Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kodak Invents Time Travel


Earlier in 2010, my wife's grandmother passed away. She was likely the closest example of a 'pioneer woman' I'll ever meet: a bloody hard worker, found her joy in simple things, and had that suffer-no-fools attitude that I seem to run across in folks who hail from north of the French River.

Until shortly before died, she had spent the better part of her life in a thoroughly uncharming 100 year-old house on a side street in Parry Sound, Ontario. A solidly built structure, it was decorated in whatever struck the homeowner's fancy at any given time - a mish-mash of shag carpets and linoleum spanning several decades, all under the abundant, watchful photographic gaze of former pets and family. Repairs and renovations over the years were solidly executed, but favoured function over form without hesitation.

And so it was that we found ourselves in Vera's home sorting out the post-funeral details of her life. There were decades worth of showboxes and photo albums to investigate, catalogue, and pass along to other generations. In an ancient hutch we came across two rolls of unprocessed camera film - the cartridge styles suggesting something from the late 1960's and early 1970's. The geek inside me was just a little bit elated since it would inevitably fall to me to see about extracting any images of the past from these rolls.

This is where the story begins, I suppose. Over the next few weeks I would spend a few hours researching how I might get these old films developed and printed, assuming they were even salvagable. And I would come to the inevitable conclusion that no - and I mean almost no one - deals in still film processing anymore, with the possible exception of 35mm format.

Then I found a someone - an organization that goes by the name of Film Rescue International - who claim to specialize in processing of old films from still, disc, and movie cameras. They operate totally by mail order and Internet, and their process is simple. You send them your old films, which they process and put the proofs on a website for you to inspect. You then have the option of selecting which prints you'd like developed and/or copied to digital media and sent to you.

It seemed exactly what I wanted, although I was very, very leery at the prospect of putting Vera's films into an envelope and crossing my fingers. Without alternatives, however, that's just what I did - and it was the right decision. The folks at FRI are awesome, and everything is working as designed.

This past week, I got an email pointing to the FRI website where we can inspect our photo images. As I expected, time had been a bit cruel to the old film cartridges. Out of the 33 images that were lifted, only 15 or so are half-ways legible, amd even those are low-quality. But we've gone ahead and ordered our prints and CDs, anyways, and the folks at FRI will try to apply a little Photoshop magic along the way.

It's funny to me that the pictures look about right in how they show a small, Northern Ontario town of 35 years ago. Things should look like grainy black-and-white - everything so simple, so unremarkable. No one being pestered by the Internet, the cellphone, and the sticky produce of the paparazzi. There's a lot to like about these modern times, of course, and I'm sure those grainy black-and-white people wondered their fair share about the future. But looking at that old photograph above, a little part of me wouldn't mind playing a bit dirt-lot baseball now and again.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Face for Radio

Pardon the dust - it's been awhile since the cleaning lady has come by. Most of the time, my days and weeks fly along with a pretty constant signal-to-noise ratio. Going to work, doing the home-things that need doing, remembering who goes where on any given night - it all whizzes by, the Remarkable made Unremarkable by time and speed.

But last week was different. Through the good and generous graces of my friend, Sean Twist, I was afforded the singular experience of becoming a radio personality for just a few minutes on busy Thursday night. While he's the linch-pin of the cult-classic podcast, All Your Basecast, Sean also graces the radio airwaves of London, Ontario every Thursday at 4:40pm on CJBK radio headlining a segment called Geek Corner - highlighting the latest in video games, comics, movies, and other concerns of geekdom.

Here's how it all came down:

Monday Night: Sean mentions to myself and AYB co-conspirator, Brian, that the three of us might have a chance to do a year-end, extended version of Geek Corner. We're game, of course, since it all sounds a bit abstract.

Wednesday Afternoon: The abstract becomes concrete as Sean emails/Twitters that the year-end Geek Corner show is going to happen the following afternoon. The time and duration are TBD, but Sean has a show outline that Brian and I need to plan around. Phone calls and emails are exchanged. Commitments are made. I have the sweats. Podcasting for a small number of listeners is one thing, yammering live on the radio for real people listening in real-time is something else.

Thursday Morning: I start cobbling together my thoughts according to Sean's outline: best game of 2010, biggest gaming surprise of 2010, and the like. I feel better about pulling this off, and then it dawns on me that I need to tell people to listen: my family, some co-workers, some friends. The sweats return and they bring their friends, the fanged butterflies, to gnaw at my guts for a bit.

Thursday Afternoon: Sean gives us the official showtime: starting at 4:20pm, ending around 5:00pm, be at the studio by 4:00pm. I send updates to all those people I told to listen in and begin my deep breathing exercises. I'm on the road to the studio by 3:30pm, fighting traffic all the way to arrive by 4:00pm, only to discover I'm the first to arrive. To my relief, Brian pulls into the parking lot behind me. Sean is tied up in traffic and arrives just as we head into the studio.

Showtime: After some introductions and waiting around a bit, the three of us are sitting on one side of the studio while Mike and Al, the radio pros who run the CJBK afternoon show, occupy the other side of the studio. Mike and Al are obviously in charge - just great guys who keep everything running smooth-as-glass while making sure us amateurs are fitting in properly. Mike does the intros, Sean sets the stage, and then we're off. Some 40 minutes later, we're outside the studio shaking hands with our hosts and talking about Epic Mickey.

The first 10 minutes of Geek Corner were slightly terrifying. I'm glad I made notes for myself because it was altogether too easy to go blank or get tongue-tied - problems I never seem to have when sitting in a bar with friends. Go figure. But Mike and Al (as well as Sean and Brian) are just so good about keeping things moving and keeping things lively. By the end of the segment, I was having a blast and would love to have kept things going.

Upon arriving home that night, I discovered no adoring crowds waiting in my driveway nor was a salutory telegram from The Mayor sitting in my mailbox. I did get a few phone calls and emails from surprised friends and family - all saying we sounded great.

My son, ever the realist, was disappointed that no one talked about the upcoming Nintendo 3DS and cautioned that my voice sounded a little weak at times. But he dutifully recorded Geek Corner for me so that I might store it away in my scrapbook. Against my better judgement, I listened to that recording and, predictably, I thought of approximately 1,000 things I could have done better. That's par for the course.

It's now Sunday and my 15 Warholian minutes have just about counted down to zero. Monday night we'll be recording another episode of All Your Basecast, and we're bound to re-hash our Geek Corner experiences. I may also get a few extended seconds come Tuesday night when I waltz into the dressing room over at Kinsman Arena and lace on my skates for another clash between Team White and Team Black. I'll suffer some good-natured barbs as I tell this story again. Somebody might even buy me a beer.

But soon it will be just a cool memory - something Remarkable that rises above that daily thrum of being a guy from the 'burbs who drives a beige minivan. My sincere thanks go to Sean, Brian, Mike, and Al. Thanks for allowing me to have so much fun and for adding a pretty interesting page into my mental scrapbook. Maybe same time next year, eh?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rainy Day Fun

On rainy days like today, I like to look over the City
from my dreary office window and think to myself...


Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts
and brooding over his still untested powers.
For though he was master of the world,
he was not quite sure what to do next.
But he would think of something.

Monday, November 15, 2010

SWS Day 8 - Happy Trails!



Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - Like the kids said, now it's time to say Good-Bye. As directed by our Guides, the luggage was outside the door before 8am so that the Disney Elves could whisk it away once more. After one last gorgeous RCL breakfast-by-the-River, the Group shuffled onto Dan's coach for the 9am call-time. Next came a few words of 'safe journey' from RCL's General Manager, and then we were rolling down scenic highway 128 enroute to Grand Junction, Colorado - just across the Utah/Colorado border. It was there that we'd catch our flights back to our normal, non-cowboy lives.

