Home again

I guess we picked a good long weekend to be in Tucson instead of here — we missed the winds, rain, thunder, power outages, and general havoc. Instead, we had temperatures in the 60s and low 70s, gentle rain one evening, and way too much food.

We also had a steady stream of messages from our house sitter telling us what we were missing, including photos of our late TV antenna. We’re supposed to have DirecTV come out next week and install a new dish; I was going to try very hard to get them to bring out a receiver with OTA capability (and still might) but it’ll need a new antenna, too. This one is beyond repair.

The high point of our touristing in Tucson was the afternoon we spent at the Pima County Air and Space Museum — we were lucky enough to get onto a Boneyard tour as soon as we arrived, and afterwards, wandered around the museum proper for several hours. Photos are on Flickr.

But most of the time was spent with Diane’s relatives, talking and enjoying their company.

Restaurants worth mentioning:

  • El Charro Cafe (on Broadway) — as always, tasty authentic Mexican food
  • The Good Egg — as always, good, filling, reasonably-priced breakfasts in a pleasant environment
  • Viro’s Italian Bakery — an Italian deli with decent food, decent gelato, and very reasonable prices
  • New Delhi Palace Cuisine India — they make a good Chicken Tikka, and their “Karhai” (wokked) vegetables were a nice change compared to normal Indian restaurant fare

But despite the good food and company, it’s good to be home again!

Still a hotel to avoid

Joel Spolsky recently wrote

I’m sad to say that the Congress Plaza Hotel where we did the event at this morning does not qualify as anyone’s palace. The usual nice words you might use to describe such a hotel would be “threadbare” or “shabby.” Other words (“maccabre,” “Barton Fink,” and “scuzzy”) come to mind. This was entirely my fault; I set a target budget for hotels in each city and didn’t do the research to make sure the hotels would be entirely nice.

I remember the Congress Plaza Hotel as the “host” hotel for The Second International World-Wide Web Conference on Mosaic and the Web back in 1994. It was tired and grubby then, and I assumed it had been chosen to accommodate student budgets. They offered conference attendees the chance to have an RJ-11 jack installed in their rooms at the trivial price of $75 — my boss kicked in for the “upgrade”, and I’ll bet he had to pay for every phone call, too. I was lucky — the hotel was filled by the time I made my reservation and I had to stay at a Hyatt a few blocks away.

I guess there’s a niche for shabby hotels, and it’s good to know that it’s being filled by true experts in the field.

Better than the Centennial Dome

The 100th anniversary of the War Between The States Civil War was, unsurprisingly, a Big Deal in Richmond. One of the ways in which it was celebrated was by building a special temporary museum downtown, the Virginial Centennial Center, and, as a schoolkid, I was taken there on a field trip.

I don’t remember many of the details, though I’m pretty sure that the exhibits slanted towards The Lost Cause view of the war; I do remember that they had some interesting dioramas portraying key battles, with moving lights and other high-tech 1960s effects.

The Centennial Center closed in 1965, though the building still remains (though it’s due to be demolished soon). But now there are two Civil War museums side-by-side in downtown Richmond, next to the James River and Kanawha Canal. One is part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park; the other, The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, is run by a private foundation. They share a parking lot, which is convenient.

We went to the Park Visitor Center first, picked up a virtual geocache, watched the movie, and poked around a little before walking down to Shockoe Slip for lunch and a real cache. Then we walked back and visited the American Civil War Center, before returning the the Park Visitor Center to finish the day.

Both museums were better than what I remember of the Centennial Dome, but if I only had had time for one, I’d go to the Park Visitor Center. It told the full story, with much less repetition, and with fewer noisy displays. And it was free. I don’t mind having gone to the Civil War Center, but one visit there was enough (they do, however, validate parking!).

Cemeteries and Silly Ass Toys

We’re in Richmond for the first time since my Mom’s funeral, so our first stop was her grave. It was the first time any of us had seen the marker, and of course Diane and Jeff had had to miss the funeral last year, so it was an emotional stop.

