Learning to Drive

Taking the tractor for a spin

When did this happen?

I’ve been watching carefully, noting the approaching birthdays on the calendar, celebrating holidays and vacations away, attending ballet lessons and cheer practice. But somewhere, at some point, our first granddaughter seems to have grown up. 

This year she turns 15. I don’t think we will celebrate a quinceanera, we will likely wait until next year and celebrate that Sweet Sixteen party. But at some point between this fall and next spring, she will likely begin driving lessons. 

The thought is at once intimidating and liberating.

I was 15 when I began learning how to drive. My Dad had a 1960 Chevrolet pick up truck, three speed manual transmission on the steering wheel column (remember those? Classic H pattern). I doubt that it could do 60 mph on a good day but it was a work horse. When it wasn’t outfitted with the camper shell, we would use it to haul firewood back from the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. Long stretches of gravel roads were an opportunity to learn how to steer a truck without the distraction of other vehicles on the road.

We practiced parking in the vehicle storage lot that my Dad had access to on the weekends. That, and driving in circles to kick up a little dust really was the extant of my supervised learning. Again, no distractions and I seriously don’t remember if the truck even had a radio at the time. I never took a driver’s training course in school since that would have been an elective. And who had time for that?

Dave and the red Corvair

My older brother Dave purchased and drove a Corvair after high school graduation. Later, after he had joined the Army, he left us the vehicle. It’s unclear whether or not we were “gifted” or sold his car; I don’t believe money was ever exchanged but I drove that car throughout our high school years as did my younger brother.

Reno didn’t have any freeways back in the mid-60s. Heck, we didn’t even have an overpass until 1968 from what I remember. But somehow I learned enough to be able to negotiate the mountain roads around Northern Nevada, the long empty stretches of desert highway out to Pyramid Lake, and eventually the freeway traffic of Sacramento and San Francisco in California. I survived all those miles, and years, with a minimum of tickets and I believe only one minor traffic accident. But the traffic here in Northern Virginia? Oh that is something else.

Copilot

I’m looking forward to one day being driven around by our granddaughter, my sitting in that copilot’s seat watching her take the curves. I no longer have the PT Cruiser convertible but I think we will find something fun to drive. Somehow it feels like I’ve come full circle.

What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up

Cowboys

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” Or maybe the question was, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

Thinking back on our conversation, I’m not really sure I heard the question correctly, or maybe I just heard what I thought was being asked. Nevertheless, I found it an odd question to ask someone who had recently turned 70. So I answered as truthfully as I could, that I am who I wanted to be when I grew up.

So is the question, if asked of a much-younger me, what do you want to Do with your life? Or should the question more appropriately be, what kind of person do you want to Be when you’ve “grown up,” at whatever age that seems good to you?

A Fireman. A Doctor or Lawyer. A Soldier. A Pilot. A Pharmacist. A Cowboy. A Rancher. A Teacher or a Counselor. We have at least one of these professions represented by someone in my extended family. But that really isn’t the question to ask anymore, is it? Because we all know that these professions don’t often last a lifetime, that our career paths may change at some point, and that wanting to be a Fireman as a young boy might actually lead one to a career as an EMT. 

But what do you want to Be when you grow up? that is really the question we try to answer for ourselves if we are at all self-aware.

Recently my wife and I took a communications course through our church. If you haven’t been exposed to the temperaments vs. personality discussion before, I can not more highly recommend this course. Information about the workbook along with accompanying videos are available online here, but I would say, take it with a group through your business, church, or other social group. 

I Said This, You Heard That” really helped me begin to understand some of the differences between personality (that which is changeable and often what we present to the world) and temperament, that which is hard-wired in and not changeable.

I bring this in to the discussion because what we do, and who we are, flow from our temperaments more than our personalities. So for instance, I am sanguine: I am an extrovert who enjoys people more than tasks. But for a great deal of my career I was employed in creative, yet very task-oriented professions. For years I had thought that the “what do you want to be” question could only be answered with a “what do I want to do” statement. I want to Be an Artist is not the same answer as I want to do art. 

So back to my friend and the question over our Starbucks. My answer to him was essentially, I am who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be kind, caring of others, not entirely focused on myself. I want to be a person who knows Jesus and the scriptures, who has a desire to lead others in their discovery of Him. I want to be a person who cares about the environment, and politics, and upcycled furniture, and flowers in the garden, who enjoys the world God created. I want to be a person who is generous with his time, knowing that all that we have is a stewardship and not owned by us. 

