A California diary… A group of six on tour in 2007
8 days in northern California… day one
A head-scratching… head-turning… headache of a day with United Airlines


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on November 8, 2007. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Before we kick this off, I want to include an introduction for a fantastic trip. We had a great time visiting San Francisco… which will become quite evident if you stick with this travel diary through the chapters covering each day, and even if you only look over the “Best of…” column. We met some great people… went to some amazing places… and overall had a simply incredible time.

I felt the need to write the overview chapter though. One that introduced the experience. Why? Because there was something strange about this trip… something different. It definitely wasn’t anything bad. It was simply… well… strange… different… unexpected. (Actually, yeah… unexpected. That’s a good word for it.)

When you travel out to the northern California region, you are visiting some of the most diverse land you could ever experience. It’s a grape-growing area that can compete with the finest vineyards and wine producers in the world. It’s a farming area that includes crops and festivals of world-wide-fame for garlic… strawberries… artichokes… and we could go on forever listing the fruits and vegetables that are grown. It’s a coastal community… it’s a collection of rivers… and forests… and deserts… and mountains…

It’s breathtaking.

It’s brilliant.

It’s beautiful.

But it doesn’t slam you over the head as a city the way Chicago… New York… Boston… can. (Strange, but it is similar to Los Angeles and San Diego in this way as I think about it. And yet… it is so very different from southern California.)

Anyway… I want you to understand that you are about to read things concerning a really fantastic vacation. It was one of the easiest, and yet most challenging, travel diaries I have ever written. Every day was packed from the alarm going off in the morning until the collapsing at night.

Joining Terry and I on this trip were…

Ellen and Richard – You’ve met them before around these parts, mainly from our Las Vegas journey in 2004. Ellen has also previously been part of the 2005 Florida entries for Disney.

Mike and Louise – They’ve been mentioned on the web site before, including Mike taking on a role in several sports columns. This is our first trip with them. (And it won’t be the last.)

We start the diary as we normally do… with a review of day one, and a focus on the travel. It’s a long one… and it doesn’t involve jaw dropping scenery or delicious wine. So if you want to skip it or start elsewhere… I understand. But it does involve a few funny things about an airline.

You see, United Airlines has quite the reputation with people for sucking in a major way. And on this day, they lived up to every bit of that reputation. And in fact, they exceeded it.

Day one, Saturday, October 20, 2007

It’s 3am… and I’m cranky.

It’s not the 3am wake-up call that’s doing it to me. That part is fine. When heading out on vacation, many times before I’ve stayed up all night. You can nap on the plane… sleep when you get there… whatever. So it isn’t the early hour or some lack of sleep.

Instead, I just meant to have more done right now. I’m behind in my contributions to Terry’s craft fair efforts. I had a few query letters and book proposals I wanted to send out before leaving. I wanted to have the web site ready for November and NaNoWriMo… hoped to send out the questions for an interview effort and make a few inquiries on others… return e-mails to friends (that have been overdue for weeks)… all sorts of stuff. But between visiting a college for Justin and a few other assorted tasks… I’m running behind.

So… here it is… 3am… and I’m awake.

I’m putting the finishing touches on the namesake of the web site… my backpack. Tigg is in the shower and I’m next. We want to be out of here within a few minutes of 3:30.

After eating a couple of muffins I found sitting on the counter (banana chocolate chip… a true score), finishing up the backpack and its contents for the trip, and moving the luggage to the door, my mood is a bit better.

I’m on vacation… and regardless of where things are in production, it’s time to leave all this stuff behind for a week.

We’re picking up Ellen and Richard at about 4:30am. Then we are supposed to meet Dad, park the car at his house, and he’s taking us to the airport.

There’s something funny about these early morning hours. I find it happens really only after you’ve slept. You’ve woken up before everyone else, and you’re out next to the car in the driveway. You tend to speak softly. It’s that hushed voice that comes with the realization that everyone else is sleeping, noise seems to travel better and the air around you seems to be a bit thicker… cooler and lighter, but with its own atmosphere if you will. I’m not doing the description justice… but it is definitely not something that happens before you’ve gone to sleep. At those times, someone in your group is still full-voice… wide awake.

