Huell Howser, California’s Biggest Ambassador, Travels On

“Now that’s amazing.” Those three words were immediately identifiable to anyone who is a loyal fan of PBS and lives in California. Huell Howser, who came to California a quarter century ago to be “a TV guy”, passed away last week, leaving behind an incredible library of stories about our state, which he brought to life and which will live on forever. What an incredible legacy for any man.

After Howser’s passing, the accolades began to flow. Huell earned every one. But interestingly enough, he wanted no tributes, not even a memorial service. This was a man who lived his life privately. His friends and co-workers knew he was a closeted gay man, but it was a part of himself he chose not to share with others. He died as he lived – in the company of close friends.

What a shame that he felt a need to be someone other than himself to all of us. Because most of us knew him only as a man with a funny accent who was forever telling us about interesting places in our state we had yet to discover. I suspect a large majority of his PBS audience and fans cared little about his personal life. They loved the man they saw on the screen. Huell was a real person. His interview segments on “California Gold” were often done in one take, because he didn’t demand perfection as much as he did honesty. It was a style that served him well.

Howser stepped back from his show last fall, as his health declined. Before he passed, he asked for nothing, except for PBS to continue to air his programs for as long as people enjoyed viewing them. I suspect we’ll see those shows for many years, as reminder of a man dedicated to sharing his adopted home state with others. Many a time I’ve sat on the couch, watching Huell on TV, only to find I need a scratch pad and pen available to make notes about the places he shared. Those shows were a treasure trove of ideas for someone in the travel business.

I got the opportunity to meet Huell in Sacramento’s KVIE studios when he visited in 2011. I had requested an interview with him for The Travel Guys radio show. Veteran broadcasters generally hate those requests. There’s always something they’d rather be doing. But Huell was courteous, smiling and laughing through the entire 12 minute tape. My only regret was not getting a “Now that’s AMAZIN,'” from him during our short time together. A good man, a kind man, a humble man. The kind of guy you miss when he’s gone.

So my friends, I propose a tip o’ the hat to Huell Howser. I wish him peace and safe travels on his next journey. He was and will always be, the definition of California Gold.

In the Eye of the Beholder

 

I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting New Zealand for the first time back in February. Despite the fact I was traveling with my laptop computer and a brand new iPhone, I was unable to connect for days on end. Call it a combination of different systems in use on the other side of the world and my own status of Technological Neanderthal. Whatever the case, when I was at last able to log on in the capital city of Wellington, I went crazy!

The first e-mail I opened was from KVIE, Sacramento’s PBS station. They were trying a new fund raising tool called Bidding for Good—basically an online auction. I saw my artist friend and fellow KVIE volunteer Gayle Rappaport-Weiland had donated an art party for eight with instruction and all supplies included. On a whim I bid, then lost my connection, something I would not regain until I was once again stateside. Imagine my excitement when the first e-mail I opened was again from KVIE. I won!

It was a challenge finding a date that worked for Gayle, my seven eager friends and me, but at last invitations went out and RSVPs starting coming in. It was only then that my eager anticipation shifted to dread. I’ve painted a lot in my life . . . always walls . . . usually holding a roller. How on earth could I master the subtle art of watercolor and create a masterpiece in just two short hours? Sure, this was Gayle’s promise to all participants, but was it really possible for me?

I invited everyone to lunch before we began, complimented by a liberal ration of champagne for all. I could tell I was not the only one in the room with a bit of anxiety over what lay ahead. Thankfully, the bubbly began to do the trick and temper our various fears. At last it was time to start. At each place was a blank piece of heavy, textured paper, a pencil, four brushes, wax, a cup of water, toilet paper and our “palate” (paper plate) with just four dabs of paint. Gayle’s instructions were simple: “Do what I tell you to do, exactly the way I tell you to do it, then LAY DOWN YOUR BRUSH.” She also demonstrated each technique before we had a hand at it.

And you know what? She was right. It was easy. More than that, it was FUN. And best of all, each of us actually produced a masterpiece that clearly looked like a birch tree in the forest. But oh, what art critics we all became! “I like my clouds, sky and horizon, but my foreground never quite reached its full potential.” “My water is a little murky, but check out my evergreens!”

And my favorite, “You have the best bark. You even mastered a knothole.”

