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Laguna Beach

Medical mysteries are solved in this book: how doctors do their detective work


With Medical Investigation 101, Dr. Russ Hill has written a book that every self-respecting hypochondriac should avoid like, well, the plague. 

Not really. In fact, this down-to-earth book may well calm the minds of the health-anxious, because many symptoms turn out to have quite innocuous causes.

Either way, it’s a great read and a handy book to have around when you injure yourself or a family member falls ill.

In clear and convincing prose, Hill, a retired podiatrist, presents a variety of medical conditions and symptoms and provides the reader with tools to investigate the cases and come to conclusions.

Young readers especially will love the way cases are presented rather like police files: Here is the situation, here are the clues, now find the culprit.

“The project was inspired by a complete absence of reading material for my students,” says Dr. Hill. “I asked my cousin, an anesthesiologist residing in Vermont, to help me write Medical Investigation 101. We collaborated by email for nearly two years; compliments from our friends inspired us to share it with the public at Laguna Beach Books and” 

Doctors are, after all, detectives. They interview their patients, gather evidence, use laboratory techniques to zero in on possible suspects, and use their experience and insight to solve the case.

A fan of murder mysteries, I found myself fascinated by the story of Dorothy, who arrives in the fictional physician’s office complaining that she feels “weak and dizzy.” The investigating doctor rules out various medical conditions and then spots certain telltale symptoms, including “distinct white lines stretching across the base of her fingernails” – known as Mees lines – which are strongly indicative of arsenic poisoning. 

This seems to be the correct diagnosis.

But was somebody slowly murdering Dorothy? And if so, who?

This we do not find out. 

Of course, this book is not a crime novel, but I couldn’t help wondering, such was the power of Hill’s realistic portrayal of liverish Dorothy. (I suspect the daughter-in-law.)

I very much enjoyed learning in Medical Investigation 101, subtitled “A Book to Inspire Your Interest in Medicine and How Doctors Think,” how physicians search for the correct diagnosis. Hill’s prose invites the reader in, and while written in simple language, the content does not condescend. Gentle humor infuses the book, which is both inspiring and informative.

Aspiring doctors of all ages will enjoy Medical Investigation 101, available at Laguna Beach Books and online through Amazon.

(P.S. Dr. Hill? Please now write “The Mysterious Case of the Mees Lines” and satisfy my curiosity - what was it or who was it that caused Dorothy’s arsenic poisoning? Because, you see, right now I’m feeling a bit weak and dizzy…)

This Western girl is a Nor’easter now

Carly Manfrini worked her way through Laguna Beach schools – from the Presbyterian Preschool, to Top of the World Elementary, Thurston Middle, and Laguna Beach High School. Then she headed off to college in Boston, at Northeastern University, and found a new calling: singing a capella.

At Northeastern, Carly joined an a capella group called The Nor’easters.

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Carly Manfrini (front row, right, holding Champion certificate) with the a capella group, The Nor’easters, as they won this year’s International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, at the legendary Beacon Theater in New York

“This group has provided me with some amazing opportunities, from winning the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella on Broadway, to traveling to Australia, to competing at Carnegie Hall; the list goes on, with each experience just as fulfilling as the last,” Carly says. “One of the coolest parts of this group for me is being able to bring our music from the stage to the studio.”

In addition to winning awards, the group is currently in the process of recording their 6th studio album. They have a Kickstarter campaign set up to help them fundraise. Check them out

Thanksgiving Service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church brings together ten local faith groups

The annual Laguna Beach Interfaith Thanksgiving Service was held Sunday, Nov 19 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. The program consisted of participation from ten local churches and faith groups. Selections included music, readings and poetry. Donations were collected to benefit Laguna Food Pantry.

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Reverend Lester Mackenzie of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Bryan Thacker of the LDS faith share memories of South Africa. Father Mackenzie is from that country and Bryan served a two-year mission there.

