Category Archives: Vacation

Big Bend National Park, Vacation

A Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 8

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It rained overnight in Terlingua and we rolled out of town at dawn and shortly drove into an ice storm. It was pretty surreal to the desert coated in ice and the driving was a little nerve wracking, but it turned out that the ground was just warm enough to keep the ice from coating the highways. We finally drove out of the ice near Abilene.

Big Bend National Park, Vacation

A Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 7

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Our last full day in Big Bend was mostly a leisurely ramble along the Ross Maxwell scenic drive visiting the various easily accessible sites. First up was the remnants of the Sam Nail ranch where this derelict windmill stands in a photogenic pose. Pictures of it are all over the Internets and in thousands of tourist photo albums.

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The ruins of the Sam Nail adobe ranch house continue to melt back into dirt and that windmill in the background continues to operate, pulling up water to sustain an oasis.

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The oasis is host to this stand of Dr. Suess looking trees.

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We had planned on making the easy hike into Santa Elena canyon, which we’ve done a few times before, but the crowds chased us out about halfway into the hike. Abby got a good shot of Gina and me on the delta of Terlingua Creek at the mouth of the canyon.

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We headed back north on the Ross Maxwell Drive and made a stop at the Mule Ears Peaks overlook. Can you see Abby’s mule ears?

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A few miles farther we stopped to do the short hike up the canyon to Burro Mesa pouroff. The fall colors were putting on a show. By this time a cool wind was whipping down from the north, bringing low clouds and wintry weather.

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There’s an area near the west entrance to Big Bend National Park that hosts a forest of ocotillo. The setting sun was peeking intermittently through the advancing clouds and lighting up the tiny yellow leaves.

Big Bend National Park, Vacation

A Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 6

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One of the big highlights of our latest Big Bend trip was making the famous jaunt across the Rio Grande to Boquillas, Mexico. I made this trip way back in 1992 when all you needed was a wad of small-denomination American bills to pay the boatman and the burro keeper. The border at the river was lightly enforced and folks living along the river in both countries could travel a few miles on either side without hassle. Nowadays, post 9/11 and amid Mexican-immigrant hysteria, you have to have a passport and obey the hours of operation. If you aren’t back across the river by 5 p.m. you’re stuck in Mexico until the next day.

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You meet the boatman on the river bank for quick ride.

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Then you are assigned a guide and burro to ride the mile or so to the village proper. Your guide follows along behind and keeps the burros moving. Our guide was Jerry, an amiable fellow who said he also works as a firefighter in the national park. Jerry’s house is the first one you come to when you hit downtown. His wife and children have a display of home made items for sale, some of which they produce on the spot while you’re eating lunch. Abby ordered a yarn bracelet with her name on it.

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The first stop was the brand new customs compound where visitors are issued a temporary visa. Then Jerry took us on a quick stroll through the dirt streets and showed us the Catholic church. (There’s also a Baptist church but it’s in the part of town near the river and apparently doesn’t cater to tourists. When you think about how elaborate most churches are (especially Catholic churches) you can see how this one is a testament to just how poor the town is.

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Jerry showed us the brand new solar panel installation that provides all the electricity in town and the new Army post that is there to keep tabs on the drug-running situation. For lunch we got the choice between two restaurants, the difference between the two being that one has tamales and the other doesn’t, Jerry said. I wanted to eat at Falcon’s despite it being the tamale free joint because that’s where we ate in 1992 and I wanted to see how the place was holding up.

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Falcon’s was booming. It even had a little bed and breakfast out back called the Falcon’s Nest. And it turned out they did have tamales afterall. In fact, the waitress seemed taken aback that we thought they didn’t. She needs to take that up with Jerry.

