Online Store Launched

I’m now selling a few hand-made odds and ends online.

Just a quick note to let folks know that I’ve decided to start selling a few of my hand-made items online using Square.

Ornament
Here’s one of my recent ornaments. Sorry, but this one isn’t available for sale — I included it with a Christmas gift to an extremely supportive family member.

If you go to http://mkt.com/AnEclecticMind, you’ll find whatever items I’ve had time to photograph and put online. So far, that’s most likely to be a handful of fused glass ornaments that I’ve been making with my kiln out of recycled wine and sake bottles. Because each piece is hand-made and, thus, different, I need to photograph each one so they’ll be listed as quickly as I can photograph them. I’m just hoping Square doesn’t display items that are out of stock.

I’m still sitting on the fence about listing my honey, mostly because shipping it will be a bit of a chore and I really don’t have that much to sell this year.

Anyway, this is mostly for the folks who have been complementing me on my glass work. They’re telling me they want to buy these things so here’s where they can do it.

The Appliance Order

I order appliances for my new home to take advantage of Black Friday deals.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I went to Home Depot yesterday to order appliances for my new home. Although I’m not ready to take delivery of those appliances yet, I wanted to get my order in so I could take advantage of Home Depot’s Black Friday deals. I’d been told months ago by a Home Depot employee, during another appliance sale at Home Depot, that Black Friday was their best deal time and that if I didn’t need the appliances back then, I should wait for Black Friday. I waited.

Home Depot Appliance Sale
From Home Depot’s website; there were lots of good deals.

Refrigerator
Dishwasher
Range
Washer
Dryer
My appliances (not to scale).

The deals were — actually are — the sale doesn’t end until tomorrow — great. Not only were most appliances 25% or more off their retail prices — and yes, I know only idiots pay retail — but there were also additional savings when buying multiple items. For example, since I was buying 5 appliances — refrigerator, washer, dryer, range, and dishwasher — I could save an additional $300. And if I put the purchase on my Home Depot credit card, I could save another 5%.

I’d stopped in last week to take a look at what was available and get an idea of what it would cost me. I wound up going with Samsung products all the way: French door refrigerator, dishwasher with “Storm Wash technology,” and slide-in range with self-cleaning dual convection oven, and front loading washer and drier that could be stacked. I chose a stainless steel finish on kitchen appliances and white finish on laundry appliances. The only thing I didn’t buy was a microwave because I still have the one my parents bought me as a housewarming gift for my first home years ago and I really like it.

In every case, the appliance I bought was a huge upgrade from the Jenn-Air crap I had back in Arizona. Yes, I know that Jenn-Air is supposed to be good stuff, but I think it’s seriously overrated. The dishwasher was loud and didn’t do a very good job washing dishes. The oven had a loud fan that kicked in at temperatures over 325°F. The refrigerator was loud, too — I could hear it run, I could hear the ice maker refilling. And the idiotic electric grill on the range was better for filling the house with smoke than cooking anything other than grilled vegetables. (I made the mistake of grilling salmon on it just once.) Of course, I didn’t pick my old house’s original appliances. I lived in what had been a spec house and the builder had included what was considered “high end” appliances. I’m sure the next owner will be suitably impressed — until she has to live with it.

Samsung products are generally highly rated. The only thing I worry a little about is the dishwasher. Although Consumer Reports gave the one I chose a pretty good rating, reliability seems to be an issue with Samsung dishwashers in general. But I liked the styling, the feature set, and the spacious interior, which fit my rather large dinner plates and bowls without any problems. Since I plan to do a lot of entertaining when my home (and its deck) are complete, having a large capacity dishwasher was vital. This one fits the bill. Let’s hope I don’t have to test the warranty.

Yesterday, I went in to finalize the order and give them my credit card. With all the discounts applied, my appliance purchase, with free delivery and installation, was remarkably affordable. I’d originally budgeted about $8,000 for appliances, but wound up spending far less. Timing is everything, I guess.

And speaking of timing, I have about 3 months to get the place ready to receive all those appliances. This winter might be busier than I expected at the Flying M Aerie.

Get What You Pay For

Why bargain hunting isn’t such a bad thing.

