Saturday, 22 November 2008

Why camping in bear country sucks

We were reasonably familiar with the whole bear-country camping game before we started this trip, but camping in grizzly hot spots like Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Rockies brought it to a whole new level.

Bears were never far from our minds, and now I can sympathize with Americans that are petrified of all the things that can kill you in the Australian bush. Give me deadly snakes and spiders any day, here's why camping and walking in bear country sucks:

  • Don't leave food unattended at any time, even while you are preparing it. Food (and all rubbish) needs to be stored in bear bin or hard-sided vehicle, with everything not already vacuum packed in air-tight containers (we used dry bags).
  • Don't cook and sleep in the same clothes. Impossible! I only had room for one down jacket and it was damn cold...
  • Don't wear deodorant.
  • Don't cook tuna for dinner. Seriously bad idea, this was one of the mistakes we made in Shenandoah.
  • Don't spill food on yourself or the ground.
  • Don't have your period if you are a girl...
  • Don't leave your pack on the ground with your back turned at any time. Bears lurk around back-country campsites where they have previously gotten access to food.
  • Bear hangs (dry-bag on a rope over a high branch) at back-country campsites are fairly ineffective. Bear canisters are the only proven way to stop bears getting at your food. Just don't put it next to a cliff or lake because bears can't open them, but they roll really well...
  • Announce yourself (yell!) around every corner to avoid surprising a bear. We used super-loud bear bells to avoid having to do this. The noise needs to be particularly loud near streams where it has to be heard over the flowing water. Unfortunately you scare pretty much all other wildlife by being so noisy. And you attract any problem bears that already associate humans with food rewards....
  • Carry bear mace. Better than a gun, but unlike guns(!) you can't take it on an airplane, even in your checked luggage. Since it is about $60 per canister, there was no way I was going to buy a new canister at each location. So no mace for us.

The most annoying part is washing your dishes. Here's how you're supposed to do it:

  • scrape leftovers into a plastic bag and put in bear proof bin.
  • Fill bucket with water and wash dishes in it at your tent site.
  • Scrape off floaties from water and put in bag in bear proof bin.
  • Pour dish water into pit toilet.

Of course this assumes you actually have a bucket, which we didn't. So I had the pleasure of washing our pots and bowls over the open pit toilet (i.e. massive pile of poo), hoping I didn't drop anything. I'd recommend one of those collapsible plastic camp sinks....

The rangers killed a problem bear at our Grand Teton campsite a couple of months before we got there. There was a posted list of its activities that led to its death, there were about 12 separate incidents where it got food either by breaking into a vehicle or approaching humans. Unfortunately you can do everything right and still get approached by a bear if it has associated humans with food rewards...

Monday, 20 October 2008

O'ahu

O'ahu was definitely the big city compared to the other islands, but we had a great time chilling out for our final days in the US:
  • Beaches.
  • Pearl Harbor memorial, pretty amazing, built over the wreck of the USS Arizona.
  • Our $3 lilo made an awesome glass bottomed boat for snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Beach Park, checking out fish and coral, well mainly fish, most of the coral had been stepped on by millions of tourists.
  • Watched the Hawks take out the AFL grand final in a bar in Honolulu with bemused/bored Americans :)
  • Ate lunch at Keneke's - a crazy fish and chip shop whose outdoor area was full of religious graffiti, mainly random bible verses and inspiration like 'Some know of Jesus, Some know Jesus!'
  • Beach hopped around the northern beaches, which (in the winter) are home to the legendary waves you see in surfing videos. Amazing we swam at the Banzai pipeline beach, and there was no surf! We swam at four or five different beaches, it was great to get away from the touristy beaches and swim where the locals go.
  • Found it amusing that Hawaii has an interstate freeway. Think about it.
I thought Hawaii was awesome, could definitely spend more time there. In a lot of ways it really is halfway between the US and Australia, some random stuff that made me feel at home: metric signs, egg on a hamburger, prawns instead of shrimp, tim tams (Malaysian export version!?), toilets instead of restrooms.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Maui

I think the big island was probably my favourite, but Maui was pretty good too:
  • Did part of the legendary drive through the dripping rainforest to Hana, but were slightly unimpressed with the scenery. Also the scariest drive of my life with continuous hairpin bends, one lane bridges and psycho drivers.
  • Haleakala National Park - more volcano :) Training ground for the Mars lander, we were above the clouds wandering around in the giant craters. Would be cool to do a multi-day walk through the volcano craters there.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Big Island Flora - What the?

