A day at Disneyland

Aug 25, 2006

Today was the day to go to Disneyland, so we got up and got going earlier than we otherwise would have, considering how late things went last night. Ran across the street to the Hilton, which had a Starbucks where we could grab some breakfast, then back to the Marriott to catch the shuttle bus to take us to the park, which is only about a mile away. We were on the grounds and standing in line to get in by 8:15 or so, and around 8:30 they let people into main street, and then the rest of the way at 9:00. Once they brought down the barriers, it felt sort of like the beginning of a road race, as everyone wanted to hurry forward to whatever was first on their hit list, but there were too many people to get a running start.

A couple of weeks ago, we got a book called the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, which not only described everything in detail and rated all the rides and restaurants and everything, but gave some suggested itineraries that would help to maximize your ride time and limit your waiting in line. So the first thing on the agenda was Space Mountain, which I’d never ridden on before, bearing in mind that in spite of the fact that we went to Disneyland in ’96 and Disneyworld in ’96 and ’97, we didn’t get to ride on many rides then because Chloe was so little. There were a number of rides that fit that category. Before ’96, you’d have to go back to our trip to Disneyworld in 1973, and the place was barely finished then, and a lot of the current big rides didn’t exist.

Space Mountain is an indoor rollercoaster that is mostly ridden in the pitch dark with a star field zooming around you. It was probably Justin’s favorite ride of the day, though, and mine too because there was basically no line since we’d chosen it first. After that we went straight to the Matterhorn bobsleds, bypassing the Buzz Lightyear ride because it wasn’t working yet. After that was the Peter Pan ride, and then Thunder Mountain, another pseudo-rollercoaster. We were working our way over to the west side of the park, where we did the Haunted Mansion, then went up to Splash Mountain to get fastpass tickets for later. Fastpass is this relatively new thing Disney has to allow you to get a timed ticket for certain rides to avoid having to stand in line for an inordinately long time. Cedar Point and Six Flags have something similar but charge extra for it; at Disney it’s free, but there’s only so many to be had, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. It was good to have the guidebook to help explain it, since there are a lot of rules and it all makes sense once you get the hang of it, but it’d be a challenge to figure out at the park, which would I guess explain why so many people don’t use it.

Anyway we got the passes and then went back south to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean, which has been made over quite a bit to match the movies, making it a little less cartoony than I remember. By the time we got through the ride and everything for that ride, we were due for Splash Mountain, so we went back up there and bypassed about a 45 minute wait by getting the tickets for a specific time. Splash Mountain is basically a flume ride, with a good part of it indoors. Unlike every other amusement park in the US, Disneyland obscures what most of its rides look like from those standing in line, and since most of them are at least partly if not entirely indoors, they’re able to devote a lot of attention to the visual aspect of the ride rather than just riding for its own sake. Many of the rides have so much to look at that you can’t possibly take it all in on one trip, which makes it that much more compelling to ride them again. But we didn’t, once was fine.

By this point it was 12:30 or so and time for me to take off back to the convention for the afternoon, so I left Beth and the kids on their way back to check if Buzz Lightyear was online and went back to the hotel to gather my stuff.

After the last panel it was back to Disney to meet up with the family, although it was after 7pm by the time I got there, and they were already trashed from all the other rides and shows they’d done while I was gone, including Buzz Lightyear, which they were able to do although it was still having intermittent problems. We went to the Tiki Room show, which has changed since last time, since I don’t recall it being in the round before. Found a cafeteria type restaurant in the corner of Frontierland where we stood in line for over half an hour to get our food, such that we had to finish up quick in order to get outside in time for the fireworks. We found a spot to see the show, only to have it end abruptly after 15 minutes or so due to some technical difficulties (when Jill was here a few weeks ago they didn’t have them at all because it was too windy). Afterwards we did a little shopping, Justin spent the rest of his Disney dollars, and then we headed out to the shuttle bus and were back here shortly after 11pm, making for 15 hours or so at Disney, which I think you could consider a full day. Whether it’s worth $200 to get in or not is debatable, if you think the other parks are fairly priced then Disney is worth the extra to get the whole Disney experience. The park isn’t large, the streets aren’t particularly wide and many of the rides don’t have enough space to accommodate extra long lines, all of which gives you a general sense of being crowded. In the interest of crowd control, once the fireworks are done most people start to leave (even though the park was open till midnight tonight), and they have tons of people deployed for traffic control, such that while the exodus is in progress you can’t get certain places the easy way, on top of the fact that it’s dark and it’s hard to find your way around anyway. The kids had a good time, I think they got what they expected out of it (not being familiar with the rides, they don’t have a sense of what they missed, like the Indiana Jones ride, etc.). I spent 9 hours there which is about as much as I can stand of an amusement park. Now tomorrow they’re off to Legoland, which seems ambitious although I suppose its no different than going back to Disney for another day. Since Legoland is a ways away from here, I’ll be spending the day at the con, there’s still plenty of people to see and stuff to buy.

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Sox win! Sox win!

