Kitchen Completed Enough to Move In!

22 Apr

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After three months of here and there work, I have a kitchen! So on March 25, I officially deflated the airbed in my office, moved things into the trailer’s kitchen and starting living here. As I mentioned in my previous post, I decided to do everything, even the countertops, myself.

And the messiness as I began this part of my journey:

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(I’m going into a little more detail than usual because I spent a lot of time finding all the info I needed, so I’m paying it forward by offering up my own experience for others. I apologize to my friends who don’t give a rip about technique.)

Prepping the cabinets involved stripping and sanding the doors, drawers and bases, and making bottom shelves for all of the cabinets. The base cabinets opened up directly to the floor, and the upper cabinets relied on quarter inch ply stapled to the underside, so not only was it not supported well, but there was a lip in the front. As usual, I forgot to take before pictures, but all the cabinets are set up the same way, so as I get deeper into the trailer, you’ll see. But here’s the after of one of the upper cabinets. The shelf on the left is higher to accommodate the electrical box for the under counter light — it was partially covered with a bent piece of thin metal (seriously?):

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Can’t really tell from this photo, but thats a pale blue interior.

Here's what the lower cabinets opened into. How useable is that? Can you say awkward?

Here’s what the lower cabinets opened into. How useable is that? Can you say awkward? I made a shelf here, and before the final coat of enamel, all seams were caulked and finished properly.

It took weeks in between work and my other activities to sand and finish the birch cabinets. In addition, I had to repair countless nail holes and damaged/missing veneer. The drawers were not birch, and were in such poor shape that I just glued birch veneer to them. They also did not track right, dipped downward when opened, and easily fell out if pulled out too far. I fixed all that. (I also sanded the walls, which I haven’t stained or finished yet.) After building the bottom shelves to the cabinets, I primed and painted the interiors a pale blue, using oil based enamel (only available in quarts here in California – something about volatiles). After some research, I decided to use wood dye stains on the exteriors (General Finish’s Amber and Cinnamon) instead of off-the-shelf Minwax stains. I wanted a little more punch, and they are more versatile. As luck would have it, there’s a Woodcraft store right next door to our trailer park, where you can get everything the fine woodworker would need, including exotic woods, planers, specialty hand tools, veneer, and, yes, wood dye stains. I finished with 3 coats of satin finish polyurethane. All water based. Once the cabinets were finally done, I could finally think about the countertops.

From Lowes, I special ordered the laminate, which is made by WilsonArt, so I can’t really call it Formica, but it’s the same thing. It was difficult to find the right pattern. Formica re-released its iconic boomerang pattern several years ago in some exciting colors, only to discontinue all but gray (??!!!) by the time I was in the market for it. 99.999% of the available laminate patterns are either fake stone or fake wood. Very few abstract patterns. Although there were some other patterns that I liked, the circles pattern I chose was really the only one I liked that fit a vintage theme. It comes in only 3 colors: cream, purplish blue, and aquaish blue. The two blues turned out to be very close in color, and it’s difficult to tell that I used the aqua for the vertical surfaces (backsplash and edges) and purple for the horizontal surfaces. Still, I’m pleased with its natural complement to the wood tones.

Particleboard is the counter fabricator’s choice of base material. After measuring 4 or 5 times so I would only have to cut once, my pieces laid out nicely within 4′ x 8′:

The 4 x 8 sheet of particleboard was exactly enough, no more, no less, for the 3 countertop pieces and the edge supports.

The 4 x 8 sheet of particleboard was exactly enough, no more, no less, for the 3 countertop pieces and the edge supports. The two unused door frames from my custom 6′ doors make excellent supports for sawing stuff.

On the underside, you glue and screw in supports on all edges and where ever there’s a support on the cabinet below:

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You can see the backsplash, which I made by fitting 1/4″ plywood to the space and gluing the laminate to it. It is held in place by the upper cabinets, outlet and fan covers, and ultimately the window frame and countertops. In other words, it is not glued or otherwise directly attached to the wall.

Then you do a final fit (the bar top isn’t exactly 90 degrees to the back, for instance), and refine the edges. Before attaching the laminate, the surfaces must be clean, smooth, and perfectly flat.

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I used a gallon paint can to trace the rounded corners. There’s a 3″ minimum radius for bending laminate without any special techniques, and a paint can gives you a 3.5″ radius. I have three rounded outer corners and one rounded inner corner by the sink. The one by the sink turns out to also be a safety measure to keep the laminate from stressing and cracking as an inside sharp corner would be susceptible to.

