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Monday, September 28, 2009

Las Vegas

Arriving a day earlier as planned in Las Vegas, I first headed Downtown. After all, I had two nights booked on the strip and thus decided to check out the Fremont Street Experience.

I was lucky to find a moderately priced hotel just around the corner from Fremont Street.

Fremont Street hosts some of the oldest Casinos in Vegas. To compete with the Mega-Resorts on the Strip they covered part of Fremont Street with a huge screen. During the evening hours music videos are shown there every hour. While I was there I saw American Pie, a Tribute to Queen and a Tribute to Kiss. This was very impressive. I also tried my luck at the slot machines. However, it wasn't meant to be and I left after twenty minutes, once my five dollars were spent.

In addition to the video show, Fremont Street also had a stage where an Army Band played popular Rock songs.


Fremont Street Experience

Day 2 - Exploring the Strip

The next day I relocated to the Excalibur, one of the Mega-Resorts on the Strip which chose medieval times as a theme.

After settling in I ventured to explore the Strip. The Excalibur is situated at the South End and thus I started heading north, checking out the Resorts on the way. My ultimate goal was the Stratosphere, the highest building in Vegas; because I heard that on its top one could ride four high-thrill rides. On the way, I made a short detour through Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile Shops and witnessed the Indoor Thunderstorm, which is very bizarre ;).

The Strip is much longer than I expected, but I finally arrived at my destination. Fortunately, there weren't too many people so I didn't have to queue up to get to the observation deck or to join the rides. The rides were ok, but not really something I would have done multiple times a day.

On the way back I checked out the rollercoaster in the Sahara. It was also rather short, so not much to write home about.

Then it was time for the big highlight of the evening: The Blue Man Group. I had organized tickets that very morning at one of the many half-prize ticket booths. The show was incredible. A mixture of light, sound, comedy, information and art which was thrilling to behold. It was definitely worth the price of admission.

My next stop was Treasure Island and its outdoor Pirate Show with two full ships and some pyrotechnic. A must-see if you are in Vegas.

On my way back to the hotel I stopped to observe the exploding Volcano at the Mirage and the Fountains at the Bellagio.


Excalibur by Night

Day 3 - Looking for Sharks

Paying five dollars extra a day as a resort fee, I thought I should at least check out the swimming pool, which was huge! Or rather, they had three different pools. One of which with short water slides! Unfortunately, my day was packed again so I didn't linger for long.

First on the program was a trip south to explore the last Resorts on the Strip. So I walked through the Luxor, which is very impressive both inside and outside and onwards to Mandalay Bay. There I took some time to visit their Aquarium. That was very interesting, especially because every visitor received an “Audio Wand", which played short sequences about the different exhibits. The highlight was of course the big shark tank located in a shipwreck.

Heading back North I went to the shopping mile at Cesar's Palace, to acquire the latest iPod Nano in the Apple Store. Nearby I stumbled into a breathtaking gallery and ended up buying the book to the exhibition.

Then it was already time again to go back to the hotel. On the way I rode the rollercoaster in New York New York. The best one I saw in Vegas, but still a very rough ride.

The highlight for this evening was The Tournament of Kings: A medieval dinner show at the Excalibur. I was seated in the Dragon section, so we could cheer for the bad guy. Unfortunately, he lost in the end :(. Nevertheless, they did an excellent job in delivering a good show and I enjoyed it a lot.

Next was a show of The Sin City Comedy Club. It was a fun event, but I was a bit distraught by two things. First, by my neighbours who ended up talking amongst themselves more than paying attention to the show. And second, the fact that every comedian repeatedly pointed out that it was all Comedy and shouldn't be taken seriously. Come on, that's supposed to be self-evident!

Even though it was a long day, I felt like going out to party. So I headed over to the New York New York and paid the Coyote Ugly a visit. That was fun. There were lots of girls dancing on the bar and some of the songs they played were actually good.

