Welcome back, everyone, and I hope you all had a restful, thoughtful, and appreciative Memorial Day. I'm pleased to see more and more people openly recognizing what Memorial Day is all about, rather than just seeing it as the start of summer, a day for cookouts, and a long weekend. It's about the memory of those who gave their lives fighting for their country, and we should all remember that in a sincere and thoughtful way all of the time, not just on the final Monday in May.
It was great to be here in Liberty Lake (LL, as noted above in the headline) and have a long weekend off with Barbara, Boofus, and Buster. We made the most of it, getting out on the bikes a couple of times, sharing some great meals (both here and at some stellar local establishments), and catching up on our relaxation quotient, which gets run down to the danger zone every now and then, with all the travel and work-related stuff. It was all good.
So now, here we are making one of the more amusing and enjoyable race-to-race transitions on the tour, as we head from Topeka to Englishtown. I actually don't remember if we've ever run these two races on back-to-back weekends, and as far as I can recall we've only been doing them as consecutive races for a few years now, but if we were to tack these two onto the schedule with no open weekend between them it would be one of the most genuinely interesting transitions you could make. Few races on the schedule are more starkly different than Topeka and Englishtown, and the reasons are impossible to miss.
Our fans are amazing all across the the country, but there are only a few tracks where they are so overwhelmingly reflective of the region it's impossible to miss. Bristol can be that way, although as time goes by it seems less "Appalachian" than it used to. Houston and Dallas both have a serious Texas vibe, but Dallas has always seemed a little more cowboy and more western, if you know what I mean. But, again, as time goes by we seem to see less and less of the obvious Wrangler jeans, rodeo belt buckles, and cowboy hats in the Dallas pits. America is becoming more homogenized by the year, it seems.
But then, there's Englishtown. People from New Jersey remain staunchly unique. Are they New Jerseyans? New Jerseyites? Hang on, I have to check this out... Okay, according to AboutNewJersey.com, New Jerseyan is the preferred term, although some people do use New Jerseyite. There is some speculation that New Yorkers purposefully use New Jerseyite just to rile up the New Jerseyans, who tend not to like the term. So there... Anyway, as much as the rest of America seems to continue to meld into one vanilla flavor, New Jersey seems to relish its place and its reputation (it's own flavor, so to speak) and I love that. Blindfold me, transport me to a race track, and stand me in the middle of the pits with the challenge of recognizing where I am by the voices alone, and Englishtown is probably the only track on the tour where I could nail in about five seconds. Yo Vinny!
Topeka, on the other hand, is a lovely and quaint version of vanilla to the max. It's the vanilla-est of the vanillas, in terms of accent or style or anything that shouts out "this is where we are!" It's as down-home, polite, and midwestern as they come, as if drawn straight from a movie. The pit area at Heartland Park might as well be the County Fair, with actors from Central Casting playing the roles of midwestern families who clearly all sit around the dining room table at dinner time, passing the rolls and the mashed potatoes as they discuss the day's events. I'm a midwestern boy. I know the gig.
But the stark differences go beyond the great fans in both places. In Topeka we have endless miles of the Great Plains, farms as far as the eye can see, wind gusts that started in Saskatoon or the Gulf of Mexico (depending on which way the weather was moving), a startling lack of thick-forest trees, and tornadoes. Enough with the tornadoes. Please. We have sprawling suburban developments and old-school downtown areas, connected by a road system so squarely and easily laid out it's almost impossible to get lost. In Englishtown we have old villages and newer suburbs, thick forestation all-around, busy thoroughfares and an even busier turnpike, all connecting to winding roads that lead somewhere, but you can't get there from here. We have diners, honking horns, and a passion for opinion. It's New Jersey! And that's where we're headed this weekend. I look forward to it every year.
We'll be staying at a hotel in Freehold this time around, so that will be all new and a new adventure. At some point I'm sure I'll be on Highway 9, where it is impossible to see the route designation sign without signing, out loud, "Sprung from cages on Highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin' out over the line..." Impossible. You simply must.
Meanwhile, during our downtime here for the last week, we've enjoyed a few new things and tried to get to as much of Spokane and Liberty Lake as we could. Since I have no racing photos to share, I guess I'll tell you about a few things I do have pics for...
Nancy is the wonderful woman who looks in on Buster and Boofus when we're both gone (they love her!) and she'd been telling us about a great winery here in Spokane, called Arbor Crest. We're well versed in Washington wines, of course, and loved our trip down to Walla Walla last year, but we weren't that up-to-speed on any good wineries right here in Spokane, so we weren't expecting that much. Once the weather warms up, they have inexpensive tastings and free jazz music on Thursday nights, up at Arbor Crest, and people make it a mission to bring a picnic meal, spread out a blanket, pop open a bottle, and enjoy the amazing views and the jams.
