A Doug's Life: Becoming a Desert Rat

I think I was right after all.

When I moved from the San Gabriel Valley to Menifee, I told people I was relocating to the desert. They pictured a cabana next to the pool in Palm Springs and cactus everywhere. OK, I said, it's the edge of the desert.

Then I sat and waited almost eight months for the desert weather to set in. Last October, I could sit in the spa at night and look up at the countless stars. But much of the time since then, I have endured gloomy skies, rain and nighttime temperatures in the 30s. I thought summer in the desert would never get here.

Now this is more like it.

Say what you want. Granted, I haven't seen a whole lot of cacti nor one roadrunner since I got here. Seems there are more horses than lizards or snakes. But you know what? Even if this is just the edge of the desert, I'll take it. I find it kind of therapuetic, if the heat and desert breezes stick around.

The dry heat, clear skies and solitude of the desert has always meant vacation time to me. It started when I was a kid, when my parents would take my sisters and me to Desert Hot Springs for weekend retreats. They would relax in the whirlpools of hot mineral water. I would jump in and out of the cold pool, stare at the stars at night and look for scorpions.

It was the ultimate get-away. Oh sure, we would frequent the beach and the mountains, each of which have their own appeal. But to me, the desert was the premier destination for die-hard adventurers.

Of course, weather conditions were not always perfect. My grandparents lasted only about a year after retiring to a mobile home park in Desert Hot Springs in the 1960s. Grandma hated the windstorms. Said she was tired of cleaning sand out of the window sills (on the inside). And so ended my weekend trips for hours of swimming, hiking and shuffleboard.

Even when I grew to adulthood and experienced more of the desert's weather challenges, I stood firm in my passion for the desert environment. My first newspaper job was in Barstow, where my bare feet would hit the cold tile floor every day at 5 a.m. with the temperature near freezing. It wasn't my idea of the perfect desert experience, but there were always enough old men with sun-scorched, leather-like skin around to keep the vision alive.

Then there were the ghost towns.

Just outside Barstow, it was Calico, the remnants of an old silver mining town. It has a mine shaft you can walk into and an old train to ride, plus a few authentic western buildings among the sand dunes. But it was renovated by the folks at Knott's Berry Farm several years back and is a bit too commercialized for my liking.

You want real desert and a real ghost town? Drive up Highway 395 past Ridgecrest, head east toward Death Valley and explore the adobe remains at Ballarat, where gold was discovered in the 1890s at the foot of the Panamint Mountains. I took the wife and kids out there in a van one hot, dusty summer afternoon. I was fascinated. They wondered where the coke machine was.

Keep heading north on 395 and you'll find the turnoff for ghost towns on both the California and Nevada sides of the highway. The best I've ever seen is Bodie, located east of the 395 and a few miles south of Bridgeport. But now we're getting out of the desert and up toward Lake Tahoe, which is another story.

For now, I'll stick with Menifee. We have a good mix of dry desert heat, sparkling lakes, Indian ruins and old mine shafts within easy driving distance. Yep, it's going to be quite a desert summer. Now where's the sunscreen?

Elevation Travel Wants You Out of Menifee

Last March we took a 10-day vacation to Hawaii, taking in the ocean air, the palm trees, and sipping on mai tais at the Barefoot Bar.

Usually when we travel, we do all the booking and planning ourselves. But this time, we decided to call a travel agent.

Up until now, vacation planning always ran through the usual mish-mash of buying numerous travel books, going on websites to read peoples' complaints of stale toast and flat pillows, and zooming in on Google Maps to figure out where all the shopping and dining is at. I had enough of that. A vacation is supposed to be a vacation, right?

Not having worked with a travel agent before, I wasn't sure what to expect.

Melissa Land, who runs Elevation Travel, which serves the Menifee-area, likes to think of her business as a Full Service Personal Travel Consultant.

Nice. I like that description.

And it seems accurate, too. I provided her the dates of our travel and our suggested price range and a list of things that were important to us and she created a package for us. Moreover, she said, "If anything comes up, and I mean anything, call me first and I'll take care of it."

That's all I needed to hear.

waikiki beach

As it turned out, we didn't have to call her. Everything went as planned. We were able to breeze by the people arguing at the airport ticket counter, and smiled as we left the couple from Nebraska complaining that they didn't get the room they had reserved.  We got into our room and enjoyed that beautiful view of Waikiki Beach.

We did, however, call Melissa after we got settled in, having discovered a stack of brochures and magazines on our table showcasing the many wonders of Hawaii. The hike up to Manoa Falls looked like fun. The Waikiki Trolley sounded like something we wanted to have. Renting a Harley to ride around the island seemed like a great idea. And it looked like visiting the Arizona Memorial would require reservations.

So, I called Melissa and she took care of it, getting us all the necessary sign ups and tickets.

Since then, I've been using a travel agent for all my vacations.

"Hey Melissa!", I'll call her on the phone. "Get me a ticket to Seattle for such and such date".

"Right away", she'd say. "Oh, if you want to wait a week later to fly, you can save another $150.00 off air fare".

"Excellent", I'll say. "Let's do it".

