Just a quick one today, to check in and give you a report on "Summer Trip - 2013" in order to let you all know how it went.
There's something really special about long trips. The adventure of it, the distance from home, the strange (and hopefully beautiful) scenery, and the endless hours spent pointing the car forward, as the miles tick away only to have new miles seemingly replace them in an ongoing "Are we there yet?" procession of exits, traffic, rest areas, and time. We just did all of that, and it was great!
I was last here right before we left, and at that time the greatest unknown was simply "Are the cats going to lose their minds over this?" as we wondered just how bad it might be. They lived up to the hype on Friday, at least for a while.
We didn't get rolling until after 4:00 on Friday afternoon, and let's just say they were not too happy to be loaded up in the car. Squawking would be a nice way to put it, but also not wholly accurate. They were agitated, mad at us, and probably pretty worried about what was going to happen, and they were very (like VERY) vocal about it.
Trying to placate them with soothing voices only seems to validate their actions, but when you love your pets it's hard not to try to calm them down. Finally, we just let them cry and they eventually figured it out. From that point on, they were amazing travelers and great companions. Maybe they just came to the conclusion that we weren't actually going to the vet, I don't know.
It was an easy 4-hour drive over to Missoula, in a beautiful part of Montana, on that first day, but at least we put a couple of hundred miles behind us. I'll now give an unsolicited (and unpaid) plug for Staybridge Suites hotels, since we stayed in two of them on the trip and they were both fantastic. The two-room suites were big enough for the boyz to explore, the kitchen allowed us to actually make pasta for dinner (and a pasta salad for the next day), and the beds and pillows were great. The lobby was welcoming, the dining area was huge, and the staff were great. We got two paws up from Boofus and Buster. They loved it...
Saturday was the long day, and my earlier estimate of it being a 12-hour escapade was just about dead-on accurate. It was also the day we discovered that the boyz actually loved having their carriers at their disposal, instead of having them stashed away behind all the luggage. We had one of their beds, and two of their favorite blankets out, but they never really seemed willing to lay down and relax on them. So, on Saturday we positioned one carrier a little behind us and between the front seats, with its top and front panels opened. Before long, BOTH of them were somehow wedged in there, side-by-side, with their little faces pointing forward just watching us and watching the road. We then propped the other carrier on top of a basket full of snacks, and they were in and out of them all day. They had free access to most of the car, from front to back, and both spent a lot of time on our laps, but the carriers were where they'd go just to chill out and ride along. And the only noises they made were a few purring meows, to let us know they were happy.
The Saturday drive was also one of great distance (over 750 miles) and great transition, as we went from the stunning mountain scenery of western Montana to the great vast plains of the eastern part of the state, and then through half of North Dakota. We stopped for a picnic lunch at the rest area in Bozeman, because that's where David Grubnic lives and we felt the urge to stop there so at least we could tell him we'd been close by. We even took the boyz out to the table, in their carriers, and they sat there with us eating treats while we had sandwiches.
It seemed to take about forever to finally reach North Dakota, and then it was just a matter of sticking to it and putting the miles behind us to finally get to Bismarck, which is pretty much right smack dab in the middle of the state. This raises a question... Who was the first person to ever say "Right smack dab in the middle" and did anyone actually understand what he meant by that?
Anyway, another Staybridge and another great night. The boyz were such pros by then they just hopped right into the carriers and never made a peep as we checked in and went up to our room. Then they calmly explored the two rooms, looked out the window for a while, and we all went to sleep. We were four pretty weary travelers, by then.
Sunday wasn't a huge day in terms of miles, about 500 I guess, but it seemed like we ought to be able to get to Fargo in a jiffy, but it took a while as the trip kind of regressed into something slightly slow-motion by then. We also got our first dose of rain, and for some reason neither one of the boyz was too enamored with the windshield wipers. The motion scared them every time... But, they were sweet and snuggly the whole way. Boofie could lay on Barb's lap for hours, with his front paws and chin on her forearm as he watched the scenery go by. Buster was often my copilot, standing on my lap looking out the window and then up at me, leaning on me a little bit and purring.
We'd heard from a few people about the construction on I-94 out in the middle of Minnesota, beginning at St. Cloud, and I'd be planning for that. With the highway down to one lane in each direction, I knew it would be awful for many miles because it's usually jammed up on Sunday afternoons anyway. Minnesota is all about lakes, and with lakes come cabins, and with cabins come weekend trips to said cabins, and those trips tend to conclude with a whole bunch of Twin Cities residents trying to get back home at the same time, on Sunday evening.
