The Escape Room Awaits

A few months ago, I stumbled across Jessica Contrera’s article in the Post about the latest craze in live entertainment: escape rooms. After reading just a little about it, I knew it was something I had to try.

Taking their cue from video games and movies where the player or main character is locked in a room and must investigate the room’s contents to figure out puzzles in order to unlock the door, escape rooms essentially translate that concept into real life. The origins of creating this kind of real space might trace back to Europe, Asia, or possibly Silicon Valley, but no matter where the first one started, it seems this is simply an idea whose time has come. For those of us that grew up playing these types of video games and watching these movies, getting the chance to try it out in real life taps into something deep. Call it a return to childhood, call it a desire to be social, call it a critical thinking challenge – it’s a phenomenon that’s taking off. Escape rooms are worldwide, they’re popular among people my age with disposable income, and most importantly to this story, there are a few that recently opened up in DC.

I convinced a few friends to go recently one Friday evening, after much coordination of schedules. I chose Escape Room Live DC, mainly because it seemed the most popular based on reviews and it was the one featured in the Post article, but there are others out there. The same company is even opening a location in Old Town in a few months, so if we’d only waited we could have had a somewhat easier time getting to the place.

As it was, Glover Park is a really great neighborhood, but it sure isn’t Metro accessible. To get there you just have to get creative, be willing to walk up some hills, and plan some extra time. My part of the crew, Steve and Gerritt, took Metro to DuPont Circle, then caught a bus over to Wisconsin Avenue. Matt hopped on the bus at Foggy Bottom, another decent option. Brian and Stephen drove in and took their chances with street parking, which worked out great for them.

Operating under the theory that you can’t escape a room on an empty stomach, we hit up Surfside for a tasty taco dinner and beers and had plenty of time to stroll down the street and get psyched up for the big event.

The room is in the basement of a building, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. There are various spy-themed decorations scattered throughout, plus an old school arcade game console table. Steve and I killed some time playing Galaga while we waited for the groups ahead of us to finish. All in all, the clientele all looked to be about our age, though I did spot at least one group that looked like a family of all ages. We reserved the entire room so we wouldn’t be grouped with strangers, but if you don’t have that many people in your group or you’re just out on a date or with a friend, you can jump into any open room at any reservation time.

Waiting to escape.

Before long, it was our turn. I have to say I think we were feeling a little overconfident going into it. Among the six of us, we probably felt that our backgrounds, overall knowledge of games and puzzles, and general critical thinking skills would make us a lock to break some kind of record. I had deliberately chosen the smallest room available on the website, which also happened to be the most difficult. After receiving a briefing from the Gamemaster, he led us to our room. The general guidelines were: don’t break anything, not everything is a clue, and you have 45 minutes to get out from the time the door is locked. I glanced at the leaderboard posted next to the door as I walked in. For six people, the record time was around 42 minutes. That should have been our warning.

I won’t give out any spoilers about the solution for our particular room. I will only say that it was much, much more difficult than we had anticipated, and it did not contain a framed photo of Bill Murray. And there were a nice mixture of number puzzles, word puzzles, and somewhat-physical challenges in addition to the straight-up riddle solving. To grade us fairly, I think we narrowed in pretty quickly on the various clues and puzzles that were readily available from examining the room – the “opening round.” But figuring out what to do with the information we had – jumbled numbers, cryptic phrases – and how to apply them to the various combination locks we found to keep going – was mind-boggling.

After 15 minutes or so of bouncing around from one puzzle to the next and not making much headway, the Gamemaster’s voice chimed in from the webcam stationed on a wall near the door. “Do you guys want a hint?”

Of course, he’d been watching us flounder the whole time.

That was the moment of truth. Did we swallow our collective pride and give up any chance at reaching the leaderboard, or did we plow stubbornly on and risk not escaping at all?

We went with the clues.  In the end we needed five of them, but we did escape with only a couple of minutes to spare. That’s what counts, right?

The few, the proud. The escapees.
The few, the proud. The escapees.

I think you can tell from the post-escape picture taken by the Gamemaster that it was going to take a while to convince ourselves of that. Even if I did get to dress like some kind of weird Viking.

In the end, we left with a bit of a defeated gloom and more than a few bruised egos. We wound down the night at Breadsoda so the rest of the guys could drown their defeat in beverages while I watched. Our consensus was that we did okay considering we had no prior knowledge of what types of puzzles to expect, and that we probably could tackle a room of similar difficulty now that we’d been through the wringer. Maybe we were just trying to make ourselves feel better. Maybe one of these days we’ll schedule a rematch and see.

