Saturday, April 04, 2015

Bus Trip to Galway (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Not Break the CD Into a Thousand Pieces)

I just want to sleep.

That's my sentiment pretty much every day at 6am, but especially when I'm in another country on vacation. I do not want to be awake.

Today's adventure is a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, which are big and nature-ish and cliff-like and on the other side of the island. So we boarded a bus at 6:50 in the morning, bound for Galway.

I'm not great at sleeping in transit, but was tired enough that while I couldn't sleep, my attempts to stay awake by reading were pretty much useless. Not in that I actually fell asleep for any appreciable length of time, but more in that I'll have to re-read a bunch of things because it was all an incoherent jumble.

We stopped briefly in Athlone for some coffee, and then it was on to Galway by about 10am for a short tour of the city by a tour guide who, though very good at her job, was also at least an order of magnitude more awake than everyone she was dealing with.

Happily, Galway is relatively small and walkable, so running around the streets was pretty doable, even for a big large touristy group that is clearly a big large group of tourists. We were brought to a market street (appropriately, on Market Street) and were given the option of splitting off to either buy things in the market or walk around St. Nicholas' Church, which is big and very old and very made of stone. I wound up in the church (which had a huge number of memorial plaques and was getting ready for Easter services), while Marina and Alice headed off to the market. So good times for all.

After corralling the group, we boarded the bus again (minus two people, evidently) for the trip up the coast to the Cliffs of Moher with a few brief stops along the way to get out, walk to smaller cliff-like structures and take in the natural beauty of the place, mostly in the form of people taking pictures of it. Not that I was immune to that.

I assume this is from the future cover of an album of terrible smooth jazz I will make at some point.
We got a brief stop in a pub who clearly deals mostly with big obnoxious tour buses and continued to the Cliffs up roads that I'm really, really glad I wasn't driving on.

We were told, when we arrived, that we'd have two hours, and couldn't understand what we'd need all that time for.

As it turns out, we'd need that time for running around and looking at things. Which was incredible. I know that most of this has been repeated insistences that I don't have the ability to describe any of the scenery in anything close to a grand enough manner, and this isn't any different.

Look at this. This is nonsense.

One thing that this side-trip did teach us is that Skye was effectively deserted when we were there. It was awesome. Sure, there were some folks that we thought might break into our car and some awkward co-tenants at the B&B, but overall, there were just very few people. The Cliffs, on the other hand, have something like a dozen or so busloads of people, so while it's beautiful, there are just a ton of people running around doing things. Which is fine, but makes actually using the pathways a little slow and inconvenient.

Also, I've learned that my fear of heights seems to be based on whether the heights are man-made? I guess? I usually don't like heights at all, but as a city-dweller in a very flat part of the country, I'm more likely to encounter heights in the context of a building. For some reason, I was much more comfortable near the cliff edge. I have no idea why that should be the case.

We blew through our two hours and were back on the bus to Galway, and then to Dublin. At this point, the lack of sleep caught up with me and my attempts to stay awake to Dublin by listening to an audiobook were foiled; I drifted in and out and was absolutely baffled by the time we got to Galway. The trip back to Dublin was three hours, but it was three hours with the same four songs on what I assume is just a collection of traditional music that we'd had all day. We got off on the north bank of the Liffey and I swore that if I ever heard another about ripples in the rockpools I would set fire to something.

We crossed over into Temple Bar, which was orders of magnitude more lively. Street bands, pubs full of people, and general chaos. First things first, we went and bought the bottle of Talisker, then found a Mongolian BBQ restaurant (which helped my mood immensely, as I was still in a foul state after the bus ride),  We stopped by one of the less-crazily-populated pubs as it felt like we were more or less required to, then hailed a cab and headed for the hotel.

And that's it. That's pretty much our trip. Alice will continue on to other destinations, but we're headed home. Both Ireland and Scotland were great, but I'm also really looking forward to vehicles being on the side of the road I'm accustomed to.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Everything's Closed

The cab driver was sort of wrong!

Mostly still right though.

Our day started with a walk toward the city center, and here I should point out that Marina and Alice put a lot more faith in my Cub Scout-level sense of orienteering than they probably should. Happily, there are a bunch of signs indicating where the city center is, so we figured we'd walk that way and hope that we ran into something. Tomorrow's an early day, and we'd been hearing that everything will be closed, so we figured it'd be a relatively early night.

Happily, we eventually ran into the Trinity College gym! Which was not terribly exciting. But which was connected to the rest of Trinity College, which seemed to fit our goal of something that was both interesting to walk around and, more importantly, actually open. After some brief consideration of joining a walking tour (which we decided against in favor of standing within earshot of one for a few minutes), it occurred to us to check out the Library and the Book of Kells, because that seemed the sort of thing we were supposed to do as tourists.

Unfortunately, mostly every other thing was closed, so the closest we got to experiencing the majesty and beauty of the Library was in seeing the majesty of the line from across the courtyard. And that's sort of fine.

After a quick lunch, we did something that I'd been resisting. I know that earlier in this series, I'd mentioned that I've been trying to get over my aversion to being a super obvious tourist despite clearly being a tourist, but I'd resisted the hop-on/hop-off buses. Until now. Marina and Alice argued successfully for it (reasoning that among the things that were open, most closed early for Good Friday, so it made sense in terms of seeing things quickly and as a means of transport).

Cliche of riding around on a giant bus and staring at things aside, it actually served its purpose. If nothing else, it was a quick and easy background of a few of the locations we'd intended to swing by later in the day, along with constant reminders that everything was closed and that it was odd to stop at Guinness and Jameson and have no one get on or off the bus. Still, covered more ground than we'd have been able to on foot, even if we wound up more or less back where we started.

We walked around the things that were open by virtue of being impossible to close (the exterior of Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral), through what I understand is a very subdued version of the Temple Bar area and into a bunch of touristy shops (one of which we learned was open until 9, so we'd head back there for late-night-for-Good-Friday-I-Guess souvenir shopping after dinner).

