Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

We are planning a vacation, and when I say “planning,” I mean we are thinking about it every so often, and I know we are thinking about it only because when we do, one of us will say, “We should probably buy tickets for our flight soon,” and not because we have tickets or itineraries or actual plans laying around.

Not only do we have to think about flying there, we are staying over one night in a hotel before our cruise ship departs, but luckily I already had that part of the trip taken care of.

“Did you send me a copy of the confirmation email you got from the hotel we’re staying at?” My Darling B asked me a couple days back.  (She’s going to be furious if she ever discovers I portrayed her as the kind of person who ends her sentences in prepositions.)

“I’m pretty sure I did,” I said. “I can send you another copy.”

“You’d better, just for back-up,” she suggested. “I remember you made a reservation, I just can’t find it.”

“Well of course I made a reservation,” I said, literally scoffing at the merest suggestion that I might not have.  “I clearly remember making it.”

“I do, too,” she said with nothing but confidence in my travel-planning abilities, “but I can’t find that email.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I waved her off. “I’ll find it and send you another copy.”

Fast-forward a couple days to when I had an idle moment in front of my laptop and remembered the conversation with B about emails. I have an email folder just for vacation-related emails, so I checked there first, but couldn’t find it. Next, I did a search of all email folders using the search term “reservation.” Found lots of emails about vacations we’ve already been on, but this was no time to wander down memory lane. Tried searching again using the term “confirmation.” Still nothing new. Feeling a little desperate, I searched for any email that included the term “hotel.” Got about three dozen hits, none of them having anything to do with our upcoming vacation this winter. The last thing I did was to scroll back through my inbox to January, before I bought tickets to the cruise, and review every one of the emails that landed in my inbox since then. Not a one had anything to do with hotel reservations.

Well, poop.

Reluctantly, I broke the news to B that I couldn’t find the confirmation email. We sat down to brainstorm ways to get confirmation from the hotel that I prayed to the gods would not involve calling them, because I knew I would be the one to make the call, which would make me feel like an utter moron because the call would go something like this: “Hello, hrrr hrrr, I made a reservation in your hotel but I lost the confirmation email, hrrr hrrr, would you send it to me again, hrrr hrrr?” But even though we’re both moderately smart people, calling them was all we could think of and, what a surprise, the conversation began pretty much verbatim the way I just described it, except without as many “hrrr hrrrs.”

The call did not end with the expected email being resent because they never sent an email to begin with, and that, it turned out, was because I apparently never made a reservation, although I have to say the guy who answered the phone at the Marriott customer service center tried his darndest to find that reservation and wanted to keep on going even when I eventually said “thanks for all your help” and called off the search. So reality was going to stubbornly refuse to conform to our memory of events, dammit.  Well, nothing to do but cave in and find a hotel room, then.  I had to call around a bit, but eventually found one at a decent price that wasn’t far from the port.

Feeling lucky, I started looking for airline tickets.  I always start out feeling optimistic when I start looking for airline tickets.  I think that might be because there are so many ways to search for them that it seems at first there is nothing on earth easier to buy than airline tickets.  That optimism lasts for about three minutes.  Five, if I’m lucky.  I quickly remember that buying airline tickets ranks way down there with shopping for clothes and cars.  If you’re confused by that statement, you must be one of those people who live in an alternate reality where shopping for clothes and cars is fun.  In my world, dental surgery is more enjoyable.  (Is there a universe where dental surgery is enjoyable? What other horrors do you suppose they enjoy there?)

About five minutes after I began looking for airline tickets, I gave up and proposed to My Darling B that we just buy the first two I found, even though we would have to drive to Milwaukee and layover in Denver for hours and hours.  B does not enjoy shopping for tickets any more than I do, but she hates caving in to frustration even more, so she set off on an hours-long odyssey to find cheap airline tickets for a flight that departed from our airport and didn’t layover anywhere long enough for us to grow beards.  Not that I’m saying B could grow a beard or ever has, although if she did I would love her even more, especially if she wore it with a curly handlebar mustache.  Now there’s an image that’s going to be stuck in my head for quite some time.

She got tickets, but only after I took a little side-trip to call our insurance agency to confirm that I bought travel insurance and didn’t just imagine it.  Didn’t get a damn confirmation email for that, either.  So we began our weekend with no emails, no reservations, no airline tickets and no plans, but in the end we’re not only fully booked and ready to go, I also wrote down all the details in a notebook I will be tearing the house apart looking for in about six weeks.

reserved | 8:24 am CST
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Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The solar eclipse was way back in August but I’m just getting around to writing about it now. I believe I’ve already said enough about how good I am at procrastinating, so it seems unnecessary to enlarge on that any further.

I got the idea I would like to see a total solar eclipse more than a year ago. It’s not an idea that just came to me out of the ether. I’m a geek for stuff like planets and outer space, so I follow the blog posts and Twitter tweets of scientists and fellow space nerds who talk about that kind of stuff 24/7, and they started talking about last summer’s eclipse many moons ago (heh).

And because I follow all those guys, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see a total eclipse from my back yard or from any place near Wisconsin; I would have to drive many, many miles to see it, and I would probably have to figure out a way to talk My Darling B into going with me, because we have just one car and it would be rude to leave her without a way to get around for days and days.

So when we got around to talking about where to go on vacation this summer, one of the suggestions I threw out was a road trip to St. Louis, Missouri, and from there to my mom’s in Bella Vista, Arkansas, and it just so happens that such a trip would coincidentally take us far enough south to see the total eclipse.

Naturally enough, B wanted to know what there was to do in St. Louis that made me suggest it. She’s not dense, so I came clean right away and told her about the eclipse, but also that I’d always wanted to see the arch and that there must be other attractions in St. Louis that would make it worth visiting. We had plenty of time to find out what they were if we started planning ahead of time.

And she agreed. What do you know about that?

As our plans unfolded, we laid out a road trip south to St. Louis, then just a little bit further south to see the eclipse, then on to Bella Vista, Arkansas, to visit my mom for a few days, and finally to Memphis, Tennessee, to do we didn’t know what yet, but it was Memphis, so there must be something there to see, right?

In St. Louis, we stayed at The Park Avenue Mansion B&B on Lafayette Square, an old brownstone mansion that had been lovingly restored by Kathy & Mike, the owners. If you like staying at a B&B instead of a hotel, as we do, I couldn’t recommend this place highly enough. Mike greeted us at the door with two giant poodle hybrids in tow; one was a labradoodle and I forget what the other was — something with “oodle” or “poo” in it. They waited ever so patiently while he introduced them, then came rushing forward to be petted after he released them. One of them had a ball — wait, I should have written it this way: HE HAD A BALL! HE DROPPED THE BALL! HE WANTED ME TO THROW THE BALL! I THREW THE BALL! “He can do that all day,” Mike warned me. It’s okay, we told him. We love to throw spit-soaked tennis balls. We could do it all day long, too.

Mike knew every house on the square and told us all about them, but he didn’t mention Horace Bixby’s house a block to the north. Bixby was the crack river boat pilot who taught a young Samuel Clemens his trade. If the civil war hadn’t interrupted traffic along the Mississippi River, Clemens would probably have spent the rest of his days piloting paddle boats up and down the river and nobody would ever have read about Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

If you go to St. Louis you would have to visit the arch while you were there, right? And we planned to do that, but you have to get tickets if you want to ride the elevator to the top of the arch to look out the windows. We thought we’d do the smart thing and order tickets for the next day by going on-line. We were not as smart as we thought. Tickets for the next day were sold out. Seems you have to check the web site several days in advance.

So instead of going up inside the arch, we drove into town just to get a close-up look at it the next morning. It wasn’t hard to find, and traffic was light so early in the day. We parked about a block from the old courthouse, which is now a tourist attraction administered by the National Park Service. That wasn’t part of our agenda; maybe next time we visit St. Louis. Then we strolled down to the park at the base of the arch so we could take a selfie with it in the background, because how do you go all the way to St. Louis and not get a photo of yourself in front of the arch?

Over breakfast, we chatted with some of the other couples who were staying at the B&B. Every one of them was there because of the eclipse in one way or another. One couple was there because it was a long weekend for them; they worked for the state, and Missouri had shut down all state offices on Monday due to the eclipse. Not sure why. Another couple was there from Chicago because they up and decided on a whim, more or less, to get married where they could see the eclipse. A third couple was there just to see the eclipse. They all wanted to know what our plans were, and when we said we were there to see the eclipse, too, they cautioned us that thousands upon thousands of people were expected to come to Missouri for the eclipse and that if we didn’t get an early start, we would end up stuck in traffic. One of the couples was planning to head south before daybreak. That was never part of our plan. I told B that I would be perfectly happy seeing the eclipse in Lafayette Park, if we ended up stuck here, or along the side of the road, if we ended up stuck in traffic. I did not need to get up at the crack of dawn and hit the road right away just to see the damn eclipse.

On the day of the eclipse, we drove to St. Claire, Missouri, a little burg about an hour’s drive south of St. Louis in normal traffic. Normal traffic, however, was the one thing we did not anticipate seeing that day, so we set out early. Got a little help from Kathy, whose directions got us out of the city with no trouble at all, and we arrived in St. Clair about a half-hour before the eclipse.

My Darling B is the one who picked out the spot; she looked for places designated as official viewing places where there would be people in attendance who could answer questions about the eclipse, if anybody wanted to ask. We saw people camped out along the roadside and in several empty lots in and around St. Claire. We were looking for a saddle club, which turned out to be tucked away down a side road off the main road, almost hidden away. That may have been the reason there were so few people there. The way everyone was talking, I expected to be shoulder-to-shoulder with teeming crowds, but there were maybe fifty people, sixty tops, gathered on the grounds of the saddle club.

The heat was incredible. I was dripping sweat just minutes after stepping out of our air-conditioned car. I’ll bet I sweated away a couple pounds of water just sitting motionless in a lawn chair under the shade of an umbrella waiting for the eclipse! Luckily we had several bottles of water, and I was guzzling them constantly. Probably the only thing that kept me from drying up and blowing away.

The eclipse was not the life-changing event I heard many people on radio and television say it was for them, but no worries: it was every bit as cool as I hoped it would be. The sun was already being eclipsed by the moon when we pulled over and got out of the car; I glanced at it as we were getting our lawn chair out (though a protective filter!) and could see the moon had already taken a bite out of it. I believe we waited at least twenty minutes as the bite got bigger and bigger until only a sliver of the sun was left. From that point, things changed very quickly.

There were a few clouds in the sky, especially off to the west, so I was hoping we might see the shadow of the moon as it approached, but it came too fast for that. Just before the last sliver of the sun disappeared, an odd, silvery light fell over the grounds of the saddle club, and when the sun was entirely eclipsed, it was as if someone had quickly run a dimmer switch almost all the way off. A collective “WHOA!” and a little nervous laughter rose involuntarily from the people gathered around us as we were plunged into twilight.

We could look directly at the sun’s corona while the moon eclipsed the disk of the sun. It streamed out in all directions, the way long hair does when it’s suspended in clear water. I’ve seen a lot of photos of it, but the one that looked most like the eclipse I saw is one from NASA. Of course it is.

The only difference between the photo and what I saw is, I didn’t see the surface of the moon; I only saw a black disk where the sun should have been, with the corona streaming away in all directions. (I think I read that the NASA photo is really two photos, one of the eclipse with a photo of the moon superimposed on it.)

The eclipse lasted about a minute and a half. We didn’t need a warning when the sun began to peek out over the edge of the moon again; the blaze of light was unmistakable, and everybody put their filters over their eyes again.

I’d rather this story had a happy ending, so the part where we were stuck in traffic for 9 hours afterwards is going to be a story for another day.

Our eclipse story | 4:13 am CST
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Sunday, March 6th, 2016

We spent a whole week on a cruise ship, but we hardly ever went to any of the activities that the cruise line arranged for the passengers. There were too many activities arranged for the Sea Monkeys that we didn’t want to miss, so our days were jam-packed with those. We didn’t go to the casino or see a movie. We didn’t even swim in one of the forty-seven pools, or however many there are. The cruise line says there are only ten, but I was there and I think there were a whole lot more. Forty-seven sounds about right.

Unless you count the hot tubs, then we did one ordinary cruise-ship thing. And when I say “hot tub,” I’m not talking about the little cedar-sided bathtub that you’re probably thinking of. The ship we were on, Freedom of the Seas, has two hot tubs on either side of the pool deck big enough to fit maybe twenty people. Thirty, if they don’t mind getting cozy. Each tub is a half-circle, with the flat side up against the edge of the ship and the round side sticking out over the side, I guess because there wasn’t enough room on deck with all the other pools. They didn’t have glass bottoms, which would have been awesome, but they did have wrap-around windows.

B and I changed into our swim suits and went up to try out the hot tub one night when we had some time after dinner. The ship was en route from Coco Cay to Saint Thomas, and the sea was not calm. It wasn’t especially rough, either. Tables and chairs weren’t sliding across the deck or anything like that, but when you tried to walk in a straight line, you couldn’t do it. You found that you had to walk a drunken path. Luckily, everyone else had to walk the same path. It was like you and everyone around you was doing the same dance number in a musical.

There was no one in the tub when we got there — we had the whole tub to ourselves! SCORE! There was nothing to see outside the big wrap-around windows because there was no moon, or it was overcast, or both. But there was plenty of action inside. The pool deck is way up at the top of the ship, a little more than a hundred feet above the water line, so all that pitching and rolling the ship was doing got magnified to the point that we could see the water sloshing around in the pools. The hot tub was much smaller than the other pools, but the water in it was sloshing just as much, often slopping over the edges of the tub onto the deck. Looked like fun.

At first we sat on the round side of the pool, hanging farthest out over the ocean, but most of the wave action seemed to be happening in the corners of the pool where the curve met the flat side, so we slid in closer. There was a seat molded into the bottom of the tub all the way around the sides, but we didn’t sit on it much. It was more fun to try to float and let the water shove us around. It was a lot like being in a bathtub full of water when you suddenly slide from one end to the other. All the water ran away from us, then came rushing back to lift us up and spin us around before running away again.

We soaked in the pool for maybe an hour. By then, we were pruning up enough that it seemed like a good idea to climb out and dry off.

hot tub rock and roll | 9:08 am CST
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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

True story: As the bus taking us from our hotel to the cruise ship neared Port Canaveral, the driver turned around and asked us, “Which cruise line are you guys on?” The frigging driver didn’t know which terminal he was supposed to drop us off at!

And yet somehow we still got there.

Tell you what: the cruise line has every last thing figured out about how to get a couple thousand tourists aboard a big ship in a hurry. The terminal was as wide open as a sports stadium. When we got there, which was still pretty early, we could easily see one end of the room from the other, and yet there were uniformed attendants every fifty feet or so to direct us along our way. We hardly stopped moving until we got to the check-in desk where they took our photos, handed us a couple of magical plastic cards and pointed toward the gangplank.

Those plastic cards were magical because we could wave them at bartenders to get all the drinks we wanted. There’s a pro tip for you: Get the ultimate drinks package. For two good reasons:

First, imagine taking all your meals at the airport for seven days. What do they charge you for everything you drink? Every cup of coffee, every glass of orange juice, every bottle of water, and all at airport prices. What if you want a cocktail in the evening? How much would a week of that cost you? Yeah. We didn’t want to have to think about about how much we were spending, so we got the drinks package. That way, we’ve already spent it. No worries.

Second, because starting every day with a mimosa or a bloody mary is the best way to start your day.

I made a pact with My Darling B that we would stop at the first bar we could find after going aboard so that we could toast the start of our vacation with a couple glasses of champagne. As luck would have it, we didn’t have to go looking at all: There was a bar just inside the doorway as we entered. Almost like they knew what we wanted most at that moment.

all aboard | 12:01 am CST
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Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s something I really didn’t expect: At the end of our vacation when our ship tied up to its pier in Port Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday morning, the temperature there was forty-six degrees. Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, temps were in the fifties. What the hell was that about? When we left Wisconsin, it was cold there and warm in Florida, as it should always be. Florida should never be colder than Wisconsin. That’s just a natural fact. And yet, it was. I knew we would have to snap back into harsh reality at the end of our vacation, but I didn’t expect the universe to be that perverse about it.

What the hell, Florida? | 8:04 pm CST
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Monday, February 29th, 2016

Here’s something I can share real quick about going on a cruise: Take lots of cold & flu medicine with you: decongestants, pain killers, all that over the counter stuff that you take when you start feeling fluey but believe that you really have to keep going to work for at least another two or three days so you can tell everyone how sick you are and sneeze and cough and spread your germs all over the place. (Have you ever done that? If so, please stop. Stay home until you’re better. Thank you.)

I don’t know how many people are on a cruise ship, but I’ll bet it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand passengers and crew. Possibly I’m lowballing that; could be a whole lot more. The only crew you ever see are the service staff, but someone’s got to be running the engines, keeping the lights on, fixing the computers, and so on. And it looks like an enormously big ship, but it’s really pretty close inside. You’re constantly bumping into other passengers, breathing each other’s air and grabbing the same door handles that everyone else touched. So even if you don’t take my advice on the cold medicine, at least get yourself a six-pack of those little pocket-sized bottles of Purel, and use it often. Even if you’re washing your hands.

Actually, the ship’s crew don’t give you much of a choice on the Purel. Every time you go into one of the restaurants, even the swanky main dining room, you’ll find at least one crew member waiting at the door for you with an upended bottle of Purel poised to give you a shot. You might try to sneak by without reaching for any, but if they can see your hands, those crew members are going to try their darndest to squirt some Purel into them. On top of that, there are Purel dispensers everywhere. I would say it’s a fair bet that just one cruise ship goes through a metric butt-ton of Purel every day.

Having said that, the odds are about even that you’re going to catch a bug that will get up your sinuses or down your throat and fill you up with phlegm and mucous, if in fact those are two different things. Even if they’re not, a double dose is not unlikely. Everywhere I went, I heard people coughing up crud or telling somebody how they just got over a case of the coughing crud. It seems to be part of the cruise experience.

I may have caught a watered-down version of the crud. My nose got a little stuffed up and I had some phlegm and/or mucous caught in my throat for a day or two. My Darling B, however, caught the giant industrial sized version of the crud that manifested itself on the last day of our cruise. A sore throat kept her up most of the night and we went to see the doctor in the morning, who charged us a hundred eighty bucks for the tests to see if she had strep throat (she didn’t, thank dog) and three packets of Theraflu. It helped, but the moment she laid down in bed that night, her pretty little head filled up with fluids and she tossed and turned until we had to get up the next morning. She’s still getting over it.

So, to recap: fill a bag with cold medicine, buy so much Purel that the company sends you a Christmas card every year, and every time you pass a faucet, wash your hands. Then maybe, just maybe you won’t get what everyone else will get. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

sniffles | 10:45 am CST
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Hi, we’re back from our cruise to the Bahamas and we had a great time, thank you very much for asking. This was the first cruise either of us had gone on, so we had no idea what to expect, other than we were going to be on a great big ship that was going to take us to some islands in the general vicinity of Florida. We knew they were called the Bahamas but, embarrassingly, neither of us could say just where the Bahamas were or how many islands were in the Bahamas. Turns out there are 700. 700! And we didn’t know they existed until we went on this cruise. This is not the first time that travel has revealed to us how stupid we are about the world.

The ship we took was Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. If you’ve never been on a cruise ship before, or been around ocean-going ships at all, your mind isn’t ready to take in just how big they are or how much stuff is crammed into them. It’s as if the designers combined The Mall of America with a five-star hotel. The inside of the ship is hollowed out, leaving room for shops and restaurants and taverns and a wide pedestrian walkway, just like a mall. At one end of the mall there’s a theater showing movies, theater reviews and concerts, and at the other end there’s quite a grand dining room where liveried service staff bring you all the food you ask for. Oh, there’s a dance club in the middle, too. Because they had some extra room, I guess.

The outside of the ship is the hotel. Hundreds and hundreds of hotel rooms, maybe thousands, I don’t know. More than I’d care to count. We had a room that was really very small and ordinary, because we didn’t plan to spend much time in it (turned out this was the one of those rare times that our plans matched up with reality; we were in our room to shower, change clothes, and sleep, and we didn’t do much sleeping), and yet it was still a very nice room. It even had a window, which I learned was not the case in every room. Our window faced the water and was at the front of the ship, so we could see the waves crashing off the bows as the ship plunged through choppy waters, or see the islands as we approached. Other rooms had windows that faced the inside of the ship, overlooking the mall. All things considered, I’m glad we got one looking out at the sea.

The islands we visited were Coco Cay, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Coco Cay is really just a part of the cruise ship that doesn’t go anywhere. Royal Caribbean owns the island, and the ship’s service staff gets off with the passengers to serve food, drinks, and otherwise cater to their every need. I guess a sandy beach was the one thing they couldn’t shoehorn into the boat, so they bought an island. St. Thomas is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten is a Dutch territory. From what I could tell, they exist only because cruise ships stop there.

We didn’t sign up for the cruise to visit the islands, to tell the truth. We signed up because some of our favorite musical performers and authors were going to be on the ship. It was a themed cruise, and for want of a better term, I’ll use the phrase that the other passengers used who signed up for the themed cruise: Nerd Boat (in real life it’s called JoCo Cruise).

The authors were all writers of science fiction (John Scalzi) or fantasy (N.K. Jemisin, Patrick Rothfuss), or were involved in science fiction or fantasy writing in some way (Wil Wheaton). (The names in parens are examples only, not meant to be pigeonholes. Scalzi also writes fantasy, and although I’m not familiar with Jemisin, I understand she writes science fiction as well. I know next to nothing about Rothfuss, but I will soon. And Wheaton, besides being an actor and writer, is a dynamite comic presence. Really.)

The musical performers may be a little harder for me to describe, but I’ll give it a shot: it’s comedy (Paul & Storm), but it’s also nerdy (Jonathan Coulton), and I think the easiest way to describe “nerdy” in this case is to give you a few examples: Paul & Storm opened their musical show with a song urging George R.R. Martin to write faster so we wouldn’t have to wait to find out what happens next on Game Of Thrones. Also, their most popular song by far, and sort of the theme song for this cruise, is The Captain’s Wife’s Lament, a sea shanty about pirates. I would be spoiling the song to go any further, but suffice to say if you don’t like puns, or double entendres, or both, then the payoff won’t work for you.

The most well-known song (and again, a kind of anthem to the people who go on this cruise) by the headline act, Jonathan Coulton, is about a person who writes code for a living. Another song is written in the form of an inter-office memo from a bureaucrat who has recently become a zombie. And my favorite song of Coulton’s is a love song to Pluto from Charon (the planet and its largest moon, respectively) that makes me puddle up every time. I guess that makes me a nerd.

The comedy and the nerdiness is all well and good, but this is to say nothing of how musically awesome the performers are (and besides the comedy and nerdery, we were also treated to (for want of a better term, again) more mainstream artists such as Aimee Mann, whose pop hit Voices Carry almost everybody my age knows, even if they don’t realize that Aimee Mann was part of the group Til Tuesday). Really, if you could see all these guys come together to play a David Bowie tribute, as they did on the last night of the cruise, you would be blown away by just how amazingly accomplished they are as musicians. The musical shows by themselves were well worth the price of admission.

Anyway, that’s the quick & dirty summary of where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing for the last week. I’ll be writing more drivel about it eventually, but it’s going to take a while to go through my notes and I’ve got to divide my time between that, unpacking, washing clothes, and nursing My Darling B, who contracted a case of the coughing crud that was going around the boat. Also, the floor won’t stop rolling back and forth, so every time I stand up, I feel as though I might topple over, and I can’t cross the room without walking like a drunkard, so there’s a slim chance I’ll crash into a wall or tumble over a piece of furniture in the next few days, but if, knock wood, that doesn’t happen, I’ve got a few stories I can tell.

cruise crazy | 9:05 am CST
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Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Our trip from the hotel to the port did not go quite the way I pictured it.

I was under the impression that the shuttle we booked from the hotel to the port would be a Ford Excursion, or a stretch van, possibly as big as one of those sixteen-person shuttle buses that hotels send you to the airport in. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know how I got that impression. Certainly nobody told me what kind of vehicle we would be riding in. I just assumed. Turns out what they mean when they say “never assume” is true.

On the recommendation of the people organizing the cruise, I called the phone number Florida business and spoke to someone about chartering a “shuttle” from Orlando to Port Canaveral. No one said anything about how we were getting from point A to point B, but maybe the mom-and-pop feel of the business was what made me think the owner herself, or her brother Merle, would show up in a panel van, load our bags into the back and off we’d go.

Nope. A whole lotta nope.

There was a huge gaggle of people milling about in the lobby when we went down there around nine-thirty, a half-hour before we were supposed to leave. There was no sign of anything resembling a line of people waiting to go. I assumed — there I go again — that they had all arranged their own transportation and a long line of vans and stretch limos would soon appear in the drive to take them all away.

Because there was nothing that bore any resemblance at all to a line, we dragged our bags out to the curb and sat in a comfy chair by the driveway to wait for the Ford Excursion/van/shuttle bus that would pull up to take us away. We’d been sitting there all of ten minutes when I happened to notice there was a lady in the lobby moving through the gaggle of people and checking off names on a clipboard. I don’t know what made me think she had anything to do with our ride to the port, but I said, “Be right back,” to B and went inside to see what she was doing.

Turned out she was lining up sixty or so people to get on a chartered bus, which coincidentally happened to be the shuttle we had booked a ride on.

We dragged our bags back inside and searched for the end of the line, ending up behind a thick knot of people who were bunched up around a cluster of chairs. Every so often, someone would walk by with their bags and ask us whether or not this was the line for the shuttle, and we would say something flip like, “Well, I certainly hope so.” That happened three or four times before one of the people in the cluster ahead of us turned around and said, “Oh, we’re not in line.”

So all shuffled three or four feet to the left and waited for clipboard lady to work her way down to us. As she approached, she moved through the cluster of people to our right who said they weren’t in line, ticking off their names. So apparently they were in line after all. We had to practically grab clipboard lady and drag her over to our side of the line to make sure we got checked in. Then, when the line started moving, we all merged as we neared the door.

