Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Return To The Sea

About damn time I found a place where I could get some breakfast and hop on the internet. I would like to wholeheartedly recommend the Morning Star Cafe in Seaside, Oregon, to all you peoples who like breakfast and wi-fi. They just got some fresh-picked strawberries in here from down the road and damn but those things are good. I somehow managed to wake up at 4:55am this morning, and took advantage of my unfortunately early rise by going for a dawn hike through the woods in Stub Stewart State Park (this being the home of my campground last night). The advantage to hiking so early in the day is that the woods are filled with birdsong,* and when I got to a vantage point I could see the rising sun painting the drifting fog banks as they crept through the coastal hills. The downside is that it left me damn hungry before most normal people have even woken up. Hence my happiness at finding a breakfast place.

*There is a certain type of bird -- I'm pretty sure it's the Grouse -- that has a consistent history of scaring the shit out of me when I'm hiking. As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I hike fast, and I don't make much sound. This means that I often get to see wildlife that ordinarily would flee long before a slower, louder hiker would see it. The general reaction of said wildlife is to let out a surprised squeak and rush off into the underbrush. Usually, I get to catch a glimpse of the animal first, and then can watch it as it runs away. The grouse, however, is different. I have never seen one standing still. They are perfectly camouflaged beside the trail, and I am certain that I would walk past one completely unaware if the damn thing would stay still. This does not happen. What does happen is that the damn bird waits until I am about two feet away, and then EXPLODES out of its hiding place in a flurry of surprisingly loud flapping wings. This shocks the hell out of me. Every damn time it happens. Stupid bird.

The weather on the coast today is a dreary cloudy-fog, so I'm in no hurry to get out hiking. Today might wind up being a museum day. I need to start planning out my trip more than four hours in advance now, because I'm flying back to Boston on Friday. I'll be leaving my car parked at the airport while I'm in New England. In some airport garage. My car. That's full of hiking crap. I'll be taking my laptop and items of actual value with me, but I'm always paranoid about leaving Oki all alone in a garage somewhere. I plan to strategically arrange items in the backseat of the car so as to make them appear as inexpensive as possible. As opposed to hanging a sign in the window that reads "THERE IS $1,000 IN CASH HIDDEN SOMEWHERE IN THIS VEHICLE. CAN YOU FIND IT?"**

**I discussed this strategem with Jared. He agreed that the sign would be a bad idea. In fact, the sign would likely lead to someone ransacking my car, taking anything of value, and then taking a big dump in my glove-box. What would lead a person to pinch one off inside someone's glove-box is beyond my understanding, let alone how they could arrange their body to drop said deuce in such an awkward location. Regardless, the lesson is clear: don't make your car look like it contains valuables. And more importantly, don't take a dump in my car. For this reason, I will be keeping the location of my vehicle secret. For its protection.

It looks like there's an air and space museum in Tillamook. And more importantly, I'm pretty sure I've had beer made by a "Tillamook Brewery." I hope that this is not a coincidence. I want to be rip-snortin' drunk when I roll into that air and space museum, wearing a shirt that says "I SHOT DOWN AMELIA EARHART," acting belligerent in general, and when approached demanding to speak to Chuck Yeager. Yes. This is a good plan.


"I am the Lindberg Baby!"
-Abe Simpson

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fair Columbia

Here in Troutdale, Oregon, enjoying a cup of coffee at some random truckstop. Today I was hiking around the waterfalls of the Columbia Gorge, and the weather was nice enough to cooperate with some perfect blue skies. There's more to come, but right now I'm looking at some chicken wings that are just begging to be eaten. And seeing as how I haven't mastered the art of typing without the use of my hands, that's how it's gonna be. Anyway, here's yesterday's post:

Getting My Money’s Worth (Journal Entry, 6/23/08)

I’m in Ainsworth State Park, on the southern side of the Columbia Gorge. Tomorrow I’ll head a few miles west to hike among the waterfalls, but for the moment I’m taking it easy. For reasons that I still cannot completely comprehend, every campground I have visited will charge either the same amount or a trivial larger amount for campsites with full RV hookups. I’m a pretty basic camper – all I need is a place to park my car, a relatively flat spot for my tent, and a secnd, smaller, flat spot to put my campstove. If I feel like spoiling myself, I might even want a picnic table. Besides that, I might need a bit of water from a faucet somewhere in the campground, and a proper receptacle for that water once I’ve processed it. Or if I need to drop a deuce.*

*One of my favorite expressions of all time. To this day, I consider the phrase “drop a deuce” to be the most important single thing that I learned during my four years at Bishop Hendricken High School. This says more about my relative maturity than it does about the quality of education I received.

So that’s it: maybe 200 square feet of space, a water source, and a hole in the ground. This is why I was getting so frustrated with the “great state” of California** charging upwards of $25 a night for a little flat patch of dirt.

**California is a beautiful state. It really is. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see that beauty because it is also the most populous state, and all those people (1) get in the way and (2) drive up the cost of everything to comically high levels. As a New Englander, it causes me great pain to pay more for something than I feel is the fair price. I felt this great pain on a regular basis living in CA.

Now, with an RV hookup site, you get an electrical jack, a water faucet, and a sewer clean-out, without having to walk even a few feet. That’s infrastructure, and I know a thing or two about how much it costs to build and maintain infrastructure. It’s what they pay me to do. I’ll tell you this much: it costs more than two bucks. This means that as a primitive camper in a campground with RV’s, I’m subsidizing those road-clogging leviathans. This causes me great pain (see **).

So how do I bring balance back to creation? By helping myself. I have resolved to use the hell out of my electric jack. I’ll be charging cell phones, cameras, and GPS units all night, and I’ll be typing away drivel like the last few paragraphs long into the night. This isn’t about me, people; it’s about Justice.