We actually wound up staying out a bit later than expected. Before heading back to our hotel, we stopped in at a grocery store to find some water, some prawn flavored snacks and, behind the counter and unavailable to buy today because of the alcohol ban, the bottle of Talisker that we'd lost at the airport! Success! We'll have to revisit tomorrow after getting back from the other side of the island.

We headed home, with Marina and Alice again trusting that I knew where I was going. Surprisingly, I actually did (allowing for a short detour the long way around St. Stephen's Green.) Dublin is really, really walkable, and walking home allowed a lot of opportunities for getting to hear what appears to be some sounds from Space Invaders, which apparently is used for the "It's safe to cross now" sound at pedestrian crossings. I'm a fan.

The hotel bar is actually packed, as apparently hotel bars are exempted from the alcohol sales prohibition, so everyone who's staying here is currently down there.

For us though, it's late and tomorrow, we've got to be up at 5:30 to make it to the bus that will take us to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

And Turn Her Down the Rocky Road

Having left Talisker, the road out from Skye was significantly easier and quicker. Part of that is getting used to driving a car that's much nicer than what I drive at home on narrow roads on the other side while lumber trucks trundle along. Part of that was Alice and Marina's Co-Driving experience using our finely tuned "How's my left? How's my left?" system, which I really think is probably basically what happens during actual rallies. Part of that its that for the first time since we got to Scotland, it's actually nice out. And part of that is that we have a flight to catch.

We made good time getting off the islands and were able to stop a few times along the way. There are a bunch of little pull-off points on the way back, I assume expressly for the purpose of getting cleanly off the road while you gape at the majesty of the place. We swung by the Eileen Donan Castle, where a surprisingly large number of people were eating lunch in the parking lot and we made it to Fort William, where we stopped for lunch.

Potatoes, and because I'm a ridiculous tourist and this was our last meal in Scotland, I went with the haggis, which is fine. It's like sausage. I enjoyed it, but I don't know where this "This food is strange and alien" pearl-clutching attitude comes from. Or, rather, I don't know how to square the "but it's innards" attitude with the fact that hot dogs exist and are sold widely. Everyone calm down.

The rest of the drive was relatively uneventful. We went back past Loch Lomond, where we encountered traffic (due to a ridiculous lumber truck that was too wide for the road) and made it back to Alice's dorm.

Here's the issue. It was around 7. Flight's at 8:45, but Alice is going to run around Europe for a bit after this, so she needed to pack. I returned the car on my own (completely without the How's my Left? system to which I'd become accustomed) and ran back to Alice's dorm. Marina and Alice were finishing packing, and early on in the process, we'd decided to try to check one of our bags for the flight to Dublin, so that we could bring all the things we bought.

We flagged down a cab, had to stop by the car rental place to check on something because I'm a paranoid idiot, and headed off to the airport, arriving at about 8:20. Way, way later than we'd intended.

Baggage check in was closed.

We went through security, which was speedy and efficient, but we couldn't check our bag. Which had a bottle of whisky in it.

I want to say that the security guys were reasonable. They had to confiscate it, but told us we'd be able to pick it up (or have someone pick it up) for a £20/day storage fee.

And I don't know. We were upset about it. I don't know why we were upset. But we were.

It's not like it's the money, really. It was an expensive bottle, one that I wouldn't normally have allowed myself to buy, but attempts to save it would have probably been more expensive than the effort was worth (that is, pay for one of Alice's friends to take a cab to the airport, pick it up, and take it back). It's not that. It's that we'd just done this thing that a few days ago had seemed like it might not be possible. We'd made it to Skye, through the mountains and the hail and the unfamiliar driving and we had done it even though we could have gotten a tour bus to do this for us. We'd rushed to get back, and it was tight but seemed so doable. And avoidable; the decision to bring it at all was a last-minute one based on a very rosy idea of how long it'd take to get to the airport.

It's silly. The bottle we'd bought was available at Binny's (though it was a cut that you'd have to ask them to order, but still, available). And it's not like we even drink, really. But for some reason, after the stress of the drive and the rush to the airport, it stung. It wasn't about the object; that's silly. And I'm aware that this sounds really, really dumb and that of all the things to possibly worry about or be disappointed by, this is way, way far down on even the most banal list of things-that-you-absolutely-shouldn't-worry about. It was a souvenir. It doesn't show up on any sort of hierarchy of actual needs I'm aware of, and of all the problems to have while traveling, I'd pick this one every time.

We got through security, we went to the gate and asked if there were anything they could do, but no. So we boarded the plane, we flew to Dublin, and we got off toward the line of taxis.

We found one, and it was great to be both on the left side of the road and not to be the one driving. We mentioned where we were headed, and the cab driver seemed astonished that we'd chosen to fly into Dublin.

"Tomorrow's Good Friday. Everything will be closed."

That hadn't even occurred to me, and so the first thing that we encountered upon landing in Ireland is that, as the one Catholic member of our merry band, I'd failed to foresee that.

Oh well, we're in Dublin and will see whether the cab driver was right about everything being closed tomorrow.

Hunt the Hare

So, a bunch of things happened. In the end, we're safe in Dublin, though it got a little close and emotional at the end. But let's start in the morning.

We woke up at around 8 and started getting ready for breakfast. Historically, when we've been staying somewhere that includes breakfast (which for the most part means toast and coffee and surly co-inhabitants of the inn), getting down to breakfast is not even sort of a priority. Here, we were in a legit B&B with a lovely innkeeper who we'd already sort of angered by showing up past check in (which is totally reasonable; she was very, very forgiving, and we were lucky in that aspect as the other option would have been to just not let us stay). She was cooking breakfast and she'd mentioned 8:30, so damn it, we were going to be downstairs at 8:30.

