"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell
Archive for 2010
Posted from Culver City, California at 5:19 pm, Thursday, December 23rd, 2010
For those keeping score at home, the final stats for the Banjo Tour:
- Duration: 20 days
- Distance: 6,913 miles
- States: 17 (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada)
- Nights spent in the back of a Subaru: 14
- Cajun meals: 4
- Caves visited: 2
- Fun factor: 9.5
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The approximate route. Google wouldn’t let me enter enough dots to create the exact route, so know that there was less interstate, a lot more Natchez-Trace Parkway, a bit more Oklahoma, and a number of additional side-trips.
Posted from Culver City, California at 9:14 am, Thursday, December 23rd, 2010
A lack of internet access and free time over the past couple of days prevented journal entries. Here’s the recap:
The 500 mile drive from Greensburg, Kansas to Vail, Colorado led through Dodge City, past the slightly-odd Monument Rocks in west-central Kansas, and on to Denver for a quick visit with Scott & Anna of Accenture, San Francisco and Galapagos fame. Following Scott’s house tour (“we don’t even use this room”), a demo of his Evel Knievel Halloween getup, and some bemused looks from Anna, I headed off into a snowstorm and the pants-crapping drive on dark and snowy I-70 through Vail Pass at an elevation of 10,666 feet.
Vail is a ridiculously good place to ski. It’s been about six years since the last time I was on the slopes so I wasn’t quite prepared for what was about to happen, but this resort was insane – the runs were more than twice as long as anything I’ve ever done before, the skiing conditions were outrageously good, and with Aaron’s employee discounts the costs were tolerable. I managed to mostly not die, even though at one point our attempt to ski the “In the Wuides” trail resulted in a wrong turn that actually took us in the woods; navigating trees and boulders in three foot deep powder is a bit more than this novice was prepared for, but in the end we emerged alive and my quads should be recovered by some time in mid-2011. A tremendously good day by any measure.
After breakfast with Aaron I left Vail at 8AM – LA was 934 miles away, and, since weather on this trip has been an ongoing challenge, it was only fitting that flooding was taking place in the parts of Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California that I would be driving through. It was a bit surreal hearing national news stories on the radio about flooded areas, only to be passing them as I was driving – the trees in New Harmony, Utah were under 10-15 of water as I went by – but overall it was a mostly uneventful drive that ended after fourteen hours with a return to Culver City and an end to a very good trip.
Monument Rocks. They are slightly odd in the context of a huge expanse of prairie.
The Holliday Brothers in Vail.
Posted from Dodge City, Kansas at 8:59 am, Monday, December 20th, 2010
Yesterday in brief:
- The Nature Conservancy’s Oklahoma Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was as good, if not better, than the NPS-managed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. With 39,000 acres the vistas were awe-inspiring, and the 2700 bison were a nice touch.
- The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge was added to the itinerary because I’m incapable of ignoring green dots on the map. This turned out to be a very good thing – in addition to the hundreds of thousands of birds (a number reported by the refuge that I fully believe), from today onwards I can no longer answer the question “Have you ever seen an armadillo” in the negative.
- The morning’s location is Dodge City (of “Get the hell out of Dodge” fame), followed by a trek towards Vail to see younger Holliday. Another day in Kansas/Oklahoma actually would have been a good thing, but a giant snowstorm heading east from California says otherwise.
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma.
Ryan’s first armadillo. For about a minute he didn’t seem to mind me being six feet away, then suddenly I became terrifying and he was off at full armadillo speed (apparently about two miles per hour) across the forest floor. Also, a note to aspiring photographers: make sure the focal point is the head, not the posterior. Doh.
Sunset in Kansas. This photo had the potential to be something very special, but the logistics of trying to pull off the road while traveling 70 miles per hour, rush down an embankment, and set up the camera while the light fades was more than my limited photographic ability was prepared for.
Posted from Wichita, Kansas at 5:25 pm, Saturday, December 18th, 2010
The tiniest bit of sun would have made today a great photo day – the tallgrass prairie is really pretty – but unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans. Despite the overcast the day was a good one for hiking, and eight miles of roaming allowed tons of time for reflection. A resolution for 2011 may be to make an effort to do at least one long hike a month, ’cause it’s a mighty good way to sort out what few thoughts my working neurons generate.
