Quin's Progress


Customer Service Is Not Dead a.k.a. My Lifelong Obsession with the Tom Collins

Chena Hot Springs Lodge

Chena Hot Springs Lodge

This past St. Patrick’s Day, I was sitting with my dad in the bar at the Chena Hot Springs Lodge, about 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.  We had been together for a week already, and had kind of run out of small talk, so we were just kind of sitting there quietly, sipping our hot toddies, checking out the various taxidermied animals on the walls, and enjoying our post-hot springs soak state of relaxation.

I was wrong, it wasn't Schweppes, it was Canada Dry (Image courtesy of the bottlecapman.com)

I was wrong, it wasn’t Schweppes, it was Canada Dry
(Image courtesy of the bottlecapman.com)

I don’t really know why this occurred to me at that particular moment, but out of the blue, I said to my dad: “Hey Dad, remember that phase I went through when I was about eight or nine years old, when all I would drink was Tom Collins Mixer?”

My dad furrowed his brow and looked askance at me.  “Tom Collins Mixer?” he said, like he’d never heard of it.

“Yeah, the mixer for a Tom Collins cocktail.  It came in a green bottle, like tonic water.  I think Schweppes made it.  Remember, I used to ask for cases of it for my birthday?”

Then, he started to laugh, and said, yeah, he remembered something about that, and we proceeded to try to remember how I had been introduced to it in the first place (we think it was probably Uncle Frank’s doing), what a peculiar kid I was to get addicted to Tom Collins Mixer at age eight, and pondered if one could still buy the stuff, or if the Tom Collins had gone totally out of style.  It was really good, tasted kind of like carbonated SweeTarts.

That's the stuff!! (Image from Ebay.com)

That’s the stuff!!
(Image from Ebay.com)

As we were talking, the cute young bartendress (who didn’t look old enough to drink legally) went and sat in the corner with a tattered old bartender’s guide.  We didn’t pay that much attention to her, really.  But after a bit, she came over and set a tall glass of something fizzy and vaguely lemony-looking down in front of me and said “Let me know if this is it.”

The girl had gone and looked up the recipe for a Tom Collins in her book, and made me a glass of the mixer from scratch!  How sweet is that?  I was so touched, that I kept to myself that she had missed the mark entirely, and told her she had made it just right.  We have to reward effort, right?  That’s customer service — give your people what they want before they even ask for it.

See?  The vintage ads for Collins Mixer show a maraschino cherry in the glass (Image from Ebay.com)

See? The vintage ads for Collins Mixer show a maraschino cherry in the glass
(Image from Ebay.com)

Since then, I’ve been thinking I should lead a one-woman campaign to bring back the Tom Collins in time for Summer.  So, I hereby officially declare it the QP Cocktail of the Summer for 2013!  You’re going to love it.  It’s really quite light, zesty and refreshing.  I prefer the vodka variety to the classic with gin, but you do what you want.

As it appears that neither Schweppes nor Canada Dry makes Collins Mixer anymore, here’s a poncey British video on how to make a proper Tom Collins from scratch, which I chose mostly because I think the bartender demonstrating for the camera is super adorable — check out that sizzlin’ look at 2:14 when he pours the gin in the shaker!  I have to take issue with the lack of a maraschino cherry as garnish–that is an absolute requirement for a Tom Collins.  But, otherwise, this looks delicious, as does “Mauro”:

Sexy Latin Guy Makes a Tom Collins

Who’s with me?!

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Have an Ice Day!

