Category: Travel

Day Eight: Much, Much Better!

Austin City Lemons
Austin City Lemons

Okay, I get it. Austin is pretty cool. We started the day in line at Franklin Barbecue. It’s usually about a three hour wait, but I’ve heard it can be up to five hours or longer and they run out of food every single day. We were very lucky and only had to wait for an hour an a half. They did run out of ribs before we got inside, but the brisket, sausages and sides were more than worth it. Donna actually preferred Franklin, but I am Team Salt Lick all the way.

After lunch, we headed over to HOPE Outdoor Gallery and followed that up with a leisurely stroll up and down South Congress Avenue. It was a hot and sunny day, but thanks to the super awesome Austin City Lemons stand, we managed to stay cool. Post lemonade and shopping spree, we went out on the lake with Lone Star Riverboat for a bat cruise, but once again, our plans were foiled. There was to be no mass exodus on this day.

Slightly disappointed, we consoled ourselves with some damn fine pizza at Home Slice before turning in for the night.

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Day Seven: Tejas

Sixth Street. Austin, Texas.
Sixth Street. Austin, Texas.

Cattle, white pick-up trucks and oil fields. Jesus H. Christ. Are we there yet? And what is with all the fucking crickets?

Eight hours and 500 miles later, we finally made it to Austin. Before we checked in to our hotel, we stopped at The Salt Lick in Round Rock for some ribs, brisket and blackberry cobbler a la mode. Oh. My. God. BBQ heaven! This was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life — definitely the best BBQ. Texas takes their BBQ very seriously and we have a shit ton of BBQ places on our list to try, but this place is already my favorite.

After checking in to our hotel, we headed downtown and wandered around a bit. Sixth Street was underwhelming. I really liked the food truck culture and indoor/outdoor set-ups of a lot of the bars and restaurants, but I just wasn’t feeling it today. A good friend of mine recommended Sway for an awesome Thai dinner. Tomorrow we’ll be spending the whole day in Austin and hopefully will get a better sense of what this city is all about.

Day Six: The Truth Is Out There

Aliens at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico.
Aliens at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico.

Roswell was so much fun! We got a parking spot right in front of the International UFO Museum and Research Center and were the first ones in when they unlocked the doors at 9 AM. After taking WAY too many photos of the ridiculousness, we bought some souvenirs and then stopped at Alien Zone and took even more ridiculous photos. Truthfully, you only need a couple of hours in Roswell to get your alien fix, but I am so glad we stopped.

We went to Cowboy Cafe for a late breakfast before heading on to Carlsbad Caverns. I have wanted to see the caverns since I was a little kid. We did the self-guided tour, which took a little more than two hours. Seeing the caves and learning about the history of the park and how it evolved from a “one guy with a lantern” type of operation to an elevator and an underground cafeteria was really amazing.

Originally, were hoping to see the mass bat exodus that occurs nightly, but the bats’ schedule did not jive with ours. We still had a lot of driving to do before we could call it a day, so we had to pass on the bats. There is apparently a large bat colony under a bridge in Austin, so hopefully that will make up for not seeing them in Carlsbad.

Texas, here we come!

Day Five: We Did Not Make A Left Turn At Albuquerque

The Wigwam Motel on Route 66 in Holbrook, AZ.
The Wigwam Motel on Route 66 in Holbrook, AZ.

Most of today was spent in the car. We stopped at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ on Route 66 for a quick photo op before heading on to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. There are numerous trails and scenic viewing areas in the park, so we stopped periodically, walked around and took lots of photos. Then it was back on the highway for a lot more driving.

We stopped for lunch in Gallup, New Mexico and had an amazing meal at Jerry’s Cafe. Why didn’t anyone tell me about sopapillas before now? Fried bread with honey? Yes, please!

After our bellies were full, we got back on the road and started making our way towards Roswell. Once we got past Albuquerque, there wasn’t much to see. We drove through miles and miles of very flat ranch land and didn’t see a single building until we got to Encino, which is the most nightmarish little town I have ever laid eyes on. It was right out of a Steven King novel. Needless to say, we did not stop.

Several hours later, we finally made it to Roswell. We haven’t seen any little green men yet, but the dude at the gas station was kinda sketchy.

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Day Four: Sedona

The view from Bell Rock in Sedona.
The view from Bell Rock in Sedona.

