Tuesday, December 4, 2012

This Week: Philadelphia

The world’s smallest bathroom
We were fortunate enough to be invited to help out with the PA Beer Festival at the Philadelphia Convention Center in November. The two-session event was a lot of hard work and we stood on our feet for almost 14 hours. However, it was an incredibly successful event and lot of fun too. The event feature 96 breweries and over 250 kinds of beer. Nice!
After a well-deserved Sunday morning sleep in (we slept in for Philly, it was only 8 a.m. in Denver) we were grateful to have a day in Philly all to ourselves. We had two items on our agenda:  The Liberty Bell and the perfect Philly cheese steak.
The first part was easy. After checking out of the hotel we hailed a cab to the bell. Our feet were exhausted after the beer fest and even though we were told the bell was only six blocks away, we opted for a ride. The cab dropped us off at Independence National Historic Park and the first thing we noticed was the line already stretched out the front door of the Liberty Bell Center. Fortunately entrance to see the Liberty Bell is free, as it should be since it belongs to all of us. My husband and I hauled our carry-on bags to the back of the line. The reason for the long line is the security check-in at the entrance. It was almost like boarding an airplane, but I can understand. The Liberty Bell is a symbol of freedom and a symbol of the United States. They don’t want any funny business. However, it was more than slightly embarrassing to have the security agent open up my carry-on and go through my underwear and pull out my make-up bag to examine the contents.  And since we had such large bags, it took longer to check us in then those with just a camera or purse. We made it a point to smile and say thank you to the agents. I even asked the door agent how her day was going. She said she couldn’t complain, after all it was a nice day outside, almost 55 degrees.
After getting our carry-ons back we began walking down the large window-filled hall. There were posters and placards and even video screens all explaining the history and significance of the Liberty Bell. My husband looked at me.
“Do you really want to read all this?”
“Not really, I just wanna see the bell.”
“Let’s go then.” So we walked past all the people who were ahead of us in line and straight to the back of the building where a crowd gathered around the country’s most prized possession. As we approached a family moved away and we were granted a full-on view of the Liberty Bell.
The bell was back lit by a large window making it a nightmare to take photos. I took some anyway, playing with the settings on my camera and hoping for the best. The bell isn’t that big in size, maybe four feet by four feet, but it weights almost 2000 pounds and is made of 79% copper, 25% tin and small amounts of lead, zinc, arsenic, gold and silver. The bell hangs from its original yoke made of American elm. It’s quite beautiful. A magnificence surrounds the bell because it is a tangible symbol of America, something we can see and touch. Well, actually, they won’t let you touch it, but you could if you don’t mind being arrested. The bell has a well-documented history. It was made in London in 1751, but cracked after arriving in Pennsylvania. American craftsmen John Pass and John Stow cast a new bell using the metal from the English bell in 1753.
“By 1846 a thin crack began to affect the sound of the bell. The bell was repaired in 1846 and rang for a George Washington birthday celebration, but the bell cracked again and has not been rung since. No one knows why the bell cracked either time.” (Liberty Bell Center website)
Independence National Historic Park is also home to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Old City Hall and Congress Hall, all together made for a beautiful outdoor setting decorated with pumpkins and hay bales for the season and several horse-drawn carriages to give people tours. Children played in the park grass and the trees still had a few leaves on them.
While I took pics of the buildings, my husband called a colleague who happens to live in Philly because he had a very important question. Where could we find the best cheese steak sandwiches near the Liberty Bell? After a lengthy discussion my husband was given a destination:  Steaks on South.
Hailing cab #2 we told the driver we wanted to go to Steaks on South. The driver said no problem and proceeded on 6th Street through what appeared to be a very historic and very old residential neighborhood crowded with small, colonial brick houses. After only a few blocks the cabbie pulled over on a corner and said, “Is this OK?” My husband said yeah, sure. But when we got out, we were next to a dry cleaner.
“Is this it?” he asked.
“Well, it’s about two blocks that way,” he said pointing east. “Do you want me to drive you?”
“No, no, we can walk two blocks.” With that we paid the fair and got out. We walked the two blocks and arrived at Jim’s Steaks with a line outside the front door.
“Is that it?” I asked.

“No, it’s Steaks on South.”
“Maybe he meant Jim’s Steaks on South?”
“No, it’s Steaks on South.” Not sure where to go, Christian fired up his smartphone to get a map. The phone took 10 minutes to warm up, but he found it.
“Oh, man, we need to go a few more blocks that way.” We continued walking east. Despite the confusion, the walk was quite pleasant. South Street was a bit of an anomaly with old storefronts painted and decorated in contemporary palates. Bright shades of green, pink and blue along with vibrant murals made each building stand out. And the shops were a hodgepodge of florists, cafes, smoke houses, cheesy bric-a-brac, art galleries and bars. The residents strolling the streets were just as decorated, such as the mod lesbian couple with piercings, tattoos and old-school high top sneakers. One pushed a baby stroller with baby girl all decked in princess pink toile inside. Then there were the guys hanging out on the street. One guy compared a Ford Focus parked out front with his sister’s new Toyota Prius. “That car is the shit!” Really? Car talk has come a long way since I debated Camaros vs. Corvettes in high school.
We finally arrived at Steaks on South, or SOS, and the place was empty. Not the line out the door like we saw at Jim’s. What could that mean, we pondered. Could Jim’s be the best place because it had a line or was SOS a hidden gem no one new about? We stuck to our friend’s recommendation and ordered up at the counter. Christian ordered the Cheesesteak hoagie. A Cheesesteak sandwich is literally just steak and cheese, unless you order it as a hoagie, where they add tomato, lettuce and onion. His cheese of choice, Cheese Whiz. I chose a Cheesesteak hoagie with Swiss.
The sandwiches were everything we had hoped they would be. While we savored our bites, a few people walked in and ordered lunch; an older couple, a group of women and then a group of about 12 college students, prominently displaying Greek letters on their shirts. SOS was no longer empty. It was almost 1 p.m. by the time we left and we asked one of the cooks if there was good place to watch NFL football nearby. He suggested O’Neal’s and said it was just around the corner.
O’Neal’s Irish Sports Bar was a tall skinny building with both a front door and a patio door wide open so we could easily see inside where a long wooden bar stretched way into the back. We walked inside and there were still several seats at the bar even through the first set of NFL games were about to start. Christian asked the bartender, a guy about as wide as he was tall, if we could get the Broncos game on one TV. He said no problem and even told us which TV we were getting. We had two beers in front us just as the game kicked off.
During a commercial I happened to glimpse a tattooed skinny man place a burger and fries plate on the back of the bar, and then walk away. The giant bartender came over and ate some fries off of a plate. A minute later the skinny guy returned and noticed some fries were missing.
“Did you eat my fries?” he asked with a British accent. Then he looked at us. “Did he (pointed at bartender) eat my fries?” Not sure of the work dynamic in place here, I said, “Maybe.” From the other end of the bar came a reply.
“So what if I did? I’m your boss, watcha gonna do about it?” the bartender said, more than asked.
“That’s my lunch man!” and then the two of them broke out in hysterical laughter. “When you get your lunch, you own me some fries.”
A guy came into the bar wearing a Broncos hat and asked if the seat next to me was taken. We sensed we had a comrade in football , but before we could introduce ourselves the bartender came over and told him he would have some extra fans helping him out and pointed at us. The guy turned out to be a Boulder native who lived nearby. He wound up in Philly because his wife was getting her Master’s Degree there. O’Neal’s was his regular Sunday football haunt because the bartender, who was also the owner, would accommodate just about anyone who came in with their favorite game.  He said there was one time when he arrived late and there was only one TV left in the bar. It was behind him above the front door. He had to sit the whole game with his back to the bar. Broncos’ fans do whatever it takes.
He told us there is a Pittsburg contingent that gets to watch their games on the second floor. He also said there was one obnoxious guy who was huge San Diego fan and just as he said that, the guy, wearing a dingy SD t-shirt and hat walked in the front door and said, “Hello everybody!” By second quarter, our new friend’s wife arrived, but the bar was full so he gave up his seat to her and the two of us were able to chat during the game.
One of the things we talked about was the mellow 70’s music played over the loud speakers. Apparently the bartender loves that kind of music. Music like You’re in my Heart by Rod Stewart, Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John, Summer Breeze by Seals and Crofts, Green-eyed Lady by Sugarloaf. (Tell me if you remember that one?) The bartender would sing along and he had a very nice voice. A cook from the kitchen came out and begged the bartender to change the music station. He was granted his wish and soon Enter Sandman by Metallica came on followed by Shook Me All Night Long by ACDC. I also heard Mas Tequila by Sammy Hagar. By then the bartender had had enough and switched the music back.
Here’s a conversation I overheard between the bartender and a patron.
“So anything new going up in the building on the corner?”