Pacific Blue Yoga has moved, and, as always, offers wellness benefits for Laguna practitioners


Pacific Blue Yoga has seen big changes over the past few months moving from its north Laguna location to a beautiful oceanside location on the corner of Coast Highway and Pearl Street Beach. Owners Brad and Marna Bright have worked tirelessly to make the move as fluid as they could, and it has paid off. The new location is truly beautiful and I would urge everyone to check it out. 

I did a Bikram class on their soft opening day and it was fantastic; the studio has an amazing light, bright energy that only enhances your practice.

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Pacific Blue’s new studio

Despite this big change, one thing that hasn’t changed is Pacific Blue Yoga’s passion and dedication to their practice and their loyal customers.

Offering a wide range of heated and non-heated yoga styles, including Bikram, Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Yin. Pacific Blue yoga believes that the power of practicing one, and especially multiple, yoga styles on a consistent basis over time is life changing.

Classes are taught from some of the most experienced instructors in Southern California and their newly built-out studio has state-of-the-art infrared heating panels for heated classes. Infrared light penetrates human tissue, which produces additional benefits beyond just practicing yoga. These benefits include increased detoxification, weight loss, pain relief, lower blood pressure, better circulation, anti-aging, wound healing, cell health, and more. 

If you want to get yourself back into balance, the benefits of yoga with infrared heating may be just what you need to achieve your wellness goals.

Picking up and moving location is never easy, but Brad and Marna have made this transition flawlessly (although I’m sure it wasn’t easy), and I am delighted that they have this wonderful studio on Pearl Street. I can’t wait for the summer months, when we can all jump in the ocean after a heated class!

Well done Brad and Marna.

Pacific Blue Yoga, now at 1833 S. Coast Highway  (949) 376 7077

Laguna Gives Thanks: Our Staff

With my oldest making his first visit home from college this Thanksgiving, I am grateful that his home is here. The joy he experienced when he came back to this special place (that he could not fully appreciate until he left) helped me appreciate it more, too.

--Samantha Washer


While looking for “stock photos of Laguna Beach” for StuNewsLaguna to use, I stumbled on [a] photo of Stu taken at the Blue Water Music Festival. He was there to support Shaena who was performing.

It made me reflect on his memorial service last May and the many testimonies of all the people he had mentored, encouraged, pushed and prodded to be their personal best. He provided opportunities for others to thrive, just like he did for me! Today and always I’m thankful to have known Stu Saffer. May I follow his lead in my own interaction with others.

--Mary Hurlbut


I have never made any secret of my disdain for online reporting, so often attributed to an anonymous source and written by heaven-only- knows-who—real names not required. When I returned from Northern California after my son died, I was depressed, as you might imagine, but Stu called me and told me I needed to shed my prejudices and go to work for him. I am so thankful every day, not just on Thanksgiving that I took his advice. And it doesn’t hurt to know that I am living proof that the elderly need not arbitrarily be put out to pasture due to their age. 

--Barbara Diamond


This has been a very tough year, full of challenges and changes for me. I am thankful for friends in Laguna Beach who have become like family. I never feel alone living here.

--Laura Buckle


I’m fortunate to live in this vibrant, beautiful, and creative community, surrounded by cherished close friends, as well as new friends that I’ve met at Stu News and through Stu News, and I’m very thankful for my family; my husband, two sons, two grandsons, and my dog Charley. 

--Dianne Russell


I am thankful to call Laguna home. That is a weighty word. I like to travel, I like to be stimulated by new experiences – and I like to come home. Laguna, home, is where I feel safe, and surrounded by beauty. It grounds me to walk in my neighborhood, shop along Coast Highway, and to see the faces of friends I’ve known through thick and thin. This home is full of kind people, birds, flowers, and a beautiful coastline. It’s like a lovely cocoon that envelops me and renews me.

--Maggi Henrikson

Need a few good men? Look no further than the ASL to find helping hands 

Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Need a few good men to clear some brush? Wash your windows? Move furniture?

Look no further than the homeless shelter…or, to be precise, contact Don Sciortino of the nonprofit Net-Works, and he’ll round up some help for you from the residents of the ASL. (Donations are welcome, as he gifts workers $11 a hour through his visionary program, Helping Hands from the Homeless, though they do some work for free to build goodwill. It’s all about the kind of helping that goes both ways.)

