A Trip to DC and NC

Posted by Arlo on Jul 9, 2009 under Life of Arlo, Travel

The laptop on my lap in this picture was never turned on

Oh, I had such productive plans for June!  Oksana and I were taking a trip back east to visit my grandparents and because this year we were staying with them in the country – as opposed to their cottage on the beach – I thought I would have all the time in the world to work on my website(s), edit videos, and so forth.  I should know by now that my vacations come with a particular mental state that isn’t conducive to work.

Am I disappointed?  Heck no.  Oksana remarked that just a few years ago, she wouldn’t have been able to appreciate a “boring” vacation, but this year, that’s just what we needed.  It was great to just get away from it all, read a book, and hang out with the grandparents… even if it did mean I had bury the nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting much done.

Actually, our vacation started with a little bit of Oksana’s work.  When her boss heard that we were flying into DC on the weekend of a big Subaru conference, he convinced her to attend and represent their dealership.  I wasn’t thrilled, but we were put up for a couple nights at a fancy hotel, so I didn’t complain.

We arrived in DC on Friday night and after getting our luggage, we headed over to the Alamo desk to pick up our average mid-size sedan.  The guy behind the counter tried to up-sell us to a costlier model (“I can put you in a premium for the price of a full-size…”) but we weren’t having any of it.  Turns out, their parking lot was empty and our choices amounted to a 30-minute wait while they washed a returning sedan, or driving off with a Toyota FJ Cruiser.  We didn’t even want an SUV, but we sure got our “mid-sized” money’s worth when we skipped their up-sell!

Toyota FJ Cruiser rental

A problem with our Nokia N810’s turn-by-turn GPS activation essentially turned the 15-minute trip to the hotel into an hour-and-a-half nightmare.  First, DC’s lack of road signs lead us the wrong direction on the George Washington Parkway, and when finally figured that out and turned around, we found ourselves on the waterfront, right next to the bridge we wanted to cross.  The same bridge that, apparently, didn’t have a visible on-ramp.  Backtracking inland down numerous one-way streets finally resolved that little dilemma.  Which just set us up for the parking debacle…  We didn’t get settled until almost 2am.  The Subaru breakfast started just 5 hours later.

We managed to stay awake for the keynote, where the heads of Subaru congratulated their dealerships on a very tough year (to hear them tell it, Subaru was one of the only manufacturers out there that saw, though small, an increase in sales in 2008.)  Oksana did a little social mixing during the day, but the takeaway memory was the demo out in the parking lot.  We each drove a 2010 model Outback over their “Performance Point” to try out its new anti-rollback feature.  I was impressed.  Plus driving up a hill so steep you can only see sky over your hood… that was pretty cool, too.

Subaru - Performance Point

Subaru pulled out all the stops for the reception dinner on Saturday night.  A fleet of busses picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  There we had about three hours to split between wandering the exhibits, sampling hors d’oeuvres and wines, loading up our plates from strategically placed buffets, partaking from the open bar, and listening to the live hip-hop electric violin band.

On Sunday, after the conference was over, Oksana and I drove all over DC for some shopping.  There were a few big-ticket items we wanted to check out for our upcoming travels.  We hit the Wal-Marts for a new netbook, the Costcos for a certain video camera model, and an REI for some research on ultra light tents, sleeping bags, and sturdy backpacks.  We got some good info at REI, but we struck out on all the other items.

That evening, we met up with our friend, Liza, for dinner.  We ate tapas outdoors at a great Spanish restaurant and spent the evening catching up.  I think Oksana and I could have hung out with her all night, but we were visiting on a work night and shortly after dark it was time to walk her to the nearest metro station.

Oksana, Liza, and Arlo

The next morning we drove down to Hertford, NC, where my grandparents live.  We stopped at the first Wal-Mart we saw from the freeway (In Newport News) and, lucky for us, they seemed to have the netbook model we were looking for (an 11.6″ Acer Aspire.)  Unfortunately for us, our credit card was declined three times.  We finally resorted to buying it with our American Express and calling Bank of America from the parking lot.  BoA’s fraud protection division was involved and, 20 minutes later, after giving up our security information, accusing Oksana of “sounding like she was being fed answers,” making us try to remember every recurring monthly transaction on our account, what vacation we took in November of 2008, and confirming every single freaking transaction in the last two weeks, we finally had our card unlocked. Oksana spent another 10 minutes on the phone registering a complaint with a supervisor.

(And all this because they “noticed suspicious activity on our account outside our normal purchasing region.”  Excuse me?  How many times have I traveled through North Carolina, using this same card?  Besides, we’d already racked up three days worth of charges down there! Way to catch it quick there, BoA fraud algorithms!)

We arrived in Hertford early that afternoon, glad to be done navigating the girth of the FJ through multi-lane interstate traffic.  My aunt was there to meet us with my grandparents and we quickly settled into the routine of our stay.

