Friday 30 November 2007

You know you're in a cold climate when

  • You own a serious-looking ice scraper/snow brush.
  • Your windscreen wiper fluid is replaced with this chemical stuff that melts ice instantly (cool!)
  • You have an emergency kit in the boot with blanket, kitty litter for traction on snow/ice, headtorch, reflective triangle, gloves, chemical handwarmers etc.
  • You have a lock de-icer spray.
  • There is a phone number you can call to find out if you have to go to work, OR (if you are lucky) pass go, collect $200 and go directly to the bar for a 'snow day'.

PS. The chemical handwarmers are awesome and were really handy at the Grand Canyon and in Utah. They cost about $2 for 10 and provide a good amount of warmth for 10-12 hours - amazing! I'm taking some with me next time I ski - no more cold hands on the chairlift :)

Scariest dude I have met so far

On the plane on the way back from Utah, this guy from Cincinnati Kentucky sits next to me:

  • kentucky: How bout dat security at the airports dese days? huh?
  • me: yeah, it is pretty tight these days
  • kentucky: I just feel so dam nekkid witout mah knife!
  • me: *oh crap*

Where angels dare: Best. Walk. Ever.

Ahhhh Zion. I'm getting shivers now just thinking about how amazing it is. It is now also the home of my favourite walk ever - Angels Landing.

You ascend this gigantic cliff to Scout's lookout with an amazing view down the canyon. The next half a mile winds its way along the spine of the outcrop with chains to help you. At its narrowest the ridge of rock is about 6 ft wide with a 1500 ft (450 m) sheer drop to the canyon floor on either side. Most exposure I have felt outside of a rock climbing harness!

I started the walk about 9 am when the temperature was well below freezing so I was pretty much the only person on it. Luckily there was a couple of women up the top when I got there to take my photo! They had been feeding the chipmunks (very naughty) so they, the chipmunks, went crazy when I got there, climbing all over my bag looking for food like cute little mice.

We stayed in the watchman campground at the mouth of the canyon, with huge cliffs rising up on either side of us. Only a small part of one of the campgrounds was open, and there were only about four other people crazy enough to be camping in tents :)

Zion was great, and I'm already planning my next trip. Multi-day hike over the rim up to the north of the park and canyoning the narrows from the top. Maybe some climbing, although it is not for the faint hearted!

I also want to go back to other parts of the Grand Escalante-Staircase National Monument which encompasses Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef etc. Utah is one gigantic geological outdoor playground!

I've tried polygamy

Actually I haven't but I wish I had. Hang on, this is coming out all wrong. I almost bought one of these shirts but decided on some other Utah beer shirts that I could actually wear without offending people.

The beer is from a Utah brewery with a sense of humour: Wasatch Brew Pub, named after the mountains behind Salt Lake City.

Hoodoo? We did.

Bryce Canyon's rock formations called 'hoodoos' are really bizarre and beautiful. Unfortunately they are far too soft to be climbable :(

The park is quite small and the hikes we did covered it pretty well. It was cold overnight 10 F (-12 C), and none of the campgrounds were open so we stayed in a hotel, which provided a tactical shower in the middle of our camping sessions. The lake outside the hotel was frozen solid enough for me to walk out onto it!

For a state with a supposedly restricted relationship with alcohol, I have never seen a bottle shop so prominently displayed in a hotel, and with such gigantic bottles of spirits....

The moon reached full while we were there and we saw an amazing moonrise over the hoodoos.

A very grand canyon

The Grand Canyon is awesome. Really awesome. We did a few different walks but the coolest was the Bright Angel trail, which descends down into the canyon. The dust on the trail was an inescapable fine talcum powder produced in different colours depending on which geological rock layer you were in.

I waved goodbye to Em a couple of miles in and charged down a total of 3060 ft (930 m) to Indian Garden, the campground at the end of the first day's hike of the trek from south to north rim. It was a beautiful campground, and 10 degrees warmer than on the south rim. Plenty of deer and elk wandering around.

