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Experiences in Baltimore, MD

Archive for January 2011

Road Trip days 22-28: Los Angeles, part II

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The tricky thing about being in a big city was that we were presented with too many options, too many things to see, too many things to do. Too many things to eat, though we mitigated this last one by shuffling eating days from our trip to the woods (report coming soon). (Fortunately?) all the traveling had left us too weary for more than a minimum of nighttime bacchanalia, so we really only had to pick which of the sights were worth seeing. One of the lucky picks was the Science Museum, boasting exhibitions on ecosystems, modern technology, mummies and more. Pretty edutaining and interactive; my personal favorite was the Kelp Forest ecosystem, which let you take a closer look at the nested biospheres hiding just off our coastlines.

Another Planet

Since we didn’t manage to sell my car until the very last day, we further had the luxury of simply routing our transportation past anything that merely had to be seen, such as Rodeo drive or the Walt Disney Concert Hall shown below.

Of the future!

Another must-see part of LA was the famous Venice boardwalk, which we found to be surprisingly devoid of boards…

Venice "Board"walk

..although it totally made up for that in wide beaches and picturesque sunsets…

I'll be there...

…and an endless supply of musical hippies, burned-out trippers, insane entrepreneurs and just plain wackos. And the Sidewalk Café, whose apple pie gave it the dubious honor of being tied with McDonald’s for worst food experience of the trip.

Butter Up Butter Down

As the sun began to set and our minds began to boggle at the freakshow of Venice, we headed north towards another well-known beach locale, Santa Monica. Although it probably wasn’t as packed with impressions as its southern cousin, the many that did present themselves were of an entirely more consummate character.

I’d honestly never heard of Muscle Beach before I came there, but my friend obviously had. Giddy as a child at Christmas, he rushed across the sand and started doing pull ups and acrobatics on the monkey bars scattered across the beach. In attempt to dismiss the awful apple pie that was ruminating in my stomach, I dutifully climbed 30 foot rope and then played around with the swingarings until we were allowed to move to the pier.

Although not quite as misleading as the Venice Boardwalk (since it does encompass a pier), the Santa Monica pier is really a small amusement park complete with shooting galleries, rides and cotton candy. Just like Griffiths Observatory it has been featured in a bunch of movies, though in my case it was completely and eerily tied to the Bloodlines computer game. Although I’m certain that we would have found thin-bloods living under the pier, we settled for walking to the end of it. Staring out at the pacific surrounded by fishing hobos, it was easy to convince oneself that this was indeed the edge of Western civilization.

Santa Monica

The rest of Santa Monica was quite nice as well. There’s a large pedestrian area for which my friend had an unhealthy appreciation. On the bright side it offered plenty of dining options when we found out that Kua’Aina burger had closed. In the end I agreed to give a vegan restaurant a shot as part of the L.A. experience; I asked the waitress which dish might convince me that vegan food wasn’t a pretty silly idea, and was presented with vegan tacos containing seitan and almond cheese, as well as the usual beans and veggies. Verdict? It tasted surprisingly good, hardly distinguishable from a regular chicken taco. But it also cost about twice as much, so I can’t say that it dispelled my low regard for the concept of vegan food.

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Written by Martin

2011/01/25 at 18:09

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Road Trip days 22-28: Los Angeles, part I

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Having passed through the Valley of Death, the next and final stop was our pro forma destination, Los Angeles. My very first impression there was… entirely appropriate: our map claimed that one of the beaches in town had a campground, which seemed at least as nice as the forest glades we’d gotten accustomed to. Alas, there was no campsite access at night, but in the process of discovering this I had an almost magical experience of taking off my shoes and walking through the sand out to the pacific ocean, with the waves lapping at my feet and seagulls crying above. The smell of the sea, in the middle of the city. Very cool.

With the beach plan being unrealizable, we instead went to a hostel in West Hollywood. “Orbit Hotel” ended up being our home for the entire stay in LA, despite plans otherwise, and WeHo turned out to be a rather chic hub of youthful art and fashion. We spent some time checking out the quirky stores of the neighborhood, and it quickly became apparent that Los Angeles is a fundamentally strange place. Even though I might imagine living there, this underlying off-ness would take some adapting to.

A fundamental weirdness

After purveying the neighborhood we headed up to the celebrated Griffith observatory, which offered the first of many chances to recognize the place you are at as the setting for a scene in a movie or video game you’ve experienced. I’ve tried this before, in New York for instance, but it was a whole ‘nother story to have it happen several times per day.