“Nah, guy wants 10,000 dollars a month” said the bartender.

“Does the Greek still own that Place?”

“Yeah,” the bartender replied. The bartender knew pretty much everyone in the place and greeted them all and asked how their families were. When Christian ordered an IPA that turned out to be the last drops of the keg, the bartender let him have the foamy beer for free, even though it was still a full glass. With the unseasonably warm weather and bright sunshine flowing in through the open doors and windows, I decided I could easily live near this bar. Maybe even in the bar.
After two beers it wasn’t long before nature called and I made my way to the far end of the bar where the restrooms were. There were two, but they weren’t designated men and women. People could use whichever one was open. It didn’t take much to realize these were some unique bathrooms. I’m only 5’4”. The blue tiled bathroom ceiling was dropped so low I could touch it with my elbow bent. I had to stand to the side of the toilet to shut the door. A teeny, tiny little sink was tucked into the corner. I had to sit with my knees to the side and under the sink because the door almost touched the end of the toilet. I haven’t seen a port-a-potty that small. I mentioned the tiny restrooms to our new friend’s wife and she laughed.
“Yeah, you get used to it after a while. I don’t even notice it anymore.” She explained that a lot of the area’s buildings were originally old houses dating back to colonial days. Rooms were smaller then. I’ll say. I was so astounded by the bathroom’s size I had to go back and take some photos because no out west would believe me.
After another Bronco’s victory, we paid our tab, said goodbye to our new friends and then walked into the sunshine to grab a cab to the airport.

Summer Breeze by Seals & Crofts

Saturday, November 3, 2012

This week: I turn pro!

Hello people! Like what you read here? Great, because now there is more of me to love! I have two new places where my work will be featured and I'd like you to check them out. I'll still be posting to the personal blog once a month or so with my quarky little stories, but I have joined the professional blogosphere with two new columns. Here they are:

Deal Angel - The world's first hotel FINDER, Deal Angel links you to the best prices in hotels around the world. Much like Kayak for finding air fare, Deal Angel does the work for you to find discounted rates at hotels. And for fun they have a travel blog featuring all kinds of great events in cities near and far. Learn more about the places you want to visit by reading the Deal Angel Blog. You'll find articles by myself and other great writers from around the country.

Drink Denver and Drink Nation - Want to find the best happy hour deals in your city? Want to know what restaurants, bars and night clubs are opening up near you? Drink Nation has the answer. This website features where to get the best adult beverages in cities around the country. Based in Philly, this national website currently features six awesome cities: Baltimore, Denver, Gotham, Jersey Shore, Philadelphia, Portland and Washington DC. Find great happy hour deals, discover new pubs and restaurants, read beer and wine reviews, and get to know the craftspeople behind your favorite libations. If it's got alcohol, we've gotcha covered. They are working to add new cities to the group so if you don't see your city listed, keep checking. I'll be contributing to Denver and hope you enjoy what I find.

I still write for Examiner.com and for the TV show Drinking Made Easy.

You can also follow me on Twitter @whereiscdnow. I post links to new articles as they appear. This is a great place for one-stop shopping of my work around the 'net.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

