Ah, the Snow’s Comin’ Down on My Blue Manhattan

I’ve gotten attached to these Christmastime trips to the Big Apple.  New York boasts a particularly impressive amount of holiday cheer per square foot, and it is starting to feel like a bit of a December ritual for me to visit and get a hearty dose of the Christmas spirit.

 

I didn’t buy my flight the first time I checked, which was a bad call.  They jumped up soon after and it didn’t seem like they were going to come down again.  I started to think I’d missed my chance, and then I got a flight alert for a much better price.  My friend Lana and her husband invited me to stay with them, so my trip was a go!

 

I drove to NC a day before my trip as I usually do, and got to meet Kelli’s sweet new baby boy and hang out with Jimmy and Emily as long as we could all keep our eyes open.  Emily woke up entirely too early in the morning just to drive me to the airport, which is above and beyond in the friend department.

 

Since it was frigid outside, my plane had to be de-iced before take-off.  I am easily amused:

 

     

 

My flight was also late taking off, late landing, and therefore I was more than an hour late getting into Manhattan.  That wouldn’t have been an issue if not for the fact that I was trying to catch the last tour of Gracie Mansion on the only day that they’re offered.

 

It does often happen that the city welcomes me full throttle, as if it’s checking to see that I still have what it takes after being away for a while.  Luckily, I love a challenge, so I ran several long blocks in my boots with my bag on my shoulder and my suitcase rolling along behind me, and then I spotted an available cab rounding the corner, hailed him like a pro, and was about to hop in when a woman came walking toward me from halfway down the block, proclaiming that she was “here first” and therefore it was her cab.  Oh no, honey.  The cab drive promptly picked my side and I was on my way while she walked off to no doubt steal someone else’s cab.

 

I made it just in time for the tour and subsequently caught my breath strolling along by the river in Carl Schurz Park before hopping a bus back over to Lana’s to settle in.

 

 

 

 

I was excited to be able to attend the tree lighting in Washington Square Park, since my previous trips were too early in December to see that tree with lights on it.  I had a bit of time to kill before the lighting started, so I decided to go down to SoHo and then walk from there back to Washington Square Park.

 

Naturally, this was a convenient excuse to drop in on my favorite church.

 

 

On my walk back toward the Village, the sun was setting, so the sky looked gorgeous and I kept catching the occasional glimpse of WTC1 between buildings.

 

 

I was FREEZING by the time I got close to the park, and I was ravenous, too.  I stopped into a The Half Pint bar, which was packed with NYU students, and had an amazing bowl of chicken chili that warmed me up nicely.

 

Two minutes back outside had my teeth chattering again, but I had my heart set on the tree lighting, so I stuck around the park and waited for the other brave, Christmas-loving souls undeterred by the frigid temperatures to join me.

 

 

We were a small but merry bunch, huddled together with our chorus books, keeping warm by singing everything from O Holy Night to The Twelve Days of Christmas.  We sang for about an hour and then the crowd dispersed and I became suddenly aware that I couldn’t feel my toes.

 

I had bought a ticket to go on the “Christmas Lights and Cannoli Tour,” and I still had an hour before it started, so I pretended to shop in a Duane Reade along the walk until I regained feeling in all of my appendages.  The cruel cold made me feel even better about my ticket to ride around on a charter bus for three hours.

 

Lana had schlepped it out to Brooklyn with me on my first December trip and we walked around Dyker Heights, famous for its audacious Christmas displays all over the neighborhood.  The bus tour covered that ground as well as the Bay Ridge area, and as a further bonus, we were transported around on a heated bus and got out for short neighborhood walks in the best sections.

 

I was happy to find that Brooklyn still had a coating of snow, which really took the Christmas scene up a notch.  We went to several new areas as well as some I’d seen before, but hearing all of the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the fellow tourists provided the perfect ambience for the cheeseball experience I had hoped for when I bought the ticket.

 

 

After visiting the two neighborhoods, we made a third stop just to see this specific house, which looked like an arcade game – a Christmas-themed arcade game!

 

 

After we’d seen all the Christmas lights, as promised, we were taken to a bakery where cannoli and hot chocolate had been set out for us in a private room in anticipation of our arrival.  It was a delicious night cap before we boarded the bus one last time and returned to Manhattan.

 

 

2013 was the Centennial for Grand Central Station, so that coupled with the frosty air made it a great time to finally take the official tour.  It was interesting to see places in the building that I probably never would have wandered on my own and to hear the story of the at-odds partners responsible for the building and then its eventual restoration after having fallen into disrepair.

 

 

After finishing the tour and grabbing lunch at the new Shake Shack in the basement, I made my way over to the New York Public Library to check out their tree…

 

 

…and then over to Bryant Park, which is a fun spot all year round, but particularly bustling once the Christmas shops, huge tree, and ice rink move in for the season.

 

 

I hopped on a bus downtown to meet Lana after work, and she said she’d go wherever I wanted, so we hopped a train down to the South Street Seaport.  She doesn’t go there often and had never seen it decked out for Christmas.  The extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy prevented them from having their tree in 2012, so I was excited to see it again, because it is my favorite.

 

 

I was a little disheartened that it wasn’t “singing” like it had been when I first fell in love with its tacky splendor, but it was nice to see it back in its rightful place.

 

From there, Lana took me down to Fraunces Tavern, the site where George Washington gave his farewell address to the Continental Army officers in 1783.

 

 

We found two chairs by the fire and kicked back for a while, and then decided to go back to the apartment and order in dinner.  Conveniently, we sat down to eat 5 minutes before White Collar came on, and Lana and Colin let me rule the TV for an hour, after which Lana gave me the grand tour through their wedding album and we enjoyed a lovely night in by the glow of their Christmas tree.

 

On these December trips, I am mostly content to revisit all of my favorite haunts and see them decked out in tinsel and lights, but I usually see at least one new place on every trip, so I set off to find the gazebo from the White Collar season 4 finale.  It looked cool on film and didn’t disappoint in person, either.  I even climbed up on a rock beside the gazebo to get a better view and ended up sitting there for a while gleaning as much heat as I could from the sun glaring overhead.

 

 

I walked along the High Line in the afternoon, which was much less crowded than it had been the first time I toured it in the summer of 2012.

 

 

I disembarked to walk through Chelsea Market – and to thaw out again.

 

 

I will always be a sucker for a fountain, but a color-changing fountain?!  Love them.

 

      

 

I walked from Chelsea to the Village, which is a great stroll to soak in the city.  I did pause to photograph the Gansevoort as I walked past.  I’d like to stay there someday.

 

I had dinner at Bleecker Street Pizza (heralded by many as the best pizza in New York) and picked up my ticket for the play I was seeing: Buyer & Cellar.  I still had over an hour before the show started, so I walked around the neighborhood some more and then went to another restaurant (A.O.C., l’Ail ou la Cuisse) for dessert which was recommended to me by the ladies at the box office.  I had the chocolate mousse and it was divine.

Buyer & Cellar was a one-man show starring Michael Urie (best known for TV roles on Ugly Betty and Partners, but best known to me for his role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which is my favorite Broadway show).  The show was hysterical, but came with those unexpectedly touching moments that you find in the best comedies.

 

 

I hung out after the show was over to say hello to Michael, and he was delightful.  I told him that we had a friend in common – Michael Park, who he worked with on How to Succeed.  I agreed to pass along his “hello” and then we said goodnight.  I struck up a conversation with a stranger on my way back to the subway station; she spotted the signed Playbill in my hand and I recommended the show to her.

 

 

Not quite ready to call it a night, I hopped off the train near Radio City and walked over to Rockefeller Center to see the tree and the Saks 5th Avenue Projection Show.  My trip couldn’t be complete without that!

 

 

I was supposed to fly back to North Carolina on Saturday afternoon to go to the Grahams’ Annual Christmas Party, so I was going to have brunch with Colin and Lana and then head to the airport.  When I woke up, though, snow was pouring down outside, so while the rest of the house was still sleeping, I raced outside into the snow.

 

I thought the best place to go would be the park, so I returned to the gazebo again.

 

 

Then I hopped a bus across the park to see Lincoln Center.  It amused me that it was snowing, yet their fountain was on.

 

 

Lana texted to say they were readying for brunch, so I made my way back.  While waiting for the bus, I talked with an older lady who told me how much she loved the snow, and said she grew up in one of the snowiest countries in the world, and had once crawled out of her second-story window onto snow.  She took this photo of me.

 

 

Lana, Colin, and I took a snowy, slippery walk to brunch and I was starting to worry about my flight.  It was still showing as “on time” and it was nearing time for me to leave for the airport, but it didn’t seem at all likely that my flight was really going to leave – on time or otherwise.  My nerves were definitely showing, so Lana encouraged me to call the airline and see what they said.  I did, and was told that my flight was still scheduled on time, but that they’d switch me to the next day for free.  I kept second-guessing decisions either way, thinking I’d feel foolish if my flight really did leave on time, but knowing I did NOT want to be stuck at JFK overnight.  The least stressful decision was to take the postponement, so I did, and a weight was lifted, but I continued to check my flight status for the rest of the day as it was delayed, delayed, delayed, boarded, disembarked, and then cancelled.  I’m SO grateful that I was staying with friends so I didn’t have to worry about another night of hotel, and that Colin and Lana collectively talked me down from the crazy cliff so I could just relax and enjoy that I had more time in snowy New York.

 

Having embraced the notion, I decided to go over to Brooklyn and walk around the park.  It was so peaceful.

 

 

It seemed like an opportune moment to finally ride Jane’s Carousel, built in 1922 and restored to its original condition in 1984.  It was great fun and OF COURSE I let the operator take my photo.  My horse held my hat – technically Lana’s hat.

 

 

Thinking of what other places I wanted to see in the snow took me back over to Bryant Park, which looks like a Winter Wonderland in December even if it’s 60 degrees.  In the snow, it was just that much better.  And I found another person to take a photo for me – even though all of these furry hat pictures are hilarious and you may or may not be able to tell it is even me in there.

 

 

By this time, it was after 5pm, so I knew that Grand Central would have its holiday light show going, which I had never seen.  Plus, I was pretty well soaked by this point, so it was getting harder and harder to stay outside for long.

 

 

Santa Con was that weekend – which I didn’t even know was a thing until Lana mentioned it as the explanation to why we saw two Santas carrying cases of beer down the street on the Upper East Side.  After that, I saw them everywhere.  Apparently, Santa takes the subway when his sled is in the shop.  I even saw several women participating in Santa Con, but their Santas had mostly abandoned the red suit in favor of the red light.  This guy was a Santa Con underachiever, but I had to stop him to get a photo of his shirt.

 

 

Apparently, owing to the Santas transporting cases of beer and/or Santa-hookers, there was concern that these Con participants might get unruly on the trains.

 

 

When I left Grand Central, I realized that I could also see the light show from outside.

 

 

A hot shower and dry clothes were beckoning to me, but there was one last place I couldn’t miss seeing in the snow:

I stayed up just long enough to say goodnight to Lana and Colin when they came in from their Christmas party, and then quietly slipped out in the early morning to make it to the airport.  I breezed through security (unusual for JFK) and breakfasted with a guy who had slept in the airport the night before after arriving on an overseas flight to find his connection cancelled.  He was one of the least miserable-looking people at the airport that morning, so I counted myself blessed to have traded up from a day stuck at the airport to a day playing in the snow.

You Will Get a Sentimental Feeling When You Hear Voices Singing

The 8-hour drive to Nashville always seemed a bit of a daunting task for my old car, and flying between there and home is impractical, so when I bought my new car, Music City started calling.  The clincher was that some of my favorite people were packing up their Nashville home to take to the road in an RV, and I wanted to visit them again in a home without wheels while I had the chance.  And, since they already had the RV, it made for great guest quarters!

 

My friend Melissa had mentioned wanting to go to Nashville a few times, so I offered her the official “shotgun” position on the trip, and we hit the road the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

 

I told her I had a surprise planned for the drive out, which probably wouldn’t strike most people as thrilling, but we were elated to be reunited with our long-lost cheap Italian fast food friend:

 

 

Since it was Melissa’s first time in Nashville (fourth for me), I had promised her all the touristy highlights, but for our first evening in Nashville, she was happy to forgo touring the town to stay in and just hang out with the whole Weaver gang.  It didn’t take any convincing since she loves children and the littlest Weavers happen to be two of the cutest kids ever.

 

Last time I was in Nashville, Levi and Heather invited me to come to church with them on Sunday, but I was making the drive back that day and had to get on the road early due to weather conditions back home.  On this trip, Levi was filling in as the worship pastor at a nearby Cowboy Church, so we all went there Sunday morning.  I have never received such a warm welcome visiting any other church, which is not a slight on other churches so much as it is high praise for those folks.  We were heartily welcomed at the door when we arrived, and where many churches take a 30 second pause in the service to tell you to shake hands with the folks around you, they instead took a 15-minute break wherein everyone walked to the back of the room and spent time interacting over a buffet of breakfast-y bread items:  bagels, muffins, pastries… there were even cupcakes.  Giving me my choice of 87 kinds of bread is always a way to make me feel right at home, but so many of the congregation came over, eager to say hello to the new faces.  Before we left, we were given hugs and gifts and invited to come back soon.  If it didn’t mean an eight-hour drive, I certainly would.

