CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Fat Tire 40 MTB Race: Great Fun, Lots of Challenge

fat tire 40
The pack is getting antsy to start.

The course for the Fat Tire 40 at McDowell Mountain is clearly the work of a leather-clad masochistic dungeon master who moonlights as a dentist. The last three mile are the proof.

That doesn’t mean the event, put on by Swiss American Bicycles in Glendale, Ariz., isn’t a ton of well-run fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a novel spin on the typical mountain bike races run at McDowell Mountain Regional Park near Fountain Hills, Ariz. It took riders along trails seldom ridden.

For instance, there’s that last three miles I mentioned. Riders actually got to ride the Sport Loop section of the Competitive Track backward. That was an unprecedented opportunity, and a surprise organizers sprang on riders during the pre-race meeting. It was also a hard finish to a hard race.

Promoters Offer Classy Swag

fat tire 40
It’s rare that the Scenic Trail gets used for racing. But it’s rocky, challenging fun.

Each rider got a quality, very cool-looking t-shirt and a water bottle. And the bag wasn’t crammed full of useless coupons. Finishers also got a slick pint glass etched with the event logo. Excellent, useful, memorable swag for a $75 entry fee.

Course Offers Plenty of Fun and Challenge

The race started off with riders doing a Lemans-style running start. Then it was on to most of a Sport Loop before branching onto the Tech Loop. From there, it was onto a portion of the Long Loop that connected to a service road. Riders took the service road to the Pemberton Trail, where they made a counter-clockwise turn before riding to the turn-off to the Scenic Trail. This not-often-ridden-by-cyclists bit was in prime shape. It was not nearly as sandy as some riders might recall, and the contour leading to climb resulted in some high speed.

fat tire 40
People often bring their dogs to races. But this baby goat ran away with the cutest pet award.

The climb was still rocky, as was the descent leading back to the Pemberton. From there, riders continued counterclockwise with a quick stop at a feed zone mostly populated by geuinely enthusiastic and helpful kids in their early teens. Riders then continued up the Pemberton to the Coachwhip Trail, where they turned right. From there, they climbed a ridge, met the Dixie Mine Trail and rode it until connecting again with the Pemberton. Riders then hooked up with service road, descended to a feed zone, reconnected with and finished the Long Loop and then road the Sport Loop in reverse.

That last bit was extra-challenging. Braking bumps, washouts and a few steep climbs made those last three miles extra-tough.

fat tire 40
A juicy bit of downhill fun.

All the turns are very well-marked, so your odds of getting lost are super-slim. Most turns were also staffed by people ready to set you right. I also noticed a lot of red "Wrong Way Fat Tire 40" signs on trails that weren’t part of the course. Nice work!

An Idea for Next Year

I have only one suggestion for the organizers: Have some electrolyte drinks at the rest stops. You can bring your own mix, of course, but you’ll lose time. Water is great, but a course like this demands salt, potassium and carbohydrates to stave off cramps.

Despite that caveat, I have to rate this race highly. I’ll do it again next year. It’s a fast bunch of riders, so they’ll challenge you just as much the terrain. I was pretty pleased to win a 15-mile battle with another rider,

fat tire 40
One of many funky beetles spotted on the Scenic Trail

putting more than a minute on him over the last few miles. The rest of the pack pretty much handed our shorts to us, but you sometimes have to revel in the small victories.

CategoriesUncategorized

Phoenix Councilman Again Shows Contempt for City Employees

I just got an ominous e-mail from Sal DiCiccio, the councilman for District 6 in Phoenix. Its subject line: "This will shock you." The title is "What do you get?". 

Councilman DiCiccio says this: "A first-year city of Phoenix clerk gets 40 and a half days off [scary bold text Sal’s], including vacation, holidays and sick time. That’s two months off — and an afternoon — in the first year of employment. And the days off keep going up as the years go by."

Wow, Councilman. That sounds like the benefits packages enjoyed by most of the civilized world save the United States, where we pride ourselves on working people into a stupor. I interpret this information as the city doing something right for its employees – giving them time to improve themselves through travel. To indulge their curiosity. To refresh themselves. Congrats! Yay, city of Phoenix for doing the right thing!

But wait! That’s not what Councilman DiCiccio is saying. He thinks it’s a bad thing to allow workers time to be more than wage slaves. I mean, what if they travel and create some great memories with the bounty of their time off? What if they go abroad and see that other First World countries have universal health care and copious amounts of vacation time? Oh, the horror. I also love cooking the statistics to include sick time.

"If employees don’t use all their time off, they get to cash in the remaining days like casino chips," Councilman DiCiccio intones, "and guess who the bank is? You and your family." [again, scary bold text Sal’s]

Gasp! You mean my Little Timmy (note: Wandering Justin has no offspring named Timmy. This is sarcasm.) is paying for those bums to go on vacation? Do you hear my howls of indignation and my weeping and gnashing of teeth? I’d also like verifiable proof that employees get to "cash in" their sick time. Remember, we know Sal "lacks specific details and numbers." And how many state and federal holidays are included in that 40.5 days?

Councilman, this is exactly the way things should work in a productive, prosperous, industrialized society. (And yes, dammit – we’re prosperous when every college kid has an iPhone.) I’m perfectly fine with my tax dollar being used to treat city employees like real people with real lives, interests and aspirations instead of worker bee drones.

Councilman DiCiccio, you have it back-asswards. You should be crusading against business owners who do the bare minimum for their employees. Laud your city’s paid time off policies. Hold them up as what decent business owners should aspire to do for their employees. Show them that fair amounts of vacation time are beneficial to people’s health, sanity and productivity.

But you’re afraid to do that, aren’t you? Because I’ll bet those same business owners will stuff your campaign coffers when you run for mayor (keep in mind – I don’t live in Sal DiCiccio’s district. So why does he send me these e-mails? To start his campaign for mayor. As I’ve mentioned before, I never even signed up for his newsletter.). If you fail to toe the line, you’ll see fewer campaign contributions.

