And the road goes on forever...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

In Anaheim...Bored to Tears

Marc’s latest project hasn’t wrapped up like he thought it might; the painting crew, such as they were, let him down and didn’t seem too interested in getting their job done on time, which should have been this past Friday. Although I arrived here two days ago for our vacation time, I’m cooling my heels in the small RV with the cats, while he sleeps all day getting rested to hit it for another long graveyard shift. We’ll be fortunate to get out of here by 4th of July, headed north through California to stop and see many friends along the way. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to have two weeks in Bend before I have to return to Yuma and my oldsters. 

We have plans at Redding to head west through the mountains to Eureka and will take Highway 101 north along the coast to stay with some friends in Coos Bay, our old stomping grounds, before finally trekking to Bend and my mother’s. I have plans to blog along the way but am not sure how I will do so with no internet.  

Anaheim is the same as I left it over two weeks ago—crowded, expensive, noisy and boring, but at least cool. Yuma has topped triple digits for about four weeks now so I am happy for the break!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Old Friends

Sometimes at random moments my thoughts turn to things totally unrelated to what I am engaged in. Today as I was cleaning, something spurred me to think of good friends from the past who have left my life.

It gave me pause to think “what has happened to them?” This person that I was so close to at one point in time, and over years and miles, we finally saw a friendship sputter and go out like a dim gas lantern running out of fuel. I thought about one such person today.

Her name was Sally and she was originally from Connecticut and had come out west as a result of a bad marriage, which ended leaving her in northern California. Through pride or a genuine liking of her newly adopted state, I don’t know which, she chose to stay, and she found another husband and had a son. When I first met her I was working as a Realtor sitting a subdivision and she was sent out to be my weekend hostess to help with the traffic flow. In other words, distract and direct the chafe while I, as the licensed agent, zeroed in on the wheat to consummate a sale. Our first meeting was awkward—she was painfully shy and soft spoken whereas my industry had taught me to be forthright, brash, and assertive. I didn’t think the first day we would really mesh at all.

But Sally managed to get under my skin; she was just so likeable and soft-spoken—who could possibly resent that? Long hours when no potential clients were around saw us sharing confidences and histories and we actually found quite a bit in common. Over the course of a year, she left her then husband and filed for divorce and moved into the apartment complex where I also lived. Our friendship deepened over shared dinners and laments about men as Sally pursued getting her real estate license.

Continuing on, I met and married Marc and she, being a Master Gardener and all-knowing about flowers, did all my wedding flowers at a wholesale price. She was there as I married Marc but by then our job roles had changed. She had been my relief agent on my days off when I was promoted and made district Sales Manager for the entire northern California division so suddenly had all my former workmates and agents under me--including Sally, whom I handed off my very lucrative subdivision to. She proved to be excellent although a large part of her success was due to the market at the time. She remained a little too soft-spoken to really have a “hit it” killer sales attitude that could have been necessary for success had the market been bad.
Sally remarried and soon enough Marc and I decided California and the frenetic corporate pace was no longer for us so we moved to Central Oregon. We kept in touch and when a few opportunities for travel arose that I could get back to California I would stop in and stay overnight with her new family. 

I remember the last time I did that with her. There were problems occurring in the marriage despite its newness. I left thinking our friendship would continue as always but in actuality, I only heard from her about once or twice more. It was letters or phone calls in those days; there was no internet. Finally when I didn’t hear from her anymore I asked another agent we both knew what had happened to Sally. She had divorced the third husband, they had sold the new home, and she and her son had returned to Connecticut. She left no forwarding address. She had let her real estate license go and had gotten a degree in Library Science. Ah yes, how appropriate for her demeanor—always soft-spoken and shy. 

So, on this day in the desert of Arizona 20 years later, I paused to think of Sally, to wonder if she finally found happiness with a man; if she gained more by returning to her native turf; if she was successful at becoming a librarian and loved her job. Has she retired by now? I imagine the green fields and trees of Connecticut, although I’ve never been there, and wonder how she might have aged, or even if she is still alive and well. Does she ever pause to think of her old friends; of me? I know she had my wedding and flower photos; does she pull them out and look at them sometimes, did she keep them? What happened to her life that I missed out on? 

