the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected
when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing
back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My
Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or
computer issues over the years.
entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the
site, it was part of the Travel
Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange
and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.
that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost
definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site,
and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that
piece and used for the book.
material was originally posted on July 23, 2005. It was later
published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments
may have been made while bringing the material back to the site
in this posting.
~ ~ ~
and I gathered up the kids… Jay and Justin… and headed off to
southern California… mainly the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.
didn’t stay in one city on this trip. Here, our gang followed
a day at the San Diego Zoo (day three) with a trip to the Joshua
Tree National Park (day four). Not a hideous drive between the
two, but hardly a cab ride. Works better for your reference and
mine to separate them. As such, I have divided the days for California
into eight… yes… eight diary columns to cover our ten
get to it…
one was a travel day… but man did it involve some interesting
scheduling. Add on that I cannot believe how many headaches I
got and stupid things I saw while making arrangements, and I think
day one, even without a specific city or activity, is a really
good introduction to the trip and how important good planning
one, Saturday, April 16, 2005
started this section at least twenty times.
or forty times would probably be closer to the truth.
wanted to tell you about what a hassle traveling has become. I
wanted to tell you about some stupid things that happened before
we started our trip. But every time I began writing, I wound up
with one of three things happening before I could even get us
on the plane to head out to California... (1) It sounded like
I hate traveling. I don’t. I love traveling. I love seeing new
places… meeting new people… doing new things. Love it. (2) It
sounded like I didn’t enjoy this trip. Well, that’s not true.
Not at all. There were certain things I wish had worked out differently,
but southern California was fine. In fact, overall it was very,
very good. (3) I ended up focusing on the wrong thing… the on-line
travel sites… the time of day we arrived… stuff like that. Well,
all of those elements are part of the story, but not the story
I decided to erase it all. Start fresh once again. And bring you
Angeles doesn’t want you to visit.
want you and me and our families and our friends to stay away.
I can prove it.
get to a lot of my evidence as we go through specific days and
events of the trip diary. But for now, let’s focus on planning
a trip or a comfortable visit.
like things I don’t have to look for. Now, I don’t mean that I
need things handed to me. And, I don’t mean that I fall for the
normal tourist trap items that everyone else sees while failing
to experience any of the real surroundings. Great things being
obvious is nice… tourist trap locations can be fun and entertaining.
I’m basically talking about three specific concepts…
me feel comfortable – About ten years ago I was heading
down to Florida for a trip. I packed up everything… including
my AAA card, because several places outright advertised to an
incredible degree that they offered a AAA discount.
quickly after arriving in Orlando, I found out that the last thing
I needed was my AAA card.
it would have helped getting discounts on park admissions. But,
having our visit timed against a special promotion, a can of Coca-Cola
would have earned a discount as well. And, for other types of
savings, if I was willing to buy one day at the regular price,
an admission for a second day would have been free. Heck, I found
I could check at the front desk of my hotel and find out about
discount tickets and a shuttle ride.
deals were all over the place. People around me in line, that
had bought their tickets ahead of time, were grumbling because
they would have saved even more money by waiting to buy their
tickets once they arrived. The AAA card was a good thing to have…
no slight intended to AAA, because in general it’s a great thing
to have… but it wasn’t the end all, be all item to have on vacation
for earning savings. Every day when we were looking at the prices
for admission to a park, I was doing math in my head. Was this
the best deal? Would we really be coming back for a second day?
times, I didn’t even need to have my AAA card to get the AAA discount.
Just mentioning I had one while reaching for my wallet on more
than once occasion earned a quick “that’s ok, I don’t need to
see it” response.
a lot of places I’ve gone to over the years since have had moments
just like that… even if slightly different. Not simply for savings.
Instead, moments where things weren’t just off from what I expected,
they were off from what I prepared. Moments when I was uncomfortable.
Moments when I felt there was more to the story than what I was
example… the representative at a car rental agency that asks if
I have any questions before I go, and seemingly can’t believe
I might want directions back to the car rental agency to drop
off my car. Imagine that… I might not be familiar with the area,
and might not be planning to spend the week driving up and down
the road the car rental agency drop off desk is situated on. And
even more amazing… that this person managed to get there every
day for work, because they had absolutely no clue how to give
me directions for my return.