As Don says, the project, which makes the most of the men’s basic skills and their desire to be productive, is a win-win for the community, which has embraced the idea, from north Laguna to the HIP district.

“People are getting back on their feet and working with the help of our community,” Don says. “They take pride in doing these jobs. Getting into a routine helps them get their lives in order, provides structure to their days.”

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Home in Canyon Acres before Helping Hands

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Home in Canyon Acres after Helping Hands cleared the brush and tidied up

I reported on the program back in July, and it is great to see how Helping Hands has grown – and the difference they’ve made in tidying up the Canyon Acres property where I first met several of the workers. 

I recall one of the men telling me that if he didn’t have the job, he would have “spent the day sleeping under a tree on Main Beach. No one wants to hire me.” 

Which goes a long way in explaining why this is such a great project for Laguna.

Realtor and artist Barbara Rathbun told me, “My experience with this group was great! I had three of the gentlemen come up and do some trimming for me, they were polite, got to work and got it done. I would recommend this wonderful opportunity in helping each other out. 

“Each person is vetted and there is an oversight person. Please consider if you are moving, yard work, window washing and with just about any job that you might need,” she adds.

Working and gaining important skills

And now Don, working with Scott Tenney of Bluebird Canyon Farms, has taken collaboration a step further. Not only is a group of ASL residents helping to clear an invasive species, Cape Ivy, from Laguna’s hillsides, the men are also gaining important skills and education.

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Helping Hands from the Homeless’ projects include clearing Cape Ivy, an invasive plant killing the chaparral on Bluebird Canyon Farms

“Three young men are currently engaged in a ecological restoration project of a section of the farm that has been overcome by an invasive plant that is killing the chaparral draping our hillside,” Tenney explains. “These individuals are being trained by our team and being exposed to fundamentals of land rehabilitation including native habitat restoration, soil building, and erosion control. 

“The farm is a center of excellence for land rehabilitation and restoration and we manage a number of projects locally and throughout the state where these skills are utilized.”

The men are working five days a week, four hours a day. 

“This is a large multi-acre restoration that will require several months to complete. Terrain is steep and difficult and the work is slow,” Tenney says.

The long-term challenge is good for the men

A long-term challenge is excellent news for the homeless guys, though not perhaps for the chaparral… because those individuals who stick with the program will have documented solid work experience along with evidence of reliability and persistence to offer potential employees.

“Pastor Don and I have discussed deepening the relationship between Growing Skills and Helping Hands so that we can offer training opportunities to a greater number of at risk individuals throughout the year,” Tenney adds.

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LCAD’s Riley Ebel and Jillian Broughton volunteer with Don Sciortino to create bracelet designs for homeless people to make (and add their creative touches)

Oh, and Don Sciortino’s vision for homeless men and women goes further than simply encouraging basic skills – he’s looking to tap their creativity, too. Behind a humble door near Shirley’s Bagels, two LCAD students and other artist volunteers are making bead bracelets and necklaces that will serve as templates for potential artists among the homeless population.

Don was inspired by a similar program he encountered during a visit to Seattle.

“The idea is that every Wednesday between 1:30 and 3 p.m., we’ve started inviting ASL residents to join us for conversation and to unleash their creativity,” Don says. “Conversation is so important in a relaxed setting like this. It means they can share experiences and resources and they don’t feel so lonely. 

“We hope to make “Laguna Beach Street Art’ with proceeds going to the homeless who made the accessories and into a fund to help more of them find their feet.”

Don’s hoping to sell the items through Laguna Exchange and any other store that wants to carry them. 

“Living room” overflows with enthusiasm – and lots of beads

On the day I visited, canisters were literally overflowing with beads – some vacuuming became necessary – and the enthusiasm of volunteers Jillian Broughton and Riley Ebel, art students from LCAD.

“We thought it best that they have a pattern of beadwork to follow but then are able to add a touch of their own creativity until they grow in confidence,” said Jillian, a co-developer of this program, as she deftly threads sandalwood beads onto a string. “This is a safe place for people to bond in friendship, not feel so lonely.”

