The dirt on … 5 Ski Resorts in North Tahoe

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Alright, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for! After all, I didn’t go to Tahoe to eat smoked trout and guzzle coffee – I went there to ski. And I’m gonna spill the beans about where you should go. Bear in mind that conditions were icy, and mid-day temps were in the mid-forties. Bummer conditions for skiing. Can’t fault the mountains for that – it’s just plain ol’ bad luck.

1. Northstar-at-Tahoe – This is where we spent our first day of skiing. It’s a darn nice hill with a plethora of blue runs. It’s big, with lots of lifts headed to many places. The staff is really friendly, and the trails are pretty well-marked. The views on the southeastern-most trails are beautiful. Problem is, there’s a lot of homogeneity to the blue runs. Not a lots distinguishes them. They are long, so you get a nice, long, groovy glide. Be sure to check out the tubing park about halfway up the mountain. I didn’t, and regretted it. There’s lots of great food everywhere, especially at the condo/shopping area near the outdoor ice rink. Earthly Delights is pretty awesome. Oh, and don’t buy gear at any of the shops there. Rip-off! Oh, and Northstar is packed with sprogs. If short people put a harsh edge on your shred, best to avoid it.

Awesome view from a Northstar run.            From tahoe
At the very top of Northstar after clouds roll in.      From tahoe

2. Homewood Mountain Ski Resort – The most laid-back, genuine and unpretentious ski resort I’ve ever seen! Tons of great blue runs and lots of nasty, mogully black-diamond stuff for you animals out there. I’d love to ski here after a huge storm of fresh powder. The blue runs are all very different from each other, from wide but steep trails to bobsled-style runs. Some of the lips before the trail drops are imposing – but they’re usually worse than they look unless the snow is icy and you’re a big dude who’s also a scaredy-cat. It’s a very convenient setup here – Homewood is right on West Lake Boulevard. You pull into the lot, buy your ticket, pop on your skis or snowboard and go! Services here can be a little sporadic, especially on weekdays. You have to go to the north lodge to get food or water, which can be a pain. They could also do a better job of penning up the smokers to prevent them from stinking up the nice mountain air, though. The staff is friendly, and the views are spectacular. On many runs, the deep blue of Lake Tahoe looks so close that it feels like you’re a blown turn from swimming in it. If the kiddies at Northstar give you the willies, the crowd is lots older here. Also, the value here is sick … a weekday pass was something like $39. Super-cheap, as Alfred E. Neuman would say!

Can you believe that view?                          From tahoe
Early morning at Homewood.           From tahoe

3. Squaw Valley – We didn’t ski here. After two days of alpine and one day of XC, our legs were simply too shot. Just as well. (Gulp) Squaw Valley scares me. I didn’t see a single run from the lodge that I’d feel comfortable skiing. These mountains are craggy and beastly looking, and huge cable cars and gondolas carry people around. Except for at the bunny hill. You’d have to go there and see it in-person to see how scary it is. I was genuinely intimidated. I think Squaw Valley is also kind of silly in charging non-skiers $22 for a gondola ride to the High Camp, where they have a skating rink, tennis courts and other cool stuff. Seriously. Especially on week days. Silly.

4. Boreal – This is a perfect place for the newbies. The runs are short and unassuming, and there are barely any black runs. I’d probably fall asleep on these trails, but it’s perfect for either getting your ski legs for the first runs of the season, or helping a new skier get some confidence. Be sure to get a load of the lodge, especially the arcade. You’ll feel like you fell into a DeLorean aimed straight into the neon and spandex heart of 1985. Livin’ on a prayer, baby! This could be a fun place to snowtube … if they were actually open during their posted hours. Lazy bums.

5. Soda Springs – We went here to look into snow tubing. No dice – it was all torn up, and the staff seemed to have no idea what was going in. They sent us to Boreal, where we were denied again. But as far as the skiing, this seems like it would be a great place for a solid blue skier to get a taste of the black diamonds. This is a pretty unassuming place, with a lot of wide-open spaces for beginners to dial in their greens and move to blue. I would mind trying the black runs here, since none of them seem to long or intimidating – definitely less scare-factor than Squaw Valley or Homewood!

