Making Sense of The Very Large Array

The just announced discovery of the sound of black holes colliding a billion light years away has us, once again, in awe of scientists (and engineers and the other people who made this happen). Just like we felt on our visit a bit ago to The Very Large Array in New Mexico- oh if civilization had to depend on the meager thoughts and ideas that come out of our kitty brains, we’d be in trouble. Thank goodness for smart people!
img_5622

They Array was most familiar to us (in retrospect) as the set for a chunk of the Jodie Foster (based on Carl Sagan’s book) movie, Contact. (I credit my ever handy Lonely Planet USA for even knowing it existed and that we were near it.)

The Array is comprised of 27 giant antennas detecting radio waves from space, spread out for miles (hence the name) over a high (no radio interference), but flat expanse southwest of Albuquerque.

I think I have got this right – our eyes, binoculars and telescopes detect light on the visible spectrum. But these babies, radio antennas, detect light not visible, way on the other end of the light spectrum.  All of the antennas are synced together so their data can be combined to form higher resolution images – that we can see! (example below, right) of objects in space. The dishes are moved every few months into one of four configurations – depending on what exactly they are hoping to detect. But, don’t trust me: go to the source for a more thorough explanation about how they work.

 

We arrived late in the day (as is our wont) and the personable and welcoming staffer in the gift shop let us linger, shopping, and answering all of our questions. Though she herself was not an expert on the science, she had a really neat personal connection to the Array, which she shared. Her parents ram a motel in the small town of Magdalena – about 25 miles away – where all of the workers building the Array in the 70s lived. The town was so small, there weren’t many places to eat, so her family, in order to keep her hotel business bustling, agreed to provide meals as well. So for four years straight (during the length of the construction) she served breakfast and dinner in three shifts to the workers.

The visitors center has an excellent movie, narrated by Jodie Foster, in which we also learned that all of the dishes have recently been retrofitted with fiber optic cable. In fact, according to the VLA, they have “2557 miles of fiber in the ground, and an additional 3 miles of fiber per antenna in each antenna.”

There is a thoughtfully presented self-guided walking tour, outside, with stations where you can learn a bit as you go, culminating in a chance to go right  up to one of the dishes and pose for a picture that tries to convey their size (82 feet in diameter).  img_5667

They do a guided tour the first Saturday of every month.

Because they were in the midst of switching from one configuration to another (which they do quite carefully on transporters which glide and turn as needed, gracefully as ballerinas, on double train tracks (seen very clearly on the picture at the very top) we got to see a transporter (orange below) poised for action.
img_5624-1

We split our visit over two days – spending the night at the nearby BLM Datil Well Campground. We were kicking ourselves for not buying Contact, because with no cell service at all, we resorted to watching one of the DVDs in our small collection – Bridget Jones Diary – which has nothing to do with space exploration, and is just the kind of mindless fodder our kitty brains enjoy as a break from so much thinking and learning. But there is a lovely scene in the snow at the end, which portended what we woke up to – by far the most snow we’ve ever been in with the Airstream.

Luckily the road out of Datil was not too steep, and we went back to the Array to finish up our tour; it cooperated with lovely pictures, despite the very very cold temps and wind.

So while the folks at the Array may not be getting the credit this news cycle, their press release section can give you a sense of their amazing discoveries. My favorite? The discovery of water ice on Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. We did manage, once we got back to the land of cell service, to stream Contact (fair warning: Matthew McConaughey is in it too) and, though it felt a little dated, we enjoyed it very much. Even with (or perhaps because of) all the news lately, if you still aren’t quite feeling the excitement about how space exploration can impact humans, its closing scenes will take you there.

 

Desert Time

As winter approached, we headed south. Outside of Tucson, we chose the highly recommended Gilbert Ray Campground as basecamp for a visit to Saguaro National Park.

img_4653

Airstream tucked in at Gilbert Ray Campground, near the Tuscan Mountain District (western) part of Saguaro National Park.

We were both quite taken with this desert, this National Park. All credit goes to Bob, a retired scientist (spent most of his career at the nearby and highly regarded Arizona Sonora Desert Museum) who now volunteers as guide on nature walks in the park.

You know how some ranger talks are better than others? It felt like Bob gave us the keys to the desert – slowly, carefully teaching us about the various plants, one at a time. He explained how they worked together, and how by looking closely, they’d reveal even more about their desert existence, and help you make sense of the place.

img_4672

Our hero: Bob. In his hiking pack, he carries, among other things, a comb, in case he or a visitor gets stuck by a jumping cholla (choy-a) cactus ball. Also, a camera, because as long as he’s been out in the desert, there are still some things he hasn’t seen (e.g. certain kind of scorpions) and would like to.

Though the natural focus of the park is the saguaro (pronounced sa – WAH – ro), the iconic Arizona cactus, most often depicted with a few arms lofted to the sky, Bob taught us about other cactus: cholla (teddybear, jumping and staghorn), prickly pear, fish hook barrel. And their non cacti friends: palo verde, ocotillo, mistletoe, ironwood, mesquite, sage.

img_4658

In this picture, one can see palo verde, saguaro, cholla, and prickly pear. Probably a lot more.

