Day three of the post-Christmas adventure started with a hike up to the Mount Whitney trailhead through snow, ice, and some impressive scenery. After spending four hours adding to yesterday’s blister count I returned to the Suby and took off south with no real destination in mind. California is one of those unique places where a random highway can lead to truly bizarre sights, and while today’s find can’t compare to the weirdness that is the Salton Sea, finding myself on a road between a Naval Weapons station and a massive RV/ATV gathering in the middle of the desert was unusual enough to make the day a success.
Christmas this year was again spent at Ma & Pa’s house in the Bay Area. Aaron was given the gift of Cavs tickets and an Anderson Varejao wig, the Skipper got a cookbook for curry (he cooks now), and Ma got enough pedicure gift certificates to keep her toes pretty for months. In a surprise move, rather than the usual gifts of sweaters and bizarre neck massagers mom also put together a really awesome album with copies of the family Christmas cards and letters going back about twenty years; Aaron and I were expecting the worst when she told us to “close our eyes”, so this gift was a pleasant surprise.
This year’s holiday miracle came in the form of a visit from Roto-Rooter after Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo took up residence in the downstairs bathrooms. Combining blocked toilets with the holidays brings out the best in everyone, and despite Sally’s initial dismay and Aaron’s dry-heaving it ended up being a fairly amusing (if expensive) event.
Tonight I’m camped out in a closed forest service campground in the Eastern Sierra near the base of Mount Whitney. After driving through gold country and up to Tahoe yesterday I spent the night in Carson City before heading south today. Hiking and photography at Mono Lake went well, although the silver dollar-sized blisters on my insteps indicate that the afternoon’s attempt at cross-country skiing was less successful. The interesting fact of the day comes from Mono Lake, which apparently lost forty feet in depth (and a signficant amount of surface area) due to diversion of streams by the city of Los Angeles starting in 1941. As of 1994 a lawsuit requires LA to restore twenty of the lost forty feet to the lake level to provide improved habitat for the two million birds that visit the lake each year, although at present the lake has risen only about eleven feet from its low point. Along with the restoration of the Lower Owens River, returning Mono Lake to a healthier state could have a huge impact on the wildlife that migrates through the Eastern Sierra each year, thus making me the slightest bit more optimistic that people may actually make the world a bit better during the remaining decades of my lifetime.
A lot has happened this month:
- Obama was elected President; I’m excited and optimistic.
- The stock market and economy have continued to crash – the DOW is off almost 50% from its high point, and my savings are in a similar predicament.
- Ted called, and it looks like I may be taking a trip to swim with whales in March. I’m ready.
- The annual Holliday Thanksgiving extravaganza took place over the weekend, and Sally once again produced a ridiculously great meal. Much food was eaten, and much fun was had.
- Following Thanksgiving the family headed off to the horse races; betting on horses based on odds and jockey records was a losing strategy for me; betting based on which horse had the best name was much more successful.
- Aaron and I embarked on our usual shenanigans, including a quest for expired food items that led to some gagging as we disposed of a 25 year old bottle of lime juice.
On average, about once a year I’ve used this journal as a way to record my thoughts and not just my experiences. Those posts are probably the most boring to read, but I like having an occasional snapshot to look back on and remember how things felt at any given moment in time. This post is another in that series, so feel free to ignore and watch the Mr. T video in the previous post if this sort of rambling isn’t your thing…
So the economy is a mess, an election is 24 days away that looks like it will massively change the make-up of government, and with so much happening it’s easy to overlook that this moment seems to be one of those pivotal times that will be recorded in history books for years to come. There haven’t been a lot of major events that I’ve lived through in my 33 years – the ones that come immediately to mind are:
- September 11. Probably the event of the greatest historical importance over the past 30 years.
- The 2000 election. At the time it seemed like a big deal, but the fact that history would have been vastly different had 300 votes gone another way in Florida makes this a much more significant event in retrospect.