Red rocks and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. After the obligatory stop at Chapel of The Holy Cross and an awesome lunch at Creekside Sedona, we met up with a few good friends and hiked down to a swimming hole in Oak Creek under the Midgley Bridge. There are some gentle rapids that rush over a smooth section of rock, forming a natural slide.

After cooling off, we got back in the car and drove a few miles east to do a short hike near Bell Rock. We climbed up to a spot that provided excellent views of the surrounding peaks and rock formations. Even on an overcast, drizzly day, it’s not hard to understand why people fall in love with this place. I’ll definitely be coming back.

Day Three: “Bobby! Cindy!”

A tree along the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
A tree along the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

We got up at 6 AM this morning, splashed some water on our faces and grabbed a light breakfast in the hotel lobby. By 7:30, we were on the road, but between driving an hour back to the canyon, parking and taking the shuttle bus to the trailhead, we didn’t begin our descent into the canyon until almost 10 AM.

After reading the trail map, we immediately adjusted our goals for the day. There are about 400 rescues in the canyon each year and we did not want to be rescue #401. We chose a route we felt was appropriate for our fitness levels and timeframe and agreed that we would turn back before we got too tired. Although we didn’t quite make it to our desired halfway point, we still managed to hike down about 1,200’ and got to enjoy some absolutely stunning views before making the 1,200’ climb back up to the rim.

It’s very easy to see how people get into trouble here. Being overly ambitious in this environment can kill you. Accidental injuries aside, too much ego and not enough water or common sense is all it takes to put yourself in a really bad situation.

After a post-hike lunch, we drove back to Williams and visited the wondrous wildlife drive thru preserve that is Bearizona. Goats, deer, wolves, bison, bears… In a word? AMAZING!

And speaking of amazing, if you have never done the drive from the Grand Canyon into Sedona, I highly recommend it. I have a new appreciation for how beautiful this country really is.

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Day Two: Grand Canyon Or Bust

South rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset, looking north.
South rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset, looking north.

After checking out of our hotel in the Yucca Valley, we took a few side roads through the Mojave Desert to get to Route 40. The Mojave is Bleak with a capital B, but it was really interesting to see how quickly the landscape changed as we crossed into Arizona. The desert gave way to green pastures and we saw rain clouds on the horizon.

We checked into our next hotel in Williams, AZ and then drove about an hour north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The first thing that struck me was how much vegetation there is along the rim of the canyon. I always thought the area surrounding the canyon was much more barren. What really amazed me is that you can’t see the canyon until you are right on top of it.

We had just enough time to hit a few of the viewing areas along the south rim before the sun started going down and the rain started. We drove back to Williams through dueling thunderstorms, complete with lightning and a fiery red sunset to the west. Photographs cannot do this place justice. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen and that is not hyperbole.

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Day One: Moving Day

Water main break on our street in West Hollywood.
Water main break on our street in West Hollywood.

So. Today was an interesting day. One water main break, two moving companies, eight hours and seventy-five boxes later, we are no longer Los Angeles residents.

On the way out of town, we stopped at Kitchen 24 for one last amazing fried chicken sandwich and then it was three or four hours of highway driving before we could settle in for the night.

We arrived at our hotel near Joshua Tree National Park around 7 PM. After finally being able to take a shower, we grabbed some food and then started planning our itinerary for the next couple of days. My eyelids are already closing as I type this.

Next stop: The Grand Canyon!

San Diego Comic-Con 2015

Life-size Stormtrooper at the LEGO booth.
Life-size Stormtrooper at the LEGO booth.

A lot has been written lately about how inaccessible San Diego Comic-Con has become to the average fan. Between the ridiculous ticket situation and $700 per night hotel rooms, I am inclined to agree. The cost and logistics involved in attending SDCC put it out of reach for most who aren’t industry insiders or friends of industry insiders.

I was able to attend the event for the first time this year, only because I am a member of the latter group. Friends in weird places. Or something. Badges were secured at the last minute, along with a hotel room and parking at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, all gratis. My girlfriend and I left Los Angeles on Thursday morning and a mere two and a half hours later, we were smack dab in the middle of Nerdville, USA.

When we first pulled into town, I was blown away by how much SDCC is embraced by the city of San Diego. Obviously, it brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the local economy each year, but residents and businesses really get into it. The valets at our hotel were all wearing Batman t-shirts and the front desk folks were decked out in Captain America apparel. Buses, trains and entire buildings were wrapped with giant advertisements for movies and TV shows. Restaurant employees, cab drivers and security guards all seemed genuinely happy to have us there.