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We had a scrumptious flight of salsas for an appetizer and tamales and burritos for a main course. It was all very fresh and well done, which I thought was remarkable considering the place is 200 miles from the nearest real town. I don’t how they get their restaurant supplies. Maybe they are airdropped. After 9/11 the border was completely closed and Boquillas, which relied on American tourists for virtually all its economic activity, pretty much dried up. Most people moved away. The remaining holdouts would sell their handmade wares along the riverbank where a popular hiking trail offered a stream of tourist customers. The merchants would wade across the river and leave their merchandise with a list of prices and a jar for the money. A strict honor system. The new crossing situation has only been in place for a couple of years. We chatted with the owner of the restaurant, the daughter of its founder, Jose Falcon. She said the place was shuttered for 11 years after the border closure. Jose died in 2000 and mercifully didn’t have to witness it, she said.

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The whole place caters to the tourists from the U.S. This wheelchair-bound busker spinned a Spanish serenade while we ate.

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After we finished up our lunch, I slipped away from Jerry and took a stroll around behind the restaurant where I found this antique Ford still in service.

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The streets are dirt and livestock is common, but brand-new electric lines herald a modern age for the village.

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Jerry did a pretty great job of showing us around. I bought a sotol stick painted as a snake from his wife before we left town. It was only 12 bucks and they acted a little embarrassed to ask so much.

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We wrapped our Boquillas trip early in the afternoon, which left us a little time to amble up the Old Ore Road and visit a couple of sites out in the desert. First stop was the grave of Juan de Leon, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. The park is home to a lot of lonely grave sites like this one. On the border, people pay their respects to the dead in more elaborate fashion than you see elsewhere. Even graves way off the beaten path have coins or candles or beads added every year.

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A couple miles farther is the trailhead for the trail to Ernst Tinaja, which is a large pothole depression in a narrow canyon that does a good job of holding water in an arid land. It’s a short easy hike in really cool area. The water is pretty nasty, though.

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On our way back out to the main road we came upon this cool view of the Sierra del Carmen lit up by the setting sun.

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We headed back to Terlingua and got in line for the popular Thanksgiving Day dinner at the Starlight Theater. The wait was only a couple of hours so we had plenty of time to hand out on the porch and people-watch.

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The big souvenir shop has some interesting displays. I especially like the giant hand-drawn map of the stretch of Highway 170 from Lajitas to Study Butte. Check out those sweet insets.

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We finally got called to our table in the packed dining room where we got some great entertainment and a great traditional Thanksgiving meal with a southwest twist. Green chile dressing, anyone?

Big Bend National Park, traveling, Vacation

A Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 5

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After spending the night in downtown Ft. Davis, we hit the only place on in town that served breakfast, according to Google, where I had pretty authentic migas with refried beans. A solid 3 FPWs.

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Then we went over to the Fort Davis National Historic Site, which is a restored frontier outpost dating back to the Indian Wars. It looks just like the set of every John Wayne-in-the-cavalry movie you’ve ever seen.

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All the straight lines and open areas made it a good spot to play around with the rented fisheye lens.

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Gramps channeled his inner Old West Beetle Bailey for this portrait.

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As a museum, it’s a pretty immersive experience. Around noon we parted ways with Nana and Gramps, who headed back to Arkansas for more traditional Thanksgiving activities. We headed back down to the border to start the second half of the vacation, which we spent in Terlingua.

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Terlingua is an isolated border town with a heavy Mexican influence and a famous Ghost Town, complete with a unique cemetery that is a tourist attraction in its own right. Skeletons and other Day of the Dead iconography are big in Terlingua. We hear it gets weird there at times.

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After we got checked into our lodging, I proposed a short hike, but neither of my companions could bring themselves to leave the luxurious digs, so I headed out to an off-label site in BBNP that I had read about. This unofficial trail is reached by driving out a county road until it dead ends at the national park fence. The area is littered with prehistoric Indian artifacts, chiefly in the form of petroglyphs.

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Huge boulders sloughed from a high ridge were apparently the perfect place to leave messages, histories and stories, judging from the dozens of examples along about a one-mile stretch of ridge bottom.

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Although the area isn’t advertised in any park brochure, it’s a popular place. There is a clear trail along the flat below the ridge and I saw three groups of people milling about in my two hours in the area. Despite all the traffic, the petroglyphs are largely free from graffiti, this jackass from 1902 notwithstanding.

