Day of Rest

Posted from Alacati, Turkey at 9:36 pm, July 27th, 2014

In an effort to reduce potential driving stress I got up this morning at 6 AM, while most of the vacationing Turks were sleeping, and made an exploration of the surrounding area. Unfortunately it’s pretty developed, so I’ll need to search out the famously beautiful coastline elsewhere in a future visit, but it was nevertheless neat to look at the sea and have the Greek Isles nearly close enough to swim to (nearly – they’re still a few miles away, and I’m not swim team material). I had time for a short hike along the coast before people started waking up, after which I retreated back to the hotel rather than face the horns and congestion of the Turkish roads. Thereafter I decided to make today a rest day, since I’ll likely be too afraid of missing anything to spend much time sleeping during the upcoming safaris in Africa.

Some random thoughts about the trip so far:

  • The call to prayer is an oddly reassuring thing to hear throughout the day, even if the mosque loudspeakers make it sound like some weird mash-up of Ravi Shankar and an electric shaver. The invention of the loudspeaker has to be one of the most momentous events in the history of Islam – I can’t imagine the imams were able to rouse everyone from bed at 4 AM back in the days when they were singing a cappella from the minarets.
  • The internet makes the world seem much, much smaller. The ability to check email and Facebook temporarily makes me feel like I’m back home rather than on the other side of the world, and as a result any moments of homesickness have been short-lived. On a related note, despite having taken a few jabs at Google maps in past journal entries, driving would have been a much, much more stressful experience without it.
  • The Turkish people have generally been very friendly and hospitable, but one aspect of the shared personality in particular caught my attention: there are a lot of stray dogs and cats everywhere, and I’ve seen numerous people leaving out bags of scraps or dishes of water. The culture seems to view the animals not as strays, but as shared pets, and they collectively take care of them as such.

Tomorrow is a day of flying, from Izmir back to Istanbul and then on to Arusha in Tanzania. Internet connectivity will likely be spotty in Africa, so posts may be delayed a few days – don’t call the embassy unless I go missing for a couple of weeks. Sadly, there will be no more trekking in ancient Roman cities, but there will be lions…

Self-portrait at the stadium in Aphrodisias

Self-portrait at the stadium in Aphrodisias. I didn’t take any new photos today, but the smile in this one from yesterday sums up my Turkey experience.

Aphrodisias

Posted from Alacati, Turkey at 10:34 pm, July 26th, 2014

I didn’t make any advance plans for the last few days in Turkey, so the ad-hoc activity for the morning ended up being a trip to Aphrodisias. This was my third ancient Roman city in three days, and it might have been the best of the bunch. There were no crowds – people doing archaeological work outnumbered tourists – and only a small portion of the city had been excavated, leaving lots to explore. There were literally carved blocks sticking out of the ground everywhere, demonstrating how much of the city has yet to be unearthed. What was excavated was in amazing condition – the stadium is the largest and best preserved anywhere in the world, the amphitheatre is in similar condition, and even the marble floors of the baths are still present and intact. The massive agora is also relatively complete, and I got the impression that as they dig more that Aphrodisias will rival Ephesus for the title of “best preserved ancient city”. Finally, the museum contained the most impressive statues and carvings that I’ve yet seen on this trip, I assume because excavations were done mostly after the era in which archaeologists dug things up and then shipped them back home to the local museum. Best of all, I got to enjoy most of these sights on my own – I stood in a 30,000 seat stadium with no one else around, and then repeated the act in the 7,000 seat amphitheatre; the Indiana Jones spirit lives on.

In addition to the history and landscapes, everyone raves about the beaches and coastline in Turkey, so I figured I’d wrap up the trip on the Aegean Coast. A Tripadvisor search for hotels located within 1-2 hours of my departure airport led me to the city of Alacati, so after leaving Aphrodisias I drove four hours west to a town that is sort of like a Turkish version of Carmel. Alacati seems to be a destination primarily for well to do Turks, so it’s a slightly more authentic experience than in other areas that cater more to foreigners. This town would probably have been my dad’s favorite stop, as tonight there was a farmer’s market going on that was easily three times bigger than any farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, with everything from stalls selling dozens of varieties of olives, to stalls selling homemade cheeses the size of a human head, to fruit stalls with watermelons piled six feet high, to carts offering steamed mussels. Pa Holliday would have been reduced to a walking pile of drool.

The plan for tomorrow is to explore some of the nearby beaches, although that option is highly dependent on driving conditions in case some of the “roads” on the map turn out to instead be glorified goat paths masquerading as highways.

Marble carvings at Aphrodisias

This stash of marble carvings was sitting under a shelter to form a long wall. I don’t know if it’s temporary storage or a permanent thing, but I liked it very much.

Aphrodisias stadium

The 2000 year-old, 30,000 seat stadium, which I had to myself. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess whether I spent part of my time there re-enacting scenes from Gladiator.

Lost in Translation

Posted from Pamukkale, Turkey at 10:46 pm, July 25th, 2014

Today ended up with two adventures, one planned and awesome, the other unplanned and not quite as awesome. The latter began after a late lunch when I attempted to save 30 minutes of uphill walking by catching the local shuttle to the upper gate of Hierapolis. The shuttle bus arrived, I hopped on, and my first sign of trouble was that there was not a white face on board. Thirty minutes later the bus finally stopped at the downtown terminal in a nearby large city. Once I found a bus that was supposedly returning to my starting point I made sure to repeat the name of the town I wanted multiple times just to be certain that I wasn’t accidentally getting on an express bus to Istanbul or any other surprise destination. These sorts of things are inevitable when traveling, but it will still be nice to be able to reliably use either English or French in the remaining countries on the trip, since with the aid of a limited vocabulary and excessive hand gestures I might have a decent chance of successfully doing simple things like riding a bus.

The day’s more enjoyable adventure was a visit to the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis. Having already spent an hour of fun in shuttles I gave up on trying to get a ride to the top gate, and made the very pleasant no-shoes-allowed walk up the white travertine terraces, with pools along the route and water from the springs running down the path. At the top, the ancient city sprawled across the landscape. Visits were made to many of the buildings, and one of the things that I’ve learned to love about Turkey is how accessible things are – I climbed to the top of a hill that literally had corners of sarcophagi sticking out of the ground, obviously waiting for archaeologists to find the time to excavate them. Similarly, I’m frequently blown away by the historical significance of what’s here – as if visiting Roman cities wasn’t enough, this one is home to the tomb of Philip. The apostle Philip. A guy who partied with Jesus. You don’t accidentally stumble upon the 2000 year old tomb of a biblical figure in too many parts of the world, but that was just one of several notable discoveries during the day today. The walk back down along the terraces at sunset was a final experience worth savoring for the day.

One last note, but a giant stork has built a nest on the roof of the local mosque and hangs out on patrol for large portions of the day; for reasons I do not understand, I like both that the stork chose the mosque, and that the locals don’t seem to mind have a huge pile of sticks and a large bird on the top of their religious edifice.

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale. To get to Hierapolis you walk barefoot for about 30 minutes up a path through the terraces, with foot-deep pools along the way to soak in. Combine that with the view, and the ancient Roman city at the top is almost the second-best part of the day. The only downside is the number of large, hairy people making the journey in a speedo.

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale

I’ve gone back-and-forth a few times about whether or not I like this photo enough to include it in the journal. If you’re reading this, it means I included it. If you’re not…

Road Trip

Posted from Pamukkale, Turkey at 10:24 pm, July 24th, 2014

I slept in until 7:15 this morning, and it was glorious.

The plan for the day was to visit the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. The place is so old that it used to be located on the coast, but its port silted up and it is now located a few miles inland. O-L-D. I arrived when the gates opened at 8 AM in an effort to beat the crowds and heat, and then spent nearly five hours exploring ancient ruins and trying to imagine what life was like two thousand years ago. In addition to its theaters and famous library, the town is home to an amazingly well-preserved “terrace house”, complete with frescoes, marble paneling, and mosaics. With a little imagination and some modern amenities, you could easily see how these 2nd century apartments would rival any millionaire’s home today – the Romans were awesome.

By early afternoon I was ready for the three hour drive inland to Pamukkale, home to giant travertine terraces and the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis that sits on top of the travertine hills. I’m sure there was probably a shorter way from Ephesus to Pamukkale, but after yesterday’s fun with “roads”, today I was treating Google Maps with significant skepticism. It still tried to sneak me on to some questionable routes between villages, but as the pavement narrowed I figured out the trick, and spent a half hour backtracking to a more circuitous route that actually had pavement.

I have two nights booked here, and while I had been planning on doing some exploring of the surrounding area after visiting Hierapolis, the option of a rest day in a town that has been known for two thousand years for its hot springs sounds very appealing after the frantic pace of the past ten days.

Celsus library at Epeshus

Celsus library at Ephesus.

Grand theatre at Epeshus

Grand theatre at Ephesus. The 24,500 seat theatre is used today only for classical acts due to fears of damaging it, but until recently bands ranging from Elton John to Ray Charles to Jethro Tull (!) played here.

Floating in the Air

Posted from Selcuk, Turkey at 10:35 pm, July 23rd, 2014

It’s pretty cool when you feel like you’ve gotten in a full day’s worth of activity, look at the time, and realize it’s only 6:30 in the morning.

The hot air balloon ride was totally worth doing. The pilot of our balloon was apparently some sort of otherworldly wizard who was capable of sending the balloon three thousand feet into the air before dropping down to within a foot (literally) of the canyon walls for a few minutes, and then lifting us up a thousand feet before repeating the maneuver in a new canyon. The trip started in the pre-dawn hours, and the balloon lifted off so gently that the only indication of flight was that the ground was becoming distressingly far away – it’s an unnerving sensation to be leaning over the side of a basket a half mile up in the air with nothing supporting you. We watched the sunrise from that height with a hundred other balloons surrounding us, then the balloon armada dropped down to float together through the canyons before repeating. The weather conditions were apparently perfect, and after an hour in the air we landed softly next to the waiting trailer. The much feared presentation of the “flight certificate” was as painful as I imagined it might be, but despite that bit of tackiness I would still highly recommend the experience.

Following the balloon ride I was back at the hotel by 7 AM, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then did a return visit to hike in the Rose & Sword Valleys in order to enjoy the Indiana Jones spirit one last time. Sadly, after that it was time to check out of the incredible, stupendous, and ridiculously great cave hotel, and then it was off to the airport to embark on stage three of the Turkish odyssey.

For my last five days in Turkey I’ve put my life on the line by renting a car and facing the wrath of the Turkish roads, with tonight’s first lesson being that a “road” on Google maps may be something that causes locals to jump up from their seats and yell out warnings when you try to drive on it, necessitating a long drive of shame in reverse along a narrow, one-lane cobblestone path. Assuming the necessary lessons are learned without incident and I can survive this new motorized portion of the trip, in the coming days I’ll get to see a mix of ancient and natural wonders that were old even in biblical times. Life continues to be very, very good.

Cappadocia hot air balloon sunrise

This was my sunrise this morning, but with a hundred other balloons that are out of frame. I have no complaints.

Cappadocia hot air balloons in Love Valley

I wish I’d gotten much, much better pictures that did justice to how cool it was to be floating through the valleys of Cappadocia with a hundred other balloons. Unfortunately this is about the best I got, but on a positive note you can see the previously mentioned phallic stone towers that give the valley its name.

The active trip, now with hills

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:27 pm, July 22nd, 2014

The 2006 Galapagos trip was referred to (fondly, by most) as the “active trip” since we packed in non-stop activity. Thus far this adventure is definitely living up to the standards of the active trip, with the added element of massive numbers of hills. My legs and feet appear to still be on speaking terms with the rest of the body, but I fear that if this pace keeps up there will be unrest and threat of strike from my appendages responsible for locomotion.

Today was much like yesterday, with less Indiana Jones and much more finely painted stone churches. The day began before 4 AM with the man in the mosque singing me a song through the loudspeakers on the minaret. This particular melancholic lament was considerably longer than his normal pre-dawn melodies, and when it finally ended sleep was hard to find. Finally at 5:30 I went up to the terrace to again watch the balloons floating by, and thereafter it was off to the protected area of Goreme to see the most impressive of the stone churches. This area is actually managed as an open air museum, so it was quite a different experience from the previous day’s journeys into lonely corners of hidden valleys. Photos were not allowed and, since I’ve already gone on ad nauseam about how amazed I am that anyone could have built such structures inside of solid rock, like Forrest Gump I’ll sum up by saying that’s all I have to say about that.

