Cross Country Tripping – San Francisco, CA, Part II

I spent the first half of this week in San Francisco, California with coworkers attending an annual conference.  Having just been there with my man, I thought often about the two of us walking along the same streets, seeing the same sights , etc. I had a lot of fun thinking about my time there with him and on that note, here is the rest of the recount of our time there in July.

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San Francisco, CA Part II – July 14, 2011

We meant to get up early this morning, but we overslept and missed  the breakfast served at our hostel. Fine by me! I fought Brian on this the whole way, but I love reading menus and finding places to eat, especially in new places. We found a deli with pickles, meats and various bread products in the windows and had a delicious breakfast of eggs and endless coffee.

We took the 8x bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, marveling at the misty coolness of the city and thinking of the 100 degree whether back home, taking in the streets and shops and architecture, the cable lines and the people.

Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s main tourist attractions; it is home to an aquarium, several restaurants and souvenir shops, entertainers, information centers, and stands selling everything from waffles to gold jewelry. Our first stop was the Aquarium of the Bay. (I’m not at all ashamed to admit I LOVE going to aquariums and this one was within our budget, unlike Monterey Bay an hour or so south of the city. Sigh. Next time!)

We saw jellyfish, crabs, tropical fish, and big fish and sharks and rays in two tunnels in which we walked “through” two large tanks – a “near shore” tank and a “far shore” tank. It’d be really cool (slash terrifying) if you actually were in an entirely glass tunnel , with water on all sides. This aquarium featured one of those moving tunnels in which you can see the fish swimming above you. Still cool. They usually have a Pacific octopus that has been rescued or otherwise removed from the bay, but their resident had recently died.

We also saw chinchillas (I thought that was odd but not unenjoyable) and several exhibits about the San Francisco Bay and its state of health which I am sorry to say is not optimal. There is a large gyre (whirlpool-like water formation) in the Bay which, among other things, causes trash and debris to get caught and stuck there.

We left the aquarium and found a small information center (I know, such tourists… I swear we weren’t wearing fanny packs or anything). Brian wanted to walked to Pier 41 or 45 (can’t remember) and see some old ships and the Maritime Museum. On the way, we walked through the bustle of Pier 39 and stopped in a left-handed goods shop called, I think, Lefty’s (clever, right?) I still wonder if we saw as many left-handed people as other Ned Flanders fans.

We also paused and watched a Captain Jack Sparrow-lookalike do some pretty boring tricks while mostly just talking about how he wanted the crowd to give him lots of money. BUT THEN we found the most amazing street performers!

The  acrobats told the crowd they were two brothers and a sister from a larger family in the U.K., but Brian suspects that may not have been the case. Who cares? They were so entertained, talented and above all fun to watch, and what else do you want from a street performer? We got there early while they were building a crowd and so got to hear the whole back and forth warm-up routine between the two young men.  One of the men  could hop up the steps of a standing, unsupported ladder and then stand at the top while juggling bowling pins! The other young man and his sister were extremely strong and flexible and could twist themselves into all sorts of painful-looking shapes. She could also stand on his shoulders while they, both of them, stand on a large rubber ball.

At one point, they called another guy out of the crowd to do a few “tricks” and it was amazing; the guy was in such good shape he could actually do some of the acrobatic bending he was asked to do. He even looked like he was going to attempt a standing back flip but stopped just in time. We gave them money at the end… they were wonderful.

We then walked along the water and came upon a super cool (and free admission!) museum.

It was an old-time game museum in which each machine was operated by quarters. There was pinball and fuseball, and I played Ms. Pacman and got to the pretzel level for the first time using a joystick! There were also palm readers and strength testers, “movies” you could look through a viewfinder and watch once you’d inserted a quarter, and animatronic scenes, also activated by quarters. We had a lot of fun playing around in there, though Brian did beat me at fuseball.

