California: A Tale of Two Sequoias

One of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen in all my travels across this amazing Earth is General Sherman.

tree general sherman

General Sherman, center

General Sherman is the world’s biggest tree (by volume) and is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old. That makes the tree older than Christianity and, quite frankly, most dirt.

Gazing on this beautiful tree makes one feel distinctly like a mosquito – an irritating little blood sucker whose life is a blink and whose death is a smear of blood that is wiped away in a single breath.

General Sherman is a sequoia, a genus of redwood coniferous trees, found only at a certain elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Sierra Nevada is situated mostly in California, and it also boasts Yosemite National Park, where we observed first-hand the “tunnel view” of the park which features Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Waterfall. Breathtaking.

California is, of course, home to Napa Valley, too, where we spent nearly two weeks sipping on some of the best wine on earth, grown in the distinctive valley. We got there by driving across the Central Valley with an abundance of rich soil where most of the country’s almonds, olives, strawberries and celery are grown.

It’s a state rich in natural beauty and natural resources.

And it’s where 39 million Californians call home.

Including the well-rounded bleach blonde who, in dropping off her equally bronzed and perfectly coiffured friends behind the Boon Fly Café, managed to block the narrow passageway for a solid five minutes while she chatted with her buddies as they unloaded … something …. obviously important, but unseen … behind her vehicle. She was clearly the most important person visiting the cafe that day.

My Beloved and I were attempting to leave the premises (what’s the rule about elevators? Always let passengers exit before you board, right? Isn’t that wise advice for busy parking lots, too?). When Bleach Blonde eventually got back behind the wheel and looked as if she was finally ready to proceed to the parking lot behind us, my Beloved didn’t back up to make way for her. Instead, he inched our pick-up forward (I love him for his ballsiness), which forced Bleach Blonde to back up (which she should have done in the first place and certainly without hesitation once she returned to her vehicle).

Then she had the gall to stare me down as we passed. She! Was ticked! At us! For making her! Back up!

Oh, really!

She was driving an enormous, gleaming black Toyota Sequoia, pretty much the biggest sports utility vehicle on the road.

Of course.

Unfortunately, Bleach Blonde is Exhibit No. 1 in my book of Arrogant Californians, who seem to inhabit the state at an above average rate.

Have I ever told you about the visit I paid many long years ago to a bed-and-breakfast in San Diego?

Surely I have (because I’m still smarting from the glance two decades ago of the Californian looking down her nose at me as she marveled at my origin). But just in case you missed it, let me regale you.

Being a Midwesterner means sometimes defending one’s residence to people who aren’t from the Midwest.

I remember a conversation one morning at a San Diego bed-and-breakfast with a California couple. When I told them we were from Minnesota, they exclaimed, “Minnesota! Who would ever want to live there? You must be crazy!”

As Californians, they apparently thought they knew Minnesota to be a vast wasteland near the Canadian border where it’s always winter and residents rarely emerge from their igloos.

It’s cold in Minnesota, and winter is long, and that bitter season is one of the reasons I became a Minnesota transplant for a while living two states south.

But it’s not so bad that only crazy people live there (only some of the people who live there are crazy). And for the record, despite Illinois’ history of criminal governors and high interstate highway tolls, that Midwest state is also not filled with a bunch of rubes, and it’s a nice place to live.

In my limited experience in California, but certainly during my most recent visit, the only polite and deferential Californians we met were the ones we were paying. Servers, clerks, Uber drivers, the woman at the veterinarian office – all of them were pleasant, some joys to meet.

California drivers? If they weren’t passing us going 100 miles an hour on winding mountain roads, they were cutting us off in eight lanes of traffic. Some of them were borderline psychotic.

California RVers in the parks we stayed who apparently sussed us out by our Illinois license plates? Let’s just say they were cool. If they acknowledged our existence at all.

Most of the pourers at the wineries we visited were quite friendly (I’m thinking of you, Miner Winery, and Jean-Pierre at CRU. Impeccable). But as soon as you tried to hand over a 2-for-1 pass, we got the side-eye and anemic splashes of the vino. The message: Coupons are so low-class. Midwesterners use coupons. Therefore, Midwesterners are low-class.

Even as I write this, I am aware of my hypocrisy and error. By generalizing Californians as aloof snobs, then I am stereotyping just like I believe Californians do as they look at me and think “Midwestern hick.” I have many fine friends of California origins; immediately, I think specifically of two of my virtual friends, both former Creative Memories field leaders, who are among the hardest working, God-fearing and kindest people I know (and, let’s be honest, they friended me even though I’m quite obviously from the Midwest, where Creative Memories had its home office). So let’s be clear: Not all people who live in California drive Sequoias and behave as if they’re the biggest tree in the forest.


Some do.

Which is one of the reasons I believe California is a nice place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.