This Week: Deer Trail, CO

Life in the fast lane, Porsch World Roadshow 2012

This was only the second time ever I have driven east of Denver International Airport on Interstate 70. The first time was almost a decade ago and that was a cross-country road trip to Florida. On this day our destination was away from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains toward the great plains of eastern Colorado halfway between Denver and the Kansas state line. It was a day we will never forget.
About a month ago I was filing through the mail and came across small flyer with my name on it and a picture of a beautiful Porsche Boxster. I assumed it was from our neighborhood Porsche dealer and as lovely as the picture was, no way short of winning the lottery was I ever going to shop for a Porsche. Opening the cabinet door that housed the trash can, I stooped over the garbage when two words caught my eye:  “Invitation Only.” I took a peek.
“Sign up now for an unforgettable driving experience. You are invited to the 2012 Porsche World Roadshow – USA. This is your opportunity to feel the G-forces as you drive some of the world’s most exhilarating vehicles in a closed-course driving environment. You and a guest are invited to get behind the wheel of the Panamera, Boxster S, Cayenne, and the original racing icon – the 911. Don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive a Porsche the way it was intended – on specially-designed driving courses, with coaching from certified Porsche driving instructors.”
All I had to do was log onto PorscheWorldRoadshowUSA.com and enter a special nine-digit code from the invitation. Intrigued I headed to my computer where the website had even more interesting information:
“Porsche will bring vehicles spanning most of the model range, accompanied by the specially-trained and highly-skilled Porsche Sport Driving School – USA instructors. Learn skills from past and current champions who have experience in all aspects of the sport…Participants will experience the 911, Panamera, all-new Boxster S and Cayenne in various high-performance exercises such as handling, braking and on-track driving.”
Without questioning how this invitation ended up in the mailbox of someone obviously not capable of financing a Porsche, I logged in and entered all sorts of personal information about myself and my husband into this possibly dubious website. The event was divided into four sessions and both morning events were already booked. I selected the 12:55 p.m. session and clicked the register tab. For the next several days I waited for two things to happen:  A virus getting unleashed into my computer and for my identity to get stolen. When neither of those things happened, I showed the invitation to my husband. Not finding anything to raise his suspicions he rearranged his travel schedule to be there.
High Plains Raceway, our destination, sat in the middle of nowhere just off Highway 36, 17 miles east of Byers. Byers the town was located at the fork in the road where Interstate 70 turned southward toward Limon and Highway 36 continued east. We realized we were in for something special when we saw the canary yellow Porsche pass us on the highway. Intimidation began when a dark blue Porsche with Kansas plates shot by.
Now with the mountains far behind us, we pulled into the raceway’s parking lot directed by young gentlemen in red Porsche logo Polos. Behind us in the lot were three red Porsches covering several decades and Porsches of other colors and decades dotted around the lot. We felt self-conscious with our Ford Edge until a Toyota Tundra pulled up next to us.
We followed the crowd of mostly older gentlemen, some with wives and girlfriends, to a large white tent with five sparkly Porsche models parked out front. We registered with the Porsche staff and received our track badges. Orientation wouldn’t start for another 15 minutes so we milled around the air conditioned tent admiring the fully loaded, ruby red Panamera GTS with suede interior. Then we perused the display cases filled with all kinds of Porsche swag such as $26 Porsche logo golf balls, $60 model cars and $250 Porsche watches. We couldn’t even afford the swag! We helped ourselves to the snack buffet and then went back outside to admire the model cars. Next to each car was a spec sheet with information such as:
The newly designed Boxster S had 315 horse power and went 0-60 in 4.8 seconds. Top speed 173 mph and 22 mpg in the city. Base price was $60,000 with options topping $80,000.
The 911 Carrera S had 400 horse power and went 0-60 in 4.3 seconds. Top speed 188 mph and 21 mpg in the city. Base price started about $86,000 with options up to $100,000.
The Panamera had 300 horse power and went 0-60 in 6 seconds with a top speed of 160 mph. Gas mileage was 20 mpg city. Base price about $100,000. I believe it topped out at $180-something thousand.
The Cayenne was Porsche’s family car and it looked like a small SUV. It had 400 horse power and 0-60 in 5.6 seconds with a top speed of 160. Gas mileage was 19 mpg city. Base price…$110,000. I didn’t bother looking at the options.
A Porsche staff member announced they were ready to start and we filed back inside the tent. Although I call it a tent, it had wood flooring, windows, a few sofas and several TV monitors showing Porsche videos. We sat in a section of the tent that had several rows of the most comfortable folding chairs I have ever sat in. Our speaker was Cass Whitehead, Lead Instructor of the Porsche Sport Driving School in Birmingham, AL. He had quite a racing resume, named Rookie National Driver of the Year when he started. After earning an engineering degree from Georgia Tech, he raced and won many competitions including IMSA, Rolex Grand Am and the American Le Mans series. He helped Porsche win the Rolex Grand Am GT class Manufacturers Championship in 2002. Whitehead told us we were going to have fun today.
“You guys are going to get to do things in a vehicle you can’t do on a dealer test drive,” he said. “Just try telling a dealer you want to test drive four different models at 127 miles per hours. They probably won’t let you do that.”
Whitehead also talked about the Porsche Sport Driving School and its history. For our purposes, however, he mostly discussed the finer points of a racing turn: brake before the turn, enter at a 45 degree angle, gas at the apex of the curve and let the car roll 45 degrees back to the outside. There were other ways, angles, of taking a turn, he told us, but he didn’t recommend them.
“When you run out of pavement and talent, you are in trouble,” he said followed by nervous laughter from the room.
We also learned how the track driving would be organized. We were divided into groups by a color dot on our badges. Ours were red. Each color group would have four cars they would take turns driving with each group having an instructor in a lead car. Two people per car. We would follow the instructor single file around the course keeping 3 to 4 car lengths between. We would drive one lap around the track following specific instructions by the leader on a radio. Then we would pit the cars and the passenger would become the driver for the next lap. After that lap, we would then move to the car behind us. Those in the last car would move up to the front until we had all rotated through for a total of eight laps, four of them driving. It sounded simple enough except he forgot to mention we would be driving cars with an average sticker price of $90,000.
After the presentation Whitehead drew a name out of an envelope for the session door prize, a set of Bose earphones won by neither of us, and finally we were sent the racing pit where we were told to grab a helmet from a stack next to the cars (some drivers brought their own if that tells you anything about this group). Another red Polo Porsche person led us by dot color to a group of beautiful shiny cars in perfect alignment.
My husband and I were lucky enough to start in the Panamera GTS, the car behind the instructor. Surprising us in the pit was a photographer who snapped photos as we entered the cars. He asked my husband to roll down his window so he could take a picture and then said photos would be available the next day on the Roadshow website. As we got into the car we could already hear the instructor on an invisible radio. He reminded us to make sure our helmets and seatbelts were on. Make sure we were close enough to the steering wheel that our elbows were bent, closer than most people normally sit in a car. He pointed out the Sports and Sports Plus buttons on the console and encouraged us to try them as we drove, but we should all start out in “normal” when we exit the pit.
“OK, when the paparazzi are finished you can put the car in drive and we’ll get started.” The turn out of the pit was quite sharp and the car hummed and purred as my husband hit the gas. We kept turning and turning then finally an orange cone marked the start of the track and a long straightaway of open asphalt.
“OK people, time to give it some gas,” said the invisible voice. We were off! The engine growled, but it was a comforting, strong sound. The sound surrounded you, but it wasn’t deafening. Our eyes were completely focused on the car in front of us just as Whitehead said to do. So focused I had no idea what the surrounding landscape looked like. All I see is asphalt and a silver car getting smaller in the distance. Then we see the car’s brake lights.
“OK the first curve is coming up, time to hit the brakes. Slow down before you get to the turn, then ease out of the turn and give it some gas,” said the almost hypnotic voice. My husband did as instructed with perfect execution.
“OK we have S-curve coming up next. Gently we’re going to turn left, then right, then left using the orange cones as a guide.” I found myself swaying slightly as he said left, right, left.
“Here comes a right turn, brake first, then accelerate as you head up the hill.” The Panamera glided up the hill.
“OK we have a blind left turn coming up so brake, then accelerate…and another S-curve. Be sure to just touch the marked areas as we go through.” The marked areas were the apexes of each curve and impossible to miss with their blue and white striping. “OK now decelerate as we head back to the pit.” Like that it was over. We lined the Panamera behind the lead car and traded places. Our instructor reminded everyone to make sure the car was in park before we exited.
I sat in the Panamera’s driver seat and proceeded to move the seat up…and up…and up. Remember that ESPN/NBA commercial in the RV? Jeff Van Gundy sits in the driver’s seat after Amar’e Stoudemire and all you hear the seat motor humming while Van Gundy inched closer to the wheel? That was me.
Camera guy came over and asked me to roll down my window. I smiled as I wondered what I looked like with this giant helmet covering my noggin. Before I could worry about that more, the “voice” began. It was eerily familiar.
“OK when the paparazzi are finished taking their pictures we can get started.” I pressed my foot on the accelerator impressed with how smooth the car rolled out of the pit. The turn onto the main track kept getting longer and longer. I caught the orange cone out on my left.
“OK folks time to give it some gas.” Suddenly the lead car became awfully small.
“GO GO GO!” my husband yelled. I pressed the pedal, but I couldn’t find the floor. The engine hummed its quiet roar and my peripheral vision was all blurry. Then I saw the lead car’s brake lights and even though I wasn’t even close to him, I touched my brakes. The car responded immediately and smoothly as I entered the first turn.
“Way to catch up Panamera. Now we go through the gentle S-curve, first left then right then left. Boxster try to catch up as we head into the next turn…” It helped that my husband drove first because I could see the track without the pressure of driving it. I knew the next turn was the uphill and gave it some gas. Next came the blind left turn so I touched the brakes. Then the second S-curve and after each touch of the stripes, I pressed the gas pedal slightly. The car responded like a hover craft; it wasn’t even like driving. Before I could fully register that feeling, we slowed down and entered the pit. While most of the other drivers felt exhilaration upon leaving the vehicle, I felt more relieved that the car and I survived.
From the Panamera we moved into the Boxster S. A true sports car, this would prove a far more interesting ride. For the third time we heard, “OK, when the paparazzi are finished taking photos, we can get started…” His mantra continued through the same way each lap, however, it was reassuring and made it easy to remember what to do each step of the way. By the time we got to the fourth car, I had the track memorized. Sadly, that was the end of it.
For me the Boxster was the most difficult car. Although the engine and braking were smooth in all the cars (these things stop on a dime!), I felt I had to really work the steering wheel during turns and I finished my lap slightly tired. The third car was the 911 Carrera and the last car was the Carrera S. I liked both, but the Carrera S was beyond easy. No effort to turn the wheel, press the gas or brake pedals almost like it responded to my thoughts. It just went.
Since the Carrera S was the fourth car for us, we were done with the track portion of the afternoon. We next walked to a section of parking lot that was coned off into a small oval. Here the Porsche staff had people test the difference between their Cayenne and Panamera V8 cars verses their new hybrid models. We took turns first driving the V8, which included a ¼ mile of straightaway to accelerate as fast as we could, then we had to slam on the brakes before rounding the short oval back to the start. There was no difference between the V8s and the hybrids when it came to acceleration, other than the hybrid engines were quiet, and that was whole point of the demo.
As we left the track, a Porsche staff member at the hybrid tent reminded us to grab our parting gift before we left. The gift, a stainless steel Porsche water bottle, probably cost as much as a crystal goblet. With feelings of both sadness and exhilaration, we climbed back in the old Edge for the long ride home.
“Did you ever look at the speedometer?” my husband asked.
“No,” I said with sudden realization. “Did you?”
“No, they said to always look at the road ahead of you.” True, Whitehead did say to always look where you want the car to go, which was the road ahead.
“I guess we’ll never know how fast we went,” I said, noting the only disappointment in our fantastic afternoon.
There are still three dates left on the USA roadshow tour - Houston, Oct. 5-6; Central Florida, Oct. 16-18; and Charlotte, Oct. 31 - Nov. 1. See link below.

