Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cup 'n Cone Ride: Recap

I've recently discovered that along those weekly curling recaps, recaps of specific bike rides are among my least-read posts. So...sorry in advance, but I think I put in a pretty freaking awesome performance at this "Cup 'n Cone" Ride I did last weekend.

The ride was 65 miles long (my longest ever, and my second 100K), and included a chip-timed hill climb contest as well. My goals were: 1) don't be the last rider to finish the 65 miles, and 2) finish 15th percentile or higher (meaning, not in the bottom 15%) in the hill climb. (I know my place in the world of road bicycling. Compared to most other people who ride their bike as much as I do, I'm pretty slow.)

My actual results:
- I finished the 65 miles in 4:46:23, ahead of 30 other riders, and 21 minutes ahead of the last riders to finish.
- I did the Lystra Road hill climb in 9:09, a full two minutes faster than my test run two weeks prior, and placing me in the 42nd percentile among males (168th out of 289).

In other words...woooooooooo! I know that bicycling accomplishments don't get anywhere near the pub (or as many Facebook 'likes') as running accomplishments, but whatever. I'm proud. I wasn't sure I could do 65 miles in under five hours.

One thing that's neat about these bike rides is huge mass of bicycles at the start. Even though I knew I'd be among the slower riders, I decided to start near the front, in order to take advantage of "the draft" for as long as possible. And, so, the first 30 minutes of the ride basically consisted of me getting constantly passed by, oh, pretty much everybody.

But that's okay, because at the first rest stop (mile 15), my average speed was 15.8 mph, which for me is blistering. I'm usually in the low 13s at the one-hour mark of a longer ride. I don't know how much the draft had to do with it, but there was also adrenaline, subconsciously trying to keep up even though I was going out of my way not to push, and the fact that I didn't have to lug all my water with me, this being a supported charity ride.

There were pretty much only two times all day long in which I passed anyone: 1) at rest stops (I didn't stop at all of them); and 2) on the timed hill climb. I totally went for it on the hill climb, and perhaps I paid the price towards the end of the ride as a result, but it was worth it.

(Side note about the hill climb: I unofficially timed myself going back down the hill as well, and my downhill time would have still only been the 3rd fastest hill climb. So, there are two people who went up the hill faster than I went down it. That's insane. By the way, I set a new personal speed record going back down the Lystra Road hill: 38 mph.)

By mile 18, the hill climb was over, and I just had to grind out another 47 miles, and try not to waste too much time at the rest stops so that I can accomplish my goal of not finishing last. That's really where I slow myself down on my typical bike rides. Maybe spending a little more time at that last rest stop (mile 52) would have made the last 13 miles a little less miserable, but it's funny what you're willing to endure when you're on the clock. Four days later, my muscles still haven't completely recovered, by the way.

This ride did remind me that anything much longer than 60 miles is well beyond my reach. However, while 100 miles at once would be too difficult, I think I could do 100 miles over the course of a weekend. Maybe that will be my goal for next year.

Okay, I'm done patting myself on the back now. Sorry about all that.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Marla's Kitchen

Yesterday was Marla's 2nd birthday. Hip hip hooray! She even blew out the birthday candles - of which there were two, of course - all by herself, on the very first huff and/or puff.

Marla got all kinds of stuff for her birthday, of course. But here is one of the big ticket items: a play kitchen.

This is no wimpy kitchen. Amber has made it a point to try to get Marla toys that don't have lots of flashing lights, loud noises, and so forth. This kitchen has none of that. Instead, it's pretty much a miniature version of a big kitchen, except that the microwave and oven don't cook, the freezer doesn't freeze, and so forth. And it's built to last, too. Marla also has a whole bunch of fake groceries, pots, pans, silverware, etc., to put in there. (Or, to leave in the middle of the floor. You know, whatever.) And she has a toy grocery cart, too.

The running joke is that Marla is going to start cooking our meals and doing the grocery shopping for us. But if that were the idea, I would have pushed for a toy lawn mower instead.

Time will tell if Marla enjoys playing with it as much as Amber enjoyed putting it together. (Amber enjoys large furniture assembly more than I do.) But when she started pressing the fake microwave buttons and saying "beep beep beep", oh man, my heart melted.

