Stone in love
April 24, 2008
The whole point of taking a vacation is that you're supposed to rest, both physically and mentally. So why is it that most of our vacations aren't very restful? Probably because being the on-the-go family we tend to be, we are constantly trying to pack in "just one more thing" on our vacation itinerary, no matter how little time we might actually have.
That's what we managed to do on our recent "spring break," a nine-day adventure that had us doing everything from traveling the freeways of Southern California to blazing new pathways through our ever-evolving back yard. In between, we managed to celebrate Roni's birthday and our 20th wedding anniversary, and became better acquainted with our local home improvement centers.
This month's adventures begin with March 22, about the point where last month's left off. That was the first day of Glenn's vacation from work and the middle of Ben's two weeks off from school. We had decided to head down to the Los Angeles area for a few days to get in a visit with Glenn's grandma, but also for a change of scenery along the coast. It was a trip that almost got postponed, first amid the turmoil at Glenn's work and then later because our gardening projects had diverted our attention and budget. And then there was the matter of Easter, which this year fell on the ridiculously early date of March 23 which also happened to be Roni's birthday. Ben feared missing out on our Easter traditions of egg hunts and candy baskets. The rest of us feared that delaying a trip down south to the middle of the week would leave us slogging along through hellacious commute traffic.
Ultimately we decided to do our four-day trip immediately to allow for five days of "relaxation" time at home afterward. Roni loaded up the Easter goodies in the trunk of her car and we prepared to leave at 10 a.m. that Saturday morning. We had been expecting a package from FedEx to show up that day and delayed our departure in hopes that it would arrive before we left. No one likes the idea of leaving important packages unattended for several days, but we didn't see much choice. We figured it would be well enough hidden on the porch that no one would bother it.
It was as we were leaving that Glenn discovered one of our favorite concrete wall hangings we'd brought back with us from Massachusetts last July and proudly displayed over our front door had mysteriously vanished, probably sometime in the past week. We had several theories, but the most likely one was that someone who had come to our door to solicit us liked what they saw and snatched the whimsical piece on impulse. Financially it wasn't a great loss, but emotionally it was devastating. The idea of someone stealing right off our front porch not only made us feel violated, it left us concerned for the safety of our FedEx package.
The incident was on our minds the entire 450 miles from Oakley to Hemet, where we'd booked a room for the night. We tried not to dwell on it while chasing the sun along Interstate 5, trying to make it over the Grapevine and to our hotel before nightfall. Fortunately the sights along the way helped distract us, and soon we were dealing with more pressing matters: "Are we there yet?" and "When do we eat?" We made decent time despite our late start, and shortly after dark we were watching the stars come up over the desert landscape while motoring into Hemet on Highway 79.
Sunday morning arrived hot and sunny, a typical spring day in the flatlands east of Los Angeles. We'd made arrangements to visit with Glenn's Grandma Rose Sorenson for a bit and go out for lunch before we hit the road for the next phase of our trip. First we stopped off at a Von's grocery store and picked up an Easter lily to surprise her with when we arrived. Being Easter Sunday, it seemed an appropriate thing to do. We'd already taken care of Ben, gifting him with a basket of Pokémon goodies while still in the motel room, along with promises that we'd "do Easter right" when we returned home. The same went for Roni's birthday. There were gifts waiting for her back home, but none that made sense to lug around in the car. We improvised as best we could, surprising her with birthday cards and a Jeff Gordon keychain Ben had picked up the previous day at a truck stop on I-5.
Grandma was waiting for us when we arrived around 11 a.m. She invited us in and we chatted a bit while listening to a Mantovani record cranked up to concert hall volume on her stereo. We also got a tour of the house to see the changes she's been making to it in the year-and-a-half since the passing of Glenn's Grandpa Bernie. A flood brought about by an overflowing clothes washer a few months back resulted in new carpets and linoleum in the kitchen that have transformed the look of the interior. Outdoors, all the citrus trees that once grew along the back fence and in the front yard are gone. In place of the orange tree that dominated the front landscaping is a new, small tree and a flower garden that had both Roni and Glenn taking note of its contents, being suddenly hyper focused on gardening as we are. We were particularly fascinated with a couple of the cactus gardens in some neighboring yards, in awe of their size and the varieties being grown, yet knowing that they'd never grow in the cooler climes of the Bay Area.
