Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Canyon So Grand

April means "Spring Break" for the kids and this year Kim and I decided to get ahead of the curve and actually plan a family vacation. Naturally the RV and the dogs would figure into things, but where? We finally decided on visiting the Grand Canyon, only one of the 7 natural wonders of the modern world.

Since I would be coming off a long trip and little restful sleep I elected to only log about 2/3rds of the RV travel in the first day, settling on the Kingman KOA campground as our first destination (about 7 hours out of SD). It was a nice enough place, and the kids dug the free mini-golf course! I naturally gravitated to the dude with the BMW F650GS who had ridden down to the Colorado River via the Grand Canyon the day before. What stories! I can't wait to do the same on the F800GS.

Our next stop was Williams, AZ, home of the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park where we would spend the next several days. The RV Park has a dog kennel where River and Bella would spend 1 1/2 days while the two-legged creatures went to the Canyon via train. The train was really a special draw in planning the trip and my good friend Rod Baine inspired me to organize our vacation to include this facet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Did I mention the wind chill factor made this an especially COLD trip? Definitely colder than Monterey! Still, I figured once we were on the train, it would be somewhat warm, and there would be warm places at the Canyon. How wrong was I? Very!

Prior to getting on the train, which has a "Club Car" serving food and drink, we were entertained by a Wild West show replete with gun fights and then a full-service train ride: conductor checking tickets, entertainment, beautiful countryside, and a guide sharing history of the train and the country in real time for us. What a nice treat! (I don't think the kids really appreciated though!).

As we got closer to the Canyon, it looked colder and it was colder. We were met with a blast of cold wind chill as we climbed the 47 steps to the Rim Trail to the South Rim. Oh My God: The Grand Canyon. I'd never seen it before. Stunning. Breath-taking. Dramatic.

Did I mention is was cold? We walked the Rim, and even stumbled into Robin and Curtis Mueller who were up from Sedona checking out the Canyon. What a coincidence!

The train folks had dropped off our bags at the Maswick Lodge - a nice old-school service - and we checked in around 4pm. The kids and I immediately took to the forest, while Kim took to a short 20-minute nap on the bed; we both got what we wanted!

That night, we elected to have a bitchin' dinner at the "Arizona Inn," though a 90-minute wait was the "ante" to the game. I spent my time in bitter night-time cold with Etho taking pictures, while the gals enjoyed a drink and coloring books in the wonderful warmth of a sitting room. Dinner was superb; strongly recommended!

Earlier in the day, I'd asked a driver who plies shuttles along the South Rim where the most picturesque place was to shoot a sunrise. He replied w/o hesitation that it was "Yaki Point" and proceeded to tell me the combination of free shuttles to ride to get there the next morning. First bus: 4:38am. ;-)

I made the first bus with frozen sleep "goop" in my eyes, transferred to another bus and finally watched in silence as the red taillights of the vehicle sped out of eyesight. I'd arrived at Yaki Point, but only to snow flurries and deep, low cloud cover. A couple of shots and, frankly, I was freezing my a** off. Caught the next bus out at approximately the time the Sun was to peak out - far cry from that!

After catching a few more "winks" with the family (I was back by 7am and everyone was still asleep), we enjoyed breakfast at the Maswick Lodge buffet and geared up for a family hike down into the Canyon via Bright Angel Trail. What a great decision!! Walking 90 minutes into the Canyon whets one's appetite to see more - at least that was the effect it had on Etho and I. The girls turned around at about 45 minutes (after all, Emily IS only 6 and staring straight back up the trail wide-eyed!), but the boys had other urges. I can see the two of us doing this in the next year or so. Love to do it by rafting! ;-)

Properly tired out, we all had a drink at El Tovar (the pre-eminent lodge on the Rim) and boarded the Grand Canyon Railway for a late train home. There was a violin player and a mock train robbery, which the kids were wide-eyed about. I just wanted to get my dogs and sleep in the RV again - long day for us "sunrisers." ;-)

Our trip continued with a very cool hike, complete with multiple stream-crossings on the West Fork trail suggested by my niece Kim Austin (of Flagstaff), a quick visit to Sedona, and dinner at the Austins. Fun way to wrap up the last night of vacation!