“Actually, that’s where I spilled some paint and tried to cover it up.”

“Oh . . . well, it looks like a knothole to me . . . or maybe an owl.”

I don’t think any of us will be quitting our day jobs anytime soon, but I think it’s also safe to say the next paintbrush one of us picks up just may be to apply something other than latex wall paint!

Thanks to Gayle for a wonderful afternoon, and for her charitable donation of the party to support KVIE. If you’re looking for a party or team-building activity for workmates or a special group of friends, I could not recommend Gayle more highly. Check out her classes, art and upcoming shows online at www.grappaport.com.

Postscript: If you’re wondering what role toilet paper fills in the subtle art form of watercolor, you’ll just have to ask me . . . privately, please.

 

Sailing on the Bay

It was a glorious weekend in San Francisco. The weather was clear and sunny in the 70’s, with lisps of fog here and there but not thick enough to obscure the sun. It was a busy weekend: Fleet Day, the next round of America’s Cup Sailing Races, the first playoff games for the San Francisco Giants, a 49er football game, the annual Italian Heritage Parade (formerly known in its pre-politically correct days as the annual Columbus Day Parade), and a huge music festival in Golden Gate Park. Not to mention all the other activities which go along with San Francisco just being San Francisco.

After the Fleet Day Parade of Ships and its annual air show with the Blue Angels (the elite US Naval flying team), the stage was set for the next round of the America’s Cup Racing on the bay. San Francisco has turned out to be a perfect venue for the races which started this past August and will continue next summer. The race course runs between Crissy Field, near the foot of the Golden Gate, to Fort Mason. The finish line is equidistant between the two in the small harbor that is home to the Golden Gate and St. Francis Yacht Clubs. The extreme end of the small protective jetty that nearly encircles the docks serves as the finish line.

Because the course covers so much area of public access, there is plenty of room to view the racing along the waterfront but the only reserved seats are bleacher-style near the starting line. That means the far edge of the course remains obscure but there is live “play-by-play” commentary from onsite announcers and large television screens so those paying the premium for a seat don’t miss a bit of the action. The adjacent “village” is a nice complement to the seating area and offers food, vendors, port-a-potties and additional screens to watch the racing live with a glass of Napa Valley wine in the shade of cool tents.

The best place to view the races, however, is from the water. The entire north side of the race course is San Francisco Bay and vessels of all shapes and sizes were out in full force to watch the races, which generally last about 1½ to 2 hours. Many charter vessels, including the boats of Hornblower Yachts and the historic USS Potomac, bobbed in the bay while passengers observed the sleek 45-foot catamarans racing at twice the speed of the wind. Of course, because they are unique venues with captive audiences, costs for passage on these vessels can be high. A luncheon cruise on one of the Hornblower Yachts started at around $175 per person. I settled for a blanket on a rock along the jetty with my binoculars and a sandwich from an Italian deli.

The next round of racing will be from July until the championship races in mid-September on boats that will be nearly twice the length as the boats raced this year. Sports Leisure will be looking at several options to give our customers a taste of the racing, most likely from on the water on board a comfortable luncheon cruise. Keep your eye on future newsletters and for more information about the races visit www.americascup.com.

We All Remember Where We Were the Night He Walked on the Moon

It was President John Kennedy who set the stage for one of America’s most reluctant heroes. During his too brief time as our nation’s leader in the early 60’s, he challenged us to put a man on the moon. Before the decade was out, Neil Armstrong was that man.

I remember it as a quiet warm summer night. We had moved the television set out on the back porch, I don’t exactly remember why. But I remember it being a clear evening and the moon was visible, so perhaps we thought we could actually see him walking or follow along on television better if we could see where he was. If it was mom’s idea, it completed one heckuva science lesson.

Can’t you remember where you where that evening? Remember the pride you felt. I was about to enter high school in the fall, my little sister must have been 10 or 11, my brother a bit younger. Seemed like to took forever for the moon walk to occur. We had our barbecue and sat in our lawn chairs, waiting for the door for the lunar capsule to open and Neil Armstrong to step onto the surface of the moon. AP said, “Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk.

It was the biggest thing to happen in my young life. I believe it will go down as one of the major human accomplishments of our country in my lifetime. It embodied two things we desperately need today. A leader who urged us to attain a goal seemingly beyond our reach, and a country full of citizens willing to publicly support that goal.