Have you given it some thought what (or rather who) you want to be when you grow up? Where are you on your journey of discovery? Or are you at a place in your life now where you want to pivot, less doing and more being? I raise my vanilla latte to you and say, all right, let’s talk!

What Its Worth

We have found one of our favorite past-times during traveling is to stop in at antique and vintage shops and browse around. We seldom buy anything, and very often I’ll hear others comment, “Who would buy that?” Or more likely, “who would pay THAT MUCH?!” for a certain item. My wife will always give me a look, or a shush! but I’m sure it’s a common observation over what often seems to be random pricing in the second-hand retail market.

This fall we finally stopped in at a shop we have literally driven past for years. Finders Keepers is located on Main Street in Orange, Virginia and we see it nearly every time we head down to one of our favorite vineyards in Barboursville. Their website indicates they have been in business for over twenty-five years so I am surprised to see how long it took us to stop in. Needless to say, it was worth the visit.

Finders Keepers building in Orange Virginia

While we browsed their extensive assortment of items, everything from furniture to lamps, prints and paintings, and home decor, I struck up a conversation with owner Bradley Toombs. We talked about how Covid has rapidly changed the face of retail, especially small businesses. During our conversation he mentioned that they also run an estate sale business and gave us his card to check it out later. Acorn Estate Liquidators offers online and in-person estate sales providing their clients with options to liquidate their personal possessions. It turns out, as many people are contemplating downsizing or moving away from the area, one of their greatest concerns is what to do with all of our stuff.

More out of curiosity than a need for anything, I checked out one of their online auctions.

WHAT A SURPRISE!

Here’s a brief list of some of the things that were available to bid on:

  • Antique furniture and lighting
  • Clocks, collectibles, paintings and prints
  • China and crystal, silver, pottery 
  • Linens, quilts, and rugs

There were hundreds of items to bid on, most of which listed had an initial bid of $2. In some cases they increased by as little as $1 per bid. I’m struck by how little some of these items eventually sold for. There was a vintage Leica camera complete with additional lenses and a gorgeous leather camera bag that topped the bidding at $3,500. But that seemed to be the exception. Most of the lots closed at prices under $50.

So I jumped right in and started bidding! I lost the auction on most of listings I bid on, in some cases by as little as that $2 increment. But a couple of things that I bid on, I won.

While I’m quite pleased with having won the bidding on this sofa for $10, I think I might have gotten carried away bidding on this vintage children’s wagon. It looks great in the garden, I plan on filling it with potted plants in the spring, but the $27 that I paid for it was probably a little high. I am surprised at how many winning bids came in under $10. I suppose with an opening bid of only $2, it can take some time to reach a respectable bid offer. Yet there are always a few items that fetch commanding prices such as estate jewelry, fine art, or some of the antique furniture. Right now I have my eye on a beautiful wingback chair in great condition ($10) and an antique Victorian walnut marble-top washstand (my bid so far: $5).

But much of what’s offered looks like will bring in far less to the family than perhaps what they were anticipating. And that’s what really has me intrigued. When I look around our own living room, for instance, and contemplate what we paid for things like sofas, side tables and lamps, and all the decorative pieces that fill our rooms, and start adding up what I think they will get at auction, I begin to get a sense of real value versus cost.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-20

Old School

Sometime back I became interested in learning a little more about our family’s heritage. Not quite a deep-dive into research genealogy but something more akin to a survey of the places we had lived, the homes and schools we attended. Along the way, the faded photographs my Mother had saved of her childhood prompted me to try and find her homes and schools.

Mom was born in Colorado and before moving to Southern California (where my own family’s story begins) she and her growing family lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When they moved, my Grandfather’s Aunt Belle wrote in her journal at the time “Quite an undertaking with the car, trailer, six children, goat with two kids, canary bird, and cat and dog.”  

The photo of children sitting with my Grandfather Orlo Willis in front of a small home launched my search for the house and school they had attended in the 1930s. Were those buildings still standing? Or had they been demolished only to be replaced by larger and more modern structures?

My Grandfather Orlo Willis with Mom and siblings, 1930

Not to my surprise, Mom remembered the street address of their home and the elementary school they had walked to. The 1930 census, available online, confirmed their street address. A quick search on Google maps revealed that the home is still standing, while further searching on Zillow showed pictures of a “charming Victorian home” built in 1892.