Sometimes I wonder about these old friends, once so close they shared all our confidences. How does life just manage to toss them aside and be done with them? I have no doubt that if we could see one another today, we’d take up right where we left off—but alas, that will never be. Some friends are only destined to touch our lives briefly. I hope you are well, Sally-that-I-will-never-see-again, because it gave me joy to think about you on this day and how once upon a time we were such good friends.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Irvine Ranch, the Original

Orange County park headquarters are located on the old Irvine Ranch grounds with its scattered original buildings. Incongruously it all sits just past a busy stoplight as though it were plunked down in the middle of a modern and expensive shopping area. I had thought from the sounds of it that it might make for a good outing but once there, I was disappointed. There was no walking tour or other paraphernalia which usually marks a “historic park”; merely the buildings in original disrepair with most behind chain linked fencing denoting “Employees Only”. I guess at some point the county plans on turning this into a historical touring park but for the time being I’d say, save for one building, you are wasting your time. That one building is the ranch house now turned into an Orange County public library called the Katie Wheeler branch. The modern garden holds remnants of what could have been original grandeur—the palms lining this drive have been there since 1906 and the wrought iron gates date from the 1870’s. Woodwork inside the former home is exquisite but I’m not sure it looked original. There they had a very small glass case with the floor plan of the original house and some books and a couple of pictures on the history of the place. At one time the ranch encompassed about 93,000 acres so it’s easy to see why the Irvine Company continues to hold such political and economic sway over this part of California and the coast. It’s not everyone who gets to donate a top university to the California system. It was stressed how many decades of planning had gone into Irvine and its various master-planned villages, some of which, like Tustin Ranch, have had endless buzz. 

The ranch cut a wide swath of land from the interior foothills to the ocean, much of which is still preserved as wilderness, and looking at the location of the main ranch house had me wondering why they chose this spot to live when they could have had magnificent coastal views. Maybe in the 1800’s people were much more practical and there was a good watering hole for the cattle in this spot. Valencia oranges were also a huge crop; the ranch was the largest producer in California and maybe oranges can’t take the salt air. Sadly today, there was not an orange tree in sight as I looked out at the busy traffic surrounding one of the area’s largest outdoor shopping malls called The Marketplace, a peon to consumerism if there ever was one. If nothing else the juxtaposition brought about the thought of how many changes the dirt can accommodate in 140 years and what this will all be like in another 140 years. 

Saturday morning arrived all too soon and it was time to head back to Yuma. Although missing Marc greatly, I was tired of all the crowds of people, the endless traffic, the noise, the frenetic pace. I had loved the sea air, the coolness, the verdant smells of lawn and moisture and sitting outside in 70 degrees. Despite this, as I crested the final down leg on I-8 which slopes to the vast desert coming up, I thought I had never been quite so happy for a glimpse of the Big Empty. I’m happy to leave the big cities to others.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

RV Life in the Big City

Anaheim RV Village is an older park but well-maintained and the folks are friendly here. As city RV parks go, this one isn’t bad excepting for the traffic noise from I-5 and the nightly explosions from Disneyland. More about that in a moment. 

It has a pool and spa and what they call a lounge room, but that is only full of empty tables and two small couches and flat screen TV. There are no puzzles, no games, no book exchange, no weight room or exercise equipment, no convenience mart. I guess they figure the entertainment draw here (Disney) is right across the road. The WIFI is tediously slow if you don’t catch it before about 6 a.m. Even with the monthly discount, the cost is nearly $1100 so nothing to sneer at if one is on a tight budget. We ourselves would never in a million years pay as much for an RV park as what a mortgage monthly payment costs (when we’re bringing the house!) but Marc’s boss pays, so here we are. There is lots of grass and concrete so everything is neat and tidy and the cats enjoy going outdoors and watching the people and the pigeons. It is a little incongruous to see tent campers here but this may be one of the few Disneyland parks to allow them. 