When we arrive at Ellen and Richard’s house… the air is calm… everyone has been to sleep… we’re talking in hushed voices… and the world has that strange feeling to it.

Over to get Dad… off to the airport… in to the United counter, where the trip begins with what might have been a very wonderful mistake.

We get into a long line. Ellen has done a great job of setting everything up on-line. We have our boarding passes, and our bags are registered (or whatever you call it when it’s been done on-line). So I lean over to a nearby TSA agent.

“Hi. Umm… wondering if you can help me out. We booked everything on-line, have our boarding passes, and just need to check our bags. Do you know if we need to wait in this line to get to the computer terminal and request our bag tags?”

“No, you shouldn’t. Come with me.”

And with that, I wave to Ellen and the TSA agent brings the two of us into an empty line… right to the front… and then goes back to the baggage area. As I look around, I notice that every United counter has a computer in front of it. And every person in line has some paperwork with them, most of which appears to have been printed at home. And there is this “United first class” sign near the front of the line we were directed into that I suppose could be for our very line.


But before I can look around more, confirm my suspicions or check with Ellen, she has been swept up by a United representative and brought to a terminal. By the time I can grab Richard and Terry (and their IDs) from the back of the line, I am convinced we just cut in front of about fifty people. I don’t make eye contact with anyone… I pretend it’s all perfectly normal… and mention it only later at the gate.

As I explain my theory, Ellen agrees… thanks to the TSA agent directing us to the front of the line, we cut at least a half-hour off of our wait. (At least.)

Terry had a small problem during the process. One of our bags weighed in at 55-pounds… 5-pounds over the limit. Here is, near as I recall, the exchange that took place:

United representative (looking at our two bags and putting a tag on the largest one of them): “I’ll need to weigh this bag.”

Terry (putting a tag on the other bag): “Ok.”

United girl: “It’s 5-pounds overweight.”

Terry: “What?”

United girl: “It’s 5-pounds too heavy.”

Terry: “Give me the thing, I’ll get 5-pounds out of it.”

Before she has to, the girl waves her off and says it’s ok. Now…

We normally pack a spare bag inside one of our bags when we travel, for that vacation-shopping that always takes place. So the funniest thing about the exchange to me is actually what the United girl doesn’t know… because I know Terry is thinking about the spare bag and the tripod she was asked to pack, last night after finishing what she expected to be all of her packing, and that probably arrives at a combined weight she is figuring to be roughly 5-pounds. And since I gave her the tripod and told her we needed a spare bag, I can tell by looking in her eyes that any fee for being overweight was about three seconds away from coming specifically out of my spending money.

We settle in at the gate and decided to do the something to drink, something to eat, trip to the restroom dance. As we do I spot a great sign. In previous travel diaries I’ve told you that Green Airport is in Warwick, Rhode Island… not Providence. The sign? “Despite what you may have been told, you’ve landed in Warwick, Rhode Island.” Classic.

The flight is at 7:10am. Boarding thirty-minutes prior. I have 6:23 in the pool for when Mike and Louise will arrive. Evidently they got caught up in the line, but make it to the gate at 6:17.

I am planning on some exciting preflight entertainment thanks to Mike. Several years ago, I was in Boston at Logan Airport. At the time, they had this display of things you weren’t allowed to bring on a plane… at least not in your carry-on bags. It included things like leaf blowers… gasoline… charcoal… lighter fluid… and all sorts of items you and I normally pack in our luggage. Well… fine… you sense the joke. It seemed pretty obvious at the time… who would pack this stuff?

The answer is… apparently… Mike.

