Sunday, February 8, 2015

On The Road Again -- Via 2006 Ford Escape

Whatever Happened To "Travels ON Abracadabra"?

Lately it does seem we should rename our blog something like "The Crew of Abracadabra Takes Road Trips" . . . so before writing about our latest road trip [1657 +/- miles from Sacramento, California, USA to Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico] we'll explain why we're not traveling aboard Abracadabra

Why We Are Not Traveling Aboard Abracadabra:

The concise explanation is that Abracadabra's engine (the original 1985 Westerbeke 33) is ailing badly and is being repaired and, concurrently, we're waiting for Bryce and his new hip to become as one. If you are interested in a more nuanced answer see below. If not, you might wish to skip to the road trip headings.

          Part One - Engine Repair: Abracadabra is at Paradise Fishing Lodge in El Salvador. As you may (or not) remember we had a rough arrival in El Salvador due to the unhappy combination of a non-functioning diesel engine, a faulty tow rope and some pretty big surf. We are now happy to report that engine repairs are underway: the engine has been removed and turned into a table of engine pieces; some bits have been sent for retooling and some replacement bits have been ordered. We hope that soon (boat repair soon . . . ) all the bits will come back together and once again become a functioning Westerbeke 33. 

          Why Not Just Get A New Engine?  Ah, it sounds so simple . . . but here is a short-hand version of the agonizing decision process (and as our friends and family know, we are world-class agonizers!) which brought us to the decision to repair rather than replace:  
  • A new engine isn't a magic bullet - some are problematic (thus the warranty concept).
  • All new engines are breathtakingly expensive (tens-of-thousands) and a new engine for Abracadabra would be breathtakingly expensive + importation fees and shipping costs. 
  • Westerbeke 33's have gone the way of the dodo and instead of replacing like with like, we would have to "re-power" (install a different type of engine). Re-powering generally requires adjustments to the engine mounting space or the propeller shaft or . . . some other damned thing that comes up once quarters-of-inches become a big deal. Some of those adjustments must be done with the boat out of the water and there are no travel lifts within several hundred miles of Abracadabra's current location
At this point it seems apropos to cite an old sailing adage: The definition of cruising is "fixing boats in exotic places."  In sum: we really, really hope the repairs work.

          Part Two - Even More Sophisticated Mechanics: Mid-way through our last boating season Bryce acknowledged that he needed a new right hip. Molly helped him reach this conclusion by threatening to leave him floating if his increasingly wobbly gate caused him to fall overboard. We returned to the U.S. in June and four and a half months later the deed was done. Three and a half months post-surgery he can pick up suitcases, walk up and down stairs and drive long distances without taking anything stronger than ibuprofen. He still can't dance. A total hip replacement was, of course, more complicated and painful than this summary suggests -- but there's no need to dwell on walkers, canes and pain medications here. It's done and successful. 

          On Board Again?: Successful as the surgery was, we aren't yet ready to declare the hip ready for a life aquatic. Almost as bad as a captain going overboard would be having the captain's hip pop while crouching on a moving fore-deck, cranking an anchor windlass somewhere in Central America. We'll give the bones and metal bits time to bind and will return to Abracadabra sometime . . . after mid-July . . . ish. 

          Where To Then?  calm anchorage with beautiful scenery and inexpensive beer. Really, we have no idea. 

Time to segue to our latest road trip:  

Road Trip - California, USA (January 20 - 27)

Having endured the torture that is Highway 5 to visit Molly's brother Rob and husband Tom for the Christmas holidays

Tom, Rob and Bravo; Christmas 2014

we decided to take a different route south for this trip. 

After detouring to Napa to let friends Patricia Lynch and Toby Lovallo take us to dinner (thanks, both!) and to Oakland to buy some boat stuff, we traveled south on Highway 101. 

Our first fun stop was to tour one of the historic California Missions, Mission San Juan Batista. Go figure why we love these missions and the churches in Mexico so much given our somewhat - uh - distant relationship to the Catholic Church . . . but we do.

