Sunday, August 28, 2011

Finishing up the Road Trip

The Sierra Mountains and Yosemite played a big part in my childhood.  Both my parents enjoyed the High Sierra; my dad a climber and my mom a backpacker.  Childhood vacations most always involved a drive across "the valley", and a climb through the foothills to a trail head.  While we mostly sought less crowded spots at higher elevation, many a trip involved at least a stop over in Yosemite. 

Much is the same in Yosemite Valley today; Curry Village is still a busy hub of families with kids, presenting a myriad of activities, and always feeling a bit hotter than other spots.  The grocery store at Yosemite Village is still abustle of back country folk stocking up, or treating themselves to something cold after a long trip, combined with campers getting a few supplies (hot dogs, s'mores etc) and others grabbing a few souvenirs and a cold bottle of water.  A few steps away, the Ansel Adams Gallery is still a quiet, cool and soothing spot to take in some aesthetics, see Yosemite through the eyes of world class photographers and contemplate a purchase or two.  The Ahwahnee   remains a classic jewel, tucked away from it all in the woods, with that huge quiet "lobby" for relaxing, a delicious dining room and of course historic rooms (in which I have never stayed).  The Yosemite Valley of the Ahwahnee always seems much cooler than other parts of the valley.

But much has changed, and in general, I think, for the better.  Back in the day, we did see the iconic dumping of fireworks off Glacier Point at night.  Wow!  What a show, but probably not the best for the environment.  The valley shuttles, when first introduced, were open air trams, with an optional shed roof in inclement weather.  I really liked those old trams as you got wonderful views and fresh air while scooting from one place to another.  On the other hand, I'll admit the air conditioned coaches of today were pretty comfy.  In years passed, there was an informal spot in the meadow by El Capitan where folks would gather to get a glimpse of climbers on the rock face.  Today, the air conditioned El Capitan shuttle, takes folks to said meadow where most days a climber/docent is posted with a telescope to pinpoint climbers and lend some reality to the view.  I like this, as many folks who wouldn't have stopped, or even known what all those folks were looking at, get some exposure to the climbers and the idea of spending three to five days on a rock face.

Favorites from this year's trip included lunch at The Ahwahnee Hotel, floating the Merced and watching the climbers on El Capitan.  We had made reservations at the Ahwahnee as I was sure we would need them, but in the end, they didn't seem necessary.  While dinner at the Ahwahnee is a formal affair, dress code and all, lunch was nicely informal and relaxed (you know me).  I had, most likely, the best rainbow trout I have ever had, and the girls seemed to like the special Ahwahnee ketchup; some sort of BBQ sauce and ketchup mixture.  We all enjoyed the soaring ceilings of that dining room, "lodge" decor and beautiful views.  My niece loved the look of meadow and want to frolic in it.

Our float on the Merced was also quite a treat.  The recreational rentals (bikes and rafts) are at Curry Village.  Depending on the timing, especially for rafts, there can be quite a wait, about an hour for us.  The place though, is quite well organized, and has a good system for forms, equipment and explanations.  Four people to a raft (though I saw some exceptions with kids) and rafters much be a minimum of 50 lbs.  We felt bad for the 47 lb. girl who hung out with her Mom while her brother and Dad got to raft.  We were actually lucky to be able to raft in mid-August as the river is usually too low by then.  The late wet season had the river higher than usual.  It was quite a leisurely float, with a wee bit of directional paddling (don't hit the bridge pilings) and some paddling required to get through slow spots.  The float itself took about an hour and a half, maybe two.  With another half hour added on for the shuttle back to Curry Village.  I highly recommend this float if you have a chance, but it is spendy.

On our last day, in the late evening, I snapped this photo from Curry Village:

One of the great things about Yosemite, is views like this, ALL THE TIME.  While it had been several years since either my sister or I had been to Yosemite, we vowed to return, and a bit sooner this time.

I won't bore you with the drive back from Yosemite to Portland.  It was long and pretty boring.  The fruit stand we stopped at outside of Merced had to much schlocky stuff and fruit inferior to what I can get at the Hawthorne Fred Meyer.  We got tired of our CD collection that had been so inspiring that first day, and grew a bit weary of each other's company.  It is always nice to be home.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

That Road Trip: Part One

Back from the road trip I had blogged about a few months ago.  Many hours of driving lends itself to quite a bit of thinking, and now and again a few revelations, or at least novel thoughts.

We set off from inner Southeast Portland, heading across the Ross Island Bridge; a cooler of drinks, yummy car snacks, a big stack of CD's and the atlas.  On the road!  We sat in a classic Ross Island Bridge traffic jam for 45 minutes.  So much for our big start.  A bit of humility is good for us all.

