Tuesday, October 1, 2013

City by the Bay

While Colene flew to Austin to defend her dissertation in August, I got to stay in San Francisco with my niece Faith Bolliger and her fiancĂ©, Dan Ross. They were gracious hosts, letting me have my space so I could bum around all week. I promised Colene that I would work on our 2012 taxes while we were apart, but I later realized our extension wasn’t up until October--so what was the rush?

So one day I biked downtown and up the hill to Coit Tower. Yes, I had to push my bike up the last hill. It was so steep I wouldn’t have trusted my bike brakes to ride down it!

I didn’t go to the top of Coit Tower, but I did enjoy the murals around the base as well as the view from Telegraph Hill. As an added bonus, I watched a dozen pygmy nuthatches playing in the trees on the hill. I had never before seen pygmy nuthatches, and so far, I have only seen them in San Francisco.

One of the big events in San Francisco this year was the America’s Cup. Because the United States won the last race in 2010, the U.S. got to pick the location of this year’s race, and they chose San Francisco. I admittedly do not know much about it, but the location seems ideal to me. On many race days the wind was at or over the racing limit, meaning the boats would be very fast. And isn’t that what spectators want--speed and lots of potential danger? Overall, this is a wild, precarious sport. As I heard someone say, if the boats don't fall apart after the last race, they were built too strong and heavy. 

While I was in town the teams were still competing for the Louis Vuitton Cup, which is the series of races that determines who will challenge the defending champion. This year, the New Zealand team won the Vuitton Cup rather handily. 

Here are some things I learn about the America's Cup after a few days of watching and talking to volunteers:

  • The boats are a lot bigger than I imagined. At 72’ long and 46’ wide, they are about the size of a junior-high basketball court. In addition, the mast are 131’ tall.
  • It takes a tall crane to assemble the boats. First they raise the sail and set it on the hull. Then they lift the sail and hull so that the rudders can be installed, then finally lift the complete boat into the water.
  • One Saturday morning I visited with a father and son from New Zealand while fewer than 100 other people watched the race. The Kiwis said that if the race had been taking place in New Zealand, 10,000 spectators would have been at the dock.
  • The race doesn’t take place every year; race participants negotiate when the next race will happen. There was once a 20-year span between races.
  • The wind can’t be over a certain speed or the race will be postponed or cancelled.
  • The competition was started in 1851, making it the oldest active trophy in international sport. 

Once the competition for the America's Cup began between New Zealand and the United States, I was mostly out of touch--no cell phone or internet. I was shocked to learn, after the fact, that the U.S. team came from behind to win it again. The Kiwis must have been bitterly disappointed. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Trail Less Traveled

Rex and I have been remiss in keeping up this blog, obviously. We soon will be moving into a new phase of our on-the-road adventure, so I’m now motivated to bring this online report up-to-date. Since we left Santa Rosa, California, on September 1, we have traveled only 750 miles to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks, then south to the Los Angeles.

On the other hand, we have covered quite a bit of ground. While in Yosemite Valley September 1 through 7, we completed several hikes, including the magnificent Panorama and Sentinel DomeTrails, but our personal favorite was the Yosemite Falls Trail.

We were silly enough to take on this strenuous feat when the falls were bone dry. Fed by spring snow melt, North America’s tallest waterfall goes dry every summer, usually in August. But with only 30 percent of normal snowfall last winter, the falls stopped running in June this year. Nevertheless, we decided to try this trail, partly because we liked the challenge (only 8.5 miles round trip but a 3,400' climb) and partly because we wanted a southern view of the valley.

Thankfully, we were rewarded for our folly: We had the trail almost to ourselves, the views were stunning, and we stumbled into some excellent birding along the way. I’m certain people flock to this trail when the water is flowing, but in my mind, it’s worth the walk any time of year, and maybe even more so in late summer, thanks to the solitude.
Early start, on our way up

Not just Rex, but Colene, too, had many hands-on-hips moments as we inched our way to the top.  The engineering and construction on this trail were phenomenal. 

Break time

This is all that remains of Yosemite Creek on September 5. In the spring, it gushes with snow melt and falls 5,404 feet to the valley floor.  Even so, there was enough water to attract birds. Not far from here, we lingered for more than an hour while watching Cassin's finches, white-headed woodpeckers, and black-throated grey warblers-- just few of the species we spotted. 

