Ryan's Journal

"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

Posted from Watertown, New York at 6:20 pm, September 24th, 2021

Our room in the tower of the Hochelaga Inn will sit vacant tonight; Audrey’s COVID test results arrived just after lunchtime today, but we’re still waiting on mine and can’t cross into Canada until they get here. There are definitely worse fates than being forced to spend a day in the Thousand Islands region of upstate New York, but it would have been mighty cool to have two nights in the tower of a 150 year old mansion, so hopefully my results arrive tomorrow and we can salvage at least one night.

Aside from waiting for COVID results, today’s main event was driving through the Adirondack State Park and enjoying the fall color. We stopped for one short hike in the Nature Conservancy’s Lake Julia Preserve, where I was super excited to go for a walk in this little-used area. Audrey, on the other hand, was convinced that either murderers or bears would ensure we didn’t return alive. In her defense, she is fearless around spiders and other things that make me uneasy, but I wasn’t going to miss out on a nice hike due to imagined murderers, so she shuddered her way through the forest until the path opened up at a beautiful pond surrounded by trees in various stages of changing color and she forgot about psychopaths and started photographing everything in sight.

With luck the poor souls at Quest Labs will pull my test out of whatever mountain they are buried under first thing tomorrow and the trip will continue, otherwise we may be writing tomorrow night from another location in New York as we seek out alternative routes west.

Fall color in the Adirondacks
Early Fall color in the Adirondacks. Our path today took us next to at least a half dozen noisy streams, something we definitely don’t see back in arid California.
Fall color in Lake Julia Preserve
Fall color in Lake Julia Preserve. Not a bad place for a hike.
Mushroom and moss
Mushroom and moss, Lake Julia Preserve. Watching for cool fungi has become a favorite activity on hikes; it’s another activity you can’t really do in California.

Lounge Days

Posted from Chestertown, New York at 6:01 pm, September 22nd, 2021

I promised Audrey some time to lounge during this trip, and the next two days should make her happy. We’re booked at the Fern Lodge in Adirondack State Park, a place that is far too classy for us, but despite our disheveled appearance and lack of refinement they’ve still given us a great room with a lake view and a huge stone fireplace. The plan while here is to lounge, enjoy the home-cooked breakfasts, and maybe take a canoe out on the lake for a few hours.

The drive here was a scenic trip through the Green Mountains, with a stop along the way in Weston, Vermont, where we enjoyed the view of the Old Mill and then made friends with the proprietors of the town’s 150 year old general store. Surprisingly they were familiar with Shaker Heights, the suburb of Cleveland where I went to high school, and so in a town of a few hundred people in the woods of Vermont we talked at length about a much larger small town that lies 500 miles to the west.

The Old Mill in Weston, Vermont
The Old Mill in Weston, Vermont. I’m still pro-dam removal, but this one made for a nice photo.

Sur-uhp

Posted from Cavendish, Vermont at 6:41 pm, September 21st, 2021

Audrey and I have had a long-running feud over the pronunciation of “syrup”. Being from New England, where syrup was basically invented, it was my assertion that it was a single syllable word pronounced “surp”. Audrey scoffed at this notion, insisting that the only proper pronunciation involved two syllables. Today at Sugarbush Farm we incited a small argument among the ladies running the farm store over how the word is actually pronounced, but all of them agreed without hesitation that “surp” was wrong, and I was forced to do a walk of shame back to our car.

Prior to losing this grammatical battle we had another very full day. Things started off with a quick trip to the Saint Gaudens National Historic Park, home to one of America’s most famous sculptors but also well-known for the beautiful gardens and grounds. Of course, surrounded by incredible statues, flowers, and architecture, we were most impressed by the frogs in one of the fountains, but in our defense, California is kind of lacking in amphibians.

The next stop was one that Audrey was particularly excited about – the Philbrick-Cricenti Bog, located across the road from my family’s old cottage. I remembered the boardwalk trail through the bog as a really fun adventure from childhood, and four decades later it’s still a great walk. Weird bog plants are everywhere, pitcher plants sprout through the moss, the wooden planks suck and gush mud with every step, and you’re constantly reminded of being on a very thick mat of moss over an ancient pond. Audrey was in sheer heaven throughout, which only made the trip better.