On to business. Today was a museum-and-visitor-center day, which for some reason leaves me feeling more tired than after a long day of hiking. I suspect the coffee.***

***the cheap-ass motel I stayed at last night advertised “FREE COFFEE” along with their other complimentary amenities, like wireless internet that drifts in and out as the signal attempts to make its way through the cinder-block walls of the building. And like the wi-fi, the coffee left much to be desired. First off, it wasn’t a proper coffee-brown. It was more of a deep red. And it tasted like shit. No, scratch that; if you went through the trouble of taking a dump, drying it out, grinding it up, and percolating hot water through it, I can pretty much guarantee that it would taste better than the substance I attempted to drink this morning. Maybe have a nutty sort of flavor. The best explanation I can think of is that the motel manager failed to either place fresh beans in the coffee maker or to clean out the grounds from previous nights. Or from previous years, for that matter. Maybe they pissed in it too, for good measure.

I couldn’t even swallow the stuff. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my coffee standards are low. But I still wanted coffee. So I walked down the block to a little espresso shack, and stood waiting in the drive-thru line among the cars, and got some real coffee. They even put too much cream and sugar in it, Dunkin’-Donuts-style. I still think that that first aborted sip of “coffee” got to me, though. This was coffee so bad that it actually had the opposite effect of coffee, and left me feeling sleepy and lethargic throughout the day, no matter how many cups of real coffee I consumed.

Right. On to the road trip. Today was very much and inside day, first visiting the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in the morning, and then Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery in the afternoon.

The museum was fantastic. A beautiful building with bare cedar columns on the inside and xeriscaped wildflower blooms outside. The museum covered the natural and cultural history of the gorge, with exhibits on the last great Ice Age, the Lake Missoula super-flood, the Native American history of the area, the Columbia River dams and fish migrations, and everything that I ever could have wanted to learn about Lewis and Clark (like the well-concealed (at the time) fact that the expedition went seriously over budget. Like 2000% over budget. This, of course, began the proud American tradition of government cost overruns).

After lunch, I drove by Bonneville Dam below the Bridge of the Gods and the Cascade Locks. It was a big dam. That meant that I had to go look at it. I like visiting big dams – regardless of how ill-advised, unnecessary, or devastating to river ecology some of them may be, they still stand as a testament to the incredible potential of modern engineering. Like a modern-day Archimedes, give me a slide-rule and a near-unlimited federal budget, and I can tame the mightiest river on earth.

Arriving at the visitor center, I inquired if there were any tours offered of the dam. Yes, said the receptionist, but the last tour of the day left ten minutes ago.

I’ve been to three damns now that are significant enough to merit offering a guided tour of the powerhouse: Glen Canyon in Arizona, Shasta in California, and now Bonnevile in Oregon. At every single one, when I arrive, “the last tour of the day left ten minutes ago.” I’m calling bullshit. There is a massive federal conspiracy to prevent me from seeing the inside of a dam. This goes up all the way to the very top, with Cheney cackling gleefully as he watches my hopes dashed through his homeland security video screen. Bastards.

Right. Time for some dinner. More to come.


“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a dam.”
-Gone With The Wind-

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Tour-egon of Oregon

Sorry; couldn't help myself.

I've made it to the northern border of Oregon, but I'm not finished with this state yet.

I'm in a motel room. The room has a TV. The TV has Iron Chef on. I like food -- I like learning about it, cooking it, sharing it, seeing it, smelling it, and eating it. And because I'm on my road trip I'm hiking nearly every day, and with all that calorie-burning my appetite has increased accordingly.

What this means is that I can only write this blog during ad breaks, because whenever Iron Chef comes on the TV I wind up staring, slack-jawed, in a food-watching trance. And the ingredient is Parmesan-Reggiano. Damn that looks good.

Also: Alton Brown knows a shit-ton lot about food.

I've only taken care of Central Oregon so far, driving US 97 almost the entire length of the state. The Cascade Range has been my constant companion, and the snow-covered peaks have towered above to the west, from Crater Lake above Klamath Falls to Mount Hood now above The Dalles. Every place I have been shows the signs of volcanic origin -- lava beds, craters, talus slopes of pumice, even the towering dormant volcano peaks of the Cascades.

Crater Lakes was beautiful -- a perfect deep blue lake below a still snow-covered crater rim. Half of the roads in the park were still closed due to snows, and I had to make my way over snowfields to climb Garfield Peak above the crater rim village. It was my favorite hike so far -- only a few miles in length, but the snowfields made it feel like a mountaineering trip. Minus, of course, all the preparation and time and equipment and dangers.

Heading north to Newberry Volcanic Monument, I drove down one of the straighter roads I've been on -- fifteen straight miles through unyielding pine forest. I'm probably not going to do very well through the great plains if I have trouble with a mere fifteen miles straight.

Highlights of Central Oregon:

Newberry. A dormant volcanic crater four miles across, so massive that I couldn't tell until I reached Paulina Peak, the highest point in the park. There are two small lakes in the middle of the crater, and I camped by the larger one, Paulina Lake (notice the naming pattern yet?). I was met with a familiar sound -- peepers! Thousands of tiny little frogs serenaded me to sleep with their high-pitched peeping. I made a cooking fire entirely out of kindling (after spending a solid half hour collecting three massive armloads of downed wood nearby). I saw a movie that explained in great detail how a massive earthquake of never-before-seen devastation WILL strike the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next few hundred years.

Madras. Well, not so much. It's a little city with the Cascades in the background. But it's Jacoby Ellsbury's hometown, and that's good enough for me.

The Dalles Dam. It's freaking huge. Along with about a dozen other similarly massive dams, it's made the Columbia River navigable straight to Idaho, where Lewiston, Idaho is considered a sea port.

White River Falls. About half an hour south of The Dalles, hidden in a sleepy little farming valley. A perfect swimming hole at the base, except for the hidden rocks and very strong current (leading to more pointy rocks in the rapids downstream). A sunny little sand beach at the bottom of a lava-cliff canyon. A much better swimming hole than:

Smith Rock State Park. Which actually has some great little hikes, and what looked to be some prime rock-climbing. I was set to hop into the Crooked River for a dip after my hike there, when I saw:

A snake.

And it was swimming.

