Sixteen Hours in Tahoe

So we plan to leave work early on Friday, as a way of celebrating Lucie’s birthday. We’d talked about what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go, but hadn’t made any actual plans. On the way in to work, however, we hear Kevin Nealon’s commercial about Lake Tahoe’s recovery from the Angora Hills fire, and about how even though the fire devastated over 3,000 acres of land and over 200 homes, the tourism industry is still chugging along just fine.

From what I’ve read, tourism fell by about 30% as a result of the fire, which isn’t too terribly surprising, so the tourism board had long-time resident Kevin Nealon do his radio spot as a way of drumming up the visitors… and you know what? It worked on us, at least. We might be able to enjoy smaller crowds because of the drop in tourism, and we’d be able to support the community’s recovery by spending some money while we’re there. Win-win.

Of course, by “spending some money” I mean at the casinos, so technically to be supporting Tahoe we’d have to lose the money gambling, so it’d be win-lose-win, and if we did it in Vegas it could be win-lose-win-Wynn, and if Lou’s Donuts was still around and we brought some to Vegas and gambled… but I digress.

At any rate, we hear the commercial on the way in to work, and we decide that if it’s good enough for Kevin Nealon, the best out of the poor replacements for Dennis Miller, it’s good enough for us. Semi-spontaneous road trip, here we come!

We leave work around 12:30, get home around 1, get a little delayed while packing, and hit the road around 2:30 or so. A bit later than we wanted to leave – we end up running to heavy traffic leaving the Bay Area and heading inland – but we’ve got a comfy car, we’ve got iTunes playing… and we’ve got a bunch of Krispy Kreme donuts.

See, Krispy Kreme, as part of their company anniversary, is offering anybody with a July 13th birthday a free dozen donuts on that day. Lucie’s birthday just so happens to be on July 13th, and there’s a Krispy Kreme right off Hwy 680 along the way to Tahoe. So already, we figure we’re in the black.

We hit more traffic crossing the Benicia Bridge, and again in Fairfield (home of the Budweiser brewery as well as the Jelly Belly factory), and some more traffic in Sacramento… by my reckoning, we may be spending more time parked on the freeways than actually driving on them, but we finally make it to South Lake Tahoe around 9:00 or so.

We see what lodging is available, filter out what’s too crowded (sure doesn’t look like tourism is down, judging by the hordes of loud drunk folks at the casinos!) or too expensive (when the “vacancy” sign means that you do have one room available, but it’s a junior suite that’s more than twice the price of the other rooms, just turn the “vacancy” sign off, dude!) or too far away (the rates might be good, but I’m hearing the married siblings in the room next door playing “dueling banjos” so we’re leaving), and end up at a slightly run-down but affordable joint located about half a mile from Stateline. Sure the place might be lacking an A/C unit and actually still uses real door keys instead of magnetic strip cards, but it’s also a mere $80 for the night, and that leaves us more money for gamb—err, supporting Tahoe. And we’re okay with that; considering we’re splurging just on coming up here, no need to go wacky crazy with the spending on everything.

Speaking of non sequiturs, When the heck did Caesar’s Lake Tahoe turn into Montbleu?! Smokin’ Aces -- which was filmed there -- wasn’t that bad, was it? (Actually, we watched it recently – yeah, it was that bad. I’d have changed my name if I were associated with it. Ben Affleck may have been the bomb in Phantoms, but he bombed in this junker along with everyone else.)

Anyway, we drop off our luggage and the remaining Krispy Kremes in the hotel room and hit the casinos. We park Meg at the Montbleu and start there, then move on to Bill’s. Montbleu likes me a little more than it does Lucie, but Bill apparently misses both of us, and we do okay there. We don’t make a profit or anything, but at least our money lasts longer.

We hit the all-night restaurant at the Montbleu on the way out for a late-night meal (the coconut shrimp appetizers are yummy, and while my mushroom burger isn’t worth the price they’re charging [think “five dollar milkshake’] it is mighty tasty), and then we head back to the hotel for some sleep.

In the morning, we hit the casinos on the other side of the street (well, okay; just the Horizon, since neither of us are doing well enough to warrant continuing on to Harrah’s and Harvey’s), and have a late breakfast before leaving town around 1PM.