Indeed, this project is not just about linking up beads, it’s about linking up people, and resources.

Riley, a quiet young man, hopes to display his photography and possibly hold a workshop in the future in this peaceful “living room” environment that doubles as Don Sciortino’s office. Plans are to make tie-dye T-shirts and socks – “Laguna style” – once the project really gets going.

(Don’s wife Karen is the quiet cheerleader in the room.)

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Helping hands at work

Tyler Russell of KX 93.5 and Frank’s Auto Collision have both hired Helping Hands from the Homeless to wash windows. (No word about their interest in beads at this time.)

Tyler says, “I’ve used Helping Hands to have a gentleman wash our windows at the station and another gentleman drive my 30ft Escape Bus. Both have been extremely professional, kind, and responsive. It’s meaningful to make a difference in their lives.” 

With 600 hours of work already under the belt of these eager but homeless workers, remember that whether you’re looking for yardwork or beadwork, there are people out there just waiting to hear from you, wanting your trust. And the rewards aren’t just clean windows, cleared brush, and wearing creative bracelets – you’ll gain a great sense of satisfaction from making a difference in someone’s life.

How to get Helping Hands from the Homeless

Contact the Chamber of Commerce or the website to fill out a job request form.

“We are ready to grow, to add more homeless to our workforce, but we need projects and donations of money to help us ‘gift’ each homeless person $11 an hour (this is our way of giving people a “cost-free” opportunity to try our program out) until they are officially hired,” Don adds. “I really think, if we do this right, it’s a reproducible model for other communities to follow.”

Of that, I have no doubt. This is a terrific way to solve at least part of the homeless problem that so plagues our society.

Dianne’s Creature Feature

Wilderness walk delivers feathery friends, flora, and fascination with woodpeckers

Packing a great deal of knowledge of the fauna and flora of James Dilley Preserve, on Sunday, Laguna Canyon Foundation Naturalist Tom Eastman led a group of about fifteen hikers of all ages on a quest to find birds. And boy did we find them. Although there was no promise we’d encounter even one, we spotted over fifteen different species, including a red-tailed hawk poised on a rock high on a hill, and a lesser goldfinch so small it barely moved the long wispy stem of grass it perched on. 

We also saw Witches Hair (Dodder) and Mistletoe, both parasitic plants, (though Mistletoe is only half-parasitic). And I’m still wondering how you get those big clumps of mistletoe out of the trees to stand under for a kiss.  After all, Christmas is coming.

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Naturalist Tom Eastman instructs hikers on the history of the canyon

There is a reason Tom seems right at home on the trails. “I started hiking and camping at a young age, backpacking at 9, lifeguarding and SCUBA certified at 15, and participate in trail maintenance projects for my own enjoyment.” Tom has been a volunteer with LCF for over eight years, leading bird walks, but also doing trail maintenance and public outreach events, which explains his expertise on the birds and the plants. “While I have always been interested in birds, I didn’t take my first bird identification class until ten years ago. Since that time, I’ve taken several classes on bird identification through Sea & Sage Audubon, the Orange County chapter of National Audubon,” he says. 

Even with Tom as our worthy guide, who would have imagined a few hours in the canyon would ignite a fierce interest in acorn woodpeckers, a bird I had been aware of only in Woody Woodpecker cartoons. (There are five species of woodpeckers in the area, but we spent the most time observing the acorn woodpecker.)  

These creatures are much more intelligent and labor intensive than their cartoon counterpart. “It takes a village” now has a new meaning. Acorn woodpeckers have a highly tuned sense of community. In their culture, everyone pitches in for the common good. Very much like a hippie communities (which they say lived in the canyon during the 60s), in this aviary commune, the woodpeckers work together to make sure they have a food source during the winter. 

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Acorn Woodpecker

But strangely, their appearance belies their brutal work ethic. They look like wide-eyed clowns wearing bright red toupees.