 

After having lunch together at a great Mexican restaurant, Melissa and I were ready to get our “touring” underway.  The first stop was Nashville’s Parthenon replica with the towering statue of Athena inside.

 

 

 

This griffin was just asking to be fist-bumped:

 

 

From there, we proceeded downtown and paid an arm and a leg to park so we could walk around.  Luckily, it was a pretty nice night for it.

 

Melissa wanted to take in some live music, and Honky Tonk Row offers something different behind every door.  We decided we also wanted a place to sit, so we ducked into Legends Corner where a band was just getting set up, so there wasn’t a crowd yet.  The band was just playing country covers, but they stuck with mostly the older songs that I grew up with, so we had fun listening, singing along, and even making a few requests, which the band was happy to oblige.  We actually stuck around for the whole set before heading back to the house.

 

 

Monday morning, I introduced Melissa to the wonders of the Pancake Pantry for breakfast.  I had warned her that we’d have to wait a while to get in, but that it would be completely worthwhile.  As it turned out, we were able to walk right in and be seated right away, which felt nothing short of miraculous.

 

Melissa had seen online that Nashville (the TV show) was supposed to be on location downtown on Monday, so we drove that way to see if we could locate the crew.  They were nowhere to be seen, so we just proceeded back downtown so that we could tour The Ryman, which had been closed by the time we got there the day before.  Not wanting to pay so much for parking for just a short span of time, we drove around for a while before finding metered parallel parking about 8 blocks from The Ryman.

 

We took the full tour – backstage and all, which was interesting even though I had already done it before.

 

We had just finished the tour when I had a sudden realization that, after driving around so long looking for a parking space, once we were parked, we hopped out and went on our way and never actually put any money in the parking meter!  We shot out of The Ryman and started hoofing it back to the car at full speed.  I was panicked while trying not to appear panicked, and Melissa, knowing this, was just quietly walking along and praying that the car would still be there when we arrived.

 

I was thrilled as soon as I caught the first glimpse of my car and knew that at least it had not been towed.  I was utterly astonished when we got close enough to realize that it hadn’t even been ticketed.  The meter was flashing “expired” and we’d been gone for about two hours, and somehow had gotten away scott free.  Prayer works!  And once my heart rate returned to normal, I felt somewhat vindicated for having overpaid for parking the night before.

 

Following that adventure, we made a second attempt at finding the filming spot for Nashville, and succeeded on the second try, but the location was indoors, so we couldn’t see anything.  But, at least we could say that we tried.

 

We were going to proceed over to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel from there, but I accidentally picked the wrong address in the GPS, and having driven the wrong way, we decided to make the most of it and drop in on the Belmont Mansion.

 

When we got out of the car, we were immediately splattered with bird poop – or so we thought.  Further investigation told us that it was likely something in the trees instead, and we agreed that was our preferred assumption and went with that.

 

Messy greeting aside, the grounds and house were lovely and we enjoyed our tour and even found some friendly Belmont students who stopped to take a picture for us.

 

     

 

Having enjoyed our accidental detour, we got back on track and made our way over to the Opryland Hotel and walked through the ICE! Exhibit.  I had been to ICE! before with Levi and Heather when Lincoln was small, but it was cool enough to see again (no pun intended).

 

 

The highlights were the ice slide…

 

 

The “Christmas in New York” section (for me)…

 

 

And, of course, the gorgeous nativity scene in the final room.

 

 

The Gaylord Opryland Hotel is a tourist attraction unto itself, and anyone is welcome to walk around inside it, but parking is – again – astronomical.  However, parking was free at ICE! so we left the car there and just walked over to the nearby hotel.  We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so dinner was our top priority.  We got burgers from one of the restaurants and found a spot to sit and eat while we watched the fountain show.

 

Dinner gave us enough fuel to tour the rest of the hotel (and find our way around despite its maze-like qualities).  Pictures cannot capture the grandeur of size or the general splendor, but we tried.

 

 

When we returned to the house, we found that Aaron Long had arrived for a visit as he was passing through town on tour, so we ended up staying up much too late discussing a vast and sometimes ridiculous array of topics.  Good conversation with friends trumps sleep, after all.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Melissa and I were a little slow getting started on Tuesday morning.  We decided to skip over breakfast entirely and apply our hunger directly to lunch at Loveless Café.  It took a bit of a drive to get out there, and we were so hungry, but I knew this was another place that tended to have a long wait.  To our delight, we were once again able to beat the odds and get seated straightaway, where we were soon chowing down on their wonderful biscuits and preserves, fried chicken, mac n cheese, and every heavenly thing.  I feel like it would not be out of the question for me to take a trip to Nashville solely for the food.  It’s that good.

 

There are shops located all around Loveless Café, and since we didn’t need to kill any time there waiting for a table, we instead walked around after lunch while our food settled, picking up souvenirs and getting a little goofy.

 

 

Aside from Loveless Café, our Tuesday itinerary featured two spots that were completely new to me as well as Melissa.

 

First, we went to Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art.  They still had several art pieces on display on the very top floor of the museum, but in the majority of the building, they were having a special exhibit of “Christmas in Color,” wherein every room had a tree decked out to a specific color scheme.

 

I wasn’t sure Melissa would see the same allure I did in walking around looking at Christmas trees, it turns out, we both enjoyed it immensely.

 

 

This chandelier was leftover from the LIGHT exhibition that Cheekwood had hosted in the summer.  The artist, Bruce Munro, let Cheekwood keep this piece on display after the close of the show.

 

 

Unfortunately, Melissa and I both discovered after coming home that our photos didn’t capture very well in the darker rooms of the museum, but you get the general idea.  The purple tree was, of course, my favorite.  The photo of the full tree didn’t turn out well, but the close ups were lovely.

 

 

Since we were visiting in December, there wasn’t a lot to see on the grounds in the way of blooming flowers and trees, but we did find this tree house, where we had entirely too much fun.

 

 

After leaving Cheekwood, we didn’t have to go far to our next destination – Belle Meade Plantation and Winery.  The grounds tour was nice, but my main interest was in touring the house itself, where their holiday exhibit was set up so that every room represented a different year in the history of Christmases in the home.  We had bought our ticket for the last tour of the day, and when we met the guide on the porch, we were the only two there!  We had our own private tour and the guide was knowledgeable, funny, and friendly, so he really made it worthwhile and we were able to ask any questions we wanted without feeling like we were holding up other people who might not be interested.

 

The tour was full of fascinating information on the evolution of attitudes about Christmas over the years – when it became more family-centric, when it began to be more geared toward children, why that song talks about presents “on” the tree, and about how Coca-Cola was responsible for turning Santa’s suit red as we know it today.  History mixed with Christmas – I was in my element.

 

Tuesday night was our last night in Nashville, so I begged Heather to let me do the cooking so she could come home to dinner waiting.  We also had a bonus guest for dinner – after years of corresponding in emails or on Facebook, I finally got to meet Jules in person!

 

 

It was nice to spend our last night as we’d spent the first one – just sitting and talking and happy to be among friends.  I finally snapped some photos of the kids, too – documenting these ages before I blink and they’re in college!

 

 

Yes, Belle, too.

 

 

The first time I came to Nashville after Lincoln was born, I was sitting in the floor playing with him as he showed me all of his toys.  He lost his balance and ended up falling backwards into his toy basket and got stuck.  I did what I had to do, which was to photograph the moment before acquiescing to his toddler-speak:  “Stuck!  Help me!”

 

Heather pulled this basket out of the closet and said that we should recreate the moment.  I was content with watching him play, and he showed no signs of slowing down, so I hadn’t made any comment about the basket to him.  Luckily, my camera was in my lap when he started backing across the floor telling a story about the toy in his hand, and not realizing the basket was behind him, he bumped into it and fell right in, almost exactly as he had when he was a toddler.  I got this photo quickly since he’d no longer require my assistance to get back out of the basket.  I had to put these photos together:

 

 

It was a really nice trip and a fond farewell to Nashville for now.  Next time I see the Weavers, their house will come rolling right into my parking lot!

Can You Tell That I Am Alive? Let Me Prove It To Ya.

I am three trips behind on updating the blog, but this post is the most belated, as it was Part 2 of the San Francisco trip in July 2013.  I considered just skipping over it, but I refer back to these posts for the memories (and my mind isn’t even totally gone yet!) and sometimes share them with friends traveling to the same places who want some ideas on what to do and see.  So, I’m going back in time to recap part 2 of my 4th of July trip with Jessica and Thai.

 

In fact, the whole trip was planned around a bucket list item for me – seeing The Avett Brothers play at Red Rocks, which they did on Saturday, July 6th, with Old Crow Medicine Show opening.

 

We flew from San Francisco to Denver early that morning, and while we didn’t relish waking up so early, it was fortunate that we’d chosen the earliest flight, because otherwise, we never would have made it to Denver that day.  Just a few hours after we departed SFO, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on arrival and the airport was subsequently shut down.  Naturally, our phones were off for the flight to Denver, and upon arrival, we rented a car and immediately drove up into the mountains beyond cell phone range.  We had no idea anything had happened, and hadn’t received any of the texts or calls from friends and family back home who’d only heard there was a crash at SFO on the same morning they knew we were flying out.  Luckily, more details came out and assuaged any fears, since we were flying out to Denver and not in from Asia.

 

Meanwhile, we remained blissfully unaware as we took in the beauty of the mountains on our slow climb up to my friend Liz’s place, where we settled in from our travels and everyone got acquainted.

 

 

Soon, it was time for me to drift back down the mountain to go to Red Rocks for the show.  It was quite a workout to get from the parking lot up to the actual venue.  Luckily, seeing The Avett Brothers is an “ain’t no mountain high enough” kind of situation, so I pressed on and found a perch where I could see the Denver skyline in the distance behind the stage.

 

 

 

 

Old Crow Medicine Show – themselves Virginia boys – opened up the night with their tune “Carry Me Back (to Virginia),” which brought a big smile to my face.  I took it as a sign that the show was practically made for me, which is a nice feeling when you’ve flown across the country to see it!

 

 

 

 

 

Old Crow put on a great show, and those who’d shown up for them were rewarded with a great time.  The stairs/seats at Red Rocks are great for dancing, which was a good thing for this show, because everyone was bursting at the seams with bluegrass-fueled energy.

 

The crowd filled in immensely while we waited for The Avett Brothers to emerge.  About the time everyone was packed in like sardines, a guy came over to tell me that his seats were right there.  I thought the whole show was General Admission, so I assumed he was joking and laughed.  I turns out that there really was reserved seating for a higher price, and I had indeed encroached upon his seats.

 

As it would happen, the row right behind the one I’d chosen was where General Admission actually began.  His friends had parked there while he walked down to find out what was going on.  We sat there talking for a while and he learned that I was from Virginia and had just flown into Denver that day for the show.  We covered a number of topics, and when the on-stage commotion suggested that The Avett Brothers were about to emerge, I started to move back and he stopped me and said, “This is your spot now.  I’ll move back.  Enjoy the show!”  These are the kinds of situations that tend to come to blows at other shows, but I’ve never met a rude person at an Avett Brothers show.  It’s an easy litmus test for a kind and generous heart if you encounter an Avett fan.

 

I guess this is the point where I would attempt to convey something about the show to you, but I cannot.  Until you see The Avett Brothers live, you don’t know, and you will never know.  So, go get a ticket, stir your soul, and make your life better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday morning, we set out to repeat the journey that Liz and I made on my first trip to Denver in 2010 via the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway.  The views were new to Jessica and Thai, and I loved them so much the first time that I was happy to see them again.

 

 

 

 

When we stopped at the “Chapel on the Rock” (The Saint Catherine of Siena Chapel, once visited by Pope John Paul II), there was another family there touring as well, and one of them was sporting a Liberty sweatshirt.  He was an online student.  Small world!

 

 

We had a delicious lunch at the Bald Pate Inn, which is Liz’s favorite restaurant and inn.  We had also eaten there before, and I was eager to return.  I keep a postcard on my refrigerator to this day that Liz sent to me from there.

 

 

 

 

After lunch, we continued along the Peak-to-Peak until we arrived in Estes Park, where we walked around town and visited the various shops.  We saw some folks tubing, and this photo doesn’t show it, but this river was running alongside a strip mall, which made it a comical scene.

 

 

I spotted this raccoon in one of the stores, and he obviously had to come home with me.  I named him Rockie.

 

 

Of course, I had to make a return visit by this sign:

 

 

 

This is where Liz and I had ended our journey before, but to add something new, we continued on so we could go up to the Continental Divide, with some more great scenery along the way as we made the climb.

 

 

 

 

We rode up above the tree line where we saw patches of permafrost and elk laying around.

 

 

 

 

Up at the Continental Divide, there was a visitor’s center and folks hanging around in shorts and tank tops next to a wall of snow.

 

There was also an intimidating path leading up to the ACTUAL top of the Continental Divide, and nobody was feeling particularly energetic about making the climb.  Liz went into the Visitor’s Center, everyone else stayed in the car, and I looked for a few minutes at that climb and decided that I had to seize the day.  I may never return to that spot again, and I couldn’t go the rest of my life knowing I was that close to the top of the Continental Divide and didn’t face the challenge, so off I went!

