Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Visit Back East

Last Thursday I flew up to NY for my fraternity big brother's gay wedding (technically a civil union). Usually my dad picks me up at the airport, but he had left on a business trip that day, so my parents arranged for a car service to pick me up. The flight out wasn't too terrible. We were delayed at the gate for a while out of Houston, waiting for the inbound aircraft, but then we sat on the tarmac waiting for our turn to take off for a while due to bad weather. When we finally got off the ground it was 2 hours after we were scheduled to leave.

Friday my mom and I went to Purchase, saw Andy Goldsworthy's "East Coast Cairn," part of his "Three Cairns," at SUNY Purchase. Then we went across the street to PepsiCo's sculpture gardens. I'm sure I've been years ago, but haven't been in quite some time and really enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed George Rickey's kinetic sculpture.
That night we had a real nice dinner at a favorite nearby restaurant. I had cod cakes for an appetizer, a German-style pork dish and lemon tart with raspberries for dessert. It was all delicious as always.

Saturday my mom went with a friend to a craft fair. I went to Storm King Art Center, but it took me a lot less time to get there than I had thought and when I got there, it was still a half hour before they opened. After driving around a bit to kill time, I parked and checked out the smaller pieces in and around the museum. I set out on foot for Andy Goldsworthy's "Storm King Wall," checking out the other large pieces along the way. I started along the wall at the wooded side where it winds through the trees and is really quite spectacular. The workmanship is exquisite and it's quite dramatic the way it splits and separates the trees. After following the wall to the pond's edge, I went around to the other side where it stands straight from the thruway, across the road before making a turn and diving into the water. After that walking my knee was starting to bother me so I just walked back to the parking area and waited for the tram to take me through the other side of the property and back to the museum.
I headed to New Jersey and got the hotel about 2, checked in and vegetated for a while. I got to the hall where they were having the ceremony and reception right at 5 and started in on the extensive microbrew selection. Almost immediately I was pressed into service as an official witness on the civil union license. There were several different groups of friends/family bunched together, none of which I belonged to, so for most of the time I was talking with the other two groupless guys, Doug's fraternity little brother, and a local friend of Mike's. At 6 we all went outside to the beautifully sunny, not too hot day for the actual ceremony. The clergy woman (not sure what denomination) did a nice job, didn't go on too long or anything. Back inside, dinner was buffet style with several dishes, tasted pretty good. After some more beers people were mingling more until the party started to break up about 9ish. I helped pack up the remaining beer to head back to the hotel. After a quick drink in the bar we went to someone's room to finish off the beer.

In the morning I was feeling pretty hung over and it was a lot later than what I had wanted. The radio was pretty complicated and I obviously didn't figure it out. Growing up I remember the ads for Old Bridge Township Raceway Park (Englishtown). It's quite distinct and it plays when you go to their website (racewaypark.com). I didn't grow up going to drag races, so I'd never been there, but when I realized that I would be in NJ the same weekend as the nationals, I had to go. I was about a half mile away stopped in raceway traffic at 11 when the first pair of top fuelers went. Fortunately (for me) racing didn't move too quickly and I saw the last couple pairs of dragsters standing in line near the finish line. Most of funny car had already gone by the time I got to the grandstands, however. After second round I went to check out the pits. It took me a little while to realize that the fuel pits are on the left side of the track and everybody else is on the right side of the track, which makes it kind of hard to get around and see it all. Plus since it was already well into eliminations a lot of teams were already packing up. I stayed until the finals and then ran out as quick as I could to beat the rush. I wound up a bit sun burned because I forgot sunscreen. The drive back to my parents' was pretty crappy. My GPS was trying to say that a US highway was quicker than the Parkway or Turnpike, so I stopped listening to it until the traffic volume picked up and slowed to a crawl (at best). Then it wanted to take me over the GWB, which is a nightmare any time. I forced it to take me over the Tappan Zee, but it took me through a bunch of bridge traffic anyway.