There’s an old saying everyone seems to know: “You get what you pay for.” It’s normally applied to situations where you buy something at a low cost and it breaks. “You get what you pay for” is supposed to explain why it broke — you apparently didn’t pay enough money for it.

Lots of people use this logic when they shop. If something is cheap, it must be crap because “you get what you pay for.” If someone else is selling the same thing or something similar for more money, it must be better, right?

Not always.

My Hair

Yes, I’m going to use my hair as an example.

I dye my hair. It’s no secret. I’ve been doing it since I was in my 20s when those first few grays started making their appearance. I did it myself for at least 20 years, using a reddish shade of brown that got even redder when exposed to Arizona sunlight. The color looked at least somewhat natural — at least no one ever commented on it looking fake. I’ve since switched to a browner color that’s more in line with what I remember my hair looking like. It’s been so long, I’m not sure. And those few strands of gray now account for about 75% of my hair.

Last year, I began living in an RV full time after leaving my Arizona home and waiting for my new home in Washington to be built. If you know anything about hair dye, you know that good water pressure is a must-have for rinsing that crap off your hair. So is a good supply of hot water. My RV is weak on both counts, so I began getting my hair dyed “professionally.”

I put “professionally” in quotes, because I started going to the local Beauty Academy. These are highly supervised girls (mostly) who are training to become beauticians. They do everything, from hair trims to dye jobs to perms. They don’t mix a color without consulting with a supervisor. The “classic color” service I needed cost $28.

I went every 6 weeks for quite a while. There was a different girl doing my hair each time. Based on observations, conversations, and chatter among the dozen or so girls working there, most of them were under 25 and apparently had at least one kid but no husband. Young women learning a good trade to support themselves and their families. We had nothing in common so conversation was minimal. Each girl took a long time to get the color in — a typical dye job would take over 3 hours. But it came out good each time and the color lasted. I was satisfied.

Then I succumbed to peer pressure. (Can you believe it?) When I complained to one of my girlfriends that it took so long to get my hair dyed, she ridiculed me for getting my hair done there. She recommended her woman at JC Penney’s salon. So I figured, why not?

I went to Sally (not her real name) and she did my hair. Although she was closer to my age than the Beauty Academy kids, she didn’t seem interested in striking up a conversation with me. While the dye “processed” in my hair, she disappeared into a back room. I learned to read a book or play a game on my phone.

The first time I went, she insisted on cutting my hair and waxing my eyebrows. I was trying to grow my hair long, but when I came every six weeks, she’d cut off 5 weeks of growth. And I don’t usually mess with my eyebrows. I let them do their own thing. But after waxing, they needed maintenance, so I had to have them waxed every time. The bill? $90. When I cut out the hair cuts and waxing, it went down to $70.

And I didn’t feel as if I were getting any better service than those young girls practicing on my hair.

So yesterday I went back to the Beauty Academy. The girl who did my hair was young but she had a professional attitude and would be graduating in just two weeks. She already had a job lined up. She did a great job on my hair, matching my existing color so she only had to do the roots. Because it was Customer Appreciation Day, the dye job only cost $18.

That’s more than $50 saved. And I got a pumpkin muffin to snack on.

I don’t think Sally will be seeing me again.

As for my peer pressure friend — well, I don’t talk to her these days anyway.

Harbor Freight

I was out with some friends last night, all sitting around a big table in a restaurant. I got into a conversation with a friend who was telling me about a crane he’d bought at Harbor Freight and had attached to his cargo trailer. He’s been collecting and selling scrap metal lately and needed something to lift engine blocks.

Harbor Freight, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a company that sells “quality tools at ridiculously low prices.” That’s what it says on their website. I can confirm the low prices, but I can’t agree about the quality. Most of what they sell is pretty crappy stuff.

But not all of it. My friend and I chatted about this. The “you get what you pay for” phrase was thrown around a bit. We both agreed that you had to think about how you planned to use what you were buying when making that purchase decision. If it was something you’d use occasionally and rather lightly, Harbor Freight was probably a good source. But if it was something that you needed to use hard and frequently — something you wanted to last a good, long time — Harbor Freight probably wasn’t the place to go.