So, things that are different about this from our usual lodging experience: Home cooked meal in an adorable little dining room filled with home-made jams and marmalades.

Things that are the same: surly co-tenants.

Everyone just sort of kept to themselves, which is absolutely fine by me. I have never been one for talking to strangers while eating eggs, and I'm cool with having that be what happened.

We mentioned our plans to the innkeeper: head up to Dunvegan Castle (the ancestral home of the MacLeods, meaning mostly that if I were going to make a Highlander joke, I should have done it here), then head down to Glasgow to make our flight at 8:45pm. We'd have to miss going to a series of waterfalls called the Fairy Pools, but the map we had actually showed where the castle was and ignored the pools, so that's what we planned on.

The innkeeper disagreed, and I think I should note that her sentiment seemed in line with most of the other Scottish Tourism folks we talked to.

Unless we were MacLeods, she suggested, the castle's a castle. Do the Fairy Pools instead.

I like that people who are directly involved with Scottish Tourism and recommending things for wayward tourists are just very done with castles. I hope, at one point, that I'll be able to return the favor; I'll get someone walking up to me and asking me my opinion for where to go, and offering up a suggestion of what the Travel Book suggested and I'll get to say "You know what? Navy Pier's fine and all, but do something else."

We took her suggestion (and a map she made, which had all of the points of interest we wanted to see on it) and headed south to the Fairy Pools.

Another dinner-table-width road, but to be honest I'm getting kind of used to those, and this one was only four miles. And I think we were unprepared. We pulled into the parking lot and headed down a dirt path.

Well, mud path. It's been raining for days.

And again, I'm not a good enough writer (or photographer) to really explain the scenery.  It's waterfalls and mountains and streams and a few little rock-bridges and you should go there.

It was absolutely gorgeous. Our shoes did not agree. We underestimated the amount of hiking required, and so my sneakers are in dire-but-stable condition at the moment. Marina's boots were pretty well coated (though more easily cleanable). So, we decided, let's stop at the nearest place where there's probably a restroom to clean up before we start our trip south.

And because we're in a magical wonderland filled with merriment, the closest place that we knew fit that description and was open to the public was the Talisker Distillery, the only whisky distillery on the island.

Side note: when we were delayed by the hail and the snow, there were a few things we were each a little sad about not getting to get to do or see. Marina was a little sad because if we flipped over into a ditch, we probably wouldn't get to buy some local-dyed yarn. Alice was sad because she'd been looking forward to the Fairy Pools (though until this morning we didn't have much of an idea of how to get to them). And I was sad because I'd gone to Scotland and was going to be leaving without going to a distillery.

But we'd bought yarn in Portree. We'd managed time for the Fairy Pools by cutting out the just-another-castle. And now we were going to Talisker! Everybody wins.

The next tour wasn't for a few hours, but we were able to walk around a bit, and there's a bit of an exhibition on how they do things in the visitor's center, so that was nice. And then, Alice and Marina convinced me to buy a bottle of Talisker to take home as a gift, but that we should really get going. So we did, we made plans to open it once Alice returned to Chicago in a few months, and were on our way.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Road to Skye: Part 2

It's a new day, and we're doing much better than last night. We stopped in for coffee at Costa and headed off to the Tourist Information Center, where we met a very nice woman who had never been where we're going and had no advice for how to get there. We'd heard there was a smoother, flatter road that went to a ferry in Mallaig, but the ticket website appeared to indicate that the early morning ferry was sold out, and that the first available ferry would be at 4pm

That's fine. Skye's roads aren't going to be any better, so I might as well get used to it. Part of the issue is that the car we were driving is significantly wider than the car I normally drive, so I don't really have a good sense of how far to the left my car goes. Also, the roads are generally pretty narrow, and there are huge lumber trucks that come flying down them as close to the far right of their lane as possible. 

So we worked out a system. Marina and Alice served as both navigators (in the sense of watching where the GPS was demanding we go) and an externalization of my sense of where the left of the car was. This was accomplished through the following exchange whenever a truck went flying by. 

Ryan (panicked): "How's my left? How's my left?"

Marina and Alice: "It's fine. Still fine."

Repeat for every truck. 

We headed off into the highlands, passing Glenfinnan, which had amazing views and also the bridge from Harry Potter (the Glenfinnan Viaduct, if you're into the proper names for things), which everyone was excited about. There's also a monument across the road topped with a statue of an anonymous Highlander, though to be honest I was too worried about my left, even when stopped, to learn more about that until later.

By "anonymous Highlander", I'm going to allow myself to make the obvious and overdone joke.
It's Christopher Lambert.

I should note that now that we were a little more confident in driving, the Highlands are just ridiculously gorgeous. These are almost certainly both the largest mountains I've seen to date and the closest I've interacted with them. 

We drove along, following the GPS, noting that the roads aren't really that bad. And then the GPS had a big straight line.

It had taken us to Mallaig, to get on the ferry.

That's total drive time if you go from Fort William to Portree by going an hour out of the way first.

This is why we shouldn't rely on the GPS. 

To be fair to Garmin, it's not like it's a bad assumption. There are usually ferries every half hour, and Mallaig is closer than driving up to Invergarry and turning to go through Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye Bridge. But they only do that on the Summer Schedule, which starts Friday. When we'll be in Dublin.

Nothing to do but turn around, head to Fort William, and continue up through the more dangerous course. We were still able to use the GPS by putting in much smaller sections of highway (so, rather than Fort William to Portree, we entered Fort William to Invergarry, then Invergarry to Kyle of Lochalsh, then across to Kyleakin, because not doing so resulted in the GPS screaming at us to turn around and get on the ferry that wasn't running).

We actually made much better time going back. The roads were starting to feel like the Western Pennsylvania roads I grew up driving on. Aside from the "drive on the left" thing, it felt more familiar.