After a day on the prairie enjoying the scenery and the company of hawks and eagles, the plan is to do more of the same tomorrow across the border in Oklahoma. It turns out that the Nature Conservancy owns most of the land on which the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve sits, as well as a larger preserve in Oklahoma, so it’s encouraging to see where support for this organization is going.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The one-room schoolhouse visible on the right was built in the late 1800s and operated until the 1930s.
Posted from Kansas City, Missouri at 7:53 pm, Friday, December 17th, 2010
The great expedition of discovery to Kansas was pushed back a day – instead I spent a chilly and icy morning slipping on the walkways near the Gateway Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, followed by a drive across the rest of the Show Me state. After a mid-morning departure from St. Louis the state’s backroads led to the capital of Jefferson City, so I detoured and explored what turned out to be an amazing Capitol building that was almost completely open to the public – maybe it’s because the state government is on holiday break, but there were no security checks and no one seemed to mind that a slightly hairy, fairly smelly 35 year old was roaming the halls.
The afternoon led on a roundabout tour past the distressingly touristy Lake of the Ozarks – I quit counting after the fifth go-cart course and ten millionth houseboat – and this journal entry is being made from a Starbucks at the state’s western edge, just outside of Kansas City. The plan for the rest of the night and tomorrow includes heading into Kansas to try and find a place to park the Subaru for the evening, followed by a morning visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. After that it’s anyone’s guess what other wonders the amazing Sunflower state might have to offer.
I was sliding across icy walkways at dawn with frozen hands trying to figure out how to photograph the Gateway Arch in a way that hasn’t already been done a million times when I heard a flock of geese flying up from the Mississippi River – problem solved.
The Missouri Capitol was an unexpected find. I only had a half hour (parking issues…) but managed to roam all over this impressive structure, including through the giant rotunda.
Posted from St. Louis, Missouri at 8:31 pm, Thursday, December 16th, 2010
Before yesterday the trip’s direction generally led away from home, but starting today the distance from Culver City will begin shrinking. At the farthest point I think the Subaru was 2050 miles from his home, although at the moment that distance is down to just 1852 miles (“1 day 7 hours with traffic”). Kansas, Oklahoma, and a visit to Aaron in Vail lie in between. For the more immediate future, I haven’t quite figured out tomorrow’s plan. A quick visit to St. Louis seems like the leading option since, despite two visits to this city during college, all that I’ve seen is the track on the campus of Washington University and a park that they use for cross-country meets.
Looking back at the past two weeks, this trip started without a real plan aside from trying to visit some new places and to get out on the road. Unlike some trips, I didn’t try to stay anywhere long enough to get to know it – this trip ended up being more about constantly experiencing something new, and I think that has worked out for the best. Driving along and seeing the landscape change, talking to different people, eating different foods, and all the while recognizing that despite the differences it’s all part of the same country has been revitalizing. While it has its faults, the US really is an amazing place, and seeing so much of it in a short time provides a good reminder why I wouldn’t really ever want to settle down somewhere else.
Posted from Bloomington, Indiana at 6:55 pm, Wednesday, December 15th, 2010
It turns out that weekdays in December are a ridiculously good time to visit Mammoth Cave. The Frozen Niagara Tour and the Historic Tour had “participant limits” of 36 and 110 people, respectively, but only five people were on each tour today. According to the ranger who led the first tour, they get 5000 people a day during the summer, and the day after Labor Day that number immediately drops to 300 per day. Today there were perhaps 30 people in the park.
My love of spelunking is well documented, and today continued that proud tradition. I probably would have spent more time underground, but the requirement for visiting Mammoth Cave with a ranger and an imminent winter storm limited the options. That said, the Frozen Niagara Tour (which I remembered from a trip when I was eleven) and the Historical Tour (which I’d never done before) were both awesome – while Carlsbad has bigger rooms and more decoration, Mammoth was carved by underground rivers and as a result has hundreds of miles of passages, some the size of highway tunnels. During the two tours a handful of very creepy cave crickets and cave spiders appeared from the shadows, and a very cute pack rat and tiny bat also made appearances. Some interesting facts:
- Organized tours of the cave began in 1816, making Mammoth Cave one of North America’s oldest tourist attractions.
- Last year the length of surveyed passages was 360 miles. This year it is 392. They expect to be over four hundred miles of explored caves by summer. Mammoth is easily the world’s longest cave system.
- The cave has twenty-eight entrances, seven of which are natural.
- The name of the cave comes from the giant passageways, not the prehistoric elephant.