Aug 24, 2006

First full day of the convention for me, everybody slept in and didn’t really eat breakfast. Surprisingly, the Marriott has a coin-operated laundry, so Beth did some clothes with the kids since the dust of the Grand Canyon had limited the reusability of some items. After that they went back to Downtown Disney and used some of their hard-earned Disney Dollars to buy these tradable pin collection things where all the Disney employees wear a bunch and you just walk up to them and ask for a trade, I guess. Chloe was quite good at it, being her usual fearless self, Justin was a bit shy about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, I was at the convention, where I saw some worthwhile panels. I met up with the rest of the family back at the hotel late in the afternoon and we were off to Angels Stadium to see the Red Sox. The kids had never seen them play in person before, and I haven’t been to Fenway since Wolsky showed up with Ratso Rizzo and an extra ticket, which was at least five or six years ago. We cabbed it over to the stadium at the suggestion of the bellhop, who underestimated what it would cost, but it beat trying to figure out where to park and then having to hoof it from there anyway. The stadium is only a couple of miles from the hotel, on the other side of the freeway, if you were at Fenway, you’d probably have to park at least that far away, but too far for us, particularly on the way back. We got there early enough to have a quick, overpriced dinner of hot dogs, brats, etc., and made it to our seats in the upper deck down the first base line near the foul pole shortly before the game began. The stadium was only about half full when the game started, but it was a sellout, and eventually most everyone showed up, although they started leaving around the 7th inning. People were constantly moving around to different seats, so you never knew for sure who was still there and who had left for good. There were quite a few Red Sox fans, not a majority, but enough to make their presence felt. Josh Beckett pitched a solid game into the 7th, then was replaced before he fell apart by Timlin, with Papelbon coming in at the end for the save. Got to see Big Papi hit a solo homer for the first score of the game. It came down to the wire, final score, Red Sox 2, Angels 1.

The cab on the way back cost even more because we had to sit in traffic for a while to get out of the stadium. Parking there was 8 bucks, 5 if you parked in a private lot, so I don’t know if the cab thing was worthwhile. The driver we got on the return trip was quite garrulous, covering baseball, science fiction, politics, traffic violations, and probably several other topics all in the 15 minutes or so we were in the cab. The kids were totally trashed, and now we have to get up early tomorrow to attack Disneyland, hope they’re awake enough to enjoy it.

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Across the desert

Aug 23, 2006

Today was the day I’d been dreading, having to drive 480 miles from the Grand Canyon to Anaheim for the start of this year’s Worldcon. This was not the original plan, but somewhere after making reservations for the lodge back in January, I realized the Worldcon was not its traditional Thursday to Monday dates, but rather Wednesday to Sunday, as it’s not on Labor Day weekend there’s no reason to extend the con to Monday. So where I thought we’d be checking out of the GC on Wednesday with the con starting the following day, it turned out I’d miscounted. So as a result we got here to Anaheim and checked in by about 6pm, just as the con was ending for the day. It hadn’t really gotten going until 2:30, so I’d missed at most 3 panels, and since this is my 6th Worldcon, I wasn’t going to get too hung up about it.

It took a while to get rolling this morning, everyone needed showers, we decided to have a real breakfast back at the restaurant at Bright Angel Lodge, had to check out, take a few last pictures, one last trip around the gift shop, such that is was 9:30 by the time we drove out of the park. The kids watched movies non-stop in the backseat, Beth read for a while, dozed for a while, read some more. I looked at the Arizona and California deserts for 8 hours straight. We got some cheap gas just before crossing over into California, stopped in Needles for lunch at a Jack in the Box, got gas again somewhere before getting off of I-15, but otherwise didn’t diverge from the road the entire day. The temperature was a temperate 75 or so when we left the canyon, but it was about 106 through Barstow.

Last time we stayed across the street at the Hilton, I opted for the Marriott this time as it is not the main hotel and thereby doesn’t host any parties, so the odds of having a quiet floor that is actually quiet are increased (they try to limit parties to pre-designated “party floors” in the main hotel, but people don’t always get the memo. This was a bit of a problem last time). The area around the convention center looks pretty much the same as I remember it, but the area around Disney has spruced up quite a bit, we walked from the hotel to Downtown Disney, which didn’t even exist 10 years ago, and went to Tortilla Joe’s for dinner. A mariachi band serenaded us at our table, and a guy came around later and made balloon animals for the kids. After dinner we walked over to the World of Disney store so I could get the kids the Disney dollars they earned for the picture matching exercise. The Grand Canyon pictures were pretty much a bust, even though there were 9 or 10 of them, the vidcaps were indistinct enough to make the backgrounds blend together, and we didn’t cover every scenic outlook along the rim, so even a few that should’ve been more easily identifiable were never matched up. There is also a section of the ’68 film from somewhere between the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam, which we covered on Monday going the other direction, that looks like it was taken at a rest stop with some scenery in the background. There was a “scenic outlook” on the southbound side of US-93 that may have been it, although it was only a few miles past the dam, but it appears that there’s a river in the background, which was the point of the scenic outlook, so that may have been it, but since we’d just gotten in the car and had 200+ miles to go I didn’t stop. The kids had pretty much lost interest by then anyway, and by the time the GC came along so had I, or at least I had better things to do. Coming back west today we covered the same stretch of I-40 as on Monday at least as far as Kingman, then continuing all the way to its western terminus at I-15 in Barstow. Charles Kurault reputedly said after I-40’s eastern end in North Carolina was completed back in the ‘80’s that “it is now possible to drive across the entire country without seeing anything”. The western most 400 miles would certainly bear that out, not that the desert landscape isn’t unique or beautiful in its own terms, but 400 miles of it is a bit much.