The scale of the cliffs just blows you away. We great sunsets and moonrises with a beautiful almost full moon.

This was my second trip, but I still plan to come back and hike rim-to-rim either on the bright angel or kaibab trails. I'd also like to explore the north rim a bit too, since it is wilder than the south. Oh and I want to raft at least part of the river as well :)

Drive Utah! Why is that car following so close?

Why is that car driving right on top of that bus. Whoah, they are actually towing it! This was one of the smaller ones we saw. It wasn't uncommon to see a semi-trailer sized caravan-bus (with expandable sides) towing a full sized 4WD. Do these people have lots of oil company shares or what?

Oh and most of the highways in the desert were 75 mph (120 km/h) with one lane each way, meaning most people did around 85 mph (137 km/h) - sheesh! That is one fast oncoming car on the other side of a yellow line...

Oh man, I'm going to have to ring roadside assistance to find out how to start this car

We hired a Prius for our thanksgiving trip: Vegas -> Grand Canyon -> Bryce Canyon -> Zion -> Vegas (see Em's blog for all the details).

It was so frickin cool, and one of the cheapest cars you could hire! Of course all cars are cheaper to buy here: a new Prius is about US$25k, while in Australia it is more like AU$37k. We have seen quite a lot of Prius' on the streets here.

Good points:

  • Space-age power-on button instead of key ignition.
  • Average of 46 miles/gallon (5.1 L/100km) over our whole trip.
  • Uses braking energy to charge the battery.
  • Cool little touch screen showing use of the battery/engine and fuel consumption graphs.
  • Super stealthy quiet.

Bad points:

  • Space-age power-on button instead of key ignition (see below).
  • Bit slow on takeoff - tries to use the battery as much as possible during petrol-hungry acceleration from stationary.
  • Lack of boot space - mainly taken up by battery.

We were at the grand canyon, its 19 F (-7 C) at about 8am and we have just had a very long cold night in the tent (see Em's blog for whinging). I got into the car to start it up and get us some warmth and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't turn on. In had the key blob in the slot and was pressing the button with no results. The rental company didn't leave us an instruction manual so I made a fairly embarassing call to roadside assistance:

assist: Put the key in the slot
me: yep
assist: Put your foot on the brake
me: awwww you're kidding me!
assist: Push the power button

Stupid car trying to be so smart. I had the friggin handbrake on, why do I need my foot on the brake pedal as well?!?

Sunday 18 November 2007

Drop the gun, or pick a room

That's the slogan on the side of the huge gaol in central Baltimore. It seems that plenty of people are picking the latter, with the murder count for this year at 256 on Nov 9.

With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that Baltimore was the setting for Homicide: Life on the street based on Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. Simon was a Baltimore Sun reporter who followed around a BPD homicide squad for a year. I'm going to read the book and watch some episodes.

Actually we saw a big hollywood movie being filmed on the harbour on Friday night, but I'll let Em blog about that :)

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Ausball = AFL for americans and expats

We had our last Ausball game of the season today. It is a really fun modification of AFL, the main differences are:

  • Tiny field by AFL standards so only 9 a side (5 guys 4 girls)
  • A girl has to touch the ball in the forward half before you can score a goal
  • No bouncing, but you can only run with the ball for 3 seconds
  • No tackling, once you are tagged you have to get rid of the ball

If we had it at home I would play it as a social sport. The league, and post-game drinking scene, here are pretty small compared to the giant that is "kickball". Kickball is an excuse to go to the bar thinly disguised as a sport. It is pretty much baseball but instead of using a bat, you kick a big red ball. We're probably going to give that a crack next season too!

Intercourse in Pennsylvania

We got our Amish on last weekend. Em has been wanting to see Amish country since we first decided we were going to the US, so we put on our straw hats and drove to Intercourse, PA.