Tonight I’m in Bloomington to visit Audrey (she’s on a job at the University of Indiana) then, weather permitting, it’s off in the direction of Kansas and Oklahoma for some further exploration.
Walking through a large passage in Mammoth Cave, which is awesome.
Posted from Nashville, Tennessee at 7:33 pm, Tuesday, December 14th, 2010
Last night was spent in a hotel – $40 for a bed, a shower, and the opportunity not to sleep in the back of a car in 18°F temperature was well worth it.
The earlier experience on the Natchez Trace Parkway was so good that I decided to detour 80 miles back to it and traverse the remaining 150 miles. Unfortunately the road was closed due to icy conditions (I assume) thirty miles from its terminus, but until then I enjoyed more birds, deer, turkeys, history, hiking, and life in general. The opportunity to drive across three states without seeing any stop signs, businesses along the road, or anything but forest and farmland is one that I don’t think is available elsewhere in the country, and it was greatly enjoyed.
Tomorrow the plan is for more caving in Mammoth Cave National Park, then it’s up to Bloomington to harass Audrey for an evening. After that Kansas and Oklahoma are on the agenda, although Mother Nature apparently decided that a massive cold front offered insufficient hardship and is now also whipping up snow & ice storms, so hopefully the roads will remain open in the coming days.
A channel of the Sweetwater Branch along the Natchez Trace Parkway. It’s cold.
Posted from Decatur, Alabama at 9:38 pm, Monday, December 13th, 2010
Anything on the map that in any way relates to spaceships tends to be difficult for me to avoid, and thus it was that today’s destination was the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. After a cold (temperature: 19°F) pre-dawn wakeup followed by another thirty or so miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Subaru and I set off across Northern Alabama in search of rockets. At about ten o’clock the top of a Saturn V became visible on the horizon, and from that point onwards my mood was of the sort that usually leads Audrey to disavow that she actually knows me.
The space center is home to a museum that features a Saturn V rocket that was never sent into space. It’s the largest and most powerful space vehicle ever produced by man, with each of the five first-stage engines measuring twelve feet in diameter, and a total rocket height of over 36 stories; I was giddy. In addition to the Saturn V, the actual Apollo 16 command module, tons of mockups from other missions, and a “Rocket Garden” with everything from full-scale models to test vehicles were all on display. Since it was a Monday in December the staff seemed to outnumber visitors, so there was plenty of space to take it all in. While I generally try to keep him at bay, today the inner geek ran wild and free.
Saturn V third stage. You would think there would be lots of amazing photos to show off the day’s sights, but for some reason what little photographic ability I might once have possessed seems to have disappeared on this trip.
Posted from Tupelo, Mississippi at 4:26 pm, Sunday, December 12th, 2010
It’s snowing. The day started at a balmy 38°F and has dropped since – the moment it hit 32°F snow started flying horizontally in the brisk wind. While this hasn’t stopped the exploration along the Natchez Trace Parkway, it has forced the appearance of a very scratchy wool hat that I bought many years ago from an tiny Indian woman in Ecuador; I love this hat, but the wool combined with the lack of recent haircuts have led to much head-scratching.
After waking up at six I got back on the parkway, and alternated driving, hiking, and stopping to read about early American and Indian history along the way. Thus far I’ve stopped at three different Indian mound sites, three different swamp hikes, and too many nature walks and early settlement sites to count. Overall the Natchez Trace has proven to be a great find, and one that I could recommend to anyone who likes history and nature. Other notable sights have included a tree that was filled with at least thirty vultures, a giant pileated woodpecker, turkeys, hawks, deer, and even one owl who visited my campsite last night.
Posted from Rocky Springs, Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi at 5:42 pm, Saturday, December 11th, 2010
Life is more exciting with thunderstorms in it.
Much like New Orleans, the state of Mississippi has thus far defied my expectations. Before arriving here the preconception was of an impoverished state full of cotton fields, but the reality has instead been forests, small towns, and rural character. A random dirt road along the Mississippi River led to lakes filled with hundreds of egrets, and the Natchez Trace Parkway has been an amazing find, home to deer, Indian mounds, and really pleasant scenery.
The present moment finds me sixty miles along the 444 mile long parkway, camped for the night in the back of the Subaru with rain pouring down, thunder blasting, and lightning flashing. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for cold and windy but sunny, so further exploration will definitely take place.