We went out for lunch at Mimi's Cafe, which was hopping busy with families coming out of church. Fortunately Grandma had made reservations, so we were able to get our table and food quickly. After that, it was back to Grandma's house where she pulled a bakery sheet cake out of the refrigerator and we got to give Roni the proper acknowledgment of her birthday. Grandma invited over her neighbor friend Clayton to join in the festivities, and for a couple of hours we sat out in the patio room over cake and coffee and chatted about such things as favorite TV series and life in New York, where both Roni and Clayton are originally from.
By mid-afternoon it was time to get back on the road. We wanted to get to Huntington Beach before dark, but we still wanted to make some stops along the way. The first one was at a garden statuary shop along Highway 74 west of Hemet where we picked up a statue of a roadrunner and two statues of laughing gophers. We knew they were meant for our yard the moment we saw them, cast in mocking poses not unlike those we have noticed on the real gophers that regularly invade our yard.
Our second stop was at Riverside National Cemetery, where Glenn's grandpa was buried in August 2006. It was the first time Glenn had been back since the funeral, and the first time any of us had been able to view his grandfather's grave marker. We had some difficulty finding it, even with directions obtained from the electronic directory at the visitor center. We weren't the only ones there on Easter Sunday either. There were dozens of people visiting, and the place was awash in flags and flowers.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Huntington Beach and found our room at the Comfort Suites on Beach Boulevard. We were all feeling a bit queasy as it had been several hours since lunch and we weren't used to the heat, which had been in the 90s most of the day. We'd just been getting used to low-70s again back home. A light dinner and we were off to bed in hopes of resting up for some fun in the sun on Monday morning.
We'd had this great little plan horribly flawed, as it turned out that we'd trundle on down to the beach and get our fill of it without all the crowds one would expect to find on the weekend. We fancied strolling through half-deserted downtown streets checking out the souvenir shops and restaurants. After all, it was Monday and normal, non-vacationing types were back to work.
True enough, the non-vacationers were back to work. What we'd neglected to take into account was all the high school and college kids who were out on spring break, and there were thousands of them soaking up the rays on the very beaches we wanted to visit. No problem, we'd just grab a parking spot and take a stroll out on Huntington Pier. Ooops... no parking spots near the water. OK, so we did the next best thing and grabbed a spot in one of the parking garages downtown, where for the bargain price of about $12 we could leave the car for the day and go strolling.
Just for you trivia buffs, Huntington Beach is the 19th largest city in California. That is considerably behind number-one Los Angeles, but quite a bit ahead of Pismo Beach, which was the beach town we were attempting to compare it to. At least, we'd always thought they must share common elements, given that both have built their reputations on sun, sand and surfing. But that is where the similarities end. Huntington Beach is much more like L.A. than it is like Pismo. The traffic, even without the spring breakers, is definitely busier. The downtown storefronts were decidedly more upscale, as were many of the restaurants. Not to say it wasn't nice, but it wasn't as folksy.
What attracted us to downtown was a chance to eat at Mo's Smokehouse BBQ, which if you've read the accounts of our Pismo Beach trips needs no introduction. The small chain has four restaurants, one of which is located on Main Street in Huntington Beach. We stocked up on their barbecue sauces and ordered several familiar items off the menu to compare it with the Pismo Beach location. While the food was decent, it didn't match Pismo. We'll just have to make an excuse to try the remaining two stores in San Luis Obispo and Chico.
We walked off our lunch with a stroll along the pier. What a great place to go people watching! Think of just about any activity you've ever seen on a public beach and it was on display here. Thousands of young folks sprawled out on the sand like beached sealions, kids playing volleyball, guys braving the shallows on boogie boards while veteran surfers cruised the waves further out to sea. There was even a spirited game of rugby taking place amid the sunbathers. And here and there you could find the occasional young family with kids in tow attempting to build sandcastles or find shells the families were easy to spot because the moms were generally the only ones not wearing two-piece bathing suits; this is strictly Bay Watch country. We were content to stay off the beach and walk along the pier to Ruby's Restaurant at its end, past the diners and sport fishermen.
We poked around town before starting our trip for home Tuesday. Roni wanted to avoid L.A.'s notorious traffic, and we got this silly notion that might be possible if we took Interstate 405 around noon, figuring we'd miss the morning rush hour and beat the afternoon commute too. Problem with that plan is the morning commute ends about 2 p.m. and the evening commute begins at noon, so there we were in the thick of things past Long Beach. When it came time to decide whether to stick with I-5 for a speedy-yet-boring run through the San Joaquin Valley, or take Highway 101 for a scenic-yet-slothful drive along the coast and via San Jose, we opted for scenery.
