Category: travel

Agiocochook

The drive up Mount Washington offers several viewpoints where you can pull over and watch clouds play peekaboo with mountaintops.

My wife and I have embraced the tourism industry, in our retirement. So in honor of this industry we decided to visit Mount Washington, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 1852, Mount Washington became one of our nation’s first tourist attractions, with the construction of a stone hotel at its peak, called the Summit House.

We enjoyed this spectacular view of New England, at the top of Mount Washington, through a small break in the clouds.

This just proves how inexperienced and ignorant we Americans were back then, at vacationing and sightseeing. Mount Washington bills itself as “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” It’s the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, at 6,288 feet. And as you may guess, it’s pretty cold and windy up there.

There’s a big weather station at the top of the Mount, with all kinds of large, mysterious meteorological instruments. I think the big white drums are used for alerting New Englanders of coming Nor’easters.

In 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory weather station recorded a world record surface wind speed of 234 miles per hour. Hurricane-force wind gusts occur on the summit on average of 110 days per year. It warms to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or more on only 13 to 14 days of the year, with its highest recorded temperature hiccuping to just 72F. It’s official record low is -50F, occurring in 1885, but it’s lowest recorded wind chill is -102F, occurring in 2004. Mount Washington’s average daily mean temperature is just 27F, and it receives 97 inches of precipitation per year (including over 28 feet of snow).

Why in hell would any tourists want to go to this place?

Because we’re stupid.

I think this tall, towering structure is used for measuring snowfall depth. Or perhaps it’s used by the resident meteorologists as an escape rocket when the weather turns super bad.

The Native Americans weren’t so dumb. They named it Agiocochook, which means “the place of the Great Spirit.” Out of deference to the Great Spirit, they made it against their religion to climb the mountain. Or maybe this was really out of deference to intelligence, and an aversion to freezing to death.

No, these stone cairns aren’t little monuments to the Great Spirit. I suspect they mark various spots where tourists have perished from exposure.

But then along came a colonist, in 1642, named Darby Field. He convinced the local tribe that the white man was not subject to their god and asked permission to climb Agiocochook. I imagine they looked at each other astonished, then shrugged their shoulders and said, “Tourists. Go figure.”

They gave permission and Darby Field successfully ascended this peak. And he managed to keep from being transformed into a block of ice by the Great Spirit. But for the next 200 years it was largely left alone by the wise inhabitants of New England.

This building on Mount Washington has been secured with chains, to prevent it from blowing away.

And then someone got the bright idea that they could attract tourists.

The Summit House came first, in 1852, and then two years later the Tip-Top House was built as competition. And tourists from thousands of miles away flocked to these facilities, not knowing, I guess, that more comfortable destinations could be had at places like Florida, California, or Hawaii.

The Tip-Top House, built in 1854. Instead of being secured with chains, this old hotel has been anchored in place with granite boulders.

Entrepreneurs must have realized that if tourists could be attracted to a freezing hell such as Mount Washington, then why not to anywhere else? And thus America’s tourism industry took off and boomed.

A cog railroad was built in 1869, for tourists who felt sorry for any horses that might have to travel to this harsh environment. It is still in operation today.

My wife and I were the latest in a long string of idiots to tour Mount Washington. It’s a privately owned attraction. It cost $40 to enter, and required about 20 minutes of hair-raising driving time to reach the summit.

We spent about an hour or so at the top, admiring the views and touring the old buildings, including the Tip-Top House. Fortunately, the temperature was a mild 48F and the Great Spirit was only blowing about 30 mph. Beautiful weather for September.

There are no guardrails on the road to the top. This is actually a safety feature, as it gives motorists an incentive to drive slowly and carefully.

The descent was more frightening than the ascent, as evidenced by the dent my wife put in the floorboard, with her foot. When we reached the bottom I stopped and opened the window, and caught the whiff of smoldering brake pads. We parked the car and waited a few minutes for the wheels to cool off, and then it was off to saner, more intelligent tourist destinations in the north of New England.

If you tour Mount Washington, eat a bowl of Boston Baked Beans first. You’ll need a good windbreaker.

By the way, if this post has inspired you to visit Agiocochook, this weekend’s forecast calls for highs in the 30s, with the Great Spirit blowing from the Northwest at 70 mph, a wind chill below zero, and an 80% chance of snow.

An Exciting Flight to Boston

Our plane pulled out from the gate, beginning our five-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles to Boston. It’s always a relief when a plane pulls away on time. It means no delays. It means we’re gonna get there when we planned to get there. It means just settle back, relax, and enjoy the view from 32,000 feet.