This past Thursday lined up as a great chance to go check it out, and we're so glad we did. Arbor Crest sits atop a lofty ridge, just north of Spokane Valley, and from the lawn there you can see as far as downtown to the west and Idaho to the east. We met Nancy and her husband Tom there, and Nancy quickly gave us a tour of the sprawling (and beautiful) grounds, before we stopped in the main building for a quick taste. Then we settled into our chairs and shared various finger foods and a wonderful bottle of white, as the breeze rustled the leaves and the sun sank in the west. It was really a wonderful way to spend an evening with friends. Great people, great wine, fantastic place. I suspect we'll be back...
On Sunday we needed to do a little shopping (and looking) and that entailed a trip to north Spokane, up Division St. towards neighborhoods we've barely touched since we moved here. Our first stop was a furniture store, to get some ideas for some thoughts we've been having, and then we went to the one shopping destination that just about any guy like me will gladly and happily tag along to, with his wife. Yup, DSW!!! Most of us cringe at the thought of going on a shopping expedition to Macy's or the mega-mall, but we all dig shoes to some degree and I never say no to DSW. 30 minutes later, Barb had two new pairs of business shoes and a new pair of running shoes, while I came away with a nice new pair of Saucony running shoes which, to be honest, were actually bought for walking and bike riding.
To that end, yesterday we loaded up the bikes and headed for the Centennial Trail once again. This time we parked at a trailhead a little to our west, instead of getting on the trail here in Liberty Lake. The reasons for this are as follows: The first three miles on the trail, heading west from Liberty Lake, are a little boring. Also, instead of just riding further, we chose to drive a few miles west and pick it up there. You gotta draw the line somewhere, and knowing that every mile you ride is really two, since you have to also go back, well...
This time, we did a 10.3-mile round trip, on a part of the trail that hangs right by the Spokane River, through Mirabeau Park, and down across the river just below Arbor Crest. The thought came to me because we'd been on the edge of the Arbor Crest property, staring at the stunning views on Thursday, when I looked down and saw little tiny people on miniature bicycles, crossing a narrow bridge over the river. Turned out they were normal-sized people and bikes, and the bridge was a substantial structure, but I was way up high. It's called perspective, apparently...
We'd never been further west than Mirabeau, so the last few miles were all new to us but we quickly realized we were going downhill, for a long time. That's great when you're living in the moment, but unless someone is going to pick you up and transport you back to the start, you also know you're going to be doing a long uphill slog on the way back. That's kind of a general rule of geography, I think. Anyway, it was gorgeous and a fine adventure, and I even went off-road for a bit when I spotted a beautiful scene tucked down in the woods, a little separate and tranquil bit of the river that was so picturesque it almost felt like a Disney production. And then, much to our delight, someone picked us up in a helicopter and flew us back to my car. Okay, that last sentence isn't true. But, the good news was that the uphill slog wasn't that bad at all! We surprised ourselves with our stamina and strength. Hooray for us!
Arbor Crest. What a hidden gem we'd never tried before!
And now I'm finished with my pre-Englishtown PR work, I've checked in for my Wednesday flight (figure that one out?) and I'm ready to find may way to the new hotel in Freehold on Thursday. Plus, I'm upgraded on both flights, GEG-MSP and MSP-EWR. Life is good! And yes, that should make it pretty easy to figure out that I'm doing another short overnight stopover in Woodbury, because... Well, because I can.
I've also spent quite a bit of time this past week getting back into the groove on LinkedIn, the networking website that is really getting popular. Last time I wrote about LinkedIn, my profile was just starting to reach that interesting critical mass, where your connections all have so many connections that pretty soon you're connecting with tons of people every week. When I don't get there often enough, the connection requests start to pile up and I have to take the time to go through them and make it all happen. I've also been making connections with all sorts of old baseball colleagues, and some guys I never played with but who knew my dad, as well as more than a few former big leaguers who I actually scouted when they were still in school. That's always cool.
I had connected with one ballplayer recently, who I saw was connected to Matt Mieske. If you're a Milwaukee Brewers fan, you probably remember Matt from the 1990s, but I remember Matt because he was in the starting lineup for Team USA on the night my team, the Sauget Wizards, became the only American-based team to ever defeat the national squad. We connected in a hurry, and then within 24 hours I was also "linked" to Brad Beanblossom and Kirk Dressendorfer, who were both also on that team. So far, I haven't seen Jeromy Burnitz, Bret Boone, Fernando Vina, or Dan Wilson on LinkedIn. And I'm sure the law firm of Mieske, Beanblossom and Dressendorfer all still lose sleep over that stunning 6-5 loss to that scrappy team from the little town across the river from St. Louis. I'm sure they do. Emotionally scarred forever...
So there you have it. Yet another blog installment completed, on a day when all I was thinking when I began this writing episode was "Man, Englishtown and Topeka sure are different..." Makin' somethin' outta nothin' one more time.
See you in Jersey!!!