Petitioning With Candles

Alta California - Still Mexico In The Blood and Language

FYI, the missions were decommissioned by the government of Mexico in the 1830's during one of Mexico's secularization frenzies. They were returned to the Catholic Church by the U.S. Government in 1859. Interesting, no? 

We spent the night at yet another Hampton Inn (there are points to be earned) in Salinas and the next morning visited the National Steinbeck Center which is a very stop-worthy museum. The museum presents Steinbeck's biography in installations named after his books (e.g., "East of Eden" installation = his childhood in Salinas; "Grapes of Wrath" installation = his time reporting on Okie migrant farm workers during the 1930's). 

FYI, during the Great Depression, as Okies started migrating to California, Mexican farm workers were deported to Mexico - along with some Mexican-American U.S. citizens. Later, in the 1940's when the Okies (along with their Mexican-American fellow U.S. citizens) went to war or to work in war industry factories and Japanese-American labor was interned, the U.S. government established the Braceros program to formally welcome Mexican farm laborers. This immigration program continued until the mid-1960's. Interesting, no?

We were taken by the Travels With Charlie installation which describes Steinbeck's 1960 road trip around America in a camper with his standard poodle, Charlie. It made us think about how traveling is different when one is moving one's home (Bryce refers to Abracadabra as his "turtle shell"); that the best part of traveling is meeting and/or observing new people; and how fond we are of our family standard poodle, Bravo.  

Perro Bravo!

But the Steinbeck Museum is not the only reason to visit Salinas. Salinas is also the home of Salinas City BBQ - great cue and beer. Don't miss it if you're traveling through. 

We had planned our second night in Paso Robles because we thought we were going to stop at some of the fabulous Central California wineries (remember Sideways?). But we got side-tracked at yet another mission - Mission San Miguel - and never got to any wineries.   

Guess Who?

Los Estigmatizados: Jesus y San Francisco

Among our fellow tourists were several monks (or guys dressed up like monks). Molly was dying to ask them to pose with some of the art work . . . but she couldn't work up the nerve. How do you say "You guys look perfect next to this 17th Century artwork?" without sounding . . . ?

Travel Tip: The Hampton Inn in Paso Robles is just another Hampton Inn - but often they have a complimentary wine tasting in the lobby in the evening! Better than waffles.

Next we spent three nights with Rob, Tom and Bravo in the San Gabriel Valley. One evening we joined our friends Bob and Judy Browning for dinner. One afternoon Bryce fixed the dishwasher. We took Bravo for a walk and did laundry. It was a very low-key visit.   

Our next stop was Blythe, California. Travel Tip: The only reason to stop in Blythe is to sleep. Ditto the Quality Inn there. No Hampton Inn available (yet).

Road Trip - Arizona, USA (January 27 - 30)

We spent the next three nights in Tucson. Some random impressions of the city: 
  • sprawl without the benefit of freeways = very slow and crowded surface streets and very few walkers; 
  • every fast food and casual dining chain restaurant is represented; 
  • Bookmans is a very good chain of used bookstores;
  • we had a good meal at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails and we're losing our skepticism about the craft cocktail craze.
Based on our admittedly short visit we wouldn't put the city on our lists of charming or exciting urban or food-lover destinations. But it is a good place for a short visit to do tourist stuff. We made it to:

         The Arizona - Sonora Desert Museum: This museum is on every Tuscon tourist site's "must see" list, and it should be. It's interesting, informative, well staffed, well organized and . . . expansive. We spent a full afternoon there and only saw about half of what is available. 

Our 6'2" Model Used To Provide Perspective

Flowering Cactus

If you visit, don't miss the Prairie Dog exhibit (annoying to Ranchers and carriers of bubonic plague, but kinda cute and very socially sophisticated) or the Raptor Free Flight. 

Raptor Photo Op

We also enjoyed the hummingbird sanctuary - it made us think of Bryce's mother who loved hummingbirds. 