Now, I don't know much about snakes. I especially don't know much about poisonous snakes. If I were to draw a Venn Diagram, I would draw a large circle named "Snakes." Then, entirely inside that first circle, I would draw a smaller circle, named "Snakes That Are Poisonous." Then, completely outside of both circles and far away, like on a separate sheet of paper, a circle named "Snakes That I Know If They Are Poisonous Or Not."

I was pretty hot from my hike, but I wasn't going to take my chances with this snake. He had already demonstrated his ability to swim, and was slithering onto the shore. Poisonous or not, this snake was amphibious. That made him like the Navy SEAL of snakes. And I did not want to mess with that.

You don't mess with that kind of snake.


"I have had enough of these motherfucking snakes on my motherfucking plane!"
-Samuel L. Jackson

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Oregon Trail

Ladies and gentlemen, I did it: I finally got to a different state! California is too damn big. I miss New England, where you could choose a direction at random, drive for an hour, and chances would be damn good that you'd be in a new state (or the Atlantic. Or CANADA! eh?). I left Lassen Volcanic National Park just after noon today, but when I found myself in Weed (more on that later) late in the afternoon and realized that the Oregon border was only an hour's drive away...well, I had to go for it.

And does it ever feel good. I love Oregon. Here's a list:

1. Oregon is more beautiful than California. I attribute this to a phenomena called "rain," which means that the landscape is a beautiful emerald green. As opposed to a hellish, burnt brown.
2. Oregon is more affordable than California. Gas is easily $0.50/gal less, and food/lodging ain't too bad, neither.
3. Oregon has free wireless access at their rest stops. I showed up after the place had closed, so I didn't get to use it, but still...well, it's nice. California rest stops are lucky if they have toilet seats.
4. Oregon grows a hell of a lot of potatoes. I learned this at the rest stop information booth. You know what they make from potatoes? French fries. You know what you can make from french fries? Poutine. Enough said.
5. When I drove into Klamath Falls this evening, everyone was out in the streets dancing and partying. There was a blues band playing for free on the city steps. And apparently there's a rodeo somewhere around here. It was the best possible way to enter the state, especially after over two weeks road tripping in California -- damn, I had gotten tired of that state.

So here I am: on the Oregon Trail.* I had planned to camp out tonight and then take care of my internet needs tomorrow morning in Klamath Falls, but any potential campgrounds would have been about an hour out of my way. So here we are, motel-style. So far, I regret nothing. I'll be up at Crater Lake tomorrow, and I can't wait. It also works out well, because I had a good day and I want to share.

*I loved that game, especially back in grade school when you could actually play it on the library computer because it was educational, or something. The key, of course, was to not buy any food and invest all your money in bullets. I must have killed half the buffalo in the great plains playing that game (but you can only carry 40 pounds of meat!), although everyone on my wagons always seemed to die of dysentery (I am proud to announce that I have not died of dysentery. I did rip a pretty loud fart earlier, though). Maybe it was the all-buffalo meat diet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a beautiful little park. I got in the little hikes yesterday, visiting King's Creek Falls and Bumpass Hell (this is a series of volcanic steam vents, mudpots, and boiling hot springs. Although most of the ground in the area is still covered in snow, this particular spot is bare of all snow, exposing orange, yellow, and green-tinged soil. Steam vents reeking of sulfur pour into the air, and boiling springs send gray-green muddy streams running through the sulfur domes. It was other-worldly), finding a nice campground that allowed using nearby fallen wood for firewood (I like making fires. But not in a criminal sort of way. Thanks for reading, Department of Homeland Security!). This morning I hiked up Lassen Peak, the now-dormant volcano that dominates the center of the park. It was a beautiful mountain, and had my favorite sign at the trailhead: "DANGEROUS TERRAIN. HIKING NOT RECOMMENDED."

Good times.

North of the park, in the adjacent Lassen National Forest, lies a curious geological feature: the lava tubes. Called "Subway Caves," the site features a 1300-foot long natural rock pipe formed by a chance lava flow eons ago. A trail allows visitors to walk through the entire length of the tube. It gets dark in there -- really dark. How do I know? My flashlight died almost halfway in. I was able to slowly make my way back out and get some fresh batteries, but the fact remains: it gets damn dark in the Subway Caves.

Driving north, I noticed the town of "Weed, California" on my road atlas. And no, it's not what you think. Apparently, the down was founded by a Mr. Abner Weed (of Penobscot county, Maine) in the late 19th century, when he started the lumber mill that would be the towns primary (if not only) industry. I learned this at the "Weed Logging Museum," where the curator (Sal? I'll just call him Sal. I'm pretty sure that's what he said. I have the rare ability to forget people's names the moment they introduce themselves, and this was no exception) said to me what I like to call, "the best quote ever."

We were discussing the current depressed local economy (the lumber mill had significantly reduced production over the past few decades), and we agreed that the country could use a serious change in the upcoming election -- such as an Obama presidency. Sal mentioned that he liked Obama, but he was concerned that residual racism in the country would prevent him from being elected. I can't remember precisely what he said, but this is damn close:

"You younger kids get it, but I'm afraid the older folks won't vote for him because he's black. They don't see like you do that it doesn't matter what color his skin is. And it's a shame, because I think if he doesn't get elected, those damn slant-eyes are gonna own everything."

Sal continued on a bit on his mistrust of China and its many denizens. I make a noncomittal remark about the significant difference between Chinese and "Western" cultures, while furiously making a mental note to remember this moment. Sal has introduced me to an entirely new form of racism: nationalist racism, where the color of someone's skin doesn't matter...unless they're from another country. Then they become a bunch of shifty slant-eyed bastards.

I don't want to disparage Sal in any way -- this is a man who fought in WWII and lived through the entire Cold War -- a man who spent a lifetime being told that you can't trust Red China. And considering their abominable history in the Human Rights and Envinronmental departments, I would say Sal is dead on to not trust the Chinese government. But if he had specified that, instead of calling them "a bunch of damn slant-eyes," well, it wouldn't have been the best quote ever.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Need To get Out of California

Seriously. It's been too long, and this state is starting to drain on me. It's too damn big and it takes too damn long to drive through. Luckily, I should be out in a few days. I'm in Redding now, heading over to Lassen Volcanic Park and Mount Shasta for the next few days, and then it's north into OREGON!