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This panel is larger than the others and is on a giant curved boulder. It looks like it was so popular that the artists started carving over themselves. Anybody know what these people were saying?

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As night approached, these white patches in the cracked desert soil really lit up. I don’t what the white stuff is, salt maybe.

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On the way back I found these morteros, or mortar holes that the Indians created to grind grain in with wood or stone pestles.

Big Bend National Park, Hiking, Outdoor fun, traveling, Vacation

A Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 3

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We had one pretty epic hike planned. A seven miler up into the high Chisos Mountains to Laguna Meadow. We woke up early to freezing temps. The leaky ice maker outside our cottage had created a slick spot of ice on the sidewalk. Gramps made the half mile walk from his accommodations to meet us and we headed out. Around 1,600 feet of elevation gain awaited us.

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Although it was late November, the leaf change had just gotten going in earnest. The mountains are an interesting mix of desert and forest. Among the cactus and agave are ponderosa pine and oak trees and other plants commonly found farther north in the West. Although we didn’t get to them on this hike, the Chisos Mountains are home to southernmost stand of aspen in the U.S.

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A couple hours in we stopped for a longish break for a midmorning snack. Gina, being some kind of bird whisperer, started throwing bits of peanut butter crackers on the ground and small flock of Mexican jays swooped out of the mountains and started chowing down. They nearly ate out of our hands.

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We lined up for a group photo after our snack. We should’ve stood closer to the camera.

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Gramps recommends climbing trees whenever possible. Especially when you’re 4 miles up a mountain in one of the most remote areas of the country with no real hope of timely medical intervention should you fall and crack open your skull.

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We did a lot of lolly gagging so it took us about 4 hours to get to Laguna Meadow. We thought it was pretty funny that there was a weird pit toilet up there. The trail gets a lot of traffic. Many, many groups of hikers passed us on the way up. Most were headed to the South Rim of the Chisos to camp for the night. Some groups planned to make a day trip out of the 13 mile round trip South Rim hike. We saw a man and woman in basically street clothes who said they were doing that. The woman had one of those mesh backpack purse things with the strings for straps with 2 bottles of water in it. I imagine they wanted to kill each other when they got finished.

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On the way back, just as the trail started downhill, Gramps broke off and scrambled up the southern peak of Ward Mountain. I soon followed him up there and got what must be the second best view of the Basin.

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Views of Casa Grande from Ward Mountain. The top of Casa Grande is the best view of the Basin.

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We paused in the howling wind atop the mountain to take a bunch of photos.

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Gramps, ala Vanna White, pointing out Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos.

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Gramps isn’t afraid to do what it takes to get the shot.

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One of my favorite things to do in Big Bend NP is to hit the visitor center in the Basin and check out the map of recent bear and mountain lion sightings. It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there were two sightings of a group of three mighty pumas at Laguna Meadow the week before our hike.

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The hike took way longer than any of us expected. Gramps thought we’d be back around noon. It was closer to 4 p.m. We were starving and looking forward to eating at the Starlight Theater outside the park in Terlingua Ghost Town. The ghost town is small area of ruins from the area’s mining days with a big gift shop, bed and breakfast accommodations and a few restaurants. It’s always packed with tourists and locals having a big time. The waits are long for the restaurant but there’s enough to do that you don’t really notice.

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Day of the Dead items are a big component of the souvenirs at the gift shop.

Big Bend National Park, Family Fun, Hiking, Photography, Vacation

Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 2

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We kicked off our first full day in glorious Big Bend by taking a drive down the River Road, a Texas-famous stretch of highway along the Rio Grande. It starts in Terlingua and runs 60 miles or so to Presido. Our first stop was the tiny berg of Lajitas to visit the town’s mayor, Clay Henry. Clay is a goat. Several Clay Henrys have held the mayoralty. The folks in Lajita have many colorful stories about Clay’s hard-drinking ways.