We managed to make it to Kyleakin, which apparently has otters. Or, at least, statues of otters and emblems of otters. So some connection to the otter.

See? I would not lie to you about otters.
The occupant of the ever-present Tourist Information Center advised that our plan to go up to Portree and then around the island to get to our accommodations in Dunvegan on the other side was fine, and agreed that driving on the side you're not used to is confusing. He also recommended that we drive out onto the Trotternish peninsula to get a look at a few of the sights, and then cut across the road that runs across the middle.

We drove up to Portree, bought some yarn, got dinner and continued on.

In the next post, adventures around the Trotternish Peninsula, and finally making it to Dunvegan.


I should, I guess, discuss the geography of what we're doing here. Skye is sort of like a big hand/claw sort of thing, with our point of entry being near the wrist, where the Skye Bridge connects it to the rest of Scotland. Off of the palm, there are a number of little peninsulas, with roads looping out to encircle them. There's a large-ish (in the sense that it was largely two-or-so lanes) road that connects most of the towns and much, much smaller roads that head off in other directions.

When we last left off, we were driving into Portree (going around the palm counter-clockwise), and I cannot overstate how exciting it was to be at something that's sort of like a destination. The roads in Portree were small, but for once, there were buildings and curbs to the far side of my car that I was so worried about, and not cliffs and rocks and the sea.

We managed to make it to a parking lot (A lot! Full of other cars! That weren't going ninety miles an hour on the side I don't expect them to be on!), learned that parking was free because we were still in the off season (as indicated by the ferry that didn't exist) and proceeded to tourist the hell out of the local shops. 

What followed was a flurry of commemorative magnets (of the bridge that got us onto Skye, which for us had gone from "fun side-trip" to "mystical promised land" after the realities of trying to drive several hours in a strange country set in) and skeins of yarn (dyed nearby, and potentially made from some of the sheep that I'd learned to dodge, though no one would guarantee that) and langoustines, which I really think that if you're going to serve, "Norway Lobsters" is a more exciting name than "langoustines". 

We had been advised to check out the western side of the Trotternish Peninsula, then circle back down, cutting across the road that bisected the landmass and continue on to Dunvegan, where we were staying. So we did that. 

And I can't actually describe what it looked like. I thought about trying, and a better writer (or even someone who wrote about travel more than once every four years) could do it, but I can't. 

It was silly. Let's go with that. 

We were able to get out of the car in a few designated pull off spaces (which were every few hundred yards, because whoever made this tiny road realized that a bunch of tourists are going to do exactly that). Past the Old Man of Storr, stopping at the Lealt Gorge (where we may have gotten paranoid about some other tourists seemingly hanging out next to our car a little too much as we were out looking at things) and up through to Kilt Rock, which had the actual rock, a few big signs about a dinosaur they'd found near the rock and a Scottish Terrier because apparently we were in a tourism ad.

The Lealt Gorge. Just off to the right, people looking at the things in our car.

We're staying at a B&B, so after leaving Kilt Rock we thought it would be best to get to Dunvegan before it was too late, in part so that we were able to check in, and in part because while the 1.5 lanes of road were fine in the daylight, we were very nervous about driving around in the dark. So we took the advice of the tourism guy from Kyleakin. We took the cross-peninsula road.

This was a bad idea.

As it turns out, the road across the peninsula is a less-than-one-lane road that's more of an asphalt hiking trail where there's really no point in having a turn if it isn't a hairpin. We were on the Quiraing, a flat-out gorgeous hillside that a friend who we'd consulted about the trip before going had hiked around and which was bounded on either side either by very steep drop-offs, sizeable ditches and just a lot of sheep. More sheep than I'm usually comfortable driving through.

Pictured: Terror

We made our way painfully slowly through the six miles of seriously narrower than most parking spaces terrain, looking up from time to time to take in the gorgeous views but for the most part terrified about what would happen if we hit a ditch, or that we'd continue to get lost and wind up on this dinner-table-width path in the dark. We made it, passing one other vehicle (a delivery truck for a brewery, which seemed to be doing fine), and wound up winding through a bunch of tiny mountainside roads that weren't on the map until we made it to the highway. 

Well, "highway".

Unfortunately, it was late. We sped on to Dunvegan where we were greeted by our mildly-perturbed but really astonishingly pleasant considering we were showing up an hour after check-in B&B host, shown to our room and collapsed from the strain of actually having made it here alive. 

I feel awful about showing up late, but we did it. We drove to Skye. And I didn't get us run over by a lumber truck. Or a swarm of sheep. Sheep travel in swarms, right?

Tomorrow, we get to do what took us two days in around six hours in order to not miss the flight to Dublin.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Road to Skye: Part 1

I am writing this having survived the first half of our journey.

That's the most important part.

We picked up a car from Budget (which had some attendant confusion over how much they'd wanted to charge when we booked the car, versus how much they wanted to charge now that we were picking the car up) and were presented with a Mercedes-Benz A180 with the steering wheel on the right-hand side and very little instruction beyond that.

In the city, it actually wasn't too bad. It's a bit disorienting, but we were able to make it through more or less by driving infuriatingly slowly, following the cars in front of us and praising the miracles of the divided highway, which allowed me to pretend I was still on the side of the road that I've driven my entire life.

We managed to get to Stirling Castle, continuing our Castle Tour of Scotland and if I'm being honest, I think we had a better time there than in Edinburgh. The weather was much better, and the crowd was significantly smaller which helped. A short lunch at the castle-adjacent cafe and we were off into the Highlands.

Here's the thing about what we attempted. It's disorienting to drive on the left, with the car set up differently. It's disorienting to drive through the mountains. And it's disorienting to drive through hail.

So, yeah.

We took a small detour to Loch Lomond, but the weather had turned against us and we were unable to actually get out and appreciate it. Oh well, onward and upward.