When you consider the better deals they can get you, it doesn't really cost anymore to go through an agent, it's usually less.

And sure, I've used websites like Expedia and Travelocity to look for fares and book rooms, but you're still having to do all the planning yourself. I like being able to call or e-mail Melissa, tell her what I want, and expect it to happen.

It's nice to just snap your fingers and know it's going to get done.

I guess there are still some things a computer can't replace.

Call Melissa Land at Elevation Travel...

Elevation Travel
(877) 294-3918

A Doug's Life: 'Take Me Out to The Diamond'

The stadium is located in nearby Lake Elsinore, but John Denver wouldn't mind annexing it for the city of Menifee.

"This is our stadium," said Denver, the mayor of Menifee, Friday night just outside the home dugout. "It's the closest pro ballpark we've got. We're working on that road (Newport Road) to get people in here easier. It should be called Menifee Stadium."

For the record, the stadium is called The Diamond, home to the Lake Elsinore Storm, a Class A minor league affiliate of the San Diego Padres. But as Denver noted, it's just a short drive over the hill on Newport/Railroad Canyon Road from Menifee.

And for this one night, Menifee could lay claim to it.

Denver threw out the first pitch and several Menifee residents and area dignitaries were on hand for Menifee Community Night at the stadium. The Storm gave them something to cheer about with a 6-3 victory over the visiting Bakersfield Blaze.

Denver clowned around with the big green mascot Thunder before the game, then sat behind the Storm dugout with a large Menifee contingent including Tom Fuhrman, mayor pro tem; Dorothy Wolons, president of the Menifee Valley Chamber of Commerce; and Chris Porrazzo, a deputy who was honored in pregame ceremonies as the Perris Sheriff's Station Officer of the Year.

One can hardly blame Menifee folks for taking advantage of a night out at the ballpark -- for a few reasons. One, it was Fireworks Friday. Two, it's just minutes from home. Three, you don't have to take out a loan to get through the gates.

At The Diamond, a reserved seat down the right or left field lines costs you just $9. Box seats near home plate set you back $10. Compare that to prices for the Padres, Angels or Dodgers, where you pay at least $17 to sit near the parking lot or $70-80 for a decent seat.

And where else can you hear little kids announce batters over the PA system and watch a giant green fuzzy creature lead youngsters across the outfield in "Thunder's Fun Run" between innings?

Minor league ballparks have a small-town charm you just can't find in a 50,000-seat major league stadium. Here, you can watch the major leaguers of tomorrow -- such names as Storm outfielder Rico Noel, who came into the game hitting .325 with 11 RBIs. But you can also walk down to the right field corner and do somersaults on a grassy berm with the little tykes.

To prevent an excessive amount of home runs to right field (only 310 feet to the foul pole), a wall approximately 30 feet high is the Storm's version of Fenway Park's Green Monster. Only this one is plastered with ads for everything from Juice it Up to Farmer John to the Lake Elsinore Animal Hospital.

Thunder the mascot was joined during the pregame festivities by a giant pink bunny named Jackpot. Andy Armadillo, the mascot for Texas Roadhouse, took part in the outfield Fun Run. While the grounds crew dragged the infield after the fifth inning, the crowd of 5,024 was entertained by a break dancing gorilla.

Yeah, this is minor league baseball. Don't you love it?

During the pregame festivities, kids gathered at the rail overlooking the Storm dugout. In L.A., San Diego or Anaheim, they would almost certainly be ignored -- or told to find a seat. Here, a "regular" named Ryan, age 7, was actually recognized and approached by outfielder Everett Williams, who chatted with the youngster about Legos.

"I'm part of the team," Ryan proudly stated.

The Storm put a smile on Ryan's face when they took the lead for good in the bottom of the seventh. After Chris Bisson drove home two runs with a single, designated hitter Tommy Medica hit his second home run of the game, a towering three-run shot to left field for a 6-2 lead.

Not even the dancing Baskin Robbins sundae could top that.

So if you're looking for a fun night out in the Menifee area, put the Newport Road traffic jam behind you and head on out to The Diamond. Tonight is Star Wars Night. Show up in costume and you get in free.

Where's my Darth Vader outfit?

A Doug's Life: Junior Writers Do Their Job

Having constructed, edited, critiqued and graded written compositions for almost 40 years, I sometimes feel like I've read every possible combination of words in the English language.

People continue to surprise me, however.

It happened again last week, when I sat down with two other judges to evaluate the journalistic efforts of the children of Menifee.

Along with Gayle DuRivage of Painted Earth and Shirley Wible of Sun City Library, I was asked to serve as a judge to determine the winner in three age groups for a writing contest sponsored by Arts Council Menifee and Menifee 24/7. As a group, we were impressed by the creativity of many of our young people. For myself, it was fun to witness the dawn of a new generation of communicators.

It's encouraging to know that as young as kindergarten age, the journalists of tomorrow can translate thoughts from their little brains to their little hands when writing about "What I Like About Menifee." It's interesting also to note the words some use and the phrases they have picked up from the adults.