My mom normally babysits my niece on Mondays and my dad took the day off as well. We met my sister briefly, then went back to play for a while. We all went over to Stonecrop Garden, which is really beautiful. After walking around for a while we went back to the house and ordered a pizza from my favorite place in town. I was hungry and don't get many chances to have the genuine article and had three slices and a pepperoni roll.
Not being able to predict what traffic will be like around the airports, we left for my 7pm flight about 3:30. Traffic wasn't bad and we got there about 4:45. Because of bad weather in Houston, the checkin was a complete fiasco. People were trying to see if they could get on a different flight, checking on connections, etc., etc. Since elite flyers always get the next available kiosk/agent, the regular folks line didn't move for 45 minutes, except for letting people who weren't going to Houston use the kiosks normally reserved for those who already have their boarding pass. To top off the horrible wait, the air conditioning wasn't working in that area, so the temperature was almost as hot as some of the tempers. When I finally checked in the agent said there was an outside chance I'd make my connection, since it wasn't showing as delayed and my flight to Houston was already an hour and a half late and only an hour layover until the last flight to Austin. I essentially said "what are you going to do" and went to have a tankard of beer. After dinner and two more beers I went through security at 7:30, and it was record-settingly quick. There was nobody in line and I threw my bag and shoes on the conveyor and went right through. The inbound flight pulled up at about 8:20, so we didn't push back until about 8:50 and then had to get in line to take off. It was 9:30 before we actually took off. We landed in Houston at midnight and got right to our gate. I looked at the monitor and was not happy to see that it showed the next flight to Austin at 7:30 am, but I figured what the heck and went to the gate printed on my boarding pass. I had a hopeful feeling when I saw there were people at that gate, and tremendously relieved when they said that that plane was going to Austin. I was the last one on the jet bridge, but went in front of the standby passengers. There were obviously still lots of planes flying since it took almost 45 minutes of taxiing before we were in the air. We landed about 1:30 and after I got my bag and walked out the door I saw the airport bus I needed leave. So I had to wait to drop people off and come back for 15 minutes.

This morning my paper wasn't restarted like it was supposed to be. At work the AC work that was supposed to have been done over the weekend still wasn't finished so the whole building was hot. I gave up at 2 when it still wasn't working and went home to work remotely.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

California Road Trip- Over the Mountain and Through the Desert

I headed out of Kings Canyon and back through Sequoia. There was construction and a section was reduced to one lane. After we were through the construction, the car a few cars ahead of me pulled into a turnout but ONLY let the construction pickup truck that had joined the pack in the construction zone past before pulling back out. The jerk must have realized that the 5 cars stacked behind it wanted to pass too, but didn't pull over again and there was no other way to pass on the mountain road. Once we were out of the park and the narrow mountain roads and would have been able to pass, the car turned off. Not long after I turned off on a small road back toward the mountains. I drove up through the foothills until I got to Sherman Pass Road and started over the Sierras. I was really hoping to be out of the mountains by dark, but I only made it to the peak (9200 ft) right before sunset. It was really nice, but it was somewhat disconcerting that there was almost no other traffic if I had any problems. On my way down the eastern side in the twilight and into night the only cars I saw were near a tiny community. I could see headlights and town lights off in the distance once I was almost out of the mountains and to US-395. Heading north on 395 I stopped and spent the night at a motel in Lone Pine.

After breakfast, I headed back toward the mountains to go to Whitney Portal, the trail head for the peak trail. It didn't feel like a major elevation gain until the very end when it started into switchbacks, but the total gain was about 5000' from the town. You can't actually see the peak from the trailhead, but there's a little store and a nice stream. There were quite a few cars and some more people getting their packs ready for their attempt. I never intended to make an attempt myself since it would have required camping overnight. After checking it out for a little while, I headed back to town and then east toward Death Valley. Entering the park I made a quick stop to check out a canyon, then continued down to a flat section before going back up a bit and coming down into Death Valley proper. I stopped to get a soda and get my entrance pass, where the ranger said the expected high for the day was 108. Thermometers there and other places I stopped were reading about 100, but it's a dry heat. I stopped at Badwater, the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level. Leaving the park I stopped to get gas and payed the most anywhere on the trip- 4.29 for premium. Plus the wind was blowing like mad, just as it had been in the park. From there I went through Mojave National Preserve, which was unremarkable and got on I-40. The wind was strong still, as evidenced by the occasional dust clouds in the more bare areas of the vast desert I was traveling through. I stopped for the night at a motel in Flagstaff, being sure to make use of their hot tub.

