24-Hour Race Advice – Mountain Bike Tips

24-hour race advice. Photo by Tyrone Minton.
Wandering Justin takes a lap at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. Photo by Tyrone Minton.

I have some 24-hour race advice for you: A few weeks ago, I raced in the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo as part of the duo team Lost Nuts. We finished in the middle of the pack, with having few mechanical problems being our only distinguishing feature. It was my first 24-hour event, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My partner, Harry, had a great question for me after the event. “So, what did you learn?” Here are the answers.

1. Pack meticulously, and don’t overlook food. I failed to bring some essentials that I used throughout my training: V-8 and coconut water, both of which are great for re-hydrating. I also, if you can believe this, forgot my freakin’ helmet. Fortunately, several local bike shops had set up camp there and I was able to score one on the cheap. A second helmet is going to be useful for riding at night more often. Which leads us to #2.

2. Ride at night lots before the race. That way, you won’t be a chicken like me. Night riding freaks me out, and I need to get used to it if I’m going to do this more often. Which I intend to.

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Eight Things to Know about the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo

Right now, a shantytown/mountain bike refugee camp is forming in the desert northeast of Tucson, Ariz. It’s there for the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo mountain bike race (be sure to read “A Note on Kona” below). Even one week before the event, RVs were already starting to stake their claim. At that point, it was mostly locals from nearby Tucson, retirees and Trustafarians. If this is the first you’ve heard of such a thing, let me explain a few things.

1. In epic mountain bike racing, we don’t explain things. So if you don’t understand why someone wants to do this, I can’t explain it to you.

2. The race is open to a number of categories based on number of riders, gender, combined age and even whether your bike has more than one gear. And yes, there are solo and co-ed categories!

3. The idea is to do as many laps as possible from noon one day until noon the next. Now, let’s say you’re coming through the finish area at 11:55. You dawdle a bit, and the next team in your class whizzes by and sends a rider for another lap. Well, if you send another rider, you’ll have the same number of laps. Your rank will be determined by who gets back fastest. So pedal faster, or you’ll hear banjos!

4. Yes, some people stay awake the entire time in the solo class. And they’re still obscenely fast. See Tinker Juarez. And Tinker is no spring chicken. Bow before him, and recognize consummate coolness, professionalism and old-timey good mountain biker vibes.

5. The Old Pueblo course is stupendously fast. No epic climbs, and huge sections of largely straight jeep road.

6. There’s also a lot of twisty singletrack, tons of cactuses and some sneakily placed ditches and ruts.

7. There are lots of cool people racing and supporting the racers. I rode with James (a solo class racer) and his pal, Mike. They were both super-awesome and helpful in showing me around the not-quite-marked course.

8. Watch for bovines. That’s cattle, to the layperson.

So what class am I? Well, I signed up with a friend for the Men’s Duo Class, but he’s come down with tonsillitis. So I’m essentially racing solo in the duo class. He’ll probably take a lap or two, but I’ll be pulling some long stretches.

A Note on Kona: If you’re not familiar with Kona, it is a very sweet mid-sized bike manufacturer. It produces solid bikes for a wide range of disciplines. The company tests its products quite a bit in the northeast U.S. and British Columbia, ensuring that its products are all sorts of tough. Kona is unfortunately overshadowed by all the big companies – their bikes are just as good, if not better. Kudos to Kona for sponsoring this race – for Kona, it’s not just about advertising: It’s about being part of the cycling community and making it better and more accessible. I truly dig Kona’s stuff and recommend its products, even though I don’t own one (but Sarah’s first mountain bike was a very capable Kona Cinder Cone hardtail, and I worked at a Kona dealer).

Winter Olympics Sports – My 5 Favorites

Winter Olympics
Jim Craig – a wall of coolness and my first sports hero.

The 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver are almost here, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I love the Winter Olympics just slightly more than the summer.

That’s because my first sports memory was of the 1980 games in Lake Placid, and Team USA’s "Miracle on Ice" against the Soviet Union. Jim Craig was my hero – yes, I eventually became a goalie, but in the Arizona roller hockey rinks rather than Chicago’s ice rinks. Tony Esposito eventually replaced Craig as my hero, but Craig came first.