As always, the scenery was outstanding as rocky cliffs gave way to rolling hills where one could possibly play whack-a-mole with the dozens of Prarie Dogs that always seemed to be watching the traffic roll by. A scant 90 minutes later, we were at the (very small) airport saying our good-byes to our new/old ABD friends. Two of the families had flights leaving within the hour. For the rest of us (including our Guides), we had a solid 4 hours to kill before taking to the skies.

We had considered taking a shuttle bus into the town of Grand Junction for a look-see, but the bus schedules were not very convenient and we'd have spent more time waiting around than we would have spent poking around. Instead, we all built a nest of sorts in the airport 'lounge' to pass the time together. Without exaggeration, I can say we all had a great time sharing stories, laughing a lot, and just acting like old friends. The time flew by, but it was going to be that much harder to say final farewells, I thought.

With the exception of Guide Mike (headed to Florida), we were all booked on the same connector that would take us to Salt Lake City as a jumping off point to lands beyond. So it was there, in the bosom of Donny Osmond country, that we would say our final good-byes as Guide Chris headed to the West coast, the Other Family headed to the East coast, and my family headed for Detroit. It was hard not to get a little choked up.

We had very little time in Salt Lake - just enough to grab sandwiches for our 3.5 hour flight to Detroit. From there, we had another 2.5 hours or so before we'd see London, Ontario through our van's windshield. In between was a border crossing that would be less than uneventful (thankfully!). And if I had any doubts that our vacation adventure was truly over, nothing says 'welcome home' like dragging the trash to the curb at 2:30am.

In the following days and weeks (and months!), it was the usual vicarious thrill of organizaing hundreds of pictures, editting hours of video, and mustering the trip report muse - all for the chance to relive those wonderful Southwest Splendor days. It's mid-November right now, and I can scarcely believe it's been 2.5 months since we saw that sliver of Old West.

Oh what I wouldn't give for some dry heat right about now...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

SWS Day 7 - Gather 'Round the Campfire

Monday, August 30, 2010 - Another magnificent RCL breakfast experience and another half-day of free-time to channel our inner cowpokes. The morning would be spent on horseback - surveying the scenery in the environs of Red Cliffs Lodge. We headed over to the RCL stables around 8:30am and found a few familar ABD faces mixed in with the faces of other RCL guests. In total, we were a posse of 16 Guests and 3 Guides.

After signing the obligatory if-you-die-no-one-gets-sued waivers, we were each issued a saddlebag to hold our water bottles and cameras while on the trail. Those who wanted one were free to select a helmet, also. One of our Guides (Jill) used some mystical combination of the rider's size and temperment to match each person to a specific horse. In all, the entire process took (maybe) 20 minutes to complete.

Once everyone was mounted up, we all received a quick lesson on how to ride a trail horse. It's at this point where I should come clean: my expectations for the morning were pretty low. First off, my experience with trail horses was such that I fully expected to fall asleep somewhere on the trail. Secondly, my kids both ride horses regularly - one of my brats being a competition show-jumper. So my fear was that they would not have a thrilling experience on the RCL 'back forty'. Remember this.

Off we went, single file, down the trail that these horses knew so very well (my steed, Rebel, included). Within 10 minutes, 3 things became apparent. One, the scenery around the RCL spread was absolutely stunning to a SW Ontario boy like me. Second, the horses would require some amount of rider control. And third, the trail was actually much more challenging than I had even hoped for.

 A gentle part of the trail.

For 2 hours we followed the rocky, twisting trail. Up the hills and down the hills we went - sometimes steep and slightly thrilling, sometimes gentlly rolling. The horse knew the way, of course, but that did not prevent the occasional stumble and slip on the rocky terrain - just to keep things dangerous for teh tourists. All along the way, our Guides kept everyone safe and entertained with stories, jokes, and genuine interest in their charges.

 Cowboys and Cowgirls need to rest, too!

It was a pretty great morning, and I was sad to find the creek we were following (in the water, that is) would lead us back to the stables. We brought our horses into the corral where the Guides instructed (and assisted) everyone in the delicate dance that is 'dismounting a horse'. I bid so long to Jill (slyly palming her a tip) and we shuffled back to our room to clean up before heading to the RCL BBQ area for lunch.

The afternoon took us back onto the ABD agenda: rafting on the Colorado River! Dan and his coach drove us all down to the put-in spot up-river from RCL. There we were met by our rafting Guides who helped us all find the proper sized life-jacket (no helmets needed that day). We split our small group between 2 large rafts - each with one ABD Guide and one rafting Guide.

Being late in the season, that stretch of the Colorado was pretty shallow and devoid of white-water (late Spring/early Summer are better times). That, coupled with very strong headwinds, meant we would all be doing a lot of paddling through the afternoon. Lest anyone feel sorry for the likes of me, our rafting Guide (Malaya) had the hardest job of all: manning 2 long oars from a perch on the stern of our raft.

Water warfare on the mighty Colorado River.

Over the span of a few hours, we paddled a bit, rested a bit, looked at stunning vistas, and took a lot of pictures. As is rafting tradition, we tried to make life difficult for the other raft by splashing and catcalling when the opportunity arose. A few paddlers even braved the chilly water - some, like Guide Chris, even trying a backflip off the bow! But eventually the fun had to come to an end, and there was the put-out spot with towels and a coach waiting for us. It was back to the RCL - and time enough to prepare for the evening's ABD Farewell Dinner.

White-water?

Since we had a few hours of downtime, our small ABD group had an impromptu party on one of the room's patio. We had all made purchases at the RCL Winery (in addition to wine they sell various cheeses and crackers) and so we pooled our goodies for all to enjoy. We tried to coax Guides Mike and Chris to join in the fun, but there are rules about drinking with Guests and so they had to politely (and reluctantly) decline to join our party. Nevertheless, we all had a great time (the wine didn't hurt) chatting, laughing, and watching the kids do the same.

Come 7pm, we all filtered over to the Dinner being held in the main lodge. There was a buffet of sorts, with steaks cooked to order for each Guest. The laughter continued (as did the wine) as we sat down at the long table that had been prepared for us. We even had old-tyme country music supplied by the RCL owner's son, Devon Dixon, and his guitar!

 Kids eat first in the Old West, I guess.

After dinner (and a few speeches), we all moved to the adjacent banquet room where a screen and projector had been setup. At our Guides' urging, each family shared a few personal thoughts about the trip we shared. It was a remarkably poignant time for some of us. We were a small group and had gotten to know each other pretty well because of that. And for some people in our group, the trip had been a once-in-a-lifetime (or maybe first-in-a-lifetime) experience. Whatever the reason, it was a moment I'll not forget.

Afterwards, the obligatory 'end of tour' slideshow was played for us - with lots of "ooohs" and "ahhhs" from the audience. It was beginning to feel like the trip was over. The evening, however, was not!

We all moved outside to an awaiting campfire - complete with all the fixin's for s'mores. Also waiting was Devon (and his guitar), who seranaded us with a medley of countrified Disney songs. We ate, we sang songs, we looked at the sugary-starred night sky, and I wanted to stay there for a very long time...

 Devon Dixon in the dark.

By 10pm, the group broke up as people drifted back to their rooms for what would be serious packing for the day ahead - the day we would all go home.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

SWS Day 6 - Nature's Fault

Sunday, August 29, 2010 - There are many perfect breakfast settings, and Red Cliffs Lodge on this specific morning is on that list. Sitting beside the lazy Colorado River, framed by red cliffs and quiet, warm breezes - it was a damn fine way to enjoy my family and my eggs.

Breakfast by the Colorado!

