National Parks Travelogue

I haven’t written a blog entry in almost a year, but I thought I’d finally break the streak and get back in the game.  Sarah and I took a vacation this Fall to explore American's National Parks out West. 

The idea for this trip actually came from the 10 year UVA reunion we went to this Spring.   On a whim, we hit up the UVA Travel seminar just to see what they had to offer.   I wasn’t really planning on booking a trip because I knew we could save a lot of money if we did all the legwork ourselves, and the $63,000 around the world trip by private jet is still out of our league. However, I thought we could get some ideas for a cool trip that we could do on our own terms.   They had an America the Beautiful tour of the Grand Canyon and other National Parks out West.    We had always talked about going to see the Grand Canyon someday and going back to Colorado to do some of the summer time activities, so we made our own itinerary to see four National Parks:  Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Rocky Mountain National Park.   Our plan was to start in Phoenix and visit some of Sarah’s family nearby in Mesa, drive to the Grand Canyon, then head to Moab, Utah to visit Arches and Canyonlands nearby, and then head to Colorado to see Rocky Mountain National Park and see some old friends in Denver before flying back to DC.   Before I move on, I have to give a shout out to Fox Rent a Car for literally being $500 cheaper than any other rental car company for a one-way rental from Phoenix to Denver.  They got piss poor reviews, but I read that the Phoenix location was okay and really all I need from a rental car company is to get me a car that can get from Point A to Point B.  Needless to say we survived, and really the Chevy Malibu we got was starting to grow on us.

To say Phoenix is hot is a fairly big understatement.  It was 105 when we landed that afternoon and the sun was intense.  Despite the heat we decided to take a go at the outdoor Botanical Gardens Museum  because we had some time to kill after our plane landed.   It was pretty cool to see all the different varieties of cacti, but at some point you just need air conditioning.    After visiting with Sarah’s family, we headed on the road north to cooler weather.    I think the cliché’s are correct; it’s hard to capture the sheer size and vastness of the Grand Canyon.  Even when you’re seeing it first hand, some of the scenery looks more like a painting as the layers and canyons keep repeating themselves.    
Grand Canyon from South Rim
We enjoyed hiking the south rim trail and watched the sun go down.  The next morning I even got up early to catch the sunrise.  Our final Grand Canyon excursion was to actually hike down a bit into the canyon to get a different perspective.  Although it was a heck of a climb back up, the views down at Cedar Ridge where spectacular.  

Next we headed North again for the 6 hour drive to Moab.   To get there we drove through some of the most remote areas I’ve ever been to; small towns were as much as 90 miles apart.   We were lucky enough to pass through some beautiful landscapes right as the sun was setting right near the Arizona/Utah border.     
Sunset at the Utah Border
Trail Up the Rock Face
 We spent the bulk of our trip in and around the Moab area, and we still didn’t get a chance to see everything on our list.   After some much needed rest, we spent our first day hiking through Arches National Park.  The park gets its namesake from the many unique red rock formations that adorn the park.    The hike to the “Double O” arch was probably our favorite of the day:  some cool rock scrambling up and around the rock “fins” with a spectacular viewpoint at the end.    
To break up all the hiking and give our legs a rest, the next day we did something completely different and rented a kayak on the Colorado river.   For the trip we booked, we got an inflatable kayak (basically a narrow mini-raft) and we followed alongside two guided rafts.  We got to enjoy the beautiful scenery and go through some small (Class I and IIs) but fun rapids.  The best way to describe the difficulty is that our guide gave us helmets but didn't make us wear them, except during the rapids when they took our pictures so that she wouldn't get in trouble with her boss. 

We spent the late afternoon at Canyonlands National Park.  It’s like a massive version of Arches National Park, but we could only spend a small fraction of time there.  We did yet another hike to watch the sunset to the aptly named Grand View Point Overlook.

For our last day in Moab, we went to see the most famous Arch in the area: the Delicate Arch.   It certainly lived up to its billing and probably better pictured than described:

The Famous Delicate Arch

For the final portion of our trip, we headed out on our second big road trip to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park.   After seeing a plethora of canyons and red rocks, it was a welcome change to see yellow Aspen trees and blue lakes.   During the time we lived in Colorado, we did not manage to go to the RMNP in the fall.  The trail to Cub Lake the first day was our favorite, it had the perfect combination of snow capped mountains, fall colors, and a lily-pad covered lake.  