Kim explained that her dad (my step-brother-in-law) Pat was having a birthday the next day and it didn't take much convincing for me to re-route our return drive through Yuma (Pat's home) rather than back through Kingman. Pat was genuinely glad to see us I think.

The kids were genuinely glad to ride around the yard in his cool go-kart. Get this - ask the kids what they remember most about their bitchin' trip to the Grand Canyon and I guarantee it will be the go-kart - ARRGHH!

Dad's Home Sweet Home

In a world where constancy is a rarity, I count my Dad amongst the "rocks" of my world. He's not into super-frequent contact and able to leap great distances between face-to-face encounters. Yet, when I'm with him, I feel a palpable Dad/son-like connection, comfortable and welcoming, soaking in every moment. I'd go to the ends of the earth with him just for laughs and for the experience (and wish he'd ask).

So, it was with a breathy sigh of relief that I finally landed in Columbus after a rather heinous and long air-trek from Hamburg, via Hamburg and Frankfurt. Geez, middle seat for 8 hours is enough torture for any non-wartime personnel! Thank god my co-worker Josh gave me his digital LCD device from Archos. I watched several movies on it including one amazing martial arts flick involving a rural Thai boy in search of his lost elephant. Wicked, Jackie Chan-like stunts, not to be missed!

I stupidly didn't call Dad in Washington DC to let him know I was running a tad bit late, but hooked up with him outside of Columbus baggage claim nonetheless. Dad looks great - just like I remember him. A "JimsAir" shuttle driver picked us up and delivered us to Dad's Lancair "rocketship", resting restlessly on the tarmac. 15 minutes to Cambridge on an engine rebuild, new twin turbos and an out-of-this-world "glass panel" chock full of modern avionics.

Pretty incredible to think that this experimental composite is a multiple world record-holder, flew the Ohio flag to Kitty Hawk in celebration of the 100th anniversary of flight, and is universally held in the highest esteem of any air traffic controller worth his salt. Of course, none of the gear would be shite in the hands of a lessor pilot. Dad is so comfortable and smooth and non-plussed in the air, I'm more at ease than if we'd be on land. His is a unique experience in aviation, having bridged the gap from the propeller age to military jets and back to high-performance experimental. How many others? A few hundred? Under a hundred? Astonishing, and I sincerely hope that he one day "cowboys up" and writes some of it down for Ethan and Emily (and I) to marvel.

We do a quick dinner at a Greek restaurant in Cambridge, OH, then cruise home. Diane is readying herself for a trip the next morning to Dana's to visit Bobby and his new sibling. She looks great and I'm so thankful that we got to chat for a few minutes.

In the morning, it wasn't long until we were at work on the property - just the tonic I was looking for! Dad had an electrician coming over to work on some lights and a motor for the pond across the road and soon I found myself rowing a boat into the water... He's got a great vision for these big projects and the fountain looked great later in the day at dusk.

We followed up the land and water work with a short flight in his 1948 Aeronca before the weather turned ugly. Taking off from "Taildragger Lane" (look it up in middle-Eastern OH, Alex!), we headed to Dad's Salt Fork and Grand Haven Resorts, followed by a low-level pass over the Salt Fork Lake. Wicked fun - check out my Aeronca pics on Flicker here.

One of the principle things I could help Dad out with this trip is a little tutorial on eBay - after all, he had a plane-load of avionics to get rid of. I did the best I could listing a couple of items and teaching him how to sell. The martinis helped, but still it was slow-going. The good news is that within a few hours he had a hit on our first listing!

"Artsy" Tractor shot out at Taildragger

The next morning I was scheduled to jet home. The weather was a bit unpredictable and since Dad wasn't fully confident of his IFR gear yet, we elected to drive. A customary short departure at the curb in Columbus to avoid man-tears and I was once again solo, heading to the West Coast and back to another sweet home. Thanks for the lovely visit, Dad!