Visiting Vegas was definitely worth it, even though I ended up spending a lot of money on entertainment, food and shopping ;).


Luxor


All pictures from Las Vegas can be found in my webalbum.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Arizona - The Grand Canyon

Williams and the Grand Canyon

Williams is a tiny little hamlet which has two distinguishing features. First, it is the start of the Grand Canyon Railway and second, it is on the historic Route 66 and has a well-preserved city center.

As you might have guessed, I took the Grand Canyon Railway to the Grand Canyon. That was a very nice trip, both because we could enjoy nice views of the landscape and we received a lot of information about the railway as well as on-board entertainment.

The Grand Canyon was truly impressive and a little bit frightening. After all there were many places where it went straight down and there was nothing to keep you from falling off!

On the way back our train was stopped by train robbers! Fortunately, the Marshal was tight in pursuit and guaranteed us that justice will be done ;).


Grand Canyon National Park

Sunset Crater

The next day I backtracked to Flagstaff to visit Sunset Crater National Monument. Sunset Crater is a volcano which erupted around 1100AD (in geological terms: yesterday) and around it are magnificent lava flows and semi-barren landscapes.


Lava Flow in front of Sunset Crater


Just next doors is the Wupatki National Monument. This area contains multiple well-preserved ruins from the Sinagua Native Americans. They built their homes out of clay and often leveraged natural rock formations as walls for parts of their buildings. A very impressive sight.


Wupatki National Monument

Route 66 and Grand Canyon Caverns

On my way back West I followed the historic Route 66 for a while. The funny thing was that the route was even adorned with the old-school Burma-Shave Rhyming Ads.

The highlight, besides the road that is, on this stretch of Route 66 is Grand Canyon Caverns. A natural dry cavern system that is connected to the Grand Canyon, which is 40 miles away. When the caverns were discovered by Walter Peck in 1927 he though he found the first combination Gold, Silver and Diamond Mine! After the core samples were analyzed though, it was revealed that it was just iron oxide and selenite (a completely worthless mineral). So Peck decided to earn money by letting tourists into the caverns. And that's what survived till today, even though the infrastructure has been drastically improved since 1927. Another fun fact is that the US Government stored emergency rations and water in the caves during the Cuban Missile Crises to last 2,000 people for 2 weeks. These rations are still present in the caves today and would still be edible!


Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk

On my way to the Grand Canyon National Park, I first heard about the Skywalk, a huge glass platform which allows visitors to walk on top of the Grand Canyon, at Grand Canyon West. It was immediately clear that I had to see this ;). And so that was my next stop.

If you check reviews online you find a lot of people bitching about the terrible road leading to the spot and the high prices. Granted the road was rather bad and uneven, but they were doing major roadwork so this should improve in the future, and I was able to drive the whole way with my Ford Focus without problems. As for the price issue, everyone has to decide this for themselves. In my book it was totally worth the price of admission.

The first stop at Grand Canyon West is the Skywalk at Eagle Point, a rock formation which does look like an Eagle. For safety reasons cameras were not allowed on the Skywalk itself. In a way that was good. Because it allowed me to completely absorb the experience, the view and the other people. It was so much fun watching the other people holding on to the railing for dear life or avoiding the clear glass part at all costs! There is also no time limit on the Skywalk itself, and so I spent a good 45 minutes enjoying it.


The Skywalk


Next stop was Guano Point. This section offered a terrific view of Colorado River and had a short but neat hiking path leading up to the top of a small hill. The only problem I had, was that it was an extremely windy day. First this was bad because my hair always covered my eyes, and second because I'm not too firm when it comes to unprotected heights and then feeling the wind trying to push me over the edge was not very comforting...


David with hair all over ;)


From this I learned that I have a rational fear of heights. If there is anything between me and the abyss, even a glass window, I'm fine. If there is nothing in between I start getting uncomfortable.

All pictures from my road trip through Arizona can be found on Picasa.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Arizona - Around Sedona

Before leaving Phoenix I made a short pit-stop at Alice Cooperstown. The restaurant owned and sometimes operated by Alice Cooper.

