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January 12th, 2014

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A Very Long Sunrise at Bryce

June 10th, 2010

First, let me be quite direct. I love Bryce Canyon. The fact that I was shockingly, stunningly stupid here is not Bryce’s fault. Not at all. I’ll explain how dumb I was in a moment, but first a few words about Bryce and southern Utah.

Bryce is a fairly short (two hours or so), beautiful drive from Zion, but you might as well be going from one planet to another. You look up at the beautiful sandstone geology of Zion, and you look down on the spectacular limestone geology of Bryce. Bryce isn’t as great a hiking park as Zion, but its tall drip-sandcastle-like structures are quite remarkable. And the hike from the canyon rim down into the base of the canyon is must-do while visiting Bryce National Park.

I’ve been to Bryce before, and wanted to bring the rest of my family here. And while I saw most everything I hoped to see at Bryce on my prior visit, I missed a highly-recommended activity — getting up just before sunrise and watching the sun come up over Bryce Canyon. We were staying at the Lodge in the middle of the park, which was a short walk to Sunrise and Sunset Points, got good advice that it’s actually better this time of year to watch the sun rise from Sunset Point, and I was determined to take in this experience.

I wanted to make sure I didn’t sleep too late, so I set my alarm for 5:15 am, figuring that might be a bit early for my sunrise watch. But when my alarm went off, it was pitch black out. So I fumbled around, re-set it for 5:30 a.m., and went back to sleep. At 5:30 a.m. it was still pitch black, so I repeated my 15 minute re-set. 5:45 a.m., still totally dark. 6:00 a.m., ditto. 6:15 a.m., pitch black, as it was at 6:30 a.m. At this point I’m beginning to feel like I’m in an old Twilight Zone episode. And my very patient wife is beginning to feel I’m not being totally considerate this morning.

6:45 a.m., still dark, 7:00 a.m. as well. I’m slowly beginning to think something is wrong, but keeping adjusting my alarm by fifteen minutes, and finally, at 7:45 a.m., two things happen. First, it’s finally starting to look like early dawn outside, and I swing into action. Second, it slowly dawns on me what the heck has been going on. Cleverly, I never changed my blackberry (which serves as my alarm) from Eastern Daylight Time. So my first alarm was going off at 3:15 a.m. Utah time, and — surprise, surprise — it’s pretty dark at Bryce that time of morning.

I wish I could say that, after the rocky start to the morning, that sunrise over Bryce was a glorious and inspiring experience. But a gigantic tourist bus dumped a big noisy group, and kept the engine on for the entire hour I was there. Even without these distractions, the sunrise magic I had hoped for just wasn’t there, and my advice to others visiting Bryce would be to sleep in.

While our family really likes hiking and geology, our passion is around wildlife. Our kids particularly love chasing down herps (reptiles and amphibians). When we come to a new place, we never know quite what to expect. Utah has been fabulous with respect to geology, but not all that exciting for wildlife. We’ve had a few good bird sightings (a Dipper and Mountain Bluebird), some non-descript mammals, and a few good herps, but nothing all that dramatic.

We stayed at the lodge inside the park, and had a great experience there. The rooms are quite basic, but the location is great, and the food in the lodge was pretty good. Given the alternatives in the neighboring area, which are all mediocre at best, my advice is to book something at the lodge, but book early, because the rooms get booked pretty far ahead of time.

Majestic Zion

June 9th, 2010

We started a nine-day hiking trip in Southern Utah at Zion National Park. It’s a spectacular park, with stunning geology. We spent three days here, and loved every minute of it.

To get here, we flew from Boston, through Chicago, to my least favorite city, Las Vegas, Nevada. We survived Las Vegas, largely because we spent just a few hours there before heading east to Zion. But we did go to a couple of the hotels, and drove down the strip, just so our kids could see it.

We’re here in early June, which is a great time to explore the parks of Southern Utah. A few weeks earlier might have been ideal, but the temperature, while hot (high 80′s to low 90′s), is great, there’s no humidity, and only an occasional rain shower. Many of the wild flowers are out in bloom, and it’s not terribly crowded.