It's been a bit of a blur over the past few days, as I plodded my way up the coast north of San Francisco. I made the mistake of being in Sonoma on a Saturday afternoon, which placed me square in the middle of the crowds and overpriced everything that drove me to leave this state in the first place. This left me harried and frustrated until Sunday morning, when I gave my car a much-needed washing (and oh did that paint job just glisten and shine in the soft morning sun) and drove up into the Anderson Valley. Several hours of pastoral landscapes and abundant wine & beer tastings later, I was a new man.

I've still been feeling a pressing need to get out of California, though. The essence of a road trip is movement, and although I've been putting down a lot of miles, I'm still in the same state where I started. This needs to change.

So I'm speeding it up. Even the blog recap:

Mendicino County: Boonville. Anderson Valley Brewing Co. Rocky beaches with harbor seals. Redwood forests. No sign of massive marijuana plants growing wild on the side of the road.

Humbolt County: More redwood forests. Bathing in the warm, shallow waters of the Eel River. "Tsunami Danger Zone" around Eureka. Still no sign of legendary wild pot forests.

Trinity County: pine-forested hills. The mighty Trinity River as it rushes down gorges to the sea. A view point pulloff with no trash cans. Trinity Dam. It's starting to look like the pot forest legends were severely exaggerated.

Shasta County: Redding. Shasta Dam is freaking HUGE. Mount Shasta towers over everything. Back in the northern end of the Central Valley, where it is still hot as balls. Wild-growing weed groves demonstrably non-existent.

And that's it. Time to roll out now, because I've got laundry in the dryer and I need to check out of this motel soon. I'll be in touch.


More Catching Up

Here's one I wrote up a few days ago in a Starbucks, where they don't understand that the internet should be free. More to come soon.

She Blinded Me With Science (Journal Entry, 6/14/08).

I’m in Mountain View this morning, having a cup of coffee at Starbucks while I wait for the Computer History Museum next door to open up. Starbucks has wifi. Why am I not on the internet?

Because T-Mobile are a bunch of jerks, that’s why. The mere privilege of getting online would run me $6, and I don’t feel like supporting that sort of thing. I’d much rather spend my money on more important things, like booze. I had run into this setup a couple years ago, the last time I was on a road trip, and I remember taking the same stand then that I am now. There’s too many unsecured wireless networks floating out there to justify T-Mobile’s unmitigated greed.

Ok, pseudo-rant over. Let’s get down to the more important things. Today is the real start of the road trip – the day that I actually pass north of my starting point. My Yosemite-Sequoia adventure is past, and I can now drive up the California Coast to Oregon and points north. I’ll be dropping by the Cliff House for one final farewell to San Francisco, and then it’s north across the Golden Gate to redwood forests, rocky beaches, and some proper wilderness for once. I had tasted a bit of wilderness hiking in Sequoia NP, but besides that brief respite it has been traffic, crowds, and the banshee wail of children in campgrounds. It’s also been more expensive than I like my camping to be – California State parks in the Monterey area were charging $25 a night for the use of their campgrounds, which struck me as a bit steep for the use of twelve square feet of dirt to pitch my tent. Crowds and costs helped drive me out of California, and I won’t miss them at all when I leave.

Yesterday was a business day – I dropped by my company’s Monterey office to fill out my COBRA health insurance forms, and I’m feeling a little better now knowing that I still have coverage “in case shit happen” (with apologies to Chris Rock). I pulled up to Moss Landing, a perfect little fishing village on Monterey Bay, and had some excellent fresh halibut at Phil’s Fish Market. Cutting east, I rolled into the promised land: Gilroy, California, Garlic Capital of the World.

Gilroy was less than impressive. At a winery off the side of Route 101, I met a man who had to be the most disinterested server in the entire world of wine tasting rooms. His body language gave every indication that my presence was an unbearable burden, and his knowledge of his wines, or even wine in general, was nonexistent. The wine was pretty bad, too. Although in its defense, the garlic wine never made any claims to being great. I did have the pleasure of meeting a man traveling through with his wife, however; he remarked that he was a scotch drinker and we had a short, friendly chat about Scotch single malts. It turned out that he worked for the state Attorney General, and was in the process of transporting subpoenaed documents form Salinas up to the courtroom in Oakland. Even while on the clock (and working for the government, no less), driving north to deliver time-sensitive materials, he made time to stop by a winery for a tasting. I like that man’s priorities.

I dropped by a few other wineries that afternoon, none of which was particularly impressive. No – I take that back. Clos LaChance, situated in a magnificient mock-chateau in the hills above Gilroy, was particularly impressive. Just before I pulled into the drive, a brilliant orange Lamborghini (it said something like “SuperLeggario” on the side, though the body was the same as a Murcielago – I suspect that it was the lower-cost version. It still looked impressive enough, though) going the other way pulled in before me. Which brings me to a section that I would like to call:

“I Love Stereotypes”

The bright orange Lamborghini pulled into the parking lot. Eschewing all “normal” parking spots, the driver drove directly up to the front door and parked directly in front of the walkway – where any person who walked in or out of the building could not possibly notice his magnificent quarter-million-dollar orange hunk of Italian supercar. The driver of the car stepped out – a slightly balding, slightly gray-haired man in his fifties, wearing sunglasses. His passenger then stepped out – a tall, statuesque woman, easily half the driver’s age, with tanning-salon-perfect skin and wearing a brilliant red dress, holding what was very likely an extremely expensive designer purse. They both dallied by the car for a minute – the man checking the car to make sure that it’s appearance was just right, the woman checking her dress for the same purpose – and then walked into the building. It was the most perfect specimen of the Lamborghini owner that I have ever seen.

I’ve done enough wine tasting to get a sense for what to expect by looking at the outside of the winery, and Clos LaChance did not disappoint. Despite the massive size of the building, the winery had only five wines to offer – all of which were overpriced. To be fair, the wine was surprisingly high-quality; the vintner clearly knew his stuff. Their reserve Bordeaux-style meritage was excellent, and I would have bought a bottle in an instant – if they weren’t charging $50 for it. So it goes.