An online search for photos of the original school building came up empty but I did come across a fascinating website, http://coloradopreservation.org

Writing about their mission, the organization began as “43 citizens interested in preserving (their) state’s built heritage started this organization to encourage preservation efforts statewide.” An email requesting information on the elementary school was answered cordially but proved fruitless. However that lead me to finding a small publication, surprisingly available through Amazon, entitled “A History of the Colorado Springs School District 11”, by Harriet Seibel, published in 1975, with quite a bit of information regarding the school I was hunting.

The two story brick building was originally constructed in 1898 with additions coming in later years. It was torn down and replaced with a single-story building 74 years later in 1972. No doubt infrastructure problems (heating and cooling, electrical wiring) contributed to the decision to replace rather than renovate. However, knowing that the school had been rebuilt, Google supplied the address and contact information of the school’s Principal, who forwarded my request for information on to the school’s Library Technology Director. He was kind enough to send me several photos of the old Columbia School as well as photos as it exists today.

But what has happened with those schools built in the early years of Reno where I grew up? This summer on a visit home with family, I drove by all four of the schools I had attended. And surprisingly they are all still in use! All of them were built around the same time, from Greenbrae Elementary in 1955 to Wooster High School in 1962. They all share similar characteristics of mid century modern design: single-story concrete block construction, small windows, flat roofs with protective overhang. Most are devoid of any ornamentation and look like they were designed to last for generations.

Washoe County School District published “A History of Schools from Past to Present,” with detailed information and a photograph of nearly all the schools built in the area, from 1955 until 2012. Several schools have since been opened, but the comprehensive list builds on an earlier list compiled by Rose Bullis of schools built from 1857-1912.

Reno has several school buildings of great historical and architectural interest that are still standing. One of the oldest schools built, Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School in Sparks, was built in 1917 and is still in use today as a commercial building. Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks NV was rebuilt in 1937 as a single story brick building. The art modern building, still in use today, is a far cry from the original two story structure that had been built in 1906. The original multi-story building bears a striking resemblance to my mother’s elementary school: both share the same style of imposing brick edifice that was later replaced by one story buildings. (photos from 4th Street Prater Way Project)

Writing about the superiority of the smaller building style, “State Superintendent of Public Instruction reported to the Nevada Legislature in 1915 that mission architecture was chosen as it “is especially adapted to one-story buildings,” and he added “there is nothing better for school purposes than one-story buildings. The one-story plan eliminates the stair climbing so destructive to the nervous strength of pupils and teachers, and also renders danger from fire impossible.” (from Renohistorical.org) Reno built four of the Spanish Mission-style schools between 1910-12, two of which remain standing, one used as a school today (Mount Rose School)

Have you had any success in tracking down your family’s schools? I would guess that few remain from the early part of the 20th century unless they had a committed group of individuals determined to keep the buildings open, either as schools or repurposed as office space or commercial sites. In the case of the Nichols School, the fact that it was designed by Nevada’s premier architect Frederic DeLongchamps went a long way in securing its future. A 2002 Registration Form was filed with the Unites States Depart of the Interior, National Park Service, to place the Mary Lee Nichols School in Sparks on the National Register of Historic Places reads in part “Mary Lee Nichols School is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A for its role in the educational history of Sparks, Nevada, and criterion C as an excellent example of a modest educational building designed by Nevada’s pre-eminent architect Frederic DeLongchamps in the Mission architectural style.”

Any number of the schools recently opened look like they will stand the test of time, but as we all know…only time will tell.

Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School was built in 1917 and though smaller, it shared the more modest mission-style of Reno’s Four Sisters. (photo credit)

Sorting Through Things

A few years ago, on a visit to see my mother out in Oregon, we spent some time with her going through boxes of photos. I wasn’t quite sure what we would find, or even what to expect amidst that pile of envelopes, sleeves of brittle negatives, and assorted black and white memories. She’d had them stored away for years, pictures taken during her and my Dad’s honeymoon; photos from our brief time spent on the ranch in Smith Valley, Nevada; our first house in Sparks, Nevada, three boys playing in the yard. There were photos of a parade my brother and I marched in; for some reason we are wearing Hawaiian outfits, paper leis over our tshirts and cut-off jeans. I like to think of this one as the Sparks, Nevada answer to the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade! *update 08/31/2021 Jack’s Carnival History page for more info on this event.