It went reasonably ok for the most part, though I was driving roughly half the speed limit, infuriating well meaning Scottish drivers who just wanted to get on their way. Happily, they were able to pass and drive off like madmen. That's fine. It was all going well until a long stretch through the Ben Nevis range where we briefly skidded in what was now snow. No big deal, no damage, just a bit of a scare. By a bit of a scare, I mean we all sort of panicked for a while and I didn't know if I was going to be able to get us either to Skye or back to Glasgow. Maybe we'd just set up camp in the rental car and live on the mountain.

Once we got up the courage to keep going, we decided to take the hit on the B&B that we'd booked, and stopped in the next town we came to, which was Fort William.

Happily, there was room at the Travelodge and a nifty little seafood restaurant called the Crannog on the water, and a place to park the car where I didn't have to drive it anymore for the night.

Urgh. Onward to Skye in the morning, though I'm nervous about how we'll get back in time.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Scotland Trip: Edinburgh, Part 1

Oh hey, it's time for Edinburgh. Edinbrurur. Brubururuh.

As it turns out, the bus system between Glasgow and Edinburgh is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. Pay some money while still jet-lagged. Sit on a bus for an hour. Get off in a daze near a Tesco.

After going into the Tesco to stock up on provisions (which for the purposes of this trip meant ridiculous chocolate bars and variously flavored chips), we headed up to Edinburgh Castle to begin our day.

Here's the thing about historically important sites; they tend to be really inconvenient to get to. We went through this during the trip to Greece, where all of the really interesting pars are located on big steep hills made of marble. Edinburgh Castle is not on a hill made of marble, but it is on a really big hill and I'm convinced we took the steepest route to the top (evidenced later by our relatively easy hike up the Royal Mile).

Steepness aside, I presume the castle warded off invaders with awful weather and a really long, really slow moving line for admission. Admission lines are to be expected, but something about the outdoor nature of this one, followed by the outdoor nature of much of the castle, meant that by the time we got our tickets (and a touristy guidebook, because we've sort of stopped bothering with the pretense that we're not the most touristy tourists), the main goal was "find somewhere in this historical marvel where it's even sort of warm."

Which was good. We found a room with a model of the castle and a bunch of explanations of how historic everything was, but most critically, a small space heater. Happily, at this point we were able to look through the guidebook and found an entry on something called the "One O'Clock Gun", which is apparently a piece of artillery that's fired at 1pm. 

I say happily, because it meant we were slightly less startled. Still pretty startled, but a little less. There was a crowd gathering around, while a man in uniform prepared the gun, then stepped back to look at a clock, then went back up to the gun with a pocket watch, then fired the gun. Which is really loud. Everyone standing around had no form of ear protection, and we took our cue from them without really considering that everyone here is a tourist who has no idea how loud this will be.

The answer is really loud. 

We toured through the rest of the castle, encountering a choir in the Great Hall and walking through an exhibit about the Honours of Scotland (which was full of wax figures that were a little off-putting, but well enough put together as far as exhibits go) and headed off into town to find lunch.

Scotland Trip: Post 2

I always think I'm going to be better at jet lag than I actually am.

"It's only a six hour shift", I'll tell myself. "Sure, it'll be like being up all night, but I've done that before as recently as, let's say, 2004 (which is coincidentally when I took quantum).

I was wrong.

We arrived in Glasgow after a trip on a plane that was relying on propellers to get us here, which I had not considered before and which I'd probably have been more irrationally afraid of if I'd been in any sort of condition to comprehend what was going on.

Thankfully, I was out of it enough that the 45 minute flight was over before I could worry about it too much.

We managed to check in and intended to meet up with my sister-in-law, who's been here for a few months now and will be our guide for Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was noon. The day was ahead of us, and the sky was bright.

And then it was like 3:30.

I'm still very tired, but we were able to eventually get up and head out with Alice and got a nice walking tour of the University of Glasgow, a revelation in that the subway was evidently shut down for Sunday, a pleasant cab ride to the Glasgow Necropolis (which we'd even have been able to visit if we hadn't slept until it closed) and a bunch of walking through a shopping district, before making our way back to Ox and Finch (where we had a bunch of small plates, and also some fries) and back to the hotel in preparation for Edinburgh.

2015 Murphspot Mascot Bracket: Finale

How devoted am I to the completion of the Mascot Bracket? This special edition of the final matches is being posted from some sort of odd basement gate at Dublin International on a tablet, which Blogger seems to be struggling with. Updates to clean up the format will be completed soon. But the bracket must go on.

#13 Valparaiso Crusaders vs. #7 Wichita State Shockers

Considering that the Crusaders advanced to this point via clumsily thrown shield, I'm not entirely confident in their prospects. The thing is, for the most part, the shield is what the Crusader seems to rely on in terms of hand weapons. That works if he's Captain America. He is not Captain America.

His opponent, in the mean time, has acquired the ability to control plant life in the time since this bracket started. One could suggest that he's going to win by some sort of Wheat Sorcery, as he has so far, but I don't think that's the case here. 

Not a lot of people know this, but WuShock was the sixth of the Istari sent by the Valar to help stop Sauron. He's like Radagast, but wheatier.

Instead, one imagines that WuShock's attunement with crops would allow him to go after the Crusader's ability to feed himself and his comrades. The Crusader puts up a valiant effort, but in the end his reliance on grain products is his downfall. Mascot battle burns a lot of calories, and he won't be able to keep fighting for long.

Wichita State advances.

#9 Oklahoma State Cowboys vs #6 Xavier Musketeers

I see Pistol Pete as being pretty practical. He's wearing clothing appropriate to his setting, including a giant orange hat which not only shields him from the sun, but also allows other members of the Pistol Pete Contingent to easily locate him so that they don't wind up hitting his giant head while in the middle of the Rite of the Revolver.