Giant Conan ad.
Giant Conan ad.

Yes, it gets crowded. 130,000+ people invaded downtown San Diego this year. And yes, it’s a giant marketing opportunity for movie studios, publishers and toy manufacturers. That’s okay. These are the people who make the things we love.

A little patience goes a long way at Comic-Con. Two of my friends were almost trampled to death by rabid Game Of Thrones fans when the cast walked onto the convention center floor. Although my previous statement is a slight exaggeration of the truth, that is the only negative thing I heard about all weekend.

Spoiler alert: I had a great time! Everyone was smiling. People were excited to be there and generally polite. Whenever I did accidentally bump into someone, or got bumped into, the exchange of apologies was cordial and enthusiastic.

Having fun at Comic-Con doesn’t require waiting in line for three days to get into Hall H or getting up at the crack of dawn to try and snag every single exclusive item from every single booth. I bought a couple of cool toys and some awesome t-shirts, ate really good food at local restaurants, hung out with friends and even got to meet a few artists and celebrities.

A lot of creativity and hard work goes into this event every year and seeing it all come together will absolutely blow your mind. San Diego Comic-Con made me feel like a kid again. If you are unable to enjoy yourself in this environment, you are either lost or you’re trying way too hard.

Operation Waterfalls

Online flyer for the Swervedriver, Sianspheric and WTCHS show at This Ain't Hollywood.
Online flyer for the Swervedriver, Sianspheric and WTCHS show at This Ain’t Hollywood.

A few months ago, I was scrolling through one of my social media feeds when I stumbled across a concert announcement by one of my favorite bands, Sianspheric. Not only was the recently reunited outfit recording new material and playing live again, they were doing a handful of shows with another of my favorite bands, the also recently reunited Swervedriver. The opportunity to see both of these bands on the same stage was just too much for me to pass up.

The show was happening at This Ain’t Hollywood in Sianspheric’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. When I realized that the show was scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend and would put me within an hour’s flight of my own hometown, just outside of New York City, I bought a ticket for the show and began looking at flights immediately.

After a few days of research and planning, I convinced my girlfriend to join me for at least part of the long weekend. She was able to schedule a business trip to meet with some of her Canadian clients, after which we would meet up for a quick trip to Niagara Falls before I flew to New York to surprise my family and she flew back to Los Angeles.

I took a red eye on Thursday night and landed in Toronto at about 6 AM on Friday. After navigating a ridiculously long line at customs — and dealing with extra scrutiny, probably due to the fact that I had just traveled internationally with a one way plane ticket — I stumbled out of the airport and into a beautiful and unseasonably warm Canadian morning.

Allan Gardens
Allan Gardens

My girlfriend was already in Toronto and she left me a room key at the front desk of her hotel. After a short cab ride, a two hour power nap and a hot shower, I set out on foot to do some exploring. I walked south along Sherbourne St., past Allan Gardens and then west along Front St.

My first planned stop of the day was the St. Lawrence Market, which is known worldwide by culinary professionals and foodies alike, both for its size and wide variety of high quality offerings. The cavernous space is filled with two floors of vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to prepared foods, coffee, wine, cheese and seafood.

I walked the entire market before deciding on where to have lunch. I opted for Buster’s Sea Cove, which had the longest line in the market by far. The ordering process was fairly straight forward, but there was a huge bottleneck of people waiting for their food, with nowhere to go. There was a small seating area right next to the booth, but it was completely full and the line of people waiting to order wasn’t getting any shorter. By the time my Po’ Boy was ready, a few seats had opened up at the counter and I was able to sit down and enjoy my sandwich in relative peace. I originally wanted the crawfish, but sadly, they were sold out. The red snapper was an excellent alternative. It was lightly dressed with mayo and topped with red onions and cucumber and was absolutely fantastic.

Hockey Ephemera
Hockey Ephemera

Next on the list was the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is not the easiest place to get into. When you find what you think is the entrance, you must figure out that you actually have to walk around the corner and through a set of glass doors that leads to a courtyard. Once you’re in the courtyard, you then have to walk past a fountain, through the atrium and find the escalator that leads to the concourse below. At the bottom of the escalator, you have to make a 180 degree turn and walk to the very back end of the concourse in order to find the entrance to the museum. Clearly, the signage could be better.