Anyway, to celebrate the coming spectacle in Vancouver, here are my five favorite events (I’m equally happy watching men or women in all – also I want to know YOUR 5 favorites!):

Hockey – After that intro, I’m sure you had no doubt it would be my top pick. I understand hockey better than I understand any other sport. I see goals before they happen, and am rarely surprised when a puck goes in. There’s nothing cooler than seeing a goalie make an awesome save, or an old-school defender delivering an open-ice hip check. Sure, I love all the scoring and the "odd tussle" (as Don Cherry might say). But give me a tense, low-scoring game with a pair of brilliant goalies dueling it out.


Winter Olympics
English: American Athlete Tracy Mattes with the Olympic Torch at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Mattes is a former USA star athlete who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. She is currently Director of Global Programs for the World Olympians Association (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bobsled – I shouldn’t even have to explain why this Winter Olympics sport is cool. Really, skeleton and luge are also awesome. But the bobsled! Bullet-shaped, heavy, fast – there’s nothing like hearing it hurtle down a twisting, banked course. I can see why the Jamaicans wanted to do this so badly (and kind of bad, too). These cats are always on the ragged edge of control. More than any other sport, too, this is the one that I want to try. When I visited Park City, you could take a ride for $200. That’s a bit stiff, but I may cave in one day. It’s just too awesome.

Curling – I know, from two of the fastest sports to one of the slowest. But curling is way more awesome than you realize unless you’re Canadian. Watch the movie Men with Brooms and you will begin to understand the appeal. Bonus points – the Swedish women’s team picked the song "Hearts on Fire" by their countrymen and friendly local power metal band Hammerfall as their theme song in the last winter games. So what did Hammerfall and its likeable lineup do? They shot a cheesy-but-hysterical video with the team, of course! If only all bands were so self-deprecating. For the record, some of the team members were pretty hot. I’m just sayin’, guys --

Giant Slalom – This event rocks. Those skiers are freakishly awesome. If you don’t already know that, try skiing on their courses. They do runs at high speed that scare me at a granny’s pace. They are brave, skilled and super-strong. And it’s just flat-out fun to watch them rip down the course. I have to admit, crashes can be fun, too – but only if they don’t get hurt. There’s also incredible drama and tension with each run. It’s totally unpredictable.

Biathlon – Cross-country skiing + shooting = awesome. If you’ve never strapped on a set of cross-country skis, you may wonder why it’s a big deal. Well, it’s freakin’ hard. And it’s even pretty fun! The downhill sections will make you whoop for joy, but you don’t have the consequences of blazing down a black-diamond run on downhill skies and losing control. And this is a cardiovascular workout. It must be really rough to have your heart hammering and thighs burning while trying to shoot a target. Bring your gun up, take a deep breath to steady your nerves, put your finger on the trigger -- that all gets harder with your heart rate soaring. You’ll soon have a new appreciation for this Winter Olympics sport.

  • Sochi Online NBC TV Curling Winter Olympics 2014 Live
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Want to Meet Women? Lace Up Your Running Shoes

A friend on Twitter linked to this Marie Claire article about where women can meet men. And I just cannot let this opportunity go by, even though it’s going to throw a monkey wrench into my editorial schedule.

Obviously, if Marie Claire is telling you about these places to meet women, you’d do well to heed their advice. But they left something out: the footrace.

You might not expect this, but from the middle of the pack back, a 10K race or half-marathon is ripe with opportunity for both genders. See, 5ks are no good. They’re over before you know it. A 10K or half-marathon lets you settle into a groove. You can troop along at a comfortable pace where you can actually talk as you run along.

Guys might expect that women are feeling to sweaty and gross to talk. But I haven’t experienced that – in fact, they seem more aggressive than men. I never ran a single foot race before getting into a long-term relationship with a marathoner who eventually turned triathlete. That means she takes me to the cleaners during most races, and I’m left on my own. Every single time I’ve run a 10K or half-marathon, I’ve gotten chatted up by a lone female runner.

