Ever since I was a little kid, I've wanted to go to the Olympics. I watched the games on TV with my parents when I was little, then with friends as I got older, and I never quite lost the desire to see it all in person, without the commercials.

So when I saw that the winter Olympics were coming to Salt Lake City, UT, I figured this was my best chance, since it was unlikely the games would ever be closer. Tickets were allotted nearly two years ago, via an on-line lottery system. You couldn't just pick the events you wanted to see - you had to take a package. We found one we liked, put in for it, waited six months to see if we got it - and that was all a year before the Olympics. But that year passed, and we were finally on our way.

We woke up bright and early Monday morning, or at least early, packed up the car until it was full, then packed in a few more things. Winter coats and hats and scarves and boots and the like are very bulky; they take up a lot of room and make "traveling light" impossible. After seeing how much stuff we had, I was very grateful we weren't flying.

Salt Lake City is approximately 10 hours from Colorado Springs. This is either one long day or two short days of driving. We opted for the two shorter days because we didn't want to arrive exhausted, then have to throw ourselves into the whole Olympic thing with no sleep.

The first night we stopped at Rock Springs, Wyoming, a somewhat less than charming hamlet in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming (but I repeat myself). We found a hotel along the main drag, then went out in search of dinner. This proved more challenging than expected, since we didn't want fast food - the only restaurant we found was a Village Inn (kind of like Denny's, but with pie for dessert). Even the mall didn't have a food court.

Speaking of the mall, as long as we were in there, we checked out the KB Toys. (Once a toy collector, always a toy collector.) This wasn't just a KB Toys; it was The KB That Time Forgot. I saw action figures on the pegs that I haven't seen in stores in at least five years, maybe more. Figures like Kraven, Black Bolt, Green Cables Weapon X, Generation X figures, Professor Data...all somewhat beat up, but still looking like something out of 1995 or so. I think no one ever told the manager at this store to send these figures back to make room for new stock.

I ended up finally paying full price for a "Kitty Surprise" Barbie, or "peeing cat" Barbie. Yes, you can fill the plastic cat with water, and have it "squirt" into the litterbox, which is filled with colorful clumping sand, from which you can then scoop the colorful clumps. This whole concept for a Barbie doll still makes me wonder what the toy designers were thinking when they came up with it. (If someone has a burning desire to scoop cat boxes for fun, they are welcome to come to my house, where I have three cats and three boxes that they fill.)

The next morning we got up, got some solidified grease in the form of breakfast at Burger King, and got back on the road. What we didn't figure is how close we were to Salt Lake City - we figured we would be arriving sometime mid- to late afternoon - it turned out we arrived around noon. Sometimes maps.com seriously overestimates the time a trip will take. I didn't think I was driving all that fast....well, I wasn't.

So we killed some time getting lunch at a Wendy's (yum, MORE fast food greasy goodness!), then found the house where we were staying. Mrs. Herem is a former parishioner of Jim's stepfather (his stepfather is a retired Lutheran minister), and had very generously offered the use of her downstairs to stay in while we were attending the Olympics. This solved a huge problem, since we were repeatedly told that hotels were all full. Mrs. Herem lives in an older section of Ogden (the north end of all the Olympic venues) in a cozy, homey house. The basement had a semi-private entrance, a queen bed, and a full bath - and plenty of room to spread out.

In the course of getting acquainted with Mrs. Herem, we discovered that she really wished to have new lights in her basement - the covers of old fixtures had been broken, and she couldn't find new ones. We decided (with her approval) to find the local Home Depot and get new ones. It was an adventure, since her directions weren't completely accurate and we didn't know our way around. Still, the streets are all laid out in a nice grid, so when we got lost, it was easy enough to double back. Home Depot was like Home Depots everywhere - we found the lighting department and found some nice fluorescent fixtures that would last longer, use less energy, and look nicer in the room.

We also stopped off at a grocery store to get water, milk, cereal (breakfast!), and a few other things we figured we'd need. Then back to the house to put up the new lights - replacing lights is pretty simple.

Then out for dinner, where we found out the second thing about Ogden: there are almost no decent places to eat in Ogden. Except fast food. And we'd had enough of fast food. We did end up at a diner called "Wingers", where I had a fabulous bacon ranch hamburger that actually tasted like beef. For dessert, I had the "asphalt" pie, which was mint chocolate chip ice cream in a chocolate cookie crust. Like most places, they had the Olympics on TV, so we got to watch what was going on.

We went to bed early, since the Olympics were going to start early for us the next morning.