After visiting the pretty churches the first attempt at a hike for the day ended in defeat as the trail through the Zemi Valley simply faded away, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where it had gone. Ego in hand, I made a one-eighty and came back to my ridiculously awesome cave hotel for a nap and to avoid being out in the heat of the day. Nap completed, I then headed off for a late afternoon hike in Love Valley, which I swear has to be a toned-down translation of the actual Turkish name since it was named after the giant stone formations that are found throughout the valley floor, each one looking exactly like a fifty foot tall weiner.

Tomorrow is my last day in Cappadocia, and I reluctantly shelled out the big bucks to take a ride at sunrise through the valleys with Istanbul Ballooons. A hot air balloon ride has to be the most touristy thing I could possibly do – all the balloon companies advertise that after landing they have a champagne celebration and present you with a “flight certificate”, which hurts my soul in the most severe way – but I’m hopeful that this one is a truly great experience that comes with a side of touristy schlock. Following the balloon ride there should be time for one more hike, and thereafter the second leg of this trip will have all-too-quickly come to a close.

Cappadocia sunset

Until today I’ve been lucky enough to get at least one journal-worthy photo each day, but luck finally ran out. While it was tempting to just post a shot of the giant stone wieners, instead a generic sunset photo from a couple of nights ago will have to do.

Indiana Jones of Cappadocia

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:08 pm, July 21st, 2014

Yesterday I woke up at 6:15 and counted 26 hot air balloons floating across the sky. Today I woke up at 5:45 and there were too many to count. Six days in, and this adventure is still going very strong.

Prior to arriving I knew nothing about the logistics of visiting Cappadocia, and not wanting to lose even one day of this trip I had made advance arrangements with a trekking company for the first day here. After arriving I realized that there is TONS of great history and landscapes surrounding Goreme (the town I’m staying in), so today I was happily able to return to my lone, free ranging ways. A hike through any of the surrounding valleys literally passes by hundreds, if not thousands, of stone structures that date back a couple thousand years, so I was in full-on Indiana Jones mode as I scrambled through ancient churches that had been hacked from stone, roamed through eroding rock formations, and explored old monasteries that crept up multiple levels inside of the rock. Without trying to sound like a broken record, it’s unbelievable what people have been able to carve out of the rocks here – at one point today I stood in a church that was three stories high, all chiseled out by hand deep inside of a cliff.

After returning in early afternoon and getting a much-needed nap during the heat of the day, the late afternoon activity was a visit to Uchisar Castle, which is the high point in this area, and which was hacked out of the top of a stone hill (of course). From there it was a nice stroll back to Goreme through Pigeon Valley, so named for the high density of pigeon houses carved into the cliffs and built by ancient people since they used pigeon droppings for fertilizer.

One last note, put here mainly for my dad – no matter where I travel, his first question is nearly always about the food (“Antarctica, huh? What was the food like?”) Gotta say, while I haven’t been spending much time eating, Turkey does the culinary thing right. Best olives I’ve ever had. Fresh fruit that is smaller than what we get back home, but seems to pack in more flavor. Grilled meats that have all brought great joy to the tastebuds. And while I’m not yet a card-carrying member of the Turkish tea fan club, I could see how that ubiquitous drink would grow on you. The only downside for me has been that this is the wrong place to not like eggplant – at one point I politely declined some sort of curried eggplant from the guy working the breakfast buffet, and while he didn’t say anything out loud, the look on his face was pretty clearly one of very deep-seated disgust towards me and all of the evil that I represented. In my defense, I had tried the dish he was offering earlier and re-affirmed that eggplant continues to keep its position on my unapproved vegetable list.

Cappadocia hot air balloon launch

Hot air balloons launching at sunrise. This photo captures just one corner of the sky – the horizon was filled.

Aydinli Cave Hotel Room #2

Room #2 at the Aydinli Cave Hotel. A 300 year old space carved out of the solid rock of the hillside would be a national historic landmark in America, but in Turkey it’s my beyond-cool home for four nights. Giant bathroom (former stable) not shown.

Walking on Sunshine

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:35 pm, July 20th, 2014

I woke up at 6:15 this morning, walked up to the uppermost terrace of my cave hotel, and watched 26 hot air balloons floating over the rock formations. Life is that awesome right now.

The day’s plan was to hop in a van and go see evidence of civilizations that were here millennia ago, starting with the Kaymaklı Underground City. The “city” part of the name is actually accurate – ancient people hacked the rock to build tunnels and living quarters that are large enough to hold 4000 people with enough supplies to withstand sieges from invaders for several months. The underground labyrinth has at least 100 rooms that extend below the surface for eight levels and a depth of at least 70 meters, with the oldest portions dating back as far as 2000 BC. I had no idea such a thing had ever existed in this world, but seeing the lengths ancient people were willing to go to in order to escape from invaders made me very, very appreciative that I live in a time when it is no longer necessary to deal with surprise raids from barbarian hordes.

The next stage of the journey was an eight mile hike through the Ihlara Valley, a hideout for early Christians escaping religious persecution (at that time “religious persecution” was a euphemism meaning “a horrible, awful, terrible death”, so the hiding was mostly justified). Cave houses were everywhere, and hidden churches appeared at regular intervals. Sadly the frescoes in the churches were heavily obscured by graffiti – “crazy lovers” was how the guide I was with described the perpetrators – so works of art dating back to the first few centuries AD are now victims of visitors who felt it was important to scratch their initials and the date of their visit into the ancient plaster. JC would have been forgiving, but it gave me a significant frowny face inside.

With all of the day’s activities there wasn’t time to take photos of my uber-awesome cave hotel room, so those will need to wait for a later journal entry when extreme tiredness isn’t such an immediate concern.

Cappadocia landscape at sunset

Cappadocia landscape at sunset. There is an ancient cave house or storage space carved into just about every piece of rock in the area.

So Many Things

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 10:20 pm, July 19th, 2014

The days when it was a struggle to find subject matter for three journal entries a month are gone… I’ve just arrived in Cappadocia, and this journal entry would be all about my 300 year old carved-out-of-solid-rock cave hotel room(s) if there wasn’t more to recap from Istanbul. The high level overview on the lodging for the next four days: if you’re ever planning a trip to Cappadocia and think it might be better to save some money and not stay in a cave hotel, have someone immediately slap you across the face, hard. You will later thank them repeatedly after not missing out on the most unique accommodation experience of your life.

Now back to Istanbul. Thus far I’ve been going to bed early and waking up even earlier, so last night was the first night where I ventured out in the evening. Ramadan is ongoing, and when I got to the main park outside of the Blue Mosque there were literally thousands of people having picnics with their friends and families to break their daily fast. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – imagine the scene on the Fourth of July just before they shoot off the fireworks, but no one is American, the food is completely foreign, and the music and games are unrecognizable; that sort of captures it. It was incredibly neat to just walk around and absorb the atmosphere.

After last night’s meandering I got up reasonably early today for my final day in Istanbul. The first destination was to the 7AM opening of the rooftop restaurant at the Seven Hills Hotel to soak in the 360-degree views of the ocean, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia in the early light. “Soak in the views” might be a cliched term, but in this case the surroundings really were sort of like fuel for the soul.

With the spirit refreshed and the belly full of olives and honeycomb, the activities for the day were a trip to the Little Hagia Sophia and to the Basilica Cistern, followed by an interlude at the Blue Mosque prior to heading to the airport to catch my flight. The Little Hagia Sophia was actually built by Justinian before the Hagia Sophia and, unsurprisingly, is a much, much smaller version that has less ornate decoration but some amazingly impressive carved marble columns. A thunderstorm arrived while I was there, and I was trapped in a 1500 year old church (now mosque) for an hour; that is misfortune of the very best kind. The Basilica Cistern is a 1500 year old underground Roman water storage tank, which doesn’t sound so neat until you’re in it: it is 453 feet long, 212 feet wide, 30 feet high, and supported by 336 marble columns – it’s also known, understandably, as the Sunken Palace, and probably ranks in my top ten most unexpectedly weird discoveries. The support columns were re-purposed from other structures, so most of them are ornately carved with different designs. Rumor has it that it was forgotten until the 16th century when a scholar researching Byzantine antiquities was told by locals of how they could catch fish through holes in their basement floors, and carp are still present today in the two feet or so of water that floods the bottom. Wandering around inside re-affirmed my belief that had Rome not fallen, their genius would have had us launching satellites and making microwave popcorn five hundred years ago.

Thus ended the very first leg of this three-month long odyssey. Tales of the cave hotel, hidden churches, and attempts to avoid heat stroke will follow tomorrow.

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern. Completely full it held 80,000 m3 of water, which means that 32 Olympic-size swimming pools could be emptied into an underground storage unit that the Romans built without mechanized tools. Note that there were even more columns behind me when I took this photo – the place is not small.

Entry to the Blue Mosque

Detail of the front of the Blue Mosque. The main entry is for worshipers only, and a man with a uniform and an absolutely impeccable Muslim detector was stationed there to redirect people to the visitor’s entrance on the side as appropriate.

My Dogs are Barking

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 8:40 pm, July 18th, 2014

After walking all over Istanbul in the heat today I sat down while inside of the Archaeology Museum to rest my (very, very, very) tired legs and accidentally dozed off – I could be wrong, but I think that means I’m doing this adventure thing right.

It’s shockingly difficult to find a nice view of Istanbul’s Old City, but after scanning the horizon I noticed people dining on the roof of the Seven Hills Hotel and the day started with me heading over there to catch the morning light. Surprisingly they didn’t insist that I buy anything, and for the equivalent of a couple of dollars gratuity I started the day with a great view of the sea, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia – there may be a return visit tomorrow.

From there the day of much walking commenced, with a journey across the Old City and through all manner of narrow alleys to the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Suleymaniye Mosque, Archaeological Museum, and along the waterfront. My expectations for the Grand Bazaar may have been a tad unrealistic – I imagined a labyrinth of shops straight out of the Arabian Nights, with artisans, exotic goods, hookahs, and maybe a camel or two. The labyrinth part was accurate and very cool, but the shops themselves were more flea market than Arabian Nights, and there wasn’t a camel anywhere to be found. The Spice Bazaar came closer to matching my imagination, with brightly colored bins of spices laid out in hundreds of stalls. Even better were the shops in the narrow alleys around the spice market, where labels weren’t printed in English and none of the goods were being sold pre-packaged in gift baskets.

From the Spice Bazaar it was uphill to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is slightly older than the Blue Mosque, approximately the same size, equally as impressive inside, and filled with perhaps 1/20th as many tourists. Also, it’s less blue and more red.

The day finished with a slow meander towards the Archaeological Museum, through innumerable narrow cobblestone alleys, across public squares, and past all manner of shops. When finally it occurred to me that some sort of sustenance might be a good idea I ordered a kebab, and after I answered in the affirmative when the guy making it pointed to some french fries, I learned that in Turkey they are apparently toppings rather than a side dish, as they came wrapped inside of the kebab – yet another tiny reminder that I am far from home. Hopefully I can get my tired legs to cooperate and do a bit more wandering tomorrow, after which I fly out of Istanbul in the evening and head to the weird landscapes of Cappadocia for the second leg of this adventure.

Blue Mosque

The elusive Blue Mosque skyline view. Someday more owners of nearby buildings will realize that their rooftops are untapped gold mines, but until that day the Seven Hills Hotel will be my eatery of choice.

Spice Bazaar

Stall in the Spice Bazaar. When the labels on the spices are printed in English it is not-so-secret code for “you’re paying double”.

On the Second Day

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 9:52 pm, July 17th, 2014

The tour groups filtering through the Blue Mosque seemed to allow about fifteen minutes to visit the place, which means I probably saw nine rotations go through while I enjoyed the cavernous interior – at the rate I’m going, four days will be enough to see only a tiny, tiny fraction of Istanbul.

By the standards of Istanbul’s other monuments, the Blue Mosque is fairly young, having been built only 400 years ago, but it is equally as impressive as its older siblings. 20,000 handmade tiles decorate the inside walls and pillars, the central dome rises 141 feet into the air, eight supporting domes create a huge interior space, and one awed and smiling American got to enjoy it all for a good chunk of the morning.

The day’s next visit was to the nearby Mosaic Museum, which is the remnant of a 4000 square meter mosaic courtyard built by Justinian about 1500 years ago that, for whatever reason, was mostly built over and forgotten as the centuries passed by. Today archaeologists have restored a portion, and I’d put the artists who built it up against any artist living today – it’s an impressive piece of creative work. Following that stop it was back to the Hagia Sophia to see the tombs of four sultans. All of the tombs were inside of large domed buildings, all impressively decorated with tiles, and the actual sarcophagi (?) were carpeted on the outside, which I guess is the way you do it when you’re a sultan (or a relative of a sultan) of one of the largest empires ever to exist on Earth.