The remainder of the day was a series of quick stops. First we had lunch at Peter Christians Tavern, a place I visited dozens of times with my family when we were at the cottage. Next we met a few of Audrey’s relatives for coffee near Dartmouth, and from there ended the day with a visit to the aforementioned maple syrup (two syllables) and dairy farm.

Tomorrow we’re leaving our castle in Vermont for two nights in the Adirondacks, followed (hopefully) by four nights in Canada. Current border restrictions require a negative COVID test within 72 hours of crossing the border, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to get tested in rural Vermont/New York, so after checking dozens of locations we finally found two available appointments two days from now, just over 24 hours from when we need to cross the border. Hopefully the lab turnaround times are fast, otherwise we might be spending a surprise night in upstate New York waiting for our results to arrive.

Frog in Saint Gaudens National Historic Park
Green frog in Saint Gaudens National Historic Park. At the home of one of America’s most renowned sculptors, surrounded by incredible art and beautiful gardens, we were most excited about the frogs.
Philbrick-Cricenti bog trail
Philbrick-Cricenti bog trail. My favorite entry in the trail guide: “Stay on the walk! Those light green patches are only thin skims of moss and sedge. Below them are remains of cows, deer and at least one horse.”

Top Notch

Posted from Cavendish, Vermont at 6:46 pm, September 20th, 2021

The day started at 6am today, because vacations are too awesome to waste on sleeping. At that time the White Mountains were shrouded in fog, with temperatures hovering near freezing, but it made for a cool scene outside, particularly once the sun crept over the horizon.

A few hours later, Once Audrey was up and about, we made a return visit to the resort’s barn to again pet goats and sheep, before taking part in the daily axe-throwing competition; sadly, we both made a poor showing with the four pound double-headed axes and had to retreat in shame once the competition ended.

After checkout out we headed southwest through Franconia Notch State Park, home to the world’s best notch, as well as the Flume Gorge, a geologic phenomenon that has been drawing visitors for two centuries. The gorge is something that I think I remember from childhood – it’s a narrow chasm with a boardwalk cantilevered into the side of the cliff wall, creating a trail that sits just above raging water that forms waterfalls, pools, and cascades as it blasts through the narrow space. It was tough to get pictures that fully captured the experience, but it was well worth the visit.

We’re ending the day in a 150 year old “castle” in Vermont that was originally built by a former governor. The building is now an inn, and our room contains a four-poster bed, fireplace, antique furniture, and hand-carved wood trim. I managed to get a deal several months ago when travel still seemed like a risky proposition, so our room rate included a three-course gourmet dinner in the downstairs dining room; Audrey had lamb while I enjoyed lobster, shrimp and steak. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I really, really, REALLY love being on vacation.

Early morning fog in the White Mountains
Early morning fog in the White Mountains.
Flume Gorge, Franconia Notch State Park
Flume Gorge, Franconia Notch State Park.

Mount Washington

Posted from Whitefield, New Hampshire at 6:36 pm, September 19th, 2021

Today was a day of perfect weather and many activities, despite the fact that we decided to postpone axe throwing until tomorrow.

Our first stop of the day was the Mt. Washington Auto Road, where we paid the exorbitant toll for the totally-worth-it drive to the 6,288 foot summit of Mt. Washington. First opened in 1861, the road has an average grade of 12%, with up to 22% grade in some places, and our rental car was none-too-happy with us for choosing this route. Despite some complaints from the automobile, it was incredibly scenic, and we got out for a number of short hikes along the way before braving the chilly temperatures at a summit that is infamous for extreme weather, including a 231 mph wind gust that was recorded in 1934.

After leaving the mountain we had a couple of additional stops – a delicious 2pm breakfast at the Sunrise Shack, and a quick hike to the waterfalls at Diana’s Baths – before we set off across the Kancamagus Highway. This scenic byway is mobbed in October with “leaf peepers” taking in the amazing fall colors; for our trip leaves were just beginning to turn, but it was still a beautiful route. We read later that the road took twenty-five years to build, with construction starting in the 1930s; a supervisor’s progress report during the project noted “Quality of work: Excellent. Morale of workers: High. Progress of construction: Negligible.”

It will be tough to top today’s adventures, but the plan for tomorrow is to start the day with barnyard animals and axe throwing before heading southwest into Vermont, with a stop at the very famous Franconia Notch along the way, so it should be another good one.