- The Asian tsunami. This didn’t affect me personally, but I still remember seeing the headline on CNN the night of the earthquake (during which time they reported a couple of thousand deaths) and thinking “this will be very, very bad”.
- The end of the Cold War. After years of nuclear missle summits and scary videos of Soviet military parades, I seem to recall that this one sort of came in stages. The fall of the Berlin Wall was obviously a big deal, but it seemed like over a period of years there was another country that changed leadership every month, and then suddenly one day everyone realized that the USSR no longer existed.
- Challenger. Everyone remembers where they were when the shuttle exploded. Strangely the loss of Columbia seems to have had a much less significant impact – I guess Challenger was the accident that led people to realize that we didn’t have as much control as we thought we did, and has since made the US very risk-averse.
- Tiananmen Square. While at the time this event seemed important, today the bigger story seems to be the rise of China. In retrospect, Tiananmen Square was significant for the fact that it showed that China would do things its own way and that it had become a large enough power that the rest of the world would be unable to assert any influence.
- The First Persian Gulf War. I was in high school at the time, and no one knew how to feel about such a big conflict. Vietnam was the only relevant event most people knew of, and the protests and discussion seemed to assume the two would be the same; afterwards, with CNN showing live coverage and the Iraqi army being defeated so easily, people seemed to forget Vietnam and assume that the US military was invincible, leading to overconfidence in the current Persian Gulf conflict.
There are other stories, but I’ve either forgotten them, they seem less impactful, or strike me as being related to the stories above – Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War are clear examples; in my mind, those stories started with the 2000 election, in which the US electorate signalled that it was more important to have a President who seemed likeable and shared religious values rather than someone who was more intellectually qualified such as McCain (the 2000 version) or Gore. I’m sure Bush is a nice guy, but just as you wouldn’t hire a CEO who didn’t have expertise, leadership ability and a sharp mind, the President should likewise be elected based on those qualities and not on his likeability or success in demonizing the competition.
In any case, what prompted this posting is a feeling that the current time is another big moment in history, and I want to remember it. With banks failing, stocks down 40%, the government pumping $700 billion into markets in addition to countless loan guarantees and bailouts, this moment will be a pivotal one. In general people don’t like big changes, but with current conditions people are willing to try just about anything, meaning the next year could see more major policy changes than in the past thirty. Obama has campaigned on the premise that the dominant economic policy of “trickle down” is a failure, and is instead trying to implement his own “bottom up” strategy in which it will be the strength of the middle-class, rather than the strength of markets, by which the economy is measured. I expect higher taxes on the rich, massive government investments in infrastructure to create jobs, and at least in the short-term some large and scary deficits that will, for the first time since World War II, mean that America is no longer the clear economic leader in the world. While I think that after the past eight years America would have lost its economic dominance no matter what happened, the transition due to Obama’s proposals will (I think) make it happen sooner, although I believe that the investments he proposes will cause the downturn to be much shorter than it would have otherwise been.
In any case, it will be interesting to see the outcome of this change – $15 billion a year for energy research, if enacted, will go a long way towards creating new industries, and if done right could completely re-make how the world produces and uses energy. Higher taxes on the rich may reduce some investing, but at the same time a stronger middle class will (in my opinion) have a stimulus effect that will more than overcome any investment losses and fundamentally shift people’s view of what a “strong economy” means. The elephant in the room is the deficit – unless that comes under control inflation will rise and nations will be less willing to loan America money. For a country that relies on the ability to have large budget deficits a lack of credit could result in very traumatic cuts to defense, entitlements, and other government spending. As an Obama supporter I trust in his vision and like where it could lead, but at the same time see this moment in history as a very pivotal one that will be interesting to look back on twenty years from now.
It is a tragedy of modern cinema that Mr. T doesn’t have a major movie career:
It went mostly unnoticed by the news, but SpaceX just became the first private company to put a rocket into orbit. Their costs are significantly lower than other launch offerings, meaning that we could (finally!) be on the verge of seeing space open up to the extent that so many were predicting it would back in the ’60’s.
