Monday, August 29, 2011

I'll See You In My Dreams

For everyone along the East Coast of the United States, I hope this week's dispatch finds you safe and sound. It has been a tough week or so for folks there, what with an earthquake, followed by hurricane Irene. Hopefully it is all over now, except the cleanup of course, but you might want to keep an eye out for locust swarms and unexplained boils, just the same.

My Outer Banks travel plans were completely wiped out by a mandatory evacuation, and that's a good thing. Irene came ashore on North Carolina's coast, and I wanted nothing to do with that. So I lit a trail inland and uphill as quick as I could, and found myself in Cashiers, NC. Over 500 miles from the sea, and at an elevation of 3,485 feet, it seemed to me to be about as far away as I could get, and still be in the Tar Heel State. And frankly, I would have settled for a Motel 6 along I-64, so long as it was high and dry. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a quaint and picturesque village tucked away on a plateau in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by lush forests and cascading waterfalls. And timeshare rentals no less!

Now about the name. If you want everyone to know you are from out of town, which they will anyway, make sure you pronounce it just like the word for the person who rings up your order at a grocery store. Or if you'd like to pronounce it correctly, you say it "cashers". No one I spoke to seem to be entirely sure from where the name originates. This was Cherokee hunting land and names like Chattooga and Tuxaway still abound. The most popular story for its present moniker is one that involves a lost horse, but you probably could have guessed that on your own. Seems one of the earliest white settlers in the area was a fellow named James McKinney, from South Carolina. He had a white stallion for whom he paid so much money, he simply called him Cash. One fall, as McKinney was getting ready to lead his herd of cattle back to winter in South Carolina, Cash went missing and McKinney had to leave without his prized horse. The following spring, when McKinney and his cattle returned, there was the white stallion just as fit as a fiddle. So McKinney took to calling the area Cash's Valley. Over time, it became simply "cashers". Which really doesn't explain why it's spelled as it is, and makes me suspect that the whole thing is just made up. But there you have it.

A popular nickname for this area is the "land of waterfalls" and it won't take you long to figure out why. There are 19 of them scattered in and around the area, with names like Silver Run, Sliding Rock, Rainbow, Turtleback, and Bridal Veil. But the biggest and grandest of them all is called Whitewater, and features a 411 foot vertical drop. There's a hiking trail to get you all the way to the top, and I highly recommend it. Located within Nantahal National Forest, and adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some of the best hiking trails and nature watching anywhere in the Southeast is all around you. Plus there is great public golfing at High Hampton Course, numerous Native American cultural and historical sites, excellent fishing and canoeing, fantastic restaurants, and quaint shops and boutiques.

There are several timeshare resorts in and around Cashiers, and I chose a rental at Fairway Forest at Sapphire Valley. It features an outdoor pool, park with a picnic area, 18-hole PGA golf course, eight clay and two hard-surface tennis courts, and miniature golf - all on-site. My unit is a 2-bedroom/2-bathroom with stunning mountain views from an attached deck. RedWeek members rate this place 5-stars and have pretty much nothing but good things to say about it.

Well, I am off to nearby Bryson City for an afternoon of high flying, zipline fun with Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours. Do you know about these things? They strap you into a climbing harness and shoot you down a glorified clothesline suspended above the tree canopy at speeds up to 30 m.p.h. This outfit is the first in the area, and features lines with names like The Green Mile, The Burma Road, The Slingshot, and The Bermuda Triangle. Despite the scary sounding names, this is a perfectly safe and throughly enjoyable activity, provided you follow the safety instruction you are given by your guides, and use a little common sense. For example, you'd think it would go without saying that you cannot zipline while pregnant and/or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sadly, it does not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So Many Sandwiches

So I am sure you have heard that the sandwich got its name from the Earl of Sandwich, who liked to eat while playing cribbage. He was pretty serious about his cards, and placing meat between two slices of bread let him keep on playing without stopping to eat, or getting the cards all greasy. It does seem that this old tale is indeed why we call this form of food a "sandwich," but they had been around for centuries, and known by many different names. Which really says something about the Earl's sandwich intake. Can you imagine eating so much pizza that they decided to rename it in your honor?

