A Solo Adventure

January 31, 2010

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In 2001, I set off on a long, solo vacation.  This was the longest vacation of my life at that point, in terms of both distance and elapsed time.

I was really excited about the trip and got very little sleep the night before I was scheduled to leave.  Eventually, I just packed the car, ate a quick breakfast at Denny’s, and hit the road.  I wasn’t much of a morning person by then, but I was on the road by about 5 AM.  470 miles later, I pulled up to my hotel in Canton, Ohio.  I had made really good time on the trip.  In spite of it being an hour later in Ohio (different time zone), I managed to arrive at the hotel before my room was ready.  I was pretty tired from the road and didn’t do too much that night.

The next day, I went to the football Hall of Fame in Canton.  Honestly, I was not overly impressed.  If you’re a hard core NFL fan, it might be worth the effort to go.  If you’re a casual fan, I’m not sure.  I did pick up some nice Vikings socks in the gift shop.

That I drove to Akron to catch an Aeros (class AA) baseball game.  I had purchased tickets months in advance, which was good. It was bobblehead night (Sean Casey), and the place was absolutely packed. I had a seat right behind home plate (4-5 rows back, I think). The ticket cost maybe $15?  Nice stadium.

Early the next morning, I hit the road again.  That afternoon, I arrived in the hamlet of Cooperstown, New York – home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  Earlier in the year, I had become a supporter of the Hall of Fame.  Once nice benefit was that the membership card gave me unlimited free entry to the Hall of Fame.  I made a cursory review that Sunday afternoon.  I spent two more days digesting the museum in greater detail.  I saw the contract that sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, a priceless T-206 Honus Wagner card, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski’s masters thesis (not a great writer, in my opinion –  at least not at that stage of his life), and countless artifacts of the game.  Unlike many halls of fame, the baseball hall of fame encompasses all aspects of the sport – not just Major League Baseball.

One of the things I really liked was the exhibit of awards.  There were quite a few MVP and Cy Young awards on display.  I could feel a connection to the award winning athlete, imagining how they felt when they won the award.  Two of  Tom Seaver’s Cy Youngs were on display.  Something that struck me as odd was that one was perfectly shiny while the silver on the other had become tarnished over time.  Was this the result of a different quality of metal being used in those two years?

On Wednesday, I checked out of the Hickory Grove Motor Inn (leaving behind an audio book for the friendly women behind the front desk).  Be forewarned – it is advisable to make hotel reservations far in advance of your trip.  Cooperstown is quite small (around 2000 people) and there aren’t too many large cities in the area.  Why this location?  Because of the since-descredited story that civil war general Abner Doubleday invented the game in a nearby cow pasture.

On the way back west, I saw a sign for Niagara Falls.  It was only about 15 miles out of the way, so I decided to go there.  I wasn’t really expecting very much.  After all, it’s just a bunch of water going over a hill, right?  Wow, I was very impressed.  If you go to Niagara Falls, make sure to go to the Canadian side.  You get a much better view from the Canadian side – you’re looking at the Falls from in front of them instead of a more awkward angle on the US side.  I could have spent more time there (and a few years later, did spend more time there with my wife), but I had a long drive to complete.

At the end of the day, I found myself back in Ohio – this time in Sandusky.  Sandusky is home to Cedar Point amusement park.  This was my first exposure to Cedar Point, and I was completely blown away (full review here).  Regardless of what type of roller coaster you like, they probably have it.  I was there on a Thursday and Friday, when crowds were pretty reasonable.

All good things eventually come to an end, and I hit the road on Friday afternoon and arrived back home in Illinois very late that night – just in time to attend my niece’s college graduation the next day.

I got to see a decent chunk of the country, and had a great time at every spot along the way.   I also gained a lot of appreciation for audio books during the trip.  Nelson DeMille’s The Lion’s Game (review here) was with me on this trip.  The unabridged edition is a hefty 25 hours!  The book has a great plot (I’ve listened to it about a half dozen time since) and made the time pass very quickly.

What about you?  Which solo trip did you enjoy the most?

Life in Iowa (and the midwest)

November 21, 2009

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A substantial portion of the readers from The Soap Boxers are from the midwest, but we also have other people spread out over quite a geographic area – not just in the United States and Canada, but spread out across Europe and Asia as well (with the occasional visitor from Australia or New Zealand spread it).  Today’s article is mostly geared toward the out of area readers.


When I say that I’m from Iowa, you might immediately jump to the conclusion that I grew up on a pig farm.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was a dairy farm.

While it’s true that a considerable portion of Iowa’s economy is tied to the agriculture industry, it is far from the only industry in the state.  My own “day job” is working in the information technology area of one of the most recognizable companies in the country.  Quite a few Fortune 500 companies have a presence in Iowa, and there are plenty of white collar jobs in the state.