True story: As the bus taking us from our hotel to the cruise ship neared Port Canaveral, the driver turned around and asked us, “Which cruise line are you guys on?” The frigging driver didn’t know which terminal he was supposed to drop us off at!

And yet somehow we still got there.

Tell you what: the cruise line has every last thing figured out about how to get a couple thousand tourists aboard a big ship in a hurry. The terminal was as wide open as a sports stadium. When we got there, which was still pretty early, we could easily see one end of the room from the other, and yet there were uniformed attendants every fifty feet or so to direct us along our way. We hardly stopped moving until we got to the check-in desk where they took our photos, handed us a couple of magical plastic cards and pointed toward the gangplank.

Those plastic cards were magical because we could wave them at bartenders to get all the drinks we wanted. There’s a pro tip for you: Get the ultimate drinks package. For two good reasons:

First, imagine taking all your meals at the airport for seven days. What do they charge you for everything you drink? Every cup of coffee, every glass of orange juice, every bottle of water, and all at airport prices. What if you want a cocktail in the evening? How much would a week of that cost you? Yeah. We didn’t want to have to think about about how much we were spending, so we got the drinks package. That way, we’ve already spent it. No worries.

Second, because starting every day with a mimosa or a Bloody Mary is the best way to start your day.

I made a pact with My Darling B that we would stop at the first bar we could find after going aboard so that we could toast the start of our vacation with a couple glasses of champagne. As luck would have it, we didn’t have to go looking at all: There was a bar just inside the doorway as we entered. Almost like they knew what we wanted most at that moment.

After toasting our cruise, we wandered down to the gaming room to check in, get our sea monkey passes and our swag bag. Our sea monkey passes get us into all the JoCo Cruise events, and the swag bag was filled with games and a plush toy as mementos to remember our cruise.

I had to make a special trip to the chapel where there was a meeting of all the sea monkeys taking part in a game of assassin that was specially-made for this cruise. When I played assassin in college we used squirt guns to kill our targets; in this game, they used a deck of cards and rules for using them that went completely over my head. I went up to Martin, the creator of the game, to ask for his help, but he was in a pretty intense discussion with someone protesting one of the rules, so I tagged Martin’s wife Mandie and let her know that I wanted to talk with them when we picked up our cards later that night.

Then I had to run all the way back to the other end of the ship to meet up with My Darling B at the New Monkey Orientation, where Paul and Storm welcomed us and told us a few things about the cruise, mostly stuff we already knew. JoCo and Scarface joined in after for a Q&A that was, again, mostly stuff we already knew. We had done our homework before the cruise.

There was a mandatory lifeboat drill at four. When it was done, we ducked inside to grab cocktails that we took back to the rail to watch the ship pull away from the dock and head out to sea. The port was not the prettiest part of Florida by any stretch of the imagination. Besides the terminal and acres of parking, there was a fuel dump, warehouses and all other kinds of servicing facilities, but out at the end of the canal, just before we sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean, there was a small park where dozens of people had set up their lawn chairs along the shore to watch the ships head out and wave at the passengers lined up on the rails. Each ship blasted its horn as it went by, answered by the horns of the dozens of cars parked along the shore.

We both went to what was billed as a cocktail mixer but was really more of a general melee for drinks and noshies as Paul and Storm read more announcements, introduced the guests and cracked wise from the stage. Directly from that we went to dinner in the main dining room. Slight hitch there: We wandered for fifteen minutes or so looking for a table with open seating. All the tables that had any room had been mislabeled “Staff Only” when they were supposed to say “Open Seating.” We finally found a four-top where we sat with Ryan and Scott, a couple of Canadians who came on the cruise primarily to play games and hadn’t heard of JoCo or Paul and Storm before.

Our last activity of the evening was the JoCo concert. I wonder why the headline act went on the first night? Seems like something they’d save for last, but apparently they had different ideas.

We had a teeny tiny little roomette. A king bed took up about half of it. The other half was a small sitting room, closet and bathroom. There was a love seat, a desk and a tiny coffee table. The closed was just big enough to hold all the clothes we brought. After we emptied the suit cases, I was able to stash them under the bed, so that we would have more room in our small world. There was a television, but most of the channels were information about the ship or about shore excursions, and rest were children’s cartoons or were in a language I couldn’t identify.

Cruise Monkey Day Two | 9:13 am CST
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Saturday, February 20th, 2016

I managed to get to sleep around nine-thirty on the Friday night before we were going to fly out for our cruise. I even kept on sleeping until about two in the morning, but after that I was just lying in bed awake, so I got up at about two-thirty and read a book until four when B got out of bed. We washed up and left the house at five, just as we planned, and our flight left on time a little more than an hour later. Like hitting every green light on a trip across town, it felt somehow like we were getting all the breaks. We even got through security without either of us being selected for “special attention.”

Our layover in Chicago was just long enough for us to get from our arrival gate to our departure gate and start to gobble down a bagel before they called for us to start boarding. Just as quickly, they put a hold on boarding, explaining that they were trying to settle “safety issues.” No problem. You go ahead and take as long as you like to settle those “issues.”

That was the only hitch we experienced along the way, and even though they delayed boarding for a short time, every flight left on time, the airlines didn’t lose our luggage, and the shuttle from the airport to the hotel showed up within ten minutes after we piles all our bags at the curb. Slick as snot, as one of my tech school instructors used to say.

We arrived at our hotel (which the sea monkeys are calling the JoCotel, after the cruise’s namesake, Jonathan Coulton) in the early afternoon. The clerk who checked us in apologized for how cold it was, then asked where we were from. She laughed a bit when we told her Wisconsin. “So this isn’t exactly cold to you,” she said. The temp was seventy-five degrees. We set the thermostat in our house to sixty-nine this time of year. Not exactly cold, no.

We had a bite to eat in the restaurant downstairs, then went back up to our room to change into our swim suits to spend the next several hours by the pool, basking in the sun. One of the perks of being a cheesehead on vacation in Florida is realizing what a treat it is to lie half-naked in the sunshine in February. Still, an hour of that was more than enough for me, and I went looking for a seat in the shade where I could sip a fruity drink and write some drivel. B took a dip in the pool to cool off, then stretched out to soak up another hour’s worth of sunshine.

After washing off and changing into dry clothes, we took a short walk around the hotel, but because I had so little sleep the night before, I was running on fumes and had to hit the hay. My Darling B was all in, too. We stopped off at the bar for a nightcap before turning in for the night.

Cruise Monkey Day One | 6:00 am CST
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Thursday, May 21st, 2015

There are a lot of fun things to do in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Staying overnight at a hotel alongside the highway is not one of them. But this is for work, not play, so I didn’t really expect to have much fun here.

There was a little bit of a problem with the room; I couldn’t get the card key to work. I put the card in the slot, pulled it out and got a red light; the door remained locked. I put the card in and pulled it out more slowly; it still remained locked. I put the card in, left it in a moment, pulled it out slowly; still locked. I put it in backwards. I put it in upside-down. I put it in again and again and again as fast as I could. No joy. Red light all the way.

Since I couldn’t think of anything else that might’ve worked, I gathered up all my bags and made my way back to the check-in desk to tell the manager my woes. She took my card from me and did some electronic jiggery-pokery with it before handing it back, assuring me that it would work now.

It didn’t. I went through all the motions again, fast, slow, upside-down and backwards. I even grabbed the door handle and shook it hard, because why not, before gathering up my bags for another trip to the front desk.

As I was coming down the stairs, I could hear the manager on the phone with somebody. Sounded like there was a problem with double-booking. When I got there, she was doing that key card magic behind the desk. She offered me a card key before I said a word. “You’re not in 204, you’re in 205,” she explained. “Sorry about that.”

205 | 7:10 am CST
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Saturday, May 16th, 2015

Wednesday, I drove 146 miles to Wausau, 31 miles to Wittenberg, and 29 miles to Shawano.

Thursday, I drove 41 miles to Oconto, 174 miles to Madison, and 115 miles to Waupaca.

Friday, I drove 109 miles to Algoma and 109 miles back to Waupaca.

Today, you couldn’t get me into a car for any amount of money.

UPDATE:

As it turned out, this wasn’t true. Within an hour after writing those words, My Darling B convinced me to get into a car and join her for a ride into downtown Waupaca to see the farmer’s market, stop at a delightful diner for a scrumptious brunch, and visit the fabulous Bookcellar, possibly the best used-book store in all of Wisconsin. So as much as I didn’t want to see the inside of a car that day, I have to admit that braving it for the five-mile trip into Waupaca was very much worth it.

road warrior | 8:33 am CST
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Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home again. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate, as I’m about to attempt to tell you exactly that.

I just got back from a business trip of nearly seven hundred miles to the northwest corner of our fair state, and I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration to say it felt like a trip to the moon would have been easier. And then I would be able to say that I’d been to the moon instead of Park Falls, Wisconsin. Not that there’s anything wrong with Park Falls. It’s not as exotic a location as the moon, is all.

I should also point out that, while I get along well with all my co-workers, I would challenge anyone to spend ten hours in a car with their dearest friend and see how long that conversation lasts.

I’m really glad to be home again, where I can sleep in my own bed with my favorite girl, is all I’m saying.

billions and billions | 7:40 pm CST
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Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Wow! A Great Big Fish!
a great big fish in Hayward, WI
This must be the one that got away.

Just one of the things we saw on a recent business trip to Hayward, Wisconsin.

Great Big Fish | 6:38 am CST
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Saturday, April 25th, 2015

I think I may finally be all caught up on the sleep I lost this week. Actually, I didn’t lose that much sleep. I was on an overnight business trip and we stayed in a hotel that was almost literally curbside to Interstate 43 in Manitowoc. I say “almost literally” because Interstate highways don’t have curbs, but if they did, I would have been sleeping – correction, non-sleeping within spitting distance of the curb. My coworker and traveling buddy got a room on the quiet side of the hotel and wouldn’t switch with me no matter how much I begged him. The turd.

We stopped at a liquor store for a six-pack of beer on the way back to the hotel from dinner, and I think that the two bottles I drank while channel surfing helped me get a solid two hours of sleep after lights off. An eighteen-wheeler downshifting on the exit ramp right outside my window woke me at about twelve-thirty. After offloading some of the beer I drank, I laid in bed mostly wide awake for about an hour, must have dozed off at some point and slept for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes when the next truck coming off the Interstate woke me with a blast from his engine.

I cycled between semi-sleep and wakefulness like that for the rest of the night, with a break at about three o’clock when I just said fuck it and spent about an hour and a half reviewing the paperwork I would have to follow for the audit I was scheduled to perform the next day. That made me just drowsy enough that I thought I might be able to sleep the rest of the night away, but shortly after I turned the lights off, another truck came jackbraking off the Interstate. GodDAMmit!

So when I got home the next day, I was in bed by eight o’clock that evening and I didn’t so much sleep as fall into a vegetative state that I did not rouse myself from until the alarm woke me in the morning. And that was good, but I truly felt that I needed more, especially after we came home following a visit to the gym that evening.

We are not fitness fiends, not by any stretch of the imagination. I like to take walks around the neighborhood and ride my bike around town, but that’s about as physically active as I get. My Darling B gardens, and that’s a physically demanding activity, but only from about May until September or maybe October. We took up yoga last fall so we wouldn’t spend all winter blobbing out on the sofa, surfing the internet for puppy videos.

And we talked about joining a gym, but that’s about all we did until last week when B proclaimed her ardent desire to firm up her muscles, or something. I got on board with that because that’s just the supportive kind of spouse I am. So Thursday night was our first time trying out the 30-minute workout circuit they had set up in the back of the gym, ten weight machines arranged in a semicircle around three rows of boxes. A traffic light on the back wall flashed green to tell you it was time to work out, and red to tell you to switch to the next machine. You were supposed to climb on the boxes between stints at the machines as a sort of rest period.

So off we went! B went first, guided by Luis, the gym’s fitness instructor. We didn’t tell Luis that neither one of us had visited a gym in about ten years. He could look at us and easily tell that we weren’t exactly prime physical specimens, but we probably should have given him that critical bit of information.

The first three machines were leg work. I got through those and thought, Hey, this is pretty easy, probably because I have to walk around on my legs every day. The rest of the machines worked on my back, arms and chest. The only work my arms do every day is lift my hands to a computer keyboard, so by the time I got to the fifth machine I had already changed my mind to, Okay, so maybe this isn’t going to be so easy after all, and by the sixth or seventh machine I was not at all confident that I would be able to make it to the end of the circuit.

My Darling B was doing just as well as I did until she got to the sixth or seventh machine, and then her blood sugar crashed, probably because she hadn’t eaten anything besides a banana at eleven o’clock. Luis took her out of the circuit and made her drink a bottle of Gatorade while I limped toward the finish line. Slept like the dead that night, I can tell you.

Two days later, I still feel like somebody beat me around my shoulders and upper arms with a lead pipe. A yoga class last night helped stretch out my poor tired muscles and I slept the sleep of the just once again, getting out of bed around six-thirty this morning only because Boo wouldn’t stop whining about whatever it is that cats whine about at six-thirty in the morning before they go back to sleep at seven-thirty.

deficit | 4:40 pm CST
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Monday, October 6th, 2014

I’m writing up some detailed drivel about each day of our vacation in the Pacific Northwest. I already posted some drivel about our last day in Seattle, because it was fresh in my mind and I sort of do things as they occur to me, so doing it backwards isn’t really too much of a stretch.

Just now this very second I posted some more drivel about our second to the last day in Seattle. I guess I’ll just go ahead and post the whole thing backwards.

Also, I’m posting them retroactively. That means, I’m posting them as if I were writing them on the day we did all the stuff I describe. That’s because I often use this blog like my emergency back-up memory, searching it for things that I vaguely remember happened to me but I don’t remember the details and I certainly don’t remember when it happened. It makes me feel better when I can see what date it happened on. Hopefully this won’t be too confusing to you. I suspect it will be confusing as hell to me at some time hence, but right now it seems to make sense to do it this way.

backwards | 3:46 pm CST
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Sunday, October 5th, 2014

Home again, home again, jiggidy-jog. Woke up this morning after sleeping ten hours. Hardly surprising. As My Darling B pointed out, we were traveling all day. In fact, we could have flown all the way to Japan in the time it took us to get from Seattle to Madison.

And I mean we slept hard. I would’ve been out like a light all night long if Boo hadn’t gotten up two or three times to run around the house howling like a maniac.

After we cleaned up and visited the farmer’s marked, we drove out to the airport to see if they could help us find our bags and, against all probability, all our bags were there waiting for us at the counter! How about that!

And so endeth another O-Folk adventure. Thanks for tuning in.

pacnw day 10 | 10:26 pm CST
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Saturday, October 4th, 2014

high above the cloudsAlarm clocks. They don’t belong on a vacation. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have brought a single one along, but they’re kinda built into our smartypants phones. Can’t get them out. Also, we needed them today because we wanted to get up early enough to shower, get to the airport, get through security and still have time left over for breakfast, so we had to endure being rudely awakened by alarm clocks. It sucked.

And it sucked in a very special way because what we both most wanted to do this morning was sleep until eight or nine o’clock, get out of bed long enough to pop a couple of aspirin and drink a river of water, then crawl back into bed for maybe another hour or so. Turned out we might have had one beer too many the night before.

After our morning ablutions we packed our bags with the greatest of care, not wanting a replay of our last vacation when we discovered at the airport check-in desk that our bags were each twenty or thirty pounds overweight, which would cost about a hundred bucks total if we wanted to check them through that way. We opted  to drag them to an untrafficked corner of the airport, crack open all our luggage, throw out the stuff we could leave behind and redistribute the bottles and glasses and other souvenirs we had collected along the way.

Wasn’t gonna happen this time. The cups and bottles and various nick-knacks got evenly split between all the bags and liberally padded with lots and lots of dirty clothes. When we were satisfied that each of them had about the same heft, the big bags slightly more than the small bags, we buttoned everything up and dragged the whole kit and kaboodle down to the lobby.

The front desk booked a town car to take us to the airport. They had a special deal with a private contract driver to take guests to the airport in his big shiny black Cadillac Escalade for a flat forty-dollar rate. And a good thing, too, because Sea-Tac Airport is hell and gone from downtown Seattle. Taxi fare would have been astronomical. We thought about taking the light rail at five dollars a head but stopped thinking about it when we got to the part where we’d have to drag our bags three blocks to Westlake Center, carry them down to the station platform, wrestle them on and off the train and finally drag them to the check-in counter at the airport. When it came down to that or paying somebody else to do it, it was a no-brainer.

Check-in at the airport was uneventful. Our plan, same as before, was to check the two big bags and take the two wheely bags as carry-ons. All well and good until we got to security where my wheely bag was singled out for special attention by the TSA agents. “Is there anything sharp in here that will cut or poke me?” the agent asked as he prepared to swab the bag for explosives. I must look like an especially determined seditionist because they’re always swabbing my bag for explosives. I told him there wasn’t anything in there that would hurt him and he did the swabby thing. No explosives. So I am still free to commit sedition, just not with a Molatov cocktail.

“There appears to be a large bottle of liquid in here,” an agent said, unzipping a compartment and extracting a one-liter flip-top growler full of beer that I’d completely forgotten about. Oh. That. Yeah. Well, that’s a little too much beer to chug right here on the spot, so I guess I’ll check that bag after all.

The TSA agent escorted me out of the security area back to the check-in desk where a ticketing agent helpfully walked me through the process again (sheesh!) so I could go through security screening again and reunite with B. She thought it was pretty darned funny that I forgot about the growler. I was mostly relieved she wasn’t mad that my doofishness forced us to pay to check another bag.

We found coffee and donuts at a Seattle’s Best Coffee shop near our gate, somewhat ironically, as it was the only one we saw anywhere in or near Seattle. Every other coffee shop was either a Starbucks or an independent shop. And there were so many Starbucks shops it made me wonder how the independent shops managed to hang on.

Our flight departed a little more than a half hour late because almost all the airline schedules were still effed up after the fire in Chicago the week before. The delay made passengers very grumpy. One after another, they tromped up to the desk to ask just what the heck was going on. As the scheduled departure time approached, they began to gather in a mob around the gate, boarding tickets in hand, sour looks on their faces. The gate agents got on the horn to assure everyone that they would board the plane as soon as possible, and that we would all make our connecting flights in Chicago. The crowd began to break up, grumbling as they did, but it was about even money that they might have mutinied if one of the passengers had shouted, “I know how to fly that plane!”

As it got later and more people stomped up to the desk, the agents had to make several more announcements, getting just a tad snippy about it toward the end. They also tried a gambit I’ve never seen before to get us out of there and into Chicago on time: At one point, the agent asked people to valet-check their carry-on bags to help speed the boarding process. B volunteered to check her bag. She was the only one.

Note that all of our luggage is checked through to Madison now. B has a bag with her Kindle, some bananas and one or two other items, and I’ve got a book bag with some books and cookies, but that’s it.

We landed in Chicago about twenty minutes before our connecting flight was due to depart but the pilot spent a solid ten minutes taxiing in a big circle around the airport to get to our gate. While we were getting the nickle tour of every taxiway at O’Hare, B called the airline to ask them to hold the connecting flight, but the answer she got boiled down to “sucks to be you.” To be fair, they offered to book us on the first flight out the next day, an option that sucked, so I guess they were right. It did suck to be us.

We raced through the airport and made it to the gate just in time to press our noses against the window and watch them roll the jetway back from the airplane. Maybe we should’ve banged on the glass and shouted at them, made a great big scene. That might’ve been satisfying, but it probably wouldn’t have gotten us on the plane.

B and I gravitated to a neighboring gate to ask the agents what we could do and found they were helping a couple other passengers who had also missed the connection to Madison. The agents found a later flight with another airline and helped get the passengers booked on it, so we hung around to see if they would do the same for us. While we were waiting, B called the airline again and again she was told, and I’m gisting again, “sucks to be you.”

When the two other passengers were done, the agent who was helping them had to go staff another gate, and a young guy who admitted he was “still getting used to it” tried to book seats for us. He seemed to know how to call up our reservations on his computer screen, but he had to stop passing agents to help him with all the rest of the codes to book us on a flight with another airline, so it took twice as long as it took the other agent. Still, he got us booked on an eight o’clock flight out, and that made him a hero to us.

The flight left Chicago and arrived in Madison on time, but it was anybody’s guess where our bags ended up. Somehow, even with those bar-coded tags they put on each and every bag, the airlines do not track your bags the way that, say, UPS tracks a package. They cannot click a few keys on their desktop computer and tell you where your bags are. Most of the agents we talked to on the phone and in person guessed our bags were most probably still in Chicago, but almost nobody could say for sure when the bags would get to Madison or how or who would have them when they got here. After about a half-hour we gave up asking because it was getting late and we were hungry. Coffee and doughnuts were all we’d eaten that day.

Ale Asylum, one of the best brewpubs in town, is just down the road from the airport. That’s where we headed as I pulled out of our parking spot and noticed that the steering seemed a little mushy. My heart sank a little bit. No. It couldn’t be. But yes, it was. There was no denying it when we heard the flub-flub-flub of a flat tire. So after all those delays and the missed connection and the lost bags, the last thing I had to deal with today was changing a flat tire.

Opps. No, it wasn’t. It was the taxi driver who nearly rear-ended me as I pulled out of the parking lot.

pacnw day 9 | 10:54 am CST
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Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Port of SeattleWe took our sweet time getting ready to hit the town this morning, not bothering to even get out of bed until about eight. HOW COULD WE BE SO LAZY? It’s just this simple: Today was our last day on vacation in Seattle. Heck, it was our last day of vacation. We were not going to rush it for anything.

We’d decided the night before to eat breakfast at The Athenian in the Public Market. That’s the restaurant where Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner went for lunch in Sleepless in Seattle, when they were talking about dating and whether or not Tom Hanks had a cute butt. (“I don’t know. Are we grading on a curve?”) The stools where they planted their butts are marked by plaques, but we didn’t sit in them. The hostess took us upstairs and sat us in a booth where we had a killer view of the Seattle Wheel, the port and the ferry terminal. The sky was clear and the sun was shining, so it was a way better place for breakfast than the stools at the counter downstairs. My butt would have to wait until another time to meet the chair that once cradled the butt of Tom Hanks.

I ordered what turned out to be the gooiest cinnamon roll ever. Ever! There are no cinnamon rolls anywhere else covered with that much gooey sweetness. You may think you’ve eaten a gooier cinnamon roll, but you’re wrong. It wasn’t even half as gooey as the one I ate. I couldn’t pick it up because the sweet goo had cemented it to the plate. I had to cut it into little pieces and then pry each little piece up with a knife and fork. It was really gooey!

B ordered a breakfast sammie on an English muffin that turned out to be two breakfast sammies on two English muffins. The menu didn’t make that as clear as it might have.

After we put all that breakfast away and washed it down with plenty of strong restaurant coffee, we went to do some basic souvenir shopping, starting just across the street with three kinds of smoked salmon and some beer for Tim. He deserved all that and more for volunteering to check in on our Little Red House and catsit Boo while we were away.

To get a gift for B, we went a little further down the block to stop at a fabric shop where she could buy a swatch of fabric printed with Seattle landmarks that she found on-line and dearly wanted to add to her collection. They still had some and it was practically sitting at the front door as she walked in, but there was no way she could just walk in and out of a fabric shop, so she happily spent about a half-hour wandering the aisles looking at all the other goodies.

The fabric shop was in a building with a whole lot of other souvenir shops at the street level. One level below them is The Pike Brewing Company. If you go to Seattle and you have time to visit just one brewpub, this would be a good pick. The beers are great, but the collection of beer stuff is eye-popping. Even if you’re not into beer or advertising or bottling or whatever, you will be agog at the sheer size of this collection. Seriously. Every wall has a framed poster or beer coaster or collection of bottle caps. Every level surface is taken up by a beer stein or a giant bottle of beer or a grinning little dancing bear holding mugs of beer. Really, it’s almost too much to describe. You won’t believe it until you see it. If you don’t want a beer, they’ll still let you in to wander around and gape in slack-jawed wonder, but if you drink beer I would have to recommend that you partake of at least one of their wonderful brews while you’re there. I was partial to Monk’s Uncle, their tripel.

The Pike Brewing Co

I mention The Pike because, while B roamed the aisles of the fabric shop, dreaming whatever happy dreams quilters have about fabric, I waited ever so patiently for The Pike to open. Okay, not really all that patiently. I could see them getting ready to open. The street level I was on was a sort of mezzanine that surrounded the tavern below, so all I had to do was lean over the rail and I could scope out almost the entire bar. And they’ve made their brewing equipment into a kind of modern art sculpture. The grain is lifted from the basement on a bucket lift to a big stainless steel bin that was high over my head, and the mash tun was on a platform at my level. The boil kettle was on the floor below and a big batch of brew was boiling away while the brewmaster stood by checking messages on her smart phone. I’d be lying if I said that all this didn’t make me thirsty.

But I went straight to the section with all the merchandise first when they finally opened, to get some bottled beer to take home. They had a great-looking flip-top growler I really wanted, too, but I wasn’t sure it would fit in our luggage, so I had to satisfy myself with a couple bombers of our favorite beers. Then, since we were there and it was open anyway, we bellied up to the bar where I asked what was on tap from the casks and ended up with a glass of cask-conditioned scotch ale. Wow. Really good. B joined me in a glass of scotch ale from the tap and we passed a happy half-hour or so there, planning the rest of our day, a trip to Fremont and Ballard to the north of Seattle to visit some of the area’s fine brewpubs.

Our first stop was going to be the bridge over Troll Avenue to look for the Fremont Troll but our visit to The Pike had made it necessary for me to stop sooner, so we made a detour to visit Fremont Brewing first. Looks like it was a garage or filling station before they refurbished it in the industrial chic-look that’s so popular in breweries run by very hip young people. That’s not meant to be a slam; I wake up every morning wishing I was a hip young person brewing beer in a refurbished filling station. They’re living the dream, as far as I’m concerned. The forecourt had been transformed into a beer garden with lots of freshly-varnished picnic tables that was patrolled by a black and white cat who deigned to stop just once to say hello to us, then moved on. They didn’t pour tasters here, so we had to order full-sized pours: B had the Dark Star Stout, creamy and sweet, and I had a saison called Harvest Ale, very refreshing. We passed a relaxing half hour on the patio with our beers in the warm afternoon sun trying to tempt the cat to come back, but no luck there.