Where the women are strong and the living is easy (and never the twain shall meet)

Land of 10,000 lakes.

State of only two seasons: Winter and road construction.

Where all the children are above average.

Minnesota is home to a few hyperbolic descriptions, and most recently WalletHub named it the country’s least stressed state, making it most relaxed, I suppose.

Who is WalletHub to make such declarations? WalletHub monitors credit scores, and its analysts compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 33 key indicators of stress ranging from average hours worked per week to personal bankruptcy rate to share of adults getting adequate sleep.

And Minnesota ranked as No. 51 on the most stressed list.

Are Minnesotans the least stressed people I’ve met in my travels around the country?

I don’t know. If giving a friendly wave or acknowledging the presence of a sojourner with a nod as one’s paths cross is manifestation of lack of stress, then yes, Minnesotans have the corner on a relaxed demeanor. (Frequently outside of Minnesota, I will acknowledge someone with a “good morning” or a “hello”—a fellow jogger going the opposite direction, a guy walking his dog, a woman washing her hands at a neighboring sink in the restroom—and it’s as if I’ve surprised them by having a voice. Or a smile. Some residents of the coasts go out of their way to avoid making eye contact.)

The Minnesota compulsion to greet strangers, some would attribute to the phenomenon of Minnesota Nice. Perhaps. I have heard residents of the state—both natives and short-termers—describe Minnesota Nice as passive-aggressive. I’m skeptical. Minnesota Nice may be passive—”After you.” “No, after you.” “No, please be my guest, go ahead,” ad infinitum—but it’s not veiled aggression. So maybe it is the result of being trusting and assuming the best and getting a good night’s sleep.

One of the factors in WalletHub’s stress index is health and safety related stress factors. Apparently, Minnesotans have among the highest number of psychologists per capita and get the most hours of sleep a night. I come from a family with a long history of cherishing naps and believing nothing good happens after midnight. And that’s to say nothing of the 16 hours of darkness in the long, long winter months. What else you gonna do but sleep? Well, there is something else, I suppose, which might contribute to one of the lowest divorce rates in the country (another stress indicator).

Minnesota also ranks No. 50 in money-related stress factors (only Wyoming is lower), certainly due in  part to the frugal nature of born-and-bred natives. Author Garrison Keillor slyly notes this in his book Lake Wobegon Days: “So the Council changed [the town’s name] one more time, from Lake Wobegone to Lake Wobegon. Businessmen didn’t order new stationery right away, however, not even those who favored the change, but used all their New Albion stock until it ran out.”

In any case, I can take some of my good habits like eating right and maintaining a good credit score with me wherever I choose to settle someday, and the index may offer some insight on where not to settle (let’s just say Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Kentucky aren’t exactly calm and soothing places to reside).

If Minnesota is true to form, it’s not taking pride in its least-stressed status.

“Seldom has a town made such a sacrifice in remaining unrecognized so long,” he said, though other speakers were quick to assure him that it had been no sacrifice, really, but a true pleasure.

~ Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days

In search of Bigfoot? He’s everywhere in the Pacific Northwest

big foot forest

Can you see a yeti through that forest?

One has to jog only a few lonely roads in the Pacific Northwest to believe it’s a good area of the country for serial killers.

The roads are so remote and forested, the bodies may never be found. (This is not a joke; California, Washington and Oregon are Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in the per capita serial murder rate. Single joggers beware.)

This may also explain why it the land of Bigfoot. He can dodge the prying eyes of the paparazzi pretty effectively in the fairly unpopulated forests of California, Oregon and western Montana.

But evidence of his presence exists everywhere.

big foot plaster cast

That’s a big foot.

The California Redwoods state park in Humboldt has on display a cast of his foot print. It’s on display like scientific evidence, not simply evidence of a legend. Want to buy a facsimile? You can at the Trees of Mystery attraction in Klamath, Calif.

Bigfoot, a very rare or possibly fictional North American primate, goes by many names. He’s also known as Sasquatch. Or he may be a yeti. In deep winter, he may be an Abominable Snowman (though the snowy version is rumored to live in Nepal or possibly Tibet; could be a relative). Whatever you call him, he is a large, hairy, bipedal humanoid who has been dissected by every mystery television show known to man. I remember being introduced to him in the early ’80s by the voice of Leonard Nimoy on repeats of “In Search Of … .”

“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine. Today we are In Search Of … Bigfoot.”

Maybe the producers could have used a map.

big foot map

Pick up a detailed diagram at the Burl n’ Drift Novelty Shop at the Ancient Redwoods RV Park near Redcrest, California.

And he’s apparently been sighted at the Klamath Camper Corral, as evidenced by this sign:


Try sleeping peacefully 20 yards from that!

