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: Crater Lake, Oregon

During my youth, my parents took my siblings and I on summer road trips around the country. When I was eleven years old we visited Crater Lake National Park. My memories of the lake are clear and vibrant; I remember taking a boat to an island in the lake and looking down into the deep, able to see to the bottom. I remember thinking I saw a rock that reminded me of Skull Rock from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (okay, from Disney’s interpretation of it). So I was so so excited to share the experience with Brian. But when we got there…

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Crater Lake, OR – July 9-10, 2011

So we arrived in Crater Lake National Park after our longest day of driving so far – almost 10 1/2 hours. We saw most of Oregon, though! We got to the National Park in the evening to find that most of the campground, half of the road around the lake and almost all of the hiking trails were buried in snow. It turns out Crater Lake got almost 29 feet of snow MORE than usual in 2011 and the park was a few weeks behind schedule in their preparations for tourists. This was my first reminder that checking ahead for weather conditions before arriving at our next destination and planning to sleep outside was probably a good idea.

The campsite we found was the only one left with an even close-to-dry space for a small tent. We purchased firewood only to find our fire ring buried in snow. And, to top it all off, the mosquito population was denser and hungrier than anyone would expect when surrounded by snow.

So, for the first and last time in our trip, we put all of our stuff in the tent and slept in the van. It was actually kind of fun; Brian ran a clothesline all around the car and we hung sheets and buried ourselves in a nest of blankets, sleeping bags and clothes.

Before we went to sleep we drove to Watchman’s Overlook and saw the deep blue color of Crater Lake in the evening before snacking and watching the sunset over the snow-covered mountains. It was a lovely sunset: pink and gold.

The next morning, we moved around our reservations so we’d leave Crater Lake a day early and have an extra day in the Redwoods (though it was cold there, too!) Brian made a yummy breakfast of turkey bacon and scrambled eggs with cheese. We then drove to the Cleetwood Cove trail, the only one not buried in snow. However, it’s also the only trail I remembered from my first visit there; a mile-long winding pathway down to the lake and what would be the boat dock but was not quite, yet.

We should have brought bathing suits with us or at least dry clothes so we could jump in. Just look at this water!

The hike back up was waaaay tough.

We met a nice couple who recommended having drinks and appetizers at the lodge, which we did and was a super enjoyable post-hiking treat. We explored the lodge and then sat in the “Great Room” by the window so we could see the lake. We had French Onion soup, Northwestern Clam Chowder, a salad and a crab-and-artichoke dip. Yummy! Brian also tasted a local beer, which we tried to do in several of the places we visited. (Next time: Bourbon Trail.)

We left the park and drove south to the Crescent City/Redwoods Kampground of America (KOA) – feel free to mock me for this, but laundry facilities and showers are valuable commodities. As are ice cream bars and marshmallows. The drive was windy and we listened to the Council of Elrond chapter of Lord of the Rings on the way.

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Despite the snow and the bugs and the buried-ness(in mid-July), Crater Lake was just as I remembered it – one of the most beautiful natural treasures in the country.