I went to the Ski Bowl in the morning, where the trail head for Humphreys Peak (highest point in AZ) is. I had originally planned to climb the mountain, but 9 miles round trip and 3000' vertical (one way) would have surely been too much for my knee. I continued east on I-40, which was pretty boring, through Albuquerque until I turned off on US-285. It's a four-lane divided highway, so I was going about the same speed as on the interstate, except without the other traffic. Instead of my planned route, I decided to go to Roswell and have dinner. I looked at a map of how I wanted to get home, but decided just to do whatever my GPS said was quickest. Since I wouldn't be going through any towns I felt like I wanted to spend the night, I decided I would just drive through all the way home. It worked out alright, but I was pretty tired and had to get caffeine at every gas stop. I got home at 4am CDT, having left Flagstaff at 9am MST. Because of all the caffeine I was still wired when I got home and stayed up for a little while longer before falling into a nice sleep that was rudely interrupted by the telephone at 10am.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

California Road Trip- The Parks

I woke up in the morning and saw that the campsite I was in (Wawona) was really great. It was large, but with lots of trees so it still felt private. My site backed up to the South Fork of the Merced River, which was freezing cold but nice to look at. Also, since there were no shower facilities in the campground, I was able to wash up a bit in the river. Being in no particular hurry, I finished setting up what I didn't bother to at 1am. After having oatmeal for breakfast, I headed back north to Yosemite Valley, stopping on the valley side of the tunnel for the amazing view. I also stopped at Bridalveil Fall and scrambled on the rocks a bit to get a bit of a closer view than the paved trail allows. Once in the valley area, I stopped and got out the binoculars to see the crazy rock climbers on El Capitan. I spent the afternoon in Yosemite Valley, saw the Yosemite Falls and the other stuff that's to be seen by short walks and the bus. After looking in the Ansel Adams Gallery, I headed back, stopping for a hike to Inspiration Point and another spectacular view of the valley. On the way back to the car, my left knee stiffened up and started hurting. Then it was back to camp for dinner and some reading before bed.

My plan for the next day was originally to hike from the valley floor to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls and back down. On my way to the valley, I decided it was the best time to go to Glacier Point. The view is quite amazing from up there at 7200', you can see several falls and a different view of Half Dome. After learning about the trails that lead from there to the valley floor and an employee telling me that there was bus service back, I decided just going down would be a lot easier. After a snack I headed down the Panorama Trail, an 8 mile trail 3200' down to the floor. Past the beautiful and seldom seem Illilouette Fall, the trail goes back uphill for a while before heading back downhill toward Nevada Fall. Up to that point, I had only seen about a dozen people on the trail, but once I met up with the John Muir trail, I started seeing a lot more people. The top of Nevada Fall was crawling with people, which surprised me being that it's a 3 mile hike up over 1000 feet vertical from the valley floor, which it seemed everyone was coming from. My knee had stiffened up again, having hiked over 5 miles and more than 1000' vertical. Continuing down the trail, I got to where the Half Dome trail branches off, and then down lots of stairs. Once I got down to Vernal Fall, I looked over the edge of it before proceeding down the aptly named Mist Trail. The rock staircase was quite wet, with puddles in some areas. It was slow going with my knee bothering me, but I still seemed to be doing better than some people. It wasn't long after that I made it down to the floor and washed some of the salt off my face and arms in the cold Merced, which was quite refreshing at that point. I had an ice cream at the shuttle bus stop and went on to find my way back to the top.
When I told the guy at the travel desk at Yosemite Lodge that I needed to get back to Glacier point, he said "good luck with that." Contrary to what the guy at Glacier Point had led me to believe, there are only two buses a day from the valley to the point, and the last one had left 2 hours prior. The guy said my options were to either hike back up, hitchhike or wait until the next bus out the next morning. Since my left leg was in pain and I didn't have anywhere to stay in the valley, I decided hitching was my best option. Having never hitchhiked before, I was a bit apprehensive, but figured a National Park was a safe enough place. I headed out of the Yellowstone Valley and after a while got a ride from a backpacker/climber guy, but only a couple of miles and not really to anywhere that helped me get to where I was going. I walked another mile to the road that was going my direction and stood across from Bridalveil Fall with my thumb out. After a little while a young parks-type guy stopped. He was on his way to a job with the Forest Service between Yosemite and Sequoia. He dropped me off at the turnoff to Glacier Point and wished me well. Knowing there would be almost no traffic after sunset, I started walking and hoped for a kind soul. After about a mile and half a dozen or so cars had passed me, a brother and sister stopped and gave me a ride the rest of the way. They were quite nice, visiting the area with other family that they had left to see the sunset. I gave them my good close parking spot and went to the far side of the parking lot to take off my boots and socks and have a snack before heading back to camp.