Cub Lake
 Although we saw no bears at Cub Lake, there were plenty Elk around the park. It was easy to tell whenever wildlife was spotted: if an otherwise unexplainable mini-traffic jam occurred, you could bet there was some wildlife nearby. We hiked a few more trails to several other picturesque lakes to complete our journey around the park.

Our final destination was a short trip down memory lane around Denver.   We met up with some friends for reminiscing, drinks, and dinner at one of our favorite restaurants.    Before our flight out the last day, we had a fun time enjoying a beautiful day at Washington Park.   In typical Denver fashion, there was a volleyball tournament going on and not just any volleyball tournament, everyone was dressed up!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs Business Casual



To the Rally...

Even though work has been super busy (unfortunately I expect that to continue for a little bit over the next couple of months), I’ve found some limited time to squeeze out another blog entry. As my topic this month, I have chosen a familiar theme for long time readers...the trials and tribulations of getting around DC. This time it involved getting to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Our story begins early Saturday morning. Several of us were planning on attending the rally, but there were some complicating factors. Our distinguished guests (Traci, Cassie, and Shannon, or “Trassinon”) were in town for the Halloween party, but had other brunch plans that morning before the rally. The first "Oh S@!t" moment occurred as I was dropping the brunch-goers at Vienna Metro. The line wrapped out of the fare gates all the way across 66 into the kiss and ride drop off point (if you haven’t been to the Vienna Metro, take my word for it that it’s a long freaking way). Luckily, I did remember that during big events, like the annual Cherry Blossom festival, the line is just for the fare card machines and not to actually get on the train. Unfortunately, not all of our guests had a fare card, so back to the house we went to scrounge for extra fare cards. Fortunately, we found a few extras that we could use and headed out again for trip #2 to the Metro. I wished them luck and made tentative plans to try to meet up at the rally (foolish though they were) and headed back to the house to pick the second crew (myself, Sarah, Sarah #2, Rob, Mike #2, and Amanda). We would never see the brunch goers again…at least until I had to pick them up from the Vienna Metro yet again much later that afternoon.

We strategized for a bit and thought that maybe Dunn Loring would be a little less chaotic than Vienna, so we decided to head that way. We were dead wrong. The Dunn Loring line was just as long, if not longer, and went around the block to the street. We took one of the few remaining parking spaces and headed to the station. There was something strangely satisfying in walking past the huge line for the farecard machines and walking right up to the deserted fare gates and into the station.

Our next challenge was getting on the train. We had some seasoned Metro goers in the group so we immediately headed to the very end of the tracks to get on the first car. The train was packed, but the first car actually had some room. This didn't mean that people were filling in the middle yet, but we were able to all squeeze on. The next several metro stops were like a game of Tetris...how many more people could squeeze into an already packed car. It was a good thing the general mood of the crowd was much different than a typical rush hour commute. People were generally jovial and entertaining; trading stories of how they got there, joking around about restoring sanity, and hitting on Rob’s wife. As the Metro Tetris game continued, our party ended up getting pushed into different parts of the car. Being freakishly tall, I had to serve as the chief communication link between everyone. At least one person decided, let’s just get out once we hit the district and walk the rest of the way. So, we escaped the sardine can and started the long walk to the mall.

We ended up arriving at the rally right around 12:00. The crowds were enormous and pretty soon we arrived at a logjam. People stretched way beyond the limits of the area set aside for the rally. Portions of the mall were blocked off, forcing everyone to squeeze into the walkways. People completely covered the roads and were starting to climb on anything they could: trees, street lights, and even the port-a-potties. Although it was crowded the many clever signs and costumes more than made up for it:

“Keep your hands off my Third Amendment Rights, No Soldiers Quartered in MY house"

“Don’t Blame Me I voted for Kodos”

"If a riot breaks out I'm grabbing an I-Pad"

“Hitler was a Nazi”

The Street Next to the Mall - Notice the Person on the Traffic Light

The camaraderie with the crowd was definitely fun, but it was very tough to actually hear or see the rally. Jon Stewart and the music generally came through pretty good, but not having the visuals made it pretty hard to understand what was going on and other speakers were much quieter. We didn’t get any visuals of the classic Stephen Colbert outfits, and were mostly confused with the Peace Train/Crazy Train bit. At that point we figured we had really seen all that we could see and decided to make our way around the back of the rally toward the Capitol and head to the Metro. We figured the DVR of the rally would make a whole lot more sense. Although Mike was really pushing to just go to Churchkey instead of heading back to the infamous Blades and Booze Halloween party, we ended up making the last, much less crowded portion of our journey and drove out to the far West of Northern Virginia.