I finished off the day in a tiny little county park in the hills, Unas Canyon. Although I was a solid thirty miles away (“as the crow flies,” according to the park ranger) from the ongoing Santa Cruz forest fire, the sky was still an ominous charcoal gray – and looking up to the sky at night, I could see the moon glowing orange through the trees. Unas Canyon is home to some of the most adorable little waterfalls I have seen – and having seen Yosemite Falls (over 2,000’ tall, the highest in North America) just a few days before only served to make them seem smaller. The “falls” themselves ranged from three feet high to a staggering EIGHT FEET for the giant known as “Black Rock Falls.” I don’t mean to badmouth Unas Canyon – it was a beautiful little canyon, and the stream cascading down over the rocks was supremely peaceful. However, the trail map noted the points of almost a half-dozen of these “waterfalls,” and each one had a wooden trail sign proclaiming its name. As I first started up the trail, seeing the sign for “Basin Falls,” I looked up and saw a tiny stream dropping over a Lilliputian waterfall into a “basin” the size of a bathtub. The entire park was in miniature.

Waking up this morning, I saw a light dusting of snow on my tent and my car – which on closer inspection revealed itself to be ash from the Santa Cruz fire. A good reason to leave, in my opinion. It’s time to head north to places where forest fires are slightly less likely.



I knew there was a reason I made sure to go somewhere with a TV last night. Game Six (and obviously, I say this as a Celtics fan) was AWESOME. The game looked over by the third quarter, and for the entire second half of the game the Lakers were playing like a team that had given up all hope. The Celtics, on the other hand, were playing like a pick-up game of street ball. The excitement in the Garden was unmistakeable, and it was clear that everyone in the building (well, obviously, except the Lakers) was euphoric -- the fans, the coaches, the team, even the assorted celebrities* making their token appearance.

*Quick interruption. Further proof that ESPN has forgotten what the "S" stands for: a "breaking news" interview with Donnie Wahlberg. Because the real question on all sports fans' minds is what one of the New Kids On The Block thinks about the Celtics victory.

DAMN that felt good. DAMN!

More to come soon, before I ship off again out of internet range.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Rolling Up The Coast

I'm in Seaside this morning, enjoying a cup of "Bad Ass Coffee" (my verdict: an entirely acceptable drip coffee,* although judging by the grumblings in my intestine I'm starting to fear that the coffee was named after something other than the many donkeys pictured in the coffee shop). Today's plan is a visit to Laguna Seca, a drop-by at my old company's office in Marina, and some state parks and wineries in the Santa Cruz mountains.

*To avoid any misunderstandings: this is at the upper range of my ratings for brewed coffee. My coffee taste has not reached the point where I can distinguish flavors as with wine, and I sometimes get the feeling that people who say that they can are just bullshitting. It's coffee. It's black, and hot, and it has that wonderful smell that makes weekend mornings complete, and it has caffeine. I've never had a cup of coffee that I considered to be spectacular, just a whole lot of coffees that I considered "pretty good." My coffee ranges from *absolute crap* -- the sort I think you have to work to make so bad, taking bad beans, roasting them in a garbage incinerator, tearing a big hole in the filter, and then leaving overnight in a commercial-grade pot in a truck stop somewhere -- to *acceptable.* Most coffee is acceptable. It takes very little effort to raise coffee from *absolute crap* to this level, but it takes an inordinate amount of energy and ingredients to make it better than *acceptable.* Also, I grew up on coffee milk and Dunkin Donuts, so I always drown my coffee in milk and sugar. That's how I like it, and presumably it makes it harder to reach some gourmet pinnacle of coffee experience.

I don't consider myself a racer, and my little Subaru is a far cry from its WRX STi rally brethren. Also, it's so full of camping supplies and assorted crap that I fear any attempt at racing would bury me in an avalanche of sleeping bags and trail mix. I still can dream, though, and I know that Laguna Seca raceway is one of the more famous in the country (at least for those race fans who realize that there's more to life than turning left for hundreds of laps at a time). I've seen old F1 races, and I've seen the horror that is "the Corkscrew." Also, it's only ten miles away and is exactly the sort of place that I like to visit on my roadtrips.

I'm also excited about the Santa Cruz mountains, although from what I hear these days there is a good-sized forest fire burning things up in the hills north of the city. This could cause problems. I may have to make a slight detour east and instead visit Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world. After all, I do need to ensure my safety against vampires on this trip.

Paso Robles turned out to have some pretty good wines, and it was mercifully free of the stratospheric "tasting fees" that have infected the more popular parts of Napa and Sonoma. I remember feeling really relaxed as I turned my way up the coast. I stopped by Elephant Seal Beach to see the juvenile elephant seals come to sleep on the beach and molt their winter coats. Elephant seals fall into that small category of animals that are so comically ugly that you can't help but feel some love for them. Essentially, take a seal and fatten it up to manatee-like proportions -- and then give it a nose like Gonzo from "The Muppet Show." They were as cute as 500-pound sea monsters could be.

After a night on the coast, watching the sun set over the Pacific, I got a bit of hiking in -- Manuel Peak in Big Sur. It's a lovely mountain, with some spectacular views of the sea and the coastal range, although the trail...well, the trail sucked. Hiking trails can fall into disrepair in two ways: either the trail is overused and erodes into a muddy ditch, or the trail is underused and bushes overgrow the sides, creating a gauntlet of surprisingly sharp foliage.

This trail was the latter. I started out appreciating the amazing fragrance of the coastal bushes and flowers...and eight miles later, on my way out, I was cursing every plant within scratching distance and stomping on poor little flowers whose only crime was to have taken root next to the trail. It is my firm belief that the person in charge of maintaining that trail be taken out back and beaten with a hose.


But I got over it. I visited the Monterey Aquarium in the afternoon, which I heartily recommend to anyone who ever finds themselves in the area. It has a fantastic variety of marine life, well-designed exhibits, and is extremely kid-friendly. The aquarium is crammed with buttons, levers, tunnels, touch pools, video games, noisemakers, and all sorts of hands-on exhibits to keep kids' attention. Or my attention. It was a lot of fun.