Posted from Mandeville, Louisiana at 8:29 pm, Friday, December 10th, 2010
I met an old friend from the long-ago Andersen Consulting days for lunch today and partook of barbecued oysters and a shrimp & oyster po’boy – New Orleans continued to impress with its food. Cregan was brave enough to bring his wife along, and hopefully I didn’t frighten her too badly. His life since last we spoke included buying a house in New Orleans thirty-one days before Katrina – apparently insurance kicks in on day thirty, so he is insanely lucky if such a thing can be said of someone whose house ended up under five feet of water.
The day’s other activities included more roaming the streets of New Orleans, more wildlife refuge visits, and, after two horrid and uncomfortable nights of beds and showers, a joyous return to sleeping in the back of the car. The plan for tomorrow is to invade Mississippi, although thus far on this trip I’ve gotten distracted by everything from bridges to birds to trees to massive radio telescopes, so no plan is in any way certain.
Gas lamps in the French Quarter.
St. Louis Cathedral. A man with a name tag explained all of the flags, but I was clearly not paying close enough attention to be able to relay any information that is even moderately accurate.
Posted from New Orleans, Louisiana at 8:00 pm, Thursday, December 9th, 2010
New Orleans more than redeemed the state’s reputation as a culinary wonder – the peppercorn-barbecue mahi mahi and shrimp at dinner made the little men in my stomach do dances and compose epic poems, and the gumbo that preceded the main course replaced the slightly-dirty flavor of yesterday’s offering with equal amounts of deliciousness, joy and rainbows.
As is clear from the previous paragraph I’m now in New Orleans, but the trek here had its own noteworthy moments. I-10 actually travels over swamps for 18 miles, and that portion of the road is the tenth longest bridge in the world. The engineer geek in me was salivating while the nature lover was digging the scenery, so I got off at one of the two exits and spent three hours exploring the swamps. Sadly, without a canoe the really scenic parts of the swamp were unreachable, but what I was able to see was still a good change of pace from the Southern California deserts. It turns out I’m a HUGE fan of the cyprus trees in these waters, so I might need to figure out a way to work Congaree National Park into this roadtrip in order to spend more quality time with these water-loving giants.
Arrival in New Orleans was in mid-afternoon and with low expectations; however, while the prior expectation of a dirty, sleazy, crowded city may encapsulate some parts of what’s here, to a much larger extent it’s a lively, old town with as much character as any city that I’ve ever visited. A boutique hotel in the French Quarter served as a base for exploration, and I was able to roam along the Mississippi, through Jackson Square and the old St. Louis Cathedral, and down random roads past voodoo shops, art galleries, cafes, bars, street performers, carriages, trees filled with thousands of chirping birds (literally), and past all manner of unique sights. A future trip now seems infinitely more likely, although not during Mardi Gras when I suspect the “dirty, sleazy and crowded” factor rises dramatically.
Posted from Lafayette, Louisiana at 8:41 pm, Wednesday, December 8th, 2010
After five nights spent in the back of the Subaru, tonight I’m clean and in a bed; angels sang out during my first shower in far too long.
The day’s activities included visits to several national wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast that were home to ridiculous numbers of birds. I saw more hawks than I’ve ever seen before, and the never-ending flocks of geese and other birds that were arriving was awe-inspiring. Sadly there were no photographs – I suspect that, for a bird, when people shoot at you during certain times of year then posing for pictures isn’t a courtesy you feel needs to be extended.
Since I didn’t quite make it to New Orleans the plan is to head in that direction tomorrow. While in Louisiana I’m making an effort to sample as much Cajun food as possible. The verdict so far: Boudin (a sausage whose ingredients I dare not investigate) is tasty, shrimp po’boys are good but not extraordinary, and the seafood gumbo was decent except for the strong taste of dirt; hopefully the food in New Orleans will redeem the state’s culinary reputation.
Posted from Beaumont, Texas at 9:15 pm, Tuesday, December 7th, 2010
If the Google is to be believed today’s route covered about 560 miles across the state of Texas; thankfully I’m now at the Louisiana border and the “ungodly amounts of driving” portion of the trip should give way to the “exploring the Southeast” stanza. The rough plan for tomorrow is to wake up early and roam around some of the eighty-nine million (give or take) wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast, with a stop for the evening in New Orleans to follow. Based on signs outside of restaurants I’ll likely also be eating some weird, weird things over the coming days – I don’t know exactly what a Boudin is, but it’s apparently on the menu.
