I Figure We Can See All of Alaska in 10 Days….

denali picture

I know that I have not been writing very much recently.  I have been distracted by work and somewhat depressed by the thought of spending another winter in Chicago.

One part of my trip to Florida to surprise my mother that I did not mention was that during the time down there she announced that she wanted to take us (my brother, sister and myself) and our respective spouses on an Alaskan cruise this summer.

Princess-AKWe have spent the last few weeks trying to get agreement on which cruise would work for the seven of us. Imagine the hunger games for cruises…Shouting on phone calls, imaginary use of swear words, minor fistfights, a smallish stabbing and the usual hysteria–all of which was just between Sue and me ;-). (Hey, I thought that was private!) We decided on a seven-day northbound cruise on Princess lines out of Vancouver.

denali-mapOnce the cruise was decided, everyone expressed an interest in going to Denali National Park. We figure three days in a wilderness larger than the state of Massachusetts should give us just enough time to know that we have not spent enough time there.

We began by looking at three options.  First, go with the cruise line and stay in their lodge.  That got a hard no from Sue and me. Second, go to a private hotel/lodge/cabins most of which are along the outside edge of the park.  Third, do a  multi-day camping and hiking tour. (The tour company flies you in to a remote lake, drops you off and provides the camping equipment, food and a guide).

Sue and I were keen on the third option, and my brother, Phil, and his wife, Naomi, were in for that, too. My sister, Judie, her husband, Mario, and my mother are planning on staying at the Princess Lodge.

My cousin Robin has been to Alaska a number of times, so after doing some research on the camping companies, we gave her a call to see what she thought.  She gave us a forceful caution on the camping trip.  As she said, it could be perfect, but it could also be the trip from hell. Twenty-four hours of rain a day, everything gets wet, the hiking sucks because it is cold and wet. You can’t get warm for four days, etc.  She suggested that we look at one of the lodges that are within the park and, while they are expensive, they do always give you a warm dry bed to sleep in. We have not yet made a decision….but are leaning towards listening to the wisdom of someone who has done it before – I know, unusual for us.

Stay tuned campers for updates.

Happy Birthday

 

It is my mother’s 82nd birthday next week. Ever since she turned 80, we (my brother, sister and I) have been working extra hard to give her special birthdays. This year, we decided that it would be good fun for all of us to pay her a surprise visit in Florida, where she lives during the winter.

My brother lives in Dallas, my sister in Pennsylvania and I live in Chicago, so the first step was finding a weekend near her birthday that would work. We settled on the week before, as both of them were traveling for work the following weekend and my daughter is coming to Chicago the one after that. OK. Step one was completed⁠—we knew when we were going⁠—Thursday, Oct. 31 to Sunday, Nov. 3.

Move to step 2. Arrange travel. We all hopped on to our favorite travel sites and looked for flights that would all arrive around the same time. One quick round of confirmation texts and we all booked our tickets. My sister and brother were set to arrive at 2:00 and 2:30, my flight is scheduled for 3. My mother lives about 30 minutes from the airport, so all in we figured we get to her at about 4.

Move to step 3. Figure out how to ensure that my mother was at home when we arrived. Time to call in the co-conspirators. I called my Aunt Es and Uncle Albert who live about 20 minutes from my mother. After quickly letting them know that nothing was wrong (seems like anytime anyone calls these days, the first thought is what is wrong), I explained our plan. They were more than happy to help. To quote (or at lease paraphrase) my uncle: “Not to worry, we will tell her (my mother) that we are going to be up there and want to take her to dinner, then we will arrive, have a glass of wine and, you know, stall until you all arrive.”

The plans were set, all we needed to do was wait for the day. My brother and sister had uneventful flights and arrived right on time. However, Chicago weather is never your friend, and once again it did not disappoint. Snow. Yes, snow on Wednesday (just about an inch at the airport) and then then snow again on Halloween. My flight was delayed. Not too much, about 45 minutes, but then I had to check my carry on bag, which would have to be collected at baggage claim, not on the jet bridge. Oh dear, now we are arriving around 5.

My brother and sister texted my aunt and uncle to let them know. Luckily for us, they have concocted a story for my mother that involved waiting for my cousin to arrive. They quite admirably stretched out the stall for another hour while we got my luggage, piled into an Uber and headed to my mother’s condo.

20191102_112119We are planners. My brother, sister and I all thought through the approach as my mother’s living room faces the building entrance way.  We asked our Uber driver to drop us off at the next building and we circled around to entrance at that back of the building.

We snuck up to the door.

Knocked.

My mother yelled come in.

We yelled, “Trick or Treat,” and walked in.