Thereafter it was off to the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire from 1465–1856. The palace grounds included four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, leading to a tired set of legs when all was said and done. The Sultans lived well, as evidenced by the residence area (the Harem), the museum exhibits that included an 86 karat diamond and bowls filled with emeralds, the ornate receiving rooms, and the tremendous views out over the Bosphorus Strait. The day’s final visit was to the Hagia Irene, a church that is slightly older than the Hagia Sophia but slightly less massive and in a much greater state of disrepair. Surprisingly, the worn down old building is used today primarily for musical performances, as it apparently has amazing acoustics under its high dome.

Finally, random side note, but while the focus on wildlife for this trip won’t start for two more weeks when I reach Tanzania, it’s impossible not to notice that they have (very loud) parrots here, too. In addition, there are a surprising numbers of birds that have found holes in the exteriors of the historic buildings and set up homes in hidden corners of architectural wonders. Hearing a pigeon flying through the vast interior of the Hagia Irene or Hagia Sophia isn’t what I necessarily expected in the stillness of a 1500 year old religious edifice, but at the same time it definitely doesn’t detract from the ambiance.

Mosaic Museum detail

Detail from a 1500 year old Byzantine mosaic at the Mosaic Museum. I continue to be hugely impressed with the ancient Romans’ ability to arrange tiny pieces of rock and ceramic.

Column detail in Sultan Selim tomb

The Ottomans seem to have been all about arches, domes, and colored tiles. This photo shows details of the supports for the dome above Sultan Selim’s tomb, which was built in 1577.

In the Beginning

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 6:04 am, July 17th, 2014

Yesterday’s plan to avoid jet lag despite sixteen hours of flying and a ten hour time change was simple – get up to catch the plane at 4:30 AM (Los Angeles time) and then stay awake until I was somewhere over the Atlantic and it was the equivalent of evening time in Istanbul. A brilliant plan, had it worked, but instead I never fell asleep on the plane and arrived in a state resembling the walking dead. On a positive note, I finally got to see Captain America 2, Thor 2, and the Hobbit Part 2 (Air Canada is really into sequels).

After landing and fetching luggage I arrived at the hotel in Istanbul at noon local time (2AM Los Angeles time), and fearing that it might not be a good idea to see some of the world’s most amazing landmarks while hallucinating, took a three hour nap before heading out. Once off, my hotel was only a couple of blocks from the Hagia Sophia, so I got to spend the remainder of the day in one of the most remarkable buildings ever built by humans. The place is old – it was built in 537 AD, and is the kind of old where you look at a marble block at the entrance and notice that it has been worn down two inches in the center from people walking on it. In addition to its age, the building is an architectural marvel that, like the pyramids or Stonehenge, makes you wonder how societies of that time could possibly have built it. The central dome alone is 101 feet across and 160 feet high, creating an absolutely immense enclosed space. I stayed well past closing, allowing the crowds to thin out, and got to enjoy the place as it got quieter and stiller; not a bad way to kick off this adventure.

The Blue Mosque faces the Hagia Sophia from across a park, so I ventured over to it as the sun was setting. It was too late to go inside, but standing in the courtyards finally gave me that electric shock feeling that yep, I’m far from home on the opposite side of the world. Hearing people speaking Turkish, not knowing what the customs were, navigating narrow cobblestone streets, wading through the touts in the park (“My friend! My best friend! You want Bosphorus cruise?”), and being awed by a sight I’ve wanted to witness for decades was just the right combination to let it sink in that I am most definitely on an amazing adventure.

Hagia Sophia mosaic detail

Detail of a mosaic of JC from the Hagia Sophia’s walls. The Byzantines apparently knew a thing or two about arranging tiny colored tiles.

Hagia Sophia interior domes

Unfortunately half of the interior of the Hagia Sophia was filled with scaffolding, so this is the best attempt I had at capturing the amazing domed ceiling. You obviously can’t tell from this botched effort at a photo, but it was the kind of awe-inspiring that makes you want to go to church on Sunday.

Hagia Sophia interior hall

Torn between waiting for a break in the steady stream of people, or of using some of them for scale, I chose secret option three, which is either turning them into ghosts or accelerating them up to warp factor five. Whatever your preferred explanation, it made for a cool shot of the halls along the side of the main sanctuary.

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Posted from Los Angeles International Airport, California at 6:33 am, July 15th, 2014

This will be the last entry written on US soil for quite some time – I’m sitting at the Air Canada gate at LAX watching the sun rise, and will most likely be writing the next entry from Istanbul (Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople). In the next two weeks I’ll be setting foot on four different continents, which is one of the most awesome things I’ve ever been able to write in this journal. With that ahead, however, a quick recap of the fun times over the past couple of weeks still needs to be recorded for posterity.

For the Fourth of July Audrey arranged another group trip to the amazing Hollywood Bowl to see Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The show this year was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and included post-show fireworks, and while I preferred the version without the accompanying orchestra (more banjo and fiddle, less French horn), it was still pretty damn fun. As an added bonus, Paul Simon made an appearance to join his wife onstage for one number, and my thought at finally seeing a musical legend whose songs I’ve heard thousands of times was “Wow, that guy is SMALL”. Big talent in a tiny package, apparently.

The following days were filled with many errands as I made a valiant effort to verify travel arrangements and acquire appropriate gear for the trip – Audrey was displeased when I suggested I might take only two pairs of pants on a three month trip, so the pants quota was increased fifty percent, among other last-minute changes. In the midst of the packing extravaganza I made a two day journey up to the Bay Area to visit younger Holliday. A day spent hiking on the Peninsula in search of banana slugs was followed by an evening of adventure, gyros, and albino alligators at the California Academy of Sciences, followed by a day of beer, ping pong, and giant breakfasts, and there was much rejoicing.

And that’s it for my time in the US – future updates involving attempts to avoid accidentally causing international incidents, being chased by dangerous animals, and barfing in foreign countries to follow.

The Holliday Brothers in Half Moon Bay

No one understands what mutated gene in the Holliday DNA is the cause, but taking pictures with wooden people will never, ever stop being fun for us.

Parrots

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:17 pm, June 30th, 2014

This entry is one to file under “weird and wonderful facts about California” (see also: Salton Sea). And that fact is: there are flocks of wild parrots here. They are all descendants from escaped pets or other birds that were brought to California from other places, but the climate suits them and there is plenty to eat, so as you wander around Los Angeles or San Francisco it’s possible to hear loud squawking and see a flock of green flying by. The group that lives in our neighborhood passes over the house a couple of times each day, although they are surprisingly adept at preventing me from getting a decent photo. The shot below is a crop from a larger group of about twelve that has been making a regular stop at the tree across the street each day at 4:30.

More info (and proof that I’m not making this stuff up) at the California Parrot Project.

Wild parrots in Culver City

Not the greatest picture, but clearly wild parrots. Not quite as cool as the peacock that showed up at my uncle’s house in Pennsylvania, but still weird enough to warrant a journal entry.

Trip Planning

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:15 pm, June 29th, 2014

With most of the logistics for the trip now in place, the trip-planning has moved into its final stages. For anyone who wonders what else has gone into setting up this three-month odyssey across two continents and five countries, here are some notes:

  • It only recently occurred to me that the visa-on-arrival option for Tanzania and Kenya might not be a good idea, particularly since I’m entering Kenya through a land border. A brief panic ensued after I discovered that obtaining visas in advance for both countries required mailing my passport to the embassies and an expected 1-3 week turnaround for each. Luckily both Tanzania and Kenya are far more efficient in their visa processing than the US; one week after mailing it I had my Tanzanian visa, and literally 48 hours after sending my passport to the Kenya consulate in LA it arrived back at my doorstep with the required stamp in place. Disaster averted.
  • While I do love my current Canon 100-400mm lens, there is a new Tamron 150-600mm lens that has gotten great reviews and will get me 50% closer than the current bird nostril lens (i.e. new lens = bird boogers). Unfortunately, the lens is sold out everywhere, so I’ve got it on backorder from B&H. With luck it will be back in stock in time to get here before I leave, and there will be pictures of rhino eyeballs to show off when I return. I also got a used Canon 60D as a backup in case my camera breaks or is stolen, since I’m guessing camera shops may be few and far between in the African bush. Last of all I picked up a GoPro for scuba and shark diving, so that I can have video to forever remember the moment when a great white swims by and I soil myself.
  • Clothing-wise, it has been all about avoiding the bugs and not coming home with malaria, yellow fever, or five point exploding heart disease. ExOfficio insect repellent clothing seems to be the recommended way to go in the “don’t die from mosquito bites” department, and while expensive it’s supposed to work well and is super comfortable. Whether or not two pairs of pants and five shirts is sufficient for a three month trip is still a subject of discussion and potential modification, although I have already acquiesced to carrying multiple pairs of boxers.
  • Other acquisitions include bottles of Deet, sunscreen, medicines, toiletries, and every other thing one might need over three months when the nearest Rite-Aid is 11,000 miles away. No doubt many items will be forgotten, and I may find myself treating some ailment with whatever the local Masai witch doctor is able to mix up using plants, animal dung, and black magic.

Four more days of work, and sixteen more days until I board a plane for Istanbul. Adventure is out there.

Meet the Parents

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:08 pm, June 28th, 2014

Three days left in June and a three-journal-entries-a-month goal, but as the saying goes “if it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.” Here’s the quick recap of the month:

  • Ma and Pa came to LA for a visit over Father’s Day weekend. The Skipper wanted to see fossils, so we went to the La Brea Tar Pits so that he could pretend to be a paleontologist while taking in all of the dire wolves, mastodons, and saber tooth tigers (RAWR!). Lunch was from a truck serving lobster rolls, and then it was off to dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge. Ma got to enjoy the fancy settings, Pa got to enjoy elk and venison, and I think everyone went home happy.
  • I’m down to my last four days of work with bodybuilding.com before taking a break for the great African adventure. My last trip out to Boise happened a couple of weeks ago, and beers were drunk, board games were played, and Grant very nearly landed a front flip on the trampoline. Vintage arcade games at Grinkers rounded out a fun work visit.
  • Prior to the visit from the parents there was a disco bowling birthday bash that involved many shenanigans. Watching the (drunk) birthday boy go through an entire dance routine prior to releasing the ball directly into the gutter is an experience that one does not easily forget; John Travolta has nothing on Brett McDermid.

The Skipper at the La Brea Tar Pits

A saber-toothed tiger, a giant sloth, and a happy Skipper.

Mastodon at the La Brea Tar Pits

I would totally ride a mastodon if I could.

Hollywood Nights

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:52 pm, May 31st, 2014

During breakfast this morning with Audrey, the realization that I’ve now been living in LA for about ten years hit. I arrived permanently in August 2005, but was doing contract work at Warner Brothers on and off from December 2002 onwards. That means that I’ve spent more of my life in LA than in any other place besides the Mistake by the Lake Cleveland.

LA is a city that I never would have picked to be the place I would settle down, but I’m tremendously lucky to get to live here. What other city has something that compares to the Hollywood Bowl? Or contains the world’s largest known deposit of Ice Age fossils? While living here I can walk to the ocean to see all manner of sea critters, and enjoy a seemingly inexhaustible number of cool restaurants and cultural activities. LA isn’t without its downsides, but it’s also a town with far more unique and exciting places to discover than almost anywhere else in the world.

Not to say that I’ll be here forever, but so long as Audrey and I do live here there is plenty to appreciate and be grateful for.

The Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

I get to share a city with the coolest machine ever built by man. SPACESHIPS ARE AWESOME AND I LOVE THEM AND THEY GO TO SPACE AND ROCKET SHIPS RULE!!!!

Red-shouldered hawk

While it’s obviously not a hotspot for wildlife, we still get to count everything from hawks to sea lions to mountain lions as our neighbors.

Ryan and mastodons at the La Brea Tar Pits

Yeah, that’s right, mastodons and tar pits. It’s OK to be jealous. Photo by Audrey.