If any of you have attended the Brainerd race and have experienced the traffic on 94 as you head back to Minneapolis - St. Paul, that bumper-to-bumper stuff goes on all summer, not just on race weekend. With the construction, I knew it would be worse. But, the options for getting around St. Cloud and closer to the cities without using 94 are pretty limited, and some of them take you so far out of your way it's not worth trying. The only option that made sense was to pick up US 10 right across the border from Fargo (in Moorhead, actually), and take it almost all the way across the state, but I didn't want to do that if it was raining heavily so I didn't pull the trigger on that decision until we were right at the exit and I had to make a choice. We had outrun the storm a little, by then, so off the interstate we went and before long we were in very familiar territory, since Highway 10 is the main route up to Brainerd. It all worked out well, and it was a nice diversion to get off the freeway and see some little towns.
Barb posted on Facebook as we went through the little burgh of Motley, Minn. (just a bit due west of Brainerd), referring to my question at the time, which was "I wonder if the sports teams at Motley High are call the Crew? If not, they should be."
We arrived in Woodbury in the early evening, and the boyz spent the rest of that day exploring this place and finding all the secret places cats love. Also the important places, like where the food is, where the litter box is, and most importantly where the screened porch is. This place has one, and the boyz are in cat heaven. They spent so much time out on the porch in our old Woodbury house, it's really been hard on them to not have that luxury out in Liberty Lake. Sitting at the front or back screen door just isn't the same, and the pop-up tent we got for them is nice, but they can't come and go as they please and it seems like as soon as you zip them in they want to come back out. When I slid open the door to the porch they ran for it like they really remembered the old one. I honestly think they did, and I already ran up to PetSmart yesterday to buy them a new kitty condo for out there. A little slice of heaven for Boofie and the Big Fella.
My buddy Buster, helping me tick the miles away...
So, there you have it. The trip odometer actually read 1,400 miles, right on the dot, when we arrived here. Try to do that on purpose! It was a great trip, Barb and I had a lot of fun, and the boyz were amazing. So proud of them, and so thrilled to see them enjoying being here. They are happy cat campers. And we're already planning a bunch of get-togethers with our dearest friends. We have so many of them here. It's good to be "home" at least for the summer...
As for my 10-hour playlist I had put together, that was really a great idea. No radio station (even on Sirius XM) ever plays more than a few songs in a row that you either want to hear or aren't sick of, and it's no fun having to flip around from station to station, so the mega-length playlist was perfect. At least for me... At the end of the day, after having said nothing about it, Barb mentioned "Man, there was some weird music going on there for a while." Really? And I didn't even have any of the stuff I consider slightly weird on the list...
Now, time to get ready for a remote-control version of Bristol for the second year in a row. We were just starting to cut some budget corners last year when Bristol came along, and with air travel and hotel costs being pretty rough for that race, I stayed behind in Liberty Lake and did it from home. This year, we'll do it again. And I have this feeling the LRS car is going to end up doing pretty well. That's a gut feeling based on recent performance. I also like the fact we're not even mentioned in Mike Dunn's "Power Rankings" because that's always when you do the best.
And here's a tip... Coming up in just a couple of weeks, we're going to do another "fan vote" just like we did for the car design and the transporter design before that. This time, though, we're going to ask you all to vote on your favorite "look" for a completely redesigned website, at TimWilkerson.com. The great folks at LRS Web Services have put this together, and it's not only going to be fun, it's going to be great for us to finally get the site completely redone. I've seen all four "looks" and we can't go wrong with any of them, but (as always) I have my favorite...
Keep an eye out here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. This is all going to happen starting right around June 20. You've all been amazing in the past, voting for your favorite designs and then seeing them actually come to life, so I hope you'll all spread the word and rack up the vote tallies on this one too!
"On the road again..." Yep that's us, as on this day we begin a slightly epic summer journey from the upper lefthand corner of the Continental 48, across the northern tier, to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I mean, why not?
