Thursday, July 31

20 Days Of Vacation

Day 11: Montezuma Well, AZ

This and the cliff dwelling a few miles to the west were named by retarded cowboys who thought the Aztecs lived here, or some other fool notion. The truth is they were used by the Sinagua, an enigmatic prehistoric people whose traces can be found all over the southwest. (We will pay a visit to their neighbors, the Anasazi, later in our 30 day virtual vacation.) Unlike many other ancient sites, Montezuma Well has few domestic structures. It also isn't really a well.

The site was form when a cave collapsed, and the sinkhole was filled by a spring. As it is located smack dab in the middle of the desert, it's no wonder both humans and animals have used it for millennia. It is small in area, only a football field or so across. Around the rim can be seen a few remnants of mud brick structures, possibly one room dwellings or food storage facilities. A short hike to the bottom allows interesting views of the blue water, aquatic plants, and the occasional turtle. If you're lucky enough to be alone, rest under the stone overhang, listen to the birds, and reflect on the scratches on the walls from visitors of past centuries.

Hiking back up, the trail continues over the southern rim. Here a cool and verdant path leads to the exit point of the spring. Water tumbles out of the rocks, over a million gallons a day, and fills ancient irrigation ditches built by the Sinagua. This is one of my favorite spots in the southwest. It still feels alive with the spirit of a people who long ago abandoned the site. It is a good place for quiet contemplation, beside the cool waters of the ditch, under massive smooth-trunked Arizona sycamores, watching fish in the creek and listening to the breeze and birdsong.

This is one of four excellent and unusual, but less well known, ancient indian sites. To the west Montezuma Castle sits high in a cliff face, farther west Tuzigoot is a small city built on a hilltop, and to the northeast are the remains of rooms built in the recesses of a promontory in Walnut Canyon.

Teasers on this trip: copper, corn, vortex, sliding jail

Wednesday, July 30

21 Days Of Vacation

Day 10: White Bird, ID

Pride yesterday, shame today.

This is a sad place. It was the site of the first battle between the U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo, or Nez Perce, nation. Although the army was soundly defeated, the whole affair could have been avoided if the whites had just dealt honestly from the beginning. The Battle at White Bird may have been a victory for the Indians, but it marked the eventual decline of their culture after numerous other skirmishes with American forces. The ending is the all too familiar one: a native people decimated, relocated, cheated. For those who wish to read more, this
National Park Service pamphlet is an excellent history.

I found this place on a business trip driving from Spokane to Boise. The region in between is beautiful forest, river, and prairie, dotted with Lewis and Clark adventure sites. I plan to go back someday and explore this breathtaking land, and the native culture that belongs to it. For now I am haunted by the memory of standing between two hillocks on a cold afternoon, with miles and miles of open grandeur, a leaden sky crying fitful tears, the feel of ghosts who have been wronged hiding in the grass. About the only positive experience from this brief stay was my education of a people, and a greater appreciation for an iconic American hero, Chief Joseph.

"From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Teasers on this trip: I know nothing about the Clearwater and Flathead rivers; all the more reason to return

Tuesday, July 29

22 Days Of Vacation

Day 9: National Archives, Washington D.C.

The struggles for American independence took place in every colony, Massachusetts and Virginia are the prime examples, and in places beyond the reach of established institutions of the day. Our nation's capitol is not the birthplace of our country, but it is its heart. Washington D.C. is where the will of the people is exercised, the place where our shared values are most in evidence. From the seats of federal power to the resting places of our honored dead, to visit here is to know that the public owns these monuments and parks, and that the current government exists only by the public's consent. It is hard not to bloviate and swell with patriotic pride when surrounded by expressions of ideals that changed the world.

This is why the National Archives is my number-one place every United States citizen should see. On display are numerous historical documents from four different centuries. The greatest of these define our country and are presented center stage: The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights. There before your eyes are the signatures of John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and all the founding fathers. There is the original ink, the parchment passed through the hands of history, the compromise of differing views, the hotly debated words of We the People. I wish every high school senior was required to see it.

On my second visit, a guard explained that the documents can be mechanically lowered to an underground vault safe from nuclear attack. A woman next to me asked "Why? Are they worth money or something?" I wanted to strangle her. I bit my lip and remembered to uphold our founding principles of equality and freedom of speech, even for the aggravatingly stupid. After all, each of us has the right to opinion and ignorance, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to others.

This sounds cliche and pretentious. But I dare you to come to Washington, tour the memorials, explore the Smithsonian, visit the Capitol rotunda, view a session of Congress, and not puff up a little. Come on. I dare you.

