Feeling love in the heartland of America

Mele Mason of Mason Video in Omaha, Nebraska, knows what it's like to get to a location with faulty or missing television equipment.   She came to PilotGirl Production's rescue this week.

Mele Mason of Mason Video in Omaha, Nebraska, knows what it’s like to get to a location with faulty or missing television equipment. She came to PilotGirl Production’s rescue this week.

Boys Town, Omaha Steaks, Warren Buffet, the NCCA College World Series, none of these attractions are reasons why I’ll remember working in Omaha, Nebraska this week. Not even the delicious oatmeal stout enjoyed at Upstream Brewery. The heartland of America will hold fast in my memory for the new best friend who provided me with last-minute television equipment when my own went awry.

Early Thursday morning, a vital piece of gear, absolutely required for the job that I was working, failed to work. My producer and I scrambled to correct the issue minutes before our first interview. All efforts failed. Then I remembered I had a friend in Omaha. A friend I hadn’t talked to in a long time. But she had come to my rescue before so with one quick phone call to Mele Mason, a female sole proprietor of a local production company, our prayers were answers.

Do you believe in guardian angels? I do!

Mele sprung into action delivering to our location a working 17″ Panasonic HD monitor with cables and wires. My meltdown subsided producing smiles on the clients faces.

Travel with heavy equipment through busy airports in odd hours to distance towns is tough enough. When audio, lighting or video gear fails on location it’s not like any of us can run down to the nearest Best Buy or Staples and buy what we need. This industry is far too specialized and only a few companies in the country sell what is needed. So, when the competition goes the extra mile to accommodate there are no words for our appreciation.

It is prosperity that gives us friends, adversity that proves them. I’ve always loved that proverb.

Climbing a Pagoda in Pretzel City

Reading PA Pagoda

Over the weekend, I had an assignment in the pretzel capital of the world; Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s known as “The Pretzel City” because of numerous local pretzel bakeries that started commercial operation here as far back as 1861.

The tradition continues with names like Bachman, Dieffenbach, Tom Sturgis, and Unique Pretzel calling Reading home. Bakers attribute the pretzel’s deliciousness to the quality of water, if not a secret recipe brought over by the Austrians and Germans who emigrated.

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to sample any soft knots while in Reading. Rather, we dined on savory crepes and then worked off the calories climbing the famous Pagoda at the top of Mount Penn.

The historic landmark is indeed a tiered tower built like a traditional Asian pagoda however it’s purpose was not to worship a religion but rather act as a hotel. When funding fell short it was gifted to the city and has since become a weekend venue for family outings, meetings and a great way to see the city. Interesting fact, it’s the only Pagoda in the world with a fireplace and chimney.

Uber good times in Phoenix winging it

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Beg, borrow or steal a window seat when flying to or from Phoenix. Doing so, you’ll experience some of the most jaw-dropping views of rugged peaks and undulating rivers from 10,000 feet overhead – all without breaking a sweat.

Normally, I would never pay homage to air travel as an alternative to hiking the great outdoors but if you’re trapped inside a hotel all week – albeit a luxurious one – wheeling a video camera on your shoulder at a business conference, it might be the only chance you get to see the environment. These few cell photos, taken as the plane ascended, give you an idea of the artist’s landscape.

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My second saving grace was the precious few minutes I took to bath in the pools at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. The hotel backdrop is a 316-acre water fun park with three uniquely-shaped pools easily connected by palm-lined pathways for bouncing from one to another.

Last night, I gladly skip dinner for a lazy ride on the back of a yellow inner tube pushed along by the artificial currents of a manmade river. The serenity was broken briefly when a group of unruly adolescents hurled themselves onto rafts and roughhoused under the splash fountains. No matter, there were two more pools to experience and both were empty.

The next was decorated with a Corinthian-like structure offering a pelting waterfall for a penetrating deep-tissue massage. My soar muscles got the beating of a lifetime. And finally, I skipped to my lou to the last invigorating pool for a few laps. I cooled down under a shaded yellow umbrella with a equally divine cocktail.

“The Marriott Desert Ridge, of course, I know where that is. My husband and I stayed there once on a staycation,” beams my high school friend Kristy. The 8-year transplant to Gilbert (suburb of Phoenix) hails from my beleaguered upstate hometown of Massena, NY. She and her family relocated to this oasis in the desert with no regrets. “This is my home now, I’m never going back,” she says.

I meet Kristy in the lobby and over glasses of red and white we wax nostalgically on our youth. We haven’t seen each other since the 20-year reunion (was that already six years ago?) and there’s a lifetime of conversations to catch up on.

In the morning, I call on Uber, the ride-sharing service new to Phoenix but gaining a reputation for affordability and convenience. My inaugural ride is with Aman, a proud American citizen who detached from his home country of Iraq (along with his seven siblings) many moons ago to travel the world.

Aman fell in love with Phoenix six years ago. His driving gets a rating of 4.8 (out of 5 stars) through customer feedback. Uber kicked in an introductory coupon lessening the cost of the 35-minute ride to under $30. I give Aman 4.9 stars.

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Hot climbs in Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona is flanked by mountainous ridgelines in all directions.

Phoenix, Arizona is flanked by mountainous ridgelines in all directions.

At only 2.2 miles, Camelback Mountain begs to be climbed. But, with the thermometer soaring in the triple degrees, it’s for my own good that I’m holed up in a hotel working in temperature-controlled ballrooms all week.