Mount Washington summit vista
Mount Washington summit vista. It’s not easy to see in this photo, but next to the two small ponds there’s a hut for crazy hardy folks hiking the Appalachian trail to spend a night in comfort.
Mount Washington summit vista
Mount Washington summit vista. If you look closely you can see the cog railway tracks on the right side of this photo. The railway was built in the mid-1800s, and today runs on bio-diesel, meaning that when it passes the landscape has the unmistakable scent of french fries.

Acadia

Posted from Bar Harbor, Maine at 6:17 pm, September 17th, 2021

Aaron and I managed to get to the Beehive Trail around 8am before the bulk of the crowds arrived, and we had a great hike up to the top. I had my doubts as to whether a trail in Acadia could measure up to some of the gnarlier routes out West, and while this one was short, it packed a punch. After climbing over boulders, pulling ourselves up iron rungs, and shimmying along sheer cliffs we had a good deal of adrenaline coursing through our systems when we reached the top.

Audrey and I later attempted a “moderate” hike up Gorham Mountain – at least one site rates the park’s hikes using a scale of “easy”, “moderate” and “iron rung”. While there were no iron rungs or scrambling on the day’s second hike, it still gained 500 feet of elevation in a relatively short distance, but thankfully the view was excellent so Audrey was willing to forgive me putting her through physical duress while she’s on vacation.

The day finished with an anniversary dinner for Ma & Pa. We had our last dinner of the trip together next to the ocean, and both of the married couple got the baked stuffed lobster to celebrate. We’ll all be parting ways tomorrow, but it’s been a good first week of vacation, and Audrey and I still have a couple more remaining as we start heading west across New England.

Fall Color, Beehive Trail, Acadia National Park
Early Fall colors from the Beehive trail in Acadia National Park.
Ryan and Audrey, Acadia National Park
Ryan and Audrey in Acadia National Park. She was a good sport and decided to let me live after I made her climb a mountain in the afternoon sun.

Ba Ha Ba

Posted from Bar Harbor, Maine at 6:19 pm, September 16th, 2021

We’re in Bar Harbor for two nights, with plans to go exploring in Acadia National Park tomorrow. The drive up here was along Route One, through a million small Maine towns, past many million roadside antique shops, and (surprisingly) past less than two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts.

The day started with a quick solo hike along the Kennebec River before I returned to fetch Audrey and start off on the journey from Brunswick to Bar Harbor. Because I’m driving, and thus choosing the stops, our only planned stop was at Fort Knox (no, not that one) and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, a huge cable-stayed bridge that was calling out to this engineer as soon as I saw it on the map. I’ve been reading about the Penobscot for years due to dam removals that led to river herring numbers increasing from a few thousand fish before dam removal to over three million fish in recent years. The fact that there’s now a crazy-cool bridge over the river, AND you can ride an elevator 420 feet to the top of its main pier, made it a can’t-miss attraction for this science nerd.

The plan for tomorrow is to visit Acadia, including the Beehive Trail, which if I understand correctly is essentially a bunch of metal ladders and rungs that make it somewhat possible to reach an impressive view of the sea; I’m excited to give it a go.

Penobscot Narrows and Fort Knox
Penobscot Narrows and Fort Knox from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observation Deck.

Lobstah

Posted from Kennebunkport, Maine at 6:19 pm, September 13th, 2021

The lobster feast New England trip continued today, with the route taking us from Manchester up to Kennebunkport, Maine. After ambling through backcountry roads in New Hampshire for a couple of hours (total Dunkin’s spotted: eight) we met the rest of the Holliday Clan for a stroll on the Marginal Way along the rocky Maine seashore in Ogunquit. From there we spent a few hours hiking in the Wells Reserve with wild turkeys and among hundreds of migrating monarch butterflies, while passing through fields, forests, a saltwater estuary, and finally along a marshy boardwalk where we met another one of Maine’s native inhabitants: the voracious mosquito. We arrived back at the car down a pint or two of blood, but still happy.