We then went to find Brian’s ships. We did find them, but he didn’t think they were impressive enough to pay admission to see (he grew up working on the old ships in Baltimore Harbor), which was lucky because by that point I was getting hungry to the point of being crabby. We skipped Ghiradelli Square and had a simple lunch in an Italian restaurant with views of the milling streets through the open windows. After lunch we headed to a chocolate shop and bought a large slab for James (which of course melted by the time we got back to the East Coast – good thinking there by us) and some gelato.

Finally it was time to head to Pier 35 and pick up our tickets for the night tour of Alcatraz Island. The boat ride was fun and we learned a bit about the island prison in line waiting to board and on the ferry ride. It was windy and cold (insert Twain quote here) but the tour was very enjoyable. Our guide for the first part of the tour (the walk from the docks to the prison) was knowledgeable and informative.

Did you know that Alcatraz was originally a military prison? It housed prisoners that had gone AWOL and the atmosphere was apparently rather relaxed, even friendly. In October 1993 the island was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons and converted into a high-security federal prison.

We then took an audio tour of the prison itself. The first thing that struck me, as “The Rock” is one of my favorite action movies, was the cells themselves in which the actors playing the hostages in the film were held. So essentially I was in this scary prison and felt like I was on a movie set. Ah, Hollywood.

Anyway, one of the coolest aspects of the tour is that it is narrated by actual former prison guards and prisoners. We learned about library privileges, dining options, rules, items allowed in prison cells, and, most interestingly, escape attempts. There were two attempts that have become the most famed, one in 1946 and one in 1962.

In 1946 five men took five guards hostage and, when the guards refused to relinquish the keys to the outside, opened fire. I believe five prisoners and three (or more) guards died in that attempt and the shoot-out that followed. In 1962, three men crafted paper versions of their heads and left them in their cells. Then, using primarily metal spoons fasted into drills, escaped into the utility ducts. These men were never found and are presumed dead.

There were also some narratives by children of the guards who had lived with their families on the island (when it was a military prison, the island had a school and various recreational activities). I would definitely recommend taking the tour if you ever visit the city.

We caught a ferry back to the city and found a bus to take us back to our hostel. After a slice of pizza and a few episodes of “That 70s Show” we went to bed planning to wake up early and make it over the Oakland Bay Bridge before morning rush hour.

Off to Vegas! Thank you, San Francisco, for a wonderful adventure!

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Cross Country Tripping: Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, July 18-19, 2011

We drove from Las Vegas, Nevada to our campground in the Grand Canyon National Park on July 17th. We were tired and sad because the women’s national soccer team had lost the World Cup that morning (okay, I was sad) but we built the tent and a fire, made dinner and settled in for the evening.

I had a hard time waking up the morning after our Vegas-venture (stay tuned for a Las Vegas post!), but we managed to make it out of our campground with a hiking plan in mind before 9:30 in the morning. I packed our trip’s itinerary with so much driving and sightseeing that sometimes we had to catch up on sleeping. We headed for the South Kaibab Trail, parked the van at a viewing point on the South Rim and walked a mile on the Rim Trail before beginning our descent into the canyon.

Before we’d gone more than a few tenths of a mile into the canyon, we ran into a park ranger. At this point one of the most humorous interactions with a stranger we had on our trip occurred. The ranger asked us how deep we were planning to go. When we told him our destination was Skeleton Point, about three miles away, he literally gasped and vehemently urged us to change our plan. He informed us that we should have started earlier in the day and carried about ten times more water than we had with us. He also told us that 20-30 hikers were rescued from the canyon every day in the summer due to heat exhaustion and sometimes more serious afflictions. and that we should only venture that far into the canyon later in the day.

Well, Brian, perhaps predictably, took this as a challenge. He let me know in no uncertain terms (after we’d left the ranger and continued on our way) that we’d be hiking to Skeleton Point and that we’d be fine. We both felt determined to at least venture past the recommended stopping point, Cedar Point, and then to see how we felt as we continued.