Still feeling the vibe from our early-morning breakfast, we donned our hiking boots, slathered on some sunscreen, and steeled ourselves for the impending hike to Delicate Arch. On our coach journey to Arches National Park we picked up our local guide, Preston - a born and bred Moab local with a fact and a story for every rock on the horizon and every bend in the road. I was especially rapt during his stories about the movies shot in and around the area because, in many cases, he had a personal anecdote to share (e.g. a friendship with The Duke and some horses for Indiana Jones).

After a quick stop at Balanced Rock, Dan dropped us at the Visitor's Center where our hike would begin. Those not interested in the hike stayed on the coach with Preston, who would take them on an alternate tour of numerous arches in the Park. My family, of course, was ready for walking the 1.5 miles over slick rock trails to Delicate Arch. The hike was not too strenuous and had just one section that was (sort of) steep and one other section that was (sort of) narrow. It was an altogether unwordly experience walking on the vast, flat fields of wind-polished sandstone. My inner geek kept thinking: Tatooine!

 The steep part of the trail.

 Our family portrait under Delicate Arch.

After 45 minutes of hiking (with rest stops) we closed in on the Arch - it being perched on the edge of what I can only describe as a sandstone 'bowl'. My words will not describe the scene, so I will let the pictures do it for me. Needless to say, the 30+ minutes (and bazillion photos) we spent there were not long enough. But eventually we had to make our way back down the trail to Dan, Preston, and the one family who opted for Preston's tour.

The coach drove us all into Moab for a few hours of free-time for lunch and exploring. The town is small and quiet, although it seems to do a decent business catering to the extreme sprots crowd (judging from some of the local shops). We opted for lunch at Pasta Jay's, which serve a pretty decent meatball sandwich along with cold beer. After our meal, we explored the shops a bit in search of a waterproof, disposable camera we could use later in the week (only to find that the RCL gift shop carries these, too).

 Moab caters to a certain clientele.

We met Dan at the appointed time and made our way back to Red Cliffs Lodge for our afternoon of free-time. For my family and a few other ABDers, we arranged (through RCL) for an ATV tour of the backcountry! No sooner had we cleaned up from hiking when our ATV guides, Cody and Dan, rolled up to the front door in vans pulling trailers packed with ATVs! We piled into their vans and we all drove out to Onion Creek (just down the road from RCL) where we would ride the dusty/muddy trails. At the load-out spot, we were all fitted with helmets, goggles, and gloves before being assigned our ATVs. My wife and I would be driving with each of us taking one kid on the back of our vehicle.

We received a driving lesson - starting, stopping, turning - before heading off with one guide up-front and one at the rear. An ATV is similar to driving a snowmobile. Being Canadians (eh!), we soon got the hang of things, although I will admit that my Northern Ontario spouse was a more adept driver than I. For the first half of the tour, we stuck to groomed trails with easy turns and minimal rocks to navigate. Earlier rains kept the dust at bay, which meant we could enjoy the scenery as we snaked through canyons at speeds of up to 35mph. Still, we were glad for the jeans and light shirts we wore since our trail criss-crossed through Onion Creek numerous times, whipping mud and water up our legs.

 ATVing was the coolest thing EVAR!

The halfway point meant a little rest, a little water, and a few group photos. Because our small group was able to handle the ATVs at such high speeds, our guides elected to take us down some more challenging trails for the second half of the tour. They were rocky, twisting, dusty, and bi-sected by deeper areas of the Creek. There were a few points where I scared myself (and my son riding on the back) by fishtailing too hard or cornering a little too late. But the breaktaking view around us was something alien-looking, and it distracted us from any lingering nervousness about my driving.

Along the way we spotted deer, lizards, and even Indian cliff-dwellings that were long-ago abandoned. And before we were ready for it, the tour was over. We put everything away in the vans and trailers before Cody drove us back to RCL.

We spent some time getting ourselves presentable for the evening - amazed by how much red dust one can carry on their body. Everyone was in good spirits since the evening would be the obligatory Adult Dinner/Junior Adventurer Night. At 14 (almost 15) years of age, my son was a little torn about what he would do, but the promise of pizza and the company of an ABD friend of similar age made his decision to be a Junior Adventurer a little easier. My 17 year-old daughter, of course, opted for the adult's table in the RCL dining room.
With my son off in another part of the Lodge, we met the other adults in the lounge for a few drinks before all 7 of us moved to the dining room. It was just a lovely, lovely evening with new friends - sharing stories, sharing appetizers, and laughing a lot. While the pickup time for the JAs was supposed to be 8:30pm, our dinner ran rather long and, by 9:30pm, the kids were 'released' into the dining room to collect their parents. We were slightly chagrined in our hopes that Guides Mike and Chris were not (too) upset with the parents!

The remainder of our evening was spent laundering the clothes we had made filthy by hiking and riding ATVs. We all needed clean jeans for the next day's equine activities!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

SWS Day 5 - Western Monuments

Saturday, August 28, 2010 - Sometime much too close to 2am, my subconsicous - spurred on by the sound of running water - tapped my bladder on the shoulder and said, "Yo! You know what you need to do." And the only thing better than awakening to that sound at 2am is the chance to quietly repair a toilet's flapper valve - the source of that sound. At some point during someone's pre-bed ritual, the chain had disconnected from the handle, leaving the toilet in a permanent state of 'flush'. It was a simple operation, and I kind of giggled (in a totally macho way) at this weird tablaeu - late night plumbing work with the Grand Canyon looking on from just a few hundred feet away.

A few hours of shut-eye later, my wife, Dee, and I were doing our 6:30am breakfast run with our sleepy teenagers 30 minutes behind us. Nearing the end of our meal, Guide Chris shouted from the door that a few elk had been spotted outside. Cutlerly clanging, 8 of us raced out the door and slowly pursued two massive elk as they sauntered across railway tracks and into the surrounding green-spaces. While the animals were wary of our quiet camera crew, they still deigned to provide a number of photo-ops for us tourists.

 Some elk hold a debate outside Thunderbird Lodge.

Our coach left the Thunderbird Lodge by 7:30am on what would be the longest travel-day of the tour - Grand Canyon to Moab, Utah by way of Monument Valley. While a DVD played to help pass the time, the real show was outside the coach windows. The rolling hills gave way to frequent sightings of colourful buttes and mesas as we grew closer to the Utah border. At the 3-hour mark, we stopped at Goulding's Lodge, located withing the Navajo reserve that surrounds Monument Valley.

As we de-coached, we were met by Mike, a local Navajo guide who be taking us for a tour of Monument Valley. Mike's conveyance was an open-air truck (of sorts) with padded benches and clear, retractable coverings acting as protection from the clouds of red dust that dominated the landscape from time to time. We found our seats and Mike - via his PA system - narrated the short drive down the highway as we made our way into the Valley. At first I found the plastic windows a bit of a nuisance for getting a clear look at the outside scenery, but as we descended down the dusty hills into the Park it became obvious why we needed protection from the elements. Fine red clouds of dust found its way into everything: clothes, cameras, hair, etc. and etc.

 Our tour coach awaits.

Once onto the Valley floor, the winds died down and Mike began naming off Monuments left and right (the kids especially liked the Left Mitten and Right Mitten). We soon stopped at a look-out where, conveniently, local Navajo merchants had tables with local jewelry and crafts for sale. It was at this stop where Mike rolled up the plastic windows on our truck so as to afford us an unobstructed view. Back on the bus, we toured the Valley some more and stopped a second time at John Ford Point. The view was amazing and it was obvious why so many Hollywood Westerns had been filmed in the area. Again, local Navajo merchants had tables setup and this time we bought a few items (at very reasonable prices). We toured some more, making one final stop where Guide Chris had our Group yell out in unison - all to experience the unique echo qualities of the rocks surrounding us.