Ma Holliday booked us at a beautiful place along the inlet in Kennebunkport, and after a short siesta we searched around for a dinner spot. In general, the shabbier a place in New England sounds, the better the food – you really want something with “Shack” or “Stand” in the name if it’s available. Our first choice, The Clam Shack, was already closed for the day by dinner time, but luckily we found Nunan’s Lobster Hut, which served up the best lobster rolls so far by a wide margin, as well as homemade blueberry pie that warranted an exclamation after each bite (“oh yeah”, “that’s delightful”, “oh no, there are only three bites left”); we will almost certainly be back again tomorrow.

Nunan's Lobster Hut, Kennebunkport
Nunan’s Lobster Hut, Kennebunkport. This place possessed all of the omens for a great New England seafood place: “Hut” in the name (“Shack” is also acceptable), picnic tables out front, and a packed parking lot. Having now finished our amazing dinner, we can confirm that the omens were most definitely correct.

A Day of Old Trees

Posted at 8:30 pm, October 9th, 2020

This journal entry was written in October but not published until January.

The theme of visiting new places continued today; I started out with 2000 year old sequoias in the Tuolumne Grove, one of Yosemite’s three sequoia groves and the only one that I’d never been to before. After spending a couple of hours among the ancient giants I enjoyed another scenic drive along Tioga Road and through the High Sierras before heading south towards home on Highway 395.

I’ve mostly only been able to visit the Eastern Sierra in winter or spring when snow closes the high passes, so this autumn trip finally afforded an opportunity to make the side trip up to the White Mountains and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Located at 10,000 feet elevation, this area is home to the world’s oldest trees – at more than 4,000 years of age, these tiny, gnarled trees made the 2,000 year old sequoias look like babies. The road to reach them was a classic western road – narrow, bendy, and traversing impossible terrain with awe-inspiring views of incredible scenery in all directions. After arriving at the Schulman Grove, a 4.5 mile trail led through the old trees and onto ridges with dramatic views of the Sierras and Death Valley. Spending an afternoon free of other people among trees that were around while the Egyptians built the pyramids was an excellent way to escape from the world’s current troubles.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine
This tree has likely seen at least one hundred generations of humans during its lifetime.

Yosemite in the Time of COVID

Posted from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California at 7:05 pm, October 8th, 2020

This journal entry was written in October but not published until January.

I’ve currently got two weeks of vacation, and it is glorious. Due to coronavirus I didn’t plan anything in particular beyond a visit to see my parents in the Bay Area and a couple of days with my brother at his place up in Truckee. After hiking around Tahoe I said goodbye to younger Holliday yesterday and took random backroads down to a very smoky Yosemite National Park – apparently smoke from all of the fires from the rest of the state is filling the air here. That said, the air doesn’t feel dangerous, so I got in a hike in Tuolumne Meadows yesterday before setting off on a more ambitious journey today. Sadly my number didn’t get picked in the lottery for Half Dome permits, so instead of a death march up one of the world’s greatest (and most tiring) trails I traveled up the first half of the trail before detouring onto a path I’d never taken before towards Glacier Point. Being outside again feels good, the trails were reasonably empty, and I may or may not have spent portions of the hike talking to the squirrels, jays, woodpeckers, junkos, and quail who I met along the way. Sadly, while my workout routine seems to have been sufficient to prepare me for the uphill portions of this journey, whatever muscles are involved in going downhill have atrophied to the point of uselessness, and after a two hour descent of several thousand vertical feet I’m not sure I was able to fully stifle the scream of relief when I finally collapsed into my driver seat at the end of the day. It was a good day, and there’s more to follow tomorrow.

Vernal Falls
Vernal Fall in Yosemite. They turn off the water in autumn, spring photos are generally much more dramatic.

Baby Hawks

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:36 am, August 2nd, 2020

There’s a family of Cooper’s hawks that have made a nest in a tree across the street. Each year they return to do what comes naturally, and this year we heard the sounds of hungry baby hawks echoing around the neighborhood for a few weeks. Those babies have now left the nest, and one of them decided to spend a morning hanging out in our yard. Apparently his parents haven’t yet gotten to the “humans are scary” lesson, so he mostly just gave Audrey and me dirty looks while we stood a few feet away and took photos.

Coopers Hawk
I got a little too close and this was his angry pose.
Coopers Hawk
The bird nostril lens, living up to its name.