The next morning I was in no rush and leisurely packed up my things, cooked reconstituted freeze-dried eggs "huevos rancheros" style. After packing everything up I headed south out of the park toward Fresno. In Fresno I decided I was overdue for an oil change and stopped at a Pep Boys. Two and a half hours later I was on my way to Sequoia NP. It was rather boring sitting around, but I did manage to get in some reading and they found a nail in my tire, so it wasn't too bad. I got into Sequoia and to the campground about 6ish. The area of Lodgepole I stayed in was nowhere near as nice as Wawona was. There were tons of campsites on top of each other with very little vegetation to separate them. The shortest way to the bathroom was through another campsite, which wasn't occupied so I didn't feel too bad. After setting up my tent, I went to the general store/laundromat/shower area, had my first shower in a few days, then went to Wuksachi Lodge. The restaurant wasn't crowded and I got a table right away. I had the trout, which was excellent.

In the morning I went to the information center and bought a ticket for the first Crystal Cave tour at 11am and a map of the trails in the Giant Forest area. Not knowing how long it would take me, I headed to the cave and got there about 10:15 and chilled out until the tour. The cave was nice, the guide was knowledgeable and friendly. The passages were narrow and none of the rooms were real big, but there were lots of good formations. The blackout was good, but the small kids couldn't stay quiet to get the real experience. I went from there to Moro Rock, which was a lot more of a hike than I had realized. The view from the top was good, but the air quality was so bad visibility was probably less than 30 miles. I drove through the Tunnel Log before heading back and checking out the Museum before going to the General Sherman tree. After seeing the tree I hiked the Congress trail, where I saw a gray wolf. The hike was nice, only saw a few people, but it was close to the road and got some road noise. Back at the campground I sat around drinking beer while doing my laundry.

The next day I took the bus to the museum to start a ~4 mile hike including the Huckleberry loop. I brought two PBJ sandwiches with me and took my time hiking, taking some breaks to read my book. The first time I saw anybody else was near the Settlers Cabin and Huckleberry Meadow. After getting away from the meadow area where there were a few people, I stopped and ate my lunch and read my book a little more. I stopped at the remains of Washington tree, which was severely burned when a prescribed burn got out of control a few years ago. Because it still has a little bit of life, it's still considered one of the largest trees. When I was nearly back to the museum, I was going to take the trail to Bear Hill but my knee stiffened up just before I got where the trail split off. When I got back to the campsite, almost everyone had left since it was Sunday and a few new people had come in. After dinner I headed to Tokopah Falls, but it was further than I had thought and it was almost sunset by the time I got there. I walked back in the twilight, but had to turn on my headlamp before I got back to camp.