One of the great things about Zion is that it offers many hiking options, from short and flat to downright scary. I was here years ago and did Angels Landing, which is a strenuous hike to the top of the mountain at the left. It’s not just a real challenge to make the climb up, but it has many places where there is a narrow (3-4 feet) hiking path, a chain on a vertical wall on one side, and a drop of 1000 feet or more on the other. Needless to say, if you don’t like hikes, this isn’t for you.

We didn’t take on Angels Landing, but had a great climb up to Hidden Canyon. On the left is a picture of our two children making the passage along one of Zion’s famous narrow passages with very steep drops. I don’t know how many people fall each year, but while you’re on the hike, the answer seems likes it has to be a very big number.

One of the great things about Zion is the geology of the park. The rock structures are made of sandstone, and show the most beautiful patterns. On some rock structures, you can see ripples that resemble what you’d see on a lake on a windy afternoon, only these are etched in rock that’s millions of years old.

We stayed at the Zion Mountain Lodge here, which was a so-so experience. It’s on the east side of the park, and we’d recommend staying either in the park at the Zion Lodge, or on the west side in a town called Springdale (small, but charming). Where we stayed was nice physically, but the service stunk. When we checked in, the owner told Elizabeth that the air conditioning in our unit was out. When she asked when they’d have it operational, he responded, “Who knows? If you don’t like it, just leave.” So much for customer service.

Home Stretch

March 12th, 2010

After Fort Myers Beach, we had several interesting days. On Saturday, we went nature-exploring in the Lake Placid (Florida, not New York) area, and then worked our way up to Jacksonville, which is a fun town. We then split up, with Gibson and me going to Boston for medical appointments, and Elizabeth and Sterling driving north through Charleston, South Carolina. We re-joined each other in Richmond, and the four of us joined forces for the home stretch back to Charlottesville. Along the way, we managed to give our pig Rosie a bath in a hotel bathtub, which we caught on video.

Many would think our family is peculiar, but we love nature and wildlife — all kinds of wildlife. Our kids in particular love herps — reptiles and amphibians — and we’re very happy chasing them down.  Our son has his own website devoted mostly to nature —  We were joined on Saturday by a nature expert from South Florida, Josh Holbrook, and his wife, and got in some great discoveries. One highlight was the gopher tortoise, which is a good-sized land tortoise. We all saw a Brahminy Blind Snake, a Southeastern five-lined skink, a blue-tailed mole skink, and a Florida Scrub Jay (a bird). It was a gorgeous sunny day, with temperatures in the 70′s, so everything conspired for a great day.

One thing we learned from Josh is to look for exotic creatures near decrepit billboards. If the old board has fallen off, it’s completely in disrepair, if it’s a big dangerous to walk around . . . well, you’re at the right place. All those boards on the ground make for great hiding places. We turned over lots of boards, and our efforts were rewarded with some nice finds.

After an uneventful overnight in Orlando, we motored up to Jacksonville, Florida. None of us had ever been there, and we were pleasantly surprised by this community. We started by taking in a baseball practice with the varsity team from St. Anne’s-Belfield, where our kids will be going come Monday. The team goes to Florida each spring for a set of games, and traditionally has had some great teams.

After some online research, we found a really fun “Bark in the Park” event in downtown Jacksonville, and had a blast walking around all the different dogs (and owners!) there. We were very tempted to try to enter our little pig in some of the contests, and claim she’s a new breed of dog, but we were worried that one or more of the dogs would be in the mood for bacon sushi. So Rosie hunkered down in the car, while we walked around the bark event.

We took in a nice little museum in Jacksonville, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. The museum had some nice pieces, and the grounds were spectacular, looking out on the St. John’s River. This is exactly the kind of discovery we love to make in a new city.

The next morning, with very mixed feelings, we split up. The boys went to Boston, where Gibson had an MRI and doctor’s appointment about a knee/bone issue he’s been dealing with. The girls went to Charleston, SC, and caught up with many of our great friends there, including joining a big gathering that went to see the Moscow Ballet.