I definitely thought it was a fun and cool experience, much more about the journey than the actual destination, but I do have some complaints. Comedy Central, your estimates were way off. I’ll even put you “On Notice.” I know these things are hard to estimate, but you were off by a factor of four (60k vs 220k) and that doesn’t include all the people who basically got stranded trying to get there. Here is aerial photo of the event, which you can see extends well beyond the original space:

The crowds ended up being about the same number of people as a normal DC workday. Transporting that many people just doesn’t work with 12 minute intervals between trains. As I understand it, Metro’s policy is not to run more trains unless the organizers of an event ask for expanded service and pay to provide it. You should have ponied up Comedy Central, it just wasn’t working.


Alaskan Travelogue: Part 2

Just as soon as we got back to the ship from our Kayaking trip in Ketchikan, we got some surprising news from the ship’s Captain about our next stop. The tiny town of Hoonah was in the midst of a serious situation involving the perpetrator in the murder of two police officers who was still barricaded in his house. The coast guard had temporarily closed the port and our ship had to adjust its plans. Although it took them a while to tell us the details of our new itinerary, the first thing I wanted to do was call the independent tour companies that we booked our excursions with. We decided to book outside the cruise line because you generally got longer excursions with smaller groups for the same price. However, I never thought the cruise ship would change the order of the port stops! Luckily it all worked out thanks to some flexibility by the excursion vendors.

We ended up taking the long trip to Skagway instead of to Hoonah and just arrived at 8:30 in the morning before our bus tour with Chilkoot Charters and Tours to the Yukon was supposed to depart. We rushed to get off the ship, but luckily we ended up having plenty of time thanks to some flexibility by the tour company. The weather cooperated and despite the 60% chance of rain, it stayed bright and clear. The tour took us over the White Pass trail, through a small desert that appeared after a glacier lake receded, to the beautiful Emerald Lake. We even saw some real Alaskan sled dogs relaxing in the warm weather.

Emerald Lake, Yukon

Our next stop was the capital city of Juneau. We didn’t book an excursion and decided to just take a shuttle up to the Mendenhall Glacier and National park. The weather held out for another unexpected sunny afternoon, and although no bears were spotted we did see some spectacular views of the glacier. After taking a short walk to as close to the glacier as we could get, we headed to a 3.5 mile nature loop trail that showcased the types of vegetation that emerge after the glacier receded.

Mendenhall Glacier

The final port before the end of our cruise was at Icy Straight Point near the small town of Hoonah. The port had reopened after the Juneau Swat team stormed the house and arrested the shooter. Aside from the huge zip line (which we didn’t try after doing some serious zip lining in West Virginia the week prior), the main attraction in Hoonah is whale watching. We took the Glacier Wind Charters tour to Point Aldophus, which is the feeding grounds for about 30 whales. Although it poured down rain for a good hour of the trip, the whales were being very active. We saw several even do a complete breach. On the way back to the port, away from most of the action, we seemed to disturb a relaxing whale who surfaced right next to our small craft and then proceeded to leap right in the air behind us. It was pretty amazing stuff, I even got a short video of one of the whales jumping in the distance.

Next we saw what perhaps my favorite site of the cruise was and the main reason I was happy with our choice for the North bound cruise: the Hubbard Glacier. This glacier is about 6 miles wide and 10-15 stories high. The ship pulls right alongside it with the hope to see some serious calving. Despite our best attempts to make enough noise to shake up the glacier, we didn’t see any major ruptures. However, the glacier didn’t completely disappoint. Its normal activity was still very impressive and the slightly overcast sky really made the blue glacier ice stand out.