Denali a.k.a. Mount McKinley

Denali a.k.a. Mount McKinley

Y’all have probably heard that old chestnut of a quote erroneously attributed to Mark Twain, about the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.  Well, there’s no better way to make San Francisco feel almost tropical than to spend a week or so near the Arctic Circle.  This time last week, I was within 130 miles of the Arctic Circle, and had actually started to think the -17 degree cold wasn’t all that bad (although, I declined the opportunity to experience -40 degrees).  Today, back home, I woke up thinking I was having a hot flash or a fever, but it turns out, it’s actually going to get up into the 70s this afternoon, and for SFO, that’s hot.  So, while I revise my thoughts on what I’m going to wear to work to account for the balmy temperature, I thought I would cool it back down a little, at least, on here.

ice champsUnderstandably, much of the Alaskan culture, especially in the northern interior, revolves around ice.  There’s a lot of it.  It’s there most of the year.  So, when life gives you ice lemons, just ask an Alaskan how to make some frozen lemonade, because they’ve mastered the art.  Literally.  Fairbanks is the home to the annual World Ice Art Championships.  Ice sculptors come from all over the planet to compete for prizes for incredible works of art hewn from either single blocks or multiple blocks of ice.  P1010945Teams of artists from the USA, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, Sweden, and even Mexico, build out an entire ice park, complete with a play area with ice slides and ice play houses for the kids, to create the venue for the contest that is the real reason they descend upon Fairbanks every February and March.  Then, they get to work, creating the manifestations of their ice fantasies from giant blocks of ice out in the shade of the trees, so the sun won’t melt them too fast.  chinese iceThen, after the competition is over, the prizes have been handed out, and the public viewing period has ended…they take down the fences, abandon the ice park, and just let everything melt as Spring comes to Fairbanks.  It seems a little sad to let those magnificent works just fade and disappear like that, but, I guess, it’s consistent with the Japanese aesthetic philosophy that the more impermanent something is, the greater its beauty.  At least, that is what I told myself to keep from trying to steal the sculptures and stick them in a freezer to preserve them.  I mean, look at these things!mexican ice champtentaclessamuraiP1010966P1010962

Nenana Ice Classic Tripod

Nenana Ice Classic Tripod

Even the lottery is ice-based!  The Nenana Ice Classic gives anyone in the state with $2.50 in their pocket a shot to win a big pot of cash by correctly guessing the exact date and time the ice on the Tanana River will break in the town of Nenana.  They place a tripod with a clock on it on the ice in the river, and when the tripod falls through the ice, the clock stops and determines the winner.  The pot got up to $350,000 in 2012.  You can track it online, and vote up until April 5th, as long as you’re in the state.  I forgot to enter, but my mental vote is for May 5th at 3:16 p.m.  So….I’ll be watching.  I just like to be right, even if I don’t have money on the game.

Look closely...that bartendress is wearing shorts!

Look closely…that bartendress is wearing shorts!

The odd thing was, it was under 10 degrees even in the hottest part of the day, but the local residents we encountered kept going on and on about how “warm” it was that week.  Seriously, we saw people in shorts, short-sleeved t-shirts, and sandals.  Right after I took that picture to the left of the bartender in shorts, the whole bar went bonkers yelling at some boob outside who was driving his car up the frozen river near Pike’s Landing, trying to stop him from falling through the ice that was thinning because of “how warm it had been that week.”  Tscha, I guess “cold” is relative.

Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs

Of course, I eventually joined those wackadoos wandering around out in the frozen air half  naked in a bathing suit.  About 60 miles from Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs is the place to pretend you are one of those Japanese snow monkeys.  You can sit in those geothermically heated mineral waters in the middle of the night and watch the Aurora Borealis (if they come out for you, which they did not for me that particular night).  It’s quite dreamy, simmering away like that in the bathtub hot lake, surrounded by snow.  The problem is getting to and from the lake in the cold!  The walkway is covered, but it is not heated or wind-proof, and that is one icy walk!  You can’t run, because the path is literally icy and you will fall on your ass.  I don’t know about you, but I grew up in San Diego, and they don’t teach kids to walk on ice there.  It doesn’t come up much.  But, notwithstanding the torture walk to and from the lake….it was totally worth it.  The night skies, even sans Northern Lights, are brilliantly starry.  It is so peaceful out there.  Standing in the field all bundled up in snow gear, we could only last about 20 minutes or so before we had to go inside and thaw out.  But, sitting in the hot springs, you can soak away in warmth and comfort for a good long time.  If only they added a swim-up bar, it would be Nirvana!  Believe me, a shot of liquid courage would make that mad dash across the ice back into the changing rooms a lot more bearable.

