Monday, April 14, 2014

50 States - Idaho

It was about this time last year that we visited the penultimate of our 50 states, Idaho. Idaho had lingered long on the list because it's hard to get to and there is not much to see if you are not a hardcore skier. But it turns out there is more to Idaho than meets the eye. Boise in particular is a delightful college town, home to the Boise State Broncos and their signature blue field.


As the capitol of the state, it has the requisite huge capitol building complete with a replica Liberty Bell.


Downtown Boise is rather quaint with old buildings, one of which houses a very prominent drag bar.


Just outside of Boise the Snake River, which seems to snake through most of the state, is home to grand overlooks and raptors.


But most of Idaho is rural at best. One area, the Craters of the Moon National Monument, is so foreboding as to be frightening.



Our last stop in Idaho was at Idaho Falls where a childhood friend of mine has been living for over thirty years.


The town of Idaho Falls had the requisite Mormon Temple as well as a bar that Harrison Ford hangs out in when he is in the area.


Idaho has charm and wonderful scenery but nothing can change how incredibly remote it is.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

50 States - California - Los Angeles

When people think of California, they usually think of Los Angeles. This seems natural since the movie industry is based there and its images such as the Mann Chinese Theater and the Hollywood sign.


LA also has beautiful beaches and the funky side show that is Venice Beach about any time of day.


Even the streets are famous. On Rodeo Drive there is the Beverley Wilshire where Pretty Woman took place and the Whiskey on Sunset Strip where about everything has happened.


I can see why people love LA.

Update: I haven't been back to LA since that trip in 2003 but I've been to lots of other places in California since then. See my comment below for links ot other photos.

50 States - California - Bay Area

California has been described to me by a Californian as a really great country club with pretty steep initiation dues. Of the 50 states, California has the most variety to offer. Nowhere does this seem truer than in central California where there are beaches, mountains, and culture all withing easy purview. Nothing is more emblematic of the wealth of the west coast than San Simeon, the home of Randolph Hearst and the inspiration for Citizen Kane:


Between there and San Francisco, there is amazing natural beauty including elephant seals lolling on the beach and the zen-like beauty of the Lone Cyprus along the Seventeen Mile Drive in Monterey to the pristine vistas of Pebble Beach.


This all eventually leads to San Francisco with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the chilling isolation of Alcatraz.


From Alacatraz you can see the great skyline of San Francisco itself. And San Francisco itself has the elegance of the Palace of Arts.


All the photos in this post and the accompanying Flickr set where scanned in from our trip in 2002 but I have been back to the San Francisco Bay area many times since and there is always something new to see or explore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

BooksFirst- March 2014

Books Bought

You Can Date Boys When You're Forty by Dave Barry
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi
The Hammer of Witches by Shana Miwalski

Books Read

You Can Date Boys When You're Forty by Dave Barry
The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English by Bill Walsh
Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi


Last year Dave Barry came through DC promoting his first novel in a long time Insane City which I kind of faint-praised in my review. So I was a bit reluctant to shell out hard cash when he came through DC again this year pushing his latest collection of essays You Can Date Boys When You Are Forty. Boy, was I wrong. This book was literally laugh out loud funny. I would just chuckle constantly as I read it. In addition to the titular essay about the travails or raising a teenaged daughter, he talks about growing old and life in general.

I'm really not sure what makes him so funny but a lot of it is his dead pan observations of actual life. He just manages to get straight to the heart of any topic in a way that is instantly recognizable.

Bill Walsh is a professional editor at the Washington Post who has a monthly online chat where he regularly refers to his books. Liking the chat, I went and bought his best reviewed book, The Elephants of Style. The allusion to the Strunk and White classic is deliberate and indicative of his irreverent style.

Unfortunately, when all is said and done, it's still a book about nitpicky grammar debates. Walsh leans towards the descriptivist camp rather than prescriptionist (neither word which passes muster with spell-check) which is the way I lean as well. On most topics, he lays out what the dispute is, what the various sides assert and then gives the side he comes down on.His advice is always sound and logical but it's still arbitrary.

At the end of the book he just outright starts padding. There is a certain random cotton candyesqueness to his musings. It's a fun read but not solid enough to serve as a reference book.

In the past couple of decades, two styles of books have been winning Hugos, heavy tomes and light-hearted romps. Redshirts is definitely the latter. Borrowing heavily from the tropes of television science fiction, the novel is about a young ensign on a military style exploratory space ship NOT named the Enterprise who becomes concerned about the high casualty rates for landing parties. It seems anyone other than the headstrong captain, the stoic science officer or the folksy medical doctor is doomed. And while not always meeting a fatal end, the eastern European accented navigation officer always seems a little too close to the center of the action.

At this point, it could have become farce along the lines of Galaxy Quest, but instead it becomes very intriguing metafiction. And while there is a little patchouli whiff of dorm room existentialism in the philosophy, it does become an interesting treatise on the nature of reality and fiction. It has a little of the self-awareness of Jasper Fforde novels but not quite as much cutesy cloyingness. It is a slight breezy read, but well worth the effort.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

50 States - Washington

On the same trip in 2004 when we visited Oregon, we spent most of the trip in the state of Washington. Using Seattle as a home base, we took a big loop around the area. Seattle is home to a major coffee chain you may have heard of. In Seattle they use the original logo with mermaid hair not so strategically placed.


