And you thought insurance has never inspired a poet, huh?

pauls gig

I admire an innovative busker.

Like Paul, for instance. Paul writes poetry.

I met Paul earlier this spring on a trip to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t go there for the Mouse; I was lured there by an all-expenses-paid trip offered by one of the companies for which my Beloved sells insurance.

paul typingOn our last morning there after we enjoyed brunch by the lake, we watched Paul set up shop. When I realized what he was up to, I loved everything about him: His tie, his neatly combed hair, his old-fashioned typewriter–and he was a writer! Who doesn’t love a writer? Certainly another writer appreciates one of her own kind. So I loved his hustle.

So I asked my husband what topic we should give him. “Something hard,” I said. “We gotta make him work.”

So to heck with love or puppies or lakeside views! I walked up and asked him what he charges for a poem.

“They’re priceless,” he said.

“Free?” I said, incredulous.

“Well, you can pay me whatever you think it’s worth.”

“OK, I’m in. Here’s my topic. It’s a hard one, OK?”

“Sure, I like a challenge.”

“Insurance.”

Paul seemed nonplussed. Apparently he’d had enough with writing about puppies.

He said he needed a half hour or so, and I told him I’d be back in an hour or two.

Off I went to watch the movie “Life,” a chronicle about death on a space station. I returned to Earth, and to Paul.

He wrapped up the last stanza (he doesn’t write boring old limericks, nosiree, he writes 16-line poems!), and pondered a title. He finally settled on a dedication to my Beloved, the insurance salesman.

pauls poem

Paul cleared his throat and performed his poem for me and a small crowd of fans (OK, maybe they weren’t fans of anything more than the cool lake view, but they were fans nonetheless).

To be honest, I don’t think it’s very flattering to insurance salesmen. But Paul didn’t promise purple prose–he promised poetry about insurance. Which he delivered.

So I handed him $10, and he bid me well, eager to get on to his next creation: About puppies.

paul on the lake

Follow Paul Felker on Instagram #paulspoems and #paul_felker.

Spirituality quest on the banks of the great Columbia River

Columbia River Gorge museum

Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum

Spiritual thoughts on a Sunday. Not to imply spiritual thoughts should be limited to Sundays …

spiritual quest

I found this deep-thinking museum label at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, a grand building on the Columbia River near Stevenson in Washington State filled with historical information about the residents through time of the Columbia River Gorge (and some interesting tidbits about explorers Lewis and Clark and about the Oregon Trail).

The label above is a description accompanying the Spiritual Quest Gallery on the top floor of the museum where the Don Brown Rosary Collection, the world’s largest of its kind, finds its home. Brown was a resident of Skamania County, Washington, in the early part of the 20th century. Nearly 4,000 rosaries are displayed along with other religious artifacts identified with Pacific Northwest history. It’s a bit like walking through a bead store until you realize every single string of beads is a rosary.

Here’s the biggest rosary on display.

large rosary

And here’s another set of rosaries that are probably apt for Memorial Day weekend.

patriotic rosaries

I don’t know what drove Don Brown to make his life’s work about collecting rosaries. I’ve read that collections of anything are manifestations of something one was lacking in a past life. Maybe Don Brown should have prayed more in a past life. One of the lines in the museum display card attempts to define it: “Deep within each person is a spiritual longing. It is a thirst unquenched, a hunger unfulfilled, a vision only partly seen.”

Flea market finds that evoke a sense of place

Overheard at the pancake breakfast: “A bear gave me a scare last night. That dog of mine thought she was going to take it on, right there in my back yard.”

Like the eavesdropping, many of the wares at the St. Regis flea market were unique to the place.

Most flea markets look pretty much the same. Vendors display the same motley assortment of canning jars and kitchenware, old Life magazines and rusty junk found behind one’s garage.

Occasionally, a forward thinking flea market organizer also invites artisans who offer handmade jewelry (sometimes made with forks and spoons) and wooden birdhouses.