          The Titan Missile Museum: This is not on the "must see" lists, but we went on the theory that - well, where else could we see the remains of the decades-long and hideously expensive Titan Missile program? And it was interesting. The tour includes a trip down into a missile launch control center and a peek at a decommissioned missile. 

The museum's party line is that deterrence worked when the world was divided in two and each party had enough nuclear power to annihilate the world multiple-times over. It reminded us of a line spoken by M (played by Judi Dench) in Casino Royale: "Christ, I miss the Cold War." 

The missile launch station was not just politically anachronistic. We were amused by the mid-century technology on display. 

"Like" If You Had This Phone In Your Kitchen

Molly was picked by the docent to sit in the control center duty officer's chair and "launch" the missile. She did her duty when called upon.

Awesome Responsibility

Hardhats Required For Visitors Over 5'10"

The Neutered Beast

FYI: There never was a launch, but had there been one, the personnel at the launch site would not have known their target. Interesting, no?

          Mission San Xavier del Bac: This mission was founded by Father Eustebio Kino as part of a chain of missions that predated the California mission system by about 80 years. Today it serves the Catholic members of the Tohono O'odham Nation and is on most "must see" lists.

The mission building is quite lovely and worthy of a visit if you're a mission fan. It has a more dramatic presence than most of the California missions. It is large and white and can be seen for miles as it rises out of the desert south of Tucson.  

San Xavier del Bac


Years of Faithful Backs Have Left Their Mark

Due To Insurance Limitations, Only Candles
Purchased From The Guest Shop May Be Lit

San Xavier del Bac

We crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona, a bustling and prosperous truck transport town. Before crossing, one can indulge in all sorts of last minute Americana; U.S. fast food and drug store purchases and gasoline at U.S. prices (Pemex is still selling at about $4 a gallon). Pesos can be purchased in many places and Spanish is spoken in most establishments.  

Road Trip - Sonora, Mexico (January 30 - 31)

We found the appropriate border crossing lane for automobiles after bypassing a very long line of empty trucks returning to Mexico (need evidence of the U.S. trade deficit, anyone?). Customs gave us a green light and we crossed into Mexico without any further formality. 

We drove south on Mx. 15D, the Pacific coast cuota (toll road) and at Kilometer 21 followed the signs to the SAT office (the Mexican tax authority - our old embargo nemesis) to obtain tourist cards and a temporary import permit for our new-to-us Ford Escape (aka "The Truck"). Photocopies of necessary documents (passports, driver's license, car title, Mexican liability insurance) can be obtained on site. We were able to pay our government fees with a credit card and will get the temporary import fees credited back to the card as long as we turn the permit in and take The Truck out of Mexico before the permit expires six months from now. 

Highway 15D runs from Nogales through Mazatlan to Tepic where it goes inland to Ciudad de Mexico. The cumulative toll from Nogales to Mazatlan was 803 pesos (as of today about $58 USD), which was collected at well marked booths that give official receipts. All very official -- but we never did identify any logic to the amount of toll charged at each booth. Frequently the toll was 65 pesos, but once it was 20 and another time it was 109 - ? We're sure some Caltrans-like entity has a study on how to set the tolls which is on file somewhere in Mexico City.

The speed limit on the cuota is 110 kilometers (about 65 mph) -- except when it isn't. One reason the cuota is worth paying for is that the camino libre (free road) slows to a crawl through every little village and commercial turn-off. That stopping and starting is limited on the cuota, but it still runs through occasional commercial areas where the speed limit drops to 60 or 40 kmp (40ish to 25ish mph). Cuidado! (Be careful!) The federales patrol the highway in very new, fast-looking cars. And we don't expect they are any more jovial than the CHP. But, we're happy to say we have no firsthand knowledge of their demeanor and have nothing to report about the federal highway traffic fine process.

In Sonora the cuota is smooth in places but at times is so rough it leads one to ponder how horrible the camino libre must be . .  .  and there are no shoulders, soft or otherwise. But it is a divided two-lane highway (except in the many construction zones) which gives drivers a fighting chance to swerve around the occasional truck stalled in the right lane. 