No. It’s easier for you to throw truly hard-working and deserving people under the steamroller.

Leader? No. Politician? To the very core.

CategoriesGearUncategorized

Gear Review: Switch Sunglasses

Switch sunglasses
The Switch “Stoke” sunglasses survive their first off-road test handily.

Last year, I bought sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. But actually changing the lenses is a pain even under the best of circumstances. They’d drive me crazy if I had to change lenses out on the trail at dusk in the middle of a race. I managed to put the clear lenses in, and I left them in. I used one pair of old glasses for daytime riding, and the "interchangeable" pair for night riding.

That paved the way for Switch Vision to offer a pair of its sunglasses for my depraved dungeon of product testing.

All the items in the Switch sunglasses line have a magnetic system (Magnetic Interchange Lens System, in the parlance of Switch) that holds lenses in place. When I first read about it, it sounded like a great theory.

Switch sunglasses
This is a look I call Blue Steel.

Switch delivered a pair of its Stoke glasses in a tortoiseshell finish to my door.

Forget reading the manual – what about this magnetic deal? Well, the lenses slid right out with a gentle tug. There are metal bits embedded into the top edges of the lenses – I’m not sure if those are the magnets, or if the other metal bits in the frames are the magnets. Either way, I was eager to see how they get back in. With my other glasses, this would cue twisting, pushing and profanity.

Not this time. I got the lens in the vicinity, and the magnets sucked the lenses into place. Impressive! I tried it a few more times with the same result.

I drove around wearing the Stoke glasses for a few days. Then I hit the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, one of the rockier beasts in the area.

Hitting the Trail

First, the optics are super-crisp. I have the Switch "Glare Kit" of lenses, which includes the Polarized True Color Gray and Rose Amber lenses, along with a plastic lens pod. The True Gray turn even the brightest light into something your eyes can live with. (I tried the Rose Amber a few days later on a cloudy day – they allowed a bit more light in while keeping the harshness out.)

The Stoke is not a lightweight pair of sunglasses. But they never dented the side of my nose. They didn’t slide down my pointy beak despite being lubricated by sweat. The rock-and-rolling of well-rubbled off-road trails was not a factor.

Even without magnetic lenses, Switch gives you some very sharp optics and a comfortable fit. Add the cool lenses, and you have a standout product.

I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just giddy over cool factor, so I showed them to a few buddies. The magnetic retention amazed them all. A few were extra-impressed by the availability of prescription lenses. After the oohs and aahs, they asked "Where can I get a pair?"

Here in Phoenix, the answer so far is that you can find Switch sunglasses at selected local eye clinics. I hope that expands in the future to bike shops and other sports suppliers. For now, it looks like you can also find Switch sunglasses online at REI. I saw the Stoke advertised at other websites from $169. The new Switch model, the Boreal (the company’s first full-frame model), will range from $119-$189.

What’s Missing?

One thing I didn’t notice in the lineup of Switch sunglasses is an all-clear lens for middle-of-the-night mountain biking. That’s an easy fix, though.

Bottom Line

Someone at Switch thinks like an outdoor enthusiast: Dealing with small, finicky bits while your heart is pounding, while you’re getting dehydrated, while you’re started to cramp -- is absolutely no fun. So they made sunglasses that take at least one gadget-related worry of your mind.

What’s Next?

A long-term flogging. The Switch Stoke sunglasses have impressed me. They’re a lot pricier than my usual glasses, but I see what Switch is offering for the extra scrilla.

I’ll update this post in a few months with new observations and thoughts – the kind that only come from lots of hard-core flogging and use. Stand by!

In the meantime, Switch sunglasses deserve some props.

You can find more by following Switch on Twitter at @InsanelyFast. You can also see far prettier pictures of the full line of Switch sunglasses at Switchvision.com.

CategoriesUncategorized

The Iceland Viking Festival and Reykjavik Wanderings

Icelandic kids battle it out at the Viking Festival

This would so never happen in America, I thought. Nope, I just can’t see anywhere in my country where pre-adolescent boys would be allowed to gleefully flail at each other with wooden swords and shields – all while parents smiled and took videos.

That’s the Viking Festival in Iceland for you, though. Every summer, the festival runs just south of Reykjavik in Hafnarfjordur. There, you can eat a freshly roasted sheep. Try your hand at throwing axes. Watch Viking battle re-enactments. Stay at the Viking Hotel (one of the funkiest hotels in Iceland)

Believe it or not, all the kids emerged unscathed from the Viking Festival. They all wore huge grins after their designated mock combat. I had as much fun watching them as they did swinging wooden swords and axes.

Volcanic ash hangs in the air.

Our day started in Vik, several hours southeast (read about the previous day in Vik).

 

Volcanoes and Viking Kitsch

Wandering Justin hurls an axe at a target

During the bus ride to Reykjavik, we passed the volcano that put Iceland in the news – and hemmed in air travel to and from Europe. Unfortunately, we could see little of Eyjafjallajökull. Mostly, we could see the lower slopes of a mountain and dingy air. The bus driver didn’t even stop, though we saw other people snapping photos.

A few hours later, we were in Reykjavik. Our first stop was checking into a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. We liked it so much we made it our base for every night we’d me in Reykjavik.

From there, we navigated the bus system to Hafnarfjordur – and the Viking Festival. It was our first major experience with greater Reykjavik’s bus system. Impressions? Clean and punctual.

Tending a roasting sheep.

Once we’d gotten our fill of Viking kitsch, we wandered the streets a bit. That’s how we discovered Kaffihus Suffistin and probably the best chocolate-coconut cake you’ll ever eat. We also spent some time wandering the nearby neighborhoods – one city park was built on a an ancient lava flow, with giant volcanic cinders forming a mazelike system of nooks and crannies.