The alarm went off at 5:45 am the next morning, an obscene hour of the morning. Unfortunately, we had to get up that early to shower, eat breakfast, and get out to Soldier Hollow before the event started. Fortunately, as part of all the paperwork sent with the tickets, they gave us estimates of time to get there, park, get through security, get to the venue, and get to your seat. The estimates weren't all that far off - Soldier Hollow was an hour and a half drive away.

There were cops all over the highways as we drove - I'm sure they were picking up lots of speeders, as well as keeping an eye out for anything that might snarl up traffic. However, at that hour of the morning, on the route we were taking, there just wasn't that much traffic.

I admit to being nervous about security, especially after hearing all of the stories about how tight it was. However, it turned out to be extraordinarily straightforward. A person was passing out tubs (like the ones they have at airports) at the end of every security line , who also explained that everything needed to be unzipped, and cameras, PDAs, and the like turned on. All your items went on a table where other security people looked through them while you walked through the metal detector.

The security people at this venue, like all the others, were unfailingly friendly, professional, and polite. They smiled, they did their jobs efficiently, and they never made you feel like a criminal. If only the airport security people were like this.

After security, it was on to a shuttle bus that took us out to Soldier Hollow, about a 10 minute ride. Pretty much all the venues have "park 'n' rides" - you park your car in a lot some distance away, and take the free shuttle bus. I thought this was a great idea - you don't have to try to find parking, you don't have to battle the crowds around the site, there was plenty of parking, and they dropped you off almost at the door.

And they did have plenty of busses. Apparently they were borrowing or renting busses from cities all over the country - we rode in busses from MARTA (Atlanta, GA), Orange County (California), somewhere in Texas... all the busses showed where they were from in their destination signs (and sometimes painted on the sides).

Soldier Hollow is a huge site. Once past the ticket takers, we had to hike uphill to the "social area", for lack of a better term. Set in the snow were a bunch of tables and chairs, around this area were the merchandise tents (Olympic shopping), Refreshment tent, the Coke Warm Up Tent (a place for cold spectators to defrost), and the rows and rows of portapotties. Oh, yeah, and some people performing "The Western Experience", recreating life in the Old West - or how it would have been if they were wearing Olympic credentials and could go inside to warm up by the electric space heaters.

The Salvation Army had a tent with free water, kleenex, and sunscreen. Because it's so dry, you have to keep drinking, and there are no water fountains in the middle of nowhere. It was great to be able to get a drink whenever you needed one - or preferably before. (You're already dehydrated when you feel thirsty.) The sun is also STRONG when there's nearly a mile less atmosphere protecting you - sunscreen isn't just a good idea, it's mandatory.

Anyway, continuing up the hill was the stadium itself - standing areas and grandstands to sit in. We'd gotten sitting tickets, since I'm old and cranky (or just cranky) and don't like to stand for long periods of time. When I had originally ordered the tickets, the map of the venue showed where the grandstands were, and it looked fine.

Of course, the maps from almost two years ago didn't quite reflect the reality of today. Yes, we had seats, and they were even in the sun. However, what they didn't show was that half the grandstands faced the start, finish, and biathlon shooting range. The other half just faced a piece of the track where they were gliding down. Guess which side we sat on?

To say I was greatly annoyed is an understatement. We paid just as much as those who sat on the "good" side, a lot more than those who had standing only, and we got screwed. I'm still annoyed by this - yes, we could watch the race on the giant screens, but that's just like watching TV with 15,000 of your closest friends.

I also learned a lot about the basic mechanics of the Olympics for the spectators. While watching on TV, there has always been a measure of respect for the sport and the athletes. In person? It's a big party. People eating the horrible, overpriced food everywhere, leaving garbage all over, the kids running around...almost like watching the athletes is secondary.

And that was another thing that surprised me - the number of kids and school groups who were there. Soldier Hollow is a big site, and after listening to other people later, we found that they did give lots of tickets to less popular events away to schools, but why would anyone bring kids to watch something slow and technical like biathlon? I can't really blame them for being bored, when all you really see is one skier coming by every couple of minutes.

There's also a lot going on that you don't see on TV. There are entertainers "working the crowd", cheerleaders (for those who like women in short skirts), trivia questions and history on the big screens, and for the biathlon, a running commentary. (The commentary is not by the same guys you hear on TV.) You don't have to guess what's going on - and it's kind of weird, seeing the skier climbing the hill in the distance, and seeing the same thing up close on the big screen.

We sat in our seats for the Men's 10 km sprint - they ski a total of 10 km, and shoot twice - once from a prone (lying on their stomachs) position and once from a standing position. Because our seats were on the lousy side, they started letting just about anyone into the bleachers, and we ended up sitting next to some folks from the Russian team, a couple of German cross-country skiers, and a couple of folks from the American biathlon team. We didn't get to meet them, but it was interesting watching them.