Children marching in parade 1961
Ron marching in children’s parade, 1961 Sparks NV

There were a number of photos even older than these. Pictures of a blended family taken during the early 1930s, my Mother posing with three of her siblings in front of their home in Colorado before their move to Southern California. The girls are wearing light-colored dresses, bunched-up socks over black leather shoes, my Uncle Robert sits quietly with his hands folded in his lap. Mom wears a large, quite large, bow in her hair as she appears to study her nails. My Grandmother doesn’t appear in any of these. I have to imagine she was the photographer in the family as my Mom would later be in ours. 

Four of seven children sitting on rock wall
Three boys sitting on a piano bench, black white
Three boys at the piano, 1958

My brothers and I were not immune to posing for family photos. This might have been Easter, I can’t think of any other reason three youngsters would be dressed in their finest jackets sporting bow ties. Though the photo is dated August 1958, my Dad was known for taking his time dropping off film to be developed and printed. Quite a few of the photos have handwritten details on the back of them, dates or locations written to help identify them years later I suspect. It’s a habit I never acquired and wished I had. Today I rely on filing digital images in online folders with the date taken, trusting that the meta data stored with each photo will still be available years from now. 

I had hoped to piece together more of our family’s history as we browsed through Mom’s collection. Not surprisingly, Mom remembered many details. The photos of my Dad and her posing with their 1936 Dodge Coupe at the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, California I found particularly interesting. The tree is still standing and many years back, my wife and son and I drove through it, stopping in the middle of the tree to take the same shot. Had I known of these photos at the time, I would surely have tried to recreate the look, Dad leaning casually back against the trunk of the tree, one leg resting on the car’s fender.

It seems we have inadvertently taken many of the same photos as did my folks back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. California and Nevada have many natural and man-made sites that lend themselves to photo memorialization and there are several my family has visited. Hoover Dam (known to many when I was growing up in Nevada as Boulder Dam) is surely the most famous of the Nevada landmarks, and one that my folks had visited in 1949. It was many years later that friends and I visited the same place, taking nearly the same photo. Even our recent trip to San Francisco calls back to a snapshot my Mom made thru the windshield of their car while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

I had seen a trend on Facebook for a time that really caught my attention. Individuals would hold up an old photo—perhaps a faded Polaroid or a black and white print—of a location from some time in the past, superimposed over the same location now in the present. The passage of time caught between the two realities, separated by decades in some cases, has fascinated me. The photos seemingly bookend moments in a person’s life and invite comparisons and contrasts that we don’t normally expect to see.

One thing has become abundantly clear dash I have been browsing through these past moments captured on film. What to do with or how to organize what we have? And where are the “missing” photos? We have boxes of photos, some in black and white, most in color. We have several binders of Kodachrome slides in plastic sleeves (no dates or other identification); we have a number of photo CDs but they seem to be clustered around just a few years time; and increasingly, we have digital images scattered everywhere.

Photo CD
Kodak photo CD 2003

Shutterfly sends me an update periodically. This week it was: “Remember these memories from 13 years ago? Hi Ron, we thought you’d like to press rewind and relive these times.” And it seems my Apple photo account likes to do the same thing with the images I have stored on (in ?) the cloud.

I’ve got images stored on my computer (currently a Mac Mini) that have been transferred from the last four computers I’ve owned. I’ve got images stored on a number of external hard drives, some of which no longer work. And I have a lot of images on “read/write” CDs that I burned off back in the early 2000s when I switched over to a digital camera. Some of those CDs are no longer readable for whatever reason. Who knows what they contain. My plan to scan and digitize our remaining “hard copy” photos has been dealt a minor setback by the very medium itself. Once the photos are digitized, do I throw away the originals? Or pack them away somewhere, safe and secure for my kids to find one day?

Have we really found it easier to switch formats, saving our family photos on CDs, hard drives, or parked somewhere online? Do we view them any more often, or are they tucked away and forgotten like the boxes of photo albums I have downstairs?

Mom holding black white photo
Mom sorting through a pile of black and white photos

I haven’t found an easy answer for any of this, though early on I did decide to save all the images I transferred from my digital cameras with a unique ID based on the transfer date, for instance 20210825-001. But oh my, the images do start to accumulate! As I start to digitize many of our old photos, the process has begun to restore a sense of order to the beast, though most are still in photo boxes tucked away in plastic storage bins.

More recently I’ve begun to have photo books printed (Shutterfly.com) of our vacations and special memories. Our recent vacation to Nevada became a book as did my Mom’s 90th birthday celebration. Hopefully they will serve as a convenient way to browse old memories and a place to collect, store, and maybe one day pass on the photos we are taking now. They are certainly more attractive than a stack of hard drives sitting in the bookshelves!