Our search for the Fremont Troll lasted only a few minutes, because he’s at the end of the street that runs under the bridge and the street is called Troll Avenue. Not hard to find. I’m not sure why the Fremont Troll became so famous. Probably for the same reasons that the gum wall became famous: It’s just one of those things that somehow caught on with the visitors. Every tourist who comes through this part of town has to visit the Troll. There were maybe a dozen people there when we walked up, and in the ten minutes or so that we were there, maybe a dozen more came by. Nearly every one of them did what we did: Pose next to the troll so they could take a picture and post it on teh intarwebs. There must be millions of photos of the Troll on Facebook by now. Here’s one of them.

Somehow we found our way from the Troll to the right bus stop to get to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company for a flight of tasters. Bad Jimmy’s is a 15 bbl operation run out of what looks like a U-Store-It unit with a few tables and a short bar behind the roll-up door and some patio seating just outside. The owner smartly picked a location behind three local restaurant / bars that served pub food, and he encouraged visitors to get food from them and bring it over to the patio to eat with their beers. Wish I had those kind of smarts. We picked out four tasters to try: Strawberry Mango Heffe, Coffee Coca Vanilla Porter, Red Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale (known to the regulars as CDA).

Hilliard's Beer

From there we went to Hillliard’s Beer, a much bigger operation than any of the other places we visited today. They operate out of what looks like a cleaned-up warehouse; every surface upwards of the floor bears a blinding coat of whitewash and the big open windows let in lots of light that’s reflected off the stainless steel tanks and freezer walls surrounding the open, airy corner of the building where the bar is set up. There’s plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. They served no food, but a food truck called Kiss My Grits was visiting while we were there. Hilliard’s did not serve tasters so we each ordered a full glass of beer. B had Original Singe, a red ale with a smoky flavor, and I had Chrome Satan, a refreshing brown lager.

Then on to NW Peaks Brewery, maybe the smallest operation we saw today, run out of what looked like a very small storage space. The tap room bore a strong resemblance to a basement man cave: There was a bar set up alongside a walk-in freezer and a small group of seats. Their brews are all named after peaks in the Pacific Northwest. We took our tasters outside and sampled them at one of the three or four tables in the asphalt lot out front, surrounded by pony kegs. Enchantment Saison and Redoubt Red very clear and crisp; Stuart Stout was a nice, full-bodied brew.

Stoup BrewingStoup Brewing was another placed that looked like it had taken over a rehabbed warehouse. There were just a few tables inside and quite a few more on the forecourt just outside the rolled up garage door. No food but again a visiting food truck was doing a brisk business selling freshly-made lumpia from the curb. We got tasters of Stoup Porter, Bavarian Hefeweizen and Northwest Red.

We got halfway up the block before I realized I’d left my bag at Stoup! B went on while I went back as quickly as I could, breaking into a trot when I realized our car keys were in that bag. It was still there, untouched under the table where I’d left it. Catastrophe averted.

I easily caught up with B at Reuben’s Brews, our last stop of the night. I couldn’t tell what the building might have been before. The area that was open to the public might have been a loading bay in a previous life. The public area was also the working part of the brewery; the brew kettle and mash tun were bolted to the floor right beside the big roll-up garage door. The serving bar was off to the right as we came in, a few places to sit off to the left and in the back, and more tables on the driveway out front. The place seemed to be enormously popular; there were lots of people inside and out. We ordered just two tasters here as we were already kind of hammered, but there were three guys at the table beside ours who ordered twelve tasters. Yes, they have that many beers on tap. If we’d known, we might have started there and worked our way south, instead of the other way around. We tried Koyt, a light-bodied brew, and Export Foreign Stout, a very robust brew.

We went back to Serious Pie for dinner again. It’s pizza I could never get tired of. Really, I could eat there every night.

pacnw day 8 | 4:37 pm CST
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Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

After sleeping the sleep of the well-traveled tourist and soaking myself in a hot shower long enough to feel awake and alive again, I stepped out of the room while B cleaned up and ventured downstairs to seek coffee. Our accommodations at this hotel are simple but not uncivilized: There is a coffee shop sharing space right next to the lobby; I had to stand in line blinking in the harsh light of day for maybe five or ten minutes while the baristas worked their magic at the espresso machine before I could order the plain black cuppa joe I so craved.

Biscuit Bitch Seattle WAWe looked over our breakfast options the night before and decided the place we most wanted to visit this morning was Biscuit Bitch. There were a lot of good reviews from visitors posted on-line who said they had the best biscuits in town, but I’m not gonna lie: I wanted to go there because I liked the attitude. I liked it even more once I got there and saw that the breakfast sammie was named the “Bitchwich.”

My Darling B is a big fan of biscuits & gravy (or, as it’s known at this particular breakfast place, a “Straight-Up Bitch”). Back at home, whenever she finds a place she hasn’t been before that serves her favorite breakfast dish, she puts in an order to give it a try and see how it stacks up against all the other places she’s visited. This eventually morphed into an eternal quest to find the best biscuits & gravy anywhere. Obviously, she won’t be visiting Seattle any time soon just to satisfy a craving, but she still likes to try them wherever we go. She gave these high marks. I was very pleased with the breakfast sammie on a biscuit and ate every bite, washed down with plenty of strong, boiled coffee.

After breakfast we went back to the Public Market to take a longer look at the things we might have missed the night before when everything was winding down. And a good thing we did, too, because we would have missed the first Starbucks, the fish market, the flowers and all the artsy-fartsy crafts. Not sure what I can say about those that wouldn’t be boring. The first Starbucks still sells coffee, but of course it’s mostly a tourist trap now. Aside from taking your selfie in front of the “First Startbucks” store, you can get one of a dozen styles of First Starbucks coffee mugs, First Starbucks t-shirts, and I don’t know what all else. There are boxed of merch stacked up to the ceiling. You should probably go see for yourself.

Having been there & done that, it was off to find the gum wall.

Gum Wall Post Alley Seattle WA

The gum wall is just what it says on the box: Many moons ago, someone – I like to think it was a passing traveler who wanted to leave a memento of his visit, but I don’t think we’ll never know for sure – stuck a wad of gum to the wall in the part of Post Alley that ducks under the Public Market. He probably did something weird or unusual with it: Maybe she stuck it to the nose of one of the faces on the many handbills posted in the alley,, or he used it to stick a note to the wall, or she spelled her name with a particularly large wad of gum. Whatever the first passing stranger did, it attracted the attention of the next passing stranger who thought it was pretty funny, or took it as a challenge, or just wanted to leave his mark, too, and he stuck his wad of gum right next to it. Then a couple more people strolled by and stuck their gum to the wall. And several more people. And so on.

After what I can only guess have been years and years of people doing that, about fifty feet of Post Alley has been transformed into an amazing cave of grossness so awesome that people from all over the world seek it out to take photos of themselves dabbing the wall with their own chewing gum. Why they would want to come into contact, however briefly, with even the tiniest part of all that saliva-soaked gum is beyond me. I wouldn’t have missed seeing it, but just being there for ten minutes made B & I want to take a week-long shower in hydrogen peroxide.

Not everyone in Seattle is thrilled with the gum wall. One of the building tenants taped signs to the insides of their windows that said, “No gum on the windows.” Not “please,” just “NO.” Defiant gum-chewers have blotted out the “NO” and dabbed the windows with gum. Call me an asshole, but I thought that was kind of funny.

We walked almost to the end of Post Alley but stopped short because it’s pretty boring down at the far end, about as boring as the near end would be if there wasn’t gum stuck to the walls. Fortunately there was a stairway that gave us a shortcut to the street above so we could cross town to the Westlake Center, where we caught the monorail to Seattle Center.

B&O on the Space Needle Seattle WAWhat’s at the Seattle Center? Well, the Space Needle, for one. I almost didn’t want to do the Space Needle, after the Great Empire State Building Fiasco of 2012, but My Darling B really wanted to go up there so I went along, too. Thank goodness it was nothing like the experience we had at Empire State Building. We paid through the nose for a thirty-second elevator ride to the top, but once we were up there we found the observation deck was not thronged by angry masses of pushy adults hoisting bawling, miserable children over their heads. Instead, it was oddly like the imaginary observation deck of the Empire State Building you see in Sleepless in Seattle. Tourists strolled around, inside and out, some in quiet contemplation of the view, some goofing off with their camera phones, but almost all having a good time. I liked it a lot. I think B did, too. And we had beautiful weather for it.

The revolving restaurant on the lower floor, called SkyCity, was a slightly different story. B wanted to sit down for a drink, but they don’t do just drinks. A greeter meets you at the door to tell you flatly that you have to spend at least twenty-five bucks on food and drink if you want a seat in the revolving restaurant, and if you decide to sit down, your waiter reminds you within minutes after greeting you that there’s a twenty-five dollar minimum. But B really wanted to sit in the revolving restaurant, so, to get the complete tourist experience, we asked for a table and racked up a sixty dollar bill for noshies and a couple drinks, just to tick the Space Needle well and truly off our bucket list.

Well. I can tell you that, unless you order an entree at SkyCity, the staff will let you know in no uncertain terms that you, as far as they’re concerned, are little more than an offshoot of the Clampett family, and they are serving you only because it would be gauche to eject you. No, I take that back, I saw them round up a bunch of Amish people by shouting across the heads of the diners. I think they would’ve broken out the lassos if the whole lot hadn’t immediately returned to the lobby. Our waiter barely spoke to us after taking our order, and pointed out once more than we would not be entitled to free drinks unless we got the entree. Okay, feller. Whatever. My Darling B still got to twirl all the way around the Space Needle in your restaurant, so sniff your nose at us all you want, just do it way over there. Bye now.

After visiting the Space Needle gift shop, because it wouldn’t be a tourist trap without a gift shop, we went right around the corner to visit the Chihuly exhibit. I honestly don’t know what to say about this, other than Dale Chihuly sure knows how to make brightly-colored glass curlicues. That’s about all I got out of it. My Darling B, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough. “Maybe because I like beads. They’re like big glass beads.” Can’t argue with that; they really are. We spent about an hour there, me on a bench mostly, B happily snapping one photo after another, or getting me to pose for photos in front of a big glass curlicue, before we hopped on the monorail to return to the city center.

We made a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up, with an additional stop at the street cafe for our afternoon pick-me-up of espresso (me) and green tea latte with pumpkin art on top (B) before we hoofed it back down to the vicinity of the Public Market to meet a couple old buddies of mine from way back in the glory days of my Air Force career. They treated us to a ride on the Seattle Great Wheel, and we treated them to a nightcap at Von’s 1000 Spirits. If you’re going to have a nightcap, by the way, Von’s is the place to get it. Just sayin’.

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Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

My Darling B and I on the ferry across Puget Sound to BremertonFirst thing in the morning we did after cleaning up and dressing was head down to the lobby for some waffles and a steaming hot cuppa joe at the coffee shop next to the lobby. Wake me up! I had waffles slathered with Nutella and maple syrup; how decadent is that?

Besides breakfast, the first touristy thing we did today was take the ferry to Bremerton to see Seattle and the surrounding cities from Puget Sound. Also, to visit Puget Sound Navy Yard because lately I’ve been reading a lot about my favorite aircraft carrier, Saratoga, (What? You don’t have a favorite aircraft carrier?) and she spent a lot of time there, so I just kinda wanted to be one of the places she’s been.

(My dream vacation, believe it or not, would be a week in the South Pacific so I could spend at least a day, maybe two, diving to Saratoga’s final resting place, often described as one of the best wreck dives anywhere. I’m getting a little long in the tooth for that kind of thing now, so it’ll probably always be a dream. But what a dream.)

(A visit to San Diego, Saratoga’s home port, would be a close second. That might actually happen. Watch this space.)

To make it easier for foot traffic to reach the pier where the ferry docks, there’s a bridge over the highway that cuts off the waterfront from the city (they’re going to replace that with a tunnel and knock it down soon). For safety’s sake because it’s way up in the air, the bridge has a low chain-link fence on either side, and along one short stretch of it there are maybe a hundred padlocks hanging from it. We weren’t sure what was going on here until we noticed the names. Each of the padlocks has a name engraved or written on it. Some of them have the names of couples, some have just one (shipped?) name. Thanks, humanity! Much more heartwarming than smooshing your bubblegum on the wall.

Seattle WA padlocks on fence

On to Bremerton! We had beautiful weather for the crossing, clear, sunny skies but just a little chilly. I wanted to stand on the deck and got to do that most of the trip, but on the way over we were going into the wind and the ferry was hustling along at maybe thirty or forty miles per hour, so it was a pretty stiff wind and my jacket wasn’t thick enough to keep me warm. On the way back, not so bad, so I spent more time outside watching the water go by and Seattle get bigger in front of us.

B got pooped on by a pigeon in Pioneer Square! This is the third or fourth time she’s been pooped on! The woman’s a poop magnet! She seems to think this is my fault. It does seem to happen mostly when she’s in my company, but I don’t think that’s a defence that would hold up in court.

We were in Pioneer Square to buy tickets for the tour of Seattle’s underground. After most of Seattle’s business district burned down in 1889, the city’s administrators convinced businessmen to let them rebuild the city with elevated streets that would eventually be connected to second-floor entrances of all the downtown buildings, to take care of a problem the city had with incoming tides pushing sewage back into the streets. Yuck! The tour goes through the underground spaces that still lie between the streets and the buildings.

It was three o’clock when B got pooped on and the tour didn’t start until four, so we had some time to kill, and what better way to kill it than to visit a cafe for an afternoon pick-me-up? We went just around the corner to the Cherry Street Coffee House where I sipped an espresso while B enjoyed a chai latte at a streetside table. After we finished our refreshments, we ambled down First Street to look at the old buildings that date back to the reconstruction of the city after the fire.

tour of Seattle Underground

Clay was our guide for the tour. A natural born story-teller, he explained all about the fires and floods and sewers as he led us on a good long tramp through the dank spaces beneath three or four city blocks with maybe forty people in tow.

After the tour, I heard Clay tell another couple that one of the best views in the city is from the top of Smith Tower. Of course we went, and of course we got there only to arrive just in time for the observation deck to close. Bummer.

So I guess it’s time for a beer then, eh? We headed back to First Street, taking a short cut through Occidental Park. Nothing much to see there; if that was one of the places on your itinerary to Seattle, I’d say skip it. Down on the far end of First Street, long past the businesses that were still open, we finally came to the Elysium Fields brewpub. This is where they brewed the beer that we enjoyed at the Elysium bar earlier in our visit.

We stayed for just one beer at Elysium Fields before crossing a vast empty parking lot behind the train stn to get to the International Market in a dark corner of the city. B wanted to see it because it was supposed to have one of the best Japanese book stores around. I never seriously studied Japanese, so I didn’t get into it as much as she did, but I was just as impressed by the Japanese grocery store and the Japanese noodle shops tucked away inside the same mall. It was almost like being in Japan again. B managed to find her favorite snack food in the grocery store, something called kah kee no tay nay: rice crackers with peanuts. She went home a happy camper.

pacnw day 6 | 6:32 am CST
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Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Good bye, Portland, and thanks!

On the train from Portland OR to Seattle WA

We took the train from Portland to Seattle. I would never have suggested it, because the last time I did, the train arrived hours late, departed even later, got stalled for hours on a siding every time it met a freight train, and a broken toilet gave our coach the aroma of a porta-potty on a hot day. So although I still enjoy traveling by train, B will avoid it at almost any cost.

But for whatever reason, she suggested that we make the run from Portland to Seattle by train, and a good thing she did. Our train arrived spot-on-time, departed without delay and went zipping down the tracks with no diversions to sidings for freight trains, arriving in Seattle exactly when they said we would. Either the track was a line dedicated for passenger service, or we were just lucky. I have the feeling it was a dedicated passenger line because it was smooth as silk instead of a track pounded into bone-jarring shapes by freight trains.

I have no doubt a bus would have been just as punctual, but it wouldn’t have had the comfy seats we had, and there’s just no way to put a price on the luxury of being able to get up on a four-hour trip to stretch your legs or get a cup of coffee from the bar car. The coach was new construction, clean with well-appointed chairs and tables; there were even electric outlets between the seats so we could keep our phones and tablets charged, and free wi-fi. Why can’t we have nice things like this in our neck of the woods?

As soon as we got into Seattle we went to the Moore Hotel downtown. The Moore gets mixed reviews from the on-line crowd, mostly the whiners who complain it’s old and it’s not air-conditioned, both of which are true. But it’s been recently remodeled with a retro look that I thought was appealing. And even though it doesn’t have air conditioning, we didn’t think that would be a problem in early October, and it wasn’t. Besides that, the room was clean, the location was close to most of the places we wanted to visit, and the price for a room downtown couldn’t be beat, so we were happy with it.

While B was freshening up, I flicked through the cable TV channels just to confirm that television programming still sucks the big wet one, and then we were back on the street. It was just after noon and we were plenty hungry for lunch, so our first stop was Pike Place Chowder in Post Alley, the place Jason & Jennifer recommended to us at breakfast in the Portland B&B. Hugely popular, there was already a line around the front of the shop when we got there and it just kept getting longer while we ate. Good thing we went straight to it. B ordered a sampler of four different kinds of chowder, while I went for broke with a bowl of New England clam chowder. It was more than we could finish, although we made a valiant effort.

We wandered into a few shops in Post Alley after lunch, but B wanted to book a ride on the ducks so we didn’t stay long, just had a quick look around before catching a bus to Westlake Park.

Riding the Ducks in Seattle WAThe ducks turned out to be quite a lot of fun, in spite of the fact that we didn’t really see all that much of Seattle. The driver took us up to Lake Union, put the duck in the water mostly to show us the houseboat from Sleepless in Seattle, then drove back to the city center by way of Pioneer Square, pointing at about a half-dozen buildings while pelting us with a few random tidbits of info. It wasn’t so much a tour as a short game of trivial pursuit.

What made the trip so much fun was the driver, a natural-born comic who kept up a steady stream of one-liners and took his hands off the wheel to raise his arms over his head way too often to get us to wave or clap as he sped through downtown traffic. He even came with a soundtrack of pop tunes that were the punchline to a lot of his jokes, although mostly he played them so he could crank them up way too loud and pump the brakes to the beat when we came to red lights. Which all the passengers thought was terrific fun, and so did quite a few of the pedestrians along the pavement (we caught a couple of waitresses at a sidewalk cafe gettin’ jiggy when he played the Sir Mix-A-Lot classic, Baby Got Back), although there were a few who gave us the stink-eye as we went by. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of Seattle’s citizens consider the ducks one of the most obnoxious tourist attractions they have, but my guess is that Seattle police look the other way when they see a duck coming down the street.

When our driver returned us to Westlake Park, we jumped on the monorail to get a ride to Seattle Center, the park surrounding the Space Needle. The monorail is a leftover from the 1962 World’s Fair, just like the Space Needle. It probably seemed like the height of space-age technology when it was built, all chrome and plexiglass, riding a single concrete rail from downtown Seattle to the park and back, and it still has a distinctive space-age look, but in a retro-kitchy way, same as Googie architecture. Each monorail train is really one long, open car with bench seats from front to back on the inside. Actually, it has no front or back; it’s a two-headed monster. When it gets to the Space Needle, the driver gets up and walks the length of the train to the other end where he sit down in an identical driver’s seat for the trip back. It bumps and rattles along its track and makes you wonder to yourself, If this is space-age, how did we ever land on the moon? But what’s important is that the monorail just looks space-age. It can’t transport you to the future.

The Needle, now, that thing has the space-age look down cold. I doubt there’s a better example of space-age architecture anywhere. It was closed for a private party, but we just had to be there today. Who goes to Seattle and doesn’t want to see the Space Needle right away? There wasn’t much at Seattle Center still open at that hour, so we just walked around a bit to get the lay of the land, then rode the monorail back to the city center, wondering how rich you gotta be to be able to rent the Space Needle for your very own private party.

It was time for a beer. B picked the Elysium Bar, serving beer from the local Elysium Brewery. I was expecting a brewpub, not the very swanky bar we walked into. The hostess could barely conceal an expression that told me she was thinking, “Where am I going to seat these hayseeds so the regulars won’t see them?”

We just wandered the streets for about an hour after that to see what there was in the neighborhood of the hotel, ending up down by the Public Market again, mostly empty and quiet by that time.

For dinner we stopped at a joint called Serious Pie for some gourmet pizza. Really. Gourmet pizza? I had my doubts at first. What could you do to pizza that would make it better than it already is? And the place looked kinda frou-frou, like a gentrified dairy barn with lots of exposed beams and trestle tables that the customers were seated at community-style. When our pizza was served and I took my first bite, though, my opinion of gourmet pizza joints, or at least this particular one, improved considerably, and it got better with each bite. That was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. B loved it so much she said we were going to have to go back before we left, and I didn’t argue.

We picked up a bottle of wine from a corner store on the way back to the hotel and sipped it from plastic cups in front of the TV before lights out. The shows still sucked, even with the wine.

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Monday, September 29th, 2014

Monday was our one and only rainy day on this trip. We were watching the forecasts for Portland and Seattle with great interest in the weeks leading up to our departure, and right up until the final days they confirmed that what anybody and everybody will say to you if you tell them you’re going to the Pacific Northwest on vacation: “I hope you like lots of rain.” In both cities, no less an authority than the National Weather Service said that we could expect rain and not much else. The icon over every single day was a dark cloud with rain falling beneath it, and sometimes a lightning bolt or two.

And then, the day before we left, the forecast changed to “partly cloudy” and all the icons were switched to blue skies full of puffy white clouds. Huh. How about that?

It wasn’t all sunshine and lollypops while we were in Portland. On Monday, we stepped into the streets from our B&B to meet with gunmetal skies and a light drizzle that became more like actual rain once or twice later in the day, but for the most part it just drizzled on and off, mostly off.

We ate breakfast in Old Town at a diner that called itself The Good Earth. Sounds a little like it ought to be one of those places filled with hippies eating granola sourced from only farms that are certified organic and guaranteed non-GMO, right?  Nothing of the sort. Just a pleasant diner serving good food. The staff taking orders and bringing out the food were really nice people, too, which counts for a lot in my experience. Serve the greatest food in town, but if your customers don’t like the staff, your place isn’t going to last long. Happily, The Good Earth is not going to have any problems in that regard. After they brought our food they came back to check on us with coffee pot in hand to refresh our cups. Bonus points.

After breakfast and before we hit the streets to go exploring, B wanted to buy a pair of good walking shoes. The slip-ons she had been wearing were giving her some trouble. A Google search told her that there was a good shoe store in a mall nearby, so off we went.   went shopping for walking shoes & ended up buying the first ones she tried on, walked about five blocks before she was sure she hated them, and she kept on hating them for the remainder of the trip.

How To Pee at Powells Books Portland ORBecause it was still raining, we went to Powell’s Books next to hang out for a couple hours, because it got us out of the rain and besides, who can get enough of Powell’s? People with meat for brains, that’s who. I kept wandering the aisles even after B retired to the coffee shop with a novel. I think I may even have visited every room on every floor. Not one-hundred percent certain of that.

Did you know there is literally a book about any subject you can think of? I don’t know if they have all of them at Powell’s, but while I was perusing the books in the section of the store reserved for books about Portland, I ran across a copy of “The Best Places To Pee: A Guide To The Funky & Fabulous Bathrooms of Portland.” Somebody had to think of writing that book, someone else had to agree to publish that book, and then Powell’s agreed to sell that book. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at the meeting where the author’s agent pitched that book, just to see how he pulled that off and whether or not alcohol was involved.

We almost went to Voodoo Doughnuts today, but only almost. Not that we were craving doughnuts; it just seemed like one of those things we were expected to do while visiting Portland, but after waiting too long for a bus that never came (twice), we switched our plan up and instead headed north to the train station to buy tickets for our trip to Seattle tomorrow morning. Here’s a stupid thing: the buses and streetcars make a loop that passes within a hundred feet of the train station, but they don’t stop there. They stop about a block and a half away, and you have to get off and walk from there. Thanks, Portland. I’ll remember that when you come to Madison.

When we got off the bus, a guy stretched out on the pavement asked us for twenty bucks. The train station is where the high-rent hobos hang out, apparently. No spare change for these guys. I’ve got to give him credit for aiming high.

Riding the train from Portland to Seattle is stupidly cheap, thirty-six bucks for each of us. The bus may be cheaper, but if we went with that option, we would be on a bus and not on a train. A train is way cool because it’s a train and not a bus. If that seems like a circular argument to you, it’s probably because you’re not a train nerd. All the train nerds are nodding and saying to themselves, “Yes, that makes perfect sense.” My Darling B is not a train nerd but she went along with the train idea because it made me happy and because it wasn’t a bus. She’ll get on a bus for some things, but mostly she doesn’t like bus travel all that much, so maybe you don’t have to be a train nerd to understand our motives after all.

Beer Menu Henry's Tavern Portland ORI was about three o’clock by the time we got back to the Pearl District, so we were ready for some local beer and noshies. Henry’s Tavern was handy, so B & I ducked inside to put our feet up for a little while and relax with the delicious cold brews they brought us. We also shared a plate of the most unhealthy fries ever conceived by the mind of a man: waffle-cut, deep-fried and smothered in gorgonzola cheese, but sooo good, and they made our tummies very happy. B’s feet even felt better (although that could have been because she slipped into her old shoes under the table).

There was one last special place B had on her must-see list, and we wended our way there next: The Oregon Wines tasting room on Broadway. We each got to try a splash of three different wines and, of course, B snuck a little snort of each of mine while I grabbed a few of hers. That’s the way it is in this family.