Big Island....mmmm.....lava

The Hawaiian Big Island is awesome, and volcanoes national park is *the* place to study volcanoes:
  • Walked on still-steaming lava in a volcano crater.
  • Walked through a 390m lava tube, only 90m of which was lit. All the other tourists thought we were hardcore with our headtorches. Em freaked out so we probably did about 80m of very dark tunnel.

  • Saw roads and areas of bush that had been destroyed by lava.
  • Watched the glow of lava from the crater rim at night.
  • Saw amazing waterfalls and rainforest.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Em gets her tough on


I'm as surprised as you are.

I wanted to do this walk in Grand Teton to surprise lake, which was 1km vertical and described by LP as a 'classic leg burner'. Needless to say Em wasn't quite as keen, and since she had an injured foot and knee problems I didn't hold out much hope of us making it to the top. Sure enough about 500m in there were tears and I said we should turn back.

To my surprise Em stubbornly refused to turn back, swallowed a handful of Nurofen (aka Vitamin I) and kept walking. Amazingly she made it the whole way, through freezing rain, injured foot and knee not withstanding. What a champion.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Grand Teton: second best walk in the US


Grand Teton is right next to Yellowstone, and I get the impression most people blow through, take the photo of the lake with the craggy mountains in the background from the roadside overlooks and continue on their merry way. We spent a few days camping and hiking in the park, and it was one of my favourite places in the US.

In fact, it is home to my 2nd favourite (behind Angel's Landing) walk in the US, through Cascade Canyon. This walk was pure jaw dropping mountain scenery. We managed to pick the best week of the whole year for the autumn colours. I've never seen a mountain look as pretty as Grand Teton capped with snow and gold-bronze foilage cascading down its flanks.

We managed to not get eaten by a bear, which was a bonus. I was shitting myself a few times when we were walking through acres of red berries, thinking "this is a bear supermarket, and we are the dessert aisle..."

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Yellowstone: Waterfalls, Wildlife and Flash mobs


Mt. Washburn was a cool hike, although Lonely Planet had us shitting ourselves, this being September: "grizzlies flock to Mount Washburn's east slopes in August and September in search of ripening whitebark pine nuts". We didn't see any :)

After Washburn we hiked along the rim of the "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone", which was amazingly spectacular due to the different rock colours created by thermal activity.
The waterfalls and rock colours made this my favourite part of the park.

We got up early to hit the Lamar valley - "America's Serengeti", a mecca for wildlife.
Unfortunately we quickly discovered that we didn't have much chance of seeing wildlife without binoculars (I'm fairly convinced TSA nicked mine, the bastards).

Here is how wildlife spotting works in Yellowstone.

Drive around, look for cars that are pulled over. Pull over, look where they are looking, ask someone what they are looking at. Half the time the thing they are looking at has either left, or is about 1km away and can only be seen with these giant spotting scopes mounted on tripods that half the visitors to the park have brought with them.

Every single person seems to follow this same algorithm, which means if you pull over, get your binoculars out and point at something, you are instantly surrounded by 5 SUVs and 10 RVs worth of people asking "What can you see?". "Erm, we were just looking". The park is huge, and there are only a small number of high-traffic roads that most animals are sensible enough to stay away from, except bison.

The coolest things we saw were beavers (way bigger than I expected! and cute) and prong-horn deer.

Yellowstone: (Smelly) Geyser Country


Our first stop was geyser country, which was amazing. They have 60% of the world's geysers in Yellowstone, and geyser country has the highest concentration of thermal features in the world. Boiling mud, geysers, thermal springs, fart gas, we saw and smelt it all. I was surprised by how many geysers had fairly predictable eruption times - we checked in with the rangers and covered quite a few, including Old Faithful.
The vibe here was kind-of weird, the large seating areas and set 'show' times meant it felt more like a theme park than a National park.