 

It was a steep and long climb, but not terribly difficult aside from the lack of oxygen at that altitude where trees cannot even grow.  A guy started the climb at about the same moment I did, so I thought I had myself a walking buddy, should one of us pass out along the way.  However, about a third of the way up, he gave up and turned back.  I moved ahead slowly, doing that awkward stair-walk that my knee injury allows, and I’d count off 20-30 steps and then stop to rest a bit.  At least the views were nice.

 

 

I took this photo when I thought I was almost at the top.  It looked like the top of the stairs ahead, which must’ve been the top, and I could surely make it.  But, when I got to the top, I discovered that the stairs were ending, but the climb was not, and what I thought was the finish line was really about ¾ of the way up.

 

 

Luckily, every once in a while someone would walk down from the top and offer some encouragement that the climb was worth it in the end.  They were correct.  It was a great feeling to make it up and feel like I could have been standing on the top of the world.

 

There was one other guy up there when I arrived, and he said I had to have my picture taken after coming all that way.

 

When he left, I had the place to myself for few glorious minutes before I started my descent.

 

On the subsequent drive back down, traffic had jammed up as everyone was watching these elk.

 

 

We got to watch the sunset over the gorgeous landscape on the drive back to Liz’s place.

 

 

Liz had to leave town on business on Monday morning, so we got up to see her off before formulating a plan for the day.  We were planning to drive out to Colorado Springs to see the Garden of the Gods, but figured we’d have time for at least one other activity in the day, so we googled spas and made ourselves appointments for massages and pedicures!

 

Our spa break was a great idea and we left there feeling rejuvenated for our visit to Garden of the Gods.  The heat was almost suffocating, but Garden of the Gods was gorgeous enough to make it well worthwhile.

 

 

We had an afternoon flight out of Denver on Tuesday, so we packed up that morning and drove into Denver and picked up my friend Mel so we could all go to breakfast.  We stuck out the heat again to walk around downtown a bit and enjoy Mel’s company before we had to leave for the airport.

 

 

It never fails that I wind up sprinting through the Charlotte airport to catch the last puddle-jumper back to Lynchburg, and this trip was no different, but we made it back, exhausted but happy from our journey.

Puttin’ It Down for Californ-I-a

The blog recaps of my various adventures always take me forever to write and you forever to read, because they’re so long.  I should probably learn to be more succinct, but for one, I write these as much for myself as out of expectation that anyone will care to read it, and I want to be able to relive the memories years from now through my own eyes.  Also, for the handful of you who read these faithfully, you always say that you enjoy the details, so who am I to take that away from you?  (Haha.)

However, as it happens, my most recent vacation spanned an entire week and two different states, so if I was ever going to recap a trip in two separate blogs, it seemed like the perfect time to take advantage of the natural dividing line.  First up:  San Francisco, California!

I’ve had San Francisco on my list of “Places to Visit” for years and years.  There’s no sure rhyme or reason as to why, but it may just all trace back to my love of this song, which technically has very little to do with the city in its name:  The Ballad of San Francisco.  While it’s totally plausible that I’d traverse the country over a 13-year-old song (and I’ll one day see Trafalgar Square and think of a different song on that very same album), I’ve certainly also heard enough good things about San Francisco over the years to validate my interest in it.

If anything could have dampened by finally-going-to-San-Francisco spirits, the tedious hours spent trying to figure out their hellish public transportation system would have done the trick.  I could sum it up in a word, but that word is not appropriate for all audiences.  I was coming to the conclusion that taxis were the more sensible choice when my traveling companion, Jessica, told me that she’d spoken with a friend who used to live in San Francisco, and the first advice out of her mouth had been, “Don’t take public transportation.  Just hop in a cab.”  This was all decided before a key part of San Francisco’s public transportation system went on strike, which began a few days before our visit, so I suppose we made a wise and nearly-prophetic choice on that score.

After an obscenely-early flight from Lynchburg to Charlotte, an airport breakfast, in-air cat naps on the “Florence-of-Arabia-long” flight across the country, three hours “gained,” and a cab ride later, we were happy to be able to check into our hotel early, just before lunch time.  The outside of the window was pretty dirty, but hey – we got a room with a  view of the Golden Gate Bridge!

We didn’t linger at the hotel long before setting off to “start” our day in the Castro district.  We saw a lot of rainbow flags all over San Francisco during the course of our visit, but nowhere were they in such high concentration as in Castro, so it made for a very colorful, cheerful welcome as we explored the neighborhood.

We were all very ready for lunch, so we grabbed some amazing sandwiches from Ike’s and took them over to Mission Delores Park for a picnic, which included some great people-watching.  (And perhaps a little people-eavesdropping, too.  I find a direct correlation between how loudly a person talks about their relationship in public and how dysfunctional it is, but they think they’re impressing everyone in earshot with their fascinating lives, and it’s free entertainment for passersby, soooo…)

I usually find that the best way to discover a city is on foot, so we set out from Mission to walk over to Haight-Ashbury, thinking we’d enjoy some sights along the way.  However, even with the map I printed that shaded each street by degree of incline to choose the least challenging route, the primary “sight” we saw was the sidewalk in front of us as we climbed the street-mountains, feet to the pavement and nose to the pavement ahead of us.  I’m using hyperbole for effect, of course, but even so, we were all pretty happy to reach Buena Vista Park for a bench respite.

 

After leaving Buena Vista Park, we were on level ground for a while as we walked through Haight-Ashbury toward Golden Gate Park.  This famed neighborhood gave us plenty of sights, from colorful townhomes to audacious storefronts to the historic Amoeba Music building.

 

 

Our walk led us directly into Golden Gate Park, which is entirely manmade and modeled after New York’s Central Park, but 20 percent larger.  It features several museums and gardens along with a football field that was once home to the San Francisco 49ers.  Obviously, there was much more to see than we could have covered on foot, even if we spent all of our time there.  However, we did pass by the lovely Conservatory of Flowers…

 

 

…and sat by a fountain in the Music Concourse Area…

 

 

…before making our way to the Japanese Tea Garden, which we explored in more detail.

 

 

We all climbed up and over this bridge.  It was a lot easier to get up than it was to get down!

 

 

And we saw this Zen garden, but no rakes.

 

 

When we walked out of the garden, we were all ready to be off of our feet (and out of the heat) for a while, and we lucked out by finding a cab sitting right outside the garden, as if it was there at our whim.  I asked the driver if she’d be willing to drive us to the Full House townhouse and keep the meter running while we got out and took photos before then transporting us to Alamo Square.  She agreed to this, and said she give us the “tourist treatment” and point out some things along our way, which included these jeans turned planters on someone’s front porch.

 

 

I had found the Full House address online, but our cabby said she always thought the house was in Alamo Square, not on Broderick Street as I had said.  I was pretty sure the Broderick address was the correct one, but the two places were not far apart, so I got her to take us down Broderick in spite of her doubts.  I knew the house when I saw it.  DJ and Stephanie’s window up there is quite unmistakable.

 

 

We took some photos and then hopped back in the cab.  She wondered why we wanted to go to Alamo Square if that wasn’t the location of the Full House townhouse, and I said we wanted to see the Painted Ladies.  She said we could see that from the car, too, so we decided to just have her drive us past there for a photo op, and then we could head back across town.

 

Here are the so-called “Painted Ladies of Alamo Square” with the San Francisco skyline behind them.

 

 

It turns out, the driver thought that the GREEN house on the end was the Full House house.  I was giving her the benefit of the doubt before, thinking I could have been mistaken on the location, but NO WAY was their house green, and it looked nothing like that.  So, future tourists, Broderick Street is where you need to be.

 

Given that, by California time, we’d all been up since midnight the night before, and we’d had a full day of travel and done a lot of walking, we were all feeling pretty tired by this point, so our cabby-tour-guide dropped us off at Union Square to look around, and we decided from there to just get some dinner and then retire early to the hotel.

 

 

Our walk from Union Square to Sam’s Grill for dinner took us past the Chinatown gate, where we paused for a photo op.

 

 

Traveling alone, I probably would have pressed on through my exhaustion and continued to explore, but it was nice to be outnumbered on that, because I was dead on my feet.  So, I took a shower, climbed into bed, and was amused that daylight was still peeking through the curtains when I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

 

After a lengthy and glorious sleep, we awoke to another full day ahead.  Plus, Thursday was the 4th of July!

I had read about a great breakfast spot online, and even emailed them in advance to make sure they’d be open that day.  They replied in the affirmative and said that we should come early because they tend to get busy.

So, we hopped in a cab outside the hotel and I told the driver where we were going, and then asked him if he’d take us there via Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world,” named for a one block section that consists of eight hairpin turns, necessary because of the hill’s 51% grade.

The driver gave a smirk that said he’d acquiesced to this request on many occasions, which I figured to be the case.  Nonetheless, it was fantastic fun, and we all snapped photos on the way down, and then he paused at the bottom to give us a chance to take a picture looking up the block.

 

 

He then dropped us off at our breakfast location:  Mama’s at Washington Square.  The restaurant wasn’t supposed to open for more than a half hour, and there was already a line forming around the block.  Jessica exclaimed when she saw all the people lined up as we arrived, and I saw another grin cross the driver’s face – this was nothing new to him, either.

 

 

We joined the line that included locals and tourists alike, and took turns stepping out to take photos, because it was a beautiful morning, and the Saints Peter and Paul Church (located at 666 Filbert Street – I kid you not) was right next door.

 

 

After filling up with a delicious breakfast that we all agreed was worth the wait, we headed up to Coit Tower (pictured above), which affords a nice 360-degree view of the city.

 

 

Even without going up to the top of the tower, the view from the base of the tower on Telegraph Hill is quite nice.  We could see Lombard Street, which we had ridden down that morning…

 

 

…as well as Alcatraz, which was next on our agenda.

 

 

I had read online that there was a long set of stairs leading down from Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill, which wound up down near the pier where the Alcatraz tours set off.  The cab driver we had on Wednesday had even mentioned the same thing to us when she checked to make sure we were going to visit Coit Tower and Alcatraz.  We weren’t a very long distance from the pier, as the crow flies, but we were just pretty high up, so we gave ourselves close to half an hour to get down the stairs and cross over to the pier.

 

 

What we didn’t realize was that there are two sets of stairs going up and down from Telegraph Hill.  So, we started down the only staircase we saw, through a wooded area, and when we got out of the cover of trees and onto more level steps (most had been uneven stone), I looked up and ahead and realized I wasn’t seeing any water, which wasn’t a good sign since we were supposed to be walking toward a pier to catch a boat.  I consulted my map and confirmed that we had climbed down the wrong side of Coit Tower… and that the most practical way back to the other side was back up and over.

 

Of course, not only had we just climbed down AT LEAST 100 steps that we’d have to turn around and climb back up, but now we were pressed for time and we had a boat to catch.  So we had to HURRIEDLY climb 100+ stairs back up to Coit Tower, find the OTHER set of stairs, and climb all the way down the other side, and do it in 15 minutes.

 

Were it not for my love of a challenge, and fear of missing our boat, I feel pretty confident that I would have been ready to throw in the towel by the time I climbed back up to the top.  I’m sure it was GREATLY appreciated by my cohorts that I kept yelling back how many minutes we had to make it to the boat, too.

 

We obviously didn’t count the stairs when we were climbing them, so I can’t be sure how many stairs we climbed down before realizing we had to climb back up, but we’d gotten at least halfway to the bottom when the error was realized.  However, I was able to look up the number of stairs that we walked down on the other side:  397.  Plus, when we got to the bottom, we still had to hoof it another five blocks to the pier.  But, you never doubted us, did you?  We made it and still had time for me to buy a $3 bottle of water (worth it) before climbing on the boat to Alcatraz.

 

As we pulled away from the dock, we looked up at Coit Tower, and had a sudden realization of exactly how far we had walked to get down from that hill.

 

 

As we pulled up to Alcatraz, we spotted Robert Pattinson’s doppelganger, working his day job.

 

 

Alcatraz Island, itself, (also known as “The Rock”) was actually rather scenic.  The views of San Francisco, the Bay, and the natural beauty of the island provided an interesting contrast to the building that was once the famous federal penitentiary also known as Alcatraz.  That building, though obviously old and run down, was still intact, while other buildings (officer housing and a club) had been burned down during the Native American occupation (1969-1971).

 

 

We took an audio tour of the cell house, which was narrated by former inmates and guards.  I’m not usually the type to do an audio tour, but it did have a great deal of interesting information as it guided us through the prison.

 

 

We were able to enter some of the cells in D block, which housed some of the most notorious prisoners of Alcatraz, including Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karpis, the Birdman, Al Capone, and… Jessica Tucker.

 

 

We did let Jessica out of her cell so that she could have some exercise time in “The Yard,” which is just lovely at this time of year.

 

 

Thai did her best gangsta face for this photo.

 

 

The water is too cold and the currents and undertow are too strong around Alcatraz, so we made our escape by boat to head back to the mainland.

 

 

San Francisco’s public transit may be a nightmare, but they do have some old-time and endearing transportation systems that are rife with tourists, like us, and we had to try it to make our experience complete.  So, first up were the historic streetcars, which had a station right across from the pier.  The trouble was, with the transport strike going on and the influx of people milling about for the 4th or the America’s Cup events, the systems that were still running were feeling the pinch… and so were we, after waiting 45 minutes for a streetcar that wasn’t A) going the wrong way, B) out of service, or C) too full to pick up more passengers.

