Sunday, February 15, 2015

My Mechanical Keyboard Experience

My Mechanical Keyboard Experience

I’ve enjoyed typing since I was in 6th grade and learned it in a 
class on one of those old fashioned mechanical manuals. As much as I enjoy the satisfaction of thumping away on my Hermes or Olympia vintage typewriter, there just isn’t any opportunity to use these in real life anymore.  In recent years, my work environment has moved over nearly 99% to data entry and eliminated handwriting nearly completely.  This is a sad state of affairs for fountainpen enthusiasts like me, but all good things must end. The opportunity for me to use a lot of my pens now is in journaling which is more enjoyable, but I’ve been looking to make my work experience better. So I’ve reluctantly been trying various species of mechanical keyboards over the past 4 years and I believe I’ve found the one worthy one. The Topre RealForce Hi-Pro from Tokyo Japan.

My understanding of the Mechanical Switches in Keyboards 

This is something like the keyboards from the seventies and eighties.  I spent 2 years doing data entry for a research lab when I was an Undergrad on one of those IBM model M buckling-spring keyboards - they are different from these Cherry MX switches in feel - they had heavier actuation weights, but probably felt cheaper in construction quality somewhat, but overall gave a confidence-inspiring feel to each keystroke, allowing precise data entry. You can still buy those model-M keyboards as they’re produced by Unicomp of Kentucky using the exact same technology in the switches. But the Cherry MX switches which come in 28 different types, and created by the Cherry company now based in Bavaria, Germany are probably the most famous mechanical keyboard switch makers in the world. I preferrred the brown, then the blue switches (turns out I’m conventional - these two, in that order, are the most popular by the general population also). At work I use a brown switch keyboard, but at home I enjoy the clickety clack of the blue switches and so does my wife. They have really precise entry and allows high speed entry.  Once you go mechanical switch, you can’t really go back. Or so I thought.

I’ve read of the Topre switches of Tokyo Japan and turned away at their $300 prices, but in the overall scheme of things, why not spend $300+ on a keyboard - the keyboard is in fact the direct point of contact with your computer system - like a good fountain pen, it’s thus one of the most important tangible features of your computer system. Also $300 really isn’t that much money when you’re getting premium quality goods. I researched Topre switch boards and was tempted at the new Cooler Master Novatouch boards since they use Topre switches but have the central cross connectors allowing keycap changeouts with those made for Cherry MX, but I figured I’m not going to look for other keycaps for decorative purposes anyway, and the Topre RealForce with Hi-Pro already has the best keycaps: PBT w/dye-sublimation printing on them. Though it takes a while to get used to, these spooned out keycaps give an extra special ergonomic feel to typing that is indescribably enjoyable after a while of getting accustomed to them.  I found that EliteKeyboards still sold them and grabbed one - I got a keyboard roof also to protect the keys from dust & liquid spills.  I’m now tempted to buy another just so I have one as a spare in case this one goes kaput and these are no longer available in the future.

My Rosewill Apollo (NewEgg LED backlit one) was not only too much bling, it wasno't made properly - the switches, the plug ins (USB ports x2, mic & headphone connections) just don’t work reliably - buggy piece of crap.  I like My wife’s plainJane Rosewill 9000 series keyboard better. For a decent cheap mechanical keyboard I’d suggest looking at these. The feel of the keys are essentially the same, and if you don’t care about cosmetics or backlighting, or various features, these cheaper ones are all you need. The higher priced ones from Deck, DAS, Vortex or Filco in Australia, or Ducky in China give you some feature choices for keyboard geeks that most people don’t know or care about like various lighting programming features, programmable keys, cord plug options, USB port options etc.  The construction on these are also higher quality, but none of these can beat the Topre or Happy Hacking keyboards’ build quality. Typing on the Topre realForce is like driving a premium car - solid nesting pleasure with everything designed for ergonomics and quality, with the quiet subdued feel of nonostentatious luxury.  

iOne XArmor U9W wireless mechanical keyboard with MX cherry brown switches

This was my first experience with mechanical keyboards. Around 2011 - I read various blogs by keyboard aficionados about the virtues of the mechanical key switches by Cherry. After perusing the feel and pros and cons of the blues, reds, and browns, I felt like the brown switches seemed most reasonable. I already had a couple failures with Logitech wireless keyboards - balky, connections blanking out etc - shorting or whatever was occurring and I decided to try one of these. They had a rubberized surface texture to the cases, the keyboard was beefy and heavy - a feeling of high quality. The wireless connection was bluetooth radio signals carried by a 2.4Ghz dongle - no software included - apparently self-connecting. I found it connected up perfectly from the start. But then troubles began, but more on this later.

The clicks definitely made typing on it more confidence-inspiring, more reassuring that the right buttons are pressed, but the speed wasn’t much better initially.  This one is the cherry BROWN keys that click, I thought I had gotten the quiet keys, but being used to cheap dome membrane keyboards by Logitech for several years, it seemed very loud comparatively.  The cherry BLUE keys were supposed to be better in feel, though even louder - I got a Rosewill 9000 board from newegg shortly to try that one out - it was stentorian - I gave it to my wife who loved it.  It continues to torture me to this day with its obnoxiously loud keys. I offered to put rubber bands under its keycaps for her, but she enjoyed the loud clicking, like the smacking of gum - enjoyable to the chewer, torture to those living around it.

Back to the XAmor U9W - I tried it with the wrist rest, and it’s not much better, so I removed it, as it took up enormous desktop real estate with the plastic wristrest.- it’s a standard, full-size layout with the arrow keys and the numberpad - useful at taxtime. No odd-sized, oddly-placed buttons like the previous Logitech M520.  I placed Lithium Energizer batteries in it.  Heavy and sturdy. Rubberized surface. Keycaps felt somewhat textured, but when pull out - they are ABS (cheaper Lego plastic) - no big deal. Can tell ABS from the better PBT plastic by floating the ABS in water - PBT tends to sink. Also acetone smears the ABS plastic. PBT is usually thicker, higher quality, withstands 323F temperatures compared to only 212F for ABS. PBT is denser, heavier, higher quality and would last longer, much more expensive plastic. Usually texturized and feels much better in quality. I dreamed of PBT keycaps.. someday you shall be mine. But this trivial bit of lechery was unnecessary.  

I used the XArmor U9W with pleasure for about 13 months, enough to use it past its warranty period. A great board. Then one day, it went out on me. A repeated glitchy disturbing error tone on my computer speakers - maddening and I couldn’t figure out what from, but I noticed the keyboard wouldn’t register. Having lost the instructions for the keyboard I frantically looked all around the house for it - finally searched online for the instructions and found some. (later I found the original instructions with the box in the attic). I went through the procedures, re-linking my keyboard to my computer and the dongle - seemed to work, then the signal was lost again. Again and again I tried to reconnect it in vain. Would work for a few lines, then bonk, gone. I opened up the keyboard, looked at the little controller deck on the upper left corner - no obvious fizzled connections.  I tried it on different computers, nothing. I tried to pry off the switches - nothing. I tried new batteries, different dongles, nothing. The keyboard was lost. That was it, forget wireless keyboards.

