September 17th – Backyard Visitors

     Today was full of many good things; church in the morning, lunch at a Chinese restaurant, rest in the afternoon, a phone call with my family, and a chance to play my guitar and sing with Lou and Valli in the evening. There were two extra good points in the day though.

     First, I saw two deer in the backyard of The Mansion. I was talking to my parents on the phone and walking around outside when I saw them. Lou and Valli had mentioned that their backyard was a popular hangout for deer, but seeing them right there, so close up, was another thing entirely.


     I got the impression that one of them didn’t like me and the other one didn’t trust me, but they continued eating contentedly as I walked to the edge of the porch and took pictures of them. I left them alone after that and noticed that they were gone about twenty minutes later.

     Second, I got to make sushi to go with our delectable dinner of miso soup, rice, and curry chicken. This was the first time I’ve made sushi, so Valli showed me how to do it. We placed a seaweed sheet on the cutting board, covered a section with sticky rice, then put cucumber, pickled plum, and shiso leaf (also called beefsteak or Japanese basil) inside, then rolled it all up and cut it into two-inch pieces. This kind of sushi is called an ume roll.

     During dinner, I tried a tiny dab of wasabi on my first piece of sushi. Wasabi is so strange – the way it burns upward through the nose instead of burning the mouth like most spicy foods do. Looking at my next piece, I thought, “Well, if a little wasabi is interesting, why not try a lot?” So I put on about five times as much. Whew! This time the burn flared all the way up my face, blowing through my nose and getting my eyes on the way up. Another experience to remember!

September 14th – More Work!

     This morning I met Lou’s sister, Marie. We drove over to her house in the Black Forest at 7:30 A.M. to help her with the arrival of a new refrigerator. The fridge situation was rather complicated and didn’t turn out too well. However, after this slight ordeal, we got to enjoy Chile Rellenos and sausage for breakfast.

     I also got to meet Lou and Marie’s father and enjoy a walking tour of Marie’s beautiful gardens. All of the garden landscaping was done by Marie, her father (Lou Sr.) and her brother (Lou Jr.). In addition to being beautiful, this garden also helped protect Marie’s house when a devastating fire swept through the Black Forest and destroyed many of her neighbors’ houses several years ago.

     Long before the fire, homeowners in Marie’s area had been advised not to allow trees to grow close to their houses because of the fire hazard they posed. Because of Marie’s garden, there were no trees close to her house and there was instead a well-watered border of green plants to discourage the flames from reaching her house. 

     By the time we headed back to the Mansion, it was afternoon. Lou, Louis and I got working on the backyard. Today, our task was to survey the land. Lou did all of the brain work and I just tried to follow instructions. We set one stake at the top of the slope and one at the bottom, and we used those to measure the proper distance for each row of steps. At each row, we hammered stakes into the ground and used a surveying scope to make sure we set them at the right depth. Going forward, we will use those stakes to tell us where to place the blocks for our steps and how deep to dig.

     In the middle of this surveying work, I took a break. I had made an appointment to take my car to a Goodyear tire store today. I needed the slow leak on my tire repaired and I wanted to get an oil change as well.

     I took the car in and Valli brought me back to The Mansion. I worked for another two hours, then the shop called me. They said that they were able to fix the tire, but not to change the oil. They thought the plug was cross-threaded and they did not want to risk stripping the threads. Instead, they wanted to change the entire oil pan, which would cost $512.

     That was silly, so I just told them to just forget about the oil change. I will just have to do it myself somewhere along the road.  I picked the car up and was happy to see that the tire was indeed fixed. Thankfully, I won’t have to use my air pump for awhile!

     Back at The Mansion, I helped to finish up the day’s work and put the tools away. We’d put all of the stakes in that we needed, but Lou didn’t seem quite happy with the way they looked. It appeared that he would need to buy a lot of dirt to make the path level, when he had wanted instead to dig back into the hillside and avoid the need for new dirt. As I said though,  I’m not the brains behind this project, so I’ll just wait to see what he decides to do.

     We had a yummy vegetable and chicken casserole for dinner and a mud pie for dessert. The mud pie made me think of home – it was from Trader Joe’s, and my family and I had enjoyed the very same type of pie several times.

     After dinner, it was time for bed, and I was ready for it!

September 13th – Digging In

     Lou and I woke up around 7:30 A.M. to eat a breakfast of eggs and pork belly before getting back to work. I tried pork belly first about a year and a half ago when I started working at Mendocino Farms (a sandwich shop in Brea). I liked it a lot there, but it was marinated in brown sugar and other spices. I was surprised to find that it tastes great without all the sugar too!

     Our job today was to remove the rest of the sod on the slope. Yesterday, we tried rolling up the sod after we had cut it out, but the rolls were too awkward and heavy to move out of the way. We’d found it worked best to cut rectangles about eighteen inches long and eight inches wide. These were small enough to carry and could be stacked to the side of our work area.

     I fell into a rhythm of cutting borders into the sod with a crescent-shaped spade (fittingly named a sod cutter). Lou came through next and cut the underside of the sod with a trenching shovel which had a long, narrow blade that made it perfect for the task. Since my job didn’t take as long, I came back and carried the newly cut rectangles of sod to our piles nearby.

     While we worked, we talked. Last night Lou told me quite a bit about three summers he spent working at a sugar beet factory in Southern California, and today he told me some more about his experiences and the general workings of these factories.