Their first store is right near the Pike Street Market which is also where they throw fish around.


From Seattle we headed down to Mount Ranier which is a truly majestic mountain.


From there it was down to Mount St. Helens which has still to recover from the catastrophic volcanic explosion. Downstream of the crater is a lake full of timber still floating waterlogged.


After a brief sojourn in Oregon, we headed back towards Seattle via the Olympic Peninsula. The Pacific Coast is rugged but beautiful.


We saw amazing wildlife from a giant slug on a redwood tree to a herd of elk in a river bed.


There were also brilliant fields of lavender.


The drive back to Seattle included a ferry right back with a great view of the city.


Seattle is home to plenty of things to see including the Experience Music Project and the troll under the bridge.


From there it was up the coast to the Orcas Islands which meant kayaking.


Back in the Seattle area, we took a boat tour which went past the mansions of the Microsoft millionaires.


Our final stop in Seattle was the cozy neighborhood of Pioneer Square which is the home of Elliott Bay Books which while no Powells, was a gorgeous well furnished bookstore.


Washington had a bit of everything, fantastic vistas, beautiful nature, and urban wonders.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

50 States - Oregon

Of the 50 states, Oregon is another one that while it fit into our rule of one night and one meal, it kind of got short shrift. Our night was spent in Portland which is a delightful city which I fell in love with long before the show Portlandia started gently mocking it. The point of going to Portland was to visit Powell's Books, one of the contenders for the greatest bookstore on earth. Inexplicably, I have no photos of that Mecca, but on the way into town we stopped off at the Horsetails Falls area along the Columbia River. These are gorgeous waterfalls along a beautiful hiking trail.

I notice from the photos that I was wearing a tee shirt from The Strand, an enormous bookstore in New York City which is probably the only rival in size that Powell's has. I doubt this was a coincidence.


Oregon is on the return trip list because there is so much more to see, both in natural beauty and urban fun.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

50 States - Nevada

In going to all 50 states, I never thought I was Las Vegas type of person until I realized you didn't have to gamble but could just wallow in the sheer excess of it. We had gone through Reno on our way west back in 2006 and stayed at the Peppermill Casino which was poor preparation for the vastness of Vegas a few days later. We has arrived late in the afternoon and only had one night there.  And because it was a weekend we stayed at the Excalibur which is one of the least expensive hotels on the strip. It's the same place I stayed just a few weeks ago when I was stranded during a busines trip on the west coast when Baltimore was blizzarded in. It's also across the street from the nearly equally garish New York New York.


We hit the Bellagio fountains and the Fremont Street Experience but the temperatures at midnight was still over 100 degrees.


It was last year that we really experienced the real Vegas when for a weekend getaway we stayed at the Mirage and saw the Cirque de Soliel Beatles show Love.


The Mirage is also home to Sigfried and Roy's Magic Garden where they keep their wild cats and dolphins.


The best part of Vegas is the fantastic food. About every celebrity chef has one or more restaurants. Pure competitive pressure keeps the quality of even the burger places high.


And there are always celebrities around somewhere if you know where to look. Penn and Teller sign autographs after their show and sometimes even a Kardasian is making a public appearance.


But there is more to Nevada than Las Vegas. On our most recent trip for our fiftieth birthday, we took a day trip to Death Valley which is technically in California, but on the way, we stopped off at combination tourist trap and brothel as well as a ghost town.


Between eating, drinking, seeing shows, and touring the desert there is enough to keep even the determined non-gambler busy in Nevada.

Monday, March 10, 2014

50 States - South Dakota

I f you read my fairly snide 50 States post snarking about North Dakota, you might think I will be equally dismissive about South Dakota. Nothing could be further from the truth. South Dakota has some literally monumental attractions, most famously that display of chutzpah carved under the impression that mountains are more spectacular when turned into sculptures of dead politicians.

In the defense of Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, they had to have been a bit right as otherwise why would thousands of people travel to the middle of nowhere to look at rocks. More pristine beauty can be found in the Badlands.

But South Dakota has lots and lots of interesting smaller attractions. The most bizarre is perhaps the Corn Palace which has to be seen to be believed.


And driving anywhere in South Dakota will expose you to billboards shilling for Wall Drugs. More than just a drugstore, Wall Drugs is a tourist emporium of epic scale. It seems to swallow the entire town of Wall.


Speaking of swallowing, one of Wall Drug's gimmicks is that it offers free water to anybody that wants some. And it's very good water.


Perhaps the most overlooked destination in South Dakota is the town of DeSmet. Its claim to fame is that it was the home on the prairie to Laura Ingalls Wilder during The Long Winter. They have replicas of cabins of that era and even a one-room schoolhouse.


In celebration, the town puts on a nightly pageant on a huge outdoor stage depicting those events.


So get to DeSmet and see all that South Dakota has to offer.