But when we were no more than 10 feet off the ground the right engine failed. Yep, that’s right. Suddenly no right engine. Sound scary? I hope so, because I’m trying to make this flight sound exciting.

Actually it was just our asses that were 10 feet off the ground. That’s about as high as these jumbo jets sit, from ground to belly, above the landing gear.

The plane had been pushed backward away from the gate and onto the tarmac by the little white truck that does the plane-pushing job. Then the pilot tried to start the engines to get us onto the runway. After about 10 minutes the plane was pushed right back to the gate.

“Aw shit,” I thought.

The pilot got on the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, that was a short flight, ha-ha. I couldn’t get the goddamned right engine to start. I’m callin’ a mechanic, so just hold tight for a few minutes and we’ll get this bird movin’ again.”

My wife and I held tight. What the hell else could we do? We were prisoners inside a motionless fuselage. But we were philosophical. Sitting trapped on the ground sure beat having our bodies scattered over the landscape in a horrific airplane crash.

A few minutes passed. Then another few. Then a half hour. A sense of anxiety and claustrophobia was becoming palpable when the pilot got on and announced, “Gotta mechanic comin’. Finally, for Chrissake. He’ll be here shortly. Just hold tight.”

15 minutes later a new announcement: “The mechanic just reset all the damned inputs. Now he’s gettin’ to work on the engine. We’ll know something shortly.”

But not long after that came bad news. “The fuckin’ engine wouldn’t start after all that. Now they gotta change the goddamned module. I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t know when we’re leaving this godforsaken airport.”

About an hour-and-a-half after we boarded this A321 came both welcome and dreaded news. “Ladies and gentlemen, fuck me to tears. We’re gonna have to deplane and wait in the terminal for our shitty wrench-turners to finish repairing this bucket of bolts. But hopefully we’ll get your asses to Boston by the end of the day. Or at least by the end of the calendar year.”

This was welcome news because at least we would be allowed out of the confines of our tubular prison and into the more open space of the terminal, where we could stretch our legs, get something to eat, and use the restroom.

But it was also dreaded news. It seemed the big “C” was coming soon. Cancellation. And perhaps the end of our vacation before it could even begin.

Periodic messages dribbled down upon us from airline staff, as we patiently waited in the terminal, updating us on the progress of the mechanics. Such as:

“We sure as hell don’t know when this goddamned flight will depart, but we’ll keep you updated with all of our latest factoids and fuckups.”

“The stupid-ass mechanics failed again. Now they have to replace another motherfucking module.”

“You may have noticed that the plane is rolling away. Yeah, goodbye stupid plane! The stooges we employ for mechanics decided they have to take it to the hangar, so they can screw around with the engine big time.”

A rack of snacks was rolled into the waiting area, accompanied by this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, food makes everything right. So help yourself, you mindless trained seals, and grab a snack off the rack.”

And we did, descending upon the startled food rack like ravening locusts. A crowd of pissed-off passengers stuffed pockets and purses with bags of chips, cookies, and lukewarm sandwiches. We all grabbed much more than we needed to sate our hunger. We grabbed compensation. Recompense for a delayed day. Revanche, arrogated in crinkly containers, plucked from that food rack until it was clean to its bare metal bones.

More and more food racks were wheeled in to replace the empties, until we finally gave up on protesting through feasting. With faces full of crumbs, and stomachs, pockets, and purses bulging, we belched, rolled back in our seats, and surrendered to an onslaught of more merciless messages.

A few hours later came this augury:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re really gonna fuck with you now. We’ve moved you from Gate 47 to Gate 9,253. So y’all get off yer fat asses and head down there. Pronto!”

We dutifully grabbed our bags and waddled to our new, distant gate, which might as well have been in Boston itself. And then we waited for more announcements. Finally one came.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Boston flight. Hallelujah! After a thorough search of our fleet, we finally found a replacement plane. We gave up on that other fucking death trap. Now listen to this ingenious goddamned plan. A plane’s gonna pull up to this here gate. Every peckerhead on board is getting off. Then we’re gonna clean all the shit out of it and allow you to get on board. And then we’ll flap our merry wings and haul your sorry asses to Beantown.”

Finally, six hours after we boarded the first plane, we staggered onto the second. It jetted off into the big blue void without incident. And late in the evening of a very long day, American Airlines delivered us safely to Boston, Massachusetts.

Disclaimer: The staff of American Airlines was actually very professional and polite in their announcements and treatment of us pathetic passengers. If anything in this post indicates otherwise, it might merely be subconscious slippages from my mind, that unintentionally interjected themselves into my writing, betraying my emotional state at the time.