But then it was time for something completely different: a trip to Dave’s Comics and Silly Ass Toys so Jeff could pick up the current batch of comics in his subscription and we could talk with Dave, Marlon, Wendy, and Sheryl about old times, old friends, new toys, taxes, and spam.

Most of those topics aren’t of much interest to anyone but those involved (and taxes and spam will, I’m afraid, always be with us), but some of the toys were interesting. Dave showed us a Laser Star Projector — but he didn’t have one available for sale at the present time, so I won’t link to it. I will, however, sing the praises of one toy we’ve had for a few years, the Airzooka, which I really ought to bring into the office for those days where shooting something would be a good idea except for the consequences!

Dave recommended The Tavern in a small shopping center across the street, and it was a good choice. Not too noisy, all non-smoking (I think that’s still an issue here), tasty, and friendly. Worth another visit.

After that, we spent the rest of the afternoon in another cemetery, Hollywood Cemetery. I hadn’t been there in many, many years — when I went as a kid, I remember being somewhat frightened by the signs at the entrance reading “One Way In”. Those signs were gone, but the permanent residents remain, including two US Presidents (John Tyler and James Monroe) and one Confederate President (Jefferson Davis, of course). And one possible future president wanted to have his picture taken with all of them, but I’m only going to post one, at least tonight:

We also visited the Confederate section, where I found a monument to the Jewish Confederate dead with an oddly-transliterated version of the Sh’ma:

Apparently that spelling was used in the Prayer for the Confederacy, composed by the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Ahabah here in Richmond. I don’t know if it was supposed to be Yiddish or just idiosyncractic; I sure had never seen it before.

We finished our tourism for the day with a quick trip to Oregon Hill so I could show Diane and Jeff where my grandfather’s grocery store used to be, as well as some of the other sights I visited driving Shiva last year.

Then we headed back to my brother’s house where we finally saw them (they were asleep when we got in last night and we were asleep when they left for work and camp this morning), though we had exchanged phone calls during the day. Then dinner, a little geocaching, blogging, and now to bed….

The Oregon College Shopping Trip

We’re just back from a trip to Oregon, mostly to look at colleges. We flew up on Tuesday night on a pretty full Alaska flight to Portland and then drove down to A Creekside Garden Inn in Salem to spend the first two nights. Our scheduled arrival was a bit later than normal for our host, and we got in even later, but when we called, she said she’d do her best to stay awake for us, and she did. But soon after our arrival, everyone trundled off to their respective bedrooms. And so ended the exciting first day of the trip.

The next morning, we had a tasty breakfast, and headed to Eugene to visit the University of Oregon. Our tour started at 12:30pm, so we decided it made sense to leave as early as we could, and arrived about 11am, ready for lunch. We tried to go to an Indian buffet across the street, but they weren’t open; on our way back to the car, we were accosted by a faculty member, who noticed us looking at a map and offered to help us. He suggested Mekala’s, a Thai restaurant, which hit the spot quite nicely. Then we returned to the University for our private tour and information session.

We weren’t actually supposed to have a private tour, but I guess not many high school juniors get the days before Memorial Day off. Jeff did, because Wednesday was Shavuot and Thursday was Shavuot for non-Reform Diaspora Jews, and the school wasn’t silly enough to try to bring people back for one day before a three-day weekend.

At any rate, we did get a private tour of the campus; Oregon, unlike the other schools we visited, was still in session, since they follow a quarter calendar rather than the traditional semester schedule. But we hadn’t made arrangements to visit any classes, so that the only real effect was that the campus was humming. It seemed much smaller than the University of Arizona — and it was certainly much greener! They had lots of nice buildings and the usual Bed, Bath, and Beyond fake dorm room (though they were the only school we saw this trip with the sponsored room); the guide talked a bit about the classes and the professors, and he praised the career center and the president (who seems to like interacting with students). Our information session was similarly private; the counselor gave us the admission requirements, which are very straightforward, pointed out that, unlike UC and CSU, they don’t have “impacted” courses or facilities, and gave us some general good advice about taking notes on visits and applying to meet early deadlines if at all possible.