I’d guess this is because mid-pack runners in these distances are feeling good about themselves, and they’re not overly concerned with snagging a winner’s medal. Their confidence is up, they feel less vulnerable because the guys aren’t trying to ply them with alcohol like they would at a bar. It makes all us guys seem less creepy (and man, most of us could use the help). It’s a very positive environment for everyone.

What? You don’t run? Well, start. What can you possibly lose from giving this a try? A few pounds?

Take a Ride McDowell Mountain Park’s Trails

A partial Google Earth View of an awesome ride at McDowell Mountain Park.
A Google Earth View of an awesome ride at McDowell Mountain Park.

I know I’ve mentioned the McDowell Mountain Regional Park before here on WanderingJustin.com. And let me tell you, my love for this park continues unabated. In fact, it’s stronger than ever thanks to some new signage springing up on the Pemberton Trail, aka Trail B.

Here’s the thing: The county officials thought most riders would abandon the Trail B once the Race Loops opened some years back. But though they’re far less technical, Trail B and its offshoots are big fun, and a perfect stomping ground for 29ers and singlespeed bikes. It’s seriously like Formula 1 racing, man! The Coachwhip Trail (see video) is primo stuff! Let’s not forget the elevation change adds to some super-sweet vistas looking east from the Valley.

Enough of my blather: Check out the video!

5 Things to Do in 48 Hours – San Diego Edition

There’s no shortage of stuff to do in Southern California. Any visit will keep you occupied. But there’s more to San Diego than a zoo and Sea World. I didn’t get too far off the beaten path on my recent visit, but I dug up a few fun things with a minimum of repetition from previous trips. You can even think about skipping the hotels and just camping in San Diego – for real! Give these options a shot, and you’ll have some genuine fun.

IMGP4536Visit the Port Brewing/Lost Abbey Tasting Room – If you’re used to the mass-produced, watered-down swill that we often call “beer,” the offerings from Port Brewing/Lost Abbey tasting room will set you on the right path. All these beverages pack serious and distinctive tastes. The Port selections are more American-style, with big, hoppy India Pale Ales taking center stage. The Lost Abbey lineup features Belgian-style ales. The best way to get started is with a flight – one flight will set you back $4-$7, depending on the staff’s mood, I guess. Either way, you’ll get a super taste of craft brew goodness. Pick up a shirt while you’re there! Oh, and try the Angel’s Share even if it’s not on tap. It’s nothing less than spectacular. If you’re not already indoctrinated, it will change everything you thought you knew about beer.

Go to the San Diego Wildlife Park – Admission to the San Diego Wildlife Park is $37, which is steep. But it’s also a bit outside the San Diego proper hurly-burly, and the drive is a big part of the appeal. It’s a good way to do some walking, too. That said, the animal selection is a bit skimpy. I’m a bit put out that there’s not a single wallaby or kangaroo there.

My new friend at the Lost Abbey tasting room.
My new friend at the Lost Abbey tasting room.

And it seems like everything is an attempt to get you to drop even more cash – I really resented the $9 parking, though I got a giggle at the goofiness of Segway tours. But they have some cool exhibits, and you can easily take an entire day there. Bring your own snacks, though!

Tour the USS Midway – Aircraft carriers are fun, especially when they’re right in the middle of everything. The Midway is right near the Gaslamp District and Seaport Village, and very close to the trolley stop. General admission is $17, a pretty good bargain to see a historic ship and gawk at some awesome aircraft. Watch Top Gun beforehand and be sure to wear your Ray-Bans. That’s right, Iceman … I am dangerous!

Check out the Gaslamp District – The Gaslamp is a great place to do a little shopping and grab some food. It’s got a pretty agreeable blend of chains (my crew is a big fan of the Puma store) and independent businesses. It’s lively eventhe night after Christmas. I was especially impressed with a store called Hatworks, where the friendly staff set me up with a hat I wish I’d had in Australia and New Zealand. Should be perfect for Iceland!

Birds and beach scenery.