Artists across the Pacific Northwest have been inspired by his visage. Notice his hair is the same color as a redwood tree.

Is Bigfoot real? Of course, he is. He’s as real as Coca-Cola and low, low prices at Walmart. Bigfoot is big business. So he must exist.

The glorious picture of Yosemite

Yosemite valley

Look closely and you can see Bridalveil Fall, and behind it Half Dome


“Pursuing my lonely way down the valley, I turned again and again to gaze on the glorious picture, throwing up my arms to inclose it as in a frame. After long ages of growth in the darkness beneath the glaciers, through sunshine and storms, it seems now to be ready and waiting for the elected artists, like yellow wheat for the reaper; and I could not help wishing that I were that artist. I had to be content, however, to take it into my soul.”

These words are naturalist John Muir’s, but if I were more eloquent, they could have been mine. The vistas at Yosemite National Park seem to prove the existence of God. I couldn’t preserve it, especially with my little phone camera, so I had to be content to take it into my soul.

We visited Yosemite earlier this year for one reason: El Capitan. It’s the sheer rock face on the left in the valley view above, and it was made famous (to me anyway) in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Trekkers: Can’t live with ’em, can’t understand ’em.

Shake your head if you must.

el capitan

El Capitan is nothing if not imposing. That’s our little truck there at the bottom right.

The scene to which I’m referring occurs early in the movie. Capt. Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Spock are camping at Yosemite. Having been there now, I can imagine Star Fleet officers stationed at headquarters in the San Francisco area taking shore leave at nearby Yosemite. Very little else about the 1989 movie makes any sense, but this does.

While free-climbing El Capitan (which is rich with irony—a Star Fleet captain climbing El Capitan), Kirk loses his grip and falls (foreshadowing?). Spock, who is hovering nearby wearing jet-powered boots, catches him before he smashes at the bottom.

It’s a great scene that puts one of Earth’s natural wonders in the spotlight. So when I had the opportunity, I had to see it myself. “Because it’s there!” (That’s Kirk’s line in the movie for those of you who don’t memorize such trivia).

As you might expect, seeing Yosemite in person is nothing like seeing it in a movie. Set in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s remote, but it was worth the trip. It’s a beautiful and wild place, and surprisingly busy in mid-April. I can’t imagine how crazy it must be there in July.


Even crowded, the meadow near the foot of El Capitan in the Merced River valley is wide open and relatively quiet. This is a good place to take in the majesty around you. Unless you intend to free-climb El Capitan. Good luck to you.

For a review of The Wild Muir, a book of Muir’s adventures stories from which the opening quote is taken, check out my author blog.

Message in a bottle … or at least on the patio

lock message

Seen on the patrio at CRU @ The Annex in Napa, Calif. While sipping wine. Of course.

World-record holder (yay! fist bump!)

Did I mention I’m a world record holder? No? I guess it doesn’t come up naturally in conversation when you’re a native Minnesotan. Don’t want to call attention to yourself, you know.

“What’s new?”

“Oh, nothing much. I’m just happy it didn’t snow again.”

“You betcha.”

OK, I kid. It’s not that bad. In June anyway.

Let’s get back to the point of this post. The record.

No, I did not climb a mountain or hold my breath or give birth to more children than I can count on my fingers and toes. A few months back, I got to participate in an official Guinness World Record attempt as orchestrated by one of the insurance carriers my Beloved represents as part of the company’s incentive trip.

I bumped fists.

I know, right? Not something one might brag about. But still.

Guinness. World. Record.

I looked it up recently, and our attempt was made official. I participated in the longest fist bump relay in the world.

fist bump

Duty performed with smiles on our faces.

Here’s how it reads online (not sure if Guinness is still printing their famous book of world records): “The longest fist bump relay consists of 556 participants, achieved by the Motorists Insurance Group 2017 Leaders Conference (USA) at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, USA, on 25 March 2017.”

It might not make my epitaph, but what the heck. One of 556 who performed a world record feat. Ha!

fist bump group

Nice photo bomb after we played our role in the fist bump relay.

A tour of west coast wines + 4 things I learned at wine tastings


A sunny vineyard in the Napa Valley—beautiful.

Can you ever have too much wine?

Yes, actually, you can. You can have too much wine when you’re traveling in an RV, storing all the favorites you’ve collected during your travels, and you nearly break a slide-out.


That’s us.

Definitely over the limit.

The average bottle of wine weighs nearly three and half pounds, so our 29 treasured bottles purchased in California and Washington state would weigh 100 pounds. When we left the campsite in Washington state, where we purchased the most wine, the slide-out where we were storing our vino was behaving badly. A little detective work revealed we should not be storing our bottles in the slide-out.

Don’t you worry. They’ve been moved. Not destroyed.

wine in total

29 of the best wines on the west coast: For want of a rack, use a picnic table.

