When I was nine-years-old my dad had a lot of work in Washington D.C. and he would occasionally bring the family along on his trips. We would take a robber baron-dated Amtrak from New York to D.C. and stay at the pinnacle of luxury for a nine-year-old known as The Embassy Suites in Bethesda, Maryland. There were few things better in life as a nine-year-old than staying at the Embassy Suites.
When I stayed in the kind of tropical resort known as the Bethesda, Maryland Embassy Suites, there were few things I ever needed in life after that magical experience. I would say that Embassy Suites was a close second to Six Flags in terms of the potential for greatness that the human experience had to offer. Whether I was jumping on a bed covered in starchy sheets, revealing room service chicken tenders from beneath a metal saucer of a heat cover or sprinting laps around the perimeter hallways, I’m pretty sure it was the happiest I ever possible reached as a child. Forget about everything else, if I was nine and staying at an Embassy Suites I don’t think life got much better.
Twenty years later and my family’s annual roller coaster pilgrimages have been replaced by hunt to visit all 59 national parks in the country. When I realized that traveling to Northern California to see friends, family and Pinnacles National Park had the potential for an Embassy Suites stay, my life had gone full circle.
Pinnacles is located around two hours south of the San Jose airport and on first glance – like an Embassy Suites – it doesn’t seem all that special when you get your first glance from the parking lot. You have to really dive beneath the surface and explore both locations to find their truest majesty. Pinnacles looks like a bunch of really cool rock formations jutting out of a chaparral forest. The history behind the place has something to do with being the leftovers of an ancient volcano that moved a few hundred miles into the Central Valley because of the San Andreas Fault that will kill us all someday. But when you first look at the thing, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as special as it is. You might be misled by the bland glass exterior of the Embassy Suites, but you really have to step inside to see what you’re missing.
There are two roads that lead to Pinnacles, one from the west off the 101 and one from the east that isn’t close to anything, except maybe San Jose, California, but I don’t think that counts. The roads don’t intersect within the park so you need a really trusty Uber driver who will go 60 miles out of his way if you want to do a one-way hike. The highlight on the drive was driving through Gilroy, California, which is the garlic capital of the country. In the same way that diabetics seize up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Gilroy’s garlic-scented air can proudly proclaim itself vampire-free. We entered Pinnacles from the east, parked at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and set out on the 5.3-mile loop along the High Peaks and Condor Gulch Trails.
Pinnacles National Park was one of those trips that was excellent because of the day we saw it. We went on an empty Wednesday in March with 60-degree weather, no crowds, green hills and rare wildlife sightings. We could’ve gone to the exact same place at the height of the drought and been miserable. Instead, we climbed along staircases carved out of the Pinnacles with nothing but a thin railing separating us from a vertical drop-off hundreds of feet below. We had to duck our heads to squeeze between boulders on the trail. We switchbacked up the rocks and had expansive views of both sides of the park with the snowcapped Sierras in the extreme distance. And that would’ve been cool enough but then we saw the condors.
We were at around 2700 feet of elevation when we crested another one of the staircase-carved boulders and saw four of the last-remaining California Condors in the world sitting sentry atop the mountain. Listed as extinct in 1987 (there were only 22 alive in the world at the time), the last handful were captured, nurtured and slowly reintroduced back into the wild. Today there are 128 California Condors flying over the state, each of them tagged and tracked like a kid with anxious parents, and we were lucky enough to see four of them. And then we got even more fortunate to see a glimpse into the future. We stumbled upon two soft-soften birdwatchers who were camped out all day to spot the birds. Basically, me in five years. They invited us to use their binoculars to see the birds up close.
These things were huge and vulture-like. They looked like they were wearing giant trench coats and when they flew overhead their nine-foot wing span let you know you were in trouble. California Condors are the largest North American land-birds. They are scavengers without any fur on their faces making them some of the least-attractive creatures in the animal kingdom but also some of the coolest. Their appearance is the last thing on your mind when you see them circling and you’re low on water. Seeing Pinnacles National Park was good. Hiking across the park and spotting the four condors was amazing. Seeing Pinnacles, spotting condors and then two nights later traveling up to Northern California for a stay at the Embassy Suites was everything I could ever want in life.
We extended the trip a couple extra days to see family and friends in the area. This involved a day trip to the Marin Headlands over the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods a little further north. The views were amazing and redwoods spectacular but both of them paled in comparison to coming full-circle in life with our stay at the Embassy Suites.
I was happy to report that nothing has changed since my residency as a nine-year-old connoisseur of the Embassy Suites. You still walk inside and get hit with the overpowering odor of chlorine from the swimming pool and fountains. The depressing koi still call the atrium pools home. The diluted sunlight filters through the greenhouse ceiling. The breakfast buffet is still all-you-can eat with a line of sticky children pushing their way to the hot chocolate machine. You can get the signature Embassy Suites headache from forgetting what actual sunlight feels like. Annoying kids continue sprinting laps around the atrium while the hum of the ice machine keeps you up all night.
