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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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 1

As I wrote in the fall after Gina and I visited for a weekend, I quickly found out that Austin, Texas and I were going to be best friends. Food and music, two of my very favorite things in the world, can be had by the plenty in the central Texas city. Quirkiness and friendliness, weirdness and awesomeness, country and rock ‘n’ roll, all mixed up in the same roughly 272 square miles. In short, what’s not to love?

Recently, Gina had to return there for a conference, so I wasted no time in arranging to take off work to join her. I remembered that I had quite a list of things to do there if I ever went back, and spending a week in Austin offered me nothing but time in which to do them.

Out of respect for your time, I wrote so much about this trip that I am splitting the trip notes up into two parts. This is the first; the second will come next week.

I Will Have All Of The BBQ, Or At Least All Of The Food

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, one of the first things I do in any new city is to compile a list of intriguing restaurants through Yelp, so as my time there progresses I have a short list of places to eat, ready at a moment’s notice. I did the same for this go round in Austin and pretty much stuck to it, with a few detours based on suggestions from friends. The thing is, Austin is so chock-full of good places to eat that you have to try pretty hard not to find something tasty.

Practically every meal I had during the week was a highlight. I stopped at several coffee shops, but Patika Coffee‘s little truck that could served up the best brew by far. The friendly girls making smoothies at Blenders & Bowls guided me to the perfect post-run recovery drink full of healthy goodness. The Asian-fusion specialties of Koriente and its jasmine tea was the best break I could have hoped for on a hot afternoon. We revisited Moonshine one night for a piece of bison meatloaf as big as my head, which put Ted’s Montana Grill to shame. Other highlights included the authentic New York style pizza of The Home Slice, local food trucks Kebabalicious and Downtown Burgers, Torchy’s Tacos (where I partook of a taco stuffed with beef and bacon – need I say more?), and the one chain I must have anywhere it’s within driving distance: In ‘N’ Out Burger.

But a special mention needs to go out to La Barbecue, an unassuming food truck tucked away a few blocks from downtown. On advice from my former co-worker Nick, who had already guided me to Home Slice to hang out, I made the walk out to La Barbecue early on a Thursday. But I must admit I didn’t follow his advice to the letter and didn’t get there at 10 AM like he’d advised. If I had, I probably would have gotten to sample some of the meats that ran out by the time my 45-minute wait in line was over. As it was, the free sample of melt-in-your-mouth brisket was enough to bring me to my knees. I hedged my bets and went with the El Sancho, again on Nick’s advice, which featured both pulled pork and brisket (I would have gotten it “loco” with sausage but they had already ran out). Suffice it to say that all my prayers were answered. I had found barbecue heaven, and its name was La Barbecue.

Just a small sampling of when I remembered to take a picture of where (and what) I ate.
Just a small sampling of when I remembered to take a picture of where (and what) I ate.

Besides catching up with Nick, I also looked up college friend Kent, he of the incomparable laser gun noise of years past. We met up at Torchy’s, which proved to have not only one of the largest and best tacos I’ve ever eaten, but also an original-recipe Dr. Pepper concoction on tap that dates back to the origins of the drink itself, but since 2012 it’s had to stop calling itself Dr. Pepper, settling on the name Doppelgänger instead. Duplicate or no, it tasted just like the good Doctor but with pure cane sugar that offered a sweeter finish.

Good For a Few Laughs

Kent also invited me to join him for a show at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. This is a group of local theaters that not only screen the latest Hollywood releases, but they also specialize in quirky showings like 90’s music video singalongs and re-screenings of cult classics. We indulged in a recurring show featuring the local Austin comedy troupe known as Master Pancake, which basically involves a group of guys doing a live action MST3K-style commentary of some of the greatest films ever made, or at least the most popular. Wackiness ensued as they tore apart the 90’s movie that simultaneously launched and ended Michael Jordan’s acting career while spawning one of the most inexplicably popular soundtracks ever, Space Jam.

Another highlight of the week for me was sampling a couple of hours of The Hideout Theatre‘s 45-Hour Improv Marathon, which was just as it sounds and just as hilarious. A group of eight core people were involved with all 45 performances at some point or another, resting only for a few minutes between shows. That’s serious business, but also hilarious and delirious as time went on, I’m sure. I personally saw their takes on the original Star Trek and 70’s cop shows, and both were well done. The troupe offers improv classes as well as resources for teaching local children. Hurrah!

The Hideout Theater's take on Star Trek.
The Hideout Theater’s take on Star Trek.

To Be Continued…

That’s it for now. As promised, check out Part 2 next week!