As for me, now that I’ve gotten a taste of escaping, I really do want to try it again sometime. I’ve got enough family members that enjoy mysteries that I think we can make a go of it. With new rooms coming to Old Town and an occasional reset of clues and puzzles in their existing rooms, Escape Room Live is set up to capture every other Indiana Jones or Legend of Zelda fan in the DC Metro area for years to come.

(There’s not much here, but check out the Flickr gallery if you want.)

Springfield! My Kind of Town (Center)

This past Friday, Gina and I met up with our friends Jen and Stephen to partake in a time-honored suburban pastime: going to a new shopping center within the first few weeks of its opening. Around here, that’s a dangerous proposition that could cost you untold hours of pain and frustration while wading through crowds. But with reservations in hand, we decided to try it anyway. We decided to eat dinner at the Springfield Mall.

Except it’s not the Springfield Mall anymore. It’s been reborn as the Springfield Town Center. A phoenix, rising from the ashes. Rebuilt and transformed from its previous status as a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and the home to, among other things, Mr. Watchband). The dinginess has been chiseled away to reveal the shiny new town center hiding underneath, which in an unusual twist is still pretty much a mall. But hey, it’s a nice one! The corridors, they’re so wide. The chandeliers, so sparkly. The undertone of depressing decline and inevitable deterioration – it’s gone! The Target that is attached finally flung open its inside doors once more, embracing the stylish boutique stores outside where once there was a DMV and the “V” Spa. I hope Mr. Watchband is smiling down from above.

I also hope that the other restaurants and the remainder of the food court open soon. Last weekend, the only functioning eateries were Maggiano’s (where we ate, but without the reservations we had it was going to be a three hour wait), Panda Express, and Sarku Japan. I know I definitely love Americanized Chinese food, but a place that size needs something more. The lines resembled those for the port-a-potties before a big race. With Yard House, Chuy’s, and others only opening over the next few weeks, it looks as though the developers might have jumped the gun a little bit in opening the place.

After our dinner, the four of us walked around the mall a bit. I was never in Northern Virginia during the old Mall’s heyday, but I generally hear people who grew up here talk about it with a mixture of fondness for what it was and regret for what it had become. Apparently, it was the mall to go to for years, but over time the clientele gradually got distracted and enticed by other, newer shopping elsewhere. This left the place open for the gangs and the other bad stuff that was bound to follow.

Princess Di even approved. C’mon, people.

As we walked around, Stephen began wondering if the Town Center would suffer the same fate as its alter ego in just a few years. It is possible, but I’m staying optimistic. I think that the new restaurants, gym, and movie theater coupled with the anchor stores will make the Town Center interesting and varied enough to keep people coming back. The only thing that gave any of us pause was that many stores were still unoccupied or unopened – again, maybe the opening date was a little too early? Surely the place is at least fully leased?

While the heart of Springfield itself seems destined to stay nothing more than a jumble of roads and highway interchanges broken up by strip malls (albeit convenient ones!), I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the rebooted version of the Mall will stick around for a while.

End of Summer Recap: I’ve Always Been All About That Bass

Welcome to my end of summer recap! As the first wave of fall air has blown into the DC region this weekend and football season is well underway, it seems appropriate to look back on the last month of lazy summer days.

I call them lazy since, as Gina’s due date is now only double digits away, we’ve been in full-on Baby Panic Mode here at Casa de Salmons for the last couple of weeks. How long ago the summer was! How innocent we were! How much stuff does a newborn really need? I’ve already progressed through a few stages of abject terror in realizing that our little one is going to be here before we know it, and until recently it felt like we hadn’t done anything to get ready. Rest assured my nerves are in good shape now, though.

But I digress! Let’s talk August, people.

After our Bermuda trip, a bunch of the guys and I went on our annual camping adventure Somewhere In Central Virginia. This has taken a couple of forms, but this year we hung out in a private lodge with dead animals hanging on the walls.

Meet the gang.

The weekend, in a nutshell, involved much farting, laughing, drinking, card playing, grilling, water basketball, hiking amongst trolls, and catching the same fish three times. The main star of the weekend, however, was the beautiful Blue Ridge.

I guess I could settle for retiring here. Sheesh.

Gina and I completed the trifecta of vacationing with the time honored tradition of Labor Day at the Lake, hosted by Jen’s family. The cast – and the lake – has changed over the years, as you can see below. It’s also expanded to include a bunch of kids, but the fun keeps on coming.

The cast of the mid-2000’s, but really not that much has changed.

This year, I even got to be flipped out of a tube to hit the water at high speed, just like old times! And what trip would be complete without sharing some popcorn with some old friends?

Chomping good fun.

We had to leave the lake early this year for another commitment (more on that later), but I’m very glad we got the chance to take a breather with our old college crew.

