Category Archives: Travel

Road Trip Report: PT Cruiser vs. Cows


Yesterday took us from Salt Lake City to just outside Yellowstone. After visiting Yellowstone, today’s travels were meant to land us somewhere close to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. All that stood in our way was Wyoming.

Wyoming: Big Sky Country. Land of Wide Open Spaces. With air so fresh it was making us smog-accustomed Californians downright lightheaded. If this whole “pure air” thing had gotten any worse, I was going to have to stop every few miles to suck on a tailpipe just to restore the normal carbon dioxide level in my lungs. Really, Wyomans–how do you cope with so much oxygen in your air?

And then there were the cows. Sometime in the late afternoon, our little PT cruiser was climbing up yet another steep incline when we saw a cow standing bold as brass in the middle of the highway. I slowed to a crawl, passed around the bull, and continued up the hill only to be met by several more a hundred yards or so up the hill. More slowing. More weaving. And I was starting to feel pretty good at doing the Brahma Slalom when I noticed that the truck in front of me had come to a complete stop up ahead.

As soon as I got up behind him, I saw why: a steady stream of cows was clomping down the other land of the highway, occasionally veering to both sides of the road. “Man, I gotta get a picture of this!” I said, and asked Carolyn to hop out and grab my video camera from the trunk. No sooner had she returned to the front seat of the car with the camera than the true onslaught began: a full-on cattle drive was in progress, blocking the entirety of Hwy Alt-14 as 1200 head of cattle were herded down the road by three honest-to-God-cowboys…and a little dog.

In no time flat, our PT Cruiser was surrounded on all sides by huge cows shuffling down the hill, as well as between the cars. Amidst it all, there was a steady, unearthly wail of “MooooooooooooooooHHHHH!!!” from the cows as they moved this way and that, poked their heads in at the passengers, and occasionally doubled back on the drive. Most unnerving were the cows who’d cut between my little PT Cruiser and the weathered truck in front of us, some leaping over the highway fence as a shortcut down the hill. At the same time, I was getting more than a little nervous thinking what 3/4 of a ton of prime Angus landing on my hood would do to my insurance premiums.

Since we couldn’t see around the cows and the truck in front of us, we took to counting the tags in the cows’ ears as a way of marking the progress of the cattle drive. The highest number I remember was 973, but we found out later that there were a total of some 1200 cattle being herded along the highway by the trio of cowboys. After about 15 minutes of this surreal bovine roadblock, the cowboys managed to clear a gap so we could proceed up the hill.

As we did, we encountered another pickup from the other direction who’d been waiting for his chance to come down the hill. Out the open window, the cowboy-hat-wearing driver gave us a big grin and just said “Welcome to Wyoming!”

Road Trip Report: “State of the Art, Military Bang Bang!”


We’d started out from San Jose, driving through Reno en route to Salt Lake City. It was the first day of the trip, and it was due to be the longest single day’s drive: over 768 miles in 11 hours.

We stopped for gas in Reno, and decided to walk into The Nugget to grab a coffee and do a restroom break. As soon as we got into the casino, however, our Californian noses were shocked by an alien–yet strangely familiar smell…tobacco!

Yes, Dorothy, we were not in San Jose anymore. In Nevada people are actually allowed to smoke. Indoors, no less!

But it didn’t stop there. In Nevada, you can talk on your cell phone when driving. And gamble. And you can drive 75 miles an hour legally on the highway (which meant I was doing 80, using the old traveller’s logic of, “Heck, the cops have gotta spot you five miles over the limit!”)

Giddy with freedom, I was also drawn to the numerous signs on the highway past Reno pointing to a fireworks outlet store. On a whim, I turned off the highway and discovered a shop crammed with enough consumer-grade explosives to make even the Mythbusters giddy with glee.

“Can I take a picture of these?” I asked the baseball-hat-wearing proprietor?

“Are you a member of a law-enforcement agency?” he asked, as a reply.

I assured him I was not, and right then, I knew I was at The Coolest Place on Earth. The whole store was stocked to the walls with colorfully wrapped explosives with awesome cartoons advertising their particular pyrotechnic properties.

You light the fuse, loud things happen, and his head blows off. I bought two.

This one was called, “Osama-Bomb-Noggin”. You light the fuse, loud things happen, and his head blows off. I bought two.

“Those ones over there are the ‘safe and sane’ ones that are legal in California” he said, pointing to a decidedly less impressive collection of wussy fireworks. “Which way are you headed?”

“East” I said. And immediately began heading for the rows of rockets, shells, roman candles, firecrackers, smoke bombs, multiple launchers, and other wonders of modern explosive technology.

Why is Bill Clinton driving a flying saucer? Who knows, but the Chinese box art was awesome!

Why is Bill Clinton driving a flying saucer? Who knows, but the Chinese box art was awesome!

