Death of an Electric Blanket

It may be an old-fashioned idea, but hell — it works.

Last year, I wrote about using my ancient electric blanket in my RV. As summer turned to autumn here in Washington State, where I’m camped out for just another two weeks, I put the blanket back on my bed.

Two days later, it died.

I kind of smelled some weird electric burning smell while I was sleeping. I have a very sensitive nose — which may be one reason why it’s above-average in size. (Once, when we lived in Queens, NY, I was awakened by the smell of a building fire that turned out to be 13 blocks away. Who needs smoke detectors?) The smell wasn’t enough to fully wake me up, but it was enough to flick the blanket’s control to off. The smell went away. The next night, the blanket refused to warm up.

I can’t complain. The damn thing was new in 1977. That makes it 34 years old. I think my parents, who bought it way back when, got their money’s worth out of it. The fact that it still worked this year is a minor miracle in my book. (How long do you think its likely made-in-China replacement will last?)

I mentioned the death of my electric blanket on Twitter and Facebook. I was roundly teased. I likely deserved it. Electric blankets aren’t exactly hip.

But I do want to explain why I will be replacing it — even though it’s something that most people think only “grannies” use.

The beauty of an electric blanket in my RV is simple.

I don’t run the heat at night. Its blower is very loud and it goes on and off all night. I wouldn’t get much sleep.

When I go to bed, the RV is usually at a nice, comfortable temperature — one good for a light blanket under my light comforter. But as the night progresses, it gets colder and colder. Sometimes down to the 40s. RV’s have amazingly crappy insulation, so whatever the temperature is outside at night, it’s pretty much the same temperature inside. As it gets colder and colder, my need for blankety warmth increases.

What am I supposed to do? Get up and put another blanket on the bed?

Of course not. I flick the switch and let the electric blanket do its thing. Its internal thermostat maintains a steady temperature, keeping me toasty warm all night.

This is the beauty of an electric blanket.

On very cold mornings, I’ll often get out of bed, turn on the heat, and then get back under that granny blanket until the rest of the RV is warmed up.

So yes, I will be replacing my ancient electric blanket. I’ll do it today.

The nights are getting cold now. It’s almost time for this snowbird to fly south for the winter.

My Electric Blanket

A “blankie” for a grown woman?

Back in the winter of 1977, when I was 15 years old, my family relocated from northern New Jersey to Long Island, NY. We went from an old house built in 1901 to a much more modern home built in the late 1960s. But best of all, for the first time in my life, I had my own room.

Our arrival in Long Island was about a year before the energy crisis that would strike the country. To save energy (and money) — the house was heated with an oil furnace — my stepdad fitted the house with set-back thermostats that would automatically drop the heat to 62°F at night. To make sure we were all warm and comfy at night, my sister, brother, and I were issued electric blankets.

Clash of the Technologies

Clash of the technologies: the control for my 32-year-old electric blanket seems slightly out of place in this digital world.

If you’re not familiar with electric blankets, here’s how they work — or at least my understanding of them. They’re made with two layers of a synthetic fabric with a series of wires running up and down between the two layers. I assume the wires have some kind of heat emitting properties. At the bottom end is a socket for a plug. A control device plugs into the socket with a long wire — the idea is to put the control on your bedside table, so the wire is at least as long as a bed. Another wire plugs into a wall outlet. When you get into bed, you turn the blanket on and use the control to dial in a setting.

It must have worked, because I don’t recall being uncomfortable on cold winter nights — except, of course, those nights after an ice storm knocked out power for 11 days.

A few years later, when I moved onto my college campus, I brought the blanket with me. And I brought it with me when I got my first apartment. And when I moved into a new apartment with my future husband. And when we moved into our first house. And when we moved into our second house. And when I began spending summers in an RV in Central Washington State.

The blanket, which is now 32 years old, is with me on this trip. And I’m glad to have it.

