Monday, October 24th, 2022

I have spent another weekend cutting up lumber to make what I hope will be improvements to the camping thing. I’m still blinking sawdust out of my eyes this Monday morning.

At it again …

When I built the first iteration of the camping thing, I was inspired by a design I saw in a video on YouTube. I tried to get as close as I possibly could to that design, but the guy who built his camping thing shot a lot of video of his final product but didn’t shoot any video showing how he built it. I had to take a lot of screen caps and make a lot of guesses, but I think I came pretty close to his design.

What I liked most about his was that it looked simple enough that I could build it. It was a bed frame made to fit the floor in the back of the van, two cargo compartments on stilts that fit into the rear windows on either side, and an arch that reached across the width of the van just behind the driver / passenger seats.

The bed frame was made of two straight slabs of plywood screwed to a couple of 2 x 4s which anchored it to the floor — there’s more framing to it than that, but that’s the gist. It was topped by two pieces of plywood, hinged across the middle so I could lift up the front or lift up the back to access the space for storage underneath.

With the two cargo compartments on either side of the bed, there was so much storage space that there was no need to block the view out the rear by installing a kitchen, the way most people do when they adapt their minivans to camping. I could store all the pots & pans and food in the well where the rear seats used to go. I liked this very much because I bought a tent which encloses the back end of the van when the hatch is open, allowing me to look out the screened-in back when I’m inside.

This design also left a space between the bed and the first row of seats, which I thought would make it easier for me to get in and out. After a couple of camping trips, though, I discovered that most of the time I get into the van by simply climbing up onto the bed. Also, there’s only enough of a gap between the bed and the seats to sit hunched over facing forward, which isn’t really that useful.

When listing the pros and cons of this design, the feature at the top of the list of cons was that the bed frame was 52 inches from head to foot, requiring an extension which was stowed under the front lid, eating up a lot of valuable stowage space. The extension was a piece of plywood 48 inches long and 20 inches wide. After installing legs and reinforcing it with a rail underneath it was at least five pounds too heavy. I never did figure out a way of getting it in and out of the stowed position that wasn’t awkward and because of that, once it was in place I tended to leave it for the duration of the camping trip, so it might as well have been permanent.

I never did work out a way to sit up in this bed. I tried several different ways to prop open one lid or the other, thinking I might be able to recline on it, but I could never get comfortable. So with this particular design there was just no way for me to sit. There isn’t enough headroom between the ceiling and the mattress to sit fully upright, so if I wanted to write I had to stretch out on one side or the other, propped on an elbow, and if I wanted to read it was that or lay flat on my back.

Having an unobstructed view out the back turned out to be not as desirable as I initially thought. The only way I could see out the back was to lay on my stomach and prop myself up on my elbows, which is none too comfortable so I didn’t do it often. And my position in the van was higher than the screened opening in the tent, so mostly all I could see was the ground immediately outside the van. Even if I managed to lower the bed an inch or two, I can’t imagine I’d spend much time looking out the back.

And whether or not I wanted a chuck box / kitchen blocking my view, the back end of the van is pretty much the natural location for a chuck box or kitchen. That’s the only place in the van that makes sense for the fridge I bought. The minivan I drive, a Toyota Sienna, has a very deep well just inside the tailgate for two seats to disappear into. I yanked out the seats so I could stuff a fridge in there, with lots of room left over to stash food, pots, pans, plates & utensils, a cook stove, etc. So naturally whenever I was preparing for a meal or cleaning up after one, I worked out of the back of the van. Might as well put a chuck box / kitchen back there because it’s there anyway.

Even with all those drawbacks I was reluctant to give up on this design. If I’m honest, I felt that way mostly because I had already spent a fair bit of time building it out and didn’t want to spend even more time starting over from scratch. I tried a couple of really desperate modifications to avoid starting from scratch, like I tried sleeping on a 24-inch-wide mattress, thinking if that worked out I could carve out a place from the other half to sit up, but after trying to sleep on a 24-inch-wide mattress I learned that was a great big nope.

So I’ve started over. And just as I came to this decision, YouTube recommended a video of another design for a minivan camper thing that looked interesting. Stay tuned …

little boxes | 8:31 pm CST
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Friday, September 30th, 2022

A day at the beach

I spent the weekend at the state park campground on North Trout Lake and it was glorious!

Last time I was here it was, ah, not so glorious. It started raining shortly after I arrived, kept raining all night and all the next morning. It was still raining when I packed up and left.

But this time, wow! The weather was so sunny and clear when I got there that I couldn’t resist taking the kayak down to the beach immediately to put it in the water and go for a paddle around the lake. I didn’t intend to go all the way around the lake but the day was so beautiful that what started out as a quick paddle turned into a long, lazy paddle all the way around the shore. I found several little sheltered bays and a beaver lodge down at the south end of the lake, then paddled up the western shoreline through the reeds until I got to the north end where all the houses were. Circling back, I got to camp a couple hours later and ate lunch.

After lunch I crossed paths with a guy about my age who was out for a walk with his wife. He stopped me to chat me up and, as you do, asked me where I was from. I said I lived in Madison, and asked where he was from. “Oh, have you ever heard of a little town called Waupaca?” I’m sure he thought he was going to stump me with that one. Why would anyone from Madison have heard of Waupaca? He was quite surprised when I told him I grew up in a little town down the road from Waupaca. “Which town?” he asked. When I told him, he said, “Manawa! Did you know either of the Baumer girls?” I said sure, Jeannie was in my class. “She’s my cousin.”

With the little time I had left in the evening, I hopped on my bicycle and rode down to Cathedral Point, a little spit of land that sticks out into the strait between North Trout Lake and South Trout Lake. It takes me about 40 minutes to paddle as far but only 20 mins to cycle there. I had a little walk around the point before cycling back.

I had just enough time when I got back to build a fire before the sun went down. It got dark quickly after that so I ate my supper by the light of the camp fire. I played with the fire for a couple hours, then waited for it to burn down to coals before I took a walk to the beach to see the stars. By then the crescent moon had set and it was dark enough to see the Milky Way. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that many stars.

The moon setting over Trout Lake

When I got out of bed Saturday morning it was cold enough to see my breath. I built a fire for warmth and boiled some water to make coffee and instant oatmeal. The lake was smooth as glass and plumes of steamy air rose from it into the cold sky. It was almost too cold to go out onto the lake but I knew that if I didn’t, I’d kick myself forever, so I finished up my coffee, then trundled the kayak down to the beach.

Morning mist over the lake

Rowing through the mist was a dream. The bow cut through the water with barely a ripple. I paddled down past Cathedral Point and around the bend into South Trout Lake where I could ground the kayak, step out and remove my hoodie before going on. The sun was full on me by then and was more than enough to keep me warm.

There were three little islands at the northernmost end of South Trout Lake. I spent almost a half hour slowly circling them before heading back to the campground. Felt just a bit too confident that the kayak would easily slide over the rocky shoals surrounding the islands and got hung up twice, but backing off and going around was easy enough.

I had to fight a headwind and breaking waves to paddle back to camp. Not exactly the way I wanted to end a relaxing paddle and to make it just a little more irritating, the wind died just after I dragged the kayak back into camp, leaving the lake glassy-smooth again. If I’d waited another thirty minutes to head back, the return would have been so much easier.

I caught a few winks in my camp chair before going on a bike ride in the afternoon. I headed north past Boulder Junction a ways, not to the end of the trail but much farther than I had intended to go. The trail was so easy, though! I just kept going until I had been on the trail for a little over an hour. Knowing at that point it would take at least as long to get back, I turned around. Lucky for me, there was no headwind on the way back; it was as easy a ride on the way back as it was on the way out.

