A tour of William Randolph Hearst’s famous castle

My wife — who’s temporarily living in Atlanta these days — came to visit us here in Southern California for my birthday (which was April 26).

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We decided I’d take a few days off so we could drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Hearst Castle.

Yesterday, I told you about the drive north, the scenic views and our visit to Morro Bay.

We left off with that photo, above, of Sharon and myself, taking a selfie in front of a large colony of molting elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, just a few miles from the infamous “enchanted hilltop” castle built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Our tour tickets were for 6 p.m. It was only 3 p.m., but we decided to head on to the visitors’ center. We’d be there hours early, but at least we’d be out of the rain.

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These cute little telescopes at the visitors’ center allow you to put in a couple of quarters and view the castle itself, atop the next mountain.

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However, no one was spending any quarters on this day. The cloud cover was so low that you could barely see the base of the mountain, much less the top.

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One of the things we did with all our spare time was take in a movie about the building of the castle.

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There is a small museum there in the center where you can learn more about the life of Hearst and his media empire.

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Hearst — not surprisingly — was a bit of a control freak. I don’t think that was uncommon in those days.

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In 1937, Hearst nearly lost his newspapers because of debt that had mounted over the years of the Depression. This chart showed the newspapers he owned over the years.

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His first was the San Francisco Examiner, which his dad gave him in 1887. The deal: Turn the paper around and you can keep it.

Hearst turned the paper around and added to the holdings. One thing Hearst is known for is the titanic war he fought with Joseph Pulitzer for readers in New York City. It was this battle that led to the invention of the term “Yellow Journalism” — not because of the color of old newsprint…

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…but because of a comic strip called the Yellow Kid.

They even had an ancient copy of the Examiner on display there.

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Nowadays, of course, the Hearst empire is much smaller. Among the papers the company owns: Four in Connecticut, one in Houston, one in San Antonio and the San Francisco Chronicle.

But wait — the Chronicle? What happened to the Examiner?

In 2000, the Hearst company bought the Chronicle. It then sold the old Examiner to a private family, which turned it into a free-distribution tabloid. Hence, the switcheroo.

Sharon spotted a stack of Chronicles in the gift shop and marveled over their small size.

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While I pored over Hearst’s newspaper history, Sharon enjoyed the magazine exhibits. Among his holdings, at one time: Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.

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I was fascinated that the museum spent so much space on honoring Hearst’s wife, Millicent Willson, a former chorus girl and the mother of his five sons.

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A large portrait of Millicent hung on the wall of the museum.

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However, the exhibits say, Millicent preferred the East Coast. She spent nearly all of her time in a large mansion Hearst owned on Long Island.

Hearst rather famously lived in his castle with movie star Marion Davies. There were several mentions of her in the museum…

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…but always with regards to her movie career and the Hearst-funded films in which she appeared. There was no mention at all — that I could find — of their nearly-30-year live-in relationship.

Another thing you won’t see mentioned anywhere in the visitors’ center or the castle itself: A reference to Orson Welles’ cinematic satire of Hearst and his life: Citizen Kaine.

Finally, 6 p.m. rolled around. It was time for our tour to begin.

The parks service makes available a number of tours covering a number of specialized routes within the estate. We had chosen what is called the evening tour: A recreation of what a typical night might have been like for one of the many celebrity guests Hearst invited to his “enchanted hill.”

That was his official name for it. Usually, Hearst just called it the ranch.

We piled into a bus that drove the five miles or so up twisting roads to the top of the mountain. Members of Hearst’s prized cow herd dodged the bus a number of times.

I sure wish we had seen better weather Friday evening. I can only imagine what the main building — Casa Grande — would have looked like dry and in sunlight.

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The tour typically begins with a look at the famous outdoor Neptune Pool. However, the pool is drained at the moment: The estate is supplied by water from natural springs, but — thanks to the drought — those springs are running at about one-sixth normal strength these days. Therefore, they’ve chosen to stop refilling the pools and fountains here.

Plus — ironically — it was raining. So we were given only glimpses of the pool.

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The pool cost Hearst more than a half-million dollars, we were told. He had it completely built, demolished and rebuilt three times before he was happy with it.

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Instead of the pool, we were given tours of all three guest houses, each named for the direction in which they faced: Casa del Mar (House of the Sea), Casa del Monte (House of the Mountain) and Casa del Sol (House of the Sun).

I won’t pretend that I can tell the three guest houses apart, now, even in my pictures. This would be the side facing the main house. The other side of the guest house faces off the mountain.

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This is yet another of the guest houses.

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The evening tour group split into three smaller groups so it’d be easier to move around and to hear our guides. We went into all three of the guest houses.

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Each of the houses had its own personality and decor. But all had a central sitting room, where guests could mingle in the afternoons after their activities wound down but before heading over to the main house for dinner.

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No expense was spared for decor or furnishings. The amount of detail was just astounding.

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Each guest house contains a number of bedrooms. Some of the bedrooms — like this one — seemed a little plain, compared to the sitting rooms. But that’s OK: Some of the rooms gave me a definitely sensory overload.

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Note the dress laid out on the bed, for the benefit of the guest. Hearst flew his guests — typically Hollywood celebrities, but often sports or even scientific heroes — here in a private plane and took care of their every need. They didn’t even have to bring clothes if they didn’t want to.

Here’s some of that ornate detail I mentioned. In the ceiling of that bedroom.

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Notice that most of these bedrooms have a nice view of the mountain.

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Not that we could see anything in that dense cloud cover. But on a nice day, the view would be glorious.

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I was a bit envious of the desk in that room. I started to ask the tour guide if Hearst supplied wifi to his guests, but then decided I didn’t want to spent the rest of the evening banished to the tour bus.

This guest bedroom was one of the gaudier ones we saw, with ornate wall coverings and a rich-looking carpet.

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In case you’re wondering: No flash photography is allowed on the tour, so I had to shoot everything with natural light. That became more difficult as the night got progressively darker. In some rooms, I couldn’t shoot anything at all.

But then, at times, I was able to pull out some detail. Like the Spanish-influenced ceiling carving of this sitting room.

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Hearst’s guests would dress for dinner and then gather for conversation in the sitting rooms. Hearst didn’t like drinking, so he discouraged it from the guest houses. The actor on the left, here, is slipping a few swigs from a hip flask.

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Hearst began building his castle here in 1919, but his prime entertaining years here were from the late 1920s until his health began to fail in 1947. Therefore, the actors were all dressed in depression-era finery.

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When the signal was given, it was time for Hearst’s guests — perhaps two dozen at any given time — to leave their guest houses and walk over to Casa Grande, the main house. On the way there, they’d pass some of the antique sculptures he had collected and scattered about on the grounds.

These appear to be lions of some sort.

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This one is of a nude girl — note the hairstyle, pretty much identifying her as a 1920s’ “flapper” — hanging out with a baby centaur of some sort.

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This is a replica of a famous old piece called the Three Graces — basically, the daughters of Zeus.

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Don’t look now, but Thalia — the Grace on the right — has made it to second base with Euphrosyne.

And this statue is a German statue called Europa.

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Hearst certainly liked his naked women, didn’t he?

And again, we should have been able to see the sun preparing to set over the Pacific Ocean. But no such luck: All we could see were the layers of clouds below us.

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It was finally time to enter the castle itself.

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The tour goes into great detail about the woman who designed this place to cater to Hearst’s changing whims: Julia Morgan, who had made her name rebuilding San Francisco after the great Earthquake there. Morgan and Hearst had gone back-and-forth for years — literally — trying to settle on a style for the estate.

The result is a bit of a mixture. You just saw the grand front of the main building. But the back part of that same building looks very plain and much more modern.

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A fountain out front features yet another nude female statue. This one appears to be grappling with sea creatures.

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The guide pointed out this little ramp on the front of the fountain.

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Hearst’s dog fell into the fountain so many times that they finally had to install a ramp so he could climb out on his own.

I just couldn’t get over the amount of detail around the main entrance. It’s almost as if some granite carver was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted here, so he just kept going and going with no restraint at all.

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As designers, y’know, we all know overdesign when we see it. And that’s overdesign.

I must admit, though, the building was an imposing presence.

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We walked past the front entrance — where, I presume, most of the guests would enter…

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…and went inside via a side door to what Hearst called his Assembly Room: An enormous room that served as his primary living room for guests in the main building.

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Occasionally, we were told, Hearst would have the furniture moved out and hold ballroom dancing here.

The enormous 16th-century tapestries and statues overshadow the primary function of the room. How could anyone unwind in this environment?

Wisely, there are little sections where — if one can use her imagination — a guest might be able to imagine she’s in a normal-sized living room. Or, perhaps, back in the sitting room at the guest houses.

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We were told that guests would hang out here, chat, play cards or work jigsaw puzzles. Hearst and Davies loved jigsaw puzzles, they told us.

Scattered around were reproductions of several of Hearst’s newspapers featuring headlines of the day.

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Jean Harlow’s husband, Paul Bern, killed himself just two months after they wer married. That newspaper would have been dated Sept. 6, 1932, just to give you an idea of the time frame the evening tour attempts to model.

Whenever he was ready, Hearst would appear via a secret elevator door hidden in the wall and ask his guests to move to the refectory, or dining hall.

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The long table looks a lot like something you’d see in a cartoon. Hearst and Davies would sit near the center, facing each other. The newest guests would sit immediate beside them. The longer a guest had stayed at the castle, the further away they’d sit.

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Up to 40 guests could be accommodated at the table.

There were exceptions to the usual protocol. Our guide told us that Harpo Marx would stay here from time to time. Davies was fond of Harpo, but Hearst couldn’t stand him. So he’d have Marx put on the very end — as far away as possible and still be in the same room.

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The enormous tapestry, the 26-foot-high ceiling and the flags give you the feeling you had stepped directly into a medieval castle.

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Next door, to the dining hall, of course, is the kitchen.

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A staff of 11 worked in here, working on meals for the guests and various activities. Hearst really liked his guests to eat together. No room service in the guest houses was allowed, we were told.

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Looking at this area gave me the idea: Forget Downton Abbey, this place would make a great TV series.

Check out the golden birds that serve as handles on the hot and cold faucets.

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Hey, fake beer! My favorite!

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Fake food was scattered around the kitchen — after all, this is no longer a working kitchen. I enjoyed the fake apple pie sitting in front of the very real window.

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By another window was a period telephone and a small tray nearby holding fake — but authentic-looking — telegrams.

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I couldn’t resist checking out what the telegrams said. This one would have dated from the period in which Hearst publishing empire fell on hard times: The War Dept. is offering $2 million for 154,000 acres of the ranch surrounding the castle.

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From there, we headed upstairs to visit some of the castle’s more intimate areas. On the way, I happened to notice the low-hanging clouds had finally lifted.

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That’s the Pacific Ocean out there, in the distance.

We walked down a long corridor populated with more guest rooms — these were for Hearst’s most special guests. Sometimes, we were told, Hearst would bring in editors or officials from his publishing empire. This gentleman plucked away on a period typewriter to simulate a working vacation by one of Hearst’s journalists.

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In case you’re starting to wonder: The estate has a total of:

  • 56 bedrooms
  • 61 bathrooms
  • 19 sitting rooms
  • 127 acres of gardens

Our next stop was Hearst’s library, where his prized collection of antique books and Greek pottery resided. Most of these collections were liquidated in 1937, but 156 of the Greek vases — each more than 2,000 years old — sit atop shelves around the top of this room.

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The actors were dancing — We were told Hearst loved the dances of the day, including the Charleston. These folks were not doing the Charleston. But they sure looked grand.

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The 80-foot-long library itself was incredibly gorgeous. At its peak, Hearst’s collection consisted of more than 5,000 books. Most of what’s here are now are placeholder books, I gather.

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Next, we went across the hall to Hearst’s private office. Papers from his empire were flown in via private plane. He’d stand with the papers spread out on this table, mark up the papers with notes in the margins and then have them flown back to the respective editors.

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Oddly enough, this room contained more books than his library. More than 7,500 books were housed in the shelves built into the walls here.

On the far end is a portrait of a 30-year-old William Randolph Hearst, painted in 1893.

Outside the office is this large unit holding newspapers from the height of the Hearst empire — 29 newspapers and 15 magazines.

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Again, I suspect most of what we’re seeing there are reproductions.

Nearby is the master bedroom suite. This room — relatively modest by the standards we’ve seen throughout the estate — is Hearst’s own room.

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It’s really not until you look upwards that you’re floored. By his ceiling. Heh.

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There’s a nice sitting room outside that bedroom.

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Again, I was just stunned by the ceiling. This reminded me of the interior of an old sailing ship. Or a cathedral.

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Standing there in Hearst’s master sweet and listening to the tour guide, I found myself distracted by the window. Or, rather, by a ray of sunlight streaming through the window.

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It had finally happened: The sun finally graced us with its presence.

The tour left Hearst’s bedrooms and traveled back up a long, open-air corridor. I paused to shoot a picture of the next mountain over.

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Finally, we got a feel for what the view must be like from atop Hearst’s “enchanted hill.” I took a few more steps down that corridor, however, to find the sun setting over the Pacific.

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Wow. You know, that was almost worth it.

Our evening narrative picked up downstairs in the billiards room. After dinner, guests would come down here to play pool or smoke.

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I tried to shoot the French tapestry filling the wall to the left of that picture, but none of them came out. What a pity — the tapestry is the oldest in the house, dating from 1500.

After a time there, Hearst would direct his guests to the movie room. This was just about the size of a typical multiplex theater of today, but with plush seating.

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Oversized Greek temple-like statues kept watch over the guests and also lit the way out.

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The tour guides sat us into bleachers behind the main seating area and ran a newsreel from Hearst’s Movietone News Service.

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Therefore, we got a chance to hear him talk. I would have imagined Hearst to have a rich, booming voice, but that’s not he case. His voice is a bit reedy and nasal. I was reminded of the way Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln.

Interesting factoid No. 1: William Randolph Hearst and Daniel Day-Lewis share a birthday: April 29.

Interesting factoid No. 2: Hearst owned a movie studio, but he frowned on the idea of filming at his castle. Even after his death — when the State of California inherited the place — they won’t honor petitions to film here.

Two exceptions:

  1. The 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie Spartacus.
  2. A Lady Gaga video, earlier this year.

We left the main building — giving me a chance to fire off another exterior shot or two…

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…walked past the back part of the main house…

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…and all the way to a building behind the main complex. Inside, we found the second of the castle’s great swimming pools, the Roman Pool.

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It was very, very dark in here and, therefore, extremely difficult to take pictures. Note the blown-glass, hand-placed tiles on the wall and even on the floor of the pool.

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The pool features a small alcove off the the side. You can’t see it here, but there’s a small diving platform atop that doorway.

All this was built between 1927 and 1932, beneath the estate’s tennis courts. Without disturbing them.

From there, they loaded us back onto the buses and took us back down the hill to the visitors’ center.

Elapsed time of the evening tour: More than two hours. Number of steps we went up or down: 308, I’m told.

The center was long closed down when we arrived back there. As we were climbing into our car, I happened to note a brightly-lit object in the distance, above the visitors’ center.

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That’s the castle — a little jewel, sparking on a newly-cleared night, atop the enchanted hill.

Find the Hearst Castle web site here.

A drive up the Pacific Coast Highway

My wife — who’s temporarily living in Atlanta these days — is visiting us here in Southern California.

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So I took a few days off last week to take a mini-vacation: Sharon and I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to visit the infamous “castle” built by William Randolph Hearst.

The plan was to follow the PCH as far as we could, keeping in mind that the scenic drive disappears and changes names in places.

For us, though, getting on the highway was fairly easy. We drove due west to Seal Beach and then turned north on California Hwy. 1.

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Long Beach can be a very pretty place. But along Hwy. 1, it’s not so great: The highway passes through what seems like the world’s largest industrial area. Lots of warehouses, small factories and billboards. So you won’t mind if I skipped taking pictures of all that.

We took our  first photo of the day as we drove through a tunnel below a runway at LAX.

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Traveling north past the airport, we hit lovely Marina del Rey. However, I’ve taken pictures there before. So we paused only to shoot this road sign — and even that was at a stoplight.

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Sharon, though — who was on camera duty while I drove — couldn’t resist taking this snapshot of female bodybuilders working out along Lincoln Blvd. Which is what they call the PCH in that area.

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Traffic moves slowly here, as you’d probably suspect. So even before we had gone very far, we were a bit behind where I expected to be at lunchtime.

However, food beckoned. We answered that call — in Santa Monica.

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I’ve not yet spent much time up this way, but I made a mental note to bring my daughter up here and explore one weekend. The Santa Monica pier looks particularly inviting.

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Thanks to a poorly-market detour, we had already become separated from Hwy. 1. Our target highway was that one, below the cliffs.

Instead, we were at the intersection of Ocean Ave., and the famous Wilshire Blvd.

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Wilshire, of course, runs through Hollywood and into Los Angeles. East, in that direction there.

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Here on the zero block of Wilshire is a giant bank building and a nice little park.

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Sharon spotted this statue, a good 14 or so feet tall, and asked me why there was a giant phallic symbol here.

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I walked around to the other side to discover it was, in fact, just the opposite of what she thought. The statue was of a nun: The one for whom the city is named.

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I stepped away from Sharon, just in case she was suddenly struck by lightning. That didn’t happen, so we walked up the street in search of cheap eats.

Just a few blocks east is the Third Street Promenade, a nice little shopping area.

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On the corner is a gorgeous art-deco-styled Barnes & Noble.

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Sharon knew if we went in there, I’d a) be there for hours, and b) I’d blow our vacation budget on books. So I had to make a note to return here. After Sharon flies back to Atlanta.

Another cool thing we saw on the Promenade: A dinosaur who spits water.

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Two of them, in fact.

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I didn’t know dinosaurs spat water. Oh, the things you learn on vacation…

I also stumbled over this modest display of civic art.

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I Googled the Sterling Foundation and found that it helps ]teens go to college — teens who, in some cases, might the first members of their families to attend.

We didn’t walk far before we saw this cute little Greek diner.

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Mmmm. A gyro sounded perfect. So we took a table inside the quaint little joint…

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…and had a delicious lunch.

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With our faces stuffed, it was time to try to get back on schedule. We still had a long, long way to go.

This was our direction: Past Pacific Palisades and on through the Malibu region, which you see curling around to the left.

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So off we went. For most of the day, we kept the sun roof closed so I wouldn’t get sunburned right off the bat.

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Malibu was much less dense than I had expected, but every bit as rich.

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Very expensive-looking homes perched on the hills above the Pacific Coast Highway.

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Meanwhile, the richest-looking homes of all sat right down on the water. I was kind of shocked how close these homes were built to the Pacific Ocean.

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I’ve always read that homeowners in these parts discourage visitors from stopping and checking out the beaches. Beach access points exist and are clearly marked. Parking spots, not so much. Therefore, I missed a lot of great opportunities for pictures: You can’t take them if you can’t stop. Sharon shot a lot of these from our moving car.

Sitting atop this particular hill are the Hughes Aircraft lab facilities.

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Man. What a view these folks have. I can’t imagine how they get any work done at all.

Shortly past there: Pepperdine University.

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Someone told me recently that Pepperdine sits directly across the PCH from the ocean. Absolutely true.

Every once in a while, we could find a place to stop and let me fire off a few pictures. Again, note how close to the freakin’ water this modest-sized beach house is.

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I presume this was high tide.

Not far past Pepperdine was Zuma Beach, where we took a short break.

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The water was gorgeous and looked very inviting. I kind of wished we had more time to stay and enjoy this little place.

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A flock of pelicans soared overhead…

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…not pooping on my wife. I was thankful for that.

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And, of course, I must include the obligatory “sun behind a palm tree” shot:

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As we moved further up the coast, the terrain became more mountainous. The Pacific Coast Highway would, at times, soar above the beach houses along the shore.

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But still, we could only pull over in a few places. There just wasn’t anywhere to safely stop and take pictures. Especially not heading north, like we were.

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That’s one tip to remember, should you ever make this drive: Start up north and drive south. There are a few scenic outlooks marked on that side of the PCH.

At several points during our drive, I was reminded very much of the numerous drives I took up and down the Cape of Good Hope peninsula near Cape Town, South Africa. The geology here is very similar: Shorelines that are rocky at times.

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And strings of mountains that come clear down to the sea.

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Those signs weren’t kidding. We spotted a large number of rocks laying all over the highway. I wasn’t sure whether to slow down,  so I could spot rocks falling from the mountain…

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…or speed up, to get us through that stretch a little more quickly.

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Even after we were in the clear — supposedly — we found ourselves driving on a road that was literally carved from the side of a mountain.

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There definitely wasn’t a lot of room for error here.

Finally, we rounded one of these gorgeous bends to spot something I had read about a while back: Mugu Rock.

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Not only is Mugu an interesting rock formation, but also it’s the spot where our journey — which had become mostly westernly since lunch — would turn north again.