High Plains Raceway
Porsche Sport Driving School
Porsch World Roadshow USA

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Week: St. John, USVI

8 Tuff Miles - Part I
The three of us nodded knowingly to each other as we boarded the taxi. Since we were all headed to the same place verbal pleasantries were unnecessary. Our silent taxi ride was dark; clouds so thick we couldn’t see a single Caribbean star.
We headed toward Cruz Bay and the start of the 8 Tuff Miles road race, the Caribbean’s most popular foot race held on the island of St. John. The taxi dropped us off at Mongoose Junction which was across the street from the National Park building where the race would start. Already people gathered around the park. Some stretched, some jogged and others stood around in small groups chatting. My first order of business was to register and get my bib number. I needed to get that out of the way quickly because in 25 minutes a ferry from St. Thomas would be arriving with 500 more people also running the race. After putting on my bib and race timer, I stretched my hamstrings and calves. The atmosphere slowly lightened revealing there were indeed clouds in the sky.
As more people arrived I noticed everyone seemed to know each other and stood in small groups. Feeling anxious and nervous I needed some distraction. I happened to see another young woman standing by herself, looking around. I caught her eye and she nodded. I asked her if she was running alone. She said she was actually walking with some co-workers. Her name was Suzanne and she told me in her seven years on the island she had never entered in this race. When I mentioned I was from Colorado, she said she was moving to Denver, a transfer for her job at the National Park Service. She would be working for the Department of Underwater Archeology on Alameda Avenue. Funny, the one stranger I chose to talk to would soon to be my neighbor. As we talked, the ferry arrived. Soon waves of people were everywhere. Suzanne’s co-workers also arrived and she moved on with them. Alone again, I continued stretching knowing that my muscles needed it.
After several minutes a man and woman with bullhorns began telling us to move toward the start line behind the National Park house. A steel drum band began to play. A glimpse of a nearby participant’s watch told me it was 7:20, five minutes after the scheduled start time. Suzanne had said last year the ferry was late and the race didn’t start until almost 8 a.m. With people still filling in behind me, I wondered if we’d ever get this over with. Suddenly the steel band stopped playing. I couldn’t hear anything or anyone above the din of the crowd. Suddenly the steel band started up again and heads bobbed up and down in front of me. The race had begun!
I started running and immediately dodging people, weaving in and out. I ran past the band, a group of men so young they must have been high school students. I ran around the park and around the next corner to Mongoose Junction weaving and bobbing through the walkers and slow joggers ahead of me. The bobbing heads in front of me took a left turn. That turn was Centerline Road and the beginning of a two mile ascent. My jogging pace slowed to a crawl as entered.
 “Holy crap!” I muttered under my breath. Not even a mile into this race and it was seriously steep. I was still running, but it wasn’t much faster than a walk. Trudging along I made it to the first switchback. As if I were in a stairwell, the runners ahead were now above me.
The 8 Tuff Miles began over 15 years ago. St. John resident, race founder and director, Peter Alter, took up jogging as a New Year’s resolution back 1997. Shortly after that he attended a meeting by the St. John Action Committee. The Committee’s purpose was to find ways to bring people from St. Thomas to spend the day, and their money, on St. John. They planned to have events on the last Saturday of each month with fairs, music and markets. Alter suggested a foot race from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay. Those who didn’t think him completely crazy agreed to stage the first race the last Saturday in February. That first race featured only 21 entrants, but most were from St. Thomas, so the plan worked. The 8 Tuff Miles is now the largest attended road race in the Virgin Islands.
The 8 Tuff Miles website warned me that the first two miles were uphill, but I didn’t realize the scope of that statement until I hit the next switchback. Absolutely brutal. In the days before the race, I met several other runners, many of whom had run it several times before. As soon as I mentioned I was from Colorado, they all said,” Oh, this will be easy for you!” How wrong they were. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway in Colorado has a grade of 15% and most paved Colorado mountain roads are between 5-7%, but this was beyond that. However, I will admit that practicing at altitude helped. I was breathing great. As I struggled up the steep hill I enjoyed each inhale of warm, moist Caribbean oxygen entering my lungs. Now if I could just get my legs to keep up.
Approaching the first water station I overheard another runner say the station was about the first mile mark. My original goal was to run those first two vertical miles, but as I turned up yet another excruciating switchback a 6-foot tall guy caught up to me…walking. Sadly, I realized running was just not optimal so I started walking. The larger walking strides enabled me to gain more ground and I kept up with the old guy, for a while. With his legs twice as long as mine, he soon pulled away. At another switchback I pumped my arms and pushed my legs up and around the corner. I felt like I was in one of those illusion paintings with all the staircases that went into infinity. Finally at the summit, was St. John Hospital. At the entrance a small group of people cheered and held signs for the runners. I relaxed a little as I saw the small downhill before me. Wanting to optimize what little speed I had, I ran the downhill. What welcome relief to my neck to look down. At the right turn of the downhill was another water station that was sponsored by the Animal Care Center of St. John, appropriate because of a special runner that came up behind me. The tan and white pit bull mix followed us runners along on the road. I thought he belonged to a runner next to me as he ran steadily by her side, tail wagging happily. Then the woman’s running partner said startled “Hey, there’s a dog.” The dog then passed them to another runner. Every few yards a runner would notice the dog and say, “Hey, where’s your bib number!?” As I grabbed a water cup, a race volunteer stopped him and gave him ear scratches.
 “You need to be with us,” the guy said.
Gulping the water the road turned uphill again and I began to walk…and walk…and walk. This location contained several construction businesses, such as the lumberyard, the cement store, the woodshop, and each business had several people on the road with signs, cheering us on. I waved.
As I started running down the hill, a loud obnoxious screeching noise rose from behind me. It sounded like a steamroller and myself and several other runners started looking around. Flying over the hill came a guy with one hand on what looked to be the world’s ricketiest baby stroller. He had a look of concern on his face as he and his child sped precariously down the hill. One slip of his hand and that kid was headed for the ditch. This was not one of those stream-lined modern jogging baby strollers with the fat mountain bike tires. It was an old-fashioned aluminum four-wheeled up-right stroller that parents stopped using 20 years ago.
 “Look out! Comin’ through!” he shouted as he passed. I wasn’t sure which was worse; the danger that kid was in or the fact someone pushing an ancient baby stroller just passed me.
Join us in 2013 when we run the 17th Annual 8 Tuff Miles, Saturday, February 23, 7:15 a.m. Registration begins in October.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

