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

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.

Driving Through Rivers

Posted from Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve at 8:15 pm, December 28th, 2019

Day two of the man-trip. I got up just before sunrise and headed up to Zabriskie Point to enjoy the start of the day, then took the 4.5 mile Gower Gulch trail through Golden Canyon to enjoy some alone time on a trail that I’ve never hiked before. From there I took the West Side Road south towards the park exit, a rough dirt route that travels 36 miles around the Badwater Salt Flats and provides a less-traveled alternative to the main park road. I had been warned by a ranger that the road might be in poor shape following recent storms, but after an hour and a half I’d made it almost back to the main highway without encountering any issues, only to discover the normally-underground Amagorosa River flowing across the road. The water only looked like it was about six inches deep, so I rolled the dice that I wouldn’t get stuck in mud and roared through it, luckily emerging unscathed at the other side.

My original plan for this trip had been to roam around the northern part of the park, but since storms apparently made a mess of the backcountry roads I instead decided to leave the park and head south, ending up in Mojave National Preserve for the night. The Milky Way is shining overhead, but surprisingly the lights of LA (150 miles west) are hiding stars on the western horizon, while the lights of Las Vegas (100 miles east) fill the opposite horizon.

Zabriskie Point at Sunrise, Death Valley National Park
Zabriskie Point at Sunrise, Death Valley National Park.

Airplanes, Sheep & T-Shirts

Posted from Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park at 7:00 pm, December 27th, 2019

After missing out on my annual post-Christmas road trip last year, I managed to procure a week off to embark on what Audrey calls the “man trip”. These trips are always spontaneous, and since Aaron and I wanted to get lunch together the day after Christmas, this year’s trip started in Sacramento and continued to just outside of Reno before day one came to a close. Today was day two, and things really got going:

  • I woke up at about 6:30 and made my way over to Tesla’s Gigafactory where I got a view of what will eventually be the world’s largest building.
  • From there I headed southeast and saw what I assume were wild horses up on a ridge. I have no idea how to distinguish wild horses from domestic horses, but if this was a domestic herd then they were roaming unfenced grasslands miles away from the nearest ranch.
  • A dot on the map had caught my eye when I set out – “Naval Air Station Fallon” – and after detouring to see what was there I got to watch fighter planes take off and land from just beyond the end of the runway. Since it makes perfect sense that a naval air station would be located next to 5,000 year old petroglyphs I also got to see prehistoric rock art in between fighter launches.
  • Continuing south along rural Nevada 95, I hit Walker Lake, the remnants of 8,500 square mile prehistoric Lake Lahontan. It was at this point that a herd of desert bighorn sheep showed up near the road, so the next hour was spent making their acquaintance.
  • Just south of the lake was the massive Hawthorne Army Depot – apparently the world’s largest ammo depot. There were literally miles of bunkers across the valley floor.
  • By this point it was only noon. It was inevitable that the day would slow a bit, and most of the remainder was spent meandering south through old mining towns that littered the wide open expanses of Nevada. I passed a herd of what I assume were wild burros at one point, and arrived near sunset at Death Valley.
  • After arriving at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to buy a new park pass I saw a kid standing outside with a shirt that read “I paused my video game to be here”; it’s unclear if he was just a cool kid or if he has parents with an awesome sense of humor.
  • Sadly a storm came through Death Valley yesterday and made many of the more interesting roads impassable, so instead of spending the night alone up on a ridge under the stars, I’m in a campground sharing this incredible view of the Milky Way with a hundred other folks who I can only hope will recognize that quiet hours start at 9.
Desert Bighorn near Walker Lake, Nevada
As always seems to happen with bighorn, I was looking at every tiny detail in the high cliffs on the west side of the road when a herd popped up ten feet from the eastern side of the highway.

Our new friend Andy

Posted from Isla Guadalupe, Mexico at 6:10 pm, September 27th, 2019

Two takeaways from day one of shark diving:

  1. Seven hours in the water with great whites will reduce your core body temperature to scary places, even in a 7mm wetsuit. Clearly only an idiot would spend that much time in the water; I hope my internal organs eventually thaw.
  2. If a great white shark wants to eat you, you have no chance. Zero. After witnessing massive sharks appear out of nowhere to chomp bait, I can say with certainty that the only reason surfing is popular on the California coast is because the sharks choose to ignore the dudes riding waves.