I always enjoy the drive back from South Lake Tahoe along Hwy 50 more than coming in. Maybe it’s the lack of urgency and desperation in the drivers around me, maybe it’s the fact that we’re on the mountain side of the road instead of the butt-puckering side right next to the edge of the cliff, maybe it’s because we usually end up arriving at night but leaving during the day… who can say? At any rate, we enjoy a nice leisurely drive from Tahoe to Placerville where we make our usual stop at Apple Hill’s Boa Vista orchards and stock up on fresh apple cider and other fruity products.

From there, we mosey through Sacramento before making another stop in Fairfield’s Jelly Belly factory, where we stock up on our friend the simple carbohydrate, in various flavors and forms. Jelly Belly’s “Belly Flops” candies may be freakish and sometimes a little ugly, but they’re just as tasty as their QC-accepted cousins and they’re a lot cheaper, and I’m not sure my coworkers even notice what they look like before they descend upon them like locusts with PhDs.

We end up back in San Jose around 7:30, with a lighter bank account but a heavier car, thanks to the goodies we bought; happy, sated, and proud that we were able to help assist with the recovery of one of the world’s most beautiful places… although in a rather self-serving way.


7-Eleven in Mountain View

So it’s late evening on July 2th, and Lucie’s online while I’m playing Diablo 2 on the laptop. She comes across a news blurb that says as a promotion for the upcoming Simpsons movie, eleven different 7-Eleven stores across the US (plus one in Canada) are converting to Kwik-E-Marts, complete with store fa├žade, in-store decorations, and uniforms for the employees…. And that the nearest one to us just happens to be in Mountain View.


The stores were converted early on the 2th, and the 7-Eleven website doesn’t have the converted store locations listed yet. I get a little assistance from my friend Google, and find a message board where someone in Mountain View who has been to the store gives out the location… it’s right off 101 at Shoreline Blvd., about a 15-20 minute drive from our apartment.


So we head on out, groove our way on up Hwy 85 to 101,and before we know it we’re in Springfield… or at least as close to Springfield as we can get without being animated. There’s a small crowd of kids outside – the store is across the street from a movie megaplex, so there’s a bunch of wander-in traffic – but the store itself is fairly calm. We pick up some Buzz Cola and a box of Krusty-O’s; I grab a copy of the comic book Radioactive Man (“special origin issue!”); and we hit the Squishee machine for our frozen sugary beverage fix. Waving goodbye to the life-size image of Jasper in the freezer case, we walk out with our purchases and head on back home.

In a fit of fanboy mania, I open the original packaging on my Radioactive Man #1 and read it, thinking after the fact that I probably shouldn’t have opened it… or at the very least, I should have bought two copies.


You can buy Buzz Cola, Krusty-O’s, Squishees, Apu bobble head figurines, and other Simpsons-related items at most regular 7-Elevens (though it’s pretty darn hard to find anything other than the Squishee in stock as of this writing), but in this dude’s humble opinion, if you’re gonna spend some bucks on Buzz Cola, it really ought to be at a real live Kwik-E-Mart.


Six Cylinders in Fresno

So the last several times Lucie and I have gone down to Fresno we’ve had to rent a vehicle, since our beloved Leasa is getting on years and distance (over ten years and 136K miles) and just isn’t up for a long road trip. The last time we tried, we had to turn back before we were halfway there because smoke started pouring out from under the hood, which as it turns out is not as good for the engine as I hoped it was. Note to self: ribs are better when smoked; turkey is better when smoked; vehicles not so much.

At any rate, we’d been thinking about getting a second vehicle for when one of us has to work late and has some advance notice. Being a one-vehicle couple does have its benefits, but its drawbacks as well. For the money saved on fuel and insurance, there’s the necessary disruption to both schedules when only one need be skewed.

Long story slightly less long, while we’re in Fresno we decide to go looking at vehicles. One benefit of having driven lots and lots of rental vehicles is that we tried to rent as wide a variety as possible to see how we lived driving the different styles. One of the vehicles we liked most was the Hyundai Sonata, so we stop by the Hyundai dealership to poke around.