Stroll around La Jolla – Yeah, it’s hoity-toity and just slightly snooty (okay, more than slightly). But it’s also really pretty. And you can get some great photos of beach scenery and seals. And who doesn’t like seals, aside from those baby seal clubbers? Don’t be like them – go be nice to the seals (which means staying away and letting them do their thing while you take photos). If you work up an appetite, you’ll have no shortage of choices. I particularly liked Little Korea.

Mixing Coffee and Travel

I think it’s really fun to find quality microbrews while traveling. I get a chance to try something tasty, and I often get a chance to mingle with locals (in the case of my recent visit to the Lost Abbey/Port Brewing tasting room, I even met a friendly black cat). It’s also not super-hard to find good microbrewers and brew pubs.

For me, it’s way harder to find good coffee shops unless I’m someplace like Portland or Seattle. I was 0 for 2 on cappuccino during my recent visit to San Diego. I won’t name the establishments here … mostly because the second barista really tried hard to produce a good drink. She took her time, and the micro-foam was spot-on. Unfortunately, the coffee itself was way too hot and had a much more bitter edge than I prefer. For the solid effort, I can’t leave her and her establishment hanging out to dry.

If you travel to Arizona, of course, Arizona-coffee.com will not steer you wrong. But I need to start doing better research when I travel. Does anyone out there have any resources for finding great barista people all across the nation?

In Australia, New Zealand and Costa Rica, I’m pretty golden. It’s easy to find great coffee there. From what I understand, AUS and NZ have mandatory barista training that’s pretty extensive. Australia is pretty awesome because it also grows its own beans in Queensland. In New Zealand, it’s impossible to roll into even the smallest town and not find a pretty classy cafe. Costa Rica? Easy. Just get brewed coffee and toss in a touch of sugar. Cream’s not needed.

I just have a lot of trouble in the U.S.

Strangers in My Underwear – My Case Against Valet Parking

For the most part, I keep rants out of my blog. I like to keep it fun. But man, the proliferation of valet parking in my city is really getting to me.

Valet parking has its place. Like in big cities with labyrinthian parking schemes, draconian parking laws and crappy weather. Here in Phoenix, most places have easily accessible parking. And we get 7 inches of rain a year.

For some reason, though, there are some restautants with fairly small lots that are blocking out the majority or all of their parking for valet parking. This saves their patrons from having to walk, from the farthest space, perhaps 100 feet. I’m going to name names here: The Vig, Tommy V’s/Tomaso’s and Havana Cafe are the worst offenders. Each has a lot the size of a postage stamp. The Vig is particularly offensive - its management forces customers to either turn their keys over to a valet attendant or park across the street for the privilege of dining there. It pains me to say anything bad about Tommy V’s because of its great food and excellent staff, so call this a case of tough love.

I’m going to explain the problem for these restaurateurs: Valet parking is, in essence, like handing my underwear to a stranger, having him wear said underwear while I dine, and then tipping someone for their safe return.

I really, really like my car. Everything about it is exactly the way I want it: the mirrors, the tilt of the seat, the radio station, the loose change, the breath mints. It is a mobile extension of my living room.

Strangers do not belong in my living room. And I am certainly not going to pay for having them there.

Let me add this all up in bite-sized pieces.

1. I can walk. Arizona is sunny and pleasant, and there is sufficient parking to be had.
2. I don’t want someone I don’t know driving my car.
3. If you try to force the issue, you’ve lost me as a customer.

So far, I’ve been to each of these establishments one time each in the five years in which I’ve lived less than two miles from them. Contrast that the uncountable number of times I’ve been to Pita Jungle, Fez and even Parlor. In fact, Parlor has only been open a few months, and I’ve been there more since its opening than the three valet parking offenders combined in five years. Without the valet parking, that would change*.  Can you really afford to lose that business for a “service” many people don’t even want?

*Of course, I still consider Parlor far-and-away the best pizza in the area, and far better than the over-hyped and pedestrian Pizzeria Bianco.

Sanskrit to Celebrity Yogis: 10 Things I Hate About Yoga

Yoga that doesn’t mess around. (Photo credit: GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS)

I took my first yoga class in 1999. I found a lot to like about it. I could feel my body snapping back into alignment. It even helped my concentration – at the time, I played a lot of hockey. After a yoga session, I’d strap on the goalie pads and the puck seemed bigger and slower.