I was too tired to do anything else after returning, so I just sat with a book until I nodded off. When I woke it was getting dark as well as getting cold, so I built a fire and sat next to it for a couple hours playing with it until it finally burned out.

Burned out …
A Weekend at North Trout Lake, Sep 30 – Oct 2 | 9:22 pm CST
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Friday, September 9th, 2022

I took vacation on Friday, Sep 9, and Monday, Sep 12, so I could make a long weekend out of a visit to Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands

Big Bay State Park

I’d been rained out of about half of all the camping trips I planned this summer and it looked at first as though I was going to get rained out of this one, too. Early in the week, the forecast called for rain all weekend, but as the week went on the three days of rain gradually shifted from the weekend to the week. I made no plans to go anywhere else. I was going to Big Bay come hell or high water.

It takes about six hours to drive straight through from Our Little Red House to Big Bay, but I did not drive straight through. When I was about an hour south of Stevens Point I realized I did not bring a book to read before bed. Knowing I would not be able to get a good night’s sleep without something to read, I stopped at Stevens Point to visit a book store, then continued on to Wausau, where I stopped for lunch at the Red Eye Brewing Company.

Until I left Wausau, the skies were clear and sunny, but just north of Wausau the clouds began to crowd in, and by the time I passed through Merrill, about a half-hour north of Wausau, it was raining. For the next three hours I drove through a steady, gloomy, cold rain from Merrill to Bayfield.

When I made plans to go to Big Bay, I originally thought I would stop at Copper Falls State Park to hike the trail for about an hour, but by the time I got to the turnoff to Copper Falls I was already more than an hour behind schedule. There was a ferry to catch from the mainland to Madeline Island, and I wanted to get to Big Bay before it was dark, so Copper Falls would have to wait until another time.

The ferry is scheduled to depart Bayfield at the top of every hour. Google Maps was stubbornly telling me that I was due to arrive at 5:05 no matter how much faster than the speed limit I drove. I typically drive about five miles per hour faster than the speed limit but I started pushing it to seven or eight miles faster when I saw I might miss the ferry. Didn’t make any difference to Google Maps. In the very rural stretch between Ironwood and Ashland I gave it still a bit more gas but still couldn’t shave any time off my estimated arrival. Eventually I surrendered to the inevitable, relaxed my foot off the gas pedal and eased into Bayfield at exactly 5:05 pm.

The main road into Bayfield ends at the Bayfield pier, where I could see a ferry tied up, so I parked the van nearby and looked for someone to buy a ticket from, but nobody was around. Asking around, I discovered the ferry departed from a wharf just to the north of where I was parked. I got back into the van and drove up there to an empty parking lot where a dripping-wet teenager in a rain slicker was selling tickets to a ferry that was nowhere to be seen. Thinking I’d just missed the ferry, I bought a ticket, parked the van (fourth in line behind other campers) and set out in search of a restroom. Just as I found a sign pointing the way, I glanced out across the water and saw the ferry arriving! Came back to find the ferry at the dock with cars streaming off the deck! There was just enough time for me to get back to the van and start the engine before we began to drive onto the ferry, which departed at 5:30 pm.

In the four days I was on Madeline Island, I never saw a ferry arrive or depart on time. To be fair, I saw them arrive or depart four, maybe five times, but still: never on schedule. I think they get there when they get there, and they leave when they’re loaded up.

I call this “Crazy Dude with Car Ferry” — La Pointe, Madeline Island

I drove straight from the landing at La Pointe, Madeline Island, to the state park, about 5 miles from the dock, and had just enough daylight left to unload the bike and the kayak, then set up the tent over the back end of the van. The gloomy overcast shortened the day by quite a bit. In the dim twilight I took a walk around the campground to get a look around. Saw several deer, which didn’t seem to be bothered by having people close by. It was almost too dark to see by the time I got back to the van, so I shook the rainwater off my coat and hat, climbed into the van, and buttoned up for the night. Read my new book until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more.

A misty morning at Big Bay

Woke early Saturday morning, dozed until about six. Dressed and took a walk down to the beach, eager to see what the park had to offer. The beach is a barrier island which stretches almost all the way across the innermost part of the bay, creating a lagoon on the inland side. The barrier island is just wide enough that trees, grass, and scrubby little bushes have established themselves on the island. There’s a boardwalk up the inside of the barrier so you can hike from one end to the other without trampling the delicate flora growing along the way. It’s a long walk from one end to the other, about a mile and a half, and I hadn’t had any breakfast or even coffee yet, so I only went about halfway before doubling back.

On my walk I crossed paths with a flurry of three little kids chased by a mother with a coffee thermos. “HI NEIGHBOR!” the kids called out to me as they ran down to the beach. “WE’RE GOING TO SEE THE BEACH! WE SAW THE SUN SET LAST NIGHT! DID YOU SEE THE SUN SET? OKAY SEE YOU BYE!” I’m never not amazed by how much energy each and every kid can generate.

After a cup of tea and a banana, I took a drive around the island to see what there was to see, and also to find a boat ramp or some kind of public access to the bay where I could launch my kayak. Turns out there isn’t any. You can rent a canoe or a kayak from several places, but if you bring your own, you have to carry or drag it quite a ways to get it to the beach where you can launch it. For me, this ended up being about a five-minute walk from my camp site, not a huge inconvenience but this is one of the few state parks I’ve been to where there wasn’t easy public access to the water.

My drive around the island was pleasant enough but there wasn’t much to see outside the state park. Some of the shore line was nice but it’s clearly all posted private property, so I didn’t even think about stopping to walk it. Quite a lot of the island was accessible only on unpaved roads which were far from shore, so there’s not much to see that you wouldn’t see on any back road in northern Wisconsin. I drove almost every road on Madeline Island in a little more than an hour and was back to eat lunch before noon.

After lunch, I dragged the kayak down the trail to the beach. When I say “dragged,” I don’t mean that I literally dragged it on the dirt and rocks and roads of the park. I mean I strapped it to a tiny wheeled trolley and led it like a good little doggie. Just wanted to make that clear. “Why don’t you just carry it?” I hear you ask. Although my kayak only weighs about sixty pounds, I can’t carry it very far because 1) I’m old & lazy, and 2) my kayak is eighteen feet long, which makes it very difficult to carry for any distance at all. Hence, the trolley, which works a treat and which I can fold up and stow in the reach hatch of the kayak. If you have a canoe or kayak, get a trolley for it, they’re great.

Launching from the beach near the campground meant I had to paddle the length of the barrier island to get to the inlet to the lagoon, about a twenty-minute paddle. There’s a footbridge across the inlet supported by a couple of rustic timber-crib piers which don’t raise the footbridge very high off the water. I had to fold myself as tightly as I could against the deck of my kayak to get under it. Just to make it really interesting, there were a half-dozen children taking turns jumping off the bridge. They clearly knew I wanted to go under the bridge but they were so caught up in the excitement of jumping into the water that they couldn’t quite summon up the willpower to stop until somebody’s mother, watching from the shore, finally climbed up onto the bridge and held them back for the minute it took for me to squeeze beneath the bridge and paddle on.

The lagoon behind the barrier island is broad and beautiful and dotted with dozens of small islands, some no more than a muddy lump covered in brush with maybe a single tree sprouting from it. Others were much larger but none of them appeared to have any place to make landfall so I was never tempted to climb onto one and have a look around. The whole time I was there the water was glassy smooth, encouraging me to paddle lazily around the lagoon for about an hour before heading back the way I came.