Iceland’s Fish is For-Real

By the time we finishes walking and headed back downtown, we were hungry. We found Icelandic Fish & Chips in all the guidebooks. And for good reason. The restaurant gets fresh fish daily. You can get it prepared a few different ways, with a number of different sides and toppings. The toppings are made from skyr, the Icelandic dairy product most people think is yogurt. But really, it’s closer to cheese. It’s nearly fat-free and full of protein

Sarah meets the modern-day Vikings

If you go looking for skyr at a grocery store in the U.S., I hate to inform you – it doesn’t taste like the stuff in Iceland, and it’s about triple the price. The Icelandic variety has no trace of sourness. Anyway, this is not only a popular snack, but the base for the sauces that come with the fish.

Here’s how it works: You come in, select a table and get a menu. When you’re ready, you go to the counter and order. The staff brings your food out a bit later, and you chow down on some wonderfully fresh, non-greasy fish. The batter is made from spelt and barley, and the chips are oven-roasted potatoes.

Watching the World Cup in a Soccer Nation

A lava flow/park near the Viking Festival

After a nice feed, we walked more. Though we’d passed Cafe Rot during our first day, we never dropped in. This time we did, seeking refuge from the rain along with a hot drink. I soon discovered a passage to a basement where the World Cup match was about to start. Sarah and I enjoyed the match, along with the company of people from England and various Middle Eastern countries. Germany’s Mesut Ozil was having his breakout performance. And the other guys were determined to make me a believer in Iceland’s popular malt soda, Maltextrakt. It might not be bad with some hops added to it and a few months of fermentation time!

That was pretty much it, except for a bit of souvenir shopping.

Coming tomorrow: A flight over the Iceland’s interior to Akureyri and Myvatn.

A few of more than 50 kids slugging it out. And peep that mullet on the far right!
CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Scenes from Arizona – White Tank Whirlwind

2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Ryan Waldron is stoked to be racing (Men Cat 1, 30-39)

I had a good excuse for not racing the White Tank Whirlwind – the previous weekend, I suffered through a rainy, windy Kona Bikes 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.

Yeah, yeah … I know some people did both. But hey, they were probably all pro racers. And someone has to take pictures, right? So here are some of my favorites from the race. I have a bunch of others, too – I showed up kind of late (10:30 a.m.), so if you’re a Cat 2 or 3 woman, you’re probably out of luck. But feel free to drop me a line if you’re hoping I snapped a shot of you.

You can also read my race recap at Examiner.com.

Framed by the cactus.
Railing the corner
Grinding up a short climb.
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
The fast guys duke it out in the pro class.
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Watch for the competition.
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Jane Pearson rides to victory - women's marathon category.
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Pro Rider Rebecca Gross
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Look out, Gene Simmons - Nathan Lentz (Cat 3, 30-39) is coming to take your job.
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Channing Morrison of Adventure Bicycle Company races to victory (Men's Cat 2, 19-29)
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
A men's marathon racer on a very slick handmade bike from Form Cycles in Sedona.
2011 White Tank Whirlwind
Need an attitude adjustment? Women's Cat 2 (40+) racer Krista Gibson says handlebar streamers will do the trick.
CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Racing is a Gas at Old Pueblo

Here’s a little funny from the Kona Bikes 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo:

I’m riding along on my first lap of Sunday morning. A guy passes me and gives me a friendly hello. A few moments later, he’s pulled over digging in his pack. He pulls something out, opens it, and starts munching.

"Snack time!" I yell at him.

He catches back up to me a moment later, and he launches into a Ricky Bobby-esque spiel (aided by a very Texan accent) about his snack: Honey Stinger waffles.

"They’re like two crispy waffles with a bit of honey between ‘em," he says (further reminding me of Ricky Bobby talking about a crepe suzette). "They’re delish. Know what I’m talkin’ about?"

I tell him I do indeed know what he is talkin’ about, though I haven’t yet tried them – but I do know and love Honey Stinger gels and protein bars.

Here’s the kicker: He passes me again. When he’s about 75 feet away, he lets out a sonorous, cheek-slapping fart that nearly blows the chamois out of of his shorts. You know it’s a monster when you can hear it over the hum of fat tires on hardpack and the whistle of the wind.

This, of course, makes me start laughing. He issues a sheepish "sorry," not realizing that I consider flatus the height of humor.

Definitely my best on-the-trail encounter during the race. I have to wonder if his team was sponsored by Honey Stinger -- or should I say Honey Stinker?

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Scenes from Arizona: 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo

My friend Danielle (L) and her quad team The Go-Go Girls - happy before the wind and rain.

There are lots of lessons on my mind now that it’s the day after the 2011 Kona Bikes 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.

For example, desert plants can rip the ratcheting buckles clean off your right shoe. And that a fire can and will melt your left shoe while you’re drying it out. (I have to thank the guys at Tucson-based Fairwheel Bikes for extricating me from the clutches of my shoe – even though they’re a Trek dealer, the crew put in some after-hours time removing the offending shoe: Well, some of them did. The others laughed and took photos.)

The indignities heaped on my poor Specialized shoes were just the beginning. It was an event complete with tent-destroying winds, person-soaking rains, teeth-chattering temperatures – all a perfect concoction to make people flee the event.

Our camp started with eight people on four duo teams. We ended with two teams and four people.

My bike is ready to go. And Ryan Zilka (R) is ready for a lap, too.

It was really the wind that started breaking us all. It made everything harder – steering, picking a line, even the simple act of breathing. And slap on at least 5-10 minutes of extra time per 16-mile lap to deal with it. And extra depletion of the energy in your legs, lungs and mind.

The rain started just as I was returning to hand the baton to my teammate, Harry. He got soaked and frozen during his lap. He expected to be back before he’d need lights. The clouds made night show up early, and he had to walk the final downhill into the infamous 24-Hour Town.

Harry’s misfortunes were pretty epic. The storm destroyed his EZ-Up tent, plus bent and broke several poles of his REI tent. He wound up sleeping in his CRV, while I was holed up in my Subaru Forester – and yes, a 6’2

Arizona sunset over 24-Hour Town.

guy can stretch out fully and comfortably in a Forester (as if that car doesn’t already have enough superpowers). Many cars and even RVs left before sunrise.