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We stopped for lunch at the general store in Lajitas and I had the best sandwich I’ve ever had anywhere anytime. Pastrami on sourdough. It was decadent offering.

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A few miles up the road we stopped to check out the river and see the remains of the movie set Contrabando. Only one building remains out of the six or seven built 20 years ago. Just facades and shells with nothing on the inside, they were apparently flood damaged and falling in and were destroyed for safety reasons. I got a good photo of the church the last time we visited.

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Not a lot to see so we just took some pictures of each other and moved up the road.

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We stopped at the rim of Colorado Canyon just as a guided group of young people rolled up. The spot was featured in the movie “Fandango” in the scene where Kevin Costner digs up a bottle of champagne from under a rock with D-O-M scratched into it. The rock and the inscription are still there. The guide was super enthusiastic about showing his group the rock. They were many and loud and climbing all over the place.

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The River Road twisting away across the desert.

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We eventually stopped at Closed Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park for a short late-afternoon hike. Closed Canyon is a classic slot canyon affair that is quite quite a bit narrower than it is deep.

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The canyon acts as an open-air drain to the Rio Grande for a closed in valley separated from the river by a high ridge. The water must really roar through there when it rains in the right spot.

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Like the slots in Arizona, the canyon features a series of progressively higher pour overs. Gina and I hung back while Abby and I continued down as far as we dared. We finally got to a drop that we thought would be hard for Abby to ascend, so we turned around.

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I got her to make a rare pose for me at the top of the pour over.

Big Bend National Park, traveling, Vacation

A Big Bend Thanksgiving – Day 1

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I talked Gina into going to Big Bend National Park in 1996 and it was so hot and miserable it took 14 years to convince her to return. Now I can’t keep her away from the place. We returned for the third time since that ill-fated mid-90’s trip over the week of Thanksgiving. After the 10-day trip we declared it our best vacation of all-time. (When I say “we” I mean Gina and me. Abby thinks our trip earlier this year to Universal Studios in Orlando has been the best vacation.) We even convinced Nana and Gramps to tag along with us.

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I rented a fisheye lens for the trip and I thought it would be funny to break it in with a fish-face portrait. I was impressed with how Abby is really selling it.

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We stopped off in Marathon, Texas, for lunch at a classic roadside diner-type establishment.

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A couple of actual working cowboys came in and sat at the next table. They ordered iced coffee.

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We booked three nights in the Chisos Mountain Lodge inside the park. The rest of the trip would be spent in a couple other places outside the park.

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The building in which our room was located was built in the early 40s and it is clearly showing its age, but it’s all about location, right? We were right in the heart of the action and the surroundings were very peaceful. We hardly saw any of the other people staying all around us.

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That evening we walked to supper at the lodge restaurant with a nearly full moon rising over the mighty 7,500 foot Casa Grande.

Beach, Gulf Shores, traveling, Vacation

The Shores Of The Gulf

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We made our second trip of the year to Florida (see the documentation on our first trip.) This time we hit Gulf Shores, Ala., to do some beachin’.

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The first beach trip Gina and I ever made was to Gulf Shores many years ago, but we hadn’t been back since. We have been to Pensacola and Destin a few times each and have always stayed in a regular hotel or one of those high-rise condo monstrosities. For this trip we decided we wanted to try the beach house route. Gina found The Green Heron House on a canal in the heart of Gulf Shores. It was small but quite adequate for our needs.

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The house’s namesake patrolling the canal behind the house.

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Being a map guy, I enjoyed that the owners had hung up a couple of historical maps of the Alabama gulf coast.

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We ate a ton of great food. I remember not being impressed with Gulf Shores’ restaurant options, but this trip was pretty stellar. We discovered that the best eateries were so close by that we could get takeout, avoid the long wait, and still get back to the house with hot food. So we did that several times. S&S Seafood, which is just a takeout joint, not a restaurant, was a great find.

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One day we drove over to Pensacola to tour the haunted lighthouse and eat at Crabs We Got ‘Em.