I like those people… love those moments.
I went to Las Vegas, there were pamphlets all over the place trying
to make me aware of events and places to see that I might have
missed. That’s how I found out about M&M World.
to say, I might not know what I’m doing or when I’m doing it…
but when I feel comfortable, I’m generally having a much better
time. Don’t make me feel like an idiot. I do that just fine on
my own, I don’t need your help. And if I have to think about whether
or not I’m getting ripped off… well… that isn’t a good sign.
to the locals, or at least listen to those that have gone before
– I don’t expect you to read my adventures and suddenly decide
that the best pizza in Las Vegas is this, or the best hot dog
at Wrigley Field is that. I won’t pretend my exploits actually
provide an answer with no alternatives. I have had bad experiences
paying attention to a famous name on the sign in front of the
restaurant. I’ve had some fantastic experiences looking for a
specific name. And, I’m sure there are others that loved places
I didn’t, and some that have hated places I loved.
I do look for things I can learn from others. Some of my best
meals and most treasured keepsakes were obtained because of a
I made some mistakes? Yup… I certainly have. But some of the best
things I have found on any trip came from talking with people
that live or lived or even just visited where I was headed, or
in talking to people once I got there. The trick is, you need
to consider the source… know what you like and don’t like when
it comes to food or theme parks or anything else… and understand
that people that have been there before often have something valuable
of use – If I had my way, I wouldn’t make many plans
for a trip… ever. I’d have my ticket, hotel reservations and car
rental set up. Done. After that… just let it happen.
everyone that knows me is shaking their head side-to-side and
accusing me of lying with that statement. And that’s because they
know I usually do a ton of research, love talking about things
ahead of time, and often end up too prepared for a trip.
not completely wrong.
that’s research… not plans. Research because there might be fireworks
at one of the theme parks on a day and I wouldn’t want to miss
them because I didn’t know about them (hence the research) and
had made plans that couldn’t be adjusted. Or something like that.
I really love on a trip though is what I find without looking
really hard, and easily could have missed. The stuff you literally
walk into by accident that turns out great… but, you probably
wouldn’t find them if you weren’t looking for something else,
or didn’t know to ask one particular question or look down one
particular side street. Here are two examples…
an example gone bad… La Bufadora. Cross the border from California
into Mexico and there are some great villages and places to visit.
Jay prefers seeing the places we visit. What I mean is that a
theme park is generally the last thing he wants to see. Oh, he’ll
go. And he’ll almost always have a good time. But put him in a
national park… or show him a hill with a beautiful view of a city
at sunrise or sunset so he can take pictures… or just give him
a path leading through the woods… and he’ll be entertained for
hours. One place in Mexico I had heard about was “the blowhole,”
or La Bufadora. It’s just over 15 miles away from a town called
Ensenada. When the water from the Pacific Ocean crashes into the
coast at this spot, it is forced through underwater paths and
creates a geyser that shoots up to 75 to 80 feet in the air. I
thought a day trip to Mexico would be great, and this seemed like
a good place to work on. But… there were problems. First, car
insurance for Mexico, especially with rentals, is not easy to
sort out. In fact, it’s about as far away from easy as it gets.
Your insurance agent will probably answer any questions about
driving in Mexico by recommending a bus tour. Second, trying to
find a one-day bus trip that does what you want it to do (for
us, La Bufadora) and not eighteen extra things was nearly impossible.
I spent days trying to make it work out… and never did.
the other hand… example number two… the Joshua Tree National Park.
While trying to find a national park in California to visit, I
stumbled onto a map that showed the Joshua Tree National Park.
A couple of quick internet searches and I had all sorts of details…
including items from the National Park web site (which I used
to obtain an e-mail address, and they sent me a newsletter about
the park). It turned out to be one of the best days of the trip
and, as I’ll cover in more detail later in this journal, I absolutely
stumbled on to it.
I know that there were (and are) plenty of ways to visit La Bufadora?