We'd been talking about what we were going to do this summer in terms of a quick get-away on a long weekend, and we hemmed and hawed over Banff, Seattle, or maybe going back down to Walla Walla, as well as a few other places. Then, when it became apparent that the team's racing budget was tight enough for us to contemplate some real cost cuts in places other than the race car (it's just running too good right now to take even a penny out of that part of the operation) one of the answers was to have Annette and me skip races where we don't do hospitality. That saves the team some real money (have you seen how much it costs to travel these days?) and every penny can go right into the LRS Mustang, so that we can win many races and do much celebrating. Well, Bristol, Epping, Norwalk, Sonoma, and Seattle fit that description of not having hospitality, so even though I'll have boatloads of real-time PR work to do from home (remote control, as I like to call it) I won't be traveling as much on long back-to-back trips this summer. That changed things.
Instead of doing a weekend trip out in this part of the country, we decided to load up the car with the cats and head east, so that I could spend the summer more centrally located, and Woodbury would be the perfect place for that. We secured a nice place to stay for the three months, and rather than fly back there and emotionally scar another cabin-full of innocent passengers for life, after they've spent three hours listening to Boofus and Buster howl, we made the call to drive. It was my idea. I may live to regret it...
It's actually Thursday when I'm beginning this blog, but I'm not going to fire it off until we get the car all packed and ready to go just so I can share a photo or two. We will, of course, document our travels in digital form along the way, as well. Cat hair will be prevalent in many of the photos, I'm sure. When I do pack up the car tomorrow, with the rear seats folded down to create a big space for two fuzzy boyz we all know and love, the ratio of the items loaded in that space will probably be 10 percent luggage, 20 percent food and drinks (for us) and 70 percent cat items, including food, toys, their favorite blankets, and just about anything else I can put in there to hopefully keep them calm. To keep the luggage to a minimum, I actually boxed up a bunch of summer clothes and shipped it all to myself, via UPS. That's what we call "sharp thinking" as long as the boxes actually show up at the other end.
On Tuesday, I took the boyz on a "test drive" because frankly the only time they are ever in a car is when they're going to the vet, so this time I just loaded them up and took off on a 20 minute drive, to show them it is possible to get in the car without getting your temperature taken or getting stuck with a syringe between the shoulder blades. How did the test drive go? Well... At one point Boofus was standing with his rear paws on my seat back and his front paws on top of my head, while making a sound that could be described as something along the lines of "Merrrrooooooowwww" while at the same time Buster was standing on my lap with his front paws on the steering wheel. Pretty safe, right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong? They got major treats after we returned home, as a reward for surviving the harrowing experience. I think, in the end, the test drive was more to see if I could handle it, because their little cat brains aren't even going to remember they went on a drive Tuesday when we load them up on Friday.
Barb and I are also really focused on eating healthier these days, and that can be a test on a road trip. But, in the car we'll have veggies, whole wheat flat bread, peanut butter, bananas, and pasta salad. Also water. Lots of water. And a few granola bars along with some mixed nuts. Did I mention the chocolate covered pretzels? Geez, you can eat healthy but I'm not going to go overboard...
Because the boyz are going with us, and because the trip from A to B crosses the enormously wide expanse of Montana and North Dakota, where you're not necessarily coming upon huge cities all the time, we had to plot the trip out in advance, and get reservations at specific hotels. The other reason for that is because once I started looking at targets for Friday and Saturday nights, and started looking at hotels, the warning "No Pets Allowed" kept popping up. I finally found Staybridge Suites, a very nice hotel chain in the Holiday Inn corporate family, and although they charge a $50 fee they do take cats. Good thing we don't have three, though, because it's a two-cat maximun. Also, if you have three you're a certifiable loony cat person. Just sayin'... And that's not a bad thing, either. No, seriously. I'm just kidding. I think the level for being certified as loony is like eight or nine..
Anyway, I will be going to Joliet, Denver, Brainerd, and Indy before we head back this way right after Labor Day, so I'll be able to drive to Brainerd and the flights to the other destinations will be short little hops. That's good and it's actually a huge part of the reason for doing this and spending much of the summer back there, since I'll be in a better time zone, my travel will be much cheaper, and I'll be on short non-stop flights, which is nice because now I'm used to changing planes and paying enormous fares for the privilege of doing that. I actually love the convenience of the Spokane Airport, and it feels like home now, but it's just hard to get anywhere from here and the flights are priced accordingly. On the other hand (paw) I booked my flight from MSP to Denver yesterday and thought the fare was a typo! I hadn't seen prices that low in a long time. Barbara actually has to be back here a lot over the summer (like a LOT lot) so she'll have the Liberty Lake house to herself when she does. As a matter of fact, we aim to get to Woodbury on Sunday afternoon and she has to fly back here on Monday night. It's going to be weird for her to come back here and not have the boyz in the house, waiting at the door and then climbing up on her lap as soon as she sits down (sad face)...