Teasers on this trip: stand tall and look around you

Monday, July 28

23 Days Of Vacation

Day 8: Golden Gate Bridge, CA

This is a beautiful sight, no?

I must have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge a hundred times in my life, but it wasn't until I had all 3 children that I walked across it. I shouldn't have waited. Beneath you pass passenger ships, tankers, and sailboats. Travelers you don't see include sea lions, sharks, even the occasional whale. To the east is San Francisco Bay, the city skyline, Alcatraz, and a whole continent. To the west the Pacific rolls on and on and on until it touches the shores of Japan. The feel of the wind, the smell of the ocean, and the sound of the gulls contibute to the bridge's many moods, which change depending on the weather, season, and time of day. I look forward to traversing it one day during an early morning fog, or a strong rain or an autumn sunset. is informative, although disappointing for a cultural and historical landmark 50 miles from the center of the computer industry.

Teasers on this trip: Presidio, Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Red & White fleet

Sunday, July 27

24 Days Of Vacation

Day 7: El Tovar Hotel, AZ

Today is Sunday, so why don't we go have a nice late lunch? I've chosen a place with a surrealistic view of both space and time: the
El Tovar Hotel.

At the turn of the 20th century, America was still discovering its natural wonders, but hadn't quite grasped the unique identity of them. So we imitated the lodges and hotels of Europe, finishing them with a western personality. The El Tovar is an example of the robust architecture prevalent in the early national park system. A broad porch allows for ample seating, providing welcome shade from the Arizona sun. A large entryway leads you to the lobby, a cavernous space of log rafters, chandeliers of geometric stained glass, mission style furniture, and obligatory mounted animal heads. Besides the lobby seating and fireplace, there are two gift shops, a small cocktail lounge, some interesting history on the
Fred Harvey Company, and the dining room.

In keeping with its Victorian style roots, this is a fine dining establishment. Not quite the Waldorf-Astoria, but fancier than you might expect for a place frequented by tourists and hikers. The main dining hall is beautiful, constructed of native stone and the same sturdy dark woods of the lobby. The decor is rustic upscale; subtle artwork pays tribute to the desert landscape and Hopi culture. I had been here several times before I realized there was a second dining area behind the first. Although it is smaller and less elegant, I prefer it.

For here large windows reveal an incomparable panorama. I doubt any other restaurant table in the world has such a jaw-dropping view. Order a glass of wine, an appetizer, and the superb trout. Enjoy a tantalizing dessert. Sit quietly with your companion and marvel over the coral and peach and rust expanses of the
Grand Canyon. Reflect on the billion year history revealed in the canyon walls. Marvel at the power of a river to create it all. This is more than a pleasant meal. This is a revelatory repast. Savor.

Teasers on this trip: mule, kachina, condor, awe

Saturday, July 26

25 Days Of Vacation

Day 6: Pinecrest Lake, CA

Time for a refreshing dip in a lake, and one of my favorite places for that is at
Pinecrest. This small lake sits in a corner of the Sierra mountains at 5,600' elevation. It is drained in the winter, when everyone goes instead to the Dodge Ridge ski area up the road. Locals and tourists start to swarm the lake in late spring when the air is clear and warm, the water clear and COLD. In my teen years every Memorial Day weekend, some guy would drive his Amphicar straight into the lake, while onlookers gasped, then laughed. This semi-officially kicked off the summer festivities for the regular crowd.

The broken spine of the Sierra Nevada range rises east of here, topping out at 9,620' Sonora Pass. Spring lasts about 6½ days there, so plenty of glacier and snow melt rush down the mountains to fill Pinecrest. The water has a silky-mineral brainfreeze quality to it, pure and invigorating. It's hard to stay in too long if you aren't in the warmer shallows. This makes it perfect for trout, though, and the lake is well stocked. The picture to the left is typical of the shoreline, great granite blocks thrust out into the water, pines receding into the ever higher distance.

Despite the crowds, this is a beautiful spot with areas for quiet introspection, if you're willing to work for it. A four mile trail meanders around the lake, over granite and meadow, beneath stone cabins and towering ponderosas. At the midway point (the "back end" of the lake) you can deviate due east and strike your own path up the Stanislaus River into the wilderness.* It's tough to describe the grandeur of Sierra birds, waterfalls, achingly blue sky, wildflowers, and the ever present dark grey stone to someone who hasn't seen it. I spent so much of my teens and twenties tramping through this part of California that I can feel the throb of the Sierras in my blood like a potent drug.