In any case, if all else fails, then maybe next week we'll assemble the mini-trampoline.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sports Wednesday: 7/24/13

I haven't written about sports in three months, because, well, meh. Actually, that's how I feel about this first item:

MLB - As you may know, I follow the Washingtion Nationals. They were expected to contend for a World Series this year, but instead, they're currently riding a five game losing streak sit at 48-52, 8 games out of first place.

My view in a nutshell: the pitching has regressed slightly since last year, and the offense has regressed significantly since last year. To put the offensive struggles in perspective, Bryce Harper - whom, whether it's actually true or not, we all view as the team's biggest offensive threat - batted 9th in the All-Star game, and I think his batting average was 50 points lower than anyone else in the NL starting lineup. That'd be one thing if he was a shortstop or catcher or something, but nope...he's an outfielder. And he's the best the Nationals have? No wonder they're losing. You know, maybe they should try juicing.

Now, normally I might get all butthurt about this, but you know what? Meh. I guess my Nationals affiliation isn't that strong after all, because it doesn't really pain me to see them lose. It's a pretty good situation for me, really. When they win, great! When they lose, then that just frees me up to pay attention to other sports from August through October. Pittsburgh at Washington - Wed 7:00p, MASN

Soccer - A while back, I declared Arsenal as my "favorite" English Premier League team, somewhat arbitrarily. Then last week, Shad Khan, the popular owner of my beloved Jacksonville Jaguars, goes out and buys an EPL team, Fulham. Now what do I do???

Well, I'm going to tell you: I'm reneging on that whole Arsenal thing. From now on, it's all Fulham for me. Come On, You Whites! (Apparently, that's their cheer. Could be worse, although I don't think that cheer would fly in Politically Correct America.) I never really had a good reason to root for Arsenal to begin with, other than that they were the least annoying of the top English clubs. But as a Jaguars fan who now has a good reason to root for a specific EPL team, I'm acting on it. Can you blame me?

"That's great, but didn't you also say that you didn't want to get stuck rooting for a mediocre team with no championship aspirations, no hope, and that stood a good chance of getting relegated in the next few years?" Yep. Well, I guess that's my destiny. You could do a lot worse than Fulham, though: they've been in the Premier League for 12 straight seasons now (going on 13), they finished 12th this past season, and most importantly, they score a decent number of goals.

That's the thing with European soccer, though. There are a lot of things I like about how their leagues are run, but one thing I don't like is that unless you're one of the big money clubs, as soon as a star player develops, you immediately sell him to the highest bidder. The business model for a club like Fulham is this: do just well enough to stay afloat, sell your breakout stars to the Manchester Uniteds of the world for a profit, and use that money to turn around and buy a few mid-level players from, say, the French league, who will only do just well enough in order to keep you in the top division. In other words, unless an obscenely rich Middle Eastern oil tycoon buys your team and is hellbent on spending hundreds of millions of euros/pounds/whatever acquiring top talent (ahem), your team is never going to even come close to winning the league. Contrast that to American sports leagues, where thanks to the salary cap, even "small market" teams like the Jaguars have a theoretical chance of winning the Super Bowl. (Emphasis on theoretical.)

Regardless, I'm excited about the Jaguars-Fulham "alliance", if there is such a thing. I can't wait to watch both teams this Fall! Even if they both stink.

CFL - Each week since the end of June, one or two CFL games has been broadcast live on NBCSN or ESPN2. It's been pretty nice. Some thoughts on what I've seen so far:
- Former Colorado Buffaloes coach Dan Hawkins (a complete failure at Colorado) is now coaching the Montréal Alouettes. So far, it hasn't gone well: one win in four games, including a loss to Calgary last week in which they (Montréal) led 24-0 after the first quarter. How did he get that job in the first place?
- Saskatchewan is killing it so far.

And, there you go. The next TV game is Edmonton at Montréal - Thu 7:30p, ESPN2.

NASCAR - One of the most anticipated races of the year is tonight: a Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, a dirt track. It's the first time a national NASCAR series has raced on dirt in over 40 years. Which begs the question: why? I'd like to see more of this. One dirt race per year in Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup. Make it happen! NASCAR Trucks at Eldora - Wed 7:00p (heats) and 9:30p (main event), SPEED

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Much has been made on the internet over the last week or two over the Syfy original movie "Sharknado", in which tornadoes suck up a bunch of man-eating sharks and carry them into Los Angeles. My question is this: why?

