Sunday, October 4, 2015

The End of the Journey, and the Next Trek

Over the last nine months, this blog has been a vehicle to tell stories from my travels around the United States. I had a blast sharing these experiences, as I thoroughly enjoyed reliving the memories, sorting through old photos, and writing the narratives of each trip. 

The publication of the posts on Washington mark the end of phase one of this blog. While the first phase is in the rearview, will live on in a few ways. 

First of all, I plan on updating this blog as I continue to travel around America. This may take some time to come to fruition, as Mrs. Tires and I recently added a new travel companion named Jacoby to our family. His birth will take us off the road for a while, but once he is ready for the highway, there will many adventures ahead for our clan. I still need to visit North Dakota, Alabama, Alaska and Hawaii to complete my collection of all fifty states, and there are so many destinations to hit for the first time or revisit and share with Jacoby. 

In the meantime, I plan on adding some posts about my international experiences. I purposely focused on travel within the US during phase one, but I had way too much fun to stop there. My trips abroad produced many stories, so stay tuned.

Phase one was a hell of a journey. Thanks to all who came along for the ride. Looking forward to hitting the road again soon.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Washington, Part 2: Seattle

Seattle and I have made acquaintances several times over the years. My comedy group Dirty Water was a regular at the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater (SFIT), which afforded me several opportunities to check out the city. More recently, Mrs. Tires and I gave Seattle a thorough exploration at the end of our epic road trip in September of 2014 that also took us to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.

During that 2014 road trip, we arrived in Seattle after a day that started in Coeur d'Alene, Iowa and included a stop in Spokane. The rainy, traffic-y drive into the city after eleven days on the road left us quite tired, so we planned to chill at our hotel and do some much-needed laundry after we checked in. However, Mrs. Tires called an audible once she realized our rainy Monday night arrival afforded us the perfect opportunity to score a table at Shiro's, a fancy sushi restaurant. Shiro's sushi list is notoriously inventive, and its head chef is a disciple of Jiro Ono, the chef profiled in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so it usually requires reservations months in advance. Mrs. Tires convinced me to forego the laundry, and off we went into the Seattle evening.

After a harrowing drive in the rain, multiple GPS (not driver) errors, and an iffy parking situation, we got to Shiro's, and sure enough, we got a table. We ordered the chef's special, which included many types of sushi, sashimi, rolls and other assorted delights. The fish was exquisite, and our server was abundantly knowledgable and kind. We stretched our palate and tried new and exotic dishes such as prawn heads and uni. We were glad we did. The whole experience was wonderful, and I highly recommend a visit. 

On our way back to the car, a bar called Shorty's caught my eye. As mentioned in my post on Door County, Wisconsin, I love creepy clowns. That same love pulled me into Shorty's, as the bar was decorated with wall-to-wall clown art. We ignored our fatigue and popped in for a drink. 

After admiring the extensive collection of creepy clowns, we wandered into the back of the bar, which featured wall-to-wall pinball machines. We're both terrible at pinball, but we had fun playing their diverse collection of black-lit machines nonetheless.

After the clown bar, we called it a night and retired to our suite. Mrs. Tires did a bang-up job choosing the hotel, scoring a room at the Hampton Inn and Suites in downtown Seattle. The location couldn't be beat, and what's more, we cashed in our Hilton Rewards points for the room, so in addition to the free stay, we got a complimentary upgrade to a one-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, a fireplace and a private balcony. Our big-time score on the suite further solidified my love of the Hilton Honors program, as I mentioned in my post on Tennessee

Warming our feet by the fire after a long day on the road.  
The next morning we washed our clothes (finally) and returned our rental car, and then walked to Pike's Place Market, a famous food, fish and produce market by the waterfront.

We wandered around the market for a while, sampling various foods and exploring the shops, all of which were hawking various forms of local flavor. We were quite amused by the famous fish stand that made a show out of throwing the fish around behind the counter, and occasionally in the direction of the onlookers. We also got a laugh out of the monk fish, a scary looking ocean creature that's totally fake and is used to freak out unsuspecting tourists. 

Pike's Place Market is a decent stop, but it's not all that impressive. It reminded me of Faneuil Hall, a crowded, overrated outdoor market in Boston. I've been to Faneuil Hall a hundred times and I still don't understand the appeal. Pike's Place makes for a decent stroll, but it can be skipped.  

Around the corner from Pike's Place sits the most disgusting tourist attraction I've ever witnessed: The Gum Wall. It's covered in ABC gum that plasters not just a wall, but an entire alley. The concept is gross, and the smell of melting globs of sugar on a hot day makes it even more nauseating. 