After the first race, we decided to go walk around and get something to eat. So did the other 14,998 people attending. I have NEVER seen lines that long for lousy food before. However, we found a cart selling overpriced glazed almonds, so we got some of those and decided to eat later. During the halftime a country band was "entertaining" the crowd.

I also learned that there's only one thing worse than a portapotty - using a portapotty in full winter gear, downfill coat, and the like.

For the second race, the women's 7.5 km sprint, we decided NOT to go back to the seats. We couldn't see anything anyway. So we wandered to the standing area, and actually found a place with a decent view of the start and the shooting - right next to the garbage cans. Well, at least the view in one direction was pretty good. But by this time we were getting tired and hungry, so after watching a couple of people shoot, we wandered back to the food tent, where there was almost no line, and bought the first of many 1/4 pound all beef hot dogs, a plate of nachos, and a candy bar.

We ate this somewhat less than sumptuous repast on a cement step, right next to the bridge over which the skiers passed. Excellent seat, far better than the ones we'd paid for, and we got to eat. Somewhere along the line we also hit the merchandise tent and got me an Olympic baseball cap, to keep the sun and my hood off my face.

Calling it a day, we found the shuttle busses, headed back to the car, and drove the hour and a half back to Ogden. Finding nowhere special to eat, we ended up at Sizzler, where they completely misfired the first steak they brought me. I ordered medium rare; I got well done. I sent it back and they did better the second time. The salad bar wasn't bad, and the baked potato were really good.

That night, we watched a little Olympic TV with Mrs. Herem, and went to bed early.

Thursday, February 14. Valentine's Day for most, 5:45 am wake up call for us. Two events today: a women's hockey game in the morning, and the Men's Figure Skating finals in the evening. I wish I could say I was more excited, but between the early hours and the generally less than exciting experience at the biathlon the day before, it was hard to drag myself out of bed and into the shower.

Nonetheless, we were on the road by 7:15 am to make the 11:00 am game time. This time we were headed down to The Peaks Ice Rink in Provo, another hour and a half drive, this time straight south on I-15. We saw the only snowfall during our entire trip on this drive: a few very light flurries. Like the route yesterday, once you had an idea of where you were going, you were fine, because the route was well marked.

Well, all except the last turn into the parking lot. I expected the turn to be at the light; it was in the middle of the road, so like about half the other people driving, we missed it, and had to turn around, and come back. We actually got there a little early - they wouldn't let us on the busses yet because the venue didn't open until 9:30 am. So we stood around and talked to other spectators, eventually getting on the busses and to the stadium.

Once there, it was another relatively painless trip through security, and right into the food area. Hot dogs and cinnamon rolls for breakfast sounded good to us, so that's what we had. Then we wandered over to the merchandise shop, and found they actually had a pin in...so we got a day 7 pin each. They told us they hadn't received all the stuff they were going to yet (there were two more hockey games after ours), and to check back later.

We found our seats, bleachers, and found that this time they were great. Not quite center ice, but just a little off, and high enough up to see everything. The Peaks is also a smaller venue, only about 5000 or so people I guess, so everything is really right in front of you. The flags of the nations hang from the ceiling, there are two big screens, and for the first time I really felt like I was at the Olympics.

I did go back out and check on the merchandise once again before the game started, and they had more pins in. I'm so glad I did, because one of the pins was this gorgeous half Olympic symbol/half snowflake done in shiny gold and silver. It's the most beautiful pin I saw throughout our trip, and I bought two - one for Jim and one for me. I also got a mascot pin and an American flag with the Olympic symbol on it. No, I haven't turned into a big-time pin collector, they're just nice, cheap, and most importantly small souvenirs.

We ended up sitting next to a really nice couple from a small town somewhere else in Utah, about 10-15 years older than we were. I never did catch their names, but we had a good time talking about where we were from, where we were staying, and all that.

The hockey game was between Germany and Finland. Germany was coming off a 10-0 loss to the USA women, so Finland was expected to win handily. Finland did go out to a 2-0 lead, and really looked like a team, where as Germany was quite disorganized and would have been down much more had they not had an outstanding goalie. Unfortunately, the rest of the team wasn't helping her much. But by the third period, the Germans were starting to put things together, and actually scored a goal. The crowd went wild!

Speaking of the crowd, it was great. Yes, many people were cheering for Finland, but they cheered for any good play, Finnish or German. They cheered with the organ player (playing many of the popular stadium chants), clapped, stomped their feet, and generally got into it all - all in the morning. I liked this - nothing like a supportive crowd to help increase the energy level.