The aquarium is also famed for its otters. Otters are awesome.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath

Foreword: at some point on this trip, I'm going to find myself in a place with internet access where I won't feel the icy deadline of check-out time breathing down my neck. Alas, today is not that day.

I've finally left the lonely peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, and I am currently enjoying the finer aspects of life in Paso Robles -- the other wine country. I just learned last night at the San Marcos vineyard that Paso Robles is in fact the largest viticultural area in California (in terms of acreage of vineyards, at least -- larger than either Napa or Sonoma county), and I have dedicated myself to exploring its vineyards and tasting rooms. I am an explorer, after all.

I had originally intended to stay in King's Canyon National Park for an additional day, but after taking stock of my electronics (camera, GPS, laptop: batteries dead) and my personal hygiene (unspeakable), I decided to drive down from the mountains and find a nice place with a shower and a whole bunch of electrical outlets. I stand by my decision; King's Canyon is a wilderness park -- the last great roadless expanse of land left in the United States. From what I have read it is not as striking as the gorges and monoliths of Yosemite, but it is no less beautiful. Still, it is a place best explored by backpacking, spending several days traveling into the wilderness and camping out far from the roads and established campgrounds of civilization. I plan to return someday to see it properly.

I have seen more Giant Sequoias in the past week than most people will in their entire lives, and I still am awestruck every time I see one of the great giants. Their trunks are a brilliant cinnamon color, dwarfing hundred-foot pines nearby and standing so massive that it is impossible to gage their scale until you see a human, small and insignificant, stand near their roots. I have come to recognize their ecosystem: gentle, shallow mountain valleys high up the ramparts of the Sierras, where granite ridges block out heavy winds and small, lazy creeks provide the water to quench the Sequoias' unending thirst.

I have also been to the High Sierra, climbing to the top of Alta Peak where snow still lies in June as a deep as a man and trees retreat to lower, kinder altitudes. I had my first taste of the thin air snowshoeing my way up the final ascent at 11,000 feet, where the snow was a blindingly brilliant white and I had to stop to catch my breath every few steps. I also had my first taste of loss, as a audacious little marmot had his first taste of my hiking pole (this is an aluminum hiking pole, with a foam-covered handle. I doubt that it has any nutritional value whatsoever, and I also doubt that the sweat from my hands had left enough of a salt residue to appeal to Mr. Marmot. My theory is that after living year-round in a pile of rocks surrounded by a field of snow, the marmot was just so happy to find something that he could chew that he happily went to town on my hiking pole handle). I had left the pole at the base of the rockpile at the summit for only a few moments, in order to scramble to the top and write my name in the register cached there. I returned down to see the little bastard happily gnawing away, and shooed him away. He hadn't learned his lesson, though; the cheeky bugger kept coming back for more, ignoring my yells and only retreating when I threw snowballs at him. He even posed for a photo, just a few feet away, his face a picture of innocence.

The moral of the lesson: marmots are bastards.

Other wildlife has been more respectful of my property: the bear I spooked while hiking in Yosemite had the good sense to run away (my bear-battling record in Yosemite: 1 win, 1 tie), the mule deer have regarded me with casual indifference, the lizards scurry off when I step near their rocks, and even the mountain lion stayed up in his tree (I saw him my last morning in Yosemite; as I was driving I saw a large cat dash across an opening and leap into a nearby oak tree, effortlessly jumping from the ground into the branches ten feet from the ground. He immediately hid away in the foliage of the tree, and I wasn't willing to walk up to the tree for a closer look. Mountain lions aren't exactly known for being cute and cuddly). But the marmots...

I also drove through Selma, CA, which advertises itself as "Raisin Capital of the World." The claim to this title, apparently, is the countless acres of grapes growing around the town (meh) and the Sun-Maid Raisin Company factory just outside town. The sign outside the factory advertises the fact that it contains a "Gift Shop." As a currently unemployee, I prefer my slices of corny americana be be the sort where I don't have to pay money. I like signs that say "museum" and "self-guided tours." "Gift Shop" doesn't do it for me.

Grade for Selma: C-

After driving across the San Joaquin Valley (If you haven't been there, I'll describe it to you: it is flat. Also, it is hot). I came upon the peaceful little village of Parkfield, CA. Parkfield sits directly atop the San Andreas Fault and is the the most seismically-active town in the entire country. I walked about the town (Population: 18), spooked a few lazy cows by greeting them with "good afternoon, ladies," took a picture of the bridge into town (which bends to the right, a result of the slowly-creeping faultline that pushes the west abutment north by a couple inches each year), and had a drink in the Parkfield Cafe (Motto: "Be Here When The Big One Hits"). Despite the heat (almost 100), I was struck by the peaceful, bucolic nature of the place as I walked in the shade of the Live Oak trees and sat by the "Parkfield Water Works" fountain. A most relaxing place, despite the imminent threat that a massive earthquake could strike at any moment.

Grade for Parkfield: A-

And now, I am off to boldly drink wine and camp along the shores of the Pacific. More to come soon.


Catching up from Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park was blessedly free of cell phone coverage, modern civilization, and electrical outlets of any kind. I was able to get in a quick entry before my laptop batteries decided that 80% was far to optimistic a prediction, and dropped suddenly to a mere 7%. Hence the abrupt ending. More to come soon.


In The Company of Giants (Journal Entry, 6/7/08)

No free electricity tonight, so like my forefathers did I’m typing by firelight. I’m staying at the Lodgepole campground in Sequoia National Park, and feeling pretty lucky. I rolled up this morning to a “CAMP FULL” sign, but because I have such a small camping setup, the ranger let me in to a tiny lot way in the corner of the campground – and right next to the river. It’s a beautiful place, and the white noise of the rapids flowing past drowns out any inane chatter from the nearby lots. I scored big on this one.