So in all seriousness, this summer was a good one, even though we were blissfully in denial about the monumental preparations ahead of us. Oh well, now it’s go time! Let’s do this!

Back From Bermuda

Hello! How are you? I’ve been off the grid lately. Shortly after Gina and I discovered we were expecting, we booked a last-chance vacation to relax before getting into the baby preparations for real. As Merlin said in The Sword in the Stone, “blow me to Bermuda!”

Merlin knows.
Merlin knows what’s up.

The logistics of the trip package we bought included a bus transfer to and from the cruise terminal in New Jersey, and the cruise itinerary included an almost three-day stop in Bermuda. Great! Relaxing! Beautiful! The forced relaxation of a couple of days at sea! Sign me up.

The bus portion of the trip also allowed me to do something I usually don’t do: take down notes, travel journal style, in real time, using Google Docs.

This lasted all of three days into the trip.

After that I forgot what the Internet was thanks to insanely high Wi-fi and cellular data prices on the ship and in port. I enjoyed the time being disconnected, but as a travel journal project goes, it was basically a failure.

However, as a special bonus to readers like you, I’m going to post my notes in raw, mostly unedited form and then wrap this whole thing up with some quick impressions of Bermuda.

Quick impression: it's pretty cool.
Quick impression: it’s pretty cool.

Here we go:

We left the house on schedule. Coffee cup mishaps: I nearly spilled McDonald’s coffee on myself before getting in my car, then left it on top of our cab that was taking us to the bus pickup. It toppled over when he pulled out but it stayed on the roof. Still drank it. Then Gina stepped on it when shaking bus driver’s hand. Still intact, still drinkable. Thanks McDonald’s!

Made great time to Baltimore. Stopped at Best Western to pick up a family where one of them was in a raccoon suit. Walked to McDonald’s. The whole morning was sponsored by McDonald’s (I’ve never been to McDonald’s more in a 12-hour period in my life). We waited for the raccoon suit family to show up, go to McDonald’s themselves, and eat breakfast in the parking lot while talking to each other like they wouldn’t be spending a few hours together on a bus. One of the Dads looks like Tommy Lee Jones, but he’s not going on the trip.

I’m sure they’re very nice people.

Turns out we’re waiting on one more person, so they’re allowed to stand around and eat.

The final person was related to the first group. They were late but she had her husband go to McDonald’s to get breakfast anyway, so we left later than we could have but still 10 minutes ahead of the bus’s schedule.

Next stop: Philly for 5 more people! I hope they’re prompt. Look at me, getting somewhere 30 minutes early for once and all of a sudden looking down on people.

Stopped at a park and ride lot outside Philly. No McDonald’s in sight. One couple already here, had to wait on three more. They got lost and ended up in the wrong parking lot. Found out later that the directions they got were for the wrong parking lot. Bus company fail.

I wish I’d packed a sandwich.

After Philly, despite numerous highway signs saying the Bayonne Bridge was closed, bus driver bravely tried to cross it anyway. Bus driver got lost in the residential side streets of Staten Island. I finally used Google Maps to help him get to the cruise terminal, to the relief of every anxious person on the bus. Made it there with an hour and twenty minutes to spare before ship pulled out.

First night was a blur, very tired. Stumbled our way through to dinner and the first show. Met a nice family from outside Philly who would be our dinner companions for the week.

Next two days at sea relaxing. Sort of a sleep hangover the first full day, took us a while to get situated and figure out where everything was. Got a little bit of sun deck time. Figured out that the stern sun deck was the quietest place away from the Jersey Shore-like atmosphere of the main pool deck. This was the first formal night, took some pictures that Gina actually liked.

By day three, our second full day at sea, firing on all cylinders again.

As I said, from that point I gave up keeping notes, but the rest of the trip would have read like this: three days in Bermuda allowed us to tour historic St. George’s, the first capital of Bermuda and the first permanent settlement there. There’s a really old and fascinating church, lots of narrow twisty streets, and a cool old fort. I love the Bermudian architecture – the homes there are all basically made of limestone, so they can stand up to darn near anything. We went to a street festival in Hamilton, the modern capital with high-end shops, frozen yogurt places, and other things a big city has to offer. We spent half a day at Horseshoe Bay, one of the famous pink sand beaches, and it was wonderful. We took a glass-bottom boat at night out to a coral reef and a shipwreck in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle and came out without disappearing. We ate ourselves silly on the cruise ship and made friends with the family from New Jersey at our dinner table. We competed in a trivia contest and almost won, saw a Vegas rock-n-roll juggler, and worked on our tans. I read three books.