 Mittens, Left and Right.

Mike took us all back to Goulding's and, along the way, serenaded us with his renditions of Navajo songs. While I'm sure it was part of his normal tour itinerary, there was a poingnancy in the experience - staring out at the landscape and hearing Mike singing his songs through scratchy speakers.

Back at Goulding's, it was time for lunch and I can heartily recommend their Navajo Tacos. There were a few minutes for pictures (check out the John Wayne cutout) and gift shop exploration before we began the final 3-hour leg of the day's journey. We passed through Moab and followed the Colorado River via Highway 128 (one of America's most scenic drives) to take us to our destination: Red Cliffs Lodge.

There we were greeted by attentive and friendly Lodge staff who bid us welcome and directed us to glasses of lemonade. In no time we had room keys and directions towards the outbuildings where we would be staying. It was clear that RCL was going to be a very special place - everything you might imagine a Western horse-ranch to be and more. After a few nights at the modest Thunderbird Lodge, RCL was positively palatial: oh-so-spacious split-level rooms, kitchenette, a large patio overlooking a creek and horse pastures. This would suit us quite nicely for our 3-night stay!

 Red Cliffs Lodge main entrance.

With a hour of cleaning up behind us, we met the Group for a (very good) taco dinner in the main lodge. Guides Mike and Chris gave us instructions for the following day - a hike in Arches National Park, a few hours to explore Moab, and a free afternoon at the RCL (and more!). We broke for the night after lots of leisurely dinner conversation (and maybe some wine or beer). Many of the kids dragged their parents to the pool for a nighttime swim. Dee and I elected to do laundry (facilities also by the pool) to get rid of some of the red dust we'd accumulated. And by 11pm, laundry had been folded and lights were out...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

SWS Day 4 - Grand Discovery

Ed. Note: These posts having been mighty slooooow in coming. Honestly, I've been focused on getting many hours of video edited, scored, titled, and burned (my home movies are sometimes too elaborate). Now that the film is in the can, I'm hoping to finish up these trip report posts asap!

Friday, August 27, 2010 -While the previous day entailed just a skirmish with the Grand Canyon, today would be an all-out assault! As everyone knows, an army travels on its belly, so with that in mind we hit up the breakfast buffet at 6:40am. We left the kids behind, of course, because teenagers would only slow us down. In all, it was a lovely time as we gazed out over the Canyon and swapped ABD Costa Rica stories with our Guide, Chris.

By 8am the entire Group was boarding our coach out front of Bright Angel Lodge. Joining us for the morning South Rim tour was a local National Parks guide, Robin - who I can only describe as having the vague appearence of a backwoods hermit coupled with encyclopedic Canyon knowledge and a sardonic sense of humour. Naturally, I liked the man.

As the coach made its way towards Grandview Point, Robin gave us a detailed rundown on local geography, the village of Grand Canyon, and the logisitics for the seasonal Park staff. Grandview afforded us a very different perspective on the Canyon. In addition to the elevation, the Rim is dotted with large boulders and rock columns - all perfect for unusual 'floating in air' pictures of your Loved Ones. The best/worst was a column that required the Subject to step (jump?) across a small chasm that seemed to separate the column from the Canyon Rim, itself. Once across, you are presented with a 7-foot platform of rock surrounded by, well, the Grand Canyon. My son was onboard with this photo-spot, so he and Guide Mike made the leap. My wife and daughter were totally not interested, while I eventually relented and hoped my heart would not pick this point in time to fail.

 The Boy and The Guide defy death as the
Grim Reaper (not pictured) checks his watch.

After Grandview, we travelled on to The Watchtower - an iconic (and slightly touristy) part of the South Rim affording amazing views of the Colorado River. Robin was kind enough to escort a few us around the building to point out various features of its design and the Native wall-paintings on the inside that depict the Creation Story. We all then went up top for more of Robin's lessons about the Canyon and the River. Interesting note about context: from the top of the Tower I might guess the River below to be approximately 30 feet across when, in fact, it is closer to 300 feet between shores!

 Looking inside the Watchtower at Native paintings.

By 11:30am we were back at the Lodge where we started the day's tour. Since the daily tourist train was set to arrive soon, we opted to grab a quick lunch at the nearby Maswik Lodge (cafeteria-style, but good food). I made sure to load up on the carbs because the free-time afternoon was going to involve hiking down into the Canyon!

My daughter, who has knee problems, elected to stay behind and explore the gift shops. My wife, son, and I hit the Bright Angel Trail under (thankfully) cloudy skies for a hike to the 1.5 mile rest station checkpoint. As instructed, we brought a few bottles of water for each of us and lots of salty snacks - all to ward off the surprising effects of dehydration for the 2 - 4 hour round-trip. Seriously, do not ignore the warnings about dehydration!

The trip down was a fast 45 minutes during which we descended 1,100 feet into the Canyon (it's much faster if you don't use the trail, I'm told). The trail alternated between rocky and fine sand. The scenery along the switchbacks was simply stunning, but the majesty of the Canyon was slightly dulled by the dead-eyed red faces of the hikers coming back up the trail. This is what was in store for us later in the day, I feared.

I will own this (ranked easiest part of) Bright Angel Trail!

By 2pm we had reached the rest station, where we....ummm....rested. Now was the time to screw our courage to the sticking place and face the climb back up. While I prayed my hockey-ravaged knees would withstand theclimb, my larger concern was for my son, who was obviously hot and tired. My wife was/is the strongest of us all, and I'm guessing she could likely carry us top-side on her back!

Well, we climbed and we sweated and we breathed raggedy breaths up the steady, unrelenting incline. In those areas that were steep, we found rough stairs constructed of rock and logs. We made frequent rest stops for snacks and water where we would spend our moments shooing away the greedy (and fearless) Canyon squirrels looking for handouts.

The view from the Trail.
 
But by 3:15pm we had made it to the top - all of us seemingly intact. As luck would have it, our arrival coincided with the daily 'condor talk' presented by the Park Rangers. So we spent some time learning about condors while secretly looking forward to the showers waiting for us back in our room.

We elected to have dinner at the more upscale El Tovar Lodge next door to the Thunderbird. Built in 1905, it's the one remaining log-constructed building in the area. Walking into the lobby is reminiscent of walking into DisneyWorld's Wilderness Lodge (or perhaps it's the other way around). Regardless, I was happy that my wife had made reservations the day before, because even at our 7:30pm dining time the Lounge was doing a steady business. The food and service was all very good - not the very best I'd ever experience, but still very good. What made the experience memorable for me was the feeling of being transported to another time and place. It's just something one must experience for themself, I suppose.

After 90 minutes of enjoying the El Tovar, we strolled back to our rooms where we prepared our luggage for the next morning's 6:30am pick up. This was out final chance to say good-bye to the silvery moonlit cliffs of the South Rim. Tomorrow... Utah!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

SWS Day 3 - The Mighty Canyon

Thursday, August 26, 2010 - Dee and I awoke early (again!) and quickly stole away from our comatose teens to watch the Sedona sunrise. Taking a set of outside stairs beside the Amara's spa building, we found a secluded observation deck that placed us above the treetops for a perfect view of the surrounding red cliffs. The morning air bordered on frigid, but we forgot about all that as we watched the red cliffs (near and far) suddenly light up from the first rays of the Sun. It was an amazing show - colours ever-changing as the Sun rose higher to, finally, make an appearance over the distant cliffs.

Dee greets the dawn.