I make a contribution to the world's sickest tourist attraction. 
One of the surfaces of the Gum Wall belongs to the Market Theater, an improv theater that hosts some of SFIT's shows. It's a great space, and I have several fond memories of performing there. There's a sign on the box office window that kindly asks people not to put gum on it. Many have ignored the request.

From the Gum Wall, Mrs. Tires and I wandered on to the waterfront, which featureed a novelty museum and gift shop called Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe (a blast to visit), Ivar's Fish (delicious oysters), the Seattle Aquarium (I have never visited, but I hear it's spectacular) and the Seattle Great Wheel.

A bonafide curiosity 
Oysters at Ivar's
Riding the Great Wheel
The Seattle Great Wheel is a ferris wheel that provides some nice views of the city. It's a fun stop, but not worth the $15 per person fee. Mrs. Tires and I would've skipped it if not for the Fun Fund.

TRAVEL TIP: Start a fun fund. We populate our fun fund with serendipitous money we encounter, such as loose change, poker winnings, found money, fantasy sports winnings and the like. We save it for the road, and when we use it, we do so with one rule: it must be spent on fun. This can include ferris wheels, skeeball, fortune telling machines, and other items that are good for a laugh but might otherwise give someone pause before forking over the cash.

From the Great Wheel, we walked to Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. My visit to this ballpark with Mrs. Tires was my second, but my first time witnessing an actual game. My first trip to Safeco was during baseball's offseason and involved a tour of the stadium with Dirty Water. The all-access tour brought us to the press room, the owner's box, the visitor's locker room and even onto the field. It was a unique and enjoyable tour that gave really cool insights into parts of the stadium seldom seen by fans.

The cast of Dirty Water conducting our press conference
The visitor's locker room. 
Hit the showers, boys. 
The view from the field

I am a ballpark nut, so I was eager to visit a second time and get the true fan experience.

The view from my favorite stadium chasing vantage point
My favorite feature of the stadium was the unobstructed access to the home and visitor bullpens. Anyone with a ticket can hike down the stairs behind the bleachers and get up-close and personal with the relievers. Many stadiums offer some sort of view of the bullpen, but Safeco's provides the closest and most open view I've encountered. One can simply lean up against the railing and be just a few feet away from the players.

On the night I was there, the visiting Astros' players were plenty chatty with the fans, even sharing some jokes and tossing out some souvenir baseballs on. I got a wave from Sam Deduno, an obscure pitcher who finally responded to my calls to him after a few attempts.

The view into the visitor's bullpen
Moments after Deduno made my night, Mrs. Tires and I wandered over to the outfield seats for a fresh view. Two minutes later, a screaming home run off the bat of Logan Morrison ricocheted off the scoreboard behind us and landed one section to our right. I gave chase and came close to the ball before it was scooped up by another fan. The lucky lady who got the ball was rather attractive, prompting an extra look on the super slo-mo replay. We watched it at the hotel later, and sure enough you can see my smiling face in the corner of the screen as I returned to my seat, souvenir-less but happy for the experience.

The food at Safeco was another highlight of the park. There were almost too many options, ranging from traditional fare to stuff prepared by some of Seattle's most famous chefs. I had the legendary beef torta from Edgar's Grill (named after Mariners legend Edgar Martinez). It was spicy and delicious.

Safeco also offers a robust sushi bar, which includes the revived Ichiroll (named after Ichiro Suzuki, now a Marlin). It's famous fare among stadium lovers, so I had to try it. It tasted like grocery store sushi.

Mrs. Tires and I ate our rolls while sitting at a table that was smack dab in the middle of the Mariners Hall of Fame, a free exhibit within the stadium that includes lots of Mariners memorabilia and a few areas set up for trick photography.

Safeco is known as the most artistic ballpark in baseball. It houses several baseball-themed art installations that add to its overall character. Here are two of my favorite pieces:

Overall I agree with the general feeling of Safeco shared by stadium chasers - it delivers a top-notch stadium experience, even if it lacks any major famous feature. I would definitely go back.

Our exploration the next day happened within the Seattle Center, a densely populated tourist area that houses the EMP museum and the Space Needle, among other destinations.

The EMP Museum is a pop culture museum featuring interactive exhibits galore. It's one of the coolest places I've ever been to. I first checked it out during one of the trips with Dirty Water. Back then it was known as the Experience Music Project. I specifically remember spending over an hour with Dirty Water in the section of the museum that provided tutorials on how to play various musical instruments. That day I learned to play Louie, Louie (Washington's state song) on the guitar, and I also tried out the drums, the mixing board and the turn tables.