There is no other spot on the Earth quite like this. At first glance it appears to be just another mountain lake resort. But Pinecrest has a dual personality. The west has its fishing, swimming, paddleboats, ice cream stand, and bikinis by the yard. The east has the unspoiled vigor and rugged confidence of young California, inviting to those with strength of heart and character. It is a soul calming, mind restoring, magical place.

Teasers this trip: whatever you empty out of your head

* NEVER hike into wilderness areas alone or unprepared.
* Check with the Forest Service for local regulations and permits.
* Inexperienced hikers should remain in well-established recreation areas.

Friday, July 25

26 Days Of Vacation

Day 5: Balboa Park, CA

From extinct animals yesterday, to live ones today. San Diego is rich in California history and the Latin culture that gave birth to it. The heart of the city is Balboa Park, an urban playground of museums, architecture, gardens, and music. This is kind of an obvious choice, but no trip to southern California would be complete without a visit to the park's crown jewel, the
San Diego Zoo.

I can't really say much about this destination that wouldn't bore you. I mean, you have been to a zoo, right? Maybe, but you haven't been to this one. For almost a century it has been famous not only for its collection of animals, but for its botanical gardens and conservation efforts. These efforts are obvious in the care and attention to detail in every exhibit. The zoo has been a pioneer in enclosure design and enrichment programs, resulting in beautiful, spacious habitats for the occupants while allowing for great viewing by visitors. The staff is the best I have seen at educating the public about wild species and our conservatorship of them.

This is a LARGE zoo. Bring comfortable walking shoes and spring for the tram and skyway tickets. The baby panda is extremely popular, so expect a long line (and be quiet!) My favorite not-to-be-missed exhibits are the Galapagos tortoises, Gorilla Tropics, Tiger River, Sun Bear Forest, reptile house, and the world famous flamingo lagoon just inside the entrance. Be sure not to overlook the botanical specimens (the agaves and euphorbias are splendid) and keep your camera handy. This is an excellent zoo for photography.

Balboa Park has a lot going for it, but the zoo is only one of three major animal attractions in the area. The San Diego Wild Animal Park (35 miles northeast) and Sea World (10 miles northwest) are other options for an extended stay. Bring your credit cards!

Teasers on this trip: Hotel del, Old Town, Cabrillo, cross the border

Thursday, July 24

27 Days Of Vacation

Day 4: St. George Dinosaur Tracks, UT

One of the great things about touring the American southwest is the myriad dinosaur related side trips. They range from magnificent places like the remote moutainside boneyard at Vernal, Utah to the small but impressive display at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. I've seen dinosaur tracks for free on the Navajo reservation and on vertical red sandstone cliffs. For abundance and variety of unique specimens, however, it's hard to top the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site.

You won't find any life size reproductions or assembled dino skeletons here. Young children may see it as just a bunch of mud colored rocks, but for the older dinosaur buff and scientifically curious, there are rare treasures on display in this warehouse-like building. Discovered only eight years ago, the site has already made a large impact on paleontology. There are a few dead bones to be found, but most of what's been left behind are hints of how Jurassic creatures lived and moved.

The most obvious displays are the dinosaur footprints, dozens upon dozens of them, some single, some in trackways. The largest ones were made by dilophosaurs, but there are a number of smaller ones made by some as yet unidentified animals. These were the megafauna of their time. Even more interesting are the smaller bits scattered here and there: insect trails, turtle rubs, mollusc shells, plant root castings, burrows, fish fossils, seeds, plant impressions, the list goes on. The truly rare and bizarre are the fish and dinosaur swim tracks, tail drags, skin impressions, even a depression left by a sitting dinosaur. It is a sandstone text book offering a view of an entire ancient ecosystem and the interdependece of the organisms in it. It is a prehistoric Rosetta stone, waiting for us to solve a thousand riddles of evolution. Fascinating and captivating.

This is an active research site, with new discoveries being made all the time. (As evidence of this, check out the huge pile of rocks out back.) Some finds haven't even been properly classified yet. There aren't any prettied up displays or fancy fonts. You tread across concrete and sandstone, separated from the Do-Not-Touch pieces by nothing more than a rope. That's why I like it. It's a peek inside an active and engrossing disipline, and if you squint real hard, you just might see that dinosaur swimming toward you, breathing and alive.

Teasers on this trip: canyons, wildlife, Weeping Rock, Shakespeare

Wednesday, July 23

28 Days Of Vacation

Day 3: Tennessee Aquarium, TN

Today we jump across the Big Muddy for the first location involving my obsession with fish. Public aquariums feature high on my list of things to see when site-seeing. In California, the Pacific currents are cold, the rivers fast and clear. On a business trip to Chattanooga, I discovered the
Tennessee Aquarium, showcasing aquatic life from warm Gulf waters and slow, muddy rivers.