The Musketeer is certainly jolly, but I think that at this point, he's going to be a bit too reliant on ceremony to succeed here. The Mascot Bracket is a fight in a gutter, and Pistol Pete's Neckerchief seems more suited to the environment than D'Artagnan the Musketeer's pillowy sleeves.

Oklahoma State advances.

#12 Wyoming Cowboys vs. #2 Virginia Cavaliers

Wyoming's Pistol Pete follows the general trend of cowboy-appropriate attire in conjunction with a carefree attitude, a giant improbable chin and a mustache like he's on the 1970's Oakland A's. There's a lot to support there and now that I've had to look back and forth between the myriad Pistol Petes in the tournament, Wyoming Pistol Pete has grown on me.

CavMan, on the other hand, varies between a doorknocker goatee and a Van Dyke based on the design of the character of the time. He's certainly got more military training than Pistol Pete, but I think his reliance on the sabre might be his downfall. While he's working out which crossbeam he can attach a rope to in order to dramatically swing in, Pistol Pete is at the ready with a six-shooter. It's the sort of "finesse vs. practicality" that I think we settled when Harrison Ford was ill that one time.

Wyoming advances.

#9 St. John's Red Storm vs. #14 UAB Blazers

St. John's has been skating along pretty well mostly on the novelty of their mascot/name. That's all well and good, though I do think that in electing to hire Johnny Thunderbird as their mascot, they may have missed out on a licensing opportunity with Marvel.

Actually, now that I write that, it seems like UAB could have done the same sort of licensing deal by appending "Johnny" (though through a less straightforward rationale than St. John's is employing), but if it results in an awful movie about the Human Torch fighting Ghost Rider, I'm sort of down. 

But that's not the world we live in. We live in the world of Johnny Thunderbird, whose tenacity I'm not really doubting, but who is, in the end, a bird. I just honestly can't see how to have a bird, even as one as interested in his car's sound system as Johnny Thunderbird, winning over a dragon.

UAB advances.

#7 Wichita State Shockers vs. #9 Oklahoma State Cowboys

WuShock has already defeated part of the Pistol Pete Triumvirate in combat, and I assume has absorbed his essence. 

Oh, also, new rule for 2015, the basic principles of Highlander can be instituted pretty much at will. Sword combat, the Quickening, Sean Connery playing a Spaniard, the whole thing. 

WuShock has probably absorbed a soul or two in his day.

So, given that, it seems as though WuShock would probably have learned enough from his victory over NMSU's Pistol Pete to thwart the OSU Pistol Pete. I'm a little sad to report that this won't end in a Pistol Pete-off, which I imagine would have been mostly about mustaches and bandoliers and whether or not Clint Eastwood's character in the "Man with No Name" trilogy was simply another incarnation of the Eternal Pete.

Wichita State advances.

#13 Wyoming Cowboys vs. #14 UAB Blazers

Things continue to look bleak for our Pete heroes. It's not impossible, here, that the Wyoming Pete could eke out a victory. He's overcome a few obstacles so far, and I refuse to count out anyone with a chin that mighty. And hey, maybe the "Blazers" name doesn't actually refer to the dragon itself. Maybe this is a fight between the Final Pete and a sports jacket.

But even then, it's not looking good. Wyoming Pete's sense of fashion will not be compromised, which is why he's no longer invited to formal-attire occasions. Sure, he misses out on some fine catering, but relinquishing his vest, his chaps and his big goofy hat would compromise who he is as a person.

In the end, whether he's fighting a garment or a dragon wearing the garment, there's no path forward for Pete. He yields, either to his determination to keep pulling off the cowboy look come hell or high water, or because Blaze breathes fire. One of the two.

UAB advances, and The Pistols Pete will have to try again in 2016.

#9 Wichita State Shockers vs. #14 UAB Blazers

And here we are. Dragon vs. Grain Elemental. And, I believe, two former Champions of the Murphspot Mascot Bracket. So, we don't have the pesky specter of "things that actually exist" hanging over our heads.

Over the last several years, and particularly in this bracket, WuShock has been built into some sort of Agricultural Menace, lording his power over both the flora he counts as subjects and over a bunch of well meaning Pistols Pete. 

I struggled with the outcome of this final Mascot Fight. Not only because this will be the first time in Mascot Bracket history (which I've apparently been doing since 2008) that a former victor reclaims the title, but because I'm hesitant to establish precedent that one of these mascots may become too powerful to be beaten in future brackets, unless some other school responds with a thresher or St. George, respectively.

In the end, though, the decision was clear. WuShock fought valiantly, along with his comrades (who I assume include sorghum, oats, barley and Ghostface Killah) but even his previous tactic of denying sustenance is unlikely to work here. I'm not sure that all dragons are carnivores, but Blaze certainly gives off that vibe. Also, I'm pretty sure wheat is flammable.

Blaze is victorious. The Bracket is at an End.
Your 2015 Murphspot Mascot Bracket Champions

Scotland Trip: Post 1

I have no idea how we're going to be awake at all this week.

It's currently around 12:30am as far as I'm concerned, but because Dublin is apparently closer than I thought it was, we're roughly an hour away from it being 7:30 in the morning and being corralled off of this plane. My position has long been that I hate long flights, but this whole "leave at 7pm, have the cabin lights dim for roughly an hour, and suddenly it's early morning and you haven't slept" seems like it might take some getting used to.

But hey, it's about time to be tired and trying to figure out the inner workings of the airport in Dublin so that we can get on another plane.

On the plus side, apparently the babies on Chicago to Dublin flights are remarkably well behaved. So we've got that going for us.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Murphspot Mascot Bracket 2015: Sweet Sixteen

#9 Purdue Boilermakers vs. #13 Valparaiso Crusaders

I'm a little sad the Crusaders' mascot appears to be named "The Crusader" rather than something more forceful. Maybe "Crusader Henry" after the founder of the school. Or "Crusader Jonathan" after Indiana's first Governor. Or, because all names tend toward it, "Crusader Pete".

