John Coxon's TAFF Trip Report

Chapter This One

10:00, 17/08/11, South Lake Tahoe, California

So, I could pretend I'm writing this in South Lake Tahoe, with the sun shining down on me and the serene tranquility of our motel (Super 8, not to be confused with Motel 6 or Lucky 7 or National 9 or whatever all the others are, seriously, why are there so many motel chains with numbers in the name, and why are all of them different?!). Unfortunately, I'm not. I'm writing this, in fact, almost a full month after the events I'm describing, whilst sitting in a Starbucks in Peterborough (hey, it's the closest to the US you can get over here!). I blame this, roundly speaking, on Worldcon, for reasons which I will attempt to detail in my con report. However, since it's officially 10am on the first day of Renovation, and since I am still not at the convention yet, I don't know anything about that, and so I shall stop ruining the journalistic (and structural!) integrity of this TAFF report and start writing about things that I would know about at this point.

I flew out from Seattle on the Monday morning at some ungodly hour (10am counts as ungodly, right?). Janice Murray, who took me around the Museum of Flight, had very kindly offered to give me a lift to SeaTac airport, and so she picked me up around 8am, for which I was very glad. The reason I was very glad was that we had originally arranged for 8:30, but I had had a nightmare that I'd miss the flight, and had awoken early as a result. Her spontaneous offer of arriving half an hour early did a great deal to placate my sleepy brain, so that was very much a boon! We drove to the airport and then she very kindly bought me a coffee from Starbucks before I went through security to board my flight, along with my ridiculously heavy rucksack (I put all my books and fanzines in it, as my suitcase had nearly been over the limit flying Toronto to Seattle).

SeaTac airport is a bit odd (and, according to the Museum of Flight, about as far from downtown Seattle as Heathrow is from Zone 1 London, although the fact you can catch the Tube to Heathrow from King's Cross kinda obscures that). It claims to have free Wi-Fi but I've been twice now and I've never managed to get any out of them, despite the multiple unsecured networks that my iPhone told me were present. This is always a bit of a pain, since airports are not naturally thrilling places and having the Internet would be great. However, on the Monday, it was even more of a pain than usual, since it was my mother's birthday and I wanted to call her via Skype, like I had done in the city earlier in the week. Fortunately, the 3G signal from AT&T was fairly strong (remind me to rant about Americans and their mobile networks, sorry, cellphone networks, elsewhere in the report ...), and I was just about able to call on it. The lag was about five seconds, which made protracted conversation almost impossible and shouting at each other the order of the day, but I was able to communicate my desire to wish her a happy birthday successfully, which was the main thing.

The flight from Seattle to Sacramento was alright. I wasn't lucky enough to be sitting next to an empty seat, like I was on the two flights between Toronto and Seattle, but my seatmates were quiet and the dude next to the aisle let me go to the john without much complaining, so I had no grumbling to do. I believe I finished Cryoburn on that flight, which marked the second Hugo nominee to crumble before my reading skillz. I enjoyed it a great deal, actually, although if I'd known it was part of an ongoing series I probably would have tried to locate the first book, rather than starting at the end, as it were. But, more on the Hugo nominees elsewhere in the report, I think.

The best part of arriving in Sacramento airport was seeing the one, the only, Christopher J. Garcia. I know, I know, you'd think baggage claim would be the highlight, but you'd be totally wrong! He got my suitcase wedged into his car (I have no idea how, since there was no room whatsoever for massive suitcases anywhere in said car) and we rode into the historic part of Sacramento. They have buildings that are really, really old there. Like, thirtysix years old, or something! Arrival in Sacramento heralded us walking in a massive circle. Chris swore blind he knew exactly where we were going and where we were meeting Linda, but the massive circle kind of undermined his authority on the matter, and so eventually we resorted to the miracle of the mobile telephone, but not before we got vouchers for saltwater taffy.