This is a big place. A zig-zag ramp starts at the top and winds down around the building. The walkway descends past large tanks surrounding the open but dark interior, slips in and out of small halls, back to the large tanks, and back again into brightly lit rooms with views of the Tennessee River. It's an unusual set-up, quirky even, but lends a sense of discovery as you round corners from the large to the small, the dark to the light, the swift to the calm.

There are the requisite sharks, but there are also some truly impressive tanks here. One is a two story monstrosity with a fishing boat on the surface, sun loving sportfish like bass and crappie in the upper water column, huge lunker catfish at the bottom. Another is a vast empty space with fast swimming Gulf species like tuna and tarpon. What is hard to convey is the scale of these exhibits. You are pressed close to a wall of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, fish of every description zipping past your nose, or floating up lazily to peer at the possible snack on the other side of the glass. There are plenty of exotic species such as the
arapaima (one of my personal favorites) in the submerged Amazon forest. Or the Tim Burtonesque giant spider crab, leg span 15 feet. It's the only place I've ever seen a leafy seadragon. For a real treat with the kids, go underneath an enormous tank and peek out through portholes to get a fish's eye view of a coral reef. A recent addition is the Anarctic Penguins' Rock.

It is with the regional speices that the Tennessee Aquarium truly excels. There is an exceptionally good hall of turtles, from the clownish pig-nosed to the nightmarish alligator snapping. The open and airy swamp exhibit is worthy of an hour's stay. Practically at your fingertips are alligators, ducks, fish, and a swarm of pond turtles in a perpetual mating swim/dance. If you are so inclined, you can pet a sturgeon, make faces at river otters, puzzle over a paddlefish, or relax in the peaceful butterfly habitat. All in all, the Tennessee Aquarium ranks as one of my top three in the country.

Teasers on this trip (I sampled only the last one): Ruby Falls, Chickamauga, the Smokies, BBQ

Tuesday, July 22

29 Days Of Vacation

Day 2: Star Trek The Experience, NV

If ever there was a place to indulge your inner geek,
this is it. Located inside the Hilton resort near the Strip, this has all the elements of hyperbolic, over the top, gee whiz sci-fi excess, all with a Las Vegas twist. You enter the large area devoted to dorkitude through, of course, a themed casino and bar area. Various light-up zappy things are everywhere, the decor a furious and curious collision of depression era Logan's Run combined with Forbidden Planet on acid. Even if you're not a gambler, it's worth a dollar bet just to pass your hand through a light beam that activates the slot machine tumblers. Neato!

The Promenade, although shorter than I'd like, is a vague representation of the Deep Space Nine set. Here you can peruse various Star Trek souvenirs, from action figures to Starfleet wear to expensive gadgets like phasers and starship models. Once, I even saw a replica of Captain Kirk's command chair, complete with a detailed painted cutout of good ol' James T. From 30 feet away, it looked pretty cool. If you can't find something to covet or roll your eyes at, leave now. It only gets worse.

Across from the Promenade is Quark's Bar and Restaurant. It is here you're likely to be fleeced by a Ferengi or accosted by a Klingon. Sidle up to the bar (more zappy stuff) and demand a Tranya, or a Romulan Ale, or a Warp Core Breach. Order up some targ ribs, or Holy Rings of Betazed, or a hamborger. Seriously, go to the web
site, click on the restaurant link under "What is..." and check out the menu. It's insane in its unapologetic geekiness. At this point, NASCAR fans will bitterly berate Star Trek nerds with epithets strong enough to break the Organian Peace Treaty. For true and unabashed Trekophiles like me, the inside jokes, self-deprecation, trivia drops, and absurd coolness cannot be matched by any other attraction.

Most likely, though, the reason you're here is the two rides: Klingon Encounter and Borg Invasion. I won't say much about these, other than they are not rides in the conventional sense, but total sensory immersion into the Trek universe. Painstaking set details, costumed actors with a script, and holy sh-- special effects make either of these unforgettable. The transporter effect that sends you into the future is one of most baffling and surprising things I've ever experienced. At that moment you can almost believe you really are being "beamed up."

