Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Kick the Can

I tend to mentally map the people I know into distinct groups. There's "The Family," "The Whole Sick Crew" (formerly "The Wheaton Gang"), "The Wash U Crowd", and more. This past weekend I was visited by David Nevel, a member in good standing of "The Minnesota Friends." My geographical domination continues to expand as more and more people are drawn into my net.

This was David's first-ever trip to the West Coast, so I wanted to make it a good one. We did some pre-trip planning that nailed down a couple of possibilities. David's an introvert like me, which just makes it the more critical that we work things out ahead of time; otherwise the risk is too great that the trip will be filled with conversations like the following:
"What do you want to do?"
"I don't know, what do you want to do?"
(Repeat as necessary.)

His flight got in Friday afternoon. By now I'm an old hand at navigating the airport, and after a smooth operation he was retrieved and deposited at my apartment. I scurried back to work for an all-hands meeting, then came back to find him dominating The Simpsons Hit & Run (certainly the finest Simpsons game I have ever played, and one of the better GTA clones).

That night we geeked out and attended X3, after first having some tasty Pizza My Heart pizza. It was a fun movie - it's been a while since I saw the first two, both of which I also saw in the theater, but I think this was up there in quality with the other two. The crowd was a good one, very quiet throughout the flick but very appreciative afterwards. We stayed behind for the critical shot after the credits.

We continued the nerd march at home with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. The game, which came out shortly after I moved to Illinois, is one of our favorites, and amazingly enough neither of us had seen it yet. So that was fun. It felt incredibly nostalgic to see all of the old party re-appearing from the game. Cloud sort of looked like a weenie, but his motorcycle's sword rack was awesome. The night wrapped up with some conversation and David's introduction to the distilled joy that is Guitar Hero.

If I could describe one common thread in all of my Minnesota-era celebrations, it would be "staying up late." Granted, "late" in those days had a different meaning than it would in college, but still... whether I was hanging out with friends from church or school, our nights had a tendency to end up the same way, with us ingesting enough caffeine to keep our eyes open through the marathon binges of Monty Python or MST3K as we slipped in and our of consciousness until everyone had collapsed in a stupor. I've noticed that we still tend to slip into this mode when we get back together. I didn't get to bed before 2AM a single night, which, while not nearly as late as I regularly reached at Wash U, is several hours past my customary bedtime these days.

Saturday, I still woke up relatively early, but forced myself back to sleep a few times before eventually rousing. David managed to snooze until noon, after which we decided to brunch at the inimitable Southern Kitchen, and he saw firsthand how large their breakfast sausages are. This was paired with a mini-tour of Los Gatos, culminating in the now-traditional swing by my office.

One specific activity which David was interested in was the Winchester Mystery House, the sprawling and bizarre mansion built by the Winchester widow over most of her life. I'd come here with my family during our trip to California a decade ago, and looked forward to returning. It was pretty busy, probably due to the Memorial Day weekend, but rather than shove a lot of people together they were keeping groups fairly small, which did mean a bit of a wait until our tour started. We used the time well, though, looking through a few museums on the grounds and touring the extensive and very attractive gardens.

Our actual tour went well. I remembered many of the comments from my previous visit, but this guide seemed quite a bit better than the one my family got, and she generally sounded interested in the house. Besides the neat stories, it's just a lot of fun to go tramping through such an odd house. Everyone else we went with seemed to enjoy it as well.

After the main tour, we stayed around for the "Behind the Scenes" tour. This one, which I hadn't been on before, was less fantastical but in some ways more interesting; it included visits to the various outbuildings and comments on the house's agricultural role, as well as an excursion to the basement and discussions of the house's gas system, the foundation which allowed it to survive both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, the boiler and a bunch of other things. It was pretty cool to hear about the engineering behind such an edifice.

It was nearly six when we were all finished, but we still had a few hours of daylight left, so we headed east. One of David's quests for this trip was to taste West Coast fast food, which one of his friends (not me!) had greatly praised. I never pass up an excuse to visit In 'n Out, which is sadly far from home but happened to be on the route to the Diablo range. We grabbed some burgers and shakes and I regaled him with my In 'n Out trivia while we chowed down. We then continued east, driving up Mount Hamilton road for an impressive view of the valley. Well, valleys: Santa Clara on the way up, and the impressively green interior past the range. We paused for some photos in both places, then chased the sun westward to get back home.

That night... hm. I'm drawing a blank here so it must've been good. We hit up Homestar Runner, I remember that... probably more talking and movies besides.

Sunday was the designated San Francisco day. We got a slightly earlier start to the day, doing my traditional Sunday doughnuts before piling into the car. I'd decided to do the 101/Millbrae/BART route into SF, for reasons I addressed in an earlier post: it's faster, gets us right into downtown, and has less delay on the return trip. Traffic was pretty decent on the road; I'm guessing people had already done their Memorial Day travelling. BART was also light until we got to 16th street, when Carnaval revelers piled on.

Our first destination, at David's suggestion, was Twin Peaks. Unlike my previous trip, it was a sunny day; David had wanted to see the ocean, and figured this was a good way to get a look without spending an hour round trip going to Ocean Beach. We ducked out of BART at Civic Center, took the N back south to Castro, then caught the old 37 bus. After a very steep ascent and then a brief but equally steep hike, we were standing on top of the southern peak.