Elizabeth then did a power drive from Charleston, SC, to Richmond, VA, in one day, while Gibson and I flew down from Boston, and we met at a great hotel there, the Jefferson. The hotel is an old-school Richmond hotel that allows pet pigs (great!) and has statues of alligators all over it. Apparently, a guest years ago arrived at the hotel with pet alligators and left them in the fountain, where they lived for years. Well, to be sure, the thought crossed my mind that we should take steps to ensure that the Jefferson is full of statues of pigs in future years by leaving our pet there as a thank you gift, but I’m sure the rest of my family wouldn’t go along with that!

We took in a couple of Civil War Museums in Richmond on the last day of our trip, but by then all of us were thinking about getting home in Charlottesville, so our heart wasn’t totally into these visits. Nevertheless, the American Civil War Center did a great job of explaining the causes of the Civil War. For our family, the Civil War was a theme to our trip, so this museum made for a fitting conclusion to the trip.


Fort Myers Beach(ed)

March 10th, 2010

We ended up spending six days in Fort Myers, renting an apartment on Fort Myers Beach. For years, I’ve dreamt of spending time in this location in March — great weather, beautiful seaside, and Red Sox spring training. My net on the experience, though, is that it’s not a repeat, and the area has more challenges than attractions.

Now it’s possible we stayed in the wrong place. Well, let’s upgrade that to “nearly certain.” Fort Myers Beach is a mess. It’s an island right on the gulf (good), but you have to get to it by bridge. The traffic there is horrendous. It would routinely take us 30 minutes or more to drive a few miles to get on/off the island. That got old in a hurry. And Fort Myers Beach wasn’t exactly a charming community, including having a Hooter’s on the main drag :-( .

We did manage to take in the opening game of the Red Sox exhibition season, with Beckett on the mound. It was a close game, and, for the record, the Red Sox won, 2-1. But it was sooooo cold. The scoreboard said it was 62 degrees, but most in the audience felt they were missing a minus sign.

When we packed up and said good-bye to Fort Myers Beach, I was a happy man. Our family has gotten good at finding ways to have a great time, even in less than ideal circumstances. The good news about our stay here is that we didn’t get evicted from where we were staying, the kids had a great time, and it was fun to have done this once. But I don’t think I’ll be crossing that bridge into Fort Myers Beach anytime soon.

The Naples Tomato

March 5th, 2010

Our trip to Florida wound its way down to Naples for a day, and it will be the highlight of our time in this state. We visited Corkscrew Audubon Sanctuary, caught up with long-time friends, and went to an amazing restaurant, the Naples Tomato. If you’re within fifty miles of Naples, Florida, it’s worth the drive to come to this great restaurant!

We started the day with a visit to Corkscrew Audubon Sanctuary, a gorgeous spot not too far out of Naples. There’s a short (2.25 mile) boardwalk hike, with lots of opportunities for viewing wildlife. iPerhaps it was the time of day (noon-ish) or the weather (still chilly, a recurring theme for us in Florida), but we didn’t see a lot of wildlife during our two hours there. But it was definitely worth the visit, and a place we’d come back to.

A long-time professional colleague (first) and personal friend (second), Jack Serfass, moved to Naples over seven years ago. A repeat software entrepreneur that I had backed, Jack and his wife Nadine started a restaurant in Naples called the Naples Tomato. Our families have spent time together on multiple occasions, so we were excited to see them again. And my wife and I have followed the progress of their restaurant, with all the accolades it’s received, and had a life goal of eating there. Boy, were we not disappointed!

I’m not a foodie (my wife is), so I’d be smart to let her provide the restaurant commentary. All I can say is that it’s the best dinner I’ve ever had out. Unless you absolutely hate great Italian food, you just have to go to this restaurant. All courses were superb, with so many very different offerings. Jack and Nadine arranged for us to get our courses with samples of a half-dozen items off the menu. If I went back, I’d be hard-pressed to pick what I liked best, although the lasagna is a signature, the tilapia was my favorite, and you could readily gain ten pounds just eating the desserts. The key lime pie is outstanding, and they offer a Krispy Kreme bread pudding.

We drove around Naples a bit and it’s a charming town. If we were to plan this trip over, we’d blow off Fort Myers Beach (charming is not a word I’d ever use to describe FMB) and stay a week in Naples. It looked too hard to get to spring training, but it’s taking us 30-60 minutes to get on/off the island here, so Naples couldn’t be much worse, and is a heckuva a lot more appealing than Ft. Myers.