For my money, however, the best thing about Star Trek: The Experience is the area leading up to the rides. Rather than just wait in a boring line, you wander through the world's largest collection of all things Trek. Costume pieces, props, stills, you name it, line the balcony walkway, all presented in a sort of future museum exhibiting relics from Federation history. Many a fan has stood gaping at stuff they saw on their favorite show, amazed at how cool or cheesy it is in real life. Easily the best part of the trip, tickets can be purchased separately, and you can exit before the rides. Also here are LARGE models of starships suspended from the ceiling. The original Enterprise, Enterprise-D, Voyager, and others are all here, suspended in mid warp, glowing and blinking in a way that communicates with the adventurous "what-if" in us. Flanking these are large screens which periodically show retrospectives of the franchise: a piece on the Captains, or starships, or aliens, or some other wow-I-loved-that memory. Wistful, inspiring, and familiar; my inner twelve year old loves this place.

Unfortunately, this ultimate Trekkie Mecca is scheduled to close on Labor Day this year. Even if they relocate the displays somewhere else, I doubt the environment will be as all-encompassing as it is now. Plus, you'll undoubtedly have to pay more.

Teasers on this trip: Shark Reef, Red Rock Canyon, Hoover Dam, Fremont Street light show

Monday, July 21

30 Days Of Vacation

It seems everyone I know is taking a summer vacation. For the first time in 10+ years, I won't be. I will take one by myself after the remaining kids go back to high school, but it's not the same as the family week-long summer vacation in a rented house, or motels, or camping. Plus, with starting up two new radio stations we purchased in the last five months, I really couldn't get away anyhow. I've been overwhelmed with helping steer our corporate ship. It's been rewarding, to be sure, but I haven't had much time to reflect on just "me" stuff. What could I possibly write about that's of interest to anyone, if I'm not interested myself?

Then, while quietly jealousizing over
Tiff's and others' vacations, it hit me. Time for a change-up, and set myself a challenge. Every day for the next 30 days, I will visit a favorite place I have found on family vacations or private wanderings. Some are lifetime favorites, others are pleasant surprises you won't find if you look for them. Please join me on a virtual vacation. Heck, write about some of your own so we can all relish in the wonder of places unvisited!

Day 1: Samoa Cookhouse, CA

We start our trip with a meal at the
Samoa Cookhouse near Eureka, California. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Take your pick, but bring your appetite, because the Samoa Cookhouse serves food like nowhere else I've ever been. Dating back over 100 years, this old building was used to feed the lumber industry employees, many of whom lived in the tiny company town of Samoa just down the street. The appetites of lumberjacks and sawmill workers are legendary, so it's no surprise that the Cookhouse continues in that tradition.

The first thing you notice upon entering is the chalkboard menu. The second thing you notice is the wood-floored hall with rows and rows of picnic tables. If you are the linens and sommelier type, this is your first and only clue to hightail your pretentious butt back south to San Francisco. Because, here? You're gonna sit where you're put and eat what you're given. On Wednesday night it might be fried chicken and potatoes with green salad and bread and butter. On Friday it might be fried fish with corn on the cob and minestrone soup and bread and butter. On Monday it might be thick slabs of pork or beef roast with mixed vegetables and bean salad and bread and butter. All washed down with icy frothy milk and the best black coffee in the history of history. Don't like what they're serving that night? Tough. Go hungry.

Oh, but what you will miss. Plastic table cloths laid out with thick cream-colored ceramic plates and bowls. Giant salt shakers and creamers and coffee cans stuffed with napkins. Silverware you could used to repair an RV engine. Sharing your bench with a coupla Harley dudes. Rubbing elbows with a shy lanky teen. Helping the kindly senior lady across the table to servings of apple pie. Chatting across, down, behind you with folks you've never seen before, and probably have next to nothing in common except this desire for REAL food, dammit, and the desire to share in our most primal ritual with others of an extended tribe. And all around you little kids chase each other around the lumber-era museum pieces, babies bounce on laps, grandparents revel in the closeness of their families, tourists recount the day's escapades, and always always always the super efficient and strong waitresses pass huge stainless steel pots and melamine bowls back and forth from the huge kitchen, everything steaming and clanking and clattering and giving rise to aromas that make you want to eat twice your weight in simple stuff you never thought could taste so good. And it never stops. You keep eating, they keep bringing.

The Samoa Cookhouse is one of the the best restaurants in America. I have driven three hours, each way, in a day just to eat there. I've been in fancier, older, more heralded eateries across this country, but none better or more original. Go and enjoy. Stop by again on your way back home for breakfast, and pay closer attention to the history that soaks into you from the sturdy planks and sawmill memorabilia. It'll last you all the way home.

From here, you can go north or south to enjoy the spectacular northern California coastline and superlative sequoia sempervirens. I'll let you discover those on your own. But a few teasers: salmon fisheries, Avenue of the Giants, Paul Bunyan, and Roosevelt elk!