Monday, July 25, 2011

Slip Sliding Away

If I told you I was writing to you from the "Financial Capital of the World" or the "Entertainment Capital of the World" you could probably conclude that I was in New York City and Las Vegas, respectively. But how about "The Water Park Capital of the World" (no Googling allowed)? If you guessed Wisconsin Dells, WI, you'd be correct. Never heard of it? I hadn't either, but millions of Mid-Westerners have been vacationing at "The Dells" for more than 150 years.

The Dells are a series of sandstone rock formations and steep bluffs scattered along the Wisconsin River, remnants of the last glacial melting in the area some 15,000 - 20,000 years ago. By the mid-1850s, city dwellers in Chicago, Detroit, and the like, sought out the rugged beauty of the Dells and the cooler air of the Wisconsin River foothills. The town of Wisconsin Dells sprung up on the banks of the river, and by the turn of the 20th century it was THE place to beat the mid-western summer heat and humidity. Today it is visited by over 1.2 million people annually, and TripAdvisor's 2010 Travelers' Choice Awards declared Wisconsin Dells the "#1 Family Vacation Destination in America". This probably has more than a little to do with the aforementioned water parks.

I am not sure by what criteria one determined the "capital of the world" status of anything, but here are some stats about Wisconsin Dells and their water parks for you to chew on: largest concentration of indoor and outdoor water parks on Earth; largest outdoor water park in the U.S.A. (70 acres); largest indoor/outdoor combination water park in the U.S.A.; the only "loop-de-loop" water slide anywhere; and more than 200 individual water slides. I'm thinking that probably constitutes a capital city, if not a kingdom. It's not possible to hit all of them in one visit, but I gave it a good run. I think the only thing that could be possibly more fun than experiencing these attractions would be getting to name them. Some of my personal favorites are: Poseidon's Rage, The Black Anaconda, The Flyan Mayan, Demon's Drop, and The Howlin' Tornado. That last one is in the family of rides known as "funnel slides," which as the name suggests, sends you down a series of concentric circles, until you are unceremoniously flushed out of the bottom. It is this final action that has earned them the unfortunate monicker of "toilet bowl" slides among the faithful. I am not crazy about the role that I - as the rider - play in that analogy, so I am sticking with "funnel slide".

There is a lot more to the Dells than just water parks of course. I highly recommend a guided boat tour of the Dells formations themselves. It is an extremely enjoyable way to see them up close and to get out on the water. Also, the Lost Canyon horse and wagon tour is fantastic. Since 1956, tourists have been touring the longest and deepest land canyon in Wisconsin, via a guided horse-drawn wagon. The town of Dells itself is - how can I put this - honky. You couldn't cram another neon sign, fudge shop, ice cream parlor, or miniature golf course into a dozen or so blocks - or at least you wouldn't think so. Needless to say, your kids will love it. And there are a few gems tucked away here and there, too. I highly suggest dropping in at H.H. Bennett Studio - a museum, shop and former studio of the photographer who helped make Dells famous. The food and people watching from High Rock Cafe are also worth your time.

As for lodging, try a timeshare rental at Christmas Mountain Village. It's located in a quiet and heavily wooded area just 4 miles from downtown Dells. In terms of units, they've got everything from free standing cabins to attached villas. I picked up a 2 bedroom/2 bathroom unit with a view of the golf course with a deck and barbeque for just $75. RedWeek members rate this place 4-stars, and I have to agree with that assessment.

Well, I am heading about a half an hour south to the quaint village of Baraboo. It is home to the International Crane Foundation - where you can see all 15 crane species and their captive breeding and reintroduction program; Devil's Lake State Park - Wisconsin's most visited park and home to great hiking and swimming; and the home of the Ringling brothers. That's right, the five brothers started their little circus in Baraboo, WI, in 1884 and it remained their winter home for 34 years. In 1918 they bought the Barnum & Bailey circus and became the "Greatest Show on Earth". But the era of the great seasonal "railroad" circus was drawing to a close as it was moved to indoor venues and could stay on the road indefinitely. The winter home back in Baraboo was converted to Circus World which is both a museum and a functioning daily circus. Each day they have a full schedule of events and activities, including two big top circus performances. But I am hoping to catch the "Ring of Illusions Magic Show" at 1:00 PM, featuring the magic and comedy of Tristan Crist. You may not know this, but I consider myself to be a fairly accomplished magician. I hear this kid is good, and even goes so far as to perform Houdini's famous metamorphosis. That's the one where the illusionist switches places with an assistant locked inside of a wooden trunk in just the blink of en eye - and I have no idea how it is accomplished. I am going to get the best seat I can, and hopefully pick up some insight. So far all I have managed to do is get myself locked inside of the trunk. Twice. The second time I had to promise the EMT crew rescuing me that I would never try it again, and they made it very clear they would not respond to any future calls from my residence. So one way or the other, the third time is going to be the charm.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blister Boy