If that sounds like a miserable night in a hotel, you’d be sorely mistaken. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was the anti-AirBnB. It was the absolute peak of mediocrity and you can’t manufacture that kind of comfort. It was like drinking the perfect glass of milk. Just like their counterpart – the California Condor – there are only hundreds of Embassy Suites left in the world. They were added to the endangered species list only a few years ago but we all have to do our part to nurture them back to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, nacho cheese plate happy hour and fax machine business center greatness that we all know they can be. And that is what makes the National Park Service the bastion of protection that we are all thankful to have, both as Americans and as Ambassadors to the Embassy Suites and California Condors in the world. It was truly a majestic trip.
If you visit Disneyland and its neighboring park, California Adventure, you can easily spend half a grand while sitting in giant lines with screaming kids all day. One-day park-hopper passes start at $155 per person, parking runs $18 and that’s before you get into the world of overpriced food, water, souvenirs and endless lines.
There are only a few windows during which I’ll visit Disneyland and every time I go I stick to the same strategy that works every single time. When I go to Disney, I spend as little money as possible, wait in the shortest lines and visit the best attractions the parks have to offer without dealing with any of the crowds. If you follow this plan step-by-step, you can visit Disney and California’s Adventure for free (or very cheaply) while encountering the shortest lines throughout the day.
1. Visit on a shoulder season weekday
This sounds obvious, but it makes all the difference. There are only a handful of times that I’ll go to the park and it’s when crowds are at a minimum. You can check the park’s least-crowded days online, but there are some obvious ones you want to avoid. Never go to Disney over Christmas break, any three-day weekend (MLK Day, President’s Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day), Spring Break, Easter or Veteran’s Day. If you can take a day off of work in the fall or spring, that’s even better. You never want to go to Disneyland on a weekend, over the summer or especially a summer weekend. Never. Go to the beach instead.
The best times to go to Disneyland are on Spring and Fall weekdays when rain is in the forecast. Go in early-November or early-December. Weekdays in late-January through early-March (minus three-day weekends) offer cooler weather, fewer crowds, fewer screaming kids and shorter lines. You get the exact same Disney experience, but much, much better.
2. Park for free Outside of Disneyland
All the streets surrounding the park strictly enforce permit parking or don’t allow street parking at all. That’s why most people opt to pay $18 for the Micky and Friends parking structure then take a shuttle to the park entrance. I don’t like this for a few reasons. First is I’d rather spend the $18 elsewhere, second is it’s time consuming to park, get to the shuttle, wait to the shuttle and then ride it to Downtown Disney before walking to the park entrance. If you are willing to walk a little bit (a little less than a mile) then you can drop your companions directly at the front gate and then park for free.
The entire neighborhood NORTH of Interstate-5 is free neighborhood street parking. Take the exit AFTER the main exit for Disneyland Drive, this is Exit-110A for Harbor Boulevard. If you want to drop anyone off at the park entrance before parking, turn right on S Harbor Blvd. and the main gate will be on the right (this is where Ubers and Lyfts drop off). If you want to park for free, when you get off the highway, turn left onto S Harbor Blvd. Travel north on S Harbor Blvd. Cross W Ball Rd and then as soon as you reach W Vermont Ave the entire neighborhood offers plenty of street parking. The only thing you need to be careful about is that there is street cleaning one day a week. Aside from that, parking is totally free.
Once you have parked, you have a few options to get to the park. You can walk one mile down S Harbor Blvd. crossing the overpass for I-5 and the park entrance will be on the right. You can take an Uber or Lyft which will cost less than $5. Or you can take the OCTA (Orange County Transit Authority) bus. Local line 43 picks up at Harbor and Vermont or express line 543 stops at Harbor and Ball. Both buses drop off at the park entrance, the fare is $2 each way or $4 for a day pass.
3. Get Free Disneyland Tickets from a Disney Employee
The Walt Disney Company employs hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. Many of those employees enjoy the company benefit that they can visit Disney theme parks for free, or go with friends or family. Find one of these people! I don’t care if you have a distant third cousin who has an ex that works in marketing, this can save you over $150 per person for a one-day park-hopper ticket. Sometimes these aren’t only good for Disneyland, they work at all Disney parks and resorts worldwide.
If you can’t find a friend or family member to provide a ticket, you’re out of luck. Disney rarely offers discounts. There was a time in the past where they would provide a free ticket if you performed an act of charity through a program they offered. Outside of that, your best bet is being part of a corporate function or volunteer organization so your job can get you in the park. Other than that, pick which one you want to visit (or both) and pay the hefty fee.
Generally Disneyland is the better park for younger kids and offers the classic Disney “magic” experience, but because it is older and more popular, it can get more cramped. Space Mountain and Indiana Jones are fantastic rides. California Adventure is more spacious and newer but lacks some of the charm that makes Disneyland famous. It’s a better park for teenagers. Radiator Springs Racers, Grizzly Falls and California Screaming are excellent attractions and it’s the only of the two parks where you can purchase alcohol (they also have a winery within the park).
4. Be at the park gate 30 Minutes Before Opening
Have your tickets ready, be in line and be set to go at least 30 minutes before the park gates open. If you are only doing one park, you don’t have to choose where to start. If you’re doing both, see if one of them opens an hour earlier than the other and go there. I find this best when Disneyland opens at 8:00 A.M. and California Adventure opens an hour later at 9:00 A.M. Wear comfortable walking (or running) shoes and be prepared to clock a lot of distance. On my last visit, I logged 26,000 steps and 12 miles of walking between both parks.
