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All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

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EdTech Update





How retirees stay busy

Ever heard someone who is retired remark, "I'm busier now than when I was working!"

What they don't tell you is that they are just busy trying to figure out Medicare.

I'll say right up front that health insurance has never been a time suck for me. I simply took the plans the schools I worked for offered. I have had no major health issues. (Knock wood.) I take no medications except Rolaids. No one has yet committed me to psychiatric treatment.

Until now.

Two things have happened that have caused insurance to eat up large chunks of my time.

The first was moving to Medicare now that I am retired and no longer covered by an employer. Here is what I've learned about this federal program: 

  1. It is not free. I get about $200 deducted from my social security check each month. I pay for a "supplemental" plan that supposedly fills in some of the holes in Medicare. I have high deductibles and co-pays.
  2. It is complicated. There is Medicare Part A, Part B, and Part D (and probably others as well). I honestly have not studied this enough to determine what part does what, what is optional and what is not, etc. I get to learn about things like determining if a provider is "in-network" or even accepts Medicare patients. Some stuff requires preapproval and some stuff does not.
  3. It is not user friendly. When I actually went to a Social Security office to get a statement of what I paid for my Medicare on a monthly basis so I could apply for reimbursement from my health savings account, I was simply told it was not possible. Get lost. The complexity mentioned above could be reduced. A lot.

Yes, this sounds like the grumbling of a cranky old man who wants to diss "socialized medicine." I will admit that I have little stomach for studying this sort of thing and I have had little reason to worry about how insurance in general works since I've not needed to use it much.

The second thing that has happened to focus my attention on insurance is that I actually need to use it.

Last month while hiking, I noticed a loss of vision in my right eye. The top and sides were dark and I had a tough time reading small print even with my cheaters. So when I got back to the good old USA, I made an appointment with an optometrist - my first in 50 years. When he wasn't trying to hard sell me glasses, he ran a scan on my eyeballs and determined I have tear in my retina - which could get worse, resulting in the total loss of vision in that eye. Since I don't have room for a seeing eye dog in my townhouse, I took up his suggestion to visit a retinal surgical specialist. 

That's when the fun really began. Over the past five days, I've learned:


  • You don't see just one doctor. So far, I have seen an optometrist, a retinal specialist, a primary care physician, and a pharmacist. Today I will meet the doctor who actually performs the surgery. Each doctor, of course, has a medical assistant to give one of the half dozen or so blood pressure checks I've had. And I know each has a clerical person to process the bill I will receive for each visit.
  • Costs are crazy high. I know right now that the eye exam (Is this better or is this better? Put this over your right eye. Look at my ear.) is $200. Just the exam - no glasses. One prescription for eye drops is about $100. I can't wait to see what the cost of the actual out patient surgery will be.
  • There is redundancy everywhere. There is no central online source for my medical information. I get the same stupid questions from every doctor. No, I don't have diabetes. Yes, I smoked but quit. No, I don't have dizzy spells. Yes, I drink (and lie about how much.) I'm still not allergic to anything (except doctors.)
  • No dual purposes are allowed. I asked that my pre-op physical exam be used to sign off for my Boy Scout exam I will need for hiking next summer. They looked at me like I'd grown a horn out the top of my head.
  • Health savings accounts are a pain in the ass from which to get reimbursement. My last two school districts both contributed to my health savings account when I did not use all my sick days. So after 28 years of employment and having used about 7 sick days, I have a healthy balance. Oh, but filing for reimbursement? Better have lots of papers and tenacity.
  • Speaking of paper... I have two folders now that contain brochures, scribble notes, appointment reminders, and forms. At some point, can't the health care industry go paper - less?


I suspect for many Blue Skunk readers little of this is news, but it has come as a surprise to me. I'd rather be hiking or reading a novel than filling our paperwork or getting my pulse checked. And I would certainly rather spend my savings on travel or on my grandsons or, well, just damn near anything.

I'll let you know how the eye surgery turns out. Provided I can see my computer.

Any survival tips for the medical morass?