Yes, this post reeks of woe, sorrow, misfortune. But in some twisted way, it was still fun: eating freeze-dried Chili Mac, shivering my way through Sunday’s first lap, dogfighting through the starting pack, shotgunning 16-ounce cans of coconut water. Speaking of that dogfighting, one woman was unfortunate enough to get pitched into the cholla cactuses within 30 minutes. I felt so bad for her – nothing like that needs to happen. All I can wonder is if someone with too much aggression made a dangerous pass and caused that accident. Who in the world can think endangering another rider is worth a few extra seconds?

24-Hour Town ... you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

That first Sunday lap was actually a thing of beauty, despite the cold. The wind abated, and the previous rain made the trail beautiful and grippy. My wheels stuck to it like glue. By my final lap, though, the wind was back. It wasn’t quite as Book-of-Revelation-awful as the previous night’s wind, but is was no picnic.

Harry and fellow duo rider Ryan Zilka (possibly one of the most relentlessly upbeat people I’ve ever met) met me at the finish with a can of Guinness to celebrate our second year camping and racing together. It was just a nice gesture that really underscored what 24-hour racing is all about to the pack fodder – solidarity, spending time with good people and going home safe.

You can also read my 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo recap at Examiner.com.

Awesome helmet decoration
The dudes from Mountain Flyer make a visit.
Humor goes a long way.
Ruined camp sites - a sign that the weather hit hard.
The expo area before it got storm-squashed.
Our happy 24 Hours of Bromance camp before the storm hit.
CategoriesTravelUncategorized

Around the World in 48 Hours – Flying Standby

The World Race starts and ends right here in Phoenix.

Marc Jorgensen and a group of four friends from the Phoenix area will soon fly around the world in 48 hours, all on standby.

Yes, some people might call this hell. But Marc and his crew are calling it the 2011 World Race. And to any airplane geek, it’s a plan sure to provoke some envy. Marc and his buddies (all self-described "airline analyst nerds") will fly different directions, departing on Feb. 25. They’re also adding scavenger hunt elements such as snapping a photo of the cutest flight attendant and the greatest, biggest, bushiest beard – which may or may not be on a flight attendant.

Marc, who works for US Airways, gave me the scoop on his grand plans below. If you are intrigued as I am, the group has a 2011 World Race Facebook page and a Twitter account. Like, ‘em, follow ‘em, cheer ‘em on! In the meantime, enjoy Marc’s answers!

1. What do you do for US Airways?

I am an analyst in Revenue Management. I work with yield management which is primarily adjusting the fare levels to maximize revenue on each flight.

2. There are lots of people who don’t like air travel. How do you explain this trip to people who just don’t understand the appeal?

We will be using some airlines with fantastic inflight entertainment. Flying is a luxury for many people in the world (especially the past couple of years) and getting to circle the globe in just 48 hours is something very few people have ever done. It’s a unique opportunity and meeting new people on a plane and seeing new places can be so fascinating.

If you look like a member of ZZ Top, Marc and his friends might be snapping a photo of you. (Photo by Alberto Cabello)

3. What’s the longest flight you’ve done to date?

The longest flight is LAX to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific (which has the best inflight TV and movie options for coach of any airline, in my opinion). It was about 15 hours, the staff were so nice and the movie selection so large it didn’t feel half that long …

4. What are the logistics? Are you flying standby? How planned is each stage?

All flights must be flown as standby. Each team will research out the possible routes, looking at connection times and backups (fly into ORD instead of JFK from FRA etc.)
Also, rock-paper-scissor will determine which direction each team has to go, day of departure … which should add an element of chance and excitement.

5. What are your top methods of staying sane on this misadventure?

The scavenger hunt ideas like finding the person with biggest beard should make it fun along the way. Also having good entertainment and food options on the flight (Korean airlines, Lufthansa) along with adrenaline should carry us through 48 hours.

6. Are you flying any unfamiliar airlines? (I know I’d love to fly Aeroflot!)

It’s a possibility. However the fastest way to circle the globe in this manner involves hitting the key hubs where the big carriers fly (British Airways, Lufthansa, Korean Airlines, All Nippon Airlines) since it fastest to stay far in the northern hemisphere.  However, it is possible we could use El Etihad or Qatar Airlines if circumstances make it the better option.

Aeroloft does have a Moscow to JFK flight that could work …

7. What’s your biggest challenge or fear about being able to pull this off?

Getting stranded in an airport for several days due to weather lockdown.

8. I understand you’re doing this with/against some other people, each flying different directions. What’s the prize for being the first one back?

Initially, we were going to have the losing team pickup the tab for the standby passes (about $300). However, we feel it’s better to have the losing team pick up the tab for dinner for the winning team, and focus more on small prizes for each scavenging hunt item found (ie, picture with the cutest flight attendant).

9. What’s your route/plan look like so far?

Right now. it looks like PHX-LAX, LAX-ICN, ICN-FRA, FRA-JFK, JFK-PHX. (Wandering Justin’s note – for those not so versed in airport codes, that’s Phoenix, Los Angeles, Incheon, Frankfurt, John F. Kennedy).

The reverse route is PHX-LHR, LHR-ICN, ICN-LAX, LAX-PHX. (WJ here again – that would by Phoenix, London Heathrow, Inche – aw, heck, you know the others by now).

10. Are you a bit of an airplane geek? What’s your favorite plane to fly in?

I am a bit one, and the other flyers are as well. I like the Airbus A321 and the A330.  Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to fly the 800-passengers jumbos yet, but I hear they are fantastic to fly in.

11. What else are you doing to prepare?

Exercising, looking at schedules. Make sure I have a currency exchange and language apps on my iPhone.

12. What surprises have you found so far in your planning? Anything about visas, vaccinations or unstable governments?!

That is another issue, because some places require visas. And to maximize time, we need to get through each airport fast, which means getting through each security checkpoint quickly. As you can imagine, if they start asking questions about where we came from and how long we will be there … things could get a bit delayed.