5. Do the Most Popular Rides First Thing in the Morning and Utilize Fast Pass and Single Rider
Beat the crowds. I don’t care if it’s early or your coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. As soon as the gates open, head straight to Space Mountain, pick up a fast pass and then knock it off your list immediately. Get your fast pass, ride Space Mountain and then you’ll have your second ride ready to go either for right now or later in the morning.
As soon as you finish that, start making your way back across the park. Since it’s still early, ride Star Tours and Astro Blasters along the way before the lines start to grow. After that, cross the park and head straight for Indiana Jones. If there’s already a line then hop into single rider to avoid the crowds. In a best-case scenario, when you finish Indiana Jones, you will be eligible to receive a second fast pass.
The way fast pass works is you are assigned a time when you can return and skip the line. If you get a Space Mountain Fast Pass first thing in the morning, it might say, “Return between 8:15 A.M. and 9:15 A.M.” As soon as 8:15 A.M. rolls around, you are allowed to get your next fast pass (regardless of whether or not you’ve ridden Space Mountain). When you finish riding Indiana Jones, pick up your second fast pass for later in the day. Or go to the other end of the park and get a Splash Mountain fast pass for the afternoon when it’ll be a bit warmer.
Now it’s time to use the Space Mountain fast pass to get a second ride on the park’s most popular attraction without waiting in line. Go back to Tomorrowland, hit your second ride on that and then it will probably be around 8:45 A.M. (assuming the park opened at 8). You have a few options at this point.
If you are doing both parks, you can leave Disneyland and go to California Adventure. Follow the same strategy with the second park. As soon as the park opens (assuming it’s an hour later than Disneyland), head straight for the Fast Pass for Radiator Springs Racers (located just outside It’s a Bug’s Life). The fast passes for the two parks are completely independent of each other, so you can have passes at the same time for both parks. Go to the rear of the park and visit the Toy Story Midway and California Screamin’. If you have time, squeeze in Tower of Terror before you can redeem your Radiator Springs fast pass. Use your fast pass to skip the line at Radiator Springs Racers and congrats, you’ve done both parks’s busiest attractions before 11:00 A.M.
If you are only doing Disneyland, then keep attacking the most popular rides early in the day and retrieve fast passes when they become available. Get a fast pass for Splash Mountain so that you can return when it’s warmer in the day. Visit Matterhorn and Thunder Mountain before the lines grow. You can usually save rides like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean for later in the day when you want to recover in lines that move fairly briskly.
6. Pack Your Own Lunch and Water
You can bring a small backpack with you onto all the rides at Disneyland and California Adventure. Load up the backpack with sandwiches, water, juice, snacks, trail mix and a small ice pack (if necessary). All the rides have little pockets where you can stow the backpack. If you have a small salad in some tupperware then the ride will mix it for you. When you enter, you’ll have your bag checked. Selfie sticks are confiscated.
At around noon when the park starts to get slammed, this is when you take your lunch break. Time it before everyone else hits the expensive cantinas and before your afternoon fast passes on gentler rides. Haunted Mansion, Ariel’s Grotto, Pirates of the Caribbean, Astro Blasters, Monster’s Inc. and any ride in Fantasyland is safe for after a meal while the rest of the park deals with lines for food and meltdowns. Pack your own refillable water bottle so that you can top it off as needed throughout the day and avoid paying several dollars every time you need water. Plus you need to stay hydrated for all the walking you’re doing.
Spend the hours from 1:00 to 3:00 taking advantage of earlier fast passes you picked up. This is when lines will be at their worst. If you want to do rides that are popular, try their single rider lines, some of which are not advertised. For example, you have to ask the attendant at Grizzly Falls for a little pass that says you’d like to be a single rider. Once you’ve crossed off a few more attractions, you can either leave by 4:00 or gear up for the evening.
7. If You’re Staying Late, Take an Afternoon Break at the Grand Californian Hotel or in Downtown Disney
Find some air conditioning, a soft couch, take a nap, check your phone, rest and relax for a little bit. If it’s around 3 or 4 P.M. this is the perfect time to bounce if you’re good on rides or get recharged for another round. Maybe you have more fast passes for later or you want to watch fireworks or a parade. The version of yourself a few hours in the future will be very thankful if you take a break earlier in the day.
There is a separate entrance and exit gate to and from the park near Grizzly Falls in California Adventure. Make sure you hand is stamped and your ticket allows for reentry. Leave the park, make your way to the hotel lobby (or sneak into the pool area) and just relax for an hour. It’ll make all the difference if you’re staying in the parks later that night.
Don’t do Disneyland and California Adventure the same way that everyone hits those two parks. Do the opposite of what everyone else does and you’ll have a much better experience. Park north of I-5 for free, get tickets from a friend or family member who works for Disney, do the most popular rides as soon as they open, pack your own lunch and rest while everyone else is being insane. Then kick back for some fireworks knowing you did Disney better than everyone else.
Part of what makes Yosemite and Sequoia so beautiful is that you have to drive through Fresno on the way. It turns out the exact opposite holds true for the national parks of Hawaii. Both Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks are less beautiful in context because they are surrounded by the most gorgeous place on Earth. So when you actually drive to the main attractions you’re underwhelmed because you’ve seen and explored nothing but spectacular scenery along the way. After driving two hours to get to the national parks you calculate the obligatory time to show interest in geology until you can get back to the beach.