Today started with some driving, followed by more driving, then more driving. Repeat that about ten times and it encapsulates the majority of the day’s activity – it takes a ridiculously long time to cross the Lone Star state in a car. The two interludes were a stop at Inman’s Kitchen for what was advertised as being “Voted #1 Barbecue in Central Texas” (I believe it) and a break in Austin to give the Suby some love in the form of new oil and, since I’m a sucker for mechanic scare tactics, a new battery. Despite going completely stir crazy as the miles went by it was a surprisingly nice drive – while I wasn’t a fan of the pervasive oil stench of East & West Texas, Central Texas is really pretty and the people I encountered exceeded the South’s reputation for friendliness & courtesy. Having deer everywhere, including a jumper – the fence he easily cleared was probably four feet high – was a nice bonus.
Posted from Midland, Texas at 9:19 pm, Monday, December 6th, 2010
The universe intervened on the roadtrip last night, and after driving for an hour without finding anywhere suitable to spend the night White Sands was removed from the itinerary; I probably should have known that overnight parking areas would be limited near a national monument surrounded by a government missile testing range, but I’m not often accused of having an overabundance of brain matter.
Missing White Sands probably worked out for the best as Carlsbad was further away than I realized, and despite waking up before 7AM, arrival time at the park wasn’t until after 10AM. From there the fun began: Ryan loves him some caves. Photos of Carlsbad can’t do it justice – the cave formations are probably more amazing than any other easily-accessible cave in the world, but the most awe-inspiring thing (to me) is how big it is. There are multiple rooms with ceilings well over a hundred feet high, and the aptly-named “Big Room” is 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide at its widest point; it’s tough to imagine how something like this could be engineered by man, much less occur naturally.
After four hours of romping through the cave it was time to leave, and I’m now making a beeline for Louisiana, although a large state that smells strongly of oil lies in-between. I haven’t quite figured out what the route across Texas will be, but it’s likely to take most of the day tomorrow, after which this roadtrip will be in uncharted territories and hopefully involve much more exploring and much less driving.
The Big Room. Clever comment about the genius behind the name is left to the reader.
The Chandelier. I’d guess that the largest stalactite in this formation was easily over ten feet long. It’s also visible in the previous photo.
Posted from Las Cruces, New Mexico at 8:58 pm, Sunday, December 5th, 2010
The town of Winslow was along the route last night so I decided to be a tourist, stopped, and yes, stood on a corner. I didn’t see a girl in a flat-bed Ford (my Lord) but there was a guy in a F150, so mission accomplished.
Today I woke up just before sunrise to a temperature of 38°F, drove to the gates of Petrified Forest National Park, and, while the horizon turned amazing shades of purple, stared in horror at a sign indicating the park didn’t open for another hour. That disappointment aside, the four-hour park visit was a good one – there were far too many photos and far too little hiking, but the supposed goal of this trip is to visit the Southeast so some sacrifices are needed.
What little plan there is for this roadtrip calls for getting to new places as quickly as possible and limiting the number of visits to old haunts, but White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns are kind of on the way, so I pointed the Subaru in that direction. I’m doing my best to travel backroad highways as long as there is daylight, so I was debating the merits of three possible routes when a dot on the map caught my attention: National Radio Astronomy Observatory. From that point the route was clear, and the fifth of December 2010 will live forever as the day Ryan went to the Very Large Array. The geek juices were flowing strong as I came upon 27 radio antennas, each 25 meters in diameter, spread across 22.3 miles of a high mountain plain. Sadly I only arrived with an hour to spare before sunset, but made the most of it by hurriedly visiting each part of the facility that didn’t have an “authorized personnel only” sign. Am I a huge dork? Clearly. But I am a very happy dork.
Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park. “Why is it called the Painted Desert” is a question that is infrequently asked.
One of the 27 radio antennas that make up the VLA. Each one is twenty-five meters across and totally awesome.
Posted from Flagstaff, Arizona at 7:51 pm, Saturday, December 4th, 2010
The day started at sunrise (6:30) in the deserts of Southern California and, with the possible oversight of a stop at a diner, took on all aspects of the classic American roadtrip from there. After a short drive across the border into Arizona the road led along the Colorado River and Lake Havasu. Following a short hike in the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge I actually made an attempt to find the bridge in the town of London Bridge – an authentic bridge from the Thames River that was bought & transported to the Arizona desert in the 1960s – but it may be a good thing that this bit of Americana eluded me.