Well...being a meteorologist (sort of), I have a lot of friends who are meteorologists, and a lot of them enjoy watching - and making fun of - weather disaster movies. Part of the draw is that the science presented in such movies is usually ridiculous. Even the supposedly "good" weather movies have bad science in them. For instance, every time the movie "Twister" is airing on TV somewhere, my Twitter feed is sure to let me know.

So, what about the bad movies? Well, there's just something about a tornado full of sharks. It's not just ridiculous; it's over the top ridiculous, and that's what got people's attention, more so than all of the other bad movies that Syfy airs. And it has something for the weather geeks, too!

Anyway, all this sort of reminded me of "Snakes on a Plane", another movie that went out of its way to be low-budget and "campy"...and aside from one Samuel L. Jackson line, ultimately wasn't all that memorable. So, I was a little skeptical of "Sharknado", and didn't watch the initial airing. Then I read the reaction, and decided to watch the replay. (By the way, last Thursday's "Sharknado" replay pulled a higher TV rating than the original airing one week earlier.)

Well, I was entertained for the most part. I don't care for gruesome deaths, even if it's cartoonish, which is the main reason I don't watch more of these types of movies. Instead, I was more interested in seeing the bad science and the bad acting and such, and on that end, I was entertained. On the other hand, I also feel like I need to go watch "Jaws" as soon as possible in order to get the taste of "Sharknado" out of my mouth.

Regardless, "Sharknado" is definitely the kind of movie that's best enjoyed with a group. And that's what Twitter is for, right? Until the next one...

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Numpad

On most standard keyboards, the four main mathematical operators can be found in two places: on the main keyboard, and over there on the numpad. Which one do you use?

For me, it depends on the context. If I'm typing something involving letters, such as "Fuquay-Varina", "rm *", or "C++", then I use the main keyboard. But if I'm typing equations, such as "7 * 9" or "10 / 5", then I use the numpad for the operators.

Or, to put it another way. If I'm typing + - * / for use in a non-mathematical context, I'll use the main keyboard. If I'm typing + - * / for use in a mathematical context, I'll use the numpad. It's almost as if I consider the operators used in those two distinct contexts to be completely different characters, even though they're interchangeable.

As for the numbers, and whether I use the main keyboard or the numpad for those...that's a little less clear. Basically, for short numbers (one or two digits), it's the main keyboard. For longer numbers, like zip codes and dates, it's the numpad, always. (Come to think of it, dates are a non-mathematical instance where I use the numpad for - and /.)

All told, I use the numpad enough, I couldn't do without it. (Well, I could, but I'd be grumpy, like I am when I have to use a numpad-less laptop.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Playground Review: Sears Farm Road Park

Sorry to dump another playground review on you, but I don't have a whole lot else to blog about this week.

Sears Farm Road Park - Sears Farm Road (duh), Cary, NC
Visited: Sunday, July 14, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: Cities and towns like Cary have a lot of new parks and playgrounds. This is just one of many that are similar, but due to its location within a residential area (as opposed to on a major street), this one is less well known, and less crowded.

Things for Marla to do: 8/15. A 2-5 year old section, a 5-12 year old section, swings (more on those later), and a couple of other little things, like a sand play area. Pretty standard. (Marla isn't particularly interested in those sand play areas, by the way...unless there is water involved.)

So, let's talk about the swings. First, there were the standard toddler swings, of course.

Lots of playgrounds have swings like this, but of all the ones we've used, these were the best. Relatively high amplitide, low friction, high stability (less prone to wobbling from side to side), a sturdy seat, you name it. The best! And Marla enjoyed them a lot, too.

AND, there were also these swings, which Marla insisted on trying as well.

I'm actually not sure what these swings are about. Are these for adults? Handicapped children? Children with overly paranoid parents? I don't know. I've only ever seen this type of swing at one other playground (Pullen Park). While the seats are more comfortable, they don't have much amplitude to speak of, so it's a pretty boring ride. So, I'm not sure who these swings are for, exactly. (Note that they did have traditional swings for older kids, too, so it's not like these are replacing the traditional ones. I hope.)