At the top: Half Dome from Yosemite Point

On our way down

Rock climbing is a big deal in Yosemite.  I had no idea that this sub-culture even existed, but that's clearly what it is. Here, we encountered two climbers laying a new trail. 

The view from Columbia Rock, only a few miles up the trail.  If one can't make it to Yosemite Point, hoofing it as far as Columbia Rock is a good alternative. 

The end.

Our route

Friday, August 30, 2013

Gotta do it once

Rex comes up with the greatest schemes. In his latest, he found a good reason to drive California State Route 1: we needed a spotting scope.

Route 1, the famous coastal road from that runs from Mendocino County to Orange County, does not accommodate 30-foot trailers. When we came south from Crescent City, we took the faster, straighter US 101. But the incomparable Route 1 calls. So when two different birding couples mentioned Out of This World in Mendocino as a great source for spotting scopes, Rex's wheels started turning. He has shopped the powerful optic aids for weeks, and sure enough, when we called, James the helpful clerk told us that he did have a Nikon ED50 in stock--just what we have been wanting.  Preordained, right?

So on Tuesday, we headed north then northwest, driving over the hills on a very crooked road toward Boonville and on to Mendocino. Once we accomplished our business, we took a too-short tour of the town and ate our lunch overlooking the ocean then followed the coast south.

Here's a link to the route we followed, and a few photos are posted here. The entire 200-mile journey took 13 hours. We don't need to ever drive that road again, but I am so very glad we did.  Enjoy the slideshow!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Plan B

UPDATE: As we expected, the National Park Service has now closed indefinitely Hodgdon Meadows Campground, where we were to stay through September 3rd. According to the NPS, most of park remains open and smoke-free. Rex and I have decided to go to the south side of Yosemite on Thursday, in hopes of finding a spot in a "first-come, first served" campground.

What do we do when the 15th largest wildfire in California history closes the Yosemite campground we reserved four months ago? We go to Plan B: bikes, birds, and beer.

After reuniting in San Francisco last Saturday and retrieving our fifth wheel, the TI, from storage on Sunday, we intended to regroup in Santa Rosa for a few days before heading east toward Yosemite, where a campsite had our name on it, starting August 22nd.

But Santa Rosa is a very comfortable town--maybe not as easy as Austin, which I've heard Alejandro Escovedo aptly call the Velvet Rut. Still, the weather here is almost perfect, the streets are easy to navigate with car or bike, and the produce at the even the big-box stores is incredibly fresh, flavorful, and cheap.

Then there's the beer. Russian River is in Santa Rosa, Bear Republic in Healdsburg, and Lagunitas in Petaluma--three breweries with long-standing and well-deserved national reputations within 30 miles of each other.

Lagunitas employees really love their jobs.  In Petaluma, CA. 
By Thursday, we found ourselves still in Santa Rosa, and that was a good thing. Otherwise, we would have been halfway to Yosemite when we learned that our campground was closing due to the Rim Fire.

In our version of lemons-to-lemonade, we biked through wine country on Friday. I've mapped out our 25-mile loop here. Most of it was low- or slow traffic, but some sections were too dangerous for bicyclists, no matter what the Sonoma Cycling Club says. We would do it again but incorporate more of Dry Creek Road into our route--and more wineries. We only made it to one thought there were at least three dozen offering tastings on our loop.
Vineyard on West Dry Creek Road near Yoakim Bridge Road

Another vineyard, same general location
Harvest time?
Rex re-hydrating, Russian River valley south of Geyserville
Late Friday night after our ride, curiosity got the best of me and I went looking online for the local Audubon chapter. Sure enough, one of the premiere birding sites in the country--Bodega Bay--is only 25 miles away. And wouldn't you know it, but the Madrone Audubon Society would be hosting a guided walk there on Saturday at 7:30 am. We were out the door by 6:35 the next morning and had an absolutely amazing day: 17 life-list bird and 48 species sighted in total.
Bodega Head; here we saw pelagic cormorants, Brandt's cormorants, wandering tattlers, and a common murre, to name a few. Many, many thanks to Gordon Beebe and all the Audubon regulars for patiently sharing so many magical birds with us. 