When I first arrive in Quincy Washington at the end of May, it’s downright cold at night. RVs have three problems when it comes to heat:

  • They are generally poorly insulated so they can’t hold heat well. This RV is much better than my previous one, which had two tent walls.
  • Their heaters are unbelievably loud, consisting of a gas furnace and a loud blower that attempts to shoot hot air throughout the space.
  • Their heaters don’t evenly heat the space. Face it: what heater does?

The first season I was here in my old RV, I slept under a pile of blankets. No exaggeration — my first few weeks were spent on flannel sheets under every single blanket I’d brought with me. It was like sleeping between two mattresses. I still had to wear flannel pajama pants to keep warm.

I got a case of the smarts the next year and brought the old electric blanket with me. That made all the difference in the world.

Now all the instructions that come with these blankets tell you to make the blanket the top layer. But I usually sandwich the blanket between my top sheet and a lightweight comforter. As a result, I can set the blanket to “1” or “2” (on dial that goes to 10) and keep very warm.

The blanket is for a twin size bed and my bed in the RV is a queen. But the blanket covers the top pretty well. It makes for very cozy sleeping.

My big problem now is getting out of that nice warm bed in the morning.

I’m Being Paid to Worry about the Weather

A funny true story.

The backstory: I’m in Washington State on cherry drying contracts. In short, I’m being paid to be on call to use my helicopter to dry cherry trees in case it rains. You can learn the details about this in “The Life of a Cherry Drying Pilot.”

Last night, my grower called around 9 PM. He was almost certain that it would rain at 4 AM this morning. He lives in Wenatchee and his orchard block is near Quincy, a 30-minute drive south. He wanted to give me a heads up. He said that he knew I wouldn’t fly in the dark, but if it rained, he expected me to be drying at dawn. I assured him that would be no problem and encouraged him to call me if he needed me, no matter what time it was. That, after all, is what he’s paying me for.

I was dead asleep this morning when my phone rang. My Blackberry’s ring tone is a digitized version of the classic analog telephone bell. Despite the fact that I’d heard that sound every day for the first 20 years of my life, when it rang this morning, I had no idea what it was. After all, I was asleep. When I realized it was my phone ringing just inches from my head, I grabbed it, pushed the answer button, and said “Hello.”

It was my grower. “I’m leaving Wenatchee now,” he told me. “The sky is clear.”

I wasn’t too sleepy to wonder why he was calling me to tell me the weather was good.

“I’m going to see what it’s like down at the orchard,” he went on.

I got the feeling he wanted a local weather report. After all, I was only 6 miles (as the crow flies) from his cherry trees. Fortunately, the zip-up window beside my head faced out that way. I unzipped it and looked out. I could see stars. It wasn’t raining. I couldn’t see any rain clouds by the light of the waning moon. I reported my findings.

“Well, I’m going down there anyway,” he said. “I’ll call you if it rains.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. We said goodbye and I found the button that disconnected us. The phone reverted to clock mode. It was 3:50 AM.

I managed to get back to sleep for another hour before the birds woke me up for the day.

It’s nearly 12 hours later and it still hasn’t rained.

When I told this story to my husband, he told me I needed to have a talk with the grower. I told him I’d do no such thing. I explained that I was on standby and that the grower had paid me good money to worry along with him about his crop of cherries. If it made him feel better to wake me up to discuss the weather once in a while, that was fine with me.

As long as he didn’t do it every morning.

Heli Camping

How to make camping more fun.

It was spring 2006 when my friend Ryan suggested I go with him to the Big Sandy Shoot and give helicopter rides. I didn’t know much about it, but I had nothing else do to that weekend. So I loaded my tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress into my helicopter and followed Ryan’s friend’s Sikorsky S-55 helicopter to the tiny town of Wikieup, about 40 minutes north of Wickenburg on highway 93.

I detail the events of the weekend here.