I write to you today a beaten man. As you know if you read my blog, I took last week off to start what I had hoped would be the first stage of an Appalachian Trail hike. But I am sad to report that this will likely be my last such attempt. Turns out I am what you would call a "tender foot". The best hiking shoes money can by and countless, well-intentioned trail remedies were not enough to prevent my feet from looking like hamburger meat by the time I called the thing off. But I did manage to cover about 50 miles in five days, meet some awesome people, and make memories that will last me the rest of my life.

I am in good company in not conquering the AT, however. Most people never get to the trail at all, even though it covers 2,180 miles while passing through fourteen states. Of those that do attempt it, only about 15% are estimated to actually finish the whole thing. Hiking the entire trail in one season is called "through-hiking". These folks are a special breed, and are not like you and me. They have a super-human tolerance for heat, rain, biting insects, rashes, thirst, and pain - along with a complete lack of common sense. I can walk in their footsteps for a while, but will never go where they have gone, or see what they have seen. My hat's off to you, you crazy sons-of-a-gun.

The group I had hoped to join are called "section-hikers" who, as the name implies, hike a section at a time over the course of multiple seasons (or even a lifetime), ultimately completing the whole thing. Of course there are also day-hikers that decide to just walk in the woods for a while, and I can think of no better place to do that. Just keep in mind that you need to turn around and walk back to your car. There's no monorail to take you. Trail etiquette dictates that day-hikers yield to section-hikers, and sections to through-hikers. Ditto for the shelters and "lean-tos" found along the trail. Many through-hikers bring no tents at all and rely solely on these shelters to complete their journey. There is one last group known as "trail runners" who, along with a support team in an automobile, run the entire 2,180 miles without any gear at all. These people are mentally ill, and you should probably avoid them at all cost.

The section I attempted was the portion of the trail passing through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Almost a full quarter of the trail is located in The Old Dominion (some 550 miles), and this section (about 100 miles) roughly follows Skyline Drive. Along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the course is relatively level (by AT standards) and considered a good place for beginners to get their feet wet (pun intended). But choosing to hike it in mid-July was a colossal blunder on my part. Sore feet not withstanding, it was just too hot. Most successful through hikes start on the Georgia end in March, and head north towards Maine, entering this section of trail in late spring. It tends to be wet and sloppy, but summer's heat is still far away. In July the trail is bone dry, but I was wet and sloppy. At one point I was sure I saw a panther, but I was assured that it was the heat playing tricks on me, as panther have been extinct in these parts for decades. Perhaps. The tiki-bar I thought I spotted just off of the trail was absolutely a hallucination, however. The patch of poison ivy I ran through to get to it was not.

So I am holed up now in my timeshare rental at The Summit at Massanutten in McGaheysville, VA, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. It's close to the AT, has a PGA-rated golf course, the highest vertical ski drop in the region and, most importantly, a whirlpool bath in each unit. The resort features units from 1 to 4 bedrooms, and enjoys a 4.5 star rating from RedWeek members. I am hoping to get up and about soon to check it out a little, but right now it gets a 10 from me.

That's all for now. I am going to soak my sore tootsies some more and focus on the positive aspects of my journey. I had hoped to come away with a great trail name - an AT tradition - but ended up with "Blister Boy" instead. It could have been worse. For a while they were calling me "that guy who was crying like a little baby when we found him," but it fortunately did not stick. Anyone want to buy a pair of men's hiking boots with only 50 miles on them?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Trail Head

Hey folks, I am firing off this quick entry to let you know I will not be submitting my regular weekly dispatch. I know I am supposed to be out scouring the planet for awesome timeshare deals and fun travel tips, but I have an opportunity to fulfill a dream (well part of a dream) and I am gonna go for it. I will be spending the week hiking the Appalachian Trial! And no, I don't mean I will be rendezvousing with my Argentinean mistress. I will literally be hiking the AT. Not the whole 2,181 miles from Maine to Georgia, of course, but I am going to attempt to cover the 100 or so miles that run through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. And while there are timeshare rentals available in the area, I am going to rough it in the huts, shelters, and campsites made available to hikers.

