Tag Archives: vacation

Some Enchanted Plane Ride

DSC_0011I have a shortish bucket list of places to visit in my lifetime, because I’ve read about different corners of the globe and I’ve always had a hankering for seeing them up close. Patagonia. Paris. Senegal. Lebanon. Hawaii. The trick is, getting there takes some doing. I imagine that for millennia, most people stayed pretty much where they started, with some nomadic peoples making long treks, or some specific folks earning a reputation for exploration and such. Perhaps there’s a wisdom in nesting, because with all of our technological prowess and transportation advancement, venturing from Point A to Point B is still a total pain in the keister.

Ever since we moved to Walla Walla, one of our quieter gripes has been that it takes 2-3 flights and 12 hours or more to get to the East Coast, usually at an expense of $500+ per traveler. At some point Susanne and I toyed with the idea of going to Hawaii instead of making multiple trips home for the holidays. Once we assessed that the prices really were similar, coming here shifted from a tongue-in-cheek thought experiment to a plan. And because we’ve struggled with getting in and out of Eastern Washington so many times now, seeing a three-legged airplane journey didn’t feel like a big deal. What price to pay for paradise, we asked ourselves.

Turns out, a 6-hour flight is no small feat for a toddler. The entire ride, we listened to wailing like I’ve never heard come out of any human being, much less a small child. Thank goodness it wasn’t Emile having the extended purple scream. Sure, he fussed, asking for “down,” and saying “all done” with the jaunt just 20 minutes after takeoff. But he held it together for the most part. Getting to the big island, Emile notched his 12th, 13th, and 14th flights in his new existence. A couple of bouts with turbulence notwithstanding, Hawaii Airlines gave us a smooth ride and a strange meal box. But hey, they have a meal box. It was a step up from the pretzel bag from Delta, and 10 light years better from the three sips of flat cold soda that they serve on United. (I think we all know I will never again breathe a friendly word about United Airlines.) Read More…

Where Ghosts Go to Lounge

Hot Lake Hotel before renovationI shouldn’t write about this while I’m still here. It’s creepy enough in these hallways at night, but right now the sun is still up and I can pretend I won’t be a nervous nellie after dark.

We’ve driven out to the Hot Lake Hotel in La Grande, Oregon, former resort and when that didn’t pan out, sanitorium. Now former sanitorium, as that didn’t last, either. Three hundred plus windows in a blocky brick frame, at one point all blown out, the wind and rain assaulting the structure for decades, folks round these parts had given up on the building as part of a bygone era when the train stopped here and let off hundreds of passengers. La Grande, like Walla Walla, was a destination in the pioneering West, until the population centers crystallized along the coast and sucked the life out these inland cities. Portland and Seattle became economic black holes for the likes of places at the edge of smaller mountain ranges, and to this day, there is much grumbling about people here getting the short end of the stick. Read More…

Cycles of adventure

In the midst of my wild summer plans, family visits, and national park exploration, I learned that my friend, Jamie Moorby, had cycled across the US for charity, raising money for the DC Area Books to Prisons Project, which has a two-part mission: donate reading material to prisoners and educate the public about prisoner literacy. They aim to bring in reading material because many prisons do not have libraries, and the ones that do often have limited access or selection of materials. This cross-country bike ride was something Jamie and several other people participated in, ending in Oregon last month. I asked Jamie a few questions to talk about her experience.

What inspired you to cycle your way across the US, and how long have you been a long-distance cyclist?