Aerial Tram Portland OR

We had an early train to catch, so we started back to the B&B, but on the way we stopped for the last item on my to-do list: A ride on the aerial tram. Again, it’s a nerd thing, sort of. For me, it was a way cool ride on a mode of transportation that we don’t have back in Madison, but it’s got the added bonus of giving us a terrific view. Even B seemed to enjoy hanging over the rail at the top and having a long look.

pacnw day 4 | 10:00 pm CST
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Sunday, September 28th, 2014

B&O at Washington Park Portland ORB & I took the train west from Portland city center to Washington Park in the morning after breakfast. Washington Park is not a city park like the one on PSU campus we visited yesterday. That was a wide, green lawn with some tall trees, an island of serenity in the middle of a fairly large city. Washington Park, on the other hand, was a rising group of wooded hills at the southernmost end of a chain of parks that runs through the western edge of Portland, stretching north to south along the Willamette River. And though Washington Park was something of a brief coda at the end of those parks, it was still impressively substantial. We could have spent all four days of our visit to Portland rambling along the trails of Washington Park and we would have seen only a teeny-tiny part of it. That’s how big it is. I mean, it’s big. Really big.

We weren’t really there, however, to take in all its bigness. All we wanted to do this morning was have a little stroll around the Japanese Garden, or maybe the Rose Garden, depending on our moods. We weren’t sure which just yet. We were going to get there first, wander around a bit, then decide. While we were deciding, we took a little ramble through the park of the park where the Vietnam veteran’s memorial sits.

The memorial is in a little natural amphitheater with high pines surrounding it on the hilltops above. In the middle there’s a fountain in a pool, and a long, winding path spirals up out of the amphitheater around the pool. At intervals along the path there are granite monuments engraved with the names of the dead, a classic war memorial. I used to go out of my way to visit these things, but I’m kind of meh on them now. There are always going to be wars, but I’m not as gung-ho about them as I used to be. Seemed to me then as if there might be a point to it, but I have a much more difficult time seeing it now.

We ambled up the trail out of the amphitheater and then into the park, heading in no particular direction, although we wanted to end up at the road where we could catch the bus to the Japanese Gardens. By whatever lucky chance, we did end up there. The bus wasn’t due to come along for quite a while, so we spent a little time wandering here and there, waiting on a bench in the shade of a low tree, walking down the road and back up again, and finally standing at the bus stop until the bus finally showed up and took us around the park to drop us off at the gate of the Japanese Gardens.

International Rose Test Gardens Portland ORTurns out the Japanese Gardens charge admission, something we overlooked every single one of the dozen or so times we Googled it. The entrance fee was more than we were willing to pay, and especially so considering that the bathrooms were out of order, so we ditched the Gardens and went to the International Rose Test Gardens instead.

I honestly don’t know why they’re considered “international” or what they’re testing there, but there is one very important thing I know, and that is that admission is free. Also, there are roses. The place is lousy with them. Not the most complimentary comparison, I know, but really, there’s no direction you can turn and not see roses. Even a guy like me, who’s not easily impressed by flowers, was kind of amazed at how many of them could be crowded into a few acres. And the smell was purty.

We hung out there for a good long time, strolling from one garden to another, but believe it or not there’s only so much you can take of purty-smellin’ roses, no matter how many there in all the colors of the rainbow. Eventually, we found ourselves a nice bench in the shade to rest our butts on again and plot our next move. It was getting late enough to start thinking about where we would eat dinner. I didn’t have an opinion about it until B said something about ramen and a restaurant called Umai PDX. It sounded like a pretty good idea all of a sudden, so off we went in search of the bus that would take us there.

I can tell you it’s the #15 bus and you’re supposed to catch it somewhere in the vicinity of Providence Park. I can also tell you that you’ll wait for-freaking-ever and you’ll never see it.  Two #15 buses went the other way while we were standing there waiting for the one that was going in our direction, and I got the funny feeling as the second one went by that maybe we should have gotten on one of them just to see if maybe it wouldn’t loop around and take us where we wanted to go, but it was too late by then; Umai was closed.

Because we had ramen on our mind, we tried to catch the #20 bus next to a place called Biwa. The stop was just a block away, easy to get to and it seemed there might even be some hope it would eventually arrive, but after waiting for 20 minutes, B started Googling around to see when exactly we could get there and which stop we should get off and that’s when she realized Biwa didn’t open until 5 pm, an hour and a half from then.

We decided we were too hungry to wait for Biwa, so it was back to Providence Park to catch the streetcar to Boxer Ramen. There was even a streetcar coming down the hill as we approached, so we parked ourselves next to the track and waited. And waited. And when the streetcar didn’t turn the corner to pick us up, I asked B to wait while I did a little recon. That’s how I found out that we were waiting on the wrong side of the block! The tracks split and we were apparently waiting on the return loop, so we both went around the block and waited another fifteen or twenty minutes for the next streetcar. And that’s how we spent almost two hours near Providence Park waiting for transportation before we finally caught a ride to Southwest Park Street, eight blocks from Providence Park. We could’ve walked there on our hands faster than that.

I’m not sure the ramen at Boxer Ramen is worth waiting two hours for, but then I can’t say that the ramen at any place I’ve ever been, except maybe Cheese Rool Noodle, would be worth waiting two hours for. If you take the frustration of waiting two hours for three different mass transit options out of the equation, I would have to say that Boxer Ramen serves a pretty delicious bowl of ramen, and leave the rest up to you.

After filling ourselves with noodles and broth, B wanted to get a beer at Portland Brewing Co., a brewpub on the northwest side of town. Once again, we waited for the #15 bus long enough that we could have caught two #15s if they had arrived at the posted times. About five minutes after the second one was supposed to be there, I suggested to B that we go to BridgePort Brewing instead, mostly because it was on a streetcar line and not the phantom #15 bus line.

My Darling B at Salt & Straw Portland ORThe streetcar took us to a rather frou-frou neighborhood just north of Old Town, where lots of warehouses had been remodeled into lofts and were mixed with new industrial chic construction. I couldn’t decide of Bridgeport was in an old warehouse, or if the building was in new construction that was built to look like an old warehouse. And once we were on the loading dock with a couple beers in our hands, relaxing in the cool evening air, I didn’t care much anymore.

When we had finally had enough relaxation and beer, My Darling B craved ice cream. Well, it was a vacation, after all. We walked around the block to catch a bus that, for once, showed up on time and took us a few blocks further on to Salt & Straw, a humongously popular ice cream shop in a residential neighborhood that was so incredibly upscale that my khaki pants and t-shirt featuring the logo of a Midwest brewery fit right in with the Banana Republic cargo pants and brewery t-shirts that the other guys were wearing. It was weird blending in to a place like this. But we were there for ice cream and nothing else, so we had to fool the locals just long enough to make it through the door and then get out of there.

There was quite a line waiting to get into Salt & Straw. The place got rave reviews on all the web sites we Googled, but we weren’t quite expecting to see the crowds we found thronging the place when we got there. The line wrapped around the corner and we waited maybe twenty minutes to snake our way in and finally get to the counter to order, but the ice cream was every bit as good as the hype made it out to be. We sat on a bench along the street, ooohing and aaahing as we slurped up the creamy goodness from our waffle cones. This is one of those must-visit places if ever your in Portland.

For only the second or third time that day, the bus showed up on time and took us back to our B&B. It even stopped at the right street this time so we didn’t have to backtrack three blocks at a trot, hoping we’d get there before we wet our pants.

pacnw day 3 | 9:49 pm CST
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Saturday, September 27th, 2014

B on PSU campusSaturday morning, after we showered and made ourselves all pretty, we joined another couple, Jennifer and Jason, in the dining room for breakfast. There were other people staying in the B&B, but we were the only ones who asked for a hot breakfast. Jennifer and Jason, who I keep wanting to ship to “Jennison,” drove down from Washington state for the weekend to see Tears For Fears, one of their favorite pop music bands in concert at the Waterfront Park. Since they were from Washington, we asked them what there was to do in Seattle and one of the first things that came to their minds was the restaurant in Post Alley that serves clam chowder. Now, here’s a couple after our own hearts.

The Saturday market is a living scene out of almost any movie about a post-apocalyptic distopian society living in a tent city. As we wandered from tent to tent, the smell exotic foods and spices alternated with the smell of urine, then back to exotic foods and spices. Smoke filled the air, some of it from regular cigarettes, some from funny cigarettes. About half the crowd was dressed in military surplus clothing that would have been called “punk” back when I wore clothes like that (I wasn’t punk, I just liked military clothing). The punkers carried backpacks that appeared to be stuffed with all their possessions in the world, and I’m pretty sure that no less than every third one had skateboards under their arms. Occasionally a punker would stop me to ask if I would give him money. I would not.

Tourists were just as easy to spot: They were dressed in blue jeans or track clothes, wandered around with dazed half-smiles on their faces, and none of them asked me for money. There was one tourist who didn’t look like the rest: a geneticist from the Czech Republic we met while standing in line to sample a stout from Rogue Brewing. We learned he was a geneticist because he was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Campbells-style soup can labeled “Mendel’s Hereditary Pea Soup” and My Darling B wanted one just like it so bad that she asked him. Unfortunately for B, he said he got it from the Gregor Mendel museum in Brno. Kind of a long way to go for a t-shirt, no matter how much you like Mendel or genetics.

The Saturday market is not a farmer’s market; there’s food and drink, but it’s mostly lots and lots of crafty & kitschy items for sale – tie-dye shirts, trolls carved out of drift wood, belts of all colors and belt buckles of all sizes & shapes, hand-thrown pottery, framed photos & paintings, and just about any other thing you can think of. The actual farmer’s market, where they were selling fruits and veggies and things made out of fruit and veggies, was taking place on the Portland State University campus, and My Darling B wanted to visit that, too, so we jumped on the streetcar and rode it across town.

farmer's market at PSU Portland OR

The PSU campus was a whole ‘nother world from the Mad Max weirdness along the waterfront. Nobody there was wearing military surplus clothing or skateboarding on your toes. Nobody asked me for money. I never once caught a whiff of urine. There was freshly-prepared, non-GMO organic food everywhere. We could have passed an entire morning stuffing ourselves silly with samples of breads, sausages, veggies and fruits. Next time.

After wandering through as much of the farmer’s market as we could, we walked down to the end of the park to catch the streetcar back to the waterfront. Here’s a funny thing about Portland: Drivers will stop for you when you go to cross the street. We noticed this yesterday when we followed a native Portlandian as he crossed the street to the bus stop and three lanes of highway traffic stopped for us. I’m pretty sure that anyone from Portland would be run over by a truck within fifteen minutes of being plopped down anywhere in Madison because he’d step off a curb thinking that all traffic would come to a halt. No chance of that.

We rode the streetcar to the vicinity of the Marquam Bridged where we thought we’d find the Full Sail brewpub. It’s almost there. They’ve got a storefront with their logo etched on the windows, and when I peered inside it looked like the place was plumbed for some heavy-duty waterworks, but there was definitely no beer being made there yet, nor would there be for quite some time.

This threw our schedule off a bit. Unsure what to do next, but having no where in particular to be, we wandered north up the waterfront and accidentally came upon Hempstalk 2014, where about a thousand honest-to-jah tie-dyed hippies in dreadlocks were doing their part to reinforce the popular stoner stereotype. Great job, guys!

Hair Of The Dog Brewpub Portland OR

Just past Hempstalk, we crossed the Hawthorne Bridge into what was once an industrial neighborhood but appears to be fast becoming a Brooklyized suburb of Portland. Five blocks north of the bridge we stopped at Hair Of The Dog Brewery, where the beers all seem to have first names – Adam, Ruth, Greg, Bob, Lila. The brewers explain most of the names on the brewery’s web site. B was happy that there were a lot to sample that weren’t hoppy; she’s a sensitive flower and gets overpowered by hoppy beers. She can smell the hops in most beers before she gets the glass to her lips, and she doesn’t like the scent of most hops. There must be a variety out there with an aroma she will like, but I’m still trying to find it. I liked the variety and tried as many different beers as my palate could handle; probably more than it could handle, come to that. My samples included everything from the hoppiest ale to the darkest stout. And we ordered a plate of sausage & cheese to nosh on while we drank, so the taste buds in both our mouths got quite a workout at this, our first stop for refreshments today.

There was some discussion about how to get to the stop for the bus that would take us to our next destination, and some dispute over who found it. I think I kept us going in the right direction, but B claims that she found the magical staircase that took us up to Morrison Bridge, where the bus would actually stop. Whatever, we got there, the bus arrived on time and we were on our way without delay.

We were probably the only people at the Cascade Brewing Barrel House who were there to drink beer that was not sour. As soon as we caught sight of the sign out front, proclaiming this as “the house of sour,” we debated whether or not we should even go in. Sour beer is the new trend in craft beers. In the same way that craft brewers have been tying themselves in knots for years trying to out-hop one another, they are now trying to make beers so sour that you will pucker your face all the way down your own throat.

Sour beer is not our thing; on this, My Darling B and I are united. However, Cascade did offer two beers that were not sours, and we did come all this way, so we ordered samplers of those two and gave them a try. Not bad, but it was apparent these were not the beers they had a passion for making. I wish them well with their passion. They may have made the sourest of sour beers that ever went sour, but we’ll never know.

sampling a Buckman braggot at Green Dragon Right across the street, and I mean literally right across the street, there’s the Green Dragon, a tavern with a wonderful beer garden and dizzying array of beers on tap. There was also what looked like an impressive brewery set up in the back, although there was nothing called Green Dragon beer on tap. It turns out several different brewers used the premises to make their beers, one of them being Buckman Brewery. We tried as many samples of their brews as we thought we could handle: Mistly Pale Ale and Buck Ginger Pale Ale, both crisp but a little too hoppy for B’s taste; a fresh hop mead, whatever that is (my notes weren’t very clear on this and I can’t find it online); and two braggots – Black Braggot and Super Braggot. I’d never had a braggot before. A blend of beer and mead, it’s like a beer with a bit more body and zip. B & I both liked it.

The Lucky Labrador

The Lucky Labrador was our last stop of the day before we headed back to the B&B, and really we were there for soup and sandwiches more than the beer, which was still good. I liked the beer hall atmosphere and kind of wish we had been in a mood to stay longer and enjoy it, but by this time we’d spent hours tramping all over Portland and really weren’t. We ate our sammies and washed them down with our beers, and then we caught the first bus out of there.

The bus driver either didn’t see our signal to stop or we pulled the cord too late. B is sure we weren’t too late pulling the cord but whatever went wrong, we had to backtrack two or three blocks to the street our B&B was on after the bus went singing up the road past our stop. And we had to do it at a trot; the thirty-minute bus ride had exceeded the ability of our bladders to comfortably hold on to the beer we were ready to off-load.

B sat up and read her novel for a little while after we got back. She said I was enthusiastically sawing logs just a few minutes after I laid my head on the pillow.

pacnw day 2 | 9:37 pm CST
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Friday, September 26th, 2014

We thought we were making pretty good time to the airport, but it turned out we weren’t: We arrived shortly after 4:30 am and got through security by 4:45 am – not enough time, unfortunately, before the announced 5:00 am boarding time for us to kick off our annual vacation to the farthest reaches of the known world (aka the Continental United States) in our most traditional manner, breakfast sammies chased by a couple of bloody Marys at the Great Dane brewpub.

And even if we’d had enough time, the Great Dane was experiencing a few technical glitches that would have prevented them from obliging us. They were serving complimentary coffee only because the people at the cafe across the hall let them borrow a couple big insulated pump-carafes, or whatever they’re really called. We grabbed two cups to go and tried to sip them as we hurried to the other end of the terminal, but that didn’t work out too well, and to avoid having to fly all the way to Portland soaked in coffee we’d managed to splash all over ourselves, we nonchalantly dropped our cups in the garbage and speed-walked through the airport.

With high hopes, we boarded our plane. Frontier Airlines promised us when we bought our tickets – promised us! that there would be free drinks on the plane, but if we’d read the small print we would have learned that they ended their free drinks policy the week before we started our trip. Bummer, again.

Grabbed a banana and some OJ while waiting at Denver International Airport. Just wasn’t the same. Heavy sigh.

The only available seats on the flight from Denver to Portland were singles, but the nice lady at the boarding gate changed seats around so we could sit together, so there’s one other good thing that happened to us in an airport today. Still no free drinks on the plane, though. Gripe, gripe, gripe.

As the plane was getting ready to depart Denver, we overheard a couple of the flight attendants saying that a fire at a Chicago air traffic control building had forced airports all across the Midwest to shut down. Suddenly the no-drinks policy didn’t seem like such a big deal. We got out of Dodge just in the nick of time!

The taxi ride from the Portland airport to the B&B was pretty dull. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just that we’re used to a much more, shall we say, thrilling experience. Other cabbies seem to have trouble dividing their attention between driving and talking, for instance, and end up wandering from lane to lane, or narrowly missing a collision. Cabbies in Portland, by contrast, are deliberate, careful and not very chatty at all. Thanks, Portland cabbies!

The driver who picked us up at the airport had some kind of Slavic accent and at first didn’t seem to understand our directions, but when we offered to repeat them he waved us off, saying, “Okay, okay, okay!” Swell, I thought. Here we go on a scenic tour of the city, and fired up Google maps on my smart phone to see where he was taking us so I’d be able to call for help. Damned if he didn’t drive a beeline across town straight to the street our B&B was on. Okay! Okay! Okay!

While we were in Portland, we stayed at a B&B that was different from all the other B&B’s we’ve ever stayed at in that it hadn’t been all dolled up; it was just a great big house with lots of rooms upstairs. No themes, no showcases or shelves heaped with nick-knacks, just a big house with clean rooms at a decent price. I would recommend it if I didn’t think people would be disappointed that there wasn’t at least a collection of old tintype toys in the parlor.

After dropping our bags off at the B&B, we found the bus stop and rode into town, our destination being the Deschutes brewpub in the Pearl District of downtown Portland. We were starving for some grub and, well, it just so happened that they also brewed beer there, so we figured we’d try some of their beer too. If we had to. But when we got there, we found it wouldn’t be open for almost twenty minutes, so with time to kill we doubled back one block to Powell’s Bookstore.

All we were going to do was take a quick look around to see if it was as fabulous as we thought it would be, and OH. MY. GOD. It was more fabulous! I wandered further and further away from the lobby, getting flashbacks to the days and weeks we used to spend wandering the aisles of The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. When I realized how far away I’d gone, I doubled back to find My Darling B, but she had apparently wandered away, too, so I walked up to one of the many desks where the staff sat waiting to help people like me and asked, “If I were a used hardcover copy of The Caine Mutiny, where would I be?” The young lady behind the counter punched the name into her computer and asked, “Is that the one by Herman … Wouwulk?” (She couldn’t figure out how to pronounce “Wouk.”) (To tell the truth, I’ve never been able to, either.) Long story short, I walked out with a copy of The Caine Mutiny that very night, and not just any copy but a hardcover of the first printing with the original dust jacket, wrapped in cellophane. Squeee! That was literally THE book I most wanted to find at Powell’s.

B&O at Deschutes Brewery Portland ORWhen I finally caught up with B again we both really badly needed something to eat and drink, and it was past time for Deschutes to open, so out the door we went. The brewpub was just a block from Powell’s, so we didn’t have to walk far to satisfy any of our cravings. Before we even glanced at the menus, we ordered tasters from the tap list, a pretty slick move on our part, I gotta say. They served a half-dozen on a time, served on a wooden paddle with numbers seared into the little cutouts that held the glasses, each number matching a number on the drinks list so you could tell what you were sampling. This is why drinking beer is so much fun.

The food, it has to be said, was delicious, too, or maybe it was just that we were so hungry and the beer was making us happily relaxed. No. It was good food. It was bar food, sure, but good bar food. B had an elk burger, because what else are you going to have when there’s elk burger on the menu, and I had the special, something marinated pork something, and ate every bit of it. Gad, that was good.

We took a stroll around the neighborhood after lunch, partly to get the lay of the land and partly to walk off the food and beer. Or maybe it was the other way around. Whatever. We ended up walking along one of the main thoroughfares in this part of town, West Burnside Street, and I figured out (by Googling “portland sign”) that the big “Portland Oregon” sign we saw on the way into town was on top of a building next to the Burnside bridge, so we kept on going.

Well. The stretch of Burnside leading up to the bridge is in quite a colorful part of town, let me tell you. Leaving out the dozens of people laying on the sidewalk, almost all of whom want to know how much money you’ve got in your pockets (is it just me, or is that creepy as hell?), there are a number of establishments offering to satisfy your desire to stare openmouthed at women who have the skill set to work in a place called “Pussycats Live Nude Review.” And standing just outside these places are men talking about the show. Not barkers trying to talk you into going inside, just guys – they were all guys – talking about the show in no uncertain terms. We hurried past.

A little further up, closer to the bridge and on the north side of the street, is the entrance to Chinatown, flanked by stone dragons guarding either side of a tori gate that has seen better times. Lots more people were camping out on the pavement in front of the boarded-up shop fronts. We got the feeling that Portland’s Chinatown has seen better times.

B&O at the white stag sign Portland ORTo go the final hundred yards up the ramp to the bridge we had to step over a dozen or two more campers before we were finally, finally far enough up the road to snap a couple selfies with the sign in the background.

Just to fill space here, I’ll tell you that the sign has only recently been changed (in 2010, according to Wikipedia) to read “Portland Oregon,” and that it seems to be known most widely as the White Stag sign, after the sportsware maker that used to occupy the building under the sign. Not that we knew that when we took the photo. We just wanted something to remember Portland by, and the sign looked too cool as we rode the taxi into town.

It was getting on in the afternoon by this time and we needed a pick-me-up. B did a little Googling – we love our smartypants phones – and discovered there was a cafe run by Stumptown Coffee Roasters not far from the bridge. All she had to say was that it was one of the places in Portland that we had to check off our list and I was in it!

Our route to Stumptown took us past a Voodoo Doughnut shop. This was also one of those places that visitors to Portland feel they absolutely must check off their list. We saw more tourists with pink Voodoo Doughnut boxes than we saw homeless people; that’s a lot! But we were still full from Deschutes, and I didn’t feel like standing in a line for doughnuts, even if they were infused with more testosterone than a teenaged boy. Honestly, a hot espresso sounded much more enticing right then.

Stumptown didn’t disappoint. I’m no espresso connoisseur, but I liked what they were serving. B was happy with the chai latte, too, although they didn’t do much with the foam art at this particular place, I have to say. I don’t know from beans, but I know they’re supposed to draw a leaf or something on top.

Our pick-me-up gave us the steam to get back to Powell’s, this time for an extended visit. We both wandered the stacks until about five o’clock, picking out a few choice books for souvenirs. B bought a cookbook so big, there are killer asteroids that can only dream of having the mass of this book so they can smash planets to rubble. I found a set of Time-Life books about the moon landings that were almost as big and heavy. Powell’s shipped them all back home for about twenty-two cents. I don’t know how they do that, but wow.

We wanted to stop for a beer before we went back to the B&B and the guy behind the cash register at Powell’s recommended Bailey’s Taproom, which looked pretty cool but was jammed full of people when we got there. Right across the street, though, we found several tables open at Tugboat Brewing Co., a microbrew serving some yummy brown ales and stouts. The place doesn’t get a lot of love on Yelp but we thought it was just the place to rest our weary bones for a half-hour or so after walking all over downtown Portland.

We at dinner on the back porch of Caro Amico, a little neighborhood restaurant not far from the B&B. Cozy place, good food, and they’ll let you take the rest of the wine home if you don’t finish the bottle. A+++ would definitely slurp up a bowl of spaghetti there again.

pacnw day 1 | 9:36 pm CST
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Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

salmon7Let’s Go To The Shimoda Salmon Festival With The O-Family!

I think it was only a week or two after we got here, but that could be my addled memory making a hash again out of everything I’ve ever seen. Anyway, we heard about the salmon festival, where you pay a couple hundred yen to get in, put on some waterproof boots – well, you didn’t have to, but it would’ve been a good idea – and when they blow the whistle and release the salmon, all you’ve got to do is bend down and grab one. Simple, right?

salmon2Like so many things that sound simple, this event was a circus.

I think it’s one of those crazy ideas that city commissioners come up with in board meetings, then laugh themselves silly as they watch the gullible boobs slosh around in the freezing water, getting soaking wet and holding up their prize salmon as if they’d bagged a charging rhinocerous.

Okay, I’m being way too harsh. Actually, we all had a lot of fun, and we even took our salmon home and ate them, so I’d have to say that we had a really good time. Once.

Here, Barb and Sean squelch their way across a two-inch wide causeway made out of milk baskets. The water’s only six inches deep, but it’s cold as ice.

salmon4And here’s the prize! A genuine, live, wet, cold salmon, fighting mad and all too willing to slap you right in the face if you don’t watch yourself. I can’t be certain – it’s my trick memory again – but I think we all dropped each of our fish, and had to grab another one. If we ever did this again, and I’m not insinuating for a moment that we would, I think I would just take pictures of the boys, and I’m pretty sure Barb would be cheering them on from the refreshments tent, with a hot bowl of ramen in her hands.

salmon1And That’s All From The O-Family At The Shimoda Salmon Festival! [This has been another Geocities flashback.]

Shimoda salmon festival | 5:58 am CST
Category: My Darling B, O'Folks, Seanster, T-Dawg, travel
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Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Just yesterday, Tim was asking me about our trip to Ireland: Where we went, what we did, will we ever eat smoked salmon as great as that again? I could easily answer the last question (sadly, no), but to answer the first two questions I had to dredge the backwaters of my memory, hardly the most reputable place to find the kind of facts he was looking for.

Way, way back in the dimmest beginnings of the internet (we’re talking Geocities; remember Geocities?) I threw up some web pages with our travel photos and what I thought of at the time as witty commentary for the folks back home to look at. Just for the hell of it I asked The Great Google if there was any vestige of those pages still out there and, what the hell, there was! All of the pages for our trip to Ireland were there, but two of the photos had gone missing: One photo was the introductory page, and I have no idea what that looked like. The other photo is described below in the original text from the web pages.

So this one’s for you, Tim. Here, without further delay, are the photos with the original, unaltered text. I hope they’ll provide some of the answers to the questions you had, because it’s about all that I’m able to provide, with the help of my internet memory.

[Added: I found the original photos in an album and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I’d written the date of our visit on the backs: April 2000.]