In a huge gathering of scrub oaks trees that a woodpecker family staked out as its territory, the two (or three) of them we saw were constantly busy. During this time of year, they are in a flurry of activity jamming acorns (thousands a year) into storage holes for the winter to create granary trees, their main food storage pantry. These few seemed unaware or unconcerned about our presence. 

Granary maintenance requires a significant amount of time. A granary tree may contain up to 50,000 holes (and may be used by future generations). Once the woodpeckers store the acorns, however, their work isn’t done. The darn acorns need to be moved. They are green when pounded into the holes, but when they turn brown, dry out and shrink, the acorns must be relocated to smaller holes. (The holes are also used by smaller birds who can only be described as “squatters,” since they use them as nests.)

Although acorn woodpeckers also eat insects, various nuts, fruits, seeds, sometimes eggs of other birds, acorns comprise half of their diet, so it appears as if a woodpecker’s work is never done.

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Photo by Helen Harris

An acorn granary tree in a scrub oak tree in James Dilley preserve

Helping us spot birds were two volunteers, Lynne Jeffries and Helen Harris, both who had a vast knowledge of birds as well. Helen took this picture of the granary.

Not surprisingly, this community spirit carries over into family life. As per the Audubon Society, adult offspring often stay in their parents’ nest and help raise the next generation of woodpeckers, making it a group activity, with several adults (up to 12 or more) taking part in incubating the eggs and feeding the young in a single nest. 

Since their nest sites are cavities in trees, usually 12-30 inches, this seems to be carrying the word “multi-generational family house” to a claustrophobic degree. But at least the parents never suffer the “empty nest” syndrome. 

Our walk was punctuated by both foreign and familiar sounds. Aside from the “wake-up, wake-up” sound of the woodpeckers call and the hollow wonk of their beaks as they pounded acorns, a bevy of quail sent out curious calls that very much resembled “Chic-ago” and eerily echoed throughout the canyon.

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Cassin’s Kingbird

Lest anyone doubt that this birdwatching hike won’t yield bird sightings, in addition to the species already mentioned, here is a partial list of the ones we spotted (or truthfully, Tom usually spotted): White crown sparrows, California towhee, chickadees, Western bluebirds, yellow rump warbler, black phoebe, cooper’s hawk, and mourning doves, who we found out are one of the fastest flying birds, having been clocked at 40 mph.

At the end of the hike, with sore backs, and kinked necks from looking up, it was still more than a successful day. In these already magical wilderness canyons, one will discover even more enchantment when encountering the world of magnificent and majestic birds who call them home. 

And just watching the acorn woodpeckers was worth the trip.

For information on LCF events, including the next Birdwalk, go to 

In order to see birds, it is necessary to become part of the silence…

Robert Lynd

Editor’s Note: We are honored to feature letters of gratitude from the community today in a series called “Our leaders, Our readers”. If you would like to be included in our next issue, please email a short letter and photo to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Laguna Gives Thanks: Our leaders, Our readers

Arts and more…

I feel fortunate to be here at a moment where we are celebrating 100 years of history for Laguna Art Museum. We are putting energy, enthusiasm, heart, and expertise into making sure that those founding members of the LBAA would be proud of what we are accomplishing: from nationally acclaimed art exhibitions such as the current show, to bringing ever-growing numbers of kids and members to the museum. And I am honored and excited to be a part of it, and to be serving the community I love. 

--Genny Boccardo, Laguna Art Museum 


Laguna Beach Library is thankful for the local community volunteers who donate their time to help maintain our ever-growing collection of books and DVDs. In particular, we are thankful for Jessica De Stefano’s amazing butterfly and fairy garden. We are especially thankful for Friends of Laguna Beach Library - a volunteer organization dedicated to supporting their local library. Finally, we are all thankful to be working in such a vibrant, exciting community. It is our pleasure to address the information needs so such an active and engaged community.