All that paddling in the warm sunshine put me in a napping mood, so after a quick bite to eat I slouched in my camp chair and dozed for about 30 minutes. I do a lot of napping on trips like this. Why not? It’s usually quite peaceful and the hiking, paddling, and biking tires me out just enough to want to catch a few winks. I’ve also got a reclining camp chair that’s super-comfy and rocks back and forth, making it perfect for napping in. So of course I take a nap whenever I can.

After my nap I still had plenty of daylight, so I rode my bike to the southern part of the state park, locked it up in a rack in the parking lot, and walked back to camp along a trail that skirted the edge of the cliffs along Lake Superior. I almost didn’t. I’m not as active as I should be these days and my bones and muscles were complaining about being forced to walk uneven terrain, paddle for hours, and bike miles down the road, but I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t try to enjoy every bit of the park I came so far to see. So after thinking it over an extra two-three minutes, I committed to walking the trail back to camp, and enjoyed it immensely.

Saturday night dinner was smoked salmon, cheese & crackers, and a cup of tea to wash it down. I took a walk around the campground after dinner to settle my dinner, then sat by a campfire until it was too dark to see.

Sunday morning was very chilly. Didn’t want to get out of bed, but very much wanted a hot cup of tea. Also, had to pee. In the end, I could not resist any of these needs.

I took my tea and a fig bar down to the beach to watch the sun rise, but the sky was overcast so no sun. Walked along the beach with a gentle surf lapping at my feet and a pair of sandpipers leading the way. Spotted the tracks of a doe and her fawn in the sand. They must have been there less than an hour before I was.

Paddling on Lake Superior!

After returning to camp for coffee and a bite to eat, I dragged the kayak down to the beach to paddle around the south end of the park where I suspected there might be some caves in the shoreline. Paddled for maybe twenty minutes when the shoreline went from tumble-down trees and dirt to solid rocks carved by the waves. Didn’t find any caves, or at least not what I would call a cave, but there was one very deeply carved rock overhang propped up by a column of rock that might’ve been a cave a long time ago. I ducked under it very briefly just so I could say I’d paddled my kayak into a “sea cave” on Lake Superior.

The wind came up as I paddled back to the bay, bringing to mind all the warnings about how quickly conditions on Lake Superior can change. It was never so windy that I was in danger of being swamped, or at least I don’t think it was. I never took any water in the cockpit, even though waves were breaking across the deck. But I am a totally neurotic worrywart so it was impossible not to think about rolling over and getting dumped as I made my way back to the beach. Which I did in good time, and completely dry. As I said, I just worry too much.

Back at camp, I traded the kayak for a bike, went for a ride to the ranger station at the entrance to the park, and left it there while I hiked along the cliff face to see if I could find the cave from the dry side of the shore line. It was easier to find than I thought, but much less impressive-looking from up top. Hiked a trail loop back to the ranger station and biked back to camp for lunch and a nap.

The nap didn’t work out this time, mostly because I strung up a hammock and tried to sleep in that instead of my tried-and-true camp chair. I’ve seen other people napping in hammocks and thought, wow, that looks comfortable, but I’ve bought two different hammocks and neither one of them is what I would call comfortable. They both bend me almost double in the most uncomfortable way possible and besides that, they completely wrap me up like a banana skin. I think I’ll have to give up on hammocks for now.

I wanted to get a shower before bed Sunday night. I can go one night without a shower, but two nights without a shower and I start to stink so that it bothers me. The showers at Big Bay State Park were closed because of something they were doing with the septic field, so I had to drive up to the campground at Big Bay Town Park where they had coin-operated showers. I’ve used coin-operated showers before but it had been a while so I’d forgotten the most important lesson of coin-operated showers: Just shove all your money in the slot. It says a dollar seventy-five for the first three minutes and twenty-five cents for each minute after, but that doesn’t mean you have to plug it every minute. If you’ve got ten dollars in quarters, shove it all in there and enjoy your shower instead of hopping out every minute. Hopping out only gets you frustrated and cold.

Went into town after my shower to hunt up some souvenirs and have a look around the town of La Pointe. There wasn’t much to see, so I didn’t stay long. I was back in camp well before sundown, where I feasted on just about everything left in the fridge. Built a fire after dinner, cracked open a beer, and settled down with a book until it was too dark to read, then played with the fire until I burned up all the wood before heading off to bed.

Didn’t get much sleep Sunday night even though I went to bed early. A trio of young women in the camp site across the road were up until the wee hours drinking and playing pop music on their boom box. Several people asked them to quiet down but they just laughed and kept partying. I don’t have any memory of when they finally shut off the music and went to sleep, but I got up before sunrise to have plenty of time to pack and get the first ferry off the island. Under any other circumstances I would have pulled out of my camp site with my only my car’s running lights on but on this particular Monday morning I was very happy to flood their tent with my headlights. Made sure I gave them the high beams, too.

I was first in line for the first ferry off the island, which was scheduled to depart at 7:00 am but which didn’t leave until almost eight. After stopping at a coffee shop in Bayfield to pick up a hot cuppa and a chocolate chip cookie, I set off at 8:15 am and arrived home at 2:40 pm, pretty good time considering I stopped at every wayside I saw to stretch my legs and get some air. There’s an especially nice wayside on Highway 51 between Manitowish Waters and Woodruff, overlooking Diamond Lake, where I stopped for lunch and lingered for about a half-hour. It’s almost entirely hidden from the highway and every time I’ve visited, there was never more than two or three people there.

Big Bay State Park, Sep 9 – 12 | 8:44 am CST
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Saturday, August 13th, 2022

Rained out!

I got to North Trout Lake about an hour before it started to rain. Had just enough time to take one quick bike ride, then spent the rest of the evening sitting under the overhang of the tent behind my van with a book until it was too dark to read. Still raining when I went inside and read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Rained all night.

It was still raining in the morning without any sign it was going to stop. The forecast called for rain all day Saturday and through the night into Sunday, so I packed up and went home.

North Trout Lake, Aug 12-13 | 12:48 pm CST
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Tuesday, June 21st, 2022

Photo of my van parked near the shore of North Trout Lake, just north of Woodruff, WI

I spent last Friday and Saturday night at a state campground on North Trout Lake to do a little hiking, a little paddling, but mostly just to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet.

The campground seems to be really popular and I can see why. It’s right on the shore of the lake, which is so picturesque it ought to be on a postcard (it probably is). Several of the camp sites are right on the shore; you could launch your canoe from them or just wade out into the lake, which has a hard sandy bottom and is very shallow along much of the shore line. If I had been lucky enough to snag one of those sites I probably would have set up my camp chair facing the water or strung my hammock between two trees on the shore and done little else but gaze out on the lake all weekend, it was that pretty.

I unfortunately did not have a camp site on the shore. Mine was in fact about as far from the shore as it’s possible to get and was rather ugly, which is probably why I was able to reserve it for a weekend at short notice. It was ugly mostly because of all the trees which had been cut down and left in heaps around the site. On the plus side the site got lots of sunshine, was open to the breezes off the lake which kept the bugs at bay, and it was very easy for me to gather firewood, but there was no getting around the fact that heaps of dead branches do not make for a good-looking camp site. I didn’t care much. It served its purpose as far as I was concerned. I had a place to park, a nice big camp site, and a ring to build a fire in. All good.

I left the house at about three o’clock Friday afternoon and arrived at the lake a little past six-thirty in the evening, making pretty good time but feeling more than a little fatigued, not to mention stressed out, after spending three and a half hours on the interstate highway with the hundreds if not thousands of other people heading north for the weekend. When I headed back home Sunday morning I stuck to county and state roads all the way, and it was honestly worth every minute of the additional travel time. I had the road to myself practically all the way, so the drive was virtually stress-free. A+++ would definitely recommend.