Sure I do. But I couldn’t find them. Instead of finding a terrific
view from La Bufadora, I got a headache from it. But the Joshua
Tree National Park was fantastic. And, it was really easy to find
out what I needed in order to get there. I guess you could say
that hidden treasures are nice, but only when they aren’t so hidden
that you can’t find them at all.
comfort and local advice concepts I’ll get to as we move along.
For now, let’s take a look at this trip, my comments about Los
Angeles not wanting any of us to visit, and ease of use.
I write this, San Diego has paper, The Union-Tribune.
At the time of our visit, along the top of the paper’s web site
was “Home”… “Today’s Paper”… “Sports”… “Visitors Guide”… and we
can stop there. Yup, a guide for visitors section built right
in the paper. Click on it and there was information on hotels,
special events, and places to go. I found sections that recommended
restaurants and museums. I found… well… basically I found all
of the essential information I would want for starting to map
out a trip to San Diego. Easy to use. Handy. And lots of details.
about the Los Angeles Times? Not quite as easy at that
site. Ok... maybe that isn’t too fair. I mean… is it the responsibility
of a newspaper to promote the local region to tourists? Probably
not… although as papers complain about decreasing subscriptions
and such because of on-line readership, it is an interesting avenue
of potential revenue. But still, maybe I shouldn’t be stunned
when the Los Angeles Times web site doesn’t have information
for my visit that’s easy to find.
forgot the news media and their coverage. How about the local
tourism boards and their sites? They should have something. After
all, that’s the business for them. Tourism… it’s in the name.
the web site for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.
I requested a packet of information from them. Guess what? They
sent it. I still receive e-mails from them notifying me of special
events and upcoming regional calendars. (Oh… and that’s all I
receive from them. I’m not on any mass e-mail list where everyone
in San Diego is sending me junk. So if you’re looking for some
solid, basic stuff about San Diego, for me… to date… this is a
decent place to start.)
there’s the web site for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors
Bureau. Not too bad from the looks of things. It’s nice enough.
But let me ask you something by way of comparison. On the San
Diego site, there was a section right on the home page to request
information by e-mail. Or you could move the cursor over the “Visitor
Info” note at the top of the page, and “FREE Vacation Planning
Kit” was right there. There was nothing on the LA home page that
offered to send information. So, while writing this section, I
tried again to see what I could find. Since it wasn’t under “Plan
your Vacation,” I went to “Contact Us” in the “Travel Information”
section. That gave me street addresses for visitor information
centers… each with a note about parking available for a fee. The
“Management Team” segment listed e-mail addresses. But I don’t
think I’m supposed to e-mail the president to find out about my
trip. Do you?
Ease of use. I wouldn’t be surprised in any way to find out that
this type of information was actually on the site today… makes
it to the site by the time you look in the future (it seems like
an obvious thing to include)… but the fact is easy to see for
me right now -- it isn’t that easy to navigate around their web
not trying to be too funny or give Los Angeles a hard time on
this. I’m just trying to say that they don’t make things easy
to learn, easy to find, or easy to enjoy.
since I have yet again been going on too long about the city without
sharing the experiences of our trip, let’s get our gang to Los
Angeles and start the vacation. And this is a good place to make
the transition, because as much as LA doesn’t want us to visit…
Spirit Airlines doesn’t make it easy to get there.
know what… I’ve already babbled long enough to this point… let’s
look at Spirit and a couple of other airport moments through the
wonder of quick hits…
flight out of T.F. Green airport was delayed three times.
The first delay was roughly a half-hour. We were told the
plane was late getting out of Florida. The second delay was
for 15 minutes, and third delay was another 15 minutes. We’re
set to leave over an hour late… and our layover in Detroit
was originally scheduled to last about 30 minutes.
attendant at the door wanted to know where the stamp was on
my ticket. Huh? Yeah… well… evidently my ticket had been marked.
I had been randomly selected to be screened at the security
station… regardless of what happened at the metal detector
it meant being wanded and having my bag searched. Security
would see the code, do the special search, and then stamp
my ticket saying I had cleared. No stamp… no entry. Ok… I
don’t care about the extra security… but it would have been
nice if they caught that three hours earlier when, having
arrived early for the delayed flight, we had plenty of time
for additional screening. You know, instead of when we were
trying to board a plane that was running late and was already
going to miss our connection.
the TSA agent arrived at the gate, he told me what was involved.