Ok… no… he didn’t pack a barbecue. And his thoughts weren’t as outrageous as putting a chainsaw into his checked luggage. For several weeks though… heck, several months… Mike has been planning on bringing some chorizo with him on the trip. According to our last conversation, he did indeed have some packed in his luggage. So Richard and I were kicking it around on the way to the airport, and neither one of us knows if, or when, the bags get to pass by a German Shepard or two. It’s the demented and twisted side of us that is hoping it happens as they are loading the bags on the plane, and that we get to watch a couple of dogs ripping his suitcase open to get to the sausage inside.

It’s just after 6:30 when the flight starts boarding. The Canasta Masta is traveling with us. Mike announces that for this trip he would prefer to be known as “El Canasshole” if we are in need of a nickname.

We settle in, and Terry is making friends with some kids in the row in front of her. Mike notices a problem. Row 14… and he’s got seat D on the aisle. And… the armrest, well, appears to be bent about three inches out of place. It’s fine though, sort of, when he puts his arm on it … and it’s not a hideous flight to Chicago… so…

Time to literally take off on vacation.

I packed three books for the trip, and I’ve started the first one… The I Chong. I decide to keep reading instead of watching the in-flight program, which turns out to be the season finale of last year’s The Office.

We land in Chicago to a horrible discovery… the Canasta Masta’s sunglasses are gone! Terry figures it happened before we got on the plane… when we were walking in that corridor-like connecting thingy. So… basically… gone… and gone for good.

Otherwise things are ok. After moving to the next gate, we’ve got over an hour and a half to get something to eat and relax in Chicago.

Mike, Terry and I hit Manchu Wok. McDonald’s gets a visit from Louise. Ellen and Richard are a bit all over… starting with coffee at the Golden Arches, and then Richard following us to the food court area. Before you know it… we’re boarding the next flight.

In order to secure a mid-afternoon arrival in San Francisco, we had to use a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. Yup… three flights to get across the country and into the Bay Area. That decision is about to become fairly interesting.

As the three of us guys settle into our row (it’s one of those with three seats along the middle of the plane, and two on each side… but I didn’t note what type… maybe it was a 767), Mike lands in 22-D. And… well… his armrest goes flying. Ha-ha… he’s two for two.

(The fun is just beginning…)

At 10am the captain comes on the overhead speaker system and announces that there is a mechanical problem. Some sort of flap issue. While they don’t think it is anything major, there is a warning light on… and they can’t take off with the light on… and they have set 10:30am as the deadline to make a decision. (Blah… blah… blah… get me to LA.)

Having had some fun with our cars over the past couple of years… basically involving the “service engine soon” lights coming on… allofthetime… I look at Terry. “Can’t you get onto any vehicle without setting off a ‘service engine’ light?” She laughs.

Normally this situation wouldn’t be too hideous. There are several flights from LA up to San Francisco after all. So, the worst-case plan being to take us off of one plane and put us on another doesn’t sound too bad. Neither does getting us on a later flight from Chicago. We’ve planned to keep Sunday open and had been set up to arrive early. So… it’s inconvenient… but we’ll sort it out. Right?

Sure. We think. At least until…

The cell phone usage policy hasn’t been put in motion yet on the plane, and the woman next to me is talking on her phone. According to her, United had already cancelled the flight before ours to LA (which was slated for about 9:30am), and now has cancelled the flight after ours to LA (for about 12:30pm). So… you know… our particular flight is now the only United flight out to LA for hours and hours. And frankly, United’s average for the day getting planes in the air from Chicago to LA ain’t looking so hot.

Richard, Mike and I are flipping through the Sky Mall book. Is anyone paying attention to Jimmy Buffet? Hey… I love the guy… but a Margaritaville Frozen Drink Maker? I think we can safely call it -- it’s no longer about the music… it’s all party and revenue.

The flight attendants play it as if we are going to take off. We get to watch the safety video thing. And eventually… hurrah… we are moving!

Mike and I switch our headsets over to the in-flight cockpit communication channel. We’ve been told to listen for flight 109. Here’s the exchange after the overhead speaker on the plane told all of us we’re seventh or so in line for takeoff (and I wrote this down, so I feel quite comfortable in saying it is accurate):

Control tower: “Flight 109 you’ll have to return to the gate.”