High Grade Kodak finishing, available through Hilbig’s Pharmacy in San Bernardino, CA 1948

A Google search for “how to organize home photos” yielded about 369,000,000 results. Below are a few you might find useful in taking on your own projects. Good luck with that closet full of boxes!

Photography Life ideas for organizing your photos

New York Times article on organizing your photos

From the Library of Congress, a guide to preserving and caring for your photography originals: https://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/photo.html

The Sound of Birds

Many years ago, while I was living and enjoying the beach life in San Diego, I was encouraged to get certified in SCUBA. La Jolla Cove was the site of our open water classes and our instructor couldn’t have picked a more beautiful (underwater!) location. The San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park spans 6,000 acres of ocean bottom and tidelands and four distinct habitats make it a popular destination for snorkelers and scuba divers (Wikipedia).

And it was beautiful, from what I could see. The problem was, with my nearsightedness, there was very little that I could actually see, or see clearly that is. We would glide along the bottom and my diving buddy Dale would excitedly point out the brightly colored Garibaldi swimming past us, an octopus before it swooshed away, and even the occasional baby shark. I would nod approvingly and continue on, somewhat oblivious to the marine world around me. It was fun but, really? If you can’t see anything, why bother.

Dale takes a break from boat-bottom cleaning

That summer I learned that one could get a diving mask ground with your optical prescription. What a game changer! Suddenly everything I had been missing became much more clear. A world had opened up that I thought I had known before, but really as if only from a distance, and a hazy one at that.

When I decided to get hearing aids for the first time this summer, it was with the same mix of interest and reluctance that I had ordered my first prescription diving mask: is this really going to be worth the expense? Am I really missing out on something or will this simply be one more cost, one more item I’m going to have to maintain or keep updated? Do I give in and admit that I’m “getting old” or do I continue to hear with difficulty in those crowded classroom situations, nodding, smiling, and relying on some vague lipreading skills to navigate the conversations around me?

I went with a midrange set of aids from Costco (after having to renew my membership) and was immediately struck by the difference they made in my perception of the world around me. Yes, apparently I have been missing out on quite a range of sounds (see my recent blog post here)

It wasn’t just that everything sounded a little louder, brighter. I was actually HEARING things I hadn’t really noticed before. Like the sound of birds. Our home has a wooded buffer zone separating the townhomes from the single family homes nearby. It is an area rich with wildlife (deer, rabbits, foxes, hawks and owls, and all manor of smaller birds). I’ve heard them all before to some degree. But that first time sitting outside with my new ears on? Wow, the volume and variety of sounds was a bit overwhelming! And this was during the height of the Brood X cicada invasion so there was that to deal with as well.

I’m beginning to get used to this new world and it’s sounds now. My younger brother also has hearing aids–he was actually the one who suggested that I get my hearing tested. He mentioned that this heightened sense of reality, like the smell of a new car, would eventually wear off and sounds would return to a more normal range. I’m hoping so. Right now it is a little disturbing to be hearing the sounds of my shoelaces rubbing the eyelets of my sneakers as I am lacing them up. Or snack wrappers being crinkled. Or that clicking sound from the lighter on our gas stove when I turn on a burner. All sounds I never really heard before.

I like the sound of birds though. I love sitting out on the deck in the evening and hearing them chatter to one another as it grows dark. I do wish they weren’t quite so loud, though I guess I could always turn down the volume on these devices. There’s a thought! Hopefully I haven’t been missing anything else that can easily be corrected. Technology!

Going Back, Moving Forward

This summer we traveled West for a vacation with our granddaughter, visiting family in the town where I grew up. I knew much had changed in the area over the forty-some years since I moved out of state and I was curious to see what still remained and what I could remember of certain places. Our visit took us to Virginia City, Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake, and even a day trip over to San Francisco. Indeed much had changed but the overall contours and places had stayed remarkably similar to what I remembered.

In 1970 Reno was a bustling, medium-sized town of 101,000. The growth rate seems to have peeked at 5.1 percent in 1973, perhaps a boom ushered in by Californians fleeing their state. Not at all strange, those fleeing Californians are blamed for many of Reno’s ills (traffic? rising housing costs? You bet!). That rapid growth implied a steady influx of people pursuing jobs and new homes, bringing changes to the quiet urban landscape I remembered. 