The whole process to getting to the moon was fraught with adventure (and even death). We knew it was dangerous. But it was cutting edge (before even the phrase was popular) and it made us proud to be Americans. The Cold War was in its final stages, and one of the reasons was our ability to beat the Russians to the moon, along with our determination to make it happen.

I was never a NASA scientist, or a space worker of any kind. But I will always be grateful to a modest Neil Armstrong, a true American hero who was suddenly thrust into history books forever. I visited his museum with a tour group a few years back, and his brother stopped by to talk to us. He explained that Neil didn’t really do public appearances, but shared some stories of their childhood in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Everyone handles fame in different ways. It strikes me that America’s early astronauts have proven, over time, to be excellent protectors of our history and our integrity, in no small part because of the way they have conducted themselves after they came into the public spotlight. That point shines through in the request the Armstrong family made to Americans:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Amen. God speed Neil Armstrong, American Hero.

 

Farewell to America’s Grandfather – Andy Griffith

Andy Griffith passed away Friday. To anyone under 30, that might have gone unnoticed. To those anyone older than that, well, could we see the hands of all the people reading this who feel a little like they grew up a bit under the influence of the characters of “Mayberry?”

I thought so. Personally, I remember being home from school with the sniffles, curled up on the couch in a blanket, my suffering made a bit easier by Andy and friends.

Andy Griffith had many successes in his acting career, including the country lawyer named Matlock. But none defined a man or an era like The Andy Griffith Show and the people of the imaginary town of Mayberry. Who couldn’t identify with Barney Fife, Opie, Gomer, Aunt Bea and the gang. When Jim Nabors left to create the highly successful Gomer Pyle, USMC, the program successfully replaced him with his “brother” Goober and never missed a beat. Don Knotts became famous as the bungling deputy who got nothing right, but was still loved at the end of the day. The show’s actors and actresses won awards, but interestingly Griffith was never among those honored. He never complained.

The characters of Mayberry were endearing and the topics the show tackled were pretty cutting edge for a situation comedy in the 60’s. Always done tastefully, with understanding and class.

Class. That would be word that best described Andy Griffith. He refused to embroil himself in politics or other controversial situations, preferring to be “America’s Grandfather.”.

Just listening to Ron Howard, who started his career as Oppie, and has gone on to become a superstar in the entertainment industry, reflect on his relationship with Andy, tells you all you need to know. “He shaped my career and he helped me grow up. I have never met a finer man,” said Howard. Andy helped a country grow up. The 60’s were a time of social upheaval. We lost political leaders, went to Viet Nam, landed on the moon, discovered pot and flower children and generally rearranged the deck chairs like never before. We needed a rock, even if it was a television character.

As we celebrate our great country’s birthday this week, I can’t help but be a bit sad. Resources like Andy Griffith are not easily replaced. Certainly someone new will step up to be the country’s most beloved and humble elder non-statesman. Alas, that man will have big shoes to fill.

Thanks to Andy, for sharing his craft, and really, his philosophy of life with us during his journey. It was a tremendous gift, and it impacted far more people than he will ever know. Or maybe he did know.

It marks, to me, the end of an era. Mayberry and it’s people will live on forever, through the magic of film. It was from a simpler time and place. Andy and his Mayberry was our reality check all those years ago. Still might be.

PS – Donnie Anderson of our staff shared a link to a vocal version of the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show. For all these years, I didn’t know the song HAD words. I really enjoyed listening to it. A little corny, which seems absolutely perfect for the moment. Listen to it by clicking here. Thanks Donnie for sharing.

One State Park a Week – That’s All We Ask!

Remember that advertising campaign from Blue Diamond Almonds? “One can a week, that’s all we ask.” The same could be said for California’s State Parks. If everyone visited a state park each week, the perilous situation our parks are facing would change dramatically. Of course, it’s certainly not realistic to expect busy Californians to visit a state park every week: Maybe once a month would be possible?

