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Philly Cheesestakes and Independence

Independence Hall—the birthplace of America—is one of the exciting locations of this Great Adventure

Volume 69: Mon April 10, 2006

Where your favorite hero, Ryan, accompanies a beautiful girl around Philadelphia then whisks her off to England.

March 13

Once again, Amanda and I are adventuring in the true sense of the word. Amanda is turning 40 years young this month, and she wanted to celebrate with a bang with a visit to the birthplace of letterboxing: Dartmoor in the quaintly British country of England.

So there we were, three o'clock in the morning, flailing around at the sound of an obnoxious alarm clock to ensure we didn't miss our flight out of Seattle. We dressed and generally made ourselves presentable for public viewing. I grabbed two sets of car keys, three bags of trash, and a forth bag with recyclables—no sense letting the stuff rot while we were gone for the next couple of weeks—and headed down the stairs of the apartment. I tossed the trash, recycled the recyclables, then unlocked my car door.

Frankly, I didn't think the car would start. Generally, most people seem surprised it runs at all, but two days earlier I discovered, much to my surprise, the car didn't start. It worked fine two days before that, I had the oil changed, and all seemed well. Then I put in the key, turned, and nothing. No feeble attempt where the car struggled to turn over and start. No clicking noises. Nothing. I opened the car door and noticed the interior lights barely lit as if the battery had no juice. Damn.

Not wanting to mess with the problem just then, I disconnected the battery—a practice I'm quite good at since I usually leave my car in this state as it often sits for weeks neglected and unused and I hate coming back to a dead battery. But I had used the car just two days before and it worked fine. It was puzzling, but it appeared the car would be sitting for quite some time to come, so I disconnected the battery to save whatever power it still had left and I could investigate the problem.

Both Amanda and I, however, did not want to leave my car unattended at her apartment complex for the next two to three weeks in fear it might be towed for the sin of being there. So by 4:00 that morning, I reconnected the battery and crossed my fingers that some miracle might happen and it would magically start as unexpectedly as it didn't the last time I tried to use it. And to my astonishment, it worked!

I got out and locked the door—I've heard that criminals often steal cars (even old junk ones!) that are left idling and I was darned if my car was going to get stolen before I could make it to England. And I certainly had no intention of turning the car off in fear it wouldn't start up again, so I locked the doors and dashed up stairs to tell Amanda that, by golly, my car started!

We carried our luggage down, loaded the idling car, and Amanda got in the driver's seat to whisk us away to the airport. She can park in the employee parking lot at the airport—an area off limits to non-employees such as myself—so she dropped me off at arrivals (princess parking, as she likes to call it), then went off to park the car in the employee parking lot while I waited in line with all the luggage for the ticket counter to open.

The ticket counter didn't open until 5:00, so I made myself comfortable in line just behind one other family and waited for Amanda, who finally showed up about 20 minutes later to wait with me.

The ticket counter opened and we heard the bad news: The flight was very booked. Okay, it wasn't really a surprise—Amanda checked the flight loads long before and we knew it was already very full, so we already knew there was a very real chance we would not make it onto the flight since we were riding stand-by. But we hoped we could squeeze in. We hoped.

We got ourselves through security then proceeded to wait at the gate. Traveling, in case you haven't realized, often requires a lot of waiting.

The plane started boarding. And we waited. Groups were called, one by one. And we waited. Finally a call for all passengers was called, and we waited. We still did not have any seat assignments, and things were starting to look dim. As the last of the passengers boarded, the agent turned to us and to say they had room for us, and we'd be on. YES!!! But to hang on a second while he did something else first.

So we waited. The last passenger walked down the jetway, out of view. And we waited. The agent finally gave us tickets and we walked down the jetway. We were no longer waiting. =)

When you get the last two seats on an airplane, I can tell you exactly which two seats you'll get. They'll be in the back of the plane, and they'll be middle seats. Amanda took 19-B, and I took 19-E, squeezing between two rather heavyset women. I waved to Amanda on the other side of the plane.

The rest of the flight was non-eventful. I wanted to sleep—waking up at 3:00am hardly counts as a good night's sleep—but I found it impossible to sleep in the middle, so I read magazines and waited until the plane finally landed in Philadelphia.

I've never been to Philly before, so I talked Amanda into taking me a day before we flew to England for a quick tourist tour. And it gave us plenty of backup flights we could catch in case we got bumped from our flight to Philly.