I have dreamed of going on a long bike trip since I was a kid, but never pursued it I until this spring a friend asked me if I’d ride with her from New Orleans to the SXSW music festival in Austin Texas. I was quitting my job at a worker-owned/operated food coop in the DC area and moving to VT this summer anyway, so I said sure. Towards the end of that 10 day trip, another friend called me up and said “since you don’t have a job right now, why don’t you bike across the country with me?” I didn’t have any good reasons not to, so I agreed. Less than a month after finishing my 620 mile ride across Louisiana and Texas, we left Yorktown, VA for a 10 state, 3 month, 4,500 mile ride to Astoria, Oregon. Read More…

Welcome to Luray!

goat on a treeOur trip to DC ends this weekend with a visit to Luray, Virginia, for our friends’ wedding, which is on some kind of animal farm. I have not yet made any jokes about this and promise I will refrain from any undue humor, at least until the nuptials have concluded. But I do wonder if late June is not on a collision course with animal dung in a very foul-smelling way. I suppose I’ll see on Saturday.

Hopefully the text messages we received last night from other wedding guests who’ve trekked out there a few days early are no oracle of doom. For apparently there is a beetle infestation at the hotel where the room block was made. I suppose we should have realized that we weren’t going to get the greatest hospitality experience for $62 a night.

We went online to find another place to stay. Unfortunately for us—and probably the tax base of Luray—there are not a lot of hotels in the town. We didn’t have many options.

Now then, without knowing anyone from the town, and having never set even a toe upon its soil before, we really only had the pictures supplied by each hotel, which we know from prior experience are visual manipulaitons, like Stalin cutting former allies out of his photos, and user-generated reviews, like Yelp and Yahoo!. Here is a sampling:

  • This hotel is very run down, out dated and dirty feeling. I’m sorry, dirty feeling? Did you rub something between your fingers, like grit? Or did you “feel” it was dirty by looking at it?
  • Two weeks later, there was this missive, of the same hotel—Rooms were being renovated, and ours smelled of paint, but not badly. No more whining about dirty feeling rooms. Whew!
  • The food at the Victorian Inn left little to be desired. Breakfasts were delicious and included an assortment of fresh fruit. Val made certain that no one went away hungry. This seems like more our speed! No gritty rooms, no paint offgassing, and best of all, no beetle infestation! Sign us up! But just to be sure I kept up my legwork on the potential pit stop.
  • One review for a cabin was so rip-roaringly funny, in a “oh that must have SUCKED” way that I really can only link to it in its entirety, but trust me, it’s worth the three minutes of reading time. We hadn’t been planning on renting a cabin, so no worries there.
  • The bathroom was old and smelly and a cockroach ran across my arm while I was lying in bed. Hmm, I thought, I may actually prefer a beetle infestation to a cockroach using any of my limbs as an Autobahn.

Overall, the reviews weren’t helpful. The majority of them were positive, but the ones that were negative were so awful they brought down the average rating. And I didn’t want to have to do a regression analysis just to pick a hotel. So we picked the hotel with the Jacuzzi tub, hoping we wouldn’t find a wad of hair floating in it.

We relayed our change in plans to our friend, who replied via text that she’d seen some really bad reviews of the place online. We did not impart to her that we had already read them. It seemed a little like asking the scare crow which was the way to Oz and getting a crossed arm, “both ways” reply.

I shall take copious pictures while I’m in Luray, during my first-ever spelunking expedition. But I’ll note how it goes at the hotel/B&B. So I can add to the din of confusion, of course.

End of the long sun

There were a few things I kept concentrating on last spring in the lead-up to packing all of our belongings and cleaning out the Liar House; one of these was the opportunity to soak in a hot spring, and the other was playing in a pool with my friends’ cute and fun 2-year-old. The hot spring went exceedingly well, but the pool event, not so much.

a swimming poolOh, the kid had a blast, so no worries about that. I however was my usual klutzy self and while fetching his ball for him, managed to careen down some steps in the water, and sprain the knee I’d hurt in 2008. Because I was in said pool, the act of spraining my knee joint happened in apparent slow-motion: stepping, stepping, ooooooooooh noooooooooo, owwwwwwww.

I carefully balanced on my not-just-sprained leg and cheered him on. And I did manage to get his ball back to him.