The annual Memorial Day weekend flea market in St. Regis, Montana, offers special treasures one might find only in the Pacific Northwest.

Like used snowshoes, for instance.

snowshoes

And hats made of real fur.

flea market furs

It can get cold in Montana, you know.

And to acquire those furs? That takes weapons. Lots of weapons. I saw shotguns, sledgehammers, axes, knives of every length from jack to bowie, maces (yes, more than one) and anvils (perhaps only a weapon in the hands of Wile E. Coyote).

And will you be transporting said weapons? How about a purse?

flea market concealed carry

Also necessary: Hunter’s scent, offered in every piney variety: Spruce, cedar, pine, fir, and juniper. Also, for the outliers, sage and eucalyptus. And don’t forget the camouflage in a variety of sizes.

flea market camo

Lest you think it’s all serious business at the flea market, check out the pink camo in the foreground and the princess costumes on the left, in the background of the camo.

If decorative is more your style, perhaps we could interest you in light fixtures made with elk horns. No? John Deere picnic umbrella? You got that covered? Maybe bear-shaped pieces of granite, then?

flea market granite bear cutouts

Or perhaps a bird feeder in the shape of a moose.

flea market moose

I think your wildflowers could use a vase.

flea market boot vases

Exhausted with all of your options? Let me offer you a seat.

flea market furniture

These clever vendors didn’t miss a whimsical beat. I thought unicorns could fly, but maybe they need shoes anyway.

flea market unicorn shoes

Or this dose of quirky. Everything’s bigger in Texas, but I bet you’ll never see this life-size yard art there.

flea market yeti

I felt like I was at a Montana art show, walking around the St. Regis flea market and drinking in the local flare. And I guess I’m a bit of an eavesdropper. Besides the bear conversation at breakfast, I was amused by this overheard wish.

“I’d like to hit the Powerball and come here,” said one young man to his friend as they brushed past me between a rack of raccoon skins and a display of soap made with goat’s milk. “I’d buy everything.”

Camping vs. glamping: Incident at Site 82

Interested in the differences between camping and glamping? Take this quiz, followed by a cautionary tale.

1. Your food is stored:

  • A. In a cooler on ice.
    B. In a refrigerator with an ice maker.

 

2. You sleep on a:

  • A. Sleeping bag on the ground.
  • B. Bed. With sheets.

3. Your entertainment includes:

  • A. A 50-inch fire pit and marshmallow sticks.
  • B. A 50-inch flat-screen TV connected to a satellite dish.

4. Your primary tool for tidying up is:

  • A. The plastic bag from Wal-Mart that originally carried your groceries.
  • B. The central vac.

5. Your plumbing system is best described thusly:

  • A. You wash your dishes in a bucket, you take a sponge bath in a bucket and you pee in a bucket.
  • B. You wash your dishes in a sink with a pull-out spray spout, you bathe in a hot-water shower and you pee in a toilet that flushes.

If you answered mostly As, you’re camping. Fun, because who doesn’t like s’mores cooked over a flaming campfire, right? If you answered mostly Bs, you’re glamping. Lucky you.

Of all these elements of a great adventure, the primary determinant that separates the campers from the glampers is the plumbing.

But when the plumbing goes bad, as illustrated by Hollywood to great comic effect by Cousin Eddie in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and Robin Williams in “RV,” a glamping trip becomes Chinese water torture in a flash. Or a flood. Depending.

Our worst problems on the road have been plumbing problems. My Beloved has replaced the toilet in our RV twice, for example, but nothing compares to the incident at Site 82.

It all began one recent sunny afternoon with a loud and terrible noise that could be described as a cross between a clunk and a crunch.

I was inside, my Beloved was outside. I ran to the door and leaned out, “What was that?!”

“I don’t know,” my Beloved replied, his eyes wide. “But where is that gushing sound coming from?!”

Lo and behold, a pipe beneath the camper was spurting. And the underbelly of the camper was seriously deformed.