Cooperstown


The next day sight-seeing started in earnest. I visited Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well, two National Monuments and former settlements of the Sinagua people. They lived there from 1000 to 1400 AD and built their houses out of clay and into the cliff walls.

Montezuma Castle

Sedona

Continuing on my way I came to the famous Red Rocks near Sedona. Most of those rocks have names such as Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Snoopy Rock and so forth.

Sedona is also famous for its Vortexes. A vortex is a place of energy and tourists from all over the world come to these spots to strengthen their potential.

During my second day in Sedona I first took part in a nature walk in the Red Rock State Park, this was extremely educational and we could observe many hummingbirds.

From there I went to Tuzigoot National Monument, another early settlement by the Sinagua people. This one however, was situated on top of a rock and roomed many hundreds of people.

Driving back into Sedona I noticed a lot of water on the street. Some time later I learned that they were hit by an extreme rainfall, so heavy that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your eyes. One section of town was even hit by a Spring Flood! Lucky me, that I was out of town at the time!

To end the day I joined a Hummer Tour. This brought us onto the western back roads of Sedona and offered spectacular views of the mountains. We also saw a javelina, it looks like a wild pig but is more closely related to the hippopotamus, hurrying across the road.

Cathedral Rock

Oak Creek Canyon

The route from Sedona to Flagstaff leads through Oak Creek Canyon, a very scenic route. It also offers multiple hiking opportunities and so I made a stop at the West Fork Trail. This trail leads for 5 kilometres into a side-canyon along a cute little river. The trail ends when the canyon becomes so narrow that the creek fills it completely. This hike was wonderful; very scenic and also quite shady, a bonus in these high temperatures.

At the scenic overlook at the top of the canyon, I ran into a number of old-timers: Ford motorcars from the 1920ies.

Oak Creek Canyon


Pictures from Arizona can be found in my webalbum.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

The First North American Discworld Convention 2009

I first learned of this convention in the Spring of 2008. When I realized that it would coincide with the end of my Masters' Program it was clear that I just had to make the trip to Arizona to be part of this event.

Day Zero - Thursday, 3rd September

The convention officially started on Friday, September 4th, however, I decided to arrive a day early to get settled in a bit first. Before checking in I wondered where to stow my Rincewind hat and then decided to put it in my carry-on luggage together with my robes. Somehow, this was the first flight that I didn't worry about my luggage not arriving and then of course Murphy had to strike. I dutifully waited in Phoenix at the baggage belt, but my backpack just didn't turn up. So off I went to the claims deck, where the nice woman told me that my bag wasn't in their system, i.e. it hadn't been scanned anywhere! After a while I got a piece of paper and a vague promise that most bags would turn up within 24 hours.

So I made my way to the hotel, where I realized that all the accessories to my costume (clasp, belt, bags) as well as my swimming trunks and all my clothes were in the missing bag. What else to do but take a bus and make a trip to the local mall. After a lot of browsing I got the necessities (some clean underwear, swimming trunks, a couple of t-shirts, a belt and something to close my wizard robes).

Thursday evening featured a first event, a pub quiz where attendees and guests could mingle and get acquainted. Even though I was absolute rubbish at the quiz, I maybe contributed one or two answers at our table we had lots of fun and I got to know a fair number of cool people.


Rincewind and Ridcully

Day One - Friday, 4th September

The Convention officially started with the opening ceremony at 1pm. Esther Friesner, an author and one of the guests, appearing as Miss Egaltine, a Seamstress and Lady of Etiquette, gave a brilliantly funny speech and introduced us to all the guests. Finally Sir Terry Pratchett was led into the room, escorted by the Seamstresses which carried a giant turtle over his head!