By 7:30am we needed to have our luggage ready for unseen Disney elves to load up on the coach - a process that would happen while we were distracted by a final Amara breakfast. And by 8:00am Dan was driving us out of Sedona towards the day's destination - The Grand Canyon! We made a quick pit-stop on the outskirts of Sedona at a place called Airport Mesa. This is the location of one of Sedona's (in)famous 'energy vortexs' - a source of spiritual or psychic energy. I can't say that I felt anything unusual, but an inspiration for a lottery number would not have been unwelcome.

As we made our way North-ish towards the Canyon, we made a brief stop in Williams - a little town trying to build a tourist trade on the fact that the original Route 66 runs down its main street. We poked our heads into a few shops selling slightly-tacky tourist swag. We also had time to visit their 'train museum', which is fundamentally a preserved steam engine from times gone by.

The Boy gets his kicks on Route 66

Back on the road we went until lunchtime, when we stopped just short of the Canyon in a little town called Tusayan. Our lunch destination: a small restaurant called We Cook Pizza. The staff were all ready for us with a meal of pizza, salad, chicken wings, and deserts. It was nothing fancy, mind you, just a modest eatery offering decent food.

Next stop was, of course, the Grannd Canyon! We first hit up the Visitor's Centre near Mather Point. Dan parked the coach and we more-or-less made a beeline to the Canyon's edge. I found I was not prepared for two important facts. Number one: the Canyon is LARGE - much larger than I ever imagined. Number two: there are no railings preventing you from climbing over the edge (which only makes sense given the hundreds of miles of Canyon edge).

 
The Girl has her first Grand Canyon encounter.

We walked the trail along the South Rim, taking picture after picture. Around every bend, rock, and scrubby tree was a new vista worthy of a new photo. Some of us got brave and ventured out onto rock ledges for a more 'extreme' vacation memory. At one point we were even lucky enough to spot a Condor! Our stroll went as far as Yavapai Point, at which point our few hours were coming to an an end, and so we made the trip back to the Visitor's Centere to board our coach.

Our next stop was to check-in to our hotel - Thunderbird Lodge. The Lodge is close to the village of Grand Canyon and perched on the rim of the Canyon, itself. And when I say perched, I mean that one could stand in their hotel room and quite easily throw a baseball into the Canyon. Needless to say, the Canyon-facing rooms (which are standard on the ABD tour) have an amazing view. Now I know that Thunderbird Lodge gets a bit of bad rap as being low-scale in comparison to ABD's typically up-scale accomodations. As an ABD (and general travel) veteran, I will agree that's true. The rooms are small and the amenities are very simple. But I will also add that the Lodge is clean and well-maintained - and the real point of it all is its proximity to the Canyon rim. For my family, the Lodge did not disappoint in the slightest.

After some free time to rest and explore a bit, our group met for a 6:30pm dinner in a private room on the second floor of the Lodge. And, of course, there was that view again! Dinner included barbequed steak and chicken (cooked however we prefered) and a buffet with choices of potato salad, garden salads, and the like. There was even locally-produced beer (and wine) to wash down our (quite delicious) dinner. While various large tables had been set up bistro-style, our small group (who had gotten quite chummy over the past few days) elected to push all the tables together for a more family-style atmosphere. It might have been too much food, too many refreshments, or too little sleep, but I enjoyed my myself immensely!

As if the day had not been full enough, a trio of local Native Americans provided after-dinner entertainment for us all. They sang, they danced, they told stories about their culture. The highlight for me was a young fellow who did a traditional Hoop Dance - a truly incredible sight. And for the finale, our group was invited into a circle with with the performers where we learned to do a Friendship Dance. Now, I will openly admit that public displays of awkwardness - dancing included - are something I avoid, but I had a heckuva good time dancing in that circle - even if my feet may not have been totally in sync!

Native dances require a lot of feathers.

After the performers and the last of the desert had left the building, everyone drifted off to their rooms or, perhaps, a moonlight stroll along the Canyon rim. We decided to check out the Bright Angel Lodge (the Thunderbird's next-door neighbour). Even at 9:00pm-ish the gift shop was packed. But the more interesting sight (besides the Canyon) was the hotel lobby - packed to the rafters with electronic gadgets attached to spastic thumbs who, themselves, were attached to intensely focused guests all taking advantage of the free wifi. I will, also, admit to pulling out my iTouch and taking a quick spin on the Information Highway.

Walking back to the Thunderbird, we were struck at how beautiful the Canyon looks under a moonlit sky. The rocky cliffs and fearless trees all took on a million shades of silver. Standing there like that, I could imagine losing myself in that silvery vista and shuffling to my doom over the pitch-black rim. But rather than succumbing to that weird temptation, I followed my family back to our room. I was tired, and I knew the next day would require energetic legs.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

SWS Day 2 - Hit The Trail

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - The 3-hour timezone change demanded I awake at 3:30am and then drift in half-light ether until 6:30am. But I didn't mind, the Sun was brightening and the sky was bluer than blue. It was going to be a great day in the dry Arizona heat. True to form for our family, we were the first to arrive in the private dining room setup for the 7:30am ABD breakfast buffet. The food was nothing fancy - the standard hot and cold buffet offerings - but it tasted excellent. The view from the 2nd-floor terrace towards towering red rock against the sky helped immensely, I'll admit.

After eating and visiting with new friends, we all assembled on the Amara lawn to meet, Darryl, a local nature expert with his mini-menagerie of local wildlife. In between Darryl's lectures about mountain lions and other AZ critters, he produced a tarantula and snake for us to meet. The less timid in the group were invited to hold Darryl's friends for pictures and bragging rights. I was surprised at just how delicate a tarantula really is, and how squeamish my own kids could be (although my son did opt to hold the Gopher snake later on).

Dee and her new friend

We bid so long to Darryl and Friends after an hour or so and convened at the front of the hotel to meet our jeep caravan. With our fully decked-out cowboy chauffeurs at the ready, we divided ourselves amongst 3 open-air jeeps that would take us on a backroad tour of Boynton Canyon. To be fair, we would be following actual roads for our trip to the backcountry, but the word 'roads' can be a slippery one to precisely define. The Canyon roads were more-or-less trails on which the larger rocks were pushed to the side.

Our cowboy guide Lynn was short in stature but 10 feet tall in terms of bad jokes, expert driving, and deep knowledge of the outdoors.The trip was definitely an E-Ticket ride - like Big Thunder Mountain done in jeep with NASA-designed suspension. The scenery was simply breathtaking: red rock buttes and mesas, foreign-looking plant-life, and always that blue sky. On the twisting, bumpy roads we went, listening to Lynn's commentary punctuated with the occasional "Yee HAH!". At the halfway point we stopped for pictures and water before coming back the way we came. It was just a great time with some really great cowboy guides!

On the road in Boynton Canyon

By this point it was lunchtime, and our jeeps brought us all to a local cafe/restaurant in Sedona where a private room at been readied for us. Buffet-style, lunch was a spicy Tex-Mex affair washed down with lots and lots of lemonade to clear the red dust from our throats. How we'd get that dust off our clothes and cameras was a different problem. After our meal, we wandered out to the cafe's walled garden where one of our cowboy guides gave hands-on lessons in the fine art of calf-roping (complete with a practise target). For the creative, there was an opportunity to create beaded jewelry (I made a lovely pull-chain for the zipper on my camera bag).

After an hour or so of relaxing post-lunch activities, Dan brought the bus to whisk us all back to the Amara where we would have the afternoon and evening to do as we pleased. Our plans were to do a bit of hiking and a bit of shopping in Sedona. Approximately 1.5 miles from the Amara is the the trail-head for the Jordan Trail - our target for a few hours of hiking through red rocks. With a map to guide us and 2 water bottles for each of us, we set off in the 100F heat.