The earliest written reference of sandwich eating is attributed to the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder (now that's an awesome name) in the 1st century B.C. He was known to eat slices of lamb between flat breads, or matzahs, held together with a mixture of chopped nuts, fruit, and bitter herbs. It is said that the layers between the bread were symbolic of the mortar between the bricks his people were forced to lay for the Egyptians. Hillel is also credited with coining the expressions "if not now, when?" and "that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow". You might recognize that second one as the "golden rule". He had me at the sandwich.

The middle ages in Europe brought another version of this food involving just one, very stale, slice of bread. The rock-hard piece of bread - called a trencher - was used as a plate of sorts, with meat and gravy placed atop it. As the diner ate the toppings, the trencher absorbed the juices and it softened up a bit. The trencher was often tossed to a nearby dog or beggar (probably in that order), or eaten by the diner, depending on his appetite. This is clearly the forerunner to today's "open faced" sandwich, which is only slightly more appetizing than the name "trencher".

But of course the Earl of Sandwich came along and the name stuck. And like many things English, it was exported to America and took on a life of its own. For example, have you ever heard of a hot brown? It's a transformative experience, and a real slice (see what I did there?) of Americana. The hot brown is an open faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, smothered with a mornay sauce, and broiled until it is bubbly brown. It was created by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. You might see a hot brown pop up in other parts of the country, but they are impostors, and you really need to get to the Bluegrass State and try one for yourself. Timeshares are located in Park City and Taylorsville, which are both about 30 miles away. If you think 30 miles is too far to drive for a sandwich, you clearly have never had a hot brown.

How about a muffuletta? I know it sounds like something that belongs on the underside of your car, but it is in fact a glorious sandwich made famous at the Central Grocery in New Orleans. Now a muffuletta is a round Sicilian sesame bread, about 10" across. But it is also a sandwich where said loaf is sliced horizontally and filled with ham, capicola, salami, pepperoni, swiss, provolone, and marinated olive salad. That's four meats and two cheeses for those of you playing at home, and that olive salad can be a meal all by itself. The Central Grocery sells half and quarter muffulettas, suggesting that a whole one is really more than one person can eat. I didn't find that to be the case, but I had a light breakfast that day. A timeshare rental at the Quarter House puts you within crawling distance of the Central Grocery's French Quarter location, should you find yourself incapacitated after your muffuletta.

Surely everyone knows that a french dip is a roast beef sandwich on baguette, served with au jus (with juice) on the side for dipping, and exported from France, right? Wrong. It's actually an American creation, and the subject of a heated debate between two Los Angeles eateries. Both Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet and Philippe The Original, opened their doors to the public in 1908, and each claims to have invented the sandwich. What they do agree on is that the "dipping" in the french dip is done by the chef, not the diner. That's right, the bread from the sandwich is dipped in the au jus prior to its assembly, and sent to the table "wet". You may even request a double-dip, but you will not be getting any dipping juice of your own. An Anaheim timeshare puts your within a half an hour or so of L.A., and right near Disneyland. And since the controversy over who created the sandwich is unlikely to be resolved at this point, I think you owe it to yourself to try one from each place.

It's a big country, and there are a lot of sandwiches out there to try. Knowing that you'll never get to them all, I highly recommend the documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like by Rick Sebak. In the film, he criss-crosses the country trying out regional sandwiches and gathering their histories along the way. It's good fun, and you might get a vacation destination or new sandwich idea out of it. But I have to say this guy has it easy. He actually gets paid to go all around the country, eating new foods, and then writing about it. Where do I get a gig like that?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Live Free or Die

I've traveled to all 50 United States, and New Hampshire almost certainly has the most memorable motto with "Live Free or Die". All states have a motto, not typically what is printed on the license plate, but rather an official word or phrase which describes the overall motivation or intention of the state. California's is "Eureka" (Greek for "I've found it"), Washington's is "Al-ki" (Chinook for "by and by"), and Wisconsin's is simply "Forward". But New Hampshire's is more like a command... followed by a threat. Which doesn't exactly put you into R&R mode. And the nickname "The Granite State" is really only slightly better. Fortunately, their tourism department came up with the slogan "You're Going to Love it Here," which will have to do. It is certainly accurate, as anyone who has ever traveled to NH can attest.