Hover/click on the pictures below for a bit more about each…

img_4686

After getting schooled by Bob, we were able to go out and find our own saguaro cacti. On the left, is a younger saguaro, maybe about my age. ūüôā The one I’m gazing up at could be 200 years old.

img_4694

Ben atop the Hugh Norris Trail, saguaro on his left, ocotillo (which look like a fountain) on the right

We wanted to check out nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory. It was a bit snowy (Arizona?) so we weren’t able to see any of the telescopes (the paths to them were treacherous), but kicked around the visitors center and had a nice chat with an astronomer visiting from University of Indiana about his work. We would definitely recommend a visit, and a check on the weather at 7,000 feet before you go.  img_4678

We scratched our astronomy itch instead at a program that the folks at Kitt Peak sponsored, but held in the parking lot of the visitors center back at Saguaro: a night-time Binoculars Stargazing program. Ben and I ended up being the only attendees, so we got a lesson on how to use a star map, tips on using our binoculars effectively, and a personal tour of the night skies. Our guide also gave us resource recommendations for future exploration: download the (free)  monthly star guide from SkyMaps.com for a map showing where the starts will be. He also recommended a book for newbie skygazers, young and old: The Monthly Sky Guide, which Santa brought to Ben for Christmas.

Some highlights of what we learned (hopefully translating it correctly):

-There are only 88 constellations in the sky – and they are entirely human creations.
-The North Star – what we know as Polaris – changes. It’s not always Polaris. It’s whatever (bright) star is closest to being directly overhead if you are standing on the earth’s north pole. But Polaris’s position relative to the North Pole is slowly drifting, so eventually (500 years or so) Polaris will no longer serve that role.
-Stars with a blue tint are actually hotter than those with a red tint.
-Ever wonder why your particular astrological sign is in a particular month? Nope, it’s not because you can see your birth month constellation during your birth month. During your birth month, the sun is passing through your constellation, so you can’t see it in the night sky.

We spent a little time in the town of Tucson for some R&R and to do errands. Some of the locals shared that Tuscon is well ahead of other cities -Phoenix, for example – when it comes to things like planning for drought and eliminating light pollution (light pollution is a big deal – affects astronomers, of course, but also animals that require dark skies for hunting, etc.) Tucson is home of the University of

img_4679Arizona, and Cactus League Spring Training. We saw the excellent movie Spotlight, and had Korean food at Kimchi Time where I had the very odd but kind of cool experience of having one of the waitresses walk right up to me and say “You look just like my mom! You even dress like her!” Now, as a non-mom, this was a little strange to hear, and most of my friends’ kids aren’t quite as old as this young woman, so that was a little disconcerting. (Plus, what about the “you dress like her” comment?)  But she was so sweet, we took pictures together, found some more things in common and are now following each other on IG.

On another personal note, we spent a lot of our time in this spot worrying about one of our kitties, who had/has a health scare, but seems to be doing ok now in the hands of his loving DC family: Laura, Mark, Logan and Finn. But do keep the very handsome orange kitty Gordo in your T’s and P’s.

Hiking Angel’s Landing: No Fooling, it was Scary

From Joshua Tree, we motored east to Zion pretty quickly,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spending one night (awesome boondocking) in Nevada, and gathering supplies in St. George, Utah (loved Harmon’s for groceries). Cold weather would be coming later in the week and we wanted to enjoy Zion before it hit.

At the Zion entrance, the rangers promptly hopped out to measure the width of our Airstream, to see if we qualified for an “unescorted” trip through the narrow¬†tunnel¬†to Bryce Canyon. (At 91 inches, we just made the cut off of 94 inches!)

Perusing the information about hikes, we set our sights on Angel’s Landing – a difficult hike but lauded as one of THE very best day hikes in all the southwest. Why? It starts with the West Rim Trail, about 2 miles up a steep hill, then the special part: the ¬†Angel’s Landing Trail,¬†a 1/2 mile hike across a narrow rock ridge – also called a fin – with steep drop offs on either side. Chains are installed to aid hikers along the narrowest and steepest parts of the trail. No one has died on it in the last five years or so. Who wouldn’t want to hike this?

img_4356

IMG_4358

Angel’s Landing from below

I paid careful attention to the warnings provided by the Park Service and even searched the internet¬†for others. How could a hike that was so perilous also be so popular? ¬†Some warnings stuck with me – from the Salt Lake Tribune¬†for example: if you can’t get your footing without the chains, you might not want to hike it. There have been a half dozen or so deaths in the past decade, and the Park Service does not hide that fact, but rather uses it to discourage people. But A LOT of people do this hike. We figured we could too.

img_4457-1

One of the signs the Park Service has posted – very well written I think!

The initial climb up West Rim Trail took us about two hours, just as predicted. We stopped to rest a bit along the way. Though it was December, the conditions were perfect Рsunny, no moisture on the trail at all. We maybe saw 10 or so other people going up or down, and 1/2 dozen Park maintenance crew members shoring up the trail at its edges.

IMG_4365

Looking back down after we’d ascended the West Rim Trail, ¬†but before beginning the scary last half-mile.

This first section of the hike¬†ends with “Walters Wiggles” (better pic¬†here), a set of 21 switch backs to take you up a very steep part of the trail before the most daunting stretch begins. Apparently they are named for the first superintendent of Zion who designed them!

img_4378

Ben ascending the Wiggles.

img_4377

The Wiggles from above.