After finishing the Disney store, we walked back to the hotel from the other direction, as Downtown Disney isn’t as easy to get to as it looks on the map, and that seemed to be more direct, maybe a mile total, everyone was tired, although Beth was the only one really complaining.

Tomorrow my convention starts in earnest and this travelog will shift focus accordingly. Beth has plans to take the kids to Disneyland one day, Legoland another day, but everything else is up for grabs. There are lots of things in LA that I haven’t seen, hopefully I’ll have the time to do a couple of them. And tomorrow night we get to witness the sagging Red Sox try to eke out a decent performance now that the Yankees have crushed both their spirit and their hopes of reaching the playoffs even with 5 weeks left in the season.

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Into the canyon

Aug 22, 2006

A full day in the Grand Canyon is a serious workout, at least if you have any intention of seeing the Grand Canyon. They say the average visit to the GC lasts three hours. Considering how far off the beaten path it is, this seems hard to believe (since if 3 hours is the average, that means there’s a fair number of people who pay their 25 bucks, drive in the gate, and turn around and drive back out). If you’re going to go to all the trouble of driving from wherever to the Grand Canyon, the least you could do is stay for the day. And most people apparently do just that, the place is pretty quiet earlier in the morning, and I can’t vouch for later in the evening but I would imagine it would be similar. I went for a run along the Rim Trail this morning from the Lodge to the Yavapai observation station and back, and once I got past the lodges on this end I saw very few people on the trail and only one other jogger. This was about 7am or so. The Rim Trail follows along the canyon’s edge for quite some distance, most of it isn’t very big, but the area between the lodges and Yavapai is relatively wide, mostly a gentle incline on the way east, so I did the second half about 2 minutes faster coming back than the first half going out.

Everyone was basically ready to go when I got back, so after a quick shower we’d loaded up all the stuff and were headed for the canyon trail. But first breakfast, so we did a quick selection of muffins, Danish and juice at Bright Angel Lodge, then hopped on the blue line to the green line to the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail.

Several years ago the powers that be at the National Park Service decided that the Grand Canyon was becoming too crowded and conceived of a huge plan to shut down the vast majority of the canyon area to cars and have everyone instead congregate south of the park in Tusayan and take a light rail shuttle into a brand new Visitors Center south of Mather point. They built the Visitors Center, a large complex of several buildings housing a museum, bookstore, and lots of bathrooms, which is also the terminus of two of the three free bus lines that run between the various areas of the park. But the rest of the plan still hasn’t been implemented. Tourism dropped off after 9/11 and since then the numbers of people and cars have been kept to manageable levels, most notably by shutting off certain sections of roads to private vehicles and running these shuttle buses on them instead, which seems to work reasonably well. The Visitors Center suffers, though, because it’s a lone outpost that there’s no compelling reason to visit, and that most people probably don’t even know is there. The bus routes have even been set up to force you to cross the plaza to get from one route to the other, but on our way back through there around 1pm, the place was basically empty.

So after a change of bus route we were deposited at the aforementioned South Kaibab trail, which if you’re really adventurous goes all the way down to the river, where there’s a suspension that takes you across and connects to the North Kaibab trail, which would bring you ultimately up to the north rim. Our plans weren’t quite so ambitious, we hoped to be able to hike down to the first outpost at Cedar Ridge, about 1.5 miles each way, dropping 1140 feet into the canyon. There were a decent number of people on the trail, families, college age kids, tons of foreigners (there may not be more foreigners than Americans visiting the Canyon, but it’s possible there are more foreigners actually hiking there). It was about 10am by the time we got started, it took us around an hour to get down, with some of the ubiquitous spectacular canyon views around every turn and switchback in the trail. At least half of it was in the shade too, since we were mostly hugging the west side of that ridge. Also ubiquitous was the enormous amount of mule excrement on the trail, some of it noxiously fresh, since unlike yesterday the mules had just gone down. We passed two short mule trains during the hike, one on our way down and one going back up, just pack mules, no passengers. A group of mules for hire also passed through going up while we were checking out Cedar Ridge.

Justin was much better on the way down this time, knowing what to expect, and also he tends to clam up and behave when Chloe is having a moody episode. We agreed before we started that she would complain the whole way about having to hike in the canyon, but that we would severally ignore her. It took about an hour to reach the plateau at the checkpoint, we spent close to half an hour there recuperating and taking in the scenery, then about 90 minutes to go back. On the way back up, Justin did pretty well, following the same strategy as yesterday. Chloe did fine, while still griping. Beth, on the other hand, was having a coronary much of the way, the sun was out in full force by now, and the temperature was well into the 90’s, but I thought it could’ve felt a lot worse. As it turned out, before we were half way back up some clouds had rolled in and we could finish the ascent out of the direct sun. In fact I was starting to worry that it would rain, with us stuck on the upward climb of the trail, but it never did. We made it back to the trail head around 1pm, dusty, sweaty, redolent of mule, but full of the enormity of our achievement and seriously ready for lunch.

The shuttle bus back took us as far as the Market Plaza, where there’s a large cafeteria and we dug into a late lunch. Without even heading back to the room, still carrying two backpacks, we shuttled all the way back to the end of the blue line and picked up the red line, which takes you along the western part of the rim and stops at 8 different places to check out various scenic spots. We skipped the first two as being just the opposite side of the gorge that we were looking out over by default (and that we’d seen from the inside via Bright Angel Trail yesterday), but spent some time at all the others, no hikes, just taking pictures and video and soaking up the scenery. The sun had come back out by then and it was hot for a while, but everyone seems to have been SPF’d enough to avoid any sunburn.