The rest of our trip has been joyfully uneventful of injury, if not sodden in 50+ percent humidity. I grew up in a swamp, I should know how to deal with this by now. For someone who has lived 38 of 40 years in dire summer heat and damp air, I really have gained very little in terms of strategies for contending with the climate. My best trick is to duck into a place with air conditioning. So it is that I’ve only progressed to 1957 standards for heat-busting technology. Not exactly a genius on this score is me.

But our two trips to the pool were interesting for getting to see toddler politics and drama in action.

Our little friend had brought two simple toys with him: the aforementioned, knee-killing ball, and a little toy boat. Say that 10 times fast. Given that parents want even 2-year-olds to appreciate the value of sharing, there still comes a time when hey, that toy is theirs and they get to play with it, too. I watched the pulling matches and the open-mouthed shock at other kids’ rudeness from our little friend’s perspective like I were viewing the war over Helen from a front-row seat.

From my vantage seat, I discerned the following rules: If there is a toy just floating in the water, it is fair game for anyone to play with it, at least for a few minutes. If the free-use toy is handed off to another child who also isn’t the owner, that kid may have to relinquish the object at any time, and they are expected to offer no resistance. If a toy is clearly in it’s owner’s use, another child may ask to see and/or play with that toy by simply putting out a hand as a sign of greeting and interest. They should also feel free, apparently, to add a verbalization—anything from “ahhhh?” to “can I see that, please?” is acceptable, depending on their fluency with language. While it is the toy owner’s prerogative not to hand over the toy, it is very bad form to say no to a polite request. Grabbing the toy from the owner is right out, and will summon apologetic parents from wherever they’ve been lounging, with the unfortunate result that the grabber is removed from the interaction, perchance the entire pool area, and most certainly will have to hand over the object un-played-with. When the toy owner does give the toy to the requester, that temporary user may play with the toy for a while, even for an extended amount of time, like 10 minutes. The amount of time appears to be commensurate with their concentration time.

I watched and learned. Sunlight reflected off of the broken water where the children stood. The fountain pumped joyfully behind them as they learned to share. And somewhere, off in the distance, I could hear Zarathustra’s epic music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sharing among the humans had been learned. Next, how to make fire.

But if he needed me to run after his ball again, well, that wasn’t going to happen.

A new kind of stick shift

This post contains adult content.

There were a few odd moments on our 3,500-mile journey to DC, not the least of which was the “I have no guilt” stockbroker cheering on the recession in Lava Hot Springs, ID.

Then there were the children, all through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Screaming children, temper tantrum-having children, sobbing, inconsolable about something children. There was even one kid who started hitting his mother while Old Faithful was going off, because she wanted to watch it and he, apparently, wanted to do something else. Buy some moose fudge, maybe. Note to self: if my 3-year-old is hitting me or Susanne, I will need to rethink my parenting approach.

We noticed out in the wild West that many things that call themselves “hotels,” “inns,” and “suites,” are in reality, motels. If you drive up to your room’s door, it’s a motel, people. It’s okay to be a motel. Don’t worry, motel owners, that people still think Psycho when they see you. I don’t really care if it’s a motel or hotel if the inside of my rented room is nice, and free of a boil water notice (it’s happened before).

The Corn Palace, in addition to serving as basketball arena, community center, and kitsch emporium, is also a venue for corn-created ethanol gas. There were two or three displays about ethanol with some misrepresentation of corn’s value—corn is actually the toughest crop to turn into the substance, with switchgrass being one of the easiest. I also didn’t care for the subject-verb agreement of the following sentence that was in one of the displays: Guess where livestock gets their food?

Collective nouns, people! Livestock is a collective noun, like army, staff, or herd.

But the winner of our strange, hilarious, bizarre moments on the road belongs to whoever owns this car:

dildo on a WV dashboardThis was in the parking lot of Old Faithful. Lemme tell you about some old faithful!

I think I prefer seeing a daisy in the bug-standard flower vase.