Now, I have to say, at the top of the mountain, at a place called Scout’s Landing, and before we began that last 1/2 mile stretch onto the actual Angel’s Landing Trail, I had a serious talk with myself about whether or not I was really going through with this. Some of the things I said:
“A lot of folks decide not to continue here. There is no shame in that.”
“It’s going to be tough, physically, but mostly mentally, and I have no problem getting down¬†on my hands and knees if necessary to get across.”
“I am doing this mostly for the ‘I’ll be glad when I have done it’ feeling. I love that feeling.”
“This will be thrilling, and I’ll be totally ‘in the moment’ while doing it.”
“Holy smokes.”
“How often do we get these chances in life?¬†Let’s go!”

The first section builds confidence – it’s steep and narrow in places, but without the sheer drop off inches away. Fairly soon though, I arrived at a¬†critical juncture¬†when I saw what looked like a very, very, narrow tightrope-size ledge strung¬†between the rock outcropping¬†I was on and the one I wanted to get to. It scared me. I felt physically woozy in my gut. How was I to go over that, knowing I’d only have to go over it again on the return? And, to add to my fears, I couldn’t see or plan for what to expect on the rest of the Angel’s Landing trail ahead, so I¬†couldn’t know if I was expending the appropriate amount of courage at this juncture, or if I should save some because I’d need even more along¬†the way. A true dilemma, with not a little pride at stake.

About this time, an older couple appeared, descending the trail and coming toward me – clearly reading my mind. They offered, more off-hand than directly to me – “Oh it’s easier coming down than going up” and “You’ll be glad you did it”. Somehow their words helped, and I am not ashamed to say so did the fact that they were older (most of the other hikers we’d seen were millennials practically running up and down the mountain in toe shoes.) I forged ahead.

img_4386

This isn’t the site of my point of no return ruminations, but it looks a lot like it. Ben is pointing toward the trail.

Each 100 feet or so is a different challenge – pulling your self up, along side, against¬†[insert preposition here] a rock face,¬†with sure death in the form of a 1,000+ foot drop just inches or less away. It’s not hard to imagine how you could fall – it was more¬†a matter of when.

We were lucky there weren’t more people around – in the summer the path is crowded, and all those people make the trail more perilous. For example, when two or more are holding (and ¬†moving) the same stretch of chain, or one is going up while another is going down. (When in doubt on a narrow rock face , go for the hug). Success is found in¬†hopefully a shared belief in the preciousness of life, and a¬†collective fervent but tenuous grasp on it while¬†together on Angel’s Landing. (For the most part people were very well behaved, though we did pass a couple in some kind of argument – lips pursed, eyes stony, heavy sighing, the whole nine, somewhere midway-ish near the tree pictured below.img_4390

img_4387

Triumphant selfie, reunited about about midway. Mostly Ben hiked ahead of me and I took it nice and slow.

At another more treacherous point somewhere in the middle, I did gather myself a bit to at least appreciate the fact that while I was “in the moment”, I wasn’t appreciating the views. But the trail was so narrow here, I didn’t dare turn my head, and risk losing balance. So I literally raised my right and left arms just high and quick enough to take a shot of whatever it was I was missing, so I (and you) could see it later.

Finally we reached the end, a fairly wide rocky plateau with plenty of places to sit and rest and relax and eat lunch, reflecting on accomplishment, scouting for angels. We saw one reincarnated as a chipmunk who persistently hovered trying to catch our crumbs.

Indeed the trail back was easier, but maybe only because we knew what to expect. As you can see in the pics below, those chains were put to good use by me and my bad knees.

img_4437-1

img_4443

For Ben the way down, like the way up, was more of a walk in a park. Hands in pockets, shades drawn. Movie star cool.

img_4413

Of course we made it. I had conquered the fears that had cropped up, it had been thrilling, and I was glad to say I had done it. Though Ben thought this image of a hiker tumbling looked awfully similar to how I had deliberately approached the descent.

img_4454
And finally, nothing says “I defied death and conquered my¬†fears” better than having happy hour outside on the “patio” in December. This one included¬†our very first (in four months on the road) campfire. Cold, but very much in our comfort zone.

img_4498-1

Loved our spot in Zion’s Watchman Campground

Joshua Trees and Rocks

We arrived in Joshua Tree squeaky clean – after spending Thanksgiving at home in Glendale, where we took the time to make a few tweaks, tackle some fixes and a conduct a general “clean up” (of us and the rig). The drive to Joshua Tree was a little over two hours and if you are coming from LA, either the West or North entrances will do. Joshua Tree is small enough (relative to some other NPs) that it’s worth trying drive through and hit all its corners as you plan your itinerary.

We believe we found the best site ever in Jumbo Rocks campground: #77. With an unobstructed vista of rocks and sand and desert scrub, and of course Joshua Trees.

Many of the sites there are tent-sized only, which leads to a good mix of tent campers and RVs (alas they do allow generators here at fixed times). As the sun was setting we took a walk.

IMG_4084IMG_4089

Ben and I passed the camera back and forth seeing who could take the best pictures. They are all winners, don’t you think?

Dinner was all the food I had bought intending to cook while at my parents, but didn’t. You see, if I left it there, my parents wouldn’t eat it. You know? Salmon, collards, rice and sweet potatoes.

