Thursday, February 28, 2008

A pretty regular work day with a couple of twists

There really isn't much to report from what was a normal working in the hotel "salon" kind of day but there were two tiny moments worth mentioning.

About mid-morning, one of the group using the next meeting room over dropped by to tell us to quiet down a bit. We were presenting and doing using our best projecting voices and apparently it was distracting to them. Ah well, so it goes in sharing public spaces. Lunch time came around and it was reported that ours was ready out in the hallway. I went out and and always eschewed looking at the food, I just got in line and loaded up my plate. It was traditional southwestern fare - chicken and beef fajitas, red salsa, a nice pineapple mango salsa, sour cream and tortillas. Being in the middle of a re-Atkins-ization, I passed on the tortilla and went for the piece of cheesecake, figuring it was best to use my carb allowance wisely. Food gathered I returned to the room and began stuffing it in my face, only to have my enjoyment disturbed by some grumbling in the hallway. It seems we had chowed down on our neighbors lunch. Ha, that will show them, and as it turned out theirs was far better than ours making my haste worthwhile.

The second thing of the day worth mentioning is the disappearance of the little barrio of Guadalupe. I was first out here in 1982 for a job interview and I spent a free day driving around. I went south of Phoenix, and this being my trip to the area I spent my time pretty much saucer-eyed at the sights. I remember Guadalupe as a dusty little village off to the east of I10, and for me it was all that I could imagine Mexico as being - small squat brown buildings and a dirt main street. For a Northeasterner, it was a cultural catch, exposure to something far beyond anything I had encountered in my narrow terrain.

Today, Guadalupe still exists but now it's hemmed in by a strip of big box stores and a 10 foot block wall shielding it from the traffic on I10. Or perhaps it's the other way around. It's sad to see it become nothing more than a spot tucked away in a sea of anonymous retail, and for me it's something forever lost. I'm glad I saw it when I did.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Another day, another hotelmotel

This time, I'm in Phoenix.

Getting here was mostly uneventful aside from the two hour delay in getting on my one hour flight. Things like this make me grateful for the Internet and the ability to check flight status before leaving for the airport. Of course the disclaimer suggests that a four hour delay is no reason to stay home and wait, as the plane could leave on time leaving you wondering what the purpose of checking the flight status really is. So you wed the ancient with the modern and call customer service and verify that you really do have an extra couple of hours to sit around your house with your feet resting on your luggage.

In any event, it's better than hanging out at the airport.

An officious large man came into the waiting area and made a lot of noise telling the gate agent that his announcements were garbled. Why this mattered, I was not sure since there were all of 15 people waiting for the plane two of which had made an attempt to board the flight to Dallas that was leaving when I arrived. Once again, I wonder about the intelligence of my traveling companions. The big fellow placed himself at the front of the A line, in position 1 which was interesting as I was holding the #1 ticket. Realizing that the wait was still another 20 minutes, he came over and sat one chair away from me. Reading him like a book, I rifled through my bag, pulled out my boarding pass, made a show of reading it and placed it on the empty chair between us. I started my stopwatch and sat back. Four minutes and twenty-three seconds later, he loudly asked me how it was that I had boarding ticket #1, claiming that he had dialed in exactly 24 hours earlier and managed #22. I told him I paid $60 more than he did to which he responded "I guess money talks."

The flight was the same as it ever is, two bags of peanuts, one diet coke and 55 minutes before the lights of the Valley of the Sun fill the plane windows. Off the plane and onto a surprisingly crowded rental car shuttle (given that it was almost 11 PM), off the shuttle and into my Camry, out of the rental car center and back onto I10.

Technology again reared its pointed little noggin' as I made my way to the hotel. Before I left home, I checked Google Maps to find the best route to my reservation. It suggested that exiting at Ray Road, going a block and turning left on 50th street south was the best way, 50th being a straight shot down to where I was going. So I did this and eventually found myself at the corner of Thistle Down (which was 50th when it started) and 45th street. I didn't turn, I didn't veer and yet the street had morphed from its place in a traditional numbering system to some post modern, twee street name that was apparently trying to convince me that we were no longer in a sun crusted desert. I mean really, "Thistle Down?"