Your heroic guide, Wandering Justin.        From tahoe

Well, there you have it! I’d definitely consider Homewood the value king. But if you’re an awesome skier, Squaw Valley will keep you occupied. It has more ritz and glitz, if you appreciate that sort of thing. Homewood is more Guns ‘n’ Roses, where Squaw Valley is the London Symphony Orchestra.

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Four Places in Tahoe to Go Grubbin’

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You can only cram in so much skiing, especially when the slopes are icy. There comes a time each day when you’ll have to troop indoors for a bite. Or sometimes before you board the lift.
I can’t say North Tahoe cuisine titillates the tongue. It’s a lot of Mexican food, steaks and pizza. But there are a few neat little places tucked around, if you know where to look. Let me save you some time driving up and down the winding roads. In no particular order --

FiftyFifty Brewpub – There’s a lot to like about this spot in Truckee. And I’m not just talking about the oak-aged barleywine, which is a rare treat you shouldn’t miss. But you can also get some great entrees. I went for a BLT served with seared ahi tuna. And get this – FiftyFifty offers a side of black beans! Far healthier and tastier than fries or chips, no? I’d like to go back and try a pizza. The service was also excellent.

Tahoe House – Our hostess at the Firelite Lodge pointed this one out to us. We never would’ve found it otherwise, since it’s just off the junction that splits Tahoe City traffic to either Truckee or Homewood. If you head toward Homewood, Tahoe House is just a few hundred feet away. They brew really strong coffee by the cup (no sitting around and getting sour here) and have awesome baked goods. My coffee paired nicely with a smoked ham and gruyere croissant. I also stocked up on some goodies for the plane ride home: a rum ball, a slice of chocolate cappuccino coffee cake and a slab of pecan fudge – each tasted even better than it sounds. I was tempted to also grab some homemade smoked trout, but I would’ve endeared myself to none of the passengers. Load up on the desserts because they’re the best you’ll find around. The décor is also very homey Swiss style.

Jason’s – This became our favorite spot in King’s Beach. You could eat healthy with some decent veggie angel hair, or go for a burger or porterhouse. Jason’s also has a decent salad bar, a friendly vibe and a very good staff. The desserts are pretty good (though not as awesome as Tahoe House), as are the spiked hot cocoa drinks. Parking can be tough – be sure to look around the back of the building for more spaces if the front is crammed.

Gear and Grind Cafe – This is an awesome spot in Tahoe City. They brew seriously strong coffee, and it doesn’t sit around getting stale. You order it, they grind it, they pour hot water over the filter. BOOM! Serious coffee. And they make a great ham & egg croissant, too. If you’re lucky, Sierra the Calm but Friendly Shop Dog will appear to hang out with you. She is most excellent company. They also open early and can set you up with supplies you might need before you hit the slopes or trails. Lots of good reading material on-hand if you’re solo that day. A very friendly staff, in both the cafe and sports portions.

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Why I Hate the P.F. Chang’s Rock & Roll Marathon

An old shot of the medal collection.

If there’s any one marathon in Phoenix that people know about, it’s the bloated corporate monster that is the P.F. Chang’s Rock & Roll Marathon, which is coming up in a few weeks. So, why do I, the normally laid-back Wandering Justin, shoot flames from my eyes at every mention of it? (And you should see my wife every time someone asks if she’s running the Rock & Roll Marathon … the offending person usually gets in earful from her very similar to what you’re about to read)

Here’s why:

4. The course is incredibly dull and ugly, meandering through some of the most unscenic parts of the Phoenix concrete jungle. There are decent bits, but overall it’s uninspiring as all get-out, running near a freeway for a good distance before turning onto the charmless Van Buren Avenue before heading to the finish in Tempe. Ugh.

3. I love rock & roll. Love it enough that I devote a lot of time to playing the guitar and writing songs. But this event just doesn’t draw good bands. I suspect that’s because it’s way too early for the rocker lifestyle. What can the event organizers do to get better bands? Embrace the fact the rock should be loud and edgy, and that a good band just might make the event a little less family-friendly.

2. There’s a freakin’ huge number of people in this thing. That makes parking a nightmare. Running a full marathon is tough enough. Who wants to add logistical headaches to it? And it also makes you just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of running events in the Valley that provide better experiences than the mega-marathons.