Walmart

Most of my friends hate Walmart. It’s a policy thing — low pay and questionable promotional practices for employees, an abundance of cheap, low quality merchandise, and an atmosphere that appeals to the kind of shopper that most of us simply don’t want to get too close to.

I hate Walmart, too. But I have to admit here that I do occasionally shop there. Why? Because it sells two things I use every day at a price too low to pass up:

  • Eight O'ClockThe first is coffee. I like Eight O’Clock coffee. It’s a medium or perhaps light roast Arabica bean. I grind it myself and brew it strong, by the cup. I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years, if not longer. I’ve tried other coffees over the years but always come back to this one. And if there’s one thing that’s important for me to get right, it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning. Trouble is, Eight O’Clock coffee isn’t easy to find. And when I do find it, it’s expensive. Walmart has it for $4.99/package. That’s $2/package less than I can buy it directly from Eight O’Clock’s website.
  • Penny eats Cesar dog food. Yes, it’s the foo-foo dog food that comes in tiny plastic containers. She eats one every morning. They come in many flavors and are easy to store and serve. And travel with. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, Safeway and Fred Meyer sell it for $1.29/container. Cesar Dog FoodSometimes, if it’s on sale, I can get it for 10 for $10 ($1/container). But Walmart sells it for 70¢/container. So let’s do the math here. Suppose I’d always buy it on sale at Fred Meyer for $1/container. Walmart saves me 30¢/container. 365 days in a year is $109 saved. And since I’m going to Walmart for my coffee anyway…

Yes, there is a point here. By buying these two things in Walmart, I’m getting exactly what I want for less money than it would cost elsewhere. Quality isn’t an issue — it’s the same exact thing I could get somewhere else. In this case, I’m getting what I pay for but I’m paying a lot less.

Is my monthly shopping expeditions to Walmart to buy two things is supporting Walmart policies? Maybe. But hell, I need my coffee!

More Examples?

I can probably spend weeks blogging about other examples, but I think you get the idea. You can probably even come up with a few of your own examples.

I think the point I’m trying to make is this: when shopping for what’s best for you, it’s important to not only consider price, but to also consider the quality of what you’re getting. Don’t assume that low price means low quality — often, it doesn’t. Often, you can get the same quality for a lower price.

But not always. A smart shopper — especially someone who wants (or needs) to save money — has to look at the big picture with every purchase decision.

A Trip to a Beekeeper’s “Candy Store”

I visit the California location of Mann Lake, Ltd.

If you’re a beekeeper in the U.S., you’ve undoubtably heard of Mann Lake, Ltd. They’re a major mail order supplier of beekeeping equipment for hobbyists and professionals. They have quality merchandise, fair prices, satisfactory delivery times, and free shipping for orders over $100 — which is pretty easy to reach, especially when you’re first starting out.

Mann Lake’s website is an odd combination of printed catalog pages reproduced page-by-page coupled with a back end database that makes searching possible. It’s not my favorite shopping interface, but it does work. It works best, though, if you have a copy of the printed catalog and can just enter item numbers to order. The printed catalog is a great reference guide, too, with lots of information about each product and plenty of pictures. (You can get one for free by filling in this form.)

Mann Lake is based in Hackensack, MN — a place I’m not likely to ever see. (Actually, Minnesota is the only state in the U.S. that I’ve never been to; don’t see that changing any time soon.)

Somehow, not long after I began shopping for beekeeping supplies last May, I discovered that Mann Lake had a Woodland, CA location. This really bummed me out — I’d spent a bit of time near Woodland just a few months before and, had I known I’d be a beekeeper soon, I would have stopped in to see what they had. Although I didn’t realize it then, I’d soon be back in the Woodland area on another contract.

And that’s where I am now.

So yesterday, my first full day based in this area, I drove over to the Mann Lake California location at 500 Santa Anita Drive. (Yes, it’s true. I went from being a computer nerd to a beekeeping nerd in only a few short years.)

Mann Lake's CA Location
Mann Lake’s CA location is in an industrial park; it’s mostly warehouse.

From the outside, the place didn’t look very exciting. The parking area out front was completely empty. But when I walked inside, I think my jaw must have dropped. Every single item in their extensive catalog was fully assembled and on display in neatly organized aisles.