      There were two separate stages of production in the factory Lou worked at. The first stage took raw beets and turned them into a liquid called “thick juice” by a lengthy process of slicing, baking, and soaking. The second stage purified and crystallized the thick juice so that it was eventually refined down to usable sugar.

     Lou had a different job each summer he worked there. There was always one goal though – to keep the factory running from when the first beet was delivered until the last beet was processed. The two stages of production that I mentioned above could be stopped independently for a short time to perform essential maintenance, but there was always a rush to get things back online. While dealing with these tight schedules, the workers also had to survive the sweltering heat that often topped a hundred-twenty degrees.

     The processing of beets into sugar may not be the most fascinating subject, but I enjoyed learning about it. Like so many other things I’ve seen and heard so far, it helped me appreciate the work that on behind the scenes of the world I see.

     We finished working around 2 P.M., before the afternoon sun started beating down fully. Of course, the mild Colorado sun was nothing compared to the hundred-twenty degree sauna of the sugar beet factory Lou told me about, but I was still glad to avoid it.

     I spent the afternoon writing about my trip and updating my blog. Then we enjoyed dinner, visited, and finished off the day by going to the airport to pick up Lou and Valli’s son, Louis, from the airport.

     We made the half-hour drive to the Colorado Springs Airport around 11:30 P.M. It was a nice size – much smaller than LA International Airport which we fly out of sometimes back home. Louis’s flight was a few minutes early and he had no baggage to pick up, so we got in and out of the airport quickly. We arrived back at the house and went to bed shortly thereafter in preparation for an early morning tomorrow. 

September 12th – Colorado Springs

     This morning I had the strange and welcome surprise of waking up in a real bed again. When I got over that, I had another pleasant realization. Breakfast would be waiting for me out in the lobby! That got me out of bed with an added bit of excitement for the day. I enjoyed eggs, buscuits and gravy, sausage, a waffle, and a glass of milk. When I finished eating, I made up another waffle to take on the road (shhh, don’t tell anyone!).

     I made full use of my hotel room by writing at the desk until ten minutes before the 11 A.M. checkout time. Before incurring a fine for breaking the deadline, I turned in my key and filled up my large mug with ice and coffee. I walked out to my car and made sure everything was ready for today’s drive. Yesterday I noticed a slow leak in my left front tire, so I made sure to pump air into it before driving both yesterday and today. Thankfully, my dad sent a handy little electric air pump along with me. I brought it along so that I could leave my basketball deflated while crossing the mountains and then reinflate it when I needed it. Now it’s turned out to be very useful for my tires. As always, my dad thought through the “what ifs” and sent me off well prepared.

     I started listening to a new book on my drive. It’s called Assassin’s Fate. This is the last book in a series I’ve enjoyed for several years. Way back in book one, the main character was an illegitimate little prince in a faraway fantasy world of political intrigue, invading armies, and hereditary magic. He was trained to be an assassin and alse developed two kinds of magic – the one that was a birthright of his bloodline and another that was condemned by society. Through the series, he developed into a young man and lived a life full of love, war, pain, and loss. In Assassin’s Fate, he is now an old man, but he is driven into one more adventure by the kidnapping of his daughter. The book follows him to the end of this adventure and ties up the threads of his nine-book saga.

     After listening to this book for awhile, I took a break to call my friend in New Mexico and then listened to the radio for awhile. I was surprised to find that northern Colorado has five country music stations. I thought I’d need to go a little more southeast before hearing so much country.

     Around four in the afternoon, I arrived in Colorado Springs and drove up to “The Mansion.” That’s my name for the home I’ll be staying in for the next week. The friends I’ll be staying with (Lou and Valli) have been friends with my parents for longer than I’ve been around. My dad owned a duplex with them for several years. Right now they’re splitting time between California and Colorado, and eventually, they plan to stay in Colorado. Their son, Louis, is three months older than I am. We sometimes say that we have been friends since before we were born. He is still in California right now, but he’s going to fly out on Wednesday and visit for a few days.

      In my mind, a mansion is a large house that is more than one story tall and has a cool gate on the pathway leading to the front door. This place passes the test. There is also a great view of the Cascade Mountains from the back patio and a workshop/garage in the large backyard. Upstairs, my favorite thing was the enormous kitchen. It has two ovens and plenty of room for multiple people to cook at the same time. Downstairs is a huge sitting room with a sectional couch that can fit at least nine people.

     As my hosts showed me around, we visited and discussed plans for the week. Before arriving, I had let them know that I would be available to help out with any projects they could think of. I found out that they did indeed have something for me to do. Lou showed me a slope in the backyard that leads down to their workshop. It is a somewhat steep slope and was only broken up by a few levels of block steps that weren’t helping out very much. Our job will be to make a real set of steps. We’d have to pull all the cement blocks out, remove the sod, cut into the slope to make steps, put the blocks back, and level the grass in between the steps.

     The job sounded like fun to me. I was all settled in and had nothing else to do, so we decided to start right away. We began by pulling out the blocks. That didn’t take long. As we moved onto cutting and removing sod, I realized that I needed to document this project – at least the beginning and end of it. Here is a picture of the slope with only the cement blocks pulled out.

     When it started to get dark outside, we cleaned up the tools and went inside for dinner. We talked more about the week ahead, and Lou told several stories of the summers between college semesters when he worked in a sugar beet factory. After dinner, there was a relaxing hot tub bath waiting to reward us for the evening of work. And finally, another real bed!