Since my designated signing session with Terry Pratchett was on the same day, I soon retired to the Emporium, the Dealer's Room, to acquire two books by our favorite author; after all I had to leave all my books in Switzerland. To my big delight I was able to find a book club edition with the original Color of Magic cover, a first edition of Truckers and a first edition of the comic to Mort. (One of these books I handed to my roommate, since there was a two book signing limit)

With my book deficiency problem solved I went to an event called "Borne to Pune", in which a panel of guests tried to make puns to Discworld themes. Participants were allowed to donate some money to the selected charities and throw squishy things at those panelists making the best/worst puns. It was all-around a hilarious affair with the audience readily participating with their own puns.

I was at the head of the line and Terry took his time to chat with the people in line. When I turned up in my Rincewind garb, he divined that I was a Wizard, which pleased me extremely ;).

With the signatures in my pocket I hurried to the next event. The Igorlympics, a contest in which potential Igors could prove their proficiency in essential tasks such as Eyeball Rolling, after all they have to be kept fresh, Limping (whilst balancing an Eyeball on a cup), Lisping and Pinning the Knob on the Wizard's staff. It was all great fun. I came in third in the Eyeball Rolling competition and won a back scratcher which we also used to roll the Eyeballs. All Igors also received an original prop-tooth from the Hogfather movie set!

The big event of the evening was the Seamstresses Party with Terry Pratchett as guest of honor. To help us getting to know each other we were asked to participate in a Scavenger Hunt where we had to find people in the room which fitted certain criteria. It took me a while but I finally managed to complete my list after running into, not away from for a change, many interesting people. During the best costume awards, which were presented by Sir Terry it came to a Scandal. First Terry downed a whole glass of the Bursar's Frog Pills, then tangoed with Nanny Ogg, before fleeing back-stage with her. After a while quiet reasserted itself. Terry returned to present the rest of the awards, which went to a stunning Cherry Littlebottom in a ball gown dress, the Luggage and Young Greebo.

Holy Wood Squares, a Tic-Tac-Toe like Quiz where two contestants tried to guess if their Honored Guests / Squares gave the correct answer to a trivia question, marked the end of a fantastic first day.


The Wizards

Day Two - Saturday, 5th September

Having recently bought "Witch Way to the Mall", a short story anthology edited by Esther Friesner, I lined up to get it signed by the lady herself.

Another signature in my pocket I made my way to join the Fireside Chat with Bernard Pierson, the Cunning Artificer who created thousands of memorable Discworld articles. Bernard has a captivating personality and manages to tell fascinating anecdotes and so the allocated hour went over way too quickly.

Without a break I returned to the Unseen University (aka Main Room) to witness an enlightening talk about Discworld cover art through time. The analysis and discussion of the various artists of the American covers were especially interesting because everyone keeps complaining about them ;).

Then came one of the highlights of the convention: A one-hour discussion with Terry Pratchett in which he answered the most pressing questions of fans. I could have listened to him for hours upon hours; he had so many interesting stories to tell.

The next session was also highly anticipated, a reading from Terry's upcoming book Unseen Academicals. Since Terry's eyesight is one of the things most affected by his case of Alzheimer's, the reading was actually performed by Rob, Terry's assistant. However, Terry was at his side and added many interesting facts. The passages we could listen to were fantastic and I can't wait to get a hand on the book on October, 6th. One fan couldn't wait and paid 1,250 US$ to get his hands on the Uncorrected Proof of the manuscript from which Rob had read.

One of the highlights of the convention for many participants was the Maskerade, in which people could show of their costumes as well as present short sketches. One of the most memorable ones was a Cricket-like commentary to an on-stage Terry starting to write his newest novel. It was amazing to what level of detail some costumes of the participants went.

The evening ended with a rendition of four songs from the Discworld Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, even tough I didn't know the original, entertained me a lot.


Ptraccia with her Pygmy-Camel and Translator Imp

Day Three - Sunday, 6th September

This day started with an interesting discussion about how Terry is published in the UK and the US both as an author of adult fiction and Children's literature. Terry was present at this discussion and actually contributed most of the talking, much to the pleasure of the audience.