13. What’s your favorite destination? (not related so much to the upcoming mayhem … just a way to gauge what sort of travel character you are).

I really like Asia. As an American, Korea or China are very interesting experiences because the language and culture is so different, and the food is so good! I really like Seoul and Nanjing. I also really enjoy Brazil to relax. To have fun, I wish I was able to spend more time in Berlin and Copenhagen.

CategoriesAccommodationsUncategorized

The Awesome Australian Crocodile Hotel of Jabiru

An aerial view of the Gagudju Holiday Inn of Jabiru, Australia. Photo courtesy of Tourism NT

You can count on seeing all sorts of crazy things in Australia – termite mounds, bizarre rock formations, sharp-beaked and cantankerous cassowaries, just to name a few.

But it might be a hotel that leaves you scratching your head most.

I’d have to rank the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn as one of the craziest hotels in Australia. Just being in the deep Outback town of Jabiru in the famous Northern Territory puts it on the list. Being built in the shape of a salt-water crocodile takes it into the upper echelon of wacky. And it surely has to be the most unusual Holiday Inn ever.

So is it kitschy or cool? I can’t say first-hand since I only drove through Jabiru with Wilderness Adventures guide Amy and a crew of other loons. We stopped long enough for wallaby meat pies and some oil for The Possum before heading back out. While images of kachinas, cowboys and Kokopelli statues raise the hackles of Arizonans like me, Aussies are more laid-back about embracing the touristy elements of their area. So they probably get a few laughs out of it.

As for you -- if you’re staying in Jabiru, I say go for it. The Gagudju Crocodile could be a really fun departure from the usual bland hotel experience. It’s also owned by indigenous people, so you may get some insights from the staff.

While you’re in the Top End, think about adventuring into the Kakadu National Park, which is 60 by 120 miles of rugged territory filled with wildlife. It’s definitely one of the Northern Territory’s main attractions. I don’t recommend renting your own car and going off into the Kakadu, though. It’s best to grab a knowledgeable guide to navigate the trails – and to know where the crocs are lurking!

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Images from Avondale, Ariz. – 2011 Hedgehog Hustle

mbaa2-9, Hedgehog Hustle 2011, Mountain Bike, Arizona
Getting aero on the downhill at the 2011 Hedgehog Hustle.

UPDATE: See my report on Examiner.com for a race recap.

Today, I made a trip out to Estrella Mountain Regional Park in Avondale, Ariz., to check out the 2011 Hedgehog Hustle. My erstwhile Adventure Bicycle Company stooge-turned-real estate mogul Matt Long was out there lining up for the Cat 2 race with the infamous Phoenix International Raceway in the background. There was definitely a chill in the air, but it warmed into a nice day for some racing.

I’ll have a full report later one. For now, you can enjoy this here slideshow I’m about to unfold. But I done introduced it enough. (NOTE: I have many other photos. If you don’t see yourself, send a note including your race number to wanderingjustin@hotmail.com)

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

"Hell Walking" and Tramping – How to Hike Abroad

Iceland, hiking, Wandering Justin, Landmannalaugar
Right, mates ... who's up for some hell walkin'?

When Sarah and I were in Australia, we met a traveler from Ireland. She was single, in her late 20s, active.

She told us about all the trouble she was having getting other lone travelers to hike with her.

Well, she didn’t actually say "hike." That’s not the Irish vernacular for "stomping around in the dirt in big boots." For our Irish buddy, that’s known as "hill walkin‘."

Wandering Justin shows us how to tramp.
But, you pair this with an Irish accent, and you get -- "hell walkin’."

So she was probably scaring everyone away with the threat of walking into Beelzebub’s own nature preserve.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness any such mix-ups in New Zealand. There, "hiking"/"hillwalking" is known as -- wait for it -- tramping! Yes, you and your best friend can spend weeks tramping around New Zealand.

You can make what you will of the phrase Australians use -- bushwalking!

"Trekking" is another word that’s common for long-distance hiking. But really, it’s nowhere near as fun as these others.

CategoriesUncategorized

10 Years Later, Still No Trace of Suspected Killer

I usually keep it light here. You get some nice stories about Arizona or travel or mountain biking stories. But now and then, something comes into my mind and I have to share it. So I’m taking us back nearly 10 years to April 10, 2001.

Back in those days, I’d roll into the Scottsdale bureau of the East Valley Tribune around 9 a.m. There, I’d cover a crime beat encompassing Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Fountain and bits of Phoenix.

Yeah, it was hardly East L.A. But we’d just had a freaky spate of violence. I was riding herd on investigations for an execution-style home-invasion murder and a murder-suicide. That’s in addition to the usual relatively goofy stuff.

That morning, I stepped outside my door and saw helicopters, swirling air beneath their main rotors, jockeying for the best shot of a scene. They weren’t far away. I don’t even remember whether I called the newsroom. Probably did, because "ya got art?" is the first question editors ask about breaking stories.

I drove my truck just about a mile away to the scene of a house blown to shreds. A sturdy 1960s tract home blasted into splinters, shattered block, smoldering metal. I started taking notes, tracking down neighbors who were willing to talk, working my way through a thicket of police and fire spokespeople.

The night before, Robert Fisher had lived there with his wife, Mary, and their children.

What I learned over the next few days is summarized (somewhat sloppily, but well enough) on Wikipedia:

On the morning of April 10, 2001, Mary Fisher was shot in the back of the head and her children’s throats were slashed from ear to ear in the hours before their home exploded.

Firefighters were immediately alerted due to a natural gas explosion and fire in a Scottsdale house. The explosion ripped through the ranch-style house in the 2000 block of North 74th Place at 8:42 a.m. The blast appeared to be centered in the living room, and the subsequent fire burned the house into rubble. The initial explosion was strong enough to collapse the front brick wall and rattle the frames of neighboring houses for a half-mile in all directions.