This Week: San Diego, CA

The boat to Coronado

“I turn my back for a second and there are already girls in bikinis in the hot tub,” I say as I walked across the rooftop deck at the Doubletree Hotel in San Diego.
My husband and his friend Blake were only two hours removed from running the San Diego Rock and Roll ½ Marathon and already relaxing their tired legs in the hotel’s hot tub. As I walked across the deck two young women in bikinis lowered themselves into the bubbly water. I could tell I had unnerved them and followed up my comment with “Hi, did you run the marathon too?” They had.
After we all introduced ourselves we found out the girls were from Denver. Capitol Hill neighborhood to be exact. Small world.
I was there to say goodbye because the guy’s plans for the rest of the afternoon were completely different from mine. After their soak, the guys were heading back to their rooms for a badly needed post-race nap. They had started their day 4 a.m. so they would have enough time to stretch and walk the six blocks to the starting line before the race began at 6 a.m. Then they spent the next two hours running from downtown San Diego up to SeaWorld. They didn’t return to the hotel until 10 a.m. Now it was my turn to cover some ground, but I wouldn’t be running. I was going on a walking tour of Coronado, a small island across San Diego Bay.
From downtown, Coronado looked like an island. Especially as seen from the 17th floor of our hotel room window. The land mass that comprises Coronado was actually a peninsula separated from the mainland by San Diego Bay. Coronado joined the mainland by a thin strip of land down near the Mexican border. So as far as San Diegans were concerned, Coronado was an island. Also like an island, there were two ways to get there. One was a giant toll bridge on the south side of downtown, but the hassle-free way to get there was by ferry boat.
Two ferries transported passengers to Coronado; one near the Convention Center and a second one on the Broadway Pier, not far from our hotel. I headed that direction, about six or seven blocks. Walking south along the boardwalk I first passed the Star of India, just one of several ships that make up the Maritime Museum of San Diego. The Star is the world’s oldest active sailing ship with a volunteer crew still taking her out each November. It would have been nice to spend some time aboard, but not this trip. As I continued down the boardwalk on my left were kitschy table vendors with hats, t-shirts, scarves and children’s toys. Not much of interest to me, until I approached the last table. Covering it completely was row after row of brightly painted ceramic skulls, called Day of the Dead skulls, both creepy and beautiful at the same time. Like a hummingbird drawn to flowers I was immediately attracted. I slowed down as I passed the table. Organized by size, the table held the largest skulls in the back and the smallest of the small up front. The short young woman behind the table was too busy texting on her phone to notice my interest in her items. I must have one. Didn’t know what I would do with it, but I had to have one. However, my cash was limited and I still had ferry tickets to buy. The skulls could wait.
I kept walking until I reached the Broadway Pier where I purchased my round trip tickets, only $8.50. The time was 11:20 a.m. so I had 40 minutes before the ferry arrived and more importantly, I had a 10 dollar bill left over. I returned up the boardwalk toward the table of skulls. I planned on buying a small one and guessed they were about $5 each. Knowing that street venders expected some haggling, I did some more planning. If the skulls were $5 each, I would offer two skulls for $8. That sounded reasonable. When I approached the young woman, she stopped texting and stood up. Although the calendar said June, clouds hid the sun so the woman wore in a thick black hoodie and fingerless gloves. A bit much for the 65 degree weather, but those who lived at sea level seemed to me to be more thin skinned.
“How much are the small ones?” I asked.
“Three dollars each,” she replied. Well, that blew my haggling right outta the water.
“I’ll take two.” I traded my 10 dollar bill for two skulls and four ones. She kindly wrapped them in newspaper and put them in a small bag so I could get them home safely.
I still had a half hour before boarding so I walked back to the ferry dock, sat on a cement bench and opened my novel to pass the time. I was halfway through the third installment of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series and desperately wanted to know how it ended. Despite all the commotion of the people around me, tourists, walkers and joggers, biker riders, baby strollers and dogs, I was able to engross myself in the story. That was until I heard the strum of a guitar nearby. On my left an old black man played a guitar. He sang a Bob Marley classic, Three Little Birds, one of my favorite songs. I stopped reading to listen. He may have been old, but his voice was fluid and smooth. Lying curled up next to him on the cement bench was a dirty white dog, his head resting on his front paws. On the ground the man’s open guitar case sat patiently waiting for tips. I went back to my book.
Several minutes later the horn of the ferry boat caused me to look up from my book. I watched the boat slowly motor toward the dock, a few deck hands hanging on the sides getting ready to jump off. The man with the guitar began singing John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” I laughed out loud because he was singing about my home state. His voice actually sounded a lot like John Denver’s, tenor pitch and soft. I also noticed that a queue had formed at the ferry boat entrance so I had better get up to make sure I would get a good seat. I grabbed a couple of the one dollar bills from my bag as I stood up. I walked over to the man and put the bills in his guitar case. His dog lifted his nose and then dropped it back down without opening his eyes. I got in line as the first returning passengers began exiting the dock. Some had bicycles and wore full cycle outfits. I imagined biking Coronado was great way for the locals to spend a Sunday morning.
Once all the return passengers were off, we were allowed on and I managed to grab a seaside seat near the front of the boat. The clouds above lightened up a bit and the sun attempted to appear between them, but the air was still cool. Once away from the dock, all of downtown spread out before me; tall buildings, tall ships and a tall bridge that carried cars from the mainland over the bay to Coronado. The city looked a dull grey blue. Then the boat turned to dock and Coronado before me was all green and tan; green water, green grass, tan buildings and tan beach sand. The boat ride only lasted 10 minutes.

***To find out what I did on Coronado, follow the link to my latest post for Drinking Made Easy featuring the Coronado Brewing Company.***
Maritime Museum of San Diego

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This Week: Jost van Dyke to St. Thomas

 Daylight savings and other disasters

“Do you want to update for daylight savings?” That was the message on my flashing, beeping cell phone in a very dark cabin at 2 a.m. Dazed, I reread the message. Daylight savings? Already? I pressed the update button, set the phone down and fell back to sleep. That action would come back to haunt me.
Soon my phone beeped and flashed again, but when I opened my eyes this time daylight filtered through the room. I picked up the phone; 7 a.m. All was quiet at Ivan’s Stress-free campgrounds. The complete opposite of the previous evening when a large group spring breakers decided to have a party at the cabin next door. They had the whole beach to party on, but chose to yell and scream in the cabin next to the couple that had to get up early the next day. The least they could have done was invited us.
Our beach-front cabin was situated on White Bay on the British Virgin Island of Jost van Dyke. This was the last day of our week long vacation and my husband Christian and I prepped for a really long day. We had a 9 a.m. ferry to the US Territory of St. Thomas, with a customs stop in St. John. From St. Thomas we had a five hour flight to Newark, NJ, then a three hour layover, and finally a four hour flight to Denver. After packing our suitcases, we carried them over the sand to the campground entrance and soon realized we had one major problem.
“Do you think taxis run this early?” Christian asked.
“Probably not,” I responded. Another problem was the empty main building. No one to check us out. However, they had my credit card on file so I wasn’t that concerned. After five minutes of listening to the steady surf on the beach, Christian made the executive decision to hike over the hill to the Great Harbour ferry dock. Although short in distance, the road between White Bay and Great Harbour consisted of one serious calf-stretching, butt-tightening incline. We had walked it two nights ago so we could dine at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar. Piece of cake for two people from Colorado. Walking that same hill with our over-packed luggage? Not as easy. Even the descent was tough. My own luggage kept running over me. As we descended the road into Great Harbour, we could see a boat already at the ferry dock, but it wasn’t ours. It was the “work ferry” to Tortola. As we approached a couple of taxis also arrived (where were they earlier?). A woman nicely dressed in a black pencil skirt and blue dress shirt got out. She signed her name on the ferry manifest and walked to the boat. A man wearing jeans and work shirt exited out of the other vehicle. He grabbed his lunch cooler and his young daughter from the back seat and carried both to the boat. We put our suitcases on the covered deck of the customs building just as a gentle mist began to fall. A gruff-looking man approached us, said good morning and introduced himself as the boat captain.