The temperature, Amanda told me, was insufferably hot in the mid-70s and extremely strange for Philly at this time of year. We picked up our bags, then waited at the curb. A van from the Lagoon, our hotel for the night, was to pick us up and whisk us away. Amanda has stayed here quite often—it's popular with flight crews who want a cheap hotel.

Amanda had all sorts of negative things to say about this hotel, but price trumps them all, it seems. We spent some time in multiple hotels that many might call 'less than desirable' while wandering around Central America, so I had my concerns when she called it a dump in the bad part of town. And I'll admit, the hotel does seem a bit past its heyday, but it was practically luxurious compared to the image Amanda planted in my mind.

We changed out of our nice flying clothes into street clothes—always good to blend in with the locals, I always say, or at least wear a bright Hawaiian shirt that screams tourist to make sure nobody accidentally mistakes you for something else. I went with the 'blend with the locals' look and put on a T-shirt.

Then we walked to Denny's—one of the few eating establishments within easy walking distance and ordered our lunch/dinner. What can I say? It was Denny's? After eating, we walked back to the Lagoon taking a short side trip to the park next door explaining all about New Sweden. Despite the countless nights Amanda has spent in the Lagoon, never once had she stopped to look at this park right next door. I, of course, intensely curious, wanted to read the historical markers I could see at the park.

And historical it most certainly was. New Sweden dates back over 400 years, and we stood at what was thought to be the capital of New Sweden. The colony only lasted for 17 years before the Dutch conquered them, however, and eventually the English conquered the Dutch. Fascinating stuff that doesn't even made a footnote in North American history, but still is worthy enough for historical markers.

And finally, we went back to our rooms and watched television the rest of the night. Medium, CSI: Miami, the local news, and Leno, if I recall correctly. Oh, and a documentary on the making of Silly Putty.

March 14th

The next morning Amanda and I checked out of the Lagoon and headed back to the airport. No, not to leave for England just yet—I still wanted to see a little about the birth of our own nation first and the City of Brotherly Love. We took the hotel shuttle back to the airport, then Amanda stored our bags in the crew room there while I waited outside of security. We met back up and headed into downtown Philly on the train with nothing more than our daypacks.

The weather turned decidedly cooler but wetter and our first stop was at a CVS store where I got an umbrella and Amanda picked up sunglasses (she forgot hers at home).

Then we walked down the very same streets that such illustrious characters such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and John Adams worked and lived.

This is the room where the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were signed. Makes your skin tingle just thinking about it, doesn't it? =)

We picked up free tickets into Independence Hall, previously known as the Pennsylvania State House before the signing of the Declaration of Independence made it famous around the world. Our tour didn't start until 11:00, and we were told to get through security about an hour before the scheduled start time, which we did. We slid our backpacks through the X-ray machine and walked through the medal detectors, and just in the nick of time as a large school group walked up immediately after us.

Several of the structures around Independence Hall are open for visiting at whim while waiting for the Big Hall itself that a tour guide leads people through. So we checked out the room where George Washington was sworn in for the second time as President of the United States (the first time was in New York City, which—for anyone following these adventures—knows we visited that site near the World Trade Center a year and a half ago). John Adams was also sworn in this room as second president of the United States. Sadly, most people don't know anything about John Adams, and I bet if you asked the typical person on the street who the second president of the United States was, they probably wouldn't be able to name him. I read a fascinating book about the guy—appropriately named John Adams—telling his story, pushing for independence, and narrowly avoiding a disasterous war with France during his term of office.

The second building we checked out contained three very historic documents: an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and a rough draft of the current US Constitution with editing thought to be done by George Washington himself. This room also contained the inkwell thought to be used by everyone to sign their John Hancocks to these illustrious documents.

We took photos, and Amanda sat down to wait in line for Independence Hall. I wondered off to see the former Supreme Court building, a small, undistinguished room on the other side of the plaza where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the American public.

I returned to Amanda and we waited for our appointed hour to see where our country was born. We watched as one of the park's personnel helped explain to one couple where Nicolas Cage was creeping around on the clock tower in National Treasure, a fun if very unrealistic movie. Nice to know that's what Independence Hall boils down to for a lot of people. Scenes in a blockbuster movie.

At the allotted time, we marched into a small room and took seats. A park service guy told us about the characters who populated the building over 200 years ago, then we walked into the room where all the action really took place: the assembly room. If walls could talk, these walls would have an awful lot to say.