Oh, and our pig update. Not too much to talk about today. She couldn’t get out of the car for Corkscrew or the Naples Tomato, so she was largely out of sight today. Sterling, as is her custom for the day, spent some time reading with Rosie beside her, and the two are getting more alike by the day, for better or worse :-) .

Tomorrow, we’ll take in the opening game of the Red Sox 2010 Exhibition season, and otherwise hang out in chilly Fort Myers. Our trip is coming to an end, and seems much longer than three weeks. More later on why.

The Color Red

March 3rd, 2010

Our trip to Florida has taken on a vivid shade of red.

We’re in Fort Myers now, and one of our priorities has been to visit the Red Sox spring training site. Exhibition games haven’t started yet, so here’s what happens when you go to their City of Palms Stadium. Arrive. Get on a bus to go about a mile to their practice fields. Watch the players stretch for 30 minutes. Watch the pitchers throw some balls, and run through some practice drills (e.g., fielding bunts). Watch the hitters take batting practice. Watch the players leave the field to go to the shower room, doing their best to avoid autograph seekers.

The highlight for me was a sunny spring day (unusual for us on this trip), and all the joy I associate with the sounds and sights of baseball. I don’t put a big premium on seeing famous baseball players close-up, which seems to be the principal appeal for many attendees (maybe 2,000 in total). But just being here, with my thirteen-year-old son who loves baseball and the Red Sox, was a real treat.

Until a month ago, I had never given much (dare I say, any) thought to the texture and nature of a pig’s skin. But with a pet pig, it’s become very tangible. They don’t have fur, and they have a very thin covering of hair. I sure didn’t realize a pig could get badly sunburned. But we took Rosie for a walk on the beach here, and after an hour or so in the sun, her skin turned quite red — downright rosy. Our lesson learned — our pig needs sunblock before going outside.

Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” took on new meaning for me over the past week. I am almost always the first one up in the morning for our family, and love the early hours of the day. But the normal calm I experience these days has been shattered by the sounds of pig squeals. My complaints to my daughter, though, were met with her claim that the sound of my alarm was causing Rosie to speak out.

Well, last night, I lowered the volume of the alarm, and buried it under some clothes. Better yet, I awoke quite early this morning before the alarm went off, and disabled the alarm. Best (or worst, depending) of all, I already heard the loud squeals of our pig. I’ve got a video here of a perfectly boring door, but it gives you an idea of what she sounds like. Eventually, our eleven-year-old daughter was awakened by her pig, stormed out of her room, opened the bathroom door where we keep the pig, shouted, “Rosie, shut up!”, and went back to bed. I can see our enlightened parenting skills are rubbing off :-) .

But Rosie hadn’t quite got her full measure of revenge. A bit later in the morning, I was lying in bed reading when our little pigger walked in to our bedroom. I thought, “Gee, how nice that she’s coming for a visit.” She walked up to the edge of the bed, did a 180, squatted, and peed all over our floor. I suppose the positive interpretation of this is that she’s clearly learning some basics of communication.

Even though it’s been a bit chilly, we’ve had some great walks on the beach here. The apartment we’re renting has a short path to a wide and beautiful beach. We go out for walks frequently, and really enjoy the beauty of the ocean — even when you can’t swim in it.

We’ve also had our share of cold, rainy weather on this trip. Local residents are telling me that they have been shocked at how much colder it’s been this year than any in recent memory. The rain has given us a good opportunity for reading and home-schooling. But we’re ready for some warm sunshine, that’s for sure.

Today, off to Naples for the day, which should be fabulous.

Rosie Meets the Yankees, Sort Of

March 2nd, 2010

We spent a day in Tampa earlier this week, and did our best to find Tampa’s hidden gems. Almost every place we go has a few, although some are harder to find than others. I must admit, though, that 24 hours wasn’t enough for us to crack the code in Tampa.

We started our stay in Tampa by tracking down the Museum of Science and Industry. They had a fun exhibit outside that let you go in a wind chamber and experience the sensation of ever-escalating wind force, topping out at 75 mph (the bottom end of the range for category one). Given I’m reading a book on Katrina’s impact, that was an interesting experience.