At six-thirty in the evening around this time of year there are still at least two hours of daylight left, so almost as soon as I got there I unshipped the kayak from the roof of the van, trundled it down to the shore on a handy-dandy little trolley I have just for that purpose, and launched it into the lake for a short paddle up and down the shore along the edge of the campground. The wind was rather brisk that evening so the surface of the lake was the tiniest bit choppy but not enough to make me want to head back to shore. I paddled around for thirty or forty minutes before I decided I’d better get back to camp so I had enough daylight to gather firewood and set up for overnight camping.

I had already collected a few fallen branches which I broke up into tinder to start the fire. After I got that burning, I began to collect larger pieces of wood to keep the fire going – a rookie mistake; you’re supposed to get all your wood together before lighting it off. I knew better than that, but it had been a few years since I’d built a camp fire from scratch. After gathering enough larger pieces to keep a fire burning for at least an hour, I broke up more smaller branches into tinder and built up a pretty respectable fire from the coals that remained of my original effort, then built a teepee over it with the bigger pieces I’d gathered.

Now that I finally had a proper fire going, I could prepare something for dinner and settle into my camp chair next to the fire. And when I say “prepare dinner” I mean that I smeared some salmon cream cheese on some thick-sliced nutty bread and called that dinner.

After gobbling down some carbs next to a crackling camp fire, I slept like a baby.

Saturday morning I woke way too early, but I had to answer the call of nature so I tottered off to the nearest pit toilet, which was not really very near at all, another shortcoming of my particular camp site. My site was about as far from the toilet to the north as it was from the toilet to the south, smack dab in the middle. Not a problem most of the time, but for that first trip of the morning I had to lengthen my stride and move with a sense of purpose and urgency. That taken care of, I crawled back into bed and dozed pleasantly for another hour, wrapped tightly in many many blankets against the early morning chill.

When the sun was finally high enough to shine its warmth down on my camp site, I begrudgingly extracted myself from my bunk and gathered up enough fruit juice, fig bars, and nuts to make a decent light breakfast, which I noshed on in my camp chair that I gradually scooted across the camp site to keep up with a passing sunbeam. I passed the time reading two or three chapters of the very excellent book “Allow Me To Retort,” by author Elie Mystal, who examines the ins and outs of constitutional law from the perspective of a Black American. Wonderful book, would gladly recommend it to anyone.

Once the fruit juice was gone it was time to move on to more serious stuff: coffee. I neglected to bring the fixings for coffee on my previous trip up north, but not this time around. With a pourover cone carefully balanced on top of a big mug I slowly brewed the java, then settled back into my camp chair to read two more chapters.

The important stuff out of the way, I set out on my morning constitutional. My initial thought was to walk the complete circuit of the campground road, but when I got to the beach I decided to include a detour to the boat ramp about a hundred yards away. At the boat ramp I noticed a marker for a paved bicycling trail that disappeared into the trees by the road.

If I’d known there were paved cycling trails for miles and miles up here, I definitely would have brought my bike but, sad to say, I didn’t. But I just had to get a look at the trail, so I took a short stroll along it, only as far as the first intersection, the road to Cathedral Point. Along that particular short stretch of trail it rose and fell over a few very steep hills and ducked around maybe half a dozen sharp turns, but the asphalt pavement was in good condition. Cycling it would be a lot of fun even though the hills would present a bit of a challenge for me, a rider who generally prefers straight and level trails.


Having gone as far as the first intersection, I turned around and shambled back in the direction of camp. I have to admit with no small amount of embarrassment that I accidentally left my hiking shoes at home for this trip. The only footwear I had with me were a pair of sandals, not ideal for long hikes. Also, they leave my feet exposed to the elements 24/7. When I was young and indestructible I would walk barefoot all day in the summer, over smooth ground, gravel or hot asphalt – it didn’t matter. My feet were tough enough to walk on anything. Well, they’re not now. I’ll spare you the details, but after tramping around all day in sandals, I had to carefully clean and bandage my feet Saturday night before bed. Used up half a box of Band-Aids and many a generous dollop of Neosporin. Which was why I was taking it easy on this short hike along the bike trail, loafing along at a leisurely pace. Even so, I got back to camp around ten o’clock, still plenty early for a morning paddle on the lake.

North Trout Lake is a fairly big lake, but Trout Lake, to the south (natch), is even bigger, and they’re connected through a narrow strait. My aim on this Saturday morning paddle was to go as far as the strait, have a look around, then come back. Which turned out to be exactly what I did. I had to paddle against a light but continuous breeze out of the south on the way there, but after I crossed through the strait it was almost dead calm thanks to a couple of islands at the north end of Trout Lake screening me from the wind. I happily paddled around on the glassy water for a while, circling the islands and drifting along the shore.

I grounded the kayak at Cathedral Point, jumped out and had a little walkabout to take in the surroundings. The point had picnic tables, a water pump, toilets, and fire rings, but looked as though it hadn’t been visited in a while. One teeny tiny little sign caught my eye and curiosity compelled me to get close enough to ready it. “This sign is surrounded by poison ivy,” it warned, “don’t touch it.” So warned, I tiptoed back to my kayak and paddled away.

I returned to my camp site at about half past twelve and made a hearty lunch of thick-sliced summer sausage on slices of nutty bread, then sat in the sun with my book as I ate. The air was still cool and the breeze was pleasant. It wasn’t long before I began to drowse. Napping seemed like a good idea just then, so I stretched out in the van and got myself a few winks. Best thing I could has possibly done. There’s really nothing better you can do in the early afternoon, especially after you’ve been active, than get a restful nap. At least, nothing better for me. You can do what you like.

And after a restful nap, there’s nothing better than driving into town to spend a little time relaxing in the local beer garden. There’s a brewery called Rocky Reef in Woodruff, about a twenty-minute drive from the campground. I’d been there once before and enjoyed sitting in the sun with a cold, refreshing glass of hefeweizen. There weren’t any open seats on the patio last Saturday because they had some live entertainment which had attracted quite a large weekend crowd. I only wanted to pick up some beer anyway, but hung around for about ten minutes to sample a beer they didn’t have on tap the last time I visited.

When I got back, I sat in the sun and read my book again, and in the evening I lit a fire and played with it because on the inside I’m still a twelve-year-old boy who does that kind of thing. There wasn’t much peace and quiet to enjoy Saturday night because all the other campers had returned from wherever they’d gone, and they all felt the need to yell at each other a lot and share their recorded music with each other. The popularity of state parks is the only thing I don’t like about them.

I packed up fairly early Sunday morning because I didn’t want to hurry getting home. I wanted to take the back roads and make a few stops along the way to get out, walk around and return home stress-free, and that’s pretty much exactly what I did.

North Trout Lake, Jun 17-19 | 8:05 am CST
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Sunday, June 5th, 2022

I booked a reservation for a two-night stay at Moose Lake Campground in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, not far from Hayward, Wisconsin. I even stayed overnight, but I got the hell out of there first thing in the morning because I have never encountered mosquitoes as voracious and unrelenting as the mosquitoes that were out in force nearly everywhere I went up north on this particular weekend. I had to spray myself over and over with the most powerful insect repellent I could find just to be outside, and even then the mosquitoes would buzz in a cloud around my head, stopping short of the cloud of DEET surrounding me.

I would add that there’s nothing much to do at Moose Lake. There are no hiking trails, and the campground is at the end of a long gravel road through densely-wooded country. I would have been perfectly happy to paddle on the lake for a while, then sit in a camp chair for hours on end, quietly reading a book, but the mosquitoes would not leave me alone even while I was drenched in repellent, so I spent most of the time I was at Moose Lake locked up in my van. Not ideal.