The last stop on the red line is Hermit’s Rest, which has a little gift shop and snack bar, as well as another trailhead which is best left to the professionals. We rested and browsed there for a while, then headed back to our Lodge to regroup and change socks, etc. It was getting towards dinnertime and in spite of the late lunch everyone was hungry, so we walked over to the gift shop at Bright Angel Lodge for some swag, then hopped the shuttle to the Maswik Lodge just one stop down the road for dinner at a cafeteria remarkably similar to the one in Market Plaza, except not big or well organized (and busy, since it was more the dinner hour). We walked back here in the dark (not much in the way of streetlights) and the kids were crashed by 8:30 or so. A full 12-hour day at the Grand Canyon, doing our best to up the average visit. You could easily spend a week here, between the sightseeing, hiking, shopping, history, ranger talks, etc. While the canyon village is bustling, they seem to be able to handle the crowds reasonably well and you really don’t have to go very far to get away from the masses and commune in relative solitude with the vastness of the unique sight of the canyon that is behind every tree and around every curve. The north rim is reputedly even more remote and less developed if you really want to get away from it all, but you could only make that determination with any degree of accuracy after sampling the totality of the south rim first. In my experience, there’s no place like it.

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To the canyon

Aug 21, 2006

The kids were surprisingly smitten with Las Vegas, what with all the outdoor escalators and jumbotrons on the sides of the hotels and the circus acts and whatnot. We drove back down the strip on leaving the hotel this morning to take some pictures of the facades of some of the more spectacular casinos, got some breakfast at Jack in the Box, and it was off to the Grand Canyon.

Half an hour later, we had already made our first stop, just outside of town to see the new improved Hoover Dam. Actually the dam itself is the same, but the area around it is going through a massive rehab which seems to be about 2/3 done. The dam itself looks like it did in the old home movies, although you can’t walk out to the pumping stations any more, but you can still walk across from Nevada to Arizona and back. Coming from the Las Vegas side, you are directed to the shiny new parking garage and cough up $7 for the privilege of parking out of the sun (if you get there early enough). If you’d just keep going over the dam, you’d get to all the free parking that’s been there since the thing opened in 1936. Attached to the new garage is a brand new gift shop and restaurant (more of a diner, really). And the sidewalk from that build down to the dam is all done up in a plaza with some new sculptures and plaques and such.

What’s sort of irritating about the new set up is the new “visitors center” below ground, which isn’t really what I would consider a visitor’s center at all because you have to pay $11 to get in. You go down the escalator, are immediately besieged by some people wanting to take your picture in front of a poster of the dam so they can sell it to you later, you walk in the building and through a post-9/11 security checkpoint, and then it’s right up to the cashier. There’s a tour and a movie and stuff for your money, but if there’s any traditional museum-type stuff behind there you’ll never see it unless you fork over the full eleven bucks. So we didn’t bother, I wasn’t looking for a multi-media experience, I just wanted to see the damn dam.

The big orange sign on your way down to the dam says the road is under construction until 2008. They’re building a giant new bridge over the dam that looks to be about 500 feet high, only a few pillars are there so far, but it should alter the landscape quite significantly when it’s done.

As for the dam itself, it’s a scenic spot to see Lake Mead, all the hydro-electric furniture, and if you’re going from Vegas to Arizona you pretty much have to go that way anyway, so you might as well stop and take a look. It’s a massive structure, the pumping stations are much bigger in person than they appeared on the old home movies, and its remote location just makes the idea of its construction even more staggering for the time. We pride ourselves on our engineering ingenuity in the present, but there are plenty of examples of equally audacious projects that were seen through to successful completion long ago. I think building this giant bridge on this site sort of fits because current engineers have dreamed up something as monolithic as the dam itself, to show maybe that the current generation can still equal their forbears.

By the time we got to Kingman it was lunchtime, and Kingman is yet another stop along the old Route 66, so we found ourselves a roadside diner called Mr. D’z and sat at the counter and had some burgers and I had a root beer float for dessert. Across the street is the town’s Route 66 museum (every town along the old Route 66 would seem to be required or at least compelled to have one), housed in a large building called the Powerhouse. We skipped the museum but did the gift shop and they had a few exhibits setup including a large-scale model railroad that ran around the upper level of the building that the kids watched for a while.

Back in the car, it was off down I-40 (the replacement of most of Route 66 in Arizona) towards Williams. We had stopped for gas and a bathroom break in Ash Fork, so there was no reason to cut through Williams to get to the road for the canyon except that it was another stretch of 66 and the last part to be replaced by the interstate (not until 1984), so it’s a fair bet that we drove through it in ’68 (albeit in the other direction). Unlike Kingman, which seemed to have be a town in its own right, Williams is a wide space in the road, the junction with the Grand Canyon road isn’t even within the main part of town, so it would seem to serve the primary purpose of being a giant speed trap, as I discovered when I saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror. The cop was a young guy who informed me I was doing 35 in a 15, I’d seen the 35 sign, but not any 15 signs, but you can’t argue with the guy. We were profusely apologetic and when he saw we weren’t really from California but only driving a rental, I think that convinced him to let us go. For a minute there I thought I’d get a ticket without having to drive to Tijuana, but fortunately we were off the hook and back on the road, dutifully driving through scenic downtown Williams at 15, or maybe even 14, miles per hour just like the sign said.