There is the old saw about 'dry heat' being much more tolerable than 'not-dry heat', and I'd say it's true. But let me assure you, Dear Reader, that 100F is still freakin' hot no matter how much water you're carrying. Add to that the rocky, hilly terrain of the Jordan Trail and you will have a hike to remember! Despite the discomfort and gentle whines from my teenagers, the hike was worthwhile. We rose higher and higher above Sedona and at every turn we found the view more and more impressive. We even met a lady and her horse on the trail, and I could not imagine how a horse could negotiate the rocky paths.

Jordan Trail vista

After a little over a mile on the Trail (seemed like more!), we stopped for pictures and then made our way back towards town. Downhill was much easier going than uphill, and the steady, gentle Arizona breeze kept us reasonably energetic in the heat. As we arrived back in civilization, we replenished our drinks and strolled the main drag of Sedona's shops. Our actual target was The Black Cow Cafe - recommended to us for its ice cream made from the fruit of the Prickly Pear Cactus (sans prickles). I highly recommend this treat, too. It was absolutely delicious!

By that time, our precious teenaged spawn had run out of steam and so they shuffled the short walk to the Amara where they would lower their body temperatures in the pool. My wife, Dee, and I opted to catch the free Trolley to the nearby shopping area known as Tlaquepaque. It is a lovely enclosed village of sorts - filled with varied and upscale shops. While delightful to look at, the place was devoid of people. Where Sedona's main street was teeming with tourists, Tlaquepaque looked like a creepy, creepy ghost town. We still managed to visit a few shops and spend some money, but I could never shake the feeling that the place was haunted.

Back on the Trolley, back to the Amara - it was time for showering and rest. It seemed like no matter how much I scrubbed my skin, there was always more red dust to be found. I elected to consider it a souvenir. Before long, our stomachs decided it was time for dinner - even if our weary legs seemed incapable of getting us there. Off we went in search of food. Rather than tackle the steep hill-climb from the Amara up to the main street, we had a kindly hotel staffer take us topside in an electric cart. I highly recommend that experience at the end of a long day.

While our ABD Guides has a long list of recommendations for Sedona restaurants, we took our chances at The Cowboy Club, a local eatery of some renown. Because we were toursusts, we decided to go native with their cactus fries, rattlesnake, buffalo, and antelope samplers. It was all quite good, but not exactly a vegetarian experience. For the adults, we took the edge off with Prickly Pear Margaritas. All in all, the food was fine. The service was so-so (friendly but slowish), but the ambiance of the place was kind of fun. It was not a bad choice at all, really.

As we walked back to the Amara, we took a moment to admire the Sedona night sky - an almost-full Moon and a billion stars shining bright. One could almost smell the cowboy campfire and hear the muffled melody of the harmonica. We lingered a bit longer and then strolled into the darkness - our thoughts turning to the next day's adventure awaiting us at the Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

SWS Day 1 - Red Rock Welcome

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - Today was D-for-Disney Day. Our 8:50am flight from Detroit would land in Phoenix by mid-morning local time (2 time-zones away and an extra hour thrown by Arizona's disdain for Daylight Savings Time). It was early to rise and an easy-peasy stroll from the Westin directly into new-ish the McNamara Terminal. Along the way we discovered that the Westin billing department applied some new math and left us with a full Club rate for our overnight stay (approximately double the rate we should have paid). The front-desk staff (again) apologized for the screw-up and left us with the name of an Accounting Drone who would fix everything during office hours. We were still obliged to pay the bill since the front-office folks seem to be powerless to do much of anything. Nice, Detroit Airport Westin. Very nice.

We were undaunted because it was holiday time! The flight was uninteresting, and 4 hours later we were landing in the 90F Arizona morning heat. And then.... the pixie-dust began to fall from the heavens in the form of 2 semi-retirees named Dick and Joan. They were waiting for us as we left baggage pickup, holding an ABD placard and greeting us all by name. That's right, we were welcomed with warm smiles by name! Amongst casual conversation with our new friends, Dick took our luggage somewhere secret while Joan escorted us to a shuttle that would take us to Terminal 2 where we'd meet our ABD Guides. With clear instructions, we bid our goodbyes (all the while wondering where our luggage might be!).

We had some time to kill before the 12:30pm meetup with our Guides, so we took Joan's advice to grab an early lunch at Paradise Bakery Cafe. It was good advice - excellent food. Incidently, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport bills itself as America's Friendliest Airport - and they truly, truly are. If you're a cynic like me, genuine friendliness from strangers demands immediate suspicion and nervous glances towards the dark corners. But I will testify that everyone we met in Terminal 2 seemed genuinely nice and helpful.

After our lunch and a little email-checking courtesy of the free wifi, we headed to the appointed place (near Starbuck's) where we'd meet our fellow travellers and Guides. There was Joan (again!) waiting for us. And within minutes our Guides Chris and Mike were there. It was obvious that they were great friends with Joan, with lots of laughing and hugging. Joan's next piece of advice was prescient when she let us know that Chris and Mike were two of the best ABD Guides around.

Chris and Mike made their introductions and we chatted quite a bit about our previous ABD trips (they had both led a Costa Rica trip, so we got to compare notes). Then came the semi-bombshell: there were only 15 Guests on the trip - 4 families in total! Our previous trips had included something closer to the 35-40 maximum, so we knew there was going to be a very different ABD dynamic this time around!

Sure enough, the other families - all first-timers with ABD - filtered in and we all made our introductions. One of the families had come in a day early and were already in Sedona waiting for us, so those intros would come later. Into the coach we went, and we all pondered the proper etiquette for 13 people to claim seats on a full-size coach. It was a great problem to have!

Dan, our driver, pointed the coach out of Phoenix and soon the concrete vistas gave way to brown, scrubby desert. We made a brief stop off the road to look at our first Saguro cactus - an iconic giant of the old West. For a family from the farming bosom of the Great Lakes, this was really something to see!

 The Prickly Giant

After 90 minutes of this unfamiliar (but spectacular) landscape, we made a stop at Montezumas Castle, a National Park whose centerpiece in the collection of ancient cliff-dwellings carved long ago by those who had gone before. We were met there by Doug, a local Guide who took us on a walking tour beneath the dwellings. Doug's knowledge was as impressive as his dry, cowboy humour. It was fascinating stuff, but I will admit that coping with +100F tempratures was a new experience. We knew after that stop that our hats and water bottles would be good friends for the duration of the tour. And we also learned that our coach would have a magically endless supply of cold bottles of water for us all.

We were back on the coach by 3:30pm and drove 30 minutes until we reached the Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona. This would be our home for the next 2 nights. Driving through the sleepy red rocks of Sedona's main drag, we spied an odd blend of New Age influences (crystals anyone?), expensive-looking vacation homes, and upscale-looking tourists shops. If nothing else, Sedona is lovely to look at - and their local bylaws keep it that way.

 Montezumas Castle is a lot higher than it looks!

Check-in at the Amara was a breeze. A table had been setup in the lobby where a nice lady was waiting to hand out our room keys. We were quickly in our room where our luggage was waiting for us. The hotel is compact and simply beautiful to look at. The rooms were not the biggest we'd ever seen, but they were well-appointed and the beds - oh, the beds! - were like sleeping on a cloud. With a couple of hours to kill, we all freshened up and explored the gorgeous grounds. The kids elected to soak in the pool just a little while in order to beat back the unfamiliar Arizona heat.

The Amara's front entrance.

A Welcome Dinner was scheduled for 6:30pm out on the Amara grounds. Tables had been setup with white linens and china. Appetizers were waiting on a side-table along with local beers, wines, and lemonade - all supported by Amara staff standing by. A local husband-and-wife duo, Ken and Lyn Mikell, quietly serenaded us all with some old-time cowboy songs. Mike and Chris, our Guides, presented us with our lanyards and ABD 'pin of the day' as we mingled with the other ABD Guests.