That’s a big Muskie!

The weekend wasn’t a total loss, however! I went through Hayward on my way home, arriving just as the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame opened. I don’t get up this way often but I have been through Hayward more than once and I knew that if I drove through it again without getting a photo of myself with the giant Muskie you can see from space, I would kick myself forever. I can finally check that off my bucket list.

I’m also happy to report that I spend a most enjoyable morning visiting the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, partly because I had the whole place to myself for more than an hour, so I could linger over the exhibits as long as I liked and take lots and lots of photos. What I enjoyed most about it, though, was that it was the most gleefully over-the-top museum of fishing that I’d ever seen. I mean, why would you collect hundreds of antique outboard boat engines in one place unless you were obsessed with fishing? That’s not an exaggeration. I didn’t count them but there had to be more than one hundred outboards.

Moose Lake, June 5-6 | 10:18 am CST
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Friday, May 6th, 2022

A sunny day on Star Lake

My first camping trip of the year was a single night’s stay at Star Lake, north of Saint Germain. I had planned to stay two nights but wasn’t prepared for how low the overnight temps would get. I had flannel sheets, a blanket and a quilt, which had been more than sufficient to keep me warm through the night on previous trips, but it wasn’t enough to keep me warm through the coldest hours of the night, even thought I was wrapped up like a caterpillar in a cocoon.

This was also my first camping trip to the north woods of Wisconsin and I was not fully aware of how long it would take to get there. I set off from home at around lunch time so I didn’t get to the campground until about five. I set up camp as quickly as possible, then broke out the food and ate dinner, and by the time I finished it was already too dark to read.

The next day I put the kayak in the lake and went for a quick paddle, but the water was still so cold that it sucked way too much of my body heat away through the thin fiberglass hull. Not sure if there’s anything to be done about that short of dressing up in long underwear and wool pants. I didn’t paddle for very long, which is a shame because it was an otherwise beautiful day. Later I went for a hike through the woods behind the campgrounds, and I sat in the sun reading a pretty good book for a couple hours, but as the sun went down I knew that I was in for another night of near-freezing temps and the more I thought about that, the less I wanted to do it, so I packed up and left in the late afternoon, arriving home shortly before bed time.

Star Lake, May 6-8 | 9:36 am CST
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Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Check this out:

I froze my ass off to get that photo. I hope you appreciate that.

It seems a little funny that you can put on a sweatshirt and long pants and go out in fifty degree weather and think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” and you get so into doing whatever it is you’re doing that you don’t notice until an hour and a half goes by that you don’t have any sensation in your fingertips. I had to go inside at one-hour intervals after that just so I could continue to do manual labor. And no, I couldn’t wear gloves because I need to be bare-handed to do the delicate work of stripping wires and such like.

The arch isn’t done. I have to hang a curtain from it, just for example, but I’m so happy with the way the lights turned out that I had to snap a photo of the progress.

I also got the lights installed on the overhead storage compartments:

They are not lit in this photo because obviously they were not installed in the van which means the wires weren’t connected to a live circuit. They’re installed now, but I didn’t take a photo of them with the lights switched on because I forgot, and I’m not going back out now. Each light is at the end of a foot-long gooseneck and is dimmable, which will be very nice for reading a chapter or two before lights out. And there’s a USB port in the base of each light for recharging phones or whatever. I can’t wait to try them out.

All of this (and more!) runs off a house battery in the back of the van that I installed last week. Ran into a little glitch with the charger that I have yet to rectify, but progress! It’s being made!

wired | 8:35 pm CST
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Friday, April 15th, 2022

I spent my lunch break yesterday brushing polyurethane on these pieces, even though I shouldn’t have. The instructions on the can tell me I should wait until the temperature is at least sixty degrees but it was only fifty-two. I absolutely could not wait for it to warm up, though, because the forecast tells me it won’t get warmer than forty-five until next week. I’m so eager to make some progress on this project that I’m sure I’ll burst a vessel if I wait that long, so I cheated, cracked open the can of poly and brushed it on anyway. Checked it several times yesterday afternoon and evening and it looked fine, so I think I got away with it.

finished | 6:09 am CST
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Monday, March 14th, 2022

After what seemed like an eternity of sub-freezing weather, we finally had a day of sunny skies and temps in the forties. The forecast says we’re supposed to get at least one more week of this, but I’m taking it one day at a time because I know this is false spring and we’re going to get at least one more fall of snow deep enough to shovel off the driveway before winter is REALLY over, and I don’t want it to break my heart.

I took two really long walks around the neighborhood today, one this morning and another this afternoon, and wow am I out of shape. I don’t mind walking in the snow but I really can’t abide going for a walk when it’s cold enough to make my nose and teeth hurt just because I’m breathing in and out (it actually seems to hurt more when I’m breathing out – how the hell does that make sense?), and as I mentioned already temps have been hovering around zero for weeks and weeks now, so I’ve been lazy. I’ll have to make myself get out there every day. Lucky for me that budding trees draw me like a moth to a flame.

In between my morning and afternoon walkies I worked on the camping thing some more. It felt so good to get outside and work on it for more than five minute without losing sensation in my hands. It’s not quite warm enough to brush some poly on the finished pieces, so instead I figured out how to set up the arch across the front of the van between the driver’s cabin and the rear compartment. The goal is not to wall off the back from the front, just to give me something to hang a curtain from. In the original design it’s a combination curtain rod and coat rack, festooned all over with coat hooks, and it even has overhead lights. I’ll definitely do the coat hooks. We’ll see about the lights.

I cut out the uprights from half-inch plywood about a week ago on a day of warmish temps (maybe in the low forties?) but didn’t get a chance to finish them until today when I screwed a piece of 3/4″ poplar to the back of each of the pieces that look like half a spade. The arch doesn’t have to support a lot of weight, unless you hang a lot of coats and backpacks from the hooks. The poplar’s there mostly to stiffen the back of the plywood and to make each upright a little prettier.

It took me a while to work out how to build a piece that would clamp the uprights to the grab handles on the B-pillar. I thought I had it figured out about a week ago, but after re-watching some video shot by the person who originated the design I tried a different, simpler way to do it. That got way better results.

With the uprights firmly anchored to the B-pillars I could lay a batten across the tops, attach a piece of cardboard roughly cut to fit the contour of the ceiling, and joggle-stick a template for the cross-piece. I’m pretty new to the idea of using a joggle stick to make a template for unusual shapes so I’m still getting the hang of it, but it so far it’s been working well for me. I joggled the shape of the uprights so they would follow the profile of the window and clear the door handle, and joggled the face of the overhead bin so it would fit against the sloping ceiling in the rear.

After cutting out the basic shape of the cross-piece, I had to use a belt sander with a loop of extra-gritty sandpaper to smooth out the irregularities of the jigsaw cut, which was a little easier to do than I was afraid it might be. I still have more sanding to do, but that comes after I figure out how to join the two halves in the middle. The bit of scrap wood holding them together in the photo is temporary. That part will get cut out anyway to make a little headroom in case I want to climb into the back from the driver’s seat. An overlapping piece up front and a shelf in the back where the lights go ought to do the trick.

summon arch | 10:05 am CST
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Saturday, March 5th, 2022

The dry fit of the overhead storage bins is complete. I had to take the right-hand bin apart four or five times, trimming off bits here and there each time, reassembling it to check the fit, marking places where it needed further trimming, then taking it to pieces again. It has to sit snugly in the window so it doesn’t get in the way of the lid for the rear storage space. Took me about an hour and a half, but I finally got there. The left-hand bin was easier because I already had a pretty good idea where to trim and how much. Only had to take it apart twice.