There was no time to hang around after the game - first, because they had to get the place cleared and cleaned for the next game, and second, because we had to get to Olympic Plaza downtown to the Salt Lake Ice Center (also known as the Delta Center, but renamed for the Olympics probably because Delta didn't pay enough to have the name mentioned repeatedly) for the men's finals at 5:45.

The drive from Provo to Salt Lake City was unnerving - there was a LOT of traffic, and the maps showing where the Park and Rides were located were NOT very good. I finally gave up and just followed the signs to one, ending up being one of the first people to park there, get on the bus, and go.

The shuttle busses let us off about two blocks from the main Olympic Plaza. It was an easy walk, which took us right by a Chinese restaurant. Having had generally poor food for two days, the scent lured us in, and we had a most acceptable lunch/dinner of orange flavored beef and kung pao chicken.

Security at the Plaza was a zoo. There were two lines: ticket holders and non-ticket holders. Thank goodness we had tickets or we might still be in line. The basic security was still straightforward, and there we were - right in the middle of the nightly puppet parade.

If you saw the opening ceremonies, you might remember the number they did on the ice down with the large puppets on metal poles. Apparently every night they parade them through the west end of the plaza, and you can see them up close and personal. I took a bunch of pictures - they are a LOT larger than you might think - the buffalo is easily 10 feet tall.

We then wandered over to the Ice Center. The lines to get in were long and COLD. Unlike a lot of the other venues, it is windy at Olympic Plaza, and that makes all the difference. While you could be baking up in the mountains, you'll be freezing while you're wandering around in the middle of the city.

Once inside, we stopped by the merchandise shop, which was out of everything - a little disappointing, we kind of enjoyed shopping for pins. (Even Jim, who doesn't like to shop at all.) So we said the heck with it, and went up the escalator to find our seats.

But we stumbled on to another merchandise shop, with lots of stuff and few lines. Another hint for the Olympics: if one store doesn't have what you're looking for, be sure to look around for another. We got a number of nice pins there, including the snowflake and another Day 7 pin for Jim (he traded his first with someone on the way in).

Then we found our seats. We knew they were way up in heaven, but we didn't know HOW far they were. WAY up. And these were C tickets - D tickets were worse. I don't know where they the D seats were - maybe out in the hall.

It turned out we were sitting next to the same couple we'd sat next to at the hockey game - they had bought the same package of tickets we did. And they were knocked down from A skating tickets (which we were supposed to have) to C, like we were. I had figured that we were knocked down because they had sold so many packages - they did reserve that right somewhere in the fine print.

However, it turns out this woman has a friend who is friends with Mitt Romney, the Lord High Hoofy Doofy or whatever his official title is of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee (SLOC). It turns out that they hadn't sold enough opening and closing ceremonies tickets (at $800 a pop, I'm not surprised), so what they did was knock down the tickets of the other packages, take the A tickets, and make new packages with the ceremonies tickets to sell more.

Apparently on page 19 or something of the agreement you agreed to when you first requested your tickets said they could do something like this, but it was a really, really scummy thing to do. And I tend to believe it, since the SLOC has repeatedly proven they're a bunch of unethical slimewads.

But be all that as it may, at least we were there, and I'd made my mind up a long time ago that no matter where we were sitting, or what happened, I was going to enjoy this. And I did.

Once again, they had big screens over the center of the ice showing the closeups - very much like what you'd see on TV. But it was more interesting to look down on the skaters, and see just how big the ice was, and how much they had to cover. The TV angles just don't give you a sense of the size.

They also don't let you see really just how much pandering to the judges goes on. All the good tricks and smiles are directed at the judges, the jumps are often performed directly in front of the judges. Fortunately, we were sitting on the judge's side, off to the side, and way up high. So we got to see that all, too :-).

The TV coverage also doesn't give you an idea of how fast the competition moves. As soon as one skater is off the ice, the next is on taking a few warm up laps. If you're watching live coverage and they go to a commercial break, you're missing a skater. And yes, there are a LOT more skaters than you see on TV. US TV only shows the top few and the US skaters, maybe 6 out of 27 or so.

There's also an incredible amount of media coverage. Cameras, both TV and still, are EVERYWHERE. If you don't like being on camera, don't be a figure skater.

There's also a kleenex box in an Olympic wrapper sitting on the "kiss and cry" stand. Speaking of that, the skaters use a different door to leave the ice rink as they do to enter it. I always thought it was the same one.