IMG_4106

Mostly from Trader Joe’s, which, if I had to choose only one place to shop for Airstream cooking, would be the winner. Thank you mom and dad for stocking our fridge.

We watched the Caine Mutiny b/c some scenes were filmed in Yosemite. (Make no mistake, there is no cell service in JT, but we had downloaded it at my parents’ over the weekend.) It was a brief (and corny) scene but otherwise good movie. Got us thinking that would be a fun theme to follow – other movies filmed in National Parks. Any recommendations?

We woke to another sunny temperate day in California – but the first we’d had camping in several weeks! There is really nothing better. Here I am IMG_4108breakfasting outdoors – something we haven’t done in a while. Our breakfasts can get pretty routine, but I love them all: it’s either cereal, oatmeal or eggs. This must have been a cereal or oatmeal day. The only downside is Ben and I have to eat the same thing – due to just wanting to avoid two people in the kitchen, extra dishes, etc. Oh, what we give up to go on a once in a lifetime cross country trip!

We bopped over from the east¬†side of the park to the¬†West Entrance Station visitor’s center, which was small but staffed with super helpful rangers. They also had one of the coolest exhibits I have ever scene – a look inside the creative process behind the design of park PSAs. The PSAs were meant to promote appropriate park behavior to various types of visitors – the ad below is a mock up of the one aimed at campers. The “behind the scenes” revealed the editors wanted to be sure to pick a picture that included a tent and an rv/trailer. I don’t know how well this translates, but the English teacher in me just loved it and hats off to the staff for sharing it. Compare the draft up top (with editor’s notes) to the more final version below it.IMG_4114

IMG_4115After consulting with a¬†ranger, we set a course to do several short hikes as we crossed the park from the West Entrance, past our campground, toward the south entrance. If fact, you may want to start calling us “Short Hike Barkers on Break,” we did so many. Feel free to follow along (from left to right) on the¬†map below.

JT map

First up, Hidden Valley. As the name suggests this expanse is hidden behind a ring of boulders. Rumor has it (not much confirmed historical fact in the stories here, but they are upfront about it!) cattle rustlers used to hide out here with their loot.

IMG_4123

Can you spot Ben hiding in the valley?

You will see boulders and Joshua Trees, and other trees and all kinds of shrubs and bushes (technical terms anyone?). The walk here, as throughout most of the park, is on sand, like being on a beach. You will see climbers. More of Hidden Valley below…

It was a clear day for the next stop, a drive up Keys View. You can see Palm Springs and  the whole Coachella Valley, and the Sultan Sea. Mexico too, they say, but hard to tell. Somewhere down there the San Andreas fault is biding its time. We ate our lunch on a bench overlooking the view.

IMG_4156

The view from the aptly named, Keys View

Moving east, we hadn’t really planned on stopping at Ryan Ranch, but the adobe remains can be seen from the road and called to us. Much graffiti and ranch “trash.” Climbers too. Enjoy my artsy pics.IMG_4167

IMG_4160

Next stop the Ryan Mountain trail head¬†, not to hike the mountain (a “challenging” hike) but to see Indian Cave – not much of a trail but a cool¬†IMG_4174rock¬†that has campfire smoke from who knows how many eons of campfires.

We met Hash the van-cat there as well. He remindeIMG_4170d us of one of our cats, Gordo (who’s orange too).

When we told them about Gordo, Hash’s owners said: “Gordo! That’s such a great cat name!”

They were super hip, so we felt hip too. Not so hip to live with a cat in van though. Don’t worry, the windows were cracked and the temps mild. Shortly after this pic, he headed into the back for a nap while his owners hiked.

Moving east, Live Oak picnic site doesn’t advertise it-but if you drive a bit beyond the picnic tables on the dirt road you can see the growing, healthy live oak (below) for which the site is named. We hiked beyond it on a pseudo-trail and really enjoyed the views and the solitude and the ROCKS. If these pictures don’t convince you to sign our petition to rename this park “Joshua Trees and Rocks” then you are missing the big picture.

IMG_4175-0

Finally, timed for sunset, a bit toward the South Entrance, we visited the Cholla Cactus Garden. You can really see the terrain change on this drive. It’s not gradual. It’s abrupt. And the cacti literally glowed in the sunset while¬†the views of now the Colorado (as opposed to the Mojave) desert mountains were lovely.

The next day we had a lazy-ish morning – Ben hiked around and I did yoga in the sand outside the trailer. I’ve done this a few times now – yoga outside is the bomb; yoga to combat aging muscles that spend a lot of time in the car is the bomb de bomb. From our campground, we hiked to Skull Rock – a popular spot, and sure enough someone offered to take our picture. See how relaxed I am from yoga? You’ll note I am holding my newly re-acquired fanny pack, which, unlike all my jacket pockets, is indeed big enough to hold my phone. It’s getting deployed a lot now.

IMG_4207

We had signed up for the afternoon tour of the Keys Ranch. The Ranch sory was interesting enough, but I found the site just very visually striking – these dark strokes of lumber and piping and machines against the Joshua Tree browns and sands and blue sky etc.