On the flip side, I found out there some things I hate about yoga. An aborted session at At One Yoga in Phoenix (more on that in a future post) really brought this to the forefront of my mind.

1. Sanskrit Chanting – Exactly what is the point of that Sanskrit song that so many yoga classes start out with? I don’t speak Sanskrit, and I’m frankly not there for a "spiritual" experience. And besides, whoever said "chanting" begat "spirituality?" I grew up going to Catholic mass, so I’ve had a bellyful of unneeded verbal repetition. Let’s get to the good stuff!

2. The overly soft, nurturing, gentle yoga teacher voice – Exactly where do some yoga teachers get that overly measured, breathy voice? It sounds ridiculous. And I say that even though one of my favorite teachers uses it. Coming from male teachers makes it even worse – I always hear them as Mr. Van Driessen from Beavis & Butt-head.

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Hotel Review – InnSuites Tucson Foothills

Living in Phoenix in the fall and winter is pretty sweet. I’m just now starting to forget four months of scorching, unrelenting summer heat. I can go outside without fear of dehydration!

But still, I needed a change of scenery. That lead Sarah and me to Tucson to hike a bit and check out the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum (a post on that is coming up soon). We wanted to spend the night, and I got online to find a decent place the morning we left – the day after Thanksgiving, no less!

I quickly found the InnSuites Tucson Foothills, which is owned by Best Western. The often-handy (but sometimes maddening) GoogleEarth helped me find it. I wanted a place a little farther from the University of Arizona, and a little closer to hiking trails. Here are some bits you need to know about this hotel:

1. Hiking trails are about 10 minutes away. Not bad! And it’s actually a really good system. The Pima Canyon trail can keep you occupied all day. The scenery is striking and varied.
2. The rooms all seem to have comfortable beds and decent lighting. They all appeared to be clean and well-maintained. Each room had its own region-inspired name, which was kind of funny. Ours was the Show Low Suite, or something like that.
3. Try to get a room on the second floor. The tiled floors downstairs make a racket in the morning once all the housekeeping carts depart for their rounds.

Now, this last one is the big one:

4. Do not, under any circumstances, stay in room 146. Here’s why:
-It’s right next to the headquarters for the hotel’s cleaning staff. So you can always hear the jet engine-like whine of the commercial-grade laundry facilities. You can also hear the staff talking and loading up. And those carts I mentioned earlier on the tiled floors? Yeah. This does not equal a good night of sleep.
-When we were there, we could hear the strangest noise coming from one of the walls in the bathroom. It was almost like a dripping sound, but there was no reason, rhyme or rhythm to it. The sound would speed up, slow down, disappear for a few moments, then come back with a vengeance it’s not a big deal if you have the TV on. But it really sucks at 3 a.m.

Mountain Biking Scottsdale, Ariz. – McDowell Mountains



A view from Waypoint 22!
A view from Waypoint 22!

This is the first in my series about mountain biking in Scottsdale, Ariz., and this episode will focus on the trails on the southwest wide of the McDowell Mountains.

There’s something about mountain biking that’s kind of funny. Despite the name, it often doesn’t happen in or on mountains. There’s a lot of mountain biking in valleys, plains, glades, prairies and the like.

But if you’re mountain biking the trails on the west side of the McDowell Mountains, you are truly biking on, up and down mountains.  Most of these are part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This preserve has a pretty interesting history, and it’s certainly worth reading about.

But enough about that: On to the riding! Just look at the trail profile – I still haven’t gotten my new GPS and mapping software to talk nice to each other yet. But you’re looking at close to 1,500 feet of climbing jammed into six miles.

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The Best Museum Meal Ever РMitsitam Caf̩ in Washington, D.C.

Let’s face it – nobody goes to a museum to find a good meal. You’re bound to get either over-priced fast food or something more amibitious that’s been bungled, burned and left to dessicate under a heat lamp.

But then you have the Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The contents of the museum itself didn’t do much for me. But it’s an amazing building. And even better, if I lived in D.C., I’d make regular visits for lunch.