Over the intervening years, Reno’s growth rate would slowly drop, peaking once more, at 3.9% in 1993. Since then the rate has steadily fallen. Population stands at 514,000 today, roughly 3 1/2 times what it was when I graduated high school, now with a yearly growth rate just under 2 percent a year. 

Reno Historical Growth from Macrotrends.net retrieved 2021/08/02

For contrast, Loudoun County where I live, has an estimated population of 429,570 with a growth rate of 1.90% in the past year according to the most recent United States census data. Yet we are ranked (and folks complain!) as one of the fastest growing counties in America. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Loudoun County ranks 20th out of 3,142 US counties in growth according to the website https://siteselection.com/issues/2018/may/loudoun-county-10-ways-loudoun-county-virginia-is-no-1.cfm

My family had moved five times during the years I lived in the Washoe Valley region. This summer’s journey began with a drive past our first home in Sparks where we had moved in 1953. Our home, like so many others at the time, was part of a tract subdivision and we were the first ones to occupy it. All the homes looked alike, street after street of small, one story buildings. My parents built the one-car garage and to this day, few of the remaining homes have a garage. But the passage of time and the region’s droughts have been unkind. The house still stands almost 70 years after it was built but appears old and unpainted, the grassy front yard and many of its neighbors’ having been replaced by dirt patches, weeds, and brush. 

We quickly drove on to visit my first elementary school, the painted  cinderblock walls of which still stand out in my memory. The school appeared much as I had remembered it and I was encouraged to see children playing on the playground equipment. The church I had attended growing up, First United Methodist Church, still stands and looks to have expanded over the past half century. That was encouraging too.

We drove past the elementary school and also the first house we lived in after we moved from Sparks to Reno. Roger Corbett Elementary School is located across the street from my high school and it was great to see how well kept they both appeared. The house where we had lived, not so much. 

Perhaps due to the high cost of land and the scarcity of available property “close in” (short commute), many of the older communities and subdivisions here in Northern Virginia are experiencing a second life. Smaller homes are being remodeled and enlarged, or in some cases replaced all together. The area’s mature landscaping contributes to the livability of older neighborhoods and we quite often find people wanting to move in, rather than out, of these neighborhoods. 

In Reno the opposite seems to have taken place. While the shortage of water has had a great effect on landscaping in general, the introduction of xeriscaping has altered much of what I remembered homes and yards looked like. And all the new, much larger homes have been built farther and farther away from the areas I grew up in leaving the older communities appearing…smaller. It’s as if all the two-story homes are located up in the hills surrounding Reno while the bungalows and craftsman homes, the mid century modern and Spanish-revival homes were left behind in the valley. 

Yet there has been an incredible revival in the closer-in areas just beyond the Downtown core. The new area of Midtown is now a bustling community of galleries, restaurants, vintage shops and breweries and cafes, many decorated “to the nines” in a vibrant landscape of murals. 

Quite a few of the stores and even regional shopping malls that I grew up with have closed or are now being replaced with mixed use development. I was surprised to see so many of the large hotel casinos (not—too big to fail) have closed and many of them still stand empty. But some of them have been repurposed bringing new life to struggling areas. One such where we stopped for lunch, the former Riverside Hotel on the Truckee River, is now a building housing artists’ apartments and studios. The six story brick building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, originally built in 1927. Unfortunately many of the other historic buildings in Reno’s downtown have been destroyed, replaced by larger hotel casinos or apartment buildings. 

Our visit began with a side trip to see my kindergarten school and we ended our tour of education facilities with a walk thru the campus of my alma mater, University of Nevada Reno (1974). It was here that the size and scope of change really made an impact on me. The University was founded as a land grant college in 1874; Morril Hall was the first campus building occupied in 1886 and still stands. There were 8,023 students when I graduated in 1974. More than 21,000 students attend now and the university occupies 180 buildings over 290 acres. New buildings sit where before I remembered were only parking lots. Courtyards, walkways, and new intersections abound, as well as multi-level parking garages. A general plan seeks to better integrate the University with the downtown area of Reno just a few blocks to the south of the main campus entrance. Having outlived it’s reputation as the Divorce Capital of the World, the new emphasis on corporate/educational partnerships should help to redefine Reno as more than just a gambling town!