Cost of Living

One of the best things about the midwest is a substantially lower cost of living than on the coasts.  I live in a city that is more expensive than most in the state, but it’s laughably less expensive than New York, San Francisco, Seattle, or even the larger metro areas within the midwest.  On the rare occasion that I watch a real estate show that watches people buy homes in other cities, I have to laugh.  People are paying multiples of what my house costs and getting a fraction of the space.

Caveat: salaries in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle can often by higher than those in the midwest.

Weather / Traffic

The midwest is blessed/cursed by the existence of seasons.  We don’t have the consistently frigid temperatures of Point Barrow or the baking heat of Death Valley, but it does get over 100 degrees in the summer and wind chills can dip to fifty degrees below zero in the winer (although that is fairly rare).  During the course of the year, we’ll get rain, snow, sleet, hail, freezing rain, fog, and even something fun called “wintry mix”.

One quirky thing that we do in Iowa answer the question of “How far is it to point X” in miles!  Why don’t we give the answer in minutes?  Well, because there’s a pretty standard conversion factor that everyone knows.  1 mile = 1 minute.  I work in one of the larger cities in the state, and a “major” traffic delay means 15-30 minutes.  A few years ago, I was delayed for nearly an hour!  For someone in NYC, this might not sound like much of a delay, but it’s historic around here 🙂


Considering that Iowa has the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses, you may jump to the conclusion that Iowans are, by nature, very political people.  This really isn’t the case, though.  The registered voters in the state are split pretty evenly between Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters.  The Democrats have done well in recent elections, but any given election can turned based on how the substantial block of unaffiliated voters swing.

The big political news this year was the state supreme court legalizing gay marriage.  Iowa has never been known as an activist state, so this came as a surprise to many.  Opponents of gay marriage are proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.  However, it’s difficult to even get such a measure on the ballot.  Such a measure must pass in the state house and senate in TWO consecutive state assemblies (an assembly lasts two years) before going in front of the voters.  With the Democrats in control of the state legislature, there is not chance of this occurring any time soon.  The next chance the Republicans would have to gain control would be in the 2011-2012 general assembly, meaning that it will be 2013, at the very earliest, before this measure could go in front of voters (since it must pass in TWO assemblies) – where it would face an uncertain fate.

What to Do – Sports

Iowa has no top-level professional sports teams.  However, we are within an easy day’s drive of Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Milwaukee (or a more aggressive day’s drive to quite a few other cities).  So sports fans in Iowa aren’t completely shut out.  A nice bonus to this is that you don’t feel compelled to lock in to one particular sports team.  The fan base within the state is fractured.  The Cubs have a plurality among baseball fans, but there’s also a strong contingent of Cardinals and White Sox fans.  The Vikings probably have the most football fans right now, but this tends to flip-flop between the Vikings, Bears, and Packers depending on who is doing the best on the field.

The biggest sporting events in the state, however, are the college sports.  Iowa is the only state that has a team in both the Big 12 (Iowa State) and Big 10 conferences.  This leads not only to debates about which team is better, but also which conference is better.  (Iowa State and the Big 12 are better, of course).

If you’re a fan of college wrestling, Iowa is a great state for you.  Wrestling legends Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson wrestled for Iowa State, with Iowa native Gable later switching sides and turning the Iowa wrestling program into a juggernaut.  During the season, quite a few wrestling matches are televised on the state’s PBS station.

There are also quite a few race tracks in the state, ranging from go-kart tracks in the smaller towns all the way up the the Iowa Speedway in Newton, which features NASCAR Nationwide and truck racing, as well as an IRL race.

There are five affiliated minor league baseball teams (headlined by the AAA Iowa Cubs) as well as an independent league team in the state.  There is also the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville (a hop-skip-and-a-jump from my hometown).  It has been twenty years since the movie came out, but the field still attracts visitors.  Admission is free.  They do accept donations and will happily sell you merchandise.

What to Do – Non-Sports

OK, I realized that not everyone is a sports fan.  What is there for the non-sports fan to do?  Well, of course there is access to activities in the larger metro areas mentioned earlier, but what is there to do within Iowa itself?

Hebert Hoover Presidential Library – It might surprised you to know that Iowa is home to a presidential library.  The library and music of native Herbert Hoover can be found in West Branch.

Cable Cars – Cable cars aren’t just for San Francisco.  You can recreate the experience in Dubuque, riding up the side of a hill in a cable car.  I was there when I was a kid, and it was pretty cool.

Burial MoundsEffigy Mounds National Monument features more than 200 Native American burial mounds, including 31 that were formed into the shapes of animal.

The Bridges of Madison Country – Yep, Iowa is the home of the covered bridges of movie fame.