This museum had one other interesting exhibit. It would take a digital photo of you, and then show what you’d look like at a much more advanced age. I didn’t do it, since I’m already at that advanced age! But Gibson and Sterling did. I told them both they’d better get married young, because they won’t be much of a catch by the time they’re 70 years old, if this museum’s software is at all predictive.

We then went to a restaurant (Guppy’s on the Beach) in Clearwater that I picked on the basis of strong reviews in Yelp. Not a winner. First, it’s not on the beach. Second, they promised us a table after an hour wait, and then gave it away. The best they could do was a table outside without space heaters, on a night when the temperature was in the low 40′s. The food could have been fabulous and we would have still been bummed. But we had to send two of the entrees back. Ouch!

To cap the evening, we swung by a Coldstone for ice cream, and brought our pig in (who is very fond of strawberry). Much to our surprise, even the people behind the counter were glad to meet her. When she ordered, though, she was disappointed they didn’t offer old discarded corn cobs as a mix-in.

We then returned to our elegant accommodations for the evening — A very basic La Quinta with the sole redeeming feature of accepting pigs as overnight guests. Thank you, Rosie. I couldn’t quite tell what the room smelled like, but haven’t quite been assaulted by such smells since using public restrooms in Beijing. One thing about traveling with a pig that’s a plus is the amount of money we’ve saved on hotel rooms. Since no place that charges over $79 per night will accept pigs, we’ve economized significantly on this trip.

On Sunday morning, we went to see the Yankees spring training workout. As passionate fans of the Red Sox, it’s a legitimate question as to why we’d purposely go to see the Yankees work out. And by the end of the day, I was asking myself the same thing. One highlight, though, was seeing Yogi Berra (left), famous for so many great quotes (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” “It’s not over til it’s over.”)

As the to overall experience? Well, what could we expect from a franchise that charges its fans $2,500 for a regular season ticket? We arrived with signs everywhere saying “Gates Open at 10:00 a.m.” And security guards confirmed that gates would open then. So we, stupidly, believed them. And we waited in line, and waited, and waited. Well, they finally opened the gates at 11:00 a.m. I can’t tell you how painful that wait was. First, it’s a drag waiting in any line for well over an hour. But to be sandwiched in between a bunch of repulsive fans in the universe. Ugh! By the end of the day, the photo on the right best captures the way I feel about this baseball franchise.

We tried to give our pig a chance to take in the ambience. Everywhere we’ve gone on this trip, people have stopped and asked questions about her. Not with Yankees fans. They just ignored her, as though they are perfectly used to beong around pigs. Come to think of it . . .

Idling In Orlando

February 26th, 2010

Our family loves to travel, but we have a certain type of travel we love. We’re in our element when the travel has an educational or nature component to it, the more the better. But, after four days in Orlando, I find myself wondering why the heck we stayed here this long. We did get a needed rest, and actually stayed put for a bit. But it’s been dull, dull, dull, and I struggle to point to highlights.

We spent a half-day at Disney, and our kids had a blast. Elizabeth and I asked ourselves if this might be the last time our kids are still young enough to find Disney World exciting. For now, though, they wanted to go down Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain multiple times, and we all had a great time, although none of us put on the mouse ears.

Sterling and Elizabeth made a drive up to a store Sterling has long wanted to visit — the Hermit Crab Patch. The store was originally called the Crabbage Patch, but a threatened lawsuit from the Cabbage Patch doll owners made them switch names. Rosie came along for the visit, and Sterling was excited to see a store with hundreds of hermit crabs in it, and an owner as passionate about hermit crabs as Sterling is. (When we left on our trip, Sterling had seven pet hermit crabs — we’ll see how many survive our three-week absence).

Gibson and I have spent lots of time (emphasis on LOTS) at spring training sites, watching the players work out. And Gibson has been chasing down autographs from players, with a fair amount of success. For those curious as to what it’s like to go to a spring training practice, I can report that it’s surprisingly dull. The players mostly stand around, and you might have 40 over-paid players on the field, one taking batting practice, a few shagging fly balls, and maybe a couple of infielders working on double play mechanics. I love baseball, but watching these practices doesn’t do it for me.