The route of travel is I-90 out of Liberty Lake, across the narrow piece of Idaho that begins just four miles from here, and then into Montana. We won't be able to get rolling until late afternoon, so we're only going as far as Missoula, which shouldn't be more than four hours away. Boofie and Big Fella will probably stop crying about a mile from the hotel. Saturday is going to be the truly big day, as our hotel reservation for that night is in Bismarck, North Dakota, and that will be at least a 12-hour drive. Mapquest says 10 hours and 36 minutes (758 miles) but Mapquest most likely does not factor in traveling with two cats. I'm planning on 12 hours. About halfway through the day, we'll pick up I-94 and that will take us all the way to Woodbury.
Sunday will be the downhill run, over to Fargo and then down into the Twin Cities. Mapquest says six and a half hours, so we'll see. Can't wait to get there and get the boyz situated. And then I'll hope that all my clothes show up.
Okay, I'll finish this tomorrow and fire it off then. Right after that, we'll be eastbound and down. Life's and adventure!
Welcome to Friday. So far, the main accomplishments are centered around getting the house ready for Barb when she comes back on Monday. Just like when we're checking into a hotel, we get used to arriving home to fresh sheets and towels and a relatively clean house, so it's been a laundry morning to this point. I've got a small bag packed (for the record, it's one of the Skoal Showdown carry-on bags we got as spiffs back in the day, a very useful spiffy gift as well) and it's just about time to start moving favorite cat blankets, cat toys, cat food, and cat beds into the back of the car. So far they are seemingly unaware of what is about to happen. I notice that Buster, however, is sprawled all over his favorite blanket (a Minnesota Twins give-away from "Blanket Night" a few years ago, after they moved into Target Field and things like blankets came in handy) so maybe he's in a prevent defense.
I'm not sure why they aren't a little more enthused. All last night and this morning we've been telling them both that it's going to be a big long fun trip, and they're going to be good boys, and the Big Fella is really going to be a good boy, because Buster is a good boy..." He looked at me as if all he heard was "Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah, BIG FELLA, blah blah blah blah, BUSTER, blah blah.." Kids these days, they just tune you out.
Okay, back to work. I'll snap off a photo of our trip-ready vehicle (sans cats) and fire this off in a bit. We hope to be on the road by 3:00...
As we go, I'm sure we'll snap a few more pics and there most certainly will be stories to tell. Barb doesn't know it yet, but yesterday I went to my iTunes account and created a whole new mix that's close to 10 hours long, appropriately entitled "Trip Mix" and it's full of lots of eclectic different stuff, all jumbled and randomly placed in order. It's kind of hard to listen to regular playlists (like whole albums) when you're on a long trip, because sometimes you get tired of the artist, so this way it will bounce around from Evans Blue to Breaking Benjamin to Rains to Volbeat to Red Line Chemistry to Chevelle to Rush to Candlelight Red to all sorts of other artists. It will be like tuning into a new Sirius XM station called "Bob Radio"... I'm sure Barb will be thrilled!
Okay, we're kinda sorta ready to go. Just a few last things to load, including two felines who will no doubt express nothing but joy and happiness, and we're off. See you in Minnesota!
Welcome back, blog faithful. I'm sitting in a stylish yet not wholly comfortable chair in the lounge section of the showroom at the dealership where I bought my car last year. It (my car, not the lounge at the dealership) has developed a rather obnoxious rattle in the moonroof, the sort of thing that you don't notice for a while, but once you hear it you can't stop hearing it and before you know it you've developed a nervous tic and a stutter, with rapidly blinking eyes. A week ago, they worked on it and seemed to have silenced the rattle, until about 20 minutes after I left here and a slightly less annoying but still perceptible new rattle took its place. So we'll try again...
But to the subject at hand. Englishtown! What a weekend it was, in all ways New Jersey and Team Wilk. As you know, we made it to our fifth semifinal this year (not bad for a team that stumbled around for a couple of months trying to sort out the clutch program) and we added a new pile of points to our total. All good, and it was great to bring LAT Racing Oils into the fold as our newest marketing partner. Great products, great help, and great support!
With all that said, we'll launch right into Englishtown ramblings, but I will admit to a bit of distraction here because the TV in the lounge area is showing one of the Austin Powers movies (The Spy Who Shagged Me) and I can't help but keep an eye on that...