--Jon Gilliom, Laguna Beach Library, Branch Manager


This may be a controversial statement, but I get a little tired of hearing how thankful people are to live in Laguna because it’s so beautiful. Yes, it’s definitely beautiful. But beauty is only skin deep, and that’s not why I’m thankful to live in Laguna Beach. I’m thankful to live here because of our community. Because we’re a small town in an otherwise massive county, and we are motivated by a sense of togetherness. You don’t hear someone from Laguna Niguel say they love the community spirit of Laguna Niguel, do you? Being in the “bubble” has its pros and cons, but mostly we should be thankful that that bubble brings us together like no other place in the world. I am thankful to be part of the Laguna Beach family of 24,000 plus.

--Tyler Russell, Program Director/Founder of KX93.5


Growing up in the Midwest makes me so thankful for the weather in Laguna Beach. I know some of you are saying, but it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter in Laguna Beach. However, unless you have ever lived in the Midwest, you have not really experienced endless days of hot and/or cold weather.  My guests and I plan to sit out on our deck with a refreshing drink on Thanksgiving Day, and I will once again say how thankful I am for such wonderful weather in November.

--Laura Bruce


I am grateful and thankful that Laguna Beach promotes freedom of expression in all the arts; music, theatre, dance visual arts, literature and new media. It’s a unique city that understands the arts help us connect and transcend our differences.

--Jonathan Burke, President LCAD


 One of the most wonderful things I am thankful for during this year is when Laguna Beach stepped forward on May 9 to proclaim June as LGBT Heritage and Culture month, forevermore. I’m equally thankful that I was asked to read part of the Proclamation along with others and our Mayor. I burst with Pride every time I think of that historical moment in time.

--Larry N. Ricci, President, Club Q


Love the sunsets, the dog park, the people. I love going downtown to get coffee and shop. I love the people and of course, the ocean and beaches.

--Susan Trudeau

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All are thankful for Laguna sunsets

I am still a newcomer to Laguna Beach, which gives me the opportunity to see a community with an outsider’s eye.  What I have seen is passion, engagement and incredible philanthropy for all that Laguna offers. The cultural resources are highly valued and sit alongside the commitment to the environment, to those in need and to the animals. People care deeply and work hard to keep Laguna a treasure for all. I am grateful to be working in this special town where people truly understand the importance of the arts, nature and being a good neighbor to those who are less fortunate.  

--Ellen Richard, Laguna Playhouse, Executive Director


First of all, I am grateful for this precious human life.  

I am so grateful for music, which has always been the river of my life

For this beautiful community of Laguna Beach and Mother Ocean which is always there to speak to me and heal me.

For clean water that comes right out of tap! Everybody should travel to a third world to get how lucky we are!!

For my job as music director of Neighborhood Congregational Church which has given me so many opportunities to give back to the community.

--Pam Wicks, NCC

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Pam Wicks

Grateful for our neighbors, the restaurants and all the beautiful spots to find yourself.

--Tracy Graves


I say hello to Eric nearly every day. At the end of the month Eric hopes his disability check will arrive and he can get a small apartment and not be living on the street. The check never seems to arrive, but Eric never gives up hope. I never give up hope for the Eric’s of our world. I am grateful I live in a community where people can share their aspirations for the future and we can all collectively share that journey of hope.

--Sian Poeschl, Cultural Arts Manager, City of Laguna Beach


As to my “thankfuls” for Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my family and friends and for my home in Laguna Beach for more than 52 years.

--Sandi Werthe, long-time volunteer for the Patriots Day Parade


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2017 American Legion Auxiliary Sawdust Tree, Sandie Werthe on left

As the current President of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce I am extremely thankful to have a Board and Executive Director that truly cares about the wellbeing of our members and the community. They work tirelessly and donate countless hours to make our fine town truly a wonderful place to live, play, and work, and they are really making a difference. Thank you Dave Rubel, Kavita Reddy, Carmelit Green, Dawn Knepper, Norm Grossman, Cary Redfern, Scott Sanchez, Genny Boccardo, Luis Weil, Aaron Talarico, Rick Reese, Chris Tebbutt, Doug Vogel, and Meredith Dowling, E.D.