1. It overshadows Arizona’s best marathon, the awesome Lost Dutchman Marathon. This is a small, humble event. It just happens to be beautifully organized, along with being routed through incredible scenery near the Superstition Mountains. Residents along the route will often set up impromptu aid stations while genuinely and enthusiastically cheering runners in the full marathon, half-marathon and 10K. And their finishers medals kick serious butt – a real piece of hardware.

I guess it saddens me to see that mere money can overshadow genuine quality, but it happens all the time, doesn’t it? I’m hoping this is a record year for the Dutchman since it’s now nearly a month removed from the Rock & Roll Marathon. The Dutchman had previously been hamstrung by being the weekend after. Still, all the locals who were in the know showed up for the Dutchman instead, and left Chang’s to the elite runner chasing paychecks, the less-experienced runners and those who thrive on hoopla.

So many things in this world seem to be about corporate suits “establishing a brand” and “connecting with core consumers” and “generating maximum visibility.” I much prefer the events that feel like they exist because a group of people who love running/biking/fencing/watermelon throwing/whatever got together and said “Hey, you know what would be cool? Running an event the RIGHT way so that it’s fun and welcoming.” Yeah. There’s just something about that.

This year, we won’t be running the Dutchman. That’s because there is a new marathon the same weekend on the other side of town. This one is the IMS Marathon, and it’s the inaugural running. We thought we’d check it out. And it raises money for the state leukemia and lymphoma society, which is nice. I think it will also be a cool, intimate event. A large part of me will still wish I was lining up for the Dutchman, but I have high hopes for the IMS. And there’s nothing wrong with two low-key events for those of us who don’t like the overly slick, blandly packaged, made-for-the-masses stuff.

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Park City, Utah – 5 Things You’ll Love About It

From ski utah

Holy cow, it’s so easy to beat up on poor Utah. People snicker about Mormons with dozens of children in tow. They giggle about not having any fun … at least when other Mormons are watching. They wet themselves laughing about the unfailingly cheery young men pedaling bikes everywhere from Tucson to Timbuktu.

But really, if you want awesome skiing and a cosmopolitan vibe, you are going to have a hard time beating Park City, which is just 40 minutes from the airport in Salt Lake. You’ll find a wealth of awesome ski resorts, great food, excellent post-ski activities and killer scenery all within about 20 minutes of each other. And you don’t even have to rent a car: You can grab a shuttle from the airport, and Park City has an extensive (and free) public transit system. This city is still riding the high from hosting the 2002 Olympic Winter Games … that Park City won restored a smidgen of my faith in the selection committee, because I believe this city deserved it.

What won’t you find? If you’re a beer snob, you’ll suffer. Utah law caps the alcohol by weight at 3.2 percent. And that, my friends, is the end of the taste. It’s a small price to pay, though, for awesome, convenient skiing.

Here are five things that make Park City rock, in no particular order.

1. The Canyons Ski Resort – Sorry, wanna-be X-Games dudes with funny hair, piercings and MP3 players jacked directly into your brains: No snowboarders allowed! But that’s not all that makes this great: Fast lifts, beautiful trails and lots of places for intermediate stooges like me to enjoy really put it to the top of my list. The views are intense, and it’s pretty much the first in the line of several resorts. You can grab an excellent lunch, but be sure to get in early if you want the rather pricey but highly regarded skiers’ buffet. Some of the runs are extremely long, and even run in short tunnels under roads leading to pricey ski villas. Cool!

2. Utah Olympic Park – I have always loved the winter Olympics, especially the early 80s-vintage voice over talking about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as a ski jumper crashes out-of-control through a mass of barriers. Here, you can see exactly what a ski jumper sees while looking down one of those jumps – and let me tell you, I practically needed a diaper just looking down that jump. I can’t even fathom volitionally sliding down it. You can also check out the bobsled/luge track and a fun museum at the visitors center. If you time your visit right, you can also check out amateur bobsled action. We struck up a conversation with one such minor-league sledder … I wish I’d been taking notes, because it was a great look into what goes into making it to the Big Time.