New England and Montreal Trip Notes

After a summer that was busier than most, coupled with a hefty helping of furloughs, Gina and I were finally able to take a vacation recently. We decided to go on a road trip through New England, with a side trip up to Montreal to get a small taste of a different country. Our itinerary included a variety of modes of transportation. First, a taxi to the Alexandria Amtrak station. Then, a train to New Jersey, followed by a rental car for the duration of the trip. Choosing a Chevy Traverse for our journey in Newark, we began our drive. Since both of us had seen New York and Boston before, though at separate times, we decided to check out the towns less traveled using the time we had. We stayed in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Montreal, and New York before making our way back to Newark for the train ride home. Along the way we also saw a few sights in Connecticut and New Hampshire, so we certainly ran the gamut. I’ll point out here that the soundtrack to most of the trip was the 90’s country station on Sirius XM in the rental car, which might seem incongruous if you picture us rolling through Yankee territory. Maybe because of that irony, it kept me entertained and awake as I spent hours behind the wheel. I hadn’t heard some of those songs since middle school, and it’s surprising how many of the lyrics I actually remembered.

Back to the meat of the trip. New England is certainly a special area of the country. It’s easy to see why early European settlers stuck around despite the harsh winters. In short, it’s beautiful, but it also has variety. Within a span of a few hours, you can start at the beaches and end up in gorgeous mountains, lakes, and rivers. For someone used to a large state like Virginia, it was interesting to be able to bounce from state to state so quickly. And unlike the suburbs of DC that tend to blend together, each state and each town has a distinct character that is easily discernible when you’re there, but not so easy to describe.

Before leaving New Jersey, we made a quick side trip to the boyhood home of Gina’s grandfather. He was born and raised there in Carlstadt, but the view from his house now includes the New York City skyline and Giants Stadium. The only downside to the timing of our train ride and side trip was that we hit the outskirts of NYC near rush hour. We took an unexpected detour over the George Washington Bridge and up the Henry Hudson Parkway, but our Google Maps guide kept us from going into downtown Manhattan, at least. Similarly, our time in Connecticut was unfortunately spent mostly in traffic on I-95. We did stop in the town of Darien, which looked very neat and well-to-do, when our stomachs couldn’t hold out any longer and ended up at a great little restaurant thanks to Yelp. Estia’s, we salute you!

By the time we limped into Newport after fighting traffic and traveling all day, the nautical themed room at the Marriott was a welcome sight. The next morning, I went for a jog that took me along the Cliff Walk near the famous mansions along the bay, which was a great change of scenery. Running in a strange place feels adventurous, though I tried to choose a foolproof route that wouldn’t get me lost. I felt like a local and kept up my marathon training in the process. Not a bad deal! Newport was a great town, all in all. The old town area near the harbor felt like an upper-scale Annapolis, with shops of all stripes lining the streets. There was a cruise ship in port, as well, which brought even more types of people into the shops and restaurants. Interesting souvenirs were easy to come by. After strolling through downtown, we drove the infamous Ocean Drive to see how the upper crust of society lives. Each mansion more extravagant than the last, it really defied imagination how people could really afford houses like that and live there without it feeling like a museum. We stopped for a while along one of the beaches and took in the sights, collecting interesting rocks along the way.

Our next stops took us through Plymouth and Salem, Massachusetts. When planning this leg of the tour, I just wanted to be able to say that we’d been to the sites of some of the earliest and most famous settlements of American history, but after the fact we realized we would have been fine without going. Plymouth’s mock colonial settlement was already shuttered by the time we got there, a recurring theme throughout our trip due to the shorter days and visiting during post-peak tourist season. We looked at Plymouth Rock, which we’d heard about countless times in social studies and history classes and Charlie Brown Thanksgiving specials. In truth, it’s just… a rock. It’s not even the Plymouth Rock, it’s just a rock that someone decided was big enough to carve a “1620” into and build a little pantheon around. And the mockup of the Mayflower might have been cool, but it was closed and we’d both been on sailing ships before. So, I would not plan on spending a lot of time in Plymouth if you ever go there. The same with Salem, which was decked out in Halloween decorations thanks to its connection with the infamous witch trials. Think of people in various degrees of Gothic costumes roaming the streets at all times of the day. Just read The Crucible and save yourself the trouble. The U.S.’s oldest candy shop is there, which was interesting to see, and if you’re a Nathaniel Hawthorne or Bewitched fan or fancy yourself a wizard you’ll probably enjoy yourself, but in hindsight we could have skipped this part of the trip as well and would have been happy.