Rosewill Apollo RK-9100XB, with Cherry MX Blue switches

A year ago I went for a connected, grounded Rosewill Apollo RK-9100XB board from newegg - the king of the newegg mechanical heap. With USB ports, headphone, microphone ports, adjustable illuminated keys, braided cording, the whole works. Cherry Blue MX switches this time. We’ll see how my wife likes the maddening clickiness of blues.  This board was full of bling, but from the very beginning I noticed the letter “A” switch was off - it repeated randomly, it failed to capture occasionally, though half the time it all worked ok. I kept using it for almost a year, before being driven mad by this halting, balky “A” keyswitch. I opened up the keyboard, unfortunately noticed the switches were mounted on a steel plate rather directly on PCB board, making it difficult to remove the individual switch. I’d have to desolder the connectors to get the switch out.  I was tempted, but noticed I was still within the 1 year warranty period, just barely, so I emailed to see if I could get this thing repaired by newegg. I decided enough with the economy boards; I researched furiously and looked at Deck Hassium Pro keyboards, Cooler Masters & Corsairs,  Ducky Shines, Filco and Vortex ones from Australia, the ubiquitous DAS keyboards from Germany; I looked at the common keyswitches by Cherry - decided I preferred the browns to blues and reds, didn’t like the clears, blacks, greens or the rarer MXs. I looked back at the old loud buckling spring keyswitches of IBM/Lexmark and Unicomps, as well as the various ALPs keyswitches from the 1990s before deciding I’ll go to the top of the mountain - Topre switches and keyboards from Japan would be my next keyboards.  After looking at the compact but pricy Happy Hacking boards, I much preferred the full-size boards and especially appealing was the beautiful HiPro ergonomic RealForce 104UG. It had everything I wanted including the sleek understated look, the PBT keycaps, the total absence of useless bling. After looking for a few weeks for a deal on ebay and various auction sites for used ones, I decided to get a new one from the reliable  The price was steep but my lust was steeper.

Nearly all keyboards sold with computers use rubber domes under the keys.  This is the same technology used in cheap TVremotes.  With mechanical keyboards, you don’t have to bottom out the keys to the bottom of the rubber plate to register your strokes.  This saves a lot of energy, reduces fatigue in typing.  Mechanical key switches are designed so that they register before you bottom out the keystrokes, so you need only apply as much force as is necessary to actuate it, not wasting any energy in the process.  There are several types of mechanical keyswitches to pick from.  Once to you try mechanical keyswitches on typing keyboards, you can’t go back.

One of the disadvantages of the mechanical keyboards, especially with USB ports are that it typically supports only 6 key rollovers - beyond 6 keys pressed at once, the other entries are blocked.  This is rarely useful except for maybe certain gaming situations.  The Cherry MX switches have a 5ms debouncing time - each key is delayed by at least this much, but most non-superhumans could not type much faster than this anyway - we’re talking 300wpm speeds.

The average rubber dome keyboards require 55g-60g of force to actuate. 1g of weight applies about 1 Centinewtons of downward force.  That’s 55-60 cN-rated.
Cherry MX Black switches have a 40-80g (60g) actuation force - gives a smooth feel, good for gaming, but not so good for typing, not much of a tactile bump.  Cherry MX Brown switches have 45g actuation force, and a peak force of 55g. These are a middle-ground between gaming and typing switches.  They have a light tactile feel halfway through the keystroke - thus they give you an indication of when you can release.  The reset and actuation points are close enough together that you can “float” at that point enabling you to double tap faster.  The Cherry MX Blue switches have peak force of 50g, with 60g peak force.  These are the best for typing. The tactile bump is easily felt, and the resistance is similar to the average mechanical keyboard.  The release point is above the actuation point, so double-tapping for gaming might be more troublesome.  Other Cherry MX switches are the “clear” switches which are like stiffer browns, the “red” which is a lighter version of the black requiring less force (45g).  The top-of-the-line mechanical keyboards use the “Topre Key Switch” with the tactile capacitative switch of 30-55g actuation force.  They are quieter than the Cherry MX, or Alps, or Buckling Spring switches, with the smoothest force gradient.  
Topre RealForce High-Profile keycaps - RealForce 104UG HiPro, Model YK2100
the Topre switches are faster: 3x faster Debounce - the time it takes a keyboard to register a single switch digital signaal. (5-8msec vs 19-25msec for a cherry MX).  Steel backplate keeps board rigid and sturdy solid feel. Cooler Master came out with the NovaTouch which uses Topre switches, but with the Cherry MX compatible central cross allowing Cherry MX array of keycaps. Detachable cords (but microUSB plug, which could unplug easier than standard).
No LED, no USB, headphone, speaker plugs etc. (just bling anyway).

The XArmor U9w was outstanding on my old computer, but suddenly became useless - wouldn’t connect, wouldn’t type consistently, skips, skitters, repeats. Not sure what happened, but scared me away from wireless mechanical keyboards. But the shitty Rosewill Apollo was the worst experience of my life in keyboards.

I also went in on the $88 PLUM keyboard massdrop earlier - this one’ll arrive sometime in early March maybe - I plan to take this one to work perhaps.
After I Finally received the much awaited Topre RealForce Hi-profile keyboard - in unique dark grey board with lighter grey/beige PBT sculpted keys. scooped-out profiles overall, and scooped-out touch surface on most keys, but with a variance to it that is unique. For instance the ~ to + row including the 1-0 keys are angled forward in a unique way that makes reaching them easier than whatever so that 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, 11,12 13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20, etc. Perfection.

There’s no indexing rise on the F & J keytops like most keyboards. Rather, the scooping depth to the A, ; G & H keys are shallow like most other keys, while the sdf and jkl keys have the most pronounced scooping depth. This allows one to feel one’s way into position - thoujgh it takes some time to learn. One has to become loyal to this keyboard to learn this by feel, but with such a luxurious board, one can’t help but want to be one with this cup rubber as much as possible.

I get some hangups like others have said about this board such that my typing speed was not great - 109wpm on typeracer. I’ve hit 115 or higher regularly on my XArmor Cherry Brown couple years ago. I’m biased against the Cherry Blue, mainly because the Apollo Rosewill was such a piece of shit with the hanging A key - the plating making the replacement of this switch a pain the ass - I’d have to desolder it, resolder another switch for instance. But I think I can definitely get used to this keyboard. I’m getting lots of mishits, but I think the cherry blue apollo piece of shit has given me the yips. Will need to retrain myself.

The keyboard roof is truly nice piece of acrylic, clear 3.44mm thick piece - lies atop the keys only - protecting from dust, liquid spills etc. damage. Bonus - I can lay it on the board, put my journal on top of it at a slant and use it as a slantboard for writing more comfortably as well.  Is this roof worth $30 form elitekeyboards - it is for me now, but ask me again a few months later.

§  Clear acrylic Roof/Cover protects from dust and spills
§  Fits Leopold 104-key and Realforce 103-key Keyboards
Model: RF-EK    Stock: YES    Price: $30.00
 A bit of a pain as to where to store it.

On cardboard box:
Topre REalforce
Keyboard Specifications
Much better Operational Performance by
Electrostatic Capacitative System.
Superior endurance of 30 million key life cycle.
Good feeling of oneness with cup rubber.

On bottom of box:
Japanese lettering

On right-side end of box:
Topre Corporation
SKU bar: 456029934041417

Item                                                          Specifications
Switch System                                           Electrostatic Capacitive System
Stroke                                                       4.0 mm
Layout type                                                US Layout 104 keys (Black)
Press Attributes                                          45g Soft Tactile Feeling (+/-15g)
Interface                                                    USB Interface
Cable Length                                              Approx. 1.5m
External Dimensions                   456mm(W) x 169mm(D) x 39mm(H)
Weight                                                      Approx. 1.4kg
Not such a tactile feel as compared - can be silent - the bottoming out sound is more a pleasant click. When actuating without the bottom contact, it can almost be silent. aaabbbcccdddeeefffggghhhiiijjjkkklllmmmnnnooopppqqqrrrssstttuuuvvvwwwxxxyyzzz111222333444555666777888999000.

