Nikki’s last day

Nikki spent her last day doing the things she loved.

She rolled around on her back on the grass in the sun. She chased balls, chewed on a stick, tried to make a break for it and dug a hole in the soft dirt in North Adams, Mass.,where we are parked for a volunteer project. She sat patiently for biscuits after her walks and begged for pretzels after dinner.

Nikki was 12, or 13, or 14, no one is really sure of her age. She was old for a dog, but her death came suddenly. She died Monday morning with her pack around her on a frantic drive to an emergency vet clinic an hour away.

She joined our pack at 9 months old, when Joe  fell in love with the all black dog with the ice blue eyes staring out at him from a cage in the Auburn animal shelter.

She was striking and people would cross streets to ask the name of her breed. Part lab, part husky, maybe shepherd, but definitely all hound. The kind of dog that wasn’t above nosing through a bit of street trash or rubbing herself in deer scat.

Nikki was a gentle, faithful beast, a coward first class afraid of baby gates, the sound of keys or a newspaper, the stove, thunderstorms, fireworks, lakes, streams and the ocean.

Early on she was an escape artist, well known in the neighborhood for running out of any unlatched door, or when tethered in the backyard pulling on the steel cables so hard she broke them dragging the post behind her as she trotted happily up the street. 

A clever girl, Nikki learned to roll on her back and rub the carabiner hooking her collar to the chain unhooking it to set her free. Once gone, Nikki would reappear two streets away hanging around the porch of a nice Chihuahua who was her friend.

Indoors, Nikki curled up behind Charley’s chair while she worked at home, watching for any movement that would indicate a walk was imminent. She slept on the floor at the foot of the bed, and kept up the practice in the motorhome.

Returning home from work, the pack often found Nikki wearing a guilty look as she slowly slunk off the couch as the car pulled into the driveway.

Nikki became a companion to Rusty and later Pocket, felines who tolerated her presence.

Nikki joined the pack on its adventures in rving enjoying sniffing new places, exploring the beach and mountains and meeting new people. She put up with traveling in the motorhome often trying to fit her 50-pound body onto Charley’s lap when the road was bumpy.

It was obvious this winter that age was beginning to take it’s toll on our Nik.  Her walks were not so far, she tired easily and slept a lot more.

But on her last day, Nikki played with her pack, chasing sticks and balls, and rolling over for a belly rub.

We will miss her.

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Hurricane relief

Trees on the side of I-10 that were devastated by Hurricane Michael.

As we drove east on Interstate 10 along Florida’s panhandle it looks as if someone is logging the roadside on either side of the small town of Marianna.

But as you go further east along the interstate you notice that it’s not overzealous loggers that makes the trees look like this. It’s the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a category 5 hurricane that slammed the Florida panhandle last fall.

The trees are snapped off, mowed down, with only a few left standing.

Billboards are shredded and the official highway signs lay by the side of the road. It looks as if some giant redneck drunk smacked them against his forehead crumpling them like an empty beer can.

Two rest areas are closed. No one has gotten around to cleaning them up yet.

Crumpled road sign

Mexico Beach, the quaint beach town that was wiped off the map by Michael, is where national journalists go to write their disaster updates.

But I haven’t seen a word about Marianna, a town about an hour north of the coast. Photos from local newspapers and television taken at the time show a downtown where the brick façade of businesses were stripped off. It really does look like a bomb went off in town.

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Marinna, Florida after Hurricane Michael. Dothan Eagle.com

Why hasn’t anyone bothered to pick up the metal highway signs, I ask Joe as we drive past. Surely scavengers could make money off the metal.

Picking up road signs is number 2,999 on a clean up list that is only at number 2, he replied.

What I see makes me angry. Congress has failed to act to provide disaster relief for Marianna, Mexico Beach, the island of Puerto Rico and other communities hit by hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Our representatives and president are letting us down. As I write this on the Friday before Memorial Day, it has been 271 days since Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle and Congress is failing to act, again, to help the people its represents. A bipartisan bill for disaster relief was held up in the House by one lone Texas Republican.

One guy is keeping communities from rebuilding and picking up the crumpled signs along the interstate.

One guy is standing in the way of thousands of people rebuilding their lives.

Travels with Nikki

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When we pull into a new place one of the first things people notice about us is Nikki.