 

At least we had a bit of entertainment while we were waiting.  I am bummed that my serepticious picture-taking meant I cut off this guy’s glasses and hat, but WOW.  I have no idea what was in all of those bags and probably do not want to know.  Thai, whose age makes her less shy about staring at someone who looks crazy, reported to us later that the photos hanging around his neck were all of himself… shirtless.

 

 

Hey, look!  I think another Streetcar is coming!

 

 

We finally made it on board!  The driver was crazy and yelling out the window at everyone, but we were moving, so we were grateful.

 

 

We hopped off to get lunch before taking a trolley back downtown, only to discover that the place we were headed was closed for the 4th.  Luckily, there were plenty of options around, so we just walked into the next place we saw and did OK.

 

After our experience getting on a streetcar, I was terrified about our plans to ride the trolley, but I’d have been brokenhearted to leave San Francisco without doing it, so it was going to happen one way or the other.  There was a LONG line that wrapped around the trolley station and covered two blocks, and I recalled the words of our cab driver on day 1 who said it often takes 2 hours to get on board.  I saw an empty trolley that was stopped, and went over and asked one of the conductors if the trolleys were running as normal or if they were shutting down early for the 4th.  He said they were running on schedule, every 10 minutes, and would be until 10pm.  He was friendly enough that I pointed at the line and said, “How long do you think this line will take us?  An hour?  Two?”  He said, “Oh no no.  This line looks about 45 minutes long.”  I thought it looked like eternity, but I’ll take hope where I can get it, so I pretended to believe that assessment and we lined up.

 

To our surprise, the line was moving pretty well, and the trolleys were loading in faster intervals than every 10 minutes.  We were entertained by a crazy man who was standing out on the street yell-singing an odd conglomeration of songs a cappella at passersby, in no key whatsoever and with a very vague sense of the melody.  His selection varied from songs I knew from my Vacation Bible School days to “Killing Me Softly.”  We were actually disappointed when the line moved us up so far that we couldn’t hear him anymore.  In addition to the “musical” entertainment, it was pretty fascinating watching the trolleys pull up, then get spun around and redirected onto the track heading back in the other direction.  Thus, in less than 45 minutes, which didn’t feel like much time at all, we were clambering on board the trolley like some jubilant extras in a Rice-a-Roni commercial.

 

 

Riding the trolley was every bit as fun as anticipated, compounded by the fact that I was happy I wasn’t going up and down those hills on foot.  We rode along, grinning like fools, taking in the scenery, and at one point, I pulled the person hanging on to the outside of the trolley in closer to me as a huge van passed by us so closely that the side mirror nearly took her out.  Hence, I advise finding a SEAT on the trolley, because people can’t drive.

 

 

The trolley let us off near the downtown Fisherman’s Wharf area, which is always crawling with tourists, but was even more packed as people crowded in to partake in the Fourth of July festivities and claim a spot for the fireworks that night.  I am not a fan of crowds, especially crowds that swirl around with no sense of purpose or order, so I mostly just barreled through until I found a place that wasn’t so people-dense.

 

Pier 39 was one such place, and while there were no sea lions hanging around at the end of the pier as they apparently often do, there was still a nice view and breeze off the water.  And once again, we looked back at Coit Tower, standing up above everything.

 

 

There were street performers and music all along the waterfront – one big Independence Day bash.  We were planning to walk over to the Golden Gate Bridge and watch the fireworks from nearby, but when Jessica and Thai stopped at Ghirardelli Square to get something to eat, I walked down into Aquatic Park by the beach and talked to some locals who said we should watch the fireworks from there.

 

 

I was (understandably) alone in my desire to hike 3 miles to the bridge only to turn around and hike 3 miles back for fireworks, so we decided to postpone our trip to the Golden Gate until the morning, when we could take a cab.  Still, that left us with several hours before the fireworks, so I did walk a bit of the path along the water just to check out the views.  The bridge itself was still obstructed by haze, so I turned back after taking a few photos so we could secure a seat by the water to wait for the fireworks.

 

 

We ended up sitting at the top of some stone stairs along the water, with Thai sitting a few steps down, as close to the water as she could get without being in it.  We sat listening to the (terrible) cover band from far off, and watching the boats buzzing about, preparing for the fireworks.  As the sky started to darken, I noticed the Ghirardelli sign lighting up, so I stood up and started walking toward it to take a picture.  No sooner had I walked away when a wave came in and splashed the rocks *just so,* and I heard a commotion and turned back to see Jessica and Thai, plus several others, jumping up and running back from the water, drenched and taken quite by surprise.  So, thanks, Ghirardelli lights.

 

 

This also meant that we had to find another place to sit, which was a more difficult task than it had been when we arrived.  Thai got a San Francisco hoodie and San Francisco socks to replace the ones she’d been wearing that were soaked.  It was chilly for me by the water, and I was dry, so it wouldn’t have been much fun wet.  We found a new seat, safely out of the reach of waves, and waited with the excited crowd for the show to begin.

 

 

It turned out that there were two fireworks displays visible from the water, which were mirror images of each other, one on our immediate left, and one slightly further off to the right.  When the show began, it was natural to watch the ones that seemed to be going off right in front of our faces, but it was kind of neat to feel surrounded by fireworks.  And, while I’ll grant that I haven’t really seen many fireworks shows outside my own town, but it was the most magnificent display I have ever seen.  My point-and-shoot camera on the auto setting wasn’t really equipped to capture any of it, but that won’t stop me from posting far too many mediocre photos here:

 

 

I was grateful for my choice in hotel location once the fireworks were done.  There were thousands of people all trying to leave the same place, no cabs to be had, and a bunch of “out of service” striking buses blocking up the street everywhere.  We had an uphill climb for about 5 blocks, but then we were back at the hotel, which was a fairly painless experience, comparatively speaking.

 

Friday was our last day in California, and we weren’t spending it in San Francisco, but we still had not been to the Golden Gate Bridge, so we got up earlier than planned so we could fit that in before starting our drive down the coast, which we wanted to begin as soon as the rental car company opened at 8am.

 

We grabbed a cab outside of our hotel again, and I rattled off our long and somewhat ridiculous list of requests as we were climbing in, which included a pass through the nearest McDonald’s drive thru so that Thai could function, then driving us to the Golden Gate Bridge, parking and waiting for us to sight-see, and then driving us back across town to the rental place.  About the time I finished this list and we were all situated in the car, the driver looked back with a familiar grin and said he remembered us from the day before.  Seeing his face, I laughed – we managed to get the same cab driver two days in a row.  AND he happily acquiesced to our requests two days in a row as well.

 

Friday was less hazy than the previous two days had been, so we had a better view of the bridge to enjoy.

 

 

I was clearly pretty excited to be there, because I must’ve kept handing my camera to Jessica to document that I was, in fact, at the Golden Gate Bridge.  I had to laugh when I got home and looked at photos and saw I had quite a selection of poses at the bridge.

 

 

Our cab dropped us off at the rental car company about 60 seconds before they opened for business, so we were first through the door to get our car and get on the road.  Heading out of San Francisco, we ran into rain and fog, and I was hoping that wasn’t going to be the order of the day, since we were supposed to be taking a scenic drive down the coastline.  The fog and rain persisted for the first hour, but that was just highway and a back road, and then we stopped at a diner for breakfast.  By the time we got back on the road, the rain had mostly dissipated, but the fog was holding steady.  I considered crossing off the first stop on our list, thinking it would be a waste, but it was just a mile or so off of Hwy 1, so I figured we wouldn’t be losing much even if we couldn’t see anything.  That mile off the highway was a bumpy dirt road, but when we got to the end of it, we were looking out over the cliffs of Redondo Beach, which were breathtakingly beautiful, even in the fog and mist.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the photos did justice to the sight at all, so I’ll have to be careful to hang onto the picture in my mind.

 

 

As we continued down the coast, we kept pulling off every few miles to hop out and admire the view, even though the fog was hanging around.  It would be ridiculous for me to post all of those photos here, but suffice it to say that there’s a reason the Pacific Coastal Highway is one of the most famous scenic drives in the country.

 

We did eventually stop pulling off randomly long enough to get to our second intended stop, Pigeon Point Lighthouse.  It opened in 1972, and at 115 feet, it’s one of the tallest lighthouses in America.

 

 

As if the lighthouse and grounds didn’t already have that feeling of a place out of time, Thai found irrefutable proof:

 

 

The further south we drove, the more the weather improved.  As soon as we caught the first glimpse of blue sky, we dove off the road at the next opportunity to document the moment.

 

 

Though we had been riding along miles and miles of beach all morning, there’s always a different and obvious vibe when you’re pulling into a beach town, and Santa Cruz is definitely that!  We stopped for a while to walk along the Boardwalk, and I decided to ride the sky lift across the park so I could take in all the scenes from higher up!

 

 

About ten miles outside of Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp Railroad offered steam train rides through the Redwoods, leaving out from a kitschy village that looked like the set of an old western.  We chugged along through the tall, tall trees, with light streaking in from above and steam rising from our train.

 

 

It was a nice change of pace to ride along in no particular hurry, and it was perhaps a bit too relaxing – the rhythm of the train had us all ready for a nap by the time we pulled back into the camp.  Our conductor alerted us to the photo op before he blew all the extra water out of the side of our train (which I think had something to do with cleaning out the cylinders).  It was a crazy sight.

 

 

Highway 1 is not particularly scenic from Santa Cruz to Monterey, so I had two snoozing passengers in the car and I was wishing for an afternoon nap, myself.  Don’t worry – I didn’t take one, but I was happy when we finally pulled into Monterey so I could perk up and stretch my legs.  This was accomplished with a walk around the much-ballyhooed Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I am not generally taken with such places, but I can’t remember the last time I went to an aquarium, and theirs is one of the best in the country.

 

 

My favorite part, I think, was the jellyfish exhibit.  It’s weird to look at these glowing blobs and know that they’re living creatures, but they are definitely pretty to photograph.

 

 

I was also pretty excited to see the penguins, but it wasn’t the same without Morgan Freeman narrating.

 

 

I searched for a while to locate the seahorses, which are such bizarre-looking creatures.  It had never occurred to me that there were several different types of seahorses, either.  They’re equal parts fascinating and totally creepy.

 

 

Of course, the best place to be in any aquarium is there the sea otters are.  They don’t look like creepy sea creatures;  they look like cuddly land creatures!  I watched them play for a while, but most of them were hiding out where I couldn’t see them, and the one that wasn’t was so active that he was nearly impossible to track as he dove down into the water and then swam around the surface.  I did get one picture of him after he swam over to my side of the case, turned a flip, and shot backwards to the other side of the tank on his back.

 

 

Having sufficiently covered the aquarium, we left and walked to dinner at Hula’s Island Grill.  We sat out on their patio and enjoyed a fantastic dinner.  We were all stealing off of each other’s plates to make sure we got to try everything.  Additionally, it probably shouldn’t be worth noting, but it is – I went in their restroom, and not only was it clean, but they had a pop-up dispenser for disposable hand towels, and after washing my hands, I pulled one out (slightly larger than tissue-size) and that one towel, being of an actual decent quality, was sufficient to dry my hands fully without a need to grab another one (or another five, like most crappy public bathroom towels).  I could insert a whole rant here about the environment-conscious movement creating a lot of impractical things that are of such low quality that they end up being more wasteful than what we started with, but instead of doing that, I suppose I’ll just say… man, those towels were delightful.

 

After dinner, there was one more place on our coastline itinerary that had been fairly tentative in my mind, but remembering the stunning sight we’d almost skipped that morning at Redondo Beach, I thought it was worth the few short miles to Pacific Grove’s Lovers’ Point Park, just to see if it was worth the stop.  When I drove around the curve and saw it, I had a burst of energy to hop out of the car and explore a while.  Jessica said she was staying in the car with the heat, but the allure of the sand and water was enough to tempt Thai to join me.

 

We even saw some surfers enjoying their last waves of the day before darkness fell.

 

 

We took the interstate back to San Francisco, and yet somehow it seemed like a much longer drive than we’d had on the way down, without the pull-offs to break up the monotony of lines on the road.  When we finally pulled back into San Fran, it took a few circles around the block, but I managed to find street parking right next to the hotel so we didn’t have to fork over $30 to park in the hotel garage – hurray!

 

That concludes the California portion of the trip.  Stay tuned for part 2, wherein we fly back one time zone and hang out in Colorado for a while!

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Singing ‘Bout Vengeance Like It’s the Joy of the Lord

I need a recap on whose lives are valuable and whose aren’t.  I just read a list (http://bit.ly/WxEYoW) of children murdered by U.S. drone strikes – just in Pakistan and Yemen.  If a drone operator kills a child and then feels bad, he’s told it was just a dog… on two legs (http://bit.ly/VRzKCD).  If the first shot was aimed at a “terrorist” (child terrorist?), then to be safe, we go ahead and shoot up anyone who rushes to the aid of the victims… or cries at their funerals (http://nyti.ms/WiDxgg).  And so, we end up creating some new terrorists in the aftermath (http://cbsn.ws/WiDSjc), who either “hate us because we’re free,” or, you know, BECAUSE WE KEEP KILLING THEIR CHILDREN.

We care IMMENSELY and have to talk about it for months if a deranged psychopath kills 20 school children in Connecticut, and we should – we absolutely should – care about those lives.  But why are children sacred in a U.S. classroom and not in their homes in Pakistan?  Because our government is killing a lot of THOSE children, and nobody’s interested in “even one step we can take to save another child” when the discussion is about them.