My hometown has changed physically more than I had expected over the past 40+ years; but much of that change has been good for it. I belong to a Facebook Group called “You lived in Reno in the 60s and 70s if you remember …” and there are always posts from people lamenting how much the City has changed. Nostalgia has a way of softening the edges when viewed through those rose-colored granny glasses, I think. I don’t see as well as I used to, and I would agree that you can’t go back to the way things were (thankfully!) But sometimes its nice to turn a corner and see exactly what you had expected would be there, even if its the 7-11 around the corner from where we lived. The indoor shopping mall where I worked while attending college is gone, but the mini mart around the corner from my Dad’s house is still there. Hopefully we will get back out west for another visit before things change too much!

Better Selection

Loudoun County has grown, A LOT, over the past twenty-five years. That is hardly a surprise to anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time. But for me, coming back to the area after we sold our home in Fairfax County, it has been a bit of a shock.

In 1995, the population was 116,140; in 2021 the estimated population is 429,570. The 2020 census data won’t be released for sometime but I’m sure it won’t shock county residents that we continue to grow. While Loudoun County is neither the fastest growing county in the US, it is the fastest in Virginia. According to Loudoun County Business Development, “Nationally, over that span (since 2010) Loudoun ranks 20th in growth of 3,142 counties and seventh among counties with a population of 100,000 or more. With Washington-Dulles International Airport providing access to more than 50 world capitals, nearly one in four Loudouners were born outside the U.S.” See their article for more here.

What I find interesting in all of this talk about growth is the growth in our culinary selections. Restaurant reviews and magazine or newspaper “best of” and “top ten” lists are published periodically. I have found many to be helpful guides in my ongoing search of culinary adventure. Over on The Burn website for instance, they have written over 35 stories on restaurants which have either opened since January of this year, or have plans to open soon.

Many of the new selections fall into recognizable categories: eight new restaurants featuring chicken, for instance. Five new Asian restaurants (Korean BBQ, Chinese-style hot pot, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants; four coffee shops and a couple of cookie or milk shake dessert places; even a new winery which looks like it will be fun (Old Farm Winery at Hartland).

Saigon Outcast is a recently-opened fast casual style restaurant that we tried Saturday night with friends. A band was playing indoors to an enthusiastic crowd; we sat outdoors on the patio. Gas heaters provided plenty of warmth during the cool spring evening and allowed us to enjoy the conversation without needing to wear a mask. Saigon Outcast is an Vietnamese twist on the popular “world of beers” eatery. Rather than traditional pub food (pretzels, hamburgers, smothered tater tots), their menu has features such as lemongrass beef, green papaya salad with shrimp, and wok-charred shishito peppers. Indoors, the wall of customer-poured beers was an experience I look forward to trying again. I needed a little help with the whole process (chilled glasses on the left side of the cooler, tip your glass a little more to get under the spigot) but what an adventure! With over 30 beers, wines and ciders to choose from, fun decor and the Vietnamese inspired menu, this is a place I hope to return to soon.

A few selections from the menu at Saigon Outcast

La Prensa Tacos and Tapas opened last December in Sterling and has been growing in popularity since. Deb and I stopped in after church one Sunday hoping to avoid the afternoon and evening crowd I had seen on a recent drive by pick up at Nothing Bundt Cakes next door. What a treat! We tried several of the tapas and a birria quesadilla, all delicious. They offer two types of sangria so we ordered a glass of each to go with our tasting meal. The grilled octopus with Salsa Basquaise was amazing and had me thinking about our visit to Barcelona. The menu is Mexican influenced according to chef Santosh Tiptur, owner of The Conche in Leesburg, with half of the menu featuring tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas, the other half featuring small-plated tapas. There are three items on the dessert menu (save room!) and the churros drizzled in chocolate served with ice cream was my favorite. The flan was nice, but really no competition with the churros. I’m giving them two thumbs up. Try them soon for an upbeat modern version of a Spanish tapas bar.

Pulpo con Salsa Basquaise

La Prensa

21305 Windmill Parc Drive, Suite 140
Sterling VA 20166
703-462-3325

Saigon Outcast

44921 George Washington Blvd, Suite 155
Ashburn, VA 20147
703-258-6562

Catching Up

One of the most exciting aspects of reconnecting with friends has been to discover what they are doing now. While Facebook has been a great resource to find and reestablish friendships from years ago, I’ve discovered it’s not the only way to do that.

Recently I found an old college roommate (old as in the sense, from years ago!) while searching online for someone else. Google returned a vast array of individuals with the same name as my search; when I cross-referenced a few of them through LinkedIn I was surprised at who I had found. I wrote about reconnecting and catching up with John last week (here). Since then we’ve done a deeper dive and spoken on the phone, he refreshing my fading memory and sketching in more details of his life now.