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When they built this part of the Pacific Coast Highway in 1925, I’m told, they really didn’t think they could build a road around this bit. So t’hell with it; they just blasted their way through…

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…creating a picturesque notch that has been used in dozens of automotive TV commercials ever since.

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Naturally, we got out and took a bunch of pictures.

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Looking back the other way, I spotted this sign.

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Man, the idea of a tsunami rolling in off the Pacific and pinning us against that rock cliff was terrifying. Just what I needed: Something else to worry about.

The ocean was quite rough here, however, pounding the shore to little bits with a loud crash.

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Speaking of car commercials: Ford really ought to pay me money for posting this picture.

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In case you’re curious: This was the longest road trip we’ve taken with the hybrid Fusion I bought last summer. Fabulous car.

After Point Mugu, we departed the immediate coastline and toward the towns of Oxnard and Ventura. This was farm country.

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I was delighted to see everything so green, given the severe drought in these parts.

Among my regrets from our trip: We didn’t have time to stop in Ventura. I thought this little place was just gorgeous.

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What a lovely little town.

1404.d03.PchVentura01

I’ll have to go back there one day.

On the other side of Ventura, we had a choice: Take U.S. 101 — a nice freeway — and make up our lost time, or stick to my original goal of trying to stay on California Hwy. 1. They run parallel for a few miles. Hoping for a few interesting pictures, we chose the latter.

First thing we did was stop near Emma Wood State Beach, where this interesting mountain looked like it had collapsed in on itself.

1404.d04.PchMoreMountains

In addition to the two highways, a railroad track ran along this stretch.

1404.d05.PchEmmaWood01

Views like this, however, was the real reason we kept stopping. Just look at those waves, crashing into the bay.

1404.d06.PchRoughStuff

Sitting atop one rock here, I found a shoe. Just one shoe. No mate. No owner.

1404.d07.PchShoe

No explanation. No nothing. Just a shoe.

We climbed back into the car but didn’t get far at all before we ran into our next unusual sight: Recreational vehicles, parked end-to-end along the highway.

1404.d08.PchRVs01

There were hundreds of them. Stretching for miles.

1404.d09.PchRVs02

We were stunned. I didn’t really see that many people. Just the RVs.

1404.d10.PchRVs03

That was better than shoes, I suppose.

I stopped in the middle of the pack and shot back south, along the sea wall.

1404.d11.PchRVs04

As far as the eye could see. Amazing.

Just past there, Hwy. 1 ended, so we leaped back onto U.S. 101.

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The downside: There were neither as many interesting sights nor as many places to pull over. The upside: We finally began making decent time.

Note the mountains disappearing in the mist. Notice the flat little island at the far left, with what appears to be a causeway leading out to it.

1404.d12.PchRuggedCoast

That wasn’t a causeway. That was a pipeline. That’s an oil operation, just barely off shore, called Rincon Island. It was built in 1958.

It really was getting late. We had a big lunch, but we knew we’d be getting hungry soon, and we wanted to be somewhere near our hotel for dinner. So it was time to make some serious tracks.

1404.d13.PchMeDriving

Because of that — and because there are so few places to pull over anyway — we took very few pictures of the Santa Barbara area.

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And that’s a shame, because Santa Barbara, too, was a very pretty little city.

At some point, we passed Gaviota State Park. That was a landmark for us, because it meant we had to say goodbye to the Pacific Ocean for the day.

We turned due north, inland towards those mountains…

1404.d14.PchGaviolaStatePark

…and through this little area called Gaviota Pass.

It was here, on Christmas Day, 1848, that the Mexican Army waited to ambush John C. Frémont and his 300 men who were en route to Santa Barbara.

1404PchMap06

However, Frémont — realizing the peril — chose an alternate route.

1404.d15.PchMountain01

The next month, Frémont was successful in winning his part of the Mexican-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.

Only the southbound part of U.S. 101 travels through the pass proper. We were on the northbound lanes, which pass through the mountain via a tunnel built in 1953.

1404.d16.PchTunnel01

Although there are no bike lanes in the tunnel, bicycles are allowed inside.

1404.d17.PchTunnel02

Once we passed through that mountain, our route took us west again, through some very hilly country…

1404.d18.PchMountain02

…which eventually flattened out just a bit…

1404.d19.PchEnd01

…by the time we hit the town of Lompoc.

1404PchMap07

By now, we were getting hungry. We probably should have stopped here for fast food or something, but we were determined to press on to our hotel near Pismo Beach.

This is where we made our first real mistake of the day: I had planned to stay on Hwy. 1 past the main gate of Vandenberg Air Force Base. However the GPS built into my car suggested a faster, alternate route that would help us link up to Hwy. 135.

1404PchMap08

I succumbed to the temptation. The lesson I learned: Never take GPS’ word for anything. Because GPS lies.

So here’s what happened: We turned northeast on something called Harris Grade Road. Which turned out to be a very small, somewhat terrifying road that took us up and around a number of mountains. Without guardrails.

I slowed the car waaaay down. Both Sharon and I have a bit of an aversion to heights. We both turned green.

By this time, the battery on my camera had died for the day. I suggested to Sharon that she take a few pictures of this incredibly narrow, terrifying road — it’ll make a great story later, I said. Pictures, hell, Sharon said. I’m not opening my eyes again until we’re down.

You’re reading this, so you know how it ended: We eventually reached Route 135, slid into Santa Maria and picked up U.S. 101 again. Which we probably should have never left after driving through the tunnel at Gaviota.

From there, it really was a short drive to Arroyo Grande, where we checked into our hotel.

1404PchMap09

As you can see, we were very close to Pismo Beach. We never managed to get over to see the actual beach there: The whole time we were there, we were either sleeping or running around points north.

The hotel, though — a Best Western — was quite nice. Much nicer than I would have thought.

1404.e01.MorroHotel03

The only downside of the place: The patio around the pool and hot tub was being resurfaced, so the pool area was closed.

1404.e02.MorroHotel02

That was OK, though: We didn’t come to enjoy the pool.

Our room was on the second floor, just past the elevator.

1404.e03.MorroHotel01

As you saw, we enjoyed gorgeous weather for the drive up on Thursday. Friday, however, dawned chilly and overcast. Rain was in the forecast. It was hard to complain — folks here need rain so much — but, still. We’d have to work around the weather.

After a quick breakfast, we jumped back onto U.S. 101 for a drive over to Morro Bay. I’ve always heard how pretty it is there.

After we passed through San Luis Obispo, however, we came across a row of very interesting mountains.

1404.e04.MorroSisters01

These are what are called the Nine Sisters — nine mountains of volcanic origin that stand roughly in a row between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay. That one, I believe, would be 1,559-foot Bishop Peak.

This one with the rocky adornments is Hollister Peak — at 1,404 feet, the tallest of the nine.

1404.e05.MorroSisters02

This is Cabrillo Peak, with Black Hill lurking behind.

1404.e06.MorroSisters03

Finally, the last of the nine — Morro Rock, at the very mouth of the bay — came into view from the highway.

1404.e07.MorroRock

We’d spend quite a bit of time looking at that rock. First, though, we had to drive through the town of Morro Bay.

1404.e08.MorroStreet01

It was a very pretty little seaside town. The big industries here, evidently, are fishing and tourism.

1404.e09.MorroStreet02

It was yet another place I’d like to spend a day or two exploring. But, alas. We didn’t have that kind of time.

This is Morro Rock, as it appears from Embarcadero, the harborfront street.

1404.f01.MorroRock

Like I said, the day was overcast. The clouds must have been low, because every once in a while, one would drift between us and the 581-foot-tall rock.

1404.f02.MorroRockWithCloud

The rock guards the base of the bay, where lots of sailboats and fishing vessels are moored.

1404.f03.MorroTheBay

1404.f04.MorroBoats03

A family of seals — they were very loud — kept watch over the boats.

1404.f05.MorroSeals

And a seagull kept watch over the seals.

1404.f06.MorroSeagull

Just behind the row of shops and restaurants along Embarcadero are a number of docks. Fishing boats and tour vessels came and left as we strolled along the boardwalk.

1404.f07.MorroBoats01

Business was a little sleepy on this misty Friday morning. I’d imagine the place is hopping on a sunny day.

1404.f08.MorroBoats02

Despite the big oily boats, this is still California. So everyone here is ecology-minded.

1404.f09.MorroFishingLine

Like I said, a number of cute little shops lined the street.

1404.f10.MorroShops

Sharon found herself a bit chilly, so we ducked into one and bought her a Morro Bay sweatshirt. Then, I wondered why this place was named after me.

1404.f11.MorroJerky

A few of the restaurants doubled as sports bars. I wondered how good satellite reception could be with all that bird poop on the dish.

1404.f12.MorroDish

And, speaking of cute names: Sun-N-Buns for a bakery.

1404.f13.MorroBakery

Outstanding.

At the end of the row of shops was a tiny little park.

1404.f14.MorroPark

We drove around Embarcadero to get a little closer to Morro Rock.

1404.f15.MorroRock02

The rock, as I said, is of volcanic origin. This diagram is posted nearby, explaining how the action of wind and water over the past 20 million years wore away the volcanic mountain, leaving only the plug.

1404.g09.MorroPoster01

Another part of the same diagram explained the Nine Sisters.

1404.g10.MorroPoster02

For a while, the mountain was used as a quarry. The nearly breakwater, for example, is made entirely of rocks chipped away from Morro Rock.

1404.g02.MorroRockTexture

Here’s a look back at downtown from the base of the rock.

1404.g03.MorroTownAcrossTheBay

Lots of folks were out there, even on a blustery day, shooting pictures of the Peregrine Falcon nests there.

1404.g04.MorroTakingPictures

Sharon, however, is more interested in shells and sea creatures. She walked along the beach and the breakwater, looking for artifacts.

1404.g05.MorroShells

She really should be more observant, however. You never know when a giant gull will snatch you off the beach, fly to her nest and feed you to her young.

1404.g06.MorroGiantSeagull

Once I got all the pictures I wanted, I took a break and waited for Sharon to do her thing.

1404.g06.MorroMeWaiting

I did find a few signs that made me laugh. This sign tells you to not climb on the giant rock — it’s a nature preserve — but it’s OK to walk your dog here.

1404.g07.MorroSign01

Or does it?

1404.g08.MorroSign02

Captain Nasty, it turns out, is a local funk band.

I couldn’t help but notice the enormous amount of bird poop all over Morro Rock.

1404.g11.MorroBirdPoop

I’m not sure why all the poop kept leaping out at me. But it did. That, alone, would keep me off the mountain.

We took a quick detour to the far side of the bay to see the estuary…

1404.g12.MorroEstuary

…but, quite frankly, it was time to eat lunch and move on to our next stop. There were a number of nice-looking eateries on Embarcadero, but only one was cooking food right there on the sidewalk.

1404.g13.MorroLunch01

This was Giovanni’s, a fish market and eatery where you can munch with a view of the rock.

1404.g15.MorroLunch03

Naturally, we had to eat fish and chips.

1404.g14.MorroLunch02

However, we decided to pass up the Fried Twinkies and Fried Oreos.

1404.g16.MorroLunch04

Our tickets at Hearst Castle were for an evening tour. It was still a bit early to drive the few miles there, so we decided to drive past the estate and check out a nearby colony of elephant seals.

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The terrain in these parts was just a bit flatter than what we had seen earlier. Flatter but very rocky.

1404.h01.SealsCountry

Here, I’m looking back over the water to Morro Bay, far in the distance. You can see Morro Rock, just above the direct center of the picture.

1404.h02.SealsLookBack

Look to the left to find another large cloud.

While we stood there taking pictures, our weather luck finally ran out. A layer of clouds rolled in out of the mountains and it began to rain.

1404.h03.SealsCloudsMoveIn

The spot where the seals hang out is called Piedras Blancas. We got out of the car, pulled on our jackets and hats and walked over to the observation point. Where, sure enough, among the rocks…

1404.h05.Seals02

…we could see seals. Sleeping on the beach.

1404.h06.Seals01

Turns out, this is molting season for female and juvenile elephant seals. Mating season is over. The seals return to the beach and spend days or weeks laying on the beach until they shed their skins.

I had to laugh at this sign, however.

1404.h04.SealsPoster

“Faster than you think”? Not today, they aren’t. If you don’t stand there long enough to see one twitch or vocalize, you’d swear they are dead.

Still, there weren’t very many seals to watch. Most of the crowd was further up the path. Despite the wind and the rain, we decided to walk over there and see what everyone was looking at.

1404.h07.Seals03

Sure enough, we hit the motherlode: Hundreds of elephant seals. Thousands, maybe.

1404.h08.Seals04

As far as the eye could see. Most were very drowsy. Only a few were moving around or tussling with each other.

1404.h09.Seals05

Sharon managed to capture one of these li’l fellas heading for a quick dip in the water.

1404.M03.SealPup

He’d move a few feet and stop and rest. And move a few more feet. And stop and rest again.

Kind of like me, going up stairs.

1404.M04.SealPup

We shot a selfie in the rain…

1404.h10.SealsTwoMore

…and decided that we would go on to the Hearst Castle, even if it was too early. At least we’d be out of the weather.

That’s all the story I have for you today. Tomorrow, I’ll walk you through our evening tour of Hearst Castle.

The Great Apple Transcontinental Migration, part two

Some of you have been following along via social media during my drive from Virginia Beach to Southern California.

For those of you who haven’t and would like to read a good soap opera: Find Part One — which covered Friday, Saturday and Sunday — here.

When we ended that installment, Sharon and I were holed up in a Hampton Inn in Abilene, Texas, with a giant windstorm bearing down on the area…

_______

MONDAY

MILE 1,603, Abilene, Texas

6:33 a.m. CST

130227MoveMonday01PackingUp

We got up as early as we could, ate breakfast, loaded up the rig and hit the road. The idea: Get as far as we could west, knowing that we were headed directly into the southern tip of the same storm that was dumping a lot of snow and tropical storm-force gusts in north Texas and Oklahoma.

MILE 1,611: Abilene, Texas

6:52 a.m. CST

130227MoveMonday02Shirley

…and stop calling me Shirley.

MILE 1,655: Sweetwater, Texas

7:45 a.m. CST

130227MoveMonday03WindFarm

The day started out nice and sunny. And breezy. Clearly, this large wind farm not far west of Abilene didn’t mind the huffing and puffing.

130227MoveMonday04WindFarm

MILE 1,718: Big Spring, Texas

8:47 a.m. CST

130227MoveMonday06ColdSharon

But we didn’t get very far before the storm caught up to us. The wind was incredibly strong and incredibly cold, making it increasingly difficult for Sharon to keep our big Penske truck and trailer on the road.

Eventually, our luck ran out. A strong bit of the storm lay directly in front of us.

130227MoveMonday05Radar

We saw quite a bit of snow, but with winds gusting to 45 and 50 mph, there was no chance of anything accumulating on the roads. Just keeping the truck on the road was the problem.

MILE 1,736: Lamesa, Texas

9:43 a.m. CST

130227MoveMonday07BlowingWind

Dust was everywhere. At times, visibility was affected. Eventually, it all became too much for my wife. By the time we reached Odessa, she called for a time out.

MILE 1,776: Odessa, Texas

10:20 a.m. CST

130227MoveMonday08Break

So we parked our rig, sat down in a McDonald’s at a Love’s truck plaza and bought a couple of hours of wifi time.

For what it’s worth, Odessa is where the original documentary movie Friday Nights Lights was based. The TV series by the same name was about a fictional town with a fictional name. But that was basically a sequel to the movie, filmed here.

After an hour or so, we were both itching to get back on the road. I dug up some wind speed forecasts and plotted them for towns along our path on I-20 to give us an idea when we might expect to drive out from under it all.

130227MoveMonday09Chart

It didn’t look good. When I plotted it out, it became clear that a) we were in the thick of it, and b) Winds wouldn’t drop down below 30 mph until late afternoon. Winds wouldn’t drop below 20 mph until well after sunset.

Rested a bit and with lunch in her, Sharon decided she was ready to give it another shot.

MILE 1,800: Just west of Odessa

Just after noon CST

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Keeping the truck straight in all the wind was about all Sharon could handle. The winds subsided as we traveled westward. But soon, she was ready for another rest.

MILE 1,850: Pecos, Texas

1:15 p.m. CST

 

 

130227MoveMonday11Windshield

So at a gas station in Pecos, Texas, we cleaned the crap off the truck as best we could and we switched drivers. For the first time since we left Virginia Beach, I took a turn behind the wheel.

130227MoveMonday12MyTurn

Several folks asked me why I was making Sharon drive nearly the whole way to California. The simple answer: I can navigate, find hotel rooms and tweet our entire journey via my iPhone. But Sharon can’t read a printed page or a computer screen in a moving car: It makes her carsick. Which means she gets terribly bored as a passenger.

Therefore, she drives and I’m the navigator and social media publicity manager. We made a great team this week.

MILE 1,894: Junction of I-20 and I-10

2 p.m. CST

130227MoveMonday13Junction

We had been following I-20 since Fort Worth. In Early afternoon, I-20 ended and we merged onto I-10, which would take us the rest of the way into Southern California.

MILE 1,940: Van Horn, Texas

3 p.m. CST

130227MoveMonday14VanHorn

We made a quick refueling break in tiny Van Horn, Texas. My mother spent a couple of years here as postmaster.

I was awfully tempted to stop and buy a book of Forever stamps. But we pressed on.

MILE 2,000: A half-hour short of El Paso

4 p.m. CST

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In late afternoon, we hit another major milestone: The 2,000th mile of our trip.

As we posted these pictures via Twitter and Facebook, a few of my friends back in the South remarked about how similar they looked. Yes, indeed. Once you pass Fort Worth, the terrain can look awfully similar — along our route, at least — until the very end of our trip. Lots of desert, lots of sky, lots of scrubby bushes and lots of mountains in the distance.

MILE 2,055: El Paso, Texas

5 p.m. CST

130227MoveMonday17ElPaso

After 200 miles behind the wheel, I pulled over for dinner in El Paso. Sharon chose a nice parking space for our rig. You can’t see that sign to the left, above, but that’s a “gentlemen’s club.”

Our dinner choice was Texas’ famous Whataburger chain.

130227MoveMonday18ElPaso

I’ve had Whataburger before and I love them. But I wanted Sharon to try one.

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Despite the look on her face there, she says she liked it quite a bit.

At dinner, we talked about where we wanted to spend the night. If we wanted to get to Southern California before too late Tuesday, we really needed to put a few more miles behind us. So we decided to press on into the night and aim for Tucson. I made online reservations at a Days Inn in downtown Tucson and we resumed our journey into the night.

MILE 2,184: Rest stop near Deming, N.M.

8:15 p.m. MST

130227MoveMonday20UnderTheMoon

Let me tell you, my friends, New Mexico is very empty and very lonely at night.

As soon as we crossed the state line, we noticed the strong smell of cow patties. Not the greatest of impressions on my wife.

In fact, we crossed the entire state in the dark. Which is a shame, because I’ve been to New Mexico. I know how beautiful it can be.

MILE 2,220: Lordsburg, N.M.

8:55 p.m. MST

130227MoveMonday21Refueling

This was our last refueling stop of the night. Sharon had misplaced one of her shoes in the cab of the truck and was standing on one foot here.

MILE 2,378: Tucson

11:15 p.m. MST

We arrived at our hotel very late and very tired, only to find we had moved into a complete dump of a place. The room smelled bad and was in dire need of maintenance.

We just shrugged, climbed into bed and fell asleep. What else could we do?

_______

TUESDAY

We were so exhausted that I decided to let us sleep in a little later yesterday. It was nearly 9:45 a.m. before were packed and ready to go.

But not before Sharon gave one final salute to the folks at Day’s Inn.

130227MoveTuesday01Hotel

We didn’t bother to get up at the crack of dawn because the crack was already supplied by the hotel… in the form of the giant ass on this inflatable promotion.

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Apparently, gemstones are big in these parts. Big enough to attract the attention of 15-foot-tall, four-armed women.

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We loaded up the rig…

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…and went next door to Carl’s Jr., a restaurant chain that is a corporate sister of the Hardee’s we have in the South. We had been told that Carl’s Jr. didn’t serve Hardee’s style breakfast biscuits, but, in fact, they’ve started.

130227MoveTuesday05Hardees

As we enjoyed our biscuits at 9 a.m., we realized the day was in danger of getting away from us. But we also knew we had only 500 miles — and some change — to go. The idea was to get to our hotel — in Yorba Linda, Calif. — before sundown. That should be doable, especially we expected no mechanical failures and no freak windstorms to slow us down.

We took a moment to shoot portraits of each other.

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Because that’s what you do in a Carl’s Jr., right? Shoot pictures of each other?

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It was close to 8:30 a.m. Mountain Time before we were on our way.

MILE 2,400: Just west of Tucson

9:50 a.m. MST

130227MoveTuesday08Tucson

The area of Tucson along I-10 west of town is nothing to brag about. I’m sure Tucson is nice. But you’d have to venture away from the interstate in order to prove it.