From ski utah

3. The Best Use of a Golf Course EVER! – I won’t mince words. I hate golf. Not so much the game itself, but the culture around it, that it takes up gobs of space and that you can actually be a top-level golf pro and smoke cigars while playing! But when it snows, the golf courses near The Canyons become cross country ski havens. This was my first time doing XC skiing … and let me tell you, it was AWESOME. It works you like a dog. I had my jacket off and was shushing along in naught but an Under Armor shirt within a few hundred yards. After putting in near 35 miles of downhill the previous day according to my GPS, putting in 10 XC miles was hard! The good side? I got to eat everything in sight sans guilt!

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4. An international vibe – Everywhere I went, I was hearing a Brazilian or Australian accent. It seems Brazil has an exchange program that send young people to Utah to work during the winter (that’ll keep ’em on the straight and narrow – no Samba carnival lewdness here!). Australia, on the other hand, largely exports middle-aged, gin-blossomed dudes eager to mack on young women. Well, I ran into a few young Aussies here, to be fair … not exactly the Stereotypical Australian Blokes I mentioned in my Australia travelogue, but still fun nonetheless. (The acronym SAB, by the way, seems to be gaining traction.) Lots of people from the UK, too. So it’s not the insular, innocent mountain town you may have expected from Utah.

5. Unintentionally Lewd Toy Displays – Well, apparently the crew at the J.W. Allen & Sons toy store is, um, up on the latest way to catch attention for the little sleds they sell. Apparently, you put your bum on the plastic, grab the handle and cruise down the slopes. Well, I just have to wonder if they also sell a model that takes batteries, if you know what I’m sayin’. I’m sure these items were at the head of their best-sellers list! Sometimes, it’s the little things that give flavor to a place … but this casts the area’s conservative nature in a new light, and makes me what happens here when nobody else is watching.

From ski utah

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Viva el Monstruo – Capturing Costa Rican Character

When I landed in Costa Rica back in 2003, I was pretty underprepared. This was my wife’s trip. She planned it and sweated the details. I packed my backpack (and actually remembered my underwear, for once), got on the plane and went along for the ride.

Unfortunately, this means I had little concept of the awesome soccer culture of Costa Rica. We woke up the day after our flight to a soccer mania that, we learned, would literally sweep the nation. We had little idea of this until we boarded a shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna. As I got on the bus, I noticed that the driver, one of three employees on the bus, was decked out in purple: some sort of purple jersey, purplish jeans and even purple mirrored sunglasses.

As we drove off, I asked the older employee, who seemed to be the boss, what the deal was.

“Is for Saprissa, the football team. We are playing today against Alajuela, our rival. It is very big game,” he explained.

And wouldn’t you know it! Our route would take us straight through the heart of Alajuela, where fans of La Liga Alajuelense were parading up and down the streets in their striped jerseys. Our driver, apparently not one to let a sleeping dog lie, leered at, wagged his tongue at, gesticulated at and honked his horn at roving mobs of Alajuelense supporters. Everywhere we went, La Liga fans were boring holes in our bus with our eyes. And mind you, the match hadn’t even started yet!

The bus crew explained to me that Saprissa is the biggest team – which I took with a grain of salt, because every Leeds United fan in England will still insist that their team is “a massive club.” But Saprissa was apparently ahead on points, but La Liga had had their number for the past few seasons. A victory today would be a famous win for the ages.

We made a stop halfway to La Fortuna at a roadside market. And they sold soccer shirts, so I could get in the mania! They mostly had La Liga and Saprissa. I selected an extra large Saprisa knock-off jersey (really more like a large in U.S. sizes) and stepped up to the register.

“No, no!” the clerk objected, pointing at a La Liga shirt. “You have to support the local team!”

I insisted on the glowing purple Saprissa shirt, which set me back something like $17 … I can’t remember what that was in colones. Anyway, I came out of the store with my new Saprissa shirt, and the bus crew saw it. They start whooping, patting me on the back, shaking my hand and high-fiving until their arms were about to fall off. They also clued me in, saying the club’s nickname is El Monstruo, or The Monster. That Jarvis Drummond is a god. And all sorts of other things I can scarcely remember.