Cutting out the rounded corners was easy enough with a jigsaw, but using the belt sander to get the edges perfectly vertical was challenging. If they are not vertical, the laminate strip will not wrap around straight. I used a steel square hanging from the top to gauge the edge and since the inner corner was refined with a lot of wood putty, I actually used the square as a tool to scrape it.

You have to cut out the laminate a little oversized so you can trim it down, and it’s brittle, so that part was a little nerve-wracking since, like the particleboard, my blue piece for the verticals was just about exactly enough material, no extra for mistakes. Then you coat both surfaces with contact cement, but not the water-based kind, according the experts. This proved to be hard to find in California, because of that volatile fume thing. I did manage to find it at Walmart, but only in pints. And now, it seems even Walmart only sells the tiny 3 oz. office-supply bottles. First on are the side edges, which get trimmed flush with the router. Then the front edge, which covers the side edge, and then gets trimmed, and finally the top, which covers the top edges of the sides. Edges done:

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Tools needed: original formula contact cement, belt sander, router, and not shown, a special heavy duty 2-handed tool called a j-roller for applying good pressure to the laminate. I saved a ton of money doing this myself, so I bought the tools I needed.

Except for the right edge next to the stove, the whole edge of the main countertop was all one piece since there were rounded corners involved. My neighbor helped me position the long skinny piece, using waxed paper to keep it from grabbing, so I didn’t end up off kilter. Luckily we got it right, and as I removed the waxed paper and pressed on the laminate, everything fell into place.

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Before I put the laminate on, I cut out the sink hole. Then after the laminate went on, I used the router the router to trim flush to the hole’s edges, first using a hole saw near a corner to give me place to start. Then I painted all raw laminate surfaces with two coats of primer, just in case any water would find its way to it. On the exposed underneath edges, I used the same light blue enamel as in the cabinet and drawer interiors. Of course there’s a generous amount of silicone sealer around the sink and the back edges of the counter to keep water away, but still.

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A closer look at the circle pattern, and one of the extra-credit rounded corners.

Here’s the final product again.  Because the counter is not as deep as a standard kitchen’s, I got the biggest bar sink I could find, which is also pretty deep, and one of those high profile integrated faucets that only needs one hole. To its left is a soap dispenser that I absolutely love love love having. It’s so simple. You refill it by lifting out the pump top and squirting more detergent in.

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I’ve been officially living here for almost a month now, and completely love it, even though I have no furniture yet, save for a folding chair and an air bed. I have some pieces at my mother’s house that have to be brought up here, but the living room is dominated by lumber and tools for a little while anyway. I walk to work every day in time to make a smoothie for lunch and do whatever work needs to be done. Everything is going as well as I had envisioned!

Next up: Turns out I did not need any permit to make the patio enclosure (I never doubted it), and I turned immediately back to that project as soon as I finished the kitchen. I have completed the structural part, except for the rolling door/gate in the center, and am in the process of staining and faux finishing the wood before putting up the polycarbonate greenhouse panels. Here’s what it looks like today:

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Making some headway

7 Jan

It was hard to know where to start, since I have plans for every aspect of this trailer. However, since I have tons of potted plants to care for, it made sense to put up a fence first.

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DIY fence from Lowes and 3 days worth of weeding.

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Before: a graveled patch taken over by grass.

By now there are 3x as many potted plants. Many are my own plants, but most are destined for a fundraiser. I care for them during the year, then in March, sell them as part of the Ventura Gem and Mineral Society’s show. The tree in the middle is a macadamia nut, something I have wanted to grow for a long time.

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Full width landing with new stairs. The framework shows where the greenhouse panels are going.

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Before: Hard to see, but the original trailer door is locked with a hasp and padlock! Dinky stairs had to go.

For the trailer, most important was to get real doors up. Trailers have 7 foot ceilings, so standard doors are too tall for existing openings, and wouldn’t look right with an enlarged opening. But Lowes can custom order a door. I got these solid doors to fit the existing 30″ x 6′ opening. I plan to cut an opening from the middle and turn them into French doors using the same panel material going on the patio enclosure. (Having a custom sized French door made by Lowes was way too expensive.) I decided on a full width landing, and had the local handyman build it for me. He also tore down the existing latticework enclosure. I began working on the new enclosure, but have stopped work pending permission from the park. Something about checking to make sure I don’t need a building permit. Anyway, the plan is to use triple wall polycarbonate greenhouse panels up to the horizontal stud, then have it open above. More opportunities for hanging plants!