After some opening remarks from the Guides - and a special hello for my family of ABD veterans - we all dug into a Southewest-style buffet - good and spicy! For the Junior Adventurers, the Amara staff had made up plates of less exotic fare - chicken fingers and the like. All in all, it was a great meal and a perfect cowboy setting to begin our trip!

With dinner out of the way, Ken and Lyn put on a short show of cowboy songs and spoken-word poetry. It was absolutely fantastic, and I made a point to ask them afterwards if I could buy a CD of their music. And wouldn't you know it, they had some CDs with them!

After some more chit-chat with the other ABD families, the time crossed the 8pm threshold, and everyone drifted off to their rooms to get rested for the next day. And it would be a busy one - exploring Sedona's Red Rock Country!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

SWS Day 0 - Bad Moon Rising

Dear Friends - Inevitably (perhaps regretably), this is Day 1 of a 9-part trip report documenting our recent family vacation to Arizona and Utah. You've been warned.


Monday, August 23, 2010 - We were one day away from a full moon. One day away from weird s**t goin' down. But today would be weird enough without the full celestial event.

The next day, August 24th, would be the start of our latest Adventures By Disney trip. This time it would be American Southwest - Grand Canyon (although I swear it used to be called Southwest Splendors). We'd had a few options for a vacation this year, but we abided by JediBoy's (my son) wish to see the Grand Canyon - and we ended up with Disney yet again.

The goal for this day - on the threshold of a full moon - was to finish packing and then take a leisurely 2.5 hour afternoon drive from our digs in London, Ontario to the Detroit Airport Westin. This would give us more manageable logistics for the next day's flight to Phoenix, Arizona where we'd begin our Disney-fied cowboy adventures.

An hour into our drive, we crossed into the U.S. at Port Huron, Michigan as we've done many times before. It's typically an easy crossing, with fairly short waits to state one's business to a guard. As expected, we waited about 10 or 15 minutes until it was our turn to cross the border. As unexpected, the guard informed us we had been randomly selected for a vehicle inspection, so would we "please turn on your four-way flashers and pull over into the inspection area".

We parked the van where we were told and then the four of us - Dad, Mom, and 2 Teens (17 and 14) - stood in line to speak with some other official person. There's safety in numbers, and I was sort of relieved to see many other people in the same boat. It was a banner day at the Port Huron crossing, with lots of 'randomly selected' miscreants looking just as guiltly as my family.

The entertainment portion of our 15 minutes in line was provided by an obnoxious middle-aged couple who were very unhappy to have won the border lottery. They were letting a very patient guard know that they did not appreciate that 'a complete stranger' would be 'touching their stuff'. I later noticed that the couple would end up in a interview room while us lower-tier terrorists would only get counter-service. Since I could not perceive the tell-tale thwack of rubber hose meeting yielding flesh, I could only assume their interview room was soundproofed. Pity, that.

In all, the process was painless. We were met by an officer who sheepishly asked us to fill out a declaration card while he went outside to poke around inside our van. Less than 5 minutes later we were free to go (and received one guard's admiration for our 'Super Mickey' antenna topper).

We celebrated our freedom with an early dinner at a nearly Cracker Barrel (my wife's guilty pleasure). While we had lost almost an hour at the border, we were fed and read to press on to our hotel. This leg of the trip also took a bit longer courtesy of federal stimulus money clogging up Interstate 94, but we arrived at the Westin at a decent hour nontheless. Our valet - a nice fellow named Richard - met us as we pulled up to the doors and within minutes he was whisking our van away as we pulled our luggage to the front desk. I made a mental note to verify that our friend Richard was actually employed by the hotel.

The Westin was nice - open, airy, with a lovely stone-lined pond separating the lobby from the restaurant. But any thoughts of being relaxed were smacked out of my head by a confusing conversation at Check-In. In short, our reservation was gone, as in 'not on our system'. It did not matter that we had pre-paid for the night's stay. We did not exist.

It took a few minutes of tense conversation and clickety-clackety keyboarding to get to the root of our woes. The reservation we had made a few months prior had been accidently entered for July, not August. According to the Westin, we were a no-show and a month late. The nice Westin Lady assured us she could check us in as 'walk ins' at the same discounted rate as our original booking, She also gave us the contact for someone in their office who would sort out the whole 'pre-paid' room accounting. She then handed us a room key (Club level!) and bid us goodnight.

We spent the remainder of the evening sucking up free hotel wifi and enjoying expensive room service snacks. We'd survived everything the day had thrown our way. We had made it to a savepoint.

Tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow we would be cowboys.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Surfacing


September 5th? You're kidding me, right? Last time I checked it was early June and I was making my detailed plans for Summer. By the end of June I'd have the home maintenance projects done: the deck would get new stain, the driveway would get a coat of something luxuriously black, the skylight would be repaired and re-trimmed, the bricks in the garden path might (just might) get a bit of levelling.

After the must-do stuff was done, I'd get onto the want-to-do projects. I'd work some more on the fountain idea from last year, that topiary would finally come to life, the pond would get some cool lighting, some video games would get played. Connections with friends would be exercised - and exercised well.

Alas, not much of anything got done. The skylight got crossed off the list in July. The deck saw its new stain only today. The pond took a baby step towards lighting. The driveway and topiary will have to pin their hopes on 2011. The fountain is still more concept than fact. And very little in the way of video gaming got done.

Like the man said, life is what happens when you're making other plans. There were illnesses and deaths in the family - never expected, but needing lots of time. There were kids and jobs needing time. There were a hundred other of life's details seldom considered and always needing time.

But now it's September, and September has magic. It's that yearly threshold when the gears of time produce an audible click and everything is made normal and orderly. Our routines become routine again. And for a short while nothing unexpected is allowed to alter our schedules, our plans.

So even if Summer 2010 has left a sonic boom, I'm glad it's September being sucked along in the wake. I will read my books, I will play my games, I will do geeky things with my kids, and I will connect with the people who mean something to me. And if I'm lucky, September will make sure it all happens - on time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Giddiyap!


Time to unhitch ol' Black Jack and point our noses towards the setting Sun for the dusty ride westward. I'll write when I can and hope that the Pinkerton Men don't find me before the Pony Express does. In the meantime, keep yer backs to the corner and yer sideirons oiled and cocked.

I'll be seein' y'all soon, partners.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

If You Read Something, Set It Free



What do we do with books?

Libraries aside, we buy them, put them on a shelf for a bit, take them down and read them, and then put them back on a shelf. After a time, we might go back and read them again. Sometimes we lend them out to people we trust. Inevitably, they go back to their shelf to wait some more. Most of our books live on their shelf forever - collected and admired, but not feeling very useful.

It seems like a bit of a waste to me. All these ideas that someone laboured over to create. All the hands needed to print those ideas on a page and to sell those pages to someone like me. These are valuable things that deserve more than to simply collect dust for the majority of their useful lives.

I thought about all this after recalling an attempt to give one book its freedom. It was August 2008 and we were visiting Costa Rica. I was reading Joe Hill's 'Heart-Shaped Box' while on our travels and finished it late one night while a Pacific Ocean blow threatened to flood our hotel room. I loved the book, but I was thinking that maybe I didn't need to lug its hard-cover back to Canada.

My plan: I'd leave the book in the hotel room for someone else to enjoy. Lest someone think the book was left behind by mistake, I wrote a little inscription on the inside cover. I think it went something like this:

This is for you, Stranger. I loved this book and now it's someone else's turn to maybe love it, too. Whether you read or not - and if you feel so inclined - let me know what you think.

Crazylegstoo@gmail.com

P.S. And when you're done, feel free to leave your own message and pass the book along!