Uniqueness: 4/10. Playgrounds like this usually have a couple of distinct features, such that they don't look exactly like the next playground a mile away. Those distinct features are usually enough for me to give a score of 4 for uniqueness.

Upkeep: 8/10. I've learned that if you look hard enough at a playground, you'll at least find some trash. Perhaps I need to lower my standards a little on that front. But the outstanding condition of the swings was definitely worth a couple of extra points here.

Crowd: 8/10. This park is buried in a residential area away from major roads, and it doesn't seem to get a whole lot of use compared to other playgrounds. So, I think it qualifies as a "hidden gem".

Marla enjoyment: 4/5. She loved those swings! Couldn't get enough of them.

TOTAL: 32/50, ranking 2nd out of 6. A solid score. I actually didn't think Pullen Park would stay at #1 this long, but if we're only talking about the swings, then Sears Farm Road Park is the undisputed leader. So far.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cup 'n Cone Ride: Preview

I think it's a good time to do another charity bike ride. This time, I'm doing one called the "Cup 'n Cone", so named because there will be ice cream. But I'm drawn to it for a different reason: chip timing.

Runners get chip timed in pretty much every race. Cyclists, however...not really, I guess because it's dangerous to encourage racing on public streets. (They close off roads for foot races, but not for bicycle rides.) I'm not sure why this is different, but I'll take it? They chip time you for the whole ride, sure. But that's really secondary to the "King of the Mountain" contest, in which they time you up a long hill, kind of like they do in the Tour de France for the purposes of awarding the polka dot jersey.

View Larger Map

I've ridden down this particular hill (Lystra Road, west of Jordan Lake) before, but never up. So last weekend, I thought I'd give the notorious Lystra hill a shot. I've always thought I was a decent climber (at least on the hills you get around here), but what am I going up against, really?

Actually, they already had the start and finish points for the chip timing labeled on the road, so I was able to unofficially time myself on Saturday, and see roughly where I would have ranked in last year's ride. Well, out of 318 men, I would have ranked...289th, or around the 9th percentile. Hmph. (By the way, the hill isn't easy, but I can do it.)

So, here are my two goals: 1) Among men, finish 15th percentile or better in the "King of the Mountain". (As in, avoid finishing in the bottom 15 percent.) That basically means increasing my average speed on the climb from 11.3 mph to 11.8 mph. Now that I've ridden the hill once, I know what to expect, and know when to push and when to conserve. 2) Among all the people doing the 65-mile ride - yep, I've decided to go for another metric century - don't finish last. Last year, everyone finished in 5½ hours or less, including rest breaks. If you include the breaks, then that's cutting it close for me, but that's the goal. Yeah, I know riding over 100K is an accomplishment in and of itself, but, I mean...chip timing!!!

Anyway, this is coming up on Saturday, July 27.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Playground Reviews: Jerry Giles Park, plus two others

On our trip to Jacksonville last weekend, we went to three different playgrounds: one on the way down there, one in Jacksonville, and one on the way back. In chronological order:

Luetta Moore Park* - MLK Jr Drive, Statesboro, GA
Visited: Thursday, July 4, 2013 | Google Street View
(* - The park is labeled "Arena Park" on some maps, including Google. The GPS said "Luetta Moore Park", and I think that's what the sign said, too, so we're going with that.)

Summary: We don't always incorporate a quick stop at a playground into our drives, but when it's time to stop for lunch anyway, we try to find a playground if possible. But you never know what you're going to get with these random playground visits.

Things for Marla to do: 4/15. Here's the playground set at Luetta Moore Park:

Aside from that, I think there just a couple of those springy seats that kids can ride, whatever those are called. Not terrible, and the playground set is adequate. But there weren't any swings, which is a major omission in my book.

Uniqueness: 2/10. When I think "generic playground", this is what I think of. (Well, this, plus a swing set.) One of the two points was given because the three slides were different: normal, spiral, and bumpy.

Upkeep: 6/10. The playground set itself has some years on it. But elsewhere in the park, there was some recent construction here in the form of new picnic tables and walking paths.

Crowd: 8/10. Basically, if we're the only ones at the playground during our entire visit, I give either a 9 or 10, depending on how much the playground appears to be used in general. I'm giving an 8 here because there were a couple of other kids on the playground for, let's say, two minutes.