So, I should explain something about the old part of Sacramento at this point. The important thing to note is that 98% of the world's total number of sweet shops are in the town. Seriously. Chris and I counted them, and it's definitely 98%. Well, even if I am lying, there are many, many sweet shops. After rendezvousing with Linda successfully, we went into one, and purchased two bottles of a delightful beverage called Leninade, which is a must for any thirsty communist. As a Briton, I count as a Communist in the USA (my father works for the NHS, I'm practically a member of the Communist Party), and so I enjoyed it greatly. I even saved the bottle! Out of a sense of monogamy, we didn't visit any of the other sweet shops, not even the one that we had vouchers for. We're that dedicated.

We also visited a costume shop. Top tip: if you want to have the most fun you've ever had whilst shopping for clothes, go shopping with Chris and Linda as they rush around a costume shop squeeing. It's brilliant. Chris found an old arcade machine (one of the ones that's a shooting range with 25 shots) and exclaimed as to how much he loved this one before proceeding to suck at it on two separate occasions, which was also pretty fun. No idea what the arcade machine was doing in the middle of the 1920s gangster section, but hey, it was just that kind of place! We also had donuts. For a sort of pre-lunch snack (this was necessary, since I had not had breakfast and had been walking around in the sun and just generally felt like putting calories in my belly would be a good plan before I keeled over from a mixture of hunger and an English reaction to the sunshine). Eventually, it became time for James Bacon to enter the story, and so he did, smiling and greeting me warmly and, I think, quite glad to hear an accent that wasn't American. It's weird, but speaking as a Briton, whenever I go to the States, just hearing British and Irish accents makes me smile. It's like there's an instant camaraderie between you, caused by some weird side-effect of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the American accent. I have visited the USA on previous occasions, and I've now finally visited Canada as well, and I'm very fond of both of them. But there's something about where you're from that creates a bond between two people in a foreign land, regardless of how epic a time you're having. When it's an old mate, well, it just throws everything into relief, somewhat.

After having met with James, I met Katrina Templeton for the first time, who you may know better as Katster. She's a Sacramento-based fan, so it makes sense to meet up with her when in Sacramento! We decided that we needed food, and so we headed down some stairs next to a building that promised all-you-can-eat pizza for $7 (or something ridiculous), because we're classy. The all-you-can-eat pizza came in three varieties: pepperoni, meat and vegetable. The pasta next to it came in three varieties, too: red, green and yellow. The soda came in brown, brown, brown, BRIGHT ORANGE or yellow. Gotta love USA food colouring, it is so much more vivid than the colours that are legal to give to human beings in the UK! The red pasta was particularly yummy, and the pizza was actually much better than it could've been for the price we paid. Over dinner we asked Kat if she wanted to run for TAFF, talked about board games, asked Kat if she wanted to run for TAFF, talked about comics, asked Kat if she wanted to run for TAFF, talked about beer, asked Kat if she wanted to run for TAFF, talked about how stupid it is that Mountain Dew in Canada doesn't contain caffeine and asked Kat if she wanted to run for TAFF. Hey, you can't say I wasn't plugging the Fund when I was on my trip! I would've asked the other people eating whether they wanted to run for TAFF, but given that James and Chris are previous delegates and Linda joined Chris on his TAFF trip, that would've seemed a little disingenuous.

It became time to leave James and Kat to make their way forward on their own journeys. Linda went back to her car, Chris and I piled into his, and we had a road trip to South Lake Tahoe, where the majority of this story is allegedly set (although given we just passed the 1500 word mark I guess I had more to say about SeaTac and Sacramento than I thought!). The drive down was pleasant, although the nature of TAFF is that you end up a lot more tired than you thought you would be and, as such, I slept in the car until Chris stopped somewhere that sold Mountain Dew. Then, unsurprisingly, I was a lot less sleepy, and we chatted animatedly about God knows what until we reached the motel in South Lake Tahoe, checked in, got the Internet working (priorities are important, folks) and waited for Linda to arrive.