Typing on this board feels like nothing else - the rubber dome keys of membrane mid 1990s Dell boards feel similar in terms of the pressure gradient pop. The Cherry brown switches on a plate is the closest match in terms of sound, but the tactile feel is entirely different for both. Cherry MX switches feel very linear in resistance - You feel a pressure whether hard or soft throughout the stroke til the break. On a membrane board, you feel a bubble pop feel at the top of the stroke, but as it gives away, there is nothing - also there is a plasticky cheap chiclettiness to membrane boards that is very unsatisfying for extended typing sessions. A dull monotony. With the Topre switch, because the finger and keycap switch is floating atop a rubber dome, it feels like your finger is being pushed back as it pushes forward - a floating feeling. The majority of the resistance at each switch is therefore near the top of the press, then you feel the pressure clearly give away, a silent popping feel that is very addictive and pleasurable. I reminds one of that feeling you get pressing against a bubble in bubblewrap. If you can learn to not press the key all the way to the bottom point, you can type very quietly. But for those of us trained on mechanical typewriters, the fingers tend to press with more force than the Topre switches require, thus the bottoming out sound and low-pitch click with a woody pleasant timbre to it.  The scooped out profiles are more pronounced in the primary asdfghjkl; row, less pronounced in the rows above and below. In the numbers row above the alphabet keys, the keys are scooped but leans forward toward your fingers, allowing a more ergonomic reach to these numbers. Almost makes the numberpad unnecessary. The remainder of the keys including the function keys, numberpad, arrow array and the printscreen to pageup/down array have the intermediate scooped profile. The keys toward center of the board requires more force to actuate than the keys toward the outside of the central key array. 3 weights. This variable weighting creates a more even psychophysics of typing in the same way that the well-tempered keyboard demonstrated by Bach creates a more even tonal centering sound. Generally it all works well together to create a keyboard ergonomics unlike any other board; in fact accounting for features and feels that other keyboarding makers probably have never even remotely considered.
The keys are PBT(polybutylene terephthalate) , which is a premium I didn’t appreciate too much - but is clearly superior to ABS (lego plastic) - higher melting point, thicker plastic, longer lasting form.  (Spacebar is ABS). Long life dye-sublimated keycap labeling (Black)
Substantial feeling to each key, to the board itself, to every connection and switch. A surety of construction that gives one confidence that though one’s mind and fingers may falter, this machine will not. A sense that it will last one’s lifetime. That it may possibly pass down the generations even.
There’s a pleasant matte grain to the surface textures of the board itself, and to each keycap.
There’s a pleasant simplicity of design - a luxurious simplicity, like a vintage Mercedes Benz from the mid 1980s. Looks German in the design.

For this combination of luxurious, decadent design, build, and well-thought out subtleties, along with the sophisticated tactile popping feel of typing on this board, one must pay a premium. ~$300 shipped. I got an acrylic keyboard roof from elitekeyboards for an additional $30 to protect this investment. But since the majority of the time one spends in front of a computer screen is time spent interfacing with a keyboard -  this time is best spent in pleasure, flying across keycaps and switches built for pleasure and speed.


Friday, September 07, 2012

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday, August 06, 2012

Thought for the Day

long-time, no blog - I'm going to try to do something different. Ever since I've been a child, I've read comic books, and ever since I've been a kid, I've been obsessed with things, objects, gear.  I'm going to combine the two by blogging cartoons on this type of topic, or at least give it a shot.  Here's my first:

copy or use without written permission from me will result in civil suit.

Hogyun Lee © 2012

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

We bought a Honda Odyssey

My car purchase history is 1991 Honda Civic Wagon, 1994 Toyota Celica (kept ’91 civic wagon for my wife), 1997 Honda CRV (traded in the ’94 Celica – bad car for toting babies in), 2002 Honda Pilot. My wife’s Honda Pilot got crunched by a large white delivery truck while my wife was at a stoplight. The size/heft and safety features including the “marginal” rear-crash rating of the Pilot saved both my wife’s and my daughter’s life (please see the picture above for the damage from behind). It made us want to buy another Pilot, especially as it had been an absolutely flawless performer with absolutely no problems since the day we bought it. However the big downers on the Pilot were difficulty getting the 3-year-old in/out of it, bad gas mileage, uncomfortable 2nd row seating and impossible 3rd row seating. Things we liked about the Pilot were its rear back-up sensors and the rear DVD entertainment system (to keep the kids from fighting during long trips). I also liked the high vantage point while driving as well as the high ground clearance (though this made the car theoretically less stable and more prone to rollover). Also the Pilot was just simply a “cool” car among the geeky parents-with-small-kids crowd.

However, the Odyssey was the inevitable car for us at this stage of our lives with an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old. We scoured the specs/numbers at NADA and Kelly Blue Book sites, we read the entire sections in Consumer Reports on Minivans and ordered price reports to make sure the NADA and Kelly Blue Book and prices weren’t missing something (they didn’t include dealer holdbacks of $500 to $1500). We looked long and hard and did almost go for the Toyota Sienna XLE Limited, but we were dissuaded by Toyota’s specifications including inferior gas mileage and the recommendations to use Premium gas, and ultimately Toyota’s inferior crash test ratings (it’s rear crash ratings are POOR, versus the Odyssey’s MARGINAL) ruined the Sienna in for us. The Sienna however was clearly the “cooler” car and more popular with the kids, but for us safety and gas mileage trumped all. The dealer told us the Sienna Hybrid was just around the corner (maybe next year - 2007), but from the size of the Sienna, I can’t imagine that it would make a huge difference in mileage, maybe ratchet it up by 5 or so miles per gallon. It would be then marginally better than the Odyssey EX-L and Touring models, but I’m sure at the price of several thousand dollars more. And despite advertising to the contrary, I have a pet theory that those big batteries run by the hybrids will need to be changed out after about 5 or so years at a cost of thousands of dollars, thereby obliterating the price savings from the hybrid mileage. The trim line of Odyssey we bought (the Touring) comes with the VCM (variable cylinder management) system which shuts down half the 6 cylinders when the vehicle is cruising at low speeds or decelerating, and the Ody club forum database seems to confirm mileages in the 20city/28hwy range – not bad for a hulking vehicle. The front dash multi-information display shows you approximated real-time mileage as well as how many more miles you can drive on the current level of fuel available (an awesome feature). Additionally, I have received absolutely stellar service and honesty from 4 different Honda dealers and repair/maintenance while I’ve received only sleazy service and dishonesty from the two Toyota dealers where I serviced my ’94 Celica. The sales tactics at the Toyota dealerships I’ve visited also were a turn-off.

I remember about 10 years ago thinking how stupid-looking and ugly minivans were and I said to myself that I’d never spend my own money on abominations like that. Well if I didn’t have kids, I’d go for a nice Honda Accord/Civic Hybrid, maybe the Prius, but with 2 little ones to tote around for at least another 13 years, the Minivan makes a lot of sense, especially the Odyssey. In any case, I've accepted the fact that I am middle-aged now, over-the-hill, about-to-die, etc. So being "cool" means nothing to me anymore. Either that or my now middle-aged tastes finds that the Odyssey is indeed "cool" for my frumpy set.