Marla enjoyment: 1/5. Sometimes when we go to a playground, Marla quickly gets bored with it, walks away from it, and goes exploring elsewhere. When it takes 10 minutes or less for that to happen...1 out of 5.

TOTAL: 21/50, ranking 5th out of 5. Surely, there are better playgrounds in Statesboro, so we'll try a different one next time we're passing through on US-25 or US-301.

(By the way, I'm tracking all of my playground ratings in a spreadsheet, but I'm waiting until I have 10 reviews in the bag before I publish it.)


Collinswood Neighborhood - Collinswood Drive, Jacksonville, FL
Visited: Friday, July 5, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: Lots of new-ish housing developments have their own little playground. They're usually pretty small and generic, but the main draw is that if you live in the neighborhood (or in our case, are visiting people who live in the neighborhood), you can walk there. This is one of those playgrounds.

Things for Marla to do: 5/15. Here's the playground set:

There were also swings here, hence the score of 5 instead of 4. Take that, Luetta Moore!

Uniqueness: 1/10. But like I said, the reason you go is because you can walk there.

Upkeep: 8/10. This neighborhood is fairly new, so the playground doesn't have a lot of years on it. Everything is still in pretty good shape. And...

Crowd: 9/10. ...I'm guessing it doesn't get used a whole lot, although there was enough trash in the trash can to suggest that it at least gets used some.

Marla enjoyment: 1/5. Another instance where Marla got bored and wandered off.

TOTAL: 24/50, ranking 4th out of 5. Most low-key neighborhood playgrounds will rank here or lower.


Jerry Giles Park - Roberts Avenue, Lumberton, NC (I-95 Exit 20)
Visited: Monday, July 8, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: In terms of finding random playgrounds on our road trips, this one was a win. It's easy to find, too, even if it's not labeled on Google Maps (which is why I provided a map link above).

Things for Marla to do: 8/15. Two separate playground sets (although one was for much older children than Marla), swings, and...a merry-go-round. You don't see those very often anymore.

Uniqueness: 5/10. This park has some character to it, like that fish, for instance. And, a bonus point for the merry-go-round. (Seriously, these things used to be standard playground equipment. Did everyone decide they were too dangerous at some point?)

Upkeep: 7/10. I thought the playground was in pretty good shape, aside from the occasional small piece of trash.

Crowd: 6/10. We shared the playground with a few other families, although none of them stayed long. During busier times, parking might be an issue - there are only six or seven parking spots for the entire park. (I guess you could always park on the side street, too.)

Marla enjoyment: 2/5. We stopped here right before Marla's nap, so it's really hard to judge. If she were more awake and less cranky, she would have enjoyed it more, probably.

TOTAL: 28/50, ranking 2nd out of 5. With its score of 35, Pullen Park remains number one, and by a healthy margin at that.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Kroger Buys Harris Teeter

Big news on the grocery store front: big bad Ohio-based Kroger is buying locally owned Harris Teeter, a.k.a. all that is well and good about North Carolina. Or, at least, that's how most of the locals feel about this. My take is going to be slightly different.

(Public service announcement. Even though pretty much everyone calls it "Krogers", the name of the store is simply "Kroger". There is no S. This annoys me to no end. Even their employees sometimes call it "Krogers".)

We all go grocery shopping, and we have a choice regarding which grocery stores we go to. Grocery stores are also often geographically-based, so we tend to get a little 'attached' to them. Like, we've been shopping at the so-and-so for 40 years, and it's awesome, and it's WAY better then the big bad multi-state grocery chain that just moved in from out of state. How dare they invade our territory! Our grocery stores are better, darn it! Screw them!

First off, let's get this out of the way: I'm a little biased. Of the four cities I've lived, Raleigh is the only one that doesn't have what I would consider to be a "really nice grocery store". In other words, it doesn't have a Publix or Wegmans. Nothing here can really compete. Harris Teeter tries to be like them, but I basically view Harris Teeter as Publix wannabe: an "upscale" grocery store known most of all for its service, deli, bakery, etc. Except that Harris Teeter is more expensive, Publix quality is more consistent between stores (I've been to a few substandard Harris Teeters), and that while Harris Teeter does do some things very well (e.g. the bakery), Publix is better in almost every way, anyway. I wouldn't say that I'm anti-Harris Teeter, necessarily, but I think they fall short of what they're trying to be. There's a reason I go to the Kroger across the street instead. As for people who think Harris Teeter is the best thing ever...well, they've just never lived near a Publix or Wegmans.