And then, once you get out of town, you go back to seeing the same type of stuff you saw in West Texas: Sand. Shrubs. Not much else.

MILE 2,414: Pichaco Peak, Ariz.

10 a.m. MST

130227MoveTuesday09Pichaco

This, in fact, was one of the most memorable sights along the road from Tucson to Phoenix.

MILE 2,489: Phoenix, Ariz.

11:20 a.m. MST

130227MoveTuesday10Phoenix

Phoenix itself was massive. Much larger than I had expected.

We had 345 miles to go.

MILE 2,500: Glendale, Ariz.

11:30 a.m. MST

130227MoveTuesday11Exterminate

Back home in Virginia, exterminators advertise their services using pictures of roaches, ants and mice. In Arizona, they advertise with huge drawings of scorpions.

MILE 2,618: Quartzsite, Ariz.

1:30 p.m. MST

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By lunchtime, we were truly in the middle of nowhere, Arizona. Rest stops and refueling joints became further and further between. And my trusty 3G service began crapping out.

So when we came to a town called Quartzsite, Ariz., we decided we’d better eat while we could. We had Subway.

However, I was struck by the town itself, which — except for a couple of truck stops and restaurants — seemed made entirely of campers, trailers and RVs.

130227MoveTuesday13Quartzsite

Sure enough, it turns out that Quartzsite is where thousands of gem traders and dealers gather in the months of January and February to sell and trade their wares.

130227MoveTuesday14Quartzsite

So what looked like a “tent city” essentially was a “tent city.” Go figure.

Shortly after, we finally made it to the…

MILE 2,636: California state line

2:30 p.m. MST

130227MoveTuesday15Stateline

There was a lengthy line for trucks to be inspected. The little guy asked us of we had any fruit, pets or houseplants aboard. No, no and no. So he sent us on our way.

We had just under 200 miles to go.

MILE 2,707: Joshua Tree National Park

2:32 p.m. PST

130227MoveTuesday16JoshuaTree

Again, we drove for hours with the scenery constantly changing. But never really becoming different. We were surrounded by desert and mountains in the distance. In the case of the photo above, however, those mountains are part of the Joshua Tree National Monument.

A nearby fueling stop included an additional attraction: A museum devoted to Gen. George S. Patton, who was originally from near here.

130227MoveTuesday17Patton

Wow. I’m going to have to go back over there one day and check that out.

MILE 2,729: Coachella, Calif.

3:20 p.m. PST

130227MoveTuesday18Coachella

After staring at a gorgeous — but nearly unchanging — scene for about a day-and-a-half, we finally were treated to a change of pace when we followed I-10 over a ridge and came face-to-face with a smoky row of mountains. Southern California features several rows of mountains and I’m looking forward to learning the names of these mountains.

The little town just before that mountain, however, is Coachella. Just past that is Indio, Palm Desert and then Palm Springs.

We were now down to less than 100 miles left.

MILE 2,750: Palm Springs, Calif.

3:44 p.m. PST

130227MoveTuesday19PalmSprings

“Is that snow on top of that mountain?,” Sharon asked me. “Or is that a trick of the light?”

That’s snow. And at the foot of that mountain is Palm Springs.

What I didn’t know about Palm Springs is that it’s home to an enormous array of windmills.

130227MoveTuesday20WindFarm

This wind farm put to shame the one I had photographed the day before in Texas.

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There are more than 3,000 of them, I’m told. An amazing sight.

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But this was to be the first of many amazing sights. In a very brief amount of time.

MILE 2,790: Moreno Hills, Calif.

4:17 p.m. PST

130227MoveTuesday23MorenoHills

As we drove over the next ridge, I noticed the scenery was completely different from what we had been subjected to over the past several hours. These hills were rounded and covered in grass. And they went on and on.

 

130227MoveTuesday24MorenoHills

And they were beautiful. Because we were heading into the afternoon sun, I had a very poor angle with which to shoot. So these iPhone pictures really don’t do the hills justice.

These were quite unlike anything I had seen in England or South Africa.

MILE 2,809: Riverside, Calif.

4:39 p.m. PST

130227MoveTuesday26Sunset

On the other side of the hills lay Riverside. I’m a little familiar with Riverside — it’s one of the cities in which I’ve been online shopping for apartments.

It, too, looked very nice. At least from the freeway.

However, Sharon found it hard to drive directly into the setting sun. So she borrowed my hat.

130227MoveTuesday25Riverside

We were now less than 25 miles from our hotel.

MILE 2,803: Corona, Calif.

5 p.m. PST

130227MoveTuesday27Corona

West of Riverside is Corona, Calif. And I’ve named it as one of my target areas. You can see the heavy traffic crawling away from the metro area. Naturally, we were headed into town. We ran into backups only once or twice.

Presently, we circled this large mountain…

130227MoveTuesday28Mountain

and emerged on the other side just in time for our exit. Because we had reached the end of our journey.

MILE 2,835: Yorba Linda, Calif.

4:15 p.m.

130227MoveTuesday30Hotel

The Extended Stay America hotel in Yorba Linda.

Sharon was nearly giddy that her ordeal was over.

130227MoveTuesday29Hotel

Our room is huge, with a king-sized bed…

130227MoveTuesday31Hotel

…as well as a small kitchen area.

130227MoveTuesday32Hotel

Once we unloaded our suitcases, the next task was to unload the Deerslayer from the trailer on which it had traveled across the continent.

130227MoveTuesday33Dismount

My PT Cruiser nailed the dismount.

So we cleaned up and went out for a fast dinner. Much to my amusement, I got the perfect fortune.

130227MoveTuesday35Fortune

A day like Tuesday just couldn’t end any better, could it?

130227MoveTuesday34MeAndSharon

The plan for the rest of this week: We’re going apartment hunting. With luck, we’ll find me something suitable and get me moved in.

I start work at the Orange County Register on Monday. Sharon flies back to Virginia Beach on Tuesday.

Highlights of the Great Apple Transcontinental Migration — so far

Perhaps you’ve been following the comically soap opera epic tale of perseverance of our trip this weekend from Virginia Beach to Southern California. I’ve been posting regular updates via Facebook and Twitter (hashtag #applemigration).

If not, then lucky. You. This should catch you up…

THURSDAY

Thursday afternoon, I picked up a 16-foot moving truck from Penske.

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Both Jim McBee and Richard Curtis recommended I rent from none other. And boy, has that turned out to be great advice. Not only was the truck in terrific shape and very easy drive, it also was much cheaper than the other guys. So take note.

Sharon had a couple of high school boys lined up to help us load up the truck with the boxes we had been packing off-and-on for the past two weeks.

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At the last minute, however, that help fell through. My daughter, Elizabeth, lept to my rescue, recruiting two friends to come over Thursday and help us out.

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That evening, I witnessed my last Virginia Beach sunset.

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FRIDAY

While my wife was at school — Elizabeth and I enjoyed one last lunch at the friendly neighborhood McDonald’s, where I’ve spent so many hours eating chicken tenders and blogging with the free wifi.

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Friday afternoon, I packed up the last few items around the house — including my trusty MacBook Pro — told my daughter No Parties — and hit the road in the truck. She captured the very end in this video.

But I didn’t head out of town just yet. Instead, I drove back to the Penske rental center, where I picked up the final piece of our travel gear: A trailer on which to carry the old Deerslayer, my PT Cruiser. Which my wife drove directly there from the elementary school where she teaches.

It’s funny. my Penske truck seems huge when I’m trying to maneuver through traffic. But when it’s sitting in a row with the company’s other vehicles, you get a sense of how small it really is.

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The folks at Penske hooked up the trailer and then carefully instructed us on how to mount the car. Because of rules and regulations, we have to do that ourselves. Luckily, Sharon is a lot more mechanically inclined than I am. She had us set to go in no time.

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Or so we thought. In fact, that mechanism she’s messing with in that picture would cause us headaches the next day.

One thing I hadn’t thought about was how dirty and grimy we’d get doing this. We looked at each other and said: We need baby wipes, a rest room and something cold to drink. So we drove to a nearby shopping center. Sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s at Lynnhaven Mall in Virginia Beach is where Sharon took the wheel of the truck and set our trip odometer to zero.

So, let’s call that…

MILE 0: Lynnhaven Mall, Virginia Beach

4 p.m.

So we drove to the interstate and… went nowhere. Literally. Unfortunately for us, the I-64 tunnel leading out of town was already backed up for miles. We tried to cut through Norfolk but found another tunnel there hopelessly jammed as well.

That’s how we ended up doing one thing we did not want to do: Drag our huge rig all the way through downtown Norfolk during rush hour.

MILE 15: Brambleton Avenue, Norfolk

4:30 p.m.

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In all, the traffic problems cost us more than an hour. Good practice for Los Angeles, one friend told me via Facebook.

Eventually, though, we broke through and made it through the tunnel. The tiny little tunnel. With the low, overhanging roof and the tiny, narrow lanes. In our enormous truck.

MILE 18: Midtown Tunnel, U.S. 58, Norfolk

5:15 p.m.

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By the time we were out of Hampton Roads, it was dark. So much for getting a great Friday evening headstart to our trip.

MILE 88: Rest stop east of Richmond

6:30 p.m.

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Just shy of Richmond, we made our first rest stop. You see Sharon here, bolting for the ladies’ room.

I ducked into a men’s room stall to find a half-can of beer. Oh, wonderful.

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Now, we were racing the elements. The forecast called for frozen precipitation. Not a lot of it — just enough to make the roads slick. And we did not want to be driving a huge truck and a trailer on slick interstates.

Even past Richmond, however, temperatures were above freezing and all the stuff falling from the sky was liquid. We decided to press our luck and try to make it past Charlottesville to Staunton for the night.

MILE 180: Charlottesville, Va.

8:30 p.m.

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Our first gas stop. We nearly had a coronary.

Again, someone replied via Facebook: It’s good practice for Los Angeles.

MILE 230 (approximately): Staunton, Va.

10 p.m.

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We finally made it to Staunton — a little later than we would have liked, but safe and sound. And untouched by ice. We ate a quick dinner at McDonald’s and checked into a Hampton Inn, high on a ridge overlooking the highway.

We took up a half-dozen parking spaces. But we had no trouble at all with the rig.

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SATURDAY

Saturday, we got up at 6 a.m. and pulled out of the hotel at 7 a.m. sharp, heading south on I-81 to Lexington, where we stopped for breakfast biscuits at Hardee’s. That’s one thing I’m going to miss about living in the South: Hardee’s country ham biscuits.

MILE 275: Somewhere on I-81 South

8:30 a.m.

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The nice, modern truck even has an auxiliary connection for my iPod. We listened to Dutch jazz singer Caro Emerald. You really need to hear you some Caro Emerald.

 

MILE 320: Christiansburg, Va.

9 a.m.

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We didn’t see much rain or ice but we did pick up a lot of road grime — the state Dept. of Transportation had carefully salted the highways — and we saw quite a bit of fog.

We were making some really decent time, in fact, until we stopped at a Love’s Plaza truck stop at…

MILE 357: Fort Chiswell, Va.

9:45 a.m.

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That’s where we ran into our first major glitch. While I fueled the car and checked how the trailer was holding up while Sharon ran inside to the rest room. What I discovered: The straps holding the left front wheel had come loose. And the little crank mechanism — the one you saw Sharon messing with in that earlier picture — wouldn’t work properly.

The picture on the left, here, was the right side tire. That’s what it was supposed to look like.

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Not good. And definitely not safe to put back on the road.

So we called the 1-800 number for Penske to ask for service. We were too far away from a good-sized town, however, to expect fast service. Sharon and I had just pulled our computers from storage and were preparing to buy a couple hours’ of wifi service when — amazingly — a local contractor named Justin pulled up alongside the rig, hopped out…

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…and fixed the broken mechanism in mere moments. Seriously.

Our total lost time in this little episode: Maybe 40 minutes.

I was very impressed with Penske and its network of people. So I thanked them lavishly via Twitter.

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Penske has my endorsement.

Also during that stop: I managed to pick up some fine reading material.

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I don’t think the Roanoke Times has ever looked better. My hat’s off to editor Carole Tarrant, managing editor Michael Stowe and presentation editor Andrew Svec.

MILE 400: Near Marion, Va.

11:15 a.m. EST

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As a result of everything, it took us a little longer than I had hoped to finally pass into Tennessee. While going up mountains is slow going, going down mountains can be terrifying. Especially when you have a trailer that tends to push you a bit.

We we’ve discovered: When the truck gets up to about 70 miles per hour, it begins making some really scary noises. For example, the walls of the back of the truck are made of sheet metal, but the roof is some kind of translucent fiberglass — which makes it easier to see inside it when you load or unload it during daylight hours.

Well, at high speeds, that top wants to get airborne. It begins tugging at the rig and making flapping and banging noises.

The simple fix for this, of course: Don’t go that fast. Duh.

MILE 453, near Kingsport, Tenn.

12:30 p.m. EST

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Fairly early on, you learn to choose your eating establishments based on whether or not there’s an empty parking lot or street nearby. Anything to avoid putting the truck into reverse.

In this case, we put the rig on a side street in order to keep from blocking the air hose and coin-operated vacuum machines at this roadside stop. But then the driver of a U-Haul came along and blocked them anyway.

We had Subway for lunch.

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MILE 551: Knoxville, Tenn.

2:15 p.m. EST

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We finally made it to Knoxville at mid-afternoon. Earlier, I had predicted we’d have lunch there.

Note the little gold ball on a blue tower in the distance. This was a main feature of the 1982 World’s Fair — the only other time I’ve been to Knoxville.

MILE 587, Kingston, Tenn.

3:40 p.m. EST

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Not far past Knoxville, we took what I called a “mental health break.” We were going nuts sitting in the truck. And Saturday is only the second of five days of travel. We ducked into a McDonald’s, drank a diet coke and relaxed.

In my case, this allowed me to belt out a quick blog post. I can post pictures and status updates and tweets via my iPhone, but I can’t quite assemble a blog post.

Mile 700, Lebanon, Tenn.

5:48 p.m. EST

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We took another rest room break at, yes, yet another McDonald’s. Struck by how gorgeous our little rig looked in the golden twilight and amused by the size of my own shadow, I couldn’t resist this picture.

Somewhere around this point, we gained an hour when we crossed from Eastern Time into Central Time. Despite this, we were still running a bit behind schedule. We planned to eat a very fast dinner just past Nashville, but we’ve had so much fast food already. So we succumbed to the temptation to eat just a little better.

MILE 748: The Hillwood section of Nashville.

6 p.m. CST

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We ate at a Cracker Barrel. Where Sharon likes playing in the gift shop as much as she likes eating the food.

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Dinner was yummy, but it sure didn’t help us get back on schedule. Around lunchtime, I had made reservations for the night in Memphis. And we were a long way from Memphis.

MILE 900, near Brownsville, Tenn.

9:30 p.m. CST

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I think it’s fair to call the final few hours of driving Saturday pure torture. We were both exhausted — tired of the road and tired of each other. Sharon drove most of Friday and all day Saturday, but she insisted on staying behind the wheel. She finds being a passenger to be more exhausting than driving itself, she says.

MILE 942; Memphis, Tenn.

10:15 p.m.

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We got to our hotel Saturday — yet another Hampton Inn — around 10 p.m. local time, which was 11 p.m. “our” time.

The place was just a bit more crowded than our Friday night accommodations had been. But we found a safe, well-lit space where our rig wasn’t likely to get in the way or become blocked in.

SUNDAY

We dragged our exhausted asses out of bed as early as we could, ate breakfast at the hotel, loaded up both the truck and the Deerslayer, which is a little like an external cargo carrier for us…

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…and headed out by 7:30 a.m.

Immediately across from our hotel, we spotted this man hawking copies of the Sunday Commercial Appeal on the street. Literally on the street.

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MILE 962, Memphis, Tenn.

8 a.m. CST

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We made our way back to the interstate and crossed over the mighty Mississippi River.

Shortly afterward, we stopped to top off our tank with that slightly cheaper Arkansas gas. Which turned out not to be all that much cheaper.

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MILE 1,000, Middle of nowhere, Ark.

9 a.m. CST

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An hour or so later, we hit the 1,000-mile mark since we left that McDonald’s parking lot, back  in Virginia Beach. If you don’t see much in that picture, then good: That would be accurate. After the lush hills of Tennessee, the flatness and emptiness of Arkansas was a bit of a jolt.

MILE 1,097, Little Rock, Ark.

10:24 a.m. CST

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It took us an hour and a half to get to Little Rock, Ark. I had been here once before, when I spoke at a workshop of the American Association of Business Publications. It’s a great little town.

My favorite from that trip was the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Which features one of the world’s largest collections of published pornography.

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Oh, not really. But I made you stop and think, didn’t I?

MILE 1,159, Arkadelphia, Ark.

Noon CST

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At midday we stopped to refuel both the truck and ourselves. The former resulted in our single largest gas bill of the trip, so far.

I also noticed that all the semi-bad weather we had run into back in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee had left a pretty thick coat of road grime on the poor Deerslayer.

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We hit McDonald’s for lunch. Yeah, we get a little tired of eating the same thing so often. But we do like the opportunity to get caught up on our email with the free wifi.

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MILE 1,237, Texarkana

1:50 p.m. CST

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Eventually, we passed into Texas.

If you’ve never been to Texas, you really need to visit sometime. They’re really, really into their state flag. The bathrooms as the interstate rest stops might be a mess. But the flag flying outside is immaculate.

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On one hand, it was nice to have a relatively uneventful day. Because, y’know, Friday and Saturday held just a bit too much drama, even for us.

The downside: We got real tired of sitting there in the cab of the truck. And we’re only slightly more than half way to California.

MILE 1,412, Dallas, Texas

5 p.m. CST

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Both Sharon’s GPS and the Google Maps in my iPhone recommended we skip the bypass around Dallas and just drive down I-30 through the middle of town. It was a Sunday evening, so what the heck. We gave it a shot.

Sharon — who has driven every mile since we left Virginia Beach — found driving through Dallas and Fort Worth exhausting. But at least we got a change of scenery.

MILE 1,444, Fort Worth, Texas

5:30 p.m. CST

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One thing they love in the DFW metro area are their flyovers — which, I’m told, they call “mixmasters.” They can be a work of art themselves.

MILE 1,473, Weatherford, Texas

6:30 p.m. CST

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We stopped for dinner at an Applebee’s not far past Fort Worth. We’ll have to save a visit to Whattaburger until Monday.

Again, we were exhausted. I posted those pictures to Facebook last night. A few of our friends seemed worried about the way we looked.

I can’t speak for Sharon. But I always look that bad.

MILE 1,603, Abilene, Texas

9:30 p.m. CST

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After dinner, we had to drive another two hours to our hotel in Abilene. For the third night in a row, we’re in a Hampton Inn.

Why Hampton Inn? There’s no magic in the choice. I have a lot of Hilton Honors points to burn off. Our room Saturday was half-price and our Sunday room was actually free.

We watched the last couple of hours of the Oscars, I tried to get a little advance blogging done — including this post — and we tried to get some rest. Because we’re already worried about Monday.

THE PLAN FOR TODAY

We’ll be on the road by 7:30 a.m. Central time.

The big hurdle Monday will be weather: A cold front moved through last night. Behind it is wind — a lot of wind. The National Weather Service posted warnings about folks trying to drive “high profile” vehicles in a windstorm like this. And our Penske truck is just such a vehicle.

Assuming we don’t have to pull over to sit out the storm, we plan to drive from here to El Paso, slice through southern New Mexico and Tucson before stopping on the far side of Phoenix. I’d prefer to stay there Monday night so we won’t have to wrestle with rush hour traffic Tuesday morning.

I hope to roll into our hotel in Yorba Linda, Calif., fairly early Tuesday afternoon. At that point, we can begin plotting for a mad search for a decent apartment.

A Saturday tour of NASA’s Langley Research Center

Saturday, my 19-year-old daughter and I drove over to Hampton, Va., to NASA’s Langley Research Center for an open house.

This was the first open house in five years Langley has held. I’ve always wanted to see the place, having read so much about it and being such a NASA fan myself.

Langley is one of 12 NASA centers around the nation. Each has a specialty. Langley’s specialty is aeronautical engineering — meaning that Langley deals more with vehicles that fly inside Earth’s atmosphere than outside of it.

However, there are exceptions: As you’ll see, there are space vehicles that were developed here as well. And long before NASA had centers in places like Houston or Huntsville, the old NASA Space Task Group was based here during the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the days of the Mercury project.

So this was going to be a big treat for myself and for Elizabeth. My wife — whose eyes glaze over in museums — stayed at home.

The event began at 10 a.m. We were among the first few dozen folks to arrive and to park on the grassy field designated for parking. Little did we realize how crowded the place was going to get later.

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OUR FIRST STOP: LANGLEY’S AIRCRAFT HANGAR

Near the front gate is a giant hangar where NASA stores its aircraft. That seemed like a great place to start.