Our trip in pictures

Starting out in Oregon:

Oregon hills

Next, Wyoming:

MIllion Dollar Cowboy Bar

Jenny Lake

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone hot spring

South Dakota:

Bighorn National Forest

Mt. Rushmore

Badland National Park

Deducing the tourist

We’ve been through four hotels in as many nights, and after our repeated exposure, I’m now prepared to say a few things about the Tourist of the West, at least as far as hoteliers are concerned. Using the set ups of our rooms as indirect indicators, I’ve deduced the following:

  1. Tourists in the West like extremely hot showers. If you are not a Tourist of the West, you need only turn the shower dial three-quarters of a scant inch to get the water in the hot tub range of 100–103.
  2. They are likely to bring along their small-to-medium size dog, even to national parks where the rangers tell them that those dogs only look like tasty snacks to the bears. Because clearly, they aren’t just dogs to the Tourist in the West, they’re part of the family. Would you leave your little sister at home while you go on vacation? (That’s rhetorical.)
  3. They still smoke. Nothing cuts through the crisp air of Wyoming and Idaho like a fresh Marlboro.
  4. They appreciate the free continental breakfast. Even the 2.5 star motels have a free continental breakfast of Costco-purchased food. Nothing says roughing it like making your own burned waffle while CNN plays on a communal television.
  5. The Tourist in the West either doesn’t noticed or has actually caused every bed in the hotel/motel circuit to be as lumpy as spoiled cottage cheese. Perhaps using topographical maps as beds is a form of massage that I simply haven’t yet noticed.
  6. The Tourist in the West likes to fancy herself a horse-riding, white water-rafting expert, although it would appear that she has done neither in a long, long time. The people out there riding horses and braving the Snake River seem to be different tourists altogether.
  7. The Tourist in the West likes to wear a ball cap from a college they attended roughly 40 years ago, or a ball cap from some relative or friend’s college attended roughly 20–40 years ago. This is because they think, it appears, that they are thus wearing a conversation piece on their head. DO NOT engage the Tourist in the West in any conversation, however, unless you have half an hour to kill.

Now then, back to my vacation! We’re going to see Mt. Rushmore today, and thus discover why South Dakota’s tourism revenue far, far exceeds that of North Dakota.

Down from on high

August rolled around and we were thrilled to take our honeymoon, finally, a little more than a year after getting hitched. This is fine, as it turns out, since my knee is all better and I’ve had time to rehabilitate the joint such that it doesn’t blow up like a balloon animal after short walks.

And the cruise, as already noted, was fantastic, full of animal sightings, a tour of endangered glaciers (as well as one advancing ice pack), and some funny-because-it-sucked shipboard musical performances.

Then we docked back at the Port of Seattle. This wasn’t like disembarking off of an airplane, which has its own annoyances, including the rush to ignite one’s cell phone, waiting for the dumbasses in rows 5-20 to get their bags out of the overhead compartment so you can move forward, and the lovely time wasting exercise of standing in baggage claim. No, to depart a ship, you have to give your stateroom steward your bags ahead of time, thus leaving each person in your cabin precisely one bag of toiletries, dirty clothing from the day before, and all of your valuables-slash-electronics. Then you proceed with your dirty clothing carryon to some previously assigned room, such as the drinking lounge three decks below your stateroom, so that you can wait around until your specific departure time. This departure time, other than seemingly based on how many prior cruises you’ve taken with the line, is an algorithm of the finest mathematics, calculating  your likelihood of throwing a total caniption if you’re forced to sit around next to a bag of smelly underwear for more than two hours.

Fortunately, one dining room out of five is open this morning, so feel free to stand on your head while waiting for a table.