IMG_4232

And though any kind of private tour seems at odds with the concept of a National Park, it did feel special to be there, and as though the Keys family had just up and left in a hurry, and here we were sneaking a peek. No neat and tidy site is this – it’s the sort of place they’d love to find on American Pickers. Junk everywhere. And the life story of the Keys family isn’t tidy either – for example when asked what Mr. Keys’ profession was, the guide replied “A little bit of everything” which is what it took to survive in the desert. Mr. Keys – actually ended up serving a IMG_4230sentence in Alcatraz – I won’t spoil it by saying what it was for (think Wild West). ¬†The oldest Keys son visited the site regularly until he died just this year. He will be interred at the family plot still on site. The tour cost 10 dollars, and is only offered three days a week, though they are popular enough that they will be adding some more. I imagine it’s a struggle for the hardworking public servants at NPS to have to limit access to such a cool part of the park.

IMG_4231

The rangers have access to a Library/Archives onsite to help them research and show “past and present” like with this old photo of an area of the ranch.

Afterward, we had time for one final short hike¬†– Barker Dam of course. It hadn’t been heralded in any of the hike guides we perused, but of course we had to go. And it was fantastic! Again, maybe b/c of the time of day. It was flat, with rolling hills and the most incredible site¬†in the middle – a dam that was built and rebuilt by ranchers who lived and grew¬†live things here in the desert!

More pictures from Barker Dam….

Joshua Tree was a great way to launch our time in the southwest. And, though doing a bunch of small hikes and seeing more doesn’t always feel like the right approach, it worked very well for us at this park. ¬†Like the Joshua Tree itself, we avoided establishing deep roots in any one part of the park, and instead attempted to absorb as much as possible through a broader approach.

 

Yosemite: Two Pieces of Advice

We got two very good pieces of advice before heading to Yosemite, both from friends who we had visited in the Bay Area the previous weekend. One piece of advice was more practical, the other more, shall we say, spiritual. The were both key to to a great, great visit to this gorgeous National Park.

IMG_3889

Spoiler alert: Yosemite is A-MAZING!

The first piece of advice was about winter access. Yosemite is in the Sierras. It snows there. If it snows, the park will be open, but you might not be able to get there with your Airstream trailer unless you have chains for your tires. They are very strict, gentle but firm about this. It is in fact the law. You can buy chains (which we didn’t want to do) or you can hope the warming trend coinciding with your itinerary¬†will yield¬†an upgrade of road conditions, allowing you to enter the park without chains. How will you know if the road conditions change? Call this number: 209-372-0200.FullSizeRender (3)

Some talented park ranger has to do a new recording every time road conditions change ¬†– on the first night of our campground reservations (a Tuesday), the conditions were still “R3” closed to neophytes like us, people driving cars without chains.

So, like the pioneers when they faced similar challenges, we bided our time at a lovely winery. This Harvest Host, Vista Ranch & Cellars in Merced was perfectly situated just a few hours west of the park. In fact Merced was a jumping off point for tourist trips to Yosemite back in the day, and even today, those without a car (or chains) can take a bus from there, or even as far away as the Bay area.

The next day, Wednesday, temperatures were up, that snow was surely melting, and in fact when we called the road conditions line, all had been upgraded to “R2”! ¬†You would only need chains IF you didn’t have four wheel drive (we did) and M + S tires (we did). Even still, when we arrived at the west entrance from 140,¬†the so very helpful and sympathetic NPS staff at the gate (clearly reading off a checklist or some sort of matrix) told us that b/c our trailer had its own set of brakes, we would still need chains. Harrumph.

However, a¬†ranger was quick to help us come up with a¬†plan B: book a night at Indian Flat¬†RV Park, about 8 miles down the road, unhitch and head IMG_3657into the park for the afternoon with just the truck. And, assuming all continued to improve, we’d surely be able to get in with the trailer the next day (Thursday). As with the 99% of other times when Plan A has failed, Plan B turns out to be as good or better. Because look who we got to meet at the Indian Cove RV Park? Tigger, the RV park cat.

We quickly unhitched and headed back to the park – we felt like we had been sprung from prison, FREE, as we rolled by the entrance gate, approved to enter with only our 4 wheel drive and M + S tires. We were free to explore for the few hours of daylight left.

Though I grew up in So Cal, I had never been to Yosemite. I had some sense of what to expect, but was not prepared for the scale of the mountains, their pure granite beauty, and of course the stunning minute by minute changes the rising and setting sun casts on them. Plus there was snow! Melting and slushy mostly, but quite icy in spots too. Happy tourist below – first time in Yosemite.

IMG_3615

Yosemite Valley is more or less a loop road – with free park buses that run a continuous loop to all the major sights and trailheads, so once you are in, you are encouraged to park your car and walk, bike or hop on the bus. Most trailheads, and even the Visitors Center don’t have parking lots. It took us this afternoon to figure this out.

But first, we made our way to the Pines Campgrounds, where our reservations, you may recall, had begun the night before. Despite the prominent signage saying “no refunds”, the ranger there was more than helpful in refunding the night we missed, and moving our reservations forward another day. It never hurts to ask.IMG_3630We stopped in the Visitors Center to do a quick perusal – watched one of the movies and came out to a completely altered night sky. Is this what it’s like every night? Wow.