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I visited four state parks, none of which I had visited before: Boethe-Napa State Park near Calistoga, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Bale Gristmill State Park, and Jack London State Park. All were wonderful. I camped with my wife and two children (along with three other families) in Boethe-Napa. One of only two state parks with a swimming pool, the other being Hearst Castle, the park is in the process of being taken over by the county park system which is already working to make the park more marketable for year-round visitation. During our stay we observed members of the California Conservation Corps building “yurts” for more comfortable winter-time camping. We also paid a visit to the pool and looked through the small visitors center with its adjacent Native American garden.

From our home base at Boethe-Napa, we hiked a short trail to nearby to Bale Gristmill State Park, also now being managed by the county park system. On weekends, the gristmill is going full-tilt with tours. Pass from the rustic museum into the mill itself and enjoy a wonderfully informative talk by the onsite miller. One jerk of a chain to allow water to pass over the largest working water wheel west of the Mississippi River, and the belts, cranks, gears and millstones of the mill come alive. The not only does the mill still grind corn, wheat, and buckwheat, it supplies several area restaurants!

At nearby Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, we tramped along trails frequented by the famous author during his honeymoon. The Napa Valley was one of his favorite locations in the world. Of course, he wasn’t the only famous author to fall in love with the area. Next door in the valley of Sonoma County, Jack London built his dream house only to see it succumb to fire days before he moved in. He died before he had an opportunity to restore it. His widow lived the rest of her life at the first home on the site and then gifted the home and land to the state. Today the old home serves as a museum dedicated to her husband and a short trail leads down the mountain to the ruins of the home that was never occupied.

Look for Sports Leisure to offer daytrips to all these locations in the near future. Without our state parks, our history continues to be forgotten as well as our inspiration.

We Can’t Wait to Introduce you to Moloka’i

“Yeah, I see the van from my desk. You guys just turned right. We are here on the corner. See you in an hour. You have to go all the way to the airport to get your car and then get back.” That was Julie-Ann Bicoy, the Director of the Molokai Visitors Association. Mark and I met her this past spring in NYC at the NY Times Travel Show and after Mark interviewed her, I promptly recorded another interview over the top of it. So, two weeks ago I found myself out in the Pacific Ocean on the small island of Molokai, The Friendly Isle, to meet with Julie again.

We were greeted with kukui nut leis, a warm smile, and jeers about our navigational skills. As for the hour we lost finding the place, who cares? We were on island time!

And what an island! The place just oozes charm and REAL Hawaii. There are no flagship designer stores such as Prada, Gucci, or Luis Vuitton as in Waikiki. There are no sprawling mega resorts that you’d expect to find on Maui. There are real people, real life, and a real down home “hang loose” kind of feeling. The “downtown” has a real working man’s feel to it. It is only about three or four blocks long with a post office, a few local eateries (fried rice with bacon and Portugese Sausage anyone?), and a general store or two. Nothing fancy….but that is what makes this place so special.

So, you may ask, what is there to do? Answer? About anything you wish if you are creative. Molokai has an entirely different approach to tourism. Where on the other islands you are barraged with hawkers trying to sell you a luau with a discounted snorkeling package, here they simply ask…what do you WANT to do? When we were asked, we really had no answer.

Looking around Julie’s office I spied a sign about a lady that makes culinary sea salt. Julie just nodded and said that she would call Nancy and let her know we were coming. That’s it…that simple. So, off we went to see Nancy and visit her salt farm. She personally took us around and explained the process by which sea salt is harvested and allowed us to taste salt that “rolls the tongue”. It was just Mark and I, no set itinerary, no charge, just Nancy sharing with us her passion. Perfect.

Molokai is probably best known for Father Damien and the leper colony, Kaulapapa. This town still exists but to respect the privacy of those still living there, tourists are not permitted in without special invitation. However, a short drive takes you to a paved walking path where you can look out over the small settlement. Interpretative signs explain the history and story of Father Damien and his incredible work with a group of people that had simply been cast away by society because of their unfortunate illness. The place has a definite feeling; the sadness of the history, yet optimism. Today, the disease is now treatable and no longer requires patients to be quarantined. I don’t know if it is the sheer natural beauty seen from this vantage point, but all seemed right with the world as I stood there looking out over the town and over the ocean.