Once we decided on the Odyssey, the anti-affluenza-izing part of us wanted to go USED and wanted to go LX, well we looked at various USED cars and looked up records by VIN on CarFax and we ultimately decided that surely we could get a decent vehicle at a decent price, but we’d probably still be paying around 85% of the price of a new car for a vehicle which we’d always be nervous/anxious about due to its lack of good warranty. We had a friend who actually sold used cars including Odysseys, and after checking various used vehicles out (especially the ones just coming of lease from 2004), we decided to go ahead and spend the extra 15% for a new one with full warranty. We’re talking about the difference between paying say $30,000 for a new one versus $25,000 for a used one – definitely a big monetary difference, but considering the psychological and the potential sub-LEMONal factors involved, we decided to pay the extra $5k and sleep better at night.

Once we fell down the slippery slope of getting a new Odyssey, it became relatively easy to convince ourselves that we needed the Touring line of Odyssey. What the Odyssey 2006 Touring has over the next best Odyssey, the EX-L are: run-flat tires with constant tire pressure monitoring systems, the automatic open/shut rear hatch (huge and heavy) with the auto obstruction sensing features on both the side sliding doors and the rear hatch. With small kids running around these safety features are unbeatable. I have had 2 friends who were killed on highways from probably high-speed tire blow-outs. The Honda Odyssey Touring lines’ Michellin PAX system promises to eliminate this deadly possibility. Also, my wife tends to be a do-it-yourselfer and has often changed tires on our vehicles – yet the promise of not needing to do this, especially at night on dangerous highways or dangerous neighborhoods is also definitely worth the price of these tire systems. I’ve read from people on the Ody forum that it would be about $900 for replacement of all four tires on the Michellin PAX system. Compared to the $500 I paid for the cheap Uniroyal Laredo Cross-Country on our last Honda Pilot, the $900 doesn’t seem a high premium to pay for the additional safety features you get. The other great features of the Touring line over the others are the multiple-point parking sensor system surrounding the vehicle. I enjoyed the back-up sensor on the Pilot, but having additional sensing points as well as the rear-view back-up camera to aid in parking/backing-up is a great feature especially for those with limited coordination like me.

The more difficult part to explain is getting the rear-DVD-entertainment system and the satellite-linked navigation system. As I said before we had the rear DVD system on the Pilot and we have found it extremely useful particularly with our very demanding and noisy kids. As much as I despise TV, the ability to keep the car relatively calm and quiet during long, long trips actually provides another safety feature to the driver as well as lowering stress levels. We can be very choosy with our DVD choices too: the Kipper series are a favorite as we have probably the entire collection. Other ones I like are the Pixar movies, and many of the older Disney movies. The navigation system is something I wanted to get because we have gotten outrageously lost several times and I thought being totally lost especially in heavy traffic in foreign territory (on long trips etc.) is also very much a safety concern. If the Touring line came in a set-up where we could have the rear-back-up camera WITHOUT the navigation system however, we might have gone for a vehicle without the navigation features. I’ve read more and more how useful the NAV is, so I’m thinking that it was a good choice. My intial impression with the car is indeed that the Navigation features is the single most awesome feature of the car. The black leather interior is also an awe-inspiring experience. I can't imagine living without the Nagivation features now - I'll never be lost again (in the Ody at least). The voice command and recognition feature is also pretty HAL-like and fun, but I think I could live without it. The remote keyless entry with the auto dual side sliding doors and the auto rear hatch open/closing is also pretty nice - I can't help but play with it. It's basically like playing with your own toy robot sized large and $36,000+ price-tagged.

The hardest phase is to part with the money. With our wrecked Pilot, especially since my wife was totally faultless in the accident, we got about $25,000 settlement for our crushed vehicle + various expenses (free car rental til we settled, free booster seat, my wife got a day’s pay at work etc.). By using AAA car buying service (which we used to purchase our 2002 Pilot), we were able to negotiate an outstanding price of $35,384 for the Odyssey 2006 Touring with DVD/NAV. After taxes and fees, the total price was $36,666. Thus after factoring in the $25,000 settlement, this vehicle would cost us $11,666. This is a lot of cash to spend especially when we’re trying to sock away money for college savings for our kids and retirement for us. Nevertheless we absolutely will not finance this amount since it is senseless to pay additional hundreds of dollars. So we took out this amount from our stash of cash at INGdirect to pay off our 2006 Odyssey. In a further slide down the slippery slope of Affluenza, in endlessly reading about the Odyssey on various websites etc. I somehow found myself purchasing a set of all-season black rubber floor mats and the rear cargo tray as well as mud splash guards and the “bug” air-deflector for the hood. These expenses amounted to an additional $484, bringing our total for the Odyssey to $12,150.

Here then are the first pics taken of our new car:

In the end, I’d probably preferred that the Honda Pilot was never wrecked and that we could have driven it to 200,000 miles. But since we were dealt a bad hand by fate, we decided to make the best of it by upgrading our vehicle instead of downgrading. I figured that if we took the lower road and got a used vehicle with fewer features, we’d ever after be in whining mode complaining about what fate did to us and reminiscing of how great a vehicle the Pilot was and all that. If we upgraded to a superior vehicle on the other hand, I thought that our loss would only be financial which is something we could live better with by working more and saving more to replace our lost cash. Time will tell whether we made the right decision in sliding totally off our track into the abyss of affluenza again, but thus far I have no regrets (in our current high from spending $36k+ on essentially a giant gazingus pin). Our previous few years of hard saving has given us a pile of cash and we can afford this bit of decadence and still keep most our stash. This is how we justify such an outrageous purchase. As TS Eliot wrote:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell,
and the profit and loss.
They picked his bones in whispers,
as he rose and fell,
entering the whirlpool.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Our Belated Summer RoadTrip Vacation
Unto The West

Warning: This blog entry is incredibly large as it is a summation of 13 busy days with pictures.

Due to scarce time I've not blogged for months. In brief, I've been stamping out disease and saving lives at work (=3 and changing diapers and attending to babies at home. I've made a decision to change jobs and have been doing much paperwork (will write about the job change soon).

Finally, here is our Out-West trip put-off twice in the past 2 years; this was my blog's original raison d'etre. We took 2 weeks off to take a long ass road trip from our town Cary NC to Wyoming and back. I'm glad we did this in the Summer as gas prices sky-rocketed soon after we returned. My wife and I have driven cross-country a couple of times before, but we now had two babies complicating the road trip: our eight-year old and our three-year old. They made the trip more interesting and more inefficient and expensive. When my wife and I were in school, we could drive around the clock, taking turns at the wheel. We drove from the Grand Canyon back to Chapel Hill in just over 3 days or so. It's not possible to do this with screaming babies in the back seats. We found we had to turn in early and find a hotel/motel soon after night-fall each day. We couldn't go into just any Cockroach Inn either due to safety concerns. We definitely couldn't just plop into a deserted campground and pitch a tent in total darkness the way we used to. In general, once you have kids, vacations are entirely all about them and not about you (life becomes so also). Sometimes you have to go back and see the same thing(s) you saw when you were younger just so your kids can see it - even if it means missing out on something new. we had grand plans of camping out in our tent every night almost, but once we hit the road, this plan became impractical. It's very tiresome to pitch a tent with accessories like blowing up an air mattress manually, scrounging for food for everyone, cleaning up and toileting everyone at night, then taking down the tent with accessories, making breakfast for everyone, cleaning/clothing everyone in the morning - all while trying to make good time driving across the country. Thus follows a synopsis of the trip:

6/14/05, Day 1: odometer reading at 41651, time of departure 08:23EDT (original hoped for departure time of 04:00 didn't materialize.) Above we are about to leave NC and enter into VA - that nipple-like prominence at top is Pilot Mountain in the Mount Airy region of NC (ancestral home of my wife's maternal grandmother)
We stopped at 13:12 in Princeton WV to eat at CiCi Pizza ($12.36) and fill up on gas ($35.73 for 17.022gallons, odometer 41989, mileage 22.14mpg).
We then drove on and finally stopped for the day at 19:15 edt in Corydon, IN - got gas at FastPay for $22.44 for 11gal, mileage 23.43mpg. We checked in Hampton Inn (quoted $85+taxes). We ate at White Castle ($16.18), a droll little fastfood place we've never seen in NC - very tiny hamburger meat slices were placed in what we in NC would call a dinner roll. We played putt-putt at GolfShores for $14. My family stopped up the toilet twice at this unusually clean and nice Hampton Inn - first time the plug (my son's) was so solid that nobody could un-stop it, so we changed rooms - my wife promptly plugged up the toilet in our new room. Our original plan was to visit Lincoln's boyhood home memorial in Indiana, but our late arrival and departure precluded that. We drove 596 miles our first day.