Now that the dry fit is done, I have to take both of them apart again, sand all the pieces smooth, reassemble them (this time with glue), and finally brush a couple coats of clear polyurethane sealer on them. I never thought about painting them because I like the look of wood grain, even when it’s plywood.

They don’t look like much from this angle, but each one of the bins is large enough to hold as much as those rolly bags you can carry on a commercial airliner. I could pack a week’s worth of shirts, socks, and undershorts in just one of them and still have plenty of room left for toiletries, a book or two, something to write with, and I don’t even know what else. That leaves all the room under the bed for food, utensils, and other essential camping gear.

dry fit | 2:22 pm CST
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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022

Little by little, bit by bit …

overhead | 7:53 pm CST
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Saturday, February 12th, 2022

We briefly enjoyed a day of what passes for warm weather here in Wisconsin. It got as warm as 42 degrees F (5.5 C) yesterday, which felt so warm after weeks of sub-freezing temps that I peeled down to my shirtsleeves while I worked in the garage yesterday afternoon. I was hoping it would remain at least above freezing today so I could work a little more but no, we can’t have nice weather on a weekend. This morning I woke up to temps in the single digits and forecast to remain that way. February sucks. It has always sucked. It will always suck.

Now that I got that out of my system: I clocked out from work at eleven o’clock yesterday morning because of reasons too convoluted to make interesting. I still worked forty hours last week, it’s just that I finished at eleven-thirty on Friday. The mechanism that allowed me to do that was awful. I wouldn’t voluntarily choose to do it but I got to putz around outside in that warm afternoon weather, so yay I guess.

The warm temps gave me an opportunity to finally tidy up the garage a little bit, which had become a repository for empty boxes and bags of bottles and cans headed for, but not quite getting to, the recycling bin. And there was a lot of sawdust on the floor. So I straightened things up, swept the floor, and filled the recycling bin, and while I was out there I banged on some lumber with a hammer. Very satisfying.

The lumber I banged on is starting to look like the camping thing I’m trying to imitate, if I squint and use a lot of imagination. In the short time I was able to work on it before the sun went down, temps began to plummet, and snow started to fall, I managed to install it in the van, attach four upright arms which will eventually support overhead storage lockers and lighting, and re-install the rear lid on a piano hinge. I deeply, sincerely hope that’s the last time I have to drill out the umpty-million holes for that hinge.

I got this far before the snow started to fall.

This is the third time I’ve installed that piano hinge because I don’t plan ahead. Instead, I tinker things together, then I see a better way to do it and start over. The top of the camping thing is a pair of lids that lift up from either end, hinged in the middle like a pair of butterfly wings. The first time I hinged them both to a single piece of lumber because that was the fastest and easiest way to do it and I wanted to get out and try it. The second time, just a few weeks ago, I re-installed the rear lid after cutting it to fit between the overhead lockers. Kinda crucial. And this last time, yesterday, I learned why the lids should be hinged to two separate pieces of lumber: because two forty-eight inch-wide pieces of three-quarter inch plywood are freaking heavy when I have to pick them up together. They’re a lot easier to pick up and install separately. So that’s what I did.

The guy I’m copying this design from presumably already figured out why it’s better to install the lids separately. I should have followed his example but I told my tinkerer’s self I could be improving on the design. It has quickly become apparent as I take this thing apart and put it back together repeatedly, as required by the need to fit parts together for which I have no measurements, that it’s better to have smaller, lighter parts to work with than bigger, heavier parts. We live, we learn.

This cold snap is especially frustrating because I’ve finally gotten to the point where I could be in the van with a joggle stick making a template for the overhead locker parts, then getting an early start on piecing them together, but drawing the templates is not work I could do while wearing gloves thick enough to keep my fingers from becoming painfully cold, and working without gloves in sub-freezing temps is obviously not an option. So now I have to wait until later this week for temps to return to a slightly more agreeable place.

cabin fever | 10:02 am CST
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Sunday, January 16th, 2022

The temp outside on this wintry January morning is just one degree (-17 C), which is relevant because it means I probably won’t be spending much time outside today. I went for a little ramble around Cherokee Marsh yesterday morning even though temps were in the teens, where the temps have been stuck for weeks now, and later that same morning and into the afternoon I spent about four hours in the garage working on rebuilding the bunk for the minivan. I dressed up in so many layers that I could stay warm, but only so long as I kept moving. Well, mostly warm. I have to accept the fact that there are no gloves on earth that will keep my hands warm when it’s that cold out.

I had been using the excuse that it was too cold out to avoid working on the bunk this winter but was inspired to action by my cousin Carrie and her husband Darren, who have recently gone into business renovating campers. They started doing this last summer but have kept working on their latest project even in sub-freezing temperatures. I figured I could give it a shot, too, and found that working in the garage isn’t so bad. I even try to kid myself that having to work so slowly and deliberately because I can’t take my gloves off is a benefit. But I believe I will not be taking advantage of that benefit today unless it warms up considerably.

Added later: Okay, so I went out to the garage to work on the camping thing a little more. I’ve been calling it a “camping thing” because I’m not sure what to call it. Among the people who refer to camping in a minivan as “van life,” my camping thing is usually referred to a “build” or a “build-out,” but that’s not terribly descriptive. I called it a “bunk” in the description above because it’s primarily something to sleep on, but if I can manage to finish it, it’ll be more than that; it’ll also have a table where I can set up a camp stove, overhead cabinets where I can stow my clothes, and wash basin where I can draw drinkable water. If you’re really interested, you can view the videos I get my inspiration from here: Bruce Parks Videos on YouTube

I don’t have the kind of woodworking skills Bruce has. Heck, I don’t even have the kind of persistence he has, but I do like cutting up lumber and seeing if I can knock together fun stuff like this. So that’s what I got up to in the garage for a couple hours. I didn’t mean to take so long. It was so cold that I mean to do just one thing, cut up some lumber to fit into place when it was warmer in the garage, but it didn’t take long to do that and I felt fine so I did one more thing, and that went so well that I did another thing, and about halfway through that thing I realized I couldn’t feel my fingertips any longer. That’s how I knew it was past time to go inside and get warm.

first degree | 9:16 am CST
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Monday, March 16th, 2020

So we’ve just come back from a cruise. In hindsight, going ahead with our plans to cruise was probably one of the dumber decisions we’ve made, now that it’s become clear the nation was already diving headfirst into the calamity that is the novel corona virus pandemic. At the time it seemed as though we had a month or so before things got really serious; there were reports of outbreaks in Washington state and a few very localized communities and we talked ourselves into believing that’s all there was to it, but with little to no testing going on, we were only denying the reality of the situation.

And it was pretty easy to keep on denying anything was wrong. O’Hare airport was jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with travelers and the airlines weren’t taking any special precautions that were apparent to us. Fort Lauderdale airport was just as busy as O’Hare and the motel we stayed in appeared to be fully booked with people who were for the most part unconcerned about being in close contact with one another. I noticed a few people at the continental breakfast making good use of hand sanitizer, but they were just two or three out of dozens. We all happily climbed into crowded buses to take the short ride to the cruise port at ten o’clock.

We boarded in one of the early groups and although they warned us we would be subject to a stringent medical screening due to the pandemic, this amounted to little more than asking us to fill out a questionnaire and requiring us to submit to having our temperature taken. They used little plastic pistols which they pointed at our foreheads to take our temperature, and we’re a little doubtful about their accuracy — B’s temp was 91 degrees Farenheit, which I’m pretty sure is not possible for a walking, talking human being.