Oksana spent the bulk of her time on the back deck.  Even though some of the days clocked in at 95 degrees, she savored the heat as she read her book.  Periodically she would get up to refill her bowl full of fruit or snap pictures of the flock of geese that visited in the early afternoon (not to mention the various other critters running around the big yard.)

This bird is stealing from the fig tree!

My memories of this trip will mostly center around the tech support I did on my granddad’s new computer.  We set up a new e-mail account to make sending picture attachments easier, wrote notes on how to better use the printer, and any number of other tips and tricks for when he’s online, but what was really rewarding was setting up Skype with a webcam.  Each weekday morning, precisely at 11am, my grandparents would fire up a new video conference with my mom in Ketchikan.  Oksana and I usually sat in, and it was so rewarding to see their confidence with the new technology grow.  By the time we left, they were completely on their own (and I’ve already received Skype calls from the both of them upon returning home!)

Skype call to Alaska

Also, I’ve got to say, my grandfather – who, I might add, is turning 89 this month; Hi granddad! – is about the best damn Peggle player I’ve ever seen.  It’s really the only game he’s played, so we bought him Bejeweled 2 for Father’s Day, but he has so much fun trying to break 30 million on Peggle that I don’t know if he’ll ever get around to playing it…

The rest of our week in Hertford progressed slowly and pleasantly.  We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at regular intervals (a novelty for us), met with other friends and family, and went out on a boat ride out into the swamp with my grandfather where we took plenty of pictures of osprey, turtles, and each other.  We celebrated Oksana’s birthday, made borsch for dinner, and returned the 11.6″ netbook to the local Wal-Mart when we realized that having a Bluetooth sticker on the keyboard didn’t actually mean that the computer had Bluetooth.  Figuring we had enough time to place an order online and have a new netbook delivered before we left, Oksana and I did the research and decided to go for a 10.1″ Acer with Bluetooth and a six-cell battery from J&R Music World ($349).  And it would have arrived in time, too, if J&R hadn’t conspired with Bank of America to block another of our transactions.  Once again, I found myself on the phone with the fraud detection department and when they started to go through my two weeks of transactions again, I almost hung up on them.  Turns out the two-day delay in processing my order was the result of using a different e-mail address than the one registered with Bank of America.  Excuse me for wanting my tracking number sent to a different account!

Dinner time

In the boat


Osprey in nest

When we were down to just a few more days left in our vacation, Oksana and I decided to go to the beach, even though the other side of the family had the cottage until August 1st.  We spent the first night just a few doors down at my great aunt’s cottage, instead.  That evening, Oksana and I went out for our favorite beach food – Pigman’s BBQ – then returned and passed the time by showing off digital photos of Alaska and other exotic places on my laptop.

Pelicans flying outside the window

We had an open invite to stay with her for a few days, but we were angling to do some SCUBA diving.  The Outer Banks is called The Graveyard of the Atlantic because there are so many shipwrecks along its coast, so we figured there’d be ample opportunity to don a wetsuit.  In fact, there’s a shipwreck only 250 yards offshore of my grandparents cottage, the USS Huron (1877), but after some online research, it seems like the more impressive wrecks were in deeper water.

Many of the dive sites we found were near Hatteras, and since I haven’t been that far down the coast since I was a kid, we decided to drive south and see what the more tranquil side of the Outer Banks had to offer.

Diving wise?  Not a heck of a lot.

There was only one little dive shop there in Hatteras and after we reserved a room in a motel managed by Midgett Realty (one of the very few “Midgetts” to beat me out on a Google search!), we stopped by to see what our options were.

Three people in the dive shop, all probable employees, looked up as we entered, yet no one asked if we needed any help.  After a few moments, awkwardly, Oksana asked if we might be able to get some information about diving in the area.  Thus began a five-minute ordeal where every tidbit of information had to be extracted with leading questions.  Are there shallow wreck dives in the area? (Not really, no.)  What are the water conditions like? (100ft visibility.)  How much bottom time would we be likely to get on the wrecks in 100ft of water? (About 20 min.)  How much would a 2-dive excursion cost? ($125.)  With rental gear? (Another $50.)

We asked many other questions, but you get the point.  After each answer, we were left with a pregnant pause whereupon we hoped someone would volunteer something, but no one there offered any information without prompting.  And here’s the kicker:  Even though Oksana and I weren’t too thrilled about spending $175 each for just 40 minutes of bottom time, I finally asked, “So, assuming we’d like to do one of these wreck dives, how would one go about booking a trip for tomorrow or the next day?”

“Oh, we’re booked up all week.  Some researchers chartered our boat.”

Frustrated, but in many ways sort of relieved, Oksana and I left the store and decided to do something else for our remaining days on the beach.

For the most part, we continued our ongoing vacation theme of just relaxing.  The hotel’s wi-fi network kept me happy (and not just because it’s SSID was named “Midgett Guest!”)  Oksana spent her time outside, planted in a chair by the water with her book.  The local flock of geese kept her company.