Trippin' in Deutschland

It's been a long, long time since I've traveled in Germany; back in the post-College days tripping around Europe with my good friend Rob Schumacher courtesy of our cool parents. ;-)

This time around I was visiting the European offices of Nik Software - I say offices because the "HQ" of Europe is in Hamburg whilst the engineering folks call Luebeck home. Both have their charms. As I missed my Lufthansa flight out of Heathrow due to my trust in an errant Concierge, I arrived late to Hamburg. The weather was pleasant, much like it never ever rains in Seattle when I visit! A short taxi ride to my hotel.

The next morning, I think I surprised Katrin the receptionist who only had a vague notion of my visit. Hey, I like to be surprising - what can I say? The offices at Nik-Hamburg are in an older building alongside a canal, next to Levi Strauss. Wooden floors, glass doors, clean, efficient. Loved the office and the kitchen which had a drop-dead simple Cappuccino maker - yeah!

Had several chats with the Sales folks, as well as Mike Slater who was also out from San Diego, and then the good fortune to finally meet Meikel Steiding, the official Nik Software UI designer of whom Josh speaks so highly. Meikel's done a superb job crafting the new look of Nik's tools, and I can tell he cares deeply and passionately about design. After a good day at the offices, finally connected to email (which I wasn't in London - long story!), Meikel suggested that I visit the SpeicherStadt (warehouse district) area of Hamburg that evening for it's photo possibilities. It was either that or the Red Light district, so I walked the road less traveled - ahem. The area was really deserted and really cool, sporting some awesome graffiti and ad hoc art exhibits along the canals. Later in the night, desperate for something to eat, I happened upon a cool Thai restaurant near the Rathaus (City Hall).

The next day was my chance to meet the engineering team(s) in Luebeck, and also see Ed Sanchez (my boss) for the first time in a week. I traveled via autobahn at about 180 kmh in Dirk's BMW X5 SUV. Very nice! Of course, the AMG CL55 that passed us like we were standing still was somewhat nicer. ;-)

The offices in Luebeck were in a nondescript office park outside of the small city, but - on 3 separate wings of the building - were very cool. I met the web team, the Capture NX team, QA folks and members of the various plug-in teams. It was very cool to finally put names to faces and I really wished I'd packed a camera along! Meeting Daniella, the engineer behind our latest rock star application Viveza, was a special treat...

Meikel and I rode a very comfortable train back to Hamburg and he offered to show me some of the sites I hadn't seen yet by car. We visited the Port district which was extremely modern and clearly high capacity, and he also showed me a very interesting and almost indescribable building shaped like the prow of a ship. Weird, but cool. The tunnel underneath the harbor was also very eerie (we weren't the only ones taking pictures either - there was a photoshoot featuring a pretty hot model underway as well - Meikel knows his spots!).

I enjoyed the city runabout, but Meikel had a couple of special treats in store for me: (a) a trip to a revered walk-in, stand-up bratwurst "bar" which has served "currywurst" since 1961 and (b) a weissbier at a hip lounge where the city's designers hang. Everyone knows that Germans make great wurst, or sausages. But what exactly is currywurst? Currywurst is a grilled bratwurst drenched in a delectable curry ketchup sauce, and topped with a dusting of curry powder. Truly a great way to finish off the night, and a looooong way from trippin' around with a 40 lb backpack over 20 years ago.

For more pictures of the German leg of my recent travels, visit my Flickr gallery.

Monday, April 14, 2008

London Calling

It’s been a good, smooth couple of days in London town, working with Nikon on focus group studies. The weather has cooperated, alternating between cloudy sun, rain, and wind to keep us all on our toes. I love to ride the trains and walk cities and London is a good walking city and "training" city too. Off the main drag there are small alleys leading nowhere, but sometimes leading somewhere surprising. Totally reminds me of Harry Potter movies when they are moving from Muggles reality to Hogwarts.

Following my friend Tony Corbell’s suggestion, I bought a ticket on one of the double-decker buses and hit the highlights of the city. It was fun riding high and in the open wind, but I found the descriptions and narrative a bit lackluster. Still, we did cover a LOT of ground so I feel grateful for Tony’s recommendation: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and many more sites were passed.