Where’s the uproar over the 43 civilians who were shot by police in 2012 as part of the “war on drugs” (http://bit.ly/WiEzsS)?  Even in the all-too-common cases where these drug raids end in the death of an innocent man, shot in front of his family, because the police botched it up (http://huff.to/k2jAiB)?  Oh, and those murders will never see justice, because they were perpetuated BY the “justice system,” then swept under the rug in cover-ups and laughable “justifications,” because if that news got out, people may realize that a police state is not a safe state, and it’s certainly not a free state.  These lives are just collateral damage, but since they died at the hands of police at their own front doors and not by a madman in a theater, then that is acceptable.

The U.S. just observed 40 years of Roe vs. Wade – more innocent deaths than all the madmen and all the drone strikes together could produce, and those deaths are actually celebrated as progress.  But don’t get too high and mighty, pro-lifers, because one of those Catholic hospitals (you know, that was going to shut its doors before performing government-mandated abortions?) just saved themselves a few million bucks in court by arguing that the two fetuses in a wrongful death suit against them weren’t actually “persons,” as they had not yet been born alive (http://gaw.kr/V9wNy1).  It’s unsurprising that “pro-life” senators “officially” turn away abortion lobbyists and then ask for tips on where their mistress can have a quiet abortion, but now we have Catholic hospitals, a cornerstone of the pro-life movement, willing to trade their principles for a few million dollars in a lawsuit.  It’s disgusting.

So, truly, what makes life sacred?  Each individual life counts enough for the President to weep over on national television if their deaths can be made a platform for gun control legislation.  So, those deaths are valuable because they’re political-agenda-pushers.  It’s the height of irony that proponents of gun control (“even if we can save one life!”) are usually the same folks dancing in the streets over 40 years of legalized abortion.  Lest you think I’m being unfair, you can also file it under “ironic” that the pro-life group is more likely to be pro-war, politically (although, former anti-war activists have traded anti-war, anti-Bush for pro-Obama, pro-war, so I guess they, too, compromised on that score).  So, in present-day, whether you believe our unborn children are valuable are not, there is much (silent) agreement that the already-born children of “brown people” overseas have no value.

Amidst “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it seems we’ve traded away any hope of liberty in order to protect life – but only the lives we deem worth protecting under whatever political banner we wave.  And if that’s where we’ve come, then good luck on that “pursuit of happiness.”  I think it must lie within “ignorance is bliss,” which probably also explains that cultural horror known as reality television.

City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks, Dressed in Holiday Style

 

My answer to, “Do you want to go to New York?” is pretty much always yes, but especially so when my cousin Tracey asked me to be her tour guide and partner-in-crime for her first-ever foray into the Big Apple.  We picked dates and got flights and then it was down to the business of planning an itinerary that would ensure that she got to see as much of New York as humanly possible.

 

We had two full days in the city, and two half days in the city, with the other half of those days consumed by travel.  I showed the itinerary to Jessica, who has gone to NYC with me many times, and she asked, “Are you trying to show her everything at once in case she never goes back?”  And, that’s exactly what I was doing.  When I presented Tracey with an itinerary of four 18-hour days (6am – midnight), she didn’t even flinch.  She thought it was fantastic, and that’s how I knew it would work.

 

I asked her what tourist things she wanted to do, and I added some of my favorite NYC discoveries to the list, and then I added some things that would be new to me as well.  To that end, I decided we should make a point to go to all five New York City boroughs.  You know what they are, right?  Thanks to the Beastie Boys?  “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten [Island], from the Battery to the top of Manhattan…”

 

Saturday

 

We got up bright and early to drive to RDU, and by 1:00pm, we had landed and checked into our hotel in Queens.  (1 borough, check!)  We bought our unlimited 7-day MetroCards for $29, which is absolutely the way to see NYC on a budget.  Even though we were only in the city for a little over 3 days, less than half of the time our 7-day pass was good, we each took $56.25 worth of rides (16 subways, 7 buses, and 2 trams) around the city, reducing our cost by nearly half.

 

Tracey had a crash course in subways, because our first subway ride was jam-packed.  Then we had a transfer, and it was similarly packed.  So, she got to dive right into the thick of things.  Literally.

 

We rode the subway out to Brooklyn Heights (borough #2!) and walked along the Promenade for our first (slightly foggy) view of Manhattan.

Next stop was Grimaldi’s for Brooklyn’s famous pizza.  We got ham, mushrooms, and ricotta – in addition to the usual fresh mozzarella and basil.  Delicious!

After dinner, it was getting dark, so we walked down to the river, under the Brooklyn Bridge.  I snapped this photo and it turned out incredibly blurry, but there’s something about it that I like very much all the same.

 

Someone else was also checking out the waterfront, except they had arrived in this stretch hummer limousine with party lights in the back.  Just another day in New York.

Since we were visiting New York in December, there was one attraction that couldn’t be missed.  So, our next stop was Manhattan (borough #3, though technically, we went through it earlier, just underground) and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.  I’m not sure if it was because my visit this year was a bit closer to the lighting of the Christmas tree, or because I had another person to keep up with, but Rockefeller Center seemed even more packed with people than I remembered.  It was crowded, to be sure, but we were all united with a purpose – to stand there and marvel and take pictures of the most amazing Christmas tree in the world.  (Or, at least that I have ever seen or heard about.)

 

Saks 5th Avenue, across the street, was running their projection show again this year, but it had definitely been upgraded.  Parts were even in color!

 

The top of Rockefeller Center was obscured with fog, accenting the incredible height of this building.

 

I snuck up on this tourist gawking at the tree.  (Shhhh, it’s Tracey.)

Tourists everywhere!!!

 

We found a spot overlooking the skating rink that wasn’t filled with tourists, but quickly realized it’s because they were distracted by another incredible sight – this enormous dog!  I am disappointed that the picture doesn’t do justice to his size.  He had all the humans quite matched (or over-matched) for size.  Even so, he was the sweetest thing.  He kept glancing up at his owner, as if to say, “I don’t know why all these people are petting me and taking pictures with me, but I think we should go home now.”  Quite a gentle giant.

I took a picture similar to this last year – the actual Rockefeller tree in the background of the Swarovski star replica – but it’s just so cool that I had to take another one this time.  And of course, make sure Tracey got a chance to take one, too.

It seemed for the best to conquer all of midtown on our first night, when we were already wading through tourists like a champ.  So, we headed south to Bryant Park, for another Christmas tree, another ice skating rink, and a cool foggy view of the Empire State Building, emitting an all-red hue through the clouds.

I went to Bryant Park last year, but only during the day.  I must say, their tree is much more impressive at night.  It was also situated where we could walk right up and stand under its enormous branches.  Can you tell that I’m actually under the tree here?

And this was my view looking up.

After getting our fill of interacting with the tree, and checking out the little Christmas shops, we set off toward Grand Central Station.  With the fog framing the Chrysler Building over Grand Central Station, this may be one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken in New York.

The inside of Grand Central is renowned for its beauty.  I am still smitten with it after all of this time.  However, it’s also impossible to photograph its splendor.  I can stand in the middle of the room and look at everything at once – take it all in.  My camera can’t do that.  Maybe a video would do the trick, but I think the only way to appreciate Grand Central Station is to be there.

Another grand New York Christmas tradition is the décor in the shop windows along 5th Avenue.  Certain stores go all out (like Saks with the huge projection show, for example), so I noted them on the map so we could take a look as we walked by.  Lord & Taylor won the prize for my favorite windows again this year.  Tracey agreed.  Their theme was “Wish for Tradition.”  Here are a few shots of their windows.  It’s hard to tell from simple photographs, but the attention to detail in these displays is mind-boggling.

Macy’s continued their “Believe” theme from last year, and I’m pretty pleased with this angled shot I got of the outside of Macy’s with the Empire State Building in the background.  I like that it has both red and green.

 

Macy’s windows showed “The Magic of Christmas” throughout New York.  I thought the display was cute of the family watching the parade balloons go by their living room window.

After Macy’s, we walked north again toward Times Square.  Tracey commented on how it kept getting brighter as we got closer.  Here she is – first time in Times Square!

We stopped at Café Un Deax Trois for dinner and to rest our tired feet before continuing through Times Square.  We glimpsed Toys R Us, the Hershey’s and M&Ms stores, and the iconic red steps before hopping on another subway up to Lincoln Center.  Dante Park, next to Lincoln Center, had a Christmas tree lit up as well.  Somehow, I missed seeing it last year, but I was only there during the day.  With or without a Christmas tree, Lincoln Center is magnificent at night.  But everything is better with Christmas lights.

 

Sunday

 

I didn’t plan any part of our trip with a leisurely pace, but since we had planned to do some walking in Central Park on Sunday, I had some wiggle room built in for that.  It was fortunate, then, that Sunday is the day our schedule got a little sideways.  We realized while doing inventory on our purse contents Saturday night that we’d left something behind at Grimaldi’s, so we had to schedule a return trip to Brooklyn.  However, we had timed tickets for the NBC Tour at 30 Rock, so we started our day there (back in Rockefeller Center!) and saw the studios for Dr. Oz, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live, along with the control room and hair and makeup.  I had actually never done the tour before, so it was a first for me.  Tracey is the NBC viewer, but I have seen a few YouTube videos from Jimmy Fallon or SNL, so even with my limited knowledge, it was cool to see those places.

Our tour finished just in time for our scheduled time at the Top of the Rock, but because of the dense fog that was still hanging around that morning, there was zero visibility, so we went in and changed our time for later, and hopped the subway out to Brooklyn.

 

Grimaldi’s didn’t open until noon, so we used the extra time to walk down to the Brooklyn Bridge Park that had closed at dusk the night before.  The sky was clearing on the Brooklyn side, but the view to Manhattan was still foggy.

When we left the park, I happened to notice this graffiti on the side of a warehouse building.  Right on!

We had a successful stop by the Grimaldi’s Lost and Found, so we were back on the subway just a few minutes past noon.  Our new Top of the Rock time was 1:15pm, so we had time to ride up to Columbus Circle and look around that side of Central Park before walking back down toward Rockefeller Center.

We also seized the opportunity to get a hot dog, which is a New York staple, but much to our disappointment (and disbelief), our hot dogs were really pitiful.  That was certainly a first for me in NYC, and not a first I enjoyed.  Oh well.  At least it was only $2.

 

This “LOVE” art installment has been there for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never stopped to take a picture there.  Since we were embracing the tourist thing, it seemed as good a time as any.

We made it to the Top of the Rock on time, and although the sky looked bright and clear from the ground, the building is so high up that we were told it was still about 50% visibility from the top.  We didn’t have binoculars on us, anyway, so I figured we’d be seeing about as far as usual, but just through a bit of haze.  Thus, this snazzy photo of the Empire State Building’s silhouette looking quite prominent amidst the fog, while the sun does its best to burn through the gray.

We could still see the enormity of Central Park, too!

Having seen Central Park from high above it, we were ready to explore the inside a bit.  We caught the bus back to the base of the park and I “hustled” (his word, not mine) a pedicab driver into giving us the tour we wanted at the price we wanted, and to drop us off at a different location than usual.  His face conveyed the brief consideration to argue the terms (or more specifically, the price), but he seemed to read me just as quickly to know that I was going to get my way, so he just said, “Ah, you know what?  Come on.”

He turned out to be one of the best pedicab tour guides I’ve ever had.  He was friendly and funny and actually came up with a few tidbits of information that I hadn’t heard before in addition to giving Tracey the general rundown as we rode along.  I think he was grateful that he didn’t have to give the big spiel every time he stopped at a new location and let us out, because I already knew where to walk and where to meet him to continue the ride.  He commented on how expedient we were at going to take our photos and then coming right back.  “Places to go, people to see!”

 

Here are some shots of the FRIENDS fountain, Bethesda fountain (drained to protect the pipes for cold weather), the San Remo towers, bow bridge, and the tall buildings hiding in the background of the trees that have shed their leaves.

 

We concluded our tour by the Museum of Natural History, as Jessica and I did last time, so we could walk into the park for a bit.  We opted to walk around the turtle pond so we could see Belvedere Castle from the ground, which was pretty cool.

We actually did a great job not getting lost amidst all the paths, and went by Cleopatra’s Needle and through the Greywacke Arch, which had a flower sprouting out of the stone on one side, and a saxophone player serenading passersby.

We came out on the other side of the park at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we sat for a bit before setting out in search of some dinner.  We took a chance on a little café where Tracey had Greek food and I had breakfast for dinner.  It was pretty tasty, in fact.

 

Then, we hopped a bus up to the East River, where I gave a local woman directions so she’d “remember how to get home later.”  That always cracks me up.

 

The fog was still hanging around, but it made for this awesome picture looking over toward Roosevelt Island and beyond that to those smokestacks in Queens, not far from our hotel.

Most of the Christmas tree lightings and related events take place in New York during the week after Thanksgiving, but there are a few others that are scheduled a little bit later.  Two lightings took place while we were in the city, and they were both on the Upper East Side.  Because we had a schedule conflict with the lighting of the Park Avenue Trees, we opted to attend the tree lighting and candlelight carol sing at Carl Schurz Park.  It was clearly the kind of event that only the neighborhood residents attend, and is certainly not a tourist destination.  They passed out thick books of Christmas carols to the folks who had gathered ‘round the tree, and a professional choir sang some Christmas songs, local leaders gave short speeches, and then we all had a New Year’s Eve-esque countdown to the moment that they lit the Christmas tree.  The tree itself was nothing special compared to the ones New York has to offer, but it was still fun to do the countdown with the “neighbors” and then have a whole host of people burst into “Joy to the World” as the lights came on.