Oksana feeding the geese

Obviously, we went to the beach a couple times, too.  We played in the surf on the ocean side, jumping over and through the waves.  We also waded out into the sound side with our underwater camera, just to see what we could see.  It was pretty shallow and silty; about the only creatures we saw were a couple hermit crabs and a lone fish or two swimming by.

Oksana on the Sound side

Pointing out a hermit crab, maybe

Our one big beach outing was a visit to the Hatteras lighthouse.  At 208 feet, it’s the tallest lighthouse in the U.S., and apparently the tallest brick lighthouse in the world.  I wasn’t expecting to be overly impressed, but after climbing up to the top, I couldn’t help but admire the view.  Also, it sort of boggles the mind that the entire lighthouse had been moved about a half-mile inland just a few years back.

Closeup on all those bricks

We wandered around the grounds, visited the museum, and apparently impressed one of the park rangers there when we mentioned we were from Alaska.  “You win.  That’s the farthest I’ve heard of anyone coming to visit the Hatteras Lighthouse.”

“You mean just for today or all summer?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “I think in forever.”

Couldn’t be true, I know.  But still.

Afterwards, we took a nice long stroll down the beach.  I got sunburned.

Oksana taking a picture of the Hatteras Lighthouse

Eventually our last vacation day arrived.  We woke up early and hit the road about 7:30am.  From Hatteras, it took us about three hours to drive back to Hertford, where we stopped over for lunch.  Oksana was also able to finally able to pick up her new netbook.  Besides being able to see my grandparents and aunt one more time, my cousin also us in Hertford to see us off.  It was a nice interlude to what turned out to be a very  long day of driving.

We left Hertford around 1:30pm and headed for the Air and Space Center in Hampton, Virginia.  The night before, I had an idea that we could maybe swing an IMAX showing of Transformers 2 on the way back to DC.  We’d bought our tickets online for the 4pm show and my grandfather assured us that our departure time would put us there at least a full hour before the previews.

Well, we didn’t count on there being an accident in the James River Tunnel.  Our GPS led us right to the back of the stopped cars, a full six miles from the tunnel.  We found ourselves next to an exit for another bridge and decided to chance it before moving past in the stop-and-go (but mostly stop) traffic.  A very stressful 45 minutes followed as we manually mapped our way across an alternate route (the GPS kept trying to swing us back to the tunnel.)

We finally arrived at the movie theater, completely stressed out, about 15 minutes late.  While I parked the car, Oksana went inside and claimed our tickets.  The movie had already started, so we took the first seats we could see up in the front rows.  In an IMAX theater, that’s a recipe for motion sickness.  We craned our necks around and, incredibly, there were still seats available in the middle of the back row.  Once we moved ourselves back, we were at least able to enjoy the… theater.  I can’t say we enjoyed the movie because Transformers 2 is predictably pretty stupid, but also surprisingly boring.

After the movie we were right back on the road.  I called my aunt who lived only a couple hours up the road near Fredericksburg, to tell her we were on the way.  Even though we were going to arrive late, we still wanted to stop by and visit for an hour or two.  Of course, the day wouldn’t be complete without another traffic snafu; we lost another hour on the freeway because of an accident.  We never saw what all the tow trucks were for, but as we inched by the scene, we boggled over the full-size bus that had driven completely into the small wooded area on the median.  The only thing visible through the small hole in the trees was perhaps the rear quarter of the bus itself.

Eventually, after another GPS snafu, much texting, and one long phone call, we finally arrived at my aunt’s house.  It was great to see her and two more of my cousins, but since we arrived so late (10pm), Oksana and I felt guilty about keeping them up.  We borrowed a laptop to book a reservation in the Hyatt Regency near the airport in DC (Yay Hotwire!) and then we were back on the road one last time.

We rolled in, exhausted, and left our FJ Cruiser with the valet.  By the time we’d settled in, it was already 2am – another late night before another long day of travel.

But the next day wasn’t so bad after all.  We got up early, gassed up the rental, and discovered that the airport exit was literally right next to our hotel.  We turned in the car, flew through security, and boarded our plane without any trouble.  Both Oksana and I slept through most of the first flight just so we could be awake long enough to enjoy the first class upgrades we had from LAX on.

We had a five-hour layover in Seattle, and were met at the airport by our friend, Travis, who was only back in town for the weekend.  He was running his first marathon the next morning and we spent a lot of time at his place and at dinner talking about how he’d trained for the big day.

Travis dropped us off at the airport around 6:30pm and once again we cruised straight to the gate.  I expected our flight to Juneau (first class upgrades again) to be as relaxing as the previous one from L.A., but it was not to be.  A deaf five-year-old was sitting right behind me and he (understandably) had no concept of volume.  I swear that two-hour flight was somehow longer than the other two put together.

But it got us home.  And we had a much-needed weekend to recuperate ahead of us before jumping back into The Routine.  Oh, and one more little thing that kept the post-vacation blues at bay: As soon as we got back, we placed an order for our new 32GB iPhones..!

Oksana relaxing in Hatteras