The winter train from Anchorage to Fairbanks.Yes, there was a bar on board!

The winter train from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
Yes, there was a bar on board!


Aurora Bourbonalis

photoAccording to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, if you spend four nights in Fairbanks in March, you are 90 percent likely to see the Northern Lights.  Based on that data, I planned to spend six nights in and around Fairbanks, figuring that boosted the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis to a sure 135 percent.  And we did see them!  On our first night in Fairbanks, as we were walking back to the hotel from warming our veins with a nightly bourbon toddy at the Pike’s Landing bar, there they were, languidly rolling and twisting across the dark, starry sky, like thready wisps of that jade green smoke that Jeannie’s evil, brunette twin sister turned into when she wanted to get inside Jeannie’s bottle or Major Nelson’s pocket.  We couldn’t believe our luck to see them on our first night in town!  It was spectacular.  After about twenty minutes, they softly dissolved into the atmosphere, and we realized the bourbon had worn off and our toes were frozen like fish sticks, so we went back to the hotel and thanked our lucky stars that we had taken that walk.

Maker's Mark Wireless

Maker’s Mark Wireless

But, I couldn’t sleep.  I got up again at about 1:30 in the morning, bundled up and went back outside, with my cute little cell phone flask in my pocket.  There wasn’t much to see at first, but I could just make out the slightest feathery green glow on the horizon.  I watched it for a while, out there on the edge of the Chena River, all by myself.  Slowly, it grew.  And grew.  And before I knew it, it had split into about four wide ribbons of green and violet light that overtook the entire sky, swirling and dancing directly above me like a neon belly dancer, reaching her brightly glowing arms down as if to invite me to play.  My rational mind knows that the Aurora occur fifty to sixty miles above the earth, but in that moment, I was so sure I could touch them, that I jumped up and down in the snow with my arms stretched up to the sky, laughing ecstatically.  I was quite literally and absolutely dazzled.  So gobsmacked, I was, that it never occurred to me to go get my camera.  Just as well, as I couldn’t have mustered the disrespect to turn my back on that display even if I had wanted to, and I’m sure no still photo I could have taken would have done those lights justice, kinetic as they are.  The Aurora danced with me for about ten minutes and then twirled off into space, leaving me staring greedily at the black sky.  I stood there for another half an hour, freezing, but the only thing I saw was a guy in a short-sleeved t-shirt and no jacket who brought the trash out of the hotel to the dumpster.

Every night after that, for the remaining six days we had to kill in Fairbanks, I went out into the subzero temperatures at around 1 a.m., armed with my flask, camera equipment and recently acquired night photography skills, and begged the Aurora to come back out and play.  But they never did.


Eagles and Reindeer and Bears, Oh My!

Alaskan Brown BearHe looks like a "Gus" to me, what do you think?

Alaskan Brown Bear
He looks like a “Gus” to me, what do you think?

As a city denizen, the closest contact I have had to wildlife in recent years was that raccoon that stole my Shamrock Shake while I was taking pictures up on Twin Peaks in San Francisco a couple weeks ago.  Cute as he was, the experience didn’t give me chills.  Well, I’ve got them now, and it isn’t just because of the temperature.

One of Three Bald Eagles I Saw Near the Portage Glacier

One of Three Bald Eagles I Saw Near the Portage Glacier

Anchorage is surrounded by vast wilderness that is home to the kind of wildlife most of us have only ever seen in zoos or on TV.  Between the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and the Chugach State Park and National Forest, a day trip out of the city will make you feel like you are in an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (or, insert name of more timely TV show reference here, for those who are too young to remember the 1970s).