 

I kept trying to take a picture of the hundreds of candles all around us and on the hillside in every direction, but never got a clear shot.  That kind of lighting is a bear to photograph, and I was too excited to hold still, anyway.  A fellow standing close by us offered to take our picture, though, so we got a shot of us holding our songbook with the stage in the background.

 

We stayed singing carols for about 45 minutes before heading out to be sure we made it to our show in time, but that was a wonderful experience.  Quite a dose of Christmas spirit with a feeling of community togetherness and pride, and we got to blend right in as if we’d strolled right over from our Brownstone down the street.  We sang verses of beloved Christmas songs that I never even knew existed, and just about the time I saw that “Twelve Days of Christmas” was on the next page, the choir leader said, “Everybody hates this song, anyway!  Let’s skip it!”  Hurray, hurray!

 

After we left, we could still hear the people singing for several blocks as we walked to the bus stop.  We were tired after our busy day, and the bus was the least labor-intensive way to get back to the Theater District, since we were going to see Wicked!

 

We got a little pre-show entertainment on the bus, however, as the guy sitting behind us carried on a very loud phone conversation with what I assume was one of his kids.  It ran the gamut of everything imaginable, and I know I would not do it justice if I attempted to convey what we heard.  I did relish the irony of him telling his kid that he/she needed to stop complaining about everything all the time, except that he paused that anti-complaining rant every 30 seconds or so to exclaim things like, “This is the slowest bus EVER!  It stops at every block!  I’m never gonna get there.  This is ridiculous!  I should ask for my money back – that’s how slow this bus is!”  We were delayed a bit at a stop because a man in a wheelchair was getting on, so the bus driver had to get out and let down the chair lift for that passenger to board.  The grumpy gus behind us gave his very loud opinion that there should just be some kind of a forklift for that sort of thing.  Charming.  He did eventually get frustrated and disembarked “the slowest bus ever,” and when I looked at Tracey and lamented his departure, an older couple in front of us turned around and said, “I know!  I’m sorry to see him go, because that was really entertaining!”  New York, ladies and gentlemen.

Even with a few delays, we made it to the Gershwin Theater with just enough time to hit the ladies’ room and find our seats before the show started.  Even better – it began to sprinkle rain when we were half a block from the theater, but it did all of its heavy raining while we were dry inside the theater.

 

I saw Wicked in 2009 and had been eager to see it again ever since.  I had forgotten some of the plot twists, but knew some of the music this time, so it was excellent to see it again and enjoy some laughs.  Tracey liked it, too!

 

Monday

 

Monday morning, we got up early and headed downtown like a couple of Wall Street traders.  We beat the rush on the subway, and we beat the tourists to the Charging Bull, too.

We proceeded to board the Staten Island Ferry so we could ride by Lady Liberty and visit borough number four on our list!

 

We had a nice view of downtown Manhattan as we disembarked from Battery Park.

The fog was sticking with us, too, so as we drove off toward Staten Island, we watched Manhattan disappear like Atlantis.

We hopped off the boat when we reached St. George, and walked along the water down to Staten Island’s own 9/11 Memorial.  Ordinarily, the buildings of downtown Manhattan would line up right in the middle here.  Due to the fog, it’s harder to tell, but you can still see WTC 1 peeking up a little higher than all the rest off in the distance.

We sat by the water for a while, just watching the boats and the birds, and then walked back to board the next ferry to Manhattan.

 

We hadn’t caught even the slightest chill riding on the back of the boat from Manhattan, but on the way back, we rode on the side, and it was a little colder.  Still not bad for riding on the water in December!

 

Here I am with Lady Liberty (and another Staten Island Ferry) behind me.

 

And a closer shot as we rode past.

Once we were back on dry land, we walked back up toward Wall Street and saw the New York Stock Exchange and paid a visit to Trinity Church.  The outside was under construction, but the inside was as lovely as ever.

We had reserved a time slot to visit the Ground Zero Memorial, so we went there next.  It wasn’t brimming with tourists as much as it was on my first visit in May, but there were still a lot of people there, which makes it difficult to appreciate the solemnity.  Once construction is complete on the new World Trade towers, the intention is to have the Memorial open via sidewalks on all four sides, so it would act more like a public park than a tourist exhibit.  I look forward to seeing it with new eyes then.

 

I had read online that the World Financial Center had a display of Christmas lights in their Winter Garden, and I had never been in the World Financial Center before, so we went to do that next.  That just so happens to be a series of buildings, so we walked several “blocks” indoors before finding what we were looking for.  The sight reminded me of the hotels in Vegas or the Opryland Hotel in Nashville.

We exited the building on the opposite side, so we could look out at the water again.

By this time, the nagging headache that I’d woken up with that morning had become a raging monster of pain, so I called a time out and walked toward that shining beacon of hope known as the Shake Shack.  I got an enormous Diet Coke and washed down some pain meds and we both ordered up some cheese fries and sat for a while.  Whether it was the food, the caffeine, or the medicine, I emerged half an hour later feeling like a new person.  My body still ached from the waist down, but my head felt fine and dandy, so we went roaring off to the next adventure.

 

As we walked, we stumbled on this odd kind of park.  I have since looked it up and found that it is the Irish Hunger Memorial in remembrance of the Great Irish Famine from 1845-1852.  It contains stones, soil, and vegetation brought in from Ireland, including stones from every county of Ireland.

We were headed to St. Paul’s Chapel (known for having sustained no physical damage when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed across the street, and for the ministry they provided afterward), but we passed by St. Peter’s on the way (New York has all the apostles in vast supply), so we peeked inside.  They were having a service (you don’t have to go far to find one at seemingly any time of day), so we just peeked inside and continued on our way.

St. Paul’s was also setting up for a service or concluding one, so we glanced inside and then spent some time taking photos from the courtyard, including the Bell of Hope, which was a gift from London on the first anniversary of 9/11.  The bell rings each September 11th and has also chimed in remembrance of victims of other tragedies since.

 

We left the church and walked through City Hall and past the Brooklyn Bridge on our way to the subway to whisk us up to SoHo, which remains one of my favorite areas to this day.  We were quite a ways from the iconic 5th Avenue shop windows, but we found a different kind of Christmas window as we walked.  What do you think?  A social commentary on Christmas consumerism?  A Grinch with no holiday spirit?  Whatever the reason, I had a hearty laugh.

 

Of course, whenever I am nearby, I never miss a chance to stop into Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  I have assumed that my partiality to this comparably small and inornate church rests on sentiment, as it’s the first church I ever visited in NYC, and I stumbled on it unexpectedly, but Tracey said it was her favorite so far, as well, so it certainly has something special to offer.

Just across the street from Old St. Patrick’s is another place that is my favorite of its kind in all of New York, and simply named:  Little Cupcake Bake Shop.  We stopped in for cupcakes to power us on our walk to Greenwich Village.  Tracey got strawberry, and I got a blue and white one that looked like Christmas to me, and turned out to have blueberries in the cake batter.  Yummmmmmmmm.

Our cupcakes were gobbled up long before we reached the Village, but that was OK since we were headed there to get lunch.  MacDougal Street is lined with restaurants, and our plan was to pick up a few different items to go and have a picnic in nearby Washington Square Park.  While a MacDougal creperie owner was making our order, we related this plan, and he directed us to the Risotteria on Bleecker Street for something to pair with our crepe.  Bleecker is a pretty famous street, anyway, so we threw in a little extra tourist-ing with our lunch order.

 

Having procured our lunch, we walked to nearby Washington Square Park and sat on a park bench to eat.  This park’s most famous attribute is its arch, pictured here with their Christmas tree below it.  Their lighting ceremony is later in December, so the tree was not decked out just yet.

 

We proceeded up 5th Avenue toward Union Square, which took us past the rather gothic-looking First Presbyterian Church.

Also, just before entering Union Square, we found “The One.”  We were on a mission and therefore did not stop to inquire further, but I am curious whether he was conducting some sort of social experiment or legitimately hoping to find a date.  It was funny, either way.

 

Union Square, which usually has a farmer’s market on the weekends, also had their Christmas shops set up around the entrance to the subway station.  These little Christmas villages spring up all over the place in NYC.

We were in a good rhythm of walking 10 blocks, seeing a park, walking 10 blocks, seeing a park, so we carried on until we reached Madison Square Park, which is one of my favorites.  After all, it has the original Shake Shack, in case you need a snack, the Flatiron Building, a great view of the Empire State Building, and they even had their own Christmas tree.

We were keeping an eye on the time because we wanted to have a nice sunset view, so we hopped the subway from close to Madison Square Park up to 59th Street to catch the tram to Roosevelt Island.  Tracey’s camera battery had given up the ghost for the day, so I handed her my camera so she could snap some shots as we crossed the river, such as this one, as we’re taking off from traditional Manhattan and headed up over the streets below.

We got onto Roosevelt Island at the perfect time.   We walked to the south end of the island as the sun was setting, admiring the view along our way.

Then, we walked part of the way back and chose a park bench with a great view of the Chrysler Building and rested our aching… everything… while we watched the sky darken and the lights brighten.

I have a problem sitting still in New York, so I kept going back and forth between where the Empire State Building was visible, and where the Chrysler was visible.  Gorgeous views from any angle.

 

The only time I thought Tracey might try to off me and leave my body in the East River was about here…

 

Me:  “Ready to hop back on the tram?”

Tracey:  “Yep!  Are we going to dinner next?”

Me:  “Well, we have one more walking tour, and then dinner.”

Tracey:  “Today?  We have one more walking tour today?”

Me:  “It’s a short one.  And then we go eat.”

Tracey:  *glares, considers*  “OK.”

 

True to my word, we did about a 30 minute loop to see the rest of the prominent shop windows and peek inside the Plaza hotel.

Bergdorf Goodman had some pretty cool windows this year.

 

We also checked out the UNICEF snowflake at 5th Avenue and 57th Street.

I also thought the storefront of Torneau was cool.

We had dinner at the original PJ Clarke’s location at 3rd and 55th.  My friend Lana had some friends in town from Texas, so they all came to meet us there so we could spend a few minutes catching up, which was really nice.  PJ Clarke’s is known for their burgers, so that’s what we ordered.  Tracey had a traditional burger, and I got mine subbed out for a turkey burger.  We both thoroughly enjoyed them, and had juice dripping out onto our hands, which seems like the mark of a good burger if ever there was one.

 

We were both pretty wiped out after dinner.  We’d covered a LOT of ground, and had done most of it on foot.  In fact, I had sent Lana a copy of the itinerary ahead of time, so as soon as she saw us and hugged me, she turned right to Tracey (who she’d just met) and said, “How are you?  Are you OK?  Her itinerary is like a torture device.  I told her not to wear you out.”  Tracey, however, replied that she loved the itinerary and the crazy pace, so ha ha!

 

Even so, I thought we’d both appreciate catching the bus back over to Radio City.  It wasn’t a long walk, but why walk if you can ride?  We got to the bus stop, though, and the next bus wasn’t coming for about 10 minutes.  That would have gotten us there in time (barring any extraordinary traffic), but it seemed silly to wait on a bus for 10 minutes if we could walk and be there in 10 minutes, so we opted for that.  After all, the best way to really SEE New York is on foot.

And, it meant walking past Rockefeller Center again.

 

We got to Radio City Music Hall in time to admire the general splendor and find our way to our seats just before the lights went down.  I attended the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular last year, but it was so much fun that I definitely wanted Tracey to get to see it.  It was also the 85th anniversary of the show, so that added to the excitement, and it’s a great way to get on the fast track to the Christmas spirit.

The show was magnificent, but 90 minutes was also BY FAR the longest either of us had sat down all day long.  When I stood up, my body showed me exactly how it felt about the day’s activities, and it was none too pleased.  We knew we just had to make it a few short blocks to the subway station, and then we could head back to the hotel.  We used the last bit of my camera battery to get some photos of the Christmas decorations across the street from Radio City, and then we were more than happy to get back to Queens for a hot shower and a bed.

 

Tuesday

 

Tuesday was our last day in the city, and we’d be leaving mid-afternoon for the airport, so we got up bright and early and packed our bags so we could check out and leave them with the bell hop.  I also printed out our boarding passes in the business center so we could save some time when we got to the airport.  Tuesday was supposed to be the warmest of the days we were in New York, and given that I’d been a little too warm with my jacket on the previous days, I had decided to leave that with our bags and just go out in my long-sleeved t-shirt.  That is, until we got to the lobby and looked outside to see that it was raining!  So, my jacket had to come along.

 

We rode the subway to the Upper West Side and visited the Church of the Ascension before folks started coming in for their 8:30 service.

Then, we walked just down the street to Neal Caffrey’s house for a visit.  The house has been on the market for a long time, and I can’t imagine what the price tag must be for such a big house in such a stately neighborhood.  Whatever the cost, we didn’t have enough to buy it, but we had a good time just being a couple of goofy White Collar tourists, pretending we were dropping in on Neal and June.