While my career and job prospects appear to be nonexistent, I take a little bit of solace in the fact that I’ve poured all my energy, time and money into traveling the world with a girl I somehow tricked into marrying me. By last count I’ve been to five continents, 20 countries (more if you go by FIFA’s count), 27 national parks and 40-something states depending on how much you count drive-throughs. It’s possible that Hawaii could be the best trip I’ve ever taken anywhere, which I hate to admit because so many people have been to Hawaii. There is nothing pretentious about my favorite vacation which sucks because I’m a very pretentious person.
I’m going to have the same favorite place as Barb in accounting who went to Honolulu on her honeymoon 20 years ago, which is such a waste of all the other trips I’ve taken. I could’ve saved a boatload of cash from the Australia trip if I knew I could go half the distance without exchanging currency or having to deal with all the spiders that will murder you. Yeah, Thailand was beautiful but they also have plenty of Thai food in Hawaii without the underage prostitutes (this might be a minus for some). Food costs a lot more money in Hawaii but you can choose any country’s cuisine and it usually includes American-sized portions.
Every beach I’ve visited in Hawaii has been the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. I snorkeled with enormous green sea turtles that looked at me and threw me a head nods like we’re old buddies. I swam with an aquarium’s amount of fish, laid out in the softest sand in front of the most picturesque palm trees and snuck into the bathrooms of the fanciest hotels in the country. And it’s all the little things make Hawaii incredible. All the free parking next to these perfect beaches, the fact that – somehow – this is still part of the United States even though you’re half an ocean away. The food, people, weather, rainforests, sea turtles, laid back vibe and abundance of banana bread, and I really, really, really enjoy banana bread to the point where my last blood work showed a spike in potassium. And Hawaii is like the capital of banana bread.
Now somewhere along this paradise, the national park service designated a couple stretches to officially join the ranks of the 59 United States National Parks. And they do this because – like all national parks – these two places offer one feature better than anywhere else in the country. Driving up the Jagger Museum of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (even though all of Hawaii are volcanoes) we saw real, bubbling, red hot lava belching out of a crater into a huge undulating sea of magma. That was amazing. You know what else was amazing? Walking out of the hotel in flip flops to the Corona-quality beach while we were handed cold pineapple slices. Nothing against the national park but we didn’t have to drive several hours away from the beach for the latter and the rangers were short on pineapple.
Haleakala National Park suffered from the same problem as Hawaii Volcanoes, which is that it’s a really strong team in the league’s best division. They might be in first place if they played in the Midwest Division, but because they’re in the Pacific League they’re mired in fourth. We drove the entire Road to Hana to scope out the park’s Seven Sacred Pools and hike through a bamboo forest. We switchbacked up 10,000 feet to overlook the island’s crater and see the Big Island popping out of the clouds. But national park standards are so overwhelmed by the beauty along the way. They could have said any slice of the Road to Hana was a national park or any coral reef filled with sea turtles and you’d get the same beauty while remaining much closer to the minibar.
It’s not just that you’re driving past gorgeous viewpoints, it’s that you also get to be a part of it along the way. You can hop into hidden pools beneath thunderous waterfalls, you can hike through rainforests and swim with turtles. I tried as hard as possible to care about volcanoes when I was standing on a crater. But I could continue caring about the geology while charging a piña colada to a random room at the Grand Wailea because, technically, that’s on a volcano as well.
If Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks were located in Oklahoma, they would be the greatest gems in the national park system. Because they comprised two out of 10 of my favorite days of travel in my life, they were memorable stops on a perfect vacation. They might have been victims of the weather as well. Haleakala will join the ranks of Machu Picchu and Denali as places I traveled very far only to see them on cloudy days. Hawaii Volcanoes required an eight-mile hike to get a closer view of the lava that we opted against. If it had been raining at the shore and the parks saved the trip, maybe it would be another story. I just really liked snorkeling and I feel guilty reporting that to the National Park Service.
Even though this sounds like a critique of the parks themselves, in truth it’s nothing but a rave for the state in which they’re located. And if I’m focusing on the negative it’s only out of my own bitterness that I have to leave. All those previously mentioned lack of job, career and financial prospects are waiting for me back home. Hawaii is a place you can just disappear. You can swim, snorkel and surf every day. You are a world away from news and politics and rather than facing reality, you can stuff your face with mahimahi fish and chips and enough banana bread to induce kidney issues. And I have the national parks and this crazy, stupid adventure of visiting every single one of them to thank for taking me to the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. And if that sounds like a roller coaster of emotions it’s only due to the sudden drop in blood sugar until my next slice of banana bread.
I can’t tell if the Sierra Nevadas are the most beautiful place on Earth or if it just feels that way because you arrive there via Fresno. Either way, there is a decent collection of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanoes a few hours from L.A. and it never hurts to spend a weekend camping when Southern California is on fire.