Dusk Rat and Fig Beetle

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:36 pm, June 25th, 2020

Our new backyard is beginning to attract a wider variety of wildlife, including more birds, a bevy of possums, tons of interesting insects, and miscellaneous other critters. We’ve had roof rats around for a while (thankfully not in our roof since the epic final battle), and while people hear “rat” and immediately go “eww”, ours are pretty cute. Two new arrivals have started hanging out on our back wall each night before sunset, and we’ve named them both “Dusk Rat”.

Dusk Rat
As long as he stays out of our attic, Dusk Rat will be our new friend.
Fig Beetle
Fig beetle on the Jones Mallow. They are incredibly pretty when on land, and incredibly terrifying when in the air.

Quarantine Hummingbird Challenge

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:38 pm, April 26th, 2020

The backyard is in full bloom, so it made sense to set a goal for the week of getting a decent picture of the hummingbirds that are now here enjoying the flowers. While the prettiest hummingbird continues to mock me by flying directly behind me, chirping, and then flying off as soon as I turn around, a few of the others have been more cooperative.

Hummingbird
Hummingbird dining on the heuchera.
Hummingbird
Hummingbird pondering a meal of penstemon.

Profoundly Strange

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:30 pm, December 30th, 2019

The 2019 Man Trip concluded today after visiting some places I’ve wanted to see for a while. The day started with a trip to the Salton Sea, a place whose weirdness I described after my first visit in 2005. After roaming through empty lots in Salton City I made my way to Salvation Mountain and Slab City. Salvation Mountain is an artwork/ode to God that covers an entire hillside. It was made from clay and thousands of gallons of paint, and its creation took decades for a single man to complete. In an address to Congress regarding Salvation Mountain, Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “profoundly strange”, which is as good of a summary as any.

As odd as Salvation Mountain was, it paled in comparison to the nearby “town” of Slab City. I had first learned of this location from the book Into the Wild and have wanted to see it ever since. My best description is that it’s a bit like what you would expect if Burning Man was a town populated by people without any money. Every winter RVs converge on this spot in the desert, and folks settle in for the season, bringing a commune-like existence that is combined with equal measures of art, libertarianism, and plain old crazy. I spent ten minutes talking to one resident about conspiracy theories he’d heard on the internet, drove by an RV that was decorated in doll heads, and passed numerous spots that showed inspiration that might have put Andy Warhol to shame. All in all I left certain that this was the strangest place I’ve ever visited, and I’d actually like to go back again some day; my new conspiracy-sharing friend might have inspired a future visit when he noted: “there’s music every Saturday night, although if you come in the summer there are only three singers who perform the same five songs.”

From Slab City it was a roundabout route home, passing through Anza Borrego desert, into the mountains, through Temecula, and back to my home with a short detour to SpaceX headquarters to see the rocket, since it was on the way and rockets are awesome. Now I’ve got a couple of days of showers and warm beds to allow me to fully decompress before returning to work again.

Salvation Mountain
Often with art it can be difficult to determine what the artist’s message is supposed to be; it is fair to say that the message behind Salvation Mountain is not hard to decipher.

Shower Time

Posted from Indio, California at 6:30 pm, December 29th, 2019

I woke up just before sunrise a few miles from the Kelso Dunes, and started the day with a hike up the dunes to take in the Mojave National Preserve from above; not a terrible way to start a day.

Continuing this trip’s theme of visiting new places, I headed south from Mojave to Route 66 and the town of Amboy (population: 4), which is apparently located next to a massive volcanic cone, a huge lava field, and a giant dry lakebed that is now a chloride mine. Who knew that combination existed? Heading south from there I eventually got to Joshua Tree National Park, which is apparently WAY more popular than it was when I last visited a decade ago. Watching people park on the roads, walk off trail, and generally disregard all park rules I was reminded how much the other humans stress me out, so I found a mostly-empty lot next to a trailhead and hiked up Porcupine Wash until the only reminder that other people inhabit this planet was the sound of planes overhead.

Tonight I was actually debating heading home to take a shower, but decided that was nuts since I so rarely get time to take a road trip, so I sprung for a hotel room, washed several layers of stink and pain off in the shower, and will sleep in a warm, comfortable bed for the first time in a few days before getting up early to conclude this little adventure tomorrow.

Self-portrait, Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve
Self-portrait, Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve. Starting the day alone on a dune several hundred feet above the desert floor is not a bad way to live.
Cactus Detail, Mojave National Preserve
Cactus Detail, Mojave National Preserve.