 

Fortunately, though the rain was hanging on, it was barely a mist, so it didn’t put much of a crimp in our plans.  We walked up Broadway to fulfill Tracey’s final NYC-specific food wish:  a bagel.  The place I picked out from the online reviews (and location) was Absolute Bagels.  Not a fancy name or a fancy place, but there was a steady stream of customers coming in for their morning bagel en route to work.  I’m not much of a bagel eater, myself, so I just sat at a table by the window while Tracey ordered hers.  She came back with an original bagel filled with cream cheese, and it looked pretty amazing.  She said it tasted great, too, and I should try it, so I did.  And then I ended up eating half of her bagel.  Luckily, it was quite big enough for two.  Here she is with her side.

Here is a little something for you Seinfeld fans.  I knew we’d be passing by here, and even though I only saw a few bits and pieces of episodes over the years, I still recognized this iconic restaurant front from the show.  I figured I’d take a picture, knowing that show no doubt has some fans among those reading this.

We proceeded up through Riverside Park in Morningside Heights, and came out at Riverside Church.  I’ve been there several times, but I never mind going back.

From there, we crossed the street to the General Grant National Memorial.

 

After our walking-intensive day on Monday, we opted to take the bus whenever possible.  So, we hopped aboard a bus that would take us into Harlem, and we got off at the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevards.

Here I am in front of the Lenox Lounge.  Unfortunately, it’s only open in the evenings, so we couldn’t go inside, but I hope to make a return trip someday.  White Collar filmed an episode using the Lenox Lounge, which is enough for me to be interested, but they chose it because they like to highlight the greatness of New York, and the Lenox Lounge has a rich history that gave me chills just standing outside of it.  They still have live jazz there on a regular basis, but once upon a time, greats like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday played here.  Langston Hughes read poetry here.  Malcolm X was interviewed for his biography here.  (If more modern accolades are your thing, then consider folks such as Justin Timberlake and Denzel Washington, who are two of many who’ve done productions here.)

 

From Harlem, we had a fairly lengthy subway ride to take us up to our final borough, The Bronx.  I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been to New York in the last ten years, but this was a first for me.  We went up to visit the New York Botanical Garden, where they were having their annual Holiday Train Show.  The grounds are lovely, so I’ll have to make a return trip sometime when the gardens are in bloom.

The Holiday Train Show takes place inside the Haupt Conservatory and includes over 140 scaled reconstructions of iconic NYC buildings, but built from natural materials such as bark, twigs, fruits, seeds, and pine cones.  Model trains run along tracks around these buildings, on replica bridges and by vegetation and waterfalls.  It’s pretty spectacular to see.  I think I took a picture of every single building, but that’s excessive, so here are a few highlights.

 

And these aren’t in New York, but they’re from the artist studio, showing some of his other work.

When we left the Botanical Garden, our plan was to walk through Fordham University to admire some of their buildings, but as we strolled onto the grounds, we were shooed away by a security guard who said the campus was private and we weren’t allowed.  He was grouchy, to say the least, but I guess it probably gave him a little bit of joy to growl at would-be passers-by, so Happy Holidays, I guess?

 

So, since we had some extra time, we made a stop back through Bryant Park again, where we had some lunch before walking back through Times Square to grab some Junior’s cheesecake for the road.

It was lucky we had cheesecake, because though we got back to our hotel on time, and then to the airport and through security in record time, our flight ended up delayed by about 2 hours by the time we actually got off the ground.  There are worse things that can happen, though, to be sure, and we still made it back to my house at about midnight.  All in all, I’d say we had a successful trip.  Tracey may even like to go back to New York with me again sometime!

I’m Lookin’ Out at Blue Skies; I’m Lookin’ Out at a Home

The hardest part about posting trip blogs about New York City is that it makes me miss it, and wonder when I’ll get back.  In this case, though, I know when I’m going back, since it’s in less than two days from now.  So, before I start packing (hello, procrastination), I thought I’d recap my last trip to the Big Apple, November 3-5, 2012.

I’m going to employ a conversational tactic passed down through the generations of my family and say, “wait, wait, let me back up.”

The year was 1998.  I was a junior in high school, and Joie Lenz got a two-week gig on Guiding Light.  She made a good impression on more than just me, because a year later, she got a contract role… playing a different character, taking over the role of longtime Springfield resident Michelle Bauer from another actress, which is always dicey in daytime television.  It’s been quite a few years, and I’m getting old, but as best I can remember, one day the previous Michelle was killing a dude in self-defense, and the next day, Michelle looked a lot different and she needed to keep the mob from finding out she was the one who offed their guy.  Naturally, she was found out, but the mobster sent to kill her married her instead, and they eventually fell in love.  Man oh man, daytime television.  It was awesome.  I’m sorry you missed it.  But, for old time’s sake – feast your eyes on Danny and Michelle Santos:

Joie Lenz left Guiding Light in 2000, and Danny (Paul Anthony Stewart) got yet another new Michelle.  I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Paul on a few different occasions after that, but I never got to meet Joie.  In 2003, I read in a magazine that Joie Lenz had landed a starring role in a new show, and I knew I’d have to see it.  She had gone back to her real name, Bethany Joy Lenz, and adopted a new character named Haley on The WB’s “One Tree Hill.”  And I think we all know how I felt about THAT show.

As it would happen, in all the times I visited Wilmington and watched filming and met most of the One Tree Hill cast members, I never met Joy.  I passed her once on Front Street.  She was among friends for a girls’ night (I’m guessing), and in addition to not wanting to intrude, I was too stunned to have said anything, anyway.

In addition to being an actor, writer, and director, Joy is also a musician, so after One Tree Hill finished, I just hoped that she’d release an album and tour, and I might get a chance to see her that way.  Therefore, after 15 years, I hope you can understand why, when I read that she was scheduled to headline a benefit concert for Rock the Schools in New York, I immediately bought a VIP ticket, without even being sure that I could attend.

While I was trying to figure out how I could afford to make the trip on my own, my BFF Jessica mentioned to me how much she and her daughter, Thai, wanted to return to NYC.  I mentioned the weekend, Jessica jumped on it, Thai was excited, and we were off and running.

Then, a week before we were supposed to go, Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern coast, and parts of New York City were devastated.  After making sure my loved ones were safe and sound, I started waiting and watching, wondering if our trip would go on, or if we’d have to chalk it up as a loss, with a lot of non-refundable expenses paid.  The news media is, of course, no help on such matters, and we had a chorus of well-meaning naysayers, but Jessica and I were in agreement:  “Even if we have to walk there, we’re going.”

The key concerns specifically pertaining to our trip (and most New Yorkers) were the power outages, including all of lower Manhattan thanks to a blown transformer, and that the flooding had knocked out the subway system and vehicle tunnels, which would be akin to all of the highways closing down in a mid-size town.

New York, though, has a will of iron and they know how to get back on their feet.  Jessica and I were planning our walking-intensive (walking-exclusive!) itinerary when I saw the announcement that partial service had been restored on the subway.  Mere days after the greatest devastation the subway system had ever seen, and almost half of the lines were back up and running.  New lines were added every day, and by the time our plane landed on Saturday morning, every subway line we needed was operational again.  Also, Saturday morning, power was restored to most of downtown, including to the Gramercy Theatre, where I was going to the show that night.  In the words of Fiona Apple, “I can’t help it; the road just rolls out behind me.”

We stayed in Queens at the same hotel where I stayed in May.  And, feeling relieved that we no longer had to walk across the 59th Street Bridge (aka the Queensboro Bridge) to and from Manhattan every day, we took a walk to the river to have a look at it before hopping on the subway.

The subway took us to Roosevelt Island, and Thai and I had railroaded Jessica into taking the tram from there to Manhattan if we at least let her get there in one direction without testing her fear of heights.  Before hopping on the tram, though, we took a walk around the southern end of the island, which afforded a nice view of Manhattan.

And we could look across the East River back toward Queens, from whence we came.

Tram time!

Thai was a big fan of the tram.  She may have even loved it more than I do.  Jessica didn’t freak out even once.  I think she rather enjoyed herself, even.

Once we were back on the ground on the Upper East Side, we repaid Jessica’s tram generosity with two of her requested stops:  a deli and a Sephora.  As we walked, I got reacquainted with the city in my usual way – camera in the air:

We made our way to Central Park and found a pedicab driver to ride us around.  I teased that I was going to post this photo and say I took it while I was running by, but I knew you’d be on to me, because the Marathon was cancelled in the aftermath of Sandy.

Pedicab is such a nice way to see Central Park.  Someone else does all the hard work, and lets you off at key points for photo ops.

I worked it out with our driver to change the route a bit and drop us off at mid park on Central Park West, so we could continue on foot and see a place I’d never been to before:  Belvedere Castle!  On the way, Thai terrified us by climbing atop a huge rock.  And then made us come up, too.

Doggies in New York actually pose for the camera!  (At least, this one did.)

Leaving the park, we parted company for the night.  Jessica and Thai were going to tour the Times Square area and see a few stores before going to see Wicked on Broadway, and I was headed downtown for my show!

VIP ticketholders (including myself) were attending a pre-show party and gaining early admittance to the concert, but when I arrived at the theatre, I found folks were already lined up for general admission!  I was pretty happy to get to head inside ahead of the crowd.  Before going in, I saw one of the acts, Matthew Perryman Jones, headed into the building.  I don’t think anyone else recognized him (though they learned later that they did recognize his music), so I could go over and talk to him without starting some kind of frenzy.  Then, it was time to head inside for the party.

The party was held in a cute space in the basement of the theater, and there were mini cupcakes waiting on all the tables.  I probably would have appreciated this more, but I had one thing on my mind.  Luckily, I ran into some folks I was acquainted with through my trips to Wilmington, so I had some solidarity as we waited for a chance to talk to the woman of the hour.

All things considered, I think I kept it together pretty well.  I’m grateful that it’s my chest that usually flushes when I’m experiencing any kind of extreme emotion, so my face doesn’t betray me so much.  One of my cohorts, Tray, knew that it was a particularly momentous occasion for me, so he sent me up first and broke the ice a bit – thank you, Tray!  I pretty much rapid-fired all the things I had wanted to say, because I usually forget things, so I told her that I was a fan of hers since Guiding Light, and having given her my name, I said that I was one of the three writers she chose to feature on her blog last year, and named the piece I had written.  The only thing that could have beaten the day that I logged on to her blog and saw my own words there was the moment that I related that to her and saw recognition cross her face.  She had posted my entry on her blog, yes, and she remembered it still, and pulled me into a hug, saying that it was great to finally meet me.  She signed the back of my lanyard, Tray took our picture, and I walked away with a big smile and a wonderful memory.  I’ve met a lot of celebrities (famous by varying degrees), but the ones that I really admire, and careers I’ve followed for years on end – those are the hardest ones to meet.  There is always that fear of a bad encounter; the fear that, in person, they’re haughty or mean or they’re neither, but they’re just having a bad day.  I’m happy to say that Joy was warm and kind and as delightful as I could have ever wanted her to be.  It meant a lot to me.

Shortly thereafter, they opened the doors upstairs for the VIPs to go ahead and claim a spot in front of the stage.  I was the first person to walk in, and being very early, I took a seat in front of the middle of the stage and waited for the show to begin.

There was a long list of performers for the evening, and I didn’t know most of them.  Amongst those unknown to me was Thomas Ian Nicholas, of American Pie fame.  I never saw that movie franchise, but I’m sure some of you have, so I included a photo of him.

I was excited to hear Matthew Perryman Jones again, as he’s put out a new album since the last time I saw him, so I had some new songs to sing along to.  He also played my favorite, “Feels Like Letting Go,” which I had requested when I saw him outside.  He was even kind enough to call out to me from the stage, and say he was playing it for me.

Since both Joy and Mike Grubbs (of Wakey!Wakey!) were performing, other One Tree Hill cast-members who were in town turned out for the show, including James Lafferty and Robert Buckley.  When the hosts called Grubbs to the stage, out walked James Lafferty instead.  Dressed in Grubbs’ signature cardigan, James sat down at the keyboard as if he was ready to put on a show.  In a cute skit that the audience loved, Grubbs came out and told James that was his piano and his sweater and this was his moment, and James couldn’t have it.  He then called Robert Buckley out to remove James from the stage.  I must say, I enjoyed it.

I have seen Wakey!Wakey! a few times before, but this was my first time seeing him with a 99% One Tree Hill crowd.  Such screaming!  He was overwhelmed by the reception.  He played a fantastic set which got me pretty excited about the next album.

Joy even came out at one point to sing a song with him, which certainly got the audience psyched.  I would have flipped over to video for that, but I was too busy, well, getting psyched!

Finally, the only performer remaining was Joy.  My feet were not thrilled about how much time I’d spent standing, but finally getting to see Joy perform was enough to take my mind off of that.  She brought down the house!  AND… she brought CDs!!!

Joy said she had just written a new song, but it was a duet, and Grubbs reappeared to sing it with her.  I flipped over to the video setting for that!  And… since trying to get my blog to embed a YouTube video makes me want to jump off of a cliff, just click here if you want to see it, ok?  (It will open in a new tab.)

Here is a photo of Joy, taking a photo of the crowd, which she immediately posted to Twitter.  I’m visible in her shot, so I’ll post that below as well!