Really the only downside to the trip was the bookends with the bus company. My notes already hinted at the company’s planning failures, but the return trip was even worse. After we dropped off the Philly people (which was after the driver missed the exit again and took a 30 minute detour), the bus broke down on the side of I-95, and it was almost two hours before a new bus got there and we were off again. Starving and exhausted, we arranged for Gina’s mom to pick us up in Baltimore versus braving another thrill ride with our sleepy driver. All this made us pretty delirious after going with no lunch for hours on end, and we were a little angry that our trip ended that way. But we just tried to imagine the cars that were rushing past us at 80+ mph with inches to spare between them and our bus were mere waves crashing into a pink beach. That worked until all of our snacks were depleted.

But hey, in summary, Bermuda was great! Just don’t take a bus there. More photos to come when I get them sorted out.

Austin Convention Trip Notes, Part 2

Below continues my write-up of our latest trip to Austin. Read Part 1 here.

What About The Music?

No trip to Austin would be complete without seeing at least one live show, but once I discovered I was not chosen for a taping of Austin City Limits, I defaulted to selecting one by venue instead of by “band I’d heard of before.” Thus I found myself at the legendary Stubb’s! (It’s a BBQ restaurant in the front, and a party in the back! Or, you know, upstairs and downstairs.) It was a night of local favorite bands playing four in a row, and not all of them were my cup of tea so I didn’t stick around for the whole shindig. It was, however, just cool seeing somebody up on that stage in a historic venue and being part of that scene. I guess you could say I also experienced six or seven free live shows while walking down 6th Street at various times, and I also re-visited my friends at Waterloo Records to see what they were featuring that I would be interested in listening to soon.

The most profound connection to the world of Austin music, however, came early in the week when I paid a visit to the memorial statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan standing on the shores of Town Lake. From here, Stevie stands with the downtown skyline as a backdrop, the statue casting a symbolic shadow of him in the middle of a guitar solo. The plaque behind the statue simply calls him a “musician,” which is fittingly understated for such a game-changing guitarist. RIP, Stevie.

Let’s Wrap It Up: Miscellaneous Thoughts

Another reason Austin is a great town is the built-in 10-mile plus trail looping around Town Lake, crisscrossed with several bridges including a couple of pedestrian-only options. I was able to keep eating all the great food I mentioned above without feeling terrible by going on several long, humid runs around various sections of the trail. I looped into the expanses of Zilker Park and Barton Springs on several occasions, as well, and I was never alone on the trail matter what time of day I started jogging. Three cheers to you, Austin, for fitness.

Gina, a group of her co-workers, and I tried to check out the Congress Ave. Bridge bats one evening. Apparently June is a hit-or-miss season for them, unfortunately. We crowded against the rails with several dozen others, hoping for a Batcave-worthy swarm of the nocturnal masses, but the swarm never came. We did see decently-sized groups of the bats dart in and out from under the bridge in brownish blurs, and we certainly heard their chirps (or whatever you call the noise a bat makes) rise up from below. I also smelled them quite plainly when I jogged underneath the bridge later that week, but that was it for bat sightings. I guess the bats will have to wait until next time.

One last food-related plug: if you’re in Austin and in need of some sauce (either barbecue or hot, it doesn’t matter), there’s only one place you need to go: Tears of Joy.

Since I think it’s clear I’m fond of the city and I’ve said everything positive I can say over the course of what has turned into a treatise, I will close my Austin odyssey with a note about graffiti and construction. It seems the local government is a-okay with officially commissioned murals and probably less-official graffiti adorning the various sides of historic buildings and newer structures alike. These pieces quite often rose far above the mere scribblings of gang members; I would call many of them proper works of art. Some were commercially tied to restaurants and bars, some gave shout-outs to Willie Nelson and other Texas heroes, and some were just plain weird. For this reason, I kept my eyes open and camera ready as I walked through downtown, always on the lookout for some kind of graffiti Easter egg, and they usually made me smile.

Just a small sampling of Austin's free artwork.
Just a small sampling of Austin’s free artwork. Yes, that is a tank coming out of the side of a building.

Austin is a great city, but that’s no longer a well-kept secret. Throughout the week, streets were periodically closed due to construction, and it was clear that several buildings had been recently demolished or were being hastily constructed to keep up with growth. Orange cones were littered everywhere. The residents I talked to had very mixed reactions about this kind of growth, which I can totally understand coming from densely populated and traffic-choked Northern Virginia. The picture below sort of sums up Austin’s current state in my mind: a cool, retro, slightly odd public building being quickly obscured by construction.

Progress is progress, and change isn’t something to be feared. I just hope as Austin grows, it’s done smartly. And I hope those in charge manage to keep it weird.