The face of courage. Or hunger? I don't know. Something, probably, but it's underneath a helmet.
Let's go with "mild irritation."

So in the battle between Purdue Pete and Crusader Pete, I'm a little hesitant to go with the "One was from an era before rail transport, and so would have no idea how to stop the Boilermaker Special" rationale again. If anything, I could see The Crusader valiantly charging at the train like Don Quixote toward a windmill, heaving his shield at it and accidentally causing a terrible derailment. I think the Crusader wins not by brute force or by ingenuity, but by sheer luck.

Valparaiso advances.

#3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. #7 Wichita State Shockers

Oh hey, a game that's actually happening and that I'll get a post up about before it actually happens.

So we've got two magical creatures here. The Leprechaun, one assumes, has the power of guarding some gold and appearing in a series of increasingly ridiculous horror movies, mostly direct-to-video, which I guess had the benefit of keeping Warwick Davis employed through the 90's.

I don't even want to know if this makes sense in context.

The other is a Grain Being of immense potential, who uses his vaguely defined Grain Abilities to protect, I guess, the concept of agriculture. Maybe fields in general, regardless of their connection to agriculture. He's like Swamp Thing, if Swamp Thing were from the opposite of a swamp.

I'm not sure Wheat Thing has the level of gravitas of Swamp Thing, mostly because it sounds like a snack chip.
Based on those descriptions, I've got to go with WuShock, if only for the faint hope that maybe Alan Moore will write a series about him.

Wichita State advances.

#9 Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. #4 North Carolina Tar Heels

I never quite know what to do with team names that not only existed, but did so contemporaneously. Leaving aside the giant Ram Man for a second, North Carolina's connection to the naval industry (which is why the tar, apparently) had as important a role to play in the story of the nation in which a man can write a silly blog about basketball mascots as cowboys, though the latter get more press.

Also, madness. They're very influential madness lobbyists.

I presume this is the result of pressure from the Pistol Pete Coalition, an organization that works for increased coverage of Westerns and big, wide-brimmed hats.

The Tar Heels are tenacious, but the Cowboys resourceful and mustachioed. I'm afraid I'm drawn in again by the craftiness of the Orange Pete.

Oklahoma State advances.

#6 Xavier Musketeers vs. #15 Texas Southern Tigers

Xavier usually does pretty well in the bracket, taking the Championship a few years back (which I imagine was celebrated throughout the Greater Cincinnati area). Here, though, I'm not so sure.

Musketeers definitely have a strategic and an armament advantage, but their experience was mostly used against the foes of the Ancien Régime. I'm not sure the Musketeers, who are either based in Cincinnati or, let's say, Strasbourg, would have all that much experience planning for a tiger.

Though I should say, the Musketeer is a pretty strong contender for "Best Mascot Hat Plumage"

Obviously, tigers can be taken down by gunfire, but given the slow reload time on a musket and the challenge of firing that first shot well while a tiger is running after you (even one as genial as the Texas Southern tiger), I'm not sure the Musketeer makes the shot in the first place, and the rest is a whirlwind of claws and teeth and orange fur.

Texas Southern advances.

#8 North Carolina State Wolfpack vs. #12 Wyoming Cowboys

Mr. Wuf and associates greatest asset so far has been teamwork. While most schools have a type of animal, a sort of mythical figure or a variation on Pistol Pete, NC State's explicit invocation of the entire pack has been what has gotten them to the Sweet Mascot Sixteen. I presume Mr. Wuf to be their leader and representative.

The thing is that if there's one thing that Red Dead Redemption taught me, it's that occasionally cowboys are going to have to deal with some wolves going after the horses and non-player characters. Usually a whole bunch. And yes, sometimes they overwhelm everything and you have to ride off, abandoning whatever character you're supposed to be saving from the wolves, but in general, it's just not that much of an issue.

Pictured: A man with two guns who has decided his best option here is a Bowie knife.

Wyoming advances.

#11 Dayton Flyers vs. #2 Virginia Cavaliers

I know that Ohio's very excited about the whole "Birthplace of Aviation" thing, in that the Wright Brothers and a number of astronauts and I have been very forthright in my appreciation of the cartoon villain that is the Flyers mascot. Rudy Flyer has got the sort of feel of having just escaped from an inexplicable forgotten Beatles movie, where he uses his biplane to wreak havoc. Maybe that's what Rubber Soul was about.

Maybe he's the Narrator on Norwegian Wood?

CavMan, though, is crafty. Between the hat and the cape and the general swashbuckling nature, I wouldn't put "hiding in a bale of hay until the Flyer has to refuel, then running him through with a sabre" out of his reach. CavMan is the hero we need.

Virginia advances.

#9 St. John's Red Storm vs. #12 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.

Lumberjacks, as far as I know, are hardworking, hardy individuals who take their jobs seriously. The SFA Lumberjack in particular also seems to wield an axe with a face on it, which is either a sentient being in its own right (in which case it should be feared) or he's some kind of lunatic who draws faces on his tools (in which case he should be feared).

If there's one thing I check for in the tools I use, it's that they're not distinctly angry.

The thing though is that I'm fairly certain there are some OSHA guidelines that would prevent working in severe weather conditions, and I think the Red Storm qualifies as that. I'm pretty certain the old mariner's saying is something along the lines of "Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at noon in a forest, sailors acknowledge that there is no way to save you and start reading up on when you last updated your life insurance policy".

St. John's advances.

#14 UAB Blazers vs. #15 North Dakota State Bison

The Bison have been coasting through on two basic premises. First, they've had a significant size advantage on their opponents for both prior fights. Second, their mascot is named Thundar and I just really, really need that to be the stage name of a bassist in literally any sort of band. If this were a Mascot Name Bracket, Thundar would win the next three years in a row regardless of whether North Dakota State actually makes it to the tournament.