The hotel we used, in Freehold, turned out to be a great place in a great spot. Coming up from the south, we could make the trip in 15 minutes, and that's hard to do from any hotel at the E-Town race. Good room service too!
We've been dealing with a lot of wet stuff this year, and on top of that we've had a string of unseasonal weather for a long time, often finding ourselves searching for jackets or sweatshirts at events where we normally roast. Well, that string ended in E-Town. It was warmish, if by warmish you mean hot. Mid-90s all weekend, with a lot of bright sunshine blanketing historic Raceway Park. Lots of sunscreen, lots of sweaty crew guys, and plenty of laundry to do when I got back home! On top of that, the wind was blowing directly at us on the track, so every burnout and launch produced a veritable shower of rubber bits, and we were all grimy and streaked at the end of each day. I basically trashed the Mac Tools hat I've been wearing recently, because it's now covered in rubber steaks on what was a bright red surface. It shall remain in the collection, however, because I started wearing that hat in Charlotte. Get it? Since the Mac Tools hat was added to my racing ensemble, we've won nine rounds in five races. I'd call that a lucky hat.
The fans in E-Town were as great as ever, and plenty of them rallied around us as we kept going rounds on Sunday. I love the way most of the pro pits are arranged in one long lane of transporters, on either side of the fans who roam around the pits. It gets a bit congested, but the guys on scooters give us a hand towing the car through there and it's great to be surrounded by so many avid fans. Englishtown is clearly a place where you can't miss how many parents are passing their love for drag racing down to the next generation. Lots of families, and lots of guys who have clearly been going to the Summernationals for a very long time.
I had a couple of great guests this weekend, as well. Danny Wiseman, my buddy who is a professional bowler who was elected to the PBA Hall of Fame this year (Wow!) came to the race for a day with his lovely sweetheart Dana. We go way back, and Danny is a huge fan (as are so many of us, when it comes to his bowling skills!) and he and Dana are cat lovers as well, so we spend the first hour trading kitty stories and showing phone pics of our "kids" to each other.
Danny is part of a great program in the Baltimore area, where he lives. A bunch of pro athletes in Baltimore, including some high profile members of the Orioles and Ravens, are part of the "Show Your Soft Side" program, as is Danny. It's an anti-animal abuse program, and it highlights these big tough athletes showing their soft side with their pets. One of the pics of Danny is classic, with him holding his gentle friend Mikey, who could be Boofus and Buster's brother. Great stuff, and I put the photo in the gallery today.
On Sunday morning, Nathan Scherich was able to get to the track before eliminations and spend the first round with us before he had to get back home to Queens. I met Nathan in 2008 when the "Jersey Boys" tour was in St. Louis at the same time we were racing there. That was the first race where we hosted my buddy Buck Hujabre after he and I met in Minneapolis, and Buck brought Nathan out to the track with him. Nathan's now in the Broadway production of "Jersey Boys" (which makes him an actual bona fide "Broadway actor" which is kind of awesomely cool in its own right) but he's followed us since that first trip to Gateway and was excited to get to E-Town despite the fact it was a long drive from Queens and he couldn't stay long.
It was absolutely great to see him again, and I can state without any reservations that he had a huge time. He and Buck were cracking me up with text messages later in the day, and Buck discovered that Nathan was clearly visible in the background of an ESPN2 shot after we won in the opening round. We were so busy the whole time he was there we totally forgot to take a photo together, but fortunately Nathan saved the day by clicking a self portrait on his phone just as we rolled forward to stage the car in round one! That's also in the gallery.
After we were done racing, we all pitched in and tore the whole pit area down. While most of the crew serviced the race car after the semifinal, Rich, Annette, Nick C., and I took on the task of tearing down the hospitality center. About 30 minutes after the final round was over, we were done... And very, very, very, very sweaty.
I changed shirts, hopped in my rental, and headed north toward Newark, since I had a morning flight out of EWR and wanted to stay right by the airport that night, to be there and put the stress of a Monday morning trip up the turnpike out to pasture. Rich and Annette did the same thing, but we had made our hotel reservations separately and therefore were in different places that night. I stopped at the last Service Center before Newark, on the turnpike, and waited in line to have my tank filled up by a regular attendant, since New Jersey is a state where you can't pump your own gas. Is Oregon still that way? It's just another one of those unique things about The Garden State. "Fill 'er up, with Regular please..." You don't say that much anymore...