When she did arrive, we had a blast. I don't quite remember the order in which the evening happened, but we definitely played Guillotine that night, which was immense fun. Whilst I am in Leicester I am a gamer, not an SF fan, mainly due to the incredibly prone-to-schism university SF society looking less awesome than the incredibly prone-to-going-to-the-pub university gamesoc, aka the Leicester Sabres. As a result, I love playing card games. However, I had not played Guillotine before, despite it being a fairly popular card game. Although I got thrashed in the first game by an all-conquering Chris, I gained enough knowledge that I managed to claw my way to a win in the second game via some sneaky underhanded tactics (my hand was so ready for me to be a total dick, it was awesome).

As well as playing cool card games, we went to the hot tub and the pool. It turned out that the pool was pretty cold, though, so mostly the hot tub. I was busy reading John Scalzi's The Last Colony, which was a very good book, in between reading Mira Grant's Feed on my iPhone (which I didn't feel like exposing to a hot tub, owing to it being expensive, and all).

The final thing we did that night was go out for dinner to a place called Fire + Ice, which is a Mongolian barbecue restaurant in the town. I've never done Mongolian barbecue before, because I rarely eat outside of Peterborough and/or Leicester, and neither of those cities has one, but I am usually raring to try new stuff, so it was all good. For those that don't know (I have no idea how many of you there might be, so I'll forgive you if you skip to the next paragraph!), Mongolian barbecue consists of ingredients that you put in a bowl. You then get a smaller bowl and fill it with a sauce, and then you take it to two crazy men with paddles who put it on some fire 'til it's ready for you to eat. You get to choose from a variety of meats, and vegetables, and stuff like kidney beans and noodles and whatnot, and they bring rice and tortillas to your table for you to have with whatever it is you concocted.

The menu has some suggestions for things that are nice. My first was a noodle-based thing with steak, prawns (or shrimp, depending on your nationality) and sweet chilli sauce that was really very nice indeed. My second was a chicken-based thingy with kidney beans and whatnot, which I was aiming to eat with the tortillas. I deliberately tried to emulate a fajita with that one, and it was awesome! The third one was interesting ... the dude got my sauce mixed up with the other guy standing around the fire, and so we decided we were gonna swap dishes and I had the ingredients he'd picked with my sauce, and he had my ingredients with his sauce. The guy serving thought this was brilliant, and shouted delightedly to his manager that we were nuts. I dunno what the other guy picked, but whatever it was, it was good!

Chris wanted to go gamble some money after we'd eaten, and so we walked the block to Nevada in order to visit Harrah's casino in South Lake Tahoe. Now, the border between California and Nevada used to be delineated by a line on the ground, but the line's no longer there and the sign saying "Nevada" is hidden behind a tree, so the only signal that the state is different is the FOUR HUGE CASINOS that line the road. Harrah's is big, and it has many, many flashing lights, and it had people gambling in it. Chris went to the roulette table and put chips in different places until he didn't have any chips left. Some other men came and got lots and lots of chips and so he was allowed to put them in many different places in stacks of five. As is probably evident from the whole of this paragraph, I have no real clue as to how roulette actually works, but hey, people seemed to be enjoying it, and there was a spinny wheel thing which kept me occupied just fine (ah, simple pleasures!).

The next morning was the day of going to Heidi's. Heidi's, Chris reliably informed us, was a mile away from the hotel, and so we were going to drive. Everything was dandy until we pulled out of the hotel's drive and realised than when Chris had said "mile", what would have been more accurate was "block and a half". We promptly christened a short walkable distance as a Garcia mile, and things were a Garcia mile or two away for the rest of the trip. For instance, "the Chinese place near Chris's apartment is about a Garcia mile's walk". I urge fandom to adopt this as a great unit of measurement!

Heidi's was pretty cool. There was Wi-Fi (with the password written on paper that looked at least ten years old) and friendly people and what looked like a building decorated in the Netherlands. I had a burger patty and over-medium eggs and hash browns and toast (which is my favourite American breakfast, right up there with Eggs Benedict). Chris had something or other which he then followed up with what is apparently called a biscuit and country gravy. As a Briton, I call bullshit. Biscuits are about, oooh, five centimetres in diameter and gravy is made from gravy granules. Whatever he had, it was not in any way a biscuit and gravy. It looked more like a scone that had gone soft covered in a thin custard, and I instantly decided I never, ever want to try it (which is an extremely rare reaction to any food, for me). It looked horrible. Still, Chris enjoyed it, so I guess that's the main thing....