It was a cloudy day, which was lucky, and though the ranger told us it would reach 108 degrees, it didn’t feel too hot. And, of course, going down is much easier than going up (at least in this case… it’s not always so: see my Badlands post). We made it to Cedar Point and rested. Then, despite my half-hearted protests, we decided to continue on to Skeleton Point. It was tough, dusty, rocky, and mule-excrement ridden, but we saw a large lizard and it was a very exciting hike.

AND THEN WE MADE IT!

The hike up was strenuous. I wanted to play 20 Questions for distraction but Brian said we needed to conserve strength and water and all that logical stuff. A half mile from the top I wanted to quit, but we made it!

We had lunch and bought souvenirs; Brian bought me a present, the loveliest little silver ring. I bought some gifts for my aunt and uncle, my mom and dad and my friend Elisabeth. We also bought a pack of cards; we’d been collecting a pack from each place we stopped (stay tuned for culminating photos of the collection).

That evening, we made a fire, drank wine we’d planned to give to friends, had a good talk and a better night’s sleep. The next morning we headed to Grand Junction, Colorado for a stop on the way to Denver!

Cross-Country Tripping: Yellowstone, Wyoming

Gasp! My Thursday Travels post is going out on Friday! To my avid readers… I apologize!

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Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming  – July 5-6, 2011

My first huge trip planning mistake came around to bite us on the drive from Gillette, Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park. Despite the fact that we were already in Wyoming… the state which houses the park… I had obtained Google Maps directions that took us north through Montana. Brian pointed this out to me before we left, but I said: “We’ve been doing fine with these directions so far. Let’s just trust them.”

Well, I imagine you can see where this is going… almost eight hours later we arrive at the North entrance to Yellowstone National Park, hungry, tired, having to use the bathrooms, and then we see on the sign: Grant Campground, 79 miles.Oops.

I was soooo crabby about my mistake so Brian found a lovely unpeopled copse of trees and cooked me a 5 p.m. lunch. Then, after some super illegal U-turns to avoid the evening’s Old Faithful traffic, we arrived at our campsite! Brian did all the tough camping stuff like pitching the tent and building a fire (my job was to set up the bed inside the tent). We made friends with our neighbors and then went to sleep.

We woke up early the next morning to see the Old Faithful geyser before too many other visitors had the same idea. When we arrived, the rangers informed us that the next eruption would occur in approximately an hour, so we made coffee in the van and found a good place from which to watch the theatrics. Perhaps not surprisingly, the event wasn’t as spectacular as I remembered it being when I was young. But still… water shooting almost a hundred feet into the air because of pressure under the ground caused by hot magma. We learned that water’s boiling point there is 199 degrees Fahrenheit!

After seeing the geyser we drove back to our campsite and had a nice big breakfast. Then we took the drive (Yellowstone is huge; getting anywhere took at least half an hour) to the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls and the hiking trails there. We first saw the Upper Falls:

Then we hiked the South Rim Trail, which led to an overlook a few dozen flights of stairs below offering another, closer view of the waterfall.

We then hiked to Artist’t Point, which was crowded, and had hoped to continue on a prairie-and-woods-filled hike but found our way blocked; the trails were closed due to bear activity!

When we’d left the park and gotten back in a cell phone-serviced area we found out the horrible truth: a man and a woman had been attacked by a grizzly bear near where we were, and though they did everything right, the man was killed.

That afternoon we saw the Mud Volcano area were has the sulphur-emitting natural wonders for which Yellowstone is known, in part. Brian found the area very stinky.

We then went on a log and stick hunt; exploring the area around our campsite was fun. We were right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake.

Over a perfectly huge and roaring fire we played many epic rounds of 20 Questions, one of my favorite parts of our trip.

The next morning we had to leave, and it was terrible. On our way south we saw so many more beautiful sights and trails and we hadn’t even known they were there!

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Overall conclusion? We should have stayed there a week. The best parts of the park are the hidden parts, the dangerous and wild parts, and I can’t wait to go back someday.