Cockpit: “Flight 109, what’s the problem?”

Control: “We’re getting a load error reading.”

Cockpit: “Oh that is… that is not good.”

Mike and I look at each other. At this point, no one else near us has heard yet. Pretty much in disbelief, Mike says out loud: “Do you believe it? We’re going back to the gate.” People around turn to us as he says it, expressing their obvious disbelief. (Bear in mind… plane hasn’t moved from its place in line… and the crew just announced we were waiting to leave.)

About a minute later, someone from the cockpit comes on to announce the return to the gate and the load light that’s on. Much grumbling ensues. I look at Terry: “Think it’s the 5-pounds from your bag?” (Note to self… she’s getting less and less amused by questions from me on this flight.)

Ok… so here’s a question for you. The plane was all loaded and ready to go (basically) when they were working on that flap-warning-light problem. Couldn’t they have known about the load problem back then? Heck… shouldn’t they have known about the load problem back then? They have those records of how many bags all of us passengers checked. You’d figure they’d have some idea when we were getting close.

Or… is there some weigh station along the paths when we taxi along out to the runway?

Maybe… oh wait, I know… maybe it wasn’t the overall weight. It was the way it was loaded. You know… uneven or whatever… tipping to one side… causing a danger in keeping things balanced while maneuvering the plane for take-off or landing or through a barrel roll over the Rocky Mountains. Hold on though… before getting carried away with the potential comedy, once again the major idea here is simple… if those luggage guys loaded the plane wrong, shouldn’t the light have gone off sooner?

I’m searching. I don’t know. Perhaps it was a wrench or screwdriver left behind by the person fixing the flap-warning-light-issue. I don’t know.

(Seriously though… I can’t get over the basics… shouldn’t that load warning sensor, whatever it was referencing, have been set off just a bit earlier than almost an hour after we were supposed to be in the air?)

We get to watch the safety video again. I don’t ask… I’m guessing there is some sort of leaving the gate, federal rule about it… regardless of whether or not any door was opened.

It’s just after 11:15 when we head back out to the runway. Around 11:30… ninety minutes late and no longer able to make up the time that they promised to make up while in the air during the first delay… we have been cleared to leave Chicago.

The in-flight movie is License to Wed, which initially strikes us as a bit funny since a huge chunk of the cast are regulars on The Office… which you might recall being featured on the first flight. It proves to be less funny when, after the feature film wraps up the programming continues with the season finale of last year’s The Office.

An announcement is made after we land, asking that people without a tight connection time please allow those with rough schedules to leave the plane first. I’m a bit surprised when a vast number of people remain seated as we leave to catch our flight to San Francisco. Awfully nice of them. (And thank you if you happened to be one of those folks.)

What had been approximately a 2-hour layover in LA has been turned into a rush. You know… I wonder if the airlines take that into consideration. Here’s what I mean…

Most airlines these days rarely feed you on flights. Sure, you get the mini-pretzels. But meal service is essentially gone, unless you pay for it. About the only time you do get fed is on longer flights, and let’s set those at anything greater than 5 hours on the plane. Strange… very, very few airlines seem to offer non-stop cross-country flights. Long story short… the flight across county might very well total more than 5 hours, but you aren’t getting a meal when that covering that distance is made up of two separate 3 or so hour flights.

However… and here’s where it gets really great... some of those airlines leave you with no wiggle-room for connecting flights. I’ve gone cross-country, Providence to LA through Detroit, where 30-minutes was the break between arrival of flight one and departure of flight two.

In other words… since they expect you to figure out your own meal… exactly when are you supposed to eat it? …when are you supposed to buy it?

Ok… ok… I get it… you’re supposed to anticipate all of the hassles and plan accordingly. Don’t just build in a layover between flights, but understand that you likely aren’t going to get the layover that you built in. The flight will be delayed… so build in a layover so you don’t miss that important connection. The flight doesn’t serve food… so build in a layover so you can eat. But whatever you do… don’t actually expect there to be a layover.