On our return trip from Bodega Bay, we made two stops in Sebastopol: the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm and a month-old brewery and restaurant called Woodfour Brewing Company.

Did you ever think about the origins of Shasta Daisy? Me neither--until I visited Luther Burbank's farm and learned that the horticulturalist created this white-and-yellow favorite. I assumed the Shasta Daisy had been with us since God formed dry land, but Burbank introduced it in 1901. It is one of more than 800 new plants that he produced in his life time, including the first commercially grown cherry and dozens of other improved flowers, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. A worthy legacy, if you ask me.  
Rex inspects some of Luther Burbank's work: an experimental chestnut. 

We still don't know when we will leave Santa Rosa, But we will make the best of it, I am certain of that.
A Berliner weisse at Woodfour Brewing Company. Skip it and go for the Belgium dubbel instead. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

When in Austin...

As you probably know, dear reader, I spent most of last week in Austin, Texas, defending (successfully!) my dissertation. I have almost no photos to post, but even so, this is a good opportunity to promote some of my favorite Austin haunts.

Central Market: Perhaps it is lame to think of a grocery store as a destination, but nevertheless, this a great place. Whole Foods still out-wows Central Market, but I have never gone to Whole Foods to truly shop. In comparison, I went to Central Market twice in five days last week.

Mi Madres: I probably would not treasure this place, or even know about it, if it wasn’t in my old neighborhood.  Still, I know many people who have never lived nearby who also swear by Mi Madres’ Tex-Mex—particular for breakfast and brunch. The food is consistently good and the prices are very reasonable. Most importantly, it feels just like a neighborhood place should: comfy, friendly, no pretension. Rex and I found Mi Madres on our first trip to Austin. We were particularly impressed when we learned that the owners lived in the neighborhood; that sold us on the East Side. 

Franklin BBQ: Obviously, Franklin needs no promotion, but I do want to take moment to write about the line. Yes, waiting for Franklin BBQ, which takes a minimum of three hours during the summer months, is a big investment. But approached with the right attitude, standing in line with fellow smoked-meat devotees can be very rewarding. Everyone has a story, and one will hear lots of very interesting ones on any given morning while in the Franklin cue. Plus, food just tastes better when one has worked for it. And remember--that’s why the line is so long: It takes a great amount of time and effort to slow-smoke meat over an open fire. If it could be produced on an assembly line, you could get it at Rudy’s, and then you wouldn’t want it.   

Black Star Co-op: When we first moved to Austin, Rex and I went to several of Black Star’s promotional events where they served great homebrews, sold shares, and explained the concept of a cooperative brew pub. I didn’t get it. Brewing craft beer is an art—why would anyone want to do it by committee?

It wasn’t until Black Star opened that I grasped the value of a co-op. (Which is funny, because I’m a farm kid, who should have known about co-ops. Why I didn’t associate them with owner-operator values is another story.) Anyhow, after Rex and I first went there, I quickly realized that the co-op was less about finding the best way to brew beer and more about finding the best, most ethical way to do business. Black Star employees are paid a living wage and no tipping is allowed. Fairness and transparency in how service workers are compensated? What a concept! More to the point, Black Star’s food menu is creative, high-quality, and local—an interesting take on pub grub. The regular rotation of Black Star brews is also distinctive and of high-quality. On my latest trip, I was lucky enough to indulge in their version of the Berliner Weisse, which they call the Waterloo. It’s a summer seasonal made with peaches, wonderfully tart and refreshing—one of my favorite beers of all time. Not a popular style, only a few beer nerds appreciate Berliner Weisse, so the brewer took a risk when he came up with this one. But obviously, the board supported the brewer in what might have been a commercial disaster. Long story short: If a restaurant can be run based on democratic decision making and shared profits, any business can. 
A big, little beer (Avery's Maharaja); a regular-sized beer with average ABV (Black Star's Elba), and a very small, big beer (Black Star's Waterloo). 