Griffith Observatory

With James Dean long gone and the telescope not quite state-of-the-art any more (though I hear one can make an application to make use of it), it seemed that the overlook mainly served as an extremely popular date spot. Even though it was mid November and somewhat chilly, there were innumerable couples hanky pankying all over the areas. Not that I blame them, it was both pleasantly quiet and offered some great views of the city:

City of Angels

It would have been a silly statement of non-conformity to return to the hostel by any other route than Hollywood Boulevard. I’m not sure what to say about it: it is what it is, shiny stars on the pavement, bright light movie palaces and an endless stream of tourist shops. Mandatory, unique but probably not everything you imagined. Pretty photogenic, though:

Twinkle Twinkle

Written by Martin

2011/01/19 at 16:36

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Road Trip day 22: Death Valley

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After three weeks of driving we had finally reached the fabled state of California. We stopped at the state line to fire off our remaining Chinese firecracker-tanks and take a whizz, the photos of which I will spare you from. As for the tanks, it should perhaps not come as a great surprise to anyone that one of the three misfired and self-immolated. With this out of the way, we headed for our first stop in the Golden State: Death Valley National Park.

Once again, I was astounded by the degree of variety in the national parks of America. Even though this was our third rocks-and-desert park, it was entirely unlike White Sands or the Grand Canyon. The initial views of the place were craggy scenes of lifeless volcanic rock, beheld in blistering heat and complete solitude.

These are bad lands

A bit of driving took us past these badlands and into the equally lifeless valley proper. Honestly, I’ve never been anywhere that was so clearly a valley between two mountain ridges; I kept getting images of the Valley of Kings in Egypt, images that in light of my previous statement were obviously completely fabricated. Impressive, in any case.

The Valley of Death

The most notorious features of this barren place are the salt flats. Found wherever large bodies of water are allowed to evaporate, the minerals left behind form expansive ‘lakes’ of salt. A very strange sight indeed, you have to constantly remind yourself that you aren’t walking through a snowscape. The patterns formed can be quite interesting, but the real draw is the knowledge that as far as the eye can see the ground is coated in a fell bit beautiful product of millennia worth of natural events. Not entirely ineffectual at conjuring biblical images.

The Lord cometh...

And if you thought the salt flats were an evangelical font, check out this Jacob’s ladder:

...and shineth His light upon thee.

Written by Martin

2011/01/15 at 18:23

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Road Trip day 21: Vegas

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We left the Grand Canyon as the sun began to set, and arrived in Las Vegas that same evening. Encouraged by the mass-media, I was pretty hyped about the whole thing, and my excitement wasn’t exactly dulled by seeing all the bright lights and extravagant casinos, not by being invited into a stretch limo by some tattooed chick. We exited the interstate early to take in the full length of Las Vegas boulevard, before arriving at our Circus-themed casino hotel (of possible Fear & Loathing fame). A much needed shower later and we were out the door to the Bright Lights City.

A recreation of The Hangover would have been fun, but not really practical in light of our planned departure the next day. Don’t worry, we did go out for drinking, gambling and general debauchery, though by the end of the night I can’t say that I was particularly impressed. The casinos were truly remarkable: the sights of the world rendered in neon and packed onto a single street. Cannons firing, volcanoes erupting, and the ludicrous Luxor light-beam visible from miles away. But once you got inside, they all had the same endless sea of slot machines and poker tables; no togas in Caesar’s Palace, no pirates in Treasure Island, no pharaohs at the Luxor. Granted I’m not a gambler by heart, but they really didn’t make the experience very appealing. And the place was entirely focused on spending money. Nice shopping arcades (love the Venetian’s), overpriced shops. Strippers galore, $15 entrance fees. Plenty of booze to help you handle the madness, at a cost. Win big, lose bigger. Color me a square, but I couldn’t really get into it.