To say she looked confused would be an understatement. We burst into a very very very very off key (and for me out of time) rendition of Happy Birthday.

My mother clutched her chest (a heart attack looked possible!!!!), tears streaming down her cheeks and great big smile on her face. Isn’t my husband the sweetest?!?!?!

ma

After a few minutes of hugs and kisses, everything settled down. We knew my mother was fine when she looked at my aunt and uncle and promptly declared. “You knew this! I will never speak to you again. Now let’s figure out where to have dinner.”

We are spending the weekend doing what we do best together.  Sitting around, eating, talking about our respective families and basking in the glow of a really great surprise.

…and in case you were concerned.  Aunt Es and Uncle Albert were forgiven by the time we got to the Thai restaurant for dinner.

Car & Reader

I know, we have not been very good at writing posts the last few weeks.  We have been a bit distracted with the sale of the house, work, and all the decisions/options/thoughts around the move. We will be going to the D.C. area later this month to poke around and I am sure we will write about that next week.

After last week’s musings about cars and transmissions, I was reading a moderately interesting book, The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott, about George Remus, a bootlegger during prohibition. (I haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t tell you if it is worth reading, but I will try to remember to mention it once I am done.) There are numerous mentions of the cars he owned and drove. It made me think about my favorite books about cars  and driving and figured this was a good forum to list a few of my favorites.

First, of course On The Road by Jack Kerouac.  It is a brilliant book about road trips and living the beatnik lifestyle. There is something about his writing style that defined a generation and introduced me (and maybe others) to the brilliance of  Alan Ginsberg, Ken Kesey (who is forgiven for Bonfire of the Vanities—I guess he needed the money) and William S. Burroughs. I long to go back to the time before I was born, to live a life that didn’t really exist, and to do things which I never would really have done. Oh, I am wearing only the best of rose-colored glasses

Next on my favorites list is Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. My first contact with this book was hearing the author read a capture of  it live on BBC. I was, appropriately enough, in my car (A metallic blue Citroën  BX19 GTI) driving to work.  It was so funny and so enjoyable, that I sat in my car in the parking lot waiting for him to finish before going into work. I went out that afternoon and bought the book and read it all that day.  It is fabulous. Please do me a favor, follow the link and read the first paragraph of the book, it is that good. Full disclosure—I have read everything Bill Bryson has written and I love all his books.

Third is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.  It is a deeply personal and disturbing account of a man and his son riding a motorcycle across the country. I read it a long time ago and still think about it. It is one of those books that just stays with you—at least it did for me. Mark Richardson wrote  Zen and Now in 2008, which followed the same route as Pirsig and tracked down many of the people from the book. It is worth reading too, but I would classify it as an homage rather than a critique or covering new ground.

I would welcome you comments and any suggestions on good road trip books.

 

 

 

Cars, Cars, Cars

Today’s post is a homage to my nephew Michael and his severely damaged Subaru—Charles.  Michael, this too shall pass, and I hope Charles gets a new engine and is back on the road soon.

I love to drive. The joy of the open road, especially in a convertible is one of my favorite ford fusionfeelings. My trusty Saab is a 2006, so it lacks many of the toys that newer cars have. So when we travel and rent cars, I really enjoy the modern conveniences. I was in Boston last week for work (I know, way too much business travel) and I rented a Ford Fusion. It was a hybrid with a video screen showing all sorts of interesting stuff (mostly the music I was playing and the navigation). But what I found most interesting was the gear selector. It was a round knob on the console. For some reason, I found that every time I shifted out of reverse, I would accidentally put it inpPark.  No idea why, it just seemed that was the natural movement for my hand.  Anyway, that got me thinking about the various types of gear shifters I have used over the years.

vw1I learned to drive on an old Volkswagen Beetle that had what they called a semi-automatic transmission. It had one of the old style, long-handled, 3-speed stick shifts, but without the clutch. The driver still had to shift the gears, but did not have to deal with the pesky clutch. Good training wheels for when I bought the Duster.

 

duster1My first car was a 1970 Plymouth Duster. (Boy, I bet that car was a chick magnet.)  I loved that car in part because it was a manual transmission with a three-on-the-tree shifter. I bought it without knowing how to drive a manual transmission. My friend Michael gave me a 30-second lesson, drove the car to my house, and parked it outside.  I spent the next week or so practicing using the clutch and learning how to drive a manual. I was so proud of myself the first time I took it out for a real drive. There was a hill near my house that had a stop light at the top and I would always try to go on that street so that I could practice the rolling start. Scary, but good fun.