It's not, though, and Thundar's lost his size advantage. And now he's fighting a mythical creature that killed a well-meaning bear last round and, perhaps most impressively, voluntarily lives through humid Alabama summers where everything just feels heavy and it's hard to breathe and I feel like I need to put in the air conditioner despite the fact that it's like 40 degrees in Chicago right now.

One hopes the suit has a cooling system.

That was a tangent, but the point is that Blaze wins this one as well.

UAB advances.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Murphspot Mascot Bracket 2015: East/South Second Round

#1 Villanova Wildcats vs. #8 North Carolina State Wolfpack

On their best day, wildcats are going to have a rough go of it, so long as we're sticking with standard definitions of wildcats. I suppose if we're talking about rally cars, Villanova might have a better shot here at least from a momentum standpoint. Or a "driven by people with no apparent regard for reasonable driving speeds" standpoint.

I'm not saying I need a series that combines the spice-using navigators of Dune with the Dukes of Hazzard. I'm saying society needs that.

As it stands, we have a small, blue eyed cat, confident in its recent victory, entering the arena with let's say a dozen wolves. Wolves in jaunty hats, sure, but wolves nonetheless.

North Carolina State advances.

#12 Wyoming Cowboys vs. #13 UC Irvine Anteaters

I really do want to continue to encourage the development and implementation of novel mascots in the Mascot Bracket. Sure, Peter the Anteater doesn't really have much in the way of offensive prowess considering that his opponent is again not an ant, but by stifling his progress here, we wind up contributing to the Mascot File Drawer problem, where we see decreased submissions of mascots that may not work out in a fight to the death, but can teach us something interesting about the Mascot Sciences.

Also, we need more mascots with Peter's pleasant disposition.

And that's all well and good, but this is a battle between "pretty long tongue" and "so identified with pistols that he's named after them". Yellow Pistol Pete is victorious.

Wyoming advances.

#11 Dayton Flyers vs. #3 Oklahoma Sooners

At its most basic, this is less a fight to the death and more a lesson in the timeline of personal transport. Sure, it took a while for the Dayton Flyers to work out the kinks in how to take a big, heavy, metal machine and have it soar through the air, carrying as many sweaty passengers and screaming babies as you can fit into the fuselage while allowing for enough space to the traditional rations of half a can of the soft drink of your choice, a tiny bag of pretzels and whatever movie of indeterminate quality has been out long enough that they'll allow you to watch it if you buy some headphones.

Conestoga wagons, on the other hand, are relatively slow and, in my extensive research consisting of late 80's educational games, constantly either being caulked to float across rivers or having their inhabitants come down with cholera.

Alternately, snakebites, because James would not listen about leaving the snake alone.

Dayton advances.

#7 Michigan State Spartans vs. #2 Virginia Cavaliers

I'll give the Spartans a point in the Discipline category. They're proficient in that, and potentially moreso than a generic Cavalier. Particularly CavMan, who approaches life with the sort of devil may care attitude that befits his facial hair and his penchant for fancy hats.

In terms of armament and strategy, though, I'm thinking I'll have to go with Virginia here. Not only would they have been able to learn from any lessons that the Spartans came up with and incorporated them with the next few thousand years of advances in strategic warfare, they're guys with guns going up against guys in apparently green leather armor whose chin is basically the broad side of a barn.

You know, I get the bracers as a fashion statement, but I don't know that they provide any competitive advantage here.

Virginia advances.

#16 Robert Morris Colonials vs. #9 St. John's Red Storm

I feel like the Colonials vs. the Red Storm is either some sort of Masque of the Red Death analog combined with the Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, or it's a reference to a particularly harsh weather event that forced a small band of colonists to carve CROATOAN into a tree and then go do something with their time that wasn't being battered by flying debris.

As much as I would like to help Robert Morris out here, but Johnny Thunderbird rides on as ever, top down and stereo blaring. He is a phantom in the night, and all the colony will be awoken by his tunes. Deprived of sleep, they can't hope to keep up with the Red Storm.

Also, he's probably got lightning powers? Let's go with that.

St. John's advances.

#12 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks vs. #13 Eastern Washington Eagles

So, in the last round, the Lumberjack was able to pretty easily dispatch with an hawk named Swoop.

I know what you're saying. This is an eagle named Swoop. It's totally different.

And sure. This bird of prey is pretty full of majesty, and is composed at least in part of concentrated Freedom. On the other hand, deforestation is still a thing, and I don't see this ending any better for this Swoop than the last. You can have all the majesty you want, but if your nest is gone and it's hard to hunt for food, times are tough.

The Lumberjack, you could reason with. The axe? No chance.

Stephen F. Austin advances.

#11 UCLA Bruins vs. #14 UAB Blazers

So, Joe Bruin has the advantage of his species being a real thing, and not being consigned to sword-and-sorcery style fantasy settings. That's actually non-negligible. As happy-go-lucky as Joe Bruin appears to be, he's still got the ability to call in actual bears.

Blaze is a dragon, which gives him a pretty heavy advantage if we can get over the "not actually an animal" hurdle. What we need is a way to directly compare the two.

Thankfully, we live in a world where you can just look that up on the internet, thanks to the magic of Youtube and Skyrim.

I'm going with that settling that.

UAB advances.

#7 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. #15 North Dakota State Bison

So, Herky's fine and all, and I presume he's got some sort of preternatural archery ability that allows him to hang out with superpowered aliens and men in powered armor.

Also, one of the more stylized masks that's come up so far.

But, despite that, we're dealing with one of the many toothy birds in this bracket and I think this simply comes down to size. Thundar isn't something that the Hawk is going to be able to pick up and carry off to tear him apart, and I think this is probably going to result in repeated assaults that Thundar weathers with grace.

Well, as much grace as someone named THUNDAR can muster.

North Dakota State advances.