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Dave Seminara

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Dave Seminara is a journalist and former diplomat based in Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, Outside, ESPN, and a wide variety of other publications and sites. Twitter- @DaveSem website: www.daveseminara.com

It's Still Snowing Somewhere In Oregon

crater lake oregonWhen you think of wintery weather, Oregon might not be the first state that comes to mind. It certainly wasn't for me until I visited snowed-under Crater Lake National Park and other snowy, high altitude spots in the Beaver State last week. It was 76 degrees and sunny on the day we left Klamath Falls, Oregon, for the park, which is only 70 miles to the north, and even though I'd been told that Rim Drive, the scenic route around the park, was closed due to snow, I didn't quite believe it.

To me, it was like being in South Beach on a toasty, warm day and hearing that there was snow in West Palm Beach. But Crater Lake is about 2,000 feet higher than Klamath Falls and sure enough, the place was still buried in snow.

"All the hiking trails are covered in deep snow," said the park ranger who took our $10 entry fee. "But we rent snow shoes if you're interested."

Airlines Use Loopholes To Avoid Paying For Damaged Bags

broken suitcase american airlinesIf an airline damages a piece of your luggage, surely they will pay to repair or replace it, right? Don't be so sure. I've been very lucky over the years in checking bags but my luck ran out on a flight to Chicago from San Francisco over the weekend, when I found out that there are plenty of loopholes that airlines use to avoid paying for damaged luggage.

I prefer to travel light and bring my suitcase as a carry-on, if I can, but when I travel with my two young sons, as I did on this occasion, I tend to check my suitcase because we're traveling with car seats, a stroller and a host of other items to keep our kids content on the flight. For me, it's usually worth it to pay to check the bags at the curbside check-in, and I did so on Saturday.

The skycap was terrific; he actually came right to our car and wheeled our suitcases over to the counter himself. But when we arrived at O'Hare later that evening, the pull handle on my beloved Burton/Gravis suitcase was broken. I waited in line at the airline's baggage counter and was told by a pretty young woman that I was, essentially, out of luck.

Please Don't Smoke Or Steal The Signs In Weed, California

weed californiaI'm not a smoker but I can't resist unusual town names so when I saw an exit off of Interstate 5 in Northern California for a town called Weed, I pulled over, eager to find out how the town got its name. This being California, I imagined that some hippies moved into the town in the '60s and voted to change the name to Weed. I expected to see aging Boomers with tie-dye shirts, ponytails and unkempt dogs passing around huge spliffs on the town's main drag, Cheech and Chong movies playing in perpetuity at the Weed cinema, and the melodies of Bob Marley & The Wailers filling the streets.

But a visit to the Weed Store, a souvenir shop at the entrance to the town, quickly disabused me of that notion. Stacey Green, the shop manager, explained that the town was named after a guy named Abner Weed, a native of Maine who came to the place to open a lumber mill in 1897. It isn't clear whether Weed smoked ganja himself but Green said that marijuana definitely isn't legal or even decriminalized in the town.

An Interview With Paul Theroux, Author Of 'The Last Train To Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari'

paul theroux last train to zona verdeAfter writing eight travel books that took him around Britain on foot, through the Pacific on a kayak, across Latin America, Europe and Asia on trains and up and down Africa by his wits over the last 30 years, one might think that Paul Theroux would be hard pressed to find new insights into the traveling lifestyle. But in his new travel narrative, "The Last Train to Zona Verde," the 71-year-old Medford, Massachusetts, native manages to once again break new ground with yet another insightful, page-turning account of a trip that's equal parts misery, hilarity and tragedy.

While other established writers might be content to spend their golden years waxing poetic on the joys of cruising the canals of Southern France or writing puff pieces on cruises or luxury resorts for P.R. flacks, Theroux returns to Africa - the setting for some of his most memorable books - for one final adventure in little known corners of South Africa, Namibia and Angola.

Theroux intended to travel overland up "the left hand side" of Africa, starting in Cape Town and heading north, as a sort of bookend to his trip up the "right hand side" of Africa chronicled in "Dark Star Safari," but after a series of tribulations including having his identity stolen, Theroux abandoned his plans in Angola, where, for the first time in his life, he found a train, heading into the country's zona verde, that he didn't want to board.

24 Almost Perfect Hours In San Francisco

san francisco baker beachA pair of hairy middle-aged Chia Pets are blasting Wham's "Careless Whisper" from a new age boom box. A cluster of Latino immigrants is fishing and drinking cans of Tecate just steps away from a male paddleball player in a tight speedo with a Taliban-style beard and his long hair pulled in a Samurai-style bun. A teenager with a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina tattooed on his chest is enjoying a joint, not that anyone cares. A tattooed guy in a San Francisco Giants hat is playing the bongo drums while just up the beach near the rocky foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bevy of bronzed men, and one eccentric old lady with bright orange hair stroll the beach in the buff. There is no better place to drink in San Francisco's delightful eccentricity than Baker Beach on a warm, sunny day.

Muddy Waters once referred to San Francisco in song as "mean old dirty Frisco," but my experiences with the City by the Bay over the last two decades have always been significantly more positive. I'm always looking for an excuse to visit San Francisco, so when the opportunity arose to tag along with my wife on a business trip, I jumped at the chance. Here's how I spent 24 hours in the city with two little boys, ages 3 and 5.