Anyway, the actual procedure of turning my rental car in and then getting to the Marriott, which is right in the MIDDLE of the Newark airport, was as follows: Turn the car in at the Hertz Return Center, which is located in one of the airport garage structures. Then get on the Sky Train monorail and share my little cubicle-sized train car with more people than could possibly squeeze in there. Stop at all three terminals only to see gaggles of more passengers wanting to get on the train, and at each stop at least one more person found a way to compress a dozen human bodies into a smaller area by bum-rushing our car and forcing their way in. Finally, we arrived at a parking structure on the opposite side of EWR and disembarked there. Why? Because hotel shuttle buses are not allowed to pick up passengers at the terminals.
Who's bigger? B2 or this tire? It's close...
We all headed down to the curb and found ourselves waiting for a variety of different vans and buses amid a massive group of other such travelers who were doing the same thing, and each time a new van would pull up a dozen or so people who had reservations at that establishment would simultaneously rush to the door as if missing the little shuttle would be a tragic end to an already tough day. It was NY/NJ in spades. The Marriott shuttle finally arrived and I managed to secure a seat, as the driver helped me with my 48-pound suitcase, so as we then made a trip all the way around the airport one more time, in order to get to the Marriott which had been clearly visible throughout the entire escapade, I dug into my wallet to get some tip money out for him. All I had was a five, so I decided to tip well and increase my positive karma for the day. Then, with my fiver tucked in my pocket, we finally arrived at the hotel and as I stood up the driver turned around in his seat and said "You gonna get that?" as he looked at my bag. I said "I got it" and the five never came out of my pocket...
This whole thing took close to an hour, and all the time the Marriott hovered right there, but with all the one-way access roads, medians, guard walls, and fences, you can't walk to it (legally, anyway). Sheesh.
The good news? A nice room with great bed, and a view out my hotel window of the Manhattan skyline. It was raining a bit by then, but a break in the clouds was illuminating the Empire State Building in a beautiful way. I took photos of the Big Apple, right at dusk with the eerie light, and the Empire State photo is included in the gallery, as well as a shot of the new World Trade Center, which has finally been topped off. It was a neat way to end my weekend.
On Monday, Rich, Annette, and Nelson Jones (ESPN2 camera operator and all-around good buddy) were all on the same flight with me, EWR to MSP. We socialized and told lies for a while, then all zonked out pretty quickly on the plane. We landed at MSP around 1:00, I got my bag, and headed out to Woodbury for the afternoon. At 7:00, I had Israel (our favorite cab driver in Woodbury who would always take us to the airport when we lived there) come pick me up, and off I went to catch my 9:30 flight to GEG. With some time to spare, I actually got to have a sublime dinner at Ike's inside the terminal, easily the best airport restaurant I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Truly a GREAT steakhouse...
So that was my day. Get up early, take the shuttle back to EWR, fly to MSP, spend the afternoon in Woodbury, then back to MSP to catch the late flight to GEG, arriving there at 10:30 Pacific time, then hop in my car (with the moonroof rattle) and drive back home to Liberty Lake, pulling into the garage at just a few minutes after 11:00, where I was met at the door by my lovely wife and my big boy Buster. Boofus peeked at me from around the corner and then went running full speed down the hall. He's just like that... Buster hugged me and pushed his nose up against my chin as I hugged him back. I was showing my soft side. If Hall of Fame bowlers can do it, so can I.
And so here we are... Still waiting for my car. At least I got the chance to write a whole blog! "John to the showroom please. John, to the showroom..."
Big plans (really big) for Barbara, Boofus, Buster and me this weekend. More about that later in the week...
Welcome back, everyone, and I hope you all had a restful, thoughtful, and appreciative Memorial Day. I'm pleased to see more and more people openly recognizing what Memorial Day is all about, rather than just seeing it as the start of summer, a day for cookouts, and a long weekend. It's about the memory of those who gave their lives fighting for their country, and we should all remember that in a sincere and thoughtful way all of the time, not just on the final Monday in May.
It was great to be here in Liberty Lake (LL, as noted above in the headline) and have a long weekend off with Barbara, Boofus, and Buster. We made the most of it, getting out on the bikes a couple of times, sharing some great meals (both here and at some stellar local establishments), and catching up on our relaxation quotient, which gets run down to the danger zone every now and then, with all the travel and work-related stuff. It was all good.