Day 1 took us to Crater Lake for a late lunch, ending in Yreka - a favorite stop over.  I had only been to Crater Lake once as a child and remember the squirrel stealing my sister's hotdog more than anything else.  We still talk about it.  It had even been years since I had been over Highway 58 and on Highway 97 that far down.  When you turn on Highway 138, heading toward Crater Lake, the pavement stretches out before you; over ten miles of straight, gradually rising road.  And then, pop, there you are perched above the lake with the first breath taking view.  As we were aiming for a late lunch, we resisted the many incredible overlooks and made our way to the Lodge.

Arriving at the Lodge at 2:07 pm.  We had just missed lunch service in the dining room.  Thanks Ross Island Bridge.  They were though, serving soup and salad in the lobby.  Fed and bathroomed, we set off to sight see.  We didn't have time to take the boat trip around the lake, and have put that on the list for next year, but got some great views and a real since of scale - as in how huge it all is and how tiny we were.  The rock formation, Phantom Ship, appears to be about the size of my two story house.  It is actually about 500' long and about 200' tall.  We really need to take that boat trip.

 I was also reminded of how recent of a formation Crater Lake is.  They say the most recent, caving in of the mountain to form the lake occurred about 7700 years ago.  Holy Cow!  In geological time that must be less than a second.  Feeling tiny and a bit out of breath, we made our way down the west side to I-5 and our evening destination.  My daughter had not yet mastered the art of taking a  picture of road signs while speeding down the interstate, so we have no photo of the "Welcome to California" sign.

Day 2 took us through California's central valley and up through the Sierra foothills and gold country to our hotel at El Portal ( I have trouble writing that without writing Portland instead).  If we endeavor to eat food grown locally, we may want to move to the central valley.  I grew up in California and travelled through the valley lots in my child and teenage hood.  And yes, Oregon has plenty of agriculture, no doubt.  But I had forgotten the huge scope of agribusiness in California.  Wow.  We were most impressed with the fields and fields of sunflowers, clearly being grown as a crop for the seeds and such, not for the floral value.  Somehow this seems sad and a waste.  Our route took us down I-5 to Stockton (one of the worst real estate markets in the country), down I-99 to Highway 140 and over.  That stretch of I-99 is a rather awful part of America; old freeway travelling through semi-abandoned factories smattered with cookie cutter strip malls.It was so nice to leave I-99 at Merced, though we could have done without  the closure of the Yosemite exit, absolute lack of detour signage and plethora of construction that flummoxed I-pad maps and the GPS.

My sister and niece were about an hour ahead of us, having left that morning from Los Angeles.  We had gotten texts of them passing through "bleak, dead, brown fields of nothing" on Highway 140.  The Highway 140 we were on (same stretch) was beautiful rolling hills of golden grass dotted with gorgeous aging oak trees.  I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.  We arrived at our hotel, the Yosemite View Lodge in time for a quick dip in the pool before dinner.  It didn't take us long to realize we were quite the minority at our hotel, as most of the guests were speaking other languages, primarily french.  The girls seemed to enjoy the handsome young Frenchmen.

Transportation around Yosemite has grown up a lot since we visited in the 1960's and 1970's, go figure.  I had remembered the open air trams that served as the park shuttles.  First off, YARTS (Yosemite Area Rapid Transit) is a thorough bus system with service from Merced to Yosemite Valley, and on to Tuolmne Meadows and Mammoth; full size coaches with luggage compartments and air conditioning.   Picked up at our hotel, we took YARTS into the valley and connected to the valley shuttle service (now also air conditioned buses) that did a great job of getting us around.  Yosemite was not nearly as crowded as we had feared, nor as hot.  There was though, a forest fire nearby(started by lightening) that made for smokey views.

Check back for the second installment: some Yosemite activities and the long road home.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Some musings on energy efficieny and savings

Living Social is offering a version of a home energy audit today, performed using infrared imaging.  I've seen presentations on this technology, but haven't had this particular service done on our house.  I was impressed though, by what an experienced technician can learn from information resulting from this imaging.  Differentials in temperature are clues both to heat loss (or gain) spots and moisture intrusion.  Click here to see today's deal.

As to solar energy, The Oregonian ran an article today (front page) on the changes we'll see in large solar energy projects now that the Legislature made some pretty deep cuts in the business energy tax credits.  As an emerging renewable energy source, the market for those large projects has relied heavily on federal and state dollars.  The trick with these subsidies is to phase them out just as market demand for the "goods" is created.  When hybrid vehicles were first around, there were some very nice tax credits to those who purchased.  As the hybrid vehicles became more sought after and folks were willing to pay a premium, the tax credits were phased out, without much ill effect on the market.