IMG_3645

Back at Indian Flat¬†RV Park, we rested up and hoped for the best on road conditions the next day. In the morning (Thursday), as we prepared to drop our quarters in the pay phone to find out, Ben ran into one of the rangers who helped us¬†the day before – he came by on his way into work to tell us that indeed, they had changed the conditions yesterday. We were “R1” and good to go. How is that for customer service? Off season camping rocks.

IMG_3662-0

And we are in!

After pulling in to spot 151 in a nearly empty Upper Pines campground, we immediately set out on the Mirror Lake trail. Recommended by more than one ranger as a good “warm up” hike and one that would not be too icy. Nothing like snow to help you track the wildlife!

IMG_3678

Very suspicious. Seen near the dumpster in our campsite.

Note, there appears to be a Mirror Lake photo op, where you can hop off the bus, walk a few hundred yards to the Lake and move on. However the trail is longer, more meandering, a true suspense builder as you go.

IMG_3729-2But wait, here is where the 2nd piece of advice we received kicks in: from my friend Joan’s book shelf, she kindly let me borrow “Yosemite Valley: Secret Places & Magic Moments” by Phil Arnot. In his Introduction, he lays out some general tips for experiencing the park as more than just a tourist. One that we took to heart was to agree not to talk to one another for certain time periods. “Conversation is distracting,” Arnot¬†explains. In order to have an in-depth experience of the Valley, silence and solitude are key. Now, Ben and I have had some really great conversations on some of our longer hikes on the trip so far, and I realized those conversations were in part borne of the time alone, the quiet, the serenity of the natural environment, the meditative quality of one foot in front of the other on the trail. It really did make me realize how much that same environment can encourage similar results, but within yourself. We were both game to try it and the Mirror Lake trail was perfect for it because there was tons to look at, the landscape was slowly but continuously changing.

IMG_3679

This is Ben, practicing non-verbal communication as a part of our pact to hike in silence. He is saying, “Don’t take my picture!”

Most of the first part of the trail was densely wooded alongside a river. Then it opened up into more of an open field (many trees had been toppled) and clear views of those granite mountains. Incredible! Because we had been quiet, I really noticed more. The mix of fall (leaves turning, browns and golds) and winter (icy snow, bare tree) struck me as well. We crossed the river and came back on the other side.

 

It was about a five mile hike and we were wiped, and it was getting late, toward sunset, and we wanted to squeeze in one more activity. We hopped on the bIMG_3779us and got off at the Yosemite Lodge (for hot chocolate)¬†and walked to the Yosemite Falls foot bridge. It was nearly deserted, and though the iPhone pics don’t do it justice, a lovely way to see the falls.

On the bus again, we got off at our campground stop and the driver called out to make sure we had a flashlight. We did, thanks to Ben thinking ahead but still bumped around a bit among the loops to find our site.

The next day we set out to do a more challenging hike – Vernal Falls. We could walk to the trail head from our site and checked out the Mist Trail on the way- which I understand is packed during high season and was now completely empty. IMG_3696The trail to the Falls was quite icy in spots. We hiked alongside a group of 8th graders and figured if they could do it, so could we! The elevation gains were gradual enough so it wasn’t just a slog, and the views changed incrementally providing something new to look at at every switch back. Again, pictures don’t do it justice. Once we got to the falls, we were up for going a bit further so continued on toward Nevada Falls. IMG_3816We got just to Clark Point and the road closed signs were enough for us to call it quits there. Many other hikers, mostly fellows on their own, hopped the fence and kept going (they had better equipment) but so did a group of three women in their 50s from Korea – one of whom lives near Yosemite now and comes every few weeks to hike.

After hiking down, we explored Curry Village a bit. We saw dozens of people arriving to check in for the weekend. I bought some new sunglasses (I lost mine on the Mirror Lake trail but never noticed it – all that introspection can have its downside) and we found out we could NOT make a last minute dinner reservation at the Ahwahnee for dinner – the super fancy lodge dining option. Probably best as I am not sure what kind of outfit I could have scraped together.

IMG_3636

The dining room was closed for a private event but I snuck in and snapped this picture. I have yet to have a fancy dinner at a park lodge. ūüė¶

We ate at their bar instead – it was nice to get out for the evening, but I would not recommend it – sort of like eating at a chain hotel restaurant, but worse. Sorry to end on this negative note, but gotta keep it real.

The next morning we gifted our new neighbors the Schmidts (tent

IMG_3790-0

We don’t know what to do with this.

campers who arrived from the Bay Area sometime around 130) the firewood that had been gifted anonymously to us when we arrived (we have yet to have a single campfire) and headed out to make our way to LA for Thanksgiving.

We took with us a fair amount of Yosemite mud on our hiking boots, and smiles for all the arriving weekend visitors who’d enjoy unrestricted access to the park roads and perhaps a few less road closed signs on the trails as the temps remained moderate for another off season weekend.

IMG_3907

Our (2nd) 10 day itinerary for Oregon

We have gone up, down, around, and through Oregon on this trip. 10 days on our swing north in September (read about some of that here,  here, and here, another 10 days on our swing back south in November. Though, embarrassingly, I included the first night of this second leg in Oregon in a post about Washington state. Sorry The Dalles!

Having visited Portland, Willamette Valley, and some of the coast about 10 years ago, we were pumped to revisit some of our favorites and find some new places to explore as well.