Headlines

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:54 pm, May 29th, 2014

Four headlines of note this week:

  • SpaceX announced version two of their Dragon space capsule, this one capable of carrying astronauts. They are on track to be carrying people into space by 2017, and this new capsule is both reusable and capable of landing almost anywhere using maneuvering thrusters. The goal is to be able to fly it back to the launch pad, refuel it, strap it to a rocket, and send it into space again, thus greatly reducing costs and putting all of us space nerds one step closer to a trip into orbit. For anyone still reading who isn’t an engineering geek, this announcement may be considered one of the big moments in the advancement of technology in a few decades.
  • A $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River (yes, there is one) was announced today. LA’s preferred restoration option was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, and eleven miles of concrete will soon be removed and returned to a more natural state. I’m torn on this one – any time we can keep something natural, or fix damage that has been done, I’m a fan, but $1 billion could have been used to restore vastly larger and more important wetlands elsewhere (example). That said, bringing some nature back to the concrete jungle of LA will be a welcome change.
  • In more controversial news, the EPA is about to unveil serious efforts to combat climate change by setting CO2 limits on power plants. It’s highly doubtful that the EPA’s proposals are the best solution to the issue of climate change, but since the Senate killed the Cap & Trade bill in 2010, direct executive action has become the only viable option for addressing a very serious problem. With any luck, once these rules go into effect it will spur Congress to debate a better solution that does more to address the problem while producing less chaos in the marketplace, much like what was originally intended with the 2009 Cap & Trade bill.
  • Apple holds their Worldwide Developer Conference next week, where they are expected to announce a framework for integrating iPads and iPhones with home devices like lights, security systems, etc. They may also announce their rumored health-related watch, and while I’m skeptical about it, if anyone can make a device that promotes healthy living it’s Apple, and the thought of people having something on their wrist that encourages exercise, good eating, and other good behavior while also notifying them of serious health issues, that seems like a big win.

That’s a lot going on all at once, and even without a pressing deadline to get in three journal entries before the end of the month, they seemed significant enough to record for posterity. Ten years from now I’ll either read this while looking at my Apple health-monitoring device and watching the latest space tourist launch into orbit, or I’ll do neither of those things and wonder how I could have ever thought these announcements were significant :-)

Squirrels

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:18 pm, May 27th, 2014

In addition to the birds we’ve got at least three squirrels that have made themselves at home in the backyard. One is recognizable for his acrobatics – if I ever get a video of him doing handsprings, twirls and rolls across the lawn I’m pretty sure it will be a Youtube sensation – while the other two are notable mainly for their spirited wrestling matches on the roof of Audrey’s office.

For Christmas my mom gave me a seed wreath that I’ve only just gotten around to hanging, and while the birds have ignored it completely, the little grey guys are the happiest they’ve ever been. I initially had it in a spot that they couldn’t quite get to (their attempts rivaled Wile E. Coyote for daring and creativity), but after it became clear that the birds weren’t interested I moved it to be slightly more accessible to the furry fellows, and now squirrels hanging vertically from their hind legs is a regular site in our backyard.

Grey squirrel

I made a deal with the squirrels that they could eat as much as they wanted from the wreath made of nuts, but only if they did Batman impersonations; they complied.

Grey squirrel

After eating insanely large quantities, the ability to move is apparently temporarily lost and the squirrel’s only option is the post-meal catatonic belly flop.

Planning the Odyssey

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 6:39 pm, April 30th, 2014

It’s a very old adage that you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, and planning the trip to Madagascar has reinforced that dictum as most of the internet planning tools we now take for granted are of no use, making things significantly more challenging. I’ve instead found myself working with middlemen, wiring money via Western Union, navigating various bank transfers, and doing my best to email in French, despite twenty years having passed since I last used it during high school language classes (note: those classes ended with my teacher taking me aside to tell me that I was an embarrassment as a language student, and she was not incorrect).

Luckily most of the places we want to visit in Madagascar at least have a web site or a mention on Tripadvisor, so while it sometimes takes several days of contacting the hotel owner and a variety of travel agencies in order to get someone to finally respond with information about price and availability, after countless hours of research, emails, phone calls, etc, we’ve managed to ensure that we have transportation and lodging for most of our time in Madagascar. “Ensure” is of course a relative term – in several cases I’ve wired not-insignificant sums of money to a person I’ve never met, and while I’m not too worried, it’s still an act of faith that they’ll be there with a car, boat, or hotel room at the place and time we’ve arranged. Travel is always an adventure, and this one may be far more unpredictable than most. In addition, I’ve quickly learned that any time you try to send money to someone in Madagascar, whether via bank transfer, credit card, or Western Union, alarm bells and flashing red lights go off in the fraud departments, so I’ve now become quite well-versed in talking to the bank and credit card folks when they follow-up to alert me to all of the dubious activities taking place on my accounts.

With most of the planning now complete, the final itinerary looks like it will be Turkey for two weeks, Tanzania and Kenya for almost four weeks (with the Cheesemans, so at least for that part of the trip there won’t be any worries about travel arrangements), a week in Kruger National Park in South Africa (Etosha National Park in Namibia didn’t work out, unfortunately), ten days in Cape Town with Audrey, then we’ll be spending four weeks in Madagascar. All told I’ll be gone for just shy of three months, so this will be the longest adventure I’ve ever been fortunate enough to undertake. In six months I will no longer be able to say that I haven’t seen the Blue Mosque, a wild lion, the sunset over the Serengeti, or a dancing lemur, and life will definitely be better as a result.

Carry On

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 8:07 pm, April 29th, 2014

Here’s a riveting recap of the life of Ryan over the past two months:

  • At the end of February / beginning of March I made a quick pilgrimage up to the Bay Area to see Aaron and the folks. Good times were had as always, with much ping pong, the Napa Valley regional cornhole championships (which I officially lost, although there were some questionable circumstances), delicious prawn tacos, and a chance to enjoy Aaron’s new casa in Livermore.
  • Earlier this month Audrey, her LA Times and fellow-Alto friend Martha, Meghen (another Alto), and I visited the Queen Mary in Long Beach for a performance by the Christ Church Cathedral Choir. I thought the music was OK, but getting to see it on a historic 1930s passenger liner was pretty awesome. Before the show started I had an hour to roam around, re-enacting scenes from Titanic, although sadly the bow was roped off so I had to forgo “I’m the king of the world!” and instead settle for “You jump, I jump” at the stern, and “Full speed ahead Mr. Murdoch” in the bridge. The Queen Mary is another addition to the list of good things about LA™.
  • In medical news, after more than two years of waiting for Obamacare’s rules against declining coverage due to pre-existing conditions, I finally switched insurance and visited an actual sports medicine doctor at UCLA. Two weeks later I was inside of an MRI medicine-tube-spaceship-time-machine getting 3-D pictures of the inside of my knee taken; we totally live in the future. I’m meeting a physical therapist this weekend and have a follow-up with the doctor in a couple of weeks, so hopefully soon it will be clear what exactly causes my knee to throw a tantrum and swell up to impressive size whenever I try to run, and with luck I’ll be able to resume the one sport I’m good at again some time in the near future. I know it’s a touchy issue with some people, but for a self-employed person like myself Obamacare has proven to be a massive, massive improvement over the former system.
  • In other news Audrey and I continue planning the grand adventure for this July-October; more details will likely follow in the next journal entry.
  • Last of all, we’ve now lived a mile from the Marina for over two years, and this past weekend we finally went sailing. Audrey’s friend has a decent-sized boat and invited us to join him, his wife, and their friend for a short afternoon on the water, which was a great way to spend a few hours. At one point he told me to take the wheel and just drive around the Marina for a bit, either not realizing or not caring that nearly all of my boat navigating experience was done holding a paddle. Luckily, despite some tight turns and various individuals in kayaks or other rentals criss-crossing all over the place with no realization that a novice captain was doing his best to avoid running them down, everyone emerged alive and well. After Adam again took over we raised the sail for a short jaunt outside of the breakwall to enjoy some decent-sized surf and the company of dolphins.

Ryan sailing in Marina del Rey

I dominated at sailing straight, but turns in the tight confines of the Marina were terrifying. Photo by Audrey.

Blood Moon!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:31 pm, April 16th, 2014

The natural world is astounding. If there is a Creator, the fact that we encounter mind-blowing phenomenon on a daily basis reflects an infinite intelligence and master artist who set the universe in motion. The recent blood moon is yet another example – who knew that the already-amazing full moon would turn red during an eclipse? The cosmos is awesome.

Full moon, pre-eclipse

The full moon, before the evil had yet begun.

Full moon, partial eclipse

A scene very similar to this one took place during 2010: The Odyssey Continues, after which Jupiter exploded and aliens took over. That did not happen during this lunar eclipse.

Blood moon

Blood moon!!!!

Adventure

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:26 pm, March 31st, 2014

“Boredom, Tyler. Boredom, that’s what’s wrong. And how do you beat boredom? Adventure, Tyler. Adventure!” — Never Cry Wolf

This journal started in 2002 as a way to chronicle an epic, three month adventure through Alaska and Northern Canada. Since then there have been additional amazing trips captured on these pages – Antarctica on an ice breaker, South Georgia island on a 90 foot yacht, the Galapagos on a motor yacht, and even some trips that didn’t involve boats. Some of these journeys were done on my own, others with friends and family, but all had a profound impact.

The next odyssey is scheduled to start in late July and last through early October, with Audrey joining for the latter half. The route is still being fully fleshed out, but the trail looks like it’s going to lead through Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya and Namibia, with Audrey then joining for ten days in South Africa followed by a month in Madagascar.

I’m fortunate to be in a position to be able to break from the day-to-day routine and head out to experience the world, and can’t wait to see what insights this next journey brings. Three-and-a-half months and counting.

Legos for Grown-ups

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:41 pm, March 30th, 2014

While the East Span of the Bay Bridge is finally operational, there are a bunch of other projects going on in California that the engineer in me continually follows up on. While I may be the only one interested, it’s fun to re-read these entries a few years later, so here’s a status report on a few of them:

  • Transbay Center – This San Francisco project is essentially building the Grand Central Station of the West Coast, a $4.5 billion development that will bring together eleven different transit agencies and eventually include Caltrain service in downtown, and (theoretically) high-speed rail. Shockingly the project is mostly on schedule, with most of the below-ground work done and the above ground work set to start this summer. Completion is scheduled for Summer 2017.
  • Subway to the Sea & Exposition Line – Despite Beverly Hills doing its best to derail the $4 billion subway project, one of LA’s busiest traffic corridors might soon have a subway, and people on the West Side will actually be able to get to the rest of the city without spending an hour in traffic. As a bonus, subway excavations are unearthing huge caches of Ice Age fossils. Meanwhile, the first phase of the Exposition light rail line has already exceeded its 2020 ridership projections, with the second phase to Santa Monica on schedule for a 2015 opening. It’s ridiculous that America’s second-largest city has such terrible mass transit, but things are improving rapidly.
  • California High Speed Rail – Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan. Killing the project now probably means it will be another decade before anything new could be proposed, but that might be better than building it poorly, and in the interim it might be possible for a less ambitious (and probably more profitable) route from LA to San Diego, or LA to Las Vegas, to be built and prove the viability of such a system.
  • Farmer’s Field – If anyone could bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and redevelop a huge section of downtown with a stadium and other venues it would be AEG, and most of the approval for this $1.2 billion project is in place. However, with no NFL team ready to move, the continued redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles is on indefinite hold, and in the interim parking lots and unused office buildings fill an area that should be a centerpiece of the LA area.

I’ve always been a big nerd when it comes to huge construction projects, and these four projects are particularly exciting ones since they all have the potential to dramatically change the regions in which they are built.

Kraftwerk

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:59 pm, March 24th, 2014

As part of my ongoing arts and culture education, Audrey took me to see Kraftwerk at Disney Hall last week. I know nothing about electronic music, but apparently for someone who is a fan of the genre seeing Kraftwerk is like an engineer meeting Nikola Tesla or Wernher von Braun, i.e. you bow down while chanting “we’re not worthy” when they appear. The band was doing eight shows over four nights, each show featuring a different album played in full along with a “best of” set, and tickets had sold out in a matter of minutes.

I went in knowing nothing about what was going to happen, beyond the fact that it might be weird. Those suspicions were confirmed after my ticket was taken and I was handed a pair of 3-D glasses, and I settled in for a fun evening. The lights went down, the curtain dropped, and there on the stage were four 60-something Germans, each standing at a lighted console, all in front of a giant screen, with nothing else on stage. Also, they were wearing unitards, because when you’re a 67 year old German electronica legend, why not?

The show was bizarre in a very fun way. The girl was extraordinarily happy, I was entertained, the Germans were very German, and – surprisingly – I thought the music was all right; I even grabbed a copy of Autobahn from iTunes to add to the music collection. Even better, afterwards I read a bit about the band and discovered the following fun tidbit:

The band is notoriously reclusive, providing rare and enigmatic interviews, using life-size mannequins and robots to conduct official photo shoots, refusing to accept mail and not allowing visitors at Kling Klang Studio, whose precise location they used to keep secret. Another notable example of this eccentric behavior was reported to Johnny Marr of the Smiths by Karl Bartos, who explained that anyone trying to contact the band for collaboration would be told the studio telephone did not have a ringer, since during recording, the band did not like to hear any kind of noise pollution. Instead, callers were instructed to phone the studio precisely at a certain time, whereupon the phone would be answered by Ralf Hütter, despite never hearing the phone ring.

Good times, although I will never again be able to go to a concert without feeling slightly let down when I don’t get a pair of 3-D glasses after passing through the gates.