Finally, we were off the ship, roughly at 10 o’clock. We found a cab after standing in a long taxi line, and made our way over to our car across town. One quick cup of coffee back on land and we were off—to the airport. This would have been a great time to gas up the car, but as is my neurotic need to be early or on time, I could only rush down to SeaTac, as if the seconds were ticking away before my sister and her two daughters were landing. Of course, the seconds were ticking away. A full 7,200 of them. So really, we had time to take it easy. But I think our time in the Vista Lounge had addled my brain somewhat, so we did some more sitting as we waited for their flight to arrive.

Finally, it did, and then we were in the car, heading back to Walla Walla, and oh, what was this on the freeway? Traffic?

Bad traffic, as it turned out. It took us 2 hours to travel about 25 miles. Eventually we were able to go faster, and then we were out of the confines of the city, and the metropolitan area, to boot.

At this point I realized we were seriously low on fuel. Now our Honda CR-V is a handy little vehicle, and by handy, I mean it has a computer for everything. It will tell me if a tire is low, as it did on this day. Not which tire is low, mind you, but that one of the four presently supporting the vehicle, take your guess or buy a gauge. It communicates this status with what looks like two parentheses and a very upset-looking exclamation mark, the whole thing in italics, like this:


That this means “pull over, your tire is low,” is simply an amazing moment for technology to me. Because it SUCKS.

Another attempt at useful computering is the gas gauge. Not only do I have a pixelated series of columns showing me how many twentieths of a tank of gas I have—with 14 gallons in the tank, it’s showing me every .7 gallons per column on my dashboard—but I also have a “miles remaining” calculator. My brain likes this little number, like a friend gently telling me how great the road is ahead. This is so much better than that 1980 Ford Escort I used to drive that actually always pretended I had three quarters of a tank, presumably because 3/4 was just its favorite setting EVAR. I have therefore walked, usually accompanied by rainfall, a couple of miles to a gas station, needing to get a gallon so I can drive to the pump. But now I don’t worry, because my car tells me I have 79 miles left in my tank.

79 glowed at me, all happy and reassuringly. And then it read 78. We had passed an exit with gas a few miles back, well within 78-mile range, but who needed it?

I’d forgotten that the gas calculator takes into account, among other things, and for perfectly understandable reasons, the labor on the engine cylinders. So it was as we began to make our way into the Cascade Mountains, yes MOUNTAINS, that the “remaining gas estimate” changed.

Twenty-seven miles. 27. Fifty miles of level terrain navigating gone, just like that.

We kept motoring, and I saw the road sign ahead. The next town was 42 miles away.

I quickly did the math in my head, because I’m a sentient being, and frankly, it wasn’t hard, and realized we were screwed. Sure, I could turn around, but now we were in the middle of the mountain range, so we weren’t going to get many of those miles, the Lost Miles of 2009, back. I wasn’t sure we’d make it in either direction.

I stopped listening to the conversation in the car, and started sweating instead. It was like I could only do one or the other.

Susanne noticed my silence first, and as she was sitting behind me, she only had to look over my shoulder to read the dash and see the root of my concern. It was at this point that she started gearing herself up, getting ready to start walking for gas when our fumes gave out on us.

Now everyone was aware of our little issue. We had 22 miles, or so the car said. I was grateful for a couple of downhill sections of road, and coasted my way in the right lane. We pulled off as soon as we could, but we were really in the middle of nowhere. Next exit, nothing.

Next exit, down to 17 miles of fuel, and we found a ghost town. It really was like something out of a western movie, with boarded up storefronts on one dusty main street, but darn it, they had a gas station with one pump. You never saw people so excited for crappy noname gas. The girls bounded into the convenience store, and came back out, thrilled to find some kind of purple Monster cocktail that drives parents crazy in 6.4 minutes. And we were off again, 503 miles of gassed up goodness sloshing around in the tank. We may have spiked the sales tax income of that little town for that day.