Knowing how to drive a manual transmission came in handy when I moved to the U.K. The interesting thing about that is while the steering wheel is on the other (wrong?) side of the car, you still use your left foot to operate the clutch.  The gear pattern is the same as a left-hand drive car, but you use your left hand to manipulate the stick.  I cannot tell you how any times I would put the clutch in, and bang my right arm into the door, forgetting that the gear stick was on the left side. Not the most comforting thing for my passengers, I am sure.

olds 88I have also driven any number of automatic transmission cars with all their various shifting mechanisms. The column shifters (I especially remember the one on my Dad’s Delta 88 which could comfortably sleep the entire population of Boston), the console shifters of various cars (my Saab included) and of course the modern paddle shifters which mimic the semi-automatic from the Volkswagen.

Things come full circle.

One thing that I forgot about driving on the East Coast (especially in New England) is that no road is straight. In the Midwest, there are only three types of streets.  North/South, East/West and a few diagonals, just to keep you on your toes.  The streets in Boston seem to have been designed by a committee of drunken, blind, stock market analysts who believe that the random walk theory of the markets should be extended to the streets.  Straight, at least for roads, seems to be a curse word.

Another funny thing about Boston is that streets are often named for where they take you. For instance, Newton Street in Brookline, takes you to Newton, where it, of course, turns into Brookline Street, so you know how to get to Brookline from Newton.  I remember this same “logic” when I lived in the U.K., but I thought the U.S. had successfully avoided that foolishness.

At some point, I will try to convince Sue to go on a road trip where we rent a super car,  for a week and drive really fast, just for the fun of it. Perhaps something like this. I am thinking that, you my dear readers, should fund this as part of the the Doing It on The Road research plan  😉 (I will definitely get on this bandwagon if I don’t have to pay for it.)

Sorry.  None of the images are our cars, just examples of what we had.

 

 

 

Random Thoughts From Utah (and Vegas)

This is a bit of a rant, but so be it. If there’s one thing that really bugs me, and I am a pretty laid-back guy, it is the old bait-and-switch. Tell me up front and I’m fine; sneak in different conditions after I’ve bought, and I’m not fine. This happened when we checked into New York New York. I had booked what I thought was a room with a king bed. When we arrived, the woman at the reception desk said, “Oh no, you get whatever we have and we only have rooms with two queen beds.” We could have upgraded for $30, but why should we have to. Then I looked online and saw that they list the king room and the queen room separately and you can book either one. Frustrating.NYNYrooms

We also had an issue with our AirBnB. Again, tell me the rules up front and I can decide if I want to follow them or go elsewhere. The day we were checking into the place, Sue got an email asking us to strip the bed, put all the dishes in the dishwasher and turn it on, put the towels in the hamper, and take out the garbage. OK, but you’re charging us a $52 cleaning fee. The silliest was that in the rules of the house, it said, “No shoes in the house.” Fine, but we had to walk into the condo in our shoes in order to see the rule book. Later, we asked our real estate agent, the Marvelous Mrs. Megan Ahleen, and she gave us a reasonable explanation: The soil is a very fine, red sand and it gets on everything. Somehow, it managed to get under my shoes and socks during our hike. The place itself was perfectly comfortable, with a few nitpicks I won’t bother to enumerate here.

IMG_20190819_203941447.jpgThe best feature of the condo was that we could walk to the end of the road where there was open land and watch a gorgeous sunset.

One thing we were looking forward to was a visit to Hash House A Go Go. The Chicago outpost of this Indiana chain closed. They say they serve “twisted farm food.” I don’t know about that, but I do know they serve is enormous portions. Sue had a vegetable skillet plate that came with two eggs and tons of veggies smothering crispy fried potatoes and just in case that wasn’t enough food, a biscuit. I had the “downsized” burger , so named because it only has one patty the size of my forearm. My favorite part was getting to use the 55+ (he means old man–next step, early bird special) discount. Woo hoo!

 

If It Is Saturday, This Must Be Las Vegas

On Saturday, we started our St. George trip by flying into Las Vegas. We took an afternoon flight and arrived in Las Vegas late in the afternoon. The flight was bumpy and Sue had technical issues with her computer and her phone, but other than that, the flight was uneventful. By the time we deplaned, got to the rental car company and checked into the hotel it was 6ish. The temps were still in the low 100’s, but it is a dry heat…

We stayed at New York New York because we are both from the real New York (only I am from the real New York; Steven grew up in what I consider Canada–that is, north of the Bronx) and what says real New York than one weirdly constructed casino in the middle of the desert? We survived the usual up sell on the room size and paid the mandatory “resort fee” and were assigned room 813.