The Ofamily at TarbertSome time around the turn of the century, Barb’s great-grandfather, Arthur Marshall, left his family in Tarbert to emigrate to the United States, and for some time now she’s wanted to kick around the old ancestral land. Since our first full day in Ireland was wet, we decided a long car trip to Tarbert would be just the thing. We had no idea what we’d find when we got there. The town hardly gets a mention in any guide book, and then only because they have a jail that they’ve turned into a museum. As it turns out, about the only thing in Tarbert worth showing anybody is my lovely family posed by the sign on the edge of town. They look happy because they haven’t seen Tarbert yet. The place amounts to a t-junction with several pubs and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I’ll leave you to think about the implications of that juxtaposition.

Torc FallWe managed to squeeze all the wild excitements of Tarbert and drive all the way back to Killarney in time for lunch. As we still had plenty of daylight, we all piled back into the car to have a drive into Killarney National Park to see the sights. The first sight we saw was a cave I don’t remember the name of and which I don’t have pictures of anyway, so why do you care, right? It was a cave. Think of Batman.

The pictures I do have from that outing, though, I took while we were having a bimble up the valley that Torc Fall cuts through. Nobody on earth could have designed a waterfall more perfectly laid out for tourists that Torc Fall. There’s a big car park right beside the road, and the falls are only about a hundred yards up the path. I imagine in the height of the tourist season this place is thronged, but today the rain discouraged them, so we didn’t have to fight through much of a crowd. They were thickest when we were already coming back down the hill, where I stopped to snap this shot of the boys with the falls behind them. That’s Sean to the left of the couple holding hands, Tim to the right. Like you can see them.

Torc Fall ViewWe lucked out just about everywhere we went that day. Every time we stepped out of the car, it had just stopped raining. While we were having a walk around, no rain. Then, each time we got back to the car, usually just as we were opening the doors, it started to rain, and kept on raining until just before we got to our next stop. I can’t explain it, but I’m not complaining.

As the weather was being so kind to us, and there were quite a few pathways to explore in Killarney National Park, we took a short hike up the valley to see the source of Torc Fall. Never found it. We did find this view, which is a great deal more spectacular if you’re gazing upon it in person with your own wet eyeballs, and not staring blankly at a web page on a computer monitor, but this is the best I can to do for you, sorry. The city of Killarney is in the distant right background, beyond the lakes of Killarney National Park. A gorgeous mountain range is immediately off the left edge of the picture. Too bad you can’t see it.

Ladies' ViewOne more shot from Killarney National Park, this time a photo of what they now call Ladies’ View, so named because Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting were so utterly dazzled by this sight they could hardly tear themselves away. It must have been pretty dull to be a lady-in-waiting. I imagine they had better weather, too. We stopped here for quite a while, had a tramp around the rocks, ducked into the Ladies’ View tourist shop, and so on, but the majesty of the place didn’t quite strike us the way other places did. Might’ve had something to do with the thirty-knot headwind or occassional showers. And that’s just about all we saw around the national park; we spent the rest of our time chasing tourist busses in our car, and I know you can’t wait to hear about that, so if you’re still with me, let’s click on to the next page …

green hills of IrelandThis is the kind of scene you expect to see when you think of Ireland, isn’t it? We had miles and miles of this when we finally went out to tour the Dingle Penninsula on Tuesday. (I’ll wait a moment while you finish chuckling over the name ‘Dingle Penninsula.’ Done? Okay.) The sky was clear and blue, the temps were warm, the most gentle of breezes beckoned us to get out and walk whereever we went, and every picture I took that day was a post card — I know you don’t want to look at post card after post card. As pretty as these scenes are, they all kind of run together after a dozen or so. I’ll offer you a few here, though, just so you can sort of get the flavor of the day. I don’t remember where I took this, but I know it was on Dingle (Yes? What’s so funny in the back, there?), possibly in the area of Slea Head, where we stopped several times to walk around — or it might be in the area of Inch, our first stop of the day. Don’t remember. Spent more time trying to soak up the sun and the sights than paying any attention to what I was taking pictures of.

snowy mountains of IrelandThis, on the other hand, is typically not what I imagine when I think of Ireland. Looks more like Japan to me. But Ireland it is, honest. This is off a beach in Smerwick Harbor, on the north shore of Dingle. We were looking for the rolling heads. According to the guide book, there was a massacre on this site back when they used to do that kind of thing in Ireland, and to commemorate the event (I think that’s the right word), an artist with a fat government grant sculpted dozens of severed heads and scattered them up and down the hillside. Or so says the guidebook. We saw no heads, and although this stunning view made up for it, we were still rather disappointed.

Tim at Inch Strand IrelandBacktracking just a bit, this is a shot of Inch Strand, the beach at Inch that runs right round and out into the harbor. It’s very, very long, very wide, rather tidy, and soft enough to invite you to run barefoot, with of course Tim had to do almost immediately. This was our first stop of the day and we couldn’t have asked for a better place with better weather. There was even a tea shop on the beach. Tim started a shell collection here that I believe is still rattling around in his jacket pockets. The rest of us just collected sand. We stayed about as long as we could stand the tourists, then squeeked out between a pair of tour busses and an oversized camper. The main roads that you see on the map are just wide enough for our car to slither between an oncoming tour bus and the stone walls that flank the road on both sides, but only if I clamp both hands around the steering wheel and shut my eyes so hard that tears spurt out. Barb was doing the same thing with her eyes, so I don’t think she caught on to what I was doing. It worked, right?

davebarbflatI’ll squeeze one more snap into this page to make your download really tiresome. Barb’s nephew Alex sent us a ‘Flat Stanley’ — a little cutout doll. Stanley likes to travel, the story goes, and he travels mostly through the mail. Alex sent him to us so he could get a little globe-trotting experience, and lucky for Stanley he arrived just as we were getting ready to head for Ireland, so he went much further than he knew he was going to go. We took lots of pictures of Stanley — way more, it turned out, than the huge number I already thought we were — but I’m not going to inflict that on you. This just happens to be a fairly good picture of Barb and I, and Stanley happens to be stuck to Barb’s fingers. Stanley’s also in the photo of Barb, Sean and Tim at the Leprechaun Crossing that you saw on the first page, by the way, but no way am I going to turn this into a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ competition. (Winner gets a piece of stinky piece of cheese by return of post.)

barbbeehiveHere’s Barb at the beehive huts, near Slea Head. These are supposed to be something like a thousand years old, constructed by hermits or religious devotees or somebody else who wanted to be very, very alone, didn’t care much where he lived and didn’t have a lot to build with. There are lots of flat stones lying all over the ground in Dingle, so these guys piled them up in a circle, like an igloo. Why these are called ‘beehive huts’ and not ‘stone igloos’ is beyond me, but I’m not on the tourist board, so it’s not my call. If you ask me, they look suspiciously like somebody rebuilt them a year or two ago, and it might just possibly have been the local farmer who charges a pound per sight-seeing tourist, or they might actually be a thousand years old and just look as though they’re remarkably clean and well-kept, especially for ruins that thousands of tourists tramp through every week.

dadseantimThe O-Men (trademark applied for) pause somewhere along the tourist circuit on the Dingle Penninsula to vogue for this stunning photograph. Ain’t we a bunch of studs? Especially the guy in the middle? Somebody in the peanut gallery has asked about the toupee. It’s a hat. I will never wear a toupee. You can hold me to that.

The tourist circuits around the three penninsulas in County Kerry are known as the Ring of Dingle (okay, that’s enough of that), the Ring of Kerry, and I forget the name of the other ring right now, but it’ll come to me, I promise. By unofficial agreement, the traffic on these rings moves in an anti-clockwise direction, but the guidebook doesn’t explain why, so I decided to go my own darned way and was feeling pretty good about making my own decision until we met a tour bus. They’re wide enough to take up the whole road and big enough to squish tourists who have the temerity to disreguard unofficial directives. So for crying out loud, if the guidebook suggests something, no matter how whacky, JUST DO IT!

dunquinnThis is a shot of Dunquinn — or Dunquin, or Dun Quin, I’m not sure. Everything in Ireland is spelled at least two different ways. Killarney is also Cill Airne, and everything is labelled in English and Irish. (Which is not Gaelic — that’s what the guidebook says, SO BELIEVE IT!) Since the English is also supplied it’s not a big deal, but there are one or two isolated spots where the road signs are in nothing but Irish, so if you haven’t been paying attention, driving can become a teensy bit more complicated than you bargained for.

As for Dunquinn, it’s a small harbor between Dunmore Head and Clogher Head, and features very prominently in the tourists shops this year because a well-known photographer (well-known to tourists) took an artsy-fartsy picture of a flock of sheep winding their way up the stair-step road you see snaking up the rocky point. I couldn’t arrange for the sheep, sorry.

staigueWe visited the Staigue Stone Fort on a rather rainy day and, wouldn’t you know it, unlike the beehive huts, there’s no roof! You can’t count on those stone-age guys for anything! The stone age must have been a very confusing time, because the Staigue fort doesn’t guard anything that we could see. It must have been just a place where the shepherds and beehive hut people could run into when rampaging bands of marauders landed on the penninsula to kick some heads.

This fort really is rather impressive, by the way. Unlike the beehive huts, the walls of the fort are something like ten feet thick and twelve feet high, and the fort’s defenders could climb up the stairways built into the walls to fend off marauders by bonking them with rocks or whatever the cutting edge of weapons technology was at the time. The small door you see to the right of the boys is a storage chamber built into the wall. If you want to see the fort, by the way, you’ve got to REALLY WANT TO SEE IT, because it’s at the end of a long, long one-lane sunken road that winds up a valley choked with sheep, which frequently step out onto the road to greet tourists in the friendly manner that all Irish sheep seem to have. And it’s on the south coast of the Iveragh Penninsula, on the Ring of Kerry — sorry, I jumped ahead without telling you.

(Photo missing)

Backing up to the Dingle Penninsula, this is a view from Connor Pass. For once, all the hype in the guide books is well-placed; this view will take your breath away on a clear day, and we had the clearest, warmest, most breath-taking day of the week when we were up there. We stopped for a quick late-afternoon lunch, and just to make the day perfect, some guy parked beside us, dug a set of bagpipes out of the boot of his car, and played a couple tunes. He wasn’t busking and he wasn’t from the tourist board, he just wanted to play his bagpipes at the top of Connor Pass. I know that’d really spoil the moment for some people, but I dearly love the sound of bagpipes, especially in the open air. Barb, by the way, is one of those people who can’t stand bagpipes. She’s the one with the Celtic blood, and I’m nothing but Slav. Go figure.

roadconnorI took lots of pictures of the roads as we were driving around the tourist circuits because they were so narrow, sunken between berms thickly covered in grass or flanked by high stone walls, and along the coast there was always sheer stone up one side or a sheer drop down the other. Unfortunately, none of those pictures captures the hair-raising feeling of driving along those roads. This snapshot of the road north of Connor Pass, for instance, doesn’t convey to you that there were just inches of clearance between the fenders of my car and the rock on either side. If it had been fairly straight, this might not have been much of a problem, but the road was as crooked as an arthritic woman’s fingers. I chose to show you this photo because I love the warning posts along the stone wall on the left. As if I needed the warning.

The drive up the hills to Connor Pass was so pleasant, and the view from the pass was such sweet eye candy, that when we got back down and were headed home Barb pointed out another scenic route that would take us up another mountain pass, between the villages of Camp and Aughils. I’m pointing this out to you because IT’S A TRAP! The only vehicle you should ever attempt to drive along this road should have at least four-wheel drive, although ideally it should be tracked and armored and powered by a twelve-cylinder diesel engine of at least two-thousand horsepower. This ‘scenic’ road climbs grades that had me spinning my tires against asphalt in first gear. And I thought I knew hairpin turns from my drives through the Rocky Mountains. They were child’s play compared to this drive. And for all that work you’d think they’d give you a scenic view at least as spectacular as the one at Connor Pass, but it ain’t there, if you ask me. Just don’t even think about it.

blarneycastleYou can’t go to Ireland and not kiss the Blarney Stone, right? I mean, there’s something almost irresistable about puckering up and giving a warm, wet buss to a cold chunk of rock that several thousand people have already slobbered on, don’t you think? Blarney Castle just happens to be along the road that we took on the way home, so we stopped in, climbed the stairs with a hundred other tourists, and planted our lips on the legendary stone. It’s on the underside of the wall, so you have to bend way backwards and slide out through the hole that you can see daylight through in the photo of the castle wall.

Barb

Dave

Sean

Tim

The O-Folk in Ireland | 11:45 am CST
Category: My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, T-Dawg, travel, vacation | Tags: , , ,
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Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Well, I’m back from another 500-mile road trip to the frozen north. Not back as in just now. Not even as in just yesterday. I left early Tuesday morning with a couple of coworkers and we were back Wednesday night, so the news is a little stale, I’ll admit, but I’m doing the best I can. What? I don’t see you writing a blog.

One of the things I do as part of my new job is audit other people’s work, meaning I make sure they’re doing everything according to their own procedures. How are you supposed to be doing that? Oh, I see. Okay, are you doing that? You are? Great. See you next year. What a great job, eh?

Right now we’re auditing the field stations, some of them in exotic, faraway places like Hayward and Florence, so we have to do a lot of driving. Actually, most of the job is driving. The part where we’re at the field station, asking questions and counting inventory, usually takes about an hour if it’s a big station, half an hour if it’s one of the small ones. The rest of the time spend on these audits is getting there and getting home.

And this time of year there’s often a snowstorm involved. We had to retreat from Hayward being chased by a storm that dumped snow and sleet all over the Northwest. This last trip to Eau Claire was a little snowy, but not too much. Mostly, it was just cold.

After completing the audit, we drove into town to look for a place to eat. There appeared to be a lot of restaurants along Water Street, so that’s where we headed. When I went to school in Eau Claire thirty years ago, the drinking age was 18 and Water Street was where the students all went to get drunk. There were so many taverns on Water Street that if you tried to pub crawl your way down to the end and then back up again, you’d never make it. Or at least I never would have. The only time I ever came close to trying was one year on Halloween when my brother came for a visit. I think we got all the way to the end, but by then we were pretty drunk and didn’t try to drink our way back.

There seem to be a lot fewer taverns these days; we ate lunch in a pub called Dooley’s. I think it used to be called Camaraderie. I didn’t ask, though, because the waitress was so young that her parents probably hadn’t even met back then. (The Google tells me Dooley’s was built on the spot where the Camaraderie stood until it burned down in 2001. Ch-ch-changes.)

I recognized just a few other landmarks: The shop where I used to buy comic books, the downtown movie theater I used to go to, the dimestore where I bought goldfish to feed to my piranha. I must’ve bought dozens that year. Funny how the lady who ran the pet department never cottoned on to why I came back so often. Hard to believe she would’ve thought I had enough room in my tank for all those goldfish.

By a weird coincidence, we stayed overnight in a hotel across the road from the strip mall where I spent a shameful amount of my time and money trying to beat Tempest, a weirdly abstract video game. To play, you assumed the role of a yellow claw that crawled its way around the rim of a tunnel, blasting away at Xs that crawled up the wall of the tunnel to get you. They moved faster the longer the game went on and their touch was instant death but they were easy to kill. The sparklies were not so easy because they hid behind long spikes that you had to blast down to a stump before you could hit the sparklie. As you got better other foes appeared like the zappers, which tried to electrocute you. If you managed to kill all the Xs, you went whooshing down the tunnel and if you weren’t ready for it, you’d get impaled on one of the spikes left behind by the sparklies. I told you it was weird and abstract. Never did beat it, by the way.

I’ll just mention here that I wasted so much time playing Tempest and pinball games my first semester at school that my GPA was something like 0.0006 and I was put on academic probation. Not that I’m proud of it, kiddies. Do NOT try this yourself. I had to take that report card home and show it to my parents, who were underwriting my first year at school and were not well chuffed by my performance. We had a Very Serious Talk that night. And I’ll just end by noting that I managed a 3.6 GPA the very next semester.

road trip | 8:22 am CST
Category: travel, work
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Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

I’ve been on the road for a couple days in the service of the Great State of Wisconsin, which means that I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee until just this morning. The hotels we stay in on these trips are all the kind that serve a complimentary breakfast of dried cereal or make-your-own waffles, and the coffee they set out for us comes out of a great big stainless steel urn. I was very hopeful the first time I saw that. Although coffee that’s been stewing all morning in a great big urn does not always taste the best, it’s usually strong enough to strip the paint off the sides of a battleship. Alas, chain hotels have apparently figured out how to water down urn coffee so it wouldn’t wake up a light sleeper if you poured the whole thing on his head.

I’m a light sleeper, but I’d like a strong cup of coffee in the morning, preferably two. That’s just not happening, not at the hotel and not anywhere near the hotel. The off-ramp territory where chain hotels are built seems to be the last places on earth where Starbucks fears to tread. I don’t like the coffee Starbucks makes; it all tastes burned to me, but at least it’s strong. I’d trudge a quarter-mile on foot and gratefully slug back a cup of their French Roast if I could just get my hands on one, but no joy.

There’s usually a McDonald’s nearby, but I won’t set food in a McDonald’s again until after the apocalypse.

Which reminds me: Whatever happens, even if the zombie hoards are overrunning the city, do not resort to drinking the stuff that comes out of those toy coffee makers in hotel rooms. Not only is that stuff not coffee, it’s not drinkable. It may even be injurious to human health, but I’m not saying anyone should be forced to drink it just so we can find out.

javaless | 9:40 am CST
Category: coffee, food & drink, random idiocy, travel, work, yet another rant
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Monday, October 28th, 2013

Lombard Street, San FranciscoMy Darling B says I didn’t say enough about how hilly it was in San Francisco. I am here to dutifully report that San Francisco is every bit as hilly as the movies make it look. San Franciscans must be incredibly fit people. If I lived in San Francisco and all the exercise I got was a walk to my car every morning and back to my house every evening, I’d have calves as big as cantaloupes.

We ended up walking quite a bit more than that, however. Almost as soon as we got there, we walked from our hotel to Cliff House to get a bite to eat, but there was a wait, so we walked about halfway back up the hill to Louis’, where we had better luck. Total change in altitude: 50,000 feet. Not actual feet, but the kind that counts: It felt like at least 50,000 feet. The hotel we stayed in, Seal Beach Inn, was perched on a hilltop on the western edge of the city and would have commanded a dizzying view of the beach if the trees in Sutro Heights Park weren’t so inconsiderately growing in the way. By the way, stay out of Sutro Heights Park unless you’re looking for a place to hang your blue plastic tarp to sleep under.

The next morning we were down by the wharf for a couple hours, so mostly on flat ground, but eventually My Darling B wanted to see Lombard Street, the hyper-crooked street, so we hopped on a cable car to scratch two things off our bucket list at the same time. Please note: “Hopped on a cable car” is a figure of speech. It’s not something you can do most of the time because every single cable car is packed full of tourists from the time it rumbles off the turntable at the end of the line. If I can give you just one piece of advice about visiting San Francisco, don’t think of the cable cars as transportation. Wait in line like the rest of the tourists, ride the cable car, get it out of your system, but take the bus if you want to get anywhere. The cable cars are just carnival rides that happen to run down the middle of the street.

Hyde Street runs from the wharf up to the top of Lombard Street and one of the three remaining cable car lines starts right at the wharf, but there were a lot of tourists waiting in a very long line and Yours Truly thought he was smarter than they were, so he talked My Darling B into climbing a couple blocks up Hyde Street to the first cable car stop to get on, because he thought the “stop” in “cable car stop” meant that the cable car had to stop. It doesn’t. Figure of speech again. The first cable car that came along rumbled right past us without so much as a pause. As luck would have it, though, there was a bus stop right around the corner. We ended up riding a bus to a street near Lombard Street instead of the cable car that would have taken us right there.

Next, Telegraph Hill, because we love torturing ourselves. There’s a bus that runs to the base of Coit Tower from Washington Square, so we walked down Lombard Street to Powell thinking, Hey, it’s downhill! Easy! But not thinking, Hey, if we walk downhill, then we may eventually have to walk uphill. Funny how it seems so clear in hindsight now. It’s two blocks uphill to Washington Park. Two very long blocks. But we made it, and even found the bus stop in spite of someone’s best efforts to hide it on a side street.

The real reason we went up Telegraph Hill was because of the parrots and Filbert Street. B read about the parrots and wanted to see them. I figured there was no way we were going to see the parrots even by accident but went along with her anyway. She’s usually not wrong. And she wasn’t this time, either. Almost as soon as we got off the bus I saw a flock of parrots whiz by, and B says she saw more later while I was looking for the way down the hill. One more check mark on our bucket list. Parrots, did that. As for Filbert Street, don’t bother. The guide books go on and on about how cozy and quaint this street is, especially near the top where it’s not a street anymore but steps. Well, it’s just a very steep street. There’s not much to see. The view from the top is impressive, but I would point out that you can get that view at the top of almost any hill in San Francisco, so I’m at a loss to explain what’s so special about Filbert Street.

After taking a break in a restaurant on Washington Square to enjoy a well-deserved cold beer, we walked one block over to Mason Street to see if we could get a cable car to take us to the cable car museum, imaginatively named “Cable Car Museum” so as not to confuse the tourists, I suppose. The gripman in the first cable car we saw crossed his arms as the car rumbled past us without stopping. I guess that’s San Francisco cable carish for “screw you.” The next car stopped and the gripman shouted, “Four! I can take four!” He pointed at the fender. “Two there! And two there!” When the man says jump, you jump, so we climbed up on the fender, grabbed the railing and off we went. A cable car moves at a top speed of just nine miles an hour. It’s amazing just how fast that seems to be when your dangling from the fender of a cable car as real cars driven by ordinary people whiz by close enough to touch. My pants pocket might have caught on the side mirror of any one of them and I’d have been snatched off the fender faster than I could say, Well, shit.

Any trips we made around town after that were all carefully planned to get us to the nearest bus stop, downhill if possible.

ups and downs | 6:30 am CST
Category: play, travel, vacation
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Sunday, October 27th, 2013

When I woke up this morning, the first thought that went through my head was, Hey! My back doesn’t hurt! So, three weeks after the last night I slept on a futon mattress in the back of a minivan, I’m finally showing signs of getting over it.

Kids: Go ahead and sleep in a minivan. I’m just an old fart with a hollowed-out back. You’ll be fine.

While I’m thinking about it, here’s another reason a minivan’s no good for old people to sleep in: We go for a pee when our bladders tell us to, not when we want to, so I could count on having to wriggle out of the van at least once a night, but more often two or three times, to schlep down the road to the toilets.

This was not always a bad thing. The night we camped near Mount Shasta, for instance, the weather was very mild and the sky was so clear that I could see the Milky Way arching across the sky from horizon to horizon, and stopped in the road to take a good, long look.

But for the most part, trying to squirm out of the narrow space between the bed and the roof, feeling for the door latch in the dark, then slinking my feet down to the floor to try to find my shoes with my toes, while simultaneously trying to keep my bladder clenched tight, was not what I’d call conducive to a pleasant camping experience. I’m tempted to say that sleeping on the ground in a tent would’ve been preferable, but it’s been so long since I’ve done that that it’s probably not true.

camper van | 8:33 am CST
Category: play, travel, vacation
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Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Where’s Dave?
bigtree

There he is!
lildave


big tree | 6:26 am CST
Category: play, travel, vacation
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Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Always wanted to see this …
crosssection

cross section | 9:22 pm CST
Category: play, travel
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Monday, October 7th, 2013

Quick and Dirty version of our trip to California last week, typed up from my notes because I’m not sure how long it’ll take to expand on them and I’ve got lots to do this week but I wouldn’t want to deprive you. So:

Got into San Francisco in the afternoon on Friday. Taxi driver gave us a lively commentary while he narrowly avoided causing several accidents. After dropping bags at the hotel, walked down to Louis’s for an enormous sandwich. Wanted to go to bistro at Cliff House but there was a wait. Kind of hoity-toity, too. Then a walk to the point of Lincoln Park to see if the Golden Gate bridge was visible – it was, beautifully. That turned into a walk through the park. Didn’t stop at the overlook where several people have fallen to their deaths. By the time we came out the other side it was six thirty so we hopped the first bus into town. Bus driver a cranky old man because passengers kept getting on w/o paying. Got off at Hyde & rode a cable car to the waterfront. Wine tasting. Host was a world traveler, been to 31 states and 50-something countries, showed snapshots of trip to Cambodia. Good salesman: we left with 200 in wine. Long bus ride back to the hotel. Went to bed right away and slept the sleep of the just.

First stop Saturday morning was breakfast at Sweet Maple where the coffee was strong and the bacon was one inch thick. We got there just before the morning rush of very fit-looking people showed up. By the time we left, the line was out the door. From there we headed to Pier 39 to see the sea lions. There are a whole lot of floating docks moored off the far end of the pier so that dozens of fat sea lions will loll there for the benefit of tourists, instead of all over the docks where the expensive boats are tied up. After “see the sea lions” was checked off our bucket list, we wandered along the wharf toward Ghiardelli Square looking for the kiosk where we could buy a Muni day pass for the cable cars and buses. The kiosk turned out to be at the end of the Hyde-Powell cable car line. We planned to take the cable car to Lombard Street but went to Ghiardelli Square to do a little shopping first and ended up having ice cream for lunch! Back at the cable car, we tried to beat the long line of tourists waiting to get on at the end of the line by walking up the road a couple blocks and waiting at the next stop for the next car that came along was packed and the driver didn’t even pause long enough to flip us off. We wandered around until we could find a bus to take us back to the top of Lombard Street. Lots of tourists! The locals must love that! Then it was on to Telegraph Hill; easier said than done. B wanted to see the parrots but was not going to climb the hill; neither of us was in shape for it at that point. We had to circle around Union Square a couple times to figure out which bus to catch and where. When the bus finally dropped us off at the base of Coit Tower we were there barely five minutes before we saw the parrots of Telegraph Hill. Check off another item from our list. Walking down Filbert Steps was a huge disappointment: expected it to be a lot more scenic but it was more like a back alley. Stopped to quaff a couple of well-deserved cold beers at a bar in Union Square before walking up to Mason St to catch a cable car to the cable car museum. First cable car blew us off. A nice older lady, obviously a local, gave us advice on how to be more aggressive about making the driver stop. The next one stopped and the driver shouted, “Four! I can take four! There and there!” pointing at the fender. We jumped on and clung to the posts as the street car started up the hill, cars whizzing past us seemingly inches away. The trip to the museum wasn’t long but it was terrifying, or exhilarating, I’m not sure which. After wandering around the museum a bit, we caught a bus downtown to get a beer at a brewpub called The 21st Amendment which was unfortunately right down the street from the baseball stadium and a game had just let out; the place was packed! No quiet moment to be had there. We downed our beers and got out of there as quickly as we could, catching a street car across town, the intention being to get some dinner at a restaurant called The Social Kitchen. The streetcar dropped us off well short of our destination in a residential neighborhood where we had to wait about 20 mins for the next train. The brewpub was well worth the wait; good food and good beer. B sampled all their brews in a flight and I had just one glass before we ventured forth to catch the bus back to the hotel, which dropped us off short of our destination in a residential neighborhood! We just couldn’t catch a break with the transportation that day.

