Monday, October 12, 2020

What we have learnt as we returned to the road


Yes, we have returned from nearly two weeks on the road. Our itinerary included southern California with a quick attempt at a business meeting in northern California and while our focus was mostly on business, the global pandemic didn’t help us a whole lot. Nor did the coming end of quarter and end of year activities of HPE, but that was completely understandable and our opportunity to chat with some folks was always going to be problematic. On the other hand, we were able to talk business with folks we are close to and the news is rather mixed.

You will read more about the business outcomes in my next post to the NonStop community blog, Real Time View, but for now, our itinerary was deliberately constructed to maximize the mix of cities we would pass through, including some where we overnighted. So, what was the big takeaway from our travels? It is as diverse as the country itself as we were presented with so many different approaches to combating COVID-19 that oftentimes it left us a little confused. To my many friends overseas spread from Australia to the UK, America is a republic. At least for now that is and as a republic, states maintain enormous powers such that no national dictate is enforceable. So, it is what it is and we made adjustments to our approach to staying healthy each time we crossed state lines.

The photos (above and later in this post) are quite a contrast. On the outbound journey, we stopped by Mastro’s steakhouse in Scottsdale old town, Arizona, where the tables were set up with lots of open space visible. On the return journey, we stopped by the Doubletree Hotel in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the bar was open, although there was enough distance between patrons to feel safe, and where the atmosphere wasn’t far removed from when we had stopped by many times during the past couple of decades. And the bar staff were familiar faces and were so happy that a level of normalcy had returned and yes, they could now pay their bills!

Entering the bar at the Doubletree hotel, Grand Junction, we passed this blackboard sign. Considering that over the two decades we had stopped by for the night, we had never seen the bar completely full so informing us that the hotel would be accommodating only half the patrons it could well, it meant there was no visible difference from former times. As for parties of six plus, well, only at the height of fracking at nearby Parachute and Rifle, Colorado, we never saw parties of more than four. Anyhow, good to know there were practices in place to protect us!

However, in between the cities we passed (and where we stopped for the night), finding somewhere to eat proved difficult. In Colorado, McDonalds kept lobbies open for the most part and allowed you to sit outside on everything from tables to nicely sculptured rocks. On the other hand, it was drive-through only in Arizona and California and yes, the lines of cars were so long we didn’t bother. We simply went hungry on many occasions. Perhaps, that was good for us but on the other hand, you have no idea how much we looked forward to reaching our destination and finding a place where we could sit down and enjoy fine dining. Oh, and when these restaurants allow drive through only the bathrooms are not available, either. Add to it the California’s mostly closed rest areas. We did miss our RV this time.

At this point it would be all too easy to break into politicalized rhetoric but I will resist at this time. What Margo and I cannot ignore however is just how different it is driving across the westerns states to what we see on television most nights. While this journey was born out of business necessity it also gave us both plenty of opportunities to listen to the many folks we encountered along the way and the impression that we were left with was that life was continuing albeit differently.

With the exception of a couple of locations in California – Monterey being the best example – those working in the service industry were simply happy to be back working productively again. Whether it was where we ate or where we spent the night, it was the same story. How can we help make your time with us enjoyable despite restrictions that may be in place; everywhere rooms had been sealed prior to our arrival and room service was absent unless a call was placed to housekeeping.  

Hotels and restaurants tell only part of the story as we did have an opportunity to stop by the Kennys of Simi Valley. Lots of topics were covered in the time we spent with them, some of which covered business topics we were well aware of that happened to be progressing well despite the COVID-19 pandemic. But perhaps most important of all was the arrival of the Kennys new free-standing pizza oven which was the center of one evenings activities. Never been near one so it was quite an educational experience watching how it worked; that’s it in red just behind Brian and for those wanting to know more, it’s an Alfa Allegro. As is custom at the Kennys, there was always a martini on hand and a phone nearby as business still had to be conducted. 

However, it was a bottle of a vastly different kind that helped kick of the pizza night. A decade ago, the Kennys and the Buckles spent Brian’s birthday on track at the Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nürburgring! When we planned the trip to Europe, we were not aware that it would see Brian celebrating his birthday driving a Lotus around this most famous of all race tracks. This time with the occasion being his decade later birthday and with travel plans totally wiped out, with the money we saved on exotic dinners somewhere around the planet, we arrived with a bottle of 2009 Cristal Champagne. The perfect starter, of course, for any evening that would end with fire-roasted pizza! Despite all the marketing hype associated with this drop, it turned out to be really good suffice to say, even being the best Champagne any of us had ever tasted. 