Caribou aka Reindeer

Caribou aka Reindeer

Just keep the telefoto lens on your camera at the ready, and don’t be an idiot and try to get close to, pet or feed the animals, and the Kenai Peninsula will reward you handsomely.  I had an amazingly lucky day, in part, because we hired a local guide to show us to the best spots to see these magnificent creatures, and to keep us from getting ourselves killed by, oh, say, an avalanche or a grizzly bear.  (He also happened to know of a truly memorable little donut shop tucked away behind the only gas station on the Seward Highway.  The maple bars were puffs of heaven glazed with sin!)

Girl Grizzly Hanging Out, Munching Some Kind of Bone (Hopefully Not Human)

Girl Grizzly Hanging Out, Munching Some Kind of Bone (Hopefully Not Human)

Ohhh...More Bears...Easy Fellas

Ohhh…More Bears…Easy Fellas

But, although I took all the photos in this post out in the wild hinterlands, you don’t actually have to leave Anchorage city limits to have a wildlife sighting.  Believe it or not, the city of Anchorage itself is home to not only 300,000 people, but also about 1,600 moose, and scores of black, brown and grizzly bears, linx and other species of wildlife.  Inside the city.  Urban wildlife.  Seriously, moose just walk down the street like sulky teenagers and pick through people’s trash bins.  Bears saunter around and nap on people’s back decks.  Most of them wander into the city from Chugach State Park.  The prevailing attitude seems to be:  (1) Moose are stupid and dangerous, so stay out of their way; and (2) Bears are cool, just don’t corner or threaten them.  In fact, more people are hurt each year by moose than by black and grizzly bear attacks combined.

Bear Fight!

Bear Fight!

Anchorage locals are eager to point out that the only bear species that will actually hunt a human being is the polar bear.  The rest of the bears, they say, are happy to just share the space with us, as long as they get the fishing spot they want, and people don’t mess with them.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask, do you?

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Taxidermy & Booze

Half a Bear Sticking Out of the Wall Over Our Table at the White Spot Cafe

Half a Bear Sticking Out of the Wall Over Our Table at the White Spot Cafe

Gentle friends, I know this will not come as a surprise to any of you, but can I just say for the record, it is frickin’ cold in Alaska!  Holy chilblains, people, I am pretty well insulated to begin with, and I look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with all my thermal bundling, but I still get a full body ice cream headache every time I go outside.  Thankfully, we decided to start our Alaskan Adventure in Anchorage, where the mild coastal climate is a balmy 10 degrees Fahrenheit–a good stepping down place to adjust before heading to Fairbanks, where it is currently -17 (as in, 17 below zero, not counting wind chill).  Did I mention I’m from California?  We complain when it gets below 60.  Okay, thank you for letting me get that out of my system.  I feel better now.

Anchorage Skyline Across the Cook Inlet

Anchorage Skyline Across the Cook Inlet

Anchorage in March is kind of like an episode of the Twilight Zone.  During the day, the frozen streets are pretty much deserted, businesses with illuminated “Open” signs are empty, no one answers the phones, glassy-eyed taxidermy animals stare at you from every wall, and when you do encounter a human being, they assess you almost suspiciously before telling you that you should have come in the summertime instead.  It’s a little spooky.  It’s livelier at night, mostly because everyone seems to be bombed.  I know I was.

Peach Brandy Toddy--Delicious!

Peach Brandy Toddy–Delicious!

There was a bar next to our hotel where they made hot toddies with peach brandy, and it became our evening habit.  Definitely took the chill off!  Here’s the recipe for you, in case you are feeling a chill coming on, too.

Hot Peach Toddy

In a mug of your choice, add the following and adjust proportions to taste:

1.5 to 2 oz. peach brandy
A tablespoon or so of honey
A tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice
Hot water
Garnish with lemon wheel or wedge.