Watching the earlier skaters, you start to appreciate just what the top skaters can do. When TV shows only the top skaters, it all looks commonplace, and you wonder why they're the top, and what sets them apart. Then you watch the "worst of the best", as one person sitting near us termed the earlier skaters, and you understand. They fall more often. They do fewer jumps, and less complicated jumps. They have markedly less artistry. They have even more markedly less speed on the ice.

Still, their Olympics doesn't involve a medal. It involves skating for their country and doing their personal best. And so many of them are so appreciative of the crowd, waving, and smiling and sharing their joy at being there.

Something else I never realized from TV coverage of figure skating was how much a factor the crowd can be - both for and against. Once skater, either from China or Japan, I forget and the Olympic website isn't being any help, missed his jumps. Pretty much all of them. To the point where he was about to give up - we thought he'd hurt his knee or his head. But the crowd wouldn't let him. The crowd applauded and cheered, and basically pulled him up to finish his program - and he DID finally land a jump. The crowd just filled the arena with noise - we were all with him, willing him the courage to finish. And he did. He came in last, if I remember, but he finished.

Even with the top skaters, even though yes, we really would have liked to have seen the US win, all the skaters were applauded enthusiastically. I realized that the crowd doesn't want anyone to fail - we wanted everyone to skate their very best, to have a good competition.

The skater with the biggest ovation wasn't even one of the top three: it was Todd Eldredge. He had no hope of a medal, yet so many people had signs and flags and the like. (My best chance of getting on TV was if the sign that said "We (heart) you, Todd" was shown - we were about three rows above that. Maybe my feet made it.) Yet he skated so well, it was incredible to watch. And he acknowledged the crowd, taking bows, and waving. Even if the judges weren't impressed, we were.

When they show the skaters in the "kiss and cry" area, they're often waving. They do wave at the cameras, but they're also acknowledging the crowd, since we could see them on the big screens. What you don't see on TV is that there are also often closeups of the signs like I mentioned above on the big screens, and the skater will often wave to say thanks. There's a lot more interaction than the TV cameras capture.

Elvis Stojko skated for Canada, and he was fantastic to watch. The judges don't like him or his martial arts programs, but he'll do well when he goes pro. He has something that makes people keep watching, something distinctive.

Of the top three, Alexei Yagudin was clearly the winner. He not only skated cleanly, but with fire. He was on, completely on, in control, skating with speed and precision. I would have placed the American, Timothy Goebel, second, and the other Russian, Evgeni Plushenko, third, myself. I thought the Russian's bobble was worse, and he wasn't as fired up. But the judges, through their artistic marks, sent a really clear message to Goebel as to what they thought of his program. They were the only set of marks booed all night - and they deserved to be booed.

(Side note about skating judges: from seeing all the marks, you get a really good idea what the judges like and don't. I would have thought that to be a figure skating judge, you would have had to have an open mind, and think about matching the skating and the music, not judge everything against a pre-determined "this is good" in your mind. At least artistically. But time and time again, they marked the traditional, and especially the traditional lugubrious Russian-style programs higher than anything new and innovative. I wonder why they call it a "free skate" when you aren't really free at all. If you don't skate what they want, you can't win, and that's not free.)

The medals ceremony for figure skating is held right after the competition - unlike the rest which are held all together at the Medals Plaza. (More on that later.) Again, it moves right along - as soon as the competition is over, they're out there setting up three strips of carpet: one for the flag bearers, one for the medals presenters, and one for the press :-). They carry out all the parts of the podium, put it together, and the ceremony gets underway. It was very moving and very dignified, and the sheer joy on the winners' faces was contagious.

Something I learned from that ceremony is that even though the media has made it clear that they think anything less than a gold is failure, the athletes have far different ideas. The joy of having a medal is so plain to see - you can't fake it that well. You can almost hear them thinking "I got one! I got one!"

We wandered back to the shuttle busses, got back to the car, drove home, and collapsed around midnight or so.

We did have tickets (standing room) for the cross country skiing the next day, way out at Soldier Hollow again, but since we didn't like the site and would have been on about 5 hours of sleep and didn't really care, we decided to punt and sleep in. Besides, we had medals ceremonies tickets for that night.

Friday morning we slept in to what seemed like the absolutely decadent hour of 8:30 am. Between the driving and the events and being constantly on the go, we needed the sleep. Badly. I also woke up with a screaming headache, probably the result of too much dehydration. (Even though we knew how dry it was, the fact of the matter is that we were often too busy to think about drinking more water.)