Catch it if you can

We spent our time on the Pacific hopping around to every function that the ship had to offer. Salsa dance class. A Wii bowling tournament. Big band concerts, large-screen showings of Star Trek and some Jennifer Aniston flick that looks like all the rest she’s made. Lots of time staring at the water, looking for whales. Many, many mohitos served on the Sun Deck. At some point our lower limbs acclimated to the water movement and we didn’t look like drunken sailors during fleet week anymore.

Getting off the ship and into port, however, was exciting for us. So it was with much anticipating that we drew into our berth at Skagway, a once-was gold mining town further up the Alaskan coast from Juneau. Skagway has a winter population of 700 and this doubles in size during the summer months, when the cruise lines bring their business. It was here that I first started noticing the signs, hung over a small portion of the shop entrances, that read “locally owned and operated.” What does that mean, I wondered. Why wouldn’t it be locally owned? Starbucks, maybe, would want to cart all of their supplies up here, but I was sure I wasn’t going to run into a Bloomingdale’s or Red Robin. As it turns out, the cruise lines have bought up most of the storefronts, which is why we saw so many jewelry outfits along the way. I don’t suppose they do much for the local communities, which in Alaska, don’t have a lot of sales or property tax income, most of the state revenue coming from the oil industry. So some of our native shopkeepers had a little chip on their shoulder, and if I were them, I might, too.

restored White Pass train

restored White Pass train

We had signed up earlier to take the White Pass train up from Skagway to the summit of the mountains, just over the border into Canada. This was the route that the gold miners had blasted out to make exploration easier. As we chugged our way up the 18 miles of rocky landscape, I took note of the near-vertical terrain. And then it hit me. These guys were crazy. I can’t imagine the desperation they must have felt to put up with what must have been absolutely horrendous conditions—white out blizzards, frostbite, inaccessible or absent supplies, inaccurate or nonexistent maps, hyper-competitive people. That surviving through years of this place seemed like a good idea was almost beyond my comprehension. I can’t even think of a metaphor for who these people are today, other than daredevils who jump off of city buildings or people who decide living in a broken down bus in the middle of nowhere is the life for them, but they’re not trying to make money out of those endeavors, it seems.

After we drew haltingly toward the summit, we passed the US Customs building, which was 6 miles away from the border. The border itself is barren of everything except rocks, the obelisk marking the actual crossover point, and the few green weeds that can handle the climate here. The Mounties are no more hardy; their customs office is 7 miles north of the marker. I suppose we’re two trusting nations. One person on the train with us remarked that we probably would put up with the elements if the neighboring country were Mexico. Wow, so much for the glory of the Yukon—we travelers today are jaded and cynical.

our train heading up to white pass

our train heading up to white pass

Up at the summit, we saw a quiet and pristine wilderness. It had taken two and a quarter hours to traverse 18 miles. A small creek snuck by the rails on the right, giving way to yellow and purple wildflowers. Maybe this site was a brute in winter, but it was a gentle lamb today. I wished we could have stayed a while, but as we were in Canada, nobody who wasn’t an employee was allowed off the train.

We could, however, go stand on the caboose. We’d climbed into the first car when we set out, but the engineers removed the engine and drove it down to the rear of the train for our return down the mountain. So now we could stand at the end and watch the world go by us, which we did. Wow, was that worth the $200 for our tickets. We gasped the first third of the trip back down.

The next day, we were in Ketchikan, known as the salmon capitol of the world. Come on, I thought. Everyone says they’re the capitol of something, but what does that really mean? Lots more tourist traps, I thought, and I might have gagged if Ketchikan were a place that sold 3,200 versions of jade jewlerly carved into whale tails. I had really seen enough of those.

Ketchikan harbor

Ketchikan harbor

They weren’t kidding, though. Ketchikan had every salmon in the world, fighting through its ocean inlet and streams. More gawking ensued. It was hard to appreciate the natural resource with 9,000 other ship passengers attempting to do the same, but we found some quiet corners that morning. Seeing these tiny pieces of Alaska only made me want to return. Maybe the gold rush is over, but it really had a lot of other riches that a person could get into.

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