Every night at 9:30, the loud Disney tunes pipe up and shortly thereafter the fireworks show starts. My first night here I was asleep by then and the loud booms and explosions nearly had me thinking we were under attack. The ground shook and car alarms started blaring from blocks around. I’ve learned I just can’t go to sleep before 10 p.m. and it has me thinking of the poor people who own homes in the vicinity—don’t they get sick and tired of this stuff every night? Wednesday night we did decide to step outside and try catching some of it on camera. Irvine, where Marc’s restaurant redo is located, is a master planned community with tight control by the very anal Irvine Company so there are no RV parks allowed there so his commute is longer than he wishes. It adds up to quite a bit extra in fuel running the Freightliner back and forth, but Anaheim was his only choice. Here they cater to America’s families on a budget, mostly in their rental Class C’s, but if they consider $75/day for an RV spot a low cost alternative I can only imagine what the hotels in the area must charge. Big city life isn’t for sissies or the poor. 

Wednesday I wandered through a nicely done outdoor mall called the Garden Walk, located just blocks from Disney and also very close to the large Anaheim Convention Center. I was struck by two things—the preponderance of well-known restaurant chains and the utter lack of shopping activity for the (mostly) shuttered mall stores. It seemed like it had been well done with lovely garden plants, fountains and water displays, and a location that should have guaranteed success. So, what happened that in the middle of a bright and sunny day with thousands upon thousands of Disney visitors there are no people here and the mall looks as though it has expired and just hasn’t realized it yet?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Southern California

Despite the fairly early hour of 10 a.m. on a weekday, I find myself fighting for a metered parking spot close enough to walk to the beach. I’m in Anaheim, staying with Marc for a few days while he starts another remodel in Irvine. 

I got here on Sunday and today (Tuesday) is my first real venture out in such heavy traffic, as I head on surface streets for Newport Beach and the closest ocean. I know it makes me seem like a whinny, but effectively for the past 25 years or more I have lived in relatively rural areas; at least they would be considered rural by traffic standards of the large metropolitan areas. Venturing forth takes its toll on my psyche and finding a dearth of parking places when I’m out exploring is a particular pet peeve of mine. Obligingly though, I drop a $1.50 worth of quarters into the meter so I can park for an hour of exploration. The problem is, as it turns out, there is nothing here worth an hour’s worth of my quarters. 

Yes, my first glimpse of this beach seems quintessential…the old truck, the kayak, the surfboard. I focus up and down the beach; it’s more of the same—people, surfers, parking lots stuffed with vehicles. I walk part way out the pier to get a better view as I pass some notable eating and drinking establishments and seaside art. I’m sorry I don’t have my ice chest with me when I see the fish market of some on-the-beach long time establishment called the Dorymen. They look for real. I wander on down the beachfront looking from the boardwalk six feet away directly into rental condos strewn back to back. The side streets do hold some beach-village allure, but nothing like say, for instance, Cannon Beach in Oregon. Soon tiring of this, I hit Highway 1 south through the downtown canal portion of Newport which is filled with more yachts, Porsche’s, Mercedes, and Ferrari’s than I have ever laid eyes upon. I am headed for a glimpse of the rich backyard’s mall known as Fashion Island. It’s an outdoor mall of large proportions anchored by Bloomingdale’s (nope, never shopped there), Neiman Marcus (never shopped there either), Macy’s (yes, this is more like it) and some other really big one I neglected to note. Most small shops cater to women’s fashion and scattered abundantly throughout are also restaurants and delis of all sorts. The landscaping is divine and big sumptuous chairs are scattered about to ease a pedestrian’s tired tootsies so they can rest to do more shopping.