Helicopter and TentAlthough I did fly into this spot and I did sleep in this tent the night before, I didn’t sleep in this tent where it’s shown in the photo. I moved the tent to take the photo. With a dome tent like this, it’s easy. Just empty it out, pick it up, and put it where you want it. The helicopter was in such a pretty spot and the early morning sunlight make it look really beautiful. Why not take advantage of the light?

I cooked up the photo for possible advertising use. Flying M Air (my helicopter charter company) can do overnight excursions. There’s no reason why we can’t offer heli camping.

But, so far, we just haven’t had any calls for it.

Oh, and for the record, I’ll be back at Wickieup for their autumn (forgive me, Miraz) shoot in October. Anyone want to come along for the ride?

Cruising

Life in a moving hotel.

Mike and I ended a week-long Alaska cruise this past Friday. We “sailed” on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas from Seward, AK to Vancouver, BC, with stops at Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Straight Point (Hoonah), and Ketchikan. The final day was spent cruising down the inside passage east of Vancouver Island.

This was our second cruise. The first was in the Caribbean about five years ago on — strangely enough — the same ship. We really enjoyed that trip, which we went on with another couple around our age. This trip, while enjoyable, was different.

What’s Good about Cruising

Let me start off by explaining why I like to cruise.

Float PlaneA cruise is the ultimate lazy person’s vacation. You get on board on day one, unpack in your own private room, and go to any number of onboard restaurants for free meals just about any time of the day. In the evening, your moving hotel departs the port and moves gently through the sea, arriving at the next port on the next morning. Once there, you can get off the ship and do all kinds of excursions, ranging in trolley tours of the local town, big production shows (the Great American Lumberjack Show comes to mind), active activities (such as biking or hiking), or “adventure” activities (such as helicopter landings on glaciers or sled dog trips or float plane flights). At the end of the day, you’re back on board in your comfy, maid-serviced room, eating free food, seeing free shows, and/or throwing money away in the casino as the ship moves on to the next port.

Cruise cost is determined, in part, by the type of accommodations you choose. The cheapest accommodations are a windowless cabin on a lower deck that gets really dark with the door closed and has barely enough room for you and your cabin mate(s) to move around. The most expensive accommodations are usually given names like “The Royal Suite,” and include several rooms, large windows, and one or more balconies on an upper deck.

On both of our cruises, we had the same accommodations: a “junior suite,” which is one largish room with a king size bed, sofa, easy chair, desk, coffee table, floor-to-ceiling windows, and small balcony. It was on the top cabin deck, 10 stories above the sea. At some ports, float planes landed right past our window (see above).

Cabin on Radiance Cabin on Radiance

A lot of folks say that getting a cabin with a balcony or even a window is a waste of money since you spend so little time in your cabin. I look at it the other way around. If you had a nice room, you’d spend more time in it. I’m a big fan of privacy and like the idea of having a private, outdoor space to relax in.

Hubbard GlacierWe spent much of our two “at sea” days in our cabin on the balcony, reading, talking, and taking photos of the things we passed. In fact, as the ship turned away from the Hubbard Glacier to continue on its way, we came back to the room to relax on the balcony with a bottle of wine and our cameras.

If you don’t care about private space and think you’ll be spending 95% of your waking hours outside your cabin, you should definitely go with one of the less expensive rooms. You see, that’s the only difference in onboard treatment. Once you’re out of your cabin, you’re the same as everyone else. You get the same food, see the same shows, and have access to the same services at the same price. So you can cruise quite affordably — sometimes as little as $600 per person for the week! — if you don’t mind sleeping in a closet-like room.

Cruise Limitations

Every cruise has a major limitation: you only visit the port cities on the cruise itinerary and you only stay in that city as long as the ship is at port. If you pick a cruise with the “wrong” cities, you can’t change your plans. You’re stuck with them.

Of course, since many people plan vacations out to the extreme — reservations every step of the way — this probably isn’t much of a limitation. I, however, like to wing it while on vacation. While this may mean that I don’t get to stay in a place I wanted to (because everyone else had reservations), it does give me the flexibility to stay an extra day at a place I really like or explore a place I learn about while on the road.