I was exhausted and happy as I made my way back to the hotel Saturday night.  Jessica and Thai had beaten me there by 30 minutes or so and had already had our bags brought up, and had a Caffeine Free Diet Coke waiting for me, so I could unwind before getting some rest.

Sunday morning, we decided to go to Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum in Times Square.  On our way, Thai stopped for a photo op with Mickey and Minnie.

Also, it is just me, or is there something wrong with this picture?

But then, here’s the cure, because there is nothing wrong with THIS picture!

I usually doze off at the mere mention of a museum, but Ripley’s was actually pretty fun, and Thai loved it.

I did not fare very well in this “black hole,” but Thai thought it was awesome.

The best part was this room that recognized our movements and projected them in a colorful way via a screen that covered one entire wall.  We stayed for way too long in here, and I inevitably got dizzy from all the dancing and twirling, but it was worth the price of admission, right there.

Our next stop was another museum of sorts… THE MOST AWESOME MUSEUM IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND… The Harry Potter Exhibition!!!  I had just missed it when it was in NYC last year, and I was so bummed about it.  When we saw a sign advertising it as we walked around the day before, I was afraid that it was an old sign, just teasing me.  It turns out, the exhibition had just reopened on the day of our arrival.  All three of us looked like kids in a candy shop when we walked in.  The employees manning the photo camera actually chuckled a little when they saw the three of us, wide-eyed and pointing and gasping around the room.  And we hadn’t even entered the actual exhibit yet.

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed (Warner Brothers and all their copyright business), but when we walked in, they took volunteers to be sorted (Thai got Gryffindor and I got Slytherin and Jessica got to witness us geeking out), and then we proceeded to walk through rooms filled with props and costumes from the Harry Potter films.  We got to pretend to pot Mandrakes and play Quidditch, and I found great difficulty in moving away once we came upon the replica of Snape’s Potions Closet.  We all took turns sitting in the enormous chair in Hagrid’s Hut, and the tour culminated in the Great Hall, which was magnificent.  We had a blast!

Back out in Times Square, we saw some more strange sights.  What do you suppose they’d be discussing?

And is this some sort of convention?

Thai wanted to go into Toys R Us, and she really wanted to ride the ferris wheel.  We’ve already covered Jessica and her heights, so, what can I say?  I stepped up and took one for the team.  Which is to say, the only person who enjoyed the ferris wheel more than Thai… was me.

In case anybody ever wonders what bonds Jessica and I together, here she is, holding her Harry Potter bag, grinning like a fool in front of a Disney Princess display.  Yep.  I’d say that clears things up.

Next, we made our way uptown so we could be at the Top of the Rock by sunset.

As always, the view was spectacular, and as always, it is so stinkin’ cold on top of that building!

I caught Jessica and Thai warming up in the light room.  Ooooh, pretty!

Once the sun went down and we were all pretty frigid, we walked back to the Theater District to see Mary Poppins!  The show was great, and Mary Poppins even flew right over our heads!

Broadway Cares was raising funds for Hurricane Sandy victims, and Jessica made a donation, which resulted in us being invited backstage for a tour and to meet the cast.

These are fishing reels, used for the kite-flying scene.

After the show, we were all hungry, so we went down the street to Dallas BBQ.  Thai was amazed at the size of her drink.  The caffeine had no effect, though, because she fell asleep on the table as soon as she finished eating.  Clearly, it had been a long day.

Monday was our last day, and we started it off right with a big breakfast at Court Square Diner in our little neighborhood in Queens.

Jessica thought, since it was vacation and all, it would be appropriate to order an appetizer before breakfast.  She settled on this lemon meringue pie.  Even with three of us, we didn’t quite get to the bottom of it.

From there, we made our way downtown, visiting Old St. Patrick’s cathedral and then walking downtown, catching sight of the Williamsburg Bridge and the buildings that scrape the sky down in the financial district.

I wanted to see the South Street Seaport, which I knew had been badly damaged by Sandy.  I love that area, and it was sad to see so many small businesses boarded up.  I hope they’ll be back on their feet soon.

We continued to walk along the river by the seaport down to catch the ferry over to Brooklyn.

When we reached Brooklyn, we walked along the parks which had been completely submerged only a week earlier.  For instance, here is a photo of the carousel that sits at the edge of the water on the Brooklyn side.  It’s one of the higher points along the parks.

And here is a photo of that carousel on the night of the storm.

But, the water had all receded and if we didn’t know it, we wouldn’t have been able to tell Hurricane Sandy had even come through the Brooklyn Bridge Parks.

We made our final stop at Front Street Pizza to get some lunch.  The food was amazing and cheap, and I uttered the phrase, “Excuse me, but y’all are hot and I’m a tourist, so smile for the camera.”  Good sports, these ones.

Once we left Brooklyn, it was back to Queens and then on to the airport for the trip back home.  I’d say we had a fantastic time!

We Are Laughing, Breaking Up Just Like the Waves

Somehow, I’ve fallen behind on blogging my adventures. I used to write a blog a day, and the photo recaps of my trips came here and there in a sea of other material. Now, I seem to only post when I’m recapping a recent trip, and here I am six months behind on that. So, I’m going to catch up with an abbreviated recap of my summer adventures.

Holden Beach, NC – June 20-23, 2012

I don’t go on beach vacations, much to the chagrin of my friends who make week-long visits to the sand and surf an annual tradition. I usually decline invitations for these trips for a few reasons. For one, I rarely take off work five days in a row, because that just creates more stress in the long run and burns a lot of vacation time at once, and I like to stretch my days into as many little adventures as possible. Additionally, I can sit on the beach for one day, but after that, I’m bored and ready to move on to something else. I guess, for some people, everyday life is a frenzy of over-scheduling and endless obligations, and the one week per year spent sitting under a beach umbrella is the only escape, whereas I make room for relaxation at home, and go on vacation for adventure.

Even so, I surprised even myself and said yes to a beach trip this year. I drove down just for the end of the week to join Jessica and her family at Holden Beach. To mitigate my itch to “do something,” after spending one day lounging on the beach, reading, we took a day trip to Wilmington to shake things up before returning to the beach the following day. I also seized the opportunity to meet my Myrtle Beach-dwelling friend Terri for dinner, so we met in the middle for some Calabash seafood.

I didn’t take very many pictures, but Holden Beach was nice:

There was also a lovely sunset view from the back porch of the beach house:

In Wilmington, we beat the heat by ducking into Blue Post Billiards in the middle of the afternoon and lit up the jukebox and the pool table:

We headed out as the sun came up Saturday morning, so there was a lovely view on the way out of town:

Since I was driving on my own and had the whole day, I stopped in Wilmington again for breakfast and the farmer’s market downtown.

I broke up the drive and made the most of my time by also stopping in Durham to have lunch with my friend Christy at The Cheesecake Factory, and then in Graham to visit Purple Penguin and see my friends Jeremy and Tiffany. The drive home was six hours, but by making it a twelve-hour trip, it felt like I’d hardly driven at all!

Boston – August 3 – 6, 2012

I had a great trip to Boston in July 2007, and had been thinking of returning ever since. My friend Karen lives there, and while technology keeps us connected day-to-day, five years is a long time to go without seeing someone’s face! I’d said a few times that I needed to come visit, and that kind of thing can get pretty easily stalled at “someday,” so it was great when the stars aligned so nicely this year. One of my favorite artists, Josh Ritter, released some tour dates that included a weekend date in Boston, so I asked Karen if she’d like to go. She said yes, and within a matter of hours, I had tickets purchased and a flight booked.

Josh Ritter ended up adding a show to his schedule for the night before my flight to Boston. I decided it was worth only getting 3 hours of sleep to get a double dose of Josh Ritter, so I saw him in Charlottesville on my way to Richmond to stay with family before my early, early, early morning flight.

Karen picked me up at the airport Friday morning, and we were soon joined by our mutual friend, Ruff (yes, a nickname), for a day of lively chatter and historical touring:

Karen and I continued our touring in another area of Boston the next day, marveling at the architecture, which for me, always includes at least one church!

We kept strolling along through the park (with swan boats!), by the Capitol, and on to Quincy Market and the shorefront:

Saturday night was our concert, and the venue was beautifully situated right on the water, so we had great tunes with a lovely view and a nice breeze.

Josh Ritter was co-headlining with Brandi Carlile for that show, so we got two full, fantastic sets. I was familiar with Brandi Carlile before, and had even seen her perform on a previous occasion, but she was so brilliant at this show that she won me over completely and found a new fan in Karen, too.

One of the most famous places in Boston (and in baseball) is Fenway Park, and I’ve always wanted to see it, if only for the history. Karen did me one better than that, though, and got us tickets to a game on Sunday afternoon (tip of the hat to her hubby, Charlie, who secured great seats for us)!

I don’t follow pro baseball closely by any means, but sit me in front of any kind of sporting event and I get invested quickly. It was so cool to be sitting in the stands at Fenway Park on a game day, so I was plenty excited by the experience.

The Red Sox played the Minnesota Twins, and though they hadn’t had the best season, they extended me the courtesy of winning since I’d come so far to see them.

I also ate a Fenway Frank (best hot dog of my entire life), drank lemonade from a souvenir cup, and sang Sweet Caroline with the Boston faithful.

Right down to hopping back on the T amidst mobs of Red Sox fans, it was a gloriously authentic Boston experience and I loved every second of it.

Alas, I had to go home on Monday, but I was booked on a late flight, so we still had time to enjoy the day. So, we got our beach gear together and rode up to Crane Beach for the day. The weather was absolutely perfect. I had never been to a beach in the northeast before, so I enjoyed wiggling my toes in the sand and dipping my feet into the waters in a new territory.

Karen had warned me that we’d have to move our chairs to another spot as the tide came in, and said it would sneak up behind us. She moved her chair in advance and went to pick up some lunch, and by the time she came back, there I was, sitting in a chair on a little island in the middle of the water. I picked up my things and waded through the water behind me to dry land.

I got a kick out of watching these two kids who stayed on “the island” until the last bit of sand was covered, at which point they screamed and laughed and ran through the water back to the beach.

It was a wonderful trip. I certainly won’t let five years pass by before I go again. And since one of the most important “attractions” I wanted to visit in Boston was Karen, the trip had a perfect balance of adventure and relaxing as we chattered away.

Wilmington – September 21 – 23rd

Florence and the Machine had been at the top of my “shows I need to see” list since I heard the album, Lungs. I never got a chance to go to a show on that tour, and had all but given up on the Ceremonials tour, too. The closest show was in Raleigh, and by the time I knew I could go, all but the crappy seats were sold out, so I was disappointed, but I figured it wasn’t meant to be. About the time I had given up entirely, my friend Jessa called to ask me if I was interested in going, because she wanted to go, too, and we could make a weekend of it. I said that if we did, we’d have to resort to Stubhub for tickets. She was game for that, and she’d told me a few times that she wanted to go with me to Wilmington sometime. It seemed like a pretty good two-for-one special to me, so we bought concert tickets and booked hotel rooms.

She met me at work that Friday and I left a little early so we could get down to Raleigh in time for the show. Kelli was also at the show, so I got to visit with her briefly, and I found out on the day of the show that Ryan and Julie were driving down as well, so I got to see them in Raleigh when I hardly ever get to see them at home. The outdoor venue was lovely.

The concert was great. Jessa and I had a great time singing and dancing along. I also had a concert-long romance with the adorable (and presumably gay) man who sat in the seat next to me. Sadly, we lost each other in the rush to the stage at the end of the show, and I forgot to check “Missed Connections” on Craigslist for his declaration of love.

Jessa and I had booked a room just outside of Raleigh for the night, so we didn’t have too far to drive before we could get some sleep. Then, we just got up and headed for Wilmington early Saturday morning.

Our hotel had a continental breakfast, so we’d had a little something to tide us over until we made it to Wilmington (and therefore, The Dixie Grill), but we made it to Wilmington before our appetites did, so we detoured and made Airlie Gardens our first stop.

We were able to check in as soon as we got to the hotel, so we left our bags and went to a late breakfast at Dixie Grill (where else?) before spending the afternoon walking around downtown Wilmington.

Dogs are plentiful in Wilmington, and I couldn’t resist stopping to find out about these two Bernese Mountain Dog cousins:

We ducked into Blue Post Billiards and racked up high scores on the skee ball (aka “Beer Ball”) game inside. I emerged victorious at that, but Jessa showed this game who was boss:

We (of course) had dinner at Front Street Brewery, which was amazing as always, and then took in the sunset from the Riverwalk.

We had booked an evening cruise down the river, and when we arrived to find the neon lights shining, we nicknamed it “the party boat.”

After we docked back into downtown, Jessa was ready for bed, so she went back to the hotel, and I went up the The Calico Room to see my friend Ali, who recently moved to Wilmington. I hung out there for a while, and got the musician who was playing there that night to sing a Ryan Adams cover for me, and then I made my way back to the hotel as well.

Sunday morning, we got up at dark-thirty to drive out to Fort Fisher for sunrise. I hate getting up early, but I’ve done it quite a few times to watch the sunrise from my favorite beach. Once again, it did not disappoint. It was the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen, and the water was still warm enough to play in.

We returned to Dixie Grill for breakfast before going back to pack up the room and check out. We made our last stop at the USS North Carolina battleship and did some touring around before hitting the road for home.

Will I ever get tired of Wilmington? It doesn’t seem likely.

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