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Mud Volcano
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Old Faithful
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"There's more guns on this plane than people": Jackson Hole to Yellowstone


We flew into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the airport is actually inside Grand Teton National Park. In the words of a guy watching the luggage being unloaded - "there's more guns on this plane than people". It was peak hunting season and the area is something of a mecca for hunters. There is something quite ironic in how people were walking around with hunting bows and rifles in an airport that makes me empty my water bottle and x-ray my shoes in case I could hurt someone with them.

We grabbed our hire-van (very handy when everything except the tent and sleeping bag needs to be in a hard-sided vehicle, see bears blog) and drove through Grand Teton to Yellowstone, our home for 4 nights. Along the way we saw tons (literally) of bison, which in terms of tourists injured per year are way more dangerous than bears! We did our bit for the statistics by getting a bit closer than we probably should have.

Best outdoors store ever


In our frequent trips through Denver we managed to fit in a couple of visits to the giant REI flagship store. I think I would live in Denver just so I could go to this store. Em's new REI 0°F/-17°C sleeping bag had started leaking down everywhere, so we swapped it for an awesome 0°F Marmot bag and some other gear with very little fuss - top marks for customer service.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Mesa Verde


Denver to durango was weird. Our plane was about 50% grubby campers like us, and 50% uber rich people, who presumably had all come to do the railroad thing.

The pueblo dwellings were amazing, and it was dry enough to dry out our tent :) The burning question I had ever since I saw photos of these and other pueblo dwellings was - why? Why live in a cliff? It's difficult to get water and food in, imagine rockclimbing with a giant basket of corn, and difficult to get waste out (or just gross, depends on your tolerance for poo I guess).

My guess was the reason was defense - who needs locks when you have a grade 16 climb to your door? In fact archaeologists think it was to free up farmland on the scarce plateau land. They were starving farmers in the desert, they moved off the plateau so they could plant more crops.

Was nice to be out of grizzly territory for a little while - they only had black bears :)

rocky mountain high, altitude sickness high


Ahh...the rockies. Our campsite was awesome with a view of the squarish Long's peak - the only '14er' (14,255 feet/4,344 m) in the park, although Colorado has heaps. Long's is the prize for the hardcore peak baggers visiting the park, apparently 10,000 people attempt it per year but only 3,000 reach the summit. The hike is only 8 miles one way, but the elevation gain is 4,855 feet (1,479 m). You either need to start at about 3am to get it done in a day before the afternoon weather closes in, or make it an overnight - em wasn't particularly keen for either so I left it for my next visit :)

The elk were in rut, we could see herds of them in the meadows below our campsite and hear the males bugling all day and night. The bugle is funny, it sounds like someone opening and closing a really squeaky door slowly.

First day we did a cool hike to Ouzel lake (10,010 feet/3,051 m), which was high enough to feel the effects of the altitude. The next day I left em at Bear Lake and climbed 2,850 feet/868 m up to Flattop (12,324 feet/3,756 m), which resulted in headaches, getting snowed on, and feeling vaguely nauseous but the views were awesome out over the mountains and down from the top of Tyndall glacier. We did lots of hikes over 5 days in the park, but these two and Mills Lake were probably the best.

On our last night it pissed down rain all night, and our tent was in a natural drainage path, which became a waterfall and small river. We made some quick flood diversion earthworks and managed to stay dry. Frickin bears meant we couldn't cook in the tent vestibule (see here for why camping in bear habitat is a pain in the arse), so we had a delicious cold dinner of corn and beans in a burrito.

The pine beetle has smashed the west side of the park, with whole hillsides of trees killed. The more visited (and interesting) east side is expected to suffer the same fate over the next few years. There are no good ways for controlling the beetle except a return to cold winters which kill the larvae - how's that for an unexpected consequence of global warming?

The rockies are also experimenting with birth control for the elk, which have no natural predators since the wolf was hunted out of the park. Their preference was to re-introduce the wolf as was done with great success in Yellowstone, but the objections were: the wolves could not be confined to the park, and they would make visitors nervous. They are expecting to get sued no matter what they choose to do!