Kraftwerk at Disney Hall

Kraftwerk on stage at Disney Hall. Photo from the LA Weekly.

Photographic Slides on the Interwebs

Posted from Livermore, California at 9:16 pm, February 28th, 2014

Here are a handful of photos that haven’t shown up in the journal before, all discovered while looking for images to put in the new digital picture frame. Each of these was scanned from a slide taken more than a decade ago, back in the pre-digital days when you’d shoot perhaps three rolls of film during an entire trip and then perform various voodoo rituals to hopefully ensure that maybe one or two of the pictures didn’t completely suck.

Half Dome from Yosemite Valley

Half Dome from Yosemite Valley, 1998. Fall color is pretty.

Buddha in Angkor Wat

Buddha in Angkor Wat, 2001. I might be the only person on the planet who loves this shot, but it was a great moment sitting in Angkor Wat with the light hitting this Buddha in just the right way to light up the orange robes.

Pyramid of Khafre in Giza

Pyramid of Khafre in Giza, 2002. Bucket list, check.

The Future is Now

Posted from Livermore, California at 10:51 pm, February 27th, 2014

Two notes about two of my favorite companies:

  • Tesla Motors announced a bit more about their proposed “gigafactory” this week, which (if built) will produce as many lithium ion batteries in a single, massive US plant as were produced in the entire world in 2013. They will be partnering with established battery manufacturing firms, giving them the necessary know-how and experience to make this happen, and making it possible that a component that we take for granted as coming from Asia could suddenly be produced primarily in the US. What’s more, by bringing production in-house Tesla foresees significant economic advantages, and I suspect that they will work hard to innovate in battery technology and thus quickly drive down the cost and improve the efficiency of their most important component. Longer term, Tesla Motors might follow Apple Computer in dropping the second half of its name as the company gains the ability to produce massive battery packs that could be tied to the electric grid to provide large-scale energy storage, thus revolutionizing the electrical grid in as significant a way as what Edison and Nikola Tesla did at the turn of the century.
  • Meanwhile, Spacex will be launching another rocket to the International Space Station in mid-March. While they have seemingly made the once-unthinkable task of private rocket launches seem almost mundane, this launch will be noteworthy for having landing legs attached to the first stage. The plan is to try to “soft land” the rocket into the ocean as a test, with the goal of controlling things sufficiently that the rocket can eventually be flown back to the pad and re-used. Spacex has already reduced launch costs to almost one-third of what their competitors charge, but if they can create a truly reusable rocket then costs will plummet (think of the difference in costs of air travel if we only used each plane for a single flight) and an age of space exploration that rivals the journeys of European explorers after the Middle Ages could conceivably begin.

It is of course entirely possible that either of these companies could fail in their efforts, but it’s not hyperbole to say that if they each meet their goals that they will change the world as we know it in very dramatic ways. It’s a fun time to be alive.

2014, so far

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:46 pm, February 23rd, 2014

Here’s a recap of adventures in 2014 thus far:

  • Last weekend I had to make a very quick trip to the Midwest for a funeral, the first return visit to Cleveland in five years. Cleveland in February is not the best of months, but it was still both fun and sad to re-visit. The Cleveland Museum of Art has been significantly expanded and rivals any museum in the world, Case Western has upgraded everything from student housing to campus buildings, and Shaker Heights still feels like it would be a pleasant place to live. On the flip side, the economic downturn has not been kind to Cleveland, and the potholes were scary, the downtown was a ghost town after 5PM, and many buildings that weren’t vacant ten years ago are now shuttered.
  • After visiting Cleveland, I picked Aaron up at the airport at 11PM, and we then braved snowy roads in a Chevy Skidsalot for the two hour drive to Erie, slept for a very short time, and then got to see a bunch of people we’re related to. We’ve got some fun relatives who most definitely fall on the “good people” side of the spectrum.
  • Aside from expeditions to the Midwest, 2014 has mostly been about enjoying living in Southern California. Audrey got treated to lobster for Valentine’s Day, we took advantage of nice weather during a visit to the Getty, and there have been a few trips to the ocean to see what birds are visiting.
  • In homeowner news, a crack team of plumbers came to install a gas line and other hookups last Friday, and my first ever appliance purchase is now operational: the Samsung Future drying machine from space. It has knobs and LEDs and settings and musical tones and dries good. Removing the old, 320 pound stackable unit from its previous home in a hallway closet made for some good times, but I emerged (mostly) unscathed and much wiser in the ways of appliance disassembly.
  • One last minor note, but my iPhone battery was having trouble holding charge for more than a few hours, and rather than pay $80 and send my phone away for a week I figured I’d replace it myself for $25. After an hour, much stress about screws the size of dust molecules, cable connections smaller than fruit flies, and screen removal instructions that involved a suction cup and the admonition to “pull harder than you might think necessary”, my phone luckily turned on again and I am now completely certain that bomb disposal technician is not a wise future career choice for me.

Not the most exciting of starts to the year, but planning is underway for grand adventures that begin in July, so while it is slow now, there should be many, many days worthy of a journal entry during the latter half of 2014.

Shortly after landing I texted Audrey to let her know that I had just seen both of the buildings, and she was jealous.

Iceland Revisited

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:54 pm, January 31st, 2014

The Annenberg Space for Photography is doing an exhibit celebrating 125 years of National Geographic photography. Rather than simply print a handful of photos, the exhibit uses a number of LCD screens to showcase over five hundred iconic photographs. Immediately after visiting I came home inspired and purchased the largest-available digital frame I could find (18.5″) and Audrey and I now have about a hundred of our own photos on display in the living room.

In the process of going through photos to put into the frame I found a bunch from Iceland that may not have made it into the journal before, and since they are pretty and since it’s the end of the month and I need a third entry to meet my self-imposed quota, here are a few of them:

Breidavik church at sunset

Breidavik church at sunset. If I remember correctly this was taken at about 1AM – it gets dark late that far north.

Landmannalauger landscape

Landmannalauger landscape. This area is a bizarre volcanic region filled with amazing colors and twisted landscapes that is accessible only to cool people in high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles.

Skogafoss landscape

Skogafoss landscape. Skogafoss is a waterfall, and it turned out that the area upstream was also heart-warming.

Hafragilsfoss waterfall

Hafragilsfoss waterfall. This waterfall is downstream from Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

2014 Predictions

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:33 pm, January 23rd, 2014

Following a disasterous set of 2013 predictions, predictions for 2014 are now ready to be proven incorrect. For those wanting to read about things that never came to pass, past year’s predictions can be found at the following links: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Here’s what the crystal ball shows for the coming year:

  1. Since 2014 is mid-term election, here’s the obligatory election prediction:
    • Democrats will hold the Senate, barely, with their 55 member majority reduced to between 50-52 members (current projections are that it will be 50-50 after the elections). I think the Obamacare web site issues will mostly be forgotten in November, but I also think Republicans are likely to nominate better candidates than they did in the last two cycles.
    • The House will stay under Republican control – currently Republicans hold 234 seats, and after the election they will hold 224-234 seats (current projection is 228). The way House districts are drawn make it tough for things to change much so soon after the redistricting that took place for 2012.
  2. The values of Facebook (currently $56) and Twitter (currently $63) will both decline by at least twenty percent due to growth and revenue concerns. Revenue models based on the dual belief that everyone on the planet will sign up and that they will then spend money on Farmville are not something that smart investors should be banking on.
  3. Tiger Woods will win at least two major championships. He remains the most talented golfer alive and is way overdue.
  4. No significant new laws will be passed in the areas of gun control or immigration reform prior to the mid-term elections. For the record, I think it is inevitable that immigration reform will happen eventually, and thus in addition to the fact that it is a good idea on the merits, Republicans would be wise to pass something soon to prevent this from continuing to be an issue that damages them in national elections, but their less moderate members will continue to block any action.
  5. Google is going to make some sort of HUGE move into the entertainment space. It’s clear that with Google TV, Youtube and Google Fiber that they want to be in the living room and delivering content, and I suspect that they will try hard to make any such move well ahead of Apple to gain whatever advantage comes from being first.
  6. Lebron James will re-sign with the Heat, as will Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. There is noise around the idea that once he becomes a free agent Lebron will return to Cleveland or go elsewhere, but he wants to win as many titles as Michael Jordan and will thus stay exactly where he is. Also, Cleveland is cursed.
  7. Apple’s share of the tablet market will continue to fall precipitously. It dropped from 40% in 2012 to 30% in 2013, and will drop another ten percent to less than twenty percent of the total tablet market by the end of 2014. Since its announcement in 2010, and after four generations, the iPad hasn’t offered much new beyond better screen resolutions, and as a result most cost-conscious consumers will choose other options.
  8. Tesla will not deliver the Model X as scheduled in 2014, but will plan on delivering their next vehicle no later than Summer 2015. They will also not have rolled out their battery swapping technology due to a lack of demand – I think they announced that capability just to shut up critics, but I don’t think it’s something that people who are actually driving the car want. Finally, they will not have moved forward on their plans for a battery factory as their focus continues to be on the hugely successful Model S and their next generation vehicle, which if they can meet their goals will (I believe) be the most important vehicle since the Ford Model-T.
  9. The next evolution of TV – 4K resolution, which offers four times the resolution of current HD TVs – will be well underway by year’s end. While a handful of TVs are currently available offering 4K resolution, content is hard to come by, but by year’s end cable companies will have streaming 4K offerings, a few shows will announce plans to film in 4K, and the movie studios will be on the verge of announcing a 4K format to succeed blu ray.
  10. The Browns will draft a quarterback with their first pick, and whoever they get is not going to be nearly as successful as recently drafted QBs like Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck. The team should just grab the best available player in a draft with a ton of talented guys, and ideally they would use a few of their many picks to build an impenetrable offensive line – even a moderately talented QB with a reasonable amount of time to throw will be a success – but they will screw it up and reach for a guy that won’t be starting in three years. Sadly, I’ll still root for them until the end of time.
  11. Following Colorado and Washington, California and at least two others states will vote to de-criminalize marijuana use.
  12. Apple and Google will both unveil products and strategies that will focus those companies heavily on home automation. Google just bought Nest, a company that was a pioneer in putting thermostats and smoke detectors online, while Apple has already made small efforts to connect music sources, printers, etc, but this will just be the tip of the iceberg. We live in an era where companies are starting to find value for customers by putting even things like solar panels and lightbulbs online, and that will continue with everything from hot water heaters to alarm systems getting the “smart” treatment, resulting in more efficient energy usage whilst we wake up to lights that mimic the sunrise.

And there they are. Some of them may not seem impressive in retrospect (everyone would put money on Lebron staying put), but that’s what I’ve come up with after staring at this screen for far too long and trying to predict the future. The comments link is available to anyone who either wants to mock me or add some predictions of their own. See you in twelve months for the (likely embarrassing) retrospective.

2013 Prediction Scorecard (aka Warthog-Faced Buffoon)

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:54 pm, January 11th, 2014

2013 marks a new record of futility for my annual predictions, and it breaks the previous record by a margin that can in no way be considered small – while these recaps are usually at least partially tongue-in-cheek, my pride is actually hurt by such an utter and complete failure to guess where the world was headed. I take heart, however, in knowing that dumb luck alone says that I should almost always get at least a couple of correct predictions, so this record of shame is unlikely to be broken in 2014. As a reminder, here’s the past scorecard: 2009: 31% correct (5 of 16), 2010: 44% correct (7.5 of 17), 2011: 50% correct (7 of 14) and 2012: 40% correct (6 of 15). And now, the carnage that was 2013:

  1. The resolution to the current debt ceiling debate will permanently defuse the debt ceiling as a future threat.

    Luckily a last-minute agreement prevented the self-destruct button from being pushed on the US credit rating, but while politicians were afterwards making noises about not repeating this masochistic exercise, nothing was done to actually defuse the bomb and we are headed for more potential drama in March. Zero-for-one in the prediction game so far, and it gets much worse.

  2. Usain Bolt will not win an individual gold medal at the 2013 Track & Field World Championships and will be overshadowed by his training partner Yohan Blake who will win both the 100m and 200m.

    Usain Bolt won both and Yohan Blake (the Olympic silver medalist) didn’t even run after sustaining a hamstring injury a month before Worlds. Even had he run it’s unlikely that Blake would have beat Bolt – I thought Bolt would slack off after the Olympics, but he continued to make everyone else look like they were competing for second place.

  3. A la carte cable, in which consumers can choose only the channels (or even the shows) they want, will be announced (or on the verge of reality) from one or more companies capable of making it happen for the vast majority of America.

    In fairness, this is something that I very much want to happen, that I think makes all kinds of sense, and that realistically I should have known the cable companies would do everything in their power to delay. It will happen someday, and maybe even someday soon, but it didn’t happen in 2013.