At last, our plane got us higher than ten feet above the ground.

How to Breeze Through a Carnival Cruise

The Carnival Breeze cruise ship, moored to the dock at Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras.


“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” said the warden to Luke Skywalker. Or was that Cool Hand Luke? If you’re confused, so was I, on the Carnival Cruise ship Breeze. My wife and I recently sailed aboard this ship, while on a Caribbean cruise that began in Galveston, Texas.

I’m going to tell you what you need to know, that the cruise line and ship’s crew failed to communicate, so your ride on this vessel might go a little more smoothly than ours.

The byzantine layout of this ship can be mystifying. You have to explore on your own, and pry information from the ship’s crew and passengers, to figure it all out.

First, take a winter jacket. They refrigerate the hell out of the ship, with their ubiquitous air conditioning. My wife and I expected balmy Caribbean conditions, but our indoor experience felt much more like a gelid cruise to Alaska. And even with the thermostat in our cabin cranked all the way up to a volcanic setting, cool air still poured out of the ceiling vent.

Fortunately we had a balcony stateroom, so when we hit warmer waters we were able to prop open the balcony door and allow some blessed tropical heat enter our icebox. Er, I mean cabin. It felt nice to defrost.

Passengers defrosting on an aft deck.

There were no lights in our quarters when we first moved in. My wife complained to a steward, and he said he’d look into it. A few hours later, as the tenebrous fingers of twilight were creeping in, I desperately asked another passenger if he had lights in his cabin. Yes, he claimed, to my surprise. Then he explained that you have to insert your Sail and Sign card in a slot by the door to make the lights work. I felt a little sheepish, and wished I was as smart as him, to have figured that out.

Anyways, our cruise was finally starting to feel a little pleasant, as we no longer had to pee on the floor of our dark bathroom.

A Sail and Sign card, by the way, is a little plastic credit card like thing that you are issued when you board a Carnival ship. It allows you to buy stuff and have it put on your account, to be settled after the cruise ends. And you must have it in your possession to get off the ship and back on. And it also admits you into your cabin, much like a motel room key.

Problem is, you must leave this very important card in the slot by the door, to make the lights turn on and stay on. If you happen to leave your cabin and forget to take your card with you, you’ll be locked out. So you must spend your entire cruise worrying about this possibility.

But there’s a loophole. About two days before our cruise ended, we discovered that we could fold over a piece of paper and stick it into the slot, and that kept the lights on. What chumps we were for all that angst over forgetting the Sail and Sign card. We felt annoyed with ourselves, but also gloated and delighted in the sneakiness of bypassing Carnival’s diabolical energy-saving scheme.

Our balcony, plus a couple of other cruise ships, anchored off Belize City, Belize. We discovered that many other cruise ships were visiting the same tourist traps as us, at the same time. Translation: Large crowds ashore.

If you want to protect yourself from hearing loss, avoid the Lido Deck (Deck 10). There they blast music so loud, you can receive a free ear piercing. But the Lido Deck is also where they serve food, in a smorgasbord-like setting. So if you like smorgasbords, pack a pair of earplugs.

And men, if you prefer to be served by waiters, pack a pair of long pants. Dinner is served at the Sapphire Restaurant on Deck 3, every evening beginning at 5:45 pm. Most nights, casual attire is allowed. But on two of the cruise nights you are required to wear formal attire for what they call Elegant Dining. That means long pants. They don’t seem to give a damn what kind of shirt you wear, as long as it isn’t a tank top. But they won’t let you in if you’re wearing shorts.

This Elegant Dining crap really gets under my skin. I’m on vacation and going for a cruise to the Caribbean, goddamnit, so why can’t I just wear shorts and relax the whole time? Two reasons. First, as I mentioned above, they refrigerate the hell out of the ship, and that includes dining areas. So you might want to dine in long pants every night, and also huddle in a heavy parka wrapped over your Hawaiian shirt.

I found some lifesaving peace on this cruise, and spent quiet moments admiring beautiful sights.

The second reason has to do with the fashion police. Some folks on cruises have a thing about clothing. I suspect that dressing up is some sort of competitive sport for them, and they want to compete against as many participants as possible; even if they have to force those who just want to relax and be casual, to participate in this sick competition.

Well, I showed those snobs a thing or two. Yes, I did bring along a pair of long pants, and yes I did wear them during the goddamned fucking Elegant Dining nights. But while eating and engaging in table talk, I employed words such as “ain’t”, “y’all”, and “shaddup”, while deploying my thickest redneck accent. In this manner I demonstrated that while this rebel could be forced to be elegant, I could not be compelled to be eloquent.