It looked like a big building but as you walked on and on, you just didn’t get closer to it as quickly as you would have thought. Meaning the building is huger than huge. It’s enormous. Look at the size of the people standing near the doors.

Those doors are large enough to allow in a new 757.

Inside was maybe eight or ten aircraft of various types, each of which is aimed at one of NASA’s many research areas.

In front of each aircraft was a NASA official who explained what the plane did, how NASA used it and what they do with the data they collect.

Some of the planes are clearly more of a prototype-like type.

And some of them were downright gorgeous.

Just in the few minutes we were in the hangar, the place began to fill up with people. Again: This was the start of the onslaught.

The second thing we discovered: There were parts of NASA Langley’s campus that were really too far to walk to. So NASA had thoughtfully brought in tour buses to ferry folks between exhibits.

However, this backfired a bit: Buses would pull up to a stop and no one would get off. Meaning that folks waiting to board the bus had nowhere to sit. This open house wasn’t designed to be a bus tour, but for too many folks, that’s what it became. And it was like that all day long.

So if you wanted to see the place, you had only one choice: Walk.

Which we did.

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AROUND LANGLEY’S LOVELY CAMPUS

Much like a college campus, one can just about guess when various buildings were constructed, just by their architecture. This was a hospital building of some sort, a sign told us. It looks like it was built in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Ditto for this building where radar antenna are tested.

This building — not on the tour but labeled as the “Exploration and space operations directorate” — has that funky, early 1970s look to it.

And this building — which houses an acoustics research lab — looks like the late 1970s with perhaps an annex — there in the shadow — that looks like the mid 1980s.

Oh, wow, Look! Giant, unpainted USA Today logos!

Those of you who follow my overseas travels know I take a special delight in signs that strike me as funny. This one caught my eye. How often do you see compressed nitrogen?

And not just compressed. It’s “Nitrogen, Compressed.” Just like you’d say “Bond; James Bond” or “shaken; not stirred.”

Likewise, this caught my eye.

Geez. Just what the hell are they working on here at Langley? An Illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator? I hear that is supposed to have an Earthshattering kaboom.

Nothing quite so sinister. It’s just warning service vehicles of the — temporarily, one would imagine — low-hanging power lines.

Meanwhile, there was a nice high-tech touch on the signs set out for the open house.

Note the little QR code in the corner. Scan that with your smart phone and you can learn all about what goes on in that building and what you can see if you go inside.

In most of the buildings you entered, there were engineers and technicians who worked there who were eager to tell you about their work and how it is applied in the fields of aeronautics or space travel.

This one building contained a small auditorium…

…where the big celebrity guest of the day — Dr. Anna Fisher, an astronaut who flew only one shuttle mission — STS-51A in 1984 — but who has been in NASA’s employ for more than 30 years, including as chief of the Space Station branch of the astronaut corps.

She talked about her work, showed pictures and videos from her mission and took questions from the audience.

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HANDS-ON EXHIBITS AND LUNCH

If there’s one thing better than meeting a real astronaut, however, it’s meeting a fake astronaut.

This li’l guy stood outside one of the conference center building and posed for pictures with kids.

I hope there was some kind of air conditioner in that backpack.

There were loads of other things going on as well. There was a nice tent set up where a series of live bands played.

An exhibit from another NASA center was parked nearby, featuring a number of hands-on science exhibits for kids…

…including a real moon rock. Encased in what appeared to be Lucite and dramatically lit with colored lights from below.

Because, y’know, it can’t be from space unless it’s lit with colored lights.

Another series of exhibits set up in Langley’s fitness center also targeted kids but contained info that was interesting to all.

For example, this car demonstrates the ways how NASA is sharing its data and technology with companies and organizations who can put it to use. In this case, NASCAR is using NASA’s research into heat-resistant materials.

There was even a Victoria’s Secret exhibit.

Oh, wait — That’s a pair of longjohns, designed to keep an astronaut cool while she’s in a space suit.

NASA seems particularly proud — and rightfully so — of its series of Mars rovers. I didn’t see a sign anywhere, but I presume this is a near-life-size inflatable mockup the new Curiosity rover.

I sat down with an actual-size mockup of a Mars rover wheel.

I asked it a few questions, but the conversation just went ’round and ’round.

NASA employees at various booths here demonstrating robotics, remote-controlled vehicles…

…and even NASA memorabilia. Being a bit of a collector myself, this table caught my eye. I even have one of those G.I. Joe-brand Buzz Aldrin figures at the back left, here.

In front of Buzz, you see a number of examples of real astronaut food. The three larger containers are food. The thinner, tinfoil-looking packages are beverages.

This stuff is cooked and then dehydrated. An astronaut hooks up a water nozzle via that little valve at the top here, squirts in hot water and then kneads the package to mix the water with the contents.

This was macaroni and cheese.

And if you’ve ever wondered where an astronaut uses the bathroom, here’s the answer:

There. That wasn’t so complicated, now, was it?

There was only one place on campus where you could get anything to eat or to drink: The employee cafeteria, which was open to guests Saturday. Elizabeth and I decided we had better head over that way before the crowds discovered where the place was.

It was early enough that we were able to get our food and find a place to sit down.

Within 30 minutes or so, however, the place was mobbed. They completely sold out of bottled water and soft drinks. And there was nowhere else to get water.

NASA did a great job with the open house, but I think they totally underestimated the number of folks who would attend. The Newport News Daily Press reports that 10,000 showed up Saturday. That’s five times the number that attended the last open house, five years ago.

The cafeteria was serving hamburgers, hot dogs, barbeque sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, deli sandwiches and salads. Elizabeth and I both chose the chicken filet tenders. We got two pieces of chicken apiece but the pieces were huge. And yummy. The fries, however, not so much.

Total cost of two orders tenders and fries and two Diet Coke: Ten bucks. You gotta love Federally-subsidized dining facilities.

Later in the day, the lack of water got to Elizabeth and she became quite ill. I should have seen it coming when I took that picture at lunch. I mean, just look at that face.

We bought a couple of bottles of water to take with us. I wish we had bought a dozen of ’em. As the day warmed up, that water didn’t go far.

Tip for NASA: Next time, set up some bottled water stations around campus. I’ll bet you can talk local Boy Scouts — or youth sports teams– who’d be glad for the opportunity to either raise some funds or work toward their Eagle badges.

Over in the corner of the cafeteria was an employee gift shop. Needless souvenirs just aren’t in our budget these days, so we took a quick look around and left.

However, they did have a gorgeous Langley Center golf-style shirt in my size — 4X — quite reasonably prices. A day later, I regret not buying it for myself.

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THE SPACECRAFT ENTRY HEATING RESEARCH LAB

After lunch, it was time to hit — for me — one of the highlights of the tour. I’ve read quite a bit about the hypersonic wind tunnel facility here at Langley. This very expensive piece of machinery is in this exceedingly modest-looking building.

They don’t test many airplane models in the wind tunnel here. This tunnel is designed to test spacecraft that enter the atmosphere from space. And not just Earth’s atmosphere — any atmosphere.

Remember the Mars Curiosity‘s “Seven Minutes of Terror”? The folks who work here helped make that happen. Seriously. They had the video playing on a loop in the lobby. The young woman with her back to my camera, here, was part of the development team.

The folks here are very proud of their wind tunnel.

And yes, the sign is accurate. This device can blast wind on a model at an astonishing ten times the speed of sound. That’s 3,200 miles per hour.

And here’s the tunnel. Which looks less like what you’d imagine a wind tunnel to look like and more like Scotty’s engines on the USS Enterprise.

There are tubes and pipes all over the place, and stairs and ladders and gangways to help the engineers crawl all over this thing. And yet, we’re only seeing part of it here. There are sections that ran outside this room, beneath and around us.

In this little porthole, you can see a model that was being tested this week. It looks less like a rocket and more like a futuristic garden rake.

In front and to the right of the porthole is a thermal-imaging camera. This takes pictures of the heat that builds up on the surface of the models — up to 1,400 degrees Farenheit, I’m told. That’s the big data the scientists here are looking for: They want to know how to keep a spacecraft from burning up as it enters the atmosphere at the incredible speeds at which one approaches a planet.

The folks on the tour set up one of these thermal-imaging cameras so we could take self-portraits.

Glass blocks the thermal data, the woman there told us. Which is why Elizabeth’s glasses look the way they do.

With wind whipping around at that kind of velocity, you can imagine what dust or dirt or — God forbid — a loose nut or screw — could do if it got lost inside the machinery. But instead of simply reminding folks to be careful, NASA — typically — has to turn everything into an acronym.

Just a few steps away from the tunnel itself is this control room. It didn’t really look quite as high-tech as I might have expected.

The back wall of the place, in fact, looked like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

I could have spent hours just reading the labels on all the controls and monitors. “Suction pressure?” “Discharge pressure?”

The reason for “suction pressure,” evidently: The way this wind tunnel operates is via s suction caused by a vacuum. I later discovered that these giant tanks at the back of the building…

…are not fuel or coolant tanks. They’re vacuum tanks.

How very fascinating. I was tempted to look into this further. But already, it was stretching my puny non-physics-friendly brain. So it was probably best that I just go with the flow and focus instead on something easier to get my head around: Just how all this technology is applied.

A table nearby displayed a number of the models that have been tested in this tunnel…

…including the new Orion spacecraft. Which, one day, will replace the space shuttle.

A more permanent display case showed off various wind tunnel models of the space shuttle itself.

Or, rather, preliminary designs of the space shuttle. It began to dawn on me: This facility might have been where they tested shuttle prototypes in order to determine what shape and configuration the final vehicle would take.

Over in another corner was a collection of work with which I was very familiar: Testing of the shuttle Columbia after it disintegrated during entry of the atmosphere back in 2003.

This facility was involved with recreating the forces that ripped Columbia apart and developing ways to keep it from happening again.

Here is a piece of tile that has been damaged to simulate the kind of chip that is caused when foam peels away from the enormous fuel tank and bounces off the belly of the shuttle.

I had never before held a shuttle tile. They’re much lighter than you’d think — about as heavy as a sponge. It has the general feel of styrofoam. But much, much stronger.

This tile was damaged and then repaired with the new method this facility helped test. The hope was if tiles were ever damaged again, astronauts might be able to patch chips and holes before returning to Earth.

This gentleman was part of the team that did all that work, nine years ago. He took time to answer lots of my questions, to tell me about his work and how they got the shuttle fleet flying again.

I have to tell you, I was in total geek heaven by this point.

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A HUGE SUBSONIC WIND TUNNEL

After visiting that facility, we very nearly passed up the subsonic wind tunnel. I mean, how cool could this possibly be?

The answer: Very cool indeed. Nearly everything at Langley turns out to be very cool, if you take the time to check it out.

The wind tunnel here runs a bit slower, of course — It’s designed to test aircraft — but because it’s quite a bit larger, the test models can be quite a bit larger as well. Here I am with a wind tunnel model of a 747.

Evidently, they do a lot of testing of helicopter models here. This woman explained how the helicopters have working motors on them, so when they’re in the tunnel, the rotors are actually operating.

The models are mounted on these gigantic platforms, where all sorts of sensors and whatnot — in the case of the helicopters, engines beneath the platform — can be attached.

The platform itself weighs 47,150 lbs. — that’s about 23.5 tons!

The platforms are then pulled into this staging area beneath the wind tunnel itself. The giant jack you see on the right lifts the platform into place.

Upstairs — inside the tunnel — we could see a model that was mounted and tested earlier last week.

Here, I’m standing behind the model and looking into the tunnel from where the wind blows.

And here’s where the wind goes afterward.

How does the place deal with the enormous about of noise something like this would make?

I don’t know. We were completely baffled.

On our way out of the building, I spotted something I hadn’t expected to see in a high-tech engineering facility.

These guys might be rocket scientists and aeronautical engineers. But they require two signs in order to help them keep their bathrooms straight.

Also, I had to laugh at this sign.

If NASA is anything like a newspaper, then I’d expect this to be the executive corporate offices…

_____________________________________

A SPLASH TEST OF THE ORION SPACE CAPSULE

There were still a number of buildings that we hadn’t yet visited. But because we couldn’t count on the shuttle buses for help, we knew we’d have a very long walk out to the Landing and Impact Research facility in time to get a good spot to watch the afternoon’s big event: A test of the new Orion space capsule.

I’ve seen pictures of this giant gantry for years. It was built back in the 1960s to help with training astronauts how to land on the moon.

Nowadays, they use it for all sorts of crash and landing tests. The Orion capsule itself is still under development, but the folks at Langley have a mockup that’s weighted and balanced just like the real one will be.

The Orion is much larger than the old Apollo capsule: A little less than four feet wider in diameter. That doesn’t seem like much on paper.

But there in person: This thing was huge. No wonder: Instead of the three Apollo crewmen, this thing will be able to carry up to six astronauts to the International Space Station.

Not only was I surprised by the size of the capsule, I was also taken aback by the enormity of the gantry itself.

What also surprised me was how rusty the thing was.

The technicians wore hard hats — not so much to protect from the capsule landing on their heads, one guy told me. But because huge chunks of rust fall from the gantry.

You have to remember, we’re only a skip and a jump from the Chesapeake Bay and a few miles from the salty Atlantic Ocean. The elements are pretty rough on this kind of equipment.

Technicians had the capsule all hung carefully and were scurrying around the place preparing for the test. This woman appeared to be in charge: Folks kept coming up to her and asking questions.

Elizabeth and I arrived at the gantry a good hour before the test was scheduled. Hardly anyone else was there — to my great surprise — so we poked around just a bit.

Nearby were the carcasses of airplanes and helicopters that had been test-dropped from the gantry. And even an old Petty Enterprises race car.

A woman explained exhibits that showed the kind of testing that goes on at the facility. When I asked her questions specifically about the Orion, she explained she was actually working on that project herself.

So she knew all about the splash tests, the work on the escape tower and so on.

Now, the plan for the day was to drop the Orion mockup into this tank containing one million gallons of water in order to simulate a water landing.

And despite the fact that we knew there had to be all sorts of chemicals and greases floating in that pool, it sure looked inviting on hot day like this.

Wave after wave of folks showed up to watch. We were exhausted and wanted to rest in the shade. But we hadn’t come all that way to lose our spots up front. So we stood there and waited.

See the young lady at the bottom right, with the little NASA logo painted on her face? Her parents brought her all the way from Kentucky to the open house, WVEC Channel 13 reports. When I saw the video on TV last night, I thought: Hey, I remember her!

While an army of technicians were working hard, there were a number of other NASA types that were just mulling around. The gentleman on the left, here, was particularly helpful, answering questions and promising he’d stand out of the way during the test itself so he wouldn’t block our pictures.

For example, we asked him what was the significance of the angle from which the capsule was dangling. It wasn’t random, he told us: It was precisely a 43-degree angle, to simulate what would happen if one of the three parachutes didn’t open. It was the “worst kind of pitch you’re ever gonna get,” he told us.

The drop would be from a height of about 25 feet. Thousands of sensors on board would monitor all the forces exerted on the craft. And multiple high-speed cameras would record everything for detailed analysis by the engineers.

Just inside the barricade were a number of family members of NASA staffers. Because they were inside, they had to wear hard hats. Despite the fact they were just a few feet away from the rest of us.

Finally — mercifully — 3 p.m. rolled around. But there were so many people still walking up the road to the facility that NASA decided to delay the test 15 minutes to allow them to catch up. They helped the delay go more quickly by bringing out astronaut Anna Fisher one more time to address the crowd.

The wait was too much for my daughter. She began to feel quite ill. So she had to sit down and miss the drop.

Finally, the technicians sounded the warning and counted down two minutes until drop.

On the mark, the large hook on the gantry released the capsule.

Which reached up to about 20 mph, I’m told, by the time it hit the water.

As you can see, the 43-degree angle helped the edge of the spacecraft to slice right into the pool…

…much like a high-diver might.

But the Orion capsule is much heavier than a diver — it weighs a little over nine tons. So yeah, it makes a hell of a splash.

Then — unbelievably — the water bounces the capsule back into the air…

…before it crashes back into the pool a second time.

The second impact did the trick. The capsule bobbed along just like a rubber ducky might.

However, that second impact displaced a lot of water. You can see it broaching the edge of the tank, here…

…and rolling its way towards us.

No, I didn’t get my shoes wet. But nearly 18,000 gallons of water were sloshed out of the tank.

Here is the video I shot with my iPhone. It’s only a minute and 15 seconds long, but I think you’ll enjoy the rub-a-dub dub:

After that, the day was pretty much over. Plus, Elizabeth was barely able to stand, much less walk alllll the way across campus back to the car. The lines for the shuttle buses looked even more grueling than the walk itself. So we hoofed it.

We arrived in the parking area to discover that most folks who arrived when we did didn’t last nearly as long as we had.

We found a McDonald’s and drank three or four large cold drinks before we drive back across the James River to Virginia Beach.

We had a great time, though. Tanks for everything, Langley!

A hearty hello from Boston’s Logan airport

As you know, I’m on my way home from three weeks of visual journalism consulting and instruction in Nairobi, Kenya; Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Saturday afternoon, I flew from Joburg back to Nairobi. Overnight, I flew from Nairobi to Amsterdam, from which I blogged earlier today (or late last night U.S. time).

At this very moment, I’m kicked back in a wonderful white rocking chair, soaking up a few rays and overlooking the tarmac of Boston’s Logan International Airport.

The real reason I selected such a scenic spot to park myself for my layover here: It’s the only place where I can find a place to plug in my laptop. Seriously.

Once I had gone through passport control and customs and had rechecked my bag — Hey, my bag made it to Boston! WooHoo! — I did the security thing and then ordered up the largest order of orange chicken I could get from Panda Express, here in Logan’s Terminal A. I had run down the power in my MacBook Pro in Amsterdam, however, which put me on the hunt for a receptacle.

While I was roaming around, I bought a huge Diet Coke and a newspaper. Where the conversation went something like this:

Girl: Sunday Boston Globe… $3.50. Would you like a bag for that?

Me: No, I’ll just eat it here.

Girl: [Dumbfounded expression]

I also spotted this really cool book, which appears to be about the lost art of greyscale illustration. Perhaps I should take a chance and buy a copy.

One of the downsides of my trip has been my ongoing cough. After a couple of prolonged coughing fits today, my head began pounding. A little aspirin fixed my aching brain. But I still can’t seem to shake the cough. Nor can I find any of my usual U.S. brands of sugar-free lozenges here in the airport. I hope my one remaining box of Dutch lozenges and my one remaining bag of super-powered South African cough tablets will get me by for another four hours.

I already told you about my overnight Friday KLM flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, which was very uncomfortable, to say the least. The Delta flight today from Amsterdam to Boston went much more smoothly.

The only negative note came moments after I posted that last blog entry, I shut my computer and I got in the boarding line. The woman at the security checkpoint asked me if I could tell her about my flight plans to return to Kenya.

Huh? Return to Kenya? No, I was in Kenya for two weeks and then South Africa for a week. I’m returning to the U.S.

The woman pulled me out of line, had me sit in a holding area and informed me that my passport and my reply didn’t match what the airline had in its database. It took her about ten minutes to straighten everything out, after which she turned me loose and let me rejoin the line. But man, what a jolt that was.

The Delta Airbus was quite a bit older than the KLM 747-400 on which I had flown the night before. But I was much more comfortable, despite the fact that I still didn’t have a window seat. I did, however, have an aisle seat. I also had a little legroom, a dinner tray that folded down properly and a working personal video device.

In case you’re interested, I watched the Three Stooges and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I figure those two pretty much cancel each other out, karma-wise.

I also put on Hugo, but that movie really did the trick. It plodded along so slowly that I found myself asleep in minutes.

My next flight departs from here in a little less than two hours. Delta still hasn’t seen fit to give me a seat assignment, however. In the meantime, I’m hearing repeated pleas over the P.A. system here in Terminal A begging for volunteers to step out of various other Delta flights that are overbooked.

I’ll feel a lot better when I have that seat assignment. The fact that Delta representatives have declined, a number of times, to give me one makes me wonder just how secure my seat is tonight. Delta sure isn’t making this trip easy for me.

In the meantime, of course, I’ve tried to get caught up on the huge mound of correspondence that’s been piling up. And I chatted with Sharon for the first time in several days. Why call on a silly ol’ iPhone when you can do Facetime?

Assuming no other travel “mishaps” today, I should be home by late this evening. I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed tonight and — hopefully — having my cat sleep on my feet.

My blog entries for this trip, so far…

I’ve made it as far as Amsterdam

At my age — and as lucky as I’ve been to be able to travel extensively, teaching visual journalism — I don’t have a lot of things left on my “bucket list.”

But one that remains is: I’d like to visit Amsterdam. It’s a gorgeous city. I love what I’ve seen, via pictures and books, of the architecture of Amsterdam.

The good news: I’m there. The bad news: All I’m going to see is the inside of the airport.

Ah, well. I will have to wait a while longer before I can kick that bucket list.