Cross Country Tripping – San Francisco, California, Part I

San Francisco, CA – July 12-13, 2011

San Francisco was, in a sense, the destination point of our trip. It wasn’t midway through the adventure or the last place we stopped, but it was the furthest West we went and we spent more time there than in any other city in which we were strangers. Despite the fact that we were not prepared for the cool temperatures and that we did not plan excursions in advance, we loved our time there.

We left the Redwood National Forest early on the morning of July 12th. After a long drive, with two wonderful stops (one to put our feet in the Pacific Ocean, and one at a winery), we arrived at our hostel in San Francisco and parked the car in a garage. It was tough saying goodbye to so much of our crap for a few days, but also incredibly freeing. The hostel was nice; we stayed at Hostelling International San Francisco – Downtown.

After getting settled in, we did not have much energy, so we went on a short walk exploring the area around our hotel and had dinner at Chipotle (which made Brian’s trip).

The next morning, we woke up early to have bagels and coffee in the hostel for breakfast. Then, finally, we ventured out into San Francisco. We walked to Market Street to catch a bus to Golden Gate State Park, a place I remembered going with my family the summer I turned eleven.  The first building we came upon was the Conservatory, at which there is a special exhibit this summer called “Wicked Plants” which focused on poisonous, deadly and otherwise “evil” members of the plant kingdom.

We learned lots of interesting things. Among them: the cashew and the mango belong to the same family, and also in that family are poison ivy and other poisonous plants. In fact, all cashew nuts are steamed out of their shells in order to avoid human contact with the shells and skins before consumption. We also learned that the water hyacinth, native to Africa but abundant now on several continents, depletes clean water supplies, chokes other plant life and is so thick that it can provide cover for predators which then attack swimmers, etc.

The other exhibits in the Conservatory were lovely, but not very different from the ones we saw in Chicago or even in D.C. Next, we walked to the Japanese Tea Garden, which I remember visiting with my family, and which was a lot larger then. It was beautiful, though, and the koi in the water were quite as large as my memory served. Brian really enjoyed the structures, such as a large red pagoda and a small bridge.

We purchased a few souvenirs there too: a crane-shaped incense holder and green tea-scented incense for my friend Elisabeth, and some funny sort-toe socks for Brian’s sisters Cristin and Renee. We then left the tea garden and bought vegetable samosas from a truck in the park for lunch. They were among the best samosas I’ve ever had; when we finished, we bought more. I love food trucks.

We decided not to visit the Academy of Sciences, mostly for budget reasons, and hopped back on a bus to “our” area of town intending to walk around Chinatown. On the way, though, we passed a huge open-air market – one of my favorite things in the whole world. So we hopped off the bus. We saw a street performer opera singer who sang a few songs from “Les Miserables” and was just wonderful. We bought some dried fruit and some almonds for my Dad from Cipponeri Family Farms. We then walked along Market Street, marveling at the variety of people we saw. We bought more souvenirs for the wonderful friends babysitting our cats back home.

After a brief respite in the hostel and much unloading of packages, we went back to an enticing bar we’d passed earlier for happy hour. The bar was also playing the World Cup game we’d missed at 9:00 a.m. that morning; the U.S. beat France 3-1. I had champagne and bruschetta, and Brian had an Anchor Steam Brewery draft and oysters on the half shell. We met a young man there from Lexington, Kentucky traveling on business.

After our snack we walked to Chinatown—uphill, which means something direr in this city than in others—and had a lot of fun there. Brian got a real kick out of all the merchandise and wanted to go into every store. We wandered the street with the souvenirs for a while and then looked for what has also been, for me, the most memorable part of Chinatown: the food markets. We saw shark’s fins and ducks and turtles and frogs and fish in all stages of life and death.

On the way back to the hostel we stopped at a Swiss chocolatier and picked up two truffles for later. We had dinner at a Japanese restaurant near our hotel. This dinner was my favorite of the whole trip. We sat at the sushi bar and watched the chefs create the rolls and enjoyed miso soup, chicken yakitori, steamed tofu with shitake mushrooms and several rolls.