Relying on my low-tech infallible sense of direction I made a left and headed back in the direction of I10 suddenly finding myself at Chandler Blvd. Somehow, I had done a square consisting of 3, 90-degree angles, violating the basic rules of geometry. Go figure. Turning left, I found 50th street and headed towards the hotel. Missing the turn-in, I continued down 50th until it dead-ended at --------- Thistle Down. It finally made sense, 50th was re-routed, becoming a left off of Thistle Down while that oddly named byway headed off at an imperceptible 45 degrees from True North.

Thank you Google Maps!

Not much to be said about the hotel, which I will not name aside from a hint that the first word rhymes with "La" and the second with "Quinta." When we travel internationally we stay at pretty fancy places as this lower, US-interstate-related class of inn simply doesn't exist. And so we get spoiled by the opulence and shocked at the reckoning when it's time to stay at a place like this. I mean, they're nice enough but a microwave on a table in the lobby doesn't really qualify as a sumptuous breakfast buffet, does it?

My room was interesting, big enough but very plain aside from the cheery green and white tiles in the bathroom and the oddball double swinging doors leading to that space. A built in cabinet housed a microwave and the narrowest refrigerator I've yet encountered. The place gave off an air of Southwestern meets New England. At least the pillows were good (for a change) but that hardly mattered given that the proximity to the endless traffic on I10 and an air conditioner that sounded like a landing 747 added up to a restless night. You know you're in trouble when you wake up 15 minutes before the alarm goes off, re-charge it with 20 more minutes and then wake up again 15 seconds later when that 35 minutes was gone.

Stumbling off to my morning ablutions, I noticed a ray sun directly illuminating the entrance door handle, emanating from a pin hole in the rubberized curtains. It immediately made me think of those tombs around the world where the ancient builders had aligned the entrance so that a shaft of light on the morning of the Summer Solstice would shoot in and illuminate a wall carving. I wonder what La Quinta was getting at here, perhaps I need to come back on June 21st.

Not much more to say about this morning so far other than the fact that the hotel hosting our get together was one that tried to charge me $200 for a phone call when I stayed here 150 years ago. Funny how we associate and remember things, and walking down the hallway and seeing the conference rooms that I had spent many hours in back in 1990 really imparted a strong sense of time and place.

Is it a good thing when we start measuring the moments of our lives by familiarity with spots in chain motels?

Something to consider for 15 minutes or so.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Of Indian Mounds and The Weather Channel

My original plan had been to abandon my lovely wife to her work at the fairgrounds and go out exploring. A couple of local attractions had grabbed my eye when I did a "what the heck is there to do in Jackson" search on Google before leaving. The result yielded two items I could not pass up - The Natchez Trace Parkway and Indian Mounds.

The Trace is the ancient pathway across the southeast, used for millennia by Native Americans and the subsequent waves of invaders from the Spanish to the French to the early residents of the United States seeking their fortunes in the "west." Today it's a quite beautiful road that spans the entire state of Mississippi from the northeast to the southwest, terminating at Natchez on the grand river that provides the name for the state. It's been on my list ever since I read of the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis in an inn along its route following his return to regular life from his epic exploration of the western half of the continent. I had imagined that it ran along the banks of the Mississippi and so was pleasantly surprised to discover that it didn't and that it crossed the interstate only 6 miles up the road from our hotel.

The second item, Indian Mounds have fascinated me forever. Growing up in upstate New York, they were always just over the border in Ohio, but I never had the occasion to find myself near enough to visit one. Serpent Mound was the most intriguing, a structure imitating the shape of a snake over 1300 feet long. Constructed by the people of the Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian cultures, they can be found throughout the entire Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds. Most were built between 2500 BCE and 1000 CE.

I was very jazzed about seeing one and so I staked out two close enough to catch in one day with minimal driving - Boyd and Pochontas Mounds.

The National Park Service web site had information and photographs of both and it was a bit hard to tell what exactly they would be like, which served to stoke my enthusiasm even more. I couldn't wait.

But the best laid plans often come to naught. Well, at least sort of naught. Instead of dropping my lovely wife off, I did the right thing and hung out with her while she analyzed the situation that was the quarter horse show at the fairgrounds. It took most of the day, leaving time for only mound and so it was Boyd since I had to drive the Parkway to get there.

And so off we went with a couple of hours of daylight remaining. The road was beautiful, winding its way through woodlots alternating between winter forests draped in Spanish Moss and stands of tall pine. The day was gray but the lack of light did not detract a bit from the beauty of this road and the surrounds.