Everyone told us Lassen was better than Yosemite, which I refused to believe. If Lassen was better than Yosemite then I would’ve heard of Lassen. There aren’t many poems and works of art about flying into Sacramento. But after this trip I can unconfidently say, yes, Lassen is better than Yosemite. In fact, out of all the national parks on this silly adventure to see them all, Lassen might be the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say it’s the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, it doesn’t come close. Zion and Yellowstone can smite down Lassen like a freshman trying to sit at the senior table. But it has all the beauty, scenery and relaxation of the best parks in the system without the tour buses. Lassen isn’t the most jaw-dropping national park in the country, but in terms of getting out of town and camping in paradise for a weekend, it’s hard to beat. When we crossed the Canadian Rockies, traversed Yosemite and Zion, we were racing motorcades of tour buses and getting elbowed by tourists and poked by selfie sticks. Lassen is a few hours away with a tenth of the visitors (400K to 4 million), even though we make up the deficit by hitting the car alarm button the middle of the night.
We started the trip with what’s becoming my latest national park pastime: dodging suicidal animals with an SUV in the dark. This time the West Texan bunnies were replaced by Northern California deer. The one-hour drive up the mountain at 9pm was spent slamming the brakes as antlers and eyes darted along the side of the road like an 80s arcade game. Sort of like a Grand Theft Auto version of the E.T. Ride.
Day two we lucked out with the Bumpass Hell trail by arriving on the first day it was open for the season due to snow and ice, which, I apologize for this, meant we got to throw snowballs in Hell. It was a three-mile hike to one of the largest thermal vents outside Yellowstone, which belched up steam like a Turkish bath. We took the King’s Falls trail along a creek that cut through some meadows. Then circled Manzanita Lake doing our best to hope that none of our tens of thousands of mosquito bites contained any Zika.
Per usual for any national park adventure, the largest group of visitors were from Germany. I have no idea why this is, but anywhere we go in the world – Vietnam, Australia, the furthest reaches of Texas and the Sierra Nevadas – we always encounter people on vacation from Bavaria. I have a feeling that if we were to spelunk down an ancient cave in Central America and push aside a hidden door to find Mayan ruins leading to an untouched palace, waiting for us would be a guy named Hans telling us about a great schnitzel place in Munich. I’m pretty sure there are no Germans in Germany, but rather roaming the world with a sensible supply of sunscreen and hiking poles.
On day three we took the long way back to the airport, driving north on the Volcanic Legacy trail with Mount Shasta 50 miles in front of us. It was a quarter-mile hike through the pitch black subway cave, which provided some excellent opportunities to scare the hell out of people (“What’s the date? No, the year. The year!!!”). Then one more hike at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. The falls were around an hour north of Lassen and looked like someone took a small chunk of Brazil’s Iguazu falls, or the setting for a reality show date, and stuck it in Northern California.
But the best part of the morning was definitely admiring the small coalition of Pacific Crest Trail hikers we encountered. As they took down camp, filtered water and lifted 50 pounds on their backs in the midst of their 500-mile hike, I checked the tire pressure in my Avis rental and ensured we hadn’t lost our phone chargers. Pretty much equally badass.
All-in-all it’s way better to be underrated than overrated. You can do whatever you want, you’re never accused of selling out and you avoid the downfalls to fame and celebrity that comes with being overrated. The Grand Canyon is super sexy, but it’s dealing with the drug addiction, STDs and recklessness that accompanies fame. Meanwhile just a few hours away from L.A. and S.F. is a little indie rocker putting on an amazing show and couldn’t care less if you notice or not. Even if the only other people at the show are a group of loyal Germans who you see at every single show.
Ten months ago I took a job with a production company to get a crash course in the film business. The job is going pretty well, except for the thing that impedes me at every job I’ve ever had, which is that I don’t really like having a job very much.
I love earning a paycheck so that I can spend it traveling around the world, which – to my constant surprise – is not something employers desire. So whenever a gig offers the chance to go somewhere, especially if it contributes to my foolhardy national park adventure, I jump at the opportunity. Suddenly I become a model employee.
My boss needed a coffee table picked up from her cousin’s storage unit in the middle of Arizona. Google Maps had the storage unit two hours from Petrified Forest National Park, so I packed a backpack and took off to hang out in the Sonoran Desert just in time for a mid-June heat wave.
The first thing I noticed after my LAX to PHX flight was that every Arizona bathroom I entered – from the Phoenix Airport SkyTrain to the national park pit-stops – contained an insulin needle disposal bucket. It was kind of nice to know that if I picked up a light case of diabetes on my adventure that dropping off my copious accumulation of sharps would not be a problem. I picked up the coffee table in a pleasant mountain town called Payson. It was sort of like Phoenix’s answer to Big Bear, except there were a lot more places to buy assault rifles. So far my impression of the local experience is an insulin needle in one hand, AR-15 in the other while I ask the park ranger to kindly stamp my national park passport booklet.
Getting out of an air conditioned car so you can look at old tree fossils in the Arizona desert is one of those moments that makes you question your life choices. There’s no actual forest in the Petrified Forest, which I had to explain to a disappointed biker. He kept looking at the sparse shrubs and tumbleweeds asking if they were part of the forest. I was braced for my disappointment in advance.
Three hundred million years ago when Arizona was in a rainforest on Pangea, some trees fell into a river. The few trunks that didn’t disintegrate got wedged in the riverbed, where, over the course of few hundred million years, they filled with silt, copper, carbon, micah, quartz, crystals, iron and manganese. The river, rainforest and Pangea are long gone (never forget Pangea), but these tree fossils are now mutated into rocks that reflect beautiful colors in the relentless Arizona sunshine.