“Why are you guys here?” he asked.
“Oh, we’re just early for the passenger ferry,” I said.
“I’ll say you’re early. You realize it’s only 7 a.m.?” Our jaws clacked when they hit the pavement. Christian grabbed his cell phone from his belt.
“But my phone says 8 a.m.,” he said. “Waaaaaaaydaminute…it’s daylight savings time.”
“Yeah,” the captain chuckled. “We don’t have that here. I don’t know why you guys in the States do that.” We now had two hours before our ferry would show, but the captain came to the rescue.
“My ex-wife runs the café next to the dock,” he said pointing to the building across the road. Get yourselves some breakfast while you wait.” After a few more minutes and few more people, the work ferry motored away to Tortola. In the distance we could hear a telephone ring then suddenly a woman’s voice came down from a house high above us on the hill.
“I’ll be right dere! Be open in a minute,” she said wearing a pink bathrobe. Then a shorter woman clad in pink shorts and pink and white shirt began walking down a dirt trail from the house. When she got to the bottom she rolled her eyes as only a daughter could do when the woman above told her to hurry up. The young girl - once at the bottom I could see she was about 14 - waved us to follow. She unlocked the door and handed us menus before beginning her morning café chores. We picked our meals as she wiped down the outdoor tables.
The older woman arrived and took our order. While cracking eggs she asked about our stay. We told her how we’d come to Jost on a day trip six years ago and had always wanted to spend a few nights here. She handed us plates with ham, egg and cheese sandwiches and then followed us to the outside tables to talk about the island some more. During our breakfast, the clouds drifted away revealing the morning sun.
“So where you headed next?” she asked.
“Going home,” we muttered finishing our sandwiches.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Flying from Tortola or St. Thomas?”
“St. Thomas. Flight’s at 12:30.”
“Today???” she inquired. We nodded. “You’ll never make it,” She said with a wave of her hand. She continued in a fast island patois we couldn’t quite follow, “Ferry…late…crazy…no way.” Good thing I had finished my sandwich because I suddenly lost my appetite. She got up and went back into the café still chatting away. Christian scowled at me.
“But the ferry only takes 45 minutes. Even if it’s 20 minutes late we’ll still be on St. Thomas by 10:30. At the airport by 11. Plenty of time!” I stammered.
“How do you know it takes 45 minutes?” he asked.
“It said so on the website.” The woman cackled behind us. My re-adjusted cell phone said 8 a.m.
We returned to the custom’s building and sat on the deck. A couple pushing a baby stroller while carrying four pieces of luggage approached and dumped their luggage next to ours. Then a woman with shiny blond hair and surprisingly un-tanned skin arrived with a single black tote. She said good morning in a European accent and sat next to us. Since they looked like tourists, Christian decided to ply them with some questions.
“So do you think the ferry will be on time?” The couple with the baby had no idea.
“Oh, sometimes,” said the woman. “It’s the islands, so you never know.”
“You live here?”
“No, but my husband works here a few months out of the year so I’m here quite a bit,” she said. Christian asked her if she was going home today. She said she was returning to the Netherlands on a 4 p.m. flight. As if reading Christian’s mind, she then asked when we were leaving.
“Our flight’s at 12:30.”
She pursed her lips together and sucked on some air. “Today?” she asked. For a second time this morning, we nodded.
“If I can’t get a flight after 2 p.m., I spend the night before in St. Thomas,” she said.
“But the website says the ferry is only 45 minutes, with 10 minutes either way,” I plead.
“That depends on how many people the boat has. If it’s full, it could take an hour just go through customs.” We ask the couple what time their flight is and the man responds that they will spend a few nights on St. Thomas and not leave until Thursday. As we discuss our travel plans a tiny island woman approaches the deck, nicely attired in a black dress and a golden turban, her arms decorated in large gold bracelets. She chatted away on a cell phone. At nine a.m., the café owner popped her head around the corner of the deck.
“See no ferry. Yestaday dey don’t show up ‘til 9:30. Always late,” she said shaking her head. I watched the minutes go by on my cell phone, 9:05, 9:10. Then at 9:15 a boat came around the southern corner of the bay. The ferry! My relief quickly turned to dismay when I realized the bay was a no wake zone so it would only putter over to the dock and there were some people already on the boat adding to the head count at customs. The café lady also had several cases of water that had to be unloaded before the ferry could leave. The boat ropes weren’t loosened until 9:30.  
Finally moving, it felt good to be on the water this beautiful Caribbean day. Jost van Dyke grew smaller behind us as St. John grew larger and greener next to us. Motoring around the northern side of St. John I tried to remember the bays in order:  Leinster, Maho, Cinnamon, Trunk. Caneel Bay was the easiest to spot because of the exclusive resort and manicured lawns surrounding it. On the other side of the ferry was an islet I had just learned about during a sunset cruise earlier in our trip called Lovango Cay. Accessible only by boat, our captain told us that Lovango, pronounced lo-VAN-go, got its name because several decades ago, the island housed a brothel. Lov an’ go, get it? Lovango Cay was now a privately owned, master-planned community. The only way I could ever set foot on it was by winning the lottery.
After only 15 minutes we sloooowly motored around the west end of St. John and entered Cruz Bay. Another no-wake zone, we puttered toward the custom’s house only to find another boat already docked. We waited. We also watched as the captain of the small boat spoke to a uniformed man. They laughed; they shook hands. Finally the smaller boat left and we took their place. Christian and I stood at the boat entrance along with the other passengers eagerly awaiting departure. We had to take our luggage with us for re-screening, just like at the airport. As soon as the gate opened, we jumped off the boat and clumsily trudged up the entrance ramp. The uniformed man at the door held his hand out to stop us, but he was looking at a woman inside the building. She appeared to be writing at her counter. Looking up, she nodded to the man at the door and he opened it. We approached her and handed her our passports underneath the glass that separated us. She asked if we enjoyed our stay. “Yes!” Stoically, she stamped the books and returned them to us. Then we hauled our luggage to the x-ray machine at the other end of the sterile white room. The man running the x-ray machine stopped our bags halfway through.
“Do you have any food in your luggage?” Yes, we replied, we have some candies, jelly beans and chocolate-covered coffee beans to be exact.
“Is that all?” Yes, we said.
“Are you sure?” Yes, we’re sure.
“Are you carrying any meat?” Ah, no, no meat. But we do have a package of Twizzlers.
“Ooooh, that’s what that is!” He turned the conveyer back on and we grabbed our luggage. Scurrying out the exit door, the woman in a black dress followed behind us still talking on her cell. I couldn’t hear all of her conversation, but several words were loud and clear: “Fucking!” “Shitheads!” “Dammit!” Rather garish language from such a smartly-dressed woman.
Soon everyone had returned to the boat. Not bad, I thought. Then the captain stepped off the boat and began talking to the uniformed man. We could see them laughing and gesturing. The black dress woman yelled at them from her seat on the boat, cell phone still pressed to her ear. Without a glance in our direction, the captain reboarded and the ferry slowly sputtered away. In front of us, St. Thomas was so close I could count the window panes in the houses along the coast. A shipmate came back to the passenger seats and was immediately accosted by black dress woman. In her anger, her voice carried high above the boat engines.
“What the fuck is taking so long? I have to be work at 11. Where is the captain? Tell him to get his ass out here so I can give him a piece of my mind. I’m losing money!” The shipmate said something we couldn’t hear above the engines and left. My cell phone read 10:35. Just then the Dutch woman sat behind us.
“You know, if you can find a cab to take you straight to the airport, you might be able to make it.” She explained how taxis on St. Thomas usually take as many passengers as possible and make several stops before airport. However, for some extra money, drivers will take people straight to the airport.
“It costs a lot, but you’ll make your flight,” she said. What did she define by a lot, we asked. She said $15 per person. We agreed $30 for a straight shot to the airport was a small price to pay.
The ride across Pillsbury Sound to Red Hook took only 10 minutes. As we grabbed our luggage and disembarked the ferry I could hear black dress woman yelling at the captain through the window of his bridge. I smiled for the first time that morning.
Outside we found a whole row of taxi vans parked around the ferry terminal. We yelled, airport! A driver talked on a cell phone and didn’t look up. Another driver turned around and walked away from us. Airport! Airport! A gentleman a ways down the block waved at us
 “We need to go straight to the airport or we’re gonna miss our plane!” we plead.
“No problem, mon.” he said with a smile. Confirming the $30 price tag, we loaded our luggage. As we left the driver said he was actually glad to give us a ride. He said he was waiting for some cruise ship passengers, but they wouldn’t arrive until noon. Plenty of time for him to drive us to the airport and back. The driver also said he would take the “back road” to the airport. He explained it may be longer in miles, but it avoided downtown Charlotte Amalie, the US Virgin Islands’ capital and largest city, where traffic jams were a regular occurrence. But first our driver had to pee. We sat in the taxi while he stopped in a church parking lot and ran behind a tree. What more could happen to us this morning? I glanced at my cell phone; 10:45.
The “long way” turned into a hill-top scenic tour of St. Thomas. I almost considered taking out my camera. From the hilltop road we could see the giant cruise ships in the Charlotte Amalie harbor. Brightly colored homes hung on the cliffs next to the road. On the other side of the harbor the Caribbean Sea opened up before us, sparkling in the morning sunshine. Too bad we were in a hurry.
The driver pulled up to the airport terminal at 11:15 a.m. He helped us retrieved our luggage and we tipped him generously. We then trudged 25 yards to the United Airlines ticket counter.
“Hello!” said the smiling ticket agent. “Checking in?” Yes! “Last name?” Dow. “Oh, I have some bad news for you.” Our hearts dropped into our stomachs as we imagined the aircraft we heard taking off was our plane.
“Your flight has been delayed an hour. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

This Week: Biloxi, Mississippi

Bad (and good) Decisions in Biloxi

New Year’s Eve on the Gulf Coast. I am in the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. I have $100 in my pocket and my plan is to play Black Jack until it’s gone.