The cafe is broken into several themed sections. Each section represents a different region of indiginous people from the Americas, such as Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains. In each section, you’ll find items using ingredients that people from that region would’ve used in their cooking. That yields some really unusual items such as a quinoa-type grain with blueberries, smoked eel, braised rabbit and nopales (a type of pad cactus). I managed to find some sort of dish using chilled beets and potatoes, and it was tasty enough for me to try making it at home. I’d love to see a complete list of the cafe’s menu somewhere so I can do a little research and duplication here in Arizona.

Now let’s say you’re not quite up for eel, or you have kids. They can take a small step over to the wild side with pupusas, a nice corn-based flatbread sort of thing that’s usually stuffed with meat or cheese. Or if that’s still too much, they can try a buffalo burger and yucca fries.

For dessert, you can check out items like the sage and pine nut tart.

Now, this isn’t exactly a cheap menu. Typically, and entree with two sides runs from $7.99 up to around $13.99. But it’s tasty and unusual. And let’s not forget – it’s part of the Smithsonian family of museums. That means admission is free, so this is a nice way to spend a little to keep the museums ticking beyond your tax dollars.

Score one for sister-in-law Rachel for the great idea.

My Phoenix-Area Craft Brew Rankings

There’s some good news for Phoenix-area folks (and visitors to the area) who love craft brew: Sleepy Dog Brewing and Dave’s Electric Brewpub will open soon in Tempe. This bodes well for a metro area ranking low nationwide on craft brewers per capita. We’ve still got a long way to go, but Sleepy Dog and Dave’s Electric are welcome additions.

In recognition of their opening, let’s take a look at other craft brewers in the area. I’ve not included chains such as BJ’s, Gordon Biersch or Rock Bottom here because I want to emphasize local above all else. I’ve ranked them, and included some reasoning for their rankings. Enjoy!

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My Top 4 Female Mountain Bike Icons

Paola Pezzo was a good bet to win everytime she lined up at the start.
Paola Pezzo was a good bet to win everytime she lined up at the start. (photog unknown)

So my new pal and fellow Specialized Trail Crew* reject Mountain Biking Girl [UPDATE Oct. 2011: She is now a member of the Canadian Trail Crew … congrats!] was recently lamenting the lack of women in mountain biking. And she’s right. Show up to a group ride, and it will overwhelmingly be a bananarama. My theory is that the combination of few prominent female riders and too many tech-talking geeks in the shops leads to fewer women.

Let’s address the prominent female riders thing. I read the mountain bike mags, pretty much all of them. What I don’t see is quite the focus on the sport’s personalities. Consequently, it seems that there is no personality.

Contrast that with that wonderful Golden Age of mountain biking – those grand times when you replaced every stock bolt on your bike with titanium. Downhill forks had three inches of travel. Anodized purple was the order of the day. You could get a high-quality steel-framed bike at any shop. Back in those days, the sport had personalities. And some of the greatest of them sported two X chromosomes. Here are my four favorites, in no particular order cause they all freakin’ rule (there are lots of honorable mentions like Ruthy Mathis, but these are the ones that, for me, stand above the rest).

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6 Impressions of Boston – Plus 3 Great Restaurants

Boston has a great skyline, tasty food and very cool people. It'll shortchange you in the espresso department, though.
Boston has a great skyline, tasty food and very cool people. It'll shortchange you in the espresso department, though.

Generally, I avoid the eastern United States. It’s just not my sort of place. Up north, it’s cold. Down south, it’s humid and flat.

But since my sister-in-law is studying law at Boston University, the wife decided it was time to visit her and maybe see some Boston landmarks. Boston intrigued me. I’d never been there, and it has a lot of history. I also have some Internet buddies living there. So I could think of worse places to go. We wound up staying at a HoJo near Fenway Park. It was grossly overpriced, as were all of the hotels I found. But it was a nice location near Berklee College of Music, BU, Harvard and even MIT. And near this great running path near the Chahls* River.

Here are six things that really stick out about Boston, plus three awesome restaurants and the best-ever pop culture reference to Beantown. As you’ll see, I really liked Boston overall with one big quibble.