The best way to make sure the itinerary limitation doesn’t bite you is to choose your cruise carefully. We didn’t do this on our cruise. We just told the travel agent we wanted a one-way cruise in Alaska that began or ended in Vancouver. We didn’t know what we wanted to see. I have no real complaints about our itinerary, but now I know more about Alaska and where I want to go on my next visit.

“Hidden” Costs

Devils on the Deep Blue Sea : The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America's Cruise-Ship EmpiresAlthough you can eat on board for free in most restaurants, there are a few costs that aren’t covered on a cruise. Alcohol is one of them. You pay for all of your drinks — unless you’re gambling in the casino. Drink prices are a bit higher than average, but made with top-shelf liquor. We were paying $8 a piece for our evening martinis (and downing two of them each night), but they were made with Grey Goose and other premium brands. Wine is typical restaurant pricing, but they offer a discount if you buy a 5-, 7-, or 10-bottle plan at the beginning of the cruise. The plan limits you to a shorter wine list, but we chose the 5-bottle plan and had perfectly good wine at most meals, with any leftovers to drink on our balcony later that evening or the next day.

The ship also has premium restaurants that cost $20 per person for a meal. There were two of these: Portofino, serving Italian food, and Chops, serving steaks and chops. We signed up for the Wednesday evening Mystery Dinner Theater at Portofino, which cost $49 per person and included champagne before dinner and wine with dinner, along with entertainment. The meal at Portofino was far better than any other I ate on the ship. (More about food in a moment.)

On our ship, we also had to pay for anything that came in a can or bottle, including Coke and bottled water. It really irked me to pay $2.01 (including a 15% gratuity automatically tacked on) for a can of Coke. The cruise cost us thousands of dollars and I felt that I was being nickeled and dimed. This kind of stuff could have been included for free in the fridge in our room — perhaps as a special perk for those who invested in a nicer cabin — but the fridge doubled as a for-pay servi-bar and it cost the same there.

Tatyana and LorendAnd speaking of gratuities, you’re expected, at the end of your cruise, to tip your lead and assistant waiters in the main dining room, the head waiter in the main dining room, and your cabin attendant. Our dining room service was very good — both waiter and assistant waiter were extremely professional without being stiffs. We joked about things, they gave us advice on wine for when we got home, and they didn’t have any trouble giving Mike and Syd (one of our two table mates) seconds and thirds of lobster tails on Tuesday night, when lobster was the popular choice on the menu. But the head waiter obviously only came around to be friendly and secure his tip, so we didn’t tip him. Many people didn’t show up for dinner on Thursday night, the last night of the cruise, to avoid tipping the dining staff. (More on cheapskates in a moment.) We tipped our cabin attendant the suggested amount, even though we didn’t like her. She did her job, but drew the line there. No special service, as we’d had with our last cabin attendant.

The excursions, however, can be the biggest cost of the cruise. They ranged in price from $12 per person for a trolley ride to more than $500 per person for some of the aviation excursions. Our costliest excursion was a helicopter trip with a landing on two glaciers; it cost $398 each. Anyone interested in saving money would probably not do a lot of excursions.

Our final bill for the extras on board (mostly alcohol and excursions) came to more than $1,800. And that doesn’t include the cost of the cruise itself, gratiuties for onboard staff, or the money we spent onshore for meals and other things. This isn’t a complaint; it’s just a note to those who think a cruise includes everything. A cruise only includes everything if you don’t drink or buy any extras on board and you don’t do more than wander around on foot when at port.

Food

If you’re on a diet and succumb easily to temptation, a cruise is not for you. You are guaranteed to eat too much of the wrong food.

Why the wrong food? Well, most of the food is the wrong food. The buffets and dining room menus are filled with fried foods and heavy starches and sweets. And since it’s all you can eat — even in the main dining room with table service! — if you like to eat a lot, there’s nothing to stop you. I gained 10 pounds on my first cruise and (fortunately) only 4 pounds on this one.