6/15/05, Day 2: We checked out of the Hampton Inn after an ok continental breakfast - we were charged $99 total, we didn't contest it due to the multiple plugged commodes. By 11:20edt we arrived in Illinois. We drove out of our way to see the Gateway Arch in St.Louis MO first:
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We thought about going up into the Arch like we did 11 years ago, but decided to keep moving. The long wait to ride an ancient and slow elevator ride up a claustrophobic enclosure for a blurry view of the St.Louis riverfront would not have been pleasant with a screaming 3 year-old on-board. We arrived in Springfield IL at Lincoln's home. We paid $2 for parking, took the tour of Lincoln's home, grounds, and neighborhood, bought souvenirs (bust of Lincoln, a President's book, $21).
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Then saw Lincoln's Tomb

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We got gas in Springfield for $35, 16.211gal, mileage 21.05mpg. We decided to back-track a little bit in order to see Samuel Clemen's boyhood home in Hannibal MO. We drove back into Missouri and arrived in Hannibal by 20:18edt - we were actually 7:18pm Central Time though. We checked into a decaying Hotel Clemens (quoted $65/night). We walked around Hannibal, saw the Mississippi river (very scenic little town), ate at Breadeux Pizza ($18.54 + $.50 for gumballs for the kids). We drove 456 miles for the day.
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6/16/05, Day 3: We checked out Hotel Clemens after a mediocre continental breakfast (free) - paid $71.89 for the night after taxes. Then we paid up for the tour of Twain's boyhood home and neighborhood - saw Becky Thatcher's house, Grant's pharmacy, walked up to the lighthouse, etc.
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We bought a refrigerator magnet, got gas for $16.15 for 7.806gal (14.72mpg), Then drove out of Missouri and into Nebraska. We decided on the fly to stop by Omaha to see Gerald Ford's birthplace and Warren Buffet's place of business.
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We paid $8.45 for 10 burritos at TacoBells in Omaha. Omaha was a lot more urban than I pictured. I saw that Woodmen's building (remember in About Schmidt). I never knew that Ford was from a broken home - his mom divorced when Ford was less than 1 month old. Ford's biological father's name was Leslie King, so he should actually be called Gerald King. We drove around for over an hour trying to find Buffet's house - I should have brought along his biography so I could locate it better. Here's is a shot of the entrance to his place of business - I went inside and asked to speak with Warren - I was promptly chased out.
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We paid $34.34 for 15.904gal (25.3mpg), odometer 43106. We stopped to get gum and chocolates for the babies. We left Omaha at 20:17edt finally. We arrived in South Dakota, still very light out despite the time. We checked in our second Hampton Inn in Mitchell SD at 22:38edt and was quoted $108/night - we had no choice but to take it. We drove 599 miles this day.

6/17/05, Day 4: We ate a good free continental breakfast and my son stopped up the toilet again with another huge bowel movement. We paid $116.64 for the hotel after taxes - a horrible price, but my son's commode devastation provided our family's unspoken commentary on their prices. We paid $15.81 + $5.08 for 10.22gal of gas in Mitchell (19.14mpg, odometer 43302). We drove past the Corn Palace arguing viciously and took some pictures, but didn't go inside - I knew from 11 years ago that this was just an auditorium-type place, nothing exciting inside.
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Finally about mid-day, we arrived at one of my favorite National Parks, Badlands SD - we paid $50 for an National Park Pass, thinking we'd visit more than 6 national parks/monuments within the year. we also got a Badlands refrigerator magnet ($3.10).
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The views in Badlands were marred by too many tourists and their vehicles. We originally planned to camp here like we did the last time we were here, but the incredible herds of tourists made us decide to pass on it. The number of billboards advertising tourist traps had also exponentially increased - they cluttered and ruined the landscape driving into the Black Hills. Back 11 years ago, I remembered it was very scenic and kind of fun waiting for the next Wall Drug sign along the highway into the Black Hills. Now the huge numbers of copy-cat-road-side-kitsch tourist-trap signs was a nauseating spectacle.

We saw our first prairie dogs leaving Badlands - my kids loved them and fought over the binoculars. We stopped at Wall Drug so our kids could gawk at the spectacle. I bought a semi-functional binoculars for my youngest so she'd stop whining.
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We also bought several kitsch toys, a jackolope figure ($30.37 total). We left Wall and went toward Rapid City where we hoped to camp - bought gas for $31.89, 14.502gal (21.4mpg, odometer 43618).

We decided on a place called Horse Thief Campgrounds in Hill City, SD after much shopping around for campsites. We got two nights for $32.13 - the place looked like trailer-park squalor from the entry, but once you drove into the tent-sites, the area was actually quite scenic with the dark granite black hills in the background.
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The hot showers and general facilities were adequate, though not spic-and-span clean. We ate at Route 16 Diner (pizza, $27.64), bought some propane at Krull's market ($3.91). We set up our campsite with tent, rain-dining area, etc. Here's a shot of our littlest one the next morning found sleeping in a crevice - she is a habitual crevice-seeker, even at home.
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6/18/05, Day 5: We woke up fairly early for SD time as we were still going by our Eastern time. We cooked some ramen noodles and ate this along with leftover pizza from the previous night. We have a MSR Dragonfly stove, but found that for car-camping with kids, the cheap REI-bought Coleman stove with two eyes was much more user-friendly albeit much more bulky.