And that’s pretty much the main attraction. There’s a cool painted desert lookout, some old adobe houses and petroglyphs (Native American graffiti), but the park ranger assuaged my guilt when I arrived at the visitor center. I was deeply apologetic that I only had three hours for the park, but she couldn’t have been friendlier when she told me the average time that visitors spent was a two hour drive-through. She just seemed happy that I was there. It was like an old relative who I see once a year. “A short visit from you is better than nothing.”
And if I’m going to tie this whole thing together, it would be that not every national park has a spectacular vista or jaw-dropping attraction. They’re not all Yosemite. But they tend to offer one specific thing better than anywhere else. And if I’m going to go for one hell of a stretch, it would be that I might not be the most inspired employee at every company I’ve worked for, but maybe if I can do one thing really well I’ll actually find some success. I’m the tree-rock mutant fossil of employees, and that is sitting proudly on my resume as I begin my next job hunt.
And sometimes the best part of going to the smaller national parks is knowing I don’t have to go back. That was the best part of West Texas, was that I never have to return to West Texas. And now there is another excellent national park with a niche and unique attraction notched on the belt. With many more national parks to look forward to visiting that, someday, I’ll never have to see again.
Telling people about our road trip across West Texas and New Mexico earned the most, “Why are you going there?” responses of all our adventures. This isn’t the kind of place you go by choice. You’re usually stuck traveling through West Texas on your way to someplace better. Or you’re stationed in the military. Or you got on the mob’s bad side. No one really chooses to spend a long weekend in the Chihuahuan Desert. But that just meant we’d have more space to ourselves!
Sure enough, there was really nothing there except for three very dry national parks, a bunch of suicidal rabbits and a Prada (I’ll get to all that later). I also might have insisted we do this trip instead of spending four days at a condo on Lake Tahoe. On top of that, the first day was the kind of disaster that made me rethink this whole see every national park life plan in the first place.
El Paso is closer to the California border than it is to Austin, Texas, but that didn’t stop me from having that be the jumping off point for a romantic vacation that started with a supply run to Walmart. They didn’t have the gas canister our camping stove required, so we found the city’s largest outdoors store, which was also out of stock on the fuel we needed. Our nature adventure took us into an El Paso Target to buy a new camping stove with fuel included before we peeled out into the desert three hours behind schedule where we got pulled over by our first border patrol officer. So far we were off to a roaring start.
The drug-sniffing dog cleared the rear tires of the rental and the officer was satisfied with our answer when he asked, “Are you American citizens?” This didn’t seem the time to discuss Jen’s Canadian heritage, so we continued east into Texas backcountry. A few hours later and with the sun starting to set, we got to our first national park, Guadalupe Mountains, which would be great if you’re assembling a fossil record of West Texas, and a major disappointment if you could’ve been at Tahoe. It’s home to the largest peak in Texas and a post office from the 1800s that is now a pile of rocks. The first-come camp site was full, so we drove another hour to an RV park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town that made El Paso look like Vail.
I can’t think of a lot of scenic places with “Bad” in the name. Islamabad isn’t near the top of my list, and Carlsbad was populated with a highway of chain hotels serving the Caverns (to the South) and alien-seeking conspiracy theorists in Roswell (to the North). We expected the worst from the RV park, but it turned out to be a great find and the trip took a turn for the better. Like every camping trip, Jen soon picked up the gossip of every female camper drama from the ladies’ room, and then we downed a pan-fried Walmart steak deep in the heart of a Roswell, New Mexico K.O.A.
Carlsbad Caverns elbowed its way into the top ten places I’ve ever seen. It was a huge relief that the trip was justified the minute we descended the thousand-foot-deep cave (roughly the height of the Empire State Building, or 12,000 Empire State Building souvenirs). The first thing you hear is a soundtrack of a few thousand bats reminding us that the elevator was out of service, along with an additional thousand children shouting, “Stalagmites,” and “Stalactites.” We get it. You know which one is which. Our exhaustion scurrying to the bottom of the cave, taking a tour and hiking out was relieved by judging whether other people would be able to make it out.
There isn’t much to check out between Carlsbad and Big Bend – McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, and a lot more nothing – but we stopped in Marfa, Texas, which is sort of like a Texas Ojai. It’s an artist outpost in the middle of nowhere part of the middle of nowhere where Matthew McConnonaughey and a few other celebs call their second home. It has 20+ art galleries and the kind of stores where you can drop a few hundred bucks on astrologically-embroidered denim jackets while you pregame for Burning Man and get your photo taken at the Marfa Prada (not a real Prada – art is tough to explain). It was a perfectly fine place to eat a falafel for lunch.
We didn’t know what to expect in Big Bend National Park. We knew it’s where the Rio Grande curves to the north and there’s a border crossing where you can take a boat and ride a donkey to a Mexican village. We drove out of the desert up into some mountains where we saw trees for the first time in four days. We dropped into a grove where our campsite was surrounded by a forest and mountains being hit by the sunset. We were also instantly befriended by the camp host, who raised her glass of wine and said things have been great with her since she had gallbladder surgery.