Light up the night

Bored with the standard Vegas fare, we instead tried to hunt down the top choice for gourmet burgers in Sin City. Before we arrived my partner been having about a place he’d gone to in Amsterdam, and it seemed like they had a restaurant in Vegas as well. Given that he had repeatedly claimed that it was the best burger he ever had I was pretty pumped for that as well, until we found out that it wasn’t really the Amsterdam chain. There did seem to be a number of high quality burger joints available though, and our intermittent fasting made it entirely feasible to try a whole bunch of them. We started out at Stripburger, where I had an effing good blue cheese and bacon burger and a delicious spiked butterscotch shake. A good start, but the follow through was decidedly lackluster. We set out on foot, headed for the Burger Bar despite its lack of Dutch origins, but managed to arrive five minutes after they had closed (who closes in Vegas?!). On the way there we’d stopped by Bradley Ogden’s at Caesars to confirm that they’d be open till four, but when we returned at a quarter to they had closed regardless. All in all we spent the latter half of the night walking from one burger place to the next without ever getting a burger with goat’s cheese and grilled portobello mushroom, and in the end ended up at Subway just to get something to eat.

You win some, you lose some.

Written by Martin

2011/01/07 at 14:33

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Road Trip days 20-21: Grand Canyon

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If I had to point to a single ‘best’ experience on the trip, this would be it. Truly a natural wonder that everyone should make the effort to see for themselves.

Aside from the 75% increase in gas prices as we approached the national park, the most noteworthy part of getting there was how close you could get without really noticing the canyon. We were driving along the South rim, perhaps a hundred feet from the edge but not noticing anything aside from a peculiar emptiness behind the trees on our left. Then, suddenly, we see this:

Canyonous

I took about a hundred pictures trying to get that one shot that really summed up the experience, but ultimately failed; it’s simply not possible to capture the vastness of the Grand Canyon in a photo. Once I realized this I was free to fool around with other motifs, and promptly produced the album cover of my companion’s second solo album:

Solo Album Cover #2

We hung around the edge for hours, walking back and forth a bit and just looking out into the canyon. True, it’s not like there was much else to do, but it would have been worth the time in any case. As an added bonus, this let us see the canyon by a different light, which had a rather profound effect on the view:

A different shade of red

Once the sun had set there wasn’t anything to see of course, but as a pleasant surprise there turned out to be a seminar on astronomy arranged by the rangers, with a talk and some outdoors action to boot. Funny thing too, since I’d been talking about learning to recognize more constellations just the day before. Apparently they have such seminars every night, on subjects ranging from astronomy to the history of native Americans in the area. Great service, says I.

On the second day we hiked down the Kaibab trail, getting about halfway to the bottom on the canyon before we had to turn back. Fun to get a different perspective on the place, and if one had the time it would be great to get all the way down to the Colorado river. In our case, however, we needed to be in Vegas that same evening, so about four hours of hiking would have to do.

First member of the Scandinavian Explorers' & Adventurers' Club

Written by Martin

2011/01/05 at 16:49

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Road Trip days 19-20: Arizona

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New Mexico had been a bit strange, though undeniably alluring. Arizona on the other hand, was exactly the kind of desert one would expect from the American Southwest. Even though it meant missing the petrified forest, I had made sure to have our route pass by Saguaro national park.

Saguaro

Even though the saguaro cactus is probably the archetype of its prickly kin, it’s actually only found in the Sonoran desert in Arizona, plus a couple of places in Cali and Mexico. The national park near Tucson had hundreds of them, sprawled over miles of hilly desert. They grow to be rather huge (saw a 5m one there), but it takes decades for them to do so; all the ones with arms would have retired had they been human beings. Like many wonders of nature, however, they’re pretty sensitive to changing environments. Too cold and they start dying, occasionally assuming the shape of giant robots in the process:

Robo-Saguaro

We wanted to get some Mexican food in Tucson, ended up having some temporal complications (long story). Our gain, perhaps, for on the way out we happened upon a restaurant that had been recommended to us by four independent friends and acquaintances. Most widely recommended restaurant, actually. And it’s not even a restaurant, to be honest. I am speaking of the In-n-Out burger chain, a fast food place serves burgers, fries and drinks. And cheeseburgers. And Double Double burgers with two patties and double cheese. That’s it, pretty much. Hyped much? They certainly weren’t outstanding in the grand scheme of burgers, but the patties were alright, accessories plentiful and the Double Doubles cost like $3.

Double Double

We then headed north towards that acclaimed hole in the ground, by way of the Red Rock scenic byway in Sedona (another one of my researched scenic spot). It was indeed a scenic drive, and I thought the red mountains were pretty impressive. Of course that’s mainly because we were driving North, towards the Canyon, and therefore still had some awe left for colored mountains. Always watch the movie before reading the book, right?

Red Rock. Literally.

Written by Martin

2011/01/01 at 18:11

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