Today was my first full day in Sequoia – I showed up yesterday afternoon, nabbed a camping spot in the chaparral woodlands, and went for a nice hike up to the nearby waterfalls. Sequoia is a unique park in that its lands range from under 2,000’ (where I camped last night) to the Giant Sequoia forests at 7,000’ (where I am now) to the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada (where I’m going tomorrow). It was a long, winding, uphill drive to the trees, but I took consolation in a new wildlife sighting – a bobcat drowsily walking across the road. This brings my wildlife sighting count up one further, now including: two bears, one marmot (on the summit of Half Dome), almost a dozen deer (including one that saw me, didn’t un, looked me right in the eyes – and took a great big piss), and innumerable chipmunks, ground squirrels, and lizards.

Tomorrow I make my ascent up Alta Peak – one of the few mountain peaks that can be reached by a day hike here in the park. There are countless little short hikes among the Sequoia groves, and an impressive number of super-long backpacking trails, but not many of the peak-bagging day hikes I love to hit on my road trips. According to the ranger, there’s up to three feet of snowpack still up near the summit (a little over 11,000’), so I’ll be bringing my snowshoes. I like my snowshoes.

I spent just about all of today wandering the numerous short trails throughout the Giant Forest. Along the way, I did stop at General Sherman (the largest tree – and living organism – in the world), along with a crowd of everyone else in the park. It was impressive – as impressive as a 52,000-ton tree can be – but I found that I preferred the smaller, nameless trees I came across while in the woods. Walking at the feet of the Sequoias, my footsteps muffled by the pine needles of the forest floor, the light streaming down in narrow beams through the canopy hundreds of feet above, the brilliant red bark of the Sequoias glowing in the sun, the overwhelming sense of peace and calm…well, it was beautiful.

Battery almost dead, gotta go.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Takin Care of Business

This one will be short, because I've got to check out of the hotel in about an hour. So let's do this:

After four nights in Yosemite, this was exactly what I needed. A nice hot shower (now: with soap!), a steak dinner at some theme steakhouse ("Cool Hand Luke's" -- presumably named after Paul Newman's character in the movie of the same name, although as far as I can tell the owners of the restaurant never saw the movie. There were no parking meters, no one forced me to do hard labor, and I didn't see "50 eggs" anywhere on the menu. My server had a cheesy little metal sheriff's star on he shirt, which I suppose was the restaurant's nod to the movie being vaguely law-enforcement related), where I showed up just in time to see game one of the NBA finals (go Celtics!), internet access, The Princess Bride on TV (just in time for one of my all-time favorite scenes, Peter Cook's "mawwiage" wedding scene), and a nice soft bed with air-conditioning.

I'm feeling good.

I also got to listen to the dozen voicemails that had snuck on to my phone while in the woods. I've got some medical insurance stuff to take care of, and apparently my former landlord wants to charge me because I didn't leave my keys in the correct location when I moved out (this is exactly the sort of shit that drove me out of the apartment in the first place). I'll worry about these things later, when I have stuff like "a mailing address."

Better: new haircut! I went to a fancy salon called "Dave uses his $20 Wal-Mart shears," and they did a fantastic job. My hair is now a uniform 1/2" long (maybe not in the back, but it's not like I can see it), and looks like it may soon be overtaken by my BEARD, which is growing oh-so-bushy. I can't wait until I reach Grizzly Adams-level beardness. Those bears won't mess with me then!

Off to Sequoia & King's Canyon for the next 3-4 days, and then I'll cut west to Parkfield, CA (the most seismically active city in the country) and Big Sur on the coast. I may even stop by Selma, CA (a city I passed yesterday on my way to Tulare in search of cheap motels), a city that bills itself as "Raisin Capital of the World." This is exactly the sort of place that I should visit on my road trip.

More to come -- possibly sooner (if I can find internet in Sequoia), more likely later. There shall be more adventures.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

L337 Haxx0r Skills

Now that I've found a spot in Yosemite with unsecured wi-fi access, everything is coming together. After slumming with the other peons in Camp 4, I've taken a quick trip my my new favorite nighttime spot in Yosemite: The Ahwahnee Hotel. Built in 1928, this gilded pile of luxury caters to the every whim of the park's most exclusive guests...and, in internet access terms, to a suitably sneaky laptop-equipped Dave.

The past couple days have been big hike days -- I've probably put in over 30 miles combined. Yesterday was my attempt up El Capitan, with new acquaintance Tomas -- a young German, about my age, who was in San Francisco for business and somehow got a week free to see the area. He joined me for my attempt up El Cap, under the guise of safety: presumably, if something terrible happened, one of us would notify the park rangers of the location. I learned very quickly, however, that the last thing I would need on the trails here was another person -- these are some of the most crowded hiking trails I have ever been on in my life. Until today, I have never had to stop and wait in line along a hiking trail.

Back to yesterday: the plan was to summit El Capitan, the imposing granite monolith that dominates the western end of the valley. Only one problem stood in our way: it was far away. This was especially apparent when viewing a topo map of the area. There was El Cap...and there was eight-plus miles of windy trail to get there. And there was Eagle Peak, a short spur off the trail, which was -- and this is the key point -- two miles closer. Tomas and I discussed our options briefly; we considered the distance (shorter good!), the time commitment (early hike finish = early happy hour), and the philosophical (you can see El Cap from Eagle Peak, but you can't see El Cap when you are standing directly atop in a way hiking Eagle Peak is more an experience of El Capitan than El Capitan itself!). The choice was clear: Eagle Peak.

I am not nearly a good enough writer to describe how majestic, how beautiful, and how utterly overwhelming the scenery here is. I doubt even that the pictures I took would give a much better image. All I can say is that if you have visited Yosemite, you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven't visited, you damn well should. Needless to day, the views from eagle peak yesterday and from Half Dome today were incredible.

While on my hike today, I encountered a rare species on the trail: the "Fast-Hiking Asshole," or FHA. This is the fellow (it is always a male; I have yet to see or hear of a female variant) who treats hiking like a race: it is more important to pass other hikers than to actually enjoy the beauty of the hike. I myself am a frequent FHA: stomping up behind some poor slow hiker until they move slightly to the side, then rushing past them while issuing the iciest of glares, a look that seems to say "how dare you clog up my trail with your sloth-like gait? Begone from my trail before I push you off a cliff!"