Between work, JAMWiki development, Iceland photos, the Skipper’s retirement, and various other odds and ends I’ve done a craptastical job of updating the journal – my apologies. Here’s a breakdown of the major events of the past six weeks:
- The Skipper retired after 814 years in the ministry, and went out by having a bunch of his Native American friends play the drum and sing some songs during his final sermon. What he does next is anyone’s guess.
- Eddie Murphy was filming his next flick here a few weeks ago and managed to completely shut down downtown Culver City for three days. Not only was it more difficult to get to Starbucks, but I got a cold for a week after seeing him. Coincidence? Probably.
- Aaron is living in the Bay Area again. He sells houses and stuff and lives with Charlie Chi. They see deer outside.
- DirecTV decided to reward folks for a good quarter by having a city-wide scavenger hunt. The idea sounded good – limos, drive around looking for stuff… the execution, while fun, involved a camera and tasks including such gems as “take a picture with a lifeguard”, “do yoga in front of Yogaworks” and “take a picture of your (predominantly male) team piled on a store’s floor”. There are now significantly more skeletons in the closet should I ever run for public office.
- A friend at work got married last week, and I was lucky enough to be a guest at an Afghan wedding. The dancing, singing, tublas, food, and all was a real trip – at one point I remarked that it was a made-for-the-movies scene straight out of My Big Fat Afghan Wedding, and those at the table all agreed.
- And good news about someone other than me: JB was named MIT’s 2008 Young Innovator. He rules.
Pictures from Iceland are only about halfway done, so it will be a while yet before they’re online. In the mean time, here are a few of the ones that turned out reasonably well:
Beds are soft and warm and comfortable and awesome.
The cliffs of Arnarstapi were roamed all night under the midnight sun. Seabird colonies are generally noisy, chaotic places, so it was almost otherworldly to see all of the birds quiet and either resting or calmly staring back at me. The Arctic fox made a brief (although un-photographable) reappearance, and the twilight painted magic through the evening.
I set off towards Reykjavik at 4:30 a bit sleepy but more peaceful than anything else. A day earlier I had been thinking that the one photograph I most wished I had gotten was a good shot of the whooper swans, who in general have been so wary that they swim away at the first glimpse of a person; it seems I did something right in a past life, because at 5:30 a family of swans was sitting in a pond next to the road, posing for pictures. Shortly thereafter the little guys in the brain signalled that if there wasn’t at least a couple of hours of sleep that they would go on strike, and since that’s generally a bad thing while driving I pulled over and let the neurons rest.
Once back in Reykjavik I roamed all over looking for the delicious cafe that the Skipper and I ate at two weeks ago, and of course finally found it a block away from my parking spot. After lunch I returned to the cathedral for another obligatory photo of the Leifur Eriksson statue, and finally came back to find a parking ticket on the Wondermobile – apparently being able to read the small print (in Icelandic) under the giant “P” sign would have been helpful. After returning the Wondermobile and catching the bus to Keflavik there was much sleeping, showering, and trimming of hair and beard. Today it’s off to the airport and a flight to Boston, and after that the great Iceland Adventure of 2008 comes to its end.
The trip is coming to a close in a pretty cool way – it’s nearly one in the morning and the skies are totally clear, allowing the twilight to cover the land. For about two hours the sun has been hovering around the horizon and the world has turned purple – if sleepiness doesn’t get too extreme I’d like to stay up all night to fully savor this midnight sun experience.
Here’s the day’s summary: I unintentionally slept late again, waking up at 9:30 under clear skies. It took about four hours of steady driving to reach the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and after a traditional Icelandic hot dog lunch the Wondermobile started the journey around the western edge of the peninsula. Given the clear weather the landscape was fully visible and it’s a beautiful place, with the Snaefellsjokull icecap (gateway to Jules Verne’s center of the earth) dominating the scenery. I made a stop at a bird cliff set amidst old lava flows at the peninsula’s western end, then headed up a four-wheel-drive-only track towards the icecap. From the high vantage point I got to watch the fog enveloping the peninsula’s end before I headed southeast towards Hellnar and Arnarstapi, site of the trip’s beginning.