Our last mission was to find a place to stay on Molokai. It was easy enough to narrow down the hotel. There’s one. Yep, one. It’s called the Hotel Molokai, and a gentleman named Michael Drew runs the place. Michael’s story is very fitting of the vibe of Molokai. He worked for years in Southern California in the hotel industry. He got the opportunity to come and run this hotel in Molokai with the understanding it would only be for one year. One year has turned into five and he shows no signs of leaving. It’s obvious he loves the place and takes great pride in his hotel.

He has begun, individually and personally, to remodel each of the A-framed buildings that make up the hotel compound. Let me tell you a little more about the hotel. It has a rustic charm that is befitting of the island. The rooms are open air (no A/C). Who needs it when there is constant tradewind? Though on the small side, rooms are nicely appointed with new flat screen TVs. Again, who needs a TV when you can hang out at the seaside restaurant that is only steps away from your room while you take in the sunset over a mai tai? It would make for a memorable ending to any trip.

As I sit here under the fluorescent lights of the office I am looking at my new tan and missing the islands. Sports Leisure has been going to Hawaii for years and we pride ourselves on being able to offer new, different experiences that would interest those that have visited the islands before. Well, this trip will be unlike anything we have offered for quite a while. We will give you the option to add two days to visit Oahu and take in Doris Duke’s home, Shangri-La, plus visit the newly revamped Valor in the Pacific Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Then it’s off to luxurious Maui and trust me, there is a lot more to Maui than golf courses and day spas…but there will be time for that too if you should desire. We will explore the interior of the island and learn about the burgeoning agricultural business (How about a stop at a lily pad farm?), see a homegrown performance called U’lalena, depicting the history of the island through music and dance; and there has to be a stop for Ululani’s Hawaiian shave ice! Lastly, “camping” at the Hotel Molokai for one night rounds out the perfect Hawaiian vacation. Leave the tent at home and come along with us as we “rough it” in paradise! It’s Hawaii the way it used to be, and you can’t find it with any other tour company.

Watch for details in our catalog in August. The trip will take place next spring. Maui and Molokai. Who knew there was so much to discover?

You can checkout an episode of The Travel Guys which featured Moloka’i by clicking here!

Ernie Edwards was a Friend of Mine


“Hey Ernie, tell the folks about the time Colonel Sanders stopped by the Pig Hip.”

“Ah shucks Mark,” Ernie would drawl, “I’ve told that story so many times.”

“Come on, once more,” would be my reply (I’d played this game with Ernie a few times over 15 years).

“Well, OK. You see, one night back about 1960, as I was getting ready to close, a gentleman came through the door. He told me he could show me how to make the world’s finest fried chicken. I told him in return I’d offer him the finest barbecued pork sandwich he’d ever tasted,” Ernie would begin.

“He cooked the chicken, in some kind of special pot (which turned out to be a pressure cooker), I fixed him a sandwich and we ate. Mr. Sanders told me I could make a lot of money selling his chicken. Even offered to sell me a franchise. I told him I’d sell him a Pig Hip franchise and he could quit the chicken business. We laughed. After dinner, he moved on. Guess he became sorta famous. Maybe I should have considered one of those chicken franchises of his.”

It was one of Ernie’s best stories. For many, many years, Ernie Edwards ran a restaurant in a small town along the side of Route 66 in Broadwell, Illinois. Broadwell is just a few miles from Lincoln and Springfield (where an aspiring young lawyer would begin a path that would lead him to the White House).

Broadwell isn’t a town as much as it is a wide spot in the road. Because of the interstate wiping out part of old 66, you really have to make an effort to stop there. There isn’t much to see anymore.

The old Pig Hip burned down a few years back. An electrical fire in the restaurant Ernie had made into a museum turned the old, mostly wooden building into a tinderbox torch that was completely ablaze by the time the fire department could be summoned.

But here’s the interesting part. People kept coming. When the restaurant was open, Ernie served up barbecued pork sandwiches and other short order delights. But as the years piled up, the interstate diverted a lot of the traffic from the old road. Ernie retired and figured his career was over. His second career, as a storyteller of and on The Mother Road had just begun.

Then the guidebooks on the old road started getting written. The restaurant had closed and now it was not even there, and people kept stopping to see the now closed highway icon.

I met Ernie in 1995, when took my first trip on Route 66. I knew the first time I met him he would be a “staple” on tours of the old road. We’d stop, and Ernie would hold court in the back of his house. The people would gather around, listen to his stories and get a autographed Pig Hip placemat, buy a few of the souvenirs Ernie sold, and head down the road, having met a true piece of Americana.