View from hotel

I’m on assignment with a producer in the foothills of Phoenix, Arizona. A tempting view of the Sonoran Desert Preserve to the west is seen from my bedroom suite window.

I could push my luck humping up Camelback Mountain in the evening, after the sun sets, but scaling rocky terrain and dodging rattlesnakes in the dark sounds….err, stupid. Besides, it rarely drops to less than 90 degrees at night. Locals are acclimated to the blistering heat but the rest of us need not forget plenty of water, lotion and sunglasses.

Camelback is a distinctive city feature that defines the natural skyline and the two trailheads stay steady with foot traffic. Over 200 miles to the north is the incredible Grand Canyon yet Phoenix is no leg-burning slouch. The area enjoys 180 miles of trails and it’s ranked as one of the best hiking cities in America by National Geographic. Much of the scrambling is urban on a small range running right through the valley.

Hopefully, I’ll get the time (and light) to see at least one cacti or yucca plant alongside a prairie dog or jackrabbit.

Carousel Capital of the World

Wegmans Grocery List

Can you guess where my freelance gig took place yesterday? If my grocery cart doesn’t give it away, maybe this colorful carousel will jog your memory.

Carousel in Ross Park

Installed in 1920, this rare relic features 60 jumping horses, 2 chariots (one with monkeys) and an original 51-key Wurlitzer Military Band Organ. It’s located in the 5th oldest zoo in the United States in a town where shoe manufacturer, George Johnson made a commitment to recreation by installing a carousel in every park. Still not sure?

It’s beautiful Binghamton, of course! This specific whirling dervish has been running every Memorial Day through Labor Day since 1924. Stop feeding your children video games and take them on an old-fashion ride lovingly restored this summer.

Other experiences not to be missed in this Southern Tier area bordering Pennsylvania is a char-grilled Spiedie sub at the original Lupo’s location. A mouthwatering order of marinated cubes of chicken, beef, lamb or venizon wedged inside an Italian roll (presumably Felix Roma bread) is a regional delicacy.

We wash down our lunch with samples of suds at the North Brewery in a retro storefront in Endicott (Greater Binghamton).

Good ‘ol Bingo has some of the best pizza too. My producer, a native of the triple cities (Endicott, Johnson City, Binghamton), brings several insulated cooler bags to Wegmans and loads up on frozen pizza made by Rossi and/or Cortese. Never Nirchi’s, Brozzetti’s or Consol’s! I quickly gather that strong opinions exist over hot Italian pies.

Spiedies at Lupos

North Brewery

Climbing Sleeping Beauty with a Russian beauty

Lidiia Kashintceva

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Mention the words “Sleeping Beauty” to a Russian and thoughts jump to the world famous ballet with music composed by Peter Tchaikovsky. Rather, the music that filled our ears today was that of bird calls, croaking frogs and the rustle of leaves stirred by playful chipmunks.

On Saturday, I introduced the world of Adirondack hiking to a premed student from Tula, Russia, Albany’s sister-city, attending SUNY Albany through a study-abroad program.

“Does Russia have sign-in registries?” I ask Lidiia. She returned an acerbic smile in response. Based on her reaction, I gathered that hiking enthusiasts in the Ural, Caucasus, or any mountain range in Russia, might just hike at their own risk.

Never fear. We would not risk it. We would sign the registry and climb at whatever pace my young, vibrant neophyte felt comfortable with, breaking often if the heat became excessive.

Reviewing other entries in the log book, it was exciting to think that Lidiia might be the first hiker from Russia to ever climb Sleeping Beauty.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning and we ascended the easy climb in advance of hundreds of hikers that would compete to find parking at the Hogtown trailhead. The gate to Dacy Clearing was locked adding another 1.6 miles of a gravel road to the destination.

But Sleeping Beauty lives up to it’s name in that it can be climbed quite comfortably, almost in your sleep. The total distance amounts to only 7-miles (roundtrip) culminating with an endless horizon in many directions.

While walking the winding road, Lidiia pointed to tents propped open at one of four authorized tenting sites. Unlike the Catskill range, overnighting is allowed in the ‘daks but hungry black bears like to feast at night so campers are encouraged to hoist their food into the trees in buckets and resistant bags. Not far from site #4 was a tempting blackberry patch, not yet ripe (end of summer) but a wild fruit that bears love. Lidiia’s eyes widened at the thought.

After Dacy Clearing, the trail narrowed and became a triumph of soft pine needles and huge slabs of flat rock. At certain points, it zig-zagged up a very short incline reminding me of small California switchbacks.

Among the pines and hemlock, a patch of blooming Lady Slippers caught our sight. The rare orchid wildflower should never be picked as it propagates very poorly and takes years to mature. As a child, I remember seeing the yellow and white variety in the woods and being told that the native species is endangered or threatened. I believe the same still applies today.

Lidiia’s breathed a sigh of relief at the top followed by an exasperated expression of joy. “Удивительно!” which translates into “Amazing!” The unexpected tableau of mountains, lakes, ponds and conifer forests endless in the distance was absolutely magical.

We sought out a peaceful spot to enjoy cold sandwiches and dry carrots. I cursed that I didn’t know how to prepare Piroshki and forgot the flask of vodka. Even a dollop of sour cream would have added that much-needed Russian flair for celebrating this incredible moment.

To see more photos, click my FLICKR ALBUM.

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