With the enclosure on hold, I am moving onto the inside, specifically the kitchen. I’m retaining the cabinetry but changing everything else – new countertop, new sink, new faucet, refinished cabinetry and walls, and eventually a new checkerboard floor.

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I have removed the doors and by now everything is sanded down to bare wood. Countertops and ridiculously large sink is gone.

I have already purchased a large bar sink and single post faucet, and have decided to build the countertop myself. It’s not rocket science. Just buy the supplies and a few tools, study up on the process, and away you go. I picked out two analogous colors of an abstract Formica pattern to replace the countertop, backsplash area and a new little bar top seen on the left. I’ve gotten stain, and will do the cabinets and walls in the two lightest shades. The cabinet and drawer interiors will be painted a very light blue or purple, or maybe just white. Besides making it easier to find stuff, it’s the only way for me to feel like it’s truly clean. This place was so grimy. Stay tuned!

Ventura, here I come

18 Oct

I have been living only part time in Ventura for the past 2+ years, splitting my time between my mother’s house in Downey, 75 miles to the south, and my office in mid-town Ventura, where I have sleeping quarters and a kitchen. When my mother died in late August, I began exploring my options.

Of course I will keep my office-studio. I completely like having my work and hobby activities in a dedicated space, after having worked out of the house for my entire life. No more home/office/warehouse for me. This means that with most of my stuff already contained in my office, what more do I need? A place to sleep and relax — and garden. Gardening has been a consistent thread in my life since I first dabbled in raising seeds from a sunflower and selling them to a neighbor kid. I was probably about 10 at the time.

I didn’t want nor need a whole house with the attendant responsibilities and maintenance involved, not to mention the mortgage. An apartment was out, because of the gardening thing. I was steering toward a piece of raw land and getting an efficient manufactured “tiny house” for it, when a long shot came to fruition.

Behind my office sits a vintage mobile home park, hemmed in by various businesses, a couple of houses on a private driveway, and a barranca (drainage channel). The long driveway entrance on the main road is subtle, and it’s hard to see much from any road. But I noticed it behind my office parking lot shortly after moving in. The mobile homes were old but well kept. One time I rode my bike through the park (three small street’s worth) and couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was this gem tucked away just a short walk from my office. Upon further investigation, I learned that it was a 55+ community, owner occupied only, and was a  camping trailer park back in the 50s. Most of the trailers had attractive landscaping and creative use of the outside spaces, and there were nice cars parked in the spaces. Pride of ownership everywhere.


So when I was searching for what would be my new home in Ventura, I dug in a little deeper and found a trailer here that was off the normal radar because it was too cheap to make the usual real estate sites, except for Redfin.com (see listing here), which is where I found it. I immediately made an appointment. A few days later I showed up for a viewing, along with two other potential buyers. The agent explained that when you lower the price, people make appointments. Lower the price you say? Already I thought $25K for anything was a steal. Now it was $20K, for this 500 sq.ft. unimproved 1960 trailer with birch built-ins (and walls) throughout. I couldn’t make an offer soon enough. Which was accepted soon enough. I should also add that this particular park falls under rent control, and the current rent is just shy of $400/mo. There are no homeowner association fees, and water, trash and sewer is included. I’ll be billed for gas and electric.

Settlement happened in early October – cash and carry – and now I begin my project of completely restoring the woodwork and making other improvements like new flooring, redoing the outdoor patio enclosure and of course landscaping. (Refer to the Redfin link above to see the before pictures, in all their, ah, glory.) The hardest part is deciding which exotic fruits to put in. For sure a macadamia nut and a finger lime tree. I plan to sample various tropical fruits over the next few months and decide what else to put in. Sapodilla? Cherimoya? Many options. Conveniently, I have my office to live in while tackling everything.

Stay tuned as work progresses. Here is my diamond in the rough:

Big changes this year

18 Oct
Marion and Lois with backyard orange tree

Marion and Lois with backyard orange tree.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a death to get me back to blogging, but when my mother died recently, it signaled changes to come. So here I am.

My mother, Lois Wilson, died suddenly of heart failure at the end of August. She was almost 93 and just returned from a routine trip to the grocery store. She was vibrant up until the end, with a full calendar.

We had a standing room only life celebration for her 3 weeks later with family from as far away as San Jose and Colorado, and friends from Downey going back as far as 45 years. Her longtime involvement in volunteering for the hospital, historical society, election poll and the library, and longtime membership at the YMCA won her friends throughout the community. Marion estimated about 130 people in attendance. We had a potluck lunch and poster boards with photos covering her life from babyhood up until the present. Several of us spoke briefly and there was time to meet and chat with her friends.