When Mrs. Tires and I were in Seattle in 2014, the EMP Museum was high on my list of places to visit again. By then it had merged with the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and had rebranded as the EMP, a pop culture museum. We arrived early with the hope of covering the whole museum. After purchasing our tickets, we remembered the fact that we were on vacation and decided to grab a bloody mary at the bar on the first floor. We had to kill fifteen minutes before we could order an adult beverage, so we took some photos in the museum's funky interior while we waited.

At the stroke of 11:00, a tiny tattooed bartender with the pixie haircut took our order. As it turned out, she was a bloody mary connoisseur, for better or worse. She went to work tamping, grinding, mixing, whipping up her own horse radish, growing her own celery and making her own mason jars. Forty-five minutes later, we had our bloody marys. They were delicious, and almost worth the wait. Almost. As tasty as they were, we were anxious to get into the museum, so we gulped them down and went on our way.

Being horror film buffs, we headed to the horror exhibit first. This exhibit was decked out with creepy, genre-appropriate horror film decor, and featured mood music visitors could enhance by hitting buttons that elicited screams, shrieks and other ambient sound effects. Many classic horror film props were on display, including Jason's hockey mask and Jack Torrence's axe from The Shining.

While those elements alone would be enough to satisfy any horror fan, the highlight was an interactive shadow wall that projected our shadows and superimposed extensions on them - wild hair, animal parts and other amusing and surprising shapes. It's difficult to describe and even more difficult to pull yourself away from.

The exhibit also featured a scream booth which snapped photos of people delivering their best screams. Once we entered the soundproof booth, we were encouraged to deliver either our best "ready to attack" scream or our best "frightened as all get out" scream.

My attack face
From there, we wandered on to the fantasy exhibit. This section's highlights included the original Cowardly Lion costume and a couple of interactive kiosks, one of which allowed us to create a map of our own fantasy land and another that superimposed our heads on fantasy archetypes.

Next we shuffled off to the Sci Fi exhibit. That wing was a bit more traditional so it wasn't as noteworthy, though it did allow us to play with some Star Trek special effects.

After the Sci Fi exhibit, we looked at our watches and realized we had spent almost three hours in those three exhibits alone. We took a break to get some delicious burgers at the bar on the first floor, and then headed over to the music-oriented exhibits.

An elaborate permanent exhibit on Nirvana exposed some rare artifacts from the band's history and showed Nirvana's story in a new light.

Concept art for Nevermind. Writing in upper left says "If anyone has a problem with his dick, we can remove it"
We spend a considerable amount of time in the aforementioned interactive exhibit that featured tutorials on various instruments. Mrs. Tires rocked the drums and the synthesizer while I boned up on my Louie, Louie.

With time winding down and the museum about to close, we went upstairs to the exhibit on music videos, which, among other things, allowed us to walk into the A Ha's Take on Me video.

Before we knew it, it was closing time. That marked my second time visiting the museum and my second time missing a significant portion of it. I will definitely go a third time. The EMP is simply one of the coolest museums in existence.

We had some time to kill between the museum closing and our dinner reservation, so we wandered around the Seattle Center, hanging out by the International Fountain for a while and then sneaking peaks at the other museums. From what we saw, the Chihuly Glass Museum and the Pacific Science Center looked promising. They're surefire additions to the "next time" list.

The public tease of the Chihuly Glass Museum
Finally it was time for dinner. That was a good thing because #1: I was about to cross a major item off my lifetime bucket list, and #2: I was starving.

I had always wanted to have dinner at the top of the Space Needle. Several locals warned against it, saying it was overrated and wouldn't be worth the price. I'm glad I didn't listen to them. The whole experience was marvelous.

The Space Needle restaurant is a revolving restaurant that is officially called "SkyCity." The reception area and kitchen in the center of the restaurant don't revolve, but all of the tables on the outer rim are on a giant track that slowly revolves the diners around the structure. The movement seemed very natural and pleasant, except for the few times when the track would jerk a bit, making us feel dizzy for a moment. 

The ever-changing views outside the windows were incredible. Sometimes we were looking out at the Seattle architecture, other times we had views of Mt. Rainier and other distant mountains, and still other times we were looking over the water to Bainbridge Island and other parts of the state. We timed our dinner so the sun was starting to set just as we were seated. The pink hue of Seattle's setting sun cast some extra wonder onto the view.

The ever-changing view from our table:

The service at SkyCity was fantastic. Clearly we weren't big spenders (we split an entree) but our waiter treated us like we were important guests anyway. He was kind and accommodating, and he somehow knew how to show up exactly when we needed him and not more. We ordered the tuna on his recommendation, and it was some of the best fish we had ever tasted. We also had fancy cocktails, which were delicious. 

The meal included a trip to the observation deck at the top of the needle. Unfortunately one must take advantage of this after dinner, so it was dark by the time we got up there. I can't help but wonder if we may have missed out by going up there so late. The skyline was lit up and beautiful, but maybe a bit less spectacular that it would have been by day.