A big part of what’s going on at a spring training site is the hunt for autographs. There are some young kids, some older fans, and a whole bevy of creepy adults who sell stuff on ebay — all jockeying to get players to sign. Occasionally, players will come to the sidelines and sign autographs for a few, or even many, fans. Most of the signing occurs at the beginning or end of the practice. And after the practice, there are particular locations where autograph seekers camp out, hoping to intercept players walking to their cars or, believe it or not, leaving the grounds in their cars. I was surprised to see several players pull over, roll down their windows, and sign autographs.

At spring training sites, you do get a feel though for which players are reasonably-nice human beings, and which will blow off young kids hoping for autographs. When we were at the Atlanta Braves site, Chipper Jones (right, a likely future Hall of Famer) signed autographs for every single fan there who wanted one. I’ll be a Chipper Jones fan from now on.

We ran into some pretty chilly weather here — on one day, the high was in the 40′s with a stiff wind. We did manage to get in some family golf lessons, and found a pro who was willing to put up with the four of us. I can only imagine what he’d say to the other pros after spending an hour trying to help the four of us with our golf struggles.

Fortunately, Rosie didn’t get us evicted from our place here. We stayed in a condo, and Elizabeth was careful to request an end unit. And Sterling has found that it’s best to leave a radio on for the pig if we leave her alone in a room. When we leave her, we know there’s a real risk that she’ll have another squeal meltdown — ouch!

Elizabeth has been spending lots of time on the phone trying to line up places to stay for the remainder of our trip, and it’s been a lot of work to find someplace reasonable that will let us have a pig. Elizabeth has gotten good at explaining to the reservation person exactly what kind of pet we have — “Well, we have a very cute, very cuddly, and extremely well-behaved miniature pot-bellied pig. She’s tea-cup size, really. Our little Rosie is litter box trained, and very smart, much smarter than a dog or a cat. Everyone just loves her. She really won’t be a problem, and you ‘ll be seeing many more of these fabulous pets in the future.”

We’re off in the morning to Tampa/St. Pete, and I for one am hoping our trip gets its momentum back. We’re undoubtedly an outlier, but we are a family that can have a great time driving across Mississippi or Peru, but don’t find places like Hawaii or Orlando to be all that compelling.

Day 8: Katrina’s Toll

February 21st, 2010

We spent most of the day today touring New Orleans, and seeing first hand the community four and one-half years after Hurricane Katrina ripped this great city apart. The topic of Katrina, and its impact on this great American city, is a serious one, and I’ll be putting together a longer blog on the topic in the next few days. For now, though, it’s safe to say that we really were moved by seeing first-hand how many communities in New Orleans are still digging out from the devastation, and how much of New Orleans will never be the same.

After leaving New Orleans, we had a leisurely drive east along the Gulf Coast, stopping for an hour to play on the beach. The weather was still a bit brisk, but the sun felt great, and the sand along the Gulf of Mexico is so soft and white.

We’re staying tonight in Mobile, Alabama, and will explore here tomorrow. We did have one hilarious experience, though. On our drive east, Elizabeth was calling hotels to make a reservation for us, trying to find something reasonably nice that is pet (and, even harder, pig) friendly. Well, she found someplace that sounded good in the guide book, and tried to make the booking. The reservation person, when told we are traveling with a pet pig, declined to accept us, but Elizabeth got the manager on the phone and convinced her that we were a safe guest. For the time being, we thought we were in great shape.

Well, when we got to Mobile, our GPS system took us to the location of the hotel, which was in an area with several hotels. But we drove around the block three times, trying to find our hotel, and the only other place we could find that seemed to match the address was the Mobile Bay Adventure Inn. I jokingly said, “Well, the only thing we know for sure is that this isn’t the place we’re staying.” Elizabeth re-dialed the reservation number, and found that, in fact, we were booked at the Adventure Inn, which would have been a new personal low for level of accommodation that any of us has EVER experienced. Fortunately, despite the hugely crowded parking lot (:-) ), we were able to cancel the reservation and land on our feet. We then went to a great restaurant (NoJa) in Mobile, and retired for the evening — thankful for many things.