Picked up the camper van Sunday morning. Actually, I picked it up while B waited with the bags at the hotel. I left about 8 and got there about 10 riding bus, trains and walking about three blocks through a section of town that looked pretty sketchy, lots of old warehouses mixed with empty lots, but lots of new construction, too. The camper is really a minivan tricked out with a mattress on a fold-out plywood base, not very good for a camper as it turns out but very good considering the price. We drove north from SF across the Golden Gate bridge, through Marin to the Marin County Farmer’s Market where we whiled away a couple hours wandering around the vendors picking up some grapes & dates & some other tidbits to eat. A quick stop at Sears after that to pick up a blanket before we headed north to the Anderson Valley, where our first stop was the Lone Oaks winery. The lady there was very chatty and gave us several good tips for other places to stop while she poured us samples of her wine. Our second stop was Yorkville and our last stop at a winery that day was Bing. We stayed the night at Hendry Wood campground where it rained all night. I set up the rain fly so we could enjoy a picnic dinner of wine, crackers with hummus and some olives before turning in.

Monday morning we got some coffee at the historic Navarro general store then drove through the Navarro River Redwood Grove before stopping for breakfast at the Little River Inn, one of the good tips we got from the lady at Lone Oak. Then on to Mendocino, a hippy-dippy crafty town where we wandered from shop to shop for about an hour. A little further up the road I pulled off to see the Cabrillo Lighthouse on a whim; thought it was right there but turned out we had to hike about a mile through tick-infested grassland to get down to the point and back. Still had a nice time. We were almost killed in Ft Bragg when a truck driver who didn’t know the rules of a roundabout failed to yield to us. Turned on to the coastal highway which turned out to be one block long. Further down the main drag of Ft Bragg we stopped at the much-anticipated tasting room of North Coast Brewing, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make a note. The gift shop at the brewery was open, though, and the nice lady there tipped us off to a restaurant in the harbor where their beer was served, so we went there for beer and macho nachos, a plate of nachos so big it takes macho men to eat it, or two hungry middle-aged travelers. We demolished that thing. Up the road a bit to make a stop at a the Pacific Star Winery, perched on the cliffs over the ocean where hundred-foot-tall breakers crashed ever so picturesquely against the rocks. Stayed overnight at MacKerricher state park where we could hear the surf crashing all night long, and I do mean crashing; it sounded like a continual train wreck out there and it seemed to get louder as the night went on. The gal at Pacific Star Winery said they had a big storm a day before and until then the ocean had been perfectly flat.

Got up about 8 Tuesday morning, showered & went in search of coffee. Couldn’t find any at the roadside stores & B didn’t want to go back to Ft Bragg so we went on. Found a campground at Westport where a nice woman gave us some coffee in tiny little cups but no lids so we couldn’t drink it while driving and we had some miles to put behind us that morning. Guzzled as much as we could, dumped the rest and went on. First stopped at the world-famous drive-through tree park. As we would find out later, there are about a gojillion world-famous drive-through tree parks. This particular one was the Chandelier Tree. We didn’t actually drive through it because it didn’t look like the van would fit. Bought a souvenir post card and moved on up scenic Highway 101 through Avenue of the Giants, stopping to gawk & take snapshots of the tall trees. Finally got some coffee & something to eat at the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, first meal we’d eaten since the plate of macho nachos we gobbled down at Silver’s in Ft Bragg the day before. I had the Philly cheese steak sandwich and can recommend it. Way too big. Ate the whole thing. B had jalapeno poppers, her very favorite appetizer, and a gigantic calzone. Couldn’t finish it. Wimp. Continued along Avenue of the Giants but had to double back where the road was closed for construction. Stopped at Meyer Flat so B could do some wine tasting at the River Bend Winery, then on to make a short stop at the visitor center on the Avenue of the Giants before a longer stop at Founder’s Grove to hike the loop trail & see the Dyerville Giant, a fallen redwood big as a battleship. Contemplated the grandeur of the grove, took lots of photos. On to Fortuna to sample the beer at Eel River Brewery, America’s first organic brewery but even more importantly home to some of the most delicious beers we sampled on this trip. We got a flight of a dozen beers, all they brewed. Yum. Every table had a basket of peanuts. Shuck them and throw the shells on the floor, because if you try to pile them neatly on the table the waitress will just sweep them off when she brings your beer. Spent a lovely hour or so there, then on to Trinidad. We were shooting for an RV park called Sounds of the Sea. When we got there, the lady who came out to check us in looked around and asked, “Where’s your unit?” Oh, we just have the van, I told her. “We only have spots for RVs.” Well, we just need a place to park it, don’t even need hookups. She looked at me like I was talking crazy talk, so I excused myself, got into the van and we drove a little further to Elk Country Lodge, and a good thing we did because we would’ve missed the herd of wild elk that traipses through the park morning and night. Wouldn’t have had our little dinner party of crackers and olives and wine in the laundry room that night, either.

Elk Country was a special find because we saw the herd of elk on the way in, then the herd came back Wednesday morning while we were showering & getting ready to go. They hung out in the meadow right next to the woods where we were camped. I followed them around & came back to the camp to find B had shut herself up in the van when she thought they were going to come right up to her. We left camp around eight-thirty to look for some breakfast. Stopped at the Redwood National Park entrance and picnic area to snap photos of ourselves next to the sign and the notice that the park was closed as a result of the federal government shutdown. All my life I wanted to visit Redwood National Park, and when I finally get here, what happens? We had breakfast at the Palm Cafe, and what an amazing breakfast! B had biscuits & gravy, her very favorite, and I had a stack of the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever been privileged to stuff myself with. From there we went straight north, not making many stops until we got to Crescent City to fuel and another stop at Medford to visit the Apocalypse Brewery. It’s really hard to find because it’s in the back of a business park, looks like one of those U-Store-It units. The garage door was up but they weren’t open, didn’t open until four o’clock, so I can’t say anything about their beer, too bad. On to Ashland for a much-deserved beer and some food at Caldera, a brewpub in a cavernous metal barn where hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles are lined up on shelves up the wall. No two alike? Couldn’t tell. Checked in at Glenyan campground, then into town at about six to see the opening band before sitting down to watch Cymbaline at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. The show was on their Elizabethan stage, meaning the seats encircled the stage like the old Globe Theater and it was open to the weather on top, so naturally it rained on us. We had seats right up front by the stage which would have been the greatest if they hadn’t been right under the open roof. We got them switched for a couple seats in the balcony where it was covered, which would’ve been great if we’d started out there and hadn’t gotten wet right off the bat. We slowly froze solid in our seats until intermission, then ducked out to head back to camp where we huddled together under the quilts for warmth.

Got up Thursday morning after it rained normal rain and acorn rain on the roof of the camper all night, stopping just before daybreak. Coffee & pastry at Mix in Ashland. Picked up more picnic food at the local co-op before heading out of town to search for more vinyards. Found Dana Campbell, Grizzly Peak, Thistlecroft, and Bella Fortuna – all closed until we got to Weisinger, which was just opening their tasting room. Sampled a few, bought a few and even got them to ship all the wine we’d collected up to then. Drove on to the town of Weed, stopped at Mount Shasta Brewing for a beer & souvenirs. Mount Shasta attracted the attention of the feds back in 2008 with their motto, “Try some legal Weed,” almost got shut down until the story made national news and popular opinion swung in favor of the brewer. From there we went to the Dunsmuir Brewing Works for a bite to eat and another lovingly-crafted microbrew. Would never have found this place without GPS; it’s all but hidden in a small storefront building that was maybe once a gas station and almost looks to be shut up and abandoned. Glad we made the effort to find it. I had a ploughman’s platter that filled me up: salmon that was smoked in-house, sausage, shrimp, peppers, two kinds of cheese and a hot demibagette with butter. B had an elk burger, perfectly grilled medium rare. Finally, drove up to Lake Shasta to look for a camp site. We wanted a camp fire that night but the first place we stopped was way back in the woods & had no fire rings. The next place was in a national park but appeared to be open anyway. We checked one more place that wasn’t as nice, so back to the national park after stopping at a gas station to fill up the tank, a bag of marshmallows and enough fire wood to build a roaring fire that burned long after the sun set. Toasted marshmallows are delicious with Sangiovese.

Up early Friday morning, stopped at a strip mall in town for coffee and a breakfast sammie. Had to hit the road and drive drive drive to get to Chico in time for Oktoberfest at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Checked in to a hotel, cleaned up, walked down to the bus stop to pick up the shuttle that Sierra Nevada was running all evening. Got there about a half-hour before the fest opened, guy who was taking tickets chatted us up, was pretty surprised when we told him we came all the way from Madison. Great time. Food, beer & souvenir mug included in the modest price of the ticket. Drank plenty of beer, but not too much. Danced the chicken dance. That’s apparently a must at this event. Went back to the hotel around ten and slept like a baby, and how did that come to mean a good night’s sleep, by the way? Our boys slept in fits and starts and hardly ever through the night. Weird.

Saturday morning we booked a room in San Francisco. We talked about this the night before while we were getting cleaned up before Oktoberfest. A hotel room near the airport would make everything so much easier: we could drop off our bags at the hotel, return the van, spend a little time in the city, then catch an airport shuttle from the hotel. And that’s what we did. After dropping off the van we rode the light rail train into San Francisco to see a little more of the town. Went to the Thirsty Bear for a rack of tasters, the world’s greatest nuts and B’s favorite, duck sausage-stuffed olives, fried. Then on to Southern Pacific in the section of the city that was all warehouses surrounded by razor wire. Not sure if they were trying to keep something out or in. Didn’t look like a bad part of town, just not a populated part of town. Southern Pacific was on a dead-end street where a casual stroller would never find it. In spite of its location, it appeared to be one of the most popular hangouts in the Mission District. Got carded at the door; long time since that’s happened. Also a long time since I’ve been to a bar where Devo was playing on the stereo. After wolfing down a basket of fried washed down with house-made heffe and pilsner, our challenge was getting back to the hotel. Had to walk ten blocks through deserted streets of the warehouse district to a bus stop where we waited for almost an hour watching the wrong buses pass by. Finally our bus showed up twenty minutes late. After a thirty-minute bus ride we jumped off and still had to walk a block and a half to our hotel.

Packed Sunday morning after complementary breakfast in the lobby. Thought we did a pretty good job until we checked in at SFO & were told our check-through bag was overweight. Get it down to fifty pounds or pay $100, they said. We got it pared down to exactly fifty pounds. Then off to find a pub where we could finish our trip the way we started, with the now-traditional Bloody Marys. L’chaim!

SF vacation | 10:18 am CST
Category: beer, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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I was just thinking that I would have to tell you our flight home from San Francisco was uneventful, but of course it wasn’t. That’s not how we travel.

Our flight home started with a cab ride that was positively batshit crazy. It wasn’t supposed to be a cab ride. The hotel supposedly had an airport shuttle that would pick us up at the front door. There was even one of those double-wide shuttle buses parked right outside the window of our room, so naturally we assumed that’s what would meet us at the curb after checkout in the morning. But shortly after eleven o’clock an all-black minivan with the oddly incongruous name of the Yellow Cab company painted across the door pulled up to the curb and out popped its Asian-American driver. Remember Egg Shen, the wizard slash bus driver in Big Trouble In Little China? That was our cab driver. “You going to the airport?” he asked us.

“Well, yeah, but …” was our amazingly eloquent answer.

“To the airport?” he repeated. “You going to the airport?”

“This is the airport shuttle?” My Darling B asked.

“To the airport, right,” he confirmed.

“So, just to make sure, ah – how much?”

There was no charge. It was the airport shuttle, after all. The hotel apparently kept the shuttle bus just for show.

The driver loaded our bags into the back of his van, we climbed into the passenger seats, and then he took off down the road like he was driving a bank robber’s getaway car. Almost immediately, his cell phone rang. He flipped it out and started jabbering into it through the bluetooth earpiece sticking out of his right ear while almost, but not quite managing to keep his cab between the white lines of whatever traffic lane he may have theoretically been driving in. When he was done with that call, he picked up his cell phone and made another call, and then another, talking with who I can only presume was his dispatcher about pickups at other hotels until we got to the airport, where he made a dramatic entrance by swerving at the very last moment through a gap between a couple of concrete Jersey barriers. I was sure he’d missed it and would have to find another way to get us to the terminal, but no.

Once we were inside, and after we made our way through the twisty-windie line to the check-in counter, our helpful agent, Edward, informed us that our check-through bag was overweight and we would have to either shift the stuff in our bags around until the check-through bag was under fifty pounds, or we would have to pay the overweight charge.

“How much is that?” My Darling B asked, just out of curiosity, I guess, because I know she had no intention of paying it.

“One-hundred dollars,” Edward informed us.

So we rolled the bags to the end of the check-in counter, cracked them all open and pretty much gutted them, flinging clothes and souvenirs back and forth to each other. The troublemakers in this scenario were three twenty-two ounce bottles of beer picked up in our travels and a fourth sixty-four ounce empty bottle of the type known as a “growler,” also picked up as a souvenir because it had an unusual shape and I thought it would look good in my brewery. I parked the big check-through bag on a scale and we started throwing stuff into it, trying various combinations of bottles and clothes until we got it below the magical limit of fifty pounds. Then we would try to latch the bag, fail, re-open it and re-shuffle the contents until finally it was not only not overweight, it weighed exactly fifty pounds and we could not only latch it, but we were reasonably sure it would stay latched.

The only other glitch in our trip home was that we weren’t seated together and no amount of sweet-talking from My Darling B could get the good employees of American Airlines to rearrange the seating. I sat directly behind B, so I entertained her and my fellow passengers during the four-hour flight home by doing things like sticking caterpillars down the back of her dress and dipping her pigtails in the inkwell.

we’re back! | 6:46 am CST
Category: My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The very best thing about staying the night in a hotel on the last day of your vacation, in case I haven’t said it enough, is getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed, then a hot shower, and finally not having to clean up the mess you make. Not that we make a huge mess, it’s just that I get a real bang out of not having to clean up the bathroom. I’m easily amused.

One of the worst things, and sometimes the very worst thing about staying in a hotel is the complimentary breakfast in the morning. I’m grateful that most hotels offer one, because it means there will at least be coffee, but at a lot of the hotels I’ve been to they barely make a token effort, and at a few the effort has been not just wasted but actually seems to have been counterproductive. One place we stayed at had nothing but multicolored kids’ breakfast cereal, spotted bananas, and a tray of soggy doughnuts.

But most of them at least have a waffle iron, which I’ll always line up for because it makes probably the safest food in the place, and also because waffles. Who doesn’t like waffles? Stupid people who don’t know how to properly butter them, then drench them in way too much syrup. I like banana slices on top of mine so I can pretend I’m eating something that’s good for me, but I’m okay without the banana, just so long as I have enough syrup. And by “enough,” I mean the whole damn pitcher of syrup. Don’t even ask if I’m done with it. That’s the one thing majorly wrong with the waffles that come with the complimentary breakfast at hotels: those teeny-tiny little plastic cups that the syrup comes in. I have to open at least five or six just to get a corner of the waffle damp enough so I can start eating.

Our cab ride to the airport was positively batshit crazy. It wasn’t supposed to be a cab ride, for a start. The hotel advertised that they had an airport shuttle that would pick us up at the front door and deliver us to our airline check-in desk. There was even one of those double-wide shuttle buses parked right outside the window of our room, so naturally we assumed that’s what would meet us at the curb after checkout shortly after eleven o’clock. While we were waiting at the curb, though, an all-black minivan, with the oddly incongruous name of the Yellow Cab company painted across the door, pulled up to the curb, and out of the driver-side door popped its Asian-American driver. Remember Egg Shen, the wizard slash bus driver in the movie Big Trouble In Little China? This cab driver was Egg Shen’s spitting image.

“You going to the airport?” he asked us.

“Well, yeah, but we’re waiting for the hotel shuttle,” we answered.

“To the airport?” he repeated. “You going to the airport?”

“Is this the airport shuttle?” My Darling B asked him.

“To the airport, right,” he confirmed.

“So, just to make sure, ah – how much?”

There was no charge. It really was the airport shuttle. Egg was a contract driver who came with his own transportation. The shuttle bus parked out front of the hotel was apparently just for show.

Egg loaded our bags into the back of his van and, after we climbed into the passenger seats, he took off down the road like he was driving the getaway car for a bank heist. Then, while he was evasively weaving through traffic at high speed, his cell phone rang. He casually flipped it out and started jabbering into the bluetooth earpiece sticking out of his right ear while almost, but not quite managing to keep the van between the white lines of whatever traffic lane he may have believed he was driving in. When he was done with that call, he picked up his cell phone and made another call, and then another, talking with who I can only presume was his dispatcher. He kept up a constant patter with his caller as we approached the airport and hardly missed a beat as he made a dramatic entrance by swerving at the very last moment through a gap between a couple of concrete Jersey barriers. I was sure he’d gone too far, maybe even gone past it and would have to find another gap, but he was just as sure – well, turned out to be a bit more sure than sure that he was going through it. I clenched my teeth for the impact that never came. When I opened my eyes, we were parked curbside and Egg was getting out to unload our bags.

I should note that we were smugly self-satisfied all morning about the fact that we were able to pack all the crap we’d collected during the past fortnight into our luggage. That sweet smugness quickly evaporated when we tried to check our bags at the airline counter and were told by Edward, our very helpful agent, that our check-bag was twenty-five pounds overweight. We could pay the overweight charge and check it as is, or we could slip out of line to redistribute our belongings among our carry-on bags if we liked.

“How much is the overweight charge?” My Darling B asked, just out of curiosity, I guess, because I knew she had no intention of paying it.

“One-hundred dollars,” Edward informed us brightly with his best, most professional smile.

So we stepped out of line, dragging our overweight bag to the empty end of the airline counter, cracked it open and laid it, open-faced, on the floor, then stepped back and rubbed our chins in deep thought. Kidding. We pretty much gutted it without thinking much, gouging great big wads of dirty clothing out, collecting all the printed matter in a heap, then divvying up the souvenirs. If you’re thinking that “souvenirs” might be a euphemism for “beer,” you know us too well. The biggest troublemakers were three full twenty-two ounce bottles of high-gravity beer, or “bombers” (thank goodness I didn’t slip and call them that in the airport), and an empty sixty-four ounce flip-top growler. Once they were safely parked, we stuffed the wads of clothing back in basically as padding.

Because we were at an unused station at the airline check-in counter, I laid the suitcase on the scale as we stuffed everything back in, keeping one eye on the readout to make sure we didn’t go over the magical hundred-dollar limit. When we were within a pound or two, we would try to latch the bag shut, fail and have to re-shuffle the contents a bit, try to latch it again, fail, re-shuffle, and repeat until those latches finally clicked shut. Then we had to find a place in our carry-on luggage for all the stuff that was left over. It was pretty simple, really: What we absolutely had to take back went in the bags, and anything else made a one-way trip to the garbage can. Done.

After checking our bag and shuffling through security in our stocking feet, we hiked to our terminal, found our gate and let out a deep, exhausted sigh, wondering what to do with the next couple hours we had before our plane boarded. Lucky for us there was a bar next to our gate where we could not only soak up a couple Bloody Marys, the drink that has become traditional at the beginning and end of each of our trips to the farthest reaches of these United States, but there were also electric outlets close by so we could plug in our phones and live-blog our little party to all our Facebook friends.

The last glitch in our trip home was that we weren’t seated together on the plane and no amount of sweet-talking from My Darling B could get the good employees of American Airlines to rearrange the seating assignments. I sat directly behind B, so I entertained her and my fellow passengers during the four-hour flight home by doing things like sticking caterpillars down the back of her dress and dipping her pigtails in the inkwell.

California Day 10 | 6:00 pm CST
Category: food & drink, travel, vacation | Tags: ,
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Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Another change of plans – not that we ever had a solid plan to begin with, but when we flew out to California, the rough idea was that we would stay in a hotel in San Francisco for the first two nights. Then, after we rented a camper, we would overnight at state and national parks as we drove north up the coast and south back down to San Francisco. We believed this was extraordinarily clever of us, because state and national parks are cheap. Yeah, when they’re open.

We scoped out all the parks along our route so we could easily find a place to stay no matter where we ended up on a particular day. And we even stuck to our plan for the first couple days, but we can sometimes be kinda inconsistent, and then there was the government shutdown thing. Actually, I’m going to blame it mostly on the government, just out of spite. Why not? But according to the plan, we were going to camp right up to and including our last night in California, somewhere near San Francisco, then get up in the morning, clean up as best as we could, drop the camper off and call a taxi to the airport.

Well.

After getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed in Chico, we talked it over for, oh, maybe a solid two or three minutes, and discovered that we were both of a mind to get another good night’s sleep in a hotel in San Francisco, preferably one that was close to the airport. We could drop off the camper as soon as we got there, spend the rest of the day in the city, be guaranteed a hot shower in the morning and head straight to the airport. Done deal.

But before we left Chico, we had to off-load a whole bunch of glassware that we’d collected along the way as souvenirs. A wine glass here or there doesn’t seem like much, but altogether it weighed a shit-ton and took up way more space than we had in our suitcases. Not a problem, though. We, in our cunning little minds, had already anticipated this. We found a UPS store in a strip mall in Chico, stacked all our glasses and bottles on the counter and asked the guy to send it back to our little red house in Wisconsin.

He seemed puzzled by our request. Not because we asked him to put stuff in a box and have it delivered, but apparently because of the shear volume of stuff. It was obvious that this was the first time anyone had ever asked him to do anything like this. It took him ten or fifteen minutes to wrap his head around the project before he began to arrange the glassware on the countertop, fitting them together like puzzle pieces. Then got out his tape measure to see if he had a box big enough to hold them. When his first try didn’t satisfy him, he rearranged everything, measured it again, shuffled a few pieces around and re-measured, et cetera forever and ever. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to take as long as it did. I figured we’d drop it off, he’s say “fifty dollars” or whatever, we’d pay him and that’d be it. When he was finally confident that he could pack it, he rang up an estimate of a hundred twenty dollars. We were visibly deflated, but by then we’d been standing there watching this guy for about an hour, and we knew we weren’t going to get it into our bags, so we paid him just to get the hell out of there. And that’s how we ended up with a collection of the most expensive wine glasses and beer glasses ever purchased by anybody anywhere.

Finally on the road again, B searched teh intarwebs for hotels while I drove back. She could do that because we set up our phones to be wifi hot spots. It was an arrangement that worked really well: B could navigate by keeping one eye on the little blue dot that crawled across Google maps as we drove down the road, or she could open a browser window to ask The Google where we could get a cold beer, a hot meal, or camp supplies, or even try to find out what the hell that big ugly animal in the road was, and so on.

B found a hotel that was not only close to the airport and offered a complimentary taxi ride, it was also about fifty yards from a bus stop and B could book a room on-line. Score! As we got closer to the city, we pulled over at one of those do-it-yourself car wash places to clean out the van with a giant super-suck vacuum cleaner, then went on through Oakland and crossed into San Francisco across the bay bridge. With B navigating from the right seat, finding the hotel was quick and easy.

After checking in and dropping our bags and assorted junk in the room, we drove across town to drop off the van. This was B’s first visit to the part of town called Dogpatch, mostly abandoned lots and warehouses that were slowly being taken over by growing businesses. We were supposed to leave the van in the lot behind a warehouse and drop the keys in a drop box, but the keys were attached to a fob that was too thick and wouldn’t fit through the slot. Funny, they didn’t mention that when they gave me instructions for returning the van. Somebody else must’ve noticed that before. I tried calling but there was no answer, so we left the keys locked in the van and walked back to the nearest streetcar stop.

A Flight of Beers at the Thirsty Bear brewpub, San Francisco CA

There were a couple of brewpubs in the city that we had pegged to visit: Our first stop was the Thirsty Bear, because B said they had the world’s greatest nuts. It had something to do with the way they were glazed. I thought they were okay, but give me a dish of roasted pistachios and I’m pretty happy with that. A dish of nuts wasn’t going to hold us over until we got something else to eat, though, so B asked for a plate of fried olives stuffed with duck sausage. I like to try new things, and I like just about anything with duck in it, but that sounded to me like the cook was just trying to be weird. Nothing weird about the beer, though. That was just tasty.

beer and fries at Southern Pacific Brewery San Francisco CAOur second stop was Southern Pacific Brewing somewhere in the heart of what must have been the industrial center of the city. The brewery itself occupied most, if not all of a former warehouse and was surrounded by other warehouses that have not been altered much since they stopped being warehouses, if they ever stopped, except that maybe one or two had a new coat of paint or a new fence topped by freshly-strung razor wire. We saw very few other people as we wandered the streets looking for the brewery, and I got the unsettled feeling that we were in a part of town that we should not have been in, but B kept telling me to relax as she pointed us down one street after another, The Google guiding us to our destination.

Southern Pacific was on a dead-end street; a casual stroller would never find it. In spite of its location, it appeared to be one of the most popular hangouts in the district. A block away, I got the impression that we were in a mostly-abandoned part of town, but as we turned the last corner we were suddenly swallowed up by a converging throng of smartly-dressed people heading in the same direction. They were almost all young people; B and I both got carded at the door. It’s been a long time since that’s happened. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a bar where Devo was playing on the stereo.