Sue and I are planning on doing some hiking, and it was a good thing we were ready because it was a significant walk to get to the elevators. Once off the elevators on the 8th floor, it was another 132 steps to get to our room. The distance to the elevators is a double-edged sword; sure we needed to plan for a snack midway, but on the bright side, we were so far a the end of the maze that they called a hallway, we had virtually no one making noise.

Sue noodles with egg & vegetables and broth

We settled in for a few minutes and then headed out for dinner. We had decided to go to Chinatown and found a great noodle place called Mian. Sue had warm noodles with egg, vegetables and broth, which she ordered medium spicy. I had cold noodles with beef, which I ordered a little more spicy than mild. They were both delicious. Sue’s was a bit too spicy for me, and mine was as spicy as I get in Chicago when I order medium spicy. They served a delicious drink which was cold sweetened mung bean soup. It had a very mild sweet flavor and really worked to dampen down the spiciness of our food.

After dinner we wandered over a block or so to the Golden Tiki. It was just what you would expect in a tiki bar. The DJ was playing ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s hits. The TV on the bar was playing clips from old Hawaiian movies and the atmosphere was a cross between pirate nautical and advanced kitsch. What more could you ask?

Sue’s Dragon’s breath

Sue had a flaming rum drink called a Dragon’s Breath; I had what is normally called a Singapore sling, but they called it something else. We had a perfectly enjoyable time and after a couple of hours we headed back to the hotel for the night.

A great start to our vacation and tomorrow we will head to St. George.

The “Joy” of Booking Travel

We are all set to go to St. George. We spent this week searching airfares, hotels in Las Vegas, AirBnB’s in St. George, and rental cars. It always ends up being more complicated than it should be and there are way too many permutations that can’t be searched at once. Our plan is to fly to Las Vegas on Saturday, stay overnight, then drive to St. George in the morning. We will look around St. George from Sunday to Wednesday and then fly home from Las Vegas on Wednesday evening.

We started on the big search sites like Orbitz and Travelocity. The nice things about them is that we can search for a package of airfare, hotel, and car. The drawbacks: We could not exclude the basic economy flights from the search and so any pricing required us to separately search for airfare and add back any additional costs if the site allowed us to “upgrade” to regular economy. (I am sure Sue will use a blog post at some point to rant about the injustice of the multi-economy pricing model, but we will leave that for another time. You know it.) I will confine my whine to say that the option to upgrade–if available at all–is usually buried somewhere towards the end of the booking.

We also searched the airline websites, which also offer packages and while we are able to book the right airfare, the hotel booking option is limited–at least on American (and United as far as I could tell) –to a hotel in the city where you are flying and for the entire time you are there. Not what we are looking for, so strike two. We were able to book the flights and then a separate booking on the airline site for the hotel (which got us extra miles!), but it is the same price as booking the hotel from the hotel site. Both of those exclude the mandatory resort fee from the price of the room. I don’t mind if they exclude the costs of options that we may not use (breakfast, internet, parking, etc.) from the listed price of the room. I might not want those extras and so I shouldn’t have to pay for them. But the “resort fee” is mandatory so I don’t have any option but to pay it. Seems like that should be part of the room fee. What next? Mandatory check-in fee? Or perhaps an elevator use tax? Please, just add $35 to the price of the room and just be done with it.

Parking is another issue. Since we need a car, we will have to park at the hotel for one night. I thought it might be a better idea to pick up the car Sunday morning–one fewer day of rental and not paying for the parking would be offset by the cost of two taxi/Uber/Lyft rides from/to the airport. The taxi/Uber/Lyft ride would be $10 each way. When I searched the cars, it is somewhat counter-intuitively $10 less expensive to rent the car on Saturday rather than on Sunday. No idea why. Perhaps there is a sin tax for renting on Sunday, although not likely as it is Las Vegas and if they were going to tax sin, renting a car on Sunday would have to be pretty far down the list. Either way, we have now booked it for Saturday and will pay the $15 to park.

We booked an AirBnB in St. George and I have the same sort of issue with their pricing. he place was listed at about $70 per night but the total was about $350. Last time I checked, and I realize I have been out of school for a long time (although he is allegedly an accountant) 4 nights@$70 per night should be about $280 (for those of you following along with your calculators do this: press the 4, press the * key press the 7 and then press the 0. Now press Enter; you should see 280. I don’t mind paying $350 per 4 nights, but that is NOT $70 per night.

So, here is my recap for this post. 1. Please let me search your site for what I want. 2. Give me a break and allow me to define what options I want/don’t want up front 3. Please organize the prices in a reasonable and logical order and 4. (and finally) JUST TELL ME THE DAMN PRICE. NO MANDATORY FEES OR NO HIDDEN CHARGES.