I then went over to a panel featuring ordinary people who had the chance to participate as Extras in the making of Color of Magic and/or Going Postal. This was very enlightening and accompanied by a fair amount of pictures taken at the set.

The next panel I selected was very popular indeed. Titled "Yeth, Marther", it featured Rob, Terry's assistant, and his story about how he got to meet first U2 and then Terry Pratchett and how it was to work for those aforementioned parties. This session was one of my personal favorites as it gave me a view of the people supporting Terry in his ever increasing public demand.

Next on the program was the big Charity auction. Since I had set my eyes on a couple of Signed Uncorrected Proofs by Sir Terry I decided to participate. Over the duration of the auction I had to learn that there were people present with very deep pockets. And so another Uncorrected Proof of Unseen Academicals was auctioned off for 1,600$, two signed first editions of Once More with Footnotes went for 1,200$ and several other uncorrected proofs went for 150 to 300$. In between I managed to snag a copy of Dark are the Woods by Richard Laymon for 22$. However, this was not such a rare item and thus my craving for an exclusive book was not yet stilled. Having lost many auctions so far, I spotted an item which instantly won my heart, a first edition of Good Omens signed by both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Deciding to make this my graduation present, I didn't back down when the price went up and finally was the only remaining bidder. For 650$ I could take home one of the best books by two of my favorite authors. Pat Harkins did an excellent job hosting the auction, interweaving many interesting anecdotes and in general keeping the atmosphere light. The last item to be auctioned off was a leaf on which Terry sat the evening before, which came with a certificate of Authenticity created by The Cunning Artificer, this item also managed to raise a couple of hundred bucks. At the end of the auction 23,000$ had been raised which would be shared by the Orang Utan Foundation and the Alzheimer Trust.

Near the end of the auction I sneaked out to get two more signatures in the aforementioned short story collection; this time by Dan and Sarah Hoyt.

After paying for and receiving my auction items, I had to take a short break and returned to my hotel, safely storing the books in my bags.

The main event of the evening was "A Night at the Roxie", the gala banquet. We received splendid food, an intriguing belly-dance performance also featuring Nobby Nobs alias "Betty" and a chance to meet many new people. Fortunately, our table was one of the first allowed to dine at the buffet, which was rather ill supplied and as I heard ran out of stock before the last table could satisfy their curiosity by trying all delicacies.

The Quirm College for Young Ladies Cotillion introduced us to Regency Dances. The first of which, Hole in the Wall, I was already familiar with from my dancing in Switzerland. All in all this was a nice closing event for the evening, even though most participants were getting a tad too tired to learn a Regency Waltz.


A belly-dancer and "Betty"

Day Four - Monday, 7th September

"Time is flying when you have fun", this was also true this time and it was hard to believe that the last day of the First North American Discworld Convention had already arrived.

The first panel I watched on this last day was entitled "Fantastically Funny" and discussed what exactly made Fantasy inherently funny and how humour worked. This was a very intriguing discussion which also touched upon Black Adder and Monthy Python.

Next was a Special Pratchett Movie Showing in the Unseen University. It turned out to be the teaser trailer of Going Postal followed by the two-part BBC documentary "Living with Alzheimer's" about Terry's first year after the disease was diagnosed. This was a welcome surprise to me, since I hadn't seen this documentary before and managed to miss all the other showings of this.

And then it was already time for the Closing Ceremony in which many heartfelt thanks were mentioned and another impromptu auction was held to "get rid off" some of the decoration articles such as the banners. Terry's mention that he would be back at a future North American Discworld Convention was well received by the audience and it lessened the pain many felt that it was already over.

The Tail of the Turtle Party was a relaxing chilling out and saying goodbye to the many people we have met so far.

With two of my three roommates I then made a detour to Fat Tuesday's where we tried their alcoholic slushees, a cultural experience so to speak ;).