The place was packed, inside and out. Even so, B somehow managed to snag a table on the patio. It was a beautiful night, just warm enough to relax under the stars with a couple glasses of house-made heffe and pilsner and a basket of fried noshies to share between us.

It was fully dark by the time we left. Getting back to the hotel didn’t seem like much of a challenge at first: We had to walk maybe five or six blocks to the nearest bus stop, and the rest was virtually automatic. The streets around the brewery seemed even more deserted than before, though, and we saw nobody except for the occasional axe murderer hanging out in a doorway, or serial killer pushing a grocery cart stacked with body parts. B told me I was being paranoid, but she was walking as fast as I was.

We cooled our jets for a little more than an hour at the bus stop, watching every bus but the one we wanted whiz by, one after the other. When our bus finally showed up, it was twenty minutes late, or at least I think it was. The schedule apparently wasn’t worth much. After a thirty-minute bus ride we jumped off and discovered that we had to walk a block and a half to our hotel. Not too bad, but not as close as we thought. Whatever. It was still a good day.

California Day 9 | 6:36 am CST
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Friday, October 4th, 2013

Shasta Lake CA

Had to hit the road as early as possible this morning and drive, drive, drive to get to Chico in time for Oktoberfest at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Quite a lot of our drive took us through the area around Shasta Lake, gorgeous to look at but it’s part of a national park, right? Everywhere we went, we saw rangers standing vigil over sawhorses draped with signs that all said, “Go Away! Your government doesn’t want you to have fun today.” So hitting the road was about all we did until Chico. No sight-seeing today.

After a week of sleeping on the lumpy futon in the little hobo camper, we decided last night that we would splurge when we got to Chico and check into a hotel, where we could have an indecently long, scalding-hot shower before we went to the festival and sprawl on a king-sized bed when we got back. It would probably have been the best plan we made all week, if we hadn’t already planned to spend the day at the Sierra Nevada brewery, drinking beer and eating bratwurst with lots of sauerkraut. I had the sauerkraut. B doesn’t like sauerkraut, so her plan wasn’t as good as mine was.

The good folks at Sierra Nevada chartered a bus that ran from downtown Chico to the brewery and back, so all we had to do to get there was take a short walk, maybe four or five blocks through what looked like the central shopping district of the city. As we ambled slowly toward the bus stop, we notice a surprisingly large number of people camped out on the pavement. What was especially odd about them was that almost none of them asked us if we had money. They just watched us, very intently, as we walked by. Turns out this creeps me out way more than when they ask.

The bus that picked us up was one of those fifteen-passenger vans that hotels use to drive you to the airport. There was almost nobody waiting for it when we got there, but by the time it left, it was chock full o’ people. The driver dropped us off at the brewery about a half-hour before the fest opened its gates, so our busload ended up at the front of the line. A guy who came out to take tickets and put wristbands on us so we could waltz right in when the gates opened. He chatted us up while he worked and was pretty surprised when we told him we came all the way from Madison for this.

The fest was in a big tent set up behind the brewery, and when I say “big,” I mean it’s one of the man-man objects that can be seen from the moon. Off-the-scale big. Vast would not be too much exaggeration. I didn’t take the trouble to count, but I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that there were at least two hundred picnic tables in there, and there was still room left over for a stage up front where three or four bands took turns playing, to say nothing of the tables and booths in the back where they were selling merch. Really, really big.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Chico CA Oktoberfest

The tent was in a field alongside the brewery and the end of rows of hop poles that stood empty this late in the year. One side of the tent, the side that was facing a semi trailer where they were dispensing their beer, was open to the field. We each collected a big glass mug as we entered and something like five or six tickets, made our way straight through the tent, out the side and across the field to the trailer where nice young people were tapping beers and handing them across trestle table set up all along the side of the trailer. If memory serves, I asked for a glass of their Märzen first, the brew that they and every other brewery sells as their Oktoberfest seasonal. Sierra Nevada makes a Märzen that is even more deliciously refreshing after you’ve been driving all morning.

We found a seat at a table along the open side of the tent where we could hear the band, watch people go by, and watch the sky slowly fade from bright blue to twilit shades of purple and navy blue. I got my mug refilled twice (I’m pretty sure), once with a crisp lager and later with more Märzen; they both went down well. I’m sure there was a brat in there somewhere. Right after we came in, I think, but who cares? We were there for the beer.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest Chico CAThe beer, and the chicken dance! The highlight of the night was when I got to dance the chicken dance with My Darling B. Apparently it’s as much a tradition at this event as the beer is. I think every band that climbed up onto the stage played it at least once; I think one of them played it several times. Turns out I’m pretty bad at doing the chicken dance; I keep mixing up the order of the flapping and the cheeping and whatever else it is you’re supposed to do, but I always got the part right where I linked arms with B and ran around in a circle, and that was the most fun anyway, so I win.

We went back to the hotel at around ten and slept soundly as a couple of babies. Tell me, how did that come to mean a good night’s sleep, by the way? Our boys slept in fits and starts and hardly ever through the night. Weird.

California Day 8 | 8:34 pm CST
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Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

All night Wednesday and into Thursday morning it rained two kinds of rain: normal rain and acorn rain. We were parked at a campsite under an oak tree, y’see, and it was autumn, so every time the wind came up even just a little bit, the roof of the camper was pelted by a hail of acorns. It was like trying to sleep inside a snare drum. And yet, we still managed to sleep somehow.

After checking out of the campground, we went back to Ashland to look for a place to get some breakfast. There’s a kind of trendy coffee shop in Ashland called Mix Sweet Shop. We knew it was trendy but we like trendy so we went there anyway, ordered some sticky sweet morning rolls and a couple big mugs of coffee. After filling our bellies and warming up on java, we both decided we’d have to give it rave reviews, just like all the other Yelpers, but at the same time we felt a little underdressed in our rumbled sweatshirts and blue jeans, like maybe we should have been wearing yoga pants or spandex running gear.

We had to spend one more night in the wild, and B wanted to make s’mores over a camp fire, so we stopped at a local co-op before leaving town to pick up picnic food, marshmallows and graham crackers. B was – how shall I say this without getting pelted by rotten cabbages? – a happy camper.

Then we went in search of more vineyards. And we found, oh, a few: Dana Campbell, Grizzly Peak, Thistlecroft, and Bella Fortuna – but they were all closed, apparently because it was too early in the morning or too late in the season. But when we pulled up in front of Weisinger vineyards they were just opening the doors to their tasting room, so we hung around there for a while, sampling their wine and buying a few bottles of the ones we liked best. Bonus points to Weisinger: They ship wine, and they don’t care where you bought it, so we dredged all the bottles out of the bilge of our camper and brought them inside, where they packed everything up, took down our address and promised us we’d get our wine delivered to our door. And we did, all in good shape, a little more than a week after.

Mount Shasta Brewing Weed CA

After that we hit the road and drove for a while, crossing over the border into California as far as the town of Weed before we stopped at the Mount Shasta Brewing Company to stretch our legs and maybe quaff a beer or two. Because it’s in the town of Weed, Mount Shasta has adopted the motto, “Try legal Weed,” which apparently attracted the attention of the feds and almost got them shut down until the story made national news and popular opinion swung in favor of the brewer. Now they put it on all their souvenir t-shirts and hats.

From there we went a bit further on to the Dunsmuir Brewing Works to get a bite to eat and another lovingly-crafted microbrew. We would never have found this place without GPS; it’s all but hidden in a small storefront building that looked like maybe it was once a gas station and still kinda looks a lot like it’s shut up and abandoned. Good thing we made the effort to find it, though. Their ploughman’s platter filled me up in the best way: salmon that was smoked in-house, sausage, shrimp, peppers, two kinds of cheese and a hot demibagette with butter. B had an elk burger, perfectly grilled medium rare. And, of course, beer.

It was getting late by the time we hit the road again, so we drove up to Lake Shasta to look for a camp site. We wanted a camp fire that night but the first place we stopped was way back in the woods & had no fire rings. The next place, Antlers RV Park, was in Shasta-Trinity National Park – still closed by the feds, remember? BUT it appeared to be open. We checked one more place that wasn’t as nice, then went back to Antlers after stopping at a gas station to fill up the tank and grab a bundle of firewood. It was open! There were four or five other campers there, and they said that before the rangers left, they could stay as long as they wanted. So we slipped thirty dollars under the door, picked out a nice camp site not too far from the bathroom (it pays to plan ahead) and built a roaring fire that burned long after the sun set. We had one bottle of wine set aside in the camper that we popped open and shared as dusk deepened into night and all the stars came out. Turn out that toasted marshmallows are delicious with Sangiovese.

California Day 7 | 8:13 pm CST
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Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Woke up this morning, rubbed the sleepers from my eyes, tumbled out of the van and went staggering up the road to the office-slash-general store to get a cup of coffee.

Halfway back to our camp site I slowed to a stop as I caught sight of B standing just outside the van, binoculars in hand, getting quickly back into the van and closing the door behind her.

Turning to see what she might possibly be looking at that would make her seek the safety of the car, I noticed an elk standing among the trees. Then I noticed a couple more elk just beyond the edge of the treeline. And then, finally, I noticed there was a whole freaking herd of elk slowly making its way through the field just beyond the edge of the RV park. Okay, so I missed them at first. I bet you’re not exactly Old Eagle Eye before you’ve had your coffee, either.

We found out later that they come though almost every day. And they’re used to having lots of people around. They weren’t in the least spooked by us, and a few of them came startlingly close as they made their way through an open field to the trees on the other side.

elks

Elk, by the way, are huge. You don’t realize just how big they are until one of them is close enough to spit in your eye. Or stomp you like the bug you are.

After the excitement was over and we had all our crap packed up, we hit the road to look for some breakfast. On the way, we stopped at the entrance to Redwood National Park to take a few selfies with the notices that the park was closed due to the federal government shutdown. I was on vacation, so why did I care? Oh, I am so glad you asked. Because: Of all the places in California I’ve wanted all my life to visit, Redwood National Park was in the top five. This was my third visit to California, but only the first time I was close enough to the park to stop by. And what happens? The doot-brains in Washington get into a pissing contest and shut down everything, even the parks. When the feds shut down a park, they don’t just tell the guys in the Smokey hats to take the week off. No. They make the rangers set up sawbucks to block the entrances, then stand outside them and turn away visitors. No trees for you! Natural beauty is off limits this week! Thanks, federal government, for availing yourself of yet another opportunity to reinforce my opinion that you’re a sack of bastards.

You know what? We camped in one of your goddamn campgrounds anyway. Up yours!

government shutdown

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. We stopped at Antlers the last night we camped in California and found three or four other campers at the site who said all the forest rangers packed up and left when the feds shut everything down. Before they left, though, they told the campers that what they didn’t see, didn’t happen. The bathrooms were open and the lights were on, so we slipped thirty bucks under the door of the office and stayed for the night. The photo I took of My Darling B expressing her outrage at The Man for shutting everything down was too good not to share it with you at this point in the story, though. Now, back to Wednesday.

We had breakfast at the Palm Cafe and Hotel in Orick, and it was amazing! Their hospitality was top-rate from the moment we walked in the door. The host greeted us right away and showed us to a table by the window in the morning sunshine where he poured us a couple mugs of hot coffee and made sure they never got cold the whole time we were there. B zeroed in on the biscuits & gravy, her very favorite thing to order any time it appears on the menu, and she was very happy with the freshly-made biscuits and generous portion of gravy she got. I had a stack of the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever been privileged to stuff myself silly with. We were both well and truly serensified by the time we climbed back into the van to hit the road.

Welcome to OregonFrom Orick we went straight north, or as straight as the twisting road would let us, planning to make as few stops as possible until we got to Crescent City to fuel. We made a hard right turn onto State Highway 199 out of Crescent City and crossed into Oregon shortly afterwards, making a big loop just over the border through the town of Grants Pass before heading south again.

Grants Pass, by the by, is probably not a place that you’ve ever heard of but was made famous, or maybe infamous, by the initiation of Tony Roberts into a club known as Mountain Man Anonymous in 1993. To become a member of the club, Tony let one of the club members try to shoot a one-gallon fuel can off his head with an arrow. The arrow went a little south of the mark. “Surgeons removed the arrow from Anthony Roberts’ head by drilling a larger hole around the tip at the skull’s back and pulling the arrow through,” the AP story explained, which has to be the single most ewww-inducing sentence ever printed in an Associated Press news item. I used to carry it around in my wallet for years so I could read it to people just to watch them squirm.

We did not plan to go to Grants Pass just so I could be in the place where this happened; it was just a lucky accident.

We made one stop at Medford to visit the Apocalypse Brewery, but they weren’t open, darn it, and didn’t open until four o’clock, too late for us to hang around and still make it to the show in Ashland we were headed for, so I can’t say anything about their beer, too bad. If you go looking for it, it’s really hard to find because it’s at the back end of a business park in what looks like a U-Store-It unit. Don’t give up until you check behind the fast-food store.

Caldera Brewery Ashland OROnward to Ashland where, after driving all freaking day, we stopped for a much-deserved beer and some food at Caldera Brewing, a brewpub in a cavernous metal barn where hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles are lined up on shelves up the wall. I spent way too much time searching them to see if I could find two that were alike, then gave up after the food arrived.

Before heading into town to see the show, we checked in at Glenyan campground, an old KOA that still has the easily recognizable teepee-shaped front office. I still feel a happy little twinge of nostalgia whenever I see one of those. My family used to stop at KOAs whenever we went on our annual winter camping trip to the warmer climes of the southern states. A lot of the campsites at Glenyan were occupied by big RV trailers, most of them with pop-outs and most of them more or less permanently affixed to the property, making the tightly-packed grounds seem even cozier, but we were there just to stay the night. All we wanted, really, was a place to park and go to sleep. They let us use the rec room to charge our phones and tablets even though everything else was shut down or turned off, so bonus points, Glenyan, and thanks!

The show we were going to see in town was Cymbaline, just one of the many shows being staged at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. We picked Cymbaline because we hadn’t seen it before and because it was presented on their Elizabethan stage, an open-air theater encircled by the audience seats, sort of like the old Globe Theatre in London. Figured that would be a more authentic Shakespearian experience, somehow.

There was a stage just outside the theater where a local and apparently well-loved band was performing a few of their own numbers just prior to the start of Cymbaline, so we hung around outside the doors to see what they were like. I’m not sure how to describe their music without resorting to clichés like “drug-induced” and “hippy-dippy weirdo with a side order of dissonance.” I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can’t say it bothered me, either. Mostly, I was just bored with it. Not so the gathered crowd; they lapped it up and cheered for more, which made me feel as though I was somehow missing something. I kept listening for it, whatever it was, but I never got it.

Because the theater was open to the weather, naturally it rained on us. Quite a lot. We had seats right up front by the stage, which would have been the greatest if they hadn’t been out in the middle of the open roof. “I’m sure it’s going to stop any minute now,” B kept saying to me, as we were slowly being soaked through to our bones, and once or twice it did seem to be letting up just a bit, but then it would start coming down again, and of course it seemed like it was coming down a little bit harder, but that was probably only because we were already wet, chattering and miserable.

We eventually found an usher and begged him to change our seats for a couple in the shelter of the balcony, which would’ve been great if we weren’t already sodden as disrags, but since we were, we slowly froze all the way through to our cores as the first two acts played out. At intermission, we ducked out to the car, cranked up the heater as high as it would go and headed back to camp where we huddled together in a tightly-knotted ball under the quilts. I didn’t start to feel warm again until just before daybreak.

California Day 6 | 8:06 pm CST
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Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Humboldt Redwoods State Park CA

Tuesday morning we managed to pack up all the camp stuff and take a shower without the benefit of coffee. One of the challenges of camping is testing yourself to the extreme and finding out what you didn’t know you could do, like getting out of bed without an alarm clock, communicating a coherent thought before coffee, or taking a shower outdoors.

Okay, the showers weren’t technically outdoors. There was a bathroom outbuilding, the kind that’s pretty standard at just about any state park: unpainted cinder block construction with no windows, unless you count the screened-over vents between the tops of the walls and the edge of the roof as windows.

This is going to sound really weird, but actually I enjoy a hot shower a lot more when I’m standing on a cold slab of concrete in a shower stall made of cinder blocks. I don’t especially like the part before, when I have to very carefully hang everything up so it won’t get wet or dirty; or the part after, when I have to step gingerly through cold puddles of water as I’m trying, and failing, to dry myself off. Why is it you can’t get yourself completely dry when it’s cold outside, anyway? I wish I’d paid more attention in physics class. Whatever. That part in the middle, when I’m standing in a spray of scalding hot water while I’m surrounded by cold and more cold, is just golden. I don’t want to do it often, but when I get to do it, it’s bliss.

After the chores were done and all our gear was packed up in the van, we hit the road in search of coffee. We combined the high-tech and old school methods: I used my Mark One eyeballs to scan the roadside for any sign of a coffee shop or diner while My Darling B searched teh interwebs on her tablet. After driving a few miles up the road, success! We pulled in at a campground at Westport, because every private campground’s going to have a coffee maker in the office, right? And as a matter of fact, they did. The nice woman at the desk gave us two piping-hot coffees in tiny little cups but didn’t have any lids for them. It turns out that you can’t drink coffee in your car if the cups don’t have lids. You think you can hold the cup steady, but you can’t. Physics again. Science is such a bitch.

We had quite a few miles to put behind us that morning, so we pulled to the side of the road, guzzled a couple mouthfuls of coffee, dumped the rest and went on.

Chandelier Tree Leggett CAOur first planned stop of the day was the world-famous drive-through tree park, although, as we found out later, there isn’t one world-famous drive-through tree park; there are about a gojillion world-famous drive-through tree parks. The particular one we picked out of the guide books was the Chandelier Tree near Leggett. And I didn’t drive through it, because it didn’t look like the van would fit. I got the front end in before I chickened out. If it had been my car, though, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put a few memorial dings in it. After snapping the obligatory vacation photos of the tree, we visited the gift shop to buy a souvenir post card.

Our high-priority destination that day, the one we got out of bed for, was The Avenue of the Giants, a road that runs parallel to State Highway 101 but up the opposite side of the Eel River. It’s twisty and narrow and you really can’t go any faster than about thirty miles per, which is great if you’re a tourist but not so great if you’re driving a dump truck and you’re trying to get to the construction site up the road through all the tourist traffic. These were big dump trucks pulling a dump-truck trailer, and the drivers had no qualms at all about tailgating. Ordinarily, I would have gone all passive-aggressive and slowed down to twenty-five or twenty, but because I was on a stress-free vacation and it was a sightseeing day, I pulled over to the shoulder every chance I got to stop to gawk at the big trees, take snapshots and, not incidentally, let the dump trucks pass.

We passed several hours winding our way up The Avenue of the Giants until, about halfway up the road, we finally came to the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, where we could sit down for the first meal we’d eaten since the plate of macho nachos we gobbled down at Silver’s in Ft Bragg the day before. The gal who took our order at the register warned us that it was lunch hour for the local high school and the place was going to be chock-full of teenagers in about fifteen minutes. She wasn’t kidding. They started to line up at the front door right after we sat down at our table by the window, and they were there until just before we left. Nice kids, though. It’s not like they were any trouble. There were just a whole lot of them in a tiny little restaurant. And a pretty great place to eat, by the way. I had the Philly cheese steak sandwich and can recommend it. Ate the whole thing, even though it was big enough to feed two people. B had jalapeño poppers, her very favorite appetizer, and a gigantic calzone that she couldn’t finish. Wimp.

Back on the Avenue of the Giants, we eventually got to the place all the dump trucks were headed to, a stretch of road that was all dug up. We had to double back and find a bridge to cross over the river, which happened to be at Meyer Flat, which happened to be the location of the River Bend Winery, which happened to be a winery B wanted to visit. We spent close to an hour there; the owner was pouring the samples and he liked talking about his wines.

A little further up the Avenue of the Giants we pulled off to check out the visitor center because they had one of those cross-sections of a redwood log with labels pointing out rings that corresponded to the beginning of the industrial age, the signing of the declaration of independence, Columbus’s discovery of America, and so on. Speaking of which, why is Columbus still the discoverer of America? I thought it had been proven six ways from Sunday that at least three other famous explorers discovered America before he did. I think it’s about time to re-label the redwood rings, don’t you think?

Founder's Grove, Avenue Of The Giants, California

Just up the road from the visitor’s center, we pulled off at Founder’s Grove to hike the loop trail and gawp at some big, big BIG trees. One of the biggest was nicknamed “the Dyerville Giant” because it was between 360 and 370 feet tall when it was still standing. Unfortunately, it’s not standing any more. It got knocked over by another falling redwood in a storm, and when they both hit the ground there were people in San Francisco who stopped what they were doing and said, “What the hell was that?” I took quite a few photos of it from various angles, up close, farther away, panoramic, but none of them captured the sheer size of this monster. Unless you’re standing right next to it, feeling like a bug, it’s size doesn’t register. The best I could manage was a photo of My Darling B looking like a pixie at the foot of the giant.

On to Fortuna, the home of Eel River Brewery, America’s first organic brewery but, even more important, home to some of the most delicious beers we sampled on this trip. We got a flight of a dozen beers, a sample of all the beers they brewed. Yum. And the pub itself was a lot of fun, too, and clearly very popular. Every table had a big basket of salted-in-the-shell peanuts. You were meant to shuck them and throw the shells on the floor, as everybody else was doing. If you tried to pile them neatly on the table, the waitress would just sweep them off with the back of her hand when she brought you your beers, or stopped by to ask if you needed anything. We passed a leisurely hour or so there before we moved on to Trinidad.

We were hoping to stay overnight at an RV park called Sounds of the Sea. When we got there, the lady who came out to check us in looked around and asked, “Where’s your unit?”

“Oh, we just have the camper van,” I told her, waving in the general direction of our conveyance.

She gave it the hairy eyeball. “We only have spots for RVs,” she informed me in a tone that suggested I was not of the body.

“Well,” I offered, “all we need is a place to park it for the night. We don’t even need hookups.”

She looked at me like I was talking crazy talk.

“Or if that’s too much trouble,” I went on, “I can just look for another place.” I thanked her for her time and excused myself.

As I was climbing into the driver’s seat B asked me what was going on. “They don’t take our kind here,” I told her, starting the engine.

“Our kind?”

“Hobos who camp in vans.”

Driving just a little further on, we came to Elk Country Lodge. Three guesses why they call it that. Hint: There was a real live elk in the driveway when we drove in. Just standing there, looking majestic, surrounded by tourists standing just outside their cars taking pictures. Signs in the office warned us that elk often wandered through the campground, and that we should give them plenty of room because they are wild animals. Some people need to be told that. Actually, some people need more exposure to wild animals and, if it results in a little natural selection, so much the better.

Elk Country RV Resort turned out to be a great place to stop for the night because we had the campground almost to ourselves. Not that we wanted to stay up all night blaring music on the radio and dancing on the roof of the van or anything like that; just that we liked the peace and quiet. As the evening closed in, we popped open a bottle of vino we bought during our drive up the Anderson Valley, and sat in our camp chairs snacking on the noshies that were still left from our visit to the farmer’s market. When it was finally too dark and a little too cold to sit outside, we retired to the laundry where we surfed the internet while washing underwear. It doesn’t take much to please us.

California Day 5 | 8:03 pm CST
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Monday, September 30th, 2013

We woke up Monday morning with a deep, gnawing craving for coffee and no way to make it, something the guys who converted our van into a camper overlooked. A Mister Coffee in place of the sink in the back would be a huge improvement, I would think. Meant to leave them a note about that but I’m pretty sure I forgot.

After packing up, we left Hendy Wood Campground to search for a coffee shop or a diner open for breakfast but couldn’t find one within a stone’s throw of the campground, so eventually we settled for the boiled coffee they served at a roadside general store in Navarro, good enough to hold us over until we stopped for breakfast.

Navarro River Redwoods State ParkWe were traveling the road to the coast up the Navarro River valley. The road was narrow and winding, and redwoods grow thick and tall on both sides. This is the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, probably the longest, thinnest state park we’ve ever visited. On the map, it’s a long, green strip just a little wider than the road. It might have extended to either side of the road only as far as we could see, but while we were driving through it, it seemed as though we were deep in a primeval forest. Well, one that had an asphalt road laid through it, but still. We pulled off to the side of the road several times to crane our necks upward and gape in slack-jawed wonder at how tall the trees were. We found out later that these were just the babies; the really big ones were up the road further.

We stopped for breakfast at the Little River Inn, a hotel and restaurant on the coast just south of Mendocino that the friendly lady at the Lone Oak winery recommended to us, one of the better tips we got on this trip. It’s a beautiful place and obviously very popular; there were a lot of people in the dining room for breakfast who drove there just for breakfast. The main dining room’s got big picture windows looking back into the forest, and the small dining room that we sat in had a view of the coastline. Most of the rooms are strung out along a long porch that overlooks the coast, too. It’d be a beautiful place to stay the night.

After breakfast, we drove on just a couple miles to Mendocino, a hippy-dippy crafty town where we wandered from shop to shop for about an hour. The touristy part of town is just a few blocks facing the coastline and all the shops are crafty. It’s like being in a Ben Franklin’s that’s as big as three or four city blocks.

Point Cabrillo LighthouseA little further up the road I pulled off to see the Cabrillo Lighthouse on a whim. I had never heard of it before; we were on our way to Fort Bragg to see Glass Beach; but lighthouses always look so romantic and lonely and historic that I couldn’t just drive past the road sign pointing the way without thinking to myself that I would always wonder why hadn’t stopped, so off we went.

I had the impression in my mind that it would be right off the highway, because we were within eyeshot of the coast; I could see waves and water from the road, and the sign didn’t say it was miles away, which it turned out it was. We went humming along a twisting backroad for so long that I started to feel that maybe someone had played a joke on us with that road sign, until we came to the parking lot where we had to leave the van and take a mile-long hike through tick-infested grassland to get down to the rocky point where the lighthouse stood. Really, there were signs everywhere warning us to stay on the path or be ravaged by ticks. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing left and right off the path, my eyes searching the more prominent grassy patches for exsanguinated corpses.