My brother and sister (Scott and Marion) live in Southern California and we’ve been working together to settle the estate. Mother was a little obsessive about making sure we didn’t have to weed through a house packed with junk, and indeed, she did an amazing job of high grading her belongings over the years. Going over the house’s contents was easy — there were even many completely empty cabinets.

Scott, Marion and I were already pretty close, but this past month and a half have drawn us closer and we are working together beautifully to wrap up all the many loose ends. Sometimes things don’t go well when the last parent dies, but I’m relieved that this is not the case here.

Today we met with two real estate agents (well choose one) to begin the process of selling the house.

In just the brief amount of time that has passed, miscellaneous things have come up where I was ready to pick up the phone and tell mother all about it. But alas. I had a recent trip to the Bay Area that she would’ve really eaten up. It will take some time to get used to it.

Life is going to be a little different now. (I’ll tell all about my next adventure, moving permanently to Ventura, in upcoming posts.) I’m so grateful for the stable family environment my parents provided throughout their lifetimes, and also grateful for their manner of leaving life (my dad died of a heart attack in ’87), living every minute to the fullest.

Trip Back East

24 Jun

In early May 2014 I cashed in some airline miles for a vacation to NJ and surrounds. I allotted myself 9 full days for the maximum activity with the most people. Amazingly, everybody’s schedules meshed perfectly.

I took the redeye flight, and arrived in Philly Tuesday morning. After picking up a rental car at the airport, I headed over to Maria’s place in Bala Cynwyd. I know Maria from my Mac user group activities, and we’ve been friends for years. One of her close friends came over and we hung around her condo the rest of the day, had dinner, and played on our Macs, iPads and iPhones. She has the greatest tech toys and enjoys games like I do too (we spent some time on Candy Crush).

Wednesday morning I left Maria’s and headed to NJ to see my friend Denise. I know Denise through the South Jersey Camera Club. I had suggested meeting a bunch of people someplace for dinner, but she proposed a party instead. Great idea! We did a little shopping in the afternoon for last minute items while we did come catching up. (I was excited to learn that she and her husband have plans to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Colorado is drivable, and I’m always up for a road trip.) Denise is a great planner and had already made some of the food. The party was a fantastic way to catch up with my old pals. The food was great, and the company (15 or so) even greater. The next morning, Denise headed for work, and I drove a few miles up the road to my old neighborhood where I met Pat and Diane, two friends from the party the night before who are also former neighbors, for lunch. Afterwards Diane and I walked around the neighborhood, passing by my old house. (I’m glad they didn’t rip out my gardens.) We ran into another neighbor, Peg, and had a nice visit with her.

After that I headed to the Mt Laurel YMCA and went for an hour swim. That worked out real well, although it was to be the only time I got in a swim on the whole trip. Then I drove to NE Philly to Linda’s house, where my board game group gathered. There were seven of us, and it was great to see Andy, Carolyn, Frank, Tammy and Dave come out for the evening. I know this gang because I used to date Frank, and made friends with his friends. Linda and I play an iPhone game daily and this helps us stay in touch too.

The next morning I met Jeanne and Pippi at a hotel parking lot off Exit 4 of the NJ Turnpike. Jeanne was the first friend I made after moving to New Jersey back in the early 80s, and we remain close friends. She introduced me to border collies and we have, as she used to say, “more fun by accident than most people have on purpose”. I parked my rental and we took off in her Subaru to St. Clair, PA for an adventure to gather the fern fossils that I love so much. Pippi is her new border collie, and such a sweet dog you can’t imagine. Anyway a few hours later we arrived at the site of the played-out strip coal mine and hoofed in a half mile to the collecting site. There is nothing but black shale with imbedded ferns all over the ground. You can’t help but find fossils, but the material is also fragile and broken up. The challenge is to find a piece with the tip of the fern intact. Unique to this area are white deposits on the ferns. Iron in the environment also stains them red, orange and yellow, and graphite makes them silvery. Beautiful stuff!

Jeanne and Pippi in St. Clair, PA

Jeanne and Pippi in St. Clair, PA

Beautiful fern fossils in St. Clair.

Beautiful fern fossils in St. Clair.