After Heidi's we went to Lake Tahoe, via a post office which took far too long to find given that we started from where it was, drove around a bit and then eventually noticed it was where we'd set off from in the first place. Whilst Chris and Linda did other shoppingy things, I bought stamps and sent wave #1 of postcards. It's important to send postcards to people, but I figured since fandom was getting a trip report out of me, I wouldn't send any to fans, so don't be upset or hurt if you didn't get one!

The drive to Tahoe was interesting since it was all mountain and cliff and no-safety-barrier-next-to-the-road. We parked the car and I got to fill in a form, which is one of my favourite things to do (there's something satisfying about filling in all the boxes, alright?!). We put the form in an envelope with a $5 bill, tore off a stub to put in the car's window and posted the envelope in a box, which apparently meant we were good for parking. This reminds me to mention something, in Seattle, before we went to the Elysian, we parked and there was a parking meter which required the user to poke bills into a hole. So, if you were in parking spot #27, you'd be poking the bills into hole #27. And then in Tahoe, you had the system I just described. In Britain, I literally cannot remember ever having seen a non-electronic parking meter. Here, you put coins into a machine that then spits out a sticker which you put in your car window, letting the authorities know that you paid. We don't even have the parking meters lining the pavement (or sidewalk) for on-street parking. Are there any manual parking meters in the UK? I'd be curious to know, so please write me!

Tahoe was beautiful. I can't really write about how beautiful it was, so this journal entry is probably going to be surrounded by a lot of photographs when I actually lay the report out. What I can tell you about is walking in the extreme heat, 6000m above sea level, up a massive hill. Now, I'm from a place called Peterborough, which is in a place called East Anglia. East Anglia is, it will not surprise you to learn, in the East of England. The defining features of this area of the world are threefold: it's not very warm (except for a few weeks of summer), it's at sea level, and it's entirely flat (great for arable farming!). As such, I am probably one of the least prepared people on the planet for going up massive hills in extreme heats at large distances above sea level. On the way down the massive hill, everything was fine because gravity was happy to help, and I figured I could buy drinking water at the bottom. Whilst, at the bottom, I did manage to procure both two postcards and a bookmark, drinking water was not to be seen, and so Linda and I took the walk back up the huge mountain at a rather leisurely pace (especially because I'm clumsy and didn't want to be the first TAFF delegate to die by falling down a steep incline / thirst / exhaustion on his TAFF trip).

Fortunately, as you may have gathered, I survived without dying, which I greatly appreciated. On going back to the hotel, we chilled out, and I finished the Scalzi book by the hot tub. Then, we all decided to go grab some Mexican food, and so we headed to a chain restaurant whose name eludes me. Unfortunately for Linda it was Tuesday, not Wednesday, and thus the cheap margaritas weren't on, but I really like Mexican food so I thoroughly enjoyed it! In the evening, we watched a film called OSS 117, which is a French parody of James Bond films. It was decidedly odd, but it provided a catchphrase which Chris and I quoted to each other for the rest of my trip, and it's probably odd enough that you should watch it, even if that's just so you understand just how odd it is.

That night we got to bed early because this morning, we're off to Reno! (Well, not really, because I'm in Peterborough, but remember, we're maintaining the integrity and suspension of disbelief, here.) I am very, very excited for Worldcon, my first American convention, my first convention outside the UK and my first Worldcon! I cannot wait to see what it's like, and to see the sights. I must also confess I'm looking forward to having a hotel room to myself, it'll be nice to have a space to call my own. I hadn't realised how non-stop my trip would be before I came out here, which is absolutely fantastic, but it'll be a relief to have a little oasis of calm that I can retreat to. Next stop: IHOP, and pancakes (yum!). Stop after that: Reno, baby!