Then we wandered over to the student-oriented business area just off campus, poked around the bookstore, went to look at the Hillel House (which was closed because of Shavuot), did a cache, and drove back to Salem for dinner. After looking through the menus at the B&B, we chose Boon’s Treasury, one of the local outposts of the McMenamin’s Empire; it was a little over a mile away, so we walked there. Jeff had wanted the pasta on the menu, but the menu was several years old, and the pasta was no longer on order; he coped, and we all enjoyed our meals (especially dessert), finishing just before the music started at 8:00. A fairly brisk walk home followed, to work off the dessert, and we were all in bed early.

Thursday, we checked out but left our car at the B&B and walked to the Oregon State Capitol where we watched the House debate
Senate Bill 707, revisions to the Bottle Bill, adding bottled waters to the list of beverage containers needing a deposit. I was surprised by the intensity of the debate, since I would have thought it was a very straightforward updating of the law. Clearly, I’m not an Oregon grocer, nor a legislator with ties to the grocery business! (The bill passed.) We also visited the Senate, but I’m not sure what they were debating (they were less organized than the house), and climbed to the top of the building. Oregon’s Capitol Building is very much open to the public — you don’t even have to go through a metal detector to enter, nor to enter the galleries. It was a refreshing change.

We looked at the menu of the Capitol Cafeteria and decided that we’d do better in the open market, so we walked down to Salem. Jeff wanted pasta after his disappointment of the previous day, but it was suprisingly difficult to find. Eventually, though, we stumbled across Alessandro’s, which filled the bill quite nicely. Then we did a quick cache (though the only reason we could log it was that its owner took pity on us and showed us exactly where it was) and walked to Willamette University.

Again, we were the only customers for the tour; Willamette is a much smaller place than University of Oregon (about 2000 students total), but the tour still took the customary hour. Then we had a session with an admission counselor, where there were no real revelations. I guess Willamette’s biggest draw for Jeff would be its location, just across the street from the Capitol. It’s easy to get an internship with a legislator (maybe with a lobbyist, too), and they often eat at Willamette rather than the Capitol Cafeteria!

From Willamette, we returned to the B&B via Caffe Gelato, which I can highly recommend. Then we drove to our Priceline-selected Portland hotel, the RiverPlace.

So far, we’ve been lucky when getting hotels through Priceline; the locations have been good, as have the rooms. This was no exception; we were near the south end of the Waterfront Park, a couple of blocks from the Portland Streetcar. The only downside was the nearly-mandatory valet parking, but that was going to be the case at any downtown Portland hotel, and saving nearly 50% on the rooms made it much more tolerable. So did arriving just as the chocolate chip cookies were put out!

We had dinner at Cypress Restaurant, a couple of blocks away; it was ok, but not thrilling, and I’d look elsewhere on future visits. But it was pleasant eating outside, looking at the waterfront. Then we hiked across town to Powell’s City of Books, where enough hours vanished that we felt more comfortable taking the streetcar back to the hotel than walking.

Friday, we had two schools to visit. Reed College was the first; we arrived almost an hour early (the traffic on Thursday had put the fear of God into me, unnecessarily), so we poked around the campus for a while before going to the Admission Office for our tour. As usual, we were the only customers.

Reed is…different. It’s strictly undergraduate; it expects a lot of its students (including a serious senior thesis), but it grants them a lot of freedom and respect in return. We met with the Dean of Admissions, Paul Marthers, before our tour, and had an interesting discussion (somehow, the normal discussion of the admission logistics didn’t happen), and then had a very personal tour of a very pleasant campus. I know that I would have liked to have known about Reed when I was looking at colleges!

After Reed, we had to make our way to Lewis and Clark College. Fortunately, we had enough time to stop for lunch; we stopped in the first interesting looking neighborhood with parking that we found; it turned out to be the Sellwood area. The restaurant we stopped for (the one with the parking lot) was closed, so we walked around and found Mekong Vietnamese Grill. It was worth the walk, though not worth a special trip back.