It felt incredibly good to be standing up there under the warm sun, with clear views all around. In one respect, it was just like my previous trip: it was still extremely windy. We struck dramatic poses and I pointed out some of the landmarks. We then headed over to the north peak for better views of downtown and the bridges. This one appeared to be more popular; we met a few other groups of people and exchanged camera shots. Finally, triumphantly, we descended back to the 37 and took our positions.

The next stop was Fisherman's Wharf, an area decried by the natives as being overly touristy but one that can be nice for visitors, as long as you stay close to the water and away from "Ripley's Believe It Or Not," the wax museum and other tourist trap pits. The only real way to get there was on the F line, a nice line of historic trolley cars that runs from Market Street up the Embarcadero to the Wharf. We took the Muni up to the last Market Street stop, crossed over to the ferry building, and waited.

And waited.

Then waited some more.

We'd counted four cars going in the opposite direction without a single trolley coming to our stop. Others nearby were getting restless, speculating out loud about damaged tracks or broken trolleys. We waited quite a while before deciding it had been long enough and just walking there, secretly convinced that it would pull up as soon as we left.

As it turns out, we made it all the way to the Wharf before the first trolley came, so that was nice. The walk was pleasant though long - if you have access to a San Francisco map, check out how far it is from the Ferry Building to Pier 39 and you'll have a good idea what a trek it was. Anyways, what I like about that walk is that there's only water to your right, which means no through streets, which means no waiting to cross intersections. As always the streets were filled with other people, so it felt very relaxing and fun. I kept playing tour guide, pointing out Coit Tower and summarizing Bill O'Reilly's desire that Al Quaeda blow it up.

We eventually made it. Pier 39 was pretty crowded, but other than a fire-eater I didn't see any of the promised Memorial Day Weekend activities. We may have come too late, it was after five by now. We got to the far end of the pier and checked out the seals, who were pretty lazy. We continued to walk along the waterfront, taking in the bay, before eventually stopping at the same restaurant I had previously visited with Mom and Dad. Their dinner was a bit pricier than the lunch had been, but the food tasted even better, and we greatly enjoyed the clam chowder (sadly absent sourdough bread bowls), bruschetta, and an excellent salmon pasta dish. A talented jazz trio provided wonderful atmosphere, and we soaked up plenty of sun in our window seats.

Of course, after walking all that way, why WOULDN'T we want to go to Ghirardelli's? We walked through a park and went the few blocks to the wonderful confectioners' place, but were brought up short by the sight of the enormous line that stretched out the door and wound almost the entire length of Ghirardelli Square. As usual, though, the chocolate store portion had a much shorter line, so we went in and got our free samples. I'm always torn with indecision in there. The first time I went, with Pat's friends, I didn't get anything; when I went with my parents I got some Easter-themed miniature chocolate bunnies; this time, I picked up a tin with an assortment of dark chocolates. I'm always tempted by the large variety bags, but for some reason it's mentally difficult for me to spend $20 on a bag of chocolate, though I don't have similar qualms at spending slightly smaller amounts to get less chocolate. David was a good son and picked up some mint chocolate for his parents, as well as a milk chocolate bar and some fudge for himself. We decided that this would be sufficient dessert and started the long journey home.

I figured that by now they would have fixed whatever was wrong with the F line. I was right, mainly. We were able to get on a functioning trolley that would take us back, but the psychotic driver insisted on squeezing in more passengers than were physically capable of occupying the space. After several tortured minutes, I thought I saw the outline of the Ferry Building ahead, and asked David if he was ready to get off. He said yes, and we did; it was only then that I realized I had mistaken the Pier 33 building for our destination. That was slightly disappointing, but it was still much more pleasant walking than riding, so we returned on foot. We did the last jog in the Muni, then reclaimed BART for the way back.

One safely home, I fired up a miniature comedy festival, introducing David to Stella and Mitch Hedberg, and revisiting "A Very Venture Christmas." Around 11:30 we patronized the 24-hour "Jack in the Box" near my home, the first time I had ever been to one - they have a few in Illinois and around St. Louis, but are mainly a western chain. I got the Sourdough Jack, which is a bacon cheeseburger on a sourdough bun... it was no In 'n Out, but was certainly tasty. David kept the faith with the Original Jack. The evening ended with a roadhouse tour through the wonderful world of San Andreas, which had occupied a surprisingly large portion of our conversation over the weekend. (Every time I return to San Francisco, I grow even more in awe at their depiction of San Fierro.) We spun around San Fierro for a while, tricked out some hidden cars, did a series of two-player rampages, getting up to five stars each time before biting it. David showed me where the jumbo jet is, as well as the attack helicopter and some other fun aircraft. I spent about ten minutes shooting down police helicopters and army planes while somehow never rising above three wanted stars; David did a ground assault and got all the way up to five in under a minute.

Monday was our earliest morning yet, since we figured the plane would probably not wait for David. There was enough time, though, to squeeze in a quick round of DDR. I've been playing it intermittently for two and a half years while David has just recently gotten into it, though he has already unlocked more content in DDR Extreme than I have. We had a short set of three dances: we were very closely matched on the first two songs, but I pulled ahead on the third for the win. Our adreneline was now sufficiently advanced for the trip to the airport, and so the weekend drew to a close.

As always, it was fun having someone else to share my space with. Every person who comes has slightly different interests, so I rarely feel like I'm repeating myself. It almost feels like I get to take vacations year-round now, and I derive as much pleasure playing host as I hope my guests get. Anyways, fun round, and it's nice to put another notch in my belt as Northern California Ambassador.

For photos of the trip, check out the incandescent sprinkles.

UPDATE 6/4/06: Also, David has posted his photos. They're better than mine.


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