The ups and downs of hiking in Montenegro

Just back a couple days ago from a 3-week trip to Europe. Sightseeing in Amsterdam, conference-going in Dubrovnik, and hiking in Montenegro kept my friend Heidi and me quite busy. For me the highlight was the six days in the small country of Montenegro.

The country has an area about the size of Connecticut (533 square miles) and a population about that of Vermont (628,000).  It's a young political entity (declared independence in 2006) with a very, very long history - often viewed as a territory of the Ottomans, the Venitians, and the Hapsburgs - all reflected in current culture and cuisine. I knew none of this when I booked our self-guided hike. 

Flying in, Heidi kept pointing out how mountainous the region was as we got closer to Podgorica.

We were soon to experience those mountains.

We were driven from the airport at Podgorica to the old capital city of Cetinje where we stayed at an old house and left the next morning for a boat ride on Skadar Lake and then a 4 mile hike to a local winery. Crystal clear waters in the lake and the rivers flowing into it.

Vineyards produce excellent wines in this region of Montenegro. Liqueurs were popular. Beer - not so good, I thought compared to the Czech pivo.

The birch forests were breath-taking. Hiking in October, we caught quite a bit of the fall colors. Much of our hiking was done in forest areas with almost nothing on roads.

Our second day of hiking took us from Cetinje to Lovcen National Park - about 6.5 miles and a 2000 ft climb. Rough trails were pretty standard though out the week  Note the red circle with the white dot in the center. It was our trail marker.

Our third day was a trip up to the Njegos Mausoleum, passing by and through lovely villages, meadows, and forest. Look closely at the photo above and you can just pick out the Mausoleum on top of the bare mountain on the right. This round trip hike had 1300 ft climb (and drop) was was over 5 miles.

Once on the top of the mountain, one was treated to 468 stairs that led to the tomb itself. But the views were incredible.

The downloadable maps of each day's route that showed real-time GPS positioning were life-savers helping us navigate. The written directions and maps were somewhat sketchy.

Our 4th hiking day took us from Lovcen to Kotor about 9 miles with an elevation loss of 4500 ft! At about five miles, we started down the 72 switchbacks of the Ladder of Kotor. We were a bit footsore and tired at the end of this day, to say the least.

We decided to skip the 5th day of the suggested hiking trails, and instead spent the day sightseeing in the old walled town of Kotor - sometimes described as a mini-Dubrovnik. Old walls covered with ubiquitous purple blooms made up much of the wall.

High above Kotor is the ruins of the old fort of San Giovanni.  On this, our "day off" we climbed 1350 stairs to an elevation of nearly 4000 feet. As with the rest of Kotor, cats were abundant. As were cruiseship passengers. I enjoyed the cats more.

Our 6th and final day of hiking took us from Orahovac to Persat - about 5 miles which we decided to do along the coast rather than through the mountainous pass suggested by the tour guide. Along the Bay of Kotor the morning was beautiful and the old town of Perast was interesting. During our entire week in Montenegro our weather could not have been better - clear skies, temps in the mid-70s, and no wind. Wish Minnesota's mid-Octobers were so pleasant.

View from a Perast church steeple. The mountains in this part of Montenegro come right down to the sea. Most places there is room for perhaps a street or two of houses; in other places barely enough room for a two lane road.  

Montenegran fare was good, but simple. I've never eaten so much prosciutto in my life. Tomatoes tasted fresh picked. Good pasta and breads. We did not go hungry. Outside the range of the cruiseship passengers, costs were very reasonable. Wish I could have said that about Dubrovnik and Amsterdam! 

This was a great week. Beautiful, interesting countryside, friendly people, nice accommodations, and good food. I recommend giving these mountains a try.

Link to 170 more photos.


Rating my hikes

Descriptions of physical activities - hikes, bike rides, etc - often use a rating system to help the reader determine the degree of difficulty or physical strength/stamina needed to happily complete the activity. I usually glance at the ratings and try to avoid those that are at either end of the easy-difficult scale. But I don't know that I've ever given much thought to what makes, let's say, a hike a real heart-pounder or just a walk in the park.