We continued on to Lewis and Clark, which was the most organized of any of the schools we visited. They had a sign up welcoming us, along with the other families visiting during the week; this was the only school where we had to share the tour. Our guide took us all around the campus, into many dorms and classroom buildings, and I really felt that I got to know the place. I also got the impression that they view Reed as a rival, while Reed doesn’t particularly notice that Lewis and Clark exists. As our guide put it at one point, “Reed is scary.”

Lewis and Clark’s distinction is their devotion to internationalism. All students are required to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language, and more than half of their students do a term (or more) away, mostly overseas. I’m not sure if this is a good fit for Jeff or not (the language part, especially), but it definitely provides an angle to judge the school. The question of languages came up during Jeff’s interview, too (this was the only school where he had an Official Interview By Himself).

And then we were finished. So we celebrated, first by having some delicious Umpqua Ice Cream at the Little River Cafe on the waterfront, then by going back to Powell’s. Finally, we had dinner at La Terrazza on Morrison (which advertises itself as “Casual Italian”, unlike La Terrazza on Salmon, which appears to be more dressy). It was perfectly serviceable (the bread was excellent) and not too heavy, which was perfect for the evening.

Today, we had breakfast at the Little River (much better than what we’d had yesterday at the hotel), checked out, and then drove to McMinnville to see the Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation Museum. We knew we’d only have an hour or so for the museum, so we were happy to discover that they reciprocated with The Tech. The Spruce Goose is enormous; the other planes were also interesting, and I could have easily spent more time poking around. But our 737 awaited.

En route, we stopped at Pasta La Casa for a quick meal; I thought it was better than La Terrazza, but not outstanding. Still, it was a pretty good find for a strip mall chosen more-or-less at random!

We got to the airport with plenty of time; we spent a good part of it in the Made in Oregon shop, buying wine. I was a little worried about being able to fit it in the carry-on space on the plane, but I needn’t have been — there were only 20 or so people on the plane, and they had to reassign seats for weight and balance. But there was plenty of overhead space!

All in all, it was an educational trip in many ways. These schools seemed to appeal to Jeff more than the ones we’d visited earlier, and I won’t be surprised if he applies to some of them. And if we wound up with reasons to visit Oregon more often, I can’t say that I’d be disappointed in that, either.

And home again

We decided to avoid the Grapevine again (though there was nothing on the traffic reports that really indicated a need to do so), and thereby found ourselves in Bakersfield for lunch. Our original plan had been to eat at the Apple Shed in Tehachapi, but they quoted us a 20-minute wait, and there wasn’t 20 minutes worth of browsing in the shop, so we continued.

We weren’t feeling very adventurous, so we waited until we started seeing recognizable signs — I was ready to give up and go to Baja Fresh, but when we pulled into their parking lot, there were a number of more interesting looking restaurants to try. We ended up at Flame and Skewers, which served “Mediterranean” food (in other words, shwarma and kebobs), which was a great choice, especially since we’d spent the previous 90 minutes listening to Israeli music on Radio Hanukkah. After looking at the business cards at the restaurant, I doubt that they were serving Israeli food, but it was quite tasty and certainly in the right spirit.

And then on to home. Total driving for the trip: 2104 miles, most of it spent listening to Radio Hanukkah, which now has 24 minutes left in this year’s edition. It’s definitely downhill from here!

Drive, he said!

We finished our Tucson stay with yet another trip to The Good Egg (one more visit and we get free meals!); then we picked up Diane’s Dad and SO and took them part-way to her son’s house. When we last saw them, they were sitting in the Wendy’s at the Outlets at Casa Grande, waiting to be picked up (this was, of course, according to plan, though it’s still somewhat disquieting to abandon family in the middle of the desert).

From there, we took our chances with Phoenix traffic (although the Jam Factor was Green according to XM Traffic, we sure hit some slow going), but it only took us an hour or so to get through the city. And at 1:30, we were once more seated in Silly Al’s Pizza in Quartzsite for another late lunch. The place was even smokier than last time, but still worth it.