Terry leaving the Convention

Post Scriptum One - A Note on Costumes

I myself attended all five days of the convention as Rincewind and I was pleased by the many positive feedback I received. Some people didn't believe my hair was real because it just fitted too perfectly with their image of Rincewind ;)

But I wasn't the only one who made the efforts to dress up and I would like to highlight a couple of my favorite costumes.

One fellow made an appearance as Ronnie Soaks, the Milkman better known as the Fifth Rider of the Apocalypse. He portrayed this minor character in the series with so much eye for detail (he even had milk bottles with the correct bottle caps) and authority that he earned my deepest respect.

Also great were the two tourists who made fantastic reproductions of the Iconograph, including a painting imp, and even created a moving luggage!

Another eye-catcher was the young lady dressed up as the young Seamstress Rosie Palm. Her nice dress was completed with a knitting basket.

Ridcully and the Bursar recreated these characters with lots of attention to detail. Ridcully carried a Burleigh and Stronginthearm Crossbow and the Bursar had his own supply of Dried Frog Pills.

Ptraccia with her stunning dress and fantastic creation of a travelling basket including a pygmy camel and translating imp also inspired my awe.

There were many more great costumes, too many to mention them all here.


Rincewind and Ronnie Soaks

Post Scriptum Two - A Note on Harga's House of Ribs', the Hospitality Suite

Harga's House of Ribs' was a rock in the storm of the Discworld Convention. A person in need could always find something to eat and drink there. They not only provided snacks for in between but also breakfast and warm dinners! For their effortless efforts the staff of Harga's House of Ribs' deserves a thundering applause and standing ovation. It was also a great place to meet people and strike up interesting discussions.

Post Scriptum Three - Terry Pratchett in Glendale, AZ - Tuesday, 8th September

The day after the convention Terry made a public appearance near a library in Glendale Arizona. Having some spare time on my hands and unsure whether Terry would ever show up again in Switzerland, I did my best to be there. Luck was on my side and the rental car, which I reserved for 10am, was ready at 8am and so I go there in time. Of course I was out of books again, but fortunately there was a small consignment of books for sale and so I could increase my collection by two.

Contrary to my expectation Terry did not dwell on his upcoming novel Unseen Academicals, but rather only gave a short introduction and then opened the floor to questions. What followed was an amazing ninety minutes in which Terry talked about his experiences as a public relations officer at a nuclear power plant, his views on God and Humanity, the likelihood of another collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Assisted Suicide, how he came to write the Johnny Maxwell series and much more.

This event was thoroughly enjoyable and it was a perfect (even though unofficial) end to the North American Discworld Convention.


Terry in Glendale


More pictures can be found in my webalbum.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cedar Point 2009

Before leaving the Pittsburgh area completely, I just had to return to a place which I visited before my Master's program started: Cedar Point, which gives Sandusky the tag line "America's roller coaster capital"

I spent Monday and Tuesday of last week at the park and I couldn't have picked better days. The weather was very nice, sunny but not too hot. There weren't too many people. At most I waited 45 minutes at Maverick, but more often than not queues were under 30 minutes. Knowing very well what I will miss back in Europe, namely the biggest roller-coasters, I decided to focus on them. By the end of Monday I had taken six trips on Maverick, four trips on Millennium Force and four trips on Top Thrill Dragster (three of which in front row).

Tuesday was even better! The weather was slightly warmer and there were even fewer people. This went so far that at times there were almost no people queuing for Top Thrill Dragster, a ride that normally has waiting times of two hours! I of course took full advantage of that and by the end of the day I had scored 10 trips on Maverick (a fully awesome coaster), five times Front Row at Top Thrill Dragster, four times Millennium Force and a small number of other rides. By the end of the day I was hoarse from all the screaming! ;)

This trip was a full success and I was so glad that I made it. If you happen to be in the area: Don't miss Cedar Point!

This picture is a self-portrait just after my tenth trip on Maverick:
From Cedar Point 2009

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