San Antonio Texas: "We don't dial 911"


San Antonio is a cool town, and feels just as much like Mexico as the US. It is the only place I have seen in the US where Mexicans and Americans seem truly integrated.

Good stuff:
  • The alamo.
  • The missions, beautiful old churches in defensive compounds. Full of weddings!
  • The riverwalk. The city has an amazing system of weirs, shutters, and underground overflow pipes to handle heavy rains and floods by shutting off sections of the riverwalk and diverting the river flow.
  • First friday of the month arts festival. Mexican food and music along a strip of funky art galleries. Awesome block party kind of vibe.
  • T-shirt: Picture of a gun with "Texas: we don't dial 911"
  • The airport had rocking chairs. After sitting in one for a while I decided that they actually weren't that much fun. May be improved with shotgun and tabaccy.

Austin - bats in your bridge?


Austin shits all over Dallas. It is the home of the SXSW festival, one of the best in the world. However, the coolest thing that happens in Austin is millions of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats hang out under the Congress Ave bridge in September and fly out en masse at sunset for food. Unfortunately by the time they fly out it is essentially dark, so almost impossible to get a photo. They make a really weird meaty sound when millions of wings are flapping and the smell is horrendous.

Other cool stuff in Austin:
  • The state capitol was surprisingly awesome. Our tour guide was genuine Texas: "my name is Bob, and I'm the best tour guide in this building with that name"...and..."she was a great orator...is that how you say it? Anyway she talked real good".
  • The birth place of the whole foods chain, which is a really Gucci supermarket with amazing fresh food, organic everything, and tons of specialty stuff like gluten-free and vegan. The store in Austin is amazing - sort of like the food part of Harrods with bars you can eat at, but at more reasonable prices :) It is the only place in the world I have seen a double-sided receipt. Save the trees!

Friday, 5 September 2008

Dallas, now my least favourite city in America


Dallas really doesn't have much going for it. LP says (and I agree):

...the gritty downtown feels deserted; those who work there eat lunch at office-building lunch shops and then scatter...

This great atmosphere was complemented by a large number of homeless people from New Orleans being driven to Dallas and dumped on the streets as part of the hurricane Gustav evacuation. Our hotel was chock full of evacuees and government staff.

On the plus side, the 6th floor museum in the Texas book depository (sound familiar?) was awesome. Bizarrely they actually have two white crosses on elm street that mark the points where bullets entered JFK's body, the second of which was fatal. You can see one in the photo.

Chicago, now my favourite city in America


Chicago is an awesome city. I can't believe I have been through the airport so many times without visiting the city, and it took a hurricane to get me there! We did an architecture tour along the river, which was phenomenal. Chicago has so many different styles and architecture innovations, and if you believe our guide, modern architecture was invented in Chicago (twice).

Other awesomeness:
  • Riding part of the 26 miles of continuous bike paths along lake Michigan.
  • Swimming in Chicago's drinking water.
  • Seeing Obama's house (and maybe obama) on the edge of the ghetto in southern Chicago. Seriously, the badlands were two blocks over.
  • Finding out graduates doing an MBA at University of Chicago pay $44k per year, while I only paid $20k for 5 years of study at home. Course the University of Chicago has a ridiculuous number of nobel prize winners and invented nuclear power, so I might not be comparing apples with apples.
  • Robie house by Frank Lloyd Wright (that makes two now), even though it was being renovated and there was a annoying arrogant woman on our tour who was, I'm ashamed to say, Australian.
  • Saw the sight of the first nuclear reaction in the world at University of Chicago.
I think I could live in Chicago but apparently winter = not so good. Also we ate this ridiculous pizza that took 45 min to cook and was sort of like a super-dense pepperoni pie.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Savannah GA


Savannah was beautiful, but the river cruise was rubbish. Spanish moss makes the trees look amazing, although it is neither moss nor spanish. Savannah has become the classic southern movie destination, my favourite was hanging out in the park where Forrest Gump had his bench :)

Friday, 29 August 2008

706 Pennies, 2 good cups of coffee

We became good americans and never used change for anything, so over a year we accumulated a fair bit. We dumped our change jar into the counting machine and here is what came out:

Quarters: 133
Dimes: 261
Nickels: 230
Pennies 706
Total: $77.91

While we are on statistics, I thought I'd list the good coffees I had in the US. There were two, one from an asian place in a random food court in Boston that had a proper espresso machine, and one from the Bluehouse cafe in Baltimore. Not sad about farewelling American coffee.