I’m not sure that stopping for gas at the Flying J at Arizona Exit 1 was worthwhile, though — sure, we saved 40 or 50 cents a gallon compared to California prices, but we only needed 5.5 gallons, and there was a line at the pumps.

The rest of today’s driving was uneventful, though we did hit some slow traffic just after CA-60 branched off — slow enough that I tried out the “Detour” function on our Prius nav system. It told us to take the adjoining road, which was what I planned to do anyway.

We’re overnighting at the Dynasty Suites in Redlands, which is a fairly standard 3-diamond motel. The most interesting thing is that they play classical music in the parking lot — I’m almost afraid to ask why.

There are a ton of franchise restaurants near the hotel (Long John Silver’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell, and El Pollo Loco are all within a two-minute walk), but we hoped to do better. So I turned to the oracle — Google Maps. And it delivered Eastern Classic Thai Restaurant, which was a great find. Jeff ordered Thai Green Curry and ate all of it, so I can’t comment on it, but Diane and I traded our dishes. She ordered Mint Leaves Chicken (with sliced chicken rather than the default ground chicken), which was very tasty; I had “Crying Tiger”, which is grilled beef with a hot sauce on the side — delicious. The restaurant was almost empty, which is a shame given the quality (and reasonable price) — I would go back happily if I were ever in Redlands again.

No sightseeing or geocaching today — driving was the priority of the day. It’ll be the priority tomorrow, too. 400 miles if we take the Grapevine.

Low energy, low impact

Today was probably the most restful day of the vacation so far.

We started with breakfast at the apartment; then Diane and I joined her Dad for a “tai-chi” exercise session. We were the only visitors, and were the youngest people in the room by a good margin. It was a good workout — I used muscles which have been neglected for a while (at least for the duration of the trip, and probably longer than that).

Then we talked for a while before having lunch at El Charro Cafe (I now have a $10 credit as a member of their frequent diner club — I guess we’ll have to come back within a year!), then some miscellaneous shopping (including a walk to eegee‘s and a drive with Jeff to Charlie’s Comics) and more talking before having dinner at New Delhi Palace (and I was right — it was better at the restaurant than as take-out). Finally, we watched the DVD that Diane’s Dad had bought at Kartchner Caverns.

Tomorrow, we hit the road for home. It will be a long day, and it will start far too early in the morning. *sigh*

They were right

Many people told us that we should be sure to see Kartchner Caverns on this trip. And it was included in the Tucson Attractions Passport, so we were even more motivated to go.

So, after breakfast at Diane’s Dad’s apartment (two days in a row of The Good Egg was enough for now), we set off for Kartchner Caverns. And it was well worth the trip. They don’t let you take your camera into the caverns (they do a lot to preserve the cave, including misting you on your way in and hosing down the path every day!), so I have no pictures to share, but their web site shows a little of what you’ll see if you go. You do need to make reservations in advance, because they only allow a limited number of people a day through the caverns, again, to help preserve them and keep the cave a living cave.

We’d watched Dark Star a couple of weeks ago; in so far as the movie has a theme song, it’s Benson, Arizona, so I was happy when I realized that a trip to Kartchner Caverns would also give us the opportunity to visit Benson, at least for lunch. Our first attempt at that was at Gallenano’s, but one breath of the smoke-filled air inside sent us reeling back to the car. The AAA TourBook listed three restaurants in Benson, and there was no “smoking section” symbol for the Horse Shoe Cafe, so we drove over there and were delighted to see a sign at the entrance saying that it was completely non-smoking. And the food was good, too. Recommended.

From Benson, we continued to Tombstone. We began our visit with a trip to the Boothill Cemetery (we even found the “Jewish Memorial” way down at the bottom of the hill). By the time we reached the main part of town, it was pretty late, so we contented ourselves with strolling down Allen Street, with a short stop at the OK Corral so that we could log at least one cache on this trip.

Then it was back to Tucson. Diane’s Dad likes to eat at Furr’s Family Dining, but it’s on the other side of town from his apartment, and he no longer drives, so we stopped there for dinner. I don’t think I’d go back on my own.