I arrived in Hellnar at 10:00 PM, which in recent days has been when the light disappeared, and set off hiking without the camera. Of course on this night the world turned purple, kittwakes were feeding their fluffy white chicks, and the trip’s second Arctic fox showed up. It was tough to be upset over the lack of photos, however, especially since the odds are that I would have botched the pictures and it was nice to utterly relax amidst the scenery. Additionally, the symmetry of ending where things began is nice as it gives some insight on what effect the trip has had – for example, I’m noticing small details that I would have missed four weeks ago, and feel more willing to slow down and let the world unfold around me. Modern life makes both of those experiences difficult to accommodate, and as much as having a bed and a shower sounds nice it will be a shame to revert back to old ways.
An unexpectedly great day. The past few days have apparently been more exhausting than I realized, and after a long ten hours of sleep I was awoken by an arriving tour bus at 9:30. The fog was still heavy, so the Wondermobile was guided to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city with a population of over 16,000. The library there offers free internet access, and more importantly has a cafe with really good coffee, so I took a couple of hours to catch up with the news and get my caffeine on.
Since there wasn’t a real plan for the day, and since there was a paved road heading around the coast, I detoured off of the ring route and took in the countryside. Eventually the road turned inland, and as the mountains rose and a fjord disappeared behind me the Little Voice in my head started talking. The conversation went something like this:
“Stop and climb a mountain.” said the Little Voice. “Please? Why wouldn’t you stop. It’s perfect weather and this scenery is about as good as it gets.”
“Little Voice,” I replied, “my legs are very tired from all of the recent hiking, and I want to get to the west fjords to photograph birds. There’s no time to climb mountains.”
“But there are no trails and no other people around, so you’ll have the mountain all to yourself.” persisted the Little Voice. “And besides, why did you come to Iceland if not to climb remote mountains that overlook fjords?”
Duly chastised by my inner monologue, who made an excellent argument, I pulled the Wondermobile off of the road and set off up a massive and scenic peak. Following a zig-zag path through boggy fields, up snowy slopes, and over loose rock it took a couple of hours and a few buckets of sweat to reach the summit, but the experience was awe-inspiring. While at the top I took a handful of photos, including several of fog rolling in from the fjords; it was only after about ten minutes that the realization dawned that heavy fog would make it extraordinarily difficult to navigate back to the car, so a hurried descent was made, all the while making note of every landmark I could find to use as guides back to the Wondermobile. Luckily whatever was rolling in wasn’t terribly thick, and the long trip back to the car ended up being surprisingly straightforward.
After the mountain climb the next stop was a short detour along high cliffs to Siglufjordur, Iceland’s northernmost town. The place once had a population of over 10,000 but the herring fishery collapsed in the sixties, and now it’s a sleepy and very beautiful little outpost along a fjord. Most important about this town, however, is that by the harbor is a municipal campground with hot showers. As grungy backpacker Ryan stepped into the shower and turned on the water a chorus of angels sang out and light shone down from the heavens as the liquid cleanliness flowed forth. I really liked this town when I arrived, but after that other-worldly bit of refreshment I found myself briefly considering forgoing a return visit to the bird cliffs of western Iceland in order to stay here for another day.
I finally found a spot to sleep and headed to bed at 2:30 last night, then got up at 8:30 to revisit the waterfalls. Two days ago I was debating skipping Dettifoss altogether, and instead ended up visiting it three times – go figure. It’s a pretty awesome waterfall (“awesome” as in it shakes the ground), and after the fog lifted and visibility increased to more than two feet I found a placard that clarified the “largest waterfall” confusion from yesterday – the placard states that it is the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
p = mv and all that, apparently.