Last year, a friend of Ernie’s called me. Seems Ernie was having a harder time getting around and it was time for him and his wife to consider relocating to an assisted care facility in Lincoln. He didn’t want to go. His friend Bobby said, “I’m just calling a few of Ernie’s friends to see if there’s anything we can do to cheer him up. He’s pretty down about having to go to the nursing home.”

I had an idea. Two days later, at our Spring Open House at the KVIE Studios, we invited people who knew Ernie and people who didn’t, to sign one of two giant 30×48” poster boards, one with the “Pig Hip” logo on it. Then, with an assist from FedEx, we delivered the cards to Ernie in Lincoln. That was last April.

Last week, my intercom beeped. “A guy named Bobby is on the phone. Says he’s a friend of Ernie’s, and you would know him.”

Took just a second for my brain to make the connection and I picked up the phone.

“Mark, this is Bobby from Illinois. I just wanted to call you to tell you Ernie Edwards passed away last night. He was 94 years old.”

Then Bobby continued, “I wanted you to know because of the cards. When Ernie got those cards last year, it really turned things around for him. He moved to the senior home, and he and his wife didn’t take a lot with them, because the house was only a few miles away. But he took those cards. They were part of a display in the town museum last fall about The Pig Hip and then they we returned to Ernie’s room at the home where he was staying.”

“Whenever anyone came to visit him over the past year, they would hear the story of your cards. Ernie would tell anyone who would listen that those cards were from his California friends who visited him on Route 66 at the Pig Hip. A big smile would come over his face. It really made a difference. I guess maybe he thought people didn’t really care much about an old restaurant man who told stories.”

I was speechless. A tear or two rolled down my cheek. I thanked Bobby profusely for his call and his comments. I asked him to send my best to Mrs. Edwards.

I’ve met a lot of people like Ernie along America’s old highways. Like Dawn at the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma; or the folks hoping to restore the Wheat Growers Hotel in Kimball, Nebraska; or Angel the barber in Seligman, Arizona, a man who perhaps singlehandedly helped start the movement to preserve and restore Route 66, because he wouldn’t let his town die.

But there aren’t too many quite like Ernie. They broke the mold when they made him. We have lost a friend, those of us who travel Route 66. And next year, when the bus rolls into Broadwell, we’ll stop and I’ll tell the story of the man who sold the “Pig Hip” sandwiches (you only use the LEFT hip of the pig for sandwiches, because the pig scratches himself with the right one, and the meat on that side is tougher – or so Ernie said, with a straight face and then a laugh.)

God, I love to travel. Mostly I love getting off the interstate and taking the old roads, meeting people like Ernie, and hearing the stories, because it’s the stories that make people like Ernie live on within us.

Did I tell you the one about the fried chicken salesman who stopped one night at this little restaurant in Broadwell, Illinois…

So long Ernie. Your friends on “The Mother Road” will miss you.

We found this video, courtesy of Central Illinois Tourism. Enjoy!

The First Saturday of May – A Long, but Great Day!

Show me ten people with a “bucket list,” and I’ll bet you two-to-one that seeing “the two most exciting minutes in sports” is high on the list for at least eight of them. Even for those who don’t consider themselves sports fans, this writer among them, there’s just something about the Kentucky Derby that makes people want to see and experience it first hand. What is it? The hats? The mint juleps? The thoroughbreds who run like the wind? The wagering? The chance to feel like a king (or queen) for a day at an event frequented by actual royalty, movie stars, professional athletes and other society elites? I suppose it’s all these things and more. Who knows . . . maybe it’s that some really like horse racing!

I’ve just returned from my 7th Derby, and my 6th with a group. It was as always a wonderful day, one filled with memories of wins and almost-wins. In the end, I finished $50 up, the best I’ve ever done! I had won three and lost three in the six races prior to the Derby, and was $177 down. In the Derby (the 11th of 13 races on the first Saturday in May,) I bet on Bodemeister to Show. In horse racing, horses don’t come in first, second and third. Rather, they Win, Place and Show. By betting on a horse to Show, I get a payout if he’s one of the first three horses to cross the finish line. It’s a conservative way to play, but it works for me. My horse came in second, and I came home with $50 of Churchill Downs’ money. They say over $100 million was bet that day, all in cash. And ours is a country supposedly in financial crisis. Amazing.