Fortunately, these youngsters -- ranging from kindergarten age to eighth grade -- have not yet fallen victim to the "short-hand curse," which is how I describe the way text messaging and social media are contributing to the mutilation of the English language. But give them time; there's always high school. Before long, they might very well be filling up their essays with LOL, BTW and SMH (if you don't know what I'm talking about, ask a teenager).

I like to think there's still time to save them. Heck, I still spend hours trying to rehabilitate college students in my role as journalism professor. If I can have moderate success there, how much more success can we have by praising the work of the little ones as they try to master the language and the skill of creative writing?

Parents, I urge you to join me in this effort to encourage and promote creative writing at a young age. Moreover, I ask you to join me in congratulating these contest winners, who will be honored Tuesday night at the Menifee City Council meeting:

Abbey D. Chea -- K-2 grades age group
Jonathan Hoefler -- grades 3-5
Daniel Diaz -- grades 6-8
Jemena Nesbitt -- special recognition award

These students will read their winning entries at Tuesday's council meeting, and their work will be published on Menifee 24/7. Therefore, I will not repeat their complete works here. But I'm here to tell you, these honorees and all the young people showed enthusiasm and creativity in telling us why they like our fair city.

Some obvious patterns emerged in their writing. Many of the students wrote about how quiet and safe they felt their neighborhood is. They love the parks -- especially La Ladera Park. Many of them seem very familiar with the stores and restaurants in the area (Game Stop is a crowd favorite).

As judges, we saw a variety of writing styles -- everything from straight essay format to poetry to acrostic (look it up -- your kid knows). We discovered how expansive some young vocabularies are (what first grader writes "furthermore" or "don't get me started" in a typical homework assignment?).

We also chuckled as we figured out the unique ways words are spelled by young people who try their best to sound out what they want to say. The execution wasn't always flawless, but the intent was very serious.

In the end, we were looking for how well the students captured the hometown feel of Menifee that we all hope our children would have. We were looking for young writers who could state their reasons clearly and support them with examples. But most of all, we simply wanted evidence that little kids still are passionate about park swings, pet stores and neighborhood friends -- not just video games.

Thanks, kids, for coming through for us. And parents, on Tuesday I'll have more about what your kids wrote in a special tribute to the things Menifee kids say.

A Doug's Life: Keep Me Out of the Sand Trap

About a week ago, while covering the Sun City/Menifee Health Expo, I had my first experience with the Sun City Civic Association community center.

Oh, I had driven past the colorful marquee and sprawling complex at Sun City Boulevard and Cherry Hills Boulevard many times. From the street, you don’t get a clear picture of what all is available to seniors in that facility. Probably a good place for a bingo tournament, I figured, or maybe a square dance. Why would I ever want to hang out there with the old folks?

Then I remembered that, as a 56-year-old, I qualify for admission. Hey, I already get the senior discount at Denny’s. Retirement can’t be that far off, right?

So as I walked onto the grounds of the community center that day, I was actually kind of curious about what goes on there.

Simply put, I was impressed. They have a giant swimming pool, a huge lawn bowling area, shuffleboard courts, an arts and crafts center … pretty much everything you’d need to stay busy. Suddenly, I wanted to put down the notepad and shuffle a board or two. The memories of shuffleboard games with my grandfather at his “retirement home” came flooding back.

Then something off in the distance caught my eye – a golf course.

That made perfect sense. A retirement community such as Sun City, which was developer Del Webb’s model of perfect senior citizen living, had to have a golf course. Doesn’t everyone who’s retired – and some who aren’t – play golf?

One of these days, I plan to find out for myself. Granted, the golf course there in Sun City looks nice and inviting. So does the layout across town, by Menifee Lakes. But for now, I’ll stick to reading, genealogy and the grandkids as my leisure time activities.

OK, maybe a game of shuffleboard once in a while, but that’s where I draw the line.

Here’s the thing about golf. Basically, I’m a terrible golfer. I can hit a baseball that’s pitched to me, but for some reason, I have a heck of a time hitting a golf ball that’s just sitting there on the tee, daring me to take a swing.

Oh, I gave it a try. I spent one entire summer practicing on a Par 3 course (the JVs of golf), and I thought I was getting the hang of it. Then a friend dragged me out on a full-size, 18-hole course and told me, “Now you have to use your woods.”

You mean those other clubs in my bag that look like sledgehammers? How am I supposed to get one of those under the ball with enough force to drive it 80-100 yards? Worse yet, how am I supposed to even get the ball off the ground?

On that first attempt at a real course, I learned real fast what a mulligan was – like on my first swing. After a while, my buddy told me I got no more “do-overs.” About the third hole, a guy asked if he could join our twosome. He lasted one hole before politely asking if he could play through. Guess he didn’t like watching me kill worms with my ground balls.

A couple days later, I told my uncle I had tried the big course. An avid golfer, he asked what my score was.

“A 75,” I said.

“You shot a 75?” he replied in amazement. “Doug, that’s great! And on your first try?”

“Well,” I responded, “we quit after nine holes.”

So there you have it – the reason I’m taking a hard look at lawn bowling and backgammon. Oh sure, I’ll probably give golf another try when I feel like four hours of torture. For now, I’ll stick to a game of catch in the back yard with a 3-year-old.