I think my favorite state of the bunch was Maine. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why, though. Maybe because it both lived up to and exceeded the vague image I had in my mind of what Maine would be like. The fresh seafood helped, but another reason could simply be that we consistently had a lot of fun the comparatively brief time we were there. We visited the shops at Freeport, which naturally included the L.L. Bean flagship store, which is really a campus of four stores with an Outlet across the street, all open 24/7/365 (except for the Outlet). That’s gotta be handy if you find yourself needing a pair of boots or a canoe at 3AM. We ate by firelight on the street, the fire coming from a pit in the middle of our table. It was windy that night, which added an element of fiery adventure to our meal. Portland also seemed like a great town, though we didn’t get to see much there other than the fantastic Bull Moose Music, which restored my faith in the viability of the record shop in today’s digital music era. Before leaving Maine, we visited the iconic Portland Headlight in Cape Elizabeth, which lived up to the photogenic descriptions on Tripadvisor and Yelp. I flexed some photography muscles there, because when you’re looking at something man-made crashing against the strength and beauty of God’s creation, you have to take some pictures. Beyond that, I was charmed by the independently mined but extremely friendly people we encountered in Maine. Upon Matthew’s advice, however, I steered clear of the local soda Moxie, which if I remember correctly could double as a paint thinner.

New Hampshire proved the most scenic for us, since we drove around the White Mountains and into Franconia Notch State Park, former home of the Old Man of the Mountain before he collapsed. The fall foliage was also at its best in the areas of New Hampshire that we drove through. The Flume, a small but deep gorge carved into the forest on one end of Franconia Notch, was beautiful as well. Arriving at sunset, we got some amazing views and photos, which to be honest do not do justice to the bouncing light reflecting off of the mist as you look up to see the sun fully illuminating the trees above. I’m glad we got there to catch the last bus to the gorge, even if it meant walking back to the already-closed visitor center to get to our car. And we didn’t see any bears, either, so that was a plus. While on our way through New Hampshire, we also stopped in North Conway and got some terrific pizza at The Flatbread Company.

Speaking of food, Vermont is the source of a lot of great stuff. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it was a pleasant surprise. Vermont is also quirky. We drove through Montpelier, the smallest state capitol, on our way to Waterbury, and nearly missed the capitol building before driving out of town in the space of five minutes. Waterbury is a bit of a tourist town, but it still has managed to stay fairly small but with a lot of character. Green Mountain Coffee is headquartered there and runs a small coffee shop out of the Amtrak station (there’s not much to see other than getting coffee, though). So I was happy to sample some coffee, but less tempted to buy another Keurig. It was here that I finally made the connection that Green Mountain owns Keurig. No wonder the variety packs that come with the brewers are chock full of Green Mountain Coffee! Gina most looked forward to the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour, which was indeed the happiest place in New England. The tour was reasonably priced, included viewing of actual ice cream being made, free samples at the end, and a trip to the witty Flavor Graveyard. Throw in Cabot cheese tastings and waffles with real Vermont maple syrup for breakfast, and you could say we ate quite well.

From Vermont, we drove across the border into Quebec. The novelty of driving into a foreign country was not lost on us. The Quebec we drove through was a series of small towns interspersed with vast swaths of farmland. We attempted to translate the road signs along the way while relying on our phone GPS to get to the city. Montreal itself lived up to its reputation as being a small slice of Europe in North America. Francophones were everywhere, naturally, but we didn’t run into anyone who refused to speak English. I definitely felt lacking in the linguistic department, all the same. We walked around the Old Port area, drove through Mont Royal park, caught a blues band at a bustling Bistro Le Modavie for dinner, shopped in the Bonsecours Market building, and also hit just a fraction of the vast underground shopping network near McGill University. Before we left, we also checked out the Olympic Park and botanical gardens, where dozens of pumpkins from a decorating contest sponsored by the local schools were on display. I think by this point the fast pace of the trip had caught up to both of us, as we kept crossing things off our sightseeing list when we realized we’d much rather relax and take it slow instead. And while there were plenty of things to do in the city, I think two days was plenty, with a three day trip probably being the max I would recommend without venturing out to other parts of Quebec.

The drive back across the border into New York was a welcome sight on our next to last day. We only saw Albany late at night, arriving at a Panera minutes before closing, which again saved us from certain starvation. There was a chunk of meteorite in our hotel lobby there, though, so that was cool. The final day of our trip was a little more stressful than it should have been when I realized that once again, our train did not stop at the same station where we dropped off the car, forcing another last-minute scramble on a New Jersey Transit train to get us where we needed to be with just minutes to spare. Certainly by the time we got on our correct train, our spirits were broken but relieved.

In summary, we enjoyed New England thoroughly but probably wore ourselves out trying to see it all. If nothing else, we have a few new great memories, and we know the spots we’d like to return to someday. I know that whenever we do go back, we’ll be charmed by the people and the sights and will instantly feel welcome.

You can find the full Flickr set of nearly 300 pictures here, or if you’re pressed for time, please enjoy a selection of my favorite photos from the batch in the Flash slideshow below.