Nikki is our all black dog with sky blue eyes. Little kids ask if she’s a wolf. Adults will cross hot parking lots to ask us about her breed.

That’s easy. Nik is an all-American mutt, part lab, part husky, maybe a little shepherd, and all fraidy cat. She  is a 50-pound lap dog, at least she would be if she could fit on your lap.

We were told she was nine months old when we rescued her from the pound. The trouble is Joe and I can’t agree when that was. Did we get her before 2005 or after? Either way the dog that used to pull my arm out of the socket on walks now is an old lady.

Before we went on the road people asked us if we would travel with our big dog. Of course! We never thought about leaving her behind, even if you have to be careful not to step on her in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom,

On travel days Nik spends her time trying to crawl up on my lap or sitting on the floor between the two seats. If you drift into the rumble strips, Nik jumps up wanting to know what’s going on. Only wrapping her in a “thunder shirt” calms her down.

Once we park, Nik takes a walk around our new campground checking out the smells. Then she crawls under the motorhome for a nap.

Nik got a full check up before we left on the road. She’s a bit slim and a little gray around the muzzle. All in all, not bad for an old broad.

We were parked in a KOA in Lillian, Alabama on the Gulf Coast last week when we noticed Nikki wasn’t herself. She wasn’t eating or drinking much. She didn’t want to play with a tennis ball. She certainly didn’t want to walk very far and she panted, a lot. Was it the heat? Old age or something more?

The next morning Nik’s back legs wobbled and collapsed as we were encouraging her to drink.

My first thought was heart trouble. This is it we’ll be putting the old girl down soon.

Joe called three local vets before finding one able to see her at the Westside Animal Clinic over the border in Pensacola, Fla.

Our old girl gave a loud yelp when the doc touched her back haunches during the examination.

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Joe and Nikki waiting for the vet.

An x-ray and blood work later, showed that Nik is healthy, better than most dogs her age. But she has arthritis in her back. After a shot and pills for the pain we were on our way.

Nik still doesn’t pull your arm out of the socket on a walk. But, she chases balls again jumping to catch them in midair. If I let her go, the bunnies roaming the grounds of our latest stop in Dunedin, Fla., wouldn’t stand a chance.

Our old companion is feeling much better, and so are we.

 

The episode where we break down

As I write this I’m in a campground in the George Washington Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. Our home is parked in the middle of the Cave Mountain Lake Campground road where it died. repair

 

I keep reminding myself there’s joy in the journey, no matter what.

Originally I was going to write about the wonderful time we had in Pittsburgh. Joe’s veins are fixed and up to date. I had two teeth pulled and my jaw didn’t collapse.

We spent two holidays with my Uncle George and my cousins, which was great. We found a loving church near our apartment and settled in volunteering in Pittsburgh.

Last week Joe drove the motorhome to our Jayco dealer in Buffalo to have some warranty work done. Wednesday we waved goodbye to Western Pa. and headed south to the Virginia mountains.

Over seven hours of driving our rig performed well. There were no traffic tie ups, and except for Nikki, our big black lap spending her entire time shaking and trying to crawl onto my lap, it was an uneventful drive.

We pulled off I-81 and onto some back roads that took us through Buena Vista and headed for the Cave Mountain Lake Campground run by the U.S. Forest Service. The plan was to do a couple of days rustic camping before heading to the Smokies and eventually Baton Rouge where we are scheduled to help rebuild houses that were damaged in a flood.

We pulled into the campground and easily found our site. We were talking about unhooking the Mini Cooper and backing the rig in when Joe put the vehicle in park. Or I should say, he tried to put the vehicle in park.

The gear shift wouldn’t move. Joe shut off the engine. Tried to put it in park again. Now the engine wouldn’t turn on. We were stuck in the middle of the campground’s road.

Oh, and did I mention the mountain campground is rustic with a lovely rushing creek, beautiful trees, birds chirping, and no cell phone service whatsoever?

Lucky for us the camp hosts have a landline, for local calls only.

You may well ask where’s the joy. You’re stuck in a park with a disabled motorhome waiting for a tow that’s going to cost who knows what to take who knows how long to fix whatever.