While I've mentioned the utter lack of decent restaurants where we were staying, during our travels I'd noticed an area just off the highway about 10 miles south which had an Applebee's. (For those of you who aren't familiar with Applebee's, it's a chain of mid-priced restaurants, with burgers, steaks, quesadillas, and stuff like that.) I was in the mood for Applebee's Oriental Chicken salad, so it seemed like a good idea to head down there.

Once we got off the highway, we headed for the Applebee's...and spotted a Marie Callender's. Marie Callender's is another mid-priced, American food place, mostly known for their pies. There aren't any here in Colorado Springs, and I missed them from when I lived in California. So we changed plans.... and on the way there, while I was looking left and right at the stop sign, we saw a Togo's.

Togo's. God of the sandwich shops. Everyone in California has their favorite sandwich, ordered by number. Togo's is scarce in Colorado - there's just one, in Boulder, about 2.5 hours away. Finding one was like finding gold - I had been craving a #30 (Togo's club: turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato) for months, and here, right in front it me, was my opportunity. Togo's it was.

Oh, I had missed the bread, so chewy that my jaw hurt by the time I had finished. The plentiful bacon. The too much mayonnaise that I had to wipe off. Just fantastic. And it cured my headache nicely, too.

Turns out that right next to the strip mall with the Togo's was a Toys R Us - basically irresistible for toy collectors. Since we had some time, we made a quick detour, and I found a boxed Arwen and Asfaloth figure set from Lord of the Rings. (No, I'm not seriously collecting the LOTR figures, but I liked these for some reason.)

Next to Toys R Us was Target - more toy shopping! (You can take the toy collector on vacation, but the collecting gene never quite stops.) Unfortunately, didn't find any toys, but I was reminded that it was my favorite holiday: February 15, half price chocolate day. We got some half price chocolate and a few assorted sundries we needed, like soap.

Then it was off to the park and ride - they didn't open until 2 pm, but apparently had filled up fast. We caught the shuttle to the Olympic Plaza and once again were able to go through the fast ticket holder's security line.

Since the medals ceremony wasn't until evening, we had time to explore part of the plaza. There's so much going on down there that you can't see it all. We first dropped by the Hallmark tent, where we saw the end of Kristi Yamaguchi's autograph session. (We were way too late to get in line, but we did get to see her.) Hallmark was offering limited edition cards you could send for free to someone. We each sent one to our folks, since there weren't any Olympic postcards that we ever found.

Then off to Olympic Superstore - a huge merchandise tent where you can sate your appetite for just about everything with the Olympic symbols on it. Beanies and t-shirts and sweatshirts and hats and pins and crystal paperweights and cast iron cookware (yes, there's official cast iron cookware...no, I don't know why). It was huge. I picked up a couple more pins, because they were small and cheap, and Jim bought a cowbell for cheering on the skiers the next day.

Next, we went to the Coke tent. Coke is a major Olympic sponsor, so they had a huge, prominently placed tent. Not only were they selling their own Coke Olympic pins (some of which were very nice, so I bought some), but they were doing interviews with Olympic athletes. Since they had seats and they gave you free Coke while you were listening, we thought it would be a good idea to stop.

The free Cokes were in "plastic" cups that were actually made of cornstarch - apparently they break down completely in 30 days. They feel like plastic, taste like plastic (that is, no taste), and are pretty much indistinguishable from plastic. If these are ever on the market, and they're not too much more than plastic cups, I'll buy them.

We saw US Figure Skater Michael Weiss. He was rather interesting, telling some embarrassing stories and commenting on the figure skating judges (he thought there should be an international judging council). Later, he autographed pictures of himself, and I did get one (which got a little smooshed in my pocket). He seemed like a nice guy, very gracious with the fans.

I also traded one pin - the pin with the mascots (which I thought were rather ugly) went to a guy who had Gateway Sponsor pins showing the cow in the bobsled. (As shown on the TV commercials.) Being computer nerds, both Jim and I traded for one, and it turned out to be the pin that other people wanted to trade for the most. Nope, we didn't trade them away - we like cows in bobsleds.

We also went through the AT&T Broadband lounge - a place to warm up and to watch the other Olympic events on their TVs. They also had terminals to access web-based email, but they weren't doing telnet, and the J key on one of the keyboards wouldn't work. They'd seen a lot of abuse. On the way out, they handed us another pin.

After eating yet another lousy hot dog - excuse me, bratwurst - we headed over to the Olympic Medals area. Even though the ceremony was free, you had to have a ticket to get in - either standing room or sitting. We had sitting, which gave you a seat in a section, but within the section, it was open seating. I'm glad we got there early - there were a number of poles in the standing section that obscured views. So we moved around until we had good seats.