So now, here we are making one of the more amusing and enjoyable race-to-race transitions on the tour, as we head from Topeka to Englishtown. I actually don't remember if we've ever run these two races on back-to-back weekends, and as far as I can recall we've only been doing them as consecutive races for a few years now, but if we were to tack these two onto the schedule with no open weekend between them it would be one of the most genuinely interesting transitions you could make. Few races on the schedule are more starkly different than Topeka and Englishtown, and the reasons are impossible to miss.
Our fans are amazing all across the the country, but there are only a few tracks where they are so overwhelmingly reflective of the region it's impossible to miss. Bristol can be that way, although as time goes by it seems less "Appalachian" than it used to. Houston and Dallas both have a serious Texas vibe, but Dallas has always seemed a little more cowboy and more western, if you know what I mean. But, again, as time goes by we seem to see less and less of the obvious Wrangler jeans, rodeo belt buckles, and cowboy hats in the Dallas pits. America is becoming more homogenized by the year, it seems.
But then, there's Englishtown. People from New Jersey remain staunchly unique. Are they New Jerseyans? New Jerseyites? Hang on, I have to check this out... Okay, according to AboutNewJersey.com, New Jerseyan is the preferred term, although some people do use New Jerseyite. There is some speculation that New Yorkers purposefully use New Jerseyite just to rile up the New Jerseyans, who tend not to like the term. So there... Anyway, as much as the rest of America seems to continue to meld into one vanilla flavor, New Jersey seems to relish its place and its reputation (it's own flavor, so to speak) and I love that. Blindfold me, transport me to a race track, and stand me in the middle of the pits with the challenge of recognizing where I am by the voices alone, and Englishtown is probably the only track on the tour where I could nail in about five seconds. Yo Vinny!
Topeka, on the other hand, is a lovely and quaint version of vanilla to the max. It's the vanilla-est of the vanillas, in terms of accent or style or anything that shouts out "this is where we are!" It's as down-home, polite, and midwestern as they come, as if drawn straight from a movie. The pit area at Heartland Park might as well be the County Fair, with actors from Central Casting playing the roles of midwestern families who clearly all sit around the dining room table at dinner time, passing the rolls and the mashed potatoes as they discuss the day's events. I'm a midwestern boy. I know the gig.
But the stark differences go beyond the great fans in both places. In Topeka we have endless miles of the Great Plains, farms as far as the eye can see, wind gusts that started in Saskatoon or the Gulf of Mexico (depending on which way the weather was moving), a startling lack of thick-forest trees, and tornadoes. Enough with the tornadoes. Please. We have sprawling suburban developments and old-school downtown areas, connected by a road system so squarely and easily laid out it's almost impossible to get lost. In Englishtown we have old villages and newer suburbs, thick forestation all-around, busy thoroughfares and an even busier turnpike, all connecting to winding roads that lead somewhere, but you can't get there from here. We have diners, honking horns, and a passion for opinion. It's New Jersey! And that's where we're headed this weekend. I look forward to it every year.
We'll be staying at a hotel in Freehold this time around, so that will be all new and a new adventure. At some point I'm sure I'll be on Highway 9, where it is impossible to see the route designation sign without signing, out loud, "Sprung from cages on Highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin' out over the line..." Impossible. You simply must.
Meanwhile, during our downtime here for the last week, we've enjoyed a few new things and tried to get to as much of Spokane and Liberty Lake as we could. Since I have no racing photos to share, I guess I'll tell you about a few things I do have pics for...
Nancy is the wonderful woman who looks in on Buster and Boofus when we're both gone (they love her!) and she'd been telling us about a great winery here in Spokane, called Arbor Crest. We're well versed in Washington wines, of course, and loved our trip down to Walla Walla last year, but we weren't that up-to-speed on any good wineries right here in Spokane, so we weren't expecting that much. Once the weather warms up, they have inexpensive tastings and free jazz music on Thursday nights, up at Arbor Crest, and people make it a mission to bring a picnic meal, spread out a blanket, pop open a bottle, and enjoy the amazing views and the jams.
This past Thursday lined up as a great chance to go check it out, and we're so glad we did. Arbor Crest sits atop a lofty ridge, just north of Spokane Valley, and from the lawn there you can see as far as downtown to the west and Idaho to the east. We met Nancy and her husband Tom there, and Nancy quickly gave us a tour of the sprawling (and beautiful) grounds, before we stopped in the main building for a quick taste. Then we settled into our chairs and shared various finger foods and a wonderful bottle of white, as the breeze rustled the leaves and the sun sank in the west. It was really a wonderful way to spend an evening with friends. Great people, great wine, fantastic place. I suspect we'll be back...