Inside Mann Lake
Frames and foundations

Inside Mann Lake
Covers and bottoms.

Inside Mann Lake
Hive bodies.

Kid in a candy store, is the phrase that came to mind. I felt like a crazy tourist taking pictures, but I have some beekeeping friends who would really appreciate seeing what I’d seen.

I walked up and down the aisles, seeing firsthand all the equipment I’d seen in their catalog. While some of it wasn’t a big deal — after all, if you’ve seen one standard Langstroth hive body, you’ve seen them all — other items were great to see and touch: propolis collectors, queen cages, honey extractors.

When a sales guy — who turned out to be the sales manager — asked if I needed any help, I asked him to show me the pollen collectors. I wanted an easy solution but apparently there isn’t any. Still, I got to see how the commonly used pollen traps work. The catalog doesn’t really make it obvious.

I wound up buying a frame puller — which I’ve been wanting for a while — and a few other odds and ends that wouldn’t add up to the $100 amount I’d need for free shipping anyway. The sales manager checked out my purchase and looked me up in the computer system and offered to apply my “bee bucks” to the purchase, saving me $25. Sweet!

It was a good experience and I’m sure I’ll be back before I head home. After all, I was crazy enough to bring my beehives with me on this trip and I’m sure I’ll need one or two more things as they enjoy the early spring and start strengthening their hives. Who knows? I might even be ready to extract some honey before I leave.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Mann Lake chose this location for their California warehouse/store, I can guess. Woodland is near the heart of California’s almond country. My 5,000 or so bees, just recovering from a northwest winter, are only a handful of the 31 billion bees from all over the country that are here right now.

A Seattle Day Trip

Planned, executed, and enjoyed.

Wenatchee to Seattle Map
Wenatchee is nearly due east of Seattle. Malaga is under the “c” in Wenatchee on this map. The numbers mark the three passes over the Cascades between Malaga and Seattle: (1) Blewett (Rte 97), (2) Snoqualmie (I-90), and (3) Stevens (Rte 2).

I live in Malaga, WA, a small farming community on the outskirts of Wenatchee on the Columbia River. Although the small city Wenatchee offers just about everything a person needs on a daily basis, some things are only available in big cities. The closest big city is Seattle, 145 road miles away.

As I did when I lived in the Arizona town of Wickenburg — which had far less to offer than Wenatchee — I would often wait until I had multiple big city tasks to complete before planning a trip and getting those things done. Phoenix was closer to Wickenburg and I went there more often. (I actually lived there for a while during the 2011/2012 winter season; I was not very happy, despite the convenience.) Seattle, a three hour drive away, isn’t the kind of place I’d zip off to on a whim or to chase down a needed computer component or decent restaurant meal. (And it certainly isn’t the kind of place I’d want to live — too much cloudy weather!)

But as time went by, I accumulated “excuses” for a day trip to Seattle. I needed to get the battery on my iPhone replaced (under warranty) at an Apple store before November month-end. I wanted to buy cross-country skis without spending the $600+ dollars it would cost me locally for a setup. I was interested in meeting up with some like-minded people in one of the many Meetup groups based in Seattle.

On Saturday morning, a Meetup group notice in my email inbox spurred me to action. One of the groups that interested me was gathering for a weekly hike around Green Lake in Seattle followed by lunch at a local dog-friendly cafe. The hike would be at 11 AM on Sunday. I had nothing else on my calendar for that day. Within minutes, I was planning my day trip.

The Plan

The plan would start at REI’s flagship store on Yale Avenue North, right off I-5. I’d already done some online shopping and found a good deal on cross-country skis, boots, and poles that would save me $200 off what I’d pay locally. (I like to support local businesses with my shopping dollars, but I simply can’t swallow the extra cost these days.) I called the store and had them put the skis on hold for me. The store opened at 10 AM and it would be my first stop.

Next was the hike. That started at 11 and all I needed was the address for the meeting place, the stadium at Green Lake.