He said he needed to check my bags and use the wand to scan
for metal. I asked if he needed to see my bag or all of the
bags I was carrying. (I had taken Tigg’s bags from her to
carry on the plane.) His response? He wanted to check my bag,
and let me hand Tigg the bag I said belonged to her. Now…
it did in fact belong to her, and if he had wanted to look
through it I would have let him… but think about that idea
for a minute. “Hi, I need to check your bags”… “Oh, this one
belongs to my wife”… “No problem, she can take it.”
were their ashtrays in the armrests? Hmm… old plane? Just
pilots were Smith and Barney. Tigg found this hysterical.
I could go on, but
perhaps nothing sums up Spirit Airlines better than the snacks.
Have you heard about the disappearing snacks on planes lately?
An article I read recently talked about it and presented it as
a cost-saving effort. Now I have questions about doing this, particularly
when the estimates are saying it will save $1 million. All of
my questions basically involve the idea that I think it’s a pretty
silly move for saving just $1 million. But that’s probably best
saved for another time. For now…
got a ginger ale instead of the soda I asked for… but I was
happy with that when about a minute later the flight attendants
were talking about how they were almost out of beverages.
is no different than most airlines today. Free beverages. Charges
for snacks. Candy bars are $2. Other snacks are $4. I knew they
charged ahead of time, so we had packed a couple of items in our
carry-on bags. But as the cart went past me, I couldn’t help but
notice that the $2 candy bars were the same ones the airport gift
shop was selling for under a dollar. When it got really funny
was when the flight attendant explained to a passenger in front
of us that she couldn’t accept cash for the candy bar. Yup… in
order to buy the $2 candy bar, you had to use a credit card.
there may actually be some amazing reason for this. Interstate
travel. Taxation. Something that I am simply completely unaware
of. There are probably other airlines that don’t accept cash for
these items. But please explain to me how eliminating a bag of
pretzels or peanuts or whatever and then requiring me to use a
credit card to buy a $2 candy bar helps an airline’s reputation.
Because for me, since I will never consider Spirit a true option
for travel again for this and other reasons, it seems to me that
the $1 million an airline attempts to save by short-changing customers
is ultimately going to show up in lost reservations for the future.
it comes to Spirit Airlines, the woman next to us said it best
just before landing in Detroit… “I’m not impressed.”
the fun doesn’t stop after the first flight. We still have a longer
flight from Detroit to LA ahead of us… and more excitement…
with the emergency exit. Not with the exit actually, but with
the people sitting in the row next to the exit over the wing.
Let’s back up a bit. They held the flight for us. We arrived
in Detroit about 20 minutes after the flight to LA was supposed
to leave. So as we got off one plane and then on the other,
we had to endure the stares of already seated passengers with
looks that said “oh… these are the people we had to wait for.”
Well, the women sitting in the aisle near the wing evidently
didn’t know they were responsible for the door. One of the
women was the “I’m not impressed” woman from the previous
flight. After being delayed, getting stared at by the other
passengers, and then being told to move… well… you can imagine
that they were thrilled. But the flight attendants earned
my wrath by talking about the two women with other passengers
and essentially saying that they were already running late
and didn’t need to be inconvenienced by someone that didn’t
know enough to ask for a different seat. Quick… you’re handed
your boarding pass… the seat was assigned randomly… it’s a
new plane… are you in the seat with the wing exit? Exactly…
I wouldn’t know either.
Los Angeles… under construction… or… movie set for yet another
Escape from (insert city) movie?
Los Angeles airport looks like a wreck when we arrive, and it
isn’t treating us kindly. Here’s our basic problem… we’re actually
meeting someone. One of the things I’ve left out of the story
so far is that Jay is flying in from Maryland. (He’s coming from
BWI, with a connection in Atlanta.) Our plane arrives first, and
we have to change terminals to go from our arrival area to his.