From there the path led along the quintessential road trip route of America: Route 66. With the advent of the Interstate Highway system the “Mother Road” mostly disappeared, but in places it has been revived, and at least in Western Arizona it is a throwback to 1950s America. The hotels that are left have neon signs, the gas stations sport vintage advertising and pumps, Burma-Shave messages line the road, and the stores aim to capture the roadside-stop mystique from yonder years.
In addition this route has waaaaay more than its share of roadside attractions, and one particularly noteworthy one was the town of Oatman. A gold mining town in the early 1900s, when the mines shut in the 1930s the town started dying, but it has resurrected itself as what Wikivoyage accurately describes as “equal parts touristy kitsch and real, honest-to-goodness Wild West atmosphere”. Burros whose ancestors were owned by miners have now gone wild, but they come into town each day to block the only road, poke their heads in car windows, and search out the carrots that local merchants sell by the bag. The downtown has been re-imagined as a wild west town, in no small part due to a 1960s makeover during the filming of How the West Was Won. Despite the revisionist history, a number of the townsfolk struck me as best described as “grizzled”, and there was a charm to the place that I enjoyed but couldn’t quite figure out. Outside of town there are still active mining claims, and a few of the “no trespassing” signs had an unmistakable “trespassers will be shot” undertone. Overall, I left the town liking America just a little bit more for being home to a place like this one.
Remove the sticker, choke a burro. Don’t do it.
Posted from Somewhere in the Southern California Desert, approximately 40 miles west of Parker, Arizona at 7:05 pm, Friday, December 3rd, 2010
Due to two factors – a sudden and massive burst of productivity, and an equally massive burst of complacency – the Subaru and I left the confines of Culver City nearly a day and a half later than might otherwise have been expected. On the long and traffic-filled drive through the never-ending four- and five- lane highways of the Inland Empire there were surprisingly some second thoughts – the question of whether it might make more sense to spend additional time focusing on getting some work done was actually being seriously considered – but there was no way that argument was going to win; with rare exceptions I can’t recount any of the innumerable times that I’ve gotten a lot done in a week, but with the possible exception of some family trips when I was still newly hatched every adventure of my life remains a vivid memory.
This trip is slightly different from any recent trips in that the goal is mainly just to have the sort of rough, guy-on-a-roadtrip adventure that hasn’t happened in a long while. There’s a goal of trying to visit an unexplored corner of the country and a desire to try to take new roads and limit visiting the sites of past adventures, but realistically the trip could lead anywhere. At 35 I’ve got this vague sense that things are different from when I was 25, and that I might somehow be more insulated from what made trips in my younger years so special, but I’m hoping the next few weeks proves that intuition wrong.
Posted from Culver City, California at 8:39 pm, Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
“Have you left on your road trip yet?” has been a popular question of late.
“No” has been the only accurate answer.
“When are you leaving?” and “What have you been doing?” have been the equally-popular follow-up questions.
“Probably Thursday” and “Absolutely nothing” have been my very happy responses.
In this case, “absolutely nothing” really is what it sounds like – aside from just under two hours of work on JAMWiki code and this journal entry, the past two days have been filled with naps, a game, and a couple of CPK frozen pizzas. While regressing into a waste of life might normally be cause for scorn and self-loathing, after a mostly-unbroken stretch of working for Backcountry, working on side-projects, and trying to have a social life, this new (and hopefully short-lived) degeneration into worthlessness seems to be having a restorative “reset” effect; burnout is ever-so-slowly giving way to a renewed desire to go out into the world and shake things up.
Posted from Culver City, California at 9:58 pm, Monday, November 22nd, 2010
After an inglorious eleven months, tomorrow will be the last day working for backcountry.com until at least January. The contract was only supposed to last through March, but unsurprisingly it got extended and likely would have gone on even longer if I hadn’t begged for some time away to focus on other pending projects. In a perfect world some of those projects may actually be taken care of by the end of the year, but a gambling man would be smart to wager that 2011 will still start with an extensive TODO list.
Since the side projects only require a laptop and an occasional internet connection, and since it’s been far too long since I spent any significant length of time dirty and living in the back of a Subaru, the coming month will likely also involve a road trip to one or more of the seven remaining states on the not-yet-visited list. Luckily, with the notable exception of North Dakota, the states on that list are mostly OK for cold weather visits, so December may be the month when I finally take a riveting vacation to… Kansas. I’m surprisingly excited about this possibility – while traveling abroad has been incredible, one of the many reasons why living in the US is great is that there is amazing variety here, and even a state with a less-than-stellar reputation as a travel destination will almost certainly have its share of interesting spots. The other stupendous and exciting states on the yet-to-be-visited list are Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, so possibilities abound for gumbo, Forrest Gump analogies, and whatever it is that one does in Mississippi.