I’d finish up with a stop at an Apple Store. A quick search showed me one near the hiking destination, in a place called University Village. I went onto their web page to set up a Genius Bar appointment. I gave some careful consideration to the appointment time. I didn’t want it to be too early, forcing me to cut my time with the meetup folks. But I didn’t want it to be late, forcing me to drive home in the dark with possibly bad weather on the way. Finally, I chose 3:20 PM from the available times.

I then called Apple support and had them pull up the notes on my iPhone case. I wanted to make sure the there was no question about them replacing the faulty battery. I was assured that there would be no problem getting it done while I waited.

I entered all of these items into my calendar as events, making sure I included street addresses. When my calendar synced with my phone and iPad, I’d have them handy throughout the day.

The Drive

There are basically three ways to get to Seattle from Wenatchee.

  • The shortest route (time-wise) takes me north through Wenatchee onto Route 2 west with a turn onto Route 97 south. Route 97 is a relatively narrow, winding mountain road that crosses Blewett Pass at 4,102 feet. The road then descends down to Cle Elum, where I’d turn onto I-90 west. That’s a major freeway that winds up through the mountains and crosses at Snoqualmie Pass at 3,022 feet. After that, the road descends right down into Seattle, just a tiny bit south of center city. This is the route that most mapping apps and GPSes suggest.
  • The shortest route (distance-wise) takes me north through Wenatchee onto Route 2 west and stays on Route 2 through Stevens Pass at 4,061 feet. Route 2 is a winding mountain road and, although it’s a beautiful drive, it seems amazingly long.
  • The longest of the three main routes goes southeast from Wenatchee through Quincy to George where it picks up I-90. From there, it heads west through Ellensburg and Cle Elum, over the mountains at Snoqualmie Pass at 3,022 feet and down into Seattle.

Although I dislike driving on freeways, this was not a pleasure drive. I had a need for speed to make the most of my day in Seattle. In addition, winter weather advisories for the Cascade Mountains made it likely that snow would be falling overnight and possibly on Sunday morning. My experience driving in snow is limited — after all, I lived in Arizona for the past 15 years — and I wasn’t interested in a thrill ride. The way I saw it, the better the road over the mountains, the more likely it would be clear of snow and ice. So I chose the longest of the three ways, adding about 40 miles (but theoretically only 15 minutes) to my one-way drive.

(By the way, in case you think I’m over-reacting to a little weather on my drive over the mountains, consider the fact that WDOT has a whole section of its website dedicated to mountain passes. You can access live webcams, condition information, and restrictions 24/7/365. Indeed, when I was chatting later in the day with various Meetup members, two of them asked me about pass conditions when they heard where I’d driven from.)

I had to take my truck. Cross-country skis would not fit in my Honda S2000 with the top up and top-down driving was not an option with mountain temperatures in the 30s and a real chance of rain or snow. Although the skis might have fit in my Jeep, it’s a soft-top and can’t be secured. I didn’t want those skis disappearing out of my Jeep while I was on my hike or in the Apple Store. So my truck was the obvious choice. It gets decent mileage for a truck (about 15-18 mpg highway) and is comfortable to drive. It also has new all-weather tires.

I packed some emergency gear just in case I got stuck on the road: a blanket, some non-perishable food, some water. I already had tow-straps and emergency reflectors on board. (Note to self: buy flares.) I really didn’t know what to expect and wanted to be prepared.

By 7 AM, on Sunday morning, I was ready to go. The sky was just brightening and the full moon was illuminating the world around me where it broke through the clouds. The weather forecast called for good weather in Wenatchee and I had a few second thoughts about my trip to Seattle. After all, the weather forecast for that area was cloudy with a 40% chance of rain and a high of 50°. Not very pleasant. If I stayed home, I could get some work done in the yard.

Moonlight
I snapped this photo right before I left on my day trip to Seattle.

But I was really looking forward to getting things done in Seattle. So I put Penny’s coat on her and bundled her into the truck. A while later, we were on our way south. I had my phone connected to the truck stereo with MapQuest giving me directions and updated ETA info and Downcast playing podcasts from NPR.

There was weather in the Colockum west of Quincy. I’d been flying in that area just a few days before, on a wildlife survey flight. Low, fog-like clouds engulfed the hills and canyons offering glimpses of fresh snow. I thought about flying over the area later in the week and hoped I’d get the opportunity.