An astronomy professor from U.T. hosted a stargazing session that night with two high-powered telescopes. We got a good look at Jupiter’s moons and the Milky Way ripped across the Texas sky. But the best part was his love for astronomy was only matched by his disdain for astrology. He’d show some green neutron gas around a cluster of young star formations, but when someone asked him to point out Gemini, he shrugged them off with a, “That’s not really my thing,” to which another person asked, “What about Sagittarius?”
The next day we hiked three trails and around nine miles, the best was Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. It’s a 1,500-foot rock face dropping straight into the water. If anyone descends that cliff from the Mexican border and crosses the river, they deserve to stay. Immigration debate over. Although it was nice to visit a national park that wasn’t overrun by Germans for once. This was the first national park trip that didn’t have a slew of Berliners telling me they haven’t met any Americans in the national parks yet.
Our final morning we woke up at 3am Central Time. All the road kill we saw during the day was explained by hundreds, maybe thousands of jackrabbits lining the highway in the middle of the night. These bastards did everything possible to try and get hit. They darted into the road, jumped back in, darted in front again, and hopped away. If I were Elmer Fudd, I’d drop the gun and just do 80 through Big Bend. I’m proud to say that no rabbits were harmed in the making of this trip, but any time I saw road kill after that, I was like, “They were asking for it.”
Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns were two of the best parks we’ve seen so far. You can skip Guadalupe and just eat rabbit stew instead. As much as we were warned of gun-totin’ Jew haters who want to make America great again, everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer. It seemed like an annual pilgrimage for people from Austin and we could’ve spent a week in the park with ease. Sure, one family’s picnic basket was emblazoned in red, white and blue with, “Faith, family, freedom,” which are three things I’m not big on (too much anxiety with freedom), but they wished us a great day when we saw them later on a hike, and thanked us when part of their picnic blew away (the dishes were gunning for freedom).
My biggest moment of being a total idiot was walking into a donut shop in Van Horn, Texas at 7am after dodging rabbits. Jen and I combined were less than a third shorter and smaller than the next person in there. I was going on zero sleep and video game driving when I asked for four donut holes. “Four?” She yelled at me. “It’s a dozen for a dollar.” My palm-to-forehead morning only continued when I asked if they had soy milk for my coffee. “No,” she stared at me.
And I only share that super-embarrassing story because I hope I could fulfill their stereotype of pompous city boys walking into their Texas donut shop and ordering four donut holes and asking about soy milk. And I hope I made their day because it’s the least I could offer in return after such a great trip to Texas.
It seems as though an amusement park’s critical acclaim is related to the quality of their themed areas. Busch Gardens Tampa has designed their different sections to resemble the jungle, Disneyland has worlds like Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Have-Your-Wallet-Raped-By-Donald-Duck-Land, Six Flags Magic Mountain is themed like a place where you can be robbed by gangs of 13-year-olds. With all the investment in original landscape architecture and designing rides to suit the surrounding area, how come there isn’t a Jewish-themed area at any amusement parks?
I don’t think Jew World, Shtetl-Land or Schmuck Jerusalem would be too out of place at one of America’s fine summer attractions. Busch Gardens Europe, which is near Virginia Beach, Virginia, a place that would prefer to bomb Europe, has themes for Native American Canada, Italy and a decidedly not Jew-friendly Germanic village. I was personally very impressed by the authenticity that came with the german shepherds barking me on to the Alpengeist roller coaster. Why not add a little section of the park for the chosen people? Or, rather, let me ask like more of a Jewish mother: Would it kill ya to make it a little more Jewy?
Holiday World in Indiana has themed areas for different holidays. Christmas, Halloween and the Fourth of July are all represented with rides like The Voyage and The Raven. Why not tack on a little bit of Yom Kippur World? Ride the Starving Scream Machine and Raging Rabbi where your train has to outrun a vengeful God because you snuck a sandwich into temple. Then you get lunch at the Screw-It-It’s-Close-Enough-To-Sunset and risk Jew Hell for some brisket.
I understand that there are two main issues with implementing this kind of theming. One is that people who love amusement parks tend to not like Jews very much. Every time I go to Six Flags Great Adventure, I nearly get stabbed to death by New Jersey’s and Philadelphia’s roving gangs of 13-year-olds who decide to settle their turf wars while waiting in line for Kingda Ka. They are seldom doing so because they’re fighting over prime Bar Mitzvah dates on the Jewish calendar. Second, people want to associate thrill rides with fear and adrenaline and it’s rare that these emotions can be elicited by a mention of the Hebrew people.
Any Jew who has ever brought a shiksa home to meet their grandma can attest to the fear that the children of Israel can instill. Maybe if we start influencing the teenage visitors of amusement parks, we can make a long-lasting change to the perception of the fear factor of Judaism. Thirteen-year-old American teenagers tend to be the most vocal, racist, offensive, self-involved idiots in the world. The reason that stereotyping and bigotry exists is mostly thanks to this future generation of America’s leaders. These morons also happen to be the prime demographic for Six Flags attractions. If we can somehow start getting these half-brained 13-year-olds to say stuff like, “That roller coaster is scarier than a Jew on Easter,” then maybe we can affect Judaism’s perception in society.