Ten miles or so along, the sign appeared - Boyd Site, 1/2 mile. I exited and pulled into the lot where a big sign greeted visitors with an explanation of the area. Impressive sign, but where was the mound. Well, it was 30 or so yards off in a clearing. A 10 foot pile of dirt covered in grass and leaves surrounded by trees and bushes. It didn't look much different than the pile of sand we keep around for the riding arenas. It was a mound all right, it just wasn't a 1300 foot long serpent and for that matter, if I had stumbled out of the woods, I would not have identified it as anything more than a pile of dirt. Perhaps an old pile, but just a pile nonetheless.

We walked down the path. I tried desperately to get a picture of it but it was so inconsequential that it was hard to convey the incredible sense of irony I was bathing in. Wide angle, telephoto, nothing made it more than a pile of dirt. I wandered off into the clearing at the behest of the sign that implored visitors to walk the path in order to fully grasp the grandeur of the site. My lovely wife gave a swift kick to a foot actuated panel that promised some audio interpretation. And interpretation it was - a man trying his best to sound like a PBS narrator telling the story of the mound. The volume was staggering, his tenor voice echoed through the woods as though some deity was telling us the story from the sky above. It was so loud that I was genuinely embarrassed by being associated with its implementation. The only other visitor beat a hasty retreat from the clearing, perhaps concerned that someone would blame him for turning it on. A large flock of Cedar Waxwings, flycatching from a tree above stopped their normally incessant whistling, they two shocked at the assault.

It went on and on and I just prayed for it to end. When the narrator was done with the history, he moved on to the psychology of the former inhabitants, speaking of their emotions - hope, joy, fear, gladness and sadness - and just when I thought I could bear no more, it finally ended. Peace again.

I wandered down the path until it ended, perhaps ten yards from where it began. Nothing more here than leaves and pine needles.

And so it goes, a life's worth of anticipation dashed in a moment, the most interesting thing about this location being the individual men sitting quietly in their cars in the parking circle making me wonder what the current purpose for this site really is.

The next morning we prepared to leave, waking up to a rainy gray day, consistent with the warnings of the Weather Channel about some impending severe conditions.

Now I have come a long way over the course of these last few years of travel, but the one thing I cannot stand is the uncertainly of ugly weather rolling across the airports I'm about to use. The Weather Channel started warning me the night before about a big nasty development coming out of the west and up from the south, colliding right on top of Houston Airport, my late afternoon destination. I had flown through Houston once before, at the height of thunderstorm season, and it was not a pretty sight between the delays, cancellations, rain and lightning. I didn't want to do it again. The map on the severe weather segment had all of east Texas in red (the most severest of the severe) and most of Louisiana and Mississippi in the yellow (still pretty bad from a servereness standpoint.) I started chewing the inside of my lip. Around 8AM they convened a panel of meteorologists to discuss the situation and patched in some video from their storm chaser crew on the ground in College Station, Texas to add some color to the situation. I started chewing my lip really hard.

We had breakfast and went back up to pack. By now The Weather Channel had decided that this was not going to be as bad as the killer tornadoes from Super Tuesday, but that it was still going to be a monster. The guy on the ground was shown again, standing along some east Texas farm to market road, his Weather Channel windbreaker rippling in the drizzly breeze. We packed and headed out into the rain. The update from New Mexico spoke of snow and ice and closed highways. It was obvious that we were in for it, departing, transferring and arriving.

One last spin through the fairgrounds to assess the impact of the night's rain on the conditions of the show. The red mud added a festive air to the trailer parking, but not festive enough to drag me out of the car for a walk in it. We braved the track up to gate 14 through the car-sized potholes and went out for a tour of the downtown area.

The Capitol Building was stately, and interesting contrast to the decrepit shotgun shacks a few blocks away. These brought back murky memories for me, from the time when my dad would drag me down to Florida along two lane roads through the south, this being the days before interstates. People sitting on old rotting porches, watching the Yankee Snowbirds escaping the frigid wastes of the Great Lakes.

We killed an hour at the Natural History Museum, a really nice little place with a good set of aquariums (not the Chinese restaurant kind, it was nice to visit some fish that weren't about to be eaten) and a boardwalk path through the bottomlands of the Pearl River. A Wood Thrush popped into sight and ran along a railing making a complete mockery of my story of the beauty of their song and the extreme difficulty they present in being seen.