It didn’t start drizzling on us until we were on the freeway heading west, just getting close to Ellensburg. The sky was gray with a low overcast. The windmills appeared out of the gloom, rotating slowly as I passed them.

Snowqualmie Pass
Despite the gray, the thick snow in the pine trees made the scene beautiful.

As we climbed through Cle Elum, I saw the snow level not far above us. Soon there was snow on both sides of the road. The speed limit dropped from 70 to 55. Signs warned about slush on the roadway. Then the speed limit dropped to 45 as we climbed to the pass. The snow was thick on the pine trees and the road was wet with small piles of snow on the shoulders.

It was a non-event, really. The roads were not slippery and there were so few vehicles on the road that the going was easy. Soon we were past the pass and headed down toward sea level. The snow disappeared and even the rain let up a lot. It was a mere drizzle by the time we turned onto I-5 for the last two miles of our trip to Seattle.

REI Flagship Store

REI is a major retailer for outdoor sporting goods for active people — gear for hiking, camping, skiing, paddling, etc. They have locations all over the U.S. I know them from my New Jersey days, but also occasionally visited their Phoenix locations — especially the last year I was in Arizona, when I had become a lot more physically fit and active.

Although REI is not the cheapest source for sporting gear, it is one of the best. They carry good quality equipment at a fair price and have knowledgeable and helpful sales staff. Articles on their website, such as this one about choosing cross-country skis, are extremely helpful when making a purchase decision. They offered a discount on complete ski packages — which I needed — and were having a sale.

My Compact Truck
If it fits in a “compact” spot, it’s a compact vehicle, right?

With some difficulty, I maneuvered my pickup into the underground parking lot beneath the building. It was 10 AM when we arrived and cars were just pulling in. Because I foresaw the possibility of a difficult drive out of the lot once it was full, I backed my truck into a spot with a clear drive out. It wasn’t until after Penny and I left that I realized the spot was marked “Compact.”

I took Penny for a walk around the block. It was then that I realized what a neat facility I was at. Not only did they have a huge rock-climbing wall in the front of the store, but there were mountain bike and hiking trails for testing out equipment. The waterfall was a nice touch, too. Sure did drown out the sound of the nearby freeway, anyway.

I put Penny back in the truck and went in to take care of business. There was only one guy in the cross-country ski department and he was waiting on 5 people. He took a moment to pull my skis out of the hold area between helping other people and I tracked down the right length poles and style of boot. Eventually, it was my turn and he fetched the boots in my size. My luck: they didn’t have the boots on display in my size. Instead, they had last year’s model which were comparable but $25 less. They fit perfectly.

I want to take a moment to comment on how different cross-country skis are now compared to when I first began cross-country skiing in the 1980s. Back then, there weren’t many options; the sport wasn’t terribly popular. Nordic skiing hadn’t caught on yet. You’d buy skis strictly on the basis of your height. Boots weren’t boots — they were shoes that didn’t even cover your ankles.

Nowadays, you choose skis based on the type of skiing you want to do and your level of expertise. Sizes are based on the type of skiing, level of expertise, and weight of the skier. Boots are boots — they cover your ankles — and rather than rely strictly on laces, they close up with a combination of laces, zippers, and velcro. (No chance of my feet escaping by accident.) I have no idea how the prices compare; I can only assume they’re more costly. I spent $320 on my complete setup, including tax. But because I went with decent-quality intermediate level skis, I’m certain they’re the last skis I’ll ever need to buy.

Although I’d wanted to spend a little extra time looking at outdoor clothing, I had no time left. I reasoned that I could buy clothes locally and probably save some money if I kept an eye out for sales and closeouts. So I tucked my skis and poles under my arm, grabbed my box of boots, and headed back out to the truck.

Hiking with Strangers at Green Lake

I started hiking with Meetup groups last autumn when I returned to Arizona for my last winter there. I was very fortunate to find the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group, which does weekly hikes on Sundays. It was a real pleasure to get out with a group of friendly, educated, and intelligent people. I blogged about it last November.