We were the only people there, and a few hours into our collecting a red truck rolled up and out came an imposing woman with a gun on her hip. We weren’t sure what was up with this, since it is technically private property. But soon enough, we were engaging in friendly chat. The gun was about bears, apparently. Turns out, Kelly is an electrical engineer turned full time fossil collector. Chances are, St. Clair fossils found in rock shops in other parts of the country came from her. We watched her undig the site she had been working on the previous day, and then out came a water cooled (to stop the dust) gas powered circular saw. She cut a big 3″ thick slab out of the ground and levered it up. Then she split it, and discovered a very nice find: a prehistoric crab-like creature; a rarity among the plants.  She told me I should take out as much as I could and mail it back home in flat rate boxes. So I did. She wants me to send her some Trona pink halite. In fact she mentioned this several times, so we exchanged contact info. Kelly invited us to sit on her tailgate for a drive back up the bumpy road to Jeanne’s car. (This was pretty harrowing, but we managed, along with Pippi, to not fall off.) We had a great day and rolled out of there just as it got dark.

Kelly sawing out a slab. Notice what's in the cup holder on the chair!

Kelly sawing out a slab. Notice the gun in the chair’s cup holder!

I stayed the night at Jeanne’s and the next morning, I drove up to Hamilton and caught the commuter train to NYC. One stop after Hamilton, my friend Maia joined me. After ending the ride at NYC’s Penn Station, we hopped the subway to Brooklyn’s Botanical Gardens. I know Maia from photography. We met at a Perkins Photo Show opening several years ago and exchanged emails, then became Facebook friends. But I don’t really do Facebook, and she lives in the Princeton area, so we never got together after that. A few years ago she showed up as a FaceBook friend asking for a game of Scramble on the iPhone. We’ve been playing daily since, and have discovered a lot of commonality (photography, swimming, biking, gardening). On this day, we had a great time getting to know each other better first on the train ride, then wandering the gardens with the cherry trees and lilacs in bloom. Afterwards, we went into the Brooklyn Museum next door. This is where the Judy Chicago installation “The Dinner Party” is housed. It was pretty interesting seeing this iconic piece of art in person. The rest of the museum is pretty good too. We made it back to NJ at a reasonable hour, and I returned to Jeanne’s for the night.

Maia on the subway

Maia on the subway

Cherry trees blooming at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

Cherry trees blooming at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

On Sunday, I boxed up my fossils, then Jeanne and I met fellow photographers Amy and Joanna for a trip to Palmyra Cove. This is one of Amy’s favorite haunts, but none of the rest of us had been there. Palmyra Cove is an extensive nature preserve at the base of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, on the Jersey side. The weather was perfectly mild on this Mother’s Day and we hiked the wooded trails for 4 or 5 hours looking for birds, and finding so much more. Besides indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanager, cuckoo birds, and others I forgot, we also saw a snake, a wild turkey displaying his fan, turtles, geese with babies, stinging nettles, paulownia trees (purple flowers in bloom), just hatched butterfly, ladybugs mating, tadpoles and praying mantis cases. Afterwards, Jeanne went back home, but Amy and Joanna and I went to a secret location to see if the rare and endangered swamp pinks were blooming. We did find them, but found only spent flower stalks. They had bloomed a few weeks earlier. I spent that night at Joanna’s, and the next morning we had a chance to go through her garden and catch up on life.

Joanna, Jeanne and Amy shooting birds in Palmyra Cove.

Joanna, Jeanne and Amy shooting birds in Palmyra Cove.

From there, I drove to Cherry Hill to my friend Phyllis’ house. I know Phyllis through a women’s business group. Phyllis is a smart businesswoman and a lot of fun. After unloading my suitcase, we went over to Penny’s house and the three of us drove down to the shore (Ocean City). Penny is also fun to be around, and has a great sense of humor. This turned out to be a perfect activity for us. The drive gave us lots of time to chat, and the boardwalk was entertaining in and of itself even though the summer season hadn’t started yet. There were plenty of people there and many of the boardwalk businesses were open. We had pizza for lunch, tasted fudge at a few of the candy shops, had frozen yogurt, and got some salt water taffy (although I still don’t know what the appeal is). It was mating season for the birds, so we watched several pairs of seagulls mating throughout the day. Unlike the quick millisecond oriole mating Joanna captured on film (card?) the day before, seagulls take their time and enjoy a little dance before consummating the act.

The quintessential candy shop at any given Jersey shore boardwalk.

The quintessential candy shop at any given Jersey shore boardwalk.

Ritual mating dance of the seagulls.