From there it was back to the airport to prepare for our guaranteed day of travel suffering, should The Weather Channel have its way.

Jackson Airport is my kind of terminal. No one checking in, no one at security and pretty much no one doing anything, anywhere. We got through, bought a muffin and waited, our quiet time interrupted finally by a phone call from Orbitz informing via a cheerful recording that our flight was delayed by 20 minutes. And so it begins I thought.

A text message home to check on the weather there was disconcerting - contrary to the apocalyptic vision of The Weather Channel, it appeared to be nothing more than gray and windy. Hmm, could they be wrong?

The plane arrived and we took off into a now gloriously sunny blue sky. Only hours before, we'd been upgraded from yellow to red, based on the certainty of killer tornadoes. Now I was really confused and so decided to give the inside of my lip a break from all the chewing.

We floated up and up, out over the flood plains of the river, finally crossing it in a region of oxbow lakes and near what appeared to be a nuclear power plant judging from its billowing cooling tower. Long barges plied their way from south to north, delivering goods from the ports of the Gulf to the midlands.

Moving along, clouds began to gather, finally obscuring the ground. We were entering the fringes of the Weather Channel Zone of Death. The clouds were amazing, an endless vista of white puffs, punctuated by the tall, towering tops of massive thunderstorms. Once could only imagine the impact these engines were having far below at the ground level. This was what the weatherman had been warning us of, yet from up here it was so, so beautiful.

We began our descent into Houston, now about 40 minutes late making me grateful for the 2 hours of slack time I had built into our layover. The pilot made the flight attendant strap in, a good thing because it was one rocky ride down into ever darkening clouds. We finally broke through, only 500 feet above the ground and landed in sheets of heavy rain.

It took us a while to taxi in and I spent those moments wondering where the two fire trucks were heading with their lights ablaze. We finally deplaned at a special outdoors gate - the others being occupied - allowing us a few seconds to enjoy the downpour.

Across the shuttle train, into our concourse, a piece of pizza shared and wolfed and down to the gate, just as we were boarding for an on time departure. Up again through the rocky clouds and then down two hours later, another windy nighttime landing in Albuquerque. All on time, no delays, no serious weather aside from some bumpy descents and ascents, nothing worth worrying about at all.

Which brings me to The Weather Channel. Is it science or is it entertainment? How do they make their dire predictions? They were so thankfully wrong about my path home as to make me wonder if they're worth watching at all. Well, the answer to that is simple - of course they are. The make your weather real, whether it is or not and they've become such a part of my travel routine that I cannot imagine giving them up. Perhaps though, I will give up chewing the inside of my lip.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

iTouch blogging from Jackson, MS

Well here I am again on the road albeit this time in a far less exotic place, Jackson, Mississippi. My first time in the Magnolia State, assuming of course that this is actually the Magnolia State. Adding to today's short list of firsts is this blog, done for the first time on my WiFi connected iTouch. I have to say, the pain I am developing in the back of my right wrist from typing 1 letter at a time may very well be the last time for this first, since it a true pain to get it done like this. Heck, even two thumb typing with my Blackberry beats this, as bad as that is. But I will perservere for the moment, at least until I can stand the muscle burn no more.

The trip over was long on tedium and short on eventful tales and thankfully duration. The most interesting events were the guys on my rows whom were righteously in the wrong seats. I actually get tired of people defending their inability to read their tickets, but these two rolled over so easily that they hardly merit a mention. Houston airport was interesting in its design and busyness as well as the little train between terminals that brought to mind a frantic night in Frankfurt not so long ago. Arcing up and away from Bush Intercontinental Airport, I could see the curve of the Gulf, reminding me that it was only weeks ago when I was staring at a similar curve along the fringes of Hudson Bay. What a difference a few thousand miles makes.

Arriving in Jackson we deplaned and grabbed our rental car, a new Altima whose technological advancement would come into play shortly. A misstep on exiting led to a two lane across rush hour traffic u-turn to get re-directed. Ironically, I was victimized by a traffic rotary, far from Ireland where they try to mislead me with enthusiastic frequency. Back on track we found ourselves in a traffic deadlock that the radio had kindly warned us about. Too bad we had no point of reference for the location of the problem. But, we got lucky as our exit came up quicky and the road to our hotel was clear.