(Which, in the end and whatever result you consider, is hysterical… because it’s exactly why I always pack a couple of candy bars into my backpack. Used to be a couple of candy bars and bottles of water packed at home, but the TSA took away that fun. When you start considering flights, there is never any combination that look convenient for connections. Never.)

Regardless of the situations or circumstances I give you, the simple fact is that airline travel isn’t just becoming less convenient, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating. It isn’t enough that they tell you not to bring a bottle of water through the TSA security checkpoint (only to sell bottled water on the other side of that checkpoint). No… they’ve built in a better variety of food service locations (only to not give you enough time between flights to visit them… or have them closed at the hours you really would want to visit them). And… how about if we delay your departure… arrive late… lose your luggage… show the same movie?

When I was a kid, traveling by plane was an amazing adventure. I can still vividly recall getting served pancakes on the first plane I ever flew on. (“We’re going to Florida! I get to ride in a plane! Wait… wait… and I’m getting pancakes! This is the greatest day EVER!”)

Now the flight isn’t an enjoyable or exciting part of travel. It’s a necessary evil… an endurance test.

Forget relaxing early on your vacation. Now you need to be aware of what is going on until the door to the hotel room opens up… because every element of the trip before that, from airlines to rental cars to whatever, holds the possibility of inconveniencing you. And folks, things ain’t getting better. (I miss you Song Airlines!)

But that’s just me babbling. Right? I mean… we’re out of Chicago… we’ve moved on to our third plane of the day… and the departure is just a few minutes away… and it’s the shortest flight… and… heck… what could go wrong? After all… I’m on vacation!

El Canasshole sits down in seat 26-D and scores the trifecta. He’s three for three with another broken armrest.

It’s a short flight, so our entertainment isn’t a feature-length movie. It’s… no way… it’s the season finale of The Office. (Because of course it is. You saw that coming when I told you there was a third flight. To cap it off though, they are running it as taped promotional programming, so it even has the exact same annoying NBC network commercial breaks built in. But I’m trying to be positive… the episode is the one that focuses on Jan’s boobs, so it has that going for it.)

We land in San Francisco, and are immediately sent a sign. Mind you… it’s not a bad sign. It isn’t a sign warning us of some impending doom. It’s a mild sign letting us know that even though we are on the ground in San Francisco, we shouldn’t be so quick as to think we’ve arrived and the fun can begin.

The pilot doesn’t park us properly at the gate. That moving thingy they bring to the door won’t line up with the door. They have to bring out a tow unit and pull the plane away from the gate so it will line up, which will ultimately allow us to get off the plane.

At this point we hit four pages of notes that don’t nearly begin to cover what happened next. What I can tell you, before I go through these incidents, is that Mike was a portable grill and a mandolin away from establishing a campsite in the baggage claim area. Looks like we’re going to be here a while, and he intends to make the best of it. (Of course, in fairness, his luggage both: (1) arrived, and, (2) wasn’t damaged. Ladies and gentlemen, get ready… we are entering a Seinfeld episode… (and funny enough, it won’t be the last time Seinfeld episodes make an appearance on this trip…))

We get to the baggage claim area and absolutely no one can tell us where to look for the luggage from our flight. (Great.) Finally, after wandering toward one conveyor system, it actually starts to move, so we begin looking for familiar items.

Terry and I spot our biggest bag… you know, the old extra-5-pounder… and I grab it. Along the side… the side with a handle on it that should be used for lifting the darn thing… is a tear at the seam. This isn’t some cheap bag. It’s a quality piece from Samsonite. It’s traveled internationally. I highly doubt the extra 5-pounds did it in. It doesn’t look like anything has fallen out, but it’s obvious to us that it was damaged by United’s baggage handlers, and equally obvious that we won’t be able to pack it for use on the return flight in a week.