I am not trying to get more people to hate Jews, trust me, that side of the public relations effort is well-saturated. But what I want is to have a more fearful reputation. Something that would instill a bit of intimidation. Imagine how you would react if you heard, “Our star quarterback can’t practice on Saturday because he has to go to temple.” I still want you to feel afraid but for the exact opposite reasons. What I want is for a young, single, white girl to be walking down the street alone at night, see a guy with a yarmulke walking in her direction and have her cringe with fear while clutching her pepper spray and not just because it’s a delicious varnish to matzoh.
Theme parks are one of the places we could start to implement this reputation of fear. We have rides like El Toro in Spanish-themed areas of Six Flags, Runaway Train in the Old West and Ninja in sections inspired by the Orient. It shouldn’t be that much of a stretch to add The Kvetcher in Little Israel, The Stomach Ache in Schmaltzy Tel Aviv or Why Haven’t You Called Your Mother? in The Shtetl.
The trains could have a cool theme to them. Everyone could bring down their shoulder straps, which also doubles as a tallit. The long curly payot sideburns could be flying along the edges of the roller coaster. The massive first drop could be designed to shape a hook nose. The long line could show clips on screens of people complaining about long lines (“Oy, we’re waiting in line for this?”). Then at the end of your heartburn-inducing thrill ride and want to buy your picture at the end of the ride, you have to haggle with the salesman behind the counter who judges your entire personal finance.
As things stand right now, Judaism doesn’t instill the kind of intimidation in sports, crime, and pop culture that other races and ethnicities seem to have monopolized. The people that set these sorts of trends are the same 13-year-old racist and homophobic idiots that fill America’s greatest theme parks and water parks every summer. If we can start theming our scariest rides, areas and attractions after the Chosen People, maybe we can make a difference.
In the 1970s there were three television channels: CBS, NBC and ABC. If you had a show on the air, take an average episode of M*A*S*H for example, you would pull in a bare minimum of twenty million viewers. There weren’t a lot of choices and nobody cared. People didn’t pine for a thousand channels of premium on-demand with a third of the channels requiring you to call your subscriber and another third in Spanish. With all the specific choices and divisions, things have gotten a lot more complicated. I feel like racism has faced the same kind of transformation. It is harder than ever for racists to be politically correct.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that racism is good. What I’m getting at is that if you are racist, which in addition to being a bad thing, must be tremendously difficult if you want to be accurate. There are so many different ethnic minorities, cultural niches and divided sects that make it really difficult to pinpoint the minority group you are trying to degrade.
If you are going to be racist, you want to be politically correct about it, otherwise racists will miss their intended target. Because every community has their own day of pride, or a parade or a national holiday recognized in their American enclave, you want to make sure that you are talking about the right people. If you are trying to be racist against Haitians, is remarkably easy to confuse them with Dominicans, a group that you might not harbor any racist feelings against. If you are trying to be racist against a Puerto Rican, but confuse him for a Mexican, then you look like an uneducated and insensitive bigot. And that’s just Central America and the Caribbean. Read more
2011 Outdoor Movies in Los Angeles. Click on the marker for that location’s schedule, also printed in text below. More locations and films are announced throughout the summer.
View 2011 Outdoor Movies Los Angeles in a larger map
Cinespia – Cemetery Screenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery
May 14 – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
May 21 – The Shining
May 28 – Vertigo
May 29 – Young Frankenstein
Outdoor Cinema and Food Fest – Various locations around downtown
May 28 – There’s Something About Mary – LA State Historic Park
June 4 – Unforgiven – Exposition Park
June 11 – Goodfellas – Exposition Park
June 18 – Old School – Exposition Park
June 25 – The Terminator – Exposition Park
July 2 – The Matrix – LA State Historic Park
July 9 – Edward Scissorhands – TBA
July 16 – Office Space – Grand Hope Park
July 23 – Reservoir Dogs – Exposition Park
July 30 – LA Confidential – LA State Historic Park
August 6 – Fargo – Exposition Park
August 13 – Fight Club – Exposition Park
August 20 – Raiders of the Lost Ark – La Cienega Park
August 27 – Mamma Mia! – Poinsettia Park
September 3 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – LA Port, San Pedro
Movies on the Terrace – Century City Mall
June 16 – Mama Mia! Sing-a-Long
June 23 – Jurassic Park
June 30 – Desperately Seeking Susan
July 7 – Anchorman
July 14 – Sixteen Candles
July 21 – Joe Versus the Volcano
July 28 – Jumanji
August 4 – My Big Fat Greek Wedding
August 11 – Babe
August 18 – Teen Wolf
August 25 – 50 First Dates
September 1 – Jaws
September 8 – Karate Kid
September 15 – School of Rock
I noticed recently that the Los Angeles bus and subway system has instituted the “If you see something, say something” campaign to keep citizens alert of suspicious activity. Am I the only wondering what kind of a pathetic terrorist would take out his attack on the Los Angeles Metro?
For starters, what is the point the terrorist is going to make? If he sets off a dirty bomb laced with C4, nails and shrapnel and blew the entire bus or subway car to pieces, he would kill me and five Mexicans. I am not ready to be memorialized by a bunch of photos of the Virgin Mary, plastic flowers and candles bought at The Dollar Store because a terrorist didn’t know how Los Angeles transportation worked.
You know what constitutes suspicious activity on the Los Angeles subway? Riding the Los Angeles subway. “Who is that guy? He doesn’t look homeless. He might even have a girlfriend. Oh my God, he’s speaking English, call the policia!” Read more