I am staying in the town of Bartlett, NH, which is surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest. In addition to having over 784,000 acres of forest, it is home to its namesake: the White Mountains. Hey did you ever see that TV show "The West Wing," where Martin Sheen played Josiah Bartlett, a president of the United States who hailed from New Hampshire? Well the show was obviously a fiction - anyone who fathered Charlie Sheen cannot be president - but there really was a Josiah Bartlett from New Hampshire, and this town bears his name to this day. Bartlett was one of three New Hampshire signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and was the second person to actually sign his name to the famous document. Unfortunately, the guy before him was John Hancock, which didn't leave a whole lot of room for old Josiah (or anyone else's) name, but it's there alright.

But the mountains, forest, and great outdoors are the stars of the show around here. The White Mountains are home to over 48 peaks above 4,000 feet, including Mt. Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeastern U.S. at 6,288 feet. Mt. Washington is home to savagely unpredictable weather, and long held the record for the highest wind speed ever clocked on earth at 231 mph. A higher wind measurement was observed during a typhoon in Australia in 1996 (253 mph). But unlike on Mt. Washington, it was an unmanned weather station. That's right, Mt. Washington actually had people on top of it when the winds hit the other side of 230 mph. A team of three men huddled in a tiny shack on that fateful day in 1934, and one of them - Sal Pagliuca - even ventured outside to chip ice off of the instrumentation. Are you kidding me?! The other two men reportedly tied a rope around his waist and hauled him back in. So you can understand why New Hampshirites continue to claim it is the "highest wind speed ever clocked on earth, by man".

Another famous feature of the White Mountains is the "Old Man of the Mountain". If you have ever seen the New Hampshire license plate or state quarter, then you know it was a granite outcropping that, when viewed in profile, looked like a craggy old man, not unlike myself. I say "was" and "looked" because some time between midnight and 2:00 AM on the morning of May 23, 2003, the entire formation collapsed and tumbled into the lake below. New Hampshirites - that's really what they are called (I looked it up) - once again were forced to reconcile the loss of a famous feature on their beloved White Mountains. And this one's not coming back. The wind may blow over 253 mph up there one day, but the old man is gone for good.

But there is so much still to enjoy, that you'll probably need to visit more than once. Just a few top area attractions are Cannon Aerial Tramway - an 80-passenger aerial tram that travels above the tree line to a 4,200-foot summit for outstanding views of the White Mountains, walking paths, observation deck, lake swimming and boating, and much more; Flume Gorge - a spectacular natural chasm dotted with covered bridges, amazing waterfalls, scenic pool, and incredible mountain views; Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves - a lantern-lit step back in time featuring waterfalls, gigantic boulder formations, amazing views, caves, fossils, gemstones, and intriguing history; and the Mt. Washington Cog Railway - the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway—built in 1869. A cog railway has gears, or cogs, between the two rails which engage corresponding cogs on the underside of the train's engine. This 19th century technology enabled trains to climb grades that would otherwise have thrown them from their tracks. Today you can ride this very same 37% gradient (not kidding), incorporating modern technologies like biodiesel locomotives and solar-powered track switches. If you love old trains - and why wouldn't you - also be sure to check out the Conway Scenic Railroad and the Hobo Railroad.

My timeshare rental at Attitash Mountain Village features indoor and outdoor pools and jacuzzis, workout facility, tennis courts, hiking and cross-country trails, canoeing, and fishing in the nearby Saco River. And its location directly across the street from Attitash/Bear Peak provides excellent downhill skiing or snowboarding in the winter months, which are numerous. members rate it as 4-stars, and have written numerous insightful reviews.