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Five Scenes from a Friday in Sedona

An alien on his way for a probing housecall.
Let me get this straight - you can fly through interstellar space, but you can't scrounge up a shirt when you're on your way to probe someone?
bikes agave
Bikes outside a chalet at the bike-centric Red Agave in the village of Oak Creek.
A mountain biker crests a hill.
A mountain biker crests a hill.
A fine view from the Red Agave in the village of Oak Creek.
A fine view from the Red Agave in the village of Oak Creek.
A rider among the red rocks.
A rider among the red rocks.

5 Places to See the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights. Photo courtesy of the US DoD.

I’ve just made a decision: I need to see the Northern Lights. You know … the aurora borealis. Can you imagine how cool it must be to see that dark sky above you light up with multicolored swirls of electrons? The jury is still out and whether you can actually hear the aurora; it occurs about 60 miles into the sky, where the air is very thin for the passage of sound waves. But scientists still don’t discount the possibility that there might be some aural aspect to the aurora.

So here’s the downside: It’s best to see them in winter at high altitudes. And it’s gotta be dark out. That means that, if I want to see it, I’ll have to be fully prepared to freeze my goolies off. So, then, where I should I go to get a glimpse of the lights?

Here are some good candidates:

Jukkasjarvi, Sweden – It’s far north. It’s so secluded that you have to take a dogsled to reach it from Kiruna, the nearest city. It’s also home to the ICEHOTEL. That adds up to a safe bet to check out some serious aurora viewing. And maybe I could schedule a visit when Hammerfall is in action.

Oulu, Finland – The Northern Lights are such an attraction in Oulu that many hotels offer wake-up calls when they’re active. It’s not quite as secluded as some places, offering a lively night scene and lots of museums. Apparently, the light pollution isn’t enough to put a damper on the displays. And there are lots of Finns online boasting about how much Oulu rocks.

Iceland – This island nation is right in the circular path that defines the aurora’s favorite stomping grounds. Combine that with a sparse population, and you have good odds of seeing an unforgettable light show. When you’re not tripping out to the lights, the daytime offers geysers and volcanoes. It’s also easy to get to from the west, with Icelandair offering flights from Seattle.

Tromso, NorwayUS Airways is running some really good specials for flights to Norway. From Phoenix, the base price is something like $760. That’s a good incentive. Tromso also has a good reputation as a place with clear skies and minimal light pollution (only 50,000 people live there). Apparently, there are mountaintop viewing areas near the city, too. Oh, and there’s cross-country and alpine skiing!

Fairbanks, Alaska – Sure, you can see ’em in Juneau or Anchorage. But why not go a little further for what’s considered among the state’s better displays? The local hotels also offer packages for travelers who want to boost the odds of getting an awesome lightshow.

What Hotel Services Could You Live Without?

Recently, The Cranky Flier wrote about the airline El Al (which seriously sounds like it should serve flights to the planet Kypton) creating a super-low economy section by charging for services normally offered for free. This “unbundling”, as it’s known in industry parlance, would charge for things like snacks and drinks. I’m assuming there’s no upcharge for seat belts and barf bags.

And I just complained about the ludicrous prices of hotels in much of the First World – the United States is my most egregious example, but western Europe is hardly a bargain.

Why not put the ideas together? That is, unbundling hotel services. I can’t take credit for this idea – it was the ever-practical wife’s suggestion when I told her about El Al.

I’d completely be willing to forgo telephone services, irons in the room, cable TV and a bad continental breakfast. Hmm, I guess “bad continental breakfast” is redundant. I’ve always thought that first a pastry is a pastry – then it gets stale and becomes a “scone.” Once the scone solidifies into a rocklike mass surpassing diamonds on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, it winds up on a tray in a hotel’s continental breakfast spread; only the brutally acidic coffee on display is caustic enough to break it down for consumption by some humans. But I digress.

That seems a nifty solution to what I consider the really poor values that are most hotels.

Here’s a question for you: What standard hotel services would you forego to knock some bucks off the bill?