In the meantime, it is a very nice airport. Perhaps one of the prettiest — and most efficient — I’ve ever seen.

The House of Tulips. Where else but Amsterdam, right?

But let’s back up a day. I last wrote you Saturday morning from Johannesburg, from which I was preparing to depart after a week in South Africa and three weeks total in Africa teaching visual journalism.

I had a few files I wanted to send out before I left, but it took me longer than I had planned to send them out. Smack in the middle of all that, my internet service expired. So to hell with it; I’d have to deal with it later.

And then there was a small hassle checking out of the hotel. And then there was a small hassle turning in my rental car. And then there was a small hassle checking my one bag at the airport. There was even a hassle going through passport control: The guy there stamped the wrong boarding pass. Sure glad I spotted the error or I might not have been allowed to board my plane.

I flew Kenya Airways from Johannesburg back to Nairobi. I didn’t have a window seat, so I wasn’t able to get much sleep on the flight.

The good news was that the folks at Kenya Airways checked my bag all the way through to Norfolk. I had been told that I would be compelled to go though passport control in Nairobi and pay the standard fee for an entry fee just to retrieve my bag and recheck it. That turned out not to be the case.

On the other hand, I got kicked out of the restaurant in the Nairobi airport. That’s the first time I can remember something like that happening to me.

I had a lengthy layover in Nairobi. I had dinner and two beers and was on my MacBook Pro, building a graphics template when a waiter came over and informed me they needed that table. I’d have to leave.

I sat there kind of stunned for a moment. As I pointed out to the waiter, roughly half of the people in the restaurant had been there longer than I had. I’m not quite sure why I was singled out. But he just stared at me, apologetically.

Gee. Thanks for the hospitality.

On the other hand, I managed to dump some of the foreign currency I had been carrying around. I had no less than four — count ’em, four — sets, which I kept organized via little sandwich bags.

The South African Rands — upper right — I exchanged at a booth in the Nairobi airport. The Kenyan shillings, I used to pay my bill at the unfriendly restaurant.

The Nigerian Naira that I have left over from March — bottom left — I never could find a buyer for. No one in Kenya, South Africa or the U.S. will take the Naira off my hands. Very curious.

Another thing that struck me oddly in Nairobi last night: Like I said, my big bag — left — was checked all the way through from Johannesburg to Norfolk, which is good.

And my computer briefcase — upper right — is fine, of course. But as I went to board the huge KLM jet from Nairobi to Amsterdam, a little Kenyan airport official stepped forward to inform me that my carry-on bag was too large to carry on.

Again, very interesting. It was good enough to get me to Kenya in three legs earlier this month. It got me to Johannesburg a week ago. It got me to Pietermaritzburg and back just fine. That’s six times on this one trip I’ve carried that bag on. So why is it suddenly “too large”?

Occasionally, when I’m boarding a tiny “puddlejumper” plane, the airline will ask to put a tag on the bag and then return it to me at the top of the ramp when we arrive. That’s fine. But I keep my camera in that bag, so I have no intention of checking my carry-on. It just ain’t gonna happen. Plus, this KLM flight was aboard no “puddlejumper.” This was aboard a new 747-400.

So I did something I rarely do: I argued with the guy. And he backed down. Quickly. Which struck me as odd.

Whatever.

Once aboard the plane,  I found my seat smack in the middle of the middle section. A nightmare for someone like myself who depends on a bulkhead so I can sleep. And, of course, I don’t really fit in airline seats anyway. So I would doubly screwed here.

In fact, I couldn’t even get my tray down in order to eat dinner and breakfast. Especially when the guy in front of me leaned his chair back.

The young lady to my right was kind enough to allow me to share her tray.

I skipped dinner but did eat breakfast. Which was delicious. How do I know? Because the label told me so.

Ah, a delicious meal. As opposed to the other kind. Got it.

I slept fitfully, dreaming of being trapped in an airline seat that is neither wide enough nor has enough legroom for me and of not having a place to flop my head.

Sigh. What a miserable night.

So when we arrived in Amsterdam a few hours ago, I felt awful, looked awful and was in an awful mood. So it wasn’t difficult to choose a place where I could feel at home and eat a familiar meal.

The McDonald’s here in the Amsterdam airport is gorgeous. And huge. And has lots of receptacles where you can plug in your laptop and linger a while.

I love the decorative garbage cans I’m finding here in Holland. Makes me wish I could read Hollandaise.

I set up, downloaded my messages, topped off my battery.

I even loaned my power adapter to a guy who was desperately seeking a way to charge up his phone.

The one thing I did not do immediately was take a shower. I had spent much of the previous few hours sweating profusely. I had hoped to buy some shower time here, but the gentleman whose phone needed recharging made use of them and was saying nothing but bad things about them.

So I sat there at McDonald’s, checked my messages and wrote up this blog post. Just as I went to post it: Bam! My internet service crapped out. And this was after I had paid for an entire day.

Well, hell. My luck during this return trip has been bad. But at least it’s been consistent.

Trying to turn that around, I went over to the hotel/shower area and rented a shower stall. Which turned out to be a fabulous idea.

I was just settling in for a long soak when — Bam! — the water cut off. Just like my internet service. Wow. I must have used too much bandwidth or something.

No, it turned out the water control works for only about three minutes at a time. Punch the button and it immediately turns on again. This kept me from exiting my shower room with a scalp full of soap.

The shower felt so good. I won’t say I was a new man when I got out. But I was certainly less shopworn than I had been before. And looked less shopworn, too, I’d guess.

Another issue: I keep having coughing fits. During my two weeks in Kenya, I found myself reacting, most likely, to something blooming there. And then an infection set into my lungs. I’ve been coughing ever since.

I’ve long ago used up all my American cough drops. I stocked up on enough South African cough drops to get me home… or so I thought. In fact, they barely got me to Amsterdam.

So I set off down the concourse in search of a pharmacy where I might find sugar-free cough lozenges.

Mission accomplished.

So now I’ve taken a shower, stocked up on “sans sucre” cough drops, eaten two Egg McMuffins and had five Diet Cokes. I think I’m about ready for the next leg of my journey.

I’ll arrive in Boston at 1 p.m. EDT, which will be 7 p.m. South African time. I’ll have a five-hour-and-forty-five-minute layover before departing for Norfolk. I should be home by 8:35 p.m. tonight.

I’ll be tired as hell. But I bet I’ll sleep well.

My blog entries for this trip, so far…

A whirlwind news design expedition to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

After two weeks of visual journalism teaching in Kenya and three more days of teaching and consulting here in Johannesburg, South Africa, my clients here — Media24 — sent me to Pietermaritzburg for two half-days.

I rose bright and early Thursday, checked out of my hotel and drove over to the nearby suburb of Melville. Where I had to pull over to shoot the sun rising over Joburg.

My traveling companion this week was Arlene Prinsloo, typographical editor for Media24’s Afrikaans-language papers and, for my money, the country’s greatest news designer and teacher.

We flew to Durban — down along the coast of South Africa — and then drove up to Pietermaritzburg, where the offices of the Witness — the country’s longest continually-published newspaper — are located.

We met with Angela Quintal, editor of the Witness and someone whose work I’ve admired for ages.

Angela is eager to do new and exciting things with her 20,000-circulation newspaper and with her talented staff.

For example, check out the clever Chad le Clos marketing poster the Witness published Thursday.

Angela showed us around her newsroom. Here, Arlene and I meet the paper’s graphics team.

We shuffled upstairs to the paper’s boardroom, where I gave the same Graphics for Word People presentation that I had given at least four times over the past three weeks.

Even though Thursday was a holiday, we had a full room of staffers.

The presentation includes a healthy batch of alternative story forms, something I believe in strongly. The staffers responded positively to the ASF samples I showed.

Afterwards, it was time for the afternoon news meeting. Arlene and I were invited to stay.

In the U.S., we call it a story budget. Here, as you can see, the Witness calls it a diary.

Something I’ve never seen before: The chief sub-editor prints out a screen capture of the amount of space they have in that day’s paper and adds it to the budget.

The story of the day was the Olympics. Gold medal-winning swimmer Chad le Clos had returned to town that day. Meanwhile, a kayaker had won bronze, a men’s relay team had been reinstated to the finals and two more South Africans were up for possible medals later that night.

Someone asked if this might be a time for one of the ASFs we had just talked about. So I immediately sketched up something with five horizontal pictures and text boxes.

A few moments later, I made a second sketch with five vertical pictures. And a few moments after that, I drew up a third sketch that showed how we could use a horizontal lead picture and then place four more pictures below that.

The consensus was the second sketch would do the trick. Everyone sprang into action. We canceled our dinner reservations and ordered pizza instead.

Something I’ve noticed before: Pizza here in South Africa tastes a whole lot better than it does in the U.S. I’m not sure why.

The newsroom atmosphere was very similar to that of a U.S. paper. Whenever a South African athlete was competing, work would come to a standstill while everyone watched the TVs mounted on the walls.

Meanwhile, chief sub editor Kate Hoole plugged away on Friday’s front page.

Arlene and I stayed around most of the evening, just in case they needed our expertise. And, in fact, they didn’t. I was amazed at how well Kate picked up on my lessons and ran with the assignment.

Here, Arlene shows Kate a shortcut hidden in the Eidos publishing system. In addition to being a news design guru, Arlene is also an Eidos super user.

And here’s the result. Click for a larger view.

That page is just stunning, especially when you take into consideration a) the small staff, and b) how rapidly it came together. I don’t think I’ve ever had a group of “students” who learned so rapidly and then put everything into practice quite so quickly.

Funny thing, though. While roaming around the newsroom, I found this old front page from way back in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.

Check out the little numbered boxes downpage. Clearly, even the editor at that time was willing to consider alternative story treatments.

Kate noticed my interest and came over to explain the story behind the illustration atop the page. A production staffer, eager to play a role in the historic front page, took it upon himself to build the rainbow art using mylar flaps, amberlith and a large coffee can as a template.

Completely exhausted and seeing that Kate had the page well in hand, Arlene and I finally left the Witness newsroom and drove back over to our guest house where we passed out, rather than fell asleep. Or, at least, I did.

I received my first clue as to the beauty of the area when the early morning sun streamed through the window of my room.

The name of the guest house — the Thorntree Inn — was ironic, given the amount of time I had spent in the Thorntree Cafe at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. My room was nice and large, with twin beds, hardwood floors…

…and a nice sofa. And, of course, that wonderful window.

This was the opposite wing of the place. I think Arlene’s room was over this way.

This was some sort of outparcel. A VIP room, perhaps? Or perhaps the owners’ residence?

That wooded area afront the outparcel was an arboretum, rich with various trees and shrubs. A few were even noted for interested visitors. Including the Inn’s namesake tree, here.

This is the main entrance to the dining and common areas of the inn.

I walked in to find Arlene already at a table, enjoying tea in the early morning sun.

The view from the dining room balcony was gorgeous, with a fog slowly burning off.

The area wasn’t nearly as cold as it had been in Johannesburg the past few days. But it was indeed chilly. Especially early in the morning.

Arlene and I had a wonderful breakfast…

…and then rushed out to our car, pausing to photograph nest-building finches in front of the bed-and-breakfast.

Click for a larger view so you can actually see the bright yellow finches.

We then drove back to the paper for a few busy hours teaching more sessions, talking more logistics and doling out pats on the back for the wonderful work on page one. I’m told Angela received traffic via Twitter and other venues that indicated a positive response to the ASF.

By noon, it was time to leave. Arlene and I scrambled back to the airport, ate a quick lunch — we didn’t want to forget lunch like we had done on Thursday — and got me to my departure gate just in time. I had to say my goodbyes to Arlene, who few back to her home in Cape Town.

I arrived back at the Garden Court hotel in the Auckland Park region of Johannesburg shortly after sunset. The woman at the desk — who remembers me very well after my two-month stay here back in 2009 — insisted on booking me into a “special” accommodation.

Which turned out to be this huge, double-sized room on the sixth floor.

I really enjoyed this room, for the one whole night I was here. Wow. I felt like such a VIP.

I repacked my suitcase for my trip today, checked in with Sharon and tried to get caught up on some of my correspondence. I did manage to record a video recapping our experience this week in Pietermaritzburg.

After a brief but enjoyable night’s sleep, I dragged myself out of bed early this morning for what I realized would be my final visual treat for this three-week trip: The sun rising over the Hillbrow section of Johannesburg.

Spectacular.

So now I’m in the final stages of packing for my trip home. From wheels up here in Johannesburg to wheels down in Norfolk, my transit time is 37 hours and 15 minutes.

Here’s a look at my itinerary:

This isn’t going to be comfortable at all. But that’s the price of having such interesting work for the past three weeks.

I’ll try to keep you posted along the way.

My blog entries for this trip, so far…

Did you stay with me all the way through the credits?

Cool. Now, for a little Avengers movie-like fun.

After I returned from Pietermaritzburg last night, I went out with friends for a quick dinner. Walking through the shopping center, I came across a fast-food joint with this sign.

Yes, Tony Stark’s “shwarma” really exists. Here’s what it really looks like, on a roasting spit.

Got to admit, I’ve not tried it.

There’s no front pages like snow front pages

I wrote about the rare snow the folks here in Johannesburg enjoyed Tuesday.

In fact, we had a few more flakes again late that night. It was so damned cold, however, that no one really wanted to go outside and enjoy it.

Naturally, South African newspapers played up the snow as if it were the second coming.

This is Beeld, the big Afrikaans-language daily published by my clients. The headline says:

It’s snowing!

Our wedding!

Apparently, the couple in the secondary picture had vowed to get married the next time it snowed in Johannesburg. Kind of like saying “when hell freezes over.”

Well, it snowed in Joburg. So they kept their promise.

Personally, I think the editors passed up a great opportunity to play off of the larger picture with this headline:

Its snowing! No lion!

Ah, maybe not.

The Star with with the ol’ “icy grip” approach.

I don’t think they got quite that much white stuff here in town. That would be points south and southeast of here. In fact, I’m told a number of the cross-country roads have been closed.

Which is also the case for the Witness of Pietermaritzburg, where I’ll be later today. It didn’t snow much in PMB. But roads through the mountains northwest of there were impassable.

The New Age went with “Winter wonderland” in blue, punctuated with little tufts of snow.

The best headline of the day, however, was by the Citizen.

It’s hard to top that one.

After a whirlwind day Tuesday consulting here at MediaPark in Johanesburg, Wednesday flew by even more quickly. I spent the morning meeting with my old friends at Sake24, the business section that inserts into the Afrikaans-language newspapers. I helped them brainstorm an upcoming package — taking time to point out ways to conceptualize such projects — we critiqued a few recent pages that fell short. And we carved out time for me to give a quick slideshow lecture on alternative story forms.

After lunch, I met with a designer from Volksblaad, the company’s smaller paper in Bloemfontein. I critiqued a number of pages and we discussed what design devices set into play in the paper’s last redesign — late last year — are working and which are not.

It wasn’t until I got back to my hotel last night that I discovered — with horror — that I had been so busy Wednesday that I had failed to take any pictures at all of my three sessions. In particular, I would have liked to have a souvenir of my late Wednesday meeting with City Press — one of my favorite papers here in South Africa — and it’s legendary Ferial Haffajee. D’oh! I’ll have to check with the newspaper group’s typographical editor Arlene Prinsloo. Perhaps she took a few she could loan me.

I did, however, get a snapshot of the gorgeous boardroom there at City Press were I held court Monday and Wednesday.

The room is surrounded on three sides by glass walls. Those two you see look out into the front parking lot and Kingsway Drive, beyond. The wall to the left and behind me, as I made this picture, looks out into the MediaPark complex atrium.

This was a hell of a place to call home for two days this week. I’ve felt like such a VIP.

I got back to my hotel late last night completely exhausted with the intent to blog and pack for my trip. Instead I ate a quick dinner, laid down in my bed and fell asleep.

As I said a moment ago, Arlene and I are leaving bright and early this morning for Pietermaritzburg, roughly 300 miles southeast of here and near the coast of the Indian Ocean. And where it’s considerably warmer than it is here in Johannesburg.

The flight is only an hour. As you can see here, it’s roughly the equivalent of flying from Pittsburgh to Norfolk.

We’ll meet this afternoon and Friday morning with editor Angela Quintel — whose work I’ve admired for years — and the staff of the Witness newspaper.

I should add that today is a national holiday here in South Africa: It’s National Women’s Day.

Friday afternoon, Arlene flies home to Cape Town and I return here for one more night in chilly Joburg before I begin my long, long trek for home on Saturday: Joburg to Nairobi to Amsterdam to Boston to Norfolk.

I’ll arrive home late Sunday night. And my brain — what’s left of it — will be fried.

My blog for this trip, so far…

My week — so far — consulting in Johannesburg, South Africa

After two weeks of teaching and consulting in Nairobi, Kenya, I’m now in Johannesburg, South Africa. Where I’m also doing a bit of consulting work for my longtime clients at Media24, the country’s largest media company.

I’m staying at the Garden Court hotel in the Auckland Park suburb in northwest Johannesburg. Here in the hotel with me are two — count ’em, two — sports teams: The national women’s netball team — a few of whom you see here dressed in red sweatshirts — and the men’s under-20 soccer team — dressed here in green jerseys.

As you might imagine, this has made for interesting times in the hotel. I’m sure glad I’m not a coach. Or a chaperone.

Once I’ve picked my way through the crowds at the breakfast buffet, I drive over to MediaPark, where several of Media24’s newspapers are headquartered. My first day here — just walking into the building, in fact — I ran into Siyabonga Africa, a new digital strategist who was reporting for his own very first day of work.

Oddly enough, my “temporary” company ID still worked from my last visit. What’s more, the woman at the security desk recognized me from my previous visits. So I vouched for Siya and got him past the front desk and down to the cafeteria, where I bought him a hot tea.

Siya is a brilliant guy. I’m so tickled to see him working with these folks. He’s gonna do great stuff here.

Once the rest of my entourage arrived — namely, Arlene Prinsloo, national typographical editor for Media24’s Afrikaans-language newspapers — it was time to head up to a gorgeous, glass-enclosed boardroom where we’d hold our sessions Monday.

This trip is much different than any other I’ve made. I’ve not been hired to teach slideshow lectures on print design or hands-on inforgraphics workshops. Instead, I’ve been asked to sit down with seven of the company’s newspapers, look over various editions, prototypes or whatnot and offer input.

I feel like such a VIP. Very strange.

Here I am Monday morning with the leadership of the English-language nationally-distributed tabloid Daily Sun.

We discussed their overall look and aspects of their design that might be better. They told me about possible changes in the paper and I brainstormed approaches they might make.

Sure enough, though, the topic of infographics and alternative story forms came up time and time again. So Arlene called for a projector, I fired up my trusty MacBook Pro and we looked at a number of examples from my slideshows.

I love the way editors here are plugged in with technology and social media. Give folks a three-minute break and they all whip out their Droids and Blackberries.

Monday afternoon was reserved for die Burger, the large Afrikaans daily in Cape Town, for which I’ve done so much work in the past. You get a sense of how many pages we’re looking over by this shot of Arlene taking notes.

The good news: We managed to hit every item on our grocery list of topics. The bad news: They won’t necessarily like my advice on each item.

Monday afternoon, we happened to stroll past the offices of Sondag, an Afrikaans-language tabloid based here in Johannesburg. Earlier this year, I redesigned the nameplate for the paper. Arlene took a picture of me clowning around in front of a sign using the new design.

Tuesday morning, we met with the staff of Sondag. I hadn’t actually seen my new nameplate used in print. I couldn’t get over how nice it looked. My thought: I’m no Jim Parkinson. But this must be how he feels every time he picks up damned near any paper in the world.

Moments after Arlene took that picture, however, I flipped the page. Only to come face to, um, face with Sondag‘s gigantic “page three” girl.

Yikes! Wasn’t expecting that. The entire staff laughed as I found myself speechless for a moment or two.

Arlene then posted that picture — but without the edits — to Facebook. I’m mildly surprised that Facebook didn’t ban me for that.

Tuesday marked the first time ever that I worked in a room that also contained a foosball table.

The editors told me a little about their “digital first” plans. Which got me all fired up: I decided they really, really needed to see the segment of the digital graphics presentation I gave in Kenya last week. Here, we’re watching a video of former BostonGlobe.com design director Miranda Mulligan talk about the logic behind and the power of responsive web design.

If I spend the rest of my career doing nothing but showing Miranda Mulligan interviews from YouTube, then perhaps it’d still be a worthy career.

At one point — when I was offering up samples of infographics a copy desk might be able to produce without major time or resources — our proxima projector suddenly crapped out on us. So went went to Plan B: Just gather everyone around the ol’ laptop.

We then took a few minutes to sit down with the relatively new online app manager, Seb Stent — and his new right-hand man here in Joburg, the aforementioned Siyabonga Africa — to get an update on what they’re up to.