My increasingly worried family looked on as I started grabbing one find after another. The proprietor helpfully answered my questions about each device, as well as providing suitably gruesome cautionary tales of the people who’d shot rockets at each other, held onto flying fireworks devices, and tried to use exploding toy boats in the family bathtub. I promised to do no such thing, and proceeded to pile my arms with illegal-in-California explosive after explosive. I figured that in some fireworks-friendly state far from Nannyvile, CA, where I apparently lived, I was going to have about ten wonderful minutes of illicit-where-I-live pyrotechnic fun. I couldn’t wait.

Some of the bigger shells. I don’t even know what these do, and I was scared to find out.

Some of the bigger shells. I don’t even know what these do, and I was scared to find out.

“Really… uh… I think that’s enough, Dad” said Neil, worriedly noting the growing stack of munitions in my arms and moving to interpose himself between me and the row of heavier duty shells. Reluctantly, I headed for the counter, but the proprietor insisted on showing me a few extra things, and even threw in a lighting punk, and a few extra fireworks “for the kids”.

I was just one state away from home, but already the trip was off with a bang.

Frankfurt: The Photos

(My brief, post-Erlangen trip to Frankfurt, Germany. Requires Adobe Acrobat/Reader)


Erlangen: The Photos

(trying this out as a PDF slide show. You’ll need Adobe Reader (a.k.a. Acrobat) to view it)


A Brief American Comic Fan’s Guide to Weird Stuff in Germany

I personally hate travelogues, so I’ll stick to the weird or funny stuff. Standard disclaimers apply about all this being just one guy’s experience, which may or not apply to other people, or in fact, the rest of Germany.

Germans Conserve Like Crazy. Their gas is something like $10/gallon at the current exchange rate, so it’s no surprise that they drive small cars and take the train a lot. They’re also really serious about recycling bottles, adding on a deposit (Pfand) of what amounts to 40 cents per bottle to something as small as the Diet Coke (a.k.a Cola Light) you buy at the train station. They’re also hugely proud of new (and very impressive) skyscraper projects they’ve got which boast solar power, 98% recycling, and more.

Cold drinks cost a ton. Go to a supermarket and you can pick up liters and liters of beverages for a couple of euros. Buy a beer at a liquor store and it can cost as little as 80 Euro-cents/bottle. But want that Coke or beer cold? Prepare for a hurting like you’ve rarely seen outside of a comic convention. Think: $3.50 for a typical bottle of Coke. Oh, and there’s that 40 cent deposit thing as well. Since the beverages themselves are cheap, I can only conclude that the expensive thing is the coldness itself. Maybe it goes on sale in winter…

Beer costs the same as Coke. The news is not all bad on the beverage front.

They don’t “bag and board”. Maybe it’s the variety of comic sizes they deal with in the German market. Maybe bags and boards also have a 40 cent deposit on them. But for whatever reason, it seems like almost every comic on display at the comic convention came either not bagged at all, or bagged in a makeshift, 20-year old open-top bag. Boarding was near-nonexistent. It really was like going back in time to the 1970s when kids like me who’d never seen a comic shop would use any bag we could find to try to preserve our comics. Still, despite some price tags that ranged over a hundred dollars for some comics, few seemed to think that bagging and boarding was important–and it certainly wasn’t standard. Anyone know why?

Comic-Salon Sighted. Booth Paid for. Bags Still Lost.

After an amazing breakfast (German cuisine seems at times to consist primarily of fresh bread, fantastic meats and cheeses, milk, beer, and chocolate–it’s like they invented a whole country just for me!) — I set out to (a) Charge up my “burner” cell phone (“Handy”) so that people could reach me, (b) Find out where the heck the Comic-Salon actually was, (c) Change a couple thousand dollars I was forced to bring with me to pay for our booth, and (d) Find out where my missing trade show display went.

The progress report went something like this:

Quest A: Charge up Phone

Asked hotel clerk if he knew how to accomplish this. He suggested I go downtown (bis Zentrum) to find a place with Vodafone stuff. Walked around Erlangen in strange concentric circles buying first (a) A Cola Light (German for “Diet Coke”), (b) A Skype headset I saw at a computer store I walked into, (c) Another Cola light. and (d) A strange variation on a Kit Kat bar (with peanut butter!) that I was curious about next to the register. Without having said a word to the cashier, I apparently got clocked as an American as he said “THANK YOU!” to me he handed me the change.

Potentially overbroad insight: I’ve noticed that I can struggle my way through long conversations in German with government-types, bankers, and travel agents all day long, and they won’t say a word about it, and seem happy to nod, smile, and apparently never notice that I’m missing every fifth word they’re saying in rapid-fire German. Shopkeepers, on the other hand, are near-psychic when it comes to guessing your nationality (and you know you’ve been “made” when they try switching part of a conversation or greeting to you in English. If I were ever playing the male, German, version Eliza Doolittle, it wouldn’t be the embassy ball where I’d fear not being able to “pass” — it’d be the corner Fleischer (butcher).

Eventually, I stumbled across a huge shopping center, which led me to a Vodafone store, where a stylishly dressed clerk topped up my phone for me. QUEST COMPLETE!