We go over to the counter and meet Lisa. At first she offers Terry a bag to use so she can take the damaged one and try to send it for repairs. Sounds good… except that it is significantly smaller than our bag, and it’s obvious without even trying that everything won’t fit in it. Still, there’s Lisa, suggesting we unpack it here… in the baggage claim area… so she can take the damaged one right away.

At this point, Terry is fuming. It’s basically the initial shock of everything hitting her… the entire day of flights and events putting her in less than a relaxed and vacationy state of mind… the discovery of the damaged bag… and, perhaps most of all… the helpless feeling that even if United does take her bag right now, she knows we are going to need to purchase more luggage in order to head home, and chances are really good United won’t offer us any money for that inconvenience and expense. And, on top of that… the whipped cream on this sundae… that now they apparently expect her to pack her big duffel bag into a small carry-on size bag on the floor of the airport baggage claim area.

The group conversation quickly turns to laughing in the face of frustration. After all… it isn’t Lisa’s fault. Poor girl is there to do a job that probably has “get yelled at by customers” creating 98% of the job description.

Leading the laughter is Ellen. She has suggestions involving the tear being along the seam… and she has jokes about having an excuse to go shopping… and she is in a general, overall, quite serene “I hate United, lord they suck and everyone knows it, but don’t let it ruin your vacation Terry” frame of mind. Until…

Richard wanders over.

Mike and Louise have accounted for their luggage.

Damaged, yes. Still… Terry and I have accounted for our luggage. And, as Richard arrives, we also reached a conclusion to our situation -- a written receipt of the damaged bag claim slip, and we know what we plan to do about buying a new bag and turning in the damaged one.

Richard on the other hand… well… he doesn’t have the three bags they checked that morning.

He has one.

As near as my notes convey… apparently in the twenty-seconds between Ellen supporting her best friend with smiles and soft-spoken words of “United sucks” and discussing the airline’s horrendous reputation with a laugh and a head nod or two of understanding, and then Richard appearing without two bags… well…

Again, as far as I can tell, in that short span of time…

United Airlines said something about a member of Ellen’s family and also insulted her cooking. Had to be some major insult of that level. Because when Richard told her he didn’t have the luggage, she let loose on a string of profanity the likes of which I haven’t heard in even the most heated of Canasta competitions. (And believe me… when she, Terry and Louise get playing Canasta against each other, the English language is elevated to new heights of cursing that have rarely been matched in history.)

I leave the group to go check on two things… one, to call the car rental agency and let them know we might be a few minutes late… two, to find out how to get there. I make a phone call and find out our reservation is fine. I check to see where the shuttle-train boards. And by the time I return, Mike is talking about chorizo and people are laughing. The bags were shuffled during the quick turnover in Los Angeles. They didn’t get placed on our flight and were put on the next one to San Francisco. While I was gone, they arrived.

We grab our bags, head upstairs, and board the train to the car rental desks. (And for those of you that have watched Seinfeld, if the humor so far doesn’t connect, then the comparison is about to become a bit more clear.)

I walk over to the desk and I meet a girl named “Trainee.” (Obviously her name tag either bears the details of one of the more unfortunate names ever, or it’s yet another sign of impending doom. Quick… which one do you think it is?)

She pulls up the reservation, looks things over, agrees that everything is all set for our mini-van, and immediately asks what kind of car I want since they don’t have any mini-vans.

Agent: I’m sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.

Jerry: I don’t understand. I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do. Unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car.

A debate begins over the seating chart Hertz has on their counter and the reality of seating in an SUV. (Folks… I don’t care what the chart says… a Highlander is not seating seven adults plus baggage. (Heck, it’s not seating six without baggage.) From what I’ve seen, I love the Highlanders. Nice looking SUV. Ain’t happening for our group.) Mike, Richard and I begin playing an unspoken game with Trainee. We start asking her about third row seating… interior cubic footage… gas mileage differential… the ability to return in a few hours, or the next morning, to exchange the replacement for a mini-van… the air-speed-velocity of an unladen swallow… and all sorts of other stuff that quickly has Trainee standing still, silently, and completely unsure of what to do.