Enter the economic woes of the last few years, where state budget issues, not market forces, have dictated the fate of energy tax credits and the like.  The Oregonian article uses the huge solar project in Klamath Falls' ribbon cutting as an example of the type of project that will no longer see the sizable subsidies in place since 2007.

Subsidies for residential solar projects in Oregon are still reasonably generous and vary with the size of the project and local support.  Click here for a link to complete list of subsidies and supports in Oregon.  Navigating these various programs can be a bit intimidating.  Our solar installation, by the folks at Imaginenergy, was quite simple as they coordinated the different programs to help us maximize the available subsidies and incentives.

Just as commercial solar projects have lost the majority of their support, expect the subsidies and incentives for residential projects to wane in the coming years.  These programs have probably played a large role in the marked decrease of the cost of solar panels we have seen in recent years.  Get in on the sweet spot of incentives and lower panel cost while you still can.

Monday, August 15, 2011

New Portland Area Market Stats

The latest market data for Portland was released by RMLS today.   Remember that history lesson from last month's stats.  In June of 2010, the home buyer tax incentive transactions had just closed, July of 2010 being the first month with no home buyer tax program for 18 months.  So now, looking to July of 2010, we see the first backward look at a normal market.  Or kind of a normal market, as there was probably a slight dearth of closed sales since so many closed in June of 2010.

In any case, now, when we look back, we see that from July 2010 to July 2011, both closed and pending sales are up.  Closed sales grew 21% in July 2011 compared to July 2010 and pending sales grew 18.4%.  That is good.  Prices though, are still down from July 2010 to July 2011, with the average price declining by 7.4%  from $297,000 to $275,100.

 Month to month though, June 2011 to July 2011 we saw a slight increase of 3% in the average prices from $267,100 to $275,100.   Sales activity from June 2011 to July 2011 is down a bit, with closed sales decreasing by 12.7% and pending sales decreasing  down 3.7%.  I'm not surprised by this decrease as we expect seasonal slowing  in the summer.  I guess we'll see similar slowing in sales activity from July 2011 to August 2011, with an uptick from August to September once folks get back from vacation and start shopping again.

We won't know we've reached the bottom of the market until we can look backwards and see improvement.  Consistently.  So for now I'll ask the question.  Does increased activity year over year and increased prices month over month constitute a hint that we bottomed out?

Check here for the full Portland area report.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Privitization of Water?!

I know there is a whole world of water politics to which I am not privy.  Let me just get that out on the virtual table.  Oh yeah, I saw Chinatown and read The Cadillac Desert.  My dad has a cabin up above the Owen's Valley in California,  and has watched Los Angeles water politics in that area for awhile.  Hydroelectric power is no longer considered a renewable energy source as the water to provide that power is disappearing.  And of course, there have long been private contractors building water treatment plants and such.

I recently read though, an article in Smart Money, Water World,  on Aqua America, which runs water treatment facilities and utilities in several states in the U.S. Wait, what?  A private company is running water bureaus around the country?  Wow.  Where have I been?  It is not a surprise that water and sewer infrasturctures are old and failing.  And cash strapped cities and municipalities do not have the resources to invest in important upgrades. What I didn't know, but might have realized if I'd thought about it, is that not only is the issue aging water treatment plants, but aging pipes.  In the interview with Aqua America's CEO, Nicholas De Benedictis, he says some cities lose 30 to 40 percent of their water through pipe leakage.  That is a lot of water to treat and not use.

Private companies like Aqua America are buying utilities from municipalities.  Yes, they increase rates.  Not only do rate increases pay for fixing the systems, but  private sector utility owners pay tax, where as utilities owned by municipalities don't.  Hmm.  I wonder what would happen if municipal utility owners raised their rates by that 20 percvent and used it to make needed repairs?  It must be more complicated than that. 

De Benedictis says about 15 percent of water utilities are currently run by the private sector.  With hard economic times for cities and towns, combined with tighter rules from the EPA, he expects this percentage to rise.  And, Aqua America also expects their business to increase from  the natural gas extracting in Pennsylvania. All that fracking takes lots of water.  Interesting though is that Aqua America's focus is smaller towns.  De Benedictis says towns of 10,000 and under are their area of expertise.  I guess there are some French firms who specialize in larger towns; Veolia and Suez.  I'll find out about them for a future post.