  4. The unemployment rate will drop from its current rate of 7.9% to around 7.3% (+/- 0.1%).

    Officially it was 6.7% at the end of the year, but if I’m going to be wrong, at least it was because the job situation improved more than I thought it would. For those counting at home, that’s four straight wrong predictions.

  5. With Washington and Colorado having legalized marijuana, there will be a push at the national level to either reduce penalties for marijuana or to give states greater flexibility.

    Aside from assurances from Eric Holder that he wouldn’t send in the feds unless pot was crossing state lines, there was a great big “nothing” that happened on this front. Clearly lawmakers aren’t yet ready to have their fingerprints anywhere near anything that has to do with easing the war on drugs.

  6. The NFL will announce a deal to bring a football team to Los Angeles

    There are TWO stadium plans for LA, the Rose Bowl and Coliseum are available as temporary homes, and still the NFL can’t find a way to get a team to America’s second largest TV market. Does anyone in Jacksonville even know that they have a team there? Florida doesn’t need three teams – send one over here and see if they notice.

  7. Star Trek Into Darkness, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Man of Steel will be three of the five highest grossing movies of the year.

    How did they mess up Superman? While it ended up #5 on the year, two hours into it I didn’t care at all about any of the characters except for Pa Kent, who they killed off after the first hour. Hunger Games was a solid flick and ended the year #1, but Star Trek was underrated and finished at #11 (per the 2013 domestic box office). Seven predictions, and still not one that was correct.

  8. The next iPhone will offer the same form factor as the current iPhone 5, but will add the ability to use the phone for credit-card-like payments using near-field communication (NFC).

    I got the form factor right, but that’s too obvious to warrant any credit. The exciting new features for the iPhone 5s were – more colors and a fingerprint sensor? I like Apple, I think they’re an amazing company, and I even own Apple stock, but they need the ghost of Steve Jobs to give them a kick in the pants because they haven’t been breaking any new ground lately.

  9. Increased demand for the Model-S will cause Tesla to increase its production target for 2013 from 20,000 vehicles to at least 30,000.

    While there has been huge demand for this amazing car, I under-estimated how tough it would be for Tesla to ramp up production. They smartly focused on improving their quality and margins, and as a result will still exceed their delivery goals but won’t hit the 30,000 vehicle number despite the fact that they have a long backlog of orders.

  10. Congress will not pass significant immigration reform this year.

    I GOT ONE RIGHT!!!! Passing immigration reform is the right move for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it helps the economy, helps individual immigrants, and eliminates this issue as something that Democrats can attack Republicans over, but Boehner didn’t have a majority of his caucas willing to support it. I predicted last year that it is an issue that may return after the primaries, when Republicans will be more willing to prove that they can get things done and appeal to independents, but for now the bill is gathering dust in the House.

  11. At least one of the following companies will not survive the year: Sears, J. C. Penney, or K-Mart.

    I don’t understand how any of them stay solvent.

  12. Spacex will carry out 4-5 launches of its Falcon rocket (they have at least six planned) and one successful test launch of their massive new Falcon Heavy rocket.

    I’m giving myself half credit, mainly out of self-pity. There were four Falcon-9 launches in 2013, but if a Falcon Heavy has even been built yet I haven’t seen any news. A test launch of that uber-cool monster of a rocket remains on their launch manifest for 2014, and they have a busy schedule of Falcon-9 launches planned for this year, including a successful launch that put a satellite in geosynchronous orbit last week. It’s a good time to be a fan of spaceships.

  13. California High-Speed Rail will break ground in the Central Valley as scheduled this year.

    They issued a contract to get ground broken, then put it hold due to a lawsuit and other issues. I’m a strong believer that high-speed rail is an amazingly good idea and an investment that should be made, but the mis-management of this project is enough to make even me believe that it might be better to shut down the current efforts and start over. Build a high-speed train, but do it with a more realistic and effective plan, and a competent team in place to oversee its implementation.

  14. The Browns will have a winning record in 2013.

    In my defense, I added “this is the type of prediction Browns fans make every single year, and are wrong about every single year“. 4-12. Ouch. They were a better team than that record shows.

Final score: 11% (1.5 of 14). Eleven percent, and that’s after rounding up from 10.7%. To put that number in perspective, there is a woodchuck in Pennsylvania that makes yearly predictions and has a 39% success rate, so my predictions are nearly four times worse than a rodent’s. An octopus, a creature with a brain the size of a green pea, correctly predicted seven straight World Cup match results in 2010. Meanwhile a grown man with a normal-sized, albeit questionably functional, human brain barely exceeded a ten percent success rate. A smarter man would retire in shame, but I am not such a man and will be back shortly with another set of horribly inaccurate predictions for 2014. Watch this space.

Man Trip Postscript

Posted from Culver City, California at 1:03 pm, December 31st, 2013

After getting home Sunday night I woke up Monday morning at 6:30 and headed down to the Marina to see what was stirring. Turns out that the place is lousy with grebes, which have apparently converged here in huge numbers for the winter.

Western grebe in Marina del Rey

Western grebe in Marina del Rey. As I told Audrey, the bird’s red eye is really pretty and also a clear indication of demonic possession.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Posted from Ojai, California at 6:53 pm, December 29th, 2013

Today ended up as a meandering journey through the hills and mountains of Southern California. Wake-up preceded the sunrise in the Carrizo Plain, and I wandered about in the early light enjoying the quiet. Following a short hike along the San Andreas Fault the path led in a roundabout way to the Tule Elk State Reserve, which was home to the last of the species when it was formed in 1932, and which has been the source of nearly all of the 4000 tule elk that today roam numerous locations throughout California. From there it was off to the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which is where much of the protection efforts for the California Condor have been focused. Sadly access to the refuge is closed to the public, and since no birds were visible from the highway I settled for enjoying the mountain scenery and the many hawks that managed to outsmart my photographic attempts.

From there all paths seemed to require crossing Los Angeles County, so despite the inner voice telling me to deal with the traffic and highways of LA and then visit the Salton Sea, I decided to make this year’s trip shorter than in years past and explored the backroads of the Los Padres National Forest while heading in a generally-homeward direction – we’ve got some surprisingly cool mountains within a two hour drive of the Culver City abode. Tonight’s sleeping place will either be back in my own bed, or in the back of the Subaru if an interesting option presents itself along the way.

Sunset over the Santa Barbara Channel

Sunset over the Santa Barbara Channel. Were I better with Photoshop and less conscientious about altering photos the towers on the mountain would not be in this photo any longer.

Next Services: 82 miles

Posted from Carrizo Plain National Monument at 6:37 pm, December 28th, 2013

It’s quiet here. Utterly still. I stood on a hillside this morning and could hear the footsteps of people walking on a trail more than a half mile away, and that was one of the few times that I was around other people. I probably needed to get away to a place like this one.

The Carrizo Plain protects one of the last undeveloped stretches of California grassland, a famous set of petroglyphs, the largest concentration of endangered plants and animals in California, and a stretch of the San Andreas fault that shifted nearly thirty feet during an earthquake in the 1800s. To my eyes the area looks like it needs time to recover from centuries of heavy grazing, but with the relatively recent designation as a national monument hopefully it will get there. As a travel destination it is suffering from the third straight dry year – Soda Lake, known as a good winter wetland spot, is a dry salt flat – but it’s still a great location for getting away from everyone. It seems bizarre to be only about one hundred miles from Los Angeles, but to feel like this is the absolute middle of nowhere. The roads here are almost all unpaved old ranch roads, so I spent the day roaming about before parking for the night in a corner of the park with a view of the plain and absolute silence, aside from the occasional bird flying by. This journal entry is being written from the back of the Subaru with stars blazing, the cell phone showing “No service”, and the nearest town an hour’s drive away.

Man Trip 2013

Posted from Paso Robles, California at 7:32 pm, December 27th, 2013

Audrey has dubbed the annual post-Christmas road-trip the “man-trip”, and this year’s adventure started off in much the same way as last year’s: a visit to the Cosumnes River Preserve followed by a sunrise trip to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. The Pacific Flyway is busy this time of year, and it’s invigorating for the soul to stand on the edge of a wetland while tens of thousands of ducks, geese and cranes are calling out.

A big part of the fun of these trips is that I generally have no idea where I’m going to end up, and while the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was considered, the closure of Tioga Pass sent me in the opposite direction, and it looks like I may be spending some time roaming the Carrizo Plain. The area became a national monument in 2001, but shockingly since my road atlas is out-of-date it’s a green dot within California that I’ve somehow never visited, an oversight that will hopefully be corrected tomorrow.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. He sat in the water thirty feet away so long as I stayed in my car, but the second the door opened he was gone.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise

Sandhill cranes at sunrise. The one on the left is bad at following.

Killdeer

Killdeer. After the heron experience I didn’t tempt fate by even thinking about exiting my vehicle.

Holidays

Posted from Paso Robles, California at 6:56 pm, December 27th, 2013

December totally flew by. Wow. Here’s the recap for everything prior to the current road trip:

I haven’t had to make the trek out to Boise since October, so work has consisted of the bedroom-to-kitchen commute, eight work hours that may or may not involve getting dressed, and the agonizing decision over what to eat for lunch – there is a good sushi restaurant that delivers in our neighborhood, which is a very, very dangerous option to have available. On paper, my life is extraordinarily good, and in reality it’s pretty swell, too.

Christmas and birthday gifts are usually something I do only when there’s something good to give, and 2013 was such a year – if you haven’t been to beardhead.com then you are a more mature person than me. The Holliday men spent Christmas Eve sporting new looks and laughing a lot. Aaron’s contribution to the madness was nerf dart guns, so Ma and Pa got to endure their 33 and 38 year old boys rampaging through the house with plastic guns and fake beards.

Christmas day saw Ma and Pa receive a new TV from the boys, and saw some very happy folks from craigslist getting the old TV – everyone won. Ma made a scrumtrillescent turkey dinner, and following that Pa nearly cracked a rib from laughing during a game of Balderdash – it got to the point where if anyone even began to read a definition he would go into spasms, so this game may need to be revisited frequently during future visits. Meanwhile, back in Culver City Audrey hosted her mom, sister, and three others in our fully-decorated house. I’m told the highlight of the meal was her pie with a likeness of Cthulhu made out of crust on top, since it’s not a Wiechman Christmas unless there is dough made into the shape of a human (or part thereof), animal, or mythical cosmic entity.

Post-Christmas, Ma and Pa took me to the Lafayette Reservoir to look for white pelicans since I’ve been chasing all over California trying to get a glimpse of these odd birds. After numerous road trips and no success, of course there were a dozen pelicans twenty minutes from my folks that were practically swimming up to people. Following the visit with the birds and a delicious lunch it was time to depart on the annual post-Christmas road trip, which barring surprises will be covered in subsequent entries.

Holliday family beard heads

The men of the Holliday family. Photo credit goes to Aaron.

Thanksgiving Recap

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:55 pm, December 1st, 2013

The Thanksgiving holiday started with Audrey and I making the long drive up to the Bay and paying a visit to my brother at his brand-new townhome. While it was distressing to see a guy who once scored three Turkey Bowl touchdowns with a busted head now enthusiastically discussing window coverings and throw rugs, he saved face somewhat by putting snowboarding videos on repeat on his new giant flatscreen. The following day we arrived at Ma & Pa’s, and Aaron and I immediately set off on a hike on Mt. Diablo followed by some basketball and a photo op on the giant digger that was parked next to the court. Ma did her usual stellar job with the Thanksgiving dinner, and pants had to be loosened before the night was over.

The next day Audrey and I set off for Moss Beach to see her friend Kris. Along the way we got to make a trip over the ridiculously cool new Bay Bridge, and while Audrey was better about containing her excitement than I was, I have no doubt that somewhere deep down inside her inner engineer was jumping and cheering. We paid a quick visit to the sea lions at Pier 39, checked into our posh room at the Seal Cove Inn, then joined her friends for drinks on the coast followed by dinner. Sadly, at some point towards the end of dinner the men in the brain sent a sudden signal that something had gone very wrong, and things reached defcon five just before I could pull into the hotel parking lot, and I had to make a mad dash to refund my dinner on the side of the road. Audrey spent the remainder of the evening with her friends, while I slept off the after-effects of my forced weight loss.

The following day was Audrey’s birthday, and after a fancy breakfast at the hotel we joined her on her annual birthday trip to the library before embarking on a tour of the peninsula. She flew home late that night, while I shacked up in the back of the Subaru and woke up before sunrise to head off for a return visit to the cranes, hawks, and geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. That was followed by a quick trip to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and then lots of time to partake in the joy of stop-and-go Thanksgiving traffic on the long route back to LA.