Highway 101 in the spring can be a beautiful place. Once we escaped Ventura and tracked back inland, we were passing green hillsides awash in yellow mustard, orange poppies and purple lupines. We'd missed out on dyeing Easter eggs, but nature treated us to its own artist's palette of color.
We made excellent time home, including a stop along the way at "All That Stuff Behind the Barn" near Atascadero so we could pick up some more metal sculptures for our garden. We arrived home after 9 p.m., our bodies tired and the trunk of Roni's car loaded with goodies. Best of all, the FedEx package we'd fretted over the entire trip was waiting safe and sound on the porch. What was in it? Sorry, that's gotta keep for next month's newsletter.
The first day back from our road trip was Wednesday, March 26, our 20th wedding anniversary. Modern tradition dictates that you are supposed to give platinum gifts to celebrate 20 years of matrimony, but seeing as the price of platinum is about double the price of gold which is currently trading at a thousand bucks an ounce it was a bit out of our reach. Fortunately, the ancient tradition of gifting china was a bit more within our budget, especially when you stretch the definition to include things like Chinese-made imports and a romantic meal at a Chinese restaurant. The three of us went out that evening for dinner at the Golden Dragon Buffet in Antioch. Now after you've stopped laughing, we'll have you know that this is perhaps one of the best Chinese buffets you'll find in the Bay Area. The food was excellent for the price, and there was a wide variety of dishes to sample. It now ranks just below Mo's on our list of favorite restaurants.
While we didn't buy platinum for our anniversary, we did invest in art. Since constructing Summer's Garden in October 2006 we have become interested in collecting the other three statues in the four seasons series that complement the one we already have. When we discovered them for sale around Christmas time at Statues 'N' Stuff here in town, we started making plans to acquire them for the garden. We would have loved to order them all at once, but we decided not to rush things and for now settled on Winter Season. We placed our order March 27 with a promise that it would be ready for delivery in six to eight weeks. A good thing, because now we have to prepare a spot for it.
It was while we were at the statue shop placing our order that we discovered an unfinished concrete casting of a gargoyle that the owner offered to us for $25. It seemed like a pretty good deal, and since we've been getting into garden art lately we thought it would offer the chance to clean it up and paint it. The little fellow rode home with us on the back seat, and Glenn spent the next few days patching cracks, priming him and painting him a lizardly shade of green. We learned later that the gargoyle is patterned after one called "Dedo" found at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. The story behind it was that a nun who didn't like the sinister-looking gargoyles that adorned other parts of the cathedral came up with Dedo as a benevolent alternative. Dedo remained undiscovered in the cathedral for hundreds of years. Of course we learned all this after Glenn had already painted him with demonic yellow eyes and red lips, and bathed him in a wash of black paint to create a character that resembles a troll under a bridge. Nonetheless, he looks right at home atop the garden wall.
Concrete statuary has been figuring prominently in our yard this spring. Recently we told you about our new strawberry terrace and how our quest for berry plants resulted in buying out Home Depot's supply of Verdura retaining wall stones. The last part of the project we wanted was a statue to place on the top tier of the terrace. Glenn liked the idea of St. Francis with a flock of birds at his feet, but Roni had her eye on a statue of a cat wearing sunglasses. So as one of her belated birthday gifts, Roni opened a package containing the 40-pound cat. Garfield himself couldn't have weighed as much. We "planted" the cat in the garden and then Roni surrounded him with some colorful annuals that have since established themselves. The cat looks like it intentionally perched itself in the middle of the display. Perfect.
Our four days away from home and our yard projects inspired a new bout of creativity that took us through the rest of our vacation. We made a trip to Michaels Crafts and picked up several wooden birdhouses that Roni painted up to make a little village atop our new grape arbor, a picture of which appears in this newsletter. We also tried our hand at molding concrete stepping stones using kits Roni bought. The first was in the shape of a hexagon in which we embedded tile pieces to form a flower mosaic. The second was a green frog with mosaic glass embedded on its back. Glenn found a book on concrete sculpting and is now inspired to try some more ambitious pieces.