And there was certain scarcity to fresh fruits and vegetables. Why? Well, the cruise ship starts its journey in Vancouver, where it stocks up on all supplies for the next 14 days. It takes on passengers for the first 7-day cruise. Those are the lucky ones — they get lots of fresh food to eat. Then those passengers depart in Seward and the ship takes on its passengers for the return trip to Vancouver. Those passengers (which included us) are facing food that’s already been onboard 7 days.

On our Caribbean cruise, we watched them load fresh produce on board almost every single day. The food was good and fresh. But on this cruise, the food was very disappointing. I think that more than half of what we ate was prepared in advance and frozen, then defrosted or heated before serving. (Kind of like eating at some of Wickenburg’s fancy restaurants.)

The skinny (no pun intended) is this: the best food was in the for-pay restaurants, next came the main dining room, and finally, the buffet. But the only difference was the preparation: all of the food came out of Vancouver and was at least a week old.

Other Passengers

The vast majority of this cruise’s passengers were seniors in the 55+ age group. Of them, more than half were likely 65+. With more than 2,000 passengers aboard this full ships, that’s a lot of retirement money being spent.

Those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that the town I live in, Wickenburg, AZ, is a retirement town. I am surrounded by seniors every day at home. To be surrounded by them while on vacation was a bit of a disappointment. Our last cruise to the Caribbean had a better mix of guests, with age groups more evenly spread. I find younger people in the 25 to 50 year old age group more energizing and fun than the 55+ midwesterners we had on board this cruise.

How do I know they were midwesterners? I asked. Each time they sat us down with other people at meals, we’d talk. I’d ask where they came from. I got Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas more than any other state. Our dinner table-mates were from Little Rock, Arkansas. We didn’t meet a single other couple from New York or New Jersey or Arizona (our past and current home states), although we did meet a couple from Pennsylvania and another from San Diego, CA.

The interesting thing about most of these people is that they didn’t do much in the way of high-price excursions or for-pay activities on board. We never saw them in the Champagne Bar, which we visited for our evening martinis before dinner each night. It was easy to get reservations for massage, facial, etc. at the spa. There were lots of empty seats in the main dining room — two of the six seats at our table remained empty for the entire trip. My conclusion: many of these folks were trying to minimize the cost of extras by simply taking advantage of the free or inexpensive options on board and at port. And, by not utilizing the main dining room in the evening, they could avoid tipping the dining room staff. Cheapskates? Well, avoiding the dining room on the last night of the cruise to stiff the waiters is certainly the mark of a cheapskate. But I like to think that some of them were simply afraid of getting a $1,800 extras bill at the end of the trip.

Coupon Crazy!

I should mention here that these people were coupon crazy. Each evening, the cabin attendant put a daily publication for the next day in our cabin. The publication outlined hours for dining and activities and shore excursions. It also included one or more sheets of coupons. Many of the guests clipped these coupons and made it a point to take advantage of them.

For example, a coupon might say that if you went to Joe’s Tourist Junk Shop in Ketchikan (an imaginary shop) between 10 AM and 11 AM, you could redeem the coupon for a free gift worth $15 — while supplies last. I overheard people planning their day around this visit to Joe’s. And if we happened to walk by Joe’s at 9:45, they’d already be lining up. And the free gift? Perhaps a link in one of those bracelets they push at ports or a paperweight that said “Joe’s at Ketchikan” or something similarly junky. Joe’s hopes that these people will come in and buy stuff while they’re there. Some of them obviously do. T-Shirts seemed to be a hot item.

What’s B/Sad about Cruising

What’s bad or sad about cruising is what the cruise ship lines have done to the port cities. Sure, they’ve brought the ports lots of tourists and revenue. But what they’ve also done is created port shopping areas with the same stores over and over in every port. What local charm existed in these areas is completely blown away by cruise ship sponsored stores like Diamonds International, Tanzanite International, Del Sol, and too many others to remember. Every port has the same collection of shops and they’re conveniently located close to where the ships dock so all those seniors from the midwest don’t have to walk far to redeem their coupons.