But I have spent too much time telling you about this already. I have packed my gear three times now, and it is still way too heavy. I seriously have to lose some of this cargo, and dawn will be here before you know it. I will be back online the week of July 18th to tell you all about my adventures. Oh, and all hikers of the trail get to pick a "trail name" for themselves. I already have a pretty cool nickname in The Timeshare Ambassador, but I can hardly resist the having another. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day

If you are a regular reader of my blog (and why wouldn't you be?), you already know that I don't travel on the Fourth of July. Even though I globe-trot for a living, it is the one week of the year that is just a little too nutty for me. Between the traffic jams, delays at the airport, and crowded attractions, I feel less like celebrating independence, and more like putting my fist through something. I guess I could find a timeshare rental close to home, and enjoy some rest and relaxation there. But I typically just putter around the yard, go to a parade, have a cookout, take in some fireworks, and generally appreciate the freedoms I enjoy as a citizen of this great country.

But in the last few years, I must admit, I have developed what can only be described as an "unhealthy" obsession with the annual Nathan's hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, NY. Do you know about this thing? Every year on the Fourth of July, a contest is held to see who can consume the most hot dogs (and buns) inside of ten minutes. The event is said to trace its origins to 1916, as a means to settle a dispute between two recent immigrants as to which was the more patriotic. Nathan's now-famous hot dog stand was nearby, and the contest has been held there ever since. What the hell devouring more hot dogs than the other guy has to do with patriotism I'll never know, but they managed to settle the dispute without fisticuffs, and I now have this great spectacle to look forward to every year. This year's champion, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, took the top prize by consuming 62 dogs and buns, while Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas took home the first-ever women's title with 41. That's some seriously nice gluttony right there folks, and really should be the end of the story. But for me it is not, and is where my interest in this event becomes troublesome.

You see, there was one competitor not present at the event who should have been. His name is Takeru Kobayashi, and from 2001 to 2006 he took 1st prize in the Nathan's contest, shattering previously held records. Prior to his emergence, the world record was 25. In his rookie appearance he ate 50, and by 2006 had pushed the record up to 53 3/4. He also pushed the competition to pick up their game if they ever wanted to see the winner's podium again. A young Joey Chestnut heard the call and in 2007 beat Kobayashi, setting a new mind-boggling record of 63 to boot. Chestnut went on to best him in 2008 & 2009 and up his record of 68. So this thing was shaping up to be an epic struggle between the two greatest human garbage-disposers in history. And then it ended. Kobayashi was banned from the 2010 event and has not competed since.

You see, he is in a contract dispute with International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), who sanctions the event, and Major League Eating (MLE), to which all of the competitors must belong. You can't make this stuff up folks. Kobayashi, like many of the other competitors, does not limit his gorging to just frankfurters. No, he holds numerous world eating records including hamburgers, vegetarian dumplings, lobster rolls, and roasted pork buns, whatever they are. He once ate 17.7 pounds of cow brains in just 15 minutes, which is not only disgusting, but what has run him afoul of the IFOCE. You see, they do not want their competitors to participate in non-IFOCE sanctioned events. Yet they do not sanction any cow brains or rice ball events of their own. So Kobayashi ignores their restrictions and competes (and wins) anyway. This resulted in his removal - and arrest for unwelcome appearance on stage - at the 2010 Nathan's event. This year he chose instead to hold a simultaneous event at a nearby NYC location where he consumed 69 dogs and buns. And while this would be a world record had it occurred a few miles away in Coney Island, it will go unrecognized. And that, in my view, is just a pity.

What would Ali have been without Frazier, Magic without Bird, the Yankees without the Dodgers? How could you have a golf championship without Tiger? You simply cannot refuse the world the chance to see these two go head-to-head in a mano-a-mano, winner-take-all gluttonfest. And even though I am fully aware that millions of people go hungry every day as these two stuff their faces, I cannot get past the sense of injustice I feel as a devoted fan of this "sport". I seriously gotta get some help.