I tried to plant a magnetic letterbox inside the bell, but security tackled me first. Just kidding. ;o)

We finally headed back out and then walked across the street to see the world famous Liberty Bell. Once again, we passed through security, though this time we did not need tickets to get in. You lead yourself through the exhibits finally ending at the bell itself. I told Amanda about the April Fool's joke played by Taco Bell saying that they had bought the Liberty Bell. Rumor has it that the National Park Service was none-too-happy about all the irate phone calls complaining about the bogus sale, and Taco Bell ended up paying them quite a sum of money for their trouble. I just love a good practical joke. Especially when it comes to the National Park Service. =)

My biggest disappointment with the Liberty Bell, however, was the building it was in. It looked awful. Glass walls, squat, and boring. A nearby plaque explained that the site originally held the first presidential house where George Washington and John Adams lived before presidents moved into what is now known as the White House (which actually wasn't white back then, so it wasn't called the White House). They give no information about why such a historic house was demolished, but I suspect it was just neglected and finally torn down before anyone thought the structure was worth preserving. So I complained to Amanda that they should have tried to reconstruct the original structure than rebuild the ugly ass building that sits there today.

On our way to Independence Hall, I noticed a small sign pointing to the Philadelphia Mint. I had forgotten that the biggest mint in our country was right there in Philly. Neither Amanda nor I knew where it was, but as soon as I saw that sign, I immediately wanted to tour the place. Few things can be more fun or exciting as watching money being made!

So we followed signs leading to the mint. As we passed a cemetery, Amanda told me that Benjamin Franklin was buried there.

"He was?!"

"Yes," she nodded.

"Since we're here, let's go say hi to Ben!"

Not a very elaborate grave for a man as famous as Benjamin Franklin, but here it is anyway

Turns out, it actually costs a couple of bucks if you want to get into the cemetery, but nice people that they are, they buried him at the edge of the cemetery and you can see his grave from outside of it. Lots of coins littered the top of it—apparently a lot of people mistook Ben's grave as a water fountain and made a wish. *shrug* Even more ironic, they threw a bunch of coins with Abe Lincoln's head on it—a man who wasn't even born until long after Franklin died. Guess the tourists didn't want to throw any Franklin-based currencies at the grave. =) We stuck our cameras through the bars keeping people out, took the necessary photos, and continued on our way to the mint.

We hadn't planned ahead for a visit to the mint, so we asked a guard standing outside of the building the procedures for visiting tourists such as ourselves. Backpacks, he told us with a glare towards our backs, were not allowed, and photo identification was required to enter the building. Other than that, however, we were welcome to go in and follow a self-guided tour of the world's largest mint. Cool.

Amanda asked the guard if there was somewhere we could put our bags, and he suggested a hotel about a block away saying they'll hold our bags. So off we trudged, deposited our bags with the hotel, then came back and flashed our driver's licenses to the guard and entered the building.

I was captivated. Money. Lots of it. In oh-so-small denominations. Pictures of the state quarters adorned all the walls, blown up in all their glory, and one had a caption telling us that was the quarter they were striking that very afternoon. Cool!

We walked along, reading the displays about the history of the mint, information about the coins they strike, and finally through a hallway overlooking the rooms where most US coins are born. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this process because—of course—cameras were strictly forbidden. Long strips of what looks like sheet metal are inserted into a machine where circular disks are punched out of it. The circular disks then get moved to the machine that stamps the impressions into them. It's not much to hear me talk about it, but it's really cool to watch. Conveyor belts move the coins and half-made coins around at dizzying speeds which is actually the best part. The actual striking of the coin is done in large machines where you see lots of moving parts but you can't really see into the machine to see what's happening. Lots of black-box gadgets here. Strips of metal go into one end, and blank coins come out the other. Blank coins move to another machine and to in one side, and finished coins plop out the other. The machines are labeled with what they're set up to make so it was obvious that one machine was making nickels while the machine next to it was punching out dimes, for instance.

At the far end of the room, the finished coins were put into large, hernia-causing bags that would then get shipped off to Federal Reserve Banks around the country.

It didn't take long to see the entire process, and we headed back outdoors and to the hotel to retrieve our backpacks.