We’d been to Astoria before – a neat, real (not just a tourist) town on the coast, at the mouth of the Columbia River. Astoria welcomed us back with a beautiful rainbow!

IMG_3054

We stayed in Ft. Stevens State Park – and got lost looking for the campground, but as usually happens once you get past your annoyance at the GPS, our wrong turn led us to some beautiful sites and we took a walk around the jetty.

IMG_3052-0

The main thing we wanted to do this go round in Astoria was visit the Ft. Clatsop National Historic Park, where Lewis & Clark wintered over after completing their westward journey. The Corps of Discovery did not enjoy their time there — it rained a bunch — but we did especially because the park had been closed due to a fire when we here 10 years ago. We don’t have any pictures (!) but we do have this video we made there because our visit coincided with our nephew Carter’s birthday. It also just goes to show if you didn’t get that card in the mail on time, with a little creativity and the wonders of technology, you can do¬†something cool to make up for it.

We rode our bikes to Ft. Clatsop – it was a little further than I thought it would be, on some busy roads too, but I would still recommend it. I don’t know if this is novel to anyone, but when I am low on batteries or data or coverage, I take a screen grab of my route and refer to that as I am able.

IMG_3062-1

The museum and site were very good. The replica fort (seen behind us in the video) was smaller than I thought it would be – you get a real sense of the Corps just hoping to – I dunno – maybe stay warmer by being so close together? Having less of an area to defend in case of an attack? I appreciated the attention to the long term fate of each Discovery Member in the exhibits, especially York. In the evening we treated ourselves to dinner at the the Bridgewater Bistro in Astoria. The food was only pretty good, but because the service and the setting were so spectacular, we’d recommend it. They let us combine two desserts into one – a chocolate brownie with coconut ice cream. ¬†And the crab cheesecake appetizer was excellent.

On the way out of town, I stopped in the small but lovely Astoria Co-op, while Ben waited in a very long line to get his haircut at the Eleventh Street Barber. He passed the time by chatting it up with some local Coast Guard fellows, and I was amused by the proprietor who kept offering everyone cold beer from the mini fridge.

After a quick trip back to Seattle for some “admin” and a chance to visit dear friends in Auburn, we spent one more night in Washington – at an Airstream park, the aptly named Washington Land Yacht Harbor. The Park was pretty basic and they’ve opened it up to non Airstreamers (but if you are WBCCI members, there is a discount). There is also a fairly large brick and mortar home community surrounding the park – only requirement is that you must own an Airstream to buy a home there. We chatted a bit with one of the residents about the history of the park — folks with a common interest coming together to build a community — and the ways they are working to keep it going today. We made a quick stop at the Olympia Farmers Market (get the cinnamon bread from Wagner’s and any jam from Johnson’s Berry Farm) and the state capitol (pics below) before we recrossed the border.

On to Portland! My friend Tom and his wife Julia about 10 years ago got to pick anywhere in the US to live after many years in NYC – and they picked Portland. How hip they are! Tom may not have known what he was in for when he said “You can park in front of our house!” on one of my Facebook posts tracking our travels, but regardless,¬†we were “all in” as guests (though they were lucky we had just done our laundry in Seattle!)

IMG_3120

Tom indeed had a lovely place for us to park in front of his house

After an afternoon of chatting and catching up we had a great dinner out – we wanted to go somewhere “Portland” and we knew Julia picked a good restaurant¬†when¬†the waiter assured us their pork come from pigs that are “pumpkin fed”. I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant but just found it by googling all the things from their eclectic menu that I especially liked: “short rib sushi bread pudding” – and it was the first hit! Pono Farm Soul Kitchen in Northeast Portland. Yum.

We had a fortuitous meeting in Tom’s kitchen the next morning over coffee and cinnamon bread – his friend Stuart came by and once we realized he was a guru on Oregon travel, we asked and he gave us all kinds of tips on where to go, in what order, via what road, down to which Dairy Queen was the best in the state and how to work in a side trip to the town where some of Animal House was filmed. Not only that – he told us his mother grew up on a farm near Eugene, his sister lived there now, and would we like to park the Airstream there? Yes!

Following Stuart’s tips, we headed south to Willamette Valley, via Oregon City, the final stop on the Oregon Trail. The VC there is a bit pricey, and at this point we maybe felt a bit overloaded from other related sites we had visited but it provided nice closure to that theme of our travels and a good photo op or two.

We headed south into Willamette Valley, to our Harvest Hosts¬†Kramer Vineyards¬†near Gaston. Though they were having an event that night – they couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating to make room for us. We arrived just in time to jump in for the heritage vertical pinot noir tasting – basically tasting the same vintage, but from six different harvest years. Their thoughtful placemats (below) explained some of the differences in the rainfall, temperature, harvest date, yield, etc of each year.¬†The owners encouraged us to sip, take notes, let the wine breath some more, repeat.¬†It was awesome – I appreciate good teaching and this was it! We were seated with this really nice couple who are wine club members there and were so generous as to cover our tasting bill as part of their guest allowance. I know this is not exactly like the kind of generosity Cheryl Strayed writes about receiving on the PCT when her 20 dollars didn’t arrive and she wanted a Snapple, but we were very appreciative nonetheless! We even bought some Pinot Gris to go – in a growler! – so though the wine is gone, we have a very nice souvenir of this visit.