The landscape through Arizona is mostly desert at the beginning, but as you get towards the center of the state you get more vegetation and more hills, until when you turn north towards the canyon you’re actually driving through the Kaibab National Forest, which for the most part looks like a forest, just one with trees that aren’t very tall. You wouldn’t have any reason to believe, driving through the 50 miles or so of this landscape, that there’s a giant canyon up ahead. We got to the main gate at about 4:15pm, found our room at the Kachina Lodge and checked in, and were on the Rim Trail by 5:20 or so, which didn’t leave us a lot of time to head down into the canyon since the sunset was around 7pm. It was a short walk to the trail head of Bright Angel Trail, which was already mostly in the shade, and we walked down maybe most of a mile, it was hard to say, the kids had been cooped up in the car all day and were perfectly happy to not do anything the rest of the day. We passed a number of people who were coming up out of the canyon (they advise not to go all the way down and back in a day, although it would seem like if you were in good shape you could do it, but there would need to be a fair amount of hiking in the heat, I suppose). A few people passed us going down, we were busy dodging the copious amounts of mule poop, although no mules, they’d all gone home I guess. The rule of thumb is it takes about twice as long to hike up as to hike down. We were going kind of slow on the way down, having to stop and take pictures and video, as well as prod Chloe into going further and administering to Justin’s various emergencies and requests for water, snacks, etc. So after about 45 minutes we figured it was time to turn around, even though we hadn’t reached the first checkpoint at mile 1.5 that was the original goal. Chloe was totally motivated to go back up, had been since we set foot on the first downward slope, in fact, so she zipped up the whole trail with nary a peep of complaint. Justin had to get into a groove, he was wheezing a bit at first, mostly an act, but if you give him brief but frequent rest breaks and point him towards a visible goal up ahead, eventually he got in a zone and did just fine the last half or so, using the rest stops to take pictures or look through the binoculars. Beth on the other hand was losing her groove as we went up, but she managed to make it back to the top in one piece. At the end, the walk back up had taken almost exactly as long as the walk down, so go figure. Although it had been starting to get a little dim as we got to our furthest point down, coming back up the sun had come out again and there was still plenty of light when we emerged around 7pm or so, really a great time to go since there were lots of shadows to make the canyon more colorful and it wasn’t hot at all.

We headed straight for the Bright Angel Lodge for dinner, then back to the hotel to crash for the evening. The Kachina is fairly small, so it’s treated more like an outbuilding of the more historic and expensive El Tovar hotel next door. The outdoor architecture is pure ‘60’s brutalism, but the room overlooks the canyon, so you don’t really notice from the inside.

Tomorrow we can look forward to a day that doesn’t require buying $60 worth of gas, and find out how much of the canyon we can see in a day.

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Viva Las Vegas

Aug 20, 2006

Today was mostly a driving day, with the ultimate goal being Las Vegas, which was really just an intermediate goal on the way to the Grand Canyon tomorrow. We were on the road by 8:30am after detouring through beautiful downtown Exeter, which was pretty empty on a Sunday morning, but features a number of murals painted on the sides of various buildings around town, mostly depicting some aspect of the farming trade that is the main source of livelihood in that part of the state. Driving up from the south, or even north and east yesterday en route to Sequoia and back, are miles and miles of groves of all different shapes of trees, some were oranges, some looked like apple trees, most were unrecognizable, and of varying sizes too. There were corn fields, grape vines, you name it.

Once you hit Bakersfield and make a left turn towards the desert, the topology changes almost immediately as you hit what I guess are the lower part of the Sierra Nevadas, which look completely different from the part we were just in a day ago. This area is mostly tan-colored grassy rolling hills, with scrubby trees dotting the landscape. We went up and over the mountains and into the high desert of Mojave, stopping in Barstow for lunch at a Long John Silvers, which was an exciting find. Barstow would seem to be about three streets wide and several miles long, Main Street being pretty well filled up with shops and restaurants, the first stretch of the Route 66 trail that we’ve been on, if only for a few miles.

East of Barstow you’re really leaving civilization behind, but before we could make the last stretch to Vegas we stopped for a couple of hours just outside of town at the Calico Ghost Town, which must owe its popularity as much to its relative location at the half way point between LA and Vegas as to any other merits it may possess. For a few dollars, you can walk around what used to be a ghost town but is now rebuilt as a combination wild west and silver mining town from the 1880’s, with lots of little shops and a few modest restaurants, several original buildings, a mine shaft you can walk through, even a little railroad engine to ride on. All this while fricasseeing in the 100 degree mid-afternoon sun. They’ve done a reasonable job at keeping it from being too touristy, there were some gunfight demonstrations in the street periodically, the kids were drinking water like made and mostly enjoyed themselves. This was another stop on that infamous trip of ’68, so we had a few more pictures to match up, but unlike Mother Nature, the ghost town can change a lot in 38 years, not the least because a fire destroyed a good chunk of it about 10 years ago. The wooden cigar store Indian that back then was prominently displayed in bright painted colors right outside one of the shops was now relegated to up against the outside wall, and looking worse for wear. A more politically correct wooden cowboy had taken its place.