I just didn't realize how much of a jerk I was (Well, maybe I did; I started hiking fast while in TFC, where any and all hikers are seen as ignorant, bumbling fools). What I discovered today (and only because I was not in good enough shape to prevent being passed myself) was that there were other FHA's out there. I suspect there were about a half-dozen, all told; they woulld jockey for position, passing each other whenever possible, dragging unwilling girlfriends or children along in their wake.

Uh oh -- the place is starting to clear out, and my presence may soon be revealed. To sum up quickly: i have resolved to not be such a dick when I blow by slower hikers on the trail. No, I have resolved instead to blow by my fellow hikers with a graceful, effortless elan, making my speed look so effortless that they will realize that they are boot-licking scum who are not fit even to cough on my dust.

I'm just a nice guy like that.

Other items: Lots of Europeans in the camp, most of whom are climbers. I have become friend ly with Umberto and Mark, two Italians who have come here for several weeks to climb the walls of the valley. They speak very good English, but I take pride in being able to educate them to the vagaries of the language, explaining words like "buttress" and "stem," and being able to tell them where Seattle is located.

I've also gotten very good at converting heights and distances to metric. Oh, you crazy Europeans! Please, continue to visit our country and drop your Euros into our faltering economy.

Time for some sleep.


The Good Life in Yosemite

I penned this post up a couple days ago, before I discovered the secret lair of unsecured wi-fi access here in Yosemite Valley. I'm working on the post for today and yesterday, which will be a masterful work of prose. Probably.

Anyway, here's my now-posted entry for June 2:

It’s been a slow day. Because I did not have the foresight to reserve lodging at Yosemite two years ago (or whatever ridiculous advance reservation time is required), I had no option but to gut it out with the other poor schmucks in “Camp 4” – the only non-reservation campsite available in Yosemite Valley (and this time of year, the only one in the entire park). Up bright and early this morning, I was at the campground ten minutes before it opened – which put me behind the line of two dozen people who had beaten me to the punch. I was able to snag a spot without any problems, but the line moved at a rate of speed normally reserved for glaciers and tectonic plates. It was after 10am before I got my spot, and almost noon before I had my tent set up and everything that could possibly be considered edible safely locked up in the bear box.

Well, half a day is better than nothing. I’ll be making attempts up El Capitan and Half Dome in the next couple days, and both peaks involve hiking on the order of 16 miles (round trip) and over 3,000 feet of vertical. It’s probably good that I rest up today. I’ve taken advantage of my newfound free time by leisurely exploring the valley, visting the obligatory museum/visitor’s center, and stealing electricity (although I’m staying with all the other low-lives in the squalor of Camp 4, the nearby area is home to numerous hotels and lodges. I’ve discovered a spot in the lobby with a comfy chair and an electrical outlet, and so long as the place remains busy, the helpful staff will not realize my heinous crime). I also took a quick dip in the Merced river, which is about as cold as water gets. After just a minute in the water, my feet were numb and my balls had migrated to somewhere in the vicinity of my neck. After the initial shock was over, however, I realized how perfectly clean and clear the water was. I’m sure I’ll get my balls to drop back down eventually…

It has been a couple days since my last post, so here’s a quick adventure recap:

1) When getting into my car in the motel parking lot on Saturday morning, my wallet dropped onto the ground. I realized this…one hour and fifty miles later, when I stopped for gas and promptly had a massive panic attack as I considered the very real ramifications of losing my driver’s license, money, and credit cards…with no place to stay. Luckily, I found my wallet – two hours later – in the exact place I had dropped it – and fully intact, except for my credit cards looking somewhat worse after having been run over by my car.
2) When I was driving back to the motel, I almost hit a small goat that had somehow escaped from it’s goat-pen and was wandering about the road. An hour later, in the opposite direction but now with my wallet, I saw the same goat…dead in the middle of the road. I suppose that it was a foregone conclusion that a lost little goat would not survive outside of its pen…and that there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it’s death (my car was completely full, though I suppose I could have pulled over, gained the goat’s trust, picked it up, sat it in my lap in the car, and driven around until I found a goat farm) – but I still felt somehow responsible.
3) I went hiking around the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the afternoon, and ran into two separate bears within the span of about an hour. The first was in the spray-mist of a waterfall, perched on some wet rocks, completely soaked by the waterfall, and looking as miserable as a bear can look. The second was rooting about in some bushes when I spooked it coming up the trail. I normally announce my presence in bear country by singing – my rendition of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” can scare off all wildlife within a half-mile radius – but in this case I was between songs and moving rather quickly and quietly. Some of you may be familiar with my tales of bear-encounters; these two bring my lifetime bear record to 4 wins, 0 losses, and 1 tie.
4) After my wallet-delayed start, I didn’t attempt to make it into the park; instead, I set up my tent in a small campground in the Stanislaus National Forest about 20 miles away. There, I met and made friends with the other camp denizens: Beth, a gregarious tree-hugger; Larry, a Harley-riding trucker from Pennsylvania; and Tomas, a German engineer who was in San Francisco for a conference and had taken the liberty to visit Yosemite. We bonded over a mutual love of cheap beer and a campfire, and Larry regaled me of tales from his youth, many of which involved weed and jail time. They were good stories. I ran into Tomas the next day (i.e., today), and he will be joining me for my ascent up El Capitan tomorrow morning. It should be fun.

One final note: Yosemite is absolutely breathtaking. Every time I look up and see the falls, I’m awestruck by them. I’ll need to be careful, or else I’ll wind up with several hundred pictures of the falls, all from oh-so-slightly different angles. Which may not be a particularly bad thing.

Coming soon: big hikes*, big mountains, more freezing-cold river dips, and my journey south to the Mariposa Sequoia grove.

Note to would-be hikers: nothing beats Frito-Lay brand “barbecue-ish flavored, oil-and-salt encrusted corn chunx” for hiking food. A single bag can be easily crammed into your pack, contains 1600 calories of corn oil-based goodness, and at $2.69/bag, gives you more salt and calories for your money than any other product. Like their slogan says, “they’re edible!”