She makes a phone call. She tries again to tell us a Highlander seats seven. I ask her if that’s a Highlander with a full third row seat, if that includes luggage, and explain again that we aren’t traveling with kids. (Seriously… apologies to the ladies of our touring party… but not one person in our group of six checks in at 5-foot-1 and 106-pounds or less. Not one. (Actually… hold on… that’s not true. The torn bag is 4-foot-2 and had been 55-pounds when this day started.))

Amazingly, Trainee goes on. And that brings me to the center of this whole situation. If Trainee wants to tell me they are out of mini-vans, so be it. I won’t like it. Not at all. The bigger issue though is this… I’m having a huge problem with her not understanding that there was a reason we rented a mini-van. And it wasn’t because we thought it would be stylish. So her pointing to the Mustang convertible that seats two plus luggage -- which she did -- isn’t a convincing alternative consideration.

Mike waves over a supervisor and asks him about the reservation, points out that we are a group of six adults with luggage, and… long story short… in five minutes we are heading down to the Hertz portion of the garage to get into the Dodge mini-van that Hertz didn’t have for us.

We start loading the car and I get in to find out it has a Magellan GPS navigation system. (Cool! But… umm… never used one before.) We’ve managed to get the attention of Kirk from Hertz to ask about getting to our hotel. He laughs and gives us directions, then goes over the navigation system. (Yeah… sure… we learned more about the unit playing with it ourselves over the course of the trip. Didn’t matter. Kirk was friendly and helpful and earned himself a couple of bucks. Thanks Kirk!)

Our hotel is… literally (hence the laugh from Kirk)… one exit and barely four minutes away from the car rental garage. We head over to the Quality Suites on El Camino Real… and I’ll say it… the day finally faded into the background. We are in three rooms… each a mini-suite of sorts with a sitting room, a mini-fridge and a microwave, and a king-size bed.

We drive up and down El Camino Real a bit, trying to get ourselves situated. We have some shopping to do (plans to pick up a cooler, some bottled water and drinks, and maybe some groceries). We also want to eat. It’s a Saturday night though and everything is packed.

Finally, Terry has convinced the four of our group that haven’t experienced it (Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise) that In-N-Out Burger is worth a stop. The ordering is so simple at In-N-Out that it almost defies logic. Basically, they sell burgers. And fries. After that, you need to go someplace else. We get some skeptical looks, indicating that four members of the group are unsure if the praises from two members of our group could possibly be accurate. Still… In-N-Out it is!

We start to eat and the four hesitant members of our group are suddenly talking about franchise opportunities in Rhode Island.

Delicious! Agreement is reached -- with no vote taken -- to visit another In-N-Out during our trip.

We head over to a small shopping plaza and into Trader Joe’s. If you’ve never been in a Trader Joe’s, find one and go. I can’t tell you all of the items are worth purchasing… because they aren’t. The prices are really good though, and you will find out that some of their items are an incredible value. I highly… highly… highly recommend the Ginger Lemon Cremes. I think they are made by Carr’s. If you want a delicious cookie… well… let’s just say that without chocolate involved, there probably isn’t a finer package of cookies to be bought.

And the assortment of products is really good at Trader Joe’s… names you won’t find anyplace else, and yet ranging from really basic items to those that are hard to find. The trick is that even with some amazing food and products to be found, occasionally some of the stuff lives up to the cheaper prices. Still… a fine establishment overall.

The day ends with us retiring to our rooms. I turn on the television and find out that Snickers bars were named after the family horse. Also… and there is a chance I was too tired to write this down properly… they make enough Snickers every day to stretch from Waco to San Antonio and back.

Just thought you might want to know.

It’s time for bed. AIH (Ass… In… Hall) has been set for the morning. Quality Suites offers a breakfast with eggs cooked to order. And a lazy day of exploring is on tap for day two… but it has an early start.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com