By the time we got to La Fortuna, the match had started. The bus crew wanted to drop everyone off quickly and get to a TV. The clerk at Las Colinas could barely tear himself away to check us in, but he was really friendly and wanted us to get to a TV to watch, too. We headed to a nearby restaurant for a helping of gallo pinto. There, they had a TV. And all of La Fortuna was urging Saprissa on. Televisions everywhere were blaring. The entire town cheered, groaned and gasped in unison.

By the time were left the restaurant, La Fortuna was in rapture: Saprissa battered La Liga 4-1, breaking the cross-town rival’s hold on the derby. The entire town was upbeat.

And here’s the funny thing: About that time, I noticed that my sunglasses were gone. They must’ve slipped off sometime in the bus. Which meant I’d have to grab a cheap pair of sunglasses somewhere … bummer, I really liked those Spys.

But the next day, Sarah and I were having a morning stroll. We heard a bus honking behind us. Behind the wheel was my purple-wearing friend, waving my Spys out the window. We exchanged more handshakes, and they were on their way back to San Jose. Think they would’ve done that had I bought a La Liga shirt?!

As we traveled through Costa Rica, a theme repeated itself: I would meet a resident, and we’d talk a bit. Inevitably, I’d ask if they supported Saprissa. And nearly to the word, they’d say “I am THE BIGGEST Saprissa fan!!!”

I only ran into on La Liga fan: She was employed at the airport by Costa Rica’s version of the TSA. As she was screening me, she noticed a flash of purple jersey under my long-sleeve Lost Dutchman Marathon shirt.

“Tu eres Saprissista?” she growled, raising an eyebrow. That’s when she pulled me out of the line, gave me a wink and proceeded with the full-service search.

Be careful where you wear your Saprissa shirt, kids …

A Tip of the Hat to the Boeing 747

A preface from Wandering Justin: I originally wrote this for another blog, but it seems relevant here. Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Boeing
Photo courtesy of Boeing

Every time I go to band practice, I take the 143 freeway past Sky Harbor. I always look to my right and see a British Airways 747 parked at Terminal 4, getting ready to head to London.

And I wish I was getting on that plane. Not so much because it’s going to London, but because … well, I can’t explain it in one sentence. But here are the thoughts that jumble through my head:

-First, there is a certain something special and exciting about a 747. It’s an icon of style, adventure and anticipation. You don’t take a 747 from Charlotte to Pittsburgh. No, That’s what takes you to Hong Kong, to Paris, to Sydney, to Johannesburg. From the first time I rode one on the way to Germany as a 5-year-old boy, it has made me feel something no other airplane can replicate. The 777 is a marvelous piece of technology, and the A380 is built on a mind-boggling scale. But no aircraft save the Concorde cuts the same image on final approach, or puts that flutter in my stomach as I cross from the jetway into its fuselage. Sadly, less than a handful of American-based airlines still fly it.

-Second, it being a British Airways flight, I know that the people aboard will not be treated like cattle. Foreign airlines seem to have figured out how not to nickel-and-dime passengers to death, and understand that a good experience aloft will endear them to American passengers. I’ve only flown Qantas and JetStar recently. But people whose opinions I respect tell me Air New Zealand, British Airways and Air France are on their game. And I’ve heard Emirates and Virgin are dialed in, too.

-Third, I just love flying. The longer the flight, the happier I am. But put me in a seat with a few hundred people on the way to someplace that requires a widebody jet, and all is right with my world. Is it as comfortable as my reading chair? No. Is the food all that good? No. But I can afford to buy a seat and travel 7,000 or more miles and get off that plane in what feels like a different world. If you can’t get fired up about that, I seriously don’t know what the hell is the matter with you.

-Fourth, I love airports. Sure, the TSA seems like it’s deliberately trying to drive me crazy. There are throngs of people, completely bovine in their lack of situational awareness and clueless meandering. But outside, it’s a well-choreographed display of efficient motion. And there’s something electric in the air at a major international airport (as opposed to my local Sky Harbor, which hosts all of one flight from the U.K., and then a bunch from Canada and Mexico and another from Costa Rica. Hell, that’s barely enough to qualify.). All these people from around the world, all these aircraft that have been who-knows-where. It invigorates me, and gets me excited about everything going on in the world at every given moment.