That’s what happens, I guess, when you’re traveling for weeks through the West Coast and one of your favorite pastimes is wine tasting. The wine is good. Great even. So you pick up souvenirs of your experiences, and pretty soon you’ve got 29 bottles.

But let’s begin our story in Texas, where we tasted wine in early February at three vineyards just outside of Fredricksburg. More than 50 vineyards are located in the area called Texas Hill Country, and the scenery is spectacular. The wines? Not so much. One place was charging $99.50 for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. It was neither our flavor nor our price range. But still, a fabulous way to while away a winter afternoon (especially Grape Creek Vineyards—dazzling locale on a sun-drenched day).

Then we spent nearly two weeks in April in the Napa Valley. Why? Because Napa. Duh. There are more than 500 vineyards and tasting rooms in the valley; one could spend a lifetime there tasting wine. But we found two weeks was actually too much time. Much of the wine there comes with an attitude. We must have heard a dozen times about the Judgement of Paris, a wine competition in 1976 in which French judges did a blind tasting and named a Napa cabernet sauvignon the winner. The attitude comes with a price tag. But there were a few refreshing exceptions:

  • hess tour

    Hess boasts some of the oldest vines in the valley.

    Miner Family: This place was sincerely welcoming, and their wine was mighty tasty, the syrah in particular.

  • Hess Collection: We enjoyed a thorough tour of the grounds and some extra special wines here. Hess’ cabernet sauvignon measures up to the hype and is lip-smacking good.
  • V. Sattui Winery: The wines were modestly priced, the on-site deli had a thousand cheeses, salamis and crackers, and the grounds were mesmerizing. Buy a bottle there and have lunch on site after your tasting.
  • CRU @ the Annex: This little tasting room off the beaten path is worth a stop for their perfectly curated charcuterie boards (or popcorn!) and their smooth (if a bit pricy) wines.

Our favorite place to winery hop on the West Coast turned out to be southeast Washington, where we spent some time last May. These vintners were our people, and their wines are a tasty as they are affordable.

Our favorite wine by far was Maryhill Winery’s albariño. Never heard of it? Neither had we. It’s a crisp fruity white with no oak (I hate oaky chardonnays). Maryhill is known for its outdoor amphitheater overlooking its vineyards and the Columbia River where marque bands like Santana, ZZ Top and Steve Winwood play. I only wish I lived nearby to take in one of these summer concerts.

We Loved-with-a-capital-L Longship Cellars tasting room in Richland, and the young proprietor there suggested we visit the Walter Clore Center in Prosser, where 50 up-and-coming wine makers were doing a tasting event the next day. We enjoyed ourselves so much we left with a case of wine (this is where we probably started getting ourselves into trouble with weight).


Medals AND the bottles to put them on.

And then we paid a visit to Zerba Cellars in the Walla Walla Valley (technically we were in Oregon at the time, but we could have tossed a coin into Washington state). This winery has won innumerable awards, all deserving. We liked their offerings so much we joined the club. After hearing the wine club pitches of more than a dozen other wineries on our travels, it says something that we took Zerba up on the offer.

After spending several afternoons drinking vino in various wineries, here are four things I learned:

  1. More expensive doesn’t mean better. An expensive wine might only mean it’s more scarce (Exhibits A & B: Texas wines and the cabernet sauvignons from Napa), but that albariño I mentioned? Only $20 a bottle.
  2. Red wine tastes better aged. Duh. I’ve heard this before but never really paid attention to the year on the label. We tried different years of the same varietal at a couple of wineries, and the older wines tasted smoother and more nuanced. If you’re going to sit on anything, let it be one of those tanniny cabernet sauvignons.
  3. The glass matters. The wineries in the Yakima Valley of Washington exclusively use Riedel stemware in tastings (a girl traveling in an RV with only plastic stemware notices such things). At Zerba Cellars, we tried wines using both a syrah glass and a cabernet glass, and the difference in flavor was stunning.
  4. Many bottles of wine are not just one varietal, even if that’s what the label indicates. A wine labeled as cabernet sauvignon is only required to be 75 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes. My Beloved and I have learned we’re fans of blends, and I’m not gonna feel like a rube about it anymore.

Now we’re slowly consuming our bounty (let’s be reasonable, no reason to hurry through paradise), and here’s my bottomline. If it’s the setting you’re after, try Fredricksburg in winter; if you grew up in Minnesota, nothing beats sunshine in February. If it’s California wines you want to taste, go to a well-appointed liquor store and buy yourself a case or two of different California wines. I can assure you, you’ll spend a lot less than you might in Napa (where tasting can run you $50 a person for five swallows of wine). And if you’re planning a wine vacation, seriously consider visiting Washington state, where you’ll find some tasty wines and some mighty nice people.