If we hadn’t been stuck I wouldn’t have spent a wonderful evening chatting with Alison a New Englander who moved to Winchester, Va. , two years ago. She’s trying to understand Southern culture and visiting the parks in her new state. She’s also a mother reveling in her daughter’s college adventures while aching for a stepson who recently died after years of battling a drug addiction.

We wouldn’t have met Joan and her dog Todd, the camp host with a dry sense of humor that let Joe use her landline. I think Joe now owes her three dinners, maybe more, for her kindness.

And we wouldn’t have met Tom and Debbie, two more camp hosts who spent an hour keeping me company while Joe negotiated wreckers and Ford dealers. We spoke about RVs, the granddaughter they’re raised and life in general.

They all brought us joy amid a break in the journey.

As for the rig, well after being stuck almost 24 hours in the middle of the road and multiple phone calls to Ford dealers within a 100 mile radius who wouldn’t repair the engine, Joe finally found someone to tow and fix the rig. But first, the owner suggested he send out a mechanic to see if the problem could be fixed on site.

Roger from Auto Towing & Repair in Lexington showed up about 40 minutes later. He looked under the rig, moved the gears some and then removed the dashboard panel. A cable that connected the gear shift to the transmission had jiggled loose.

Roger reconnected the cable and then put a twist tie around it to keep it from jiggling out again. It was a ten minute repair.

Ten minutes and $120. Joe also gave him a tip.

Roger brought us joy, and a twist tie.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I was staring into the men’s room

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Whenever Joe and I go to a national park I always ask a ranger what I should go see. What is something cool that most people miss?

That question lead me and my cousin Joy to poke our heads into the men’s room of The Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh.

The Duquesne Club is a private club founded in 1873 by industrialists like Andrew Carnegie as an exclusive men’s club. The building on Sixth Avenue opened in 1890 and the club didn’t admit women until nearly a century later. It currently has 2,400 to 2,700 members, according to the concierge I spoke with.

You have to be invited to join. My invite must be lost in the mail, or my spam folder.

My cousin Joy and her husband Scott, however, got an invitation to an event put on by their financial adviser. I jumped at the chance when they asked Joe and I to tag along.

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Joy and Scott snuck into the “Members Only” lounge at the Duquesne Club.

 

The event was fun, two comedians, drinks and hors d’oeuvres. No sales pitch. Better yet, afterwards we were free to roam around the exclusive club with its walls filled with original art, including some Frederic Remington sculptures, and beautiful antiques.

 

That’s Joy standing beneath a painting of Cousin Andrew.

Joy and I stopped by the front desk near the revolving front door where a doorman dressed in a black coat and bowler stood outside on the sidewalk. We peppered the concierge with questions about the art work and the people who’ve stayed overnight in its 42 hotel rooms.

So what’s the one thing we shouldn’t miss? I asked.

The first floor men’s room, she replied. The concierge explained that the men’s room is huge.

It was a men’s club for a century before it opened membership to women. The room is now a little smaller after renovations to install a women’s room. After weddings you’ll find the brides and bridesmaids in the men’s room looking around, she said. Just get your husband to go in and open the door wide, she said.

Joy and I had to go to the men’s room. Forget the tired husbands, our aching feet in high heels, we had to see this plumbing wonder.

Down the oak paneled hall, past the billiard room, across from a large glassed in dining area was the magic door marked “Gentlemen.”

Scott pushed open the door and held it wide.

It was the largest men’s room I’d ever seen. To the left was a shoeshine bench, rows of sinks stood along that wall. The entire room was done in marble.

But don’t ask me about the urinals, I didn’t look to the right.

Joe was unimpressed. “It was big and marble.”

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The men’s room at the Duquesne Club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Undiscovered Pittsburgh

We had expected to spend our winter exploring southern Texas and Arizona, but God had other plans.

A minor medical procedure on Joe’s legs has forced us to spend the winter in Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up exploring.

Currently we’re living like college students above a store front on Warrington Avenue in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Because we live upstairs, we can’t just tie Nikki out like we would in a motorhome. That means at least four times a day Joe takes the dog out for a walk in the neighborhood. Nik’s a great ambassador. People who won’t look up when you pass by will stop us to talk about our blue-eyed dog.

On his daily walks Joe found two really cool buildings.