Hubbard Glacier

From the Hubbard glacier, we had one final day and night at sea before reaching the last stop in our cruise, Seward Alaska. Although we missed the seminar on how to fold towels and wash cloths into animal shapes, we did get in some more mini golf and ended up on a winning team in a quite windy volleyball tournament consisting of two teams. Luckily only two volleyballs were lost to the ocean. It ended up being an early evening since we had to grab a quick breakfast and be ready for the scenic train ride to Anchorage by 5:55 AM. Mainly as a matter of principle, one of my major goals of the morning was to figure out how to get my previously confiscated surge protector back. We eventually figured out we had to go to a separate table where all forbidden items ended up, most of which were Ulu knives (traditional Alaskan rounded blades that are big with tourists). We had no receipt to give them (very confusing for them) but we eventually spotted our contraband with our room number taped on. They had Sarah fill out a surprisingly long form but eventually the surge protector was ours again. Once on the train, I was able to get some nice pictures of what you think of as typical Alaskan scenery: snow topped mountains with glaciers, green forests, lakes, and even some wildlife. We saw some moose and even some goats up high on the mountains.

Our flight (which included the first meal that I’ve had for free in a flight in 6 years) got us to Seattle fairly late Friday night. We had a great time in our one day in Seattle. In the morning we walked over to the Seattle center and saw the Space Needle, and then went on a “Food Tour” of Pike’s Place market. The market is so huge and so crowded, the tour was really a great way to focus in on about 10 different shops and get to sample something from each. The tour guide provided insight and historical tidbits that also made it more interesting than a normal walkthrough. From garlic hot-smoked salmon, to seafood bisque, to chocolate covered cherries, we got a lot of good food. At the famous fish market, Sarah also got to be about as close as possible to the fish catcher without catching the fish with her face.

In the afternoon we met up with Marie and Adam at their place in Seattle. They were excellent hosts and we ended up deciding to go on the Redhook brewery tour and visit a nearby winery. Although it was close, we decided to go with beer and wine instead of the other kayaking options we discussed. It was a fun afternoon and after getting some dinner and eating some ice cream we rushed off to catch our red-eye flight back home. It was great end to a wonderful vacation.

Redhook Brewery Tour

Alaskan Travelogue: Part 1

After working a half day on Thursday morning, the trip began with our flight to Vancouver from Dulles via San Francisco. By the time our taxi dropped us off at our hotel in downtown Vancouver we were pretty exhausted (it was 2am EST) and we went straight to bed. Even in our limited time there the next day, Vancouver was a fun city to explore. We walked through the historic Gas town district, Chinatown, and through the main shopping district. After walking around town all day and trying to stay dry, we eventually made it to the Vancouver pier at about 3:00 PM.

One of our unintended traveling goals is to get in an inconsequential mishap as soon as we enter another country. For Canada it ended up revolving around the surge protector. Several people before the trip had strongly recommended that a surge protector would be absolutely necessary for our cruise. Never having been on a cruise before it made sense to us; unfortunately, Royal Caribbean scanned our carry-on luggage and immediately managers were called to confiscate our contraband. More on this later when we attempted to get it back after the cruise.

When we first got on the ship, Sarah and I both had a moment of "what did we sign up for," but we actually mostly enjoyed our time at sea. I don’t think we’ll ever go on a cruise just to go on a cruise (well at least not for 30 years or so when we hit the average cruiser age group), but once we found out what we liked we found several ways to entertain ourselves. The “My Time” dining worked out really well for us. Instead of eating at the same time with the same people every night, we could choose any time for dinner and either ate by ourselves at a table for two or with a different group of people every night. The evening shows in the theater were hit and miss. One comedian duo was really good; the other comedian wasn't so hot. Sarah liked the Broadway musical type productions better than me, but overall they were generally worth going to. I was a little annoyed at some of the nickel-and-diming for cruise ship activities. We learned quickly to look for the ($) on the daily activities list that indicated an extra charge. We did splurge one night to pay extra for the specialty steak restaurant, and it was totally worth it. We liked the mini-golf, table tennis (especially challenging with the wind while the ship was moving), and even played volleyball the last day at sea. I actually went to the fitness center a couple of times (which was a very nice facility) and even won some money at the Video Poker machines in the Casino. We made it a point to attend each session of the progressive trivia game, and I thought we did pretty well for just the two of us (most teams had 5-6 people); we were in 5th place at one point.