Our first instincts were to sniff the air.

“Doesn’t smell like black water,” I said, a tiny bit relieved.

If you’re not sure what black water is, it’s the stuff in National Lampoon’s “shitter.” No further definition is necessary.

RV plumbing also includes something called “gray water.” This is the tank that contains the rinse water from the shower and sinks. In our RV, our gray water is further separated into “galley water” which comes specifically from the kitchen drain.

A lake of cold soapy water infused with food particles and coffee grounds was quickly forming beneath our camper in Site 82.

After a bit of hand-wringing (me) and crawling through the damp gravel under the camper to scope out the damage (my Beloved), we determined the galley tank had become unmoored and the exit pipe busted.

Plan A: Call a repairman.

We located a RV repairman with “trusty” in his brand name and, wonder of wonders, he answered his cell phone.

But, being the week before Memorial Day weekend, he was not only trusty but also busy. He could pencil us into his schedule in two weeks.

Two weeks?! We were scheduled to leave this campground in three days. And we have non-refundable reservations at a highly-prized campground easy of here.

Not only that, the trusty repairman was well-connected, and he said knowingly that RV service centers would probably make us wait eight weeks.

Ohhhhkay, then.

Plan B: Repair it ourselves.

First, my Beloved had to take things apart, which began by eviscerating the underbelly of the camper to expose the plumbing system. After much grunting and groaning and rolling around on the damp gravel while I fetched various tools from various cubby holes (“what’s the difference between a wrench and a socket wrench again?”), he determined the parts required to fix the problem.

And then we went to bed. Exhausted.

The next day, we made not one but two visits to Home Depot. The repairs required the following tools, most we already owned (because my Beloved hoards tools the way I collect shoes) and a few we purchased:

  • Flashlight.
  • Floor jack.
  • Utility knife.
  • Screwdriver. And screws, of course.
  • Sockets and ratchet (“there is no such thing as a socket wrench”).
  • Sawzall (borrowed).
  • Hammer. But not nails.
  • PVC pipe.
  • Zip ties.
  • Ratchet straps.
  • Silicon.
  • Compression union.
  • Washers.
  • Plastic fender washers.
  • Scissors.
  • And, since no job is complete without it, duct tape of the gorilla variety. Because it’s “super strong.”

Also, cardboard. It’s amazing how much easier it is to crawl around beneath a camper when there’s a bed of unfolded cardboard boxes over the gravel.

At the end of Day 2, my Beloved left the underbelly exposed in order to let the silicon in the piping dry and so he could check for leaks.

On the morn of Day 3, no leaks could be found. Yay! So my Beloved commenced in stitching together the camper underbelly like an experienced cosmetic surgeon (and I continued my role as nurse who handed him the correct tools). He even spray-painted the white plastic fender washers black to match the belly skin. To impress the zerk greaser, I guess.

As most disaster stories are told, it’s said “it could have been worse.” This is true of this story, too.

Our gray water tank could have broken three days earlier when we were camping in a place where the ground is optimistically described as “loamy.” Negative Nellies might describe it as spongey. But in any case, when combined with rain, it was the perfect ingredient for making mud. And Mother Nature delivered rain three of the four days we were there.

But even worse, it could have been our black water tank. In telling our story to a fellow camper while cooling off in the pool at the end of Day 2, she related a story of a black water tank explosion that could only be fixed after the work of waste cleaners in haz-mat suits to the tune of $2,400.

Our repairs cost only $67.38.

And we’ll be on our merry glamping way as scheduled tomorrow.

Sometimes the people we meet break our hearts a little

Maybe the best thing about Newberry Springs, California, was Christian.

If he lived in Ancient Greece, he would have been a cherub, if a sardonic one. His dark brown hair, probably trimmed at a Cost Cutters, framed expressive brown eyes and the chubby cheeks of a fifth grader. He was hanging around his grandmother’s cafe, fresh off the school bus, helping us kill flies.