On one of his walks Joe noticed was a two-story brick building and tower up on a hill a couple of blocks away.  Climbing the hill for a closer look he found the 1909 Beltzhoover Sub-District School.

 

The building was used as a school until sometime in the 2000s and is now for sale. It’s an impressive building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We don’t know why it was placed on the register. Did someone famous go there? Was it designed by a well-known architect? Information about the school is not yet digitized on the federal government’s website.

While researching the school, a story in the Tribune about one of the six oldest houses in Pittsburgh popped up. It’s a little field stone house near us on Climax Street.

old house pix

The building dates to 1794 when German immigrant Melchoir Beltzhoover, who bought 248 hilltop acres on what was then the western frontier and built a house on his farm. There’s a Facebook page that explains a lot about Beltzhoover, his family, business and how he came to Pittsburgh.

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Beltzhoover homestead

The front of the building on Climax Street looks like a 1900s store front that was later converted to housing. The vacant lots beside it are weedy and overgrown. The store front is attached to the two-story field stone building. The news story says someone from Baltimore bought the building and land for $20,000, but he hasn’t done anything with it.

It’s not likely anything will be done to the building. Beltzhoover is not a prosperous area by any means. The properties around the homestead are run down or abandoned and that area of the city hasn’t drawn developers to redevelop properties like the South Side, the Mexican War Streets or Lawrenceville.

The Beltzhoover homestead sets me to dreaming. What would I do if I had the money to return that old house to its former glory? And what else lies undiscovered in this neighborhood?

 

 

“Classical Gas”

 

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As I write this in the kitchen of our Pittsburgh apartment I hear “Classical Gas” playing over and over in the living room. It’s the music Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Central New York plays while you’re waiting on the phone.

Da, da, da, da dah. The classic opening notes play over and over.

Waiting. That’s what we’ve been doing since December when Joe visited a vein clinic while we were in da’Burgh visiting family. The plan was to get those varicose veins taken care of and then head south in the motorhome for the winter.

Quick catch up. The vein doc grounded Joe from driving long hours in the motorhome until he could fix the veins. A blood clot could form and go to his heart, the doc said.

Da, da, da, da dah. “Thank you for holding. Please stay on the line for the next available representative.”

Even though two docs say Joe needs the minor surgery, the insurance company forces patients to wear a compression stocking for 12 weeks before the company will approve surgery.

The 12 weeks was up Feb. 27. Joe sees the doc to schedule surgery. Not so fast. The nurse tells us the insurance company will take four to six weeks to get approval for a minor surgery that could have been done three months ago.

Joe calls the insurance company the next morning and immediately is put in hold hell.

Da, da, da, da dah. The first three bars of the music plays. Again.

I learned to play “Classical Gas” on the guitar in high school. It was the height of my guitar training. I was proud of myself for learning to play it. I’m beginning to hate this song.

A representative comes on the line. Joe explains our plight. We have places to go, people to see, volunteering to do. Can Blue Cross expedite the approval process?

Nope, the representative says firmly. You have to wait four to six weeks before we will approve it.

May I speak with your supervisor? he asks politely. He’s more polite than I would have been. I’ve been known to become “Mrs. Hannagan” my Hyde personality when I get frustrated with annoying clerks.

The music comes back on. “Please continue to hold. We will be with you momentarily.”

The moments stretch out to minutes, tick on to quarters of an hour.

The supervisor comes on the phone. You need all the diagnosis codes before we can approve anything, she says. An obvious ploy to get this annoying customer off the phone.

“I have those,” says Joe as she continues to speak over him. “I got them from the doctor to expedite the process,” he says, again very politely.

Da, da, da, da dah. More music as this rep speaks to HER boss.

You’d think they’d allow the rest of the song to play as long as you have to wait. Or maybe switch up songs to something more fun. “Best Day of My Life” by the American Authors comes to mind.

The supervisor returns to the line.

The insurance company can expedite the process, she says. But, you can’t give us the diagnosis codes. We can only take them from the doctor’s office.

Forty-five minutes, and two representatives later, Joe is closer to getting approval for surgery.

He calls the vein clinic where he gets a person on the phone right away. We’re sorry the person who submits information to the insurance company won’t be in until Monday.

I wonder what music the vein clinic’s telephone system will play?