Most of the time spent in the water today was awesome, but the last part of the day things got slow and the cages emptied out, so when Audrey and I climbed back in at 4:15 we had the water to ourselves and didn’t know the show that was in store. It was quiet for a bit, but when Andy the shark returned and started tearing bait apart and then smiling at us as he swam by, the day moved from memorable to unforgettable.

Andy the Shark
Andy in the background, terrified looking mackerel in the foreground.
Andy the Shark
In open water it’s hard to tell how big he is, but Andy was a healthy 14 feet long and put the other sharks on notice when he was around.

Super Bloom 2019

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:43 pm, April 30th, 2019

Three weeks ago I needed to drive to Las Vegas to meet my brother, who was starting a road trip across the country and wanted to spend a day together in Sin City. I figured that this trip was the perfect excuse to take a day off of work, allowing me to see this year’s Super Bloom while avoiding the “poppy apocalypse” created by weekend crowds. I expected the flowers at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve to be nice, but to say they exceeded expectations would be a gross understatement.

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
Landscape by Dr. Seuss, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve.
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your entire life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
The orange flowers and the yellow flowers were best friends.
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
It was nearly impossible to take a photo that didn’t include at least a dozen poppies.

Sometimes the world gets better

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:50 am, May 20th, 2018

Too often the message of conservationists is only about doom and gloom – unstoppable global warming, coral reefs dying, deforestation – which is a shame, because there is plenty of good news about the environment to buoy people’s spirits and remind us that we are capable of making positive changes in the world.

  • I’ve written about the decade-long rat eradication program on South Georgia Island before, but to recap: starting in 2010, and continuing in 2012 and 2014, teams in helicopters dropped poison bait across the entire island in an effort to eliminate rats that had been brought to the island two centuries ago by whalers and sealers, decimating the island’s nesting birds. While using poison to kill rats is an unfortunate solution for a man-made problem, the chance of making the island safe again for as many as 100 million nesting seabirds far outweighs any negatives. Had the effort left even one breeding pair of rats alive it would have been a failure, but last week it was announced that two years after the last bait was dropped, and with thousands of chew sticks examined, tracking tunnels checked, and a team of rat-sniffing dogs having scoured the entire island, no signs of rats were found and the island has been officially declared rat-free. As the years go by bird populations will increase, and someday the island may again reclaim its title as one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the world.
  • Closer to home, dam removal throughout New England has for the first time in centuries re-opened rivers to anadromous fish (fish that spawn in rivers but spend their lives in the ocean). On Maine’s Penobscott River, where just one herring was seen a decade ago, 1.8 million herring were counted in 2016. Other waterways where dams have been removed also show huge increases, and just as importantly the otters, raptors, and other animals that depend on those herring should also greatly benefit.
  • Finally, in 2011 a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat gave a TED talk about cleaning up plastic in the ocean using floating screens that drift in currents. In most cases you would expect that to have been the end of the story – a nice viral video that a lot of people watched, with no follow-up. However, in this case Boyan doggedly persisted, founding the Ocean Cleanup Project, raising over $30 million, and this week the now-23-year-old Boyan and his team launched a prototype cleanup system for tests in the Pacific outside of San Francisco Bay. Although I’ll admit to being skeptical about the likelihood of success with their current design, the fact that this project has persisted, and has managed to capture funding and attention year after year, makes me optimistic that they will eventually succeed and make a significant dent into removing some of the estimated five trillion plastic objects currently floating in our seas.
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This photo was actually taken on a smaller, rat-free island just off of the South Georgia coast, but with rats gone from the mainland these birds will now have vastly more rat-free nesting territory available.

Walking on Water

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 10:57 pm, January 16th, 2018

With the Northern Lights in hiding we’ve turned to other activities – yesterday’s adventures included a trip down memory lane involving a visit to the Knotty Shop, a stop in North Pole to send mail and giggle about the postmark, and a visit to the Chena Lakes Recreation area where we roamed over the frozen lake. The lake’s ice was thick enough to not only support a small army of ice fishing huts, but also apparently strong enough to support the pickup trucks that drove across the lake and parked next to the huts.