Quest B: Find out where the convention actually is:
Asked stylishly dressed cashier where the Comic-Salon was. Mumbled too much. “Comicland?” he asked out loud. “Nein! Comic-Salon!” corrected a bystander. Bystander pointed me out the door and down a block from where I was standing. There, huge banners, a line of cars carrying comic books, and… Beer trucks(!)… announced that I’d found the right place. QUEST COMPLETE!

Quest C: Change money, pay for show
(Background: The Erlangen Comic-Salon is put on by, or at least in conjunction with the city of Erlangen. Which means that–unlike any comic show I’ve ever been to–it’s a government thing. And governments don’t believe in Visa. Or PayPal. Or, as it turns out, any form of currency transfer I could use from the States. This left bank wire transfer–or at least it would have, had the Erlangen bank code not been done in such a way that left my bank unable to wire money to it. So I brought cash. Lots of it.)

Double-checked that the show needed Euros, not Dollars, and was pointed to a street with a lot of banks on it. The third of these was able to accommodate the conversion of Dollars, albeit with a 5-Euro fee, and a conversion rate that would make Steve Forbes cry (.62 Euros/Dollar). Still, it was a darn sight better than the .57 Euros/Dollar and 5% fee they wanted at the Airport). Discovered that Germans do not say “Wire transfer” — they say “Bank Transfer”. Wondered why Americans don’t say “Bank Transfer”. Got money. Walked three blocks back to Comic-Salon without being mugged. Paid for show. QUEST COMPLETE!

Quest D: Find Missing Bags

Here, I discovered that in life, like so many adventure games, it matters which order you do your quests in. For, having promised me that my bags were no doubt delayed only by an hour or so, and would undoubtedly arrive the previous night by courier, I got the following update from the airline: They didn’t really know where the bags were, but they were probably at the airport. In Customs. Or perhaps at lost baggage. But probably in Customs. The British Airways web site was more blunt: “No information available.”

Pressing the matter through repeated phone calls (I got a chance to work out both my cell phone minutes and that new Skype headset!), I learned the terribly interesting cultural fact that Thursday (tomorrow) is not just the start of Comic-Salon, but also a German national holiday: Fronleichnam, or the Feast of Corpus Christi. Unfortunately, according to the grumpy-sounding German lady on the phone at the British Airways lost baggage call center, this also meant that my bags wouldn’t be delivered until Friday morning, “or perhaps evening.” “But the show, which I’ve just paid for, starts tomorrow. I’ll be out thousands of dollars if I don’t get those bags tonight!” I protested. Grumpy German Lady (GGL) suggested that they might have more information in 90 minutes or so, and the call ended on a defeatist note.

After re-checking Google Earth and confirming that yes, Erlangen was halfway across Germany from Frankfurt, I still felt that if my choice was either to spend several hours and $150 or so on trains today in order to get my bags and set up for the show, or miss out on 2 days’ exhibiting time at this increasingly expensive show, that the Smart, Resourceful Guy I hope to be most days would be getting on a train to Frankfurt. (Defeatist Weasel Guy (DWG) appeared briefly and encouraged me to go back to Comic-Salon, beg for my money back, then catch the first plane back home). But SRG decided to call the airline again.

“OK, I understand that the bags are in Frankfurt, in Customs (or maybe Lost Baggage). Can you tell me: If I go halfway across Germany by train to pick them up, are they definitely going to be there? And when does Lost Baggage close up for the day?” Happy Italian Lady (HIL) on the phone was very sad that my bags had been lost, and wasn’t Terminal Five at Heathrow just the worst, and that she would check for me if I would just hold for a while. After which, Happy Italian Lady was less happy. “So very sorry, ” she said, “but I don’t know the hours of the lost baggage…err…and the baggage may not be there right now. But we’ll definitely have it there for you by Friday night.”

Words expressing my great concern and displeasure were said. Promises to call me back were made. But two hours later, my phone had not yet rung.

Finally, I called once more. “Look,” I said, “I’m getting ready to head down to the train station, and I’m going to be super-unhappy if i travel all that way and don’t get my bags. Are they definitely–no fooling around, definitely in Lost Luggage?” “Oh absolutely!” was the reply. Followed by a “Let me check on that” to my question to when Lost Luggage closed. The phone went silent for a very long time. “Oh!” said German Lady to Whom I Could No Longer Ascribe a Particular Temperament (GLTWICNLAPT), “It seems the bags aren’t there anymore. They’re with the courier. But he won’t be delivering them until Friday because tomorrow is a holiday…”

“So I can’t even pick them up myself?” I asked, incredulous.

“That’s right.”

“But the courier won’t deliver them until two days into the trade show?” I asked.

“Yes that’s right.”

“This is a disaster!” I groaned, wondering whether DWG had it right all along.

“If it’s important, perhaps I could arrange to have the courier call you to see if they can be dropped off on an urgent basis?”

“Yes.” I chirped. “That would be really good if you could make that happen…”

To be continued…