Feeling a vague unease at my letdown on how-not-so-special this entire place is, I fight the urge to return to the RV park and instead head north on Highway 1 to Seal Beach. I pass through Huntington Beach which features miles upon miles of golden sand beach and pay parking lots all off to my ocean side, while condo development upon condo development recedes into the distance to the east. I finally come into Seal Beach and make a left turn on Seal Beach Blvd which appears to bring me closer to the ocean. At least parking here is free, on residential streets only one block from the beautiful and empty beach. The wind is whipping and I do not linger but I do note an offshore oil drilling rig just a few hundred yards off the beach, which somehow seems incongruous. The homes are neat and tidy and probably very, very expensive. I let the GPS track me the quick way back to the RV park 19 miles away, where I settle into the pleasant temps and sunshine outside and let Derby linger by my feet in the grass. Overhead a Goodyear blimp circles and circles numerous times, giving tourists a joyride I suspect until I see some digital message scrolling across its side. Ah, how appropriate: it’s advertising something.

Friday, June 8, 2012

An Interesting “Revisit”

In September of 2010 Marc and I had the singular experience of a personal tour of one of the nation’s foremost plantation homes. You can see my sequence of blogs about it starting here: Chance of a lifetime
It will forever remain in our minds as one of our life’s top highlights; a memory treasured and not to be forgotten. Imagine my surprise when by a circuitous route I received an email message from a gentleman who lives in Virginia who forwarded me a Washington Post article (written by Elizabeth Stevens & published at the end of May) about the current state of Carter’s Grove. Entitled “The sorry fate of tech pioneer Halsey Minor and historic Virginia estate Carter’s Grove”, I have excerpted cogent portions of the article to cite the current state of Carter’s Grove. (Pictures are mine).

For 260 years, it steadfastly survived looting, flood, hurricane, earthquake, a Hollywood crew filming a now-forgotten Cary Grant movie, and a marauding Revolutionary War colonel who billeted his Redcoats there and, legend has it, rode a horse up the main staircase, hacking the grand railing with his sword along the way. A 1928 renovation diminished the Palladian perfection of its exterior, but still, it endured.
Carter’s Grove may have finally met its ruin, however, in the unlikely form of Halsey Minor, a brash 40-something technology investor living in San Francisco. Minor bought Carter’s Grove from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2007 and vowed to restore it to its former glory as a palatial private home. 

It was a suitably high-profile homecoming of sorts for Minor, allowing him to reassert his family’s long history of prominence in Virginia. The Minors are an old Charlottesville family, and sitting near the center of the University of Virginia campus are Minor Hall (named for John Minor, an early law professor) and Halsey Hall (named for Minor’s relative, World War II Adm. William “Bull” Halsey). 

Around the same time as his Carter’s Grove purchase, Minor broke ground on a luxury hotel in downtown Charlottesville. In many ways, the local boy made good was returning to his native soil. Minor made a large fortune in the first Internet boom. Shortly after graduating with an anthropology degree from U-Va. in 1987, Minor set out for San Francisco to stake a claim in the nascent Internet industry. He and another U-Va. grad, Shelby Bonnie, co-founded CNET, an Internet media company that went public and was eventually acquired by CBS Corp. Minor went on to cannily fund start-ups such as and the company that became Google Voice. He had a knack for spotting good talent and good ideas.

Many of these investments yielded spectacular financial returns. The young entrepreneur beamed from the cover of Forbes in 1998 as one of the “Masters of the New Universe.” Fortune celebrated him as one of the wealthiest Americans younger than 40, along with fellow phenom Jeff Bezos, and ahead of Tiger Woods and tech investor Marc Andreessen. Minor opined on technology for Charlie Rose, and the Clintons dined at Minor’s house in San Francisco while in town to drop Chelsea off at Stanford. 

Though he already had a country house near Charlottesville, Minor bought Carter’s Grove in 2007 intending to make it his part-time residence and a thoroughbred farm. He announced a plan to buy racetracks on the East Coast, including Miami’s Hialeah Park and Baltimore’s Pimlico. Moreover, a splendidly renovated Carter’s Grove would have been a fitting stage from which Minor might launch a long-hinted run for the Virginia governorship. 

But Minor never moved into Carter’s Grove. It has sat empty and neglected for years. The historic treasure is falling apart. In February, inspectors from Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources found a leaking roof, broken climate-control system, pervasive rot, cracked paneling and indications that the house is shifting and may be unsound. “This deterioration has now reached a critical level and is accelerating rapidly,” Minor was warned in a Feb. 24 letter. “Irreversible damage ... has occurred.” 