Rural/Metro Fire Department firefighters were on the scene within minutes and kept the 20-foot-high blaze from spreading to neighboring houses. A series of smaller secondary explosions, believed to be either rifle ammunition or paint cans going up, forced firefighters to keep their distance. One firefighter suffered minor injuries to his leg when he lost his balance and fell near the burning house.

Evidence of the homicide had allegedly been tried to be concealed by pulling out the gas line from the back of the home’s furnace. The accumulating gas was later ignited by an ignition source, possibly the pilot light on the water heater. Burned bodies of a woman and two children were found lying in bed in the remains of the house. The victims were identified as Mary Fisher (aged 38), and her two children, Brittney Fisher (aged 12) and Robert “Bobby” William Fisher, Jr. (aged 10). Investigators have considered that Robert Fisher murdered his family because he felt threatened with his wife’s intent to divorce. Despite their marital difficulties, he vowed that his marriage would never dissolve.

On April 20, the last physical evidence of Fisher’s whereabouts surfaced, when police found his Toyota 4Runner and dog “Blue” in Tonto National Forest, a hundred miles north of Scottsdale.

Fisher is considered armed and extremely dangerous and has ties to Florida and New Mexico. He has been speculated to have committed suicide or started a new life under an assumed identity. Fisher has been described as a loner and is thought to live alone in an isolated area.

Obviously, not a great guy. The Wikipedia story links to many articles from The Arizona Republic (The Tribune was even more stubborn and turgid in failing to harness the Internet than other newspapers, thus making its competitor the de facto paper-of-record. Today, it’s a shadow of its former scrappy self.). Read the entry and those links for a portrait of a truly vile person.

Every time I see a reference to a captured Arizona fugitive, I feel hope that it’s Robert Fisher – finally! But here we are 10 years later.

And still I’m waiting to see him get hauled in.

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Iceland Diaries – Day 6 (Skaftafell, Vik)

Kristínartindar
This is one of the coolest mountains I've ever seen.

There’s a magnificent mountain in the distance. I can see spires and steep slopes. It looks like the ruined castle of an evil wizard.

It’s mezmerizing. I want to go to it. It’s called Kristínartindar. It’s spectacular. But it’s too far away – soon, a bus will pull up in Skaftafell to haul us off to Vik. We’re a bit low on food and water. If we were fully loaded, I’d head straight there.

When we return to Iceland, this will be a major point of the trip. We’ll come back with our camp stove and enough food for a few more days hanging out in Skaftafell. And we’ll go to Kristínartindar. Oh, yes. But as it was, we just finished a loop of about six miles.

Skaftafell Campground
The cheery Skaftafell campground.

Before Kristinartindar came into view, we stopped at the famous Svartifoss waterfall (foss = waterfall). Its basalt columns inspired the architecture of the Hallgrimskirkja (kirkja = church, and klaustur = convent) that’s such a landmark in Reykjavik. It’s pretty and picturesque, and relatively empty for a place that’s in every guidebook.

We folded the tent, repacked and boarded the bus to Vik (which means bay).

Us!
Us at Svartifoss.

It’s a fairly quick shot to Vik, which is home to about 300 people. We have a room at the Hotel Lundi (lundi = puffin). It’s here that I accomplished another major goal of my trip: eating hákarl! This word means "shark," and it’s pronounced "howker." I have an entire post dedicated just to the next five minutes of my trip, and you should read about it and watch it.

Vik
The cliffs and church near Vik.

We walk the town a bit, and have a fairly greasy roadside meal. Vik is a small town, after all! The black sand beach is a site to see, along with rocky spires in the ocean a few miles away. The sun often pokes out of the clouds, but it’s very windy. And the mountains are ridiculously beautiful.

We return to the hotel. I fall asleep while reading, and Sarah slips out to poke around a bit.

She rousts me at about 9 p.m. with the sun shining brightly, promising puffins and some sort of hobbit house.

We gamely trudge up the side of a mountain. It’s steep, and it’s about to get windy. But first, the hobbit house. You could easily miss it. It looks like a mound of grass-covered dirt with a door lying on it. And a smokestack popping out. Unfortunately, it’s locked and nobody’s home. I’d love to see inside!

Hobbit House
It's a hobbit house!

We get to the top of the mountain, which is completely flat. There are trails everywhere, including one to the other side. The wind was absolutely howling up there, effortlessly blowing us around and making it hard to even walk like a normal human.

The daylight would last, but our energy was on the wane. So we headed back down for a good stretch of sleep (my watch said it was night, but I wasn’t buying a word of it).

Tomorrow -- back to Reykjavik.

Cliffs near Vik
10 p.m. in Vik. No, that's not a typo.
Three Sisters
Three sisters in Vik.
CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Views from North Scottsdale – Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, examiner.com, phoenix mountain bike examiner
This is a look I call "Blue Steele"

I was hanging around having a hot dog at the Weenie Wagon; then I heard the phrase of the day from a guy who works at Sunday Cycles in Phoenix:

"I felt like I was getting seasick!"

It might sound like a complaint, but it wasn’t. Having just finished the 20-mile bike course of the Third-Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge, I knew what he meant. The course is filled with big rollers made by years of use from off-road motorcycles. They’re part of what makes the trail network running through the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and bits of State Trust Land one of the best outdoor recreational sites in Scottsdale.

Big Bumps, Lots of Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, unicycle
Yes, this madman's ready to rock a unicycle!

But boy, there was an awful lot of these rollers. How many? So many that I often had a hard time finding a long-enough stretch of trail to drink from a water bottle or slurp down an energy gel. Each time I took a gel, I’d wind up riding for a few minutes with a half-empty package of Chocolate Outrage-flavored Gu clenched in my teeth, waiting for a chance to finish it off.

And that is better than riding flat, straight, way-too-wide trails. This was real desert mountain biking, with the occasional steep pitch and super-hard turn. There was also so much sand that I suspected David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson were course volunteers – not so much fun, but that’s mountain biking for ya.