Ritual mating dance of the seagulls.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Phyllis and her husband Dave, and headed up to Princeton to spend the day and evening with my Macintosh buddies at the Princeton Mac User’s Group. Every May, Bob LeVitus comes to the area to speak at the local Mac user groups, so this was one of reasons to pick May for my trip. Bob stays at my friend Andor’s house when he comes, and that was my destination also. The three of us hung out for a few hours doing geeky Mac things. I printed postage for my boxes of fossils and ran them to the post office down the street. Then I left to meet a fellow PMUG member-turned client Bill for dinner. I had a nice visit with the whole family, who runs the family printing business together, and discussed some changes needed for their website. Then I headed over to the PMUG meeting itself, which was an entertaining presentation by Bob. After that, I joined  a dozen or so of them for pizza. This was a great way to catch up with my Mac friends. After that, Bob and Andor and I chit chatted until we all got tired.

The next morning, I got up in time to drive over to another fellow PMUG member/friend/client’s house, Leo, and drove him to his antiques shop. (He fell and broke his hip earlier this year and can’t drive for a while.) We had a nice, albeit brief, visit before I headed west back into PA where I met my friend Mike. I also know Mike through the Mac user group community and some photographic ventures. He and his wife Sherry started a petsitting business a few years ago and on this Wednesday, I joined him in doing home visits with 3 of his clients. First we let out 3 basset hounds so they could hang in the backyard for a while, then we went to another house and walked a boxer around the neighborhood. After that we walked a lapdog around the block, then met Sherry for coffee at a local coffee house. This turned out to be fun way to catch up with Mike, get a little exercise and have a visit without disrupting his busy day.

Leaving Mike’s, I left for Amy’s house. She’s another one of my photo friends that I stay in regular touch with. I had already spent Sunday with her, so I didn’t feel guilty about abandoning her to go the the DVESS (Delaware Valley Earth Science Society) meeting nearby. I brought a box of Trona pink halite specimens to give away; they included them for door prizes, and I think everyone got something. Like the night before at PMUG, this was a great way to connect with my rock hound friends all at once. Back at Amy’s we dinked around with some photos on her computer for a while until we got tired, then we said our goodbyes because I had to leave at the crack of dawn the next day.

Turns out, freeway traffic is light at 6 a.m., so the drive to the airport was painless and I got there in plenty of time to catch my flight. I got back to California in the middle of the afternoon, just in time to change clothes and go with my mother to a dinner where she got a volunteer of the year award from the local historical society. Oh, and the two heavy flat rate boxes of fossils were waiting on the porch. They actually made it cross country without ripping open.

I had a great trip and can’t believe all the people I was able to see and visit. A big thanks to everyone for carving out some time for me – what a great bunch of friends I have!

Back in the Saddle Again

19 Jun

When I moved west, I wanted to make some changes in my life; wipe the slate clean of extracurricular actives and start over fresh. One of the things I wanted to do was get back into bicycling. Throughout my 20s I did extensive biking, including solo cycling vacations in Europe, England and New England, and numerous daylong trips covering Southern California from San Diego to Ventura County. Then I moved to NJ, life got busy, and aside from a couple of spurts of cycling here and there, the bike hung alone in the garage, waiting. After moving to Ojai, I took the bike out a couple of random times, but I was woefully out of shape and it wasn’t much fun. After moving in with my mother and going to the YMCA with her 3 times a week to swim, I’ve regained my stamina. Finally, I got my act together in January and now have a regular biking routine. My 30 year old bike was high end then, and although something of a time capsule, it’s just as good today. All I needed was a good floor pump, some minor clothing adjustments, and I was good to go.

My office is very close to the beach, convenient to bike paths and low-traffic areas. At first, I went out for just a half hour to remind myself I could still manage, and a few trips later, I learned that I still knew how to fix a flat (a rear one at that). Nowadays I’m totally comfortable and my trips usually last around 3 hours.

The bike path follows this field just a few blocks from my office. Ventura's famed Two Trees Hill is on the left in the background.

The bike path follows this field just a few blocks from my office. Ventura’s famed Two Trees Hill is on the left in the background.

I ride two different routes starting with the same first half hour. I leave the studio and pick up a bike trail running along farm fields, which leads me to a residential area at the marina for a mile or two before picking up the beach path that runs all along Ventura’s beaches, with dunes, a pier, the beach park and the county fairgrounds. All the while it’s enjoyable watching the surfers, navigating amongst the crowd on the boardwalk, seeing the Channel Islands in the distance, and sometimes having to stop at a train crossing, complete with a trail-sized crossing barrier and flashing lights. Then I either cross over the Ventura River and continue up the coast, or head inland along the river to Ojai.

Surfers

Surfers waiting to catch waves north of Ventura.