My brother Chad, my mom and I arrived in Biloxi a few hours earlier hoping to take an afternoon stroll on Biloxi Beach. Funny thing was after driving in glorious sunshine from Alabama to Mississippi, once we passed over the Biloxi Bay Bridge, a fog rolled in and covered everything in a gray wet blanket. We attempted to walk on the beach, but couldn’t see more than half a football field away. We needed to find an indoor activity.

After dinner we found ourselves in the Beau Rivage lobby. It was like being in the midst of a Sex in the City episode. Women, young and old, wore short shiny dresses that they bought just for this occasion and would never wear again. Some wore shoes with heels so high they had to hang on to their husbands’ or boyfriends’ arms for dear life. In some ways it was cool:  New Year’s Eve was the one night they could dress up like Carrie or Samantha. The one night where blue collar guys could wear silk suits and ties and pretend that they had more money than they really did. But I could not concern myself with them. I had cards to play.

My mom, the penny-slot queen, went off on her own in search of one-armed bandits. Black Jack was too high roller for her taste. My brother said he didn’t want to gamble. He preferred poker with his buddies over the stacked odds in a casino that would undoubtedly take all my money. I can understand that. However, he agreed to help me with my math at the tables, which I desperately needed. If there isn’t a face card involved, I’m not fast enough and get embarrassed when the dealer has to wait for me to figure out what I’m doing. Numbers were Chad’s thing and I planned to take advantage.

It took us a while to find a table. Minimum bet was $15, a lot higher than the $5 I was used to in Colorado. The minimum tables were all full. My table choices were $25, $50 and $100. Yikes! I may be foolish, but not stupid. So the two of us took a few laps around the gaming tables searching the faces of the gamblers for signs of defeat as they would soon be vacating their seats. After many minutes, a couple left a minimum bet table just as we passed. I took the end seat and offered the other to my brother, in case he changed his mind, but he said no. I put my $100 on the table and was ready to rock and roll.   

It started off well as our dealer was short, sweet and chatty. She had a bust here and a push there. At one point I was up $45. I even split a pair of sevens and the dealer went bust. Things were flowing. Then a new dealer showed up.

“We need to move,” I told Chad.

“After all that time it took to find this table? No, we’re staying,” he said. He had a point. Our new dealer, Mike, was stoic. Not as chatty as our first dealer. Much to my surprise, things didn’t tank right away. Then on one hand I drew an ace and a two. That was either 13 or a 3. I had no choice but to hit. I drew another 2. So now I had either 15 or 5. The dealer was showing a face card; my 15 wasn’t going to cut it. I hit again.

“You sure you wanna do that?” Chad asked behind me. Although surprised at the question (was I making a mistake????) I said yes.

The dealer drew me a five. I now had twenty and held. An older gentleman at the other end of the table said, “Wow.” Mike flipped his second card and it was a five. The dealer had 15.

“You took his five!” The gentleman at the other end of the table said and the whole table laughed. In Black Jack, dealers have to hit until they reach at least 17. Mike took one more hit and drew an 8. BUSTED! The gentleman at the other end applauded. I heard Chad chuckle behind me. I was up $75.

Sadly all good things must end. Our original dealer returned to relieve Mike. Even thought it wasn’t technically a new dealer, a dealer change was always a bad omen. My winnings quickly dwindled. After the dealer hit 21 for the third time in a row, my chip pile dipped below my original $100. It was time to go.

Once again Chad and I circled the gaming tables. While doing so we ran into Mom. Her $20 was gone. However, it was only 10 p.m. Mom wanted to go to the Hard Rock Casino next door and off we went. Although it was the building next to the Beau, it was still a three block walk out in the cold mist. I was freezing when we got there.

After taking the escalator up to the casino, we entered a sea of humanity. A sparkly, shiny, polished and primped sea of humanity. I felt immediately old. I wanted to go back to the Beau. Mom wanted to look around, so she and Chad took off. I headed for the casino floor.

At the Hard Rock, Black Jack tables had a minimum of $20. Really? As I walked around I saw some roulette wheels and their minimum bet was $15. I had always wanted to play roulette, which they didn’t have in Colorado casinos. As I approached a table, two smartly dressed young men left and I took a seat. I put what was left of my stash on the table. To my left was another sharply dressed young man sitting next to his shiny girlfriend.

He gave me the once over with his eyes and said, “How yoo doin’?” I said “good” with the sexiest smile I could muster. The dealer then yelled “Place your bets!”

I quickly glanced at the board. Apparently red had been hitting. All the well-dressed young people at the table began setting their chips on Red until the box was overflowing with towering stacks of chips. I put $15 in chips on Black. My chips looked awfully lonely on the square all by themselves. Red hit again to applause from the group. I was now down to $45. I put another $15 on black, $15 on odd and put the rest in my pocket. At least I wouldn’t go home empty handed.

“Place your bets!” The dealer put the marble on the wheel. The wheel spun and spun while the marble bounced and bounced an agonizingly long time. I was too far away to see where it landed, so I looked up at the board. The board blinked 29. I had just doubled my money! I took my chips as soon as the dealer set them down and left as fast as I could.

I began walking around the penny slots at the Hard Rock searching for my family. I couldn’t see them anywhere. I then searched the gift shop. Not there either. I called Chad on my cell phone.

“Where are you?”

“We’re back at the Beau. We thought you came back here.”

“What?!? No! Fine. Meet me in the lobby. I’ll be right there.” It was another cold walk back to the Beau. I stormed into the Beau’s elaborate lobby where my family stood in the center of the space.

“You left me!” I cried.

“We thought you wanted to come back here,” they said.

“What time is it?” I sighed. Chad said 11 o’clock.

“Well let’s get back in there. I’m not leaving until midnight.”

“That’s the spirit,” laughed Chad. Mom just shook her head. We headed back into the casino and while Chad and Mom chatted I scoped out another minimum Black Jack table. The wait wasn’t as long this time. I found a seat next to a young couple that could barely keep their eyes open, obviously drunk. This time our dealer was a gal named Cami and she wasn’t taking guff from anyone. When it came time for the sleepy/drunk couple to hit or stay, she would tap her index finger on the velvet table top with her right hand while holding her left hand over the card stack. Then she would loudly shout their hand when they took too long to respond. The girl would raise her head and say “hit” until she went bust every hand. Although Cami’s cards were strong, I managed to push a few hands. I even landed one Black Jack. My chip stack rose as midnight approached. Soon the casino waitresses were walking around with trays of cheap plastic champagne glasses filled with equally cheap bubbly. Mom and Chad each took one. I took two.

“Five, Four, Three, Two, One, HAPPPY NEW YEAR!” everyone in the casino shouted. I clinked my plastic glass with both Chad and Mom. Even though it was midnight, Cami wasn’t wasting any time as she continued drawing cards. The drunk couple left. All that remained was myself and an elderly lady sucking on a cigarette. It took a few more hands, but I soon had $100 in chips. Even, I cashed out and the three of us left into the misty cold night.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This Week: New Orleans, LA