“I spend so much time here, it feels like my house,” he said with a sigh as he slumped in a nearby chair, clearly hungry for conversation.

Bagdad Cafe

His second home is Bagdad Cafe, a dumpy little place decorated with ripped paper lanterns and T-shirts stapled on the ceiling. While we sipped on cold Coors Lites (me and my Beloved, not Christian), Christian told us that sometimes four tour buses at a time stop to see the place, a stop on Route 66 made famous with a 1987 namesake movie out of Germany starring C.C.H. Pounder and Jack Palance.

Thirty years haven’t been kind to the Bagdad Cafe. Our order began and ended with the beer (to be fair, it was icy cold).

Christian told us his favorite class with his teacher Mr. Cole is science, and he knows how to write Ls in cursive. He’s part Cherokee (“the climbing part”), and he paralyzes flies by spraying them with water before swatting them.

unearthly-blue.jpg

Newberry Springs RV Park. You have to wonder about the origins of any place in the desert with a lagoon.

Before we left Newberry Springs, our first stop a few weeks ago on our trip north through California, we enjoyed another beer at the Barn, where there was underwear stapled to the ceiling and the bartender’s shirt advertised her clear understanding of what inspired good tips. We couldn’t imagine ordering anything from the kitchen there either, but we discovered it was Taco Tuesday at the local American Legion, which looked like it had been standing for decades but was clean and filled with friendly locals. The tacos–beef, chicken or pork–were a buck a piece. Add rice and beans for another buck. They were hot and fresh and mighty tasty. Eventually, we ended up back at the Newberry Mountain RV Park, where the lagoon was unnaturally blue.

But back to the 11-year-old, who chatted with us until we were ready to leave the Bagdad Cafe. As I counted out my change for the beers, he helpfully pointed out that I had more than enough $1s for the $4.35 bill.

“Yeah, but I need a tip,” I said, thinking the server could have used a dollar more than I could.

“You got a tip, Andi!” Christian called out. (Tips were rare around there?)

Christian followed us to the door, and we bid him farewell.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, wondering if Christian would grow up to serve cold beers in this place.

“Are you ever coming back?” he asked hopefully, breaking my heart a tiny bit.

“Nope,” my Beloved said definitively.

Christian’s brown eyes peeked around the front door, covered from top to bottom with bumper stickers in every language, his eyes following our walk to our truck.

“See ya never, then,” he said and ducked back inside.

Fast casual highway robbery

Worse than tip jars, it’s fast casual restaurants that present a receipt for you to sign with “optional” tips.

Before you know how long your food will take.

Before you know if it’ll be hot when it arrives.

Before you know if the cook omitted the onions as requested.

Before you know if you’ll have to hunt down your own napkins and silverware (ahem, probably plastic ware).

Before you know if you’ll have the ketchup you want.

Before you know if you’ll be wanting a second beer and having to stand in a long line to get one while your meal gets ever colder.

Before you know if you have to bus your own dishes.

What’s fast casual? It’s those restaurants where you eye the menu board while standing in line to place your order and pay the cashier before finding a seat. Sometimes you retrieve your own order when your name is called and sometimes a food runner–not a server by any means–delivers your order. Think: Panera Bread.

I’ve been to a number of fast casual, non-chain restaurants recently, many of which use Square credit card processing or a variant, and when the order taker thrusts a receipt at me to sign (or turns the iPad to have me sign), it offers suggested tips. Not a tip of 5 percent or 10 percent, which might be reasonable to reward an order taker and a food runner who do a quarter or half the work a server performs in a sit-down restaurant, but suggested tips of 15, 20, 25 percent–one place suggested a 30 percent tip! Really? Before I know anything about my dining experience beyond the description of the food (provided by a menu board) and the price? Are you kidding me?

Don’t get me wrong here. I appreciate good service, and I think most servers work hard and earn a 20 percent tip (20 percent pre-tax–I’m not gonna tip a server based on the government’s share). But someone who knows how to operate an order-taking device and maybe a bartender who knows how to pour a glass of beer from a tap? Twenty percent? 