We drove into Mt.Rushmore and bought a parking pass ($8), toured the facilities, took many pictures, bought a Rushmore magnet ($3.17),
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then drove through WindCave National Park where we were greeted with huge herds of bison and many prairie dog towns. It turned out that this was our favorite day of the entire trip as we were literally surrounded by prairie dogs and bison in abundance.
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My wife wanted to get out and hike, maybe see some caves, but we had been already had our fill of caves at Mammoth Caves in KY last Spring - I was bored of caves, so we just toured around the surface of Wind Cave, then drove into Custer SD where we ate lunch at Pizza Hut ($21.64). We then drove through Hot Springs SD (where we saw the impressive mammoth bones exhibit 11 years ago) - we decided to bypass the Mammoth bones this time in favor of Deadwood. Along the way to Deadwood I grew tired of seeing the many billboards of the hypocrite Kevin Costner all over South Dakota - for someone who affects being a conservator, his giant self-serving billboards sure did uglify the landscape.
We drove all the way north do Deadwood SD, parked ($2), and toured the kitschy town. We saw where Wild Bill Hickok got shot, saw where he and Calamity Jane were buried, saw a shoddily performed outdoor drama, then got the hell out of Deadwood - it was a dirty town full of motorcycle gangs. It seemed everybody there sported tacky tattoos.
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Maybe what gave me a bad taste about this town was that as soon as we got there, my son and I went to a filthy public bathroom next to the tourist office. My son slipped and fell into a 2inch deep cesspool covering the floor of the men's room. We made him strip naked in the car and change clothes as soon as possible - he was very unhappy.
on our way back to Rapid City, we ate at a Taco John's for $12.90, an excellent alternative Mexican fast-food place, somewhat cheaper than TacoBells. We also ate at a dingy Dairy Queen afterward so we could further fatten ourselves up ($10.34). We wanted to see one of the night-time lighting ceremonies at Mt.Rushmore, so we hurried back to camp - it was a dramatic, atmospheric presentation, highly recommended to all patriotic Americans. We logged 266 miles all around the Black Hills for the day.
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6/19/05, Day 6: We debated briefly staying longer in the Black Hills, but we thought there would be so much to do and see up North, so we semi-reluctantly packed up, ate some more ramen and left Hill City by 12:15EDT - this turned out to be a mistake. Our first goal was to see Devil's Tower National Monument, then up to North Dakota, and maybe Canada. We drove into Sundance WY where we got gas at FreshStart for $35.35 (17.004gal, odometer 44095, 21.2mpg). I mistakenly thought this was where the film festival was (my wife reminded me it was in Park City UT). We visited Devil's Tower, hiked all around it, bought a souvenir magnet ($2.20) - this is a spectacular monument notwithstanding the movie.
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We ate at a Subway's on our way back through Sundance ($19.85) - Subway's is supposedly THE WORST franchise one can buy due to their corrupt system of expansion. As I turned out of the Subway's parking lot and drove off, I was ticketed for speeding 45mph in a 35mph zone, about 300yards of leaving the Subways! I later spoke with 2 lawyers in Casper WY as well as indirectly with the area's district attorney about representing me in court. The 35mph sign was tucked in behind the Subway's and there was no way I could have seen it turning left out of the parking lot. I tried to convince them that such hijacking and speed-trapping was unacceptable, but they were too busy to deal was such a trivial case and I had to pay the fine ($92) in the end. I recommend never visiting Sundance WY, the village of Death. We drove North glumly, our vacation seemingly ruined forever by the speedtrap, and at 21:05edt we stopped at Bowman ND and paid $20.19 for 9.53gal of gas (44316 odometer, 23.2mpg) at the unfortunately named Kum & Go. Despite the time, the skies were still bright as mid-day. Along the highway, you could see several groups of pronghorn antelopes all the way into North Dakota. At 22:30edt we arrived in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
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We bought a campsite for $10 at Camp Cottonwoods. We pitched our tent amongst nests of ants and mosquitoes. We attended a Ranger-led talk after night-fall - about 8 groups of people were there including us. The topic was weird though - about Roosevelt's fiance back East. With night-fall, the skies were still very luminescent and clear, and we had a very scenic background of North Dakota badlands. We chose Cottonwoods campground because of our past pleasant experience in a cottonwoods campground at Big Bend National Park in Texas. This particular Cottonwoods in ND however was not quite as good. We drove 482 miles for this day.

6/20/05, Day 7: We had torrential rains overnight and our tent cover was soaking wet. We washed up and ate breakfast - public restrooms here were disgusting, unhygienic, and stank like death. The camp host walked by and admonished us for washing up at our campsite instead of using the bathrooms. We wanted to tell her it was because her facilities stank like death, but we held our tongues. This below is Teddy's cabin where he stayed after graduating college.
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We looked at all the Teddy Roosevelt exhibits, then decided to move on instead of staying several days at the South Unit of the park. We dried our tents the best we could and packed the tent into our car despite the risk of molding. We hiked a couple of trails and spotted some bison and even saw a coyote from afar.
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We bought a TRNP magnet ($2.13), then decided to go see the North Unit of the park. We stopped in Belfield ND, ate at Trapper's Kettle ($25.59) - a very interesting though forbidding restaurant which was deserted when we got there. It seemed to us that everybody in ND behaved in a chilly and unfriendly manner, but this may be just a cultural difference. Also our attitudes were still flavored with the stench of the speedtrap ticket in Sundance. We got gas at a Conoco in Belfield for $15.35 for 7.046gal (odometer 44469, 21.7mpg).
We arrived rather late to the North Unit of T.Roosevelt National Park - we walked around the ranger station exhibits where my son performed a successful bowel movement. We drove all the way around the North Unit looking for bison (saw about 12 of them), tried to find some bighorn sheep (never saw them). The temperatures were 95+F despite the latitude - I had to buy the babies some Sunkists as they became extremely diaphoretic from all the walking around. We didn't find any favorable campsites away from the sun and heat, so we decided NOT to camp at the North Unit - we went out toward Bismarck (and toward home).
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This totally altered our original plans to go see Canada and visit into Montana. But the stifling heat and unfriendly folk (and the speeding ticket) made us want to go home.
We drove past the World's Largest Holstein Cow on the highway and we took Exit 159 to Bismarck - we found and were quoted $98 for a night at Country Suites ($107.91 total) in Bismarck. We ordered Domino's Pizza ($20) and bought $3 of drinks from a vending machine (profligacy). My wife washed up all our dirty laundry (including the cesspool dunked Deadwood clothes) at the hotel for $2. This hotel had a spectacular pool with huge fun-house slides but we were too busy to play (to my son's bitter disappointment). We drove 352 miles for the day.

6/21/05, Day 8: We ate an outstanding full breakfast for free. Overall an outstanding hotel, highly recommended.
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We drove into Bismarck, first went to see the Lewis & Clark Center, then paid for and went to see the Ft.Mandan sites ($20). We bought souvenir magnets ($6.31) and my son bought an arrowhead for $.53. This was a very educational, mildly interesting site, but the actual fort is actually sunk deep underwater and the displayed fort is a staged reproduction. My wife liked it, but I didn't think it was worth the price of entry.
We stopped to take a closer look at the ND state capitol in Bismarck - my wife wanted to go inside, but we were running short of time I thought (we probably should have visited this one).
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The capitol was very odd - it looked like a standard office building tower. I guess out here amongst nothing, a rectangular boxy 19-story building appears impressive. We bought gas at Tesoro for $36.42 for 16.563gal (20.84mpg). We then took a tour of the Mandan On-a-Slant Indian Village near Jamestown ND. This was an interesting tour and was part of the $20 L&C Center fee. The Mandan earthen huts looked very much like Mongol yurts and harked back to the ancestral heritage of the North American "native" people.
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If you look at old daguerreotypes of Indians from the 1800s, you see better their northeast Asian features. It's funny how there isn't much made of this nowadays, but I'd think you could in truth classify the North American "Indians" as North East Asians originally, only later admixed with the Spanish and then the Northern Europeans. So it's not surprising that Columbus thought he had found "Indian" - in fact he had found North-Eastern Asians. I'm sure all Asians looked the same to him. It's funny that the "native" Americans, are now wanting to go back to being called "Indians" - it's all so messed up that it makes your head spin.
We also paid $18 to tour George Armstrong Custer's last home before he set out for the Battle of Little Big Horn. I thought this tour was quite worth it - a very polished University of North Dakota student led the tour dressed in period cavalry uniform. This was in fact a very sad story as told from the perspective of Custer's family and young wife.
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We bought more gas at an Amoco in Jamestown ND for $11.75, 5.444gal (23.1mpg). We saw the World's Largest Buffalo. That's not me posing in the picture, just a chubby dude who presented himself conveniently for use as my scale model.
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We also saw White Cloud the white buffalo from afar at this small kitschy exhibit. We ate at another Subway's in Jamestown ($17.89), then stopped at a Walmart to buy some DVDs, some junk food ($27.19). We ended up at another Country Suites in Fargo ND ($85.52). With all the touring this day, we only drove 345miles. One of the awesome things in driving around North Dakota was how light it was outside even close to midnight - it must be even more like this in Canada and Alaska in the summers. We could literally see both the sun and the near-midnight moon in the same sky, which made for a very other-worldly ambience.