This week I head for the country of Montengro to do a series of daily hikes in the country. The company who organizes these self-directed hikes, rates this adventure as 3 out of 5 "activity level."  Sounds about right to me.

I've done enough hiking and backpacking to know some of the elements that make a hike easy or hard; enjoyable or agonizing. Some that come to mind include: 

  • Supported or unsupported. At a recent meeting of an outdoor club, members were asked to share their favorite backpacking tip. Mine was "Hire a porter." Having someone else not just carry your stuff, but set up your tent and cook your meals turns a hike into a vacation. Increasingly, my preference is to hike inn-to-inn, which lightens the pack one must carry.
  • Distance and elevation gain/loss. Long mileage days can be a challenge of course, but the amount of elevation gain and loss as well as trail condition are just as big factors. Miles that take over 30 minutes to cover are always tough.
  • Heat and altitude. Even someone in top condition (never me) knows that oxygen deficit and heat/humidity can't really be prepared for. One can adjust to altitude, take meds, and "hike high, sleep low" etc., but I know of no way to prepare for those 90/90 heat/humidity days.
  • Boredom. I really don't know how long distance solo hikers do it. I can only hike for so many hours looking at trees and my feet on the path before I get bored with my own thoughts. A companion with whom to talk and interesting sites along the trail are great additions that make a hike at least seem easier.
  • Number of days without a shower. Like most of us, I suppose, a shower or bath is a daily ritual. I am happy to substitute a dip in a lake or river while in the wilderness, but long stretches without bathing makes a hike much less enjoyable. My dad used to say a skunk never smells its own hole. I am not so sure.
  • Your personal physical condition. Is anyone is ever 100% prepared for 6-8 hour days of physical exertion? Despite regular walking (even carrying a backpack), I don't know if I have ever trained enough. But I do know the trips I've taken for which I have prepared are doable. Breaking in shoes and equipment also is a big help.

Here are some very subjective 1-10 ratings of major hikes I've done in the past. Your experiences may (most probably will) vary:

  • Inca Trail 8 This was one of the first multi-day hikes I did and I did not prepare well for it. Although I had a porter (or two), the elevation changes and high altitude (13,200 feet), made this a real challenge for me. One the plus side, the views and a constant Inca ruin sites (including Macchu Pichu) made the trip wonderful.
  • Rim to Rim Grand Canyon 7 Another supported hike with two guides carrying our group of four's tents and food. Again high altitudes and lots of ups and downs were challenging. Hiking with friends make it feel much easier. Oh, and the views were incredible.
  • Kilimanjaro 7 After 8 days on the trail without a bath, I have never felt grubbier. Again this was a supported hike (22 porters for 6 hikers), so it was just a day pack to carry. While the high point was over 19,000 feet, the guides' coaching and some meds made the altitude bearable. The descent killed my knees.
  • Abel Tasman Costal Trail 4 This was an inn-to-inn hike along the gorgeous New Zealand's South Island coast. Mostly flat and good beer at the end of each day, made this hike a real pleasure. Also going with son.
  • Great Glenn Way 6 This hike covered 79 miles in 7 days, so every day was fairly long with hills. Good company, pretty scenery, and nice hotels each night made the days not seem long at all.
  • Isle Royale 7 This was an unsupported hike, so I carried a 40 pound pack with all I needed. A couple 12 mile days of constant hills taxed my strength. But good company and a lovely park helped. 
  • Ciudad Perdida 9 This was not an overly long hike - 4 to 6 miles a day over 5 days - but, man, were those days tough. If you ever see a hike that includes "One hour hill" and "Two hour hill," think twice about tackling it. Rough trails and lots of stream crossings added to the difficulty. Oh, the temp and humidity were both in the high 90s. On the plus side were nightly showers and bunk beds at each campground - and the amazing pre-Columbian ruins which were the goal.

I am guessing/hoping Montenegro will be about a 6. I still feel in somewhat good shape preparing for last month's hike of Isle Royale. And this one is an inn-to-inn and I will have a fine hiking companion. I'll let you know how accurate my prediction was.

What do you find make hikes or other adventures more or less challenging?