By the way, to find the Sapphire Restaurant, go to the fore elevator, and ride it to Deck 3. Don’t take the mid elevator. That’s a trap they don’t tell you about. You can’t get into the restaurant from there, and have to brave crowded elevators to get back to a different deck and walk to the fore of the ship.

Learn the elevators. They have their ups and downs. There are three sets of elevators, at the fore, mid, and aft areas of the ship.

Breakfast is served at the Blush Restaurant, Deck 3, near the aft elevator. Elegant Dining never occurs at the Blush, thank God. (I wonder if that’s why they named it Blush?)

Plan your shore excursions before you cruise. Just get on Carnival’s website, and you’ll find descriptions for all the excursions available, and that should help you choose. Excursions are important. After all, why would you sail a thousand miles to a foreign port to just stay on the ship, or browse through the souvenir shops on shore? If you really want to see something, you must book an excursion.

We waited until the second day of the cruise to actually book our excursions. We knew what we wanted way before the cruise began, but we worried that we might have to cancel our cruise, and then lose our money from booking excursions too early. The tickets are nonrefundable, you see. But because we waited, some of the excursions we wanted had already been taken. So we were left with alternate, mediocre choices, for some of the tours we went on.

Don’t let that happen to you. Book on the first day of cruising. You can book your excursions at the Carnival Adventures desk, near the fore elevator, on Deck 3.

Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras. If you want to see more than this at the exotic foreign ports you visit, I advise that you book an excursion.

The night before an excursion, buy some water at the Plaza Cafe, on Deck 5. It only costs $1.44 for a one-liter bottle. If you don’t take this precious chemical with you, in the tropical heat, you may find yourself humming a certain Sons of the Pioneers tune the entire day. (Can you name that tune?)

Do you get seasick easy? Then reserve a cabin that’s situated in the middle of the ship. That’s where the least amount of pitching and rolling motion is felt. Vacations are always more enjoyable when you find a way to minimize the vomiting.

Do you have ochlophobia, like me? That’s a fear of large crowds. If so, you might want to reconsider going on a cruise. The Carnival Breeze is very populated, accommodating over 3,000 passengers. You may often find yourself being herded around with other passengers, like a parade of elephants.

I say elephants, and not cattle, because I noticed that most of the passengers are overweight. I suspect that the appeal for many people to cruising is the “all-you-can-eat” dining feature. Fatsos are in food heaven, on a Carnival cruise ship. And their sheer numbers and individual sizes can make it challenging to navigate down narrow aisles, or stand in elevators. You sometimes must contort your body in weird positions, to avoid contact with big bellies.

I think that’s also why they keep the air-conditioning cranked up. Fatsos can’t tolerate any amount of heat. They must always have cold air blowing over them to cool their adipose-insulated bodies, and they howl like tormented souls in hell whenever a hypothermic skinny person inches the thermostat up.

I remained in my cabin as much as possible, due to my ectomorphic frame, ochlophobia, and misanthropic nature. Several times I relied upon room service for a Reuben or BLT sandwich, to avoid cold, crowded dining areas.

This is the casino. Photo was taken around 6:00 am, when most of the passengers were snoozing like beached whales. I did very well at this casino. That’s because I do not gamble.

At the end of the cruise you will receive printed and oral information concerning Carnival’s highly organized, well-thought-out-plan to disembark its 3,000 passengers from the ship in a safe and sane manner. This orderly plan involves disembarking manageable groups of people, one-by-one, by assigned zone, and by deck. You will be warned repeatedly over loudspeakers to follow the plan.

We’ve learned to ignore the warnings. We suspect it’s just Carnival’s way of paying lip-service to maritime safety regulations.

We do like it seems everyone else does, and stampede for the elevators. The crew doesn’t seem to actually care about, or enforce its complex disembarkation procedure. Hell, they want you off the ship more than you want to get off of it, so they can make room for a fresh new load of elephants.

We’ve learned that the sooner we start running for the exits, the sooner we get off the boat before the rest of the stampede, and the less time we have to wait in line at Customs. Believe me, those Customs lines can be murderously long. So take my word for it. Run like everyone else runs! Beat the crowds and get the hell out of there, quick!

Galveston Bay, with the full moon setting, on the last day of our cruise. True to this astrological sign, it was lunacy getting off the ship.

And finally you’ll be heading home. Perhaps in your very own car. An uncrowded car, where you can breathe easily. A comfortable car that will leave you wondering if you could have had more fun on a road trip, rather than a cruise. A responsive car where you have control over everything except the price of gas.

And a car where you can finally remove your parka. Because you also control the air-conditioning.