6/22/05, Day 9: This Country Suites was pretty good, and cheaper, but not as good as the last one - the breakfast was good. we departed Fargo after buying more gas for $10.62, 5.182gal (18.7mpg odometer 45037). We had decided that we were headed home, but I wanted to see Sauk Centre, MN, the home of Sinclair Lewis. One of the great American novels I would recommend to any medical student or aspiring one, is Arrowsmith, a surprisingly forward-looking novel about a medical researcher. We did stop by the Lewis interpretive center, only to find that the tours of his house had closed for the day. The center was still very good, it even had his highschool diploma and Nobel Prize certificate, as well as the funerary urn which enclosed his ashes.
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We went by his house anyway to look at his neighborhood. He was actually physically brought into the world by his family (his father or uncle?) in a house across the street from his. His was a family of doctors, as reflected in some of his novels. We visited his shockingly humble grave:
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We filled up with gas at Sauk Centre ($25.07 for 12.003gal, 20.25mpg), then drove toward Minneapolis - we stopped and ate at a cheap/good place called Old Country Buffet in St.Cloud MN ($25.79). St.Cloud itself was a dumpy city in the mode of a New Jersey roadside city.
We had hoped to find a great hotel in Bloomington MN, but the entire area around the Mall of America was absolutely stuffed full - I called about 15 different hotels and my wife went into a Hilton to talk to a concierge-type girl who called everyone she knew also. There was nothing except for a smoking room with one bed but they could let us have a couple of roll-outs. So I scouted about and we drove to St.Paul, MN - I called and found out some rooms were available in downtown St.Paul - my wife went in to a downtown Radisson late a night and was quoted $100 (it turned out to cost $131 total including parking and taxes) - we had no choice but to take it. We got a decent tour of St.Paul driving around looking for rooms; here's St.Paul's cathedral at dusk:
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Overall a disastrous day. Only 200+ miles driven and most of the day wasted looking for hotels. One of the things we noticed was there was a lot of gas stations selling "gasohol" containing alcohol-admixed gasoline - we found this reduced our gas mileage by at least 10%. Since the price savings were not too significant, this made the gasohol a bad deal in our view, but maybe it's better for the environment?

6/23/05, Day 10: The Radisson was a decrepit stinkhole with non-functioning air-conditioning, but their free full breakfast made it slightly more bearable - this was the best breakfast we'd had the entire trip: hot pancakes and waffles and French toast, fresh scrambled eggs, bacon (though not for me), variety of cereal and juices, fruits, yogurts. And so we went on to visit the Mall of America, an over-hyped gargantua which would turn out to sorely disappoint.
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It was basically just another mall with the same set of 36-50 stores we find in every mall we'd ever been to. The Camp Snoopy area (indoor amusement park) was over-priced, bland, and dead. The large Lego-land area was similarly boring, even to our 2 and 8-year-old surprisingly. we did buy a souvenir magnet ($2.08) and got a bagful of Kit-Kats for like $.50 per bar at a bargain outlet. My son and I played some arcade basketball at a sports bar for $2, then we got the hell out of the largest mall in America. I would highly recommend AVOIDING this anti-mecca. My son and baby ate up the 10+ Kit-Kats in the car within a couple of hours as we headed out of the Minneapolis area.
We drove through Rochester MN and glimpsed the Mayo Clinic buildings - my wife had interviewed here for residency and decided against listing it on her match sheets because their entire system was so odd. I interviewed at a similarly decadent system, the Cleveland Clinic. I think both hospitals are outstanding clinically, but they are too "tertiary" (sub-specialized) to make good training grounds for residents and interns. You need a lot more bread and butter medicine and less "zebras" during training. Also you need to suffer and get hammered during residency to learn enough and stay humble - I have since found that most Mayo and Cleveland Clinc trained doctors I've run across act spoiled and pampered and whine easily. We drove past the Spam museum but it was closed.
We decided to visit Pepin WI to see where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born and lived for a time. It turns out her actual log cabin in Pepin is gone, but a reproduction is set in the middle of nowhere. There is also a Laura Ingalls Wilder interpretive center in the Pepin visitor's center, but it's just a message board full of pictures of Laura and her husband at various stages of their lives.
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It turns out there are about a dozen or more "Laura Ingalls Wilder" homesites throughout the MidWest and westward - we were originally going to visit the one in De Smet, SD but thought the one in Pepin would be better since it was her birthplace - it turns out we should have visited the one in SD according to the information available in Pepin. Some people apparently do the Wilder tour of every house and homesite she lived or travelled through. Laura's dad Charles, despite her glowing assessment of his prowess in her books, must have been a fairly unsuccessful and struggling man in his lifetime to have moved around so much with a young family. I'll stop short of calling him a loser, but call him a semi-drifter.
We got gas in Pepin for $35.20, 15.652gal (odometer 45605, 20.81mpg). Then on to Iowa. I knew several Iowans from my student days and always had heard good things about the state. In Mason City IA, we got gas again at a Fleet Farm for $16.12 for 7.717gal. We checked into a BestWestern in Clear Lake, IA (quoted $77), ordered Pizza ($22.03) again, and had an NBA championship viewing party in our room with chips and drinks ($9.80) - alas the Pistons got beaten by the Spurs. We drove about 500 miles that day.

6/24/05, Day 11: We ate BestWestern's mediocre continental breakfast - typical BestWestern mediocrity. We discussed what to do next and how to get home from here. We saw unusually large numbers of obese people in Iowa - it made us wonder whether it was merely heuristics, or whether Iowa really is populated by hefty hordes of corn & beef eaters. At 11:43edt we left Clear Lake and drove toward Des Moines. We glimpsed the capitol of Iowa from the car and got lost in west Des Moines looking for an AAA branch to get some tourbooks and maps. We filled up on gas in Kansas City ($35.23, 16.625gal, 19.33mpg) - a truly disgustingly slovenly gas station.
We went by Independence MO to see Truman's last house and place of death/burial
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There was a jail where Frank James of the Jesse James gang was supposedly briefly detained - we resisted going for the tourist trap. We went a little bit out of our way to take a look at Lamar MO, the place of Harry Truman's birth - this is one of the tiniest mid-Western towns we saw, basically just a blip on the map, a trivial town only famous because of one man. His birthhouse is enshrined like a holy grounds there.
We got gas at a Conoco near Lamar ($14.25 for 6.957gal, 20.61mpg) and drove out of Missouri forever. we checked into a Courtyard Marriott in Bentonville Arkansas (quoted $61, paid $68.93). We ate yet another Subways ($21.50) as well as some more junkfood ($5.10). We swam in the Courtyard's clean swimming pool. This was one of the best hotels of the trip but no free breakfast. We drove about 465 miles this day.