A few more hours driving got us to sin city, and we were checked into the vast Circus Circus hotel with a minimum of difficulty, once we figured out exactly where the registration desk actually was. Since it’s a casino, there’s a buffet, so we had to do the buffet, the kids were all impressed with the place, and given the name, it’s supposed to cater more to families, as long as they’re families who like gambling, I guess. They have brief carnival shows every half hour, we managed to see two of them while strolling around an indoor midway that had all manner of carnival games. Chloe tried her hand at one that involved rolling balls into narrow numbered slots to add up to a certain amount, and won a stuffed tiger on the first try. Justin tried 3 times and came up empty. Needless to say he wasn’t thrilled, but fortunately he was too tired to really stew about it.

Tomorrow there’s more driving to do in the 100 degree sun in our $3.19 a gallon gas guzzling SUV on our way to the eastern-most point of the trip and hopefully a bit cooler temperatures.

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Our first full day in California started at 5am thanks to a little jet lag, allowing us a decent night’s sleep, while simultaneously giving us an early start. The Best Western we’re staying at does not participate in the Great Make-Your-Own Waffle Survey that we saw so much of last year in Wyoming and South Dakota, so the continental breakfast was a little smaller, but the hotel is pretty small anyway. We were on the road early and made it to the front gate of Sequoia National Park by 8am.

The drive up through the parks supposedly can be done in two hours if you don’t stop anywhere. We stopped plenty, so we didn’t even make it to the Giant Forest until 10. On the way we saw a few scenic overlooks and took the kids pictures at the Tunnel Rock and various other roadside diversions, and then veered off the main path to the road that takes you to Moro Rock. There were several places to stop along the way, including the “Auto Log”, a fallen tree that had long ago had a groove cut into the top that you could drive onto, although you can’t any more. Moro Rock itself is a hike of 300 steps up one of the those rocky outcrops that sticks up out of the mountains, with some nice scenery at the top overlooking many of the peaks around the Sequoias. The kids bounded up the steps with great enthusiasm, Beth wheezed her way to the top behind them, and I brought up the rear with the backpack. The trip back down was much easier, of course, and we spoke briefly to a park volunteer along the way who was picking buds off of weeds that were not indigenous to the area to keep them from taking over and choking out the real plants. The park had been pretty empty up till now, but by the time we were back in the car suddenly there were people all over the place.

The Giant Forest contains the General Sherman Tree, the largest redwood in the world. We drove past it and got some lunch at the Lodgepole visitor center, which had a small restaurant and snack bar that seemed to be completely staffed by exchange students from eastern Europe. The menu was just standard burgers and pizza fare, marginally overpriced but not anything beyond what you would expect in a National Park. There’s a big gift shop there too, which includes a market to get supplies as well as a Laundromat, all for the campers who are in the neighborhood.

After lunch and a look round the premises, we double backed to the Giant Forest to check out the trees, which is after all what we came here for. Driving up the mountains to get there, you see plenty of trees, and there are even stands of redwoods here and there, particularly along the road to Moro Rock. In some respects those smaller collections of the big trees are more appealing, because you can get right up next to them. The big groves are now all blocked off, so you can walk around the paths, but the fences have gotten a lot taller to keep the riffraff off the star attractions.

In spite of that restriction, nothing compares to walking through a huge grove of redwoods, with the trees looming over you in every direction. The smell alone is like the biggest stack of cedar shingles you ever encountered. The General Sherman tree is neither the tallest nor the oldest necessarily, but is the biggest by volume. As the trees age, and this one is over 1500 years old, the tops of them start to lose their tree shape, so they don’t taper up to a point any more, they just kind of stop. A huge branch had just fallen off the tree this past January, and it was still lying on top of the fence it had demolished. By this time it was early afternoon, and there were lots of people around. The parking lot has recently been relocated to a brand new setup north of the grove, and it’s a quick walk down a brand new path to the trees, but a relatively steep climb back up.

We brought the pictures from the ’68 vacation to do our video scavenger hunt, and were able to identify relatively easily that the area where Jill pushed over some little kid just off the edge of the camera was indeed in front of the General Sherman tree. The fence in front of it is much larger now, but the base of the tree was distinctive enough for a positive match. However, we couldn’t definitively say that any of the other pictures matched any of the other trees we saw there, even though Chloe kept desperately pointing to similarities that weren’t there (they’re earning five Disney dollars for every one we match).

The grove has a few trails that loop around the big trees, which are right by the “Generals Highway” main road, where the original, much smaller and handier parking lot was located. These trails were all fairly busy with people, mostly foreigners, milling about. We went beyond this a bit to do some of the Congress Trail, which was much emptier of people but still had plenty of trees, including some spectacular fallen trees that had just disintegrated on hitting the ground however long ago. The kids’ crankiness factor was ramping up by then, so we didn’t go as far as we could have, still needing to climb the hill back to the parking lot, and we made it back to the car by 3pm or so.

The drive up the Generals Highway continues north for quite a ways, actually leaving Sequoia the National Park for Sequoia the National Forest, and then finally crossing over into Kings Canyon, which is a national park but best known for having the other big grove of redwoods. Chloe snoozed for a while along the way, we stopped once or twice for a photo op but otherwise it was about an hour’s drive from one to the other. We made it to the northern visitor’s center at Grant’s Grove and killed some more time between hikes by watching the movie there, which shows you what the canyon part of King’s Canyon looks like. It’s another hour’s drive further up the road, and then you have to hike a ways to really see the canyon, too far and too late in the day for this trip, but enough to make you wish you could go back.