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We went a little crazy one day and signed up for the local zip line madness. It was a lot of fun and pretty scary at first. We were pretty impressed that Abby just jumped off the edge of the first tower with zero hesitation.

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At one of the stations we were told we needed to go down backwards with our legs propped up in the safety lines in the “torpedo position” because the headwinds would prevent us from reaching the landing area if we went in the front-facing configuration. That was a thrill. All the zip line pics except this one were shot by the venue’s staff photographer.

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We capped it all off with a little night crabbing and family beach portraiture.

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Vacation

Harry Freaking Potter

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It turns out that there’s a couple of sections of a major theme park in Orlando, Fla., mocked up to look like locations in the Harry Potter novels. And because Abby has turned into a Harry Potter nerd in the last year and Gina has been a Harry Potter nerd since sometime in the ’90s, they hatched the idea to go to this theme park for spring break this year. I’m not a Harry Potter nerd, but this is my payback for making them go to Big Bend last year. They even convinced the aunts Jodie and Katie to come with us.

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Abby has been agitating to go on a place for three or four years and she finally got her chance. She had her fancy matching luggage and carryon so she was pretty adorable making her way through the Hell of the airport. When the miracle happened and the plane lifted off she nearly flipped her lid. “This is so cool,” she was almost trembling with excitement. She knows I don’t like to fly. She kept looking over and saying “You’re scared, aren’t you.” And then laughing manically.

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So we got to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and I admit it was pretty neat what with the rides and the recreation of Hogwarts and fictional London.

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The first stop was the wand shop to get our interactive wands, which are used to make things move in various areas of the park. Picking out just the right wand is a laborious process.

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Abby worked out the kinks with some help from a passing witch and then gave me some spell-casting instruction.

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They like to keep things authentic at TWWOHP, even down to having an actual giant as the maitre de at the Three Broomsticks tavern.

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On the second or third day (it’s easy to lose track of time in paradise) we hit a giant water park with some major league water slides. I commonly deride water parks as merely big tanks of pee, but I really enjoy a good waterslide. After this place, I’ll never be able to go to Wild Urine Country again.

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We hit the fictional London locale Diagon Alley at night, which is not to be missed. It made for some cool photos except for the people standing shoulder to shoulder in every inch of the place.

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A giant dragon was perched on the roof of the Gringotts Bank building and every 10 minutes it belched a massive flame blast.

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People would line up just before the flame time and hold their phones up to video the spectacle in the horribly wrong vertical orientation. I lined up a great shot of them and that jackass in the striped shirt walked in front of me right when the flame went off.

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We ate some great food.

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We got some exotic hair accessories.

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We rode the Hogwarts Express a few times.

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We acted silly.

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And on the last day while killing time before we had to be at the airport we ate at what must be ground zero for the Orlando hipster scene, Yellow Dog Eats. It had this awesome VW Bus photo area out back.

San Francisco, Vacation

San Francisco – Day 5

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We kicked off our final day in San Francisco with a completely excellent breakfast at MyMy Coffee Shop before heading out to return a lens I had rented for the week. Our next destination was famously crooked Lombard Street. It was a mile or so from the camera shop so we decided to walk.

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It turns out the non-famous side of the street is one of those super-steep affairs. The UPS drivers must be used to it from the way they just park in the street. I guess those trucks have space-age parking brakes.

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This was the scene that greeted us when we finally topped the hill. Tourist insanity. Cars line up to wait for the crowd to part so they can slowly make their way down, down, down the block.

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The downhill end of the street is just as tourist packed as the top. It wasn’t a great time of the day to get a decent photo and anyway it’s impossible to get a shot without tourists in it. I was lucky to get one with only a couple people in it.

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We sorta wandered around for the rest of the afternoon and had a semi-bad dining experience at a very expensive restaurant. Gina kept trying until she got an excellent steak. Mine sucked. I should have sent it back. Then we headed down for another go at China Town just before dark. This shot is looking east down California Street. That’s one of the towers of the Bay Bridge way out there.

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