--Ken Fischbeck, President of the Chamber of Commerce 


I am grateful for my lucky Laguna Beach life being part of the most beautiful, artistic, generous and philanthropic community. Since February 2010 when I joined Laguna Playhouse, I relish my seven-minute drive down Laguna Canyon, taking time to take in the mountain views, and enter a town that to me is a safe and happy place to be.  

I don’t take it for granted, and I make it a point to take a walk to the beach or up the hills every day, and frequently venture out to one of Laguna’s great restaurants for lunch, dinner or a cup of coffee, where I meet friends and get to know the “locals”. My passion has become keeping live theatre alive at our historic 98-year-old theatre, and being a part of its vibrant company. 

--Leslie Anne Mogul, Playhouse, Assoc. Director of Development


I love working in Laguna Beach. Laguna is a unique city of caring people who come together to have influence and connection with what happens in their community.  As I am fortunate to playing a role in this process, I feel privileged to work with people with tendencies to give up self-interest and look into the interests of the broader community.

--Nadia Babayi, Susi Q, Executive Director


Here since Jan 2003. Best dog park in So CA, Best City in So CA, great neighbors, caring community, love our downtown, our shops and our independent bookstore. 

---Jennifer Erickson

Guest article

By Mike and Marisa Marsh, aka “Los Malvavicos”

La Ruta de los Conquistadores 2017: Laguna helps mountain-bikers train for toughest race in the world

They claim it as the toughest mountain bike race in the world. The three-day stage race takes place in Costa Rica traversing 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Don’t let the miles fool you, this is not your normal 150 miles. The terrain covered is some of the most mind-blowing miles you can imagine. My daughter, Marisa Marsh, who is 23, and myself, at the age of 52, decided to do this race after befriending a Costa Rican in Telluride, Colorado who had re-energized our interest in this epic race that has been on my bucket list. 

Before I get into the details on this exhilarating, exhausting, beautiful adventure that apparently the Conquistadores took two decades to conquer, I want to give Stu News readers a little background on our preparations, since we spent the bulk of our training riding the steep, technical trails of Laguna Beach. We deliberately planned our schedules the six months leading up to La Ruta to split our time between Laguna; Telluride, Colorado; and Lincoln, Nebraska to get a motherlode of terrain accomplished. (We live in each of these places throughout the year working for a family commercial real estate company, delicately balancing a “work hard, play hard” lifestyle.) 

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The race featured challenging terrain, and almost 100 percent humidity one day

We kicked our training into high-gear with one of our favorite traverses, the Kokopelli Trail from Fruita, Colorado to Moab, Utah, which is a stunning, throw-everything-at-you, 150 miles over three days. Then we headed to Telluride, Colorado to do some high-altitude mountain pass rides. Before we officially entered La Ruta, we tested ourselves with Nebraska’s hardest day race, the Gravel World’s 150. Throughout all of this we traversed Catalina Island from Avalon to Two Harbors and back several times, and let climbing Saddleback Mountain and the San Juan Trail become normal training rides. 

Our last long ride leading up to the race was the Santa Barbara 100, which Marisa rode her full-suspension mountain bike in. The roadies didn’t get it, but it was some of the best training she got. After accomplishing hundreds of thousands of vertical feet of climbing and several thousand miles in the saddle from blazing-hot conditions to blizzard-like conditions, we felt well prepared but quickly learned it is impossible to over-train for La Ruta. 

Our journey begins flying to San Jose, Costa Rica with our bikes in tow, thanks to Laguna Beach Cyclery. We then head to Jaco´ on the Pacific Ocean side where the race begins. We are one of the first to arrive as we wait for the other 450 racers from around the world, many of whom are a part of sponsored teams. Our team of two without support was called the “Los Malvavicos” (The Marshmallows), which is only appropriate because we are Mike and Marisa Marsh. 

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Railroad track over bridge proved challenging

Day One: We start the race in pleasant conditions on the beach in Jaco´ at 5:30 a.m. with an old Huey helicopter hovering over us with the Costa Rican news team. From the beach we head into the canopy of the rain forest and the terrain gets steep fast. Over the next 60 miles we endure 12,800 vertical feet of climbing. The first real challenge was entering the Carara jungle. Here we were welcomed with 100 percent humidity, calf-deep mud that wants to swallow your shoes, and for good measure steep, technical, and slippery climbs and descents. 