 

Next we headed west to the coast, and an overnight at Nehalem Bay State Park, complete with another rainbow and the best walk on the beach yet. We made some excellent lentil soup here which we ate while watching “Waiting for Guffman”. (Not wanting to use our data to stream, we pick up old DVDs wherever we can!)

On the way south, we stopped to do the Cape Trail at Cape Lookout State Park. This trail is truly fantastic – gets you out, as the name suggests, on a cape, with gorgeous views of the Oregon Coast. The hike was fairly flat but with some difficult passages due to mud, rain, general dampness that was the weather for much of this leg of the trip. But fantastic hike – highly recommended for coast lovers. Before the trip, I had surgery to repair an ankle ligament tear and I take pictures like that in the lower right to send to my surgeon some day as a thank you.

On to Newport, where an excellent Wheelingit blog¬†post about free or cheap(er) camping on the Oregon Coast led us to the Port of Newport Marina. We always enjoy a marina, though the dry site parking area¬†was adjacent to the Rogue Brewery warehouse and a few semis kept their engines running while resting there at all hours. But the view (below) couldn’t be beat.

IMG_3262

Yaquina Bay Bridge just south of Newport, OR, in our dry camping spot at Port of Newport Marina.

We walked a hundred yards to have¬†dinner at the Rogue Brewery Pub that night – the food was excellent! Try the crab kimchi sliders appetizer for sure. The next morning we walked a few hundred yards and forked over the big bucks to explore the Oregon Coast¬†Aquarium¬†– click on the link to see the best URL ever. We don’t begrudge museums entry fees, but it always feels a bit of a risk. In this case, it was well worth it. The Aquarium has more than a little bit of everything including live animal feeding demos, a walk through a shark aquarium tunnel, and thoughtful exhibits with volunteers and staff who were very good at their jobs answering questions, sharing what they knew and passing on a respect for the natural world.

We headed east to Stuart’s sister’s house – the Hurd family farm. The barn – 100 years old–was an awesome setting and we enjoyed our neighbors, sheep, chickens and rooster.

IMG_3405

The next day, I headed into Eugene. It’s always fun to check out a big college campus and University of Oregon was lovely. I checked out Hayward Field – home to track and field legends – and their art museum, which had a cool exhibit on post war Japanese prints. As I walked across the same type of criss-cross quads I traversed as an undergrad, I caught snippets of conversations among the students – worries about how to bring up a grade¬†(this from someone on a cell phone), wishes to check out new restaurants (or food trucks), a mission to return some rain boots. Though so much has changed, so much is the same.

We finished off the state with a visit to Ashland, home of the Shakespeare Festival for most of the year, but not this month. I did a quick hit of their downtown to do a little shopping of my own, of course visit their very large and very goodIMG_3408 Ashland Co-op and scout out restaurants for before a concert we were heading to that night. As we winded down this first leg of our trip, it seemed we still had some work to do to check out the night life / cultural events in the places we visited. This (left) folks/bluegrass/orchestral mix of groups was right up our alley. They even had a hammer dulcimer! One of the leads, Emy Phelps, is from Ashland, so it was a homecoming event for her. A highlight was when they brought all the local (about 20 kids) young violin students up on stage with them to join in¬†for one of Emy’s songs. The parents especially loved that because all those hardworking novices sounded so good in harmony with the professionals. The whole vibe was about collaboration and education, a mix of young and older, lots of smiles and great music! Culture and nightlife – check!

I’ll end with a scary story (with a happy ending) and a cautionary tale.¬†On our drive to Astoria on I-84, we encountered what was without a doubt the scariest moment driving and the¬†closest we’ve come to an (what would have been awful) accident. We are cruising along in the slow lane, and the first we saw anything, the semi in front of us came to a screeching halt and Ben reacted, braking hard, slowing us down, with one hand protectively on me (I think he was trying to keep me from screaming as much as from slamming into the dash) as he very very calmly and slowly said, “OK, I am not sure we are going to stop in time.” Yikes. Hold on, hold your breath and watch the road between you and the 18 wheeler in front of you slowly disappear.

We did stop in time though, with a few feet to spare, but then of course the worst was still to come as we waited with stiffened backs to see if any cars behind us would slam into us (and the Airstream!)

IMG_3596

This was NOT the truck/appliance that nearly caused us to crash

As Ben looked left,¬†trying urgently – without success for a long minute or two- to look for a spot to merge into the fast moving traffic and get moving, I leaned right and saw what was up: someone had been carrying a range stove in the back of a pick up and I guess it wasn’t fastened down well, because they were now moving the oven¬†from the road, back to their truck. Oh my gosh. And still we were at a dead halt on a four lane highway.

Once it was out of the road, the truck ahead of us quickly got going, and so did we, still worried about getting rear ended until we got some speed going. We thanked our lucky stars and made an appointment to get our brakes checked (though they got us out of this jam, just for peace of mind.) When I told my dad this story he asked if I got a picture of the oven in the road¬†and I said – no, darn! – so I snapped this one ¬†(above, right) on the road a few weeks¬†later…pretty well battened down, but not something we’d choose to drive behind. So – watch the road for flying appliances (you probably are already, though).