Posted from Concord, California at 10:38 am, Sunday, October 31st, 2010
Posted from Culver City, California at 11:20 pm, Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
With this journal now beyond its eighth birthday, one use of it that I’ve occasionally enjoyed indulging in at the expense of my twos of readers is posting thoughts about what seems important in technology, politics, or whatever; it’s fun to look back a few years later to see how trends played out versus what might have been expected at the time. For those who are bored to death by such posts, head immediately to Lolcats to avoid a geeky trend analysis.
The dotcom wave crested nine years ago, and since then it has seemed more and more likely that the next boom would be led by energy and conservation technologies. Dotcom disrupted markets by introducing new ways to do traditional tasks faster and more efficiently, offering huge value for those who adopted the new technologies. With new energy developments on the horizon offering a similar value proposition, it seems that another burst of change is inevitable. That said, here are a few specific technologies that seem like they will end up being interesting and important with respect to energy and conservation. The comments link is available should anyone else care to throw out their own thoughts.
While there is some attention still being given to solar cars, hydrogen cars, and hybrids, electric cars look more and more like they will be the primary automotive technology in the future. Battery storage is rapidly improving, and if trends hold then in another 5-10 years cars could be on the roads with expected ranges of 400-600 miles per charge. More importantly, however, is that electric cars make better sense from a technology standpoint than hybrids or internal combustion engines – the motors are more powerful and more efficient, and the supporting systems are simpler. An electric car doesn’t need oil changes, doesn’t have an exhaust system, has simpler cooling needs, etc. As the range issues are addressed and the cost of battery packs come down, it’s very tough to imagine anyone choosing oil changes, gas stations, and a $600 maintenance charge every 30,000 miles to something that they can just plug in at night. I’m obviously heavily influenced by JB on this issue, but while I’m not convinced Tesla will lead this trend I’m fairly certain that it’s one that’s coming in a big way.
Similarly, as solar panel efficiencies are improving it is becoming cost-effective for greater numbers of people to install them. While for most people the allure of solar panels is currently that they’re a “green” option, as soon as the economics of solar panels offer a cost advantage over grid power it’s tough to imagine that there wouldn’t be a rush for the mass market to install them; companies like Solar City are already pushing a sales message that is primarily based on economics rather than environmentalism. With current rates of improvement, the economic argument should be a HUGE selling point in places like Arizona and Southern California within the next several years. Should home generation become more prevalent, it is also conceivable that the need for new power plants might then be lower than current projections.
This may be overly optimistic, but a side effect of a move to electric vehicles and solar panels would be less air pollution and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Any such benefits would obviously take time to kick in as old technologies were slowly phased out, but if (for example) 10% of vehicles are electric by 2015, and 30% are electric by 2020, air quality improvements should follow. This optimistic view isn’t an argument against trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traditional sources, but it does give some hope that even in the absence of legislative action there may still be some chance of avoiding the worst predicted effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Oil production rises each year to meet increased demand, but at some point there simply won’t be enough oil that can be extracted from the ground for that trend to continue. The commonly held assumption is that demand will continue to rise while supply will remain stable, causing a massive shock to economies and industrial systems. However, as electric vehicle technology improves it would seem that there will, for the first time, be a viable alternative for the most common use of oil. Since people are driven by economic factors, given the choice between a $20,000 vehicle that runs on $5.00 – $7.00 a gallon fuel, or a $30,000 vehicle that can be plugged in, fears over a depression brought about by peak oil may actually be replaced by a mini economic boom as replacement technologies are adopted.
It’s tough to tell if today’s political environment is an anomaly or not, but at least in the US there is a dearth of sensible long-term planning as candidates look to quick-wins and uncontroversial decisions. Currently candidates in several states are campaigning against transportation projects that could produce huge long-term benefits, albeit at short-term cost. In California, a much-needed high-speed rail line is opposed by the current Republican gubernatorial candidate and will at best be delayed by myriad lawsuits from cities impacted by the proposed rail route, and at worst will end up canceled.