I grabbed a pint of Samuel Smith’s “Old Brewery Bitter” in the mid-day at The Cock near Oxford Circus in honor of my friend Jon Wright. He no doubt would have enjoyed one with me. It was a quiet neighborhood bar lightly dusted with old men stopping in to the watering hole, well-dressed clerks from nearby stores debating politics, and travelers such as me. The beer was good, and fueled me up for the rain that awaited me on the next step of the adventure.

Did I mention that fully 70% of the people in London are predominantly dressed in black? Not me – ha! However, one of my “missions” on the trek into the City today was to find a scarf. Not a pretty one, but a plainly-spoken one such as the locals might wear. I set out along Oxford Circus and was met with only frustration due to department store selection or high prices – I even found some scarves down an alley at an old-fashioned clothiers shop, but I was not about to pay $50 for a scarf, even if it was supposedly made by a lone weaver in Scotland. (I appreciated the background from the proprietor nonetheless!).

As I wandered, I began to recognize an area that I saw on the tour bus earlier in the day, near the “Marble Arch.” It was an area of extreme wealth, punctuated by several automobile dealerships favoring high-end Aston-Martins, Lotuses and the like. I delighted in seeing an honest “armored” BMW 7-series. But the thing that spurred me on was the BMW Motorrad shop – home to the F800GS I saw briefly as we sped by on the aforementioned bus. Naturally being that close, I simply had to walk over and check it out. It was fun to see it actually in the shops, and the salesman I spoke to said that even if I placed an order today they are scheduling deliveries in September. So… that’s some small measure of comfort for my [supposed] delivery in September in the U.S.

After failing the Scarf mission and seeing the motorcycle, I decided to make an early dinner of it by hopping on a bus and heading to the “Brick Lane” area near the Liverpool section of London. My co-worker Josh had suggested this area due to its high concentration of Indian restaurants and their fine application of curry. I thought he seemed particularly keen on a specific restaurant, but couldn’t recall the name. Bad news: there were scores of Indian restaurants! At which did he eat? Who knows! So, I did the only reasonable thing I could think of which was to ask some Indians stepping out of an honest Indian market (the “Raj”) where they would eat in the neighborhood. Without hesitation, both answered “Clifton.” Now, I can't assume this was exactly what Josh had in mind, but it would be the first food of the day (at 5pm) so I didn’t hesitate.

Simply put, the food was spectacular and tasty, in the Banglodore tradition. I ordered a lamb kebob to start, with some Okra, and a 5% beer called “Cobra.” Yeehaw! For the meal, I ordered a nice sampler tray that gave me chicken, fish and a variety of other spicy foods to enjoy. I took a few pictures to document the meal (for Josh’ sake) and noticed that suddenly the waiters paid a little more attention to me. I was ordering a number of dishes, making hand-written notes for the blog and taking pictures. I decided to press on by asking whether I could take additional pictures of the restaurant. I believe they thought I was a food critic, and in a sense I am since I’m writing these words! The service was punctual; the food was hot, fresh, and spicy. A chocolate-inspired dessert capped off the meal. Another cool thing: the head waiter gave me two shirts, one a polo and the other a nice stylish T that I passed along to Kim. Totally unexpected. If you’re ever on Brick Lane in London you can do no wrong by visiting the Clifton. Two enthusiastic thumbs up!

My thoughts turn frequently to my family. Every time I see a child near Emily or Ethan’s age, I think about how much fun they would have exploring the city with me. And to see Kim’s eyes twinkling the way they do when she is happy would be fantastic. Can you imagine their excitement riding an honest-to-gosh double-decker bus? The fashion sense of the London women is good, and I can imagine Emily wanting to wear calf-high boots and a pretty scarf everywhere. Ha!

I leave for Germany tomorrow mid-day, and hope that the atmosphere is as interesting and inviting as London.

For more London pics, including some odd mannequins, Jack the Ripper and more famous London sites, check out my Flickr gallery for London.