It was cold that night - the wind came up some as the sun went down. I was grateful I had my downfill, scarf, hood, hat (covered with pins, adding more insulation), gloves....

Before the "official" entertainment before the actual medals ceremony, there was the pre-entertainment. On the one hand, I have to give the organizers credit for making sure the crowd always has something to watch or something to do. On the other hand, once again the entertainment and the like was aimed at those standing up close, and those of us in the seats were an afterthought.

Then again, I was not about to do the Macarena for anyone.

There were a couple of nutballs up in the front who went through this all with no shirts on, with "USA" painted on their chests. I bet they had enough alcohol flowing through their veins to act as anti-freeze.

The medals ceremony itself moved along rather quickly. There are two sets of flagpoles, so while one is raising flags for the current set of honorees, the others are being set up for the next group. I didn't mind standing for all the national anthems - it let the blood flow back to my very cold feet.

Once again, I was struck by the joy of all the medals recipients. We saw the Canadian cross country skier get her bronze medal - I think it was the first cross country medal for Canada ever. She was so happy - and it's infectious.

But what also struck me about the medals ceremony is how detached it was. Yes, they showed us the highlights of the winners' performances on the big screens, but it wasn't the same as being there, and sharing in the experience. It all came off like the Oscars - nice to see, but a little too slick. It was vastly different from the medals ceremony that followed directly after the men's figure skating, where they were still high on their accomplishments - and we were, too.

The band that night was Smash Mouth, a group I had no interest in seeing. We couldn't avoid hearing them, though, since the concert was piped all over the Olympic Plaza. We wandered out, got another free Hallmark card, and headed for the other Coke tent where you could try your hand at Olympic sports. The lines were huge, so we watched a little, then headed for the shuttle busses to the parking lots.

Since all we'd had for "dinner" was another lousy hot dog, we stopped at Marie Callender's on the way home. I found their Cobb Salad was just as good as I remembered, and their Boston Creme Pie just as huge (we split a piece). Like most of the restaurants in that area, they were open late to catch people on their way back.

And so to bed, because 5:45 am was going to come early.

Actually, 5:45 am came at the same time it did every day, too damned early. Even though the Super G was at Snowbasin, virtually around the corner from where we were staying, it was starting at 10:00 am, so we didn't have any extra time to sleep.

We arrived at the Park n Ride, got out of the car....and promptly dived back in. It was cold. Very cold. Bone-chilling, flesh rending cold. And windy - at least 40 mph of bitter chill shaking the car and pushing pedestrians around. We wondered if they were even going to run the event - there was no way skiers could run with this kind of unbelievable cold and wind. And there was no way we could sit in it.

Still, we bundled up, grabbed the blankets, and walked across the parking lot to the security tents. I can honestly say I have never had a colder walk in my life. My fingers were already numb by the time we got to security, my legs chilled, and I was ready to turn around. Why didn't I? I figured we could at least see the site and come back down if it the weather was this bad up there.

Fortunately, the shuttle busses in use here were touring busses, with lots of heat and plush seats. I took the opportunity to warm up and wonder just what we'd gotten ourselves into this time.

We exited the busses up at the venue to find....sunshine? Warmth? It was a little chilly in the shade, but that was all - it was clear, still, and beautiful. What a difference a 20 minute shuttle bus ride made!

After first visiting the ubiquitous portapotties (What's worse than using a portapotty in full winter gear? Using a slippery, wet portapotty sitting on an angle in full winter gear.) and deciding that the merchandise lines were too long, we wandered up into the bleachers to find our seats.

Our seats were nearly perfect - we just had to turn our heads slightly to see the end of the run, from Buffalo Ridge to the finish line. And we faced the sun - sunscreen was once again mandatory. It was bright and warm - by the time the race started, we'd unzipped our jackets, opened collars, and wondered if this was another planet from the park 'n' ride.

The TV camera angles don't give you a real appreciation of how steep the course is. The slope after Buffalo Ridge is a 74% grade - nearly vertical. It's more of a controlled fall than skiing there. And these athletes not only control the fall, but manage to ski through slalom gates while getting down the hill. Amazing.

We sat next to the same couple we had before - nice people and fun to talk to. The pre-competition entertainment was mainly on the big screens, giving some history of the sport, and who some of the expected medalists were.

Unlike other venues, about 10 minutes before starting, the announcer went quiet so the foreign press could do their intros. We had a great view of the press cages, with TV crews from all nations. Like most of the events, it was being sent live around the world, and I'm sure the local stations chose what they were going to show.