With so many obstacles to major changes to the existing transportation system, it seems that incremental approaches implemented at the local level are the only options to looming congestion nightmares. New York and several other cities already have implemented small-scale solutions, such as systems that allow buses to manage traffic lights to speed up bus routes. It seems logical that such “smart” traffic lights will be implemented elsewhere to optimize traffic flows. Similarly, cities will probably begin looking more at options like congestion pricing, reversible lanes, and better use of real-time traffic data for routing. While it would be great to think that large mass-transit projects will play a bigger role, it’s tough to see how such projects will be implemented, meaning that small-scale projects are likely to be the main area of growth.
While more efficient air and space travel could enable a number of new developments, this area sadly doesn’t seem poised for huge advances. With private companies like SpaceX now capable of launching payloads for a fraction of traditional costs it’s possible that additional uses for space will open up, but technology is still probably twenty years away from a cost point where really exciting changes could take place. Similarly, with more fuel efficient airplane technologies such as the Boeing 787 launching, air travel should become more pleasant, but revolutionary changes like blended wing body planes or hypersonic transports look like they’re still 30 years away from becoming a day-to-day reality.
Water is going to become a bigger and bigger issue; if desalination doesn’t become a more prominent option then the world will face severe shortages. Assuming the energy requirements for desalination decrease and available fresh water supplies continue to be used up, the oceans should soon become a big part of the municipal water plan.
Smart grid technology is already being put in place to allow variable pricing of electricity, which should cause users to shift electricity usage and thus decrease the need for new power plants. The idea is that if electricity is more expensive when demand is high then people will defer usage until prices decrease; it’s less sensible to run the dish washer at mid-day if you can do so for half the price in the evening.
Biofuels will continue to gain attention, particularly things like cellulosic ethanol and algae fuel, but simpler technologies like electric motors, wind power, and traditional power sources may prevent them from ever being widespread. Instead, something like algae fuel production may be most useful as a way for large industrial facilities to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously creating a commercially valuable by-product.
Posted from Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii at 6:26 pm, Friday, September 3rd, 2010
No journal update yesterday – I mostly lounged, and an attempt to photograph birds failed miserably when the wildlife refuge gates were locked at 4:30 PM.
Today was my last day on Kauai, so I decided to get dirty. After waking up at 5AM I left the disappointingly unimpressive Kauai Beach Resort and headed back towards Waimea Canyon for some more hiking. The handful of photos I took along the way turned out rather bland, but hopes were higher for a hike at the end of the road at 5000 feet elevation above the Na Pali coast. The trail started out slick and got about an order of magnitude sloppier with each quarter mile, and the last bit was a slog through a river of mud all the while pulling myself up rocks with whatever vegetation was available – six year old Tevas with worn off treads were clearly the footwear of champions today. The views along the way were great, and the challenge of trying to hike without getting completely disgusting was a fun one.
Following the jungle-slog-of-filth-and-domination I headed to the far end of the island to a beach that the guy at Subway said was his favorite. I was momentarily stopped by a “four wheel drive only” sign, but Hawaii is clearly not as hardcore as Utah and the rental Dodge made it to the beach without any trouble. Kauai is an island with narrow sand beaches and a lot of rock, but this beach was an exception with its massive expanse of sand set against the cliffs of the Na Pali coast – Subway guy is all good with his recommendations.
The red-eye for home leaves in a few hours, but luckily the weekend has a few days remaining before the slog back to work starts again. Vacations are definitely good things.
The Na Pali Coast. The muddy, disgusting part is to the right. The lovely, inspiring part is to the left.
Posted from Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii at 9:25 pm, Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Today marked the last day of the family vacation, and the beginning of two solo days on the island. Aaron and I lounged around through the morning, making our daily Starbucks run, debating the merits of several chicken chases, and eventually heading off towards the Beach House for another snorkel. Ma & Pa decided not to join us, and while there weren’t any further turtle sightings we managed to check off most of the fish on the “fishes of Hawaii” brochure. Lunch consisted of delicious ahi tuna and pulled pork from the Koloa Fish Market, and the afternoon almost exactly mirrored the morning with an additional snorkel, aborted chicken chases, and a dinner consisting of more ahi tuna and pulled pork. One pina colada and a sunset later and we bid adieu to Ma & Pa, and having just dropped Aaron at the airport I’m settling in for two days at the Kauai Beach Resort before it’s time to head back to a land where morning snorkels and drinks at sunset aren’t the norm.
Enjoying the sunset in Kauai.