I’ll assume everyone has seen this race on television. Truthfully, for most, this is the best way to enjoy it, right there in the comfort of your home. It’s a long, potentially hot day. The actual temperature this year was in the mid-80s, but in the South they factor in the humidity to get the Heat Index which topped out at 104. Our seats were hard bleachers without backs in the direct sun (or pouring rain or sleet as has been the case in past years). Drinks were overpriced and watered-down. Food was expensive and mediocre. The crowd was overwhelming—this year a record 165,000, all of whom tried to leave at precisely the same moment.

But . . .

It’s also the greatest race in the world. It is where Triple Crown winners are born. It’s where you sing “My Old Kentucky Home” and cry . . . the words just do that to you. It’s where you wear a hat that cost you more than your first car and don’t care. It’s where you drink mint juleps and love them, even through you don’t particularly like bourbon. It’s where you bet and cheer and loose, then bet, cheer and win, loving the one as much as the other, and not remembering or caring which was which at the end of the day.

The Kentucky Derby is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the experience of a lifetime. Is it on your “bucket list”? Our 2013 dates are May 2-8. Call or write me with any questions, or to place your name on the Priority Notification List! We will begin to take reservations late this summer.

Charity Begins at Home

A few months back, a Travel Club member got in touch and suggested a daytrip that would tour Sacramento’s Shriners Hospital for Children. Normally our staff spends its time trying to find places outside of Sacramento in which to travel. But Joe Hassna, the Travel Club member who contacted me, painted a wonderful picture of the important work the hospital and its staff performs on behalf of children who need the unique healthcare they provide. The hospital volunteers also provide private tours for groups on demand.

I contacted the hospital and made arrangements. Lunch would be important too so it made perfect sense to visit the Casa Garden Restaurant, owned and operated by the Sacramento Children’s Home. It was a perfect compliment to our daytrip. Soon we had a name for the tour: You Have a Date for Lunch for the Children. The tour quickly sold out and I volunteered to serve as Tour Director.

We were greeted with open arms by the staff at the hospital which gathered us into a small auditorium off the main lobby to show us a brief five minute film about the mission of Shriners Hospitals and specifically the hospital in Sacramento. Officially known as Shriners Hospital for Children of Northern California, the facility moved across the street from the UC Davis Medical Center about 15 years ago from San Francisco. Our Shriners Hospital is the only one in the system of twenty-two hospitals that serves all four medical missions of Shriners: burns, orthopedics, cleft lip & palates, and spinal cord injuries. Additionally, it serves as a research hospital and manufactures its own prosthetics on site, saving both time and money. Rooms for families of children staying at the hospital are also provided free of charge on site.

What’s amazing about the hospital is that it serves children of all needs, regardless of income or insurance. In other words, a middle-class family with health insurance would still get care free of charge at Shriners. What’s even more amazing is the fact that the hospital is never full; Mostly because people are simply “wired” to bring their children to regular hospitals to have their families taken care of in those facilities. As a result, the 80 beds at Shriners Hospital Northern California are typically only half full at any time. That said, the hospital does serve around 75 to 100 children on an outpatient basis every day, mostly providing follow-up care to children who have experienced multiple day stays in the hospital.

Started in 1867 as a home for orphans, The Sacramento Childrens Home has greatly expanded its mission to include crisis nurseries, a counseling center, residential and age-transitioning programs, and educational programs concentrating in after-school and youth literacy. One of the fundraising activities that supports the organization is its own on-site restaurant, The Casa Garden Restaurant. Open since 1973 as a restaurant and meeting center, it is staffed mostly by volunteers who don’t accept wages and donate their tips back to the organization. In fact, the volunteer servers at the restaurant have donated over $3 million in tips since the facility opened its doors.

Sports Leisure will be donating all the proceeds of our daytrip to both Shriners Northern California and Sacramento Chidlrens Home. As April 15 approaches, I hope you will take time to consider making tax-deductible donations to both these worthy charities. The websites are http://www.shrinershospitalsforchildren.org and http://kidshome.org/. And even more importantly, please help to spread the word about their important missions.