The de-escalation of Minor’s wealth may well be as historic and representative of this era as Carter’s Grove is of Colonial America. 

In a series of what used to politely be called “reversals,” Minor lost the bulk of his fortune. That $100 million spending spree collided with the great financial panic of the fall of 2008. And Minor, who had been borrowing heavily, was caught short. 

When Minor bought Carter’s Grove for $15.3 million, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s patrician chief executive, Colin G. Campbell, assured the organization’s longtime chief archaeologist that Minor was “the perfect buyer.” Minor paid $5 million down and borrowed the rest — from Colonial Williamsburg. 

And Minor may well have regarded Colonial Williamsburg as the perfect seller. The august nonprofit was established by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1920s to preserve and celebrate the nation’s Colonial heritage. The Rockefellers bought Carter’s Grove in the 1960s and donated it to the foundation, viewing a grand plantation an essential component of the story of early America. The Rockefellers’ involvement has ebbed, though Sharon Percy Rockefeller serves as a trustee, along with such big names as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy and journalist Andrea Mitchell. 

Minor’s agent was his father, C. Venable Minor. Reached by phone in his Charlottesville real estate office, the elder Minor politely declined to discuss Carter’s Grove or his son. “I don’t want to be the one talking; that would have to be my son, and the odds of getting through to my son are almost nil,” he said. “I have a heck of a hard time getting through myself. Every day [from the time he] gets up and goes to bed, he’s on the move, in meetings. He’s involved in many companies and a lot of other things, too. To be honest with you, I think he basically turned [Carter’s Grove] over to the attorneys.” 

Stephen McLean, the Charlottesville real estate broker who represented Colonial Williamsburg, said Carter’s Grove was in “very good condition” when Minor bought it. The roof was acknowledged to be leaking and needed repairs estimated at $400,000, so Colonial Williamsburg shaved $200,000 off the $15.5 million Minor had originally agreed to pay.

Minor never did the repairs, nor did he finish paying for the mansion. According to court documents, he stopped payments in mid-2010 with less than $4 million still owed. 

The limited liability corporation that Minor created to hold Carter’s Grove filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Feb. 14, blocking the sale. Minor filed a claim accusing Colonial Williamsburg of fraud in concealing leaks; of burying toxic waste containing high levels of arsenic, selenium and chromium on the property; and misleading Minor so he paid “a grossly inflated price.” That lawsuit, which Colonial Williamsburg disputes, is still pending. 

As Minor ran out of options, Judge St. John ran out of patience. 

For more than a year, St. John had listened and accommodated Minor’s promises that his finances would soon be in order. Minor himself showed up in St. John’s courtroom only once. Mostly he left it to his lawyers to speak for him, promising that a lawsuit elsewhere would be won, or another asset sold, any day now. 

At a hearing March 13, it became apparent that the electric power to many of Carter’s Grove’s buildings had been cut off for nonpayment. A $4 million museum building likely had been ruined by rampant mold, Robert Mays, the longtime caretaker of Carter’s Grove, testified. “We are doing the best we can with what we have to work with,” he told St. John, asking for money to buy fuel and blades for the lawn mower. Mays said he and his wife, Tammy, who also is employed to care for Carter’s Grove, had not been paid since the end of 2011. They are supposed to receive weekly wages totaling about $1,000. “You know, we both depend on the payroll for our family,” Mays said. “We are still working every day, so I mean, I would kind of like to see where I stand on getting paid.”

On April 6, St. John appointed an independent trustee to manage Carter’s Grove. Minor’s disastrous 4½-year reign as Lord of Carter’s Grove was over. But perhaps too late for Virginia’s 260-year-old historical treasure. Between the rot of neglect and some landscaping Minor began, much damage has been done. While the damaged original features of the house can arguably be replaced with artful copies, Hume says the archaeological value of Carter’s Grove has been ruined.

Let’s hope that the Williamsburg Foundation is successful in its foreclosure suit to regain ownership and control of this mighty mistress on the James River. Old ladies should be taken care of.