I ask about the terminal for his airline and get told we need
to go to terminal 2.
acts a bit like JFK… which isn’t saying much… but it means that
riding a shuttle from one terminal to another while going in essentially
a loop is nothing new to us. We get off at terminal 2 only to
find out that AirTran actually lands at terminal 3.
in the baggage claim area there are no television monitors with
flight information. Has Jay arrived? We don’t know. Tigg tries
calling his cell phone. It goes directly to voice mail, so we
assume it’s because his phone is off and he’s on the plane. And
since our first flight was scheduled to take off before his… and
we didn’t have any time to try and contact him while in Detroit…
and his reservations were made by me and were those wonderful
ticketless style (so he’s arriving at BWI with his identification
and reservation number, but not the credit card it was ordered
with)… this voice mail theory is a big assumption to make with
go upstairs to try and find out some information. I’m passed along
to three different desks before someone actually looks up the
flight information on a piece of paper. Yup… they can’t figure
out how to access it on their computers. Something about the flight
having not landed in LA, the Atlanta offices closing things up
once the flight left, and now they can’t find out if it’s in the
air. (I didn’t understand it either.) And, since the paper is
a general flight information sheet, other than the information
had been closed out in the computer they have no clue if the flight
really did even leave Atlanta, forget about it being on time.
Jay arrives in the baggage claim area and things seem a bit better.
He takes out his cell phone and when her phone rings, Tigg plays
the “turn around” game with him to lead him over to us. Apparently
his flight wasn’t much better than ours, although with a longer
layover he was able to at least eat a couple of hours ago.
here’s where we arrive at the biggest mistake I made on the trip.
didn’t make any hotel reservations for the first night.
ok… I know. Dumb. Even when saying I don’t solidify plans just
a moment ago, I said I make hotel reservations. The thing was,
we were all going to be arriving in Los Angeles around 11pm. By
the time we got our luggage, picked up our car and had something
to eat… I figured it would be well after midnight.
had a room reserved for the rest of the trip. We hadn’t decided
until the last minute what we wanted to do on Sunday. So… where
to get the room… how far we would drive that night or which direction
to drive in… and even more thoughts played into my decision not
to get a room for the first night when we arrived. I figured I
could find a room with no problem… and maybe save a buck or two
in the process because we arrived after midnight.
we were at a major airport. There had to be a hotel nearby. Right?
I found was a scene destined to make a future appearance in a
Grand Theft Auto video game.
in fairness to West Century Boulevard… I had never been to LA
before, and had no clue how to orient myself at midnight to the
neighborhood surrounding one of the largest cities and airports
in the country. Things look much different at night than they
do during the day… unfortunately to the point of making you more
uneasy about it all because where to turn, what’s on the side
of the road, or where the rental car will be safe overnight in
a parking lot all create on-going questions that don’t seem to
have great answers.
weren’t one mile down the road from where we rented the car when
Justin asked if we were in a good neighborhood. When I said I
wasn’t really sure and asked why he wanted to know, he pointed
out the window at three police cars and said “look at the hookers.”
police cars off to the side of the road with their lights on…
three police officers… three hookers speaking with the officers.
(Oh yes, they were hookers.) Nice.
keeping with my “ease of use” theme -- not the hookers… I mean
my earlier concept, and in this case finding some food -- I knew
about In-N-Out Burger. I started telling Tigg and Justin about
them as the plane landed. Just needed to find one. We spotted
an In-N-Out and decided to stop and eat.
I can’t recommend these burgers highly enough. Great stuff.
now it’s closing in on 1am, we’ve spotted yet another prostitute,
and all of us -- again, not the prostitute -- are looking to get
some sleep. We decide the best thing is to get off of West Century.
took us another hour to get to a hotel. I had hopped on route
405 and knew it would take us toward The Getty Center… Sunday’s
planned stop. But as we started stopping at hotels, we found out
they were all full.
we pulled in to a Radisson and things begin to look up for us…
because it was so late at night… or so early in the morning… the
normal rate had dropped for the room they had. And, for a one-night
stay the room was pretty good.
how smart I am?
we crossed the hotel lobby, Tigg’s sneakers were squeaking. It
sounded like she was squeezing a duck on every other step. But…
at what was the equivalent of 5am back home… she didn’t care.