If you ever find the entrance to the Hall of Fame, you will be treated to an amazing collection of assorted hockey ephemera. In addition to the hockey sticks, pucks, vintage jerseys and other gear, there is a screening room and numerous vintage hockey merchandise displays, as well as several interactive experiences. When you’ve had your fill, head up a separate escalator to the gift shop. The staff will be happy to ship your purchases to you if you are visiting from another country and don’t feel like lugging them around.

CN Tower, Toronto
The CN Tower and new condominiums near the waterfront in downtown Toronto.

After the Hall of Fame, I walked along the waterfront for a bit and then over to the CN tower for a quick photo op before making my way to the train station. The train ride from Toronto to Hamilton was only an hour and cost about $12, which was cheaper than the five minute cab ride from the train station to my hotel. I stayed at the Admiral Inn Hamilton, which is small and inexpensive, but well run and very clean.

I still had a couple of hours to kill before the concert, so I decided to head out and grab some dinner. I found a place called The Ship, a nautical themed gastropub where I had an AMAZING meatloaf burger called The Bat Out Of Hell. It’s an actual burger patty, not just a slice of meatloaf on a bun, and is topped with house made sweet ketchup glaze and crispy fried onions. They have a great selection of craft beers and a small, but thoughtfully curated bar, stocked with some hard to find bourbons, whiskeys and gins.

After dinner, I walked another mile or so from the restaurant to the venue. There was a street fair going on, so there were a ton of people milling about. It was mostly the usual nonsense: food trucks and tables filled with crap as far as the eye could see. There was also a young rock band playing on the roof of a small building, but they weren’t very good.

This Ain’t Hollywood is a fairly good size bar with surprisingly good sound and the show was everything I hoped it would be. Melodic swells, waves of distortion and surges of feedback washed over the crowd. WTCHS opened to a sparse, but appreciative audience and Sianspheric played a really great set, but I was having trouble standing up by the time they finally went on. Somehow, I managed to get my second (or maybe third) wind for Swervedriver, but by the time they finished playing I had absolutely nothing left. When I finally left the venue, I had a hard time getting a cab and didn’t get back to the hotel until around 2 or 3 AM. After a quick shower, I passed out, completely exhausted from an entirely too long, but really awesome day.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

The next morning, my girlfriend picked me up in Hamilton and we drove to Niagara Falls, which was only about 45 minutes away. Neither of us had ever been there before and we were really excited to see the falls, as well as to take in some of the kitschy tourist traps that fill the surrounding area. We stayed at the Niagara Falls Hilton on the Canadian side and our room had an unobstructed view of Horseshoe Falls. After a quick lunch at Pranzo Italian Grill, we walked down to Hornblower Niagara Cruises for a 30 minute tour. Maid of the Mist used to operate on both sides of the river, but now only operates out of New York. From what I could tell, the experiences are nearly identical (read: FUN!) and you should definitely go on a cruise if you visit Niagara Falls. It’s the best way to see the falls up close and personal.

After getting soaked and listening to people scream for a half hour, we walked back up past the falls, stopping often to take photographs and gawk. It really is amazing to see and hear all of that water roaring over the edge of the cliff and pounding the rocks below. It’s even more awe-inspiring if you are visiting from a drought-ravaged area such as southern California.

Niagara SkyWheel
Niagara SkyWheel

Once we exhausted ourselves walking around, we trudged back up the hill to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. The dining options in Niagara Falls were not very exciting. We decided to head over to Doc Magilligan’s. I had a burger, which was decent, but not quite what I was hoping for. My girlfriend was equally unimpressed with her meal. Entertainment for the evening consisted of a haunted house, some arcade games and a nighttime viewing of the illuminated falls, followed by a not quite long enough, but very deep sleep.

The next morning, I was up before dawn and on my way to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York, which was only about a 45 minute cab ride from the hotel. A couple of hours later, my sister picked me up at Newark and we went back to her place and waited for my parents and aunt to arrive. As hard as I tried to keep my visit a secret, my mother suspected that something was up. Even though it wasn’t a total surprise, everyone was thrilled to see me. There may have even been a few tears.

Mother’s Day was extremely mellow compared to the rest of the weekend. It was really nice to just sit down and relax and spend some quality time with my family, whom I hadn’t seen since Christmas. Unfortunately, it was a very short visit and the next day, it was right back to the airport and then home to Los Angeles.

Over the course of four days, I visited four airports, three cities, two different countries and logged almost 6,000 miles. It was certainly a whirlwind, but it was also one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.