Although I love hiking around the Wenatchee area, I miss the group hikes I enjoyed all last winter in Arizona. So I was very pleased to find that the Seattle Atheists/Agnostics Meetup Group also did hikes, including a weekly Sunday hike around Green Lake.

I should mention here that I prefer hiking in a variety of locations. A 3-mile hike on a paved trail around a lake in a city park didn’t really excite me. I like a longer hike in more varied terrain with lots of new and different things to see and enough challenge to work up a little sweat. What got me interested in going on this hike was meeting new people and hiking in a new place. But if I lived in Seattle, I seriously doubt whether I’d show up for weekly hikes at the same venue.

I used the Maps app on my iPhone to get directions to the park. It was only a few miles away. Penny and I pulled up exactly on time. I parked and locked the truck, put Penny on her leash, and went in search of about a dozen strangers.

I found a likely group of eight or so people standing beside the pathway, chatting. “Is this the Meetup group?” I asked someone.

A man replied. “Yes.”

Remembering one Sunday the previous November when I’d run into three different Meetup Groups meeting in the same place, I asked, “Which one?”

“The godless ones,” he replied with a grin.

I gave him a big thumbs up. “I’m in the right place, then.”

More people came and we introduced ourselves quickly by name. The organizer announced that they wouldn’t be having lunch after the hike because most of the members were going to an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum afterwards. They we set off on a walk counterclockwise around the remarkably round lake. I fell into place beside two men and we immediately got to chatting about various things.

The pathway was paved with a line down the middle separating the walking path from the biking path. Both were full. So was the gravel path on the inside of the curve. Lots of walkers and bikers and joggers and dogs. Penny was not well behaved and I had to keep her on a short leash. Over-stimulated, one of my companions said and I agreed. She likes to bark and chase other dogs, anyone moving faster than a walk, and bicycles. That accounted for about 75% of the people around us.

The weather held and even improved. Although it was somewhat windy, the wind wasn’t strong enough to be an issue. It put waves on the lake; ducks sleeping on the water with their beaks tucked under their wings bobbed up and down. A sole kayaker, looking odd in a life vest with a sweatshirt under it, paddled around. Overhead, the clouds whizzed by, offering the occasional glimpse of an airliner on final approach to SeaTac.

Later, the hike organizer joined us. The conversation turned to the topics that concern atheists, such as separation of church and state. We shared opinions on Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Jon Stewart. It was refreshing to talk about these things with like-minded people. Like Arizona, Washington state outside the Seattle area is very conservative and few people I know share my views on these things. I’ve learned not to talk about them until I know where my companions stand. Conservatives in the U.S. tend to be steadfast in their beliefs and will rabidly defend them to the point of offending those who don’t agree. Life’s too short to deal with that crap. That’s why I enjoy the company of a more liberal crowd who can at least debate a topic intelligently with an open mind.

We did the 3-mile walk — I can’t honestly call it a hike — in almost exactly one hour. Members of the group said their goodbyes to hurry off to the museum. I asked my companions if anyone was interested in getting a bite to eat. Several were. I dropped Penny off in the truck, grabbed my wallet, and joined them for a walk one third of the way back around the lake. I paired up with another man, a retired hospital administrator who was thinking of relocating to Ecuador. We talked about that and my career as a writer. There was a Peet’s Coffee shop just outside the park and we went in for coffee and breakfast pastries.

We hung out for nearly two hours, talking about all kinds of things: flying, women’s roles, navigation, health care, the U.S. budget, war, etc. Everyone with an opinion shared it based on facts. There were no crazy, radical opinions. Even when one of us didn’t disagree, we discussed it calmly, with no temper tantrums.

And they kept me honest. When I mentioned that defense accounted for half the U.S. budget, one of my companions said that couldn’t be right. I used my iPhone to pull up my source for that information on the Washington Post website and he was right. Defense accounted for nearly as much as the top expense item, Social Security, but not half the budget. I should have more accurately said that it was the second highest expense item after social security or that it and social security combined accounted for nearly half the budget. I admitted my error — mature, self-confident people are not afraid (or ashamed) of admitting mistakes — and the discussion continued without prejudice. In this day and age, people are so willing to accept “facts” as they are presented; it was refreshing to be challenged. It told me that the people I was dealing with were smart, informed, and not afraid to get the facts in a conversation.

