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

Maids and Mists

Posted from Cleveland, Ohio at 10:10 am, September 29th, 2021

Slightly delayed post this morning after we arrived in Cleveland last night at 10pm and I immediately went to bed. Yesterday Audrey agreed to get up early for our return to Niagara Falls, and we shockingly had the place mostly to ourselves at 8am. I’m sure I must have been to the American side of the Falls before, but it’s another place I don’t remember, so it was all new views for me.

The day’s main event was a ride on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you right up to the Falls. I took the ride from Canada once, but either I was too young to be totally blown away, or else they get closer now with the new electric boats, so we were right in the middle of Horseshoe Falls with the air vibrating from so much crashing water. It was a combination of an amusement park ride and nature tour, and I wanted to hide out on deck and go again when the twenty minute adventure came to its end.

When we finally left Niagara we made our way across New York and Pennsylvania back to the old Holliday family stomping grounds in North Springfield, where my uncle gave us a tour of the candy store and my aunt surprised us with an appetizer spread that would have impressed visiting royalty. As we were leaving in the dark I warned Audrey that there would be animals on the road, and literally five seconds later two deer ran by.

We’re finishing the trip with two nights in Cleveland so Audrey can see where I grew up, but I think she’s more excited to see both of the buildings.

American Falls, Niagara Falls
American Falls, Niagara Falls. Audrey and I are now proud owners of the fashionable blue Maid of the Mist ponchos being modeled in this photo.

The Day of Many Waterfalls

Posted from Niagara Falls, New York at 7:09 pm, September 27th, 2021

Audrey says we got 16,000 steps today, which is apparently a lot. I’m writing this while nodding off, so however many steps we got, it was definitely a full day.

Yesterday Audrey’s mom sent a text suggesting that we investigate Letchworth State Park and its famous waterfalls, and since we didn’t really have other plans that seemed like a fine way to start the day. The park’s three waterfalls really are quite impressive, and we spent a bunch of time roaming the canyon rim.

From there it was a meandering trip through rural New York and up to Niagara Falls. While Letchworth was pretty, Niagara is ridiculous. A bunch of sights on this trip were smaller than what I remember from childhood, but Niagara Falls is even bigger. Standing right at the edge as 75,000 gallons per second drop 167 feet is a none-too-shabby way to end the day, and we’re staying less than a mile away from the Falls tonight with plans to continue the visit tomorrow morning.

Vulture, Letchworth State Park
Vulture, Letchworth State Park. This photo is my favorite of the trip thus far.
American Falls, Niagara Falls
American Falls, Niagara Falls. Note the seagull taking a bath at the very edge.

Finger Lakes

Posted from Rochester, New York at 6:04 pm, September 26th, 2021

After the debacle at the border we’re winging it for a few days, but if today is any indication they should end up being good days. The route today took us from Syracuse to Rochester via the Finger Lakes. We mostly meandered, making stops in Auburn to walk around the Fort Hill Cemetery where both Harriet Tubman and William Seward (the guy who bought Alaska from Russia) are buried. From there we wandered up to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, where we ended up photographing herons and egrets for a few hours. We ate lunch in Seneca Falls, birthplace of the women’s rights movement, hung out on the tip of Seneca Lake, then rambled around in Huckleberry Swamp to finish the day.

One oddity throughout this trip has been some of the town names. In Vermont we passed by Peru and Mexico, and in New York we’ve seen Poland, Belgium, Jordan, Russia, and Mexico (again). Given this impressive list, it’s ironic that our one planned border crossing fell through.

Dragonfly, Huckleberry Swamp
Dragonfly, Huckleberry Swamp. I think he’s cute, but anyone expecting exotic wildlife should immediately go to the Africa and Madagascar journal entries.
Aquatic plants, Huckleberry Swamp
Aquatic plants, Huckleberry Swamp. Little. Yellow. Different.

Damn you, COVID

Posted from Syracuse, New York at 5:40 pm, September 25th, 2021

We’re not going to Canada on this trip. We finally got some clarification on why Audrey got a negative result while mine was still “pending” after two days – at 2pm today, about 16 hours before the 72 hour cutoff for getting across the border, I saw an update on my test result page indicating that a specimen had been mislabeled. Several phone calls later we discovered that apparently my test tube had both my name on it AND Audrey’s name, so the lab wouldn’t release results. More phone calls ensued, assurances were made, but at 5pm we still didn’t have a result, and the customer support lady at the lab didn’t inspire confidence that one would be available anytime soon on a weekend. Rather than continuing to be frustrated at the border we decided to continue the trip in America, and while we’ll have to forfeit four pre-paid hotel nights in Canada, there are plenty of neat destinations in Upstate New York to help salvage an unfortunate mix-up. Still… we had some great plans for those four days.

When we weren’t on the phone with CVS, Minute Clinic, or Quest Labs, we enjoyed a boat tour through the Thousand Islands. My parents say I’ve been here before, but I have no memory of it. It turns out that there are actually 1,864 islands where Lake Ontario empties into the St. Lawrence River, and an assortment of 19th century millionaires bought many of them and built amazing summer homes. Occupations that might not make you rich today were sufficient a century ago to support building castles on islands, so we saw the mansions owned by the inventors of the Lifesaver candy and the Red Rider B-B gun, as well as the palatial castle built by the man most famous for the slogan “the customer is always right”; I suppose coming up with a good slogan back in the day was kind of like purchasing a great web site domain circa 2000.

Boldt Castle, Thousand Islands
The powerhouse, one of the outlying buildings at Boldt Castle, Thousand Islands; the actual castle was probably 20x larger. The builder of this impressive residence made his millions via the slogan “the customer is always right” and by inventing Thousand Islands salad dressing.

Adirondacks

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.