Unlike other ski races, the competitors don't get any practice runs down the course. They get to slide down it slowly, and then to watch the forerunners ski down. From that, they need to figure out their strategy, since they only get one run - fastest time wins.

The early parts of each skier's run were shown on the big screen, since obviously we couldn't see the start house a mile or so away from the stands. It was cool to see them pop over the ridge, then finish the run - or in a lot of cases, not finish, since the gate right after the ridge was a really difficult one, and if you miss a gate, you're disqualified.

Once again, we all cheered for all the skiers - just finishing was an accomplishment. The winner, Kjetil-Andre Aamodt, was one of the earliest down the hill. (Kjetil is pronounced "sh-TEEL", and he also won gold in the men's downhill.) But one of the biggest cheers was for the last skier, from Hungary, who missed a gate, but got up, went back through it, and finished the course. He came in dead last, but he was bound and determined to finish. You have to appreciate that kind of determination.

After the race, they had a "flower ceremony", where they presented the medalists with bouquets - they'd be getting their medals at the medals plaza later. It was nice, but I'd really rather they got their medals right then and there - they earned it, and we watched and waited and cheered, but we weren't going to see the payoff. I really, really hope the next Olympics goes back to presenting them at the time of the event.

Heading back to the shuttle busses, we encountered the only snafu in crowd management. There were multiple lines, all facing opposite the crowd which was pouring out of the venue. To get in a line, first you had to find the end of one, and then turn around.....it's hard to explain, and it was harder to figure out what was going on. People were confused, and I felt really sorry for the non-English speakers, because it was completely unclear on how this was supposed to work.

Eventually we oozed on to a bus, got down the hill, and back to our car. While it had warmed up considerably at the park 'n' ride, it was still significantly colder there than at the ski hill. I was pretty nauseated from being overheated and the smell of the busses' diesel fumes, so we stopped by an Einstein Bagels for a sandwich to settle my stomach, then headed back to our accommodations where I slept for a couple of hours.

Sleeping helped immensely, so much so that we headed out for dinner to Marie Callender's again. We had a short wait, then I had their wonderful chicken pot pie (so much better than the frozen version, not to mention bigger), and a piece of pie for dessert (I can't remember what kind).

Sunday morning we packed, since it was time for the drive back. Packing the car this time took some more thought, since we had a hamper full of dirty clothes. Things which were packed in the hamper now had to be reallocated. Somehow we made it all fit, said goodbye to our hostess, and headed off towards home.

We stopped in Cheyenne, Wyoming for the night - I was exhausted and Jim had come down with a cold (what can you expect when 1.5 million people from around the world come together and share germs). We found a hotel, fortunately situated next to an Outback Steakhouse, where we ate dinner. Outback's food is remarkably consistent, and reasonably good. We slept the sleep of the truly tired - dead to the world.

The next morning we headed towards home, stopping in Fort Collins, Colorado for lunch and a little shopping. Jim used to live in Fort Collins, and there's a wonderful brewpub there - good food, great beer, and even better homemade cream soda. I had their BBQ beef sandwich - a little drippy, but good - and we split their artichoke dip, served with vegetables, which we both were craving.

We spent a bunch of time and money at The Cupboard, a gourmet food and cookware shop around the corner. I figure any time we get out of there for less than three figures is a good trip, and I needed more demi-glace and chocolate sauce anyway.

The weather looked like it was turning for the worse, the clouds were coming in fast, so we decided to not linger any longer and head for home. We encountered only a few snow flurries on the way home, but when you've lived here long enough, you know that if you see snow clouds, it's a good idea not to press your luck.

And so we arrived home, the cats were overjoyed to see us, I caught the cold that Jim has, and things are more or less back to normal.

General Thoughts:

I know I've said it before, but I was really struck by how much you don't see on TV. You don't see the venue, you don't see most of the competitors, you really don't see everything the crowd was doing. What you do see on TV is really good views of the competitors they deign to show.

Maybe I had some outdated ideas of the Olympics, but I was dismayed at how "youth oriented" they all were. At 37 I'm not old, but all the entertainers were "hip" bands, many of which I've never heard of, and many of which will be nothing more than the answers to trivia questions in about ten years. I think I expected a more timeless quality to the games, rather than pandering to the youth market.

Even though I think the SLOC is made up of criminals, liars, slimewads, and other sub-humans, the volunteers were marvelous. They were, to a person, friendly, helpful, cheerful, knowledgeable, and are the real reason that so many of the processes at the games went so smoothly.

So on the whole, I'm really glad I had to chance to go to the games, to see figure skating in person, and see everything else that goes on in conjunction with the competitions. I'm not sure I'll go again, but it was definitely worth doing once.