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Numero Uno Cinco Cinco

I also loved the really complete, thorough, clear trail markings. I was never in danger of veering off-course. Gotta love that! After the race, the expo area was not the usual explosion of commercial hoopla – just a few vendor tents and people hanging out. I also liked the swag bags. My favorite bits were the t-shirt with the event logo and the reusable shopping bag with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (the event was a fundraiser for the conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open spaces as part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve).

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Nice scenery

Smart Set-up at the Starting Line

The starting area was pretty cool. There were chutes for each event. Course marshals asked everybody to do a reality check and line up accordingly – that prevent fast people from getting stuck behind the newbies. Good thing, since it’s a narrow course without a lot of room to pass! Another great idea: Riders "launched" in a fashion similar to a time trial. Two riders would leave every 10 seconds. It really prevented the angst, drama and frustration of a mass start.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: There’s a place in the plaza where organizers had the expo called Rare Earth Wine and Coffee Bar. I had an hour to kill before the race started, and I locked onto the words "Coffee Bar," anticipating a nice americano to warm me up. But no – Rare Earth is apparently far too leisurely to be up at 8 a.m. Not until 11 a.m. most days, and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Huh?

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, Sunday Cycles, hot dogs, Weenie Wagon
Questionable for all the right reasons.

Other Stuff

I guess it was a show of solidarity for people doing cool things for outdoor recreation and preserving open space: Rand Hubbell, supervisor of McDowell Mountain Regional Park, was out spreading the word.

Without meaning to, I’ve put together an unprecedented-for-me streak: I’ve done three races in the past few months: The McDowell Dust Devil series race, the Four Peaks12 Hours in the Papago and the McDowell Sonoran Challenge. And I’ll be in the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo later this month. That’s a lot of racing in a short time -- for me, anyway!

See results for the Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge

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CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Scenes from Fountain Hills, Ariz. – The McDowell Meltdown

EDIT: If you’ve come here looking for photos of yourself, I probably have about 100 other shots. Let me know your race number and I’ll see what I can find!

On Jan. 22-23, the MBAA Arizona state championship mountain bike race series got started at McDowell Mountain Regional Park just north of Fountain Hills, Ariz. The park is one of the best outdoor recreation assets in the state, and the weather cooperated to make it a great time for racers and spectators. You can read my recap at Examiner.com or just check out these photos. Find out what you missed – even if you were there!

Fountain Hills, McDowell Meltdown, 2011, MBAA
Too fast not to blur a bit
Fountain Hills, McDowell Meltdown, 2011, MBAA
Racing with a smile.

Miguel from Adventure Bicycle Company hangs out at the team tent.
Continue reading

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Surviving My First 12-Hour Solo Bike Race

Me headed out for another lap as the day wears on.

Saturday, I raced in the solo class of the Four Peaks "12 Hours in the Papago" mountain bike race.

Hang on – make the "Slowlow Class" -- as in slow speeds, and a low number of laps!

I was pretty excited about this race since it’s so close to Phoenix – and I think Papago Park is one of the best attractions around. The red sandstone buttes are close to Mill Avenue and a lot of other fun stuff. And having a 12-hour race so close to home took some of the logistical problems away.

There were many interesting things at play here: I hadn’t ridden my bike in three weeks, mostly because of fighting off some sort of plague that’s making the rounds here. This was the first weekend I’ve felt pretty much back to normal.

I pretty much treated this as training for the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo race next month. I experimented with intensity, food and drinks to see what would work to keep my legs from cramping and stave off dehydration.

Mission accomplished: A combo of V-8, coconut water, Cytomax, Pro Bars and the occasional "toaster pastry" helped me put in 8 laps and avoid Dead Freakin’ Last place by a large margin. I also dealt with the cold pre-dawn temperatures pretty well.

Something else: I avoided caffeine the entire week before the race. I hate waking up early, so I decided skipping caffeine would help me fall asleep faster each night. Worked perfectly.

These are lessons I’ll apply next month when my bud Harry and I hit Old Pueblo as the duo team Bone Resistance.

OK, so how did Red Rock do in running and organizing 12 Hours in the Papago? Pretty well. Here are some points that stuck with me: Continue reading

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The Iceland Diaries – Day 3

A valley on our way to Kirkjubaejarklaustur.

Wandering Justin’s Note: I’m woefully behind in my Iceland travel diary. No time like the present to start getting caught up!

I’m on a bus. It’s sliding backwards down a steep, muddy slope. Toward a drop-off, naturally.

I rarely think about my mortality. This is one of those times.

We slide to a stop before the precipice.

The driver drops into the lowest gear and guns the engine. And our backward slide resumes after we gain just a few feet.

Fat raindrops splatter against the bus. Droplets of mud have kicked up everywhere and obscured the view on the windows.

The driver halts are backwards descent again. If not for his nonchalance, I’d probably fetch my backpack and start walking. He produces a shovel from nowhere, Bugs Bunny-style, and gets out of the bus. I hear the shovel working against the ground. Continue reading

CategoriesTravelUncategorized

TSA’s Full-Body Scanner Policies are Baffling

I recently left Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for a trip to Denver.

This was my first trip since the full-body scanners started making headlines. I have a lot of objections to these so-called "digital strip searches." You can see my objections at the end of this post.

Now, onto my Sky Harbor experience. I put in my time reading about all this, so I knew a few things. First, I knew that not all travelers go through the full-body scanner. Second, I knew I could opt out and get an enhanced pat-down.

That knowledge didn’t help me at all.

We showed up at the C Gate TSA checkpoint in Terminal 4. I wasn’t sure what the full-body scanners look like, and I expected an explanation and the offer of a pat-down. I got neither. They herded me into a machine and said "turn and put your hands up." I didn’t know if I was in some sort of upgraded magnetometer or a body scanner, and none of the officers told me beforehand.

A female officer then let me out, but then realized the scan didn’t work. "We didn’t do it right," she said. Read that again: They didn’t do it right. All I had to do was stand and wait for a few seconds. And they didn’t do it right.