In a bizarre twist, today Fairbanks is experiencing highly unusual temperatures that are nearly up to 30°F, while San Antonio and much of the Southern United States is getting a rare ice storm. Ironically the host at our B&B told us that while Fairbanks never shuts down due to cold, the warmer temperatures bring ice (we’ve got freezing rain here tonight), and thus when it gets warm in the winter they usually end up cancelling school because things melt and then re-freeze, making the roads treacherous.

Given the lack of Auroras I don’t have any exciting photos from the past few days, so here a couple more from four nights ago during the Big Show.

Night sky above Fairbanks
This photo was taken around 10PM and captures the stars and the glow of the Fairbanks city lights against the clouds. Fifteen second exposure using a 10mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
We didn’t know in advance that the entire sky was going to light up, so I naively thought that this picture, taken around midnight, would end up as my favorite photo of the evening. Fifteen second exposure using a 10mm lens.

A Night Without Lights

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 12:10 am, January 15th, 2018

The space weather forecast for last night was calling for the most active light display thus far, but the meteorological forecast was calling for cloudy skies, so our hopes were low. Ironically we ended up with relatively clear skies but little in the way of Aurora activity – our current lodge doesn’t offer the easy Aurora viewing of our last place, but despite waking up frequently and looking out of the windows it seemed to be a quiet evening in the heavens.

Today Fairbanks enjoyed a heat wave, with downright balmy temperatures reaching all the way up into the twenties, so we’re able to be outside at length without fear of dying. We took advantage of the tropical weather by spending the day up at Chena Hot Springs, which was a really neat and at the same time very hokey place to visit – they had an amazing Ice Museum, it was ridiculously relaxing to soak in the hot springs under the dark skies while surrounded by snow drifts, and the restaurant was surprisingly good, but at the same time it very much had the feel of a place where tour buses drop off a load of people to be led around from activity to activity. Despite the touristy feel it was a great place to spend an afternoon, and the Ice Museum in particular was a neat find. It was clearly a kitschy thing to have an appletini at their “ice bar”, but who could pass up a cocktail served in a handmade, single-use cocktail glass made out of ice, while sitting at a bar that is also made from solid ice? We were even reluctant to part with our cup, and only did so once our fingers got cold from carrying it and we finally admitted that a glass made of ice was probably not something we could bring home in our carry-on baggage.

Tonight, given the forecast of snow the odds of seeing the Northern Lights are low. Tomorrow I’ve got a day free of work due to the MLK holiday, so depending on weather we’re thinking of making a trip to North Pole, Alaska, which ironically is located a few miles south of Fairbanks.

The Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs
The Aurora Ice Bar in the Ice Museum, home of very manly appletinis. With the exception of the mirror and a small number of other items, everything in this photo is made out of ice.
The Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs
Details in the Ice Museum – these ice globes each had a different design embedded inside of it, and formed a ring around an altar that they use when people want to get married amidst the ice art.

The Big Show

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:16 pm, January 13th, 2018

We had an inkling that last night might be good for the Aurora based on the space weather forecast, and after enjoying a couple of hours of nice displays, something suddenly changed and in a matter of minutes the sky went from “nice” to “utterly magical”.

Last night was our last night at the Aurora Borealis Lodge, and since they had a lot of guests we decided to hike a few hundred yards up the hill from the main lodge to enjoy the skies with a bit less noise. It wasn’t terribly cold (perhaps 20°F), so Audrey and I soaked in the solitude for a while before wandering back down to the lodge to warm up. No sooner had we taken our hats and gloves off when the sky started to light up, and we rushed back outside for what the lodge owner later called the best display thus far in 2018. Auroras lit up the northern half of the sky, then danced overhead and filled the southern half of the sky with light. There were multiple colors, pulsing and dancing lights, streams of fire that burned across the horizon, and enough magic to make you believe in the ancient stories of the Aurora being heavenly spirits or flames in space. The show finally started to fade just after 2AM, and we reluctantly returned to our cabin exhausted but elated.

Sadly the weather forecast for the next several days is calling for mostly cloudy skies, but we embarked on this trip hoping for at least one great night, and we definitely got that, so no matter what happens from this point onward the trip has been a successful one.

Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
The moment when things started going from good to insane. Eight second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
The Aurora, directly overhead. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
At the time this photo was taken I’d been outside in the cold for nearly four hours straight and wasn’t close to wanting to go back indoors. Fifteen second exposure using a 14mm lens.