Imagine a muddy slip and slide, and then add your bike and four foot deep crevasses. If you stumbled upon this on your own, there would be no question of turning back. This continues for the next 10 miles that you primarily have to hike-a-bike. You are relieved to find yourself in one of the 15 river crossings (some waist deep) to cool down and wash off some of the mud on you and your bike. You are so soaked with sweat that it is indiscernible between being in and out of the river. After you get through this challenge you are consistently faced with abrupt, audacious climbs, some at a laughable 40 percent degree making the Canyon Acres trail look tame. 

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The finish, well-earned

Constantly the question is, “how much further?”, you quickly learn to expect the worst but find yourself desperately asking the locals “Quanto kilometers?”, just to learn their answers were always very wrong. After 12 hours in the saddle and finishing in the pitch dark, you are relieved but afraid for what is next to come in the remaining two days. We later learn the race organizers made this route the most difficult in the 25-year history (lucky us). This was our most difficult day on the bike, EVER!

Day Two: After being bussed to our hotel the night before and arriving at 10 p.m., we are told we must wake up at 3 a.m. for breakfast and be prepared for a 5:15 a.m. race start. With four hours of sleep and coming off the most difficult day in the saddle, we begin with a 9,000 vertical foot climb up a volcano for over 25 miles. This is actually a pleasant climb compared to day one, covering Costa Rica’s beautiful countryside, although there were plenty of grueling accents forcing you to hike-a-bike through steep and slippery ravines. 

This route was special because the race usually cannot do this section due to the volcano being too active. As we get to the top and traverse, it becomes very windy and we are challenged with rain mixed with sleet (we are at a 10,000 foot elevation). The traverse was incredible as we rode through villages with cheering fans. One particular section we were greeted with hundreds of school children with their faces squished on their school fence cheering at the top of their lungs as we rode by. Battling sleep deprivation and exhaustion, this was a very emotional moment as we had endured so much to this point. All you are left to do is to embrace the local’s love and support. It is truly a “Pura Vida” moment.  We quickly transition to a 14 mile down over rock gardens and finished in almost unbearable heat, riding through the villages of Turrialba. This was a good day!

Day Three: After two tough days, this day we had a late start which gave us time to get some much needed sleep. But with a late start, that meant hot conditions. Today was mostly flat and pace-line fast over 38 miles. However, it was not a day without obstacles to overcome. For a quarter mile we crossed suspended railroad tracks with raging rivers 100 feet below. We walked on rickety railroad ties, some of them missing, which is not easy in bike shoes nor with a racing heart. There are actually YouTube videos of people falling between the railroad ties, fortunately recovering before meeting the crocodiles below. 

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The Marshes with their medals: Veni, vidi vici

Following, the race continued on a long portion of the national railroad track through banana plantations that jarred your body for miles. It seemed to be what the Costa Ricans would consider their single tack. We were relieved to find our final stretch along coast on mostly packed sand, although there were plenty of spills that you had to maneuver to not become one of them. As we finally arrived at the finished line in Limon, we cross with hands together and so happy to be alive. The day would not have been complete without a final sprint into the Caribbean waves. 

In the end, our body and souls were extended to new heights. We pushed past physical, mental, and even emotional barriers that you cannot train for. It was extremely moving to be a part of a race that has so much national pride and to see this country from a perspective few people get the chance to.  

What’s next? You can find us carrying our bikes up Thousands Steps or walking Main Beach with weights on our bikes training for La Ruta de los Conquistadores 2018.

Are you in favor of a long-term pedestrian plaza at Park Avenue?

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Park Plaza trial period will be extended to Dec 31 and entertainment will be permitted in the temporary parklet between South Coast Highway and Laguna Avenue. Do you support a long-term pedestrian plaza here? Vote in our poll today – it’s on the right-hand side of the page – and/or email a Letter to the Editor to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

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Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

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