California quail

California quail that showed up in the garden outside of our hotel room to greet Audrey for her birthday.

Black-necked stilt

Black-necked stilt at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

Scared the Children

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:10 pm, November 26th, 2013

Here’s a belated recap of the annual Halloween extravaganza (see also: 2012, 2005):

  • This year’s big addition was a well with images of a ghost projected into it – imagine the freaky angels at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but flying up from a well. Too many people walked by not realizing what was inside, but for those who looked it was pretty creepy.
  • Audrey added a new set of teeth to her costume. “They’re really horrific” was her enthusiastic endorsement after trying them on for the first time.
  • I again got the best job in the world as I was dressed in all black and stationed inside of our blacked-out entryway, with my sole responsibility being to be invisible, wait until someone got close, and then growl. At the end of the night we found a pile of candy next to where I was stationed – I apparently literally scared the candy out of a few people.
  • The proof that our efforts were worth it came early in the evening when a kid stood in our driveway for a good thirty seconds loudly repeating “it’s not worth the candy… it’s not worth the candy”. He didn’t make it to the door, but gets the honor of being a part of Scare the Children lore for years to come.
  • Others who participated in the scaring this year included a guy dressed as a clown with an axe (“that’s really disturbing” was the initial assessment), Audrey’s current boss who made a surprise appearance and was later found hovering in a tree over the sidewalk, her friend Monty who stood completely still, looking fake, and got a few screams when he reached out at folks walking by, longtime participants Gina and Shelly, Meghen in the coffin, an executioner who didn’t take kindly to the many kids who mistook him for a ninja, and Audrey’s friend Stephanie doing logistics.
  • Finally, in what may not have been the best move for building relations with the neighbors, our across-the-street neighbor came by and chatted with Stephanie at the door for three minutes before asking “where’s Ryan”. Unseen and six inches behind her, I whispered “Boo”. She immediately retreated back across the street, and word has it that “Ryan’s dead”.

If you haven’t “liked” the Scare the Children Facebook page then you should do so to ensure you don’t miss out on important future scaring updates.

Scare the Children 2013

That’s my girl.

The Holliday Timeline, Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:01 pm, November 23rd, 2013

Following the recap of events from 1975 through 1996, here’s a sampling of further major events during the second half of my lifetime. It’s weird how you sort of feel like things haven’t really changed, and then you look at what has happened and realize that computers and cell phones only showed up recently, while things that dominated everyday life for decades like Communism and Pan-American Airlines disappeared only a short time ago and now seem solely like subjects for the history books.

The 1990s

  • April 13, 1997 – Tiger Woods wins his first major golf championship at the Masters, setting records for youngest winner (21), lowest score (-18), and largest margin of victory (12 strokes).
  • May 11, 1997 – IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat chess grand master Gary Kasparov in a six game match, the first time that a computer defeated a chess world champion.
  • July 9, 1997 – Eleven years after being ousted as CEO of Apple Computer and only months after his return to the company, Steve Jobs is named interim CEO. At that time Apple was losing money and had to negotiate a $150 million investment from Microsoft; in 2012 the company would report a yearly profit of $41.66 billion on $156.5 billion in sales and would have $121.25 billion in cash on hand.
  • August 31, 1997 – Princess Diana dies after a high-speed car chase in Paris. Her funeral on September 6 was watched by over two billion people.
  • September 4, 1998 – Google is founded in Palo Alto by two Stanford PhD candidates.
  • November 25, 1998 – The first module of the International Space Station is launched into orbit from Russia. Humans take up permanent residence on November 2, 2000, meaning that for over thirteen years there has been a continuous human presence in space.
  • December 31, 1999 – The US transfers control of the Panama Canal to Panama after 85 years of American operation.

The 2000s

  • January 10, 2000 – America Online (AOL) announces an agreement to purchase Time Warner for $164 billion in what was, at that time, the largest-ever corporate merger. In 2002 the failing of AOL would result in a write-off of $99 billion, which was also a record for its time as the largest loss ever reported by a company.
  • July 25, 2000 – The Concorde crashes after take-off in Paris, leading to the end of supersonic passenger transport in 2003.
  • December 12, 2000 – Thirty-five days after the election, the Bush v Gore Supreme Court decision is announced, leading to George W. Bush being declared the winner of Florida by 537 votes (out of almost six million cast), and thus the next President of the United States.
  • January 15, 2001 – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, launches.
  • September 11, 2001 – September 11 terrorist attacks.
  • October 7, 2001 – The War in Afghanistan begins.
  • October 23, 2001 – Apple introduces the iPod.
  • January 1, 2002 – Euro notes and coins go into circulation in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands.
  • February 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven member crew is lost during re-entry after sustaining damage to its protective tiles during launch. This accident would lead to the end of the shuttle program in 2011.
  • March 19, 2003 – The Iraq War begins. US forces would seize Baghdad on April 9, but the war would continue until the last personnel left Iraq in December 2011.
  • February 4, 2004 – Facebook launches with membership initially limited to students of Harvard College.
  • June 21, 2004 – Spaceship One successfully completes the first privately funded human spaceflight.
  • December 26, 2004 – A magnitude 9.3 earthquake in the Indian Ocean spawns a massive tsunami that impacts countries around the world and kills over 180,000 people.
  • April 2, 2005 – Pope John Paul II dies. He is succeeded seventeen days later by Pope Benedict XVI.
  • August 29, 2005 – Hurricane Katrina makes landfall along the Gulf Coast, killing at least 1,833 people and doing $81 billion in damage.
  • January 9, 2007 – Apple introduces the iPhone; it goes on sale June 29, 2007.
  • September 15, 2008 – Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy, a major catalyst of the Great Recession.
  • September 28, 2008 – The SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket reaches orbit, becoming the first privately developed space launch vehicle to do so.
  • January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.
  • February 17, 2009 – President Obama signs a $787 billion stimulus package into law as an effort to address the Great Recession.
  • June 25, 2009 – Michael Jackson dies just before his 51st birthday, and just prior to a scheduled fifty show tour at London’s O2 Arena.

The 2010s

More Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:20 pm, October 30th, 2013

I wrote about rat eradication efforts on South Georgia Island back in March. While it is too soon to know for sure what the result of that effort will be (note: things look really good so far), an older effort is worth examining.

Rat Island, a ten square mile island in the Aleutian Islands, has had to be renamed.

Rats arrived on the island during a shipwreck in 1780, and since that time they have wiped out nearly all of the native bird life. In 2008 efforts were made to remove rats from the island, and today a once silent island is described as “…hardly recognizable among the cacophony of birds calling everywhere; it’s alive with bird fledglings – teals, eiders, wrens, sparrows, eagles, peregrine falcons, gulls, sandpipers.

As of today there have been over 1100 successful removals of invasive species from islands, including 500 rat removals, worldwide. I’ve seen firsthand how removal of invasive species impacts the native plants and animals in the Galapagos and on the Channel Islands, and hopefully some day I’ll get to see the results on South Georgia.

We live in a world where news about nature always seems to be negative, but there is reason for optimism. Invasive species removal continues on other islands, governments are beginning to look to things like dune, wetland, and floodplain restoration as a cost-effective way to combat flooding, obsolete dams are being torn down to increase fish stocks, and numerous other positive developments are going on around the world. Not all of the news is good, but there is definitely reason to think that the outlook for our future isn’t as bleak as the news might lead us to believe.

The Holliday Timeline, Part 1

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:01 am, October 30th, 2013

The world has changed a lot since I was born – in November 1975 no American craft had visited Mars, Mount St Helens was still intact, communism was very much a thing, no one knew what it meant to “use the Force”, and Michael Jordan was a twelve year old. While reading through Wikipedia’s yearly summaries of important events the following stood out – part two will follow at some point when there is time to review the next eighteen years.

The 1970s

The 1980s

  • May 18, 1980 – Mount St. Helens erupts.
  • April 12, 1981 – The first shuttle, Space Shuttle Columbia launches on its first orbital flight.
  • November 18, 1981 – IBM introduces the PC computer.
  • October 1, 1982 – Epcot Center opens in Orlando.
  • November 30, 1982 – Michael Jackson’s Thriller album is released.
  • January 3, 1983 – Kīlauea volcano begins erupting in Hawaii; the eruption continues today.
  • October 26, 1984 – Michael Jordan plays his first NBA regular season game, scoring 16 points against Washington.
  • March 1, 1985 – Mikhail Gorbachev becomes Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party.
  • May 16, 1985 – The ozone hole is discovered by British scientists in Antarctica.
  • November 18, 1985 – Calvin and Hobbes debuts in 35 newspapers.
  • March 14, 1986 – Microsoft holds its initial public offering. By July 2010 the stock had risen to 288 times its IPO price.
  • April 26, 1986 – The Chernoybl nuclear reactor explodes, resulting in the worst nuclear power plant disaster of the twentieth century.
  • November 22, 1986 – Mike Tyson beats Trevor Berbick to become heavyweight champion.
  • March 24, 1989 – The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling 240,000 barrels of oil.
  • June 4, 1989 – The Tiananmen Square square protests end with thousands of casualties as the Chinese military clears the square after six weeks of occupation by students.
  • November 9, 1989 – Fall of the Berlin Wall.

The 1990s

  • April 24, 1990 – The Hubble Space Telescope is launched aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. Shortly after launch the telescope’s mirror is determined to be flawed, and it will not be fixed until a servicing mission in 1993.
  • November 13, 1990 – The first known web page is written.
  • January 16, 1991 – Operation Desert Storm begins with air strikes and eventually involves over 500,000 US troops.
  • December 4, 1991 – Pan American World Airways ceases operations after 64 years.
  • December 26, 1991 – The Soviet Union is formally dissolved by the Supreme Soviet.
  • May 22, 1992 – Johnny Carson’s final appearance as host of the Tonight Show.
  • October 31, 1992 – Pope John Paul II issues an apology, and lifts the edict of the Inquisition against Galileo Galilei.
  • June 12, 1994 – Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman are murdered outside the Simpson home in Los Angeles, California.
  • March 1, 1995 – Yahoo is founded.
  • September 4, 1995 – eBay is founded.
  • December 31, 1995 – The final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip is published.

I Get to Live Here

Posted from Culver City, California at 1:25 pm, October 20th, 2013

Less than two miles from the house is a shockingly good place for wildlife – birds, sea lions, dolphins, and random crawly things like crabs. These photos were all taken in past two months within walking distance of where I get to live.

Elegant Tern

An elegant tern that kindly stayed in focus.

Sandpipers

Sandpipers being cute.

Brown Pelican

Brown pelican taking a bath. At sunset. In really pretty light.

Black Oystercatcher

Black oystercatcher. He was picking these really colorful purple urchins out of the water and having a dinner of uni, but I didn’t photoghrasize that so good.

Willet

Willet. I’m embarrassed to admit how I remember this bird’s name, but yes, I hear them make a loud call and think of a Different Strokes reference.

The Foxes

Posted from Santa Barbara Channel, California at 3:41 pm, September 17th, 2013

Last day of the trip, and the best one by far. I woke up at 5:30 and went out to take another look at the squid and take in the stars, although unfortunately the latter were hidden by clouds. At around six we began a really pretty navigation around the east end of the island before embarking on my favorite hike thus far. With no wind (a first on this trip) and blue skies we set off along the sea cliffs near Scorpion Anchorage with an army of ravens making all manner of weird sounds to send us on our way. The views were spectacular, a peregrine falcon made a brief appearance, and we also saw our first island fox. The destination – the confusingly named Potato Harbor – was home to sheer sea cliffs of many colors and the sounds of sea lions echoing from below.

The return trip was via a slightly different route with the destination being what we had been advised was the best place in the entire island chain for seeing foxes – the campground. And sure enough, we arrived to find a fox sniffing around campsites. These foxes nearly went extinct within the last couple of decades, but heroic efforts led to one of the fastest recoveries in the history of the endangered species act. I followed one mangled old fellow around the campground for about an hour apparently without him caring at all – twice he wandered to within 10-20 feet of me.

The last activity of the trip was a snorkel in the kelp forest next to the pier, and in addition to a ton of decent-sized (1-2 foot) fish I saw three rays. The second ray swam right next to Audrey without her seeing it, prompting the girl to display her sad face. Luckily, a short time later a MASSIVE (3-4 foot) stingray swam by, and I made enough noise to get the girl’s attention. The stingray settled on the bottom, showing off for us for a bit before moving on.

The navigation back through the Santa Barbara Channel started out a bit rough but calmed noticeably, and I don’t think anyone refunded their lunch. As a last farewell the ocean sent us school after school of dolphin – for a good 15-20 minutes they were following along and playing in the bow wave, an experience that feels very akin to sharing pure joy with another animal as they leap and twirl.