The long way home

We have started the journey home via Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and Hawaii. The first problem was that we were arriving in New Orleans at exactly the same time as hurrican gustav, so we replaced that leg with a trip to chicago well out of range of gustav. Turns out this was a really good move, since New Orleans was totally evacuated.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Smallest American car ever


I realised we never got around to posting a picture of our car, so here it is, the mighty chevy aveo pictured beside a regular-sized American truck for scale :)

356 days without an accident

Maryland roads are dangerous, and Baltimore has the 15th rudest drivers in America. Once I rang up our insurance company to find out how I could reduce our ridiculous premiums, their advice was "move out of Maryland". Great.

The other day I ended my run, at 356 days of driving in America without an accident. I got rear-ended on the freeway when a car got cut off and had to brake suddenly a couple of cars in front of me. I stopped in time, but the old guy in the ancient ute behind me ploughed straight into my car, pushing me into the one in front, and so on, until we had a four car pile-up.

As far as accidents go, this is about as good as it gets (well, for me anyway):

  1. No one was injured.
  2. It wasn't my fault.
  3. My car was still drivable.
  4. It wasn't my car.


We had made the, in retrospect awesome, decision to sell our car to carmax and accept a bit of a loss on the price just two days earlier. The car I was driving was a hire car, so I filled in an accident report, went back to the shop, and got a new one! Awesome!

Cashing in, moving out

You may remember that I found out most Americans don't use change. Well Em and I have become good Americans and have amassed a massive amount of change in a jar. We took it to wal-mart and dumped it into the change counting machine. Turns out 1 year works out at:

  • 133 Quarters
  • 261 Dimes
  • 230 Nickels
  • 706 Pennies

Which is $77.91 minus the coin machine's cut = $70.98

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

How to make a top-rope anchor, Earth Treks style

OK I'm back-dating this one. Before we left Baltimore I did the Earth Treks top-rope course, which was excellent. It was basically a full day of tying top ropes, and the instructor was a very experienced, knowledgeable climber and moutaineer. He started out by telling us that the double fishie above the figure 8 that American gyms require for harness tie in is useless, it is just for people who don't know how to tie a figure 8.

His method used 100ft (30m) of 10mm static line:
  • Take a bight of rope and tie a quick bowline (see below) around your best anchor, securing with a double fishie (make sure you put it one the right strand of the rope, where the end exits the knot).
  • Use the short(er) tail to tie in to your harness with a figure 8, you are now (reasonably) safe.
  • Tie a big friendly knot (see below) as your focal point and position over the climb by clipping your rope/backpack or something else heavy to two screw gates. Try and get the rope to hang off the rock in a hollow or in an overhang, so any rubbing happens above the knot.
  • Tie your second anchor point in the same way with a quick bowline and double fishie.
  • Adjust equalisation by holding the circle of rope you made in your bowline and sliding the knot up or down the rope (leave yourself some room!).
  • Done. Note he only used two anchors, but they have to be good ones (like big trees).

Quick Bowline

Very cool way to tie a bowline quickly. Make a loop on the load side of the rope and pull a loop through the circle from the load side of the rope. Pass the other end of the rope through your loop. Hold the load part of the rope with your right hand and slide the knot up with the left - it will sort of flip over and you will get the classic lifejacket look that means you have done it right.

Big Friendly Knot

The instructor uses this instead of a figure 8 because it has redundant strands that mean if part of the rope loop fails, there is another backing it up. Couldn't find this on the internet anywhere under this name so have taken a few photos. Only an overhand is needed, not a figure 8, but you can do one if you want to shorten the rope a little.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Ravens lose, Phelps wins


We thought we had better get to a Ravens game before we left, so we headed out for a pre-season game against Minnesota at M&T stadium, and paid $65 each to sit in the very back row! We couldn't afford a regular season game, the ravens only have 8 home games and tickets run at a couple of hundred for the cheap seats. Football is ridiculously popular - 70,000 people turned out for the game and it was only pre-season!

