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by Sandra Lewis    Mon, Oct 30, 2006, 11:45 AM
On a beautiful evening a couple of weeks ago I found myself playing bocce ball and sipping wine while watching the sun set over the vineyards of Santa Rosa, CA, with people I barely knew and in the home of a woman I had never met.

I had arrived in this serendipitous moment by some twists and turns of fate along with my willingness to just kick back and enjoy the journey as it unfolded.

Earlier in the week I had boarded a flight to San Francisco in a testy mood.

The rush-hour commute to the airport had been painstakingly slow due to an ill-timed monsoon-like storm. Even though I might have made the trip more easily in a canoe rather that a car, I arrived at DFW on time.

Then I faced my next major trial - TSA screeners at Terminal D who don't practice the art of smiling and who truly believe their mission is to confiscate 12 oz bottles of hand lotion with taped-up nozzles from elderly people clueless about the new liquids-gels-and-aerosols-in-a-quart-size-baggy regulation.

I was selected for additional screening and forced to surrender a small bottle of Purell that had passed through a minimum of two previous security screenings. It had never occurred to me (and other TSA screeners) that the bottle which fit easily inside my baggy exceeded the three-ounce-maximum rule by one simple ounce.

The screener found other contraband in my backpack as well -- a 3 oz bottle of hand lotion dropped in and promptly forgotten after an April visit to the Hard Rock Hotel in Tampa, FL, and 1/2 oz of perfume also out-of-sight and out-of-mind for months. Instead of tossing them, she placed them in my quart-size baggy and sent me on my way.

Somewhere in the world there is a a terrorist plotting evil, but it wasn't a tall, curly-red-head at DFW that morning. What a relief.

With Starbucks in hand, finally, I boarded my 10 am flight.

My seatmate, Tony, settled in next to me after giving up his assigned seat to a married duo so they could sit next to each other. With a perpetual smile, Tony was upbeat with three drink tickets in hand as compensation for his 9 am flight that had been cancelled. You should always ask for drink tickets, he said, you just never know.

We engaged in typical seatmate small talk and before I could protest he bought me a headset so I could watch the in-flight movie; the married duo purchased his as a thank you.

Once airborne, however, I managed only to get the headset plugged in before sleep overtook me.

About half-way through the almost four-hour flight I emerged from my slumber and Tony asked if I was thirsty. He offered one of his drink tickets and suggested a glass of wine. He had already indulged in a cabernet sauvignon and so I took his recommendation. I don’t normally drink so early in the day, but on this flight it seemed the thing to do.

Over a plastic cup of wine from a bottle with a twist-off cap we talked about the reasons for our travel. Mine was business, his was pleasure. Most of us would not describe helping some one move as pleasure, but it was for Tony; the movees, Greg and Kay, husband and wife, were his long-time friends.

Tony's mission was to assist Kay with the final packing and moving of 16-years-worth of accumulated possessions from Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco, to Portland, OR. Greg had already made the move and had started his new job.

By the end of the flight and our conversation Tony had invited me to dine with him and Kay in Santa Rosa. But on this trip, unlike most trips to San Francisco, I did not rent a car and would have no transportation to do so. We exchanged cell phone numbers just in case and parted ways with my attitude correctly adjusted by Tony’s giving spirit and positive outlook on life.

I spent the next 1-1/2 days in meetings with colleagues that concluded just after lunch on Thursday with no one planning to work diligently in their rooms that afternoon.

Three colleagues, (Amanda, Lauren, and Justin - pictured above) whom I had never met with or spoken to prior to this meeting, wanted to make their first drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. As I explained the lookout point and the exit for it just on the other side of the bridge they invited me to join them.

So I did.

It was an incredibly beautiful San Francisco day. We snapped several pictures of ourselves with the bridge and the city in the background, and exchanged the appropriate oohs and ahhs. It was then I suggested we take a short walk on the bridge and then head back to join the remainder of our colleagues for dinner.

Not happening.

Unbeknownst to me when I joined them on this expedition they planned to continue the outing all the way to wine country; Napa was their destination.

I politely protested – don’t you want to have a nice dinner in the city, meet up with the rest of the group?

No, they didn’t.

And so I decided to make the most of it. Given that time was not on our side as it was late in the day, I convinced them to reset our course for Santa Rosa, our best bet for a wine tasting that afternoon.

The effervescent Tony was delighted when I called with the news that I was headed to Santa Rosa with my colleagues. He gave me directions to a local winery, Martin Ray, one of the oldest wineries in California, and to Kay’s house.

Given difficulties with traffic, which surged and slowed the entirety of the drive, we arrived at Martin Ray (vineyards pictured above) just 15 minutes before closing time. The winery was charming and the staff, genuinely friendly, willingly answered our questions and happily poured the requisite three free tastings.

Then we made our way to Kay’s house, less than five minutes down Laguna Road from the winery, off to the left and up a very steep and winding driveway. Seated at the top of a hill the home offered a breathtaking panorama of the Russian River valley (pictured above) and vineyards some still burdened with huge clusters of grapes. This view was not available from any other public vantage point.

While we enjoyed sipping Greg and Kay’s homemade wine and watching the spectacular sunset, Tony (in the photo above) taught us the rules of bocce ball and refereed our game on the court constructed by Greg and Kay behind their house. Kay missed out on the sunset, but joined us for dinner in Santa Rosa.

We returned late that evening to San Francisco and met up with our colleagues most of whom had spent several hours at the bar in the Palace Hotel. Standing in the lobby of out hotel and comparing notes on the evening I was thankful for the offer made to be a tour guide to the Golden Gate Bridge.

As the sun rose that morning I could not have imagined the magnificence of the sunset or the way in which I shared it. In a sense myself and the people who joined me on the hill overlooking the Russian River Valley that evening were strangers, yet we were bonded by our desire to experience life and live it to its fullest at that moment.

We drank in the experience like the satisfying wine passing over our lips and the beautiful sun setting before our eyes.

My afternoon excursion to Santa Rosa was an adventure given like an unexpected, exquisite gift.

I’m glad I accepted it.
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