We should be home later this evening, and while no further adventures are planned I’ve got three more days off to recover from these two excellent vacations.

Island Fox on Santa Cruz

Island Fox on Santa Cruz. This guy was a bit scroungy-looking and he was adept at staying out of the good photography light, but nevertheless still pretty cute.

Island Fox on Santa Cruz

Same fox (note the mangled ears) after digging up something that was apparently pretty tasty.

Common Dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel

Common Dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel. Any day spent with dolphins is a good day.

Squids look like fishes

Posted from Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California at 8:47 pm, September 16th, 2013

I slept ten hours last night but still woke up in time for sunrise. This may be an unprecedented sleep event.

This morning’s activity was a hike through a canyon on Santa Rosa island, aka the windiest island in the world (at least it seemed that way). Unlike yesterday we weren’t required to stay with the guide, so Audrey and I got to roam about on our own. The trail led along the beach, up through a canyon, and then over a ridgeline with incredible views and wind that was strong enough to nearly knock us down. It ended at a campground where they’ve had to build permanent windbreaks to prevent tents from blowing away.

Whether because of the wind, the sun, or something else I finished the trail feeling less than one hundred percent, so after the night of much sleeping I returned to the boat and took a two hour nap. The afternoon’s activity was snorkelling in the kelp with garibaldi and myriad other fish. Having only swum with tropical fish before I had no idea what I was seeing while swimming in the cold kelp forest, but nevertheless enjoyed it greatly. Back on the boat we watched the birds and a group of about one hundred sea lions chasing something that was probably delicious a few hundred feet from where we were anchored. The day’s final event began after the captain set up a floodlight on the side of the boat and thousands of small squid came up from the depths to check us out.

The Channel Islands are an interesting place – the land is pretty bleak, but the ocean is full of life and amazing to explore. Tomorrow we’ll do some hiking and hopefully get another chance for snorkelling before braving the choppy ride back to Santa Barbara.

Santa Cruz Island Sunset

Santa Cruz Island Sunset. The tiny black dot is a pelican – they were being highly uncooperative despite repeated requests to come in closer and thus provide a nice silhouette against the setting sun.

Nametags

Posted from Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California at 7:28 pm, September 15th, 2013

When Audrey signed us up for this trip to the Channel Islands we had very few details about what to expect, although knowing we would have three days on a boat in the islands was a strong enough selling point to get us to send in our deposits. We were guessing that the trip would be fairly free-form, and that the trip participants might skew older and female, and so far both of those predictions appear to be true. Luckily, while some fears have materialized – nametags were distributed on the first night – as yet we haven’t had to sit in a circle and say our name, home town, and one thing we’re most excited about for the trip, and my current sense of things is that getting to live on a boat and visit the islands for several days will more than outweigh any disadvantages of group travel.

After getting on the boat last night and almost immediately heading to bed, today’s activities started early, with many passengers waking up a couple of hours after departure when the seas got rough at around 5:30. For the next two hours a parade of people visited the side of the ship, including the boat’s two cooks, although Audrey managed to keep things down while I suffered no ill effects and ate a hearty breakfast whilst surrounded by bodily fluids and carnage. Our first stop was the very remote and seldom-visited San Miguel Island, home to 30,000 pinnipeds, although unfortunately they mostly stick to the extreme northwest tip of the island and thus can only be accessed via a sixteen mile round-trip hike. Our visit consisted of a five mile hike to the top of the island, featuring various birds, petrified tree stumps, and steady wind and fog. On the rare clear days I suspect the views would be incredible, but even with the rough weather this was still an enjoyable hike.

Once back on the boat fresh brownies awaited as we motored off to spend the evening anchored in a calm harbor at Santa Rosa island.

$25 Sliders

Posted from 35,000 feet over Wyoming at 6:33 pm, September 13th, 2013

I always consider it a sign of a good vacation when you return home completely exhausted, and by that measure this trip has been an excellent one. We’ve got a one day intermission before we head off on phase two, and both Audrey and I will sleep well. There should also be some time to review photos and post these journal entries, although time and internet access will be limited on the next adventure so entries may again get posted a few days after they are written.

For our last day I dragged Audrey out of our fancy room at 6AM and off to Moose Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park, which numerous people had said was an amazing spot for bears and moose. Unfortunately only one bull moose made a fleeting appearance today, but it was still a pretty drive in the clearing fog, and we emerged at the base of the Tetons with some dramatic views of the mountains.

After a morning of photography we checked out of our fancy hotel and headed over to the ridiculously fancy Amangani Resort – I’m not quite ready to shell out four figures per night for a hotel room, so we settled for having lunch while enjoying their views and decor. After a week of animal watching it felt slightly wrong to eat them, but Audrey nevertheless had a bison short rib sandwich while I went for the lamb, bison and elk sliders – there were slight pangs of guilt, but the food was still pretty damn delicious.

After another animal-free journey up Moose Wilson Road we went for a short walk at Jenny Lake, then hopped on the plane for the flight home. I’m ready for a shower and a shave, and should have just enough time to get myself looking respectable again before we drive up the coast to catch our boat tomorrow night.

Grand Teton summit

Grand Teton summit.

“Are You Serious?”

Posted from Jackson, Wyoming at 10:00 pm, September 12th, 2013

The last day in Yellowstone, and both Audrey and I were again up at 6:30 and off to see the animals. A repeat trip up to the park’s north border yielded a bighorn sheep and a herd of elk, including two bulls engaged in a competition to figure out who had the biggest rack. Following breakfast we roamed around the weird terraces created by the bubbling water of Mammoth Hot Springs. Thereafter it was time to head out of the park, and we embarked on the long drive south, waving at the bison and elk along the way (literally).

It was an intermittently stormy day, so when we arrived in the Tetons the skies were pretty dramatic, and many photo stops were made along the way. At nearly 8PM we pulled into our fancy hotel in Jackson, and after checking in headed downstairs for a drink. When the bartender asked for my order I told him that since Audrey had just ordered a tequila and I couldn’t possibly get anything more manly than that, I’d go the other direction and have the raspberry chocolate cheesecake martini. He paused, looked at me sideways, and asked “Are you serious?”. I was, and it was delicious.

Audrey at Elk Ranch Flats

Audrey looking pretty as she photographs some Tetons.

Trees at Sunset, Grand Tetons

Backlit trees at sunset. Yes, after a day of photographing some of the most dramatic mountains in the world, I looked at all of my photos, hung my head in shame, and decided to post a picture of trees.

Everyone Who Saw a Grizzly Bear, Raise Your Hand

Posted from Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:36 pm, September 11th, 2013

Today was the day of many animals. Wake-up at 6:30 was followed immediately by a drive through the northwest corner of the park. Audrey was half-in-the-bag as we communed with elk and sandhill cranes. Following breakfast ninety minutes were allotted for the trip’s first downtime, and then we departed for the park’s north entrance, visiting with more elk, a handful of pronghorn, and a few bighorn sheep along the way. The elk were particularly good sports, with a herd of a dozen or so playing in the river while the resident bull kept tabs on everyone. We then returned to town, where due to its green lawns the park headquarters is an attractive home to a small herd of elk, including a massive bull who attacked no less than five cars this morning (“he got ‘em good” is the word on the street). Park rangers had dutifully cordoned off the elk behind wooden barriers labeled “Event”, so we viewed these city dwellers from a safe distance. With the preliminaries thus completed, the real safari began.

The destination was the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone’s northeast corner, but we stopped numerous times along the way, including at an overlook where we spotted a herd of several hundred bison in the valley below. Upon entering Lamar a pronghorn greeted us at the side of the road, and after we had stopped he ambled directly up to me – I got back in the car to get out of his way, but he was still almost close enough to pet. He then posed for what are likely to be the best photos I’ll ever take of a pronghorn. And this encounter was just the beginning.

Continuing through the valley bison were everywhere, often standing just a few yards off the road. Eventually we stopped at a spot with an expansive view and got out the binoculars to see what we could find – perhaps a hundred bison, maybe fifty pronghorn, and a dozen cranes were the result of that survey. At around 5:30, with the sun beginning to sink, we headed back to a pull-out where earlier a couple had told us there was a nearby buffalo carcass that had attracted bears during the past two nights. As the time went by more and more people appeared, many of them with spotting scopes in hand. After just over an hour of chatting with the many hardcore wildlife enthusiasts who had gathered, I spotted some black dots moving on a far-off hill, and shortly thereafter a lady with a spotting scope began yelling “they’re on the carcass!” For the following hour we watched a mother grizzly and three large cubs feast on buffalo, with a brief interlude while she fought off what was either a pair of wolves or coyotes. Eventually she wandered off, and through binoculars and scopes we followed the family back into the woods. A brilliant sunset, a drive home in the dark featuring deer and elk, and a delicious and most-definitely girly drink (the “Huckleberry Princess”) finished off an excellent day.

Pronghorn Antelope

Hats off to this pronghorn for posing against a perfect background.

Pronghorn Antelope

I’m not sure what the protocol is for having a wild animal approach within a couple of feet, so as he walked a bit too close I snapped a photo and retreated back into the car; this photo was not taken at maximum zoom.

Lamar Valley Sunset

Lamar Valley sunset. Awesome end to an awesome day.

Porkchop the Magic Geyser

Posted from Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:45 pm, September 10th, 2013

We’re going to bed with the sounds of a bull elk bugling a few hundred yards away. This is a good vacation.

This morning’s wake-up call was at 6:30, and even though all activities are optional Audrey joined me for a stroll through the Upper Geyser Basin. We had it mostly to ourselves as the mist cleared, and spent time photographing Morning Glory Pool with two ospreys keeping us company. Following that adventure we ate breakfast at the Inn and then departed Old Faithful, embarking on a tour of many paint pots as we visited Fountain Paint Pots and Artist Paint Pots and their boiling muddy mud. The sound those things make is strikingly similar to what one hears two hours after a baked bean dinner, and Audrey did a lot of eye rolling while I did a lot of giggling during the mid-day excursions.

After the tour of many paint pots it was time for the visiting of much falling water, with photo stops at Firehole Falls and Gibbon Falls; my streak of ugly waterfall pictures continues, but Audrey got some nice ones. With the waterfall options exhausted we hit Norris Geyser Basin, the park’s oldest and hottest. This basin is far-and-away the most other-worldly, and after several miles of strolling the camera’s memory cards were full and we were composing ballads dedicated to Porkchop the magic geyser – the sun was strong today and may have scrambled our brains moreso than usual.

Following our departure from Norris the trip was first interrupted by a bison strolling down the double-yellow of the road and passing within a foot or two of the car, and then by a bugling elk who stopped traffic in front of the Mammoth Hot Springs. After arriving in Mammoth and eating dinner we walked back to our cabin in the dark with more bugling greeting us – apparently the resident stud is out prospecting for additional lady friends. Tomorrow is another animal day, with another early start planned, so hopefully the wildlife gods will smile down upon us yet again.

Bison in Upper Geyser Basin

This is the stock bison photo that everyone who visits Yellowstone takes, with the one exception being that this photo is of Stumpy the tail-less bison.

Porcelain Basin in Norris Geyser Basin

Like most photos I take, this one doesn’t come close to doing justice to its subject – the Porcelain Basin in Norris Geyser Basin truly feels like something from another planet.

Gurgling Magma

Posted from Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:57 pm, September 9th, 2013

It’s EXTREMELY late by the standards of this trip, so this journal entry may be somewhat abbreviated.

We’re staying on the geyser side of the park, but the animals mostly reside on the opposite side, so today we got up early-ish (6:30) and headed off to the Hayden and Lamar valleys. The weather was nice, the scenery was tremendous, and elk, bison and pronghorn were out in abundance. Other sightings included an osprey chick on its nest, a few zillion geese, what we assumed were cranes (they were far off, but the shape was right), and some bubbling thermal features that looked scary enough that “do not touch” signs were not a necessity. There was also some confusion early in the day when we pulled over at a sign labeled “Sulfur Cauldron” and encountered a coned-off vent sending a wisp of steam up from the asphalt, but things were clarified quickly thereafter when we realized there was a MASSIVE sulfur spring sending plumes of steam skyward just a few hundred feet away.

Despite the fact that we’re seeing most of the wildlife from a car traveling on a paved road, one of the great things about Yellowstone is that when you’re here you feel like you’re seeing America as it existed 150 years ago. The trees haven’t been logged, there aren’t roads, mines or buildings off in the distance, and the ecosystem is more-or-less what’s it’s supposed to be. While three million visitors each year obviously means that the “pristine” feel is somewhat of an illusion, it’s nevertheless quite inspiring to get at least a glimpse back in time at something that is otherwise mostly gone forever.