The view from the observation deck
However, I had an ulterior motive for visiting the observation deck. I was looking forward to trying out the Space Needle's app, which, when activated near certain hot spots on the deck, virtually superimposed images of re-imagined space needles or delivered virtual views through the floor to the street below. This added a really neat element to our visit to the top.

The virtual view through the floor to the street below

The Space Needle was one of our favorite stops on the trip. Top notch food and great service would be enough to make a great night out, but add in a gorgeous and always changing view, the novelty of rotating ever-so-subtly while dining, and some trippy technology at a landmark recognized around the world, and you've got the makings of a truly spectacular experience that makes memories to keep for a lifetime.

TRAVEL TIP: Dinner at the Space Needle requires some serious pre-planning. Reservations are available 90 days in advance and fill up within a day. If you want to go (which you do), mark your calendars early. 

The next day Mrs. Tires and I took an Uber X over to the U District, where we rented bikes for a ride down the Burke-Gilman Trail. I was familiar with the U District because it's home to the Historic University Theater, the other theater that hosted SFIT shows. It's a wonderful venue. We were so enamored with it after our first visit that we "purchased" a seat in the theater. A donation to the theater gave us a plaque on one of the seats that reads "Dirty Water, Chicago IL." It's a great seat with a nice view. I caught a couple of shows from the seat during subsequent visits. But I digress.

After acquiring our bicycles, we headed west towards Gasworks Park. This park used to be a gasification factory, and some of the equipment still stands while the rest has been converted into green space. When we got there, we locked up our bikes...only mine wouldn't lock properly. It sort of half-locked but wouldn't attach all the way. I pushed, pulled, tugged, adjusted the code and tried everything else I could think of. Nothing worked. I had to call the bike rental company to request their assistance.

While we waited, I remembered the time Dirty Water visited the park years earlier. During that visit, a winding trail to the top of a hill called my name and told me I had to explore it. We also posed with the equipment and the structures throughout the park and joked that the resulting photos would be an album cover someday.  

Walking towards the hill that called to me
Dirty Water's album cover
Solo album cover from the return trip
As Mrs. Tires and I wandered the park, I remembered why I had a mixed impression of it. The park attracts many homeless people, which greatly detracts from the experience. Though I am not insensitive to the plight of the homeless, I don't care to interact with them, and these homeless people are of a particular brand of crazy - the kind that makes visitors uncomfortable. The classic homeless stench is wholly abundant. Also, the park features many loft-style open areas which would be great to hang out at, but they're taken up by large collections of odiferous undesirables.

Eventually the guy from the bike rental company caught up with us and snipped the broken lock. With that, we were on our way to our next destination, the Fremont neighborhood.

Fremont is often referred to as Funky Fremont, and for good reason. It displays an abundance of quirk, from its troll under the bridge and its frolicking clowns to its giant statue of Stalin.

After taking in Fremont's character and chowing down on a tasty burger from Uneeda Burger, we cycled on to the final destination on our bike ride, the Alice in Wonderland-inspired oyster bar The Walrus and the Carpenter. It was a bit off the beaten path (literally), but worth the journey. We slurped a delicious assortment of oysters, and the small twinge of disappointment we felt over the fact that the Alice in Wonderland tie-in was minimal was quickly washed away by the outstanding cocktails they served.

Full of oysters and with another Seattle adventure in the books, we got on our bikes, got back on the Burke-Gilman Trail, and pedaled all the way back to the U District. The whole trail was wonderful, as it connected many great Seattle neighborhoods, was well-maintained, and only got crowded during the evening rush.

I truly enjoy Seattle, and the more I visit, the more I want to go back. There's still a ton more to see, even after visiting four times. Additionally, most of the things I have visited, I want to check out again. I highly recommend a trip to Seattle. It's a truly fantastic city, one of my favorite in the country.

Must-See in Washington:
  • Space Needle (Seattle) 
  • EMP Museum (Seattle)
  • Manito Gardens (Spokane) 
  • Safeco Field (Seattle) 

Check it Out:  
  • Snoqualmie Falls (Snoqualmie)
  • Fremont (Seattle) 
  • Burke-Gilman Trail (Seattle)
  • The Waterfront near the Seattle Great Wheel (Seattle) 

Skip it:  
  • Gas Works Park (Seattle) 
  • Pike's Place Market (Seattle) 

The "Next time" list:  
  • Chihuly Glass Museum
  • Pacific Science Center
  • The Seattle Aquarium (Seattle) 

Washington, Part 1: Snoqualmie and Spokane

For more on this trip, check out #raymansgowest on Twitter.