Ketchikan Tourist AreaKetchikan was a good example. The day we were there, three cruise ships were lined up at the dock facing the port shopping area. This was roughly 6 to 9 blocks of solid shopping — mostly for jewelry and t-shirts — with the vast majority of shops owned by cruise ship companies or their affiliates. The Great American Lumberjack Show was on the outskirts of this — this tourist attraction does four or five or more shows a day with people lined up to see them. (We saw highlights of this on television, on a show purportedly about Alaska, so we didn’t need or want to see it in person.) This area was very crowded.

Creek StreetYet less than 1/2 mile away was historic Creek Street, the former red light district of the town, which had been converted into small, mostly locally owned shops. It was nearly deserted. And on the town’s walking tour was an interesting totem pole museum and fish hatchery, both of which were empty.

The excursion transportation — mostly buses and vans — comes right up to the port, making it completely unnecessary to step foot into town. So people who just want the bus tour don’t need to walk past tempting jewelry and t-shirt shops. They get door to door service and, on many excursions, don’t even need to get off the bus to “do” the port town.

Glacier LandingOf course, the beauty of Alaska still lies beyond all this. Sure, we did excursions, but we did the ones that took us away from the cruise ships and shopping cities they’d built. One excursion took us by helicopter to land and hike on two different glaciers. Another was supposed to take us by helicopter to a mountaintop, where we’d do a 4-mile hike with a guide and return to the ship by train. (That one was cancelled when low ceilings prevented us from getting to the mountain top; we later rented a car to see what we’d missed: on that day, fog.) Another excursion took us by float plane up the Misty Fjords, passing mountain lakes, waterfalls, and glacial snow before landing in a mountain-enclosed bay. (You can see now how we managed to spend $1,800 in extras.) And at the end of each excursion, we walked the town, going beyond the shiny gift shops to walk among the historic buildings and, in more than one instance, panhandlers and locals who weren’t fortunate enough to get jobs selling jewelry to tourists at the docks.

As usual, my cynicism is creeping in. I can’t really help it. We came to Alaska to see its beauty and learn more about its history. But at most port cities, we faced the same old tourist crap. I guess that’s because that’s what most other people on the cruise ships want to see. We had to dig to see what lay under all that junk. It was worth the effort.

Not All Ports are Equal

Radiance of the Seas at AnchorAn exception to all this: Icy Straits Point and the indian village of Hoonah. This port had no dock, so our ship anchored offshore and used three tenders (specially configured lifeboats) to ferry passengers back and forth.

There were a few excursions there: fishing, whale watching, bicycling. The main attraction was the old cannery, which had been converted into a fascinating museum with a sprinkling of locally owned gift shops. (Not a single Diamonds International sign in sight.) Hoonah also boasts the world’s longest zip line, which is over a mile long with a drop of more than 1000 feet. (I guess they felt they had to do something to get the tourists in.)

Bald EaglesMike and I did the 1-1/2 mile walk (each way) into town where bald eagles waited in treetops for the local fishermen to clean their fish. We stopped at a local bar, where a man had covered the pool table with old photos of the town and more recent photos of a 25-foot snowfall. Then we went to the Landing Zone restaurant at the bottom of the zip line and had a great lunch of chowder and fried halibut and salmon, prepared fresh and served by locals.

Back on the ship, I overheard one woman boast that she hadn’t even bothered to get off the ship that day.

Would I Do It Again?

With two cruises under my belt now, I have a good idea of what to expect on a cruise. (After reading this, you might, too.) With all the pros and cons, would I do it again?

I’m really not sure. The moving hotel aspect is very attractive. But the cost and limitations are a drawback. And the cruise ship line development of port cities is a real turn-off.

I’d consider it. But I’ll certainly do my homework before signing up next time.