Amanda poses for a snapshot outside of Sonny's Famous Steaks

I'm all about trying the local food of choice, so it was off to lunch at a local eating establishment serving up—what else?—the world-famous Philly Cheesesteak. Amanda had a spot in mind she found on a map somewhere, and we wondered around a few blocks looking for it but never did find it. Instead, we ended up at Sonny's Famous Steaks. I figured we couldn't go wrong if it was famous, and I was right. =)

By now, it was time to start heading back towards the airport. We had a flight to catch to England, after all. So we continued walking up East Market Street to catch the train to the airport. Except, once again, we got sidetracked. We passed a small, brick tunnel with a prominent sign saying that this very tunnel was the one Mr. Franklin himself passed through every day from his house into the rest of the city. I wanted to follow the tunnel and see where it led—just behind the street building was where Benjamin Franklin used to live. The house he lived in is no longer there—razed by his relatives long after his death when they decided that the cost of upkeep was no longer worth it. However, they have erected an outline of where the house once stood so tourists such as ourselves could see where it stood and its dimensions. The ghost of the structure that once stood there.

Additionally, viewing areas were set up where you can peer onto the original foundations of Ben's old home including the toilet pit where waste was disposed of. Fascinating stuff! And to think, we were fortunate enough to discover this place by accident.

We also learned that the post office next to it—keep in mind that Benjamin Franklin was America's first postmaster general—would hand-cancel stamps with a special Franklin stamp. Naturally, Amanda had to stop there and write lots of postcards to mail. If you got a postcard with a hand-cancelled stamp from Philly, you know who you are by now. *nodding* I also told Amanda to send one to me. After all, we wanted a copy of the hand-cancelled stamp for ourselves! Well, I did, at least, but I'm sure Amanda did too. =)

The 'ghost' of the house where Franklin used to live on the postcard Amanda mailed to me, and a blow-up of the hand-cancelled stamp just below it

And then we finally left to go to the airport. Really. No more distractions. We reached the train station—okay, I took a stroll around the building to read all about the historic structure which I think annoyed Amanda whose poor, tired feet I was running into the ground—no pun intended, of course. But that didn't take more than a couple of minutes before we hopped the train back to the airport.

Amanda retrieved our bags from the crew room, then checked us in with first class upgrades before we both went through security and our last few steps on the North American continent.

But we didn't walk to our gate just yet. No, we headed to another gate to look for Princess Lea due in from San Francisco who would be going with us to Dartmoor. Princess Lea is a trail name, of course, since she's not really a princess. Well, not an official princess, at least. =) She's a long-time friend to Amanda and they often spend their time encouraging each other's Nancy Drew obsession. The princess made it into Philly a few minutes early where we met her at the gate and walked across the airport to the area for international departures.

More waiting ensued, and finally our flight started boarding. I followed along as Amanda and Lea were having a deep conversation about something—not sure what—and we started to board the plane, but the gate agent stopped me asking if I had another pair of shoes to put on.

"Huh?" I asked in dismay.

Apparently, my Waldies—you might remember them from my Appalachian Trail adventures—were not good enough for Amanda's airline. The only other pair of shoes I brought were dilapidated tennis shoes, but I checked them so they weren't accessible anyhow.

Amanda, who I knew would come to my rescue, was in a deep conversation with Princess Lea and now out of eyesight at the other end of the jetway completely oblivious to my problem. I was on my own. At least until Amanda noticed I was missing and came rushing back to find out how I could have gotten lost on a jetway.

"But I've always traveled in my Waldies!" I begged. Which was true. They're comfortable, and on a long, cross-country flight, there's nothing I'd rather do than slip out of those confining and constricting shoes with laces. So I wear Waldies which I can slip on and off with the greatest of ease and comfort.

She looked at me with a stern eye.

"But what about the brotherly love?!" I pleaded.

The woman asked another gate agent what he thought of my shoes, and he hemmed and hawed. I couldn't believe I'd be bumped off a flight for my shoes.

I gave the woman a pathetic, sheepish frown, and she finally waved me by saying that she hoped the flight crew didn't notice my shoes.


The flight crew, I'm happy to report, could have cared less about my shoes. Amanda had worked with one of them on other flights to England so she was real chummy with them. =) In fact, they even let Princess Lea sit with us in first class so we could be together.

The flight took off without any trouble, and we found ourselves hurtling through the air in a pressurized metal tube at nearly 600 miles per hour on our way to England. Life was good! =)

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