The next morning I packed up my camp site, not wanting to spend another night there. I headed north to Kings Canyon, then through the Sequoia National Forest. I stopped at Boyden Cave and decided to wait the half hour until the next tour. The cave was nice enough, but the tour guide was TERRIBLE. He was a young guy who didn't seem to have any knowledge or interest in caves other than this job and he came across as a complete idiot. On the way out I took the alternate route along the dry (at that time) stream bed. I continued from there into the rest of Kings Canyon NP. Because the park has almost no roads there were very few people and not too many things to see right there. I had planned to spend the night, but since it was empty and at that point I'd had enough solitude for a while (and probably in a bit of a bad mood from the crappy tour), I thought sure I'd get bored quick since it was only 2pm.

Monday, June 11, 2007

California Road Trip- Go West

I got back from a ~2 week road trip to California the other day. I was planning on riding the whole way, but recently my lower back has been hurting me, so I decided I would just drive. It makes packing a lot easier, too, not having to figure how to squeeze all the stuff onto the back of the bike.

I left the house real early, even earlier that I had hoped because I woke up well before the time I had my alarm set for. Even for the first day of Memorial Day weekend there wasn't a whole lot of traffic. West Texas went by at 80 mph, only slowing down a little for El Paso. New Mexico went by quite quickly and before long I was at my first non-gas stop, Saguaro NP in Tucson. It was quite evident that it's a relatively new National Park, because some of the signs still refer to it as a National Monument. There wasn't a whole lot to do there, mostly a circular scenic drive. After leaving the park, I went to the Harley dealership but they had just closed at 6pm. I liked that in parts of the city, the houses were set back from the road with cacti planted, so it really looked like the desert, with the houses and stores less visible. From Tucson it was on to Phoenix where I had dinner at a Texas Roadhouse and spent the night at a Holiday Inn.

The next morning I got up early, well before they were serving breakfast and packed up and had McD's. I got gas just before entering California and a long stretch of no services. I went through Joshua Tree NP, walking around the desert for a little while near the Skull Rock. Once leaving the park, it wasn't far to the outskirts of LA and the crazy traffic started. I got off the highway in Pomona to go the Fairplex and the NHRA motorsports museum. Unfortunately, it was only 30 minutes before closing, so I didn't get much time to look at the exhibits. I then went on to my hotel downtown in the financial district. After cleaning up I had dinner at the brewpub in the hotel- the food was pretty good, but the service was terrible. I went out for a walk over to the theater district, particularly to see Gehry's concert hall. There didn't seem to be much of anything going on in that area, so I packed it in for an early night.

Breakfast at the hotel was ridiculously expensive, so I ate at IHOP a few blocks away. After leaving the hotel, I drove through Hollywood, stopping at FLW's Hollyhock house in the Barnsdall art park. The house wasn't open, but I walked around the outside. A quick gawk at the tourist traps and I headed for Santa Monica and the start of the Pacific Coast Highway. It started to get interesting out of Malibu, finally starting to get away from LA, and then it turned into US-101 freeway. After a ways, PCH split off to the coast again and eventually I made it to San Simeon and the Hearst Castle. The grounds and the buildings were absolutely amazing, truly unequaled in splendor. It was almost 8pm when I got to Monterrey and decided to have dinner. Not knowing the town at all, I went to the tourist trap Fisherman's Wharf and ate at one of the seafood places. I called a couple friends in SF I was trying to meet, one couldn't make it as late as I was going to be, the other said it was just fine and sort of expected I'd be late. I met up with him after getting cleaned up a bit at my hotel. We had a beer at his favorite place, then got a beer to go from a corner store and walked around the city for a while.

The next morning I met my friend for breakfast. Since he is not currently gainfully employed, he showed me around the city by bus and on foot for most of the day. We saw or at least buzzed past a lot of the landmarks/neighborhoods- Haight/Ashbury, Castro, the TransAmerica building, Lombard street, etc. At about 6 I decided it was way past time I should have been on my way. Before getting too far, I went across the Golden Gate Bridge and drove through the Marin Headlands. Back across the Golden Gate and then the Oakland Bay Bridge, and I headed for Yosemite. It was 11:30 when I got to the park entrance and after 1am before I got to the actual campsite. After setting up my tent and laying out my mat and sleeping bag, I had no trouble falling asleep.