Rivers – Iowa is bordered by the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  This provides great access for fisherman (and fisherwomen), and has also resulted in interesting topography for hikers.  Personally, I like the bluffs along the Mississippi.

The Basilica of State Francis Xavier – Don’t think there’s gothic architecture in Iowa?  Check out the Basilica and you won’t be disappointed.

RAGBRAI – Every year, thousands of people participate in this ride across this state.  It’s half exercise and half party.  Well, maybe that’s not the exact percentage 🙂  They change the route every year (but it’s always west to east)

I’ve just scratched the surface … swing by and visit Iowa some time.

Cedar Point review

May 16, 2009

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People are often surprised when they find out that I am a roller coaster addict.  The image of an thrill seeking adrenaline junkie seems to be at odds with the mild mannered bookworm they see in front of them.  In fact, I grew up in fear of coasters.  Then, one time I was at an amusement park with my cousin, who is two years younger than me.  He was going to ride a roller coaster.  I didn’t want to show fear, so I mustered up the courage to ride.  The ride up the hill was incredibly harrowing … but a few seconds later I was hooked on coasters.

If you are a roller coaster addict, you must visit Cedar Point.  Cedar Point is located on a peninsula in Lake Erie, in Sandusky, Ohio. The Lake provides an absolutely incredible backdrop for many of the rides. Cedar Point features 17 roller coasters (more than any other park in the world) and a variety of other thrill rides. They have a wide variety of coasters. Whether you like wood, steel, standing, suspended, inverted, or even kiddie coasters, there is something you’ll like. I made my initial pilgrammage to Cedar Point in 2002, and returned there with my wife in 2005. I’m anxiously awaiting the day when my daughter is 48 inches tall. She’s halfway there, so it should just be a couple more years, right? Let’s jump right in and I’ll take you on a tour of some of my favorite rides at Cedar Point.
There are two Cedar Point coasters that I have not yet been able to ride.

  • Top Thrill Dragster is tops on my “most wanted” list.  It opened in 2003.  In theory, we should have been able to ride it when we were at Cedar Point in 2005.  Unfortunately, it was closed both days, which really sucked.  The ride launches you 450 feet in the air and you reach a speed of 120 mph.  It looks absolutely awesome.
  • Maverick opened in 2007.  It is “only” 105 feet tall, but it does have a 95 degree drop angle, the sharpest drop of any coaster in the park.  I don’t really have a good feel for how Maverick would ride.

Now I’ll take you on a tour of some of my favorite rides at Cedar Point.  These are in order of preference.

  • Mean Streak – This is a mile long wooden coaster.  I am personally a big fan of wooden coasters, although my wife is not.  As the wood in the coaster has aged over the years, Mean Streak has gotten even more mean.  It’s definitely a bone jarring ride.  I happen to love a rough ride on the rails, so it’s definitely my cup of tea.  Also, the ride is 3 minutes long, and the lines are often short, because many people fear the Mean Streak!
  • Wicked Twister – The best way to describe Wicked Twister is that it is shaped like a U.  You start at the bottom of the U.  You are launched 200 feet in the air – with a couple of nice twists toward the top.  Then you back down and get launched 200 feet up the other side.  Half the time, you’re going to be backward.
  • Millenium Force –  The key element is the raw height, as the ride takes you 310 feet in the air and immediately drops you 300 feet.  You are carried up the hill – not launched – so it is a nice slow ride up the hill, and you have a great view from the top.  When you get to the top, you’re a football field (end zone to end zone) from the ground.  Pretty cool.
  • Gemini – Gemini is 30 years old, tops out at 60 mph, is only 125 feet tall, has a meek 55% drop angle.  Why is it on my list of favorite, beating out rides such as Mantis and Raptor?  Because you race.  There are two tracks.  One track has the blue train and the other has the red train.  You race side by side, and you can never be sure which train is going to win the race back to the station.

I’ve only scratched the surface.  Check out Cedar Point’s web site for more details.  There’s also a water park (Soak City), but I have never set foot inside Soak City – simply because it would mean taking time away from coasters.

Are you looking for a place to stay while you’re at Cedar Point?  There are some nice on site options, but if you’re looking for a nice, quiet place, I would suggest  McKenna’s Inn, a bed and breakfast on nearby Catawba Island.  It appears that their web site needs a bit of work, but don’t let this fool you – this place is first class.  Not only are the facilities nice, but the location is great.  It is located on a private lane that ends at Lake Erie.  You are with very easy walking distance from the lake.