When we weren't crafting, we were weeding and plotting new ways to get our garden to grow. Slowly but surely we are recovering our yard from the ravages of winter weeds, determined this time not to let them return. We are also getting our sprinkler system in order, converting all the regular heads to drippers in an effort to save water and cut down on overspray that spawns more weeds. Glenn patched a bunch of holes in the half-inch drip line running along the base of the garden wall and ran drippers into most of the niches. Roni planted some of our leftover strawberry plants in the wall along with morning glory seeds. We'll see what works and what doesn't.
Our final vacation project proved to be our most challenging, but also most rewarding. We had wanted to put a flagstone pathway in our backyard for the past year. After seeing some of the rocks on display at Home Depot recently and doing some Internet research on installing it, we decided it would be an affordable weekend project we could tackle now.
Our search for a place to buy the flagstone eventually took us to Hillcrest Top Soil in Antioch, which offered patio grade sandstone in a variety of colors. We consulted the heavily tattooed man at the counter who told us that our 60-by-2.5 foot pathway would require about 1,300 pounds of rock to complete. We decided to play it safe and purchase 1,500 pounds, or three-quarters of a ton, just to have a little extra. We figured we could always use any leftover pieces somewhere in the garden. Best of all, if we placed our order that day, a Saturday, we could have it delivered first thing the next morning. A couple fun hours on a Sunday fitting stones in place in the sand and we'd be done, no sweat.
We thought we could simply tell them how much we wanted and then a fellow would show up the next day with our order and forklift a pallet into our driveway like Home Depot would. Not exactly. Tattoo explained to us that the way it works is that the customer selects the exact pieces to be purchased, on account of the rocks being various shapes and sizes and that one piece might be preferred over another. All the rocks looked fine to us, but nonetheless we had to sift through each and every stone on one pallet and transfer the ones we wanted to a separate pallet to be weighed. With help from a couple of the employees, we loaded up our "choice" rocks on a pallet and then one of the workers used a forklift to transfer the pallet to a nearby scale. We added a few more stones to get the pallet close to the desired weight, then set up the delivery time.
We were told the truck would arrive by 10:30 on Sunday morning, March 30. When the order did eventually show up closer to 11 it was not on some giant flatbed, but on the tailgate of a rusty pickup truck driven by a young kid. No forklift, just raw muscle power. You mean we gotta move these things by hand again? Yup. So we clambered around the back of the truck and unloaded the rocks one at a time into a tidy pile beside the driveway, sans the pallet, which the delivery driver took with him. Then we began the task of transporting the stones by hand to the job site in the back yard.
Fortunately we had already graded the sand in preparation for the pathway, which was to run from the end of our patio to the garden stairs near the mulberry tree. We had removed all the groundcover bark and stepping stones in front of Summer's Garden. All that was left was to fit the pieces into place. We started out with a couple of larger stones near the patio and quickly discovered that getting them to fit together without leaving awkward gaps is as much art as science.
It took a couple of hours and a lot of trial and error to finish laying the section near the patio. Imagine working a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that weigh 20 pounds or so each you'd get pretty tired in a hurry. As we did. As the afternoon wore on and the sun rose higher, we discovered that our fun little morning project was becoming a daylong ordeal. Like Tattoo had suggested, it made more sense to place a couple of pieces then stop and survey the work a bit until you discovered the next good fit. While this approach seemed to work, it did manage to make the task take longer.
The closer we got to the stairs and the end of the path, the more we began to wonder if we would have enough stones to complete the project. Our dwindling pile of rocks left us with fewer and fewer options to make good fits, which left us turning them over and rotating them in every direction. By now we'd taken to naming the rocks. Several resembled states or continents. We were saving "Texas" for near the end because it was one of the largest remaining pieces. "Home Plate" would have been more comfortable on a baseball diamond than it looked in our pathway.
Somehow we got it all to work, using every last piece we'd bought. We were glad we'd decided to order the extra weight. We filled in the gaps with sand or bark and hosed off the dirt we'd tracked across the flagstones, then stood back to admire our work. It was late afternoon by the time we'd finished. We were tired and hungry, but proud of what we'd accomplished. Soon we'll plant groundcover in the gaps between the stones to give it a truly finished appearance.
We've covered a lot of ground this month figuratively and literally. But much like our ongoing weeding project, we've only just scratched the surface. We'll have more garden exploits to share with you next month. Enjoy that great spring weather while you've got it.
Glenn, Roni and Ben