have to wait until we get more trimmer line for the weed wacker. It's a mammoth chore that we don't have the energy to tackle right now, frankly.
At least the yard is in bloom now. Our wisteria has been going gangbusters, as it always does in March. The huge black carpenter bees have been cruising the sweet-scented blossoms in search of nectar to take back to their hives, which we hope are somewhere other than in our house. The birds have begun their mating rituals, and we have found at least one mourning dove nest in the plum tree in our front yard. There have been some other unusual avian visitors in addition to the plentiful sparrows and blackbirds we normally see, including a Harris hawk that briefly parked itself in the barren branches of our ash tree, and a bald eagle that we saw being chased above our neighborhood by some crows and redtail hawks. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, apparently.
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ONI CELEBRATED HER 55th birthday on March 23, and although we were not as healthy as we wanted to be, we did our best to enjoy the day. Ben decided he wanted to do something special for her and took it upon himself to purchase the ingredients for a birthday breakfast that he cooked up that morning. Although the extent of his cooking adventures usually involves heating up frozen entrees in the microwave, the meal turned out quite good for a first try. It was sort of a fancy omelette and quiche recipe that made enough for the three of us and was very tasty.
After breakfast, Roni decided she wanted to go exploring on the Delta. This was partly because she wanted to take pictures, but also because she was scouting attractions to show to a busload of school kids she will be taking there in connection with a tour being provided through the Delta Science Center next week. We had decent weather for the outing, which took us to lower Sherman Island and then north through Isleton, Walnut Grove, Locke and up to Courtland.
In Walnut Grove, we stopped at Mel's Mocha & Ice Cream to grab a hotdog and Italian soda to tide us over until dinner, which given the way we do things on birthdays wasn't likely to be until much later in the evening. Then we walked down to the public docks to gawk at the rushing current of the Sacramento River and marvel at how high the water level was. It is such a contrast to the years of drought in which the river barely concealed the blackberry brambles that grow along its levee banks, and the concrete pylons anchoring the dock towered like monuments above the boardwalk. Now those same pylons are barely as tall as we are.
We got back to Oakley right at 6 p.m. and collected Ben for a drive to Concord to grab dinner to celebrate Roni's birthday. She had chosen the Nola Po'Boy & Gumbo Kitchen, which has been one of our favorite destinations for Louisiana-style Southern cuisine. They were thankfully open on a Thursday night and the service was unusually quick. Roni also had a hankering for a soft pretzel like the kind usually sold by street vendors in New York, but seeing as we aren't anywhere near the Big Apple, we are forced to settle for places like Auntie Anne's at the mall whenever we want that authentic experience. Our lone soft-pretzel location in Antioch closed a while back, so we now have to drive to Tracy or Concord whenever we want one that isn't from the frozen food aisle at the grocery store. Seeing as how Sunvalley Shopping Center was just a few blocks away from the restaurant and that Ben wanted to go there as well, we headed that way after our dinner.
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ERHAPS WE COULD have titled this month's newsletter "A contrast in shopping malls." After our experience at Somersville Towne Center a few weeks earlier, seeing Sunvalley Shopping Center for the first time in years drove home the point of how much the world of indoor malls has changed. Sunvalley, unlike Somersville, has been more successful at evolving with the times. Granted it is a much larger mall, but we didn't see too many vacant storefronts there. It also has the trendy chain stores that kids (and older shoppers) seem to prefer, such as Hot Topic and BoxLunch, where Ben went shopping for more gear from "Legend of Zelda." The mall recently added the giant Round 1 Bowling & Amusement entertainment center on the lower floor, and there is a giant food court with a diverse selection of chain restaurants to select from.
Roni was able to find not one, but two locations selling soft pretzels. She had her heart set on Auntie Anne's, so we headed there and bought up the store. Well, it felt like we bought up the store, given how much we spent for a couple of large soft pretzels and two cupfuls of cinnamon sticks, but Roni was happy she had some goodies to take on the road.
Our last stop of the evening was Todos Santos Plaza in downtown Concord. We had yet to pick up Roni's birthday cake, and it was getting late. The plaza features two ice cream shops, so we figured we'd have a good chance of finding something there. The plaza also is home to Half Price Books, and if you know anything about us then you know we are drawn to bookstores like moths to flame. It wasn't quite 9 p.m., so we had a few minutes to snoop around the book aisles before heading across the plaza to Loard's Ice Cream. We'd never been there before but had heard great things about them. Their website said they sell ice cream cakes. But as we discovered, the cakes weren't available this time of year; they only put them out during the late spring and summer, according to the clerk we spoke with. Rats.
So we went with Plan B, which was the Baskin-Robbins on the other end of the plaza. We worried they might not be open, given that it was already past 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, but apparently Concord is a real city with merchants that keep later hours, so we were in luck. We picked out a small pralines-and-cream cake and had the clerk write a birthday message on top, then it was home to Oakley to eat it and open presents.
Ben had been prepared for Roni's birthday this year. Working at a grocery store as he does, he snapped up a few of the spring gardening items when they were put out on display a few weeks ago. Glenn, on the other hand, had good intentions to shop early but wound up ordering a gift through Amazon that arrived the morning of the 23rd. It was nearly 10 o'clock by the time we got back home, leaving no time for wrapping of presents if we wanted to open them before midnight, so the opening of gifts became more of an unboxing/unbagging. Roni received some lovely garden ornaments from Ben, carefully wrapped in yellow plastic Grocery Outlet sacks, while Glenn's gave her a Celestron Ultima 80 spotting scope packed in an Amazon box. In the end, it was a fun day and we made our own memories to carry Roni through another year.
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HREE DAYS AFTER Roni's birthday, we celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary with another drive up the Delta, only this time Roni had a specific destination in mind. She had secretly made reservations for the Sunday champagne brunch at the Ryde Hotel, which we had long wanted to check out. The 90-year-old hotel was built during the Prohibition era and still retains its Art Deco charm. It includes a large banquet hall that every weekend serves up elegant dinners and the Sunday brunch.
We had reservations for noon, but the place wasn't terribly busy. They put out a nice spread of breakfast items, including hash browned potatoes, eggs benedict, waffles with strawberry compote, sausage and bacon strips, biscuits and gravy, pork ribs and lots of fresh fruit. There were shrimp tails and cocktail sauce, pasta salad, Caesar salad, and a dessert table with cheesecake and creme brulee. And what would a champagne brunch be without the champagne? The mimosas were free-flowing and unlimited, so our wineglasses were always topped off. We enjoyed a spectacular view of Mount Diablo across acres of agricultural fields while we dined in the historical hotel. After 29 years of marriage, we're starting to feel a little historical ourselves, perhaps, but it's always an exciting journey.
Being sick as we have been most of this month, we can't help but be reminded of our wedding day in 1988, when we were both horribly sick with the flu. Glenn could barely recite his vows through his congested sinuses, and Roni was still feeling feverish as we battled fatigue through the ceremony and the reception. An anniversary always makes one nostalgic, but we have both decided that such authentic viral touches are something we can do without. *cough*