Grant’s Grove contains the General Grant Tree, the 3rd largest tree in the world (not sure what’s #2, it doesn’t appear to be here), in a smaller grove that may actually be an older part of the park. Quite a bit of logging of redwoods was done near there back in the 1890’s, while the remaining grove contains some spectacular examples of surviving trees. Some of them you can’t imagine how they got to look the way they do, with large chunks of them missing near the base, or two trees that have grown big enough to merge into one at the bottom. As with the Giant Forest, the path through this area was also completely fenced off, and part of it was close, making positive identification of some of the other vidcaps impossible, but it would appear that the vast majority of the original film of the redwoods was done here and not in the Giant Forest. The tunnel through a fallen tree was part of the area that was blocked off for safety reasons, but it was distinctive enough and unique enough that it had to match the video. Sadly there is no comparable video of this trip though as the camcorder battery died on me before we got to the trees, although I did get a minute or so of Chloe at Moro Rock trying to remember the name of the park she was in, which is always good for a laugh.

After Grants Grove everyone was done with trees for the time being, so we drove down the mountains towards Fresno, but turned left and headed south to Visalia and had dinner al fresco at a Mexican restaurant right on Main Street. It was a short trip back to the hotel and everyone had to hose their feet off in the tub before climbing into bed and immediately passing out. Tomorrow is a rest day (for everyone but the driver at least) as it will be primarily spent racing through the desert to Las Vegas, so the movie theatre on wheels will be pressed into service.

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The Longest Day

Aug 18, 2006

It wasn’t the invasion of Normandy, but it was definitely The Longest Day. In order to get to LA from Boston with free tickets, courtesy of finally cashing in a lot of those frequent flier miles that Money magazine keeps saying are nearly impossible to redeem, it requires that you make certain concessions, not the least of which is taking the 6:45am flight from Logan, and this a week after they once again increase their security checkpoints.

So it was up at 3am (we let the kids sleep in til 3:30), off to the airport, at the gate with time to spare, the plane was evenin obligingly 15 minutes late leaving. The plus side to leaving so early is that we got to LA at 10am, but at this point you’ve already been up for 10 hours, so it doesn’t really feel like 10am. The kids didn’t really sleep on the plane, but they managed to keep themselves entertained, aided by having both sides of the row of seats all to ourselves, so we could spread out a bit. For me, a 6 hour flight doesn’t really feel that long, after all those trips to China and Australia.

By the time we got the bags and the car it was after 11 and time for lunch. There’s mostly just fast food around the airport, my bright idea was to drive down the road to Santa Monica and eat there, so we did. There was plenty of traffic on I-405, Justin was getting pretty droopy in the car, but we managed to keep him awake until we got there. We walked around a few minutes and found a little sandwich place call Le Pain Quotidien, the kids both were so strung out and hungry they ate stuff they’d never eaten before and liked it. I got some open-faced curried chicken sandwich that was quite tasty. We steered the kids away from the $4 cookies and walked down the block to the shoreline and over to the Santa Monica Pier for a little while.

The Pier is not as big as you would think, it’s nearly 100 years old but is kept up well enough to look retro without being shabby. We had to ride the indoor carousel for a grand total of $3.00 for all of us, and Chloe stood in line for ice cream for 15 minutes, then we walked down to the beach so the kids could stick their feet in the water for a minute. By the time we got back to the car it was after 2pm and time to head for the hills.

Although the kids were getting loopy from lack of sleep, they were now past having the ability to actually settle down enough to nap. Plus there was a huge amount of LA traffic between us and Bakersfield, it took about an hour to go less than 20 miles. After that the roads opened up, we drove up I-5 up and over the mountains to 99 and on to Visalia and our hotel in Exeter. We had a quick dinner at an American/Thai restaurant in town that was run by a Thai family, checked into the hotel and the kids were asleep in about 10 minutes, having been awake for over 19 hours straight. Me, I’ve now hit 20 hours, and on four hours sleep, but hey, you have to adjust to the time difference sooner or later. If we’d been really efficient and not encountered any traffic we could’ve found ourselves a redwood before the day was over, but there’ll be plenty of opportunity for that tomorrow.

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Off to the west

Aug 17, 2006

Tomorrow we finally leave on vacation, now that the summer is almost over. This didn’t seem like a bad idea when I was planning the trip several months ago, but now that we’ve made it through the whole summer it feels odds to be taking a vacation right at the end for some reason, I think because the whole summer season is telescoped into the meager 10 or 11 weeks the kids get off from school. Between swimming lessons, basketball camp, skating camp, Storyland, etc, etc, the weeks go by quickly even for them. Chloe is quite indignant that school is already about to start again, a marked contrast from when I was that age and the summers still seemed to go on for a long time.