Um, no. 

I wouldn’t be offended if the suggested tips started at 5 percent, but to even list 30 percent is a complete joke.

I’m going to start writing Yelp reviews complaining about this practice, and I’m going to start looking for the “other” button to fill in a tip more in line with 5 percent or 10 percent. But I’m going to look around first, and if it looks like I’m going to have to bus my own trash, I’m passing altogether on a tip. If I’m doing most of the work, I’m keeping the tip for myself.

A visit to the source of my coffee addiction was eye-opening

Where I grew up, good coffee is weak enough to see the bottom of the cup and drink after supper.

Minnesotans call this Lutheran coffee. Or maybe it’s non-natives who call it that with a chuckle and a request for darker roast.

In any case, count me among the world’s coffee lovers. I start every single day with a cup (or four), and I’m a card-carrying fan of handcrafted espresso drinks (i.e., I’m a member of Starbucks Rewards program and I have the app on my phone).

At home, our coffee brand of choice is Peter James, a micro roastery in San Leandro, California, on the eastern shore San Francisco Bay. Every six weeks or so, we call them up and order eight or 10 pounds of whole bean coffee, which is packaged and shipped to our door.

Peter James is a wholesaler for the most part, but to its credit, they are always cheerful about taking our small orders (maybe the excellent coffee helps). My Beloved has been a regular customer for many years, and I have been calling and talking to the friendly but anonymous voice on the end of the line without thinking much about the source of my coffee other than to decide on the origin of the raw beans. Tanzania? Kenya? Costa Rica? Ethiopia? Sure, I’ll take a bag of each.

But as we laid out our trek through California, I realized we would be in the vicinity of the factory and asked about a tour.

“Well, we don’t have formal tours, but sure, you can stop by and we’ll show you around,” said the friendly voice I would soon learn belonged to Kat.

So like worshippers traveling to the our god’s birthplace, we paid a visit.

And found this:

Mecca

Well, OK, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. But I can assure you, the nondescript exterior encloses a serious coffee roasting operation.

Coffee, like wine, is a nuanced beverage. Its acidity and body can be measured, and avid coffee drinkers know what they like when they taste it; those with a sensitive, educated palate can determine flavor, measure intensity and rate a coffee’s sweetness, sourness and even saltiness.

At Peter James, the proprietor Mark is tasting and rating shipments from all over the world like a caffeinated Energizer Bunny. Mark tests the beans before the beans are shipped and after they arrived (because sometimes they can become sullied in transit). And then he determines the best roast for each type of bean and blend.

burlapWe learned coffee is graded in five classes (Peter James accepts only beans in the top two). We got to follow the roasting process from raw bean (they arrive in burlap bags) all the way through the roasting process and packaging. And then we got to have a tasting.

Like any well-run wine tasting, our coffee tasting was eye-opening. Kat and Mark brewed our favorite freshly roasted beans for us in four ways: drip coffee, siphon brew, aeropress and espresso.

coffee cupsI was amazed at the different flavors even my rudimental palate sussed out of the different preparation methods. Nothing beats quality preparation and side-by-side comparison. We liked the aeropress method so much, we’ve invested in an aeropress.

Of course, we left with eight pounds of freshly roasted coffee which brought smiles to our faces.

Peter James Coffee

Now before you think this quality coffee costs an arm and a leg, we picked up eight pounds of coffee (Kenya, Tanzania Peaberry, Mocha Java, Dark French Italian and French Reserve) for $72 (normally, we pay shipping as well). That’s only 56 cents an ounce, which is a smokin’ deal compared to big-name roasters. If you’re drinking your Lutheran coffee using Folgers, Peter James will cost you twice as much, but let’s be real — it tastes about 20 times better so it’s a great deal.

If you want to see for yourself, give Kat a call and place an order (click here). You won’t be sorry.