Even though we found some stuff to do on the ship, it was nice to get off when we arrived at Ketchikan. Ketchikan is one of the rainiest cities in the country and also very well known for their salmon. We saw our first Salmon ladder in Ketchikan; it was interesting to see the fish fight to go upstream first hand. Our excursion that day was a several hour kayak tour with Southeast Sea Kayaks near the Tongass National Forest. They took us by speed boat to the islands were we kayaked together in the area known as Orca’s Cove. We saw plenty of sea wildlife, lots of starfish and jellyfish, as well as two bald eagles. Sarah even held one of the non-stinging jelly fish in her hands. Although we got some rain, it was a lot of fun. The hot cocoa and smoked salmon they had waiting for us on our return boat trip was tasty and a great way to end the trip.


The Decision...

[Note: I started this right after the announcement, but long days at work have gotten in the way of finishing until tonight]

As someone who follows sports pretty closely, I feel compelled to write something on the recent Lebron decision to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach. In full disclosure, since Lebron timed his announcement right during my dinner plans with Sarah for her birthday, I didn't actually see the coverage live but saw plenty of highlights after the fact. There are several things that annoyed me about the whole situation. I respect his right to move to a different team, but his execution was all wrong. The whole thing was handled pretty poorly by Lebron's PR team. Since his PR team is basically Drama and Turtle from Entourage (friends from back home), I guess it's not too surprising.

The key thing that really pushed this over the edge for me was the hour long TV special on ESPN. When Lebron's camp sold this idea, they didn't seem to realize that this would be interpreted as a slap in the face to Cleveland. Lebron didn't show any empathy for the Cleveland fans who have basically worshiped him for 7 years, or show any loyalty to his team. It was like going to a fancy dinner with your long time girlfriend and then getting on one knee and proposing to the girl you met last week (all on national TV). Plus, did they really need the whole hour for what amounted to about about a five minute announcement. Kevin Durant just issued a press release. When you refer to yourself in the third person several times, the whole thing screams narcissism right at you.

The other big question is in the long run will it all mean that much? Joining another Top 3 player who has already won a championship certainly won't help his legacy. As many have noted, this is something Michael Jordan would never have done. How much it means in the end will depend a lot on what happens over the next several years. If Miami wins a bunch of championships, then the reaction to all this will fade and basketball fans will remember the Heat as a dynasty. The more interesting thing will be if this Heat team doesn't win for a couple of years or at all. Then the media will pile on Lebron for leaving Cleveland and not even winning a championship. It will be a lot like the Tiger Woods situation right now. The longer Tiger doesn't win, the bigger the story of his fall from grace. In the end, I think it will be an interesting NBA season next year and it will be fun to cheer against Lebron.

Enjoy some Anti-Lebron t-shirts.


A Walk in the City...

Recently Sarah and I had our friend Anthony from our Colorado days come visit for a quick whirlwind tour of Washington. The original plan was to fight the hoards during the Cherry Blossom festival, but the early April heat wave caused the blossoms to come out a little earlier than expected. Even though we missed the cherries, that didn't stop us from cramming in a whole lot of DC into one Saturday and taking pictures of whatever trees were blossoming at the time!

The journey started at Arlington National Cemetery and ended at the Metro stop at L'Enfant Plaza. In between there was lots of catching up, picture taking, walking, and enjoying a beautiful Saturday in the city. For posterity's sake, I retraced the route and it looks like we got in a good days walk, at least 5.1 miles.

After strolling through parts of Arlington Cemetery, we crossed the memorial bridge and checked out the Lincoln Memorial and Korean War Memorial:

We headed through the FDR memorial to the tidal basin and the Jefferson Memorial. Although there were nothing but green leaves on the Cherry trees on the tidal basin, there were about 6 crab-apple trees flowering nearby. We joined the other tourist groups who came to see some flowers and took a few pictures of our own.

As we headed toward the national mall, we stopped to take in a random Women's Rugby match underway. Although we were temporarily fascinated, there wasn't as much action as you might think. We reached the National Art Gallery to take in some fine art and hit up the hidden cafeteria, and then finished the day at the Air and Space Museum. After being out for about 8 hours, we decided to grab dinner downtown at Gordon Biersch. Being at the point of collapse made that first beer at Gordon Biersch taste even better and gave us enough energy for the metro ride back to Fairfax.

On a related topic, if you are in the market for fine art photography at a reasonable price, check out Anthony's website: http://www.flamiophoto.com/home for some great scenic photography in natural and urban settings. Even better, if you are in the Lambertville, NJ (the nice part near Pennsylvania) area he is starting up a Photo Tour business. He'll take you hiking, canoeing, or cycling to scenic areas to capture a postcard quality shot.