Another topic I will steer clear of at this time is Indy racing. It so happened that the Friday and Saturday were race days on the Grand Prix circuit at Indianapolis – what some of us like to refer to as the Indy Roval. There is nothing more engaging or indeed entertaining than to be seated next to grandma Kenny when grandson Colton Herta is on track with the opportunity to climb up the ranks and take third place for the series. But about that I will have more to say in a later post but, for now, rest assured it was every bit as exciting to watch seated in the Kenny’s living room as it would have been trackside.

When it came time for the celebratory drink for those that reached the podium, it is worth noting that there was no Sparkling wine for 20 year old Colton but the Penske organization had made sure that there was a bottle of bubbly Apple Cider on hand. Yes, Colton placed second in the Saturday race almost passing Aussie Wil Power in the closing laps. And the takeaway from the celebratory bubbly shower is that well, Apple Cider just doesn’t cut it!  

As for our time on the road, we had chosen to stray from the roads well travelled, at least for the most part. Going to California, we drove out of Denver on the road that takes us almost to the four corners where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah come together. Our route took us to Ouray and up over the “million dollar highway” to Durango. It has been quite a while since we last drove this unbelievably beautiful road and with fall well under way, there was more than enough gold on the hills to remind us that for years there was plenty of gold under the hills. And silver, too.

Again, looking at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Durango had adjusted admirably with streets looking more like chicanes as restaurants took to the streets. An evening cocktail with a superb dinner was there for the asking and yes, we asked. And enjoyed very much, thank you! The surprise here was that even with social distancing being practiced we were able to share stories with those seated around us and there was plenty to smile about. The next day saw us drive past Mexican Hat and on through Monument Valley with a final destination of Scottsdale, Arizona.

And the story continued for the rest of our bizcation. Monterey, Las Vegas and then back through Grand Junction with the final day spent on an Interstate Highway for the duration. California is so different from the rest and best of the west. No inside dinning and definitely no seating at the bar! Masks to be worn at all times – the governor suggesting while we were there that we pull up our masks between bites – and yes, empty streets everywhere we turned. 

Our time in Monterey was as a return to a place we so enjoyed in January but there was no comparison. Spending time with our good friends, Dieter and Chris Monch, feels like it happened only yesterday. As for the business side, turned out most of our planned conversations took place over the phone so in many ways it also felt as if we really hadn’t left our home offices in Colorado. Then again, the whole point of this exercise was to see for ourselves just how business was being conducted in these difficult times. 

We had originally planned on driving our BMW i8 Roadster but as we packed for both business and a long weekend, we moved up to the BMW M4 as it simply provided more room for bags. On the other hand, it proved an ideal mode of transport for the various backroads we took. Did I mention we found a new best highway in California? Connecting CA Hwy 101 with the I15 Interstate, is CA State Route 198. A must drive if you want to tackle something that throws about every possible variant of turn, mountain descents and undulating blacktop. It’s no coincidence that Motor Trend calls up the California Highway Patrol to close down over four miles of this road to better test cars that have made the final cut in their annual Best Drivers Car comparison.

We always look for something new with each trip we take, but this year, naturally enough, the times are very different to past years and the opportunities to travel are way down on anything previously experienced. This was just our second road trip of the year and even more telling, we don’t even have another road trip in the planning stages. Nothing; a completely empty calendar!

All across the western part of America, people are somewhat begrudgingly making adjustments on the assumption that these times would be with us not just till the end of the year but throughout 2021 to where even 2022 wasn’t bringing much comfort. Society needs to interact and as much as we have all adjusted to ZOOM and the likes, we were just pleased to have enjoyed as many real-world conversations as we did. We took precautions, of course – gloved hands at all gas stations, plenty of hand sanitizer aboard the M4 and yes, a stash of masks that ensured we too looked like everyone else. We even walked through malls in Scottsdale and Las Vegas but therein lay one more tale – deserted corridors. With the amazing scene of a completely empty corridor in an otherwise bustling shopping center in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas without the hustle and bustle we are all familiar with pretty much summed up our week of bizcation. There were plenty of sights to be seen being fall and there were still plenty of strangers to talk to even as spending time with our dearest friends in Simi Valley went a long way to reinforce normalcy is still on offer if we go look for it. But for now and for as long into the future that I can see, it’s back to the home office, the couch and the outside bar! Can I see snow in the forecast; a shame in some way as yes, winter is coming … but even with that in mind, I cannot finish without one last photo from the Kenny's home as Cristal flowed!