For me, the inconveniences and discomforts become so petty and so worth enduring when I wake up in another city that my grandparents never could’ve imagined visiting in their lifetime.

Five of the Cayo District’s Best Spots – Belize

A rainbow over the forest
A rainbow over the forest

If I had just one place to go in Belize, I’d head straight for the Cayo District. I’d skip the beaches. I’d turn my nose up at the cayes. I’d blow off the cities.

I’d head inland to the limestone maze of the Cayo District … caves, rivers, ruins, pine dscf3369forests and a laid-back vibe are what you’ll get. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.

1. I already waxed poetic in an earlier post about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour. This is seriously not to be missed. If you won’t take by word for it, go back and read the earlier post. Now, doesn’t that sound mind-blowing?

A small pyramid overgrown with flora.
A small pyramid overgrown with flora.

2. The town of San Ignacio is a perfect launch pad for the ATM cave trip. There are plenty of restaurants and services, and hotels from bare-bones budget to luxurious. San Ignacio is big enough that you can walk all over the place and get everything from Indonesian food to a pint of the ubiquitous Bilikin stout. It’s also more friendly and genuine – not everyone here is a huckster wanted you to buy souvenirs (I’m looking at you, Caye Ambergris!).

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The Humpiest Hotel Ever?

Ahhhhh! There are some things in this world that are simply dripping in cool factor. No, this is marinated in cool, so much that the awesomeness infuses every morsel.

I’m talking about the 747 that’s been turned into a hotel! I know some people might think “hey, why would I want to spend more time on an airplane?” Well, I just happen to love airplanes and flying, so half the fun is getting there. And I can think of little that’s cooler than smartly reusing something.

My buddies over at dug this one up, and what a stellar find it is.

As I mentioned in a response to their blog entry, I live in Arizona. We have two massive airplane graveyards (The AMARC in Tucson and Pinal Air Park) and a third smaller one in Goodyear. Each has its share of civilian heavies, C141s and even B-52s. Can you imagine the possibilities if we stopped cutting them up and started doing something really cool with them? In many cases, they’re only getting cut up enough to be rendered unflyable. Here’s a way better way to do that!

Several people have also turned retired 727s into homes. How cool!

Going to Flagstaff? Don’t Miss Sunset Crater & Wupatki

A few years ago, Sarah and I were riding in the Taylor House Century bike ride in the 60-mile group. I didn’t know much about the route, but it took us through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which has a road that also goes to the Wupatki Ruins.

We’d already had plenty of excitement – I survived someone crashing right in front of me and falling right into my front wheel, but we’ll save that story for another time. Let’s just say I pulled off some sort of move straight out of The Matrix to keep the rubber side down. (Actually, the moment was pretty rife with cinematic parallel, now that I think of it. For instance, the protagonist in Shaolin Soccer would insist that I must’ve studied kung fu all my life. Darth Vader would say that the Force was strong with this one. Commander Data would chalk it up to a rift in the space-time continuum, and Dante from Clerks would tell me I’m not even supposed to be here today.)

About 15 miles after that craziness, Sarah and I were between a bunch of packs of riders. We were pedaling up the road that leads to Sunset Crater, and we still didn’t have a clear view of the crater.

But then we came around a corner and saw a blackened vista of dry lava stretching before us … and it was absolutely amazing. We could barely keep our eyes on the road as we passed the lava field and splatter cones. I was dumbstruck that I’d lived in Arizona since I was six, and had never been here. Don’t be like me: Make this a priority stop.

We loved it so much that we came the next day. We also went further down the road to the Wupatki Ruins, which are awesome. You can check out three different sets of ruins at various points. The largest one has this little blow hole … during some parts of the year, this hole sucks air in; in the summer, it blows cool air out! Perfect for those hot days … Sarah was surprised the ruling class didn’t build their pad right on top of it! In a future post, I’ll give you the lowdown on the Taylor House Century.

This is the crater itself … awesome, eh?                                                                                                                     From crater
Another View             From crater
One of the bigger ruins                              From crater
This is a blow hole!                  From crater
Jagged cooled lava                 From crater
A red splatter cone                       From crater