I’m running out of steam now, but another Austin-centric business worth patronizing, in my humble opinion, is Salt and Time. I had some of Ben’s excellent bacon on my last trip. It reminded me of the bacon that came from our hogs, killed and processed in Petersburg, when I was a kid.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Lost Coast

In spite of our title, this tale has nothing to do with the Lost Coast of California, a section of relatively remote and very undeveloped coastline that runs from Rockport to Ferndale. Because of geo-technical challenges, the state never developed roads through this part of the state. Add in depopulation during the Great Depression, and you have a rare section of lovely and lonely seashore.

But that's not what this post is about. We actually were several miles north of the Lost Coast on August 8th when we got lost on the coast. In fact, because some sea lions distracted us, what could have been an 11.6 mile walk to the beach and back turned into something closer to 14 miles. Even so, it eventually became an amazing day of hiking--probably in our top 10, if we kept track of such things.

First, our early start got delayed by an hour, as we needed fuel for the truck (oops). After a short detour to Klamath to get diesel at a station run by the Yurok tribe, we drove the Newton B. Drury Scenic Highway to the visitors' center of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. When we arrived at about 8:30 a.m., a small herd of Roosevelt Elk, all males, were waiting.
Elk hanging around the park employee quarters
Miners Ridge Trail

We started on the Miner’s Ridge Trail, headed for the Gold Bluffs Beach campgrounds. The whole point of this hike was to walk a long loop through old-growth coastal redwoods. Prairie Creek is known for a group of trees called the Atlas Grove. The grove contains the Iluvatar a tree, which is 320 feet tall and 20.5 feet in diameter at breast height. However, the location of this grove is undisclosed to the public to protect it. But there are plenty of big trees along the main, publicized trails.

We walked the Miner's Ridge trail from the visitors' center to the ocean under heavy fog that sometimes became mist. This added to the mysterious, other-worldly feel of the 300-foot redwoods. We heard many birds but could identify only one--a varied thrush.

Once we made it to the beach, we headed north and got distracted by a group of double-breasted cormorants, brown pelicans, and ring billed gulls. As we kept going, we noticed a group of seals was also feasting on what must have been a mother lode of fish. Every time a cormorant would dive and resurface, it would have a fish. After watching this feeding frenzy we kept walking the beach, not realizing that we had missed our turn back inland.

Gold Bluffs beach trail
We eventually realized our mistake and came south to Fern Canyon. The walls of this canyon were up to 50 feet straight up and covered with up to 5 different ferns, giving the ravine a very airy feel that can't be captured on film--not on our cameras, anyway.
Fern Canyon 

The extra miles on the beach zapped our energy, so we took a lunch break before heading back up the James Irvine trail to the visitors center. In addition to coastal redwoods, many large Douglas fir, sitka spruce, and western hemlock populate the park.
New plants growing on a fallen redwood (nurse tree)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why are we whispering?

A walk in the woods... Stout Memorial Grove
Colene and I drove out to the Jedediah Smith State Park this morning and walked the Stout Memorial Grove. Clara Stout gave 22 acres of old-growth redwoods in honor of her husband so the trees would be saved from logging, which was the fate of all but one percent of the huge coastal redwoods that towered here at the turn of the century. We then drove on to the Boy Scout Trail, walking to Fern Falls among the redwoods.

Colene at the Boy Scout Tree
We found ourselves whispering to each other as we went through the forest. Call us crazy, but it just seemed right to be reverential. Maybe it’s because some of these trees are more than 2,000 years old. Perhaps we were cowed by their size: 300 feet high, and some appearing to be more than 20 feet in diameter.

Whatever the reason, we were glad we got out before the crowds so that we could enjoy some quiet time among the trees.
Man among giants

This isn’t just a tree or two. The State of California, in conjunction with the National Park Service, has protected more than 100,000 acres of redwood forest. That doesn’t mean that redwoods are out of the woods (ha ha), as erosion from upstream logging, farming and development can negatively impact the redwoods nearer the coast. 
Colene admires her surroundings

We are very grateful that some forward thinking folks like Mrs. Stout were motivated to help save these forests for future generations to see and admire. As the photos don’t begin to do them justice here is a quote from John Masefield "They are not like trees, they are like spirits. The glens in which they grow are not like places, they are like haunts—haunts of the centaurs or of the gods."

Mergansers on Smith River
Rex finds a seat

So peaceful