There was a bunch of hiking today in Jokulsargljufur National Park, although I’m old and sore so not as much distance was covered as yesterday. The trails led to some odd lava formations, through the river gorge, and past several waterfalls. I took a look at Dettifoss from both the east and west side of the river – distance across the river canyon: probably two hundred yards, driving time: about two hours. Unlike the United States they aren’t concerned with saving people from their own stupidity here, so there are no railings or safety warnings around the waterfalls, which provides some amazing opportunities – I was able to sit on a sheer cliff with the waterfall roaring next to me for a good hour this afternoon, alone to think and enjoy the scene.
After leaving the eastern side of Dettifoss the journey continued on its loop back to Myvatn and onwards towards the west coast. While driving through Myvatn a bank of fog came in from the fjords that literally looked like something out of a Stephen King novel, and it went from blue skies and sunny to druid-like in about two seconds. The parking spot (for now) is by a waterfall further inland, and barring someone kicking me out the plan is to hide in the fog here tonight and then head on to the western fjords tomorrow. Sadly there are only two full days remaining in the trip before I have to head back to Reykjavik to return the Wondermobile on the tenth, with the return flight scheduled to depart on the afternoon of the eleventh; with luck the weather will stay good and the adventures will continue until then.
Ridiculously full day. Started out at seven in the morning roaming around on a volcano, ’cause that’s how I start my days now, and then revisited a number of sites around Myvatn including Vindbelgjarfjall. Lonely Planet describes the mountain thusly: “the easy climb up 529m-high Vindbelgjarfjall, west of the lake, offers one of the best views across the water.” Lonely Planet’s editors either just returned from an expedition up Mt. Everest or else they forgot the “…NOT!” after “easy”. In any case, the views are inspiring and a little exercise is always a good thing, so I climbed the beast both days. Today two little kids were already on the trail, and seeing as I’m competitive to an unhealthy degree I figured I could catch them and pass them along the trail. Lesson learned – Little Kid A went up the trail like a mountain goat and absolutely dominated me, although Little Kid B fell by the wayside about halfway up. Whether it’s healthy to compete against little kids in mountain climbing is a subject that can be dealt with later in a professional setting.
After chasing birds, more hiking, and other fun the next stop was at the Myvatn Nature Baths for a shower and some hot spring time. The notable events from this stop: first, during the mandatory pre-hot spring cleaning the showers were open and very close together. Having a hairy, large, butt-naked man scrubbing vigorously in the shower next to you is not good, and especially not good when you have mantouch issues. Second, the hot springs are nice – they make your skin pretty. Third, bikinis rule; there can never be too many good things said about them. And finally, in the changing rooms on the way out the little naked singer appeared. Maybe being a parent makes having a little naked guy walking around singing seem normal, but to this childless thirty-something it seemed just a bit surreal.
The marathon of a day continued after the nature baths with some photography followed by a longish drive along a four-wheel-drive-only road to visit Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It’s listed as being the largest waterfall “by volume”, although since there are other waterfalls downstream it’s mildly confusing as to why this particular waterfall got designated the largest. In any case, even shrouded in dense fog (visibility is probably fifty feet) it’s a hugely impressive sight, but a warning to any future visitors – the spray blasting off of this waterfall will soak you; unfortunately my nice clean clothes are now quite damp after hiking down to the canyon’s edge. It’s now well after one in the morning, and as sleepiness is creeping in I’m stuck for a place to spend the night – the Dettifoss parking lot is the first place in Iceland where there has actually been a sign posted saying that sleeping in cars is prohibited, so I’m off to find another spot to park the Wondermobile for the few remaining hours of this evening.
Perfect weather, lots of hiking. Myvatn and its lake is very pretty, with lots of birds and lots of geologic stuff that blows up. Europe and North America are moving apart at a rate of two centimeters per year here, and the result is a volcano, some hot springs, lots of lava flows, and too many other geothermal things for me to remember. Any geologist reading this right now is probably all like “son of a…” – sorry, I don’t know from rocks.