Rather than sending me through again, the officer sent me to a male officer for a pat-down. The first thing I did was ask if I’d just gone through a magnetometer – this was to confirm I’d been through a body scanner. By this point, I could see the brand name "Rapiscan" on the machine. For the record, that is the company that engaged Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff as a consultant.

The TSA officer said it was a body scanner, not a regular mag. He then described what he was planning to do. The enhanced pat-down was time-consuming, but not particularly invasive. The officer didn’t seem thrilled about doing it, that’s for sure.

I was pretty disturbed that none of the agents offered to let me opt out before sending me into the scanner. I thought that was the procedure. There was no communication at all.

In Denver, the security line had regular magnetometers and body scanners. I didn’t catch a brand name on them, though. They looked different from those at Sky Harbor. The officers waved us through the mags, though it looked like some people went through the body scanners. I couldn’t catch the methods to who went where.

Here are my objections to the full-body scanners:
1. They’re not about security – they’re about money. These devices are expensive. And people like former Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff stand to make bank from their sales. one company spent $4.3 million in lobbying costs this year alone. Now, when a company spends that much lobbying, you know they are raking it in.
2. They’re not effective. There’s only so much these scanners can detect, and it seems their limitations aren’t worth their costs or benefits. But companies like Rapiscan are raking in big bucks from the people who shrug and say "well, if it keeps us safe."
3. The nation’s largest association of pilots is so unconvinced by TSA safety studies of the devices that is has instructed member pilots to opt for enhanced pat-downs (which are also causing lots of angst). And unlike the X-ray devices you’ll see at the dentist’s office, the backscatter and millimeter-wave machines airports are using aren’t being used with any safety precautions. Worse yet, TSA officers do not seem to be very good at using them, as you saw above. I’m also skeptical of the specious "you’re exposed to more radiation during the flight" argument – different bands of radiation at different intensities have different effects. And until the companies who manufacture these devices allow an independent examination of the equipment, I won’t be satisfied.

Be sure to see what happened during a recent encounter I had with TSA employees in Chicago.

Want to know more? Here are some good links:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ac/20101115/cm_ac/7190584_national_optout_day_is_a_revolt_against_tsaenhanced_pat_downs_and_naked_body_scans

http://www.kval.com/news/local/106156984.html

http://www.dailytech.com/Pilots+Unions+Boycott+Body+Scanners+Due+to+Health+Risks/article20150.htm

http://consumerist.com/2010/09/updated-list-of-full-body-scanners-at-airports.html

http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/11/22/20101122tsa-boycott.html

http://www.dailyrecord.com/article/20101122/UPDATES01/101122063/Body-scanner-makers-spent-millions-on-lobbying

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/11/body-scanner-ceo-obama-india/

CategoriesBlogging/WritingUncategorized

Don’t Call Me a “Consumer”

Idiocracy
Don't call people "consumers" unless you think of them as the mob from "Idiocracy."

Some jewelry business followed me on Twitter today. Jewelry fascinates me, believe it or not. I consider it some of the finest everyday art. The follow earned my curiosity. I checked the business’s Twitter bio and found a marketing trainwreck (I’ve left the business unnamed to protect the ill-advised):

(Business Name) represents a small group of award-winning jewelry designers who share the dream of taking the consumer to the next level.

First, I have no idea what it means to take a consumer “to the next level” in jewelry. It’s hackneyed corporate-speak that has no place being applied to art.

Second, stating the name in the bio eats up valuable characters. It sounds old-school, like someone hired marketer told the company to start a Twitter account – but with no real idea of what to do next.

And finally, I hate being called a “consumer.” The root word is consume. Its connotation is mindless organisms eating everything around them in a non-stop feeding frenzy. It’s a repulsive image and a horrible word. Unfortunately, the Wal-Marts of the world put it to work. And smaller businesses lap it up and recycle it because they’re too uncreative to do better. Or maybe they don’t have the time. Or because they saw a successful business use it. Whatever. They’re just clueless about the power of words to position. To alienate. To inspire.

And a good business should have passion for what it does – especially a business that involves any sort of art! Where is the passion in “taking the consumer to the next level?” That’s a generic phrase for cubicle dwellers. It’s not for someone who appreciates the intricate, multi-colored banded swirls of a painstaking work of mokume gane.

If you’re a jewelry business, think of your potential customers as jewelry lovers. Convince them that they’re sophisticated. Tasteful. Enthusiastic. Not globs of matter gobbling whatever you plop in front of them. Sell the notion that you’re impressed by their aesthetic senses and their appreciation of jewelry as art. “Consumers” equates them to the fat, shuffling, monosyllabic hordes in the movie Idiocracy.

Businesses, prove your devotion to what you offer. Think of what you’re trying to sell me. And think of me in those terms. Call me a cyclist. Call me a hiker. Call me a traveler. Call me a flier. Call me a reader.

But only call me “a consumer” at your own risk.

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Los Angeles is Perfect for Alternative Thanksgiving

Have a mammoth time at La Brea Tar Pits. (Wikimedia Commons)

There’s nothing fun about sitting around with a belly distended and sore from overindulging on turkey, mashed potatoes and the other traditional Thanksgiving food. It’s a ritual that I’ve grown to like less every year. A few years ago, I stumbled on a great "alternative Thanksgiving" idea:

Go to Los Angeles.

My wife wanted to visit her sister, who was attending Cal Arts in the Los Angeles area. We arrived to find the city virtually abandoned. I guess all the transplants who moved to the area seeking fame and fortune fled back to their ancestral homes for turkey and stuffing.

The infamous LA traffic? Virtually non-existent. Long lines? Nope, none of those either.

That makes Thanksgiving weekend the perfect time to explore LA. And you won’t even have to do dishes.

So what’s there to do? Plenty, even beyond the beach and the theme parks. Despite the holiday, you’ll find plenty of open businesses, restaurants and attractions. Here are a few off-beat ideas to get you started: Continue reading