We went back to the hostel to rest in preparation for another exciting day, including a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf and a night tour of Alcatraz Island.

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Stay tuned for another post detailing the rest of our time in California. Thanks for reading!


Cross-Country Tripping: Chicago, Illinois

When I posted my 2011 in review, 2012 goals post I vowed to roll out another serial-type blog post at the beginning of February…

TA DA! Every Thursday, I will post a piece about my travels. I’ll post about adventures past and future. Please comment with suggestions, and thank you for reading!

The following is the journal entry I wrote after Brian and I left Chicago this summer. Chicago was the 5th stop on our cross-country road trip and the first city we visited. Neither of us had been there, and we had a wonderful time. Can’t wait to return.

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Chicago, IL – June 29-30, 2011

Driving into Chicago was exciting and HILARIOUS when we all-of-a-sudden changed time zones and realized we were an hour early to check into our hotel. All was well – it took us another forty minutes to navigate the way to our hotel and find parking. We stayed in a Days Inn near Wrigley Field; our room was very simple but clean and very nice. A young man at the front desk was very helpful; he gave us maps and directions and information about a lovely lakeshore walking path. That evening, though, we went directly to Wrigley Field to buy tickets to the Cubs game against the San Francisco Giants. With the tickets safely in tow, we went to find a place to eat. After looking at the menus at several places nearby (I love looking at menus, Brian sweetly tolerates it) we chose a place called Deleece. The food was delicious; I had two chicken breasts, pounded thinly, with goat cheese garlic sauce and caramelized onions on top. On the side, I had French fries and yummy, simply grilled asparagus. Brian had a bacon, egg and cheeseburger.

The game itself was way fun. No score for the first six innings or so, but then the Cubs scored! They held the Giants off until the eighth inning, when the Giants scored a run. The Cubs scored again in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. I bought one cup of Old Tyme beer because a fan told me it was associated with Wrigley Field. The stadium itself was awesome. Very small and intimate (oddly).

We walked back to our hotel, watched a bit of TV, and found out that Stephen Colbert was seeking and that week received permission from the FEC to form a PAC. Funny.

The next day, we had breakfast and got out to Lincoln Park on the shore of Lake Michigan early in the day. It was a beautiful day. There were fishing spots, marinas, a large lovely beach and lots of people out running and biking. We walked for about a mile along the water and then walked back through the park.

In Lincoln Park there is a zoo, along with a conservatory, nature museum, and several beautiful gardens. We spent awhile walking through the zoo and then the conservatory. We saw a gorilla, a rhinoceros, lots of monkeys, snakes, zebras, fish and lots more. It was a very cool zoo, especially consider it is free of charge to enter.

We walked back through the park to our hotel to change shoes, stopping to get a smoothie. In the afternoon we took the Brown Line “L” train to the City Center. We walked a bit along Millennium Park before heading to the Architecture Foundation, which has a full-scale model of the city and many informational exhibits. Brian loved it.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Art Institute, which was truly incredible. We saw pieces by Matisse, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and a very cool modern gallery, and some Thorpe miniature rooms. We also saw the “Sunday in the Park” painting of which we have a Simpsons version in our living room. The original painting is huge! Unexpectedly so.

After the art museum we went to Exchequer Pub, a Chicago deep-dish pizzeria at which Al Capone once had dinner. We had a yummy Santa Fe chicken salad and a deep-dish pizza with black olives and feta cheese. On the way home we got stuck in a crazy rainstorm, and overhead a funny conservation on two guys – one was complaining about how stupid his girlfriend was. Literally, about how much she did not know. Funny stuff.

We left Chicago the morning of July 1st and drove to Jackson, Minnesota.

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I loved being in Chicago. It was one of my favorite stops on the road during our 2011 summer trip. And if it weren’t for my fear of the extreme weather, it’s probable I’d be bugging Brian about moving to Chicago as much as I am Brooklyn, New York.