Prime Time for Another Doomed Theme Park?

A Facebook conversation with my old friend, Stacy (whose excellent blog you should check out), dredged up some memories of the old-timey version of Phoenix. And by old-timey, I mean the 1980s.

One of those memories was of Legend City, Arizona’s very own amusement park. It closed in 1983. I’m not even 100 percent-certain I made it there before it closed … my family showed up here in 1980. Apparently, some people died on rides. Lawsuits from those incidents killed Legend City; today, thousands of people drive by the site unaware that it ever existed. You can read about it and see photos at a very cool tribute Web site to Legend City.

Now, what makes this a bit more timely is that some people might not be ready to let go of the notion that Arizona should have a major theme park. No, Rawhide does not count.

This new vision started floating to the surface a few years ago. Here’s the concept: A rock ‘n’ roll-themed, $850 million, 144-acre theme park built somewhere in the dusty fields between Phoenix and Tucson. It would be in a place called Eloy, which pretty much makes Casa Grande look like Sydney, Australia.

I hadn’t thought about Decades much until Legend City came up. That conversation made me think “Hey, what ever happened to that debacle-in-the-making?”

Well, over the past year, not much. The Decades Web site (which is amateurish, at best) hasn’t seen a news item update  in nearly a year. This leads me to think that (despite then-Governor Janet Napolitano’s backing and the passage of a bill to create a tax district that would allow the theme park to collect more sales tax) it’s dead. I’m still a little concerned about the silence: I’d prefer to see the garlic, holy water and wooden stakes come out to make sure this doesn’t happen. Also, the park’s chief creative officer, Marty West, has apparently talked to the band Rush about a Rush-themed concert hall. The Coaster Buzz blog, though, thinks the project is buried.

Here’s why I think Decades is a bad idea (some of this comes from a post in a different blog I used to write):

1. Summer Heat – This is pretty obvious. Sure, Florida is hot and sticky in the summer. But it also has a lot more shade, and the sunlight is far less intense because of the humidity. This place will be brutal in the summer.

2. The Competition – People go to theme parks ’cause their kiddies want to. This is Walt Disney Co.’s strength. It ain’t just a theme park – it’s well-known characters that span generations, new-fangled movie heroes like Buzz Lightyear and rides that get turned into movies of their own.

3. The Theme is Silly – Look, theme parks are about kids. Kids don’t care about Chuck Berry. And really, what does rock ‘n’ roll have to do with Arizona? Did we hold Woodstock here? Is this where the members of Led Zeppelin were born? Oh, wait … Eloy is where Abbey Road Studios were built before they got moved to England in a reverse London Bridge-style swap! No? Nothing about the theme makes a lick of sense.

4. Natural Resources – Rumor has it that, to combat the heat, most of the rides will be water-based. Where do the backers plan to get that water?

5. We’ve Heard it All Before – Really, I’ve heard variations on the phrase “most amazing projects Arizona has ever seen!” too many times to count. It seems these phrases are most often tied to short-lived debacles like the Scottsdale Galleria or Biosphere 2. We see where those wound up.

6. Put it in a Real City – Eloy is far too remote. A theme park needs infrastructure, especially hotels. It can also use a major airport within 50 miles and some post-theme park activities. That favors a location much closer to Phoenix, and one that doesn’t require travel on the often-problematic I-10.

Also, as a former news reporter, I roll my eyes whenever I see that PR shyster Jason Rose is a project’s hired huckster. I can’t recall him doing anything that was in the public’s interest. He is exactly the sort of drone who would propose turning Arlington Cemetery into a Wal-Mart plaza and try to convince you that a few thousand low-paying jobs are better than any musty ol’ history.

BONUS: According to Richard Ruelas, one of the better writers over at the Arizona Republic, Decades isn’t the first proposed boondoggle for Eloy. Feast your eyes on these (directly from a sidebar in an a Republic story):

  • 1989, the Wooz, a $2.7 million maze-style theme park in Eloy.
  •  1990, Sunplex, a theme park, ice rink and football stadium park in Eloy. It was to be home of the world’s largest sundial. The developers admitted it was a fraud.