Another friend from my time in the service, US Army 83-86, moved back to the Pacific Northwest upon retiring from the Army. I follow him on Instagram and was encouraged to see that he and his wife have started a podcast primarily focused on travel and the adventures of a blended family. More power to them! Just as the internet has allowed for a wider audience for writers, it has also opened up the broadcast medium to more voices speaking from their own experiences. Take a listen here https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/lifetrek/id1553717951

Last year I had plans to join my fellow high school graduates to celebrate our 50th Reunion. While those plans were cancelled due to Covid-19, I was able to reconnect with a number of friends thru the Facebook Group one of them had set up for a previous reunion. Catching up online, looking at pictures of children ( and grandchildren!) was itself a small consolation for missing out. And truthfully, we didn’t get fingerprints all over the photo albums that inevitably get passed around. 

Last year I spent some time searching online for information about a Nevada artist, one of whose paintings my parents used to own. When I came across a photo of his painting on a website devoted to Western artists, I was intrigued. It had been used to illustrate an article, a review of a new book comparing the lives of two prominent Nevada artists, one an author, the other a painter. I found the book on Amazon and ordered it; read it; loved it. The book’s author had moved to Reno, my hometown, so I tracked him down and shot off a letter to him. I was agreeably surprised to receive a reply. Anthony noted that he has a new book to be published this spring on another Western artist from the same time period and that he would alert me as to the date. A nice touchstone with an important part of my distant past.

Filing box with old cards
Paper filing card system.

Last year we had a mobile shredding service come out and destroy dozens of boxes of old business records, files and notes on people, some of whom I know have passed on. But what of the rest? What has become of some of these names in files from decades ago? What of their families, their children? Where are they all now? And what about us, have you gotten in touch with someone from your past? No guarantees but it is nice to see how some stories have turned out years later, when perhaps we had only seen the first chapter.

Holiday Traditions

My earliest memory of an actual Christmas tradition in our family was that of the annual Christmas Tree Hunt. There may have been years where we purchased a tree from one of the many vendors around town—we would likely have bought ours from the guys set up on the church parking lot— but buying a tree was rare for us.

The hillsides and mountains around Reno where I grew up were covered with any number of trees. The Sierra Nevada mountains had pine trees, though little in the way of the traditional conical-shaped Douglas fir or noble fir. Those showed up in the parking lots around town, shipped down from Oregon. The ponderosa pines and sugar pines in the Sierra were a scraggly lot in their smaller sizes, though beautiful and stately once they were grown. But a five to six foot ponderosa pine had few branches from which to hang ornaments. 

Our Christmas tree hunt generally focused on the smaller hills to the south of town, an easy hour-long trip to the hills outside Virginia City. There we could find the tree my Dad favored: Nevada’s pinion pine. The pinion pine is a squat, rather bushy style of tree. Very aromatic, quite a bit of pitch which would often be hard to clean off your hands, and lots of pine cones. 

But because most of the trees we found ran towards the beachball shape, it would take a lot of trekking the hills until we found one that was suitable. Never mind if there were bare spots, those could be filled in later with strategically placed branches, cut and reattached with a bit of wire. 

When I married, one of the holiday traditions I wanted to continue with my family was that of the Christmas Tree Hunt. My wife was onboard, and my son enjoyed the trips out to Ticonderoga Farm in Chantilly, especially the year it snowed. Most years the weather was warm and the hunt for a beautiful scotch pine didn’t take long. Acres of trees grown in well-tended rows took some of the “adventure of the hunt” out of the experience, but sipping hot chocolate around the fire pit while we waited for the tree to be bagged with netting more than made up for lost adventure.

Years later I finally broke down and we purchased a prelit artificial tree. We spray it with some winter scent (this year it is “Snowy Night”) hoping to enjoy some of that fresh-cut smell. Not the same, but it’s nice. I saw cars and trucks on the road coming back from Middleburg over the weekend, each one with a nice plump tree strapped to their roof. We just bought a new, prelit tree last year when we downsized to a townhouse. So we won’t be taking part in the Annual Tree Hunt any time soon. And truthfully, I think my days of wandering around the hills looking for that perfect tree are over.

I did plant a small spruce in the yard last year. Who knows but in a few years, it might be large enough to string a few outdoor lights on. But I’m not giving up my Balsam Hill tree. After all, it’s prelit.