If crossing the river, the bike path goes on for a few more miles, then continues as part of the old Pacific Coast Highway for 10 miles or so before that ends, and you actually have to share the road with the freeway for a few miles (although there is a barrier). On one trip, I invited Ray, an office neighbor to ride with me. He is a strong rider, and gave me a good pace to maintain. He showed me several things of local interest as we covered 40 miles in the round trip. We turned around just south of Carpenteria at the top of a long slow hill (rt. 150 offramp), then looped over to a fast winding downhill slalom (Bates Rd) for the reward before retracing our path back to my office. This is my standard coastal trip now, an easy route involving only a few minor hills and rises, and of course those cool ocean breezes.

The Rincon Parkway Campground runs right on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway, with marked spaces for RVs.

The oddball Rincon Parkway Campground runs right along the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway, with marked spaces for RVs.

Campers on the Coast Highway Campground.

Campers an the Rincon Parkway Campground.

The other trip I take, which is about the same 40-45 miles, is up the Ojai trail. This bike path follows the Ventura River. You gradually climb uphill the whole way, but it is imperceptible for the most part; you only feel it on one short section. Then of course the reward is the trip back. This trail is separated from the road for much of the distance, so it’s a peaceful ride, and it turns out to be ideal for catching up on phone calls using your earpiece. There’s a lot to see on the river trail as it passes behind properties with flowering vines on the fences, old oil fields, the river valley, a public park, and finally through Ojai itself where it ends east of downtown. There are public sculptures along the Ventura section. One of my friends, Wyndra, created one of them, a windmill topped with a poinsettia for the blades. A few years ago a beautiful new trail bridge was built over one of the creeks feeding the Ventura river. Bike trails like this remind me of train tracks and animal paths, quietly snaking uninterrupted through the landscape. I love this route, but as summer approaches, I doubt I’ll be taking it much because once you leave the coast, the temperatures rise dramatically.

Bougainvillea along the Ventura River Trail

Bougainvillea growing along the Ventura River Trail

Bike Bridge along the way to Ojai.

Bike bridge on the way to Ojai.

Biking is the perfect no-emissions mode of travel. You get to take in the aromas, like citrus blossoms, eucalyptus trees, strawberry fields, jasmine, and along the Rincon Parkway RV campground, breakfasts in the morning and barbecues in the afternoon. Then there’s the speed, which is fast enough to make progress, but slow enough to take in the views, chat with other bikers you encounter, or stop for a spontaneous photo or a detour. And of course you’re getting low impact exercise and fresh air. A good 3 or 4 hour ride burns off a daily allotment of calories. I’m in my element when I’m biking: the scenery, the fresh cooling breeze, the cheap thrill of going 30+ mph downhill, California’s year round climate, and good exercise. It doesn’t get any better than this.

A Unique Rock Hounding Trip

11 Feb

Every year on the second weekend in October, the Searles Lake Gem & Mineral Society in Trona puts on the Trona Gem-O-Rama in conjunction with the nice people from Searles Valley Minerals (who mine the lakes for borax and other minerals), who open their property to collectors from all over the country to collect evaporite minerals. After seeing fabulous big slabs slathered with pink and white halite at the local rock and gem shows, I wanted to get in on this opportunity.

Fellow Ventura Gem and Mineral Society members Maria Flores and her husband Raul Barraza had never been and wanted to go too, so we hatched a plan to go together to the 2013 Gem-O-Rama, two or three hours northeast into the desert. The Trona adventure takes place on Saturday and Sunday, so we decided to drive up Thursday and use Friday to do a little sightseeing. The nice thing about sharing rides on long trips like this is that you get a chance to know each other. We talked the whole time and before we knew it we were approaching Red Rocks State Park, a short distance from our final destination. We wanted to stop and see the beautiful red and buff sedimentary formations. The soft cliffs erode into fantastic shapes. This park has a lot to offer, including petroglyphs, and I’d like to return next time and see more of it.

Red Rocks State Park

Red Rocks State Park

We rolled past China Lake and into Ridgecrest as the sun was going down, and checked into the Motel 6. (We considered dry camping, but given the muddy collecting conditions, decided $35-ish a night sounded a lot more fun.) Friday morning the three of us headed east on 178 to take in the sights. We passed through Trona where people from the local gem society were busy setting things up, then decided to look at the dry camping area on the other side of town to see if anybody was there yet. There were a few people set up, but I was more interested in seeing what was behind the Trona Golf Club sign at the turnoff. Remember, this is the Mojave Desert. Beyond the camp was a chain link fence with a beat up sign and a few buildings. Not really believing this was anything more than an overgrown relic from the boom days of Borax mining, I checked the satellite view on my phone’s map, and sure enough, it looked like a golf course, albeit a brown one. We got out to take pictures and darned if there weren’t a couple of guys actually teeing off not far from the fence. We went inside for a closer look at a real desert golf course. The tees consisted of pieces of carpet and the greens were actual grass with sprinkler systems to keep them going, but the rest of the place was natural gritty desert. If you’re a golfer, pack your clubs. It’s a public 9-hole course with a $5 green fee.