I love Niagara Falls

April 23, 2009

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I have had the pleasure of experiencing Niagara Falls twice.  The first time was in 2001 on a solo trip – a stopover of just a few hours.  The second time was a honeymoon trip in 2004 – a considerably longer stay.  In 2001, I was on a trip from Illinois out to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  At some point, I realized that Niagara Falls was about 20 minutes out of the way.  I didn’t have a huge burning desire to visit Niagara Falls, but it was so close that it seemed silly not to make a side trip.  I was driving from Cooperstown, NY to Sandusky, OH that day, so I didn’t have a lot of time for Niagara Falls.

I was completely blown away.  The Falls have an awesome power.  I stood near the Falls, simply gazing at them for the longest time.  Even more incredible is the fact that much of the water from the Niagara River is diverted into a hydroelectric plant, lessening the amount of water that goes over the Falls.  In spite of this, it was still the most fascinating thing I have ever seen.  An interesting note is that Niagara Falls is the honeymoon capital of the world … and also the suicide capital of the world.

Of course, there is more to do than simply watching the Falls.  First and foremost, take a trip to the Canadian side.  Because of the geography of the Falls, the view from the Canadian side is much better.  From the US side, you’re kind of looking over the Falls from an awkward angle.  From the Canadian side, you’re looking straight into the teeth of the Falls.  The difference is night and day.

The most famous tourist attraction is probably the Maid of the Mist boat ride.  The boat takes you up to the very edge of the Falls (at the bottom, of course).  You eventually get close enough that the Falls pushes the boat away from the Falls and back toward where you came.  Each passenger is given a keepsake plastic raincoat (of the thin variety), and you’ll need it.  You’ll still get wet, though.  Another neat thing right at the Falls in the Journey Under the Falls.  This is a tunnel that actually allows you to walk under the Falls.  At one point, you actually view the Falls from behind.  There are also some other water-based activities in the area.  We took a jet boat ride through the rapids.  It was fairly pricey, but was a pretty cool experience.  You can also dine at a restauant high above the Falls or take a helicopter ride above them.

If you want some of the toursity type of activities, you are definitely in luck.  There are two Hard Rock Cafes (one on the US side, one on the Canadian side), a Planet Hollywood, a Hershey’s store, and a multitude of other stores and attractions (including a Ripley’s Believe It or Not and a few museums).  Of course, there are a large number of stores that sell souvenirs, so you needn’t worry about walking away empty handed.  And if you really want some big city thrill, Toronto beckons.  If you’re a history buff, there is quite a bit of history in the Niagara Falls area.  One example is Fort Niagara.  Fort Niagara is one of the oldest continously operated military bases in the US, dating back to 1726. 

I’ll warn you up front that photography can be a challenge.  The spray from the Falls tends to get the camera lens wet very quickly, leading to blurry photos.

Places: Pitcairn Island

April 9, 2009

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On April 28, 1787, Fletcher Christian led the crew of the HMS Bounty in a mutiny against Captain William Bligh. Bligh and those loyal to him were set adrift on a small boat. Bligh was eventually able to report the mutiny to British authorities.

In an effort to evade the British navy, Christian and eight other crew members, along with some Tahitians who had been kidnapped, settled on the remote Pitcairn Island. After landing on Pitcairn Island, the Bounty was intentionally burned, marooning everyone on this remote island.

Incredibly, Pitcairn Island is still populated by the descendants of the mutineers. The population swelled from twenty seven people who originally landed on the island until the population threatened to outgrow the island in the 1850s (Pitcairn Island is just 1.75 square miles in size). In fact, the entire population moved to relatively close Norfolk Island (only a five week trip by boat). Within a few years, many of these people moved back to Pitcairn Island, and the population grew once again, peaking at 233 in 1937. Today, the population hovers around fifty, as many residents have chosen to emigrate off the island.

Pitcairn Island is as inaccessible as a place can be in this current age. It is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and does not have an airstrip or a harbor that is suitable for ships. Anything that needs to be transferred is transferred via a longboat, which travels from the island to a nearby ship. Visitors from smaller boats visit the island occasionally, as well.

Pitcairn exports honey and handcrafted items. A rather significant segment of the island’s revenue comes from the sale of postage stamps to collectors as well as domain registrations under the .pn top level domain. People can also subscribe to the local newspaper, either online or in print. The printed edition can take a while to arrive. Interestingly, all of the homes on the island have internet access (a single satellite connection that is networked to all the houses).

The stories from Pitcairn are not all happy, of course. There are reports that sexual promiscuity is common and that men engage is sex with very young girls – and that these things have been occurring for a very long period of time. In 2004, seven men from Pitcairn were put on trial for rape and other charges. Six of the men were found guilty. Five of them have subsequently been released to home detention.

So the next time you’re thinking of a trip to a remote location, swing by Pitcairn Island and tell them I sent you!  If you’re trying to get away from the rat race, there are very few options that are better.

Wikipedia was a source for this article.