Naturally, I can’t share the details. Other than to say: 1) I’m impressed. 2) I’m delighted. And 3) I made them promise to keep me posted so I can write about their work here in the blog, when the time comes.

That’s a quick overview of some of the work we’ve done here this week. So far.

The weather here — where, by the way, it’s the dead of winter — has been slightly chilly at night but perfectly comfortable in short sleeves during the day. Well, no longer. When I left my hotel this morning, the temperature was below freezing. It’s so strange to see this place — where I’ve spent so much time over the past two or three years –with bare trees.

A low, blue-grey cloud lingered over Johannesburg. I couldn’t help but notice there was a 40 percent chance of snow Tuesday afternoon. Johannesburg never gets snow, so that was hard to believe.

Until you saw the clouds.

Sure enough — shortly before lunch — all hell broke loose when it started snowing here. Smack atop the U.S. visual journalism consultant who doesn’t have the first long-sleeved shirt with him this trip.

Yeah, it was definitely facepalm time.

Work around the entire MediaPark complex came to a halt as everyone ran out onto the various terraces and posed for pictures in the rapidly-falling snow.

One guy told me this was only the third time it had snowed here in Joburg in his lifetime.

The Washington Post reported this was the first snowfall in Johannesburg since 2008. The Associated Press reported that it also snowed in Pretoria — the capital of South Africa, about an hour north of here — for the first time since 1968.

It was really fun to see everyone enjoy the white stuff. Which, frankly, didn’t stick for very long.

And here’s a little video of the excitement.

Fun stuff.

Tonight, the cold is just brutal: As  I write this, the temperature outside is 34 — with a wind chill of 23 — and, yes, we’re getting more “light snow.” Just enough to make the roads slick but not enough to actually collect on the ground. The high tomorrow is forecast to be a relatively balmy 54.

I work here in Joburg another day tomorrow before we fly over to Pietermaritzburg, not far from the coast along the Indian Ocean. I’m told we’ll enjoy daily highs in the high 60s and low 70s there on Thursday and Friday.

Friday, I’ll fly back to Johannesburg for one last night here. Saturday, I depart for home.

Where, presumably, it will not be snowing.

My blog for this trip, so far…

My weekend in Johannesburg, South Africa

My work at the Nation News Group of Nairobi, Kenya, wound up mid-afternoon Friday. It was time to get to the airport.

My bags were already packed and waiting for me at the concierge station in the lobby of the Stanley Hotel, where I had stayed the previous 13 nights.

I waited about an hour for my driver… Until I finally got bored enough to venture outside. And found he had been waiting for me there all along.

That’s the second time that same driver had waited patiently for me: He had sat for hours at the airport when I tried to track down my lost luggage.

Once we threw the bags into the car, though, it was my turn to wait. Friday afternoon traffic in Nairobi proved to be just as bad as I had heard. We sat on clogged streets, hoping for some kind of break to the gridlock and entertained only by the occasional witty bumper sticker.

My driver did point out one sight of interest: The Kenyan parliament buildings.

It took the rest of the afternoon, but we eventually arrived at the airport. I checked my bag, picked up my boarding pass and had a quick bite of dinner. During dinner, I enjoyed perhaps the most fabulous sunset I had seen during my time here in Kenya.

Then, I had a little time to wander around the airport. Those Mayans might have developed a wonderful calendar, but do you know what they hated?

That’s right: Paying taxes.

Wow. Confectionery liquor. I can get tanked and go into a diabetic coma at the same time.

President Obama and his folks can talk about “change” all they want. But they’re such amateurs. Here in Kenya, they actually have an entire bureau devoted to change.

How do you say “toilet” in Swahili?

Ah: “Choo.”

After a while, it was time to board my Kenya Airways flight to Johannesburg. I couldn’t help but notice the airline operating the next flight out of this same gate: Precision Airways.

Precision Airways. We’ll get you there. Or, at least, somewhere in the vicinity of your destination. We think.”

We were herded down several long corridors, out onto the tarmac and finally to a widebody jet.

Which ended up being only about half-full. Which gave us plenty of room to spread out. What a welcome change from the uncomfortable squeeze I’ve seen in my last several trips.

The trip took four hours. Because I hadn’t been sleeping so well, I crashed hard. I discovered later they had served food on the flight. I slept right through it.

They also showed a movie: Clash of the Titans. You know: “Release the Kracken.”

I didn’t even bother to plug in my headphones. The movie looked awful.

We arrived in Johannesburg just before midnight — or nearly 1 a.m. Kenya time. Naturally, I had to go through passport control, pick up my luggage and then hit the car rental counter. I was given a huge silver Toyota.

I love the car. The only issues: a) I can’t seem to find FiveFM on the car radio. Which is just as well. This time around, I’m only going to listen to stations that play songs by my good friends the Soap Girls. And b) The damned turn signal switch is on the wrong side of the steering wheel.

Every time I try to signal a turn, I turn on my windshield wipers. As a result, I was a very rude driver in Johannesburg this weekend. But give me some credit: I have the cleanest windshield in town.

My next task was: Drive from the airport to my hotel. In the dead of night. Half-asleep. On the left side of the road. Lucky for me, I’ve made this trip a dozen times, at least. By the time I was checked into my hotel, though, and called Sharon to tell her I was safe, it was after 3 a.m.

So I put out the “Do not disturb” sign and slept as late as I could Saturday.

The place where I’ll be staying for the next several nights is the Garden Court hotel in the Auckland Park region of Johannesburg. I know this place very very well: I stayed here for nearly two solid months back in 2009.

In fact, when I went down for breakfast Saturday morning, the same woman was cooking eggs. She took one look at me and remembered how I like my eggs. Which I found a little scary. I mean, it’s been nearly three years.

The two ladies working the front desk during the day both remember me. In fact, one of them remembered the night I tried to hold the elevator door open for a maintenance man and my hand got slammed. She told me how terrified the entire management was that I might have been be severely injured.

In fact, my hand swelled up and was painful for about two days. I kept ice on it as often as I could. The problem went away soon enough. I had to laugh, though, about that being her first memory of me.

My big, painful memory of this hotel is of all the wifi problems I had. I’m happy to report those problems have been resolved. Getting on here is quick and easy. And the speed is every bit as fast as what I get at home.

I swear they’ve given me the most comfortable room in the building. It’s small but cozy.

Over the three nights I’ve been here, I’ve managed to get caught up on the sleep I missed out on in Kenya. I’m able to breathe so much better. And this hotel isn’t quite as noisy as was the Stanley in Nairobi. So no more being jolted awake at 3 or 4 a.m. by someone messing around in the corridor.

During my previous stays in the Garden Court, I was always given a room facing the Southeast — directly toward a huge, ugly concrete building that I later found was the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce building. This time, I’m facing a nice little apartment complex. With several large universities nearby, I presume many of the residents here are students.

Below is the entryway of the hotel and the car park for the hotel, which occupies the bottom floor of the apartment complex.

I get quite a bit more sunshine here than I did on the other side of the hotel. I even get to see a little of Empire Road and Barry Hertzog Avenue.

Directly across the street from the hotel is this giant glass office building.

I mention it only because when I stayed here three years ago, a giant advertisement supporting the local rugby team, the Lions, was plastered all over the building.

 

As much as I dislike obtrusive advertising, I think I liked this building better when it had the giant ad.

Here is one of the ugly concrete buildings that occupy the back of the hotel/apartment complex.

Connected to the hotel is a small steakhouse, where I expect to eat a number of times this week. Thee slogan on their sign out front always makes me smile.

I became friendly with a number of the waitresses at MacRib during my time here. When I worked here in Johannesburg in 2010 and 2011, however, I never managed to drive over here for dinner. Sure enough, when I went in last night, I saw the manager and three or four waitresses who remembered me.

And, of course, the hotel has a fabulous little pool area.

It’s a bit cold to swim here, however — remember, we’re in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s the dead of winter here. Temperatures in the days have been in the low-to-mid 70s, which I find quite comfortable. At night, though, it gets awfully chilly. And this week, it’s going to be down in the 30s. Yikes!

So no pool time this trip. And no worrying how deep 1.8 meters might be.

In fact, I tried to go out by the pool and blog a little Sunday morning. The temperature was fine — perfect, even — but it was very windy. My notes kept flying away and grit flew into my eyes. So I gave up and found a quiet spot in the lobby.

Which worked well until what appears to be a women’s sports team invaded the lobby.

Netball players, to be specific. Netball is a version of basketball, very much like women’s basketball in the U.S., back in the 1950s and 1960s. All passing and shooting with no dribbling at all and seven players on each team. I had to look it up.

Hey, when I was younger — I worked sports information in college — I loved hanging around female athletes. But now that I’m in my 50s? All that staring and leering just embarrasses me.

Hey, and that’s just my behavior.

Ahem. Let’s move on…

The hotel also has a small TV alcove, just off the main lobby.

Even with the Olympics on wall-to-wall TV here in South Africa, however, this one seems permanently tuned to either rugby or cricket.

If I get too bored here in the hotel, I’ll just walk across the street and watch the virgins work out.

Once I had breakfast and woke myself up, it was time to make a brief grocery run. There’s a nice grocery store across the street near the virgin game preserve. However, I had trouble paying for my stuff: The woman at the counter told me they don’t take American charge cards or check cards.

Wow. That’s the first time I’ve run into that. I fired off a message to Sharon to check with our bank to make sure I don’t have some strange issue with them — I’ve never forgiven them for locking me out of my own account when I was in St. Louis last fall — and then went to a different grocery store: One where I’ve shopped may times before.

They had the same issue with my debit card. But they were much nicer about it. So I simply paid cash.

I bought two [diet] Tab colas, a package of blueberry muffins — for fast carbs when I need them — a stack of sugar-free candy bars and four packages of sugar-free cough drops. I’m breathing better here in Johannesburg than I was in Kenya. But there is still a heck of a rumble in my lungs. Most likely, I’m going to be coughing until I get home and get some antibiotics from my doctor.

I also bought a small glass tumbler — it’s on the left, still wrapped in paper just behind the Strepsils cough drops — so I can pour myself my Tab Cola. This is one of the few African hotels in which I’ve found an ice machine.

I expect to spend much of my free time this week down in MacRib. But this should get me through the weekend, at least.

Oh, and I also bought a NewsNow magazine. My South African pal Waldimar Pelzer was the founding editor of this publication. He recently left to return to the world of newspapers — which reminds me; I need to write about that — but let me tell you folks: This is one amazing magazine. Surely it’s a prototype for all magazines of the future.

Note to self: In addition to writing about Waldimar, I also ought to write something more about NewsNow. In addition to the times I wrote about it here and here.

While I was out running around, I noticed a trend in South African marketing design that I hadn’t seen before: A tendency to fill space by just jamming stuff into it. This wall of thank you messages just seems cluttered.

And that Virgin Active Health Club? They’ve illustrated the lobby and escalators outside with a huge jumble of icons.

I kind of like the icons. But not the thank-yous.

I finished my outing with lunch at my favorite local McDonald’s…

…from where I can get one of the better views of the skyline of Johnnesburg.

The giant Telcom tower on the left — a landmark in Joburg — still had a soccer ball “impaled” on it from the World Cup when I was last here. I see the ball is still there, but painted pink. Apparently, the current advertiser is using a giant pink dot in its marketing campaign.

Because I ordered an extra-large value meal — the equivalent of a large in the U.S. — I was given a commemorative Coca-Cola glass.

I guess I should have gone to McDonald’s before I bought my little glass tumbler, huh?

Saturday night, I went out with my friends from Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa, who were going to see the new Batman movie.

Which I loved. I didn’t get a chance to see it because the movie opened the very day I left the U.S. for Kenya. Now, of course, I know how all the bits I saw being filmed in Pittsburgh last summer fit into the plot.

Afterwards, we went out for dinner. Here is SFFSA’s secretary Gail Jamieson and her husband, meetings/conventions chairman Ian Jamieson.

As we left the restaurant, I spotted this cute little sign offering support for the country’s Olympians competing this week in London.

Sunday, I slept very late, I worked a little on my blog and then I drove over to the nearby suburb of Parkhurst for a very special reception, held here: A fascinatingly eclectic little place called Jacob’s Board Game Cafe.

The occasion: The 11th anniversary of BizCommunity.com, a web site aimed at all aspects of South African media. My good friend Simone Puterman is the operation’s editor at large. This little celebration was her operation.

The venue is a coffeehouse that specializes in board games of all types, from the classic to the brand-new.

Here, Simone’s guy — Franz Tomasek — shows off one of the Cafe’s collection: One named after me, in fact.

The place is decorated in board games of all types. This is a pictogram… but one that apparently only works in Afrikaans.

In attendance last night were about two dozen members of the South African media: Writers, editors, subeditors, marketing specialists, photographers, artists and online specialists.

Simone urged me to bring my camera. She knew that once I started shooting pictures of everyone, I’d end up talking to them. What a great way for me to make new friends.

And if you got bored, you could simply walk out onto the back patio and watch the employees open the champagne bottles.

I was walking around, taking pictures and introducing myself to various folks when this young lady suddenly jolted up and exclaimed: I just worked out who you are!

Turns out, she follows me on Twitter and reads my blog. She went on to tell me how smart and witty I am. I took a few pictures of her and thought to myself: Sharon is NEVER going to believe this.

Eventually, it came time for the main event of the evening. Simone called the party to order and announced the start of our cheesecake tasting exercise.

We were each given a scorecard. Nine cheesecakes were contributed by various area restaurants.

Simone tells me:

Four of the cakes were bought, five were homemade.

Our task: Evaluate the cheesecakes and rate each one.

Yeah, I know. It’s a tough job. But someone had to do it.

Funny thing, though. Cheesecake turned out to be a lot like beer. After four or five, you just kind of toss up your hands and declare: It’s all good.

Still, I stuck it out. Here were my final scores:

“Base,” by the way, is what we Americans would call “crust.”

I had no trouble picking an overall winner. Cheesecake E scored a perfect “5” in all three categories.

In addition, Simone held a raffle for a special prize: This drawing of what appears to be a purple cow in front of the skyline of Johannesburg.

I loved the art and wondered what kind of special meaning laid behind the composition. I also wondered about the rendering technique.

The medium, it turned out, was lipstick. I kid you not. The artist — the amazing Sarah Britten — is a media strategist and blogger for the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

The winner of the raffle turned out to be a very nice Hungarian man who accidentally crashed the party but make up for it by buying raffle tickets.

Proceeds from the raffle, I’m told, went to Sarah’s favorite charities. Very cool.

There were a number of other prizes as well. Much to my amazement, I also won one.

That’s a  backback with the logo of Philadelphia brand cream cheese on it. Inside is stuffed with all sorts of sweets and munchies. Sharon and Elizabeth are going to love the food. Assuming it makes it home. Heh.

As the reception wound down, a very happy hostess posed with Franz.

It was a terrific evening and a terrific way to kick off my week of work here in South Africa.

After all that cheesecake, I hardly needed dinner. Still, I felt the need to get a little something non-sweet into my stomach. So I finally made it down to MacRib for the evening. Where I ran into the South African under-20 national soccer team.

Wait a minute. Let me get this straight: In this hotel tonight we have both a team of gorgeous young, male soccer players and a team of gorgeous, young female netball players?

Wow. Something tells me there won’t be lot of folks getting sleep this week.

Something also tells me I wish I owned and operated a small pharmacy in the lobby. I think I’d keep it open a little later.

And that was my weekend here in Johannesburg.

This morning, I got up bright and early, went downstairs for breakfast… and ran into a wall of athletes. Hmm. So much for breakfast. The woman at the front door of the restaurant seemed most distressed when I bailed. But I feel a McDonald’s run coming on.

The schedule for today: I need to hit a pharmacy — for yet more cough drops. I’ll meet my good friend Arlene Prinsloo at the Media24 offices at MediaPark and we’ll get to work right away. I’m told we have a lot of work to do this week.

Naturally, I’m looking forward to it.

My blog for this trip, so far…

Here, ‘KFC’ stands for Kenyan Fried Chicken. I think.

Last week, I ate a couple of lunches in a place down the street from the newspaper headquarters that sells wonderful gyro-like wraps. Luckily for me, they were only too happy to serve the wraps to me the way I like them — just meat, lettuce and bread.

This week, I’ve been on my own for lunch. Since I’ve been eager to eat fast and then get back to work, I’ve just been skipping over to the KFC, just down the block from the newspaper building.

I think it’s fair to say: This is the nicest KFC I’ve ever been in.

The downstairs dining room is maybe two or three times the size of an American KFC. And then there is balcony seating upstairs. I’ve not ventured up there yet. At this altitude, walking up stairs is too much like work.

The menu here is totally different from an American KFC. There are no chicken nuggets or other boneless varieties, other than this nice sandwich. Which has been more than adequate.

Perhaps the oddest but most subtle difference: Note the Diet Coke. First of all, soft drinks are in bottles only here. No fountain drinks.

Secondly, that’s a Diet Coke. Typically, you’ll find only Pepsi products at a KFC in the U.S. That’s because from 1986 to 1997, KFC — along with its sister franchises Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — was owned by Pepsico.

As you might know, we’re smack in the middle of Ramadan. There is a fairly large Muslim population here in Kenya. Hence, the Ramadan specials.

Note the tag line: “Available exclusively after sunset.” And the little moon icon at the upper right.

I was also amused by this sign. Apparently, KFC has had to change the style of French fries they serve — at least, temporarily.

The fine print, in case you can’t read it:

Andy’s gone to escape the cold, so Jeff is filling in for a few days. He’s slightly chunkier than Andy and has the same great taste. Your favorite chip will be back shortly.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fast-food franchise give names to their French fries. I can think of several reasons why this might not be a wise marketing choice.

And, of course, I’ve discovered: You can’t whip out your iPhone in a KFC in Kenya without also taking pictures of the crew behind the counter. They just expect to pose for the strange American in the Hawaiian shirt.

Hey, I’m happy to oblige.

So: Eating at a Kenyan KFC. I can now strike that off my “bucket list.”

Heh

I’m nearing the end of a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

Good day, Sunshine

After eleven consecutive mornings in which I woke up to find a dull, grey cloud enveloping the city, today — finally — I was treated to the Nairobi skyline at its finest.

Not a cloud in the Kenyan sky.

At breakfast, down in the famous Thorn Tree Cafe, sunlight poured through the skylight section of the roof…

…and smiled upon my breakfast and orange juice.

Now that will start your day off right.

The schedule for Wednesday: Sleep in just a little, because there’s a big newsroom staff meeting this morning. There will be no morning slideshow lecture.

I’ll be at work by 11 a.m. — a little more than an hour from now. We’ll have an hour-long brainstorming session, I’ll grab some quick lunch and then we’ve got five slots for individual portfolio reviews this afternoon.

Only two staffers have signed up, so far, for those slots. In my downtime, I’ll work on the graphics template I started building last night.

Thursday, we’ll resume our 9 a.m. starts with a session on mapping and then a repeat of my online visual journalism session from Monday. Portfolio reviews fill out the day.

Friday morning, our topic will be elections and politics.

I depart Kenya Friday evening and head to Johannesburg, South Africa for a week of meetings there. The rumor is that some of my friends there are planning to go see the new Batman movie this weekend.

Hmm. That has possibilities…

This is Day Eleven of a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

Life as a traveling infographics instructor and evangelist in Kenya

I’m in Nairobi, Kenya, for a second week of teaching infographics at the daily and weekly newspapers that make up the Nation Media Group.

As I wrote yesterday, I get up every morning and eat breakfast at the Thorn Tree Cafe, located on the first floor of my home away from home, the 110-year old Stanley Hotel.

Although we’re only a couple hours’ drive from the equator, it can be a bit chilly in the wee hours. After all, the equator is north of here, which puts us in the Southern Hemisphere. So technically, this is winter here.

In fact, July and August are the coolest months of the year in Kenya. The highs forecast for this coming week are in the low 70s. The nightly lows are in the high 50s. That’s a huge difference from what we’ve seen this summer in Virginia Beach.

Each morning last week dawned heavy and grey. It takes several hours before the sun can burn off the haze.

Here are the views outside my seventh-floor room, looking East…

…and West.

Note the cars parked a good six floors above street level.

And here’s the view out the back side of the hotel, looking West.

By the time I hit the front door and begin the short walk up Kimathi Street, it’s warm enough outside that I really don’t need the sport coat I brought with me.

Getting to work each day doesn’t take long at all. But it does seem scary at times. First thing I have to do after I leave the hotel is turn left and cross Kenyatta Avenue — a very busy thoroughfare.

There’s a stoplight on the corner and walk/don’t walk signs. What makes crossing this street scary, though: As far as I can tell, no one — not drivers and certainly not pedestrians — obeys the signals. Cars think nothing of plowing through a crowded crosswalk. And folks on foot think nothing of stepping out in front of, say, a bus.

So far, though, I’ve not seen anyone get hit yet. And — better yet — I’ve not been run over myself. Because, y’know, that would sort of suck.