I think the most interesting things I discovered are the seemingly arbitrary distinctions they make about their lifestyle, like:

  • Electricity is not allowed, but giant propane gas tanks, gas powered fridges, lights etc. are OK
  • Sports and modern sports equipment (baseball bats, volleyballs etc.) are OK, but organised sports leagues or clubs are not
  • Clothes are plain, and even buttons are considered too fancy but modern shoes are OK
  • Horses are used for transport and ploughing but tractors are used for jobs like threshing wheat

Of course each house and community is a little different so these are just average cases. I think the strangest thing I didn't know about the Amish is that their religious services are entirely in German, also known as "Pennsylvania Dutch". This is amazing considering a church service is 3-4 hours with 2 sermons, the longer one usually about an hour and a half!

Monday 5 November 2007

Time to open an export business

I've already blogged about how cheap outdoors gear is here, but it gets better. The other day I got a pair of adidas footy boots for $30, they probably would have been about $150-200 at home. You also can't buy any type of jeans (even fancy trendy ones) for more than $30, whereas at home you can't buy respectable jeans for less than about $80, and probably more like $100-120.

I find this pretty strange. Why do we pay so much for things like jeans, particularly Levis? This site has some ideas which are basically that Levis are sold as fashion items in Europe and Asia, whereas in America they are a commonplace commodity item. Also, once you have paid $30 it would be hard to justify forking out four times that amount, so for Levis to attempt that in the states would be suicide.

Time to open an export business.

Koreans know fresh food

We went to this awesome Korean supermarket in nearby Ellicott City called H Mart. The fruit and veg range and quality there was amazing, and extremely cheap (better than home). The supermarket is giant and had all the interesting cuts of meat, whole fish, korean packaging you would expect.

Generally we have found that good quality fresh food is available pretty much everywhere, although it does tend to be slightly more expensive than at home. The only pineapple around is Costa Rican which goes for about $6, mind you it is far and away the best pineapple I have ever had so maybe it's worth it!

Sunday 4 November 2007

Almost killed in freak trebuchet pumpkin flinging accident

Well, killed is probably exaggerating slightly. Here's how it went down.

We went to the World Championship Punkin Chunkin event in Delware, which is basically 70,000 people watching semi-trailer-sized air cannons fire pumpkins as far as possible across a field.

This event is possibly the weirdest and coolest thing I have seen so far. Check out our photos on flickr, or the official gallery. The world champion is second amendment, a 14 ton monster with 30 m barrel that holds the world record of 4,434.28 ft (1.35 km). Pumpkins are a standard size of 3.6 - 4.5 kg. There was a strong wind blowing (absolutely freezing cold), which meant no world records were set, but the best of the day was '10 inch' at 3,416.15 feet (1.04 km). Friggin amazing.

There are heaps of different categories, my personal favourite is the Trebuchet, despite one almost cleaning me up.

We were standing behind one of the trebuchets that was about to fire. Rigid safety standards were in force - i.e. there was a small net behind the machine and some effort was made to part the crowd behind the machine just before firing.
I was standing just to the side of the "cleared" area, with Em and our friend Nando a few steps away.

While the safety guy was still trying to get the people parked in camping chairs to move away from the back of the machine, the guy who owned the trebuchet decided it was time to let loose. So people weren't even watching when the 4 kg pumpkin came out of the sling early and hurtled directly towards me. Luckily I had been paying attention and frantically pushed my way out of its path, but in less than a second from leaving the trebuchet it hit the crowd, smashing into a man and the young girl he was carrying. He had been pushing out of the way like everyone else and got tangled in a camp chair.

Amazingly both he and the girl seemed OK, and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later to take them away. The organiser's reaction was 'we told you to get out of the way' and they started firing again a few minutes later. Nice. This kind of put a dampener on the day, so we went and got something to eat then made our way back to the car. Just as we were getting back to the car we heard a dull thunk - another pumpkin had been launched out of a trebuchet backwards, flown over the crowd, and almost made it to the parking lot. At the start of the day I had been more worried about the gigantic air compressors exploding!

Centrifugal catapult throws pumpkin

"Yankee Siege" trebuchet lets loose

Compressed air pumpkin cannon