Trona Golf Club

Trona Golf Club. Sign on honor box warns of rattlesnakes.

We continued east toward the Panamints, ignoring the big “Road Closed 17 Miles Ahead” sign. This road ultimately takes you to Death Valley, but we weren’t going that far. Right at the turnoff for the ghost town of Ballarat, the road was indeed closed with big piles of dirt (and a well worn track going around them). We turned right, passed over a dry salt flat, and ended up in Ballarat, parking in front of a closed general store to have a look around. We inspected some old tumble-down adobe structures, picked up bits of broken purple desert glass while a wild donkey flirted with Maria and me, and then settled on the shady junked-up porch of the general store for lunch. Raul became the de facto local as car after car stopped asking him for directions to Death Valley (because of the road closure). He confidently sent them ahead on the same lonely road (and luckily nobody came back).

Wild Donkey

Wild Donkey

The last site of the day was the Trona Pinnacles. These tufa pinnacles, south west of Trona, are the result of some fantastic underwater voodoo involving calcium carbonate that happened dozens of millennia ago. Many movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed among these striking formations. Back in Ridgecrest, we had a great Mexican dinner at the Golden Ox, catty-corner from the Motel 6. Even though they didn’t have chile rellenos that night because the owner’s mother was out of town, I’d highly recommend this place.

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

We got up bright and early Saturday morning to get good positioning in the parking lot. You line up your cars in a laned parking lot so they can lead the 100 or so cars to the collecting area in an orderly fashion. We arrived around 6:30 and ended up about 10th in line, parked, then walked over to the local church for pancakes. The breakfast was pretty simple – pancakes and sausage, hot drinks and OJ. (Note to self: pack a container of real maple syrup and some real butter next year. If I’m going to eat pancakes, I want to go all the way.) Then back at the parking area we got our tickets for the 3 trips and milled around until the 9 am kickoff.

The first trip is mud collecting. From beneath the brine, they dredge up mud studded with jumbo hanksite crystals, and spread it out for everyone to muck through. Turns out, this is the only one of the 3 trips where it really pays to get in line early. We got to park on the first row, and got to the mud before the onslaught of fourth-graders on their field trips. Right off the bat, Raul found a beautiful cluster of crystals that was one of the day’s big prizes. I immediately grabbed a few quart-sized crystals before hoards of people descended. The hanksite is abundant so you can get in and out quickly. I washed my finds in one of the brine troughs provided and bought a jug of brine later so I could finish off the job at home. Plain water will dissolve the crystals, so you really do need the brine from the lake.

HanksiteMud BrineTrough

Hanksite

Hanksite

Back at the gathering area, we parked near the front of the lineup for the afternoon trip to the blowholes. The second trip involves the blowholes, where they drill down 40 feet and set off a charge to loosen hanksite, sulfohalite, borax and halite crystals. Then they shoot compressed air down one pipe to force crystals and brine up the other, spraying the slush into semicircles. The crystals come out pretty clean, so the challenge is to find the somewhat rare sulfohalite double pyramids (octohedrons) and nicely formed double-terminated hanksites (hexagonal). We all came away with nice specimens.

Sunday morning we weren’t as frenzied about getting in line first, but as it turns out, we got good placement anyway. The collecting area for the pink halite was extensive, so everybody got to park close. However, chance had it that we parked right next to a small deposit of blue-green halite, so that was the first thing stashed into the truck. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of pink brine pools in the playa. The brine needs heat and sun to encourage the bacteria to thrive, then when they die and the water evaporates, their little bodies turn red and get trapped in the growing salt crystals forming on the underside of the salt shelf. We trudged out with our buckets and settled into a random area and hacked away. Mostly I collected very pale pink to white crystals on a pink base (not pink crystals per se, but quite attractive overall).

Halite (ordinary salt)

Halite (ordinary salt)

PinkPools

Pink Brine Pool

Pink Brine Pool

After a last run through the gem show and lunch of awesome pulled pork on nachos from the local club’s food concession, we headed out. A pleasant drive back to Ventura with my new friends Maria and Raul wrapped up a wonderful trip.