Well, anyway, Harris Teeter's been having trouble keeping up with the big boys, so they've been looking for a buyer for a while now. In comes big, bad, imperialistic Kroger, who will buy pretty much anyone and anything. Publix was rumored as a potential buyer, but acquisitions aren't their style, at all. Publix is very calculated and deliberate in their expansion, and they grow from within. They don't do buyouts.

My reaction to the buyout news was mixed. On one hand, given my opinion of the Harris Teeter chain...HA! You lose. Serves you right for trying to take on Publix in Jacksonville many years ago. (That didn't end well for Harris Teeter, by the way.) On the other hand, this does mean less competition locally, which is unfortunate. Fact is, having a Harris Teeter across the street makes Kroger better. The trend of big corporations buying out the little regional-based guy is generally annoying, but I wasn't as annoyed by this transaction, because it almost feels like validation of my stance on the two chains. But just like I'm not anti-Harris Teeter, I'm not really pro-Kroger, either. They annoy me from time to time, but as far as Raleigh is concerned, they're the best we've got, I suppose.

So, let's say you're a Harris Teeter long time shopper and loyalist. You're probably on suicide watch, right? Sure, the Kroger CEO says that Harris Teeter will still be "autonomous" and still be their own thing, but Kroger is a veteran of this whole acquisition thing. They've done it over, and over, and over again. The "King Soopers" we went to in Denver was pretty much a Kroger, with mostly Kroger-branded products and such. Sure, it still says "King Soopers" on the sign, but I bet after several years, the Kroger influence started to trickle through, and before you knew it, King Soopers was turned into just another generically adequate grocery store, a.k.a. Kroger.

Is that what's going to happen to Harris Teeter, too? I'm not so sure. This is a unique case among Kroger acquisitions, because Kroger already has a foothold here, albeit a small one (14 stores in the state, mostly in the Triangle). I think it would make sense for Kroger to keep Harris Teeter separate, and provide customers with two separate options: a "standard" one (Kroger), and an "upscale" one (Harris Teeter). I think that's what they're going to do in the short term. (As for the long term, who knows?)

I really think Harris Teeter will be better because of this. Having the backing and resources of Kroger can only help, right? Shoot, the merger may even allow Harris Teeter to lower their prices. But on the other hand...why would they? Why get in a price war with yourself? Instead, I think they're more likely to raise prices at the existing Krogers, now that they've bought out some of the competition. Or, they may also decide to take some of their nicer stores, and convert them to more "upscale" Harris Teeters, in order to have an excuse to raise prices. That's entirely possible at my neighborhood Kroger, which is much bigger and in better condition than the Harris Teeter across the street, even though Harris Teeter is supposed to be the "upscale" chain.

Actually, this is all silly speculation. I doubt you'll notice any significant difference at either store for quite a while. I'm confident that the things you like about Harris Teeter - whatever those are - aren't going away, because that would be dumb of them. So, you all can back off from that ledge now, provided you can stand the thought that Harris Teeter isn't North Carolina-owned anymore. If you can't stomach that, then, well, you could always shop at Food Lion...

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

South Carolina: Complete

We spent the holiday weekend in Jacksonville with family and such. It was a great weekend, and Marla was well-behaved throughout, except for after it was time to leave the beach, and the fact that she's now learned the word "no".

But on the way down to Jacksonville last Thursday, I decided it was a good time to take care of some outstanding statistical business: visiting the five counties in South Carolina I had yet to visit (the dark yellow ones on this map). Those five counties are pretty far out of the way, which means we'll never just go there by chance. Incorporating them into a Jacksonville trip adds a full three hours to the drive time. But hey, Marla woke us up at 1:30 AM Thursday morning, so we had lots of time!