The lighthouse is a museum now but, sadly, you can’t go up the stairs to the light and stand by the rail to get a view of the coast. You can get dangerously close to the rocky cliff’s edge to take a selfie while the breakers undermine the ground beneath your feet, though. After reviewing the exhibits explaining the history of the lighthouse and the people who tended it, we opted to return to the parking lot up the road that we could have driven down to get to the point but somehow overlooked. Not that we regretted it. It was a beautiful day and we poked our heads into an outbuilding stuffed full of aquariums filled with starfish, snails and crabs, and I toured the house where the lightkeeper lived with his family.

The day’s biggest letdown was Glass Beach, really the only tourist destination we had planned to make on this leg of the trip. It’s advertised as a magical place where glass from thousands of broken bottles has washed up on the shore, then were pounded into multicolored pebbles by the waves. In all the tourist books, it’s described as one of the must-see places along the northern California coast, but either we couldn’t find it in spite of detailed signage and well-worn pathways, or years and years of visits by sticky-fingered tourists have resulted in the disappearance of all the glass. We looked up and down the beach for any sign of glass, but could find only sand, rock and kelp. No joy.

Glass Beach, Ft Bragg CA

Our visit to Ft Bragg started with a dump truck driver who didn’t know how to drive through a roundabout and nearly ran us over. Welcome!

Further down the main drag of Ft Bragg we stopped at the much-anticipated tasting room of North Coast Brewing, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make a note. The gift shop at the brewery was open, though, and the nice lady there tipped us off to a restaurant in the harbor where their beer was served, so we went there for beer and a menu item called “macho nachos,” a plate of nachos so big it takes a busload of macho men to eat it. Or two hungry middle-aged travellers. We demolished that thing.

Just a little further up the road, we stopped at the Pacific Star Winery, perched on the cliffs over the ocean where breakers that appeared to be about a hundred feet tall crashed ever so picturesquely against the rocks. The gal pouring samples of wine said they had a big storm the day before that churned the sea up a bit. Before that, it had been flat as milk on a plate.

Stayed overnight at MacKerricher State Park, where we could hear the surf crashing all night long, and I do mean crashing; it sounded like a continual train wreck out there, and it seemed to get louder as the night went on. After hiking all day in the fresh air through tick-infested meadows and along the glass beach that wasn’t there, we were tired enough that it didn’t matter, and slept just fine.

Pacific Coast

California Day Four | 6:30 am CST
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Sunday, September 29th, 2013

We had a reservation to pick up a camper van Sunday morning. I should expand on that just a bit: It was a van, specifically a Dodge Caravan, that had been converted from a passenger van into a futon on wheels by taking out the middle bench seat, which was probably left by the curb with a “FREE” sign on it, and building a platform in its place out of plywood that we could unroll the futon in the back seat on. In theory, this gave us a place to sleep every night. In practice, this might have worked for me when I was in my twenties and thirties and was a lot more tolerant of sleeping on hard surfaces in cramped spaces.

It’s not entirely accurate to describe the futon as hard as a board, but it was not forgiving, and it was lumpy as a sack full of stress balls. It is, however, accurate in more than once sense of the word to describe the inside of the van as cramped, particularly after the futon was rolled out. Cramped, as in a very tight space, and cramped as in it gave us cramps. There was barely enough space between the futon and the ceiling liner to crawl in and out. A week of sleeping in this contraption turned me into a shambling zombie, emerging from it the last two or three days with a back so stiff that I walked like I had a broomstick shoved up my butt.

But I suppose it was a camper if you stretch the definition just a bit. Whoever modified it also built a small shelf in the back, where they installed a pump sink and a two-burner stove that burned gas from those little green canisters you can get at almost any Kwiki-Mart. We never used either the stove or the sink, but we did use the camp chairs that were shoved in behind the jerry can that the sink drained into. So there’s that.

I left B waiting with the bags at the hotel while I crossed down on the bus, then got on a tram that ran south down the bay side of San Francisco to a section of town that looked pretty sketchy: Lots of old warehouses mixed with empty lots, but lots of new construction, too. It looked like it might have been a good place to get the snot kicked out of you if you went there too late at night, but had morphed into a gentrified neighborhood of carefully maintained rundownedness for hipsters who worked in the tech industry. I had to walk about two blocks from the corner where the tram stopped to warehouse where the rental agency was just opening up, spend about a half-hour on the formalities of signing rental contracts while the owner told me about the features of the van, and then I was on my way north again, listening my smart phone tell me how to get back to the hotel. Two hours later, I met My Darling B at the curb in front of the hotel where she was waiting with our bags.

And scarcely fifteen minutes after that we were on our way out of San Francisco, again with the help of one of our talking smart phones. The voice on the Android app we use is kind of bossy, but when it gets me across town on busy eight-lane superhighways snaking through unfamiliar metro areas, I don’t care if it cusses at me. We drove north from SF across the Golden Gate bridge (bucket list checked) through Marin to stop at the Marin County Farmer’s Market, where we whiled away a couple hours wandering from vendor to vendor, picking up grapes, dates and other tidbits that would keep in our cooler. Before we left, we sat on a grassy strip with our goodies and had a little picnic lunch, then went to look for a shopping mall because we had not thought to pack towels, and although there was a place to sleep in the van, there was no blanket. We dashed into a Sears along the highway and got those and a few other sundries before heading north again.

My Darling B samples the wine at Lone Oak in Anderson Valley CAOur final destination that day was the Hendy Woods State Park in the Anderson Valley, which we picked because the Anderson Valley is chock full of small California wineries. We planned to make our way up the valley at a leisurely pace, stopping at whichever winery looked like it was open and might be interesting. Truth to tell, there is no way to drive up the Anderson Valley except at a leisurely pace, whether you plan to or not. After screaming up the highway from San Francisco through Marin, it was almost shocking to transition to a two-lane country road with so many twists and turns that thirty miles an hour suddenly felt like breakneck speed.

The first winery to meet our exacting standards (open, interesting) was Lone Oak, where the roadside tasting room had a rustic look and the host was very friendly and chatty, asking about where we’d come from and where we wanted to go in between pouring little splashes of wine into teeny-tiny wine glasses. She was happy to suggest several very good places to stop along our route, and we were so grateful that we gladly took a couple bottles of wine off her hands. We passed a happy hour or so there.

Our second stop was Yorkville Cellars. We were the only two people there and the host was not very chatty at all. Poured the wine, told us what it was, stood there silently watching us drink. I did not feel as though I wanted to linger as long there as I did at Lone Oak. I felt like I was supposed to taste wine, buy wine, and then not let the door hit me in the ass on the way out. Maybe the guy was having an off day, I don’t know. It was tasty wine; I would stop there again. But I wouldn’t expect too much in the way of hospitality, is all I’m saying.

Our last stop at a winery that day was Bing. Lovely place. We turned off the road in to a courtyard paved over with pea gravel. If I recall correctly, the entrance served two wineries, but we were there to visit Bing, which had a very modern-looking tasting room filled with wine snobs who were tossing around terms like “bouquet” and “tannins” and were dressed like people out of the New York Times styles section. Then these two rubes from the sticks showed up in their t-shirts and sneakers. I was pleasantly surprised that the hosts were just as chatty and interested in keeping up a conversation with us as they were with talking to the wine snobs. And the wine was so delicious that we picked out several bottles and bought a couple of souvenir wine glasses, which to this day occupy a special place in our dining room display of china and glassware.

More than one person told us that Hendy Woods State Park was one of the most beautiful places in the area to set up camp, but we didn’t get much of an opportunity to have a look. It started to rain just as we got there and kept on raining, sometimes lightly, sometimes a bit more, all night long. The van came with a rain fly; I set it up so we could lounge in our camp chairs enjoying a picnic dinner of wine, crackers with hummus and olives until well after dark before turning in, reflecting on an agreeably pleasant day.

California Day Three | 6:26 am CST
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Saturday, September 28th, 2013

First stop Saturday morning was breakfast at Sweet Maple where the coffee was strong and the bacon was one inch thick. Not literally, but pretty close, and that seems to be what it’s known for. Google “sweet maple san francisco” and you’ll see lots of photos people took of their bacon. I’m not kidding. I don’t remember much more about Sweet Maple, other than the food was good and the restaurant was very popular. We got there just before the morning rush of very fit-looking people showed up. By the time we finished our breakfast and left, the line was out the door.

From there we headed to Pier 39 to see the sea lions, the next item on our San Francisco bucket list (Golden Gate, cable cars, sea lions, an earthquake). A whole lot of floating docks have been moored off the far end of the pier that serve no other purpose than to give the dozens of fat sea lions a place to lounge in the sun so that tourists can take lots and lots of photos of them. I would bet that the people who own the expensive boats tied up along the actual docks pay extra money to keep the sea lions and their great big stinky sea lion poop way out on those floating docks. I could be wrong. But I bet I’m not.

After “see the sea lions” was checked off our bucket list, we wandered along the wharf toward Ghiardelli Square looking for the kiosk where we could buy a Muni pass that would let us ride the cable cars, trams and buses all day. The kiosk turned out to be at the end of the Hyde-Powell cable car line, right where we wanted to be. We planned to take the cable car to Lombard Street anyway, but then we got distracted by Ghiardelli Square, where we went to do a little shopping first and then ended up having ice cream for lunch. As you do.

There was a long, long line of tourists waiting to get on the cable car at the end of the line. I thought we would be able to beat the crowds by walking up the road a couple blocks and waiting at the stop for the next car that came along. See, I’m pretty devious that way. Well, it turns out that the guys who run the cable cars drive right by smartasses like me without so much as pausing to flip us off. The next cable car wasn’t due to come by for at least twenty minutes and would probably be just as packed full of tourists as the last one, so we wandered around until we found a bus to take us back to the top of Lombard Street. Note to self: Never plan on getting anywhere in San Francisco on the cable cars. They’re just a tourist attraction that happens to be a mode of transportation, not the other way around. Jump on them at least once so you can say you’ve done it, but if you need to get somewhere at a certain time, plan on getting there using anything else but a cable car.

Lombard Street is the twistiest-turniest street in San Francisco. And a tourist destination. So many tourists show up to take pictures of Lombard Street that there are a couple of San Francisco traffic cops at every intersection to keep traffic from running over the tourists. The locals must love that. We went because bucket list.

Lombard Street San Francisco

Then it was on to Telegraph Hill; easier said than done. We got on a bus that took us to within a couple blocks of Union Square as the base of Telegraph Hill, then couldn’t figure out how to get the rest of the way other than by just walking, which wasn’t a problem, it’s just that we’re both kind of out of shape, so much so that by the time we’d walked three blocks we were ready for a nap. We settled for a rest on a bench in the square.

B wanted to see the parrots of Telegraph Hill. I had my doubts that there even were any parrots, much less that we would be lucky enough to see even one of them, but she was determined to at least try. She was not, however, going to climb the hill, especially not after our three-block trek up to Union Square. Trying to sort out which bus to catch to the top, though, is not easy to do. There are lots of bus lines that stopped on a dozen or so corners, and it’s not like you can just look at them and intuit where they go. We had to circle around the square a couple times before we figured it out. When we finally got to the top, we were there barely five minutes, standing at the edge of the overlook to take a selfie, when a whole effen flock of parrots went whiffling past. Check off another item from our list.

Walking down Filbert Steps was a huge disappointment. It’s billed in the guide books as a scenic walk with classic views of the city, but it was more like a back alley.

We stopped to cool off with a couple of well-deserved cold beers at a bar in Union Square before walking up to Mason Street to catch a cable car to the cable car museum. (I would argue that this is the one time you should plan to go anywhere on a cable car.) The first cable car that came by blew us off. The driver didn’t even look our way. The next one paused, more or less (it was sort of a rolling stop), and the driver shouted at us, “FOUR! I can take FOUR! THERE!” he said, pointing at the running boards, “and THERE!” We jumped on and each of us grabbed a handhold, just like you see in the movies.

Let me take just a moment to tell you about cable cars. They move only as fast as the cable that pulls them along, and I think that’s something like ten, maybe twelve miles per hour, tops. Doesn’t look very fast when you’re walking along and see one go by. When you’re clinging to one for dear life, though, and cars are whizzing past just inches away from your butt, then cable cars seem to be GOING LIKE A BAT OUTTA HELL! Out trip to the museum on the outside of a cable car was maybe ten blocks at the most, not very far but terrifying, or exhilarating, I’m not sure which.

The cable car museum is actually the working powerhouse for two of the cable car lines. There’s a little museum off to one side, but smack in the middle of the room there are four or six or eight (I forget, sue me) whirling steel wheels, each as big as a full moon, pulling the cables that make the cars go up and down the hills. It’s kind of loud, but it’s really very cool, or at least it was to me. Even B said she liked it, and I think she really meant it, even though her eyes usually glass over when I mention going to see anything that has to do with trains.

After wandering around the museum a bit, we caught a bus downtown to get a beer at a brewpub called The 21st Amendment which was unfortunately right down the street from the baseball stadium and a game had just let out; the place was packed! Shoving our way through the crowds, we found a place upstairs to sit with our beers while the crowd yammered around us. The guy at the next table had an expression on his face, which got more disgusted with each passing minute, that said this was his favorite hangout, and all these jabbering yahoos were seriously harshing his buzz. We downed our beers and got out as quickly as we could, catching a street car across town, the intention being to get some dinner at a restaurant called The Social Kitchen.

We had a little trouble with the streetcar. The driver stopped well short of our destination in a residential neighborhood and told us we had to get out, but there would be another train along in about 20 minutes. Apparently this is a thing they do. “I can’t take you any further than this, get out.” The rest of the riders didn’t seem bothered at all by it, just got off and stood by the side of the road, waiting until the next tram came along. Well, whatever.

The brewpub was well worth the wait; good food and good beer. B sampled all their brews in a flight and I had just one glass before we ventured forth to catch the bus back to the hotel. The bus driver must have been related to the guy who drove the tram, because he dropped us off about ten blocks short of our destination in a residential neighborhood! It happened to us twice in one day! Bonus!

California Day Two | 6:22 am CST
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Friday, September 27th, 2013

We landed in San Francisco airport in the afternoon, which sort of makes it sound as if I were flying the plane, doesn’t it? Even if I could, I’m not sure I would ever be able to steel myself up for that part where it looks like we’re landing on the water. That and a dozen other neuroses are why I’m not a commercial airline pilot.

The taxi driver who picked us up at the airport and drove us to the hotel treated us to a lively commentary of the sights along the way while he narrowly avoided causing several accidents. I like talking people and I like learning things I didn’t know about places I’ve never been. Most cabbies seem to feel the same way and I suspect that most of them believe they’ll get a better tip if they share, but goddamn I wish they’d just sit there silent as a stone if they can’t divide their attention well enough to keep it between the lines. Our guy got so distracted telling us about the beach that he drove past the road he wanted to turn on. Naturally, he did what anybody would expect him to do: He stopped in the middle of the road, threw the cab into reverse and backed up to the intersection while traffic whizzed by us.

We were booked at the Seal Rock Inn on Point Lobos Ave in the northeast corner of the city. It’s a long way gone from downtown San Francisco and it was not the fanciest of hotels, but the price was right. Besides, we weren’t going to be spending a lot of time there. For the short time we were there, we had a pretty good view of the entrance to the Golden Gate, when it wasn’t socked in by fog.

After we dropped our bags at the hotel, we were feeling just peckish enough to want a bite to eat, so we walked down to a seaside restaurant called Louis’s for an enormous sandwich. Actually, we walked past Louis’s to a bistro called Cliff House, but there was a waiting list, even though I could see open tables. It felt kind of hoity-toity, too. So we punched out of there as brassily as only out-of-towners can and walked back up the hill to Louis’s, a perfectly suitable diner perched on the edge of a seaside cliff with a terrific view of the sea.

Then we went for an amble along the road that appeared to go to Lincoln Park on the point at the entrance to the Golden Gate. I wanted to see if we could eyeball the bridge from there. We had to amble quite a bit further than I thought we would to get far enough around the point to see it, but when we finally did, it turned out to be worth the walk. It looks just as majestic in person as it does whenever you see it in movies or artsy-fartsy photos, even from that far away.

B and I at the Golden Gate

The overlook was about in the middle of the trail that ran along the water’s edge in Lincoln Park, and B suggested that, instead of going back along the part that we’d already seen, we keep going to see what else there was. The park wasn’t all that special, but the view of the bridge got better and better. I successfully avoided the temptation to crawl out on the rocks with the rest of the tourists, partly because I’m not the daredevil I used to be, but mostly because there were signs posted along the way warning that other people who tried that had fallen to their deaths, and I didn’t disbelieve them.

It was about six-thirty by the time we came to the end of the trail on the other side of the park, so we used our handy-dandy smart phones to find the nearest bus stop and hopped on the first bus into town. Buying smart phones right before we went on this trip was about the smartest thing we did (I’ll get to the dumbest things later). We never got lost, and we could do things like look up bus schedules, although they weren’t always as accurate as they could have been.

We jumped off the bus at Hyde Street, then rode a cable car (our first cable car ride together!) to the waterfront. B wanted to visit a wine shop in the tourist district. There was nobody in the place except the host, a younger guy who liked to tell stories about all the places he’d been around the world. Said he’d been to 31 states and 50-something countries, and had the snapshots on his camera to prove it. He showed us his latest trip to Cambodia while he poured wine. A born salesman, he convinced us to tote quite a lot of wine back to the hotel with us. Well, quite a lot for us. I had the feeling he thought he was going to sell us quite a lot more.

After a long bus ride back to the hotel, we turned in late and slept the sleep of travellers who’d just crossed the country and spent all day walking around a new city.

cali friday1 | 4:45 pm CST
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Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Not really sure where the weekend went. It was here when I got up this morning, but now I can’t find it no matter how many places I look for it.

When I got up this morning, I decided the first thing I was going to do was write a rough draft of an itinerary for the summer vacation we’re taking in October. Yeah, it’s a little weird to call a vacation that’s just a few weeks away from the first snowfall a “summer vacation,” but there’s a good reason for it, and here it is: Whenever we’ve taken vacations in the past, something has always gone wrong that we didn’t account for, so now we plan our summer vacations to start in the fall and that way there’s one HUGE thing wrong with them that we already know about and are prepared for.

I just made that up. Could you tell?

So anyway, after I brewed a big pot o’ java and settled back in my easy chair with my laptop, I opened up the very brief outline I’d already started for our trip that had maybe four items on it, three of which were stuff we added only because we were looking at an area on the map around the number one key scenic tourist destination we knew we were going to see while we were on the west coast, a redwood forest like the kind that Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak strolled through in Vertigo. Never cared much for the movie but that scene has nagged at me from my memory since the first time I was awestruck by it. I’ve been to California twice, but I’ve never seen a redwood forest, so when we started talking about taking a trip to the west coast, that was the first thing I asked for.

My Darling B was okay with that but was somewhat iffy about anything else, hence the short list. Oh, and there was a Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, she was keen on seeing if we could fit that in somewhere.

Since our desires were so sketchy we weren’t even sure where to begin our trip, so we randomly chose Seattle, Washington, as our starting point, thinking we would head south from there down the coastal highway and stopping at whatever sights looked interesting, or when our butts were too tired of sitting in a car seat any longer. It’s kind of impossible to sketch an itinerary based on an idea like that, though, so when I sat down with my cuppa joe and my laptop this morning I went looking for a slightly more substantial beginning to start our trip.

To make it easier to wander about, one of the things we’d been considering was renting an RV and, after stopping whenever we felt like it to see whatever we felt like looking at, we would pull into a KOA or some other small campground to stay the night. I’d found a dealer in Seattle to rent an RV but then made the mistake of looking for horror stories about them, and the internet being what it is I naturally found a few, which sort of put me off the idea of renting.

But this morning I started looking for rentals again and when I found a dealer in the San Francisco area I thought, Why not start our trip in San Francisco instead of Seattle? It’s closer to the redwoods, for a start, which means less driving, probably, and since I’m going to be the one doing the driving, that sounded like a great way to start.

So I checked out the San Francisco area for things both of us might like to go see and found quite a lot, really, probably because it’s San Francisco. I’d be surprised if there’s anybody anywhere who couldn’t name three San Francisco landmarks. Don’t tell me you can’t. And just north of San Francisco there’s Muir Woods where Jimmy and Kim strolled beneath those redwood trees, and a farmer’s market in Marin. My Darling B loves farmer’s markets.

I ended up piddling away three hours sketching out an itinerary that took us north from San Francisco to Redwood National Forest, up through Grants Pass to Ashland where we could drop in on the Shakespeare festival, then south through Chico so we could stop at the Sierra Nevada brewery in time for Oktoberfest before returning the RV to the dealer in San Francisco. It took three cups of coffee and one hell of a lot of googling, but I managed to do it. Somewhere in the middle of all that, My Darling B got out of bed and helped me google from her perch on the sofa (she’s the one who discovered Oktoberfest). And now that we’ve got the bare essentials of the trip sketched out, we’ll need another Sunday morning, or maybe two more, to flesh out the details.

vanishing act | 9:40 pm CST
Category: My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Friday, March 29th, 2013

Many many moons ago I drove my lemon yellow Volkswagen bus from Colorado to California to visit my brother. I drove south from Denver to Albuquerque and then, in spite of every lesson I learned from Bugs Bunny about taking a left turn there,* I turned right, drove all the way across Arizona on old Route 66, entered California through the Mojave Desert and kept on going until I got to the Pacific coast. The drive north up Highway One to Carmel remains one of the greatest behind-the-wheel trips of my life.

While I was waiting at a stoplight in Carmel, a kid who looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old stepped up to the curb, looked up the street, then looked at me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been privileged to ride in the cab of a Volkswagen bus. If you have, then you know that you are not far away from whatever is going on just outside the car. You are, in fact, sitting in front of the front wheels. Your feet are inches from the front bumper. All this to say, when someone is standing just outside the window looking at you, you can’t pretend that you’re invisible because you’re in a car. You are so close to one another that it would be rude.

So when this kid looked at me, I figured he was waiting for me to give him some kind of sign that it was okay to cross in front of me, even though I was waiting for the light. California was like that. When I drove up Highway One, I must’ve passed dozens of Volkswagens going the other way. The driver of every single one of those Volkswagens waved at me as I went past. It was like finding out I was in a club that I didn’t even know about until I got there.

There I was, waiting at a corner in Carmel, California, for a green light, the kid on the corner looking at me expectantly, and me thinking that I ought to give him some kind of sign … or something. So I extended my right hand and swept it across the dashboard in a gesture that, from my point of view, meant, Go ahead, or Safe to cross, or maybe even, I won’t run over you until you get to the middle of the street. From where he stood, though, the gesture apparently meant, Going my way? because he stepped off the curb, opened the passenger door and jumped in.

I was so stunned that the only thing I could think to say was, “Where you going?”

“Just three or four blocks up,” he answered.

Green light.

“Well, okay then,” I said, put the bus in gear and drove on.

I don’t remember whether or not we talked about anything. If we did, it couldn’t have been much. He really didn’t want to go that far. About four blocks up the road he pointed at the corner, said, “Right here’s fine.” I pulled up at the curb, he said thanks and jumped out.

And that was the first time I gave a ride to a stranger.

*When I started to write the part about driving south to Albuquerque, the first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Bugs Bunny: “I knew I shoulda taken a left toin at Albakoikee!” It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I opened Google and typed “Bugs Bunny should have.” It autofilled “turned left.” bliss!

hop in | 6:03 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, play, story time, The O-Mobile, travel | Tags:
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Thursday, March 28th, 2013

I suffered the biggest culture shock of my life when the Air Force transferred me from the peace and quiet of RAF Digby in northern England to the ear-shattering jet noise and chaos of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The culture of the Air Force in the two places, and the culture of the host countries, were so completely different from one another I was nearly catatonic.

There were about a half-dozen Air Force goobers stationed at Digby, most of them airmen. I was a technical sergeant. But the station and the base were so quiet, dare I say even sleepy, that I didn’t have much to do in the way of supervising anybody, as tech sergeants are expected to do in other places. I supervised a staff sergeant, and he supervised the airmen. Two years of that left me fat, dumb and happy, if a six-foot-tall guy who weighs 155 can even metaphorically be described as “fat.” (Sadly, there’s no question about the “fat” part.)

I don’t know how many Air Force goobers there were at Misawa but I was immediately put in a position where I was responsible for about two dozen of them, and by “responsible” I mean that I was the person whom the mission superintendent yelled at when one of my minions screwed up. My duties, I soon learned, were to then go and find out who screwed up and yell at him or her or them. The mission supe, you see, was too high up the food chain to yell at the underlings directly. It was a game of monkey in the middle, and I got to be the monkey. Also, I got to write everybody’s performance reports. Every single goddamn one. The sergeants who were supposed to do it couldn’t write a bathroom-stall limerick to save their lives, or so they said, and backed it up by not doing it.

And that was just the change in Air Force culture. Going from England, where I could read and write and speak to the local people, to Japan, where I couldn’t do any of that, very nearly drove me crazy. I was literally walking around in a daze for I don’t know how long. I’d been stationed before in foreign lands where I couldn’t speak the language, but I’d always been able to read. Give me a dictionary and I could figure things out. Being stationed in Japan, though, was the first time I’d been plopped down in a country where I couldn’t read. It was like being an infant again.

Culture shock | 5:59 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags: ,
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Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Mom took me to see the Wal-Mart shrine in Bentonville when I went down there to visit her. The front of the five-and-ten-cent store where Bill Walton founded his empire has been preserved and, not surprisingly, just inside the front door there’s a little pretend store filled with old-timey nick-knacks you can pick up as a souvenir of your visit.

The fake store out front is just the beginning, through. Stepping through it, we found ourselves in a museum devoted to the history of Wal-Mart. Mom pointed in awe at the maps posted along the walls that showed the number and location of Wal-Mart stores through the years with little clusters of dots that started in Arkansas and spread across the nation, looking not unlike botulism colonies spreading across a petri dish. I was more fascinated by the framed full-page newspaper ads. Did you know there was a time when you could buy a men’s button-down shirt for less than five bucks?

Bentonville | 6:02 am CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Thursday, February 21st, 2013

With Mom in front of the original Wal-Mart store in Bentonville, Arkansas.

walmart

cheese | 9:32 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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