We get into a couple of different models in addition to the Sonata, and during the drive around the lot we see a couple of used (excuse me, “Certified Pre-Owned”) Sonatas on sale. We stop and take a look, and find a teal 2006 6-cylinder Sonata that really stands out to us. It’s got a sun roof, which Lucie loves; it’s a rental return that only has 11,000 miles, which I love; and it’s one of two used cars on sale for $15,900, which both of us like a whole lot. It’s still more than we want to spend, but that’s what the bargaining part is for.

We take it out for a test drive, I end up driving further than any of us really wanted (stupid confusing freeway exits that dump you right back onto the freeway going the same direction – and Lucie says San Jose is bad), and we decide to have a sit down and see what we can work out.

Now, Hyundai and Kia are slightly different than most other auto makers in that their initial prices are lower than their competitors’ – the South Korean auto makers (sister companies since Hyundai bought out Kia a few years back) lose a little bit of the overhead in order to offer a more attractive face price to their customers. According to a few people with whom we spoke, this means that there simply isn’t much haggle space when you buy one of these cars – what you see is pretty much what you should expect to pay. We decide to test this theory, and hard.

Privately, Lucie says she doesn’t want to spend more than $14,500 on a car. We opt to start at $14,000 even just to see how they react, and work from there. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know all that much about poker faces, but when the salesman chokes on his own tongue while laughing like a braying donkey at our offer, that says something. I may not know exactly what it says, but it says something.

He counters with $15,500, saying what is mentioned above, that they don’t have all that much haggling room on that car, especially since it’s already on a pretty good sale (one of only two cars, remember – most other similar ones were around $18,000.) We go up to our desired $14,500, and settle in for what looks to be a long bargaining session. We go back and forth for what seems like two hours but is actually only about 120 minutes, haggling over the financing (our credit isn’t exactly outstanding, but it’s not as bad as I’d thought either; we’ve mostly recovered from my 25-month unemployment financial devastation) as well as the initial cost.

They bring up the fact that the sale price for the vehicle is in and of itself lower than the Kelley Blue Book price, and that we’re getting it for almost a thousand bucks less than that. We bring up the fact that they’re fairly desperate to make a sale, since it’s end of month as well as end of quarter for them, and they’ve already mentioned that they have a quota they need to hit. They bring up the fact that as a Certified Pre-Owned car, it’s still got 50,000 miles or 6 years left on the original warranty. We bring up the fact that since we’re buying in Fresno but live in San Jose, odds are pretty damn high that their dealership won’t have to incur any of the potential repair costs if we should need any work done while it’s under said warranty.

The finance guy comes in several times, backing up the salesman’s comments and begrudgingly lowering the cost down to $15,300, then down to $15,200, then back up to $15,300 (which he swears is a typo, honest), until we finally work out a deal for $15,000 at just a hair under 7% financing. He gives us the CarFax printout when Lucie asks for it, showing it’s a rental return with no accidents or issues.

Now, this is a good deal. We like it. But Lucie thinks we might be able to do better. We’re also just a little afraid to commit to a new long-term debt, since we’ve just about paid off Hawaii and have no major debts otherwise. So, we ask if they can hold that price for us for a while, we’ll go back home and talk about it, and let them know about our decision in a few days, and if we decide to buy we’ll be back down next weekend.

Finally, the finance guys comes in and slaps down a new piece of paper, saying that he’s sick of this back and forth, and he just wants to get this over with. He’s red in the face, and actually does sound pretty grumpy; he’s certainly not as friendly and nice as he was when he came in the first time. The new piece of paper says $14,500, at the agreed-upon financing rate. Kelley Blue Book listing for this vehicle: $18,500. Score!

We sign the papers, and during the finalization process we agree to an upgraded warranty plan (which we were going to get anyway) which brings us full and complete coverage for 100,000 miles from current status (i.e., good for ten years or until 111,090 miles) and we end up with an even lower finance rate, coming in at a mere tad over 6%.

Since she’s nice and big and fast and powerful, and teal in color (like the Sharks!), Lucie names our new vehicle Meg.

Welcome to the family, Meg.