Despite the massive number of people, the atmosphere was pretty ordinary. Very little cheering, or booing, or...anything. Admittedly the ravens were losing, so I get the feeling the crowd is pretty fickle. I couldn't believe it when people started leaving shortly into the second half when it looked like the ravens would lose.

The best part of the whole thing was cheering on Michael Phelps to make history in the 4x100m medley relay with about 15,000 Baltimorians in Phelps' home town on the big screen after the game. The crowd was amazing, with everyone on their feet screaming their lungs out for the full length of the race. The aussies were ahead at one of the turns, and I let out a big involuntary cheer, which caused a whole lot of strange looks from the Americans around me. Em and I agreed that if Australia won we wouldn't cheer so we could make it out of the stadium alive.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Downtown Phelps-ville USA


People (well, my mum) have been asking me what the Olympics coverage has been like in the US, and I was wondering how this would go myself. Turns out the TV coverage has been similar (or better) to what we get in Australia - we have three channels-worth during the day, and one (NBC) that continues through prime-time. The coverage is US-athlete focused, but with three channels during the day they actually cover much more events where the US isn't involved than Nine covers events without Australians.

Mum tells me if Michael Phelps was a country, he would be beating Australia in the medal tally at the moment. He may not be a country, but he's definitely a city - he's from Baltimore and I hear his name about every 30 seconds on the TV. NBC just did an article about a massive increase in kids' swimming lesson enrolments in Baltimore and showed me how much he eats for breakfast - the american version of '16 weetbix'.

Are any Americans actually watching it? Well, it's not like football season where after a Ravens game you can hear everyone at work talking about it the next day. Having said that I think quite a few watched the opening ceremony, including a few with us. My favourite quote from a particularly loud American "Cameroon? Oh my god, is that a country?".

The timing is awesome. We have seen lots of the swimming finals live during our night time, that would have been during the work day in Australia.

I have a new favourite athlete - Reese Hoffa, pictured above with his famous turkey-leg celebration at the US track and field championships. He can solve a Rubik's cube in 55 seconds. Awesome.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Kath and Kim remade for the US....badly

Check out the US remake of Kath and Kim.


I object to NBC billing this as "Australia's number 1 show", when that isn't what they are showing at all. Although it is fair enough they remade it - it would have to be subtitled to be shown in the US (just like the Mad Max DVD someone showed me the other day, which has been dubbed with American accents).

I agree with those in the SMH article - I'd be surprised if it lasts a month.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Is google street view the coolest tech of our time?

I'm amazed how much of Australia Google has covered. Directions are now even more awesome too with street view images to help with landmarks.


View Larger Map

Monday, 28 July 2008

Climbing WV

Last week we headed west to Franklin, West Virginia to climb. We encountered this sign along the way, and I thought it was funny enough to jump out and take a photo.

The best climbing in the immediate area is at Seneca Rocks, which is all trad. Apart from me there was no-one else with much trad experience so we hooked up with some self-proclaimed bolt monkeys and hit Franklin Gorge.

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The monkeys knew their stuff, and after a 5.9 warm-up lead for me (bit more than a warm up), I got up a variety of 5.10a's and 10b's on top rope. We stayed the night at a nearby 4-H camp, which had the worst bathrooms I've seen outside Asia, but was otherwise really nice. I later found out that 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands, and Health) is sort of like the scouts, and WV is home to the first 4-H camp. Back to the rock the next day for more climbing. Em did some walking at Seneca Rocks and Blackwater Falls which looked really nice.

Assateague and ocean city

A couple of weeks ago we headed to the beach for Em's birthday. We camped at the Assateague Island National Seashore, which is the narrow strip of sand extending down the coast of Maryland and Virginia.