View Larger Map

It's done! South Carolina is the 5th state in which I've visited every county, joining Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and North Carolina. Hooray! And since I had previously finished off all of the interstates in South Carolina, that means I can now start tracking all of the US highways that I've driven in South Carolina, according to the rule I made up last year - once I finish off all counties and interstates in a state, I move on to US routes. By my count, I've driven 1,002 of 3,651 (27.4%) miles of US highways in South Carolina. (I thought it'd be higher than that, actually, given how many times I've gone there over the years. I'm currently at 67.1% in North Carolina.)

So, what's next? Here are some other states that I'm close to finishing off completely, both in terms of counties and interstates: (North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, and Connecticut are already complete for both categories.)

1) Maryland: Next time we head to the Northeast, I'd like to finish off Maryland. I only need one more county (Carroll), plus I-70 between Frederick and Baltimore (which itself passes through Carroll County), and also I-83 inside the Baltimore Beltway. And that'll be that for Maryland. It's definitely the most practical remaining state to complete, and it's my top priority next time I'm heading up that way.

2) New Jersey: I only have one more county (Cumberland), plus a little bit of I-95, I-80, and I-76. It'll take some effort to finish off those interstates, but New Jersey is a relatively small state, so it could theoretically all be done in one trip.

3) West Virginia: I've already finished all the interstates in West Virginia; now I just have four counties to go. Lincoln and Boone can be wrapped into a Toledo trip, and Jefferson could be incorporated into my next Northeast trip (just like the Maryland stuff). Tucker County, however, is deep in the mountains, and is a pain in the butt to get to. I'll have to think about that one.

4) Florida: Driving I-75 from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale, plus a side trip to Hendry County, would complete Florida. (In addition to Hendry, I'm also missing Collier County, which is along I-75.) Problem is, Tampa to Fort Lauderdale by way of Naples is not a short drive, and southwest Florida is pretty far away from home to begin with. Sure, we go to Florida to see family twice a year, but that's north Florida. This couldn't be done in a day trip from Jacksonville, and I'm not sure I'd really want to, anyway.

5) Pennsylvania: I can sort of see the finish line in Pennsylvania - 3 counties and 261 interstate miles to go. And, Pennsylvania isn't that far from home. But those three counties are out of the way, and the interstate mileage I'm missing is almost all on east-west interstates that I'll never have a good reason to take, other than just to do it.

6) Vermont: Only one county (Grand Isle) and one interstate (I-89) to go. Pretty easy, except that I only go to Vermont once every ten years. So, maybe in 2022, I guess?

(Side note: Even though I'm not that close on a percentage basis, New Hampshire and Rhode Island would be pretty easy to complete, too, because they're, you know, small.)

7) Maine: I've already taken care of the counties, and all that remains of Maine interstates is 16 miles of I-95 in northern Maine (which I bypassed in 2007 in order to go visit one of those counties). But, I go to Maine even less frequently than I go to Vermont, so...

8) Virginia: Obviously, proximity to home is a plus. But I still have 16 counties to go in Virginia, and they're scattered all throughout the state.

(Side note: the city of Bedford recently merged with Bedford County, effectively reducing the number of county-equivalents in Virginia by one. But the city of Bedford was one that I had already visited, of course. Why couldn't one of those other annoying independent cities have merged with the surrounding county, like Falls Church or Manassas Park or something?)

9) Ohio: This is the only other state I could see myself finishing off within the next, say, eight years. Like Virginia, I have a ways to go in Ohio, especially with interstates (467 miles).

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Playground Review: RDU Airport Observation Park

This week, our search for playground adventure takes us to the RDU Airport Observation Park, on the grounds of the Raleigh/Durham International Airport.

RDU Airport Observation Park - RDU Airport, Morrisville, NC (map)
Visited: Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summary: Want to watch airplanes take off and land? The Observation Park is for you! There's also a little play area, although I can't really consider it to be a "playground" in the traditional sense (see below). Unlike most other places on the airport grounds, parking at the Observation Park is free.

Things for Marla to do: 3/15. Well, here's the "playground set", whatever this thing is:

Besides that, there are also kid-sized runways that the kids can run up and down, pretending to take off and/or land.

Up the stairs is the observation deck, where you get a decent view of some of the runways, except for a giant building blocking part of the line of sight. Marla loves climbing stairs, so we did that for a little bit. Hard to know how much she enjoyed hanging out on the deck itself, though, or if she really had any clue what this was all about.