Saying 'No' To Add-Ons At The Car Rental Counter

Thrifty Car RentalI'm a rental car company's worst customer. I always refuse all the additional insurance coverage options, the pre-paid fuel option and the toll pass. I bring my own GPS and car seats for my little boys, I tend to say, "no thanks" when they tell me I can upgrade for a fee, and I often prepay for my rental cars on Priceline. Usually car rental agents size me up as a cheapskate and quickly hand over the keys to a car, but a gentleman at the Thrifty branch at San Francisco International Airport actually almost managed to sell me something last week. Almost.

He seemed strangely dismayed when I told him I had my own GPS and car seats and didn't want to pre-pay for my fuel or "upgrade" to an SUV. And then he threw me for a loop asking for proof that I had liability insurance when I told him I wanted to decline coverage because my credit card company would cover it.

"Do you have proof?" he repeated.

Fiddles, Bagpipes And Empty Beaches On Cape Breton's Cabot And Ceilidh Trails

cape bretonAfter driving for miles on a dirt road through the pitch darkness and seeing no signs of life anywhere, I was certain we were lost. It was a perfect early August evening in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and we were looking for the Thursday night square dance in Glencoe Mills, a blink-and-you'll-miss it hamlet in Cape Breton's untrammeled interior. The road was so dark and so eerily quiet that when I finally saw another car coming towards us from the opposite direction, I flagged the driver to stop.

"You're almost there," said the old man.

"But how will we know when we've arrived?" I asked.

"Oh, you'll see all the cars," he said.

And he was right; the whole area was so eerily silent because on Thursday nights in the summertime, almost everyone within a 20 mile radius descends on the community center in Glencoe Mills to dance to traditional Gaelic fiddle music. We paid our $5 entry fee and stepped into a large hall that was filled with men, women and children from age 5 to about 85 dancing in pairs and in big circles as a band on a small stage played soul stirring traditional Gaelic fiddle music. Almost as soon as we sat down, a man in his 70's came over and swept my wife onto the dance floor, where she remained for most of the night. On Cape Breton's Ceilidh Trail in the summer, the music and the strong sense of community are infectious, and there are no spectators, only participants.

Forget Mykonos, Try Syros, Your Friendly Neighborhood Greek Island

ermoupolis syros greeceI arrived on the Greek island of Syros on the night ferry from Samos at 2:30 a.m., bleary-eyed and in need of coffee or a bed, maybe both. My sons, then 2 and 4, were still half-asleep, wondering why the hell we'd hustled them out of their tidy bunks in the middle of the night. We stepped over backpackers, most of them heading to Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini, who were still asleep in the corridors of the boat, and alighted in Ermoupolis, the cultural and administrative capital of the Cyclades island group.

I had heard that Ermoupolis was a thriving place, busy year round, but not touristy. But at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday night in early June the place was dead, with just a few cars there to greet the ferry – mostly locals picking up friends and relatives. I had reserved a room at a place called Lila's Guesthouse and though she had promised to pick us up at no charge, I somehow doubted she'd be there. I booked a swanky looking one-bedroom loft with two balconies in a historic building that had once housed the French consulate for 60 euros. If I was Lila, I would have told me to take a taxi. But there she was with a little sign waiting to take us to our room.

How To Get Around Priceline's Annoying New Bidding Hurdles

shatnerIf you're accustomed to bidding for hotels, flights and rental cars on Priceline, you may have noticed that in recent months the bidding process has become more cumbersome and time consuming. When your bid is rejected, you need to change some element of your offer before bidding again – the dates, the geographic area, the vehicle class for car rentals or the star level for hotels – in order to bid again. Or you wait 24 hours to submit the same bid.

In the past, if your bid was rejected for say a full size SUV, you could try again for a mid-size SUV, and if you were rejected again, you could keep going right on down the line to full-size, standard, intermediate, compact, economy and so on (same concept for hotels but with stars and geographic zones). But recently Priceline appears to be making a concerted effort to prevent bidders from making more than a couple bids in quick succession.

Falling In Love With The World's Most Hyped Churros At Xoco In Chicago

churros at xocoI'm almost never game to wait in a long line to eat. But I joined a line stretching outside the door at Xoco in Chicago last Saturday because I couldn't stand to hear another rave about the place without experiencing what all the fuss is about for myself. Xoco is a fast food Mexican place owned by former "Top Chef" master chef Rick Bayless, whom my colleague Laurel Miller once memorably described as an "all-around culinary badass."

The place has a whopping 1,662 reviews on Yelp - 897 of them mention the otherworldly churros - and about the only people who pan it are those who can't get a table. (There are only four restaurants in Chicago with more reviews on Yelp: Kuma's Corner (burgers), Hot Doug's (hot dogs/sausages), Girl & The Goat (New American) and Smoque BBQ.) I've been hearing about how unforgettably good this place is since it opened in 2009 – the place is a tourist attraction in itself – but was reminded that I needed to try it after seeing a write-up on it from Grant Martin in our budget guide to Chicago in late January.

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