The weather report claims that the wet and blowy stuff will be staying away for a few days, so the plan is to stay here for at least another day. I’ve been spending nights sleeping in the Wondermobile, and can say with some authority that a Suzuki Jimmy will not let anyone who is over three foot six sleep comfortably; the contortions required to lay down in the back seat while stretching my legs into the driver seat are worthy of Cirque du Soleil. As much as I’m enjoying this return to my grungy backpacker roots, the shower and bed that’s waiting at Hotel Keflavik on 10 July is looking better and better.
The majority of the day was spent under overcast skies in Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland. After the close encounters in Antarctica the standard for whale experiences has been raised unreasonably high, so instead of going on a boat ride I visited the whale museum. The museum is excellent and features skeletons from several beached whales that do a good job conveying how big the animals are since… well, since they’re skeletons of whales, and are life-sized and stuff. Interesting facts learned about orcas: the females live to be 90 (!), and the name “killer whale” was bastardized in translation – early Basque whalers saw orcas attacking larger whales and named them “whale killers”. Interesting facts about sperm whales: they can dive to two miles in depth and hold their breath for two hours; no word on the origin of the name, and I won’t make any guesses since my mom reads this journal.
An interesting aspect to the museum was the fact that Iceland, along with Norway and Japan, is on the short list of countries actively engaging in whaling. There is a history of eating whale meat in Iceland going back over a thousand years, and the Icelandic word describing a beached whale essentially translates as “hitting the lottery” since back in the day a beached whale could feed several families through the winter. Things are different now, however, and while Icelanders will still consume minke whale meat in small amounts, the majority of the meat from the endangered fin whales that were killed in 2006 was never purchased and remains frozen in industrial freezers. While minimal whaling for minke whales might be seen as justified, the push from the whaling industry for larger harvests of minke, fin, and potentially other whales just doesn’t make much sense, especially considering that revenue from whale watching far exceeds whaling revenues. The position on the issue in this museum was clear, if muted, and they posted an interesting cartoon on the subject from a Reykjavik newspaper that showed a whale arguing with whalers that an intelligent animal shouldn’t be killed, and ended with the whalers shooting the whale and then asking “Hey, did we just shoot a talking whale?”
After re-reading the guidebook it turns out that the Langanges Peninsula is famous among mariners for its thick and persistent fog, so rather than wandering off into the morning mist I spent a couple of hours with the birds and the seas before turning back for fog-free lands. Once out of the fog banks the weather was good all day, and the scenery of Northern Iceland is tremendous – amidst lakes, hills and seascapes were birds including loons, whooper swans, red-throated divers, phalaropes, plovers, whimbrels, snipes, oystercatchers, eider ducks, harlequin ducks, gulls, jaegers, and numerous others that I couldn’t identify.
Amidst the nature and scenery the day’s main event involved another act of stupidity. It was my assumption that Iceland was located in the North Atlantic, but the Lonely Planet has been taunting me with two words – Arctic Ocean. If in fact Iceland really is in the North Atlantic and the book’s editors were merely playing a practical joke in the hopes that some fool would try to add another ocean to his swimming tally then congratulations to the editors, because they found their fool. Barring any mischief by the guidebook staff there are now four oceans that I’ve swum in, and surprisingly today’s soaking seemed ever-so-slightly warmer than the glacial dip a short time ago. In this case the water was unfortunately shallower so entry and exit took considerably more time and the brain was able to more strenuously argue its objections prior to the full dive into the freezing cold. Rod previously commented that he doesn’t get why I need to jump into cold water – luckily by definition irrational acts don’t have to make sense and it can be assumed that some sort of brain damage is the ultimate cause.
UPDATE: According to Wikipedia the northern part of Iceland does indeed touch the Arctic Ocean. Boo yah.