No one ever wrote. But in my disappointment I like to think my book felt useful to someone else and maybe it's not sitting on a shelf somewhere.

Remembering this has me thinking about my books, again. I think I have too many books that I don't need, so it's time to donate a bunch to those who might find them enjoyable. It's a tough thing, cleaning off a bookshelf, and I know there will be many volumes that I will keep just because I can't bear not to have them around. As for the others, those that will earn their freedom, I'll hope they feel as useful somewhere else as they were to me.

Spammity Spam

Anyone who takes the time to leave a comment (or read what others have to say) will notice I've turned on the dreaded and annoying CAPTCHA feature (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). This is the little hangnail that makes you repeat a random set of letters and numbers to prove that you're not a spambot. As you can guess, I've been innundated with offers of good wishes, large genatalia, and web-based fortune-making - to the point where I'm tired of deleting such shite.

So for you kind souls who take pity and leave a comment from time to time, I hope this is not a pain in the ass. And for those who lurk and nothing more (I'm looking at you Disboards), just ignore this post.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Cowboy Cosplay


There is a peculiar brand of arithmetic in my house that I like to call 'vacation math'. It goes like this: since my daughter, BandGeek, will be attending university here in London, she'll be living at home (at least for the next year or so). Since she's living at home, we've avoided the expense of paying for her to live in residence in some other university town. And since we've avoided that expense, we must magically have extra money to do other things - like taking a family vacation this summer. Don't bother to quibble over 'expense avoidance' versus 'money in the bank'. This, my friends, is 'vacation math'.

The end result of this nebulous equation is that, in a few weeks, we're off to Arizona and Utah to visit the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, respectively. The Cowboy Way dictates a leisurely survey of this part of the world, but we don't have time for moseyin' down the dusty trail on the backs of shuffling steeds. Instead, we'll be joining up with a (sort of) adventure tour to pack as much cowboy culture as possible into 8 days and 7 nights.

The plan is to do a lot of hiking, river rafting, and off-road excursioning as we make our way through Sedona, Grand Canyon National Park, and Moab. We'll even throw in a campfire or two as an excuse to empty the dust from our boots. I'm curious about the experience ahead because, truthfully, all I know about being a cowboy is what I've learned from the odd Hollywood film, my father-in-law's synopsis of Zane Grey stories, and tales from the virtual Old West.

As always, I'll promise to blog some photos and thoughts along the way and, as always, it won't work out as I'd planned. But if you'll excuse me, I need to go practise my tobacco chewin' and calf ropin'. I reckon I'll see you on the trail sometime.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Birchbark Achievements Unlocked

We arrived home last night after a week at my wife's family cottage. Even after 20-odd Summers of these trips, my feelings are still conflicted. It's isolated, quiet, and incredibly scenic. A better place for burning through your reading list, I cannot imagine. It's ageing badly, constantly in need of repair, and sports an outhouse. A better recipe for diverting your reading time towards repair chores, you will not find.

This year was different, however. Number One: we were there alone without any other family. Number Two: there were no major chores to tackle. This rare confluence of events meant that we could actually spend a week on Georgian Bay doing we whatever we felt like doing! And when a geek has a free time, a geek will do those things that make him or her a geek:

Reading: I finished all 784 pages of Dan Simmons' DROOD. I'll summarize that: I read DROOD.

Gaming: I finally got around to playing MUNCHKIN. My family - all four of us - learned to play (and love) MUNCHKIN. To satisfy any need for video gaming, I spent a lot of time wrestling Angry Birds out of my daughter's hands.

Watching: We brought a stack of Series 2, 3, and 4 Doctor Who DVDs to watch. Thanks to MUNCHKIN, we never actually got around to watching them.

So while a few of us got the DTs from Internet and Xbox withdrawl, I feel like we probably sustained at least a faint glow of geek. But it's still good to be back in a world where porceline is readily available.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Filler Post

The Theater (or Theatre) will be closed for the next week or so to afford the staff a well-deserved break from cleaning sticky floors, spooning congealed grease from the popcorn machine, and taping old pieces of film together for cheap matinees. The Manager (that's me) will be heading to the family cottage in Parry Sound, but we'll be traveling there via Sudbury. That's how the Settlers did it and Settlers made this land great!

I won't be counting on Internet access for the next week and I'm bloody ticked that we're going to miss Day One of SCOTT PILGRIM 6 on July 20. But when I get back - if I get back - I'll be ready with a post about a family trip being planned for August that I'm calling 'The Red Dead Redemption Cosplay Tour 2010'. Pretty catchy, huh?

Until then, don't break the Internet.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shameless Promotion


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There's this young lady I know who, in just a few days time, will be embarking on the adventure of her lifetime (so far!). Nisha - just barely 18 years of age - will be spending the next year of her life in India under the auspices of the Rotary Young Exchange program.

She'll be blogging about her experiences throughout the year to allow us less adventurous types to see India through her eyes. And since Nisha is - in all the ways that matter - part of my family, I'm going to offer up her Nisha In India! bloglink here (and in the sidebar to the right) in case any Theater patrons would like to join the ride.

Remember, Nisha: we're watching!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Die Was Cast Early

 I recently finished Achtung Schweinehund! - a first-person account of one man's lifelong relationship with table-top wargaming. I won't review the book in this post, but if you're at all curious you can find a semi-literate opinion or two over at All Your Basecast (episode 13, also available on iTunes!).

While I did enjoy reading about Harry Pearson's obsessions, an unexpected consequence was having the dust blown off some long-ago memories of my own experiences with wargaming. It had been years since those memories had lit up my neural pathways, but Pearson's reminisces eventually teased a few mementos out of the quiet corners of my past.

Going back to my teenaged years (somewhere in the late 1970's), my pasty-white friends and I spent countless hours constructing small-scale WW2 tanks and warships. It didn't hurt that my friend's family owned a local hobby shop and were only too willing to extend us the deep discounts we used to amass our armies. Meticulously constructed and painted, our legions of British, American, and German military hardware spent their most useful hours in a friend's garage, where we had constructed an elaborate gaming table - complete with landscaping, beachfront, and the bombed out villages we copied from Kelley's Heroes.

I cannot recall very much about the rules for our campaigns, although I do remember they were furnished and refereed by a friend's older brother. It was all about math: how much a Tiger Tank could move in one turn, how far the Graf Spree could lob 11-inch shells at a 32-degree angle from its watery outpost, and so on. Games would run hours, days, even weeks, with the winner typically chosen by attrition rather than brilliant tactics. Winning was never really the point of it all. It was the 'act' - selecting, building, painting, arguing, and being together with like-minded geeks.

Thinking about all this led me to recall even more ancient geekery from my past. It was a board game my father brought into the house when I was 10 or 11 years old: Richtofen's War. This was not the typical Monopoly or Candyland style of boardgame. This was different.

The point of it all was to simulate WW1 arial battles - all white knuckles on joysticks and canvas stretched over wooden frames. I remember the board being an arial view of some European countryside, with an overlay of honeycombs to guide various pieces of cardboard with pictures of airplanes on them. There were dice involved and a set of rules that seemed to me like 100 pages of inscrutable gibberish. I desperately wanted to make the game 'work', but I could never explain the rules well enough to myself or my friends.

Like I say, I hadn't though about model tanks or cardboard Sopwith Camels in years until Harry Pearson's book came along. Richtofen's boxed set of WW1 has long since passed from my family's hands (probably into a dustbin somewhere along the way). As for my plastic tanks and ships - so lovingly put together all those years ago - they were handed down to my brother when I moved away to attend school in another city. I'm pretty sure they, too, have been consigned to the municipal dump. But these are good things to think about, if only to confirm that I Am Me, and always have been.