Aside: The lack of shoulders and turnoffs on the cuota made picture taking seem unwise. Thus the lack of pictures for the rest of this post.

We enjoyed the changing landscape and entertained ourselves with some downloaded NPR podcasts. Desert became desert grassland surrounded by mountains that looked like giant mounds of dirt. We saw many examples of famed Sonoran beef, some at a distance behind fences and some dining at the side of the non-existent highway shoulder under the watchful eye of a vaquero. The vaquero would ease his horse up and down the group of cows to keep them from wandering onto the highway (they're pretty stupid, cows). Don't get along little doggies.

Our first stop was a - you guessed it - Hampton Inn in Hermosillo. This Hampton Inn is brand new and very Euro-style (small but sleekly designed rooms). It has a nice pool, enthusiastic English-speaking staff and an on-site bar and restaurant. After rattling down the cuota and following the funky internet-generated directions to the hotel we were ready to dine in. We didn't spend any time touring Hermosillo but what we saw on our circuitous route around the city suggested that this isn't a major tourist destination. Maybe next time we'll have more energy for exploration and will be able to scout out some charm.

The next day we continued down 15D to San Carlos, on the Gulfo de California (Sea of Cortez) where we joined our friend Carolyn Daley for lunch. Carolyn has been working on Shannon's Spirit, the Catalina 34 she and partner Kathy purchased last year. Shannon's Spirit was in the San Carlos boat yard, ready to be stored for the summer in the adjacent dry storage yardCarolyn took time to give us a brief tour of the area. The marina seca (dry storage yard) is much larger and more sophisticated than we had expected and the nearby marina and anchorage look very nice. The bay at San Carlos is spectacular, with water that gives a new meaning to the word azul. 

We dropped Carolyn at the Home Depot in Guaymas and reconnected to Highway 15. 

Road Trip - Sinaloa, Mexico (January 31 - February 1)

The cuota became smoother and sprouted (narrow) shoulders after we crossed into the state of Sinaloa. Agro-business stretched for miles - mostly corn. The hills began to be covered in vegetation. The clouds and sprinkles that had followed us from Tucson continued. There were some vaqueros and cows at the side of the highway, and even a couple of herds of sheep tended by pre-teen-aged shepherds. 

As we went further south the clouds around us became an ominous black and the drizzle turned to rain which then became a torrent. It reminded us of monsoon season in Southeast Asia. Rather than try to negotiate the narrow shoulder we slowed to a crawl, put on our blinkers and followed the blinkers in front of us, holding our collective breath and hoping the trucks behind us were not hydroplaning as often as we were. The downpour seemed to last forever, probably due to that breath-holding thing, but it couldn't have been long before we rejoiced at the sight of a beautiful double rainbow! 

We stopped for the night in Los Mochis, another bustling city. This is where the ferrocarril (railway) that crosses the Copper Canyon terminates, and because we hope to take that trip in the Spring we hadn't planned on any tourist activities in Los Mochis on this trip. But since we had just survived a drive through a monsoon torrent, we did think we deserved a nice meal and a glass of wine. We walked around the central plaza, peaked into the church to watch a few moments of a wedding, and found that every recommended restaurant was busy with private parties. We settled for a drink and dinner at the hotel (the big downtown Best Western - which is aging, but fine), entertained by watching family groups in formal dress wandering the lobby. Some were related to the wedding we had seen in progress, others to a Quinceanera taking place in town - probably in one of the restaurants that had turned us away.  

The next day the sky was still grey but the weather was mostly dry and we passed through the fertile Sinaloan countryside without having to hold our collective breath. We arrived in Mazatlan in the late afternoon, and after meeting with our landlady and putting a few suitcases away we went to a favorite restaurant at the marina (Gus y Gus) for dinner and the last quarter of the Super Bowl. The tables of Mexican NFL fans were all rooting for the Patriots, so they were very happy with the outcome. We can't say we really cared . . . but we're half Canadian. 

And thus our time in Mazatlan began.  

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