Well, I am off to nearby Lincoln, NH, and the site of the famous "Hill Abduction". Never heard of it? On the night of September 19, 1961, Betty and Barney Hill were returning to their home in Portsmouth, NH, after a vacation in Niagara Falls. Mrs. Hill spotted something flying erratically in the night sky and asked her husband to pull over so that they might get a better look. Mr. Hill got out of the car just in time to observe - you guessed it - a UFO manned by 8 to 10 "humanoid creatures" descending upon them. He managed to scramble back to the car and drive a few hundred feet before falling under some force neither of them could explain. They came to about 35 miles away with little recollection of what had just happened, and with what has come to be called "lost time". This was the first of what are now called "alien abductions". Lots of crackpots have since claimed they were detained by space invaders, but these two were the original crackpots, and they even have their own state historical roadside marker to prove it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

America's Best Idea

No, not the deep fried Oreo, but that is a close second. I am referring to the the National Parks. I caught the Ken Burns documentary on PBS the other night and was amazed to find out that Yellowstone National Park was the first national park anywhere in the world. Although the Shoshone people occupied the area for thousands of years, it was not until the 1800s that European explorers made their way to Yellowstone, and it was not until 1872 that it was officially set aside as a park under president Ulysses S. Grant. Hey, do you know who's buried in Grant's Tomb? Nobody. The former president and his wife's final resting place are within the tomb, but they are not buried so much as they are just sort of lying there, like any other tomb. I know that's a really old and not so funny joke, but I am a really old and not so funny guy.

Anyway, Yellowstone is 3,468 square miles, mostly located in Wyoming, but also in parts of Montana and Idaho. That's larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, just to give you a point of reference. In other words, it is really big. It's also located on top of something called the Yellowstone Caldera, and features over half of the world's geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, mudpots, etc.). Do you know what a "caldera" is? It's okay if you don't, I had to look it up too. It's a supervolcano. That's right, the first and largest national park is located on top of the largest volcano on the continent. Oh and it's active. Very active. Now call me an worrywart, but doesn't that seem like a really bad place to locate a park which attracts millions of visitors a year? I am assured, however, that should this thing every blow its cork, I wouldn't want to be around afterwards anyway. I guess there is a certain comfort in knowing I'd be immediately blown to pieces - should I be so unlucky as to be there on that day - as opposed to starving to death while choking on ash a few weeks later. Besides, it's the geothermal features that make Yellowstone so special.

The first stories of Yellowstone to come back east told of a land where "mud boiled, water spouted, and steam came out of the ground," and were immediately met with ridicule. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, wrote descriptions and made drawings of the place that led others to think he had perhaps hit his head or developed a drinking problem while out west. They started calling the place "Colter's Hell" and wrote him off as a crackpot. Of course Colter was right, and in the years after the Civil War, official expeditions were dispatched by the federal government to see what the heck was going on out there. They saw the geysers for themselves and a whole lot more. Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have been documented in the park, and unique species of plant life have been discovered as well. But Congress initially did not fund the park, nor put any laws in place to protect it from development. It was not until 1894 that laws were passed to protect parkland in Yellowstone and elsewhere. By that time a fair amount of damage had been done, but Yellowstone remains the largest intact ecosystem in the Earth's northern temperate zone, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. My refrigerator, on the other hand, is one of the smallest - but no less diverse - ecosystems on the planet. What can I say, I travel a lot... things go bad.

So as you may have gathered already, you can't really see all of Yellowstone in one trip. It's the kind of place you'll need to - and want to - come back to again and again. With entrances in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, you have lots of timeshare rental options. Jackson Hole timeshares in Wyoming and West Yellowstone timeshares in Montana offer the most choices and closest proximity to the five entrances to the park. WorldMark West Yellowstone is rated 5 stars by RedWeek members and is located directly across the street from WorldMark West Yellowstone, where you can see wildlife in their natural habitat. Looks like you can get a 2-bedroom/2-bathroom unit that sleeps 6 for $135/night.