Bad Decisions on Bourbon Street

The morning started badly when my mom woke us up at 7 a.m. to wish me happy birthday. My head ached and my eyes were dry. It didn’t help when she threw open the hotel curtains and sunlight flooded the room. Bad as I had it, my baby brother had it worse. He groaned from somewhere underneath the covers of the other bed. Mom was having none of our pain. It was our second day in New Orleans and we were getting up whether we liked it or not.
Of course New Orleans was the reason for our pain. The previous night my brother Chad and I felt it necessary to have a Big Easy bacchanal. He had driven from his new home in Mobile, AL, to show his big sis around the Gulf Coast and the sin city of Nawlins was our starting point. The plan for our first night:  Walk the French Quarter drinking booze. Not the highest of cultural activities.
Since it was the day before my birthday, I got to choose where we ate dinner. From our well located hotel, the Sheraton New Orleans, the three of us walked down Decatur Street to my elected destination – Margaritaville. We were able to get a table on the small upstairs balcony that overlooked the corner of Decatur and St. Phillip Street. Naturally, I ordered a margarita, but I wanted one with lime juice instead of sour mix. The waitress suggested JB’s Perfect Margarita. She said it contained Gold and Silver Margaritaville tequila, orange curacao and lime juice. An obvious upsell, we ordered two. Bad decision #1. Mom passed. The drink was strong yet refreshing. I was unsure of the orange curacao, but it smoothed out the tequila nicely. We watched the shadows on Decatur Street grow long as we ate our Cubano sandwiches.
With my pre-birthday dinner accomplished, mom left us for the evening. Her plan was to shop in all the Decatur Street stores we had previously passed before turning in early at the hotel. She also wanted no part of our Bourbon Street debauchery. With promises all around to be safe, Chad and I began walking up St. Phillip Street toward Bourbon. We contemplated our next drink; hurricane or hand grenade? But as we turned the corner our drink plans quickly changed. We had accidently arrived at a drinking Mecca:  Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
Reputed to be the oldest structure in the United States continuously used as a bar, the Blacksmith Shop was built between 1722 and 1732. Sometime around 1772, the building was owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte with the blacksmith business merely a front for his illegal activities. This building had seen its share of characters; rum runners, smugglers, mercenaries, war heroes, the French, the Spanish, Africans and Cajuns. Chad and I felt the presence of those characters as we entered. The building did not have electricity and ran its refrigeration and exit signs with long extension cords into the building next door. Candle light sufficed for the rest. Even though it was dusk on the street, the inside was already dark. The buzz of conversation was everywhere, but we managed to find a small wobbly table in the corner and promptly ordered two local beers, Dixie Blackened VooDoo Lager. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in six months, Chad and I sat silently for several minutes absorbing the atmosphere. I wanted to count the bricks of the fireplace, the white candles holders around the bar, the extension cords running up the walls and ceiling in an effort to become part of its history. A mute piano sat in a corner. The wrought iron of the window next to our table beautifully framed the street. Every few minutes a horse-drawn carriage would stop in front of the bar. We could hear the driver explain to the tourists the significance of the building. We wondered aloud why no one got out and came inside. Why listen to a speech about history when you can actually sit inside and experience it?
At Lafitte’s Bad Decision #2 occurred. Chad and I were so thrilled to be there we wanted to drag the experience out a bit longer, so we ordered a second beer. The cool lager was the perfect drink for such a dark, dank dive. However, we knew we needed move on. All of Bourbon Street awaited!
As we walked down Bourbon Street this particular section was more residential and quiet. Admiring the French colonial architecture, we heard music in the distance. With each block more and more people filled the sidewalk and the music grew louder. Chad announced he needed to use the restroom so we ducked into a place called Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar. Unbelievably small and poorly lit the place consisted of a thick wooden bar up front across from a bench and table. A few smaller round tables and chairs sat empty in the middle and a ridiculously small stage was tucked into the back corner. A door next to the stage led to restrooms. While Chad went back, I sat at the bench watching the bartender. She was moving a tall and elaborate glass jar across the bar.
“What’s that,” I asked.
“Ice water,” she matter-a-factly replied.
“Ok, but what do you use it for,” I tried again.
“Absinthe.” That was all I needed to hear.
“I’ll take one!” Since the spirit has only been legal in the states since 2007, this would be my first absinthe ever. When Chad returned I caught a slight look of distain in his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“I found absinthe!”
“Oh, boy,” he said followed by some eye rolling.
We watched the bartender intently as she poured a small glass full of absinthe. The spirit was a silky yellowish-green. She put a silver strainer over the top of the glass with a sugar cube on top. Then she moved the ice water jar over the glass and opened up a tap. Water dripped onto the cube. Nothing much happened at first then suddenly the sugar dissolved and the liquid went from clear to cloudy. At this point we thought she was done, but not so. The bartender lit the liquid on fire and a blue flame rose above the glass. She tipped the glass a bit and blew the flame out. Then she lit a second match and repeated the motion. After blowing out the flame, she set a second glass on the bar so both of us could try it. I poured half the drink into the second glass and gave the first one to Chad.
We clinked glasses and I downed my drink. I tasted nothing but sugar with a little bit of licorice at the finish. My poor brother, however, didn’t get that far.
“Oh my god that’s awful!” he coughed.
“Drink it!” I said. Good sport that he is, he finished his drink and I asked him what it tasted like.
“Fire and licorice,” was the reply. He was not happy with me.
“Too bad,” I teased. “I must have gotten all the sugar because mine was really sweet.” I could finally cross absinthe off my bucket list. For my brother, it was Bad Decision #3.
We entered Bourbon Street again and music poured from every door and window, everything from modern dance tracks, to country swing to traditional New Orleans jazz. People now covered the sidewalks. I wanted another drink, but didn’t want to sit in another bar. Fortunately in the French Quarter walking around with an open container was acceptable behavior. I approached a street vendor and ordered two hurricanes. Bad Decision #4. Plastic cups of fruity punch in hand, we continued on Bourbon Street. A brass band was playing on the corner. The band members looked incredibly young, high school age, but very talented so we stopped to listen to some ragtime music. An old man dancing in the street held a tip bucket. The semi-circle of spectators grew larger as the music grew louder. Satiated with traditional jazz when the band finished, we put some dollar bills in the bucket.
Now at the west end of Bourbon Street, we turned around to make another pass. The street was completely packed. People shouting, laughing, swearing, stumbling and dancing around us. We laughed at all the drunken fools not even realizing we were two of them. We ducked in the doorways of several bars, but nothing seemed to grab our attention. Some were too touristy, some too loud and some were strip clubs. Chad suggested we head back to Lafitte’s.
Like Bourbon Street, Lafitte’s had even more people now than it did earlier and music spilled from the windows. We entered a side door and found the place standing room only. A man dressed like Jean Lafitte, pointy goatee and black hat included, was at the piano singing “What a Night” by Dr. John. Appropriate for a Crescent City bar. People surrounded the piano with their drinks, dollars and cigarettes lined up on top of it. I could imagine a similar scene back in the late 1700s when Lafitte was running with pirates, smugglers and other undesirables. The place was so dark we couldn’t see anyone’s faces. A waitress tapped on my shoulder.
“We’d like two Voodoo beers,” is what I thought I said. Beers were not what we received, however. She returned with too large Styrofoam cups on a tray. Inside was a dark slushy liquid.
“I ordered beer,” I said. The waitress apologized and offered to get them, but then Chad asked her what the drinks were.
“It’s the voodoo drink,” she said in a “you-should-know-that” tone. She offered to take them back when Chad asked to try one and she encouraged him by saying they tasted like grape soda. Chad took a sip and the smile on his face told me we were keeping the drinks. Bad Decision #5.
My brain froze as I sipped the Everclear slushy. Chad spotted a high-top table near the piano. It didn’t have chairs, but at least we could set our heavy drinks down. The piano player launched into “House of the Rising Sun,” another New Orleans classic. We were now alongside of him and could see he wore a dark old-fashioned suit. All his fingers were adorned with gemmed rings, some digits with two, even three. His jeweled fingers pounded the keys like he was kneading a large wad of pizza dough. The piano was slightly out of tune, but his voice wasn’t. When he finished the song, the building erupted in applause. Some idiot at the end of the piano yelled, “Bruuuuuuuce!”
“You’re kidding, right?” the piano man snickered. Then he sprang into “Tipitina” also by Dr. John. Nice. After we finished the voodoo drinks we ordered two more Dixie Blackened Voodoo lagers. Bad Decision #6. We sipped as the man played “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd) and “Hotel California” (The Eagles). Declaring ourselves drunk and broke, it was now our turn to stumble into Bourbon Street swaying and laughing back to the hotel.
This morning was payback for waking up mom when we stumbled into our hotel room. She asked what was wrong with us and I told her “It must have been the VooDoo drink,” a play on a Jimmy Buffett lyric. She was not amused. Most definitely it was the voodoo drink. Nothing a few beignets and a café ‘au lait at the Café du Monde wouldn’t cure. Viva de mauvaises décisions!