Once I’m across Kenyatta, I then have to turn right and cross the other street at that same crossing, Kimathi Street. Which isn’t nearly as busy and, therefore, not nearly as scary.

From there, it’s an easy half-block walk to the Nation Media Group’s headquarters, in this building with a most unique design.

Those two big “smokestacks” — perhaps I could start the rumor that they’re actually missile silos — are, in fact, giant spiral stairwells and circular meeting rooms. I’ve come to know those concrete cylinders very well in my first week here.

Once I’ve run the security gauntlet, the next hurdle is to wait for an elevator. Which can easily take five or ten minutes.

And it’s not like you can take the stairs. I mean, you’re allowed to walk up five flights. But, given the altitude here in Nairobi, you wouldn’t really want to. Especially if you live at sea level like I do and not accustomed to the thin air here.

And yes, it’d be five flights for me. Because the only conference room available for these two weeks is this one, which is in the bottom third or so of one of those concrete towers.

The meeting room itself is circular with columns painted red. Outside that is a ring that is currently being used as storage for the company’s television division. Note the enormous rows of VHS tapes lining the walls behind me in this next picture.

We’ve kicked off most mornings with a two-hour slideshow lecture on various topics. Monday, I led off with a freshened-up version of my “Graphics for Word People” show. Tuesday, we took on Alternative Story Forms. Wednesday, we addressed projects and making a big impact with content-driven visuals.

Those of you who have ever attended one of my shows knows the drill. A heavy emphasis on the storytelling and content of our graphics and visuals. Because to do it any other way would mean producing a nice-looking piece of crap.

From the expressions here, you might think I’m doing a good job teaching. Might.

The gentleman on the left, there, is Muhammed Tamale, graphics editor of the Daily Monitor, the company’s paper in Uganda. He traveled all the way here, just to sit in on my sessions.

In the center is Kibe Kamunyu, a production editor. On the right is Gennevieve Awino, a designer who primarily does business.

Among the several graphics projects we walked through Wednesday: My old battleship megagraphic from 1995. The context: This project came out pretty well. But it wasn’t the result of an assignment. It grew from a project I had pitched.

Lesson being: If you want to do cool, cool work, you need to become proactive. The world isn’t necessarily going to cut you a lucky break by laying a project in your lap. You need to learn how to make your luck.

For most sessions, we’ve had anywhere between ten and twenty people in the room. Any more than that and we’d have difficulty seating them all.

Thursday, we studied the nuts and bolts of charting: All about bar charts, pie charts, fever graphs and timelines. I felt a little guilty about the nice rant I had planned against the trend of the dreaded bubble charts. But then I was asked to critique a recent assignment here in which the designer had used two — count ’em, two — bubble charts on the same page. And she gotten them both wrong.

I didn’t feel so guilty after that.

To sum up my sermon on bubble charts: If you want to show how clever you are and draw attention to your chart, sure. Go with a bubble chart. But if you want to draw attention to the data, stick with a bar chart.

Go here to read my most recent rant against bubble charts.

One of the recurring problems I have in this line of work is that I’ll suddenly be struck by inspiration and then I’ll sit down and rip up an entire slideshow. Which was probably a perfectly good show to begin with.

What makes this worse: I’m often struck with that inspiration the night before a presentation. And that’s what happened Thursday evening. As if I wasn’t missing enough sleep already. Sigh…

My assigned topic for Friday was illustration. I had already decided to feature the work of a number of my favorite illustrators. But suddenly, it occurred to me: I should present a top-ten list or something.

So I ripped up my slideshow and built a new one from scratch. Which looked pretty good. Until I realized that, somehow, I had left out two of my absolute favorites, both world-class illustrators for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

D’oh! That will never do. So I tossed out even my newest slides and replaced my Top 10 list with a Top 12.

My list, which I wish I had put in alphabetical order, because these are not in any kind of order at all:

  • Sam Hundley, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
  • Andrea Levy, Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • Rick Tuma, Chicago Tribune
  • Mark Marturello, Des Moines Register
  • Martin Gee, Boston Globe
  • Chris Morris, Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • Ryan Huddle, Boston Globe
  • Don Tate, Austin (Texas) American-Statesman
  • Tonia Cowan, Toronto Globe and Mail
  • Robert Zavala, Victoria (Texas) Advocate
  • Wesley Watson, Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune
  • Lindi Daywalt Feazel, Fort Myers (Fla.) News Press

The reaction from this presentation was extremely positive. So much so that I’ve decided to share the Powerpoint slideshow with you. Be advised, though, that a) This presentation consists of 415 images and is 103 mb in size. And b) You’re not getting any of my commentary or narrative instruction.

I managed to get through all that material in about an hour and 15 minutes, which is an average of about 10 seconds per slide. That’s fast, even for me. Then, I immediately gave a second presentation on Photoshop and photojournalistic ethics. Which also spurred some great discussion.

It was great to end my first week’s sessions on such a high note.

On the schedule for this week: Two sessions on electronic visual journalism — which will cover what papers around the world are doing for their web sites — a repeat of my “Graphics for Word People” session, a session on mapping and a session on election and political graphics.

This woman — Dorothy Kweyu, a rewrite editor — came to one of my presentations midweek and enjoyed it so much she’s not missed a session since. In particular, I think she’d enjoy the “Graphics for Word People” show.

She’s been very kind with her feedback.

And Muhammed — my new friend from Uganda — continues to surprise me. I wouldn’t have thought a newspaper in Uganda would have top-notch equipment, but I’d be wrong. He brought his titanium MacBook to our sessions one day.

He’s asked for copies all my presentations via a jump drive. I’m looking forward to seeing some of his own work this week.

After a short break, we typically spend an hour in a brainstorming session with various departments and journalists. Graphics and visual journalism is very new to these publications. The idea is to show them how to brainstorm ideas and how to get the ball rolling towards producing spectacular graphics of their own.

Key to all this is the Nation Media Group’s design director, Kathy Bogan. With all the experience and success she’s had over her career, it’s not surprising to find she’s terrific at pulling ideas out of the staffers here and encouraging them to open up.

What makes this fun, from my perspective, is when you can see the light bulbs go on over folks’ heads. The gentleman at right here — John Gachiri, a reporter on the Business Daily newspaper — proved to be a huge fountain of ideas during our biz brainstorming session on Thursday.

Listening closely are Joy Abisagi and Mike Mosota, both designers for the Daily Nation.

On Friday, our brainstorming session with the features department was particularly lively. Nearly everyone left that meeting excited about the possibilities.

From left to right here are: Designer Joy Abisagi again, the editor of the Living section, Carol N’junge, and sub-editor Terry Mwenda.

Those brainstorming sessions are over by 1 p.m. At that point, I get an hour or so to eat lunch and take a break before my afternoon critiques begin.

First, though, we pack up my computer and the projector and head downstairs to the newsroom, two flights down a gorgeous, spiral staircase that appears to run the length of the other large tower.

Navigating these stairs can be a dizzying experience. Especially with the checkerboard pattern of the tiles at the very bottom.

Every time I walk through here, I have to pause to marvel at it all. Doesn’t this look as if it might have been designed by M.C. Eischer?

Throughout the stairs are conceptual art pieces commissioned by the H.R. department in an attempt to reinforce company values. Which is why you find a suggestion box with a shredder embedded at the top.

The idea, I suspect, is to suggest: We don’t need a suggestion box because every minute of every day we’ll strive to make our products and our workplace better. So a box is an outdated concept. Improvement is a continuous process; not something we do once a month when we crack open anonymous suggestions.

Or, at least, that’s the way I’ve seen this sort of thing presented elsewhere. I wouldn’t want to presume to understand everything about this place after just one week.

I feel very much at home in the newsroom itself. I’ve been in a lot of newsrooms in a lot of countries. They each have their own vibe, their own rhythm and their own personality.

Yet, in a way, newsrooms also have a similar feel, regardless of the location and the local culture.

This one is particularly nice. I’m seeing a lot of top-of-the-line equipment. There’s a mix of large Apple Macs, smaller Apple computers and PCs.

The newsroom is on the fourth floor — um, I think. Like many of these former English colonies, they call a building’s first floor as “ground floor” and count the second floor as “first floor.”

Still, here is the view outside the window.

Lined up across the street, there, are taxi cabs. It’s difficult to see in that picture, but there is a man standing out front with a megaphone, addressing the drivers in Swahili. I’m not quite sure what he was so worked up about.

Here, I’m standing near the designers’ area and looking toward the central news desk. Which is surrounded by yellow columns.

This little area — which, in fact, is on a slightly raised platform — is truly the nerve center of the whole place. The gentleman at lower right — Bernard Namunane — is a political write and editor but has duties that sound to me much much more like a dayside news editor might have, back in the U.S.

Twice a day or so, Bernard calls for news meetings in the conference room by ringing this bell.

Seriously.

The key editors then file into the meeting room. Which is the same circular space I’m using, upstairs on the fifth floor, just two floors down.

Note the lettering on the backs of the chairs, to keep anyone from running off with them.

Ten or 12 editors meet to discuss the day’s stories and determine which they’ll pursue for bigger play. They also spend a lot of time looking at the competitors’ newspapers to see what the Daily Nation might have missed or might have covered better.

Like my meeting room, this one also has an outer ring around the main space. Here, Kathy speaks to Mohammed from Uganda in the outer ring.

And just like in my meeting room on five, there are spots here that seem to collect discarded items. Like this tired, old Christmas tree.

I’ve gone to a couple of these news meetings, but it didn’t seem to be time well-spent. Many of the stories they cover here are ongoing stories. If you don’t know the names and the backstory, you’d never figure them out.

Instead, we’ve set up a schedule for portfolio critiques. One-on-one mentoring is one of my specialties. The folks here seem to enjoy having someone point out alternative approaches they might have taken with their pages.

Or, in many cases, simply telling them their work is dynamite. I’ve truly been delighted with the quality of the visual work here. Granted, they don’t do many infographics — which is why I’m here. But, for the most part, the papers are well-designed and gorgeously put together each night.

Two days this week, I worked on actual graphics for the next day’s paper. One day, the big talker was about schoolgirls who disliked the long dresses they’re forced to wear as a uniform. But when they suggested raising the hemlines, they were accused of advocating for miniskirts.

Ludicrus. This tells me that some folks in this country can definitely pull a “Fox News” when it suits them.

So in a brilliant flash of tongue-in-cheekiness, someone at the Daily Nation had the idea of building a little graphic that shows just how these schoolgirl skirts really are, compared to a real miniskirt.

Our model: None other than Beyoncé. A reporter compiled the text, Kathy carved out some space and I did the Photoshop work and assembled the graphic.

The very next day, the lead story on page one was about the ongoing military action in Somalia. The designer built an interesting L-shape with a text box, cutout file photo and a wire service map.

I helped things along by compiling the text for the pullout box and then showed the designer how to adjust the map so it fits in better with the Nation’s usual color palette. The world globe inset was such a mess that we finally just replaced it with one I rebuilt from scratch.

So it’s been something different every day. A couple of days, we took a lunch break at a local place where I get what is essentially a gyro. Other days, we just snack at our desks.

Late in the evening, I head back “home,” enjoying the sight of this gorgeous art-deco-themed pink-colored place…

…which is directly across the street from my hotel, the Stanley.

Seems like a good place to wind up today’s story.

And that was what we did my first week here. We have an ambitious plan for Week Two, of course: More sessions, more brainstorming. And, most importantly: Many more portfolio reviews.

Also, a change has been made to my travel plans. Instead of departing for home Friday as originally scheduled, I’m going to fly from Nairobi directly to Johannesburg, South Africa. My longtime clients there have contracted with me for a week of my time while I’m here on the continent of Africa.

As a result, I won’t return home to Virginia Beach, now, until Sunday, Aug. 12.

This is Day Nine of a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

The Exchange Bar here in the Stanley Hotel has a new fan

So, when I first arrived here at the Stanley Hotel in downtown Nairobi, I spent much of my time at the Poolside bar and restaurant.

It’s really nice there in the open air of the fifth floor. And the food was terrific.

After a few days, however — in search of a more varied menu — I got up the nerve to try the Thorn Tree Cafe on the first floor. I was eating breakfast there every day anyway.  When I began eating dinner there, I found myself delighted with the food and service.

In fact, I spent my entire Saturday there. And I blogged about that this morning.

So after some work this morning, a long nap and a brief but disastrous attempt to walk around the block, I decided to drop by the Exchange Bar on the second floor of my hotel. If nothing else, I’d just look around to see what all was here.

The decor and atmosphere up here is very, very high-class. Lots of plush, leather seating and ornate wood trim. I feel rather bad walking through here wearing my Dockers or jeans and Hawaiian-print shirts. That’s why I’m just now checking it out today, halfway through my stay here.

But the folks here put me at ease right away. First thing they did was give me quick tour.

This room was the site of Kenya’s first stock exchange, which opened here in 1954. The walls are decorated with colonial-era prints and actual stock certificates from back in the day.

When the stock exchange finally outgrew this space — in 1991 — the hotel turned this into a gentleman’s club-type bar. You know the kind: Where stuffy old white men sit around, read the financial pages, smoke cigars and enjoy a fine brandy.

There’s even a statue of a naked woman in the middle of the place. This sort of thing would probably have been pretty racy in Victorian-era colonial Kenya.

I’ve only seen places like this in the movies. So I was astounded. I was also astounded that, even as a carefully unrefined, informal American slob, I was warmly welcomed here.

If there’s one thing the folks here at the Stanley Hotel know, though, it’s tourists. So once I was hooked by the architecture and the decor, the guard drew my attention to these funny-looking flap-like things on the ceiling…

…and he flipped a switch. My jaw hit the floor.

 

I dunno. Perhaps I’m easily amused. But this was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. It strikes me as ab inefficient ceiling fan. But wow, what a talker!

I was forced to pull out the iPhone and shoot a video of the place. Much to the amusement of the staff.

As I continued to look around, I found myself stunned a second time by this vintage old turn-of-the-century print of a castle in the northeast coast of England.

That’s Lumley Castle, near Durham and Chester-le-Street.

It’s been converted into a hotel. I know, because that’s where I stayed during my very first international infographics teaching mission, 23 years ago.

There’s a coincidence. And then there’s pure, dumb good karma. This just has to be the latter. There was only one thing to do: Cancel my plan to go back downstairs to the Thorn Tree for dinner and stay here for the evening.

And I’m so glad I did. I ordered a small plate of fried shrimp for an appetizer.

It was delicious. As were the fish and chips I had for dinner.

I sat here this evening, did a little blogging — as you can see — and worked on my presentation for tomorrow.

And I watched the fans. I love the flapping fans.

I’m so easily amused.

This is still Day Eight of a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

A Saturday spent at the famous Thorn Tree Cafe

Greetings from the famous Thorn Tree Cafe, on the first floor of the Stanley Hotel here in Nairobi, Kenya.

I’ve been taking most of my meals here in the Thorn Tree. I spent nearly all day Saturday, working here on my laptop. And I’m spending a few hours this morning (Sunday) here as well before I venture out into the city.

The cafe is tucked into a corner of the ground floor of the hotel. What you see through these windows here is the street outside.

Above, we’re ringed by an extension of the Exchange Bar on the first floor. Which is really the second floor, but it’s labeled “1” in the elevators. Don’t get me started on how confusing that can be.

That little corridor/bar/walkway area encircles the Thorn Tree, forming a little atrium. Most of it is roofed in glass, but there’s a large hole in the center — think the old Dallas Cowboys stadium, except much smaller — through which an actual thorn tree protrudes.

Also meaning this is essentially an open-air cafe. There are a large number of tables inside as well. But with the weather here as nice as it is, why would you sit inside when you can sit out here, by the tree?

The hotel’s owners planted an acacia tree in the middle of this restaurant back in 1959, with the intent of providing a little shade for the tables here. What happened, though, was travelers would post notes and bulletins on the trunk of the tree itself.

The Thorn Tree became the place to meet travelers, bum rides, trade stories and figure out just how to navigate the wilds of Kenya. Journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway spent months living in this hotel and, in particular, hanging out in the Thorn Tree Cafe.

At some point, the original acacia tree died and was replaced with the current one. The hotel kept the tradition alive by ringing the tree with a message board…

…and with an online Thorn Tree blog. Seriously. Check it out here.

Among other famous folks who have spent time in this restaurant and in this hotel, which turns 110 years old this year: Elspeth Huxley, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

Back in Kenya’s colonial days, an important rail line was laid through here that stretched from Uganda to the coastal city of Mombasa. The city of Nairobi grew around the depot. And the Stanley — directly across from that depot — became the defacto crossroads of British East Africa. At least, until roads and automobiles made the rail line a museum piece.

This history is celebrated with pictures that hang in the indoors portion of the Thorn Tree Cafe.

This is a poster from around 100 years or so ago. Note the deck: Winter home for Aristocrats.

And I completely missed this until yesterday, because normally, there is a huge breakfast bar in front of it: A mural depicting the Uganda Railway the way it must have appeared in the 1920s or 1930s.

Note the little boy in the extreme lower left, peering at the artist…

…and the giraffes running free in the background.

I examined the mural closely, thinking it was elaborate wallpaper or a decal of some sort. This gave the manager of the hotel a huge laugh.

Nope. It’s real, live paint.

Every morning, they set the breakfast buffet table here in the covered section of the restaurant. Most of the foods on the right are local specialties. And, of course, if I can’t figure out what it is, I won’t touch it.

On the left are English-style foods like sausage and bacon. However, the “bacon” is closer to what you and I might call “country ham.”

What we Americans call “bacon,” Africans seem to call “streaky bacon.” And it’s not all that common.

There is an egg-cooking station where the woman there is prepared to make an omelette to my specifications. Naturally, I ask for three eggs, hard-fried.

It took most of the week for her to figure out how to make them so the yolks weren’t runny. The tendency here is to not overcook. But I dislike runny egg yolks.

Saturday was the first day I didn’t have runny eggs. Today, there was a different woman cooking eggs, so the learning process started again. And sure enough, another hotel guest walked up, saw my eggs in process and complained that the cook was “murdering those eggs.”

A hotel guest complaining about someone else’s meal. That was a first for me. I guess I still have so much to learn about international travel.

This is a typical breakfast for me here at the Thorn Tree: Three eggs, a few pieces of “bacon,” toast with butter, three doughnuts, coffee and orange juice.

I include the doughnuts mostly because I’ve not been eating much for lunch. Which gives me a bit of a carbohydrate deficit in the afternoons, unless I stock up just a bit. Three doughnuts — which aren’t very sweet and have no sugar coating on them — seem to do the trick perfectly well.

Oh, and the coffee here is hot. Very hot. Spill any of this on your lap and you’ll be singing soprano for weeks.

Weekdays, I’ll hit the breakfast buffet and be on my way to work within 20 or 30 minutes. On the weekends, however, I bring my MacBook Pro with me and hang out for a while. The hostesses have learned to ask me whether or not I need a place to plug in. Saturday, I sat in the open-air area near the tree until I ran down my battery.

Also Saturday, I had so much work to do that I planned to hang out here until I was done or the manager got sick of me. When lunchtime rolled around, I decided to have only a salad. The Caesar salad is pretty good, but the best one on the menus is the Ernest Hemingway salad.

As you can see, it sells for 850 Kenyan shillings. Which is about $10.11. Not bad at all.

Here’s what it looks like:

Good stuff.

The first few days I was here, I ate upstairs at the poolside bar and restaurant. I enjoyed the fish and chips very much; the steak not so much. It wasn’t until Wednesday — Day Four here — that I decided to try the Thorn Tree, mostly because of the larger menu.

The place looked so nice from the outside that I felt guilty about coming in here with a laptop. The hostess assured me I’d be fine. Sure enough, once we got inside, I found two folks reading iPads during their dinner.

That first day, I ordered the fillet steak. Which was a bit of a disappointment.

Friday, I tried the giant prawns. Which were a bit spicy. But very, very good.

I enjoyed them so much I had them again last night.

So I came down to the Thorn Tree for breakfast, broke out the laptop, ate a great salad for lunch, worked some more and then stayed for dinner as well. I got a lot of work done and I spent all day in one of Nairobi’s most historic locations. You can’t beat that for a Saturday.

I wrote earlier about how I was drinking the local beer, called Tusker.

I’ve not been drinking quite as much beer this trip as I normally do. I’ve not been sleeping well, which has left me feeling a bit weak at times. So I’ve been drinking more Diet Coke.

Which they deliver chilled in a glass bottle that reminds me of the old eight-ounce size we bought when I was a kid. But this one, in fact, is 10.14 ounces — better known here as 300 ml.

Chilled, but no ice. Ice cubes appear to be an American conceit.

Saturday, however, I did have a couple of these:

That’s a second brand of Kenyan beer called White Cap. It’s very nice, and seems to  go down quite a bit better than the Tusker. So it’s my new favorite.

This nice South African couple sitting at the next table tipped me off about White Cap. They’ve been living here for the past couple of years and like to come down to the Thorn Tree for a nice break every once in a while.