Sanitation is very important on a cruise ship, so the crew is used to keeping everything clean, and there was almost always someone standing guard at the entrance to the dining hall, squirting everyone’s hands with a jumbo-sized bottle of hand santizer. The people who ran the charter cruise we were on regularly reminded everyone to wash their hands and even played a couple of specially-recorded videos with catchy tunes to keep it at the front of our minds.

Nobody got sick on the cruise that I know of. Although a few people reported on social media afterwards that they were under the weather with sniffles or coughs, they attributed it to “cruise crud,” a catch-all description for the various bugs people suffer from after a cruise. B had a nasty case of cruise crud the first time we went cruising; we made sure we washed our hands more or less constantly the next two times and we avoided coming down with anything. If we’re lucky, it worked again this time around, too.

hindsight | 9:13 am CST
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Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Got back this afternoon from a weekend trip to The Windy City with My Darling B. We’ve been talking for years about visiting the Christmas market they have there every year, and this year we finally stopped talking and did it. B did all the hard work of planning the trip and booking the rooms; I did the easy part: driving. We drove down Friday morning, arriving around one o’clock to check in at our hotel, and left at about eleven o’clock this morning. Short trip, but we got a lot done.

First thing we did after checking in at the hotel was walk down to Daley Plaza where the Christmas market takes place. It was not exactly like the Christmas markets we remembered from Berlin, but it was pretty close. The vendors sold a lot of the same ornaments and other Christmas trinkets, they served the spiced wine known as gluhwein, and there were so many people jammed into the market it was almost impossible to move.

Wandered around at the market for an hour or so before walking a few blocks north to see the sights along the Magnificent Mile. The idea is we would walk from store to store, taking in the Christmas sights and maybe doing a little shopping. Spoiler: It’s all high-end shopping. Macy’s. Saks. Tiffany’s. Not the kind of places we would be stopping to pick up a stocking-stuffer. So we finished our walk up the Magnificent Mile a lot sooner than we thought we would.

We were supposed to join up with a guided tour of the Christmas lights but it wasn’t scheduled to depart until five-thirty so to avoid getting there very early we backtracked just a bit and ended up at an Irish pub called Pippin’s where we could grab a beer while we passed the time until we could meet the bus. It was one of those buses that’s made to look like a trolley and it went out to Wrigleyville where there was another Christmas market we wandered around in for about a half-hour, then looped back to stop at Lincoln Zoo where they had draped the trees and wrapped the bushes in lots and lots of colored lights, and they gave us special glasses that made us see elves and reindeer floating around the lights like some trippy holiday hallucination.

We didn’t get to bed until ten-thirty that night. I must have been beat because I slept until seven-thirty the next morning.

windy city | 6:59 pm CST
Category: My Darling B, travel | Tags: ,
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Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

I spent the weekend with My Darling B doing pretty much nothing, and apparently we needed a weekend just like that because we slept like bears in hibernation.

We didn’t do exactly nothing. We did, in fact, travel to Lake Mills, Wisconsin, to attend the twentieth anniversary party of the Tyranena Brewery (long may they continue to brew the most delicious beer in Jefferson County!), an event where we mostly sat quietly sampling various wonderful brews and noshing on noshies. Low-impact events are our lifestyle now.

The beers that Tyranena makes, though, tend to be very boozy, so we didn’t drink very many of them before we had to lie down go night-night.

We spent all day Sunday just reading or watching TV, and were both in bed by eight. Lights-out for me was eight-thirty or nine, and I slept like the dead until four o’clock Monday morning, at which point my brain said AWAKEN, so I had no choice but to go make a pot of coffee and bimble about the house.

not much how about you | 6:14 am CST
Category: beer, festivals, food & drink, play, sleeplessness, travel
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Saturday, July 27th, 2019

Three o’clock in the morning is too goddamn early to start my day, and yet here I am, banging out some more of this drivel after lying awake for an hour, reading several magazine articles, and catching up on some of my favorite Twitter and Instagram follows before making a pot of tea and sitting down at the keyboard. That’s just how it goes sometimes.

My best night’s sleep this week was in a hotel in Wisconsin Rapids where I tried and failed to stay awake long enough to watch all of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Sorry, Sam! I caught most of it, so I hope I get at least partial credit. I’m just not the night owl I would like to be, which is why I normally watch the show on YouTube, but hotels haven’t cut the cable and moved to the streaming era yet, and that’s why I was trying (and failing) not to doze off during one of my favorite shows. When I finally caved, turned off the television set and surrendered to the enveloping darkness, I slept the sleep of the just until my phone bleeped at around six-thirty. My Darling B sent me a “Good Morning!” text.

I was in Wisconsin Rapids because it’s the time of year when I drive in seemingly random circles around the state, stopping occasionally to pop into a DMV office and audit them. It’s as bureaucratically awkward as it sounds but I’m an awkward kind of guy so it’s a job that suits me, unfortunately. Some of us aspire to do great things and some of us pop into the DMV office where you are waiting to renew your driver’s license, grab the DMV employee who was just about to call your ticket number and drag him into a darkened back room for an indeterminate amount of time. All in the name of improving customer service, I assure you.

Wisconsin Rapids was littered with the branches of trees that were shattered by a line of storms that blew through the area last weekend, and I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say “shattered.” I saw oak trees that must’ve been hundreds of years old reduced to broken boughs and splintered stumps. Freshly cut-up branches were stacked along the curb of every road we drove down. I’ll bet the city lost at least a quarter and maybe as much as a third of their old-growth trees. One of the guys I talked to said in his yard alone he lost fourteen trees. He must have a pretty big yard, but still, wow. As if cleaning up all that wasn’t bad enough, the storm knocked the power out for days so a whole lot of people lost all the food in their fridges and freezers.

I left Madison with a coworker at six-thirty on Wednesday morning and drove in a big 350-mile-long circle that wound through northeastern Wisconsin, then across the midsection of the state, and finally down the middle back to Madison, where we arrived at about three-thirty Thursday afternoon. This was my first overnight trip but not my last. It’s surprising how many people I talk to believe I’m living the high life on these business trips. I can’t figure it out how they get that idea. We spend hours and hours behind the wheel of a compact car marked with The Scarlet Letter of government plates, which means we have to drive exactly the speed limit: any faster and our supervisor gets phone calls about how we drive like maniacs; any slower and she gets calls about how we’re a hazard to traffic. We have to book hotel rooms that have the cheapest rate, so we’re always next to an Interstate off-ramp where I’m jolted awake every twenty minutes or so by the explosive flatulence of a downshifting semi truck as it exits the highway. And don’t even try to make hotel breakfasts sound like a perk. I tend to go for the watery powdered eggs and heartburn in a sausage patty, but only because the bananas are usually ripe enough to attract fruit flies.

From The Ground Up coffee shop in Wisconsin RapidsWe do get to pick the restaurants we eat at, thank goodness, and we can even find a pretty good one wherever we go. In Wisconsin Rapids, for instance, we ate lunch at a cozy coffee shop called From The Ground Up. Not only did it have delicious food at a reasonable price and friendly staff who jumped to help us, it had a genuine Volkswagen bus parked on top of the rest rooms. When I asked how they even got it in there, the young woman who took my order explained they cut it in half so it would fit through the front door.