Well, I am off to see Old Faithful. Despite stories to the contrary, Old Faithful does not erupt every hour on the hour, and you cannot set your watch by it. Nor is it the largest geyser in the world. In fact, it is not the largest geyser in Yellowstone. But it is the largest, regularly erupting geyser anywhere in the world. A visitor rarely has to wait more than 90 minutes to see an eruption, which will shoot boiling water up to 185 feet in the air. Back in 1882, troops under General Sheridan got the bright idea to stuff their dirty laundry into the hole between eruptions, using it as a giant laundry. When they did manage to track down their clothing afterwards, they reported that "linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds." It's stuff like this that led to protecting the park in the first place.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's like Vegas

If you are a Simpsons fan (cowabunga, dude!), you may remember when Bart described Branson, Missouri, as being "like Vegas - if it were run by Ned Flanders". It's more commonly known as "The Live Entertainment Capital of the World," and if you have never heard of it, you should really check it out.

Established as a town in the Ozark region in 1882, it is named in honor of the first postmaster and local shopkeeper, Reuben Branson. Almost from the get-go, Branson was a tourist attraction for both Missourians and those from neighboring states. The first bona fide attraction was Marble Cave (now called Marvel Cave), which was purchased in 1894 by William Henry Lynch from the Marble Cave Mining Company. The previous owners discovered - after four years of unsuccessful mining - that there was in fact, no marble in the cave at all. But it was (and is) a really massive cave, a fact not lost on Hugo and Mary Herschend. They leased the cave from Lynch and immediately began charging visitors admission to explore it. To give you an idea how big this place is, the entrance way (a.k.a. "Cathedral Room"), is large enough to fly not one, but five hot air balloon simultaneously. Are you kidding me!? In 1912 the Powersite Dam on the White River was completed, which formed Lake Taneycomo, alongside which modern-day Branson sits. The rest, as they say, is history.

A common thread in that history is, of course, live entertainment. The Baldknobbers Jamboree Show is generally credited with being Branson's first country music and comedy show, started by the Mabe brothers: Bill, Jim, Lyle and Bob. They took the name from a local (and violent) Civil-war era vigilante group, and delighted audiences with a washtub bass, banjo, dobro, and a washboard played with the jawbone of a mule for rhythm. Seems like some thimbles would have been just fine, but I am a city-slicker after all, and I guess if I had a spare mule jawbone lying about, why not? Anyway, at nearly the same time, the Herschend family opened Silver Dollar City, featuring a recreated frontier town, shops, a church, and a log cabin with actors playing out the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. By 1967, the Baldknobbers, and many other newly created acts, took their shows to the more centrally located Route 76, a.k.a. "The Strip". Today millions of visitors visit the strip annually, and on any given night can seen performers as varied as Ann Margret, Robert Goulet, Shoji Tabuchi, Barbara Mandrell, Yakov Smirnoff, Charo (cuchi-cuchi), and more. Hey did you know Charo's real name is María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Gutiérrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa Rasten? That's a whole lotta name, but she's a lotta woman.

Anywho, timeshare rentals abound in Branson, and I am staying at Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge. Located right on "the strip", it is also minutes from great fishing, hiking, outlet shopping, and other regional activities. Onsite there is a health club, indoor/outdoor pool, clubhouse, game room, and more. My unit is a 2 bedroom/2 bathroom that can sleep up to 8, featuring a full kitchen, laundry, deck with BBQ, and more. RedWeek members rate it 5-stars and have written some wonderful reviews.

Well, I am off to see the world's largest rooster located at the Great American Steak and Chicken House. Now this is not an actual rooster. That record is purported to belong to His Majesty Rex Goliath, and said to have belonged to a Texas circus at the turn of the 20th century. He weighed in at 47 pounds, and is now the namesake of a California wine. No, this is a 42-foot tall fiberglass monstrosity wearing a star-spangled vest and bow tie and an American flag lapel pin... seriously. I wouldn't normally waste any of my vacation time visiting a giant plastic chicken, but by some strange coincidence, I have already seen the previous record holder (a 37-foot chicken in France), and feel strangely obligated. Besides, the Charo show doesn't start until 8:00, and I gotta kill some time.