6/25/05, Day 12: We woke up and visited Sam Walmart's first store and museum in Bentonville, saw his old office (left in original condition), his last wallet and fountain pen, and saw his famous red Ford pick-up truck:
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We ate TacoBells at 12:47edt for $9.70 in Lowell AR, then stopped at LittleRock for gas at $31.33 for 15.215gal (21.68mpg). We thought for a second of visiting Clinton's library, then drove on to Hot Springs National Park.
When we arrived in Hot Springs AR, we were disappointed to find the town so run-down and decrepit. There was a campground, but it was as scenic as our backyard. We quickly decided that we'd make a day of Hot Springs, but head home before night-fall. The old bathhouses in Hot Springs were somewhat interesting.
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We watched a film of HotSprings at the park's main office. We hiked straight up a hillside to take in a view of HotSprings from it's highest point (dead Chief's Trail). We saw the highschool where Bill Clinton had many ribald adventures. We bought our desultory souvenir magnet ($4.33), looked at all the kitsch Bill Clinton souvenirs (most of them bawdy - like "I did not play Sax with that woman."), then drove out of that grimy, moldy, decrepit city.
We stopped for supper at a Luby's cafeteria in Little Rock ($27.99) - very overpriced for what little we got I thought. We found yet another Courtyard Marriott here (quoted $84, paid $93.66) which was undergoing renovations - I thought the worst Courtyards I've ever seen in my life; it changed my perception of Courtyards forever. We drove about 400 miles this day.

6/26/05, Day 13: We checked out of Courtyards at 12:05edt and drove out of AR and into Tennessee. We got gas in Jackson TN for $32.72, 15.586gal (22.1mpg), then stopped to eat at an IHOP in Jackson ($28.97). We checked into a dirty LaQuinta Inn in Nashville TN (quoted $71, paid $81.24). We swam in a pool again here. We went and saw the TN capitol grounds in Nashville, saw statues of Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and the Capitol building from the outside. We saw James K. Polk's final gravesite.
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We only drove about 300 miles this day as we needed a break before the long drive home.

6/27/05, Day 14: We checked out of the filthy LaQuinta (probably the worst hotel, the worst deal of the trip) and drove out to the Hermitage near Nashville - $27 entry fee and we bought a souvenir bust of Jackson for $32.78. The tour of the Hermitage was poorly narrated by some very uninterested (or uneducated?) ladies - they couldn't answer any questions asked.
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Despite his Indian-killing habits, Andrew Jackson was probably the most ambitious American President, one of the most exciting figures in American history, and probably the closest America came to having a "King." One could have made the Hermitage and Jackson's narration very exciting, but none of this was reflected in this dreary tour. I've found that none of the tours of President's homes we've done in the past couple of years have been particularly exciting - we toured Washington's Mount Vernon, Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier, as well as the President's homes mentioned in this trip like Lincoln's Springfield home. My favorite was probably Washington's Mount Vernon. In any case, the Hermitage was par-for-the-course as far as presidential homes are concerned. We did see Jackson's tomb and his plantation etc.
We got gas at a Pilot in Cookeville TN for $20.67 (22.145mpg), then drove out of TN and into western NC, a welcome sight. This trip was starting to become a pain in the ass and everything we saw started to look boring; we just wanted to get the hell home. We stopped at an NC tourist center near Asheville and emptied our bladders into their toilets. We drove into the triad area of NC by 19:41edt and filled up at an Exxon in Kernersville for $34.32 (16.043gal, 23.2mpg). We stopped in Elon NC at a Golden Corral for our end-of-trip dinner ($22.28 - it was fortuitously kids-eat-free night). Thus our trip ended and we arrived home to Cary NC by 22:30edt to find everything safe and sound.

Here is a scene from a rainy July 4th in Cary NC a couple of weeks after our trip:
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We had driven 5,192 miles over 13 days. We had spent $2,349.96 on this trip. A lot of weight was gained eating all the junk and restaurant food - never again, please.

Toward the end of our trip while we were driving home, we decided to take a poll ranking the places we visited on a scale of 1-10 ("10" being outstanding, unbeatable, and "1" being total SUCK). This may reflect our psyches more than anything else, but I thought it might serve some purpose (in the way rottentomatoes may help decide which movies are worthwhile). Only our 8-year-old, my wife, and I ranked the places, our 3-year-old was sleeping.

Favorites (ratings of "8" to "10"):
--our son's favorites: Hannibal MO, Wall Drug, Wind Cave National Park (bison herds), Mt.Rushmore, Devil's Tower WY, George A. Custer's last home. Wind Cave bison herds were rated a "10"
--my wife's favorites: Hannibal MO, Mt.Rushmore, Wind Cave NP, Devil's Tower, Lewis & Clark center and side trips in ND, George A.Custer's house. Her highest rating: a "9.5" for Mt.Rushmore.
--my favorites: Hannibal, MO, Badlands SD, Mt.Rushmore, Wind Cave NP. My highest was a "9" for Wind Cave's bison herds and prairie dogs.

So our family's favorite place was defnitely the Black Hills of South Dakota with Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore as well as the camping out there. We would have stayed at Horse Thief Campground the entire time if we had a retrospectoscope.

Least Favorite Places (ratings of "4" or less)
--our son's worst: Golfshores in Corydon IN, Omaha, Corn Palace in Mitchell SD, Sauk Centre MN, Truman's house of birth and death, Hot Springs National Park. His worst was a "1" given for Corn Palace.
--my wife's worst: Golfshores in Corydon IN, Omaha tour, Corn Palace, Badlands SD, Deadwood SD, Sauk Centre MN, Pepin WI, Truman's Independence and Lamar. Her lowest rating was a "3" for Corn Palace.
--my worst: Omaha tour, Corn Palace, Sauk Centre MN, Pepin WI, Truman's Independence and Lamar. Lowest ratings were "3" for Corn Palace, Sauk Centre, Pepin, and Truman's places.

The voting was flavored by the fact that we were arguing viciously during the Corn Palace stop - otherwise this should not have gotten such a low score. If Sinclair Lewis' home were open for the tour it would not have gotten such a low score either. Same with Truman's home in Independence and Lamar. The experience at golfshores was ruined because my son had to run off to do an emergency bowel movement - he stopped up the toilet in the hotel room remember. So taking all those by-lines into consideration, I'd have to say that Pepin WI was probably the biggest waste of time.

Quick Summary of the Major Places seen:

National Parks/Monuments
St.Louis Gateway Arch
Badlands National Park, SD
Mount Rushmore monument, SD
Wind Cave National Park, SD
Devil's Tower National Monument, WY
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit, North Unit, ND
Hot Springs National Park, AR

Presidential Sites
Abraham Lincoln's home and Tomb, Springfield, IL
Gerald Ford's birthsite, Omaha NE
Theodore Roosevelt's western cabin home, TRNP ND
Harry Truman's birthplace (Lamar MO) and deathplace/tomb (Independence MO)
Bill Clinton's highschool (Hot Springs AR), and presidential library (Little Rock AR, driveby)
James K. Polk's tomb (Nashville TN)
The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home and tomb, TN

State Capitols seen
Charleston WV
Springfield, IL
Bismarck, ND
St.Paul MN
Des Moines, IA
Little Rock, AR
Nashville, TN

Miscellaneous Tourist Sites
Mark Twain's boyhood home, Hannibal MO
Corn Palace, Mitchell SD
Wall Drug, Wall SD
Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane's tomb, Deadwood SD
Ft.Mandan/Lewis & Clark Center, Mandan ND
Mandan Indian village, George A. Custer's home in Ft.Lincoln State Park, ND
World's Largest Buffalo and White Cloud the white buffalo, Jamestown ND
Sinclair Lewis interpretive center, home, gravesite, Sauk Centre, MN
Mall of America, Bloomington, MN
Laura Ingalls Wilder birthplace, log cabin, and center, Pepin, WI
Spam museum
The first Walmart