Arriving at the inn, it occurred to me that I would be well served to understand how to start the car as I was about to turn it off. Like my car at home, this one was equipped with one of those "start" buttons, a Formula 1 inspired affectation that car designers seem to think draws race-minded consumers. Unlike my car though, the "pod" that doubles as a key did not have a place in the steering column to hang out while in use. This pod just layed there in the cup holder, disinterested and inert.

Brave guy that I am, I forged ahead impetuously shutting the car off and waiting a few seconds. Then I pushed the start button. The radio came on the and car just sat there impatiently beeping, as though imploring me to just do something. I tried it again. Nothing. My lovely wife suggested I call the rental car guy, as though there was any chance of that happening. I pushed the button again, this time holding it in, figuring that was what the infernal beeping was suggesting. Nope, just the radio reminding me that I was a failure in this age of technology. Just as raw panic was putting a steel vice grip on my ability to reason, I remembered the missing link - the brake - my car won't start unless you have your foot firmly planted on the pedal. So I pushed it in, depressed the button and the car came to life, another triumph of Rational Man over technology.

Before leaving for dinner, I had plotted a route to a nearby On the Border, our favorite Tex-Mex chain. We used to have one down the road and we ate there once a week. Sort of a blasphemy given that we live at the center of Southwestern/Mexican inspired cuisine but the food was always just different enough to make it interesting. Needless to say, we were sorry when it was consumed by a local chain and so now we always try to eat at one when they are nearby.

Emily, my trusty Nuvi assistant pretty much got us there, requiring only a bit of cross-country improvisation. We ordered our traditional favorite and settled in. The food arrived and in the course of chit-chatting with the server, we found out that the restaurant was scheduled to close permanently in 6 days time. Another case of timely serendipity given our presence in Mississippi, on that particular day.

And so that's it, just a special little Valentine's Day, hanging out on the Holiday Inn in the middle of the piney woods southeastern flood plains, watching HBO and developing a cumulative stress disorder taping out a blog one keystroke at a time.

Tomorrow -Indian Mounds!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Home again, 2008

It took Ferdinand Magellan's crew more than three years to circumnavigate the globe. He didn't make it, having been killed in the Philippines by angry locals. Of the 260 men who left Spain in 1519, 18 returned in 1522 with the sole remaining ship. A ghost ship, they considered it.

It took me 17 days to do the same trip, with only three days of actual travel. Magellan's men suffered from starvation, disease, violence and mutiny. I suffered one day of food poisoning, confusing gates in Germany, smelly fellow travelers and the indifference of the US airline industry. The only violence I encountered came on my last leg when a young man with a shaved head told me he was entitled to board our Southwest flight before me because his number was 32 and mine was 35. I told him to go right ahead, he said "I will" and I'm sure he felt triumphant as he walked down the gangway and ended up sitting right across from me.

I saw some wonderful things looking out the window, most mentioned earlier but worth listing one more time if only to keep them fresh in my mind's eye. The lights of Seoul while landing, women sweeping the snow from the shoulders of the highway in Dalian, snowflakes contrasting with the bright red satin New Year's decorations outside the subway station in Shanghai, the sun setting over the snow covered Gobi, the lights of Frankfurt, the sea crashing on the rocks in Galway, the sun rising over the Irish Sea, the ancient patchwork of green fields in rural Ireland, Reykjavik on a sunny January morning, a single snowmobile track breaking the snow across a lake in the empty white expanse of Labrador, Hudson Bay frozen solid in winter's embrace, the sun blasted hardrock desert of Nevada and the endless urban stretch of Los Angeles. So many different things in so short of time. Such a huge difference since Magellan and his men sailed off into history, a little less than 500 years ago.

The best part of traveling for me is completing the circle. Going out is great, but coming back is ever better. I completed 19350 miles in my transit, short of the true circumference, but still completing all 24 time zones. It was a milestone event for me, and one I am not sure I am done with. Perhaps next time it's on one of those open-ended tickets that lets you zig-zag to your hearts content.

Well that's about it for this adventure. On the upcoming calendar - three days in Jackson, Mississippi, Ireland again in March and back to China in April. Stay tuned in.