On Sunday we needed to do a little shopping (and looking) and that entailed a trip to north Spokane, up Division St. towards neighborhoods we've barely touched since we moved here. Our first stop was a furniture store, to get some ideas for some thoughts we've been having, and then we went to the one shopping destination that just about any guy like me will gladly and happily tag along to, with his wife. Yup, DSW!!! Most of us cringe at the thought of going on a shopping expedition to Macy's or the mega-mall, but we all dig shoes to some degree and I never say no to DSW. 30 minutes later, Barb had two new pairs of business shoes and a new pair of running shoes, while I came away with a nice new pair of Saucony running shoes which, to be honest, were actually bought for walking and bike riding.
To that end, yesterday we loaded up the bikes and headed for the Centennial Trail once again. This time we parked at a trailhead a little to our west, instead of getting on the trail here in Liberty Lake. The reasons for this are as follows: The first three miles on the trail, heading west from Liberty Lake, are a little boring. Also, instead of just riding further, we chose to drive a few miles west and pick it up there. You gotta draw the line somewhere, and knowing that every mile you ride is really two, since you have to also go back, well...
This time, we did a 10.3-mile round trip, on a part of the trail that hangs right by the Spokane River, through Mirabeau Park, and down across the river just below Arbor Crest. The thought came to me because we'd been on the edge of the Arbor Crest property, staring at the stunning views on Thursday, when I looked down and saw little tiny people on miniature bicycles, crossing a narrow bridge over the river. Turned out they were normal-sized people and bikes, and the bridge was a substantial structure, but I was way up high. It's called perspective, apparently...
We'd never been further west than Mirabeau, so the last few miles were all new to us but we quickly realized we were going downhill, for a long time. That's great when you're living in the moment, but unless someone is going to pick you up and transport you back to the start, you also know you're going to be doing a long uphill slog on the way back. That's kind of a general rule of geography, I think. Anyway, it was gorgeous and a fine adventure, and I even went off-road for a bit when I spotted a beautiful scene tucked down in the woods, a little separate and tranquil bit of the river that was so picturesque it almost felt like a Disney production. And then, much to our delight, someone picked us up in a helicopter and flew us back to my car. Okay, that last sentence isn't true. But, the good news was that the uphill slog wasn't that bad at all! We surprised ourselves with our stamina and strength. Hooray for us!
Arbor Crest. What a hidden gem we'd never tried before!
And now I'm finished with my pre-Englishtown PR work, I've checked in for my Wednesday flight (figure that one out?) and I'm ready to find may way to the new hotel in Freehold on Thursday. Plus, I'm upgraded on both flights, GEG-MSP and MSP-EWR. Life is good! And yes, that should make it pretty easy to figure out that I'm doing another short overnight stopover in Woodbury, because... Well, because I can.
I've also spent quite a bit of time this past week getting back into the groove on LinkedIn, the networking website that is really getting popular. Last time I wrote about LinkedIn, my profile was just starting to reach that interesting critical mass, where your connections all have so many connections that pretty soon you're connecting with tons of people every week. When I don't get there often enough, the connection requests start to pile up and I have to take the time to go through them and make it all happen. I've also been making connections with all sorts of old baseball colleagues, and some guys I never played with but who knew my dad, as well as more than a few former big leaguers who I actually scouted when they were still in school. That's always cool.
I had connected with one ballplayer recently, who I saw was connected to Matt Mieske. If you're a Milwaukee Brewers fan, you probably remember Matt from the 1990s, but I remember Matt because he was in the starting lineup for Team USA on the night my team, the Sauget Wizards, became the only American-based team to ever defeat the national squad. We connected in a hurry, and then within 24 hours I was also "linked" to Brad Beanblossom and Kirk Dressendorfer, who were both also on that team. So far, I haven't seen Jeromy Burnitz, Bret Boone, Fernando Vina, or Dan Wilson on LinkedIn. And I'm sure the law firm of Mieske, Beanblossom and Dressendorfer all still lose sleep over that stunning 6-5 loss to that scrappy team from the little town across the river from St. Louis. I'm sure they do. Emotionally scarred forever...
So there you have it. Yet another blog installment completed, on a day when all I was thinking when I began this writing episode was "Man, Englishtown and Topeka sure are different..." Makin' somethin' outta nothin' one more time.
See you in Jersey!!!