How could I not like that?

Green Lake
Green Lake? It looks blue to me.

By 2 PM, I was ready to go. We had a 20-minute walk back to the parking lot and I had a 10- or 15-minute drive to the Apple Store. I did not want to miss my appointment. I put my jacket on and said I needed to go. I guess I wasn’t the only one. Everyone else got up to leave, too.

We walked back together, chatting the whole time. By then, the weather had cleared considerably and it had turned into a really beautiful autumn day. I snapped a picture before saying goodbye to my companions and heading back to the truck. I took Penny for a quick walk, used my phone to get directions to the Apple Store, and got back on my way.

Apple Store, University Village

University Village turned out to be a very trendy outdoor shopping center. You know the kind — they spread the stores out in a big area with walkways and streets between them to simulate a town-like atmosphere. It was very pleasant but not very easy to navigate and a nightmare to find parking in when you’re driving something akin to a monster truck.

I did find a parking garage near the Apple Store. It said the clearance was 7 feet and I knew that was okay because the REI parking garage had been 7 feet, too. But in this garage, my radio antenna scraped on every single concrete beam I drove under and I felt myself ducking at more than a few of them. I found an end parking space on the second level and got out, leaving the windows cracked for Penny. She didn’t seem to mind staying behind again — I think she was exhausted from her 3-mile walk spent straining against a 5-foot leash.

The Apple Store was a big open space filled with iPads and iPhones and computers and people. I made my way to the Genius Bar in the back and signed in with an Apple staffer. I was 20 minutes early. He suggested I go grab a cup of coffee — Starbucks was nearby — but I told him I’d rather wait. I figured I’d update my iPad and iPhone apps using the store’s wifi connection. He put me at a table in front of a MacBook Pro and I got to work. I also used the computer to check the weather for my return trip.

Right on time a Genius showed up. We reviewed my issue and he ran a diagnostic on my phone. Sure enough, I now qualified for a warranty battery replacement. He told me it would take 30 to 40 minutes and suggested I come back at 4 PM.

I considered fetching Penny for a walk but decided against it. I felt like having a bite of real food to eat, comfort food, perhaps. The weather had turned gray and drizzly again and with just a danish, an energy bar, and two cups of coffee in my stomach all day, I was ready for something warm. I wandered around the “village” and found a pasta place. I ordered a Mac and Cheese and read a book on my iPad while I ate.

I returned at 4 PM sharp and inquired about my phone. The staffer typed a secret message on her iPod and, a few minutes later, someone handed her my phone. The battery had been replaced at had a 49% charge. I’d charge it on my way home. I used an Apple gift card I had to buy a charging adapter that I needed and left.

Quick and easy.

The Trip Home

Of course, by the time I left, it was after 4 PM. Although I couldn’t see the sunset, it happened right around then. By the time I turned onto I-90 it was starting to get dark.

It was also raining. It rained for most of the drive back, getting darker and darker until it was night. I don’t like driving at night anymore and try to avoid it. But with Washington’s short winter days, it’s not really an option unless you plan to spend much of your time at home. I don’t.

The temperature up in the pass was just above freezing. There were a lot more cars and trucks on the road, too. But again, it was a non-event. I descended down toward Ellensburg, ignoring MapQuest’s advice to get on route 97. I’d driven Blewett Pass once at night in dry conditions; there was no way I would do it at night in the rain with the possibility of ice.

I stopped in Ellensburg for fuel and to take Penny for a quick walk. I missed getting a cup of coffee in one of those coffee shacks so ubiquitous in the northwest by about 10 minutes.

The rain had stopped by the time I got back on I-90. The rest of the drive went by in a blur. I made a quick stop at Fred Meyer in East Wenatchee to return a RedBox video and then drove home. It was exactly 8 PM when I unlocked the door and went inside with Penny.

I’d been gone for about 13 hours and had gotten a lot done. I was nearly ready for ski season — I just needed some clothing items — and had gotten my phone repaired. I’d also met a bunch of smart, friendly people on a walk in a new place. It had certainly been worth the drive.