If there’s anything about these trips I might consider a perk, it’s that we frequently see something that is remarkable. On the first day of this last trip, after we’d been on the road an hour and a half or so, we passed by a farmer’s field which was apparently playing host to a meet-up of parasailers. The sky over our car was filled with dozens and dozens of wedges of multicolored nylon turning lazy circles over our heads, and more were taking off. It was magical.

on the road again | 6:51 am CST
Category: business travel, sleeplessness, travel, weather, work
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Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

Crusing with the Sea Monkeys on the OosterdamMy Darling B and I spent a week in the Carribean aboard the MV Oosterdam with the Sea Monkeys on a JoCo Cruise! Here’s what that means:

The Carribean: Specifically, we spent a day in Tortola, an island of the British Virgin Islands, and a day in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Tortola was no great shakes, I have to say. We went ashore for maybe an hour or two, wandered around in the town just outside the cruise port, but didn’t sign up for any “excursions,” which are activities arranged by the cruise line like hiking, riding horses, scuba diving, that sort of thing. Since we didn’t go on any excursions and there wasn’t anything to see in town, we went back to the ship after about an hour and lounged by the pool in the sun with fruity drinks the rest of the day.

San Juan was pretty great. Very touristy, but not so touristy that it was insufferable. We stuck to wandering around in old San Juan, which was all Hispanic-style buildings along cobblestone streets connecting green plazas with fountains and markets. After wandering around for a couple hours in the hot sun, B wanted to sit in the shade with a cold drink and maybe get a bite to eat, so we ducked into a restaurant and passed a very pleasant half-hour refreshing ourselves.

We wandered around old San Juan just a bit more after that, but it was really hot and we wanted to clean up before the concert that night (I’ll explain in a minute), so we headed back to the ship about mid-afternoon. It wasn’t until we got back to the ship that I realized I left my backpack in the restaurant and had to run back up the hill through the streets of San Juan to see if I could find it. Luckily the staff at the restaurant found it before anyone else did and set it aside. As soon as I walked in the door, they spotted me and told me to claim my pack at the bar.

This is a themed cruise (that’s the “Sea Monkeys” part; I’ll get to that later) which featured lots of very talented musicians who played in an evening concert in a park on the waterfront not far from the ship. After cleaning up, we wandered over there to check it out. The first hour or so of the concert was just great, and really the rest of the concert was probably great, too, but after about an hour the clouds moved in and it began to drizzle, and then the drizzle became rain, and pretty soon the rain turned into a full-blown downpour. Before we got soaked through we squeezed in with the crowd under the cover of the shelter where they were selling beer, then walked back to the boat to change into dry clothes during a break.

It wasn’t raining when we walked back, but that didn’t last long. I ran back to the shelter and B stuck it out in the rain a while longer (she had a raincoat), but it wasn’t long before she joined me. We stayed long enough to realize the rain wasn’t going to let up, gave up and trudged back to the boat through a steady, soaking downpour.

And that was all we saw of the Carribean! Well, of the islands in the Carribean, anyway. We saw quite a lot of the Carribean sea. Didn’t see any dolphins chasing the boat this time, though.

The MV Oosterdam is a ship run by the Holland America cruise line. It seems like a pretty big ship to me, even when it’s tied up alongside other cruise ships, which are usually at least twice as big as the Oosterdam. In Tortola, we were tied up alongside one of the Disney cruise liners, and that thing was insanely huge. The Oosterdam doesn’t have all the water slides and rock climbing walls and roller coasters that the bigger cruise ships have. There are a couple of pools on the weather deck, one on the fantail and one amidships; the one in the middle has a cover they can open during sunny weather. Other than that, most of the other entertainment is belowdecks in lounges with stages, or conference rooms, or in the main stage at the front of the ship. And there are something like forty-two dozen bars serving liquor, wine and beer. This was our second time sailing on the Oosterdam and I don’t believe we’ve seen all the bars, but not for want of trying.

[explanation of “Sea Monkeys” and “JoCo Cruise” to follow]

cruising | 6:22 am CST
Category: JoCo Cruise, play, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

We’re back from our cruise. The cruise ship docked on Sunday morning, then we stayed overnight in San Diego and flew back to Madison on Monday, a trip that took pretty much all day because our flight didn’t leave San Diego until eleven and we had a layover in Denver that was almost three hours. So no big surprise that when we finally got home, we almost immediately changed into our jammies, hit the hay, and slept and slept and slept.

The weirdest thing about going on a cruise is getting off the boat and feeling like we’re still on the boat. Both of us were walking like a couple of drunks all day yesterday. We were at sea for a little over two days on the way back from La Paz and the trip up the coast was especially roller-coastery, which may have had something to do with it.

Our trip took us down the Baja Peninsula to Cabo San Lucas, the port at the very tip of the peninsula and very much a tourist trap. Think Wisconsin Dells in Spanish, but for cruise ships filled with a couple thousand people each. We went ashore to go whale watching, a whole lot of fun although that’s when My Darling B got sunburned.  Kids: Wear Sunscreen.  The whale watching guys took about a dozen of us out to sea in a speed boat about twenty feet long, which I’m sure was safe as it gets.  Finding whales to watch isn’t as hard as you might think: All we had to do was look for all the other whale-watching boats. Every group of whales had at least a dozen boats of all sizes circling around it. Whales must be very patient creatures to put up with that.

We wandered around in Cabo San Lucas a little while but not too long. Once you’ve seen one vendor selling t-shirts, hats, and assorted trinkets, you’ve seen them all. We stopped at a quiet little restaurant for lunch before we went back, and that turned out to be about the best idea we had in Cabo. The food was just delicious and I had the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever tasted. Well, I had two of the best Bloody Marys. Couldn’t have just one.  They were the best.  When was I ever going to be in Cabo San Lucas again to have another one?

The next morning, Wednesday, we stopped in Loreto, a very small town trying very hard to be a tourist trap, mostly by selling Mexican-looking blankets and straw hats painted with the names of American football teams. We went ashore in the afternoon to get a bite to eat, then wandered around but there wasn’t much to do, so we cooled our heels in a little brewery and nursed a couple beers. The talent on the boat put on a concert in the town square in the evening which we were really looking forward to, but it got a lot colder than I thought it would.  I couldn’t tough it out to the end of the concert because all I was wearing was a pair of shorts and a rugby shirt.  With less than an hour to go I was on the verge of hypothermia, so we went back to the boat earlier than we had planned.

Thursday was our last port call, this time in La Paz. All these towns are along the “inside” east coast of the Baja Peninsula, and La Paz is the capitol city. The only harbor near La Paz that’s deep enough for cruise ships is ten or fifteen miles away, so the city ran buses out to the dock all day to take us into town, and some of the locals rode along to provide us with some color commentary during the ride. The countryside is sand and rocks and scrubby-looking trees, so there isn’t much to describe, but they did their best, pointing out a derelict building here or there and telling us it used to be the tuna cannery or something similar.  There’s not a lot to see or do in La Paz, unfortunately. The beach would have been nice in the summer, but on the day we visited the temps were in the mid-60s, too cold to go swimming or even lay in the sun comfortably. We had lunch at a nice open-air restaurant. Couldn’t read a thing on the menu except tacos and empenadas, so we had tacos and empenadas.  We strolled along the beach after lunch, then went back to the boat around three.

The rest of the time we were at sea. There were lots of things going on so we were never bored, and even when we weren’t interested in what was going on, we weren’t bored. B and I each spent maybe 2-3 hours each day reading, and when we weren’t doing that, we were soaking in a hot tub or hanging out at the bar or just leaning against a rail, watching dolphins play in the wake of the boat. Very nice.

And now it’s over and we have to go back to work. Boo. Well, I have to go back tomorrow. B has one more day off. She plans to finish washing her clothes and cleaning up around the house a bit, but I wouldn’t blame her if she kicked up her heels a while and just relaxed a while longer.

post cruise | 6:43 pm CST
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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
Category: commuting, travel, work
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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’.

pacnw day 7 | 10:05 pm CST
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Category: booze, food & drink, play, restaurants, travel, vacation | Tags:
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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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