For the fifth time in 10 years we’ve centered a trip around the Worldcon, this year’s being in Anaheim, where I attended my first Worldcon back in 1996 when Chloe was less than a year old. Although this edition is the weekend before Labor Day weekend, which makes the logistics much easier to deal with in that the kids don’t miss any school, I’ve always felt that the summer is not the ideal time to go on vacation, mainly because that’s when everyone else goes. Most everything you read about Disneyland and the Grand Canyon say “don’t go in the summer, it’s too crowded”. But people go in the summer because that’s the only time they can go, so what can you do? Next year’s Worldcon is in Yokohama, so that’s out, and ’08 is about to be decided between Chicago (site of the 2000 Worldcon), Columbus and Denver. Based on dates and location alone, I’d go for Denver, but I doubt it will win.

In ’96 when we went out west for the first time, as I said Chloe was a baby, so you couldn’t plan too much and you had to be flexible. We took her to Disneyland and went down to San Diego for a couple of days and went to the zoo, it was my first Worldcon so I didn’t want to miss out on too much of the festivities there, so that was about it. This time it’s one of those “let’s do as much as we can in case we never go back” trips. We thought the Grand Canyon would be worth a side trip (it’s only 480 miles away, after all), and Beth wanted to see the big trees, so Sequoia is only a couple of hundred miles away, in a different direction, but so what? Just about half way between the two parks is Las Vegas, so we’ll spend a night there too. In summary, lots of driving in the first half, but then 5 nights in Anaheim for the Worldcon to settle things down a bit.

As I’ve been researching this trip, I noticed a marked correlation between some of the locations we’re visiting and the legendary trip my family took to California in 1968. It’s too much to go into now, but I’ve spent a little time trying to piece together exactly what our itinerary was then, based on the home movies and some entries from Grandma’s diaries detailing what postcards she got when from which locations. This go-round, besides the two parks, we’ll go right by Hoover Dam and Calico Ghost Town, two other stops from that previous trip when I was five and Jill was two, culminating in Disneyland, which was only 13 years old when we were there, 3 years before Disneyworld even opened. Last night I played through the video of the home movies from that trip and took digital pictures off the tv screen of any shots from these locations that had us in them, then had them printed out at Walgreens, and we’re going to take them around with us on a visual scavenger hunt to see if we can identify the same locations 38 years later. The pictures are kind of washed out and fuzzy, to make it even more of a challenge, so I’m not sure how we’ll do, but it’s worth a try.

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Over the summer we’ve been trying to get out on the weekends once in a while and do a little walking around to prep for the upcoming trip to California and Arizona. As I explained to the kids before our first trip, I don’t want to get all the way to the grandeur and majesty of the Grand Canyon or Sequoia and hear “I’m tired” and “My feet hurt” after five minutes.

We started off with a relatively short trip several weeks ago to Purgatory Chasm south of Worcester, which is as much a rock-climbing exercise as a hiking trail, and the kids do like to climb on rocks, so that was actually a big hit, there’s a nice park there too and we brought a picnic lunch and then did the trail, which took maybe an hour, hour and fifteen minutes. Chloe still wants to go back to that one.

A few weeks later we went to Leominster to the state forest there to do more of a real hike into the hills with Beth’s brother and his kids tagging along. That took closer to two hours and featured some short but fairly steep climbs, we should’ve done the loop in the other direction, and we didn’t really get to a point at the top where you could see much, what with all the trees in the way. There’s a nice park there too, with a small beach, and thanks I guess to government cutbacks typical of the Romney administration no one was there to collect a parking fee.

Much of July was taken up with swimming lessons and other active pursuits, along with several rainy weekends, and the last week has been 90+ every day, but this weekend was perfect weather so we took what might be the last hike before the trip and went north and west to scenic Ashburnham, just south of the New Hampshire border. I’ve only been to Ashburnham to go to piano concerts they have there on old restored pianos, but this was north of the town center, only about 45 or 50 minutes away, and not a piano in sight. Mount Watatic is a somewhat remote area that years ago was a ski slope, but closed about 20 years ago. In 2000, an evil communications company bought the entire mountain and planned to build a big old cellphone tower at the top, with an equally big access road to get there and some vague plans of development at the base near the main road. This was enough to get the locals to rise up and raise the money to buy the property in 2002 to keep it preserved the way it is. I think it’s managed by the DCR but owned by a land trust that is located in that area. There’s a new marker at the summit to commemorate this event.

The Midstate Trail (which also went through the Leominster State Forest to the south) cuts through the mountain, as does the Wapack trail, we were on a combination of the two that took us the longer but less steep way to the summit by way of Nutting Hill to the northwest (the picture above is actually from Nutting Hill, not Mount Watatic, with I think Wachusett in the background). Saw some people and families as we walked around, since this isn’t a DCR property there were no free maps, but the trails were well marked enough to at least have a pretty good idea where we were going. Towards the bottom we came upon a family with at least four kids heading up the shorter but steeper route on what was an annual pilgrimage for them, carrying a spaghetti dinner to eat when they reached the top. Several families had kids that looked to be about three, and they seemed to be doing okay. Ours did just fine too, Justin needed to stop and rest a lot, but his rest breaks were pretty short, and he did seem to find enough of interest along the trail, plenty of mushrooms, a few frogs, wild blueberries, and not too many bugs. The trails are mostly rocks or tree roots, very uneven footing, so you’re constantly adjusting your step to keep moving.

Since next weekend is Justin’s birthday I don’t know if we’ll get another walk in before we leave for LA or not. The weather is always a factor too. But even in the fall there’s quite a few more trails to check out around the state (plus that return trip to Purgatory Chasm), and then you have the foliage factor for enticement also. Now if I could just get some hiking shoes…

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