In fact, they’ve invited me to their home this afternoon. I’m looking forward to that.

UPDATE – Alas, I didn’t make it. As lunchtime approached, I began feeling quite poorly. I ended up texting my regrets and taking a lengthy nap instead.

Once I exhausted the battery on my laptop, I moved to this table by the glass window, where I could plug in.

And I worked hard on a couple of blog posts, on my presentations for next week and on the tremendous amount of correspondence that has built up while I’ve been otherwise occupied. I intentionally kept my back to the TV so I wouldn’t be distracted by Day One of the Olympic Games in London. Or, once this vocal crowd showed up, rugby.

Every once and a while, the hotel needed to get in touch with a guest who might — or might not — be relaxing in the Thorn Tree. Instead of making an announcement on the P.A. system, the front desk writes the name of the guest on a portable white board and sends this fellow around the place, ringing a little bell.

I’ve never seen anything like that before.

Around dinnertime, the waiters removed a couple of tables to make room for a three-piece band…

…which became a four-piece band with the addition of a female vocalist. Even though there were fewer than a dozen of us here at the Thorn Tree last night, the band serenaded us with a number of pop tunes including oldies from the 1960s, modern hits and what sounded like variations of African originals.

I applauded loudly after they did a Beatles tune, “Yesterday.” So the band put their heads together right away and sane “Let it Be” and “Imagine.”

And they sounded terrific. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to having my own living jukebox.

Despite how much I enjoyed this, I was dead tired yet again last night. I’ve not been sleeping well at all on this trip, and the strain is beginning to get to me just a bit. So I turned in early and slept very well… until around 4 a.m., when a loud noise outside startled me awake. I wasn’t able to get back to sleep.

So here I am in the Thorn Tree. It’s coming up on 9:30 a.m. here in Nairobi — which is 2:30 a.m. back in Virginia Beach. It’s just a bit chilly here this morning: 16.1 Celsius, or 61 degrees Fahrenheit. I brought a sport coat with me. Today is the first time I’ve considered putting it on. Or, y’know, picking up my lazy butt and moving inside.

I’ll do a little more writing this morning, catch a cab to visit my new friends and try to get back here so I can do a bit more work and then get to bed early again.

I’m looking forward to another busy week at work. Gotta make sure I’m at the top of my game.

This is Day Eight of a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

A Sunday stroll around downtown Nairobi

With the internet being down in the hotel Sunday, I wasn’t able to check the Newseum or even read the latest developments in the Aurora shooting. As I wrote earlier, I had brunch with the design director who was responsible for inviting me here to Nairobi, Kathy Bogan. She took me for a brief walk around the downtown area.

I find this place very interesting. It’s marked with tropical trees, as you see there. Yet, the altitude here is higher than Denver, so it’s nice and cool. A great break from what I was getting back in Virginia Beach.

The city wasn’t terribly crowded, with it being Sunday and all. Yet, there was just a hint of bustle.

There are a number of shopping centers and restaurants within an easy walk of my hotel. Should I want to venture out alone, that is. I’m told it’s quite safe here, especially during the day.

The roads, perhaps, not so much. Traffic wasn’t nearly as crazy as it was in Nigeria. But it wasn’t structured at all like it is in South Africa. Vehicles don’t feel the need to stay in any particular lane. Nor do they seem to take traffic lights seriously.

And the traffic circles: Wow. In Johannesburg and Cape Town — where I’ve driven quite a bit — I can get around just fine. But I wouldn’t even want to try to drive through this zoo of a roundabout.

And, as I’ve seen throughout Africa: If it’s flat, they can slap an advertisement on it. No matter how tall it might be.

This poor fellow wants to keep someone from posting ads on his wall.

He might not need ad posters. But he needs a copy editor.

This is the home of the Nation Media Group, a large multimedia company here in Nairobi that publishes a number of newspapers, magazines and owns TV, radio and internet outlets.

Interesting architecture, is it not? The main part of the building is up front. The two circular things that look like cooling towers or smokestacks are, in fact, offices. The conference room where I’ll be giving my shows this week is actually in the lower end of one of those stacks.

We spent a couple of hours poking around the office before Kathy took me back to my hotel, the historic Stanley. It was the first chance I’ve had, really, to see it in the daylight.

I’m on the seventh floor, on the far side of the section you see here on the left. The downside is that my room doesn’t face the main streets, so I don’t have much of a view. The upside is that I’m not getting much street noise here in my room.

This is the hallway here on the 7th floor. Note the carved wood trim.

My room is huge and comfy. I can report the bed sleeps very well.

Here’s a reverse view. That’s a minibar and a closet on the left. Not that I’ve had much use yet for the closet.

And this desk will serve as blog central… when the internet is working, that is. It worked for a couple of hours, maybe, late Saturday and early Sunday before it went down. It didn’t work at all Sunday.

I managed to get on well after midnight, which is how I uploaded these pictures. I’m hoping access will be more reliable for the rest of my stay here.

There are all sorts of interesting places here in the Stanley. I’m going to have to shoot pictures of some of them and tell you about them. But a) Folks are very security-conscious, so I’ve been warned about whipping out my Canon. And b) I’m awfully self-conscious about walking around five-star facilities wearing warmup pants and a T-shirt. My suitcase was supposed to arrive late last night. No good news yet.

I did manage to check out the poolside bar and restaurant, up on the fifth floor. The fitness center is up here, too, so there’s not really a dress code here.

The establishment forms a ring around this atrium area.

And, of course, there is a pool. I didn’t bring a swimsuit with me this trip. But even if I had, I wouldn’t have it with me anyway: It would have been in my suitcase.

On Sunday afternoons, I’m told they grill meat for a buffet-style meal up here. I’ll make a mental note to be here for that.

And, yes, there’s a real bar here. With what appear to be regular customers.

I sat down at one of the cute placemats shaped like me…

…and ordered the local Kenyan beer: Tusker.

Very nice and very cold. Has a bit of a punch, in fact. I won’t be drinking more than two at a sitting, that’s for sure.

Dinner was fish and chips. And delicious.

Given how close we are to the equator, I was surprised at how early it gets dark here. In addition, just as dusk was settling in, clouds rolled over the city. We got a few drops but nothing really to write home about.

I spent the afternoon and evening doing what I nearly always do on these trips: Ripping up my slideshows and reconfiguring them.

Kathy will meet me in the lobby this morning at 8:30. And my first presentation is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this: My first video blog report.

Enjoy.

UPDATE, even before I got this posted…

My alarm clock was set this morning for 6 a.m. Before the first snooze cycle passed, the front desk called. My bag had arrived. They were sending it up to my room.

It was shrinkwrapped and the zipper is torn off. But nothing appears to be missing.

So is the broken zipper the reason the bag was delayed? Not at all. In fact, the case was still closed. It’s the handle part of the zipper that’s missing. I have no idea how I’ll get it closed when it comes time to pack for the return trip. But I’ll worry about that next week.

Here’s the real reason the bag went missing:

That’s the label the folks in Norfolk put on my bag Friday afternoon. See the little “CDG”? That stands for Charles de Gaulle, the name of the airport in Paris.

The “helpful” lady at the Delta counter in Norfolk checked my bag to Paris, not Nairobi, my actual destination. So while I was flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara, my bag was going around and around on a baggage carousel in Paris.

So much for being the “star” in the Star Alliance. Thanks for nothing, Delta.

But I have clothes now. And just in time.

Because I’d really hate teaching here in Nairobi naked.

I’m just starting a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

The last leg of my trip to Nairobi

Saturday turned out to be a long day from hell for me and my journey to Kenya.

When I last spoke with you, I was sitting at the gate of the airport in Paris, where our plane was very late leaving for Kenya.

We finally got off about two hours after schedule. We were already scheduled to get to Nairobi fairly late last night. This pushed us back closer to midnight.

Despite the delay, though, I was impressed with Kenya Airways. These folks put a lot of effort into branding and other little personal touches. I was tempted to haul away this little blanket.

I’ve seen bilingual airplane signs before. But the ones on our flight were in English and Swahili.

To keep my aching diabetic feet in good shape during these longs trips, I always take off my shoes and switch to crushable slippers from my carry-on bag. This was part of what made my two long flights — one seven hours and one nine hours — bearable.

I was able to watch some TV and movies on my flight from New York to Paris. No such luck in the Paris-to-Nairobi flight, however. The personal movie screens in our row weren’t working.

Still, our long trip was bearable. Because my seatmate was a very friendly guy, so we chatted a bunch. He even pulled a Swedish newspaper out of his carry-on bag when he found out what I do for a living. Fabulous print reproduction.

And the scenery outside our window was stunning. First, we flew over downtown Paris…

…and then we flew over the crystal-clear Mediterranean. This is the island of Sicily.

Here’s where we finally crossed into Africa: In Libya, just west of Benghazi.

You have that beautiful water and then — Boom! — the Sahara desert. Talk about your hard edge contrast.

And then the sun went down just outside by window. Just gorgeous.

So the visuals out the window were fabulous.

My arrival in Nairobi: Not quite so much. My luggage didn’t quite make it. After a couple of hours, the folks from the airline say my bag was still in Paris. They’re promising me they’ll deliver it to the hotel tonight.

We’ll see. But It’s hard for me not to get panicky about that. I was just writing the other day about how sloppy I dress on airplanes these days.

My computer and camera equipment are all in my carry-ons, of course. So I can still teach Monday. I just might not have any clothes to teach in.

As promised, a driver took me to my hotel. I didn’t get settled in until after midnight. I managed to get online long enough to talk to my wife and daughter, but then the hotel system kicked me off and I couldn’t back online. Nor could I get logged in this morning.

It looks like it’s going to be one of those weeks for the blog. If I miss a few days of posting, you’ll know why.

I slept in this morning and then ate brunch with the design director of the Nation Media Group here in Nairoibi, Kathy Bogan. You may remember her from her years at the late, great Rocky Mountain News.

She’ll be my primary contact person this week. She even set me up with her home wifi for a few minutes so I could get these pictures posted.

Hopefully, we’ll get the hotel back online. And hopefully, I can get some pictures of the hotel posted as well.

Most of all, though, hopefully my clothes will arrive late tonight. I could really use a fresh change of clothes.

Tomorrow, we begin talking infographics. And that’s when the fun stuff starts.

I’m just starting a two-week consulting and teaching trip to Kenya. Read along with my trip here.

Hello from Paris

Greetings from Charles de Gaulle airport on the outskirts of Paris.

As I write this sentence, it’s 10:40 a.m. — nearly time for my flight to Nairobi to depart. But that ain’t happening yet. We’ve been delayed at least an hour and perhaps longer.

This makes three out of three flights this trip that have had delays. At least I’m consistent.

I started out Friday afternoon in Norfolk. The plane that was to take us to New York was delayed getting to Norfolk from New York in the first place. There were weather issues and traffic control issues, we were told. So we sat and waited.

The air conditioning in our part of the terminal was out, so it was pretty steamy in there. I chose to plop down on the floor out in the corridor, where it was much cooler. A man sitting to my right wad groovin’ to his iPod. And farting repeatedly.

So at least I had some entertainment while I waited.

Finally, we were off. It took us only an hour to get to JFK, but then we spent another hour trying to get to our gate. Planes were so backed up that they were blocking the taxiways. What a mess.

Luckily, I had a bit of a layover scheduled. This gave me plenty of cushion. Which I needed: The inside of JFK was an even bigger mess than the outside. In order to get to the international terminal, I had to leave the security area and walk to the next building. Down an uncovered sidewalk. In the rain.

I’ve been through JFK two or three times, but I don’t ever remember having to do that.

I was flying Air France from New York to Paris. Our carriage was a nice, big widebody Airbus.

It’s not raining in that picture because I actually took it this morning in Paris, as opposed to last night in New York.

But we were delayed a good half-hour or so boarding. And then, once we were all ready to go, we backed out of the gate, joined the que to the runway and… sat there. With nothing to do but take pictures of ourselves.

Each seat was equipped with its own screen so you can dial up whatever movies or TV episodes you like. Before takeoff, however, the player is inoperative. All we could do is sit there and watch the tail of the plane in front of us.

By the time we were airborne, we were a good 90 minutes or more behind schedule. Luckily, I had a nice layover scheduled in Paris as well. If this happens on the way back, however, I’ll be toast.

As luck would have it, I was in the very last row. The good news: I had no seatmate, meaning I could fold back the armrest and stretch out a little, horizontally. The bad news: The seat won’t recline at all. And — as is the case these days — I had little or no leg room. My knees were pushed up solid against the seatback in front of me.

This is a real problem for me when I fly coach. And I’m only 6-foot-1. I don’t know how really tall folks deal with it.

My large belly also gives me problems with the seatback tray. I usually can’t get mine fully lowered. Last night, I simply used the one to my right.

And man, was the food great. And the service was great, too. This was only my second time flying AirFrance. Those guys run a top-notch airline. Even if they do put me in the very last row.

I watched an episode of the Simpsons, an episode of Big Bang Theory and the movie Easy Rider, which I had never seen. Mostly, though, I tried to sleep. I did the best I could in my tiny little seat.

Here’s something I’ve not seen in years: An ash tray built into the armrest of my seat.

This was sundown, with the lights of New England trying to burn through the clouds…

…and this was sunrise, just off the coast of Ireland.

And here we are flying over the French countryside, not far from Paris.

We landed a good hour behind schedule. Folks were desperate to get off the plane and run for their connections. This airport is so huge, though, and the security lines were longer than they were in New York. I doubt some of my fellow passengers made their flights.

You know you’re in France when the first thing you run into when you get off the plane is a painting featuring a naked woman.

You also know you’re in France when the second thing you run into is a woman in the men’s bathroom.

I wanted to freshen up and change clothes. I was standing in line inside very crowded men’s room when I spotted a large, handicapped stall. That’s what I needed — something with a private sink and room to open my carry-on bag.

Just then, the door opened and the occupant walked out. A woman.

No one seemed surprised except me. Welcome to France, y’know?

I felt a lot better after I changed clothes, picked up my boarding pass for the last leg of my journey and stood in yet another security line. They served us a tasty but small breakfast on the plane. I wanted something to eat. And I have at least one reader out there in blog land (Hi, Allison!) who taunts me for eating at McDonald’s.

I couldn’t find a McDonald’s here in Terminal F. However, I did find Bert’s, a French sandwich shop.

I ordered a Coke Light, a piece of chocolate cake — because I was so far behind in my carb intake — and, just because I felt like I should — a croissant.

You guys would have been so proud of me. I even managed to speak mostly French to the guy behind the counter. Until my debit card wouldn’t swipe through the machine. At that point, we both had to revert to English.

French might be the international language of food and love. But English remains the international language of credit and debit cards.

I bought myself 90 minutes of internet time and checked my messages. I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do this.

But I did. Mostly because my flight from here to Nairobi has been delayed.

Since I started writing this post, I left Bert’s, walked to my gate and I’m sitting there now, watching the Kenyan Airlines employees mill around with nothing to do.

I’m not quite sure what’s causing our delay. Seems to be the norm this time around. But that’s OK. My schedule allows it. In fact, it’s probably helping to keep me relaxed.

I’m told there will be someone to meet me at the airport in Nairobi tonight and drive me to my hotel. I’ll have Sunday to sleep off my trip get oriented and perhaps post a few more pictures before I need to prepare for a great week of teaching infographics.

Leaving today for my next consulting assignment: Kenya

I leave shortly for my next teaching and consulting assignment: Nairobi, Kenya, where I’ll spend the next two weeks teaching infographics at the Nation media group.

This is my sixth trip to the continent of Africa. I spent two weeks at the Leadership newspaper group in Abuja, Nigeria, in March. And, as you know, I’ve done quite a bit of work for Media24, a large newspaper chain in South Africa.

When you see that map, you probably think: Wow, it’s going to be hot in Nairobi. But you’d be wrong. Because Nairobi is just 90 miles or so South of the Equator, their hottest days are in March and October. In fact, on average, July is the coolest month of the year.

Also, Nairobi is very high up in the mountains: 5,889 feet above sea level. That puts it 138 feet higher than Johannesburg — which I found to be quite nice when I was there for summer in 2010-11 — and 209 feet higher than the highest point in Denver.

So heat won’t be a factor. But I’ll have to remember to avoid strenuous activity. Like, y’know, walking up a flight of stairs.

The forecast for this week is just wonderful. Especially compared to the oppressive heat we’ve seen here in Hampton Roads lately. Here’s the forecast for this week in Nairobi:

I’m even taking a sport coat to wear in the evenings. When, as you see, it can get just a bit chilly.

I’ll be staying at the Stanley Hotel in downtown Nairobi. Here’s a picture from the hotel’s web site:

It’s a famous old hotel. Ernest Hemmingway spent a lot of time here in the 1930s. I’m told I’ll enjoy the historic Thorn Tree Cafe and the Exchange bar, a bar built in the room where Kenya’s first stock exchange operated.

What’s even better: I’m told I’ll be an easy walk from the newspaper office. Just a block or two.

So, once I’m there, I’ll be fine.

Whenever I venture out this far from home, however, the plane rides are just brutal — especially for someone my size. The widths of airline seats are bad enough, but these days, I don’t get enough leg room in front of me, either. The seats are just too close together. So little things like keeping circulation in my feet or even lowering my tray so I can eat can be a hassle.

I enjoy the work. But I don’t enjoy the travel itself.

I’ll leave Norfolk in early afternoon and have brief layovers in New York and Paris. I’ll arrive in Nairobi late Saturday their time.

Nairobi time is seven hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time, so I’ve been up to my usual “time-shifting” trick to try to avoid the worst effects of jet lag. Right after the July 4th holiday, I began getting up a half-hour earlier than usual each day and going to bed a half-earlier earlier than usual each night.

Thursday, July 5: Up at 8:30 a.m. – Bed by Midnight

Friday, July 6: Up at 8 a.m. – Bed by 11:30 p.m.

Saturday, July 7: Up at 7:30 a.m. – Bed by 11 p.m.

Sunday, July 8: Up at 7 a.m. – Bed by 10:30 p.m.

Monday, July 9: Up at 6:30 a.m. – Bed by 10 p.m.

Tuesday, July 10: Up at 6 a.m. – Bed by 9:30 p.m.

Wednesday, July 11: Up at 5:30 a.m. – Bed by 9 p.m.

Thursday, July 12: Up at 5 a.m. – Bed by 8:30 p.m.

Friday, July 13: Up at 4:30 a.m. – Bed by 8 p.m.

Saturday, July 14: Up at 4 a.m. – Bed by 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, July 15: Up at 3:30 a.m. – Bed by 7 p.m.

Monday, July 16: Up at 3 a.m. – Bed by 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, July 17: Up at 2:30 a.m. – Bed by 6 p.m.

Wednesday, July 18: Up at 2 a.m. – Bed by 5:30 p.m.

Thursday, July 19: Up at 1:30 a.m. – Bed by 5 p.m.

Friday, July 20: Up at 1 a.m.

I’ve been burned badly in the past by jet lag, so I’ve refined this system over the past few years. And it works pretty well. What I did differently this time: Half-hour increments instead of full hour changes. Which meant the process took longer but was less painful.

Time-shifting wasn’t really a problem until this week. I’ve not had problems getting up in the mornings. But getting to sleep on time was difficult.

There are other little tricks: Avoid caffeine, for example. And don’t go out in the sun in the afternoons. Likewise, I’ll want to get up Sunday morning in Nairobi and get out into the sun as quickly as possible. Sunlight triggers a chemical in your skin called melatonin that helps reset your body clock.

Right now, I’m a little tired. But I’ll have plenty of time to sleep on the plane.

Working at the breakfast table at 4:30 a.m. today.

I’ve kept busy during the wee hours of the mornings by refining my slide shows for next week, by knocking out a bunch of other commitments — some freelance work and judging a college design contest, for example.

And getting ahead on birthday posts for my blog. I don’t want to have to take a time out to write up birthday posts while I’m on the road. As of this week, they’re all written through Aug. 18, as a matter of fact.

Normally, I rely on my wife, Sharon, to help me pack and to take care of a bunch of little details. This time, however, she was out of town — in Richmond for a teaching conference. So I’ve had to be extra-careful when making my schedule and packing checklist for yesterday and today.

I didn’t pack — Sharon’s much better than I am at reducing wrinkles and such — so I laid out stuff for her to pack this morning. Which she did. I’m all set to go now.

One fairly large — but hopefully weighing under 50 lbs. — checked bag, one carry-on and my computer bag. That’s about as light as I can travel on an extended trip like this.

I’ve learned long ago that no one cares what you look like on an airplane — especially when you’ll be flying for nearly 24 hours. So these days I wear the most comfortable clothes I can find. Today, that’s a T-shirt — with a breast pocket for my iPod — warmup pants and my usual sneakers.

In my carry-on bag, I have an extra T-shirt, socks and underwear so I can change on the plane or in Paris.

I’ll soon be on my way. Naturally, I’ll keep you posted.