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It is best known for its "wild" horses, which are pretty used to people. We had them wandering through our campsite and hanging out on the beach - I'm used to dodging jellyfish on the beach but piles of horse poo was a new one.
We hung out on the beach, did some swimming - the water was *seriously* cold, and drenched ourselves in 40% DEET to keep the mozzies at bay, which were bad everywhere except on the beach. We also drove into nearby Ocean City, which is kind of like the Gold Coast. The beach there is nice, really long, with lots of volleyball courts. The boardwalk along the shore is huge (3 miles long!) but unfortunately is chock full of tourist trash shops - cheap T-shirt stores, henna tatoos etc. There weren't even that many bars, and basically no nice restaurants, although some of the hotels might have had some nice places to eat. Made us glad we were camping in the national park!

Biking the northern central rail trail

A couple of weekends ago Em and I joined some fellow aussies to ride a few miles of the northern central rail trail. This is part of a network of trails built on abandoned railway lines (minus tracks and sleepers) that runs a continuous 330 miles from DC to Pittsburgh! The scenery was nice, the trail amazingly flat, and a whole lot of people were floating down the river on inner-tubes since it was a stinking hot day. Think we will have to give that a go before we leave!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Fallingwater


A few months ago I was reading one of those "things to see before you die" lists in a magazine, and was astounded to find that there was some house in Pennsylvania (of all places) that made it into the top 20, alongside others entries like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids!

Turns out this is no ordinary house, it is Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece plonked on top of a beautiful waterfall in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. It was completed in 1939, and is composed of a number of cantilevered concrete slabs that hang out over the waterfall, held in place by piles of local rough-cut stone, all perched on top of a waterfall with no foundations. As our guide said, there will never be another house built like this in the US because there is no way you could get the planning permissions!

The tour was excellent, and we learned of many FLW innovations that put him ahead of his time. My favourite feature was how he built around a number of large boulders, incorporating one as the floor of the fireplace, and another that has hillside water seeping over it and into a hidden drain that passes under the house. Definitely worth the trip!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Confederates and the Union battle it out at Gettysburg 145 years on


Ever since I saw a civil war re-enactment on the Amazing Race it has been in my top 5 list of things to do in the US. So we went to the big one. Gettysburg on the 145th anniversary of the Confederates' defeat at the hands of the Union. The re-enactment went for three days, with 12,000 armed re-enactors, 200 cannons and artillery pieces, and 400 horses. We went for the 5th of July after watching the fireworks in Baltimore on the 4th.

The spectacle was amazing. The first battle at 11am was "Polished Sabers Dazzling in the Sun" – Cavalry Engagement Hanover Road with an impressive number of mounted troops fighting with sabers and pistols, as well as artillery and dismounted skirmishers pitching in. Of course this had nothing on the 5pm battle "Hold the Line" – Gallant Rally at the Klingle Farm where the field in front of us filled with infantry, cannons, and mortars all letting loose simultaneously with a deafening din of gunpowder.

I took some movies with the camera, but none of them do it justice. The cannons exploding produced massive bass booms that you could feel as physical thumps and the rifle fire was a constant series of loud whip cracks, all of which sounds like a bit of gentle popping on the video! Check out the videos below, the first is the cavalry battle and the others are the bigger 5pm battle.

All in all it was an awesome day. I'd highly recommend it, and I would definitely recommend the grandstand seats we had for a brilliant view.

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Monday, 16 June 2008

Montréal


Grand Prix in Montréal: Streets blocked off downtown with thousands of people eating and drinking outside, guys wandering the streets with tyres over their shoulders. We weren't there to see the Grand Prix, but it was a fun weekend to be in Montréal. Met up with Tim (quote: "Shit! Everything is in French!"), who was doing his own tour of Canada at the same time.

Had a fun couple of days checking out the sights in Montréal, then it was a bus to Plattsburgh NY (pop. 20k), 8-seater cessna to Boston MA, and a real plane to Baltimore. The cessna ride was awesome, almost like a scenic flight around the edge of the Adirondacks. I know a guy who learnt to fly at Plattsburgh - he could take off and land his small plane four times on the gigantic runway there, it is an alternate landing site for the space shuttle!

Biggest regret: forgot to ask a Francophone Montréal resident what they think about the American and Canadian Anglophone use of the word entrée. It annoys me, and I don't even speak french...