The target audience of this park is kids age 6-10, rather than someone of Marla's age. Even then, you need a little bit of imagination to keep from getting bored after ten minutes. (Come to think of it, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Kids have pretty good imaginations.)

Uniqueness: 8/10. How many other parks have an airport as its backdrop? There you go.

There's a lot of lost potential, though. They could turn this into a really nice airport-themed play area. But they don't have a lot of room to work with in this particular location, and it's probably not a priority for them to expand it anyway. In fact, they would probably prefer the Observation Park remain a more low key attraction, as opposed to a place that's overrun with running, screaming children.

Upkeep: 4/10. The park was clean, but everything looked pretty old. The park may have looked exactly the same 10 years ago as it does now.

Crowd: 6/10. There were probably 10-20 people there in total, including several kids; most spent the majority of their time up on the deck. That's a good number, but not overwhelming.

Marla enjoyment: 4/5. Despite the park's shortcomings as a "playground", we actually did leave before Marla was ready to leave, mostly because the storms were moving in. I think we were there for nearly an hour, though, so it wasn't exactly a short visit. (Come to think of it, why am I not timing the lengths of our playground visits?)

By the way, this is also a good spot to watch the weather. That's because of the relatively wide open spaces you get an airport, and also the fact that the observation deck faces northwest-ish.

Total: 25/50, ranking 2nd out of 2. This is a great place to take older kids, I think, but there isn't a whole lot to work with for toddlers.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Lexington Barbecue

There are two main styles of barbecue in North Carolina: Eastern and Western. As I remind everyone of every now and then on this blog, I'm not a fan of Eastern. Western is still far from my favorite, but it's better. There are several differences between east and west, but as far as my tastes are concerned, the main difference is the sauce. Eastern sauce is vinegar-based; Western sauce is tomato-based, with a hint of vinegar.

So on Saturday, while roadgeeking with some friends, we stopped at ground zero for authentic Western North Carolina barbecue: Lexington Barbecue, in Lexington, NC. (Note: "Western" style can also be referred to as "Lexington" style. I've gathered that they're basically the same thing. Some may object to you calling it anything but Lexington style. Barbecue is a really touchy subject among many North Carolinians, you know. Actually, that's pretty much true in any part of the country with well-regarded barbecue.)

Normally when I go to a new barbecue place, I take a bunch of pictures of the building and food and such. Unfortunately, I completely failed this time. (What can I say? I was hungry. And focused.) Suffice to say, the building is a decent size, they almost always have a good crowd (although we were seated immediately), they're closed on Sundays (and all next week for vacation!), and the smell in the parking lot is just terrific.

So, the food. As always, I ordered a plate of pulled pork. I prefer my barbecue sweet, not spicy, which unfortunately for me is the exact opposite of how North Carolina serves it, no matter which half of the state you're in. Many authentic North Carolina barbecue joints spice the meat itself, and only expect you to need a little bit sauce. Lexington is no exception. We'll never agree on this. As far as I'm concerned, the sauce is the most important part of it all.

As for the sauce, the trademark Western/Lexington sauce is also somewhat spicy, of course. But the good news is that while I don't care for vinegar-based sauce, the Lexington sauce actually works for me, on some level. It's spicy, but not too spicy; and it only has a hint of vinegar, as opposed to being overly vinegary. And it makes the meat taste better, which is the whole point of the sauce. Still, I'd prefer it sweeter. And it should be said that aside from the extra spice, the meat itself was excellent.

But for me, Lexington Barbecue's legacy will always be this. Despite seating us way in the back, they served us our food in 2 minutes, 53 seconds, which is the second-fastest restaurant serving time of ALL time, only trailing another Western North Carolina barbecue joint, Stamey's. Ideal Hot Dog has posted the fastest serving time of the year each of the last two years, and we'll be going back there later this year, but they have their work cut out of them this year. I'm not sure they can crack three minutes.

So, anyway, Lexington Barbecue is excellent if you like the style. For me, it's probably a good once-a-year thing. Really, it's the timing ramifications that will have me coming back again. Can Lexington approach Stamey's thought-to-be-untouchable time of 1:35? Will they go below four minutes again next time? Will Ideal Hot Dog win another annual title ever again?